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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

cotton

The Incurable Optimism of the Confederacy

I've been posting blurbs from the 1862 Memphis Daily Appeal for several weeks now.  What strikes me over and over again is the tone of the articles -- offering hope in the face of defeat, determination to stay the course, and utter scorn for anyone who does not wholeheartedly support the war effort. None of that is surprising, of course, and some of it is mere whistling in the wind, as is this bit:

May 29, 1862
Letter from Corinth - First, all is quiet . . . Were it not for the wholesome respect which the Federals have for our prowess and position, they would have been upon us long ago; but thanks to our leaders and to our men, they have been taught a lesson of caution which they are not likely to forget. Halleck is advancing, but with a snail-like pace . . . I believe he honestly feels himself no match for Beauregard and Bragg. He knows that the steel was taken from a goodly portion of his army in the battle of Shiloh.

But the articles about burning cotton crops still shock most modern readers.  Here's this week's edition:

June 3, 1862
(10,000 bales of priceless cotton were stored in Memphis. Editorials in the APPEAL called for its burning since the river road to market was blocked by Union fleets above and below.)

Burn the Cotton / Yes, burn it! and why? Because every bale destroyed is as good as putting a man in the field. Because our implacable enemies want it. Because, if they get it, they thereby get the "sinews of war". . . Let the whole world see that we offer up a sacrifice of our most treasured goods on the shrine of our liberty, and attest thereby our devotion to the cause in which we are engaged. Burn the cotton.

A lengthier explanation of this policy also appeared in the Richmond Dispatch ()Mar. 4, 1862):

It is proper that some plan should be concerned in by the planters and the Government; but of one thing we are satisfied, and that is, that even in the absence of any plan, there is patriotism enough amongst the people to burn up all the cotton and tobacco that is likely to fall into the enemy's hands. It would be the most suicidal folly to permit the Yankees to get a single bale of cotton or a pound of tobacco that can be burned before he gets it — The people are all convinced of this, and will destroy all, if necessary. They will burn as the enemy approaches, and if he overruns the country, they will burn it all. But this noble spirit is the best sign that the enemy cannot overrun the country. A people ready to make such sacredness cannot be conquered — their country cannot be overrun by an invading army. Independent of the spirit of resistance such a people must exhibit, the fact that the enemy will only seize ashes and smouldering ruins, instead of the millions of dollars he expects to acquire by overrunning the land, will have a potent chest upon him. Nothing could be so delightful to his expectations as the appropriation to his own use of so much wealth that did not belong to him--nothing could a grieve and sadden his heart as to be deprived of it.

The burning of our staples will have another good effect. It will teach the people of Europe how much in earnest we are. They will understand from it that the South will never give up these staples to the Yankees, and that through their invasion the foreign manufactories can never be supplied with cotton. They will learn what a mistake they have made in respecting a blockade that is not efficient; but one that has deprived them of that cotton which may now be destroyed, and the destruction of which must greatly prolong and increase commercial and manufacturing embarrassments and distresses.

I've found ample evidence of this policy all over the South.  In coastal South Carolina, where I do most of my historical research, the cotton planters were forced to flee from a Union invasion in November, 1861. They had no time to burn the crop that was just waiting for harvest, but for months afterward, they came sneaking back in the middle of the night to try to torch the fields. The Union Army recognised the value of the cotton crop for its own war efforts and determined to get it safely harvested. This put them in an embarrassing and uncomfortable position. To harvest the cotton, they needed to get the slaves (whom they had come to free) back to work  in the principle occupation of slaves--hoeing, harvesting, and ginning cotton.. 

This is one of the dilemmas that will appear in my next historical novel, "The Road to Frogmore."