From a Confederate perspective, the numbers were brutal: The Union enjoyed 4 times the white male population, 4.4 times 12 times the bank capital, 9 times capital investment, 2.4 times the railroad miles. Against a mightier force, the Confederate rebellion seemed quixotic at best —but then again, so did the Spanish fighting French in thePeninsular War, or the colonials against the British in the American Revolutionary War. But by engaging guerrilla warfare—forgoing traditional tactics and relying on ambushes, raids, and sabotage—the weaker armies defeated the mightier power.
The Times of London assumed the Confederates would win their independence by emulating the armies of George Washington:
It is one thing to drive the rebels from the south bank of the Potomac, or even to occupy Richmond, but another to reduce and hold in permanent subjection a tract of county nearly as large as Russia in Europe… No war of independence ever terminated unsuccessfully except where the disparity of force was greater than it is in this case … Just as England during the revolution had to give up its conquering the colonies so the North will have to give up conquering the South.Why did the Confederacy not engage in a guerrilla war against the obviously superior North? Why did the Confederacy stake its independence on a conventional war strategy dubbed by Robert E. Lee as “offensive-defensive,” wherein the Army of Northern Virginia defended as much as the homeland as possible, then brought the war to the North to make the Yankees feel the pain of war? Lee hoped his strategy would break Northern morale, social and political spirit, and lead to European recognition and military assistance.
McPherson: Politics & Culture
The doyen of Civil War scholars, James M. McPherson, cites to main factors. One, political realities: Confederate politicians insisted that the entire nation be defended. Sure, a state might lack military strategic importance; but try telling the states’ rights politicians that their land must be sacrificed to Union control for the good of the Confederate nation.
And reason two was “the temperament of the southern people.” McPherson cites a Richmond Examiner editorial: “The idea of waiting for blows, instead of inflecting them, is altogether unsuited to the genius of our people.” In the same way the Northern public boomed, “On to Richmond,” so too did the Southern press clamor for an advance onto Washington. The Southerns believed their inferior Cavalier blood and stock meant one of their men was the equal to a trio of effeminate, pasty mechanics of the North.
Gallagher completes the explanation
I found these arguments incomplete. In an essay in Confederate War, Gary Gallagher completes the explanation. In short, he writes that practical constraints precluded guerilla warfare and that the conventional war engaged by the Confederacy provided the South its greatest chance at independence.
Loyalty of slaves: The center of gravity in guerilla warfare is the native population. Bands of insurgent guerillas commit acts of terrorism and raids to delegitimize the host government. Because the insurgent enemy hides among the population— “the guerrilla must swim in the people as the fish swims in the sea,” as Mao Zedong wrote—both sides rely on the native population to provide intelligence, supplies, intelligence, and shelter. The population aids the side that is winning its hearts and minds—the heart being the metaphor for the preference, and mind a metaphor for being who they believe will win the battle. The Confederacy, presumably, could have relied on the support of the general white population. But it could never count on support of slaves—3.5 million out of a population of 9 million. For decades, planters lived in existential fear of slave revolts, of the South become Saint Marin writ large. The slaves were willing to sacrifice their lives for freedom. When General Sherman came marching thorough the South, slaves refused work and revolted. To allow federals into the country would have meant losing slaves and upending their society. Wrote Confederate Betty Herndon Maury: “We hear that our three are going soon. I am afraid of the lawless Yankee soldiers, but that is nothing to fear of the negroes if they should rise against us.”
Military is trained to fight conventional warfare, not guerrilla: In Vietnam, American generals engaged their enemy in the only they were trained to—with conventional tactics, and ever escalating firepower. In the previous major war, conventional World War II, these tactics worked. Even when it should have become clear that conventional tactics would never defeat the Viet Cong insurgency, the generals stayed their course. They did not know of any other way. Similarly, the Confederate generals were educated in the writings of the founder of modern strategy, Antoine-Henri Jomini. They came of age during the conventional warfare of the Mexican War. The Confederate generals fought in the only way they knew how to, conventional warfare. In a culture obsessed with honor, traditional warfare—with trained brigades of soldiers lead by generals—was the only manly, honorable way to fight. To turn over command of untrained soldiers to bands of Southern partisans was unfathomable.
The Confederacy conceived of itself as America Part II: “They envisioned taking their place among the roster of recognized western states,” Gary Gallagher writes, “a goal that commanded creation of the requisite formal governmental institutions.” A nation must have an army, executive, post office, foreign intercourse. For any possibility of foreign recognition, the Confederates needed to persuade Europeans that Confederacy was “more than an amorphous collection of insurrectionaries.”
Gallagher concludes his essay thusly: “The final failure lay not so much with Confederate strategy as with the men available to Davis to carry it out.” I don’t buy that. The Confederates engaged war within the above constraints, and its strategy worked well. Up until Gettysburg did Britain entertain serious consideration to recognizing the Confederacy. Up until Sherman won Atlanta did it appear that Lincoln would lose reelection, and the North would negotiate a peace. Instead, I think McPherson’s contingency thesis provides the strongest explanation. The North won because of a collection of turning points concluded in the Union’s favor.
In statistics, one can create one thousand simulations, then return a chart indicating that a certain event will occur in a certain percentage of the time. History occurs only once. I think that that if one were to magically simulate the American Civil War a thousand times, the Confederacy, using the strategy it ultimately followed, would have won a sizable percentage of the time, at a greater rate than if it fought in a guerilla war.