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Why the Confederacy Failed

ISSUE:  Spring 1940

Statesmen of the Lost Cause. By Burton J. Hendrick. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $3.75. The South to Posterity. By Douglas Southall Freeman. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50.

In the best informed circles in Europe during the first two years of the Civil War, and even until Gettysburg, the opinion was almost universal that the North could not win. It was possible to cite many examples of effort on the part of one people to subjugate another, and in the Western world by far the greater number of instances that could be mentioned served to indicate that the North had little chance of success. In man power, the North was to the South about as two to one. In ability to manufacture war materials, the North had almost incomparably greater resources. This situation was well known at the time, according to Burton J. Hendrick’s “Statesmen of the Lost Cause,” but the balance in favor of the North was not considered sufficiently great to insure victory for that section. In man power, three to one was considered necessary for success in offensive warfare. As to war supplies, the South had raw materials which the rest of the world needed and which, if properly handled, could not only have been exchanged for supplies from Europe but might also have acted as a powerful lever in securing European recognition.

It would be possible to argue with this statement of the situation. Among the South’s nine million people were four million Negroes whose conduct could not be predicted. To the North’s nineteen million more were being added not only by natural growth but by immigration. But even if it were shown that the man power of the North was greater than “about two to one” and that the chance of the South to get war supplies was much less favorable than Mr. Hendrick assumes, much validity remains in his argument. Why, according to Mr. Hendrick, did the Confederacy fail? He gives two chief reasons. First, the South had no statesmen in prominent positions comparable to the leaders which it gave the nation in the periods of the Revolution and the forming of the Constitution. Second, the Confederacy was “founded on a principle that made impossible the orderly conduct of public affairs.”

Whatever the qualities of statesmanship of Southern leaders during the Civil War, it is certain there was no one personality in the civil branch of the Confederacy which inspired confidence and secured the undivided allegiance of colleagues, subordinates, and the masses of the people. Those Southerners today who are offended by criticism of Jefferson Davis have little in common with Southerners of the 1860’s who, following the example of Vice-President Alexander II. Stephens, Robert Toombs, and other prominent Confederates, spoke of Davis as “weak and imbecile,” “vacillating, petulant, and obstinate,” and “that scoundrel Jeff Davis”; or who, like Governors Brown and Vance, nullified conscription, refused to cooperate in furnishing supplies, and in their efforts generally defeated all tendencies toward a unified command. States that had the right to secede from the Union also asserted the right to act independently, to act with the Confederacy or against it, as they saw fit.

Mr. Hendrick expresses the view that the chief difficulty in Southern statesmanship, next to the dilemma over state rights and the dissension this idea produced, was the failure of the Confederacy to handle properly its one great resource, cotton. During the first two years of the war, the blockade was weak, and huge stocks of cotton, he argues, could have been built up in England and France. Several hundred thousand bales, possibly three or four million, might have been shipped in this period and held for high prices. On the basis of this cotton, the South could have secured all the credits necessary to the purchase of essential war supplies, could have financed the building of more warships like the Alabama and the Shenandoah, and would have had in addition tremendous financial leverage for use in securing European recognition. Instead of shipping cotton to England and the continent during this period, the Davis government surrendered the most powerful financial weapon in its possession by discouraging the growth of cotton, by placing obstacles in the way of shipment to Europe, and by even going so far as to make it a patriotic duty to destroy existing supplies. Only two members (the text says only one, but two, in separate places, are cited) of Davis’s cabinet, Benjamin and Mallory, saw the mistake in this policy; but their views were not accepted until it was too late, until the blockade had become more effective.

It must be said that it is easy today to solve the South’s problems of 1801, but then a government had to be organized, an army and navy created and supplied, and policies determined on numerous issues of crucial importance. In considering the various factors that entered into the situation it would seem that today we should be able to proceed with more care and deliberation, that we should be able to exclude large oversights and errors. After the war Davis recognized the error in Confederate cotton policy. But it is by no means certain that as much advantage as Mr. Hendrick argues would have accrued to the South by any different policy. Mr. Hendrick doubtless forgot that earlier in his book he had argued over again the old contention presented in Helper’s “Impending Crisis” that the hay crop of the North was worth more than all the staple crops of the South. This hay crop, it is significant to note, was worth more than the Northern cattle that ate it. How could any South defeat any North that had such hay and cattle ?

Mr. Hendrick does not give sufficient attention to the achievements of Confederate diplomacy. The building of such warships as the Alabama and the Shenandoah in England, as a consequence of Bulloch’s mission, was not the only important achievement. Essential supplies were obtained in spite of lack of funds. The reader should be able to learn here how and where the Confederate armies got arms and munitions and other supplies.

Mr. Hendrick does not escape some of the more obvious pitfalls which lie in wait for writers in the field of Southern history. As indicated above, he accepts without question, and without mentioning the source, the comparison of the wealth of the free and slave states which Helper gives in his “Impending Crisis.” He subscribes to the error which was so influential in Southern statesmanship in determining the policy on cotton, that “no soil so adapted to the cultivation of this indispensable staple had ever been placed at the disposition of man” as the soil of the South. He repeats the poor-white myth, that “the inevitable accompaniments of the slave system” were “the riches of the great planters, the poverty and ignorance of unpropertied whites.” He seems not to realize that most of the Southern population consisted of small farmers on their own land, some owning a few slaves, but the majority having none, and that this population was fairly well scattered over the whole area. These defects, and others which cannot be given space here, do not invalidate the arguments that statesmanship in the Civil War South was not up to that of the highest previous standards and that the doctrine of state rights created dilemmas beyond solution.

In “The South to Posterity,” Douglas Southall Freeman presents what is called in his subtitle “an introduction to the writing of Confederate history.” Any bibliographical work written by a man with the competence of Mr. Freeman in the field in which he is specially interested will inevitably get serious attention from scholars. But Mr. Freeman has at-tempted a task that would seem to be impossible: to write an introduction to Confederate history that will interest the general reader. If that elusive creature can be caught and exposed to the book, I have no doubt Mr. Freeman’s effort will prove highly successful. He has achieved the impossible —the production of a bibliographical discussion that can be read, enjoyed, and used by anyone.


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