Why Did the South Lose the Civil War?

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit
Share on delicious
Share on digg
Share on stumbleupon
Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Share on print

Why The South Lost the Civil War, a companion book to the earlier How The North Won, by Archer Jones, Herman Hattaway, Richard E. Berenger and William M. Still, Jr,  published in 1986  has always struck me as giving one of the worst answers to the question of “Why did the South lose the Civil War?”   The thesis of this book is that the South lost the War because of insufficient nationalism. To call this argument preposterous is to be kind. Out of a white population of nine million the South lost a quarter of a million dead and many times that number in wounded. The South kept fighting until every Southern city was controlled by the Union. A small agrarian nation, the South fought a large, industrialized nascent world power. Unbelievably the South came close to winning this unequal contest. To contend that the South failed because of lack of will is ahistoric and a contemptible insult to the brave rebels who fell under the stars and bars. A better judge of Southern will during that war was General Grant who, while attacking the Southern cause, admitted that never had men fought harder for a cause than the Southerners.



So why did the South lose the Civil War?  A better question to me is “Why did it take the North four years to win?”  Considering the heavy preponderance of the North in manpower, money, manufacturing and agriculture, the war should have been a route.  That it was not is largely attributable to poor generalship initially on the Union side.  Once generals of the calibre of Grant and Sherman came to the fore, generals who knew how to apply the North’s vast preponderance in men and material, the winning of the war was merely a matter of time for the Union.  That is my opinion.  What is yours ?


More to explorer


  News that I missed, courtesy of The Babylon Bee:   CHINA—Christians in China have joined together in lifting up their American

Not One Thin Dime

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas my bride and I usually send Christmas donations to groups we support.  This year our major donation will

D & D and Moral Panics

  Dave Griffey at Daffey Thoughts takes a look at the history of the role playing system Dungeons and Dragons: So even


  1. Agree with you, though I think motivation may have something to do with it too. This is a brother v brother war. Initially the North probably hoped that the war could be won with restraint and minimum bloodshed. Once it became clear it couldn’t, that’s when the gloves came off.

  2. However, the hope for the South throughout the War always was that the North would tire of it and decide it just wasn’t worth it. The magnitude of the casualties on both sides is stunning. In one month at the start of the Overland Campaign in 1865 Grant had 50,000 casualties, many of the wounded mutilated for life. In August 1864 Lincoln thought his reelection was doomed to defeat. Historically war weariness for Americans sets in during the third year of a conflict. The South came very close to victory in the Summer of 1864, and if generals of the caliber of Grant, Sherman and Thomas were not then at the helm of the main Union armies, I suspect that the War would have had a very different outcome.

  3. Why 4 years, and why the outcome:
    1. Americans fight to the death when invaded. The South was and so they fought.
    2. Lee was until Grant, the better to any Union general.
    3. Until the slaves were freed the North couldn’t win, then they could not loose. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord..”
    No accident.
    4. It’s the verdict of human history that invaders from the North almost always win. Why? People from a temperate climate with industry.

    Not a student of history. Just an engineer. But that’s my take.

  4. JFK: True. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, et al had some input.

    Thought: Would the Gettysburg outcome have been altered if Jackson hadn’t been hors d’combat at Chancellorsville?

    McClellan was a symptom. Think about generals and field officers needing (what?) several years (Lee and Jackson were far quicker) to learn how to fight the “current” war. One reading of Rick Atkinson’s WWII ETO trilogy may show how US generals and field officers (down to battalion CO’s/staffs) were (compared to the Germans) far behind the war fighting “learning curve” in North Africa and Italy, but the troops and leaders (although decimated, exhausted and mad as hell) were efficient killers by the end of the war.

  5. While I would never, ever accuse the Confederates of lacking a fighting spirit or will, I don’t think a “broken will” thesis is a slur on Southern determination or fighting ability. The fact is, the Union had a difficult task on its hands: it had to conquer a territory the size of Western Europe and beat down an immensely capable and ingenious people. And it had to build a war machine and scale up massive fighting forces in the process–and the cadres for those forces in the main went to their capable, ingenious enemies.

    Yes, the South had even more difficulty building a war machine, given their economic base and agricultural orientation.

    But here’s the thing–*they did it.* The Confederate armies did not run out of arms or ammunition: they ran out of food and men.

    The lack of manpower is due to several factors, but I’ll narrow it down to two: (1) the Richmond regime was not universally popular with Southern whites. In fact, at least 100,000 white southerners took up arms for the Union, which was a fearsome double blow. And as the war progressed, growing numbers resented the “Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight” that put the burdens on the “plain folk.” They might not have loved the Union, but it was the Confederacy that was dragging their men away and making it hard to scrape by economically.

    Which leads me to my second point: the total war strategy that began with Grant demoralized even the staunchest Confederates. Lee noted the desertion rates of the Georgia regiments as Sherman’s campaign intensified. The desertion rates were a consistent problem on both sides, but were much more of a problem for the South. As horrendous as it could be, knocking the South flat and breaking the will of white Southerners to continue the struggle was essential to victory. No less than Nathan Bedford Forrest, who had tried and failed to stop Wilson’s Raid through the last undamaged parts of the Confederate industrial areas, had this to say to an after-the-fact diehard: “Only a madman would have kept fighting that war.”

  6. If I had to point to the one moment where ultimate victory slid through the fingers of the Confederacy, it was on September 20, 1863, on the climactic day of the fighting at Chickamauga.

    The arrival of Granger’s reserve division and Thomas’ decision to launch the entire force at Longstreet’s veterans as they crested Snodgrass Hill meant that the Army of the Cumberland would survive. Longstreet’s troops were driven back, the fighting reverted to a bloody stalemate and Thomas’ troops were able to withdraw in good order.

    Chattanooga would be besieged, but the Army of the Cumberland would be relieved in short order and the drive south would begin again once the Southrons were sent packing. Which is what happened. And nearly a year later, on September 2, 1864, Sherman destroyed the hopes of the Democratic Party and the South by taking Atlanta.

    If Thomas had been overwhelmed, then the Army of the Cumberland would have been swept from the board and Chattanooga secured again for the Confederacy. Sure, some elements of the Cumberland force would have gotten away, but it would have been finished as a major force. The demoralizing effect of this on the Union can be easily imagined. Thomas’ magnificent defense against 2 to 1 odds was lionized for a reason: it was a near-run thing to total disaster, staved off by courage, determination, initiative and brilliance.

    It would have taken several months to rebuild and replace the AoC forces and more to march to retake Chattanooga before heading south again. The bottom line is that Sherman does not electrify the Union on September 2 and Lincoln loses to McClellan.

    From that, the world turns upside down again.

  7. The best generals went to serve in the Confederacy as it began. They gave the South hope that it could succeed in its struggle for independence and excellent leadership that gave it a fighting chance for success.

    Absent the North throwing in the towel and just quitting, the Confederacy was hoping for foreign recognition. If memory serves, Lincoln warned Great Britain that recognition of the Confederacy meant an invasion and conquering of Canada.

    Over the past 25 years the Internet has found its way into countless lives. It used to amaze me how many people want to fight the Civil war on message boards and comboxes. The South was wrong and that is all there is to it. They wanted to spread slavery from coast to coast and had dreams of invading Latin America and taking that over.

    While the South came close to winning in 1864, they came jsut as close to losing it in 1863. Meade did not pursue Lee’s defeated troops. Had he done so, it may well have ended sometime in July 1863, somewhere between Gettysburg and Northern Virginia.

  8. Don

    The North won because of logistics, they almost lost it do to war wariness.

    Remember the simplistic truism. “Armatures think tactics, professionals think logistics”.

    There had never been a war of that scale fought on the North American Continent {Dear Lord, never again please). Except for book study this was a complete unknown. Even the professionals on both sides were armatures for this new situation.

    Lee & company figured out the tactics first, then Grant and company figured out the logistics.

  9. Basic reasons: Slavery was incompatible with the Constitution, with Christianity, with Big Business.

  10. Lee had the logistics figured out also Hank, he just lacked the resources to do much about it. The Union early mastered logistics due to their overwhelming industrial might, and the Confederates early mastered raids to help maintain their armies on captured Union largesse. This was all symbolized by the Confederate nickname for Union Major General Nathaniel Banks of “Commissary” Banks. Ironically Sherman’s March to the Sea was predicated on a large Union force being able to live off the land in a fertile section of the Confederacy, where the goal was to move through and destroy rather than conquer and hold. There are still military lessons for today from that war fought a century and a half ago,

Comments are closed.