Could the South Have Won?

The field of Civil War history has produced more interpretative disputes than most historical events. Next to debates about the causes of the war, arguments about why the North won, or why the Confederacy lost (the difference in phraseology is significant), have generated some of the most heated but also most enlightening recent scholarship. The titles of four books reveal just some of the central themes of this argument: Why the North Won the Civil War (1960); How the North Won (1983); Why the South Lost the Civil War (1986); Why the Confederacy Lost (1992).

Answers to these why and how questions fall into two general categories: external and internal. Exter-nal interpretations usually phrase the question as Why did the North win? They focus on a comparison of Northern and Southern population, resources, economic capacity, leadership, or strategy, and conclude that Northern superiority in one or more of these explains Union victory. Internal explanations tend to ask, Why did the South lose? They focus mainly or entirely on the Confederacy and argue that internal divisions, dissensions, or inadequacies account for Confederate defeat.

The most durable interpretation is an external one. It was offered by General Robert E. Lee himself in a farewell address to his army after its surrender at Appomattox: “The Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.” This explanation enabled Southern whites to preserve their pride, to reconcile defeat with their sense of honor, even to maintain faith in the nobility of their cause while admitting that it had been lost. The Confederacy, in other words, was compelled to surrender not because its soldiers fought badly, or lacked courage, or suffered from poor leadership, or because its cause was wrong, but simply because the enemy had more men and guns. The South did not lose; Confederates wore themselves out whipping the Yankees and collapsed from glorious exhaustion. This interpretation became the mainstay of what has been called the Myth of the Lost Cause, which has sustained Southern pride in their Confederate forebears to this day. As one Virginian expressed it:

They never whipped us, Sir, unless they were four to one. If we had had anything like a fair chance, or less disparity of numbers, we should have won our cause and established our independence.

In one form or another, this explanation has won support from scholars of Northern as well as Southern birth. In 1960 the historian Richard Current provided a succinct version of it. After reviewing the statistics of the North’s “overwhelming numbers and resources”—two and a half times the South’s population, three times its railroad capacity, nine times its industrial production, and so on—Current concluded that “surely, in view of the disparity of resources, it would have taken a miracle…to enable the South to win. As usual, God was on the side of the heaviest battalions.”

In 1990 Shelby Foote expressed this thesis in his inimitable fashion. Noting that many …

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