Official "Did the Confederacy Have a Chance to Win the American Civil War?" Thread

Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: Before 1900' started by Anaxagoras, Jan 28, 2016.

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Did the Confederacy Have a Chance to Win the American Civil War?

  1. No chance. Zero. Zilch. Nada. None.

    44 vote(s)
    7.5%
  2. It technically had a chance, like there is a chance of flipping heads ten times in a row.

    237 vote(s)
    40.6%
  3. It had a chance, but it was unlikely.

    259 vote(s)
    44.3%
  4. Maybe a 50-50 chance.

    21 vote(s)
    3.6%
  5. Sure, it had a perfectly decent chance to win.

    20 vote(s)
    3.4%
  6. I'm actually surprised it lost.

    3 vote(s)
    0.5%
  1. Anaxagoras Vox clamantis in deserto Banned

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    If often seems that every single thread that discusses any aspect of the American Civil War, so matter how insignificant, degenerates into a rancorous yelling match about whether the South ever had a chance to win the war at all. Many have complained in the past that this tendency has the effect of shutting down discussion in all threads related to the American Civil War. So I decided to post an official thread where people can continue to have those arguments, which I hope will allow a freer and more open discussion about specific questions of the American Civil War in other threads.

    So, from now on, whenever anyone tries to derail threads on the American Civil War in such a manner, simply direct them to this thread.
     
  2. TFSmith121 War is the remedy that our enemies have chosen ... Banned

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    All else as historical up to 1860-61?

    All else as historical up to 1860-61?

    You going to do the same thing for ZEELOWE? ;)

    Best,
     
  3. Anaxagoras Vox clamantis in deserto Banned

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    (Here are my thoughts on the question, which I posted on my author's blog last month.)

    It is an article of faith among a great many historians, both popular and academic, that the South never had a chance to win the American Civil War and was doomed to defeat from the moment Fort Sumter was fired upon. This was central tenant of the "Lost Cause" school of history for nearly a century after the war; it was easier for people in the South to accept that they had lost if they could tell themselves that they had never had a chance to win. If victory had been possible, the white South would have had to explain to itself why it had failed. Modern historians, for their part, seem reluctant to acknowledge that a Southern victory was possible because, in the politically correct world in which we live, this might be somehow misinterpreted as a defense of slavery.

    In the magisterial documentary series The Civil War, by Ken Burns, Shelby Foote sums up the idea with his typically wry and profound way.

    It is quite true that the Union had enormous advantages over the Confederacy. There were twenty-two million people in the North and only nine million in the South. Moreover, a third of the South's population were black slaves, which might be used for manual labor but which could not be used as soldiers. After all, if the Confederates were to give their slaves weapons, how could they be sure the slaves wouldn't immediately turn them against those who enslaved them? Even worse, many of these blacks would join the Union army if they took control of the territory in which they lived.

    Bottom line: the pool of military manpower was much larger for the Union than it was for the Confederacy. It's no surprise, therefore, that the Northern armies were larger in almost every major battle than were the Southern armies. Only at Chickamauga in September of 1863 was a major battle fought in which the Confederates outnumbered their opponents, and then not by very much. More typical were battles like Chancellorsville, in which the South was outnumbered by roughly two-to-one. As Voltaire said, "Dieu est toujours les gros bataillions."

    Perhaps even more important than the North's numerical superiority was its vast advantage in terms of industrial power. Throughout the Northern states, pillars of smoke rose from countless factories producing every conceivable kind of war material. Rifles and cannon, of course, but also uniforms, saddles, boots, haversacks, camp equipment, and all other sorts of things. Wars are fought with more than weapons; if your men don't have boots or the means to cook their food, the armies will dissolve. It was very easy for the Union to produce massive amounts of war material, but extremely difficult for the Confederacy to do so.

    Another crucial advantage, strangely overlooked by historians, is the North's financial superiority. Then as now, New York City was the financial center of the country. Abraham Lincoln's government would have an existing fiscal infrastructure and easy access to credit, while Jefferson Davis had to start the war by begging pitiful amounts of money from state governments or tiny banks scattered around the South. Wars are won and lost on the floors of the bond market no less than the battlefield and in this regard the North had an even greater advantage than in manpower or industrial power.

    Finally, the United States Navy remained entirely under the control of the government in Washington. Though not nearly strong enough to effectively blockade the Confederacy at the outset of hostilities, it served as the foundation for the development of what would eventually become a powerful naval force that would play a crucial role in the conflict.

    To summarize, the Confederacy started its struggle for independence vastly outnumbered in terms of the number of soldiers, vastly inferior to the Union in terms of the industrial and financial power necessary to wage war, and lacking any fleet with which to combat the naval strength of the North. Given these facts, combined with the fact that the South did, indeed, lose the war in the end, I don't blame those who claim that the South never had a chance of winning.

    I do believe, though, that these people are wrong. The South could have won the war. Allow me to set out a few facts so as to convince you that I am correct.

    While conceding the enormous advantages the Union enjoyed, we have to acknowledge that the Confederacy had certain advantages of its own. The most important was the simple fact that they were fighting on the strategic defensive. The Union had no choice but to invade the Confederacy and conquer its territory, but the South did not need to do the same to the North. It merely needed to defend its own territory. Put simply, the South did not need to really win the war; it simply needed to avoid losing it.

    Fighting on the strategic defensive, the Southern commanders were much more likely to be familiar with the ground on which the campaigning would take place than their Northern opponents. This advantage should not be underrated. Such seemingly mundane things as knowing where a river can be crossed, where a ravine is in which a regiment of troops might be concealed, or whether a road on a map is a real road or just a muddy trail can sometimes make the difference between victory and defeat. Throughout the war, the South's knowledge of the terrain gave it a decided advantage.

    Much is often made about the idea that the Confederate generals were better than the Union generals. On the level of army and corps command, I do not really agree. It is true that Union commanders like Ambrose Burnside, Nathaniel Banks, and George McClellan left a great deal to be desired. But the South had plenty of terrible generals, too: Leonidas Polk, Braxton Bragg, John Bell Hood (at least as an army commander), and John Pemberton come immediately to mind. The South had men like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, but then the North had men like Ulysses S. Grant and George Thomas. Both sides had a few outstanding army and corps commanders and a large number of mediocre or poor ones. I don't think either side can claim a significant advantage over the other in this area.

    On a lower level, however, I don't think there's any question that Confederate officers were made of a higher caliber than their Yankee counterparts. The South excelled at bringing forth brilliant leaders on the regimental, brigade, and division level. Southern society before the war was militaristic to a degree unknown in the North. A much larger proportion of Southern families sent their young men into the military than was the case in the North. There were many more private military academies, such as the Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel, in the South than there were in the North. The militia system, largely in place due to fear of slave uprisings, was much more developed in the South than in the North. It should not come as any surprise to us that Southern society was able to bring forth outstanding military officers in a way that the North could only dream of.

    As a representative example, consider General Robert Rodes. He was not a graduate of West Point nor had he been a career soldier before the war. He had graduated from Virginia Military Institute in 1848 and worked as a teacher and engineer. When the work broke out in 1861, he became a colonel and put his military education to outstanding use, rising first to brigade and then division command in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. He fought gallantly through the war until being killed at the Third Battle of Winchester in 1864. The South was full of men like Robert Rodes, while the North had a great deal more trouble finding them.

    The South was largely able to negate the Union's industrial advantage through an amazing, and underappreciated, effort to create a war effort almost from scratch. During the first year of the war, the Confederacy relied on weapons taken from federal arsenals at the time of secession, weapons run through the blockade from Europe, and weapons captured from the Union on the battlefield. Later on, however, a fair chunk of the South's war material was being produced domestically. Factories in Richmond, Atlanta, Selma, and other cities were turning out large numbers of rifles, cannon and other war material. An enormous facility at Augusta, Georgia, was built to produce huge amounts of gunpowder. This was largely due to the hard work and brilliance of a single individual: Colonel Josiah Gorgas, the Confederate Chief of Ordnance, who oversaw the creation of this sprawling manufacturing empire. Because of this, the South never lost a battle because it lacked sufficient weapons and ammunition.

    The situation was very different when it came to the Commissary-General, Colonel Lucius Northrop, whose job it was to produce and transport food, fodder, and clothing to the Confederate armies. Northrop quite simply had no idea how to do his job; the dictionary entry for "incompetent" should have Northrop's picture next to it. He probably did more to deprive Confederate armies of food and clothing than every Yankee cavalry raid put together. When asked to take the helm of the War Department late in the war, John C. Breckinridge told Jefferson Davis that he would only do so if Northrop, an old friend of Davis's, was fired (Davis reluctantly got rid of him). The lack of food and clothing that bedeviled Confederate armies throughout the war, quite in contrast to the situation regarding weapons and ammunition, was not due to any inherent lack of resources so much as one man's incompetence. One can only wonder how much more effective Confederate armies would have been had a man of Gorgas's caliber been Commissary-General. It is clear, however, that the South's difficulty in getting food to its armies was due at least as much to its own failings as to the efforts of the enemy.

    Then there was the morale factor. At the outset of the war, white Southerners of all classes came together to defend their homes and their way of life. Their attitude towards African slavery revolts modern sensibilities, of course, but there is no denying the fervency of their devotion to the cause when the war began. Sacrifices were willingly made and a huge proportion of the white Southern population eventually found its way into uniform. Though Southern leaders disagreed bitterly about strategy and the suitability of Jefferson Davis to be President, there was no difficulty in persuading their people of the need to fight. Outside of East Tennessee and a few other pockets, there was effectively no genuine opposition to the war itself. Abraham Lincoln faced a much greater task in the Union, where there was a large and active anti-war movement from the commencement of the war. In 1864, anti-war Democrats almost succeeded in bringing about the defeat of Lincoln in that year's presidential election, which might have meant the end of the war.

    This, then, was the Confederacy: a largely united people fighting on their own ground under competent and often brilliant officers, eventually armed with weapons produced mostly in their own factories, knowing that they only had to avoid losing in order to win. The North might have superior manpower and material, might subject them to naval blockade, and might have access to vastly more money, but to consider the Confederates as hopelessly outmatched is simply incorrect. They were able to make themselves into a truly formidable enemy to the Union.

    There were two genuine paths to victory for the Confederacy, either one of which might have come to pass had the course of history been a bit different. The first was the possibility of foreign recognition of the Confederacy by one of the great European powers. The second was the possibility that Northern political will to go on with the fight might collapse, leading to the defeat of the Lincoln administration and the arrival of an administration willing to make peace.

    Foreign recognition was a distinct possibility, especially early in the war. The Trent Affair in the fall of 1861 very nearly caused a war between the United States and the British Empire. Britain and France flirted with recognition of the Confederacy in the fall of 1862 until the failure of the Maryland Campaign caused them to reconsider. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation made foreign recognition much less likely, there was an effort by some members of Parliament to push British recognition of the South in the summer of 1863 and there remained substantial support for the South in London and Paris even towards the end of the war.

    Lincoln had made it clear that recognition of the Confederacy by Britain or France would be a cause for war. As strong as was the Union, it paled when set against the British Empire. The Royal Navy would have gobbled up the Northern merchant marine and simply blockaded the ports of the Union until it agreed to peace. Fighting would surely have erupted along the Canadian border and the United States would have had an obvious advantage, but every brigade the Union sent there would be one less brigade the Confederacy would have had to deal with. It also would have opened up European financial markets to the South, making inflation a much less serious problem than was the case historically. Putting all these factors together, it's quite obvious that a conflict between the United States and the British Empire (and probably France) would almost certainly have led to Confederate independence.

    The other path to Confederate independence, that of a collapse in Union political will, was probably more likely. In fact, it very nearly happened in the summer of 1864. Contrary to popular belief, Gettysburg and Vicksburg did not mark the great turning point of the war, after which the Confederacy steadily collapsed. The great turning point was the summer and early fall of 1864. The 1864 campaign had begun as little short of a disaster for the Union. In the East, Grant suffered unspeakably heavy casualties in a series of terrible battles against Lee, which ended with the Confederates still solidly in control of Richmond. Meanwhile, Jubal Early raided Maryland, came within a hairsbreadth of capturing Washington itself, and burned the town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. In the Western Theater, Sherman seemed unable to either defeat Joseph Johnston's army or capture Atlanta, while Nathan Bedford Forrest was smashing one Union force after another in northern Mississippi.

    All these defeats brought morale on the Northern home front to a low point and brought forth increasing demands for a negotiated end of the war. The price the Union was paying in blood and treasure, it was clearly felt, was not worth paying any longer, as the Confederacy appeared to be as strong as ever. The Democrats set forth a platform at their national convention that year calling for a ceasefire. Even Henry Raymond, chairman of the Republican National Committee, quietly suggested seeking peace talks. Abraham Lincoln was keenly aware that a ceasefire would be tantamount to Confederate independence, for if the fighting ended there would be no political will in the North for it to resume later on.

    It wasn't until the summer and early fall of 1864, just before the presidential election, that the picture changed. Three great Union victories - Farragut in Mobile Bay, Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, and above all Sherman at Atlanta - restored faith among the Northern public that they were going to win the war and that the terrible cost would eventually be marked by victory. Lincoln as reelected and, as we know, the Union went on to win the war within the next six months. But the situation had been balanced on a razor's edge and could easily have gone the other way. Had it, the Confederacy could have won the war.

    (Many readers will recognize the above scenario, as it forms the basis of the plot for my novel Shattered Nation.)

    To conclude, it is wrong to believe that the South could never have won the Civil War. Yes, the North had clear advantages, but the South had advantages, too. Whether by the path of foreign recognition or political changes in the North, there was every possibility that the Confederacy might have emerged triumphant. Indeed, had I been an observer in 1861, I might have placed my money on the South.

    Had the Confederacy won, needless to say, historians today would be arguing that the North never had a chance of winning and the victory of the South was certain from the moment the war began.
     
  4. TheSunKing L'├ętat c'est moi

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    Yep, I knew that guy was going to show up here soon as I saw American Civil War in the title...
     
  5. Anaxagoras Vox clamantis in deserto Banned

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    I'd assume a POD no earlier than 4:30 am on April 12, 1861. But I don't want to hinder discussion.

    And if you want to go ahead and post your infographic and make your cute quote about the Imperial Japanese Navy, go ahead and get it out of your system.
     
  6. TheSunKing L'├ętat c'est moi

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    The AH.com Civil War was fought over the American Civil War...
     
  7. TFSmith121 War is the remedy that our enemies have chosen ... Banned

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    Not my infographic ...

    Not my infographic; odd that the work product of the National Park Service provokes such a reaction.;)

    One thing you don't mention is the not inconsequential reality that between the "white" southern loyalists AND southerners of African ancestry, the actual manpower imbalance was roughly 4-1.

    And that for every Rodes, there was a Doniphan or Mordecai or even a Joe Lane or Coffee Jack Hays or EM Pease (speaking of Texas) or Newt Knight who wasn't exactly a fire-eater...

    And European intervention? Please ... The rebels would have been better off praying for the Prophet Elijah to appear atop Stone Mountain and shoot thunderbolts.

    Best,
     
  8. DominusNovus Humbled by Fate

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    For the record, your odds of flipping 10 heads in a row is 1 in 1024. So, just under 0.1%.

    Sounds about right.
     
  9. MorningDew suburbia is big gay

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    #seconded.
     
  10. Autocrat Well-Known Member

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  11. Knoxville Jim Banned

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    Anaxgoras,

    You make the argument more coherently than I could ever do. I have loved the Civil War since I was 8. 35 years ago we moved 3 doors away from General Longstreet's HQ in Knoxville. My childhood was spent finding bullets and talking to the Daughters of the Confederacy or the SCV who ran the Confederate war memorial ( Longstreet's HQ.) Many of whom where true daughters and sons or grand children of veterans.

    For your excellent argument, I ask this: was there a military way for the south to win? I know everyone has a Gettysburg fantasy. But, my question is what if the South had won a strong victory at Sharpsburg? Nothing unrealistic. Nothing Turtledove. Just 191 is not lost, Lee picks better ground, Jackson performs better, the army does is united at the start of the battle. Not a destroy the whole army, just a strong win akin to 2nd bull run or Chanc. Type win.

    I have to respectfully disagree, even with the Trent affair so long as their is Prince Albert there is no British intervention, Palmetston also was also not going to come in
    France could have offered nothing. Austria, prussia and Russia were all pro-union.

    Short of the 1864 election which even little mac said he would continue the war. I respect your argument, but we were doomed from the start as the great Shelby Foote said. But then I was raised by a bunch of lost cause believers. On the plus side I intend to buy your book on my kindle tonight.
     
  12. ben0628 Thinks sleeping is a hobby Banned

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    Just out of curiosity, although there is a highly, highly, highly unlikely chance of the British intervening, would it actually change the outcome of the war?

    I know the British had a powerful empire and the best navy, but I can't see that mattering because of one the thing: the ironclad.

    After the ironclad comes into play, doesn't that make the British navy obsolete? And even if the British built their own ironclads, it wouldn't matter because I don't believe ironclads would be able to cross the ocean and Canada surely doesn't have the industrial capacity to compete with the Union.
     
  13. Behemoth Still looking for Leviathan Donor

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    From what sources I have found, the British had approximately 26 ironclads built through 1865 either coastal service or sea going. As far as their definition of sea going, I am not sure if they meant in the immediate area of the British Isles and some areas off the coast of mainland Europe. They were not the only country who were beginning to make ironclads at that time. However, I do have to wonder myself if they would be able to make the Atlantic crossing. My guess would be that it would be quite difficult.
     
  14. HIM Dogson Rationally Royalist

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    The best chance the South had to win was for Lee to remain on the defensive, and for Lincoln to lose to MClellan. Any attempt at an offensive north would have failed.
     
  15. Saphroneth Just don't ask me to write a normal world Banned

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    I think the ability of the South to win essentially depends on decisions that are not theirs to make - it's technically feasible for them to pull it off with an internal PoD, but it would involve a quite dysfunctional system working very smoothly indeed. (i.e. they guess right first time on all kinds of factors of military effectiveness, and don't put a single foot wrong internationally.)

    If you want a non-ASB Southern independence, you can do it, but to make it flow you need to start doing things which involve the North making some pretty big mistakes.

    (One example I can think of offhand would be if the North decided breechloaders were the New Way Of War, and didn't bother either buying modern weapons in Europe or tooling up to produce rifles domestically, instead only purchasing tiny numbers of Sharps or Henry rifles - thus letting the Confederacy steal a march on them.)

    Basically, make the same kind of mistakes that China did before the First Sino-Japanese War.
     
  16. unprincipled peter Well-Known Member

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    for a country/side that had little chance, they sure hung around a while.
     
  17. scholar Banned

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    If a state of total warfare existed between the Union and the Confederacy, with the absolute destruction of one or the other being the end goal of the conflict, then the Confederacy had only a small chance at success. If the end goal was simply independence, then the confederacy actually had a decent chance at accomplishing this goal. The main issue ultimately came about through military organization and problems of command. Logistics further exacerbated a serious issue, and later as the Confederacy collapse, it all spiraled out of control to the point where the Confederacy had no chance. This is, however, during the war. Before the war began, with a minor POD or two, then I would stand by the Confederacy having a decent chance. Particularly since the Union was unwilling to start the war, and it was the Confederacy's inability to compromise on a single military fort that ultimately started the conflict.

    Modern historians (and many others) tend to worship numbers: population statistics, geography, economic outputs, and levels of infrastructure tend to be those most highly prized when discussing conditions of warfare. However, these are merely the foundation for further analysis, and should never be taken as the end all. While those factors are necessary for any informed discussion of the possibilities of war, they become all but meaningless without considering human factors and the social constructs that influence that behavior.
     
  18. tallthinkev In a band Donor

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    I don't know where you lack of information came from, but you are forgetting two very important ships. HMS Warrior and HMS Black Prince. These may well have been able to destroy the whole USN, not by themselves of course. These were by far the most powerful ships in the world.
     
  19. TFSmith121 War is the remedy that our enemies have chosen ... Banned

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    It's worth keeping in mind that most of the first

    It's worth keeping in mind that most of the first year of the conflict (1861-62) was spent in mobilization by both sides; the action was largely political and economic, with military action limited largely to a) the US securing the border states, which had essentially been accomplished by the end of 1861; and b) the initial amphibious operations in support of the US blockade of the south, with the amphibious landings at Hatteras and Port Royal being the most significant.

    However, by the spring of 1862, it meant the US had 527,000 men in the field and ready for offensive operations, and the offensive never - essentially - ended. If one looks at any of the strategic maps that show the progress of the lines of control during the war, one will note that throughout 1862-65, there was really only one trend...

    However, it is also worth noting the distances involved and the territory liberated; from the Kentucky border south to the Gulf Coast, for example, is a roughly similar distance to that between Berlin and Paris, and consider how long it took any coalition to get from one to the other in the face of enemy opposition in the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth centuries.

    And the Civil War was a total war on the part of the US; the war aim was the destruction of the rebellion, not adjusting a boundary here or there.

    Best,
     
    Last edited: Jan 29, 2016
  20. kodak Has much to learn

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    Terrain is definitely an overlooked factor for the confederate advantages. In Bruce Catton's series, The Army of The Potomac, he notes that the single biggest hindrance in every northern campaign in Virginia was trying to navigate a road system that was largely unmapped. Burnside arrived at Fredericksburg around December 1, when the town was unguarded, but had to wait two weeks for the misdirected pontoons to arrive so the army could cross the river. Petersburg was virtually undefended in 1864 when the first union troops arrived, but the officers misjudged where the city and the hill they were trying to find were, and they set up camp a mile away, allowing the Confederates to build up defenses in the meantime.

    A simple POD leading to a federal-scale survey of the south in the 1850s would have doomed the confederates.
     
    Last edited: Jan 29, 2016