Excerpt from The Life of Jefferson Davis

Excerpt from The Life of Jefferson Davis

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It is remarkable that to those who make a boast of the patriotic devotion of the South in the war, and are intent to display it as an ornament of a lost cause, the thought has never occurred how this claim can consist with the necessities of conscription and impressment, the amount of force necessary to raise armies in the Confederacy, the amount of fraud by which the public service was cheated of men and material, the extent of desertions and of evasions of military duty, and all the other peculiar incidents we have mentioned of unwilling service and forced contribution in the war.

…The only possible hypothesis on which that honor can be saved is that the people of the South acted in the manner we have described, grudging the demands of the war from the conviction of the unworthiness and misdirection of their government, rather than from that of any demerit or decline of their cause. It is certain that they had a great and noble cause to fight for, and that in the first part of the contest they had displayed unbounded devotion and courage, the admiration of the world. The cause had lost none of its merits, the war none of its just inspiration; these rather had been increased; and yet at a time when the people of the South had in no degree diminished their desire for independence, and long before they thought the war for any natural reason hopeless, and when all that was thought necessary for its success was well-directed effort–when the disasters that had occurred were considered only of that measure which reinspires and strengthens the courageous spirit rather than reduces it–we find them yielding the war an uncertain and niggardly support, displaying nothing of a former devotion, and disposed to deny or to cheat every contribution which the government required of them. The only explanation can be that that government had in some way wounded them, in some way forfeited their confidence–either this, or that the people ofthe South had some inherent defect of cowardice or irresolution:–either Jefferson Davis unworthy, or the whole population of the South in fault and disgrace.…

When Mr. Davis, after the disasters of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, found his appeals for volunteers unavailing, and when he must have been sensible of his loss of the popular confidence, we find him at once taking a new breadth of despotism in his government–a measure, indeed, calculated to produce a certain reanimation of the war, and this for a certain period, but having no depth of public spirit in it, and although postponing the catastrophe, yet making it more certain and disastrous at the last. We refer to the enlargement of the conscription law. First, on the 15th of July, 1863, came a proclamation of the President extending the limits of the conscription, which in the former year had been of persons between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, to include all up to the age of forty-five; then an act of Congress extending the term of the conscript age to fifty-five years; added to this a law repealing all substitutions in the military service, and actually compelling the seventy or eighty thousand persons who had furnished substitutes to take up arms themselves, and that without returning them the money they had paid or releasing the substitutes they had employed–an example of the very effrontery of fraud and despotism; and lastly, at the close of the year, a law to clinch the whole matter, declaring every man between eighteen and fifty-five years of age to belong to the army, subject at once to the articles of war, military discipline and military penalties, and requiring him to report within a certain time, or be liable to death as a deserter. The whole people of the South were made soldiers under martial law. The country was converted into a vast camp, and the government of Jefferson Davis into one of the most thorough military despotisms of the age.

But the levy en masse was not all. The twin measure of conscription, that which completed the despotic character of the government at Richmond, was impressment. They were logical correspondents; they made as a whole a government in which the lives of the citizens and all the production and labor of the country, were put under military control. It was the maximum of the demands of a despotism.

After the disasters of 1863, complaints of the want of food arose simultaneously with those of the deficiency of men; and it was evident to the intelligent that the same decay of public spirit that denied the claims of military service, also withheld the meaner contributions of food and supply for the army. Both necessities grew out of the same unwilling spirit in the Confederacy. There was really no scarcity of food to the absurd extent represented by Mr. Davis when he declared that it was “but the one danger to be regarded with apprehension”?as if in an extensive and fruitful land like the South, there could be danger of the starvation of a whole population! What necessities did really exist were mostly artificial, or of the government?s own creation. There was plenty of food in the South; but it was badly distributed by a Commissary who was unwise and rapacious; who had no idea of equalizing the supplies of the country, or conciliating the generosity of the people. Again, the apparent deficiency was greatly due to the wretched currency of the Confederacy; and that by a law certain and irresistible in its effects.… When a currency depreciates there is a general disposition to withhold from market and to hoard supplies which would otherwise be converted into money. These results were excessively realized in the Confederacy, where the currency was rapidly verging to worthlessness, and where hoarders and engrossers were found in every department of industry and in every class of society.

In the early months of the war, when General Beauregard was preparing to fight the battle of Manassas, he had written a letter to a farmer in Orange county, representing that the army was in need of sixty wagon-loads of corn and provisions, and engaging to pay for the same and the expense of hauling, as soon as the funds could be obtained from Richmond. The letter was read the following Sunday to all the churches in Orange county. The response was that the next day the sixty wagons, loaded with corn, were sent to General Beauregard, free of charge, and with the message that he shouldalso keep the wagons and teams for the use of his army. Such was the patriotic generosity of a single county in Virginia; it was indicative of public spirit in the Confederacy. How great a change must have befallen that spirit, when, two years later, we find the same class of producers who then hastened with donations for the army, avaricious and chaffering traders in the life-blood of their own country, refusing to sell their grain to the government, perhaps haggling about the price of pork per pound, when their sons and brothers in the army were living on a quarter of a pound of meat a day, and sometimes had none at all.

Truly the patriotism of the Confederacy had wofully declined–had fallen by a whole heaven–in view of a government compelled to recruit supplies for its army in a war for its existence on the alternative of begging to buy them or of taking them with a ruthless hand. The army was badly fed; it was worse clothed.… Thousands of these poor fellows were clothed in the Federal uniforms which had been captured. Thousands were destitute of shoes; and it was reported that nearly half of Longstreet’s corps were barefoot, when the snows laid on the ground at the dose of the year 1863. Meanwhile the railway system of the Confederacy was giving out; even if supplies were found it was difficult to transport them; and thus distress from every point stared the people of the South, while the enemy continued to invade their towns and States, to offer liberty to their slaves, to enrol them in his armies, and to defy their retaliation.

Great and bitter as were the wants of the government for supplies, nothing could have been worse than the law into which it wildly and madly plunged for a remedy. The law of impressment was excessive; it alarmed the sentiment of the whole country; it destroyed the last vestiges of civil rights in the Confederacy. To show to what extent the government of Mr. Davis contemplated its powers, it may be mentioned that his dull creature, Northrop, the Commissary-General had proposed to him to seize plantations throughout the South, and to work them on government account; and that the President had, only after hesitation, declined this high-handed scheme to adopt the more uniform, but scarcely less cruel law of impressments. This law authorized the government to seize or impress all the produce necessary for the army. It provided that a board of commissioners should be appointed in each State who should determine, every sixty days, the prices which the government should pay for each article of produce impressed within the State. A central board of commissioners was also appointed for all the States. The act authorized the agents of the government to seize all the produce of the farmer, except so much as was necessary to sustain himself and family.

Denunciations of the law arose on all sides. It was inseparable from abuses. The newspapers complained of the rude and rapacious action of “the press-gangs.” The meaner citizens resorted to all possible methods to save their property from impressment; many of them were driven to sell clandestinely or openly their stores to non-producers out of the army, who were willing and anxious to pay fifty or a hundred per cent. more than the government paid. On the other hand the few who were really patriotic and disposed to contribute to the war, who still maintained a romantic enthusiasm in the contest, had their feelings hurt; they were touched in their pride and sense of justice that the government should treat them with rudeness and suspicion. Yet another and more important class of citizens resented the law in a more serious light–as an act of unexampled despotism. There were men even in the Confederate Congress who were bold enough to declare that impressment and other acts of misrule and oppression in the administration of Mr. Davis had extracted all virtue from the cause, and that the war simply remained as a choice of despots, one at Washington and one at Richmond.