The reasons behind the presentation form one of the least acknowledged chapters in American history. Without the actions of the people it recognises, it is quite possible that the Confederacy would have successfully withdrawn from the Union.
(Cross posted from European Tribune)
In 1861 the Civil War broke out in America between the Northern and Southern States of the Union. The matters in dispute between them were many and various, but the most important point at issue was the question of slavery. The English people generally took the side of the South, partly from a supposed community of feeling, and partly from a jealousy of the United States and a wish to see her dismembered. This feeling was intensified by the capture of two Southern envoys while under the protection of the British flag. There was danger of war breaking out, but the Northern States submitted to an ultimatum and returned the prisoners.
The affair of the "Trent," as this dispute was called from the name of the ship in which the envoys were sailing, was the last public question in which Prince Albert, now for some time called the Prince Consort, was engaged...
The American war affected England in two ways. First, the ordinary supply of cotton to her manufacturing districts was cut off, and the great distress, known as the "cotton famine" was felt in Lancashire.... The other trouble was of longer duration. A ship called the "Alabama"* was fitted out from an English dockyard, notwithstanding the protest of the American Ambassador, with the object of making war on American commerce, in the interests of the South-ern States. Americans felt that the negligence shown in not stopping this vessel expressed only too clearly the sympathies of England. They could not at this time do anything to prevent or to avenge the wrong, but when the war was over a feeling of bitterness was left, which nearly led to an open rupture, and was with difficulty appeased.
Unsaid in this is the wider proposal to break the northern blockade of the southern ports by using the Royal Navy to attack the Union fleet. The North had its own groups of supporters, notably the Anti-Slavery movement and the radicals. Manchester had long been a centre for radical politics. In 1815 the "Peterloo Massacre" involved the deaths of protesters demanding the reform of what had become a corrupt system of "rotton boroughs" in which parliamentary representation had not been redistributed to take account of the huge population growth in the manufacturing cities.
By 1862 the position in the cotton mills had become dire. Stocks had run out and only very limited supplies could be sourced elsewhere. Mills had closed and the workers were unemployed. To alleviate the suffering soup kitchens had been opened. Sewing classes were organised for the young women, partly to give them skills but mostly to avoid them entering prostitution to live. Many of the mill owners were from Puritan or "non-conformist" families who had sympathies themselves with the anti-slavery movement and helped organise the appeals to run these reliefs. An alternative to the poverty was also offered in the form of emigration to the US.
The Cotton Famines were not only a shortage of raw materials, they involved true suffering. In some areas infant mortality reached 50% as malnutrition affected those least able to cope. In the middle of this suffering the working men (and women) of Manchester held a meeting in December 1862 in the "Free Trade Hall", built on part of the Peterloo Massacre site. They resolved to support the North in the American Civil War and sent an address to Lincoln, in the full knowlege that it would mean further suffering or even death for their families. These actions helped turn opinion in Parliament and the possible Navy intervention was called off. Lincoln himself acknowledged the debt the Union owed to the cotton workers in his response of January 1863 "To the Working Men of Manchester". Which is quoted in part on the statue's plinth (although "men" has been changed to "people")
I have understood well that the duty of self-preservation rests solely with the American people; but I have at the same time been aware that favor or disfavor of foreign nations might have a material influence in enlarging or prolonging the struggle with disloyal men in which the country is engaged. A fair examination of history has served to authorize a belief that the past actions and influences of the United States were generally regarded as having been beneficial toward mankind. I have, therefore, reckoned upon the forbearance of nations.
Circumstances--to some of which you kindly allude--induce me especially to expect that if justice and good faith should be practised by the United States, they would encounter no hostile influence on the part of Great Britain. It is now a pleasant duty to acknowledge the demonstration you have given of your desire that a spirit of amity and peace toward this country may prevail in the councils of your Queen, who is respected and esteemed in your own country only more than she is by the kindred nation which has its home on this side of the Atlantic.
I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the workingmen at Manchester, and in all Europe, are called to endure in this crisis. It has been often and studiously represented that the attempt to overthrow this government, which was built upon the foundation of human rights, and to substitute for it one which should rest exclusively on the basis of human slavery, was likely to obtain the favor of Europe. Through the action of our disloyal citizens, the working-men of Europe have been subjected to severe trials, for the
purpose of forcing their sanction to that attempt. Under the circumstance, I cannot but regard your decisive utterances upon the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country. It is indeed an energetic and inspiring assurance of the inherent power of truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity, and freedom. I do not doubt that the sentiments, you have expressed will be sustained by your great nation; and, on the other hand, I have no hesitation in assuring you that they will excite admiration, esteem, and the most reciprocal feelings of friendship among the American people.
This can be seen as the start of the "special relationship" between Britain and the US. Without the personal sacrifice of the Lancashire cotton workers, the South would have regained the income from cotton sales and would have been able to pursue to Civil War longer and perhaps even become independent. So when the right wing nutters start kicking off about the entry of the USA into the two World Wars and how it "saved Europe", it can be useful to remind them that without the people of Europe and Manchester in particular, there might not be a United States today.