Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Thinking about the strategic objectives of the sides in the Civil War

As we move into the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, I have been wondering what the strategy was for each side during the war. The Union side moved from objectives of preserving the union, to objectives of defeating the south and emancipating the slaves. Clearly there was an objective to prevent European nations from joining in the war to support independence of the South. The generals leading the North in the early part of the war seemed concerned with protecting Washington. Lincoln seems to have seen a policy of blockading the South be sea and attacking it over land from all points in which it came in contact with the North. At the end of the war, Grant was fighting a war of attrition recognizing that the Union could out gun and out man the Confederacy, while the Emancipation Proclamation was undermining the economy of the South, and Sherman and others were destroying the communications and industrial base of the South. Republicans, most notably Lincoln, were seeking to maintain power and win the election of 1864, in part to assure the continued persecution of the war. To some degree the evolution of strategy reflected an evolutionary increase in the military capacity of the North, and to some extent the reduction in the threat from the British, but it also must have reflected a better appreciation of what would be required to win the war.

It seems likely to me that the South must have defined its objectives not in terms of defeating the North, but rather in achieving an armistice that left the southern states independent. I assume that there was a strategy to seek support from Britain, which southerners saw initially as dependent on the South's cotton exports. When the blockage kept southern cotton out of Britain, the British responded not be breaking the blockade but rather developing other sources of raw cotton from Egypt, Brazil and India (thereby contributing to the economic problems of the South during Reconstruction since it was never again able to monopolize the British market for cotton). While Southern forces began the war by seizing forts in the South and attacking those which did not surrender peacefully, most Southern military action was on what was seen by the leaders of the Confederacy as Confederate soil, with the exceptions of Antietam and Gettysburg. Those of course were huge exceptions, intended by Lee's forces to both punish the North and force a switch from offensive to defensive mode by some Union forces, reducing pressures on the Southern forces. One assumes that there was a policy of prolonging the war until pro-peace factions in the North took sufficient political power to demand an armistice, and to inflict pain on the North to encourage the peace movement there. Clearly, there was an evolution in Confederate strategy as well, to meet the failing relative military capacity of Southern forces and the changes in expectations as to the behavior of the North and the extinction of hopes for foreign allies. Surely more and more people in the South must have realized how desperate the situation was becoming for the Confederacy.

Perhaps some of the military leaders recognized how great an undertaking the conflict would be but surely most people did not. It seems likely that on each side many factions disagreed as to what the strategy of the war should be. Indeed, there were different opinions within the cabinets of the two presidents. What seems clear is that neither side initially understood the other well enough to fully grasp what would be needed to obtain their objectives in the war. I wonder if either side understood its own society well enough to fully predict the changes that would be required in the prosecution of the war.

Is there a lesson? Perhaps it is that even in the Civil War in which the two sides knew each other as well as opposing parties in a war ever can, the leaders of the North and of the South did not understand their opponents or themselves well enough to create a coherent strategy at the beginning of the war that would carry them through its four terrible years. Indeed, one wonders if the leaders of the two sides had understood what they were starting, could they not have found a better solution than war.

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