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Civil War History 49.2 (2003) 133-152

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The Impact of the American Civil War on the Local Communities of Southern Scotland

Lorraine Peters

The Scottish experience of the American Civil War has been overshadowed by an emphasis on the English reaction toward the conflict and overlooked in the recent trend to view the international reactions to the war from a local perspective. 1 Despite the lack of a Scottish emphasis, local studies have greatly enhanced the understanding of the British response to the Civil War, both in terms of explaining its complex economic impact and the nature of British sympathies. The more general accounts of the first half of the twentieth century were oversimplified in portraying Britain as consisting solely of a Confederacy-supporting upper class and a pro-Northern working class. 2 The local approach has gone a long way toward correcting this perception and has shown that such a strict polarization of opinion did not exist among the British. In addition, it has corrected the weakness of the earlier accounts that concentrated too heavily upon London as the center of political discourse. The recent work on the experience of Lancashire and Yorkshire has redressed this balance, and has demonstrated that provincial political activity reached its height in the mid-nineteenth century. Yet the tendency still remains to mean England when studies refer to the British reaction to the war. Using a local approach for uncovering the international dimension to the American Civil War should not ignore the Scottish reaction because historians can miss a fascinating and telling strand [End Page 133] of the British experience. There has only been one major examination of Scottish attitudes during the American Civil War, a study that illustrated Scotland's economic and political diversity and demonstrated that the Scottish reaction was distinct from the rest of Great Britain. 3 In studying Scotland's experience of the war, however, Robert Botsford concentrated on the two largest Scottish cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow. By his own admission, the study neglected the experiences of the Scottish smaller towns, which are necessary to examine in order to provide more information about the local economic response, and, in turn, an understanding of the derivation of local Scottish opinions.

A close examination of the Scottish lowland regions reveals that the individual economic experiences of the American Civil War were as diverse as the economic and social composition of the area. The implications of this for the understanding of international Civil War opinions should not be underestimated. Examining the agricultural and industrial trends of Scottish towns during the American Civil War can uncover the role that prosperity, or the lack of it, played in the formulation of attitudes toward the war. The economy, in fact, cannot provide the only explanation for support of Union or Confederacy. A number of factors figured in this process: in addition to the economy these included political attitudes toward electoral reform, abolitionism, and minority self-government. From this examination will emerge a mid-nineteenth-century Scotland fascinated with American developments not only because of material aspects alone, but also because of personal connections with the United States and its belief in democracy, freedom, and national self-determination.

The Scottish Highland region has traditionally received the predominant share of the historical attention paid to rural Scotland. In so doing, historians have overlooked the vibrant rural culture which existed in the Scottish Southern Upland areas of the Scottish Borders and Dumfriesshire. 4 This has caused historians to overlook that commentators in the South of Scotland were both influenced by, and reacted strongly to, the political issues raised during the American Civil War. This interest existed against a background of political agitation in these rural areas, resulting from dissatisfaction with aristocratic landlords and undemocratic local government. The contrasting economic experiences which resulted from the Civil War were a consequence of the industrial and agricultural diversification of the Scottish economy. The different rural experiences of local government, newspaper journalism, land ownership, local political leadership, and economic circumstances contributed to a complex diversity of...


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