Book Review: Southern Strategies

Southern Strategies: Why the Confederacy Failed
Edited by Christian B. Keller
University Press of Kansas   2021   $34.95
Reviewed by Stephen Davis

Speculation on why the South lost its war for independence goes back a long time.

Ex-Confederate colonel Robert Tansill (1865) came up with thirteen reasons, beginning with the South’s failure to secede earlier, form a government, and better prepare for war. Former general Harvey Hill (1866) pointed to some Southerners’ greed and profiteering that  demoralized the rest. Former colonel Isaac Avery (1867) blamed internal political conflicts.

Let’s jump to historians. A. B. Hart (1891) emphasized the blockade. Among his four causes, Lawrence Gipson (1918) included weak Confederate leadership. In The Collapse of the Confederacy (1937) Charles H. Wesley placed importance on dissensions within the Southern people. Henry Steele Commager (1942) agreed, but added failure to secure foreign intervention. Bell Irvin Wiley (1956) suggested “Died of Big-man-meism” as an epitaph for the Confederacy. In an essay titled “Who Whipped Whom?” (1965) Grady McWhiney argued that the Rebels bled themselves white in too many attacking battles. In 1973 Robert L. Kerby addressed “Why the Confederacy Lost,” and concluded that it was because it shunned guerrilla warfare, which would have negated the North’s numerical and logistical advantages.

A staple in the literature is David Donald, Why the North Won the Civil War (1960), with Richard Current’s argument that the South suffered not just from inadequate resources but also weak or misguided economic administration and fiscal policy. Thomas L. Connelly, in an article for Alabama Historical Quarterly (1968), carried this further, contending that the South’s “colonial economy” was unsuited to the demands of modern war.

Most ECW readers are familiar with Hattaway and Jones’ How the North Won (1983) and Beringer, Hattaway, Jones and Still’s Why the South Lost the Civil War (1986). In Gabor Boritt, ed., Why the Confederacy Lost (1992), James McPherson rejects the notion of inevitable Confederate defeat based on the North’s “overwhelming numbers and resources” (Lee’s words at Appomattox) and instead posits that because battle is a highly fluid situation (John Tavolta’s words in Broken Arrow), Southerners could have won if “battlefield contingency” (think Jackson’s death) had not worked against them in crucial combats. In 1997 Gary Gallagher’s The Confederate War made the point that the Confederate war effort had sufficient popular will, a sustained nationalism and sound war strategy. “The final failure,” he writes, “lay not so much with Confederate strategy as with the men available to Davis to carry it out”—in other words, the South had only one Robert E. Lee.

…which bring us to Christian Keller’s Southern Strategies: Why the Confederacy Failed. This collection of smart, informed essays touches on an array of points. Keller starts off by exploring how, after his Valley victories, Stonewall wanted to cross the Potomac and raid into Maryland. In “Confederate Economic and Fiscal Policies: Root Causes of Confederate Defeat,” Eric Johnson addresses Davis’ strategy of territorial defense, King Cotton diplomacy and the blockade, but most importantly economic issues. Ill-advised financial policies, such as impressment and the tax-in-kind, stirred resentment against the government, but ultimately it was state rights and Southerners’ “antitaxation impulse” that prevented Treasury Secretary Memminger from raising tax revenue needed to finance the war. In “Confederate Intelligence Operations in the 1862 Maryland Campaign,” Kevin E. McCall reminds us that Lee’s decision to split up his army marching into Maryland in separate columns is credited to Lee’s understand of McClellan’s slowness. Here McCall argues that it was as much due to Jeb Stuart’s failure to keep track of the Union army’s movements as it was due to Lee’s inability to gather intel from the Maryland citizenry—which had been a key asset in Confederate Virginia.

Erik Anderson considers the failure of Confederate diplomacy, asserting that the South’s failure to win diplomatic recognition from England and France was “the most significant factor in its failure to achieve its political goal and win the American Civil War.” Lee (and Davis) have been criticized for the decision to raid into Pennsylvania, but Chris Compton justifies it: the possibility of winning the war in one stroke was worth the risk. In execution, though, it failed on the field of Gettysburg because of “the factors of chance and friction”: Jackson’s absence, Stuart’s riding off and, as Pickett said, the Yankees themselves. Lee himself was not blameless; he might not have ordered that charge on the third day.

In his essay on the Trans-Mississippi Theater, Michael J. Forsyth reminds us that Clausewitz reasoned that victory is won not only by one’s decisions and actions, but also by blunders committed by the opposing forces. In this case, the North won the war in the trans-west because its leaders staked out strategic objectives and committed the resources to secure them. In contrast, the Davis administration never assigned importance to the Trans-Mississippi (even though it held a third of the confederacy’s population, not to mention vast agricultural and mineral resources). Worse, the Confederate leadership blundered by “never clearly identifying strategic goals for it or sending it good leaders.”

The historical discussion on why the Confederacy failed will surely continue for a long while. Southern Strategies assures that it will.

6 Responses to Book Review: Southern Strategies

  1. I am reading this book now. It is a ‘good read”.

    One take away…it was a pipe dream that Great Britain was ever going to help the Confederacy.

    Another take-away…Stuart dropped the ball in the 1862 Maryland Campaign and the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign.

  2. Look forward to reading this at some point. I’m definitely in agreement with Michael Forsyth on Richmond “never clearly identifying strategic goals for it and sending it good leaders” in regards to not only the Trans-Mississippi, but the Trans-Appalachia and Gulf Coast as well. Lots of political and administrative friction in Richmond, and between Richmond and beyond.

    In the end, I would argue, it was a compounding of all these issues, but with a united Union under Lincoln being the foremost reason.

  3. I am a big fan of Keller’s work but there has been a lot of important historiography in between the 1997 Gallagher book and 2022 that should be consulted. Most important in my view is Stephanie MCCurry’s 2010 masterpiece Confederate Reckoning. I hope that Keller gives acknowledgement to the agency of free and enslaved black peoples as an important contributor to the eventual failure of the Confederate government and its war effort

    1. Free and enslaved black peoples absolutely contributed to the demise of the Confederacy. A fair few gave their lives among a multitude of other acts and services.

      How important they were will probably forever be discussed, though. Confederate and state authorities always seem to be fairly confident there won’t be any servile insurrections on the home front during the war, although that fear lingers and is ever present in their minds.

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