South Struggled to provide necessitits

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

• The Impressment Act was passed because the Confederate government had difficulty supplying soldiers such as these. Some sources identify these men, who were captured at the Battle of Gettysburg, as Louisiana Tigers (Library of Congress).
Throughout the Civil War, the Confederacy was hampered by its inability to properly equip its armies. With a small manufacturing base and an agricultural system geared to producing cash crops rather than food items, the South struggled to provide even the most basic necessities to its soldiers. Shortages had become so widespread after two years of war that a desperate Confederate Congress was forced to act.

On March 26, 1863, the Congress passed the Impressment Act. During the previous two years, Rebel armies and some state governments had periodically impressed, or seized, needed supplies from civilians, but the process was not regulated. The Impressment Act was intended to correct that shortcoming. Initially, the act only allowed the government to impress supplies needed to feed and sustain the military, but it was later amended to allow authorities to impress virtually anything needed for public use. Appointed agents inventoried mills, farms, and businesses, collected the goods needed, and paid the owners with either Confederate scrip or certificates that could be redeemed for cash at a later time. Even slaves could be impressed to work on fortifications or other military projects, with the owners being paid an agreed upon price for each slave taken and reimbursed the full value of the slave if he died during the work period.

Few Confederate measures were as controversial as the Impressment Act. There were many flaws in the system, and civilians viewed it as a violation of their civil rights. Prices set by the government were usually below the actual market value of the supplies taken, and the law was not applied equally. People who lived closest to the armies operating in South Louisiana or along the Red and Mississippi rivers suffered more from impressment than those who lived far away from the front lines. In addition, unscrupulous men pretended to be impressment agents and used counterfeit certificates to steal goods.

Slave owners, in particular, opposed the Impressment Act. They complained that impressed slaves often sickened and died because the government did not take care of them properly and that officials kept slaves longer than the agreed upon time. So many slave owners opposed the law that one senator declared, "The patriotic planters would willingly put their own flesh and blood into the army, but when you asked them for a negro the matter approached the point of drawing an eye-tooth." To placate the slave owners, Congress finally amended the Impressment Act so that no more than 20 percent of an individual's slaves could be impressed and the number of impressments had to be apportioned equally in a given area.

As time passed, impressment agents increasingly issued the redeemable certificates rather than paying cash. Inflation, however, was out of control by the second half of the war, and the certificates were virtually worthless by the time they were redeemed. Thousands of patriotic citizens already held reams of certificates that had not yet been paid; the last thing they wanted was more of the worthless paper. To address the chorus of complaints, Congress amended the Impressment Act again in February 1864 to require agents to pay cash for the goods they seized, but this caused a new problem for Louisiana. General Edmund Kirby Smith, who commanded the vast Trans-Mississippi Department out of the Confederate state capital at Shreveport, reported that he could not comply with the new law because he was "practically without funds and without the means of procuring them." Louisiana's legislature fought back against the Impressment Act by warning the Confederate Congress that any new attempts to impress supplies from private citizens would be "resisted by force." State officials declared that if the national government wanted Louisiana's goods, it first had to pay off the certificates that people already held.

The actual amount of supplies impressed by the Confederates is unknown, but it may have exceeded $500 million. Unfortunately, much of it was never used. Food often spoiled before it could be delivered to the armies, either because impressment agents did not make the necessary transportation arrangements or because the deteriorating transportation system could not handle the traffic. Overall, the Impressment Act may have actually hurt the Confederates more than it helped because its arbitrary and unfair application only demoralized the people at a time when the war was turning steadily against them.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published several books on the American Civil War.