“Why the South Lost the Civil War,” by Richard Beringer, Herman Hattaway, Archer Jones and William Still, 1986
This is an example of my reading a book so you don’t have to. This tome, written by four professors, attempts to answer a question that doesn’t seem to be one, but actually is. Many students of the Civil War – and other wars – assume it was the superior manpower and industrial strength of the northern states that lead to Appomattox, and, incidentally, the ending of slavery. Even modern-day Confederates want to believe this. The ‘revisionist’ view – which is also hinted at in “The People’s History of the Civil War” (available at Mayday) and other books – is that internal weaknesses within the southern people lead to the defeat. As the Vietnamese and other guerrilla wars prove, mere dominance in numbers or ordinance or technology does not create victory.
What was the fatal flaw of the Confederate cause? Asked in this way, the answer is pretty obvious. But for die-hard Confederates, who imagine God on their side, Bobby Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest in the saddle, and a ‘War of Northern Aggression,” it is still confusing. Even unionists of that day who rejected the Emancipation Proclamation – like the Democrats lead by McClellan and other Copperheads – thought it was only the power of the original Union that triumphed.
The authors trace the defeat to a failure of ‘Southern Nationalism.’ They point out that the south was similar in culture to the north, except for its overwhelmingly agricultural roots, and especially those roots in slavery and the plantation system. So the real and only basis of ‘southern nationalism,’ at bottom, was the slave system, and the existence upon slavery of a planter class. And this was, as Marx pointed out, a historically regressive system, which is why he supported the north in the Civil War. This should not come as news to most modern people. The twist however – and I put this in the face of bourgeois northern bigots who talk about’ rednecks,’ ‘crackers’ and ‘trailer trash’ as especially a southern phenomena – is that it means the majority of southerners ultimately wanted slavery to end in order to end the war. Their ‘southern nationalism’ was skin-deep.
A geographical map of the south will show the areas of most resistance to the war. Mountain areas and wood zones show the regions where few slaves were held, and most southerners were poor white working people eking out a living. East Tennessee and Kentucky, western Mississippi, wooded northern Alabama, the mountain areas of western Virginia (which became West Virginia because of the Civil War), western North and South Carolina and northern Georgia, and the swamps of southern Louisiana were all outside both the cities and the large farms and plantation zones. The “State of Jones” (reviewed below) was in the piney woods of western Mississippi. “Cold Mountain” is in western North Carolina. None of these people had an immediate financial stake in slavery. Their farms were either too small or unproductive to support slaves, or they could not afford slaves or – as in the case of Newton Knight, their religious and political beliefs prohibited slavery. Painting all southerners as supporters of the Confederacy is a foolish mistake. In fact, as most historians now recognize, if secession had been put to a popular vote, it would have failed in many southern states.
The conflict at Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for soldiers turned many southern Unionists into reluctant supporters of their ‘state.’ Robert E Lee was only the most well-known one. These authors show how, as the war progressed, support for the ‘southern’ cause diminished, desertion from the armies increased, protests against hunger grew and non-compliance with the draft and Confederate army property requisitions increased. Peace societies became more public in the South after 1863 and the defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Old pro-unionist politicians (who still supported the war) won a majority in North Carolina in the 1863 election. By the end of the war, the majority of the southern population preferred re-union over continued warfare. And this, the authors contend, is the real reason the south lost.
They go into many of the conventional arguments about its failure in some detail. Some think that an excessive concentration on ‘states rights’ did not allow the south to win. The authors clearly show that in the main two states whose governors conflicted with Jeff Davis – Georgia and North Carolina – both states sent more men and goods to the Confederate armies than states that did not conflict with Davis. One North Carolina politician, William Holden, famously said that “It was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” This echoed the thoughts of Newton Knight, who objected to the Confederate rule that planters with 10 slaves were exempt from service, and was one of the reasons why the "Knights' turned against the Confederacy.
The authors show figures that indicate the Union blockade of southern ports was very porous. They describe how southern military organization was superior to the Union’s in that it recruited people from the same locales to join existing units, instead of creating new, green units of unaffiliated people, as the Federals did. As to the issue of industry, the south was able to quickly create a large metal-working, armaments and clothing industry under central control of the Confederate government. While I do not agree with their assertion that Confederate soldiers were as well supplied as Union soldiers – many sources conflict with this – they consider this not to be the decisive question. They do show how there were always guns, bullets and cannons at least.
The main contribution of the authors is to compare the thoughts of classic military strategists who studied Napoleon and Frederick the Great – Clausewitz and Jomini – against actual military events during the war. They contend that the south actually had a military advantage through its huge territory, interior lines and mainly defensive strategy, citing both Clausewitz or Jomini. So, again, why did they lose except through extra-military issues? And here they point out that Davis and the Confederate government put all its emphasis on military victories and none on ‘propaganda’ or morale-building or paying attention to the condition and opinions of the civilian population. As we know from Vietnam and other wars, like Iraq, the opinions of the U.S. population play a role in the withdrawal of troops. However, when the war is actually in the territory of the population (unlike Vietnam or Iraq) this can be decisive.
Another contribution of this book centers on its coverage of how religion impacted both northern and southern peoples’ morale. As might be expected, both sides thought ‘God’ supported their cause. Almost every church in the U.S. split into a pro-slavery southern wing and a pro-union (and maybe anti-slavery) northern wing, even the Catholic Church. Many religious preachers joined the armies, the most famous being Leonidas Polk, a Tennessee planter and a bishop in the Episcopal Church, who found his way to the Confederate army. Polk was later blown in half at Pine Mountain near Marietta, Georgia, by a shell from one of Sherman’s batteries. So I guess God really ‘did’ support the North. And this odd idea – odd to an atheist at least – began to creep into Confederate thinking. If ‘God’ allowed the ‘Yankees’ to win, then either he was ‘testing’ southerners in their faith, or else he was ‘chastising’ them for imagined failings. As time went on, some southerners even decided that God wanted the north to win because perhaps slavery ‘was’ a sin. And there goes your morale and your morals – at least for a believer.
The most unusual point they make is that they delineate how the Confederate government created a centralist state and economy during the war. This should terrify the present southern Republicans and Libertarians. The South actually initiated a draft a year before the north. Writs of habeas corpus were suspended at the same time, and martial law declared. Impressment of goods by government soldiers was legalized, though they were supposed to pay a ‘reasonable amount.’
Basing themselves on the 1978 work of Raimondo Luraghi’s “Rise and Fall of the Plantation South,” the authors describe how the Confederate government took over 39 iron furnaces, ‘nationalizing the whole productive power of existing manufacturers” for war production. The government provided 50% loans to create new industry, limited profits, fixed prices, built publicly-owned mills like the giant Augusta, Georgia, Powder Works – the largest nationally-owned factory system in the world at that time. Shipyards were put under government control, and new ones built under government ownership. This forced industrialization changed Richmond, Augusta, Columbus, Atlanta, Macon and Selma into industrial centers. They, however, only later passed laws limiting planters from producing cotton, as cotton brought in higher profits than food. Many blockade runners were carrying cotton, and not getting food back, but only luxury goods for the upper class. As such, centralization did not fully extend to the planter class and their plantations. Since the Confederate government was based on this class, that made sense.
My main issue with these authors is the idea of ‘victory,’ which is the bulk of the book. They do point this out tangentially, but not in a direct way. If victory means the end of direct slave labor, than the Civil War can be considered a complete victory. But if ending slavery also meant equal democratic rights for Black people, equal property rights for Black people, the provision of land and an end to sharecropping and the plantation system (especially in the Mississippi Delta) than the Civil War was not a victory. The violent defeat of Reconstruction through guerrilla warfare by ex-Confederates and the ex-planter class showed that they – now private farmers and businessmen – actually won the longer war for white supremacy. In place of slavery, black people got the KKK, Jim Crow segregation, share-cropping and the poll tax. It was the northern capitalist class that sat by and watched and essentially collaborated with the southern capitalists on this issue. So that is perhaps why the South 'lost' the Civil War - they saw it as only a series of battles in a longer war.
It was only after 90 years that the Civil Rights Movement punctured segregation and gained some democratic rights like voting for Black people. And even now, those voting rights are under attack, as was shown in Florida in 2000. Black people are still the poorest and most exploited southerners, and still discriminated against, segregated and disdained. The “civil war” still continues and will not be finished until the modern reincarnation of the planter class and their allies – are removed.
And I bought it at a garage sale in Athens, Georgia
Red Frog – November 5, 2011