Why the Confederacy Lost

Brian Holden Reid opens our two-headed debate on the American Civil War by arguing that the South failed to use revolutionary methods to full advantage.

Mao Tse-Tung once remarked that revolutionary war is not a dinner party. A revolutionary war may be defined as the seizure of political power by armed force. The American Civil War was a good example of a revolutionary war – but one in which the side seeking to seize political power – the Southern Confederacy – failed to use revolutionary methods to its full advantage. What was the reason for this failure, and why did the Confederacy allow itself to be ground down in a war of attrition in a conflict in which the war aim on the Union side was nothing less than the unconditional surrender of the Confederate armies and the destruction of their warmaking potential? As nation states existed, according to Hobbes, either to maintain internal order or protect themselves from external aggression, this is the criterion by which to assess the strength of Southern society to resist invasion and the imposition on it of political measures, including ultimately the emancipation of slavery, which it had gone to war to resist. Indeed it could be suggested that by 1864-65 the Confederacy had no other justification for its existence other than to maintain armed forces in the field.

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