Why the Cause Failed
Alexander Hamilton Stephens

Wonder and surprise have been expressed in a number of papers at the suddenness and completeness of the collapse of the Confederate Cause, etc. This wonder and surprise proceed from lack of accurate knowledge of public sentiment in the South. Resistance to the last extremity, it is said, was expected, and yet, more than 100,000 men-in-arms yielded the contest, abandoned the conflict, quit the field, surrendered on parole and went home.

The facts are these as I understand them: No people on earth were ever more united, earnest, resolved to resist to the last extremity, than the Southern people at the outbreak of the war and during its first two years. They were ready to sacrifice property, life, everything, for the Cause, which was then simply the right of self-government. They conscientiously believed that the old Union was a compact between Sovereign Independent States; only certain powers named in the Constitution had been delegated by the States separately to the Central Government; among these was not ultimate absolute Sovereignty, this being retained by the States separately in the reserved powers; each State had the right to withdraw from the Central Government the powers delegated by repealing the ordinance that conferred them and herself resuming their full exercise as a free Independent Sovereign State, such as she was when the compact or the Union under the Constitution was formed. These principles and doctrines the great majority cherished as sacred and as underlying the whole framework of American constitutional liberty. Thousands who disapproved Secession as a matter of policy did not question it as a matter of right. The war waged by the Central Government against these States, striking at their Sovereignty and causing as it would, if successful, their complete subjugation, these people considered unconstitutional, monstrously aggressive, and utterly destructive to everything dear to them as freemen.

The slavery question had but little influence with the masses. Many even of the large slave-holders, to my personal knowledge, were willing from the first years of the war to give up that institution for peace on recognition of the doctrine of ultimate Sovereignty of the separate States, allowing upon this basis the formation of any new Union that the several Independent Parties in convention, or otherwise, might determine upon. Few sensible men of the South ever expected or desired a distinct Independent Nation embracing none but the slave States. The view of the great mass was that with the recognition of the principle of State Sovereignty as a basis of adjustment, the future might well be left to take care of itself; the States would soon assume relations to each other in such political bonds as would be most conducive to the interest, peace, happiness, and prosperity of all. These views and principles were what mainly animated the breasts of an overhelming majority at the South. In their views not only their own domestic institution of the subordination of the African race amongst them was involved in the issue, but the very essence of constitutional liberty. So long as these principles were the watchword in the camp and at home, the people were ready to sacrifice everything in maintenance of the cause.

When the Government at Richmond itself commenced to violate some of these great cardinal principles for which hundreds of thousands had volunteered their lives, the ardour of many at home and in the army was dampened. The first great blow was conscription! With this came impressments, suspension of habeas corpus, military arrests and imprisonments, martial law. The effect upon the minds of the Southern people was fatal to the Confederate Cause. Besides in the management of the finances, the line of policy pursued by the Executive and Congress in almost every department of government soon led the most sensible men of the country to believe that there was not enough wisdom or statesmanship in control to afford reasonable hope for ultimate success. The course of the Administration during the last year toward the peace sentiment in the Northern States and toward the States Rights men influenced many to believe that Mr. Davis did not desire and was not looking for success upon the principle of State Sovereignty - the only real issue in the war - but was aiming at the establishment of a dynasty of his own.

Apprehensions were increased by the tone of the press known to be most in the confidence of the Administration; and by the avowed sentiments of some near the President and standing highest in his favour; by these, State Rights and State Sovereignty was ridiculed, sneered at, scoffed at. Many, with misgivings and forebodings, continued to support the Cause as the best they could do, hoping that the election in the Northern States might bring about a change of administration there, and with it some offer of negotiation or settlement leading to peace on the principle of State Sovereignty. The spirit of the army, though greatly dampened, was still resolute to maintain the Cause during that campaign, hoping for some change of policy at both Richmond and Washington by the coming fall. Such were the conditions during the summer and up to the meeting of the Confederate Congress in Richmond in November, 1863.

Mr. Davis's message at the opening of the session produced a sensation throughout the country, even in the circle of his hitherto most zealous defenders. With many reflective people, the feeling was little short of consternation. This feeling extended to the masses. The policy foreshadowed in that message, if carried out would lead to a centralized, consolidated, military despotism, as absolute and execrable as that of Russia or Turkey. This, men in the army and men elsewhere saw. The question was asked by many, What will be the fruits of success on this line? No answer satisfactory to a friend of constitutional liberty could be given. The only reply pretended to be given was, Independence. Sensible men knew, in the first place, that independence could never be achieved on that line; they knew too much of the men who constituted the armies, and of the objects and purposes for which they entered the fight. But secondly and mainly, they loathed, detested, and abhorred any such independence as that policy would secure.

These feelings spread and increased; the tone of the press only gave them new impulse. Thousands entertained them who would not venture to express them except in a private and most confidential way. Amongst friends it became common to say: Is it of any use to prolong the conflict? Why sacrifice more lives? Will ultimate success be any better in any view of the subject, even so far as the institution of slavery is concerned, than subjugation? Mr. Davis in his message virtually yields that institution forever. His principles announced in relation to it are as unconstitutional as those of Mr. Lincoln in his Emancipation Proclamation. No difference in principle between the utterances of these men; both make necessity of war override constitutional limitations of power. What interest, therefore, have we, looking to the guarantee of rights either of person or property, in prosecution of the war? Will not independence, if achieved by Davis under his line of policy, bring with it almost necessarily a far worse despotism than any yet foreshadowed by Lincoln? Lincoln, it is true, utterly ignores the doctirne of the Sovereignty of the States; Davis in his message, thought not avowedly, yet in effect does the same. His recommendation for general and universal conscription, not exempting governors, judges, and legislators of States except by his special grant of favour, strikes for all practical purposes as deadly a blow at independent State organization, States Rights, or State Sovereignty, as anything Lincoln has done or can do. Thus men argued within themselves; thus talked among themselves, many even of those who had been ardent, zealous advocates of secession. Thus the masses and the army felt. Thus the cause was given up: it was not lost because the great body of soldiers were not as ready to resist to the last extremity and as willing to die in the maintenance of their principles as when they put their armour on, but because they saw and felt that the cause in which they had enlisted was not that in which they were now called to risk their lives and shed their blood. This is the real and true reason why the great masses of the Southern people have so generally and quietly accepted the present state of things. This is the explanation of what strikes so many at the North with wonder and surprise.


Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens edited by Myrta Lockett Avary
Originally published by Sunny South Publishing Company and Doubleday, Page & Company, 1910
Louisana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1998, pages 165-170.