March 15, 2006

The Civil War Reconsidered

Just because I think this is a period in American history that just hasn't been examined and discussed enough, I think I'll consider the Civil War for a moment. The Southern history readings over the Civil War focused on questioning three deeply entrenched preconceptions about it: the brilliant tactics of Robert E. Lee, the incompetent leadership of Jefferson Davis, and the solid support of secession and civil war by yeoman farmers.

I did not expect the direction explored by the first author I read, Russell Weigley, in "Robert E. Lee: Napoleon of the Confederacy." At first glance, that sounds like a glowing examination of tactical genius, but Weigley actually seriously questioned the wisdom of Lee's strategy. The picture he paints is that Lee ultimately broke his own army because his strategy relied entirely too much on large gambles aimed at achieving victory from a single, crushing offensive campaign. While his campaigns may have been supremely well-planned, they were sometimes beyond the capacity of Lee's officers and troops to carry out without a great deal of good fortune. Thus, the comparison here is with the Napoleon who ultimately lost at Waterloo, not the Napoleon who successfully conquered most of Europe first.

Lee's hope, of course, was to break the North's will to fight by capturing one of their large cities (i.e. Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington D.C.), and he nearly succeeded more than once. However, Weigley wondered if the South might have faired better fighting defensively. He also noted that Lee's strategy, even when he was in charge of the entire Confederate Army later in the war, never placed any importance on the Union forces that were tearing up and down the Mississippi River. He never sent significant reinforcements or aid in their direction, hoping instead to succeed with his doomed offensive rushes northward.

There seems to be a great deal of validity to Weigley's argument, but I have to say I think Lee and the entire South was in a lose/lose situation. Fighting defensively might have prolonged the agony slightly longer, but the South would have lost. Perhaps if they had had the ability to break the northern blockade of their ports, they might have managed to fight a defensive war, but that, too, would have been impossible without the aid of the British. And, in turn, that aid could best have been secured by a decisive victory such as the one Lee was trying to achieve anyway.

As I see it, Lee had two choices: fight defensively and lose, are gamble and possibly win (but probably lose). Under the circumstances, he obviously made the right decision. Weigley's point seems to have been to suggest that Lee may not have fully understood that dichotomy at the time, and would have acted as he did in any case, for better or worse. In any case, it was a perspective I am not used to seeing.

The other two selections were closely related, discussing different aspects of the Confederate government and how it was viewed by most Southerners (which is to say, apparently not very well). The most interesting thing about this government, formed by a people who had essentially seceded over the issue of states' rights, was that, under the leadership of Jefferson Davis, it was ultimately just as centralized as the Federal government in the North. Now, considering the similar interests of the entire region and the fact that there was a war on at the time, it seems likely that criticism from hardcore states' righters was more reactionary and short-sighted than anything else. And Davis, while he may have been no politician, was not an idiot.

However, one possible (at least partial) consequence of establishing a centralized government in an individualistic region was that the largest class of whites in the South, the yeomen farmers, failed to line up in support of the new regime. Ultimately doomed to lose the Civil War or not, the numbers of disaffected Southerners are quite significant. In 1863 over 100,000 Confederate soldiers were essentially AWOL. By the end of the war, that number had risen to over 200,000, or over 55% of the total armed forces. That is, to put it simply, a staggering number.

Just as with the previous reflection on the Antebellum South, these readings provide a valuable sense of perspective that is important to retain when reading about the myths of the Lost Cause that surfaced scant decades later. People have a tendency to polarize everything, and Southerners seem particularly susceptible to this vice (although, for instance, Northerners can be just as guilty of the same thing when they generalize about the South). Entire races, periods of history, religious denominations, and countries are perceived through a homogenous lens of good or evil preconceptions which are not easily dismissed once they are in place. In the case of the Confederacy during the Civil War, the outcome, and the average Southerner's commitment to it, are not as simple as they might seem.

Posted by Jared at March 15, 2006 03:25 PM | TrackBack