Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Was the Confederate Congress Really So Bad?

Hon. Rep. John Goode of Virginia
Confederate Congress. (Library of Congress)

     The Confederate Congress got a lot of bad press and complaints from generals, but was it really so bad?
     General Robert E. Lee made this famous quote about the Confederate Congress: "I have been up to see the Congress and they do not seem to be able to do anything except to eat peanuts and chew tobacco, while my army is starving."
     However, one of the most distinguished historians of the mid-20th Century, Bell I. Wiley of Emory University, said at a 1961 conference at Gettysburg College that the Congress' bad reputation was the result of bad press and its excessive secrecy.
     Wiley was quoted by the press at the time as saying, "Nearly all important business was conducted behind closed doors. Newspapermen resented their exclusion and in their resentment they gave the legislators an unfavorable press -- representing them as as ineffectual and mediocre."

    But in fairness, the historian noted "some of the problems which they (the congressmen) were condemned for not solving were by their very nature impossible of solution.The Confederate Congress appeared in worse light than most legislative bodies because it represented a 'nation with nothing,' so to speak, involved in a great modern war with a country whose resources were practically unlimited.
     "And, after all, it did on April 16, 1862, it did on April 16, 1862, pass the first national draft act in American history and it adopted other measures which according to the ideas of the time, bordered on the revolutionary, including impressment of private property for military use, suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and the levying of taxes on profits, income and farm produce.
    "In light of the enormous difficulties with which it had to content, its accomplishments appear more impressive than its shortcomings," Wiley said at the Gettysburg College conference.
     Wiley, born in 1906 and died in 1980, was a native of Tennessee, received his BA degrees from Asbury College in 1928 and a PhD. degree from Yale University in 1933. Besides Emory, Wiley also taught at the University of Mississippi and Louisiana State University.  Among his many outstanding books is The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy, (1943), which is a classic and still in print from Louisiana State University Press.

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