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Why did the South lose the American Civil War?

The Civil War, which began in 1861, came to an end on 13th May 1865 with a victory for the North. This however had not always been the case, as the South were victorious in many of the earlier battles of the war such as First Manassas and they appeared at first to have strong military leadership. Whilst it has been argued that the South’s defeat was due to poor strategy within the military and the appointment of weak generals, many people also believe that there are other reasons for the South not winning the war. These include political leadership, foreign support, the supply of the army and war economics.

Firstly, geography was in fact more advantageous for the South as they had a larger landmass than the North, with mountains and rivers which made battle easier for the people who knew the area, and harder for people who did not. The South also had a huge coastline, which made a blockade hard to enforce. However, the North was far more industrialized and wealthier than the South as well as having experience building railways and these factors outweighed their disadvantage due to the geography of where the battle was being fought. Geographical factors were both useful and extremely unhelpful to both sides at some point. For example, the dense forests and swamps of North Virginia favouring the defender, whilst in the West the great rivers were able to be used as supply routes for the Union, so it is unlikely that they played a major role in the winning or loss of the war.

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Troop levels, army supply and the finance of the war all played a major role in which side was to win the war. Two million men from the North fought in the war compared with just 900,000 in the South. At first, this was not a problem, but as the war went on for much longer than was first expected rising numbers of casualties began to affect the Southern war effort. The North was able to use black soldiers from free northern states, the Border States and from newly liberated Southern areas whereas the South could not. Conscription was introduced in the North in 1863 and was not popular as many people were racist and did not agree with the northern war aims such as emancipation. However, it was even less popular in the Confederate states as it was a ‘Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight’ with the $300 exemption that was available if you could afford it, and also that it contradicted the idea of individual liberty.

As the numbers of men available to them were so much higher the North had a clear advantage. When it came to supplying their troops, again the North had an advantage over the South as they were more industrialized and had easier access to railroads, and better resources for repairing them whereas the South did not. Also, the South had to obtain many of their weapons from abroad whilst the North produced their own and this was affected by the Northern blockade. Financing the war was an even bigger problem for the South as they found it hard to raise money to longer the conflict went on, as people became less and less convinced that a confederate victory was possible they hesitated to lend. The Northern blockade made it hard for the South to continue to export cotton, so they raised tariffs and other taxes. The South passed both the Impressment Act (March 1863) which was a seizure of goods to feed the army and the Taxation-in-kind Act (April 1863) which allowed government officials to collect 10% of produce from all Southern farmers in an attempt to feed their troops.

Both were extremely unpopular. In direct contrast to this, the North had gold reserves and land assets, which helped them to finance the war, but they still found paying for it difficult and so both sides issued paper money. It soon lost its value and so inflation rates were high, but again the South was worst affected, with the Confederate government in $800 million in debt by the end of the war. Whilst numbers of troops, supply and finance may not have been so important at the beginning of the war, as it continued for longer than expected the South was at a clear disadvantage for many reasons including being less industrialized and having a weaker economy. All of these reasons ensured that the Confederacy was less likely to win and would be badly affected afterwards.

Political leadership was an important factor in who was to win the war, with many people viewing the leader of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis as a far weaker leader than Abraham Lincoln. The historian David Potter saw Davis’s leadership as the most important reason why the South lost, and if Lincoln was leading the Confederacy they may well have won. Whilst Davis was strong-willed and honourable with much military experience, he did not make a very good leader for several reasons. He failed to establish good working relationships with his colleagues and made more enemies than friends, as proved by the high turnover in his cabinet. Davis also failed to appoint the right person to the right job much of the time, including some bad appointments of generals. He was not a good communicator or speechwriter and was seen to fail to provide inspiration for his people.

Although Lincoln also had his faults, for example, some initial hesitation over military matters, he was seen as a great leader by many. He was resilient, honest and delegated jobs well as well as keeping in touch with public opinion and spending time over his party organization, which ensured continued support of the Republicans and an appearance of unity between them. Leadership was important to the outcome of the war, as whilst military experience was useful in making tactical decisions, Lincoln’s political leadership turned out to be far more effective in maintaining morale and unity, something which Davis failed at.

Military leadership on the other hand was something in which both sides had their successes and weaknesses. However, some of the South’s military errors could have cost them the war. For example, it has been argued that whilst the South was tactically good, their generals did not match the Union ones such as Grant and Sherman. Robert E. Lee has been criticized for losing the West-and, therefore, the war for the Confederacy, whilst his successor Beauregard made plans not based on reality. Bragg argued with everyone whilst Joe Johnston refused to take chances. The South has also been criticized for misjudging situations by losing their bravest men in costly attacks early on. However, the Union made many mistakes also, especially in the Virginia theatre and their mistakes did actually give the Confederacy a chance at victory. It is clear that both sides made blunders so it is unlikely that poor military leadership played a large part in the Confederacy losing.

It has been argued that lack of will on the part of the Confederacy played an important role in the South losing the war. Overall the war was tougher on the South as it put continued financial pressure on them, and some Southerners found it hard to keep going. It has been argued that they would have continued to fight had their sense of nationalism been strong enough, but it was almost non-existent as the Confederacy had only been formed a short time before the war. Many southerners, therefore, had loyalty to individual states rather than the Confederacy as a whole. However, what the Southerners did possess was a hatred for the ‘Yankees’ and soldiers who believed they were fighting for liberty and their rights.

It has also been said that Southerners actually had stronger nationalism, as they came through greater hardships than the north. Southerners had a sense of nationalism in their shared institution of slavery which was the main reason for secession and therefore important in the war. Religion, whilst helping to maintain Southern will, but also worked to raise doubts about the war and reasons for fighting it. Whilst the lack of will in the South did not help to raise support for the war and therefore the belief that they were going to win, slavery was the cause for which they were fighting to preserve so many Southerners were committed to the war.

Opposition on both sides, especially the South hindered the war effort to a certain extent. Some 90,000 Southerners from areas where slavery was not prevalent fought for the union army and this was not helpful as the Confederacy had far fewer men in the first place. Whilst some in the North did not want to fight a war to destroy slavery, the opposition was not so damaging as they had more men and supplies. People from both the Union and Confederacy opposed conscription and this was a major cause of discontentment with the situation. Although opposition did not reach the levels to which it would have become a problem for either side, in the South opposition coupled with the lack of will towards the end of the war certainly did not help to raise morale.

The Confederacy knew that they needed to gain support from abroad, most notably Britain and France to increase the likelihood of getting some European involvement, especially in breaking the blockade. Recognition for them could also establish International legitimacy for their new country. The South had reason to be hopeful, as they had strong links in the cotton trade with Lancashire cotton mills, who would not want their supply dried up. Radicals in Britain also supported states’ rights- the claims of the Southerners. Also, the South was helped by the fact that if America were two separate states, they would not be as strong a commercial rival for Britain, so Britain was likely to support the Confederacy. However, the South was greatly hindered by slavery, which many people in Britain did not support.

France, whilst sympathetic to the Confederacy, needed British naval support before becoming involved and so did not. Some people believe that the South would have had a chance of British and French support, had their diplomatic powers been stronger and they had handled things better. On the other hand, the historian Alan Farmer argued that the British Prime Minister Palmerston was determined to remain neutral so the Confederacy never really had a chance of foreign support. It is debatable as to why they did not achieve it, but foreign support would have definitely helped the South in some way and maybe increased their chances of winning the war.

In conclusion, after assessing all of the factors contributing to the South losing the Civil war, troop levels, supply and finance stand out as being the most important reason why the South lost. Although leadership (both military and political) would have been vital in making good tactical decisions, and maintaining togetherness and morale, which definitely affected the outcome of the conflict, the large gap between the North and South regarding troops and supplies seems more important. As mentioned above, at the beginning of the war this would not have been a problem, and the South enjoyed many military successes in the early battles of the war. However as there were more and more casualties and the war continued for much longer than anyone had expected, the South became at a disadvantage as they did not have the money to finance a long war.

Although the North could not really afford it either, they had gold reserves and money from customs in the trade as an income to help them so they did not have to resort to acts and taxation as the South did. The North also had a much stronger economy, which was able to recover from the inflation much better than the South. As the North was industrialized it was much easier for them to supply their troops with both food and weapons due to the railroads, whilst this was much harder for the South as many of their railways had been destroyed by Union forces. All of these factors show that the South was at such a disadvantage regarding their troops, supplies and finance that they had no chance of ever winning a war that continued for that amount of time. Even though the South appeared stronger in the early battles, the fact that the North was so industrialized with a good economy and a larger population of men of military age secured their victory in the long run.

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Why did the South lose the American Civil War?. (2021, Apr 09). Retrieved May 9, 2021, from