Why the Confederacy Lost

Many explanations have been given for why the Confederacy lost the American Civil War. Most of these explanations, as Gabor Boritt notes in his introduction to this perceptive collection of essays, have concentrated on the nonmilitary aspects of the struggle. For example, the overwhelming resources of the North, in population, industrial strength, and wealth, are often cited as proof of the inevitability of Union victory. In counterpoint, other historians have emphasized supposed weaknesses of the South, not only in material factors but also in moral terms, such as a too-stubborn insistence on state’s rights, or a pervasive failure of will.

The recurring flaw of such analyses is that they fail to take into account the salient fact that the Civil War was, after all, a war, and that wars are decided by generals who command, armies that march, and soldiers who fight and die. The knowledgeable essays in this collection do much, in a relatively small compass, to redress that balance. Small wonder, for the authors are among the best Civil War historians practicing today.

James McPherson, whose BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM: THE CIVIL WAR ERA won the Pulitizer Prize for history in 1989, provides a brisk and commonsense review of nonmilitary explanations of the war’s outcome. While not discounting nonmilitary factors entirely, McPherson shows they were not, individually or collectively, sufficient to explain the conflict’s outcome.

Archer Jones, dean of Civil War military historians, examines the competing strategies of Union and Confederate leadership, and shows that they closely resembled each other in spirit and execution. Neither side predominated in this area, and the outcome was long in doubt.

Strategy, of course, is an abstract thing until it is embodied, often bloodily, on the battlefield. Gary Gallagher’s essay examines the roles of the generals in this embodiment, while Reid Mitchell and Joseph Glatthaar look at the role played by the rank and file. Glatthaar’s study is of particular interest, because it leads the way into a too-long-neglected aspect of the war, the contribution of African-Americans to the Union victory.

This excellent collection does not bring a final answer to the many questions raised about our Civil War, how it was fought, or why it ended as it did. However, WHY THE CONFEDERACY LOST does advance the discussion to a new level.