Life and Work

Why Read Ludwell Johnson?

Both Ludwell Johnson’s style of work and choice of subject matter strongly recommend him to our consideration. As a working historian he is calm and measured, with just the degree of detachment that historical work ideally requires. As he puts it, “trying to identify cause and effect is, to me, the very soul of history.”[1] A careful scholar, he does not hurry toward ideological conclusions serving contemporary projects. Nor does he “read” the minds of historical actors (even Lincoln’s) but seeks reasonable inferences from a preponderance of historical evidence. In addition, Johnson has a humane and civilized style, deceptively simple but not without quiet wit, pointed comment, or an occasional twist of the historical knife. His writing reminds one of the generation of historians that included Carlton J.H. Hayes and Robert C. Binkley. Finally, for those who wish to understand American history, it is fortunate indeed that Johnson has concentrated on perhaps the most important period of that history – the so-called Middle Period[2] – which includes the most important war in our history, that of 1861-1865. In Johnson’s telling, account of that war entails treatment of its long aftermath and lasting consequences – legal, institutional, economic, and ideological.

Life and Career

Ludwell Harrison Johnson III was born in Charleston, West Virginia in 1927 and grew up in Richmond, Virginia. He served in the U.S. Naval Reserve toward the end of World War Two. Johnson graduated with honors in History from Johns Hopkins University in 1952, and finished his PhD under C. Vann Woodward at Johns Hopkins in 1955. He taught at William and Mary College from 1955 to 1992 (taking two years off to teach at Florida State in the 1950s). He has written three books and 160 articles and scores of book reviews. Since 1981, Johnson has given many lectures at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond and has served on its Board.[3]

A Working Philosophy of History

Johnson’s place in 20th-century American historiography is somewhat unique. Influenced by his mentor Woodward’s engagement with Charles A. Beard,[4] Johnson also learned much from the interwar revisionists, who considered the Civil War a horrible mistake. Johnson thus stood somewhere between the Beardians (Howard K. Beale,[5] B. B. Kendrick, Louis M. Hacker) and the interwar revisionists (J.G. Randall, Avery Craven, Roy F. Nicholls, John Fort Milton). Like the latter, Johnson stressed the breakdown of political compromise in the 1850s. With the Beardians, he emphasized the importance of economic interests in political history. In addition, Johnson brought to his professional work a love for the South not found in these mostly Midwestern historians. This discussion of Johnson’s work will begin in medias res with a look at some representative essays, before we turn to his books and some other essays.

Essays on the War

Fort Sumter

In “Fort Sumter and Confederate Diplomacy” (Journal of Southern History, November 1960),[6] Johnson shed new light on an old subject. Taking full advantage of Confederate sources, Johnson corrected the imbalance that long characterized the topic, and made sense of the weeks of “negotiations” concerning the Fort. In mid-February 1861, Jefferson Davis sent three commissioners (Crawford, Roman, and Forsyth) to Washington to settle outstanding issues with the Union honorably. These talks were all show: Lincoln’s policy was already in place. Davis knew this and instructed Confederate commissioners to tolerate delaying tactics, provided the Union was not altering the military situation.

Lincoln’s inaugural promised he would hold federal forts on Southern soil and collect his revenues. Johnson comments: “This was the kind of phraseology which could mean all things to all men – a Lincoln specialty…” Meanwhile William Seward, Lincoln’s wily Secretary of State, played at appearing both in charge and inclined toward peace. Davis’s commissioners, treated like invisible men, miscalculated the strength of the Northern peace element and Seward exploited their hopes.[7]

But, Johnson writes, “Lincoln was never willing to do anything even remotely implying recognition.” Seward hinted at evacuation of Fort Sumter, while Lincoln consulted his Navy. If “Seward’s mesmeric dissembling” misled the Confederate commissioners, the mood in Montgomery was grim. Expecting Lincoln to coerce the Southern states but wanting to buy time, Davis “was not being entirely candid with the commissioners.”[8] He ordered Beauregard to prevent Sumter’s reinforcement by sea as signs accumulated that Lincoln preferred war.

Davis reasoned that to trust Lincoln’s shifting rhetoric was to risk losing Charleston.[9] Here was a “military problem,” a question of Confederate territory, and a question of submission to Republican will: “there was only one possible decision.”[10]

Peace Terms” in 1864

Johnson examined Lincoln’s notion of peace terms — as of mid-1864 — in the Journal of Southern History (November 1967).[11] Lincoln was under pressure to talk peace – but what could he offer? Meeting with Confederate representatives at Niagara Falls, gadfly editor Horace Greeley represented Lincoln’s aims as “abandonment of slavery” and reunion — the least (Johnson reasons) Lincoln could say outwardly or indirectly. That he might retreat on emancipation was not publicized. Seward began hinting that abolition might not be an ironclad condition, since “war measures” would lapse after the war. Lincoln lamented to Peace Democrat James W. Singleton that he was “misunderstood” and Seward spoke of leaving slavery to the postwar courts.[12]

Quoting Lincoln at length (580-581), Johnson comments: “Here is a characteristically Lincolnian statement: superficially candid and straightforward but actually shot through with ambiguity and ulterior meaning.” Lincoln seemed to say he had never made emancipation an essential condition. Did this just mean surrender first — abolition later?[13]

At the Hampton Roads “peace conference” (January 30, 1865), this disinformation continued. Seward practically invited the Southern states to return and “vote… down” the pending Thirteenth Amendment, which was merely “a war measure.” Lincoln suggested to Alexander Stephens that Georgia could ratify with a five-year delay and hinted at an end to confiscations. Later, he proposed (in cabinet) a draft bill providing four million dollars in bonds for all slave states (was this indirect compensated emancipation?). He planned a general pardon for political offenses and so on.[14]

Why? In Johnson’s view Lincoln wanted continuity — without disorder or guerrilla war that Radical Republicans could exploit. (Indeed, Radicals later pled Southern “anarchy” when they overthrew Lincoln and Johnson’s state governments.) Lincoln wanted a conservative transition, with the old Southern Whigs restored to power, to strengthen Whig economics within his party. Johnson admitted that his reading was “partly hypothetical,” but believed it explained Lincoln’s fits and starts and suggested that slavery was for Lincoln “an incidental casualty.”[15]

Lincoln’s “Real” Views

Writing on “The Authenticity of the Wadsworth Letter” (Journal of Southern History, 1966),[16]  Johnson undertook careful textual analysis of a letter supposedly written by Lincoln to General James S. Wadsworth in January 1864.[17] Addressing the letter’s internal inconsistencies, Johnson concluded it “does not sound like Lincoln.” No one had ever found such a call for “civil and political equality of both races” in any other statement by Lincoln.[18]

This improvement of Lincoln’s image stalled. One historian announced the “irrelevance” of the Wadsworth letter[19] and the search for the President’s philosophical anticipation of mid-twentieth-century liberalism turned elsewhere. Johnson found it revealing that “the most consummate pragmatist in our history is transformed into a Moses with commandments.”[20]

III. Cotton, Profits, and Plunder: The Red River Campaign

The Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War (first published by Johns Hopkins Press in 1958) grew out of Johnson’s dissertation.[21] With many useful maps, the book is convincing as military history and still respected. But there is an added dimension in that accumulated evidence suggested to Johnson that the Northern government’s wartime decisions reflected the kind of society the North had become. Considerations of present and future private profit influenced where to campaign, strategy, and choice of commanders. Swarms of contractors, speculators, and would-be millionaires complemented the Northern Army’s political generals and Republican operatives. For them the chief point was cotton: the most-wanted resource of the mid-nineteenth century, like sugar in previous centuries or oil in the twentieth.[22]

Johnson writes: “The illicit trade of which the Red River campaign provided a good illustration undoubtedly prolonged the war.” He asks why Lincoln was “so deeply implicated in promoting the trade” and why he kept giving “trading permits… to old friends and political associates?” He answers:

‘Trading with the South was one aspect of how the North fought the war, as were the methods by which it recruited and supplied its armies, picked its generals, decided on what routes of invasion to follow, and so forth. Did all this tell anything about the short- and long-term goals that the North in general and the Republican party in particular wished to accomplish? The answer to that question clearly connects with the causes of the war, especially why Republicans fought rather than bid farewell to a section they had so often denounced as a sink of iniquity…’[23]

Study of the “nonmilitary considerations” that shaped the Red River campaign might foster (Johnson writes) “a skeptical and analytical eye” and arouse “compassion for the men killed by antagonists who were kept in the field with the help of the society for which they [Union soldiers] were fighting…”[24] Many Union Army “decisions… bore little or no relation to the desire of the vast majority… for the shortest and least costly war possible, and the general welfare was sacrificed to special interests.” Lincoln’s actions have a kind of logic if he sincerely believed that permanent Republican hegemony was “the only salvation of the country.”[25]

The New England Emigrant Aid Society (of Kansas fame) had long campaigned to fill Texas with Northern settlers. When war came, they cried up the sad plight of “loyal” Texans and immigrant Germans. Boston textile magnate Edward Atkinson wrote “Cheap Cotton by Free Labor” (1861) to win support for the cause. But military planners put seizure of New Orleans and (ultimately) control of the Mississippi River first. With New Orleans captured, Northern business still lacked cotton. The New York Times announced: “New England has the capital …Texas needs to be colonized…”[26] Veteran Massachusetts politician Nathaniel P. Banks was the political general chosen to liberate Texas. For this pending expedition, “Commodore” Vanderbilt characteristically provided unseaworthy transports ships, while Banks’ superior General Henry W. Halleck characteristically supplied unclear orders.

Johnson observes: “The widespread corruption that afflicted the nation in the years following Appomattox… was rooted deeply in the rich soil of a wasting and disruptive war” which allowed “men to exchange their honesty for easy money.”[27] Prices sky-rocketed and cross-border trade based in Memphis and New Orleans flourished, made easy by the river’s topography. As Lincoln’s political boss in Louisiana, Banks seized local assets and proposed a system of regulated trade.

As the campaign began, the South “still possessed… astonishing reserves of vitality.” At Alexandria, General A. J. Smith’s men, on loan from General W. T. Sherman, “looted stores and private homes and grossly insulted women.”[28] Banks, badly informed, took the worst possible route forward and encountered Confederates near Pleasant Hill. Tactically, this was a Union victory, but Banks withdrew, ruining plans to take Shreveport.

Banks’ men now called him “Napoleon P. Banks.” At Grand Ecore, 5,000 Confederates hemmed in 25,000 Union troops. Banks withdrew entirely. Retreating Federals ensured “almost complete and total destruction of all property within reach of the column.” Johnson writes: “The stellar role in this drama was played by the troops of A. J. Smith,” who had lately achieved similar pyrotechnic (if not martial) triumphs at Meridian.[29]

Banks returned to Alexandria, cornered and beleaguered, while the U.S. Navy lost ships to shore fire. Union officers began denying army wagons to cotton brokers. With Smith’s bummers promising to burn Alexandria, Banks vowed to prevent it. In mid-May the town burned, with widespread looting. Johnson writes: “As usual the route of the army was marked by the burning buildings it left in its wake.”[30]

The Red River expedition lasted from March 12 to May 20, 1864. Johnson praises Confederate Colonel Richard Taylor and has kind words for General Edmund Kirby-Smith. (The two did not get along and hardly communicated.) He notes the achievements of U.S. Naval engineers in extracting ships from shallow water. Unimportant militarily, the Red River campaign lengthened the war and gathered little enough cotton for those who lusted after it. Long before the end, the book becomes a comic epic with ironic undertones. The campaign was anything but Xenophon’s march up country.

Essays on Wartime Trade

Convinced that military planning reflects social and political contexts, Johnson projected “an ambitious multivolume study” tentatively entitled “The Influence of Party Politics and Pressure Groups on the Conduct of the Civil War.” But, he writes ruefully, “not being one of those annoying prodigies who are able to overcome all obstacles,” he produced instead numerous essays on “illegal” U.S.-Confederate trade. This work brought him into legal history and international law, where he found the beginnings of America’s “slide down the slippery slope that… would see the executive branch not only claim but exercise the power to inaugurate war.”[31]

In “The Business of War” (American Philosophical Society Proceedings, 1974[32]), Johnson notes that English law theoretically forbade wartime trade between belligerent nations’ citizens. “Revenues from trade rather than the feudal levy became the mainstay of dynastic adventures; war became more commercial and less strictly military.” Harassing and capturing enemy trade became normal features of war which English law steadily rationalized. Contracts with enemy nationals were void and trading with the enemy required special license from the sovereign. 18th-century trade wars reinforced these rules, with forfeiture of ships and cargo, prize courts, the lot. Lord Mansfield thought that insurance contracts might still run, but generally avoided such cases.

From 1799 Sir William Scott systematized English prize law, influencing the U.S. Supreme Court. For Scott, war trumped commerce, including even “enemy” goods on neutral ships. Scott condemned insurance contracts as impeding some British “right” to victory. Somewhat inaccurately, John Marshall derived U.S. law from the British, but American colonial decisions (Johnson says) were never especially coherent and Americans (Smuggling Fathers?) preferred vagueness down to the revolutionary-era embargoes. In March 23, 1776, Congress made all British ships “prize,” left overland trade to the states, and established its own appeals court to review state prize courts’ decisions.

Congress asserted its “supreme sovereign power of war and peace” and a right to execute the laws of nature. Few judges knew prize law and American ownership often worked as a defense. Economic and political factors shaped decisions of the Congressional court (which handled the famous Aaron Lopez quite tenderly). Decisions were ad hoc and sometimes treated trading with the enemy as no crime. In 1812 Judge Joseph Story declared the criminality of such trade a settled question. The Supreme Court agreed, adducing its usual potted Revolutionary War history. Yet commerce flouted settled law in war after war.

The Plundering Generation

In “The Plundering Generation: Uneasy Reflections on the Civil War” (Continuity, Fall 1984[33]), Johnson recounted the complaint in 1960 of Boston University’s Chancellor David L. Marsh that popular historian Bruce Catton slighted the pure righteousness of the Union cause. But, Johnson writes, slavery as Sole Cause in 1861 underwent “partial eclipse” in the age of the Beards and the interwar revisionists. Now, some said, the war was again “justified,” owing to long-overdue fulfillment of American commitments to racial equality. Such reasoning was Whig history, connecting specific past events to specific contemporary results.[34] Leaving “causation” to one side and pondering “what it was about,” Johnson suggests we might find:

‘to a depressing degree this was a war of economic and political aggrandizement begun and carried out by the ruling party in the North. The people who engineered the armed conquest of the South knew exactly what they wanted and they were not at all particular about how they got it. They were no congregation of humanitarians with their gaze unwaveringly fixed on some ultimate good, the prophets of a purified society with racial equality and justice for all.’[35]

They were more a plundering than “blundering” generation, and inconvenient facts subvert the Northern narrative, including the war of conquest that standard text-books largely ignore. Republicans had long denounced Southerners as “moral lepers” and enemies of human progress. Johnson comments: “One would think they would have breathed a sigh of relief when the South left the Union.” Instead they made war and in fact “had some solid reasons for so doing” — things “they would lose should the South go free.” These included loss of markets to Southern free-trade, loss of their coastal trading monopoly, loss of middlemen’s profits, loss of debts, and (imagined) loss of the Mississippi River. The legislation of the Republican Congress revealed other goals: “a massive transfer of wealth from agriculture to industry”; a new banking system; gift of public lands to special interests; pork barrel corruption at new levels; and permanent Republican ascendancy – as well as making money “out of the war itself.”[36]

Confiscation became a mania, with special taxes imposed on “insurrectionary” states and inside bidders dominating the resulting auctions. (Much property was stolen this way.) Johnson writes: “This whole subject of redeeming the South by stealing it needs systematic investigation.” Under the Captured and Abandoned Property Act of March 1861 “millions of dollars worth of cotton was summarily sequestered” and whole plantations seized by the U.S. Army, which managed the workers. Ninety-five percent of “captured” property was cotton. Northerners were so eager to trade with the enemy that before Sumter CS Admiral Raphael Semmes, on a munitions-buying mission, “toured New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, where he was warmly received.”[37]

Northern shippers asked for Confederate letters of marque and reprisal so they could profit by preying on their country’s ships. Edward A. Pollard noted in 1862 that Northern war effort was, “in many respects… an immense money job.” Johnson adds that profiteering and fraud “were so pervasive that they seemed… the very essence of the Northern war effort” and reflected “a long-standing and settled way of doing business, a code of behavior followed by a remarkable number of entrepreneurs and politicians whose great aim in life was to make money…” For Johnson, this explains why “so many people high and low regarded the war primarily as a money-making proposition.”[38] Even burial contracts were abused.

General Dix’s Personal Trade Monopoly at Norfolk 

In “Blockade or Trade Monopoly” (Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 1985[39]), Johnson writes that the Lincoln administration’s “system of government-licensed private trade” was a great benefit to the Confederacy.[40] Northern capture of Southern ports and trade centers actually facilitated this trade. Upon occupying Norfolk in May 1862, General Wool banned all trade.

General John A. Dix, a Free Soil Democrat allied with Thurlow Weed and Secretary Seward, replaced Wool and reversed the ban. “Loyal” persons would be allowed transit to northern ports to purchase clothing. There was one problem: international law apparently said that a state could not blockade its own ports, especially one it had captured; yet the U.S. “blockaded” Norfolk for two and a half more years. In The Circassian (1864), U.S. Supreme Court denied the “sovereign’s” right to do so, while finding against the ship owners, since New Orleans, their intended landfall, was only recently captured.[41] Johnson writes:

‘If neutrals could be kept out of an occupied and ‘blockaded’ port, could the blockading power allow its own citizens to trade there? To do so would be to perfect a northern monopoly of southern trade and markets and would be a logical extension of one the main reasons for repressing the Confederacy: fear of losing the privileged position conferred on northern shipping by tariffs and navigation acts.’[42]

Continued “blockade” would force the South’s former trade with Europe inland and overland, especially through New York City. General Dix and others liked this ambiguous situation. Secretary Chase put himself at the center of Lincoln’s licensing system, certifying some trade as militarily necessary and letting the Union Army be responsible for cargoes departing Norfolk (hoping to avoid international complaints directed to his Department). With War Secretary Stanton’s approval, Dix sought total control of trade and collided with the U.S. Navy’s literal-minded notion of blockade.

As military commander Dix issued permits to and from a port no longer really blockaded. Where Stanton’s patronage ran short, Dix enlisted General Halleck. (Johnson mentions a Mr. Noyes, allowed to run quinine to Richmond by General James Wadsworth.[43]) A standoff arose between Dix and Navy Secretary Welles, who favored general wartime suffering and no trade. Quite correctly, Welles saw Dix as wanting a quasi-blockade to which he could make monopolistic exceptions. Internationally, the non-blockade blockade was making Secretary Seward look bad. If licensed U.S. citizens could trade with “blockaded” Norfolk, why couldn’t Liverpool? Policymakers seemed awkwardly inconsistent and a cabinet-level wrangle erupted. Dix defended his personally regulated cotton trade on which his New York business allies profited.

Stanton exempted Norfolk from the blockade it wasn’t under. Dix and company prevailed and eight million pounds of bacon went south. This booming trade may have even extended to southward sales of alleged slaves. Johnson comments: “Norfolk illustrated on a small scale the foremost benefit many entrepreneurs, merchants, and manufacturers expected from a Union victory: ‘to occupy the field.’” Later, General Benjamin Butler (“maestro of interbelligerent trade”) replaced Dix. Applying lessons from New Orleans, Butler allowed supplies to go directly to C.S. commissary officers, in “a brutal war unnecessarily protracted by a quenchless thirst for profits.”[44]

Lincoln’s Government and Legality

Dual-Use Legality

Johnson wrote two important essays on the Lincoln administration’s legal notions. “The Confederacy: What Was It? The View from the Federal Courts” (Civil War History, March 1986[45]) treated the conceptual problems raised by the Northern government’s tirelessly repeated claim that it was suppressing a “rebellion” made by a “small conspiratorial minority” and not fighting a war. Yet blockade assumed an organized opponent able to wage war. This was a conclusion “the Lincoln government was desperate to avoid” because it would look like war upon American states, something many Americans still found shocking.[46]

In any war large enough to call a civil war, international law attributed belligerent rights to both sides, suggesting the very Southern independence Lincoln and Seward stoutly denied. Lincoln’s blockade asserted rights “against neutral nations as well” and forced them to address the status of the Confederacy.[47] So acting, Great Britain declared neutrality, as did France. Lincoln retreated into rhetoric about “combinations too powerful,” etc., artfully taken from the 1795 Militia Act.[48]

Johnson notes that in the 1820s, when Spain claimed both sovereign and belligerent rights against its South American colonies, the U.S. treated them as de facto belligerents.[49] Seward never acknowledged the contradictions in the Union’s dual-use legal posture, which soon tied up the federal courts. Practically, U.S. courts treated Confederate sailors as prisoners of war, not as “rebels” or “pirates.” (Fear of reprisals played a role here.[50]) The same thing happened with CS soldiers, treated as “enemies” or prisoners (if not treated very well). The courts variously rationalized Lincoln’s blockade while clinging to two legal models.[51] (See below.)

After the war, Unionist lawyer Richard H. Dana affirmed the flexibility of this conceptual muddle: a matter of “policy from day to day… under political discretion all the while,” with CS belligerent rights “revocable at any time.”[52] Again practically, U.S. courts cleared wartime and postwar cases involving local contracts, money, etc. off their calendar by pretending Confederate legislation was really state legislation, which was sometimes valid since the states were “indestructible” members of an “indestructible” union. To this extent, Johnson thinks, the devilish practicality of federal courts partly admitted an important truth: “for a few bloody and heroic years, this had been a nation indeed.”[53]

Prize Cases

In “Abraham Lincoln and the Development of Presidential War-Making Powers” (Civil War History, September 1989),[54] Johnson addressed that recurring American affliction: executive war. He recounted that in mid-1950 J.G. Randall was reflecting on the obsolescence of real declarations of war the week before Harry S. Truman plunged into Korea. Lincoln had set lasting precedents, which today could mean “annihilation.”[55] In 19th-century usage “war” meant large-scale conflict or a legal state of affairs. Which meaning held true in 1861? Lincoln’s “blockade” opened up the second possibility and ship-owners’ lawyers contested his war-by-proclamation. Lesser federal courts heard many cases, later reviewed as the famous Prize Cases.

In Tropic Wind (1861) Judge Dunlop ruled that since Lincoln said so, war must exist, and the blockade was “legal.”Civil[56] and foreign war merged and Dunlop asserted U.S. sovereign and belligerent rights against the South. In Parkhill (1861) Judge Cadwalader held that war began when U.S. courts couldn’t operate – in the South – and cited the Mexican War to justify Lincoln’s actions. Johnson: “Such clumsy reasoning was typical …”[57] In Hiawatha & Crenshaw (1861) Judge Betts backdated the war to secession rather than the blockade. In U.S. v. F.W. Johnson (1861) Judge Giles stressed Congressional acquiescence and confirming legislation. In Amy Warwick (1862) Judge Sprague ruled that complete war could exist without any act of Congress and asserted U.S. sovereign and belligerent rights, thus leaving international law to presidential discretion. Congress’s confirming legislation “precluded” courts from examining Lincoln’s operations.

As for the “belligerent” status of Confederate “pirates” (privateers), Judge Grier in U.S. v. Smith (1861) cited U.S. v. Palmer (1818), distorting the key point, and left courts to accept presidential and Congressional determinations of warlike fact. In U.S. v. Baker (1861) Judge Nelson accepted presidential and Congressional supremacy over definitions. These ambiguous decisions sustained Lincoln, variously. Lincoln appointed three Justices to the U.S. Supreme Court in time for the Prize Cases (end of 1862), decided on March 10, 1863.

Judge Grier (now Justice) held that Lincoln could blockade the South under international law. Captured property was enemy property. Alongside sovereign U.S. rights against individual “traitors,” a territorial definition of enemies and their property existed. (Johnson observes that the cases hinged on U.S. belligerent rights and those rights depended on Lincoln’s initiating a blockade and thus declaring war internationally.) Grier reasoned that “faithfully executing” the laws, Lincoln did what he must. The Mexican War appeared again – in “a grotesque misstatement of historical fact” (Johnson) – along with Queen Victoria’s much-resented neutrality proclamation. Lincoln had legally triggered various “rights and liabilities,” including the public enmity of all Unionists and Confederates. No trade, contracts, property, or insurance could be respected (quoting Prize Cases, 689). Indeed, if Congress had never met again, Lincoln could have had a war entire unto himself – “of indefinite duration and proportions” (Johnson).[58]

Johnson had already asked (1986) whether in confirming Lincoln’s blockade, Congress gave “the president power he might not possess,” and describes Grier’s reasoning as “slipshod” and “bad law.”[59]

Justice Samuel Nelson (with Catron, Taney, and Clifford) dissented from this ominous squaring of circles: Grier had merged two senses of “war,” but only Congress could declare public war, and it did nothing until July 13, 1861. No ex post facto laws could legalize the cases in hand (which were void) and other acts of Lincoln’s interregnum. Nelson thought the president had quite enough emergency powers already.

Presidential apologists have long embraced the Prize Cases. Ex Parte Quirin (1942) misapplied it to FDR’s military commissions. Hirabayashi (1942) used it to uphold Japanese internment and Korematsu (1944) built on Hirabayashi. With respect to Vietnam, Justice Douglas cited Nelson’s dissent. Later presidents ignore the War Powers Act (1973) and their spokesmen make presidential dictatorship the sovereign remedy for all “emergencies.” Johnson suggested that Americans relearn elementary republican lessons about executive overreach.

In “Bushwhacking the Bill of Rights,” Southern Partisan (July/August 2002),[60] Johnson returned to this theme, asking what had happened to Ex Parte Milligan (1866) and how Lincoln’s dubious military commissions had come back. Administration defenses of its measures amounted to “not only telling an untruth but telling it clumsily” (quoting King George III)[61]. George Bush’s “war” on terror had aroused a stifling hyper-patriotism reminiscent of Reconstruction. Lincoln’s blockade (legal or not) had amounted to a declaration of war. Since 1941 there have been no real (=Congressional) declarations. Noting the stupidity of having the Army guard U.S. airports, Johnson said he had hoped for a more critical response from Southerners, who ought to know a few things. The lesson was this: do not assume the good will of people who want such tools.

North Against South: An Interpretive Masterpiece

North Against South: The American Iliad, 1848-1877 (1993 [1978])[62] is Johnson’s masterwork. He begins with some basic facts about population, slavery, and ideas. Some slaves were well treated; others were not.[63] In the North, the Puritanism of New England gave rise to radical theologies demanding zealous reform, including abolition. Very importantly, economic policy cut across the slavery issue and latter-day Hamiltonians wanted federal subsidies to businesses, river and harbor bills, tariffs, and banks to underwrite a net transfer of wealth to the North. Opposing these measures, the South became the great obstacle to progress. For a time, intersectional political parties made compromise possible. Abolitionists gained the political balance in New York and Ohio and Whigs abandoned their principles. The Mexican War was seen as a plot and slavery became “the symbol of all differences between the sections.” New York politician William Seward pronounced the North’s “aggressive industrial and commercial capitalism… the wave of the future.”[64] Perhaps, Johnson muses, the South should have yielded; certainly, the South failed to act early enough.[65]

With “tubthumping jingoistic liberalism,” the expansionist Democrats of Young America demanded the North American continent and called for overseas interventions; under Franklin Pierce, they demanded Cuba.[66] Johnson stresses that American expansionism was always popular, north and south. John Quincy Adams claimed all of North America and many Americans expected hegemony over Central America and the islands – and got it — forty years after slavery’s demise. The real question had been which section would benefit most from expansion. Slavery in the territories was an unreal issue and the fugitive slave law was chiefly “symbolic.”[67]  Meanwhile, recast by immigrants from New England and Germany, the Old Northwest defected from its Southern alliance.

Many, like Seward, lusted after Far Eastern markets. As future center of international trade, America would remake the world. As Senator Douglas’s railroad schemes unraveled in Kansas, discontented elements formed the (new) Republican Party. Like Free Soilers, most of them wanted to keep Blacks out of the territories. The New England Emigrant Aid society — half land speculation, half politics — had its sights on Kansas and Texas (later Florida). The struggle for Bleeding Kansas took place within “this domestic imperialism.” The evidence suggests to Johnson that Republican “free labor” was “the creed of an aggressive, expanding, entrepreneurial capitalism…”[68]

Republican strength was concentrated in Greater New England (including the Upper Midwest), and along the railroad lines; the party was “a complex mixture of cultural, religious, commercial, and industrial affinities.” With Democrats divided over Douglas’ territorial “popular sovereignty,” the Dred Scott decision (March 6, 1857) raised the stakes and the low tariff of 1857 hurt Pennsylvania ironmongers. Johnson: “The speculative nature of the Northwest’s economy, with card-castles of credit resting on railroads not yet built and on land not yet cleared” set off the Panic of 1857.[69] The Slave Power was blamed.

Slavery in the territories — “only tenuously connected with the real world” — became an issue so abstract that compromise became impossible. New England literati embraced the mad John Brown despite the prospect of “an indiscriminate slaughter of men, women, and children, whether or not they owned slaves…” But again: North/South conflict arose “in no small degree from the continuing sectional estrangement over economic policies.” Johnson adds: “If it is true that there would have been no Civil War without slavery, it is equally true that slavery would never have come to dominate national politics without a conflict of economic interests between the sections.” In 1860 the Democratic Party split and Republicans issued as their platform “a seamless garment. The sharpest eye could not see where antislavery left off and the pursuit of profits began.”[70]

Lincoln’s election with 39.9% of the popular vote drove the Lower South into secession, chiefly because Southerners did not trust Lincoln and his party. The Confederate Constitution settled old issues and reflected the planters’ wish to govern themselves like the gentry of Kent, as patriarchs of extended families. Seward temporized and kept Confederate commissioners “dangling.” With Sumter’s fall, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress insurrectionary “combinations.” The desire to stamp out secession merged with fears over deflection of trade southwards and (possibly) restricted navigation of the Mississippi River. But now Republicans could freely enact their entire developmental platform.[71]

The Republican Party needed a crisis (and time to deploy executive patronage) far more than compromise. Lincoln’s message of July 4, 1861 was “disingenuous and inaccurate…” Lincoln himself was “an intensely ambitious man” who worked “almost entirely within the confines of a political universe.”[72] His warlike measures drove the Upper South into secession, while Maryland and Kentucky hoped to be neutral.

Weighing population figures, Johnson finds that the Union used 44% — and the Confederacy 75% — of their potential soldiers. Confederate casualties were “on an Old World scale…” With the North’s great advantage in material resources, Confederates needed a perfect strategy. Lincoln recruited his 75,000 volunteers (and a further 82,000) rather unconstitutionally. Officers’ commissions were patronage and Northern troops paid in blood “for the bungling” of Lincoln’s political generals — Butler, Banks, et al. — whose appointment revealed “the nature of Northern politics.” Early battles reflected Northern political strategy, and the “deliberate politicization of the huge Civil War volunteer army” had no precedent. Lincoln’s “triple objective was to defeat the Confederacy, ensure the ascendancy of the Republican party, and maintain his leadership…”[73]

Northern industrialization had brought forth “a new class of speculators and entrepreneurs” intent on displacing the remnants of the old (colonial) Eastern elite. Formerly allied with the agrarian South and Northern republicans (Democrats), many became (new) Republicans in the 1850s. Their triumph, resting on “easy credit, paper money, small-scale enterprise, and rampant laissez faire,” was to be short-lived, since in destroying the South they “hastened the advent of a new era of controlled credit, inflexible currency, giant corporations, and monopoly.”[74]

The Republican Party embodied the logic of industrialization. Its 1860 platform down-played tariffs, but its legislation soon paid political debts to iron mongers and wool manufacturers. Tariff rates leapt from 18.81% to 47.56% by 1865 (persisting until 1914). This was “a massive transfer of wealth” — and with railroad legislation — land grants, suppression of Indian titles, subsidies, and bribery – “a grand giveaway the likes of which the modern world has rarely witnessed.” Land went to “‘barons’ – of cattle, or timber, or oil.”[75] River and harbor improvements took wing, along with Agricultural and Mechanical colleges, and the Homestead Act (1862) and attendant fraud – with 19% of the land going to actual settlers. The 1864 Contract Labor Law (repealed 1868) brought in much-wanted cheap labor. Congress created paper money and National Banks (1863, 1864) and made public debt the basis of money, driving state banks notes out of circulation (1865). These measures shifted bank funds from agriculture to industry, and the industrial Northeast dictated to everyone else.

Nearly every Northern Congressman had a confiscation bill in hand. Treasury agents were keen on cotton. Perhaps a hundred million dollars’ worth was seized and went missing. Captured property sometimes included entire plantations. Boston manufacturer Edward Atkinson wanted Florida for raising cotton with free (and cheap) labor. If unwilling to work, Atkinson wrote, the freedman might “starve, and exterminate himself if he will, and so remove the negro question – still we must raise cotton.” Johnson treats cross-border cotton trade here (see sections above). With distinguished jobbery, Union Army contractors produced shoddy goods, in a “dreary account of greed and dishonesty.”[76]

“The basic Republican war aim was party supremacy within a Northern-dominated Union.” In wartime they could make arbitrary arrests, suppress the opposition, and suspend habeas corpus. This made “the President’s discretion the measure of the law.” His military commissions tried “offenses unknown to the law,” i.e. “‘any disloyal practice’” (whatever those were). There were 13,000 arbitrary arrests and three hundred newspapers suppressed.[77]

“Loyalty” oaths multiplied and the politicized army was 77.6% pro-Lincoln. Conspiracy theories about Copperheads thrived. Democrats fought back with “the chronic Negrophobia that overspread the North” (in Johnson’s words). Unable to convince the Border States to adopt compensated emancipation, Lincoln inched toward his own solution and pulled back: “Nor do I urge objections of a moral nature, in view of possible consequences of insurrection and massacre in the South”! Political considerations dominated.[78]

Lincoln still favored colonization — but then again, Blacks might remain in the South and not migrate north. On January 1, 1863, he proclaimed emancipation – but as a war measure not applying in “loyal” or captured territory. He could now move toward Black recruitment. Rising wages (!) in the North spurred a quest for alternate cannon fodder. Negroes sometimes “volunteered” under duress and did not obtain plum assignments.[79]

Johnson disputes the inference that since Republicans were divided on economic issues, high ideals really motivated them. These divisions had existed at their party’s founding. Emancipation would decimate Southern Democratic office-holders and Republicans could rule forever, “office-holding having become a distinct form of business enterprise.” Reconstruction promised “immense patronage and influence.” Governing “conquered provinces” offered numerous “political and entrepreneurial possibilities.”[80]

Outside Virginia (already rehabilitated), a “loyal” 10% could hold elections, etc. – e.g. Louisiana where the Lincoln-Banks faction defeated Treasury Department radicals. But Congress could not find enough Republican Party guarantee in Lincoln’s approach and the Wade-Davis Bill (July 1864) embodied Congressional policy. Congress would sort out “republican” forms of government. Lincoln vetoed the bill. He even considered negotiations with the Confederacy, short of abolition, but recovered. Lincoln still wanted to work with persisting Southern Whigs for Hamiltonian ends.

Turning to the South, Johnson stresses the absence of a party system in the Confederacy. The South’s only problem was states rights extremism. Davis had “great courage, rigid morals… [and was] logical and legalistic.”[81] Congress legislated boldly and the administration’s strongest backers represented conquered districts. King Cotton diplomacy failed because Britain wasn’t as dependent on Southern cotton as Southerners believed and, besides, selling goods in a longer war suited British business.

April 16, 1862 saw the first conscription act of the war, with its exemption for owners of twenty (later fifteen) slaves. States rights men and unionists opposed conscription. Many deserters were Unionists and the flood of desertion began in October 1864. Under its offensive-defensive strategy the Confederacy could launch “local offensives in hopes of disrupting Federal campaigns and ultimately to exhaust the enemy’s will to fight…” In the Confederate West “geography was fatal,” and Grant’s victory opened up the Confederacy by way of Nashville and northern Alabama. On strategy, Johnson believes, “Davis was more often right than wrong,” and political generals were rare in the Confederate Army.[82] Davis’ biggest mistakes were not reinforcing Georgia and Carolina, failing to remove Bragg, and not turning Forrest loose on Sherman. Overall, the Confederacy’s worst failure was to finance sixty percent of the war’s costs with paper instead of requisitioning the 1861 cotton crop. Prices skyrocketed and wages lagged.

In 1863-1864 the Confederate government took over purchasing and deployed its own blockade runners. Paradoxically, loss of ports increased the trade with the enemy some of it coming directly from New York. Systematized earlier, exploitation of Yankee “appetites” might have done the Confederacy much good. The government developed its own munitions factories, powder mills, etc., but its railroad and food policies were inadequate.

Despite irresponsible states rights zealots, the states made noteworthy contributions. In the South, Congress controlled suspensions of habeas corpus. Slaves were important in the war effort, making it easier to imagine recruitment of Black troops, which raised in turn the possibility of Confederate emancipation. After the war, the South “recapitulated the experience of the North” with respect to legal segregation.[83]

First Peace Settlement

Johnson comments that the North conducted its war with “deliberate devastation… not incidental to military operations” in what was an “intermediate stage” on the way to 20th-century total war. Serious study would shed light on “the American attitude toward enemy civilians in later wars.” Treasury agents and soldiers “continued to plunder” and a twenty-five percent cotton tax drained $68 million dollars out the South down to 1868. “The loss of Southern wealth was enormous.”[84] Not counting investment in slaves, property value was 59% of figures for 1860 (counting slaves, 37%), with 18% less land cultivated. Farm implements were down 45%. Down to 1870 cotton production was halved. Bank capital had been sixty-one million dollars in 1860 but was only seventeen million in 1870.

Northern investors grabbed Southern land. Only in 1900 did the South regain levels of 1860. 300,000 were dead, 200,000 incapacitated, and “an unknown number of civilians whose health was wrecked by wartime privations.” Johnson adds: “Deaths from disease among Black children were especially numerous…” Petty persecutions and insults humbled the South, see as “an aggressive, brutal, backward, sinful society…”[85]

Lincoln had been in a hurry to reconstruct. Speedy reconstruction would set the stage for “the colonization of the South by Northern capital and Northern settlers.” Freed Blacks were both a new market and potential pool of cheap labor for Northern capital. Reconstruction was “an opportunity to get ahead” by exploiting Southern resources. Reading the civil rights movement backward, many historians now see Reconstruction “as inspired largely by an altruistic dedication to equal rights for Negroes,” but historians’ “rediscovery of Northern racism” may temper this reading.[86]

Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson – the former, arbitrary military governor of Tennessee — cared little about building a Republican majority in the South. Generous with pardons, he demanded that states undergoing reorganization ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. Based in the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, Johnson’s Radical opponents wanted their Republican-Party guarantee, “either by Negro suffrage and white disfranchisement or, if that was not yet possible or politically prudent, to reduce the South’s representation and electoral strength.”[87]

Johnson opposed colonization of freedmen but claimed no power to enfranchise them. The federal government should guarantee their “liberty and the right to work for wages and to own property” and nothing else. But Andrew Johnson had no party and Congress put the Freedman’s Bureau, the Civil Rights Act, and a proposed Fourteenth Amendment into play. Overseeing 238,000 people, as a sort of economic military commission and ally of Northern business, the Freedmen’s Bureau organized Black labor. Johnson intemperately vetoed Congressional legislation to distribute forty-acre plots in Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas to be rented to the “loyal.” Congress passed a modified Bill. The Boston Advertiser complained: “We cannot afford to have several millions of men idle.”[88]

Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act which listed some laissez-faire economic rights and transferred many cases to federal courts. One radical observed that the new order “leaves the Black man in the South” where he would thrive. Obstruction of the law would be punished as under the Fugitive Slave Act. (This was the contribution of Lyman Trumbull, humorist.) The legislation provided (historian Johnson says) “an extensive, extra-constitutional system of police and judicature.” Congress was building “a vast political machine…”[89]

With little demand for Black suffrage in Northern states, Radicals tailored their proposed Fourteenth Amendment to controlling Southern Congressional seats (as needed). The basis of representation would be population, not voters (a Five Fifths Clause). Confederate debts were repudiated, U.S. debts enshrined, and a “conveniently elastic” enforcement clause appeared.[90]

Second Peace Settlement

When their proposed Fourteenth Amendment failed, Congress intensified military occupation of the Southern states. All males were to be voters, except ex-Confederates not taking the iron-clad oath, and the new governments must ratify. Down the road, any states not yet “readmitted” would have to ratify the 15th amendment. Congress provided for presidential suspension of habeas corpus and Federal armies to maintain “order.”

Congress designed the Tenure of Office Act (March 2, 1867) to entrench their ally (and spy) War Secretary Stanton, and entrap Johnson when he fired Stanton (as he had to). Fearing another Milligan decision, Congress blocked the appeals to the Supreme Court of certain pending cases.[91] Johnson was cornered. Congress went ahead with his impeachment. Historian Johnson finds rather childish the conventional judgment that the system worked since the President survived.

In 1868 Republicans nominated General Grant and their platform denounced possible repudiation of bankers’ fictitious capital (the national debt). Democrats called for a revenue tariff and land for real settlers, and then shot off their electoral foot by nominating hard-money New York Governor Horatio Seymour.

Playing games with the number of states needed (and counted) Seward and Congress proclaimed the Fourteenth Amendment ratified. Johnson comments: “These non-states had to perform an act only a state could perform in order to become states once more.” The vague enforcement clause of the Fifteenth Amendment (also duly “ratified”) made possible national gerrymandering, “of maximum use when the Republicans were in power” if used “selectively in North and South.” Johnson thinks we may fairly infer intent.[92]

Third Peace Settlement

Johnson concedes some positive achievements of the Reconstruction state governments: penal reform, public education, manhood suffrage. The view prevalent since about 1950 that these regimes were “forward-looking, constructive, and democratic” is not all wrong.[93] But Reconstruction economic experiments devolved into sharecropping and by 1880 “the best Southern land was owned by Northern investors or by resident merchants, themselves dependent on Northern banks…” Johnson writes: “blacks neither ruled, robbed, ravaged, nor ruined the South,” but did discover “how little legal freedom could mean when accompanied by economic bondage.” Of course the era’s corruption was national, but the real question is “why the corruption… became so much worse” after the Republicans’ political and military triumphs. Johnson highlights the paradox of “crooked idealists” and “a corrupt crusade,” concluding: “Idealistic means, in other words, could be incidental to the pursuit of corrupt ends.”[94]

Former Whigs, now called “Conservatives,” dominated the restructured South.[95] Lincoln had foreseen this (and also that pushing Black suffrage “would inevitably force Southern Whigs into the arms of the Democrats”). A lot more than white supremacy galvanized opposition to Reconstruction: railroad scandals, significantly higher taxes, corruption, and spoils. Redeemers used “economic retaliation against blacks, social ostracism against whites, fraud, intimidation, and many forms of violence, including cold-blooded murder. This was scarcely surprising. The new order against which this violence was directed was itself the offspring of four years of killing that had left the South bled white, impoverished, and demoralized.” It seemed a repeat of “bleeding Kansas.” Further: “It is not even certain that the South was more violent than the North in the 1870s; like corruption, lawlessness was by no means a Southern monopoly,” as Northern labor history reveals in detail.[96] President Grant suspended habeas corpus in pursuit of the Ku Klux Klan.

Republicans retreated from Reconstruction but stood firm on tightening the money supply. Northern businessmen were tired of Reconstruction; they just wanted to make money on the South. In 1872 Republicans used the Enforcement Acts to hold Southern electoral votes in nine states, reelecting Grant. The Panic of 1873 arose when imports exceeded exports, “a problem that was aggravated by the debt-financed overexpansion of American industry, especially railroads.” There were thousands of bankruptcies and a wave of violent strikes that peaked in 1877. The national establishment resolved the disputed presidential election of 1876 in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes, who withdrew the last federal garrisons from the South. Thereafter, Blacks were gradually disfranchised. Johnson’s scorecard reads: the agrarian interest crushed, the reign of capital unleashed, along with that of a “gigantic central government.”[97]

As new issues of East vs. West and labor vs. capital displaced North vs. South, a new “national” historical consensus arose centered on Anglo-Saxonism. James Ford Rhodes and the nationalist school rejoiced the war’s destruction of “slavery and particularism.” Later, Charles Beard put rival economic systems at the center and his view was “transitional” to interwar revisionism. Postwar neo-nationalists (Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Harry Jaffa, et al.) endorsed the North with “righteous indignation.” Neo-abolitionism, inspired by civil rights movement, came next, followed by Lee Benson and the new political historians. Johnson notes a persistent failure to separate causes of sectional antagonisms from causes of the war.[98]

In a world of changing interpretative fashions, North against South remains an epic synthesis –brilliant and authoritative within the length imposed by the original publisher, which, Johnson points out,[99] forced him to be interpretive while sacrificing unnecessary detail.

VII. A Third Reconstruction? 

Long called a “neo-Confederate” by his critics, Johnson took on a new edge by the 1990s. In 1992 he noticed an “Orwellian purge” and rising “Historical Correctness” and combated them by extending their logic (e.g. chopping sinners’ heads off Mt. Rushmore) and heaping up some “ironies” missed by those who would ban Confederate symbols.[100] He commented on changing fashions in Civil War narratives in later prefaces to North Against South. In 1995 he remarked that mainstream history now assumed Northern goodness and Southern wickedness, even though the historian’s job is to understand. In 2002 he noted the rise of scholarly (especially historical) partisanship linked with postmodernism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, etc. Here was nihilism with a hidden agenda, whose American form was “a home-grown product” arising “from within the institution” and for which the “South and Southerners offer many tempting targets…”[101]

VIII. Assessment and Conclusions

We noted at the outset the merits of Johnson’s approach to history – his serious scholarship and careful use of sources. Having looked at representative examples of Johnson’s work, final observations are in order. Throughout his work Johnson has conserved the best insights of the Beardians and interwar revisionists, correcting them a bit and producing a powerful “Middle Period” synthesis of his own. For him the “Civil War” remains the central event of American history. He speculates that a “history in depth” of that period would require “something on the scale of Shelby Foote… but less military, and more analytical.”[102] (North Against South already provides a good foundation.)

Recurring Themes

Johnson suspects that the South would have become an economic colony of the North, with or without the war.[103] His focus on economic questions does not arise from the Beardian views of Woodward alone, but equally from the fact that important Northern political, economic, and ideological leaders constantly obsessed over their present and future economic interests.

The economic rationalization that produced American corporate capitalism was well under way by the Middle Period. Along with political competition, Romanticism, and radicalized religion in the North, it was a cause – i.e. an essential precondition — of what happened after 1860. These political-economic and religious-ideological developments spread westward in “the coming of age of the American Heartland”[104] and made the Upper Midwest an essential part of the Republican Party’s economic-developmental coalition. (Here the “neo-Beardian” works of Marc Egnal, Richard Bensel, Thomas Ferguson, and Elizabeth Sanders reinforce Johnson’s conclusions.[105])

Johnson credits Kenneth Stampp with opening up a path that reaches “forward into the late nineteenth century and back through antebellum sectional battles to the Constitution, the Hamiltonian dispensation, and beyond that to seventeenth-century England.”[106] With several centuries in view, Johnson argues that the changing needs of commercial capitalism ultimately underwrote both New World slavery and abolition.[107] He often relies on the insights of Italian Marxist military historian Raimondo Luraghi, who has written: “Nowhere has the industrial revolution ever been achieved except by compelling agriculture to pay for it.”[108]

Northern Teleology

For Johnson, such considerations help explain the North, its society and interests, and their role in the American drama, including the “civil war.” Much (or most) historical writing on the Middle Period lives in anticipation of Abraham Lincoln before passing into glorification of him. This was not Johnson’s idea of the historian’s task. Johnson takes a jarringly practical view of Lincoln as essentially a very ambitious politician.[109]

The South

Johnson complemented his assessment of Northern society with an attempt to describe Southern society in realistic terms while rejecting unfounded stereotypes.[110] His efforts to understand the North, the South, and the war make him seem (in some quarters) an unreconstructed Southern apologist.[111] Referring to his youth, Johnson says: “Growing up in Richmond in the 1930s and ‘40s, the lost cause all around… you breathed it in.”[112] But lack of commitment to Northern victory has allowed Johnson a degree of interpretive freedom seldom available to American historians, but sometimes found in foreign historians like Pieter Geyl (Dutch) and William B. Brock (British).[113]


Johnson’s research informs the present; it has plenty of that Old Devil, Relevance. It is hard to forget how, during the reign of George W. Bush, scores of headless leftists completely missed the obvious parallels between the legal regimes of Bush II and Lincoln. Both administrations asserted the right to forum-shop between domestic law and “laws” of war, as suited their immediate goals – a style of legal opportunism that thrived under Lincoln and remains available to the next corporal on horseback who wishes to use it.

Interviewed in 2002, Johnson bristled a bit at the pejorative use of the word “liberal” in some of the questions. Johnson: “…I don’t like ‘liberal’ being used as a sort of dirty word. It depends on what you mean by ‘liberal.’ [….] I’m a liberal in the Jeffersonian sense of the term.”[114] Referring later to a lifetime of teaching, Johnson told the interviewer: “I would like to be remembered by my students.”[115]

 Johnson as an Academic

Two men who knew Johnson have provided me with additional information. Dr. Stephen Klugewicz, editor of the Imaginative Conservative website, attended the College of William and Mary from 1985 to 1989. He took Johnson’s Civil War class, which he was quite eager to attend, and took two directed studies with him. He remembers Johnson as a Southern gentleman: open, tolerant, and caring, but not demonstrative. He loved teaching and cared about his students, unlike the many academics committed primarily to publishing. Once when Johnson was leading his students on a tour of a Richmond battlefield, he noticed that Klugewicz had forgotten to bring lunch and quietly shared his own sandwich with him.  Johnson didn’t hide his Southern sympathies. He would bring photos of Civil War figures to class and say that Lincoln, Butler, etc. looked “evil,” whereas Beauregard, Davis, and Lee did not. He had a painting of Appomattox in his office with Grant surrendering to Lee. Politically, Klugewicz suspects that Johnson was still a conservative Democrat with mild New Deal leanings.[116]Bill Potter, an independent historian in Cumming, Georgia was a graduate student at William and Mary in 1980 and 1981. He got to know Johnson, a legendary figure on campus, about whom the other instructors had many stories. Johnson’s Southern sympathies were a part of the legend.  Johnson had opposed a doctoral program in history at William and Mary, arguing the school was too small for such a thing. (Imagine such an argument today!) He seems never to have taught doctoral students, but did advise students (including Potter) on PhD dissertations and MA Theses. His key piece of advice was this: pick a biographical topic, since someone’s life has a beginning and an end (and so would the dissertation).[117]

Last Word

In closing, it seems enough to say that Ludwell Johnson’s balanced life of teaching and writing on subjects of historical importance has been an admirable achievement that will leave a worthy and lasting legacy.



(The following is a partial bibliography. Ludwell Johnson was a prolific writer.)


The Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1993).

North Against South: The American Iliad, 1848-1877 (Columbia, SC: Foundation for American Education, 1993) (first published as Division and Reunion in 1978).

Susan H. Godson, Ludwell H. Johnson, Richard B. Sherman, Thad W. Tate, and Helen C. Walker, The College of William and Mary: A History (Williamsburg: King & Queen Press, 1993), two volumes.

Essays on the War

“Fort Sumter and Confederate Diplomacy,” Journal of Southern History, 26 (November 1960), 441-477.

“Lincoln’s Solution to the Problem of Peace Terms, 1864-1865,” Journal of Southern History, 34 (November 1967), 576-586.

“Civil War Military History: Some Revisions in Need of Revising,” Civil War History, 17 (June 1971), 115-130.

“The Plundering Generation: Uneasy Reflections on the Civil War,” Continuity, 9 (Fall 1984), 109-119.

“‘The Few Brave and Hungry Men’: Another Look at the Fort Sumter Crisis,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 84 (1985), 81-88.

Trading with the Enemy

“Contraband Trade during the Last Year of the Civil War,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 49 (1962-1963), 635-652.

“Beverley Tucker’s Canadian Mission,” Journal of Southern History, 29 (February 1963), 95-98.

“The Butler Expedition of 1861-1862: The Profitable Side of War,” Civil War History, 11 (1965), 229-236.

“Northern War Profits and Profiteers: The Cotton Rings of 1864-1865,” Civil War History, 12 (1966), 101-115.

“Commerce with Northeastern Ports and the Confederacy, 1864-1865,” Journal of American History, 54 (1967), 30-42.

“The Louis A. Welton Affair: A Confederate Attempt to Buy Supplies in the North,” Civil War History, 15 (1969), 30-38.

“Trading with the Union: The Evolution of Confederate Policy,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 78 (July 1970), 308-325.

“Blockade or Trade Monopoly: John A. Dix and the Union Occupation of Norfolk,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 93 (1985), 54-78.

“Trade with the Enemy: Some New Lincoln Documents,” Manuscripts, 39 (1987), 29-39.

“Our Friends the Enemy: How the North Supplied Confederate Armies,” Southern Partisan, 20 (1990), 26-28.

Legal History

“The Business of War: Trading with the Enemy in English and Early American Law,” American Philosophical Society Proceedings, 118 (1974), 459-470.

“The Confederacy: What Was It? The View from the Federal Courts,” Civil War History, 32 (March 1986), 5-22.

“Abraham Lincoln and the Development of Presidential War-Making Powers: Prize Cases (1863) Revisited,” Civil War History, 35 (September 1989), 208-224.


“Lincoln and Equal Rights: The Authenticity of the Wadsworth Letter,” Journal of Southern History, 32 (1966), 576-586.

“Lincoln and Equal Rights: A Reply,” Civil War History, 13 (March 1967), 66-73.

“Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln as War Presidents: Nothing Succeeds Like Success,” Civil War History, 27 (March 1981), 49-63.

“The Lincoln Puzzle: Searching for the Real Honest Abe,” William and Mary Alumni Gazette Magazine, 54 (1986), 13-17.


“Bushwhacking the Bill of Rights,” Southern Partisan, 22 (July/August 2002), 16-20.

“The Sage of Williamsburg: Interview with Ludwell Johnson,” Southern Partisan, 22 (September/October 2002), 21-26.

Lectures at the Museum of the Confederacy

“Davis v. Lincoln: The Better Man?” Museum of the Confederacy Lecture, 1981

“Lee Takes Command: The Seven Days’ Battles,” Museum of the Confederacy Lecture, 1986

“Is the Confederacy Obsolete?” Museum of the Confederacy Lecture, 1993

Panel Discussion, “The Treason Trial of Jefferson Davis,” with Kent Masterson Brown,

Clint Johnson, and Cynthia Nicoletti, Museum of the Confederacy, 2008.

Book Reviews

Johnson wrote scores of book reviews in major journals of Southern history and in state history journals. Most can be found via J-STOR.


Panel: “Antebellum Constitutional Crises,” C-SPAN, March 9, 1994, . Johnson’s remarks, “No Faith in Parchment,” run from 33.06 to 1.02.11.


[1] Ludwell Johnson, The Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1993), xiii.

[2] Roughly 1820-1860 and a bit beyond.

[3] “The Sage of Williamsburg: Interview with Ludwell Johnson,” Southern Partisan, 22 (September/October 2002), 21 (hereafter: “Interview”); Museum of the Confederacy: .

[4] Chapter 12, “The Colonial Economy,” in Woodward’s Origins of the New South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951) is a wonderful piece of Beardian analysis.

[5] Woodward’s mentor.

[6] Ludwell Johnson, “Fort Sumter and Confederate Diplomacy,” Journal of Southern History, 26 (November 1960), 441-477.

[7] Johnson, “Fort Sumter,” 447.

[8] Johnson, “Fort Sumter,” 455, 466, 468. U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Nelson found serious legal obstacles to “coercing the seceded states,” giving Seward more excuses for his peaceful posturing (455-456).

[9] On the importance of the fort, see David Aiken, “Southern Core Values,” Abbeville Review, March 3, 2015, .

[10] Johnson, “Fort Sumter,” 475, 477. Interestingly, Johnson found “no definite evidence” that Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs opposed reducing the fort (475-476).

[11] Ludwell Johnson, “Lincoln’s Solution to the Problem of Peace Terms, 1864-1865,” Journal of Southern History, 34 (November 1967), 576-586. 

[12] Johnson, “Peace Terms,” 577, 579.

[13] “Peace Terms,” 581.

[14] “Peace Terms,” 582.

[15] “Peace Terms,” 586. Southern “anarchy”: 584 note.

[16] Ludwell Johnson, “Lincoln and Equal Rights: The Authenticity of the Wadsworth Letter,” Journal of Southern History, 32 (1966), 576-586; reprinted in Charles Crowe, ed., The Age of Civil War and Reconstruction, 1830-1900 (Howewood, IL: Dorsey Press, 1966), 254-257).

[17] A confrontation over the letter at a Southern Historical Association meeting became legendary.

[18] Johnson, “Wadsworth Letter,” 255 (in Crowe).

[19] Harold M. Hyman, “The Irrelevance of the Wadsworth Letter,” Civil War History, 12 (September 1966), 258-266; Ludwell Johnson, “Lincoln and Equal Rights: A Reply,” Civil War History, 13 (March 1967), 66-73.   And see Richard O. Curry, “The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861-1877,” in Robert P. Swierenga, Beyond the Civil War Synthesis (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1975), 39.

[20] Johnson, “Wadsworth Letter,” 257.

[21] Ludwell Johnson, The Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1993). (It began as a Senior Thesis at Johns Hopkins, 1952.)

[22] See “A Plundering Generation” below.

[23] Johnson, Red River, xii (RR below).

[24] RR, xiv.

[25] RR, 3-4.

[26] RR, 21.

[27] RR, 49.

[28] RR, 80, 109.

[29] RR, 223-224.

[30] RR, 272.

[31] Red River, ix-xi. Johnson’s essays on trade include “Beverley Tucker’s Canadian Mission,” Journal of Southern History, 29 (February 1963), 95-98, and “Trading with the Union: The Evolution of Confederate Policy,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 78, 3 (July 1970), 308-325, as well as those discussed below.

[32] Ludwell Johnson, “The Business of War: Trading with the Enemy in English and Early American Law,” American Philosophical Society Proceedings, 118 (1974), 459-470.

[33] Ludwell Johnson, “The Plundering Generation: Uneasy Reflections on the Civil War,” Continuity, 9 (Fall 1984), 109-119.

[34] Johnson, “Plundering Generation,” 110-111.

[35] “Plundering Generation,” 112.

[36] “Plundering Generation,” 112-113.

[37] “Plundering Generation,” 114-115.

[38] “Plundering Generation,” 116-118.

[39] Ludwell Johnson, “Blockade or Trade Monopoly: John A. Dix and the Union Occupation of Norfolk,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 93 (1985), 54-78.

[40] Ludwell Johnson, “Blockade,” 54.

[41] “Blockade,” 56-57. Here Chase, as Chief Justice, corrected Chase, Treasurer!

[42] “Blockade,” 59.

[43] He of the Wadsworth Letter.

[44] “Blockade,” 77-78.

[45] Ludwell Johnson, “The Confederacy: What Was It? The View from the Federal Courts,” Civil War History, 32 (March 1986), 5-22.

[46] Johnson, “Confederacy,” 5.

[47] “Confederacy,” 6. Johnson does not adopt here the Confederate position that the war was always international, given the legal independence of the seceding states. Disappointingly, Johnson avoids any discussion of the legality of secession. But see Ludwell Johnson, “No Faith in Parchment” (1994), in bibliography (below) under Video.

[48] “Confederacy,” 6-7.

[49] Johnson: “The practice of the United States itself had left little distinction between de facto and de jure.” “Confederacy,” 6 n.

[50] And not so much the mercy of which the federals later boasted.

[51] The dual-use legal regime is currently seen as a positive good at the neo-conservative/liberal imperialist Lawfare blog.

[52] “Confederacy,” 15.

[53] “Confederacy,” 22. Texas v. White (1869) rationalized these various decisions.

[54] Ludwell Johnson, “Abraham Lincoln and the Development of Presidential War-Making Powers: Prize Cases (1863) Revisited,” Civil War History, 35 (September 1989), 208-224.

[55] “War Powers,” 209.

[56] “Civil war” was already a misnomer for a war of secession.

[57] “War Powers,” 211. Johnson had already made the interesting point that “Lincoln declared the ports of North Carolina blockaded before it had seceded.” “Confederacy,” 11.

[58] “War Powers,” 217, 219.

[59] “Confederacy,” 14 n.

[60] Ludwell Johnson, “Bushwhacking the Bill of Rights,” Southern Partisan, 22 (July/August 2002), 16-20.

[61] “Bushwhacking,” 17.

[62] Ludwell Johnson, North Against South: The American Iliad, 1848-1877 (Columbia, SC: Foundation for American Education, 1993 [1978]) (hereafter: NS).

[63] Johnson, NS, 1-2. A runaway slave notice signed by Andrew Jackson appears here!

[64] NS, 12, 17-18.

[65] NS, 19.

[66] Some amusing details and unexpected connections are found in Hugh Thomas, Cuba, Or the Pursuit of Freedom (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 220-223.

[67] NS, 22-23, 29.

[68] NS, 35, 38.

[69] NS, 40, 47.

[70] NS, 56, 58, 62, 64.

[71] NS, 67-81. See Peter Laslett, “The Gentry of Kent in 1640” (1948), in T. H. Breen, ed., Shaping Southern Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 32-47.

[72] NS, 82-83.  Cf. Roy F. Nichols, American Leviathan (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 199.

[73] NS, 88-90, 95, 100-101, 104.

[74] NS, 107-108.

[75] NS, 110-111.

[76] NS, 115, 117, 120. Johnson doesn’t mention J.P. Morgan’s exploding rifles.

[77] NS, 124-125.

[78] NS, 129, 131.

[79] NS, 134.

[80] NS, 137. Jefferson Davis noted the Unionists’ rather feudal-absolutist category of “loyal” persons: a term of “no signification except as applied to the sovereign of an empire or kingdom”: Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, II (reprint New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1958 [1881]), 581.

[81] NS, 145.

[82] NS, 155-157.

[83] NS, 182.

[84] NS, 186-189.

[85] NS, 190-191.

[86] NS, 193-196.

[87] NS, 200-201.

[88] NS, 203, 210.

[89] NS, 212-213.

[90] NS, 215-218.

[91] NS, 229.  This was the case of McCardle, never decided.

[92] NS, 242-243.

[93] On Reconstruction Johnson is mildly revisionist in the manner of Francis Butler Simkins.

[94] NS, 246, 248-250.

[95] That Whigs resurfaced as Redeemers was of course a thesis of C. Vann Woodward.

[96] NS, 252-253.

[97] NS, 261, 268. Cf. Richard Franklin Bensel, Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859-1877 (Cambridge University Press, 1990).

[98] NS, 272-275, 279.

[99] NS, xix.

[100] Ludwell Johnson, “Furl That Banner?” Southern Partisan, 12 (First Quarter 1992), 21-22.

[101] NS, xix-xx, xiii-xv. Johnson did not blame political correctness on Marxism: “Interview,” 23.

[102] “Interview,” 23.

[103] “Interview,” 24.

[104] NS, 31.

[105] Marc Egnal, Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War (New York: Hill & Wang, 2009); Bensel, Yankee Leviathan;  Thomas Ferguson, Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems (University of Chicago Press, 1995); Elizabeth Sanders, Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); and perhaps also some works of James Malin.

[106] RR, xiii.

[107] NS, 4.

[108] Quoted in NS, 108.  Clyde W. Barrow’s More Than a Historian: The Political and Economic Thought of Charles A. Beard (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2000) does an excellent job of sorting out the similarities and differences between Beardianism and Marxism.

[109] NS, 83. See also Ludwell Johnson, “The Lincoln Puzzle: Searching for the Real Honest Lincoln,” William and Mary Alumni Gazette Magazine, 54 (1986), 13-17, and “Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln as War Presidents: Nothing Succeeds Like Success,” Civil War History, 27:1 (March 1981), 49-63.

[110] See his criticisms of one famous portrait of the Old South: “Review of William R. Taylor, Cavalier and Yankee,” Indiana Magazine of History, 58 (1962), 157-159 (online).

[111] It seems unnecessary to determine exactly whether Johnson is a Southern nationalist.

[112] “Interview,” 25.

[113] Pieter Geyl, Debates with Historians (New York: World Publishing, 1958), 261: “for American writers the overriding importance of the Union allows of no discussion.” William R. Brock, Conflict and Transformation: The United States, 1844-1877 (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1973), 206: “in 1861 it was the case for preserving the Union that rested upon supposition and refused to face the facts.”

[114] “Interview,” 22.

[115] “Interview,” 26.

[116] Phone conversation with Stephen Klugewicz, May 6, 2015.

[117] Phone conversation with Bill Potter, May 11, 2015.

Joseph R. Stromberg

Joseph R. Stromberg is an independent historian born in southwest Florida and currently living in northeastern Georgia. He earned a B.A. and M.A. in History at Florida Atlantic University (1970, 1971) and did further graduate work in History at the University of Florida (1973-75). He was a Richard M. Weaver Fellow in 1970-1971. He has taught college level courses in World Civilizations, American History, and Florida History, as an adjunct instructor. His work has appeared in the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Telos, Chronicles, the Freeman, Future of Freedom, Independent Review, and the American Conservative. He has contributed essays to various collections including Secession, State, and Liberty (1998) and Opposing the Crusader State (2007). On the web he has appeared at (over a hundred short essays in “The Old Cause” column, 1999-2003), First Principles Journal, Arator, and Anamnesis Journal. His research interests include the Old Right non-interventionists, the American South, peasantries in history, English Enclosures, constitutional issues, secession, and the origins of states and empires.

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