Book review: How the South Could Have Won the Civil War

“The South had a general who could see, Stonewall Jackson. But Robert E. Lee was in charge of the army. This elemental fact decided the destiny of the South… Lee’s audacity might win battles, but the cost was going to be more than the South could bear.” Veteran Virginia author Bevin Alexander has written a thought-provoking and sure to be controversial book explaining the ways in which the Confederacy could have (and perhaps should have) achieved an early victory over the Union and secured its independence. How the South Could Have Won the Civil War: The Fatal Errors That Led to Confederate Defeat is published by Crown Publishers of New York, and is now available on amazon.com.  

Alexander has written nine books on military history, and is perhaps most noted for his extensive battle studies of the Korean War. His Lost Victories is one of the classic modern books on the Civil War. In his latest work, Alexander argues that Stonewall Jackson’s understanding of strategic warfare far exceeded Lee’s, and ultimately, Lee’s aggressive frontal assaults cost the South the war. He believes Jackson’s strategy of maneuvers and flank attacks should have been more widely emulated within the Confederate armies.

While the author admits Lee was a brilliant commander, much of the book discusses early strategic errors made by Lee and President Jefferson Davis in 1862 and 1863 that doomed the Confederacy. Among them was the decision to undertake the Maryland Campaign. Alexander argues that the better course of action would have been to aggressively pound Pope’s retreating army into submission and threaten Washington.

Alexander writes “The concepts, recomendations, and means (for a Southern victory) were at hand–at least as late as the the first day at Gettysburg–for the South to emerge victorious. It did not happen because the South’s primary leaders could not see the way to victory.” Ultimately, human failure at the highest levels of leadership, not a lack of resources, industry or manpower, cost the Confederacy its very existence.

The book scarcely discusses the Western Theater, where opportunities for success were squandered in Alexander’s opinion with the early (and wrong) decision to try to defend the entire Confederacy and its coastline, instead of focusing and consolidating their armies on protecting a few critical points. He blames Braxton Bragg for much of the failure in the West, and comments “But, with President Davis unwilling to remove his old friend, the handwriting was on the wall.”

About 90% of the book concerns the Northern Virginia operations of Jackson and Lee, where ultimately Alexander suggests the war was lost. This continues up through Gettysburg, where he write, “The showdown with Meade should never have taken place at Gettysburg. If Stonewall Jackson had been alive, he might have talked Lee out of his wrong decision…”

Controversial? Yes. Entertaining and thought-provoking? Also a yes. Well written? You bet. Bevin Alexander’s new book is sure to one you either will strongly agree with or challenge every point he raises. What it accomplishes is to force the reader to dig deeper into the motives, strategies, options, decisions, and personalities that ultimately decided the Civil War. In short, it forces the reader to think, weigh the evidence, and decide for himself whether or not the South could have and should have won the Civil War. And, that is ultimately the goal of a good book – make the reader use his mind and think. Alexander has achieved that notable goal.

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