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

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Counter-factual” history is probably harder to critique than it is to actually write. After all, the author stakes out a “what if” position and then goes on drawing conclusion after conclusion based upon an event or series of events that did not in fact happen. In this case, Alexander seems to, on balance, take the curious position that the Union did not defeat the South in the Civil War, but that the South ultimately defeated itself. And that this defeat rests largely upon the heads of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. And that the strategy advocated by Thomas H. “Stonewall” Jackson probably could have either won the war for the South, or at an absolute minimum have have pushed the field of battle for the bulk of the war onto Union territory. Essentially:

Davis – Hoped that the people of the North would soon grow tired of the war, and that recognition from the major European powers of the CSA would come quickly. Possibly a variant of the “King Cotton” strategy, but Alexander doesn’t really go there.

Lee – On balance advocated the destruction of the North’s armies in the field, and tactically thought that the best method to achieve this was via frontal assault on the enemy’s position, though he could be flexible in both method and approach

Jackson – Per Alexander, advocated doing exactly what Sherman supposedly did when he “made Georgia howl,” save in reverse. And three years before Sherman even thought of doing such a thing, if Alexander is to be believed. Speed, maneuver, “living off of the land,” keep the enemy off balance and guessing, and ONLY giving battle when the enemy is caught off-guard.

Needless to say, quite a bit of simplification in the above, but I think it is a fair summary of Alexander’s position. He also spends some time discussing how generals on both sides seemed to take lip service to Napoleon’s conduct of the Napoleonic Wars as gospel, but then promptly ignored the most important elements of what made Napoleon successful. And that generals on both sides used the advances in technology that had occurred in the intervening half century (particularly the Minié ball rifle, though also in artillery and railroads) but never adjusted their tactics, at least on offense, to mitigate the damage these changes could do to an attacking force.

On balance, I very much like his overall approach: that nothing in war is foreordained, that people who speak of a Union victory as inevitable are mistaken, and that victory and defeat are the product of the actions, or inaction, of leaders, civilians, soldiers in the field, etc. And this particular “product,” as noted, is a question mark at the start of hostilities and likely for very much of the balance of them. I also thought his critique of generals using out-moded tactics again and again after they’d been shown to be absolute failures was very well done.

Having said all of the above, I do have some important areas where he and I part company sharply. My first issue is that a great deal of what Alexander takes to have been Jackson’s approach must be inferred, either from indirect statements or by his actions. Alexander himself notes this fact in several places. Second, Alexander seemed to think that had Jackson (or Lee or someone) successfully “kicked in the door” the entire “house” that was the North would have collapsed. Possibe, I suppose, but it is not a point Alexander even attempts to prove. There certainly was a “peace party” in the North, but even a large portion of that was not willing to give in and allow the CSA out of the Union unconditionally. Finallly, Alexander is probably correct in that historians have given too much attention to the disparities in numbers, railroad miles, industrial capacity, and even technical training, but I think Alexander himself goes a bit too far with discounting these things. (As in, had the War continued into 1866 and beyond more and more Union troops would have been facing their opposites with “repeater” rifles, a leap in technology the South had no hope of matching.) I could say more, particularly related to Alexander’s almost completely ignoring all matter Naval, but I think this is sufficient for a GR review.

FWIW, if I think of it, I may look for some of his other “counter-factual” works. Simply because reasonable people can disagree on this or that point, or how much weight such-and-such a factor deserves, this work was the sort that made one think. Even when said “thinker” (if I can dignify myself with such a term 🙂 ) ultimately rejects several of an author’s conclusions and premises.
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