Grand Strategy in the American Civil War

Jun 2017
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?

1)Kind of. Keep in mind the capital of the South was right next to DC and it was thought that capturing it would quickly lead to the end of the rebellion. This makes sense and assuming that was as easy as it sounds why opt for the long and elaborate plan? The issue was they lost. Then McCllelan was in charge and found a way to mess it up, then Lee became general won a few major battles and everything changed so eventually we had just ended up going with more or less the Anaconda Plan by the time resistance finally collapsed.

2)If you mean 1864 we have long election cycles and early in that year things looked pretty bad and Lincoln was in danger of losing. After Gettysburg it took another year to attack Lee again and then Lee kept beating Grant in battles where huge amounts of soldiers died. Even in the West where the Union had typically been successful there had been the loss at Chickamunga the year before and Johnston was putting up somewhat stiff resistance. The war looked like it would take several more years. Then Atlanta fell, Mobile fell and Grant trapped Lee at Petersburg and Sherman was running through Georgia basically unopposed. The major bloodbaths of the war were also mostly over at this point and compromise no longer made sense so Lincoln won almost every state, which doesn't tell the story about how bad things looked earlier in the year.

3)The close capitals of Richmond and Washington were a double edged sword. While early on attacking Washington and the much larger army of the Potomac was a pipe dream despite the proximity, after Lee's victories this changed and DC was an option. Either that or just going North and wreaking havoc and/or winning a battle would have probably won the South the war and put domestic and international pressure on the North to accept the South's independence.

4)The CSA tried to get recognition of their independence which would pressure the Union to make peace. The British imported a lot of Southern cotton and were thought to be sympathetic and the French were trying to set up a puppet in Mexico and had something to gain from a Confederate victory and subsequent establishment as a French ally . The British though had an alternative source of cotton in Egypt and most of the world had abandoned slavery at this point giving the CSA a serious PR disadvantage. Still this was a time the UK and French were pretty activist in international affairs with both intervening in Crimea and the French having been instrumental in Italian independence and this wasn't the craziest idea especially seeing how French intervention had been decisive in the American Revolution. The CSA though never had their Saratoga where it became worth it for the UK or France. Private British firms did build the Confederate's up to several "ironclads" though which were very effective and resulted in a famous damages tribunal a few years after the war.

5)My consideration is that the South was overwhelmingly outnumbered and outindustrialized by the North and the rebellion on paper should have been easily overthrown and that forgoing the Anaconda Plan in favor of attacking Richmond made sense. The South though had a bunch of the best military while the North had George McCllelan and this kept Richmond and the Confederacy afloat a few years before the bloodbath's and the South's lack of people and supplies took it's toll. While the front between Gettysburg and Richmond gets the lionshare of the attention from historians studying the Civil War there were fights too in the West too that without the disparity in tactical skill between Lee, Jackson and McCllelan saw the North dominating from the beginning and while some battles like Shiloh were close the North almost always won. Tennessee was under Union control by 1862 and before becoming Vice President and then President Andrew Johnson was military governor. New Orleans the most important southern city other than Richmond, probably the most important city if we disregard Richmond's status as capital fell in early 1862 before the North began "splitting the South in two".


Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
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.
There certainly was a large element of that. The militaries of Europe had been around awhile and had developed cultures all of their own, whereas the Americans had to build armies almost from scratch when the conflict opened. That said, bear in mind there was a whole list of European wars in the latter half of the 19th century albeit conflicts that did not focus on technical advantages. Whilst it is true that strategy and tactics in the American war weren't going to impress European leaders because of prevailing attitudes, neither were they learning from their own experiences and pretty much determined to continue war as it had been conducted for a couple of centuries

Also, I have to point out that development of arms was not linear and accelerated toward an apogee as the second industrial revolution ("A revolution in steel and electricity") gathered pace with the spread and exploitation of ideas. For instance, around the same period, the Austro-Prussian War was fought with the latter employing early forms of a bolt action rifle while the other used breechloaders. Guess who won. Did it make any difference to strategy? Nope. Not one jot, although it probably added to the arms race a little.
Jul 2018
.... Did it make any difference to strategy? Nope. Not one jot, although it probably added to the arms race a little.
Not in 1866, not in 1870, but in 1914 it will.
The increased range of weapons and the necessity to spread out the forces to cope with their increased effectiveness will enlarge the front line to a point that there are going to be no flanks anymore and the whole theater is a line of battle.
This will be the strategic change. But, during the ACW, this didn't happen to any meaningful extent.
Oct 2018
Minneapolis, MN
One of the big issues in the Civil war for the South that ruined any small chance for them was the political pressure. Jefferson Davis had a goal of a war of attrition much like the revolutionary war. Avoid major battles that could severely destroy his army, engage in more skirmishes and hit and run. Pick their fights and win the war not by winning, but by not losing.

Unfortunately, he had to rely on the southern states support and their leaders demanded full defense of their lands looking out for their own states best interests first. The Rev war was more of a fluid defense which allowed them to give up cities and land and fight where and when it was beneficial to the overall cause only. Boston, NYC, Philadelphia and other major cities all fell to the British at different points of the war, but they were able to fight on without being forced into defending any one location. Washington could retreat and give up land and cities for more time. Then pick his attacks on isolated British forces and take back when the fight was favorable.

Washington lost a LOT of battles. Long Island, Kips Bay, White Plains, Fort Washington, Fort Lee, Brandywine, Germantown, Fort Necessity, Monongahela. George Washington lost more battles than he ever won. But he kept his army alive and intact, won the ones that mattered and lost without a complete defeat... because he didn't need to win, just not lose everything. And when Britian's political parties changed and Washington took a big win (Yorktown) and it was time to reinforce or cut their losses, Britian finally decided on the latter.

Davis was forced by his constituents/state leaders to defend the south... the entirety of it, fight along every border and not give an inch unless they had to.

When Philadelphia fell, Pennsylvania didn't tell Washington they were recalling their troops from his army to take Philly back or defend their own state first. The colonies fought for the most part as one, knowing a unified army was most important. When Atlanta fell Georgia recalled it's troops to save Georgia first.

And a big part was land can always be taken back. Slaves however were not always still waiting to be re-enslaved upon your return.

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