Why the South lost

Beringer, Hattaway, Jones, Still, Jr. Why the South Lost the Civil War, second discussion

As I pointed out yesterday, the will of Southerners was vital  in supporting the Confederate war effort.  The authors argue that military power’s decline, directly impacted civilian will.  Further, doubts were extended as Southerners wondered about whether religion could shore up the Confederacy.  Yet, the South continued the struggle, partially because the North was also tiring of war.  So the question remained – how did the authors explore the issue of will and why, after the winter of 1863-1864, did the South fight on at all? (292,293)

By that winter season, it was clear that the attempts at offensive thrusts from the Confederacy were completed.  The authors suggest that one reason the South lost was because the Confederacy did not fight with soldiers and civilians and they did not successfully get the citizens to actively continue believing in the war effort.  I’m not quite convinced as the authors are that the use of military answers to military problems was a bad solution – I’m not an expert, but if you have military problems, how else do you solve them?

Here, the authors explore the final campaigns, proposals to free the slaves if they served in the Confederate armed forces, issues, again, of popular morale dipping, the fact that Southerners began to revisit why they fought the war in the first place, and, as always throughout the text, the place of God in the outcome (299-417).  By the time William Sherman had taken Savannah, it was clear to many Southerners that their defeat was inevitable.  If God would not support the Southern cause, then Southerners could use their faith as a “bridge to the acceptance of defeat” (353).  Also in this section is an interesting (though perhaps not completely convincing) discussion of slaveholder guilt – the idea that Southerners knew that emancipation must be the answer.  As with other sections of the text, the authors are presenting synthesis, so we learn quite a bit about alternative opinions on this issue of “slave guilt.”

In their epilogue, the authors present the case that the Confederacy could have been successful as an entity at least until the fall and winter of 1864.  This section asserts that had the Confederacy seen a collapse of the home front in the North, independence for the South could have been possible.  Finally, they conclude, as author historians have done, that a lack of a strong nationalism across the Confederacy could not maintain efforts, waiting for the Northern civilians and politicians to end the war.  This same weakness would not push extreme measures like guerilla warfare beyond the logical conclusion of a rationale “hope to win.”  Ultimately, the South lost the war militarily but didn’t “lose themselves.”  Southerners were able to hold onto independence in a different manner by claiming “they had fought successfully for state rights, white supremacy, and honor” (422).  While the entire book repeats a few points here and there, overall it explores a number of issues very clearly.  One of the most interesting points that is offered in the last half of the text is the point I expressed earlier – independence was found after the war, more so than during its prosecution.  When we examine this history – the reconstruction era South, the era of the “New South,” the Civil Rights period in the 20th century – all of these eras and themes have to face that question of a united South, a South trying to salvage elements of control after a failed revolution for independence.

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3 Comments

Filed under Teaching and Learning History

3 responses to “Why the South lost

  1. Joanne Marie Aieta

    Nick,
    I’m enjoying and being educated more and more by reading this current expression of your thoughts about the Civil War –in which my relative is said to have been shot off a white horse!! Mom

  2. Graham Raymond

    Hey Nick,

    What are your thoughts on how slave holders were able to convince non slave holders to fight for the confederacy? It’s an interesting point and I think it is similar to the argument about morale at home.

    • Graham – Thanks for the query. Initially, it seems that as unionist regions (think about the mountains in North Carolina) were caught up in secession, non-slaveholders were taken with the idea of defending their immediate homes and communities from attack. I would agree with some of the authors’ suggestions that the will to fight for these non-slaveholders had a lot to do with town, region, and state, in that order. Many individuals were more concerned with the potential invasion of their environs than they were with issues of slavery. Nationalism, or the idea of a patriotism in the Confederacy, was not particularly strong among these non-slaveholders (then again it was not that strong among slaveholders too!)

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