Yes, the Confederacy failed. That is indisputable. The cottage industry that includes Civil War Inc. has always disagreed on why, exactly, filling libraries with different versions. Blaming anything on Southern leadership, however, is verboten because that might disrupt The South’s (TM) Holy Trinity of Father (Jefferson Davis), Son (Robert E. Lee), and Holy Spirit (Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson). Yes, that’s the way they are remembered…look at Stone Mountain outside Atlanta before it’s blasted off as “offensive.”
I have to admit to a particular bias doing this. I never thought the Confederacy stood a chance. Frankly, their reasons for the separation were bizarre for someone raised in Detroit in the ’60s and ’70s. Outside the raw numbers of men and guns and horses and ships, outside the morality matter, the southern states were acting like petulant children over the issue of their peculiar institution, slowing national growth because they wanted the clock to stop so they could bask in the same glories of a genteel life of a vanishing landed gentry forever. Their social stratification seemed to me to be antediluvian.
As a lad, I visited the south. I remember seeing the shadows of Jim Crow–the shadows under the painted-over signs that read “Whites Only” especially–in the early 60s. I used to ask what that was about, but ultimately I knew…we all knew. As a young soldier, I was stationed in the south; Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Florida, and Arizona. The southern people’s attitudes towards their failed country were then, and I believe they are now ambivalent. The idea of Proud Southern Heritage is irritating at one level and on another simply for the tourists. But there are a few who insist upon living in that failed past. Their numbers are few, but they are more vocal than sensible; agreeing with them as Civil War Inc. does at least shuts them up. I believe that one day the woke crowd will silence these Confederacetrists forever, but that day has yet to come.
Did this tinge my analysis? Maybe.
But there’s no quantification for this kind of analysis. No matter what else happened or what excuses are made, the Confederacy failed as a country, and no qualification will change that.
Corespondents who have read this screed so far (both of them) have assured me that none of my conclusions could ever be accepted by Civil War, Inc., let alone the Lost Cause Mythologists. Leadership failure? Politicians not representing the Will of the Southern People? Ridiculous. And, worst of all possible sins: defining The South as a cause, not a country? Asinine. Unjustifiable. And right in line with today’s oh-so-woke “history corrections” to get rid of all those offensive statues and flags because they’re symbols of America’s slave-mongering past. I’m surprised no one’s pointed that out. My conclusions are popular with the wrong crowd and un-publishable because they offend the sensibilities of the biggest audience for such products.
But this is a sample study; a test of a method to see if such a method could work. It’s not intended to reach conclusions that have to be published. Not science; historical failure analysis attempts to quantify historical outcomes; it cannot change them. I’m the last to declare that this method is anything more than a proposal.
This is just a test for a method, but I could turn it into a book. I have been thinking about consolidating my essay collections that never made me much money into a single volume. I could include this little series or a version thereof.
Now a list of somewhat more contemporary national failures for another test/sample study. Any ONE of these could be treated the same way as I treated the Confederacy:
Italy to 1943
French 20th Century Empire
Germany to 1945
South Vietnam would be a political fireball even today–reason to leave it alone for another decade or so. The interest in Italy and France would be minimal. The Soviet Union, given some of the latest news, may be a renaming, not a failure. Whether or not the British Empire failed or just went away is also debatable. It would perhaps be better if we waited on those.
That leaves Germany to 1945 for next time.
The Liberty Bell Files: J. Edgar’s Demons
For those of you who don’t know, this book is something of a back story for the Stella’s Game Trilogy that answers some of the questions of just how the FBI…well, you’ll have to see it. Suffice it to say that Julia Parkinson Addison and Dave Clawson lived before they turned up in the Trilogy. Look for it come June…I hope.
Where was Alexander Vandegrift, commanding the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal, born?
Where was George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, born?
The reason for these questions will become clear.
There comes a time in any historical project when an analyst should stop and ask: Does any of this make sense?
Or at least we should. This is where I’m doing just that. Some background…
JFK was in office when I first read Bruce Catton’s American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. My mother cut out the Life Magazine articles during the Civil War centennial. But WWII beckoned–my father jumped into Normandy, so I studied both conflicts avidly,. Of course, Vietnam was in the headlines then…my sisters’ boyfriends all concerned themselves with it because they were of that age. I got to Gettysburg in ’69, then I went into the Army myself in ’73, three months to the day after the draft ended.
But the American Civil War kept calling me back while, after leaving the Active component, I made a living as a technical writer for thirty years AND stayed in the Reserves. Studying for my MA in American military history, I wrote extensively about the Civil War, more than I did any other American war. I wrote a book on Shiloh, another on the Pacific War, a few novels, and some short stories. Then came this germ of an idea: systematizing historical failure analysis, creating a methodology for what scholars do and buffs chatter about.
A buff knows how many cartridges a soldier’s pouch was made for; a scholar knows how that figure was derived and its effect on the fighting.
In a scholarly way, I’ve tried to look at the facts about the Confederacy, without romance or battle-smoke or blood or moonlight-and-magnolias. And I conclude that the Confederate leadership screwed up by leaving the Union in the first place, let alone starting the war; that they didn’t represent the interests of their constituents, and so as failure heaped on failure, support for the “cause” dwindled to nothing.
This. Is. Not. Conventional. Wisdom. And that’s a problem.
Alexander Vandegrift was born in Charlottesville, VA. Think that fact’s important to the study of Guadalcanal?
If not, why does George Meade‘s birthplace (Cadiz, Spain) appear in nearly every book about Gettysburg? How much more important is one than the other?
While I was writing about Shiloh, I was struck by the conflict’s somewhat uniform treatment by the secondary sources. The Civil War is treated as a special case by American writers. This was especially noticeable when I read John Keegan’s The American Civil War: A Military History (Knopf 2009). Keegan was no stranger to Civil War studies, having spent a chapter of his The Mask of Command (Penguin 1988) on Grant. But his take on the Civil War, as an Englishman, was of a different feel. He didn’t care where this general was born or who that general had snubbed in an earlier career. His straightforward analysis of the available facts without romance was why it was panned by the few Civil War scholars who actually read it. It simply lacked the Lost Cause romance and mystique, the dash of the bold cavaliers, the grim determination of the gallant butternuts fighting for their Cause…and Civil War Inc. noticed. If Keegan, in his equally magisterial The First World War (Penguin Random House 1999), had talked about Pershing’s upbringing in Missouri or about Terry Allen’s grandfather at Gettysburg, it would have been thought quaint…and dismissed as romantic.
To Civil War, Inc., it is vital.
“Everyone Knows” how the American Civil War should be written about–everyone American, that is. When writing or speaking about the 1861-65 conflict, the filter of the Lost Cause must always be applied. Nostalgia for the Lost Cause is required; romance expected, intimate derails of leader’s lives detailed. New information in the form of diaries and letters that confirm with already accepted wisdom are acceptable. No diary entities by Confederate soldiers that call Lee a poltroon or an arrogant old fool could be authentic or ever see print without a firestorm of protest and claims of fraud; if they do exist we may never know.
And here I am trying to say that the Confederacy screwed up from Day One, that the entire idea was madness.
A cottage industry of “counterfactual” history holds that making up events that did not occur is a valid historical interpretive method. Any lawyer introducing non-facts to a jury that they know are not facts might face disbarment. These “counterfactualists,” however, would have us believe that it’s OK, that somehow declaring that Jackson might have survived to Gettysburg and in so doing won the war is a legitimate argument that belongs in the history books.
If this study makes any sense, the Southern Confederacy was doomed from the start, and it doesn’t matter what one general in one battle did. Nearly everything I’ve looked at on the Civil War since the 1960s is a pleasant story. If I go any further than this blog on this project, am I saying that most writers didn’t do the work of analyzing where the Confederacy went wrong? Did they simply agree with what Pickett was said to have quipped about Gettysburg: I believe the enemy had something to do with it?
That should give me pause. Why doesn’t it?
There’s been a truism for writing and publishing about the Civil War: write what The South (TM) wants to see, or it won’t sell. This started in the late 19th century when public schools became more popular, and students needed textbooks. The Late Unpleasantness that was the War Between the States a mere generation before was presented from a distinctly “Confederacentric” viewpoint so that textbook publishers could sell them in the formerly Confederate states. Thus, history wasn’t written by the “winners” but by those who control the narratives for a given audience. In this case, American schoolchildren have for over a century gotten a distinctly distorted view of the 1861-65 conflict because the former Confederacy wanted it that way.
This slant was important from an economic viewpoint, but, too, it was important from a literary one. History tends to be rather dry in academic settings, and a certain amount of suspense is helpful. Yes, the results are known, but adding an element of struggle helps add interest for the reader. Combined, the factors of intentional bias in schoolbooks and the need for suspense–the latter reinforced by the former–have thus shown the American Civil War as a conflict that the Confederacy might have won…if only…
If I’m up against a built-in social and industry bias against my conclusions, what part of my analysis could be faulty? What part doesn’t make sense? Where could I have gone wrong? What facts did I not throw in? This is why I have this step in the method. Let’s see…
First Failure: Davis and the Confederate Congress Ordering the Attack on Ft. Sumter and the Cotton Blockade
The school of thought–predominantly among southern sympathizers–that says that Lincoln should have just surrendered Ft. Sumter in April of ’61 uses a legal argument called “reversion.” Their position is that when South Carolina left the Union, everything in the confines of the state reverted to state ownership.
There are several problems with the reversion theory. The first is that the law is murky regarding extra-legal actions like secession–not covered in any law anywhere in 1861. Thus, reversion may or may not have applied. We will never really know since the Confederacy didn’t even try a legal challenge. Furthermore, the land that Ft. Sumter was/is on was never a part of South Carolina. It’s an artificial island built by the US Army Corps of Engineers, owned entirely by the US Government. How could it revert to a legal entity that it never belonged to in the first place? And if they are applying a legal argument, in what jurisdiction is this argument to be applied? If the Confederacy was no longer a part of the Union, how could it have applied the law of a foreign country? There were no World Courts at the time–the International Criminal Court was a century and two world wars off. Where would the Confederacy go for what it would consider “justice?” It would appear as if South Carolina and the Confederacy wanted to eat their cake and have it too.
But, too, that claim of reversion points out another question: why didn’t the Confederacy simply sue the United States for possession? Was it even discussed? The answer is no. The Confederacy saw only one solution to the problem of Ft. Sumter: force if they did not capitulate or were not ordered to surrender. The Confederate congress and cabinet were both full of lawyers. Did a legal solution–absent the problems above–ever occur to them? There is no record of it.
And if force was the only answer, were they prepared for a wider conflict? No, of course not. They were not prepared for Lincoln’s call for the militia nor a declaration of rebellion. How could they have been? But both Davis and the Congress should have been prepared for both…that’s what good leaders do. But they were not. The cotton embargo was imposed when the blockade wasn’t even polite. It presupposed that cotton really was king…and it wasn’t. The Confederate leadership failed to do their due diligence to determine if Europe’s demand for their exports was enough to get Europe to help them out. If they had, perhaps secession might never have happened. What then? That’s beyond the scope of this study.
Worst Failure: Lack of Real Representation
As the fortunes of the war turned decidedly against the Confederacy, domestic support for the war dwindled in very large part because the leadership goals were not the goals–necessarily–of the led. Separateness to enable an institution that few had any stake in made less and less sense the longer the casualty lists became. As the Union armies moved through slave-holding areas after 1863, the wave of freedmen became even larger, and even those non-slaves who had supported the Confederacy no longer had substantial reasons to support what was truly a losing proposition. At the end of the war, the Peace Commissioners were only empowered to seek a cease-fire and a return to the status quo antebellum, a losing argument. Just who they thought they were representing is an open question.
Most Influential Failure: Lack of True National Identity
Richard Beringer, Herman Hattaway, Archer Jones and William Still, in Why the South Lost the Civil War (University of Georgia Press 1986), argued that the Confederacy failed because of a lack of civil religion. I argue that their civil religion–their peculiar institution of chattel slavery–defined everything that the leadership did. Each of the seceded states mentions their support of slavery; the Confederate Constitution enshrines it. State’s rights–the right to keep and maintain slaves–was mantra invoked before every battle, every argument, every discussion of the conflict–a conflict that defined the Confederacy. Their war and their national identity were tied up in that cause. Small wonder then that The Lost Cause should have been the primary reason for the conflict. Ironically, though Lincoln freed the slaves wherever the Union Army could not reach, it was the Congress that passed Amendment XIV that finally forbade chattel slavery…legally.
The Confederacy should not have been surprised that the war ended badly because the reason they were fighting not only was not popular even in the southern states, it wasn’t very humane, either.
Least Appreciated Failure: All Three Added Up to Catastrophe
Bad leadership, unrepresentative leadership, and lack of national identity is a disastrous combination. Each on their own would have been bad enough. Any two would have been worse. Combined, only failure could have been expected. Regardless of what generals survived what battles or what battles went one way or the other, the Confederate States of America was doomed to fail in the long term. Worse, they set themselves up for failure from the beginning. I have said it in the past, and I shall keep saying it: there is no scenario in which the southern Confederacy could have won a military victory that would have resulted in lasting and meaningful political and economic independence from the United States. There can be no debate of legal scenarios: under what law and in what court could secession arguments have been held?
But, too, would any judgment in any court that did not sustain South Carolina’s demands–and the demands of the slave owners of The South (TM)–would not have resulted in war, anyway? They wanted slavery legal all over–and they got it in Dred Scott. But it wasn’t enough. They wanted a reversal of the 1860 election. They wanted either a weak or a sympathetic chief executive who would allow them to do whatever they wanted to do. Ultimately, in a much larger sense, a civil war was almost inevitable because of this attitude. Every law, every legal move, every executive decision had to be run through the filter of the peculiar institution before 1860. Western expansion was slow because the slaveholders kept demanding decisions on the expansion of slavery. And the non-slave-holding states were held hostage by the impolite bellicosity of their slave-holding brethren.
Bad leaders, not caring what their constituents thought, led their country into an unwinnable war, supporting a policy that not everyone agreed with. Just how was such a state supposed to succeed?
This may be a fair analysis of the facts, but now…what to do with them? That’s for next time…
The Safe Tree, Friendship Triumphsis now available. The final part of The Stella’s Game Trilogy follows JJ and Ann, Mike and Leigh for one more year–1986–and their adventures through two weddings, two gun battles, a fire…and some insight on one of the most enduring mysteries in American history: what ever happened to Jimmy Hoffa. Now available in paper-bound and many electronic media from your favorite booksellers.
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:
Least appreciated by historians/pundits/blowhards
Chickens and Eggs
A short chronology of major events up to the end of 1861:
South Carolina and Mississippi secede;
Star of the West fired on in Charleston Harbor;
Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas secede;
Confederate Government formed by seceded states, naming Jefferson Davis as Provisional President;
Confederate Constitution adopted;
Relief expedition for Ft. Sumter ordered;
Davis orders Ft. Sumter to be reduced before relief arrives.
Ft Sumter fired upon;
Lincoln declares rebellion, calls for troops;
Lincoln declares blockade;
Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee (in order) secede.
War traditionally begins at Bull Run/Manassas.
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
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 Triumphsfollows 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.
So now we come down to the why of the Confederacy’s failure.
The Confederate States of America couldn’t define its borders or its members
The Confederacy’s central government didn’t represent–truly–the majority of the populous of states that it could encompass and thus could not count on the support of its people.
The seceded states declared their support for the institution of slavery, but few in the states actually owned them.
The Confederacy really, really could not defend itself or its sovereignty.
The President of the Confederacy failed to lead his country in realistic economic, diplomatic, or military directions.
DefiningConfederates and the Confederacy
While the seceded states were easy to encompass, the outlying slave-holding states were enigmatic and mocking. While Delaware was never disputed (in Delaware) because there were so few slaves there and minimal secessionist sentiment, Maryland and Missouri were thought of as merely intransigent. Secession ordinances failed in Maryland in early 1861 because the legislators didn’t feel they had the power to approve them. Before a second session could convene, Union soldiers arrested pro-secession legislators. Under US military occupation early on, Missouri had two legislatures by the end of 1861, and both sent representatives to both Washington AND Richmond.
Kentucky declared neutrality in May 1861, then voted for a Unionist legislature in June. All the while, both Unionist and secessionist factions were raising troops in the Bluegrass State. That said Union Kentucky troops outnumbered their Confederate brethren by 10:1. Kentucky’s flimsy neutrality was violated when the Confederacy invaded the state in September 1861. A shadow legislature was formed, and representatives sent to Richmond. Kentucky was admitted to the Confederacy in October. After the Confederate army abandoned the state in the spring of 1862, it no longer mattered that the elected government had never voted on secession.
Then there were those other places. The Confederacy claimed the Arizona/New Mexico territory. There was a secession convention in March 1861 that voted to separate the region south of the 38th parallel, elected a president, and authorized militias. Richmond hailed the move and admitted Southern/Confederate Arizona. Beset by Federal troops and California volunteers, the secession legislature fled the state in the summer of 1862, though there was minor resistance until 1865. Modern Oklahoma, then called Indian Territory, wasn’t coherent enough to secede and suffered through its own civil war, where native Americans fought each other with the Union and the Confederacy’s assistance.
A handful of pro-slavery Oregonians raise a secession flag in Jacksonville, OR, but were persuaded to haul it down by their neighbors. An 1865 incident called the Long Tom Rebellion in Eugene after Lincoln’s death resulted in the arrest of a pro-slavery blowhard and a few bruises. In California, secessionist sentiment was somewhat more robust in certain areas, but no secession ordinances were considered, and no shadow governments were formed in California. Some California secessionists journeyed east and fought with the Confederacy; more went to Confederate Arizona. About 60,000 Californians fought for the Union; perhaps 5,000 for the Confederacy.
Aside from these outliers, the Richmond government had trouble with parts of the states that had seceded. Texas was never quite a united front; unquestionably not as united as, say, Mississippi. East Tennessee was notoriously rebellious, and there was even talk of a West-Virginia-like secession. Though the third state to secede, Florida was always an enigma because 3/4ths of the state was uninhabited. The important bases in Key West, Fort Jefferson, and Fort Pickens were vital to the Federal blockade of the Confederacy, yet the Confederacy never had the resources to capture them. Only one of Florida’s major ports, Pensacola, was served by rail, and Fort Pickens effectively neutralized it.
The Confederacy had two conflicts on its hands: one with the Union and one with some of its more recalcitrant constituents. It should be remembered that the only state that did not send units to the Union Army was South Carolina. Simultaneously, the number of non-seceded states that sent troops to the Confederacy was just three: Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri; four, if we count Confederate Arizona. There’s an expression in critical thinking: All poodles are dogs, but not all dogs are poodles. The states and parts of states may have seceded before Bull Run, but not everyone in those states were committed Confederates. This lack of commitment was reflected in the growing number of desertions after 1863. A Government Not Of The PeopleThe government that met first at Montgomery, Alabama, and finally at Richmond, Virginia, was an anomaly. Many men in the government had been members of the US Congress; others had been cabinet secretaries. Nearly all were men of means, and almost all were slave-owners. And therein lay at least part of another cause of the Confederacy’s failure: slave-owners were not a majority of the southern population.
Slavery wasn’t as simple as owning human beings and trading them like baseball players. Slavery was an attitude, a way of thinking, and a way of life. Within its grasp were the southern states’ entire political economy–indeed, the Cotton Kingdom around the Gulf of Mexico rose and fell on the practices. Because cotton cultivation defied mechanization until the 1960s, the primary cash crop of at least half the Confederate states depended on human labor for planting and harvesting. This fact might have been a tremendous boon for people who could perform these back-breaking tasks, but because slaves could do it at a lower cost, it only made their situation worse. The planters who owned the land had a tradition of treating people who were not like them poorly. And it didn’t matter if those people were black, white, red, brown, yellow, or pink-polka-dot. If you were not a landed Southern aristocrat, you were a second-class citizen or less. And it was these men–less than 5% of the population–who claimed to represent the Confederacy in Richmond.
The big planters weren’t the only slave-owners. About one in four southern landowners owned at least one slave, but a majority owned fewer than five; indeed, most one or two. The rest worked their own land by themselves. It wasn’t that they didn’t agree with slave-owning, just that they either couldn’t afford it or didn’t feel the need. Many weren’t above hiring one or two from a neighbor for planting or harvesting. That said, many southerners agreed with the social system that kept non-whites from having the same rights that they did.
But many were not all, and some estimates have as many as 15% of those living in Confederate states who did not agree with the social and legal stratification that their neighbors did…and many of them had money that the Confederacy needed. What was worse, as the war went on, what little support there had been in 1861 steadily eroded until, by late 1864, the trickle of army desertions, state defections, and domestic supporters of the Confederacy became an unstoppable torrent.
The Problem of Slavery After Emancipation
When Lincoln announced the Emancipation, he did it as a weapon and an administrative tool, not a humanitarian gesture. He only “freed” the slaves everywhere that Federal troops did not control, thus legally and theoretically taking them out of the control of their masters. Sounds great, but in fact, it was impractical because, well, the slave-owners were under no compulsion to pay attention, and most slaves knew nothing of it until Federal troops arrived. And that was the Confederacy’s problem.
Before the Emancipation, slaves who came into Federal lines or escaped to free territory had an ambiguous status. Some commanders allowed them to remain behind Federal lines; others felt compelled to return them. Indeed, slave-owners and their employees sometimes entered Federal lines to retrieve their charges. Just as often–because not all Federal officers believed the war was over slavery–they were allowed to pass through the lines again with the slaves. There was no clear policy. Which was one reason why Lincoln did what he did. The other reason was to deprive the Confederacy of its cheap manpower, and that reason was, to be frank, problematic. If the slave-owners just ignored it, and the slaves never heard of it, what good did it do? For that, we fall back on the first reason: it required all Federal commanders to let the former slaves remain free. That meant that the cheap labor pool often dried up wherever Federal troops went, whether they stayed or not. The power of the Washington government that the Confederacy defied was such that the Confederate States could not prevent the Emancipation from being enforced on what had been their territory. The longer the war lasted, the fewer slaves they could keep.
The Shield That Didn’t
While this study isn’t about why the Confederacy lost on the battlefield, it is an essential factor behind the Confederate States’ failure. For centuries, scholars and statesmen had been struggling to define “sovereignty” in absolute legal terms. By the 19th century, the theory was called Westphalian sovereignty, named for the treaty that ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. Loosely, it is the concept of nation-state sovereignty based on territoriality and the absence of external agents in domestic structures. In other words, no foreign power inside the defined borders of a sovereign state could interfere with the functions of either the established government or society.
Then it gets complicated. Buried in the Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law in 1858 was a definition for blockade that replaced ancient unwritten law. In 1861, Lincoln declared the “rebellious states” to be under blockade. What that did legally, among other things, provided a tacit admission to some that the Confederacy was legitimate. However, the 1826 Brazilian blockade of the Rio de la Plata during their war with Argentina was recognized by Britain but not by the US or France, so “legitimacy” was somewhat moot. Indeed, vessels of foreign registry that tried to run the blockade of the Confederacy stopped by the US Navy might have protested the violation of their sovereignty…but they usually didn’t. Even the famous Trent incident might have passed unnoticed if the two Confederate agents/diplomats hadn’t been removed. The fact that the Confederacy couldn’t protect its communications with the outside world affected her sovereignty because she could not trade as a state if she couldn’t assure that cargoes in or out would be safe.
As for land communications, that is a different matter. The borders were porous; the Confederacy could not control even the trade on the Ohio River. Other than few fixed forts in Kentucky, defending the long and ambiguous borders would always be done inside the Confederacy. And what did the Confederacy have to protect those long frontiers with? A collection of state-based units that, for all their zeal, were undermanned and poorly equipped. By some measures, fully 25% of the military manpower was exempt for reasons ranging from being overseers of more than 25 slaves to being members of the national, state, or local government or of local or state militias. While many of the militias did indeed fight when the war came to them, they were rarely used for anything more than rear-guards, for they were rarely good enough for more. By then, it was too late to save an already failed state.
Jefferson Davis: Poor Leader
Jefferson Davis believed in states’ rights to determine whether or not they could maintain slavery as an institution, and he accepted the presidency based on that belief. However, it is not clear that he believed that the CSA could have achieved lasting and meaningful political and economic independence from the United States. From the pie-eyed optimism of the cotton embargo early in the war to his oft-stated belief that any territory “lost” to the Union was “lost” forever to slavery, Davis was many things, but a true believer in the success of his country, he was not.
When the Union blockade was the weakest, the attempts at cotton diplomacy perhaps had the best intentions but the worst of effects. While cotton was short in Europe, Britain and France were more dependent on the Union’s wheat and corn shipments than on the Confederacy’s cotton. Southern belief in King Cotton drove the illusion that Europe would come to their rescue and drove many economic and diplomatic efforts. Even as late as 1863, the Confederacy expected diplomatic recognition any day now…real soon….yep, next month for certain….
Davis, who had been a Secretary of War and a member of the US Congress for years, should have recognized the British-French diplomatic stalling when he saw it, and counseled away from it…but he didn’t. Nor could he back away from defending the seceded states’ long and distant frontiers, believing that every foot of territory held by slave-believing power would be held forever, and every foot lost to the abolitionists would be lost forever. This belief contributed significantly to the defense of untenable positions in Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, and the border states. To read some of his writings, it was as if Lincoln and the Republicans had never uttered a word before Ft. Sumter, and he was consistently surprised to learn that they meant what they said.
The next step is to Compare and Contrast these factors to see which were the most damaging. Given the above…hard to tell, but we’ll work on it.
For those of you who like the stuff I write, you can enjoy the paperback of my short story collection for less than ten bucks and the e-book for less than a buck. Fun, travel, and adventure, celebrating the unsung, the un-celebrated, the un-heralded workhorses of the backwaters and the front lines of human conflicts. Sergeant’s Business and Other Stories has it all.
The interest in Part 1 of this series was gratifying, thank you. Hope you stay with me until the end…and there shall be an end.
And before I go any further, a happy Thanksgiving to one and all.
Similar cases to the Confederacy may be tricky. Failure analysis in engineering can look at thousands of similar designs and patterns. Historians have a somewhat more limited selection.
What kind of similarity are we looking for?
Conditions; social structure; time frame; circumstances of creation. Engineers have it easy in this regard. Thus, I’ll define the Confederacy as:
Mid-19th Century time frame
Agrarian-industrial political economy
Split from a federal constitutional republic to form a confederacy of states
A class and race divided social system.
I think we can forget about an exact match. While 2. is common, 3. is not: Slavery wasn’t unique to the US in the mid-19th century, but it was unique as a reason for dividing the country. But 4. is common.
Strict adherence to my list is problematic…
The Confederate States of America was an offshoot of Tocqueville’s “Great Experiment” in representative government. Their founders replicated most of the institutions of the Union that they separated from and made significant but minute changes to their Constitution. The biggest difference between the Union and the Confederacy was the greater state autonomy in the Confederacy…and no Supreme Court. This is ironic because the Dred Scott decision gave the slaveholders most of what they wanted: the freedom to take their slaves anywhere and relief from the idea of “free blacks” in their boundaries. Let’s look for cases where a government failed to represent who they claimed to represent, and in so doing, lost the capability to succeed.
France in the period 1794-1815 strikes me as a possibility.
Think about it. Start with a revolution, get rid of the aristocrats, carry “liberty, equality, brotherhood” around Europe for nearly a decade…then a Corsican artilleryman places the crown of empire on his head in Notre Dame, announcing that he’s the emperor of the French…who strangled their aristocrats with the guts of priests. So, who did the French Revolution, the Terror, and the Directory represent? The French people? They put a Bourbon king back on the throne after Napoleon lost…twice. So, let’s say, provisionally, that France may be similar, without the overtones of separation from another body.
How about Russia before 1917?
Hard to nail that one down because the Romanovs had a hard time being popular. They were autocrats, indeed. But after the revolution, so much changed in Russia, it’s hard to divine just who the succeeding governments represented. Was Lenin’s government more popular than Stalin’s? It was so brief it’s impossible to know. Stalin did a better job of convincing the Russians that they were better off…better Red than dead, essentially.
The living will envy the dead.
Attributed to Nikita Khrushchev
How’s that for irony.
Neither France nor Russia is a good case to follow.
In neither case was there a “government of the people,” even in a literary sense. Both governments were dominated by their monarchs, who ruled with absolute authority if the mobs liked it or not.
How about 19th Century Japan?
Though similar–especially the agricultural economy and the strict class system–but they didn’t split off from another country, and Japanese democracy didn’t appear until after 1945 in any recognizable form. But fail to represent the people it did…even if it didn’t try that hard. And it failed utterly to defend itself.
Now, hold onto your hats because I’m going to suggest Weimar Germany.
The Weimar Constitution provided for a representative government after the collapse of the Hohenzollern monarchy. It enjoyed a brief period of calm and prosperity as long as the European-American economy was healthy…and economically, the Confederacy was OK for a short time–months, not years. Then came the global depression, and with that came the chaos of inflation…and an influential speaker who told the mobs precisely what they wanted to hear. But even before the National Socialists took power in 1933, Paul Von Hindenburg was ruling by decree. The pre-1933 German government stopped representing Germany and was died with a whimper, not a bang. So, Weimar, sort of. But its failure mode was far different.
The Confederate States of America was a unique case.
A case that had no real equivalence anywhere at any time. Its failure to represent and protect the people it purported to represent was like several others, but it was a unique failed constitutional confederacy, not a dictatorship like late Weimar Germany, an absolute monarchy like France or Russia, or a military dictatorship masquerading as a constitutional republic like pre-1945 Japan.
If there’s only a few similar cases…is this step in our model good to have? With only a single case study so far, it may be too soon to tell. However, we are tempted to think of our model as a guideline, not a rule. But there goes intellectual rigor. So…we wait for more case studies.
If you have to make too many exceptions to your model, maybe the model was wrong
A lot of truth to that. Let’s keep working on our model. Next time, we identify the similarities…but didn’t we just do that? Let’s work on that.
Sergeant’s Business and Other Stories
Some of you know that I also write fiction…and some wags think my non-fiction is…never mind. Sergeant’s Business and Other Stories is a collection of short stories I’ve written over the years; most more than 20 years ago. At any rate, I’m publishing a second edition in paper and e-book in a few weeks. They’re mostly historical and military-related, some based on personal experience, most not. It will be announced before the end of the year, certainly in this space. Look out for it when it comes.
Delay may give clearer light as to what is best to be done.
Sorry for the delay between entries, but the press of life is such that…well, OK, I wasn’t quite ready to continue.
Step 1: Determine when, where and how the failure occurred.
The seceded states clearly failed in their struggle to achieve separation from the Union in the war that lasted from 1861 to 1865. Most scholars and other commentators have suggested that it was because of several factors. Beringer, Hattaway, Jones, and Still, in their Why The South Lost the Civil War (1986) considered the popular notions as to the seceded states’ failure to achieve independence. They concluded that The South failed with something they called “civil religion,” or a united ideological basis for the conflict.
Unfortunately, in this scholar’s view, that didn’t go far enough, because there are three entities–not just the seceded states–to be considered. . There were:
The seceded states popularly called The South
The slave states that included four states that did NOT secede–Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware (yes, Delaware), and the District of Columbia.
The Confederate States of America, or Southern Confederacy, which was a government entity formed in 1861.
For the purposes of this analysis, I’ll stick with these rough definitions.
All three are interrelated, and all three failed
Most commentators stop at the southern states, or The South, which is an understood entity all on its own. Perhaps understood by most after the war, but there were parts of other un-seceded states that considered themselves moderately southern in outlook. These included Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, and they also contributed recruits to Confederate armies.
Which brings us to the slaveholding states. Slavery along the borders roughly defined by the Mason-Dixon Line was a contentious issue divided more than just neighbors. Slavery in America was, in part, economical, in part philosophical, and in part political. Both sides of the argument had what they thought were perfectly valid reasons for their positions. Slaveholding states like Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland contributed units to both sides during the conflict. Delaware only sent troops to the Union. Little DC’s several 60-day battalions and militia cavalry companies maneuvered with the Union armies.
This brings us to the Confederate States of America, a government entity based first in Montgomery, Alabama, then Richmond, Virginia. The Confederacy was formed by the seceded states, and tried to include the non-seceded slave states–except Delaware. It considered DC to be slave-supporting in sympathy. It lost that struggle when Lincoln signed legislation freeing DC’s slaves in April 1862.
What were these three entities trying to do? What was the conflict about? All three entities said they wanted political and economic independence from the Union so that they could maintain humans as chattels and treat them as little better than animals. They also presumed that, as an independent political entity, they could take their property anywhere they wanted, including into the trans-Mississippi west. OK…but what about the war?
Lincoln’s election in 1860 caused fear in the slave states that their rights to keep and expand their policies would be curtailed in a Northern-dominated government. No matter what Lincoln, his supporters, or even neutral parties–there were a few–said about Lincoln’s burning desire to maintain the Union above all else, this is what slavery’s supporters feared.
The Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott vs. Sanford decision declared slavery legal no matter where the slave-owner wanted to take his property. It also denied citizenship to slaves for all time, effectively abolishing manumission–the act of freeing a slave–by denying them citizenship. The South believed that Lincoln would try to overturn Dred Scott. Starting in December 1860, before the electors voted, South Carolina began the stampede of secession.
There was also the stampede of southern militias grabbing Federal arsenals throughout the seceded states, but there was no shooting even after the Confederate government was formed in February 1861, until it started in South Carolina that April.
Slavery began secession
The seceded states contended that the ground upon which Ft. Sumter was built belonged to South Carolina, claiming that South Carolina’s secession meant that the fort would revert to state ownership, The Federal troops that occupied it were trespassing. They called the legal theory reversion .
But that little island didn’t actually exist before the US Army Corps of Engineers built it. Unfortunately, South Carolina started shooting, so that legal theory wasn’t tested in any court.
The shooting at Sumter triggered Lincoln’s militia call. That triggered the secession of the upper South–Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia–and we know what happened after that.
The war that followed the firing on Ft. Sumter was triggered by a legal theory that had never been tested.
It has long been argued that the conflict was fought for the seceded states’ independence. Well, that’s OK, until we note that three un-seceded states were considered part of the Confederacy–Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland. More than that, the Confederacy also claimed New Mexico and Arizona territories. And there was Oregon, that supposedly expressed sympathy for the Southern cause. Finally, there were attempts to drag California into the Confederate orbit.
Neither California nor Oregon nor Arizona nor New Mexico contained a single slave. Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland all rejected secession. Furthermore, every state but South Carolina formed Union regiments.
So…what exactly did the losing faction/side/political entity lose at? The violent war that ended in 1865, yes…but with such a coarse definition of who was on which side and when…what did who lose? All three entities failed to achieve meaningful and lasting political and economic independence from the United States. If all three entities failed in what they set out to do, didn’t the Confederate States of America fail its constituents? So that Berenger and company may have been at least partly right…
Step 1: The failure of the Confederate States of America was that, given the widespread support for the Union within its claimed borders, they failed represent, really and truly, the will of a majority of the people within its ill-defined borders.
Think about that until next time, when we talk about similar cases.
The Safe Tree: Friendship Triumphs
It’s on its way…slowly. Ran into some structural snags, some things failed to mesh with the rest of the Trilogy…but it’s getting there. Hoping by the end of the year.
Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan
John F. Kennedy, 1961
This post is the first in a series of ruminations I’m about to venture on for the dual purpose of selling books and trying to advance the study and writing of history. Now, I’m not the guy to start a whole sub-field called “historical failure analysis,” but I’d like to get people thinking in those terms, if possible.
If at first you don’t succeed, then skydiving is definitely not for you
Failure Analysis (FA) is a discipline of engineering that endeavors to determine the cause of a failure, be it a bearing or a bridge, to fix the problem(s) that caused the failure and avoid further failures. Now, applying this to history…dicy, maybe. But, perhaps not. To expand on my poor ruminations, I’ll be borrowing extensively from other web sites because I understand FA’s rudiments but not much more. So, if you work in failure analysis, forgive my clumsy attempt at adapting your discipline to mine.
Failure is always an option if you’re not paying attention
John D. Beatty
Reasons for Performing Failure Analysis
In engineering, these include:
Understanding the Root Cause of the Failure
Preventing (Future) Asset or Product Failures
Improving Future Products and Processes
Preventing Financial Losses and Penalties from Failed Components
Meeting Standards for Products and Assets
Determining Liability for Failure
Thanks to TWI Global for this adapted list. I’ll borrow more if I can. At the same time, I’m going to keep my eye on other truths, including…
Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it
As students of the past, we should recognize the realities of the list above, because, in more than one book/class/discussion, we go straight to the bottom: finding someone to blame. And we shouldn’t. Well, maybe we should…sometimes. But it’s going to be my position that the Historical Failure Analysis (HFA) I propose should be applied not to battles or generals or even to campaigns, but first, best and most effectively to social groups like whole civilizations and kingdoms, to empires and countries. I believe that it is there that we’ll find the best use of any such method if we find any use for one like it at all.
What do we mean by “failure?”
I’m going to borrow heavily from the corrosion-doctors.org web site. A social group has “failed” when it can no longer act in its society’s best interests. It need not be broken entirely, conquered or destroyed, but often may be extinct: civilizations also sometimes transition into others. Any failure can begin with social stresses or environmental influences, by the effects of climate changes (yes, Virginia, there were climate changes before there were SUVs), by changes in neighbors, or by combining these and many other factors. Understanding the relative importance of these factors is the historical analyst’s job, but can never be as definitive as an engineer’s. Unlike in engineering, understanding what happens to people is a matter of opinion and opinion only, for conclusive proof has to wait to develop more reliable time machines than the sources at a scholar’s disposal.
History is part legend and part fact, but mostly interpretation by those who have gone before us.
Burgess Meredith in The Master Gunfighter (1975)
Think about that for a while. We don’t get proof like engineers do: we reach consensus. We go back to the original sources where we can, but the further back we look, the fewer sources survive. When I was in school, I had an issue with some “source material,” especially in the classical/ancient world. My professors said, “don’t worry about it,” but I still do. I mean, Pericles’ funeral oration is positively Shakespearean…but did he really say it? Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is what three different reporters who wrote it down in shorthand says it was. So, I look at the source documents and look for corroboration, preferably physical evidence. And that’s what we need for HFA to work: corroboration.
Books that analyze historical failures in any systematic way aren’t legion. Two examples that I’ve tried to follow are Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, and Robin Higham’s anthology Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat. Neither book, as far as I could tell, was very methodical about reaching their conclusions, which were nonetheless perfectly valid on their own. Being a writer (first) and a scholar (a close second), I’m concerned about the field I write in because I’ve been seeing many scholars write critiques of the past without a sound, repeatable method.
So, Let’s venture upon a method
The historian should first have a broad knowledge of the events leading to the failure. If the scholar is aware of the failed group’s nature and its historical performance, broadly-accepted conclusions are more likely. Failure analysis is akin to detective work, gathering, and weighing evidence. Not everyone will buy what we have to say, or the conclusions that we reach, or our method. Some critics are just more inclined to reach the conclusions they want/need to make, rather than those that fit the evidence.
Here’s a venture into a method, God help me.
Step One: Determine When, Where and How the Failure Occurred
Step Two: Collect Information on Similar Cases for Comparison
Step Three: Identify Social/Economic/Political/Environmental Similarities in Similar Cases
Step Four: Analyze Each Element/Factor Separately
Step Five: Compare and Contrast Like You Did as an Undergrad
Step Six: Stop, Think, and Ask: Does This Make Sense?
Determine When, Where and How the Failure Occurred
Yeah, this looks a LOT like what most scholars do all the time…but is it? How often do we look at the American Revolution and the War of 1812 and ask ourselves how the British failed their empire-not-yet-imperial and conclude that America was just too far away to keep? How often do we look at WWI in the Pacific and say, “Japan jumped in for better position in 1941” without realizing that Japan was looking for markets and colonies in 1914, not mid-Pacific positioning? And who among us doesn’t bob our heads up and down and agree that the Cold War ended because of the Soviet system’s economic collapse, not the political failure? Who argues that the US manned space program was a significant contributor to that collapse? Can we look at the French Revolution and subsequent global wars from the Catholic Church’s standpoint and see if its influence had as much to do with The Terror and the eventual sale of Louisiana as did Bourbon indifference and Napoleon’s need for money?
We Rush Now to Step Ten…
Historical Failure Analysis is what Lee and I think we did in Why the Samurai Lost Japan: We didn’t look at the triumphalist march of the US Navy across the Pacific, for once. We looked first at why the Japanese acted the way they did. We found a combination of reasons, but mostly what we saw was a cultural and institutional failure of Japan’s own making. It was also a cultural and institutional inability to build a military organization that…wait for it…learned from its failures. Failure analysis for the Japanese before 1945 consisted of examining the plan to discover who failed the plan, not how the plan failed. Consequently, losses like the Coral Sea, Midway, and even the first attack on Wake Island in 1941 were unfortunate blips on the Japanese tableau’s landscape, not failed plans.
In The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War, I tried to emphasize what both sides did wrong before those two days in the Tennessee pine barrens. Neither the Confederates nor the Federals were ready for a battle on that scale, not there, not then. Neither side had more than a handful of “veterans” of any battle, and even those saw nothing on the scale of slaughter they saw that April. Both sides failed at many things, that much is for sure. The relative weights of those failures ultimately paid off by Monday afternoon.
In future posts I’ll take a look at how this proposed method might be used, how it may help the discipline, and how it might just advance the field.
I invite scholars, dilettantes and others to comment and criticize at their leisure.