Grand Strategy in the American Civil War

Jul 2018
150
London
#1
I have an impression, when it comes to strategy in the ACW: that there was none.

The famous Anaconda plan was first rejected than, in practice, piecemeal adopted by the Union.

Lincoln seems to have been driven by the necessity of "showing something" at the next political appointment.

The Confederation seemed to think that, if they hit the Union hard enough, the union would have left them in peace.

Also, they tried to involve the European powers in the war, somehow.

What is your impression? What are your considerations?

Cheers.
 
Oct 2015
646
Virginia
#2
You are right. In those simpler times there was no Joint Chiefs of Staff, no Operations Division, no War Cabinet, no General Staff. There was just the President, the Secretaries of War and Navy (when the President chose to consult them), and the General in Chief of the US Army. There was no military head of the US Navy, and the Confederacy did not even have a General in Chief until Lee was appointed in 1865.

In the Confederacy Jefferson Davis personally directed what strategy there was; consulting his Secretaries of War and Navy, and Military Advisor (Lee, later Bragg) at his own discretion.

Lincoln took a much less direct role (except for an unfortunate period in spring 1862). The Generals in Chief (Scott, McClellan, Grant (Halleck doesn't seem to have bothered)) presented general plans which the President approved. However, there was no organizational mechanism to force the Department Commanders to act, nor any way to coordinate Army and Navy except thru the personal relationships of the commanders.

As you mentioned (and most importantly), the two presidents were democratic politicians, and both had to contend first and foremost with politics and public opinion, which drove what strategy there was. It was, after all a "peoples war". Lincoln was far superior to Davis in this endeavor. In the final analysis, it was Lincoln's ability to hold the Northern People to the task (along with timely military successes prior to the 1864 election) that won the war.

It was politics that drove the Confederates to try to defend all their territory and hope for foreign intervention, or failure of Northern will to fight. Northern strategy was also politically driven. It amounted to variations on the "Anaconda" plan...blockade, take the Rebel capitol, open the Mississippi (avoiding heavy casualties). Initially the US hoped that respecting property, offering re-union on easy terms and not touching slavery would cause "unionist elements" in the South to reconcile and give up on independence. When this failed in the summer-fall of 1862, they shifted to "hard war" to convince the Southern people of the futility of continuing to fight; occupation, destruction of property and emancipation.
 
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Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
2,877
Dispargum
#3
The modern US military uses something called Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield. It's basically map reading. On a map there are linear features like rivers and mountain ranges. It's easier to move parallel or along these features rather than across them. Then you look at the transportation network - the roads, railroads, and other lines of communication. It's easier to move on a line of communication than without one. Then you think about centers of gravity - what parts of the map are critical for you to control and what places must the enemy control? How do you capture these enemy centers of gravity while protecting your own centers of gravity? Winfield Scott did not have a modern understanding of IPB, but he could read a map.

Scott knew how important trade was to the Confederacy, and he knew that with its navy the North could blockade Southern ports (which were centers of gravity). He knew the Mississippi River was a line of communication and a linear feature - difficult for the South to cross resource-wise but easy for the invading North to travel along. I don't specifically recall railroads being mentioned in the Anaconda Plan, but a simple look at the map would have predicted a Union advance from Paducah to Nashville to Chattanooga, to Atlanta because that's where the navigable rivers and railroads ran. Some of that terrain is mountainous but that particular line is the easiest path through the mountains. Other routes were tried such as through Cumberland Gap, but those advances never went anywhere because the terrain was more difficult.

Albert Sidney Johnston made a mistake trying to defend the entire Tennessee-Kentucky line. He should have known the Union advance would hit Fts. Henry and Donnelson first because that's where the navigable rivers were.

Scott seems to have predicted that any Union advance in Virgina would have been difficult - probably because all of the rivers would have to be crossed. None could be traveled along. Also, Virginia was a densely populated state with a large hostile population. It was much easier to get to Richmond through the back door which is why McClellan tried his Penninsula Campaign in 1862 and why in 1865 Sherman was marching on Richmond through the Carolinas. Apparently, in 1864 Grant also considered a Carolinas Campaign but ultimately rejected it.
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,048
#4
grand strategy? I'm no expert on the period but it seems to me like most wars the issue of strategy was short term and localised. The Confederacy imagined a quick advance to capture the northern governmental centre would end the war - one can see how close that was to happening, but at the same time, such advances were common in military thinking anyway. The ACW is among the first of the industrial wars, lessons of which pretty well ignored in Europe (which was quite argumentative and warlike around that time, fighting short wars over territory or political squabbles), and the issues raised by the production of advanced weaponry, which did not replace older forms but added to the equipment lists of armies, were not seriously addressed.

The strategies of the ACW therefore parallel the later Great War quite visibly, with concentrated forces obliged to dig in and undertake a war of attrition across a static line in the east and a more mobile approach in the larger expanses of the mid-west, but these were not chosen as much as dictated by circumstance.

It ought to be remembered that one feature of the ACW was the relative amateurism of the generals - I don't mean that as a kind of insult, but it has been recognised that ACW leadership was not based on a career pattern developed over a long period, instead, military structures put together to meet the need of open warfare forced by political decisions of the time. There was no real consensus among civil war leaders how the war should be fought.
 
Jul 2018
150
London
#5
So, it seems to me that the lack of a consistent strategy, at least a planned one, should be attributed mainly to the fact that the military culture in the US was quite low at the time.
This would actually match with the remarks of various contemporary European observers.

I am wondering, would the fact that the war was between two fully developed democracies, where popular consent was paramount, be a factor that could have overcome even the better and most professional strategy?


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Oct 2015
646
Virginia
#6
Didn't Moltke dismiss the American Civil War a struggle of "armed mobs"?

However, the Prussians were unique in developing their general staff system. The strategic thinking, organization, operations and logistics of the other European powers in the mid-19th century was not particularly impressive; and after 1870 they all (except the UK) rushed to copy Prussian methods.

I think (for what it's worth) the strategy of a democracy at war is ALWAYS contingent on politics and public opinion. This was true in the American Civil War, WWI, WWII and more true now than ever.
 
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Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
6,469
#7
I have an impression, when it comes to strategy in the ACW: that there was none.

The famous Anaconda plan was first rejected than, in practice, piecemeal adopted by the Union.

Lincoln seems to have been driven by the necessity of "showing something" at the next political appointment.

The Confederation seemed to think that, if they hit the Union hard enough, the union would have left them in peace.

Also, they tried to involve the European powers in the war, somehow.

What is your impression? What are your considerations?

Cheers.
I have to disagree. The Anaconda plan was the overall Union strategy, once it became clear the war wasn't going end quickly. It was the plan originally proposed by head general of the US, Winfried Scott. The Union might not have effectively implemented the plan until they put Grant in charge, and elevated to command of all the Union armies, but it was the Union intent all along. Of course, initially, everyone thought the war was going to be short, which was wrong.

There was more strategy in he American Civil War than in WW1. Outside of the Germans in the beginning, no one seems to have had an overall plan for victory. Once the Germans initial plan for victory stalled, no one seems to have come up with another overall plan.

From the first, the he Union had several strategic objectives which they achieved

1. Isolate the South economically by shutting and blockading its ports

2. Isolate the South politically by preventing international recognition and intervention

3. Divide the South East and West by controlling the Mississippi

4. Use the superior resources of the Union to defeat the South


Union armies were not always coordinated to achieve the aims, but once once Grant was put in charge of all Union armies, that changed. Grant was made the first Lieutenant General since George Washington, and Grant had a clear goal. Lee was the primary opponent to defeat, and defeat Lee's army, the war would be essentially over. While Lee's army was pinned down at Petersburg, Sherman was free to wreck havoc on the Confederacy, sapping Confederate morale and resources. Grant knew he had greater resources and it was only a matter of time before victory was achieved, as long as he persisted.

True, initially everyone believe that the war could be ended quickly, with a couple of battles deciding the war, so a long range plan like the Anaconda was regarded as not needed by many. The Union troops would drive to the Confederate capital, capture it and end the war. With a more competent general the McClellan that might have worked in the initial.part of the war, but McClellan lacked the boldness required to carry it off, and later in the war Richmond's defenses were too strong to easily capture. Once it became clear the war wasn't going to end quickly, the Anaconda plan was basically adopted.
 
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Likes: Fiver

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
6,469
#8
grand strategy? I'm no expert on the period but it seems to me like most wars the issue of strategy was short term and localised. The Confederacy imagined a quick advance to capture the northern governmental centre would end the war - one can see how close that was to happening, but at the same time, such advances were common in military thinking anyway. The ACW is among the first of the industrial wars, lessons of which pretty well ignored in Europe (which was quite argumentative and warlike around that time, fighting short wars over territory or political squabbles), and the issues raised by the production of advanced weaponry, which did not replace older forms but added to the equipment lists of armies, were not seriously addressed.
I can't help but think that the lessons of the American Civil War were largely ignored by Europeans because of their dismissive and superior attitude, and so Europe paid a terrible price in WW1 for that arrogance.


The strategies of the ACW therefore parallel the later Great War quite visibly, with concentrated forces obliged to dig in and undertake a war of attrition across a static line in the east and a more mobile approach in the larger expanses of the mid-west, but these were not chosen as much as dictated by circumstance.
In the case of the ACW, while Grant had Lee dug in around Petersburg, Sherman was freely roaming around the South causing destruction. It was precisely because Grant had Lee tied down that Sherman was free to roam. The plan.that was adopted, the Anconda Plan, was a overall strategy that was implemented. Unlike WW1, it was part of Grants strategy to wear Lee's army down, a strategy that worked. In WW1, I don't see any sign that the Allied generals had such a far thinking overall strategy.


It ought to be remembered that one feature of the ACW was the relative amateurism of the generals - I don't mean that as a kind of insult, but it has been recognised that ACW leadership was not based on a career pattern developed over a long period, instead, military structures put together to meet the need of open warfare forced by political decisions of the time. There was no real consensus among civil war leaders how the war should be fought.
While much has been stressed on the amateurism of ACW generals, their performance was not worse than the European generals of ACW, and in the case of Grant, he showed far greater innovation than any of the European generals in WW1. I don't see a single WW1 campaign that compares to Grants Vicksburg Campaign for it's boldness and execution.

It must be pointed out that the great expansion of armies in WW1 also required the rapid advancement and.placement of.officers in positions where they had little.experience, and the colonial wars they fought were considerably different than the battlefields of WW1. Defeating natives and irregular forces where they had a clear edge in resources and weaponry wasn't the same thing as facing armies of comparable size and equipment. It had been something like 40 years since a major war had been fought in Western Europe, and weapon technology had advanced considerably since then. In their way, many European generals were as inexperienced as their ACW counterparts for the war they were fighting.

Also, many ACW generals, such as Grant and others, had experience in the Mexican War, so they were not as complete amateurs as often been portrayed.
 

Fiver

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
3,627
#9
So, it seems to me that the lack of a consistent strategy, at least a planned one, should be attributed mainly to the fact that the military culture in the US was quite low at the time.
This would actually match with the remarks of various contemporary European observers.

Period Europeans weren't noted for consistent, let alone good strategies, either.


--------------------------------

Your video has several flaws.

There were differences in the economic and social structure between the North and South. The Northern economic structure was based on free labor. The Southern economic structure was based on slavery. The Northern social structure was based on “all men are created equal”. The Cornerstone of Southern social structure was “that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition”. The North was also a lot more accepting of immigrants – in 1860 about 1 in 40 people in Confederate states was an immigrant, while about 1 in 6 people in Union states was an immigrant.

The two regions did have different views on the balance of powers between state and federal governments, but not in the way most people think. The slave states endorsement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Dred Scott Decision showed that the South strongly supported increasing the power of the Federal Government. The personal liberty laws passed by the free states in response showed that the free states favored the power of the states over the power of the federal government.

Cotton was about 60% of US exports in 1860, but exports were a tiny percent of the US economy. The idea that everybody in the South had a stake in cotton production is simplistic at best. There was plenty of the South outside the cotton belt, where there was more industry and/or livestock and a different dominant crop, or no dominant crop at all. Meanwhile the North, while notably more industrialized than the South, was still primarily agricultural. Northern industrialists, who were a tiny fraction of the North, did not see the South as a rich potential market – slaves had no income at all and the higher levels of wealth inequality among Southern whites meant that most Southern whites couldn’t afford industrial goods, either. And those southern elites were not consuming most of the imported goods, either. Virtually all of the customs revenue came from imports to Northern states.

Tariffs on imported manufactured goods favored all US industry, not just northern industry. The Border South realized this, with Virginia becoming one of the most industrialized states in the country. There was no chance of a Civil War breaking out in 1832 over the tariffs. No other state considered backing South Carolina and southerner Andrew Jackson made it very clear he would hang anyone who tried to secede. By 1860, the South did fear that their interests would be under-represented in the government, but those fears had nothing to do with tariffs. At that point tariffs were at the lowest point in US history and Southern senators were easily able to black even a modest increase in tariffs. What the South did fear was loss of slavery, which they said loudly and repeatedly in their secession documents.

Most of the North did not decide force was necessary to preserve the Union until the Confederacy attacked Union troops on Union soil in a Union fort and then proclaimed their intention to invade and seize the Union capital. Until that point, most Northerners, including Abraham Lincoln, hoped for a peaceful solution.

The idea that the Civil War might have been avoided if Southern elites had invested in Northern industries is nonsensical. Most Southern elites weren’t even investing in Southern industry; they were plowing their profits into more prestigious investments – land and slaves. Confederate reasons for seceding and attacking the Union had nothing to do with levels of industry – they were not an economic clash, but an ideological clash over whether “all men are created equal” or “that the negro is not equal to the white man”.

The Northern working class did fear slave labor undercutting their wages, but your claim that both the Republicans and Democrats adopted an abolitionist line to gain favor with the working class is false. Most of the Northern working class was not abolitionist. Nothing in either Democratic platform of 1860 was remotely abolitionist. And the Republican platform of 1860 did not call for abolition, it called for keeping slaves out of the territories.
 
Jul 2018
150
London
#10
Hi Fiver (no pun intended ... :))

Thanks for the detailed reply. As I say in the title, I always try to be somehow controversial ... apparently I have been successful at it!


Period Europeans weren't noted for consistent, let alone good strategies, either.
In Europe there were general staffs whose job was planning. Not always brilliantly successful, and WW1 was definitely a planning failure. However, better than the total lack of in the US.

Your video has several flaws.

There were differences in the economic and social structure between the North and South. ...
I agree, my underlying thesis is that the war was due the diverging interests between north and south because of economic imbalances, first, and the social differences.


The two regions did have different views on the balance of powers ...
.
I am not sure to understand this point, would you elaborate a bit?

Cotton was about 60% of US exports in 1860, but exports were a tiny percent of the US economy...
To import goods, you need to have the foreign currency to buy them abroad. You get the foreign currency with your export, at the time largely cotton. This means that the US foreign currency reserves were stashed in the mansions of the rich southerners, buying luxury goods abroad rather than being spread among people who would have bought northern products..

Virtually all of the customs revenue came from imports to northern states.
Exactly, the south had the money to finance the imports but it wasn't available for the north. Hence the need for a more developed financial system.

There was no chance of a Civil War breaking out in 1832 over the tariffs.
That was a bit ... dramatic, I admit.

By 1860, the South did fear that their interests would be under-represented in the government ... What the South did fear was loss of slavery, which they said loudly and repeatedly in their secession documents.
This is actually my interpretation. And true the main concern was slavery but not for itself or the social consequences, but mostly because an export led economy would not have been possible without it.

Most of the North did not decide force was necessary to preserve the Union until the Confederacy attacked ...
Again, my interpretation. I believe Lincoln was representing northern interests, and northern interests were to integrate the south in the north economic system. Since history went exactly the opposite way, I believe they thought that an armed conflict would have been a more effective way to bring it back, rather than years of negotiation.


The idea that the Civil War might have been avoided if Southern elites had invested in Northern industries is nonsensical.
I beg to differ. The point is consequential from the discussion about the currencies and the financial system above. However, it is a what if and it should be taken as such.

... your claim that both the Republicans and Democrats adopted an abolitionist line to gain favor with the working class is false. .... Nothing in either Democratic platform of 1860 was remotely abolitionist. And the Republican platform of 1860 did not call for abolition ...
True in 1860, but when the gloves went off later in the war, abolitionism clearly won the hearts and minds of the northern population.

I hope I have clarified my thinking.

I am looking forward to your reply.

Cheers
 

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