The strategies of the Civil War

The strategies of the Civil War

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When the Civil War begins, the question of strategy does not even arise for the belligerents, since almost everyone thinks thata great Napoleonic style battle will end the conflict in just a few weeks. Once this certainty was dispelled by the first fighting in the summer of 1861, both North and South had to agree that a more elaborate strategy was needed regarding the future conduct of the war.

The Union: the hesitation between conquest and suffocation

Constitutionally, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the United States of America is the President. The highest ranking officer occupies the function of "general commanding the army" (Commanding General of the Army); despite his title, he remains under the president's orders, and his plans are subject to the approval of the head of state. He is therefore more of an advisor, a particularly valuable role for Lincoln. The latter has in fact practically no military experience - he served only a few weeks in the Illinois Militia in 1832 - and his notions of strategy are largely empirical.

The northern president will therefore rely mainly on his generals to develop a successful strategy. One of the first to submit a war plan, in May 1861, will be George mcclellan. The latter proposed to concentrate the army of volunteers in Ohio, from where an offensive could be launched in two different directions: either south-east, following the Kanawha valley to enter Virginia; or straight south, through Kentucky and Tennessee, to strike Confederation in the heart. These plans are submitted to the Army Commanding General, Winfield Scott, who rejects them.

The old officer, who lacks McClellan's theoretical background - he's never been to West Point - prefers a more pragmatic approach. Above all, it is more economical: Scott is loath to inflict on the Southerners, who were his fellow citizens only yesterday, all the horrors of a firmly waged civil war. It was not lost on him that the Confederation's primary source of income was cotton exports, which alone accounted for 60% of the value of American exports in the 1850s. Scott convinced himself by depriving the South of this manna, he could bring him to his knees and force him to return to the Union shedding as little blood as possible.

To do this, Scott intends to strangle the Confederation by cutting its communications with Europe, the main buyer of southern cotton. This therefore implies doing the blockade of rebel ports, but also to take control of the waterways which allow the cotton produced inland to be exported: the Mississippi Valley will therefore be targeted. The only downside to this plan was its slow execution. Lincoln had declared a blockade of the southern coasts early on, but the Federal Navy was still too weak to be effective.

A strategy under pressure

This strategic vision of slowly quelling the rebellion by encircling the coasts and the Mississippi valley like a snake led the Northerner press, and in particular the Republican newspapers, to deride the plan of Scott, who was dubbed " Anaconda plan ". With the defeats of the summer dampening the enthusiasm somewhat, Scott's ideas were taken with more seriousness, and the first operations against the southern ports were launched in the second half of 1861.

However, northern public opinion could not bring themselves to wait for the blockade to work, and neither could the political class. Lincoln would gladly have been content to apply Scott's strategy, and he continued to seek his advice from time to time even after he left the army in November 1861. But he also had to ensure the collaboration of its ministers and members of Congress, particularly among the most radical republicans.

The latter demanded a victorious offensive against the Confederate capital, Richmond, whose presence some 150 kilometers from Washington was a permanent challenge to the authority of the Union. Lincoln therefore never ceased to claim offensive victories from his generals, especially in Virginia, and regularly urged them to attack. These offensives, however, were failures, either because they had been carried out in a timorous manner (as by McClellan during the Peninsula campaign in 1862), or because the attack had turned into a fiasco, notably with the defeats of Fredericksburg in 1862 and Chancellorsville in 1863.

At the same time, operations against the southern coasts and the western waterways had yielded, by the first half of 1862, surprising and unexpected results, including the capture of New Orleans, Nashville and Memphis. These successes convinced Lincoln that the much-maligned "Anaconda plan" was viable. He therefore ensured that its implementation continued, in parallel with its offensives against Richmond. After the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson in July 1863, Mississippi was completely under Union control and the Confederacy had only a handful of free ports left: the bulk of the Anaconda plan was accomplished.

Lincoln could no longer afford to wait, however, because the presidential election of 1864 was approaching. His Democratic opponent, who was none other than George McClellan, made a point of capitalizing on the weariness of Northern opinion vis-à-vis the war, which could have disastrous consequences given that some Democrats were ready to negotiate with the Southerners. The President therefore demanded decisive victories from his generals, which notably materialized, not without difficulty, in the capture of Atlanta in September 1864.

Despite everything, the Confederation continued to fight. Ulysses Grant, now the army’s new commanding general, realized that the only way to quickly defeat the Confederacy was to completely deprive it of anything that allowed it to fight. It is therefore these resources - food, ammunition, armament, and the transport necessary for their delivery - that the ultimate northern offensives were going to target. Sherman's army, in particular, would literally break the backs of Confederation by devastating Georgia and then the Carolinas. Deprived of everything, the southern armies collapsed in the spring of 1865.

Confederation: salvation from overseas?

At the start of hostilities, the South is in a better position than the North, strategically speaking. Indeed, as historian James McPherson (Battlecry of freedom1988), if the Union is forced to win the war, the Confederation can emerge victorious simply by not losing it. Defense is a more comfortable position than attack; in addition, the extent of the Confederate territory and the relative weakness of its infrastructure are more likely to work in favor of the Confederation.

The latter having copied as they are many of the institutions of its predecessor, the role of commander-in-chief of the armies was devolved to the president. Jefferson Davis. The main difference was the absence of an army commanding general, since the Confederate regular army was still in its infancy. Davis had all the more elbow room in strategy because, unlike Lincoln, he had extensive experience in military affairs: after commanding a regiment of volunteers during the war against Mexico, he served as Secretary of War between 1853 and 1857.

Like most of the Southern political class, Davis subscribed to the ideology of " cotton-king ". Named after a speech by South Carolina Senator James Hammond in 1858, the idea was that Europe, and in particular the UK, was dependent on southern cotton. If the latter were to run out, for example because of a blockade or a northern invasion, and the English mills would find themselves short of raw material. To avoid the uprising of its working class and the ruin of its economy, Britain would then be obliged to intervene to force the Union to recognize the independence of the Confederation.

The key to the Southern strategy during the war was therefore to obtain the recognition and intervention of the great European powers. The Confederation would soon send unofficial representatives to Britain to try to get it. The arrest of two of them by the Federal Navy while on board a British ship, the Trent, narrowly failed to spark armed conflict in November 1861, but the Northern government was able to defuse the crisis - aided in this by its British counterpart, who was unwilling to get drawn into a war across the Atlantic so easily.

Cotton diplomacy failed her too. At the start of the war, the southern planters themselves tried to limit cotton exports to England in order to induce it to intervene. While there was a crisis in the textile industry in 1862, it was quickly brought under control as the UK found other sources of supply, in India and Egypt. Either way, as John Keegan noted, British public opinion had long been too ill-disposed towards slavery to ask its government to support a country which made it the cornerstone of its way of life. life.

Sovereignty through arms

For Jefferson Davis, obtaining international recognition also required the assertion of Confederation sovereignty on its territory. This implied defending it in full and, if necessary, reclaiming lost ground. If the South showed it was forming a sovereign nation capable of self-defense, then it would be seen as respectable enough to be recognized by foreign powers.

From a military point of view, Davis would therefore stick to a purely defensive strategy during the first months of the war. His obsession with defending all the southern territory was going to cost him dearly: too few to defend this immense space, his forces found themselves dispersed for hundreds of kilometers, especially in the West. Vulnerable to a concentrated attack from the Union, the line of defense installed on the border of Tennessee and Kentucky collapsed from the first assault: the fall of Fort Donelson in February 1862 cost the Confederation thousands of dollars. prisoners and rendered the other established points of support useless, forcing the southern forces to regroup dozens of kilometers further south.

A few months later, Joseph E. Johnston's injury in the Battle of Seven Pines placed Robert Lee in command of the main Confederate Army in Virginia. Lee then removed the danger that General McClellan's army posed to Richmond during the Seven Day Battles in June-July 1862. This victory gave him considerable credit with President Davis, on whom he succeeded in imposing his strategic views on the conduct of the war. According to Lee, since it was impossible to defend the whole territory in the face of the material and numerical superiority of the North, the best way to achieve the much-desired international recognition was to achieve a decisive victory on the territory of the Union itself.

To achieve this, Lee made a point of following a strategy that would later be referred to as " defensive-offensive ". The principle was to wait for the enemy attack in a solid defensive position; then, once the attack is repelled, we could then launch a counter-offensive to invade the North, and seek the expected victory there. Lee did so twice, after his victories at Richmond in 1862, and then at Chancellorsville the following year. Unfortunately for him, each of those two offensives suffered a setback, in Antietam and Gettysburg, respectively. After this latest defeat, he was never able to regain the initiative.

It was the same on the other fronts. In the summer of 1862 Davis ordered his other armies to imitate Lee and to attack. But the lack of truly centralized command meant that these offensives were simultaneous rather than coordinated, and they did not yield the desired results. From the end of 1863, the South could only endure, and the few attempts to regain the upper hand only precipitated the final defeat. In the year 1864, Confederation’s last hope was to inflict enough losses on the Northerners so that public weariness could elect McClellan. Lincoln's re-election sealed the fate of the rebellion: the "Anaconda plan" and industrial might in the North had won out over the South.


John Keegan's latest book, The Civil War (Perrin, 2011) devotes an entire chapter to the strategies of the two belligerents. That of James McPherson, with the identical title (Robert Laffont, 1991), also analyzes them extensively.

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