Saturday, December 26, 2009

CWL---The Confederacy: A House Divided Against Itself?

The Confederacy: A House Divided?, James M. McPherson, Chapter 3 in This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War, Oxford University Press, 2007.

Debates generated during the centennial anniversary decade of the American Civil War were many. It appears that they will continue into the sesquicentennial anniversary of the war. McPherson believes the interpretations fall into two broad categories: Why and how did the South lose the war? Why and how did the North win the war? Both R.E. Lee at the end of the war and Shelby Foote during the 125th anniversary era answered the question. The Confederacy was compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources (Lee); the Union fought the war with one hand behind its back and the Confederacy never had a chance to win the war (Foote).

If Lee and Foote are right about the inevitability, then should a question be asked? Was it folly and arrogance to enter a war that the South could not win? If the North's overwhelming resources defeated the South, then 'Yes' then South was foolish to enter the war. Secessionists in 1861 and scholars since have understood that other regions had won independence against long odds: Netherlands v. Spain, Greece v. Ottoman Empire, North American colonies v. Great Britain. Two Rebel generals, Joseph Johnston and Pierre Beauregard declared after the war that the South did not engage in the crime of undertaking a war it could not win.

If the South did not begin a war that it could not win, then did internal dynamics cause the defeat? McPherson cites several works as advancing the notion that internal social condition and politics caused the defeat of the South. Charles Ramsdell's Behind the Lines in the Southern Confederacy (1944, 1972, 1997)listed economic mobilization and shortages, war financing and inflation, and transportation and corruption difficulties weakened the armies to the point of necessary surrenders.

McPherson notes that two-fifths of the people living in the Confederacy were slaves who had a stake in which side won. Also, two-fifths of the people lived in non-slave holding families whose allegiance to a slave-holding republic may have been weak. Drew Faust in 1990 advanced these particular points in a Journal of American History article. William Freehling further advanced this issue in The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War in 2001.

Freehling discusses the differences between the South (15 slave holding states) and the Confederacy (11 seceding states). He finds that about 90,000 Southerners fought for the Union and about 90,000 Union state residents fought for the Confederacy. McPherson takes exception to Freehling's conclusion that 1 out of 2 Southerners did not support the Confederacy; but he does allow that least 1 out of 4 Southerners did not support the Confederacy. McPherson does agree with Freehling that there were significant and debilitation race, gender and class issues tearing at the social fabric of the new Confederacy.

William Davis' Look Away! A History of the Confederate States of America (2002) attributes the defeat of the Confederacy to poor leadership at civilian and military levels, political factionalism, social dissensiona dna bickering among leaders with 'outsize egos and thin skins'. Also, Davis describes monetary inflation, the preponderance of the agricultural resources and the marginal industrial resouces as being the secondary causes of the Confederate defeat. The primary causes being the jealous, feuding politicans. McPherson notes that if this was true of the Confederacy it was also true of the Union. Taking the combined causes raised by Ramsdell, Faust, Freehling and Davis, McPherson wonders how the Confederacy last four years.

McPherson states that Gary Gallagher addresses this question in The Confederate War (1997) and Lee and His Army in Confederate History (2001). Gallagher marshalls sufficient evidence, note McPherson, to advance the theme of Confederate determination even in the face of extreme adversity and at the same time recognizing the social, political, economic race, and gender difficulties the Confederates faced. So why did the Confederacy lose the war if it was victorious within the first two years of the war as it suffered through multiple fractures in its governments, economy, and social classes?

McPherson rejects an answer that relies on the large generalization that the outcome of the war was inevitable. "It can only be answered by a narrative and analysis of unfolding events on the battlefields and the home fronts--in both the North and the South--that give due weight to such factors as political and military leadership, economic mobilization, logistics, strategy, war aims, morale, social strains and cohesion, diplomacy and the sometimes fickle fortunes of battle," state McPherson(p.48) He points to Brian Will's The War Hits Home, a study of southeastern Virginia, that integrates these factors into a regional history. The people of southeastern Virginia "sought to secure victory until there was no victory left to win." Though the North did have greater numbers and resources which were wielded with skill, determination and coordination during 1863-1865 did the Northern victory become inevitable.

defections, class tensions and