Shelby Foote and the North’s Other Arm

Screen shot 2014-02-21 at 9.38.11 AMOne of my favorite quotes from Ken Burns’s epic documentary The Civil War comes from none other that Shelby Foote himself. Yes indeed…America’s most well-known and much revered Civil War… ummmm….. interpreter.

Mr. Foote, like many who take a romanticized view of the gallant Confederates fighting hopelessly against long odds, cast the Confederate bid for independence as doomed from the start. “I think that the North fought that war with one hand behind its back,” said  Foote. If the Confederacy ever had come close to winning on the battlefield, “the North simply would have brought that other arm out from behind its back. I don’t think the South ever had a chance to win that war.”

This is my favorite quote precisely because it opens the door to so much discussion. Many – both scholars and popular writers alike, seem to think that a great deal of the citizens of the Confederacy were not really all that committed to winning the war. Not committed to establishing an independent slave-holding republic.

But the idea that white southerners were nothing more than a collection of individuals whose allegiance lay with their states and who, by the mid point of the war, were wallowing in defeatism and despair and more than ready to jump ship, obscures the profound connection that most had to the Confederate national state. Independence was foremost on their minds – and a great deal of the citizens of the CSA were willing to endure the greatest hardships to make sure the Rebs won.

So – I am sure you will find Mr. Foote charming, as he sits comfortably is his wrinkled blue shirt before an impressively dusty collection of old books. But he missed his mark by a Confederate mile. Suggesting that the Confederacy never had a chance and everybody knew it is just not correct. Who would fight a war they knew they had no chance of winning? They even had a good example to follow – remember, a loose confederation of colonies once defeated the British Empire to secure their independence. I am pretty sure the Rebs made note of that one.

And trust me…the Union used both hands – they had read some history too.

56 thoughts on “Shelby Foote and the North’s Other Arm”

  1. Mr Harris.,
    I must agree with Shelby Foote that the Union had the power, the entire time, to completely decimate the Confederacy. Considering the sheer manpower and industrial prosperity in the north, the Confederacy could not have beat them. According to James L. Stokesbury “The Confederacy counted a population of about nine million, which left something more than twenty-two million for the Union”. In light of the Cleburne Proposal, the Confederacy’s hesitation in amending their view on slavery remains clear. The Union only aided with its ‘second hand’ when Sherman and Grant began implementing the concept of total warfare. Prior to Sherman’s complete destruction, the Union commanders did not pursue Lee like they should have. The Union attempted to restore the Union with doing as little damage to the Confederacy as possible, and when Lee’s army compounded some victories, the North began implementing total warfare.

    Gurnoor Kler

    1. Thanks very much for the comment, Gurnoor. Yes, the Union did indeed have strength in manpower and industrial capacity. Just like the British did in the American war for Independence…and you know how that turned out. The CSA could have won by simply wearing down the Union’s will to fight on. Grant in the East certainly helped turned the tide in the Union’s favor but this does not mean that the Lincoln administration fought with one hand tied behind its back initially. The US allocated vast resources to the war effort all along – they were just ineptly handled by Union generals (McClellan, Burnside, Hooker, etc).

      1. Mr Harris.,
        I understand your comparison with the Civil War and the Revolutionary War, but I feel its worthy to note that during the latter, the British were fighting from an entirely different continent. I feel that the North’s will to fight would not dissipate because they were fighting for an issue that was so immanent and dear to them. To reintroduce population statistics, how would the Confederacy wear down the Union’s will to fight when the Union had a clear advantage?
        In my opinion, the CSA did not have the resources or the legislation (more emphasis on states rights) to dissipate the Union’s will to fight considering their resources (blockade, foreign affairs, industry).

        1. Gurnoor, I suggest you read northern newspapers from the summer of 1864. Anti-war sentiment was stacking up really really deep as the people grew weary of war casualties, stalled Federal armies (in Virginia and Georgia) and the notion that there was no clear end in site. Lincoln himself thought the country was so disheartened that he would lose the election of 1864.

      2. Mister Keith Harris,

        I hesitate writing historic comment online however I feel I must point out some important things both about the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. First Great Britain was fighting on two fronts. Once General Stark had his success France came into the Revolutionary War on the side of the Americans. If they had not it might have ended quite differently.
        In the Civil War Ambassador Cassius Marcellus Clay convinced Russia to stand with the North. Then President Lincoln proclaimed the southern Blacks Free. Immediately afterward England and France sided with the North. These two things were clearly different from the American Revolutionary War. I believe that Mister Shelby Foot managed to take a very broad view of both the North and South at the time of the war. He was also very aware of the differences between the wars.
        My great grandfather fought for the north while his third cousin was dying 20 Sep 1863 at Chickamauga. My mother strongly believed in the South’s position as a conservative. I am a conservative and believe that the South was blind to the need to let go of the slavery system, but they started the war over that very thing. The tensions and the abolitionists like my great, great grandfather Gabriel Hodges who ran more than one underground railroad were making enough noise. States were coming into the union that were not pro-slave states. There had to be a fight, but the South could have never won that war.

  2. Is Footes comment that “I don’t think the South ever had a chance to win that war.”surprising to you at all sense he is from the South ?

    1. Well, Jack – there is a persistent Lost Cause legacy that still holds a lot of power for the white South. What surprises me is that Foote should really know better. He is, after all, very knowledgeable and if he does indeed take the evidence to heart as he says he does, then the notion of inevitability should be clearly lacking. I’m a southerner too (Alabama native) and I get it, but only because I have carefully weighed the evidence.

  3. James L. Stokesbury mentions if the CSA have had a shorter war, they would have won. Do you believe the same? Also, how does the lack of decisive victories in the major battles fall into these theories?

    1. Thanks for the question, Brett. Honestly, I do not buy into counterfactuals. The “if/then” situations are absolutely impossible to determine with any degree of accuracy. Any changed variable could produce an infinite number of possibilities. we often hear the “if Stonewall had survived Chancellorsville he would have lived to be victorious at Gettysburg and thereby secured Confederate victory overall” scenario. Well…maybe but we really do not know because that never happened.

    2. I too do not believe in “If” it gets dreamers into trouble. What if Robert E. Lee fought for the North? Would that have ended the war much earlier with much shorter casualty lists? What if I was good looking? Would my options be better?

  4. My Civil War class has recently been discussing the origins of several misconceptions about the war. Where does the “lost cause” narrative have its roots, and why does it seem so popular, especially among Southern historians and readers?

    I have a follow-up question, if you’re familiar with the subject: is Foote’s civil war series “The Civil War: A Narrative” full of inconsistencies and misconceptions similar to his quote, or is it a worthwhile historical work?

    1. Thanks for the questions, Hunter. The Lost Cause narrative has its roots all the way back to Appomattox. It wasn’t long after that that former Confederates began to explain, from their perspective, the reasons for defeat, their noble effort against insurmountable odds, and their distance from the slavery/emancipation issue. It’s resonance today provides white southerners with assurance that their ancestors’ cause was virtuous and worthwhile and alas, American.
      I think Foote’s trilogy is well written – after all, he is an accomplished novelist. However, he fails to provide citations for many of his claims, leading me to wonder form where they came. There are numerous examples of very evocative stories in the work that no one has ever been able to find in the archives. Suspicious? Yes, I think so.

  5. At what point in the war would you say that the Confederacy knew they would lose? Our Civil War class has discussed the lack of decisive victories for the Confederacy. They may have thought that winning the war was possible, but I would imagine that Confederates lost confidence generally quickly. Do you think the lack of decisive victories supports Foote’s idea of the Confederacy never standing a chance?

    1. Thanks for the question, Ryan. I think that the Confederate thought they could win up to the final days of the Petersburg siege in 1865. I know this seems strange but I have read numerous letters and journals from the period and you get a real sense of confidence. Soldiers in Virginia especially thought Lee was wearing down the enemy and that the Union was growing increasingly war weary – and would soon give up. It explains why they kept fighting so hard right up to the end. I mean…why else would they do that if they thought they would lose the war?

      1. Yes, and Hitler “thought” he would win WWII in the Spring of 1945. Unfortunately, bravado does not replace facts. The South suffered from an abundance of “righteous outrage” and “superior military thinking and skills”, neither of which had much impact on the inevitable outcome of the war. The South lost, get over it.

        1. Why so agro, bro?
          You know, I think it is always a good rule of thumb to be wary of those who suggest inevitability. History does not generally comply.

      2. Once the Confederate troops lost Chattanooga, many deserted and joined the Union to keep from starving. Moral was at it’s lowest. That appears to be the piviotal point when most soldiers in the Western Theater. As Mr. Foote said, “Most of them fought because they were down here.” I believe there is a lot of truth in that staement.

        1. Without question many of these men joined to protect their homes. This was one among many reasons men chose to fight. I often wonder, however, how widespread was the understanding of the issues at stake…

  6. Mr. Harris recently in my Civil War class we have been discussing and debating the question. Was there such thing as a Black Confederate and where there loyal black slaves or servants fighting for the South? Do you believe that with the help of Black Confederates the war could have been swayed differently? Also what is your opinion on the debate that the concept of “black confederates” was created at the end of the civil war for a Southern excuse to say “The Civil War was not about slaves”? Due to the concept of a black confederate.

    1. Thanks for the question, Adam. Let me just say for the record: the notion that there were black Confederates is delusional. There were black people with Confederate armies – they were generally slaves doing what slaves do: cooking, laundry, building fortifications, etc. But these were not fighting soldiers in any sense of the term. Period. The Confederate Congress did authorize the raising of black troops at the very end of the war but it was too late to make any difference. It is hard to say whether or not they would have fought to preserve a slave=holding republic.

  7. Mr. Harris,
    Stokesbury states that if certain conditions existed (shorter war, South fights a defensive war) the Confederacy could have won the War. Are there certain conditions that you believe would have allowed the Confederacy to win the Civil War?

    1. Thanks for the comment Charlie. I do not usually buy into counterfactuals – simply changing a condition would not necessarily lead the way we would think…the contingency factor is always at play. But…just for fun, I think if Lincoln had lost the 1864 election (he thought that was going to happen) President George McClellan would have negotiated some sort of peace, possibly up to and including Confederate independence. Also, if the Confederate armies could have applied more pressure throughout the North as they did in 1862 and 1863 (not just in the East, mind you) the northern populace might have grown weary of the war and demanded an end to the war.
      But like I said – none of this happened so it is really impossible to say.

  8. Mr. Harris,
    I completely agree with your question of “Who would fight a war they knew they had no chance of winning?” I also just want to add that the Generals in the South were stronger than the North’s. My civil war teacher likes to call the South the Green Bay Packers and the North is the Chicago Bears. The Chicago Bears had to keep switching out quarterbacks as the Packers were successful with one. In addition, why did the war last so long when the North could have brought out their other hand?

    1. Thanks for the question Max. I think the Confederates had two exceptionally generals: Lee and Jackson. When the latter died in 1863 that left Lee. Now the United States had four: Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and Thomas. By 1864, they could use numbers to their advantage once the armies in the East had run through a series of generals who were not up to the task

  9. At what point in the war do you feel that the confederacy missed their small window of opportunity to win the war? After a certain amount of time? After they switched to the offensive?

    1. Thanks for the question Daniel. I actually think that the CSA had many chances for victory through the summer of 1864. Thought many Confederates would have disagreed with me, I have the benefit of retrospectively looking back and noting that once Lincoln was reelected in November 1864, chances were pretty slim that the Rebels would come out on top.

  10. I think the biggest flaw in Mr. Foote’s argument is that he forgot to take into account the human aspect of war. Sure, on paper and in almost any simulation, the North should have easily defeated the South. Yet in war, numbers and manufacturing capabilities are not the only thing that matter. You can have the most powerful army in the world, but if you don’t have a quality leader, or you lack morale or support at home, you are most like doomed to failure. Like you said, the American Revolution was a prime example of all this.

    1. Thanks Greg. I agree that numbers alone do not matter. But you must also remember that even on paper, the Confederates had a number of advantages.

  11. Mr. Harris,
    I agree with you however, the north had a far greater number of men that could have fought, and didn’t, than the south did at the end of the war (I believe that the south had about 5,000 eligible men left). I was wondering what your thoughts on this were in the context of the “hand behind the back” discussion.

    Ben Lampereur

    1. Thanks for the question Ben. Just because the United States did not mobilize every military age man does not mean they waged a half-effort war. The union had the capacity to field enormous armies and leave the industrial capacity intact in the North. That enormous capability to outproduce the Confederates in everything was very much a part of the Union war effort.

  12. Mr. Harris,

    Very interesting points from both your post and Foote’s comments. I agree that the Confederacy wouldn’t fight a war they knew they would lose. However, do you find any truth in Foote’s comment that “the North fought with one hand behind its back”? In our Civil War history class, we learned that the South had only around 6,000 men that could have served for the CSA but didn’t. in contrast, the North had around 2 million that could have served for the Union but didn’t. Did the CSA have a true understanding of the numbers they were facing? I get that they had an overwhelming amount of loyalty to Southern independence, and they probably knew they were the underdog. But did anyone from the CSA really realize how outnumbered they were?
    Thanks, Michael

    1. Thanks Michael, Of course they knew the fighting capacity (and the industrial capacity of the United States). But this did not really deter them at any point. All they needed to do was to win by default. Meaning: fight until the Union gave up. This was a great advantage for the CSA. They had other advantages too. They could mobilize more of the white military age men thanks of slavery, they fought on their home turf with a friendly populace in place, the Union had to conquer a huge amount of territory, and the CSA had thousands of miles of coastlines that the United States had to effectively blockade. Together, the US had a formidable task ahead of them.

  13. Mr. Harris,
    If the Union had fought with Generals equivalent to that of the Confederacy, how long do you think the war would have lasted? I also feel that your comparison of the Civil War to the Revolutionary war is spot on and that if the South didn’t think they could win, then they wouldn’t have fought in the first place.

    1. Thanks for the question, Quinten. Well, it’s hard to say with any degree of accuracy, but one can surmise that the war could have been wrapped up early on. In 1862, for example, McClellan was on the verge of capturing Richmond. Only happenstance (Johnston’s wounding) escalated Lee to command who then pushed the federals out of Virginia.

  14. Bottom line I find it so hard to believe the North was fighting with “one hand behind their back.” If that’s so, why were they letting Lee and Jackson run rough shot through them towards the beginning of the war. Don’t you think they would then untie the other hand? Also, I believe that even though the Rebels may have known they were outnumbered, it still did not change the way the fought. In your research, have you discovered any records that show a vast decrease in morale or personal accounts that suggest they were “giving up.”

    1. Thanks for the comment Patrick. My research reveals that overall Confederates thought they could win the war down to the near end. There were, however, ebbs and flows in morale in the Confederacy and the Union depending on various factors such as victories/losses, conscription, emancipation, etc.

  15. Mr. Harris,
    You state “the Union did used both hands”, but how is that possible when they did not come close to using all of there troops as the confederates did? Wouldn’t overwhelming force in numbers have shaven a few years off the war and ensured more Union battle victories?

    1. Thanks for the question, Elijah. The loyal states had more than enough population to field an enormous army (they they did use in its entirety) and keep things (like industry) running on the home front. We are looking at 22 million northerners against roughly 9 million southerners (and about 4 million of those were slaves). The Confederacy mobilized the majority of its military age white men out of sheer necessity. Union forces at arms outnumbered the Confederate at least 3 to 1. Still, without proper military leadership, the Union failed to claim victory early in the war. This conflict is much much more than a simple numbers game.

  16. Do you view Lincoln’s efforts to rally his troops as an effort to save the Union or to help extinguish the Confederacy?
    Pertaining to what Mr. Foote stated, I’m curious as to how you view the draft in 1863 and the Gettysburg Address in terms of if they were trying to save the “dwindling” Union or in order to stomp the Confederacy. Was this a sign of strength or weakness in your opinion?


    1. Thanks for the question, Nick. I think suppressing the rebellion and saving the Union are one in the same. As far as conscription in the North (and in the South) I see it less as sign of weakness and more as a sign of admission that the war would take more resources than anyone had previously thought (except for maybe Winfield Scott).

  17. Mr. Harris,

    I have to agree. The South’s loss was not inevitable. They had a great strategist (Robert E. Lee) and were initially holding their own, despite being gravely outnumbered. Seeing that the Confederates thought that they would receive more foreign aid, a victory for the South was quite a real possibility.

  18. Mr. Harris,

    It is obvious that Shelby Foote knew what he was talking about, and is one of the most notable Civil War historians of all time, but I’d have to agree with you here. There is no way the North was not trying their hardest the entire war, and there is also no way that the South never had a chance. So with that being said, what do you think is the most prevalent component of war that Shelby Foote was not taking into account when he stated that the South never had chance?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Alex. I think Foote overlooked the many great advantages the Confederates had in 1861. For example, they only had to fight to a drew to win, they had a lot of territory that the Union had to conquer, thousands of miles of coastline the Union had to blockade, and they were fighting on friendly home turf. He also does not mention that the institution of slavery allowed for the mobilization of every white man of military age. In 1861, the war was not lost from a Rebel perspective by a long shot.

  19. Mr.Harris,

    How much of an impact do you believe morale and anti-war thoughts impacted the war? Additionally, do you suppose Lincoln had the right to suspend certain rights, like the freedom of speech?

    1. Lincoln could use executive power to suspend individual liberties as a wartime emergency. So yes, he was well within his rights as commander-in-chief. This move hurt his administration in some respects. For example, his political opponents used it against him, claimed he was acting like a tyrant. But overall, those who were determined to carry the war to a victorious conclusion supported the president’s actions.

  20. Mr. Harris,

    I loved your blog post! I was wondering how big of an impact do you believe the morale of the North and South had on the war? Additionally, do you think the restrictions on freedom of speech by Lincoln helped or hurt Northern morale.

    1. Thanks for the questions, Dante and I am happy that you enjoyed the post. I think morale was extremely important. When republics go to war, it is imperative that both the soldiers in the field and the civilians maintain a high morale – otherwise they will eventually refuse to fight and/or vote out any administration that promotes the war. Yes, morale during the Civil War ebbed and flowed on both sides – and proved very important in each sides ability to wage war.

  21. He is a well known Historian and expert but personally I have to disagree with him, a Confederate victory was feasible but only before Summer of 1863.

    Firstly, if the whole goal of the Union was to crush the rebellion why would they hold back, why wouldn’t they at least immediately (let alone after the string of disastrous prior to 1863) summon full strength and to Confederacy to its knees? Why would the Union hold back and and let the war and drag on and causality increase for 4 years?

    This theory makes no sense when you examine it logically based on the course of the war.

    1. I think the Rebs could have achieved victory in 1864 as well…Union morale was at an all-time low during that summer.

  22. I have to agree Mister Kieth Harris.
    In 1864 the North’s news papers were calling for several generals to be fired. There were a whole lot of people who thought the war was lost. Then too there was the riots over emancipation. Lincoln threw their leader in prison without a trial. It could be however that it was all a conspiracy a ruse to make the South think the North was ready to capitulate.
    The industry kept cranking out canons and balls, repeating rifles and ammunition. The Army was being supplied with everything they wanted. If they had gotten everything they needed it would have been enough. A Soldier could go into the sutler’s store and buy envelopes and stamps, writing tablets ink and pens, or pencils. You could even plus up your art supplies!
    On the other side the south was using thorns for needles.
    The North didn’t know how bad it was in the South, but most people in the South knew that people up north were living their lives as normal as ever.
    It wasn’t until Grant and Sherman broke the sieges that people up North took heart and began to believe that it would end soon.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Elijah. You might consider that it is pretty easy to make such assessments knowing how things turned out. I suggest you try reading history from the event forward.

  23. Wow, I wish I had seen this blog post two years ago when it was still active. Still, just wanted to say I think you’ve got this one right. I teach a military history course at our high school, and I point out the North’s material preponderance…and then we get into the South’s advantages, challenges for both sides, and of course the geography. European experts at the beginning believed that the North could not win, just based on geography alone. And of course the Southerners of 1861 (and ’62 through at least ’64) believed very strongly that not only the could win, but that they would.

    1. Thanks for the comment Nathan – I teach the same thing to my Civil War students. It’s very interesting to me that they come to the table with some of the old ideas about inevitable northern victory. That old Lost Cause argument sure has a lasting hold on US history!

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