Military Necessity: Civil-Military Relations in the Confederacy

by Paul D. Escott, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006, 215 pages, $49.95.

Beginning with a quote from the November 14, 1864, Richmond Enquirer, “The plea of military necessity has been presented in all its bearings, and…we have willingly and cheerfully surrendered one privilege of freemen after another,” Paul Escott’s Military Necessity details the subordination of states’ rights and almost all civil rights to military necessity during the Confederacy’s failed attempt at independence.

This outstanding analysis of the intersection of civil and military authority in the Confederacy may provide some lessons for today’s conflicts. Escott begins by describing the traditions of both individual and states’ rights. From there, he chronicles the Confederate government’s efforts to mobilize scant Southern resources to match Northern might. These efforts eventually led to expanding military encroachments on state and local governments.

The book describes the need for and acceptance of conscription, impressment, suspension of habeas corpus and taxation policies implemented by the civil government to support the military. Most of these programs were initiated by civil authorities and had the support of the Confederate Congress, which, as more of the South was conquered and its population fell outside of Congress’ control, was willing to demand additional sacrifice from the remaining Confederate populace in the name of military necessity.

Escott also explains that although Jefferson Davis faced opposition, he generally prevailed. Opposition from some Congressmen, state governments, judges and even generals did not stop the march of centralization and the deconstruction of states’ and civil rights. What it did do was expose severe frictions in the South.

In general, the military remained subservient to civil authorities, with the exception of the trans-Mississippi region. As Escott details, after the fall of Vicksburg, General Kirby Smith became a virtual military dictator over both military and civilian affairs west of the Mississippi River. Despite calls for such a leader east of the Mississippi, it never came to pass. When Davis finally appointed Robert E. Lee as commander in chief, the reluctant Lee took the post but continued to subordinate himself to Davis.

In the ultimate test of military necessity in its fight for independence, the South failed to implement a plan to fully utilize its large slave population. Thus the slaves became a source of Northern strength. Escott’s book describes the internal battles that raged over this issue and the belief of some, even as late as February 1865, that the South could retain its slaves perhaps through an armistice with Abraham Lincoln. By the time the Confederate Congress passed legislation mobilizing black Confederate soldiers to fight for Southern independence, it was too late.

Escott’s book deals strictly with history, but one can see parallels to today’s political fights and debates over the proper means of winning the war on terrorism. The major difference between the Civil War and today’s conflicts, though, is that despite some protest, the South fought the Civil War subordinating almost all rights to military necessity.

This is an excellent, albeit condensed, survey of how the Civil War changed the balance of civil and military power in the South as the Confederate position transitioned from the defense of slavery to a war for independence from the North. Military Necessity should appeal to those wanting to understand the grand strategy of Civil War mobilization and also to those who may want to understand history’s lessons as they apply to current conflicts.


Originally published in the January 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.