Why the South Lost the Civil War
Inevitability is an attribute that historical events take on after the passage of sufficient time. Once the event has happened and enough time has passed for anxieties and doubts about how it was all going to turn out to have faded from memory, the event is seen to have been inevitable. Different outcomes become less and less plausible, and before long what did happen appears to be pretty much what had to happen. To argue about what might have happened or whether and why the presumably inevitable turned out to be thought so strikes many people as a waste of time.
The crust of inevitability formed around the loss of the Lost Cause in the American Civil War is so thick by now as to discourage further curiosity about just why it was lost. Why bother about the reasons for losing if winning is inconceivable and a North America balkanized like South America is unthinkable? Anyway, how could the outcome have been otherwise given the North’s vast superiority in manpower, material resources, industries, productivity, financial muscle, railroad mileage, communication facilities, and sea power—all that plus a righteous cause, the cheers of Karl Marx, and the wave of the future? Moreover, what about the South’s corresponding weaknesses? Among many other of its handicaps was that of having more than a third of its population enslaved, unavailable for military service, of doubtful loyalty, and in need of policing. Did not all this obviously add up to a revolution doomed “inevitably” to failure from the start?
To those who started it and its more objective observers at home and abroad then and since then, however, the war for Southern independence by no means appeared doomed from the start. Quite the contrary. Historical precedent and analogy generally favored the cause of the Confederacy and its hope of establishing its independence. Other movements for independence had overcome much greater disadvantages than the South suffered, and carried through to victory. The disadvantages of the Confederacy are easily exaggerated and those of the Union commonly minimized or forgotten. It is a mistake to write off the slaves as a dead loss to the South. They made up a vital labor force that released for military service a large number of whites that would otherwise have been unavailable as recruits. The North undoubtedly enjoyed certain superiorities and advantages, but no one of them was conclusive, nor did all of them combined assure the success of Northern arms. The South surrendered in 1865 with men in arms and supplies at hand sufficient for it to continue the struggle indefinitely. Once that is admitted, the essential question of Confederate history—or for that matter Civil War history—becomes, Why was the Lost Cause lost?
Historians have come forward with numerous answers to the question and filled many shelves with their books. Few of them would pin everything on a single cause, but many…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.