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The early Confederacy (The 7 founding states) attacked Fort Sumter in April 1861, starting the American Civil War. The Confederacy knew this would lead to war with the Union, yet they seemed to be confident in their odds of succeeding.

Shortly after the start of war, 4 other States joined the Confederacy. They also must have thought that this was a war they would win.

I know the Confederacy expected at least to some degree an involvement of Europe that did not come (i.e. cotton diplomacy), but there must have been better plans than that. Unlike the Confederacy, the Union had a large industrialized and urbanized area (the Northeast), and more advanced commercial, transportation and financial systems than the rural South. Additionally, the Union states had a manpower advantage of 5 to 2 at the start of the war.

What documented evidence exists which indicates the political, industrial, infrastructure, economical, military, and/or other significant factors considered favorable to the Confederacy as reasons for having confidence in a victory over the Union?

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    Perhaps they thought that Lincoln and other Northern politicians (and the people) would be unwilling to accept the slaughter of 2/3 of a million men as the price for keeping the South? – jamesqf Oct 22 '18 at 5:18
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    This line in my textbook stuck with me: (paraphrased) They also had a recent example of a newly independent nation defeating a great power - the American Revolutionary War. – Semaphore Oct 22 '18 at 12:10
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    In A Short History of the Civil War, Fletcher Pratt says that he studied lots of newspapers printed in Southern cities in late 1860 and early 1861, and discovered that many editors and politicians believed that there would be little or no bloodshed after Northern politicians grasped how serious the Southerners were about quitting the Union. In other words, it seems that many were thinking: "Win a big war? What big war? We just have to make it clear we won't be bluffed into backing down, and then the North will abandon the idea of fighting a bloody war to drag us back into the fold!" – Lorendiac Oct 22 '18 at 14:27
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    @jean Of course, that can also be true in a time with radio and modern communication tech. Possibly even more true than in a time without, depending on how much propaganda is sent out over the radio and/or modern communication tech. – reirab Oct 22 '18 at 19:53
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+100

The Military

Militarily, the south did not need to win the war by invading and defeating the north. Their belief was that they just had to hold on to what they had, hence their largely defensive strategy. Despite a marked numerical inferiority, the south believed (correctly, at least in the early stages) it had better leaders and better soldiers.

Davis boasted that Southerners were “a military people . . . We are not less military because we have had no great standing armies. But perhaps we are the only people in the world where gentlemen go to a military academy who do not intend to follow the profession of arms.” This gave the South an unusually large percentage of its male population with basic military skills and training.

Source: Donald Stoker, The Grand Design Strategy and the US Civil War

At the same time, newspaper editorials such as this one from Southern Banner in Athens, Georgia (May 8, 1861) provided a steady flow of propaganda to boost southerners' sense of military and moral superiority:

The soldiers being raised for our subjugation, with a few exceptions, are composed of the lowest class of "roughs," thieves, pickpockets, &c.

Confidence was not lacking at the outset of the war, but not everyone was blind to what would be needed. For example,in Texas, West Point graduate Colonel R. T. P. Allen

observed the actions of the first Texans to volunteer for Dixie’s cause. They believed in neither discipline nor drill and had no real knowledge of warfare. They thought valor and devotion would win the war. Allen knew better.

Source: Kenneth W. Howell (ed), The Seventh Star of the Confederacy: Texas during the Civil War

Consider also, as at least some military figures in the south must have done, that

It was an accepted military axiom of the nineteenth century — a lesson ascertained in part from the American War of Independence — that when a large, organized body of people was determined to break away from a state, there was little that could be done to prevent it.

Source: Sexton

This was clearly expressed, for example, in the Georgia Telegraph (Nov 15, 1861). Even after it became evident early in the war that, among other things, the South was severely disadvantaged at sea and that the Union’s

heavy armaments may prove too much for our feebler ordnance and scanty munitions

the belief was that the Confederacy would prevail. Referring to the American War of Independence, the article argued that Great Britain

...marched her troops from Massachusetts to Georgia – she penetrated our whole interior with her legions, and yet failed to subjugate America. What folly, then, is the talk of subjugation by an enemy able only to penetrate here and there the mere outer cuticle of this great Confederacy.


Right must prevail

Combined with this was a deeply held belief by many that the Confederate cause was right and must thus prevail, as typified by this April 13, 1861 item in the Wilmington Daily Herald of North Carolina

For well we are assured, that the southern spirit can never be humbled - never subdued - never conquered while present existing southern principle maintains its identity...

Source: Rare & Early Newspapers

Religious figures played an important part too, with God on the side of the south. Even the spirit of Thermopylae was invoked:

Let our spirit be loftier than that of the pagan Greek, and we can succeed in making every pass a Thermopylæ, every strait a Salamis, and every plain a Marathon. We can conquer, and we must....under God, we shall not fail. If we are true to Him, and true to ourselves, a glorious future is before us. We occupy a sublime position. The eyes of the world are upon us; we are a spectacle to God, to angels, and to men.

Source: Rev. J. H. Thornwell, Our Danger and Our Duty (1862)


Economics, diplomacy and foreign recognition

Allied with the above was their belief in

the power of “King Cotton” and its allure to the European powers. Davis and his advisors regarded the fiber’s pull as so strong that they could almost assume British and French recognition.

Source: Stoker

The term 'King Cotton' appears to have first been used in David Christy's Cotton is king. Published in 1855, this book proved to be very influential in promoting the belief that the south had the economic power to get its way. By 1860,

it appears that the South was responsible for two thirds of the entire world exports of cotton

Diplomacy and economic pressure were to play decisive roles in the southern strategy:

The chance that the Confederacy had, leaders in Richmond believed, rested in the power of cotton to compel European statesmen and financiers to side with their cause. The key commodity of the nineteenth-century Atlantic economy, Southern cotton fueled the textile industries of Europe and sustained an estimated twenty percent of the British population. With this trump card in their hand, Confederate leaders were convinced that they could dictate Civil War diplomacy. Cotton, Southern statesmen held, could be a bargaining chip employed to induce British recognition of the Confederacy. With this accomplished, the commodity could reassume its traditional role as a source of foreign exchange that would provide the Confederacy with the credit needed to obtain war supplies abroad.

Source: Jay Sexton, Debtor Diplomacy: Finance and American Foreign Relations in the Civil War Era 1837–1873

enter image description here

"This cartoon was created just before the start of the Civil War, but it demonstrates the Confederate states’ economic ideology. The south believed that Great Britain and France would bow down to them because those nations would need cotton for their industry, and therefore would turn their backs on the north for fear of hurting their own economies". Source: Dartmouth College Library

The south had great confidence in its economy, in part because of “decades of expanding production”. More recently, the Panic of 1857 had meant

the South, profiting from the steady exportation of the staple, largely escaped the financial crisis that enveloped the North. Southerners saw their avoidance of the panic as a triumph of an economy that was based on agriculture and trade rather than on finance and speculation. As DeBow’s Review, the voice of the commercial South, declared in 1857, ‘‘the wealth of the South is permanent and real, that of the North fugitive and fictitious.’’

Source: Sexton

Confederate President Jefferson Davis believed that once recognition had been achieved,

economic and military support would follow, thus guaranteeing Confederate independence. Moreover, Davis believed that British recognition alone would discourage the North from prosecuting the war, and that the Union would withdraw from the fight from a fear of British intervention.

Source: Stoker

The southern strategy was at times not without realistic hope for

The Palmerston cabinet twice considered intervening in the Civil War, most likely by joining France in extending an offer of mediation to the warring sides. Though not an outright recognition of the Confederacy’s independence, mediation was a policy favorable to the South as it would seek peace—which, given the success of Confederate armies at the time, would almost certainly result in the separation of the North and South.

Source: Sexton

No less a statesman than William Gladstone, in a speech in October 1862, went so far as to say:

There is no doubt that Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South have made an army; they are making, it appears, a navy; and they have made what is more than either—they have made a nation.

Source: Sexton

Ultimately, though, southern hopes were sunk by, among other things (especially the way the south mishandled its cotton), the British middle and working classes’ intense dislike of slavery, and the Emancipation proclamation (1st Jan 1863) was perhaps the final nail in the coffin of southern hopes for British and French intervention.


A final point...

Not all southerners necessarily thought they would end up on the winning side. Many fought simply for what they thought was right without assuming that they would win. For example, one Confederate soldier's reason for enlisting was:

If we are conquered we will be driven penniless and dishonored from the land of our birth.... As I have often said I had rather fall in this cause than to live to see my country dismantled of its glory and independence—for of its honor it cannot be deprived.

Sam Houston in Texas was perhaps the most notable southerner who felt the south could not win:

He said that the Union Navy would blockade the southern coasts and starve Dixie’s people. The Union would take New Orleans and then split the Confederacy in a related move by taking complete control of the Mississippi River. Cotton would not be king, he said, because the masses in Europe remained most prejudiced against slavery....

...But secessionists would not listen to such sober analysis. Instead, on the day of the referendum, February 23, 1861, an overwhelming majority of 46,153 voters favored secession while only 13,020 opposed.

Source: Howell (ed)


Other source:

  • Susan-Mary Grant & Brian Holden Reid (eds), Themes of the American Civil War (revised edition)
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    Can't recall, the specific details, but rogue members of the UK administration provided the South with warships. – Mark C. Wallace Oct 22 '18 at 10:52
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    @MarkC.Wallace Yes, for which the British later had to pay compensation for the damage these ships caused. – Lars Bosteen Oct 22 '18 at 11:00
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    I think it's possible for us to underestimate now the impact of your last point. The American Revolution was, for some Americans in 1860, an event in living memory. Texas, one of the Confederate states, had won its independence from Mexico mere decades previously. Their experience taught them that their ability to resist was greater than the ability of the metropole to project power. – tbrookside Oct 22 '18 at 11:35
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    There was, indeed, some truth to the idea that a large government could not keep millions of people oppressed indefinitely if they wanted to be free. It's just that the Confederacy was very wrong about which government that was (perhaps too blinkered by racism). – Obie 2.0 Oct 22 '18 at 19:46
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    @Obie2.0 Your comment seems to imply that the desire of Southern slaves to be free had much to do with the North winning the war. Do you have any evidence for that? I would think the vastly different sizes of the armies involved and Lincoln's will to keep the South at almost any cost had a lot more to do with it. – reirab Oct 22 '18 at 19:59
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The vast wealth of the Southern plantations was intrinsically tied up with their ability to generate a fabulous annual income, at low risk. Once the Union blockade was established by autumn 1861 those income streams shrank, the associated risk rose, and the value of those plantations, dropped to a tiny fraction of the ante bellum value.

For a perpetuity (perpetual annuity), a reasonable ante bellum approximation,

PV = D / r

where: PV is the Present Value;
       D is the dividend per period; and
       r is the discount rate (assessment of risk)

With D dropping by 80+% and r increasing by a factor of 2 or 3, those fabulous plantations were suddenly worth less than 10% of their 1860 value; and even at that price there were no buyers available. Not only was direct income of the CSA hit by the blockade, but its fabulous pre-war wealth and the associated borrowing capability instantly vanished. In just a span of months the CSA went from being fabulously wealthy to destitute and bankrupt.

The expectation also existed that Britain and France would intervene to protect their growing textile industries. However with greatly shrunken supply, those mills were able to maintain profitably due to greatly increased prices, as well (ironically) for the immediately increased demand for cotton military uniforms required by both sides.

Finally, the South was unaware of the repugnance with which its slave-holding economy was regarded in Europe. This ensured that Britain and France would only enter the war to jump on an already victorious bandwagon, and not to decide the fray.

The only way in which this triple whammy could possibly have been avoided would have been to enter the war with an already extant navy capable of keeping at least a few of he South's major ports open against a blockade. In practical terms this likely meant a need for several years of pre-war independence. This was never going to happen under a Republican president, so it would have been necessary to secede under Buchanan and immediately begin a naval construction program, while he remained President.

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    Alternative: Build the navy well in advance. There wasn't any rule pre civil-war that a state couldn't do that. Since succession was kinda predictable ... – Joshua Oct 22 '18 at 20:24
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    @joshua nod, a naval arm to the state national guard. Navies are very expensive, however, and justifying that with no public reason becomes hard, and a public reason quickly becomes civil war. – Yakk Oct 23 '18 at 15:46
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The majority of the economic and political elite of the Southern States were aware of the existential threat to their economy and culture—chiefly as these were the direct result of malapportionment so as to continue latifundia slavery.

Existential threats are necessarily those which threaten the existence of an agent. The results of a lost war were identical with the results of not fighting. The elite of the South did not need to inquire into the likely chances of their success.

There are reasons for the average member of the elite to believe in the possibility of success based on the popular imagination surrounding very unlikely military causes such as the Dutch Republic, The American Republic and the French Republic and Empire. It does need to be remembered that politicians and even generals are poor analysts of the likelihood of martial success.

Finally the 19th century thought of elites were infected with thoughts of Elan and right making might.

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    There was no short or medium term threat raised by Lincoln's inauguration, however. That's the strangest part of the entire affair. South Carolina's secession has the air of a tantrum about it, and not a cold-blooded and calculated act based on a genuine near-term risk. The attack on Ft. Sumter even more so. – tbrookside Oct 22 '18 at 11:39
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    I disagree with the absolutism of your second paragraph. Fighting a war means that lots of people end up dead; not fighting that war would have meant that everybody stayed alive, but not living the lifestyle that many of them wanted. Those are two very different situations that you're describing as "identical". – David Richerby Oct 22 '18 at 11:49
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    The issue here is South Carolina’s elite’s perspective, both in enactment or tantrum and in not caring about the ordinary hill country small farmer. This is why the answer is phrased in terms of elite response. – Samuel Russell Oct 22 '18 at 11:52
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    @David Richerby: But "not fighting that war" has two sides. Had Lincoln and the other Northern leaders not been willing to pay the price in (other people's) blood in order to hold on to power, there need not have been a war. – jamesqf Oct 22 '18 at 16:47
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    @jamesqf Sure. But I was comparing the two options of "Fight the war" and "Accede to the North's demands to end slavery, without fighting". You seem to be considering a third option: "Neither accede nor fight, and hope that the other side doesn't want to fight, either." – David Richerby Oct 22 '18 at 16:53
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There were few more pretty important South advantages in addition to already listed in previous answers factors:

1. Far superior military education. It was only one northern-located military school - West Point military academy, federal institution, which was accepting students from all states, including South. There were at least three state-sponsored southern military colleges, with exclusively (or at least predominantly) southern cadets: The Citadel and Arsenal Academy in SC, and Virginia Military Institute.

2. More extensive pre-war firearm experience for general population. Urban population, dealing with the firearms less than rural, constituted much bigger portion in Northern states than in Southern. Also, exclusively southern slave patrol system provided some level of training and experience for white southerners.

3. The Confederate States accounted for seventy percent of total US exports by dollar value. Confederate leaders believed that this would give the new nation a firm financial basis.

4. Slave labor allowed military enlistment for higher proportion of white population

However, Confederate decision to start the war was determined not only by advantages in the war, but also by disadvantages at peace.

When representatives from six seceding states assembled on 4 February 1861 in Montgomery, the wall map they were looking at was showing projected new country consisted from 15 states. Secession and Confederation leaders believed that all slave-holding states would join Confederacy. If this happened, North likely would not risk military actions to suppress secession, and rather consider negotiation - Northerner manufacturers needed Southern cotton. In this case, Confederacy did not need to go to war at all.

This did not happened: April 4th Virginia secession convention votes 80-45 against secession. 7-state slave-holding Confederacy leaders found himself with multiple problems:

White population Less than 3 million, versus Union more than 24 million;

Dangerously high black population proportion;

Lost US fugitive slave law protection;

High financial debt to Northern and British banks;

Weak and undeveloped manufacture;

Northern border with no geographical barriers, difficult to defend;

Insufficient merchant fleet and non-existing navy; no vessel-building facilities;

Lost cotton-production monopoly: Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolina produced 
15% of country cotton. If they stay in Union, US Congress could introduce cotton 
import tariff to protect their cotton production against Confederacy. Northern 
cotton market would be lost for Confederacy. Also, Union cotton-growing states 
would have home merchant fleet advantage for international cotton trade, and could 
increase production of cotton.

With Virginia convention 4 April vote, peaceful way to expand Confederacy beyond original 7 states was all but lost. The was also risky military way. April 10 virginian Roger Pryor, Confederate sympathizer, in his speech urged Southerners:

“if you wish Virginia to be with you, strike a blow!”.

However, time was running out. When Lincoln arrived to Washington prior inauguration, he discussed with V irginia statesman possibility of evacuating Fort Sumter in exchange to Virginia stay in Union: "A state for a fort is no bad business.". Now, after Virginia convention voted not to secede, representatives from this state were heading to Washington for negotiation with Lincoln. If Fort Sumter were evacuated by US government, there would be no plausible excuse to start the war. So, April 12 Confederacy did strike the blow at Fort Sumter. In a month Virginia joined Confederacy, followed b three more states. In one month, with no additional military action, Confederacy was twice as big and few times more powerful as before. Not bad, but as it turned out - not good enough.

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    I really disagree with your first point regarding education. Looking at a list of Confederates from West Point en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…, most of the "big name" generals attended West Point. Including Lee, Joseph Johnston, Albert S Johnston, Stuart, Jackson, Longstreet, Pendleton, Bragg, Early, Armistead, Ewell, Pickett, AP Hill, Henry Heth, Hood, Porter Alexander, etc. That's basically the who's who of the Army of Northern Virginia, with quite a few Western generals thrown in for good measure. – kuhl Oct 23 '18 at 19:27
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    @kuhl military success or failure depends not only on"big name" generals, but on the lower lever officers as well - lieutenants, captains, majors, who transmits orders to common soldiers. Army required huge number of them, their training and skill is extremely important, and union army was at big disadvantage not having enough trained low and middle level officers at the first stage of the war. – Alexander Barhavin Oct 23 '18 at 21:38
  • sure, but there were a lot more Confederate West Pointers than I mentioned. And I do believe that the fact that the majority of the top brass came from West point refutes your claim that the Confederates had (or even thought they had) a "far superior military education". If that was the case, why didn't more VMI, Citadel, etc grads end up in these positions of power? By giving these positions to West Point grad after West Point grad, the Confederates showed that they believed that the best military minds came from West Point. – kuhl Oct 23 '18 at 21:50
  • @kuhl you are confusing higher quality of WP education versus other military colleges - with confederate advantage of having military trained people on subordinate positions right at the start of the war. Speaking of ending up in the position of power, most (if not all) WPrs you mentioned pursued military career in US army prior Civil War, and what ensured their high initial rank in CSA. Jefferson Davis, himself West Point graduate, preferred WPrs. Despite this, 20 VMI graduates started military career in CSA and rose to generals. – Alexander Barhavin Oct 24 '18 at 2:29
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There was a very similar war a few years earlier that was almost certainly considered a precedent by the South, and that was the American War Of Independence.

In territorial terms, the two wars were very similar. One side declared independence, and the other side, to defeat independence, faced the task of invading and conquering the newly independent territory.

In 1776 the task turned out to be beyond the strength of the world's foremost military power. Imperial Britain lost.

In 1860, civil war presented fundamentally the same problem to a country - the North - that was in military terms virtually unarmed. To defeat the South, the North would have to enlist 10% of it's male population, raise and train huge armies, build and supply a massively expanded navy, establish war industries, tax its population, suffer casualties on a huge scale for years, and take back the South foot by bloodsoaked foot.

It was the South's misfortune that the North did exactly that.

Who can blame them for not predicting that the North would go to all that trouble?

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    There was a major difference between the American Revolution and the Civil War: England was 3,000 miles away by sailboat. That was a 3 week trip, and a 6 week communication cycle. It meant that it cost England 10 times as much to support a soldier in America as in England. It also meant that Patriot propaganda about events often reached England and France days before Loyalist propaganda did. Whereas the North was within hundreds of miles of much of the South, via railroad, telegraph, and steamship. – Jasper Oct 24 '18 at 4:07
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    Who could have predicted "that the North would go to all that trouble?" Perhaps Thomas Jefferson or Andrew Jackson. Jefferson famously pointed out that any [foreign] power that held New Orleans was the natural enemy of the United States. He then inverted his party's interpretation of the Constitution to ensure that the U.S. bought New Orleans. Jackson used any means necessary to defend New Orleans, including setting the precedent that 90-day state militias could be forced to serve for the duration of a war. – Jasper Oct 24 '18 at 4:17
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The South thought it could prevail simply because they (initially at least) thought their objective could be accomplished without war. The split in the Union didn't start with Fort Sumter. If you'll note from this Wikipedia article on Fort Sumter, South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1860. Fort Sumter was attacked in April 1861.

And that was the prevailing attitude up until Sumter was attacked. In the famous (and somewhat infamous) Cornerstone Speech, delivered by Alexander Stephens, who was serving at the Vice President of the Confederate States, he said:

I was remarking that we are passing through one of the greatest revolutions in the annals of the world. Seven States have within the last three months thrown off an old government and formed a new. This revolution has been signally marked, up to this time, by the fact of its having been accomplished without the loss of a single drop of blood.

The initial idea seems to have been for the South to peacefully secede, which is why they thought they would be successful. They didn't want to challenge the North to a fight, at least initially. Shots weren't fired for several months.

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    But the question is "Why did they think they could win the war?", not "Did they think they could secede without war?" And they did fire the first shot, which rather belies that. – mickeyf Oct 25 '18 at 18:53
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    This is truly a valid point, but I think it goes to the idea that the South didn't really have a plan to win the war because they were superior at something. The only thing they thought that was superior was their cause. They didn't realize they would have superior generals,etc. They were angry and tribalized. – Karlomanio Oct 26 '18 at 21:24
  • @Karlomanio : That's simply wrong. Regardless what you think about their ethical views, they did have superior generals and better trained troops and they were confident in them, while at the beginning the North was mainly composed of civilians. What they underestimated was how quick the North would be able and willing to mobilize and how much resources the North was willing to commit. – vsz Nov 19 '18 at 5:36
  • @vsz I'm not disagreeing with the fact that they had superior generals. That is very correct. No question about it. Their military leadership was much more creative and superior to the North's. My point is the South as a collective body was not AWARE of that fact. People didn't have baseball cards with military statistics on the back of them for each general. I very much agree with your last sentence. That sums up well my feelings as well. – Karlomanio Nov 19 '18 at 14:53
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In my opinion, the only reason the South thought they could win the war was hubris, plain and simple. This hubris was based on the need of the plantation owners to believe that their way of life could be preserved in face of the Industrial Revolution. This hubris could be fostered and preserved because the majority of Southerners lived in an information bubble. Most of them had never been out of their region and experienced the industrialized and urban areas of the North. Most only perceived the North as "a threat to their lifestyle."

Though the South did have some advantages, such as superior military leadership, and motivation for their cause, it seems rather foolish for them to have thought they could win in the face of the superior resources of the North. This is exactly what happens though, when you live in an "Information Bubble" built by a self-interested affluent class who feels its interests greatly threatened by the changing world.

I would argue that the Southern idea that they could win the war could be an additional chapter to the book by Barbara Tuchman, "The March of Folly: from Troy to Vietnam." This is where it really resides.

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    It's entirely possible to win a war with inferior forces. Vietnam is a recent example, as is our Revolutionary War. – Tombo Oct 24 '18 at 12:19
  • Interesting point. It may have been hard for the South to see how hard it was to win. I'm not sure I agree completely with your point. The question was why did they believe they could win. Not whether they could win or not. Did you really need to vote it down because you have a different point of view? Just curious. I think voting down should only be for those that are disrespectful... – Karlomanio Oct 24 '18 at 14:38
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    In support of this is the fact the the newly elected Republican president had no intention of forcefully eliminating slavery, merely of preventing it from spreading into the emerging new states. Lincoln expected that it would eventually die out by itself. In light of this, the reaction of the South does seem like a bit of a reactive tantrum, as suggested elsewhere here. – mickeyf Oct 25 '18 at 18:48
  • +1. I have the same opnion but cannot word it properly. Also note it's easy for us to see the past and shout "it's a lost cause because you are already defeated" but it can be inimaginable for them at the time – jean Oct 25 '18 at 19:14

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