Have Historians Stopped Trying to Explain Confederate Defeat?

Of course not.

Today I spent a little time preparing for a discussion tomorrow with students in Amsterdam who have been reading various explanations for Confederate defeat and Union victory. I quickly realized that I haven’t given much thought to this question in quite some time. It also got me wondering about the state of the field.

When is the last time you cracked open your copy of Why the South Lost the Civil War or How the North Won? The question of whether an “internal” or “external” framework explained Confederate defeat and Union victory once preoccupied historians like Gary Gallagher, David Williams, Paul Escott, Perry Jamieson, George Rable, William Freehling, Joseph Glatthaar, Steven Newton, Edward Bonekemper, and a host of other historians.

It seems like this specific framing of the debate crested around 2010.

I may certainly be wrong about this, but the last major book-length treatment of this subject was Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning, published in 2010, which offered a compelling explanation of Confederate defeat that focused on a number of internal factors.

The debate seems to have petered out, though I am not sure if one side can claim a decisive victory. I’ve always been partial to understanding the impact that military events had on the home front, enslaved populations, as well as state and national politics. I guess that makes me partial to an external explanation.

So, how would you characterize the interpretive landscape around this question of Confederate defeat and Union victory since roughly 2010. Have historians coalesced around a new set of questions?

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9 comments… add one
  • Walter D Kamphoefner Mar 2, 2021 @ 16:27

    Keep in mind: Confederates did not have to win; they just had to avoid losing long enough that the North quit trying to defeat them. I always ask my students how many battles George Washington won. This was a very political war, and as late as summer 1864, Lincoln asked his cabinet to sign a document sight unseen in case he lost the election. Nevada railroaded its statehood through despite a very small population and telegraphed its entire draft constitution to DC just in case Republicans needed those three extra electoral votes. But the fall of Atlanta made all those precautions moot.

  • James R. Johnson Mar 2, 2021 @ 10:11

    Germany had all but defeated France and England in WWI. But with the introduction of American troops, arms and ammunition, Germany was defeated. Why is that a simplistic explanation? It happened again in WWII. For every Tiger tank the Germans had, we had 75 Shermans. We out-produced them, that led to their defeat. And, so it was during the War of Northern Aggression. The Union had more troops, many, many more arms and ammunition, and a stronger Navy, by far. So, the North won the war. To me, that’s not complicated.

    • London John Mar 3, 2021 @ 16:02

      I don’t think those are the incumbent views. As I understand it, American troops didn’t have time to play a crucial role in WWI. But it was clear to the Germans that once the US was fully mobilised they were done for, so their only chance was to knock out Britain and France before that could happen: so launched the Spring 1918 Offensive regardless of losses which severely weakened them. Then in 1918 after 4 years of blundering about in the mud the allied commanders finally got the hang of using infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft together. Consider the battle of Amiens, when after so many disastrous mismanaged offensives bloody old Haig and French finally got one right.
      I believe the tank that beat the Tigers was the T34.
      It wasn’t just production in the CW. At Gettysburg I believe the Confederates had more artillery than the Union. I don’t see how greater production took Missionary Ridge, either.
      This is just my impression from what I’ve read, perhaps some historian could point out if I’m wrong.

  • Jimmy Johnson Mar 2, 2021 @ 6:55

    The primary reason the Confederacy was defeated, was because it was “out-produced! It was “outproduced” in sheer numbers of troops and arms. And, when Stonewall Jackson was killed, the South lost one of the best military minds of all time. Had Stonewall been at Gettysburg, he would have had his men “take” the high ground, and the Union troops would have had been fighting an entirely different battle.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 2, 2021 @ 7:18

      With all due respect, that’s a rather overly simplistic explanation. The war did not hinge even closely on the survival of Stonewall Jackson.

  • Adam Oler Mar 1, 2021 @ 16:09

    One area getting more attention has been the international context during the war. How Lincoln wielded the non-military instruments of power — diplomacy, informational, economic — proved central to keeping the South isolated. Had the Europeans intervened, the results may have been very different. Don Doyle’s book, “The Cause of All Nations” does a wonderful job explaining this aspect of the Rebellion’s defeat. Few appreciate that both sides engaged in veiled public diplomacy efforts to sway opinion on the Continent and in Britain. The North did so far more effectively. While the elite in Europe wanted to see democracy delegitimized via Southern victory, the working population wanted the American Republic to survive.

  • Andrew Houck Mar 1, 2021 @ 16:05

    Interesting question. Maybe historians have moved beyond the reasons for the collapse of the Confederacy in order to focus on how new (pre-2010) conclusions impacted the immediate postwar period and through Reconstruction.

    I’ve noticed a “recent” (over the past few years) trend in peer-reviewed studies of citizenship and loyalty in the Civil War era. Then, of course, there’s also the reexamination of the historiography of Civil War memory, which seemed to have ebbed a decade or so ago, but which a few intrepid researchers have revived in the past year thereabouts.

  • James M. Vines Mar 1, 2021 @ 15:26

    Confederate defeat was brought on by internal events that brought on an external war which in turn caused internal issues that made fully supporting that external war sufficient enough to win improbable. The future is to show the interrelationships leading to war and defeat of both the external war and internal issues.

    • captcouv Mar 2, 2021 @ 10:52

      Yet, it was still a near thing!

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