Bullets, Ballots, and Rhetoric


This is Larry E. Nelson’s study of confederate policy to deal with the 1864 US Presidential Election.  He tells us, “The Northern political situation during 1864 presented both external and internal challenges for the government of Jefferson Davis.  The external problem was first of all a matter of assessing the potential of the election.  From the beginning of the war, reports had reached the Confederacy of tension and malaise in the North: fluctuations in the value of greenbacks, draft resistance and riots, cries of outrage and protests against the emancipation policy, political defeats suffered by the Republicans in the elections of 1862, and growing alienation and discontent in the border states and old Northwest.  Davis expected that the canvass of 1864 would be particularly trying for the North and might result in election of a candidate amenable to Confederate independence.  Another aspect of the external challenge was to devise and implement a stratagem that would intensify Northern distress and promote the election of an acceptable candidate.  Davis drew upon personal observations and the suggestions of advisers to draft a scheme that he and selected subordinates labored to implement during the presidential campaign and election.  The internal challenge the Federal election created for Davis was to cope with the expectations the election inevitably aroused among Confederates.  Weary of the long war, many Southerners took solace in the evidence of Northern distress and found strength to continue the fighting in the hope that somehow, some way, the election would bring an acceptable peace.” [pp. xi-xii]  He tells us that while Davis’ analysis of the election’s potential for confederate hopes was fine, “the tactics employed for influencing the contest were unimaginative and contradictory, and his response to aroused Confederate expectations was haphazard and inconsistent.  Coping successfully with the dual challenge of the election proved beyond Davis’s capabilities.” [p. xii]

Nelson tells us that many confederates felt from the beginning that a financial strain on the loyal states caused by a loss of revenue from export of cotton and other agricultural products from the confederate states combined with the cost of fighting the war would bankrupt the US.  Additionally, they saw resistance to conscription as a factor.  Finally, there were secret societies in the northern states that were opposed to the war effort and could be used to disrupt the war effort.  And they weren’t oblivious to the effects on the Republicans’ political fortunes of confederate military success.  “Various Confederates speculated on steps that their government could take to influence the outcome of the election.  Among Confederates there was recognition that the coming military operations would exert a drastic, perhaps decisive, impact on developments in the North.  Believing that Confederate military success would bolster the Northern peace party and topple Lincoln and the Republicans, one editor said: ‘Every bullet we can send … is the best ballot that can be deposited against his [Lincoln’s] election.  The battle-fields of 1864 will hold the polls of this momentous decision.  If the tyrant at Washington be defeated, his infamous policy will be defeated with him, and when his party sinks no other war party will rise in the United States.’ ” [p. 11]  Military moves weren’t the only thing to do, though.  There were a number of schemes for intrigue behind Union lines.  Confederates planned to cooperate with antiwar parties in the North to disrupt the US effort.  There were some schemes to release confederate soldiers in prison camps in the North to use them to foment rebellion, especially in the Northwest.  “By April, the president’s plan for influencing the course of the election was fairly under way.  Guided by his own insights, suggestions from other Southerners, and consultation with the Congress, he dispatched agents to Canada.  Their mission was to work directly with Northerners sympathetic to the Confederacy or the cause of peace, to exploit every opportunity for agitating enemy politics, and otherwise to foster the growth of war weariness and disaffection.  The president also determined to continue the military strategy of the offensive-defensive.  Davis expected that carrying the battle to the enemy whenever possible would demonstrate Southern determination to resist and thereby stimulate Northern distaste for the war and increase willingness to conclude peace on terms of Confederate independence.” [p. 29]

One group in the North the confederates tried to work with was the Sons of Liberty, a group headed by Clement Vallandigham of Ohio.  They negotiated with that group to set off violent uprisings that summer.  They “expected a spontaneous uprising in the Northwest, triggered perhaps by the arrest of some prominent Northern peace advocate.  Vallandigham told Thompson [Jacob Thompson, a confederate agent operating in Canada] that he planned to return to the United States and expected to be arrested.  The arrest, Vallandigham confidently predicted, would precipitate an insurrection by the Sons of Liberty.  The Southern agents watched anxiously as the exile made his public appearance in Ohio, but no arrest followed, and the anticipated uprisings failed to materialize.  Rumors circulated to the effect that the Republicans planned to interfere with the Democratic national convention, which was originally scheduled for July 4, 1864.  The Southern agents hoped that disruption of the meeting would lead to violence by the Sons of Liberty, but the Democrats postponed their gathering until August 29, 1864.  Dissatisfied with inaction, the leadership of the secret society in Illinois planned an outbreak for July 20, 1864, with the hope that the membership in other states would rise once the struggle began.  The agents in Canada learned of the plan and aided the preparations, but the Northern leadership meeting at Chicago decided to postpone the revolt. … The Confederates strongly urged August 16, 1864, but the Northerners were reluctant to make a firm commitment.  In another meeting of the conspirators at St. Catherines some two weeks later, the Southerners again insisted on August 16 as the most appropriate date.  The Confederates were becoming alarmed at the continued postponements because they believed that delay increased the chances of detection by Federal authorities without enhancing the preparedness or capacity of the Sons of Liberty.  The Northerners declared that they could not be ready to act on August 16 and proposed August 29 at Chicago as the time and place for the uprising.  The plotters expected to use the activity and immense crowds associated with the Democratic convention as a cover for assembling sufficient numbers of the Sons of Liberty to stage a successful outbreak.  The Southern commissioners had no alternative but to acquiesce, but they stressed the necessity of executing the plan as scheduled and stated that a small nucleus of Confederate soldiers would be in Chicago to aid the Northwesterners to carry out the plan if the Sons of Liberty faltered.  If all went according to the wishes of the Southern agents, the meeting of the Democratic convention would mark the beginning of a revolution in the Northwest.” [pp. 87-89]  The confederates also slipped money to newspaper editors to get them to encourage and support the peace movement.  They also tried to destabilize the Federal economy by getting sympathizers in the North to convert paper currency to gold and keep the gold, thus encouraging inflation.  One confederate agent was able to move about $2 million in gold out of the country.

The confederates tried to pull off their uprising scheme during the Democratic convention in Chicago.  “The Democrats gathered, as planned, in Chicago, and a band of determined Confederates from Canada also traveled to the city.  Serving under the orders of Jacob Thompson, Captain Thomas H. Hines and Captain John B. Castleman, both of the Confederate States Army, brought a group of sixty Southern soldiers, who had managed to escape from Northern prisons, to cooperate with the Sons of Liberty in the uprising planned for Chicago during the Democratic convention.  Among the huge crowds in the city were members of the secret order and various of their leaders.  Hines and Castleman met in their rooms at the Richmond House on the night of August 28 with some of the leaders of the Sons of Liberty to ascertain their state of readiness for the proposed operation.  To the utter dismay of the Southerners, they found that although many members of the clandestine society were in Chicago, they were indiscriminately scattered through the city with no effective organization or communication.” [pp. 110-111]  The confederates were forced to call things off and left the city.

Although the planned violence in Chicago failed to materialize, the confederates still schemed with the Sons of Liberty.  “The Southern conspirators concocted elaborate plans for an insurrection to occur at certain strategic places in the North on election day.  Using escaped Confederate prisoners of war as a core around which the Sons of Liberty would supposedly collect, the agents prepared for uprisings at Chicago and New York with diversionary activity in Boston and Cincinnati.  The plan called for destruction and violence and the forcible release of Confederate soldiers held prisoner in camps near New York and Chicago.  While the agents perfected their scheme, reports and rumors of organized violence scheduled for the day of the election reached highly placed Federal officials and filtered into the newspapers.” [p. 152]  This led to the stationing of Federal soldiers in key areas to be able to handle any outbreaks, which never materialized.

Nelson concludes, “In the final analysis, the problems and opportunities of Northern politics in 1864 taxed Davis where his talents were weakest.  The electoral challenges required him to mold public opinion in both the North and the South, and influencing public opinion was not Davis’s forte.  His evaluation of the potential of the election was reasonably accurate, but the implementation of his strategy for influencing the contest was weak, and his response to aroused expectations in the Confederacy was seriously deficient.” [pp. 174-175]  The big story to me was the traitorous action of various Northerners such as Vallandigham and the Sons of Liberty.  Also, many neoconfederates will charge that Lincoln fixed the election by having troops in key cities.  As we can see, the troops were needed due to confederate plots for violence to disrupt the election.

This was an excellent study of what the confederates tried to do to influence the outcome of the 1864 election.  It’s well researched and puts everything in context for us.  I can highly recommend this book.



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