Discussion The Confederacy's Fatal Mistake.

Rhea Cole

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The Confederacy's Fatal Mistake
March is the month that Lincoln was inaugurated for the first time. It is also the month that marks the manifestation of the Confederacy's fatal mistake. The South Carolina hot heads had tried on the secession thing on Andrew Jackson... he threatened to start hanging traitors as he crossed the border & keep at it until his horse stepped into salt water. Not even the South Carolina hot heads were out to lunch enough to not take Jackson at his word. President James Buchanan, on the other hand, was the perfect victim of their bully boy tactics. Look at it from their perspective, Buchanan was an empty suit & Lincoln was just a country lawyer from Illinois. It was a perfect opportunity.

Step one was to shower media outlets with lies about what an extremist Lincoln was. Then, having created the straw man, they went on to create a myth of victimhood. Lincoln's going to free your slaves! Lincoln wants our daughters are going to date black boys! The god given right of white men to hold black human beings as property is going to be taken away by Lincoln! I will not quote the extreme & obscene characterizations of Lincoln that filled the pages of Southern newspapers. Having created a ten foot tall ape like bug-a-boo, South Carolina & many other states used that straw man as their excuse for seceding. After all, what had they to fear from a country bumpkin lawyer who had never held office for more than a single term years ago.

Who can argue with their logic? The poor man was going to be sworn in with secession an accomplished fact. The Yankees couldn't fight & surely would not rally to a goof like Lincoln's call to arms. Everybody knew that the slaves were loyal, loved their masters & in any case were constitutionally incapable of independent thought or action. During the brief time it would take for superior Southern manhood to dispatch the Yankee shopkeepers, the loyal slaves would gladly hold down the fort at home. Neighbors who did not own slaves would be honor bound to fight to the last ditch to protect the property rights of their more fortunate neighbors. Everybody knew all this to be true.

On the face of it in March 1861, who would bet on Lincoln being able to cope with the fire hot drive for secession? There was absolutely nothing in his background to indicate that he was anything but a run of the mill Western deal making politician. The exhalation amongst the South Carolina hot heads & secessionists was one long hosanna to the highest. Their time had come at last & this ape like bumpkin was not going to get in their way. Of course, we know differently.

They had made a fatal strategic mistake of the first order. Even before he assumed power, Lincoln was writing letters & gathering his supporters. A mob of men surrounded Lincoln who were absolutely convinced that they could do a better job than Lincoln any day & only sought to make him their puppet. Generals with delusions of grandeur like MacClellan treated him with sneering disrespect. How & from where Lincoln gathered the intellectual & moral strength to reign them all in is unknowable. From what inner wellspring he gathered the spirit to grow exponentially as a Commander & Chief is unknowable.

The one thing that is knowable is that the secessionists made a profound, fatal strategic mistake when they underestimated Lincoln. The one thing they though they knew for sure turned out to be the one thing that guaranteed they would fail... history is an amazing thing, don't you know?
 
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19thGeorgia

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None of the secession documents (what we're always told to read) call Lincoln a Bumpkin. The primary objection to Lincoln was that he represented only one part of the country and was elected purely along sectional lines. Even so...

Country Bumpkin Lincoln and the Blockade...

James Lorimer, Studies National and International, 42-43:

...the blockade, it seems, was a mistake; I do not mean a mistake of policy, but a mistake of ignorance and want of thought. "When the war broke out," says Mr. Thaddeus Stevens, the venerable President of the Chamber of Representatives, "my opinion was that it ought to be treated as a simple rebellion, and that all those who took part in it ought to be considered as traitors against the Government of the United States. It was thus that Congress understood it; and I supposed that Mr. Lincoln and his Cabinet understood it in the same way. After the termination of the first session of Congress which took place under Mr. Lincoln's presidency, and very shortly after my return home, I read, to my great surprise, a proclamation, declaring the blockade of the rebel ports. It was a gross mistake, and an absurdity. If the rebel states were still part of the Union, and only in revolt against the Government, we were establishing a blockade against ourselves; we were blockading the ports of the United States. I immediately attributed the affair to the incomprehensible policy of Mr. Seward, and set off for Washington to see the President, Lincoln, and speak to him on the subject. I explained to him my view of the matter. I said to him that the blockade annihilated the position originally taken up by the Government with reference to the rebel States; that the ports, in place of being blockaded, ought to have been shut; and that all that was requisite was to have armed a sufficient number of the vessels of the coastguard to prevent contraband. I explained to him that by the mere fact of the blockade we recognised in the rebel States the character of independent belligerents, and that we should henceforth be forced to conduct the war not as if we were extinguishing a revolt, but with all the formalities of international law.

"' You are quite right,' Mr. Lincoln said, after hearing me out, 'I see the distinction now. But I knew nothing about international law, and I thought we were quite en regle [in order].'

"' As an advocate, Mr. Lincoln,' I said to him, 'I should have expected the difficulty at once to present itself to your mind.'

"' The reason, don't you see,' replied Mr. Lincoln, 'is this. I was a pretty fair advocate in one of our Western Courts; but we have very little international law down there. I thought Seward had been up to all that sort of thing, so I let him have his way. It's done now, and we can't help it. We must make the best we can of it.'

"In that Mr. Lincoln was right. The mistake was made, and the rebel States from that time were an independent belligerent, —I don't say, mind you, an independent nation,—but certainly an independent belligerent, whom it was necessary to treat according to the rules of international law."
 
Country Bumpkin Lincoln and the Blockade...



"' You are quite right,' Mr. Lincoln said, after hearing me out, 'I see the distinction now. But I knew nothing about international law, and I thought we were quite en regle [in order].'

"' As an advocate, Mr. Lincoln,' I said to him, 'I should have expected the difficulty at once to present itself to your mind.'

"' The reason, don't you see,' replied Mr. Lincoln, 'is this. I was a pretty fair advocate in one of our Western Courts; but we have very little international law down there. I thought Seward had been up to all that sort of thing, so I let him have his way. It's done now, and we can't help it. We must make the best we can of it.'

"In that Mr. Lincoln was right. The mistake was made, and the rebel States from that time were an independent belligerent, —I don't say, mind you, an independent nation,—but certainly an independent belligerent, whom it was necessary to treat according to the rules of international law."
Lincoln's blundering by declaring a blockade rather than port closures is also the way I have always understood what happened but author David Herbert Donald claims that Lincoln was against closing the Southern ports because he felt that other nations would attempt to violate a port closure and the infractions would lead to war with them. Against the advice of Charles Sumner and Navy Secretary Welles, he chose to blockade instead:

"Lincoln's view of the war as simply a domestic insurrection was also contradicted by the naval blockade he imposed on Southern ports. As both Secretary Welles and Charles Sumner advised, under international law his proper course was to close all Southern ports. A blockade was an instrument of war between two belligerent powers; by imposing it, the President was tacitly recognizing the Confederacy as a belligerent. But Lincoln was convinced that an order closing the ports would be repeatedly tested by foreign vessels and that conflict with the European naval powers would result, and he ordered the blockade. Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Pennsylvania Republicans, ridiculed this as 'a great blunder and absurdity' because in legal terms it meant 'we were blockading ourselves.' When he angrily confronted the President over this issue, Lincoln put on his best simple-countryman air and said, 'I don't know anything about the law of nations, and I thought it was all right.'
"'As a lawyer, Mr. Lincoln,' Stevens remarked, 'I should have supposed you would have seen the difficulty at once.'
'Oh, well,' the President replied, 'I'm a good enough lawyer in a Western law court, I suppose, but we don't practice the law of nations up there, and I supposed Seward knew all about it, and I left it to him.' 'But it's done now and can't be helped,' he added to Stevens's fury, 'so we must get along as well as we can.'"
LINCOLN, David Herbert Donald, pp. 302-303
 

Don Dixon

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Lincoln was a whole lot sharper than you think he was.

On 19 April 1861 Lincoln declared a naval blockade of the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. On April 27th, the blockade was extended by a second proclamation to the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina. Under international law a national executive faced with an insurrection customarily declared the ports in the area covered by the insurrection to be closed, and enforced the closure with the naval forces at his command. The closure conferred no recognition of belligerency on the insurrectionists. The problem in this case was that ships captured under a port closure would have been taken by prize crews to a Federal port, and the ship’s crew and passengers would have been tried in the local criminal court for violating the President’s closure proclamation. There was no set of internationally recognized rules for this situation, and there could have been considerable variance in the actions of different Federal district courts.

One declared a blockade of the coast of an enemy belligerent in a conflict of international rather than national character. There were well established international rules regarding the handling of ships, crew, and passengers, in a blockade. The captured ship would be taken to a port by a prize crew, the ship and cargo would be condemned in a prize court, and the neutral members of the crew and passengers released. But, since Lincoln insisted that the southern states remained part of the United States, the proclamation of a Federal blockade was problematic in a strictly international legal sense.

Secretary of State Seward informally floated the idea of a port closure at a diner for foreign diplomats in Washington in March 1861. The ministers objected strenuously to a port closure, particularly Viscount Richard Lyons, the British minister to the United States from 1859 to 1865. Lyons indicated that if the United States attempted to stop British commerce with the southern cotton producing states by force it might lead to British recognition of the Confederacy. Lyons indicated that the British would find a blockade much less objectionable than a port closure because the “rules of a blockade are to a great extent determined and known.” Lyons also clearly understood that at that time the tiny U.S. Navy could not conduct the effective blockade that was required under international law. In fact, the Navy did not have enough ships or sailors to mount a legally effective blockade until mid to late 1864.

Lyons’ discussion with Secretary Seward was subsequently supported by Lord John Russell, the British Foreign Minister from 1859 to 1865. On 19 July 1861 Russell wrote to Lyons: “It is impossible for Her Majesty’s Government to admit that the President or Congress of the United States can at one and the same time exercise the belligerent rights of blockade and the municipal right of closing ports in the South…An assumed right to close any ports in the hand of insurgents would imply a right to stop vessels on the high seas without instituting an effective blockade. This would be a manifest evasion of the necessity of blockade in order to close an enemy’s port. Neutral vessels would be excluded where no force exists in the neighborhood of the port sufficient to carry that exclusion into effect. Maritime nations would not submit to this excess under pretence of the rights of sovereignty…Her Majesty’s Government would consider a decree closing the ports of the South actually in the possession of the insurgent or Confederate States as null and void, and they would not submit to measures taken on the high seas in pursuance of such a decree.” Thus, Lincoln’s declaration of a blockade rather than declaring the southern ports closed had the effect of reducing possible naval conflict with Great Britain.

With Lincoln appearing to recognize the belligerency of the Confederacy through the declaration of a blockade, the Federal government had no leverage when foreign governments recognized that a state of belligerency existed between the Federal and Confederate governments. On 13 May 1861 Britain recognized the blockade and ordered British ships to respect it, declaring the British government’s intent to maintain strict and impartial neutrality “between the Government of the United States and certain States styling themselves the Confederate States of America.” In response, Secretary of State William H. Seward drafted in intemperate note to the British which Lincoln toned down before it was issued. Given Seward’s prior coordination with Lord Lyons, the note appears to have been simple diplomatic puffery for a northern audience.

The declaration of a blockade made a number of American observers furious, including members of Lincoln’s own cabinet; particularly Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells, who knew that he did not have enough ships to enforce an effective blockade. When Lincoln saw Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA), the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a staunch abolitionist, Stevens complained that Lincoln’s proclamation had committed the United States “to conduct the war, not as if we were suppressing a revolt in our own states, but in accordance with the law of nations.” Lincoln, self-deprecatingly and without acknowledging Secretary of State Seward’s coordination with Lord Lyons, responded “I see the point now, but I don’t know anything about the law of nations, and I thought it was all right.” Lincoln went on “I’m a good enough lawyer in a Western law court, I suppose, but we don’t practice the law of nations up there, and I supposed Seward knew all about it, and I left it to him. But, it’s done now and can’t be helped, so we must get along as well as we can.”

The declaration of a blockade gave the Federal navy the right to stop and search neutral shipping on the high seas and to seize vessels found to be carrying contraband; a right which had historically been opposed by the United States, and which had been one of the contributing factors to the War of 1812. On 19 April 1861 President Davis had issued a proclamation inviting applications for Letters of Marque and Reprisal to be granted by the Confederate government against United States ships and property. A Letter of Marque legalized piracy by authorizing private citizens to fit out a privately owned man of war to capture enemy shipping; including outfitting the ship with suitable heavy naval ordnance. As part of its recognition of the blockade, the British government issued an order on 1 June 1861 forbidding British and Imperial port authorities from admitting prizes seized by Confederate privateers. The Spanish, French, and Egyptians followed suit. This action cut the legs out from under Confederate privateering, served to protect Federal shipping, and was consistent with Great Britain’s status as a signatory of the Treaty of Paris, which forbade privateering.

Father Abraham was the sharpest pencil in the box.

Regards,
Don Dixon
 

jackt62

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For sure, the Confederacy's fatal mistake was a total lack of understanding as to Lincoln and his intentions. The southern fire-eaters were accustomed to dealing with a string of complacent Democratic Presidents throughout the 1850's including Pierce and Buchanan who, while being northern men, were very much in thrall to the so-called "slave" power. Buchanan famously accepted the LeCompton Constitution proposed by pro-slavery Kansas settlers, engaged in back door discussions with the SCOTUS that led to the Dred Scott decision, and while opposing a right of secession, would not use the affirmative powers of the federal government to contest it. So while the platform of the new Republican party under Lincoln was quite explicit in terms of resisting the expansion of slavery, southern secessionists were still locked in a paradigm that could not conceive of a strong northern response. Once Lincoln determined to uphold the Constitution with deeds, not simply words, the Confederacy was ultimately doomed. In the end, the movement for secession was governed by passion, not reason.
 

19thGeorgia

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...the British government issued an order on 1 June 1861 forbidding British and Imperial port authorities from admitting prizes seized by Confederate privateers. The Spanish, French, and Egyptians followed suit. This action cut the legs out from under Confederate privateering, served to protect Federal shipping [?]...

Father Abraham was the sharpest pencil in the box.

Regards,
Don Dixon
The end of Confederate privateering brought on the far more successful commerce raiding - frying pan into the fire.


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wausaubob

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Seward had been to England. And English investors were major stakeholders in the Illinois railroads. IL and WI were major potential sources of wheat, which would lower British dependence on Russian wheat.
Before the blockade was announced Seward and Lyons had already discussed: the US would have to withdraw from the African coast. The trans-Atlantic slave trade would revive if slave traders could hide from the British patrols under the US flag.
If Britain recognized the blockade, eventually the US would allow the British to stop and inspect US flagged ships suspected of being engaged in the slave trade.
As this diplomatic dance unfolded, by September it was clear that the Confederates were going to send Slidell and Mason to Europe to complain about the blockade and free up the ports for export of the 1861 cotton crop. Lincoln had to delay that until after the US established a blockade enclave at Port Royal and a permanent coaling station on Ship Island, MS. Seizing Slidell and Mason without taking the British ship to New York was a clear mistake and violation of international law. But it disguised how close was the cooperation between the US and Britain.
For awhile, Lincoln and Seward were fooling everyone. But then they discharged Slidell and Mason, and by March 1862 the Senate approved the right of inspection treaty, by a voice vote.
 
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Lubliner

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I have to agree with @Don Dixon concerning Lincoln. The idea often is kept close to the heart for the sole purpose of consolidating power. It is a fatal mistake, just as @Rhea Cole points out to have dismissed Lincoln by cajolery. In chess it is called the Fool's Gambit. Look at the final end of Lincoln and witness the power of intelligence. Paine, the assassin's accomplice was labeled a slow and mule-headed individual. Yet this description is very much the role of an actor that has no foundation of truth to back up his discretions. It is always best if you need the subtlety of a serpent or the slyness of a fox, to have the proper cause in heart. Why reward an adversary with silver only to have it melted into dross slag for weightiness? Unbalanced scales.
Lubliner.
 

Rhea Cole

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Capturing enemy ships and burning them doesn't provide much compensation for the crews of the Confederate raiders. And if traffic between NYC and Liverpool is not diminished, Confederate raiding has no affect on the US Civil War. It will create angry headlines though.
It also would have angered the British. The value of the trade between GB & the Union far exceed that of the blockade runners. Another factor is that Confederate raiders were that in name only. The ships, armament & crews were largely British. The Brits had a great deal to loose & very little to gain by an aggressive interdiction campaign.
 

wausaubob

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The political miscalculation seems to have been mainly about the depth of conservative, former Whig identification in Virginia and Kentucky. There is very little in the historical account of what the Confederates thought about how they were going to deal with this dissent in these two wealthy and diverse states.
They also seem to have misjudged the tenor of the Democratic opposition to Lincoln in NJ, NY and CT. The Democrats in those states seem to have been losing patience with the secessionists by 1857. The secessionists seem to have thought the pro south faction in the Democratic party in the north was the dominant faction. It wasn't. I think most Democrats thought their best chance to regain power was for the US to remain unified and the southern Democrats to take a back seat in the Democratic party.
 

GwilymT

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@Rhea Cole I think you summed it up nicely. As expected certain elements will show up to defend against anything they perceived as a knock on some notion of southern honor but your explanation fits the facts of the matter. The success of one rebel pirate commerce raider or the attempt to knock someone largely regarded as one of the best political minds in history not withstanding.
 
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wausaubob

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In messaging mistakes, announcing the approval of privateering, in April 1861, put the Confederates on the same side as pirates, and against the merchant governments of western Europe. This was joined with decrees of debt confiscation, which must have provoked Boston banks to laugh at their New York competitors. It was not the way for Confederates to win influence in NY. The British too, must have laughed at the Yankees, as the shoe was now on the other foot and the Yankees got to fit in the role formerly occupied by the British.
I am sure the Confederates needed the railroad engines and cars, but taking equipment from the Kentucky and Maryland railroads was a very short sighted approach to politics. The bill came due in 1863 when the US railroad industry played a very significant role in rationalizing the US logistical effort. It took time, but when the RR industry had the engines and the cars, and pre-fab units came pouring out of Pittsburgh, the Confederacy found themselves up against a third branch of the military. They were fighting the US army, the US navy, and the US railroad industry and all of its vendors.
 
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wausaubob

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The secessionists made two major military mistakes, both were understandable. They knew the US navy would be recalled, refitted and deployed. The secessionists fortified as many places as they could. They just under estimated how powerful the US navy would be. Steam vessels, equipped with artillery that could throw exploding shells as well as heavy shot, wearing temporary or permanent armor, were going to be a major innovation in that era. Although the Confederacy could build ironclad vessels, they could not compete with US in the power systems. Steam engines were complicated devices in that era. Designing, testing and maintaining steam engines required both engineers and practical mechanics and the US had the ability to hire both types of men.
The secessionist also misunderstood the demographic power in the 6 state region of IN, MI, IL, WI, IA, MN. This fast growing region with its dominance of working age men, turned out for the initial mobilization. Nobody knew how many men were in the 6 states, or how many would join the US services. But the army and navy grew so rapidly in that region that the 6 states swamped first Missouri, which tied in Kansas and the Nebraska territory, and then intimidated Kentucky decision makers. After about 6 months, the 6 states became 9 states and a potential state, and the Confederates never recovered their balance in the west.
 
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Rebforever

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Yep, Lincoln was shrewd all right. Created a secret attack on South Carolina and sent his war flotilla new all along he was going to get his war.
Created 2 confiscation acts so he could give passes to his buddies to steal cotton.
Yep, he a shrewd one all right. 😏
 
Yep, Lincoln was shrewd all right. Created a secret attack on South Carolina and sent his war flotilla new all along he was going to get his war.
Created 2 confiscation acts so he could give passes to his buddies to steal cotton.
Yep, he a shrewd one all right. 😏
Lincoln did not create the Confiscation Acts, in fact he was against both Acts threatening to veto them unless the Congress, who authored and passed them, removed some of what Lincoln believed were unconstitutional provisions in them.
 

Rhea Cole

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The secessionists made two major military mistakes, both were understandable. The knew the US navy would be recalled, refitted and deployed. The secessionists fortified as many places as they could. They just under estimated how powerful the US navy would be. Steam vessels, equipped with artillery that could throw exploding shells as well as heavy shot, wearing temporary or permanent armor, were going to be a major innovation in that era. Although the Confederacy could build ironclad vessels, they could not compete with US in the power systems. Steam engines were complicated devices in that era. Designing, testing and maintaining steam engines required both engineers and practical mechanics and the US had the ability to hire both types of men.
The secessionist also misunderstood the demographic power in the 6 state region of IN, MI, IL, WI, IA, MN. This fast growing region with its dominance of working age men, turned out for the initial mobilization. Nobody knew how many men were in the 6 state, or how many would join the US services. But the army and navy grew so rapidly in that region that the 6 states swamped first Missouri, which tied in Kansas and the Nebraska territory, and then intimidated Kentucky decision makers. After about 6 months, the 6 states became 9 states and a potential state, and the Confederates never recovered their balance in the west.
You make a good point about the Midwestern states. The sneering disrespect that was shown to the German & Norwegian immigrants of that area by secessionists can't be exaggerated. They really had taken prejudice to a extreme that is hard for a modern person to comprehend. A prominent local diarist drips venom on Germans, Norwegians (he didn't know exactly what they were, he hated them on sight) & of course USCT's. Reading the journals makes me wonder if they just plain hated anybody who was not exactly like them.
 

Rhea Cole

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I love the way these threads make me inquire into subjects that i never would have done on my own. I just read an article in the New York Times, October 2, 1861. It contains a statistical comparison of the trade with England 1860 vs 1861 was down 46%. Where as the trade between the U.S. (including the Southern States) was about 1/2 of what it had been, the exchange of bullion was decidedly in the favor of the U.S.

For the month August exports from Liverpool were $6,000,000 less than they were the year before. $2,250,000 vs $8,300,000. Ironically, while imports via the port of New York had fallen 50%, the exports had nearly doubled. As a result, the export of bullion to England to pay for imports, $55,000,000 was about 1/2 the $80,000,000 in bullion received in return.

The point is that the blockade of Southern cotton & other goods was a financial bonanza for the Union. Blockading the CSA ports bore economic fruit within months of the start of the war. The $135,000,000 in cotton exported to England was turned into $300,000,000 in exportable goods. The 50% drop in imports from English mills was more than made up with increases in domestic production.

I am astonished to report that Lincoln's order to blockade Southern ports was an unintended act of genius. Not only did it stimulate an exponential increase in domestic production, it completely flipped the balance of payments in bullion with Great Britain! No wonder I enjoy studying the Civil War so much. I am always finding out something new.
 
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