In 1863, an unnamed Confederate officer castigated ostensibly loyal Confederates who traded with Union forces in Natchez, Mississippi, a key commercial port north of the officer’s base of operations in southeastern Louisiana. A year earlier, Confederate field commanders ordered planters to burn their cotton to keep it out of Federal hands. “Yet strange to say,” the officer wrote, “some 6,000 bales were kept not long distance from the city. Was it supineness on the part of the planter or was it saved in order to present to the enemy and thereby assist in subjugating the southern people?” This trade with Union-occupied Natchez prompted the officer to criticize the “out-and-out immeasurable, uncompromising secessionists . . . who in ’61 were for ‘War to the Knife’ and ‘Knife to the Hilt,’” who now “gave and drank the toast at ‘Tradyville; in the presence of Federal Officers.”1 Confederate and Federal officers alike called Natchez “Tradyville,” recognizing its role as a center of commerce in contraband goods. While better known as a term delineating fugitive slaves, in this case, “contraband” referred to the goods Mississippians illegally exchanged across Union lines. The officer commenting on Natchez viewed the trade as a test of citizens’ Confederate loyalty, labeling those engaged in it as traitors.
Not all Confederates went this far. Writing from Oxford, Mississippi, in 1863, Inspector General Jacob Thompson explained to Confederate president Jefferson Davis that the government’s policy of forbidding trade with the Union was a “cause of exasperation” because it prevented residents of the state’s northern region from procuring supplies at Union-held Memphis. “In this state of things,” he argued, “you cannot consider it strange or peculiar or disloyal that the distressed people should endeavor to procure . . . actual necessaries which could be obtained in no other way than from those who resided near Memphis where their location, of course, facilitates their trade with the enemy.” Unlike the Natchez observer who regarded contraband trade as treasonous, Thompson thought that trade with the Union benefited the southern war effort. “To admit the people [End Page 511] to buy in way of barter and exchange what is absolutely necessary, will enliven our people and greatly aid our army,” he argued. “More than half of what is brought in, finds its way to the army in one way or another.”2
Central to these conflicting interpretations of the trade was an important question: could Mississippians be loyal Confederates while trading with the enemy? This bartering across the lines was epidemic. Indeed, while the term “Tradyville” referred specifically to Natchez, it accurately describes the trade’s impact throughout Mississippi, the second state to secede from the Union and the site of several crucial campaigns in the Civil War’s western theater. The Confederate government officially prohibited citizens, many of whom were women, from trading all privately held goods at Federal-occupied territories. Nonetheless, Mississippians continually swapped cotton and Federal greenback notes at Union lines in exchange for an abundance of goods normally sold in the regular marketplace but made scarce by the Union blockade and general wartime privation. These included raw commodities like tobacco; sugar, rice, molasses, and other foodstuffs; and especially cotton, as well as other supplies, like clothing, guns and ammunition, cotton and wool cards, whiskey, wines and brandies, calico, coffee, shoes, and medical supplies.3 Trade helped the Confederacy by supplying southern troops and bolstering local economies, but it also undermined the war effort by depreciating Confederate currency, funneling valuable cotton to the Union, and compromising many Confederate nationalists’ ideals of self-sufficiency.
This article focuses on white Mississippians because they were the core constituency from which the Confederate government sought support and many contemporary observers believed that their engagement in the trade reflected the influence of Confederate allegiance in the state.4 The contraband trade, then, holds wider implications for understanding Confederate nationalism because it reveals how Mississippians negotiated between multiple loyalties to self, family, neighborhood, and nation. In these cases, acting on ties other than patriotism did not necessarily mean that a person was a disloyal Confederate, even if by trading...