A View of the Confederacy from the Inside

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A View of the Confederacy from the Inside: A Letter From Judge John A. Campbell, Formerly Assistant Secretary Of War, C. S. A.  (1865) 
by John Archibald Campbell

Dated 20 July 1865; published in The Century, October 1889. Text retrieved from Skedaddle. Also see digitized original.

A View of the Confederacy from the Inside.

The original of this letter, here printed for the first time, is in the possession of Charles P. Greenough, Esq., of Boston. When Judge Campbell was imprisoned in Fort Pulaski his former associates on the Supreme Bench, Judges Curtis and Nelson, both wrote to President Johnson, and finally succeeded in getting Judge Campbell released. This letter was written when Judge Campbell learned that Judge Curtis was making efforts in his behalf. The text of the original letter has been carefully followed.—Editor.

A Letter From Judge John A. Campbell, Formerly Assistant Secretary Of War, C. S. A.

Fort Pulaski, Georgia, 20th July, 1865.

MY DEAR SIR: I learn that you have interfered in my behalf to obtain my release from arrest and confinement. I am obliged by your interposition, and appreciate it the more because that the war has made no change in my feelings toward yourself.

You are aware that I was not a patron or friend of the secession movement. My condemnation of it and my continuance in the Supreme Court were regarded as acts for which there could be no tolerance. When I returned to Alabama in May, 1861, it was to receive coldness, aversion, or contumely from the secession population. I did not agree to recant what I had said, or to explain what I had done; and thus, instead of appeasing my opponents, I aggravated my offense. This was still more aggravated by my opinion that cotton was not king; that privateering would not expel Northern commerce from the ocean, but would affront European opinion, and that privateering and slavery would prevent recognition, and that the war would be long and implacable; that the Northern people were a proud and powerful people that would not endure the supposed insults they have suffered, and that their “pocket nerve” was not their most sensitive nerve. Messrs. Toombs and Benjamin were promising peace before the winter. I had no connection with the Confederate Government in 1861, nor until the last of October, 1862. General Randolph, whom I scarcely knew, asked me to be Assistant Secretary of War, with an apology for doing so.

The war had then assumed gigantic proportions: confiscation acts and emancipation proclamations, and the administration of government in New Orleans and North Alabama, seemed to place a new face upon the war. It appeared to be a war upon political and civil society and government within the Confederate States.

The Southern country had greatly suffered: I had spent much time with the sick and wounded, and had witnessed bereavement, distress, destitution, suffering, as well as devotion and fortitude. The civil institutions were debilitated. Much of the business and feeling of the country centered in the War Department, and there was a want of some controlling mind in regulating its civil and judicial business. The conscription brought all persons of military age under its jurisdiction; impressments affected property, military domination very often infracted personal liberty and private right. There had been delay and vexation in the transaction of business.

I did not desire a conspicuous place, and every overture to place me in Mr. Davis’s cabinet had been discountenanced with emphasis. I declined to go abroad. My wish was to be of use in mitigating the evils there were upon the country. I cannot make you feel how large they were.

I never labored more. I do not know that any one man has suffered from any act of mine any aggravation of his calamity. I do know of large classes that experienced sympathy and assistance. When my arrest was known the leading member of the Society of Friends called on Mrs. Campbell to say that every member of the society in the district would petition for my release, and he actually carried to Washington City such a paper.

There are other testimonials equally grateful to my feelings. I resigned twice and attempted to do so at other times. But there were considerations that would not allow me to press the offer. I did not hold to the office from avarice, for the annual salary was never worth $500 in specie, and became at last just $100. When I entered the office I supposed I might become useful in the settlement of a peace if I were connected with the Government. There was no opportunity for this in 1863, and not until 1864 had nearly expired could the subject be broached with any advantage.

There were discontents with Mr. Davis, and those who desired to weaken him made use of the desire for peace to effect the object. They represented him as averse to peace and that negotiations would bring peace. None spoke of union as a basis of peace; all repudiated a disposition for peace on that basis. In 1864 I became satisfied that the resources of the Confederacy for another campaign were exhausted. The finances, recruiting of soldiers, commissariat, transportation, ordnance and ammunition, and medical supplies had all failed. None were adequate for another campaign. The Secretary of the Treasury did not make a fair and candid report in November, 1864. The unanswered requisitions amounted to $170,000,000, and he had no means to answer them. He had issued (nearly) to the maximum limit, treasury notes, and they were at the time thirty to one as compared with specie. But his failure to supply these requisitions, and his inability to do so, prevented the making of requisitions for $250,000,000, which were also due. This was not regarded in his report nor provided for in his estimates or budget. I brought this matter to the attention of the Secretaries of War and Treasury and the truth was admitted. It became finally to be seen that the finances were in hopeless ruin. Treasury notes to $400,000,000 had been issued; these were selling as sixty to one for specie at the treasury. The supply of specie 15th February was $750,000; bonds and certificates of deposit were not salable, taxes were difficult of collection, and irritation and discontent existed because the outstanding indebtedness was not liquidated. The estimates of the year for the War Department were $1,337,000,000 in Confederate bills and the restriction on issues not taken off.

The condition as to men was nearly as bad. In April, 1862, conscription embraced those between 18 and 35; in October, 1862, those between 35 and 40 were added; in July, 1863, those of 40 and 45 were added; in February, 1864, those between 17 and 50 were added; all men who had placed substitutes in service were called for and exemptions were curtailed. During the war there had been exemptions and details for civil and industrial service. Manufacturies, mechanical and agricultural employments, were sustained by details, but in October, 1864, a sweeping order of revocation was made. This order evinced extreme weakness; it carried despondency and dismay among the people. It did not serve to recruit the army — the supply of men was exhausted.

The army was reduced by desertions, and these now became more numerous and from a better class of men. The difficulties of the time led to desertions from the workshops and manufacturing establishments. The commissariat experienced the pressure of the time earliest among the bureaux. Supplies were hoarded. Sales were refused for bonds, and certificates and bills could not be had. Impressment could not be relied on. The army was for most of the time on half-rations, and the largest supply at Richmond and Petersburg during the whole winter was a supply of six days.

The transportation was almost exhausted. The Piedmont road, through Danville and Greensborough, North Carolina, became the principal channel of communication. Its entire capacity was 192 tons daily, and the daily demand of the army was 120 tons. The road was put out of repair three days during the winter by rains, and we had to ask the citizens of Richmond for flour from their reduced family supplies, and the 1000 barrels obtained cost $650,000. In the same woful condition was the transportation by animals. The facts in regard to arms, ammunition, medical supplies, etc. disclose a similar condition of ruin.

You would suppose there could be no difficulty in convincing men under such circumstances that a peace was required. But when I look back upon the events of the winter, I find that I was incessantly employed in making these facts known and to no result.

A committee of Congress was appointed to examine the state of the commissariat; was informed of it and did not report. The President was called upon to afford knowledge of finances, recruiting, etc.,— in a word, the state of the Confederacy,—and did not answer. Letters were addressed on single portions of the deficiency and no heed was taken of them.

In December I wrote to Judge Nelson a letter inviting an interview with him, and asking that Messrs. Ewing, Stanton, or yourself might come. I obtained a license to write this letter and to have this communication.

There were for discussion, as the issue of the war, the questions of union, slavery, confiscation, pains and penalties, forfeitures for taxes, limits of western Virginia—in fact, all civil society in the Confederacy was involved. I supposed that with these intelligent and sober-minded men the embarrassments and perils of the condition could be mitigated. I was then fully disposed for peace. I have never had a reply to the letter, though I was told there was one. In lieu of this there came Francis P. Blair.

He duped Mr. Davis with the belief that President Lincoln regarded the condition of Mexico with more concern than the war; that he would be willing to make a suspension of hostilities under some sort of collusive contract, and to unite Southern and Northern troops on the Rio Grande for the invasion of Mexico, and that after matters were assured in Mexico affairs might be adjusted here. This was the business at Hampton Roads. I was incredulous, Mr. Hunter did not have faith. Mr. Stephens supposed Blair to be “the mentor of the Administration and Republican party.”

We learned in five minutes that the assurances to Mr. Davis were a delusion, and that union was the condition of peace. I had always supposed this to be the case, and had refused all discussions on the subject of negotiation unless that condition was first admitted. I had never regarded a peace on that basis as inadmissible; but, on the contrary, was firmly persuaded that the programme of independence had failed with the loss of the Chesapeake Bay, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers, and the coasts of the Carolinas.

The change in the conditions of the war by the confiscation acts and proclamation unquestionably prolonged it. When I came from Hampton Roads I recommended the return of our commission or another commission to adjust a peace. I believed that one could be made upon the concession of union and the surrender of slavery, upon suitable arrangements. I so advised my colleagues. I wrote to Governor Graham of North Carolina a careful letter explaining all my views, for exhibition to his brother senators. A committee was raised to wait on Mr. Davis (Graham, Hunter, Orr) and conversations were had with him. This failed. I then wrote a careful review of all the conditions of the military service and of the financial and political state of the country, and recommended a negotiation for peace on the basis of union, as necessary. This was addressed to General Breckinridge. It was submitted to General Lee, and reports from the Commissary-General, Quartermaster-General, and Chief of Ordnance obtained, and the whole placed before Mr. Davis. This led him to ask Congress to repeal their resolution to adjourn. He submitted these in a secret message, without note, comment, or exposition, and at the same time submitted a public message, scolding Congress for delay and inattention and urging a vigorous prosecution of the war and the adoption of the following measures: 1. Suspension of habeas corpus. 2. Organization of militia. 3. To raise $3,000,000 in gold. 4. To impress without cash payments. 5. To modify the law as to the use of detailed men. 6. Arm slaves. The four last were granted, and could not have affected, and did not affect, our condition in the slightest measure.

No notice was taken of the secret message. The Congress replied with tartness to the charges as to delays and inattention, and retorted the charges. Governor Graham was ready with resolutions for negotiations, but the conduct of Mr. Davis indisposed others to consider them. There seemed to be a superstitious dread of any approach to the one important question of settlement by negotiation. Mr. Davis, with the air of a sage, declared that the Constitution did not allow him to treat for his own suicide. All that he could do would be to receive resolutions and submit them to the sovereign States; that his personal honor did not permit him to take any steps to make such a settlement as was proposed. The result is, that each citizen of the Confederacy is making his separate treaty on the basis of President Johnson’s merciful amnesty proclamation.

I have stated to you the facts. I do not pretend to have done more than to accept conditions that were inexorable, and to endeavor to stop the effusion of blood, and to husband the remnants of the resources that had not been consumed by the war. This I did with more urgency, and a more consistent and definite purpose than any other, I believe. The idiosyncrasy of one man defeated the design. It would not be proper to speak of Mr. Davis in his present circumstances with any harshness. I do not believe for a moment that he participated in the plot to destroy Mr. Lincoln. His humanity, pride, sense of his own reputation and character, tenacious observance of the rules he esteems important, not to take into account his religious and moral principles of action, forbid me to believe this without strong and direct proof. But he was unfitted to manage a revolution or to conduct an administration. Slow, procrastinating, obstructive, filled with petty scruples and doubts, and wanting in a clear, strong, intrepid judgment, a vigorous resolution, and a generous and self- sacrificing nature, he became in the closing part of the war an incubus and a mischief.

I decided to abide the fate of Richmond—an inevitable fate; General Lee could neither hold it nor move away from it. His ruin was sealed, and with that the fate of the Confederacy. This I stated in the letter referred to; I told the Secretary of War I should remain, and should take an opportunity to see Mr. Lincoln, if possible. I would like to have his authority to do so, but should do so without it. The United States troops entered Richmond the morning of the 3d of April. The evacuation took place the night previously. There was only wanting a licentious soldiery to make the scene appalling, but the United States soldiers behaved with propriety. There was conflagration, plunder, explosions of arsenals, magazines, gun-boats, and terror and confusion.

Mr. Lincoln came to Richmond the 4th of April. I had an interview with him. I told him that the war was virtually ended, that General Lee could not hold his army together, that the public men in Virginia would aid him to restore the Union, and that he might rely on this. I urged him to adopt a course of leniency and moderation—“That when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom the gentler gamester is the soonest winner”; that I had regarded this war as one between communities, the one contending for independence, the other for continued union; that the successful party in any event should have made his success as little aggravating to the other as possible; that were independence to be won, still a close union was anticipated to be formed. I stated to him my position — that I had remained because I knew that the war was virtually over, and to perform my duty to the country.

It so happened that I was the only person who had occupied any position of prominence that did remain, and so I had to speak for Virginia what would have been more appropriate for a Virginian. I noticed this to Mr. Lincoln.

He concluded to remain until the next morning to have another interview. He made no reply to what I said at this time. The next morning I met him on the Malvern, Mr. G. A. Myers, an established member of the bar of Richmond, going with me, and General Weitzel being present.

Mr. Lincoln had reduced to writing his terms of peace. There were three indispensable conditions: 1. Recognition of the national authority. 2. No cessation of hostilities till this was entirely done. 3. No receding by the Executive in reference to slavery, as manifested in his proclamation and other official papers. All other questions to be settled on terms of sincere liberality.

He agreed to release all confiscations to those States that would forthwith recognize the national authority, and proposed to charge those for the continued expenses that rejected this offer. He handed me this paper after explaining it. He spoke of pains and penalties. He said that it would not be proper to offer a pardon to Mr. Davis,— whom we familiarly call Jeff. Davis,— who says he will not take one, but that almost any one could have anything of the kind for the asking.

I replied to his remarks by urging the suspension of hostilities to treat.

I told him that the effect of such a measure would be peace on his own terms; that General Lee could not hold his army together under such circumstances; that our trouble had been to find the man or men who would take upon themselves the responsibility of action. Mr. Davis objected that he could not constitutionally make peace and destroy himself. General Lee had said that he could only make military conventions; Congress had been unwilling to act without Mr. Davis and General Lee; but that now there would be no hesitation, because the military situation was more critical and the necessity more urgent.

I submitted to him the draft of a convention I had drawn and placed before General Breckinridge and Mr. Davis as a mode to make peace on the basis of union. He assented to the existence of the difficulty, took my paper for consideration, and said he had been considering of a plan to call the Virginia legislature together that .they might restore the State to the Union. He said that it was important for that legislature to do so, that they were in the condition of a tenant between two contending landlords, that the tenant should attorn to the successful party who had established his right. He said he had a government in northern Virginia, but that its margin was small and that he did not desire to enlarge it. He learned from Mr. Myers the condition of the legislature and whether it could be convened, and declared that he would make known his conclusion when he got to City Point.

In this conversation there was no effort to mystify or to overreach. I knew that General Lee’s army would fall apart, or suffer a great disaster. The stores at Richmond were lost in the evacuation; there were no magazines in the country, and I did not believe that the stock saved in Petersburg could sustain his army five days if all were saved. But the fact was that he lost his supplies at Petersburg, and that his capture was compelled by the disorganized state of his army in consequence of a loss of his provisions. This had been made known as a probable consequence a month previously.

Three days after my conversation the capture of General Lee took place. In the intervening period commenced the work of fulfilling Mr. Lincoln’s wishes. He consented in a letter to General Weitzel to the call of the Virginia legislature, but upon the capture of General Lee revoked the call, and the newspapers, with their usual and characteristic disposition to censure, have charged upon General Weitzel and myself some impropriety. The charge against me is that of having circumvented Mr. Lincoln.

Undoubtedly the capture of Lee made the use of the machinery I have suggested as unnecessary for the purpose of securing peace, and I have not complained of Mr. Lincoln. Whether a better plan to secure a prompt, cheerful, and complete pacification could have been suggested or has been adopted remains to be seen. I desired that the men who could control opinion and who commanded the public confidence, and who were ready to abide by the Union, should not be discarded or disfranchised, but their cooperation and aid should be received with cordiality. But I do not place any stumbling-block in the way of any other policy, and am content to have peace and pacification as they may be awarded by the conquering powers.

You are well aware that I was not a fanatical pro-slavery man; I had voluntarily liberated all of my slaves before the war some years. In 1847 I had, in a review on slavery in the “Southern Quarterly Review,” advocated as a duty the amelioration of the law of slavery and proposed the establishment of the legal relations of slaves in the family on a firm foundation, and the removal of restraints on voluntary emancipations, on education, and to abolish all sales under legal or judicial orders or process. In articles on the same subject, and in conversation, I agreed that amelioration was a duty and necessity. In 1860-61 some of the Southern papers called me an abolitionist.

I agree too that President Lincoln’s proclamation was one of that class of measures that determine the policy of a people for weal or woe. In the state of the worlds opinion there could not be a step backward. Mr. Lincoln felt this, and one of his conditions of peace was “no receding by the Executive” from his position, and his explanation was his promise never to recede.

We have now to test the wisdom of the measure. In regarding the subject of slavery in former years, I have esteemed as the greatest calamity that could befall the country the introduction of emancipation except through the agency of the State governments; that the conditions of the society should be ameliorated by the society itself. I have uniformly admitted that there was a fatal error in supposing that the perils of the South were to be obviated by political or party arrangements at Washington. The remedy was in a social amelioration at home, commencing in the manner indicated in the article in the “Review “and others of a similar nature.

But the precise evil before us is emancipation by the armed force of States not holding slaves and who have enlisted in their armies probably one-sixth of the virile population of slaves as auxiliaries.

Whether prosperity will follow from this disturbance of the society is the difficult problem before us, and surely it is one that will task all the faculties of our peoples and the best qualities of their nature. It does seem to me it is a sufficient burden, and that the conquest is sufficiently embarrassing without the enforcement of the laws that Mr. Seward stated to me at Hampton Roads were the offspring of the most vehement passion in time of war. Mr. Burke, in his tract on the Policy of the Allies, has exposed with his characteristic clearness the rules by which statesmen may compose the elements of a state torn by revolutionary factions and plunged in the worst excesses of civil war. In his speech on Conciliation of America he developed counsels for enlightened patrial statesmen, who would soothe the discontents in an empire and to preserve it from war. I should rejoice to see these adopted in the present crisis.

I was arrested the 22d of May, at 10 P.M., under a short, abrupt order from the War Department. I was at home, where I had been since the evacuation of Richmond, and expected no evil and thought none. I remained on the gunboat (Mosswood) in James River before Richmond a few days, and after an hour’s notice was sent to this fort. I saw in the report of the military court a letter that had an indorsement of mine. I supposed it possible that this had something to do with my arrest. I addressed General Ord, commanding at Richmond, a letter of explanation, and requested that copies might be sent to Mr. Stanton and Mr. Holt. But I am still here. The officers are courteous and considerate and I suffer no indignity. But I should be glad to know why I am arrested and detained.

My affairs greatly need attention. Without any fault my fortune has been nearly exhausted. An explosion that took place at Mobile has put in ruins that upon which I depended to support my family. I earnestly desire to labor in their behalf. With kind remembrance to your daughter, I am your friend,

J. A. Campbell



Campbell, Judge John A., "A View of the Confederacy from the Inside," The Century; A Popular Quarterly, Volume 38, Issue 6, October 1889, New York: The Century Company

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.