Review

How the South Could Have Won the Civil War: The Fatal Errors That Led to Confederate Defeat

by Bevin Alexander

Bevin Alexander’s new book, HOW THE SOUTH COULD HAVE WON
THE CIVIL WAR, is an analysis of the errors and missed
opportunities that led to Union victory. There were plenty of
mistakes in the Civil War on both sides, as you might expect from a
war in which the majority of the generals were appointed for
political reasons. The entire catalogue of the early history of the
Army of the Potomac is chock-full of serious and costly errors that
led, time and again, to battlefield disaster. But Alexander’s
focus is on the Confederate mistakes --- how Robert E. Lee,
Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson erred, and how those missteps
cost the South its independence.

Alexander makes the distinction between strategic and tactical
mistakes, and how the shortcomings of Southern strategy led to the
tactical errors. Faced with a Union strategy that turned out to be
very effective --- cutting off Southern supply lines while trying
to capture Richmond and evict the Confederate government --- the
Confederacy had limited strategic options. Davis’s initial
strategy (much derided by Alexander) was to try to protect all
Southern territory from invasion and play on the defensive.
Lee’s strategy was to try to destroy the Army of the Potomac
with relentless head-on assaults, taking advantage of his
men’s fighting spirit and drive.

But there was a third option, advocated by Jackson and supported by
Alexander. Jackson’s plan was to invade the Northern
heartland, evading the main body of the Union army, and strike
against the fat civilian targets of Baltimore, New York and
Philadelphia. Jackson reasoned that attacking the North’s
cities and industrial base would cause Abraham Lincoln to sue for
peace --- all the more so if the South was able to isolate Lincoln
in Washington by cutting off the rail lines that supplied the city.
(This is exactly the strategy, as Alexander points out, that
William Sherman used in capturing Atlanta and Savannah, and thereby
bringing the war home to the Southern heartland.)

Alexander takes pains to describe the tactical consequences of
these strategic errors. For example, the author analyzes the impact
of Jackson’s hugely effective campaign in the Shenandoah
Valley, not only in terms of his tactical genius, but in how his
campaign kept Union forces out of the hands of General McClellan
when he was driving up the Peninsula towards Richmond. Alexander
argues that if Jackson had been given free rein to threaten
Washington, he would have caused Lincoln to order McClellan back to
the defense of the capital, thereby ending the Peninsular Campaign
and giving the Confederacy the initiative. However, Lee instead
ordered Jackson back to aid in the defense of Richmond, targeting
McClellan’s army instead of the potentially richer prize of
the Union capital.

Alexander’s talent as a historian is lifting the “fog
of war” and explaining the tactical issues of the Civil War
in a way that is comprehensible for the armchair general and the
military amateur alike. However, as his focus is limited to only
certain battles and engagements, the reader may feel that he gives
some topics short shrift --- Shiloh, for example, rates only a
paragraph, and General Grant not much more than that. Furthermore,
it is at least debatable as to whether or not all the mistakes that
Alexander identifies were avoidable. The author asserts that a
Southern invasion of Maryland, following up on the disaster of
First Bull Run, could have brought the war to a quick end. While
such a strike was at least technically feasible, it is not at all
clear if the still-raw Southern troops could have pulled off such a
thing, especially given the quality of Southern generalship at that
point in time.

Nevertheless, HOW THE SOUTH COULD HAVE WON THE CIVIL WAR is a
formidable piece of scholarship, showing a mastery of small-scale
tactical details and an eye for the missed opportunities that led
to Confederate defeat.

How the South Could Have Won the Civil War: The Fatal Errors That Led to Confederate Defeat
by Bevin Alexander

  • Publication Date: December 31, 2007
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Crown
  • ISBN-10: 0307345998
  • ISBN-13: 9780307345998