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Authors: Steven Woodworth

This Great Struggle (38 page)

BOOK: This Great Struggle

Further exacerbating the difficulty southern city dwellers faced in attempting to purchase food was the impact of the Confederacy’s method of financing the war. Americans (with the exception of some politicians) have never liked taxes, and during the nineteenth century they reliably voted for the sort of small government that is consistent with a low-tax, high-prosperity economic regime. Wars are expensive, and not the least of the curses they bring on a society is the growth of that society’s own government. What the government consumes or redistributes, the people must provide, whether they do so in taxes or by other means. Since the Confederate government never mustered the political will to impose the taxes necessary to finance a fraction of its war effort and since it was not very successful in obtaining foreign loans, it depended on printing presses churning out thousands upon thousands of Confederate banknotes.

The result was massive inflation, as the Confederate government sucked more and more of the value out of the money that remained in all of its citizens’ pockets, bank accounts, or mattresses. As prices soared, southerners condemned sellers as war profiteers. As holding cash became more and more obviously a path to economic ruin, smart businessmen tried to store their wealth in commodities instead, and the public labeled them hoarders and speculators, the worst kind of war profiteers. Preachers and editors published laments at how such economic practices revealed the lost virtue of the southern people, who now seemed to put personal gain ahead of devotion to their newly minted country, but in fact the culprit was their own government’s economic policies, which made such practices unavoidable for anyone trying to escape economic ruin.

Meanwhile, hardship steadily increased throughout the South and with it discontent. On April 2, 1863, that discontent flared up into open unrest. In Richmond on that day a large mob composed mostly of women began breaking into shops and helping themselves not only to food but also to clothing, shoes, and even luxury items such as jewelry. Some of the rioters were armed, and shopkeepers remembered particularly one large and forceful woman and the large and menacing Colt dragoon revolver with which she threatened them while she and others ransacked their stores. As the mob worked its way through the business district, the city militia battalion arrived, and so did Jefferson Davis.

The Confederate president climbed atop a wagon near where the militiamen stood in line, nervously fingering their rifles. In a brief speech, Davis urged the rioters to return to their homes. Then he added, “You say you are hungry and have no money; here, this is all I have,” and with that he threw all the coins in his pocket into the crowd, which remained standing, sullenly glaring at president and militia. Finally, Davis announced that if the street were not clear in five minutes he would order the militia to open fire. He then pulled out his pocket watch and quietly watched the seconds tick off. Not until he had instructed the commander of the militia detachment to order his men to load their weapons did the crowd begin to filter away, but before the five minutes were up, the street was empty of rioters.

As ominous as this so-called Richmond Bread Riot was, its grave portent was heightened by similar outbreaks of civil unrest and looting that sprung up in several cities in Georgia and North Carolina. Clearly the strains of war were beginning to tell on southern society. Although suffering may have been more intense and was certainly more visible in the cities, it was present in the countryside as well. A large portion of the white male population was in the army, and many a farm was left to the efforts of a wife and such of the children as were old enough to wield a hoe. In many cases, the families left behind had been unable to raise sufficient crops, and their food supplies were dwindling.

Since the Confederacy was literally years behind in paying its troops, the soldiers had nothing to send their families back home. In this situation, a steady stream of letters began to reach the Confederate War Department from wives requesting furlough or discharge for their husbands so that the men could come home and help their families get in a crop. To have acceded to such pleas would have been to begin the dissolution of the Confederate armies, and the authorities not surprisingly declined. As the war progressed and the hardship became more acute, such letters increasingly came not to Richmond but to the soldiers themselves in the field, wives urging husbands to obtain leave if they could or come home without leave so as to save their families from starvation.

The fact that so many of the South’s white men were in the army was another sign of the long reach and considerable power of the central Confederate government in Richmond in defiance of the concept of state rights. The Confederacy had been well in advance of the Union in imposing national conscription, and its version of the draft was more rigorous and sweeping than the northern version, demanding the service of every man, with the exception of certain protected classes and skills, between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. Later the upper limit of the draft was raised to forty-five. Men of ordinary means complained bitterly about the “twenty-slave rule” that exempted large slaveholders from duty in the ranks, and state-rights purists, such as Georgia Governor Joe Brown, raged against the draft as a violation of the principles of federalism and constitutional government. Davis and the Confederate congress were undeterred, but in some regions of the South, draft resisters gathered in large bands and withdrew into the hills, woods, or swamps, there to bid defiance to Confederate authority. Well-advised draft enrollment officers did not venture into such areas.


The situation in the northern states was far different than that in the South, and although hardship might be felt in some families, particularly those whose breadwinners were in the army, the economy overall was booming. Yet despite abundance, the North also experienced significant social unrest during 1863. The causes of the turmoil included war weariness, unwillingness to be drafted, and disagreement with the cause of emancipation. War weariness affected all regions equally, but resentment of the draft and resentment of emancipation were closely related and combined to produce powerful effects in specific localities.

Discontentment with conscription stemmed both from an unwillingness to fight—at least to fight for the cause of emancipation—and also from the perceived inequity of the rules Congress had laid down for the administration of the draft. Out of the usual processes of compromise and legislative pulling and hauling had emerged an Enrollment Act in March 1863. The law required every man between the ages of twenty and forty-five to register (enroll), and then, provided that a federally established quota of recruits did not volunteer within a given congressional district, the draft would go into effect in that district and make up the difference. The congressmen had thought to soften the impact of the draft by providing two remarkably ill-conceived safety valves. A man who did not wish to serve had the option, if drafted, of hiring another, undrafted man to go in his place, thus securing permanent immunity from conscription. Naturally, such substitutes were bound to become expensive, so in order to keep the price within someone’s idea of reasonable bounds, the law also provided that a drafted man could pay the government a three-hundred-dollar commutation fee and go free but only until his number came up again in a future round of conscription, if it ever did.

Rarely was the law of unintended consequences more starkly on display than in this legislative masterpiece. The three-hundred-dollar commutation price was still far out of reach of an unskilled laborer, for whom that sum might represent an entire year’s wages or more. Substitutes were even more expensive. The wealthy could purchase exemption, while the working man had only the choice of fight or flight (to Canada). This led to unrest and complaints (similar to simultaneous grumblings in the Confederacy) that the conflict was “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Instead of mollifying public annoyance with the draft, the commutation and substitution provisions became the focus of the discontent.

In most districts, diligent efforts by local authorities succeeded in meeting the recruiting quotas. This was usually accomplished by offering large bounties for recruits, payable on enlistment. Most (though by no means all) of the recruits thus gained were the dregs of society, and many turned out to be bounty jumpers, enlisting in one locality for a large cash payment, then deserting as quickly as possible to enlist in another town for another large bounty, repeating the process over and over until they either amassed a fortune or else were caught and placed before firing squads. They, as well as the substitutes whom wealthy draftees hired, were of at best dubious value to the army, as were the conscripts who actually did find their way into the ranks. The latter made up only a small percentage of the total numbers mustered into service since the impact of the draft lay primarily in spurring “voluntary” recruitment. However, its net yield was but a small trickle of good soldiers among hordes of nearly worthless substitutes, bounty jumpers, and conscripts.

In some areas, resistance to the draft was more intense and could flare up into violence. This was true in localities where popular opposition to the cause of emancipation ran high. In such districts men angrily announced that they would not fight for the African Americans, to whom they referred with disparaging epithets. Regions of particular resistance to the draft included the Ohio River valley in the southern parts of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, but the furor was most intense among the Irish immigrant population that made up most of the lower class of New York City.

When in the summer of 1863 a renewed round of conscription was about to go into effect in the city, the Irish population launched the war’s most violent urban riot. For several days mobs ran rampant through the streets, killing policemen and African Americans and burning buildings, including an orphanage for black children. In order to quell the riot, authorities finally had to bring in several regiments of troops from the Army of the Potomac. Some officials had doubts as to whether the citizen-soldiers would actually fire on their rioting fellow citizens in the streets of New York. The veterans of Gettysburg had neither doubts nor hesitation in mowing down those whom they saw as traitors who were stabbing the Union cause in the back while the more honest Rebels attacked it in front. The arrival of battle-hardened troops quickly brought peace to the streets of New York.

Northern opposition to the Union cause could take more outwardly respectable forms than the raging mobs in the streets of New York. A large faction of the Democratic Party in the North denounced the war as wicked, foolish, and a failure to boot. These “Peace Democrats,” also known as “Copperheads,” controlled the Indiana legislature and had considerable political strength in other states as well, and they criticized the war and obstructed measures for its support as much as they could. Indiana’s Republican governor, Oliver P. Morton, showed considerable determination and creativity in order to keep his state contributing to the Union war effort.

Sometimes Union authorities lost patience with the Copperheads. After Ambrose Burnside’s unhappy tenure in command of the Army of the Potomac, Lincoln had assigned the earnest but inept general to command the Department of the Ohio, duty which at that point in the war involved mostly the administration of a rear area including several midwestern states. On April 13, 1863, Burnside issued General Order Number Thirty-Eight, stating that he would not tolerate the “habit of declaring sympathies for the enemy.” Eighteen days later, former congressman Clement L. Vallandigham defied the order.

Vallandigham had reached Congress in 1857 after narrowly losing the 1856 election in his district but then persuading the Democratic majority in Congress to seat him in place of his victorious Republican opponent. As an incumbent he had won the next two elections by the thinnest of margins. When the Civil War began, Vallandigham, a virulent racist and enthusiastic backer of slavery, had denounced the Union cause and voted against every single bill for the support of the armed forces. In the 1862 elections, despite the country’s dissatisfied mood that had given the Democratic Party additional seats in Congress, the voters of western Ohio had swept Vallandigham out of office in a landslide. Nevertheless, the renegade Ohioan was one of the foremost leaders of the Copperhead movement and coined its slogan, subsequently repeated with various mutations, about maintaining the “Constitution as it is and the Union as it was.”

In a major public speech on May 1, 1863, the newly unemployed former congressman denounced “King Lincoln” and called for his ouster from the White House. The war, Vallandigham complained, was not for the Union but for the freedom of the slaves and therefore not worth fighting. Several days later Burnside had Vallandigham arrested for violation of General Order Number Thirty-Eight. In response, a Copperhead mob turned out and burned the offices of Dayton’s pro-Republican newspaper, the
, rival of the pro-Vallandigham Democratic
. A military tribunal tried and convicted Vallandigham for violation of Burnside’s order, sentencing him to two years’ imprisonment. A federal district court upheld the validity of the military trial and conviction, as did the Supreme Court, several months later. Meanwhile, Lincoln decided to commute Vallandigham’s sentence to banishment to the Confederacy. If Vallandigham wished to side with the Rebels, to the Rebels he would go, where he could, if he were man enough, shoulder a musket and fight for the beliefs he had been espousing for many months.

Instead, after Union troops had seen him through the lines under flag of truce in Tennessee, Vallandigham traveled to the coast and left the Confederacy on a blockade-runner to Bermuda, whence he took ship for Canada. Arriving in Windsor, Ontario, he declared himself a candidate for governor of Ohio in the election that fall, calling for Ohio to secede from the Union if Lincoln did not at once recognize Confederate independence. The Ohio Democrats gave him their nomination, while the Republicans nominated staunch “war Democrat” John Brough. The result was an overwhelming landslide victory for Brough. Subsequently, Vallandigham reappeared in Ohio, showing up at a number of public events, but the authorities ignored him.

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