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Trading with the Enemy: The Covert Economy During the American Civil War (New York Times Disunion) Hardcover – May 20, 2014
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Leigh concentrates on the corruption which erupted because of the skyrocketing value of cotton bales and the relative ease in which cotton could be bought, stolen or captured near the front lines. While the author is very good at detailing incidents of smuggling and licensed trade he neglects to discuss how, even with an imperfect blockade and imperfect enforcement of the Federal laws, the cotton trade was never able to feed the Confederate coffers. He also doesn't speak much of the secondary trade of food from Union lines to the Confederate armies. In the last weeks of the war, after the fall of Fort Fisher, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was being fed via trading posts in North Carolina and Norfolk... keeping the war going for at least a month if not longer.
Leigh's writing suggests that no Union campaign was launched unless there was some way of making money off of the cotton trade. This is certainly a stretch, although there were no doubt many opportunists on the Union side.
Casual students of the Civil War might well be surprised at the extent of the trading between North and South and about why it took place. Much of the answer Leigh provides revolves around cotton and how cotton dominated the economies of both sections and of Europe. In the first and most important chapter of his book, Leigh discusses the cotton economy and how it made allies of Southern planters and New England textile mill owners and accounted for about two-thirds of American exports. During the War, the North continued to need a large supply of cotton, and it saw the need of getting a supply of cotton to Europe to prevent intervention on behalf of the Confederacy. Economic interconnection formed the basis for extensive trading during the Civil War. Leigh adopts a heavily economic theory for the origins of the conflict on both sides with the South fighting for slavery and the North fighting for continued economic domination. The book's focus on the economic nature of the North's war counters some overly-idealized portrayals of Union war aims.
Leigh then examines the laws and policies the Union and the Confederacy adopted about trading with the enemy and how their approached changed during the War. Broadly speaking, the South depended on the North for food, materials, and even weapons and often had to look the other way to allow the trading. Northern aims were more complex. They included avoiding a run on gold, providing Southerners an incentive to return to the Union, and getting a supply of cotton to support the economy. Different views arose on the desirability of trading. The applicable laws were complex, changing and full of loopholes. The nature of the laws and of the activity itself gave ample opportunity for corruption. Leigh thus argues that greed and the desire for gain were driving factors in the Union's trading with the enemy. He maintains that the Union trade policy allowed the Confederacy to prolong the War at the cost of many lives.
The remaining chapters of the book document trading between North and South at various times and theaters of the War. Leigh examines the failed "Port Royal Experiment" in the South Carolina Sea Islands under which the Union attempted to oversee the production of cotton by former slaves. Then, he examines both licit and mostly illicit trading at the small port of Matmoros, Mexico, across from Brownsville Texas. Leigh's examination of trading along the Mississippi River focuses on the corrupt activities of Union General Ben Butler in New Orleans. Among many other things, Leigh also considers Uysses Grant's notorious General Order No. 11 of December 17, 1862, banning Jewish traders from his military district. Leigh shows how Union shippers used a variety of stratagems to evade the Union blockade with respect to both import and export activities with the South. He discusses how Union control over the port of Norfolk, Virginia, led to opportunities for trading abuse, including the provision of food and weapons for Lee's army late in the war. In a lengthy chapter, Leigh discusses the trans-Mississippi theater of the War and the ways in which North-South trading impacted the United States' relationship with Mexico. Finally, Leigh describes how Congress attempted to tighten trading with the enemy policies late in the war and how the Lincoln Administration circumvented the restrictions.
Walt Whitman famously stated that the real Civil War never made it into the books. Leigh's book offers a largely unedifying picture of corruption and greed in his study of trading between the sections. With its hard-headed look at the War and its portrayal of economic opportunism, the book still reminded me that our country needs to be one and united. Leigh has written an excellent, unusual Civil War study for readers with a strong interest in the conflict. The author kindly provided me with a copy of this book for review.