Author Interview--Adrian Brettle (Confederate Imaginations with the Federals in the Postwar Order)

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar readers,

today we feature Adrian Brettle to talk about his new article in Civil War History, “Confederate Imaginations with the Federals in the Postwar Order.”

Adrian Brettle is currently a lecturer at Arizona State University. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia. He is currently working on A Vastly Different World: Confederate Ambitious Planning for a Postwar Global Role.

Adrian, to start could you tell our readers what your article's argument is and what made you decided to pursue this subject?

AB: I contend in the article that various politicians, diplomats, businessmen, and journalists in the Confederacy thought and planned a great deal about the relationship between their nation and the Union during the last year of the war. They spent their time on this subject not because they considered the Confederacy heading to defeat but rather, they believed that peace with the United States was approaching. Fundamentally, many Confederates were so confident that Lincoln would fail of reelection in 1864 that they debated how magnanimous they should be in extending peace to a hapless Union. As well as the extremes of outright independence with hostility or conquest with submission there were, these individuals believed, a range of alternative outcomes arising from any negotiation between the Confederacy and the United States. Although falling short of the ideal for these would be negotiators, they considered these ideas to be appealing not only to Confederates but also many Federals. They discounted Lincoln’s commitment to reunion and emancipation as simply a bargaining ploy. These scenarios included the following: various ideas for alliances and pacts between the two nations; a broader reconfiguration of North America involving British Canada and Mexico and the fragmentation of former United States into at least three nations; the reconstruction of the Union via another constitutional convention into a looser confederation, looking not only to the Articles of Confederation, but also European models of confederated states; and the restoration of the antebellum Union. In all of these alternatives, leading Confederates would retain a form of slavery across the South on which their social and economic position depended.
I wanted to write this article to draw attention to a couple of things. Firstly, as an example of surprising and creative thinking in a time of duress and that in their planning for independence, Confederates remarkably envisioned achieving a concert with their Yankee wartime enemies in world affairs, especially in upholding the Monroe Doctrine. This sensibility shows a striking continuity with broader nineteenth century United States history. Secondly, we historians tend to focus on the importance of past and present to people who fought the Civil War and not the future other than as an abstract dream. But many Confederates thought about the future a great deal and never in so concrete a manner as during the first nine months of 1864 when the immediate prospect of a Confederate nation appeared tantalizingly close. The imminence of peace would mean leading Confederates would have to clarify and, they considered, realistically compromise over the relationship with what would be their nation’s closest neighbor and largest trading partner, the United States.

It is indeed interesting how the Confederacy remained hopeful of victory in 1864. You mention the conversation about potential secession among the Old Northwestern states or invocation of the Monroe Doctrine against the monarchy in Mexico. How much was this delusion or wishful thinking on the part of the Confederate government? Were there any indications that these plans were realistic, especially secession in the Old Northwest?

AB: The issue of Midwestern separatism is an interesting one. Recent scholarship on the Copperhead Democrats has shown them—in their resistance to emancipation, conscription, and other erosions to their liberties—to be a significant force in the politics of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. However, they were not secessionist in their opposition to Lincoln and the Republican Party, just the more radical wing of the unionist Peace Democrats. Confederates, however, observing events from further south, deduced otherwise. Undoubtedly, they understood what they wanted to understand and saw what they wanted to see. These individuals thought it was realistic to presume—however erroneously this view was in hindsight—that many conspirators organized in secret societies across the Midwest were poised for secession. Confederates came to this conclusion based on the anecdotal information in papers and pamphlets that came south. They explained away the inaction on the part of these would-be secessionists, not as a result of Midwesterners’ incapacity and unionism, but due to the military failure of the Confederates themselves. If only their armies launched more raids into Kentucky and Missouri, or had shown greater defensive vigor in Georgia and Virginia. Some such a contingent event, just around the corner, they believed, would bring the numerous Midwest rebels out from hiding and by sheer numbers overthrow the regressive tyranny of Lincoln.
The portrayal of the policy of the Republican Party as regressive was important. Confederates, especially in the Congress, believed they were ahead of their times in terms of the vision they had for North America. Moreover, this future would especially appeal to these disgruntled Midwesterners. Confederates looked to what they thought was happening in Europe, with the expansion of customs unions, proliferation of commercial pacts lowering tariffs, and—especially—the elimination of tolls on international rivers such as the Rhine and Danube. The reward for the formation of a northwest confederacy would be toll-free access to the Mississippi and access to world markets under the banner of free trade. Commerce would, Confederates believed, resume its north-south orientation as a result of this new political order, combined with the Morrill tariff discouraging trade with and via the United States.
There was a final dose of realism in how Confederates understood the independence of the Midwest. By 1864, diplomats and politicians believed in the need for a balance of power structure in North America to contain U.S. aggression. On its own, they recognized that the Confederacy was insufficient as a barrier to hold back the growth of the Union and would need allies, including British North America, Mexico, a northwestern confederacy and (even) a Pacific Ocean confederacy to restore stability to the continent. With such a constellation of forces these individuals believed, the Confederacy would be able to preserve its independence and slavery from its powerful neighbor and moreover the cause of republicanism for the world.
After Lincoln’s reelection had dashed hopes for Midwestern separatism, other future possibilities for the Confederacy, less prominent earlier, reemerged. Some Confederates, including Jefferson Davis—not necessarily reluctantly—prepared to offer the Confederacy as a junior partner in an alleged U.S. plan for hemispheric domination and overthrow of monarchical institutions, especially the imperial regime in Mexico. Again, these individuals considered this a realistic evaluation of Union power and intentions that they had witnessed at City Point, Virginia, and elsewhere. They considered that the Lincoln administration would cease attempts to subjugate the South in exchange for some kind of bargain or compromise. A commitment to expansion offered more than a way to divert Federal ambition; it also promised—as argued all the way back to the Federalist Papers--a kind of union Confederates might tolerate. An expansive republic would enable a greater degree of sectional and state autonomy than to be had in a limited “saturated” state. By early 1865, both president and vice president had committed themselves to this goal. For Davis, expansion to Panama dominated his recollection of the meeting he had with Francis P. Blair. Meanwhile, Alexander H. Stephens repeatedly raised the Mexican plan to Lincoln and Seward at Hampton Roads. Lincoln’s denial might have been definitive as far as he was concerned; but the only Confederate commissioner to that conference to go public afterward, Robert Hunter, had a different recollection. Back in Richmond in early February 1865, he continued to extoll the importance of southern expansion in the future; but implied that this might also be necessary in order to encourage African American migration, given the uncertainty that now shrouded the future of slavery.

You are raising an interesting point with these hemispheric plans. Matt Karp recently told us that Southern political leaders tried a hemispheric approach in the Antebellum, did these dreams continue on to the Confederacy?

AB: Karp’s book is important in that it provides the context for us to understand this sense of Confederate ambition, and significance in the world. These individuals self-consciously recollected their dominance of the Federal government and their success in directing its policies toward hemispheric domination, proslavery orientation, and navalism. Yet they also remembered the frustrations and especially harbored a sense of betrayal arising from the events of 1858-60, from Stephen A. Douglas’s Freeport doctrine to Lincoln’s election. As a result, in 1864, it was chiefly northern Democrat correspondents who believed that a southern-dominated union could be restored. Confederates did not find George B. McClellan a convincing ‘doughface.’ Hemispheric plans would be, as they had decided back in 1860-1, best achieved via an independent Confederacy. To be sure, there were differences of opinion within the Davis administration and Congress about the admission of free states into their union. Davis favored an exclusive Confederacy, while Stephens, Henry S. Foote, and others favored a more lenient policy. They remained in agreement about the nation’s future being one of dominance in the western hemisphere.
If Confederates demonstrated a surprising continuity in expansionist thought, what had changed by 1864 was their increasing conviction that the Republican Party had also embraced an ambitious agenda of hemispheric domination. Confederates always knew that Secretary Seward harbored grandiose plans. However, it was the opposition of U.S. congressmen to Maximilian’s French-backed imperial regime in Mexico that alerted them to a more general aggressive impulse north of the border during the spring of 1864. The Monroe Doctrine suddenly became fashionable. As the year wore on, the belief grew that the huge war effort of the United States was geared toward more than the subjugation of the Confederacy. The vast army and navy would shortly be turned on Britain and France. Perhaps, this northern colossus also realized it no longer needed southern leadership, wealth, and raw materials to be a great power and that this insight now opened the way to Confederate independence. Hence the various proposals for alliances, pacts to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, and joint plans for expansion in order to achieve common objectives of hemispheric domination and the triumph of republican self-government.

How do you see your article contribute to Civil War conversations? How will it change our perception of the war, peace, reconciliation, and reconstruction?

This article is part of my larger work: “A Vastly Different World”: Confederate Planning for a Postwar Global Role, which will be published by the Virginia University Press in 2020. This book will deconstruct Confederate long-range planning for peace as an independent country over the course of the Civil War, virtually season-by-season, if not month-by-month—with all the variances and contradictions (and often vagueness) this strategic thinking naturally entailed—and that takes account within a very nuanced narrative both of government officials bearing the responsibility for planning and the anticipations of private citizens.
Let me summarize some of the article’s most important arguments: (1) that many Confederates continued planning for a postwar independent nationhood, and continued doing so as late as the late fall of 1864; (2) that in their planning for independence, Confederates remarkably envisioned achieving a concert with their Yankee wartime enemies in world affairs, especially in upholding the Monroe Doctrine; (3) that despite wartime blows to their slave labor system, Confederates expected slavery to recover in peacetime and that their economy would continue to revolve around coercive labor.
The article also has some fascinating specifics such as on divergent Confederate perspectives regarding prospective relations with the Old Northwest as compared to New England, and fluctuating Confederate attitudes on relations and trade with Mexico. Confederates hoped for plebiscites in border slave states to determine their postwar affiliations. They were so confident that Lincoln would fail of reelection in 1864 that they debated how magnanimous they should be in extending peace to a hapless Union. Finally, these Confederate planners used the German Confederation and Zollverein, as well as American examples, for postwar models for a lasting peace with the United States.

Looking forward to the postwar relations with the United States, I think that the persistence and continuity of these delusions enable us to understand the shock and bewilderment that many Confederates expressed when it dawned on them that the Federal government would not, after all, negotiate a settlement with the Confederacy. I consider that a sense of disgrace exerted a powerful influence on the conduct of ex-Confederates. There was no quick transition to white supremacy at home and expansionism abroad during Reconstruction. Their various reactions: from self-pity and isolationism, to defiance and anger, reflect the sudden loss of that astonishing degree of coherence and unity that, until even as late as mid-April, led many to believe that a compromise would be achieved between a sectional, confederate entity and the Union.

Adrian, thank you for this enlightening conversation and for taking the time to share some aspects of your article with us here on H-CivWar.