Chapter Seven

CRACKS IN THE WALLS WIDEN

Autumn 1862 through Spring 1864

While planters in the Mississippi valley strove to shape the terms of reunion, Jefferson Davis’s government and armies still fought for a new republic in which ownership of human beings would remain secure. In that effort, they retained the support of most white residents of the Confederacy. Despite all that they had endured, William Tecumseh Sherman reported to his wife in March 1864, “I see no sign of let up.” Instead, he wrote, “the masses” seemed “determined to fight it out.” The Richmond Dispatch crowed the next month that the Yankees had thrown everything at the Confederacy “without producing the slightest disposition to succumb, or in the remotest degree shaking the firm and confident faith” of its population.1

There was considerable truth in both assessments. During the first three years of war, a potent combination of ideas and causes sustained most whites in their commitment to the slaveholders’ new republic and its armies. Bolstering that commitment were local and sectional loyalty and pride; feelings of insulted honor (both individual and regional); outrage at the death and destruction wrought by Union armies and determination to spare family members and friends from further losses; and certainty that the Confederate cause was also God’s and that He expected all, men and women alike, to do their duty. Not least important was unwavering belief in the sacrosanctity of white supremacy and slavery, certainty that preserving the former required perpetuating the latter, and a visceral revulsion at the prospect of living in a society without either. For many, these motives only grew in power as the war lengthened, more loved ones suffered and died, and the hated enemy’s commitment to abolition and employment of black troops increased.2

But Sherman’s depiction of a seamlessly united and confident white South was an exaggeration. The cracks evident in the House of Dixie’s structure even at the start of the war widened over time. Military defeats, including those at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, were wearing down the optimism of many, and the multiple privations imposed by the war gradually sapped their will. Governments in Richmond and the state capitals took steps to address these problems, but a number of those steps also angered their constituents. The opposing pressures of war-spawned problems and controversial government solutions formed a vise that would squeeze popular support for the Davis regime. As the conflict continued and grew fiercer between the fall of 1862 and the spring of 1864, the jaws of that vise tightened.

To sustain themselves, Confederate armies had early on begun to seize temporarily, or “impress,” the property of the Confederacy’s citizens—foodstuffs, wagons, and livestock as well as slaves. During the war’s first two years, Confederate officers and officials did that at their own discretion and then under the authority of state laws passed in the fall of 1862. The results were arbitrary and insufficient, angering citizens without fully meeting the armies’ needs.3

In late March 1863, the Confederate congress for the first time wrote impressment into national law. The new legislation aimed partly to mollify citizens incensed at the way impressment had been carried out previously, and partly to suppress attempts to evade or resist it. The law promised to pay property owners for whatever the army took from them, but the prices set were far below market value. Still worse, payment would be made in Confederate currency, which was plummeting in value as the number of notes in circulation increased.4

By autumn of 1863, many people had heard of “planters … who have declared that they will allow their fodder to rot in the field” rather than sell it to the army at the low prices they were offered.5 “When this war commenced,” an Alabaman observed in November 1863, “every man was ready & willing, nay, anxious, to make every sacrifice for the good of the cause.” But “now, how changed the scene! Selfishness & greed of gain has taken possession of a large portion of our people.”6

One evening in July 1864, a Confederate officer named Hamilton arrived at James Henry Hammond’s Redcliffe plantation in South Carolina. Bearing a requisition calling on Hammond to provide the army with a share of his corn, Hamilton left it on the planter’s desk. When Hamilton returned the next day, Hammond claimed in his diary, the planter tore the order up and threw it out the window. Hammond justified himself on two grounds. The first was financial; impressment would give him less money for his corn than he could obtain on the open market. The second was social and cultural. For proud plantation autocrats like him, submitting to impressment meant “branding on my forehead ‘Slave.’ ”7

The physical location of real slaves and the steps required to keep them out of Union hands became another bone of contention between masters and their government. “Refugeeing” bondspeople away from approaching Union armies was an expensive undertaking—one that wealthier masters could afford but smaller-scale slave owners could not. That difference aggravated envy and resentment within the slaveholders’ ranks. In December 1863, Alabaman Sarah Espy visited a more prosperous and better-connected neighbor who was preparing to evacuate the area along with her human property. Espy also owned slaves but was not wealthy enough to follow suit. Surely this demonstrated, she thought, that “there is a great wrong somewhere, and if our confederacy should fall, it will be no wonder to me for the brunt is thrown upon the working classes while the rich live at home in ease and pleasure.”8

While some masters resented their inability to refugee slaves, others stubbornly refused to move theirs. Union occupation of the Carolina sea islands led a master named Warren to abandon his plantation on the nearby mainland. But when he departed, Warren left a handful of slaves behind, and a Confederate commander heard subsequently that those slaves were in regular contact with Union soldiers. That, the officer explained, endangered the safety of his pickets on the mainland. He and his subordinates therefore asked Warren to remove his slaves from that location. Warren refused.9

In the face of such noncooperation, Secretary of War James A. Seddon declared it “a clear obligation” of Confederate officers to take matters into their own hands—“to remove from any district exposed to … or overrun by the enemy the effective male slaves.”10To do otherwise meant, at the very least, leaving in place a likely source of intelligence about Confederate troop positions and movements. At worst, it meant allowing those slaves to become Union laborers or soldiers.

But Richmond and its officials repeatedly backed away from confrontations over this subject. A case in point was Seddon’s own Virginia. In December 1863, Confederate general George E. Pickett wrote from Petersburg, just south of Richmond, that large numbers of slaves were passing into enemy hands. The only way to prevent the upper South as a whole from being “entirely denuded of slaves,” Pickett believed, was to remove such slaves, forcibly if necessary, to places more distant from Union armies.

But Old Dominion state legislators loudly objected to that suggestion. It would tread upon the masters’ right to keep and use their human property wherever they saw fit. Wyndham Robertson, a major planter and influential state legislator (he had once been governor of Virginia), presented these objections to the War Department in January 1864. This was, he emphasized, an issue of “much delicacy,” a matter “vitally affecting our citizens.” Richmond would do well to keep that in mind, Robertson admonished, and “refrain … from exercising a power which any state might deem seriously objectionable and prejudicial to her most important interests.” Seddon responded quickly. “In deference to the wishes and judgment entertained by the owners,” he promised, Confederate officials would forcibly relocate slaves only with “great reluctance” and only as a last resort.11

The retreat was more complete in Jefferson Davis’s Mississippi. Following the fall of Vicksburg, the Confederate president ordered all adult male slaves removed from the vicinity of Union troops. But both the governor and state legislature of Mississippi promptly branded the decree “illegal” and disruptive of some of the biggest and richest plantations in the South. Rather than force the issue Davis simply backed down.12

The army’s attempt to borrow, rent, or impress not only food and other goods but also slave laborers provoked still louder and more widespread resistance. Before Congress placed impressment in Confederate law, General Thomas Jordan requested the loan of 2,500 South Carolina slaves to help strengthen the defenses at Charleston. Less than a fifth of that number arrived.13

The same obstructionism plagued Confederate general Gideon Pillow in Alabama. In early March, he called upon masters around Huntsville to rent him slaves for use as army teamsters. He reminded them again of their special stake in the war effort. Help me, he urged, and you will not only be “performing a patriotic duty.” You will also be “advancing your own interest by preserving your property and aiding the army to protect the homes and property of the owner.” But if you shortsightedly resist my call for assistance, he said, you will thereby help the enemy to conquer us, and you will then be robbed of your “negro property.”14

If the logic seems inescapable, many masters nonetheless ignored it. In a balance sheet drawn up later that year, Seddon reported that attempts to obtain the labor of slaves for the war effort through the voluntary cooperation of masters had “been generally found to be unavailing.”15

The government hoped that the national impressment law of March 1863 would solve the problem by regularizing the process and equalizing the burdens. But at least some masters remained unappeased, including North Carolina plantation mistress Catherine Edmondston. Confederate policy, she complained a year later, had so impinged upon the rights and wealth of the masters that “it almost amounts to an abolition of Slavery entirely so far as the profits are concerned.”16 One Texan swore in January 1864 that a recent requisition of slave laborers “would not be obeyed except at the point of the bayonet.”17 For such people, preoccupation with immediate, individual interests trumped the needs of the slave-labor system as a whole. Willing to lend Jefferson Davis their slaves when the war promised to be a brief one, they resented the continuing and growing government requests that the lengthening and deepening war made necessary.

Some highly placed officials gave such obstructionists aid and comfort. This was particularly true of Confederate governors Zebulon Vance of North Carolina and Joseph E. Brown of Georgia. Both men were practiced political tightrope walkers. Both staunchly defended slavery and swore fealty to the Confederate war effort. At the same time, both presented themselves as ardent protectors of local and state rights, opponents of the national draft, and champions of white families with little property.

This Janus-faced pose served them well overall. But it frequently brought them into collision with Richmond. In the spring of 1863, General H. W. Mercer requested that Governor Brown and the Georgia state legislature assist him to impress laborers for work on the Savannah defenses. They refused, claiming that the new national law freed the states from any responsibility for impressment. Brown then suggested that if Mercer found himself in need of labor, he should offer his own soldiers some extra pay to perform it.18 A South Carolina legislative committee offered similar advice to General P.G.T. Beauregard, adding helpfully that an offer of additional pay would hold special appeal for white troops from the state’s up-country districts, presumably because they were poor.19

John A. Campbell, the assistant secretary of war, would sum up the general problem in restrained language in 1863. “The sacrosanctity of slave property in this war,” he concluded, “has operated most injuriously to the Confederacy.”20 The Georgia congressman Warren Akin acidly inquired of a correspondent, “Have you ever noticed the strange conduct of our people during this war? They give up their sons, husbands, brothers & friends, and often without murmuring, to the army; but let one of their negroes be taken, and what a houl you will hear.”21 Nearly identical accusations could be heard throughout the South.22 John Forsyth, Jr., who edited the Mobile Register and Advertiser, put it less delicately. Too many “wretches,” he wrote, had allowed themselves to be blinded to “their peculiar interest in this struggle” and the “tremendous stake they have in it.”23

Recalcitrant planters and their political representatives rejected these accusations. No, they insisted, the government’s difficulty in obtaining the soldiers, laborers, and other things that it needed was not their fault. The responsibility lay with the regime in Richmond. According to the Memphis Appeal’s zealously secessionist editor, masters understood the war’s importance to their own interests perfectly well; there was no need to lecture them on the subject. They knew that “the material issues” at the crux of the Civil War were indeed “the interests of the planters” and that therefore this was “eminently their war.” That was why throughout the war’s first year “the lofty & uncalculating spirit of this class” had been on display for all to see. If that selfless spirit had later flagged, theAppeal claimed, it was not because the masters were selfish but because the Confederate government had treated them unfairly—had imposed unjust laws and insupportable burdens upon them. Let Richmond simply repeal those unwarranted and harmful edicts and planters would “do their full duty by the country and army.”24

Prominent politicians such as Robert Toombs echoed those sentiments: Government arm-twisting had created all Confederate supply problems, they said, and the solution lay not in making greater demands on masters but in making fewer. Richmond, Toombs wrote, must “let the production and distribution of wealth alone.” Imposing all these rules upon whites was no way to run or defend a slaveholders’ republic. “The road to liberty for the white man does not lie through [his own] slavery.”25 For Toombs’s old friend Alexander Stephens, the principle involved was a constitutional one—one even more important than the success of the Confederate war effort. “Independence without constitutional liberty,” he declared repeatedly, “is not worth the sacrifices we are making.”26 All would be well, and the people would spontaneously and voluntarily offer up whatever the war effort required, if only government would remove its heavy hand from their necks.

Despite these objections, in the spring of 1863 Richmond enacted a series of measures to finance the war effort and cope with war-spawned privation. In May the southern Congress passed new taxes on incomes, bank deposits, “commercial paper,” and agricultural goods as well as on profits gleaned from the sale of food, clothing, and iron. Another provision required those engaged in virtually all occupations to purchase government licenses in order to conduct business. The law also included a tax in kind. In the future, a tenth of all agricultural products in excess of a quantity of goods deemed adequate for a farm family’s subsistence was to be handed directly over to the government.27

Measures like these provoked considerable resentment. The tax in kind became a particular focus of popular anger, weighing most heavily not upon major planters but middling and small commercial cultivators (“the hard-laborers of the Confederacy,” as one group of protesters dubbed themselves) who were already struggling to make do with meager harvests. Even the Confederacy’s tax commissioner recognized that flat-rate taxes necessarily “operate harshly and oppressively on the poor.” Already, he warned in November 1863, the tax had produced “discontent and murmurings against the government.”28 Private James Zimmerman complained that “the tax collector and produce gathere[r] are pushing for the little mights of garden and trash patches … that the poor women have labored hard and made.” He instructed his wife to refuse to pay and tell them that “you thought your husband was fighting for our rights and you had a notion that you had a right to what little you had luck to make.”29 Private Marcus Hefner told his wife the same thing.30 In the summer of 1863, public meetings denounced the tax in kind as “unjust and tyrannical,” “anti-republican and oppressive.” North Carolinians gathered at such meetings “pledge[d] ourselves to each other to resist, to the bitter end.”31

When farmers refused to pay the tax, they exacerbated a food shortage that was already sharpening in the spring and summer of 1863. Union forces by then occupied key southern grain and livestock centers in Kentucky and Tennessee. Warfare was destroying acreage elsewhere. The steadily tightening blockade of the southern coast was restricting the movement of those foodstuffs that existed, and the South’s road and railroad network, always weak, buckled under the weight of the war. Confederate armies aggravated shortages among the civilian population by diverting food to themselves.32 The steady fall in the value of Confederate currency drove all prices ever higher—severely higher in 1862, astronomically higher in 1863.33 The cost of food multiplied from seven to ten times just between 1860 and 1863.34

The shortage of food and its soaring price brought hunger to broad layers especially in towns and cities, but it drove many among the white poor to despair. On April 2, 1863—only a few months after one great Confederate victory (at Fredericksburg) and on the eve of another (at Chancellorsville)—a peddler named Mary Jackson led hundreds of working-class women and children on a march through Richmond’s streets demanding food for themselves and their families. A bemused well-to-do onlooker inquired of one marcher if this was a parade in celebration of something. Yes, the young woman replied sharply, they were celebrating their “right to live.” “We are starving,” she said, and “as soon as enough of us get together we are going to the bakeries and each of us will take a loaf of bread.” She saw nothing immoral in doing that. “This is little enough for the government to give us after it has taken all our men.”35

As it moved, the angry crowd swelled to perhaps a thousand, including handfuls of men. When it reached the city’s business district, marchers began taking bread and other goods from stores on Cary and Main streets.

Both the governor and the mayor rushed to the scene. The mayor ordered the crowd to disperse; the protesters ignored him. Then the Confederate president himself appeared, followed shortly afterward by a company of infantry reserves. To shield themselves from attack, protesters commandeered a wagon and turned it into a barricade.

As he later recorded, Jefferson Davis felt contempt for the protesters. They were, he was sure, “bent on nothing but plunder and wholesale robbery.” Climbing atop the wagon, he shouted, “You say you are hungry and have no money,” he shouted. “Here is all I have. It is not much, but take it.” And with that Davis emptied his pockets and threw the contents “among the mob.” He then pulled out his pocket watch and gave the still mostly female crowd five minutes in which to disperse. The soldiers would open fire if they did not. When the infantry captain ordered his men to load their muskets, the protesters dispersed. By their actions, Davis had apparently decided, these women had forfeited their claims to the courtesy normally paid to southern ladies.

The next day, groups of hungry people returned to Richmond’s street corners; once again stores were broken into. Officials reportedly distributed some food. But the government also ordered troops back into the downtown to scatter the hungry, and the city fathers sent some members of the previous day’s crowd to jail.36

Davis’s government instructed the local press and telegraphers to quash news of what had occurred. But the underlying food crisis could not be so easily contained. It sparked riots in at least six towns and cities in Georgia and North Carolina that spring.37Catherine Edmondston sniffed that these were merely Yankee-incited “mobs for plunder” composed of transplanted northerners, Germans, Irish, and “low foreigners” generally.38 But in Salisbury, in her own state, women who openly confiscated food from public stores included many wives of Confederate soldiers.39

And food prices continued to rise. Richmonders were still “in a half starving condition,” clerk John B. Jones noted in mid-July, and he said so again three months later. That fall, Richmond workingmen called public meetings to demand that government impose price ceilings on necessities. The state legislature turned them down. Meanwhile, groups of women in search of flour, corn, yarn, cloth, and other staples took to attacking wagons, mills, and merchants’ stores in the countryside. Arson struck Lynchburg enterprises suspected of profiting from the food crisis.40 Protesters in Mobile hoisted placards calling for “bread or blood.”41 In Alabama’s hilly northeast, the small-scale slave owner Sarah Espy recorded an example of the friction that war-spawned privation was exacerbating between social classes. As one of Espy’s neighbors was threshing her harvested wheat, some poor white women “came and impressed 70 bush[els] of it.”42

Something had to be done. Confederate authorities at the local, state, and national levels implemented a series of measures that sought to alleviate the worst effects of the food crisis. In Richmond, Lynchburg, Charleston, and elsewhere, special stores were created to make foodstuffs available to the needy at lower prices. Some members of the elite who supported such steps were motivated by a long-standing code of paternalistic noblesse oblige. Behind that code was a concern voiced by one Richmond editor now—“that important reforms” were necessary in order “to prevent serious disturbances of the social order.”43

Such measures achieved some success, staving off at least outright starvation among the white poor—and especially among families of serving soldiers. But drastic inflation and corresponding hikes in food prices continued to plague the Confederacy (and especially urban dwellers) for the duration of the war.44

These multiple grievances combined with horror at battlefield bloodshed and fears raised by battlefield setbacks in the second half of 1863 produced anguished calls for peace. In July and August, public meetings protested various policies of the Davis administration and called for initiating peace talks with the Union. About a hundred such meetings took place in North Carolina, whose units in the Army of Northern Virginia suffered tremendous losses.45 Another thirty or so meetings occurred the following year.46 William Woods Holden’s newspaper, the North Carolina Standard, became the peace movement’s principal journalistic champion in that state.47

Those who called for an end to the war did so for different reasons and with a range of goals in mind. Most, hoping that northern Peace Democrats would add to the gains they had registered in 1862 Union elections, were optimistic that negotiations with the United States would leave the Confederacy independent.48

Others, however, were prepared to rejoin the old Union. Governor Vance heard in early June 1863 from a longtime supporter in the hills of North Carolina that “thousands believe in their hearts that there was no use breaking up the old Government.” And that “the whole people” (or at least those “who are not in high office”) were by now “tired of this unfortunate war, and want it stopped in some way.”49 William Woods Holden made it clear that while he would prefer peace based on Confederate independence, even peace achieved through reunion (so long as it left slavery intact) was preferable to a prolonged war.50 A number of public meetings in his state endorsed the same view.51

For some of those who sought peace even if it meant returning to the Union, war on behalf of the South’s “peculiar institution” had by now lost much of its appeal. Such people, as the Fayetteville Observer acknowledged, accepted “that peace and reconstruction would only result in the abolition of slavery,” but since “many … owned no slaves, they need not care.”52 Alexander Pearce, a farmer in central North Carolina, believed that slavery was “an evil thing”; he stood, he said, for “freedom to all man kind.”53 His was evidently an extreme case. Many more Tar Heel State residents were less opposed to slavery on principle than they were unwilling to make any further sacrifices on its behalf.

But others joined the peace campaign because they believed that only an early end to the war, either with or without reunion, could now prevent slavery’s complete destruction. As Union troops spread through the Mississippi valley following the July 1863 fall of Vicksburg, a Raleigh newspaper editor argued that “peace now would save slavery” while a continued war would “obliterate the last vestige of it.”54 Those words, according to North Carolina’s sympathetic state treasurer and planter Jonathan Worth, echoed the sentiments of “many who are largely interested in slave property.”55 In the Union, Democrats encouraged the idea that this was possible by insisting that any state that sought reentry into the Union be spared the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation—be allowed, that is, to resume its former place with slavery fully intact.56

Nonetheless, talk of reunion (or “reconstruction,” as it was then commonly called) in 1863 infuriated the great mass of Confederate whites. Soldier Lancelot Blackford reported that summer that “the chief source of depression, when any exists among the troops, is the intelligence of faint-heartedness, and in some sections base ‘caving-in’ that reaches them from home.” “Any man who advocates reconstruction,” another soldier exclaimed, “should be hung to the nearest tree.”57 A soldier from Florida longed to “go home and whip every body there that in the least is opposed to us.”58 In August, state militia men shut down a peace meeting in North Carolina.59 In September, Confederate (possibly Georgian) troops passing through Raleigh ransacked the office of Holden’s newspaper, theNorth Carolina Standard.

But this attempt to silence the dissidents backfired. Two hundred of Holden’s supporters avenged the attack on his paper by laying waste to the office of the pro–Jefferson Davis Raleigh State Journal.60 And Zebulon Vance cautioned Davis that the attack on theStandard had aroused indignation far beyond the circle of Holden’s close supporters.61 The governor therefore begged the Confederate president to prevent any similar incidents or prepare himself to see “the North Carolina troops [rush] home to the defense of their own State and her institutions.”62

Vance also hoped that this explosion would make Davis finally realize “what a mine [he had] been standing on and what a delicate and embarrassing situation” he was in.63 The governor had advised Davis in July 1863 that there was “a bad state of feeling [in North Carolina] toward the Confederate Government.”64 In early November Vance traveled into the mountains in order to gauge personally the extent and depth of the dissatisfaction. To his evident surprise, he found not only widespread discontent but also “an astonishing amount of disloyalty.”65

At the end of the year, sharp differences over the peace issue broke the already strained political alliance joining Vance to editor William Woods Holden. Vance feared that Holden’s call to bypass the Davis government in order to sue for peace would dishonor North Carolina, precipitate civil war within the Confederacy, and end in the disintegration of order and civil government generally.66 But Vance also knew that the peace movement expressed a broad-based feeling of “discontent” in his state, especially strong among “the humblest of our citizens.” Davis’s government should do something to appease that powerful longing for the war’s end and redirect popular anger away from the Confederacy. In December 1863, Vance urged Richmond to publicly request peace talks with the Union, and thereby prove to disaffected people in the Confederacy “that the Government is tender of their lives & happiness & would not prolong their sufferings unnecessarily one moment.”67

Jefferson Davis rejected that advice. The North Carolina governor judged that a serious tactical mistake, but he soon voiced an even deeper anxiety about the future. As he confessed only to his closest confidants, Vance no longer believed that the Confederate population was willing to make the sacrifices necessary to defeat the Union armies. To achieve a military victory, he said in January 1864, would cost the South a great deal more “blood and misery.” But he had now become “satisfied” that “our people will not pay this price.”68

The peace movement seems to have been strongest in North Carolina, where firm unionist traditions and a large population of non-slaveholders—some of whom had always disliked slavery—made the war’s now swiftly mounting costs in both blood and treasure especially hard to take. But peace sentiments were mounting elsewhere in the Confederacy and among slave owners as well. A Union major traveling through Mississippi’s Natchez region in July 1863 found the people “hopeless of the rebellion and ready to do almost anything to keep their negroes in the fields.”69 A planter in Jackson, Mississippi, who claimed to have been a “zealous secessionist” at the war’s inception, now urged Jefferson Davis “to lose no time in making the best terms possible” with the U.S. government.70

Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction—including its apparent promise to allow post-reunion southerners to impose special restrictions upon the former slave population—probably strengthened pro-peace views. That much seemed evident in March 1864 at a convention in the Union-occupied city of Huntsville called to seek reentry into the United States. One of the delegates was Judge D. C. Humphreys, a once-secessionist Madison County planter.71 “Alabama should at once rescind the ordinance of secession,” Humphreys told the attendees. “I believe the institution of Slavery is gone as a permanent thing—overthrown by the action of the Southern States.” But all was not lost, for “in case of a return to the Union, we would receive political cooperation so as to secure the management of that labor by those who were slaves.” “Of course,” Humphreys conceded, “we prefer the old method”—full-blown slavery. But while that option had now disappeared, others yet remained. After all, he believed, “There is really no difference … whether we hold them as absolute slaves, or obtain their labor by some other method.”72

Similar plans were being hatched simultaneously in parts of Alabama still in Confederate hands. On March 1, 1863, a Confederate major came across two Confederate colonels named Holly and Seibels conversing in hushed tones on the veranda of a Montgomery hotel. Suspicious, the major later asked Holly what the discussion had been about. Holly told him that Seibels (who had been the governor’s military adjutant when the war began) was planning an overture to Lincoln, offering to return Alabama to the Union in return for allowing the survival of at least the vestiges of slavery until the end of the nineteenth century.73

Peace advocates of whatever variety remained a minority in the Confederacy in this period. But state-level Confederate elections between May and November 1863 did reveal a widespread if largely unfocused mood of disappointment and dissatisfaction. Voters turned many incumbent congressmen out of office, including strong supporters of the Davis government and its most unpopular policies. That outcome did not reflect a rejection by the electorate as a whole of the Confederacy, the war, or slavery; most of the winners still pledged themselves to southern independence.74 But it did signify a growing popular sense that the government was being mismanaged, that the war was not going well, and that too many citizens of the southern republic were being treated unfairly.

And in some cases, the shift in mood looked more ominous than that. In Texas’s gubernatorial contest, the principal contenders were Thomas J. Chambers and Pendleton Murrah. While Chambers reviled Murrah as a pro-Union coward, Murrah denounced Chambers for being a rich planter. The accused coward beat the rich planter with ease.75 Five newly elected “peace” candidates joined North Carolina’s ten-member delegation to the Confederate House of Representatives. All five were slave owners, three of them closely allied with the pro-peace editor William W. Holden.76

In Georgia, Governor Joseph E. Brown ran for reelection in 1863 against two opponents—one, Timothy Furlow, a staunch Jefferson Davis supporter, and the other, Joshua Hill, a peace candidate. Like Zebulon Vance, Brown was a skillful political tightrope walker. While striving to promote the Confederate war effort, he cast himself as the paladin of states’ rights and of the interests of Georgians with little property. He opposed the tax in kind as well as the Confederate conscription system,77 a stance that won him sharp criticism from some for being “an oily flatterer of the masses” and for “attempting to get up a war of classes.”78 But Brown’s adroit self-presentation served him well overall. In the final balloting, a large majority of the state’s voters kept him in office.

Brown’s act played less well in the state’s northern hills and mountains, where resentment of the war and the Richmond government was broader and deeper than elsewhere. There peace candidate Joshua Hill demonstrated significant strength. Hill had opposed secession in 1861, and Brown’s supporters now flayed him as a submissionist and reunionist. Statewide, those labels (and Brown’s own popularity) were enough to limit Hill’s share of the vote to 27 percent. Even that share, however, was larger than the one garnered by Furlow, the Davis loyalist. And in the northern up-country generally, Joshua Hill’s vote share jumped above 42 percent. In eight up-country counties, Hill beat Brown outright.79

The situation seemed little better in the heart of Dixie. Alabama planter Benjamin H. Micou alerted his old friend Judah P. Benjamin that “some of our best men” had been defeated at the polls by candidates with weak secessionist credentials. And everywhere, he fretted, one heard more and more calls for peace, including for peace through reunion if necessary.80

Micou’s intelligence was accurate. In Alabama’s gubernatorial election, the pro–Jefferson Davis incumbent, John G. Shorter, lost in a landslide to Thomas H. Watts. Shorter later reflected that his assistance to Confederate armies in impressing slaves had been “the strongest element which carried the state so largely against me.”81 More broadly, he believed, he had come to symbolize the burdens and sacrifices that the war had imposed on the state’s white population.82 He had been “stricken down,” as he put it, “for holding up the state to its high resolves and crowding the people to the performance of their duty.” Perhaps the triumph of his opponent, Watts, also owed something to the campaign that the Shorter camp waged against him. Shorter’s supporters accused Watts of being a reunionist. The accusation was false; Watts was foursquare for the Confederacy. But he chose not to deny the unionism charge publicly until the election was over. His well-timed silence may have swung a segment of the electorate toward him.83

The souring political atmosphere also transformed Alabama’s representation in the Confederate Senate. The outgoing state legislature, growing sensitive to its constituents’ disaffection, relieved Davis ally Clement C. Clay of his seat and replaced him with Richard W. Walker, who was less closely identified with the Richmond regime. Even more tellingly: After the state’s fire-eating senator William L. Yancey died that July, the legislature gave his seat to Robert Jemison, who had voted against the state’s secession ordinance in January 1861. (If the state legislators thought these gestures toward war weariness would keep them in office, they were mistaken. Alabama voters sent many of them packing anyway, electing in their place men who were even less enthusiastic about the war than the defeated incumbents.)84

The picture was still clearer in that state’s popular vote for the Confederate House of Representatives, in which Alabamans occupied nine seats. Incumbent J.L.M. Curry, a firm and prominent Davis supporter, was defeated overwhelmingly. According to his ally Texas senator W. S. Oldham, what swept Curry out of office was “his defence of the Government and efforts to sustain it in the public confidence.”85 A Confederate conscription officer in the state seconded that evaluation. Curry had gone down, the man reported to Richmond, “chiefly … on account of his identification with the Government, and with what we have been accustomed to consider the established principles of the Confederacy.”86

The man who beat Curry, Marcus Henderson Cruikshank, was a peace candidate rumored to favor reunion.87 And five other new Alabama congressmen seemed similarly inclined. One of them was Williamson R. W. Cobb, a prewar unionist later derided for being “singularly popular with the humble and unlearned.” After his election, Cobb declined to take his congressional seat. Reports reached Richmond that Union armies were allowing Cobb free passage through their lines, presumably because they counted him a friend. The Confederate Congress eventually voted unanimously to expel him from its ranks.88

These election results, Alabaman Benjamin H. Micou warned the Confederate secretary of state, revealed a strong “feeling of doubt & distrust” and a “dissatisfaction of the people with their lawmakers.” Strengthening that sentiment was the belief among “some poor men” that “the war is killing up their sons & brothers for the protection of the slaveholder.” That sentiment, Micou said, was “gradually bringing into antagonism the rich & the poor.”89

The 1863 election results did not threaten Jefferson Davis’s grip on government. The Confederate president retained a strong core of congressional allies, including many who hailed from districts imminently threatened or already occupied by Union forces. These men spoke and voted in far greater practical independence of their actual constituents, who had by then lost contact with and political control over their representatives. (In the words of the head of the Confederate War Bureau, they represented “imaginary constituencies.”) Over the course of the war, Davis relied more and more upon them to support his most controversial measures—an arrangement that gave his government considerable effective freedom from popular control while retaining the appearance of governing with popular consent.90

But Davis’s parliamentary security could not spare his regime from the practical impact of popular disaffection and indiscipline of various kinds. Increasingly, the Confederacy found it hard to keep its soldiers in the ranks over extended periods of time. The War Department in Richmond estimated in July 1863 that between forty and fifty thousand men were absent without leave from its armies. By the end of the year, it was calculating that deserters, absentees, and stragglers combined constituted between one-third and one-half of its soldiers.91

By no means were these all men who lacked or had lost a belief in the Confederacy. Many left the ranks to return home to assist family members who were suffering without a breadwinner or who were alarmed by the approach of Union troops or their inability to control black laborers. In April 1863, Nancy Mangum had warned North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance that “we wiimen will write our husbans to come … home and help us we cant stand it.” And so they did. By the time Mangum wrote those words, growing numbers of southern soldiers were receiving letters from parents and wives beseeching them to return home and attend to the welfare of their relatives. “I hope … you will [now] think,” one woman wrote her son, that “the time past has sufficed for public service, & that your own family may require yr protection and help—as others are [already] deciding.” “What do I care for patriotism,” another woman demanded. “My husband is my country. What is country to me if he be killed?”92

Army officers, editors, and political leaders pleaded with “southern women” to cease trying “to keep husband, son or brother from the Confederate army.”93 Savvy officers turned a blind eye toward the absence of soldiers responding to such calls, and most soldiers away without leave eventually rejoined their units.94

But while deserters of this kind could leave the ranks without abandoning their commitment to the Confederacy, others—more and more as the war wore on—left because they had given up hope of victory.95 Another potent influence was mounting resentment of the social elite, its privileges, and its treatment of those of lesser means. Many soldiers and civilians blamed rich landowners and merchants for the soaring price of food and other necessities, accusing them of “extortion.” Alabama’s governor heard from a semiliterate citizen named J. A. Sullivan that “the cruellty of the [rich] to the Soldiers famileys is the caus of thear deserting.”96 It was surely no coincidence that deserters disproportionately hailed from parts of the South where support for the Confederate war effort was notoriously the weakest.97 Those who looked askance at the men who had led them into war also tended to blame them for the privations, suffering, and deaths that the war created.

Compounding the problem of absent soldiers was a rise in draft resistance. A Mississippian reported to his governor in October 1862 that the draft’s planter-exemption law had produced “a ginerl Bacckought [general back out]” from army service in that state’s southern districts.98 And in the summer of 1863, Virginia senator Allen T. Caperton reported growing resentment of the substitute system, which allowed a wealthy conscript to avoid military service by paying someone else to replace him. “The idea is expanding that the rich, for whose benefit the war is waged, have procured substitutes to fight for them, while the poor, who have no slaves to lose, have not been able to procure substitutes.”99 By the end of 1862 and the beginning of 1863, substitutes in Virginia were demanding compensation of $1,500 to $2,000 apiece, a price far beyond the reach of most non-slaveholders.100

In 1863, deserters and draft resisters began to form organized groups for mutual protection. That September, Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell warned that “the condition of things in the mountain districts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama menaces the existence of the Confederacy as fatally as either of the armies of the United States.”101 To that list of regions beset by internal conflict Campbell could have added northern Arkansas, parts of southern Mississippi and Alabama, and some coastal and piedmont districts of North Carolina, in all of which slaveholders made up a relatively small percentage of the total white population.

In late 1862, a group of deserters and unionists took refuge in the hills and mountains of northeastern Georgia. In January 1863, the state’s adjutant and inspector general, Brigadier General Henry C. Wayne, noted that resisters and deserters were “inciting rebellion” and “committing acts of robbery and threatening to … do other acts of violence.” They reportedly harbored runaway slaves and intimidated and plundered pro-Confederate neighbors.

The governor dispatched troops to break them up, scoring some successes in that effort. By March, the threat appeared to have been suppressed. But in June an army commander was again reporting “considerable trouble” in the hill districts. In one county, residents loyal to the Confederacy had arrested a group of deserters. Allies of those arrested, however, had then attacked the loyalists, freeing the prisoners and killing or wounding several of their captors. By the fall, a state official was describing a neighboring county, too, as “overrun” with deserters, unionists, and “rogues.”102 A number of groups commonly referred to collectively as “the Peace Society”103 worked to attract Georgia’s civilians and soldiers to antiadministration candidates for office and to compel the government to sue for peace.104 In February 1864, a correspondent “mingling freely with the common people” in the up-country informed the governor that “among that class generally there is a strong Union feeling” and a belief “that the people could not fare any worse under Lincoln than [they] are fairing under Jeff [Davis].”105

The same or similar organizations began to grow in both up-country and “piney woods” sections of Alabama and Mississippi.106 (The “piney woods” regions of southwest Alabama and southeast Mississippi were cursed with pine forests and wire grass that were difficult to clear, and thin topsoil not conducive to cotton cultivation. They contained comparatively few slaveholders.)

By the fall of 1863, deserters in three Mississippi counties (Jones, Smith, and Greene) had begun to form into bands that, for mutual protection, maintained communication with one another.107 The leader of the group in Jones County was named Newton Knight. Born into a slaveless family, he seems to have opposed secession and definitely opposed the draft law’s planter exemption. Deserting the Confederate army after Iuka and Corinth, Knight was soon captured but in May 1863 managed to escape once again.108Between the fall of 1863 and the beginning of 1865, Knight’s band fought Confederate forces more than a dozen times. Women cooked for and sheltered the tired and wounded deserters and warned them when soldiers approached. Slaves brought them food and information.109

A captain in a Mississippi regiment who visited the area reported that groups of “deserters and conscripts” were in such close contact with one another that within “a few hours large bodies of them can be collected at any given point prepared to attempt almost anything,” including “deeds of violence, bloodshed, and outlawry” throughout southern and southeastern parts of the state. “Gin-houses, dwelling-houses, and barns, and the court-house of Greene County have been destroyed by fire,” the captain noted. “Bridges have been burned and ferry-boats sunk on almost every stream and at almost every ferry to obstruct the passage of troops.” One party of deserters surprised and captured one Confederate officer and then debated whether to hang him. At length deciding on leniency, they granted him parole on condition “that he would never again enter the county as a Confederate officer under orders or authority, or in any way aid or assist in molesting them.” Other Confederate soldiers and officials received similar treatment. Newton Knight’s band made a special target of the tax in kind and those who collected it. Early in 1864 they raided a tax depot in Paulding (the county seat of Jasper, just north of Jones) and made off with five wagonloads of corn, distributing some of it to the local poor.110

To hunt down these anti-Rebel rebels, Confederate general Leonidas Polk sent first a cavalry and then an infantry regiment into the area in March and April 1864.111 His troops caught several, sometimes by holding their family members as hostages. Some of those prisoners were hanged, others forced back into the Confederate army.112 But though seriously reduced in numbers, deserter bands continued to plague government forces.

In North Carolina, the anti-Confederate Heroes of America, which first appeared in 1861, began to grow rapidly in number and geographical reach after enactment of conscription in the spring of 1862. During that summer, increasing numbers of soldiers from the state’s central counties began to desert and return to their homes. The Heroes welcomed them, and the deserters—along with those evading the draft—joined its ranks. This group’s leaders included prominent professionals of various kinds, but whites with little or no property in both the countryside and urban centers supplied most of its grassroots support. By 1864, the Heroes were openly recruiting among Raleigh’s white working class and among those who labored in Wilmington’s saltworks, many of whom were unionists and conscientious objectors sent there by the Confederate government. By one estimate, the Heroes eventually commanded the loyalty of some ten thousand people in the Tar Heel State.113

The Heroes also provided intelligence about southern troop movements to Union forces and helped persecuted unionists to escape into Union-held territory, especially Kentucky and parts of Tennessee. Like the Newton Knight group in Mississippi, Tar Heel bands associated with the Heroes were clashing more and more frequently and violently with militia forces by the end of 1863, with considerable losses on both sides.114 Meanwhile, draft agents, government officials, and army officers found that similar groups had ensconced themselves elsewhere in North Carolina—in the hills along the borders with both Tennessee and South Carolina. These groups already numbered more than a thousand, and they were “augmenting their number every day.”115

North Carolina’s Zebulon Vance set out to destroy these bands of armed resisters. He instructed his militia and a newly formed Guard for Home Defense to root them out.

But Vance soon discovered that the militia and guard units were themselves intimidated by the resisters; others, he found, sympathized too strongly with deserters to act against them.116 Perhaps, Vance now suggested, the Army of Northern Virginia could spare a few brigades “or a good strong regiment” to deal with this internal danger. “Something of this kind must be done,” he stressed. Robert E. Lee dispatched two infantry regiments and a cavalry squadron in early September 1863 to impose order.117

During the next few months, those soldiers and home guard units who supported them resorted to severe measures. To force Heroes to surrender, or at least to discover their whereabouts, soldiers tortured their family members. Those methods led to the capture of thousands. But they failed fully to pacify the region, while spreading and deepening popular disaffection.118 When the Confederate troops eventually departed in mid-February 1864, outlaws who had evaded capture emerged from their hiding places and took vengeance on pro-Confederate residents.119

Defeatism and open defiance of the Confederacy was much weaker in the armies than in the civilian population, partly because the men who were the most dedicated to the Confederacy had most readily put on uniforms and taken up arms to repel the Yankee abolitionists. And among the soldiery, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia maintained the highest level of morale, in large part because Lee had led it from victory to victory ever since he assumed command in the spring of 1862.120

The experience of the Army of Tennessee (formerly dubbed the Army of Mississippi) had been quite different. As the Confederacy’s principal military force in the western war theater, it had witnessed and suffered one defeat after another ever since the fall of Tennessee’s Forts Henry and Donelson in early 1862. Those accumulating blows had inevitably taken a heavy toll on its morale.

After the shattering reversal outside Chattanooga late in 1863, where Union troops had rolled over the Army of Tennessee’s seemingly impregnable positions, the Confederate troops regrouped in winter quarters outside the town of Dalton in the hills of northern Georgia. At that point, it seems, the Peace Society began to recruit among them. Some soldiers vowed never to fight again.121 W. A. Stephens of the Forty-Sixth Alabama regiment had decided that the South’s defeat had become inevitable and that therefore “the lives that is lost in this war now is for no good.” B. L. Wyman, another member of the Forty-Sixth, recorded that “a large number are for going back into the ‘Union.’ ”122

But these sentiments were not confined to the ill-starred Army of Tennessee. As early as August 1863, a company in the Twenty-Fourth North Carolina regiment, then stationed in Virginia, announced that it was “opposed to any more shedding of blood in this war” and was “unanimously in favor of peace on the best terms that can be obtained.”123 A private in the Fifty-Seventh North Carolina claimed that “most of the solegers” in his regiment were “for peese” in the nearly unconditional manner championed in William W. Holden’s newspaper.124

Certain Alabama units displayed even more advanced symptoms of decay. Just after Christmas 1863, the commander of the Fifty-Ninth Alabama regiment discovered that many of his troops—and especially those who were immigrants, paid substitutes, or of “the poorer class of men”—believed that “they have but little to fight for.” They showed “a general disposition” to “lay down their arms, yieldup the cause and accept the best terms the Yankee Government will grant.”125 A similar report came that same day from the colonel of the Fifty-Seventh Alabama. His men displayed a “considerable manifestation of revolutionary spirit … on account of the tax in kind law and the impressment system.” Determined to “protect their families from supposed injustice and wrong on the part of the [Confederate] Government,” they declared themselves ready to surrender themselves to Union forces.126

Shortly afterward, on January 5, 1864, sixty Alabama soldiers stationed just across the border from the Florida panhandle mutinied, refusing to take any further part in the war. They were promptly arrested. More than a hundred of their comrades “acknowledged themselves members” of the Peace Society but now recanted that membership in hopes of pardon.

These regiments formed part of a brigade that had been recruited in Alabama’s nearby piney woods counties. According to the department commander, the whole brigade was “full of this disaffection.” Upon investigating, he found that “an organized opposition to the war exists in our midst” that stood for “peace on any terms” and swore “never to fight against the enemy; to desert the service of the Confederacy; to encourage and protect deserters, and to do all other things in their power to end the war and break down the Government and the so-called Southern Confederacy.”127 Richmond disbanded the brigade.128

Less sensational but more important militarily than these eruptions in Confederate ranks was the fact that thousands of white residents of the Confederacy, especially from the up-country, enlisted and fought in the Union army. Some were Confederate soldiers who volunteered for Union service after surrendering to U.S. troops. Some left their homes and made their way to Union recruiting offices. Others joined Union armies as they moved through their home districts. In November 1863, Zebulon Vance learned that “several men who recently figured in ‘peace meetings’ have gone off and taken arms with the enemy.” At least two-thirds of the men in one Union regiment, he added in embarrassment, hailed from his own state.129

In fact, about five thousand white North Carolinians served in Union uniforms over the course of the war. Three thousand white Alabamians did the same thing, as did seven thousand white Louisianans and ten thousand white Arkansans. Virginia alone (especially its western counties) supplied some thirty thousand recruits. The largest single contingent hailed from Tennessee—some forty-two thousand in number. The grand total exceeded one hundred thousand, most of them serving under officers from their states and in federal units that bore their states’ names.130

Elite Confederates disparaged these southern-born Union soldiers as human trash. Plantation mistress Catherine Edmondston sneered that they were “people who can neither read or write & who never had a decent suit of clothes until they [the Yankees] gave it to them, poor ignorant wretches who cannot resist a fine uniform and the choice of the horses in the country & liberty to help themselves without check to their neighbors belongings.”131 But such words, redolent of aristocratic condescension, could not offset the practical significance of those defections. The white residents of Confederate states who served under the Union flag would together have filled out an army larger than any that Richmond fielded throughout the war.

The second calendar year of war, 1863, had dawned brightly for the slaveholders’ republic. Lee’s breathtaking Virginia victories at the end of 1862 and in the spring of 1863 lifted spirits and kindled hopes for an early end to the conflict on Richmond’s terms. But the slaughter at Gettysburg, the disaster at Vicksburg, and then the rout at Chattanooga brought a chill of foreboding to Confederate leaders and followers alike. Desperate longings for peace began to replace triumphalist dreams, especially in sectors of the slaveless white population, which bore most of the burdens of the war but whose immediate interests were less bound up with its outcome.

Even now, however, most Confederates (and especially those serving in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia) remained committed to a southern victory. And in 1864, just as at the start of the preceding year, military developments would once again buoy the hopes of those committed to preserving the slaveholders’ republic.

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