December 7, 1863 – The fourth session of the First Confederate States Congress opened in Richmond.
The 1st Confederate National Flag | Image Credit: RussellHarrison.com
The members of Congress assembled amid very trying times for the Confederacy. The armies had suffered many setbacks (especially in the West), the blockade was strangling the economy, and foreign nations had yet to recognize Confederate independence. President Jefferson Davis submitted his annual message to Congress, which was read to both chambers on the 8th. In his message, Davis declared:
“Grave reverses befell our arms soon after your departure from Richmond. Early in July, our strongholds at Vicksburgh and Port Hudson, together with their entire garrisons, capitulated to the combined land and naval forces of the enemy. The important interior position of Jackson next fell into their temporary possession. Our unsuccessful assault on the post at Helena was followed, at a later period, by the invasion of Arkansas; and the retreat of our army from Little Rock gave to the enemy the control of the important valley in which it is situated.”
Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org
Despite this, Davis announced that Federal advances had “been checked,” and “the resolute spirit of the people soon overcame the despondency.” In particular, he applauded the ongoing efforts to maintain Charleston:
“The determined and successful defense of Charleston against the joint land and naval operations of the enemy, afforded an inspiring example of our ability to repel the attacks even of the iron-clad fleet, on which they chiefly rely…”
Trying to shine a positive light on the defeat at Gettysburg, Davis explained that General Robert E. Lee had been–
“… determined to meet the threatened advance on Richmond by forcing their armies to cross the Potomac and fight in defense of their own capital and homes. Transferring the battle-field to their own soil, he succeeded in compelling their rapid retreat from Virginia, and, in the hard-fought battle of Gettysburg, inflicted such severity of punishment as disabled them from early renewal of the campaign as originally projected.”
Davis congratulated the Army of Tennessee for its stunning victory at Chickamauga, which he called “one of the most brilliant and decisive victories of the war.” However, he lamented the subsequent defeat at Chattanooga:
“After a long and severe battle, in which great carnage was inflicted on him (the enemy), some of our troops inexplicably abandoned a position of great strength, and by a disorderly retreat compelled the commander to withdraw the forces elsewhere successful, and finally to retreat with his whole army to a position some 20 or 30 miles to the rear.”
Noting that the Confederacy had made no progress in obtaining foreign recognition, Davis accused Great Britain of duplicity because it declared neutrality but continued both trading with the United States and honoring the Federal blockade.
Davis addressed financial issues by proposing a restriction in the amount of Confederate paper money in circulation as a means to stem the widespread inflation and lower the cost of living. He also recommended tax increases to help finance the war effort.
Davis next reviewed the army’s condition:
“Though we have lost many of the best of our soldiers and most patriotic of our citizens–the sad and unavoidable result of the battles and toils of such a campaign as that which will render the year 1863 ever memorable in our annals, the army is believed to be, in all respects, in better condition than at any previous period of the war.”
The troops were “now veterans, familiar with danger, hardened by exposure, and confident in themselves and their officers.” According to Davis, the Confederate army “has not been equaled by any like number in the history of the war.” However, Davis acknowledged the growing problem of manpower shortages by stating that “no effort must be spared to add largely to our effective force as promptly as possible.” This should be done by–
“… putting an end to substitution, modifying the exemption law, restricting details, and placing in the ranks such of the able-bodied men now employed as wagoners, nurses, cooks, and other employees, as are doing service for which the negroes may be found competent.”
By replacing “not only enlisted cooks, but wagoners and other employees in the army, by negroes, it is hoped that the ranks of the army will be so strengthened for the ensuing campaign as to put at defiance the utmost efforts of the enemy.” As for the navy, Davis commended the sailors and seamen who did their best to defend the coast, from the James River to the Rio Grande.
Davis called attention to the Federal government’s “barbarous policy” of refusing to exchange prisoners of war (which was partly due to the Confederacy’s refusal to exchange black Federal troops), and the detention of Confederate troops in prison camps. Davis regretfully announced that the Confederacy would soon have to establish prison camps of their own to deal with the tens of thousands of prisoners that the Federals refused to exchange.
Davis condemned the Lincoln administration’s approval of mass destruction throughout the South:
“The frontier of our country bears witness to the alacrity and efficiency with which the general orders of the (Federals) have been executed in the devastation of farms, the destruction of the agricultural implements, the burning of the houses, and the plunder of everything movable.”
Although his administration had always demanded that Confederate forces refrain from attacking civilians on northern soil, Davis stated, “These considerations have been powerless to allay the unchristian hate of those who, long accustomed to draw large profits from a union with us, cannot control the rage excited by the conviction that they have by their own folly destroyed the richest sources of their prosperity.”
There seemed no hope for a negotiated peace that would end the war with Confederate independence because the Federals “refuse to listen to proposals for the only peace possible between us… We now know that the only reliable hope for peace is in the vigor of our resistance.”
Regretting “the savage ferocity which still marks the conduct of the enemy in the prosecution of the war,” Davis stated that the Federals’ wrath had been particularly severe against “the unfortunate negroes” because they “forced into the ranks of their army every able-bodied (black) man that they could seize, and have either left the aged, the women, and the children to perish by starvation, or have gathered them into camps, where they have been wasted by a frightful mortality.”
Davis argued that the Federals treated blacks in the South “with aversion and neglect,” and “in all localities where the enemy have gained a temporary foothold, the negroes, who under our care increased six fold in number since their importation into the colonies of Great Britain, will have been reduced by mortality during the war to not more than one half their previous number.” This information was supposedly provided by “the negroes who succeeded in escaping from the enemy.”
While acknowledging that “The hope last year entertained of an early termination of the war has not been realized,” Davis stated, “The patriotism of the people has proved equal to every sacrifice demanded by their country’s need.” He concluded: “God has blessed us with success disproportionate to our means and, under his divine favor, our labors must at last be crowned with the reward due to men who have given all they possess to the righteous defense of their inalienable rights, their homes, and their altars.”
In his annual report, Secretary of War James A. Seddon acknowledged having suffered major defeats, particularly in Mississippi, as well as dwindling army manpower due to combat, capture, illness, and desertion. Seddon seconded Davis by urging Congress to repeal the Conscription Act provisions that allowed for exemptions and the purchase of substitutes.
In late December, Congress responded by repealing the provisions allowing draftees to hire substitutes. The practice had been corrupted to the point that substitutes often deserted the army and sold themselves multiple times to the highest bidders; some made as much as $6,000 ($300 in gold), or three years’ wages for a skilled laborer. Substitution had been an American military tradition before the war, but popular furor against the practice compelled Congress to end it after 20 months.
Davis also approved a measure modifying the vastly unpopular tax-in-kind to reduce waste and corruption by allowing cash payments equal to the tax fee at impressment prices. A bill introduced by Senator Robert W. Johnson of Arkansas limiting cabinet members to two-year terms did not pass; this was part of the growing effort in Congress to curtail Davis’s executive power.
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