“Force of a Most Formidable Character”

In early March 1861, the new Confederate States government adopted a virtual free tariff, which quickly brought Northern merchants to their economic senses. Moses Kelly of the US Department of the Interior overheard many Southerners state that Southern ports planning direct trade with Europe “promised to deprive northern merchants of their position as middlemen and to eject northern manufacturers from the southern market in favor of European competitors.”

Further, the Philadelphia Press asked rhetorically: “If South Carolina is permitted to establish a free port with impunity, and to invite to her harbor all the ships of foreign nations, would not disaster in that event fall upon all our great northern interests?” It accurately predicted “an early reawakening of the Union sentiment in New York.” Thus true reason for total war against the South and destruction of her economic base was clearly revealed.

“Force of a Most Formidable Character”

“[By March 1861] it was evident that northern businessmen had carefully measured the consequences of disunion and the collapse of central authority and decided that they were intolerable. They had called for appeasement, but when that failed they were soon reconciled to the use of force.

Many of them concluded that property had received about as much damage from the crisis as it could, that “no new phase which the [secession] movement may take can have any further effect.”

Stocks had reached their lowest average quotations in December when the government seemed weakest, and even the approach of war failed to depress them that much again. As one commercial writer saw it, business was already suffering “all it could from a state of actual war.” And when war finally came the northern men of property united behind Lincoln to save the Union and restore the prestige of the national government.

When Yankee capitalists finally endorsed the use of military force against secessionists, they accepted the final remedy for a solemn threat to their property and future profits. Inevitably the holders of government securities looked upon disunion as a menace to their investments.

One conservative nervously declared: “So long as the right of secession is acknowledged, United States bonds must still be denounced as entirely unsafe property to hold . . .” To permit States to leave the Union at will, he warned, would mean that the “United States stocks are really worth no more than old Continental money.” With this in mind, when another government loan was offered in January, an observer shrewdly predicted: “Every dollar [New] York takes binds her capitalists to the Union, and the North.”

A basic tenet of the northern middle classes was that the value of property depended upon political stability. In effect, secessionists had made an indirect attack upon the possessions of every property holder. They had invited property-less Northerners, the revolutionary “sans culottes,” “the unwashed and unterrified,” to precipitate the country into “rough and tumble anarchy.” This “social and moral deterioration” might easily infect the lower classes with the radical idea “that a raid upon property can be justified by the plea of necessity.”

Conservatives looked apprehensively at the “immense foreign element” in northern cities and feared that revolution was “nearer our doors than we imagine.” From these recent immigrants could come the mobs to set aside all law and order and, with “revolver and stiletto,” sink the nation “into confusion and riotous chaos.” The only alternative, it was repeatedly argued, was to enforce respect for the Federal government everywhere.

[Northern] businessmen gradually became convinced that Southern independence would be almost fatal to northern commerce. American maritime power in the Caribbean and Gulf . . . would vanish . . . exclude the North from their trade . . . Even trade with the Pacific would be at the mercy of the South.

The northern monopoly in the coasting trade was a further casualty of the disunion movement. Vowing that he had “an interest and proprietorship in the Union of all these States,” [a] New Yorker concluded that secession would have to be checkmated by “force of a most formidable character.”

(And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis, 1860-1861 Kenneth M. Stampp, LSU Press, 1950, excerpts pp. 223-230)

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