The Civil War: The South was doomed from the start

This is the concluding column discussing a small gem of a book, "This Mighty Scourge" by Dr. James McPherson. He is the author of several books about our Civil War, including the Pulitzer Prize winner "Battle Cry of Freedom." In teaching the Civil War, I use "Battle Cry" as the textbook of choice; it reads like a novel and carries the story of the war forward in logical progression.

"This Mighty Scourge" is a series of essays about the war, divided into five sections. This column is about the way the war was fought. The conclusion: The Confederate battle plan was found wanting. McPherson lays the fault directly on the shoulders of the leaders of the Confederacy, President Jefferson Davis; and his military commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee.

McPherson asks the key question: Why did the South lose?

He allows Lee to give his own reasons at Appomattox in his farewell address to the Army of Northern Virginia. The Army was forced to "yield to over-whelming numbers and resources." That certainly is a valid point. In population alone, the North dominated, 22 million to 9 million - and some 3.5 million of the South were slaves. The North had a nine times larger manufacturing economy. It produced 94 percent more iron and 97 percent more coal. Of critical importance, the North had 22,000 miles of rail lines, while the the South had 9,000 miles.

Even author Shelby Foote noted that the "North fought the war with one hand behind its back." Foote also was of the opinion that had the Confederacy even come close to winning the war, the North "simply would have brought that other arm from behind its back." He added, "I don't think the South ever had a chance to win that war."

In political leadership, the North had Abraham Lincoln: clear-eyed and driven. He was determined not to transfer to his successor a nation lesser than the one that had been turned over to him. The Confederacy was led by Jefferson Davis, diminished by "dyspepsia and neuralgia that grew worse under wartime pressure and left him virtually blind in one eye ... and wracked by pain that exacerbated his waspish temper."

McPherson also comments on the leadership qualities of the two men: "Lincoln was more eloquent than Davis in expressing his country's war aims and more successful in communicating them to his people. Nothing that Davis wrote or spoke during the war has resonated down through the ages" and as examples, McPherson notes Lincoln's first and second inaugural addresses as well as the Gettysburg Address.

So the real question can be asked: Why did the South go to war against such enormous odds?

Davis understood the odds and his first address to the Confederate Congress stated: "We seek no conquest, no aggrandizement, no concession of any kind from the States with which we were lately confederated; all we ask is to be let alone." And Davis had a lot going for him. Basic was the fact that his Confederacy included some 750,000 mostly contiguous square miles of highly productive land with a benign climate as well as a coastline that afforded worldwide commerce and food for the taking.

It controlled all this land, except for a few small forts still under Washington control. McPherson states the Confederate problem: "All it had to do was defend what it already had."

Davis agreed. His early goal was a "thoroughly defensive survival-oriented strategy. He would trade space for time, keep the Army concentrated and ready to strike" at targets of opportunity in Southern territory - and above all, follow the precepts of Gen. George Washington, and avoid the destruction of Confederate forces. The goal was to make the war so protracted, so costly, so onerous to the North that it would finally agree to Southern independence as the lesser of two evils. After all, it had worked just a few generations ago against the British.

Surprisingly, using the interior lines of communication with which the South entered the war, they were able to prevail against disorganized and poorly-led Union Armies at First Manassas, Va., in July of 1861; Wilson's Creek, Missouri, in August; and Balls Bluff, Virginia in October, 1861. These interior lines of communication led to Confederate victories. But this was a "cordon defense" which is defined as a defense of every area in a country - and which lends itself to defeat as soon as the enemy finds a weak spot. Of course, Union forces soon found a weak spot.

In Feb. 1862, Gen. Ulysses Grant attacked the defenses at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson and captured both forts. He followed this with the April attack at Shiloh; the May attack at Memphis; and the June 1862 capture of Memphis - and like that, the Confederate western frontier was lost.

And that loss in the West was one of the great Confederate defeats in the war. It changed the focus of the war eastward, and Virginia was now the cockpit of the war. It cemented the fact that once Lee was defeated, the war was over. Yes, Lee had victories in the East, and those victories came close to winning the war or, more probably, staving off defeat. When Lee took command of the Confederate Army in Virginia on June 1, 1862, the North was a mere six miles from Richmond. It took Lee about a month to stabilize the battlefield and at that point, deny the North its victory.

Of such are American heroes made.

McPherson makes one final point: None of this - the battles, the personalities, the politics - happened in a vacuum. "The Union Army's command relationships and strategies both shaped and responded to Confederate command relationships and strategies. Commanders and politicians in both nations responded to actions by their opposite numbers."

It is also true that in this war, the side with the greater assets and better leadership had better responses and won the war.