Why the South Was Virtually Bound to Lose
Seward, a clever, persuasive man, believed the administration’s best strategy was to leave the rebellious Deep South to stew in its own Confederate juice and concentrate on wooing the other slave states to remain faithful to the Union. But that would have meant letting the seven go, and Lincoln was determined to preserve the Union as it was, at all costs. That was the only thing which, at this stage, he could see clear, and he stuck to it. This strategy, in turn, set off the mechanism of the war. On asserting its independence in December 186o, South Carolina called on the custodians of all federal property within the state to surrender it. Major Robert Anderson, the federal commander of the fortifications in Charleston Harbor, concentrated his forces in Fort Sumter and refused to act without instructions from Washington; President Buchanan, lax in most ways, likewise declined to have the federal forces evacuated. General F. W. Pickens of South Carolina thereupon trained his guns on the Fort. When Lincoln took over, the Cabinet deliberated on what to do. The Commander-in-Chief, General Scott, who might have been expected to be anxious to poke his old ‘imbecile’ enemy Davis in the eye, in fact advised doing nothing. Five out of seven members of Lincoln’s Cabinet agreed with him. But Lincoln decided otherwise. His decision to send a relieving expedition by sea, carrying food but no arms or ammunition, and to inform General Pickens of what he was doing, demonstrated his policy of upholding the Union at any cost. The response of the Confederate forces, to fire on the Fort, and the flag, was a decision to secede at any cost. That began the war on April 12, 1861.
As the South was arming and recruiting, Lincoln had no alternative but to take steps too. ‘The star-spangled banner has been shot down by Southern troops,’ he said, and on April 15 asked for 75,000 volunteers (answered by 92,000 within days). This move by Lincoln was, curiously enough, the ‘last straw’ which pushed Virginia (and so North Carolina) into secession. This, too, was undemocratic since the state convention voted 88 to 55, on April 17, to submit an Ordinance of Secession to a popular plebiscite. However, the governor put the state under Confederate command without waiting for the vote. This event was decisive for many reasons. Virginia was the most important of the original colonies, the central element in the Revolutionary War, and the provider of most of the great early presidents, as well as of the US Constitution itself. For the state which had done more than any other to bring the Union into existence to leave it in such an underhand and unconstitutional manner was shabby beyond belief. It is astonishing that the Virginians put up with it. And of course many of them did not. The people of West Virginia, who had no slaves, broke off and formed a separate state of their own, acknowledged by Congress as the State of West Virginia in 1863.
General Lee, the state’s most distinguished soldier, had been asked by Lincoln to become commander-in-chief of the Union forces. This was a wise choice and would have been a splendid appointment, for Lee was decent, honorable, and sensible as well as skillful. But Lee was a Virginian before anything else and he waited to see what Virginia did. When Virginia seceded, he reluctantly resigned his commission in the US Army, which he had served for thirty-two years. It seems to us quixotic but he felt he had no other option. He wrote to his sister in Baltimore and his brother in Washington DC: ‘ With all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.’
Arkansas seceded on May 6. The next day Tennessee formed an ‘alliance’ with the Confederacy, the only decision to be endorsed by popular vote. North Carolina, sandwiched between Virginia and South Carolina, had not much choice and joined on May 20. Missouri was divided but refused to join the Confederacy. Delaware was solid for the Union but shaky on coercion. Maryland too protested against coercion but declined to summon a state convention and so remained in the Union. Kentucky initially refused to send volunteers at Lincoln’s request but by the end of 1861 had joined the Union war-effort. So only eleven out of the fifteen slave states formed the Confederacy.
In demographic terms, the Confederacy was at a huge disadvantage. The census of 1860 showed that the eleven Confederate states had a population of 5,449,467 whites and 3,521,111 slaves. Nearly 1 million of the white males served, of whom 300,000 were casualties. The nineteen Union states had a population of 18,936,579 and the four border states a further 2,589,533, plus 429,401 then-slaves, over 100,000 of whom served in the Union army, which altogether numbered 1,600,000. Moreover, during the war nearly a million further immigrants arrived in the North, of whom 400,000 served in the Union army. Some of the best Northern troops were German, Irish, and Scandinavian, as were some of the smartest officers-Franz Sigel, Carl Schurz (Germans), Philippe de Trobriand (French), Colonel Hans Christian Heg and Hans Matson (Norwegian), and Generals Corcoran and Meagher (Irish). The Union economic preponderance was even more overwhelming. If the North-South ratio in free males aged eighteen to sixty was 4.4:1, it was 10:1 in factory production, iron 15:1, coal 38:1, firearms production 32:1, wheat 412:1, corn 2:1, textiles 14:1, merchant-ship tonnage 25:1, wealth 3:1, railroad mileage 2.4:1, farm acreage 3:1, draft animals 1.8:1, livestock 1.5:1. The only commodity in which the South was ahead was cotton, 24:1, but this advantage was thrown away by overproduction (in the South) and stockpiling (outside the South) in the endless build-up to the crisis. Just before the war, Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina boasted: ‘Cotton, rice, tobacco and naval stores command the world; and we have the sense to know it, and are sufficiently Teutonic to carry it out successfully. The North without us would be a motherless calf, bleating about, and die of mange and starvation.’ The assumption in the South was that the coming of war would lead to an expansion of its economy, and a contraction of the North’s. In fact, as was foreseeable, the reverse occurred. The South’s economy shrank, the North’s expanded, even faster than in the 1850s.
The South compounded its difficulties by weaknesses in its handling of finance, diplomacy, and internal politics, all of which had severe military consequences. First, it is a curious historical fact that most civil wars are lost by one side running out of money, and the American Civil War was an outstanding case in point. The South had no indigenous gold or silver supplies and no bullion reserves, and was entirely dependent on its own paper money. The North had the enormous advantage of a large, well-trained navy and, almost from the start, was able to impose a blockade, often ineffective at first but progressively tighter as the war proceeded. As a result, import and export taxes, the way of raising money traditionally preferred by the South, raised little. Import duties brought in only about $1 million in specie during the entire war, and the Union navy was so vigilant in running down cotton-export ships that only about $6,000 in specie was collected from cotton exports. With its limited capacity to produce armaments, the South was forced to shop abroad. France, always happy to supply arms to dodgy regimes, duly obliged but insisted on being paid in specie (as did independent gun-runners).
As his Treasury secretary, Davis appointed C. G. Memminger, a local South Carolina politician. This was an extraordinary choice: Memminger had virtually no experience of finance and, more important, lacked the creative ingenuity to surmount the almost insuperable difficulties of raising hard cash.’ An initial war-loan of 8 percent, organized by a consortium of New Orleans and Charleston banks, raised $15 million in specie, all of which was immediately sent abroad to buy arms. But subsequent loans were relative, then total, failures. A cottonbacked foreign loan, organized in London by Erlangers in January 1863, brought in disappointingly little, as a result of high charges and an imprudent attempt to bull the market. Hence Memminger resorted to the device of the improvident through the ages-printing paper. By the summer of 1861, $1 million of Confederate paper currency was circulating. By December it was over $30 million; by March 1862 $100 million; August 1862 $200 million; December 1862 $450 million. In 1863 it doubled again to $900 million and continued to increase, though later figures are mere guesswork. Gold was quoted at a premium over paper as early as May 1861 and was 20 percent premium by the end of the year. By the end of 1862 a gold dollar bought three paper ones and, by the end of 1862, no fewer than twenty.
In July 1846 Memminger, accused of making private profits on cotton-running, resigned in disgust, and Davis then appointed a real economic wizard called George A. Trenholm, a Charleston cottonmerchant who had proved extraordinarily adept at selling the South’s staple. But by then it was too late: the South’s finances were beyond repair. Inflation became runaway, the gold dollar being quoted at 40 paper ones in December 1864 and l00 shortly thereafter. Inflation, if nothing else, doomed the South. In the second half of the war Southerners showed an increasing tendency to use the North’s money, as it inspired more confidence. Towards the end people cut themselves off from paper money altogether, and bought and sold in kind-even the government raised taxes and loans in produce. The only people with means to move around were those who had kept gold dollars. Davis was like everyone else. In the final weeks of the Confederacy he sent his wife Varina off with his last remaining pieces of gold, keeping one five- dollar coin for himself.
The South’s diplomacy was as inept as its finance. Davis did not initially see the need for a major diplomatic effort since he believed the economic arguments would speak for themselves. The key country was Britain, because in the 1850s it had imported 80 percent of its cotton from America, and it had the world’s largest navy, which could break the Union blockade if it wished. Davis accepted Senator Hammond’s assertion: ‘You dare not make war upon our cotton. No power on earth dares make war on it. Cotton is King.’ But overproduction and stockpiling in anticipation of war led to a 40 percent oversupply of cotton in the British market by April 1861, before the war had properly begun. Britain got cotton from Egypt and India and, later in the war, from the United States itself, via the North. In the years 1860-5 Britain managed to import over 5 million bales of cotton from America, little of which was bought from the South directly. British manufacturers welcomed the opportunity to work off stocks and free themselves from dependence on Southern producers, whom they found difficult and arrogant. It is true the cotton blockade caused some unemployment in Lancashire and Yorkshire-by the end of 1862 it was calculated that 330,000 men and women were out of work in Britain as a result of the conflict. But they had no sympathy for the South. They identified with the slaves. They sent a petition to Lincoln: ‘Our interests are identical with yours. We are truly one people … If you have any ill- wishers here, be assured they are chiefly those who opposed liberty at home, and that they will be powerless to stir up quarrels between us.’ Lincoln called their words ‘An instance of sublime Christian heroism.’
The truth is, by opposing slavery and by insisting on the integrity of the Union, Lincoln identified himself and his cause with the two most powerful impulses of the entire 19th century- liberalism and nationalism. He did not have to work at a powerful diplomatic effort-though he did-as world opinion was already on his side, doubly so after he issued his Emancipation Proclamation. It was the South which needed to put an effort into winning friends. It was not forthcoming. Davis hated Britain anyway. The South had many potential friends there-the Conservative Party, especially its leading families, newspapers like The Times, indeed a surprisingly large section of the press. But he did not build on this. The envoys he sent were extremists, who bellowed propaganda rather than insinuated diplomacy. The British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, was a Whig-Liberal nationalist who played it cool: on May 13, 118611 he declared ‘strict and impartial neutrality.’ The North’s naval blockade caused much less friction with Britain than the South had hoped, because it conformed strictly to British principles of blockading warfare, which the Royal Navy was anxious to see upheld for future use. The one really serious incident occurred in November 1861, when the famous explorer Captain Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), commanding the USS San Jacinto, stopped the British steamer Trent and seized two Confederate commissioners, John Slidell and James M. Mason. This caused an uproar in Britain, but Seward, as secretary of state, quickly defused the crisis by ordering the men’s release, on the ground that Wilkes should have brought the ship into harbor for arbitration.
Added to improvident economics and incompetent diplomacy, the South saddled itself with a political system which did not work. It was a martyr to its own ideology of states’ rights. Although Davis and his fellow-Southerners were always quoting history, they did not know it. Had they studied the early history of the republic objectively, they would have grasped the point that the Founding Fathers, in drawing up the Constitution, had to insure a large federal element simply because the original provisional system did not work well, in war or in peace. The Confederacy thus went on to repeat many of the mistakes of the early republic. Each state raised its own forces, and decided when and where they were to be used and who commanded them. To many of their leaders, the rights of their state were more important than the Confederacy itself. Men from one state would not serve under a general from another. Senior commanders with troops from various states had to negotiate with state governments to get more men. Davis had to contend with many of the identical difficulties, over men and supplies and money, which almost overwhelmed Washington himself in the 1770s-and he had none of Washington’s tact, solidity, resourcefulness, and moral authority. Everyone blamed him, increasing his paranoia. As a former military man and war secretary, he thought he knew it all and tried to do everything himself. When he set up his office, he had only one secretary. His first Secretary of War, Leroy P. Walker, was a cipher. Visitors noticed Davis summoned him by ringing a desk bell, and Walker then trotted in ‘exhibiting a docility that dared not say “nay” to any statement made by his chief.’ Congress refused to take account of any of his difficulties and behaved irresponsibly-it was composed mainly of vainglorious extremists. Davis had more trouble with his congress than any Union president, except possibly Tyler. He vetoed thirty-eight Bills and all but one later passed with Congress overriding his veto. Lincoln had to use the veto only three times, and in each case it stuck.
But many of Davis’ difficulties were of his own making. His constant illnesses did not help, as during them he became short-tempered and dictatorial. As his absurd row with Scott showed, he could not distinguish between what mattered and what was insignificant. Virtually all his early appointments, both Cabinet and army, proved bad. Davis resumed personal vendettas going back to the Mexican War and even to his West Point days. In the South, everyone knew each other and most had grudges. In picking senior commanders, Davis favored former West Point classmates, war-service comrades, and personal friends. Things were made even more difficult by each state demanding its quota of generals, and by muddles Davis made over army regulations. A lot of his bitterest rows with colleagues and subordinates had nothing to do with the actual conduct of the war. The Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory (1813-73), a Trinidadian and one of the few Confederate leaders who knew what he was doing, deplored the fact that ‘ our fate is in the hands of such self-sufficient, vain, army idiots.’ Davis was not the man to run difficult generals, and he became almost insensate with rage when he was personally blamed for lack of men and supplies, above all lack of success. Varina admitted: ‘He was abnormally sensitive to disapprobation. Even a child’s disapproval discomposed him … and the sense of mortification and injustice gave him a repellent manner.’ Faced with criticism he could not bear, he took refuge in illness.
A lot of Davis’ strategic difficulties were his own fault. Despite conscripting go percent of its able white manpower, the South was always short of troops. In January 1862 its army rolls numbered 351,418, against a Unionist strength of 575,917. It reached its maximum in January 1864, when 481,180 were counted under the Confederate flag. Therafter the South’s army declined in strength whereas the North’s rose, so that in January 1865 the respective numbers were 445,203 and 959,460.78 That being so, Davis should have concentrated his smaller forces in limited areas. Instead, he took seriously and followed to the letter his inauguration oath to defend every inch of Confederate territory. This was an impossible task. It involved, to begin with, defending over 3,500 miles of coastline, without a navy to speak of. Texas alone had 1,200 miles of border. If Kentucky had seceded, it would have provided a simple water-border. For a time it kept out both sides, but eventually the Unionists menaced the South from there too. Missouri was also divided but its settled eastern reaches, centered on St Louis, were firmly Unionist, and that left an almost indefensible 300-mile straight-line border in northern Arkansas. Hence a large percentage of the Confederate army, perhaps a third or even more, was always employed on non-combative defensive duties when its active commanders were clamoring desperately for troops. It is true that the Unionists also used vast numbers of men on the gradually extending lines of communication-but then they had more men to use.
Early in the war the Confederate capital was moved from Montgomery to Richmond, mainly to insure that Virginia stayed committed to the fight. This was a mixed blessing. The polished Virginians regarded the South Carolinans, who formed the core of the government, as loudmouthed, flashy, dangerous extremists. They looked down their noses at the Davises. The ladies noted Varina’s dark color and thick lips, comparing her to ‘a refined mulatto cook’ and called her the ‘Empress,’ a reference to the much-despised Eugenie, wife of the French dictator, Napoleon III. The Georgians, especially Thomas Cobb, were hostile to Davis: he was, said Cobb, as ‘obstinate as a mule,’ and they dismissed J. P. Benjamin (1811-84), the AttorneyGeneral and by far the ablest member of the Confederate government, as a ‘Jew dog.’ Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas was a strong Davis supporter until their wives fell out, wherupon Charlotte Wigfall, a South Carolina snob, called Varina ‘a course, western woman’ with ‘objectionable’ manners, and Wigfall preached mutiny and sedition in the Congress, often when drunk. Confederate Richmond gradually became a snakepit of bitter social and political feuds, and the Davises ceased to entertain.
Once Northern armies began to penetrate Confederate soil, the interests of the states diverged and it was everyone for himself, reflected in Richmond’s savage political feuding. It is a curious paradox that ordinary Southerners, who had not been consulted, fought the war with extraordinary courage and endurance, while their elites, who had plunged them into Armageddon, were riven by rancorous factions and disloyalty, and many left the stricken scene long before the end. Davis was too proud, aloof, and touchy to build up his own faction. He thought it beneath him to seek popularity or to flatter men into doing their duty. Hence ‘close friends sometimes left shaking their heads or fists, red with anger and determined never to call on him again.'”‘ But at least he went down with the stricken cause, ending up in Unionist fetters.
It may be asked: all this being so, why did the South fight so well? Why did the war last so long? In the first place, it has to be understood that Lincoln was operating under many restraints. He did not seek war, want war, or, to begin with, consider he was in any way gifted to wage it. He made a lot of mistakes, especially with his generals, but unlike Davis he learned from them. The South was fighting for its very existence, and knew it; there was never any lack of motivation there. The North was divided, bemused, reluctant to go to war; or, rather, composed of large numbers of fanatical anti-slavers and much larger numbers of unengaged or indifferent voters who had no wish to become involved in a bloody dispute about a problem, slavery, which did not affect them directly. Then there were the four border states, all of them slave-owning, whose adherence to the Union it was essential to retain. Lincoln, beginning with a professional army of a mere 15,000, was fighting a war waged essentially for a moral cause, and he had to retain the high moral ground. But he had also to keep the rump of the Union together. That meant he had to be a pragmatist without ever descending into opportunism. His great gift-perhaps the greatest of the many he possessed-was precisely his ability to invest his decisions and arguments with moral seemliness even when they were the product of empirical necessity. He was asked to liberate the slaves-what else was the war about? He answered: it was to preserve the Union. He realized, he knew for a fact, that if he did preserve the Union, slavery would go anyway. But he could not exactly say so, since four of his states wanted to retain it.
Some of Lincoln’s generals, for military purposes, began to issue local emancipation decrees, hoping to get the Southern slaves to rise and cause trouble behind Confederate lines. Lincoln had to disavow these efforts as ultra vires. He hated slavery. But he loved the Constitution more, writing to a friend in Kentucky:
I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think and feel, and yet I have never understood that the presidency conferred on me an unrestricted right to act officially on this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power.
He made public his intentions about slavery in an order disavowing an emancipation decree issued by General David Hunter. Declaring it ‘altogether void’ and rejecting the right of anyone except himself to liberate the slaves, he nonetheless made it publicly clear that such a right might well be invested in his presidential power: ‘I further make it known that whether it be competent for me, as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, to declare the slaves of any State or States free, and whether at any time and in any case, it shall have become a necessity indispensable to the maintenance of the Government to exercise such supposed power, are questions which, under my responsibility, I reserve to myself, and which I cannot feel justified in leaving to the decision of commanders in the field.’
He followed this up by writing a reply to Horace Greeley, who had published a ferocious editorial in the New York Tribune, entitled ‘The Prayer of Twenty Millions,’ accusing Lincoln of being ‘strangely and disastrously remiss’ in not emancipating the slaves, adding that it was ‘preposterous and futile’ to try to put down the rebellion without eradicating slavery. Lincoln replied by return of post, without hesitation or consultation, and for all to read:
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union and it is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some slaves and leaving others alone I would do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save the Union … I shall d, less whenever I believe that what I am doing hurts the c do more whenever I believe doing more helps the cause.