Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War by Roger Lowenstein

Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War
By Roger Lowenstein
Penguin Random House
Hardback, 330 pages

Think you got it rough? Financially, old times best forgotten argues Lowenstein

By Jay Wiener
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger

I am always amazed when encountering references in journals and books relying upon family letters and documents of which I am unaware. Discoveries include an article devoted to two brothers of a Rhineland ancestor who, enamored of Napoleon, became Quartermasters during his Russian campaign and a Master’s Thesis at the Mississippi University for Women about an ancestor’s sister in the first graduating class there. Occasionally I connect with distant relatives possessing letters and photographs held by different branches of the family.

What I have never seen—and am clueless where they repose—are family letters delineating daily life in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama during the Civil War. A dearth of details describing daily life in the Deep South then became burdensome reading “Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War”. Ostensibly about Union finances, the book meanders sufficiently that a strength is its diversion into illustrative collateral thoughts. For those with Southern roots, that includes the deteriorating Confederate economy as Richmond’s misdirected policies undermined possibilities of prevailing.

I was raised with Southern veneration of the Old South:

“… I wish I was in Dixie! Hooray! Hooray!

In Dixie’s Land I’ll take my stand, to live and die in Dixie!”

Romanticizing a past that never was, devoid of whippings, rapes, and additional abominations which went unpunished—moonlight and magnolias myths—overlooks that families need not have inhabited a cave during the Siege of Vicksburg to have suffered. People complain of inconvenient inflation today—the highest in forty years—and petroleum prices occasioned by Putin’s assault on Western democracy. What we endure is nothing compared with what ancestors sustained waging a war with next to no chance of succeeding:

Prices increased an estimated 25% by September 1861.

By January 1863, compared to the antebellum period, the price of flour rose two and a half times; meal four times; butter seven times; bacon, candles, and lard eight times; soap eleven times; sugar fourteen times; tea sixteen times; salt and pepper twenty-five times; and coffee forty times.

In 1864, after raising taxes to fund the losing cause, “the annual rate of inflation fell from 700 percent to less than 200 percent”—by more than two-thirds; still hyperinflation; causing disruption not unlike that in Deutschland after the Great War, leading to the demagogic obscenities of the Third Reich.

The following year, at war’s end, one dollar’s worth of gold in Confederate notes at the outset of hostilities was valued at one hundred dollars.

As in any country suffering hyperinflation, the impetus to print new bills compounded the unreality. “Richmond had no choice but to issue the ‘new’ notes. Seventy million were printed by the end of August [1864], nearly $300 million by October…. The government manufactured so many bills that it resorted to printing notes on wallpaper.”

From the beginning of belligerency until “October 1864, the would-be nation had raised nearly 60 percent of its ‘revenue’ by printing it (compared with only one-sixth in the Union). This was a formula for monetary collapse”, which became unavoidable. Ancestors admired for sacrificing for the Lost Cause were unlikely to have been wholly displeased with an armistice.  The economic consequences of the folly persist.

“The price in notes became almost meaningless. As the South devolved toward a state of barter, things were a better barometer. People resorted to monetary substitutes—the classic response to a worthless currency. Newspaper classifieds were choking with offers of secondhand jewelry and watches. Goods were solicited in exchange for ‘Cotton, Bacon or Salted Pork.’ St. Mary’s School in Raleigh advertised board for the term with a salary of fifty dollars ‘payable in provisions, or in cotton cloth, or cotton yarns.’”

The rate of inflation over the duration of the Civil War was 9,000%. Anyone viewing the Confederacy as a Golden Age and the present as Armageddon is delusional. The “Old times there… not forgotten” never existed.

Jay Wiener is a Jackson attorney.


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