The Case of the CSA

Pre-face: I tried to find a similar article about this. I thought, surely someone else has already hit this point hard. Its such an obvious one. If I’m repeating anyone here, my apologies. Also, I think it might take an ironic mind to get at my point here, so I doubt I’ll  even be able to address my intended audience in a way they can comprehend.

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Apparently, no one has come to this point yet in the shin-kicking contest against libertarians and Tea Party types. But, it seems that these groups want to make the United States more like what the founders set out in the Articles of Confederation. What’s fascinating about this goal is it’s apparent ignorance of the failure of that system in our own history. Originally, the Articles were rejected in favor of the U.S. Constitution and they failed again after the Confederate States of America used the Articles as a foundation for their new government. This grounds the issue and pulls it out of the imaginary argument libertarian types make about government based on, for example, Atlas Shrugged[1]. Few other real life examples of full-scale implementation of libertarian principles exist and so, often, the best anyone gets from libs are the rhetorical musings of an Ayn Rand[2], for example[3].

During the Civil War, states seceded from the Union because of, at best, a mixture of fears of racial tensions and a desire to maintain a de-centralized federal government. Before we begin, let’s get over that sticking point: it is indisputable that racial tensions and racism played a huge role in convincing many Southern states to join in South Carolina’s act of treason (Charles B. Dew “Apostles of Disunion“).

For long before the Civil War broke out, the South had prided itself on the principles of state sovereignty and small government. Imagine the idealized antebellum south: an aristocratic network of plantations, serfs and fiefdoms. Imagine all the social gatherings and rigid culture, conservative values and deeply felt evangelical religion and mix that with a very weak centralized government bolstered by a strong state government. Creepily, modern libertarians – and groups like the Tea Party  – make arguments in favor of the type of system that the Confederate and pre-war South actually deployed, a system based on the supposed virtues of the failed Articles of Confederation.

Taxing worked just about as well in the CSA as it did under the Articles of Confederation[4] (If you feel you don’t have a good understanding of the Articles, I suggest exploring the link I’ve put in the footnote, it’s integral to my point). A sense of states’ rights precluded the centralized confederate government in Richmond from collecting taxes. Instead, taxation went on the near-voluntary system under the Articles. As the war dragged on, currency in the CSA became worthless. The South, as happens to nations at war, hemorrhaged capital. Without a steady source of revenue, confederate soldiers went unsupplied and unfed. Unlike the Union, which supplied its army with basic equipment, the average CSA soldier usually supplied his own gun, horse, ammunition and uniform.

For example, the notion of the confederate soldier dressed all in grey versus the Union blue is a false one. A Rebel might wear brown, butternut yellow, orange, green or grey. Basically, southern soldiers wore whatever they happened to own.  Rebels even donned  blue coats. This quite sensibly resulted in horrendous friendly fire situations in the dark of night or fog of battle.

Southern soldiers rarely received a resupply of clothes from the government. Once on marches, clothes quickly rotted away, soles wore out of shoes, and soldiers went hungry. This lack of cohesion went for their rations as well, which were stapled to salt pork and corn meal, as well as cram[5]. They also used peanuts (even then seen as a foodstuff fit only for the poor) for confederate coffee[6] because resupply of luxury goods was unthinkable. Contrast the Confederate soldier’s diet with the Union soldier, who was clothed in matching uniforms, resupplied often and very well fed.

This problem of supply goes back to the de-centralized network of railroads in the South. Due to the lack of centralization, this network usually had different grading – the width of the rails changed. This switch occurred at a sovereign state’s border. Since trains can only run on one type of grading, once a train reached the border, all the cargo had to transfer to carts and wagons or switch over at the station to a different train fit with the right gauge.  This problem in logistics continued until the Confederate government seized the railroads[7] in 1863 and forced them to run on schedule and use the same grading*. Before 1863, the southern railroads were plagued by inefficiencies and breakdowns.

“The Southern way of life that led to secession seemed to preclude the national leaders from “forging the kind of railroad network that would enable the Confederacy to prevail.”[8]

The South also lacked a strong executive. Many Lost Cause devotees still decry Lincoln’s imposition of military rule, suspension of habeas corpus, spy network and so on. Without those tools, however, Washington D.C. probably would have fallen early in the war, as it sits just across the Potomac from Virginia and was almost seized multiple times by Confederate generals early in the war. Unlike Lincoln, Jefferson Davis was not allowed to suspend habeas corpus as often as Lincoln. Nor did Davis have the confidence of his people to successfully execute military rule in wavering pro-Union southern states like Tennessee.  Davis also could not effectively draft soldiers, another problem that oddly matched the very same problems solved by the United States when it abandoned the Articles. Many soldiers (North and South, to be fair) quickly went AWOL after encountering the inefficiencies of soldiery and the horrors of modern warfare.  While many deserters were rounded up and forced back into service or otherwise executed, the CSA never succeeded in maintaining a consistent flow of soldiers.

A quick rebuttal could be made that the CSA started in the middle of a war, had much fewer men to fight for it than the Union or was too weak to get off the ground because of its agricultural nature, but are these legitimate critiques? Libertarianism cannot promise a worthwhile system if all it takes to utterly crumble is a ground war or overly agrarian economy (keep in mind this is the same defense launched by modern day communists when defending communism despite its failure in N. Korea and the USSR). There was no excuse that the CSA could not feed and clothe its troops other than the obvious inefficiencies of a laissez-faire libertarian government. Especially since the South’s economy was based on agriculture.

The fundamental principles of what a government needs in order to successfully compete were sorely lacking in the Confederate States of America. Few governments survive without some form of strong executive authority, wrangling up the various divided interests and steering the ship of state. To wit, in the death throes of the Confederacy, Davis proposed arming slaves to fight off the North and promised Great Britain they would emancipate the slaves in the South – a move vehemently opposed by southern legislators – if Great Britain would recognize the sovereignty of the south.  Under blistering criticism from his legislators for proposing an act which completely undermined the point of the CSA -at least, the whole point in their mind – Davis is said to have replied: “If the Confederacy falls, there should be written on its tombstone: DIED OF A THEORY.”

Sources (of inspiration, if not facts):

http://americancivilwar.com/authors/arrturo_rivera.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confederate_States_of_America#.22Died_of_states.27_rights.22

http://www.historynet.com/railroads-critical-role-in-the-civil-war.htm

http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/food/2012/04/the-legumes-of-war-how-peanuts-fed-the-confederacy/?utm_source=twitter.com&utm_medium=socialmedia&utm_campaign=20120419&utm_content=foodandthinklegumesofwar

http://civilwarlibrarian.blogspot.com/2011/02/cwl-civil-war-rails-how-railroads.html

*I’m fuzzy on whether the grading was ever standardized during the War.


[1] I spent a year writing a critique of Atlas Shrugged, you’ll forgive me for the apparently unnecessary drop-in.

[2] ibid.

[3] Otherwise, you could take as your poison in this case, Herbert Hoover sitting on his hands as the stock market detonated in ’29 because of his principles against government intervention in the private sector – an idea FDR flirted with just about until the second he sat in his desk in the Oval Office.  Hoover’s fiddling while Rome burned all but assured a democrat would succeed him. Cue Franklin Roosevelt, a man whose New Deal policies modern Tea Party Patriots and Libertarians decry as the great satan[3], even though he arguably saved the country in its time of peril precisely by deploying the policies modern libertarians consider most evil.

[4] See: http://ushistory.ncee.net/wlg/focus_ushistory_lesson8.pdf- That’s why the Articles were abandoned for the Constitution.

[6] http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/food/2012/04/the-legumes-of-war-how-peanuts-fed-the-confederacy/utm_source=twitter.com&utm_medium=socialmedia&utm_campaign=20120419&utm_content=foodandthinklegumesofwar:

The goober pea’s status in the Southern diet changed during the war as other foods became scarce. An excellent source of protein, peanuts were seen as a means of fighting malnutrition. (And they still are, with products such as Plumpy’nut being used in famine-plagued parts of the world.) In addition to their prewar modes of consumption, people used peanuts as a substitute for items that were no longer readily available, such as grinding them to a paste and blending them with milk and sugar when coffee was scarce.

[7] Randites are literally vomiting everyone at that one, if they take my point I suppose.

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