On the surface, the American War of Independence and the Civil War were similar: they both complained of social and economic hegemony and sought independence as a means of guaranteeing political freedom. In the former case, the colonies declared independence from Britain and won, while the Confederacy in the latter case declared its own independence and lost, badly. What were the essential differences? This paper will attempt to briefly summarize the main reasons for the victory in the one example, with defeat in the second. The basic issues were geography, economics, foreign recognition and diplomacy. There are other more minor reasons that will also be covered briefly.
The most obvious distinction between the two wars was the simple question of geographical distance. The political capital and basic provision of supplies to the British army stationed in the American colonies was a long journey across the Atlantic. This added expense and aggravation to London in provisioning soldiers. In the Civil War, geography was not an important issue, the two countries were contiguous. However, the Confederacy did attempt a strategy that was designed to force the Union into an offensive war, but southern generals thought differently later, bringing the war to Pennsylvania. Of course, the great American advantage against the Redcoats was that the rebels were fighting on their own territory for the entire war. On the other hand, the south had brought the war to the north, with disastrous results.
Secondly, there was the question of international recognition. One of the most important missions of the Confederate government in the Civil War was to gain the recognition of London or Paris. All they received was recognition from the Vatican, though Catholic Spain rebuffed the Vatican and supported the colonists cause though warms shipments though several southern ports, where a Spanish presence was strong. The colonists, thanks to the abilities of Ben Franklin, received the much needed support of the French. In the Civil War, the Confederacy repeatedly sought European recognition, but did not receive it, even though Napoleon III wanted a Confederate ally to assist him in Mexico. Union victories and the failure of Gettysburg and even before that made certain that Europe was not going to recognize a lost cause (Blumenthal, 1966).
Speaking more generally, the question of international recognition had almost no parallel between the War of Independence and the American Civil War. In the former case, the British were the world’s hegemon, to put it crudely, everyone wanted a piece of London. Hence, it was not difficult for foreign capitals to make a decision to support the well financed colonists. For nearly everyone, the loss of London was an automatic gain for them. On the other hand, support for the South made little sense. The only real weapon the Confederacy had was their first class cotton, the first choice of the British–only later were they forced to go to Egypt for cotton. But this was not a serious enough weapon for global capitals to support a struggling agricultural republic against the forces of the federal apparatus. Needless to say, the federal diplomatic corps was already in the field when the war started, while the Confederacy created a diplomatic corps from scratch, hence late in the game and inferior to the diplomats already working for Washington. It was, to say the least, an uphill battle. For the South, only a smashing victory could convince Paris (especially) to support Richmond–and even that was not a guarantee. None was forthcoming (the international situation is well explained in Book XII of Botta, 1821).
Thirdly, there was the additional problem for the British in 1776 of problems both in Ireland and France. The British were patrolling a huge empire, and in Europe, struggles with its difficult Irish colony and rivalry with France made prolonging a war in America difficult to stomach. Even more, problems for England in India, and just as obscurely, the need to pacify the Dutch and others who sought neutral trade with the Americans also did not help the British war effort. On the other hand, the Union forces in the Civil War had no other major engagements to deal with, and hence, could dedicate all its energies to defeating the South (Botta, 1821).
These are the three main reasons why the two wars came out differently. But there are other, more subtle reasons that do need to be taken seriously, subtle in the sense that they are not necessarily measurable like the above three main reasons, but this does not divert any attention from its importance.
An example of this is ideology. In both victories of the colonists and the Union, a strong sense of historical mission was present. For the colonists, the basic thought is that the revolution was part of the American destiny to manifest the true rights of man in a new age. That the age of monarchy and established religion was passed, and the ideas of the Enlightenment could find a new home in America, apart from the inherited prejudices of the old world. Now this ideological view can be taken too far and made to simplistic, but some of the colonists’s rhetoric is not too far away from this (Endy, 1985).
On the other hand, both the anti-slavery cause and the sense of the integrity of the country were also major motivating factors in the Union victory. Whether or not President Lincoln was truly motivated to free slaves in federal territory is moot in that the anti-slavery cause motivated thousands of propagandists and political leaders in the north, giving a strong religious and moral motivation to fighting this war (cf. Esp Levine, 2004).
At the same time, it would also be false to hold that the Confederacy did not have such a motivation. The Confederate states, with some substantial justification, could and did claim that they were more true to the intent of the founders of the country than the union. The centralizing tendencies of the Union state were opposed to the basic sense of federalism of the founding fathers (with Hamilton as an exception). Nevertheless, even with this more or less abstract ideological conviction, the sense of liberating slaves and maintaining a “unitary” country were easier to grasp. In short, the ideological position of the north was easier to understand and defend over the more or less abstract Constitutional principles put forth by John C. Calhoun and many others (Ford, 1988). Generally, wars are won but by or though abstractions, but easy to understand objectives and overall moral righteousness–this, for example, was a major problem in Vietnam, it was not so much that the United States had no moral basis, they most certainly did, but it was a complex argument of global geopolitics and the might of the USSR that was rather abstract, but still serious. The simple nationalism of the Vietnamese peasants was far easier to grasp. These are all morale issues that, especially in a war that did not end quickly, becomes substantially important. As far as the revolution in America is concerned, the desire for independence trumped the abstract demand for the maintenance of an empire from which average soldier (and even officer) did not directly benefit. As the war wore on, there can be little question that these basic morale boosters became increasingly important (Watson, 1994).
Economics is the one main cause that might be sufficient to explain the two victories. There was no question that even the infant American republic was an economic powerhouse. Major port cities, strong agricultural performance, a large population, plentiful land and natural resources, and developing industry especially in the northern cities made the American colonies a formidable foe even for the seasoned British forces. The colonies were no backwater, but were at the center of global trade (with British help, to be sure). The attempts of the British parliament (not the king, but the king made a convenient target) to strangle this trading potential is a major cause of the war of independence. In other words the colonists took the best instruction possible in shipping and trading from the British stock from which they descended. It was used against London successfully in the end.
The two sections of America were very different from one another (though this has occasionally been challenged, it remains the prevailing opinion). The south, while having important port cities such as New Orleans, was primarily an agricultural country. The north was developing powerful industries at a rate much higher than the south, dependent as it was on tobacco and cotton (with some substantial production of rice). Both in terms of population and gross domestic product, the war against the Confederacy was a cinch for Lincoln. This is what motivated the Confederate state to adopt their purely defensive position against the north: let them invade, let them fight on our turf. A defensive position is basically cheaper in men and material than an offensive one, and this is how Richmond was to fight the war. Things turned out differently in Chambersburg and Gettysburg, however, where the south overreached itself (Grant, 1958). Hence, in both cases, money was a major variable: the union was a growing giant relative to the South in terms of basic manufacturing, while the American colonies in 1776 were themselves, taken together, a major economic power in their own right, hence not a repressed backwater such as England had forced upon Ireland. But even in the Irish case, the simple facts of geography militated against the Gaels (being nearly contiguous physically), while they worked in favor of the colonies.
In conclusion, it seems clear, if only in hindsight, that the two victories were foreordained. The South did not have a chance at home or abroad–she was simply too weak economially. On the other hand, the British, with so many other pressing problems that perennially bug huge empires, she was incapable of putting her full forces against the distant Americans. It is also unclear if the British elite public opinion would have supported it anyway, the colonists were not Irishmen after all, they were British as well (or at least from Ulster). However, for one final point, it is reasonable to say if one was alive in 1774, it was clearly not obvious that the colonists would win, or that they had the full support of the local population. Hence, if there was a toss up, it would be the revolution. It is unclear how the south could have remained optimistic about their chances against Washington DC, in global isolation.
Blumenthal, Henry. 1966. Confederate Diplomacy: Popular Notions, International realities. The Journal of Southern History. 32 (May): 151-171
Botta, Carol. 1821. The History of the War of Independence of the United States of America. J. Maxwell.
Endy, Melvin. 1985. Just War, Holy War and Millennialism in Early America. The William and Mary Quarterly. 21 (April): 4-25
Ford, Lacy. (1988). Republican Ideology in a Slave Society: The Political Economy of John C. Calhoun. The Journal of Southern History. 54 (August): 405-424
Grant, US. 1958. Military Strategy in the Civil War. Military Affairs. 22 (Spring): 13-25
Levine, Bruce. 2004. Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War. Macmillan
Watson, Samuel., 1994. Religion and Combat Motivation in Confederate Armies. The Journal of Military History. 58 (January): 29-55