The Pick - Blues and Greys in the UK

October 28, 2010

Walking tours of American Civil War connections in London

The City, Marylebone and Mayfair, daily except Monday

In the US, the American Civil War is much studied in universities and is a focus of endless fascination: books on the subject outsell books on all other historical topics put together. In the UK, it is not at the centre of a single undergraduate course. Yet today's lack of interest is in sharp contrast to views at the time.

Representatives of the Confederate and Unionist causes actively lobbied in England, seeking support, arms and money. Rival newspapers - The Index, which backed the Southerners, and The London American, which supported the North - were published two doors apart in Fleet Street. And their calls did not fall on deaf ears.

The Southern Independence Association (SIA), for example, had a very well-connected membership, including peers, bishops, justices of the peace and members of Parliament. British neutrality was largely assured by the diplomatic skills of Charles Francis Adams, President Lincoln's minister (or ambassador) to the Court of St James's. He made a particular point of toning down the strident letters from William Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state, who had already caused offence by drunkenly swearing at the Prince of Wales at a Washington reception.

Much of the story of these propaganda wars was reconstructed from primary sources by Virginia-born Tom Sebrell in a recently completed PhD from Queen Mary, University of London, titled Persuading John Bull: The American Civil War Comes to London's Fleet Street.

During the course of his research, Sebrell visited a wealth of surviving London locations with Civil War links, such as Adams' residence, the headquarters of the SIA and the former site of the American Embassy. He also discovered that a building now owned by Liverpool John Moores University is still dripping with Confederate regalia and iconography in woodwork, mouldings and ceiling paintings, with its present occupants unaware of the symbolic meanings.

With the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the war coming up in April 2011, Sebrell saw the opportunity for some "academic entrepreneurship". He has set up a partnership with Queen Mary Innovation Ltd to create three themed hour-long walking tours around London's City, Marylebone and Mayfair. All will run twice daily, every day except Monday, and will use Queen Mary history students as guides to the buildings associated with Union and Confederate diplomats, propagandists and spies. Current plans are for the tours to continue for the whole five-year period marking the anniversary of the fighting in 1861-65. They are being actively marketed in the US.

Two walking tours and a bus tour exploring the American Civil War Experience in Liverpool, where almost the whole Confederate Navy was built or refitted, are being created in partnership with Liverpool John Moores and should start in April 2011. Details of the whole programme are available from the website www.acwlondon.org.

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