Mark Grimsley, Brooks D. Simpson, eds. The Collapse of the Confederacy. Key Issues of the Civil War. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. x + 201 pp. $47.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-2170-3.
Reviewed by Lisa Tendrich Frank (Department of American Studies, California State University, Fullerton)
Published on H-South (April, 2002)
When the Walls Came Crumbling Down
When the Walls Came Crumbling Down
Scholars have debated the reasons for the end of the Civil War and the fall of the Confederacy since the end of the hostilities in 1865. Interpretations that stressed internal dissention, poor leadership by Jefferson Davis and other Southern leaders, guilt over slavery, and a loss of morale tended to emphasize the Confederacy's role in its own demise. Others looked to the North's superior resources and numbers to understand Lincoln's ultimate victory. Although the terms of the debate have varied across the years, the fundamental questions have remained the same: Why did the South lose? or Why did the North win?
In this recent addition to the debate, six scholars approach the issues from a new vantage point. Instead of examining the entire Confederate experience, each essay focuses on the final months of the Southern nation to impart a "'micro' view of the Confederacy's demise" (p. 1). The "micro view" offered includes an exploration not only of Confederate defeat, but also of Confederate persistence. Why, the authors ask, was the Confederacy able to survive until 1865, when so many people have seen 1864 as the beginning of the end? The individual essays explore the possibility of a negotiated peace, the role of Southern leadership, the relationship between strategy and the end of the war, the possibility of guerilla warfare, and the role of civilians in the Confederacy's demise. As the editors perceptively note, "these essays offer proof that the way in which a war ends matters nearly as much as who wins and who loses" (p. 11).
In his essay, Steven E. Woodworth explores the many missed opportunities to end the war with a negotiated peace. For Woodworth, "the most striking question about the collapse of the Confederacy [is] why [negotiation] was never attempted in earnest, on a realistic basis, on the Confederate side" (p. 33). Attempts to find a peace settlement were made on several levels--political, military, and personal--but all ultimately failed. Although Woodworth asserts that "extensive opportunity had existed for working out a negotiated peace that could have secured far better terms for the South," the two sides found little common ground for agreement (p. 14). Woodworth primarily places the blame for these missed opportunities on Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who, Woodworth argues, only offered terms for settlement with the Union to which he knew the Union would never agree.
Woodworth highlights Davis' reluctance to admit defeat and his refusal to compromise, despite the increasing Confederate military defeats and the ultimate surrender of General Robert E. Lee. However, Davis was not alone in his confidence in the Confederate armies or in his refusal to compromise. In many instances, the populace, like its president, "refused to accept anything short of total victory" (p. 24). Furthermore, "for a large number of Southerners even as late as the beginning of 1865, no peace settlement that included [emancipation] could be considered preferable to continued resistance, however remote the chances" (p. 35).
Mark Grimsley agrees that Davis could have never successfully brought the war to a close on his own. Instead, Grimsley argues, it took Southern generals, who finally "found the courage to say 'enough'" (p. 40). After detailing the problems of the Confederacy's military command, Grimsley perceptively shows how a lack of organization and flawed Southern tactics ultimately resulted in the defeat of Confederate troops in 1865. For Grimsley, Sherman's campaign through Georgia and the Carolinas was the final nail in the Confederacy's coffin. Confederate generals could not effectively stop Sherman, in part because their only two viable options--to destroy individual corps of Sherman's troops or to destroy Southern supplies before Union troops could get to them--were never successfully implemented. Defeats threatened to demoralize both Confederate troops and civilians. When their military maneuvers had proved futile, Grimsley asserts, Southern generals departed from their traditional sphere and took matters into their own hands. They sought a negotiated peace with the Union instead of mere military surrender.
William B. Feis also notes Davis' role in the downfall of the Confederacy. As he examines the Confederate president's refusal to resort to guerrilla warfare, Feis shows that "Davis neither embraced nor advocated the guerrilla option as a means to revive the Confederacy near war's end" (105). As a Southern gentleman, Davis would not consider a turn to what he and his countrymen saw as a "reprehensible and dishonorable mode of fighting" (p. 110). Davis, like many Confederates, used rhetoric that emphasized the North's savagery. To maintain this image, the Confederacy could not resort to the use of "barbaric" bushwhackers and Davis worked "to maintain the Confederacy's dignified standing and respectability in the eyes of the world" (p. 113). To maintain the Confederacy's reputation in the eyes of the world and its citizens, as well as to maintain a unified effort for Southern independence, "Davis allotted the preservation of the Confederate armies the highest priority" (p. 116). Through his focus on conventional warfare, Davis worked to maintain the Confederacy's "political objectives [so it could] take its place among the pantheon of civilized nations" (p. 122).
Brooks D. Simpson's essay similarly highlights the importance of the Confederate military and its commanders in the war's outcome. More specifically, Simpson examines the Union's military strategy in the final year of the War. Lincoln, like his Confederate counterpart, expected his generals to focus on military matters as he concentrated on securing peace through political means. Consequently, Simpson notes, "hard war and a lenient peace were two sides of the same policy to crush the Confederacy, targeting will as well as resources" (p. 89). Lincoln hoped that by ending Confederate aspirations for military victory, the Union could secure lasting peace.
Simpson demonstrates how closely tied together the Union's political and military fortunes remained throughout the Civil War. The two coexisted and reinforced each other in the Union's pursuit of victory. They further compensated for each other. "Just as military events had secured Lincoln's reelection and led to thoughts of eventual peace, so too did military events result in the end of the war itself in the wake of failed efforts at securing that end through negotiation" (p. 100).
The final two essays in this collection look at the fall of the Confederacy in a different light, focusing on civilians and the homefront rather than military and political leaders or strategies. George C. Rable argues that despite common assumptions, Confederate "morale did not collapse in 1865" (p. 131). He instead shows how "commitment to the Confederacy proved remarkably resilient [and] events that caused some people to despair only seemed to redouble the enthusiasm of others" (p. 131). Rable highlights the confidence felt by many Southerners in the face of military defeats and other setbacks.
As Rable notes, Confederate civilians recognized the vital role that public support and confidence played in the fortunes of the new nation. Furthermore, Confederate spirits remained high, in part, as a result of the unwavering faith in Lee, which allowed people to find the bright side of even the direst situation. In this context, however, Rable attributes the undying confidence of Southern civilians to a "reluctance to face reality" (p. 135). As Southern military fortunes grew darker, "a great patriotic revival began" to compensate (p. 146). Despite patriotic rhetoric and passions, the South could not stave off ultimate defeat at the hands of Union armies. Nonetheless, Rable acknowledges that "to say that Confederate morale collapsed in the spring of 1865 is to tell at best a partial truth. Rather, the persistence of unrealistic expectations, wild fantasies, and false hopes sustained the will to continue the war but at an increasingly horrible physical and psychological cost" (p. 155). The attitudes of the people could not change the outcome of the war
In her essay, Jean V. Berlin similarly deals with the effects of civilian morale on the warfront as she "link[s] women's attitudes to the war and defeat to the political and military situation of late 1864 and 1865 and the ideals on which the Confederacy was founded" (p. 171). Berlin accepts the commonly expressed idea that Confederate morale and confidence had waned in 1864, and brings women into the picture as part of that decline. Berlin places women into this power position by emphasizing the powerful influence of the household in Southern society. She asserts that "when [women] felt their government could no longer protect them their loyalty faltered and died" (p. 173). To come to this conclusion, Berlin pays special attention to the effects of the 1864 campaigns by William Sherman and Philip Sheridan. When these Union generals directly attacked Southern homes and civilians, Berlin asserts, Southern women became discouraged and anxious about their future. Berlin interprets women's turn to the hated enemy for help during the invasions as "a streak of practical, self-preserving behavior that indicated there were indeed limits to their support for the Confederacy and foreshadowed their nation's demise" (p. 178). So, although white Southern women's rage at the enemy increased as a result of these campaigns and growing wartime shortages, Berlin argues that their expanding desperation led them to abandon their nation. This, she argues led to the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy as a whole--women encouraged desertion, undermined soldiers' morale, and otherwise damaged the future of the Southern nation. In the end, Berlin writes, "the fact that the South's society was based on the household became a part of its downfall" (p. 187).
Despite claims that the essays in this collection do not read history backwards, several authors imply the existence of a widespread recognition that a Union victory was inevitable by late 1864. For example, Berlin writes that, "by the time Sherman began his March to the Sea, most women and men in the South knew that the war was over" (p. 187). Similarly, Woodworth claims that, "by 1865, it was manifestly obvious to every informed observer that the Confederacy's days were numbered" (p. 34). Rable agrees. "Rationalizations and wishful thinking," he explains "helped citizens hang onto hope even in the absence of any tangible reasons to do so" (p. 131). Southerners, however, did not merely cling to "delusive hopes" of victory (p. 138). Even Lincoln and many Union generals were not so confident of their nation's future in late 1864. Their decision to resort to formerly unthinkable strategies, especially the Union attack on the homefront, reveals this lack of confidence. Victory, Sherman and others recognized, would require more than the defeat of Confederate armies. In Sherman's words, victory could only come if he could "make war so terrible ... [and] make [all Southerners] so sick of war that generations would pass away before they would again appeal to it." In other words, as all of the authors in this volume demonstrate, the end of the war was not simply a matter of military might or a foregone conclusion.
The end of the Civil War will undoubtedly continue to attract the attention of historians for another 150 years. This volume adds a new dimension to the scholarly debate over Confederate defeat and Union victory. Future scholars of the American Civil War will need to confront the issues highlighted in this volume.
. William T. Sherman to Ulysses S. Grant, 6 November 1864, Official Records, Ser. 1, Vol. 39, Pt. 3: 660.
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Lisa Tendrich Frank. Review of Grimsley, Mark; Simpson, Brooks D., eds., The Collapse of the Confederacy.
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