New book reveals strong Limerick connection to American Civil War

Colm Ward

Reporter:

Colm Ward

THIS year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War - a conflict which claimed over 625,000 lives between 1861 and 1865. One of the lesser known facts about the war is that many of the men who died on the battlefields of Alabama, Carolina and Virginia were wearing uniforms manufactured in Limerick.

THIS year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War - a conflict which claimed over 625,000 lives between 1861 and 1865. One of the lesser known facts about the war is that many of the men who died on the battlefields of Alabama, Carolina and Virginia were wearing uniforms manufactured in Limerick.

A new book tells the fascinating story of how Peter Tait, a Limerick clothing manufacturer became one of the key suppliers to the Confederate Army, providing it with tens of thousands of uniforms - at one point even sending his own ship to defy the Union naval blockade to get the shipment through.

‘Supplier to the Confederacy: Peter Tait and Co, Limerick’ by Craig L Barry and David C Burt is the first book to focus exclusively on Tait’s role in the American Civil War.

Today, Peter Tait is commemorated in the clock which bears his name in Baker Place. A three-time mayor of Limerick, he built one of the most modern and innovative clothing factories in the world at the time and became a pioneer of the production line to manufacture clothes.

The story of how Peter Tait became one of the foremost entrepreneurs of his time begins in 1844 when he emigrated from Scotland to Limerick, aged just 16. After a spell with a drapery firm run by fellow Scots Cumine and Mitchell, he was let go and began ‘hawking’ clothes from a basket on the streets of Limerick - often to sailors whose ships had docked at Limerick port. Recognising a market for ready-made shirts, he rented a premises on Bedford Row and hired a woman with a sewing machine - cutting edge technology at the time - to make the garments

Business grew rapidly and the book documents how, in 1853, he placed an advertisement in the Limerick Chronicle asking for 500 shirt makers using the latest steam powered sewing machines.

In 1855, Tait got his first military contract - to supply the Royal Limerick County Regiment with 3,000 uniforms. By 1858, the company had supplied some 120,000 uniforms to the British government, which for much of that time was engaged in the Crimean War. That year, he moved into a new premises on Edward Street and set about creating the most modern clothing factory in Europe. Covering an area of three acres, the factory employed between 700 and 900 people (mostly women), including about 200 machinists to operate the sewing machines.

Such was the renown of the factory that it was a featured in a London Times article of the time, which remarked on its modern working conditions and the efficiency with which it was capable of producing garments.

This efficiency was put to good use when the firm won a contract to supply the Confederate government with some 50,000 uniforms in 1863 - at the height of the American civil war.

In the book, the authors reproduce various documents relating to this - and other - contracts with the Confederate government, including a letter written in December 1863 by Peter Tait’s brother - and agent - James to the Confederate Secretary of War, James A Seddon offering to supply his army with 50,000 uniforms, shirts and caps, 10,000 pairs of boots, 100,000 pairs of stockings and 50,000 haversacks to the total value of £158,475 sterling. A further contract to supply 40,000 uniforms was signed a year later in October 1864 - leading the authors to conclude that ‘Peter Tait and Co intended to become the largest supplier of uniforms to the Confederate States, and was poised to do so had to war gone on past April 1865.

However, in order for Tait to get these uniforms to the Confederate armies, he first had to defy the union blockade which aimed to prevent supplies reaching the Southern states. The Alabama state contract led to Tait buying a share in the steamship Evelyn - eventually owning a two-thirds share in the ship. It departed Limerick for Bermuda on October 27 of that year and from there to Wilmington, North Carolina where most of the uniforms were successfully unloaded.

Unfortunately - for Tait anyway - the war ended shortly afterwards and his potentially lucrative contracts came to nought.

Despite this, Peter Tait’s vision, ability and entrepreneurial flair ensured that he became a fabulously wealthy and highly respected man both in Limerick and throughout the British Isles. He was hugely popular among the people of the city because of the employment and good wages he offered in his factory and this popularity led to his being elected as Mayor for an unprecedented three terms.

He also received a knighthood in 1868 for his contribution to industry and commerce.

While not being the first book to document Peter Tait’s extraordinary life - the most notable being John E Waite’s 2005 biography - this publication provides a valuable insight into his role in the American Civil War, and includes a wealth of documentary evidence from the time. It also seeks to clarify and correct some previously held beliefs about Tait, most notably dismissing the claim that he operated more than one blockade-runner during the war.

This book will make essential reading for American Civil War buffs and those with an interest in the history of the textile industry, but it is also of great interest to anyone who wants to learn more about the history of Limerick - and a time when the Treaty city truly led the world as a centre of industry and innovation.

Supplier to the Confederacy; Peter Tait and Co Limerick, by Craig L. Barry and David C Burt is available from www.authorsonline.co.uk or www.amazon.co.uk or signed copies can be ordered from the author by emailing dburt67@tiscali.co.uk.