Originally aired on December 06, 1996 - In part 119 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson discusses Jefferson Davis’ greatest failure, the appointment of Lucius Northrop to the post of commissary general.
#119 – Confederate Failure
If a contest were ever conducted for the most disliked man in the Southern Confederacy, Lucius B. Northrop would be near if not at the top of the list. The passage of 130 years, and the memory of starvation in Southern armies, has done little to change his reputation.
Born in 1811 of well-to-do parents in Charleston, South Carolina, Northrop graduated from West Point. There he also formed a lifelong friendship with Cadet Jefferson Davis. In 1839, while campaigning against the Indians, Northrop accidentally shot himself in the knee. The wound left him crippled. He then studied medicine and was maintaining a practice in Charleston when, in 1861, his old classmate, now-Confederate President Davis, appointed him commissary general of the Confederate armies.
In many respects, this was the worst presidential assignment that Davis ever made. Northrop’s only responsibility was to provide food for Southern soldiers as well as (beginning in 1863) Union prisoners of war. It was an exceedingly difficult task because of a number of factors: hoarding, inflation, collapse of the railroad system, shortages of wagons and teams, dishonest agents, price-fixing, military reverses, and the steady loss of Southern territory where food was most plentiful. Yet Northrop brought much of his failure on himself.
Although Davis considered him a man of “strong political sense and incorruptible integrity” – which was true, this ran completely counter to popular opinion in the Confederacy; for in a position that demanded tact and patience, Northrop substituted pettiness, rigidity, blind devotion to bureaucracy, both the personality and the confirmed pessimism of a malicious old man.
A War department clerk observed that when something went wrong in Northrop’s agency, he “splutters over it in his angular (penmanship) at a furious rate”. Socialite Mary Boykin Chestnut called Northrop “the most cussed and vilified man in the Confederacy”. Others termed him “a half-crocked potentate” who was “peevish, obstinate, condescending, and fault-finding”. A high-ranking general asserted that it would be for the “national good” if Northrop could be sent as an ambassador to China.
On one occasion, even Davis chided the colonel for losing two herds of beef-cattle consigned to Lee’s army. When Northrop reportedly voiced the opinion that hungry Southern soldiers should learn to eat less meat, he was widely assailed for attempting to convert Confederates to vegetarianism.
For almost the entire war, Northrop was a problem that Jefferson Davis simply could not and would not solve. A true patriot, it has been said. Would have resigned when his system failed to feed the army. Instead, Northrop spent much of his time defending his actions. When Congress insisted he be replaced, the stubbornly loyal Davis responded by recommending Northrop for promotion to brigadier general. Yet Davis did not submit the nomination for confirmation because of the certainty of rejection. Finally, in February, 1865, with army starvation rampant, Northrop was replaced.
He spent twenty-five years after the war living on a farm near Charlottesville. Openly resentful of a number of generals he found solace only in comforting letters from Jefferson Davis. A stroke in 1890 left him partially paralyzed. He moved to a veterans’ home in Maryland. There, in February, 1894, Northrop died. He is buried in Baltimore.
He held the commissary general’s post for almost four years. With not one notable success to his credit, Northrop did extensive damage to the Confederate cause. The crippled Northrop was a thoroughgoing bureaucrat who brought limited vision to his office and little food to the armies. Unknowingly, he was a decided asset to the Union war effort.