Sunday, December 15, 2013

December 15, 1863: James R. Chalmers to Jacob Thompson

Brigadier General James R. Chalmers, C.S. Army

On December 15, 1863, Confederate Brigadier General James R. Chalmers wrote to Confederate Inspector General Jacob Thompson about the practice of smuggling cotton into Union lines and trading with the enemy.
HEADQUARTERS CHALMERS' CAVALRY, Oxford, Miss., December 15, 1863.

Colonel JACOB THOMPSON, Oxford;

Your not of this date has just been received. I see no impropriety in my answering your questions and will do so with pleasure. I have heard before of the feeling to which you allude and regret that it should have arisen.

I do not know from whence the authority comes for military commanders to burn cotton, or to confiscate wagons and teams engaged in conveying goods from the enemy, but such power has been exercised by all the department commanders. That these orders should be regarded by our people on the border as unnecessarily oppressive is not strange, but my action in the premises is governed by positive orders from General Johnston, which I shall endeavor to enforce as long as I remain in his command and the orders are continued.

You ask for my views of the present condition of the country and I will give them as briefly as possible, but before doing so I will state that my mind has undergone a complete change on two important points.

At the commencement of the war I believed that foreign nations were so dependent upon our cotton that they would interfere and force a peace in order to obtain it, and was therefore in favor of burning our cotton rather than permit it to be thrown into the market; I now believe that this was a most ruinous and erroneous policy. When I came to this district I thought any man was a traitor who would sell cotton to the enemy for any purpose; I now believe that our people on the border who have been compelled to trade with the enemy for subsistence are more patriotic and more liberal to our soldiers than those in the interior, and that they have been greatly misrepresented by those who did not understand their condition. The people of De Soto County, for instance, have been abandoned by our army and left open to the raids of the enemy since the fall of Memphis in the number of 1862. They were unlike the people of Northern Virginia, who had been accustomed, to a great extent, to live within themselves, and were dependent upon their cotton crops to buy everything, both the luxuries and necessaries of life. They were cut off in the middle of summer without having made preparations for such an event. They could not at once make blankets, shoes, and clothing; they were not stock-raisers, and above all they could not make or obtain salt, without which they could not live and even if they could have purchased salt in the Confederacy, the railroads were occupied by the army and they could get no transportation for it. Under these circumstances they traded with the enemy, and the husbands, sons, and fathers in our army of the women in North Mississippi were supplied with many articles of clothing and comfort that came from the enemy's lines. Salt was obtained from the same source, and almost every pound of meat that our army consumed, from March until Vicksburg fell in July, was obtained from North Mississippi, and was cured by salt bought from the enemy. The people have cheerfully given up all they could spare to our army, reserving to themselves a bare subsistence, and while they have been doing all in their power for our soldiers, they have been literally burned up by both armies. Our people burned their cotton, the enemy burned their granaries and drove off their horses, mules, cattle, and negroes until many wealthy and patriotic families have been reduced to absolute want. These people must live; they are outside of our lines. Confederate money cannot buy for them the actual necessaries of life, and they have no means of obtaining them except with their cotton. If, then, their pittance of cotton is burned, their little cars, unfit for military use, and their oxen, too poor for beef, are seized by military orders, and then civil remedies to try the rightfulness of the seizure denied them, we may drive to desperation and disloyalty a people who have been true under every reverse of fortune, and when these orders have been enforced against old men and women who have trudged day and night through the mud to obtain a little salt, our soldiers have almost revolted at it.

A scene that I lately witnessed can best illustrate the point: A poor woman, whose husband was in the army, with seven small children to support, and an old gray-haired father seventy-five years of age, had struggled for means sufficient to buy one bale of cotton, took it to De Soto County and purchased salt and a few articles for family use. They were caught at Tallahatchie on their return, and, notwithstanding the most piteous and heart-broken grief, her goods and little truck cart with two oxen were ordered to be confiscated. Not a man present could restrain his emotion, and a generous officer present furnished her money to leave on.

You ask me "to make any suggestion as to the proper remedy." I believe that a trade should be opened, with proper restrictions, with men in the Federal lines.

If great success in the maintenance of a long protracted struggle is any test of wisdom, Frederick the Great was the wisest of military rulers, and he did not hesitate to trade with his enemy. We might profit from the lessons of history and a study of the character of our men. The Yankee was born for trade, and for a sufficient consideration would build boats to navigate on spring branches and bring us food and clothing for our naked and starving armies.

I have reason to believe that we could, last winter and spring, have corrupted the Yankee army and fed and clothed our own by a judicious use of cotton. British gold was one of England's most effective weapons in Revolutionary days and came near taking West Point, and I believe that Southern cotton could have saved Vicksburg when Southern arms were powerless to do so. I had many propositions made to me last spring to furnish provisions by the boat-load if it could be paid for in cotton, when we needed them so much to provide the garrison in Vicksburg against a siege.

Arms and ammunition could have been obtained in the same way, and I have reason to believe that one or more gun-boats could have been bought. We all know that cotton has failed to produce the political effect that was expected of it, and it would be folly to cling to an idea from consistency's sake. The enemy has and will, in spite of military surveillance, obtain large quantities of our cotton, and upon their own terms, if we attempt to suppress the trade entirely. But if our Government would regulate and control the trade-require articles of necessity to be delivered in our lines before the cotton was removed, and arrest all who attempt to trade in Federal notes, it would revive our currency and greatly lessen our expenses, while it would greatly enhance the comforts of our soldiers. Blankets, shoes, boots, hats, bacon, salt, and cotton-cards will be delivered in large quantities in our lines at one-tenth present prices if our quartermaster and commissaries were allowed to pay for them in cotton. I inclose to you an order on this subject that I prepared with great care, with I think does not conflict with the law, and which I think would have enabled us to control the trade. It was, however, disapproved by General Johnston and recalled.

I am, colonel, very respectfully, your obedient servant,




docinohio said...

very eloquently and persuasively written...obviously no one in power apparently responded in the affirmative did they??

docinohio said...

eloquently, effectively, and persuasively written reply....Did the good Colonel or anyone in the Confederate government agree with this cotton for necessities- even to the extent of weapons and means to sustain the fight against the Union. Even if it came to fruition, Grant and/or political leaders in North would have probably outlawed it similar to how grant stopped paroling prisoners after realizing it was prolonging the war and negating the numerical advantage of Northern manpower.

Staff said...

I was surprised to find that three books of "The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies" are devoted to "blockade runners," meaning trading across the lines with the enemy, not using ships through the Blockade. It is astonishing how much illicit trade went on.