Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Military History and Warfare: The American Civil War: Could the South have survived the war with the North?

In a previous article, I outlined the relative strengths and weaknesses of both sides in the US civil war. In this article, I shall consider whether the South, despite its inherent economic, manpower and political weaknesses could have stayed off defeat in 1865 and held out for longer against the North. Throughout history there are examples of nations or peoples, after having lost command of the open battlefield, continuing to fight long drawn out campaigns, which gradually sapped the strength and will of an apparently superior enemy. Modern examples include Vietnam, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the growth of partisan movements against the German occupiers of Yugoslavia, Greece and the western provinces of the USSR during the Second World War.

The leaders of the Confederacy would have had the successful example of the American Revolution, some eighty years earlier to drawn upon. The British army, despite having won the majority of conventional pitched battles against the American rebels, was unable to end the insurgency and defeat the revolutionaries. The American armies under Washington continued to retreat and avoid destruction. Eventually, foreign powers came to the aid of the Americans and defeated the British.

To some extent, this had been the strategy of the Confederacy from the start of the war. The leaders of the Confederacy were convinced that the industrialised nations of Europe (Britain and France) who relied upon cotton imports would be forced to recognize the South and intervene on the side of the Confederacy. Had Britain intervened in the war, the North could have found itself fighting a two front war, with British troops poised to strike from Canada, just as they had done in the war of 1812.

Intervention from Britain and France would also have nullified the North’s strong industrial and financial advantages against the South. The Federal government recognised the dangers of European involvement. Nevertheless, the South had overestimated the importance of its cotton exports. There were other sources of cotton available in the world. Whilst importing cotton from India was probably less commercially advantageous than the simpler Atlantic route with America, the Union naval blockade of the South had helped to push up the price of cotton. The decline of the South’s cotton trade therefore helped to fuel the growth of imported cotton from British India. Ultimately, Britain and France did not consider it to be advantageous enough for them to intervene and help the Confederacy.

Without the aid of foreign powers, the Confederacy was progressively weakened materially through the stranglehold of the Union blockade. The South’s limited industrial base made it necessary to import rifles, guns and many other essential materials of war. The South’s lack of a sizeable navy allowed the Union to land troops and take possession of many of the South’s ports and coastal waters. By April 1862, the whole Atlantic coast of the Confederacy was under Union control, with the exceptions of Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah. The early seizure of the South’s largest port, New Orleans in 1861 and General Grant’s western campaign of 1863, effectively turned the Mississippi into a Union river cutting the Confederacy in half. With the defeat at Gettysburg, the Confederate armies were unable to launch further large-scale offensives against the North.

Despite the progressive decapitation of the South between 1864-1865, the armies of the Confederacy continued to check and inflict reverses upon the Union armies. Notably at Cold Harbour in July 1864, where 50,000 Union troops took part in the largest frontal assault of the war, suffering 7,000 casualties within half an hour. The key point is that whilst the Union could invade and destroy the economy and infrastructure of the South, as long as the Confederate armies could exist, the Confederacy could exist. If they could hold out long enough and force the North into a degree of war weariness the North might just sue for peace. Equally, Grant and other military leaders in the Union army realised that in order to defeat the Confederacy they could not just rely upon slow economic strangulation. They would need to launch an all out invasion of the South and its people. In the final phase of the war, this is precisely what the Union armies did. The objective of the Union campaign now was to destroy the fighting force of the South and its fighting will. General Sherman’s famous march through Georgia in November-December 1864 is remembered as being particularly brutal on the civilian population. Thousands of slaves were freed and plantations and homes looted and burnt. It was this kind of warfare that ground down the social fabric of the South whilst its armies fought on against ever increasing odds.

After Richmond fell on 5th April 1865, Robert E Lee’s army escaped. Apart from his own, there were two remaining Confederate armies, both in full retreat in the face of superior Union numbers. At Appomattox Lee was cut off. There now emerged a dangerous mixture of no supplies, desertion, and the almost incalculable oversupply of the Union forces now roaming the South. He was grossly outnumbered and finally had to send a note to Grant requesting terms of surrender. With Union armies now under effective control over much of the deep South and the principal formations of the Confederate army having either been defeated or surrendered, the Confederacy had ceased to exist as a sovereign political state (or rather a collection of states). This is perhaps why the South did not and could not continue the war as an insurgency. Tens of thousands of Southern boys had been killed or maimed, the slaves had been freed and the economy was in ruins. The war did not continue as an insurgency because it had always been an insurgency. Albeit, one of a larger scale than we might commonly associate with an uprising. The political questions of 1860-1 had been decided by force of arms and thus the war ended.

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