“If once they give our people just cause to draw the sword, we shall never sheathe it again until we have washed it clean in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.”
U.S. President William Henry Seward Sr.
In May of 1872 the state of Mississippi imposed a toll on all U.S.-flagged vessels traveling the Mississippi. Why Governor Clark chose to do this in violation of the Treaty of Hampton Roads is not entirely clear, but one theory holds that President Toombs privately encouraged him to do so as a way of testing Yankee resolve. If so, the results of the test were not what Toombs would have wished.
The captain of the Metropolis Belle, a U.S. passenger steamship, knew the terms of the treaty as well as anyone. On May 13, when the authorities in Greenville, Mississippi demanded the toll, he refused to pay. The state militia seized the boat and imprisoned the passengers and crew.
The U.S. of course protested both the toll and the seizure. Toombs replied that this particular article of the treaty only applied to the confederal government, not the government of Mississippi, and that their protests should be directed towards Jackson rather than Richmond. On May 16, U.S. President Seward replied that as part of the CSA, Mississippi was bound by the same obligations. He added: “If you will not enforce your own laws in your own land, then stand aside while we take what is ours.” Toombs replied that “the first Yankee conscript or gunboat to violate Confederate territory will be considered an act of war.”
To judge by the editorials of Southron newspapers, Toombs had Southron public opinion squarely behind him. The Daily Dispatch, a Richmond newspaper, declared that “Seward may bluster, but his generals will inform him (if he cares to listen) that his people are no more capable of contending with us in a contest of skill and valor than they were ten years ago.” The Courier, a Charleston newspaper, and the Mobile Daily Advertiser and Register expressed similar opinions. The Atlanta Daily Intelligencer went further, calling Hampton Roads “an incomplete victory and an imperfect peace,” citing the cession of the Eastern Shore of Virginia without the permission of the state. The Intelligencer suggested that another round of warfare was needed to secure “the full rights of the Confederacy within her natural borders.”
A dissenting view was taken by the New Orleans Picayune, an opposition newspaper whose readership was particularly dependent on the river traffic, and which had opposed Clark’s toll from the beginning. The May 20 editorial in the Picayune stated: “If our President means what he says, then he has taken the doctrine of states’ rights to an anarchic extreme. What nation would enter into an agreement with our government, knowing that the agreement could be flouted at will by any member state? If he does not, then he is playing a very dangerous game with the lives of our fighting men, and placing us all at peril of Black Republican tyranny.”
By this time, Toombs had already ordered Secretary of the Navy Samuel Barron to deploy every river gunboat that could be spared to that part of the Mississippi River just south of the 36th parallel. Seward replied in kind, ordering the U.S. Navy’s Mississippi River Squadron to the border area. By June, that stretch of river had become the setting for an awesome display of mid-19th-century gunboat technology, with screw-propelled ironclads, armored paddle steamers, mortar boats, rams and spar-torpedo boats crowding the waters, ready to attack one another at any moment. Similar confrontations were taking place in the lower Chesapeake and at the mouth of the Potomac.
As the fleets assembled, it soon became apparent to all onlookers that the Southrons were outnumbered by at least seven to two, and outgunned by four or five to one. As Captain Fauntleroy of the Louisiana wired to Secretary Barron, “WILL FIGHT IF ORDERED. CANNOT WIN.” Southron journalists began drawing heroic parallels to “Roland at the pass,” or “the Spartans at Thermopylae,” but it was clear they were whistling in the dark. Meanwhile, the complete halt in commercial traffic along the Mississippi was hurting the economies of both nations, but was hurting the Confederacy rather more.
But it was the mustering of the land armies that truly illustrated the difference. Looking at the figures provided by the state governors and Secretary Barron, Toombs had reason to hope that the Confederacy would be able to muster a hundred thousand men and transport them to the border by the end of the summer… assuming all the state governors cooperated. (Vance and Brown, still governing North Carolina and Georgia, regarded the whole affair as Mississippi’s problem and not theirs and took no action during the crisis. Governor Joseph Wheeler of Alabama was trying to persuade the legislature of his own state to act, but so far without success.) Looking at the figures provided by his spies, however, Toombs had reason to be certain that the Union, with its larger population, better railroads and a superior army organization, would have mustered five hundred thousand men and transported them to the border by that same time. Although he might have claimed in public that one Southern gentlemen could lick ten Yankees, he did not wish to put the claim to a literal test.
A moment of false hope for the Confederates came on June 10, when the ailing Seward suddenly died, leaving the U.S. presidency in the hands of the 41-year-old William D. Washburn. In gleeful tones, the Daily Dispatch quoted Richard III: “Woe to the land that’s govern’d by a child!” The next day, said “child” demanded not only that Mississippi repay the tolls, but repay them with interest.
In desperation, the government turned to its friends abroad, but without success. The British ambassador to Richmond, Laurence Peel, was blunt: “If you believe that Britannia will expose herself to all the hazards of war on behalf of a few provincial Southron toll collectors, you are very much mistaken.” The French ambassador was even more dismissive — Napoleon III had been overthrown, and the new government was seeking to repair relations with the United States. The representatives (neither was officially recognized as an ambassador) for both sides in the Spanish Civil War expressed their sympathies, and regretted that they were not in a position to aid Spain’s friend and ally.
At this point, Toombs was in desperate need of a face-saving escape. One came from an unexpected source — the courts. No sooner had the Belle been impounded than her owners sued the government of Mississippi in the Greenville district court. On June 12, this court received an unexpected amicus curiae brief from Chief Justice Benjamin himself. Acting on this brief, in the matter of Cairo Shipping & Transport Inc. v. State of Mississippi, the court found that the state had indeed exceeded its authority and should not only release the Belle, but repay whatever tolls it had unlawfully exacted from other Yankee ship captains. Toombs immediately ordered this done. “The majesty of the law has done what all the Yankee hordes could not do,” he said. “It has overawed us.” The Confederate river fleet accompanied the Mississippi River Squadron as it steamed unopposed to Greenville to recover the Belle.
For young Washburn it was a triumphant beginning, and one that assured his victory over Samuel Tilden in November. For C.S. President Toombs and the Charleston Coalition, it was a national humiliation made worse by the fact that the hated “damnyankees” had not only proven themselves stronger, but in this case had — by any reasonable measure of international law, including the Confederacy’s own courts — been in the right.
To the New Orleans Coalition, this was proof that in over five years in office Toombs had failed to take thought for the defense of the nation, or the industry and finance that might support it. In August, they nominated former U.S. vice-president and presidential candidate John C. Breckinridge.
“In the late war it was the Yankees’ will that failed them, more than their arms,” said Breckinridge in his acceptance speech. “We cannot count on that happening twice. I have lived among the Yankees. I know their strength. If we are to survive, we Southrons must cultivate strength of our own. Sectional or regional concerns, however important, must not stand in the way of this. The Confederate Constitution is not a suicide pact.”
On learning the identity of his opponent, James Lawrence Orr, CC candidate and Toombs’ chosen successor, immediately sought a ruling from the Confederate Supreme Court on the eligibility of Breckinridge to serve as president. Orr’s argument ran as follows:
• Although Breckinridge was currently a citizen of the state of Tennessee, he was born and lived much of his life in Kentucky, which the Confederacy had denied all claims to in the Treaty of Hampton Roads. He was not, therefore, a native-born citizen of the Confederacy as defined by the Confederate Constitution. Nor was he a Confederate citizen at the moment of the constitution’s adoption, having remained in the Union until he was expelled in December of ‘61.
• In such cases, according to the constitution, a candidate would only be eligible for the presidency after he had been a Confederate citizen for at least fourteen years. As the CSA was only eleven years old, this was logically impossible.
On September 6, the Confederate Supreme Court issued a surprisingly commonsensical ruling. In the case of Orr v. Breckinridge, Chief Justice Benjamin, writing for the majority, noted that the purpose of the restrictions on voting and running for office was “to ensure that elections may not be decided, nor high offices occupied, by men whose loyalty is not to the Confederate States of America” and that “the defendant has given the court, and indeed the world, ample and satisfying proof of where his loyalties lie.” Associate Justice Richard C.L. Moncure added in concurrence that “any white man who has fought for the freedom of our Confederacy may be considered a citizen thereof.”
Not only was Breckinridge free to pursue the presidency, he had now received warm words of praise from the Supreme Court. Moreover, he could make the case to the voters that Orr’s attempt to thwart him in this legalistic manner meant that he was afraid of an honest electoral contest. The campaign, which had been relatively genteel up to this point, already took on a harsher and more strident tone.
It would soon become much, much worse…