Why the Confederacy Lost—and Why We Should Care Today (part 1)

Christian B. Keller, editor of Southern Strategies: Why the Confederacy Failed

In this era, when things Confederate have fallen out of vogue with both the general public and academia, and rebel monuments seemingly topple to the ground everywhere, it may appear a bit untimely to consider why the history of the short-lived Confederacy matters for modern senior leaders. But precisely because it was such a fleeting experiment—confronted with inherent political contradictions, overwhelming survival challenges, and a lethal adversary bent on its destruction—that its value as a basis for thinking about modern strategic problems is especially salient. People may recoil in repugnance today at the thought of pondering the slave-holding republic, but we need to move past any presentist, politically motivated agendas and take a clear-eyed, historically contextual look at why the Confederacy failed and what we can learn from it. In so doing, we may be surprised what we can glean to improve our thinking about current issues.

In my recent book, Southern Strategies: Why the Confederacy Failed, I and my contributors, all faculty, former faculty, or former students at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA, wrestle with what I call the “big questions” of rebel defeat that dwell at the strategic (i.e., the “war-winning and war-losing”) level of war. We dip down into operational and even tactical history as necessary, especially when key campaigns, such as Antietam or Gettysburg, represented significant contingency points in the course of the Civil War. We root our analyses in classical and modern strategic theory, incorporating Carl von Clausewitz’s timeless maxims, the ends-ways-means-risk paradigm, and the DIME construct (Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic instruments of national power) as interpretative lenses to better evaluate our chosen topics. They range from the criticality of competent military leaders, to macroeconomic and diplomatic reasons for Southern failure, to abysmal lapses in intelligence. And we give due credence to the better decision-making and more adroit application of power of the secessionist South’s Federal opponents.

Let’s be perfectly clear: the subject of why the Confederacy lost the war is well-plowed intellectual ground. All the great Civil War historians of our time, from Bruce Catton onward, have thought hard and written much about it. As I state in the introduction of our book, we simply want to join the debate and possibly reframe it a bit, not arrive at “final” answers, which of course is almost impossible to do. If we’ve done our job well, our readers ought to be well-equipped to think critically and creatively about their own big problems and use the Confederacy’s downfall as a useful, if inexact, case study.

The first point we make is that leaders matter a lot, both for the chances of historical rebel independence and the achievement of national, corporate, or civic objectives today. Contrary to popular belief, the Confederacy possessed a very limited bench of gifted strategic-level military leaders and fewer good operational ones than generally perceived. Essentially, the rebellion started out with Robert E. Lee, Albert Sydney Johnston, and Braxton Bragg as potential strategically minded generals, and ended up with only one of them meeting expectations: Lee.

Johnston fell early at Shiloh and may or may not have matured to the high levels of command foretold for him had he lived, whereas Bragg could think strategically but was a weak executor. There were no other generals who could rise to the highest level of war, but Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet, Joseph E. Johnston, and possibly P. G. T. Beauregard and Kirby Smith were all able operational leaders who could think, if not execute, strategically. Various reasons explain why this was so for each of these individuals, but suffice it to say for our purposes here that they, too, were limited in number and, once incapacitated or killed, were of no further use to their respective armies. This reality was particularly damaging to the efficacy of the Army of Northern Virginia, which boasted the command team of Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, and J. E. B. Stuart from spring 1862 to spring 1863. Their Federal adversary was very hard pressed to match the almost-unbeatable combination of leadership qualities offered by these men, who came close to attaining victory for the South in the Eastern Theater. I argue in my essay that the Lee-Jackson partnership, in particular, was very valuable and nigh irreplaceable for the Confederacy, and that Stonewall’s death after Chancellorsville permanently damaged that potentially war-winning team.

The Union also had a limited bench of strategic-level generals, namely McClellan, Rosecrans, Grant, Sherman, and Thomas, but none of them died (although some were sacked), and the North enjoyed a far greater selection of competent operational leaders who could implement their chiefs’ intent, and, occasionally, both think and execute at the strategic level. Men like Meade, Sheridan, McPherson, Porter, and Schofield helped Grant and Sherman win, whereas Leonidas Polk, William Hardee, Richard Ewell, and A. P. Hill proved hard for Bragg and Lee to manage and couldn’t think beyond their own corps’ purviews.

Most modern organizations today, whether they be the U.S. Army, the Internal Revenue Service, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the Hershey Corporation, or the town council of Carlisle, possess limited means in the form of good extant and potential senior leaders. Identifying them early, grooming them for higher-level responsibility, and finding ways to avoid their attrition are critical ways to ensure the future of any organization. Competent leaders—especially at the strategic level—are especially scarce, and, when expended, are not easily replaced. We must learn to take care of them, educate and mentor them properly, expose them to the necessary professional experiences, and do what it takes to elevate them to the billets they deserve to occupy.

In the forthcoming Part 2 of this essay, we will examine the diplo-economic reasons for Confederate defeat and their modern applications.

Dr. Christian B. Keller is professor of history and director of the military history program at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA. He is the author, co-author, or editor of six books on the U.S. Civil War, most recently, Southern Strategies: Why the Confederacy Failed (University Press of Kansas, 2021).