Lost Cause

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Sunday, February 24, 2008


The Fatal Errors That Led To Confederate Defeat

By Bevin Alexander

Crown. 337 pp. $25.95

Alternative history is an alluring parlor game. Pick a crucial historical event -- Gettysburg, say -- and try to pinpoint exactly where things started to go wrong for the losing side. That's what military historian Bevin Alexander does in his latest book, How the South Could Have Won the Civil War.

Alexander argues persuasively that the wartime policies of President Jefferson Davis and the military strategy of Gen. Robert E. Lee led to the failure of the Confederacy. Had Davis and Lee listened to Gen. Stonewall Jackson, the South might have won. Some battles and campaigns -- including the Shenandoah Valley and Seven Days campaigns, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and those that ended with the final surrender at Appomattox, which all led to tremendous loss of life -- might not have been fought at all.

Jackson wanted to bring the war directly into Union territory. He would have moved the Confederate army "north of Washington, where it would threaten Baltimore, Philadelphia, and the capital's food supply and communications," writes Alexander. By destroying vital industries, thereby undermining the Union's means of production and livelihood, Jackson hoped "to win indirectly by assaulting the Northern people's will to pursue the war." Alexander also contends that Jackson's tactics of "maneuver," rather than the frontal assaults favored by Lee, would have led to fewer casualties, an important point given the difficulty of replacing soldiers from the comparatively small Southern population.

Alexander's opinions are firmly stated, but his assertions are not always well documented. There is no evidence that I am aware of that Union Gen. George Meade "ordered the entire Union army to retreat back to Pipe Creek" in Maryland from Gettysburg on June 30, 1863. Nor does Alexander provide any proof for this. He may be referring to Meade's so-called Pipe Creek Circular, a contingency plan the general never implemented.

How the South Could Have Won the Civil War echoes chapters from two of Alexander's earlier books, Lost Victories and Robert E. Lee's Civil War. Even the chapter headings are essentially the same. It is not clear why Alexander felt compelled to repackage these previous works for public consumption, since the arguments he made in them are not substantially changed. Yet, despite the book's limitations, readers who are unfamiliar with Alexander's earlier works will find How the South Could Have Won the Civil War thought provoking and informative.

-- Thomas J. Ryan is president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table in Dover, Del.

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