Could the South have won the Civil War? In this article, you’ll find answers on how the South could have changed history.
COULD THE SOUTH HAVE WON THE CIVIL WAR: THE MYTH
Propagators of the Myth contend that the South did the best it could with the resources it had and that it never had a chance to win the Civil War. The North’s superior industrial strength and its 3.5-to-1 manpower advantage, they contend, made it unbeatable.
Robert E. Lee originated this myth at Appomattox in his famous farewell to his troops, whom he consoled with the assurance, “After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.” A rebel soldier repeated this theme: “They never whipped us, sir, unless they were four to one. If we had anything like a fair chance or less disparity of numbers, we should have won our cause and established our independence.” A century later, Civil War historian Richard Current echoes Lee’s assessment: “Surely, in view of the disparity in resources, it would have taken a miracle, a direct intervention of the Lord on the other side, to enable the South to win. As usual, God was on the side of the heaviest battalions.”
The theory, as Alan Nolan summarizes it, was that “the Confederates had not really been defeated, they had instead been overwhelmed by massive Northern manpower and materiel. . . . Furthermore, the South’s loss was said to be inevitable from the beginning; the fact of loss was somehow mitigated in the myth because it was said that winning had been impossible. If the Confederacy could not have won, it somehow did not lose.” Or as the Southerner Shelby Foote put it in Ken Burns’s influential 1990 documentary The Civil War, “The North fought the war with one hand behind its back. . . . [T]he North [could] have brought the other arm out from behind its back. . . . I don’t think that the South ever had a chance to win the war.”
HOW THE SOUTH COULD HAVE WON THE WAR
Yet as James McPherson has noted, “There was nothing inevitable about Northern victory in the Civil War.”6 Shortly after Confederates had fired on Fort Sumter, there was an eleven-state confederacy—a self-declared nation state—that asserted its independence. It also drew strength from military volunteers from the non-seceding slave states of Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and Delaware. All the Confederacy needed was a stalemate, which would confirm its existence as a separate country. The burden was on the North to defeat the Confederacy and compel the return of the eleven wayward states to the Union. “The South could ‘win’ the war by not losing,” writes McPherson, but “the North could win only by winning.”
Although outnumbered and lacking the industrial resources of the North, the Confederacy was not without advantages of its own. It was vast—750,000 square miles the Federals would have to invade and conquer. “Thus space was all in favour of the South; even should the enemy overrun her border, her principal cities, few in number, were far removed from the hostile bases, and the important railway junctions were perfectly secure from sudden attack. And space, especially when means of communication are scanty, and the country affords few supplies, is the greatest of all obstacles.” Southern troops, moreover, had to cover shorter distances than the invaders and could do so over a complex of well-placed railroads (if controlled and maintained properly).
A contemporary analysis of the American Civil War published in the Times of London recognized the Confederates’ huge strategic advantage: “No war of independence ever terminated unsuccessfully except where the disparity of force was far greater than it is in this case. Just as England during the [American] revolution had to give up conquering the colonies, so the North will have to give up conquering the South.” The Confederate secretary of war, George W. Randolph, shared this optimism about the South’s prospects early in the war: “[T]here is no instance in history of a people as numerous as we are inhabiting a country so extensive as ours being subjected if true to themselves.”
Other Southerners agreed. James Barbour, a delegate to the Virginia secession convention, quoted Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’s assessment of Southern strength when the Confederacy consisted of only seven states: “With such an area of territory—with such an amount of population—with a climate and soil unsurpassed by any on the face of the earth—with such resources already at our command—with productions which control the commerce of the world—who can entertain any apprehensions as to our success, whether others join us or not?” Barbour himself voiced the hope that England and France, although they found slavery distasteful, would “deal with and make money out of the most lucrative customer on the face of the globe.”
After the war, various Confederate generals expressed their views that the war had been winnable. In 1874, Joseph E. Johnston insisted that the South had not been “guilty of the high crime of undertaking a war without the means of waging it successfully.” Pierre G. T. Beauregard added, “No people ever warred for independence with more relative advantages than the Confederates.” E. Porter Alexander’s retrospective assessment was more modest than Beauregard’s, but he too thought the South could have won:
When the South entered upon war with power so immensely her superior in men & money, & all the wealth of modern resources in machinery and transportation appliances by land & sea, she could entertain but one single hope of final success. That was, that the desperation of her resistance would finally exact from her adversary such a price in blood & treasure as to exhaust the enthusiasm of its population for the objects of the war. We could not hope to conquer her. Our one chance was to wear her out.
Much of Europe expected (and desired) a Confederate victory. The downfall of “the American colossus,” opined the Times, would be good “riddance of a nightmare. . . . Excepting a few gentlemen of republican tendencies, we all expect, we nearly all wish, success to the Confederate cause.” Joining in was the Earl of Shrewsbury, who cheerfully predicted: “that the dissolution of the Union is inevitable, and that men before [sic] me will live to see an aristocracy established in America.” As late as 1863, Russia’s minister to the United States declared, “The republican form of government, so much talked about by the Europeans and so much praised by the Americans, is breaking down. What can be expected from a country where men of humble origin are elevated to the highest positions?”
A Southern victory was not out of the question. After all, it had been only eighty years since the supposedly inferior American revolutionaries had vanquished the mighty Redcoats of King George III and less than fifty years since the outgunned Russians had repelled and destroyed the powerful invading army of Napoleon.
John Cook has identified four specific Confederate advantages: the psychological edge of fighting for independence and to protect their homes and way of life; interior lines and geography, including rivers, mountains, and swamps that were the equivalent of successive lines of fortifications; higher per-capita production of corn, livestock, and other necessities of life; and cotton, which, properly utilized, could provide economic and diplomatic benefits.
By declining to use slaves as soldiers, moreover, the heavily outnumbered Confederacy failed to exploit fully its available manpower. Some Southerners were counting on the manpower their slaves could provide in the war effort. In late February 1861, for example, Jeremiah Morton, a pro-secession delegate to Virginia’s convention, explained that “if the tug of war ever comes, I would rather have the four millions of slaves and the eight millions of freemen, than to have sixteen millions of free men and no slaves. . . . Give us four millions of slaves under the management and discipline of Southern planters and Southern men, and they will give you more sinews of war, than ten millions of free men, agitated with the cares of families and the harassments of military duties.” Morton did not foresee that slaves, under-utilized by the Confederacy, would become Union assets and that rebel soldiers, facing the invading Union armies, would soon enough concern themselves with “the cares of families.”
The prompt use of black soldiers by the Confederacy could have been quite effective. “Early in the war, when Lincoln was still defining the Union cause narrowly (for reunion alone and not for emancipation) and when Union officers were still refusing sanctuary to runaway slaves,” writes Bruce Levine, “ . . . significant numbers of such slaves might have accepted an offer of emancipation in exchange for performing Confederate military service.” Instead, the rebels ignored the encouraging precedents of black soldiers in the American Revolution (over George Washington’s initial objections) and the War of 1812 and allowed their support of slavery and white supremacy to rule out this option.
The war was winnable if Southern resources were husbanded carefully. But Lee’s strategy and tactics dissipated irreplaceable manpower. His losses at Mechanicsville, Malvern Hill, Antietam, and Gettysburg and his costly “victories” at Gaines’s Mill, Second Bull Run, and Chancellorsville— all in 1862 and 1863—made possible Grant’s and Sherman’s successful campaigns against Richmond and Atlanta in 1864 and produced a sense of the inevitability of Confederate defeat that contributed to Lincoln’s reelection.
The war was winnable if Southern resources were husbanded carefully. But Lee’s strategy and tactics dissipated irreplaceable manpower. His losses at Mechanicsville, Malvern Hill, Antietam, and Gettysburg and his costly “victories” at Gaines’s Mill, Second Bull Run, and Chancellorsville—all in 1862 and 1863—made possible Grant’s and Sherman’s successful campaigns against Richmond and Atlanta in 1864 and produced a sense of the inevitability of Confederate defeat that contributed to Lincoln’s reelection.
In Why the South Lost the Civil War, four historians analyze the South’s defensive advantages:
. . . the Confederate Army suffered no crippling deficiency in weapons or supplies. Their principal handicap would be numerical inferiority. But to offset this lack Confederates fought the first major war in which both sides armed themselves with rifles and had the advantage of a temporary but very significant surge in the power of the tactical defensive. In addition, the problem of supply in a very large but thinly settled region was a powerful aid to the strategic defensive. Other things being equal, Confederate military leadership were confident that if the Union did not display Napoleonic genius, the tactical and strategic power of the defensive could offset the Northern superiority. . . . In short, the task of the North was literally gigantic. It was the task of organizing and harnessing its superior resources and committing them to warfare on a financial scale that was historically unprecedented.
. . . [I]nertia was on the South’s side and would have been fatal to the North. The North had the necessity to conquer. The South could have won simply by not being conquered. It did not have to occupy a foot of ground outside its borders.
The South’s best hope for success was outlasting Lincoln, and deep schisms among Northerners throughout the war kept that hope alive. Northerners violently disagreed on slavery, the draft, civil liberties, and the war itself. To exploit these divisions and prevail, the Confederates needed to preserve their manpower, sap the strength of the North, make continuation of the war intolerable, and compel recognition of the Confederacy’s independence. Robert E. Lee’s deliberate disregard of this reality may have been his greatest failure.
A Confederate victory through Lincoln’s defeat at the ballot box in November 1864 was entirely plausible.“Even [at the end of 1863] defeat was not yet inevitable,” explains Richard McMurry. “If the Confederates could hold on, they might convince the northern public that victory was not worth what it would cost. Northern voters might then turn the Lincoln administration out of office in the 1864 elections and replace it with a government that would be willing to accept Confederate independence.”
Contemporary support for that proposition came from Pollard’s 1866 work. In early 1864, he noted, Northern Democrats were beginning work on a peace platform for the November election, Northerners were impatient about the war’s prolongation, and Southern maintenance of the status quo through another military campaign would enable the Democrats to win and to negotiate terms. Pollard concluded, “It was said, with reason, in Richmond, that such was Northern impatience that the question of the war had simply become one of endurance on the part of the South; that even without positive victories in the field, and merely by securing negative results in the ensuing campaign, the Democratic party would be able to overthrow the Administration at Washington, and to open negotiations with Richmond as between government and government.”
Morale in the North hit rock bottom in July and August 1864. Grant and Sherman had taken heavy casualties in advancing to Richmond and Atlanta, but their foes were still vigorous and those cities remained in Southern hands. By August 23, Lincoln was so sure of his defeat that he wrote a note to that effect and had his cabinet members sign the outside of the note without reading it. All informed and influential Republican politicians and newspaper editors urged him to allow someone else—perhaps Grant—to run in his stead.
The importance of Lincoln’s reelection for Union victory was not lost on contemporaries. President Davis and Generals Lee, Longstreet, and Josiah Gorgas, among others, wrote in 1863 and 1864 that the South could prevail if Lincoln lost his reelection battle. In fact, as early as his 1862 Antietam campaign, “Lee well realized that the only way for the Confederacy to win was by persuading the Union to lose.” Soon Lee was contemplating Lincoln’s possible defeat for reelection. In April 1863 he wrote to his wife, “If successful this year, next fall  there will be a great change in public opinion at the North. The Republicans will be destroyed & I think the friends of peace will become so strong as that the next administration will go in on that basis.”
Those Southerners realized that Lincoln was the steel backbone of the Union war effort and that his replacement, especially by a less than committed George B. McClellan,33 would open up opportunities for the Confederacy. Southerners’ confidence in McClellan’s malleability was demonstrated by Pollard’s early postwar analysis:
Gen. McClellan’s letter of acceptance [of his nomination] . . . by its pacific tone and conciliatory terms, removed much of the objection which the extreme peace men of his party had felt to his nomination. Affirming the necessity of preserving the Union entire in the most cogent terms, he declared, that its preservation “was the sole avowed object for which the war was commenced;” that “it should have been conducted for that object only: “that it should have been conducted on the principles of conciliation and compromise; that the reestablishment of the Union must be the indispensable condition in any settlement; and that “they should exhaust all the resources of statesmanship to secure such a peace, to reestablish the Union, and to secure for the future the constitutional rights of every State.
Certainly, someone who stated that war should be conducted on principles of conciliation and compromise would be an ideal negotiating “adversary.”
In fact, Lee’s gambling offensive actions had been intended to win an overwhelming victory or two, thus deflating Northern morale and ensuring that Lincoln would be voted out of office. If he had wisely preserved his manpower by remaining on the strategic and tactical defensive, the South would have appeared to have a respectable chance of winning (if only by stalemate) as the crucial election approached. Instead, by late 1864, Lee had drained the South of too many men, and the fall of Atlanta, the loss of the Shenandoah Valley, the partial siege of his army at Richmond and Petersburg, and the fall of Mobile Harbor made Southern prospects look bleak. Pollard said that McClellan’s election, which had some probability in midsummer 1864, “became impossible, in view of the rapid military successes of the North” and was stymied by the fact that the election occurred at the most propitious time possible for Lincoln.
Could Lincoln have been defeated? A glance at the 1864 election returns might suggest that his reelection was assured. Riding a wave of military victories, Lincoln convincingly won reelection. Out of slightly more than four million votes cast, Lincoln received 2,218,388 (55 percent), while McClellan garnered 1,812,807 (45 percent). These votes resulted in an impressive 212-to-21 electoral-vote victory for Lincoln. Although these statistics seem to reflect a landslide, the election was much closer than it appeared. The switch of a mere .75 percent of the votes (29,935 out of 4,031,195) in specific states would have given McClellan the ninety-seven additional electoral votes he needed. He could have picked up the huge states of Pennsylvania and New York—and their fifty-nine electoral votes—with a swing of fewer than thirteen thousand votes. The additional thirty-eight electoral votes he would have then needed could have been found in any number of smaller states where he won substantial percentages of the vote.36 Lincoln was right to have been concerned about his reelection prospects and would not have won without the military victories that preceded the election.
In the twelve states where military ballots were counted separately, Lincoln received 78 percent of them (119,754 to 34,291)—compared with his 53 percent of the civilian vote in those states. The soldiers’ decision may have been a striking endorsement of Lincoln’s and Grant’s approach to war, which contrasted sharply with that of McClellan, under whose command many of them had served. Chester Hearn has found that the military vote was decisive in Connecticut, New York, and Maryland (where that vote also was responsible for the passage of a new state constitution that banned slavery).
On November 10, Grant sent his congratulations to Lincoln by way of the secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton: “Enough now seems to be known to say who is to hold the reins of Government for the next four years. Congratulate the President for me for the double victory. The election having passed off quietly, no bloodshed or rioit [sic] throughout the land, is a victory worth more to the country than a battle won. Rebeldom and Europe will so construe it.” A few days later, Grant told John Hay that he was impressed most by “the quiet and orderly character of the whole affair.”
Defeating Lincoln in 1864 had been the Confederacy’s best opportunity for victory. McClellan’s well-documented respect for Southern “property rights” in their slaves could have led to some sort of settlement short of total Union victory and the abolition of slavery—perhaps even to a ceasefire and de facto Southern independence while the peace terms were being negotiated. Although some have contended that McClellan would not have allowed the South to remain independent, he had demonstrated his reluctance to engage in the offensive warfare necessary for the Union to prevail. David Donald, Jean Baker, and Michael Holt conclude that “Lincoln’s reelection ensured that the conflict would not be interrupted by a cease-fire followed by negotiations, and in that sense was as important a Union victory as any on the battlefield. . . . ” The closeness of the election of 1864 confirmed the importance of Grant’s aggressive offensive beginning in May, only two months after becoming the Union general in chief.
Instead of adopting the gambling offensive strategy and tactics of Lee, the Confederacy would have been well advised to follow the more conservative approach favored by Jefferson Davis. Lee deviated from Davis’s approach by launching major strategic offensives, either without Davis’s advance knowledge or approval (e.g., the Antietam campaign) or with Davis’s acquiescence in the face of Lee’s forceful advocacy (e.g., the Gettysburg campaign). Of course, Lee himself was responsible for all the tactical offensives that proved so devastating to his troops and ultimately to Confederate hopes for victory. The details of Lee’s aggressiveness are analyzed in the next two chapters.
Could the South have won the Civil War?
Unquestionably. It foolishly withheld cotton from the world market at the war’s beginning in an attempt to blackmail England and France into supporting it (compelling those countries to develop alternative sources of cotton), recklessly sacrificed its limited manpower in unnecessary and unwise strategic and tactical offensives although it needed only to achieve a stalemate to win, and was so concerned about preserving slavery that it acted against its own military interests in such areas as foreign diplomacy, prisoner-of war policies, and, most critically, the deployment of slaves as soldiers. The South could have won, but its counter-productive military and political policies ensured its defeat.
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