Confederate Redux, with Hindsight

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,286
Dispargum
#1
With benefit of hindsight, how could the Confederacy have fought the Civil War more effectively? I think this is a bit of a challenge as the South historically exceeded reasonable expectations IMHO. Here's my take on how the South could have done even better. Feel free to add your own.

1. The Confederate Navy was a sinkhole that returned little on the invested resources. Maybe just do away with the entire Confederate Navy. I've heard claims that Confederate privateers completely decimated the North's merchant marine, but I've never seen any statistics or other evidence to back up that claim. At any rate, privateers consume few resources.

2. Blockade runners often brought in highly profitable but militarily useless luxury goods instead of munitions. We can't really go against the laws of economics and expect blockade runners to bring in less profitable munitions. Maybe Confederate propaganda could have stigmatized the wartime consumption of luxuries as unpatriotic. If the wealthy could be shamed into foregoing their luxurious lifestyles, maybe that would have removed the market for luxuries, and blockade runners would bring in more munitions.

3. The South banned the export of cotton in 1861, hoping to force Britain to recognize and aid the South. It didn't work, and the South lost an opportunity to export cotton before the Union blockade became effective. The profits from cotton sales could be used to purchase munitions, probably by taxing cotton, but this would require the planter aristocracy to agree to this taxation.

4. The South would have benefited from a better commander-in-chief than Jefferson Davis.

5. The Southern states should have more readily cooperated with the Confederate war effort. Holding back militia units to protect states that were not under immediate threat of invasion did not help. Neither did insisting on states' rights at a time when greater centralization was called for.

6. There's a whole laundry list of things that the South could have done in the century leading up to the war: build more and better railroads, encourage industrialization, encourage immigration to increase their population, gradually emancipate slaves, etc but these would have fundamentally changed the South so that a Civil War becomes less likely to occur.

7. Lee had a questionable practice of sending officers who did not meet his expectations to the Western Theater. This resulted in the best officers being concentrated in the east. Maybe a more equal distribution of quality officers between east and west would have helped the South do better overall.

8. Albert Sidney Johnston erred in trying to defend the entire Kentucky-Tennessee state line. A concentration of force may have prevented the disaster at Ft. Donnelson.

9. Pemberton should have abandoned Vicksburg and preserved his army. I do not understand why Vicksburg was so important as a place. It was an important victory because it destroyed a Confederate army, but I do not see how the loss of that place hurt the Confederacy or helped the Union. I've never heard of Union commerce using the Mississippi River after the fall of Vicksburg, nor have I read of the South suffering because they were split in two by that river. The Confederate Trans-Mississippi west had always operated as an independent theater. The Confederate east had always operated with few, if any, western resources, especially after 1861.

10. The Gettysburg Campaign was poorly conceived. The risks far outweighed the potential reward. By 1863, the west was emerging as the theater of decision. Lee may have anticipated the pressures that eventually drove him to send Longstreet to Chickamauga. Lee may have invaded Pennsylvania as a way of trying to force a decision in the east instead of the west, but he was going against the very nature of the war.

11. Confederate officers more so than their Northern opponents, tended to lead from the front and run greater risks. This led to the South losing more officer talent. I suspect the differences between Northern and Southern officers were cultural, and if we change the culture there's far less need to even have a Civil War, but if Southern officers had a higher survival rate, that would have helped.

12. What would have happened if Joe Johnston remained healthy in the east and Lee was given command in Tennessee in June 1862 instead of Bragg?

What are your thoughts on how to improve Confederate outcomes?
 
Likes: grey fox

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
7,095
#2
With benefit of hindsight, how could the Confederacy have fought the Civil War more effectively? I think this is a bit of a challenge as the South historically exceeded reasonable expectations IMHO. Here's my take on how the South could have done even better. Feel free to add your own.

1. The Confederate Navy was a sinkhole that returned little on the invested resources. Maybe just do away with the entire Confederate Navy. I've heard claims that Confederate privateers completely decimated the North's merchant marine, but I've never seen any statistics or other evidence to back up that claim. At any rate, privateers consume few resources.
It did destroy a lot of Union shipping. American shipping was never the same after the war.

The war, however, accentuated a tendency already existing and dealt a blow from which the merchant marine failed to recover until artificially revived during World War I. In 1861 registered American tonnage in foreign trade amounted to 2,496,894 tons and in 1865 to 1,518,350, while the percent of imports and exports carried in American ships dropped in the same years from 66.2 to 27.7 ............................

In 1860 the percentage of imports and exports carried in American ships was 66.5, but this dropped in 1870 to 35.6, in 1880 to 13, in 1890 to 9.4, in 1900 to 7.1. History of the United States Merchant Marine - Wikipedia

2. Blockade runners often brought in highly profitable but militarily useless luxury goods instead of munitions. We can't really go against the laws of economics and expect blockade runners to bring in less profitable munitions. Maybe Confederate propaganda could have stigmatized the wartime consumption of luxuries as unpatriotic. If the wealthy could be shamed into foregoing their luxurious lifestyles, maybe that would have removed the market for luxuries, and blockade runners would bring in more munitions.
Still, the blockade runners brought war material wouldn't have had at all if not for them.

3. The South banned the export of cotton in 1861, hoping to force Britain to recognize and aid the South. It didn't work, and the South lost an opportunity to export cotton before the Union blockade became effective. The profits from cotton sales could be used to purchase munitions, probably by taxing cotton, but this would require the planter aristocracy to agree to this taxation.
Even if the South had tried exporting the cotton, getting it past the Union ships would still have been a problem. The additional material the South would have gained would not have lasted as long.

4. The South would have benefited from a better commander-in-chief than Jefferson Davis.

5. The Southern states should have more readily cooperated with the Confederate war effort. Holding back militia units to protect states that were not under immediate threat of invasion did not help. Neither did insisting on states' rights at a time when greater centralization was called for.
The problem is that a stronger central government would have gone against the very point of "states rights" the Confederacy was fighting for. They could not have implement the necessary change without abandoning the very principle they claimed to be fighting for, and exposed that it was really an issue about just slavery, which would definitely killed any real possibility of Britain or France supporting the Confederacy. They would not support a government whose sole reason was to preserve and promote slavery.

6. There's a whole laundry list of things that the South could have done in the century leading up to the war: build more and better railroads, encourage industrialization, encourage immigration to increase their population, gradually emancipate slaves, etc but these would have fundamentally changed the South so that a Civil War becomes less likely to occur.
The American could have done an even longer list of t hings before the war, like not locate so many of the US military assets in the South, and better guarded the US bases and destroyed the weapons before the Southern states could steal them. Davis located bases and arsenals in the south precisely because he anticipated the possibility of the Civil War.

One thing the Union did not have to do was allow officers like Lee to resign on the eve of war. They could of insisted that Lee and others honor their commitment, either throwing them in jail, or assigning them to the Western frontier if they would not fight against the Confederacy. A government does not have to allow a professional officer like Lee to resign on the eve of a war simply because he doesn't like who he will have to fight. Depriving the Confederacy of some of its best generals would have been a blow - even making them sit out the war in jail would have been a help. The Union was in its right to say - "you swore an oath as an officer, and you don't get to decide not to honor that oath when it suited". If Union refused to all officers to resign, which they had every right to do so, they would also been well within their rights to shoot those soldiers who fought for the Confederacy anyways, which would have made some think twice of joining the Confederate army.
 

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
7,095
#3
7. Lee had a questionable practice of sending officers who did not meet his expectations to the Western Theater. This resulted in the best officers being concentrated in the east. Maybe a more equal distribution of quality officers between east and west would have helped the South do better overall.
Lee waa not in charge of the entire Confederate army when Grant was chewing them up, and he really had no control of who got sent to the Western Front. Grant and the other Union generals were just better generals than the Confederate ones. When Grant moved to the East, it was always Lee that had to do the retreating, and while Lee was retreating before Grant, Sherman was trashing the rest of the Confederacy in the East which Lee was helpless to stop.

8. Albert Sidney Johnston erred in trying to defend the entire Kentucky-Tennessee state line. A concentration of force may have prevented the disaster at Ft. Donnelson.
Grant could have concentrated his forces and still defeated Johnson, I don't see it changing outcomes. And it meant the Union could ravage Tennessee like Sherman did Georgia. Moreover, with out Johnson defending the entire line, I suspect parts of Tennessee would have just gone over to the Union.

9. Pemberton should have abandoned Vicksburg and preserved his army. I do not understand why Vicksburg was so important as a place. It was an important victory because it destroyed a Confederate army, but I do not see how the loss of that place hurt the Confederacy or helped the Union. I've never heard of Union commerce using the Mississippi River after the fall of Vicksburg, nor have I read of the South suffering because they were split in two by that river. The Confederate Trans-Mississippi west had always operated as an independent theater. The Confederate east had always operated with few, if any, western resources, especially after 1861.
By conquering Vicksburg, it divided the Confederacy, and allowed the Union to defeat the South piece. Grant could safely crush the Confederacy in the West before going East and not having the worry about the Confederacy in the West. Had the the Union not conquered Vicksburg, troops from the West could have supported forces in the East, crossing the Mississippi to attack the Union forces in the rear while Grant went off to attack Lee. That didn't happen precisely because Grant conquered Vicksburg. You display the same lack of understanding as the Confederate Generals who lost the war. Had not Pemberton held out Vicksburg, Grant could have taken in much quicker, and then gone on sooner to defeat the Confederates in the West and headed east sooner.

10. The Gettysburg Campaign was poorly conceived. The risks far outweighed the potential reward. By 1863, the west was emerging as the theater of decision. Lee may have anticipated the pressures that eventually drove him to send Longstreet to Chickamauga. Lee may have invaded Pennsylvania as a way of trying to force a decision in the east instead of the west, but he was going against the very nature of the war.
True, but Gettysburg demonstrates how Lee was over rated. Lee was great on defense, and 19th century warfare greatly favored the defense, but both times he went on the offense, which was more difficult, he got defeated. When not fighting on his home turf, Lee was clearly inferior to Grant. Unless the Confederacy could take the war to the North, it ultimately was doomed, and Lee had to try. Meade was not the incompetent general McClellan, but he never really got over the shock of Gettysburg. Without it, he might have accomplished more. Lee could not travel to the West, that wasn't his sphere of the war and he had no authority to do so. Lee was not commander of all Confederate forces like Grant, and even if he could have taken his army west, he would not have done so because it would left his beloved Virginia exposed to the Army of the Potomac.

And the West was not the key frontier. The Eastern Confederate states like Virginia and Georgia had most of the industrial resources the south had. Grant understood the East was the center of the Confederacy, where its capital was, and that is why he went east, and left fighting in the west to his other generals.

11. Confederate officers more so than their Northern opponents, tended to lead from the front and run greater risks. This led to the South losing more officer talent. I suspect the differences between Northern and Southern officers were cultural, and if we change the culture there's far less need to even have a Civil War, but if Southern officers had a higher survival rate, that would have helped.
I don't think that is true at all, can you provide any support for those claims? The Union lost a lot of generals and other officers in the Civil War, and the Union lost its share of officers in battle.

12. What would have happened if Joe Johnston remained healthy in the east and Lee was given command in Tennessee in June 1862 instead of Bragg?
Still defeat for the Confederacy, just as in the East. It might have taken a little longer is all.
 

stevev

Ad Honorem
Apr 2017
3,419
Las Vegas, NV USA
#4
The South came much closer to its goals than it is credited. Grant's bloody campaign of 1864 ended in a stalemate with trench warfare around Richmond-Petersberg. Lincoln openly worried that the patience for the continuing war in the North was was at a new low ebb. The "Peace Democrats" had a fair chance of winning. Sometime between July and September a cease fire might might have been workable. There would have been support for this by the Peace Democrats and other anti-war interests (NY Banks, commercial interests). A cease fire could have meant no Battle of Atlanta and a victory for McClellan in the November presidential election.

The best card for the South was always anti-war sentiment in the North.
 
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Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,286
Dispargum
#5
Bart,
What you say about the decline of the US merchant marine in the Civil War is not supported by the article you cite. Your article says the US merchant marine was already declining before the war and continued to decline long after due to market forces that had little to do with the war. For instance many American ships were whalers. As whale oil was replaced by other fuels, Americans got rid of their whalers but did not replace them with newer types of ships. Americans also had a lot of clipper ships. The rise of steam ships and the construction of the Suez Canal reduced the value of clippers so Americans got rid of their clippers. The American economy offered better investment opportunities than merchant shipping, so Americans got out of the shipping business. It's true that before the war the US had 2.4 million tons of shipping and at war's end that had fallen to 1.5 million - a decline of 900k, but what you didn't say was that 750k of that decline was not US ships being sunk by the Confederate Navy. Those 750k tons of ships were sold to foreign countries between 1861 and '65, leaving only 150,000 to be sunk by the war. Some of those sinkings must have been Confederate ships sunk by the Union Navy, for instance blockade runners. I have neither the time nor the inclination to track down every single ton of lost shipping. I did look up the CSS Alabama's record - 65 ships captured or sunk possibly exceeding 70,000 tons of shipping. (That tonnage is an educated guess on my part.) If one Confederate ship can sink half of the total, that suggests to me that the rest of the Confederate Navy, including privateers, accomplished very little.

We agree about much of what you say. Lee was overrated and too Virginia-centric in his outlook. We agree that if we change too many things about the South, there's no longer a need for the Civil War. We agree the loss of Pemberton's army was a serious blow to the South. I still don't see how splitting the South along the Mississippi River presented the South with any serious difficulty. Without a railroad spanning the river, it was impossible to transfer any meaningful quantities of resources from east to west or west to east. I did read that in 1864 Kirby Smith wanted to send aprx 10,000 men from Arkansas to Mississippi but couldn't because the Union controlled the river. Instead he sent these men to invade Missouri under Sterling Price where they were defeated and destroyed. If Kirby Smith had been able to transfer these men to Mississippi, the North would have transferred 10,000 men from Missouri to Tennessee, so there would be no net gain for the South. The trans-Mississippi west always was on its own. The biggest assistance the Confederacy got from the trans-Mississippi west was the transfer of troops to the east, but most of those had already crossed the river before the fall of Vicksburg. In the second half of the war, there was very little remaining in the west that could have been transferred east.

425 Confederate generals of which 78 died in action (18%). 580 Union generals of which 46 died in action (8%). The total number of Union generals and the number that died in action gets complicated if we count brevet brigadier generals and/or colonels commanding brigades but not holding a general's rank. But I don't think other numbers would yield a significantly different percentage of killed in action.
List of Union Generals Killed or Mortally Wounded
Confederate Generals in the Civil War
 
Jan 2010
4,439
Atlanta, Georgia USA
#7
6. In addition to the reason you gave—which is determinative—the South did not intend to secede until sometime in the 1850s. The South controlled the Presidency for decades and had the votes in Congress. Had the South industrialized from the beginning, it would have become like the North, except with slave labor.
 

betgo

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
6,283
#8
6. In addition to the reason you gave—which is determinative—the South did not intend to secede until sometime in the 1850s. The South controlled the Presidency for decades and had the votes in Congress. Had the South industrialized from the beginning, it would have become like the North, except with slave labor.

I don't understand the point. The south was not a person and did not intend to secede until shortly before the time it did. The deep south had a booming economy based on cotton. There was no reason to industrialize or any way industrialization could be organized.

There was industry in the border states and Virginia. Virginia built up a debt with transportation improvements designed to improve its industry while facing a declining agricultural economy.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,286
Dispargum
#9
I don't understand the point. The south was not a person and did not intend to secede until shortly before the time it did. The deep south had a booming economy based on cotton. There was no reason to industrialize or any way industrialization could be organized.

There was industry in the border states and Virginia. Virginia built up a debt with transportation improvements designed to improve its industry while facing a declining agricultural economy.
If we get back to the OP - what could the South have done differently to win the war? - industrialize, build more and better railroads, etc but if it had, it would not have been the South anymore except as a point on the compass. What I was getting at is that starting with certain givens, like an agrarian economy, the South was at a real disadvantage and there's little one can do about it.
 
Feb 2016
4,424
Japan
#10
The south’s best chance, I reckon is dragging the war out for so long that the North decide it is no longer worth it. Which means probably fighting defensively ... problem is though demographically a long war will bleed the south dry faster than it does the North, unless the south can manage battlefield casualty levels much smdller than the North.
 

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