Why Did the Confederacy Lose?

Mackubin T. Owens

August 1, 2007

There is an old story, probably apocryphal, about a meeting of the Southern Historical Society in the years after the Civil War. The topic was Gettysburg—what mistakes, large or small, did the Confederates make that led to the Southern defeat? The debate was heated and furious. Tempers were at the boiling point. Finally, one of the participants noticed that George Pickett was in attendance. “George,” he said, “you were there. Why did we lose the battle?” Pickett replied, “I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

This anecdote reflects a historiographical debate about the Civil War in general. Was the cause of Confederate defeat external, or internal? Those who emphasize internal causes attribute the failure to breakdowns in Confederate leadership, both political and military, and Rebel errors on the battlefield. Those, like Pickett, who stress external causes, have traditionally attributed Confederate defeat to the military might of the Union. Other external causes include, e.g. Lincoln’s wartime leadership or Union generalship.

There have always been those who emphasized internal factors in explaining why the Confederacy lost. Immediately after the war, many influential Confederates blamed Southern defeat on the manifold failures of President Jefferson Davis. In the 1920s, Frank Owsley blamed Confederate defeat on the doctrine of “state rights”—the alleged obstructive policies of governors that handicapped the ability of the Confederate government to mobilize men and resources for war. In 1960, David Donald offered a corollary to state rights, attributing the South’s loss of the war to an “excess of democracy”—too much individualism, dissent, and criticism of the government.

The rise of academic social history since the 1960s has helped move alleged fissures within Southern society, e.g. race, class, and “gender” (sic), to center stage. Some historians have focused on these factors to such an extent that they forget the military dimension altogether. For instance, Drew Gilpin Faust has argued that the Confederacy lost because Southern women turned against the war. This is true, but it begs a more important question: why did they turn against it? The reason is that the military tide was turning against the Confederacy. This episode illustrates the importance of discussing the social dimension of the war in the context of the military dimension.

Fred Ikle, a prominent academic and policymaker during the Cold War, once observed that while volumes have been devoted to the causes and conduct of wars, little attention has been paid to the question of “war termination.” This defect applies to the Civil War. As Mark Grimsley and Brooks Simpson argue in their introduction to The Collapse of the Confederacy, “an air of inevitability has clung too long to the Confederacy’s final months.”

Working backwards from the known outcomes at Appomattox and Durham Station, most historians argue that the Confederacy had no chance of gaining independence after the fall of Atlanta and Lincoln’s reelection. But while the outcome may be certain to us, it was not certain to either Northerners or Southerners. The way in which the war ended was not preordained, but that it did end the way that it did was critically important for the future of the United States. This particular case of war termination shaped Reconstruction and laid the groundwork for future reconciliation. Had it not ended as it did, things could have been much worse.

Ultimately the outcome of the War of the Rebellion depended on the interplay of such internal factors as popular expectations, Confederate nationalism and will, as well as military strategy and battlefield performance during the last months when the external factor of Union military strength had become overwhelming. It is important to note that, like the Patriots during the American Revolution who invested their hopes for independence in Washington’s Continental Line, white Southerners looked to Lee.

It is important to realize that while Southern morale had suffered as a result of battlefield setbacks in 1864, many in the South saw the situation in the winter of 1864-65 as one more period of peril—no different than that of spring 1862 or even the darkest days of the American Revolution—that could be reversed. Northerners, on the other hand, though increasingly confident of victory, were concerned that a prolongation of the war could lead to war-weariness and a negotiated settlement. Others were concerned that the Confederates might turn to guerrilla warfare. Thus the final months of the Confederacy offer an excellent case study in war termination.

What alternative outcomes were possible? At a minimum they included a negotiated settlement, a successful attempt by the Confederates to prevent the junction of the forces of Meade and Sherman, or the resort to guerrilla warfare.

As to the first, it is unlikely that Lincoln would have agreed to a negotiated settlement even if Jefferson Davis had not short-circuited every attempt to achieve one. Regarding a possible link-up between Lee and Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina, all came to naught when Lee was cut off and surrounded at Appomattox. Interestingly, Johnston, despite his many failures during the war may have redeemed himself by bringing about an end to hostilities by essentially disobeying the orders of the Confederate president and surrendering his force in order to “save the people [and] spare the blood of the army.”

Had Johnston not done so, the pursuing Union armies would have devastated the land, as Lee, Johnston, and others feared. But this possibility, as Grimsley has observed, “will forever remain moot because [Johnston], facing a clear-cut military decision stepped beyond the traditional, almost sacred boundaries of American civil-military relations and refused to fight a lost war any longer.”

On the other hand, the Union high command needed not simply to defeat the Confederate armies, but to do it in such a way as to foreclose the possibility that the defeated South would turn to guerrilla warfare. A successful Union war termination strategy had to create “the best possible conditions for a true reunion between” the warring sections. I am one of those who believe that the “guerrilla option” was never a realistic possibility. For one thing, the areas necessary for the successful exercise of this option—the mountainous areas of western North Carolina and the like—were largely Unionist.

The fact that the Civil War was not preordained to end as it did leads to a broader question: was there a strategy the South could have pursued that would have resulted in a better outcome for the Confederacy? Some very influential historians have argued that the Confederacy should have pursued a “Fabian” strategy of deep retreat and battle avoidance.

The theme of this argument is that the South should have exploited its expansive territory to pursue a strategy of maneuver designed to avoid costly blood-letting. Rather than organizing their forces into field armies intended to fight Napoleonic battles of annihilation, the Confederates should have arrayed agile, stealthy columns to vex Federal detachments. One variation of this approach is the guerrilla option.

Preference for the Fabian strategy dovetails nicely with the view of such critics of Lee as J.F.C. Fuller and Thomas Connelly. They argue that because of his penchant for the offensive, Lee was a leader the South could not afford. In Connolly’s words, “the need to conserve manpower and logistical strength, and the need to maintain a defensive status that used well the great area of Southern territory somehow never fitted with [Lee’s] strategic views.” These writers apparently favor a non-existent commander that combined the approach of Joseph Johnston and “Stonewall” Jackson.

But for social and political reasons as well as for geographical and military ones, a “retreat to victory” was never an option for the Confederacy. The claim that it was lacks a military, geographic, social, and political context. For instance, geographically, the south—unlike Russia, which was able to swallow up the armies of Napoleon and Hitler—and therefore provides the example most often used to argue the benefits of a Fabian strategy—lacked real strategic depth.

First, the inclusion of the trans-Mississippi region and Florida in assessments of the expanse of Southern territory is misleading. Especially after the spring of 1862, the trans-Mississippi was strategically irrelevant to the South. The remainder of Confederate territory was too long and too thin, nowhere more than 450 miles deep. Such a territory can be broken into pieces, which is exactly what happened. Union naval power and the flow of the rivers in the West permitted Union forces to penetrate deeply into the Confederacy by early 1862.

In addition, the areas that would have been abandoned had the South pursued a Fabian strategy were precisely the areas the Confederacy needed most if it were to have a realistic chance for independence—Virginia and Tennessee. As Joseph Harsh has observed, “for a nation successfully to pursue a strategy of defense it needed a large, rich heartland into which it could withdraw. Unfortunately for the South, its heart was located on its frontier.”

There were also political and social reasons for rejecting a Fabian or guerrilla strategy. First, the citizens of the Confederacy would never have tolerated a strategy based on a policy of ceding large swaths of territory to the hated invader. Second, a Fabian approach would have involved a social revolution, because it would have required the abandonment of the slave-based plantation system.

But the Fabian approach founders on military shoals as well. The idea that Confederate forces could avoid combat by rapid marches punctuated by combat against widely separated Union forces is not as easy as some make it out to be. Robert Tanner, whose Stonewall in the Valley is a fine study of operational art, observes that in terms of its impact on combat effectiveness, a hard march could take as great a toll on an army as combat.

Why did this strategy work for the Americans during the Revolution and fail for the Confederacy? The answer is that a military revolution had intervened between the two wars. For the British, the American War of Independence was a war of limited liability, especially after the French intervened on the American side. They could never venture far away from those areas accessible to the Royal Navy. When they did, they could be cut off and defeated, as happened at Saratoga and Yorktown. In contrast, the Union could provide massive logistical support to Federal field armies, which meant that large armies could be projected into the heart of the Confederacy without the danger of going beyond what Carl von Clausewitz calls the “culminating point of victory.”

Those who favor a Fabian strategy for the Confederacy do so in the abstract. But the best historians understand that such an approach was not in accordance with the social and political demands that the white Southern population placed on their government and the political constraints within which strategic decisions had to be made.

It seems to me that there was no better strategy for the South to follow than the one it did—organizing its forces into field armies to confront the armies of the Union, and giving priority to the best of these armies: Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Had Lee achieved the sort of victory he sought—the destruction of a Union army, especially on Northern soil—the South might well have achieved its independence. And as I hope I have shown, Lee came extraordinarily close on more than one occasion.

Mackubin T. Owens is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.