Daily Archives: February 26, 2014

Gettysburg, Vicksburg and the Campaign of 1863: The Relationship between Strategy and Operational Art


Today we look at the Gettysburg Campaign in terms of how we understand the connection between strategy and operational art. In doing so we have to place it in the context that Lees campaign has in relationship to the Confederate command relationships and where it fits in the continuum of unified action as we understand it today.

To do so we have to make the connection between national strategic objectives, theater objectives, operational objective and tactical objectives. We have to explore command and control structures, staff organization and the understand the effect of the Diplomatic, Informational, Economic and Military elements of national power that impact a nations ability to wage war.

fig 1-5 jp-03

The summer campaign of 1863 in the Civil War gives us the opportunity to do this as we explore the Gettysburg campaign in relation to Vicksburg and the overall strategic situation that both sides faced.

The Confederacy had a twofold problem in its organization for war and how it conducted the war. First it had no organization at the strategic level to direct the war and it never developed a grand strategy from which its national strategic objectives could be translated for action at the theater, operational and tactical levels of warfare.

The overarching national strategic objective of the Confederacy was to attain independence. To such ends the governors of the 11 Confederate States raised units to fight any Federal armies which dared to force them back into the Union. The various states controlled the use of their units. Some kept their best units at home, while others dispatched units to Confederate armies such as Lees Army of Northern Virginia. After that there was not much thought given to how to fight the war.

Other than the stated desire for independence and their common hatred of the Yankee,there was little in the way of unity within the Confederate States. Each state viewed itself as an independent nation only loosely bound to the other states. There was much distrust of any attempt to organize a true central government with any actual authority or power in Richmond. Jefferson Davis may have been President but his country was hamstrung by its own internal divisions.

The Confederacy lacked a clear defined command structure to coordinate war efforts. This included its military operations, diplomatic efforts and economy. Jefferson Davis, an able man to be sure was a man given to suspicion and had major personality conflicts with all of his senior commanders save Robert E. Lee. These conflicts did impact operations, just as did the refusal of various states to support operations or campaigns apart from ones that impacted their state directly.

While Jefferson Davis and his Secretary of War theoretically exercised direction of the war no formal mechanism existed to coordinate the needs of the various military departments or armies. In effect each army operated independently often competing with each other for the troops, supplies and materials needed to fight, as well as having to contend with recalcitrant state governments, each loathe to sacrifice anything that might compromise their own independence. Attempts by the authorities in Richmond to centralize some measure of authority were met with resistance by the states. Thus statesrights were not only the cause of the war, but also the cause of the Confederate downfall.[i]

In a country as vast as the Confederacy that lacked the industry, transportation infrastructure, population and economic power of the North this was a hindrance that could not be overcome by the soldierly abilities of its armies alone.


This had a direct effect on the campaign of 1863. In the west, Confederate commanders were very much left to fend for themselves and to add to their misery failed even to coordinate their activities to meet the threat of Grant and his naval commander, Admiral David Dixon Porter. In the East, Lee having established a close relationship with Jefferson Davis as his military advisor during the first year of the war exercised a disproportionate influence on the overall strategy of the Confederacy.

Lee in theory was simply one of a number of army or department commanders, yet he was responsible for a decision that impacted the entire war effort. The Confederate cabinet could reject Lees proposal as readily as that of any other department commander, Bragg, or Pemberton or Beauregard, for example, each of whom was zealous to protect the interests of the region for which he was responsible…” But this was Lee, the first soldier of the Confederacy- the first soldier of the world…”[i] Lees plan was approved by the cabinet by a vote of five to one. The lone dissenter was Postmaster General John H. Reagan who believed a fatal mistake had been made…”[ii]


The Lone Dissenter, Postmaster General John H Reagan

Lees decision to launch an invasion of the north in hopes of a quick victory to secure independence had numerous adverse effects on the broader needs of the Confederacy at a time when the Confederacy had little room for a misstep. Lee was a remarkable commander at the operational level but his military thinking process was very much Napoleonic. To succeed Lees design required a climactic Napoleonic battle,[iii] to defeat Union armies and this was something that his new opponent Meade would not allow.

The lack of any sense of unity in the Confederate hierarchy was disastrous. The lack of agreement on a grand strategy and the inability of the Confederate States Government and the various state governments to cooperate at any level culminated in the summer of 1863 with the loss of Vicksburg and the failure of Lees invasion of Pennsylvania.

Confederate army units and their commanders generally excelled on the tactical level, and their soldiers endured hardship well. They displayed amazing individual initiative on the battlefield and they won many victories against superior forces, especially in the early part of the war. But neither the Confederate government nor the various army commanders were able to translate battlefield success to operational, theater specific or national strategic objectives.

This can be contrasted with the Union, which though it was slow to understand the nature of the war did have people who, through trial and error developed a cohesive strategy that led to success at the operational level and the tactical level. George McClellan, whatever his faults as a field commander possessed a strategic design for winning the war,[iv] the necessity of unity of command and successfully built an effective army.


General Montgomery Meigs, the Logistician

The Union understood the changing nature of modern war and in stark contrast to the inefficient and graft ridden Confederate agencies developed an efficient and well managed War Department where the importance of logistics interbureau cooperation became a paramount concern. The Quartermasters Department under the direction of Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs was particularly efficient in supplying the needs of a military fighting on exterior lines in multiple theaters of operation.

This had a profound effect on operations. When the Union forces by necessity had to operate in enemy territory they were well supplied whereas whenever Confederate Forces conducted operations in the North or even in friendly Border States they were forced to subsist off the land. This meant that Confederate operations in the north were no more than raids, even the large invasions launched by Lee. They had no staying power to keep and hold any ground that they took in enemy territory. This can be contrasted with the Union which when it sent its forces south meant them to stay. Lee could not fathom this and because he believed that no Federal Army could stand a summer in the Deep South and that Grant would be forced to withdraw. The use of railroads to supply its far flung forces operating in the south as well as its use of maritime transportation along the coast and on inland waterways ensured that its armies could always be supplied.

Henry Halleck was the first true American military theorist who published Elements of Military Art and Science in 1846. While his is often given short shrift because he was not an effective field commander, and had an acerbic personality which rubbed people the wrong way was one of the most important individuals in organizing the eventual Union victory. This included matters of strategy, picking effective subordinate commanders and understanding the logistical foundations of strategy.

Weigley wrote of Halleck:

He sponsored and encouraged the operations of Brigadier General Ulysses. S. Grant and Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote that captured Forts Henry and Donaldson in February 1862 and  thereby opened up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers for Union penetration deep into the state of Tennessee and toward the strategically important Memphis and Charleston Railroad. Hallecks insights into the logistical foundations of strategy proved consistently accurate. Throughout the war, he maintained a shrewd eye for logistically viable lines of operation for the Union forces, and he increasingly recognized that one of the most effective weapons of offensive strategy, in an age when battle meant exposure to rifled firepower, was not to aim directly at the enemy armies but at their logistical base.[i]

Halleck was also instrumental in helping to oust Hooker, raise Meade to command the Army of the Potomac. When Lincoln brought Grant east to become General in Chief Halleck took on the new position of Chief of Staff. This was a task that he fulfilled admirably, allowing Grant to remain in the field and ensuring clear communication between Lincoln and Grant as well as relieving Grant of the burden of personally corresponding with his department commanders.[ii]

By establishing what we now understand as the beginning of a modern command and staff organizational structure the Union was far more able to link its national, theater and operational level objectives with its tactical objectives, even when some of its commanders were not as good as Confederates and blundered into defeats.

In the end during the summer of 1863 it was the Union which was better able to link the ends, ways and means of the strategic direction of the war. This is something that Davis and Lee were unable to do as they struggled with political division, a lack of cooperation from the states, and the lack of any true grand strategy.

Lee’s strategy of the offensive was wrong and compounded the problems faced by the Confederacy. The losses that his army suffered were irreplaceable, not just in terms of overall numbers of soldiers but in terms of his mid-level leaders, his battalion, regiment and brigade commanders who suffered grievous losses and were even more critical to the leadership of his army.

Lee recognized the terrible effects of his officer casualties in a letter to General John Bell Hood on May 21st: There never were such men in an Army before. But there is the difficulty- proper commanders- where can they be obtained?[iii] His actions at Gettysburg only added to his crisis in keeping his army supplied with competent commanders, as so many were left dead, wounded or captured during the campaign.

Even had Lee won the battle of Gettysburg his casualties in Union territory would have been prohibitive. He would have spent most of his ammunition, incurred serious losses in personnel and horses, and been burdened by not having to care for his wounded and still been deep in Union territory away from his nearest logistics hub. Had Lee won at Gettysburg his ammunition would have been nearly exhausted in victory, while Federal logistics would have improved as the Army of the Potomac fell back toward the eastern cities.[iv] This would have forced him to withdraw from Pennsylvania even had he been victorious.

It is true that a victory on northern soil might have emboldened the peace party in the North, but even then that could not have an effect on the desired effect on the Lincoln Administration until the election of 1864, still 16 months away. Likewise, in July 1863 such a victory would probably not have triggered foreign recognition or assistance on the part of France or England. Skilful northern diplomacy prevented an internal conflict from becoming an international war.[v] Jefferson Davis held on to his fantasy until August 1863, when even he was forced to deal with reality was a vain hope indeed and ended his diplomatic efforts to bring England into the war.

England would not intervene for many reasons and the Confederate government did not fully appreciate the situation of the countries that they hoped would intervene on their behalf:

its dependence on northern foodstuffs, access to new cotton supplies, turmoil in Europe, fear of what might happen to Canada and to British commerce in a war with the Union, and an unwillingness to side with slavery. The British government also wanted to establish precedents by respecting the blockade, a weapon that it often used.[vi]

Confederate politicians were hindered by a very narrow, parochial view of the world, had little understanding of modern industry, economics and the type of diplomacy employed by Europeans both to strengthen their nations, but also to maintain a balance of power.

As we look at the Gettysburg and Vicksburg campaigns in the summer of 1863 these are important things to consider. The relationship between national strategic objectives, theater objectives, operational objectives and tactical success cannot be minimized. Success on the battlefield alone is almost always insufficient to win a war unless those wins serve a higher operational and strategic purpose, and the costs of battles and campaigns have to be weighed in relation to the strategic benefits that derive from them.

gettysburg retreat

Retreat from Gettysburg

In the end the total failure of the two campaigns destroyed any real hope of Confederate military victory. At Vicksburg the Confederacy lost all of Pembertons army, 33,000 men and Lee suffered over 28,000 casualties from an army which had begun the campaign with about 80,000 troops.

This essay is certainly not an exhaustive look at the subject, but if we do not consider them we cannot really understand the bigger picture of the situation that the two sides faced and how they dealt with them. While the weapons and tactics employed by the sides are obsolete the thought processes and strategic considerations are timeless.

While I will be writing more about the specifics of the battle in the coming days including leadership issues, tactical considerations and even the relationships and friendships between commanders on both sides that transcended the war.


[i] Ibid. p.429-430

[ii] Millet, Allan R. and Maslowski, Peter, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States The Free Press a Division of Macmillan Inc. New York, 1984 p. 221

[iii] Sears, Stephen W Gettsyburg Houghton Mifflin Company Boston and New York, 2004 p.51

[iv] Ibid. Weigley, Russell. The American Way of War p.116

[v] Ibid. Millet and Maslowski p.220

[vi] Ibid.

[i] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 pp.432-433

[ii] Ibid. p.433

[iii] Weigley, Russell. The American Way of War Indiana University Press, Bloomington Indiana 1974, p.115

[iv] Weigley, Russell F. American Strategy from Its Beginnings through the First World War. In Makers of Modern Strategy, from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age edited by Paret, Peter, Princeton University Press, Princeton New Jersey 1986. P.429

[i] Fuller, J.F.C Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship Indiana University Press, Bloomington Indiana, 1957 p.35

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