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“By God, this is not politics — this is war! There are words that a gentleman simply does not speak! Deeds that a gentleman — or any decent man — does not do! Are these people so desperate to win that they would stoop to… to this?”

                                                                                                                   James Lawrence Orr

At first glance, it would appear that there was little or nothing to choose from between the Charleston and New Orleans Coalitions. Both were adamantly in favor of slavery and against any suggestion of reunification. The New Orleanians were no more opposed to states’ rights than Charlestonians were opposed to national defense. The difference, rather, was one of emphasis, and of what area each coalition accused the other of being weak in. (For example, the CC tended to downplay the military effectiveness of the United States, preferring to dismiss the Yankees as cowardly and effeminate. The NOC, on the other hand, pointed to the Mississippi Valley campaign of ‘64, the occupation of Tennessee and Arkansas and the Metropolis Belle incident as proof that the Yankees had been, and remained, a serious threat.)

The two differed significantly, however, in culture and outlook. The member parties of the CC tended to emphasize the primacy of class and the virtues of aristocracy. Many of them favored property and literacy restrictions on voters, and implemented such restrictions in states where they dominated the legislature. The NOC parties, on the other hand, were all in agreement that one white man was as good as another, with the emphasis on “white.”[1] These differences came to a head in September of 1872, when the Arkansas State Gazette (a pro-NOC newspaper) revealed that a man named Henry Ellison[2] was listed as being on the central committee of the Sumter County States’ Rights Party — the party from which James Orr hailed.

Henry Ellison was a man of some local importance in central South Carolina. He owned a cotton-grin repair shop famous for the quality of its work, and managed a cotton plantation as well. He inherited both businesses from his late father, William Ellison, a superb engineer and Confederate patriot who had devoted his cotton fields to growing crops for soldiers during the Secession War. He owned slaves who worked at both establishments. In all respects but one, he seemed to be a model of what Southron citizenship should be.

But Henry Ellison himself was not and could not be a citizen of the CSA, for a very simple reason — he was black. His father (born April Ellison) had been freed in 1816, when manumission was still legal in South Carolina, after serving an apprenticeship in Winnsboro building and repairing cotton gins. The Ellison family was a flock of those rarest of rare birds — black slaveholders accepted (up to a point) in white society. In fact, their social connections had been strong enough to protect them while many of South Carolina’s free blacks were being enslaved or driven north. Although Henry Ellison could not vote, his lavish donations to the SRP had earned him a pro forma honorary position on the committee. (So far as history records, he never actually sat in on a committee meeting.)

By itself, this caused less outrage than one might expect. While it was true that few Southrons could view with equanimity the elevation of any black to a social position higher than that of stoop laborer or household servant, Ellison was only one man. For the most part, the local-minded Southrons considered that if his immediate neighbors, who saw him most often and knew him best, had no objections to his unusual status, then the matter was really no one else’s business.

But at about this same time, a reporter for the New Orleans Picayune, who had been given the dreary task of reading through the platforms of the CC member parties in the hope of finding something that could be used against them, discovered something comparatively interesting about the Party of Northern Virginia. He learned that one of the founding documents of this party was something called the “Port Royal Manifesto.”

This manifesto had been written in 1866 by George Fitzhugh, a Treasury official during the Davis administration and a popular (in the Confederacy, at least) self-taught sociologist. One of the more extreme ideas Fitzhugh alluded to in the Manifesto — and stated explicitly in other published works — was that the status of a chattel slave was so far preferable to that of a low-salaried free worker that poor whites should be extended the opportunity to become slaves as well. To the extent that the NOC had a coherent set of beliefs, this went very much against them.

It is unlikely that anyone in a position of power in the SRP subscribed to the views expressed in the Port Royal Manifesto, or had even read it. Nor did anyone in the PNV know that a black man had earned even honorary status in the SRP. It took an anonymous Breckinridge supporter to put these disparate facts together and suggest to the voters the theoretical possibility, under Charleston Coalition governance, of a successful black freedman purchasing a poor white slave. This was the subject of a lavishly illustrated leaflet, published and distributed throughout the Confederacy over the course of October, entitled “Henry Ellison Buys Hisself a Prime Blonde Wench.”

At this point it may be said that the “Confederate Era of Good Feelings” had come to an end. President Toombs and James Orr condemned the leaflet in the strongest terms, and called upon Breckinridge to personally repudiate it. “A decent statesman would be ashamed to count the dregs of society among his supporters,” said Toombs. Breckinridge acknowledged the “obscene and scurrilous nature” of the leaflet and called it “unworthy of further attention,” but added that “the concerns of millions of Southron voters cannot be so easily dismissed. Why has one of the parties supporting my opponent raised a Negro to such heights, and why does another advocate casting poor white men down so low?”

One half of that question was easily answered — neither the PNV nor any other Confederate party proposed extending slavery to poor whites. As for the SRP and Henry Ellison, the truth was that those who knew the Ellison family personally had come to treat them as equals and “honorary whites” — but, given the limited conventions of Southron discourse on race, they had a little trouble explaining why. James Orr made a game effort, stating that “even an inferior race may, by the inscrutable will of God, produce individuals of exceptional personal merit” whose status was to be considered “sui generis, and inapplicable to the broader relationship between the races.” To this, Breckinridge replied: “Can the gentleman from South Carolina tell me which white man is to be reckoned the inferior of any Negro? Let him name the poor fellow, if he dares.”

For the most part, people north of the border took little or no notice of these goings-on. However, the affair would inspire Frederick Douglass to write an essay which was destined to become a famous commentary on race relations, “The Strange Case of the E______ Family”:

“This family is the beneficiary of a most curious phenomenon. Even those white men and women who openly despise Negroes, on whatever pretext, will often claim to know of one or two individuals whom they personally respect (or even regard as friends) and who are therefore exempt from their disparagement of the whole race. By all appearances, those who say such things do so in full sincerity, yet never do they think on the extraordinary chance that any race God made, comprised of millions of individuals, should produce only a few of any worth — and that one single soul should make the acquaintance of all those few. What rare privilege! What improbable good fortune![3]

“My Negro readers will know whereof I speak, and perhaps a few of my white readers will have observed this as well. For it is not only Negroes that are subject to this quirk of human judgment, but Jews, Irishmen and immigrants of many nations. Indeed, I dare say it can be found in any region of this world where different tribes of men live side by side and think ill of one another.

“But here in the Union at least a man may speak the truth. Here the same Constitution that grants full voice to all manner of vanity, folly and unearned contempt also allows free rein to whoever is willing to denounce these things for what they are. It is not so in the Confederacy! There, to utter these simple truths is to strike at the very foundation of lies, contempt and self-infatuation upon which that misbegotten regime is built.

“This is not merely my own, admittedly partial assessment; it is the opinion of no less an authority than Alexander Stephens, who was there at the beginning. ‘Our government is founded upon the great truth… that the negro is not equal to the white man’ — those were his very words. Then whatever shall the white Southron do when living, breathing evidence stands before him to give the lie to that ‘great truth’?

“In most such cases, sadly, the ‘evidence’ is destroyed or driven away. Negroes who show intelligence, initiative and diligence are considered ‘uppity,’ the mere existence of their virtues seen as a form of insolence against the ‘superior race’ to be repaid with the most extreme violence. But this does not always happen. Very, very infrequently, a strange and beneficent impulse will lead the white men of a Southron community to open the door of acceptance to this Negro, taking great care to close that door firmly behind him afterward.

“Yet even in such cases, the question remains: how does one reconcile one’s belief in the rightness of slavery with the existence of such a man? The answer is: by trying not to think about it. Thus, the great cloak of public silence that surrounds such people as the E______s. They are rare and obscure, and by the tacit agreement of society their status may be protected without being extended to others of their race.

“But O, the discomfort when some oblivious blunderer raises his voice and points out this curious discrepancy! For there are those (we have all met them) who lack the facility to perceive such unspoken social accords in action, who can never quite hear the words that are left unsaid. And when they ask wherefore this Negro is being accorded the respect due a white man, then men who would delight in the name of ‘philanthropist’ yet recoil in terror at the thought of being branded a ‘n_____-lover’ must find some way to account for the situation that does not call into question all that they profess to believe.”

All of this was no doubt true, but it was no help to Orr or to the CC. Although the popular vote was almost equally divided, Breckinridge won the electoral votes of Arkansas, Davis, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, along with three Georgia electors, giving him a majority. Party politics had returned in all but name.

And the names would not be long in coming. Two years later, in preparation for the congressional election, the New Orleans Coalition would reorganize itself into a true political party and rename itself the Democratic Party of the Confederacy. The Charleston Coalition would take another two years to accomplish the same, but would ultimately call itself the Conservative Party.

(Henry Ellison and his family, mortified by the unwanted attention they were receiving and at this point in some physical danger, made one last use of their connections with South Carolina society to arrange passage into the Union in 1873. They moved west into New Mexico Territory after the end of the Comanche War, where Ellison was able to establish himself as a wool and mohair wholesaler. George Fitzhugh moved to Texas, faded into obscurity and died in 1882, only three months before the Horror.)

[1] And of course on “man.”
[2] Believe it or not, Henry Ellison and his father William really existed IOTL. William Ellison, who died in 1861, was just as described. I don’t know anything about Henry Ellison beyond his name, but neither ITTL nor IOTL did he do anything to deserve this kind of notoriety.
[3] It’s not one of the things we remember him for, but Frederick Douglass was a Snark Lord.
Another "Purple Dream" snippet. Content note: nasty-ass racism.
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Submitted on
October 8, 2014