IN the 1860s, as the American Civil War raged on, a growing flotilla of Clyde-build paddle steamers ran a deadly run from Bermuda and the Bahamas to the southern Confederacy states.

Carrying weapons, money and essential food supplies they came under fire from the Union navy, risking the lives of their crew.

Now these ships are celebrated in Blockade Runners, a new display at Glasgow's Riverside Museum, opened to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the assassination of US president Abraham Lincoln.

Exploring the vital part those Clyde-built ships played in running the naval blockade of the Confederacy, the exhibition also charts a controversial period of Glasgow's history when shipyard and ship owners made fortunes against a background of the slave trade.

"There was a huge anti-slavery debate at the time. In the south of the United States all the cotton was being grown primarily by enslaved Africans and coming over to Britain and becoming our main export: finished cotton goods," explains John Messner, curator, transport and technology at the Riverside Museum.

"There was also a huge debate from the other side saying that selling these ships was making a lot of money, giving jobs to the shipyard workers."

Much more than a collection of model ships, Blockade Runners follows the very personal story and social history of Glasgow and its links with the US.

Focusing on a month during the war, November 1863, the display looks at a specific period when the war had been raging for two and a half years and victory still wasn't in sight for either side.

President Lincoln, famously a fan of the works of Robert Burns, had just given the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the cemetery at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg. While at sea blockade runners moved back and forth carrying valuable cargoes.

"Many Glasgow paddle steamers that were used on the Clyde to go from Glasgow to Rothesay or Dunoon were taken over to the Caribbean to run the blockade," says John, from Michigan, whose great great grandfather was in a regiment in Kentucky during the war.

" They sailed across the Atlantic, which is not what they were built to do, they are river craft. It was a perilous journey and not just that, when they got across they were sailing from British colonies or from Havana and still doing maybe 400 or 500 miles in open water.

"They'd be coming under fire but it was beneficial for the Union ships to try and capture rather than sink them. The ship would be taken to a court in Boston or New York and all of the things on it sold at open auction and the people on the Union ship that captured it got a cut.

"The blockade runners were crewed by loads of people: Royal Naval officers on furlough and merchant marine sailors.

"We have one painting in the display of The Advance and the master of that was a gentleman from Fife and there is a crew list from 1864 which had four Scotsmen, Englishmen, a few Irish, French and Portuguese, as well as confederate Americans."

Among the highlights of the display, never been shown before, are Glasgow's first Confederate flag, that flew from a house in St Vincent Crescent where James Smith, who knew personally Jefferson Davis the first president of the Confederacy, lived with his family in the 1860s.

Edinburgh-born Smith moved to Jackson, Mississippi, made his fortune and returned to Scotland in the 1850s. When war broke out his brother, who stayed behind in the States, joined a regiment to fight for the south.

"James Smith sat on both sides of the debate raging in Glasgow at the time because he had family over there and at the start of the war sent out weapons for Jackson, Mississippi, for the defence of that city," says John.

A cotton dress made in Glasgow in the 1860s, probably from cotton from the United States, is an example of some of the cargo that was on board the blockade runners.

And an Enfield rifle, similar to many used by both sides in the war, is evidence of the weapons sent to troops.

" Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the American Civil War, massive areas of the nation were devastated by it and it was a big turning point in the history of the United States," adds John.

"This display focuses on Glasgow's role in all of that. Yes, sending out these ships but also the internal debate that was happening in Glasgow. Was it right?"

Blockade Runners is situated upstairs in the Riverside Museum, beside the ship conveyor. Visit