Chapter 15


Between Lincoln's election and his inauguration there was a frenzied calm. Southern politicians had blustered and threatened before and the North had always backed down; now, for the first time the South had warned of dire consequences and the North had paid not the least attention. Never mind the election was as fair, and as honest as any. Never mind that Lincoln had professed no intention of ending slavery, merely of keeping it from new territories and states. Never mind any of that; the plain fact was the South had issued an ultimatum, and been taken up on the offer, and now was adrift without quite knowing what should be done. The fire-eaters were for immediate dis-union and war if necessary. Cooler heads still hoped that something could be worked out, but the South had now used up the patience of the North and any concession must come from the South. Which, to over-proud Southern men, was unthinkable.

On December 17th a convention in South Carolina voted for secession. With that example before them, the other states of the Deep South would also vote to go out, and rather than remain separate sovereign nations they would seek to form a new government. This convention was to meet in Montgomery, Alabama and was to be charged with writing a Constitution, establishing a provisional government and readying the states for the possibility of war. No-one had forgotten Andrew Jackson's threat to march troops into South Carolina to uphold the Union, and while President Buchanan clearly would do no such thing, it was impossible to say what the new Lincoln administration might attempt.

In any event, the convention was to meet in Montgomery as I have said, and as this was a city linked by the Great Southern I made arrangements for additional trains, including private cars for delegates and their families if a group was traveling together. This was no expression of sympathy for the Southern cause - I had no use for slavery then or later, having freed my servants and employed only whites or freedmen on my railroad. I was looking out for the best interests of that railroad in making sure the new political masters were well taken care of.

Montgomery was a smallish town then, a boisterous place given over to boosterism and wild predictions of future greatness. The society people of Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans were first amused and then somewhat appalled at the muddy streets and rude hotel establishments. Still, there were some good and generous people there, and they hosted the guests as amicably as could be wished. For my own part I made certain the travel arrangements were well looked-after, attended the opening day and then only went back once, of which I will tell you.

I traveled in style, the railroad having provided a set of two private cars. One consisted of luxurious apartment accommodations for my self and my family on the rare occasions they accompanied me. The second served as a rolling office and living quarters for the clerks and secretaries, and boasted its own telegraph key and operator. During the War that followed I lived more often in these cars than I did in my own home, traveling so far and fast behind a special locomotive that I would sleep in one state and wake in another.

I had journeyed up to Montgomery for the climax of the convention; not the unveiling of a new Constitution but the election of the Provisional President. There had been much behind-the-scenes politicking for the Presidency and the various cabinet offices, but there was a general understanding of how things would go. As the biggest and most populous state of this new Confederation, Georgia would receive the Presidency and Robert Toombs was the favorite for the post. South Carolina would have liked to claim it but had no-one of the necessary stature, and so might have the cabinet portfolio for State. And so it would go, each state claiming a post.

In particular I had in mind attendance at a Montgomery Hall social affair hosted by James Chesnut of South Carolina and his beautiful wife Mary, friends of my wife from her earliest days. The evening was beautiful, the conversation sparkling and I was introduced to a great many men I would come to know much better in the next few years. Of particular note was the presumptive new President, Robert Toombs of Georgia. A tall, bluff, hearty man, the sort of fellow to whom you took an instant liking. I was much impressed with his sensible manner and thoughtful speech. It was apparent - and soon - that he had a great love of spirits and no head for them, and if he did not quite disgrace himself he did extinguish his rising star. Also at the party was Robert Barnwell Rhett, still editor of the Charleston Mercury and still convinced of his own rightness and magnificence. I made no effort to accost him and he in turn avoided me, and so the evening passed quite pleasantly.

On the next day I consulted with some of the Alabama delegation, including your cousin Yancey, pledging the support of the Great Southern to this new enterprise. Fools that they were they quite failed to grasp what a boon the railroad would be to their independence effort. Disgusted, I made no mention of our stockpiles of rifles and gunpowder. I did learn that intense politicking was being conducted and no-one could claim to know who would be President. Within a day or two - I cannot now recall, and it does not signify - the election was held through a polling of the delegates, each state casting one vote. The results were as shocking to the delegates themselves as to the public at large: the former senator from Mississippi, Jefferson Davis, would be President. A courier was dispatched by telegram and I laid on a special train to wait in Jackson for the new chief executive.

There was one other office filled that day: the overlooked Vice-Presidency. Alexander Stephens would have been a unanimous choice for a position which entailed a great deal of work and no glory whatsoever, but it was not to be. Whether in a pique caused by the rejection of his good friend Toombs for President, or because of his many infirmities, Stephens had made known his unwillingness to accept a position. In later days he was to remark that the Montgomery convention was full of 'selfish, ambitious, and unscrupulous' men, and his comment could not have been more apt with regard to the man who was elected to the office Stephens disdained: my old enemy, Robert Barnwell Rhett.

Between the Montgomery Convention and the actual outbreak of War, I bluffed and blustered my way into numerous meetings with President Davis and prominent members of the Confederate Congress. Foremost on my mind was the preservation of my one priceless asset: trained manpower.

With the proclamation of Confederate independence, many of our artisans, mechanics and engineers chose to return to their Northern homeland. The scant few who remained in my employ were vitally needed to keep the railroad functioning, and the machine shops, iron works and other industries in production. On every hand I met with incomprehension, or disbelief that a War - IF one came at all - could last more than a few weeks. My protests and expostulations were given no credence; if those men enlisted, I could expect no help in having them detailed back to the railroad.

Two events transpired to bring enlightenment to those who would not see, and fortunately for the Confederacy the light came sooner rather than later. In the first instance, the Great Southern was so bereft of engineers and workmen of all sorts that half our weekly schedule to Montgomery went unfilled. The absence of rail service, and the lack of every sort of material and manufacture, put Montgomery under a virtual state of siege relieved only by a rare steam-engine whistle. The second straw - and the one that broke the proverbial camel's back - was our use of Africans to run the trains. The good Confederate citizens were outraged - riotous! - to see black men selling tickets, firing and driving trains, and working as conductors! But I held firm; if train service was to be maintained, either good men must be recruited and trained from the abundant slave population, or trainmen must be detailed from the Army and returned to the railroad. In the end, prejudice triumphed and some trainmen were returned. For my part I was wholly satisfied with either solution; I found freedmen to be in the main willing to work hard and grateful for the opportunity.



Of the first order of business was the disposition of my cached rifles and ammunition; governors and the Confederate War Department alike clamored for them. I refused to sell them, however, and rebuffed all threats of seizure, until I obtained an audience with President Davis. There I offered my arsenal to the Confederacy for no more than expenses, gratifying and astonishing the President. I quickly saw that behind his formal, reserved fašade he was a man who appreciated loyalty and returned it fiercely. In the months and years to come I would be repaid many-fold for that generous gesture.

It seemed to me that the Confederacy urgently needed to bring the Upper South and Border States in, for the bulk of the population, industry and vital raw materials were to be found north of our present borders. I argued vehemently for every effort to be made to secure the admission of Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia at the very least. In part my motives were not of the purest; at any moment a state or the Federal government might seize millions of dollars in track, cargo, facilities and rolling stock, and I was determined this should not happen. But I was convinced - and I was right, young man! - the Deep South could not stand on its own for any long span of time.

My efforts were fruitless, and as it turned out, unnecessary. Lincoln himself precipitated the issue by calling for the states to furnish troops to put down the rebellion, and most of the Upper South decided to secede upon that instant. Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia all voted to go out, some by narrow margins; Arkansas hovered on the verge but, mindful that they might at last be free of Texas, remained in the Union. Maryland and Delaware would never have been allowed to secede; the Federal government held the streets of Baltimore with Federal troops, and there was not so much Southern sympathy in either state. Of note were the curious maneuvers in Virginia, which the Federal government desired to hold above all else. Although the matter was never committed to paper, promises were made that Virginia would not be called upon for troops should she hold true, and the offer was so attractive it was very nearly accepted. Had Virginia a governor less committed to secession, the Old Dominion would very likely have remained in the Union.

Missouri and Kentucky were a different story. This far west, Federal power was limited and diffuse, and both states were about equally split between adherents for secession and for Union. The determining factor was, I believe, the network of railroad rails, which provided easy access to Kentucky from the South, and to Missouri from the North and East. In Kentucky the governor was pro-Union and the legislature pro-Confederate; the reverse applied in Missouri. In both states camps were set up for Union and for Confederate sympathizers, and here the similarities begin to break down.

One of the main lines of the Great Southern was the Louisville to Nashville road, over which we were able to move quantities of arms, ammunition and supplies and stores of all kinds. There was no direct rail link to St Louis, and the majority of steam-boat men were residents of Illinois, Indiana and other Union states. They were unwilling to carry any freight that might assist the rebellion, whereas our railroad had no such trouble. In this wise John C Breckinridge was able to deploy a field force, sequester the Governor, allow the legislature to meet and pull the state to the Confederate camp. In Missouri, the forces of Sterling Price were routed by General Nathaniel Lyons, whose men were equipped from the Federal arsenal and from railroad lines to Chicago and points east.

Missouri was in this way lost to us, but Kentucky was saved, and we began a great effort to strengthen our forces in that region. Louisville itself was virtually ringed in fortifications - presciently and fortunately, for the Federals were soon to make a mighty effort to wrest Kentucky from our grasp. Abraham Lincoln reportedly said that he hoped to have God on his side but must have Kentucky. In this, as in much else, he was right.

Of the bloody events of 1861, I can say but little, as I was not present for any of them. Beauregard shelled Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor and forced it to surrender, bringing on the War and making the South appear the aggressors. Manassas was a disaster for the Union, and Albert Sydney Johnston used Louisville to frustrate Buell's first offensives in Kentucky. Much blood was shed for little result, but as the months wore on two truths emerged: the North was persisting in the fight, and Great Britain was not inclined to come to the aid of the South. Men who had doubted and denied now began to understand that this could be a very long war indeed, and one in which the South was entirely cast upon its own resources.



Chapter 16

Back to Cover Page

Top