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The Confederate States of America was officially founded in February 1861, after seven Southern states (South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas) seceded from the United States. For years, Northern and Southern states had been debating the issue of slavery, especially in the territories, where it was not constitutionally protected. These debates had escalated during the 1850s, sometimes to the point of violence. When Abraham Lincoln, who represented a specifically antislavery party and wanted to end slavery in the territories, was elected president of the United States in 1860, these seven states declared they had had enough and left the Union.
They quickly went to work forming a provisional government. Shortly after announcing the new country, the Confederate Congress appointed Jefferson Davis president (he would be officially elected to office in November). It named Montgomery, Alabama, as the new nation’s capital, and it adopted a constitution. This constitution was modeled largely on the United States Constitution (Confederates, like their Northern brothers, insisted they were the true heirs of the Founding Fathers) with several important exceptions. Where the federal Constitution had never used the words slave or slavery, but implicitly protected the peculiar institution, the Confederate document explicitly protected slavery—even deeming that Congress could pass no law that would impinge on “the right of property in negro slaves.” Unlike the Americans, however, the Confederates immediately banned the international slave trade, except with states remaining in the Union. The president served a six-year term, and he could not be reelected. He also had the right to a line-item veto.
When fighting broke out with the Union in April, four more states (Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas) joined the Confederacy. In an acknowledgment of Virginia’s importance, Confederate leaders quickly agreed to move the capital to the industrial and commercial city of Richmond. For the South in particular, this decision made Virginia the military focal point of the war. Because the Confederate leadership did not have the sense of urgency about the West that it did about Richmond, less able generals were often in command there, and the rebels suffered loss after loss.
War dominated the life of the Confederacy. Leaders at the state and national levels were constantly challenged with the problem of keeping the ranks filled and with feeding and clothing the army. The country had 5.5 million whites and about 3.5 million black slaves who would not be allowed to serve. By 1862 Confederates were so desperate for men that they resorted to a national draft. This was a deeply ironic development in a country that had embraced individual liberties and states’ rights as being among its banner causes. Meanwhile, a successful Union blockade and the lack of internal infrastructure complicated efforts to procure and transport needed supplies. (The same issues made it exceedingly difficult for Southerners to export their main commodity, cotton.) Financing the war was another problem, one that Confederates never mastered. Relying principally on loans and the printing press to pay for the war, the government helped drive inflation through the roof. Congress passed a comprehensive tax measure in 1863, but the government did not effectively enforce it, and so it made little impact. Over the course of the war, prices increased by a factor of more than 90.
The stresses of war had profound effects at home. Rising prices, shrinking availability, speculation, and a drought in 1862 meant that civilians started to go hungry that year. By the following spring, bread riots were breaking out, including one on April 2, 1863, in Richmond that Davis personally broke up. Hoarding and price gouging only compounded matters, and concern for starving families led many Confederate soldiers to desert, especially in the last year of the war. Meanwhile, war itself forced many families into flight. The presence of federal armies also prompted many slaves to abandon their masters and run to the safety—and freedom—of Union lines.
A prickly micromanager, Davis was unable to lead the nation effectively. He had a running argument with more than one general (Robert E. Lee was the only general to whom he regularly deferred), and his cabinet was a revolving door (he had five secretaries of war, for instance). He never reached out to members of Congress or the press, and was barely on speaking terms with his own vice president, Alexander Stephens. Davis had repeated tussles with various governors, particularly Joseph Brown of Georgia and Zebulon Vance of North Carolina, both of whom resisted what they believed were Davis’s encroachments on states’ rights. In fairness, Davis’s management troubles were not entirely of his own making. The oneterm rule set out by the constitution rendered Davis a lame duck from the moment he stepped into office. Historians widely believe that the lack of political parties in the South, which blamed partisanship for many of its antebellum fights with Northerners, meant that criticism against Davis was not channeled and came at him from every angle. Without partisan machinery and the attendant patronage, Davis had no way to punish his enemies or reward his supporters.
By the end of the war, the Confederacy was a tangle of contradictions. In a nation founded partly on the principle of individual liberties, Davis suspended habeas corpus and declared martial law in some parts of the country, while Congress passed the first conscription measure in what had been the United States. In a country that was predicated on states’ rights, the federal government had to consolidate power at the expense of the states in order to prosecute the war. And in the most striking irony, this state that had been founded to protect slavery decided in March 1865 to arm slaves in a last-ditch effort to hold off the Northern armies. The policy could not be implemented, however, before Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865. Although it took some time for news of the war’s end to reach the far corners of the Confederacy, for all intents and purposes the Confederate States of America died with Lee’s army.
In the 1870s, Southern white women in particular set out to venerate their fallen men and the Old South. In doing so, they created what has come to be known as the Lost Cause mythology, a moonlight-and-magnolias view of the slave-owning South and the Civil War. The central ideas behind the Lost Cause are that the Confederacy lost the Civil War because the North overwhelmed it with superior numbers, not better fighting, and that defeat ennobled the South rather than discredited it. This ideology is evident in various monuments, works of fiction, and film, with the most notable and culturally penetrating work being Gone with the Wind.
- Davis, William C. 2002. Look Away: A History of the Confederate States of America. New York: Free Press.
- Levine, Bruce. 2005. Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press.
- McPherson, James M. 2001. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 3rd ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
- Potter, David M. 1968. The South and the Sectional Conflict. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
- Rable, George C. 1994. The Confederate Republic: A Revolution Against Politics. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
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