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The South’s Inner Civil War
The more fiercely the Confederacy fought for its independence, the more bitterly divided it became. To fully understand the vast changes the war unleashed on the country, you must first understand the plight of the Southerners who didn’t want secession.
March 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 2
The impression that planters were not bearing their fair share of the war’s burdens spread quickly in the upcountry. Committed to Southern independence, most planters were also devoted to the survival of plantation slavery, and when these goals clashed, the latter often took precedence. After a burst of Confederate patriotism in 1861, increasing numbers of planters resisted calls for a shift from cotton to food production, even as the course of the war and the drain of manpower undermined the subsistence economy of the upcountry, threatening soldiers’ families with destitution. When Union forces occupied New Orleans in 1862 and extended their control of the Mississippi Valley in 1863, large numbers of planters, merchants, and factors salvaged their fortunes by engaging in cotton traffic with the Yankee occupiers. Few demonstrated such unalloyed self-interest as James L. Alcorn, Mississippi’s future Republican governor, who, after a brief stint in the Southern army, retired to his plantation, smuggled contraband cotton into Northern hands, and invested the profits in land and Union currency. But it was widely resented that, as a Richmond newspaper put it, many “rampant cotton and sugar planters, who were so early and furiously in the field of secession,” quickly took oaths of allegiance during the war and resumed raising cotton “in partnership with their Yankee protectors.” Other planters resisted the impressment of their slaves to build military fortifications and, to the end, opposed calls for the enlistment of blacks in the Confederate army, afraid, an Alabama newspaper later explained, “to risk the loss of their property.”
Even more devastating for upcountry morale, however, were policies of the Confederate government. The upcountry became convinced that it bore an unfair share of taxation; it particularly resented the tax in kind and the policy of impressment that authorized military officers to appropriate farm goods to feed the army. Planters, to be sure, now paid a higher proportion of their own income in taxes than before the war, but they suffered far less severely from such seizures, which undermined the yeomanry’s subsistence agriculture. By the middle of the war, Lee’s army was relying almost entirely upon food impressed from farms and plantations in Georgia and South Carolina.
The North Georgia hill counties suffered the most severely. “These impressments,” Georgia’s governor Joseph E. Brown lamented in 1863, “have been ruinous to the people of the northeastern part of the State, where … probably not half a supply of provisions [is] made for the support of the women and children. One man in fifty may have a surplus, and forty out of the fifty may not have half enough. … Every pound of meat and every bushel of grain, carried out of that part of the State by impressing officers, must be replaced by the State at public expense or the wives and children of soldiers in the army must starve for food.” The impressment of horses and oxen for the army proved equally disastrous, for it made it almost impossible for some farm families to plow their fields or transport their produce to market. These problems were exacerbated by the South’s rampant inflation.
During the war poverty descended upon thousands of upcountry families, especially those with men in the army. Food riots broke out in Virginia and North Carolina. In 1864 a group of farmers in Randolph County, Alabama, sent a poignant petition to Confederate President Jefferson Davis describing conditions in their “poor and mountainous” county: “There are now on the rolls of the Probate court, 1600 indigent families to be Supported; they average 5 to each family; making a grand total of 8000 persons. Deaths from Starvation have absolutely occurred. … Women riots have taken place in Several parts of the County in which Govt wheat and corn has been seized to prevent Starvation of themselves and families. Where it will end unless relief is afforded we cannot tell.”
But above all, it was the organization of conscription that convinced many yeomen the struggle for Southern independence had become “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Beginning in 1862, the Confederacy enacted the first conscription laws in American history, including provisions that a draftee could avoid service by producing a substitute and that one ablebodied white male would be exempted for every twenty slaves. This legislation was deeply resented in the upcountry, for the cost of a substitute quickly rose far beyond the means of most white families, while the “twenty Negro” provision—a direct response to the decline of discipline on the plantations—allowed many overseers and planters’ sons to escape military service. Even though the provision was subsequently repealed, conscription still bore more heavily on the yeomanry, which depended on the labor of the entire family for subsistence, than on planter families supported by the labor of slaves.
In large areas of the Southern upcountry, disillusionment eventually led to outright resistance to Confederate authority—a civil war within the Civil War. Beginning in 1863, desertion became a “crying evil” for the Confederate army. By war’s end more than one hundred thousand men had fled. “The deserters,” reported one Confederate army officer, “belong almost entirely to the poorest class of non slave-holders whose labor is indispensable to the daily support of their families. … When the father, husband or son is forced into the service, the suffering at home with them is inevitable. It is not in the nature of these men to remain quiet in the ranks under such circumstances.”