In this selection, historian George Fredrickson assesses a number of interpretations about the outcome of the Civil War that emphasize the North’s advantages. He also builds his own case for the triumph of the
Union, a kind of grand synthesis or theory. Note why Fredrickson thinks explana tions that emphasize the North’s advantages are flawed. Also consider his argu ment that Southern military leaders were rigid and conservative and how it relates to his overall theory about the reason for the Union’s triumph. Does Fredrickson find the answer to the North’s victory on the battlefield or on the home front? Does he make a connection between the way each side fought the war and the respective home fronts? Finally, what role does slavery play in his analysis?
Blue over Gray: Sources of Success and Failure in the Civil War (1975)
GEORGE M. FREDRICKSON
Historians have expended vast amounts of time, energy, and ingenuity searching for the causes and consequences of the Civil War. Much less effort has been devoted to explaining the outcome of the war itself. Yet the ques tion is obviously important. One only has to imagine how radically different the future of North America would have been had the South won its per manent independence. It is also possible that a full comparison of how the two sides responded to the ultimate test of war will shed reflex light on both the background and legacy of the conflict. If northern success and southern failure can be traced to significant differences in the two societies as they existed on the eve of the war, then we may have further reason for locating the origins of the war in the clash of divergent social systems and ideologies.
If the relative strengths of the North in wartime were rooted in the character of its society, then the sources of northern victory would foreshadow, to some extent at least, the postwar development of a nation reunited under northern hegemony
A number of plausible explanations of “why the North won” have been advanced. The problem with most of them is not that they are wrong but that they are partial or incomplete….
Perhaps the most widely accepted explanation of why the North won and the South lost derives from the time-honored proposition that God is on the side of the heaviest battalions. The North’s advantages in manpower, resources, and industrial capacity were clearly overwhelming. According to the census of 1860, the Union, not counting the contested border states of Missouri and Kentucky, had a population of approximately 20,275,000. The Confederacy, on the other hand, had a white population of only about 5,500,000. If we include the 3,654,000 blacks, the total population of the eleven Confeder ate states adds up to slightly more than 9,000,000. Even if we consider the black population an asset to the Confederacy in carrying on a war for the preservation of slavery, the North still ends up with a more than two-to-one advantage in population. There was an even greater differential in readily available manpower of military age; the northern advantage in this respect was well in excess of three-to-one. In industrial capacity, the Union had an enormous edge. In 1860, the North had approximately 110,000 manufactur ing establishments manned by about 1,300,000 workers, while the South had only 18,000 establishments with 110,000 workers. Thus for every southern industrial worker the North had a factory or workshop! Finally, in railroad mileage, so crucial to the logistics of the Civil War, the North possessed over seventy percent of the nation’s total of 31,256 miles.
With such a decisive edge in manpower, industrial plant, and transportation facilities, how, it might well be asked, could the North possibly have lost? Yet history shows many examples of the physically weaker side win ning, especially in wars of national independence. The achievement of Dutch independence from Spain in the seventeenth century, the colonists’ success in the American Revolution, and many “wars of national liberation” in the twentieth century, including the Algerian revolution and the long struggle for Vietnamese self-determination, provide examples of how the physically weaker side can prevail.. ..
Recognizing the insufficiency of a crude economic or demographic expla nation, some historians have sought psychological reasons for the Confeder ate defeat. It has been argued that the South “whipped itself” because it did not believe strongly enough in its cause. While the North could allegedly call on the full fervor of American nationalism and antislavery idealism, the South was saddled with the morally dubious enterprise of defending slavery and was engaged in breaking up a union of hallowed origin for which many southerners still had a lingering reverence. It has even been suggested that large numbers of loyal Confederates had a subconscious desire to lose the war. The northern victory is therefore ascribed to the fact that the North had a better cause and thus higher morale; the breakdown in the South’s will to win is seen as the consequence of a deep ambivalence about the validity of the whole Confederate enterprise.
This thesis is highly speculative and not easily reconciled with the overall pattern of pro-Confederate sentiment and activity. It would seem to under estimate or even to belittle the willingness of large numbers of southerners to fight and die for the Confederacy. No northerner who fought the “Rebs” at places such as Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg would have concluded that the South really wanted to lose. …
On the surface at least, it seems harder to explain what made the northern cause so compelling. Contrary to antislavery mythology, there is little evi dence to sustain the view that a genuinely humanitarian opposition to black servitude ever animated a majority of the northern population. Most north erners defined their cause as the preservation of the Union, not the emanci pation of the slaves. This was made explicit in a joint resolution of Congress, passed overwhelmingly in July 1861, denying any federal intention to interfere with the domestic institutions of the southern states…. But when considered simply as a formal ideology, Unionism seems too abstract and remote from the concrete interests of ordinary people to have sustained . . . the enthusiasm necessary for such a long and bloody conflict. In any case, the a priori proposition that the North had a more compelling cause, and therefore one that was bound to generate higher morale, seems questionable.
Morale in both sections fluctuated in direct response to the fortunes of war…. Throughout the conflict, morale seems to have been more a function of military victory and success than a cause of it. Furthermore, any compari son involving the will to win of the respective sides cannot ignore the dif ferent situations that they faced. Except for Lee’s brief forays into Maryland and Pennsylvania, the northern people never had to suffer from invasion of their own territory. Whether the North’s allegedly superior morale and determination would have stood up under pressures equivalent to those experienced by the South will never be known. But we do know that the resolve of the North came dangerously close to breaking in the summer of 1864, at a time when its territory was secure, its economy booming, and its ultimate victory all but assured. At exactly the same time, the South was girding for another nine months of desperate struggle despite economic collapse and the loss of much of its territory. Such a comparison hardly sup ports the thesis that the North excelled the South in its will to win….
Some have attributed the North’s success in outlasting the South to its superior leadership. One distinguished historian has even suggested that if the North and South had exchanged Presidents the outcome of the war would have been reversed. As a wartime President, Lincoln was unques tionably superior to Davis. A master politician, Lincoln was able through a combination of tact and forcefulness to hold together the bitterly antagonis tic factions of the Republican party. . . . But perhaps Lincoln’s greatest suc cesses came in his role as commander in chief of the armed forces. Although lacking military training and experience, he had a good instinctive grasp of broad strategic considerations. Furthermore, he knew that he had neither the time nor the tactical ability to take direct charge of military operations and wisely refrained from interfering directly with his generals except when their excessive caution or incompetence gave him no choice. Lincoln’s primary objective was to find a general who had a comprehensive view of strategic needs, a willingness to fight, and consequently the ability to take full charge of military activity. In late 1863, he found the right man and without hesita tion turned the entire military effort over to General Grant, who proceeded to fight the war to a successful conclusion. In innumerable ways, Lincoln gave evidence of his common sense, flexibility, and willingness to learn from experience. Although not the popular demigod he would become after his assassination, he did provide inspiration to the North as a whole. Many who had been critical of Lincoln at the start of the war, seeing him merely as a rough, inexperienced, frontier politician, came to recognize the quality of his statesmanship. Furthermore, his eloquence at Gettysburg and in the Second Inaugural helped to give meaning and resonance to the northern cause.
The leadership of Davis was of a very different caliber. The Confederate President was a proud, remote, and quarrelsome man with a fatal passion for always being in the right and for standing by his friends, no matter how in competent or unpopular they turned out to be. He fought constantly with his cabinet and sometimes replaced good men who had offended him with second- raters who would not question his decisions. . .. Most southern newspapers were virulently anti-Davis by the end of the war. Particularly harmful was Davis’ military role. Because he had commanded forces in the Mexican war and served as Secretary of War of the United States, he thought of himself as qualified to direct all phases of operations. This belief in his own military genius, combined with a constitutional inability to delegate authority, led to excessive interference with his generals and to some very questionable strategic decisions. Unlike Lincoln, he lost touch with the political situation, and he failed to provide leadership in the critical area of economic policy. In the end, one has a picture of Davis tinkering ineffectually with the South’s military machine while a whole society was crumbling around him.
It appears the North had a great war leader, and the South a weak one. Can we therefore explain the outcome of the Civil War as an historical ac cident, a matter of northern luck in finding someone who could do the job and southern misfortune in picking the wrong man? Before we come to this beguilingly simple conclusion, we need to take a broader look at northern and southern leadership and raise the question of whether the kind of lead ership a society produces is purely accidental. If Lincoln was a great leader of men, it was at least partly because he had good material to work with. Seward was in some ways a brilliant Secretary of State; Stanton directed the War Department with great determination and efficiency; and even Chase, despite his awkward political maneuvering, was on the whole a competent Secretary of the Treasury. . . . The North, it can be argued, had not simply one great leader but was able during the war to develop competent and ef ficient leadership on almost all levels. Such a pattern could hardly have been accidental; more likely it reveals something about the capacity of northern society to produce men of talent and initiative who could deal with the unprecedented problems of a total war.
In the Confederacy, the situation was quite different. Among the South’s generals there of course were some brilliant tactical commanders. Their suc cesses on the battlefield were instrumental in keeping the Confederacy afloat for four years. But, in almost all other areas, the South revealed a sad lack of capable leadership….
The contrast in leadership, therefore, would seem to reflect some deeper differences of a kind that would make one section more responsive than the other to the practical demands of fighting a large-scale war. Since both soci eties faced unprecedented challenges, success would depend to a great ex tent on which side had the greater ability to adjust to new situations….
Lincoln himself set the pattern for precedent-breaking innovation. Whenever he felt obligated to assume extra-constitutional powers to deal with situations unforeseen by the Constitution, he did so with little hesitation. After the out break of the war and before Congress was in session to sanction his actions, he expanded the regular army, advanced public money to private individu als, and declared martial law on a line from Washington to Philadelphia. On September 24,1862, again without Congressional authorization, he extended the jurisdiction of martial law and suspended the writ of habeas corpus in all cases of alleged disloyalty. The Emancipation Proclamation can also be seen as an example of extra-constitutional innovation. Acting under the amorphous concept of “the war powers” of the President, Lincoln struck at slavery primarily because “military necessity” dictated new measures to disrupt the economic and social system of the enemy….
The spirit of innovation was manifested in other areas as well. In Grant and Sherman the North finally found generals who grasped the nature of modern war and were ready to jettison outworn rules of strategy and tactics…. In his march from Atlanta to the sea in the fall of 1864, Sherman introduced for the first time the modern strategy of striking directly at the enemy’s domes tic economy. The coordinated, multipronged offensive launched by Grant in 1864, of which Sherman’s march was a critical component, was probably the biggest, boldest, and most complex military operation mounted anywhere before the twentieth century. Grant, like Lincoln, can be seen as embodying the North’s capacity for organization and innovation….
Businessmen also responded to the crisis and found that what was patriotic could also be highly profitable. There were the inevitable frauds perpetrated on the government by contractors, but more significant was the overall suc cess of the industrial system in producing the goods required…. No small part of this success was due to the willingness of businessmen, farmers, and government procurement officials to “think and act anew” by organizing themselves into larger and more efficient units for the production, transpor tation, and allocation of goods.
It would be an understatement to say that the South demonstrated less capacity than the North for organization and innovation. In fact, the South’s most glaring failures were precisely in the area of coordination and collective adaptation to new conditions. The Confederacy did.of course manage to put an army in the field that was able to hold the North at bay for four years. . . . [But] Southern successes on the battlefield were in no real sense triumphs of organization or innovation. Before the rise of Grant and Sherman, most Civil War battles were fought according to the outdated tactical principles that generals on both sides had learned at West Point. In these very conventional battles, the South had the advantage because it had the most intelligent and experienced of the West Pointers. Since everyone played by the same rules, it was inevitable that those who could play the game best would win. When the rules were changed by Grant and Sherman, the essential conservatism and rigidity of southern military leadership became apparent.
Besides being conventional in their tactics, southern armies were notori ously undisciplined; insubordination was an everyday occurrence and de sertion eventually became a crippling problem. There were so many men absent without leave by August 1,1863, that a general amnesty for deserters had to be declared. For full effectiveness, southern soldiers had to be com manded by generals such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, charis matic leaders who could command the personal loyalty and respect of their men. The idea of obeying an officer simply because of his rank went against the southern grain.
Although the army suffered from the excessive individualism of its men and the narrow traditionalism of its officers, these defects were not fatal un til very late in the war, mainly because it took the North such a long time to apply its characteristic talent for organization and innovation directly to military operations. But on the southern home front similar attitudes had disastrous consequences almost from the beginning. In its efforts to mobilize the men and resources of the South, the Confederate government was con stantly hamstrung by particularistic resistance to central direction and by a general reluctance to give up traditional ideas and practices incompatible with the necessities of war.
Particularism was manifested most obviously in the refusal of state gov ernments to respond to the needs of the Confederacy. The central govern ment was rudely rebuffed when it sought in 1861 to get the states to give up control over the large quantity of arms in their possession. The states held back for their own defense most of the 350,000 small arms that they held. The Confederacy, initially able to muster only 190,000 weapons, was forced to turn down 200,000 volunteers in the first year of the war because it could not arm them. The states also held back men….
. . . [T]he slaveholding planters, taken as a group, were no more able to rise above narrow and selfish concerns than other segments of southern soci ety. Because of their influence, the Confederacy was unable to adopt a sound financial policy; land and slaves, the main resources of the South, remained immune from direct taxes. As a result, the government was only able to raise about one percent of its revenue from taxation; the rest came from loans and the printing of vast quantities of fiat paper money. The inevitable consequence was the catastrophic runaway inflation that made Confederate money al most worthless even before the government went out of existence….
… What was there about the culture and social structure of the North that made possible the kinds of organizational initiatives and daring innovations that have been described? What was there about southern society and cul ture that explains the lack of cohesiveness and adaptability that doomed the Confederacy? Answers to such questions require some further understand ing of the differences in northern and southern society on the eve of the war, especially as these differences related to war-making potential.
A fuller comprehension of what social strengths and weaknesses the two sides brought to the conflict can perhaps be gained by borrowing a well-known concept from the social sciencesthe idea of modernization. Sociologists and political scientists often employ this term to describe the interrelated changes that occur when a whole society begins to move away from a tradi tional agrarian pattern toward an urban-industrial system. …
… [One] theorist has provided a simple rule of thumb to gauge the extent of modernization in various societies: the higher the proportion of energy derived from inanimate sources, as opposed to the direct application of hu man and animal strength, the more modernized the society. Modernization therefore has its intellectual foundations in a rationalistic or scientific world view and a commitment to technological development….
By any definition of this process, the North was relatively more modern ized than the South in 1861. To apply one of the most important indices of modernization, thirty-six percent of the Northern population was already urban as compared to the South’s nine and six-tenths percent. As we have already seen, there was an even greater gap in the extent of industrialization. Furthermore, the foundations had been laid in the northern states for a rapid increase in the pace of modernization. The antebellum “transportation revo lution” had set the stage for economic integration on a national scale, and the quickening pace of industrial development foreshadowed the massive and diversified growth of the future. Because of better and cheaper transportation, new markets, and a rise in efficiency and mechanization, midwestern agricul ture was in a position to begin playing its modern role as the food-producing adjunct to an urban-industrial society. Literacy was widespread and means of mass communication, such as inexpensively produced newspapers, pam phlets, and books, were available for mobilizing public opinion…. In short, given the necessary stimulus and opportunity, the North was ready for a “great leap forward” in the modernization process.
The South, on the other hand, had little potentiality for rapid modernization. Overwhelmingly agricultural and tied to the slave plantation as its basic unit of production, it had many of the characteristics of what today would be called “an underdeveloped society.” Like such societies, the Old South had what amounted to a “dual economy”: a small modern or capitalistic sec tor, profitably producing cotton and other commodities for export, coexisted with a vast “traditional” sector, composed of white subsistence farmers and black slaves….
… The two main segments of the white South were united neither by a sense of common economic interests nor by a complete identity of social and political values. But the presence of millions of black slaves did make possible a per verse kind of solidarity. Fear of blacks, and more specifically of black eman cipation, was the principal force holding the white South together. Without it, there could have been no broadly based struggle for independence.
The planter and the non-slaveholding farmer had one other charac teristic in common besides racism; in their differing ways, they were both extreme individualists. The planter’s individualism came mainly from a lifetime of commanding slaves on isolated plantations. Used to unques tioned authority in all things and prone to think of himself as an aristocrat, he commonly exhibited an indomitable sense of personal independence. The non-slaveholder, on the other hand, was basically a backwoodsman who combined the stiff-necked individualism of the frontier with the arrogance of race that provided him with an exaggerated sense of his personal worth. Southern whites in general therefore were conditioned by slavery, racism, and rural isolation to condone and even encourage quasi-anarchic patterns of behavior that could not have been tolerated in a more modernized society with a greater need for social cohesion and discipline….
Such an attitude was obviously incompatible with the needs of a mod ernizing society for cooperation and collective innovation. Furthermore, the divorce of status from achievement made it less likely that competent leaders and organizers would emerge. Particularism, localism, and extreme individualism were the natural outgrowth of the South’s economic and social system. So was resistance to any changes that posed a threat to slavery and racial domination….
. . . [S]outhern politics, despite its high level of popular involvement, remained largely the disorganized competition of individual office seekers. Those who won elections usually did so either because they were already men of weight in their communities or because they came off better than their rivals in face-to-face contact with predominantly rural voters. In the North by 1861, politics was less a matter of personalities and more an imper sonal struggle of well-organized parties. In urban areas, the rudiments of the modern political machine could already be perceived.
The fact that the South was economically, socially, and politically less “developed” or modernized than the North in 1861 may not by itself fully explain why war had to come, but it does provide a key to understanding why the war had to turn out the way it did….
As it was, the only course open to southern leaders during the war was in effect a crash program of modernization in an attempt to neutralize the immense advantages of the North. When we consider the cultural heritage and economic resources they had to work with, their achievements went beyond what might have been expected. But the South had far too much ground to make up, and persisting rigidities, especially as manifested in the die-hard commitment to localism, racism, and plantation slavery, consti tuted fatal checks on the modernizing impulse.
The North, on the other hand, not only capitalized on its initial advan tages during the war but was able to multiply them. In fact, the conflict it self served as a catalyst for rapid development in many areas. Modernizing trends that had begun in the prewar period came to unexpectably rapid frui tion in a way that both compounded the North’s advantage in the conflict and helped set the pattern for postwar America.
The preceding essay examines differences between Northern and South ern society. In the following selection, historian James McPherson focuses on the military turning points. Note how he attempts to disprove other interpretations about the war’s outcome. Also pay particular attention to how he tries to demonstrate that individual battles affected the will to fight. What would George Fredrickson, the author of the previous selection, have said about
the reasons for the outcome of crucial Civil War turning points?
*Why the North Won (1988)
james m. McPherson
[A] persistent question has nagged historians and mythologists alike: if . . . Robert [E. Lee] was such a genius and his legions so invincible, why did they lose? The answers, though almost as legion as Lee’s soldiers, tend to group themselves into a few main categories. One popular answer has been phrased, from the northern perspective, by quoting Napoleon’s apho rism that God was on the side of the heaviest battalions. For southerners this explanation usually took some such form as these words of a Virginian: “They never whipped us, Sir, unless they were four to one. If we had had anything like a fair chance, or less disparity of numbers, we should have won our cause and established our independence.” The North had a poten tial manpower superiority of more than three to one (counting only white men) and Union armed forces had an actual superiority of two to one dur ing most of the war. In economic resources and logistical capacity the north
ern advantage was even greater. Thus, in this explanation, the Confederacy fought against overwhelming odds; its defeat was inevitable.
But this explanation has not satisfied a good many analysts. History is replete with examples of peoples who have won or defended their indepen dence against greater odds: the Netherlands against the Spain of Philip II; Switzerland against the Hapsburg Empire; the American rebels of 1776 against mighty Britain; North Vietnam against the United States of 1970. Given the advantages of fighting on the defensive in its own territory with interior lines in which stalemate would be victory against a foe who must invade, conquer, occupy, and destroy the capacity to resist, the odds faced by the South were not formidable. Rather, as another category of interpreta tions has it, internal divisions fatally weakened the Confederacy: the state rights conflict between certain governors and the Richmond government; the disaffection of non-slaveholders from a rich man’s war and poor man’s fight; libertarian opposition to necessary measures such as conscription and the suspension of habeas corpus; the lukewarm commitment to the Con federacy by quondam* Whigs and unionists; the disloyalty of slaves who defected to the enemy whenever they had a chance; growing doubts among slaveowners themselves about the justice of their peculiar institution and their cause. “So the Confederacy succumbed to internal rather than external
causes,” according to numerous historians. The South suffered from a “weak ness in morale,” a “loss of the will to fight.” The Confederacy did not lack “the means to continue the struggle,” but “the will to do so.” …
In any case the “internal division” and “lack of will” explanations for Confederate defeat, while not implausible, are not very convincing either. The problem is that the North experienced similar internal divisions, and if the war had come out differently the Yankees’ lack of unity and will to win could be cited with equal plausibility to explain that outcome….
Nevertheless the existence of internal divisions on both sides seemed to neutralize this factor as an explanation for Union victory, so a number of histo rians have looked instead at the quality of leadership both military and civil ian. There are several variants of an interpretation that emphasizes a gradual development of superior northern leadership. In Beauregard, Lee, the two Johnstons [Albert Sidney and Joseph Eggleston], and [Stonewall] Jackson the South enjoyed abler military commanders during the first year or two of the war, while Jefferson Davis was better qualified by training and experience than Lincoln to lead a nation at war. But Lee’s strategic vision was limited to the Virginia theater, and the Confederate government neglected the West,
where Union armies developed a strategic design and the generals to carry it out, while southern forces floundered under incompetent commanders who lost the war in the West. By 1863, Lincoln’s remarkable abilities gave him a wide edge over Davis as a war leader, while in Grant and Sherman the North acquired commanders with a concept of total war and the necessary deter mination to make it succeed. At the same time, in [Secretary of War] Edwin
M. Stanton and [Quartermaster General] Montgomery Meigs, aided by the entrepreneurial talent of northern businessmen, the Union developed supe rior managerial talent to mobilize and organize the North’s greater resources for victory in the modern industrialized conflict that the Civil War became.
This interpretation comes closer than others to credibility. Yet it also com mits the fallacy of reversibilitythat is, if the outcome had been reversed some of the same factors could be cited to explain Confederate victory….
Most attempts to explain southern defeat or northern victory lack the dimension of contingencythe recognition that at numerous critical points during the war things might have gone altogether differently. Four major turning points defined the eventual outcome. The first came in the summer of 1862, when the counter-offensives of Jackson and Lee in Virginia and Bragg and Kirby Smith in the West arrested the momentum of a seemingly imminent Union victory. This assured a prolongation and intensification of the conflict and created the potential for Confederate success, which appeared imminent before each of the next three turning points.
The first of these occurred in the fall of 1862, when battles at Antietam and Perryville threw back Confederate invasions, forestalled European mediation and recognition of the Confederacy, perhaps prevented a Democratic victory in the northern elections of 1862 that might have inhibited the government’s ability to carry on the war, and set the stage for the Emancipation Proclamation which enlarged the scope and purpose of the conflict. The third critical point came in the summer and fall of 1863 when [Union victories at] Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga turned the tide toward ultimate northern victory.
One more reversal of that tide seemed possible in the summer of 1864 when appalling Union casualties and apparent lack of progress especially in Virginia brought the North to the brink of peace negotiations and the election of a Democratic president. But [Sherman’s] capture of Atlanta and Sheridan’s destruction of Early’s [Rebel] army in the Shenandoah Valley clinched matters for the North. Only then did it become possible to speak of the inevitability of Union victory. Only then did the South experience an ir retrievable “loss of the will to fight.”
Of all the explanations for Confederate defeat, the loss of will thesis suf fers
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