The American Civil War and the Lancashire cotton famine

Henry Dresser blockade runner

Henry Dresser (1838-1915) was a London-based merchant and ornithologist (bird collector) who became involved in the American Civil War.

American Civil War and cotton supply

The American Civil War of 1861-1865 had a dramatic impact on the north west of England, preventing the supply of American slave-grown cotton to the Lancashire cotton mills. The resulting hardship came to be known as the Lancashire cotton famine. Opinion about the American conflict amongst the industrialists and workers of Lancashire was divided. Despite substantial public support for the anti-slavery northern Union states, not everyone was pro-Union.

Dresser was asked to become a blockade runner by Arthur Bower Forwood, a leading Liverpool merchant and mayor of Liverpool from 1877-78, and Julius Sichel, the Austrian Vice-Consul in Manchester.

Blockade running entailed smuggling goods across the Atlantic to the southern Confederate states via the Rio Grande (it has been estimated that during the Civil War the blockade was broken 8,250 times). Dresser agreed and went with a cargo of goods to trade for raw cotton which was desperately needed to feed the Lancashire cotton mills. Many of the Enfield rifles used during the Civil War also came from Manchester. Dresser had some extraordinary adventures and was eventually able to exchange his goods for raw cotton.

Bird collecting and Manchester Museum

Dresser was also a major collector of birds and birds' eggs and whilst in America he shot a number of birds and brought the skins back to England. His collecting activities provided distraction from his dangerous smuggling task and even enabled his survival as he skinned the birds, preserving the skins and eating the flesh.

His collection amounted to 500 bird skins as well as eggs from Houston, including four eggs of the swallow-tailed kite, his prize possession. Dresser also managed to collect insects and shells whilst blockade running. Dresser's diaries and some of the bird skins from his time in America are preserved in the Manchester Museum.