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Alexander Stephens on Mismanagement of Confederate Government and Economy
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“You can not possibly regret more sincerely or profoundly my disagreement with members of the administration upon some of the late measures of Legislation than I do myself… [The crops] should be & should have been husbanded & guarded as gold. Not a grain of corn or blade of grass should have been wasted or lost or misapplied… Many plantations have been virtually abandoned to the negroes without any suitable superintendent. Many persons still at home under the uncertainty of getting details are failing to plant their usual crops...”

Vice President Stephens writes the Secretary of War strongly voicing his objections to acts passed by the Confederate Congress and about the economic, social, and military disintegration of the Confederacy.

ALEXANDER H. STEPHENS. Autograph Letter Signed as Confederate Vice President, Crawfordville, Ga., April 29, 1864, to James A. Seddon, Confederate Secretary of War. 8 pp (the first 4 and last 4 of what was a 16-page letter), 4½ x 7 in.

Inventory #24014       Price: $2,750

Excerpt

… How the editor became possessed of that portion of my communication I did not know and I added most truthfully that it was a matter of very bitter consequence to me. I saw to my mortification that the editor had put an erroneous construction upon my motives & feelings in using the words I did…. The Editor alluded to had exhibited (privately, not published) the extract alluded to. He showed it as evidence of my <3> “bitterness, hostility and malignancy” (I quote his words) against the administration. Entertaining no such feelings or anything kindred to them I did not wish Judge Campbell to draw any such inference…  You can not possibly regret more sincerely or profoundly my disagreement with members of the administration upon some of the late measures of Legislation than I do myself. And nothing could have induced me to have taken public position against them but a sense of public duty arising from a strong conviction of the mischievous and dangerous tendency of those measures, founded as they were in my judgment upon great and radical errors. But in this as in all differences amongst common friends in a great common cause I assure you I was influenced by nothing except what I regarded as the public good. I was not influenced in the slightest degree by feelings of hostility or bitterness, to say nothing of malignancy, towards a single mortal who disagreed with me.  <5>  <13> … and to continue to issue them [treasury notes] with this semblance of integrity of purpose will but result in greater mischief in the end.

The tithe therefore should be & should have been husbanded & guarded as gold. Not a grain of corn or blade of grass should have been wasted or lost or misapplied.

Our production of provisions this year will be greatly lessened from another cause. That is the general derangement of labor and the management of large planting interests as well as small under the last military act. The uncertainty of whether parties could get what is called details [ie work details] has caused many to make arrangements to suit themselves. Many have gone into the army, rather than <14> be conscripted. Many plantations have been virtually abandoned to the negroes without any suitable superintendent. Many persons still at home under the uncertainty of getting details are failing to plant their usual crops... In my judgment this organization of <15> what is now called the reserve force is almost a farce. It would be indeed a farce if it were not for the serious consequences attending it. There will hardly be as many able bodied men sent to the army under its operation as there are useless drones and consumers engaged in it. As a reserved corps to be relied on in emergency the State Militia organization would have been much more efficient and the agricultural or other interests would not have been so much deranged by relying on that. But enough of this. I find I am writing much more than I intended when I set out. What I have said is with great freedom & frankness and with a profound sense of the great interest at stake. I trust you will receive it for what it is worth simply as a matter of opinion & judgment …

Historical Background

On March 16, 1864, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens gave a speech before the Georgia legislature in Milledgeville on the state of the Confederacy. During his address, he spoke specifically about recent controversial acts of the Confederate Congress, including ones on the currency, the military, and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. He declared that the Tax Act and Funding Act were “neither proper, wise or just.” The conscription act that expanded the draft to all between ages 17 and 50, Stephens deemed “wrong, radically wrong in principle and in policy” and “most clearly unconstitutional.” He feared that if all white men within those ages were called into the field, “we must fail, sooner or later, for want of subsistence and other essential supplies.” “To wage war,” he continued, “men at home are as necessary as men in the field.”

Stephens then turned to the issue of the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. The act “confers upon the President, secretary of war, and the general commanding in the trans-Mississippi department, (the two latter acting under the control and authority of the President,) the power to arrest and imprison any person who may be simply charged with certain acts, not all of them even crimes under any law.” In his judgment, “this act is not only unwise, impolitic and unconstitutional, but exceedingly dangerous to public liberty.” In his speech, Stephens also supported the objections made by Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown (1821-1894) to the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Brown had long been critical of President Jefferson Davis and the centralizing tendencies of the Confederate government.

In a stirring peroration, Stephens declared that he “was not born to acknowledge a master from either the North or South.... As for myself, give me liberty as secured in the constitution with all its guaranties, amongst which is the sovereignty of Georgia, or give me death.”[1] In the Georgia legislature, Alexander Stephens brother, Linton Stephens, had earlier introduced resolutions that condemned the suspension of habeas corpus as unconstitutional. After his brother’s impassioned speech and some threats from Governor Brown, the Georgia General Assembly narrowly passed the resolutions condemning the suspension and urging its congressional representatives to seek its repeal.

Stephens’ speech was reprinted as a pamphlet and distributed throughout the Confederate states and beyond. Within months three more Confederate state legislatures passed resolutions condemning the suspension act.In the letter offered here, Stephens attempts to explain to Secretary of War James A. Seddon that his objections were based on principles and were not motivated by feelings of “bitterness, hostility and malignancy against the administration.” He continues to explain to Seddon that the agriculture of the Confederacy should be ample to support its armies, if properly managed, but they had not and the inevitable result would be disaster for their “great common cause.” Very sensitive to the criticism he received from supporters of the Davis administration, Stephens wrote several other letters to officials in Richmond trying to explain his position.

The “business connected with the public service” that Stephens mentioned in his last paragraph was an effort to meet with a Union soldier named David F. Cable, who had been captured in Florida and imprisoned at Andersonville. Cable, an Ohio lawyer and supporter of Clement Vallandigham, had written to Stephens, asking to see him. Cable believed that a union of all northern conservatives could defeat Abraham Lincoln in the upcoming presidential election, and he wished to obtain from Confederate officials a statement of a desire for an armistice to settle the issues of the war by arbitration. However, a colonel at Andersonville, finding Cable’s story implausible, refused to parole him to confer with Stephens.

Alexander H. Stephens (1812-1883) was born in Georgia and graduated from the University of Georgia in 1832. He established a law practice in Crawfordville, Georgia, where he acquired land and slaves. He served in the Georgia legislature from 1836 to 1842. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1843-1859. In 1862, he became the first and only Vice President of the Confederate States of America. He was one of three peace commissioners who met with President Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward in Hampton Roads, Virginia, in February 1865, in an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate an end to the war. After the war, Stephens was imprisoned for five months. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives again from 1873 to 1882 and briefly as Governor of Georgia during the last five months of his life.

Stephens’ service in Congress overlapped with Abraham Lincoln’s single Congressional term, 1847-9).  We’ve often heard a great anecdote from the failed peace conference before the end of the Civil War. Lincoln, commenting to Ulysses S. Grant after seeing Stephens’s take off his huge wool overcoat, Well, “didn't you think it was the biggest shuck and the littlest ear you ever did see?”

James A. Seddon (1815-1880) was born in Virginia and graduated from the law school at the University of Virginia. He represented Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1845 to 1847 and 1849 to 1851. Seddon was a member of a peace convention held in Washington in 1861 to avert war. President Jefferson Davis appointed Seddon as the fourth Confederate Secretary of War, a position he held from November 1862 to February 1865. Although Seddon was initially charged with war crimes for the treatment of Union prisoners at Andersonville, President Andrew Johnson ordered charges against him and others dropped in August 1865.

John A. Campbell (1811-1889) graduated from the University of Georgia at age 14. He enrolled in the United States Military Academy but withdrew when his father died. He was a lawyer and legislator in Georgia and Alabama before President Franklin Pierce appointed him to the United States Supreme Court in 1853. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he resigned the Court and settled in New Orleans. Appointed Confederate Assistant Secretary of War by President Jefferson Davis, he held that position to the end of the war. He was one of three peace commissioners who met with President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward in Hampton Roads, Virginia, in February 1865, in an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate an end to the war.

Provenance

Ex William “Bill” Steiner Collection.

Condition

Two horizontal folds on each sheet. Fine.

Complete Transcript (including part no longer present)

                                                                        Crawfordsville., Ga.

                                                                        29th April 1864

Hon James A. Seddon

Sec. of War

Dear Sir,

Your letter of the 21st Inst was received yesterday. In my letter of the 15 Inst to Judge Campbell I referred in a postscript to the fact of an editor of this State having exhibited an extract of a communication to you &c barely as an explanation of the tone & manner of my speaking to him as I did on certain subjects in that letter which without the explanation might have appeared strange and singular to him.  The tone & manner alluded to were simply repeated assurances that my sole interest was the public good however Strong and earnest the expressions used. I did express surprise at the editors having the extract referred to but no indignation.<2> I felt none such. How the editor became possessed of that portion of my communication I did not know and I added most truthfully that it was a matter of very bitter consequence to me. I saw to my mortification that the editor had put an erroneous construction upon my motives & feelings in using the words I did. I did not know but that others who had seen it had put a like construction upon them and hence I had guarded myself against any such construction of my motives in what I had said to Judge Campbell and in explanation of my reasons for thus guarding him referred to the fact I mentioned. The Editor alluded to had exhibited (privately, not published) the extract alluded to. He showed it as evidence of my <3> “bitterness, hostility and malignancy” (I quote his words) against the administration. Entertaining no such feelings or anything kindred to them I did not wish Judge Campbell to draw any such inference from anything I said to him upon the subjects I was writing to him about however strong or earnest my language might be. I should certainly have written immediately and directly to you upon the subject if I had attached any great importance to the subject or had really felt anything like indignation on account of it. I am glad Judge Campbell informed you of what I said to him on the matter. From what you say I can now readily account for the editor alluded to having the extract. It was doubtless furnished by some of the subordinates in the Bureau of Conscription to whom <4> it was referred. You can not possibly regret more sincerely or profoundly my disagreement with members of the administration upon some of the late measures of Legislation than I do myself. And nothing could have induced me to have taken public position against them but a sense of public duty arising from a strong conviction of the mischievous and dangerous tendency of those measures, founded as they were in my judgment upon great and radical errors. But in this as in all differences amongst common friends in a great common cause I assure you I was influenced by nothing except what I regarded as the public good. I was not influenced in the slightest degree by feelings of hostility or bitterness, to say nothing of malignancy, towards a single mortal who disagreed with me.  <5> 

[Missing text for eight pages in middle of letter:

            And while I am writing to you thus frankly, I will take occasion to say that I see and hear almost daily of matters involving the deepest interest that ought to be corrected. Such at least is my judgment; and I give it to you for what it is worth. Some of these I mentioned in my letter to Judge Campbell; they relate to the waste and misuse of the tithes. With my ideas of this war, its probable duration and the manner in which it can be successfully conducted on our side, I think the greatest danger ahead of us, under the present policy, is the ultimate failure of subsistence. War, in one view, is eminently a business affair upon a large and magnificent scale; and it requires eminently business qualities to conduct it safely and successfully against such disadvantages as we labor under. But with the advantages that we possess I have never doubted for a moment, but that we can wage it successfully in our defence, just as long as our enemies shall choose to prosecute it, if our resources of men and means are properly and efficiently wielded. From the beginning I believed it would very probably be ultimately a war for our subjugation or extermination. This opinion I gave the Virginia convention in April, 1861, as will be seen by reference to my speech before that body; and from the beginning I was for husbanding and wielding our resources with this view. No equal number of people on the face of the globe ever had superior elements of power, or internal resources for defence than we had. How the great elements of cotton and tobacco, in a financial point of view, were neglected against my early and earnest appeals, I need not now say any thing—nor need I now say any thing of other like errors as to other resources I could mention. These things are past. We have now to deal with the present, looking to the future. Our finances now are a wreck. Past all hope, in my judgment. Just where I was fully convinced they would be, and so stated repeatedly and sorrowfully two years ago, when the first Congress, under the permanent constitution, adjourned without passing a tax act, or making any provision for the redemption of the issues of treasury notes. To me the result seemed as certain and as inevitable as other results seem now if our policy is not changed.

            To be brief and pointed, our present reliance for sustaining the war, feeding the armies, is upon the substance of the country—the agricultural productions and not the credit of the government. The tax in kind or tithe is the surest hope; that is abundant, if it be properly and wisely managed. But under present management so far from doing the good it ought it only increases the evil. It is wasting the substance of the country without supplying the army as it ought to do entirely. The ought to feed the army without the expenditure of a dollar by way of purchase. This it is abundantly sufficient to do upon the most moderate estimates; and, if it were not, then our cause, if the war last two years longer, would be hopeless. For if one tenth of the food produced in the country will not support or feed the armies, how can nine tenths support or keep from want and starvation the rest of the population? I suppose the whole list of our ration-drawers does not exceed six hundred thousand. The remaining population cannot be less than seven or eight millions—perhaps more. I have not the census before me, and speak in general terms, being quite certain that my statements are within bounds. Now if one tenth of the food of the land will not support six hundred thousand men with the horses etc. they have, it is manifest that the other nine tenths cannot support the remaining seven or eight millions with the stock they must keep to produce with. The government, therefore, or those administering the government, should look to the tithe as the main hope and only sure reliance for the support of the army. With these views premised, I now come to the errors I spoke of. From what I see and hear I am at this time of the opinion that what ought to have supplied the army for twelve months will be exhausted in less than six. I allude specially to the articles of corn and wheat. In this county, small and poor as it is, thousands of bushels of tithe corn, and great amount of forage, have been fed to poor cattle, bought up in February and March for beef, while the tithe pork and bacon was uncollected throughout the country. Had this been used now the grasses of summer would have fattened the beef to be used then, without consuming the title forage for the army. This is the matter I alluded to in my letter to Judge Campbell. This, it is true, is a small matter, but what is being done here is doubtless being done elsewhere. And since that letter I have learned the fact, that five thousand bushels of tithe corn just above me have been turned over to a party to distil into whiskey, right on the railroad and within two days transportation, or three at the furthest, to Johnston’s army. And these five thousand bushels, I am informed, were turned over to the distiller upon a contract, that for the five thousand bushels of corn he was to deliver five thousand gallons of whiskey! Out of which the contractor may make not less than $125,000 in our currency. One bushel of corn in winter, it is said, will make two gallons of whiskey, and besides, it is aid, that the slops from stills will fatten as much pork as the corn would if fed to hogs in its natural state. With this view the contract was worth even more to the distiller. Now, I assure you, I think this radically wrong. I refer to it with no spirit of captiousness, but for the sole purpose of having such errors corrected. This contract is a small affair compared with others on the same principle. It is to all such contracts on such principles I call your attention. In the first place, the army can do better without whiskey than bread; and, in the next place, if we have corn enough to put any into whiskey, it ought to be so used in sections remote from railroads. So with all corn or forage fed to cattle or hogs to fatten them for beef or pork for the army.

            The provision crop last year was abundant for all our population for the present year, for the army and people at home, if it be economically used. But I sincerely fear it will not be next year. The policy of impressing provisions without paying market price will greatly lesson production of itself; this was the case when there was confidence in the credit of the government. But that confidence is now lost by reason of the late financial and currency acts. I assure you it is lost. People may not be as candid in telling you the truth as I am; but the fact is so, and wise men should act accordingly. I mean wise statesmen. The government cannot afford to buy provisions at market price in treasury notes six months to come, with any expectation of ever redeeming][2]

<13>

their issues dollar for dollar in specie, and to continue to issue them [treasury notes] with this semblance of integrity of purpose will but result in greater mischief in the end.

The tithe therefore should be & should have been husbanded & guarded as gold. Not a grain of corn or blade of grass should have been wasted or lost or misapplied.

Our production of provisions this year will be greatly lessened from another cause., That is the general derangement of labor and the management of large planting interests as well as small under the last military act. The uncertainty of whether parties could get what is called details [ie working parties] has caused many to make arrangements to suit themselves. Many have gone into the army, rather than <14> be conscripted. Many plantations have been virtually abandoned to the negroes without any suitable superintendent. Many persons still at home under the uncertainty of getting details are failing to plant their usual crops. And the bare absence from home at this season of the year in going to & returning from camp to present their papers and to look after them will tell upon the crops even if they should ultimately be detailed. I speak of what I see around me. And dont for a moment suppose I am saying this to you with any other aim than to present a fact which is important for you to know. What is the case here it is reasonable to suppose is the case elsewhere. In my judgment this organization of <15> what is now called the reserve force is almost a farce. It would be indeed a farce if it were not for the serious consequences attending it. There will hardly be as many able bodied men sent to the army under its operation as there are useless drones and consumers engaged in it. As a reserved corps to be relied on in emergency the State Militia organization would have been much more efficient and the agricultural or other interests would not have been so much deranged by relying on that. But enough of this. I find I am writing much more than I intended when I set out. What I have said is with great freedom & frankness and with a profound sense of the great interest at stake. I trust you will receive it for what it is worth simply as a matter of opinion & judgment and as from one <16> friend to another conversing together upon questions in which each feels a like interest.

I hope to be in Richmond soon when I can personally confer more at large upon these and kindred questions if it be agreeable to you. I am at present detained on some business connected with the public service. I hope to be able to leave in a few days. My health is much better though not yet restored to its usual standard.

With sentiments of high esteem, I remain yours most respectfully

                                                                        Alexander H. Stephens


[1] Alexander H. Stephens, “Speech on the State of the Confederacy,” March 16, 1864, in Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens in Public and Private, 761-86.

[2] Missing text supplied from Henry Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens in Public and Private: With Letters and Speeches, Before, During, and Since the War (Philadelphia: National Publishing Company, 1866), 787-89.


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