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Why the Confederacy Was Doomed Even If It Won the Civil War

Ron is a student of the American Civil War and writes about it frequently. His focus is not so much on the battles as on the people.

Confederate Soldiers Monument at the Texas State Capitol in Austin

Confederate Soldiers Monument at the Texas State Capitol in Austin

In 1961 Pulitzer Prize winning author MacKinlay Kantor published a book called, If the South Had Won the Civil War. Kantor imagined that the slave-holding Confederate States of America (CSA) had defeated the Union, and firmly established its own status as an independent nation.

In this alternate history, the victorious CSA gained two additional states, Kentucky and Maryland, while losing Texas, which became an independent nation on its own. Ironically, the ultimate conclusion of Kantor’s fictional scenario was that in 1960 the political and military upheavals of the 20th century drove the three countries, CSA, USA, and Texas, to reunite into one nation again.

Kantor’s premise is, of course, pure fantasy—not only in the sense that it didn’t happen that way, but more importantly, that it couldn’t have happened that way.

Confederate Nationhood: An Impossible Fantasy

It’s not that the CSA couldn’t have won the war. Kantor’s premise is that history was changed in his alternate reality because Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the architect of Union victory in our reality, died in an accident in 1863. Grant was, second only to Abraham Lincoln, the man most responsible for the USA winning its Civil War and remaining intact. It’s certainly plausible that an accident that removed him from the scene early in the conflict could have initiated a chain of events that ultimately gave the Confederacy the victory.

So, the problem for the Confederates isn’t that it was not possible for them to have won—it’s that even if they had won, they almost certainly would not have made it into the 20th century, let alone all the way to 1960, as a single, unified nation. Instead, it’s highly probable that within a few years after successfully seceding from the United States, the CSA itself would have disintegrated into separate states, each wildly jealous of its own sovereign prerogatives, and probably often feuding with one another, even to the point of armed conflict.

To see why that’s so, let’s look at some real history that shows how the seeds of Confederate disintegration were embedded into its existence from the very beginning.

The Confederate States

The Confederate States

A “Government” That Had No Power to Govern

By the summer of 1864, both Northerners and Southerners were sick of the war. Many in both sections were looking for a way to negotiate an end to the conflict on terms they would consider honorable. One idea was to call a convention of all the states, North and South, in the hope that the delegates could hash out a settlement to bring the conflict to an end.

Neither Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, nor U.S. President Abraham Lincoln wanted anything to do with the idea of a convention—they understood that if such an assembly achieved anything at all, it would be at the expense of the very war aims each side had already spent so much blood and treasure to advance.

But there was another reason the idea of a convention of the states never gained any traction. The Richmond Daily Dispatch, in its edition of August 31, 1864, expressed it this way:

“The Constitution of the Confederate States does not authorize the Government to put the said States, or any of them, into convention with any foreign power.”

The key point the Dispatch editor wanted to make was that the Confederate government couldn’t call the Southern states into a convention because it was basically powerless to tell them to do anything at all.

The Confederate States are so many sovereignties, each a nation in itself, with all the claims and attributes of sovereignty.

— Richmond (Virginia) Dispatch editorial, August 31, 1864

Why couldn't the national government of the Confederacy conduct negotiations to end the war? Basically, insisted the Dispatch, because there was no Confederate national government. The editorial put it this way:

"Being independent nations, they [the Confederate states] have united in a partnership for certain specified purposes, and have appointed an agent or attorney to carry those purposes into effect. That agent or attorney is known as the Government of the Confederate States. Its power of attorney is the Constitution, and it cannot transcend the limits conferred by that instrument any more than an attorney of flesh and blood can go beyond the limits of the paper by which he is created such. Now, what right has such an agency as this to put any one of the independent nations from whom it holds its power into the proposed convention, or any other sort of convention, not authorized expressly by the Constitution?"

I think the Dispatch did a pretty good job of summarizing the guiding philosophy of the Confederacy. After all, it was by declaring itself an independent nation simply exercising its sovereignty that South Carolina, the first state to secede, claimed the right to pull out of the Union.

States Rights Would Have Quickly Blown a Victorious Confederacy Apart

The inevitable consequence of the Confederacy being founded on the theory that each state was a sovereign nation was, in my opinion, that even if the South had won the war, the Confederate States of America was doomed. It couldn’t last. Even during the war states like Georgia and North Carolina had serious disagreements with the central government in Richmond.

Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States, wanted Georgia to secede from the CSA.

Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States, wanted Georgia to secede from the CSA.

In fact, some prominent Confederates wanted to pull their states out of the CSA even as the fighting continued. Burton J. Hendrick, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History, notes the following concerning Alexander Stephens of Georgia, who was the Vice President of the Confederacy!

“Stephens was generally believed to favor Georgia’s secession from the Confederacy, thus carrying to its logical absurdity his cherished notions of state sovereignty.”

There were, in fact, numerous threats and even active attempts to secede from the Confederacy during the war, some by counties in states like Tennessee and Virginia, and even a proclamation to that effect by the governor of Arkansas.

A “nation” founded on the theory that its constituent parts are sovereign nations in their own right is a logical and historical impossibility.

Once the war was over and the unifying force of fighting a common enemy had dissipated, the first serious clash of interests between one state and the rest would have set off a second round of secessions, this time among the Confederates themselves.

Even Confederate President Jefferson Davis understood the disintegrating tendency of the Confederacy's founding theory. Referring to what he considered extreme invocations of states rights by diehard opponents of his policies, Davis lamented:

If the Confederacy falls there should be written on its tombstone, ‘Died of a theory.’

— Confederate President Jefferson Davis

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Ronald E Franklin