April 10, 1863 (Friday)
Just over three months had passed since Confederate President Jefferson Davis predicted the war would soon be over. Now, he was whistling a different tune. Shortly after the Battle of Fredericksburg, the ascendancy of his new government seemed to be imminent. The entirety of 1862 seemed like one long Confederate victory. But now, as spring was upon them and as the campaign season began, things did not seem so glorious.
General Lee’s army had to be split to defend Richmond from two threats. Though General Pemberton was holding at Vicksburg, how much longer could that really last? Even the blockade, which had been broken here and there, was slowly choking much of the South. There had been bread riots not only in Richmond, but in many cities throughout the Confederacy. Though many things were uncertain – but a quick and coming victory was not.
Privations were upon most in the South. The elite in Richmond, Davis very much included, had heard a thing or two about them, but mostly seemed to ignore just how bad things were. In his mind, the bread riots weren’t due to hunger, but due to lawlessness. If there actually was suffering due to the war, it was the fault of the Yankees. At no time did he make this clearer than in his Address to the People of the Confederate States, issued on this date.
He spoke of “atrocities,” “savage barbarity,” and “the crowning infamy of its attempt to excite a servile population to the massacre of our wives, our daughters, and our helpless children.” This was really dramatic stuff.
“Alone, unaided, we have met and overthrown the most formidable combination of naval and military armaments that the lust of conquest ever gathered together for the subjugation of a free people,” continued Davis without a hint of irony.
But what he was specifically addressing was the notion that the war would soon be over – a notion that his arrogance and aloofness helped foster not a season before. After detailing the many victories and strongholds of the Southern armies, Davis turned to what the Confederate patriots could do to help win the war.
“Let fields be devoted exclusively to the production of corn, oats, beans, peas, potatoes, and other food for man and beast,” he urged, since it was impossible to feed an army on the old staples of cotton and tobacco.
Though the cries of hunger by the people of his own nation’s capital seemed to have fallen on deaf ears, he was well aware that his armies in the field were indeed suffering. To them he turned next.
“The supply of meat for the Army is deficient,” admitted Davis. “This deficiency is only temporary, for measures have been adopted which will, it is believed, soon enable us to restore the full ration.” He didn’t go into details, but he can be forgiven since history would soon show that there weren’t really details to go into.
What he did say was that there was a surplus of food throughout the country (though it can be assumed that those rioting for bread might disagree). “Even if the surplus be less than is believed,” he went on, “is it not a bitter and humiliating reflection that those who remain at home, secure from hardship and protected from danger, should be in the enjoyment of abundance, and that their slaves also should have a full supply of food, while their sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers are stinted in the rations on which their health and efficiency depend?”
Not only did Davis somehow believe that the bread rioters were lying about wanting to feed their children, the people at home were actually basking in the enjoyment of abundance. So much abundance was out there that even the slaves had a full supply of food!
And, apart from one last call for patriotism, that’s how he ended it.
Writing after the war, told of the bread riots (again denying they were for bread), and wrote of his April 10th address to the people, but he seemed no closer to understanding how the lower classes around him suffered:
“It was argued that the ruling class living in relative opulence while our less fortunate classes suffered. I received many complaints that I entertained lavishly while the poor did not have bread. But that was not true. We made our own scarifies and suffered without complaint when some of our slaves ran away and a thief stole one of my horses.”
Somehow, he was still unable to fathom that the poor couldn’t afford food, let alone slaves and horses. Davis, from the start of the war to the end of his life, was completely out of touch with the people he claimed to represent and rule.1
- Sources: “Address to the Confederate People” by Jefferson Davis, April 10, 1863, as it appears in A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Confederacy, Volume 1 edited by James Daniel Richardson; The Whirlwind of War: Voices of the Storm, 1861-1865 by Stephen B. Oates. [↩]