A long forgotten and controversial part of Britain’s past is being unearthed by an American historian living in London. Tom Sebrell has uncovered evidence of strong support for the southern Confederate states in the Civil War in America. Britain was officially neutral during the war. But Sebrell is now leading walking tours of London that reveal untold stories of Britain’s role. Laura Lynch decided to take the tour for herself. Download MP3
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LISA MULLINS: I’m Lisa Mullins and this is The World. An American historian living in London is stoking a long-dormant controversy. Tom Sebrell is leading walking tours of London that highlight Britain’s strong support for the American south during the US Civil War. It’s controversial because Britain was officially neutral during the war. The World’s Laura Lynch took the tour herself.
LAURA LYNCH: Right outside the Marble Arch underground station on busy Oxford Street, Tom Sebrell is marshalling the troops. A group of people interested in taking a walk through Britain’s past.
TOM SEBRELL: We’re going to walk from here to Edgware Road and then when we get to the corner of Edgware Road and Oxford Street, that’s where the tour starts. Alright.
LYNCH: Sebrell stops outside a stately home across the street from Hyde Park.
SEBRELL: This building right here is the first site on the tour. Before we go into the discussion about it I want to talk a little about why there are American Civil War sites in London. Some of you are probably a bit [INDISCERNIBLE] about.. When the war broke out, the Confederacy being a brand new nation realized they had to get foreign recognition in order to win. And that makes sense when you think back to the War of Independence.
LYNCH: Eleven southern, slave-owning states seceded from the United States, the Union, in 1861 and formed the Confederate States of America, “The Confederacy.” The Confederacy came to London, looking for support and it wasn’t hard to find. The British base of operations was here at the home of Sir Alex Beresford-Howe, an author and Conservative politician.
SEBRELL: During the war, Beresford-Howe is going to serve as the chairman of the London branch of the Southern Independence Association and this is their London headquarters.
LYNCH: The Southern Independence Association had branches across Britain, all dedicated to the cause of the confederacy and the break-up of the United States. Their members included much of the aristocracy, driven partly by a desire to secure a steady supply of cotton and partly by a fear that the US was becoming too big, too strong, too fast. Second stop, the home of the Confederacy’s embassy in London. Southern diplomats were very popular here. Sebrell recalls the rock star treatment granted to two of them.
SEBRELL: Now James Murray Mason and John Slidell, they arrive at Southampton and they’re put on the train to London. Immediately upon arriving here they are treated as celebrities and they are taken to Madame Tussauds where wax busts are made for them. God knows where they are now.
LYNCH: Britain was officially neutral. Efforts to push a bill through Parliament forcing the country to officially intervene on the side of the Confederates stalled over the question of slavery. The British had abolished the practice decades before. But Sebrell says that didn’t stop supporters from raising vast amounts of cash through the sale of what was called the Confederate Cotton Bond.
SEBRELL: So the Confederates release the bond in London, Liverpool, Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, all those markets. In London and Liverpool it is a huge success from the very beginning and the list of people who subscribe to it is absolutely astonishing. We know for a fact that in the first year of the Cotton Bond being on the London market, it raised over 3 million pounds. Today that is the equivalent of 135 million pounds. So, a lot of money.
LYNCH: The equivalent of 215 million US dollars from, among others, two future Prime Ministers, the money was used to buy weapons, uniforms, even ships. Throughout the war, Abraham Lincoln made use of his own diplomats in London to successfully keep Britain at bay. Today, there’s little recognition of the southern support that swelled here during the war. No plaques or statues of Confederate heroes. Sebrell says Britain simply eradicated that history. For the young Britons on today’s tour, it’s a revelation. Do you think British people know much about what happened here during the Civil War? Did you know?
BEN: I didn’t now. That’s partly what made me come here. I don’t know many people who know much about the American Civil War, but I just tend to think of it as American’s own business.
CHLOE: I found particularly interesting the Anglo-American dynamics, the relationship within the Civil War. Again, I was quite surprised at the British alliance of the aristocracy with the Americans and, yeah, I didn’t realize there was this much British involvement in the American Civil War.
LYNCH: Tom Sebrell’s tours may not sit well with everyone, especially those who deny there were ever strong pro-south sympathies. But he hopes people will take another look and see that the tension created during the civil war years, suggests the much storied “special relationship” between Britain and the United States of America wasn’t always so close. For The World, I’m Laura Lynch in London.
MULLINS: Tom Sebrell discusses the big money Britain raised for the Confederacy in the US. Watch the video at TheWorld.org.
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