At the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, both sides were very confident in a quick and easy victory. I can see why the North would think so: they had a better trained army, better infrastructure (including many more miles of railroad), and superior industry.

Why were the southerners so confident they would win? Is it because the capital, Washington D.C., was so close to the front lines?

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    No. They just thought that the North wouldn't fight. Non foolish Southerners were not so sure the war would be quick.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 22:57

6 Answers 6


TL/DR; Hubris and false assumptions

They assumed the economy didn't matter. The era of the US Civil war tended to see relatively short, decisive campaigns with a limited engagement of the population at large. Examples include the Mexican-American war (1846-8), Crimean war (1853-6), Austro-Prussian war (1866), Franco-Prussian war (1870-1). Largely, economic factors didn't really come into play... certainly not to the extent that the Confederate economy was savaged by the Union blockade over the course of the war.

They assumed that they would win the few, decisive battles. For example you can read "Company Aytch" by Sam Watkins for a first-hand account of the average soldier's view. In an early chapter he relates how his regiment (First Tennessee) didn't get to Virginia in time to participate in the First Battle of Manassas, and how they were crestfallen that they had missed out on the war.

They assumed that they were better soldiers. This is more iffy, but anecdotes in memoirs like "Company Aytch" tend to talk about how the Confederate soldiers thought one of them could whip an army's worth of Yankees.

At the end of the day none of these assumptions held. With no way to get cotton out and money and guns in the Confederacy lost the ability to prosecute a very long and destructive war that directly impacted a greater and greater cross-section of Southern society. And contrary to @Gangnus, I don't think there would have been much to choose between the leadership and troop quality. The officers from the regular army were simply too diluted out by the sheer number of volunteers and political appointees to make much of a difference in terms of overall quality. You'd get a spark of genius like Lee or Jackson or Grant or Sherman, but there were more than enough McClellans and van Dorns to go around.

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    "The era of the US Civil war tended to see relatively short, decisive campaigns with a limited engagement of the population at large." Maybe they should have contemplated some of the nastier recent civil wars(i.e. Taiping Rebellion, Greek Revolution). :)
    – AlaskaRon
    Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 22:25
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    @AlaskaRon - I have trouble picturing the leaders of a society founded ultimately on a belief in their own racial superiority feeling like revolts among Greeks or Chinese had any relevance to their situation.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 15:08
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    Calling the Crimean war fast and decisive is something of a joke - the Allied armies sat down outside the first town and died in droves of disease. The Franco-Prussian war, after initial bungling was locked in a Siege of Paris for months. Even the Mexican War dragged on after the fall of Mexico City in a static mode while negotiations went on for a peace treaty. Certainly the Revolution, War of 1812 and French and Indian war gave Southerners no hope for a quick and easy war.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 0:19
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    The assumption that the average Southerner was probably better with a rifle and significantly tougher in a fight was probably true but I wonder when the last time this really mattered in a war with artillery that could fire hundreds of yards? Also, the quality of the Northern arms, repeating rifles when the South had single shot pretty much made the superior marksmanship and toughness (in hand-to-hand fighting, I guess) useless.
    – Jeff
    Commented Nov 4, 2017 at 9:30
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    Uh! the Franco-Prussian and Austro-Prussian Wars followed the Civil War. They had no effect on Southern thinking in 1860-1. Even H.G. Wells wasn't yet born, never mind his time machine Commented Nov 4, 2017 at 17:19

Who had the better trained army??? Greater part of officers were Southerns. That was the reason why they thought they would win. And really, during all the war the command of the Southern army was incomparably superior. But they really needed a quick victory, because of the weaker economy. And failed to obtain it. And their tactical superiority helped them only to last the agony.

Their first and main thought was that there would be no fight, for they had all rights to make their own country. After all, not far before the whole USA had appeared the same way.

The second thought was that they would win any fight, for they simply had the majority of the officers. And volunteers always fight better than privates or soldiers of fortune.

And the third was that they were RIGHT and thus they couldn't lose. After all, the North only wanted to build its economy on their account. And the God would surely make them win, as they were the good ones.

Notice, I am not saying those are facts, but that is what Southerners took for facts. And the question is about their common beliefs.

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    The South had no army at all at Secession. They had to start from scratch.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 0:10
  • Yes, but the North had a vastly better navy. That led to economic misery quite quickly in the South.
    – AlaskaRon
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 6:46
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    West Point was tiny, only a small fraction of officers on either side had experience there. Most of the officer corps came from civilians, leavened by West Pointers and graduates of other Military schools. The South had issues finding guns to arm this supposed greater army. The supposed superior Southern officer corps somehow didn't show up in the West, where the North soon started drubbing the South.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 10, 2015 at 0:45
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    @MarkC.Wallace I hardly see how West Points location, on the upper Hudson River in New York State, gave the Confederacy any advantage.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 10, 2015 at 1:18
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    Can you offer any citations that the South had a markedly superior officer corps?
    – user4139
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 14:07

In addition to the reasons already given above, the South also believed that Europe could not survive without Southern cotton. At the beginning of the war, Southern merchants organized a cotton embargo to provoke Britain to enter the war on their side. However, Britain had sufficient stocks of cotton to last a year, and was already working to develop alternate sources of supply in Egypt. The overwhelming support for the Confederacy that southerners expected in Britain never materialized.


Before the war, the South was hoping they wouldn't have to fight at all; that, upon weighing the pros and cons, the North would just leave them alone (this proved to be true - for a while).

If, however, the North did go into battle against them, the idea was that just as with the American Revolution, when a country of four million souls took on the mighty Empire and won, the South, with over five million people, could wear down the North, whose heart wasn't in it, their superior numbers notwithstanding.

The South did have the better commanding officers. However, they reckoned without the North's unlimited resources which minimized the importance of winning individual battles. Despite the South's dramatic victories, the Union Army just kept coming.

The "scorched earth" tactic employed by General Sherman undermined the South's will to fight. No one in the South had foreseen that.

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    To be fair to the Union, the South's "dramatic victories" were primarily in the Eastern theatre. By the end of 1863 the Confederacy had lost three states (Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi) out of eleven... well four out of twelve if you count Missouri.
    – Doug B
    Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 18:04
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    @DougB: Plus the fact that Texas and Louisiana were cut off from the rest of the South (6 states) and were effectively "missing in action".
    – Tom Au
    Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 18:42
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    Basically, the South had one good command team, that luckily was continually posted against the North's least able one. Aside from Lee's militarily meaningless tactical victories, the armies in the west dismembered the Confederacy from day one.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 10, 2015 at 1:06
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    There were at least 50000 men garrisoning Washington at that time, with many forts and cannon protecting it.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 19:10
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    @Oldcat. Not to mention that Lee even attempting a siege of Washington, at any time, would have likely ended the Civil War in the North's favour in 6 weeks. The only hope of victory for Lee's badly outnumbered Army of Virginia was constant out maneuvering of the Army of the Potomac. To sit down in a siege would have been suicidal. Commented Nov 4, 2017 at 17:04

To somewhat echo other answers: The advantage of not having to win was considered very significant, as it usually is but I guess it was not enough in this case. Also, the South thought that the production of cotton would be somehow a very important factor but this was wrong (although not completely so since indeed cotton was one of the few things that the South had going for it) since other parts of the World also produced cotton. But the question of belief is somewhat subjective and I will give an opinion: I don't think the Southern leadership was particularly sophisticated. Late in the war, they seemed to think, even though they were certainly ambivalent about it, that arming the slaves would help them when there was every reason to believe this would not work at all. Jeff Davis was a good soldier but I think he was in over his head in his position and his sole competent advisor as far as I can tell was Judah P. Benjamin who himself frankly might have been in over his head.


Question: What Reason Did the Confederacy have in believing they would have a quick victory in the Civil War.

The South had a better trained army at the beginning of the war which is indisputable given the results of the first major battle of the war. The South also had a more talented officers corps in the most important theatre of the war, the East. Much of the Union officer talent was confined to the Western theatre and would take years to emerge from the Union officers political environment. The South's best officers were already established in command. Stonewall Jackson, JEB Stuart, Longstreet were already in place at First Manasas. That's three of the Confederacy's four most important Generals already in place. Lee would emerge as their overall command (June 1, 1862) years before the Union would cycle through half a dozen disastrous and incompetent commanders, finally promoting Grant(March of 1864). When Grant eventually did come East, he brought Sheridan and Sherman with him.

These early Southern advantages were apparent in the first major battle of the war (First Battle of Bull Run) when the South routed Union forces which fled back to Washington dc in total disarray. JEB Stuart pursued the Union army all the way to Alexandria without meeting any resistance. He was close enough to the city to see the Union's pickets. General Mcclellan who picked up the pieces of the Union Army after Bull Run is not treated kindly in history; but one thing he is given credit for is rebuilding the army of the Potomac after that catastrophe.

The Union's advantages at the onset of the war were economic, production, and population; all of which would take time to assert themselves in a war of attrition. If the South had kept the war from becoming such a war, they had advantages which they could use. The south could have won a political victory by sewing together victories and sapping the union's bifurcated will to wage the war. The South also could have won by capturing the Capital of DC and thus paralyzing the Union.

The Union did not have an advantage in officers or training of their army.

Why did the Confederacy think they would win easily? At first Bluster, but after Bull Run they had reason to believe the war would be a quick one. Many people believe Confederacy lost the Civil war at the battle of first Bull Run. The Union Troops were in a panicked unorganized flight back to DC. Reforming that mob into an army capable of defending the capital would take time. General Joe Johnston the confederate general in charge of the battle had used 1 army corps to defeat the Union that day. He had an entire army corps in reserve all formed up and ready to attack DC. The confederacy lost the civil war when General Joe Johnston decided not to pursue the union troops into the nearly undefended capitol and capture the union leadership. Stonewall Jackson wounded at Bull Run in the hand is said to have walked the camp seeking 200 men to follow him into Washington. He believed he could have ended the war with just 200 men (taken the Whitehouse ). I don't know about that, but with an entire Army Corps behind him, many believe the south could have won the entire war, in the very first major battle. This is a premise I first heard put forward by Col John Mosby, chief scout for General JEB Stuart in his autobiography. Col Mosby, an enlisted man at the beginning of the war, was at Bull Run that day, one of the second army Corps who weren't used.

The civil war was lost when the war became one of attrition. In such a war the Unions advantages became insurmountable.

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    Fantasy! Washington D.C. was a poison pill for the Confederacy, and taking it would have simply led to a faster Northern victory. It would have had no more beneficial effect on the war's outcome than the capture of Moscow in 1812, of Vienna in 1809, or of Madrid in 1808, had for Napoleon; quite likely worse effect. Once the Confederates took Washington they would be saddled with keeping it, which was impossible with the North's vast superiority in men and material. That's why Johnston was a general and Mosby an enlisted man that day. Commented Nov 4, 2017 at 17:15
  • Perhaps, but capturing of the government in Washington D.C. and Abraham Lincoln was certainly existential threat to the union's war effort.
    – user27618
    Commented Nov 4, 2017 at 21:57
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    What were they going to do? Shoot him and bring France and England in on the North's side, having made themselves a bigger pariah than North Korea is today? Burn down the White House and evacuate like the British did in 1814? There were no good options for the Confederacy in occupying Washington, even temporarily. Lincoln represented the moderate Republicans; remove him and the real fanatical abolitionists take over. Commented Nov 4, 2017 at 22:01
  • Actually Britain was in the early stages of industrialization and needed the cotton supplied by the South for it's mills so much that it was a constant struggle for the Union to keep them out of the war (see trent affair). Yes cotton from Egypt helped offset this shortage but not entirely. And yes whether the war continued or not was significantly dependent on the health of the Lincoln administration. One way to win any struggle is to decapitate your opponent.
    – user27618
    Commented Nov 4, 2017 at 22:16
  • Capturing Washngton without first destroying the Army of the Potomac would have been suicide. Same scenario as Moscow in 1812, it's a trap. Lee can't hold it and if he once takes it he can't abandon it. Lee knew that and it's why he always refused to attempt it. Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 21:23

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