Why the North Won the Civil War Argumentative
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Historians have argued inconclusively for years over the prime reason for Confederate defeat in the Civil War. The book Why the North Won the Civil War outlines five of the most agreed upon causes of Southern defeat, each written by a highly esteemed American historian. The author of each essay does acknowledge and discuss the views of the other authors. However, each author also goes on to explain their botheration and disagreement with their opposition. The purpose of this essay is to summarize each of the five arguments presented by Richard N. Current, T. Harry Williams, Norman A. Graebner, David Herbert Donald, and David M. Potter. Each author gives his insight on one of the following five reasons: economic, military, diplomatic, social, and political, respectively.
The essay entitled “The Military Leadership of the North and South” by Harry Willams points out the military leadership weaknesses displayed by Union and Confederate forces. Williams opens his essay by stressing and explaining the importance of leaders during a time of war. He states that “…it is the general who is the decisive factor in battle.” (p.39). This is an accepted belief among many great leaders of the past. A successful leader must be able to demonstrate confidence and morale even in times of weakness, as well as capable of being wary and level-headed in times of strength. Marshal Saxe entertains the interesting fact that the North’s commanders were considerably younger than those of the South. However, age cannot be unquestionably attributed to Union victory. Generals of both sides, despite age or experience, displayed similar faults. The Confederate leaders were unexperienced in commanding and administering large armies. Nevertheless, the West Pointers had received military education that had emphasized administration and technique.
As for strategy, many adopted the beliefs of Antoine Henri Jomini. His theories and beliefs formed a basis for military strategy and technique that would be used throughout the war. The Confederacy takes blame for their failure to adapt and develop new strategy as the war progressed. Williams sums this up by saying, “Lee and the other Confederate commanders were pretty much the same men in 1865 that they had been in 1861.” (p.53) The North, however, is given credit for their willingness to modernize and adapt more effective strategies. This played a large role in contributing to the North’s upperhand of leadership. Aside from solely military leadership, Williams merits the North in that President Lincoln was “an abler and a stronger man than Davis.” (p.56) Lincoln’s boldly offensive strategy that was eventually carried out by Grant proved successful to Union victory.
Norman A. Graebner, in his essay “Northern Diplomacy and European Neutrality”, attributes Southern failure to a different cause. Northen diplomatics, Graebner points out, are what saved the Union. If the Confederacy had received aid from a European power, it would have likely made a drastic change in the outcome of the war; the North knew this. The South hoped to gain allies with its dominant power in the cotton industry. Southern trade relations had improved dramatically since the explosion of cotton, and they hoped to use this to their benefit. Unfortunately, President Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward, made it his personal duty to prevent the intervention of a foreign power. Seward explained to the foreign governments that they were allies of the United States as a whole, and that no “de facto governments” existed. He was very successful in his efforts to wane other powers away from intervention. Threats were even made by Seward towards the British government explaining that any acknowledgement of the Confederate government would “be regarded as a manifestation of hostility by the United States.” (p.65)
In addition, the South failed to recognize the North’s economic importance to its desired allies as well. Edouard de Stoeckl, the Russian Minister, made it clear from the beginning that Russia was a long standing friend of the United States and the last thing they wanted to see was a collapse in the Union. The British, followed by France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Brazil, issued a declaration of neutrality at the beginning of the war in order to prevent her involvement. This angered the North because by declaring neutrality, the British had recognized the South as a nation separate from the North. All the while, Seward had continued to sustain pressure among the foreign powers, making threats and promising wars. He scared away possible Southern allies by promising them war, and even threatened military action if they so much as spoke with Confederate leaders, officially or unofficially.
The social aspect of Confederate defeat is discussed in David Herbert Donald’s essay “Died of Democracy”. He begins by pointing out that the arguments presented in the aforementioned essays could be reversed and backed with valid arguments had the war resulted differently. Instead, he points to a problem that only troubled the South. This was the Southerners incompatibility with military discipline. Confederate soldiers often complained or even refused to carry out orders. They disobeyed their officers, and did not hesitate to desert their regiment if they felt it was necessary. Conversely, Northern forces did not have the same feelings of individuality that the South had. A large number of Union soldiers were either European immigrants or Negroes, both of which lacked feelings of individualism and were quick to take orders and show obedience. This is not saying that Union forces did not experience “these troubles of disloyalty and sedition…” (p.88)
It is, however, implying that the South had much more difficulty controlling these problems than the North did. This is because the North moved quickly to squash any disloyalty or rebellion by suspending the writ of habeas corpus and arresting traitorous citizens. Furthermore, President Lincoln impaired the rights to freedom of the press, shutting down over 300 newspapers that showed any type of opposition to the war. On the contrary, the Confederate government refused to place any restrictions whatsoever on its citizens’ rights. They insisted upon maintaining the right of free expression at all costs. As democratic as this may have been, it quite possibly hurt the Confederate cause more than it benefited it.
“Jefferson Davis and the Political Factors in Confederate Defeat” is an essay by David M. Potter that sheds light on the political aspect of Confederate defeat. He begins by outlining the South’s many economic disadvantages. First and foremost, cotton did not work the miracles that the South had hoped. Much of the Southern enthusiasm arose from the hope that cotton would carry them through the war. Instead, it was quite the opposite. Foreign trade relations were interrupted and the income from cotton diminished. In addition, the South lacked adequate manufacturing facilities, railroads, and labor supply. However, the South still had a fighting chance despite these hindrances. Potter points out that politics may have played an even larger role than economic inadequacies in Northern victory. Granted, one should not rule out the economic differences when giving a political evaluation of the two.
Perhaps one could agree that the South’s eventual decline in wealth and extreme inflation could have been somewhat retardeded had the government better addressed these problems. They were reluctant to tax the states, and depended primarily on borrowing. Davis’s cotton regulations all but ruined the industry. As Potter reports, “At the end of the war, 2,500,000 bales had been destroyed to prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemy; less than 1,000,000 probably had been exported through the blockade…” (p.99) This translates to nearly $125 million in cotton that Davis destroyed. Policy was further enacted to grant the Confederate army the power to seize livestock and crops at an unfair market value, which caused a decrease in production that led to troublesome shortages. Davis failed to recognize and exploit the great minds under him.