Thursday, March 17, 2011

Shelby Foote and the North's Other Arm (redux)

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

One of my favorite quotes from Ken Burns's epic documentary The Civil War comes from none other that Shelby Foote himself. Yes indeed...America's most well-known and much revered Civil War... ummmm..... interpreter.

Mr. Foote, like many who take a romanticized view of the gallant Confederates fighting hopelessly against long odds, cast the Confederate bid for independence as doomed from the start. "I think that the North fought that war with one hand behind its back," said 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."

This is my favorite quote precisely because it opens the door to so much discussion. Many - both scholars and popular writers alike, seem to think that a great deal of the citizens of the Confederacy were not really all that committed to winning the war. Not committed to establishing an independent slave-holding republic.

But the idea that white southerners were nothing more than a collection of individuals whose allegiance lay with their states and who, by the mid point of the war, were wallowing in defeatism and despair and more than ready to jump ship, obscures the profound connection that most had to the Confederate national state. Independence was foremost on their minds - and a great deal of the citizens of the CSA were willing to endure the greatest hardships to make sure the Rebs won.

So - I am sure you will find Mr. Foote charming, as he sits comfortably is his wrinkled blue shirt before an impressively dusty collection of old books. But he missed his mark by a Confederate mile. Suggesting that the Confederacy never had a chance and everybody knew it is just not correct. Who would fight a war they knew they had no chance of winning? They even had a good example to follow - remember, a loose confederation of colonies once defeated the British Empire to secure their independence. I am pretty sure the Rebs made note of that one.

And trust me...the Union used both hands - they had read some history too.




  1. I think there were probably more scenarios that favored a southern than a northern victory. After all, the confederacy only needed a draw.

  2. Hi Keith,

    I would agree that overwhelming resources alone would not be a guarantee of victory, but this assertion:

    "the profound connection that most had to the Confederate national state. Independence was foremost on their minds – and a great deal of the citizens of the CSA were willing to endure the greatest hardships to make sure the Rebs won."

    I'm not convinced is true. For a solid rebuttal to this assertion might I suggest the last chapter essay "The Southern Road to Appomattox" by Kenneth Stampp in his book "The Imperiled Union." You can access it here, although the preview doesn't provide the entire essay.

    I'd be interested in whether or not you think Stampp made a plausible case for his thesis:

    "The fatal weakness of the Confederacy was that not enough of its people thought that defeat would be a catastrophe; and, moreover, I believe that many of them unconsciously felt that the fruits of defeat would be less bitter than those of success."

  3. Thanks for the comment, Bob - it is just that I have read so many letters written by people who remained steadfast throughout the war, regardless of the hardships that they had to endure. The cause, as it were, was profoundly important. I am familiar with Stampp's work and the many others who have ofered similar conclusions. But I believe they obscure the solid determination of the white Confederate citizenry.

  4. It seems to me that, when looking at sheer numbers, the Union was vastly superior. Not only in numbers of troops but also in resources. I've read in several places that the war could have been much shorter had George McClellan pressed his advantage at several different times. What do y'all think about that? I'm not a historian, it's just an interest of mine...I'm probably misinterpreting.

    I'd think that if I were a poor farmer in the south at the time with no slaves of my own, I'd probably be fighting because Yankees were invading my homeland. I'm not sure I'd know enough to really care about States rights if scratching a living for my family was all I had time for. I wonder what the demographics of the soldiery were...interesting to think about to me...