An excellent book of essays presented at a conference at the Gettysburg Civil War Institute in 1991, Why the Confederacy Lost answers the most important question of the Civil War in a way that’s accessible to a lay reader while addressing issues that Civil War historians continue to raise thirty years later.
As historian Richard Current replied in an earlier book to the question Why the Union Won, “as usual, God was on the side of the heaviest battalions.” In Boritt’s collection, leading Civil War historians explain why lacking the heaviest battalions was necessary but not sufficient for the Confederacy to lose.
James McPherson starts out by rejecting many common explanations for the war’s outcome, including lack of Confederate “will” to see the war through. McPherson then asserts the necessity of military history, even as historians look at causes for the war’s outcome that are external, whether political, economic or social.
Archer Jones talks about how difficult it is to separate the military from the political, arguing that both presidents and generals planned and fought battles not just to win on the battlefield but also to appeal to the folks at home. In some cases, battles made little military sense but carried a big symbolic punch, as at Gettysburg. One thing that Lincoln had in common with Jefferson Davis was that he couldn’t leave the war to his generals but had to worry about public opinion, finding himself “caught between the professional soldiers’ views of military reality and the civilian perspective, which tended to see war almost exclusively in terms of battles. So the populace demanded battles from generals when most of them realized the ineffectiveness of a combat strategy.”
In the book’s most interesting essay, “‘Upon Their Success Hang Momentous Interests’: Generals,” Gary Gallagher argues that generals played a major role in the outcome and that only a small group of leading generals were indispensable: Grant, Sherman and Lee.
Grant and Sherman are why the Confederacy Lost. But Lee is why it took so long to happen.
The Union certainly boasted the heaviest battalions. But after Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans know that weighty forces don’t guarantee victory over a weaker foe. The Union was not able to leverage its advantage in men and guns until the right generals came along, generals committed to moving forward at all cost, even if that cost was fearful. That’s what Grant and Sherman brought to the war that previous Union commanders lacked: a willingness to spend blood and treasure, to endure defeats but to keep moving forward rather than sounding retreat.
Famously, through no fault of his own, Lee had fewer resources but did enjoy the home field advantage. He could have leveraged that advantage more by fighting a war of defense and retreat as George Washington did to win the Revolution or even as his fellow Confederate commander Joseph Johnston did in the Civil War, especially his own brilliant retreat from Sherman that kept his army in the field even after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.
But Lee did not fight a defensive war. Instead, Lee pursued a strategy of aggressive offense, pushing twice into the North. From a purely military perspective, offense was often a mistake. But it gave the Confederate public the showy victories they demanded while hurting morale in the North. Lee hoped that following this strategy would embarrass Lincoln and the war party so much that they’d lose enough elections, especially the presidential race of 1864, to embolden Copperheads in the North who would force Washington to sue for peace.
And the Southern public, like the Northern one, demanded battlefield victories. Early in the war, before he was able to lead Confederate armies into bold offensives, critics tarred him with the nickname Granny Lee.
After bold campaigns at Antietam and Gettysburg, Lee became not merely a battlefield hero with nearly godlike status, but his name became synonymous with the Confederate war effort. So much so, that as long as Lee remained in the field, no amount of Confederate defeats, whether in the Western theater or even back East, could entirely bust home front morale. On the other side, once Lee surrendered, it didn’t matter that Johnston and other commanders remained at large. To the Confederate public, the end of Lee meant the end of the war.
Despite some setbacks, overall, Lee was not too aggressive in his battlefield tactics, according to Gallagher. “Far from hastening the demise of the Confederacy, Lee’s generalship provided hope that probably carried the South beyond the point at which its citizens otherwise would have abandoned their quest for nationhood.”
And while critics have accused Lee of a myopic focus on the East and favoring his home state to the detriment of the whole war effort, ignoring the western theater, refusing to share troops with other commanders and insisting on devoting the maximum of resources to Virginia, Lee was in fact thinking nationally by focusing on the war in the East. He knew that the “Confederacy could lose the war in either the West or the East, but it could win the war only in the East,” since what happened in the East was what both sides, as well as the European powers, really cared about.
Lee was also hesitant to deplete his army by sharing troops, since he was afraid that they’d be wasted by less competent commanders like Braxton Bragg in Tennessee or Georgia or John Pemberton in Vicksburg.
The book concludes with another strong essay, “Black Glory” by Joseph T. Glatthaar, on the contribution of 180,000 Black soldiers and sailors who filled Union regiments and manned federal ships just when white people up North were failing to enlist in large enough numbers and had to be drafted, an unpopular policy that led to urban draft riots and imperiled Republican candidates in elections at the state and federal levels. Glatthaar also explains the important contribution to the war effort of runaway slaves who withdrew their valuable labor from the Confederacy and contributed it to the Union.
The strong performance of US Colored Troops at Miliken’s Bend and other battles during the Vicksburg Campaign convinced Grant that emancipation along with black enlistment was “the heaviest blow yet given the Confederacy.”
Much more interesting to a lay reader than the average collection of essays based on papers at a conference, Why the Confederacy Lost remains worthwhile three decades after its original publication.