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Why the Confederacy Lost (the Civil War)

a book by Gabor S. Boritt

The African-American Role in the Union Victory

In this edited collection of five well-argued articles by several renown Historians, we discover that the outcome of the war was never a foregone conclusion. The author of course does not take sides but allows his contributors to have their say.

In the first article, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian, James McPherson, makes the same argument that many Rebel soldiers made: that the Union Army had something to say about why the South lost, and in particular, the Union Generals, who persevered even when the going got tough and the outcome remained in serious doubt.

Archer Jones, in the second article, believed the battle ended as a strategic draw, owing primarily to the fact that politics kept intervening to drive strategy on both sides.

Gary Gallagher, in the third article, believed that the role of the generals on both sides were decisive and that in this battle of the generals, Sherman and Grant edged out Lee.

Reid Miller, in the fourth article, argued that the Union's decisive advantage in numbers and industrial might, in the end proved decisive. However, the most convincing argument in my view was made in the final article by Joseph T. Glatthaar, entitled, "Black Glory: The African-American Role in Union Victory."

A summary of Glatthaar's story makes up the body of this review.

To wit: On the eve of Lincoln's preparation to run for a second term, for the Union at least, and as late as January 1863, at best the status of the battlefield situation was a stalemate. And thus, taking into consideration all of the North's strategic advantages going into the war, Lincoln feared that many voters would interpret the stalemate as exactly what it was: a very likely emerging defeat for the Union Army.

Even as brilliant a thinker and Lawyer as Lincoln was, he apparently was still late in seeing the situation clearly for what it was. The North needed to use its only remaining hole-card: enlisting the more than half a million black men to the Union cause. The only pregnant question left for a strategically sensible Union General to ask President Lincoln, even a racist general, was this: For God's sakes, considering how valuable blacks are to the cause of the war on both sides, why have black men not already been "impressed" as soldiers to fight for the Union cause? It was the same question Frederick Douglass also had asked Lincoln on many occasions.

Glatthaar claims that there is a single incontrovertible answer to that pregnant question: America was saturated with racism, both North and South. Neither side wanted to see blacks be allowed to rise above their lowly caste status from slave to that of Civil War war heroes. Both sides preferred to maintain the fiction of black inferiority rather than use the only trump card either side had remaining.

In the South, rather suicidally, the whole Southern cause revolved around maintaining completely intact all the comforts of their idyllic genteel social conditions that slavery underwrote, dramatically reinforced and objectified. To the southerner, it was better to die losing to the North than to destroy the very way of life they had gone to war to fight for and defend in the first place: keeping blacks forever under their boots, as at best third-class non-citizens, was the Southerner's most important reason d'etre. Indeed, how could any right-thinking Southerner justify elevating black slaves, not just to full equality but to full-fledged hero status by allowing them to acquit themselves as heroes on a Southern battlefield?

The very thought was heretical to southern sensibilities. It would be better to lose to the Union than to allow this to happen. So, the best hope for the South was that blacks would simply remain loyal to their brutal Southern plantation masters. And by simply "taking up the slack" left by white farm boys who had to leave the farm and go off to the war front, the best the Rebels could hope for was that blacks would "stay put," and continue to help the Southern cause from behind the lines.

But this "Southern military wet dream," lasted only for the first two years of the war, when this scenario more or less played itself out precisely. At least that is what happened until Union troops began breaking through the Rebel lines to take over major Southern plantations. Until then, slave defections to the Union side had only been a trickle. Slaves had been maintaining the home front while the Southern white boys were "taking it to the Yanks."

The slaves dug trenches, erected fortifications, maintained railroads, mined essential minerals, manufactured war materials, including guns and ammunitions; maintained the plantations, harvested cotton and food crops, killed and dressed hogs and cattle, and prepared foods that fed the Rebel Army.

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
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