How The Confederacy Could
Have Survived The War
A Strategic Analysis of the American Civil War in Alternate History
by David Atwell
There has been, in history and alternate history circles, many arguments and scenarios on how the Confederate States of America could have won the Civil War. We hear great tales of Confederate victories at Gettysburg, for example, or indeed even at Antietam. Similarly, and often connected to such victories, it is much argued that Britain and France would come to the aid of the South, and in doing so, the combined forces of all three countries finally ensure that the Union gives up and that the Confederacy achieves its freedom.
Yet such notions of grandeur, without a doubt, overlook the basic hurdles in the way of Confederate success. The idea that Britain and France would ally themselves with a nation, which at its very fundamental basis, championed the institution of slavery, ignores the repulsion which both nations felt towards that nefarious institution. Likewise, the Confederacy did not do themselves any favours in regards to their cotton export policy. By holding back exports, indeed in some cases destroying entire crops, the South ensured the anger of both Britain and France. And, furthermore, in reaction to the South, both countries decided it was time to source their cotton demands from elsewhere around the globe - most notably Egypt and India. As a result, the South merely alienated those same two countries which it sought help therefrom.
Still, leaving such international issues aside, the Confederacy had more immediate problems, which were much more closer to home than in trying to get Britain and France into the war on her side. As stated above, it probably would have taken all three nations to defeat the Union to ensure Confederate freedom if everything else in the Civil War had played out as it did in 1861. In part, this is an indication as to how powerful the Union really was, at this point in time, without really knowing it until mid 1863 onwards, when the likes of Grant, Meade, and Sherman, came to lead the Union armies and properly deploy and utilise the great numerical superiority the Union enjoyed, not only in troops, but also in industrial capacity. It is, thus, probably at this point in time in mid 1863, when the tide of war finally turned against the Confederacy sealing its fate as a result.
Having said that, in many respects, the Confederacy sealed its own fate anyway much earlier in 1861, when the Confederacy invaded the neutral state of Kentucky. In one of the greatest military blunders of all time, regardless of Age, the Confederacy, in deliberately opening up the Western Theatre, ensured that the Union, once the proper generals finally took charge of Union operations, were able to take advantage of the main great weakness of the Confederacy. Nevertheless, this weakness could have been avoided, to the point where it did not become a war losing situation, by ensuring that only one main theatre of operations took place during the Civil War.
Anyone familiar with the Civil War can easily recognise the great importance that the Western Theatre was for Union success. Out here the great Union generals of Grant, Sherman, Thomas, and Sheridan, won victory after victory, whilst their Eastern comrades were defeated time and again by Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Even more important was the fact that battles were won by the Union, out West, throughout 1862, which would inturn lead to the great invasion of the Confederacy itself not long afterwards. Thus by Grant winning at Fort Henry, and then at Fort Donaldson, the important state of Tennessee, not to mention Mississippi and Alabama, were all open to occupation. This ensured that vital Confederate resources were not only taken away from other fronts, but through occupation, resources were also denied to the Confederacy.
But there was much more at stake, as was evident after Shiloh. Fore here, not only did the Union win a great victory, whilst elsewhere they were being defeated, but it was what happened in the immediate aftermath of that battle, which showed the great mistake that the Confederacy made in invading Kentucky. And that was the loss of the city of New Orleans. This city, the largest in the Confederacy at the time, was vital to the war effort. Not only was it a major trading port, ensuring the exportation of cotton, among other important cash crops, but it also was important for the importation of war materiel. Considering the industrial capacity of the Confederacy was limited, especially when compared to the Union, everything thus imported was even more vital than could be imagined. Thus, with the loss of an extremely important port like New Orleans, surviving the Civil War got immeasurably harder than the South could have hoped.
Alas for the Confederacy, the loss of New Orleans was merely the beginning of their troubles. At Shiloh, the South lost one of its best generals in the form of Albert Sidney Johnston. Instead of him being involved in operations in the Eastern Theatre, where his presence could have made things even more difficult for the Union forces there, he was dead. Similarly, in trying to contain the Union movements in Confederate territory, command was left in the hands of much lessor generals. As a result, even though Grant may have found himself put "on hold", for a while in the aftermath of Shiloh, the Confederates had no-one to take advantage of such a situation.
The Union, on the other hand, did take advantage of the Battle of Shiloh. Not only did they take New Orleans, but they likewise took Corinth not long afterwards and the stage was set for even greater things to come. Grant, of course, was restless and he soon got his marching orders in taking Memphis and then finally, in a campaign of unparalleled generalship, not seen since the days of the Ancients, he took Vicksburg. It was probably at this point, when Grant finally cut the Confederacy in two, we can say albeit in hindsight, that it was all over regardless of what may or may not have happened in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, throughout 1863. And, as events unfolded, the Union’s Western armies were able to march all over the rest of the Confederacy, burning it to the ground of need be, whilst Lee managed to keep the Union at bay, more or less, in Virginia.
So what if President Davis had made things abundantly clear to all and sundry, in 1861, that Kentuckian neutrality was not to be violated? In fact, like Lincoln, Davis did realise how vital Kentucky was, in the overall scheme of things, yet in this timeline, instead of invasion he decided to let Kentucky volunteer to join the Confederacy - not that was likely to happen considering the large loyalist Union majority in that state. In the meantime, though, whilst waiting, Davis decided to take advantage of Kentucky’s neutrality and minimalise the anticipated front lines where the Confederacy could expect to fight for its independence. This is not that hard to accept knowing that Davis had much military experience. And, furthermore, considering Lee was his personal military adviser, before becoming GOC of the Army of Northern Virginia, again there is no reason why Lee would not have supported such a strategy, particularly after he took command in Virginia when Joe Johnston was seriously wounded at Fair Oaks.
If this did come about, that is Kentucky was never invaded, the benefits become immediately obvious. Firstly, the Western Front would be extremely limited to the actions taking place across the Mississippi in Missouri. Here, as many would know, a rather nasty war was taking place which eventually favoured the Union, but the resources of the Confederacy were not overly drained wherein they were mostly limited to Confederate supporters in Missouri and their comrades in Arkansas. From the point of view of having a defensive deployment, on behalf of the Confederacy, there is no reason why these resources, under the generalship of a professional military man like Albert Sidney Johnston, could not have held back the Union, more or less indefinitely, unless the Union deployed a great number of troops and equipment in the region which was not very likely.
So in this instance, Albert Sidney Johnston is not killed at Shiloh, as that battle is never fought, nor is the port of New Orleans lost as its large garrison is still stationed there instead of it being deployed to fight and be defeated at Shiloh. Similarly, the important state of Tennessee is never overrun, nor are the states of Mississippi or Alabama threatened along with their inevitable invasion. But probably the most important thing is that Union generals, like Grant and Sherman, never get readily noticed thanks to their early successes out West. It is possible that they never actually come to the fore or if they do, it happens much later, and are hence delayed significantly from leading the Union armies later in the Civil War.
Another consequence is that the Confederacy has a lot more resources and, above all, manpower in held in reserve. Now sure, not all of Tennessee’s resources could be diverted elsewhere, as western Tennessee would have to be defended against any Union aggression coming from Missouri in, say, early 1863 onwards; but such things should be contained, given the fact that the Union will be operating at the end of very long supply lines, whilst the defending Confederates are operating on their own territory with short supply lines. Whether or not, however, the likes of Grant still make a name for themselves, in operations based out of Missouri, is possible, but with these changes in place, these PODs, time is running against them in attempting to repeat their ultimate success of the OTL. We will, though, get to this important issue a little later.
As a result of a much smaller and "self-contained" Western Theatre, mostly to the favour of the Confederacy, obviously the main theatre of operations will be in Virginia. At this point in time, considering the personnel on both sides, Lee should be able to repeat his great achievements at defeating the Union Army of the Potomac as he did in the OTL. Until the Army of the Potomac gets generals of the calibre of Meade and Grant, not to mention Corps commanders like Hancock and Reynolds, it is probably safe to say that the Eastern Theatre will favour the Confederacy once more. Lee, however, will have to be careful to husband his forces and not suffer casualties pointlessly. Having said that, Lee will still probably launch his Antietam Offensive, thinking that he could cause much mischief up North, whilst taking the war to enemy territory.
The result, though, will probably mirror the OTL, as McClellan will simply have more men to throw at Lee than what the Confederacy can muster in the East. And even if we allow for Special Orders No 191 not to fall into Federal hands, McClellan’s usual caution may indeed do him well in any battle somewhere north of Antietam, if not indeed at the same location once again. Either way, whether the resulting battle is a draw, or a slight Union victory, Lee will nevertheless have to withdraw to Confederate territory or risk encirclement and annihilation. And, as in the OTL, if the Army of Northern Virginia is thus destroyed, so too will the Confederacy regardless of the single theatre POD in place here.
Having said that, even if there is a draw at Antietam, Lee’s army must, as just mentioned, survive, fore now comes the timing thing hinted at above. Unlike the OTL, by having a large reserve of troops and resources, now that the western Confederacy is not being virtually burnt to the ground, whatever casualties Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia suffers in 1863 can be dealt with accordingly. Replacements and, above all, reinforcements can be brought in from elsewhere throughout the Confederacy. So instead of 50 000 Confederate troops stuck in the Army of Tennessee, trying to hold back Roscran’s moves in Tennessee, or Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign, or Sherman’s later March on Atlanta, these troops are now available for, not only the Gettysburg Campaign, meaning the Army of Northern Virginia is much larger on those fateful days in July 1863, but, furthermore, even if Lee is still defeated at Gettysburg with great casualties, these can be readily replaced.
Yet, fundamentally, it would come down to time. As per the OTL Lee would, even if he is still defeated at Gettysburg (which is what we will run with here), by having an Army of Northern Virginia numbering around 80 000 troops, will most likely be able to stall, even more so than what happened in later 1863 (in the OTL), any attempts by Meade to follow up his victory at Gettysburg. The result is Lincoln’s policies in pursuing the war have hence greatly failed. Lincoln, though, with a year still to go until the US Presidential election, will well and truly know that any chances of being re-elected are looking extremely bleak. He feared this in the OTL, even with Union successes at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, so he will know it even more so in this timeline.
Still, Lincoln does have a year left until the elections, so there is some hope left for him. As a result, he decides to push on hoping that a string of late victories may ensure his re-election and, if they are significant enough, an end to the War. As such, he decides to gamble with a couple of fighting generals who are now, just maybe, making a bit of a name for themselves: Grant and Sherman.
Although, in this timeline, we will introduce Grant to the Eastern Theatre in early 1864, just like in the OTL, and Sherman is brought along too for good measure, neither have the experience nor the confidence that both would have had in the OTL. Shiloh has not be even fought, let alone Vicksburg. They may have had several smaller victories, along the front line out West, but nothing like their OTL ones. Hence, neither is really ready, unlike their OTL Western Theatre apprenticeship, to take on the victorious Army of Northern Virginia, let alone the likes of Lee, Longstreet, and, although Jackson may have died in battle as per the OTL, it is possible that Joe Johnston has taken his place. Either way, regardless of the actual Confederate generalship in 1864, it is a very impressive Confederate army waiting for Grant.
But probably the most important difference here is that the Army of Northern Virginia is far from outnumbered in this alternate 1864, unlike the OTL. As mentioned, even with a defeat at Gettysburg, Lee’s army could number at least 80 000 strong. And even though outnumbered, as it always was, the number disparity is far smaller from what it was in the OTL. The consequence here is obvious: Lee will be able to have far more men, not only dug in to offer a stubborn defence, which Grant and Sherman had never experienced before in this timeline, but Lee will be able to hold back a large mobile reserve, so to speak, to be able to use at an appropriate time as a counter-attack. Considering Lee’s great victories at Second Manassas and Chancellorsville, it is probably safe to say that such a strategy will likewise be conducted against Grant’s first offensive in 1864. Indeed, during the OTL Wilderness engagement in 1864, if Lee had a spare division or two, akin to this timeline, Grant would have suffered a sever defeat in his first major engagement with Lee, wherein the Army of the Potomac’s offensive would have been crushed long before Grant managed to bludgeon his way to Petersburg.
And herein lies the Confederacy’s salvation. Unlike in the OTL, as said Grant’s first great offensive is destroyed long before the battles of Cold Harbour, Petersburg, and eventual victory. As the Army of Northern Virginia, once more routs the Army of the Potomac in the Wilderness, Grant’s plans are in a complete and utter mess. Grant, though, being Grant will try again. With this second time, however, he may well and truly try something stupid as he did at Cold Harbour. Believing that massed infantry and firepower can win the day, he could easily send 20 000 Union troops to their defeat and deaths akin to Fredericksburg or Cold Harbour. Considering he actually did this, in the OTL, there is no reason why he would not do it again in this timeline if he thought that such a desperate act may break the Confederate line.
After such a dreadful second defeat, though, Grant may indeed wise up. By then, however, we would be talking mid 1864 and the clock is ticking down. Meanwhile, even though Union casualties may have been extreme, to say the least, Lee’s casualties should have been minimal (if the lists from Fredericksburg and Cold Harbour are anything to judge thereby). As a result, whatever Grant tries next, Lee will still have a very large army to throw at him. Still, as said, Grant learns from the experience of his two earlier defeats. Instead of trying to take Lee head on, Grant now develops a strategy of manoeuvre and evade. Instead of attacking Confederate positions directly, Grant snakes around them, leaving strong garrisons defending key locations in order to keep his supply lines open.
To help in these endeavours, Grant also gets the United States Navy deeply involved. Not only do they protect Grant’s eastern flank to any Confederate moves, but any Confederate garrisons along the coastline are heavily attacked thus causing confusion and deception to Confederate onlookers: above all Lee. Having said that, Lee is no fool. He will understand that Grant may well and truly be trying to get around his eastern flank and move on Richmond. Although Lee would be certain that Richmond could not fall, to these moves by Grant, a siege though could cause all sorts of problems if not eventual defeat of the Confederacy.
However, unlike the OTL events, Lee has the resources, not only to slow Grant down, but also to stop him. As in the OTL, Grant will continue his outflanking moves all the way to the James. In fact, considering his earlier massive defeat, when he conducted a massive frontal assault, his OTL attack at Cold Harbour never goes ahead in this timeline. As a consequence of earlier defeats, combined with the fact that Lee has far more resources and manpower available, Grant thus never gets across the James to make a move on Petersburg. And Richmond is henceforth saved from the OTL siege as a result.
Yet the most crucial issue now is time more than anything else. Grant may have gotten some success, finally, and gained the initiative by threatening Richmond - indeed support for the Civil War may have even improved amongst the general US population - but it is far from enough for Lincoln to be re-elected in November 1864. Instead he loses out to McClellan, albeit by a handful of votes, and knows that the Civil War will not have been won by the Union before McClellan is sworn into Office in early 1865. And this is despite the fact that, with the coming winter, both armies will withdraw into winter quarters and ready themselves for whatever may come in next year’s fighting season. By then, though, McClellan will be President and not Lincoln.
It is at this point, obviously, that a window of opportunity has opened for the Confederacy to survive, reasonably intact, the Civil War. And, without a doubt, Davis, now with Lincoln having been defeated, will offer the olive-branch of peace to President-elect McClellan. Whether McClellan decides to parlay with Davis, and finally let the South go, is another story altogether…
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