Why Did The South Lose The Civil

War? Essay, Research Paper

A frequently, and sometimes hotly, discussed subject; the outcome of the American Civil War has fascinated historians for generations. Some argue that the North?s economic advantages proved too much for the South, others that Southern strategy was faulty, offensive when it should have been defensive, and vice-versa. Internal division in the South is often referred to, and complaints made against Davis? somewhat makeshift, inexperienced, government. Doubts are sometimes raised over the commitment of Southerners to a cause many of them were half-hearted about. Many historians have argued that the South lost the will to fight long before defeat was an inevitability. However, many of these criticisms could easily be applied to the North, had the outcome been different, and a simple superiority in resources is an insufficient explanation, when one considers the many examples in history, not least the American War of Independence, when a weaker defender has kept a far stronger attacker at bay. James Mc Pherson offers an alternative view in his contingency theory, where he outlines four turning points in the war which led ultimately to Southern defeat. However, while a recital of the war?s events and key points may explain how the South lost the Civil War, it fails to explain why they lost. Why did the Southern war effort fail at three key stages? While valid, McPherson?s explanation seems little more than a more complex restatement of the question he attempts to answer.

The North?s superiority in manpower and resources must not be omitted in any answer to this question. Lincoln had at his disposal a population of 22,000,000, compared with a Southern population of 9,000,000, which included 3,500,000 slaves whom they dared not arm. This provided a far larger base from which to draw troops, although it has been suggested that Southerners were keener to join up than their Union counterparts. Furthermore, in terms of resources, the Union advantage was huge: New York alone produced manufactures of a value four times greater that the total Southern output; the North had a virtual monopoly on heavy industries; coal, iron, woollens, armaments, shipyards, machine shops – all were plentiful in the North and scarce in the South. The Union infrastructure was far better, with twice the density of railroads, and several times the mileage of canals and well-surfaced roads. Most shipping was carried out in Northern vessels, and the South had few shipyards, and only one machine shop capable of building an engine for a respectable warship.

However, the ingenuity of many Southern officers compensated somewhat for her material disadvantages. Not once did a Southern army surrender for want of ammunition, and despite being in terrible disrepair, the Confederacy?s railroads somehow fulfilled their task of transporting troops to battle on several notable occasions. Historian Edward Pollard commented that ?something more than numbers make armies?, and Southern leader P G T Beauregard remarked that the outcome could not be explained by ?mere material contraints?. Furthermore, the South had several clear advantages at the start of the war. Firstly, fighting on home ground was easier since supply lines were shorter, natives friendlier, and knowledge of the climate and terrain better. The vast area of the Confederacy made occupation by an invader virtually impossible, and the coastline with its many inlets and bays made for difficult blockading. Secondly, most of the US Army?s best leaders were Southerners, so, at the start at least, the Confederacy had superior leadership in battle. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, military historians reckon that attacking in this period required thrice the manpower that defending did, virtually wiping out the North?s demographic advantages. It would seem, therefore, that although the North?s superior resources undoubtedly helped, this alone does not fully account for the Southern defeat.

Another view is that the South lost through bad conduct of the war. These criticisms fall into two main categories, military and political. Richard Current, identifies four main shortcomings in the economic management which may have played a part in the South?s defeat. Firstly, the Confederacy failed to make use of its main resource, cotton. The Union blockade did not take full effect for many months, allowing the Southerners time to export their cotton harvest, and reap the financial benefits. Alexander Stephens had a plan at the start of the war that he estimated would net around $800M for the Confederacy, thus providing a sound financial base for the war effort. Although somewhat optimistic, and beset by practical difficulties, it is fair to say that the cotton crop would have been far better exported than stockpiled or burnt. Secondly, the Confederate government displayed an unwillingness to tax her citizens, preferring instead to print money, and suffer the rampant inflation that resulted. The Union financed its war effort mainly from taxation and bonds, while 60% of Southern funds came from unbacked paper money. The problems associated with this are clear to see: prices rose 100-fold over the four years of war, wiping out southerners? savings, and devastating the economy. The government?s reaction to this, and in Current?s eyes, third mistake, was to impress public goods for military use. However, rather than curbing inflation, this merely acted as an disincentive to supply, making essential items increasingly scarce. This, coupled with the poor infrastructure and parochialism of some State governors, meant that the army went hungry in a nation with the capacity to produce plenty of food. Finally, it is argued that the Confederate government should have done more to improve infrastructure and manufacturing. However, this was easier said than done, given the lack of suitable labour, diminished value of private capital, and lack of the correct skills or machinery for such improvements. Current does not blame Southern Treasury Secretary Memminger, however, saying that he ?had to deal with problems in comparison with which those of the Union Treasury seemed like child?s play?.

Some historians deem the very nature of the Confederacy doomed to defeat. Ideologically handicapped by the doctrine of States? Rights, the Southern war effort was frequently hampered by the parochial and inward-looking political culture which prevailed in many states. When Lee?s army was fighting to defend Richmond during the last days of the war, desperate for rations, Governor Vance of North Carolina was congratulating himself on stockpiling 92,000 uniforms and 150,000lbs of bacon, to be used solely by North Carolinian troops. Doubt has also been cast over the determination of its leaders to the cause. Jefferson Davis was a reluctant secessionist, Stephens was heard to remark that Lincoln was ?not a bad man?, and even fire-eating Robert Toombs voted against the firing on Fort Sumter. ?With such f-hearted secessionists, what could be expected?, asked historian Arnold Whitridge. He also cites the delusion that cotton ruled the world as a major factor in the Confederacy?s defeat. Although valid, much of the criticism of the Confederate government could be equally well applied to the Union. Peace Democrats north of the border harassed Lincoln; opposition was vociferous in many quarters following the suspension of habeas corpus, and it appeared for a while that Lincoln would not win the 1864 election. On balance, however, the government of the Union was more united, and more effective.

Most historians agree that Lincoln was a greater leader than Davis, although at the start of the war it appeared that the opposite was true. The more experienced Davis soon built up a sound army, commanded by excellent generals. However, while a good military man, Davis was no politician. His ego bruised easily, and some of his decisions appeared to have been motivated more by personal like or dislike of an individual than any strategic reason. His decision to retain Bragg and leave Beauregard and Johnston in the cold is one such example of this. Whitridge argues that Davis ?would never have practised the arts of the politician, even if he had understood them?, having, ?learned to obey and command; but nothing in his experience had taught him how to persuade and conciliate?. Lincoln, on the other hand, was a masterful diplomat, prepared to overlook personal differences, for example with McClellan, for the good of the Union. He never once faltered in his determination to save the Union, and entertained no doubts as to the wisdom of his policy. It must be remembered though, that Davis was by no means a weak leader, and had a great deal to contend with in terms of belligerent State governors, supply shortages, and teething troubles which would affect any new government. Also, given the tragic circumstances surrounding Lincoln?s death, and the worthiness of his cause, there has been a tendency to romanticise him and his achievements, which any historian must guard against.

Brian Holden Reid argued that the South lost the Civil War through ?insufficient will to seek and secure their independence?. He draws a comparison between the Confederates and the Boers, who kept the might of the British Empire at bay with a tiny fraction of their aggressor?s manpower, resources, or expertise. Several historians cite the example of Paraguay, who sustained a war against Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay for six years, when outnumbered in population by thirty to one. This seems a somewhat untenable argument, for three main reasons. Firstly, merely because a bloodier and more devastating war has been fought is not to say that the situation in which many Southerner found themselves was not a desperate one. Sherman?s raids devastated thousands of acres of land; inflation and shortages meant food was scarce and prohibitively expensive; men of working age were fighting, and therefore could not labour in the fields or factories. Men deserted to prevent their families from starving, and returned to battle afterwards; a question of necessity, not cowardice or lack of resolve. Rather than any loss of motivation, Bruce Collins argues that the ?combination of civilian depredations, loss of military manpower, and loss of territory wrecked the Confederate war effort?. Thirdly, as McPherson points out, the lack of morale argument is a somewhat circular one. Defeat and depredation reduce morale, which in turn promote defeat and further depredation. However, most would argue that the defeat came before the loss of will to fight, not afterwards. Furthermore, Northern morale was as fragile, if not more so. Before Antietam, many Northerners were ready to negotiate peace. One wonders how long the Union morale would have held out had it found itself in the same predicament as the Confederacy in 1864.

Reasons for Southern defeat are as numerous as they are diverse. Some argue that Lincoln?s masterstroke was the Emancipation Proclamation. Ultimately, it gave the North 3.5M potential new soldiers, removed a substantial section of the Confederate workforce, and extinguished any realistic hope of foreign help for the Confederacy. However, the policy was a divisive one, many Northern generals had misgivings about black troops, and many slaves preferred to ride out the war in familiar surroundings. Gradey McWhinney suggests that strategic defects may have played a role, arguing that the South should have attacked when it defended, and defended when it attacked. Given the numerical advantage of Union armies, defending would have evened out the odds, it is claimed. However, military theory and practice two different things, and battles can always be fought far more effectively in retrospect.

The American Civil War was far from a foregone conclusion. The North?s larger population and superior resources were balanced by the geographical and strategic advantages of fighting on Southern soil. Lincoln?s greater ability can be negated by the Confederacy?s plentiful supply of experienced and competent generals. Before Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the war could easily have gone either way. If forced to give one reason why the South lost, it seems that the gross inadequacy of the Confederate government must be it. Attempting to go from nothing to a large institution running a full-scale war is difficult enough, and would not be helped by an overly-libertarian vice-president, belligerent and unhelpful state governors, a President who was severely lacking in diplomatic or political skill, and an underlying doctrine (States? Rights) that was incompatible with full-scale warfare. ?Struggling with the incubus of John C Calhoun?, the Confederacy effectively fought the Civil War with one hand tied behind its back, a disability that even the dashing and brave Southern troops could not overcome.


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