Why the Confederacy Lost

Topic: LawGovernment
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Last updated: March 24, 2019

Although may consider it to be conventional wisdom to suggest that th South’s political and military defeats during the American Civil War, few bother to question or investigate the intricate historical details which, taken together, set the South on an inevitable course of defeat.

Gabor S. Boritt’s critical study, Why the Confederacy Lost (1993), offers a set of five essays by as many contributors, which, taken as a whole, provide not only a complex and far-ranging historical survey of the roots of Southern defeat in the American Civil War, but also bring into the question, the prevalence of  widespread certainly regarding the inevitability of the South’s defeat.  As mentioned in the essay “Upon their Success Hang Momentous Interests,”by Gary W. Gallagher, regarding military considerations alone,  “Lee’s strategic and grand tactical skills more than once threatened to translate hopes for an independent Confederacy into reality” 1 and a deeper examination of the essays in Boritt’s capably edited and arranged study  reveals many other wrinkles or historical divergences from the commonly accepted idea that Southern defeat was inevitable.

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Because it is a fact that the Civil War cost more American lives than any other war in history, re-examining the war with a view toward understanding just what did or did not have to happen as a result of natural disposition of resources, economic capacity, military might, and generalship, is a crucial aspect for historians.  While the essays included in Why the Confederacy Lost do overwhelmingly reach the conclusion that Southern victory was not an impossibility, the essays, taken as a whole do suggest that it was, in fact, military power and the turning tide of the war, proper, which brought down the Confederacy, the essays acknowledge that — by pursuing different military strategies and tactics, the South very well might have prolonged or even emerged victoriously from the conflict.  The opening essay of the collection, by Mc Pherson, provides an excellent framework by which to view the two aspects of causal explanation for the defeat of the South.  Borritt notes that “McPherson divides proposed explanations into two categories: (1) internal, focused primarily on what took place within the Confederacy; (2) external, with emphasis on elements that accounted for northern victory” 2. The conclusion which is reached by McPherson is that external events played a more crucial role than internal events; however, Mc Pherson also leaves the impression that “Both categories of explanation seem to assume Confederate defeat to be inevitable.” 3Mc Pherson’s essay sets the tone for the remainder of the book which focuses primarily on the military aspects of the struggle between the North adn South and while each of the essays takes up a particular point above others, each essay reinforces the idea that external, rather than internal, events dictated the dissolution of the Confederacy.  Other considerations which play into the emphasis of external events over internal, is the nature of the war itself, and the  conflict wore on.

advancements of technology and manpower which accrued to the advantage of the NorthFor example, nearly all the fighting took place on Southern soil, so that sections of the South suffered heavy war damage. Some regions, such as central Georgia and the Shenandoah Valley, were deliberately ravaged.For this reason, the American Civil War is often called “the first modern war.

” It saw the introduction of rapid-fire weapons. Trenches were first used extensively in battle. The railway and the telegraph were first used in a large-scale war.

The campaigns of Lee, Jackson, Grant, Sherman, and Joseph E. Johnston were studied aboard for new concepts of strategy and tactics. At sea, ironclad ships and rifled cannon had made the wooden navies of the world obsolete.  These considerations play heavily on the idea of whether or not internal or external conflict brought down the South.  Those looking beyond the ravages of “total war” for an explanation sought refuge in ideas such as those which believed: “The Confederacy lost because it was plagued by dissent and divisions that undercut the strong and united effort necessary to win the war” 4 however, such considerations are overwhelmingly overshadowed by the realities of “total war” and the very real impact that external, rather than internal, events had upon the Confederacy. Such external pressures were not, according to the studies present in Why the Confederacy Lost, inevitable: “here was nothing inevitable about northern victory in the Civil War. Nor was Sherman’s capture of Atlanta any more inevitable than, say, McClellan’s capture of Richmond in June 1862 had been.

There were several major turning points, points of contingency when events moved in one direction but could well have moved in another” 5While the North far surpassed the South in population, wealth, industrial capacity, and natural resources. The South, however, had the advantage of fighting a defensive war. It did not have to conquer the North to win, but had merely to wear it out.

The American Civil War was a mixture of four decades of forceful social clashes and reflects economic, social and political differences between the Northern and the Southern states. Northern states were required to forbid slavery in the Western regions they would ultimately turn into new states in the 1840s and ’50s.  Through 1850s, some Northerners had started calling for the entire elimination of slavery. The deep background of the conflict exposes some of the strengths (and weaknesses) which would be called into play regarding both internal and external aspects of the South’s collapse, as represented in Boritt’s study.Another important observation regarding the historical backdrop of the military conflicts is the fact that few observers at the start of the American Civil War could have  imagined the ultimate de-evolution of the war from its psuedo-Napoleonic beginnings with armies in formation maneuvering along classical military lines to achieve a tactical advantage. Because so many of the generals on both sides of the war derived their knowledge of battlefield tactics from the same sources, particularly Jomini, and also because many of the generals on either side received training at West Point, the war’s beginning gave but a small hint of the “total war” which would be achieved by the close of 1865. The realization that much more than battlefield victory would be necessary to put down the Southern rebellion was slow to be reached by Lincoln’s generals.

And generalship, according to Boritt’s study played as pivotal role in the outcome of the war as any other single factor.To the benefit of the North, it was Sherman, perhaps, who first understood the underlying economic nature of the war, realizing that the Union with its superior material and financial power would ultimately prevail. However, his conception of how to convince the South of this truth was founded on a concept of “total war,” a strategic approach first used on the famous “march to the sea.” The ensuing destruction wrought havoc and despair on the civilian population of the South and undermined the South’s economic and psychological ability to survive. The idea of war as a psychological tool of destruction was both new and devastatingly powerful.  It was also, according to the essays in “Why the Confederacy Lost” of much more consequence than any internal factor regarding the South.So, too, was the idea of African American troops. Joseph T.

Glatthaar’s essay, “Black Glory: The African-American Role in Union Victory” points out that “During those key months in the late spring and summer, when the picture for the Lincoln administration looked bleakest and the Union desperately struggled to maintain its uniformed strength, more than 100,000 blacks were serving in the Union army and thousands more were in the Federal navy” 6 and despite many historian’s omission of this very important strategic fact, the result of the infusion of African American soldiers into the Union ranks was a devastating blow to the Confederacy, and a stabilizing influence on the Northern war-effort: “Their absence would have foiled Grant’s strategy and quite possibly doomed efforts at reunion; their presence enabled Grant to embark on a course that promised the greatest hope of Federal victory.” 7The American Civil War can be considered an outgrowth of the original constitutional schism which accompanied the transition from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitutional government which was ultimately put into place. Though the was fought for as many economic and material purposes as ideological, the idea constitutionality was crucial to the eventual outbreak of war. There was little question of a peaceful compromise for the South once the idea of secession had been embraced and enacted.

  Although “The Confederacy had many advantages — a vast terrain, the capacity to put a higher percent of its white population in arms, the opportunity to remain on the defensive” 8 its schism between races and its failure to embrace the one true military strategy open to it:  “the opportunity of fighting a guerrilla war — the one kind of warfare most likely to defeat the Union army” 9 contributed to the ultimate downfall of  the Confederate government and Southern culture as it had existed before the war.Boritt’s superbly  selected book offers the alert reader a fine opportunity to review the aspects of military struggle which led to the eventual Northern victory in the American Civil War.  If any single idea leaps out from the combined impact of the collected essays it is the idea that “Once the Confederacy decided on conventional warfare, the heaviest battalions would win — as long as the Union was willing to prosecute the war” 10 and while no exceptional explanations are given for the reason why the Confederacy chose to not pursue a guerilla war, detailed explanations and insights into the historical progression of the South’s military defeat are both plentiful and meaningfully articulated in the excellent essays collected in Boritt’s study.


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