A Captain-Less Raft Floating On a Sea of Problems

The Confederacy Was NOT a Viable State.

By C. Ellen Connally
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: The subject of the annual Dick Crews Debate at the January 2008 Roundtable meeting was: “The Southern Victory of 1865: Was the Confederacy a Viable State?” Five members made presentations on the topic; the article below was one of those five presentations.

We are faced tonight with a question – a burning question in the minds of most of you – was the Confederacy a viable state? It is the conundrum of the hour, a question that historians and Civil War buffs will argue into time immemoriam. But tonight, we, the Great Debaters of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable, will provide the wisdom and the knowledge so that all of you can answer the question and decide the fate of us, the humble debaters.

I intend to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Confederate States of America was not a viable state; not in its beginning, not in its end and not in the minds of a sufficient number of its citizens to allow it to survive as a nation.

The Confederacy was a captain-less raft. It was so crowded with internal problems that its sinking was inevitable. The class conflict among and between its diverse citizens resulted in a lack of the necessary nationalism that was needed to compel the Confederacy into a real state. The internal problems – social, economic and legal – were insurmountable. Any critical analysis of the Confederacy will clearly show a flawed state based on flawed principles whose citizens would have come begging back to the glorious Union.

The first point of my argument relates to the failure of Confederate leadership and more specifically the failures of Jefferson Davis. The failure of the Confederacy started at the top.

Davis was a man who suffered from a myriad of health problems. He was an indecisive micro manager of the war and the government who didn’t really want to be president but wanted to be a general. Unlike Lincoln, who formed a cabinet out of various segments of his opposition, Davis was unable to form a cohesive unit and had difficulty keeping cabinet members. Lincoln was wise enough to look for a general to command his forces and let him lead. Davis did not.

Not only did Davis fail as an administrator, but Davis, as a card-carrying member of the planter class, failed to secure the support of the South’s non-slaveholding yeomen, who made up the bulk of the population and made up the bulk of the Southern fighting force. Davis failed to identify with the yeoman farmer and they with him. But yet the Confederacy needed the devotion of all its citizens, both planter and yeoman, in order to transform a region of a country into a nation. The Davis administration fatally failed to respond to the problems of the common people who were the backbone of the Confederacy. Economic suffering, military exemptions for slave owners, class resentments, and political controversies sapped the strength of the Confederacy and were at the core of an internal collapse which preceded and promoted military defeat. Davis failed to establish Confederate nationalism, the only glue that could have held the Confederacy together.

As we are all aware, the birth of the Confederate States of America was initiated by the concept of secession. But even as the lower South left the Union, there were signs of ambivalence and opposition in other parts of the South. There was never a landslide of support for secession. Many supporters of secession advocated it as a means of promoting a settlement over the question of slavery and its expansion. In the upper South substantial majorities refused for months to secede.

Here was a government whose founding principle was states’ rights, yet Davis had to build a central government capable of meeting the requirements of war. States’ rights and a central government present an oxymoron. In addition, constant internal criticism of the administration did much to undermine the integrity of the Confederate state.

The ship of the Confederacy floated on a sea of other problems, problems that would have undermined even the most competent leader, namely the formation, essentially from scratch, of a new government which could provide goods and services to its people, not to mention the myriad of legal problems arising from the war. And yet the Confederacy never had a Supreme Court to serve as the final arbitrator of legal questions.

But let us look then at some of the other problems – the economy. We can all agree that King Cotton was dead. The Southern economy had to be totally retooled for the economy to succeed – and that by a limited government. There was a major problem of a lack of skilled labor. The Confederacy faced a crazy quilt of fiscal problems including the necessity to create a stable national currency. It had to supply and arm and create a national army from state units. It had limited internal transportation routes. It was faced with naval blockades. There was a total disruption of the social order as it related to women, lower class whites and, most obviously, blacks. The inability of the Confederacy to gain foreign recognition is yet another iceberg in the stormy sea in which the Confederacy floated. And all the while it had to fight a war.

The Confederate States of America was an impossible dream based on a peculiar institution trying to maintain a pre-modern society while the rest of the nation forged ahead to the Industrial Revolution, emancipation and the 20th century.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I urge you to accept my arguments and recognize the truth of the matter. The Confederate States of America was never viable, and to accept the arguments of my worthy opponents is to accept a myth, a mirage and a falsehood.

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