A New Perspective On The Civil War And The Law Of Unintended Consequences


In rereading Bruce Catton recently, I got a point he was trying to make which heretofore had gone over my head.  The war should have ended in 1862.  The south was under an increasingly effective blockade, couldn’t manufacture much of anything and had lost three of its major cities, New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville.

It looked done.

But then it somehow found the resources to raise larger armies, equip them, feed, seize back four hundred miles of the Mississippi, drive McCellan from the outskirts of Richmond, twice invade the north and then of course fight on for three more years.  So where did it find the wherewithal?

The answer is, in great part, from the three major cities that were lost.  

From the Union governments point of view conquering these cities dealt a severe blow to the south.  The south viewed it the same way.  But they were still southern in allegiance, but now, no longer under blockade  and after a year or so of no business at all, they were suddenly booming.  And funneling vast amounts of gold into the Confederacy as cotton and tobacco flowed in through the very porous indeed in most cases undefined boundaries of Federal authority.  Sherman fumed about Memphis, “every dollar in gold paid for cotton here goes immediately to Nassau to buy arms.  This city does more for the rebellion than Charleston South Carolina.”  But he couldn’t do much about it.

Of course the South was reduced by the blockade, towards the end you couldn’t even buy nails.  But the point is  that the Civil War went on as long as it did in great part because the north took over the south’s largest cities and couldn’t help but allow them to be run for the benefit of the south.  That is if they had just blockaded instead, much fewer supplies would have reached those incomparable southern armies.

And so is writ another story of government policy boomeranging.  Just FDR’s programs to end the Depression deepened it, LBJ’s war on poverty decreased it, Barney Frank’s desire stated goal of making housing more affordable caused the greatest loss of wealth in human history and so on.