The Most Hated Man in the Southern States
The election of 1864 determined that Lincoln would not remain in office, but McClellan was not sworn in until March. In the intervening months we had armistice but not peace, an end to fighting but no end to the blockade, giddy anticipation of a return to normalcy but no actual progress. Lincoln refused all calls for a peace treaty, claiming he had no authority to sunder the Union. The Republican majority of Congress had lost their seats in the last election and were not minded to force the President to action. And so we drifted into winter.
As winter settled on the land it became apparent that the suffering of the people would be dire; more severe, perhaps, than I had foretold. Four years of War and blockade had reduced the Great Southern Railroad to a pale shadow of its former self. Our equipment was worn and frequently broken, our coal stocks exhausted, and too many of our trained mechanics and crewmen lay in hospital, or in graves. This lack of manpower affected also the factories and farms so the harvest of 1864 had been one of the smallest in memory. Famine did stalk the land; food riots occurred in major cities and small towns alike. Despite the mild winter usually felt in the southern states, death from exposure was not uncommon. Those not killed by cold or hunger were so weakened that disease might easily take root.
We were utterly unable to pay our workers; it was impossible to pile up enough wheelbarrow loads of paper currency to give a man a day's wage. Confederate banknotes were worthless, as were state certificates. What little gold or silver coin remained did not circulate but rather was hoarded, as was all US currency. Through the winter the Great Southern continued to run - when it did run - on a combination of barter and promises.
As the Union armies did not stand down, so our armies had to remain in the field. Even had the Union men gone home we would have been required to keep large numbers of men under arms to stem the tide of escaping slaves. These soldiers could scarcely be supplied, much less paid, and desertion became a distinct problem.
Even so, I believe the Confederacy would have struggled on into the bright promise of spring, made peace, bound up its wounds and joined the community of nations, were it not for the insuperable burden posed by the vain, strutting, selfish, heedless men who claimed to be its leaders.
In his inaugural address, President McClellan ended the blockade and announced he would sign a treaty recognizing the existence of the Confederate States. He also declared he would propose greatly expanding the regular army and favored continuing the construction of a first-rate navy. As a final note, he affirmed his support for the Transportation Acts and flatly denied that any runaway slave would be returned to the South.
As a reply, President Rhett gave a landmark speech - the infamous 'Destiny' speech - declaring that Southern honor would be upheld at all costs and runaway slaves recovered, if necessary, at gunpoint. Further, the recovery of the currency and economy would be financed by an export tax on cotton.
"The nations of the world have discovered the vital importance of cotton to their manufactures," he said. "When the spindles of England and France were stilled, great was the injury to their manufacturers, laborers, merchants alike. As the Confederacy is the world's great supplier of cotton, and as that cotton forms the foundation of manufactures and prosperity abroad, so those nations should be pleased to be allowed to purchase it again, despite the increased price. As these foreign nations sprang not to our defense when we were threatened with mortal danger, let them now finance the rebuilding of our Confederacy, our great citadel in defense of our honor and our way of life."
This coupling of expensive cotton with support of slavery proved too much. Even as the blockade was ending and the Treaty of Alexandria signed, the Prime Minister of Great Britain denounced the tax on cotton and announced financial measures of his own. All imports of cotton would be taxed and all exports to the Confederacy would likewise be taxed, with moneys expended for the relief of the poor and the encouragement of cotton agriculture in other parts of the Empire. Further, no loans or credit could be arranged from British banks to any firm in the Confederacy or to the Confederate government while slavery was allowed to continue. These provisions were dutifully copied by France, and more enthusiastically by the United States.
The expected collapse of textiles in New England and in Europe did not occur. In the United States, Arkansas provided quantities of cotton, and there was a lively illegal traffic across the Ohio River. For Britain and France, Indian and Egyptian cotton was grown in greater quantities than had been the case during the War years, and there was a flow of cotton across the Rio Grande to Mexico and thence abroad. In Richmond, government clerks were sent home unpaid as funds ran out; across the South, credit evaporated, planters were destitute, wharves lay idle. The army could not be sustained or paid; desertions grew to a flood and the countryside was ravaged by roaming soldiers. Matters were not improved by the President's order that conscription should be used to restore the army's depleted ranks; the Governor of Georgia threatened to take his own pistol to the first man who tried to enforce conscription in his state.
In June of 1865 the Great Southern experienced our first railroad strikes, so severe that army units were called out to break the strikers and restore service. By September, large portions of the Southern States were in a condition resembling anarchy. In October, I was served with a subpoena for a congressional investigation into the conduct of the War. To my horror I found I - and the Great Southern - were blamed for the privations of the people. The President's authorization, it seemed, had been so worded as to throw the responsibility for any consequences onto myself. The threatened reprisals were in the main financial, money which the government desperately needed but which the railroad was in no condition to supply.
I did not attend the hearings; I attended my wife's sickbed and funeral instead. Despite charges of contempt of congress, the President insisted I should be excused under the circumstances, combining false sympathy with the taint of assumed guilt. Thus I was denied any chance to clear my name. Thus the Great Southern was broken and destroyed. Half the railroad went on strike when Congress announced it had seized the company, and track and equipment were parceled out to a dozen successor companies, most of which promptly failed and were confiscated or resold again and again.
In January of 1866, President McClellan visited Cincinnati and made a brief speech, unremarkable save for one paragraph outlining what would later be called the 'McClellan Doctrine'. If secession was legal and right, he argued, then any Confederate state that wished could return to its former allegiance by agreeing to abide by the Transportation Acts and applying for readmission to the Union.
President Rhett denounced the speech and threatened military occupation of any state attempting to secede from the Confederacy. The resulting storm of outrage literally tore the country apart; the governors of Kentucky and Tennessee, it seemed, had already sent out inquiries to the United States and the McClellan Doctrine was their answer. The armies on the border were ordered to seize control of Kentucky and Tennessee, to no avail. Senior commanders tendered their resignations, South Carolina declared independence in protest, Virginia requested the Confederate government remove itself from Richmond, and what remained of the Confederate Congress fell into accusations and denunciations.
Despite the loss of the Great Southern company, I retained assets enough to maintain myself in comfort, but never while I live will I again know peace. I have lost the light of my life, my only child, and the great labor of my hands... for nothing.
William Forbes Yancey
Those were the last words I ever heard from John Ephraim Haynes; my request for additional interviews was refused. His words echo still, the despairing cry of a man who has outlived everything he ever loved.
I see now the fire has burned low, and the hour is early rather than late. There is very little I can add to the tale already told. As everyone knows, the breakup of the Confederacy was not swift or easy. Nor did all the former rebels seek a return to the fold; Mississippi and Alabama struggle on to this day in uneasy quasi-independence and South Carolina remains defiantly its own nation despite coups and revolutions to challenge the record of Mexico. Haynes, I believe, was more correct in his assessment of the character of the leaders of the Confederacy than anyone wishes to acknowledge. Men less arrogant, proud, stubborn and self-righteous would have sought compromise rather than destroy the old Union. Having brought down the temple, so to speak, they were unable to work together to build anew. By the collapse of the Confederacy when victory was at last assured may we judge the moral fiber - or lack of it - of the men who sought a nation of their own.
If you speak the name of Haynes today to anyone in the Southern States of middling age or more, scorn and vituperation will be your response; puzzled incomprehension will be your lot if the person you ask is younger than twenty years. In that regard, Rhett's revenge is complete. Perhaps at some later time the perspective of history will allow a better assessment of the character, accomplishments, and proper place of this most extraordinary tycoon.
As for Rhett himself, he maintained a shadow Presidency until his death in 1867, shot dead by a disillusioned Confederate veteran.
I shall rest my pen and return to bed. It is not yet the proper time for a defense of John Ephraim Haynes. Someday, perhaps, when old passions have faded, my account may be met with honest curiosity, but that day is not yet come.
At the sideboard I shall pour a dram of brandy and toast the men - and women! - who built the first American railroad empire. To the graders and trackmen, the mechanics and engineers, to the conductors who sang their old refrains halfway across a continent, I shall raise a glass. To men whose labor opened up a quarter of a continent, who gave to every common person a speed faster than the wind at a cost of pennies... to men who proudly served the Bonnie Blue, who made the Great Southern truly great... To the men who dreamed, I shall drink, and above all to the man who did.
To John Ephraim Haynes!
And somewhere, far away in the mist of the predawn hours,
a locomotive whistles its lonesome refrain, and the trains still roll.
Copyright © 2006 - E. Porter Hopson - All Rights Reserved.