On the Number of Confederate States

On the Number of Confederate States:

A Mini-Rant

by G. E. Rule

Q: So, what set you off this time?

A: I was reading William W. Freehling’s The South vs The South and he referred in the preface to “the eleven Confederate states”.

Q: Oh. Left out Missouri and Kentucky, did he?

A: Yup.

Q: Well, he’s hardly the only one to have done that, right?

A: True. This isn’t an anti-Freehling rant; he just wins the “match that lit Geo’s fire this time” award.  His book will be on our Missouri Civil War Syllabus; on the Union list.

Q: You’d think he’d know better, wouldn’t you?

A: He does know better. They all know better.

Q: So he’s doing it just to annoy you?

A: Hardly. Let’s not get paranoid here.

Q: Then why?

A: Well, this is speculative, but I think there is a natural desire to try to make neat and tidy a situation that by its very nature was unneat and untidy. This is what historians do; try to organize complex situations in a way that makes sense for the reader. Unfortunately, that just isn’t appropriate when a key attribute of the situation itself is its untidy nature. Organizing this aspect of the Civil War as regards Missouri and Kentucky is a disservice that results in miscommunication, not clarification.

Q: Well, look, how can you say Missouri wasn’t a Union state when the Union controlled it virtually throughout the war?

A: Where did I say it wasn’t a Union state?

Q: Umm.  Up there where you said it should be listed as one of 13 Confederate states.

A: Ah. See, there’s the problem. You are trying to impose a neat, tidy, binary, mutually exclusive view of the world onto a situation that was everything but neat, tidy, etc. Insisting that Missouri and Kentucky be listed as Confederate states is not the same as saying that the Confederates controlled those states.

Q: Then how do you define a “Confederate state”?

A: That’s easy; by reference to the group that “owned” that definition. The Congress of the Confederate States of America is the only rational referee for what was and wasn’t a “Confederate State”.  They admitted Missouri in November of 1861 and Kentucky in December of the same year.

Q: Doesn’t the Union get a say in that definition?

A: Yes, indeed. The Union got the ultimate say. The Union said all along—and by May of 1865 were able to enforce that understanding—that there were no Confederate states. However, this isn’t too interesting a point for discussing the war itself.

Q: Really, the Union claimed there were no Confederate states? No war?

A: Right. Just a “rebellion”, but the Union often talked out of both sides of its mouth on this issue when it suited the needs of the moment, particularly with foreign governments. Under international law, it was necessary for there to be a “war” so that Southern ports could be blockaded, foreign ships stopped and searched, etc. The correspondence with the British government was particularly convoluted (and nasty) on this point. Pretty much that was handled the way the Mafia would handle it; “Gee, that sure is a nice colony you have up there in Canada. Would be a darn shame if something happened to it. You’ve heard of the Monroe Doctrine, right?  Uh huh. Well, have a nice day.”

Q: So, if the Union said there were no “Confederate states”, what were they fighting?

A: The 11 states that the Union said were in rebellion. Yes, that’s where the 11 comes from.  This list of 11 states bears an unremarkable resemblance to the 13 Confederate states, with only Missouri and Kentucky missing. Of course, Missouri ended up being under martial law for practically the entire war, and Kentucky for a good chunk of it, but according to the Union they were never actually “in rebellion”. This had more to do with being nice to the Pro-Union forces in those states than anything else—though it did have some benefits. During the war there were congressmen and senators from Missouri at Washington, DC (just as there were in the Confederate congress at Richmond), and at the end of the war Missouri and Kentucky were never subjected to Congressional Reconstruction because they had never officially (by the Union definition) been “in rebellion”. The Union gets to own their definition of “in rebellion” just as the Confederates get to own their definition of a “Confederate state”.

Q: So which list should we use? The Union’s list of 11, or the Confederates list of 13?

A: Both. It just depends on the context. Indeed the Confederate list of 13 actually makes Freehling’s point better than the Union list of 11, as it shows that even from the start a major part of the Confederacy was not under their control.

Q: Well, but isn’t there some question of the legitimacy of Missouri’s secession from the Union at that rump meeting of the Assembly at Neosho? Something about quorums, whether the legislature had the right in the first place, etc?

A: You’re kidding, right? How is this different from the previous question/answer about the Union’s view of these matters and their ultimately successful effort to enforce that view? Read Parrish’s Turbulent Partnership: Missouri and the Union 1861-1865 on “one of the most unusual extralegal actions any state ever witnessed” in the setting up of the Pro-Union Provisional Government with Hamilton R. Gamble as governor. Look into the creation of the state of West Virginia for another example. All of these are good examples of the essential messiness of civil wars. Over-organizing it does violence to the ability to actually understand it. If things had gone differently, perhaps the state of “West Virginia” would have disappeared to become a footnote in history and the subject of a mini-rant by the webmaster of www.civilwarwheeling.com.

Q: Just for the sake of argument I’ll concede the technical point for the moment. But it doesn’t really make much of a difference, does it?

A: Oh yes it does. All the difference in the world on several important points. If you believed that Claiborne Jackson (or, later, Thomas C. Reynolds) was your governor and your state was part of the Confederate States of America, your view of the loyalty oath the Provost Marshall wanted you to take was likely to be quite different than if you believed that Hamilton R. Gamble was your governor and that Missouri was part of the Union. Also, just what was “sabotage”? Makes a big difference if you believe that the rightful government of Missouri had ordered you to blow up that bridge or tear up those rails to prevent their use by “the invader”–and just as big a difference that the fellows who caught you at it had a different view of the matter. We’ve seen evidence that there was a man in St. Louis who was the “official representative” of the Confederate government in the city. He probably didn’t advertise the fact in the newspapers, but if you were of a certain belief and could find him, then he was the highest ranking government official in St. Louis, and those rude boys in blue were just putting on airs.

Q: Hmph. Well, I doubt you’ll get anything like consensus on this argument.

A: So what else is new?