Critical Review of ‘Liverpool and the American Civil War’ by J. Pelzer

John D. Pelzer, ‘Liverpool and the American Civil War’, History Today 40 (1990), pp. 46-52.

The article takes a fairly narrative tone, opening with the story of the launching of the Virginia from Liverpool immediately illustrating one significant connection between Liverpool and America – the ports. John Pelzer’s ‘Liverpool and the American Civil War’ discusses how Liverpool’s cotton industry and its economy bound them to supporting the South during the war period; this is a significant question because it was atypical of such a working class city to back the Confederacy, since generally, the working class remained pro-North[1].

Pelzer identifies key links between Liverpool and the South, including financial interest and philosophical support; Liverpool’s reliance on South America’s ability to supply raw cotton provided a commercial alliance whilst Liverpool’s capitalist nature ensured that Liverpudlian merchants opposed the Northern blockade.  Liverpool’s support of the Confederacy may be seen as defensive; perhaps it was an attempt to defend trade from the protectionist economic policies of the North. Pelzer highlights the fact that rumours of disruption to trade networks caused huge fluctuations in cotton pricing, however ‘War itself transformed the trade.’ (p.47). It is also noted that the commercial mind of Merseyside residents capitalised on the appeal of adventure and enterprise promised by running blockades, which had to be seen as a defence of their right to trade freely. Ultimately though, an alliance with the South provided speculation in the long term life of the cotton trade.

Issues concerning why Liverpool supported the Confederacy are salient when questioning the war’s impact, because it allows greater insight into which parts of Liverpool’s socioeconomic standing were most vulnerable to change. Whilst Anglo-American relations are a topic of great historical research, specific analysis of relations with cities such as Liverpool is more infrequent, making Pelzer’s work significant. The text offers an insightful review of the relationship between Liverpool and the Confederacy during the war, though remains brief on some key issues such as ideological similarities between them. Though discussing the importance of Liverpool’s opposition to the Northern blockade and the need for both sides to ensure trade continued, it would be beneficial if Pelzer could address whether there existed any deeper similarities or connections between the sides. For example, comparisons of demographic change and economic structure would provide background to their ideologies outside the cotton industry by allowing an analysis of what industries the regions had to fall back on assuming its collapse. This would reinforce the concept of financial dependence on one another. Furthermore, the article format of Pelzer’s argument means that it lacks in depth or consistent referencing to allow the reader to replicate his research, though it does provide recommendations for ‘further reading’ (p.52) which would prove useful assuming these were the basis for this article.

Overall, Pelzer’s article provides a useful and insightful commentary on the development of Liverpool-Confederate relations and the economic dependencies that bound them. It is noteworthy in its rarity and as such provides a somewhat unique analysis of the reasons for Liverpool’s support of the Confederacy managing to do this in a relatively short word count. However, the article may benefit from further in depth analysis of the background and context of the relationship and could provide greater referencing to allow for greater ease of reader research.

[1] R. Harrison, ‘British labour and the Confederacy’, International Review of Social History, 2.01 (1957), pp.78-105.

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