A new display entitled Blockade Runners which focuses on Glasgow’s role in the American Civil War of 1861-1865 has opened at Riverside Museum. The exhibition, which coincides with the 150th anniversary of the assassination of US President Abraham Lincoln at the end of the civil war, explores the vital part Clyde-built ships played in running the naval blockade of the Confederacy. The city of Glasgow profited greatly from new ship orders, but many Glaswegians opposed the trade, which rose from a war that had its origins in the difficult issue of slavery.

The Civil War was fought to determine the survival of the Union or independence for the Confederacy. The Confederate coast of America, from Texas to Virginia, was under naval blockade from the Union forces who were attempting to strangle the economic and military capacity of the southern states. After four years of combat that left over 600,000 Union and Confederate soldiers dead and destroyed much of the South's infrastructure, the Confederacy collapsed and slavery was abolished. Through related objects, interpretation panels and digital displays Blockade Runners continues Riverside Museum’s philosophy of tackling controversial subjects head on. Items associated with the trade and Glasgow’s involvement highlights the exact nature of the blockade as well as the impact it had on the city and the UK as a whole.

Chair of Glasgow Life, Councillor Archie Graham, said: “This thought-provoking display is a wonderful new addition at Riverside. It charts how Glasgow profited from converting and building ships for use during the American Civil War, but importantly it challenges visitors to think at what cost this profit was made. While many made huge fortunes from the trade in blockade running ships, there was great opposition to supporting the Southern States due to the issue of slavery, which was banned in the British Empire in 1833.

“Riverside Museum is European Museum of the Year and attracts over 1 million visitors a year because of its progressive attitude towards the subjects on display. Blockade Runners tackles an aspect of Glasgow’s history that is not generally held up to public scrutiny within museums and I would encourage people to visit the display and join in the debate.”

Eight ship models of the real-life vessels that were used as blockade runners – fast, shallow, draft ships that took armaments and other supplies into southern harbours such as Wilmington, Charleston and Galveston and brought out cargoes of cotton which were sold to raise money for Confederate States of America – will be on display. They represent a cross section of Glasgow shipbuilders and dates of construction.

Blockade Runners examines one month during the war, November 1863, when Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address and six of the ships were active. It explains the fate of these vessels, while another panel gives visitors an understanding of the vast profits and huge risks associated with the secretive trade, together with the development of the technology used during the war and why Clyde ships were ideal for the purpose of blockade running.

A rare Confederate flag, flown from the Glasgow home of successful businessman James Smith, is on display. At the start of the war he had supported his former home town of Jackson, Mississippi by funding the purchase of armaments and continued to fly the flag in support of his brother who still lived in Mississippi.

An Enfield rifle, dated 1858, introduces a section on the important cargo that was carried by the ships and why these were important for both the Southern States and Britain. The Enfield musket was the second most used rifle in the Civil War and represents the different types of munitions and war supplies shipped from Britain. Five bank notes from the Confederate States of America represent the printers and skilled engravers that emigrated from Britain to work.

Completing the display is an oil painting of the steamer Advance attributed to famed maritime artist Samuel Walters, which shows a blockade runner in action and a cotton dress of the day, which represents the raw material shipped from the south, as well as the finished products being worn in Glasgow.

The display brings together a number of objects that have rarely, if ever, been on display in Glasgow Museums. It is aimed at the large family audience who visit Riverside, together with school groups. It offers both the opportunity to engage in a meaningful debate regarding the balance between local economic growth and profit and the export of items to nations that have very different legal and moral values to those held in Scotland. Further, it encourages discussion of the complex issues that surround the arms trade and if the modern day experience differs hugely from the story charted in this display from the 1860s.

The University of Glasgow’s Archives, which contributed towards the creation of this new display, contains 680 plans of 156 vessels built on the Clyde in the 19th century and were designed to beat the Union blockade of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The plans were constructed by William Simons & Co Ltd, have recently been restored and are now available to be viewed by students, researchers and members of the public.

Blockade Runners is situated upstairs in Riverside Museum, beside the Ship Conveyor.