160 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln sent a letter to the ‘working men of Manchester’, acknowledging their ‘sublime Christian heroism, which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country’. These words are now memorialised at the foot of the Lincoln statue, sculpted by George Grey Bernard, which stands in recently-remodelled Lincoln Square just off Deansgate. The historic link between Manchester and the American North is lesser known, but was a hugely significant moment in the US Civil War.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Lancashire was the ‘workshop of the world’, a global hub for textile manufacturing. Raw, slave-grown cotton from the southern states of the USA was crucial, supplying Lancashire’s numerous mills.
Thus, when Lincoln’s blockade of southern ports halted cotton exports, Lancashire’s textile industry was brought to its knees. By November 1862, three-fifths of the labour force, 331,000 men and women, faced unemployment. Whilst some were able to switch to lower-grade cotton from Asia, 60% of Lancashire’s mills fell idle: businesses already leveraged as a result of the previous boom faced catastrophic strain. Riots broke out in Stalybridge in 1863, as already impoverished workers bore the brunt of the blockade.
The British government remained broadly neutral. However, British mill and shipping companies advocated strongly for the Royal Navy to smash the blockade, organising and sending warships and merchant ships. Shipping and finance bosses openly mobilised meetings in favour of military intervention, and it was said that there were more Confederate flags flying along the banks of the Mersey than in Virginia.
Given the local impact of the blockade, one may expect Mancunion cotton workers to drop their support. Even the Manchester Guardian took this stance as the economic effects became clear. However, the cotton workers responded to the lobbying of industry bosses by agreeing to continue their support for Lincoln’s embargo and the Union during a meeting at the Manchester Free Trade Hall on New Years’ Eve, 1862. This conscious, spirited demonstration against slavery defies the media-perpetuated stereotype of industrial workers as an uneducated mob. This show of solidarity with millions of enslaved black Americans was likely to have had a powerful impact on British public opinion. Lincoln’s letter was followed by US aid ships in February 1893 offering relief including 15,000 barrels of flour to starving mill workers as a gesture of gratitude.
Britain continues to reckon with a dark history of its involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and rightly explores its complicity across the country. Both Liverpool and Manchester would be vastly different cities if not for their connected histories of enslavement. Yet, this moment of Manchester’s history stands out as a heartening gesture of selflessness, with Manchester’s cotton workers very much on the right side of history.