Ten Civil War historians provide some contrasting–and probably controversial–views on how and why the Confederate cause ultimately ended in defeat.
Interviews by Carl Zebrowski
Interviews by Carl Zebrowski
“The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike at him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on.”
Put that way, the business of fighting and winning wars sounds simple enough. And perhaps it was simple in the mind of the man who so concisely described the complex art: General Ulysses S. Grant. After assuming command of all Union armies in March 1864, Grant crushed the Confederacy in about one year.
But the American Civil War, like any war, was not simple. The North and South engaged each other for four long years. More than half a million people were killed. Families were torn apart, towns destroyed. And in the end, the South lost.
For the past 130 years Americans have argued over the reasons for the Confederacy’s downfall. Diverse opinions have appeared in hundreds of books, but the numerous possibilities have never adequately been summarized and gathered together in one place. So we decided to ask ten of the country’s most respected Civil War historians: “Why did the South lose the Civil War?” Here (edited for length) are their answers.
WILLIAM C. DAVIS
Former editor of Civil War Times Illustrated and author of more than thirty books about the war, including the recent “A Government of Our Own”: The Making of the Confederacy.
Why did the South lose? When the question is asked that way, it kind of presupposes that the South lost the war all by itself and that it really could have won it. One answer is that the North won it. The South lost because the North outmanned and outclassed it at almost every point, militarily.
Despite the long-held notion that the South had all of the better generals, it really had only one good army commander and that was Lee. The rest were second-raters, at best. The North, on the other hand, had the good fortune of bringing along and nurturing people like Grant, William T. Sherman, Philip Sheridan, George H. Thomas, and others.
The South was way outclassed industrially. There was probably never any chance of it winning without European recognition and military aid. And we can now see in retrospect what some, like Jefferson Davis, even saw at the time, which was that there was never any real hope of Europe intervening. It just never was in England or France’s interests to get involved in a North American war that would inevitably have wound up doing great damage, especially to England’s maritime trade.
Industrially the South couldn’t keep up in output and in manpower. By the end of the war, the South had, more or less, plenty of weaponry still, but it just didn’t have enough men to use the guns.
I don’t agree with the theories that say the South lost because it lost its will to win. There’s nothing more willful or stubborn than a groundhog, but whenever one of them runs into a Ford pickup on the highway, it’s the groundhog that always loses, no matter how much willpower it has.
We can’t fault the Southerners for thinking at the time that they could win when we can see in retrospect that there probably never was a time when they could have. The most important things they couldn’t see was the determination of Abraham Lincoln to win, and the incredible staying power of the people of the North, who stuck by Lincoln and stuck by the war in spite of the first two years of almost unrelenting defeat. The only way the South could have won would have been for Lincoln to decide to lose. As long as Lincoln was determined to prosecute the war and as long as the North was behind him, inevitably superior manpower and resources just had to win out.
The miracle is that the South held out as long as it did. That’s an incredible testament to the courage and self-sacrifice of the people of the South–both the men in the armies and the people at home who sustained them, with nothing but continuing and expanding destruction all around them.
The South lost the war because the North and Abraham Lincoln were determined to win it.
Historian and author of ten books about the war.
The South lost because it had inferior resources in every aspect of military personnel and equipment. That’s an old-fashioned answer. Lots of people will be scornful of it. But a ratio of twenty-one million to seven million in population comes out the same any way you look at it.
The basic problem was numbers. Give Abraham Lincoln seven million men and give Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee twenty-one million, and cognitive dissonance doesn’t matter, European recognition doesn’t matter, the Emancipation Proclamation and its ripple effect don’t matter. Twenty-one to seven is a very different thing than seven to twenty-one.
Consultant for the weekly series “Civil War Journal” on the Arts and Entertainment network, on-set history advisor for the movie Gettysburg, a staff writer and researcher for Time-Life Books’ The Civil War series, and a founder of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites.
The South certainly did not lose for any lack of idealism, or dedication to its cause or beliefs, or bravery and skill on the battlefield. In those virtues the Confederate soldier was unexcelled, and it’s my belief that man-for-man there was no finer army in the history of America than the Army of Northern Virginia.
But of course the factors that enter into the South’s ultimate defeat are those things that you hear time and time again, and with a great amount of validity: the North’s industrial base; the North’s manpower resources; the fact that foreign recognition was denied the Confederacy. In time these things would tell on the battlefield, certainly on the broader level. The North was able to bring its industry and its manpower to bear in such a way that eventually, through sheer numerical and material advantage, it gained and maintained the upper hand.
That’s when you get into the whole truly tragic sense of the Lost Cause, because those men knew their cause was lost, they knew there was really no way they could possibly win, and yet they fought on with tremendous bravery and dedication. And that’s, I think, one of the reasons why the Civil War was such a poignant and even heart-wrenching time. Whether or not you agree with the Confederacy or with the justness of its cause, there’s no way that you can question the idealism and the courage, the bravery, the dedication, the devotion of its soldiers–that they believed what they were fighting for was right. Even while it was happening, men like Union officer Joshua Chamberlain–who did all that he could to defeat the Confederacy–could not help but admire the dedication of those soldiers.
NOAH ANDRE TRUDEAU
Author of three books about the war’s final year, including the recent Out of the Storm: The End of the Civil War (April-June 1865).
One main reason why the South lost (and this may seem offbeat because it flies in the face of the common wisdom) is that the South lacked the moral center that the North had in this conflict. Robert Kirby in his book on Florida’s Edward Kirby Smith and the Trans-Mississippi suggests that the South’s morale began to disintegrate in the Trans-Mississippi in about 1862.
The North had a fairly simple message that was binding it together, and that message was that the Union, the idea of Union, was important, and probably after 1863 you could add the crusade against slavery to that.
Ask the question, “What was the South fighting for; what was the Southern way of life that they were trying to protect?” and you will find that Southerners in Arkansas had a very different answer from Southerners in Georgia or Southerners in Virginia. And what you increasingly find as the war continued is that the dialogue got more and more confused. And you actually had state governors such as Joe Brown in Georgia identifying the needs of Georgia as being paramount and starting to withhold resources from the Confederacy and just protecting the basic infrastructure of the Georgia state government over the Confederacy. In the North you certainly had dialogue and debate on the war aims, but losing the Union was never really a part of that discussion. Preserving the Union was always the constant.
So, one key reason the South lost is that as time went on and the war got serious, Southerners began losing faith in the cause because it really did not speak to them directly.
JAMES M. MCPHERSON
Professor of history at Princeton University and author of nine books about the Civil War, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom.
Historians have offered several explanations for the Confederate defeat in the Civil War. First, the North had a superiority in numbers and resources–but superiority did not bring victory to the British Empire in its war against the American colonies that were fighting for their independence in 1776, nor did it bring victory to the United States in its war against North Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s. While Northern superiority in numbers and resources was a necessary condition for Union victory, it is not a sufficient explanation for that victory. Neither are the internal divisions within the Confederacy sufficient explanation for its defeat, because the North also suffered sharp internal divisions between those who supported a war for the abolition of slavery and those who resisted it, between Republicans and Democrats, between Unionists and Copperheads. And, in fact, the North probably suffered from greater internal disunity than the Confederacy.
Superior leadership is a possible explanation for Union victory. Abraham Lincoln was probably a better war president than Jefferson Davis and certainly offered a better explanation to his own people of what they were fighting for than Davis was able to offer. By the latter half of the war, Northern military leadership had evolved a coherent strategy for victory which involved the destruction of Confederate armies but went beyond that to the destruction of Confederate resources to wage war, including the resource of slavery, the South’s labor power. By the time Grant had become general-in-chief and Sherman his chief subordinate and Sheridan one of his hardest-hitting field commanders, the North had evolved a strategy that in the end completely destroyed the Confederacy’s ability to wage war. And that combination of strategic leadership–both at the political level with Lincoln and the military level with Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan–is what in the end explains Northern victory.
Professor of history at Pennsylvania State University and author, coauthor, or editor of eleven books about the war, including the recent Third Day at Gettysburg and Beyond and The Fredericksburg Campaign: Decision on the Rappahannock.
The principal cause of Confederate failure was the fact that the South’s armies did not win enough victories in the field–especially enough victories in a row in the field–to both sustain Confederate morale behind the lines and depress Union morale behind the lines. In the end there was a waning of the will to resist on the part of Southern white people, but that was tied directly to the performance of the Confederate armies in the field; more than once they seemed to be on the brink of putting together enough successes to make Northern people behind the lines unwilling to pay the necessary price to subjugate the Confederacy.
The primary reason the Confederates did not have more success on the battlefield is that they developed only one really talented army commander, and that, of course, was Robert E. Lee. There never was a commander in the West who was fully competent to command an army–and I include Joseph E. Johnston and Albert Sidney Johnston and Braxton Bragg and the rest in that company. The almost unbroken string of failures in the West depressed Confederate morale. Lee’s successes in the East were able to compensate for that for a good part of the war, but in the end there simply was too much bad news from the battlefield. And that bad news, together with Union advances into the South, the destruction of the Confederate infrastructure, and the problems of the Confederate economy that worked hardships on so many people, all came together to bring about Confederate defeat.
Historian and author of Two Great Rebel Armies, which examines the Confederacy’s defeat.
If I had to pin the South’s defeat down to one sentence, I would have to say it was due to very bad military commanders: Albert Sidney Johnston, P. G. T. Beauregard, Braxton Bragg, John C. Pemberton, Joseph E. Johnston, and John Bell Hood (and if you want to go down a notch or two in the command structure, Leonidas Polk, William J. Hardee, and Joseph Wheeler).
With people like Polk and Hardee you’ve got ranking generals in an army who deliberately sought to undermine their commanding general Braxton Bragg. With Wheeler you’ve got a subordinate general who on at least two occasions–in the fall of 1863 and the fall of 1864–went off joy-riding when he should have been obeying his orders from his army commander. With Beauregard and Johnston you had two generals who were unwilling to work with their government. With Hood and Bragg you had two generals who were basically incompetent as army commanders. And with Albert Sidney Johnston you had a general who underwent some kind of confidence crisis after Fort Donelson.
Let me point out that every one of those generals was in the West. Any explanation that does not account for the West is irrelevant to your question. The war was lost by the Confederates in the West and won by the Federals in the West. I don’t see how you could even question that. In the crucial theater of the war, the Confederacy did not have a competent commanding general.
Professor of history at Ohio State University and author of the upcoming Hard Hand of War, his first book about the war.
There are really two interesting questions. One is: Why did the South fail to gain or maintain its independence? The other is: Why did the South not only lose its bid for independence but also its bid to influence the terms under which reunion would take place?
The answer to the second question seems to involve a combination of two things. First, the political culture in the South made it difficult for the many people (including those in leadership positions in the Confederacy) who wanted a negotiated settlement to make their will felt. Instead, Jefferson Davis, as president, was able to continue insisting on no peace short of independence. In a real two-party culture, Davis might have been pressured to compromise, or he might have been eased out, or the Congress might have been able to do something.
The other part of the answer is that while the key Confederate commanders–Beauregard, Lee, Joe Johnston–were trying to maximize their military position so as to influence any kind of peace negotiations and give the North an incentive to allow the South to reenter the Union on somewhat its own terms, military mistakes in the late winter and early spring of 1865 scuttled the Confederate military position in Virginia and the Carolinas. This precipitated a collapse sooner than might have happened, undermining any chance that the Confederate government might eventually pursue a negotiated settlement.
Professor of history at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and coauthor of Why the South Lost the Civil War.
My collaborators and I, in our book Why the South Lost the Civil War, laid out our theory, which is that the South lost the Civil War because it didn’t really want to win badly enough. Defeat was ultimately due to a loss of collective will. But in other discussions with various learned groups, I’ve been induced to admit that in order for the Southern people to have a sufficient degree of will to win the war, they would have had to be a different people than they were. And so, in that sense, victory for the South was ultimately an impossibility.
Now certainly the course of the war, the military events, had a lot to do with the loss of will. The Southerners hoped that they would win spectacular victories on Northern soil, and they didn’t. They hoped that they would be able to exhaust the will of the Northern people, and they didn’t. And I don’t know that all of the Southern people put a great deal of stock in their hopes that Abraham Lincoln would not be reelected, but certainly the key Southern leaders did, and this was their great hope and great strategy toward the end.
With regard to military turning points, I’m not a fan of those, and I certainly don’t think that Gettysburg and Vicksburg dictated the inevitable outcome of the war. We tend in Why the South Lost to imply that there was really still hope until March of 1865, but really I think the outcome of the war became inevitable in November 1864 with the reelection of Lincoln and that utter determination to see the thing through, and, of course, the finding of U.S. Grant by Lincoln and company. Grant was certainly the man to provide the leadership that the North needed.
EDWIN C. BEARSS
Former chief historian of the National Park Service and author of several books about the war.
The South lost the Civil War because of a number of factors. First, it was inherently weaker in the various essentials to win a military victory than the North. The North had a population of more than twenty-two million people to the South’s nine-and-a-half million, of whom three-and-a-half million were slaves. While the slaves could be used to support the war effort through work on the plantations and in industries and as teamsters and pioneers with the army, they were not used as a combat arm in the war to any extent.
So if the South were to win, it had to win a short war by striking swiftly–in modern parlance, by an offensive blitzkrieg strategy. But the Confederates had established their military goals as fighting in defense of their homeland. In 1861, when enthusiasm was high in the South, it lacked the wherewithal and the resolution to follow up on its early victories, such as First Manassas in the East and at Wilson’s Creek and Lexington in the West.
Despite the South’s failure to capitalize on its successes in 1861, it came close to reversing the tide that ran against it beginning in February 1862. In the period between the fourth week of June 1862 and the last days of September and early days of October, the South did reverse the tide, sweeping forward on a broad front from the tidewater of Virginia to the Plains Indian territory. And abroad, the British were preparing to offer to mediate the conflict and, if the North refused, to recognize the Confederacy. But beginning at Antietam and ending at Perryville, all this unraveled, and the Confederates’ true high water mark had passed.
In 1864, with the approach of the presidential election in the North, the Confederates had another opportunity to win the war. If the Confederate armies in Virginia, Georgia, and on the Gulf Coast could successfully resist the North and the war of attrition inaugurated by General Grant (with its particularly high casualties in Virginia), there was a good probability, as recognized by President Lincoln himself in the summer, that his administration would go down to defeat in November. But the success of Admiral David G. Farragut in Mobile Bay, the capture of Atlanta on the second of September by General Sherman, and the smashing success scored by General Sheridan at the expense of General Jubal A. Early at Cedar Creek, Virginia on October 19 shattered this hope, and Lincoln was reelected by a landslide in the electoral vote. With Lincoln’s reelection, the road to Southern defeat grew shorter.
Judging from these responses, it seems clear that the South could have won the war . . . if. If it had more and better-equipped men, led by more capable generals and a wiser president. If it had a more unified purpose and was more aggressive. If it faced a different opponent.
The last condition should not be underestimated. By the end of the war, Lincoln and his powerful army were remarkably proficient at prosecuting war according to Grant’s simple strategy. As historian William C. Davis has succinctly put it, “the North won it.”
Carl Zebrowski is associate editor of Civil War Times Illustrated, another magazine published by PRIMEDIA.
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