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Biggest Confederate Error

(August 10, 2018). The post below is a copy of Chapter One of my book Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies. The book contains an additional ten chapters including one that describes the biggest Union error. (Footnotes are available in the book but not the post below.)

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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 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 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.”

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. Over a fifth of her 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.

But, 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.

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. He also 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 supplied less than 15 percent of the normal annual (1860) demand.

It unlikely 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 ton drops to an average 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 thirty-seven cents per dollar of specie, the $600 million specie value of Confederate cotton abroad would have been as much as $1.5 billion in US currency.

Moreover, it’s likely that the politically powerful large cotton growers would have welcomed Benjamin’s suggestion because Southern farmers needed credit as early as autumn 1861. Due to the King Cotton Diplomacy embargo, they had massive inventories that they could not convert to cash. Although officially voluntary, the embargo was airtight. For example, during the prewar five-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. Additionally, much 99 percent would be wastefully burned to keep it out of Union hands when the Yankee army increasingly occupied Confederate territory as the war progressed.

Instead of burning cotton, the growers would have gladly preferred to sell it to the Confederate government, thereby obtaining the financial resources to continue operating at more-nearly normal capacities. Such a scheme was considered in autumn 1861. The plan called on the government to purchase cotton with newly issued Confederate bonds or notes. Such action would relieve planters from the burdens of unsold inventory and provide the government with a fungible asset that could be shipped to Europe and sold for foreign exchange credits as needed.

The federal blockade was largely ineffective during this period. Contrary to popular belief, fast blockade runners of special designs, including low silhouettes, were unnecessary until the second year of the war. During fall and winter 1861–1862, ordinary deep-water vessels could easily enter most Southern ports without a significant risk of being stopped by blockading patrols. Author Hendrick explains:

The disappearance of English vessels from the South in the fall and winter of 1861–1862 is . . . easily explained. They were not scared away by the federal blockade. . . . Foreign carries abandoned southern ports for the best of commercial reasons—there were no cargoes to be obtained. Blockade running in 1862 and afterward became one of the most profitable industries. . . . It would have been similarly profitable in [1861], and vessels would have swarmed into southern ports, had not . . . [the embargo] been concentrated on preventing exports.

President Davis was not the only Confederate leader to eventually realize that cotton was a badly misused asset. Vice President Alexander Stephens realized it sooner. In a November 1862 speech in Crawfordville, Georgia, he summarized his earlier opposition to King Cotton Diplomacy in favor of his own Rube Goldberg variation of a plan to get cotton to Europe, where it could be sold for specie.

He proposed that the government issue cotton growers fifty dollars in new bonds paying interest at 8 percent annually for each five-hundred-pound cotton bale. He calculated that such a plan could have acquired four million bales at a cost of $200 million. The cotton was to be pledged to European shipbuilders who would agree to provide deep-water ironclad ships at a cost of $2 million each. He reasoned that perhaps five ships would have been delivered by January 1862 to convoy the cotton to Europe, with additional ironclads arriving regularly thereafter. Even if his plan was started belatedly in November 1862, he envisioned that the warships thus acquired could wreck the federal blockade.

While his dream seems unrealistic, in fairness to Stephens it should be noted that Great Britain and France built their first deep-water ironclads shortly before the American Civil War began. Furthermore, during an October 1862 audience with Napoleon III, the Confederate minister to Paris urged the Emperor to dispose of Lincoln’s blockading fleet with French deep-water ironclads, GloireCouronne, and Normandie. The emperor replied that he would rather see the Confederacy build its own navy and that the Rebels ought to have some ships like the three mentioned. He agreed that a few such ships could destroy Union commerce and open the Southern ports. Essentially, he was implying that the Confederacy should place orders for new deep-water ironclads with French shipbuilders. However, Napoleon also wanted to avoid war with the United States. Therefore, if such orders were placed, they should specify that the buyer was a neutral country like Italy. Eventually Napoleon declined to let the Confederacy act upon his own suggestion, but there was at least a straw of validity for Stephens to grasp at, at the time.

Less whimsically, Stephens told his Crawfordville audience that the South should continue growing cotton, although it was also important to plant crops that could yield provender for the army as well as civilians. He correctly perceived that certain British interests would benefit if the South stopped growing cotton. Specifically, cotton could be grown in some of the British possessions, such as India. Although the costs would initially be higher than in a peacetime Confederacy, Great Britain’s colonial possessions would be politically more secure sources. Thus, he argued, a Southern embargo could not force Britain into diplomatic recognition. Finally, after a time, sources such as India might learn how to produce cotton at costs comparable to those of the Southern states.

Similarly, in his 1874 Narrative of Military Operations, General Joseph E. Johnston asserts the Confederacy’s misuse of cotton was the chief cause of the Rebel defeat. Like Benjamin and Stephens, the former Confederate general concludes that cotton should not have been embargoed but instead sent to Europe, where it would have been a tradable asset. He attributes the failure to adopt such an initiative to “the government.” Like historian Hendrick, he concludes that such a plan was “practicable” if executed during the first year of the war. Cotton owners “were ready to accept any terms the government might fix. . . . The blockade . . . [was] . . . not at all effective until the end of” the winter of 1861–1862. Johnston claims that an army of half a million men could have been promptly armed and still leave the Confederate Treasury “much richer than that of the United States.”

Johnston’s assertion that a half-million-man army could have been promptly equipped is unrealistic. It was not possible that all of the European nations combined could have shipped five hundred thousand shoulder arms within a few months. Similarly, it would have been difficult to ship the 1861 cotton inventory across the Atlantic that quickly. However, Johnston’s conclusion that the Confederate Treasury would have been wealthier than that of the United States has merit. It depends on the number of cotton bales that could have been sold during the first year of the war. Federal spending in fiscal year 1861 totaled about $80 million, revenues were $50 million, and the gross public debt was about $90 million. On the eve of the Civil War, the nation’s total supply of specie in circulation, including the Southern states, was about $250 million. By comparison, if the South had sold four million bales at thirty cents per pound on the London market, it would have generated proceeds of $600 million in specie. Even if it were only half that amount, the total would still exceed the value of all specie in circulation prior to the war throughout the United States.

In his book, Johnston also argues that massive cotton exporting early in the war would have strengthened Confederate currency, thereby minimizing the desertion that plagued the army during the last year of the war. Since judicious cotton sales on the London market would have enabled the Treasury to accumulate specie reserves, the Confederate dollar could have held its value much better. Johnston explained that the typical solider sent most of his monthly pay home. So long as the buying power of Rebel currency enabled their families to avoid starvation, soldiers held fast to their military duty. However, during the last ten to twelve months of the war, Confederate currency was almost worthless. At that time a soldier’s monthly pay “would scarcely buy [a single] meal for his family.” Increasingly, the soldiers “were compelled to choose between their military service and the strongest obligation men know—their duties to their wives and children.”

At the start of 1862, the market rate for Confederate currency was $1.20 for each $1.00 of specie. A year later it was $3.25 in Rebel paper currency for each $1.00 of specie. By the start of 1864, one dollar of specie could buy $20 of Confederate currency, and by the beginning of 1865, the rate was $60 of Rebel money for each dollar of specie. A week before Appomattox, the rate was 70:1.

Although Craven explained that Jefferson Davis was not reproaching Memminger, the former Treasury secretary was deeply stung by the criticism of his dismissal of Benjamin’s suggestion. He felt compelled to defend himself, but did a poor job of it.

First, he asserted that the Confederacy could not have purchased the idle cotton lying about the Southern states early in the war because the South temporarily had no printing presses available to create such financial instruments. But certainly there must have been some way of temporarily meeting that difficulty.

Second, he argued that the 1860–1861 crop had already been gathered and shipped. This excuse may be valid as it applies to the crop warehoused and distributed by the end of January 1861, but it ignores the normal-sized crop that was harvested in fall 1861.

Third, he reasoned that shipping four million bales would require four thousand ships, which was more than were available. But if four million bales were shipped, it need not have been done in one massive operation. If each ship made ten voyages, it would have required only four hundred. Similarly, if only two million bales were shipped, then only two hundred vessels would be needed. But even if only half a million bales reached Europe, an average market value of sixty cents a pound could have provided the Confederacy $150 million. Finally, Memminger assumes that each ship could hold only a thousand bales, but some could carry more than twice that amount.

By fall 1862, the Confederacy’s conventional international credits were exhausted. Something had to be done immediately to enable the government to continue purchasing the necessities of war abroad because only limited supplies could be manufactured in the Rebel states. By spring 1862, the Confederate government owned over four hundred thousand cotton bales. They were withheld from export primarily by the voluntary embargo, because the federal blockade was still largely ineffective. Six months later, the government faced the problem of how to get the inventory to Europe or to trade it for international exchange credits while it was still physically located in the Confederacy because of growing effectiveness of the blockade.

Again, Judah Benjamin was the first to offer a solution. In January 1862, he wrote to the agent for a foreign bank who lived in New Orleans with a proposal. He asked if the bank would deposit $1 million specie value at its European branch into the account of the Confederate government, assuming a to-be-negotiated amount of cotton were deposited with the New Orleans branch conditioned upon the cotton remaining in the Confederacy until the blockade was lifted. Although, Union forces captured New Orleans before the proposal matured, Benjamin had planted a seed that would flower later.

Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory took the first successful steps toward creating additional foreign exchange credits in fall 1862. He was able to purchase ships and supplies by issuing “cotton bonds” that were convertible at the option of the holder into a specific number of bales at a below-market price. The catch, of course, was that the cotton was located inside the Confederacy. Mallory’s government was obligated to deliver the cotton to any port controlled by the Confederacy where it became the  bondholder’s responsibility to get the cotton through the blockade. Since the bondholders were permitted to exchange their bonds for cotton at a price that was typically only one-fourth of the market price, the potential profit to such holders was more than large enough to offset the costs, and risks, of running the blockade.

Confederate cotton bonds soon proved to be a popular concept in Europe. The Confederacy’s British agent recommended that new issues be sold in a series of small offerings. He reasoned that the initial ones would be popular enough to drive them to a market price above par, thereby enabling each ensuing series to be sold at increasingly higher prices. It was sound advice but was discarded for a larger offering. With connections to European royalty that rivaled those of Rothschild, the Paris banking house of Erlanger et Compiegne perceived cotton bonds might provide big  investment banking profits.

Erlanger proposed to underwrite $25 million of cotton bonds, denominated in British pounds or French francs. The bonds were to be convertible into cotton at a price of twelve cents per pound when the market price was about forty-eight cents. Thus, a buyer of a £1,000 bond could convert it into eighty 500-pound bales worth about £4,000 on the date the bonds were issued. If the price of cotton continued to rise, the underlying bond’s conversion value would climb in parallel, because the bondholder could still convert it into eighty 500-pound bales. In 1864, cotton reached a high price of almost $1.90 a pound, which implies that each £1,000 bond had a conversion value of nearly £16,000.

But Erlanger drove a hard bargain, which caused the Confederacy to reduce the size of the offering from $25 million to $15 million. Erlanger insisted on the right to purchase the bonds at a substantial discount requiring it to pay only 77 percent of face value. Additionally, the banking house was to be paid its customary fees and commissions. Owing to the discounted purchase price, Erlanger was able to offer the bonds to public subscribers at an appealing price of only 90 percent of the face value. That attracted such influential buyers as William Gladstone and Lord Robert Cecil, who both later became British prime ministers. Since the issue was attractively priced, the $15 million offering was initially oversubscribed with orders for $80 million.

Unfortunately, initial buyers were required to deposit only 15 percent of the purchase price, with the balance not due until the settlement date of April 24, 1863. Meanwhile, Union diplomats in Europe scrambled for ways to discredit the loan. About a week before the settlement date, stories appeared in London newspapers describing how years earlier, Jefferson Davis had publicly defended Mississippi’s default on a bond issue mostly held by Europeans when he was a US senator from that state.

Erlanger panicked and threatened to cancel the offering unless the Confederacy agreed to stabilize the price by using some of the deposited funds to buy bonds on the open market. Ultimately about $6 million of the $15 million issue was used in this manner.

Historian John Schwab concluded that a major portion of the bonds repurchased on the open market to support the price were actually bonds owned by Erlanger et Compiegne. Essentially, Erlanger was profiting from an arbitrage by purchasing the bonds from the Davis government at 77 percent of face value and then requiring the Confederacy to buy them back at market prices approximating 90 percent of face value.

Since the cotton was located in the Rebel states, Confederate authorities were only obligated to deliver the bales to a point within “ten miles of a navigable river or railhead” where the new owner—meaning the bondholder—had to arrange transport to the final destination. Consequently, Erlanger and its British investment banking partner organized a blockade running company innocuously named The European Trading Company. One of its ships made 73 round trips between Mobile, Alabama, and Havana, Cuba, before the end of the war.

The biggest use of proceeds the Confederacy received from the Erlanger bonds was to pay off a debt to the British purchasing agency of Isaac, Campbell & Company that bought war supplies for the Confederate government. The agency also took $2 million (at face value) of the bonds as partial settlement. However, when it was later learned that Isaac, Campbell had paid less than it had represented for all items it sold to the Confederacy, the commercial relationship soured. At the least, the action was a violation of trust. At worst, it was fraud. Agents are supposed to earn their fees from disclosed commissions, not hidden mark-ups from the prices paid for merchandise. When the market value of the bonds plummeted after the fall of Vicksburg and the Rebel defeat at Gettysburg, Isaac, Campbell asked that the Davis government redeem its bond holdings at face value. Richmond declined.

But the Erlanger experience had a good effect as well. It convinced the Davis government that cotton could be an even more valuable foreign exchange medium once transferred out of the Rebel states. Consequently, the Confederacy established blockade running regulations to get cotton out and war supplies in. In January 1863, it purchased four ships to operate as government owned blockade runners. By September the ships had run the blockade forty-four times without a single capture. Additionally, cotton-for-credit transactions in Europe were centralized under C. J. McRae in Britain. The Confederate government started aggressively acquiring cotton throughout the South via outright purchases and taxes-in-kind on cotton growers. The change worked wonders. In July 1864, McRae used some of the available financial credits to order fourteen more steamers for blockade running.

In truth, King Cotton was no puppet monarch. It was the most abundant medium of international exchange available in North America. It could have been a primary support for the Confederacy as the foundation of a sound financial system.

But the Rebels misplayed their hand. Instead of initially embargoing cotton, they should have shipped as much as possible to Europe, where it could have been warehoused and sold as required. If such a policy had been vigorously pursued from the start, Jefferson Davis’s government would likely have had more sound money (specie) than Abraham Lincoln’s. Confederate currency would have better held its value. A stronger Confederate dollar might have enabled the typical soldier’s monthly pay to adequately support his family at home, thereby sharply reducing the desertions that plagued the Rebel forces during the last year of the war. Given such benefits, the Confederacy may have been able to exhaust Yankee resolve to continue fighting.

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Combating Internet Censorship

(August 9, 2018) Although I don’t know anyone who takes Alex Jones seriously, I object to the censorship by Apple, Youtube, and FaceBook. I worry that they will next ban other minority voices, including those of us who want to protect Confederate statues or simply express favorable opinions about Southern Heritage. Although it might seem impossible to successfully oppose the Internet giants, they have an Achilles Heel.

[Learn more about Civil War and Reconstruction at My Amazon Author Page]

Specifically, about twenty years ago the leading consumer-facing Internet companies successfully persuaded the federal government to grant them immunity for the sometimes libelous content posted by users on their websites. From a liability perspective, they were defined as a “communications platform” much like the telephone industry. Since companies like AT&T and Verizon cannot control what users say over their networks, they cannot be held liable for what anyone might say while talking on the phone.

But when YouTube, FaceBook, and Apple censor content, they are exercising editorial control over their websites. Thus, they are transforming themselves from a communications platform into a publisher. The moment they do that they should lose their immunity to liability, just like all other publishers.

Readers who want to combat Internet censorship may wish to write their elected officials in Washington to recommend that Apple, YouTube, Google, and FaceBook lose their legal immunity if they take editorial control for anything other than profanity or calls for violence. If the government removes their immunity, the companies will undoubtedly face a flood of lawsuits for the libelous content posted by some of their users. Since they have billions of users the websites would face enormous liabilities even if only a small fraction of users commit such transgressions. That will either ruin them or cause them to cease censorship. The seven-minute video below provides a more complete analysis.

The Biggest Union Error

(August 7, 2018) The post below is a copy of Chapter Two of my book Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies. The book contains an additional ten chapters including one that describes the biggest Confederate error. (Footnotes are available in the book but not the post below.)

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One morning in September 1942, Colonel Leslie Groves was walking in an empty hallway of the House of Representatives office building when he met General Brehon Somervell, who almost immediately transformed the colonel into “the angriest officer in the United States Army.”

“About that duty overseas,” said the general, “you can tell them no.”

“Why?”

“The secretary of war has selected you for a very important assignment, and the president has approved the selection.”

“Where?”

“Washington.”

“I don’t want to stay in Washington.”

“If you do the job right, it will win the war.”

“Oh,” sighed Groves. “That thing.”

As the army’s deputy chief of construction, the colonel was aware but skeptical of a vague superbomb project. He wanted nothing to do with it. Like most officers, he was eager for combat duty overseas.

Nonetheless, he followed orders to lead the project and was promoted to brigadier general in order to increase his authority. In less than three years, he led the previously floundering Manhattan Project to create uranium and plutonium bombs and reach a production rate of about one bomb per month at the end of the war. Within a day of the hallway meeting, Groves had taken steps to secure 80 percent of the radioactive ores needed to produce the bombs that forced Japan’s surrender. Within a week of the meeting, he activated plans for the Oak Ridge refining plant, a project that would transform a Tennessee forest into a city of eighty-five thousand before war’s end and consume one-seventh of the entire country’s electricity. Due to a copper shortage caused by demands for brass ammunition cartridges, Groves borrowed almost fourteen thousand tons of silver from the US Treasury for electrical wiring. A second plant for plutonium—which did not exist in nature when he took charge—was built in Washington State. It was a year and a half after Grove’s promotion before scientists produced even a few grams of the element for experimentation. Before the war was over, the Manhattan Project employed more than three hundred thousand workers.

The project was a convincing demonstration of the efficacy that government, academic, and industry cooperation can provide for weapons development and production. It enabled the United States to avoid invading the Japanese homeland in order to end World War II. The army chief of staff, General George Marshall, speculated that such an invasion might cause five hundred thousand to one million US casualties “if conventional weapons only were used.”

If the Union had similarly backed a project to produce breech-loading and repeating rifles at the start of the Civil War, it might have won the war in less than two years instead of the four required. According to the memoirs of Confederate Brigadier General Porter Alexander, who famously directed the Rebel bombardment prior to Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, “There is reason to believe that had the Federal infantry been armed from the first with even the breechloaders available in 1861 [the war’s first year] the war would have been terminated in a year.” The story of why it wasn’t is frustrating and fascinating.

In the hands of an experienced soldier, the standard issue Springfield and Enfield rifles used by Union and Confederate infantry could fire at best about three rounds per minute, and likely only two in the heat of combat. That’s because they were loaded through the muzzle one round at a time using paper cartridges and a ramrod. First the powder end of the cartridge was torn open, typically with the teeth, and then poured down the barrel. Next the bullet end of the load containing the projectile (known as a Minié ball) was seated against the powder, with the ramrod pushed from the muzzle. The final step was to position a percussion cap on a nipple that had a hole through it to the breech. Pulling the trigger caused a hammer to crush the cap, thereby injecting a flame from the cap to the powder inside the barrel, which exploded to propel the Minié ball. After firing, the entire sequence had to be repeated before a muzzleloader could shoot a second time. For speed, soldiers typically stood up to reload, thereby transforming themselves into bigger targets than if they remained kneeling or lying down.

Despite the numerical dominance of muzzleloaders, breechloaders and repeaters were far superior weapons because they could shoot faster. Although breechloaders were loaded one shell at a time, their cartridges remained intact, avoiding the need to load powder and bullet sequentially. While some required a separate percussion cap like the muzzleloaders, others with brass or copper cartridges did not. As a result, instead of firing only two to three bullets per minute, a soldier with a single-shot breechloader, such as the Sharps carbine, could fire eight to ten per minute. The firing rate of repeaters was even higher. For example, the Spencer used a magazine of seven cartridges. Each live round was loaded—and each spent round ejected—with a quick lever action. Although all seven could be fired in ten seconds, the barrel became overheated at such a pace. However, a Spencer-equipped solider had no difficulty shooting fourteen times per minute.

The table below estimates the number and type of shoulder arms procured by the Union and Confederate armies. As a category, shoulder arms includes rifles and carbines. The latter are shorter versions of the rifle used by cavalry for easier handling. Although the Union acquired far more weapons, the Confederates reused many by capturing them on battlefields. Nearly all of the shoulder arms procured by Rebel soldiers were muzzleloaders, as were nearly 90 percent of those for the Union troops. Confederates could only purchase breechloaders via imports, whereas they could rarely buy repeaters at all since the weapons were manufactured in the Northern states. Most of the single-shot breechloaders, and nearly all the repeaters, used by Rebels were captured on the battlefield. For example, during the siege of Atlanta in summer 1864, the Rebel Army of Tennessee had about fifty thousand shoulder arms of all types, but only 58 were Spencer repeaters, which was then the most common repeater.

As breechloaders and repeaters were gradually adopted in the Union army, their superiority became obvious to nearly everyone. On March 1, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton directed that breechloaders be issued to all Union soldiers. If Confederate General Robert E. Lee had not surrendered less than a month and a half later, there’s little doubt that the Confederate army would have had no hope of resisting the bigger Union one once the federals were equipped with such weapons. When an admittedly inexperienced South Carolina regiment attacked federal cavalry armed with breechloaders at Cold Harbor in June 1864, “The regiment went to pieces in an abject rout and threatened to overwhelm the rest of [our Confederate] brigade. [The witness had] never seen any body of troops in such a condition of utter demoralization.” Midway through the war, at Gettysburg in July 1863, the entire Union Army of the Potomac cavalry corps had breechloaders. That is partly why Major General John Buford’s division was able to hold off a superior Rebel force for most of the morning of the battle’s first day. Later, Union cavalry Brigadier General James Wilson, in speaking of repeaters (as opposed to breechloaders in general), said, “There is no doubt that the Spencer carbine is the best fire-arm yet put into the hands of the soldier. . . . Our best officers estimate one man armed with it [is] equivalent to three with any other arm.”

Given the obvious superiority of breechloaders and repeaters, the uninitiated reader may incorrectly assume that they were not invented until the war was well under way. In truth, single-shot breech-loading shoulder arms were invented years earlier. One was even patented in 1856 by Ambrose Burnside when he was temporarily a civilian. He later rejoined the army to become a major general and is unfortunately best remembered for commanding the Union army when it was decisively beaten at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Two future Confederate leaders who served as US secretaries of war during the 1850s, Jefferson Davis and John Floyd, evaluated some breechloaders with good results. While Davis felt the weapons should be restricted to cavalry, in 1860 Floyd concluded more generally, “as certainly as the percussion cap has superseded the flint . . . so surely will the breech-loading gun drive out [the muzzleloader.]” As for repeaters, the Henry and the Spencer were each patented in 1860, the year before the war began.

The most popular Civil War single-shot breechloader was the Sharps, which was patented thirteen years before the war began. It was most commonly used as a carbine by Yankee cavalry because the shorter barrel. It was reliable and capable of being produced in the greatest volume. After an 1853 fight between US dragoons and Indians, Captain Richard Ewell, who later became a high-ranking Confederate general, said the Sharps was “superior to any firearm yet supplied to the dragoons.” As early as 1850, an army ordnance board had highly praised the gun. On the eve of the Civil War, in January 1861, another dragoon captain with years of experience using the firearm informed the US Army Ordnance Department that the weapon was “exceedingly efficient.” During the 1850s settlement of Kansas, abolitionists led by clergyman Henry Ward Beecher sent crates of Sharps guns, euphemistically called “Beecher’s Bibles,” to free-state settlers for use against settlers favoring Kansas’s admission to the Union as a slave state.

Although Sharps carbines began to be widely deployed among Union cavalry by the midpoint to the war, there were also early advocates for a long-form rifle of the weapon. Two months after the war began, Hiram Berdan formed two regiments of elite sharpshooters, which were a part of the Army of the Potomac. After Berdan selected the best marksmen, his next task was to choose a shoulder arm. He was disappointed that the ordnance chief, Brigadier General James Ripley, insisted that the rifles be muzzleloaders instead of breechloaders similar to the ones some of Berdan’s men owned when they arrived. His encampment quickly became popular among Washington-area sightseers. In September 1861, President Lincoln visited with a group of generals and other officials. Among the group was Assistant War Secretary Tom Scott, who was hostile to Berdan’s breechloader request. He asked Berdan to demonstrate his marksmanship on a dummy target in the shape of a man labeled “Jeff Davis.” Berdan hit the dummy in the right eye at six hundred yards. Lincoln laughed at Scott and told Colonel Berdan, “come down tomorrow and I will give you the order for the breechloaders.”

Lincoln’s promise was not enough. The sixty-seven-year-old ordnance chief considered breech-loading rifles “new fangled gimcracks” and refused to order them. Ripley had been in the army forty-seven years after graduating from West Point. In 1832, he commanded one of the forts in Charleston harbor that might have been required to suppress a rebellion if South Carolina failed to repeal its nullification of the Federal Tariff of Abominations. For thirteen years, from 1841 to 1854, he was superintendent of the nation’s weapons manufacturing armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, where he earned a reputation as a strict disciplinarian, if not a tyrant. Rebellious workers hanged him in effigy three times. He even fired workers who subscribed to a newspaper criticizing him. When the Civil War broke out, he was in Japan on a mission that was supposed to continue on to Europe, but he got the first ship home, where he replaced an even older officer as chief of army ordnance.

For the next two-and-a-half years, Lincoln was open-minded about new weapons and frequently visited the ordnance chief. But Ripley failed to budge from his goal to maximize production of proven instruments because Union armies were too big to be supplied by domestic manufactures alone. Until the fall 1862, more than half of the arms issued to federal soldiers were imports. Consequently, he felt the infantry should be armed with muzzleloaders such as the Springfield, which was designed at the Massachusetts armory during his tenure there. He also felt that repeaters and even single-shot breechloaders would encourage soldiers to waste ammunition. His only concession to more modern weapons was that cavalry should be given breech-loading carbines. As a result of Ripley’s foot-dragging, none of Berdan’s soldiers were issued Sharps rifles by December despite Lincoln’s September promise. Ripley didn’t even put any Sharps on order until February 1862. It took another couple of months for the first deliveries to arrive.

Ripley’s avoidance of repeaters is especially frustrating for four reasons. First, both the Spencer and the Henry were not only invented prior to the war but were even issued prewar patents. Their availability was a matter of scaling production, not invention. Second, the first Spencer order was placed in June 1861, only two months after the war began in April. Third, even the initial military test results of samples early in the war were favorable. Fourth, once the weapons were put into field use, the combat results were immediately convincing.

At the outbreak of the war, Christopher Spencer was a twenty-seven-year-old Connecticut inventor who in March of the previous year had patented a repeating rifle containing a seven-round magazine. A lifelong inventor, at age thirteen he converted his grandfather’s musket into a carbine. At fifteen he built a steam engine. Before he was thirty, he was driving to work in a self-designed steam automobile. At age eighty-seven, he became absorbed in aviation. For seventeen years, he lived near Mark Twain in Hartford, and the author may have modeled his chief character in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court after Spencer. Like Twain’s fictional character, Spencer worked three years at the Hartford Colt works before hiring on at a silk factory owned by three brothers named Cheney. While employed at the silk factory, he invented the repeater on his own time.

Because Navy Secretary Gideon Wells was a Hartford man and friend of the Cheney family, he arranged for the navy to test the Spencer two months after the war began. The chief of naval ordnance, Commander John Dahlgren, tested five hundred rounds with only one misfire. Dahlgren was impressed enough to order seven hundred rifles in June 1861.

A couple of months later,  Alexander Dyer of the army ordnance corps tested the Spencer. He fired it eighty times and simulated extreme combat conditions by burying it in sand and saltwater for twenty-four hours. Afterward the gun was loaded and fired without first being cleaned. In November, Spencer demonstrated the weapon for General in Chief George McClellan, who kept his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac. McClellan ordered the ordnance chief for that army to evaluate the rifle and prepare a report. The testing officer was favorably impressed. McClellan also asked a board of three other officers, including Alfred Pleasanton, who would later command the same army’s cavalry corps, to provide a separate report. Pleasanton and his colleagues also gave the Spencer a thumb’s up.

None of the favorable army evaluations resulted in orders, but they did compel General Ripley to describe his objections. In December he opined that both the Spencer and the Henry were too heavy when fully loaded. He also falsely concluded that neither was superior to existing single-shot breechloaders. In sum, he did not “consider it advisable to entertain or accept either [the Spencer or Henry] propositions.”

The Cheney brothers appealed to a few powerful New Englanders who may have been admitted as shareholders into the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company. Among them were Navy Secretary Welles, Republican leader and future presidential candidate James G. Blaine, and Warren Fisher, a Boston financier. Fisher wrote directly to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, who had a reputation for graft. Whatever—if any—backroom deal applied, Ripley ordered ten thousand Spencers the day after Christmas 1861.

But there were more delays. After a congressional investigation, the questionable Cameron was removed as war secretary. His replacement, Edwin Stanton, reserved the right to review all contracts, while the Cheneys had to admit they could not meet the March 1862 delivery date for the first five hundred because they had only set up a factory in January. As a result, the order was reduced to seven thousand five hundred units, with initial deliveries to begin in June 1862. Left to its own resources, the Spencer company could not even make the June deliveries.

By the time Spencers began to be deployed with combat troops in meaningful numbers, the evidence was overwhelmingly in their favor. Major General William S. Rosecrans, who commanded the Union Army of the Cumberland in Tennessee for about twelve months in 1862–1863, was a strong proponent of repeating rifles. During one nine-month period, he wrote nineteen letters to the secretary of war and other officials requesting breech-loading and repeating rifles for his soldiers. One of his brigade commanders, John T. Wilder, was in full accord. After a frustrating assignment to hunt down Confederate cavalry raider Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan, Wilder was given permission to mount his infantry brigade but was not given any breechloaders. On his own initiative, he wrote to the Henry manufacturer, asking if it would sell repeaters to his troops, which the soldiers would pay for themselves. He was told there was a waiting list. During the wait, Christopher Spencer visited the Army of the Cumberland, where Wilder tested the Spencer. Rosecrans was able to get Ripley to send Wilder’s soldiers Spencers in spring 1863.

While Grant held Vicksburg in a death grip in June 1863, Rosecrans launched an offensive against Lieutenant General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee. He wanted to prevent Bragg from sending troops to fight against Grant and also to maneuver the Rebels out of central Tennessee. Wilder’s brigade was part of the plan. They rode quickly ahead of the army to capture and hold a mountain pass called Hoover’s Gap until a Union infantry corps could be brought up to solidify the position. Wilder’s men did the job on June 25, suffering a total of 62 casualties while inflicting 146. Owing to the Spencer’s firing rate, the opposing Confederate commander thought he was outnumbered five to one. Thereafter, Wilder’s unit was informally known as the Lightning Brigade.

Wilder even more convincingly demonstrated the Spencer’s superiority at the Battle of Chickamauga, September 18–20, 1863. Bragg attempted to launch a surprise attack across bridges along Chickamauga Creek in northern Georgia just south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. In preliminary action on the eighteenth, the Lightning Brigade was guarding Alexander’s Bridge. According to historian Glenn Tucker:

The preliminary affair at Alexander’s bridge, where Wilder with only part of a single brigade and with but four [cannons] of his battery was able to hold off a division with artillery for nearly five hours, was an important milestone in the progress of the war. It confirmed the value in combat of the Spencer repeating rifle.

Shortly before noon on the last day of the battle, a confusing order prompted a mistaken movement by a defending division that left a gap in the Union line. A massed Confederate column promptly charged through the gap. Almost as quickly as wind shifts battle smoke, nearly the entire right (south) wing of the federal army became a disorganized mob. The fleeing soldiers sought cover in Chattanooga or the intact left wing commanded by Major General George Thomas, who is credited with saving the entire army, earning him the nickname “Rock of Chickamauga.” One by one, most of the Union brigades in the south half of the field were routed. But, sustained by confidence in their weapons, Wilder’s was one of the few that stood firm. It even put the Rebel attack off balance with counterattacks of its own. Historian Tucker concluded, “Probably, Wilder’s attacks . . . had given Thomas the needed margin of time to draw a new defense line.” One of Wilder’s men described the Spencer’s effect on the attacking Rebels: “the head of the column, as it was pushed on by those behind, appeared to melt away or sink into the earth, for, though continually moving, it got no nearer.”

Historian Robert Bruce says that by July 1864, “a feeling spread through the Union army that Spencer rifles could end the war in a hurry.” The rifles were universally coveted. Major General Benjamin Butler promised to give the requested arms to only the most deserving troops and as prizes for gallantry. When a small Rebel force under Lieutenant General Jubal Early threatened Washington, DC in July 1864, Ripley’s replacement asked the Union defenders what he could do to help. One colonel answered by requesting that a Massachusetts regiment be issued Spencers. At another battle a Rebel prisoner commented to his Spencer-equipped captors, “It’s no use for us to fight you’ens with that kind of gun.” The British War Office took note of the American experience and set up a committee to evaluate breechloaders. The committee recommended that the entire British army be equipped with breechloaders.

The versatility of the repeater’s ammunition was also an advantage. Historian Richard McMurry relates an incident that occurred when repeater-equipped federal cavalry crossed the last river barrier protecting Atlanta in early July 1864:

The men who made that crossing were armed with repeating rifles that fired metallic, waterproof cartridges. To avoid Rebel bullets as they waded the river, they stooped down in the water, stood up to fire, and then ducked again beneath the surface. The defending Confederates, accustomed only to singe-shot weapons and bullets that came wrapped with powder in paper tubes, were amazed by the “guns that could be loaded and fired under water.” Some of the Secessionists simply ceased shooting and remained to surrender, eager to see the novel weapons used by their enemies.

Although the Spencer was a marked advance in shoulder arms, it was the Henry that evolved into the iconic Winchester ’73, to become known as the rifle that “won the west.” Benjamin Henry worked for the New Haven Arms Company, owned by Oliver Winchester. When Henry joined it, the company manufactured an unpopular repeater that used poorly designed cartridges. He improved the design to use superior copper rim-fire cartridges. Unlike the Spencer, which had a magazine of seven loads in the butt stock, the Henry’s magazine extended underneath the barrel and held sixteen loads. Since few of the rifles and required cartridges had yet been manufactured, Ordnance Chief Ripley ignored the Henry for over a year. Although it had been tested by the navy and the ordnance chief of the Army of the Potomac with favorable results, Ripley refused to place any orders. The first Henrys used in combat were purchased individually on the open market in spring and summer 1862.

Hundreds were sent to Kentucky, where the publisher of the Louisville Journal received one as a gift. He responded by editorializing that one soldier armed with a Henry was equivalent to fifteen using muzzleloaders. After Confederate armies invaded the state in summer 1862, some Kentucky Henrys ended up in Rebel hands. These captured repeaters were less valuable to the Confederates because they used specialized ammunition that could not be produced in the South. Nonetheless, in one episode, a besieged Ohio regiment surrendered to a numerically Rebel force that included one company armed with the repeaters. By January 1863, knowledge of the Henry’s combat value began to spread beyond Kentucky. For example, a number of privately owned Henrys were used during the Battle of Chickamauga. Although federal orders were small, according to author Jack Coggins as many as ten thousand were sold privately to state troops by the end of the war. As 1864 began, Winchester could sell on the public market all the Henrys he could make, but he could not make very many because he depended on subcontractors and was in a rights dispute with Benjamin Henry. Only one thousand three hundred units were produced in 1862, and only two thousand five hundred in 1863.

Nonetheless, during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, half the soldiers in one Illinois regiment owned the rifles, purchased at their own expense. They helped prevent the Union rear from being overrun at the Battle of Atlanta. Late that year, at the slaughter of Confederates during the Battle of Franklin, one company of the 65th Illinois Regiment armed with Henrys put forth such a rain of bullets that one participant thought it a wonder “that any of [the attacking Rebels] escaped death or capture.”

Oliver Winchester received his first federal government order for Henrys toward the end of Ripley’s tenure as ordnance chief in September 1863. The order came from Colonel Lafayette Baker, who organized Lincoln’s Secret Service and wanted the arms for a four-company ranger unit he was forming in the second half of 1863 to support his detective force. Although Ripley pared the order to 250 rifles, Ripley’s successor increased it by eight hundred.

There is no doubt that single-shot breechloaders and repeaters such as the Spencer and Henry were far superior weapons to the standard muzzleloaders like the Springfield and Enfield. In fall 1864, then Ordnance Chief Alexander Dyer concluded that all soldiers should have breechloaders. Moreover, the superior shoulder arms were a virtual Union monopoly. Repeater manufacturing was an absolute Yankee monopoly, and the Northern states had much of the world’s production capacity for the best single-shot breechloaders. Finally, based on the combat record, it’s unlikely that Confederate armies could remain in the field for more than a few months after the majority of Union soldiers possessed such weapons. The central dispute is whether the Union could have deployed them more rapidly.

Critics often blame Ripley for the slow adoption of breechloaders and repeaters, partly because Lincoln evidently blamed him, since the general was replaced a month after the president test fired a Spencer in August 1863. Although Ripley was undeniably reluctant, his defenders argue three points. First, he agreed that breechloaders were the right choice for cavalry; his opposition was limited to their use by infantry. Second, Ripley supporters contend he was correct to focus on getting as many rifles into the hands of infantry as possible. Even if they were muzzleloaders, they were as good as anything the Confederates had. Third, private producers did not expand production capacity fast enough to materially speed up deployment.

Taken in isolation, those are reasonable arguments, but from the larger perspective of overall Union leadership, they are not satisfying. The fault is as much with Lincoln as with Ripley. In short, Lincoln neglected to implement a Civil War equivalent to World War II’s Manhattan Project. Nobody was given supreme authority to mobilize the nation’s development and production capability, although the superiority of the applicable weapons was obvious from the beginning. A progressive ordnance chief might have attempted to assume such authority, or at least advocate for it. However, when Lincoln finally replaced Ripley in September 1863 with Brigadier General George Ramsay, the president yielded to objections from War Secretary Stanton, who wanted his own man to run the ordnance department, leaving Ramsay little more than a figurehead. Consequently, Ramsay resigned after a year, accomplishing far less than he had hoped.

Lincoln could have selected qualified new-weapons enthusiasts such as Alexander Dyer or John Dahlgren to fulfill a role similar to that of General Groves in World War II’s Manhattan Project. (In fact, Dyer was made ordnance chief after Ramsay, but that was late in the war.) Both men had given early thumbs up to tests on repeaters, although Dyer later had a dissatisfying experience with a hastily assembled Henry presented for tests. Dyer was in his mid-forties when the war started, and Dahlgren was in his early fifties, compared to Ripley, who was sixty-seven.

Regardless of who might have been designated as a federal Civil War weapons production czar, his challenge would have been far less difficult than the one Groves faced. Unlike the nuclear bomb prior to World War II, repeating rifles were not mere theoretical concepts in 1861. The Spencer and Henry were not only prior inventions, but both were already patented. They were made from common materials, whereas the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs relied on isotopes that had never before been seen with the unaided eye. Furthermore, the Sharps and other single-shot breechloaders were in commercial production years before the Civil War started. If Lincoln had replaced Ripley with a Groves-like character in the first half of 1862 (as Ripley’s foot-dragging warranted), much might have been accomplished by the next summer. Gettysburg could have ended the war.

While private manufacturers had difficulty reaching volume production, they got no help from the federal government. Even though Republicans were notorious advocates public works spending and subsidies for private business sectors, there was no federal investment in the industry. Instead the relationship between the ordnance department and manufacturers was often adversarial, with penalties and cancellations for late deliveries. Inventors like Spencer and Henry received no material assistance or even advice about how to scale production. Similarly, the government failed to arbitrate the rights dispute between Winchester and Henry that restricted production of their repeater to pathetically low volumes. In contrast, fifty years later, upon entering World War I, the federal government promptly required cross licensing and ready access to all radio and aviation patents because of the important roles such new technologies could play in the fighting.

While Lincoln is most culpable, other Union leaders cannot escape critical scrutiny. War Secretaries Cameron and Stanton are obvious examples. However, the successive army generals in chief might have been more assertive, although they admittedly had no official authority over the ordnance department. As noted, McClellan had a good opinion of repeaters as early as autumn 1861, but his position was probably not secure enough to risk creating bureaucratic enemies like Ripley. McClellan’s successor, Major General Henry Halleck, was typically passive.

As the last Civil War general in chief Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant, enjoyed enough popular acclaim to promote breechloaders and repeaters. Although he advanced the career of repeater proponent and cavalry Brigadier General James Wilson, Grant’s opinion of Wilson probably had little to do with the latter’s affinity for repeaters. For the most part, Grant did not seem interested in breechloaders and repeaters. For example, in November 1863, he banished General Rosecrans to Missouri to await orders that never came. Since Rosecrans was probably the highest-ranking advocate of such weapons in the field, he could have been a more effective proponent if Grant had not heaped added disgrace upon him by shipping him to the mostly ignored trans-Mississippi after his defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga.

Finally, the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War might be faulted for failing to look more carefully at weapons technology and production. While the committee was involved in a number of fruitless controversies, it could have done some good by encouraging cooperation between government and the private arms industry.

It is difficult to estimate how much more quickly single-shot breechloaders and repeaters might have been deployed in the Union army. But if top military and government leaders acknowledged their superiority earlier, it is difficult to avoid concluding that the arms could have been adopted more rapidly. As noted, War Secretary Stanton did not recommend uniform adoption until one and a half months before Appomattox, even though the earliest test results were favorable beginning two months after the war started. The failure to mobilize government and private industry into cooperative efforts and focused technological development was a mistake that would be corrected in later wars.

Causes of the Civil War

(July 18, 2018) In a PBS interview seven years ago historian and Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust identified slavery as the cause of the Civil War. “Historians are pretty united on the cause of the Civil War being slavery,” she said and elaborated by adding, . . . “when the various states announced their plans for secession, they uniformly said that the main motivating factor was to defend slavery.”

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But she commits two errors. First, only five of the first seven states to secede cited slavery in their published secession ordinances and declarations of causes. Additionally, the four upper-South states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas remained Union-loyal until President Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to coerce the seven Gulf states back into the Union, compulsion that the upper-South states considered to be unconstitutional. Once they joined, however, they doubled the Confederacy’s white population and her territory east of the Mississippi River. Second, but foremost, Faust falsely equates the reasons the Northern states chose to fight a war with the reasons Southern states seceded.

She fails to consider that Northerners could have let the cotton states leave in peace, thereby avoiding a Civil War altogether. The original seven-state Confederacy was so weak that many believed her component states might end up humbly asking to be readmitted to the Federal Union. According to historian David Potter: “No one was much impressed with the Gulf Coast Confederacy. No one was convinced that it would be economically or politically viable.”[1]

Moreover, many Northern leaders were prepared to “Let the erring sisters go in peace.” Among them was abolitionist Horace Greeley, then editor of The New York Tribune, which was America’s largest newspaper. Greeley wrote, “We have repeatedly said . . . that if the slave states choose to form an independent nation, they have the right to do so.” President James Buchanan added that many Republicans shared Greeley’s opinion when he wrote: “Leading Republicans everywhere scornfully exclaimed ‘Let them go;’ ‘We can do better without them;’ ‘Let the Union slide,’ and other language of the same import.” Ohio lawyer and future Republican President Rutherford Hayes was satisfied to let the free states remain alone as his January 4, 1861 diary entry reveals: “The [twenty] free states alone . . . will make a glorious nation . . . scarcely inferior in real power to the thirty-three states we had on the first of November.”[2] Similarly, President Lincoln’s future War Secretary, Edwin Stanton, said, “Oh, I would let the South go; they will be clamoring to get back in three years.”

Faust made a second error by ignoring the reasons that Northerners chose to fight and instead concentrated only on the reasons the South seceded. She could have, for example, examined resolutions passed by at least six Northern state legislatures in response to the first wave of seceding states. All six suggested that they were prepared to fight a war in order to “preserve the Union.”[3]

The elephant in the Civil War history classroom

It is impossible to conclude that the resolutions of any of the six states even hint of a Northern holy war to free Southern slaves. Moreover, the vague abstractions for wanting to preserve the Union, such as the “freedom,” “prosperity,” and “happiness” presumably enabled by the Federal Union, suggest that they may be nothing more than obfuscations designed to camouflage the true goal of aborting the economic consequences of disunion. Even historian Gary Gallagher who accepts the platitudes at face value, concedes that the average Northerner was preoccupied “then, as now, [by] economic concerns.”[4] A truncated Union separated from its Southern states would likely face two significant economic problems.

First, it could not hope to maintain a favorable balance of payments. The South accounted for about 80% of America’s exports on the eve of the Civil War. Thus, without the South’s export economy, America would become a perpetual debtor nation forever at the mercy of its stronger trading partners that would deplete her gold supply in order to settle the persistent trade imbalances.

Second, since the Confederate constitution outlawed protective tariffs, her lower tariffs would confront the remaining states of the abridged Union with two consequences. First, since ninety percent of Federal taxes came from tariffs, the government’s revenue loss would be sizable. Articles imported into the Confederacy from Europe would divert tariff revenue from the North to the South. Second, and even more importantly, a low Confederate tariff would induce Southerners to buy manufactured goods from Europe as opposed to the Northern states where prices were inflated by protective tariffs.

In January 1861 The Philadelphia Press editorialized, “It is the enforcement of the revenue laws [tariffs], not the coercion of [South Carolina] that is the question of the hour. If those laws cannot be enforced, the Union is clearly gone.” In When in the Course of Human Events author Charles Adams reasons:

If trade were to shift to the Southern ports because of a free trade zone, or extremely low duties relative to the North, then [the] great cities [of the Northeast] would go into decline and suffer economic disaster. The image painted by these editorials [from newspapers of Northeastern cities] is one of massive unemployment, the closing of factories and businesses, followed by unrest, riots, and possibly revolution. The inland cities of the North would also go into decline, like Pittsburgh, where duty-free British steel and iron products would cripple the American steel industry.

Consider the iron-producing state of Pennsylvania, which was among the most vigorous advocates of protective tariffs. As the railroad industry boomed for decades after construction started on the transcontinental railroad during the Civil War, tariffs on imported steel rails sometimes approached 100%. Thus, while Pennsylvanians proclaimed that they did not want to interfere with the Southern slavery, they undeniably wanted generous tariff protection.[5]

The false equivalency between the reasons that the South seceded and the reasons that the North chose to fight a war rather than let the seven cotton states depart peaceably is the ignored elephant in the history classroom.

*       *       *

[1] David Potter, The Impeding Crisis (New York: Harper Colophon, 1976), 505
[2] Hayes miscounted. At the end of January 1861 there were only nineteen free states.
[3] New York, Maine, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Minnesota
[4] Gary Gallagher, The Union War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 42, 44
[5] Jack Beatty, Age of Betrayal (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2007), 67; Samuel Bostaph, Andrew Carnegie: An Economic Biography (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 137; Ludwell Johnson, Division and Reunion (New York: Wiley, 1978), 64

New York Replies to Southern Secession

(July 16, 2018) As noted in the four previous posts, desires to protect slavery expressed in the secession documents of selected Southern states contribute significantly to the popular notion that Northerners entered the Civil War to free the slaves.  Nonetheless, official resolutions of the four Northern states examined so far (Minnesota, Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) undeniably show that their chief goal was to keep the Union intact. None of the Northern documents indicate an intent to free Southern  slaves. To the contrary, they typically included resolutions denying that the federal government had such authority. Today’s post analyzes the January 11, 1861 joint resolutions of the New York General Assembly. By that date only four of the eventual eleven states that would join the Confederacy had yet seceded.

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New York summed its perspective in only three resolutions. The third merely stated that the document would be distributed to political leaders in other states. The second expressed support for the citizens of selected slaves states that had not yet seceded and who where urging their states to remain Union-loyal.

But the first proclaimed New York’s readiness to go to war to preserve the Union. Specifically, the legislators resolved that they were “profoundly impressed with the value of the Union and determined to preserve it unimpaired.” They regarded the Union as valuable because “it conferred prosperity and happiness on the American People.” Finally, they concluded that New York was prepared to provide “whatever aid in men and money [President Buchanan] may require to enforce the laws and uphold the authority of the Federal Government.”  It fails to even hint that New Yorkers wanted to free Southern slaves.

Like the resolutions of other Northern states, New York’s provide only vague reasons for wanting the Union preserved, such as the “prosperity” and “happiness” it provided to all Americans. Such abstractions are not convincing explanations and may be deliberate obfuscations. Even historian Gary Gallagher who accepts the platitudes at face value, concedes that the average Northerner was preoccupied “then, as now, [by] economic concerns.” Blacks represented only about one percent of the population in the Northern free states where they were largely irrelevant to the affairs of the typical white man.*

No spot north of the Mason-Dixon Line worried more about the potential economic consequences of disunion than New York City. According to historians John and Charles Lockwood,  “Much of the South’s cotton exports passed through New York, and the city’s merchants took 40 cents of every dollar that Europeans paid for Southern cotton through warehouse fees, shipping, insurance and profits. Cotton—and hence slavery—helped build the new marble-fronted mercantile buildings in lower Manhattan, fill Broadway hotels and stores with customers, and build block after block of fashionable brownstones north of 14th Street. If seceding Southern states formed their own nation, New York merchants could expect to lose much of that lucrative trade.”

As a result, on January 7, 1861 Mayor Fernando Wood formally suggested that the city’s governing council declare Manhattan independent from both the state and the federal Union. He envisioned the city becoming an independent city-state similar to the seaport free cities of northern Germany. His proposal came less than three weeks after South Carolina seceded and two days before Mississippi became the second state to secede.

Wood’s idea was not as surprising as it might seem today. In 1861 New York was both America’s largest and wealthiest city. At a time when tariffs represented ninety percent of federal revenues, two-thirds of them were collected at the Port of New York. As an independent city state, New York could keep that tariff revenue for itself. “As a free city,” Wood said, “with but nominal duty on imports, her local Government could be supported without taxation upon her people. Thus we could live free from taxes, and have cheap goods nearly duty free.” Although the council failed to adopt the mayor’s proposal the city’s businessmen desperately wanted to avoid the economic consequences of disunion.

 

*Gary Gallagher, The Union War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 42, 44

New Jersey Replies to Southern Secession

(July 15, 2018) Partly because some of the Southern states formally cited the protection of slavery as their chief reason for seceding, today’s public generally believes that the North entered the Civil War to free the slaves. But the pre-war resolutions of Northern states replying to secession examined so far (Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Ohio) undeniably show that the principal reason they opposed secession was “to preserve the Union”* and not to free the slaves. Today’s post analyzes the January 25, 1861 joint resolutions of the New Jersey General Assembly. On that date only five of the eventual eleven Confederate states had yet seceded.

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Similar to the resolutions of the other Northern states analyzed so far, New Jersey’s principal aim to “sustain the Union” is stated in the first of nine resolutions. The second asserts the illegality of secession and the sixth calls upon all states having adopted ordinances of secession to repeal them. Only the fourth even mentions slavery and it is coupled with the third, fifth, seventh, and eighth, which are pleas for compromise and expressions of New Jersey’s eagerness to promote such compromise  in order “to permanently settle the question of slavery.”

In order to permit more white males to remain in the state, in the second half of the war New Jersey recruited black soldiers as substitutes.

Most significant is the fourth resolution. It endorses the proposed “Crittenden Compromise,” which would amend the constitution in two basic ways. First, it would forever forbid federal abolition or interference with slavery in the states where it was then legal. And, futhermore, the amendment would specify that it could never be changed or repealed. Second, another provision would allow slavery in the Western territories below the latitude of Missouri’s southern border. Thus, the future states of New Mexico, Oklahoma and Arizona would enter the Union as slave states whereas the other thirteen states that joined after the Civil War started would have been admitted as free states. (Any territories hypothetically acquired from Mexico or nations farther South might also be admitted as slave states.)

Although New Jersey’s resolutions imply she would go to war to preserve the Union, there’s no indication that she wanted to free the slaves. To the contrary, the state explicitly supported a compromise that would forever keep them in bondage in the states where slavery was then legal, unless the applicable states chose to abolish slavery themselves. It would also permit slavery in America’s present day Southwest.

New Jersey failed to cite concrete reasons for wanting to “sustain the Union of the States.” Much like Ohio and Pennsylvania she asserted that an undivided federal Union was the “main pillar” supporting the “tranquility,” “prosperity” and “liberty” of the people of New Jersey. Since there is no explanation about why a mere alteration in the national borders would change any of those abstractions, historians should more thoroughly investigate why the Northern states chose to fight instead of letting the cotton states leave in peace. As explained in earlier posts, there’s considerable evidence suggesting that Northerners wanted to “preserve the Union” in order to avoid the economic consequences of disunion.

 

*  Contemporary Southerners interpreted the Northern war-motivating expression “to preserve the Union” as a euphemistic translation for “coercing the seceded states back into the Union.” Since “preserving the Union” is presently the dominant description among historians, their choice underscores the ancient wisdom that winners write the history.