on June 27, 2003
Reissue of a classic collection of essays from the 60's...Currents's "God and the Strongest Battalions" is alone worth the price!...Economic, political, social, etc., aspects are all considering by the "big-gun" historians of 40 years past...Scholarly enough for the serious student, yet very reader-friendly for the novitiate...recommended in the strongest possible terms!
It seems that much more attention is paid to debating the causes of the Civil War, but as this slim volume of essays reveals there are any number of varying and subtle arguments for explaining the outcome of the Civil War.
It is probably the common view that the North winning the Civil War was inevitable, that the overwhelming preponderance of the North in terms of supplies, industrial infrastructure, and manpower ensured victory. Only one of these authors somewhat accepts the thesis of Northern material superiority. These authors are far more mindful of the fact that mismanagement or deep-seated flaws within the losing side of a conflict can be larger factors in the ultimate outcome than positive actions by the winning side.
The authors all note some inherent advantages of the South: a need to only defend territory, the vastness of the South, a transportation network, the ability to produce large quantities of foodstuffs, a commodity, cotton, of great value in the international market, a huge labor force of three million slaves, and a certain psychological advantage in the defense of a way of life.
But these authors discuss any number of factors that led, not necessarily inevitably, to the defeat of the South. The authors point mostly to both military and political malfeasance, as well as personalities and inherent characteristics of Southern society, as leading to defeat. The manner of financing of the War produced tremendous inflation; the supplies of cotton were mismanaged both as a source of revenue to fund the war effort and as a tool to force European nations to recognize the Confederacy; food supplies were confiscated at below market prices; and manpower was poorly utilized both in recruitment to the Southern army and in the deployment of labor on Southern farms.
The states rights and independent political stance of Southerners seemed to prevent a coherent national posture being formulated in winning the Civil War. One of the authors points to the anti-statist views of all Southerners as interfering with producing a disciplined army. Southern units elected their superior officers and were disinclined to follow orders with which they disagreed. In contrast to this aggressive independence, some of the authors point to a general weakening of the Southern psychological state and even a "loss of nerve." The Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, is viewed by one author as a huge factor in the defeat of the South. Davis incompetently micromanaged the war effort, pursued flawed economic strategies, was personally difficult to engage, and exhibited an ineffectual indecisiveness and conservatism in times needing forceful and visionary actions. But the one-party system in the South prevented the rise of an effective opposition that could have addressed the original poor choice of President.
Beyond any material advantage, the authors generally contend that Lincoln and Grant were trump cards for the North. Both were better suited to their jobs both in temperament and competency than anyone in the South. Some would almost suggest that Lincoln and Grant being on the Southern side could have reversed the result.
This book was reissued in 1996 after first appearing in 1960, but it is as readable and relevant as anything being written today. There is some overlap in the material covered in the essays, but the ideas are interesting and challenging. You won't see all of these ideas in a general book on the Civil War.
on May 4, 2015
A small book densely packed with information by multiple expert historians in the field. Well worth a close reading. If you like to skim, this book is not for you. My biggest criticism is that the various authors did not include footnotes or bibliography. Any one who wants to pursue a fine point is left to his own devices. There is again a densely packed list of books at the end of the volume "for further reading." Would be more helpful if this wide-ranging list was linked to authors commentary. All in all, an excellent compilation of major historians in the field. My copy is now annotated and footnoted the way the original should have been.
This is a slim book (approximately 124 pages) that contains essays by different writers who each examine a major factor that contributed to the South losing the Civil War. Although in hindsight it appears that the South was doomed to lose, in reality, it was a close contest that literally could have been won by either side. Although the North had significant material advantages, the authors point out internal factors and decisions made (or not made) by the South that contributed greatly to it's eventual defeat. This book, although originally published nearly 50 years ago, remains surprisingly relevant and thought-provoking today.
As an interesting aside, the forward to the book was written by retired Major General U. S. Grant III, the grandson of Union General (and later President) U. S. Grant.
Half a century ago some of the nation's leading Civil War era historians put together this collection of essays seeking to explain, from a variety of perspectives (economic, military, political, diplomatic), why the North prevailed in the epic contest of wills between the states. We have arrived at the sesquicentennial of the great conflict and yet the insights and arguments found in "Why the North Won the Civil War" have lost little of their cogency.
Many could (and have) argue that the southern cause was doomed from the start. Richard Current makes this conventional case in his contribution "God and the Strongest Battalions." In short, he maintains that northern victory was practically guaranteed owing to the Union's insuperable advantages in manpower (2.5 times the south), capital (4 times larger), and industrial output (an order of magnitude greater), among other areas of comparative strength. Sure the Confederacy made mistakes, Jefferson Davis and Treasury Secretary Christopher Memminger could have crafted better policies, but the ability to overcome the South's economic handicaps went far beyond the power of any man or group of men, Current (and many others) argue.
But is that a fair and complete view of the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the competing sides? Did not the American colonists and Vietnamese communists face longer odds in their improbable quests for independence? Did not the Confederacy hold the advantage of interior lines, a long and difficult to blockade coastline, some of the best military officers of the war, a three-million strong involuntary labor pool (i.e. slaves), great natural defenses, and the strategic advantage of being able to win simply by not losing? If neither northern victory nor southern defeat were foreordained, then how to explain the defeat?
The essays by T. Harry Williams and David M. Potter reviewing military strategy and the political leadership of Jefferson Davis, respectively, are learned and forcefully argued, but hardly make a convincing monocausal explanation for the South's defeat. Nevertheless, Williams' essay in particular is a gem and recommended to any student of nineteenth century military history. He stresses that Jominian thinking was dominant among the West Point trained officers on both sides of the conflict and it is no accident that two of the three great generals in the war (Lee, Grant and Sherman by his calculation) were northerners who eschewed the Napoleonic concept, Grant even claimed that he had never read Jomini. Rather, the North's two leading commanders embraced a more Clausewitzean approach of total war, seeking the destruction of the main enemy army wherever it may be found through withering preponderance of force, not a victory of maneuver through superior planning and the capture of critical physical locations as dictated by Jomini.
The most convincing essay, I found, was the largely contrarian contribution by David Herbert Donald, "Died of Democracy," which argues ironically that the true weakness of the Confederacy was an unwavering commitment to democracy and individualism. He compares and contrasts the democratic/libertarian South to the often dictatorial North. For example, the South continued to elect non-commissioned officers and junior officers throughout the war and many men and entire units refused orders they disagreed with or simply didn't find personally satisfying. The North, on the other hand, had mostly cooperative, professional troops, especially the large percentage that were recent European immigrants and freed slaves. The South retained freedom of the press throughout the war and only briefly and locally suspended habeas corpus three times. In contrast, over 300 northern newspapers were shut down during the war and Lincoln suspended habeas corpus throughout the Union. The South claimed to be fighting for "states rights" and individual states that made up the Confederacy were just as jealous of their local prerogatives under the new southern form of government as they were under the Union, Donald maintains. It was this dynamic - the North, acting like a pack of dogs in their fight against the South, acting like a group of feral cats - that was the ultimate cause of Union victory and Confederate defeat, and its a theme that Potter further develops in his essay, showing how a collection of fiercely independent states with no two-party system could effectively develop a national policy on how to best leverage the power of "King Cotton" or raise revenue for the war effort through some form of national taxation or allocate the use of the captive slave population to fight the war. All of these potential war power policies were neglected in the face of state and individual property rights that made up the intellectual foundation of secession in the eyes of the South's political leadership.
All told, this is a nice complement to any Civil War library.
on May 6, 2013
This book is written by David Herbert Donald, two time Pulitzer Prize winner and author of the book Lincoln. "Why the North Won the Civil War" details the overwhelming power the Union Armies and Naval superiority, combined with the economic superiority of the northern states and many other reasons why the South would enevitatably succomb to the North's power and assure the Union Forces would win this war. Small phamplet sized offering, packed with much economic and political information which convinces the reader the South was never to be successful in it's Confederate cesessionist goals. This read convinces me why the Southern States manuver today, to amass manufacturing, armament and military facilities of our current Nation, so the next time they will be ready. I recommend this little book.
on December 30, 2011
I was required to read this for a military history class, and as usual the professor chose a great read. Some people said it was hard to read & identify the theses of the essays due to the length, but I didn't find it a hard read & the arguments are fairly easy to identify since they cover different topics: the 1st essay being an overview & the remaining 5 covering the social, economic, political, military, and diplomatic aspects of the conflict.
Despite somewhat hard read, most found it enjoyable. The writing is simple enough for non-historians to understand while providing historical analyses. Great read if you want various perspectives on why the war had the outcome it did.