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While Southerners found the ideal of independence appealing, at least in theory, the realities of war and want raised second thoughts. In a new book, historian Bruce Levine explains why a determined— and vocal—peace movement erupted in the South.

During the first three years of war, pride, outrage and deep conviction bolstered most whites in their commitment to the slaveholders’ new republic and its armies. Not least important was unwavering belief in the sacrosanctity of white supremacy and slavery, certainty that preserving the former required perpetuating the latter, and a visceral revulsion at the prospect of living in a society without either. But the cracks evident in the House of Dixie’s structure even at the start of the war widened over time. Military defeats, including Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chattanooga, were wearing down the optimism of many, and the multiple privations imposed by the war gradually sapped their will. Governments in Richmond and the state capitals took steps to address these problems, but a number of those steps also angered their constituents. The opposing pressures of war-spawned problems and controversial government solutions formed a vise that would squeeze popular support for Jefferson Davis’ regime.

Early on, military commanders procured supplies from civilians on their own, but the need grew so great the Confederate government passed a law in March 1863 regulating how the military could “impress” supplies such as food, wagons, livestock and slaves. The law promised to pay for whatever the army took, but the prices set were far below market value. Still worse, payment would be made in Confederate currency, which was plummeting in value as the number of notes in circulation increased.

By autumn 1863, many had heard of “planters…who have declared that they will allow their fodder to rot in the field” rather than sell it to the army at the low prices they were offered. “When this war commenced,” an Alabaman observed in November 1863, “every man was ready & willing nay, anxious, to make every sacrifice for the good of the cause.” But “now, how changed the scene! Selfishness & greed of gain has taken possession of a large portion of our people.”

North Carolina plantation mistress Catherine Edmondston complained the policy so impinged upon the rights and wealth of the masters that “it almost amounts to an abolition of Slavery entirely so far as the profits are concerned.” One Texan swore in January 1864 that a recent requisition of slave laborers “would not be obeyed except at the point of the bayonet.”

In Georgia, Congressman Warren Akin acidly inquired of a correspondent, “Have you ever noticed the strange conduct of our people during this war? They give up their sons, husbands, brothers & friends, and often without murmuring, to the army; but let one of their negroes be taken, and what a houl you will hear.” Nearly identical accusations could be heard throughout the South.

Recalcitrant planters and their political representatives rejected these accusations. No, they insisted, the government’s difficulty in obtaining the soldiers, laborers and other things it needed was not their fault. The responsibility lay with the regime in Richmond. According to the Memphis Appeal’s zealously secessionist editor, masters understood “the material issues” at the crux of the Civil War were indeed “the interests of the planters” and therefore this was “eminently their war.” That was why throughout the war’s first year “the lofty & uncalculating spirit of this class” had been on display for all to see. If that selfless spirit had later flagged, the Appeal claimed, it was not because the masters were selfish but because the Confederate government had treated them unfairly—had imposed unjust laws and insupportable burdens upon them. Let Richmond simply repeal those unwarranted and harmful edicts and planters would “do their full duty by the country and army.”

Prominent politicians such as Robert Toombs echoed those sentiments: Government arm-twisting had created all Confederate supply problems, they said, and the solution lay not in making greater demands on masters but in making fewer. Richmond, Toombs wrote, must “let the production and distribution of wealth alone.” Imposing all these rules upon whites was no way to run or defend a slaveholders’ republic. “The road to liberty for the white man does not lie through [his own] slavery.”

Despite these objections, in the spring of 1863 Richmond enacted a series of measures to finance the war effort and cope with war-spawned privation. In May the Southern Congress passed new taxes on incomes, bank deposits, “commercial paper” and agricultural goods as well as on profits gleaned from the sale of food, clothing and iron. Another provision required those engaged in virtually all occupations to purchase government licenses in order to conduct business. The law also included a tax in kind. In the future, one-tenth of all agricultural products in excess of a quantity of goods deemed adequate for a farm family’s subsistence was to be handed directly over to the government.

The tax in kind became a particular focus of popular anger, weighing most heavily not upon major planters but middling and small commercial cultivators already struggling to make do with meager harvests. Even the Confederacy’s tax commissioner recognized flat-rate taxes necessarily “operate harshly and oppressively on the poor.” Private James Zimmerman complained, “the tax collector and produce gathere[r] are pushing for the little mights of garden and trash patches… that the poor women have labored hard and made.” He instructed his wife to refuse to pay and tell them “you thought your husband was fighting for our rights and you had a notion that you had a right to what little you had luck to make.” In the summer of 1863, public meetings denounced the tax in kind as “unjust and tyrannical,” “antirepublican and oppressive.”

When farmers refused to pay the tax, they exacerbated a food shortage already sharpening in the spring and summer of 1863. The steadily tightening blockade of the Southern coast was restricting the movement of those foodstuffs that existed, and the South’s road and railroad network, always weak, buckled under the weight of the war. Confederate armies aggravated shortages among the civilian population by diverting food to themselves. The steady fall in the value of Confederate currency drove all prices ever higher— severely higher in 1862, astronomically higher in 1863. The cost of food multiplied from seven to 10 times just between 1860 and 1863.

As war losses grew, public meetings in the summer of 1863 protested various policies of the Davis administration and called for initiating peace talks with the Union. About a hundred such meetings took place in North Carolina, whose units in the Army of Northern Virginia suffered tremendous losses. Another 30 or so meetings occurred the following year. William Woods Holden’s newspaper, the North Carolina Standard, became the peace movement’s principal journalistic champion in that state.

Those who called for an end to the war did so for different reasons and with a range of goals in mind. Most were optimistic that negotiations with the United States would leave the Confederacy independent. Others, however, were prepared to rejoin the old Union. North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance heard in early June 1863 from a longtime supporter in the hills of his state that “thousands believe in their hearts that there was no use breaking up the old Government.” Holden made it clear that while he would prefer peace based on Confederate independence, even peace achieved through reunion (so long as it left slavery intact) was preferable to a prolonged war. A number of public meetings endorsed the same view.

For some who sought peace even if it meant returning to the Union, war on behalf of the South’s “peculiar institution” had by now lost much of its appeal. Such people, as the Fayetteville Observer acknowledged, accepted “that peace and reconstruction would only result in the abolition of slavery,” but since “many…owned no slaves, they need not care.”

But others joined the peace campaign because they believed only an early end to the war, either with or without reunion, could now prevent slavery’s complete destruction. As Union troops spread through the Mississippi Valley following the July 1863 fall of Vicksburg, a Raleigh newspaper editor argued “peace now would save slavery” while a continued war would “obliterate the last vestige of it.” In the Union, Democrats encouraged the idea that this was possible by insisting any state that sought re-entry into the Union be spared the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation—be allowed, that is, to resume its former place with slavery fully intact.

Nonetheless, talk of reunion (or “reconstruction,” as it was then commonly called) in 1863 infuriated the great mass of Confederate whites. Soldier Lancelot Blackford reported that summer “the chief source of depression, when any exists among the troops, is the intelligence of faint-heartedness, and in some sections base ‘caving-in’ that reaches them from home.” “Any man who advocates reconstruction,” another soldier exclaimed, “should be hung to the nearest tree.” In September, Confederate (possibly Georgian) troops passing through Raleigh ransacked the office of Holden’s North Carolina Standard.

But this attempt to silence the dissidents backfired. Two hundred of Holden’s supporters avenged the attack on his paper by laying waste to the office of the pro–Jefferson Davis Raleigh State Journal. And Zebulon Vance cautioned Davis that the attack on the Standard had aroused indignation far beyond the circle of Holden’s close supporters. In November, when Vance traveled into the mountains to gauge the dissatisfaction in that region, he found not only widespread discontent but also “an astonishing amount of disloyalty.”

At the end of the year, sharp differences over the peace issue broke the already strained political alliance joining Vance to editor William Woods Holden. Vance feared Holden’s call to bypass the Davis government in order to sue for peace would dishonor North Carolina, precipitate civil war within the Confederacy and end in the disintegration of order and civil government generally.

But Vance also knew the peace movement expressed a broad-based feeling of “discontent” in his state, especially strong among “the humblest of our citizens.” In December 1863, he urged Richmond to publicly request peace talks with the Union, and thereby prove to disaffected people in the Confederacy “that the Government is tender of their lives & happiness & would not prolong their sufferings unnecessarily one moment.”

Jefferson Davis rejected that advice. The North Carolina governor judged that a serious tactical mistake, but he soon voiced an even deeper anxiety about the future. As he confessed only to his closest confidants, Vance no longer believed the Confederate population was willing to make the sacrifices necessary to defeat the Union armies. To achieve a military victory, he said in January 1864, would cost the South a great deal more “blood and misery.” But he had now become “satisfied” that “our people will not pay this price.”

Peace sentiments were mounting elsewhere in the Confederacy and among slave owners as well. A Union major traveling through Mississippi’s Natchez region in July 1863 found the people “hopeless of the rebellion and ready to do almost anything to keep their negroes in the fields.” A planter in Jackson, Miss., who claimed to have been a “zealous secessionist” at the war’s inception, now urged Jefferson Davis “to lose no time in making the best terms possible” with the U.S. government.

Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction—including its apparent promise to allow post-reunion Southerners to impose special restrictions upon the former slave population—probably strengthened pro-peace views. That much seemed evident in March 1864 at a convention in the Union-occupied city of Huntsville called to seek re-entry into the United States. One of the delegates was Judge D.C. Humphreys, a oncesecessionist Madison County planter. “Alabama should at once rescind the ordinance of secession,” Humphreys told the attendees. “I believe the institution of Slavery is gone as a permanent thing—overthrown by the action of the Southern States.” But all was not lost, for “in case of a return to the Union, we would receive political cooperation so as to secure the management of that labor by those who were slaves….Of course,” Humphreys conceded, “we prefer the old method”— full-blown slavery. But while that option had now disappeared, others yet remained. After all, he believed, “There is really no difference… whether we hold them as absolute slaves, or obtain their labor by some other method.”

Similar plans were being hatched simultaneously in parts of Alabama still in Confederate hands. On March 1, 1863, a Confederate major came across two Confederate colonels named Holly and Seibels conversing in hushed tones on the veranda of a Montgomery hotel. Suspicious, the major later asked Holly what the discussion had been about. Holly told him Seibels (who had been the governor’s military adjutant when the war began) was planning an overture to Lincoln, offering to return Alabama to the Union in return for allowing the survival of at least the vestiges of slavery until the end of the 19th century.

Peace advocates of whatever variety remained a minority in the Confederacy in this period. But state-level Confederate elections between May and November 1863 did reveal a widespread if largely unfocused mood of disappointment and dissatisfaction. Voters turned many incumbent congressmen out of office, including strong supporters of the Davis government and its most unpopular policies. That outcome did not reflect a rejection by the electorate as a whole of the Confederacy, the war or slavery; most of the winners still pledged themselves to Southern independence. But these election results, Alabaman Benjamin H. Micou warned the Confederate secretary of state, revealed a strong “feeling of doubt & distrust” and a “dissatisfaction of the people with their lawmakers.” Strengthening that sentiment was the belief among “some poor men” that “the war is killing up their sons & brothers for the protection of the slaveholder.” That sentiment, Micou said, was “gradually bringing into antagonism the rich & the poor.”

The 1863 Confederate election results did not threaten Jefferson Davis’ grip on government. The Confederate president retained a strong core of congressional allies, including many who hailed from districts imminently threatened or already occupied by Union forces. These men spoke and voted in far greater practical independence of their actual constituents, who had by then lost contact with and political control over their representatives. (In the words of the head of the Confederate War Bureau, they represented “imaginary constituencies.”) Over the course of the war, Davis relied more and more upon them to support his most controversial measures—an arrangement that gave his government considerable effective freedom from popular control while retaining the appearance of governing with popular consent.

But Davis’ parliamentary security could not spare his regime from the practical impact of popular disaffection and indiscipline of various kinds. Increasingly, the Confederacy found it hard to keep its soldiers in the ranks over extended periods of time. The War Department in Richmond estimated in July 1863 that between 40,000 and 50,000 men were absent without leave from its armies. By the end of the year, it was calculating that deserters, absentees and stragglers combined constituted between one-third and one-half of its soldiers.

By no means were these all men who lacked or had lost a belief in the Confederacy. Many left the ranks to return home to assist family members who were suffering without a breadwinner or who were alarmed by the approach of Union troops or their inability to control black laborers. Savvy officers turned a blind eye toward the absence of soldiers responding to such calls, and most soldiers away without leave eventually rejoined their units.

But while deserters of this kind could leave the ranks without abandoning their commitment to the Confederacy, others—more and more as the war wore on—left because they had given up hope of victory. Another potent influence was mounting resentment of the social elite, its privileges and its treatment of those of lesser means.

Compounding the problem of absent soldiers was a rise in draft resistance. A Mississippian reported to his governor in October 1862 that the law exempting planters from the draft had produced “a ginerl Bacckought [general back out]” from army service in that state’s southern districts. And in the summer of 1863, Virginia Senator Allen T. Caperton reported growing resentment of the substitute system, which allowed a wealthy conscript to avoid military service by paying someone else to replace him, noting, “The idea is expanding that the rich, for whose benefit the war is waged, have procured substitutes to fight for them, while the poor, who have no slaves to lose, have not been able to procure substitutes.” By the end of 1862 and the beginning of 1863, substitutes in Virginia were demanding compensation of $1,500 to $2,000 apiece, a price far beyond the reach of most non-slaveholders.

Defeatism and open defiance of the Confederacy was much weaker in the armies than in the civilian population, partly because the men who were the most dedicated to the Confederacy had most readily put on uniforms and taken up arms to repel the Yankee abolitionists. And among the soldiery, the Army of Northern Virginia maintained the highest level of morale, in large part because Lee had led it from victory to victory ever since he assumed command in the spring of 1862.

The experience of the Army of Tennessee (formerly dubbed the Army of Mississippi) had been quite different. As the Confederacy’s principal military force in the Western Theater, it had witnessed and suffered one defeat after another ever since the fall of Tennessee’s Forts Henry and Donelson in early 1862. Those accumulating blows had inevitably taken a heavy toll on its morale.

After the shattering reversal outside Chattanooga late in 1863, where Union troops had rolled over the Army of Tennessee’s seemingly impregnable positions, the Confederate troops regrouped in winter quarters outside the town of Dalton in the hills of northern Georgia. At that point, it seems, the Peace Society (a subversive group that originated in Alabama and spread throughout the South) began to recruit among them. Some soldiers vowed never to fight again. W.A. Stephens of the 46th Alabama Infantry had decided the South’s defeat had become inevitable and therefore “the lives that is lost in this war now is for no good.” B.L. Wyman, another member of the 46th, recorded that “a large number are for going back into the ‘Union.’ ”

Certain Alabama units displayed even more advanced symptoms of decay. Just after Christmas in 1863, the commander of the 59th Alabama Infantry discovered many of his troops—and especially those who were immigrants, paid substitutes or of “the poorer class of men”—believed “they have but little to fight for.” They showed “a general disposition” to “lay down their arms, yield up the cause and accept the best terms the Yankee Government will grant.”

A similar report came that same day from the colonel of the 57th Alabama. His men displayed a “considerable manifestation of revolutionary spirit…on account of the tax in kind law and the impressment system.” Determined to “protect their families from supposed injustice and wrong on the part of the [Confederate] Government,” they declared themselves ready to surrender…to Union forces.

Shortly afterward, on January 5, 1864, 60 Alabama soldiers stationed just across the border from the Florida panhandle mutinied, refusing to take any further part in the war. They were promptly arrested. More than a hundred of their comrades “acknowledged themselves members” of the Peace Society. Upon investigating, the department commander found “an organized opposition to the war exists in our midst” that stood for “peace on any terms” and swore “never to fight against the enemy; to desert the service of the Confederacy; to encourage and protect deserters, and to do all other things in their power to end the war and break down the Government and the so-called Southern Confederacy.” Richmond disbanded the brigade.

The second calendar year of war, 1863, had dawned brightly for the slaveholders’ republic. Lee’s breathtaking Virginia victories at the end of 1862 and in the spring of 1863 lifted spirits and kindled hopes for an early end to the conflict on Richmond’s terms. But the slaughter at Gettysburg, the disaster at Vicksburg and then the rout at Chattanooga brought a chill of foreboding to Confederate leaders and followers alike. Desperate longings for peace began to replace triumphalist dreams, especially in sectors of the slaveless white population, which bore most of the burdens of the war but whose immediate interests were less bound up with its outcome.

Even now, however, most Confederates (and especially those serving in the Army of Northern Virginia) remained committed to a Southern victory. And in 1864, just as at the start of the preceding year, military developments would once again buoy the hopes of those committed to preserving the slaveholders’ republic.


Adapted from The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South, by Bruce Levine (Random House, 2013).

Originally published in the March 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.