Monday, February 11, 2008

Book Review: How The South Could Have Won The Civil War


Several weeks ago, I was contacted by the senior editor at Crown Publishing and asked whether I would be willing to review a book Crown released last year titled How The South Could Have Won the Civil War, by military historian Bevin Alexander. Of course, I agreed.

There is no inevitability in warfare. It is for this simple reason that I have long considered the whole "Lost Cause" myth to be hogwash. The Confederacy, indeed, could have won the Civil War. I was happy to read that Alexander discounts the Lost Cause belief right up front in his book. The book is well written and it is a quick read. And it is not a work of counterfactual history. However, the book is remarkably one-sided, focusing not just on the Confederate side of the war, but on the Army of Northern Virginia and the war in the East specifically. The war in the West is entirely overlooked and its importance completely negated. Alexander maintains that only three people determined the outcome of the entire war: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis. How Alexander can ignore Union leaders in shaping the war's outcome is beyond me. I do believe that Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, and others played determining roles. . .at least ones greater than Jackson.

Of the book's 266 pages, 248 deal with the first two years of the war--and only the battles in the East. Each chapter is a narrative of the Eastern Theatre's battles and campaigns: 1st Bull Run, Jackson's Shenandoah Valley Campaign, 2nd Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. The post-Gettysburg history of the war, including the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg, is given just 18 pages total.

So, how does Alexander believe the South could have won? Well, simply by listening to Stonewall Jackson. Jackson, Alexander continually argued, was the greatest military figure of the war. . .and he heaves so much praise on Old Tom Fool that the book might have better been titled, How Stonewall Jackson Could Have Won the Civil War. The South, argued Alexander, had several great opportunities to achieve victory, especially early in the war, like right after 1st Bull Run, for example. He states his assumptions that the capture of Washington or of Philadelphia would have ended the war in a Confederate victory, but how he arrived at these conclusions is not said. Neither are any counter arguments presented, just statements to the effect of, If the Army of Northern Virginia would have advanced on Washington after 1st Bull Run, it would have easily captured the U.S. capital and ended the war.

There is no discussion made of the political and social issues of the war, and certainly no explanation on how these factors effected the war's outcome. It is purely military in outlook, and can be summed up like this. . .the Union had no control over the war, they simply responded to what proved to be a failed strategy adopted by Robert E. Lee in prosecuting the war. Had Lee listened to Stonewall Jackson who, Alexander argued, sought to destroy Northern industrial capacities and wear down the North's will to fight the war, then surely the South would have won.
I just don't buy it.

There are a few things I did enjoy about the book. Again, the narrative is fast-paced and it does present a different interpretation of the war. Plus, I appreciate that Alexander was not afraid to criticize Lee. Alexander's handling of the Maryland Campaign and battle of Antietam is well done, and I especially enjoyed his argument that the finding of Special Orders No. 191 did not imperil Lee in Maryland. The campaign, said Alexander, was in trouble long before McClellan's remarkable find. . .Why? Well, it was because Lee did not listen to Jackson. What else?

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

You are too kind to this book. Its premise is all wrong. Any Southern army invading the North would have been destroyed. Northern armies could move with great speed in the North, while a Southern army there would be half-blind and dispersed to forage. A Southern invasion would have served only to enrage the North sooner. Davis's defensive strategy was correct. Generals Polk, Bushrod Johnson, and A.S. Johnston simply muffed the defense of the West. Lee's two invasions, departures from the defensive strategy, both failed. You are right about the book scanting the war's politics. The South's best strategy of all was in politics, not secession and war.

Anonymous said...

I call books like this an exercise in futility. The truth of the matter is that had the population of the North been as dedicated to the conflict as those of the South from the beginning the armies of the South would have been quickly swept aside. They simply never had the manpower and material to fend off the North much less defeat it.

As for Stonewall Jackson, I'm a fan but his mythic status eludes me. The fact of the matter is that had Jackson, in late June 1862, launched his attack as ordered by Lee at the ordered place and the ordered time there was an opportunity that the South "might" have repulsed the Union army with a massive defeat in the Seven Days and convinced the European powers to recognize the Confederacy. Instead Jackson sat and the best of opportunities was lost.