Although the reasons for the defeat of the Confederacy in the American Civil War are debated just as energetically as the causes of the war, the answer to the question, “Why did the South lose the war?” was actually answered a long time ago. Some years after the war ended, Confederate General George Pickett – who was actually a much better officer than his being the namesake of the famously doomed Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg might suggest – was asked why he thought the South lost, to which he replied, “I think the Yanks might have had something to do with it.” The Confederacy did not lose the Civil War, the Union beat them, and it was not until the very last few months of the war that it was at all clear that they would.
The reasons for the Union victory are usually described as advantages in three areas: resources, strategy, and performance on the battlefield. While it is true that the North ultimately bested the South in all three, these advantages were for much of the war either not as great as they appear now, or were not well-applied; and the forces of the Confederacy had some considerable advantages of their own.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee certainly thought the disparity of resources between the North and South was to blame for the Confederate defeat; after surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox on April 10, 1865, he explained in his farewell address to his soldiers, “After four years’ arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, declared Lee, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.” That was a bit of an understatement; the Union had two-and-a-half times the population of the South, had a vastly superior road and rail network, and when the war began, was producing over 90 percent of the country’s iron and very nearly all of its weapons, industrial advantages that only increased significantly as the war progressed. The Confederacy relied almost entirely on trade with Europe and the Northern states for industrial goods; for example, there was only one factory in the south – the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia – that was capable of producing large weapons, iron plating for ships, and heavy locomotive components.
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Nonetheless, the South managed to keep itself supplied for much longer than the differences in capabilities suggest it should have. While the Union blockade of the Confederacy – helped immensely by the capture of important ports such as New Orleans, Mobile, and Wilmington – did almost completely stop the flow of material from other countries after 1862, illicit trade with the North through the border states of Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland was harder to stop, and kept a trickle of much-needed supplies flowing right up to the very end of the war.
One aspect of the Confederate defeat that is debatable is the degree to which the strategy by which they pursued the war was imposed on them by political realities versus how much of it was the result of poor decision-making. All the South had to do was defend itself; the onus was on the North to ‘take back’ the rebellious part of the country. The Confederacy, however, comprised a huge territory, nearly 750,000 square miles. Some Southern military leaders, most notably General Joseph E. Johnston, advocated what in hindsight probably would have been a sound defensive strategy: giving up territory to defend key places like the major cities and doing most of the fighting with the North using guerrilla forces.
The prevailing view, however, was that recognition of the Confederate States of America by other countries like England and France (and the desperately needed military assistance that would have come with it) was only possible if the South could demonstrate that it was a legitimate nation that could defend itself. That meant facing the Union forces in conventional fashion, defending the entire Confederate territory, and taking the fight to the Union where possible; this was the strategy preferred by Confederate leader Jefferson Davis (who unlike his Union counterpart Abraham Lincoln had extensive military experience) and General Lee.
The unavoidable problem with the Southern strategic situation is that the initiative lay entirely with the North; Union forces could strike wherever it seemed most advantageous to do so, and the Confederate forces would largely be limited to reacting to it. To be fair, they did so magnificently more often than not. Lee’s repeated offensive-defensive campaigns in response to Union invasions of Virginia stymied the North – and almost ended the war in mid-1864 – until the final few months of the conflict, and even in the face of the brilliant war of maneuver conducted by Union generals Grant, Sherman, and George Thomas in the West, Confederate leaders like Johnston, Braxton Bragg (a general to whom history has, quite unfairly, not been kind), and Nathan Bedford Forrest presented a formidable challenge and delayed the eventual Southern defeat.
Performance on the Battlefield
One of the obvious reasons the Civil War was the most savage conflict ever fought by American soldiers is that from the highest generals to the lowest privates in the ranks, the two forces were so evenly matched in terms of talent and motivation, even if the advantage of numbers went to the Union. Most of the leaders on both sides had trained and served together in the pre-war Army; many were brothers-in-arms as young officers in the Mexican War 20 years earlier. The conventional view that “Southerners made better soldiers” because most of them were farmers, handy with weapons and horses and used to rough living, overlooks the fact that an overwhelming number of Union troops were from the farming states in the upper Midwest. For example, the famed “Iron Brigade” of the Army of the Potomac, one of the most-feared units in either army, and one of the few who could claim to have defeated the equally-renowned Stonewall Jackson was made up entirely of men from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana.
The advantage to the Union on the battlefield largely came about because of its superiority in firepower and numbers, but also because Southern leaders made a few more bad decisions at wrong times than their Union foes. Lee’s two invasions of the North – which ended in the horrific battles of Antietam and Gettysburg – were unnecessary and costly strategic mistakes, compounded by a number of uncharacteristic errors during both campaigns. Likewise in the West, General Bragg’s outstanding victory at Chickamauga was wasted when he failed to follow up on it, allowing Grant to come to the rescue and eventually defeat Bragg at Chattanooga.
Could the Confederacy have won the Civil War? The weight of evidence tips the balance towards the answer, “Probably not.” Yet the question is still interesting and worth discussing, even after 150 years.
An excellent, detailed history of the Civil War can be found in James M. McPherson’s 1988 book, Battle Cry of Freedom, which explains the Civil War in-depth from the end of the Mexican War in 1847 to the tragic assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865.