Formed in February 1861, the Confederate States of America was a republic composed of eleven Southern states that seceded from the Union in order to preserve slavery, states’ rights, and political liberty for whites. Its conservative government, with Mississippian Jefferson Davis as president, sought a peaceful separation, but the United States refused to acquiesce in the secession. The war that ensued started at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, and lasted four years. It cost the South nearly 500,000 men killed or wounded out of a population of 9 million (including 3 million slaves) and $5 billion in treasure.
The Confederacy’s eastern military fortunes went well for the first two years, with major victories at First Manassas (Bull Run), ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s Valley Campaign, and the Seven Days’ Battles, where Gen. Robert E. Lee took command of the main eastern army in June 1862 and cleared Virginia of federal troops by September. His invasion of Maryland was checked at Sharpsburg (Antietam) in mid-September, and he returned to Virginia, where he badly defeated federal forces at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. The main western Confederate forces-commanded by Generals Albert Sidney Johnston, P. G. T. Beauregard, and Braxton Bragg-suffered defeats at Forts Henry and Donelson and Shiloh in Tennessee, and at Corinth, Mississippi, but they held that flank through 1862.
Davis formed his government at the first Confederate capital in Montgomery, Alabama. The Confederacy’s Permanent Constitution provided for presidential item veto, debating seats for cabinet members, and six-year terms for the president and vice president (the president was ineligible for successive terms); it prohibited the foreign slave trade and forbade Congress from levying a protective tariff, giving bounties, or making appropriations for internal improvements.
After initial problems, Davis’s government grew stronger as he learned to use executive power to consolidate control of the armed forces and manpower distribution. But some Southern governors resisted Davis’s centralization and tried to keep their men and resources at home. Although Davis used authority effectively, the insistence on preserving states’ rights plagued him constantly. Vice President Alexander H. Stephens, an early dissident, for example, sulked in his native Georgia and finally urged its secession from the Confederacy.
But nothing gave the government more trouble than its poverty. There was only $27 million worth of specie in the Confederacy, and money remained scarce. A federal blockade gradually shrank Southern foreign trade and drained financial reserves. Christopher G. Memminger, treasury secretary, followed conservative policies. A campaign to raise funds through a domestic loan in February 1861 lagged; a $50 million loan drive launched in May did little better. Finally Congress resorted to a ‘produce loan,’ which allowed planters to pledge produce as security for bonds. Although initially popular, this expedient also failed.
The next resort, paper money, stimulated inflation, and on April 24, 1863, Congress passed the toughest tax law ever seen in the South. Rates were increased, an income tax was authorized, and a profits tax was imposed on farm products; farmers and planters were subjected to a tax-in-kind, which required them to contribute one-tenth of their annual crop yield to the government. This unpopular law did not solve the financial problems, however. In mid-1863, Memminger proposed taking one-third of the currency out of circulation. Congress resisted, but finally, in February 1864, it passed a funding act that created a brief drop in inflation, which soon yielded to a price-and-money spiral that presaged bankruptcy. An 1863 foreign loan for $15 million through the Erlanger Bank in France realized only about $9 million in purchasing power.
Then the government resorted to such desperate measures as impressment of private produce, livestock, machinery, and transportation equipment, which brought limited relief to the armies but endless enmity for what was seen as a ‘despotic’ government. The failure to tax land, cotton, and slaves earned cries of ‘a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight’ and sapped morale behind the lines.
The Confederacy never won the loyalty of the black population. Some free blacks volunteered for Southern ranks but were rejected. Federal invaders liberated slaves, and fear of insurrections sapped Southern strength in the last two war years.
Keeping the ranks of the armies filled became difficult as casualties mounted and enthusiasm faded. In April 1862, Congress, on the advice of Davis, passed the first draft law in American history, which took into Confederate service all white men between eighteen and thirty-five. Liberal exemptions (including one white exemption for every twenty slaves owned) weakened the law. But the courts upheld it and most people accepted it as necessary, an attitude that persisted even after February 1864, when the age limits were extended to seventeen and fifty and substitutes were prohibited. In March 1865 blacks finally were enrolled in Confederate ranks, but very few served.
Taxation, impressment, and conscription-these were the hallmarks of a tough administration. President Davis pursued centralization much as Abraham Lincoln did-laissez-faire policies could not win a modern war. The lessons learned in management, sacrifice, fortitude, and logistics would change the South permanently.
Supplying and moving the armed forces became the main work of many in the South, and new methods of procurement, storage, and distribution were developed. Railroads were essential to the mass movement of men and matériel, of ordnance and medicine, and of civilian refugees from occupied areas. Congress passed laws nationalizing rail lines, sequestering space on blockade runners, and controlling commerce. Industrial development had lagged in the antebellum South, and now Congress encouraged industrialization by siphoning manpower and money to companies producing war goods. A minor industrial miracle occurred in the Confederacy: a nation with minuscule manufacturing capacity acquired foundries, powder works, rolling mills, arsenals enough to sustain nearly a million troops and ships enough to scare American merchantmen. The chief of ordnance, Gen. Josiah Gorgas, a Pennsylvanian and genius of logistics, supplied Rebel munitions to the end.
Gorgas, an advocate of blockade running, oversaw the building of small, fast ships capable of eluding federal coastal patrols. Blockade running was a very successful venture: at least 600,000 rifles were imported, plus large quantities of cannon, saltpeter, lead, clothing, coffee, and medicines. Highly profitable, blockade running produced heroes, villains, and million- aires-and sustained the Rebels.
Davis’s foreign policy centered on gaining recognition by Great Britain and France. Napoleon III wanted a Confederate victory but hesitated to act without the British. Many Britons sympathized with the Confederates, but the working class supported Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Judah P. Benjamin, Confederate secretary of state, hoped that an embargo on ‘King Cotton’ would force help from textile- producing countries. But each time recognition was almost at hand, military reverses chilled prospects. The issue remained with the Rebel soldiers: when they won, independence came close; when they lost, nothing else mattered.
And they lost almost steadily after the first terrible week of July 1863. Defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg cost fifty thousand men and seventy thousand arms. After that week, long retreats began in the East through the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg; in the West from Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain/Missionary Ridge, Atlanta, to Franklin and Nashville, Tennessee, which led to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and Joseph E. Johnston’s at Durham Station, North Carolina.
Sustained for a while by Davis’s offensive-defensive strategy, Confederate armies were finally defeated by attrition, the country behind them exhausted and drained. The surprise is not that they lost but that they persisted for four arduous years.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.