Trading with the Enemy: The Covert Economy During the American Civil War by Philip Leigh. Westholme Publishing, 2014. Cloth, IBSN: 978-1594161995. $26.00.
Philip Leigh, an independent scholar and frequent contributor to the New York Times’ Disunion Series, provides a brief and exceptionally readable account of wartime trade between northerners and southerners. His research mainly draws on the contributions of older scholars, but the work is both a welcome synthesis and a reminder to popular audiences for whom the topic is likely unknown.
As Leigh points out, Southern cotton was a vital force in the global economy. It made fortunes for Northern textile manufacturers, cemented New York City’s place as a central hub for finance and trade, and provided Britain’s factories with almost ninety-percent of their raw material before 1860. Therefore, when eleven southern states seceded, the federal government worked to reestablish the cotton supply going north—and from there across the Atlantic. President Lincoln understood the political and economic necessity of keeping manufacturing interests satisfied and making sure that Britain received its cotton from Union vessels, as opposed to southern blockade-runners. Through the Treasury Department, Lincoln issued permits to reputedly loyal agents who would purchase and export southern cotton from behind enemy lines. Union General Benjamin Butler, Senator William Sprague, and less notable names hardly needed such encouragement to make a profit, leading to practices that crossed both legal and ethical bounds.
Contrary to popular memory, the Confederacy did not receive the largest share of its outside resources by running the blockade to trade with Europe. Some Northern merchants routed contraband goods through Mexico, the Caribbean islands, or Canada, while a few were brazen enough to defy the blockade and ship directly into Southern ports. Currency, food supplies, and other provisions likely entered the Confederacy by land as trade agents followed the federal army into the Mississippi Valley and Union-controlled hubs like Norfolk, Virginia. One southern officer lamented that Memphis, Tennessee, may have been of more value to the Confederacy in Union hands because federal occupation of the city made it possible for the Confederates to obtain supplies in exchange for cotton. Whether increased access to this trade made up for the loss of agricultural labor when slaves escaped to the advancing Union lines is not clear.
Pecuniary interest was at the heart of the covert trade, but Leigh extrapolates too far in drawing his larger conclusions about northern greed. Lincoln wrote humorously that if a heavenly visitor were to eavesdrop on White House conversations, “I think he would come to the conclusion that this war is being prosecuted for obtaining cotton from the South for Northern cotton mills” (22). This is not far from Leigh’s conclusion. Noting that historians of southern secession agree that the South wanted independence to preserve slavery, Leigh wants readers to understand that “the North wanted an intact Union in order to sustain its emerging economic supremacy” (xii). Though Union volunteers may have been sold on the patriotic rhetoric, “it was the widely anticipated economic consequences of disunion that motivated influential politicians and businessmen in the North to ‘save the Union’” (147). While this assessment may sound like a fair criticism of both sides, it is too reductive. It fails to take account of popular northern outrage over secession and the firing on Fort Sumter. It also fails to explain why northerners would not push for reunion with slavery intact, or why they would not at least accept the coercive “black codes” passed by southern legislatures in 1865 and 1866, after seeing that the free labor experiment on the South Carolina sea islands failed to meet expected quotas of production. The forces that motivate men are not merely pecuniary, though the pecuniary may very well be implicated in them.
Leigh’s focus on a morally suspect trade relationship leads him to another big conclusion not fully sustained by the evidence. The inter-belligerent trade helped the Confederacy more than the Union, Leigh argues, and it “unnecessarily protracted the war and lengthened the casualty lists” (147). The implicit lesson here—that the profit motive in war does more collective harm than good—should find a sympathetic ear with readers. However, Leigh’s evidence cannot tell us how much cotton was converted into supplies for the Confederate armies, except where Confederate General Kirby Smith’s Cotton Bureau made the linkage clear. Some southerners like James Lusk Alcorn profited from the trade without reinvesting in the Confederacy; others less well off likely used the trade as a way to survive. Moreover, by enabling the trade, Lincoln attended to a political need vital to the military effort: convincing New England manufacturers, foreign nations, and maybe even some southern whites to look to Union power instead of Confederate separatism for the future of cotton. For both of these reasons, the relationship between the intersectional trade and the length of the war is one that the evidence can suggest, but not adequately measure.
Agree or disagree with Leigh’s conclusions, they do not take away from his comprehensive account of the intersectional trade. This study should encourage wider scholarly attention to wartime economic behavior that supplemented, contradicted, or rejected ideological motivations. It will also disabuse many readers of romantic misconceptions about the capacity of either side for selfless virtue.
Brian K. Fennessy is a Ph.D. student in the History Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.