So now we come down to the why of the Confederacy’s failure.
- The Confederate States of America couldn’t define its borders or its members
- The Confederacy’s central government didn’t represent–truly–the majority of the populous of states that it could encompass and thus could not count on the support of its people.
- The seceded states declared their support for the institution of slavery, but few in the states actually owned them.
- The Confederacy really, really could not defend itself or its sovereignty.
- The President of the Confederacy failed to lead his country in realistic economic, diplomatic, or military directions.
Defining Confederates and the Confederacy
While the seceded states were easy to encompass, the outlying slave-holding states were enigmatic and mocking. While Delaware was never disputed (in Delaware) because there were so few slaves there and minimal secessionist sentiment, Maryland and Missouri were thought of as merely intransigent. Secession ordinances failed in Maryland in early 1861 because the legislators didn’t feel they had the power to approve them. Before a second session could convene, Union soldiers arrested pro-secession legislators. Under US military occupation early on, Missouri had two legislatures by the end of 1861, and both sent representatives to both Washington AND Richmond.
Kentucky declared neutrality in May 1861, then voted for a Unionist legislature in June. All the while, both Unionist and secessionist factions were raising troops in the Bluegrass State. That said Union Kentucky troops outnumbered their Confederate brethren by 10:1. Kentucky’s flimsy neutrality was violated when the Confederacy invaded the state in September 1861. A shadow legislature was formed, and representatives sent to Richmond. Kentucky was admitted to the Confederacy in October. After the Confederate army abandoned the state in the spring of 1862, it no longer mattered that the elected government had never voted on secession.
Then there were those other places. The Confederacy claimed the Arizona/New Mexico territory. There was a secession convention in March 1861 that voted to separate the region south of the 38th parallel, elected a president, and authorized militias. Richmond hailed the move and admitted Southern/Confederate Arizona. Beset by Federal troops and California volunteers, the secession legislature fled the state in the summer of 1862, though there was minor resistance until 1865. Modern Oklahoma, then called Indian Territory, wasn’t coherent enough to secede and suffered through its own civil war, where native Americans fought each other with the Union and the Confederacy’s assistance.
A handful of pro-slavery Oregonians raise a secession flag in Jacksonville, OR, but were persuaded to haul it down by their neighbors. An 1865 incident called the Long Tom Rebellion in Eugene after Lincoln’s death resulted in the arrest of a pro-slavery blowhard and a few bruises. In California, secessionist sentiment was somewhat more robust in certain areas, but no secession ordinances were considered, and no shadow governments were formed in California. Some California secessionists journeyed east and fought with the Confederacy; more went to Confederate Arizona. About 60,000 Californians fought for the Union; perhaps 5,000 for the Confederacy.
Aside from these outliers, the Richmond government had trouble with parts of the states that had seceded. Texas was never quite a united front; unquestionably not as united as, say, Mississippi. East Tennessee was notoriously rebellious, and there was even talk of a West-Virginia-like secession. Though the third state to secede, Florida was always an enigma because 3/4ths of the state was uninhabited. The important bases in Key West, Fort Jefferson, and Fort Pickens were vital to the Federal blockade of the Confederacy, yet the Confederacy never had the resources to capture them. Only one of Florida’s major ports, Pensacola, was served by rail, and Fort Pickens effectively neutralized it.
The Confederacy had two conflicts on its hands: one with the Union and one with some of its more recalcitrant constituents. It should be remembered that the only state that did not send units to the Union Army was South Carolina. Simultaneously, the number of non-seceded states that sent troops to the Confederacy was just three: Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri; four, if we count Confederate Arizona.
There’s an expression in critical thinking: All poodles are dogs, but not all dogs are poodles. The states and parts of states may have seceded before Bull Run, but not everyone in those states were committed Confederates. This lack of commitment was reflected in the growing number of desertions after 1863.
A Government Not Of The PeopleThe government that met first at Montgomery, Alabama, and finally at Richmond, Virginia, was an anomaly. Many men in the government had been members of the US Congress; others had been cabinet secretaries. Nearly all were men of means, and almost all were slave-owners. And therein lay at least part of another cause of the Confederacy’s failure: slave-owners were not a majority of the southern population.
Slavery wasn’t as simple as owning human beings and trading them like baseball players. Slavery was an attitude, a way of thinking, and a way of life. Within its grasp were the southern states’ entire political economy–indeed, the Cotton Kingdom around the Gulf of Mexico rose and fell on the practices. Because cotton cultivation defied mechanization until the 1960s, the primary cash crop of at least half the Confederate states depended on human labor for planting and harvesting. This fact might have been a tremendous boon for people who could perform these back-breaking tasks, but because slaves could do it at a lower cost, it only made their situation worse. The planters who owned the land had a tradition of treating people who were not like them poorly. And it didn’t matter if those people were black, white, red, brown, yellow, or pink-polka-dot. If you were not a landed Southern aristocrat, you were a second-class citizen or less. And it was these men–less than 5% of the population–who claimed to represent the Confederacy in Richmond.
The big planters weren’t the only slave-owners. About one in four southern landowners owned at least one slave, but a majority owned fewer than five; indeed, most one or two. The rest worked their own land by themselves. It wasn’t that they didn’t agree with slave-owning, just that they either couldn’t afford it or didn’t feel the need. Many weren’t above hiring one or two from a neighbor for planting or harvesting. That said, many southerners agreed with the social system that kept non-whites from having the same rights that they did.
But many were not all, and some estimates have as many as 15% of those living in Confederate states who did not agree with the social and legal stratification that their neighbors did…and many of them had money that the Confederacy needed. What was worse, as the war went on, what little support there had been in 1861 steadily eroded until, by late 1864, the trickle of army desertions, state defections, and domestic supporters of the Confederacy became an unstoppable torrent.
The Problem of Slavery After Emancipation
When Lincoln announced the Emancipation, he did it as a weapon and an administrative tool, not a humanitarian gesture. He only “freed” the slaves everywhere that Federal troops did not control, thus legally and theoretically taking them out of the control of their masters. Sounds great, but in fact, it was impractical because, well, the slave-owners were under no compulsion to pay attention, and most slaves knew nothing of it until Federal troops arrived. And that was the Confederacy’s problem.
Before the Emancipation, slaves who came into Federal lines or escaped to free territory had an ambiguous status. Some commanders allowed them to remain behind Federal lines; others felt compelled to return them. Indeed, slave-owners and their employees sometimes entered Federal lines to retrieve their charges. Just as often–because not all Federal officers believed the war was over slavery–they were allowed to pass through the lines again with the slaves. There was no clear policy. Which was one reason why Lincoln did what he did.
The other reason was to deprive the Confederacy of its cheap manpower, and that reason was, to be frank, problematic. If the slave-owners just ignored it, and the slaves never heard of it, what good did it do? For that, we fall back on the first reason: it required all Federal commanders to let the former slaves remain free. That meant that the cheap labor pool often dried up wherever Federal troops went, whether they stayed or not. The power of the Washington government that the Confederacy defied was such that the Confederate States could not prevent the Emancipation from being enforced on what had been their territory. The longer the war lasted, the fewer slaves they could keep.
The Shield That Didn’t
While this study isn’t about why the Confederacy lost on the battlefield, it is an essential factor behind the Confederate States’ failure. For centuries, scholars and statesmen had been struggling to define “sovereignty” in absolute legal terms. By the 19th century, the theory was called Westphalian sovereignty, named for the treaty that ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. Loosely, it is the concept of nation-state sovereignty based on territoriality and the absence of external agents in domestic structures. In other words, no foreign power inside the defined borders of a sovereign state could interfere with the functions of either the established government or society.
Then it gets complicated. Buried in the Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law in 1858 was a definition for blockade that replaced ancient unwritten law. In 1861, Lincoln declared the “rebellious states” to be under blockade. What that did legally, among other things, provided a tacit admission to some that the Confederacy was legitimate. However, the 1826 Brazilian blockade of the Rio de la Plata during their war with Argentina was recognized by Britain but not by the US or France, so “legitimacy” was somewhat moot. Indeed, vessels of foreign registry that tried to run the blockade of the Confederacy stopped by the US Navy might have protested the violation of their sovereignty…but they usually didn’t. Even the famous Trent incident might have passed unnoticed if the two Confederate agents/diplomats hadn’t been removed. The fact that the Confederacy couldn’t protect its communications with the outside world affected her sovereignty because she could not trade as a state if she couldn’t assure that cargoes in or out would be safe.
As for land communications, that is a different matter. The borders were porous; the Confederacy could not control even the trade on the Ohio River. Other than few fixed forts in Kentucky, defending the long and ambiguous borders would always be done inside the Confederacy. And what did the Confederacy have to protect those long frontiers with? A collection of state-based units that, for all their zeal, were undermanned and poorly equipped. By some measures, fully 25% of the military manpower was exempt for reasons ranging from being overseers of more than 25 slaves to being members of the national, state, or local government or of local or state militias. While many of the militias did indeed fight when the war came to them, they were rarely used for anything more than rear-guards, for they were rarely good enough for more. By then, it was too late to save an already failed state.
Jefferson Davis: Poor Leader
Jefferson Davis believed in states’ rights to determine whether or not they could maintain slavery as an institution, and he accepted the presidency based on that belief. However, it is not clear that he believed that the CSA could have achieved lasting and meaningful political and economic independence from the United States. From the pie-eyed optimism of the cotton embargo early in the war to his oft-stated belief that any territory “lost” to the Union was “lost” forever to slavery, Davis was many things, but a true believer in the success of his country, he was not.
When the Union blockade was the weakest, the attempts at cotton diplomacy perhaps had the best intentions but the worst of effects. While cotton was short in Europe, Britain and France were more dependent on the Union’s wheat and corn shipments than on the Confederacy’s cotton. Southern belief in King Cotton drove the illusion that Europe would come to their rescue and drove many economic and diplomatic efforts. Even as late as 1863, the Confederacy expected diplomatic recognition any day now…real soon….yep, next month for certain….
Davis, who had been a Secretary of War and a member of the US Congress for years, should have recognized the British-French diplomatic stalling when he saw it, and counseled away from it…but he didn’t. Nor could he back away from defending the seceded states’ long and distant frontiers, believing that every foot of territory held by slave-believing power would be held forever, and every foot lost to the abolitionists would be lost forever. This belief contributed significantly to the defense of untenable positions in Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, and the border states. To read some of his writings, it was as if Lincoln and the Republicans had never uttered a word before Ft. Sumter, and he was consistently surprised to learn that they meant what they said.
The next step is to Compare and Contrast these factors to see which were the most damaging. Given the above…hard to tell, but we’ll work on it.
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