How the South almost prevailed in the Civil War

Ebenezer Idowu , Staff Writer

You’re probably thinking, “History is boring, so this article won’t be very interesting, either.” Just stick around; I promise this will be more interesting than you think. 

When people think about the Civil War, the consensus is that the South could never win and that victory was assured for the North before the war began. This may have an element of truth in it; however, it did not seem that way in 1862. At that time, it looked like the South would win. 

Before proceeding, some context. The North was fighting to preserve the Union and end slavery. They had over 20 million people; over 2 million of them, including thousands of Black soldiers, served in the Federal Army. The South, the racist Confederacy, was fighting to preserve slavery. They only had 9 million people, and less than 1 million served in their army. That doesn’t sound like a fair fight, does it? In that perspective, it seems reasonable to say the South could not win. Then how come the South almost won the war in 1862? 

The short answer is morale and generals. The South, while outnumbered, ill-equipped and totally unprepared for war with an industrial superpower, had excellent morale and its leadership was excellent. Many of them, including well-known military geniuses such as James Longstreet (Library of Congress) and Stonewall Jackson (American Battlefield Trust), had graduated from West Point. To top it all off, Robert E. Lee was an expert military commander and military genius who knew how to make the most use of few troops, an invaluable skill when he was outnumbered in so many of his battles.  

The North, on the other hand, had far more troops than the South. It also had plenty of supplies, and the might of industrial production backing it. But for all these advantages, the North had one crippling weakness: bad leadership.  

To say the generals which led the Union from 1861 to 1862 were not good military officers is an understatement. One general in particular stands out as an example of poor leadership: George B. McClellan, the Major General of the Army of the Potomac, the main fighting force of the Union and the Commanding General of the Union Army. McClellan started off well but was soon seized by paranoia and a debilitating fear that the opposing Confederate Army was much stronger than his. That fear soon got the better of him. Time and time again, he lost opportunity after opportunity to launch offensives against the Confederates and win major victories.  

For example, McClellan launched a Peninsula Campaign in early 1862 which brought his army within a few miles of Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederate States of America. However, controlled by the false belief that the Confederate Army was bigger and stronger than his, McClellan failed to take advantage of this opportunity and seize the Confederate capital. The Confederate army led by Robert E Lee then launched a series of counterattacks which eventually resulted in the Union Army’s retreat.  

This was just one example of the North’s poor generals. Some were inexperienced, others too proud to adhere to Abraham Lincoln’s command, who was the official Supreme Military Commander, while others simply had no business being generals in the first place.  

One day in 1862, had things gone as planned, the Army of the Potomac would be no more. In short, the South could have won the Civil War. Lee’s plan was relatively simple: two Confederate divisions, one under Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and another led by Theophilus Holmes would attack the Federal army from the north and west(ish), respectively, hemming in the blue-clad troops there.  

Then, two other divisions-one led by James Longstreet would attack the Federal troops in the middle, breaking their line of retreat in two. You can see why this was such a dangerous plan. Had it been implemented, the Army of the Potomac would have been split in half and likely destroyed, depriving the Union of its main fighting force, and giving the Confederates a clear shot at invading the Northern States. The Confederates would then likely have been able to mop up any other Union Armies, and that would have been the end for the North.  

Thankfully, things did not go as planned. Stonewall Jackson had recently conducted a massive military campaign in Shenandoah valley and was physically exhausted, so he simply fell asleep under a tree and his army did nothing. Holmes’ army was spotted by Union naval forces, and they fired on his army with their cannons, scattering his fighting force and preventing them from attacking the Federal forces from the west as planned. Only Longstreet did his part, resulting in a temporary split in the Union Army. Nevertheless, the gap was quickly filled by friendly fire (a Confederate contingent mistook South Carolina soldiers for Feds and opened fire) and a relentless barrage from Federal troops. 

Another time the South almost won the Civil war was at, believe it or not, Gettysburg. It was July 1863, and the Confederate Army had actually invaded the North. They had gotten as far as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and it looked like they would advance further. 

 After the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, in which Robert E. Lee’s plan to break the Union defense lines from the sides had failed, Lee devised yet another plan to break the Union lines from. This time, he would try the center. 

First, Confederate artillery would bombard the Union lines at Cemetery Ridge. Then, an infantry unit led by George Pickett would attack the weakened Union lines, breaking them.  

You can probably guess what happened: things did not go well. The Confederate cannons failed to do the necessary damage to the Northern Army, and the Yankees’ cannons, combined with close-range fighting, made mincemeat of the Rebels. This resulted in a massive Confederate retreat which turned the tide of the war in the North’s favor.  

You may be thinking, “so the North was struggling at first, but they eventually won. That’s all that matters, right?” The point is this: the South, on multiple occasions, nearly won the Civil War. In fact, the North was in a state of emergency at one point. It is simply incorrect to say the North easily won the war or that the South never could have won.  

Only a stroke of luck (or to be more accurate, divine intervention), prevented the Confederate States of America from creating a sovereign nation built on a morally corrupt institution. We should all be thankful for that stroke of luck.