Over 150 years after its end, the American Civil War continues to provoke debate and controversy. One of the longest running debates is whether and how the South could have won the war. Here, Casey Titus explains some theories on this ever-topical subject.

The Confederate Cabinet from  Harper’s Weekly , June 1861, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the center-right of the picture.

The Confederate Cabinet from Harper’s Weekly, June 1861, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the center-right of the picture.

The Civil War was the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil. While both the armies of the Union and the Confederacy sustained devastating casualties, the American South bore the brunt of this carnage economically for years postbellum. Forty percent of the South’s livestock was killed. Over two-thirds of the South’s rails and bridges were destroyed. The direct costs to the Confederacy in human capital, government expenses, and physical destruction from the war totaled $3.3 billion. Over a quarter of Southern white men of military age died during the war, which left alarming numbers of families destitute. The end of the Civil War saw a large migration of former slaves to the cities whose dislocations caused a severe negative impact on the black population, with large numbers of sick and dead. 

With Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865 the American Civil War had finally reached its conclusion. In just four years, the newly formed Confederate States of America that had so confidently entered the war in defense of what they viewed as state sovereignty had dissolved back into the Union. Debates among historians continue today on what the South could have done differently to achieve victory in a war in which time was on the side of the much more industrialized North. To better understand how the South could have possibly achieved its goal of a lasting secession it is important to first consider the in some ways overwhelming strengths of the Union.

 

The Power of the Union

General Lee himself recorded after his surrender, “The Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources…” There were 20 wholly Union/Northern states with 5 border “slave” states fighting against 11 Southern states. The passage of time on incomplete or lost records has made it difficult to estimate the exact number of soldiers on either side of the war. At best guess, the Confederate Army likely consisted of between 600,000 and 1,000,000 men. The Union was estimated to have 1,550,000 to 2,400,000 soldiers, clear numerical advantage. In addition to this, new conscripts were readily available for the North in the form of immigrants who faced such dire circumstances in their homelands that joining the Union Army seemed a better alternative. Immigration to the South was however limited due to the extensive blockade of its ports.

With industrial superiority, the Union states possessed a much greater capacity to produce armaments and the infrastructure necessary to move supplies efficiently. Financially the North also possessed a great advantage as the South’s primarily export based economy was also greatly hampered by the Union blockade.

 

Theories from the South and North

Many Southerners however, were convinced that they possessed superior soldiers and leadership and were fighting in defense of their homeland. Yet, some modern historians attribute the Confederacy’s loss to Lee’s aggression in offensive tactics rather than the more successful strategies of defensive approaches or even guerilla warfare after Appomattox, one of the last battles of the American Civil War. Historians hypothesize that Lee should have held the North at bay until it got tired of the clash and instead sought the route to a negotiation. Others are certain that the Confederates could have won if Atlanta, Georgia and Mobile, Alabama as well as the Shenandoah Valley, were held by them beyond the 1864 election. The Shenandoah was a strategy favored by the Confederates for its terrain that was west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, stretching from the southwest to the northeast. This route conveniently funneled troops for deployment.

Early in the war, the Confederacy had the upper hand following repeated victories. While not a complete victory like the Union later on achieved, the Confederates wanted to negotiate rather than conquer the North. By 1863, President Lincoln and his cabinet were reduced to three strategies for winning the war. First, a massive area of the Confederate States needed to be conquered and occupied, preferably the size of the whole of Western Europe. Second, the South’s infrastructure had to be demolished. Third and possibly most difficult to achieve was annihilating the South’s armies as an effective fighting force. The Union may have possessed superior manpower and material resources, being industrial while the South was mainly agricultural, but the South still had at least four well-established advantages from the start of the war that counteracted the North’s manpower and material resources.

 

The South’s 4 Advantages

First, a psychological benefit was associated with the Confederacy’s need to protect their family, homes, and lifestyles. It can be observed that the South possessed a more determined fighting spirit than the North on many occasions. Second, the South was filled with rivers, mountains, and swamps that acted as fortresses combined with successful deployments of armies. Third, and surprisingly, the South’s resources in life’s necessities such as livestock and corn were greater than that of the North. Fourth and most well-known, the Confederacy was abounding with cotton. Cotton would have been considered an economic or diplomatic factor as the cotton was in the hands of the Confederacy as a cash crop of substantial value. However, as the war carried on, planting was reduced and bales prepared for shipments were burned, thereby discouraging overseas exports. 

Military leadership and experience, specifically those in their respective Commander-in-Chief, was starkly contrasting between Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Union President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was lacking in military experience when elected president in 1860. During the Black Hawk War of 1832, he shortly served as an officer in the Illinois state militia, but saw no combat. During the Mexican-American War, Lincoln fiercely criticized President James K. Polk for hounding Mexico and engaging in western land grabs that only benefited slaveholders. During the Fort Sumter crisis, Lincoln issued conflicting orders to the navy, resulting in confusion. A humiliating Union loss at the First Battle of Bull Run took place when he put pressure on the army to mount an immediate assault on Richmond in the summer of 1861 against advice. Despite his inexperience, Lincoln was a hands-on commander-in-chief, studiously learning the business of war, testing new weapons on the White House lawn, and reading books on military strategy from the Library of Congress. 

Davis, on the other hand, had a decorated political and military career. He was a West Point graduate with seven years of service in the frontier army, a Mexican-American War veteran (wounded in battle), and Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Even during his time as the Confederacy’s first president, his hunger for war never left him. During the first major battle of the war at Bull Run in July 1961, Davis fled his office in Richmond and sprinted towards the sound of the fighting, some believe with the intent of assuming the command of the troops and leading them into battle. Despite his habit of micromanaging more than Lincoln, Jefferson Davis proved an effective administrator and motivator of men. He operated under a similar command structure as Lincoln in constitutional terms. Under the Confederacy’s constitution, Davis would serve a six-year term and was forbidden from running again after that term was up.

 

How the South could have won

With the backgrounds of respective leaders and war advantages and motivations established, it is time to overview options the Confederacy could have taken that may have well guaranteed victory over the Union, ending the American Civil War. 

If the Confederates exported cotton as much as possible to Europe, most notably Great Britain before it sought cotton elsewhere in India or Egypt for a cheaper price, before the Union’s blockade of Confederate ports, then the Confederacy could have established lines of credit to buy war material. This could have been utilized to construct and repair the broken-down railway system to move troops and goods to critical positions. This was possible before the failed alliance with European nations was realized and trade nations like Britain conducted with the Union far outweighed the value of Southern cotton. 

Jefferson Davis had less consolidated power than his enemy and given his lack of men and resources, Davis was argued to have better served the cause by writing off large portions of the Confederacy’s scattered territory which would enable him to focus his armies around a few key areas important to the South’s survival. It has even been suggested conventional warfare should have been replaced with guerrilla warfare on Union occupation forces. Davis was never comfortable with guerrilla warfare and pursued this option to only a limited extent. For example, after the Union seized control of the Mississippi River in the summer of 1863, he permitted states west of the river to fend for themselves in the war and let “irregular” Confederate guerilla units operate without much intervention from his administration. 

The question of how the Confederacy could have won the Civil War has been debated and questioned endlessly by historians and scholars, professional and amateur. It should be recognized such a topic deserves far more discussion and study than noted in this article. Ultimately, the Union and its president won the Civil War. The Confederacy and its president lost the war and it is not difficult to foresee that a self-proclaimed nation with limited resources was bound to lose such a catastrophic war.

 

What do you think of this article? How could the Confederate South have won the US Civil War?