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British Political and Public Involvement with the Union & Confederate Propaganda Movements

Speaker: Tom Sebrell

Tom was preparing a PhD on British Propaganda in the American Civil War. This required him to evaluate the propaganda war and assess its role in keeping Britain neutral during the conflict. He looked forward to completing it this summer (2009) and this was his first presentation to the ACWRT (UK).

American Civil War Round Table UK / UK Heritage / Civil War Propaganda

Just before the Civil war, The London American was the only US newspaper published in Europe. Based at 100 Fleet St. it was originally aimed at American citizens working in London. At the start of the Secession Crises it adopted a passive approach, even advocating a peaceable separation between Northern and Southern States. But once war commenced in 1861 it transformed itself into a propaganda newspaper, endorsing Northern war efforts, condemning Confederates as traitors, and increasingly attacking the British government, parliament, and aristocracy. From this point it appealed almost exclusively to the British working class; a group, Tom found, that was hard to document. In particular he had been able to identify very few subscribers and he quickly found that significant subscription records had not survived. The paper also suffered a lack of formal recognition - and thus financial support - from the Northern government. In spite of some high level lobbying within the US Cabinet, the paper was never formally recognised by the US government though Lincoln did appear to be a subscriber: however any views he had upon the paper are not on record.

The paper’s financial difficulties were compounded in 1863 when one of its staff left Britain with a significant amount of money. Its fortunes did not revive and it ceased publication soon after. Though apparently a failure, Tom pointed out that its polemic about the superiority of the Union ironclad fleet over the technology of the Royal Navy might have struck a strong chord with Prime Minster Lord Palmerston and Chancellor William E. Gladstone: Tom had come across a significant amount of correspondence by both on their fears of emerging United States Naval supremacy and speculated that it may have been a significant factor in ensuring British neutrality throughout the conflict.

In spite of his difficulty tracking London American subscribers, Tom had uncovered some noteworthy ones: in particular, Thomas Cook – the temperance campaigner and magnate for the growing market for overseas travel, who founded the company that still bears his name; Charles Brown-Secord is a less familiar name, though as a scientist he hypothesised a procedure that would eventually lead to the development of HRT treatment; William Palmer was associated with the Oxford movement, and Francis W Newman was the (Baptist) brother of Cardinal Newman; George Peabody was the philanthropist and founder of the Peabody Trust; William Howard Russell was the Civil War correspondent for the London Times and much vilified by the Northern press: nevertheless he was a subscriber. And while radical Northern supporter Richard Cobden was a subscriber, it seems that his close associate John Bright was not. And on an ironic note, Tom had found that the actor Edward Askew Sothern, better known for characterising the buffoon aristocrat ‘Lord Dundreary’ in the play ‘Our American Cousin’ was a London American subscriber. Lincoln was of course assassinated during a performance of this play - though Sothern wasn’t in the cast at Fords Theatre in April 1865.

During 1862 Henry Hotze pictured established a new newspaper in Fleet Street for the Confederate cause. Called The Index, it was only a tobacconist’s shop away from its rival The London American (though Tom had found no evidence of any reported conflicts between these near neighbours and rivals). The Index was a very different newspaper to the London American. Its editorials flattered the British establishment while advocating British recognition of the Confederacy. The Richmond government formally endorsed it and it contained reports taken from American newspapers (along with their often exaggerated casualty figures). Tom had traced up to 5,000 subscribers of this weekly broadsheet of 12 pages, which cost 6 pence (old currency) on newsstands but only 4 pence (old currency) for subscribers

These subscriber lists certainly held a fascinating mirror to the upper reaches of Victorian society. Amongst the numerous city mayors and members of the aristocracy, there were a number of MPs - both Liberal and Tory in approximately equal numbers - including William Gregory and John Roebuck, who proposed the lifting of the blockade of Southern ports. More familiar names from outside of Parliament included John Laird, Alexander Beresford Hope and Lord Wharncliffe. Interestingly, Tom found no evidence of a subscription for outspoken Confederate advocate Lord Robert Cecil (later Prime Minister Lord Salisbury). Tom also found numerous Anglican churchmen, army and navy officer subscribers to the Index, with a noticeable proportion of members of the Royal Geographical and Royal Astronomical Societies. In all, he concluded that the respective readership of The London American and The Index marked out the wide cultural and class divides within British Victorian Society.

The question and answer session that followed demonstrated the depth of interest and knowledge from Round Table members in British society during the Civil War period. Tom was asked to consider some interesting points, such as Queen Victoria’s likely (private) sympathy with the South, the correlation between blockade runners and Index subscribers (some subscribers were certainly blockade runners) and the impact of Worker’s Reading Rooms upon working class awareness of the conflict (hard to gauge because of the lack of historical records). In short, Tom found that the editorial of the Index clearly supported the status quo at a time of pressure for reform; while the London American equally clearly supported change and disestablishment. This clash of ideas had created a “warlike Pall Mall” (Richard Cobden) where libertarian positions on free trade conflicted with emerging ideas of democracy versus aristocracy. This was very appropriate since our new venue is – in Pall Mall!

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