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Chapter 27: dollars, Cents, and less.

  • Results of inflation
  • -- comparative cost of living North and South -- how army and officials were paid -- suffering enhances distrust -- barter currency -- speculation's vultures -- the Auction Craze -- hoarding supplies -- gambling -- Richmond faro-banks -- men met there -- death of Confederate credit -- the President and Secretary held to account -- nothing but mismanagement.
    And now, looking back to the struggling and suffering South, one asks with wonder how these results could have transpired.

    Unlike the North, the South went into the struggle with her whole soul and her whole strength. Every man came forward with one accord, willing to work in the way he best might for the cause he held sacred; ready to give his arm, his life, and all he had beside, for the general good. Whole regiments were put into service, armed, uniformed and equipped, without costing the central government one dollar; and in some instances — as of that spotless knight, true gentleman and pure patriot, Wade Hampton-raised by the energy, paid for by the generosity, and led to death itself by the valor of one man! Corporations came into this general feeling. Railroads put their rolling-stock and their power in the hands of the Government; agreeing, as early as the origin of the Montgomery government, to take their pay at half rates and in government bonds. Banks put their facilities and their circulation, manufacturers their machinery and foundries their material, at public disposition, for the bare cost of existence. Farmers and graziers cheerfully yielded all demanded of them! And how the women wrought-how soft hands that had never worked before plied the ceaseless needle through the tough fabrichow taper fingers packed the boxes for camp, full from self-denial at home-shall shine down all history as the brightest page in story of noble selflessness.

    In the deadly hail of hostile batteries; in the sweltering harvestfield of August, and at the saddened and desolate fireside of December, the southern people wrought on-hoped on!

    And the result of all this willing sacrifice was greatly to reduce the burdens on the treasury. For reasons before stated the southern army was smaller, and its transportation cost far less, than that of the enemy. Its equipment was far cheaper, and its subsistence for every reason infinitely smaller. [231]

    Still, with an outlay per diem scarcely more than one-tenth that of the North--which amounted to near $4,000,000! daily; with the teeming fields and bursting warehouses filled with cotton — a year back, auriferous in every fiber-worthless now; and with a people thus united to act and to aid it, the Southern Treasury continued to flood the country with paper issues, based only on the silver lining of the cloud that hung darker and ever darker over the South.

    With one-tenth the population in the field and the rest working for them, there was no real demand for this inordinate issue. One-tenth the volume of currency properly distributed, with a coincident issue of bonds, would have relieved the actual necessities of buyer and seller. But still the wheels worked on-still Treasury notes fluttered out, until every bank and store and till was glutted with them.

    Then the results of the inflation came with relentless and rapid pace. With the people still convinced of the inevitable outcome of their united efforts; with the thinkers of the South still evolving their theories of the philosopher's stone to change all this mass of paper into gold; and with the press of the country blatant about the speedy and certain collapse of northern credit; above all, with millions of pounds of cotton rotting in our warehouses-Confederate money, little by little, bought less and less of the necessaries of life.

    At first the change was very gradual. In the summer of 1861, persons coming to Richmond from Europe and the North spent their gold as freely as the Treasury notes. Then gold rose to five, ten, fifteen, and finally to forty per cent. premium. There it stuck for a time. But the issues increased in volume, the blockade grew more effective, and misgivings about the Treasury management crept into the minds of the people. Gold went up again, ten per cent. at a jump, until it touched a hundred--then rapidly to a hundred and fifty.

    “ The whole system looks devilish blue,” said Styles Staple, who was curing an ugly wound in his thigh. “I've been writing ‘the house’ about it, and the Gov. thinks the hour has passed for utilizing the cotton. If that can't be impressed by the Government, the whole bottom will fall out of this thing before many months.”

    “ If it ever passes the two hundred,” solemnly quoth the colonel in answer, “egad, sir! 'twill go up like a rocket! Up, sir! egad! clean out of sight!” [232]

    I candidly answered that I could not see the end of the inflation.

    “ I do,” Styles growled-“Repudiation!”

    “Well, that's no end of a nobby thing!” cried Will Wyatt, who was always bored about anything more serious than the last book, or charging a battery. “Cheerful that, for a fellow's little pile to go up like a rocket, and he not even to get the stick.”

    “He can have the smoke, however,” answered Styles more cheerily, as he hobbled over and gave a $5 note for a dozen cigars.

    And this began rapidly to be the tone, everywhere out of trade. A vague feeling of insecurity about the power of the Government to check the onward flood of issue prevailed in all classes. This produced a reckless expenditure for anything tangible and portable. And at last the colonel's prediction was verified; for money touched the two hundred per cent., and went up-up-by the one hundred; until in a time incredibly short-and with such a suddenness that people had no time to be surprised — the Confederate treasury note stood still for a moment, worth twenty to one for gold

    This may be accounted for, in small part, by the scarcity of supplies and the increasing efficiency of the blockade. But it must be remembered that the value of gold remained a constant quantity and the gold dollar in Richmond, note-flooded and blockade-bound, bought more of almost any article than it ever had before.

    With a string of active vessels watching every port and cove, to snap up the daring ventures between the island ports and the coast; with a powerful enemy thundering at every point of entrance to southern territory, still the fortunate man who had gold, or who could draw upon Europe, or the North, actually lived much cheaper than in any place beyond the lines! Singular as this statement may appear, it is actual fact. At this moment-before the depreciation of currency became such as to give it no value whatever-board at the best hotels in Richmond was $20 per day-equivalent to $r in gold, while it was $3 in New York, or Washington; a suit of clothes could be had for $600 or $30 in gold, while in New York it cost from $60 to $80; the best whisky was $25 per gallon-$I. 25 in gold, while in the North it was more than double.

    Rapidly gold rose in the market, and in the absence of stocks became the only vehicle for financial gambling. From time to time, as a brilliant success would grace Confederate arms, the fall of [233] Treasury credit would be checked. But it was only for the moment --and it went down steadily, rapidly, fatally. And as steadily, as rapidly and as fatally did the Treasury shuttles fly; spinning out the notes, like a whirlwind in autumn. And tighter grew the blockade, and fewer the means of supply. Stocks on hand were long since gone; little came to replace them, and the rich were driven to great straits to live, while the poor almost starved.

    Away from the army lines and great centers of cities, the suffering was dreadful; impressments stripped the impoverished people; conscription turned smiling fields into desert wastes; fire and sword ravaged many districts; and the few who could raise the great bundle of paper necessary to buy a meal, scarce knew where to turn in the general desolation, to procure it even then. In the cities, it was a little better; but when beef, pork and butter in Richmond reached $35 per pound; when common cloth was $60 per yard, shoes $200 to $800 per pair, and a barrel of flour worth $1,400, it became a difficult problem to fill one's stomach at any outlay.

    And all this time the soldiers and Government employes were being paid on a gold basis. The private received eleven (afterward twenty-one) dollars per month-amounting at the end of 1863 to just fifty-five cents in coin! At the last payments, before the final actions at Petersburg, the pay of a private for one month was thirty-three cents!

    Nor were officers of the army and navy better paid. With their rank in the old service guaranteed them, they also received about the same pay, when gold and paper money were of equal value. Later Congress believed it would be a derogation from its dignity to “practically reduce the value of its issues,” as one member said, “by raising officers' pay.” Thus a lieutenant in the navy, probably of twenty years experience, and with a family dependent upon him, though debarred from all other labor, received $1,500 per year — equal in gold to the sum of $4.25 per month; while a brigadier, or other higher general, received nearly $8 per month.

    These things would provoke a smile, did they not bring with them the memory of the anguished struggle to fight off want that the wives and children of the soldier martyrs made. I have gone into detail further than space, or the reader's patience may warrant; and still, “Behold, the half is not told!”

    I would not, if I could, record the bitter miseries of the last [234] dreadful winter-paint the gaunt and ugly outlines of womanhood, squalid, famished, dying-but triumphant still. One case only will tell the tale for all the rest. A poor, fragile creature, still girlish and refined under the pinched and pallid features of starvation, tottered to me one day to beg work.

    “It is life or death for me and four young children,” she said. “We have eaten nothing to-day; and all last week we lived on three pints of rice!”

    Will Wyatt, who was near, made a generous offer of relief. Tears sprang into the woman's eyes as she answered, “You mean kindness, major; but I have never asked charity yet. My husband is at the front; and I only ask a right — to be allowed to work for my children!”

    Such were the sufferings, such the spirit of southern women!

    When it was too late-when the headlong road to ruin had been more than half-way run — some feeble attempts were made to stay the downward rush. Of course, they were useless-worse than useless, in that they made widespread a feeling of distrust, already deepseated with reflecting men. The volume of currency had reached such expansion that its value was merely nominal for purposes of subsistence, when the devices of Mr. Memminger to lessen it began to be pressed in earnest.

    The people had now begun to see that the whole theory of the Treasury was false; that the moment for utilizing the cotton supply had indeed been lost; and they murmured loud and deep against the Secretary and the President; whom they believed not only retained him in office, but endorsed his destructive policy. Mr. Davis, the people said, was autocratic with his Cabinet, and would have displaced Mr. Memminger summarily, had he not favored that peculiar financial system. Mr. Davis, too, was known to have been hostile to the absorption and exportation by the Government of all the cotton. He had, moreover, recommended against any legislation by Congress to contract the currency and stop the issues. Now, therefore, the inflation and utter inadequacy of the paper money was laid at his door, as well as Mr. Memminger's; and the people, feeling there was no safety for them, began to distrust the good faith of such reckless issue. A system of barter was inaugurated among the country people; and they traded off things only needful for others absolutely essential. [235] They began to feel a dread of taking the notes of the Government, and in many instances refused them utterly. And yet these very people yielded cheerfully to the constantly insolent, and not infrequently illegal, demands of the impressment officers.

    In the cities, too, a point had been reached where the promise of the Government to pay was looked upon as a bitter joke. Bonds were constantly refused in business transactions, and only Treasury notes — as a medium of temporary exchange — were accepted.

    Then, as a necessary measure, came the imperative order for funding the currency. All the millions of old issues were to be turned into the treasury, by a certain date, and exchanged for bonds. If the unlucky holder could not, or would not, deposit or exchange, he lost thirty-three per cent. of the value of the Government pledge he held. The old issues went rapidly out of sight; but the measure did not appreciably lessen the current medium, while it did very appreciably lessen the confidence in the integrity of the Department.

    It is but the first step in repudiation, thought the people. If Government will on any pretext ignore one-third of its obligation, what guarantee have we for the other two? And so, justly or unjustly, the country lost all faith in the money. Men became reckless and paid any price for any article that would keep. Tobacco — as being the most compact and portable — was the favorite investment; but cotton, real estate, merchandise-anything but the paper money, was grasped at with avidity.

    It has often been charged that speculators ruined the currency. But, to give the children of the devil their due-we can scarcely think but that the currency made the speculators.

    Had the plain system been adopted, by which the currency dollar could have ever approximated to coin, it would have been simply impossible for the holders of supplies to have run prices up to extortionate figures. Not that I would for one instant excuse, or ask any mercy for, those unclean vultures who preyed upon the dead credit of their Government; who grew fat and loathsome while they battened on the miseries of the brave, true men who battled for them in the front ranks of the fight. But while the fault and the shame is theirs, it may not be disguised that the door was not only left open for their base plundering, but in many cases they were urged toward it by the very hands that should have slammed it in their faces. [236]

    When we come to consider the question of the blockade, we may, perhaps, see this more clearly. Meantime, in glancing down the past by the light of experience, one can not but marvel at the rapid, yet almost imperceptible, epidemic that fastened incurably upon the people, spreading to all classes and sapping the very foundations of their strength.

    In the beginning, as vast crowds poured into Richmond-each man with a little money and anxious to use it to some advantagetrade put on a new and holiday dress. Old shops were spruced up; old stocks, by aid of brushing and additions, were made to appear quite salable and rapidly ran off. The demand made the meat it fed upon, until stores, shops and booths sprang up in all parts of the city and on all the roads leading into it from the camps. Graduallyfrom causes already noted-supplies became more scarce as money became more plenty. The pinch began to be felt by many who had never known it before; and almost every one, who had any surplus portables, was willing to turn them into money. In this way, those who had anything to sell, for the time, managed to live. But the unfortunates who had only what they needed absolutely, or who were forced to live upon a fixed stipend, that did not increase in any ratio to the decrease of money, suffered terribly.

    These were only too ready to take the fever of speculation; and to buy any small lots of anything whatever that might sell again at a profit. This was the class from which the main body of amateur speculators was recruited. One successful venture led to another and gave added means for it. The clerk, or the soldier, who yesterday cleared his hundred on a little turn in whisky, to-morrow might hope to double it-then reinvest his principal and his profits. It was marvelous how values rose over night. One might buy anything, a lot of flour — a line of fruits — a hogshead of molasses, or a case of boots to-day, with almost a certainty of nearly doubling his outlay to-day week.

    The ordinary channels of trade became clogged and blocked by its constant increase. Auction houses became the means of brokerage; and their number increased to such an extent that half a dozen red flags at last dotted every block on Main street. And incongruous, indeed, were the mixtures exposed at these sales, as well as in the windows of the smallest shops in Richmond. In the latter, [237] bonnets rested on the sturdy legs of cavalry boots; rolls of ribbon were festooned along the crossed barrel of a rifle and the dingy cotton umbrella; while cartridges, loaves of bread, packages of groceries, gloves, letter paper, packs of cards, prayer-books and canteens, jostled each other in admirable confusion.

    At these auctions there was utter want of system. Hogsheads of prime rum would be put up after kegs of spikes; a case of organdies would follow a good cavalry horse; and then might come four second-hand feather-beds and a hundred boarding cutlasses.

    But everything soever found a purchaser; some because they were absolutely needed and the buyer dreaded waiting the next week's rise,; the majority to sell again in this insane game of money-making.

    But varied as were the motives for speculation, the principal ones were breadstuffs and absolute necessities of life; and while the minor speculators — the amateurs-purchased for quick profits — the professional vultures bought for great ones and could afford to wait.

    The first class reached into every rank of society; the second were principally Yankee residents-caught in Richmond by the war, or remaining for the sole purpose of making it pay-and a smaller class of the lowest Polish Jews. Ishmaels both, owning no kinship and no country, their sole hope was gain-gain at the cost of reputation and credit themselves?-gain even at the cost of torture and starvation to the whole South beside. These it was who could afford to buy in bulk; then aid the rise they knew must come inexorably, by hoarding up great quantities of flour, bacon, beef and salt.

    It mattered not for themselves who suffered — who starved. It mattered not if the noble fellows at the front lived on a scant handful of cornmeal per day — if starving men died before the works they were too weak to mount — if ghastly objects in hospital and trench literally perished, while their storehouses burst with food-waiting for a rise!

    It is too ugly a picture to dwell upon. Suffice it that the human hyenas of speculation did prey upon the dying South; that they locked up her salt while the men in the trenches perished for it; that thrice they stored the flour the people felt was theirs, in such quantities and for so long, that before their maw for gain was glutted, serious riots of the starving called for the strong hand to interfere. And to the credit of Government and southern soldier, be it said-even in [238] that dark hour, with craving stomach and sickening soul--“Johnny Reb” obeyed his orders and guarded the den of the hyena — from his own hungering children, perhaps!

    No weak words of mine may paint the baseness and infamy of the vultures of the market. Only a Dor6, with a picture like his Frozen Hell, or Ugolino-might give it faint ideal.

    And with the feeling how valueless was the money, came another epidemic — not so widespread, perhaps, as the speculation fever; but equally fatal to those who caught it — the rage for gambling!

    Impulsive by nature, living in an atmosphere of constant and increasing artificial excitement, feeling that the money worth little today, perhaps, would be worth nothing to-morrow — the men of the South gambled heavily, recklessly and openly. There was no shame --little concealment about it. The money was theirs, they argued, and mighty hardly earned, too. They were cut off from home ties and home amusements; led the life of dumb beasts in camp; and, when they came to town-ho! for “the tiger.”

    Whether these reasons be valid or not, such they were. And really to the camp-wearied and battle-worn officer, the saloon of the fashionable Richmond “hell” was a thing of beauty. Its luxurious furniture, soft lights, obsequious servants and lavish store of such wines and liquors and cigars as could be had nowhere else in Dixiethese were only part of the inducement. Excitement did the rest, leaving out utterly the vulgar one of possible gain, so rarely did that obtain. But in these faro-banks collected the leading men, resident and alien, of the Capital. Senators, soldiers and the learned professions sat elbow to elbow, round the generous table that offered choicest viands money could procure. In the handsome rooms above they puffed fragrant and real Havanas, while the latest developments of news, strategy and policy were discussed; sometimes ably, sometimes flippantly, but always freshly. Here men who had been riding raids in the mountains of the West; had lain shut up in the water batteries of the Mississippi; or had faced the advance of the many “On-to-richmonds” --met after long separation. Here the wondering young cadet would look first upon some noted raider, or some gallant brigadier-cool and invincible amid the rattle of Min16-balls, as reckless but conquerable amid the rattle of ivory chips.

    So the faro-banks flourished and the gamblers waxed fat like [239] Jeshurun, the ass, and kicked never so boldly at the conscript man. Nor were they all of ignoble, memory. There is more than one “sport” in the South to-day, who made warm and real friends of high position from his acts of real generosity then.

    Whatever may be the vices of gamblers as a class, many a soldierboy will bear witness to the exception that proves the rule. One of the “hells” at least was a home for the refugee; and whether the Maryland soldier came dirty, and hungry and ragged from camp, with never a “stamp” in his pocket; whether he came wearied and worn, but “full of greenbacks,” from a trip across the lines — the post of honor at the table, the most cordial welcome and most generous glass of wine were ever his.

    However the holy may be horrified-however the princely speculator may turn up his keen-scented nose, I here record that, during the four years of dark and bloody war — of pinching want and bitter trial, there was no more generous, fiee-hearted and delicate aid given to the suffering soldier-boy, than came from the hand of the Baltimore faro-banker.

    So in Richmond high and low gambled — some lightly for excitement's sake — some dashingly and brilliantly — a few sullenly and doggedly going in to gain. Few got badly hurt, getting more in equivalent of wines, cigars and jolly dinners than they gave. They looked upon the “hell” as a club-and as such used it freely, spending what they had and whistling over their losses. When they had money to spare they played; when they had no money to spare-or otherwise --they smoked their cigars, drank their toddies and met their friends in chaff and gossip, with no more idea that there was a moral or social wrong than if they had been at the “Manhattan” or the “Pickwick” of to-day.

    I do not pretend to defend the habit; but such it was, and such all the men who remember the Capital will recognize it.

    Of that other class, who “went in for blood” --some got badly hurt in reputation and in pocket. But the dead cause has buried its dead; and their errors — the result of an overstrained state of society and indubitably of a false money-system-hurt no one but themselves.

    And so, with the enemy thundering at the gates; with the echoed whoo! of the great shells almost sounding in the streets; and with the [240] ill-provided army staggering under the burthen of defense-almost too heavy for it to bear — the finances of the Confederacy went from bad to worse — to nothing!

    The cotton that the alchemy of genius, or even of business tactmight have transmuted into gold, rotted useless; or worse, as a bait for the raider. The notes, that might have been a worthy pledge of governmental faith, bore no meaning now upon their face; and the soldier in the trench and the family at the desolate fireside-who might have been comfortably fed and clad — were gnawed with very hunger! And when the people murmured too loudly, a change was made in men, if not in policy.

    Even if Mr. Trenholm had the ability, he had no opportunity to prove it. The evil seed had been sown and the bitter fruit had grown apace. Confederate credit was dead!

    Even its own people had no more faith in the issues of their government; and they hesitated not-even while they groped on, ever on to the darkness coming faster and faster down upon them — to declare that the cause of their trouble was Mr. Memminger; with the President behind him.

    But, though the people saw the mismanagement and felt its cause --though they suffered from it as never nation suffered beforethough they spoke always bitterly and often hotly of it; stil, in their greatest straits and in their darkest hours, no southern man ever deemed it but mismanagement.

    The wildest and most reckless slanderer could never hint that one shred of all the flood of paper was ever diverted from its proper channel by the Secretary; or that he had not worked brain and body to the utmost, in the unequal struggle to subdue the monster he had created.

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