These three generals realized the horrors of war and what was necessary in order to win a war. If these men wouldn't have come to power in the latter half of the war and executed bold, dangerous, and harsh campaigns, would the war have dragged on even longer? Or would the South have been victorious instead?
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This is, of course, conjecture. However, of the two options, I would argue that the absence of these men would have made the war drag out longer but would not have caused the South to win. The reason I say this is that the decisive advantages that the North had would not have gone away if those men had not been put in important positions.
The Union won, in my view, for three reasons. First, it had huge material advantages due to its manufacturing base and the South's lack thereof. Second, it had the stronger hand politically, given that the European countries were not likely to recognize the South's independence, particularly after the Emancipation Proclamation. Finally, the North won because of Abraham Lincoln's leadership. It seems likely that he would have continued to look until he found generals who would be aggressive enough to suit him.
Now, it is always possible that things would have turned out differently. Perhaps there would have been no victories in late 1864 to allow Lincoln to be reelected. If McClellan had won that election, the war might have been over even if Lincoln would eventually have been able to win it given time.
On the whole, though, I would argue that the absence of these three men would not have doomed the Union.
I appreciate your answer, and agree with your main points. It is interesting to consider what would have happened had the Union not finally won a major battle in 1864. Would Lincoln have been re-elected? If McClellan instead had won the presidency, would he have immediately proposed a treaty to end the war that the South was likely to accept?
If so, how differently would the reconstruction of the US have turned out?
I agree with your main argument that without the three generals, the war likely would have dragged on, and the end result would still have been a victorious North.
I would also have to agree that without these three ruthless generals the war would have continued indefinitely. I'm not sure that the South could have ever won on the battlefield, but without Grant, Sherman and Sheridan, a negotiated peace may have somehow occurred. Lincoln was hotly opposed to a peaceful settlement--his main goal was to reunite the states that had seceded and would probably have never settled for less. Robert E. Lee would probably have been able to hang on for many more months--and even years--without the relentless pursuit of Grant; few other generals would have thrown their troops in the suicidal attacks (such as at Cold Harbor) that Grant made. It is also unlikely that Lincoln would have ever had the confidence in another general as he did with Grant. Sherman's armies decimated the South in their burn-and-destroy methods, and the weakened armies that fought against Sherman were no match for him. Sheridan's victories in the Shenandoah Valley were also crucial to the Union cause, and his defeat of Jubal Early's little army put even greater pressure on Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.
This is not to say that the Union was totally without other leadership options. I believe Winfield Scott Hancock would have been a superlative army commander had his wounds at Gettysburg not taken him out of action. Post-war, he proved to be an effective military leader; he would have no doubt been better presidential timber than Grant or James Garfield, who defeated him in the election of 1880. The "Rock of Chickamauga," George Thomas, would also have been an excellent choice to replace any of the aforementioned Union generals, but he was conservative in his approach to combat--more like the defensive-conscious Confederate commander, James Longstreet. Thomas, a native Virginian, would have certainly been one of the South's top commanders had he chosen to allign himself with the Confederacy. But had Lincoln chosen to return his former incompetent army commanders--such as Ambrose Burnside, Joe Hooker, and Nathaniel Banks--to army leadership, I'm sure it would have left Lee licking his proverbial chops at the chance to turn the tide once again.
I, too, agree that the war would have been drawn out. Outside of that, I am not sure that the South would have eventually won the war. Outside of that, I do not think that the reconstruction would have turned out dramatically different. The war was fought for very specific reasons. Therefore, the outcome of the war (based upon the "winner") would have been the same.
I also agree that the war would have lasted longer, but I also suspect that the north would have won eventually. It had greater industrial resources than the south and was, on the whole, richer and thus better able to fund warfare. I think I am correct in also assuming that the north was more populous than the south and thus had a larger pool of potential soldiers to draw on.
I think the strategies pursued by these generals, and by Lincoln late in the war, hastened its end by a considerable amount, but I also think that Lee made a dire mistake by focusing the brunt of the Southern war effort on defending Virginia rather than holding the Mississippi, far more important to the South's survival. Grant was able to exploit this mistake by relentlessly attacking the Army of Northern Virginia, knowing that it would defend Richmond at virtually all costs.
I would stand in support of #6 and other editors that take a similar line. I don't think there is any evidence that would suggest the war would have been shortened if this had occurred. On the contrary, I think we have to believe that such an event would have prolonged the war, even though it might not have changed the outcome. Let us remember the massive advantages that the north had in terms of resources.
As others have pointed out, the South could not win because of its relative shortage of materiel and manpower. However, those could have been neutralized had Great Britain recognized the Confederacy, which Southern diplomats had been feverishly attempting, and the resources of the Industrial British Empire had been brought to bear. With a materiel and manpower advantage, the South probably would have won -- consider the decimation of the North in a two-front war, the Confederacy invading from the South, and the British Empire (with all of Canada!) invading from the North. Two-front wars, as Germany has shown us twice last century, probably spell defeat.
The tactics of Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan certainly hastened the end of the war, but they could have been interchangeable. The war was not won on military prowess; remember the most able general during the war, Robert E. Lee, was offered command of the Northern armies, which he declined. Any general(s) fighting for the North, employing a "slash and burn" tactic, would have equally concluded the war in the same time frame.
As post #9 states Robert E. Lee was considered the best of the best, yet he declined President Lincoln's request to command the northern army. Lee thanked the president for the opportunity and then went on to say ' I cannot go against my country Virginia'. This statement speaks volumes with regard to the southern mindset. The fact is less than 25% of southerners owned slaves. For the south, the war was steeped in honor, the principle of states' rights, and property rights. Unfortunately, this mindset would never be able to carry the south to victory. The sheer force of northern wartime manufacturing combined with more than double the population of the south secured that the north would win the war.
There is no doubt that Generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan were instrumental in the northern victory. With all due respect to General McClellan, although he drilled and created a great army his failure to engage the enemy was a waste of that army. When the battle at Antietam ended in a draw (the bloodiest day of the war and one the north should have won) Lincoln replaced McClellan with Ambrose Burnside. As Burnside faultered, Lincoln replaced Burnside with Grant. This change would be the first step to victory. In addition, General Sherman's burning of Atlanta and the March to the Sea in Georgia combined with Sheridan's Shenandoah victories in 1864 the end was near. After weeks of Confederate defeats, the final engagement was in Richmond 1865. General Lee realized the south was broke and defeated. Due to his belief in honor and humanity Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia 1865. It should be noted that when Lee approached Wilbur McLean's house (the place of surrender) BOTH armies stood quietly and saluted General Lee as he rode his horse towards the home. It must have been an incredible moment to witness.
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