One hundred fifty-six years ago, on February 4, 1861, the elected delegates of the seven (at the time) seceded states of the South met in Montgomery, Alabama, and founded a new government known as the Confederate States of America.
No, this blog post is not about the merits–or demerits–of the concept of secession. Neither is it an analysis of the various causes of the great war that followed those states’ secession from the Union. Rather, it is an attempt to draw a little attention to a little-known, little-studied aspect of American history: the civilian government of the South during that period of history.
Four days after the founding of the CSA, the delegates approved a constitution for their new government. That constitution was, with a few notable exceptions, nearly identical to the constitution of that government from which they had recently seceded. It was so strikingly similar to the U.S. Constitution because that document, the delegates agreed, was so nearly perfect, why should they write another one from scratch? After all, they had not seceded because the U.S. Constitution was inherently bad but because it was not being enforced according to the original intent of the nation’s Founders.
But a government–good or bad–is not a piece of paper, a constitution. Rather, it is the people who operate that government on behalf of those who have elected them. And so, to understand best the civilian government of the Confederacy, one must look at the lives of the people in that government.
The Confederacy’s government was like a revolving door; many different people held the few spots on the president’s cabinet and headed the various departments of that government. There were only six cabinet spots, but over the four-year life of the CSA, no less than seventeen different people filled them. But two of those six posts were held by just two men, and they held their respective offices from start to finish. Most books about the Confederacy deal with the war, the battles, the units, and the leaders in the war, and because some of the cabinet posts were not directly connected to the war effort, scant attention is paid to them. Therefore, they are little known today, and that’s a shame.
John Reagan held the office of Secretary of the Post Office Department from the time his nomination was confirmed until the death of the civil government. Originally from Sevier County, Tennessee (and therefore of special interest to a fellow Tennessean like myself), he moved to Texas, where he made a name for himself as a judge and a U.S. representative.
Reagan was a man of high principles. As one example, although he ran for the office of governor, in the end he refused to allow his party to nominate him for that office after he discovered things in the party platform with which he disagreed. (Can you imagine a politician doing that today? Today, they run despite their party’s platform and then, if elected, do as they please in violation of that platform!)
The Confederate constitution required that the Post Office Department operate in the black. Reagan ensured that that happened. He negotiated with postal employees, printers, railroads that carried the mail, and other vendors to get the least expensive prices, and he made the post office operate in the black. The USPS could take some lessons from him!
Reagan was with Jefferson Davis when Union troops captured them. He was imprisoned in Fort Warren, Boston, spending 22 weeks in solitary confinement. Released from prison, he returned home and practiced law, was elected first to the U.S. House and then to the Senate, and became the chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission at age 72. He founded the Texas State Historical Association and was a leading spokesman for prohibition. He died on March 6, 1905.
Christopher Memminger, a South Carolinian, was the Secretary of the Treasury. An orphan whose grandparents abandoned him, he nonetheless was adopted, gained a good education, and became a rising star in first Charleston and later South Carolina state politics.
When Memminger became Treasury Secretary, the Confederate government had no money. The CSA began on money borrowed from some of the state governments. Try as he might to get the Confederacy on a sound financial footing, and pleading incessantly for Congress not to put so much faith in the printing press, Memminger was never successful in that task. He watched as hyperinflation soared, just as he had warned Congress that it would if they kept printing paper money.
Finally, Memminger gave up trying and turned the office over to his successor, George Trenholm. Memminger retired to his home in Flat Rock, N.C. (his main home in Charleston having been taken over by the Union army). He later was allowed to return to his original home, but the army charged him rent. He died on February 28, 1888, and was buried in Flat Rock. (I wrote about finding his gravesite there in an earlier post.)
The other civilian post in the Confederate cabinet was the Justice Department, an office that, with the War Department, went through a series of secretaries. Perhaps the first secretary of that department is the most interesting because he held more different cabinet posts (three) than any other man.
Judah Benjamin was the only Jew in the Confederate cabinet. Davis obviously trusted him a great deal, naming him to three different posts in his government. But Congress and many of the generals (including the righteous Stonewall Jackson) did not like or trust Benjamin. When the complaints against him became too great in one post, Davis simply named him to head a different post.
Famed Civil War diarist Mary Chesnut said that she didn’t trust Benjamin because he always smiled. That reminds me of my mother’s warning to me as a child: “Don’t trust anyone who smiles all the time; you never know what he’s thinking or up to!”
In the end, Benjamin was the only member of the cabinet that foolishly urged Davis to continue the war after all hope of victory was lost, encouraging guerrilla warfare ad infinitum. He eventually abandoned Davis and fled to save his own skin from prison. He ended up reaching England, where he died on May 6, 1884. To historians’ everlasting frustration, he had destroyed everything he ever wrote and all the correspondence he had received, so the portrait of him with his Mona Lisa smile and the opinions others had of him are all we have to assess his life and work. The man was truly an enigma.
This is just a taste of what we can learn about the Confederate civil government by studying the people who ran it. And you can learn even more in my book Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, available at mcfarlandpub.com or other fine online distributors.