Originally aired on February 09, 1996 - In part 76 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson addresses the question of whether or not the South could have won the contest.
#76 – Could The South Have Won?
One of the most countless fascinations of the Civil War – and one of the never-ending controversies surrounding that war – has to do with whether the South could have won. The argument is complex; it involves more facets than the average person could image. A couple of examples will illustrate the point.
There was no inevitability to the outcome of the Civil War. Neither North nor South had an inside track to victory. The war was a classic case of two strong and justifiable wills at odds. It was one of the few instances in history involving an armed conflict between two democracies. And what so many people find startling is the fact that despite the North’s enormous superiority in manpower and material, the South had a two-to-one chance of winning the contest.
Look closely. The North’s fundamental objective in the war was to force the South – physically as well as mentally – back into the Union. To do this, the North had to invade the Confederacy seize its key strategic and economic points, defeat its armies, and bring about so much destruction and suffering among the civilian population that the Southern people would ultimately see the futility of their ways and surrender.
In contrast, the South could achieve its objective of independence in one of two ways.
First, it could defeat the Union war effort in open battle. This was not a farfetched option. It took much time for the Northern war machine to get into full gear; the South put more troops in the field in 1861 than did the enemy; and Southern generals at that early stage were unquestionable abler and more audacious than their counterparts across the way. An unbroken stream of smashing victories in 1861 and 1862 might well have brought war weariness and acquiescence in letting the South go its own way.
The other option for the South was more passive, and some might say it was far more realistic. The Confederacy might achieve its goal of freedom simply by frustrating the Northern efforts. If the Southern nation defended itself well enough and long enough, then possibly the North would conclude that the cost of war was too high, that Southern resistance was too costly, that the war could not be won. In such an atmosphere, Northern leaders might come to realize that reunion, as well as the effort to eliminate slavery from the land, was not worth the amount of bloodshed. A negotiated peace would follow, as the South made permanent its exit from the old Union.
Put in a logical way, in order for the North to win the Civil War, it had to gain total military victory over the Confederacy. The South could win the war either by gaining military victory of its own or simply by continuing to exist. For as long as one Confederate flag flew defiantly somewhere, the South was winning. As long as the word “Confederate” had genuine meaning, the South was winning. As long as the South remained out of the Union, it was winning.
The North came so close to losing the war on more than one occasion. Such is clear evidence that the South held a trump card through the struggle. Yet, as several historians have emphasized, the South’s chance of success depended upon its application of skill, unity, and dedication to overcome the North’s advantages in numbers, wealth, arms, and supplies.
That did not occur. Northern victory came became of overwhelming resources, a more effective strategy in both national and military affairs, as well as an unbreakable devotion to the Union. To all of these factors should be added one other: patriotism in the form of persistence.