Confederate Relic Room: Long-lost papers shine a light on Confederacy’s financial crisis


On the verge of crisis 145 years ago, the Confederate States of America sought an economic rescue not unlike the one U.S. financial institutions recently got.

Confederate accounts were overdrawn, and credit from overseas investment firms was about to dry up because lenders weren’t confident the Southern states could repay their mounting debts.

So, in 1863, Alabama businessman Colin J. McRae was sent to Europe to orchestrate a bailout of the Confederacy.

In 2002, a trove of documents from McRae’s time in England and France was found in the attic of a home in Alabama. The papers revealed the impact of European financing on the Civil War and provided historic details of the Confederate supply chain.

“It’s primary material,” said Rodger Stroup, the director of the S.C. Department of Archives and History. “That really is so important. It’s original materials and not something produced later.”

More than 2,500 documents, including 1,000 that relate directly to the Civil War, make up The Colin J. McRae Collection housed at the S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum.

The entire collection won’t be exhibited until 2011 during the Civil War Sesquicentennial, but a few items are on display now.

Nobody knew the collection existed until William and Wendy James bought an old Queen Anne house in Mobile, Ala., to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast. Now known as the Kate Shepard House, it once belonged to McRae’s niece. And in the attic, in long-forgotten boxes, McRae’s papers had sat for decades.

The James’ discovery unearthed a significant part of American history.

McRae, a cotton commission merchant in Mobile who had served on Alabama’s delegation to form the South’s provisional government, was sent to Europe to audit Confederate accounts and monitor the transactions of Caleb Huse, a Confederate purchasing agent.

Given the title of chief financial agent, McRae’s duties included the refinancing, maintenance and disbursement of a $15 million loan from Emile Erlanger & Company, a French banking house. McRae refinanced the loan at a more favorable rate, and then backed the loan bonds with cotton shipments from the South.

McRae made the purchasing of goods — from munitions to printed currency — more efficient. He also supervised blockade routes, which took ships and cargo from England to the Caribbean and then on to Southern port cities such as Charleston, Wilmington and Savannah.

Everything, it appears, was recorded and itemized. And McRae’s bookkeeping makes this abundantly clear: Imported goods were the lifeline of the Confederacy.

“There really wasn’t much in the way of stuff being produced” in Southern states, Stroup said.

On display are invoices such as an order for projectiles, ammunition and cartridges. There’s currency — 15-, 25-, 50- and 75-cent notes — printed on English watermarked paper. An 1835 Enfield Rifle has “SC” inscribed on the butt.

At the end of the war, the United States sought to prosecute McRae because the government assumed he was hiding money. McRae never returned to Alabama; he died in Belize.

It’s unclear how his papers, an impressive record of the Civil War, ended up in Alabama. But Kristina Dunn Johnson, the Confederate Relic Room’s curator of history, said McRae’s family visited him in Belize.

Johnson said the museum is fortunate to have the papers.

The collection, appraised at more than $300,000, was sold “at a discount” — for $250,000 — “because we were a museum and we’re going to keep it together,” Johnson said.

The museum is within $8,000 of a $125,000 fundraising goal to complete the purchase. (The state contributed the other half.)

“It’s lucky to have the support of a strong donor base and the state of South Carolina,” she said. “Our luck is that people care about our museum.”

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