Rhett Butler: Why the South Was Bound to Lose

My favorite scene from Gone With the Wind in which Rhett Butler explains succinctly the disadvantages the South will encounter in any war with the North.  Far sighted Southerners at the time also gave such warnings:

“To secede from the Union and set up another government would cause war. If you go to war with the United States, you will never conquer her, as she has the money and the men. If she does not whip you by guns, powder, and steel, she will starve you to death. It will take the flower of the country-the young men.”

Sam Houston

Far sighted Northerners living in the South saw the disparity at the time also:

“You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is follu, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mightly effort to save it… Besides, where are your man and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive or railway car, hardly a yard of cloth or a pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical people on earth – right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and your determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see that in the end you will surely fail.”

William Tecumseh Sherman, December 1860

Shelby Foote, perhaps the greatest Southern historian of the War sums it up for us:

I think that the North fought that war with one hand behind its back. At the same time the war was going on, the Homestead act was being passed, all these marvelous inventions were going on… If there had been more Southern victories, and a lot more, the North simply would have brought that other hand out from behind its back. I don’t think the South ever had a chance to win that War.

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  1. As you pointed out several months ago at Almost Chosen People, Robert E. Lee, himself, pointed out the folly of secession in the run-up to the war:


    And while I agree with the substance of the Sherman quote, I hardly should have to point out the rich irony of his invoking “crimes against civilization” in his argument against secession. Crimes against civilization are something with which he became intimately familiar during his march through the South and his Indian extermination policy.

  2. We will have to agree to disagree in regard to Sherman Jay. He engaged in no crimes against the South and he engaged in no policy of extermination against the Indians. Note to further commenters in regard to this thread. This is not a thread to debate Sherman other than the letter he wrote above while headmaster of the “Louisiana Seminary of Learning and Military Academy”, ironically training future officers for the Confederacy. Here is Sherman’s rendition of this interesting interlude in his life:


    Sherman’s familiarity with the South is what made him predict, at the onset of the War, that it would last at least three years and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

  3. Well, I hope my comment doesn’t bring a bunch of neo-Confederate kooks out of the woodworks, but you know I HAD to say it, Don.


    As a son of the South, I, like Lee, Houston, and Foote, am nevertheless cognizant of the folly in which the South deluded itself into believing it had the wherewithall to defeat, or even hold to a stalemate, the North. And I hope that, had I lived 150 years ago, I would have been as prescient as those who recognized the folly beforehand. So, I’m not some neo-Confederate secessionist, and I am a great admirer of Lincoln and other participants in the cause of the Union.

    But I’m still a Southerner and one who is sympatheric to the native peoples of this Nation, so Sherman and Sheridan will always hold a place of infamy in my heart.

  4. Only to be expected Jay! If Confederate armies had burned out Central Illinois farms and industries 150 years ago, my guess is that my views on the Confederate generals involved would not be printable!

    Considering how lop-sided the contest was in material resources, it is greatly to the credit of the genius of many Confederate commanders, and the valor of the troops they led, that the War lasted for four years. Why it took so long is one area of the War that I believe has not received adequate attention in Civil War scholarship.

  5. Clearly outclassed in weaponry and supplies. Not that I would necessarily have wanted history to come out differently, but I wonder if the South had fought less gentlemanly – that is, if they had adopted tactics similar to Al Qaeda and whatnot, I wonder if they would have won. Talk about your one-sided wars – the US (and Russia for that matter) clearly had the military superiority, yet for all of our military might, we can’t seem to win. The South couldn’t do it in a more equally matched contest; yet AQ seems to be able to do it against a far more outmatching foe.

  6. Certainly my home of Virginia was opposed to secession… until Lincoln made the decision to raise armies from the states, including Virginia, and made it clear that he would invade the south to settle the issue.

    Virginia would certainly never have gone out but for Lincon’s militancy. It’s entirely possible that if he had made clear his intention to leave Virginia out of it (by not requisitioning troops and crossing her boundaries to get at the lower states) she would never have seceded… and without her, the southern confederacy would have been doomed to an even shorter life.

    Oh, and there was one canon factory in the south… Richmond’s Tredegar Works.

  7. Hey Tom,

    What are they doing with the Tredegar Iron Works building now? When I lived in Richmond, it had been a museum, but that venture didn’t last very long. Have they utilized it as part of the “river walk” / “canal walk” project? And, for that matter, has the “river walk” / “canal walk” project ever really gotten off the ground? I know there was some success with it in Shockoe Slip, but what about around the Brown’s Island/Tredegar area?

  8. c matt:

    Different types of war. The Civil war, and WWI and WWII, were wars of attrition–grind down the other side and see who runs out of people first. The Civil war left over 300,000 Union dead alone, and about that many US troops died in WWII as well. Those wars were against other armies with clear lines of who held what territory. A counter-insurgency is something different and may not ever really be completely won, since so long as some yahoo out there decides to be an insurgent, well the insurgency continues. One could compare (speaking of the post-Civil war time) Al Qaeda to the KKK perhaps.

    Speaking of the Civil war, it occurred to me that ten years from now we will be as far removed from WWII as those who were in WWII were removed from the Civil war.

  9. “Speaking of the Civil war, it occurred to me that ten years from now we will be as far removed from WWII as those who were in WWII were removed from the Civil war.”

    Jacob, that thought has occurred to me also. We are beginning now to enter the period when World War II slips from living memory. Historical interpretations of conflicts often shift when participants in the conflict have parted this vale of tears and it will be interesting to see how that happens with World War II.

    “Oh, and there was one cannon factory in the south… Richmond’s Tredegar Works.”

    Without Tredegar Tom I doubt if the South could have possibly sustained much of any war effort. Despite heroic efforts, the South produced about 25% of the cannon that the North produced during the War. Confederate armies usually had enough artillery, barely, but quality and ammunition were often major problems.

  10. If the south had no reasonable chance of success, then the war they waged was unjust, and therefore murder — the opposite of honorable.

    I know that Donald disagrees about the just-war criteria set out in the current catechism of the Church, but from the my perspective, I wonder how it is possible to see the south’s futile war to defend their unjust society as anything but ignoble and sinful?

    Sometimes the most honorable thing to do is surrender, as Lee discovered four years too late.

  11. Nate, as I have made clear many times on this blog, my sympathies are with the boys in blue in the Civil War. However I think you have to attempt to put yourself in the shoes of someone before you condemn them, and that is what I attempted to do in this post:


    Slavery was an evil for the whole nation, and the entire nation, North and South, paid a bitter, but necessary, price for ending it.

    “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

  12. Everyone has to follow their conscience, and soldiers of both sides ought to be praised for the courage it took to follow their conscience.

    On the other hand, we know that conscience can be wrong and that truth is not relative. While the gallantry of the deluded soldiers of the south should be commended, the gallantry of those soldiers who refused to fight for the south ought to be even more commended. For both types followed their conscience, but only one was right.

    Donald, as one with a great deal of knowledge (or at least more than my own) about the Civil War, I wonder if you know of any southern men who conspicuously refused to fight for the south?

  13. From a moral standpoint Nate when judging people I think it is always key whether they thought what they were doing was right. From a legal standpoint of course it makes no difference, although it can be a factor in sentencing someone. In regard to the Confederates and slavery, as appalling as it rightly seems to us today, the peculiar institution had been around in this country for almost 250 years by the time of the Civil War, and it was an accepted way of life,by almost all whites, in the South. When an evil is that well-established in a society, I think that is different morally from people who overnight embrace a great evil. (A prime example of this is the Nazi genocide of the Jews.) That is no excuse to tolerate the evil, but it is certainly a factor in judging morally the people born into a time and place where the evil is simply part of the landscape of their societies.

    In regard to white Southerners who refused to fight for the Confederacy, there were many of them, just as there were many white Northerners who refused to fight for the Union. Dissent was a significant problem for both sides in the Civil War, as dissent has been in all of America’s wars, except for WW2. West Virginia, created due to the Civil War, and East Tennnessee, were hotbeds of Unionist sentiment, and similar smaller regions were spread throughout most of the Confederacy. In the North Copperhead, pro-Confederate or at least anti-War, sentiment was strong in some areas. In my own Illinois, southern portions of the state contained a fair amount of sympathizers for the Confederacy. A riot between Copperheads and Unionists, which left several men dead, occurred at Charleston, Illinois, 20 miles from my hometown. The draft on both sides caused considerable grumbling and resistance, with the most notable example being the draft riots by some of the New York City Irish in 1863 which left 120 dead. Some officers from the South fought for the Union, General George Thomas for example, (his sisters in Virginia turned his portrait to the wall and never spoke to him again) and some officers from the North fought for the Confederacy (General John C. Pemberton, who surrendered Vicksburg to Grant, was a Pennsylvanian.) Traditional pacifist religions refused to fight, although many of their members, North and South, did enlist. Dissent in the Civil War is a fascinating subject, although it should be kept in mind that the vast majority of white Southerners were pro-Confederate, just as the vast majority of Northerners were pro-Unionist.

  14. “I wonder if the South had fought less gentlemanly – that is, if they had adopted tactics similar to Al Qaeda and whatnot, I wonder if they would have won.”

    In Missouri and Kansas, they did, even before the war — and the results were so appalling that it quashed any desire on the part of Lee and other Confederate generals to continue fighting a guerilla war after Appomattox. For a really good explanation of this read “April 1865: The Month that Saved America.”

  15. Jay, Tredegar is now part of the NPS, and is the home of the American Civil War Center, which seeks to present the war from all “sides,” Confederate, Yankee, and of course, enslaved blacks. (http://tredegar.org/) River walk is slowly picking up steam, a music venue has opened up, and new office and apartment buildings have gone up on the canal… have to wait and see, but lots of potential there.

    Nate, it’s a dangerous proposition that holds that one part of this country can decide it doesn’t like what another state or states is doing and decide to forcibly invade to effectuate a change. The typical southerner was not fighting “for” slavery any more than the typical Yank was fighting “to free the slaves.” The southerner was fighting to free his state from what he viewed as the tyranny of forced membership in the Union. The Yank was fighting to preserve the union.

    Only much later did Lincoln attempt to change the moral focus of the war to liberation, seeing that it would kill southern efforts to enlist the aid of Britain, and would also provide a more trenchant rallying point than preservation of the Union by force of arms.

    Even Lincoln however, recognized that there was no constitutional authority to invade the south in order to free the slaves. His stated legal rationale for invasion was preservation of federal property and of the union, and to suppress insurrection.

    Much as I despise the liberalism of New York or California, I would never imagine that we should combine arms to invade that state to suppress the immoral practices enshrined by law in those states.

  16. Don,

    I’m trying to recall if you were the one who linked, a while back, to a book on Southerners (not just officers, but enlisted men) who fought for the North. I seem to recall the number was in the tens of thousands.

    I thought I’d saved the book link somewhere, but now I find I can’t find it.

  17. The best book on the topic of Southern whites who fought for the Union is probably Lincoln’s Loyalists:


    About 100K white men fought for the Union from the Confederacy, with white Union regiments, a total of 55, being raised from every state of the Confederacy, except, of course, South Carolina.

    Here is a good article on the subject:


  18. Yes, and they were on occasion ill-treated, I’m thinking of Gen’l. George Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga” who was surely one of the best military commanders in the Union army, yet never ascended as high as his merit suggested. From an old Virginia family, he realized that siding with the invader would probably bring him infamy at home. It did, his family and state disowning him, even after the war’s end. Then to be the subject of at least an implicit suspicion amongst the Union high command must have been a bitter thing to bear.

  19. Considering that Thomas ended the war as commander of the Army of the Cumberland, I’d say he ascended pretty high. He and Grant had a cool relationship as Grant did with the predecessor of Thomas in command of the Army of the Cumberland, Rosecrans. Sherman on the other hand thought very highly of Thomas. In 1877 he wrote:

    “During the whole war his services were transcendent, winning the first substantial victory at Mill Springs in Kentucky, January 20th, 1862, participating in all the campaigns of the West in 1862-3-4, and finally, December 16th, 1864 annihilating the army of Hood, which in mid winter had advanced to Nashville to besiege him.”

    Sherman concluded in the article that Grant and Thomas were the two prime Union heroes of the War as far as he was concerned and that monuments to both men should be constructed in Washington. Sherman vouched for the loyalty of Thomas at the beginning of the War. He then ran into Thomas who told him “he was going South”. Sherman told him that put him in a pickle as he had just vouched for him. Thomas smiled and told him not to worry as he was going South at the head of his troops.

  20. It’s interesting, the myth-making that occurs after a war. Grant and Sherman are the Union heroes, even though as a tactician, Grant was nothing to boast about– George Thomas was superior in my view. Grant simply had enough sense to remain engaged with Lee in the overland campaign of ’64-’65, rather than retreating after getting whipped, which had always allowed Lee breathing room and time to recoup his troop losses. Grant understood that by staying engaged with the ANV, he could get tactically beaten but replace his losses, where Lee could not replace his.

    Sherman of course is most notable for herocially creating a large swath of desolation of civilian targets in Georgia and South Carolina, repeating the same type of crime that occured in the Shenandoah valley.

    On the confederate side, the myth was of the invicible Lee, who, while a great strategist, was not always on his game tactically, witness his mistakes at Malvern hill and Gettysburg. The myth machine chewed up and spat out Longstreet, making him the scapegoat for Gettysburg (and it helped that he became a Catholic after the war and cooperated with the Repbulicans).

  21. “even though as a tactician, Grant was nothing to boast about–”

    Considering that he won every battle that he fought in the Civil War, against any general not named Robert E. Lee, usually at odds a lot closer than prevailed in engagements in the East, I’d say he was tactician enough. Against Lee Grant was tactician enough, during a time in the War when both sides had learned the value of battlefield fortications, to inflict enough losses on Lee’s army, while taking higher losses of his own, to reduce the Army of Northern Virginia to a shadow of itself. Grant knew he could replace his losses, and knew that Lee could not replace his.

    “Sherman of course is most notable for herocially creating a large swath of desolation of civilian targets in Georgia and South Carolina, repeating the same type of crime that occured in the Shenandoah valley.”

    For some Southerners who can’t recall that the War was over 150 years ago I guess that is true. For the rest of us I think we might recall the superb campaign waged by Sherman against Joseph Johnston in which he manuevered Johnston out of strong position after strong position to take Atlanta. Then Sherman, instead of following Hood, splits his army, has Thomas go after Hood while he proceeds to win the War by demonstrating to North and South that a Union army could promenade through the heart of the Confederacy, destroying railroads, plantations and Southern industry, while living off the country, as Lee did during his excursions in the North, and the Confederates were helpless to stop it. Of course Joe Johnston, a good second tier Confederate general in ability, after the War became a firm friend of Sherman, dying after serving as one of Sherman’s pallbearers bareheaded in cold weather as a mark of respect for Sherman, something I doubt that Johnston would have done if Sherman were the war criminal claimed by some Southerners.

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