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I'm curious to know whether or not the southern States had a realistic chance of winning the Civil War.

I understand they had a large slave force, but I doubt those slaves could've been forced to fight effectively against their own freedom. Also the South likely had very low if any manufacturing capabilities.

Did they have a fighting chance?

If so, at what junctures was the South closest to prevailing and what factors made success a possibility?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Alex, Pieter Geerkens, Semaphore, Steven Drennon Feb 16 '15 at 6:16

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • I suggest to the mods a re-phrase: What factors combined to boost the South's greatest chances to prevail in the American Civil War? The answer could address the possibility of earning recognition from Great Britain, Northern war weariness, the efficacy of Lee's campaigns of invasion, both of which had some chance of success. Another way to re-phrase: At what junctures was the South closest to prevailing? With an adjunct: What prevented the South's victory at those junctures? – memphisslim Feb 15 '15 at 19:17
  • @memphisslim like so? – CuriousWebDeveloper Feb 15 '15 at 19:24
  • Make the last sentence your heading, CWD, and you are there. – memphisslim Feb 15 '15 at 19:30
  • IIRC the answer to this question is, "None." – Samuel Russell Feb 15 '15 at 23:42
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The center of gravity was the will of the Northern populace. Civil War armies were nearly indestructible in any one battle without gross incompetence on the part of the commander. The South had 2 good chances to win:

  1. Send a large mobile column comprised of cavalry and mounted infantry north to rob banks, sack towns, and sabotage railroads and telegraphs. This was proposed by Stonewall Jackson and rejected.

  2. Invade the North and take Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington DC. The shock would probably have led to the end of the war. Some (I can't remember where I read it) claim that Lee was in a position to do this but instead went after the Union army, resulting in the Battle of Gettysburg.

Outside intervention was not going to happen as the South was pro slavery. Any Great Power allying itself with the South would have had to deal with the political implications of supporting slavery.

  • The absolute fastest way for the South to lose the war would have been to actually take Washington, and attempt to hold it. It was an unfortified city, and Lee's army would have been surrounded and destroyed in a single 6-month campaign. Lee won his battles early in the war through superior maneuver (enabled by superior commanders and troops) and lost later when Grant forced a war of attrition on him. – Pieter Geerkens Feb 16 '15 at 4:30
  • All of the invasions of the North actually served as rallying points for the Northern will to resist. The closest the North came to giving up was in 1864, when the advances were slow and the costs high. – Oldcat Feb 18 '15 at 0:45
  • No, Lee was not in a position to take Washington DC (held by thousands of troops and many forts), Baltimore (Meade was in the way) or Philadelphia (bridge over Susquehanna River destroyed, militia on far side, Meade marching up) – Oldcat Feb 18 '15 at 0:48
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A number of factors gave the South some chance to win the Civil War. But there are several caveats.

The South was fighting a "defensive" war on their home ground. But key to their defense were "border" states like Kentucky and Missouri. When these states tilted north, the South was "outflanked." Had they joined the South, it would have had natural defensive boundaries on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

The South was more like Europe than the North, and European powers such as England and France were initially pro South. As it turned out, they had other worries such as Germany and Russia, and paid less and less attention to events on the other side of the "pond."

Many of the better American generals were Southern. These included the Albert Sidney and Joseph E. Johnston, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, James Longstreet, Jeb Stuart, and above all, Robert E. Lee. This advantage declined as the war progressed, with Albert Johnston, "Stonewall" Jackson, and Jeb Stuart getting killed, James Longstreet wounded and out of action, and northern generals like U.S. Grant and William T. Sherman getting better.

The South's best chance to win the war was early in the war, perhaps by striking a "knockout" blow for psychological reasons such as capturing Washington D.C., or some other major northern city, probably relinquishing it and attacking another target if the Union army tried to intervene. Only "a string of" (not a single) victory might have won them the war. It did not have the industrial and manpower resources to fight a long war, and the North did. So the longer the war, the lesser the South's chances.

  • The absolute fastest way for the South to lose the war would have been to actually take Washington, and attempt to hold it. It was an unfortified city, and Lee's army would have been surrounded and destroyed in a single 6-month campaign. Lee won his battles early in the war through superior maneuver (enabled by superior commanders and troops) and lost later when Grant forced a war of attrition on him. – Pieter Geerkens Feb 16 '15 at 4:28
  • @PieterGeerkens: I did NOT say that Lee should try to hold e.g. Washington. The hope was that the blow itself would have the desired psychological effect. I clarified my post by saying that Lee should move on when threatened by the Union army. – Tom Au Feb 16 '15 at 5:18
  • If you are in DC, there's nowhere to run. The seacoast is on one side, an unfordable river on the other. The navy could run gunboats right up to the city and block a crossing. The same is true for most coastal cities in the North...it's a trap. – Oldcat Feb 19 '15 at 0:33

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