(I wrote this for April 1, 2011 for the blog Almost Chosen People, and I thought that the various Civil War mavens who read The American Catholic might find this interesting.)
As we mark the 150th anniversary of the War Between the States there are many historical questions to ponder. However, one question rises to the fore as it always does when the War Between the States is discussed: Was Confederate victory inevitable?
Because of the ten following factors, I’d say that it was:
1. Abraham Lincoln- Few Presidents have ever been elected with no executive experience, but that was precisely the case with Lincoln. Although he could deliver a magnificent speech and was clearly a master of the English language, Lincoln quickly demonstrated that he was an amateur in running the government. His frequent sacking of generals led to instability in the Union Army command, the frequently hostile relations with Congress, including members of his own party, that hampered his policies, the corruption that marred the supply of the Army, these and many more features of his administration attested to the fact that Lincoln was an extremely talented man who simply was out of his depth. Perhaps the task was too large for any man to preserve the Union by force of arms, but certainly it was too great for Mr. Lincoln.
2. Supremacy of the Defence-General Robert E. Lee quickly realized that the old Napoleonic charges were impossible against fortified positions held by troops armed with rifled muskets. Although his troops initially meant the title derisively, Lee, the King of Spades, repeatedly used field fortifications, beginning in 1862, to nullify the Union manpower advantage on the battlefield.
3. Size of the Confederacy- The sheer size of the Confederacy, three times the size of France, ensured that the attempted Union conquest would be a massive undertaking, too massive as it turned out for the Union. If British seapower, beginning in 1862, see number 6 below, had not caused the lifting of the Union blockade, prevented the landing of Union troops along the coasts of the Confederacy and contested Union naval control of the Mississippi river, it is conceivable that the Union could have coped with the immensity of the Confederacy, but such was not the case.
4. Lee-Jackson partnership-No command team in history proved more effective than the Lee-Jackson combination. Beginning at Chancellorsville, Lee and Jackson dealt the Union body blows at Gettysburg in 1863, and the Wilderness in 1864, almost a replica of the Chancellorsville victory a year before. No wonder that Lee was the second president of the Confederacy and Jackson the third.
5. Enlistment of black soldiers-After the victory at Gettysburg, Lee put his immense prestige behind the cause of enlisting black soldiers under the Confederate battle flag with the promise of freedom for themselves and their families. Resistance to this move was immense in the Confederacy, but with Lee behind it all resistance was overborne. The 100,000 black troops who fought for the South in 1864 were essential to the Confederate victory, and paved the way for the passage of the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1870, which President Robert E. Lee, just before his death, claimed to be his greatest victory.
6. Trent Affair-Although the British Empire never landed troops to assist the Confederacy, the naval war between the US and Great Britain of 1862-1865 did lead to the lifting of the blockade by the Royal Navy, a prime factor in Confederate victory. Some historians have speculated that if Prince Albert had not died on November 8, 1861 that perhaps he could have headed off war between the British Empire and the Union. Maybe, but such what if speculation is to enter the realm of alternate history.
7. Shiloh-The defeat of the Union forces at Shiloh in 1862 threw back the Union war effort by at least a year. By the time the war ended with the defeat of Lincoln at the polls in November 1864 and the election of President Clement Vallandigham, Union forces in the West under General Rosecrans had secured Vicksburg, but Union progress was too little and too late for a Union population convinced that the War was lost.
8. Draft riots of 1863-The draft riots that began in New York in July 1863 quickly spread to other major cities in the North and produced a virtual civil war in the Union until the riots were quelled with much blood shed by the end of September 1863. If the Army of the Potomac had not been reeling from its shattering defeat at Gettysburg, perhaps troops could have been rushed to New York and quelled the riots there before the fever spread. We shall never know.
9. Mormon uprising of 1863- The relationship between the Union and the Mormons in the Utah territory had been chilly from the outset of the Lincoln administration. By 1863 Brigham Young was convinced that the Confederacy would win, and, with Southern arms and advisors, made an attempt to establish the Zion Republic. The 50,000 Union troops used to put down this revolt in 1863-64 were sorely needed against the Confederacy.
10. Jefferson Davis-For a victorious president, Davis has always had his legions of critics, both during and after the War. However, to his everlasting credit, Davis pushed through the legislation in the Confederate Congress in the fall of 1862 that made Lee general-in-chief and gave him a free hand thereafter in the running of the War. That one brilliant act none of his naysayers can ever take away from him.
In recalling these factors, it is hard to see how a path to Union victory existed. The Union soldiers fought a gallant struggle, but fate, and the factors enumerated above, caused them to labor in vain.