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The Fighting Death of The Confederacy
By Constantine XI, October 2006; Revised
Category: 19th Century: Military History
For many, the American Civil War has come to embody one of the greatest social, political and ethical struggles in the history of civilisation. The role of this conflict in world history should not be underestimated, its outcome fundamentally shaped the history of the nation which is effectively the hyper power of the post Cold War world. Yet the CSA (Confederate States of America) respresents a curiosity in that it was a state whose existence should well have been expected to have been terminated much quicker than actually occurred. The disproportionate strength of the Union to the CSA after the fall of Fort Sumter is evidence of such a stark disparity. The North possessed a white population more than quadruple that of the South, nine times the South’s industrial capacity and more than double the length of railway networks . Yet, the CSA managed to fight for four years for its survival and very nearly secured it. This paper shall explore which strategic military factors impacted on the American Civil War to ensure a quick Union victory over the Confederacy did not occur.
The war which broke out did so in a manner which reflected the norms and expectations of an enthusiastic mid 19th century populace and its military elites. The romantic tastes and expectations of the American populace on both sides were clearly evident. In the South, young women enthusiastically cheered on the soldiers marching to war, extolling the virtues to be gained from gallant struggle in battle . Similar clamours for glorious victories resounded in the North, as the populace often viewed the war through melodramatic Napoleonic terms, tinged with the memories of minutemen days . With such ideals and expectations of warfare, it therefore came as little surprise that the Union should select a man who was seen to possess such gallant ideals.
After McDowell’s army had been defeated in the first truly substantial engagement of the war at Manassas Junction, the opportunity to conclude the war quickly by marching to Richmond to invest it was for the moment lost. Union leaders searched around for McDowell’s replacement and unsurprisingly looked favourably on an officer named George Binton McClellan. McClellan had served with distinction in the Mexican War, had been an observer in the Crimean War and delivered a minor but well publicised Union success in West Virginia in early 1861. Lincoln needed a general to save Washington after McDowell’s defeat, McClellan seemed to be the man. Even the London Times noted how he radiated confidence, panache and a degree of leadership . Such qualities appealed to the sensibilities of 19th century citizens, yet the appointment of the general was to have far reaching consequences for the conduct and duration of the war.
McClellan’s overcaution can be gleaned from the battles he fought. Examining the Seven Days Battles, McClellan is noted  as lacking the nerve to make use of ample resources in pressing a decisive advance after a minor tactical setback inflicted by General Lee deflated his confidence. That particular setback removed the opportunity to take the seat of Confederate power. Such accusations of timidity on McClellan’s part are augmented by accounts  of McClellan’s reluctance to attack an exhausted enemy who possessed only half as many men, whilst incurring an embarrassing defeat when the attack was ordered.
McClellan’s leadership style, overcautious and reluctant to press a decisively aggressive strike, became a long term problem for the Union, “McClellan had promoted the great majority of the army’s senior officers… the most important McClellan legacy… was that he had impressed his fundamentally defensive outlook on his generals” . The result was a war extended by a succession of either strategically or tactically reluctant commanders who were unable to press for decisive victory, a situation which would prevail until the appointment of Grant to the eastern theatre late in the war.
By contrast, the South had secured for herself a general of typically superior talent and capacity for decisive action. To some , had the ever cautious Johnston not been wounded and replaced by Robert E. Lee before the Seven Days Battles, McClellan’s army would have closed the five miles to Richmond and concluded the war much earlier. Lee’s appointment saw the dramatic transformation of the Army of Northern Virginia into a force reputed for its invincibility and sheer élan . Confronting opponents of generally better equipment and numerical strength, Lee restlessly set out with inferior resources to successively win one unlikely victory after another.
Lee’s capacity for command is clearly demonstrated in the battles he fought. At the Battle of Second Manassas, for example, he ingeniously lured General Pope into a pincer trap by baiting him with the army of General Jackson before smashing the Union forces with a surprise pincer thrust . Such a singular example makes evident the imagination and genius of Lee’s capabilities, a decisive factor in preventing an early Northern victory and very nearly ensuring a Confederate victory on more than one occasion.
Drawing upon the experience of the contemporary Crimean War, one respected historian  notes that for the mid 19th century period, a likely route to victory lay in forcing the enemy back to their centre of operations and causing it to capitulate, most likely after a siege. Such had been the Union efforts in at the beginning of the war, attempting to recreate Allied success at Sebastopol with their own capture of Richmond. Lee’s command ensured the Army of Northern Virginia was led by a tactician of such talent that even against superior manpower and material the Confederacy was able to prevent the capture of Richmond. Yet Lee went further, crossing the Potomac and coming tantalisingly close to advancing on Washington, to the extent that the British cabinet designed a contingency plan to recognise the South in the event of a successful invasion by Lee . Meanwhile the delaying and retreating tactics of Joseph Johnston in the western theatre ensured that, in spite of minor losses, the Union was not able to gain a decisive advantage in the west until late into the war . Early into the war the Confederacy enjoyed the talents of military commanders of typically superior calibre compared to their Northern enemies, the result being a superior use of inferior military resources which prolonged the conflict and very nearly brought the Confederates to the US capital.
Another key factor which extended the duration of the war was the tenacity of the Confederate populace in supporting the war effort. Some historians  have noted the trend for believing that one of the main reasons for the failure of the nascent Confederacy was an inability to gain the full commitment of her citizenry due to class conflict and lack of nationalist loyalty. Also noted  is the flagging loyalty of the Confederate people as traditional rights and liberties were removed by the central government to bolster the war effort. Such considerations must also take into account other evidence which demonstrates a strong commitment of the Confederate populace to supporting the war effort.
Despite being massively outnumbered in terms of manpower, the disproportionately small Confederate source of manpower enthusiastically responded to the call for soldiers and civilian volunteer support. Figures detailing the Confederate enlistments compel consideration, with over 75% of all white males of military age in the Confederacy serving in the Confederate military . Further proof of the Confederate will to fight on desperately can be determined by examining the breakdown of casualties. A study of Greene Country, Georgia, for example, found that over 90% of the 1058 white males of fighting age served in the military, with only 14 having found to have deserted during the course of the war .
The Confederacy also enjoyed the benefits of internal lines of supply, transport and communication. Note has already been made of the comparatively low level of development achieved in the Confederacy  in the field of railroads. Yet the Confederacy was partly able to compensate by crossing through territory through which Union armies were often forced to travel around. The potential for such an advantage to be exploited was recommended  by Confederate general Alexander. While Alexander laments the decision of President Davis not to make use of the internal lines of supply directly after Chancellorsville, he does give credit to such a fortunate asset for giving a more compact Confederacy the ability to rush reinforcements to where manpower shortages occurred on the various fronts. Whilst the poor logistical infrastructure of the South prevented the internal lines of transport and supply from being utilised to the full, even their diminished capacity to assist the Confederacy must be appreciated in a war in which the shortage of Confederate manpower presented enormous difficulties to the CSA.
One of the greatest revolutions in warfare in the Western World was the transformation in the object of winning battles, from that of simply defeating one’s opponent on the field to actually annihilating their army also. The battle of annihilation, which in the Western military tradition dates  most properly from the campaigns of Alexander III of Macedon, revolutionised warfare in allowing the victor to more quickly conquer his opponent thanks to the elimination of the enemy’s military manpower. The Napoleonic Wars  saw such battles fought for decisive results, whilst the Second World War, with its highly mobile warfare, also saw battles of annihilation which produced decisive results. The difficulties of conducting a battle of annihilation in the American Civil War were a major reason that the struggle was protracted for so many years.
An essential difficulty in implementing the battle of annihilation lay in the obstacles to pursuit and encirclement. Napoleonic and 20th century cavalry and armoured vehicles proved vital to the encirclement and pursuit of enemy units, thereby enabling commanders to capitalise on victories by capturing or killing larger numbers of enemy personnel. American cavalry proved much less effective during the Civil War and were largely restricted to support roles such as screening, scouting and raiding . American cavalry were not suited to following the example first established by Alexander’s companion cavalry two millennia before. Above all else they were dragoons , mounted infantry unsuited to the role of large scale pursuit of a beaten enemy. The result was a war in which a beaten army was often able to extricate itself from the field and recoup to fight another day. The implications meant that very often neither side could follow up a battlefield victory with extensive strategic success, the enemy would shortly re-emerge to again contest the field. The pace of strategic advance therefore was retarded, it could only be sustained through the very difficult task of ensuring a continual succession of battlefield victories so that the victors could edge closer and closer to their strategic targets.
Logistical difficulties also prolonged the duration of the war as armies sought to sustain strategic advances in spite of insufficient lines of supply. In many of the areas in which operations took place, rough terrain and lack of infrastructure made logistics much more difficult than was the case in more built up theatres such as Europe. When Union general Rosecrans made his advance from Birdgeport to Chattanooga, the 70 mile journey cost the lives of over 10,000 mules . In another example of the often inadequate supply techniques available, Union general Burnside in January 1863 ordered a general movement of his army along the Rappahannock River. In the torrential rain which followed, the Union supply wagons became bogged down in the morass, causing great delay for the entire army. In three days the army had advanced a total distance of 5 miles and consumed the entire 3 days’ worth of rations . Limited availability of rail lines meant heavy reliance on wagon convoys. Though an army could live off the territory it was operating in, it could not simply forage for some supplies such as munitions and a large army would quickly exhaust the local resources of the area in which it was camped.
The difficulties in sustaining a decisive campaign because of inadequate logistics were compounded by an initial Union reluctance to engage in wholesale requisitioning of Confederate civilian property. McClellan’s early policies reflected a desire to abstain from such measures so as to ensure an amicable reunion with Southern civilians in the aftermath of the war .
The influential Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz’s work On War, eloquently discusses the contemporary imperatives of modern warfare. Though widely criticised as propagating the practice of “total war” , it in fact illuminates the modern need to neutralise both the military of one’s enemy and also the enemy’s ability to pursue military activity thanks to the labours of civilians . Such imperatives were lost on many of the early Union generals who were conscientious about rampant requisitioning and looting. On the one hand they feared causing disaffection in the territories they occupied, on the other was the concern that unchecked looting would cause a collapse in troop discipline and morale . The results were a limited ability for armies to advance towards their strategic objectives and an enemy civilian infrastructure which remained willing and able to sustain the enemy’s military machine.
The application of Clausewitz’s principles on total war proved to be the undoing of the strengths which kept the Confederacy afloat. The ascendance of generals William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant revolutionised the way in which the Union waged war. Grant took the Army of the Potomac and infused it with an aggressive drive , Grant being prepared to take losses and wage attrition against Lee’s army which could not make up for battle losses . The war transformed to one which was more dependent on the distribution of resources, in which the Confederacy could only lose.
Sherman in the Western theatre applied a policy of indiscriminate requisition and destruction wherever he considered it advantageous to the interests of his campaign . Sherman’s “march to the sea” became legendary for the devastation it inflicted upon the Confederate populace, one personal account  clearly detailing the systematic pillage and destruction which characterised the campaign. For all the resentment and hatred such a policy aroused, it effectively ruined the South to the point that Confederate resistance collapsed. The application of Clausewitz’s principles of total war had enabled the Union to most effectively apply its strength and destroy the South’s ability and will to continue to wage war effectively. As one despondent Southern women remarked with simple clarity, “Bankrupt in men, in money, and in provisions, the wail of the bereaved and the cry of hunger rising all over the land, Our cities burned with fire and our pleasant things laid waste, the best and bravest of our sons in captivity, and the entire resources of our country exhausted – what else could we do but give up?” .
The American Civil War was a conflict between two unequal competitors. The Northern Union, with its vast industrial strength, white population many times that of the South, superior international diplomatic leverage and clearly better infrastructure, would easily be expected to have quickly and decisively defeated the nascent Confederacy. It did not, however, with the four year long conflict which followed appearing to defy the reasonable expectation that the Confederacy would be quickly suppressed.
When discussing why and considering purely strategic military considerations, a number of major explanations become evident. The Northern Union for a number of years was unable to field a sufficiently empowered general who had the decisive and aggressive character needed to subdue the Confederacy. The Confederacy, by contrast, produced talented commanders who efficiently managed inferior resources and prolonged the life of the young nation. A strong spirit of resistance, both in Confederate armies and populace, further delayed Union victory. The advantage of internal lines of communication and transport also favoured Southern military aims. The difficulties of waging a battle of annihilation combined with logistical problems and an initial Union reluctance to indiscriminately requisition further acted to retard a quick Union victory.
The consequent negation of many of these factors through a Union adaptation of von Clausewitz’s doctrine on total war finally allowed the Union to achieve total military victory over the Confederate States of America.
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