Why Did the South Lose the Civil War?

Why The South Lost the Civil War, a companion book to the earlier How The North Won, by Archer Jones, Herman Hattaway, Richard E. Berenger and William M. Still, Jr,  published in 1986  has always struck me as giving one of the worst answers to the question of “Why did the South lose the Civil War?”   The thesis of this book is that the South lost the War because of insufficient nationalism. To call this argument preposterous is to be kind. Out of a white population of nine million the South lost a quarter of a million dead and many times that number in wounded. The South kept fighting until every Southern city was controlled by the Union. A small agrarian nation, the South fought a large, industrialized nascent world power. Unbelievably the South came close to winning this unequal contest. To contend that the South failed because of lack of will is ahistoric and a contemptible insult to the brave rebels who fell under the stars and bars. A better judge of Southern will during that war was General Grant who, while attacking the Southern cause, admitted that never had men fought harder for a cause than the Southerners.

So why did the South lose the Civil War?  A better question to me is “Why did it take the North four years to win?”  Considering the heavy preponderance of the North in manpower, money, manufacturing and agriculture, the war should have been a route.  That it was not is largely attributable to poor generalship initially on the Union side.  Once generals of the calibre of Grant and Sherman came to the fore, generals who knew how to apply the North’s vast preponderance in men and material, the winning of the war was merely a matter of time for the Union.  That is my opinion.  What is yours ?

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Published in: on November 29, 2009 at 6:45 am  Comments (7)  
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7 Comments

  1. I agree that, initially, the South was winning because the North had a rash of bad generals and that the North was plagued by politics and Lincoln couldn’t often do what he wanted to do for fear of alienating some important part of his constituency, which would then affect the North, which would then have consequences on the war and Union. Meanwhile, in the south, Lee had it together from the beginning.

  2. There are so many answers to this question. I have studied this answer for so many years and in conclusion I think that GOD just wanted it that way. Or not?

  3. “I think that GOD just wanted it that way. Or not?”

    I think it was Tolstoy who said that Napoleon fell because God grew tired of him.

    One of the many reasons why the Civil War makes fascinating reading is because throughout the War there are plenty of events that might have led to victory for the Confederacy if they had turned out otherwise. For example:

    1. Trent Affair: Prince Albert dies early and is unable to calm the diplomatic waters and the British intervene on behalf of the Confederacy.

    2. Albert Sydney Johnston is not killed at Shiloh and decisively defeats Grant on the first day of the battle.

    3. McClellan does not find a copy of Lee’s orders during the Antietam campaign and is decisively defeated by Lee and Washington falls.

    4. Jackson does not die at Chancellorsville, and during the Gettysburg campaign the Lee and Jackson team route the Army of the Potomac and Washington falls.

    5. Johnston delays Sherman two more months, and Lincoln narrowly loses re-election.

    6. Lincoln is killed as he witnesses Union troops battling Confederates during Early’s raid on Washington.

    Considering the disparity in force between the Union and the Confederacy, it is remarkable how many times it is possible to see a Confederate path to victory during the war.

  4. I think that poor generalship, especially by McClellan, was the main culprit behind the Union’s initial difficulties. McClellan seemed reluctant to take advantage of his numerical superiority, to the point where he stared conveying his belief that he was somehow outnumbered. There is also the “home field” advantage aspect, as the Confederate armies had a better understanding of their own terrain.

    It is remarkable, as Donald outlines, to ponder the various things that went just the right way in order for the Union army to emerge victorious. Ultimately, three men saved the Union: Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman. Simplistic, yes, but also ultimately true.

  5. It depends on your perspective on the strengths of the Union as to why the North won the war when it did. Although I agree that military tactics (particularly a preponderance of BAD generals on the Union side, particularly McClellan) had something to do with it. I particularly disagree with the notion that Robert E. Lee was the “saving grace” of the Confederacy, and if they could only have cloned his saintlike figure, the South could have one.
    I will posit this theory as a counter to the notion raised in “Why the South Lost.” In my opinion, I feel that a lack of cohesiveness and nationalism on the UNION’s side had a lot to do with the time that it took. The only way the Union Army was able to muster the massive numbers necessary to the new tactics of Grant and Sherman was through the draft. In addition, the importance of Lincoln changing the war aims in 1863 cannot be underestimated. Although unpopular, changing the war aims to freeing the slaves gave the Union’s cause a specific purpose.

    FYI, if you’re interested in the other side of the coin, Gary Gallagher at UVA wrote an interesting series of essays as a response to Why the South Lost called The Confederate War.

  6. I’ve read Gallagher’s book Alexa and he makes interesting points.

    In regard to Emancipation, I think preserving the Union was always a much more popular cause for White citizens of the Union. Most came ultimately to oppose slavery, but preserving the Union was always the central issue.

    In regard to Lee, I really do not see how the Confederacy would have survived as long as it did without him. Without his fierce attacks during the Seven Days, I think even McClellan would eventually have taken Richmond. Chancellorsville is a victory I find it hard to envision any other general North or South winning, with the exception of Jackson. Gettysburg, although a defeat, took the pressure off Confederate Virginia for almost a year, with the exception of Meade’s abortive Mine Run Campaign. In 1864, against a great general, Grant, Lee, with a crumbling army, held Grant off from immediately taking Richmond, and imposed such huge casualties on the Union army as to jeopardize Lincoln’s releection chances until Sherman took Atlanta in September. Very few generals have accomplished as much as Lee with such meagre resources.

  7. Why did it take so long for the North to win? The North’s objectives were much harder to achieve. The North had to invade the entirety of the South and break the political and morale of the people. The South merely had to avoid total defeat. The same situation applied to the Revolutionary War. Of course, this scenario quickly became a question of political will power. The South could have surrendered when New Orleans fell, or even when Atlanta fell. Instead, they barely surrendered once Petersburg and Richmond fell. The North could have quit after first Manassas, or after the Peninsula campaign.


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