In my opinion, even with the many scenarios that could have possibly played out, the Union’s victory over the Confederacy was pretty much always going to happen.
By about midway through the war, and especially early 1865, it was pretty obvious to everyone but the most hardline members of the Confederacy that they were inevitably going to lose the Civil War. Now, if that loss was actually inevitable is somewhat of an hard question to answer, but considering these “what if” type of questions is a pretty popular practice in history, so I’ll do it myself and I’ll give some examples of these scenarios and their counterpoints. So to really investigate those what-ifs, I’d have to use contingency for possibilities in the past, but the issue with all these what-if type of scenarios is that although they’re seemingly convincing at first, they ultimately fall apart under the weight of contrary facts. For example, one of the most common what-ifs centers on the actions of General Robert E. Lee and how what he could’ve done would have changed the outcome of the war.
Some have said that one of the causes of the Confederacy’s defeat was his apparent aggressiveness in the war, suggesting that if he had had maybe more of a defensive strategy in battle, or even carried out more of a guerrilla warfare style after the battle of Appomattox, then maybe he could have held the Union off until they got tired of the conflict and decided to negotiate something. But that really wasn’t a possibility considering what the Southerner’s expected from Lee. From historical evidence, southerners were convinced that they were far superior soldiers, and they wholeheartedly expected that they would win on the offensive side of the battlefield. So politically, General Lee couldn’t have had a complete defensive strategy because his people wouldn’t have stood for it at all. And guerrilla type warfare wasn’t an option either because events in other areas of the country where guerrillas fought during the war pretty clearly showed how such a harsh style of warfare ruined entire areas and destroyed both the soldier’s and citizen’s morale. So if he had done this, there just simply wouldn’t have been enough popular support of it to really carry out a strategy like that for long. Another example is the south’s strict following of state’s rights.
Some have said that part of the Confederacy’s defeat can be put on its stern adherence to them and that they also really failed to create a strong sense of nationalism for themselves. If the Southerner’s had been better at creating a sense of a national identity or something along those lines for the south, then maybe Jefferson Davis could have then nationalized the railroads etc. Having a powerful government and an idea of a national identity would have also helped boost confidence with the southerner’s when the war had began to go poorly.
Instead though, the Southerner’s firm belief in their states’ rights unfortunately (for them) had the governors at a standstill with their central government, and the breakdown in the southern people’s spirit weakened the army by causing more and more soldiers to desert it. “By the war’s end, more than 100,000 men had deserted.” (Foner 552) But this judgement also somewhat underestimates what the South actually managed to get done. Instead of saying the Confederates’ defeat was because of a lack of nationalism, we could actually look a bit in awe at the fact that they were able to maintain their government for as long as they in fact did. It’s pretty amazing that they created a functioning constitutional government and a pretty good military basically from scratch. Not to say that their beliefs were in good moral standing, but what they accomplished was still impressive for the situation.
And even though they did have some significant nationalism in maybe the first year of the war, mostly due to their early victories, the south could’ve benefited more from it both politically and also in regards to morale if they had had more of it. And another point would be that slavery and racial views also played an obviously important role in Confederate’s nationalism. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Southern white’s determination and resolve definitely strengthened because they then realized if they in fact lost the war, that the very foundation of their society would be brought to an end. Seeing black soldiers on the Union’s side deep in their “Confederate heartland” enraged Southern whites, but then in the Civil War’s last year those same Southerners agreed to forcefully enlist black slaves to do combat on their side. “The growing shortage of white manpower eventually led Confederate authorities to a decision no one could have foreseen when they began: they authorized the arming of slaves to fight for the south.” (Foner 553).
And although the Union has obviously on the better side about slavery, they didn’t treat their black soldiers all that well, except for the black sailors in the navy, and they were paid less and given unfair labor (Foner 535), but at least it wasn’t like the south’s treatment of the slaves they forcefully enlisted.Another example of a what-if would be the Confederacy’s defeat being pinned on all the silly King Cotton diplomacy business. “‘King Cotton diplomacy’ turned out to be ineffective.” (Foner 549). The what-if here is that if the Confederates had shipped as much cotton as they possibly could to Europe before the blockade happened, instead of hoarding it all up to create a shortage, they could have maybe gotten “lines of credit to purchase war material”. In reality there was a problem with the Confederacy’s policy, because other nation’s moved to expand production. Britain ended up promoting cultivation of the crop in Egypt and India.
As a result, the resumption of American cotton production after the war led to a worldwide crisis of overproduction the made the price of cotton go down and impoverished cotton farmers around the world. (549 Foner). And while this reasoning about how the south should’ve never banned cotton exports is true from what I’ve read, it ultimately misses the point of it all. While the Confederacy did suffer very severe shortages by the middle of the war, they never really lost a battle because of a shortage of guns, bullets, or other war supplies that they maybe could’ve gotten from the British. They did however lose many battles though because of a shortage of men, food, and a badly broken-down railway system which made it very difficult to move men and supplies to important places. “Economic deprivation also sparked disaffection. As the blockade tightened, areas of the Confederacy came under Union occupation, and production by slaves declined, shortages then arose of essential commodities such as salt, corn, and meat.
” (Foner 550). The north had a far larger population and superior transportation, so it really was a lost cause from the southerner’s standpoint. And cotton diplomacy also wouldn’t have made the rebel army any bigger, and the Union’s blockade would’ve just prevented the overseas importation of iron and other supplies to build a railroad no matter how much credit the Confederacy could have possibly gotten from the British.Another “what if”, that’s somewhat related, is if the Europeans had actually intervened, since Britain and France were in arrangement to actually give diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy and offer to help arbitrate for peace, but they then decided to back away from that when the Union won the battle of Antietam. In this what-if, if General Lee had won that battle, Britain and maybe France would have possibly recognized the Confederacy and then secured peace, ensuring Southern independence or something like that. In actuality though, there is very little chance that the Europeans would have ever gotten involved in the war. The British had already extended “belligerent status” to the Confederacy, which allowed them to buy supplies and have use of the European ports. If they had also gotten diplomatic recognition it may have enhanced the Southerners’ standing, but it would not have actually affected their ability to wage war in any material sense.
And if the British had offered to act as a peacemaker, President Lincoln would have most likely rejected them. It’s very unlikely that Britain would have rushed to the Confederacy’s aid by breaking the blockade and then provoking a war with the Union. And, from what I’ve read, the abolitionist British would not have supported their government getting their army involved to defend slavery.Overall, what a lot of people that discuss these things fail to look at is that the Union and northerners were just as dedicated to winning as the Confederacy and southerners were. Some in the north saw the war as a way to free the slaves, while others were fighting to make sure that their republican form of government was sustained. From what I understand, many northerners firmly believed that America was the world’s real last hope for true democracy, and if the South ended up destroying the Union by force, that bright glimpse of freedom might be smothered forever. The Confederacy may have been fighting their damnedest to maintain their southern way of life and to protect their so-called constitutional rights, but so was the Union for their northern way of life. If the Confederacy had kept on fighting even after the absolutely devastating losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, then why should we not think that the North would have kept on fighting even if the Confederacy had actually won those battles instead? The true fact is that both sides in the war were equally determined and equally dedicated to their cause, and with their commitment and morale being the same, the stronger side prevailed.