November 18, 1861: Jefferson Davis Reports
On November 18, 1861, Jefferson Davis issued a report to the Confederate Congress on the progress of the War. It is a fascinating document. It details how he perceived the War at this early stage. Here is the text of the report, interspersed with comments by me:
Richmond November 18th 1861
The few weeks which have elapsed since your adjournment have brought us so near the close of the year that we are now able to sum up its general results. The retrospect is such as should fill the hearts of our people with gratitude to Providence for His kind interposition in their behalf. Abundant yields have rewarded the labor of the agriculturist, whilst the manufacturing industry of the Confederate States was never so prosperous as now. The necessities of the times have called into existence new branches of manufactures, and given a fresh impulse to the activity of those heretofore in operation. The means of the Confederate States for manufacturing the necessaries and comforts of life within themselves increase as the conflict continues, and we are gradually becoming independent of the rest of the world for the supply of such military stores and munitions as are indispensable for war. The operations of the army soon to be partially interrupted by the approaching winter have afforded a protection to the country, and shed a lustre upon its arms through the trying vicissitudes of more than one arduous campaign, which entitle our brave volunteers to our praise and our gratitude.
The Confederacy would expand its industrial plant enormously during the War, but it could never compete with the industrial might of the Union. The crop of 1861 was indeed bountiful, and it did small good for the Confederacy since Davis had decided on an informal cotton embargo which it was assumed would convince Great Britain to recognize the Confederacy since the British textile industry relied upon cotton from the South. It was a ghastly mistake. With the Union blockade in its infancy, most of the cotton crop of 1861 could have been shipped to Europe and earned much-needed hard currency for the purchase of badly needed supplies and weapons. Instead, what cotton was not used for domestic purposes in the Confederacy in 1861, simply sat in warehouses and on docks. This policy was one of the main blunders of the Davis administration in 1861.
From its commencement up to the present period, the war has been constantly enlarging its proportions and expanding its boundaries, so as to include new fields. The conflict now extends from the shores of the Chesapeake to the confines of Missouri and Arizona; yet, sudden calls from the remotest points for military aid have been met with promptness enough not only to avert disaster in face of superior numbers, but, also, to roll back the tide of invasion from the border.
True. Except in western Virginia and a few small coastal enclaves, the Confederacy did quite well in resisting Union occupation of its territory in 1861.
When the war commenced, the enemy were possessed of certain strategic points and strong places within the Confederate States. They greatly exceeded us in numbers, in available resources, and in the supplies necessary for war. Military establishments had been long organised, and were complete; the navy, and for the most part, the army, once common to both, were in their possession. To meet all this, we had to create not only an army in the face of war itself, but also the military establishments necessary to equip and place it in the field. It ought indeed to be a subject of gratulation that the spirit of the volunteers and the patriotism of the people have enabled us, under Providence, to grapple successfully with these difficulties. A succession of glorious victories at Bethel, Bull Run, Manassas, Springfield, Lexington, Leesburg, and Belmont, has checked the wicked invasion which greed of gain and the unhallowed lust of power brought upon our soil, and has proved that numbers cease to avail when directed against a people fighting for the sacred right of self-government and the privileges of freemen. After more than seven months of war, the enemy have not only failed to extend their occupancy of our soil, but new States and Territories have been added to our Confederacy, while instead of their threatened march of unchecked conquest, they have been driven at more than one point to assume the defensive; and upon a fair comparison between the two belligerents as to men, military means, and financial condition, the Confederate States are relatively much stronger now than when the struggle commenced.
A fair assessment of the situation towards the end of 1861 within the Confederacy.
Since your adjournment the people of Missouri have conducted the war in the face of almost unparalleled difficulties, with a spirit and success alike worthy of themselves and of the great cause in which they are struggling. Since that time Kentucky, too, has become the theatre of active hostilities. The federal forces have not only refused to acknowledge her right to be neutral, and have insisted upon making her a party to the war, but have invaded her for the purpose of attacking the Confederate States. Outrages of the most despotic character have been perpetrated upon her people; some of her most eminent citizens have been seized and borne away to languish in foreign prisons without knowing who were their accusers, or the specific charges made against them, while others have been forced to abandon their homes, families, and property, and seek a refuge in distant lands.
Now Davis gets to two sensitive areas. In Missouri civil war was now raging, with the Union controlling Saint Louis, the most important city in the state and essential for Union control of the Mississippi, and Kentucky was almost entirely under Union control. The War had not been going well for the Confederacy in these two states.
Finding that the Confederate States were about to be invaded through Kentucky, and that her people after being deceived into a mistaken security, were unarmed, and in danger of being subjugated by the Federal forces, our armies were marched into that State to repel the enemy and prevent their occupation of certain strategic points which would have given them great advantages in the contest — a step which was justified, not only by the necessities of self-defense on the part of the Confederate States, but, also, by a desire to aid the people of Kentucky. It was never intended by the Confederate Government to conquer or co-erce the people of that State; but, on the contrary, it was declared by our Generals that they would withdraw their troops if the Federal Government would do likewise. Proclamation was also made of the desire to respect the neutrality of Kentucky, and the intention to abide by the wishes of her people as soon as they were free to express their opinions. These declarations were approved by me, and I should regard it as one of the best effects of the march of our troops into Kentucky if it should end in giving to her people liberty of choice and a free opportunity to decide their own destiny according to their own will.
The major strategic blunder of the Davis administration in 1861. The pre-emptive Confederate invasion of Kentucky threw the Bluegrass State irrevocably to the Union. Although a substantial minority of Kentuckians would rally behind the Confederacy, the majority supported the Union.
The army has been chiefly instrumental in prosecuting the great contest in which we are engaged; but the Navy has also been effective in full proportion to its means. The naval officers deprived to a great extent of an opportunity to make their professional skill available at sea have served with commendable zeal and gallantry on shore and upon inland waters, further detail of which will be found in the reports of the Secretaries of the Navy and War.
A small nod to the Confederate Navy. The Confederates would work wonders with the resources they had at sea, and wage a very effective war against Union commerce, but the Union naval predominance in the Civil War was never seriously challenged throughout the conflict.
In the transportation of the mails many difficulties have arisen which will be found fully developed in the report of the Post Master General. The absorption of the ordinary means of transportation for the movement of troops and military supplies, the insufficiency of the rolling stock of rail-roads for the accumulation of business resulting both from military operations; and the obstruction of water communication by the presence of the enemy’s fleet, the failure and even refusal of contractors to comply with the terms of their agreements, the difficulties inherent in inaugurating so vast and complicated a system as that which requires postal facilities for every town and village in a territory so extended as ours, have all combined to impede the best directed efforts of the Post Master General, whose zeal, industry and ability have been taxed to the utmost extent. Some of these difficulties can only be overcome by time and an improved condition of the country upon the restoration of peace, but others may be remedied by legislation, and your attention is invited to the recommendations contained in the report of the Head of that Department.
It may strike us odd that a report on the War has a fairly lengthy passage on the post office, but it would not have struck contemporaries as odd. In the Civil War the use of the post office was the main way in which citizens came into contact with the central government, and problems with the mail could stir up considerable ill will against the administration. Additionally the post office was the main source of political patronage jobs. Davis was wise to include this section in his report.
The condition of the Treasury will doubtless be a subject of anxious inquiry on your part. I am happy to say that the financial system already adopted has worked well so far, and promises good results for the future. To the extent that Treasury notes may be issued the Government is enabled to borrow money without interest and thus facilitate the conduct of the war. This extent is measured by the portion of the field of circulation which these notes can be made to occupy. The proportion of the field thus occupied depends again upon the amount of the debts for which they are receivable; and when dues not only to the Confederate and State Governments, but also to corporations and individuals, are payable in this medium, a large amount of it may be circulated at par. There is every reason to believe that the Confederate Treasury note is fast becoming such a medium. The provision that these notes shall be convertible into Confederate Stock bearing eight per cent interest at the pleasure of the holder ensures them against a depreciation below the value of that stock, and no considerable fall in that value need be feared so long as the interest interest shall be punctually paid. The punctual payment of this interest has been secured by the act passed by you at the last session, imposing such a rate of taxation as must provide sufficient means for that purpose. For the successful prosecution of this war it is indespensable that the means of transporting troops and military supplies be furnished as far as possible in such manner as not to interrupt the commercial intercourse between our people, nor place a check on their productive energies. To this end the means of transportation from one section of our country to the other must be carefully guarded and improved. And this should be the object of anxious care on the part of State and Confederate Governments so far as they may have power over the subject.
Putting lipstick on a pig. The Confederacy was well on its way to attempting to finance the War by printing paper currency. So much currency was in circulation that inflation soon took off, causing severe hardship throughout the Confederacy during the War, and rendering the currency almost worthless well before the end of the War. Inflation in the Confederacy during the four years of War totaled around 6000%.
We have already two main systems of through transportation from the North to the South,– one from Richmond along the seaboard; the other through Western Virginia to New Orleans. A third might be secured by completing a link of about forty miles between Danville in Virginia and Greensborough in North Carolina. The construction of this comparatively short line would give us a through route from North to South in the centre-interior of the Confederate States, and give us access to a population and to military resources from which we are now in great measure debarred. We should increase greatly the safety and capacity of our means for transporting men and military supplies. If the construction of this road should in the judgment of Congress, as it is in mine, be indespensable for the most successful prosecution of the war, the action of the Government will not be restrained by the constitutional objection which would attach to a work for commercial purposes, and attention is invited to the practicability of securing its early completion by giving the needful aid to the company company organized for its construction and administration.
This rail line was completed in 1863-1864. Confederate maintenance of its rail lines, let alone building new ones, was quite difficult due to the lack of industrial resources in the Confederacy, one of only innumerable problems for a predominantly agricultural country waging war against an emerging industrial world power.
If we husband our means and make a judicious use of our resources it would be difficult to fix a limit to the period during which we could conduct a war against the adversary whom we now encounter. The very efforts which he makes to isolate and invade us must exhaust his means whilst they serve to complete the circle and diversify the productions of our industrial system. The reconstruction which he seeks to effect by arms becomes daily more and more palpably impossible. Not only do the causes which induced us to separate still exist in full force, but they have been strengthened, and whatever doubt may have lingered in the minds of any must have been completely dispelled by subsequent events. If instead of being a dissolution of a league, it were indeed a rebellion in which we are engaged, we might find ample vindication for the course we have adopted in the in the scenes which are now being enacted in the United States. Our people have now looked with contemptuous astonishment on those with whom they had been so recently associated. They shrink with aversion from the bare idea of renewing such a connection. When they see a President making war without the assent of Congress; when they behold judges threatened because they maintain the writ of habeas corpus so sacred to freemen; when they see justice and law trampled under the armed heel of military authority, and upright men and innocent women dragged to distant dungeons upon the mere edict of a despot; when they find all this tolerated and applauded by a people who had been in the full enjoyment of freedom but a few months ago,– they believe that there must be some radical incompatibility between such a people and themselves. With such a people we may be content to live at peace, but the separation is final and for the independence we have asserted we will accept no alternative. The nature of the hostilities which they have waged against us must be characterised as barbarous wherever it is understood. They have bombarded undefended villages without giving notice to women and children to enable them to escape, and in one instance selected the night as the period when they might surprise them most effectually whilst asleep and unsuspicious of danger. Arson and rapine, the destruction of private houses and property, and injuries of the most wanton character even upon non-combatants have marked their forays along our borders and upon our Territory. Although we ought to have been admonished by these things that they were disposed to make war upon us in the most cruel and relentless spirit, yet we were not prepared to see them fit out a large naval expedition with the confessed purpose not only of plunder-to pillage, but to incite a servile insurrection in our midst.
Truth to tell there was precious little respect for civil liberties in either the Union or the Confederacy during the War. Opponents of the war efforts were quite often locked up by both sides, and vigilante mobs would often take the law into their own hands. Both sides tended to see quite clearly the beams in the eyes of their opponents while ignoring the beams in theirs.
If they convert their soldiers into criminal incendiaries and robbers and involve us in a species of war which claims non-combatants, women and children as its victims, they must expect to be treated as outlaws and enemies of mankind. There are certain rights of humanity which are entitled to respect even in war, and he who refuses to regard them upon all occasions forfeits his claims, if captured, to be considered as a military prisoner of war but must expect to be dealt with as an offender against all law human and divine. But not content with violating our rights under the law of nations at home, they have extended these injuries to us within other jurisdictions. The distinguished gentlemen whom, with your approval at the last session, I commissioned to represent the Confederacy at certain foreign courts, have been recently seized by the captain of a United States ship of War on board a British steamer on their voyage from the neutral Spanish port of Havana to England. The United States have thus claimed a general jurisdiction over the high seas, and entering a British ship sailing under its country’s flag violated the rights of embassy, for the most part held sacred even amongst barbarians, by seizing our ministers whilst under the protection and within the dominions of a neutral nation. These gentlemen were as much under the jurisdiction of the British Government upon that ship and beneath its flag as if they had been on its soil, and the right, a claim on the part of the United States to seized them in the streets of London , was as good as their right would have been as well founded as that to apprehend them where they were taken. Had they been malefactors and citizens even of the United States, they could not have been arrested on a British ship or on British soil unless under the express provisions of a treaty and according to the forms therein provided for the extradition of criminals.
Here Davis touches upon the Trent affair. Go here and here to read previous posts on this subject. Davis was making hay on this subject and well he should. The US and Great Britain nearly went to war over the seizure by the Union of the Confederate commissioners Mason and Slidell from aboard the British mail steamer Trent, a war which would likely have led to Confederate independence.
But rights the most sacred seem to have lost all respect in their eyes. When Mr. Faulkner, a former minister of the United States to France commissioned before the secession of Virginia, his native State, returned in good faith to Washington to settle his accounts and fulfil all the obligations into which he had entered, he was perfidiously arrested and imprisoned in New York, where he now is. The unsuspecting confidence with which he returned to New York and reported to his Government, was abused, and his desire to fulfil his trust to them was used to his injury.
He was arrested for arranging arms purchases for the Confederacy while acting as United States Minister to France. He would be exchanged in December for a New York Congressman captured by the Confederates at Bull Run. He would go on to serve as assistant adjutant general on the staff of Stonewall Jackson.
In conducting this war we have sought no aid and proposed no alliances offensive and defensive abroad. We have asked for a recognized place in the great family of nations, but in doing so we have demanded nothing for which we did not offer a fair equivalent — The advantages of intercourse are mutual amongst Nations, and in seeking to establish diplomatic relations we were only endeavoring to place that intercourse under the regulation of public law. Perhaps we had the right if we had chosen to exercise it, to ask to know whether the principle that “blockades to be binding, must be effectual” so solemnly announced by the great Powers of Europe at Paris is to be generally enforced or applied only to particular parties.
At this point in the War the Confederacy still had high hopes for foreign recognition leading to their independence. I think this was always something of a delusion. Unless a foreign power could intervene and sweep aside the Union blockade, and only Great Britain had the naval strength to do this, all the diplomatic recognition in the world would not alter the military balance of power which was heavily weighted against the Confederacy.
When the Confederate States at your last session became a party to the declaration reaffirming this principle of international law which has been recognized so long by publicists and Governments, we certainly supposed that it was to be universally enforced. The customary law of nations is made up of their practice rather than their declarations; and if such declarations are only to be enforced in particular instances at the pleasure of those who make them, then the commerce of the world so far from being placed under the regulation of a general law, will become subject to the caprice of those who execute or suspend it at will — If such is to be the course of Nations in regard to this law, it is plain that it will thus become a rule for the weak and not for the strong.
Davis at his weakest. Although not an attorney, Davis had a penchant for making legal arguments, whether or not the arguments had any practical utility.
Feeling that such views must be taken by the neutral nations of the Earth, I have caused the evidence to be collected which proves completely the utter inefficiency of the proclaimed blockade of our coast and shall direct it to be laid before such Governments as shall afford us the means of being heard . But although we should be benefitted by the enforcement of this law so solemnly declared by the great Powers of Europe, we are not dependent on that enforcement for the successful prosecution of the war. As long as hostilities continue the Confederate States will exhibit a steadily increasing capacity to furnish their troops with food, clothing and arms. If they should be forced to forego many of the luxuries and some of the comforts of life, they will at least have the consolation of knowing that they are thus daily becoming more and more independent of the rest of the world. If in this process labor in the Confederate States should be gradually diverted from those great Southern Staples which have given life to so much of the commerce of mankind into other channels so as to make them rival producers instead of profitable customers, they will not be the only or even the chief losers by this change in the direction of of;s9 their industry. Although it is true that the cotton supply from the Southern States could only be totally cut off by the subversion of our social system; yet it is plain that a long continuance of this blockade might by a diversion of labor and an investment of capital in other employments so diminish the supply as to bring ruin upon all those interests of foreign countries which are dependent on that Staple. For every laborer who is diverted from the culture of cotton in the South, perhaps four times as many elsewhere who have found subsistence in the various employments growing out of its use, will be forced also to change their occupation.
Translation: recognize us soon Great Britain or our capacity to supply you with cotton will be impaired. British industry did suffer from lack of Southern cotton during the War, but not enough to make a huge War against the Union an attractive proposition.
While the war which is waged to take from us the right of self-government can never attain that end, it remains to be seen how far it may work a revolution in the industrial system of the world, which may carry suffering to other lands contemporaneously with s well as to ur own. In the meantime we shall continue this struggle in humble dependence upon Providence from whose searching scrutiny we cannot conceal the secrets of our hearts, and to whose rule we confidently submit our destinies. For the rest we shall depend upon ourselves – Liberty is always won where there exists the unconquerable will to be free, and we have reason to know the strength that is given by a conscious sense, not only of the magnitude, but of the righeousness of our cause.
Davis never wavered from his belief that the Confederates were waging a just War in defense of self-government, and that belief sustained him during the War, and during the long years of defeat after the War.