Was Confederate Defeat Inevitable

Was Confederate Defeat Inevitable

Ryan Toews

About two years ago I bought Steven Newton’s Lost for the Cause: The Confederate Army in 1864, (2000). It definitely was the best read of this last year. Newton not only provides a complete order of battle for the Confederate army for April 1864, but also examines a number of issues dealing with the last year of the war.

His first chapter is an extension of the order of battle he has constructed. He concludes that the Confederacy was able to mobilize an additional 75,000 men in the course of the winter of 1863-64. In a comparison of the ratio of Confederate troops to Union strength it is demonstrated that the ratio did not fall from the mid-1863 levels until the latter half of 1864. Building on this, Newton concludes that to say the South was inevitably overwhelmed by the greater numbers and/or economic might of the North is untenable. The South lost not by a lack of troops but by the mismanagement of the forces it raised.

Comparing troop strength ratios and losses in eastern Virginia the Army of Northern Virginia never fell below 57% of the Army of the Potomac.

Date                US Present for Duty Strength                      CS PFD Strength

30 June 64                 110,262                                                          63,234 (57%)
31 August                     60,167                                                          50,029 (83%)
31 October                   90,043                                                          51,729 (57%)
30 November 111,919                                                          71,514 (64%)

From this Newton claims, with good reason, that Lee successfully held Grant to a stalemate in front of Petersburg. The idea that the fighting in first the Overland Campaign and then the Petersburg Campaign successfully attritioned down the Army of Northern Virginia cannot be sustained.

In the Valley Early was also initially successful in tying down a much larger Union force. By the time the last major battle was fought at Cedar Creek in early October Union forces in the Shenandoah were 35,610 strong whereas Confederates had only 14,000 men. This strength ratio of 40% was considerably lower than the strength ratio Lee enjoyed because of the heavy detachment of Federal forces to the Shenandoah. Here Newton observes that why “Lee failed to make use of Grant’s diversion of force … is a question of strategic and operations decisions rather than one of resources.”

It was in Georgia that the war was lost for the South. Looking at the ratios of infantry strength one can see a steady decline in Confederate strength.

Date                US Present for Duty Strength                      CS PFD Strength

31 May 64                              94,310                                                54,263 (57%)
31 August                               88,086                                                48,081 (54%)
31 October                             75.659                                                38,263 (51%)
30 November             67,674                                                34,818 (51%)

Newton looks further into losses in the Atlanta Campaign and observes that under Johnson the Rebels maintained a favourable ratio of losses compared to the Union army. Where the Confederates fell short was their comparative inability to successfully return convalescents from their hospitals back to the front line. At the point Johnston was relieved from duty the Confederates had lost 7,700 fewer battlefield casualties than the Federals, but the Army of Tennessee had lost a much larger ratio of strength once losses from disease is factored in.

The battles subsequently fought under Hood resulted in the Rebels losing 2000 more men than the Federals. Had Hood prevailed in his attacks the cost would have been worth it, but as it was his operations severely cost the Army of Tennessee. And as Newton points out, it was the heavy losses sustained by the Army of Tennessee that crippled the Confederate war effort.

But was the Confederate loss of the war inevitable? On 23 August 1864 Lincoln wrote in a memo ”it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected….” At this time Grant was stalled in the trenches in front of Petersburg. In the Valley, Sheridan was mustering his forces at Harpers Ferry, but Early still was holding him at bay. In Georgia, although Hood had been unable to defeat Sherman in battle, the Army of Tennessee still held Atlanta in a siege that looked to end up as another Petersburg stalemate. If, as Lincoln saw it, the upcoming November election would reflect northern opinion on the course of the war, the war was still not a clear Northern victory.

Events proved Lincoln’s fears to be unfounded, the fall of Atlanta and the defeat of Early gave Lincoln the support he needed to continue the war to the end. But how close was the outcome and was it only a matter of greater resources on the side of the Union?

Early lost both the Third Battle of Winchester and the Battle of Fisher’s Hill. His defeat at Cedar Creek, however, came only when Sheridan successfully rallied his defeated army and launched a counter-attack. Had Early been a bit more fortunate he might have been able to keep victory within his grasp. Indeed, if “for the want of a nail” Sheridan’s horse had stumbled and fell on his 12 mile ride to Cedar Creek….

A re-examination of Hood’s first two battles in front of Atlanta also shows how events could have changed. In the Battle of Peach Tree Creek had Hood been able to attack one day sooner the Army of the Cumberland would have been caught astride Peach Tree Creek and far less prepared to defend itself. In the actual battle, timing again proved to be critical as the attack was delayed for two hours. It should be noted, however, much of this delay was due to poor co-ordination between the Confederate forces, and command and control issues had long been a problem in the Army of Tennessee.

Similar problems occurred in Hood’s second attack, the Battle of Atlanta. Piecemeal Confederate attacks, the miss-deployment of Hardee’s Corps, and the lucky deployment of a Union division covering the rear of the Army of the Tennessee resulted in a second Confederate defeat.

But all three of these events could not be necessarily attributed to the superior resources of the north. Instead it was better generalship and the roll-of-the-dice in battle that gave the Union its victories.

As an aside, it is interesting to take note of several recent revisionist examinations of the struggle for Atlanta. Stephan Davis was one of the first to attempt to defend Hood and point out how close to success his sorties from Atlanta were. In 2013 Stephan Hood’s John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General was published. Although written by a descendent of Hood, the book argues that Hood is very much misrepresented in history. While the book has its faults, more importantly the author has uncovered Hood’s collection of papers which were previously thought to be lost. The impending publication of these papers should be of considerable interest to historians of the western theatre.

The historiography of the Confederate loss of the war is changing. Newton’s study clearly illustrates that some of the old conclusions cannot be sustained. He has shifted the focus away from the argument that the Union’s resources made its victory inevitable and refocused back on the importance of strategic and operational decisions. Although he only marginally addresses the format of these decisions, he does point out that the Federals were often more successful in the development of managerial structures in their prosecution of the war.

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