Friday, October 2, 2009

Review - The Confederate War

Gary W. Gallagher, The Confederate War; Harvard University
Press: Cambridge; 1997

Writer and editor Gary Gallagher seems to have found a secure niche
in the field of Civil War scholarship. For the past twenty years,
Gallagher has been chief editor for almost two dozen essay collections
on Civil War military history. With The Confederate War he shifts his
focus from campaigns and commanders to the Southern Confederacy,
in an attempt to explain why the Confederates were ultimately

As he has done with other Civil War topics, Gallagher examines
recent scholarship on reasons for the Confederacy’s defeat and
finds it wanting. In the absence of social upheaval in the North,
many scholars have concluded that internal frictions and
controversies weakened the Confederacy’s war effort, estranged
its civilians, sapped its armies through desertion, and eventually
forced its collapse. Several scapegoats have been offered: an
incomplete or non-existent national vision, a breakdown in
cooperation between aristocratic slaveholders and yeomen, a
costly and impractical military strategy, even a collective guilt
about the morality of slavery. Though there is no consensus on
which factor is most to blame, these scholars insist that the
Confederacy’s defeat came from within, not from without.

Through four essays concerning the most common themes
regarding internal defeat---including Popular Will, Nationalism,
and Military Strategy---Gallagher contends that the Confederacy
struggled longer and harder than any other fledgling nation, even
more than the American colonies during the Revolution. Though
the Confederacy lost one-third of its able-bodied male population,
two-thirds of its prewar wealth, and most of its infrastructure,
it was still maintaining armies in the field as late as 1865. Were
the Confederate people painfully deluded? Were they full of
wishful thinking? Or were they anticipating that external
events---such as battlefield victories or a negotiated peace
settlement---would decide the outcome of the war?

Gallagher believes they were waiting for victory, and with the
testimony he cites from countless Confederates it is hard to
arrive at a different conclusion. There is little to indicate either
a fatal loss of will or a lack of nationalistic feelings. Through
victories and defeats, good times and (mostly) lean times, the
Confederates in Gallagher’s essays wrote and spoke frequently
of their desire to see the war through to victory. More importantly,
they acted on this desire, through voluntary military service, home
front support of the soldiers’ needs, and faithful, if not necessarily
cheerful, submission to wartime privations. Far from going to war
with an indifferent attachment to their country, most Confederates
saw themselves as patriots fighting for a cause as holy as that of
1776; victory would prove their pedigrees as the spiritual
descendants of the American Revolution. Even the divisive issue
of arming slaves enjoyed more support than has been widely believed. To Gallagher the Confederates seemed prepared to do anything, even to dismantle their entire society, in order to achieve independence.

Recent studies may emphasize disaffection between various parts of Confederate society, but Gallagher claims that most of these have focused on a few small parts of the Confederacy and that scholars have mistakenly extrapolated such findings onto a larger scale, assuming that the same feelings were held throughout the eleven Confederate states. Again, the letters and diaries suggest that most Confederates bonded together for a common cause. Soldiers may have felt cheated by speculators and disheartened by bad news from home, but even so most of them remained in the ranks until the bitter end. Wealthy slaveholders and poor yeomen may have grumbled about rising inflation, government impressments, and restricted civil liberties, but Gallagher warns against mistaking this for hostility towards the Confederate government, any more than grumbling about taxes should be construed as plotting to overthrow one’s own government. Once more, the proof is in the actions of all classes of Confederate society: military service, financial contribution, and patient endurance.

The military strategies of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee have likewise been the subject of many recent critiques. Scholars contend that Davis ought to have pursued a “people’s war” of guerilla fighting, that Lee should have stood on the defensive more often, and that both men fatally dispersed and depleted their manpower. Gallagher skillfully defends the general and his president against their modern-day armchair critics. Guerilla fighting was contrary to both Southern military culture and Confederate military doctrine, and, as Gallagher illustrates by way of comparison with the American Revolution, it was useless without foreign intervention. More importantly, a guerilla war would have left the South defenseless against bloody slave uprisings. As for Lee, his aggressive generalship might have bled the Confederacy white, but nevertheless he provided victories that kept Southern morale afloat. Nor was a defensive strategy a guarantee of success, as was demonstrated by the collapse of the Confederacy’s Western defensive line in early 1862. Furthermore, the burgeoning Confederate nationalism evinced in the letters and diaries would have suffered a heavy blow if Confederate armies had purposefully abandoned large swaths of territory, even for sound military reasons.

To Gallagher, the real story of the Confederacy’s defeat is the oldest one: the Confederacy was worn down by the Northern military. Though Confederates hoped against hope through the closing days of April 1865, theirs was not to be a successful struggle. But Gallagher considers it a mistake to ascribe their defeat to an inability to get along with each other and to fight together; the final statistics of defeat---and the letters and diaries quoted---make that a dubious claim.

Gallagher draws on a wealth of primary and secondary sources to support his thesis. He has clearly studied the authors whose conclusions he faults, and his knowledge of Civil War scholarly findings is firm. The rest of the book is founded on sound reasoning. One minor fault is the absence of a standard bibliography. Gallagher provides informative endnotes, but a summary of sources used would have been helpful.

Gallagher does not claim to know how the Confederacy might have won, and he allows that much work remains for scholars researching this topic. Still, he conclusively argues that the theory of internal defeat needs a serious examination. As he sees it, the Confederates did the best they could with what they had, against enemies more foreign than domestic. In the end they were unable to win their independence. Still, they came very close.