One 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.