How The South Could Have Won the Civil War: The Fatal Errors That Led to Confederate Defeat

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Introduction: No Victory Is Inevitable

The Civil War continues to fascinate Americans because it is uniquely our war. In it we were fighting ourselves. The war evoked the most intense passions Americans have ever felt, experienced all the more deeply because they were played out within our own society, sometimes within our own families. One of the questions that has been debated ever since 1865 is whether any other outcome was possible. That is, could the South have won the war?

To many observers the very question seems absurd. Given that the Confederacy had a third of the population and an eleventh of the industry of the North, the South’s defeat was, according to this view, unavoidable.

But that view is wrong. This book contends that the South most definitely could have won the war, and shows in a number of cases how a Confederate victory could have come about.

Beyond the actual opportunities presented to the Confederacy, we should remember a broader fact—there is nothing inevitable about military victory, even for a state with apparently overwhelming strength. The Greeks beat the Persians at Marathon, Alexander destroyed the Persian Empire, the Americans defeated the British in the Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte hobbled huge alliances in his early wars. In all of these cases the victor was puny and weak by comparison with his opponent.

It’s true that the more powerful state usually wins. But this is because bigger states normally wear down weaker states by attrition. On average, military leadership is about equal on both sides, and this factor as a rule is not decisive. The tables can be turned, however, when a weak state produces inspired leaders. Even when great generals are only partially heeded, astonishing results can occur. For example, in World War II Adolf Hitler refused to give the German general Erwin Rommel more than scanty forces in North Africa, but Rommel nevertheless nearly brought about an Axis victory because he was head and shoulders above the British generals who came against him.

The Civil War actually was a near thing, and it was a near thing because Confederate military leadership was generally far superior to Union leadership. This superiority produced a number of Southern successes. It failed to bring about victory in the end only because the top Confederate political and military leaders failed to understand, and thus did not exploit, the opportunities offered them.

Three men more than any others determined the outcome of the American Civil War—the Confederacy’s president, Jefferson Davis, and two generals, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Jackson figured out almost from the outset how to win the war, but neither Davis nor Lee was willing to follow his recommendations. It was the fundamentally different views of warfare of these three men that settled the fate of the South—not the seemingly overwhelming power of the North, and not the actions of Union commanders and their armies.

Davis was opposed to offensive action against the North. He wanted to remain on the defensive in the belief that the major European powers would intervene on the Confederacy’s side to guarantee cotton for their mills, or that the North would tire of the war and give up. Even after it became plain that no European nation would come to the South’s aid, Davis adhered to his conviction that the Northern people would grow weary of the war.

Lee, on the other hand, was focused on conducting an offensive war against the armies of the North. He did not see the war as a collision between the Northern people and the Southern people. He saw it as a struggle between the governments and the official armies of the two regions. Thus he wanted to confront the Union armies directly, not to strike at Northern industries, farms, and railroads, except as they served Federal armies. Without a doubt Lee was an extraordinary leader, inspiring remarkable devotion among his men and embodying the traits of honor, courage, and dedication to a cause. As a field commander, too, he was vastly superior to all of the Union commanders who came against him.1 His mastery of battle tactics, in fact, was what permitted the South to endure four years of brutal war. But Lee’s overall strategy—his insistence on frontal assaults—led to inevitable defeat. No matter how skilled a battle leader Lee was, he could never win the war by pitting the far-weaker resources of the South against the tremendous economic and military power of the North. This was particularly true because revolutionary advances in weaponry had made direct assaults far more difficult to pull off, and far more dangerous. Casualties in the Civil War were staggering.

Recognizing the need to adapt to the new kind of war in which they were immersed, Jackson developed a polar opposite approach. He proposed moving against the Northern people’s industries and other means of livelihood. He wanted to avoid Northern strength, its field armies, and strike at Northern weakness, its undefended factories, farms, and railroads. His strategy, in short, was to bypass the Union armies and to win indirectly by assaulting the Northern people’s will to pursue the war. He proposed making “unrelenting war” amid the homes of the Northern people in the conviction that this would force them “to understand what it will cost them to hold the South in the Union at the bayonet’s point.” Significantly, William Tecumseh Sherman won the war for the North by employing precisely the strategy that Stonewall Jackson had tried but failed to get the South to follow: he conducted “unrelenting war” on the people and the property of Georgia in his march from Chattanooga to Atlanta and from Atlanta to the sea in 1864. This campaign broke the back of Southern resistance.

Failure to recognize the realities facing the South and disagreement over strategy are what doomed the Confederacy. That it took four bitter years of the hardest war and the most casualties in American history is due primarily to the brilliant battle leadership of Lee, Jackson, and a host of dedicated Southern officers. But wars are not won by heavy losses heroically sustained. Wars are won by ingenious plans correctly implemented. Jackson, among others, offered the South plans that would have succeeded. Davis and Lee—except at Chancellorsville—refused to carry them out.

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Three decades before the Civil War, the great Prussian strategist Karl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) argued that, in a country involved in an insurrection or torn by internal dissension, the capital, the chief leader, and public opinion constitute the Schwerpunkt, or center of gravity, where collapse has the greatest chance of occurring. Following this theory, the Confederacy’s most glittering opportunity lay not in defeating the Northern field army in Virginia, but in isolating or capturing Washington, evicting Lincoln and his government, and damaging Northern industry and railroads in order to turn public opinion against the war.

British Colonel G.F.R. Henderson, the famed biographer of Jackson, made this point graphically in 1898: “A nation endures with comparative equanimity defeat beyond its own borders. Pride and prestige may suffer, but a high-spirited people will seldom be brought to the point of making terms unless its army is annihilated in the heart of its own country, unless the capital is occupied and the hideous sufferings of war are brought directly home to the mass of the population. A single victory on Northern soil, within easy reach of Washington, was far more likely to bring about the independence of the South than even a succession of victories in Virginia.”

Indeed, nothing would have damaged the Union war effort more than seizing eastern cities. Key targets included the rail hub of Baltimore and the metropolis of Philadelphia, which was, after New York, the largest city in the country, with some 600,000 people. The vast bulk of the North’s industry was concentrated from northeastern Maryland to southern New Hampshire. Severing rail service to these areas could have prevented Union forces from invading Virginia and capturing Richmond, the Confederate capital.

Abraham Lincoln certainly recognized that the loss of Washington would have led straight to Northern defeat. That is why he insisted on employing the vast preponderance of Union power in protecting the national capital.

Likewise, Stonewall Jackson in the early days of the war realized that the Confederacy’s greatest opportunity lay in striking at the North’s vitals. Other Southern generals did so as well, including Joseph E. Johnston, the Confederacy’s top military leader at war’s beginning; Pierre Beauregard; and James Longstreet. Johnston, Beauregard, and Jackson ran up against a solid wall of resistance from President Jefferson Davis in the fall of 1861, after the victory at First Manassas, when they proposed an invasion of the North. In the spring of 1862, Jackson, Johnston, and Longstreet encountered the same refusal to act from Davis and from Robert E. Lee, who had become Davis’s military adviser.

Lee, who was named commander of the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862, after Johnston was wounded, sought from first to last to fight an offensive war—that is, a war of battles and marches against the armies of the North. He resisted the new approach to warfare that Jackson advocated, which called for luring the Union army to attack against a strong Confederate defensive position, repelling that attack and thereby weakening enemy strength, morale, and resolve, and then going on the offensive by swinging around the flank or rear to destroy the Union army. Lee expressed his fundamental attitude about battle most cogently to his corps commander Longstreet on the first day of the battle of Gettysburg, on July 1, 1863. When Longstreet implored Lee not to assault the Union army forming up in great strength on Cemetery Ridge directly in front of him, Lee replied, “No, the enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.”

Lee betrayed his commitment to offensive warfare when he invaded Maryland in the summer of 1862. Though he justified the decision to the defensive-minded President Davis by saying he wanted simply to establish an army on Northern soil and then offer Lincoln peace on terms of Southern independence, Lee actually hoped to force a decision in the war by attacking Union General George McClellan’s army in the North.

Stonewall Jackson urged Lee to move the Confederate army north of Washington, where it would threaten Baltimore, Philadelphia, and the capital’s food supply and communications. If the Confederate army held such a dangerous position, Jackson said, the enemy would have no other option except to assault it. Lee rejected Jackson’s advice once again, deciding to move west into the Cumberland Valley, far away from the center of Northern power. There he expected to fall on the Union army, not wait for it to fall on his army.

In the event, Lee did not get the chance to attack McClellan. The Union commander acquired by happenstance a copy of Lee’s troop dispositions, permitting him to defeat a portion of Lee’s army on South Mountain, west of Frederick, Maryland, and force Lee to abandon his broader plans. But, unwilling to give up without a fight, Lee invited a defensive battle under extremely unfavorable circumstances at Antietam on September 17, 1862. Lee stopped McClellan’s attacks, but his position—backed up in a corner against the Potomac River—gave him no room to swing around McClellan’s flank and defeat him. The result was a drawn battle, which presented Abraham Lincoln with the relative success he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. This ensured that no European power would come to the aid of the South, thus scotching Jefferson Davis’s main ambition.

Only when facing a potentially disastrous situation at Chancellorsville in May 1863 did Lee at last agree to Jackson’s plan of battle. Jackson’s strike down the Union western flank caused Union General Joseph Hooker’s right corps to disintegrate and threw the rest of the Northern army into chaos. Jackson was just in the process of moving his corps to block the Federals’ only avenue of retreat when his own troops accidentally struck him down and mortally wounded him.

Although Jackson’s death handed the South a devastating blow, the Confederacy could still have won if Lee had accepted Jackson’s defend-then-attack plan when he invaded Maryland and Pennsylvania a month later. James Longstreet believed he had extracted a promise from Lee to do just that. But at the very first challenge Lee faced in Pennsylvania, he reverted to direct confrontation. This led to head-on attacks on all three days of Gettysburg, July 1–3, 1863, ending with General George Pickett’s disastrous charge on the third day, which wiped out the last offensive power of the Confederacy. From this point on, the Army of Northern Virginia could only strike out like a wounded lion at the forces gathering to destroy it. With Jackson dead and the South’s leadership in the hands of Davis and Lee, defeat became inevitable.

But it did not have to be. This is the story of how the South could have won the Civil War. It is based not on fanciful, theoretical conjectures of what might have been but on positive recommendations proposed time after time to the South’s top leaders. The concepts, recommendations, and means were at hand—at least as late as the first day of Gettysburg—for the South to emerge victorious. It did not happen because the South’s primary leaders could not see the way to victory.

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I sincerely hope no reader will conclude that this book’s title implies in any way that I am advocating some reappraisal of the Lost Cause, or some nostalgic longing for what is gone with the wind. To use an old Southern term, we are well shut of our selfish aristocrats, who tried until the last to hold on to the unpaid labor of slaves so as to get and keep their wealth. The elimination of slavery and the aristocrats who fed on it was a glorious and long-overdue advance.

This book is about something entirely different. I hope to move a step beyond the comment of the great New York author Damon Runyon (1884–1946), who wrote, “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong—but that’s the way to bet.” My purpose is to show that, despite the odds, wars are won by human beings. When superior military leaders come along, and political leaders pay attention to them, they can overcome great power and great strength. That is a lesson we need to remember today.

1 Only one Union commander, William Tecumseh Sherman, was even in Lee’s league when it came to overall leadership in battle, and they never met in the field. Lee demonstrated his mastery of battle tactics on many occasions. For example, at Antietam in 1862, though he should not have fought there in the first place, his skillful management of the battle saved the day for the Confederacy at a time when he had fewer than half the troops that Union General George McClellan possessed. He rescued the Confederates by pulling troops from one end of the line and sending them to the other, which was under great stress. Likewise, the Overland Campaign of 1864 stands to this day as one of the greatest defensive operations in history; Lee destroyed half of Ulysses S. Grant’s army in the space of weeks and left the Union force completely hobbled for months.

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