Scholar’s Blog - Aaron Sheehan-Dean


The summer of 1863 had been a poor one for the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee’s army was not just repulsed from its invasion of Pennsylvania but bloodily beaten at Gettysburg. At the same time, William S. Rosecrans maneuvered Braxton Bragg’s Confederates out of Middle Tennessee at the cost of fewer than six hundred Union casualties. Farther west, Ulysses S. Grant had at last captured Vicksburg, the strongest Confederate citadel of the Mississippi, and delivered complete control of the “Father of Waters” to the Union. Lee safely retreated into Virginia and spent the rest of the year rebuilding his army, aided partly by a controversial offer of amnesty to deserters who returned to their units. The only good news came in September when Bragg, after receiving reinforcements from Mississippi and Virginia, took advantage of Rosecrans’s dispersed positions in northwest Georgia south of Chattanooga. The ensuing battle along Chickamauga Creek on September 19–20 devastated the Union Army of the Cumberland and forced it to retreat back into the city. Bragg initiated a siege, but his senior commanders expressed great frustration that they had not aggressively pursued Rosecrans’s fleeing army and taken Chattanooga. As a result, Jefferson Davis found himself traveling to Georgia in an attempt to contain something close to a generals’ mutiny. When Davis arrived at the headquarters of the Army of Tennessee overlooking Chattanooga on October 9, four of Bragg’s corps commanders called for his replacement. Addressing the army the next day, Davis reminded them that “obedience was the first duty of a soldier” and “prompt, unquestioning obedience” of superiors “could not be too highly commended.” He then confidently predicted that the Army of Tennessee would soon “plant our banners permanently on the banks of the Ohio.”[1]

Davis toured through Alabama, eastern Mississippi, Georgia, and the Carolinas after he restored a semblance of order to the Army of Tennessee. In Wilmington, he celebrated the steadfastness of North Carolina residents, particularly in the “Eastern portion of the state which had suffered the most from the enemy and was perhaps the most loyalty and devoted portion of the whole State.”[2] Davis was undoubtedly thinking of western North Carolina, which some Confederates believed was infected with the same poisonous unionism that defined East Tennessee. Despite Davis’s pronouncements about solidarity between regions, the Mountain South remained suspect throughout the war. But Davis himself overlooked a much more serious problem in eastern North Carolina: the continuing exodus of black families from the region. The Union army had captured New Bern in March 1862 and black residents began fleeing to Union lines almost immediately. In late 1863 Brigadier General Edward Wild recruited a sizeable number of black North Carolinians into his “African Brigade,” which then began raiding tidewater plantations to free more enslaved people and recruit more soldiers for the Union. Davis’s vision of the Confederacy excluded free black people, but they nonetheless represented a increasing threat to the survival of southern independence. 

If Davis ignored the determination of many black North Carolinians to fight for the Union, he confronted head on the problem of white southerners who put their personal welfare ahead of the well-being of the Confederacy. In his speech at Wilmington, Davis condemned “the wealth gathered and heaped up in the spirit of Shylock, in the midst of a bleeding country” that “would go down with a branding and a curse.”[3] As Davis knew, the opportunities for profit in running the Union blockade were substantial, especially in Wilmington, the last open Confederate deep-water port on the Atlantic. Loyal ship captains were supposed to return with cargoes of weapons, ammunition, medicine, shoes, and salt, but few could resist the temptation to stock their holds with luxury goods that sold quickly to still-wealthy members of the southern elite. In urban areas inland shopkeepers often withheld goods from sale until the prices rose. Confederate newspapers labeled such practices “extortion” and condemned merchants as public enemies, but no easy solution presented itself. What was the appropriate profit to make in a time of war? Shopkeepers had to pay their rent and feed their families like anyone else. Nonetheless, they became ready scapegoats for a Confederate government that needed targets for the mounting public anger over the toll, duration, and experience of the war. Military reverses in the summer of 1863 did not guarantee Confederate defeat in the war, but they did increase pressure on the Davis administration to ensure that sacrifices were borne equally, and that such sacrifices would ultimately produce victory.

[1] Jefferson Davis: Speech at Missionary Ridge, October 10, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: Library of America, 2013), 547.

[2] Jefferson Davis: Speech at Wilmington, November 5, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: Library of America, 2013), 553.

[3] Ibid., 552.

Aaron Sheehan-Dean is the Fred C. Frey Chair in Southern Studies at Louisiana State University.


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