George St Leger Grenfell was by no means the only Englishman to fight in the American Civil War. More than 50,000 British citizens sailed to the United States to take part in the conflict and a further 250,000 British-born immigrants enlisted for active service. Although Lord Palmerston’s Liberal Government tried to keep out of the war, the British people were
only too eager to take sides.

Conservative sentiment supported the South’s claim to self-government which, after all, had been the guiding principle on which the United States was founded, and Britain’s traditional sympathy for the underdog also helped the Confederate recruitment drive. On the other hand, slavery was a deeply emotive issue and many British men volunteered to fight the white supremacists in the South. The actor-manager Charles Wyndham enrolled as a surgeon in the Union army, as did the head of the Oxford Infirmary Charles Mayo, while Henry George Hore, a Sussex bank clerk, spent his life savings on crossing the Atlantic to join the Northern army. Matching them were starry idealists like the African explorer Henry Morton Stanley who fought with the Dixie Greys in the bloody battle at Shiloh. Stanley was captured and sent to the notorious Camp Douglas where he watched prisoners-of- war literally drowning in their own excrement. There was nothing romantic about dysentery which along with diarrhoea and typhoid fever killed two-thirds of the 620,000 soldiers who lost their lives in the American Civil War.

But while many volunteers came to have second thoughts about the carnage they had witnessed, British public opinion still favoured engagement in what was held to be a moral struggle between slaveholders and abolitionists. It took a Prussian philosopher living in Primrose Hill to come up with a deeper analysis. Karl Marx said the American Civil War wasn’t about principles but an epochal clash between two economic systems – feudalism and capitalism.

Ever since Jefferson’s day plantation owners had used their wealth and influence to dominate American politics but times were changing. Factories, woollen mills and iron foundries were springing up in the increasingly urbanised Northern states to take advantage of the new technologies and this led to the development of railroads and canals, which encouraged commerce and trade. To further help Northern manufacture, Congress imposed crippling taxes on imported goods and the agrarian South suffered accordingly.

‘The war between the North and South is a tariff war,’ said Marx, ‘and not for any principle.’ The great novelist and social reformer Charles Dickens, who had been on a fact-finding tour of America, came to a similar conclusion. ‘The Northern onslaught upon slavery,’ Dickens wrote, ‘is no more than a piece of specious humbug disguised to conceal its desire for economic control of the United States.’

From start to finish, the American Civil War was an exercise in hypocrisy and Britain played a major role in that too. While claiming to be politically neutral, the British Government capitalised on the conflict. The war would not have lasted nearly as long but for the British-manufactured guns, cannons, rifles and bullets that flooded through the Union blockade of Southern ports to arm the Confederacy. But that wasn’t all. Britain helped bankroll both sides in the conflict. To finance the war, North and South sold bonds on the international market and the largest bondholders were British.

Judged against such a duplicitous backdrop, Colonel Grenfell seems almost pure in purpose. He was a soldier of fortune who travelled the world seeking wars. He was seldom paid for his services and took enormous risks in battle. But what makes this Cornish mercenary truly stand out from his contemporaries was the vindictive way in which he was treated by his Union captors. A military tribunal sentenced him to death for a crime he never got to commit and when that sentence was commuted following British diplomatic pressure, Washington’s War Department kept him in prison long after the war had ended.