Why the South Lost the Civil War

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

It seems that any discussion of military matters must begin by quoting the famous dictum of the German military philosopher Karl von Clausewitz: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” All too often, however, after the ritual has been performed, the discussion then continues along solely military lines, ignoring the most salient insight of Clausewitz, that modern warfare is as much a political—that is to say, civilian—event as it is a military operation. The four authors of Why the South Lost the Civil War have clearly read and understood Clausewitz, for their volume is an excellent study that combines a careful exploration of the frontlines and the home front to explain the defeat of the American Confederacy. A reader would expect nothing less from four such distinguished historians of the conflict as these, and the attentive reader of Why the South Lost the Civil War will certainly be rewarded.

If war is the continuation of politics, then it is only natural to ask, what were the politics of the South? What was important enough to the people of eleven states that they tried to dissolve the American Union? Why could their politics not withstand the test of combat? The authors of this work ask these questions, and they provide answers which, if not totally new, give significantly different emphasis to the traditional answers.

First, the authors examine the various theories often given for the defeat of the Confederacy: overwhelming Union strength in population, manufacture, material and other resources; economic collapse, caused primarily by the Union blockade and destruction of the Confederate railroad system; and stubborn adherence to states’ rights, which caused harmful dissension between the government in Richmond and the various states. Each of these alone, and most of them in combination, have been advanced as reasons for why the South lost. The present volume rejects them all, either individually or in combination, as sufficient causes for the Confederacy’s collapse.

Union superiority in material resources is probably the most generally accepted reason for the South’s defeat. History textbooks are filled with graphs and charts comparing the two sides, and the long lines of blue always outdistance the shorter ones of gray. It seems obvious that the North simply outlasted the South because it had more with which to fight.

The authors of this work do not agree. “We believe assuredly that the Civil War did not have an inevitable outcome, for the Confederacy almost won.” Why did it almost win? There were two reasons, one military, the other political, although both elements mix together. The military reason was that the defeat of the South should have required far more resources than the North could provide; the political reason was that both sections were locked in a contest that would be determined by which side had the greater will to endure.

In their work, the authors have relied heavily on the two predominant military thinkers of the nineteenth century, Clausewitz and Henri de Jomini; logically, Civil War commanders should be judged by the standards of their contemporaries, and these standards were shaped by the writings of these two men. Both Clausewitz and Jomini stress the immense difficulty of subduing large amounts of territory and a hostile population. Judging by precedents such as the Spanish struggle against Napoléon, the invading army must greatly outnumber the defenders. At no time, according to this study, did the Union forces achieve the preponderance of manpower necessary both to defeat Confederate forces and occupy Confederate territory. According to the best thinkers on nineteenth century warfare, the South should have held out much longer, and even prevailed, for purely military reasons, despite the numerical superiority of the North.

Richard E. Beringer and his colleagues admit that economic problems hurt the Confederacy, especially when its vital rail network was disrupted. Nevertheless, they insist, the economic situation primarily affected the civilian population; the military forces continued to be relatively well supplied up to the very end of the struggle. In the winter of 1865, for example, not long before Appomattox, General Robert E. Lee’s army still had a week’s supply stockpiled in Richmond. “The fact is, no Confederate army lost a major engagement because of the lack of arms, munitions, or other essential supplies.”

As for the Union blockade, the authors devote a separate chapter to its effect and conclude that it simply could not intercept and halt enough of the ships moving in and out of Southern ports; the blockade was not effective enough to stop supplies. The Federal fleet’s actions, however, did make goods more difficult to obtain for the South, and this had an increasingly profound effect on civilian morale, which continued to decline throughout the war.

The belief that the South lost because of internal disunity—“Died of States’ Rights” has been proposed as the epitaph for the Confederacy’s tombstone—is effectively dismantled by this volume. The authors point...

(The entire section is 2109 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Best Sellers. XLVI, August, 1986, p. 187.

Booklist. LXXXII, June 15, 1986, p. 1497.

Library Journal. CXI, April 15, 1986, p. 80.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIII, July 17, 1986, p. 3.

The New York Times. CXXXV, July 4, 1986, p. C22.

The New York Times. CXXXV, July 5, 1986, p. 17.