Could the North Have Won?

Could the North Have Won?
By Richard LeCompton

Richard LeCompton is the Perry Ambrose Chair of American History at the University of Virgina – Richmond. This article originally appeared in “American Military History, August 1998.”

“For the want of a rider, a battle was lost; for the want of a battle, the war was lost.” This traditional proverb came to us from the depths of European history, yet it is highly appropriate in the context of the War Between the States. Americans have always been fascinated with the four years of conflict that wracked the nation from 1861 to 1865, and always the question arises, “What if the North had won?” There were so many near-misses for the North that this question has remained active in the imaginations of battle re-enactors, as well as serving as an inspiration for more than a few popular alternative-history novels. There has been little serious investigation into this matter as historians usually have their hands full dealing with what did happen, leaving little time to look into questions of what didn’t happen. Therefore, I hope my fellow historians will excuse me for my dabbling into the realm of what might have been.

When entering into speculation, it would be best to disabuse one’s imagination of notions of entertaining implausible fantasies. Yes, the war could have ended perhaps with either side sweeping the field at First Manassas and then pursuing a routed foe to his capitol. Realistically, neither side was organized enough to give proper pursuit – ending the war in July 1861 has to be shelved as an idea, since it really had no chance of happening.

The same cannot be said for Antietam: here we see the first possibility of a Northern win. Taking nothing away from Lee and Jackson’s brilliant defensive moves, if Burnside had not squandered his advantages and chosen to ford the creek instead of trying to force it at his eponymous bridge, he might have been able to swing back the Southern flank and provide McClellan with a decisive victory. Indeed, Burnside’s fascination with bridges proved to be his undoing at Fredericksburg a few months later. Had a different man filled Burnside’s shoes, say the likes of Meade or Thomas, your author may well have chosen to write an article on “what if the South had won?”

Meade is one of the most fascinating Northern generals, and Lincoln’s removal of Meade in favor of Grant had a devastating effect on Northern fortunes. While Grant had won a series of victories in the western theater, they all came at a high cost in Northern casualties. Grant’s nickname, “Butcher,” however, arose from his conduct of the Wilderness campaign, in which he squandered enough men to make up a second Army of the Potomac, all to no greater avail than to move a few miles closer to Richmond. Meade had shown a talent for outflanking Lee in the aftermath of Gettysburg. To Meade, a war of maneuver was infinitely preferable to a war of attrition. If Meade had had another 100,000 troops to supplement his forces, rather than replace them, I am certain he could have used them to surround the Southern forces under Lee, forcing them to abandon their fortifications around Richmond once the Northern forces stretched out to embrace the rail lines feeding the city. In my view, the war could have been over with a Union victory in mid-1864. If that had happened, Lincoln may have gone down in history as a great president, as befitting a victor in a major conflict.

Instead, the North endured the wrath of Jubal Early. We are all familiar with how Early emerged from the Shenandoah in July 1864 and drove hard for Washington, burning the White House and Capitol to the ground on 10 July. With that lightning stab, Early destroyed both the morale of many in the North and the re-election hopes of Abraham Lincoln. Of all the near-misses of the war, this is the one that intrigues me most.

What is often not seen through the mythology surrounding Early’s masterstroke is that the North possessed the means to hold back Early’s column, if not defeat it outright. The head of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, John W. Garrett, was an ardent Northern supporter and had advance knowledge of Early’s movements as early as 30 June. Garrett passed this information on to Major General Lew Wallace, who commanded a Northern force in the area. Wallace wanted to move his men to interpose between Early and Washington, much like a knight protecting a king in chess. In Wallace’s memoirs of the war, he laments that he arrived near Frederick, Maryland to be in the path of Early’s advance a day after Early had already passed through. Although Wallace had only 6000 men under his command to Early’s 15,000, his force certainly could have slowed down Early long enough for the reinforcements racing to Washington to have arrived there to man the fortifications before the Southern forces invested them.

Even after Early’s men burned the capitol and took up the defensive positions to deal with Northern counter-attacks, the war was not yet decided. Grant chose to maintain his veteran forces opposite Lee and left the relief of Washington to Wallace and his “Hundred Days Men.” These troops were volunteers with very little training, best suited for garrison duty where they could enjoy the advantages of fortifications and commanding fields of fire. Had they been manning the lines in the forts around Washington, I believe that they stood a better than average chance of being able to hold them and repulse Early’s column. As it was, the positions were reversed and the poor devils were ground down under the withering fire from Early’s battle-hardened forces.

What if Grant had abandoned his positions in Virginia and doubled back to Washington? It was certainly possible, as Lee could not afford to be on the tactical offensive. A screening force was all that was necessary to keep Lee in place and the rest of the Army of the Potomac could have at least retaken the capitol. As a commander, Meade was more than capable enough to deal with Lee’s maneuvers and Grant certainly had the proper mindset to order his men into the teeth of massive defenses. A Grant-led recapture of Washington would have been a bloody affair, but it would have been a tonic to Northern morale.

The North certainly needed a tonic after the disasters of 1864: Sherman’s men in Tennessee were pinned down by Forrest’s raiders for much of the first half of the year; Grant’s aforementioned phyrric losses in the Wilderness dominated headlines in May; Grant’s further bloody loss at Petersburg led to demands for his removal in June. By the time Sherman had managed to extricate his forces from Tennessee and get them to Atlanta, the Southerners under Johnston were ready to receive him, handing him a major defeat at Kennesaw Mountain. Sherman’s victory at Marietta was more than overshadowed by Early’s capture of Washington. Grant’s failure to move to recapture Washington, a major symbol of Northern pride, is widely accepted as his greatest career blunder.

Grant only compounded his errors when he ordered a massive assault on Richmond, in what is known as The Battle of the Crater. Although Burnside’s command was directly responsible for the affair, Grant bears much of the blame for the disaster as its chief planner. It was bad enough the Northern forces lost nearly 4000 men in the action for no real gain: that the majority of the forces ordered into the bloodbath were Colored Troops proved to be the highest order of public relations disasters. Again, the echo of Early in Washington: had Grant doubled back to deal with Washington instead of making a desperate and ill-guided attempt to answer the South, capitol for capitol, he would have avoided the final disaster that ended his military career.

The proud and flamboyant McClellan made much of Grant’s mistakes on the campaign trail. McClellan’s claim to fame as the victor of Antietam and, as such, protector of the capitol, proved to be effective propaganda. The coalition between Republicans and War Democrats that made up Lincoln’s Union Party found its support evaporating in the wake of Early’s capture of Washington and Grant’s disaster at The Crater. Congress, from its hastily-arranged new meeting halls in Philadelphia, demanded Grant’s removal and Lincoln obliged, giving more potency to McClellan’s campaign to end the war with negotiation.

August and September proved to be as bad for Northern fortunes as the previous months had been. Although Early abandoned the Northern capitol after a few days, the repercussions of his raid were felt across both the North and the South. Johnston and Lee fought masterful defensive battles around Atlanta and Richmond, respectively. Back in the Shennandoah, Early’s forces won key battles at Kernstown, Winchester, and Fisher’s Hill.

These latter three victories had another component relating them to Early’s victory at Washington: in his memoirs, Early writes with unconcealed enthusiasm about how “God delivered him from a traitor worse than Judas” when his unreliable cavalry commander, Thomas Rosser, was killed in battle, “saving him the effort of having to hang himself.” Rosser’s replacement, John S. Mosby, proved to be much more competent and Early’s victories in each of those engagements were due in large part to Mosby’s expert management of the Southern cavalry.

Politically, Lincoln’s fortunes were already falling under a cloud when the House opposed passage of an amendment to end slavery in April. Congress’ forcing him to remove Grant was only part of the political story in early August: the House followed up with drawing up articles of impeachment, although they never took the matter to a vote. The message to Lincoln was clear – his days as president would end in 1865, absent some sort of miracle.

With Meade struggling to restore morale around Richmond, Sheridan blunted in the Shenanndoah, and Sherman bogged down around Atlanta, we all know that miracle never materialized. Northern morale was very low, with desertion running high in all units. While the popular wisdom has it that Southern morale was good throughout the war, the reality is that Southern desertion rates were very high in the first half of 1864 and that North Carolina and Texas were all but ready to exit the Confederacy. The capture of Washington proved to be the element that reversed that trend, providing much-needed resolve that had to be a factor in the Southern forces’ being able to hold their ground for the rest of the year.

When election time came due in November, McClellan’s ideas proved the most popular, with 53% of the popular vote going his way. In the Electoral College, McClellan had 130 votes to Lincoln’s 103, giving McClellan sufficient votes to claim the presidency. Looking more closely at the data, we see yet another echo of Early’s raid: McClellan carried the 33 electoral votes in New York and the 26 in Pennsylvania each by less than a full percentage point. Absent that raid, even with the rest of the battles going as they did, a swing of 59 electoral votes would have returned Lincoln to the White House with a resolve to carry on fighting. With Meade back in charge of the Army of the Potomac, a victory could have been possible for the better-armed Northern forces that enjoyed numerical superiority over their Southern counterparts. It would have been a narrow and bloody victory, yes, but a victory all the same.

But would a Northern victory have been better for America than the historical outcome? Lincoln had already shown weakness in the face of Congress over the anti-slavery amendment and Grant’s removal. If he had returned to the White House, he would have been a weak president, unable to put his views over what would have been a strongly Republican Congress. Although he would have amended the Constitution to ban slavery, his lenient views toward the South would have certainly run afoul of the more radical branch of the Republican party. Had they been in control of things, we may have remembered Lincoln as the first president to have been impeached and removed from office. I know I earlier said Lincoln could have been one of the great presidents with Meade winning over Lee, but Lincoln would have been stronger politically in that circumstance. In this scenario I present, Lincoln’s political power would have been greatly reduced – enough to win the election, but only with the support of the radical abolitionists.

So now the question of “what if the North had won?” now becomes one of “what if the radical Republicans had been in power?” They would certainly have pressed for a harsher prosecution of the war itself and would also have treated the South as a conquered land, imposing tough terms. While the South did not lack the will to continue the war much longer than they did – they fought hard in 1864 in the hope the election went to McClellan – they would have certainly resisted Northern impositions on their precious states’ rights and culture. Rather than return to the United States in a negotiated settlement, with eventual voluntary abandonment of slavery, they would have instead resisted occupation and would likely have reacted violently to the forced end of slavery. Given that most Northern states passed laws banning the migration of blacks, free or slave, into their territory, one has to presume that a United States with forcibly ended slavery would have sent all the people of color back to Africa, which would have been a great cultural loss to America, given later events.

As it was, the eventual phasing-out of slavery on the terms of individual Southern states allowed the blacks to remain in America and mingle with the population there, much as freed slaves did in much of Latin America. In spite of initial racial hostility in the North, blacks were eventually accepted as equal citizens there, in large part to their already being accommodated in the South. Because of the so-called “Great Peace” worked out by president McClellan, not only was the USA able to reclaim its lost states peaceably, it was also able to retain a diverse population that later helped to enrich both the culture and science of the nation in the 20th Century. This tolerant, diverse United States was the one that was able to receive the remnants of Spain’s colonial empire when they broke away from their motherland in 1899. An intolerant nation would not have welcomed freedom in the Caribbean and the Pacific in the same way: for all those that speculate about what would have happened with a Northern victory, look to the flag and imagine it with nine fewer stars.

We all know and accept that the South had no real chance of winning the war without European support. That support was doomed from the start when the British began cotton cultivation in Egypt. But the South did attain a negotiated peace, thanks in large part to Early’s capture of Washington. With that negotiation, it was able to peaceably re-integrate into the United States. As alluring as the question of what if the North had won may be, perhaps it’s for the best that no one side “won” the war at all, with the ability to impose a vindictive peace upon the supposed loser. While I hope I don’t come across as a Pangloss, I do see the actual outcome as being preferable to a number of scenarios of what might have been.

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