This week, we’ll be looking back on the life and legacy of Sir Joseph Whitworth, who died on this day in 1887. In today’s special post, Hannah delves into a darker side of Whitworth’s career, and how one of his inventions played a role in the American Civil War.
Whilst we often look to history to reaffirm a sense of pride in our work, some more controversial topics can be overlooked. It is important though to recognise all we are, as an institution and as an important part of the socio-political history of Manchester. During this piece, I’ll be looking here at how The Whitworth’s namesake was connected to The American Civil War, and how this affected the people of Manchester.
It’s hard to imagine we were at all connected to our brothers and sisters across the pond during this difficult time. The people of Manchester though, banded together, as ever we do, when justice needs a helping hand.
So what was the American Civil War?
Let’s start at the beginning. We’re looking at 1861 to 1865. The Civil War was fought as the Southern States didn’t want to be a part of the United States anymore, and wanted to form their own country – to the disagreement of the North. The Southern States broke away, and made The Confederate State of America (or The Confederacy). The Confederacy was worried that as the United States became bigger, the southern states would lose much of their power due to the distribution of power throughout America. The North by this time was wealthier, had more people and resources and had finally mostly outlawed slavery – however the South disagreed with their stance on slavery.
Abraham Lincoln (we’ll come back to old honest Abe later!), was the president during the Civil War. Lincoln was for the abolition of slavery – which after the Civil War was won by the North, led to the creation of the 13th amendment. Unfortunately, Lincoln was assassinated at a theatre only a few months later by a Confederate sympathiser, whilst the effects of the abolishment of slavery were still in their early forms.
The Civil War proved to be the deadliest in the history of The United States and over 600,000 soldiers died, not to mention the deaths of the innocents on each side.
So how was Joseph Whitworth involved?
Whitworth created a rifle so accurate and radical that for nearly two decades it reigned supreme within the gun industry. In 1854, the British Board of Ordnance requested Whitworth’s help in engineering a more accurate rifle. Whitworth worked on a previously well used calibre service rifle, and decided the bullet was much too wide and short for the gun. Whitworth then reduced the calibre so he could stretch out the diameter of the projectile. The gun also featured a hexagonal spiral sight (along with the usual cylindrical sight) so two types of bullets could be used, which allowed denser materials of projectiles for a faster and more accurate shot.
Ultimately the British government rejected the design as it was too costly to manufacture. The Whitworth Rifle Company was, however, able to sell their weapon to the French army and the Confederacy during the American Civil War.
It’s been estimated only around 150 Whitworth Rifles actually made it in to the USA, as they were upwards of $1000. Needless to say, the rifles were reserved then for the best marksmen in the Sharpshooter Battalions of the Confederate army. In fact I recently read an article regarding an earlier alleged assassination attempt on President Lincoln (stopped with intel and swift reaction time) in which the would-be shooter actually carried a Whitworth.
How was Manchester involved?
“And so we beat on, boats against the current…” F. Scott Fitzgeratld “The great Gatsby.”
In 1862, Manchester suddenly got a little quieter. In a brave and bold move of solidarity with President Lincoln’s Northern Union, our textile factories ceased production. This was in defiance of using slave imported cotton from Southern plantations. Lincoln had said this European blockade of importations would become an important tool in his success and deter the South. A year in, the strike began to take its toll. Families were out of work, money was increasingly tight, and 60% of Lancashire’s cotton mills lay idle. Due to the hardships many working people were now facing on the home soil, many mill owners were insistent that the Royal Navy must smash the blockade, and restore cotton back to England from the Southern States. The people of Manchester though, were as ever, relentless in their togetherness and sense of justice. Many mill owners looked to their employees to see if the embargo should continue and the people of Manchester said YES. There was so much disruption and hardship the Riot Act was read at Manchester Trade Hall, yet Manchester beat on. Finally in 1863, when Manchester had taken all they could, a letter arrived from Lincoln himself. He expressed his sincere gratitude for “the working people of Manchester”. Lincoln acknowledged the struggle and the “sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country. It is indeed an energetic and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent power of truth, and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity, and freedom.” Trade was reopened and US ships streamed the shorelines bringing the much needed relief and supplies for Manchester to thrive once more as the Cotton king. The people of Manchester put their economic needs behind their principles, as we have seen time and time again.
1865 was a big year for America. The Civil War had ended, the 13th amendment was created meaning slavery was abolished by law, and a few short months later, President Lincoln was fatefully shot.
In 1886, a statue of Lincoln was presented to the people of Manchester by US President Taft’s son. The statue, by George Grey Barnard, was originally sited in the grounds of Platt Hall, Platt Fields Park, in 1919. It was moved to Lincoln Square in 1986 where you can see it today.
So that’s a quick tour of the story of Whitworth, Manchester’s cotton strike and The Civil War! Hope you enjoyed it, don’t forget to check out our Instagram @WhitworthArt for more information.