The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism, and Military Strategy Could Not Stave off Defeat / Edition 1

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Overview

If one is to believe contemporary historians, the South never had a chance. Many allege that the Confederacy lost the Civil War because of internal division or civilian disaffection; others point to flawed military strategy or ambivalence over slavery. But, argues distinguished historian Gary Gallagher, we should not ask why the Confederacy collapsed so soon but rather how it lasted so long. In The Confederate War he reexamines the Confederate experience through the actions and words of the people who lived it to show how the home front responded to the war, endured great hardships, and assembled armies that fought with tremendous spirit and determination.
Gallagher’s portrait highlights a powerful sense of Confederate patriotism and unity in the face of a determined adversary. Drawing on letters, diaries, and newspapers of the day, he shows that Southerners held not only an unflagging belief in their way of life, which sustained them to the bitter end, but also a widespread expectation of victory and a strong popular will closely attuned to military events. In fact, the army’s “offensive-defensive” strategy came remarkably close to triumph, claims Gallagher—in contrast to the many historians who believe that a more purely defensive strategy or a guerrilla resistance could have won the war for the South. To understand why the South lost, Gallagher says we need look no further than the war itself: after a long struggle that brought enormous loss of life and property, Southerners finally realized that they had been beaten on the battlefield.
Gallagher’s interpretation of the Confederates and their cause boldly challenges current historical thinking and invites readers to reconsider their own conceptions of the American Civil War.
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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review

[Gallagher's] perceptive and engaging new book maintains that historians have got off track in recent years by attributing Confederate defeat to weakness on the home front rather than to performance on the battlefield. War-weariness, lack of will and ambivalence toward the cause of independence, they say, doomed the South… Gallagher addresses the right issues, asks probing questions and suggests intriguing alternatives.
— Daniel E. Sutherland

America's Civil War
The Confederate War is a significant and thought-provoking addition to the current body of Civil War literature. Gallagher has returned the focus of the war to the theater in which it was decided--military operations. In doing do, he demonstrates the enormous human, financial and material investment that white Southerners put into the struggle for independence. Solidly researched and sharply argued, The Confederate War cannot easily be dismissed by the 'internal causes' historians. Consequently, it is likely to rekindle debate among both academics and popularizers, which is all to the good, particularly in the current stifling climate of political.
— Richard F. Welch
Reviews in American History

One of the most attractive and ennobling portrayals of the white Confederacy in recent memory. The lavish illustrations (numbering a full forty) and coffee-table 'feel' assures that this beautifully produced and competitively priced volume will have a wide readership outside of the historical profession. Gallagher's own swift prose, clear argument, and richly documented account of white southerners at war can only bolster sales further… It is also safe to say that it will have a major impact on how historians will hereafter frame research on the slaveholding South's suicidal effort to establish its independence… In a growing corpus of work on the wartime South, Gallagher has explored the interactions of war and society and given new legitimacy to a field of military history that will always need to be a part of any general understanding of the 1860s. This work has achieved a substantial measure of authority.
— Robert E. Bonner

Louisiana History

Everyone involved in the continuing debate over the factors behind the South's defeat must read Gallagher's book, and anyone wanting a helpful introduction to it should as well.
— Gaines M. Foster

Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

An important book… The Confederate War is certain to cause controversy. For Gallagher dares to suggest that, despite, 'moral disapprobation' prevalent in many histories about the conflict over the past half-century, the stark fact remains that 'a majority of white southerners steadfastly supported their nascent republic, and that Confederate arms more than once almost persuaded the North that the price of subduing the rebellious states would be too high'… Using published evidence from Confederate diarists, soldiers, statesmen, and newspapers—evidence which by omission or intent seldom seems to find its way into recent Civil War histories—Gallagher makes a compelling case for Confederate unity. The Confederacy did not fall to pieces after Gettysburg; a 'mass of testimony' suggests that Southerners thought the war winnable until virtually the end… Thorough reassessments of the Confederacy and of the interpretations of it have long been overdue, and Gary W. Gallagher succeeds in his initial attempt to rebalance historical portrayals of the Civil War South.
— B. Anthony Gannon

Nation and Nationalism

The Confederate War is an impressive volume. The arguments which Gallagher employs to support his central thesis are well constructed and quite persuasive. Gallagher also relies on a wide array of Confederate voices from the past to substantiate his case and this makes for an interesting study. Moreover, Gallagher's extensive review of the literature is incisive and most informative. The Confederate War should provide good reading for all students of Confederate nationalism and will generate lively debate among historians of the American Civil War for years to come.
— Bruce Cauthen

American Studies in Europe

Gallagher's book challenges the non-military historians to come out from behind the barricades once again.
— Russell Duncan

Booklist
Gallagher's effort will have serious students rejoicing in its persuasive argumentation for believing that battles and armies who indeed have some bearing on the outcomes of war.
Virginia Quarterly Review
Gallagher's work, a perceptive, well-written, and strongly argued series of essays concerning Confederate morale, nationalism, and military strategy, raises serious questions about the prevalent interpretation of why the South lost the Civil War.
America's Civil War Magazine

The Confederate War is a significant and thought-provoking addition to the current body of Civil War literature. Gallagher has returned the focus of the war to the theater in which it was decided—military operations. In doing do, he demonstrates the enormous human, financial and material investment that white Southerners put into the struggle for independence. Solidly researched and sharply argued, The Confederate War cannot easily be dismissed by the 'internal causes' historians. Consequently, it is likely to rekindle debate among both academics and popularizers, which is all to the good, particularly in the current stifling climate of political.
— Richard F. Welch

New York Times Book Review - Daniel E. Sutherland
[Gallagher's] perceptive and engaging new book maintains that historians have got off track in recent years by attributing Confederate defeat to weakness on the home front rather than to performance on the battlefield. War-weariness, lack of will and ambivalence toward the cause of independence, they say, doomed the South… Gallagher addresses the right issues, asks probing questions and suggests intriguing alternatives.
America's Civil War - Richard F. Welch
The Confederate War is a significant and thought-provoking addition to the current body of Civil War literature. Gallagher has returned the focus of the war to the theater in which it was decided—military operations. In doing do, he demonstrates the enormous human, financial and material investment that white Southerners put into the struggle for independence. Solidly researched and sharply argued, The Confederate War cannot easily be dismissed by the 'internal causes' historians. Consequently, it is likely to rekindle debate among both academics and popularizers, which is all to the good, particularly in the current stifling climate of political.
Reviews in American History - Robert E. Bonner
One of the most attractive and ennobling portrayals of the white Confederacy in recent memory. The lavish illustrations (numbering a full forty) and coffee-table 'feel' assures that this beautifully produced and competitively priced volume will have a wide readership outside of the historical profession. Gallagher's own swift prose, clear argument, and richly documented account of white southerners at war can only bolster sales further… It is also safe to say that it will have a major impact on how historians will hereafter frame research on the slaveholding South's suicidal effort to establish its independence… In a growing corpus of work on the wartime South, Gallagher has explored the interactions of war and society and given new legitimacy to a field of military history that will always need to be a part of any general understanding of the 1860s. This work has achieved a substantial measure of authority.
Louisiana History - Gaines M. Foster
Everyone involved in the continuing debate over the factors behind the South's defeat must read Gallagher's book, and anyone wanting a helpful introduction to it should as well.
Register of the Kentucky Historical Society - B. Anthony Gannon
An important book… The Confederate War is certain to cause controversy. For Gallagher dares to suggest that, despite, 'moral disapprobation' prevalent in many histories about the conflict over the past half-century, the stark fact remains that 'a majority of white southerners steadfastly supported their nascent republic, and that Confederate arms more than once almost persuaded the North that the price of subduing the rebellious states would be too high'… Using published evidence from Confederate diarists, soldiers, statesmen, and newspapers—evidence which by omission or intent seldom seems to find its way into recent Civil War histories—Gallagher makes a compelling case for Confederate unity. The Confederacy did not fall to pieces after Gettysburg; a 'mass of testimony' suggests that Southerners thought the war winnable until virtually the end… Thorough reassessments of the Confederacy and of the interpretations of it have long been overdue, and Gary W. Gallagher succeeds in his initial attempt to rebalance historical portrayals of the Civil War South.
Nation and Nationalism - Bruce Cauthen
The Confederate War is an impressive volume. The arguments which Gallagher employs to support his central thesis are well constructed and quite persuasive. Gallagher also relies on a wide array of Confederate voices from the past to substantiate his case and this makes for an interesting study. Moreover, Gallagher's extensive review of the literature is incisive and most informative. The Confederate War should provide good reading for all students of Confederate nationalism and will generate lively debate among historians of the American Civil War for years to come.
American Studies in Europe - Russell Duncan
Gallagher's book challenges the non-military historians to come out from behind the barricades once again.
James M. McPherson
The best interpretive study of the Civil War, or at least of the Confederacy, to have appeared in a good many years. Gallagher has an almost unparalleled command of sources, both primary and secondary. His sound common sense, incisive analysis, and forceful and lucid literary style have produced a superb book.
Joseph T. Glatthaar
The Confederate War is vintage Gary Gallagher. Drawing on vast research, careful reasoning, and a perceptive understanding of the use of evidence, Gallagher deftly slays some of the Civil War's most lasting interpretations. It is one of the best books on the Confederacy in this decade and is a must read for anyone interested in the Civil War.
Eugene Genovese
In this bold, high spirited, well argued—and indispensable—book, Gary Gallagher does justice to the extraordinary courage and tenacity with which the white people of the South fought to establish their claims to national self-determination. And in so doing, he respectfully refutes prevalent but wrong-headed judgments.
James I. Robertson
Starting with meticulous research and proceeding with careful analysis, Gallagher presents a convincing argument that Confederate fortunes collapsed primarily from military defeats rather than an internal loss of will. This is must reading for anyone seeking a basic explanation of the causes and outcome of the Civil War.
Daniel Sutherland
E.[Gallagher's] perceptive and engaging new book maintains that historians have got off track in recent years by attributing Confederate defeat to weakness on the home front rather than to performance on the battlefield.
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a book based on the 1995-1996 Littlefield lectures at the University of Texas at Austin, Gallagher confronts a paradox arising from recent decades of Civil War scholarship. Working back from the South's defeat, historians have developed a picture of a society doomed from the start by a failure of will, lack of national feeling and an inappropriate military strategy. But the Confederacy came close to winning the war at several points. Had the Union flank been turned on the second day at Gettysburg, or had Atlanta not fallen before the 1864 presidential election, argues Gallagher, the war almost certainly would have ended in Southern independence. Gallagher draws on contemporary records to examine the will of the Southern people, their spirit of nationalism and the military strategy of the Confederacy before concluding that the South lost only because it was overwhelmed by superior military and economic force. Gallagher, a professor of history at Pennsylvania State University, tends to take his sources too much at face value, though: wartime exhortations may not be the most accurate indicators of true beliefs. Gallagher is at his best when dealing with military strategy, convincingly showing that Southern generals did the best they could. The hole at the center of this work is a reluctance to discuss the formative issue of slavery. While Gallagher often refers to it, he fails to grapple with its implications. Readers will end up convinced that Southerners indeed fought hard for their nation, but will be unclear about what they were so fired up to accomplish. Forty halftones. History Book Club selection. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Historians have often looked backward from the surrender at Appomattox to explain the failure of the Confederacy. They have concluded that the Confederacy's defeat was due mainly to decay from within resulting from internal strife among different factions of Southern society. Gallagher (American history, Pennsylvania State Univ.; editor of Lee the Soldier, LJ 4/15/96) disputes that interpretation. While he concedes that there were disagreements, he points to numerous letters and diaries that support his contention that Confederate society rallied around the Stars and Bars until Appomattox. Popular will gave rise to national sentiment whose morale depended on the battlefield victories won by Lee's army. Only Lee's surrender convinced many that the Confederate cause was indeed lost. The author makes a fine case for a new look at an old argument. Recommended for academic libraries and public libraries with Civil War collections.Grant A. Fredericksen, Illinois Prairie Dist. P.L., Metamora
Daniel E. Sutherland
[Gallagher's] perceptive and engaging new book maintains that historians have got off track in recent years by attributing Confederate defeat to weakness on the home front rather than to performance on the battlefield.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A revisionist examination of the Confederate experience, as much concerned with historians and their methods as with history itself.

"Any historian who argues that the Confederate people demonstrated robust devotion to their slave-based republic, possessed feelings of national community, and sacrificed more than any other segment of white society in US history," frets Gallagher (American History/Penn. State Univ.), "runs the risk of being labeled a neo-Confederate." He's right to worry. Making precisely that argument, his history of Confederate military and civilian experience veers dangerously close to hagiography of an entire culture. Challenging the current historical consensus that lack of will, absence of national unity, and flawed military strategy doomed the Confederacy, Gallagher presents contemporary letters, diaries, and newspaper accounts that rhapsodize about the true grit of rebel soldiers and civilians. To his credit, he resists the urge to backtrack from Appomattox when explaining military failure (as he accuses other historians of doing) and instead puts the Confederate war effort in a larger historical framework—namely the successful rebellion of the American Revolution. He poses a number of intriguing questions for fellow historians, suggesting most notably that scholars ask not why an uprising viewed as "a rich man's war but a poor man's fight" failed, but why so many non-slaveholders fought for so long. But his parade of testimonials to the nobility of the Lost Cause, unchallenged by critical questioning, sticks in the craw. Soldiers' letters, reenlistment figures, and editorials—which all suggest high morale when taken at face value by Gallagher—could easily be viewed as propaganda. At least their bombastic language enlivens an otherwise stiffly formal academic text.

A work of more interest to historians than general readers, and more important for the questions it raises than any it answers.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674160569
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/1999
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 468,853
  • Product dimensions: 6.70 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Gary W. Gallagher is John L. Nau III Professor of History at the University of Virginia.

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Read an Excerpt



CHAPTER ONE

INTRODUCTION

THE CHALLENGE OF THE CONFEDERATE EXPERIENCE

Scholarship on the Confederacy over the past several decades has yielded a paradoxical result. Historians have exploited a variety of sources and approaches to illuminate many facets of the Confederate experience, but the overall effect of much of this work has been to distort the broader picture. Moving beyond traditional emphases on military events, politics, and prominent leaders, many recent scholars, concentrating on the analytical categories of race, class, and gender, have highlighted social tensions and fissures to create a portrait of Confederate society crumbling from within by the midpoint of the Civil War. All too aware that the Confederacy failed in its bid for independence, many historians have worked backward from Appomattox to explain that failure. They argue that the Confederates lacked sufficient will to win the war, never developed a strong collective national identity, and pursued a flawed military strategy that wasted precious manpower. Often lost is the fact that a majority of white southerners steadfastly supported their nascent republic, and that Confederate arms more than once almost persuaded the North that the price of subduing the rebellious states would be too high.

Although class tension, unhappiness with intrusive government policies, desertion, and war weariness all form part of the Confederate mosaic, they must be set against the larger picture of thousands of soldiers persevering against mounting odds, civilians enduring great human and material hardship in pursuit of independence, and southern whitesociety maintaining remarkable resiliency until the last stage of the war. Part of the problem stems from a failure to place the Confederate poeple's wartime behavior within a larger historical framework. If historians choose to label Confederates as lacking in will and national sentiment, they should do so with an eye toward how white Americans have responded to other major traumas.

Academic historians have led the way in positing an absence of strong national will in the Confederacy, but popular writers have joined in the chorus. In this vein, Robert Penn Warren observed in 1980 that Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and many of their fellow Confederates failed to embrace secession with any enthusiasm. A horrific war soon exposed the absence of both solid ideological underpinning for their republic and widespread common purpose among its people. By the later stages of the conflict, noted Warren, "Merely some notion of Southern identity remained, however hazy or fuddled; it was not until after Appomattox that the conception of Southern identity truly bloomed—a mystical conception, vague but bright, floating high beyond criticism of brutal circumstances."

More often than their academic counterparts, popular writers have veered toward a romantic conclusion that the Confederacy fought gallantly against hopeless odds. In the pictorial history of the Civil War that accompanied Ken Burns's film documentary, for example, Shelby Foote pronounced the Confederate bid for independence doomed from the start. "I think that the North fought that war with one hand behind its back," observed Foote. If the Confederacy ever had come close to winning on the battlefield, "the North simply would have brought that other arm out from behind its back. I don't think the South ever had a chance to win that war." Foote also claimed that white southerners knew their cause was hopeless well before the end of the conflict. Heavy casualties, shortages of goods behind the lines, and loss of faith in European recognition promoted a "realization that defeat was foreordained." As so many historians over the years have done, Foote turned to South Carolina diarist Mary Chesnut for a summary quotation to clinch his points: "It's like a Greek tragedy, where you know what the outcome is bound to be," wrote Chesnut. "We're living a Greek tragedy."

Wartime testimony contradicts both Foote's assessment and the prevalent scholarly image of a Confederate populace only weakly committed to winning independence. Letters, diaries, and newspapers reveal a widespread expectation of Confederate success and tenacious popular will rooted in a sense of national community and closely attuned to military events. In March 1864, a point in the war when many modern scholars describe a Confederacy enveloped in despair and defeatism, Lucy W. Otey penned a letter that evinced common sentiments. Alluding to contributions of clothing for soldiers in Lee's army, Otey observed that "they are raised through the energetic and persevering efforts of Southern Women who can never faint or tire, in animating and sustaining the brave Soldiery of this Confederacy, while struggling for our Independence!" So long as the men remained in the field, stated Otey, "there are loving hearts and busy hands at home—praying and toiling, for their preservation and success!" Eight months later a young woman in Milledgeville, Georgia, lamented the fall of her city to Federal troops but expressed undiminished loyalty to the Confederacy: "The yankee flag waved from the Capitol Our degredation was bitter, but we knew it could not be long, and we never desponded, our trust was still strong. No, we went through the house singing, 'We live and die with Davis.' How can they hope to subjugate the South. The people are firmer than ever before."

A pair of letters from the summer of 1864 illuminate the optimism and willingness to fight on for months or years characteristic of many Confederates. "I used to think I could see some end to the War," wrote a sailor in the Confederate navy from Savannah, Georgia, adding, "I don't see any chance for it to close at all." Still, this man remained optimistic and committed for the long term: "I know the Yankees cannot, nor never will, whip us. I do think it depends entirely on the election of the next President of Yankeedom whether we have peace for the next five years to come." From the trenches near Petersburg, Virginia, Luther Rice Mills of the 26th Virginia Infantry anticipated a resounding Confederate success. "I am expecting Lee to take the offensive," wrote Mills to his father on June 6. "Perhaps he will allow Grant to butt his head a few more times & destroy more of his men and then pitch into him. I think Lee will attempt to capture Grant's whole army. His chance for it seems to be quite good." These letters, together with countless others voicing comparable sentiments, contrasted sharply with the profound disenchantment with the war expressed by many northern soldiers and civilians during the same period. Had the North lost the war, historians doubtless would have used its people's literary record to prove a lack of will that helped explain Confederate success.

Far from being a loosely knit collection of individuals whose primary allegiance lay with their states, a substantial portion of the Confederate people identified strongly with their southern republic. Wartime writings frequently employed language that revealed a sense of national community. A North Carolina soldier touched on often-repeated themes in a letter of March 1864. "I feel that the cause is a just one and am willing to spend the balance of my days in the army rather than give up to a relentless foe that shows no mercy and will give none," stated Rufus A. Barrier. "Let us stand firm by our country's flag and we are bound to succeed." Barrier went on to castigate the "little souled mercenaries who are croaking so loudly and are willing to sell their country for filthy lucre and let their names be handed down to posterity branded with the curse of being traitors to their country." A Georgian in Lee's army, writing to his wife on his twenty-fourth birthday in the spring of 1864, echoed Barrier's feelings of national loyalty. "When we consider the great duty we owe our country in the struggle for independence, I cannot be but content with my fate, although it be, indeed, a cruel one," affirmed Daniel Pope. "I am determined to do anything and everything I can for my country," he continued. "If it should be my misfortune to fall in the glorious struggle, I hope that I shall go believing that I have contributed my mite and that you and my little boy will be entitled to the great boon of freedom."

As the war progressed, Confederate citizens increasingly relied on their armies rather than on their central government to boost morale, and Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia eventually became the most important national institution. This phenomenon has received far too little attention—perhaps because of a tendency in the scholarly literature to slight the vital ways in which military events influenced the home front. Comments by the deputy executive director of the American Historical Association in 1990 typify the inclination among academic historians to play down the military side of the conflict. Addressing a congressional committee on the topic of battlefield preservation, James B. Gardner claimed to speak for the broad historical community in remarking that "historians today have redefined the study of the Civil War, shifting attention from military action to the diverse experiences of individual groups, the impact of emancipation," and the ways in which the war exacerbated old social divisions and created new ones. In calling for a shift away from "narrow, antiquated views" of history represented by undue attention to Civil War battles and generals, Gardner manifested a stunning innocence of the ways in which military events helped shape all the dimensions of American life he considered important. (In fairness, it must be acknowledged that military historians interested primarily in battles and campaigns similarly have slighted the impact of the home front on the armies.)

Whatever subsequent generations of historians thought, people living through the war understood the centrality of military events to national morale and, by extension, to the outcome of the war. In June 1863, a Georgia newspaper printed a letter that clearly tied the spirit behind the lines to the actions of Confederate armies: "In breathless but hopeful anxiety, the public are awaiting the result of Lee's movements at the North and [Joseph E.] Johnston's at the South," commented the author. "Upon their success hang momentous interests—no less to our mind than an early peace or the continuance of the war for an indefinite period." Edward A. O'Neal, Jr., an Alabamian whose father commanded a brigade in Lee's army, wrote in October 1863 that offensive victories would bolster civilian morale buffeted by the battles of the preceding summer. O'Neal believed "our existence as a nation depends on it. Forebearance is no longer a virtue with us. The people are gloomy, and weary of this 'never ending—still beginning' strife, and victory alone will revive their drooping spirits." The war's most famous instance of linking home front and battlefield came from north of the Potomac River when, in March 1865, Abraham Lincoln spoke in his second inaugural address of "The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends." Well might Lincoln remind northerners of this linkage, for he almost certainly would have been defeated for re-election had William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip H. Sheridan not won victories at Atlanta and in the Shenandoah Valley that revitalized the Republican Party.

Lee's military successes in 1862 and 1863 created a belief that independence was possible as long as the Army of Northern Virginia and its celebrated chief remained in the field. E. C. Boudinet, the Cherokee delegate to the Confederate Congress, captured the pervasive attitude toward Lee and his army in June 1864: "Perfect confidence is felt that Lee will whip the enemy as he always does—You wouldnt dream[,] if you should walk through town and see the self satisfied air of everybody[,] that a hostile army of 150000 men were almost in sight of town, on bloody thoughts intent."

Lee's penchant for offensive strategy and tactics has come under heavy attack from historians over the past two decades. The Army of Northern Virginia suffered very heavy casualties in its celebrated triumphs during 1862 and 1863. Various scholars have argued that a more defensive conventional strategy or a guerrilla strategy would have conserved manpower, thereby enabling the Confederacy to prolong the war and perhaps exhaust Union will. Such analysis overlooks the fact that Lee's strategic and tactical aggressiveness suited Confederate expectations (and countered superior Union numbers). Civilians hungered for news of aggressive success on the battlefield, which conveyed a sense of progress toward independence. Their morale required the type of victories Lee supplied from the Seven Days through Chancellorsville, and without which the Confederacy almost certainly would have collapsed sooner.

In July 1864, surgeon Thomas Bailey of the Army of Tennessee reflected a widely held concern about generals who preferred defensive strategy and tactics. Joseph E. Johnston's withdrawal from northern Georgia to Atlanta left Bailey "more depressed" than ever before. "Will Johnston opt for retreat or a rush for victory? Or to let Atlanta fall without a struggle? These are questions asked again and again. But it is all centered on one man's power—General J. E. Johnston," observed a frustrated Bailey. Turning from his pessimistic talk of Johnston, Bailey spoke encouragingly about Lee, who had sent Jubal A. Early on an offensive through the Shenandoah Valley that eventually threatened Washington: "But why despair? Our sky is brighter in other parts of the Confederacy ... If Robert E. Lee's strategy is successful, Sherman may be obliged to fall back."

The Confederate military ultimately proved unable to win enough victories at crucial times to carry their nation to independence. Contrary to what much recent literature proclaims, defeat in the military sphere, rather than dissolution behind the lines, brought the collapse of the Confederacy. Lee's surrender at Appomattox convinced virtually all Confederates that their attempt at nation-making had failed. Having lost half of their white military-age population to death or injury and seen their social and economic systems ripped apart, they learned a bitter lesson in failure spared the vast majority of white Americans throughout more than two centuries of United States history.

The following chapters explore the themes of popular will, national sentiment, and military strategy during the Confederacy's brief existence. They offer a reading of Confederate history substantially at odds with some interpretations that currently hold sway. This is especially the case with Chapters 1 and 2, in which I suggest that scholarly preoccupation with the admittedly substantial evidence of discontent in the Confederacy has cast into the shadows the actions and attitudes of the majority of white southerners who supported the war. In chapter 3 I contend that the Confederacy could have won the war, and that Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee pursued strategies that, although unsuccessful in the end, held great promise and satisfied the temperament of the Confederate people. In all three chapters I call for greater attention to the myriad connections between events on the battlefield and morale behind the lines—and especially to the singular impact of Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia on Confederate resolve and national sentiment. In the final chapter I argue that Confederates believed they had been beaten on the battlefield rather than undone by internal divisions. Unhappy at the death of their slaveholding republic, they sullenly accepted northern triumph but sought to perpetuate memories of the Confederacy and of the men and women who had struggled, at frightening human and material cost, to give it life.

Because my arguments respond to prominent trends in the literature, each chapter includes some attention to historiography. But this is not primarily a historiographical survey. Discussion of earlier works serves as a point of departure to offer alternative views of the Confederate experience and to suggest areas of fruitful scholarly examination in the future.

Any historian who argues that the Confederate people demonstrated robust devotion to their slave-based republic, possessed feelings of national community, and sacrificed more than any other segment of white society in United States history runs the risk of being labeled a neo-Confederate. As a native of Los Angeles who grew up on a farm in southern Colorado, I can claim complete freedom from any pro-Confederate special pleading during my formative years. Moreover, not a single ancestor fought in the war, a fact I lamented as a boy reading books by Bruce Catton and Douglas Southall Freeman and wanting desperately to have some direct connection to the events that fascinated me. In reaching my conclusions, I have gone where the sources led me. My assertions and speculations certainly are open to challenge, but they emerged from an effort to understand the Confederate experience through the actions and words of the people who lived it.

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Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: The Challenge of the Confederate Experience
  • 1. Popular Will: “Many years yet I fear, we are to endure these severe trials”
    • [Photographs and Illustrations] A People’s Will


  • 2. Nationalism: “The Army of Northern Virginia alone, as the last hope of the South, will win the Independence of the Confederacy”
    • [Photographs and Illustrations] Bonds of Nationhood


  • 3. Military Strategy: “The Southern populace clamoured for bloody battles”
    • [Photographs and Illustrations] A People Defeated


  • 4. Defeat: “What else could we do but give up?”
  • Notes
  • Index

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 29, 2004

    Thesis driven; good reading too

    Many historians over the past several decades have attributed Confederate defeat in 1865 to ambivalence toward the rebellion, war-weariness, and lack of will. In The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism and Military Strategy Could Not Stave Off Defeat, Gallagher argues that the southerners lost the rebellion of 1861-1865 because they were militarily defeated, not because of a lack of national will. ¿Strong feelings of national identity helped spawn the impressive will Confederates exhibited during their war for independence,¿ he writes (63). He further asserts that the current research emphasis on race, class, and gender on the home front exaggerates dissent within Southern society and distorts the picture. Rather than emphasizing inner strife within the states of Dixie, Gallagher shifts the emphasis back to the armies in the field, and explores why planters, yeomen, and women supported the war so long and with tremendous sacrifice. The glue that held the Confederacy together for so long, Gallagher concludes, was a resilient sense of nationalism, strong enough to mobilize widespread support for the war despite the presence of internal differences.' The heavy toll the war took on the South and the extreme sacrifices southerners were willing to make suggest to Gallagher broad popular support for the war, though he concedes that many southerners were disaffected from the rebellion. Gallagher finds that Southern nationalism predates the war but intensified once the shooting started and Federal forces invaded the newly formed Confederate States of America. Throughout four years of bloody battles, a stringent manpower draft and many hardships for those who remained at home, a majority of southerners were loyal to the Confederacy and were willing to endure these hardships¿including non-slaveholders. Many Confederates equated the struggle with that of the American colonies during the Revolution, which bolstered nationalist sentiments. The fact that both the southern patriots of the Revolutionary War years and their own society in the 1860s held slaves did nothing to diminish their belief in the similarity of the two nationalist causes. Great Britain in 1776 and the Federal Union in 1861 were both despotic tyrannies threatening slave property. Gallagher holds that the primary symbols of Confederate nationalism were General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. He points to the fact that even though Lee commanded rebel troops in only one theatre of the war, when he surrendered his depleted army at Appomattox in April, 1865, most southerners considered the war to be over. 'As the war progressed,¿ he shows, ¿Confederate citizens increasingly relied on their armies rather than on their central government to boost morale, and Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia became the most important national institution' (8). Moreover, as long as Lee¿s army kept the field, it remained a focus of southern nationalism, much as did Washington¿s Continentals during the War of American Independence. Southern will was strong enough, he contends, to persist even in the wake of military defeats¿the Confederacy did not fall to pieces after Gettysburg after all, but kept its armies in the field for another twenty-one months of bloody and determined opposition to Union invaders.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2001

    Going against the popular grain

    Garry Gallagher, in his text 'The Confederate War', details an approach that explains the Confederate side of the Civil War unlike that of his contemporaries. At the center of his argument, Gallagher maintains that historians often view the Confederate defeat backwards from Appomatix, which distorts their viewpoint. The Confederacy did not falter due to a lack of enthusiasm or internal division according to Gallagher. Gallagher goes against popular scholarship that the war was a lost cause. The major fault I found in the book was the author's reliance on journals and diaries. Although a researcher can get another view from these items, it is a little far fetched in my mind to devote an entire argument or in this case, an entire text based on a handful of letters. I applaud him for offering another view--we need more of this in the field of history. I fear though, that one can be influenced too much by a text that offers more opinion than fact. I recommend this book as an alternative view--I would not read this text first when examining the Civil War from the southern perspective.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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