Was the Victory of the Confederacy Inevitable?

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(I wrote this for April 1, 2011 for the blog Almost Chosen People, and I thought that the various Civil War mavens who read The American Catholic might find this interesting.)

As we mark the 150th anniversary of the War Between the States there are many historical questions to ponder.  However, one question rises to the fore as it always does when the War Between the States is discussed:  Was Confederate victory inevitable?

Because of the ten following factors, I’d say that it was:

1.  Abraham Lincoln- Few Presidents have ever been elected with no executive experience, but that was precisely the case with Lincoln.    Although he could deliver a magnificent speech and was clearly a master of the English language, Lincoln quickly demonstrated that he was an amateur in running the government.  His frequent sacking of generals led to instability in the Union Army command, the frequently hostile relations with Congress, including members of his own party, that hampered his policies, the corruption that marred the supply of the Army, these and many more features of his administration attested to the fact that Lincoln was an extremely talented man who simply was out of his depth.  Perhaps the task was too large for any man to preserve the Union by force of arms, but certainly it was too great for Mr. Lincoln.

2.  Supremacy of the Defence-General Robert E. Lee quickly realized that the old Napoleonic charges were impossible against fortified positions held by troops armed with rifled muskets.  Although his troops initially meant the title derisively, Lee, the King of Spades, repeatedly used field fortifications, beginning in 1862,  to nullify the Union manpower advantage on the battlefield.

3.  Size of the Confederacy- The sheer size of the Confederacy, three times the size of France, ensured that the attempted Union conquest would be a massive undertaking, too massive as it turned out for the Union.  If British seapower, beginning in 1862, see number 6 below, had not caused the lifting of the Union blockade, prevented the landing of Union troops along the coasts of the Confederacy and contested Union naval control of the Mississippi river, it is conceivable that the Union could have coped with the immensity of the Confederacy, but such was not the case.

4.  Lee-Jackson partnership-No command team in history proved more effective than the Lee-Jackson combination.  Beginning at Chancellorsville, Lee and Jackson dealt the Union body blows at Gettysburg in 1863, and the Wilderness in 1864, almost a replica of the Chancellorsville victory a year before.  No wonder that Lee was the second president of the Confederacy and Jackson the third.

5.  Enlistment of black soldiers-After the victory at Gettysburg, Lee put his immense prestige behind the cause of enlisting black soldiers under the Confederate battle flag with the promise of freedom for themselves and their families.  Resistance to this move was immense in the Confederacy, but with Lee behind it all resistance was overborne.  The 100,000 black troops who fought for the South in 1864 were essential to the Confederate victory, and paved the way for the passage of the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1870, which President Robert E. Lee, just before his death, claimed to be his greatest victory.

6.  Trent Affair-Although the British Empire never landed troops to assist the Confederacy, the naval war between the US and Great Britain of 1862-1865 did lead to the lifting of the blockade by the Royal Navy, a prime factor in Confederate victory.  Some historians have speculated that if Prince Albert had not died on November 8, 1861 that perhaps he could have headed off war between the British Empire and the Union.  Maybe, but such what if speculation is to enter the realm of alternate history.

7.   Shiloh-The defeat of the Union forces at Shiloh in 1862 threw back the Union war effort by at least a year.  By the time the war ended with the defeat of Lincoln at the polls in November 1864 and the election of President Clement Vallandigham, Union forces in the West under General Rosecrans had secured Vicksburg, but Union progress was too little and too late for a Union population convinced that the War was lost.

8.  Draft riots of 1863-The draft riots that began in New York in July 1863 quickly spread to other major cities in the North and produced a virtual civil war in the Union until the riots were quelled with much blood shed by the end of September 1863.  If the Army of the Potomac had not been reeling from its shattering defeat at Gettysburg, perhaps troops could have been rushed to New York and quelled the riots there before the fever spread.  We shall never know.

9.  Mormon uprising of 1863- The relationship between the Union and the Mormons in the Utah territory had been chilly from the outset of the Lincoln administration.  By 1863 Brigham Young was convinced that the Confederacy would win, and, with Southern arms and advisors, made an attempt to establish the Zion Republic.  The 50,000 Union troops used to put down this revolt in 1863-64 were sorely needed against the Confederacy.

10.  Jefferson Davis-For a victorious president, Davis has always had his legions of critics, both during and after the War.  However, to his everlasting credit, Davis pushed through the legislation in the Confederate Congress in the fall of 1862 that made Lee general-in-chief and gave him a free hand thereafter in the running of the War.  That one brilliant act none of his naysayers can ever take away from him.

In recalling these factors, it is hard to see how a path to Union victory existed.  The Union soldiers fought a gallant struggle, but fate, and the factors enumerated above, caused them to labor in vain.

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  1. We have way too much time on our hands.

    Two words: Anaconda Plan. Union victory was inevitable barring complete (normal was plentiful but insufficient) incompetence ala Obama/Reid/Pelosi; or British military intervention; or the Northern population deciding “it” (preserve the “union”, emancipation?) wasn’t worth 600,000 KIA.

    1. Lincoln was elected on 40% of the popular vote. Obama was elected with 40% of the taxpayers’ votes and 98% of the taxtakers’ votes.

    2. Truth. I read (many years ago) a book by two university academics of a southern university that did a study which verified that. To start (like you say) military technology moves faster than military thought (oxymoron).

    3. Agrarian economy vs. industrial economy. North had large advantage in size of popuation, steel production, RR mileage, etc.

    4. See 2. Jackson died b/c of offense attitude.

    5. Glory-O! The freedman won the Civil War . . .

    6. After the USN stopped a Brit ship and arrested two CSA dipomats, the Brits moved 11,000 troops (battle-hardened killers from fighting hottentots and pathans) to Canada. Lincoln released the two.

    7. Uh . . .

    8. McClellan elected president . . . Troops were rushed from Gettysburg to NY . . .

    9. Uh, . . .

    10. Uh, . . .

  2. The list falls down on #1. Lincoln, more than anyone else won the CW. Unlike Jefferson Davis he was willing to forgive (or at least overlook) any any insult or criticism, even near-insubordination from his commanders.
    This includes his handling of the Trent affair.

    #4: The Union had the manpower to make up its losses and the Rebels could not. With chilling ruthlessness Lincoln after Chancellorsville that if the battle were fought every day for a week the Army of N. VA would be annihilated and the Army of the Potomac would still be a mighty host.

    #5: Please. Early in 1862 Gen. Patrick Cleburne proposed just such an enlistment for emancipation scheme and was shot down. Jeff Davis said if blacks can be soldiers “our whole theory is wrong”. It wasn’t until late ’64 or early ’65 that the CS Congress began to start to consider bills for the arming slaves.

  3. Lincoln made enough errors as President Thomas that if the War had come out differently he would have been blamed for the defeat. Lincoln understood that his reputation hinged on victory or defeat, and that nothing else mattered. Hence his 10,000 angels remark. Lincoln was fortunate to finally find a team in Grant and Sherman that could win the war. Up to that point his interventions in command appointments had not been especially notable for success.

    The manpower disparity I think is overrated in looking at the outcome of the War. The Confederates up until after the election of 1864 were able to keep enough men in the field to make it a contest. The problem for them was that in Grant and Sherman the Union finally had two first caliber commanders who knew how to make use of the Union resources to win. If McClellan had been in command of the Union forces in the east in 1864, I have little doubt that no progress would have been made in that theater by the end of that year, in spite of Union advantages in material and manpower.

    Actually on the question of enlisting blacks, that was a quote from Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, and not Jefferson Davis. Davis was in favor of the last minute proposal to enlist black troops at the end of 1864 which was far too late. Opposition to such a proposal would have been immense in 1863, but I believe that a victorious Lee at Gettysburg could have carried the day on the issue. That would have meant stepping into a political role however, something that Lee was always careful to avoid.

    This of course is all an exercise in alternate history, and also a lampoon of how many people tend to call something inevitable after it has occurred.

  4. Alternate history can be fun, but frankly, you forgot the first principle which is the further away from an event something occurs, the less likely it is that it will occur in an alternate time line. Thus in a timeline where the Trent Affair starts an Anglo-American war, it is very probable that there is no Battle of Gettysburg; this is especially true if the Defense did adopt a strategy of defense.

    That brings me to the other fault of the time line. A philosophy of setting up static defenses on the battlefield favors the North more than the South. The South needed to remain mobile to ensure that they were not flanked and surrounded by much larger Union Armies. A South that digs in might be very hard to dig out again, but they are also trapped in their trenches.

  5. “A South that digs in might be very hard to dig out again, but they are also trapped in their trenches.”

    That works if you have commanders not wedded to frontal assaults against fortified positions. Even the best commanders of the War: Lee at Gettysburg, Grant at Cold Harbor and Sherman at Kenesaw Mountain, made that mistake. If a general early enough in the War had started a policy of implementing field fortifications prior to every battle, or as soon as possible during a meeting engagement, a fraction of the army so fortified could have held up a far larger enemy force, leaving most of the army free to maneuvere and to strike.

  6. @ DR McClarey: Certainly Lincoln made plenty of mistakes but his success was in holding together a disparate coalition, giving him time until he could find the right commanders and start racking up victories.

    @ MD Bill: Quite right though I might add that the South needed victories just as much as the Union did and support on the home front crumbled down south much faster than the north when they saw the price they would have to pay.
    Both sides expected a short war and the South was never unified until after the war in its celebration of the Lost Cause.

  7. I enjoyed this Donald, especially the critique of Lincoln. You might have a good novel in the making, especially if your protagonist starts as a young black slave.

  8. Thank you Nate. There have been many fine novels positing an alternate Civil War, but I guess the world could always use one more. 🙂

    In regard to Lincoln, I think it is fair to say that I am one of his biggest fans. However, how we view an historical figure is often contingent upon whether they achieved their goal. Lincoln was successful in his attempt to preserve the Union and end slavery, so short shrift tends to be given by most writers to his shortcomings as President. If he had failed, those shortcomings would assume major importance in any look back at his Presidency.

  9. Don,
    Perhaps yes, perhaps no. A force that sets itself up behind static defenses looses the initiative. Sometimes, when you know when and how the enemy is going attack, that can be a good thing. But, unless you can stretch your forces across the entire potential front of the enemy advance, you need to be prepared for that force to be cut off from resupply or reinforcement.

    If you fortify part of your army, it might tie up part of the other army… or it might get left behind in the battle. Lee, did on occasion split his forces up to his advantage, but it wasn’t so that the smaller part could dig in.

    Finally of course, it slows your army down. The last thing Lee needed was to loose the initiative. The Civil War ultimately was lost when Grant was able to force Lee into static defenses. Yes, Cold Harbor was a victory for Lee, but it was his last.

  10. Undoubtedly General Rosecrans took a little longer to secure Vicksburg than US Grant in the alternate history, but also with less casualties.

    I think some commentaries are missing the distinction between tactics and strategy. Tactically the defense was much stronger, but to win the war required an offensive strategy, especially the North. Clausewitz commented on about the Napoleonic Wars but US manuals followed the Napoleon’s model which emphasized the Grand Assault in a tactical offensive. The development of the rifled musket in the 1850’s vastly increased the power of the defense. It should be noted that while we are used to frequent changes in technology the rifled musket was the first major advance in infantry weapons in 150 years. Making the transition took much more time than would be the case today.

    The biggest item in the the manpower disparity was opening up the Western theater. The union mobilized more troops that it could have supported in the field in Virginia. Which gave them the troops to go west without hurting the Army of the Potomac, the South was forced to keep troops in the west that it needed and could have support in Virginia.

    The NORTH will rise AGAIN!

  11. Mr. McClarey,

    You ignore two important points that make me think you’re missing the forest for the trees.

    First, in 1860, the South had nine million people (of whom five million were white). The North had 25 million people. Southern schools like the University of Virginia closed down because practically everyone volunteered to join the military, whereas Northern schools like Harvard stayed open because the North fielded only a fraction of its fighting men – and it still had a numerical advantage. As Shelby Foote once said, the North was fighting with one hand tied behind its back.

    Second, have you heard of names like Colt and Smith & Wesson? The North was vastly superior in industrial capacity. Remember that the South was an agricultural society which grew foodstuffs, cotton and tobacco but was dependent on imports from England and the North.

    All told, the South needed a short war to win. The longer the war dragged on, the more important were the North’s advantages in fighting men and industrial capacity.

  12. The South had far greater motivation than the North to win. The South simply had to fight until the North decided it wasn’t worth it and “Let the erring sisters go.” As our American Revolution, Vietnam and many another conflict indicate, a vastly superior power can be defeated in a war, if it eventually decides that losing the conflict is preferable to continuing to fight it. Considering that all the political signs in the summer of 1864 indicated that Lincoln was going to lose in the Fall, and he thought he was going to lose, the Confederacy came very close to doing this. Sherman taking Atlanta, and Union victories in the Shenandoah, reversed Lincoln’s political fortunes, but it was a very near run thing.

  13. The last gallant attempt by a people close to the land and motivated by chivalry was obviously doomed to fail – I can say that in hindsight. (despite the wicked tolerance and promotion of African slavery, which is an evil that would have ended. Note, there are far more slaves, including Africans in the world today despite the loss of the CSA and not merely because of an increased population).

    Clearly the American Union is a noble goal and on this point I agree with Lincoln and with Lee. I exclude ending African slavery as a goal, because the North did not have that goal in mind initially. Ending slavery was a political ploy employed after the ‘inevitable’ victory of the North at First Manassas did not occur.

    Sadly, like all human endeavors, the noble goal of preserving the Union resulted in a severe blow to the vertical check against tyranny and laid the precedent and the ground work for transforming the General Federal government into a Autocratic National government. Is the Union preserved? In some ways yes, the USA is intact, but is it a union of sovereign republics? In the form, yes, in actuality, no. Additionally, the same money power (of which Lincoln spoke against) that sought the disunion in the 1860s is now seeking the elimination of the Union through an open borderless society.

    If we do not restore the vertical check against national power by restoring a reasonable and checked autonomy to the states and commonwealths we will lose the Union and then not only is pondering a Southern victory merely a Romantic exercise (BTW – one I love to engage in) but a Union victory would then be rendered a Union defeat as the USA gives way to a controlled Western economic block of modern-techno-feudal ‘happy’ slaves.

    Nonetheless, all Americans fought nobly, yet, it is American tradition to favor the underdog and there is no question that the agrarian, romantic South with her sons who resembled Crusading Knights more than modern mechanized soldiers, were certainly the underdog.

    In truth, Waterloo was not the only dam*ed near run thing. Good post.

  14. In the early phase of the War, the Northern and Southern generals were mostly West Point graduates. So on the strategic level, the War was a conflict of West Pointers versus West Pointers. But one advantage of the South was the high quality of generals it had – Lee, Jackson, et cetera.

    Without the War, Lee would have gone down in history as one of the best colonels produced by West Point. And Jackson would have lived the rest of his life as an obscure VMI professor who had served in the Mexican War. Who would have known that Jackson was one of the greatest military minds in world history? I think Jackson would agree with me that he would rather live in a world where the War had not happened and he remained obscure.

  15. “I think Jackson would agree with me that he would rather live in a world where the War had not happened and he remained obscure.”

    Jackson thought the War was God’s will and he believed he was fighting a holy crusade. He also founded a Sunday school for blacks, slaves and free, and taught slaves to read, in partnership with his wife, although this was against Virginia law. In the War he would have preferred to have flown the blag flag, as he put it, to have taken no prisoners and put all captured Union soldiers to the sword. Since that was not the policy of his government however, Jackson scrupulously observed the rules regarding the treatment of captured enemy prisoners.

    “I have always thought that we ought to meet the Federal invaders on the outer verge of just right and defence, and raise at once the black flag, vis., “No quarter to the violators of our homes and firesides!”…But I see now clearly enough the people of the South were not prepared for such a policy. I have myself cordially accepted the policy of our leaders….President Davis and General Lee.”

    Complicated does not begin to fathom the many facets of Thomas Jonathan Jackson.

  16. I weep that good people like Jackson had to die because of the War. I can only speak for myself, but I want this 150th anniversary of the war to be just a remembrance of the brave soldiers and their lives. If I can be spared yet another lecture on the South being evil, I don’t think I’ll miss it.

  17. The North and the South both brought on the war through their tolerance of slavery:

    “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses 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 offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”

  18. Consider that the death and destruction fell disproportionately on the South. Before the War, Northern merchants and manufacturers were also complicit in the slave trade and the cotton trade, but I cannot think of any permanent damage the War caused them.

    Sherman made good on his promise to turn half of Georgia and South Carolina into a howling wilderness – there are parts of both states where there are no buildings older than 1865. Mississippi spent 20% of its state budget on crutches the year after the war. Indeed, the South would not recover until World War II – a verse from Alabama’s Song of the South goes like this: “Well somebody told us Wall Street fell [in 1929] but we were so poor that we couldn’t tell.”

    Note that the federal government helped rebuild Japan and Germany after World War II, but after the War between the States there was no Marshall Plan for the South. I am grateful that Cornelius Vanderbilt endowed the university that bears his name, but this is one of the few acts of postwar Northern generosity I can think of.

  19. “Consider that the death and destruction fell disproportionately on the South.”

    The families of the Union dead, some 340,000, and the Union maimed and crippled would beg to differ.

    “Before the War, Northern merchants and manufacturers were also complicit in the slave trade and the cotton trade, but I cannot think of any permanent damage the War caused them.”

    Confederate raiders actually dealt a serious setback to the merchant marine of the Union that took decades to recover from.

    “Sherman made good on his promise to turn half of Georgia and South Carolina into a howling wilderness – there are parts of both states where there are no buildings older than 1865.”

    Give me a break! The main problem for the South after the Civil War was the insistence on attempting to hold blacks still in virtual slavery. Pathetically bad race relations throughout the South was the major factor in the delay of industrialization throughout the South. Booker T. Washington understood this, which is why it is a great pity that the initial positive reaction to his Atlanta Compromise Speech in 1895 by whites in the South wasn’t acted upon.


    The attempt by the powers that be in the South to keep blacks as fifth class citizens had far more to do with poverty in the South than any lingering effects of the Civil War.

  20. All the same, it would be nice to hear a Northerner express condolences for all the Southerners who died in the war.

  21. All well and good, but at the risk of repeating myself, “If I can be spared yet another lecture on the South being evil, I don’t think I’ll miss it.” I am a Catholic and a Southerner. Call me thin-skinned, but I don’t take too kindly to criticisms of my beloved South. Most of us are well aware of our moral imperfections without them being slammed in front of our face. I might be able to take criticism coming from a fellow Southerner, but that’s my limit.

  22. “The attempt by the powers that be in the South to keep blacks as fifth class citizens had far more to do with poverty in the South than any lingering effects of the Civil War.”

    I’m reminded of that section of Frederick Douglass’ autobiography where he describes the culture shock of going from Baltimore to his first home in freedom, New Bedford, MA. He was astounded by the dynamism of the latter compared to what was a fairly prosperous and commercial Baltimore. He ascribed the difference to the existence of entirely free labor, which has cascade effects throughout society, right down to how well the streets were swept.

    Not that he didn’t experience raw racism in the north–far from it. But the racism of men who couldn’t sell him was reasonably easy to bear.

  23. Mico,
    Just a point, but I am not sure that all Southerners are aware of the moral imperfections of the past. I have met more than one Southerner who has tried to deny, repeatedly, that slavery was a major, if not the major cause of the war (They often concentrate on what the North has to say about maintaining the Union while ignoring what the Southerners of the time said about why they were seceding); they speak with nostalgia of the days of Jim Crow (Trent Lott got in hot water over this).

  24. Oh a minor nitpick… The rifled musket was not a new invention. It had been around for hundreds of years and was famous for its use in the American Revolution, and has become famous to readers of historical fiction in the Sharpe’s Rifles series for its use in the Napoleonic Wars.

    What was new was the invention of the minie ball. Prior to the invention of the minie ball, loading a rifled musket was a painfully slow affair; too slow to make it an effective weapon in the main battle force. Thus the rifle, if used at all, was limited to skirmishers. The minie ball allowed rifled muskets to be loaded about as quickly (maybe a little slower) as a smooth bore musket. The effects of this were of course as described.

  25. You are correct Maryland Bill. I used the term rifled muskets as shorthand for the minie-ball and the fact that almost all the muskets in the Civil War were rifled as a result. A recent revisionist study contends that the impact of the rifle musket in the Civil War has been greatly exaggerated:


    I find that hard to believe, although I think I will probably get this book to assess the argument that the author makes.

  26. Mr. McClarey, this is just my opinion but in your list of top ten factors, I would make Factor No. 4 into No. 1. We will never know how Gettysburg would have turned out with Jackson still alive.

  27. Dale Price: New England ship owners and ship captains were knee-deep in the slave trade. Racism is not confined to the South.

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