The South Couldn’t Have Won

Greetings, loyal minions. Your Maximum Leader wanted to continue to explore the topic about which he unknowingly started a dialogue last week with his post on George Henry Thomas. That post was commented upon by your Maximum Leader’s friend, Buckethead of the Ministry of Minor Perfidy, as well as by the esteemed Steven Den Beste.

In his post, your Maximum Leader stated that he finds study of the American Civil War mostly uninteresting. It is uninteresting because, from a strategic perspective, the outcome of the war was something of a foregone conclusion. You Maximum Leader doesn’t enjoy the “what if” arguments that always seem to surround modern discussion of the Civil War.

What if Lee hadn’t lost at Antietam? What if Longstreet was more aggressive at Gettysburg? What if Jackson hadn’t been killed at Chancellorsville?

If you have spent even 30 minutes in the company of a true “Civil War Buff” (or even worse a Civil War Re-enactor) you have probably heard a whole battery of rhetorically asked “What if” questions – as well as various answers to the same.

Let you Maximum Leader more clearly expound on his beliefs for you all. He believes that from the first shot fired upon Fort Sumter, the Confederate States of America was doomed to defeat. No single battle victory, nor any long-term successful campaign by the Confederacy would have changed the fact that the Union, the United States of America was going to prevail.

If there is an interesting point to study it is how the Confederacy lasted as long as it did. One can attribute the duration of the war to ineptitude of the Union commanders, or to the skill of the Confederate commanders; or you can split your attribution in equal measure between the two.

In an off-line e-mail, your Maximum Leader and his friend Buckethead seemed to be in some agreement on this matter. Indeed, we are probably closer together than either of us think.

It is your Maximum Leader’s rhetorical certainty in this matter that he thinks rubs people the wrong way. Perhaps it is this certainty that prompted Steven Den Beste to respond to Buckethead’s post. Mr Den Beste’s comments are worth repeating here:

The Civil War wasn’t even remotely a sure thing when it started. The South’s strategy was to try to get the Europeans involved to impose a peace on the Union that permitted the Confederacy to exist.
The problem, for the Europeans, was the Union naval blockade of the south. That cut off all exports from the south, in particular of cotton, which idled cotton mills in Great Britain. The Confederacy hoped that the pain in the UK would be bad enough so that the government there would use the Royal Navy to break the blockade. If that had happened, and if the South was seen as putting up a good fight so that the war itself wouldn’t come to a conclusion rapidly, then the Europeans might have gotten involved and imposed a peace on Lincoln.
That was actually a very realistic strategy, and it nearly worked. There were two big reasons why it did not.
First was that by that point the US Navy was quite large and quite good. And unlike the US Army, naval officers from the south didn’t leave the service after secession, so the Navy continued essentially unchanged. The RN could have broken the blockade but it would have had to keep fighting; it wouldn’t have been one battle, it would have been a battle for every convoy in and out. Though there’s no doubt that the RN could have won against the USN of that era, it would have had to pay a high cost, in men and ships and money. (That’s before the appearance of the ironclads, which drastically changed everything.)
Second was that while southern exports of cotton were important to Europe, especially the UK, northern exports of wheat were even more important. If the RN had broken the blockade to get cotton exports moving again, there was nothing that could prevent the Union from ceasing to ship wheat to Europe. Europe wasn’t self-sufficient in food at that time and you can’t eat cotton. Given a choice between them, wheat won.
Southern diplomats in Europe made an active effort to get the Europeans involved, especially the British, and nearly succeeded. Of course, ultimately it didn’t happen, but when the Confederacy was founded, the strategy of trying to get the Europeans involved didn’t look far-fetched at all.

Your Maximum Leader will respectfully disagree with general thrust of Mr. Den Beste on these points; without disagreeing entirely with what he is saying. He will concur with the first point; which is to say that the Confederate strategy was to get European intervention which would lead to an imposed peace. This strategy did make a lot of sense to the Confederates; but your Maximum Leader wouldn’t go so far as to say that it nearly succeeded.

Your Maximum Leader generally agrees with the points made about cotton and wheat imports to Europe. He feels that a little more explanation might be required on these related topics. It should be noted that 1859 and 1860 were bumper crop years for cotton in the American South. It should also be noted that the last cotton crops of the bumper years successfully were transported to Europe before the war and blockade. This meant that the cotton warehouses were full (brimming in fact) with cotton at the beginning of the war. European (particularly British) industry was in no danger of immediately running out of cotton so great was the supply. The supply of cotton was great enough to last about two years. This time gave market forces a chance to work. Entrepreneurial Brits discovered that Egypt and India were equally good regions in which to raise cotton. The excess supply in Britain kept the mills going, gave the market time to develop new suppliers, allowed the government to leave the Confederacy hanging and introduced the world to the wonders of Egyptian cotton. (Of which are made the 800 thread count sheet on your Maximum Leader’s bed right now…)

While the years immediately preceding the Civil War were banner years for the cotton crop, they were not banner years for the wheat crop. There was not a surplus of food in Britain which meant that the British were more dependent on Union wheat exports than they were Confederate cotton exports. The food situation was one of which the British government was acutely aware.

Your Maximum Leader will further agree that the United States Navy was not decimated for good commanders at the beginning of the war, as was the army. He will further agree with Mr. Den Beste that the Royal Navy would have paid a price, but ultimately prevailed over the US Navy – had the British determined to intervene. Again, a little more exposition might be required here. Your Maximum Leader is not sure what the British would have gained from this perspective by intervention. They would have gained cheap cotton, but lost men, money, ships, and potentially a steady supply of wheat. How does this calculation favor intervention? The British had undisputed control of the seas. Undisputed control is as much perception of invincibility as proof. A series of bloody and costly battles at sea to break the US blockade of the CSA certainly wouldn’t have helped the British maintain their control of the seas. How would it have tipped the balance of power in Europe? The British, while still the victors, would appear weaker. And once the appearance of weakness is shown there is no telling how the French would react.

Towards the end of his comment Steven Den Beste writes that Confederate diplomats were close to succeeding in convincing the British to intervene. Your Maximum Leader will beg to differ on this point. It is his understanding that the key diplomat in this part of the equation is Charles Francis Adams, Ambassador of the United States to Great Britain. Adams was a major force in persuading the British that President Lincoln had no intention of any conclusion to the war other than the defeat of the Confederacy and the union being preserved. That is a pretty powerful idea to keep laying out before the British. And look how the facts supported what Adams was saying. Early in the war there was defeat after defeat for the US, but Lincoln fought on.

Your Maximum Leader also thinks it is important to mention the role of Abolitionists and slavery in the whole European intervention issue. It was no secret that the government of Britain (along with the upper classes) was openly sympathetic to the Confederate cause. Gladstone, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, even mentioned possible support of the Confederacy on the floor of the House of Commons once. (A move that was interpreted as nearly being official recognition of the Confederacy.)

Your Maximum Leader thinks that too much is made of this. While the upper classes might have supported (intellectually) the supposed pursuit of liberty the Confederacy claimed to be founded upon; the middle and lower classes in Britain were firmly on the side of the Union. The upper classes, like many Americans today, convinced themselves that the war – and secession – was about more than slavery. The middle and lower classes were not laboring under any such delusion.

The Abolitionists of America were very well connected to their co-religionists (among Presbyterians and Methodists among others) in Britain. Abolitionists frequently wrote letters to be read to British congregations or traveled to give sermons. Support for the Union was very high among the great majority of the British population. So much so that various minister in the British government wondered privately if support of the Confederacy would result in civil unrest in Britain. Remember that the various revolutions of 1848 weren’t a distant memory in 1861.

By now, if you are still reading this post, you are probably asking yourself, “Self, my Maximum Leader has been agreeing with his detractors a lot. What was this argument all about actually?” Well, if you are saying that you are on the right track.

Your Maximum Leader thinks that this whole discussion is really about interpreting facts. Your Maximum Leader, and Buckethead, and Steven Den Beste, see the same group of facts and come to differing conclusions about them.

Your Maximum Leader, specifically, thinks that the vast majority of facts support his claim that the Confederacy could not have won the Civil War. From the point of view of men and material (points not discussed here), the Confederacy was woefully outmanned by the Union. Buckethead mentioned in his post that the Confederates were well aware of classical history and the stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae. Buckethead also mentions other great battles of Salamis and Marathon. Sure the Confederates knew their history. Sure they might have thought that winning lots of victories – though outnumbered and outgunned – would lead to victory. It had in the past. But unlike the Persians, Abraham Lincoln wasn’t going to be beat. Xerxes was, essentially, a quitter. Lincoln was not.

Further, your Maximum Leader believes the preponderance of facts support his view that Europe, specifically Britain (the nation most able, via the Royal Navy to make a difference in the Civil War), would not intervene on behalf of the Confederacy. If you had to choose between food and cotton – who wouldn’t choose food? If you had to choose between putting your naval supremacy on the line and weakening your greatest military asset or just sitting on the sidelines – why choose risk? If you had to choose between supporting an institution (slavery) that was abhorred by the majority of your population or not supporting the institution – why upset the people?

Sure the Confederacy had a plan to get Britain involved and force a peace on Lincoln. But the plan wasn’t a very realistic one. It relied on one element, cotton, and ignored the many other factors that would impact any decision to intervene militarily.

It may be fun to argue the “what ifs” of the Civil War - and to some it is. But in the end your Maximum Leader thinks that review of the facts show that the Confederacy was doomed from the start.

Carry on.

8 Comments »

Gratuitous Civil War Geekery Posting…

The Maximum Leader has a long post today about the futility of the Confederate cause, thoroughly stamping his booted feat on the “What If?” school of thought. This is a continuation of an earlier debate. All of the posts are……



Rev. Mike said:

My father-in-law is a Civil War nut. I dread the topic when we’re together. He and I have had the same “stop-it-with-the-what-if’s” argument so often that my eyes glaze oveer when he says the words.



We don’t seem to disagree strongly on the facts; I think most of our disagreement has to do with calculations of probabilities. I probably overstated the odds of the Southern Strategy being a success (e.g. “it nearly succeeded”), but I don’t think that it was outright impossible — until, that is, the ironclads appeared. After that the strategy of relying on European intervention was hopeless.

The Royal Navy could have broken the blockade at some particular port and escorted a convoy of cargo ships into some harbor, such as Charleston. But the RN had no ships capable of crossing the ocean which could have prevented Union ironclads from entering Charleston harbor and devastate most of those cargo ships while they were loading before the convoy was ready to leave again. Under the best of circumstances a large convoy would have taken days to unload and reload, and that would have been plenty of time for a squadron of ironclads to show up and wreck them. So once USS Monitor launched and was a success, the Confederacy was doomed. But it did have one other chance, about which more below.

I also agree with you about the political significance of British abolitionists. Their existence decreased the chance of British interference, until the ironclads made that whole issue moot.

Still, the leaders in the South in 1861 did have reason to believe that there was a non-trivial chance of inducing European intervention, and I don’t believe that they were on drugs.

Discussing the probabilities of past events is problematic, because strictly speaking the probability of what happened is exactly 1.0 and of all alternatives is exactly 0.0. But looking forward in 1861, I don’t believe that Union victory was assured.

There was another point where it might have changed: the 1864 election. Lincoln certainly didn’t believe that his reelection was a sure thing, and the Democratic Party’s official platform for the 1864 election was to give up the war. (Though their candidate, McClellan, believed that the war should continue to be prosecuted.) As the Army of the Potamac continued to bleed without apparently accomplishing much in Virginia (at least as it was viewed back home), and as Sherman was frustrated by Johnston, who was fighting a brilliant disputed withdrawal, it all seemed like a “quagmire”.

And that’s when Jeffy D threw the war away. He replaced Johnston with Hood and ordered Hood to slug it out. That was what Sherman had been hoping for; he crushed Hood’s force, marched on Atlanta, then made his march to the sea. That was the primary thing that convinced Northern voters that the war was not a lost cause.

Had there not been that victory (and a couple of others) in 1864 before the election, the Democrats might have won, and even though McClellan wanted to continue to prosecute the war, he might not have been able to — and in that case, too, the Confederacy might have survived.

Obviously we don’t disagree that the Union won and the Confederacy lost. Equally, I don’t think we disagree that the odds at the beginning of the war massively favored the Union. I just think that it’s overstating the situation to say that in 1861 the Confederacy had no chance at all of survival.



[…] It says something… interesting about my state of mind that when Steven writes (20070315.1900): I don’t know if anyone’s interested, but I’ve gotten involved in an interesting discussion of the Civil War here and here. […]



All wrong! All! Well, maybe not that middle bit. Actually, that’s kinda sensible. Ah, you make it hard to hate you when you keep agreeing with me. I might have more on this in a bit. But now I’m going to actually have to do research.



metaphysician said:

Small Eyes, Big Mouth-

Nah, I thought that too. Lord knows that you could do some rants on Civil War purely off of SDB’s villain criteria. Arguably the worst offense ( among *many* ) is that the story has Tony Stark take numerous actions that by any rational standard would have him be a villain. . . and yet the story does not treat him as a villain. Verges on Mary Sue fanfiction territory.



Veeshir said:

I think the Democrats of the time would have gladly lost the war. They were trying everything they could to get it to end.

Anybody who thinks that the outcome of a war is foregone, think “Vietnam”. We won every major battle and lost the war.

People who don’t want to fight a war can lose a war no matter the advantage.



Mitch H. said:

Whatever the politicians might have thought, Lee himself had no real hopes for European intervention, and those instances where he mentions the subject he seems to be throwing a bone to Davis’s wishful thinking on the subject. Rather, Lee seems to have aimed at the degredation of Northern morale & the politicial defeat of the Lincoln administration. Freeman pulls out an interesting quote of Lee’s from 1861, before First Manassas, where Lee noted that he expected a war of ten years duration or longer. Lee *expected* a long, bloody war of attrition.

As such, my favorite “what if” is a fatal or near-fatal wounding of Grant in the Wilderness in 1864. Now, I’m not one of those folks who idolizes Grant in terms of “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer”, but his combination of tenacity and political acumen wasn’t replicated in any of his subordinates or peers, Sherman and Sheridan included. Without the main army on the James, Lee would probably have plunged back across the Potomac in Early’s wake in the late summer.

The war could have easily settled into a sanguinary yearly back-and-forth in the East, with spring Union campaigns frustrated in the killing grounds on the south bank of the Rappahannock & reciprocal Confederate raids up the Valley into Maryland & Pennsylvania in the high summer. It happened in 1862, 1863, and to a lesser extent, again in 1864 with Early’s two raids. A reprise of the Gettysburg campaign in the summer of 1864 could easily have broken the Union Party’s back, no matter what Sherman and Hood got up to in the West.



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