Monthly Archives: June 2017

The Biggest Confederate Error

(June 29, 2017) The following essay on “The Biggest Confederate Error” of the Civil War is basically the first chapter of my two year old book, Lee’s Lost Dispatch & Other Civil War Controversies. This online version lacks only the footnotes. The entire book is available in the preceding hyperlink and in the link embedded in the book cover image below.


Chapter One

The Confederacy’s Biggest Error

While imprisoned two years at Fort Monroe, Virginia, after the end of the Civil War, former Confederate President Jefferson Davis admitted that the Confederacy should have replaced King Cotton (embargo) Diplomacy for a nearly opposite policy. Failure to do so was perhaps the Confederacy’s biggest error.

For months Davis was held in virtual isolation except for the occasional company of a US Army physician. Lieutenant Colonel John Craven, MD, kept a record of their conversations, summarizing many in various writings, including the 1866 book Prison Life of Jefferson Davis. Although King Cotton Diplomacy sought to restrict cotton exports as a means of motivating diplomatic recognition for the Confederacy from European nations, Craven reports that Davis realized it would have been better to export as much cotton as possible at the start of the war so that the staple could be safely warehoused overseas and sold as needed for foreign exchange. Historian Burton Hendrick states, “With the metal [specie] obtained from [cotton sales] deposited in London and Paris banks, the Confederacy would construct a stronger financial foundation than that of the Federal Government. Mr. Davis would quickly become a richer President than Mr. Lincoln.”

Hendrick summarizes Craven’s notes and recollections with Davis on the matter:

“South Carolina placed Mr. Memminger in the Treasury,” Craven quotes [Davis] as saying, “and while [I respect] the man, the utter failure of Confederate finance was the failure of the cause. Had Mr. Memminger acted favorably on the proposition of depositing . . . cotton in Europe and holding it there for two years as a basis for [our] currency, [it] might have maintained itself at par until the . . . [end]; and that in itself would have insured victory.”

More than three million bales of cotton rested unused in the South at the time of secession; if these had been rushed to Europe before the blockade . . . [was effective], said . . . [Davis,] they would have ultimately brought in a billion dollars in gold. “Such a sum,” Craven quotes Davis as saying, “would have more than sufficed for all the needs of the Confederacy during the war.”

King Cotton

Although ultimately flawed, King Cotton Diplomacy appeared to be logically sound at the start of the war. Great Britain was the world’s leading economy, and cotton textile manufacturing was the country’s largest industry. Nearly a quarter of its people were economically dependent upon the sector. In 1860, nearly 90 percent of Britain’s cotton imports came from the United States, all of which was grown in the South. According to historian Frank Owsley, “all [British leaders] believed alike . . . that the cutting-off of cotton supply in the South would destroy England’s chief industry . . . and bring ruin and revolution on the land.” Faced with revolution at home, it was logical to conclude that few British and French leaders could resist recognizing the Confederacy in an effort to obtain more cotton. French leaders were particularly sensitive to such concerns since the country counted among its citizens some who were old enough to remember the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution.

However, the strategy failed for two reasons.

First, the European economies were buoyed by demands in America for armaments to fight the Civil War. That the South was dependent upon overseas sources for most of its weapons is widely appreciated. However, even the North relied upon imports to a considerable extent. For example, until autumn 1862, over half of the shoulder arms used by Union soldiers were European imports. Consequently, the decline of the cotton textile sector in Europe that was induced by the shortage of raw materials was more than favorably offset by growing demand for arms exports.

Second, about a year after the war started, the Confederacy realized it was necessary to sell cotton in order to purchase the supplies required to continue fighting. Thus, the European cotton shortage peaked early in 1863, steadily improving thereafter.

Judah’s Wisdom

On March 4, 1861, the same day President Abraham Lincoln made his first inaugural address, President Davis held his first cabinet meeting. During the session, Confederate Attorney General Judah Benjamin stated that if war came, he was convinced it was going to be a long and bloody one. Therefore, he recommended that large quantities of cotton immediately be shipped to Europe, where the government could sell it for specie. Any unsold bales could be inventoried and sold as needed in the future to raise hard currency. Secretary of State Robert Toombs and Vice President Alexander Stephens supported the suggestion. Although Davis agreed that any resultant war was likely to be long and bloody, Treasury Secretary Christopher Memminger ridiculed Benjamin’s idea. It was contrary to prevailing King Cotton dogma. Moreover, he did not believe the central government had the constitutional authority to become a cotton trader.

According to Owsley, about four million cotton bales were available in the South in 1861, and at least half could have been exported because the federal blockade was practically nonexistent during the first year of the war. By comparison, the European textile mills required about 3.8 million bales of cotton feedstock annually, with Great Britain alone needing about 2.6 million bales. Thus, if the Confederacy were able to ship two million bales to Europe and sell an average of five hundred thousand bales yearly, that would have satiated less than 15 percent of the normal annual (1860) demand.

It is not likely that such a meager increase in the actual wartime supply could have prevented a significant rise in cotton prices. Thus, the Confederates should have realized a disproportionately large amount of proceeds from limited tonnage sales. As historically recorded, cotton prices during the war averaged over seventy cents per pound in the commercial markets. If Benjamin’s proposal had caused them to average a somewhat lower sixty cents per pound, Owsley’s estimate of two million 500-pound bales would be valued at about $600 million in specie. Since US greenbacks traded as low as forty cents per dollar of specie, the $600 million specie value of Confederate cotton would have been as much as $1.5 billion.

Judah Benjamin

Interestingly, if Benjamin’s suggestion had been attempted, it’s likely that the politically powerful cotton growers would have welcomed it because Southern farmers needed credit as early as autumn 1861. They had massive inventories that King Cotton Diplomacy encouraged them to embargo out of patriotism. Although officially voluntary, the embargo was airtight. For example, during the prewar four-month period from September 1, 1860, to January 31, 1861, the top five Southern ports received 1.5 million cotton bales from the hinterlands. In the corresponding period a year later, they received less than ten thousand bales, a decline of over 99 percent. Ultimately, much of the cotton would be wastefully burned to keep it out of Union hands when the Yankee army increasingly occupied Confederate territory as the war progressed.

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Does Dr. Todd Groce Libel President Carter?

(June 28, 2017) In a Civil War book of essays to be released in September the Executive Director of the Georgia Historical Society (GHS), Dr. Todd Groce, may be libeling former President Jimmy Carter. Specifically, he claims that President Carter asked the GHS to either correct, or move, the March to the Sea historical marker that Groce placed on the grounds of the Carter Center (pictured below) unless it was corrected “to reflect a more traditional Lost Cause interpretation.”

Since I was involved in the incident I suspect that Groce’s explanation for Carter’s request is phony. Instead I believe the President wanted to change the marker’s text in order to correct a false implication. Specifically, the phrase “After destroying Atlanta’s industrial and business (but not residential) districts” erroneously suggests that Sherman’s army did not burn residential structures in Atlanta during the evacuation preceding the March to the Sea.

The Groce-Carter episode traces its roots to November 14, 2014 when the New York Times Disunion blog published my “Who burned Atlanta?” article which provided several examples of burning in the residential districts shortly before the March to the Sea. When I read an article a few days later about the marker dedication, I wrote Groce a postal letter explaining his error and asking that he correct it. I also suggested the he refer to fellow-Georgian Steve Davis’s then newly minted What the Yankees Did to Us, which may be the most authoritative book on Atlanta’s burning.

Since Groce never responded, I wrote the GHS Board Chairman. He also never replied. Finally, I wrote President Carter, who didn’t know me from Charlie Chan. To my delightful surprise, he replied “I agree with you” and asked for Groce’s contact information.

A description of that entire incident is in the February 2017 issue of Civil War NewsA shorter version is available here. A still smaller synopsis is in President Carter’s Victory

Groce’s remarks in the forthcoming September book appear to be misleading, if not downright false, in at least two ways. First, if President Carter relied upon my letters, his objections were about the residential burnings in Atlanta and not the March to the Sea. Second, Groce’s use of the term “Lost Cause” is objectionable because among academics it has evolved into code phrase for a school of “fake history” that is held partly responsible for perpetuating racism. Due to President Carter’s persistent civil rights advocacy, Dr. Groce’s attempt to link him with a putative racist label is shameful.

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Why modern historians ignored the passing of Ludwell Johnson

(June 26, 2017) Earlier this month the foremost authority on intersectional trade during the Civil War, Ludwell Johnson, passed away. Although his work is cited in nearly all studies of such inter-belligerent trade, I am unable to find any remarks among prominent historians commenting upon his death. His passing shamefully goes unnoticed within the academy  because he was among the first to challenge the presently dominant “Southerners were devils” interpretation of the war.

Johnson’s works and and bibliographies provided many of the sources I used in researching my own book, Trading With the Enemy. Although modern historians may consider him a pariah for opposing political correctness, they will also likely rely upon his works and bibliographies for years to come. His Red River Campaign, which was written during the 1950s, is still in print.

Twenty-three years before he died, Johnson wrote the article below for Southern Historian, in which he objected to political correctness. As he presciently summarized:

All this [political correctness] is unnervingly reminiscent of official histories in totalitarian countries, and indeed of George Orwell’s 1984, wherein an axiom of the rulers stated that “who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” By distortion, invention, and excision, the past is to be changed at the behest of the present in order to shape the future.


The past—what we believe happened and what we think it means—can be a very slippery customer. Even the recent past can be elusive. In the early 1950s, when I [Ludwell Johnson] was a student at Johns Hopkins, C. Vann Woodward gave an amusing but provocative talk called “Can We Believe Our History?” He pointed out that what we think we know was true can very suddenly seem to have been not true after all. For example, he reminded us that during the Second World War, then just a few years in the past, Americans knew that the Japanese were Oriental monsters of unspeakable brutality, whereas the Chinese were our little brown brothers. Yet very quickly all that changed. In the wake of the Communists’ victory in China and Chinese intervention in the Korean War, the Chinese became Oriental monsters of unspeakable brutality and the Japanese were now our little brown brothers.

The same thing happened in Europe. During the war against Hitler, the United States Office of War Information described the Soviet Union as our gallant ally and one of the “freedom loving democracies,” whereas Germany was a loathsome tyranny and deadly enemy. Then came the Cold War right on the heels of the hot war, and suddenly the Soviets were a loathesome tyranny and deadly enemy, whereas West Germany, our recent enemy, became our first line of defense against our recent ally, the Soviet Union.

All this is confusing enough, this chameleon-like quality of other nations, but adding to our confusion as the years passed was a growing uncertainty about what kind of nation we were. The Cold War had allowed us to reaffirm our long-standing belief that, as Jefferson and Lincoln had said, we were the last best hope of earth, now become the righteous defenders of the free world against aggressive monolithic Communism. But then came the Vietnam War, riots in our cities, surging violence and crime, the drug epidemic, Watergate, and so forth, until it was a little harder to see ourselves as a unique repository of human virtue. Briefly, of course, Ronald Reagan led us back into dreamland, standing on the bridge of resurrected Second World War battleships and telling us we were still the righteous guardians of mankind this time against the Evil Empire.

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Best of the Blogs (6-23-2017)

  1. (June 23, 2017) Over at Grant Under Fire, Joe Rose draws attention to one of the most original Civil War historians of a bygone era, Otto Eisenschiml, who first established an excellent reputation as an industrial chemist before becoming engrossed in Civil War historiography. While Eisenschiml is thought provoking, Rose cautions that “Eisenschiml’s conclusions may be very wrong, at times, [but] his attempt to look at the evidence in a scientific way seems to me to be the only way to go.”
  2. cites Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward, trying to convince the new president that the only possible result from reinforcing Fort Sumter would mean “…that we have inaugurated a civil war by our own act, without adequate object…

Tampa’s Confederate Soldier Statue

(June 21, 2107) Like many Southern towns, Tampa contemplates removing its solitary  Confederate statue. As a tangible historical representation of the popular sentiment in the area when it was erected in 1911, however,  it should remain. Later memorials can similarly show—tangibly—how sentiments changed.

Few present critics realize Florida’s extraordinary commitment to the Confederacy. It was the only state that provided more soldiers than were registered to vote at the start of the Civil War. There can be no wonder that the surviving family members wanted to honor the loved and lost. It would have been unnatural if they had not. Modern critics also fail to realize that the survivors endured forty-five years of post Civil War poverty before they were even able to save enough money to afford a statue, despite the fact that Northern statues permeated the battlefield parks, beginning decades earlier.

Instead of removing the 1911 monument it is better to authorize new memorials honoring later historical figures that championed reformations reflecting the attitudes of their own times. One Tampa example is the renaming of fourteen-mile long Buffalo Avenue for Martin Luther King.

In fact, Florida seems to have done more to memorialize King than have many Northern states. Our state has 19 MLK streets distributed among its cities whereas Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island have none, while Iowa and Minnesota have one, Connecticut two, Massachusetts two, and Pennsylvania three.

Moreover, all the former Confederate states generally have far more streets honoring King than similarly sized Northern states. North Carolina and New Jersey, for example, have comparable populations but the Southern state has twenty-nine MLK streets whereas the Northern one has only eight. Similarly, even though Ohio has four times the population of Mississippi, the Buckeye State has only eight MLK streets whereas the state with the Confederate banner in its flag has sixteen.

When using MLK street memorials as a yardstick it seems that the Northern states are the ones with a racial sensitivity deficit.

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The Kingdom and the Power

(June 19, 2017) In 1966 Gay Talese wrote a history of The New York Times spanning the preceding seventy years or so. Since the newspaper’s influence had never been greater, Talese titled his book The Kingdom and the Power. During the 1960s the newspaper gave voice to minority opinions such as civil rights and feminism that eventually transformed our society.

Turner Catledge and Clifton Daniel were the two Managing Editors during that influential decade. Neither had graduated from New York’s Columbia University Journalism School, which was the standard entry ticket into The Times. Neither had even attended an Ivy League school and instead graduated from state universities in Mississippi and North Carolina. Despite coming-of-age in small Southern towns during the Jim Crow era, both men were open-minded enough to encourage minority viewpoints.

Presently, however, The Times, and other venerable journalistic organizations, such as The Atlantic and The Washington Post, are intolerant of minority opinions, at least in terms of Confederate heritage. In combination the three publications have released dozens of articles and editorials applauding and advocating the removal and restriction of Confederate monuments, no matter how long they have stood untouched. The trio generally insist that Confederate symbols can have only a racist meaning. With perhaps a single exception, they have refused to publish any articles giving voice to a different opinion.

It is a stretch requiring a bungee cord to believe that they have not received a number of worthy article submissions with viewpoints different than their own. Instead, it appears that they are, unlike Catledge and Daniel, censoring minority opinion. One result is that well crafted opposing essays, like “New Orleans is not New Orleans Anymore” are limited to online magazines…and there are darn few of those as well.

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