Information, Summary and Articles about the Confederate States during the American Civil War
Vice President: Alexander Stephens
Montgomery, Alabama (to May 1861)
Richmond, Virginia (May 1861-1865)
Explore articles from the History Net archives about Confederacy
» See all Confederacy Articles
The Confederacy, when used within or in reference to North America, generally means the Confederate States of America. It is also called the Southern Confederacy and refers to 11 states that renounced their existing agreement with others of the United States in 1860–1861 and attempted to establish a new nation in which the authority of the central government would be strictly limited and the institution of slavery would be protected. Secession from the existing Union led to the American Civil War, a bloody, four-year struggle that left much of the South in ashes and ended its hope of creating a new confederacy of states on the North American continent.
Differences Between North and South
For at least three decades leading up to the schism the northern and southern regions of the United States had been growing farther apart. The North became increasingly industrialized and found a ready source of inexpensive labor in the swarms of European immigrants, particularly the Irish and Germans who came in large numbers during the potato famine in those countries. The North was more inclined toward having the federal government pay all or part of the costs of internal improvements such as canals, railroads, and lighthouses.
The South remained primarily agrarian and its large farms, or plantations, depended predominately on slave labor. It opposed federal money being spent for internal improvements because at the time tariffs were the primary source of federal income. High tariffs protected the industrial goods of the North but not the cotton and tobacco of the South, where the tariffs only raised the cost of imported goods Southerners depended on.
The slave-holding states of the South drew closer to each other and farther from their Northern brethren. They feared that if slavery were not permitted to expand into new territories acquired by the United States, the South and its concerns would lose political power in the nation’s capital. A new political party, the Republicans, wanted to prevent the spread of slavery beyond where it existed, and many Republicans were radical abolitionists hoping to end slavery everywhere in America. The election of Republican Abraham Lincoln to the presidency and the success of his party in the 1860 election was the catalyst that led Southern states to carry out what they had long threatened to do—leave the Union.
The Confederacy Established
South Carolina was the first to secede, on December 20, 1860, followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. On February 8, 1861, representatives of those states announced the formation of the Confederate States of America, with its capital at Montgomery, Alabama. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi—a Mexican War hero and former secretary of war—was chosen as president. His vice president was Alexander Stephens of Georgia, who had served in the U.S. House of Representatives.
After Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the Southern rebellion, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia also seceded and joined the Confederacy, except for 48 counties of western Virginia that broke away and formed the Union-loyal state of West Virginia. Non-states affiliated with the Confederacy were the Confederate Territory of Arizona and members of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Once Virginia joined the Confederacy, the national government was transferred to the city of Richmond there.
The Confederate Constitution
The constitution of the Confederacy adopted March 11, 1861, was based on that of the United States—was, in fact, virtually the same document in most respects and often used the same language verbatim—but included provisions that specifically addressed some of the issues that had led to the North–South schism.
Among the differences, the president would serve a single, six-year term, rather than four years with the possibility of succeeding himself, and would have the power of line-item veto that would allow him to strike portions of bills passed by Congress while approving the rest of the bill. Members of the cabinet would be made non-voting members of Congress.
To insure the rights of the individual states would take precedence over the power of the central government, the Confederate government could not levy protective tariffs; direct and capitation taxes and taxes on exports were restricted. The ability to make internal improvements was limited to matters regarding ports and harbors, lighthouses, and dredging rivers. The government of the Confederacy could not overrule the decisions of state courts. No consensus was ever reached about creating a Supreme Court or what form it would take, so none was ever established.
The states were permitted to maintain their own armies. They were given greater ability to amend the national constitution.
Treason would "consist only in levying war against (the Confederate States), or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort."
Slavery in the Confederate Constitution
Article IX, Section 4 prohibited any law "denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves"; sections 1 and 2 prohibited "The importation of negroes of the African race from any foreign country other than the slaveholding States or Territories of the United States of America" and gave the Congress power to prohibit "the introduction of slaves from any State not a member of, or Territory not belonging to, this Confederacy."
Article IV guaranteed the right of citizens to travel with their slaves and other property without risk of having their right of ownership impaired. No slave or other person held in service could become free as a result of escaping to another state. Any new territories were required to recognize slavery "as it now exists in the Confederate States." Many Southerners expected to conquer and colonize Cuba and other states of the Caribbean and Central America.
Effects of the Confederate Constitution
By limiting the power of the central government, the founders of the Confederacy also limited its ability to make war. States could refuse use of their militia to the Confederate government and sometimes did if they felt the men were needed for defense at home. The constitution also severely restricted the government’s ability to raise money, a situation made more acute by the expense of war. Inflation soared, resulting in "bread riots" in many places, including the capital of Richmond.
On April 2, 1865, that capital fell to Union forces. President Davis and his cabinet fled with the treasury; he intended to reestablish the government west of the Mississippi, but on May 10 he was captured near Irwinville, Georgia.
The Confederacy had lasted barely four years. Whether it could have ultimately been successful had it won the war or if there had been no war is questionable. Even within its brief lifetime, some states of the Confederacy were already threatening to secede from it over dissatisfaction with the Davis Administration.
Articles Featuring Confederacy From History Net Magazines
Coming Apart From the Inside: How Internal Strife Brought Down the Confederacy
By David J. Eicher
Jefferson Davis sat in his second-floor study in the Confederate White House in Richmond and stared blankly into the adjacent room. For all the hard work he had put in managing the war and difficult and disagreeable colleagues, disaster still seemed to be in the offing that fall of 1861. The papers on his desk didn’t help his mood; they simply reminded him of a score of arguments about to bubble over between his generals and bureau chiefs and the icy reception with which he had recently been met by the Confederate Congress.
Jefferson Davis faced a staggering challenge: How was he to forge a true nation that could wage war against the United States from a bickering hodge-podge of states that favored keeping their own identity and whose representatives seemed to take delight in challenging his every idea?
For more than a century the politicians and generals on the Confederate side have been lionized as noble warriors who heroically fought for an honorable cause that had little chance of succeeding. In reality, the Confederate leadership was rife with infighting. Davis argued with the Confederate House and Senate, state governors and his own cabinet. Senators threatened one another with physical violence. Some were brutal drunks, others hopeless idealists who would not bend even when it meant the difference between victory and defeat. Commanders were often assigned not on the basis of skill but because of personal connections.
Debates over such issues as whether the Confederacy needed a Supreme Court dragged on, squandering time that would have been better spent on making sure the troops were well fed. Davis frequently interfered with generals in the field, micromanaging their campaigns and playing favorites, ignoring the chain of command and placing trust in men who were utterly incompetent.
Some states, led by their governors, wanted to set themselves up as separate nations, further undermining a unified war effort. Tensions were so extreme that the vice president of the Confederacy refused to live in the same state as Davis—and this while they were trying to win a war.
Davis knew his political existence and those of his colleagues had been built on the concept of states’ rights. To have a chance at winning the war, however, he needed sweeping administrative and military central powers. The Confed-erate States of America needed to act as one.
The internal war between Davis and Congress erupted quickly. On Nov-ember 8, 1861, Davis’ war clerk, John B. Jones, wrote in his diary, “No Executive had ever such cordial and unanimous support.” By the summer of 1862, however, he reported “murmurs” against the president. Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory remarked in August how Congress seemed unhappy with Davis and that a “spirit of opposition” was growing. Meanwhile, South?Carolina Senator Lawrence Keitt openly termed Davis “a failure.”
Field officers also joined in the attacks against Davis. Robert A. Toombs, a Georgia politician who had briefly served as Davis’ secretary of state, was now a brigadier general hoping to win the war by killing Yankees rather than arguing in Richmond. He frequently shared his frustrations with fellow Georgian Alexander H. Stephens, the vice president, including comments like, “As [to] the assignment of Smith’s regiment, [Secretary of State Judah P.] Benjamin wrote me that the President instructed him to suggest to me to call Genl. [Joseph E.] Johnston’s attention to it; that he was commander of both corps of the army. I replied to Benj[amin] that I had good reasons to know that fact, ‘and in common with the army, not without reasons to lament it.’ I never knew as incompetent [an] executive officer. As he has been to West Point, tho’, I suppose he necessarily knows everything about it. We are doing nothing here, and will do nothing. The army is dying….Set this down in your book, and set down opposite to it its epitaph, ‘died of West Point.’ ”
A week later, Toombs turned his ire more directly toward the president. “Davis is here,” he confided to Stephens. “His generals are fooling [him] about the strength of our force in order to shield their inactivity. [Davis] talks of activity on the Potomac but I fear he does not feel it strong enough to move this inert mass.”
Colonel Thomas W.?Thomas of the 15th?Georgia also derided Davis, writing that “Pres. Davis was up the other day and reviewed about 12,000 troops at Fairfax Court House. There was not a single cheer, even when some one in the crowd among the staff called out for three cheers there was not a single response, everything was as cold as funeral meats.”
The volatile issue of conscription soon shattered relations between Davis, Congress and the state governors. Virginia Governor John Letcher declared conscription “the most alarming stride towards consolidation that has ever occurred,” but conceeded he would not fight Davis because the alternative would be ruin. Not so Georgia Governor Joe Brown, who believed that the draft was a measure aimed at destroying the states. “If the State Regiments are broken up, and the conscripts belonging to them forced into other organizations against their consent,” Brown told Davis, “it will have a very discouraging effect….This Act, not only disorganizes the military system of all the States, but consolidates almost the entire military system of the State in the Confederate Executive, with the appointment of the officers of the militia, and enables him at his pleasure, to cripple or destroy the civil government of each State, by arresting, and carrying into the Confederate Service, the officers charged by the State Constitution.”
Davis was incensed. “I have received your letter,” he wrote Brown, “informing me of your transfer of the Georgia State troops to General [Alexander] Lawton commanding Confederate forces at Savannah suggesting that there be as little interference as possible on the part of the Confederate authorities with the present organization of those troops….Interference with the present organization of companies, squadrons, battalions, or regiments tendered by Governors of States, is specially disclaimed.” So began a bitter fight.
Davis never knew where or when the next divisive issue would pop up. Governer Henry Rector of Arkansas fueled the Confederacy’s internal problems, for example, when he wanted to pull his state away from the Confederacy in the summer of 1862. His state would not, Rector declared in a proclamation, “remain a confederate State, desolated as a wilderness.”
Rector threatened to build “a new ark and launch it on new waters, seeking a haven somewhere, of equality, safety, and rest.” Responding to Rector’s proclamation, Governor Francis Lubbock of Texas wrote the president, reassuring him as best he could that support would come from the Deep South. “This is no time for bickerings, heart-burnings, and divisions among a people struggling for existence as a free Government,” Lubbock wrote.
The issue persisted throughout that year, and Davis lectured Congress at the beginning of 1863 that “You can best devise the means for establishing that entire cooperation of the Sate and central governments which is essential to the well-being of both….”
His admonition fell on deaf ears, for on February 5, 1863, the Senate heard a proposed amendment to the Confederate constitution that would allow an aggrieved state to secede from the Confederacy. “It shall do so in peace,” read the proposal, “but shall be entitled to its pro rata share of property and be liable for its pro rata share of public debt to be determined by negotiation.” The plan was referred to the Judicial Committee. Two days later senators failed to recommend the amendment, and the idea was dropped as being too dangerous.
Sickly Vice President Alexander Stephens was another snake in the grass Davis had to deal with. Early in the war, Stephens had returned to his home in Crawfordville Ga., to conspire and orchestrate a campaign against the president. “What is wanting in Richmond is ‘brains,’ Howell Cobb, a Georgia general officer who had been president of the Confederate Provisional Congress and a likely candidate for Davis’ job, wrote to the vice president. “I did not find the temper and disposition of Congress as bad as I expected, but there is a lamentable want of brains and good sound common sense.”
Lawrence Keitt wrote his wife that he had heard “Toombs is on the stump in Geo., and is arraigning Davis in a terrible manner.” He added: “I have always feared the divisions, which I saw would spring up among us. You cannot have liason—connexion [sic]—unity—among a planting community. Too many Revolutions have shipwrecked upon internal division. This Revolution proves that canonized imbecility is but a straw before the wrath of masses—it seems to be a law of humanity that generation after generation must rescue its liberties from the insidious grasp of a foe without or within. In our case, we have to seize them from both foes—we have a worthless government, and are reduced to the humiliation of acknowledging it, because we cannot, with safety, shake it.”
In early 1864, senators introduced a bill to use blacks in the military, opening up another avenue of internal debate. The bill was referred to committee, and by order of the Senate leadership the committee was discharged from considering the bill on February 5. Meanwhile, in the House, William Porcher Miles, chairman of the Military Affairs Committee, reported that he believed the act to employ slaves and free blacks would increase the army by 40,000 men. John Baldwin of Virginia wanted to exempt any free blacks engaged in food production, particularly in the Shenandoah Valley.
Ethelbert Barksdale of Mississippi objected, saying that free blacks “are a blot upon our [cause], and pernicious to our slave population….[Baldwin] says to the free negro, you shall not bear the burdens of this war—while [the white citizen] must take his place in the army.” After further argument and slight massaging of the language, the bill was passed. A discussion about whether or not African Americans would in fact be armed and whether slaves would be emancipated in compensation, like so many other thorny policy and military decisions the South needed to make, was deferred.
By May 1864, with a Union army driving into the Wilderness, members of Congress were thrown into a near panic, and legislators introduced a flurry of contradictory resolutions, amendments and joint agreements. Some members resolved that a congressional company be formed to go out and join the fight. Others wanted to evacuate Richmond and move the government to a place of safety. In opposition to that, a number of congressmen argued that the public needed to be kept calm, and a formal declaration should be passed that stated there was absolutely no danger.
A clutch of harried congressmen pressed to exempt those over 50 from service, a proviso that would have included many Congressmen. Another contingent of lawmakers conversely argued that everyone available would be needed to defend Richmond.
Still others took the floor to suggest that no time existed to refer any response to the Military Affairs Committee, which would only delay any action, or that Congress should rely on the president to tell it what it should do. The Confederacy’s leaders were going round and round in debate while Ulysses S. Grant and the Army of the Potomac pounded deeper into Virginia and William T. Sherman’s legions continued to drive on Atlanta.
To make matters worse for the Southern cause that hot summer, the loyalty of state governors to the cause seemed to be splintering. The greatest trouble was growing in Georgia, where the disenchanted Stephens had set up camp.
The vice president had a friendship, not surprisingly, with a cranky anti-administration newspaper editor, Henry Cleveland, who ran the Augusta Constitutionalist. The two struck up a long, detailed correspondence in which they openly discussed what they perceived as the president’s incompetence and what ought to be done about it.
The two men also discussed the idea of a peace conference. They believed such an event could wrest responsibility for conduct of the war from the hands of Davis and restore tranquility to the beleaguered South.
On June 8, Cleveland wrote Stephens: “Since my second letter to you, I have received your last, and confess that I did suppose you had hope of terms from Lincoln. For my self (from reasons I will some day give you) I am satisfied that the States can to day get terms and good terms, but Mr. Davis never can.” Continued Cleveland, “No human power can change Mr. Davis, and consequently, no human power can save the Confederacy from war and speeches. I am satisfied that the immediate secession of Georgia from the Confederate States would be the best thing we could do, and am equally satisfied that nine-tenths of the people of Georgia will follow the lead of the Administration, until our cause is beyond the hand of resurrection….The Stars and Stripes will float over the Government works in Augusta before a year expires, and Mr. Davis be dead or in exile….To win this fight, under this Administration, would be a result without a reason—an effect without a cause. Is this treason? I am afraid you will think so, but it is difficult to look back at all we have suffered, and see blood and life and desperate valor thrown away, and still think calmly.”
Local politics and business intervened to muzzle Cleveland’s public discontent. “A letter from Henry Cleveland informs me that the majority of the stock of the Constitutionalist is now owned by Administration men,” wrote Georgia Governor Joe Brown, a fellow conspirator, “and that he will be obliged to change his course, keep silent, or be ousted. Could not enough of the stock be purchased to control and keep the paper on the right lines?”
Despite the shift, more and more Southerners picked up on an increasing and tangled web of conspiracy in Georgia. “Our Vice President is a dangerous man,” Brig. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman wrote his friend Louis Wigfall, a powerful anti-Davis senator, “the more so because of his stealthy policy and his bogus reputation for fairness and honesty. I consider him the head of a faction that is ready to betray the Confederacy and sell the blood of the Army. ‘Crushing him out’ is doing God’s service.”
In Richmond, meanwhile, the second session of the Second Congress of the Confederate States of America began on November 7, 1864. On that day Davis sent a long message to Congress covering many urgent points that needed to be faced. In many ways it was a last attempt for turnaround and cooperation on a variety of issues that the president felt were sinking the Confederacy if left unresolved. But Congress failed to act decisively on nearly every one of them.
The Confederacy was on its last legs as 1865 began. Siege operations around Petersburg ground on, sapping the remaining resources and supplies that could be brought to bear against the Union army. General John Bell Hood’s disastrous campaign in Tennessee had effectively eliminated the Army of Tennessee from further meaningful service in the war. A combined Federal Army and Navy operation was closing in on Wilmington, N.C., the last open Confederate port, and the Lincoln administration had decisively won the election.
The Confederate Congress finally decided to act, doing something of which Davis disapproved—developing peace proposals. As early as January 12, the House passed a resolution to send a peace commission to Washington. The next day Davis reported to the House that an old nemesis, Congressman Henry Foote of Tennessee, with whom Davis had nearly once dueled, had been arrested on his way to Washington. Foote had been detained at Occoquan, Va., while trying to cross the lines on a private peace mission to the Yankee capital. A special committee was appointed to investigate Foote, and it expelled him from the house.
Once the war all but ended in April, the turmoil that had kept the Confederacy continually unsettled was missing from many histories written by Southern politicians and generals. Few wanted to face up to the fact that internal strife had contributed to the Confederacy’s ruin. Soon after the Confederate surrender, Southern historians began massaging the political facts to make their leaders look better.
Those revisionists included Davis himself, who even changed the notes of his wartime secretary, Burton Harrison. Davis reworked the claim that he had been “among the keenest and most sagacious of them all in his endeavour to precipitate secession upon the country” to “in his assertion of the rights of the States under the Constitution and of the right of Secession—although the records of Congress show that he cherished the utmost devotion to the Union and consistently opposed extremists of all parties who were endeavouring to precipitate actual secession.”
In his first inaugural address, Davis said he was “prophesyzing [sic] peace, but threatened that the enemies of the South would be compelled to ‘smell Southern powder, and feel Southern steel.’” He slightly altered that declaration after the war by saying that he was expressing a desire to maintain peaceful relations with the states that had remained in the Union and was asserting that all the seceding states desired was “to be let alone.” The threat that they would make the enemies of the South “smell Southern powder and feel Southern steel” would occur only if war were forced upon them.
Davis’ postwar embellishments described a harmonious environment that never existed and ignored the bitter squabbles that took place among those who needed to cooperate in order for the Confederacy to succeed. The roll call included men such as Alexander Stephens, Henry Foote and Robert Toombs—Southern leaders who held the principles of states’ rights and slavery higher than the existence of their own creation, the Confederate States of America.
This article was written by David J. Eicher and originally published in the January 2008 issue of Civil War Times Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Civil War Times magazine today!
By Frank van der Linden
By Bruce J. Dinges
By Gary R. Rice
By Ken Bivin
By Joseph F. von Deck
By Angela Lee
By Phil Noblitt
By Mark J. Crawford
By David E. Long