The Confederate States of America

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Part 5: The Confederacy and the War

The primary mission for the Confederate government, it seemed, was to prosecute the war. The central government found it increasingly difficult to finance the war effort, with either men or money. The various states had control of their militias and lent them to the central war effort with varying degrees of regularity. Confederate soldiers originally signed on for a 12-month term. A great many of those were killed in action or on the march or in a military hospital or in any number of accidents. However, a great many also served out their one-year terms and had no desire whatever to return to the fighting. The Confederate congress was forced to enact the first conscription law in the history of the American continent. Enacted on April 16, 1862, this law required men ages 18–35 to serve for three years. Not enough men in that age range were available, and so the congress, just seven months later, raised the upper age limit to 45. A final change to the age of conscription came on Feb. 17, 1864, when the age range became 17–50.

Also keeping down the number of men who could be deployed on campaign was the policy of exemption. State and Confederate officials were exempt from service, as were telegraph operators and transportation workers and even religious ministers. Those who were in these professions were deemed irreplaceable and so did not have to serve, even after the conscription law was passed. In October 1862, after the first change to the age range, the Confederate congress expanded the exemption list to include industrial workers and any man who was responsible for 20 or more slaves. The latter provision, especially, skewed the numbers of those conscripted in favor of the poor, as did the other prevalent practice, that of substitution. For a fee, a prospective soldier could nominate someone to take his place in the line of duty; this practice was abolished in 1863.

Finances were a problem as well. For a start, Article I, Section 9.9 of the constitution stipulated an exact plan for the what and the why: "All bills appropriating money shall specify in Federal currency the exact amount of each appropriation and the purposes for which it is made." Early on, the Confederate congress instituted a tax on all property that included slaves. The states found this money through borrowing rather than by collecting it from their citizens. This gave property owners more money to spend on their possessions and upkeep but created large amounts of debt that the states struggled to repay and the central government was forbidden from relieving. In 1863, the Confederate congress widened the net, introducing a direct income tax and a tax on agricultural products, including livestock. By this time, the farmers who bore the burden of such a tax were struggling and found it expedient–and, in many cases, rather easy–to avoid paying.

The Southern economy had risen to superstardom on the back of "King Cotton" and seemingly unlimited markets in Europe, especially in France and Great Britain. Now that the money to be paid for that cotton was going not to United States suppliers but Confederate States of America suppliers, the mood of those buyers was more reticent, especially when the tide turned against the Confederacy. One of the titanic struggles of Davis and his government was to get Britain, France, and other nations to recognize the Confederacy as a sovereign nation and treat it as such. Convinced in part by intense lobbying by U.S. representatives and in perhaps larger part by the Union naval blockade of Southern ports, those European nations never agreed to such recognition; coincidentally, they had large stores of cotton already when the war started and so didn't need to keep buying right away, when the Confederacy needed money to finance the buying of ammunition and artillery and the paying of soldiers; as the war dragged on, the onetime buyers of Southern cotton found it expedient to continue the trend of not buying and, more importantly, not granting loans that the Confederate government so desperately needed.

It was certainly true that not everyone who lived in a Southern state owned slaves or farmed cotton or was even in agriculture. And yet, the taxes being proscribed kept coming and were applied to rich and poor alike. As the war dragged on, particularly after Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, people who had no slaves felt more and more like second-class citizens, that the war was being fought to protect the institution of slavery and those who practiced it, rather than the Southern way of life as a whole. This added to tensions within the South at a time when the South needed unity.

In general, demand for food outstripped supply; the prosecution of the war exacerbated this problem, so much so that people turned violent when they couldn't afford food staples. One well-known bread riot occurred in Richmond in 1863, as men and women alike smashed shop windows and grabbed what food they could. This was not an isolated incident.

A central government that depended on its member states to supply men, money, and materiel might struggle to be in control of its own destiny. This was certainly the case with the Confederacy as the years went by: roads, bridges, and (perhaps most strategically) railroads languished in disarray, the funds for their repair tied up in red tape in Richmond. On a more general level, many things large and small went without repair, as people prioritized other things or did without.

Another headache for Jefferson Davis and his government was that in February 1863, many in the South were giving serious consideration to seceding from the Confederacy. Tired of taxes and other impositions, they wanted out, to run their own state, to do their own thing. As the war dragged on and the Union armies occupied more and more Southern territory, the number of proposed amendments to the constitution grew.

In the end, the North won the war, with more men and more weapons and more money and industry and, in some cases, luck. Union armies occupied the main Southern centers, alternating between taking over and destroying, depending on the circumstances. The Confederate government, already hamstrung by its constitutional restrictions, proved unable to provide for a war that was increasingly going the way of the Union. Staring down the barrel of defeat, many in the Confederate congress entertained the idea of a negotiated peace. Indeed, Lincoln and Seward took part in a peace conference with Stephens and other Confederacy representatives at Hampton Roads, Va., on Feb. 3, 1865. The two sides couldn't agree, and the Confederacy limped on.

Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. Davis and the rest of the Confederate government had evacuated Richmond the week before. The surrender of Joseph Johnston's Army of Tennessee on April 26 ended the fighting. Davis, on the run, ran out of options and was captured in Georgia on May 10. The war was officially over in June, when the last Confederate troops surrendered. The Confederate States of America was still in existence; however, without a government to run it or an army to protect it, the Confederacy was an empty shell. Its members gradually rejoined the Union, at which point the Confederacy officially ceased to be.

First page > North and South > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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