Southern Strategies: Why the Confederacy Failed (Edited by Christian B Keller)


Book review by Charles Rees


This is a book comprising six essays of strategical analysis by professional soldiers, valuable to non-military or academic historians. It is fresh and highly readable. It has been edited by Christian Keller who spoke to us a few years ago at our Conference and also wrote a book on Lee and Jackson - The Great Partnership, reviewed in Vedette 39 and available on the website. Southern Strategies is a book for reflective knowledgeable intellectuals so will be ideal for all readers of this review.


The authors look at the conflict from the point of view of the diplomatic, the informational (which includes intelligence and public morale), the economic and military power giving the acronym DIME. They look critically at ways and means.


The first essay is Keeler’s own and follows his theme in the Great Partnership that the command partnership between Lee and Jackson was a hugely important strategical team and its loss after Jackson’s death was a serious blow, far more than previously appreciated. Prior to the Seven Days Lee felt he could not save Richmond without Jackson and hence his recall from the Valley but this meant a loss of the strategical consequences of Jackson’s plans. The paucity of key generals in the South meant that this loss created a vacuum in the strategical leadership. The weaker nation needed to exploit all its assets and this major asset was lost.


Confederate economic and fiscal policies. This subject dealing with the E in the DIME by Eric Johnson sounds so dry and yet my feeling was that I wish I had read it before I read anything else about the ACW. It explained so much that was otherwise baffling. The Confederacy had so much going for it and yet messed up just about every economic target without which it was a miracle it fought a war at all. Its fiscal policies were to fight a short war when militarily it needed to fight a long one. This disconnect made defeat inevitable. The Confederate government failed to use its ace card, cotton, to advantage. It failed to tax effectively. However, Johnson points out that the nature of the South was to be independent and untaxed! Taxation came too little and too late but it was furnished by a belief amongst the people that early success would make it unnecessary. The concept of taxation was something the Southerners had been trying to get away from. One undoubted problem was that at the start the North had an effective government in power whereas the Confederacy had to start from scratch. Their Treasury department was essentially non-existent. Each state’s tax assessment system was different and in any case inadequate for the prosecution of the war.


Bonds were one way of raising money but it was not long before the European appetite for bonds began to wane reflecting their forecast of the result. Confederate envoys sent to sell the bonds were often bunglers. Printing money was the solution but inevitably led to inflation.


When it came to cotton the story is even more bleak. Keeping open the ports to export cotton should have been the first priority of the Confederacy but they were mostly closed in the first year. Davis and his government also over-estimated the dependence of Britain and France on Southern cotton. They withheld cotton the very year Europe had a glut so that it was not until 1862 that the shortage hit and by that time Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had turned the southern freedom fighters into slave owners. Great Britain would not bow to that sort of economic blackmail. In a year the cotton offset had been replaced by cotton from Egypt, India and the East Indies.


Johnson’s final point is that because of economic mismanagement strategic level victories were the only path left to achieve independence.


Lee’s blind horse: Kevin McCall. This deals with the I in the DIME in a curious and intriguing way because he picks a very specific moment when, but for the lack of information, the Maryland campaign could have been war-winning. Lee made the decision to raid into Maryland after Chantilly was hasty but based on sound issues, taking the war out of Virginia, drawing the Union forces out of Washington and influencing the coming Northern legislative elections. But his informational sources were designed for northern Virginia and when he entered Maryland he lost the scope and depth of information previously enjoyed and it was this that led to the negative strategic results. Figuratively he was riding a blind horse and McCall analyses these shortcomings in intelligence in detail. Lee neither knew the battle-space or the strength of the Union army he hoped to defeat. Moreover, many of the usual sources open to him such as northern newspapers no longer became available as he advanced rapidly. McCall noted that JEB Stuart’s inability to report the whereabouts of McClellan’s army, particularly on 6-9 September, led to Lee dividing his own into five parts. The tactical draw and strategic defeat was entirely due to lack of information.


Lastly, McCall delves into special order 191 surely the most intriguing mystery of the war. To be brief, my own belief is that it had no effect on anything because it was four days old when McClellan received it, and he delayed response quite rightly as 29 pieces of his own intelligence did not support it. McCall, however, takes a new direction contending that the whole thing was a false trail, a red herring, a hoax or even careful counter-intelligence! There is no evidence that the orders were lost by anyone, they were too easily found in a likely place wrapped with tempting cigars. There was too much coincidence. They were meant to be found but who sent them? McCall therefore balances the likelihood that the loss was accidental against the possibility that it was not.


For a Civil War buff this is definitely the time to read this appendix with a mind improving drink and reflect.


For want of friends - Eric Anderson This essay deals with the D in the DIME and the problems the Confederacy had with its attempts to get recognition. Eric started with a fascinating account of European politics at the time explaining how the Confederacy misinterpreted European moves. When Great Britain recognised Victor Emmanuel II of Italy it was to reinforce the balance of power, not because recognising new regimes was the fashion. Thus, delegates mistook sympathy for hard approval and support. Their lack of discernment led to misinterpretation of British and French viewpoints. Moreover, the liabilities of the delegates outweighed their assets. Mason was an ignominious failure. Slidell was the ‘shining star amongst this coterie of buffoons.’ This was in contrast to Union diplomacy. The decision of Great Britain to remain neutral, on 6 May 1861, was also misinterpreted by the Confederacy, possibly because it so angered the North, and gave them false hope. They thought it the first step towards recognition and some retained this delusion until near the end of the war. The bottom line over recognition was always slavery and the Confederate diplomats aggravated the argument by always extolling States Rights and the retention of slavery whereas it was seen as secession's root cause. Cotton was an important export to Great Britain but so was corn from the North and likewise export of manufacturing goods from Great Britain to the North. The North encouraged trade with Great Britain whereas the Confederacy squandered its trade by withholding cotton in the first years of the war. In the end Lee’s military victories were all they had left.



Going North in 1863 - Chris Compton Chris looks at the balance of risk and gain in the Pennsylvania raid. We all look at the campaign which resulted in the battle of Gettysburg from so many different angles and events but this military analysis is something I have not come across before. In May 1863 Lee was called to Richmond to discuss as Bowden and Ward succinctly put it, ‘to work out how and where to employ the Confederacy’s outnumbered soldiers.’ The previous policy of defending everything had meant that military wisdom had been trumped by political consideration. Lee was clear in his view that reinforcing failure in the west was a waste of precious resources which would deplete the only theatre which was enjoying success. Lee’s understanding of the political/strategic issues meant that taking the fight to his enemy in his land and away from Virginia had much to recommend it. All the Cabinet were aware of the issues but felt that the risk was worth taking. Lee planned a long campaign to influence Northern politicians and favoured manoeuvre and battle where and when he wanted. First, he had to re-jig his command structure after the loss of Jackson with, unfortunately two inexperienced Corps commanders. Second, he re-organised the artillery into battalions supporting each Corps, a change subsequently followed by Prussian, Austrian, French and British armies. He also strengthened both cavalry and infantry as much as the President would allow. In the event the shortfall would be sorely missed on the third day at Gettysburg. All this was done in a few weeks with meticulous detail and the vigour of Lee himself.


All did not go according to plan. Stuart did not provide the reconnaissance needed and AP Hill did engage the enemy on 1 July, Ewell did not take Cemetery Hill later in the day having been ordered twice allowing the defence organised by OO Howard to ultimately save the battle for the Union. On day 2 Longstreet delayed advance enough to allow Sickles to advance and create a giant stumbling block. The action on 3 July Chris considers was a blatant example of a tactically unacceptable action. Accepting that the frontal attack after an artillery bombardment, with Johnson’s attack on Culp’s Hill and Stuart’s attack from the rear was the plan he considers that the whole thing depended too much on timing and luck.


Chris assesses the feasibility, acceptability and suitability of each event and therefore assesses risk. In the end Lee crossed the risk line for a host of reasons.


The forgotten Trans-Mississippi Theatre and Confederate strategy - Michael Forsyth

Michael starts by pointing out that this was a forgotten and neglected concern for both sides and then states that control of this area was a pre-requisite to winning the war. The Lincoln administration had a much more cogent and rational strategy consistent with the DIME. The Confederacy, however, albeit for four sound reasons, decided to defend the whole Confederacy which stretched their limited resources. Thus, taking Mississippi as George McClellan suggested would deplete the resistance in Virginia. Although this was stymied at Wilson’s Creek and the death of Brigadier General Lyon the Federal strategy to Missouri remained clear. For the Confederacy, Missouri was a slave state with great mineral and agricultural resources, a good rail network and geographically important to the Mississippi valley.


Arkansas held all the necessary ingredients for making ammunition. Its seizure was an imperative for the Union army. Michael explains how the Confederacy, for multiple reasons failed to take the chances and organise the military boundaries. The wrong leaders were put in charge starting with AS Johnston, who even if he was capable was put in charge of a region so large it was never workable. After him came a line of incompetent leaders. After Pea Ridge Major General Thomas Hindman was appointed and constructed bands of guerrillas to obstruct Curtis’ advance on Little Rock. This had a promising and effective start but the guerrillas got out of hand and the effects on the local population were counterproductive. Such irregular operations were not in the DNA of the Confederacy and were stopped. Hindman, who had restored a degree of order after Pea Ridge, was replaced by the insubordinate and sick Theophilus Holmes. The one tactic that made a difference was ignored and localism plagued Confederate strategy. When it came to Vicksburg the departments were divided by the Mississippi, a cardinal sin in military planning. When Kirkby Smith was appointed he had so many problems that he lost sight of the bigger picture and became absorbed by his own regional problems.


Louisiana was different altogether. Grant, whilst acknowledging that the Red River campaign was outside his strategic vision, realised that there were political imperatives. This gave the Confederate forces west of the Mississippi a chance to make a difference and give a strategical opportunity. In the end Kirkby Smith’s defensive approach trumped Richard Taylor’s desire to defeat the Union columns and no strategic benefit was gained.

Nevertheless, an opportunity was there and Taylor wanted to recapture New Orleans. Unfortunately, Smith was looking north to Arkansas. It was at this moment that Sterling Price put forward a proposal to take Missouri which tempted the Confederate high command with something that would really affect Northern voters. By the time Price started Atlanta had fallen and it was too late.


Michael sums up the trans-Mississippi Confederate failure as a complete non-appreciation of its importance. Once it had been isolated it made Union conquest of the East much easier. The Confederate failure to realise this meant it suffered the dire consequences of its failure.


This is a thoughtful book and one for the library. Most of us became interested in the American Civil War, not at first because of the political or diplomatic or international elements, but because of the courage, the inventiveness, the fortitude, the ingenuity and determination of the participants. What we rarely think of is that those men and women who fought did so according to the strategies set for them by others, many less than competent. My feeling at the end of these six excellent essays is that it was a wonder the Confederacy lasted as long as it did.


As with Keller’s book, The Great Partnership, the text is accompanied by copious notes (17% of the total writing) and they are a gem on their own and mark the scholarship of this tome as top notch.