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Gone with the Wind

Why the South Lost the Civil War

by Richard E. Beringer, by Herman Hattaway, by Archer Jones, by William N. Still Jr.
University of Georgia Press, 582 pp., $29.95

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 go to surprising lengths in emphasizing the decisive importance of the one they favor. Among those most commonly favored as decisive are the deficiencies of President Jefferson Davis’s leadership, errors of military leadership and strategy, mistakes of financial and economic policy generally, as well as shortcomings in transportation, communication, diplomacy, sea power, will-power, nationalism, and morale. And for a long time the most commonly favored of all the reasons for failure was the dogma of states’ rights.

The long book under review is therefore not the first to address the subject. It is only the most comprehensive, sophisticated, and well-informed I have read. I would never have thought a committee could write a book, much less a book as valuable and worthwhile as this one, but these four historians did so. They are scattered from North Carolina to North Dakota, but they manage a meeting of minds and seem to write as one. At least no part of their book is identified by author, and while there is some repetition, there are no marked inconsistencies in style or substance. All are experienced Civil War historians with substantial publications in the field, some of them addressed directly to aspects of the subject treated in this work. Their purpose here is not so much disclosure of new findings as reassessment and analysis of old interpretations and theories. While leaning to multicausal explanation, admitting that all causes are interrelated, and reluctant to cast out any completely, they, like others, nevertheless have a favored single cause to stress and say so plainly in their opening paragraph: “We single out the weakness of southern nationalism as what lawyers would call the proximate cause of Confederate defeat.” Arguing such a proposition requires the authors to revise the importance previously assigned to other causes for the defeat as well as to justify their own theory.

Economic explanations have won strong support all along. The figures from the 1860 census, so overwhelming and so readily quotable, show the North with more than ten times the South’s industrial workers and with nine tenths of the nation’s industrial production. At the beginning of the war the North produced twenty times as much pig iron as the South, twenty-four times as many railroad locomotives, thirty-two times as many firearms, and more than five hundred times as much general hardware. Why didn’t Southerners read the census and lay down the few arms they had?

For one thing the census figures of 1860 do not show how rapidly those economic disparities diminished and how quickly the Confederate government effected a transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy, nationalized productive power for war materiel, and in some ways outdid the North in organizing for total war. Provisions were rarely plentiful, and footgear was indeed in short supply, but that was owing more to failures in transportation than in production. What negative effects the South’s economic liabilities had were largely indirect, contributing to the decline of public morale. The authors conclude that “no Confederate army lost a major engagement because of the lack of arms, munitions, or other essential supplies,” that “economic shortcomings did not play a major role in Confederate defeat,” and that “the deficiency lay elsewhere.”

Then what of military shortcomings as the explanation? The proportion of space given military narrative in most histories of the war surely suggests the assumption (tacit at least) that the answer is to be found on the battlefields. And throughout the war popular perception of the fortunes of either cause and its prospects derived mainly from combat figures and from reports on forces that retreated. The authors of the present work declare that the large space they give to military operations is much more than “the importance of military factors in Confederate defeat seems to merit” and is required only to correct the mistakes of overemphasis on military causes by other historians.

The historians the authors criticize are in agreement only on the decisiveness of military causes—not on which military causes were decisive. Much of the controversy on that score hinges on the teachings of two European military theorists of the Napoleonic era, Karl von Clausewitz and Antoine Henri Jomini, and on the way their doctrines were applied or not applied by Confederate and Union generals. So often do the names of the two European writers come up in this discussion that one sometimes gets the impression that Clausewitz and Jomini were second in importance in the Civil War only to Grant and Lee. The authors agree on the relevance of doctrines advocated by the two theorists but do not concede the influence often attributed to them (or to the ignorance of them) on the outcome of the war.

Another major target (one of several) is an ethnic interpretation that attributes the South’s defeat to an addiction to an ancient Celtic tradition of heedless, headlong, frontal attack. Attacking instead of defending, the Celts in gray suffered unsustainable casualties. On this interpretation, “Southerners lost the Civil War because they were too Celtic and their opponents were too English.”1 The present critics of this ethnic theory have no trouble showing that statistics support neither the thesis that the two sides differed in their offensive-mindedness nor the difference in casualties attributed to this cause. By the end of the war the Confederacy had indeed lost one third of its available men. But it still had a potential armed force considerably larger than the number of men under arms at any one time. It was not a matter of numbers but of morale. The Confederacy kept the nominal strength of its army at 400,000 men almost to the end, but its actual numbers were being depleted by absentees and deserters.

General Lee once said of his army, “There never were such men in an army before. They will go anywhere and do anything”—so long as they were properly led and their morale lasted. And it outlasted astonishing odds. The high-water mark may have been that moment when Pickett awaited Longstreet’s signal to attack the Union forces at Gettysburg and, in Faulkner’s words, it was “still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863.” If so it took a mighty long time for the flood to recede, twenty-one months in fact. But when Lee went to meet Grant at Appomattox there were still formidable Confederate forces under arms and the stuff of war was available. What was lacking was the will to continue the fight.

Too many theories of why the South lost exist to be adequately treated even in a book the size of this one. The authors square away at some, brush over others lightly, and neglect some almost entirely. A short chapter is deemed enough to handle the claims for the Union’s naval blockade. The Union Navy had grown from about ninety warships in 1861 to more than seven hundred by April 1865. Impressed by this growth and the number of blockade runners destroyed or captured, several historians have held the blockade to be decisive in the strangulation of the Confederacy. These claims notwithstanding, our present critics find that “considerable evidence indicates that the blockade did not represent a major factor.” It proved to be so full of holes that 84 percent of those who attempted to run the blockade to Wilmington, North Carolina got through, and a larger percentage to the Gulf ports in the last year of the war. It is clear that the Confederates got whatever they needed through the blockade and a lot they could have done without.

Among the debated causes of defeat receiving less attention here than is usually given are the relative genius of available Confederate military talent, the short supply of competent senior commanders, and Richmond’s neglect of the western theater of war. Among political aspects of the struggle the importance, pro and con, normally attached to the tragic figure of President Davis is rather underplayed. In view of the stress placed by the authors on the failure of the Confederates to take to the hills and resort to guerrilla warfare, the presence of four million slaves and their significance for such an undertaking seem rather lightly mentioned, though the slavery issue receives attention elsewhere.

  1. 1

    Grady McWhiney and Perry D. Jamieson, Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage (University of Alabama Press, 1982).

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