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Chapter 16: the Southern Confederacy.

  • Origin of the troubles.
  • -- standpoint of the Southern people. -- the slavery question. -- views of the Constitution. -- Mr. Lincoln's election. -- Confederate Government organized. -- its policy. -- opinion in the South. -- Virginia. -- Lincoln calls for troops. -- revulsion and secession of border States. -- War. -- Bethel. -- Manassas. -- its results. -- comparative strength of the sections. -- Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, West Virginia.

As the purpose of this biography is to set forth, not to justify, the acts and opinions of its subject, a discussion of the causes of the civil war would here be out of place. Success gives strong ground for self-complacency, and so does martyrdom. Hence the very conclusiveness of such an argument, while not needed to confirm the faith of its believers, would only serve to arouse anew the prejudices of adversaries. Nor is it necessary to the truth of history; since all the phases of that famous controversy, though settled at last by the arbitrament of the sword, had been thoroughly sifted and debated, before this final appeal, by orators, statesmen, and jurists — and by an innumerable throng of politicians, preachers, philanthropists, editors, writers, and talkers.

Nevertheless, it seems necessary here to state briefly the standpoint of the Southern people, as an historical fact. In a struggle so momentous and so unequal, it is impossible to understand the motives that influenced the best men of the South to maintain her cause with such unexampled unanimity and devotion, without knowing the beliefs and opinions upon which their action was based.

In 1861 long-pending disputes between the slaveholding and non-slaveholding States came to an issue. Springing primarily, doubtless, from the difference in social organization, the more immediate causes of strife were certain real or imaginary collisions of material interests, a different mode of interpreting the Constitution, and the agitation for the abolition of negro-slavery. Of the first, there were none so vital as to be incapable of adjustment, as had been shown in the tariff compromise with South Carolina in 1832-33. Nor would theoretical differences about the Constitution have assumed so dangerous a form, unless they had been embodied in a sectional or revolutionary movement. But, at the South, it was the Northern method of dealing with the slavery question which was considered not only sectional and revolutionary, but unjust and dangerous to its property and liberties.

The material interests and social and political difficulties involved in the slavery question rendered it impossible for the South to consider it dispassionately. On the other hand, the sentimental and philanthropic origin of the slavery agitation in the North made it impossible to fix any legal or constitutional limits to the abolition crusade. At the South the Constitution was regarded as an historical document. It was a charter [250] conveying to the Federal Government, as the agent of the States, certain well-defined powers for certain specific purposes; all powers not thus explicitly granted being reserved to the several States. The instrument was to be strictly construed; and a breach of the covenant entitled the aggrieved party to redress, the measure of which the State must fix, as no common tribunal had been established for that purpose. This involved the right of withdrawal from the Union, either by peaceable secession or by revolution. In the extreme South the former was regarded as the legitimate method. When the emergency arose, those States attempted thus to exercise their right.

In the North these primitive views of the Constitution were changed by an immense influx of European immigrants, who, controlled by speculative republicans, regarded the Constitution as a mere Bill of Rights, and the mission of the republic to be the emancipation and illumination of the world. A modern national, or rather an imperial, theory cf the nature of our Government prevailed there. Legalists gave form and color of authority to attacks on slavery, which were regarded in the South as willful, dangerous, and manifest infractions of the Constitution.

The irritations of the controversy were great and growing. The loss of $1,000,000 worth of slaves annually; aids to their escape and incitements to their insurrection; resistance to their rendition when fugitives, by mobs, or by nullifying State laws; appeals to the “higher law” of conscience as overruling the Constitution ; and the intemperate invectives of the abolitionists, engendered a bitter and unmeasured resentment in the South. This was evinced in words and acts.

It is true that, when Mr. Lincoln was elected President in 1860, the Republican party made the basis of its creed the exclusion of slavery from the Territories of the Union by act of Congress. But this will hardly be regarded now as more than a mere phase of the antislavery agitation. It was so considered in the South then. It was there held to be a gross violation of the Constitution. The success of this party opened to the South a vista of unnumbered ills. The Gulf States resolved on immediate separation: South Carolina began by seceding December 20, 1860; the others quickly followed; and the government of the Confederate States was formed.

The Confederate Government was organized February 8, 1861, by South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, which adopted a Constitution not differing materially from the old one. It was not of the provisions of the Constitution that they complained, but of their infraction. The Convention of Texas passed an ordinance of secession February 1st, which was ratified by a vote of the people February 23d, and went into effect March 2d. Thus, the seven most southern States presented a compact front to the Union, from the Rio [251] Grande to the Atlantic. The party in those States which had preferred cooperation to separate State action found in the prompt organization of the new Confederacy a more practical solution of their policy than in prolonged and indecisive deliberation, and at once coalesced with their opponents.

The Provisional Congress, which met at Montgomery, Alabama, elected Jefferson Davis, of Mississippi, President, and Alexander H. Stephens, of Georgia, Vice-President; and the new government fell into shape, and went into operation, with as little friction as if it had stood the tests of a decade. All of its utterances were pacific; and, though the President did not share the expectation, many of the leaders and a large part of the people confidently believed that they would be permitted to separate without war. This delusion, and a kindred one indulged in by certain dreamy statisticians and turgid orators, and formulated in the phrase “Cotton is king,” encouraged a vainglorious, apathy in the masses, and enabled their representatives to paralyze in many essential points the policy of preparation which the President undoubtedly desired to inaugurate. Still, the fervid condition of the public mind enabled him to secure appropriate legislation on most matters of the first importance. An instance of the inadequacy of the provision for war is to be found in the appropriation by the Mississippi Legislature, after the act of secession, of $150,000 for armament, when Mr. Davis recommended $3,000,000. The language and acts of the “cotton” fanatics lent plausibility to the idea that union with the border States was scarcely desired by the extreme South.

The establishment of the Confederate Government had the effect, in the other Southern States, of drawing more sharply the lines which divided opinion. Scarcely anybody in them had wished for disunion, though many believed it inevitable; and, on the other hand, there were few willing to avow themselves unconditional submissionists to Federal decrees. Those hopeless of compromise and peace now began to urge measures that would place their States in a position for defense, and thus give weight to their voice in the final settlement. They advocated either an alliance with the Confederacy, or such prompt and simultaneous action as would secure sufficient constitutional guarantees, or at least convince the North that war was not expedient. On the other hand, the unconditional Union men were able to point out to the rich, the timid, and the indifferent, that a disruption along the line between the free and slave States exposed the border States to great peril and damage; and that the precipitate action of the cotton States, without proper delay for conference or cooperation, was derogatory to their dignity, and with the selfish view of interposing them as a barrier to Northern aggression, or of coercing them “to follow South Carolina.” The reply to this was, that the Unionists had prevented that cooperation [252] whose failure they now resented; that the danger was to all, and resistance to be effectual must be united, and hence that punctilio as to forms was absurd; and that complete armament and a solid front would be the strongest arguments for peace, and the only way to restore the Union as it was.

Between these extremes halted the body of the people. They were indignant at the conduct of the Republican party, but unconvinced that secession would afford a safe remedy for their grievances. If they should abide in the Union, their liberties and property were at the mercy of hostile legislation; if they went with the South, they were in danger of subjugation by the sword. Hence the final decisions and actions of persons were governed more by their circumstances and characters than by their abstract opinions. While the Unionists condemned all preparation for war, as leading to that result, the State-rights men denounced vacillation and apathy as the prelude to submission to tyranny and political death. To a community in doubt, inaction is the natural policy; and it only needed moderation and a pacific purpose on the part of the Administration to have preserved the Union intact in seven Southern States, and to have inaugurated measures of peaceful reconstruction with the others. But this would not have accorded with the designs of its leaders; and, though President Buchanan is reviled for permitting the peaceful withdrawal of half the Southern States, President Lincoln is applauded for driving the other half into armed resistance. A survey of the whole field evinces the fact that the border States, though averse to disunion, and not satisfied with the prospect of the Confederacy, were resolved to maintain their own rights, as they understood them, and to resist the coercion of the seceding States.

The voice of Virginia had all along been for conciliation, but without sacrifice of principle. Her traditions, her moderation, and her unwavering courage, gave her the right to be heard, but her counsels were drowned in the tumult of passion.

The Virginia Convention, in spite of the failure of many well-meant efforts to save the Union by compromise, as late as the 4th of April, rejected, by a vote of eighty-nine to forty-five, a motion to submit an ordinance of secession to the popular vote. Fort Sumter surrendered on April 13th, after thirty-four hours resistance; and on the 15th of April President Lincoln issued a proclamation, under the pretended authority of an act of Congress of 1795, calling on the Governors of the several States for militia-75,000 in the aggregate — to suppress certain “combinations” in the seceding States. Governor Letcher, a sturdy patriot, replied on the 17th:

I have only to say that the militia of Virginia will not be furnished to the powers at Washington for any such use or purpose as they have in view. Your object is to subjugate the Southern States, and a requisition made upon me for [253] such an object — an object, in my judgment, not within the province of the Constitution or the act of 1795-will not be complied with. You have chosen to inaugurate civil war, and, having done so, we will meet it in a spirit as determined as the Administration has exhibited toward the South.

On the same day Virginia passed an ordinance of secession, subject to a ratification by the vote of the people on the fourth Thursday of May following.

The decisive step taken by Virginia, in placing herself in the breach, is among the most heroic acts in history. The issue was not of her choosing, but was forced upon her; she did not seek it, neither did she shrink from or evade it. Detached from the Confederacy by States still passive, she was, even with their support, a salient, inviting attack; an advanced post with no natural barriers, no other defenses than her indomitable sons. But she counted upon the derided chivalric instinct of the South to come to her rescue, and she was not disappointed. The responses of the Southern Governors were in a like spirit with Letcher's. Jackson, of Missouri, replied, “Your requisition is illegal, unconstitutional, diabolical, and cannot be complied with.” Harris, of Tennessee, said, “Tennessee will not furnish a single man for coercion, but 50,000, if necessary, for the defense of our rights or those of our Southern brethren.” All acted with vigor, except in Kentucky and Maryland. Arkansas and Tennessee seceded May 6th, and North Carolina May 20th. The popular vote, to which the several ordinances were submitted, ratified them by overwhelming majorities. In Tennessee, which had a little before refused by a large popular majority even to call a convention, the ordinance of secession was now passed by a vote of 104,913 for, to 47,238 against it. In Virginia, the vote was 125,950 for, and 20,273 against secession. There was a similar revulsion of feeling in the other States; and the change was due, not as Greeley and other Northern writers allege, to fraud and intimidation, but to despair of justice and peace, and a resolution to resist coercion.

Most of the Union leaders gave in their adhesion to the new government with more or less frankness and zeal, and notably the Hon. John Bell, of Tennessee, the late Union candidate for the presidency; and party distinctions were lost in patriotic emulation. The only marked exception was in the mountain-region of Western Virginia and East Tennessee, in which prevailed the spirit of unconditional submission. This sentiment, and its vulnerability, enabled Mr. Lincoln, with the aid of ambitious local leaders, to effect the schism of West Virginia, and, by a proceeding totally unconstitutional and revolutionary, to establish it as a State. In East Tennessee, a sedition was organized by Andrew Johnson, T. A. R. Nelson, and William G. Brownlow, which proved a constant source of weakness and danger to the Confederacy.

Passing by, for the present, transactions in Maryland, Kentucky, [254] and Missouri, brief mention will suffice, in this connection, of the military events which happened before General Johnston's arrival at Richmond. The reduction of Fort Sumter and President Lincoln's call for 75,000 men for “the irrepressible conflict” were met with tumultuous fervor at the North as the signal for war. The North gave its men and money without stint to the work of “putting down the rebellion.” Three months time was set apart for the work, and troops were hurried to Washington, ostensibly to protect the capital, but, in fact, as the advance-guard of the army of invasion.

As “the defense of the capital” made Washington the first and most important base of the Federal army, so the adoption of Richmond as the Confederate seat of government made that city the objective point of attack. As Virginia had placed herself in the fore-front of battle, and must bear its brunt, a magnanimous wisdom led the Confederates to plant their standard on her border, “point to point opposing.” The Confederate Government was established at Richmond, June 1st.

When the Southern States seceded, they seized the Federal fortifications within their limits, as a precautionary measure, offering, however, at the same time, to adjust their claims thereto by negotiation. Of all the Federal fortresses in those States, Fort Pickens, near Pensacola, Florida, and Fortress Monroe, near Norfolk, Virginia, alone remained in the hands of the United States. In retiring from the navyyards at Pensacola and Norfolk, and the arsenal at Harper's Ferry, the United States troops had wrought all the damage and destruction they could; but, still, enough arms and material of war fell into Confederate hands to perform an important part in the resistance of the South, unprepared as it was for the struggle.

The war opened with a slight skirmish at Bethel, near Fortress Monroe, June 10th, in which the Federals were repulsed with loss by a smaller force of Confederates. The effect of Bethel and some other skirmishes was to exalt, perhaps unduly, the confidence of the Southern troops; but this was chastened by reverses in West Virginia, which seemed about to admit the enemy by a postern to the citadel. The Federal plan of campaign, apparently, was to envelop the shores and frontiers with its armies and navies, and test every joint in the armor of defense; but its main attack was directed from Washington-“on to Richmond.”

It is not necessary to narrate here the campaign in Virginia. The battle of Manassas, or Bull Run, fought July 21, 1861, began and ended it. Its story is well known.

The immediate advantages of the victory were very great. The effect abroad was enormous. Time had been gained, so valuable an element of success in revolutions, and prestige, so valuable in every [255] contest. There was a reverse to the picture, however. The North, suddenly checked in its vainglorious boast of subjugating the South in ninety days, sobered itself down to a steadier prosecution of its deadly purpose. Scott and McDowell went into eclipse, and McClellan was called to the work of organization and command. Nevertheless, operations were closed on that line for nearly a year, and the activity of preparation was transferred to the West. In the South an undue and ignorant exultation blinded the masses of the people to the dangers ahead. They could not be made to believe that preparation was necessary to meet the formidable armaments gathering for their destruction. The effects of this fatuous apathy at such a season extended themselves to the close of the war; but the first stunning result was felt by the subject of this memoir, in his efforts to create an army for the defense of the West. This will be seen more fully hereafter.

The map of the Southern States and the distribution of population there evince the odds encountered in the vain struggle for independence. The eleven seceding States, including the present State of Virginia, contained a little more than 5,000,000 whites, and about 3,700,000 negroes, of whom 130,000 were free. The aggregate population of Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri, was about 3,400,000; of whom 2,850,000 were white, 446,000 slaves, and 100,000 free negroes. Nearly one-sixth of their population was black; a fourth belonged to families from Europe or the North; and a twelfth is not a large estimate for persons influenced by party or other considerations to side with the North. Thus, a half of the aggregate population may be counted as in sympathy with the North; but, of the voters and of the rich and intelligent, a great majority were in favor of the South, and the existing local State governments were all in the hands of the State-rights party. But it is one thing to believe in ideas, and another to fight for them; and the troops furnished by these States to the Confederate army-say 40,000 men — were not more than an offset in numbers to the counter-current of Union refugees from East Tennessee and other disaffected localities. Deducting, then, 5,000,000 for the population that supplied the Confederate army with troops, and 4,000,000 for negroes, etc., from the 31,500,000 total population, 22,500,000 represent the available force for men and tribute on which the United States drew, without counting foreign enlistments and negro recruits. But, if Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and West Virginia, are excluded from the calculation altogether, the result still leaves in the South only 5,100,000 whites and 3,700,000 blacks, representing the resisting force, against 19,000,000 of the North.

A brief explanation is necessary to show how these border Commonwealths were so easily transferred from their natural alliance with the South to the side of her adversary. The situation was different in [256] each; yet all were alike in being exposed to direct and flank attacks, in suffering from a divided sentiment, and in earnestly desiring peace. Geographically, Maryland was a mere fringe to the Southern border. The ocean, Chesapeake Bay, and the Potomac, laid open all her homes to attacks by water; while the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the railroads from Philadelphia and Harrisburg were channels along which poured the living tide to Washington. In a word, the State was defenseless; and, unless her people could have been brought to act with unanimity and promptness in some early cooperative movement, her resources would necessarily be counted in the scale of the North. Her voice was raised in indignant protest and her hand in unavailing defiance against the Northern host that overran her and trampled out her liberties; but the voice was soon silenced in the dungeon, and the hand manacled by martial law. Henceforth, Maryland's quota to the South was paid in suffering, exile, and martyrdom. When the Federal troops occupied Alexandria, Virginia (May 24, 1861), the Potomac became the boundary.

In West Virginia, though the State was occupied by large Federal armies, and its severance accomplished as a political fact, the State-rights men maintained their allegiance to the “Old dominion” by stubborn warfare until the close of the contest; and its eastern border was at all times a “debatable ground.” On this field General McClellan gained his first distinction, which raised him, as the successor of Scott, for a time to the chief command of the United States Army. The movements in this quarter from the Ohio River Valley as a base, though well contested in many a bloody combat, resulted on the whole advantageously to the North.

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