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How Disobedient Confederate Generals Saved America

November 4, 2014

The South didn’t have to surrender in 1865, at the end of the U.S. Civil War. Its armies had lost, but Confederate soldiers could’ve taken to the hills and forests to fight a guerrilla war. Southern generals had plenty of role models — including the American guerrillas who’d frustrated the British during the Revolution. Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered his generals to do the same. Had they obeyed, the Civil War might have dragged on for years, darkening America’s character. Guerrilla combat often degenerates into terrorism, with both sides targeting civilians and killing for revenge. Democracy itself could’ve suffered. The Confederacy might even have won, since many in the exhausted North already wanted to give up in 1865. (Imagine the 20th Century without a unified America to oppose totalitarianism.)

Robert E. Lee surrenders to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, April __, 1865

Robert E. Lee surrenders to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, April 9, 1865

The Confederacy’s senior commander, Robert E. Lee, led the way. When his army faced defeat at Appomattox, some of his officers recommended fading into the hills. Lee feared the cost for all Americans, and he surrendered instead. A week later, he began gently advocating peace, exercising a moral authority far greater than President Davis’. Soon, General Joe Johnston disobeyed Davis and followed Lee’s example, surrendering the South’s largest remaining army. The other Confederate generals followed Lee and Johnston, not Davis.

Abraham Lincoln deserves much of the credit. He called for reconciliation and ordered honorable surrender terms, making the South’s choice easier. And that policy survived his assassination, even as the new administration fumbled and growled for revenge. But truly it was the Confederate generals who chose peace and Union and saved America.

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Painting: Surrender at Appomattox, by Thomas Lovell (cropped) — provided through Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Alaskan Dude

© 2014 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. John Keagy permalink
    November 4, 2014 4:13 pm

    Interesting, particularly the threat of terrorism. Has terrorism ever worked as a strategy?

    • November 4, 2014 4:26 pm

      I’ll answer without adequate research: I think guerrilla warfare has often worked, and it often includes terrorism. But I can’t think of a time terrorism on its own has worked in the long run. Guerrilla warfare is unconventional, but it still mostly involves military units targeting other military units and the infrastructure that supports them. Terrorism targets civilians to scare decision-makers into new policies. And I think it not only doesn’t work but actually stiffens resistance. It’s one thing to concede defeat to an opponent who beat your army; it’s far less appealing to concede defeat to one who killed your non-combatant children. (E.g., instead of backing away from the Middle East in response to 9/11, the U.S. destroyed the Taliban regime.)

      So by resorting to terrorism, guerrilla leaders probably weaken their efforts, though not necessarily fatally.

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