Historical Failure Analysis Case Study 1, The Confederate States of America; Part 5: Compare and Contrast

According to my original outline for this method, this phase is where we compare and contrast the various examples. Since there are no other examples, we’ll compare and contrast the multiple causes of the Confederacy’s ultimate failure and rank them in order:

  1. First
  2. Worst
  3. Most influential
  4. Least appreciated by historians/pundits/blowhards

Chickens and Eggs

A short chronology of major events up to the end of 1861:

  1. South Carolina and Mississippi secede;
  2. Star of the West fired on in Charleston Harbor;
  3. Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas secede;
  4. Confederate Government formed by seceded states, naming Jefferson Davis as Provisional President; 
  5. Confederate Constitution adopted;
  6. Lincoln inaugurated;
  7. Relief expedition for Ft. Sumter ordered;
  8. Davis orders Ft. Sumter to be reduced before relief arrives.
  9. Ft Sumter fired upon;
  10. Lincoln declares rebellion, calls for troops;
  11. Lincoln declares blockade;
  12. Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee (in order) secede.
  13. War traditionally begins at Bull Run/Manassas.
  14. Cotton embargo begins.

First Failure: Davis and the Confederate Congress

The Buchanan government’s response to the firing upon the unarmed cargo ship Star of the West  in January of 1861 was a strongly-worded nothing. US armories, arsenals, and barracks across the seceded states surrendered to armed mobs without a fight during his administration. Then the South Carolinians wanted Ft. Sumter to just give up…and they wouldn’t. In the patois of the time, reduced meant destroyed or taken. South Carolina started shooting and everything went downhill after that. Davis’ faulty assumption/poor leadership as to Lincoln’s reaction to an attack on Sumter led to the war, the first failure of the Confederacy.

But that blockade…

For a country that was so dependent on imports and exports, The Confederacy had no reliable means of defending any maritime assets. Yes, the Confederacy built ships to break the blockade, but the blockade was porous until late 1862. Nonetheless, the Confederate Congress, with Davis’s agreement, began to withhold cotton when cotton could get out as early as the winter of 1861. They believed that starved of their cotton, Britain and France would hasten to rescue the Confederacy.

But Europe depended too much on the North’s output and too little on the South’s, and the Confederacy never admitted this. The Confederacy believed Europe would break the blockade and land troops to fight off the Yankee invaders in exchange for cotton. When even recognition didn’t come, Confederate leaders tried all sorts of schemes to finance the war with cotton futures: all failed. As the war went on and they lost more territory, the schemes became even more fantastic. One even surrendered the Gulf of Mexico to whoever would support them…without asking the Gulf States.

It is a leader’s responsibility to act in the best interests of a majority of the led. Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress did not guide the Confederacy in a practical or realistic direction. Aside from the miscalculation about Lincoln, cotton diplomacy, continual insistence on ever more draconian draft and impressment regulations that ate up the future, then even the future of the future, destroyed what resources even a prosperous country would need to survive. The manifold failure of leadership at Montgomery, then Richmond, merely compounded Davis’ failure.

At the same time, Davis acted as if every setback was permanent, forever and ever. The frontiers of his country were impossible to hold with the resources at his disposal. Trying to hold them squandered manpower and resources the Confederacy could never replace.

By the end of 1863, when titanic battles had wiped out a quarter of his armies, Davis should have appreciated the dire straights he was in, but if he did, he didn’t do anything about it. Maybe, surrounded by fire-eaters, he couldn’t, but that doesn’t mean that he might not have been able to reach some accommodation with the more virulent of them. Again, there’s no evidence that he tried. After Lincoln’s reelection in 1864, after the fall of Atlanta and the clear signs that the Union Army was in charge, not him, he held firm with the policy that would become the Lost Cause. Feeling the need to hold impossible borders in defense of a hopeless policy was contributory, symptomatic of poor leadership.

Worst: Lack of Real Representation

The Confederacy needed everyone to be on board to fight off an invasion. The Confederate Congress was exclusively white, male, and almost exclusively slave-owning. While many had represented their same constituencies in Washington, that didn’t make them any better at representing their people. Sure, educated men in America were among the landed gentry. Many were attorneys that made them better at understanding and creating laws. Many were wealthy. But most people in the Confederacy were not slave-owners, and not all slave-owners were proponents of disunion willing and ready to expend their blood and treasure to stay out of the Union.

This became more apparent the longer the conflict lasted. Yet, the slave-owners in Richmond insisted on continuing the war, on not changing the policy that had clearly failed, and insisting that Europe would come to its senses any day now…coming right up…next ship…

After the last full measure of devotion had been served out by soldiers who hadn’t had a square meal in four years, Richmond finally allowed the arming of slaves. Politicians in Richmond and elsewhere were willing to sacrifice everyone else on the altar of their Noble Cause. Many of the most virulent supporters of slavery in 1861 were still adamant secessionists in 1865, still insistent that their peculiar institution could survive if only…if only….

North Carolina, which had sent fully half its military-age men off to war by 1865, contributing fully 20% of the Confederate Army, had had enough by early 1865 and was willing to call it quits. It was the second-last state to secede and was the first to counsel surrender, sacrificing more than any other state. And Richmond ignored them.

The peace commissioners of 1865 that Lincoln refused to see, well-meaning as they were, wanted the Union to pretend that the past four years of bloodletting just didn’t happen, that a peace based on nothing more than a cease-fire and a handshake, preserving their Peculiar Institution intact. Lincoln wouldn’t see them because there was no point. The Confederate leadership was living in Cloud Cuckoo Land. They always had been.

The leadership–as a class–of the Confederacy seemed aloof, not just from the country but from reality. Even as late as 1865, some senior Confederate officers thought that breaking up the armies to fight as guerrillas was possible. But most of the former Confederacy only wanted the fighting to end, and most of their would-be guerrillas thought so as well. The leader’s failure to recognize how the world was and what their people–who were not mere subjects or chattels–wanted seems inexcusable and yet another failure. Ranked against Davis’s and his government’s miscalculations, the non-representation of leadership was far worse.

Most Influential: Lack of True National Identity

The issues of national definition and sovereignty go hand in hand. The lack of definition seems innocuous compared to the other failure causes/modes, but let’s see.

A bunch of guys from various seceded states gathered together and called themselves the Confederate States of America. They wrote a constitution enshrouding their Noble Cause–their preservation of their Peculiar Institution of slavery–installed a government and waited for foreign recognition. In the meantime, they added a bunch of states that mysteriously failed to secede and parts of other states…and waited some more.

Then, one of the states started shooting and the government at Washington said “rebellion!” and called out the militia. More states seceded because of that call. The Confederate government moved from Alabama to Virginia and started collecting volunteers to defend the capital. And again, they waited for foreign recognition, intervention to secure their independence, and arms and money.

By 1865, they wondered why the army was melting into nothingness. And they asked why no one had recognized either the Confederacy or their Noble Cause. Unlike the guys in Richmond, a majority of people in the seceded states did not own slaves. And unlike them, not all backed a secession based on the preservation of the institution. Indeed, not all of them supported a war to preserve that policy, regardless of how it started or whatever reason anyone had that the violence began. Most may have been behind it when it started, but after years of deprivation and sacrifice, wearing black and digging grave after grave, their patriotism was worn thin, and what support there was evaporated for most by the end of 1864.

The Confederacy failed on many counts, but how long might they have survived if there was no war? Unknowable, but it’s hard to imagine that without an operating Fugitive Slave Act (it would have been a dead letter, without a doubt). Without the ability to expand beyond the confines of its undefined frontiers, there would have been some imbroglio someplace other than Charleston Harbor that would have triggered a war. By defining themselves as a place where only some people were free, they set themselves up for disaster. It is hard to imagine a shorter-sighted policy. That was a failure equal in devastating effect to the Confederacy’s overall poor leadership.

The Confederacy defined itself not as a country but as a cause

While the nascent United States built itself based on individual liberty for most of its citizens in the 1780s, it didn’t expressly state that it would only be for some people in perpetuity–1619 Project notwithstanding. From the outset, the United States said that anyone could be free of government intrusion. From the beginning of its existence, citing chattel slavery and perpetuating a strict class system, the Confederacy could not understand why everyone didn’t support them. They had cotton, after all. Here’s cotton, the Confederacy said. Buy our cotton; sell us arms; expend your blood and treasure to break this blockade nuisance. Yeah, those guys over there object to our firing on the flag, say we’re in rebellion. Forget that you’ve freed your slaves a generation or two ago. Here’s cotton

The Confederates defined themselves as slaveholders, not as a stable country to invest in. They had a political economy, yet they were more alike than different from those they left…except for that slavery thing. No, the North was not the land of universal suffrage, but neither was anywhere else in the mid-19th century. 

But the Confederacy was the land where people were bought and sold. No, they weren’t the only ones then. Let’s remember that Brazil kept slaves until 1888; Saudi Arabia–officially–until 1962; it still exists in other parts of the Muslim world. Regrettably, the Confederacy wanted the support of a state founded on liberty, equality, and brotherhood–France. And the British Empire abolished slavery in 1833. That they didn’t define themselves as a country but as a cause was a substantial failure, but one that was inevitable and led to inevitable failure.

In his magisterial War For the Union, Allan Nevins said that the Confederacy’s sole concern almost from its founding was the war against the Union. While the Union still expanded, added three states, and began a transcontinental railroad, the Confederacy lacked the resources to do any of those things, except add states that hadn’t seceded. The ONLY thing that they could spend their attention on was fighting and gathering resources for the war.

And that they did poorly, I submit, because of all the other causes of the Confederacy’s failure. The failure of cotton diplomacy stemmed from an overdeveloped belief in the supremacy of King Cotton. The leadership was either willfully blind or ignorant of Europe’s dependence on American food products, specifically wheat and corn. While the South grew those too, those products were primarily for their subsistence, not enough to export. Tobacco, rice, and pecans were popular exports but didn’t hold a candle to cotton’s cash value. 

This faith in cotton led to the consistent belief that Britain and France would recognize the Confederacy and intervene on their behalf with almost religious fervor. As late as November 1864, Confederate agents were offering France inducements from selling a decade’s worth of cotton at prewar prices to surrendering their sovereignty over seaports (which what states would agree to?). But France wouldn’t bite…because France could not afford to annoy the Union.

There’s a school of thought that suggests that Lincoln should have ordered Ft. Sumter’s evacuation and that he started the war by not doing so. Let’s not blame the mugging victim for getting beat up.

Least Appreciated: All Three Added Up to Catastrophe

  • Davis authorized the firing on Ft Sumter;
  • The Confederate Government didn’t represent those they said they represented;
  • The Confederacy was less a country than it was a cause; a way of life.

Thee was no single cause of the Confederacy’s failure, but several. One may not have been enough, but all three ganged up on a small bunch of people who couldn’t modernize their outlook or their industry fast enough to stop the tide of blue serge that overwhelmed them in 1865. How well, how long they might have survived if any one of these failures had not existed is impossible to say. One thing is certain: incompetent leaders who don’t understand their people and who expect the rest of the world to think as they do is a recipe for disaster.

The Safe Tree is Coming in March

The Safe Tree

After three years, The Stella’s Game Trilogy will be complete next month. For those you who have read Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, and Tideline: Friendship Abides, The Safe Tree: Friendship Triumphs follows JJ and Ann, Leigh and Mike for another year. They are apart, then together, then suffer fire and gun battles, treachery and personal loss, culminating a wild trip through time. Whatever you thought The Safe Tree was about, you’re probably wrong.

For those who are unfamiliar with The Stella’s Game Trilogy, it follows four young people from age eight to 31, watching them grow, learn, laugh, cry, love, and rely on their friends. From the Kennedy assignation through the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa to the Iran-Contra scandal, the four friends stick together, even when they are oceans apart.

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