The South’s Great Intelligence Miscalculation

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. Within a few months, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina followed them. The seceded states banded together to form the Confederate States of America, led by West Point graduate, President Jefferson Davis.



The stated aim of the CSA was to maintain “states’ rights” against the threat of federal intrusion by the administration of the new president, Abraham Lincoln. Though not all Southerners were willing to claim the possible abolition of slavery in Southern states as their cause for secession, it was the one “intrusion” from the federal government that concerned them, in spite of the fact that Lincoln had made it clear that his priority was not abolition, but preservation of the Union. Politics and cultural sensitivities aside, Southern states seceded from the Union in order to maintain the institution of slavery and to allow their individual states to operate with less central authority from any national government.

By the time the war ended in May of 1865, the Civil War had brought about two major changes to the US federal government.

The first change was the growth of the authority of the federal government, which led to a drastic decrease in states’ rights. The second change was that slavery had been abolished in the Confederate States by that now more powerful federal government. States no longer had the right to individually decide the issue of slavery.

When, after a century and a half of deliberation and debate, we view the South’s fatal choice to undertake a civil war with the United States, any student of military or political history has to wonder how the Southern leaders managed to make such a bad decision.


Ft. Sumter Engraving in Harper's Weekly, Jan. 26, 1861 public domain

Ft. Sumter
Engraving in Harper’s Weekly, Jan. 26, 1861
public domain


What could Beauregard and his political supporters have expected when they opened fire on Fort Sumter, the Union garrison in Charleston Harbor? Clearly, they expected a surrender of the undersupplied and undermanned fort. In this they were correct, but what did they think would follow? We cannot blame Jefferson Davis and other leaders in the CSA for lacking clairvoyance, but there were well known facts that should have enabled them to draw a more accurate intelligence assessment on the prospects of war with the Northern States.

Let us consider some of the important facts that were readily visible from the beginning.

The North:

  • 23 Northern states
  • Population ~ 22 million
  • Jobs to offer immigrants
  • Over 120,000 factories
  • Well-established international banking system, with over $100 million total in deposits
  • Iron production in 1860: 2,700 tons
  • A canal system and 20,000 miles of railroads that were almost completely on a standard gauge, allowing tremendous capacity to transport passengers and cargo

The South:

  • 11 Confederate states
  • Population ~ 9 million, including over 3 million slaves
  • Few jobs to offer immigrants
  • 20,000 factories, many of which were small and close to the Mason-Dixon Line, making them vulnerable to military attack
  • Few banks, with less than $38 million total in deposits
  • Iron production in 1860: 155 tons
  • 9,000 miles of railroads with varying gauges, requiring frequent transfer of passengers and cargo within a single journey

The one economic advantage enjoyed by the South was in greater export surpluses, but that export surplus was completely dependent on cotton.

However, the South had an advantage in terms of military leadership at the beginning of the war. While most US naval officers at the time were Northerners, maintaining an overwhelming advantage over the navy of the Confederate States of America, over 300 trained army officers resigned from the US Army and received commissions in the army of the CSA.

Strategically, the CSA counted on one critical advantage – it did not need to invade and defeat the Union. It simply needed to defend CSA territory.

Fighting from prepared defensive positions against invading Union armies allowed the CSA to suffer fewer casualties in most of the battles it fought. When Confederate General Robert E. Lee strayed from these defensive tactics at Gettysburg, the Southern casualties mounted. While US General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union army suffered more casualties in his campaigns against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Grant could easily replace his losses from the North’s abundant population. Lee could not fully replace his casualties from the more sparsely populated South.

Given the obvious advantages of the Northern states, the miserable intelligence assessment on the part of the CSA that led them into battle was, in large part, dependent on two gross miscalculations.


Oklahoma Cotton Field, c. 1897 National Archives & Records Administration public domain

Oklahoma Cotton Field, c. 1897
National Archives & Records Administration
public domain


First, the CSA held the wildly optimistic assumption that France and England would come to its aid in order to obtain cotton from the South. In their view, cotton was “king.” In order to force Europe to support the CSA, the South burned its cotton harvest in 1861.

Europe yawned.

France and England had both invested in building a strategic cotton reserve, and when cotton stopped coming from the South due to the CSA’s temporary ban on cotton exports, Europe invested in vast new plantations in India, Egypt, and Brazil. If cotton had ever really been king, the king was now quite dead. Europe was happy to sell high quality arms to the South, but the collapsing CSA economy and the Union Navy’s blockades and captures of Southern ports prevented the South from purchasing enough weapons to match Northern production.

The South’s second gross miscalculation concerned the willingness of Northerners to support a war. There were always war protestors in the North during the Civil War. Their influence was never enough to force Lincoln to prematurely halt the war.

While Jefferson Davis had been acutely aware of the many disadvantages faced by the CSA, he and his supporters allowed their passions to lead them to gross miscalculations.

The great intelligence lesson to be learned from the suicidal miscalculations of the Confederate States of America:

Passions and emotions have no place in intelligence analysis. Stick to the facts. Romantic delusions will not win on the battlefield.

Speaking of romantic delusions, in another article, we will consider US intelligence failures in the Korean War.


10 comments on “The South’s Great Intelligence Miscalculation

  1. KM Huber says:

    Brilliant, as always, as well as timely, both impeccably so this time. Thank you.

  2. One of the outcomes of the loss of southern cotton to the British in 1861 was a wool boom in New Zealand as British mills switched fibre. It made some serious fortunes for key pastoralists here. It also didn’t last but it’s another intriguing wider consequence of the Southern intel failure and what followed. Ripples in a pond, and even in the 1860s that pond was global. (Weirdly, we had another wool boom 90 years later on the back of the Korean War when NZ became one of the suppliers of wool for uniforms.)

    • Jay Holmes says:

      Hi Matthew. Thanks for your insightful response. I had not been aware of the impact on the wool industry in NZ.

  3. Astute analysis. I think another interesting question might be to examine the curriculum of the USMA between 1840 and 1860. I suspect that it would show a lot more emphasis on the campaigns of Napoleon (think, for example, of the popularity of generals posing with one hand in their coat in the style of Bonaparte) from the perspective of battlefield tactics and strategy than any study of the logistical necessities of keeping a large army in the field during a campaign. Arguably the Civil War is the first industrial war, a factor you allude to by comparing iron production of the two sides as well as the number of factories possessed by each.

    It’s also possible that the belief in “fighting spirit” (or, as Napoleon put it, “the moral is to the physical as ten to one”) was a factor in the analytic paradigm of the South. Mirroring Napoleon, I remember hearing as a young child in Georgia remarks like “one Southerner can whip ten Yankees” — and this a hundred years after the war!

    Comparing the Japanese view of the US to the South’s view of the North might provide some interesting parallels as well.

    Good post!

  4. Jay Holmes says:

    Hi Tom. Thank you for your well considered response.

    “examine the curriculum of the USMA between 1840 and 1860.”

    You brought up an important point. That question has been examined by the US Military Academies as well as other historians. That very lesson is now included in their curriculums. Cadets are warned to learn from the past but to not attempt to “fight the last war,” as opposed to whatever situation they are faced with in the present.

    Napoleon was indeed a major topic at military academies prior to the US Civil War. Even the Great Robert E. Lee was very slow to understand the impact of the newer long ranged and more accurate rifles that were used in the Civil War as compared to the Napoleonic Wars or the Crimean War. One characteristic shared by Confederate generals Longstreet, Bragg, and J Johnston was a respect for the effect of the devastating defensive fire that modern rifles enabled. These three Generals wisely tried to avoid attacks against well prepared Union positions, and they were often criticized for it. It is fascinating that for many Civil War buffs, General Picket’s failed charge at Gettysburg rates Picket higher respect than what many accord to Longstreet, Bragg, and J Johnston. A. S. Johnston died too soon for me to be able to make a guess as to whether or not he, too, was in that group. Many Lee enthusiasts still try to justify Picket’s charge. To his credit, Lee himself did not do so. He accepted the blame for that mistake before the battle even ended.

  5. Dreams will take you just so far. But then those men were of different mindset. There was no social media or television/rapid reporting. Slow communications. Honor was important. Easier to be a dreamer in isolation?

    • Jay Holmes says:

      Hi philosophermouse. I am certain that you are right. It is indeed easier to engage dreams recklessly when in isolation. Whether it’s a literal isolation from people or the virtual isolation created by surrounding oneself with sycophants the results are the same.

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