Provided below is a free copy of the Introduction for my book, Trading With the Enemy, which is about intersectional commerce between the North and South during the Civil War. Abundant footnotes are provided in the book, but not in this free sample.
The ways of the dollar are always devious. — Walter Tevis, The Hustler
On June 7, 1863, the Confederate commerce raider Clarence forced the US flagged Alfred H. Partridge to stop off the North Carolina coast. The raider anticipated the Partridge would be the second of an eventual string of twenty-one prizes. Normally, seized merchant ships were burned or used to transport previously captured crews to a safe harbor. But upon boarding the schooner, the Rebels discovered it was bound for Matamoras, Mexico, out of New York with a cargo of arms and clothing for Texas Confederates. Consequently, the Partridge was set free.
Since Matamoras was a neutral Mexican port, federal warships could not blockade it. Before the Civil War, only about one ship annually cleared New York for the Mexican town. However, a year after the war’s first important battle at Bull Run, the average was about one per week. Ships to Matamoras were also cleared from Boston, Philadelphia, and other Northern harbors. Cargoes included a multitude of Northern-made items that would have been considered contraband if shipped directly into the Confederacy. They encompassed weapons, munitions, and military uniforms, among other articles. For Northerners willing to help arm the Confederacy for a profit, Matamoras was little more than a legal fig leaf to cover dubious, if not treasonable, conduct.
In exchange, Southern planters provided cotton from fields as far away as Arkansas, Louisiana, and east Texas. They typically loaded wagons with twenty cotton bales and set out in caravans over crude trails ending in Brownsville, Texas, across the shallow Rio Grande River from Matamoras. En route teamsters were vulnerable to unpredictable water shortages and attack from hostile Native Americans, and outlaws of all types. Next to specie (gold and silver coins), cotton was the most acceptable international exchange medium available to North Americans, whether in the Union or Confederacy. Adroit, clever, and sometimes ruthless contraband-for-cotton traders accumulated fortunes in Matamoras and Brownsville.
One example was Connecticut-born Charles Stillman, who sold Rebel cotton out of Matamoras to buyers in Northern states, including the US government. His chief cotton supplier was a putative Confederate-loyal Texan who changed sides after federal troops temporarily occupied Brownsville in November 1863. In order to prevent interference from the newly arrived Yankee soldiers, he swore an oath of loyalty to the Union.
After the war, Stillman was one of the wealthiest Americans and a major shareholder in New York’s National City Bank. His son, a grandson, and a great-grandson each served as National City’s board chairman, the great-grandson as late as 1967. Presently, the bank is known as Citicorp. Two of Charles Stillman’s granddaughters married into the Rockefeller family.
Despite its legal circumvention advantage, Matamoras was a comparatively minor part of Civil War interbelligerent trade. More often, the exchange was directly across enemy lines. The practice became important about a year after the opening shots at Fort Sumter, in spring 1862, as the cotton-trading centers at New Orleans and Memphis were captured.
When Union Major General Benjamin Butler arrived in New Orleans with fifteen thousand occupation soldiers in May 1862, his net worth was about $150,000, but six years later it was $3 million. Although the lawyer-general was too shrewd to incriminate himself, there is little doubt the gain was primary achieved by trade with the enemy.
By summer 1862, Union Major General William T. Sherman at Memphis complained that Northern traders were buying Southern cotton for gold, which he believed the Rebels next used to buy weapons at Nassau in the Bahamas and even in Cincinnati. In an August 1862 letter to his brother US Senator John Sherman of Ohio, General Sherman wrote, “Cincinnati furnishes more contraband goods than [leading blockade-running port] Charleston, and has done more to prolong the war than the state of South Carolina.” A few months later, Major General Ulysses Grant captured Confederate cavalry in northern Mississippi armed with modern carbines evidently purchased at occupied Memphis.
Ladies were not excluded from such trade and were sometimes especially effective. They were generally held less accountable for violations, and soldiers were hesitant to physically search them. For example, while Union Captain Julius Ochs was assigned to a unit guarding the St. Louis-to-Cincinnati railroad, his wife was caught trying to smuggle quinine in a baby carriage across an Ohio River bridge to Rebels in Kentucky. Somehow Captain Ochs got the charges dropped, but his wife’s dedication to the South persisted. After the war, she joined the United Daughters of the Confederacy while her husband became a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans organization. Their eldest son, Adolph, became a Chattanooga, Tennessee, newspaperman. Shortly before the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, Adolph bought a failing New York newspaper, added the words “All the News That’s Fit to Print” to its masthead, and launched the New York Times toward national prominence. Continue reading