One hundred fifty years ago this week, hostilities in the Civil War were few and minor. Most units were hunkered down in winter quarters. Many had been in that posture for weeks. But for Trumbull boys in Opdycke's Tigers, the 125 OVI, that was not the case until Jan. 24, 1864. It was then that they crossed the Tennessee River to set up winter quarters near Louden, Tenn. In a letter to his wife, Lucy, dated Jan. 25, 1864, Col. Emerson Opdycke of Warren said of Louden, "... its reputation for immorality is such, that I have given orders that not a solitary man of my command shall enter the place."
The regiment spent the next three months there in "comparative comfort." Ralsa C. Rice, in his book , "Yankee Tigers" reported, "Our baggage and all camp equipage left at Chattanooga (Nov. 28, 1863) were brought up: also new clothing and plenty of rations. Material for quarters was found, not in any abundance, but enough to enable us to 'patch out.' Our friends at home had worked all fall to secure us recruits for the old companies, now reduced far below the minimum number. These new men reached us here and work was begun to 'break them in.'"
Ban on booze?
On Jan. 21, 1864, the distillation of whiskey was forbidden in the Federal Department of the Ohio, due to the scarcity of grain. Note that the Federal Department of the Ohio consisted of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois and all of Kentucky east of the Tennessee River. In those days, the distillers of whiskey were the same small farmers that grew the grain. Enforcement in as large an area as the Department of Ohio would require a large number of people that were not available. Certainly, the small farmer as an "economic man" would allocate his crop to uses that would maximize his revenue, whatever was optimal between whiskey and grain. And wherever there might be a shortage of whiskey, entrepreneurial bootleggers would certainly emerge.
Trading with the enemy
President Lincoln on Jan. 26, 1864, issued new regulations on the ticklish issue of "trading with the enemy." The practice had, needless to say, been prohibited. In spite of the overt prohibition a semi-illicit trade in cotton between the North and South prevailed throughout the war. However, as Union forces moved into larger areas of the South, many were no longer considered enemy territory. More liberal rules, i.e., legalization of the practice, were therefore needed, and plans were to extend them as practicable as new areas were liberated. Therefore, Lincoln's action was aimed at loosening restrictions on intersectional trade with Union occupied parts of the Confederacy.
Prior to the war, 70 percent of U.S. exports were from the South, primarily in the form of cotton. Although Britain was the largest consumer of Southern cotton, New England was second. So the cotton was just as important to Northern mills as to Britain. In addition, Northern mills needed cotton to produce goods that would go into materials for Union Army needs.
The war, and the federal blockade of Southern ports, sharply curtailed those cotton exports. "This wasn't just a problem for the textile industry: President Lincoln could scarcely hope for a favorable trade balance without cotton. An unfavorable trade balanced would deplete the Union gold reserves. Since gold was the international settlements standard, the situation could strain the Treasury, thereby eroding America's international status and inviting foreign recognition of the Confederacy. At the same time, Lincoln, Seward and others believed that Europeans might intervene if their textiles industries were overly deprived of the commodity. Therefore the decision was made to quietly allow intersectional trade in cotton."
The Southern planters had made a deliberate decision to curtail the sale of cotton early in the war in the misguided hope that the severe shortage would draw Great Britain and France into the war and / or grant recognition to the Confederacy as an independent nation. The planters' deliberate withdrawal from the market coupled with the Union blockade of Southern ports drove the price of cotton up. Within the South, cotton was only worth 10 cents a pound. But outside the South it was worth 70 cents a pound. Clearly, there were big profits to be made with that wide differential, making efforts to prevent North-South trade ineffective. In addition, Lincoln quietly acknowledged that it was far better to allow Northern interests to gain from that differential than European interests.
A couple of factors hurt the Southern withholding strategy. First of all, 1860 yielded a bumper crop and the English mills had large back-up reserves warehoused in 1861. So its demand was considerably less than normal in the early months of the war. Second, England was loathe to antagonize the United States, since it (Britain) was so dependent on Northern produce, especially wheat, to feed its people.
Therefore traders / speculators were granted trading licenses and quietly given safe passage across Union lines to make lucrative deals for the Confederate cotton. Of course they could not cross lines in most cases, if Union officials/officers were not involved. As a consequence, some Union generals profited from the trade. As the Union armies moved southward, generals would often confiscate Southern cotton that the planters did not burn before their arrival, which was the normal practice. Some generals sold the confiscated cotton on their own for personal gain. Lincoln himself admitted to his Illinois friend, William Kellogg, "The officers of the Army in numerous instances are believed to connive and share in the profits" of the cotton trade.
The need for trade was much more straightforward in the South. They needed the revenue from the illicit cotton trade to buy things that they did not have, for example, salt to preserve food and up-to-date weaponry. Historian James McPherson summarized, "The (Jefferson) Davis administration looked the other way out of necessity; the Lincoln administration looked the other way out of policy."
No matter what the motivators were for "looking the other way" the real downside to all this was that the practice enabled the South to buy resources to further the war, especially when it was on the ropes after the fall of Vicksburg. As Phil Leigh wrote in an article that appeared in the New York Times in October of 2012, "With or without cotton, The South was doomed. But the quiet, robust trade in cotton let it live longer and fight harder that it might have otherwise."
Compiled by members of the CW150 Committee of Warren's Sutliff Museum.