Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“The Confederacy died primarily of gangrene.”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on January 29, 2015

In a discussion on another forum on the effectiveness of Confederate ironclads, my colleague Mark Jenkins made an argument that, over the course of a long war, it was a lack of internal development that doomed the southern cause:


Hindsight is 20/20… or at least clearer than foresight.

I subscribe to the theory that the Confederacy died primarily of “gangrene,” of a lack of circulation, due to the breakdown of the transportation network and infrastructure, leading to supply and morale problems. It’s been fairly well documented that, as a whole, the Confederacy was still mostly self-sufficient in terms of foodstuffs even into 1865, yet there were documented cases of food riots and soldiers going on extremely short rations. It wasn’t because the Confederacy couldn’t produce enough food; it was because the food wasn’t getting to where it needed to be.

The prewar transportation system in the Confederacy, while more advanced than a large part of the world, was still not quite sufficient to needs… there was an incomplete railroad network, the railroads themselves were somewhat less than completely efficient due to items such as different gauges (widths) of track and the fact that, in most cases, railways stopped at cities and started again on the other side, requiring transshipment of goods from one side of the city to the other. In most places, this inadequate railroad network was necessarily supplemented to a large degree by river and coastal transport by small freighters (as it had been since before the railroads).

One of the important but less-heralded effects of the blockade was (completely apart from its effects on imports and exports to the Confederacy) to significantly hamper or stop the coasting trade; where before, it was possible to either ship something from (say) Mobile to Savannah by either boat or by railroad, now it was more constrained to the railroads; and this at a time when the demands on the railroads were increasing due to wartime activities.

On top of this, there was real pressure to divert iron from making and repairing the railroads to other uses, like guns, ammunition, and ironclads; even to the extent of taking up existing railroad tracks. That, in essence, is spending your principal– eating your seed corn.

So, there’s a line of thought that indicates that the Confederacy should have exerted more of an effort in maintaining and reinforcing its transportation infrastructure, particularly the railroads, and that it should have taken precedence over ironclad construction and the like, rather than the other way around. I’m not certain it would have been enough, though.


Personally I don’t see forgoing the construction of ironclads as a realistic option for the Confederacy; although their ironclads didn’t accomplish much in open battle, their mere presence at places like Charleston and on the James River below Richmond were a deterrent factor for Union strategists planning operations against those points during the latter half of the war. Those squadrons were localized “fleets in being” that significantly complicated things for the Federals and undoubtedly slowed their advance. I can’t say “they prolonged the war by X months,” but they were absolutely part of the Confederacy’s ability to hold out in those locations.

Mark is quick to point out that his observation is not entirely original, and in fact is a synthesis of much that he’s read. Fair enough, but there’s a lot of clarity and substance in his phrasing, and he makes a solid point.

What do you think?





5 Responses

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  1. James F. Epperson said, on January 29, 2015 at 7:56 am

    The coasting trade argument is very sound, IMO. I first read it in a minor book on wartime economics (by David G. Surdam— The general point about infrastructure collapse is also a good one. The point you raise, Andy, comes down to the essential weakness of the Confederacy: They had to choose between building ships capable of dealing with the Federal Navy, on the one hand, or shoring up their own RRs. What they really needed to do was both, but they couldn’t.

  2. SF Walker said, on January 29, 2015 at 3:52 pm

    I think Mark has pretty much hit the nail on the head. It’s important to remember that railroads in the Deep South were generally designed to ship goods from the interior to the ports more than anything else; I think that largely explains why many rail lines stopped at certain cities rather than continuing through them and linking multiple Southern cities together. I read somewhere that in 1861 Jefferson Davis’s train had to go clear through Tennessee in order to get him to Montgomery, Alabama from Mississippi, because there was no line connecting Selma and Montgomery.

  3. Foxessa said, on January 31, 2015 at 11:47 am

    I would agree with his synthesis. But the problems of communications and transport infrastructure go back at least as far as even before Calhoun became a nullifier. Unitl his dust-up with Andrew Jackson made it impossible for him to ever gain the Presidency, the South Carolina politician was onboard with Henry Clay’s “American System.” This was to be a combined state and federal program of canals, bridges and roads. But the South in general blocked the passage for funding any such public good project just as it blocked anything else that would use tax money to fund anything for the public good, including education, on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. Well, mostly they also then, as now too, believed taxes unconstitutional. Nothing has changed since then.

    So up north they were always busy building, inventing, improving, expanding communications and transport, while the south, dominated by the planter aristocracy bent everything toward protectionism of its slave-based economy — and that included active discouragement of manufacturing that was financed out of the north. Better transport and communications would also assist their labor to escape. Jim Crow was the exactly the same: the planter aristocracy only interest was in cheap agriculture labor, so again the discouragement of public funding of anything. Also, public funding that came from the federal government meant party patronage, without local control. As it once was, so it remains to this very day, in states like Mississippi, “The Most Southern Place on Earth,” — and now thanks to these policies, the black flight out of the Great Migration is now the white flight out because of lousy economy.

    Love, C.

  4. H. E. Parmer said, on February 2, 2015 at 4:34 pm

    In terms of Union ships sunk or damaged, torpedoes were far more effective than ironclads, and far less resource-intensive. Of course, sooner or later the Confederates would have needed ironclads if they were to have any hope of raising the blockade unaided. Makes you wonder, though, what might have happened if they’d relied more on mines and torpedo boats for harbor and river defense, and spent a little more time working the kinks out of their ironclad designs, or at least trying to come up with/import more reliable power plants, while they improved their infrastructure. Yeah, yeah, I know: we’re talking about the South, in the mid-19th Century. Not bloody likely.

    • SF Walker said, on February 2, 2015 at 5:15 pm

      The South paid a dear price for its aristocracy’s continuous rejection of the Industrial Revolution. With the few foundries, rolling mills, and engine/boiler shops it had on hand, building powerful and reliable steam engines were an impossibility for the Confederates. They actually had to dismantle railroad sidings to replace damage done to its main railroad lines during the war. Then there’s the issue of the Confederate economy, or lack thereof. By the end of the war, the CS government owed the Georgia Railroad alone about $750,000 in hauling fees that it couldn’t pay. The CSA’s lack of specie and a sound currency compounded all its other problems.

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