Book Review: Why The South Lost The Civil War

Why The South Lost The Civil War, by Richard E. Beringer, Herman Hattaway, Archer Jones, and William N. Still, Jr.

As someone who enjoys reading a lot about the Civil War, including the reasons for how and why it ended as it did [1], this book, even at nearly 500 pages of core material, proved to be an intriguing read not least because it sought to honestly discuss the way that Confederates sought to change the goalposts towards the end of the Civil War and in the postwar period in ways that have often been intellectually dishonest and immensely frustrating, if also easy to understand from a psychological perspective. The authors spend a great deal of the book demonstrating in convincing ways that the numerical superiority of the North was not itself alone responsible for Northern victory, and also that state’s rights offered neither a compelling description of the state socialism that was present in the forced industrialization in difficult wartime conditions for the South as well as a reason why the South lost.

Nevertheless, in a wide-ranging discussion that seeks to leave no stone unturned when it comes to looking for explanations for Southern defeat, starting with a prologue on the existing historiography, then the second part dealing with physical and moral factors, the third part looking at the military stalemate and internal problems, the fourth part looking at the dissolution of Confederate military power and the fifth part containing an epilogue as to why the Confederacy lost, followed by two appendices dealing with the State’s Rights Thesis of Owsley and a bogus theory of supposed Celtic tactics of attacks by the South being responsible for overwhelming casualties, the book does come to some intriguing and worthwhile conclusions. Indeed, it would appear that at least a few factors combined to make Southern resistance ultimately fail. For one, having staked a war on slavery and bluffing mistakenly that the North would not respond with violence, the sense of nationalism of the Confederacy rested on too shallow a base of popular support and identity commitment. The ability to surrender with honor and preserve white supremacy in the postwar reconciliation, which is lamentably what happened after the Civil War, allowed the South to change its goalposts when its initial war to preserve slavery failed to inspire sufficient Southern commitment to deal with the serious and competent war effort of the North and the destruction of many lives and much property in the Confederacy. The shallow nationalism made Southern morale dependent on the progress of the war, which once it turned sour in late 1864, meant that there was no base for the Confederacy to demand additional sacrifices on the Home Front, especially after Confederate leaders sought to emancipate and arm black soldiers for its defense, contrary to the reasons why many Southerners reluctantly fought for the Confederacy in the first place.

This is not a book that is likely to appeal to fans of the Lost Cause, given that the authors are pretty harsh about the shallowness of much of the nostalgia for the Confederate cause in the postwar world, as well as the fact that many who wish to vindicate the cause of the Confederacy refuse to honestly admit the importance of slavery in providing the slender reed of incipient Southern nationalism. Additionally, the fact that the authors fail to seek scapegoats for Southern defeat in Davis, in southern Generals not named Robert E. Lee, or in vigorous Southern state governors like Brown and Vance will likely also displease those who seek internal causes that amount to finding scapegoats to blame for the defeat of the Confederacy. Despite the fact that the book points out the corrosive effects of slavery on Confederate self-image, given the disapproval of the rest of the civilized world to their peculiar institution and the susceptibility of their civil religion to guilt over slavery and race-based oppression and a fatalistic belief in divine providence shared by Abraham Lincoln, among others, there are still some areas where this book is lacking. Most notably, it should be recognized that the South did not lose the Civil War, but the Confederacy lost. The book, in conflating the Confederacy with the South as a whole, which included border states that refused to rebel despite the presence of slavery, Unionist enclaves like Eastern Tennessee and Western Virginia that either seceded from the Confederacy or remained an area whose loyalty to the Union was maintained, as well as blacks who saw their interests with the North, especially after the Civil War became an openly avowed antislavery conflict, does great harm in that it encourages readers to conflate Southerners with the small body of people, mostly in or from the South, who espouse the wicked cause of the Confederacy. Given the widespread distaste the Confederate cause is felt by those who were unlucky enough to be born or raised in the South, clarity in expression is a matter of importance, lest people suffer shame that they do not deserve.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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