American Civil War viewpoints: It was British arms that sustained the Confederacy

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Battle of GettysburgIt was 150 years ago on 12 April 1861, that the guns opened fire at Fort Sumter, marking the start of America’s bloodiest war.

We have asked several notable writers to give their viewpoints on the American Civil War, starting with Peter Tsouras and his belief that it was British arms that sustained the Confederacy during the American Civil War:

‘When the South seceded in early 1861, it possessed at most 10% of the industrial base of the former Union. The young Confederacy would go on to make heroic efforts to create an industrial base, but even at its best could produce only a small fraction of the needs of a nation at war.

‘How, then, did the Confederacy fight on so long and bitterly? The output of British factories, mills, shipyards, and arsenals flooded through the Union blockade of Southern ports to provide the bulk of Confederate needs. Without that massive support, the Confederacy would surely have collapsed within 12 to 18 months. Given that the bloodiest years of the war were 1863-1865, it was British material support that allowed the vast majority of the blood-letting to occur.

‘A few cases in point illustrate the level of this support. British-built Confederate commerce-raiders unleashed ruin upon the American merchant marine. Almost 700 ships were destroyed or put under bond, and thousands more sold to foreign shippers (mostly British) or reflagged (mostly to Britain). The fear of even greater depredations by new commerce-raiders building at Birkenhead caused Lincoln to threaten war in September 1863.

‘At Vicksburg, Grant found that the 30,000 surrendered Confederates had been armed with new, excellent British Enfield Rifles. His own men were armed with European cast-offs or refashioned old US models, both far inferior to the British weapon. Grant had his regiments trade in their old weapons for the Enfields. At the Siege of Petersburg, Grant forwarded to Secretary of War Stanton a captured artillery ammunition box stamped “Royal Arsenal Woolwich”.

‘In the last year of the war, Lee’s army was surviving on British bacon shipped in through Wilmington.

‘British material support for the Confederacy was not lost on the Union,and engendered deep animosity which lasted for much of the rest of the century. Fortunately, farsighted men such as Theodore Roosevelt and the Prince of Wales sparked the great partnership that would be the bulwark of freedom in the 20th century. They made a reality of Bismarck’s observation that the greatest strategic fact of that century would be that the Americans spoke English.’

Peter Tsouras, author of Gettysburg: an alternative history

American Civil War Viewpoints:

The American Civil War made us what we are – by Ken Burns

It was Southerners themselves who brought down the Confederacy – by David Williams

It was British arms that sustained the Confederacy during the American Civil War – by Peter Tsouras


  1. Forget not that the Confederacy produced about 1,300 or slightly more artilery pieces ranging from small breechloaders firining 1 to maybe 3 pound solid shot all the way up to some 11-inch Brooke smoothbors and maybe a couple of them being rifled. 6.5 & 7-inch Brooke rifles of excellent quality were produced in considerable numbers at the Naval Gun foundry in Selma, Alabama & they did well against the USA ironclads of all types including monitors. The Confederacy also produced a good number of shoulder arms, rifles & muskets, of the 1855 Model Springfields, good versions of the Enfields (Cooke & Bros., etc.), & since the machinery to manufacture 1855 Harper’s Ferry Rifles (evolved from the older but still excellent Mississippi Rifles of Mexican War fame) was captured at Harpers Ferry & moved to N. Carolina, (plus all the machinery in other captured USA arsenale etc. & that in State arsenals & many smaller private companies), and many good smoothbores of generally .69 cal. Austrian Lorenz rifled muskets of varying but generally good to excellent quality along wiyh Enfields of usally good to excellent quality were imported by both the CSA & USA during the war, with the CSA receiving about 80,000+ & the USA over 200,000. Bragg’s Army of Tennessee was equipped with over 50% Lorenz in 1863 -1864. True Britain supplied the CSA with most of the imported rifles but not that much artillery as some people think. The Whitworth breechloading 6 & 12 pounders gave continung problems to the CSA & had to be continuously repaired, that’s why there were only a maximum of 9 in Lee’s army & the CSA started importing a few Whitworth muzzleloaders instead. The Whitworths British gun carriage was also clumsy & replaced by CSA carriages. A battery of Whitworths was used in the 1862 Penninsular Campaigh by the US Army, but the guns were found to be to tempermantal & delicate, so they were removed from field use & put in the ashington, D.C. fortifications & in 1 or 2 port cities. A good number of field & siege Blakely rifles were imported but the field-pieces had a bad & violent recoil, sometimes jumping up from the ground & having to be repositioned from scratch again & again. The supllies of cloth & clothing, blankets, raw materials such as copper, bronze, brass, zinc, maybe some iron etc., machinery & ship & railroad engines & spare parts, all sorts of tools, sewing needles & looms, etc. etc., food, booze, medical supplies, ammunition of all types, percussion caps, artillery friction primers & fuses, & pistols of various makes & models for the cavalry such as the excellent Kerr revolver were necessary & came to the CSA in decent amounts. The CSA also produced a good number of varying makes & models of cavalry pistols, carbines, converted carbines from shortened rifles, muskets & shotguns, & sabers & cavalry & artillery harnesses, limbers & caissons. Much as these necessities came in from all over Europe, Canada, Mexico & Central & South America, etc. but most came from Britain but at a price, & there was only 1 Brit/ Scot/Irish (can’t remember which, but maybe from Leeds or Liverpool, Britian) textile & clothing & uniform maker that continued to give the CSA credit until the war’s end.

    • Is there a book or other source of information about arms that came to the Confederates from Mexico and South America? I think I read or was told that the long arms produced at Tyler, TX were shipped as parts through Mexico and assembled at Tyler, but I have never confirmed this. Also I have an exact copy of a US 1841 “Mississippi” rifle, which is unmarked but every part, including the screws is marked “55.” Someone told me it may have been made in Brazil or Spain; I also have a Kerr Revolver made by Hermanos Eibar in Spain, with mark “JR/[anchor], similar to JS/Anchor “conferederate view mark seen on British made Kerrs and also on Enfields made by the Birmingham Company. I think the JS/[anchor] mark may have been a cryptic export mark put on the enfields from Birmingham by the Birmingham Co. or their agents. I forget where I read that. I would appreciate any information that you can supply. You seem to be very well informed on this subject. Regards, Kevin. [email protected].

      • Hi, unfortunatelyI I do not know of any such book. You seem to have much more detailed info. on the subject. Tyler repaired and produced anthing they could throw together from dadmaged, castoffs, conversions, and whatever. Only 2-3000 I believe of all types of small arms were produced.I would bet that all kinds of arms etc. from Latin America crossed the Mexican border and came in by sea on all types of ships.Knock-offs were made of the Austrian Lorenz in Europe and some were OK and some were not. I have problems typing here for some reason. Take care, Chris Silva

  2. This article needs some context. The British supplied both sides during the war. They sold hundreds of thousands of guns to the north possible more than to the south. The basically where the arms trader of the day. The trade between the north and Britain was bigger and more important. Had Britain cut ties with the North it would of been a disaster for both countries. Cotton is king turned out to be a myth an in the end Lincion was influenced by the British anti slavery movement in his Gettysburg address because it kept the British on side.

  3. As a British Citizen I believe the distant sting of defeat at New Orleans 1815 is perhaps an overlooked factor in all of this. Also check out Lord Palmeston.

  4. I believe that the British should have kept their noses out of our Civil War. There was absolutely no redeeming value in supplying the Confederacy with Enfield rifles and other modern arms. The only thing that it did is encourage the Confederate states to fight on in a hopeless attempt to separate themselves from the Union. It also prolonged the savage butchery. The North was determined to preserve the Union at any cost and the final outcome of the war was inevitable.

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