The Question of Inevitability II: The Civil War

Historians who try to explain Union victory and Confederate defeat during the Civil War approach that question by asking several questions (or at least implicitly offering their answers).  The first question is whether Union victory and Confederate defeat were, in fact, inevitable.  Was there any way for the Confederacy to win, or was it a lost cause from the beginning?

How one answers this question shapes how one approaches the study of the Civil War … or at least it should.  However one answers that question determines the next questions one asks and which issues one explores.  Say you think the outcome of the war was inevitable (which is different from determining when the outcome of the war became inevitable, because that assumes that at some point it was not inevitable).  If you believe that, then the study of why certain battles turned out the way they did becomes less important, because the ultimate outcome was set, anyway.  It doesn’t matter whether McClellan was slow or Longstreet lost Gettysburg or Thomas was undervalued, because, whatever one may find interesting about those queries on their merits, they don’t shape the ultimate victory, because you’ve already deemed it inevitable.  Thus, there’s no need for turning points or contingency.  One looks instead to underlying factors such as resources to explain why it was inevitable: the issue of popular will becomes irrelevant.

However, if you do not believe the outcome of the war was inevitable, then you have to deal with actors, decisions, and events.  Oh, you can talk about resources, for example, but you’ve acknowledged that the outcome was not preordained, and in fact you have to think in terms of counterfactuals as well as contingency and turning points.  If certain events led to Appomattox, then different outcomes would have led to different results, and then you have to identify what made the difference.  For example, I happen to think it is harder to imagine Union victory without Grant.  Take Grant out, and you have to presuppose that someone else would have come along with a mix of talents and skills approximating his.  Take Grant out, I’ll add, and it becomes more difficult to consider the rise of Sherman, who found in Grant his North Star.

I don’t happen to think that Union victory was inevitable.  Nor do I think that the events in the East in 1863 offered a so-called turning point.  If 1863 was in any way a turning point, it was because the victories at Vicksburg and Chattanooga established Grant as the coming man, and that led to the two turning points of 1864, Grant’s rise to top command and the success of his grand strategy in September 1864.  The Union may have had superior resources, but Grant was the first commander to use them in coordinated fashion and to make that superiority tell.

As to how the Confederacy might have won, I’ll save that for another time.

Others may differ, of course, and that’s why we have a comments section.

26 thoughts on “The Question of Inevitability II: The Civil War

  1. Richard March 8, 2011 / 5:09 am

    I do not believe Union victory was at all inevitable – at least until the fall of 1864 when Sherman took Atlanta and Lincoln won re-election. I think Lincoln’s victory showed that the people of the North wanted victory, even with all the bloodshed of spring and summer of that year, and the appearance of Union armies being stalled without making progress in front of Petersburg and Richmond for weeks.

  2. James F. Epperson March 8, 2011 / 5:38 am

    Warfare is a contingent exercise—alternate outcomes are very likely—so Union victory was not inevitable. The CS had a number of short-term advantages, while most of the Federal advantages were long-term.

  3. Scott Manning March 8, 2011 / 7:26 am

    Brooks, I agree with you on the emphasis of Grant’s importance to Union victory. There are many aspects to his contribution, but here is one. After the Battle of the Wilderness, I think any of the previous commanders (e.g., McClellan, Pope, and Burnside) would have redeployed north of the Potomac to regroup and replenish. After such a costly battle that the Northern press lambasted, stopping the march toward Richmond would have been even more drastic to public opinion on the war. Even worse, that would have allowed Lee to regroup and possibly send reinforcements south to confront Sherman.

  4. Tony Gunter March 8, 2011 / 8:58 am

    I agree with your assessment of Grant’s impact on the war, if for no other reason than I think he may have been the only leader capable of putting up with Lincoln’s bullsh*t. Which is why I’m so fascinated with the Battle of Raymond as a turning point of the war. If we assume that Grant’s ascendency sealed the fate of the Confederacy, I can think of no better counter-factual for Grant’s failure than a successful delaying action by Greg back into the fortifications of Jackson. This would have resulted in Grant facing two large armies, both behind strong fortifications.

    McPherson baiting Greg into a fight at Raymond guaranteed the fall of Jackson and sealed the eventual fate of Pemberton’s army, thus securing Grant’s spot on Lincoln’s short list of candidates for replacing Halleck / McClellan at the head of the Union armies.

    Okay, I’ll get off the soapbox now. 🙂

  5. Chuck Brown March 8, 2011 / 12:42 pm

    Very little in this world is inevitable. The best we can say is that with the rise of Grant, Union victory became much more likely. Much depended on a fickle Northern public. Sherman’s victories came at a critical point in time. Without them, Lincoln’s reelection was not guaranteed. Without Lincoln, there would have been no Grant at the military helm.

    • Tony Gunter March 8, 2011 / 2:11 pm

      I am really not following your logic. Are you saying that without Lincoln, Grant would not have had the winning track record that vaulted him into the national spotlight? Lincoln didn’t make Grant. In fact, Lincoln nearly destroyed Grant. Luckily, Grant was a humble enough man that he took the blows in stride and overcame.

      Sherman’s victories arguably helped Lincoln win re-election. But let’s assume Sherman didn’t take Atlanta until after the election and Lincoln loses the election, how does the south “win?” McClellan wasn’t against prosecuting the war, and he doesn’t take office until 1865, when surrender was only a matter of time.

      Perhaps the only way the south could have “won” was by McClellan offering more friendly terms … but it’s hard to imagine McClellan giving more concessions to the seceding states than Andrew Johnson.

      • Chuck Brown March 8, 2011 / 2:51 pm

        Sherman occupied Atlanta in September 1864, Tony. The election was in November 1864. The South could “win” by prolonging the war with no end in sight.

        I didn’t mean to imply that Lincoln “made” Grant. I don’t agree that Lincoln tried to “destroy” him. If Lincoln was not reelected, it’s hard to imagine McClellan allowing him to prosecute the war as he saw fit.

        • Chuck Brown March 8, 2011 / 2:52 pm

          I misread your post, Tony. I apologize for implying that you erred in when Sherman took Atlanta.

          • Chuck Brown March 8, 2011 / 2:55 pm

            When Johnson assumed the presidency, the war was effectively over. Johnson’s “concessions” were to an already defeated South. Any “concessions McClellan made would have resulted in an independent Confederacy.

        • Tony Gunter March 8, 2011 / 3:08 pm

          The election was in November, but McClellan wouldn’t have taken office until March. Given that the capitulation was in early April, I’m not sure how McClellan would have made much difference in the outcome, even if he had been so inclined.

          On your second point, Lincoln’s ham-handed meddling certainly could have destroyed Grant. How many Generals in the history of war would have put up with Lincoln reigning him in when he was halfway to Vicksburg at Grenada? And then promising an odd sort of independent command to a politician who had abandoned the theater months earlier in order to lobby for said independent command? And then sending spies to help Lincoln determine whether he should throw Grant under the bus at Milliken’s Bend? Given the sabotage that Grant had endured from Lincoln, I can’t imagine any man besides Grant welcoming those spies into his fold and making them privy to the discussions of his inner circle.

  6. Allen Gathman March 8, 2011 / 1:09 pm

    Didn’t the gross disparity of resources between the North and South make the outcome close to inevitable? It seems the only way that the South could have won was if Lincoln had not been reelected in 1864. The election of McClellan would have led to some sort of negotiated separation. Given Lincoln’s reelection, did it require inspired military leadership, or merely tenacity, for the North’s greater manufacturing capacity and population to tip the scales?

    • Tony Gunter March 8, 2011 / 2:16 pm

      I don’t think it’s at all unlikely that the North and South would have come to peaceful terms if the war had continued for another two years. What if Grant had been repulsed at Vicksburg and Thomas had withdrawn back to Nashville in 1863? The campaign season would have drawn to a close with the Union forces sitting in an uneasy stalemate across three theaters. How long would the nation have suffered a bloody war incompetently waged?

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 8, 2011 / 2:28 pm

      Disparity in resources by itself means very little, if one lacks the will and the ability to use those superior resources, or if the goal of the conflict mitigates against such deployment. I think we’ve seen that in our own lifetimes.

      • Chuck Brown March 8, 2011 / 2:57 pm

        The Confederacy lost because it had poor army commanders and because it lost too many battles. Its one great army commander had a very narrow vision strategically and took far too many casualties.

        • Allen Gathman March 8, 2011 / 4:11 pm

          Brooks, fair enough. The national will was critical.

          Chuck, I certainly agree that the Confederacy lost because it lost too many battles, but that’s getting close to saying the Steelers lost the Super Bowl because they didn’t score as many points as the Packers.

          • Chuck Brown March 8, 2011 / 4:28 pm

            Allen, my comment about losing too many battles does sound too “obvious.” Where I live (South Carolina), the people I talk to tell me that the South had the best generals and that the North lost most of the battles. The North’s material and manpower advantages were the only reasons for the Confederacy’s defeat. When I ask them to name one great Southern army commander other than Lee, they can’t do it. The comment about losing to many battles was a reference to the war in the West. I need to be clearer.

          • Allen Gathman March 8, 2011 / 5:50 pm

            Ah, I see. But surely they come up with Stonewall Jackson?

            But yes, Grant and Sherman are often underestimated because they did have superior resources at their disposal.

          • Chuck Brown March 8, 2011 / 7:15 pm

            The reason you cite for the underestimation of Grant and Sherman is inadequate. Part of the lost cause mythology is that Confederate soldiers waged a valiant campaign against overwhelming odds. Barefoot and starving, but under the leadership of the god-like Lee, Southern soldiers ran circles around the Yankees. Grant, Sherman, and other Union army commanders were incompetent butchers (or terrorists) who only achieved victory with vastly superior resources. That idea diminishes the true record of Grant and his lieutenants.

  7. Matt McKeon March 8, 2011 / 3:30 pm

    In my opinion, the Confederacy solved the problem of how to successfully defend the eastern theater and did so for two and a half years, despite the disparity of resources. The Confederacy never really determined an effective strategy in defending the western theater. I don’t know what that strategy would have been, but the things they tried certainly didn’t work.

    If they had a strategy that worked almost as well as Lee’s in Virginia, then the South might have worn out the North.

    On the other hand, the North was pretty determined.

    • Allen Gathman March 8, 2011 / 4:15 pm

      To switch sides a bit, it seems to me that the incompetence of Union generalship in the eastern theater had a lot to do with Confederate success there, until Grant arrived.

      • Chuck Brown March 8, 2011 / 7:19 pm

        Alan, as you pointed out to me: isn’t this like saying the Packers won the Super Bowl because they scored more points? The incompetence of Confederate generals in the western theater is the main reason for Union success. The difference is that no one like Grant emerged in the west to change Confederate fortunes.

    • Lyle Smith March 8, 2011 / 4:23 pm

      I think the Confederacy could have won actually or at least prolonged the war even longer. They could have been better organized and led in the West. A better naval strategy and a few more ironclads could have probably kept the Mississippi river valley in Confederate hands for a longer period of time. This would have allowed the Confederates to concentrate their forces elsewhere and possibly fend off a variety of Federal movements into Tennessee and elsewhere.

      A weaker U.S. President would have helped the Confederacy out as well. America is fortunate Lincoln was in charge at the time.

  8. Commodore Perry March 8, 2011 / 6:27 pm

    If the Maryland Campaign battle plans were not left behind for the Union to find? If Lee had pushed more on July 1 at Gettysburg? The outcome was not inevitable. Also, think about how many battles the Confederacy thought it had in the bag after one day only to rest and find a reinforced Federal army the next morning, or for that matter, consider the amount of times that either victorious army declined pursuit of its foe. These decisions of men, if different, might have changed things.

  9. Mike Simons March 9, 2011 / 11:50 am

    My personal wild card has been England. If England had came to the Souths aid as many expected it would have turned the War in the South’s favor. The Royal Navy would have crushed the blockade , Redcoats would have poured out of Canada into the NE and the North would have had a 3 front war.

  10. Ralph Hitchens March 16, 2011 / 6:40 am

    Richard, I must disagree re. Grant being “stalled” at Richmond and Petersburg. Although the attack on Petersburg miscarried, subtracting from the brilliant success of Grant’s deep envelopment across the James River, the strategic situation was permanently altered in favor of the Union after July 1864. Lee’s army was pinned to Richmond, railroad lines from the south were interdicted to a considerable degree, and the siege had, I submit, an inevitable end in sight — Lee could not possibly break out and resume a war of maneuver without forfeiting Richmond, which was in so many ways the anchor of the South’s wartime economy. In the west, Sherman’s relentless approach to Atlanta that summer had the same flavor of inevitability.

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