THE CRUX OF FRANK L. OWSLEY'S STATE-RIGHTS THESIS REEXAMINED
This piece was originally done as a paper that was read at the
Mid-America Conference on History in September 1983. I and
my collaborators had already entered into an agreement to work
on Why the South Lost the Civil War and we needed the investi-
gation for that book. I present it here slightly revised from its
original speech format.
In The Rebel Shore, James M. Merrill suggested that the early naval attacks on the Atlantic coast brought fear to the hearts of Southerners, who came to know that Yankee sea power “could strike swiftly, mercilessly, and without warning against Confederate shores.” Confederate civilians fled to the interior and pleaded for better defense of their coasts. Merrill wrote: “The theory that state rights were responsible for the ultimate collapse of the Confederacy began when Southern governors balked at dispatching men, arms, and ammunition to the Virginia firing line in order to protect their own seacoasts.” This, he pointed out, set up internal conflict, for Confederate officials were forced to choose between moving troops from the main fronts and exposing the coasts. The latter choice could lead to competition with state governors for men and supplies, for the governors were pressured by citizens to place local defense above the needs of the entire Confederacy1
Certainly it would be an oversimplification to attribute the
1. James M. Merrill, The Rebel Shore: The Story of Union Sea Power in the Civil
War (Boston: Little, Brown, 1957), vi, 13-14; see also pp. 25, 52-53.