The New York Times March 16, 2015
By March 1865, it was obvious to all but the most die-hard Confederates that the South was going to lose the war. Whether that loss was inevitable is an unanswerable question, but considering various “what if” scenarios has long been a popular exercise among historians, novelists and Civil War buffs
To explore that question, historians often use a concept known as contingency: During the war, one action led to a particular outcome, but if a different action had been taken it would have led to a different outcome. The problem with each scenario, though, is that although superficially persuasive, it collapses under the weight of contradictory facts.
Perhaps the most common scenario centers on the actions of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Some modern historians have attributed the Confederate defeat to Lee’s aggressiveness, implying that, if he had adopted a more defensive strategy, or even carried out guerrilla warfare after Appomattox, perhaps Lee could have held the North at bay until it tired of the conflict and sought a negotiated settlement.
But was this really possible considering the expectations of the Confederate people? Southerners were convinced they were superior soldiers and expected their armies to defeat the enemy on the battlefield. Politically, Lee could not have adopted a purely defensive strategy because the people would not have stood for it. Nor was guerrilla warfare an option. Events in Missouri, Tennessee and other areas where guerrillas operated during the war clearly showed how such brutal warfare devastated entire regions and broke down morale. There simply would not have been enough popular support to sustain such a strategy for long.
Some argue that the Confederates could have won if they had held Atlanta, Mobile, Ala., and the Shenandoah Valley beyond the 1864 election. Northern voters, dispirited by the stalemate, would have elected George B. McClellan president, and he would have bowed to the Democratic Party’s peace faction and opened negotiations with the Confederates.
Such speculation, however, is not supported by historical fact. In his letter accepting the Democratic nomination, McClellan clearly rejected the peace plank. There seems little doubt McClellan would have continued to fight if he became president, and the Union would still have eventually won. Also, a defeated Lincoln would have had four months left in office to achieve victory by launching winter campaigns. As it turned out, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant forced Lee to surrender just over one month after the inauguration. If a lame-duck Lincoln had adopted a more aggressive policy, Grant probably would have forced an Appomattox-like surrender before McClellan ever took office.
Confederate defeat has also been blamed on King Cotton diplomacy. If the Confederates had sent as much cotton as possible to Europe before the blockade became effective instead of hording it to create a shortage, they could have established lines of credit to purchase war material. This argument is true, but it misses the point. While the Confederates did suffer severe shortages by mid-war, they never lost a battle because of a lack of guns, ammunition or other supplies. They did lose battles because of a lack of men, and a broken-down railway system made it difficult to move troops and materials to critical points. Cotton diplomacy would not have increased the size of the rebel armies, and an increasingly effective Union blockade would have prevented the importation of railroad iron and other supplies no matter how much credit the Confederates accumulated overseas.
Another diplomatic “what if” concerns European intervention. In the fall of 1862, Britain and France were prepared to extend diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy and offer to mediate a peace, but they backed away when the Union won the Battle of Antietam. In this scenario, if Lee had won the battle, Britain and France would have recognized the Confederacy and secured a peace ensuring Southern independence.
In reality, there is little likelihood the Europeans would have become involved in the war. They had already extended belligerent status to the Confederacy, which allowed it to purchase supplies and use European ports. Diplomatic recognition would have enhanced the Southerners’ prestige — but it would not have materially affected their ability to wage war.
And if the British had offered to mediate a peace, Lincoln certainly would have rebuffed them. Then what? It’s unlikely Britain would have rushed to the Confederates’ aid by breaking the blockade and provoking a war with the Union. By late 1862, emancipation had become a Union goal, and the abolitionist British people would never have supported their government becoming militarily involved to defend slavery. British officials also had not forgotten that American privateers devastated their merchant fleet in the War of 1812. And there was no economic incentive for Britain to become a Confederate ally, because the cotton shortage created by the blockade was soon alleviated by cotton from Egypt and India — and the trade Britain conducted with the Union far outweighed the value of Southern cotton.
Some historians have blamed the Confederate defeat on its strict adherence to states’ rights and a failure to develop a strong sense of nationalism. If the Southern people had been more successful in forming a national identity, Jefferson Davis could have nationalized the railroads and industry, and the governors would have cooperated more with Richmond. A powerful central government and a stronger sense of national identity would also have helped sustain morale when the war began to go badly. Instead, the Southerners’ belief in states’ rights kept the governors at odds with the central government, and the breakdown in civilian morale weakened the army by causing more soldiers to desert.
But that assessment underestimates what the South managed to accomplish. Rather than blaming the Confederates’ defeat on a lack of nationalism, one should marvel that they maintained their government as long as they did. From scratch, Southerners created a functioning constitutional government and a formidable military that included 80 percent of the eligible white males. The Confederates quickly developed a sense of nationalism in the first year of war because they believed they had no choice but either to form a separate nation or to face complete ruin. The string of victories in Virginia in 1861 and 1862 only increased this national pride. Even when the war began to go badly and the enemy occupied large sections of the Confederacy, most Southern whites were determined to fight on because they knew their homes would be the next to feel the invaders’ wrath if they did not.
Slavery and racial views also played an important role in Confederate nationalism. When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, Southern whites’ resolve strengthened because they realized if they lost the war, the very cornerstone of their society would be destroyed. The sight of black soldiers deep in the Confederate heartland outraged Southern whites, but in the war’s last year those same Southerners were willing to enlist slaves to fight on their side. Confederate emancipation would have been unthinkable earlier in the conflict, but by 1865 many Southerners supported recruiting slaves as a way to strengthen the army and win European recognition. To achieve independence, they were willing to sacrifice the very thing they went to war to protect
There are notable examples in history where a weaker people defeated a stronger one. The American Revolution and the Vietnam War immediately come to mind, but the Americans and North Vietnamese had the military backing of the superpowers France and the Soviet Union, respectively. In virtually all cases where a weaker people have prevailed, they had a greater determination to win and were willing to fight for years and suffer horrendous casualties to wear down the enemy.
The Confederacy had no such backing, and a credible argument can be made that its defeat was inevitable from the beginning. What many fail to recognize is that Northerners were just as committed to winning as the Southerners. Some saw it as a war to free the slaves, while others fought to ensure that their republican form of government survived. Northerners believed that America was the world’s last great hope for democracy, and if the South destroyed the Union by force, that light of liberty might be extinguished forever. Lincoln once said the North must prove “that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.”
The South may have been fighting to preserve a way of life and to protect its perceived constitutional rights, but so was the North. If the Southern people kept fighting even after the devastating defeats at Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chattanooga, why should we not believe the North would have kept on fighting even if the Confederates had won Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chattanooga? The fact is that both sides were equally brave and equally dedicated to their cause. Commitment and morale being the same, the stronger side prevailed.
Sources: Terry L. Jones, “The American Civil War.”
Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana, Monroe and the author of several books on the Civil War