Saturday, October 15, 2005

Why the South lost the Civil War

"They never whipped us, Sir, unless they were four to one. If we had anything like a fair chance, or less disparity of numbers, we should have won our Cause and established our independence."

A Virginia soldier on his way home after the war. has launched a multi-part series titled, "Why the South lost the Civil War." The first installment lists the six reasons most commonly agreed upon by scholars and historians:
1. The fundamental economic superiority of the North.

2. A basic lack of strategy in the way the South fought the war.

3. The inept Southern performance in foreign affairs.

4. The South did not have a dominating civilian leader.

5. The Confederate Constitution put too much emphasis on individual and states rights and did not stress the responsibilities of the individual or the state to the federal government.

6. Abraham Lincoln.
Author Ned Harrison begins the series by stating the somewhat obvious; that by examining why the South lost we'll also learn why the North won. He draws corollaries between the Civil War and the Revolutionary war as well as with Viet Nam. The South possessed enormous advantages over the North in terms of territory (750,000 sq. miles), thousands of miles of seacoast for food supply, harbors, inlets, coves and rivers for blockade evasion and a dedicated populace convinced that their cause was a righteous one. They also had a wealth of knowledge (both Lee and President Jefferson Davis were West Point graduates) as well as the not so distant experience of the defeat of the British in the Revolution. So why did the South lose?

Harrison first examines the strategies and tactics utilized by General George Washington during the Revolution.
Gen. Washington's Rules

No. 1: Husband your resources and avoid losing the war.

No. 2: Avoid head-to-head battles that use up your manpower, your most precious asset.

No. 3. Prolong the war.

No. 4. Hope that the enemy would grow heartily sick of the casualties in a war that never seems to end.

No. 5. The Revolution would continue as long as he had the Continental Army, which was the only real power he had.

No. 6. Thus, do not risk the army except in the most dire emergency or when the odds are heavily in your favor.

No. 7. Do not risk the army to defend territory because it is the army that the British have to subdue, not geography.

No. 8. Remember that most of the fighting will be in your territory in geography you know best. Frustrate the British by raids, continual skirmishing, and capturing their supplies, always staying just beyond their ability to defeat you.
Harrison then wonders why, if Washington's example had proven so successful, did Davis and Lee not follow it? He goes on to show how General Giap and Ho Chi Minh used Washington's strategies and tactics over the course of 21 years (1954 - 1975) to defeat both the French and the Americans in Viet Nam and how Stalin traded geography for time to the Germans until his army was strong enough to counterattack.

Two incidents during the Civil War have always stood out in my mind, and both illustrate the failure of Southern thinking, one by Lee and one by Davis. There are, of course, many other examples but these two have always seemed to me to be most illustrative of the Confederacy's failures.

At Gettysburg, General Picket has been blamed for his disastrous charge across open fields at entrenched Union positions. It was Lee who ordered the attack in spite of Longstreet's and other senior officers' objections. It has been reported that Lee was so intent on breaking the Union lines that he wholly ignored Washington's rules No. 2 and 6; he risked his army, or a good portion of it, in a head to head confrontation and he did not and knew he did not have a decided advantage. Pickett never forgave Lee for the blunder that cost so many lives. After the massacre, Lee told Pickett to gather up the remains of his division to prepare for a Union counterattack and Pickett replied bitterly, "What division, General? I have no division now." Pickett had lost 3000 men, over half of his division and all 15 regimental commanders including 2 brigadier generals and 6 colonels.

The other incident involved Davis, General Joseph E. Johnston and General John Bell Hood. Sherman had been continually harassed by General Johnston's Army of Tennessee as he marched inexorably towards Atlanta. Johnston, who had been in trouble many times before with the Southern politicians trying to run the war, was relieved of his command by President Davis due to his refusal to risk his army in a head-to-head confrontation with Sherman's vastly superior force. Davis gave command of Johnston's army to Texan John Bell Hood. Sherman was delighted with the change because he correctly anticipated what Hood would do. Hood rashly attempted to stop Sherman. Hood's army was virtually destroyed, as Johnston had foreseen, and Hood was forced to evacuate Atlanta in the predawn hours having failed to stop Sherman and save the city but also decimating Johnston's former command.

Harrison concludes this first installment with;
The Confederacy never even tried to follow Washington's precepts. Part of the reason is the nature of Southern men. It went counter to the Southern psyche, which was the "attack" strategy for winning any battle. The Confederacy's high command followed their West Point training of "charge" to defeat their enemy. They were convinced that "aggressive attack" was the best and really the only way to win a war.

Could the Washington precepts have worked in the Civil War? We will never know how it would have worked out, but it could not have turned out any worse for the Southern Cause.
Next installment: The economic superiority of the Union.

Civil War South Map

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