Book Review: How The South Could Have Won The Civil War

How The South Could Have Won The Civil War:  The Fatal Errors That Led To Confederate Defeat, by Bevin Alexander

I vaguely remember reading a bit about this book in one of my favorite works by noted Civil War historian James McPherson [1], and there were some unkind but true things said about this book.  In at least some ways, this author makes the sound point that the Confederacy could have won the Civil War, which is something that a lot of people seem to forget.  That essential point is really the main thing that this book gets right, that there was a road to victory for the Confederates, one which demanded attention to issues of grand strategy and logistics and attacking the will of the North to subjugate the South.  We all know that this did not happen and that the Confederacy lost, but the fact that the Confederacy could have won had it fought smarter ought to sting some of those whose lost cause perspective is colored with rose-tinted glasses and nostalgia about the way things could have been.  If this book has many flaws, it at least gets one thing right, and that is we should not speak of the victory of the Union as inevitable, but rather something that could have easily gone another way.

The contents of the book demonstrate a common disease popular among Civil War historians known as Virginiaitis.  In this particular syndrome, we see so much attention paid to the Eastern Theater between Washington DC and Richmond that large parts of the rest of the Confederacy are nearly forgotten.  There is some logic in that while the author spends most of his space talking about the early part of the war–although the book itself is just over 250 pages of text before its lengthy notes, we do not reach the Battle of Gettysburg until page 209, and that is the second to last chapter of the book, which includes chapters on the Shenandoah Valley campaign, the Seven Days, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville.  Throughout the book the author sets up a divided trinity between Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson.  The author strongly errs in judging Jefferson Davis as being most fond of defensive fighting, which would have made him immensely fond of generals like Joseph Johnston, whose timidity he did not particularly appreciate.  With more insight, the author notes that Robert E. Lee’s wastefully aggressive tactics eventually made it impossible for the Confederacy to win, making him more like his unsuccessful subordinate John Bell Hood than is often recognized.  The author’s hagiography of Jackson is somewhat striking as well, although it is based on rather slender comments and interpretations of dubious reliability.

There is a lot about this book that I simply do not buy, such as the level of disagreement between Davis, Lee, and Jackson.  While for purposes of theory it is easy to see why the author would wish to paint their differences more starkly, some of the contrasts the author makes are way overdrawn.  Nevertheless, although this book gets much wrong and invents military doctrine out of scanty materials, especially concerning Jackson’s supposed similarity to Sherman as being fond of turning movements, there is something that this book gets right as well.  Fundamentally, this book points out that people tend not to be very creative when it comes to warfare.  Attacking the will of an opponent is often far more successful than simply attacking them head on.  Those leaders who are at a disadvantage in terms of demography and logistics are immensely foolish in seeking to win through attrition, as was the case with Lee and other Confederate generals, and yet that is what happened.  In light of that larger strategic failure, it is little surprise that the South lost, because they threw away their best options for victory.

[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.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Book Review: How The South Could Have Won The Civil War

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