Trading With the Enemy: The Covert Economy During the American Civil War. By Philip Leigh. Illustrated, photos, maps, 182 pp., 2014, Westholme Publishing, http://www.westholmepublishing.com, $26.
This book is part history and part exposé. One of the significant but overlooked aspects of the Civil War is that there was divided loyalty throughout both the North and the South.
A number of individuals put their fiscal well-being before duty to their country. This attitude was shared by civilian and military individuals.
Readers will wonder how much earlier in the war the Confederate ports would have been closed by the Union Navy if not for its officers becoming rich through prize money. If all the Confederate ports had been closed to commercial shipping by use of the technology available, the Navy hierarchy could not have enriched itself by capturing blockade runners.
The Red River Campaign is another example of military leaders seeking private wealth instead of closing with the enemy. As Gen. Nathaniel Banks advanced up the Red River, Union navy and army officers lost their focus. Instead of seeking to defeat the Confederates, they concentrated on seizing cotton
Philip Leigh begins his book with an account of cotton’s economic role in the Northern industrial base, the Southern agricultural economy, and the Federal government’s ability to generate money through taxes.
The cotton dependency of these three entities did not end with the war’s beginning. Both sides’ governments soon realized that the cotton trade between the two nations needed to continue in order to satisfy their peoples’ needs.
Leigh argues that this accommodation between the two governments led to widespread corruption that resulted in the enrichment of a few.
He notes that Abraham Lincoln saw this “internal” cotton trade as a means to demonstrate to Confederates that it was in their own interest to rejoin the Union. Lincoln tried to enforce, with some success, the requirement that cotton purchasers have a Federal license paid for in “greenbacks.”
This wartime cotton trade, the author explains, was a two-edged sword. The North got cotton to keep its and some British textile factories working while the South got money to purchase war material in Europe and the North.
These cotton sales allowed the North to quiet labor unrest. They also caused disenchantment among Southern plantation owners as they witnessed their cotton being confiscated by Confederate agents and resold at a high price to supposedly hated Federal officers — with none of the resulting profits accruing to the grower.
In turn, the Confederacy’s in-kind cotton tax program led many planters to illegally sell their cotton directly to the enemy in order to gain some compensation for their investments. Bribes accompanied many of these transactions. Thus, wartime sales between the North and South corrupted both Union and Confederate officials, officers and citizens.
This is a well-written book that presents a thoughtful and readable study of often overlooked but fascinating aspects of the Civil War: trade, taxes and economic warfare.
Since Leigh concentrates on the cotton trade, he does not present a comprehensive picture of the economic battle fought between the two regions.
He does note that the gross national product of the United States grew from $4.3 billion in 1860 to $9.9 billion in 1865, with all this growth being in the North. I think he is correct in his conclusion that the Civil War would have been much shorter if the cotton trade had been suppressed and trading with the Confederacy made a crime.
This book is an interesting journey through the politics of King Cotton during the Civil War. It is well worth reading.
Charles H. Bogart
Charles H. Bogart has a B.A. in history from Thomas More College and an MA in urban planning from Ohio State University. He is the historian for Frankfort, Kentucky’s Fort Boone Civil War Battle Site.
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