Civil War history and the Beatles inspire American Tom Sebrell, resident academic at Queen Mary College, University of London—and tour guide.
What surprises Americans most about Civil War activities in Britain?
Taking the British out of the American Civil War would be like taking the French out of the Revolutionary War. The colonists successfully seceded from Great Britain largely because of French intervention. The Confederates realized they were in a similar situation and would need European mediation to win. They tried very hard to get it, and Abraham Lincoln fought just as hard to stop it. Revisiting the stories of the Yankees and Confederates in Britain is essential in understanding the American Civil War, as it truly was a global conflict.
What aspects of the war do you emphasize to your British students?
It’s crucial to convince them that this is not just American history, but also theirs. A lot of British citizens became involved— serving on Confederate naval vessels, many of which were built in the U.K.; investing in the Confederacy financially; serving as Union spies to help prevent Southern naval vessels being built in Liverpool. It was one of the leading issues debated in Parliament and in the prime minister’s Cabinet. This is very much mid-Victorian British history.
What inspired you to conduct Civil War tours of London and Liverpool?
During the four years of research for my Ph.D., I discovered exactly where most Civil War activity in Britain occurred and, even better, that nearly every site remains in its 1861-65 appearance. [Confederate agent] Charles Kuhn Prioleau’s Liverpool home, in fact, contains the most significant Civil War–era artwork (related to the war itself) that I’ve ever seen. The ceiling paintings, molding, woodwork, etc., throughout the house is loaded with South Carolina and Confederate symbols. That was an amazing find. Realizing the sesquicentennial was just around the corner, I decided to seize the opportunity.
What could a visitor expect to see on a typical Civil War tour in Britain?
The London tours focus on political and social aspects—the homes and offices of U.S. Ambassador Charles F. Adams and Confederate envoys William Yancey and James Murray Mason, propaganda offices used by both sides, the headquarters of the exclusively British Southern Independence Association and the London Emancipation Society. In Liverpool, the emphasis is on the construction of the Confederate Navy, blockade running and Union spying. The tours started in October and will continue through 2015, and there will be a bonus Beatles tour in Liverpool.
How difficult is it to tie the histories of the Civil War and the Beatles together?
It’s actually easier than you think. These are two crucial ties between Liverpool and the United States, and are exactly 100 years apart. It’s very convenient that these two subjects are being advertised together, as they’re both immensely popular in the U.S. with all generations, so it is very easy to market this as a history of war and peace. Besides, how can you beat a combination of the Beatles and the Civil War!
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.