THE GOVERNMENT of the United States never declared war on the Confederacy, an omission which had odd legal consequences. But it was legality which prevented it from doing so. In Northern eyes, the South was not independent but remained constitutionally part of the Union. The Union could not fight itself or even part of itself.
The North’s dismissal of the South’s claim to legal independence made it easy for the Confederacy to frame its constitution as a mirror image of that of the Union it claimed to have left. So the Confederacy drew up a constitution that followed, often word for word, that of the United States, except when it had to refer to, and endorse, as the Constitution of 1787 did not, the institution of slavery. Its form of government exactly imitated that sitting in Washington, with a president and vice president, but each appointed by the founding convention, not elected by the people. The convention nominated the members of its House of Representatives and Senate, chosen from the delegates the seceding states had sent to Montgomery, Alabama, while the Confederacy’s states continued to act exactly as they had done before secession; the elected governors and state legislators remained in office and proceeded as they had done before. The president and vice president were initially provisional, until confirmed in office by congressional election in November. The new government also accepted en bloc all the laws, institutions, and procedures of the United States, with the exception of a Supreme Court.
There were several candidates for both president and vice president. The man eventually selected as president by the convention was a former United States senator and secretary of war, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. Davis, like Lincoln, had been born in a log cabin in Kentucky, but his father, shifting to Missouri, had prospered as a farmer and sent his son first to a local university and then to West Point. Davis, unlike the gawky Lincoln, whose height, squeaky voice, and unkempt appearance were frequently mocked in the North, looked the part. He had an austere manner and persona and was always well-dressed. He lacked the personal qualities that Lincoln displayed in office. He was a fusspot who wasted time and energy on detail. He was incompetent in personal relations, standing on his dignity, which the genuinely humble Lincoln did not, and too often falling into quarrels with colleagues over disagreements which Lincoln would have avoided with a quip or one of his jokes, of which he had an inexhaustible store. Davis was also a valetudinarian, afflicted by psychosomatic ailments, indigestion, headaches, insomnia, and disabling aches and pains. These defects were balanced by his evident personal probity and Confederate patriotism. He was also hardworking and brought to office a reputation for efficiency he had won at the War Department. He also had a genuine military reputation, having fought with distinction in the Mexican War.
While Lincoln grew in stature during the war, however, Davis did not. He liked to be right, a quality which merely irritated his colleagues rather than reinforcing his authority, and he was excessively formal, addressing the slaves on his Mississippi plantation by their surnames since he disliked the familiarity of first names. In private life he was an affectionate husband and father and warm friend, but he lacked the ability to show his humanity in public affairs.
Partly as a result, the government in Richmond, which became the Confederate capital in July 1861, was from the outset much less efficient than the ongoing government in Washington. That was in a way surprising, since the provisional government had acted with great despatch and decision, perhaps because it was trying to impress the legislators of the Upper South before they took the decision to secede or not. There were some effective men in Davis’s early cabinet, and some in his last, such as James Seddon, the long-serving secretary of war. Both his secretaries of the Treasury, Christopher Memminger and George Trenholm, made a remarkable job of supporting finances which in practice had no foundation at all. Some sort of economic life continued within the South even at the end, when inflation and money printing had robbed the Confederate dollar of all value and the government lacked the means to pay its bills. The legislative overshadowed the executive in Richmond. Southerners had long dominated the United States Congress, because of their loquacity and appetite for argument, and they carried those characteristics into the Confederate House and Senate, making long speeches and relishing the pursuit of points of order. Howell Cobb, a Georgian who was a candidate for the presidency in 1861, put his finger on the disabling weakness of the Confederate government when he observed that there was a want of brains in Richmond, a lack of common sense that confined both lawmakers and officers of government to matters of policy and deflected them from constructing a vigorous and coherent administration. The central government was also oppressed throughout, and more weightily as the war progressed, by the selfishness of the states. Since the war, in Southern eyes, was about states’ rights, it was to be expected that state governors and legislators insisted on pursuing local interests and frustrating the objects of the Confederate presidency. But the conflict was allowed to develop too much energy, with deleterious effects on vital military policy, particularly in recruiting and the allocation of manpower. The armies at the front were deprived of men because state officials kept men at home, in state militias, and consumed resources that should have gone to the armies in Virginia and Tennessee.
Such difficulties did not afflict the North, where the peacetime machinery continued to work as normal. The War Department and the Treasury, the two key agencies of United States power, merely expanded without having to learn their business as they went along, as was the case in the South. Lincoln, though he had to teach himself to be a war president, as he did very effectively, enjoyed the support of able men in his cabinet. His task of leadership was greatly complicated by the need to play ambitious rivals, several anxious to replace him as president, off against one another. His success in doing so further compels admiration of his powers as war leader.
Lincoln also had to deal with the difficulty, which did not really arise in the South, of conducting party government and winning national and state elections while overseeing the conduct of the war. The election of 1860 had returned a Republican majority to Congress. As the party was of such recent origin, however, and divided between its former Whig members and its ex-Democrats, it needed handling with a great deal of tact. Fortunately Lincoln excelled at personal relations with men of opinion, and although his own policies, particularly on slavery and reconstruction, were controversial and divisive, he avoided any final breaches with individuals or factions in the capital. Remarkably, he also contested three national elections during the war and was successful in all, if with some losses in 1862. His campaigns benefited from the departure south in 1861 of many of the congressional Democrats. Nevertheless, in the midterm elections to Congress in 1862, he secured a majority, even if bad results in the mid-Atlantic and midwestern states had to be offset by votes in California and New England. In local elections in 1863 he secured his position, while in the presidential election of 1864 he carried the popular vote five to one. What in retrospect is even more remarkable is that the bureaucratically complicated procedures of countrywide elections were successfully conducted in the midst of a war, in which few concessions were made to the absence of soldier-voters at the front. Either by granting leaves of absence or organising postal ballots, all the men in uniform were enabled to vote.
Both governments had to conduct complex diplomacy while prosecuting the war, with the difference that while the Union sought merely to sustain normal good relations with the outside world, the Confederacy hungered for recognition as a sovereign state conducting a war of self-defence. The matter was of central importance, since recognition would transform the Confederacy’s prospects, and for that reason was opposed tenaciously by the Union. Fortunately for the Union, it could demonstrate consistency in its foreign policy, since the Monroe Doctrine had laid down, from the early days of the republic, that the federal government would resist any intervention by any Old World government in the office of the New. Originally conceived as a means of preserving New World freedoms against any extension or renewal of colonialism, the doctrine very neatly served Union purposes in the war with the South. The Confederacy, by contrast, was all too eager to abrogate the doctrine, since such a move would open the sea-lanes to aid from Europe. At the outset popular belief held that the South would be able to prise recognition by economic leverage. The European and, particularly, the British textile industries depended on cotton imports to work, and the imports came from the South, which shipped up to four million bales a year across the Atlantic. In the South it was widely believed that suppression of supply would cause such distress in the textile spinning and weaving towns of the north of England that protest, by mill owners and workers alike, would prevail upon the government to extend recognition forthwith. As a result, an embargo of cotton exports was organised in the South by managers of the cotton trade itself, not the Confederate government, to bring about that result. The embargo certainly had its effect. By 1862 a cotton famine had caused output in the mill towns to fall very sharply. However, opinion proved more fickle than expected. The mill people, who were abolitionist to a man and woman and almost all Baptist or Methodist, had principled objections to their government extending recognition to the slave power and held out against it. Historians have disputed the extent to which principle subordinated economic interest during this period. It did so by no means completely, but its effects were offset by the existence of stockpiles from a pre-war surplus of imports, by the provision of supply from new sources of production in India and Egypt, and by the rise of alternative forms of work stimulated by boom in the flourishing Northern economy; in effect, the cotton famine never really took hold to the extent that fervent believers in the primacy of King Cotton anticipated that it would. Moreover, support for the South was patchier in Britain than might have been expected. Though there was a residue of anti-Yankee feeling in Britain dating from the War of Independence, supporters of the North included such unlikely figures as the Duke of Argyll, one of Britain’s largest landholders, together with most radical opinion, leadership of the Nonconformist churches, and the literary and intellectual classes. Support for the South also came from unexpected directions; inexplicably, Gladstone was a pro-Southerner while the Conservative prime minister Benjamin Disraeli and his foreign secretary, Lord John Russell, opposed recognising the Confederacy throughout the war. In general Britain maintained its pro-Northern position from beginning to end, fundamentally because anti-slavery had become an almost universal tenet of British political belief since the days of Wilberforce earlier in the century.
Yet pro-Northern policy was put under severe strain at times, notably in November 1861 during what became known as the Trent affair, when an American naval officer, acting on his own behalf, stopped a British ship, the Trent, carrying representatives of the Confederacy on the high seas. The Confederate officials were removed to Union territory and the British government naturally protested in the strongest terms at Union interference with the free movement of foreign shipping. There were demands for military action in Britain and many demands for military resistance in the North of the United States. For a time the crisis threatened a breach of relations between Britain and the North until calmer counsels prevailed and the Confederate officials were allowed to continue their journey.
The Trent affair brought recognition of the Confederacy as close to the point of fulfilment as was ever reached. No subsequent event ever reached such a level of intensity, and while transatlantic relations were strained again, particularly over the building in British ports of Confederate blockade-runners and commerce raiders, not even these provocations deflected the British government from what became its settled intention to keep out of the North-South conflict. The South’s only other potential supporter was France, which was also affected by the cotton famine. Its ruler, Napoleon III, was keen to overcome the embargo but also anxious to avoid crossing the North, because of his own interests in American affairs. In 1862 he had sent an expeditionary force to Mexico as a means of extracting repayment of loans made to the Mexican government, a familiar nineteenth-century pretext by colonial powers to intervene in the affairs of a potential conquest. Napoleon announced the supersession of the republican government of Benito Juárez and installed in his place a client ruler, Prince Maximilian, a Habsburg archduke, who assumed the title of emperor. The intervention was a flagrant violation of the Monroe Doctrine which also provoked a long and bitter internal war. Foolishly, the Confederate State Department conceived the idea of winning recognition from France by endorsing Maximilian’s legitimacy. Since Napoleon III knew that recognition of the Confederacy was a step guaranteed to bring about a breach with Washington, the last outcome he wanted, he did not encourage the Confederacy’s support for his Maximilian adventure, which ended in failure and tragedy. Confederate diplomacy was no more successful in forming creative relations with any other great power. It was in an insoluble predicament, incapable of winning without foreign assistance, but able to extract such support only if it were victorious.
It could win victories only by superior military leadership, since it had no hope of bettering the North in numbers, in the output of military goods, or in superiority of military technology. As many well-placed men in the North knew, since so many of them had been at West Point with their opponents, the South possessed a remarkable number of talented commanders. Robert E. Lee was almost universally recognised as a general of exceptional ability. Winfield Scott had offered him command of the Union army before he insisted on “going with his state.” He was eventually, though too late, appointed Confederate general in chief in 1865. In the preceding four years, Jefferson Davis had acted as his own commander in chief, a post to which his office entitled him but which he lacked the qualities to fill. Davis was knowledgeable enough about military affairs to command the Confederate armies, administratively. What he lacked was the vision to frame a war-winning strategy and the will to put it into action. But then no one in the Confederacy and only a handful of latecomers in the Union had the intellectual power to conceive a war-winning strategy.
Lincoln was besieged by men who wanted military appointments or, if they were already officers, promotion. They were supported by politicians from their states or their communities, particularly Germans, and by wives. As General George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army chief of staff under Franklin D. Roosevelt, was to discover at the outbreak of the Second World War, old acquaintances would beg for favours on the flimsiest acquaintance. Marshall set his face against such petitioners, choking off old friends and the wives of old friends. Lincoln was a softer touch. Of a wife who wanted her husband to be made a brigadier general, he wrote, “She is a saucy woman and I am afraid she will keep tormenting me until I may have to do it.”1 He did not object to being lobbied: from the beginning he was anxious to identify men of talent, and he was prepared to try anyone in whom he glimpsed ability. The trouble was that such men were very rare, and revealed themselves only in the harsh circumstances of battle. Far more numerous were men who accepted promotion, often offered for political reasons, but then expected the president to tell them what to do.
Had the U.S. War Department been as inefficient as were most headquarters in the field, it is unlikely that the North could ever have got the war under way. Purely by good fortune, however, the key officials in 1861 were men of ability. The first secretary of war, Simon Cameron, was inefficient and Lincoln got rid of him by appointing him ambassador to Russia. His successor, Edwin Stanton, was almost excessively efficient. He had complete confidence in his own abilities, correctly so, but spared no feelings in pointing out to others their deficiencies. He almost made a point of being rude to military contractors, because he rightly suspected corruption on any level. He was completely honest himself and administered war contracts with great skill. In this he was ably assisted by the quartermaster general, Montgomery Meigs. Like Stanton, Meigs was completely honest himself and spent $1.5 billion on war equipment without the slightest imputation of dishonesty. As Josiah Gorgas was to Confederate armaments, so was Meigs to Union military supplies. He sponsored the adoption of standardised sizes in the manufacturing of clothing and of the mechanical sewing of soles to boots, both practices which spread to civilian businesses after the war and led to a revolution in the American tailoring and outfitting industry.
What Lincoln lacked was an equivalent to Stanton as adjutant general, the officer who runs personnel policy, organises careers, arranges promotions, and chooses commanders. He never found the man, and had to select generals himself on the haphazard evidence of their success in combat and on campaign. His first three choices proved wrong. Irvin McDowell, whom he sent to command at First Bull Run, had the right qualifications but proved to lack the force of character necessary to direct a large army in the field. George McClellan was also well qualified on paper. Events would reveal that, though a brilliant organiser and trainer, he lacked the killer instinct and could not, in a Lincolnian phrase, “put things through,” in the sense of bringing an encounter with the enemy to a successful conclusion. Lincoln was impressed enough to make him general in chief after Winfield Scott had to retire from office, but he too had to be replaced, as he was by Henry Halleck, known to his fellow West Pointers as “Old Brains” because he had published a treatise on infantry tactics. His intellectual reputation was unjustified, since he had done little more than translate from the French. He was nonetheless a competent and hardheaded man, who performed useful work as Grant’s chief of staff in the latter years of the war. By then Lincoln had, by trial and error, worked out his own method of running the War Department and supervising operations in the field. His need then was to find generals who could command armies. By 1862, McClellan had failed him, as had several subordinate commanders in secondary theatres, such as John Frémont in the West, Don Carlos Buell, also in the West, Ambrose Burnside, Nathaniel Banks, and John Pope.
Some successes were beginning to stand out, however, to Lincoln’s great relief, Grant foremost, but also William T. Sherman and, with reservations, George Meade. With the appointment of Grant as general in chief in March 1864, Lincoln solved both the problem of assuring himself of absolutely sound strategic advice and that of having a better than average chance of winning battles. Grant was both an absolutely clear-sighted strategist and a ruthless battle-winner. His record was not to be completely trouble-free, as the cost of the campaign of 1864 would demonstrate, but he believed wholly in his own ability to win the war and, because he did, ultimately set all Lincoln’s anxieties at rest.
Jefferson Davis’s problems in running the war were the obverse of Lincoln’s. He had several outstanding battlefield commanders who showed their quality from the start, notably Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and, in the leadership of cavalry, J. E. B. Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forrest. What the South lacked, both at the outset and throughout the war, was a strategic mastermind. The lack may have been due to the inherent weakness of the South’s strategic position, cut off from the outside world and unable to match the North in mobilisable manpower. In the circumstances it was remarkable that the Confederacy did as much militarily as it did. Still, it might have prolonged the war even longer had it adopted and persisted in the strategy Joseph E. Johnston advocated and practised in 1864, avoiding battle, conducting an offensive-defensive campaign, and exchanging space in preference to fighting. But large though the South was, it had a finite amount of space to surrender. Grant applauded Johnston’s strategy but did not concede that it was a war-winning one. Lee was not really a strategist, though he was a brilliant tactician and operational leader. His campaign of limited offensives into the North in 1862-63 is still a model of how a weaker power may bring pressure to bear on a stronger. It may be argued that Lee’s failure was in lack of boldness. Had he been able and willing to organise a long-range drive across the North’s waist, from Tennessee to Ohio, he might have triggered sufficient panic in Washington and the cities of the Atlantic seaboard to have transformed the conditions of the war and forced the North to fight defensively for a prolonged period. Lee never attempted such a campaign, probably because he lacked the base from which to launch it and the logistic resources with which to sustain it. The Confederacy was also at a major disadvantage throughout the war because of its inability to win diplomatic recognition from the European great powers. Given the economic importance of the United States, it was understandable that neither Britain nor France should have wished to offend Washington by accepting ambassadors from Richmond or appointing envoys in return. Still, in its virtual monopoly of cotton production, it enjoyed a considerable power of leverage in international affairs, and it is possible to believe that with more diplomatic skill the South might have won a higher degree of recognition than it did. As it was, it won none at all, an extraordinary failing in a government that was able to threaten to put that of the United States under siege.