Bonnybridge shares a place in American history

The Civil War reached far beyond the borders of America and now there's growing belief that Jefferson Davies, the president of the Confederacy, paid a visit to Bonnybridge
The Civil War reached far beyond the borders of America and now there's growing belief that Jefferson Davies, the president of the Confederacy, paid a visit to Bonnybridge

The lavish nature of the wedding reflected the prestige and wealth of the two families that were being joined in holy matrimony.

Harriet Dudley Smith, a native of Jackson, Mississippi, was marrying George Ure junior.

Both had prosperous Scottish fathers who were co-owners of two iron foundries in Bonnybridge.

The wedding in 1870 was likely a happy occasion, but one that must have been tinged with sadness for the Smith family.

Through a mixture of fate and circumstance they had backed the losing side in the recent American Civil War – and paid a heavy price as a result.

Harriet’s father, James Smith junior, had lost all of his American property and businesses which he had spent nearly 20 years building up.

He also lost his brother, Edinburgh-born Colonel Robert A. Smith, who was gunned down while leading the 10th Mississippi Infantry Regiment at the Battle of Muntfordhill.

The Smiths and the Ures had built their fortunes in and around Bonnybridge, but, like many other Scots industrialists of the time, they found their loyalties strained by a vicious war that had happened thousands of miles away.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the American Civil War, a brutal conflict which polarised a nation.

Today, many assume that Britain was universal in its support for the Union in its fight against the pro-slavery South. The reality, however, was much more complex.

“Opinions about the American Civil War were divided in Scotland and in Britain more generally”, said Dr Paul Quigley, a lecturer in American History at the University of Edinburgh.

“There were economic considerations – Scottish cotton manufacturers suffered significantly when the Union blockade cut off their supplies of raw cotton from southern plantations. But politics and ideology were even more important.

“Some conservative Scots delighted in the break up of the United States because it seemed to prove that democratic government was unworkable.

“Many more supported the Union because they wanted to see democracy prosper.

“Most Scots were firmly opposed to slavery, but this did not automatically cause them to support the Union, especially in the early stages of the conflict when it was not clear whether the war was actually being fought over slavery”.

The Smiths were a powerful family in Bonnybridge. Their foundry was, for generations, one of the biggest employers in the area.

“It’s hard to overestimate the impact that Smith & Wellstood had in the Bonnybridge area and beyond,” said Janice Macfarlane of the Greenhill Historical Society, which is based in the village.

“The firm provided dedicated houses for its workers and people came from all over to work there. In the 1950s it still owned 400 houses in the village.

It also provided a huge range of social benefits including a welfare club, tennis courts, a reading room, a literary association and a programme of winter lectures on a wide range subjects.”

Upon the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, foundry owner James Smith junior was travelling regularly between his established businesses in Scotland and his new enterprises in Jackson, Mississippi. His family were well settled in America.

Perhaps reflecting their contentment, Smith’s younger brother had not hesitated in joining up to fight for the Confederacy – an attitude that was shared by many expatriate Scots who were based in the south.

The Union’s victory in 1865 deprived Smith of his American factories, as the federal government asset-stripped known supporters of the Confederacy.

He was thus forced to focus his attentions on his interests in Bonnybridge, and a period of rapid expansion in the village began.

Smith was also determined that his brother Robert would be remembered. A monument in his honour, paid for by James, still stands today in Kentucky on the battlefield he was killed.

Carved from a single piece of limestone, the 25ft tall obelisk weighs 35 tons and is believed to be the second largest single-stone monument in the United States.

While the memory of Colonel Robert A. Smith survives, the wider links between Bonnybridge and the Civil War is today less well-known.

That’s a situation that local councillor Billy Buchanan hopes will change.

“As a boy I was told the story that men from Bonnybridge followed James Smith across the Atlantic to work for him in his American foundries, and that some of them later fought in the Civil War”, he said.

“It inspired me to find out more about the subject. The industrial heritage of Bonnybridge and its links to the United States is fascinating.

“It’s on record that Jefferson Davies, the president of the Confederacy, visited James Smith at his home in Glasgow when he toured Britain in 1870.

“The pair had become firm friends before the outbreak of war. Jefferson Davies’ visit was a big event at the time.

‘‘It’s recorded that he visited Smith’s works. It can’t be said for sure, but I think this suggests that Jefferson Davies may well have visited Bonnybridge.”

It’s a question that Falkirk historian Ian Scott would also like to be answered.

“Smith & Wellstood never tried to hide their links to America. It was once well-known,’’ he said.

“We can’t say definitively if Jefferson Davies ever visited the area, but there’s a high chance that he did. He was very close to James Smith. It would be the biggest link between the village and the Civil War yet.”

The Smith & Wellstood foundry was sold in 1984 after the parent company went into receivership. It was eventually closed in 1994.

Today, the site has been mostly cleared and replaced with new housing.

The legacy of a the American Civil War remains, however, not just in Bonnybridge but across the world.