Over 140 years have passed since the Confederate armies under Lee and Johnston surrendered to Grant and Sherman. Still, however, the Civil War remains one of the most studied periods of American history, and its historiography is one of the most published in the world. One of the areas which receives the most focus is that of strategy. Even professional soldiers today study the Civil War closely because it resulted in a paradigm shift in strategic thinking that would influence war for more than a century.
One of the oddities of the Civil War was that the professional soldiers who made up the command structure of both sides had a common background of military education and practical experience. Therefore, when the war began, they all proceeded from a common basis in terms of both their tactical and strategic thinking. Further, that thinking involved both tactical and strategic principles that were the products of an earlier era. As the war continued, tactics employed by both sides would only change marginally, while, on one side of the conflict, strategy would undergo a revolutionary change that would determine the war’s eventual outcome. Thus, tactically, it was a war of stagnation, which cost many lives. Strategically, however, the war became one of transition from the era of Napoleon to the modern era of total war.
The strategic tents of the times were those of Baron Jomini, a former member of Napoleon’s staff who wrote extensively about the “science” of strategy. Officers of both sides studied condensed versions of his work at West Point and his ideas were accepted as strategic gospel. Jomini believed that strategy was the key to warfare. More so, he believed that strategy was ruled by a set of immutable scientific principles and that only the application of these principles would bring victory.
Most of Jomini’s ideas were basically sound. He believed that one must use strategic maneuver to bring the weight of one’s forces against decisive areas of the theater of war, while menacing your enemy’s communications and protecting your own. He also believed in using maneuver to bring the masses of your forces against the weak points of the enemy. Once on the battlefield, he said a commander must use the mass of his own forces against the decisive area of the field. He further believed in rapid movement, maintaining the initiative, and concentrating one’s forces. All of these ideas have as solid a military basis today as they did in 1861. But, while Jomini approved the idea of attempting to destroy the enemy’s army, he did not believe it a practical concept. Rather, he preferred the strategy of capturing and holding territory, thereby either gaining a political or diplomatic advantage, or denying the enemy his logistical bases and sources of supply.
Because of his profound influence, it can be said that almost all the war’s commanders were practitioners of Jomini’s ideas. The venerable historian T. Harry Williams saw Lee as the South’s most prominent Joiminian and many officers would later thank Jomini in their post-war writings. Even Grant, who claimed to have never read Jomini, clearly used Jominian doctrine in terms of maneuver, keeping the initiative, utilizing interior lines, employing mass, and always seeking the enemy’s weak points.
Armed with these strategic principles, the commanders of both sides, along with their political leadership, devised their own strategies. The South utilized what Jefferson Davis termed a defensive-offensive strategy. Under this concept, they utilized a cordon defense (of which Jomini would not have approved) and attempted to concentrate wherever the threat from Northern armies materialized. As the North penetrated the South, they would fight defensively and use raiding to slow the Northern rate of advance. At the same time, they would also selectively use the strategic offensive against the North. This would make the Northern forces pull out of captured areas, relieve pressure on Southern forces, permit the gathering of supplies, and, hopefully, allow a decisive victory on enemy territory that would weaken the North’s political will to fight.
The North, meanwhile, was very much the practitioner of Jomini’s ideas in the early stages of the war. They attempted to concentrate their forces and move offensively to seize key cities, waterways, and geographic points, while blockading the Southern coastline. This strategy called for them to occupy territory and either strangle the South’s ability to supply their armies or seize a key political center, such as Richmond. The theory was that, if they could merely occupy major parts of the South’s territory or a critical city such as their capitol, the South would see the hopelessness of the struggle.
Unfortunately for both sides, these strategies had significant weaknesses. The South soon discovered that the North had the resources to concentrate at more points than they could ever adequately defend. Further, the strategic offensive, while applied sparingly and selectively, proved to be costly both militarily and politically. Lee’s invasion of Maryland in 1862 seemed perfectly timed. The North was reeling from defeats in the Peninsula Campaign and at Second Manassas, and Lee had the initiative. If he could defeat the Army of the Potomac in Maryland, the North might see the futility of the war or, at the very least, the South would gain formal recognition in Europe and, perhaps, even gain concrete support. However, just the opposite occurred. Lee was forced into a bloody draw at Antietam and his army’s retreat back into Virginia was interpreted everywhere outside the South as a Union victory. It allowed Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and probably ended any Confederate hopes of European recognition. His efforts the following year in Pennsylvania turned out even worse with a stunning defeat at Gettysburg and another limping retreat across the Potomac.
The North, for its part, found that they could not control the territory they occupied and there would never be enough men to do so. Faced by a hostile populace and effective Confederate raiding, it was taking thousands of troops to patrol rail lines, guard depots, and protect bridges. Further, it seemed that no matter how much ground they took, the South still found a way to supply its armies in the field. The South was effectively trading ground for time and hoping attrition might weary the Northern people of the war.
The South never changed its strategy, but the North eventually did, and it did so in a revolutionary way. The rise of Ulysses S. Grant to command of all the Federal forces and his approach to the war changed everything. Exactly how Grant’s approach should be characterized has been argued about by historians like Archer Jones and T. Harry Williams. Jones sees Grant’s strategy as being “logistical” in nature and, therefore, very Jominian, while Williams counters that Grant favored annihilation and, as a result was anything but a Jominian. In actuality, what Grant planned and executed was both and, yet, still much more. To say that the changes Grant wrought were revolutionary in historical terms is accurate, but he did not develop his concepts overnight. Grant developed his revolutionary concepts in an evolutionary manner. His experience in the West, with its vast expanse of Southern territory, its unrepentant population, and the resilient armies of the Confederacy, made him understand that the North’s war was with an entire people, their society, and their armies. Victory would only be achieved by making war on every one of those elements. However, to Grant, what would be a complex strategy had a very simple, common sense basis. As he once told a staff officer, “The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.”
Using what he would call the idea of a “hard war,” Grant ushered in the first use of a philosophy of total war. He saw war as a brutal and unpleasant business that should be brought to a quick and speedy conclusion. The best way to do that was to simultaneously assault all elements of the Southern war effort with massive and unrelenting force. First, through strategic raiding, he would destroy what remained of the Southern industrial, agricultural, and economic infrastructure, primarily via Sherman’s army in Georgia. At the same time, he would also use Sherman’s march through Georgia to the Atlantic to send a powerful psychological message to the Southern people that the North was simply too powerful to resist. Further, while all this was happening, he would engage the South’s armies, particularly Lee’s, in unrelenting combat. This would permit him to either annihilate Lee’s forces, if the opportunity presented itself, or through continuous fighting to bleed Lee of men and resources he could not replace.
Strategically, the Civil War proved to be one of historic transition. Grant’s use of what was, within the confines of nineteenth century technology and culture, a total war strategy, altered the outcome of the war. His coordinated efforts demoralized the South economically, politically, psychologically, and militarily. He put intense pressure not only on their military but their people as well. He leveraged every resource in the Northern arsenal and brought the combined strengths to bear directly upon every weak point in Southern society and the entire Southern war effort. In doing so, he was the first to effectively apply both annihilation and attrition, along with economic and psychological warfare, in a devastating and decisive manner. His actions assured Union victory and portended the use of massive resources applied against all elements of an enemy’s infrastructure that became a hallmark of American military strategy in the wars of the twentieth century.