When one examines the Southern strategy for the war, you realize that, to a great extent, their formula for winning was based on the idea that élan, dashing courage, and resolute defense of home and hearth could overcome an opponent blessed with massive industrial capacity and a decidedly larger manpower base. To the Southern mind, this would be war fought by cavaliers and tough subsistence farmers led by a natural class of leaders in the planter aristocrats against a force of shopkeepers and ignorant, mongrel immigrants led by crude politicians and factory owners. In their minds, their qualitative advantages were obvious, and, in some ways, they almost pulled it off. However, the truths of Southern society and how that society would be reflected in its command leadership were far different matters, and the South would learn the hard way that they were lacking what was required to successfully fight a massive conflict that was truly a “modern” war in the fullest sense of nineteenth century technology.
The Southern Confederacy truly was a revolution and was so in two different ways. On the one hand, the secession phenomenon was a revolution in the sense that it involved a move by the Southern states to achieve their own independence. However, more significantly, after Southern secession was achieved, it then became a true internal revolution. The antebellum South was an agrarian society based upon the concept of racial slavery, dominated politically by the planter-class aristocracy, and dedicated to the “political gospel” of state rights. The secession process was inspired by the “fire-eaters,” the radicals, men like Edward Ruffin, Robert Barnwell Rhett, and William Lowndes Yancy. These were “true believers” when it came to the base elements of Southern society, men who passionately adhered to the ideas of state sovereignty, black inferiority, and the aristocracy’s right to rule. However, once secession occurred, these men lost control of the revolution they had created, which led to a crippling inability to execute the war against the North.
The process of becoming a new nation with a wartime government changed the Southern revolution to one that was internal, one that demanded change in the very Southern society the external revolution was so firmly based upon. A total war required a national war effort, which demanded fewer adherences to state rights and more centralization of government functions. Further, because of the need to industrialize and provide the machines and tools of war, the political dominance of the planter class was diluted and agriculture became secondary to the development of industry to feed the war effort. However, at the same time, societies do not change very quickly and the South struggled mightily to balance its external revolutionary identity with what was required to survive the war it had created by its existence.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the character of the Southern government’s top command structure. Having been founded on principles of state rights, local control, and a small, decentralized government, the Confederacy was its own worst enemy in its internal struggle to create an effective command structure. To overcome the South’s natural disadvantages of geography, limited manpower and economic resources, and poor communications, the Confederacy desperately needed centralization and unity of command. But, achieving this in a revolutionary government dedicated to decentralization was a challenge beyond their grasp. The resulting Southern command structure, if it could even be called a structure, seems to have been in constant flux with no apparent cohesion ever being achieved.
Perhaps if the South had the right political leadership, the limitations caused by its social and political foundations could have been overcome. Instead, they had the stoic and inflexible Jefferson Davis, who played a key role and in this chaotic picture. While Davis seems to have been perfectly trained for the role of a wartime Commander-in-Chief, he suffered from personal and professional flaws that limited his ability to lead the nation’s war efforts. Davis took the constitutional role of Commander-in-Chief literally and, further, demonstrated he could not delegate authority. As a result, the office of Secretary of War, which should have been a critical piece of the South’s command structure, became a revolving door for a procession of different men, none of whom could be effective given Davis’ tight control over all matters relating to the execution of the war. Worse, Davis also proved to be a poor judge of military talent and he demonstrated this flaw through the series of inept men he appointed to military command in the West.
As for the vital economic factor of the command system, again, the basic foundations of the Confederacy’s ideals proved fatal. In essence, this was a civilian leadership trained in small government trying to mobilize a weak, decentralized economic system. For the most part, the leadership could not even gauge the true meaning of that concept. As a result, their already limited economic resources were never mobilized and there was no real attempt at centralization of logistical operations or industrial and economic planning. Plus, the South never was able to realize that the very essence of logistics is coordination. You must coordinate procurement, manufacturing, transportation, and distribution, not merely buy, produce, and stockpile supplies. Contrasted with the way the North mobilized not only its industrial base but also leveraged the innovative planning and leadership abilities of industrial managers (e.g., War Department management of the rail system), the South’s shortcomings are remarkable.
One of the saddest things about the Southern leadership effort was that it did have so many men capable of providing the required leadership and expertise, men who had served in the U.S. Congress and led Federal executive departments. However, rather than finding a way to effectively use this talent, Jefferson Davis allowed the Confederate government to simply devolve into a constant process of bickering and arguing among its experts. The resulting confusion and lack of command cohesion crippled their ability to meet the Northern threat.
Worse, as the war went on, the Confederate government became more and more isolated from its constituents. States like Georgia mounted efforts to distance themselves and their resources from Confederate control. As a result, the Confederate Congress became badly fragmented and ceased to function as an effective political body. Davis might have stepped in and led the way to restoring order, but his relations with Congress became so damaged that he was isolated from the legislative branch entirely. As a result, the entire Southern government and the entire political process fed upon itself, fragmented, and disintegrated, leading to what was, essentially, a long process of fratricide.
In the end, the South was a living example of Clausewitz’ dictum that, for better or worse, a nation will fight war like its own political and social system. In the case of the Confederacy, this was a fatal flaw, proving that human bravery and valor on the battlefield was not enough to win a modern war.