The Myth Of The Confederacy
by Graham Lee.
Had the Confederate States of America been a human being rather than a nation, its tombstone might have read, "Born: Montgomery, Alabama, Feb 10th 1861; Died (of a theory): Irwinville, Georgia, May 10th 1865", and been recorded as a statistic of infant mortality. The life of the fledgling state - the "Other" America, as it were - was short indeed, its lifespan numbering but fifty-one months. Of those, all but two were spent at war.
The War Between the States has left behind a plethora of evidence, not just anecdotal and documentary, but (for the first time ever on this scale) photographic too. In the 135 years that have passed since peace was restored, this evidence has been sifted and sorted, dissected and discussed ad infinitum. We are able to know (almost on an hourly basis) what took place during those years. My interest lies, however, in the realm of "what-might-have-been".
What would have happened had Lincoln refused to fight? How would history have shaped had Beauregard pressed home his advantage after the first battle of Bull Run/Manassas, taken Washington and captured the Union government? My own opinion is that, in this event, the date of death on my theoretical tombstone is just as likely to have been advanced as delayed for the Confederacy carried, within itself, the seeds of its own demise. To understand my contention let us look at the Confederate States of America in four areas; those of geography, economics, politics and population. This will demonstrate how precarious was their position.
The Geographic Confederacy
We know that, at its largest, the CSA comprised the land area of all the eleven states which seceded from the Union. We know too that a further four slave states - the so-called "border states" of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware - remained politically within the Union, though not necessarily in sympathy with its ideals. Had the Confederacy been granted (on whatever terms) its independence or achieved the same on the battlefield, it is likely that one or more of these states would have changed their allegiance from Washington to Richmond. (Indeed it is quite possible that the secession of Maryland may well have made the position of the Federal capital untenable, forcing the North to relocate its seat of government.)
There are many possible in/out combinations of those states, but, regardless of whichever finally came about, this could only affect the shape and not the nature of the border between the USA and the CSA. From El Paso in the south-west to Cape May in the north-east, the Confederacy would have shared a continuous border with the Union of approximately two thousand miles. The CSA would have been - for the purposes of expansion - on the wrong side of that border, cut off from the benefits of the westward migration which had been taking place for the past two decades and which, within the next two, would link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. We have no reason to doubt that the "move West" would have continued. Indeed, it may well have proceeded at even greater speed with no war to slow its progress.
Jefferson Davis, we are told, dreamed of an "Empire in the South", extending from the Confederacy of which he was President, on into Mexico and thence to the Central American nations. Unless he was prepared to go to war on the issue, he would have needed first to rely on the compliance of Mexico. As that nation has, apparently, demonstrated no great desire to join the USA in more recent times there is no reason to suspect that they would have agreed with Davis' idea so soon after achieving their own independence. A fully independent Confederate States of America, therefore, would have been forced to remain largely within the boundaries it occupied historically, unable to expand its landholding without crossing a border into another sovereign nation. That act alone would have caused the Confederacy to lose whatever goodwill it may have attained around the world, goodwill which would have been vital to the new nation's survival.
The Economic Confederacy.
In the event of gaining its independence, the Confederacy's first concern must have been the hasty re-establishment of cordial relations with their former countrymen in the North. How well they achieved this, however, would have depended largely on the exact terms on which the "Two Americas" parted company.
The Confederacy's economic base had always been Agriculture, with Industry in a minor role. Until 1861 this had not mattered too greatly, for supplies of manufactured goods had been readily available from the North. Unfortunately, the Union would now have become a separate nation from the Confederacy, able to impose whatever tariffs and sanctions it wished upon its rebellious neighbor. That it would have done so is virtually certain as the issue of import tariffs had been a bone of contention between the two sides for many years. Anything the South produced would, overnight, have become"imported foreign goods" while the North could charge whatever price it wished for any goods it may supply. They would have been superbly placed to wage economic war where military skills had failed.
Certainly, an independent Confederacy would probably have retained the goodwill of its traditional trading partners, Britain and France, whose own textile industries would, economically, have been no less dependant upon Southern cotton than before. One thing the Confederacy could not do, however, was to bring Europe any closer physically than it already was. Three months (minimum) would still be necessary for a merchant vessel to complete the round trip and nothing could change that. Europe, therefore, for the Confederacy, could only be a long term base for future prosperity and unable to supply its short-term requirements. The South's immediate needs, therefore, would have to be fulfilled from short-term profits so that it could begin building its own industries and make itself economically (as well as politically) independent from the North. Its only source of short-term profit in the required amounts would have been cotton.
In today's world the Confederate States of America may well have qualified for loans from, for example, the World Bank under the heading, possibly, of "aid to developing countries". In the 1860's no such help was available and the Confederacy would have been forced to borrow money from the major powers such as Britain and France. In that case, repayment of those loans would be a high priority issue affecting, for many years, the South's profitability. For this reason its survival would depend not only upon the goodwill of foreigners, but, to a greater extent, on its own Planter/Slaveholder class. If we look at the lessons that the real history teach us, we see that the government in Richmond never received this goodwill, even in time of war. How likely would they have been to receive it if there had been only peace?
To demonstrate what history tells us about the loyalty of the slave-owners to their Confederacy I quote one example. When asked to hire to the government ("hire", you notice, not "give freely of") the services of their slaves (for the purpose of building defenses, etc., for the Army), Patriotism demanded that those slaves be force-marched into Texas in their thousands - causing hundreds of them (at an average value of, shall we say, $500 apiece) to die along the way - rather than put them at the disposal of that government the Planters claimed to support. Had my parents' generation shown the same fortitude during World War II, Adolf Hitler would have been making speeches from the balcony of Buckingham Palace by, at the very latest, August 1940!
It appears to me that, in the minds of those who ran the South (rather than those who did the fighting) the War was fought not so much about the issue of States' Rights - particularly the right to own slaves - as about the protection of the profits to be made from slavery. Had the rest of the Confederacy's population shown the same level of idealism as did its - for want of a better term - Aristocracy, the fighting may well have been over very quickly.
The Political Confederacy.
Looking back through history, I find it very difficult to define what Confederate politics actually were! I admit that this, in part, is caused by my own lack of first-hand knowledge of American politics, so I stand to be corrected on this issue. It appears, though, that secession took place at a time when the United States was possibly at the most politically confused time of its entire history. Alliances had been splitting and reshaping for a decade - a process that only the war would stop. The fact that the CSA spent such a large proportion of its life at war also prevents a clear picture of peacetime Confederate politics from forming. By the time the war ended, of course, there was no Confederacy (and, therefore, no Confederate politics) on which to base my speculations.
I will, therefore, make some educated guesses. Secession having been brought about by the election of the Republican, Lincoln; it is fair to assume that Confederate politics would (in the beginning at least) have been broadly Democratic in nature. Judging by those selected to fill the Congressional seats, however, one must suggest that "Plantocratic" may have been a better description. As I suggested in the previous section, concepts such as "states' rights" and "self-determination" appear, at this level, to have been little more than euphemisms for "self interest".
We can judge the likelihood of the Confederacy's political survival, however, from the very basis of its inception. By allowing individual freedom within the overall framework of Society, the United States is founded on the precept that the whole is stronger than the sum of the individual parts. The Confederate States of America, on the other hand, appears to have been founded on an exactly opposite precept where the rights of the individual states are greater than those of the collective whole of the Federation. Indeed, that is how, historically, they appear to have conducted the affairs of their new nation and, in doing so, produced one major victim - their own President!
It has been said, not without justification, that the Confederacy truly existed only within the mind of Jefferson Davis. Certainly he seems to have been the only Southern politician to understand the need for individual states to pool their resources for collective survival. Every attempt he made, however, towards the centralization necessary for the conduct of the war was met with resistance from individual states - who, incidentally, still expected him, as Commander-in-Chief, to prosecute a successful war against the North. That Davis succeeded in holding his fragile nation together so long only serves to demonstrate his abilities as a politician and makes one wonder just how much better the Confederacy may have fared had he received the co-operation he needed and speculate on how good a President he might have been had he (under other circumstances) made a successful bid for the White House.
The matter of the inclination of Confederate politics may have been largely immaterial in terms of the overall success or failure of the new nation, as the political leanings of other countries would also have played a large part in determining its eventual fate. As long as slavery remained in place, abolitionism would have remained an issue, not just in the North but in other parts of the world as well.
I have already said that I believe the North to have been in perfect position to wage economic war on the South, it is also quite possible that the political will of the Union would, sooner or later, have demanded that the United States do so. Opinion in Europe, too, may well have changed in the event of Southern independence. Certainly, Britain and France had been importing Southern, slave-produced cotton for many years. In their defense, however, it must be said that they had been importing those goods from the United States of America which could, itself, rightly claim not to be a nation operating widespread slavery. The politicians of Europe could, therefore, find it expedient to ignore the specific provenance of the fibre it was importing.
The same could not be said of dealings with an independent Confederacy whose Constitution specifically protected the institution of Slavery rather than (as in the original) pushing the matter under the historical carpet of the "rights of the individual". With Abolitionist movements still strong, and mostly successful, in Europe, the British and French governments may well have come under pressure to curtail dealings between their own industries (however dependent they may be on the raw material) and an openly-declared slave nation.
At that moment in time both Britain and France were at the very pinnacle of their Colonial power, and the issue of slavery may well have forced both countries, jointly or separately, to look around their own Colonies and Dominions for an alternate source of supply. This would, no doubt, have reduced the profitability (in the short term) of their indigenous textile industries, but may well have been viewed as the correct political move in that it would cleanse imports of the raw material from the "taint" of Slavery.
The Confederacy's Population.
It would be easy to assume, from what I have already written, that the population of the Confederacy was made up entirely of planters and their slaves with a few politicians added just for balance. These, however, are the classes of person who influenced the Confederacy economically and politically. They were a very long way from making up - or even being representative of - the Southern populace.
At the outbreak of the War Between the States, the population of the Confederate States of America numbered approximately nine million souls. Of these, some four million were negro slaves, imported or bred for the sole purpose of producing wealth for others. That wealth, however, was far from evenly spread among the remaining five million who constituted the white population. The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of the Confederacy's population had no direct connection with slavery at all, nor with the wealth it produced. In the main these people were farmers with little acreage (and even less need for slaves), sharecroppers, tradespeople or following one of the myriad other occupations which go to make up a nation.
I cannot say with any certainty how many people in the South benefitted directly from slavery. However, judging by the size and location of the plantations and other considerations, I would estimate the number of people directly benefitting from slavery (planters and their families, plantation overseers and their families, slave traders, etc.) as being less than 200,000 souls. Even if this figure was 250,000, that would still leave 95% of the white population of the Confederacy not being involved directly with the institution of Slavery. In an independent Confederacy, however, this would be the group most quickly and most deeply affected by the consequences of Slavery in the form of externally-imposed sanctions, just as, historically, it was the group which provided the vast majority of the fighting men.
From whichever direction one views the problem, the Confederacy as a sovereign nation would have suffered a great deal of political and economic pressure from within and without. The end result of this would have been, at best, a period of "adjustment" and, at worst, total financial depression. In either case the privations imposed would have been felt first and worst by those who did not have the cushion of wealth; in other words, the 95% not involved directly with negro slaves.
It would be wrong to assume, too, that this 95% of the population was in complete agreement with the aims of the Richmond government. History shows us that, of the eleven states which made up the Confederacy, only South Carolina (the original secessionist) did not supply at least one regiment of troops to fight on the Union side. Unionism remained strong within the Confederacy and independence, granted or won, would not have changed this at all. Again, this Unionist feeling was most apparent among the 95% not benefitting directly from Slavery.
Thus a different picture of the Confederacy begins to emerge, that of a largely rural community dominated economically and politically by a plutocracy of plantation and slave owners willing to subvert the needs of the many for the profit of the few. In the Old World this would have been viewed as nothing more than the natural order of things. America, however, is based on different values, where individual talent and ability counts for something and where individual expression is not only allowed but demanded as a basic tenet of life. How long would the average "man in the street" have remained silent within a Confederacy founded along the lines I have described? Not very long I suggest.
Thus we come down to it. The biggest threat to the stability of the Confederate States of America as a sovereign and independent nation would not have come from without but from within. I have no doubt that a civil war would have been fought at some stage. Granting of independence to the Confederacy would merely have shifted the point of focus.
And so I reach my conclusion. This piece is merely an essay, a recording of my personal thoughts and opinions based on what I have read, added to what I already knew. Being British by birth I have no particular axe to grind. I favour neither North nor South. Why should I? I wasn't around to affect the outcome anyway. On balance, however, I have to say that had I been around, I would have fought for the Union side, not because I now live in a "loyal" state but because I do not believe that any man hold rights of ownership over any other, and that the color of a man's skin is a matter of geography, not biology.
My feeling on the matter, even after this very superficial treatment of the subject is that the Confederate States of America was doomed from its very inception. The reasons for this came from within rather than from without, although the pressure from without would have been considerable in itself. Specifically, the CSA would have found itself cut off while its neighbor, the Union, would have continued its westward expansion. It would have needed to greatly increase its cotton production without any assistance from this expansion. Politically, it was little more than a loose coalition of states which shared similar opinions on States' Rights. Those very opinions, however, would have prevented the degree of centralization necessary to successfully produce a nation. Finally, the CSA was formed (in essence) to protect the interests of the slaveowners - maybe 5% of the white population - while paying little regard to the needs of the remaining 95% of the population. All in all, a recipe for disaster.
One day I hope to address this subject in greater detail to cover areas such as the Southern mindset which was, at the same time, dependant upon, and fearful of its slave population, and what effect the increase in the slave population - necessary because the South must have increased its production of cotton to survive - would have had on the Southern psyche.
I leave with this thought. History is the study of what was. The War Between the States (my diplomatic and neutral British upbringing dictates that I call it so) is a matter of recorded fact. The outcome is unchangeable and, thus, the America we now know and love is as it is. We ought not spend our energy on "might-have-beens" for they, had they come to pass, would have led to something far different from what we know today. That said, however, I cannot deny that speculation is Fun!
Footnote: About the Author.
mentioned above I am British by birth. Specifically, I was born in London 51 years ago and
lived in that city (with the exception of my college years) until 1984 when we moved away
because of my work. In 1986 we settled in Southampton where I remained until my first
marriage broke up in 1998. At that time I took up an offer of refuge from one of my
Internet friends in Ohio in order to "get my head together". We soon
discovered that there was something more than friendship between us and this led to my
becoming a permanent U.S. resident in April 2000. Patti and I were married a month later.
We live in Toledo, Ohio.
By profession I am a pharmacist and have been qualified as such for 27 years. I now find myself in the position, however, of having to go back to school in order to get my Ohio license. This will take approximately two years.
My interests are many and varied. Writing, however, is a relatively new hobby which I discovered as an outlet after the death of my father and which enabled me to deal with the loss in a practical (and, ultimately, enjoyable) way which I would recommend to anyone in a similar position. I leave it to you the reader to judge if I possess any talent.
This Page last updated 01/26/02
RETURN TO ESSAYS AND ARTICLES PAGE