Interview with Dr. Adrian Brettle, author of COLOSSAL AMBITIONS: Confederate Planning for a Post-Civil War World
Colossal Ambitions

In July 2020, UVA Press was proud to publish Dr. Adrian Brettle’s debut book: Colossal Ambitions: Confederate Planning for a Post-Civil War World. Recently, Dr. Brettle’s book was named a finalist for the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, awarded annually to the best scholarly work in English on Abraham Lincoln, the American Civil War soldier, or the American Civil War era. Past winners include Elizabeth Varon’s Armies of Deliverance, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and David Blight’s Race and Reunion. As the editorial fellow at the press, Clayton Butler recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Brettle about his work. Our discussion touched on Confederates’ economic and social philosophies, how Dr. Brettle’s work relates to contemporary historiography, and the way that Confederates’ wartime planning and visions for the future give the lie to the Lost Cause, providing a final nail in the coffin of that persistent and pernicious narrative of Civil War history. Read more below, and join Dr. Brettle for an event with the Virginia Festival of the Book on March 17th at 2:00 pm.

[CB]: To what degree do the free trade/economic rationales given by Confederates for secession and expansion give credence to the idea that secession was a move engineered by elites, for the benefit of elites? Did rank and file, poor white southerners share these visions of expansion and prosperity? 

[AB]: The non-slaveholding majority came to believe that there would be a better life for them to be had in the future Confederacy. Confederates used arguments about economics, national policy, and the worsening conditions under a Lincoln administration to support their case. Two factors would raise the purchasing power of the poorest white southerner. First, there were lower prices for imported goods to be had in a nation dedicated to free trade. Second, planners believed that Confederates would get more money for their crops. Confederates believed that the South as an independent nation would be in a position to negotiate preferential terms of trade because Britain and other countries would now recognize the importance of the southern market (obscured before by being in the Union) and hence be prepared to pay more. If these promises of increased prosperity were not sufficient on their own, Confederate leaders offered the antebellum expansionist argument that only the acquisition of new lands would enable non-slaveholders to become slaveholders at one point in the future. During the war, there were debates about Confederate homesteads for veterans (land along with an enslaved person or family) to spread slaveownership and the presumed benefits of living in a slaveholding society to more white southerners. Finally, elites thought that the election of Abraham Lincoln and the revolutionary rule of the northern mob would lead to a panic, banking crisis, and hard times. This gloomy prospect would be intensified by the Lincoln administration’s policies designed to undermine the stability of southern society, from stopping the expansion of slavery to dissemination of abolitionist propaganda to patronage appointments whose holders would try to undermine southern class solidarity.

[CB]: Why did Confederates think other countries and people (esp. Northerners and the British) adopted such a hypocritical posture as compared to their own clear-eyedness when it came to coerced labor? 

[AB]: Confederates believed that the most militant abolitionists in New England and Britain were also the biggest indirect customers of slavery. After southern independence, those who supported emancipation and opposed the expansion of slavery would be revealed to be individuals who were simply jealous of the superiority of that labor system. Only slavery, Confederates believed, was both efficient and benevolent for the workers of the new age. All other labor systems were not only inferior, but were also becoming more like slavery everyday as wages fell and hours increased in the factories in the North, contracts became more onerous, and the temptation to resort to Chinese and Indian (i.e. from India) sources of labor increased. As proof of the superiority of slavery, Confederate propagandists, such as James D. B. DeBow, repeatedly pointed to the example of the decline of the sugar industry in both Haiti and the British Caribbean as evidence that after emancipation, productivity fell. Africans would only work on the sugar plantations under conditions of slavery. Confederates noted that both alleged efforts to import Chinese laborers into the British West Indies and U.S. plans to colonize ‘trained’ freedpeople from the South in Haiti were efforts to end this stagnation. Of course Confederate commentators failed to mention that the real reason for the decline of the sugar industry in Jamaica, Barbados, and the other islands of the British West Indies, was not emancipation, but instead the decision of the British Government itself to embrace free trade in 1846.

[CB]: Free trade, in your book, appears absolutely central to the Confederate worldview. Did Confederates ascribe greater influence to economic/financial inducements than their contemporaries, again Northerners or the British? They seemed so certain it would reliably affect future behavior.

I think the answer to this question is more about understanding slavery as the bedrock of the southern social system. Confederates considered the stability of southern society to be superior to that of both the North and Europe. Lincoln’s election was apparent proof that the Union had succumbed to mob democracy, which was their term for the tyranny of the majority, which would in time lead to social revolution and the overthrow of the propertied classes by landless laborers. Meanwhile, the conditions were even more volatile in Europe, where aristocratic regimes, including in Britain, faced increasing threats of insurrection from the disenfranchised working classes demanding the vote. Works by scholars of the Civil War Era, including Andre Fleche, Don Doyle, and Ann Tucker, have taught us much about the ideological connections between the European Revolutions of 1848 and the United States. Confederates believed that refugees from Europe, together with immigrants fleeing repressive British ‘colonial’ rule in Ireland, brought revolutionary ideas with them. These arrivals, swelling the numbers of so called ‘wage-slaves’ in the new factories of the industrial revolution, only intensified the threat posed to representative democracy in the North. This state of affairs explained, for Confederates, the appeal of bribes from the slavepower to northerners and the British. Any commercial deal that increased the reliability and quantity of supply of necessities from Confederate producers would appeal to beleaguered regimes facing revolution. Also, as God’s chosen people, evangelical Confederates took seriously their mission to spread world peace and uplift the poor by clothing them with textiles made from southern cotton and so bring them toward a Christian, civilized future. Therefore, these inducements Confederates offered to their customers would both help restore stability to regimes threatened by class cleavage and, at the same time, reinforce a sense of mission so important to a new nation in the world.

[CB]: How do you see your work in relation to that of Walter Johnson, especially River of Dark Dreams*?*

[AB]: My book certainly connects with key themes in studies by Johnson, Edward Baptist, Sven Beckert, and other scholars, who argue that slavery drove capitalism, empire, and U.S. expansion in the nineteenth century. Confederates understood slavery to be modern and expanding and expected the institution to return to the Caribbean and spread across Central and South America under their auspices. However, I show that Confederates expected that their independence and expansion would take the world and the global economy in a different direction to the one that scholars of capitalism seek to understand and explain. Confederates sought to replace competition and the development of national economies, increasingly protected by tariff walls, with a new era of international cooperation and collaboration. They hoped to lead the major economies of the world toward a system of comparative advantage; by focusing on a few select activities in which a nation had a particular advantage, each nation would become increasingly interdependent on other countries. This suited Confederate self-interest for it was only in this kind of economic system that slavery’s survival would be guaranteed. Above all, Confederate planners thought that an interdependent world offered the best chance for a sustained period of peace, one in which slavery would be able to eventually revive and expand, undisturbed by rival powers in the Confederate zone of influence in Central and South America. A chilling vision indeed.

[CB]: How does your work relate to the Lost Cause memory of the Civil War, so much in the news recently with debates on the future of Confederate monuments, and renaming of schools and military bases across the South that honored Confederate generals?

[AB]: The Lost Cause memory of the Civil War is a postwar invention. My book shows how hard and how long Confederates continued to believe in an independent future for themselves, even as they, by the last year of the war, also had to increasingly accommodate themselves to the reality of Union power. After all, the noted early propagandist of the Lost Cause, Edward Alfred Pollard, as late as February 1865 published a pamphlet arguing that the Union would now let the South go as it was sufficiently strong enough to be a great power without it. Until April 1865, these individuals remained adamant that there would come a time when the fighting would stop and negotiations between the sections would resume as if the war had never happened. This expected postwar settlement, to be hammered out in conventions and by commissions, meant compromises that qualified the meaning of independence for Confederates, but it would also preserve slavery.  Confederates debated the agenda items to be discussed. Most striking of all, Confederates did not believe that their future nation would become like Prussia, organized around celebrating the deeds of its army; instead they looked forward to postwar demobilization, and they anticipated that it would be the navy that would grow to be the symbol of the nation, given the need to protect a large merchant marine. At times, Confederate planners expected that with the reestablishment of peace a modern, even progressive, nation might emerge, one based on slavery and expanding into new lands and new commodities. This vision is strikingly different to the Lost Cause commemoration of a patriarchal Old South and heroes of the Army of Northern Virginia. “Confederate Ambitions: Flawed Visions for a New Nation,” the title of the UVA Nau Center for Civil War History’s panel at the 2021 Festival of the Book, demonstrates that Colossal Ambitions adds to the debate on whether there was a Confederate nation. My conclusion is that there was such a nation but the thinking varied, was often vague, and was even contradictory to the point of qualifying what it means to be an independent nation state.