Disunity in Disunion: Causes for Confederate Defeat In the American Civil War

Brandon Heiblum
9 min readJun 15, 2020

Brandon Heiblum

General Lee surrenders at a home in Appomattox Court house, Virginia

The American Civil War remains the unambiguous nadir of its historical trajectory, and it is ubiquitously understood that its result was the end of slavery and clear Union victory. Because this outcome is so ingrained into the national ethos and so formative to its modern character, there can be a pervasive tendency among observers to view secession as having been doomed to fail and Confederate defeat as the inevitable outcome of a desperate and misguided war. Such a result had not been predetermined, however. In fact, on more than a few occasions, Confederate armies were able to secure decisive victories in key strategic battles, and as the war dragged on, Northern society grew restless and irate, eager for peace. Particular attention is therefore owed to both the material and intangible elements that informed Southern failure. In addition to obvious structural factors like population and industrial capacity, Confederate defeat can be largely attributed to the divergence between Northern and Southern leadership and, more broadly, to the diminished hegemony of white Southern unity. This paper will examine these three factors and explain their role in assuring that the Union cause emerged victorious over its domestic enemies.

Insofar as victory meant preserving the institution of slavery and establishing Confederate sovereignty, the South was, at the onset of war, certain to the point of boastfulness that it would achieve it. One aspect of Southern confidence was rooted in its unique economic advantage: agricultural prowess. In bragging of cotton’s importance to the transatlantic economy, Senator James Henry Hammond predicted that “without firing a gun, without drawing a sword, we could bring the whole world to our feet.”[1] Southern military confidence was also incredibly dismissive, with one Mississippi master asserting to a slave that he could “whip a half dozen yankees with my pocket knife,” and one North Carolinian secessionist pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and assuring a crowd he could use it alone to wipe up “every drop of blood that would be shed in the war.” Intellectual George Fitzhugh questioned whether the Confederacy needed both an Army and a Navy, and one Louisianan soldier lamented that the war would be over before he could “reach the front.”[2]

While hindsight renders these overweening sentiments comically misguided, there were moments during the war in which Confederate victory- or more accurately Northern acquiescence to secession- appeared reasonably possible, if not likely. After all, it is easier to defend than to attack, and as many of the battles were in the South, they had superior understanding of the regional terrain- home field advantage. When the armies finally met at the First Battle of Bull Run, residents from D.C. came to spectate, carrying picnic baskets and wine for what they assumed would be an easy victory. Instead, Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson refused to let his men retreat, and they eventually overpowered the Union, forcing civilian spectators to flee hastily alongside the retreating Northern soldiers.[3] The humiliation continued as General George McLellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, made a series of strategic blunders during the war’s first winter, drawing him the ire of President Lincoln who regarded him as timid and overcautious. Lincoln himself drew ire from large swathes of Northerners as the war dragged on. The country’s first draft led to riots in New York City by immigrants and workers, angered by its characteristic elitism and reluctant to die for the cause of abolition. For many, the death and destruction were far too great to justify such a protracted conflict. Northern Democrats who opposed the war were called Copperheads and employed a racist and derogatory campaign in the media.[4]

Despite this oscillating uncertainty, Union victory by the spring of 1865 was decisive. One major reason for this, while unromantic, is simple: the North had a significant advantage in population. Population is an extremely influential factor is war-fighting capacity; countries with higher populations can raise larger armies, possess more reserve forces, and absorb more casualties, all while maintaining economic activity and normal ways of life beyond the battlefield. To this point, the North boasted 22 million people, while the South only had 9 million, 4 million of them being enslaved African Americans. This meant that every Confederate soldier who left society to join the war had a proportionally larger effect on that society, causing production and normalcy to falter more severely. The plantation system suffered for lack of white leadership, and it forced Southern women to play larger and larger roles in society.[5] Should this population reality have been the inverse, Southern victory would have been much more achievable.

Another similarly unromantic factor in Union victory was the North’s superior industrial capacity. The North enjoyed an unabated monopoly in manufacturing. The vast majority of textiles (needed for uniforms), shoes, and Iron (needed for artillery) were produced in Northern factories. In fact, around 97% of guns that were manufactured in the U.S. were produced in a Northern factory.[6] Moreover, the North had a vast and sprawling network of railroads that allowed for transportive ease and speedier mobilization. Sherman’s infrastructurally destructive March to the Sea towards the end of the war further exacerbated this deficit and left the South devoid of crucial transportation and structural capacity.[7] Again, were the inverse true and the South were to have enjoyed a comparative advantage in the manufacturing of clothing, supplies, weapons, and a means to transport them, victory would have been far likelier.

Even so, These structural factors can only carry so much explanatory weight. Attention is owed to the character of leadership in the North and South among legislators, executives, and military commanders. In conducting war, the individual idiosyncrasies and collective actions of leaders inform quite heavily the strategy of war and the motivation of those fighting it. Although it was not adhered to religiously, Union General Winfield Scott developed the “Anaconda Plan, ” a three-pronged strategy meant to suffocate the South by blockading Southern ports, slicing the region in half by dominating the Mississippi River, and defeating Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.[8] The overarching southern strategy, to contrast, more closely resembled a war of attrition meant to gradually wear down the Northern will to continue fighting.

A frayed confederate flag at the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

There was a stark divergence, too, between the executives on either side. Some Confederate Governors, like Joseph E. Brown of Georgia or Zebulon Vance of North Carolina, withheld resources and fighters from the Confederate Army, intent instead on strengthening state militias.[9] Ironically, the Confederacy suffered from the very principle of “State’s Rights” that supposedly informed its very essence. In the North, President Abraham Lincoln was willing to go to great lengths to preserve the Union. Controversially, Lincoln suspended the constitutionally mandated principle of Habeas Corpus, which required prisoners to be informed of the reason for their arrest and presented to a judge in a timely manner. Lincoln was also preoccupied with the importance of keeping the border states, which had slavery but did not secede, in the Union. In his own words, “I should hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.” To ensure this, he was careful to craft the Emancipation Proclamation in a way that only applied to rebelling states. He also avoided questions over what to do with slaves captured in war by delegating that authority to individual commanders in the field and creating a piece-meal program.[10] These examples portray a leader deeply concerned with strategy and logic and focused on victory.

Conversely in the South, President Jefferson Davis was intransigent, rejecting the advice offered to him by influential Southerners and many state governors.[11] Amidst the riots and anger over food shortages, instead of taking action to better the situation, Davis instead pressured newspapers not to report the facts and admonished those in his administration who spoke freely about logistical issues. What most angered many high-profile Confederates about Davis was his perceived lack of strategic reckoning. Many Confederate generals from Lee to Jackson are remembered today for their strategic prowess, but this is often overstated, and even if fairly stated, did not apply across the board to all Confederate officers, many of which were wholly inadequate.

General Grant meets President Lincoln a week before the former clinches victory against the South and two weeks before the latter is assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in the nation’s capital

While initially faltering, Northern military leadership grew into a force to be reckoned with. Early on, General Ulysses S. Grant found great success in the Western theatre, securing wins at Fort Henry, Fort Donalson, and Shiloh. Later in the war, frustrated by weak and timid leaders like McLellan, Thomas, or Rosecrans, Lincoln gave him the Army of the Potomac.[12] Grant, operating confidently with the knowledge that he outnumbered his enemy, was willing to try risky strategies that led to high casualties, which gave him a reputation as brutal. After The Battle of the Wilderness, Grant told a reporter with the New York Tribune: “If you see the President, tell him from me that no matter what happens, there will be no turning back.” Lincoln was so pleased with this determination that he reportedly kissed the reporter on the forehead.[13] During his famous March to the Sea at the end of 1864, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman employed a strategy of “total war,” burning factories, destroying railroads, and decimating crops and livestock.[14] Such strategy, while ruthless, had the immediate effect of inflicting both material damage to society as well as a feeling of hopelessness and fear. The war-fighting capacity of the deep South had been greatly diminished.

The final and quite influential factor that dealt the South its defeat was the gradual and then abrupt descent into regional white disunity. At the precipice of war, the Confederate cause enjoyed considerable unity and widespread support, held together by a glue of regional pride, moral certitude, and white supremacy. One Mississippi planter claimed “the whole south is now united,” and the daughter of another planter claimed “there was never known such unanimity of action amongst all classes.”[15] Still, such unanimity of action was short-lived, thwarted over time by feelings of despair, shortages of food and supplies, and diverging class interests. When rations reached unsustainably low levels, armies began to seize food, wagons, and livestock, greatly angering local Confederate citizens. In April of 1863, after the passage of a new flat-tax and a worsening food shortage, thousands of poor protesters took to the streets of Richmond, Virginia in chaos. President Davis, indignant, gave the crowd five minutes to disperse before the army would begin firing upon them.[16] A further and more egregious affront was the army’s impressment of slaves. The Confederate Assistant Secretary of War described this dilemma, writing “the sacrosanctity of slave property has operated most injuriously to the Confederacy. Have you noticed the strange conduct of our people in this war? They give up their husbands, sons, and brothers without murmuring; but let one of their negroes be taken, and what a howl you’ll hear!”[17]

Distress broadened following military defeats at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga. Morale among soldiers, and particularly lower class or immigrant status, declined starkly. The Commander of Alabama’s 59th regiment observed of his poorer troops: “they believe they have but little to fight for” and showed “a general dispensation to lay their arms down and accept the best terms the Yankee government will grant.”[18] Desertion was becoming less and less rare. More surprisingly and much to the dismay of the Southern elite, thousands of mostly poor Southern born white men went to fight under the Union flag and were derided by condescending aristocrats as “people who cannot read or write and who didn’t have a decent suit of clothes until the Yankees gave it to him.” Although their collective white supremacy did not falter and in fact would fester for decades and centuries longer, support for the Confederacy as its main vessel did indeed suffer dramatically. While Northern unity faltered as well, evidenced by draft riots and vicious media campaigns, Lincoln handily won re-election in 1864 and the Northern economy and infrastructure was stable enough to prevent large-scale uprisings or the stark levels of discontent seen in the South.

Determining the causes for Confederate loss, be they rooted in industry or population, leadership or unity, has been a debate raging for years. Regardless of its cause, the Civil War’s outcome permeates through its very character, and is a source of resentment for many to this day. The theme of white supremacy and social exploitation is one that suffuses all American moral considerations; inextricable from today’s political landscape.

Works Cited

[1] Levine, Pg. 50 (The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South)

[2] Levine, Pg. 52

[3] Moore Lecture #6

[4] Weber, Pg. 74

[5] Levine, Pg. 83

[6] Moore Lecture #6

[7] Royster, Pg. 321 (The Destructive War)

[8] Moore Lecture #6

[9] Levine, Pg. 207

[10] Foner, Pg. 176 (The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery)

[11] Levine, Pg. 205

[12] Moore Lecture #12

[13] Royster, Pg. 337

[14] Royster, Pg. 321

[15] Levine, Pg. 53

[16] Levine, Pg. 201

[17] Levine, Pg. 198

[18] Levine, Pg. 215