Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

CHRISTOPHER GUSTAVUS
MEMMINGER
(January 9, 1803–March 7, 1888)

Jon L. Wakelyn

The prevailing historical view of Christopher G. Memminger’s performance as Confederate Secretary of the Treasury is that he was confused over policy and incompetent in running his office. His harshest modern critic, Douglas B. Ball, says that the fault with Confederate finances “lay particularly in the flawed policies and inept administration of the Confederate treasury” (9). Contemporaries of Memminger, too, judged him a failure, a weak, humorless man who had little understanding of politics. Yet President Jefferson Davis (q.v) kept him in office until the Congress forced the president into a wholesale reorganization of his cabinet late in 1864. The president had regarded his secretary as an able and loyal aide who had assumed an impossible task and, alas, had failed at it. But during most of Memminger’s career, especially in his public service before and after the war, he had demonstrated an extraordinary ability and had enormous success. Obviously, the pressures of wartime actions and peacetime accomplishments were dissimilar in scope, but that does not account for such differences between the two. Perhaps in the life history of that German immigrant who became the financial leader of the Confederacy there are answers to the contradictions in performance in his many different public spheres.

Born in Nayhingen, in the province of Wiirtemburg, Germany, on January 9, 1803, Memminger early learned about adversity and severe disruption in life. His father, the quartermaster of a military battalion, lost his life in battle. Christopher Godfrey Memminger had been university educated and had achieved much success before he died. After his death, the child’s mother, Eberhardina Elizabeth Kohler, brought her young son to her parent’s home in Charleston, South Carolina. She died there in 1807, leaving young Christopher an orphan. His grandfather John Kohler, unable to make a decent living in Charleston, soon thereafter left for Philadelphia. Fortunately for the young Christopher, John had had the foresight to place him in the Charleston Orphan Home, then run by members of the city’s quality. Christopher showed early to be bright and dili-

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