Military strategy: 1861-1865

The military nature of the American Civil War drastically changed between its beginning and end. In the first few years of 1861-1863 although there were sporadic major battles they were followed by periods of relative quiet, retreat, massing and skirmish. The Union appeared to have no unified battle plan and an apparent disconnect existed between the high command and the president, while Robert E. Lee fought with a ferocious focus for the rallying CSA. Incompetent generals and repeated acts of hesitation in perusing enemy armies caused the war to drag on years longer than it should have and brought the Union to the cusp of defeat at the hands of a vastly inferior force. Under the new leadership of Ulysses S. Grant everything changed. The Union’s objectives were clearly defined and grand campaigns of continuous warfare waged by massive armies were implemented into action which would come to solidify the Civil War as the first modern war in the history books.

From the beginning of the war Robert E. Lee emphasized the same tactical doctrine. Lee’s plan was to strike against the union as many spectacular victories as possible in order to demoralize the northerners into electing a peace-minded president who would sue for peace while also playing defensively enough so that key locations would not fall to Union offensives. Lee was aware that his forces would only win through long shot victories and that in the open field using textbook frontal assault tactics his forces would not stand to win. Accordingly Lee opted for fortifying his inferior forces against advancing Union forces and for lightning fast strikes using encirclement and flanking maneuvers while on the offensive. Offensives were waged in order to draw attention away from vulnerable positions and to inflict maximum damage. Lee’s tactics were extremely effective and the Union commanders categorically overestimated the fighting ability of the CSA while making clumsy, seemingly disconnected military advances, allowing for Lee to always stay one step ahead of them in terms of tactical advantage.

During the commands of Hooker, McClellan, Burnside and McDowell the Union army had no clear unified objective and seemingly re-envisioned it’s objectives as the army passed from general to general. The army hesitated when the President commanded it to action under indecisive, paranoid leadership and it retreated when it would have won complete victory if it advanced. While not hesitating to take necessary action or refusing direct orders from the President the Union high command exercised blind hubris leading to destruction (as under the leadership of Hooker). Lee took advantage of this confused situation in a series of devastating victories and counter-offensives which brought the Union to the cusp of defeat by the battle of Gettysburg.

After the successful Vicksburg campaign under the command of US Grant the President of the Union finally found a general capable of leading the country to victory. Grant clearly defined the Union objectives as the capture of Atlanta in Georgia and the destruction of the Army of Virginia and the capture of Richmond. To accomplish these objectives Grant consolidated all of his forces and ordered a four prong assault waged by massive armies: Sherman would strike out from Chattanooga and capture Atlanta, Siegel would advance through the Shenandoah Valley, Butler would strike from the James River toward Richmond and Meade would assault from the north toward the same city in hopes of encircling and destroying the army of Virginia.

The nature of this offensive was different from the last: Grant would wage continuous war and would not allow pauses or long periods of idleness while constantly advancing, using the superior numbers of the Union forces to defeat the Confederate forces. While Grant knew his losses would become more numerous utilizing such a strategy he also realized that too much hesitation and looking only for a “knockout punch” rather than a “technical knock out” would give the brilliant Lee too much time to reorganize his forces and attack in unsuspected ways. Grant’s strategy was to constantly pressure Lee by massively assaulting the southern heartland from all sides. This is in stark contrast to the previous nature of the war which was waged as individual battles across the whole of the geographical range connected by long periods of pause, skirmish and indecision.

Grant shortened the range of the campaign while also concentrating his forces as to be unstoppable by Lee’s numerically inferior force. While a three pronged attack was designed to cut off the head of the CSA in Virginia Sherman was ordered with sweeping further to the south in order to create a pocket. As a moral force Grant commanded his armies to push on in the face of adversity and initial failure, to stay the course to victory. In the prior years Union setbacks signaled retreat while under Grant it signaled impetus to advance. Grant was aware of the grim reality that he could absorb great losses and still win the war, as long as some tactical advantage or ground was gained. This truth seemingly escaped prior Union commanders who hesitated from massing their troops if they had a chance of taking heavy casualties. While this tactic seemingly had little regard for human life and made Grant initially unpopular amongst the people, it would prove to be the tool necessary to win the war.

Lee stuck to the same tactics and in his tendency of fortifying his position against numerically superior forces rather than meeting them in the field and may have anticipated modern trench warfare. At the Siege of Petersburg Lee constructed a massive labyrinth of trench systems which would resemble the future trenches of World War One and were used in the same fashion. While these trench systems were effective at ultimately repulsing the besieging forces Lee was unable to win in the surrounding countryside, so vastly outnumbered by a determined perpetually advancing enemy. While Lee’s novel way of defensive fighting did not come until late in the war it did change the nature of the war and represented clearly the mindset of Lee who had all but abandoned the possibility of a daring counteroffensive, as had been the case at Gettysburg. Lee’s strategy became devoted to defensive war in a scorched earth policy in hopes of exhausting the Union offensive into a stalemate. Had Lee a force comparable to Grant the good general may have possibly won the war for the CSA but he was never able to fully compensate against the aggressive campaigning of the new Union command.

Grant’s new strategy which redefined the nature of warfare during the Civil War finally was concluded with Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse following the complete encirclement of Petersburg after Lee was soundly defeated in the surrounding Richmond-Petersburg territory.