Ep. 95: The Politics of the Confederacy

Conservative or not, the Confederates would have to revolutionize their approach to the war before they could ever hope to win it.

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The Confederacy, being far less developed industrial-wise than the Union, had to revolutionize their approach to the war before they could ever hope to win it. Therefore, they had to create the conditions that allowed for the expedition of war-effort necessities. For example, some southern railroads companies existed almost entirely to service the government’s military efforts.

During the Civil War, what was the difference between a ‘conservative’ and a ‘revolutionary’? Were the confederates conservatives or revolutionaries? Did the Confederacy exhibit a type of wartime socialism?

Further Reading:

Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War, written by Jeff Hummel

War Socialism and the Confederate Defeat, written by Chris Calton

Karl Marx and the American Civil War, written by Donny Schraffenberger

Related Content:

The Confederacy and Liberty, written by Jason Kuznicki

Was the Civil War a Libertarian Moment?, Liberty Chronicles Podcast

Why Did the Southern States Secede?, written by Anthony Comegna

Anthony Comegna: A few weeks ago in our interview with Professor Mark Smith, we briefly discussed the concept of a revolutionary sound: the whoop and holler raised in the streets of Charleston in December, 1860 when South Carolina reclaimed her independence from the Union. As the Declaration of Secession was read, the white population of Charleston burst into an audible revolution to match their new political position. About four months later, Charleston exploded with yet another revolutionary sound as the city battered Union Major Anderson’s men in Fort Sumter. The Confederates claimed they were leading a conservative revolution—Secession from an overreaching national government that Republicans were using to fight their own moral crusades. Just as the Founders revolted against Britain to protect their ancient rights and liberties as Englishmen, so too the Confederacy was now revolting against the Union to protect the way things had always been, to protect the compact as originally instituted, and to preserve its terms inviolate. Well, that’s what they said—but just as the sounds of Charleston harbor betrayed the project’s revolutionary nature, so too did the widespread adoption of socialism as a means for fighting the war. You might even say the Confederacy was America’s largest and most significant radical experiment in socialism.

Anthony Comegna: Before we get into the actual course of the revolution in southern life, let’s remind ourselves of some complicating factors in the period’s intellectual history. Remember when we spoke with Phil Magness about the proslavery extremist George Fitzhugh. Fitzhugh was never popular—most southerners found his endorsements of white slavery absolutely disgusting and historically retrograde. But, most southerners may well have agreed with his sense that slavery was a progressive institution. Defending slavery was conservative in some sense, especially the way Fitzhugh thought about it. Remember, for him, slavery hearkened back to the feudal period when noblemen and serfs established mutually beneficial social bonds, webs of reciprocal obligations that linked each level in the social hierarchy. As Fitzhugh studied history and sociology, including Marx, he saw rising classes of capitalists crowding out the traditional lord-serf or master-Slave relations and replacing them with wage slavery that dissolved all reciprocal obligations and left every man a free agent. That is, capitalists wiggled out of the lord and master’s obligations to care for their laborers and the laborers became like Cannibals, constantly competing with one another for scraps from the bosses.

Anthony Comegna: Now, that’s the sense in which Fitzhugh and proslavery in general were conservative—sometimes downright reactionary. But!—remember also from Phil Magness that Fitzhugh always argues that Marxists and other socialists should in fact favor slavery. We highlighted his statement that slavery was indeed the highest form of socialism and free society was a terrible basis on which to build your socialist utopia. Free societies had no organizing principles whatsoever—or so he thought—so there was no possible way for Marx’ “new socialist man” to arise there. There would be no working class solidarity because working people were constantly (if figuratively) eating one another. Free societies had no room for socialist interests in the common welfare because individualism encouraged people to look after themselves at all costs, indulging in decadence and wasting human energy in incalculable ways.

Anthony Comegna: For Fitzhugh and proslavery thinkers in general, free society suffered from a severe lack of patriarchs. The true socialist would embrace plantation slavery, factory slavery, and whatever other sorts as the real best means to administer society in the interests of those who labored and those unable to produce profits for a capitalist. Siphon socialist interests through a series of great patriarchs and their representative governments, and you would produce a revolution in human affairs that both recognized the value of ancient institutions like slavery and harnessed its organizational power for progressive purposes. To the most proslavery of proslavery thinkers, slavery was both wisdom from the past and the way to a better future—for the white race first and foremost, but for everyone else down the chain as well. Good for the lord, good for the serf, they might have said. A good patriarch made sure to coordinate everyone’s interest without them all having to fight it out. One big patchwork of happy, healthy households.

Anthony Comegna: But wait! We still aren’t ready to get to wartime socialism yet! I should also note that since at least the 1830s and events like the Charleston mails crisis, southern political culture tended toward greater and greater support for bigger and bigger government. Usually this played out at the state level because as we have seen, proslavery politicians  recognized that the Constitution must be treated as a castle wall which the abolitionists must not be allowed to breach. In their views, the Constitution was most valuable as a shield against antislavery, so most of the time proslavery people demanded state support elsewhere. For much of the period, though, the Slave Power exercised near complete dominance over national policy making and they rarely missed opportunities to bend the national government to service the planters as well. From the Fugitive Slave law which essentially conscripted northerners into slavecatching posses to the Dred Scott decision that nationalized slavery, southerners routinely demanded free Americans deliver up their rights as sacrifices to social order and racial slavery. It should be no surprise, then, that the exigencies of war both rapidly accelerated the South’s intellectual drift toward patriarchal socialism and created the conditions for revolutions of all sorts.

Anthony Comegna: To set the table for us, we are going to DeBow’s Review, probably the most influential periodical in 19th century southern history, a constant source of cutting edge information and opinion consumed by modernizing planters, yeomen, and working people alike, quoted and clipped by newspapers everywhere. Our selection comes from the May to August edition of 1862, just about a year out from the war’s turning turning point. 1863  was the year of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his preliminary emancipation proclamation. Here, in 1862, our author begins by laying the bare, harsh reality before his audience—they chose this revolution, and now they must carry it through or literally lose everything.

Speaker: DeBow’s Review, Vol. 33, 1863. Our Danger and Our Duty. What have we to expect if our enemies prevail? Our homes…are to be pillaged, our cities sacked and demolished, our property confiscated, our true men hanged, and those who escape the gibbet, to be driven as vagabonds and wanderers in foreign climes. This beautiful country is to pass out of our hands. The boundaries which mark our States are, in some instances, to be effaced, and the States that remain are to be converted into subject provinces, governed by Northern rulers and by Northern laws. Our property is to be ruthlessly seized and turned over to mercenary strangers, in order to pay the enormous debt which our subjugation has cost. Our wives and daughters are to become the prey of brutal lust. The slave, too, will slowly pass away, as the red man did before him, under the protection of Northern philanthropy; and the whole country, now like the garden of Eden in beauty and fertility, will first be a blackened and smoking desert, and then the minister of Northern cupidity and avarice. Our history will be worse than that of Poland and Hungary. There is not a single redeeming feature in the picture of ruin which stares us in the face, if we permit ourselves to be conquered. It is a night of thick darkness that will settle upon us. Even sympathy, the last solace of the afflicted, will be denied to us. The civilized world will look coldly upon us, or even jeer us with the taunt that we have deservedly lost our own freedom in seeking to perpetuate the slavery of others. We shall perish under a cloud of reproach and of unjust suspicions, sedulously propagated by our enemies, which will be harder to bear than the loss of home and of goods. Such a fate never overtook any people before.

Speaker: The case is as desperate with our enemies as with ourselves. They must succeed or perish. They must conquer us or be destroyed themselves. If they fail, national bankruptcy stares them in the face; divisions in their own ranks are inevitable, and their Government will fall to pieces under the weight of its own corruption. They know they are a doomed people if they are defeated. Hence their madness. They must have our property to save them from insolvency. They must show that the Union cannot be dissolved, to save them from future secessions. The parties, therefore, in this conflict can make no compromises. It is a matter of life and death with both—a struggle in which their all is involved….

Anthony Comegna: The Review insists that the Confederates were emphatically not revolutionists—rather (surprise, surprise) they are conservatives defending all that is good and right against the Yankee Leviathan. Notice, though, that for a conservative, our author certainly recognizes a widespread and deep-reaching danger that could transform southern society if the North was victorious. He also recognized the titanic nature of the effort necessary to sustain their independence. Conservative or not, the Confederates would have to revolutionize their approach to the war before they could ever hope to win it.

Speaker: On the other hand, we are struggling for constitutional freedom. We are upholding the great principles which our fathers bequeathed us, and if we should succeed, and become, as we shall, the dominant nation of this continent, we shall perpetuate and diffuse the very liberty for which Washington bled, and which the heroes of the Revolution achieved. We are not revolutionists—we are resisting revolution. We are upholding the true doctrines of the Federal Constitution. We are conservative. Our success is the triumph of all that has been considered established in the past. We can never become aggressive; we may absorb, but we can never invade for conquest, any neighboring State. The peace of the world is secured if our arms prevail. We shall have a Government that acknowledges God, that reverences right, and that makes law supreme. We are, therefore, fighting not for ourselves alone, but, when the struggle is rightly understood, for the salvation of this whole continent. It is a noble cause in which we are engaged. There is everything in it to rouse the heart and to nerve the arm of the freeman and the patriot; and though it may now seem to be under a cloud, it is too big with the future of our race to be suffered to fail. It cannot fail; it must not fail. Our people must not brook the infamy of betraying their sublime trust. This beautiful land we must never suffer to pass into the hands of strangers. Our fields, our homes, our firesides and sepulchers, our cities and temples, our wives and daughters, we must protect at every hazard. The glorious inheritance which our fathers left us we must never betray. The hopes with which they died, and which buoyed their spirits in the last conflict, of making their country a blessing to the world, we must not permit to be unrealized. We must seize the torch from their hands, and transmit it with increasing brightness to distant generations. The word failure must not be pronounced among us. It is not a thing to be dreamed of. We must settle it that we must succeed. We must not sit down to count chances. There is too much at stake to think of discussing probabilities—we must make success a certainty, and that, by the blessing of God, we can do. If we are prepared to do our duty, and our whole duty, we have nothing to fear. But what is our duty?…

Speaker: In the first place, we must shake off all apathy, and become fully alive to the magnitude of the crisis. We must look the danger in the face, and comprehend the real grandeur of the issue. We shall not exert ourselves until we are sensible of the need of effort. As long as we cherish a vague hope that help may come from abroad, or that there is something in our past history, or the genius of our institutions, to protect us from overthrow, we are hugging a fatal delusion to our bosoms….

Anthony Comegna: Well, there’s the build up. Now just get ready for the deluge of statism to wash out the definitions of “conservative” and “revolutionary.” Say what you will about southerners wanting to defend traditional this or that, but the following sentiments are absolutely anything but conservative in the American context. In a fearful torrent of blindly devoted southern nationalism our author declares that during such a crisis the state must become everything and the individual nothing—we must give our leaders our full support no matter what, we must give up whatever material comforts might help the cause, southern gentlemen would have to give up their aristocratic lifestyle—a cornerstone of the whole traditional society here! Finally, even the barest of military ethics codes should be abandoned and the people must fight to their very last or the awful Yankee and the Slave would combine their might and forever destroy southern civilization. To prevent that, virtually anything could be justified, including levels of statism not seen in America since colonial Virginia’s Laws Divine, Martial, and Moral, instituted when Jamestown was disappearing from starvation and desertion to the Indians.

Speaker: We must be brought to see that all, under God, depends on ourselves; and, looking away from all foreign alliances, we must make up our minds to fight desperately and fight long, if we would save the country from ruin, and ourselves from bondage. Every man should feel that he has an interest in the State, and that the State in a measure leans upon him; and he should rouse himself to efforts as bold and heroic as if all depended on his single right arm. Our courage should rise higher than the danger, and whatever may be the odds against us, we must solemnly resolve by God’s blessing, that we will not be conquered. When, with a full knowledge of the danger, we are brought to this point, we are in the way of deliverance, but until this point is reached, it is idle to count on success.

It is implied in the spirit which the times demand, that all private interests are sacrificed to the public good. The State becomes everything, and the individual nothing. It is no time to be casting about for expedients to enrich ourselves. The man who is now intent upon money, who turns public necessity and danger into means of speculation, would, if very shame did not rebuke him, and he were allowed to follow the natural bent of his heart, go upon the field of battle after an engagement and strip the lifeless bodies of his brave countrymen of the few spoils they carried into the fight. Such men, unfit for anything generous or noble themselves, like the hyena, can only suck the blood of the lion. It ought to be a reproach to any man, that he is growing rich while his country is bleeding at every pore….This spirit must be rebuked; every man must forget himself, and think only of the public good.

Speaker: The spirit of faction is even more to be dreaded than the spirit of avarice and plunder. It is equally selfish, and is, besides, distracting and divisive. The man who now labors to weaken the hands of the Government, that he may seize the reins of authority, or cavils at public measures and policy, that he may rise to distinction and office, has all the selfishness of a miser, and all the baseness of a traitor. Our rulers are not infallible: but their errors are to be reviewed with candor, and their authority sustained with unanimity. Whatever has a tendency to destroy public confidence in their prudence, their wisdom, their energy, and their patriotism, undermines the security of our cause. We must not be divided and distracted among ourselves. Our rulers have great responsibilities; they need the support of the whole country; and nothing short of a patriotism which buries all private differences, which is ready for compromises and concessions, which can make charitable allowances for differences of opinion, and even for errors of judgment, can save us from the consequences of party and faction. We must be united. If our views are not carried out, let us sacrifice private opinion to public safety….Nothing could be more dangerous now than scrambles for office and power, and collisions among the different departments of the Government. We must present a united front.

Speaker: It is further important that every man should be ready to work. It is no time to play the gentleman; no time for dignified leisure. All cannot serve in the field; but all can do something to help forward the common cause. The young and the active, the stout and vigorous, should be prepared at a moment’s warning for the ranks. The disposition should be one of eagerness to be employed; there should be no holding back, no counting the cost. The man who stands back from the ranks in these perilous times, because he is unwilling to serve his country as a private soldier, who loves his ease more than liberty, his luxuries more than his honor, that man is a dead fly in our precious ointment. In seasons of great calamity the ancient pagans were accustomed to appease the anger of their gods by human sacrifices; and if they had gone upon the principle of selecting those whose moral insignificance rendered them alike offensive to heaven and useless to earth, they would always have selected these drones, and loafers, and exquisites. A Christian nation cannot offer them in sacrifice, but public contempt should whip them from their lurking holes, and compel them to share the common danger. The community that will cherish such men without rebuke, brings down wrath upon it. They must be forced to be useful, to avert the judgments of God from the patrons of cowardice and meanness.

Speaker: Public spirit will not have reached the height which the exigency demands, until we shall have relinquished all fastidious notions of military etiquette, and have come to the point of expelling the enemy by any and every means that God has put in our power. We are not fighting for military glory; we are fighting for a home, and for a national existence. We are not aiming to display our skill in tactics and generalship; we are aiming to show ourselves a free people, worthy to possess and able to defend the institutions of our fathers. What signifies it to us how the foe is vanquished, provided it is done? Because we have not weapons of the most approved workmanship, are we to sit still and see our soil overrun, and our wives and children driven from their homes, while we have in our hands other weapons that can equally do the work of death? Are we to perish if we cannot conquer by the technical rules of scientific warfare? Are we to sacrifice our country to military punctilio? The thought is monstrous. We must be prepared to extemporize expedients. We must cease to be chary, either about our weapons or the means of using them. The end is to drive back our foes. If we cannot procure the best rifles, let us put up with the common guns of the country; if they cannot be had, with pikes, and axes, and tomahawks; anything that will do the work of death is an effective instrument in a brave man’s hand. We should be ready for the regular battle or the partisan skirmish. If we are too weak to stand an engagement in the open field, we can waylay the foe, and harass and annoy him. We must prepare ourselves for a guerilla war. The enemy must be conquered; and any method by which we can honorably do it must be resorted to. This is the kind of spirit which we want to see aroused among our people. With this spirit, they will never be subdued. If driven from the plains, they will retreat to the mountains; if beaten in the field, they will hide in swamps and marshes, and when their enemies are least expecting it, they will pounce down upon them in…dashing exploits. It is only when we have reached this point that public spirit is commensurate with the danger.

Anthony Comegna: Now that DeBow’s Review has cleared the better part of our intellectual table, let’s go to Jeff Hummel’s book Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men to see the extent of Confederate war socialism. I’ve said before that this book is the best libertarian treatment of the Civil War there is, and sections like this one show why. The first major spark toward war socialism was an urgent need for weapons manufacturing and a dozen other types of industrial production necessary for warmaking. As Hummel notes, in 1860 a single Connecticut county produced ten times the value of firearms as the entire South. The only major manufacturing center was Richmond’s Tredegar Iron Works, but over the next few years the Confederate state jumpstarted home industry, rocketing the South from dependence on agriculture to a sort of proto-Industrial Revolution. The state and the military established factory after factory, making all sorts of war materiel from chemicals to shoes, salt to flour. For a period, a state-run powder works was the world’s second-largest of its kind, outsized only by an English firm. If the state could not provide its needs directly, it often demanded requisitions of goods from private owners at prices the state dictated or they hatched schemes for public-private partnerships, that modern phrase for national socialism or corporatism. Here’s Jeff Hummel: “The Rebel government sometimes loaned one-half the start-up capital to businesses, which in turn had to sell two-thirds of their production to the government. Because rigid regulations and soaring inflation made genuine profits impossible, private owners, one after another, turned their factories over to the public officials.” Very early in the war, the government violated the Confederate Constitution by loaning money to the private sector for railroad projects. Article 1, Section 8 of the Confederate Constitution said “neither this, nor any other clause contained in the constitution, shall ever be construed to delegate the power to Congress to appropriate money for any internal improvement intended to facilitate commerce,” but the state justified its overreach with the sorts of apocalyptic military excuses given in DeBow’s Review from our reading. Some railroad companies existed almost entirely to service the government’s military efforts and by the end of the war, Jefferson Davis outright nationalized whatever railroads, steamers, and telegraphs the Union hadn’t already captured, and their employees became government workers. To run and manage all of this mess, the Confederate state erected a bureaucracy more than 70,000 people strong. At the state level, governments micro-managed farmland usage to maximize food output and minimize the cultivation of cash crops like cotton and tobacco. They banned liquor production—a prelude to the Progressive imposition of Prohibition during World War One. In 1864, the Confederate Congress effectively nationalized shipping and banned all imports deemed non-essential to the war effort. By the end of the war, many southerners—Jeff Davis included—stood ready even to abolish slavery if it meant preserving white supremacy and patriarchy in some form. Anything that would save them from Lincoln’s Black Republicans.

Anthony Comegna: Remember those Confederate sailors we spoke with Mark Smith about, crammed into the Hunley submarine in a desperate, suicidal attempt to break the blockade? There was a revolutionary feeling to go along with the revolutionary sounds and the revolutionary socialism—white southerners packing themselves into ships like so many African slaves, working themselves into dust for the state and its management class. By the war’s end, most people had not necessarily given up, but they were certainly straining to support the state’s unending demands on their society. Not only had they claimed the economy for themselves, violated the laws they supposedly cared so much about, and led the southern states into a disastrous war, but now the planters and the political class were willing to abandon the basis of southern civilization itself if it meant maintaining their own grip on independent political power. For generations after the war being raised to hate Jefferson Davis was a hallmark of the true southerner. They tried their radical experiment in slaveholder socialism, and it was such a colossal failure that it threatened to consume slavery itself along with everything else. When the Yankees forced abolition on them, though, the southern states sunk back into their native conservatism, their hyper reliance on agriculture, and the glue that kept them together from time immemorial: white supremacy.