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Why did the Confederacy enjoy such success at the start of the Civil War? What changed?(r/AskHistorians)
To answer your first question easily, the Confederates won many of their early battles because Robert E. Lee was the American Napoleon. He was aggressive, tenacious, and always willing to risk is army in an attack. On the Union side however, the generals in the east up until Meade were timid, overly cautious, and despite greater numbers they were always afraid to attack. Read an account of Chancellorsville and youll understand how most early Civil War battles would go. While the Union regiments were generally on par with the Confederates in terms of discipline, morale, and motivation, their Generals were supremely unprepared to match the martial genius of Robert E. Lee. But this isnt true in the West. The Battle of Shiloh and the Pea Ridge Campaign would culminated (in 1863) in some of the best campaigning of the Civil War. US Grant was able to break from his supply lines and march himself into great position to break the Vicksburg defenders and besiege the city. Grant was part of the beginning of the end for the Confederate cause, for reasons I will get into later.
Next, I will tackle the harder problem. The Confederacy had several systemic diseases which made the long-term victory it sought next to impossible. Population was a huge problem, the North had a massive population which dwarfed the southern white male population. Further, the South focused on agrarian pursuits while the North contained many factories. This crippled the South’s ability to manufacture everything needed for modern war. Rifles and artillery are an obvious need, but railroad tracks were also in huge demand for almost the entire war (despite the limited actual track mileage).
Competing for rail-road iron and artillery was the Confederate Navy which concluded it couldnt mass more ships than the USN. Therefore a fewer numbers of technologically advanced ironclads was needed to try and break the blockade. However, ironclads were resource intensive and required significant amounts of iron plate the the foundries of the Confederacy simply could not produce. Thus the Union blockade was able to ply its trade virtually unopposed. This isolated the Confederacy both economically and diplomatically, both things the CSA desperately needed.
This segues nicely into the next problem. Scott’s Anaconda Plan was the very long-term strategy that the CSA could not afford. With an unopposed Union blockade, the next important side of the Anaconda was control of the Mississippi River. With the running, and later capture of, New Orleans, most of the river was captured (thanks to help from our old friend US Grant). The last major fortress on the river was Vicksburg. After it fell all rail connections to the far western states AND Mexico got cut. This almost completely isolated Richmond from the world, and spelt its ultimate death.
However, I would argue that the most important cause for the collapse of Lee’s army in the east was down to two things. First was Gettysburg, where the cream of Lee’s army was cut down in his relentless desire to always attack. This hurt the army in ways that Lee’s could not repair. But then the great general of the west, US Grant came from Tennessee to both beat Lee, and invent modern warfare. See, the traditional tempo of war was a big battle, followed by a time of refitting, then renewed campaigning. Grant instead keeps in constant contact with Lee’s army. Every day, more fighting. After he was “beat” in the Wilderness, instead of retreating north like every other battle, Grant move around Lee’s flank and kept moving south. After Cold Harbor, Grant moved around Lee’s flank and kept moving south. Lee, for his part, played the good general well and pounded the Union lines, both on offense and defense. During these battles trench warfare was developed, making casualties even more horrific. The Overland Campaign of 1864 ended when Lee was pushed into the siege of Petersburg.
This campaign had a serious impact on the Confederate cause. While Grant took horrendous casualties, he could afford to replace those men and materials. Further, as long as he was attack and keeping up with Lee, Lincoln was ready to keep funnel Grant more troops. Second, Grant incorporated the most extensive campaign of scorched earth executed by a European-style army since 1648. He, Sheridan, and Sherman devastated the South. These men burnt farms, destroyed factories, leveled towns, and wrecked what remained of the Southern Economy.
However, not much remained of the Southern economy by 1864. The rail lines continued to cannibalize itself, with the better quality lines being torn up to repair the hard used lines which fed the army and major economic centers like Atlanta and Richmond.
But the worst toll taken on the Southern population was in terms of its manpower. The reason why Gettysburg and the Overland campaign was so destructive to Lee’s army was that it killed men Lee and the CSA couldnt replace. Most men in the south had been mobilized in one way or another. But this was drawn off in many different directions. Sherman attacked the deep south from Tennessee, Sheridan ravaged the Shenandoah valley, and Grant inexorably pushed on Richmond. With so many important fronts the CSA was being pulled in every different directions it was impossible to send everybody everywhere and make a real difference. Even attempts to mobilize blacks was mostly unsuccessful.
There are many reasons why the South seemingly so dramatically shifted from fighting a victorious war into a losing cascade of crippling defeated. But generally, there was no way the South could “play the long-con”. It didnt have the muscle to go toe-to-toe with the gargantuan northern economy. Since Lee was unable to win a crushing defeat, or take Washington, there was no hope of achieving a quick military peace. Thus the war settled into economic attrition, and with the huge disparities in men and industry, it is no surprise that when the southern cause broke down, it shattered quickly.
If your interested in building up a good base of knowledge on the US Civil war, I would recommend Russel F. Weigley’s A Great Civil War. Weigley is a preeminent military historian who writes simply, but yet includes all the major events related to the war, economics, and politics. He is one of the best modern historians Ive had the pleasure to read during my University work.