Causes of Confederate Defeat in the Civil War


The surrender of Confederate general Robert E. Lee‘s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, effectively ended the American Civil War (1861–1865). But why did Lee surrender? And why in the spring of 1865? Historians have argued over the answers to these questions since that day at Appomattox. Explanations for Confederate defeat in the Civil War can be broken into two categories: some historians argue that the Confederacy collapsed largely because of social divisions within Southern society, while others emphasize the Union’s military defeat of Confederate armies. These arguments are not mutually exclusive—no historian would deny that Southern society was riven by racial, class, gender, and regional antagonisms and, similarly, all historians recognize the enormous force brought to bear by Northern armies and the high casualties suffered by Confederate soldiers. Nonetheless, the disagreement has produced sharply different explanations for why the Civil War ended as it did.

Although from today’s perspective, Union advantages in manpower (a five-to-two edge), draft animals, and industrial capacity suggest that Union victory was inevitable, few Confederates believed that at the war’s start. In fact, most Confederates assessed the size of their new nation (750,000 square miles), the length of their coastline (more than 3,000 miles), and their assumed martial superiority and concluded that Union victory was impossible. They used the American Revolution (1775–1783) as their historical guide, when an outnumbered and underequipped force defeated a larger enemy through effective strategy, valuable alliances, and a willingness to absorb punishment. Although the much-desired European help never arrived, Confederates effectively used all their society’s resources to resist the Union through four brutal years of warfare. The effectiveness of Confederate resistance can be seen in the fact that the North was forced to modify its initially conciliatory strategy and adopt a much-harder war policy toward South. This so-called hard war, felt particularly in Central Virginia and Central Tennessee, created great difficulties for Southern families. In addition, the Confederate government imposed a variety of policies—including the draft, impressment, and tax-in-kind—that drove up the cost of goods and created greater scarcity. Confederate civilians disliked these policies, sometimes on the grounds of states’ rights, even though they understood that their purpose was to give the state the tools it needed to prosecute the war successfully.

Some historians interpret the criticism that Confederate civilians directed at Confederate president Jefferson Davis and other leaders as evidence that they rejected the war effort itself. The criticism of Confederate leaders impeded their ability to lead effectively and, among a smaller group, probably represented a true shift in allegiances back to the Union. But a majority of recent studies of Virginia and other Southern states demonstrates that even when Confederate civilians disparaged the policies of their government they rarely supported reconciliation with the North. In some cases, these Confederates accepted the things they did not like as the price of winning the war; others blamed hardships on what they regarded as their ultimate source—the “Yankees.” Without ignoring Confederate dissent, these historians emphasize the degree to which white Southerners supported the Confederacy. In their accounting, the end of the war came not because of internal divisions but because Union forces eroded the ability of Confederates to fight.

Union military successes began outside of Virginia and gradually encircled the state. These included securing control of the Mississippi River (attained with the capture of Vicksburg in July 1863), blockading the Confederate coastline (a process mostly complete by early in 1864), and steadily penetrating the Confederate interior. Union control of western Virginia actually began in 1861 and led, by 1863, to the creation of the Unionist state of West Virginia. The success of Union armies in the trans-Appalachian region of the state buoyed the hopes and secured the lives of Unionists. These individuals, mostly located in counties that bordered the Ohio River, stayed loyal to the Union throughout the conflict and, in doing so, denied Virginia resources (both human and natural) that they had counted on to sustain the Confederate cause. In addition, Union control of this region was a strategic gain because it allowed the North to launch repeated forays into the Shenandoah Valley and beyond.

In eastern Virginia, Lee and his men kept Union forces at bay through mid-1864. With the success of the Overland Campaign, Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant pinned Lee’s army down inside its defenses around Petersburg and the end of the war became a question of time. Once he had Lee confined, Grant could exploit the Union’s significant advantages in matériel and manpower. Although the siege of Petersburg lasted for almost ten months, even Lee anticipated the eventual outcome. Previous Union commanders in Virginia (especially George B. McClellan, Ambrose E. Burnside, and Joseph Hooker) had failed to exploit the Union’s manpower advantage. Grant did not idly waste his soldiers’ lives (as some wartime critics complained and Lost Cause arguments continue to maintain) but he did use the larger size of his army to great advantage. Similarly, Grant destroyed the means of sustenance in Confederate Virginia in effort to further reduce Lee’s fighting effectiveness. The desperation of Lee’s men in April 1865, when hundreds collapsed from hunger along the road to Appomattox, revealed the effectiveness of this strategy.

The question of exactly what weight to ascribe to the various elements—both internal and external—can never be fully resolved. What did emerge clearly in the aftermath of the war was that regardless of which factors compelled the Confederates to lay down their arms, only a small minority of white Virginians celebrated their return to the Union. A significant number of them refused to concede the most basic accomplishment of the war—emancipation—for many years. Black Virginians, for their part, rejoiced in the end of the war and the terms on which it had been concluded.

  • Blair, William A. Virginia’s Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861–1865. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Gallagher, Gary W. The Confederate War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
  • Rubin, Anne Sarah. A Shattered Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, 1861–1868. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
APA Citation:
Sheehan-Dean, Aaron. Causes of Confederate Defeat in the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/causes-of-confederate-defeat-in-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Sheehan-Dean, Aaron. "Causes of Confederate Defeat in the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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