Confederate victory?

In a previous essay overviews of the industrial capacities of the Union and Confederate States of America were contrasted, concluding with the solid judgment that the latter was incapable of ever mounting a serious effort against the federal forces as the country was so critically constrained by material and logistic limitations and scarcities. It is clear to see from over viewing the statistics that the CSA was outmatched in every sense of the word and that in the event of both armies meeting on even terms that the Union would prove victorious. At the outbreak of war over 90% of the industrial complex operated north of the Mason-Dixon Line, leaving the mostly agrarian south a half century or more behind in terms of economic and technological ability. Not only was the south dwarfed economically by the north but also had a vastly smaller population of men capable of bearing arms, less urban centers and lower population growth rates. While geographically the CSA and Union appeared to be more-or-less equal in size, creating the illusion of comparably able belligerents, the north was home to greater population density, wealthy cities and extensive development. It was argued that the possibility of a CSA victory was made apparently viable only by the initial bumbling incompetence and ineptitude of the Union high command leading to emotionally shocking defeats which had little effect tactically on its position of dominance and that southern defeat was sealed at the outset. This latter judgment is still sound and yet the question still remains on if a Confederate victory was possible at all under any circumstance. The answer may be yes, however improbable if not impossible.

In the yearly years of the war the CSA utilized ambitious movements under the command of brilliant tacticians such as Robert E. Lee to defeat numerically superior forces again and again. As the war dragged on and incompetent, hesitant generals such as McClellan and Burnside were replaced by the likes of Grant and Sherman the Confederates began to be beaten back (at great pyrrhic expense to the Union offensive) and opted for a new strategy of fortification, scorched earth and defensive action, albeit now with fewer men than at the start of the campaign, as many were lost in battle against the Union at killing fields such as the Wilderness. This defensive strategy initially appeared to be effective as it brought the dual advances of Sherman in Georgia/Tennessee and Grant in Virginia to a stop at their respective sieges of Atlanta and Petersburg. Morale became so low among the Union forces and discontent over the war became so prevalent in the North that President Lincoln was almost surely facing a defeat in the 1864 election at the hands of Democrat George B. McClellan, who advocated a platform of immediate peace with the CSA and a return to strictly following constitutional law. A case of “too little, too late,” the CSA was unable to stop the monstrous armies of the Union, then galvanized by the Fort Pillow massacre, and soon Atlanta would fall, sounding the death knell for the country.

If the CSA had devoted all of its resources to a defensive war in the beginning instead of attempting high risk Ardennes Offensive-esque spearheads (such as Gettysburg) intended to suddenly end the war, if it had instead resorted to the drudgery and drawn out killing of trench warfare all across the front and attempted with serious effort to limit casualties while inflicting as much damage and grief upon the enemy as possible all the while attempting to win the heart and minds of the northerners with propaganda and intrigue, it may have been able to delay and demoralize the Union attack long enough so that a change of politics would arise to see to a declaration of peace.

Preparing defenses comes at little expense to the defender and requires great effort by the attacker to overcome with heavy casualties expected in the latter force and few casualties expected in the former. In an age without tanks, mustard gas, aerial bombardment or sophisticated howitzers trench systems and battlements were extremely effective at stopping infantry armies and assaults, and as in the First World War claimed horrible casualties. Fighting in such a manner may have allowed the CSA to equalize the advantage in manpower and field fighting capability that the Union enjoyed. If utilized early on in the conflict trench fighting would have prevented the capture of critical locations (such as enhanced forts along the Mississippi) while also reducing the fighting capability of the attacker through attrition and low morale. Such a strategy would have only been truly effective if the CSA’s armies were not depleted from initial gambling offensives. The CSA was never capable of winning a tactical victory, and much like the forces of Finland during the Winter War against the USSR, should have given up all hopes of an offensive so that the massive onslaught of a technologically and numerically force, exhausted by movement through an enemy territory scorched, picked apart by attrition, disease and desertion, would be met by fresh, determined and entrenched defenders.

In 1861 the concrete bunkers, razor wire and trenches of the First World War existed, but the tools necessary to overcome them did not. The only way to defeat an entrenched force was to assault it directly and hope to cause a breach in the defenses. This realization came too late to Lee who had hopes of an offensive victory during the early years of the war. If the armies of the CSA had instead fortified wherever it could while avoiding situations like the massacre at Fort Pillow and holding the moral high ground, if it had forced the Union to take massive casualties with every inch of land it occupied, it would have gained little glory or honor, but it would have gained a country.