Debating Who Actually Won the Civil War

Wars are won and lost for thousands of reasons. Civil wars, because of the bitterness and cruelty they entail, often result in long debates about why one side defeated the other. No one is ever satisfied with the answers, because they hinge on so many variables. Nevertheless, several important reasons can be identified that serve as departure points for further debate and argument.

Why the North won

You can argue about this forever. There are many reasons why the North won, but several will suffice to answer the question:

  • The North's superior resources made the outcome inevitable. Given all the resources the North possessed — financial, economic, manpower — it would seem inevitable that after all these resources were harnessed, the South could not win the war.
  • The North had a coherent strategy (The Anaconda Plan). From the very beginning of the war, the Union strategy was sound — blockade the South while controlling the Mississippi and drive on the Confederate capital of Richmond. Although it took four years to organize, it was the strategy that won the war.
  • Lincoln and Grant collaborated well. After Lincoln found a general capable of carrying out the Union's determined strategy, Lincoln and Grant worked closely together to ensure that the military objectives of the war corresponded with the political objectives of the war. In fact, Lincoln held a meeting with Grant and Sherman just a few weeks prior to the end of the war to outline their final strategy, including post-war plans. Knowing the President's intentions allowed Grant and Sherman to use the military means necessary to achieve them.
  • The moral power of fighting for human freedom empowered the North. Lincoln changed the entire nature of the conflict by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Without it, the war had no true goal. By proclaiming that the war was now one for human freedom, the North gained a moral power that prevented European intervention on behalf of the Confederacy and doomed the South's cause.

Why the South lost

You can argue about this one forever, too. There are many explanations, most of which do not tell the whole story, but these seem to be the most obvious ones:

  • The South ran out of time. As long as the South could keep the North at bay, either through military stalemate or a collapse of Northern national willpower, it could win the war, regardless of the North's superior resources. It was very close, but the North stayed the course.
  • States' rights prevented unification of the South. The very issue that created the Confederacy helped to destroy it. Individual state governors fought bitterly with Jefferson Davis to prevent him from consolidating power to fight the war. They withheld troops and supplies while the Confederate Congress spent its time arguing over the prerogatives of the states instead of prosecuting a war of national survival.
  • Jefferson Davis and his generals failed to work together. Davis wanted to be a general, not president. He never gave up trying to be a general in the area of strategy and selection of generals to lead his armies. Davis loved to interfere in issues of strategy, giving directions to his generals without ever giving them the means to accomplish his objectives. He made terrible choices for senior commanders, often selecting men based on personal preference rather than qualifications. He stubbornly supported his favorites, even at the expense of overall benefits for the Confederacy.
  • The South failed to gain the recognition of the European nations. King Cottondiplomacy was meant to be a dagger pointed at the economic heart of Europe. Instead, it was a knife laid against the South's own throat. By purposely withholding cotton from European markets in the crucial first two years of the war, the South ruined its chances to win European support. Additionally, the South never clearly articulated its cause to Europe. Its clumsy defense of slavery and key military defeats at the wrong time doomed all hopes of diplomatic recognition.
  • One more explanation for the Southern defeat came from a Confederate veteran: "We just wore ourselves out whippin' Yankees!"
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