Friday, June 6, 2014

Leigh: "TRADING WITH THE ENEMY: The Covert Economy During the American Civil War"

[Trading with the Enemy: The Covert Economy During the American Civil War by Philip Leigh (Westholme, 2014) Hardcover, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:165/200. ISBN:9781594161995 $26]

Intersectional trade during the Civil War was a controversial matter, often pitting the Lincoln administration and businessmen against military leaders and congress, although elements of the latter two were not above enriching themselves, family, and friends when the opportunity arose. Philip Leigh's Trading with the Enemy: The Covert Economy During the American Civil War offers readers a general overview of wartime domestic and foreign commercial exchange in cotton. When it came to trading with the South, there was more common cause against it in the North during the early war period, when illusions of a short war existed. However, when the war dragged on and Union army and naval forces penetrated the cotton growing regions, the allure of speculative riches and the need to keep New England spindles running put pressure on the Union government to authorize a system by which licensed buyers, either treasury agents or civilians, could purchase cotton.

Leigh begins the book with an overview of cotton's importance to international commerce. As we all know, fears that cotton shortages would induce France and Britain to recognize the Confederacy proved to be without foundation, but it seemed a legitimate concern at the time. The author also summarizes the evolutionary starts and stops of official US policy on the domestic cotton trade, describing the failure of the Port Royal Experiment and similar government sponsored endeavors in the Mississippi Valley to supply the North with enough cotton to eliminate the need to resort to legal and illegal trade with the enemy. Writing a comprehensive history of the covert economy would require a thicker tome than this one, but the author's focus on the busy ports of Matamoros, New Orleans, and Norfolk gives readers a sense of the scale of corruption and money involved. Intentional or not, each place serves as a case study for each of the three main theaters (with Matamoros uniquely vital to neutral trade with the South, as well). Leigh also follows the earlier work of Robert Kerby and others in describing how the cross-border cotton trade made the independent survival of the Confederacy's Trans-Mississippi department possible after the fall of Vicksburg.

A common theme throughout the book is Lincoln's support for regulated intersectional trade and his belief that circulating greenbacks among the southern populace would undermine their support for the Confederacy and bring them closer to their former connections. With so much fraud and abuse involved, and comparatively few reaping the benefits, this idea seems not to have borne fruit. Typical of his management style, Lincoln was also liberal in handing out permits, withdrawing them only when the outcry from his military commanders and political allies could not be ignored.

The larger point Leigh seeks to drive home is his belief that the Confederacy's war effort benefited far more than the North's from intersectional trade, its influx of desperately needed hard currency used to great effect in arming, equipping, and supplying its armies while the primary northern benefactors were individuals and the comparatively non-essential textile industries. This seemingly accurate interpretion may be an oversimplification, and, really, it is difficult to come up with good data, as smugglers did not keep records and even the paperwork associated with the legally sanctioned trade often did not reflect reality. More documentation detailing to what degree the two main Confederate armies were directly dependent on this trade is needed.  As opposed to being a product of forensic historical accounting methods, much of the evidence presented in the book is anecdotal in nature, their origins traced to a single published source. But raising these concerns does not demean Leigh's thoughtful work, which effectively synthesizes the limited literature pertaining to the subject into an appealing and useful primer.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review. It was fascinating to research the topic.

    Some aspects stretch across 150 years to the present. For example, Charles Stillman was a Matamoros trader who was so enriched that after the war he became the largest shareholder in New York's National City Bank. His son, grandson, and great-grandson each became Board Chairman of the bank, with the great-grandson occupying the seat as late as 1967.

    Today that bank is known as Citicorp.


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