The Civil War 1850–1865
The Confederate Side: 1861–1863
A feeling of triumph erupted throughout the South when the Confederate government was formed in 1861. A sense of liberation pervaded the secessionist states, as Southerners believed they could finally be free from the tyrannous North, which sought to undermine the slave-based economy and Southern way of life. Most secessionists saw themselves as neopatriots, carrying on the revolutionary tradition of their forefathers to safeguard liberty. Many in the South saw Lincoln as the new King George III of Britain and viewed the South as the righteous underdog.
Southerners were also optimistic about their chances of winning the war. They realized that the North would have to fight an offensive war on Southern territory, whereas the South had only to fight a limited war to defeat Union armies or match them in a stalemate. As a result, many Southerners saw victory as inevitable.
The Confederate Government
Delegates from the first seven states to secede—South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Louisiana—formed the government of the new Confederate States of America in Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1861. They wrote a new constitution, established a new capital at Richmond, and chose Jefferson Davis as president.
Federation vs. Confederation
Although the government of the Confederacy looked on the surface much like the government of the United States—the Confederacy used the U.S. Constitution as a template—the two were in reality quite different. As states’ righters, the drafters of the Confederate constitution made sure that their federal government was relatively weaker than the governments of the individual states. Whereas the United States was a federation of states bound by a strong central government, the South was a decentralized confederation of states loosely allied with each other for common defense. In many ways, the Confederacy resembled the United States under the Articles of Confederation. As it turned out, though, the Confederacy’s weak central government proved to be a major handicap during the war.
Although Davis had had more political experience than Lincoln—he had served as secretary of war and as a U.S. senator—he proved an ineffective commander-in-chief. Unlike Lincoln, he underestimated the importance of public opinion and as a result did not connect well with voters. Moreover, his nervousness and refusal to delegate authority alienated many of his cabinet secretaries, cabinet members, and state governors. As a result, he often had difficulty controlling his government.
The Confederacy’s greatest weakness was the difficulty Davis’s government had in controlling the individual states—the same problem the national Congress had faced under the Articles of Confederation. Though Davis attempted to assemble a national army to match the powerful Union forces, the Southern states did not work together to facilitate the undertaking, and Davis had no real way to force the state governors to comply and send men. As the war dragged on, some governors even refused to let their troops cross state lines to assist fellow Confederates who needed backup.
Also like the national Congress under the Articles, the Confederate government had serious financial troubles throughout the war because few states paid their fair share. The central government even had trouble keeping the Confederacy together during the war: in 1861, Unionists in western regions of Virginia seceded from the Confederacy and then rejoined the Union as the new state of West Virginia two years later.
The Conscription Act
The Richmond government did manage to pass the Conscription Act of 1862 to draft young men in all the Confederate states into the national army. As Richmond got more desperate for troops, the draft was extended to middle-aged men as well. The law, like the North’s law, was biased against poorer Southerners in favor of the elite. Wealthy planters and landowners were exempt from the draft, as were overseers and anyone else whose job was vital to maintaining control over the slaves. As a result, the army was filled with farmers and landless whites, many of them disgruntled. Blacks were excluded from military service.
One of the Confederacy’s most pressing goals during the war was to secure international recognition from Europe and enter a military alliance with Britain. International recognition would legitimize the Confederacy and justify its cause. An alliance with Britain would break the Union blockade of Southern ports and supply the Confederacy with arms and badly needed manufactured goods.
At the war’s outset, Confederate policymakers banked on recognition and an alliance because they believed Britain was very dependent on Southern cotton. Planters in the Confederacy provided 75 percent of the cotton that British textile manufacturers consumed.
Indeed, Britain allowed Southern ships to use its ports and even built Confederate warships, such as the Alabama, which sank more than sixty Union ships on the high seas. British shipbuilders also agreed to build two ironclad warships with Laird rams, which the Confederates could use to pierce the hulls of enemy ships.
Unfortunately for the South, however, Davis was never able to parlay this British assistance into a formal recognition or alliance. First, the Confederate government had overestimated Britain’s cotton dependence. Although most of Britain’s cotton came from the South, it became clear that British textile manufacturers had bought from the South only because it was cheaper. As a result, though the Union blockade of Southern ports temporarily hurt the British textile industry, the industry bounced back quickly after switching to cotton suppliers from Egypt and India.
Perhaps more important, despite London’s rocky relationship with Washington, D.C., war threats from Lincoln kept the British at bay, especially after the resounding Union victory at the Battle of Antietam (see Major Battles, p. 38 ). As a result, the Laird rams were eventually scrapped, and Richmond lost all hope for help from the outside.
Collapse of the Southern Economy
Unable to break through the Union blockade—and thus unable to buy goods or sell cotton—the Confederacy experienced a massive economic collapse in 1862 and never recovered. Individual states and private banks printed more cheap paper money to counter the depression, but these measures only worsened the situation by causing inflation.
This inflation spiraled into a situation of hyperinflation, in which the value of the Confederate dollar dropped rapidly, sometimes even from hour to hour. Meanwhile, because of drought conditions, food became scarce in some areas. In 1863, things got so bad that a group of Virginians, many of them women, looted the Confederate capital in the Richmond Bread Riots, searching for food and taking out their frustration on their government.