Tag Archives: Civil War Cotton Trade

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 (6-9-2017)

(June 9, 2017) Although the intent of the post from Civil War Voices is to justify the sacking of a Mississippi town, the article documents that some Union soldiers in the lower Mississippi River Valley admitted that they felt justified in shooting female civilians who were interfering the lucrative wartime cotton trade.

Below from the same blog is a video of aged Confederate veterans performing the Rebel Yell.

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Sample Chapter: Trading With the Enemy

Provided below is a free copy of the Introduction for my book, Trading With the Enemywhich is about intersectional commerce between the North and South during the Civil War.    Abundant footnotes are provided in the book, but not in this free sample.

The ways of the dollar are always devious. — Walter Tevis, The Hustler


On June 7, 1863, the Confederate commerce raider Clarence forced the US flagged Alfred H. Partridge to stop off the North Carolina coast. The raider anticipated the Partridge would be the second of an eventual string of twenty-one prizes. Normally, seized merchant ships were burned or used to transport previously captured crews to a safe harbor. But upon boarding the schooner, the Rebels discovered it was bound for Matamoras, Mexico, out of New York with a cargo of arms and clothing for Texas Confederates. Consequently, the Partridge was set free.

Since Matamoras was a neutral Mexican port, federal warships could not blockade it. Before the Civil War, only about one ship annually cleared New York for the Mexican town. However, a year after the war’s first important battle at Bull Run, the average was about one per week. Ships to Matamoras were also cleared from Boston, Philadelphia, and other Northern harbors. Cargoes included a multitude of Northern-made items that would have been considered contraband if shipped directly into the Confederacy. They encompassed weapons, munitions, and military uniforms, among other articles. For Northerners willing to help arm the Confederacy for a profit, Matamoras was little more than a legal fig leaf to cover dubious, if not treasonable, conduct.

In exchange, Southern planters provided cotton from fields as far away as Arkansas, Louisiana, and east Texas. They typically loaded wagons with twenty cotton bales and set out in caravans over crude trails ending in Brownsville, Texas, across the shallow Rio Grande River from Matamoras. En route teamsters were vulnerable to unpredictable water shortages and attack from hostile Native Americans, and outlaws of all types. Next to specie (gold and silver coins), cotton was the most acceptable international exchange medium available to North Americans, whether in the Union or Confederacy. Adroit, clever, and sometimes ruthless contraband-for-cotton traders accumulated fortunes in Matamoras and Brownsville.

One example was Connecticut-born Charles Stillman, who sold Rebel cotton out of Matamoras to buyers in Northern states, including the US government. His chief cotton supplier was a putative Confederate-loyal Texan who changed sides after federal troops temporarily occupied Brownsville in November 1863. In order to prevent interference from the newly arrived Yankee soldiers, he swore an oath of loyalty to the Union.

After the war, Stillman was one of the wealthiest Americans and a major shareholder in New York’s National City Bank. His son, a grandson, and a great-grandson each served as National City’s board chairman, the great-grandson as late as 1967. Presently, the bank is known as Citicorp. Two of Charles Stillman’s granddaughters married into the Rockefeller family.

Despite its legal circumvention advantage, Matamoras was a comparatively minor part of Civil War interbelligerent trade. More often, the exchange was directly across enemy lines. The practice became important about a year after the opening shots at Fort Sumter, in spring 1862, as the cotton-trading centers at New Orleans and Memphis were captured.

When Union Major General Benjamin Butler arrived in New Orleans with fifteen thousand occupation soldiers in May 1862, his net worth was about $150,000, but six years later it was $3 million. Although the lawyer-general was too shrewd to incriminate himself, there is little doubt the gain was primary achieved by trade with the enemy.

By summer 1862, Union Major General William T. Sherman at Memphis complained that Northern traders were buying Southern cotton for gold, which he believed the Rebels next used to buy weapons at Nassau in the Bahamas and even in Cincinnati. In an August 1862 letter to his brother US Senator John Sherman of Ohio, General Sherman wrote, “Cincinnati furnishes more contraband goods than [leading blockade-running port] Charleston, and has done more to prolong the war than the state of South Carolina.” A few months later, Major General Ulysses Grant captured Confederate cavalry in northern Mississippi armed with modern carbines evidently purchased at occupied Memphis.

Trading Cover
Ladies were not excluded from such trade and were sometimes especially effective. They were generally held less accountable for violations, and soldiers were hesitant to physically search them. For example, while Union Captain Julius Ochs was assigned to a unit guarding the St. Louis-to-Cincinnati railroad, his wife was caught trying to smuggle quinine in a baby carriage across an Ohio River bridge to Rebels in Kentucky. Somehow Captain Ochs got the charges dropped, but his wife’s dedication to the South persisted. After the war, she joined the United Daughters of the Confederacy while her husband became a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans organization. Their eldest son, Adolph, became a Chattanooga, Tennessee, newspaperman. Shortly before the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, Adolph bought a failing New York newspaper, added the words “All the News That’s Fit to Print” to its masthead, and launched the New York Times toward national prominence. Continue reading

To Speak at Charleston Civil War Roundtable: Trading With the Enemy

On Tuesday, September 8, 2015 I will be making a presentation on my Civil War Book, Trading With the Enemy to the Charleston, South Carolina Civil War Roundtable.

When:   Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Where: Ryan’s Steakhouse
829 St. Andrews Boulevard
Charleston, South Carolina 29407

Time:    Dinner: 6:00 p. m.     Speech: 7:00 p. m.

Topic:    Trading With the Enemy

Trading With the Enemy concerns inter-belligerent commerce between the North and South during the Civil War, excluding the minor trade among fraternizing enemy soldiers.

Such commerce was large and scandalous. About twice as much cotton went to Northern states as was shipped through the blockade to Europe. Aside from gold, cotton was the best international exchange medium available in America. Although Civil War shipment tonnage dropped sharply, cotton prices soared over ten-fold thereby sustaining a robust dollar volume.

When Northern traders purchased cotton with specie, the gold invariably found its way into markets where it bought weapons for the Confederacy. Contrary to popular belief such markets were not necessarily international. Major General William T. Sherman complained that Rebels purchased weapons in Cincinnati from the cotton they sold for gold to Memphis traders.

Trading Cover

Evidence suggests a number of notable Civil War personalities were involved in dubious – perhaps treasonous – conduct. Examples include Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, Major General Benjamin Butler and Rhode Island Senator William Sprague. One cotton trader became the largest shareholder of New York’s National City Bank. At different times, his son, grandson, and great-grandson all served as the bank’s Board Chairman, the last as late as 1967.

Perhaps because the story provides no heroes, little has been written about inter-belligerent trade. Nonetheless, an 1865 joint Senate-House investigation led by Illinois Congressman Elihu Washburne concluded: “[The trade] is believed to have led to a prolongation of the war, and to have cost the country thousands of lives and millions upon millions of treasure.”


Amazon links to my three Civil War Books:

Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated