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.”1 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.2
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.”3
In 1990 Shelby Foote expressed this thesis in his inimitable fashion. Noting that many aspects of life in the North went on much as usual during the Civil War, Foote told Ken Burns on camera in the PBS documentary The Civil War that “the North fought that war with one hand behind its back.” If necessary “the North simply would have brought that other arm out from behind its back. I don’t think the South ever had a chance to win that war.”4
At first glance, Current’s and Foote’s statements seem plausible. But upon reflection, a good many historians have questioned their explicit assertions that overwhelming numbers and resources made Northern victory inevitable. If that is true, the Confederate leaders who took their people to war in 1861 were guilty of criminal folly or colossal arrogance. They had read the census returns. They knew as much about the North’s superiority in men, resources, and economic capacity as any modern historian. Yet they went to war confident of victory. Southern leaders were students of history. They could cite many examples of small nations that won or defended their independence against much more powerful enemies: Switzerland against the Hapsburg Empire; the Netherlands against Spain; Greece against the Ottomans. Their own ancestors had won independence from mighty Britain in 1783. The relative resources of the Confederacy vis-à-vis the Union in 1861 were greater than those of these other successful rebels.
The Confederacy waged a strategically defensive war to protect from conquest territory it already controlled and to preserve its armies from annihilation. To “win” that kind of war, the Confederacy did not need to invade and conquer the North or destroy its army and infrastructure; it needed only to hold out long enough to compel the North to the conclusion that the price of conquering the South and annihilating its armies was too great, as Britain had concluded with respect to the United States in 1781—or, for that matter, as the United States concluded with respect to Vietnam in 1972. Until 1865, cold-eyed military experts in Europe were almost unanimous in their conviction that Union armies could never conquer and subdue the 750,000 square miles of the Confederacy, as large as all of Western Europe. “No war of independence ever terminated unsuccessfully except where the disparity of force was far greater than it is in this case,” pronounced the military analyst of the London Times in 1862. “Just as England during the revolution had to give up conquering the colonies so the North will have to give up conquering the South.”5
Even after losing the war, many ex-Confederates stuck to this belief. General Joseph E. Johnston, one of the highest-ranking Confederate officers, insisted in 1874 that the Southern people had not been “guilty of the high crime of undertaking a war without the means of waging it successfully.”6 A decade later General Pierre G.T. Beauregard, who ranked just below Johnston, made the same point: “No people ever warred for independence with more relative advantages than the Confederates.”7
If so, why did they lose the war? In thinly veiled terms, Johnston and Beauregard blamed the inept leadership of Jefferson Davis. That harried gentleman responded in kind; as far as he was concerned, the erratic and inadequate generalship of Beauregard and especially Johnston was responsible for Confederate defeat. In the eyes of many contemporaries—and historians—there was plenty of blame to go around. William C. Davis’s Look Away! is the most recent “internal” study of the Confederacy that, by implication at least, attributes Confederate defeat to poor leadership at several levels, both military and civilian, as well as factionalism, dissension, and bickering between men with outsize egos and thin skins. In this version of Confederate history, only Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson remain unstained.
For any believer in the Myth of the Lost Cause, any admirer of heroic Confederate resistance to overwhelming odds, the story told by Davis (no relation to the Confederate president) makes depressing reading. It is a story of conflicts not on the battlefields of Manassas or Shiloh or Gettysburg or Chickamauga or the Wilderness—they are here, but offstage, as it were—but conflicts between state governors and the Confederate government in Richmond, between quarreling Cabinet officers, between Jefferson Davis and prominent generals or senators or newspaper editors and even his vice-president, Alexander Stephens. Davis chronicles different examples of internal breakdown under the stresses not only of enemy invasion but also of slave defections to the Yankees, of Unionist disloyalty in the upcountry, particularly in such states as Tennessee, of galloping inflation and the inability of an unbalanced agricultural society under siege to control it, of shortages and hunger and a growing bitterness and alienation among large elements of the population.
These problems seemed more than sufficient to ensure Confederate failure, but they were greatly exacerbated by the jealousies and rivalries of Confederate politicians, which remain Davis’s principal focus. He does not explicitly address the question of why the Confederacy lost, but his implicit answer lies in the assertion that “the fundamental flaw in too many of the big men of the Confederacy… [was] ‘big-man-me-ism.'”
There are, however, two problems with this interpretation. In two senses it is too “internal.” First, by concentrating only on the Confederacy it tends to leave the reader with the impression that only the Confederacy suffered from these corrosive rivalries, jealousies, and dissensions. But a history of the North during the Civil War would reveal similar problems, mitigated only by Lincoln’s skill in holding together a diverse coalition of Republicans and War Democrats, Yankees and border states, abolitionists and slaveholders—which perhaps suggests that Lincoln was the principal reason for Union victory. In any event, Look Away! is also too “internal” because the author is too deeply dependent on his sources. It is the nature of newspaper editorials, private correspondence, congressional debates, partisan speeches, and the like to emphasize conflict, criticism, argument, complaint. It is the squeaky wheel that squeaks. The historian needs to step back and gain some perspective on these sources, to recognize that the well-greased wheel that turns smoothly also turns quietly, leaving less evidence of its existence available to the historian.
Look Away! falls within one tradition of internal explanations for Confederate defeat. More prevalent, especially in recent years, have been studies that emphasize divisions and conflicts of race, class, and even gender in the South. Two fifths of the Confederate population were slaves, and two thirds of the whites did not belong to slaveholding families. What stake did they have in an independent Confederate nation whose original raison d’être was the protection of slavery? Not much stake at all, according to many historians, especially for the slaves and, as the war took an increasing toll on non-slaveholding white families, very little stake for them either. Even among slaveholding families, the women who willingly subscribed to an ethic of sacrifice in the war’s early years became disillusioned as the lengthening war robbed them of husbands, sons, lovers, and brothers. Many white women turned against the war and spread this disaffection among their menfolk in the army; in the end, according to Drew Gilpin Faust, “it may well have been because of its women that the South lost the Civil War.”8
If all this is true—if the slaves and some nonslaveholding whites opposed the Confederate war effort from the outset and others including women of slaveholding families eventually turned against it, one need look no further to explain Confederate defeat. In The South vs. the South, however, William W. Freehling does not go this far. He says almost nothing about women as a separate category, and he acknowledges that many nonslaveholding whites had a racial, cultural, and even economic stake in the preservation of slavery and remained loyal Confederates to the end. But he maintains that, properly defined, half of all Southerners opposed the Confederacy and that this fact provides a sufficient explanation for Confederate failure.
Freehling defines the South as all fifteen slave states and Southerners as all people—slave as well as free—who lived in those states. This distinction between “the South” and the eleven slave states that formed the Confederacy is important but too often disregarded by those who casually conflate the South and the Confederacy. Admittedly, some 90,000 white men from the four Union slave states (Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware) fought for the Confederacy, but this number was offset by a similar number of whites from Confederate states (chiefly Tennessee and the part of Virginia that became West Virginia) who fought for the Union.
But Freehling’s central thesis that “white Confederates were only half the Southerners” raises problems. This arithmetic works only if virtually all black Southerners are counted against the Confederacy. At times Freehling seems to argue that they should be so counted. At other times he is more cautious, maintaining that “the vast majority” of Southern blacks “either opposed the rebel cause or cared not whether it lived or died.” Freehling does not make clear how important he considers that qualifying “or cared not.” In any event, let us assume that all three million slaves who remained in the Confederacy (as well as the one million in the border states and in conquered Confederate regions) sympathized with the Union cause that would bring them freedom. Nevertheless, their unwilling labor as slaves was crucial to the Confederate economy and war effort, just as their unwilling labor and that of their forebears had been crucial to building the antebellum Southern economy. These Confederate slaves worked less efficiently than before the war because so many masters and overseers were absent at the front. Unwilling or not, however, they must be counted on the Confederate side of the equation, which significantly alters Freehling’s 50/50 split of pro- and anti-Confederates in the South to something like 75/25.
Freehling draws on previous scholarship to offer a succinct narrative of the political and military course of the war, organized around Lincoln’s slow but inexorable steps toward emancipation, “hard war,” and the eventual mobilization of 300,000 black laborers and soldiers to work and fight for the Union. This narrative is marred by several errors, including the repeated confusion of General Charles F. Smith with General William F. “Baldy” Smith, the conflation of combat casualties with combat mortality, the mislabeling of a photograph of Confederate trenches at Fredericksburg as Petersburg, and the acceptance at face value of Alexander Stephens’s absurd claim, made five years after Lincoln’s death, that the Union president had urged him in 1865 to persuade Southern states to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment “prospectively,” thereby delaying the abolition of slavery five years. Nevertheless, Freehling has made a strong case for the vital contribution of the two million whites and one million blacks in the South who definitely did support the Union cause. Without them, “the North” could not have prevailed, as Lincoln readily acknowledged.
Freehling does not take a clear stand on the question of whether Union victory was inevitable. At times he seems to imply that it was, because the half of all Southerners whom he claims supported the Union (actively or passively) doomed the Confederacy. But at other times he suggests that this support was contingent on the outcome of military campaigns and political decisions. No such ambiguity characterizes the essays in Gary Gallagher’s Lee and His Army in Confederate History. In this book and in his earlier The Confederate War, Gallagher has argued forcefully and convincingly that Confederate nationalism bound most Southern whites together in determined support for the Confederate cause, that the brilliant though costly victories of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia reinforced this determination, and that morale even in the face of defeat and the destruction of resources in 1864–1865 remained high until almost the end.
Gallagher does not slight the problems of slave defections to the Yankees, class tensions among whites, personal rivalries and jealousies among Confederate leaders, and other internal divisions that have occupied historians who see these problems as preordaining defeat. But he emphasizes the degree of white unity and strength of purpose despite these faultlines. Plenty of evidence exists to support this emphasis. A Union officer who was captured at the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864, and spent the rest of the war in Southern prisons wrote in his diary on October 4 that from what he had seen in the South “the End of the War…is some time hence as the Idea of the Rebs giving up until they are completely subdued is all Moonshine they submit to privatations that would not be believed unless seen.”9
“Until they are completely subdued.” That point came in April 1865, when the large and well-equipped Union armies finally brought the starving, barefoot, and decimated ranks of Confederates to bay. Gallagher revives the overwhelming numbers and resources explanation for Confederate defeat, shorn of its false aura of inevitability. Numbers and resources do not prevail in war without the will and skill to use them. The Northern will wavered several times, most notably in response to Lee’s victories in the summer of 1862 and winter–spring of 1863 and the success of Lee’s resistance to Grant’s offensives in the spring and summer of 1864. Yet Union leaders and armies were learning the skills needed to win, and each time the Confederacy seemed on the edge of triumph, Northern victories blunted the Southern momentum: at Sharpsburg, Maryland, and Perryville, Kentucky, in the fall of 1862; at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863; and at Atlanta and in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in September 1864. Better than any other historian of the Confederacy, Gallagher understands the importance of these contingent turning points that eventually made it possible for superior numbers and resources to prevail. He understands as well that the Confederate story cannot be written except in counterpoint with the Union story, and that because of the multiple contingencies in these stories, Northern victory was anything but inevitable.
Much of the best scholarship on the Civil War during the past decade has concentrated on the local or regional impact of the war. A fine example is Brian Steel Wills’s The War Hits Home, a fascinating account of the home front and battle front in southeastern Virginia, especially the town of Suffolk and its hinterland just inland from Norfolk. No great battles took place here, but there was plenty of skirmishing and raids by combatants on both sides. Confederates controlled this region until May 1862, when they were compelled to pull back their defenses to Richmond. Union forces occupied Suffolk for the next year, staving off a halfhearted Confederate effort to recapture it in the spring of 1863. The Yankees subsequently fell back to a more defensible line nearer Norfolk, leaving the Suffolk region a sort of no man’s land subject to raids and plundering by the cavalry of both armies.
Through it all most white inhabitants remained committed Confederates, while many of the slaves who were not removed by their owners to safer territory absconded to the Yankees, adding their weight to the Union side of the scales in the balance of power discussed by Freehling. White men from this region fought in several of Lee’s regiments, suffering casualties that left many a household bereft of sons, husbands, fathers. Yet their Confederate loyalties scarcely wavered.
Northern occupation forces at first tried a policy of conciliation, hoping to win the Southern whites back to the Union. When this failed, they moved toward a harsher policy here as they did elsewhere, confiscating the property and liberating the slaves of people they now perceived as enemies to be crushed rather than deluded victims of secession conspirators to be converted.
Wills does not make a big point of it, but his findings stand “in sharp rebuttal” to the arguments of historians who portray a weak or divided white commitment to the Confederate cause as the reason for defeat. “These people sought to secure victory until there was no victory left to win.” In the end the North did have greater numbers and resources, wielded with a skill and determination that by 1864–1865 matched the Confederacy’s skills and determination; and these explain why the North won the Civil War.
June 13, 2002
The Wartime Papers of R.E. Lee, edited by Clifford Dowdey and Louis H. Manarin (Little, Brown, 1961), p. 934. ↩
Quoted in Why the North Won the Civil War, edited by David Donald (Louisiana State University Press, 1960), p. ix. ↩
Richard N. Current, “God and the Strongest Battalions,” in Why the North Won the Civil War, p. 22. ↩
“Men at War: An Interview with Shelby Foote,” in Geoffrey C. Ward with Ric Burns and Ken Burns, The Civil War (Knopf, 1990), p. 272. ↩
London Times, August 29, 1862. ↩
Joseph E. Johnston, Narrative of Military Operations (Appleton, 1874), p. 421. ↩
Pierre G.T. Beauregard, “The First Battle of Bull Run,” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, 4 volumes, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel (Century, 1887), Vol. 1, p. 222. ↩
Drew Gilpin Faust, “Altars of Sacrifice: Confederate Women and the Narratives of War,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 76, No. 4 (March 1990), p. 1228. ↩
“The Civil War Diary of Colonel John Henry Smith,” edited by David M. Smith, Iowa Journal of History, Vol. 47 (April 1949), p. 164. ↩