restricted access Yeoman Discontent in the Confederacy
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YEOMAN DISCONTENT IN THE CONFEDERACY Stephen E. Ambrose Perhaps the outstanding characteristic of "total" war in our time has been governmental attempts to exploit as large a percentage as possible of the state's resources. Civilians and their problems thus often become objects of more bureaucratic attention than the military forces. War, the pundits declare, is decided on the "home front," and the nation that cannot keep its civilians protected, patriotic, and producing is doomed. The American Civil War is often considered the first of the modern total wars. From our standpoint, both contending governments had much to learn about home-front management. In the Confederacy, with its philosophical commitment to governmental decentralization, the problem grew especially acute. One of the most significant results was great discontent among the small-farmer element. Comprising over 50 per cent of the white population, these "yeomen"—especially after 1863—were often unresponsive or downright hostile to their country's cause, and their dissatisfaction at home or desertion from military service at the front seriously strained the fabric of the Confederate war effort. The yeoman's first extensive contact with his government came through "impressment" of farm products. Beginning early in the war army purchasing officers, acting under War Department authority, often requisitioned produce which farmers refused to sell. The practice became common throughout the Confederacy when inflation rendered funds available to unit commanders insufficient to meet open-market prices. Near railroads and in areas close to army encampments, quartermasters and commissaries took what they wanted, paying much less than the prevailing market prices.1 By March 26, 1863, increasing complaints from suffering farmers Stephen E. Ambrose, assistant professor of history at Louisiana State University in New Orleans, is the author of A Wisconsin Boy in Dixie and the forthcoming Halleck: Lincoln's Chief of Staff. 1 Charles W. Ramsdell, Behind the Lines in the Southern Confederacy ( Baton Rouge, 1944), pp. 50, 76-77. 259 260STEPHEN E. AMBROSE forced Congress to pass "An Act to Regulate Impressments," which legalized the system while theoretically abolishing the abuses. Each purchasing agent had to show the fanner a certificate proving his authority, and every two months a two-member state board of impressment commissioners published a schedule of prices effective throughout the state.2 But the published prices lagged far behind market quotations. In Athens, Georgia, in early 1865, the government prices were from 50 to 600 per cent below market values.3 Some prominent Southerners objected to the impressment act because they felt it violated civil and constitutional liberties. Former cabinet member and Confederate general Robert Toombs told the Georgia legislature that it violated the fundamental principle of the Constitution requiring all taxes to be uniform and just. The impressment act was neither, he said, because the "capitalists, merchants, manufacturers, speculators, and extortioners" who stayed home and made money out of the war were not affected by impressment.4 William L. Yancey of Alabama , a leading fire-eater and states' rights advocate who spoke on the subject, felt it was "far better for a free people to be vanquished in open combat with the invader than voluntarily to yield liberties and their constitutional safeguards to the stealthy progress ... of executive usurpation toward the establishment of a military dictatorship."8 There were also practical objections to the act. The attempt to regulate impressment failed to protect the farmer because in emergencies Confederate generals gave free rein to their quartermasters. Richmond was unable to control subordinates in distant areas of the Confederacy, and lazy or unscrupulous officers freely disregarded the safeguards of the law. In Floyd County, Georgia, a local commander authorized his officers to take what they could when they could. Citizens complained to General Braxton Bragg that bodies of armed men traversed the neighborhood , taking even from the families of absent soldiers the last animal fit for beef. "These seizeures are not impressments," they protested. "Impressment is a legal power of the government." The result was clear: "These wrongs are creating a profound sense of injustice and injury. The wail of the wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and children of our absent soldiers . . . fills their hearts with deep indignation."6 In the fall of 1864 an investigating...


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