Confederate States of America

Citation metadata

Editor: Richard Nelson Current
Date: 1993
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 3,819 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1250L

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

Some Southerners came to believe that the South possessed a character quite distinct from that of the North, distinct enough to qualify the region for separate nationhood. They looked upon themselves as constituting a suppressed nationality comparable to the Irish or the Polish, though they could hardly claim a distinctive language, religion, or tribal history.

There were, of course, real differences between the North and the South. The most important consisted of the relatively rapid industrialization of the one section and the persistence of a slavery-based agricultural economy in the other. Cotton and slavery might have provided an adequate basis for Southern nationality and independence--if American nationalism and the spirit of Union had been less strong than they proved to be. Southern nationalists did not want war, but war came, and as a result their experiment with independence was brief, lasting only from 1861 to 1865.

Sectionalism and Secession

Ever since the founding of the American republic, sectionalism had erupted in a Union-threatening crisis from time to time. At the constitutional convention of 1787, the project for a "more perfect Union" was endangered when Northern and Southern delegates disagreed on such questions as the prohibition of slave imports. The Union seemed at risk in 1819 when a controversy arose over the admission of Missouri as a slave state, and again in 1832 when South Carolina nullified Federal tariff laws. An even more serious crisis occurred in 1850; it resulted from a number of sectional disputes, the most serious of which concerned the status of slavery in the territories. Compromises enabled the Union to survive each of these crises.

So long as political parties remained national in membership, partisanship offset sectionalism and made compromise possible. Then, in the 1850s, partisanship gave way to sectionalism as the Whig party disappeared, the Democratic party split, and the new Republican party gained strength. President George Washington had warned in his Farewell Address (1796) that the Union would be imperiled if a time should ever come when parties were organized on a geographical basis, with a party of the North and another of the South. By 1860, that time had arrived. The party of the North, the Republicans, now elected their presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, though they failed to win a majority in either house of Congress.

South Carolinians made Lincoln's election the occasion for adopting an ordinance of secession and declaring South Carolina an independent state on December 20, 1860. In doing so, they followed a theory and a procedure that John C. Calhoun had formulated years earlier. According to Calhoun's doctrine of state sovereignty and state rights, secession was a perfectly legal and constitutional process. By February 1, 1861, the other six states of the lower South--Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas--had followed South Carolina's example, though some secessionists justified their action on the basis of a revolutionary rather than a constitutional right, citing the precedent of July 4, 1776.

In the slave states of the upper South and the border, leaders hoped for a compromise that would preserve the Union, and with that object in view Virginia invited the rest of the states, North and South, to a peace convention, which met in Washington, D.C., but accomplished nothing. Meanwhile another convention sat in Montgomery, Alabama, and organized a provisional government for the Confederate States of America.

The seceded states had taken over most of the Federal property within their borders. A few forts remained under Federal control, most conspicuously Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Confederate policy, as set in a resolution of the Provisional Congress, looked to the acquisition of these forts by negotiation if possible and by force if necessary. Lincoln, however, announced his intention to "hold, occupy, and possess" all the forts and other Federal property, and he refused to deal with commissioners from the Confederacy. When a Federal relief expedition approached Charleston Harbor, the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861, and compelled its surrender on April 14. The next day Lincoln called upon the states remaining in the Union for troops to enforce Federal laws in the states that had withdrawn from it.

The governors of Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, North Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky, and Delaware rejected Lincoln's call. Virginia and Tennessee began at once to give military support to the Confederacy, without waiting for the referenda that eventually showed majorities in both states in favor of secession. Conventions in Arkansas and North Carolina soon voted to secede. Extralegal bodies later proclaimed the secession of Missouri and Kentucky, and the Confederacy claimed both of these states also. Both were represented in the Confederate Congress, but their legitimate governments and a majority of their people remained loyal to the Union.

Constitution and Government

Montgomery remained the Confederate capital until July 1862, when the government moved to Richmond, Virginia. Meanwhile the Montgomery convention performed three functions: it chose a provisional president and vice president, served as a Provisional Congress, and drew up a constitution for the Confederacy.

For president, the convention selected Jefferson Davis, recently a U.S. senator from Mississippi and formerly a secretary of war and a professional soldier. For vice president, the choice was Alexander H. Stephens, long a congressman from Georgia. Both men had been moderates rather than fire-eaters, or extreme secessionists. Both were later elected, without opposition, to regular terms in office.

The Provisional Congress reenacted all U.S. laws not inconsistent with the Confederate Constitution, and this document was an exact copy of the U.S. Constitution except for certain significant changes. For instance, the president was given an item veto, and he and the vice president were limited to a single six-year term. Protective tariffs were prohibited. So were slave importations, but the institution of slavery itself was guaranteed. As Stephens declared, the "cornerstone" of the Confederacy was the same as that of slavery--the principle of the inequality of the white and black races.

After the unicameral Provisional Congress (1861-1862), there were two regular Congresses (1862-1864, 1864-1865). Each of these, like the U.S. model, consisted of a House and a Senate. Of the 267 men who, during the life of the Confederacy, served as senators or representatives, almost a third had been members of the U.S. Congress at one time or another, and one had been a U.S. president--John Tyler.

The Confederate Congress established six departments: State, Treasury, War, Navy, Justice, and Post Office. These duplicated the U.S. departments except for Justice, which the United States had not yet created, and Interior, which the Confederacy omitted. The new postal service succeeded the old without a break, the Southern employees of the U.S. government becoming employees of the Confederate government overnight.

Heads of departments changed frequently, so that Davis's cabinet had much less stability than Lincoln's. The most influential of Davis's cabinet advisers was Judah P. Benjamin, successively attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state.

The Confederate Constitution provided for a judiciary with a supreme court, but Congress included no such high tribunal when setting up a court system.


At first, the Confederates looked confidently to Europe for assistance that would enable them to establish their independence. They were encouraged by the example of the Revolutionary War, in which France had intervened to help the rebellious English colonies succeed. They were further encouraged by the doctrine of King Cotton: they thought Great Britain and France were so dependent on Southern cotton that the two powers, to maintain their supply, would step in and end the war, with the Confederacy intact.

The Confederates promptly sent missions to Britain, France, Russia, and other countries to seek recognition and aid. It looked for a time as if Britain would go to war with the United States after a U.S. warship seized two of the Confederate emissaries, James M. Mason and John Slidell, from the British steamer Trent while they were on their way abroad (November 1861). But neither the British nor any other government ever officially received a diplomat from the Confederacy or recognized it as a member of the family of nations.

Britain did recognize the belligerency, though not the independence, of the Confederacy when Queen Victoria issued her proclamation of neutrality (May 13, 1861). Other countries did the same. This meant that they would extend to the Confederacy the rights of a nation at war under international law.

The British government violated its neutrality to the extent of allowing British shipbuilders to sell Alabama and other warships to the Confederacy. These, constituting the main force of the Confederate navy, engaged in commerce raiding on the high seas. They had access to foreign ports but not to their own, which were shut off by the Union blockade. Arguing that the blockade was ineffective and hence illegal, the Confederates tried unsuccessfully to persuade the British to break it.

When Emperor Napoleon III of France set up a puppet government in Mexico, the Confederates were willing to give it recognition (thus disregarding the Monroe Doctrine) in return for French recognition of their own government, but nothing came of this idea.

In the end, Confederate diplomacy failed partly because the European interest in Southern cotton was offset by other economic interests. More important, the European powers were divided, and Russia was conspicuously friendly to the United States. Neither Britain nor France dared risk intervention so long as the Confederacy had not clearly demonstrated its ability to survive with very little outside help.

The Army

The president of the Confederate States, like the president of the United States, was commander in chief of the army and navy. Except for what coordination President Davis could provide, the Confederacy had no unified command until near the end of the war, when Robert E. Lee became general in chief. Originally, both a Regular Army and a Provisional Army were contemplated, but the Regular Army never developed, and the Provisional Army fought the war.

Troops were recruited for this army directly as individuals and indirectly as members of state militias, which the governors furnished. From the outset men were impressed, or drafted, into state militias, but the Confederacy in its direct recruiting relied on volunteers until April 16, 1862, when its Congress passed the first national conscription act in American history. This act applied at first to able-bodied men from eighteen to thirty-five and eventually to those from seventeen to fifty. It exempted state officeholders, workers in a variety of presumably indispensable occupations, and one owner or overseer for every twenty slaves. It also exempted men who could provide substitutes. All these provisions were unpopular, and most were modified before the end of the war.

Volunteers continued to enlist and did so in about the same numbers as were conscripted. How many men, all together, served in the Confederate army can only be guessed at. The most reliable estimate is 850,000 to 900,000, or somewhat less than half as many as served in the Union army, but a much higher proportion of the white population. At any given time the effective strength of the armed forces was considerably less than the numbers on the rolls. Many were absent without leave--as many as two-thirds in late 1864 according to Davis himself. Some deserters joined the enemy, and so did some draft evaders. More than 100,000 such "tories" fought on the Union side.

The Confederacy also lost considerable numbers as prisoners of war. In 1862 the Federal and Confederate authorities agreed to a cartel providing for a regular and large-scale exchange of prisoners. The arrangement soon broke down because Davis refused to exchange black prisoners or their white officers and declared Benjamin F. Butler and his subordinates "outlaws" to be executed if captured. As Union prisoners accumulated, the Confederates were unable to provide suitable facilities for all of them, and terrible suffering resulted at Andersonville and other Southern prisons. Still, Union General in Chief Ulysses S. Grant was unwilling to renew the cartel, since the return of prisoners would benefit the Confederacy more than the Union, the Confederacy being more desperately in need of additional troops.

So desperate were Confederate leaders by 1865 that they finally decided to recruit slaves, but the war ended before any blacks actually served as Confederate soldiers.


To maintain their independence, the Confederates needed not to win the war but only to keep the Federals from winning it. The Confederacy did not possess sufficient human and material resources to overwhelm the North in any case. Hence Davis adopted an essentially defensive though by no means entirely passive strategy. It was offensive-defensive. Throughout the war, while undertaking to repel Federal advances, the Confederates also made extensive counterthrusts from time to time.

Thus in 1862 Thomas J. ("Stonewall") Jackson sped northward down the Shenandoah Valley to threaten Washington and draw Federals away from beleaguered Richmond. Robert E. Lee and Braxton Bragg made simultaneous movements into Maryland and Kentucky, movements that culminated in the Confederate recapture of Harpers Ferry and in Confederate retreats from Sharpsburg, Perryville, and Murfreesboro.

In 1863 Lee invaded Pennsylvania with the twofold objective of intensifying the war-weariness of the North and relieving the pressure on Vicksburg, which was under siege. He retreated from Gettysburg and the Confederates surrendered Vicksburg on the same day, July 4, 1863.

Again in 1864, when Federals were hemming in Richmond and Petersburg, Jubal Early attempted to divert them by raiding the outskirts of Washington. And finally, after the fall of Atlanta, John Bell Hood attacked the Federals at Nashville, only to be routed.

Meanwhile John Hunt Morgan, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Joseph Wheeler made cavalry raids into Union-held areas of the South and even into Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio.

The Confederate strategy did not prevent the steady loss of territory to the Federals. After only a little more than a year of war, the Confederacy had lost control of northeastern Virginia, stretches of the coast from North Carolina to Florida, and a large part of both Tennessee and Louisiana, including the state capitals, Nashville and New Orleans. By the end of 1863 more than half of the original Confederacy had been isolated from the Richmond government because of Federal penetration, and by the end of 1864 no more than three states--most of Virginia and North and South Carolina--remained under the government's control.

This does not necessarily mean that the Davis policy was ill-advised. "If it did not win the war," as historian Frank Vandiver has written, "the offensive-defensive did enable the Confederates to outlast their resources--ample proof of the soundness of the strategy and the strategist."

The Economy

Far inferior to the Union in both human and material resources, the Confederacy at the start could claim only about two-fifths as many people (a third of them slaves), one-fourth as much bank capital, and one-tenth as great a manufacturing capacity. The Confederacy did produce more corn and livestock per capita, and it had a large potential asset in its cotton crop.

The Confederates failed to make timely and adequate use of the cotton as a basis for foreign credit. Hence financing the war proved difficult. Bullion and coin were relatively scarce, and the Confederates had to rely much more on the issue of paper money and much less on taxation and borrowing than the Union did.

The consequence was extreme inflation. This was made worse by a scarcity of many commodities, a scarcity that was due to the blockade and to extensive hoarding, which in turn was exacerbated by the government's policy of impressment, that is, the seizure of goods at arbitrary prices. Inflation was also intensified by the shrinkage of Confederate-held territory and the resulting increase in the ratio of currency to commerce as people in the occupied areas sent their Confederate money to what was left of the Confederacy, where the paper retained at least a little of its nominal value.

Transportation suffered from the inadequacy of the railroads, which had serious gaps to begin with. True, the Confederates were the first to reinforce an army by rail in the midst of battle, and their railroads gave the presumed advantage of "interior lines" some reality. Still, the government failed to take effective control of the railroad system until late in the war. By then, the tracks and rolling stock had deteriorated badly, and the gaps had grown worse with the loss of key junctions such as Chattanooga and Atlanta. River and coastal shipping similarly was obstructed by enemy occupation.

Horses and mules, together with horse-drawn and mule-drawn vehicles, played a larger role in Confederate life, both military and civilian, than did railroad trains or riverboats. In the beginning the Confederacy was well supplied with horses and mules, but these were rapidly used up, and replacements were hard to get. By 1863 there was a serious shortage.

The Confederates acquired some munitions and other war matériel by seizures of U.S. arsenals, purchases abroad, and captures on the battlefield. But they had to depend mainly on expanding their few existing facilities, such as the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, and on developing new ones. The government tried to stimulate war-related manufactures by various means, among them the granting of draft exemptions to needed laborers. There were remarkable achievements in the production of salt, nitrates, and other necessities, but not enough to meet all the military and civilian requirements. Even when a surplus of commodities, such as foodstuffs, existed in one place, there were often shortages in other places because of the transportation difficulties.

Economic exhaustion eventually set in. As Charles W. Ramsdell has said, "The Confederacy had begun to break down within, long before the military situation appeared to be desperate."


The war brought significant, if not all of them permanent, changes in Southern society, especially in the role of women, the relationship of classes, and the position of blacks.

Women took up responsibilities that formerly had belonged to men. They assisted the war effort directly by encouraging men to enlist, by sewing for soldiers and nursing them, and by serving as spies, among whom the most famous were Belle Boyd and Rose O'Neal Greenhow. They ran farms and plantations and worked at factory and government jobs. As diarists and memoirists, most notably Mary Boykin Chesnut and Catherine Ann Edmondston, they left the best literature embodying the wartime experience.

At least for the duration, women were liberated from the romantic antebellum stereotype of the lady on the pedestal, though certainly not from family obligations and the necessity of work. The hardships of the farm eventually caused many wives to call their soldier husbands home, thus depriving the army of men instead of inducing them, as earlier, to enlist.

Planters could no longer base their prestige solely on the land and slaves they owned. A heroic war record also counted, and men of no previous high standing, such as Stonewall Jackson, rose to positions of leadership and fame. At the same time, class consciousness grew among small farmers and day laborers, who expressed their feelings in the common saying that it was "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight." Mobs of women occasionally engaged in bread riots, demanding price reductions and looting stores of groceries and other merchandise.

Black men and women, as slaves, kept the plantations going and thus enabled an unusually high proportion of white men to be absent in the army. Blacks also gave direct assistance to the military as construction gangs, teamsters, cooks, and the like. Afterward, members of planter families liked to tell of retainers who had remained loyal to them throughout the war.

Yet the slaves constituted at least as much of a liability as an asset to the Confederacy. They did not revolt, as whites had feared they would, but--especially after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863)--they flocked to the camps of oncoming Federals and assisted them as spies, guides, and laborers. About 100,000 blacks from the South (and others from the border states and the North) joined the Union army. In short, the slaves themselves contributed mightily to the final defeat of the Confederacy and the destruction of slavery--the institution upon which the Confederacy was based.


Political parties did not emerge in the Confederacy, though there remained in many cases a distinction between old Democrats and former Whigs. Politics, often virulent, nevertheless persisted in the form of rivalries for power and disagreements over governmental methods and even aims. These dissensions seriously weakened the Confederacy.

Politics pitted President Davis, always a Democrat, and his faithful followers against a growing number of opponents, the foremost of whom was Vice President Stephens, once a Whig. Davis, burdened with responsibility as he was, took a fairly broad view of the powers of the central government. Stephens became increasingly extreme in his devotion to state rights. He and other critics of Davis blamed him for practically everything that went wrong in the Confederacy.

Some of the severest critics were state governors. Davis had to contend with especially troublesome resistance from Joseph E. Brown of Georgia and Zebulon Vance of North Carolina. These governors wanted to keep control of their own state militias, and they objected both to Confederate conscription and to its enforcement by suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Brown kept many Georgia soldiers inside the state, and Vance accumulated stocks of war matériel for the exclusive use of North Carolina troops.

Confederate nationalism had to compete not only with state rights but also with persisting Unionism. This was most pervasive in the Appalachian Mountains and in the adjoining hill country, where slaves were few. Fifty-two counties of northwestern Virginia rejoined the Union as the state of West Virginia in 1863. A third of the counties of Tennessee, those in the eastern part of the state, would probably have rejoined the Union as East Tennessee if Federal armies had established control there as early as they did in northwestern Virginia. From the outset Confederate leaders had worried about popular tendencies toward "reconstruction," and these tendencies increased with military reverses, multiplying casualties, economic hardships, and a consequent lowering of public morale.

Peace movements gained ground, particularly in North Carolina and Georgia. In North Carolina a secret society known as the Red Strings (or Heroes of America) cultivated defeatism, and William W. Holden ran for governor as a peace candidate in 1864. (He was easily defeated by Vance, who called for keeping up the war effort.) In Georgia, Stephens and Brown advocated negotiating with the enemy. Stephens was willing to settle for guarantees of state rights in a reunited nation, but Davis refused to consider anything short of peace with independence. Davis insisted on this as his minimum terms when he authorized Stephens and other envoys to meet with Lincoln and his secretary of state, William H. Seward, in the Hampton Roads conference of February 1865. Lincoln took the position that the war would end only when the Confederates laid down their arms, and before long they had no real choice except to do so.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2335500289