“The Confederacy died primarily of gangrene.”
In a discussion on another forum on the effectiveness of Confederate ironclads, my colleague Mark Jenkins made an argument that, over the course of a long war, it was a lack of internal development that doomed the southern cause:
Hindsight is 20/20… or at least clearer than foresight.
I subscribe to the theory that the Confederacy died primarily of “gangrene,” of a lack of circulation, due to the breakdown of the transportation network and infrastructure, leading to supply and morale problems. It’s been fairly well documented that, as a whole, the Confederacy was still mostly self-sufficient in terms of foodstuffs even into 1865, yet there were documented cases of food riots and soldiers going on extremely short rations. It wasn’t because the Confederacy couldn’t produce enough food; it was because the food wasn’t getting to where it needed to be.
The prewar transportation system in the Confederacy, while more advanced than a large part of the world, was still not quite sufficient to needs… there was an incomplete railroad network, the railroads themselves were somewhat less than completely efficient due to items such as different gauges (widths) of track and the fact that, in most cases, railways stopped at cities and started again on the other side, requiring transshipment of goods from one side of the city to the other. In most places, this inadequate railroad network was necessarily supplemented to a large degree by river and coastal transport by small freighters (as it had been since before the railroads).
One of the important but less-heralded effects of the blockade was (completely apart from its effects on imports and exports to the Confederacy) to significantly hamper or stop the coasting trade; where before, it was possible to either ship something from (say) Mobile to Savannah by either boat or by railroad, now it was more constrained to the railroads; and this at a time when the demands on the railroads were increasing due to wartime activities.
On top of this, there was real pressure to divert iron from making and repairing the railroads to other uses, like guns, ammunition, and ironclads; even to the extent of taking up existing railroad tracks. That, in essence, is spending your principal– eating your seed corn.
So, there’s a line of thought that indicates that the Confederacy should have exerted more of an effort in maintaining and reinforcing its transportation infrastructure, particularly the railroads, and that it should have taken precedence over ironclad construction and the like, rather than the other way around. I’m not certain it would have been enough, though.
Personally I don’t see forgoing the construction of ironclads as a realistic option for the Confederacy; although their ironclads didn’t accomplish much in open battle, their mere presence at places like Charleston and on the James River below Richmond were a deterrent factor for Union strategists planning operations against those points during the latter half of the war. Those squadrons were localized “fleets in being” that significantly complicated things for the Federals and undoubtedly slowed their advance. I can’t say “they prolonged the war by X months,” but they were absolutely part of the Confederacy’s ability to hold out in those locations.
Mark is quick to point out that his observation is not entirely original, and in fact is a synthesis of much that he’s read. Fair enough, but there’s a lot of clarity and substance in his phrasing, and he makes a solid point.
What do you think?