Mid-South Genealogy & History Network

Ruins of Windor - Claiborn County

About the Southern United States....A Short History (Part 2)

compiled by historian Bill White

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Part 2

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Antebellum era (1783–1861).....

After the upheaval of the American Revolution effectively came to an end at the Siege of Yorktown (1781), the South became a major political force in the development of the United States. With the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, the South found political stability and a minimum of federal interference in state affairs. However, with this stability came a weakness in its design, and the inability of the Confederation to maintain economic viability eventually forced the creation of the United States Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787. Importantly, Southerners of 1861 often believed their secessionist efforts and the Civil War paralleled the American Revolution, as a military and ideological "replay" of the latter.

Southern leaders were able to protect their sectional interests during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, preventing the insertion of any explicit anti-slavery position in the Constitution. Moreover, they were able to force the inclusion of the "fugitive slave clause" and the "Three-Fifths Compromise". Nevertheless, Congress retained the power to regulate the slave trade. Twenty years after the ratification of the Constitution, the law-making body prohibited the importation of slaves, effective January 1, 1808. While North and South were able to find common ground in order to gain the benefits of a strong Union, the unity achieved in the Constitution masked deeply rooted differences in economic and political interests. After the 1787 convention, two discrete understandings of American republicanism emerged.

Southern leaders were able to protect their sectional interests during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, preventing the insertion of any explicit anti-slavery position in the Constitution. Moreover, they were able to force the inclusion of the "fugitive slave clause" and the "Three-Fifths Compromise". Nevertheless, Congress retained the power to regulate the slave trade. Twenty years after the ratification of the Constitution, the law-making body prohibited the importation of slaves, effective January 1, 1808. While North and South were able to find common ground in order to gain the benefits of a strong Union, the unity achieved in the Constitution masked deeply rooted differences in economic and political interests. After the 1787 convention, two discrete understandings of American republicanism emerged.

Antebellum slavery - In the North, slaves were mostly household servants or farm laborers, every Northern state abolished slavery by 1804. The Continental Congress abolished slavery in the Northwest Territory and its future states. Therefore, by 1804 the Mason–Dixon line (the border between free Pennsylvania and slave Maryland) became the dividing mark between "free" and "slave" states.

About a third of white Southern families were slave owners, with most being independent yeoman farmers. Nevertheless, the slave system represented the basis of the Southern social and economic system, and thus even non-slaveowners opposed any suggestions for terminating that system, whether through outright abolition or case-by-case manumission.

The southern plantation economy was dependent on foreign trade, and the success of this trade helps explain why southern elites and some white yeomen were so violently opposed to abolition. There is considerable debate among scholars about whether or not the slaveholding South was a capitalist society and economy.

Nullification crisis, political representation, and rising sectionalism - Although slavery had yet to become a major issue, states' rights would surface periodically in the early antebellum period, especially within the South. The election of Federalist member John Adams in the 1796 presidential election came in tandem with escalating tensions with France. In 1798, the XYZ Affair brought these tensions to the fore, and Adams became concerned about French power in America, fearing internal sabotage and malcontent that could be brought on by French agents. In response to these developments and to repeated attacks on Adams and the Federalists by Democratic-Republican publishers, Congress enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts. Enforcement of the acts resulted in the jailing of "seditious" Democratic-Republican editors throughout the North and South, and prompted the adoption of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 (authored by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison), by the legislatures of those states.

Thirty years later, during the Nullification Crisis, the "Principles of '98" embodied in these resolutions were cited by leaders in South Carolina as a justification for state legislatures' asserting the power to nullify, or prevent the local application of, acts of the federal Congress that they deemed unconstitutional. The Nullification Crisis arose as a result of the Tariff of 1828, a set of high taxes on imports of manufactures, enacted by Congress as a protectionist measure to foster the development of domestic industry, primarily in the North. In 1832, the legislature of South Carolina nullified the entire "Tariff of Abominations", as the Tariff of 1828 was known in the South, prompting a stand-off between the state and federal government. On May 1, 1833, President Andrew Jackson wrote, "the tariff was only a pretext, and disunion and southern confederacy the real object. The next pretext will be the negro, or slavery question." Although the crisis was resolved through a combination of the actions of the president, Congressional reduction of the tariff, and the Force Bill, it had lasting importance for the later development of secessionist thought. An additional factor that led to Southern sectionalism was the proliferation of cultural and literary magazines such as the Southern Literary Messenger and DeBow's Review.

Sectional parity and issue of slavery in new territories - Another issue feeding sectionalism was slavery, and especially the issue of whether to permit slavery in western territories seeking admission to the Union as states. In the early 19th century, as the cotton boom took hold, slavery became more economically viable on a large scale, and more Northerners began to perceive it as an economic threat, even if they remained indifferent to its moral dimension. While relatively few Northerners favored outright abolition, many more opposed the expansion of slavery to new territories, as in their view the availability of slaves lowered wages for free labor.

At the same time, Southerners increasingly perceived the economic and population growth of the North as threatening to their interests. For several decades after the Union was formed, as new states were admitted, North and South were able to finesse their sectional differences and maintain political balance by agreeing to admit "slave" and "free" states in equal numbers. By means of this compromise approach, the balance of power in the Senate could be extended indefinitely. The House of Representatives, however, was a different matter. As the North industrialized and its population grew, aided by a major influx of European immigrants, the Northern majority in the House of Representatives also grew, making Southern political leaders increasingly uncomfortable. Southerners became concerned that they would soon find themselves at the mercy of a federal government in which they no longer had sufficient representation to protect their interests. By the late 1840s, Senator Jefferson Davis from Mississippi stated that the new Northern majority in the Congress would make the government of the United States "an engine of Northern aggrandizement" and that Northern leaders had an agenda to "promote the industry of the United States at the expense of the people of the South."

After the Mexican–American War, many Northerners became alarmed by new territory now being added on the Southern side of the free-slave boundary, the slavery-in-the-territories issue heated up dramatically. After a four-year sectional conflict, the Compromise of 1850 narrowly averted civil war with a complex deal in which California was admitted as a free state, including Southern California, thus preventing a separate slave territory there, while slavery was allowed in the New Mexico and Utah territories and a stronger Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, requiring all citizens to assist in recapturing runaway slaves wherever found. Four years later, the peace bought with successive compromises finally came to an end. In the Kansas–Nebraska Act, Congress left the issue of slavery to a vote in each territory, thereby provoking a breakdown of law and order as rival groups of pro- and anti-slavery immigrants competed to populate the newly settled region.

Election of 1860, secession, and Lincoln's response - For many Southerners, the last straws were the raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859 by abolitionist John Brown, immediately followed by a Northern Republican victory in the presidential election of 1860. Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected president with only 40% of the popular vote and with hardly any popular support in the South.

Members of the South Carolina legislature had previously sworn to secede from the Union if Lincoln was elected, and the state declared its secession on December 20, 1860. In January and February, six other cotton states of the Deep South followed suit: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. The other eight slave states postponed a decision, but the seven formed a new government in Montgomery, Alabama, in February: the Confederate States of America. Throughout the South, Confederates seized federal arsenals and forts, without resistance, and forced the surrender of all U.S. forces in Texas. The sitting President, James Buchanan, believed he had no constitutional power to act, and in the four months between Lincoln's election and his inauguration, the South strengthened its military position.

In Washington, proposals for compromise and reunion went nowhere, as the Confederates demanded complete, total, permanent independence. When Lincoln dispatched a supply ship to federal-held Fort Sumter, in South Carolina, the Confederate government ordered an attack on the fort, which surrendered on April 13. President Lincoln called upon the states to supply 75,000 troops to serve for ninety days to recover federal property, and, forced to choose sides, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina promptly voted to secede. Kentucky declared its neutrality.

Civil War (1861–1865).....

The seceded states, joined together as the Confederate States of America and only wanting to be independent, had no desire to conquer any state north of its border. After secession, no compromise was possible, because the Confederacy insisted on its independence and the Lincoln Administration refused to meet with President Davis's commissioners. Instead of diplomacy, Lincoln ordered that a Navy fleet of warships and troop transports be sent to Charleston Harbor to reinforce and resupply Fort Sumter. Just before the fleet was about to enter the harbor, Confederates forced the Federal garrison holed up in the fort to surrender. That incident, although only a cannon duel that produced no deaths, allowed President Lincoln to proclaim that United States forces had been attacked and justified his calling up of troops to invade the seceded states. In response the Confederate military strategy was to hold its territory together, gain worldwide recognition, and inflict so much punishment on invaders that the Northerners would tire of an expensive war and negotiate a peace treaty that would recognize the independence of the CSA. Two Confederate counter-offensives into Maryland and southern Pennsylvania failed to influence Federal elections as hoped. The victory of Lincoln and his party in the 1864 elections made the Union's military victory only a matter of time.

Both sides wanted the border states, but the Union military forces took control of all of them in 1861–1862. Union victories in western Virginia allowed a Unionist government based in Wheeling to take control of western Virginia and, with Washington's approval, create the new state of West Virginia. The Confederacy did recruit troops in the border states, but the enormous advantage of controlling them went to the Union.

The Union naval blockade, starting in May 1861, reduced exports by 95%; only small, fast blockade runners—mostly owned and operated by British interests—could get through. The South's vast cotton crops became nearly worthless.

In 1861 the rebels assumed that "King Cotton" was so powerful that the threat of losing their supplies would induce Britain and France to enter the war as allies, and thereby frustrate Union efforts. Confederate leaders were ignorant of European conditions; Britain depended on the Union for its food supply, and would not benefit from an extremely expensive major war with the U.S. The Confederacy moved its capital from a defensible location in remote Montgomery, Alabama, to the more cosmopolitan city of Richmond, Virginia, only 100 miles (160 km) from Washington. Richmond had the heritage and facilities to match those of Washington, but its proximity to the Union forced the CSA to spend most of its war-making capability to defend Richmond.

Leadership - The strength of the Confederacy included an unusually strong officer corps—about a third of the officers of the U.S. Army had resigned and joined. But the political leadership was not very effective. A classic interpretation is that the Confederacy "died of states' rights", as governors of Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina refused Richmond's request for troops.

The Confederacy decided not to have political parties. There was a strong sense that parties were divisive and would weaken the war effort. Historians, however, agree that the lack of parties weakened the political system. Instead of having a viable alternative to the current system, as expressed by a rival party, the people could only grumble and complain and lose faith.

Historians disparage the effectiveness of President Jefferson Davis, with a consensus holding that he was much less effective than Abraham Lincoln. As a former Army officer, senator, and Secretary of War, he possessed the stature and experience to be president, but certain character defects undercut his performance. He played favorites and was imperious, frosty, and quarrelsome. By dispensing with parties, he lost the chance to build a grass roots network that would provide critically needed support in dark hours. Instead, he took the brunt of the blame for all difficulties and disasters. Davis was animated by a profound vision of a powerful, opulent new nation, the Confederate States of America, premised on the right of its white citizens to self-government. However, in dramatic contrast to Lincoln, he was never able to articulate that vision or provide a coherent strategy to fight the war. He neglected the civilian needs of the Confederacy while spending too much time meddling in military details. Davis's meddling in military strategy proved counterproductive. His explicit orders that Vicksburg be held no matter what sabotaged the only feasible defense and led directly to the fall of the city in 1863.

Abolition of slavery - By 1862 most northern leaders realized that the mainstay of Southern secession, slavery, had to be attacked head-on. All the border states rejected President Lincoln's proposal for compensated emancipation. However, by 1865 all had begun the abolition of slavery, except Kentucky and Delaware. The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued by Lincoln on January 1, 1863. In a single stroke it changed the legal status, as recognized by the U.S. government, of 3 million slaves in designated areas of the Confederacy from "slave" to "free". It had the practical effect that as soon as a slave escaped the control of the Confederate government, by running away or through advances of federal troops, the slave became legally and actually free. Plantation owners, realizing that emancipation would destroy their economic system, sometimes moved their slaves as far as possible out of reach of the Union Army. By June 1865, the Union Army controlled all of the Confederacy and liberated all of the designated slaves. The owners were never compensated. Nor were the slaves themselves. Many of the freedmen remained on the same plantation, others crowded into refugee camps operated by the Freedmen's Bureau. The Bureau provided food, housing, clothing, medical care, church services, some schooling, legal support, and arranged for labor contracts.

Historian Leon Litwack has noted, "Neither white nor black Southerners were unaffected by the physical and emotional demands of the war. Scarcities of food and clothing, for example, imposed hardships on both races." Conditions were worse for blacks. Late in the war and soon after large numbers of blacks moved away from the plantation. The Freedmen's Bureau refugee camps saw infectious disease such as smallpox reach epidemic proportions. Jim Downs states:

"Disease and sickness had more devastating and fatal effects on emancipated slaves than on soldiers, since ex-slaves often lacked the basic necessities to survive. Emancipation liberated bondspeople from slavery, but they often lacked clean clothing, adequate shelter, proper food, and access to medicine in their escape toward Union lines. Many free slaves died once they secured refuge behind union camps."

Railroads - The Union had a 3–1 superiority in railroad mileage and (even more important) an overwhelming advantage in engineers and mechanics in the rolling mills, machine shops, factories, roundhouses and repair yards that produced and maintained rails, bridging equipage, locomotives, rolling stock, signaling gear, and telegraph equipment. In peacetime the South imported all its railroad gear from the North; the Union blockade completely cut off such imports. The lines in the South were mostly designed for short hauls, as from cotton areas to river or ocean ports; they were not designed for trips of more than 100 miles or so, and such trips involved numerous changes of trains and layovers. The South's 8,500 miles of track comprised enough of a railroad system to handle essential military traffic along some internal lines, assuming it could be defended and maintained. As the system deteriorated because of worn out equipment, accidents and sabotage, the South was unable to construct or even repair new locomotives, cars, signals or track. Little new equipment ever arrived, although rails in remote areas such as Florida were removed and put to more efficient use in the war zones. Realizing their enemy's dilemma, Union cavalry raids routinely destroyed locomotives, cars, rails, roundhouses, trestles, bridges, and telegraph wires. By the end of the war, the southern railroad system was totally ruined. Meanwhile, the Union army rebuilt rail lines to supply its forces. A Union railroad through hostile territory, as from Nashville to Atlanta in 1864, was an essential but fragile lifeline—it took a whole army to guard it, because each foot of track had to be secure. Large numbers of Union soldiers throughout the war were assigned to guard duty and, while always ready for action, seldom saw any fighting.

Southern Unionists - Southerners who were against the Confederate cause during the Civil War were known as Southern Unionists. They were also known as Union Loyalists or Lincoln's Loyalists. Within the eleven Confederate states, states such as Tennessee (especially East Tennessee), Virginia (which included West Virginia at the time), and North Carolina were home to the largest populations of Unionists. Many areas of Southern Appalachia harbored pro-Union sentiment as well. As many as 100,000 men living in states under Confederate control would serve in the Union Army or pro-Union guerilla groups. Although Southern Unionists came from all classes, most differed socially, culturally, and economically from the region's dominant pre-war planter class.

Sherman's March - By 1864 the top Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman realized the weakest point of the Confederate armies was the decrepitude of the southern infrastructure, so they escalated efforts to wear it down. Cavalry raids were the favorite device, with instructions to ruin railroads and bridges. Sherman's insight was deeper. He focused on the trust the rebels had in their Confederacy as a living nation, and he set out to destroy that trust; he predicted his raid would "demonstrate the vulnerability of the South, and make its inhabitants feel that war and individual ruin are synonymous terms." Sherman's "March to the Sea" from Atlanta to Savannah in the fall of 1864 burned and ruined every part of the industrial, commercial, transportation and agricultural infrastructure it touched, but the actual damage was confined to a swath of territory totaling about 15% of Georgia. Sherman struck at Georgia in October, just after the harvest, when the food supplies for the next year had been gathered and were exposed to destruction. In early 1865 Sherman's army moved north through the Carolinas in a campaign even more devastating than the march through Georgia. More telling than the twisted rails, smoldering main streets, dead cattle, burning barns and ransacked houses was the bitter realization among civilians and soldiers throughout the remaining Confederacy that if they persisted, sooner or later their homes and communities would receive the same treatment.

The war was effectively over with the surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. There were no trials for insurgency or treason and only one war crimes trial.

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