Disobedient Confederate Generals Helped End the Civil War

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 of the Revolution. Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered his generals to fight a similar war after they’d lost on the battlefield. 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 ended. 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.)

Confederate commander Robert E. Lee surrenders
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 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.

Confederate General Johnston
Confederate General Joe Johnston

Let’s not whitewash these generals, as so many have done before. They had rebelled to preserve their “right” to enslave human beings, and most were slave-owners, with everything that entails. Robert E. Lee, for instance, tortured would-be runaways and broke up families — typical behavior for American slave-owners — not to mention the crime of holding men, women, and children in bondage. The Confederate generals were racists and traitors, often rapists of enslaved women, and generally some of history’s worst human-rights abusers. (They ruled over their captives with greater cruelty than ancient slave owners, though that’s a story for another post.) And they and their descendants would soon restore White power through segregation. But human beings are complex, and evil has many faces. (They say Hitler was very kind to his dogs.) These generals also did something gracious and noble, with far-reaching impact.

Abraham Lincoln deserves much of the credit too. He called for reconciliation and ordered honorable surrender terms. That helped the Confederate generals choose Union and peace.

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

© 2014, 2021 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.


2 thoughts on “Disobedient Confederate Generals Helped End the Civil War

    1. 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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