Could The South have WON The Civil War?

Suppose that general Lee had decided that the South must win at all costs. If he then chose a “scorched earth” policy (I.e. letting Richmond fall, and destroying the farms along the route of the Fedral advance, could he have drawn in the fedral armies and encircled them?
This was the Russian strategy in WWII, and it worked. But, given the primative state of army commmunications in 1862, couldGe. Lee have pulled this off? Suppose he was able to encircle and destroy several large northern armies-would the North’s will to fight have eveaporated?
Anyway, I believe that most wars outcomes are decidedin the first few months…was the South foredoomed to lose? or could Lee (if he were brutal enough) have beaten the North?

In that Ken Burn’s documentary, author and historian Shelby Foot (I hope I spelled his name right) stated that he didn’t think the south ever had a chance to win the war.

Speaking to the camera, he said that the north had really fought the war with one arm behind it’s back. What he meant was that the north never really invested everything they had into the war effort. It’s also safe to say that Lincoln would have never allowed the war to end until victory was acheived.

He goes on to say that if the south had caused more damage to the north, the north would have just brought that other arm out.

I’m inclined to agree that the south never really had a chance to win.

quote]Suppose that general Lee had decided that the South must win at all costs. If he then chose a “scorched earth” policy (I.e. letting Richmond fall, and destroying the farms along the route of the Fedral advance, could he have drawn in the fedral armies and encircled them?

Late in the war I doubt very much this would have worked as Lee didn’t have the troops, I think, to encircle the Army of the Potomac, let alone that force and the army Sherman was marching up from North Carolina.
It would have failed early in the war, I think, for these reasons: 1.) Lee’s army was fed from those farms and you don’t destroy your food source unless you’re desperate, which the Confederates weren’t, at least, in the early days, 2.) You’re giving those farmers an excellent reason to switch sides and remember American farmers generally know how to shoot, and 3.) You have the problem of feeding your own people as well as dealing with slaves who are now wandering around in situations favorable to escape.

I also think you are underestimating the resolve of the Yankees. The Rebs knocked the shit out of the North at the Second Battle of Bull Run and Chancellorsville and held their own at Sharpsville; yet, the North kept coming.

I know the Soviets destroyed or moved much of their industrial base in WW2, but did they burn out the farms? I can’t remember.

The South COULD have won, I think, under these scenarios:
1.) Jeff Davis and the other “wise heads” in the Confederate Congress had had the sense to leave Northern property alone and refrain from bombarding Ft. Sumter. Up until the bombardment of Ft. Sumter, a fair number of Yankees took the attitude of “let the South go” and there was always much Copperhead sentiment in places like Indiana and Illinois. I also suspect Europeans might have been a tad more willing to help the South had the Johnny Rebs not fired first.

2.) Had Jeff Davis had more greater political skill he might have charmed Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland into joining the Confederacy. Had any 2 of those states joined the rebellion, I think it would have had a much better chance. Hell, had Kentucky alone joined, the Confederates would have a great defensive barrier in the Ohio River. Lincoln has been quoted (accurately, I hope) as saying: “I hope God is on my side, but I must have Kentucky.” Many Kentuckians did join the South, but a lot chose the North as did the state government.

3.) In 1862, the South launched a two-prong attack: one force moved into Kentucky and Lee invaded Maryland with the idea of getting behind the Union forces into a position where he could wheel on any of the great Northern cities. The Kentucky invasion failed and a Confederate officer lost a copy of Lee’s orders, giving McClellan an excellent opportunity to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia at Sharpsburg. The first book of Bruce Caton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy, “Mr. Lincoln’s Army,” gives an account of how McClellan and his officers let a splendid opportunity slip away from them. It this two-pronged attack had succeeded, I think the South would have won, partially because England and France might have convinced to intervene. There was no way in hell the North could have whipped the Confederacy, England, and France.

4.) Several historians, among them Caton, have presented a plausible theory that had Joe Johnston continued to keep Sherman out of Atalanta in 1864, the Republicans would have lost the election and the Democrats would have made peace. In his book, “Ordeal by Fire,” Fletcher Pratt contended that Lincoln feared this mightily in the late summer and early autumn of 1864. However, Davis replaced Johnston with Hood, who promptly made several crucial mistakes and had to pull out of Atlanta; Farragut’s naval forces took Mobile, Ala., the Confederacy’s last port on the Gulf of Mexico; Sheridan destroyed Jubal Early’s army in the Shenandoah Valley and burned out the farms in much the fashion you describe; and Grant kept slugging at Lee’s army. Lincoln romped in the 1864 election and the rest was history.

5.) Some genius will invite a time machine soon and the Rivington men will lend a hand. :smiley:

Peyote - excellent summary. I do have a couple of rebuttals though:

  1. I think you could make an argument that Kentucky & Missouri had joined, at least in the military sense that you state your arguments. It was the Bowling Green - Columbus line that was shattered by Grant’s attack on Henry & Donelson. Missouri was a battleground for much of the war. Given the split sentiment among both the politicians and people of those states, I don’t think anything Davis or Lincoln could have done politically would change this much. I would also say there was no way in the world Lincoln would let MD secede. While I cannot provide a site, my books being buried at the moment, I seem to recall that attempts to secede in Maryland were effectively put down with martial law, if not martial force.

  2. While the theoretical point is to me completely valid, and the conclusion that the fall of Atlanta sealed Lincoln’s election unarguable, I think this is simply an impossibility. Johnson had been ably flanked out of every position he held from Chattanoga. There is no reason to suppose that Sherman would not do the same here if neccessary. I would argue that Johnson had only two choices at that point - be flanked again, or pursue the strategy employed by Hood. While he doubtless would have managed some things better than Hood, I don’t think it realistic to argue the outcome could be other than it was, ultimately.

I must agree completely with your scenario #3.

I have no input on whether or not the Confederacy “could have won.”

However, I think any comparison between the situation of the south and Russia, or the Soviet Union, in WWII is invalid. I don’t think Germany had the logistic base to defeat Russia as long as the Russians just kept fighting. The amount of territory to be controlled represents a large drain on resources available for combat the further into Russia you go. Supply lines keep getting longer and the season for effective combat is short. It is hard to just stay alive when you live outside in winter, let alone try to fight a war. Germany was simultaneously having to keep large armies scattered around Europe as occupation forces and was trying to fight an active war in North Africa. All of these things mean to me that Hitler made a fatal mistake in invading Russia.

As to the “scorched earth” tactic being effective agains the Germans. It seems to me that is marginal at best. A mechanized force such as Germany sent into Russia just doesn’t “live off the land.”

If you think that the Civil War took place only between Southern Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia the answer is yes, but only if Lee had achieved a stalemate, and if Davis had been more successful than he was in cozying up to England and France and if Lincoln lacked the determination that he showed through out the war and if both Lee’s most capable subordinates, Jackson and Longstreet, lived and were successful independent commanders.

If however, you realize that the Civil War was fought in both the East and the West and that the war in the West was pretty well lost by the summer of 1864, before the election, and that the North never focused on destroying the Confederacy and its ability to defend its self until Grant and Sherman rose to high command, then the answer is no. To think that the Southern Confederacy had any more of a chance than a tinker’s bitch is simply wishful thinking.

The interesting idea, it seems to me, is that there is a fair argument that the inevitable end of the war was delayed by the death of Charles F. Smith. Smith was Grant’s Number Two at Fort Donnellson and was dying of tetanus at Shiloh in April 1862. He was a hard case regular army type who had been the commandant at West Point. Grant was in awe of him and turned to him for advice until a barked shin turned septic and he was physically unable to go on. It was Smith who, when Grant asked what terms should be offered for the surrender of Fort Donnellson, replied, “No terms for damned traitors.” It was Smith who led the charge into the Rebel earthworks at Fort Donnellson screaming “Come on you God damned volunteers. You volunteered to die to save your country, follow me.” A grand old soldier. He could have played Sherman’s role a full year or 18 months before Sherman achieved high command and would have been an effective counter to the McClellan school of war by minimal effort.

This, of course, is the same sort of speculation that fuels the “what if Stonewall had lived” line of discussion. Both Jackson and Smith had the same sort of determination to get the brutal job done as quickly as possible.

IMO, the chances of a Southern military victory were pretty slim right from the beginning. The numbers and economics were greatly stacked against them.

Of course both sides in the beginning thought the war would be over in a matter of months if not weeks. Outlasting the North was their best chance, which at one point they may have been close to, had they been able to avoid the battlefield losses in 1864. By that time, a significant percentage on each side may have preferred a defeat to continuing the war.

My knowledge of the Civil War is almost exclusively gleaned from reading the first third of Vidal’s “Lincoln,” so I bow to those with more knowledge. However, IIRC, Gen. Butler (?) parked has troops just outside Annapolis while the Maryland legislature was debating seccession. If he hadn’t intimidated them and they ended up seceeding, D.C. would have been swimming in the middle of the C.S.A. Right now, I’m sitting about a block and a half away from the White House, and I can tell you I’d be scared shitless if I had to get from here to Pennsylvania through enemy Maryland – and I can do most of the trip at 80 miles an hour.


No, not really- at least militarily. In fact, the South had much luck in even lasting as long as it did- if Lee had decided to fight on the side of the Union- the war would have been over in months. Oddly enough, there are hundreds of “what if” scenarios that would have the South winning such & such, but none that i know of that had the North winning much faster.

Peyote makes some interesting ideas along the lines of a political victory, and in fact #1 is very plausable. Of course, in that the Soth doesn’t “win the Civil war”- there just isn’t one, the South gets to go away. I think honestly, that many Confederates weren’t in favor of really seceding- IMHO they thought the act would convince the North to make huge concessions to bring them back into the fold. Davis was an idiot to turn it into a shooting war.

The Confederacy getting Britian & France in could have turned the tide- but England at that time was so very anti-slavery that only economic pressures kept them from joining the North.

The South had a pretty decent shot at victory at Gettysburg. Had Stuart stuck around, and given Lee a good picture of what was going on, Lee had the forces to press his advantage the first and second day, get the high ground and win the battle.

From that vantage he could have marched straight to Washington and forced terms of surrender, before the North could muster more forces.

The North was always the stronger, more industrialized force I’d agree, but nevertheless Lee had the opportunity for a checkmate.

Seeing General Tommy Franks in Afghanistan made me wonder…he (Franks) can be in instant communication with his battalion commanders, and he can probably speak with sergeants (if he wants to)!
He has unparalleld access to accurate terrain maps, and knows at all times the disposoition of his forces.
Picture poor General Lee in 1862! He has to rely on couriers to send messages to his divisional commanders, and unless he is physically at the front lines, he has a very foggy view of what is going on! It is amazing that he did as well as he did…I still like to speculate on what may have happened, if Jubal Earlie’s raid on Washington was a success!

It has been argued that if Lee and Jefferson Davies had had greater strategic vision and had released the reinforcements that Stonewall Jackson requested after his tremendous series of victories in the Shenandoah Valley and allowed him to take the war into Pennsylvania as he wanted, it could have been a key turning point. The South was at a severe disadvantage in a prolonged slugging match ( apparent even before the war and all-too-clear by the end ), but an adept tactician like Jackson might have been able to unhinge the whole Virginia front, the Union chasing him as he threatened either D.C. or the industrial heartland, and allowed Lee to maneouver effectively to the rear. That combination may have been enough to get that vital European recognition and caused crippling political upheaval and economic damage in the North.

Or maybe not. Shelby Foote may be correct. But it was a more imaginative plan and better gamble than the more conservative route Lee ultimately followed IMHO.

  • Tamerlane

The real reason the South lost the War was because they were fighting a war on 2 fronts.

Not only did they have to fight against the North, they had to fight against the Klingons.

(Dave Spensley once said, “I bought a Star Trek chess set and a Civil War chess set. Now I have the South fight the Klingons.” Betcha didn’t know he was speaking from historical records, didja?)

If you’ve ever played chess, you know that you will sometimes sacrifice pieces and put yourself at a material disadvantage in order to gain a time/space advantage, especially if you can get a viable mating attack going.
However, this is a high risk strategy. Should your initial attack fail you’re stuck with your material disadvantage and a loss of your advantage in time/space.
This is what the South faced from the beginning; they were already in the position of being a piece or two down, involuntarily. They needed to mount a viable equivalent to a mating attack and press it forward before the North could bring its material advantage to bear. This is what Grant realized, and why he eventually won the war; after the loss of Gettysburg, which as Scylla pointed out was their last chance at accomplishing an advantage of any sort in time/space - and the all important dimension of politics, in real life - what they faced was an insurmountable material disadvantage with no compensating advantage anywhere else. This is why Grant said at the Wilderness: “I propose to fight on this line if it takes all summer”. He knew he had the material advantage, and that Lee was powerless to offer anything that could nullify that advantage.

I don’t know a thing about military history, but a buddy of mine claims that at the very beginning, the South could have (and should have) sacked Philadelphia and New York. This (according to my buddy) would have put a major dent in the North’s industrial might.

To chime back in - I think it is important to understand that the only victory scenario for the South to convince the North to give up & let it go. The North, of course, could only win by Subjugating the South. The only effective strategy was to make the North ultimately war weary & give up. A strategy that came close to succeeding, mainly due to Northern incompetance prior to Grant taking command.

The problem with scenarios & what ifs that are based on Southern invasions of the North, victories instead of defeat at Gettysburg/Antietem etc is that these would not properly serve the goal of tiring out the North. In fact, Lee’s two invasions of the North were wrong-headed in almost every strategic sense - the violated the economy of force required by the South, they could only accomplish whatever goal Lee hoped to achieve at a manpower cost too high for the South, and they served to strengthen Northern moral by transferring the morale from an “invade the south” mindset to a “defend our own” one. Part of the problem during the entire war was that the North was fighting for ideals (Union, end of Slavery, Democracy), where the South was fighting for their homes. Sacking Philly & New York would serve only to enrage the North, nothing more.

In looking over the posts here, it is obvious the only real point of agreement is that for the South to win, European recognition was absolutely required. Realistic hope for that ended in with the Emancipation Proclamation, and was unlikely prior to it.

Although there is an interesting anecdote from late in the war:
The South in the very end considered and ulitmately passed legislation to enroll slaves into the CSA. It came to late to really be implemented, but Mason, the Confederate Envoy to England was willing to play any card he could. He spoke with (forget the Earl’s name) regarding whether this might change England’s stance. He was told, had the Confederacy done this (ie free its slaves) in 1863 when Lee was on the march towards Gettysburg, it most certainly would have. Mason asked about the present. The answer: “Time had passed”.