The Myth of a Weak Confederacy

The Confederacy WAS a Viable State.

By Paul Burkholder
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: The subject of the annual Dick Crews Debate at the January 2008 Roundtable meeting was: “The Southern Victory of 1865: Was the Confederacy a Viable State?” Five members made presentations on the topic; the article below was one of those five presentations.

CSA Independence

I think most of us would agree that, with a not too absurd twist of fate, there were several points before 1865 when the Confederacy could have won its independence. The Confederacy’s best chance for a viable independence with the least absurd twist of fate occurred in the fall of 1862 when Lee was invading Maryland, Bragg was invading Kentucky and Lord Palmerston’s government in London was seriously deliberating English intervention.

IF Lee’s Special Order No. 191 had NOT fallen into Union hands, McClellan would have been blind to Lee’s troop deployment and very likely unable to prevent Lee’s moving on Washington, Baltimore or Philadelphia. Just as significantly, Lee’s non-defeat at Antietam would have left the Emancipation Proclamation locked in Lincoln’s desk and the Union cause without the moral high ground that ultimately obstructs European intervention.

Additionally, IF Bragg seizes Louisville at that same time rather than bypassing it as part of a misbegotten plan to install a Confederate governor in Frankfort, then defeats at Perryville and Stones River are averted and Kentucky is perhaps drawn into the Confederacy.1

With Lee in Washington, Baltimore or Philadelphia, Bragg in Louisville and the Emancipation Proclamation in Lincoln’s desk drawer, I believe the Confederacy enters 1863 as an independent state. But, was the newly independent CSA viable?

The Myth of a Weak Confederacy

The first, most obvious way to answer that question is to point to how the Confederacy performed in its short, four-year existence. Remarkably, in the period from 1861 to 1864, the CSA:

  • Wrote and ratified a constitution and founded a working government.

  • Established a monetary and banking system.

  • Increased revenue collections ten-fold from 1861-63.2

  • Created a national postal system.

  • Sent out diplomatic missions to Europe.

  • Raised, armed, clothed and fed an army of three quarters of a million men that for 3½ years fought the Union powerhouse to a draw.

That, in fact, is the knock most frequently made against CSA viability – that relative to the Union, the Confederacy was too small, too weak and too divided to succeed. However, that comparison is usually made as part of a discussion of the two sides’ respective abilities to wage war; rarely is it made in relation to the Confederacy’s viability following a quick peace. If we evaluate the Confederacy simply on its ability to survive the peace as opposed to its ability to fight a protracted war with the Union, then a different picture emerges.

In 1860 the South’s combined free and slave population of 9 million people would have made it the 12th most populous nation in the world – larger than Turkey, Mexico, Belgium, Sweden, Portugal, the Netherlands and Canada, larger than Finland, Norway, Denmark and Greece COMBINED.3 And the South’s 790,000 square miles of territory would have made it the ninth largest country in the world geographically.4

Economically, where the Confederacy’s dependence on King Cotton is degraded as a liability when considering its fitness for war, it translates to economic power when evaluating the Confederacy’s viability as an independent state. By 1860, the Southern states were providing two-thirds of the world’s cotton,5 accounting for 54% of total U.S. exports to the tune of $124 million a year.6 Once out from behind the Union blockade, cotton would have made an independent Confederacy a formidable economic power.

And though cotton dominated the Southern economy, it was not the sole pillar holding up the roof. According to the 1860 census, 11% of the United States’ manufacturing output, about $155 million, came from the South.7 And there WERE some large-scale industrial operations in the South. Daniel Pratt’s industrial village in Montgomery, Alabama produced 25% of the nation’s finished cotton in addition to lumber, iron and cotton cloth. William Gregg’s Graniteville Manufacturing Company in Graniteville, South Carolina was a sprawling industrial complex consisting of cotton mills, saw mills, grist mills and machine shops. More significantly for the coming Confederate war effort, the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond was the country’s fourth largest iron producer in 1860.8

Though not to the same degree as the North, the South had, in fact, joined the Industrial Revolution. In the period from 1850 to 1860 Southern manufacturing output increased 91%, a greater percentage increase than in either New England or the Midwest. By 1860, over 130,000 people were employed in the South in some type of manufacturing enterprise.9 So, though the industrial output of the Confederacy was dwarfed by that of the Union, it WAS substantial – substantial enough to significantly contribute to sustaining an independent CSA.

And despite the historical perception of the antebellum South being a kind of subsistence-farming backwater, the non-slave population of the nascent Confederacy actually had the world’s fourth highest per capita income in 1860,10 and its growth in per capita income matched that of any U.S. region in the twenty years leading up to the Civil War.11

The War and the Death of States’ Rights

Another argument often made against the viability of the Confederacy is that a national government built on the supremacy of states’ rights was doomed to fail.

Perhaps, but then the United States had already survived up to 1861 largely on that very premise. The Confederacy was no more vulnerable to death by states’ rights than was the post-Revolutionary United States. The fact is the states of the CSA were already working a viable system. They had a viable constitution, a viable governmental structure and, as far as they were concerned, a successful 85-year history working it. So long as a world market for cotton existed, there’s little reason to think that the post-war CSA couldn’t have looked and worked much like the pre-war South, perhaps indefinitely.

Further, the act of waging war with the Union actually undermined the states’ rights movement in the South. The war united the population of the Confederacy in a way it would not have been without the war. Following the Confederacy’s string of early victories, historian Frank Vandiver observes:

“Southerners everywhere had taken new faith in success. That faith brought easy obedience to Confederate laws, acceptance of Confederate promissory notes, affection for soldiers and administrators. By late summer, the Confederacy existed in its armies, on its emissaries, and in the hearts of its people – there was a Confederate ‘nation.’”12

The war also made the Confederacy more viable by providing a catalyst for its industrial development. Significant successes included the CSA’s Ordnance Bureau that doubled its production of small arms in 1863 achieving self-sufficiency or the state of Alabama which in 1864 produced four times more iron than any other state in the ‘Old Union’ or the gunpowder factory at Augusta, Georgia that grew to be the largest in North America by 1864.13

Lastly, the war made the Confederacy more viable by forcing it to confront and overcome the centralization/nationalization boogeyman that might have undermined its later independence. To fight the war, Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress had effectively nationalized the military, its staffing and its supply, the monetary system, taxation and the development and management of roads and rails amongst other things.14 As the Daily Richmond Enquirer lamented in 1864,

“We are not yet fully awake to the extent to which we have abdicated popular Government…. The plea of military necessity had been presented in all its bearings, and its demands set forth in plain, candid words. The urgency of the pleas has been acknowledged by us, and… we have willingly and cheerfully surrendered one privilege of freemen after another.”15

Political Self-Interest and Viability

Closely related to the death by states’ rights argument is the argument that the fractured, petty, self-interested Southern leadership could never have pulled it together to rule an independent Confederacy.

But was the leadership of the CSA any more ineffectual, petty or self-interested than that of the Union? Further, while the Union confronted the more difficult military task in 1861 – they had to conquer a resourceful, geographically scattered opponent – the CSA confronted the more difficult political task – they had to construct a national government out of a patchwork quilt of independently minded states – and THEY DID IT.

Morality and Viability

The last objection often made to the viability of the Confederacy is that, with slavery, the Confederacy was built on a decadent foundation that would have ultimately crumbled.

But, does a state’s morality determine its viability? Was ancient Rome viable? Nazi Germany? The Soviet Union? Apartheid South Africa? How about the post-Revolution, slave-owning United States? All these nations achieved viability despite their immoral foundations. From a viability point of view, the institution of slavery was not the Confederacy’s fatal flaw, at least not in 1862.


No, the Confederacy WAS viable. An independent Confederate States of America would have joined the family of nations in late 1862 as already one of the world’s largest countries both in population and area, with a constitution, a working government, a strong ruling class, a powerful army and navy, a banking and monetary system, a burgeoning agricultural economy and a rapidly growing industrial economy.

William Gladstone, British Chancellor of the Exchequer, observed in 1862 that, “Jefferson Davis and the other leaders of the South have made an army; they are making… a navy; and they have made what is more than either – they have made a nation.”16

Gladstone was right.

Go back to the first argument >>
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  1. Vandiver, Frank E. Their Tattered Flags: The Epic of the Confederacy. 1970. pg 161
  2. Ransom, Roger. “The Economics of the Civil War.” EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 25, 2001.
  3. All population stats from URL:
  4. All geographic area stats from URL:
  5. Weeks, Dick, Webmaster. “King Cotton.” Shotgun’s Home of the American Civil War, First Published: January 7, 1997
  6. USDA Foreign Agricultural Service. “Timeline of U.S. Agricultural Trade and Development.”
  7. Bateman, Fred and Weiss, Thomas. A Deplorable Scarcity: The Failure of Industrialization In the Slave Economy. 1981.
  8. Vandiver, Frank E. Their Tattered Flags: The Epic of the Confederacy. 1970.
  9. Bateman, Fred and Weiss, Thomas. A Deplorable Scarcity: The Failure of Industrialization In the Slave Economy. 1981.
  10. Fogel, Robert William and Engerman, Stanley L. “Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery.” 1974. pg 250
  11. Bateman, Fred and Weiss, Thomas. A Deplorable Scarcity: The Failure of Industrialization In the Slave Economy. 1981.
  12. Vandiver, Frank E. Their Tattered Flags: The Epic of the Confederacy. 1970.
  13. Thomas, Emory. The Confederate Nation: 1861-1865. 1979. pg 210
  14. Emory Thomas, The Old South In the Crucible of War pages – 7-8
  15. Escott, Paul D. Military Necessity: Civil-Military Relations in the Confederacy. 2006. Preface
  16. Vandiver, Frank E. Their Tattered Flags: The Epic of the Confederacy. 1970. pg 150

(Click on any of the book links to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

Escott, Paul D., After Secession: Jefferson Davis and the Failure of Confederate Nationalism. 1978

Escott, Paul D., Military Necessity: Civil-Military Relations in the Confederacy (In War and in Peace: U.S. Civil-Military Relations). 2006

Fogel, Robert William, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. 1989

Fogel, Robert William and Engerman, Stanley L. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. 1974

Owens, Harry P. and Cooke, James J., editors, The Old South in the Crucible of War. 1983

Thomas, Emory M., The Confederate Nation, 1861-1865 (New American Nation Series). 1979

Vandiver, Frank E., Their Tattered Flags: The Epic of the Confederacy (Texas A&M University Military History Series, No 5). 1970