Jefferson Davis’ State of the (Dis)Union

December 7, 1863 (Monday)

Jeff Davis saw things a bit differently.

Jeff Davis saw things a bit differently.

The end of the year is often seen as a time to reflect back upon the past twelve months – to honestly view ones accomplishments as well as reverses. For President Jefferson Davis, it was such a time. This date marked the first day of the Fourth Secession of the First Confederate Congress. And it was on this date that Davis addressed the congress with a long message of reflection.

Since he last met with this Congress in the Spring, he focused mainly upon the happenings of the summer and fall. “Grave reverses befell our arms soon after your departure from Richmond,” he reminded the assembled. “Early in July, our strongholds at Vicksburgh and Port Hudson, together with their entire garrisons, capitulated to the combined land and naval forces of the enemy. The important interior position of Jackson next fell into their temporary possession. Our unsuccessful assault on the post at Helena was followed, at a later period, by the invasion of Arkansas; and the retreat of our army from Little Rock gave to the enemy the control of the important valley in which it is situated.”

He tried to shine a better light on things by explaining that “the resolute spirit of the people soon overcame the despondency.” He also focused instead upon the Trans-Mississippi Army’s minor victories.

Jefferson Davis as yet made no mention of Gettysburg. Vicksburg and the loss of the Mississippi River were of far more importance to him. Next came Charleston, but with this also some better news: “The determined and successful defense of Charleston against the joint land and naval operations of the enemy, afforded an inspiring example of our ability to repel the attacks even of the iron-clad fleet, on which they chiefly rely….”

All through the summer, the Federals had tried to recapture Fort Sumter, and by this point the near daily bombardment had reduced the once proud structure to little more than a pile of rubble.

For instance, this is apparently how he viewed slavery.

For instance, this is apparently how he viewed slavery.

While everything Davis covered thus far was more or less true, he decided to spin the Gettysburg Campaign a little differently. It was not a failed campaign to invade the north, culminating in a bumbling offensive battle the South could hardly afford. Rather, it was part of a grand scheme.

General Lee had been “determined to meet the threatened advance on Richmond,” said Davis, “by forcing their armies to cross the Potomac and light in defense of their own capital and homes. Transferring the battle-field to their own soil, he succeeded in compelling their rapid retreat from Virginia, and, in the hard-fought battle of Gettysburg, inflicted such severity of punishment as disabled them from early renewal of the campaign as originally projected.”

It wasn’t all roses, of course. Lee’s communications had been interrupted by the floods “and he was thus forced to withdraw.” The Army of the Potomac apparently had nothing to do with it.

Davis naturally played up Braxton Bragg’s victory at Chickamauga, calling it “one of the most brilliant and decisive victories of the war.” Unfortunately, after the combined Federal forces gathered strength in Chattanooga, they attacked Bragg. Even more unfortunately “some of our troops inexplicably abandoned positions of great strength, and, by a disorderly retreat, compelled the commander to withdraw the forces elsewhere successful, and, finally, to retire with his whole army to a position some twenty or thirty miles to the rear.”

It had little to do with this....

It had little to do with this….

Davis next moved to foreign relations, but there was little good to say (though he respoke the entire history of Confederate relations with Europe, beginning at the start of the war). He then went on for a long, long time regarding each of the previous Congressional secession, before finally returning to the state of the army as a whole.

“Though we have lost many of the best of our soldiers and most patriotic of our citizens—the sad and unavoidable result of the battles and toils of such a campaign as that which will render the year 1863 ever memorable in our annals,” spoke Davis, “the army is believed to be, in all respects, in better condition than at any previous period of the war.”

The President was mostly painting a very heroic picture of the state of the military. The soldiers were “now veterans, familiar with danger, hardened by exposure, and confident in themselves and their officers.” The Confederate Army, Davis put forth, “has not been equaled by any like number in the history of the war.”

And certainly nothing to do with this.

And certainly nothing to do with this.

There was, however, a problem. The North had called upon more volunteers and had enacted sweeping conscription laws. Though the Confederacy was the first of the two governments to open a national draft, it was not going as well as he had hoped. He asserted that “no effort must be spared to add largely to our effective force as promptly as possible.”

Davis wished to accomplish this by “putting an end to substitution, modifying the exemption law, restricting details, and placing in the ranks such of the able-bodied men now employed as wagoners, nurses, cooks, and other employees, as are doing service for which the negroes may be found competent.” Basically, if a white man was doing anything that a black person could also do, that white man should be in the ranks.

This had much to do with exemptions. The Confederacy had been very liberal about who could be exempted from the draft. Not only pacifists (such as Mennonites), but anyone who had a skill that would help the war effort, and, of course, most slave owners.

And this was just how the Yankees destroyed the "poor negroes."

And this was just how the Yankees destroyed the “poor negroes.”

Though Davis mentioned nothing about conscripting slave owners, he did want to include skilled laborers. He hoped to swap younger skilled laborers with older ones who were except from the draft due to age. Ultimately, he hoped that by replacing “not only enlisted cooks, but wagoners and other employees in the army, by negroes, it is hoped that the ranks of the army will be so strengthened for the ensuing campaign as to put at defiance the utmost efforts of the enemy.”

He also complained that the Federal government had ceased the practice of exchanging prisoners. Now, once a Confederate soldier was captured, he would be held in a prison camp. Davis called this a “barbarous policy,” but would soon follow suit.

In closing, Davis detailed “the savage ferocity which still marks the conduct of the enemy in the prosecution of the war.” This included offenses against “the unfortunate negroes.” The Northerners had “forced into the ranks of their army every able-bodied [black] man that they could seize, and have either left the aged, the women, and the children to perish by starvation, or have gathered them into camps, where they have been wasted by a frightful mortality.”

This, on the other hand, was how the South hoped to win the war. We'll see how well that worked for them.

This, on the other hand, was how the South hoped to win the war. We’ll see how well that worked for them.

Davis sadly lamented that the black southerners were “treated with aversion and neglect” by the Union soldiers. He strangely predicted that “in all localities where the enemy have gained a temporary foothold, the negroes, who under our care increased six fold in number since their importation into the colonies of Great Britain, will have been reduced by mortality during the war to not more than one half their previous number.” He claimed to have heard this from “the negroes who succeeded in escaping from the enemy.”

“God has blessed us with success disproportionate to our means,” Davis finally wrapped, “and, under his divine favor, our labors must at last be crowned with the reward due to men who have given all they possess to the righteous defense of their inalienable rights, their homes, and their altars.”1

  1. Sources: Jefferson Davis’ December 7, 1863 speech to the Confederate Congress. []
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