Confederacy vs Union politics

Though scholars energetically debate whether or not the Confederate States of America achieved “nationhood,” there is no denying that the Confederacy acted as a separate country for the four years of its existence. While the United States continued to operate normally (elections, parties, campaigns, state and Congressional legislation, court rulings, etc.) during the Civil War, the Confederacy labored to raise an infant government from birth while simultaneously fighting a war for independence. In political terms, the Confederacy was a failure from the start, crippled by the towering egos of its leaders, states rights ideology, and total lack of infrastructure. In the United States, on the other hand, the Republican Party governed effectively, fought off Democratic challenges, passed landmark legislation, ended slavery, and successfully put down the domestic rebellion. The political differences between the well-established United States and the would-be Confederate States are key to understanding the course and outcome of the Civil War.

The goal of the Confederate States of America was clear:

a new, independent nation based on deep racial and class inequalities. “Our new government,” declared rebel Vice President Alexander Stephens of Georgia in March 1861, “rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”

The form of government adopted— a loose confederacy— had already proven a failure in American history. The Articles of Confederation, drafted by the Second Continental Congress in November 1777 and in effect until September 1788, was woefully inadequate for the needs of the young United States, and thus the Founding Fathers replaced it with a Constitution, creating a new central government supreme above the states. Southern rebels in 1861, obsessed with state sovereignty and in a furious hurry, returned to the concept of confederacy for their new government, a decision that would prove disastrous. The Confederate government consisted of a six-year president limited to a single term and a Congress with little power to raise money. There was no supreme court, nor any mechanism to coerce the independent-minded states. Thus, the government lacked the power to win the war in order to make their goal a reality. [1]

Aside from the structural flaws of the new government, a major source of trouble for the Confederacy was its much-vaunted leader, Jefferson Davis. Davis was a Mississippi slave-owner born in Kentucky who had won the hearts of Deep South planters by serving with distinction in the Mexican War and championing the spread of slavery as a member of both the US House and Senate, and as Secretary of War under Democratic President Franklin Pierce. He was a talented officer and a smart politician, but he was also enormously difficult to work with. The Confederacy’s chief executive quickly alienated his subordinates and his constituents. In fact, his own vice president, Alexander Hamilton Stephens, spent the majority of the war not in the Confederate Capitol at Richmond, but at his home writing poison-pen letters condemning Davis’s actions and policies. In addition, Davis surrounded himself with mediocre minds who would never challenge his decisions. As the war progressed, and rebel prospects dimmed, Davis became increasingly abrasive and stubborn, unable to forge the meaningful relationships and popular support needed to govern a republic.

The problems continued further down the chain of command. Few leading men joined the Confederate government, preferring instead to satisfy their egos by winning glory on the battlefield. Moreover, turn-over in the Davis administration was staggering, leading to weak leadership and inconsistent policies. In the three top positions in the cabinet—State, War, and Treasury— twelve men served, with the War Department a near revolving door of second-rate politicians and bureaucrats. Only the Secretary of the Treasury, Christopher Gustavus Memminger, stayed in office for the duration of the war, but even he was inadequate to the task of building national finances from scratch and securing foreign investment. Overall, the cabinet offices were ill-organized, poorly managed, underfunded, and understaffed. Equally problematic, a deep sense of Southern honor” prevented government officials from speaking openly about problems, both in the new Confederate Congress and in the Davis administration. No one dared criticize or question an associate for fear of offending their delicate sensibilities. Hence, frank discussions about policies and personalities were dangerous and rare, further hindering their ability to govern effectively.

The most striking feature of Confederate politics was the absence of political parties. Unlike the United States, which benefited from a vigorous competition between Democrats and Republicans, the Confederacy enjoyed no such organized debate. The prominent issues of the pre-war period (secession and union) were supplanted by war-related controversies; parties disappeared and were replaced by a wartime unity. With secession and war achieved, there were no major issues to define elections and campaigns. Believing it necessary to present a united front to the enemy, for instance, candidates in the elections for the first Confederate Congress conducted virtually no campaigns. Office seekers often placed notices in the local press informing the public of their candidacy, yet these announcements rarely differed from one aspirant to another, as they uniformly proclaimed themselves to be ardent supporters of southern independence and proponents of a vigorous prosecution of the war. Moreover, the lack of organized parties made legislating extraordinarily difficult. No parties meant no partisan discipline, no harmony on pressing issues, and no incentive to work with other legislators. At the local level, voters were left practically powerless to effect change, since there was no guarantee that their representatives would be able to craft coalitions to enact policies. Consequently, few voters participated in elections, which, in turn, denied the Confederate government a meaningful mandate.

One topic that did polarize the Confederate public was conscription. In the early months of the war, Southern white men volunteered in droves, expecting to whip a dozen Yankees each. But by April 1862, the realities of a long, expansive conflict and unprecedented mortality rate hurt recruitment, and the Confederate Congress turned to coercion. It was enormously unpopular from the start, not only because young white men were less eager to leave their families and die in battle, but also because a major motive of the rebellion had been fear of centralized authority. Under the United States government, Americans had had very little, if any, experience with federal power. Making war and delivering the mail was about it. Secession and the start of civil war had been based on a theoretical and future growth of central power. The Confederate draft was the first in American history, and it came as quite a shock. Forcing its citizens to fight and die, Southerners understood, is the ultimate exercise of government authority. “The Confederate government,” observes historian Paul Quigley, “implemented an extraordinary expansion of central authority, intervening in the national economy, creating a massive military and civilian bureaucracy, and controlling the day-to-day economic activities, even the lives and deaths, of its citizens.” Sensing their constituents’ displeasure with the “horror of conscription” and the frightening expansion of centralized power, many candidates running for seats in the 2nd Confederate Congress condemned the policy. Some did so on the grounds that it detracted from state and local defense efforts, and others argued that it placed too much power in the hands of President Davis. In September, Congress provoked additional uproar when they passed a law exempting one white man on plantations with twenty or more slaves (“planter” status). Poor whites, in particular, were apoplectic, perceiving that the law made the conflict “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” The Davis administration, reeling from unpopularity, argued that the law was necessary keep up agricultural production and to prevent slave revolts. [2]

The United States Census of 1860[330] gives a picture of the overall 1860 population for the areas that had joined the Confederacy. Note that the population numbers exclude non-assimilated Indian tribes.

number of
number of
Total number[331]
% of Free
% of Free
as % of
North Carolina992,622331,059125,090661,56334,6585%28%33%30,463
South Carolina703,708402,40658,642301,30226,7019%46%57%9,914

Taxation became another divisive issue that undermined government authority and elicited vigorous protests from whites. Having no money at the start of the war, the government printed huge amounts of Confederate currency that was worthless in most places. By 1863, skyrocketing inflation forced Congress to find alternatives to financing the war. In addition to foreign investments (which never materialized) and the sale of government bonds, the Davis administration turned to taxes, including a controversial “tax-in-kind” on agricultural products. Yeoman farmers, appalled by the lop-sided policy, complained that it was unfair for the government to take ten percent of their meager surpluses while city-dwellers, such as clerks and teachers, paid only two percent of their income. Furthermore, Congress left slaves – the principal possession of the wealthy – untaxed, adding to the “rich man’s war” perception.

Battlefield setbacks, terrifying mortality rates, and deeply unpopular government policies all combined to diminish rebel fervor by the end of 1863. As hopes of victory became increasingly remote, peace became the overriding political issue in the Confederacy. Much of the trouble was due to rebel devotion to states’ rights ideology. The weak Confederate government was unable to manage the powerful, fiercely independent states it supposedly led. Congressional legislation was frequently stalled by fights over how and where money should be spent, Davis’s leadership was constantly undermined by honor-minded generals vying for command, and military campaigns were often hindered by states refusing to send troops and supplies. As General Robert E. Lee’s tattered and starving army surrendered in Virginia in 1865, for instance, North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance boasted that his warehouses were full of uniforms, blankets, and food.

The most famous example of state obstructionism is Governor Joseph Brown of Georgia. Throughout the war, Brown insisted on putting the needs of his own state above the needs of the Confederacy, denying rebel armies critical resources. In the spring of 1861, he refused to allow people who volunteered directly for the Confederate army (as opposed to state forces) to take any weapons out of the state, even their own guns. In the first battle of the war, Bull Run, Georgia troops were withheld because Brown was not permitted to appoint their commanding officers. Later, in order to keep Georgians at home, he exempted over 15,000 from the draft. To extreme conservatives, Brown’s actions were in keeping with true states’ rights ideology, but to Confederate leaders like President Davis, Brown’s actions were profoundly selfish and destructive.

While the Confederate government struggled, rebel generals bickered, and state governors obstructed, the war wrought tremendous changes in Southern society. The belief that the conflict represented a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” prompted many poor whites to funnel their energy into electing representatives who better reflected their socioeconomic outlook, and, by 1863, poor whites led an upcountry Unionist movement. These associations, such as the Heroes of America in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, the Peace Society in northern Georgia and northern Alabama, and the Peace and Constitution Society in Arkansas, served as incubators for the southern Republican Party, in which poor whites would exert far more influence than they had in the South’s pre-war years. As United States armies gained control of sections of the South, poor whites came to power.

Richmond bread riot, 1863

White women also exploited the war to assert themselves, break through long-standing social barriers, and enter the political arena. “White southern women forged their own relationships to the nation, their own notions of Confederate citizenship, with reference to ideas about gender roles and responsibilities,” notes Quigley. While their husbands and sons were off at war, white women managed the homefront (farms, plantations, businesses) and shattered traditional notions of “spheres of influence.” Sewing associations and charitable relief organizations proliferated, United States flags were torn down, and parades and celebrations were held for men both departing and returning. Wealthy women became politically active, exerting influence on their powerful husbands in the military or the government, while poor women penned angry letters to government officials or took to the street to protest policies that increased their hardship. For instance, on April 2, 1863, several hundred women in Richmond, Virginia marched to the state capital to complain that the price and supply of bread had reached intolerable levels. When Governor John Letcher told the protestors that he was incapable of remedying the situation, the crowd took matters into its own hands. Pulling knives, hatchets, and a few pistols from their skirts and pocketbooks, the women proceeded to loot the commercial district of whatever bread and other food items they could find. Only Jefferson Davis’s personally-delivered threat that troops would fire upon the mob convinced the rioters to disperse. Similar bread riots occurred in Atlanta, Macon, Augusta, Mobile, and a half-dozen other towns across the Confederacy. As historian Stephanie McCurry has concluded, Southern women fashioned themselves into a force to be reckoned with. [3]

The most dramatic political changes, however, were experienced by enslaved Southern blacks. As soon as the war began, slaves fled bondage for United States forts and forces, putting pressure on the Lincoln administration to re-examine its war aims and policies. Likewise, slave resistance and escape forced rebels to fight a two-front war: one against the United States, and another against their own enslaved population. It was the actions of black Southerners that prompted the Confederate Congress to pass the September 1862 plantation exemption, and it was the action of black Southerners that forced the Davis administration to re-direct scarce troops and resources to protect white supremacy and enforce slave laws. In the end, their efforts were successful and the Confederacy crumbled from within, and, like women, black Southerners fashioned themselves into a powerful political force that would play a deciding role in the post-war years. Southern politics would never be the same.

While Confederate politics were a tangled web of contradictions, failures, and upheavals, politics in the United States continued fairly normally. Despite the rebellion, the United States Constitution remained intact, elections were held, the two-party system persisted, and the federal government operated routinely (albeit without Deep South obstructionism). In fact, many scholars view the success of the federal government in the trials of the Civil War as a testament to the durability and superiority of the Constitution. Regardless, United States politics during the war were nearly the opposite of the Confederate experience in almost every way.

Unlike his Confederate counterpart Jefferson Davis, President Abraham Lincoln was an effective national and partisan leader. Though his Republican Party was often deeply divided over the fate of slavery and the prosecution of the war, Lincoln maintained control of the party apparatus (even achieving re-nomination and re-election in the face on internal challenges, political setbacks, and military defeats) and pursued a moderate course that eventually proved successful. He was an astute observer of public opinion, he worked well with others, and he inspired loyalty and hard-work in his subordinates. Instead of filling his cabinet with mediocrities (as Davis had largely done), Lincoln surrounded himself with the top politicians of the day, both Democrats and Republicans, both skeptical moderates and wide-eyed Radicals. He also encouraged honesty and frank discussion among his policy-makers, leading to productive cabinet meetings and sound decision-making.

More important than personality differences is the fact that Lincoln did not preside over a one-party state, as Davis had attempted. Instead, the United States saw a ferocious competition between liberals (Republicans) and conservatives (Democrats). Moreover, the Republican Party, itself, was divided between conservative-minded Moderates (who were reluctant to touch slavery) and liberal-leaning Radicals (who were fiery abolitionists). Upon their election in 1860, scholar Michael Green explains, “Republicans agreed on the need to confine slavery within its boundaries, but differed on the depths of their opposition to slavery and what their party should do about it.” When war came, President Lincoln, who is most often characterized as a Moderate by historians, made it clear that his top priorities were putting down the rebellion, defending the Constitution, and saving the Union, not emancipating the slaves. [4]

The president’s initial focus on the war, rather than slavery, reflected his cautious legal thinking. Though he personally abhorred the “peculiar institution,” the lawyerly Lincoln was not convinced it could be eradicated constitutionally. Only later, in mid-1862, after Southern blacks began freeing themselves, US soldiers became “abolitionized,” and Radicals in Congress began passing anti-slavery legislation (such as the First and Second Confiscation Acts), did he come to the conclusion that emancipation was both necessary (to end the war) and legal (through his executive war powers).[5] In July, Lincoln penned an emancipation proclamation, but, on the advice of his senior adviser (Secretary of State William Henry Seward), shelved the proclamation until US armies had won a decisive victory in the eastern theater. That victory came in September, at the Battle of Antietam. But even then, Lincoln was still reluctant to take such a drastic and legally-questionable step. Instead, he offered rebels one last opportunity to keep their slaves: the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. If rebel states gave up the fight and returned to the Union by January 1, 1863, not only would there be no reprisals, but there would be no emancipation. Unsurprisingly, the rebel states ignored the offer and continued in their war for independence. Thus, as promised, on January 1, 1864 the President of the United States issued and signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves in rebel territories. Lincoln’s slow move toward emancipation may have frustrated Radicals and black Americans, but it reflected white Americans’ complex and ever-changing feelings about blacks, slavery, and federal power. “To have a Union there must be freedom; to have freedom there must be Union,” notes Green.[6]