For the Good of the Whole

Arkansas Governor Harris Flanagin had written to Confederate President Jefferson Davis in January on behalf of his state’s representatives and constituents. Flanagin pressed upon the importance of the Mississippi River, both to Arkansas and the Confederacy. He also asked that troops from Arkansas and Missouri who were serving in other theaters be sent back to defend their home states.

Davis responded in April. He assured Flanagin, “The defense of the Mississippi River on both banks has been considered by me as of primary importance, and I can assure you that you cannot estimate more highly than I do the necessity of maintaining an unobstructed communication between the States that are separated by the river.” Davis considered the strongholds of Vicksburg and Port Hudson to be indispensable, and as such he wrote:

“If we succeed, as I have confidence we shall, in maintaining these two positions, we preserve the ability to furnish the munitions and ordnance stores necessary for the supply of the troops on the west bank, and to throw across the river adequate forces for meeting the enemy, if he should transfer his campaign from Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama to Arkansas and Louisiana.”

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit:

Regarding Flanagin’s request for more troops, Davis wrote that “we are sadly outnumbered on all our lines of defense… (though) it will be found that the disproportion between the opposing forces has been more largely against us on the eastern than on the western side. Yet, if we lose control of the eastern side the western must almost inevitably fall into the power of the enemy. The defense of the fortified places on the eastern bank is therefore regarded as the defense of Arkansas.”

Davis then explained the Confederate paradox that this new, decentralized nation had to rely on centralization in order to survive:

“Our safety–our very existence–depends on the complete blending of the military strength of all the states into one united body, to be used anywhere and everywhere as the exigencies of the contest may require for the good of the whole. The discipline and efficiency of our armies have been found to be far greater when the troops were separated from their homes, and thus delivered from the constant temptation to absent themselves from duty presented by proximity to their families.”

Davis pledged to do his best “to protect your State to the utmost extent of our ability,” and he hoped that the recent appointment of Lieutenant-General Edmund Kirby Smith to head the Trans-Mississippi Department would have a “good effect in satisfying the good people of your State, and supplies of arms and munitions will be constantly forwarded as rapidly as our resources and means of transportation will permit.”

Shortages of nearly every necessity began plaguing the Confederacy to the point of causing civil unrest and discontent. As a result of the Richmond “bread riot” and other similar incidents, South Carolina Governor Milledge L. Bonham asked legislators to enact measures halting the growing speculation and hoarding of flour, corn, bacon, and other staples.

A North Carolina woman wrote to Governor Zebulon Vance expressing the hardships that she and many other women and children endured on farms. She stated that “a crowd of we Poor wemen went to Greenesborough yesterday for something to eat as we had not a mouthful of meet nor bread in my house what did they do but put us in gail in plase of giveing us aney thing to eat… I have 6 little children and my husband in the armey and what am I to do?”

Several women wrote to Confederate officials begging for them to discharge their husbands from the military. One wife assured the secretary of war that her husband “is not able to do your government much good and he might do his children some good and thare is no use in keeping a man thare to kill him and leave widows and poore little orphen children to suffer while the rich has aplenty to work for them.”

The military draft was also becoming increasingly unpopular and unmanageable. Lieutenant-General D.H. Hill, commanding Confederates in North Carolina, wrote a letter to the War Department explaining that enforcement of the draft law in North Carolina was inefficient and corrupt. Confederate officials reported that in Virginia, the Confederate state with the highest population, the draft was netting just 700 recruits per month.

The Confederate Congress recognized the growing unrest as well as the fact that the war would not be won anytime soon. Members approved a resolution declaring that although “a strong impression prevails throughout the country that the war… may terminate during the present year,” the people should instead “look to prolonged war as the only condition proferred by the enemy short of subjugation.”

This contrasted with Davis’s January message to Congress (after the victories at Fredericksburg and Chickasaw Bayou, and before the consequences of the Battle of Stones River had come to light), in which he predicted that total victory would come soon. As such, he felt compelled to issue a proclamation to accompany the congressional resolution, addressed “To the People of the Confederate States.”

Davis conceded that he was “fully concurring in the views thus expressed by Congress,” but he urged the people to “point with just pride to the history of our young Confederacy… We must not forget, however, that the war is not yet ended, and that we are still confronted by powerful armies and threatened by numerous fleets… Your country, therefore, appeals to you to lay aside all thoughts of gain, and to devote yourself to securing your liberties, without which those gains would be valueless…”

Davis pointed out that the Federals had recently failed “to storm Vicksburg and Port Hudson,” which further proved Confederate superiority in the field. He then called on non-combatants to sacrifice even more for the war effort. He asked planters to grow vegetables for the troops rather than cotton or tobacco for profit: “Let your fields be devoted exclusively to the production of corn, oats, beans, peas, and other food for man and beast, and let all your efforts be directed to the prompt supply of these articles in the districts where our armies are operating.”

Focusing on shortages in the army rather than shortages among civilians, Davis stated, “The supply of meat for the Army is deficient. This deficiency is only temporary, for measures have been adopted which will, it is believed, soon enable us to restore the full ration.” Claiming that the Confederacy enjoyed a food surplus, Davis announced:

“Even if the surplus be less than is believed, is it not a bitter and humiliating reflection that those who remain at home, secure from hardship and protected from danger, should be in the enjoyment of abundance, and that their slaves also should have a full supply of food, while their sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers are stinted in the rations on which their health and efficiency depend?”

This focus on the amount of foodstuffs failed to recognize the real underlying problem for the Confederacy, which was the lack of transportation to get the food to where it was needed most. As such, the proclamation did little to either reduce the suffering among southerners or boost morale for the war effort.


  • Ballard, Michael B., Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi. The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
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