Monthly Archives: June 2015

Civil War Bribery

For the first half of the Civil War President Jefferson Davis and many other Confederate leaders were hopeful that Britain and France would intervene on the side of the South. Great Britain had the world’s mightiest antebellum economy and about 20% was linked to cotton textile manufacturing, which obtain nearly 90% of its feedstock from the American South. The industry was similarly important to France, which was the second largest importer of Southern cotton. Moreover, both Britain and France resented the protective tariffs popular in the Northern states whereas the South favored free trade.

Nonetheless, Britain would require convincing reasons to diplomatically recognize the Confederacy because such action would likely provoke a war with the United States. Emperor Napoleon III of France felt the same way, although he was busily creating the required compelling reasons by preparing to install a puppet monarchy in Mexico. America’s Civil War provided him the opportunity to test Lincoln’s resolve to enforce the Monroe Doctrine while the president was pre-occupied with suppressing the Southern rebellion.


A French army landed in Mexico in January 1862 under the pretext of enforcing debt collections owed by the Liberal government under Benito Juarez. Napoleon’s real intention was to install a monarchy under the Austrian Archduke Maximilian whose throne would be protected by the French army. Mexico’s popular governments had repeatedly failed. Since gaining independence from Spain in 1821 she was governed by over fifty different administrations over the next forty years. Church clerics and conservatives concluded Mexico would do better under a monarchy.  Continue reading

The Dog Caught the Car

Did you ever want to ask a dog that habitually chased cars what she would do if she caught the bumper?

Did she just want to tear it off, or additionally chew up the tires and jump through a window to attack the people inside? The present situation regarding Confederate symbols is similar.

Dog Chase

When endorsing an opinion that the Confederate flag flying on South Carolina’s capitol grounds should be removed, one former New York senator said it should not fly anywhere. Presumably that includes the one over the mass Confederate burial trench at Shiloh. Perhaps she is also implying that that battlefield park souvenir shops, such as the one at Gettysburg, should discontinue selling Confederate memento flags and items containing its image due to the symbol’s presumed exclusive racist subtext.

If so, last November South Carolina voters proved that her interpretation fails to be universal. The state elected one of only two presently serving Black US Senators and elected a lady governor who – at the time – supported keeping the flag in Columbia. They chose to simultaneously honor the state’s Confederate heritage and reject race prejudice when selecting political leaders. In contrast, New York has never elected a Black senator or a female governor. Even though the overwhelming majority of Confederate public symbols are in the South, of the forty-four US cities with populations over 50,000 having Black mayors, twenty are in the former Confederacy. Thus, with 32% of the US population the former Confederate states have 45% of the entire nation’s Black mayors. Even when adjusting for a larger share of Blacks in the South there is still no discernible discrimination. The 46% of the country’s Blacks who reside in the former Confederate States is nearly identical to the 45% of the country’s mayors who serve there.

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False Expectations

Sometimes expectations are premeditated disappointments and other times the fearful ones are like the great many calamities Mark Twain suffered during his life, most of which never happened.

Mark Twain

In late June 1862 Washington brimmed with expectations that the Confederacy teetered on the brink of collapse. The first six months of the year provided a string of apparently unstoppable federal victories in the West. They began in January at Mill Springs in Kentucky and continued with the surrender of 14,000 Rebels at Fort Donelson in February, the ejection of Confederates from Missouri in March at Pea Ridge, and culminated with the repulse of the supreme Confederate counter-offensive at Shiloh in April. Even a Rebel offensive in remote New Mexico was turned back.

In May the South’s largest city, New Orleans, surrendered to a Union fleet that fought past the city’s downstream fortifications. When Memphis was occupied in early June only a single Rebel outpost at Vicksburg prevented Union commerce from flowing down the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri rivers to export markets through New Orleans.

Union prospects were also favorable in the East where Union Major General George McClellan commanded the largest army ever assembled in the Western hemisphere. His troops were so close to the Confederate capital, they could set their watches by Richmond’s church bells. He planned to smash the city’s defenses to rubble once he concentrated heavy siege guns at Old Tavern less than six miles from the town, which he would then take by assault. From the federal perspective, unless something unexpected happened, optimistic expectations seem justified because even the opposing commander, Robert E. Lee, wrote a subordinate, “unless McClellan can be driven out of his entrenchments he will move by positions under cover of his heavy guns within shelling distance of Richmond.”

But the unexpected did happen. In a nearly continuous period of fighting starting on June 26, Robert E. Lee’s smaller army relentlessly drove McClellan back twenty miles to a defensive redoubt on the James River under the protective guns of a Union naval flotilla. Lee’s “trick” was to concentrate superior numbers at the points of attack and to demoralize McClellan with persistent assaults. Once ensconced at the James River, Lincoln could not persuade McClellan to resume an offensive without the latter demanding sizeable, and unavailable, reinforcements.

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Defining Moments for Grant and Lee

What moments from the biographies of the famous, and infamous, define the person?

While it is unfair to conclude that a single episode reveals a person’s entire character, it is likely that some instances are insightful. Consider, for example, the behavior of Bruce Ismay and Charles Lightoller. Early in the twentieth century Ismay was president of the White Star steamship line. White Star owned the RMS Titanic, which Ismay accompanied on its fateful maiden voyage. Charles Lightoller was the ship’s Second Officer, placing him fourth in command behind the Captain, Chief Officer, and First Officer.

Lightoller was in charge of lowering the lifeboats on Titanic’s port side. Although Ismay had no official duties during the crisis, he was often near the boats on either side encouraging that they be promptly filled and lowered. Except for a small number of crewmembers to navigate the vessels, Lightoller only permitted women and children into his portside boats. Ismay was last seen on the starboard side where he took a seat on the final boat.

Twenty minutes before Titanic sank, Chief Officer Wilde ordered Lightoller into the boat he was then loading. Lightoller refused and was soon struggling in ice-cold water with hundreds of others where he found an overturned lifeboat. Along with twenty others he survived the night standing on the upside-down hull.

The Ismay-Lightoller comparison is revealing because each responded differently to the same incident, while the story’s inherent drama amplifies its tension. Grant and Lee shared no such occurrence. However, both had similar winning reactions to apparent defeats.


The better-known story is Grant’s reaction to his failures at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864. It was the first time Grant fought Lee’s Virginia army after compiling a victorious record for the Union in the Western Theater. It was fought over much of the same ground where Lee won his greatest victory a year earlier at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Yet from a casualties suffered-to-inflicted viewpoint, Grant did even worse than “Fighting Joe” Hooker who commanded the federal army at Chancellorsville. Grant’s losses at The Wilderness totaled about 18,000 whereas Lee’s were about 11,000. Conversely, at Chancellorsville, Hooker suffered losses of about 17,200 as compared to Lee’s 13,300. Continue reading

Missouri’s Civil War Significance

What if Missouri had joined the Confederacy?

Actually, most Civil War students realize that Missouri and Kentucky are represented in the thirteen stars of the Confederate Battle and National flags. Missouri’s star was added in October 1861 when a shadow government passed a secession ordinance in Neosho, in the state’s southwest corner. It was in exile during most of the war. A Rebel Kentucky government was similarly recognized by the Confederacy in December 1861. It even temporarily occupied the state capitol at Frankfurt in October 1862 during the Confederate offensive by Bragg and Kirby Smith.

Among the states represented by the 13-star flag, Missouri ranked second in population behind Virginia. Additionally, St. Louis barely trailed New Orleans as the Confederacy’s largest city.

Richmond’s war department assigned Missouri to the Trans-Mississippi District, which encompassed the vast region west of the Mississippi River. It included the populations of Louisiana’s parishes west of the river and the entire states of Arkansas and Texas. It also included the Indian Nations of present-day Oklahoma and the Arizona Territory, which encompassed the present states of New Mexico and Arizona.


Economically, Missouri dominated the Confederate Trans-Mississippi. The state’s white population was greater than the combined white numbers in the remaining regions of the district. In 1860 Missouri had about 20,000 factory workers whereas the entire Confederate Trans-Mississippi area, excluding Missouri, had but 15,000. Continue reading

Sample Chapter: Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies

Provided below is Chapter Three of my twelve-chapter book: Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies. Each chapter is devoted to a controversial Civil War topic that may well have been more consequential than generally supposed. The actual book is abundantly footnoted, but the footnotes have been excluded from this sample version.

Chapter Three

Preempting the Civil War 

The fateful chain reaction of cotton state secessions that preceded the Civil War might have been aborted in January 1861. Preemption may have been accomplished in a manner comparable to the way President Andrew Jackson avoided a similar rebellion against federal authority twenty-eight years earlier during the South Carolina tariff nullification crisis.

Along with most Southerners, South Carolina had long opposed protective tariffs. Although the Constitution authorized tariffs for revenue, as an exporting region the South felt that tariffs designed chiefly to protect domestic manufacturers were unconstitutional because they favored one section of the country over another. Tariffs became increasingly protective from 1816 through 1828. In January 1833, South Carolina “nullified” the most recent tariffs, prohibiting federal officials from collecting duties within its borders starting February 1, 1833. A successful nullification precedent raised the specter of regional secession because Southern congressmen voted 64–4 against the 1828 tariff. Despite habitual sympathy for states’ rights, President Jackson sought congressional authority to compel tariff compliance militarily. Through a combination of a show of force and support for a compromise tariff, Jackson brought the Palmetto State back into line, forestalling additional movement by the other states toward nullification or secession.


A comparatively obscure incident in early January 1861 might have provided a similar opportunity to halt the Civil War before it started. Contrary to popular belief, the first shots of the Civil War were not those forcing the federal garrison at Fort Sumter to surrender on April 13, 1861. While conscientious Civil War students realize that Charleston, South Carolina, witnessed cannon fire three months earlier, many may not appreciate that the January 9, 1861, episode was potentially far more consequential than generally supposed. Continue reading