Rhett Butler: Why the South Was Bound to Lose

My favorite scene from Gone With the Wind in which Rhett Butler explains succinctly the disadvantages the South will encounter in any war with the North.  Far sighted Southerners at the time also gave such warnings:

“To secede from the Union and set up another government would cause war. If you go to war with the United States, you will never conquer her, as she has the money and the men. If she does not whip you by guns, powder, and steel, she will starve you to death. It will take the flower of the country-the young men.”

Sam Houston

Far sighted Northerners living in the South saw the disparity at the time also:

“You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is follu, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mightly effort to save it… Besides, where are your man and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive or railway car, hardly a yard of cloth or a pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical people on earth – right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and your determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see that in the end you will surely fail.”

William Tecumseh Sherman, December 1860

Shelby Foote, perhaps the greatest Southern historian of the War sums it up for us:

I think that the North fought that war with one hand behind its back. At the same time the war was going on, the Homestead act was being passed, all these marvelous inventions were going on… If there had been more Southern victories, and a lot more, the North simply would have brought that other hand out from behind its back. I don’t think the South ever had a chance to win that War.

Published in: on January 30, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments (4)  


  1. It seems to me that the South could never get its story straight about the Late Unpleasantness.
    There’s the “I’m a Good Old Rebel” tradition admitting secession was illegal vs. “we were fighting for our rights” claiming secession was Constitutional.

    Likewise, the South’s claim that they were crushed by sheer Northern numbers and resources certainly indicts their heroes for starting a war they could not possibly win.

    Union victory certainly wasn’t inevitable — the Rebels were on the defensive, anti-war sentiment was rampant in the North and the South had better generals.
    Even after Appomattox they had armies in the field and could have carried on if the political will/popular support had been there.

  2. The term Rebel was usually hotly resented by most Confederates during the War, since they asserted that the Union had no legal authority over the Confederate States. After the War the term, as insults sometimes do over time, became a source of pride, and the song I’m a Good Old Rebel written right after the War, began that process, although the term was still rejected by many Confederate veterans.

    The argument that the South was defeated by overwhelming resources became part of the “Lost Cause” version of the War. However, in this case the “Lost Cause” advocates are correct.

    For the North it all came down to the question of will, and that is why Lincoln was so important. I think any other man, of possible probable candidates, in the office, Seward, Chase, etc, would have found it impossible not to ultimately bow to “Let the Erring Sisters” go sentiment which grew in the North throughout the War, until final victory became obvious with Union victories in the fall of 1864.

    By the time of Appomattox the Confederate military position was beyond impossible. The Confederates bravely fought to the bitter end for their cause. Guerilla warfare was a very real possibility which Lee, thank God, always an American patriot, said no to.


  3. The Southerners did not know what they were getting into. They didn’t understand that they didn’t have the infrastructure, the capacity to make steel, the coal, the raw materials. I’ve said other places that the only reason they lasted as long as they did was because they had Jefferson Davis controlling the government and eventually had Robert E. Lee in charge of the Army.

    Had the North had a determined general early on, and had one or two battles gone against the South early on, the Union armies would have steamrolled right through Virginia, and the whole mess might have been over in 1862. We forget that Bull Run was going against the Confederacy until the afternoon, had the Union held and force the Confederates off the field, the war would have been very different. The

    South never should have made it to 1863, much less 1865. After Gettysburg, the South never took a solid initiative, and after Nov. 1864, the last chance of a settlement was gone, and the Confederacy was just living out its last hour.

  4. CM in 1862 as a result of the Peninsula Campaign I believe the North would have taken Richmond but for the wounding of Johnston and Lee taking command. The Seven Days were a resounding success for the South because Lee was a great general and McClellan,at least on the battlefield, was a poor one. Why it took the North so long to defeat the South I have always found to be a fascinating subject, and one which I think has not yet been adequately covered in Civil War scholarship.

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