THE QUESTION OF WHETHER the South could have won has become one of the most popular of post-conflict questions. The answer is almost certainly not. Material disparities in numbers of men and in industrial output make it most unlikely that the Confederacy could have prevailed over its stronger northern neighbour, though at the outset there were many in the South who believed and proclaimed that what were seen as critical advantages, particularly European dependence on the South’s exports of cotton, made it certain that expenditure on that raw material would, if supply were interrupted or denied, compel Europe’s industrial states—which were also its great powers, Britain foremost but France as well—to recognise the Confederacy as a legitimately independent state and to intervene in its support, breaking the North’s blockade and supplying necessities, including credit, which would nullify the North’s economic advantages. As we now know, prudence deterred the South’s putative supporters from offending the United States, even when provoked as Britain was during the Trent affair.
Though the question persists, it is not therefore pursued with much diligence. Even the most disgruntled Southerners came to accept, almost in the war’s immediate aftermath, that the South had been beaten fair and square and that indulgence in daydreams about a different outcome was profitless. A great deal of the credit for the fact that the South accepted defeat so quickly and completely belongs to Robert E. Lee for his unyielding opposition to all suggestions that, after Appomattox, or instead of Appomattox, the remnants of the Confederate States Army should have taken up guerrilla warfare. Lee’s commendable decision derived from his admirable constitutionalism and respect for law, both the common laws of war and those of his country, but also, as he made clear, to his determination to spare the South the horrors of irregular warfare within its own territory. The sufferings of those parts of the South, particularly the Shenandoah Valley of his beloved Virginia, during the campaigns of depredation conducted by Union armies had convinced him that prolonging the conflict simply out of a refusal to accept its result as determined on conventional battlefields would not be in his fellow Southerners’ interest. Instead of irregular resistance to the results of the war, the South instead consoled itself with resort to an idealised version of Confederate history, which became known as the Lost Cause. Fortunately for Americans, the Lost Cause took the form of a legend rather than a political movement, a highly romanticised legend which eventually resolved itself into a depiction of the antebellum South as a land of magnolia blossoms, white-pillared mansions, pretty damsels of the plantation, and contented slaves, which reached its apotheosis in the best-selling novel Gone with the Wind, later made into an enormously successful Hollywood film. Eventually Gone with the Wind became in a way the South’s revenge on the North for the popularity and influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Just as Harriet Beecher Stowe (“the little woman who made this great war”) had succeeded in making the South appear populated by selfish, heartless, and cruel slave owners, Margaret Mitchell succeeded in reworking the picture as one in which Southern beauties and their gallants presided over chuckling old black retainers who gave as good in banter as they got by way of servitude. The result was that, over time, Gone with the Wind has become better known than Uncle Tom’s Cabin and had greater lasting effect.
Gone with the Wind may even have influenced the way in which the Civil War is seen. Its memorable depiction of the battle of Atlanta and the spoliation of the Tara plantation certainly fed the loyal of the Lost Cause in emphasising the story of Southern bravery and of a war lost in a less than fair fight. If it were a reader’s only source it would certainly raise the issue of how a people so resolute lost the war they fought to defend their way of life, and so whether, given appropriate alterations in the course of events, the Confederacy could have survived. Were such a reader to turn to the military history of the war in search of illumination, he or she would almost certainly and promptly conclude that no other outcome than the one delivered by the war’s events was possible.
The first set of events pointing to the inevitability of the actual outcome, leaving material disparities in the strength of the combatants out of account, was the progress of the imposition of blockade. At the outset, the South’s access to supply of military essentials was unimpeded; indeed, in the first months of the war, the Confederacy succeeded in purchasing abroad and in importing very large quantities of war materials. By August 1861 the South had brought 50,000 European rifles into the country, despite the fact that the blockade had been declared and was being enforced by the United States Navy, which had nearly a hundred vessels at a time when the South had no navy at all. The blockade proceeded relentlessly as the Union, by action at sea and by landing troops on the coast, took possession of the South’s ports and coastal waters. By April 1862 the whole Atlantic coast of the Confederacy, with the exceptions of Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah, was in Union hands, and the Union army could land troops wherever it chose, to garrison, if so wanted, several large enclaves it had established ashore.
The loss of the Confederacy’s coastline presaged doom, since it undermined the South’s claim to be sovereign and independent by cutting it off from the outside world. The next progressive stage in its isolation, an internal rather than foreign isolation, came with the capture of the shorelines of the western rivers, first the Cumberland and the Tennessee following the taking of Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862, which rapidly led to the capture of most of the length of the Mississippi (less Vicksburg). The isolation of this area, which eventually became known as Kirby Smithdom, was not fatal to the South’s survival, since the region contained no great centres of population or manufacturing but it was weakening nevertheless since it did contain the largest concentration of livestock in the South and was an important source of agricultural produce. The fall of Forts Henry and Donelson inaugurated the North’s domination of the Mississippi Valley and of the sequence of Northern offensives in Tennessee and then Georgia which weakened the Confederacy both materially and morally. Grant’s campaign in the Mississippi Valley was to unfold as one of the most complex of the war, both geographically and in its sequence of events. Vicksburg, because of its location on high ground, and because of the girdle of its encircling waterways, was almost impregnable. Grant’s success in tempting Pemberton, the Vicksburg commander, out of his fortifications to do battle in the open was a brilliant achievement. Grant’s western campaign of 1863 defeated all hope of further Southern success in the border states, consolidated Union dominance over the Mississippi Valley, and secured the platform for Sherman’s invasion of Georgia and the inauguration of his war against popular morale inside the South.
Eastern successes in 1863, at Gettysburg in particular, brought to an end for good the Confederacy’s freedom to mount invasions of the North. Events in 1864, particularly the Overland Campaign, with its appalling toll of casualties, shook the resolution of the North again, but the Union’s will to fight on revived and once the siege of Petersburg began, the determination to see the war out to victory persisted undimmed to the very end.
By that stage of the war, the overthrow of the Confederacy was unavoidable. The strength of its armies was in irreversible decline; its currency had lost all value, and so isolation from the outside world was complete. Important areas of the South were no longer under Richmond’s control, and some had already been laid waste, a process which was to continue.
In retrospect and in the light of its progressive material weakening, what stands out as remarkable about the Confederacy’s conduct of the war is Southern resilience. Just as the North recovered from psychological setback, such as invasion of its borderland and defeats such as Fredericksburg, so the South made recoveries also. It seemed not offended at all by the early loss of New Orleans, its largest city, or by such terrible slaughters as at Shiloh. It was undoubtedly cast down by Gettysburg and even by the loss of Vicksburg, on the same day, but a month afterwards it was tussling as hard as ever. At no point in the war, until Davis’s flight from Richmond in April 1865, did the South publicly disclose a loss of the will to resist. It was astonishing that it contested the onward march of the Union army on both the day before the surrender at Appomattox and the day before that. On April 7, two days before he met Grant to capitulate, Robert E. Lee was still denying that resistance was pointless.
The continuation of the war after that date was certainly impossible, since Lee was outnumbered several times over and had no rations with which to feed his troops. It seems probable, however, that had food been available and if numbers had sufficed, he might well have gone on resisting, as would many of his men. In that sense the South could have survived longer than it did.