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The Power of Soft Power: Union Diplomacy in the Civil War

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Charles Francis Adams

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is another section of my Gettysburg and Civil War text. For those that have been following my posts on this subject

Diplomacy is a key part of the whole of government, the whole of national power, and the understanding of waging war and winning the peace and it does matter before, during, and after the conclusion of any war. Diplomacy is an essential part of the DIME and Union diplomacy had a major effect on the American Civil War, and during the war it was the Federal government and Union diplomats who understood this far better than their Confederate counterparts and were facing leaders of Britain and France who resented the power of the United States and wanted it to fail. This was particularly the case with the conservative British Tory party, like so many other governments of aristocratic regimes the English aristocracy “sympathized with what they saw as a corresponding plantation aristocracy in the South, and were not sad at the prospect of the American republic demonstrating what they had all along insisted was the fate of all popular democracies – instability, faction, civil war, and dismemberment.” [1]

Early Confederate diplomacy was based on the belief that European trading partners could not do without Southern cotton and would intervene in the war to break the Union blockade. As a result, cotton became “the principle weapon of Southern foreign policy.” [2] England depended on southern cotton to supply its massive textile industry and before the war the South had supplied roughly seventy-five percent of its demand. While the Confederates were able to receive recognition as a belligerent from some European powers, including the British, whose position infuriated Secretary of State Seward, the Confederacy, much to the chagrin of its leaders never received diplomatic recognition as a nation.

The efforts of the Confederacy to secure recognition would be due to Union diplomacy, much of it led by the United States Minister to Great Britain, Charles Francis Adams who “tirelessly represented the Union Cause to the British government and the British people but also financed an active network of spies and agents who relentlessly exposed Confederate violations of the British neutrality laws and hobbled Confederate efforts to raise money and but arms.” [3]

Union diplomats in Europe had to manage a very complex situation at the very outset of the conflict when a Captain Charles Wilkes of the United States Navy, commanding the steam sloop USS San Jacinto, fired on and stopped the British passenger steamer Trent, in international waters during November 1861 and removed two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell and their secretaries, who were on their way to Britain. Ignoring the protests of the Trent’s master, Wilkes returned the two Confederates to New York setting of a firestorm of protest. The British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, “immediately drafted an ultimate and ordered a squadron of steamers and 7,000 troops readied to send to Canada.” [4]

The incident became known as the Trent affair and provided an early challenge for Union diplomacy, and nearly wrecked the Union war effort. As Charles F. Adams noted in a letter to his son, “Captain Wilkes has not positively shipwrecked us, but he has come as near close to it without succeeding as he could.” [5] Confederates rejoiced, the chief Confederate propagandist in England wrote, “If Commodore Wilkes designed making a sensation he succeeded to his heart’s content…. The usually apathetic Englishmen were roused to a sudden frenzy by this insult to their flag, such as I have never witne4ssed in them before.” [6] Fears of war with Britain dominated the financial markets and “dried up the sale of bonds to finance the war against the Confederacy.” [7]

These fears were not unfounded, as the crisis dragged on into December, Britain made other military preparations some 5,000 Canadian troops trained to British Army standards and 35,000 other Canadian volunteer militia were called up, and “an additional 11,000 British Regulars were soon on their way to Canada.” [8] Additionally the British government placed an embargo on the shipment of saltpeter from India to the United States until the affair was settled. Since India was the largest supplier of this material which was vital to the manufacture of gunpowder, this threatened to cripple the Union war effort, and as soon as the crisis was ended, this vital material was soon on the way to Northern manufacturers who rapidly turned it into gunpowder.

Had it not been for the skilled efforts of Adams, the United States minister to defuse the situation, the affair could have led to British recognition of the Confederacy and intervention in the war. Adams’ efforts to defuse the situation in Britain, and to convince Lincoln to release the Confederates and return them to the British were so successful that they “left Anglo-American relations in better shape than before the crisis.” [9]

Adams also had to deal with Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward’s indignation of Confederate commissioners meeting with British Foreign Minister Lord Russell. Those meetings sent Seward into a rage, he told Senator Charles Sumner “God damn them, I’ll give them hell” and he wrote Adams instructing the American Minister to “break off relations if the British government had any more dealings with southern envoys. If Britain officially recognized the Confederacy, “we from that hour, shall cease to be friends and become once more, as we have twice before been forced to be, enemies of Great Britain.” [10] Lincoln, knowing how critical the situation was gave Adams the discretion of presenting the substance of the matter verbally rather than hand Seward’s dispatch to Russell. Adams handled the matter deftly, and Russell “conceded that he had twice met with the Southern commissioners, but “had no expectation of seeing them any more.” [11]

In the end the release of the Confederate envoys “improved Anglo-American relations and disappointed Confederate hopes for an Anglo-American war that might assure their independence.” [12] Adams wrote, “The first effect of the surrender of Messrs. Mason and Slidell has been extraordinary. The current which ran against us with such extreme violence six weeks ago now seems to be going with equal fury in our favor.” [13]

This was very import because there was much support for the Confederate cause in the European aristocracy and some in Europe hoped for Confederate success. They were encouraged by Union military defeats at the outset of the war, but Union diplomats helped to keep Europeans out of the war. Confederate diplomacy in Europe was not helped when the Confederates elected to embargo cotton exports in order to force Britain and other powers to recognize them. But despite the fears of the loss of cotton and the negative effects on their economies, European powers, especially the British were resentful of the Confederate attempt to blackmail them through the use of the embargo. The Times of London, a Tory paper sympathetic to the Confederacy declared that if Southerners “thought that they could extort our cooperation by the agency of king cotton… they had better think again. To intervene on the behalf of the South “because they keep cotton from us” said Lord Russell in September 1861, “would be ignominious beyond measure…. No English Parliament could do so base a thing.” [14]

British visitors to the South in 1861 were surprised and how fervently many Southerners believed that cotton would spur European involvement in the war on their behalf. The Southern hubris about their importance to the world economy was and how Britain could not survive without their cotton. One reporter wrote:

“there can be no doubt that the prevalent conviction in the South is that England cannot do without the “king” that all cotton, except American is  too short or too long; and that the medium is the only staple Manchester can have. In vain we tell them that our manufacturers would soon change their machinery, and adapt it to the necessities of the times; that our Government was making great exertions to procure cotton from India and Africa; and that it was our interest to foster our own colonies, and to produce it there if possible; and that if we were deprived of America as a market, the more strenuous would our efforts be to render ourselves independent of it. But it was of no use; they were ineradicably impressed with the conviction that they can command the market at any time; and that the distance from England at which its rivals are placed must always give the Confederacy an advantage.” [15]

By early 1862 the British government had decided to recognize the Union blockade. The cotton embargo had had an effect until Britain turned to Egypt and other cotton producers to make up the difference, and diversified by expanding the manufacture of steel and ships. Likewise, the Confederate had harmed the Southern even worse. Since so little of the cotton could be exported and sold on the foreign market, prices for it dried up and the Confederate economy began to implode. Mary Boykin Chesnut bitterly wrote of the effects in March 1862:

“Cotton is five cents a pound and labor of no value at all; it commands no price whatsoever. People gladly hire out their negroes to have them fed and clothed, which the latter cannot be done. Cotton osnaburg at 37 ½ cents a yard, leaves no chance to clothe them…. We poor fools, who are patriotically ruining ourselves will see our children in the gutter while treacherous dogs of millionaires go rolling by in their coaches – coaches that were acquired by taking advantage of our necessities.” [16]

However, Union diplomats were aided by tensions in Europe regarding the Schleswig-Holstein problem between Prussia and Austria, as well as unrest in Poland, as a result “European realpolitik hindered the Rebel’s diplomatic objectives as well.” [17] The British in particular were loath to risk intervening in a conflict that might be “a disturbance in the precarious balance of power which might be the signal for a general conflagration, they recalled Voltaire’s comment that a torch lighted in 1756 in the forests of the new world had promptly wrapped the old world in flames.” [18] Thus, European leaders and diplomats were very hesitant to allow Southern legations to convince them to intervene. In January 1863 an extremely frustrated Jefferson Davis made mention of the neutral nations of Europe which had refused to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation.

Another factor in the success of Union diplomacy was the success of Union military operations on the periphery of the Confederacy, many of them spearheaded by joint Army-Navy operations. While the Confederates won many early battles in 1861 and 1862 it was the success of the Union military that altered the diplomatic landscape and helped doom the Confederacy. The joint operations conducted by Ulysses Grant and Flag Officer Foote at Island Number Ten, Fort Henry, Fort Donaldson and Shiloh opened the door to the western Confederacy making it vulnerable to Union invasion. Likewise, the joint operations conducted by the Union Navy and Army against the Confederacy through the blockade and capture of key ports such as New Orleans by 1862; combined with the bloody repulses of Confederate armies at Perryville and Antietam allowed Lincoln to make his Emancipation Proclamation, an act which reverberated across the Atlantic.

These military successes enabled British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, to reject a French proposal for France, England and Russia to propose to the warring parties, a “North-South armistice, accompanied by a six month lifting of the blockade. The result, if they had agreed- as they had been in no uncertain terms warned by Seward in private conversations with British representatives overseas- would have been a complete diplomatic rupture, if not an outright declaration of war.” [19]

The issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation ensured that Europe would not recognize the Confederacy.  In part this was because even the most pro-Southern English political leaders could not appear to give the slightest appearance of supporting slavery, especially as both England and France had abolished slavery decades before, while Russia had only recently emancipated its serfs and despite being a less democratic monarchy than Britain “was pro-Union from the start….” [20] Popular sentiment in Britain, France, Russia and other European countries, outside of the ruling class and business elites, was heavily in favor of emancipation, especially among the working classes. The leaders of the workingmen of Manchester England, a major textile producer, who which had been among the “hardest hit by the cotton famine, sent him [Lincoln] an address approved at a meeting on New Year’s Eve, announcing their support of the North in its efforts to “strike off the fetters of the slave” [21] following the Emancipation Proclamation.

The success of the Union blockade was a key factor in the diplomatic efforts. There were many people, especially business leaders and members of the aristocracy in both Britain and France who sympathized with the South and hoped for Southern victory. However they were not impressed by Confederate attempts to subject them to an embargo of all Southern cotton until they recognized the independence of the Confederacy. Confederate commissioners attempted to persuade the British and French that the Union blockade was a “paper blockade” that was not binding on the British. While a good number of Confederate blockade runners got through the Union blockade, they carried very little cotton. While many Englishmen were offended by Seward’s bluster, many “resented even more the Confederacy’s attempt at economic blackmail.” [22] When the Confederates pressured the British Lord Russell announced to Parliament a corollary to the Declaration of Paris which affirmed the effectiveness of the Union blockade and “drove a stake through the heart of the Confederate efforts to convince the European governments of the blockade’s illegitimacy.” [23]

The British especially were keen on not going to war for the sake of the South, as there was far too much at stake for them. This was something that the Southern leaders and representatives did not fully comprehend. Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston and Foreign Minister Lord Russell were concerned about the economic impact of the loss of Southern cotton but also “recognized that any action against the blockade could lead to a conflict with the United States more harmful to England’s interests than the temporary loss of Southern cotton.” [24] Palmerston well remembered the war of 1812 when he served as Minister of War, and the disastrous results for the British Merchant Marine, and he realized that “England could not only afford the risk of a loss in a sideline war; she could not even afford to win one.” [25]

Union diplomats led by Adams scored another major victory against South in September 1863. During the war, Confederate agents working through shadow companies had managed to purchase large fast ships as commerce raiders. While this was not legal, while building the ships were declared by the builders of the Laird Company as merchant ships, and then sailed out of the country to be armed and equipped as Confederate commerce raiders. These include the ships which became the CSS Florida, CSS Georgia, and the most successful Confederate raider of all, the CSS Alabama.

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Laird Ram

The escape of these ships and their use as raiders proved to be a great embarrassment to the British government, and in “March of 1863 the House of Commons had undertaken an investigation of the earlier cases of the Florida and Alabama. Its report condemned the government for laxness in enforcing British neutrality.” [26]   When it was discovered that Confederate agents were contracting with English and French shipyards to build modern oceangoing ironclad rams, frigates and commerce raiders, Union diplomats intervened. The two rams, to be built by Laird’s were to displace 1,800 tons, mount six nine inch guns in rotating turrets and were equipped with a seven foot long submerged bow mounted ram.

The presence of the turrets made them hard to disguise as merchantmen and Adams sent a note to Foreign Secretary Russel a declaration that if these ships were allowed to escape, that “It would be superfluous to me to point out your Lordship, that this is war.” [27] Having been embarrassed by the past incidents and the scrutiny of Parliament, neither Russell or Prime Minister Palmerston were about to let such an event happen again, in fact before he had even received Adam’s protest had already taken steps to detain the vessels over the protests of the Confederate agents and officials, but the British interest in the case was not simply due to the protests, again, realpolitik came into play. Russell did not want Britain to be held liable for Union financial claims of loss after the war due, but even more importantly, that in another war the situation could be reversed. In this case ships were being built for the Confederacy in British shipyards, but in the next war it was quite conceivable that “in the next war that the roles could be reversed, with warships being constructed in American shipyards for use against the British merchant fleet. Britain was generally a belligerent in nineteenth century wars, not a neutral, and it did not want to lose sight of its long term interests.” [28]

Though Palmerston was offended at the brusqueness of Adams’s note, Union diplomacy had won a victory that “Henry Adams described as “a second Vicksburg.” [29] The British eventually bought the two ships for use in the Royal Navy where they became known as the Scorpion Class of which one ship served until 1922. Russell sent a dispatch to Richmond addressed to Jefferson Davis and warned him “against the efforts of the authorities of the so-called Confederate States to build war vessels with Her Majesty’s dominions to be employed against the Government of the United States.” [30]

The efforts of Adams and his counterpart in France, William Drayton were instrumental in hampering Confederate efforts at recognition by exposing Confederate plots and machinations against the laws of England and France won the praise of Confederate propagandists, one who admitted that Adams, “played well his part, and by his singular moderation of language and action… sustained his own dignity and that of the people he represented… and won reluctant admiration from many who loved not the cause or the Government he sustained.” [31]

Notes

[1] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.289

[2] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.383

[3] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.298

[4] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.287

[5] Adams, Charles F. Letter to Charles F. Adams Jr. in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection, William E. Gienapp editor, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 p.144

[6] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.288

[7] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.54

[8] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.288

[9] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.391

[10] Ibid. McPherson the Battle Cry of Freedom pp.388-389

[11] ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom

[12] Ibid. McPherson Tried by War p.54

[13] Ibid. Adams  Letter to Charles F. Adams Jr. p.144

[14] ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom pp.384-385

[15] ____________. “A Month With the Rebels,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 90 (December 1861): 762-763 in The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection edited by William E. Gienapp, W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 2001 p.143

[16] Ibid. Mary Chesnut’s Diary p.122

[17] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation p.315

[18] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.154

[19] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.153

[20] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.153

[21] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.155

[22] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.384

[23] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 71

[24] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.384

[25] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Two p.154

[26] McPherson, James M. War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2012 p.202

[27] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.100

[28] Stahr, Walter Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man Simon and Schuster, New York 2012 p.374

[29] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.682

[30] Ibid. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative Volume Three p.100

[31] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.298

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The Civil War and the Transformation of Naval Warfare

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

For the past month I have been doing a lot of work on my Civil War and Gettysburg text. As I looked at the first chapter which deals with the Civil War being the first truly modern war, I realized that the text was entirely land-centric. Part of this was because no naval forces were involved at Gettysburg, but they did have a significant and even a pivotal role in the defeat of the South. The technical developments at sea during the Civil War still affect us today. Since many of my students are Naval officers and our Staff College focuses on joint operations I thought it wise to include a brief introduction to those transformational developments of the Civil War.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Another aspect of the American Civil War that made it the first modern war was the naval war. There are several components of which we should take note. The first of which are the major technical advances in naval warship design, particularly in the matter of armor protection and steam propulsion. While both armor protection and steam propulsion were not new. Steam power had been introduced in the United States Navy in 1814 when Robert Fulton’s USS Demologos was launched. That ship was innovative but saw little service. The U.S. Navy commissioned a number of steam frigates, first paddle-wheel steamers and later screw-frigates in the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s. However during the ante-bellum era only seventeen of fifty-seven major ships (ships of the line, frigates and first rate sloops of war) were steam powered. By the end of the war most ships were steam powered or had sails just to supplement their steam plants.

The second major technical innovation was the use of iron in shipbuilding, particularly armor plating for protection. What had changed was that the French and British navies had adopted explosive shell in the 1830s. The first use of them by the Russians against the Turks at the Battle of Sinope in 1853 proved devastating to the Turks and convinced both the British and the French that something had to be done to counter the threat. The result was the ironclad.

During the Crimean War the French built ironclad floating batteries as well as “three small purpose built…gunboats…whose ironclad hulls proved equally impervious to solid shot and explosive shell.” [1] The French commissioned their first ironclad shell firing battleship, the Gloire in 1859. The British Royal Navy commissioned their first ironclad, the HMS Warrior in 1860. Though she did not have the rotating turrets and maintained sails as an auxiliary source of propulsion, Warrior was “rightly regarded as the first battleship of the modern age. Warrior was steam-propelled, shell firing, iron in construction from keel to bulwarks and heavily armored as well.” [2]

But it was in America that the steam powered ironclads changed naval warfare in a dramatic fashion. The Confederacy led the way in the development of ironclads largely out of necessity to break the Union blockade. As necessity is the mother of invention the Confederates were most creative in attempting to answer the Union blockade, which was tightening significantly by 1862 as Union Naval and Army forces conducted amphibious operations along the Confederate Coast seizing six of the nine ports with rail connections to the southern interior, while blockading the remaining ports. The “blockade reduced the South’s seaborne trade to less than a third of normal,” [3] which included imports of vital war materials as well as the export of the South’s only real commodity, cotton.

The blockade had a devastating effect on the southern economy and war effort: “by bringing about serious shortages in strategic items, not only added to the inflationary trends but also frustrated efforts to maintain the transportation network and to increase industrial output.” [4] A southern naval officer “conceded after the war that the blockade “shut the Confederacy out from the world, deprived it of supplies, weakened its military and naval strength.” [5] It also contributed to the decline in the southern standard of living, weakening the political will of the southern people by “accentuating the hardships of war by reducing the southern standard of living and denying consumers enough of many of the imports, such as coffee, which they valued. This was a cost of war which northerners did not have to bear.” [6]

The blockade and Union amphibious operations soon deprived the Confederacy of its major naval facilities and forced the confederate Navy to rely on small shipyards in often isolated locations. The isolation meant that the often paltry amount of supplies such as iron, wood, and weapons, could not get to these facilities, hindering the construction of warships. But the Confederate Navy also suffered from its secondary status to the Army and since “Davis favored the army, the navy received inadequate funding.” [7]

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CSS Virginia in drydock

Despite this, southern naval personnel were decidedly inventive in attempting to find creative ways to defend their harbors as well as break the blockade. First was in the development of ironclad ships armed with large rifled cannons which fired the explosive shells which were so devastating against wooden ships. The first operational Confederate Ironclad the CSS Manassas was destroyed at New Orleans by Admiral Farragut’s fleet, but the most famous Confederate Ironclad had a decided effect on the war. This was the CSS Virginia formerly the Federal steam frigate USS Merrimac which had been burned at Norfolk to prevent her from falling into Confederate hands. The ship had burned to the waterline but its hull was intact. Likewise its engines, which even before the sinking were seriously in need of replacement, were intact.

Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory realized that innovation was the key to Confederate hopes at sea and he told the Naval Affairs committee in the new Confederate Congress “I regard the possession of an iron-plated ship as a matter of first necessity.” [8] Mallory sent agents to Europe to contract with French and British yards to build such ships but those efforts fell through when both countries decided to enforce their neutrality laws which forbade them from producing warships for a belligerent nation.

This caused Mallory to embark on converting the Merrimac into a large ironclad ram. In 1861, not long after the seizure of Norfolk and the Gosport Naval Shipyard, Mallory’s Chief of Ordnance and Hydrography, Lieutenant John M. Brooke, “had drawn up a design for transforming Merrimac’s hull into the iron plated CSS Virginia.” [9] The ship was cut down to the waterline and rebuilt with a “170 foot long casemate sloped at an angle of 36 degrees” [10]bolted onto the hull. Construction was agonizingly slow despite the efforts of officers on the scene. The ship’s executive officer, Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones “pressed the workmen to labor overtime, seven days a week” [11] but despite their efforts the ship was completed nearly four months after its projected completion date of November 1861. This was largely due to issues that would plague the Confederate shipbuilding industry throughout the war; “shortages of iron, congestion on the railroads hauling materials, and the necessity of retooling the Tredegar Iron works[12] to roll the armor plate slowed her construction.

The ship’s casemate had a four inch layer of armor plate, and the hull below was given a one inch armored belt extending to three feet below the waterline. Armed with six 9 inch Dahlgren smoothbore naval guns on the broadside, two 7 inch rifles forward and two 6.4 inch rifles aft and equipped with a seven foot iron ram on her bow, when complete, the new Virginia was unlike anything seen before. [13]

During construction Union spies leaked the plans to the North which catapulted the Lincoln and his Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles into action. “When Welles learned of enemy plans for Merrimac, he appointed an Ironclad Board to study the problem. It recommended that the Navy Department let contracts for three experimental ironclads, one of them designed by John Ericsson and known as the Monitor.[14]

MMUSSM01

Ericsson, a Swede, was the inventor of the screw propeller and designer of the first U.S. Navy Screw Frigate the USS Princeton. The Monitor too was like nothing ever seen on the ocean. Described by some as a “cheese box on a raft” the small ship had all of her machinery located below the waterline on a completely iron hull that only drew 11 feet of water. The hull was protected by armor plate, but the most notable and innovative feature was a heavily armored revolving turret with eight inches of armor, mounted two massive 11 inch Dahlgren smoothbore guns which “could fire a 170-pound shot or 136-pound shell in any direction except straight ahead, where the pilot house sheathed in nine inches of armor was located.” [15] Future ships remedied this defect. Ericcson’s ship was mocked around the navy and by naval designers, but he and it would prove them wrong.

Monitor was completed two weeks before Virginia, but the Confederates elected to strike quickly. On March 8th 1862 the Virginia sailed under the Command of Franklin Buchanan, a veteran officer who had left the U.S. Navy to confront the Federal blockade force off Hampton Roads. During the battle she rammed and sank the large sailing Sloop of War USS Cumberland and shelled the sailing Frigate USS Congress, one of the Navy’s original six frigates until that ship caught fire and exploded during the night. The steam Frigate Minnesota, a sister ship of Merrimac and the flagship of the blockade force had run aground attempting to come to the aid of the two doomed ship and was at the mercy of Virginia. But tides and darkness caused Buchanan to withdraw for the night. March 8th was the “worst day in the history of the U.S. Navy. The Virginia sank two proud ships within a few hours – a feat no other enemy would accomplish until 1941. At least 240 bluejackets had been killed, including the Captain of the Congress – more than the navy suffered on any day of the war.”[16]

That night the tiny Monitor arrived and when Virginia steamed out on March 9th to complete the work she had begun the previous day, her crew saw a strange craft laying aside Minnesota. They did not realize that this was the new Union ironclad. As the Virginia approached Minnesota to finisher her off, the Monitor went into action. The ships fought a fierce engagement for several hours. The engagement was a draw and never fought again as neither side wanted to risk their only operational ironclad. Virginia had to be scuttled to avoid capture when Union forces captured Norfolk in May of 1862. However, the encounter had revolutionized naval warfare and doomed the graceful wooden wall of the sailing ships of the line and frigates. When the news of the action reached London the effect was shattering. The London Times commented:

“Whereas we had available for immediate purposes one hundred and forty-nine first class warships, we now have two, these being the Warrior and her sister Ironside. There is not now a ship in the English Navy apart from these two that it would not be madness to trust to an engagement with that little Monitor.” [17]

Designers on both sides experimented with various designs of ironclad warships. The Confederacy focused on building ironclad rams based on the Virginia, which featured a central armored casemate where all the ships guns were mounted. Eventually they completed twenty-one more such vessels which were used mostly in harbor defense activities. All of these ships faced construction challenges largely due to the shortage of iron plating, adequate propulsion systems and weapons. Some ships had armor plating consisting of railroad tracks which were bolted onto wooden casemates.

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The U.S. Navy, with more shipyards and resources had a number of designs including the Eads river ironclads, the ironclad frigate USS New Ironsides and various types of “Monitors” featuring heavily armored revolving turrets designed by John Ericcson. Other designs were rejected for various reasons. While ironclads were the preferred type of ship, neither navy had the ability to build completely ironclad fleets and wooden ships still had a decided speed advantage over ironclads. Thus field-expedient protection was devised used which resulted in ships being protected by lumber, cotton and tin. However, by the end of the war the United States Navy had 58 monitors in operation. In addition to the monitor fleet another dozen or so ironclads of various types served in the U.S. Navy.

When the Ironclad Board of the United States Navy prioritized the types of ship to construct to meet the demands of the war, they rightly recognized that first priority had to be given to what we now call “the Brown Water Navy.” The Board determined that:

“Our immediate demands seem to require, first, so far as practicable, vessels invulnerable to shot, of light draught of water to penetrate our shoals, rivers, and bayous. We therefore favor the construction of this class vessels before going into a more perfect system of large iron-clad sea-going vessels of war.” [18]

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The new designs which featured steam propulsion and armor protection instantly made all previous ships obsolete and by the 1880s these features would be incorporated in warship design by navies around the world. The effect was immediate in England where “After 1865 all the Royal Navy’s new ships were built of iron; the most modern of the old were cut down and iron clad.[19] France and Russia followed, but the United States, in its post war draw down allowed its fleet to crumble and it would not be until the 1880s that the first steel ships would be built to replace the now obsolete monitors and the remaining wooden steam frigates.

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Two other naval developments from the Civil War still play an important role in naval warfare and strategy. Two were related to the modern submarine. The first that of a semi-submersible “torpedo boats” known as Davids, one of which disabled the massive USS New Ironsides, hitting the ironclad with a 60 pound charge on the tip of a spar torpedo mounted on its bow off of Charleston on October 5th 1863. The fifty foot long craft and two of her crew returned it to a heroes’ welcome. A Union torpedo boat under the command of Lieutenant William Barker Cushing, brother of Army Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing, a hero of “the Angle” at Pickett’s Charge, sank the ironclad CSS Albemarle on the Roanoke River with a spar mounted torpedo on October 27th 1864.

On February 17th the fully submersible CSS Hunley exploded a spar torpedo on the side of the USS Housatonic a steam sloop anchored off Charleston. The torpedo sank Housatonic and swamped the tiny Hunley taking her and her nine man crew to their watery grave. These early Confederate innovations spurred the development of submarines, something that the U.S. Navy pioneered and still leads the world in many ways. In many ways the submarine is the most deadly naval and strategic weapon system in the world today, and they trace their roots to the humble CSS Hunley, the first to sink a warship in combat.

hunley1lg

The Hunley and Monitor remain today the most famous ships of the Civil War, each of which irrevocably changed the character of naval warfare for generations to come.

The last development was the development of what were then called torpedoes, but are now known as mines by the Confederate Navy. Authorized by the ever innovative Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory, these weapons were used to protect blockaded ports from Union Naval forces and by the end of the war these “infernal devices” had sunk or damaged forty-three Union warships.” [20]

The lessons learned from the battles along America’s Littorals demonstrate the importance of being able to conduct both blue water as well as actions along contested shorelines and inland waterways. Likewise they demonstrate to naval strategists the importance of not ignoring any means that a weaker opponent can use to defend his coastline. The surprise attack on the guided missile destroyer USS Cole by terrorists with an explosive laden craft on October 12th 2000 demonstrate the vulnerability of even the most modern warships to technology not much different than that used against New Ironsides, Housatonic and Albemarle in the Civil War.

Notes

[1] Keegan, John The Price of Admiralty: The Evolution of Naval Warfare Penguin Books, New York and London 1988 p.110

[2] Ibid. Keegan The Price of Admiralty pp.110-111

[3] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.382

[4] Currant, Richard N. God and the Strongest Battalions in Why the North Won the Civil War edited by Donald, David Herbert A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York 1996 p.33

[5] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.381

[6] Jones, Archer. Military Means, Political Ends in Why the Confederacy Lost edited by Boritt, Gabor, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1992 p. 75

[7] Millet, Allan R. and Maslowski Peter For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States, Revised and Expanded Edition The Free Press, New York 1994 p.220

[8] McPherson, James War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies 1861-1865 p.96

[9] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation pp.129-130

[10] Ibid. McPherson War on the Waters p.97

[11] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.130

[12] Ibid. McPherson War on the Waters p.97

[13] Ibid. McPherson War on the Waters p.97

[14] Ibid. Millet and Maslowski For the Common Defense Revised and Expanded edition p.221

[15] Ibid. McPherson War on the Waters p.99

[16] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.376

[17] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.377

[18] _____________ The Daybook: Civil War Navy Special Edition – Technology U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Center retrieved from http://www.history.navy.mil/content/dam/nhhc/browse-by-topic/War%20and%20Conflict/civil-war/cwsetech.pdf 16 January 2015 p.9

[19] Ibid. Keegan The Price of Admiralty p.111

[20] Ibid. McPherson Battle Cry of Freedom p.314

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Strategy and Policy: Lee’s Offensive Gettysburg Campaign -The Worst of Both Worlds

A cohesive national strategy involves true debate and consideration of all available courses of action. It must look at the ends, ways and means of achieving national strategic objectives as well as the risk entailed in each course of action. It has to involve both the political leadership and military commanders. Clausewitz said: “the supreme, most far reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.” [1]

“Wars are not free flowing events, sufficient unto themselves as objects for study and understanding. Instead they are entirely the product of their contexts.” [2] Thus it is imperative that both political and military leaders understand for what purpose they embark on a war or begin a campaign. Even in the recent American experience we can recount time after time where American political leaders of both the Republican and Democrat parties, as well as military leaders and planners have failed to grasp the central truth of was Clausewitz wrote about the nature of war.

davis and cabinet

British political and military theorist Colin S. Gray writes: “Choice of strategy can determine whether or not policy goals will be attainable. And that choice must provide the most vital contexts for tactical behavior. Once policy objectives have been chosen, strategy is the function that delivers victory.” [3] In our recent wars and in the American Civil War this maxim has been born out time and time again.

Thus, the Gettysburg campaign has to be looked at in the context of Grand Strategy and what was necessary for both sides to achieve their goals. For the Confederacy this was independence and in the context of the Gettysburg campaign the key question is whether it should have been made at all. While Lee is regarded as a masterful commander by many, the myth created by the Lost Cause school of history, in which the failure of Confederate war aims cannot be ascribed to Lee, keeps many people from asking the hard questions of strategy, and how Lee as commander failed to understand what was best for his country.

The key consideration, as Alan T. Nolan observes “must be whether a general’s actions helped or hurt the cause of his government in view of that government’s grand strategy. In short, the appropriate inquiry is to ask whether a general’s actions related positively or negatively to the war objectives and national policy of his government.” [4] The question was one of following a strategy of the defensive as Washington had done in the Revolutionary War, or a strategy of the offense culminating in a climactic battle that would decide the outcome of the war.

A defensive strategy was seen by British observers early in the war as the most feasibly for achieving Southern military and political goals in relationship to attaining independence. In the Revolution, Washington remained on the “grand strategic defensive” and “lost many battles and retreated many times, but they kept their forces in the field to avoid being ultimately defeated, and they won because the British decided that the struggle was either too hopeless or too burdensome to pursue.” [5] They had no doubt that this was the best policy for the Confederate government and military to achieve their strategic end.

The terrain of Virginia, particularly the number of east-west running rivers, the swamps that lay to the east of Richmond and the nearly impassible Wilderness to its north made any Union offensive a costly proposition. Clausewitz noted that terrain has “a decisive influence on the engagement, both as to its course and to its planning and exploitation….Their principle effect lies in the realm of tactics, but the outcome is a matter of strategy” [6]

This naturally advantageous terrain gave the advantage to Lee on the defense, but Lee seemed to never fully appreciate the strategic strength that the nature of the terrain, especially that of the Wilderness offered him. J.F.C. Fuller noted that “the Wilderness had been his staunchest ally. It was not only a natural fortress protecting Richmond, but a spider’s web to any army advancing from the north. Lee never fully realized this, for if he had done so his strategy would have been based upon maneuvering his enemy again and again into this entanglement and defeating him.” [7]

However, the strategic defensive was not that of Robert E. Lee. Lee’s view throughout the war, even as late as the siege of Petersburg was that of the offensive and climactic battle: “If we can defeat or drive the armies of the enemy from the field, we shall have peace. Our efforts and energies should be devoted to that object.” [8]

In 1863 the Confederacy was confronted with the choice of how it would deal with the multiple threats to it posed by Union forces in both the West at Vicksburg, as well as in Tennessee as well as the East, where the Army of the Potomac was in striking distance of Richmond. The strategic situation was bad but few Confederate politicians realized just how bad things were, or cared in the post Chancellorsville euphoria.

In the west the strategic river city of Vicksburg Mississippi was threatened by the Army of Union General Ulysses S Grant, and Naval forces under the command of Admiral David Farragut and Admiral David Dixon Porter. If Vicksburg fell the Union would control the entire Mississippi and cut the Confederacy in two. Union forces also maintained a strong presence in the areas of the Virginia Tidewater and the coastal areas of the Carolinas; while in Tennessee a Union Army under Rosecrans, was stalemated, but still threatening Chattanooga, the gateway to the Deep South. The blockade of the United States Navy continually reinforced since its establishment in 1861, had crippled the already tenuous economy of the Confederacy. The once mocked “anaconda strategy” devised by General Winfield Scott was beginning to pay dividends. [9] Of the nine major Confederate ports linked by rail to the inland cities the Union, all except three; Mobile, Wilmington and Charleston were in Union hands by April 1862. [10]

However, the Confederate response to the danger was “divided councils and paralysis” [11] in their upper leadership, between those like Lee who advocated for the offensive and those like Davis who advocated a defensive strategy. The military relationship between Lee and Davis “represented a continuous compromise between the president’s undeclared policy of outlasting the enemy and the general’s purpose of winning by breaking the enemy’s will to continue their effort at subjugation.” [12]

Davis, though he was Commander-in-Chief wavered between the two strategic ideas throughout the first years of the war, something that was worse than coming to no decision at all. Lee’s latest biographer Michael Korda makes the point that: “The danger that the Confederacy might unravel from west to east, whatever happened between the Rappahannock and the Potomac, was Grant’s central strategic idea, and should have been the overriding concern of the Confederate government; but Lee’s position as the South’s most respected and admired military figure, the high drama of his rapid marches and his victories against much larger armies had a profound effect on southern military strategy.” [13] Instead it was not, and a fog of confused policies confounded Confederate war efforts.

Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon and President Jefferson Davis recognized the danger in the winter of 1862-1863. During the winter Davis and Seddon suggested to Lee that he detach significant units, including Pickett’s division to relieve the pressure in the west and blunt Grant’s advance. Lee would have nothing of it; he argued that the war would be won in the East. He told Seddon that “The adoption of your proposition is hazardous, and it becomes a question between Virginia and the Mississippi.” [14] From a strategic point of view it is hard to believe that Lee could not see this, “but in the post-Chancellorsville aura of invincibility, anything seemed possible.” [15]

However, much of Lee’s reasoning can be explained by what he saw as his first duty, the defense of Virginia. Lee’s biographer Michael Korda points out that Lee’s strategic argument was very much influenced by his love of Virginia, which remained his first love, despite his deep commitment to the Confederacy. Korda noted that Lee: “could never overcome a certain myopia about his native state. He remained a Virginian first and foremost…..” [16] Fuller wrote that Lee “was so obsessed by the idea of threatening Washington in order to relieve Northern Virginia, that throughout his generalship he never saw the war as a whole.” [17] It was Lee’s view that if Virginia was lost, so was the Confederacy, and was concerned that whatever units left behind should he dispatch troops from his Army west, would be unable to defend Richmond.

Likewise, despite the success of his defensive battles at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Lee was not encouraged. Those victories had elated the Confederacy and caused great concern in the North. But Lee was depressed after each. Lee told Harry Heth after Chancellorsville: “Our people were wild with delight- I, on the contrary, was more depressed than after Fredericksburg; our loss was severe, and again we had not gained an inch of ground, and the enemy could not be pursued…” [18]

Some Confederate leaders realized the mortal danger presented by Grant in the West including officials in the War Department, one of whom wrote “The crisis there is of the greatest moment. The loss of Vicksburg and the Mississippi river…would wound us very deeply in a political as well as a military point of view.” [19]

Despite this Seddon did remain in favor of shifting troops west and relieving Vicksburg. He was backed in this by Joseph Johnston, Braxton Bragg, P.T.G. Beauregard and James Longstreet. In Mid-May of 1863 Beauregard proposed a strategy to concentrate all available forces in in Tennessee and going to the strategic defensive on all other fronts. Beauregard, probably the best Southern strategist “saw clearly that the decisive point lay in the West and not the East.” [20] Beauregard’s plan was to mass Confederate forces was crush Rosecrans, relieve Vicksburg and then move east to assist Lee in destroying the Army of the Potomac in his words to complete “the terrible lesson the enemy has just had at Chancellorsville.” [21] His plan was never acknowledged and in a letter to Johnston, where he re-sent the plan he noted “I hope everything will turn out well, although I do not exactly see how.” [22]

James Longstreet had proposed a similar measure to Seddon in February 1863 and then again on May 6th in Richmond. Longstreet believed that “the Confederacy’s greatest opportunity lay “in the skillful use of our interior lines.” [23] He suggested to Seddon that two of his divisions link up with Johnston and Bragg and defeat Rosecrans and upon doing that move toward Cincinnati. Longstreet argued that since Grant would have the only Union troops that could stop such a threat that it would relieve “Pemberton at Vicksburg.” [24] Seddon favored Longstreet’s proposal but Jefferson Davis having sought Lee’s counsel rejected the plan, Longstreet in a comment critical of Davis’s rejection of the proposal wrote: “But foreign intervention was the ruling idea with the President, and he preferred that as the easiest solution of all problems.” [25] Following that meeting Longstreet pitched the idea to Lee who according to Longstreet “recognized the suggestion as of good combination, and giving strong assurance of success, but he was averse to having a part of his army so far beyond his reach.” [26]

In early May 1863 Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia realized that the Confederacy was in desperate straits. Despite numerous victories against heavy odds, Lee knew that time was running out. Though he had beaten the Army of the Potomac under General Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville, he had not destroyed it and Hooker’s Army, along with a smaller force commanded by General Dix in Hampton Roads still threatened Richmond. He had rejected the western option presented by Seddon, Beauregard and Longstreet. Lee questioned “whether additional troops there would redress the balance in favor of the Confederacy, and he wondered how he would be able to cope with the powerful Army of the Potomac.” [27]

In Lee’s defense neither of these suggestions was unsound, but his alternative, an offensive into Pennsylvania just as unsound and undertaken for “confused” reasons. Confederate leaders realized that “something had to be done to save Vicksburg; something had to be done to prevent Hooker from recrossing the Rappahannock; something had to be done to win European recognition, or compel the North to consider terms of peace…[28] However added to these reasons, and perhaps the most overarching for Lee was “to free the State of Virginia, for a time at least, from the presence of the enemy” and “to transfer the theater of war to Northern soil….” [29]

On May 14th Lee travelled by train to Richmond to meet with President Jefferson Davis and War Secretary James Seddon. At the meeting Lee argued for an offensive campaign in the east, to take the war to Pennsylvania. Lee had three major goals for the offensive, two which were directly related to the immediate military situation and one which went to the broader strategic situation.

Lee had long believed that an offensive into the North was necessary, even before Chancellorsville. As already noted, Lee did not believe that reinforcing the Confederate Armies in the West would provide any real relief for Vicksburg. Lee believed, quite falsely, that the harsh climate alone would force Grant to break off his siege of Vicksburg. [30] Russell Weigley wrote that “In truth, Lee seems to have been less than fully responsive to the problems of the West, partly out of Virginia parochialism- he always regarded his sword as serving his first state of Virginia-and partly in adherence to his military philosophy,” [31] that of the offensive. Lee was not willing to sacrifice Virginia for the west, and “tenaciously fought every suggestion that the Army of Northern Virginia be denuded to reinforce the west, and his influence over Davis guaranteed, at least until the fall of 1863, that the defense of Virginia would always be able to outweigh the demands for help from the Confederate forces in the West.” [32]

Instead of sending troops west, Lee believed that his army, flush with victory needed to be reinforced and allowed to advance into Pennsylvania. Lee proposed withdrawing Beauregard’s 16,000 soldiers from the Carolinas to the north in order “increase the known anxiety of Washington authorities” [33] and he sought the return of four veteran brigades which had been loaned to D.H. Hill in North Carolina. In this he was unsuccessful. He received two relatively untested brigades from Hill; those of Johnston Pettigrew and Joseph Davis instead two of Pickett’s veteran brigades. The issue of the lack of reinforcements was a “commentary on the severe manpower strains rending the Confederacy…and Davis wrote Lee on May 31st, “and sorely regret that I cannot give you the means which would make it quite safe to attempt all that we desire.” [34]

Lee’s Chief of Staff Colonel Charles Marshall crafted a series of courses of action for Lee designed to present the invasion option as the only feasible alternative for the Confederacy. Lee’s presentation was an “either or” proposal. He gave short shrift to any possibility of reinforcing Vicksburg and explained “to my mind, it resolved itself into a choice of one of two things: either to retire to Richmond and stand a siege, which must ultimately end in surrender, or to invade Pennsylvania.” [35] As any military planner knows the presentation of courses of action designed to lead listeners to the course of action that a commander prefers by ignoring the risks of such action, downplaying other courses of action is disingenuous. In effect Lee was asking Davis and his cabinet to “choose between certain defeat and possibly victory” [36] while blatantly ignoring other courses of action or playing down other very real threats in the West.

Lee embraced the offensive as his grand strategy and rejected the defensive in his presentation to the Confederate cabinet, and they were “awed” by Lee’s strategic vision. Swept up in Lee’s presentation the cabinet approved the invasion despite the fact that “most of the arguments he made to win its approval were more opportunistic than real.” [37] However, Postmaster General John Reagan objected and stated his dissent arguing that Vicksburg had to be the top priority. But Lee was persuasive telling the cabinet “There were never such men in any army before….They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led….” So great was the prestige of Lee, “whose fame…now filled the world,” that he carried the day.” [38]

Although both Seddon and Davis had reservations about the plan they agreed to it. Unfortunately for all of them they never really settled the important goals of the campaign including how extensive the invasion would be, how many troops would he need and where he would get them. [39] The confusion about these issues was fully demonstrated by Davis in his letter of May 31st where he “had never fairly comprehended” Lee’s “views and purposes” until he received a letter and dispatch from the general that day.” [40] That lack of understanding is surprising since Lee had made several personal visits to Davis and the cabinet during May and demonstrates again the severe lack of understanding of the strategic problems by Confederate leaders.

Lee believed that his offensive would relieve Grant’s pressure on Pemberton’s Army at Vicksburg. How it would do so is not clear since the Union had other armies and troops throughout the east to parry any thrust made had the Army of the Potomac endured a decisive defeat that not only drove it from the battlefield but destroyed it as a fighting force. Postmaster General Reagan believed that the only way to stop Grant was “destroy him” and “move against him with all possible reinforcements.” [41]

Likewise Lee believed that if he was successful in battle and defeated the Army of the Potomac in Pennsylvania that it could give the peace party in the North to bring pressure on the Lincoln Administration to end the war. This too was a misguided belief and Lee would come to understand that as his forces entered Maryland and Pennsylvania where there was no popular support for his invading army. The fact was that those that “though there was a strong peace party in the North, they did not realize that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had settled once and for all the question of foreign intervention, and second that to invade the North would consolidate the Federals instead of dividing them.” [42]

In the meeting with the cabinet, Postmaster-General Reagan, agreed with General Beauregard and warned that “the probability that the threatened danger to Washington would arouse again the whole of the Yankee nation to renewed efforts for the protection of their capital.” [43] Reagan was decidedly against Lee’s offensive. He “saw everything wrong with Lee’s plan and everything right with the plan it had superseded. Grant was the main threat to the survival of the Confederacy, and it was Grant at whom the main blow must be aimed and struck.” [44] But “Lee’s opinion carried so much weight that Davis felt compelled to concur” [45] with Lee and voted with the remaining cabinet members to allow the offensive.

Stephens the fire breathing Vice President “wanted to negotiate for peace, and he foresaw rightly that Lee’s offensive would strengthen and not weaken the war party in the North….Stephens was strongly of the opinion that Lee should have remained on the defensive and detached a strong force to assist Johnston against Grant at Vicksburg.” [46] However, he was kept in the dark as to Lee’s plans until after Lee had crossed the Potomac.

Likewise, Lee, the consummate defender of Virginia was determined to at least for a season remove the war from his beloved state. He believed that if he could spend a summer campaign season in the North, living off of Union foodstuffs and shipping booty back to the Confederacy that it would give farmers in Northern Virginia a season to harvest crops unimpeded by major military operations.

While the offensive did give a few months relief to these farmers it did not deliver them. Likewise Lee’s argument that he could not feed his army flies in the face of later actions where for the next two years the Army of Northern Virginia continued to subsist. Alan Nolan noted that if a raid for forage was a goal of the operation then “a raid by small, mobile forces rather than the entire army would have had considerably more promise and less risk.” [47] D. H. Hill in North Carolina wrote his wife: “Genl. Lee is venturing upon a very hazardous movement…and one that must be fruitless, if not disastrous.” [48]

Though Lee won permission to invade Pennsylvania, he did not get all that he desired. Lee wanted, and believed that he would have his entire army to conduct his offensive. However, Davis did not understand or conceive that Lee’s offensive scheme was a “change in the existing policy, a shift from the defense to the offense. To Davis, Lee’s invasion was merely a necessary expedient in the policy of static, scattered defensiveness.” [49]

Davis refused Lee reinforcements from the coastal Carolinas, and “had not the slightest intention of reducing a single garrison to support Lee’s offensive.” [50] Davis insisted on units being left to cover Richmond in case General Dix advanced on Richmond from Hampton Roads. Much of this was due to political pressure as well as the personal animus of General D. H. Hill who commanded Confederate forces in the Carolinas towards Lee. The units included two of Pickett’s brigades which would be sorely missed on July third in the doomed effort to break the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. As a result Lee was without a significant portion of his army when he moved north. Lee did not learn “until he had crossed the Potomac that four of his best brigades, the equivalent of a division, were to be uselessly employed away from the army.” [51]

Lee’s decision revealed an unresolved issue in Confederate Grand Strategy, the conflict between the strategy of the offensive and that of the defensive. Many in the Confederacy realized that the only hope for success was to fight a defensive campaign that made Union victory so expensive that eventually Lincoln’s government would fall or be forced to negotiate.

The conflict between those who believed in the offensive like Lee, and those that advocated a strategic defensive strategy resulted in indecision, which resulted in a policy that brought about “the worst of both worlds.” [52] The fact that Lee got permission to invade but was denied significant numbers of experienced troops as well as support from other departments meant that “what Lee designed as a total stroke from a concentration of its armed strength, was reduced to a desperate, unsupported gamble of one man with one army-and not all of that.” [53] Knowing this, Lee still chose to continue his offensive, something that along with his “own awareness of factors that argued against it.” [54]

Lee was convinced that ultimate victory could only be achieved by decisively defeating and destroying Federal military might in the East. His letters are full of references to crush, defeat or destroy Union forces opposing him. His strategy of the offensive was demonstrated on numerous occasions in 1862 and early 1863, however in the long term, the strategy of the offensive was unfeasible and “counterproductive in terms of the Confederacy’s “objects of war.” [55]

Lee’s offensive operations always cost his Army dearly in the one commodity that the South could not replace, nor keep pace with its Northern adversary, his men. His realism about that subject was shown after he began his offensive when he wrote Davis about how time was not on the side of the Confederacy. He wrote: “We should not therefore conceal from ourselves that our resources in men are constantly diminishing, and the disproportion in this respect…is steadily augmenting.” [56] Despite this, as well as knowing that in every offensive engagement, even in victory he was losing more men percentage wise than his opponent Lee persisted in the belief of the offensive.

When Lee fought defensive actions on ground of his choosing, like at Fredericksburg, he was not only successful but husbanded his strength. However, when he went on the offensive in almost every case he lost between 15 and 22 percent of his strength, a far higher percentage in every case than his Union opponents. In these battles the percentage of soldiers that he lost was always more than his Federal counterparts, even when his army inflicted greater aggregate casualties on his opponents. Those victories may have won Lee “a towering reputation” but these victories “proved fleeting when measured against their dangerous diminution of southern white manpower.” [57] Lee recognized this in his correspondence but he did not alter his strategy of the offensive until after his defeat at Gettysburg.

The course of action was decided upon, but one has to ask if Lee’s decision was wise decision at a strategic level, not simply the operational or tactical level where many Civil War students are comfortable. General Longstreet’s artillery commander, Colonel Porter Alexander described the appropriate strategy of the South well, he wrote:

“When the South entered upon war with a power so immensely her superior in men & money, & all the wealth of modern resources in machinery and the transportation appliances by land & sea, she could entertain but one single hope of final success. That was, that the desperation of her resistance would finally exact from her adversary such a price in blood & treasure as to exhaust the enthusiasm of its population for the objects of the war. We could not hope to conquer her. Our one chance was to wear her out.” [58]

What Alexander describes is the same type of strategy successfully employed by Washington and his more able officers during the American Revolution, Wellington’s campaign on the Iberian Peninsula against Napoleon’s armies, and that of General Giap against the French and Americans in Vietnam. It was not a strategy that completely avoided offensive actions, but saved them for the right moment when victory could be obtained.

It is my belief that Lee erred in invading the North for the simple fact that the risks far outweighed the possible benefits. As Russell Weigley noted “for a belligerent with the limited manpower resources of the Confederacy, General Lee’s dedication to an offensive strategy was at best questionable.” [59] The offensive was a long shot for victory at best, and Lee was a gambler, audacious possibly to a fault. His decision to go north exhibited a certain amount of hubris as he did not believe that his army could be beaten, even when it was outnumbered. Lee had to know from experience that even in victory “the Gettysburg campaign was bound to result in heavy Confederate casualties…limit his army’s capacity to maneuver…and to increase the risk of his being driven into a siege in the Richmond defenses.” [60] The fact that the campaign did exactly that demonstrates both the unsoundness of the campaign and is ironic, for Lee had repeatedly said in the lead up to the offensive in his meetings with Davis, Seddon and the cabinet that “a siege would be fatal to his army” [61] and “which must ultimately end in surrender.” [62]

Grand-strategy and national policy objectives must be the ultimate guide for operational decisions. “The art of employing military forces is obtaining the objects of war, to support the national policy of the government that raises the military forces.” [63] Using such criteria, despite his many victories Lee has to be judged as a failure as a military commander.

Lee knew from his previous experience that his army would suffer heavy casualties. Lee also understood that a victory over the Army of the Potomac deep in Northern territory could cost him dearly. He knew the effect that a costly victory would have on his operations, but he still took the risk. That decision was short sighted and diametrically opposed to the strategy that the South needed to pursue in order to gain its independence. Of course some will disagree, but I am comfortable in my assertion that it was a mistake that greatly affected the Confederacy’s only real means of securing its independence, the breaking of the will of the Union by making victory so costly that it would not be worth the cost.

In light of all of these factors one has to ask a question that is applicable as much today as it was to Lee. Since the object of a campaign is to be able to connect national strategy to the operational and tactical objectives of any campaign, in other words the connection of the campaign to grand-strategy objectives of a nation. In the case of the Confederacy it was to achieve independence, and as Clausewitz so keenly noted that “the political object, which was the original motive, must become an essential factor in the equation.” [64] The Gettysburg campaign, “Lee’s most audacious act, is the apogee of his grand strategy of the offensive.” But the question that has to be asked is “whether Lee should have been there at all.” [65] The same question should be asked by any political or military leader before embarking on a war or campaign within the war.

Notes

[1] Clausewitz, Carl von. On WarIndexed edition, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1976 p.88

 

[2] Gray, Colin S. Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy Potomac Book, Dulles VA 2009 p.3

[3] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.54

[4] Nolan, Alan T. Robert E. Lee: A Flawed General in Major Problems in American Military History: Documents and Essays Edited by Chambers, John Whiteclay II and Piehler, G. Kurt Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York 1999 p.175

[5] Nolan, Alan T. R. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg edited by Gallagher, Gary W. Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio 1992 p.9

[6] Clausewitz, Carl von. On WarIndexed edition, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1976 p.348

[7] Fuller, J.F.C Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship Indiana University Press, Bloomington Indiana, 1957 p.192

[8] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.5

[9] Fuller, J.F.C. The Conduct of War 1789-1961 Da Capo Press, New York 1992. Originally published by Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick N.J p.101 Fuller has a good discussion of the Anaconda strategy which I discussed in the chapter: Gettysburg, Vicksburg and the Campaign of 1863: The Relationship between Strategy, Operational Art and the DIME

[10] Ibid. Fuller The Conduct of War 1789-1961 p.101

[11] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.629

[12] Dowdy, Clifford. Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation Skyhorse Publishing, New York 1986, originally published as Death of a Nation Knopf, New York 1958 pp.20-21

[13] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 pp.524-525

[14] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.34

[15] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.647

[16] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 p.525

[17] Ibid. Fuller, J.F.C Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship p.193

[18] Guelzo Allen C. Fateful Lightening: A New History of the Civil War Era and Reconstruction Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2012 p.339

[19] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.5

[20] Ibid. Fuller, J.F.C Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship p.193

[21] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.429

[22] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.429

[23] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee p.525

[24] Wert, Jeffry D. General James Longstreet The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 1993 p.241

[25] Longstreet, James From Manassas to Appomattox, Memoirs of the Civil War in America originally published 1896, Amazon Kindle Edition location 4656

[26] Ibid. Longstreet, James From Manassas to Appomattox, Memoirs of the Civil War in America location 4705

[27] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.5

[28] Ibid. Fuller Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and p.194

[29] Taylor, Walter. General Lee: His campaigns in Virginia 1861-1865 With Personal Reminiscences University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln Nebraska and London, 1994 previously published 1906 p.180.

[30] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.430

[31] Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military History and Policy University of Indiana Press, Bloomington IN, 1973 pp.114-115

[32] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening: A New History of the Civil War Era and Reconstruction p.340

[33] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee p.528

[34] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p.51

[35] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.431

[36] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.431

[37] Tredeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.6

[38] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.647

[39] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.7

[40] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.7

[41] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.432

[42] Fuller, J.F.C. Decisive Battles of the U.S.A. 1776-1918 University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln 2007 copyright 1942 The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals p.222

[43] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.432

[44] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.432

[45] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.647

[46] Ibid. Fuller Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and p.194

[47] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburgin the First Day at Gettysburg p.2

[48] Ibid. Sears. Gettysburg p.51

[49] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.27

[50] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.27

[51] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.36

[52] Ibid. Weigley The American Way of War p.118

[53] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.28

[54] Ibid. Nolan Robert E. Lee: A Flawed General p.176

[55] Ibid. Nolan Robert E. Lee: A Flawed General in Major Problems p.176

[56] Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and His CriticsBrassey’s, Dulles VA 1999 p.134

[57] Gallagher, Gary W. The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism and Military Strategy Could not Stave Off Defeat Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 1999 p.120

[58] Alexander, Edward Porter. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander, ed. Gary W. Gallagher, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill NC, 1989 p.415

[59] Ibid. Weigley The American Way of War p.118

[60] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.11

[61] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.11

[62] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.431

[63] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.4

[64] Ibid. Clausewitz On War pp.80-81

[65] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.10

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The Failure to Link Grand-Strategy and Operational Objectives: Robert E. Lee and the Decision to Invade Pennsylvania 1863

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A cohesive national strategy involves true debate and consideration of all available courses of action. In 1863 the Confederacy was confronted with the choice of how it would deal with the multiple threats to it posed by Union forces in both the West at Vicksburg, as well as in Tennessee as well as the East, where the Army of the Potomac was in striking distance of Richmond. However in May of 1863 the leaders of the Confederacy allowed themselves to choose the worst possible course of action for their circumstances simply because it was proposed by Robert E. Lee.

The strategic situation was bad but few Confederate politicians realized just how bad things were, or cared in the euphoria after the Lee and Jackson’s victory at Chancellorsville. In the west the strategic river city of Vicksburg Mississippi was threatened by the Army of Union General Ulysses S Grant, and Naval forces under the command of Admiral David Farragut and Admiral David Dixon Porter.

If Vicksburg fell the Union would control the entire Mississippi and cut the Confederacy in two. Union forces also maintained a strong presence in the areas of the Virginia Tidewater and the coastal areas of the Carolinas; while in Tennessee a Union Army under Rosecrans, was stalemated, but still threatening Chattanooga, the gateway to the Deep South. The blockade of the United States Navy continually reinforced since its establishment in 1861, had crippled the already tenuous economy of the Confederacy. The once mocked “anaconda strategy” devised by General Winfield Scott was beginning to pay dividends. [1] Of the nine major Confederate ports linked by rail to the inland cities the Union, all except three; Mobile, Wilmington and Charleston were in Union hands by April 1862. [2]

However, the Confederate response to the danger was “divided councils and paralysis” [3] in their upper leadership. Some Confederate leaders realized the mortal danger presented by Grant in the West including officials in the War Department, one of whom wrote “The crisis there is of the greatest moment. The loss of Vicksburg and the Mississippi river…would wound us very deeply in a political as well as a military point of view.” [4]

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Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon and President Jefferson Davis recognized the danger in the winter of 1862-1863. During the winter Davis and Seddon suggested to Lee that he detach significant units, including Pickett’s division to relieve the pressure in the west and blunt Grant’s advance. Lee would have nothing of it; he argued that the war would be won in the East. He told Seddon that “The adoption of your proposition is hazardous, and it becomes a question between Virginia and the Mississippi.” [5] From a strategic point of view it is hard to believe that Lee could not see this, however, much of Lee’s reasoning can be explained by what he saw as his first duty, the defense of Virginia. Lee’s biographer Michael Korda points out that Lee’s strategic argument was very much influenced by his love of Virginia, which remained his first love, despite his deep commitment to the Confederacy. Korda noted that Lee: “could never overcome a certain myopia about his native state. He remained a Virginian first and foremost…..” [6] It was Lee’s view that if Virginia was lost, so was the Confederacy, and was concerned that whatever units left behind should he dispatch troops from his Army west, would be unable to defend Richmond.

Despite this Seddon did remain in favor of shifting troops west and relieving Vicksburg. He was backed in this by Joseph Johnston, Braxton Bragg, P.T.G. Beauregard and James Longstreet. In Mid-May of 1863 Beauregard proposed a strategy to concentrate all available forces in in Tennessee and going to the strategic defensive on all other fronts. Beauregard, probably the best Southern strategist “saw clearly that the decisive point lay in the West and not the East.” [7] Beauregard’s plan was to mass Confederate forces was crush Rosecrans, relieve Vicksburg and then move east to assist Lee in destroying the Army of the Potomac in his words to complete “the terrible lesson the enemy has just had at Chancellorsville.” [8] His plan was never acknowledged and in a letter to Johnston, where he re-sent the plan he noted “I hope everything will turn out well, although I do not exactly see how.” [9]

James Longstreet had proposed a similar measure to Seddon in February 1863 and then again on May 6th in Richmond. Longstreet believed that “the Confederacy’s greatest opportunity lay “in the skillful use of our interior lines.” [10] He suggested to Seddon that two of his divisions link up with Johnston and Bragg and defeat Rosecrans and upon doing that move toward Cincinnati. Longstreet argued that since Grant would have the only Union troops that could stop such a threat that it would relieve “Pemberton at Vicksburg.” [11] Seddon favored Longstreet’s proposal but Jefferson Davis having sought Lee’s counsel rejected the plan, Longstreet in a comment critical of Davis’s rejection of the proposal wrote: “But foreign intervention was the ruling idea with the President, and he preferred that as the easiest solution of all problems.” [12] Following that meeting Longstreet pitched the idea to Lee who according to Longstreet “recognized the suggestion as of good combination, and giving strong assurance of success, but he was averse to having a part of his army so far beyond his reach.” [13]

In early May 1863 Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia realized that the Confederacy was in desperate straits. Despite numerous victories against heavy odds, Lee knew that time was running out. Though he had beaten the Army of the Potomac under General Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville, he had not destroyed it and Hooker’s Army, along with a smaller force commanded by General Dix in Hampton Roads still threatened Richmond. He had rejected the western option presented by Seddon, Beauregard and Longstreet. Lee questioned “whether additional troops there would redress the balance in favor of the Confederacy, and he wondered how he would be able to cope with the powerful Army of the Potomac.” [14] In Lee’s defense neither of these suggestions was unsound, but his alternative, an offensive into Pennsylvania just as unsound and undertaken for “confused” reasons. Confederate leaders realized that “something had to be done to save Vicksburg; something had to be done to prevent Hooker from recrossing the Rappahannock; something had to be done to win European recognition, or compel the North to consider terms of peace…[15] However added to these reasons, and perhaps the most overarching for Lee was “to free the State of Virginia, for a time at least, from the presence of the enemy” and “to transfer the theater of war to Northern soil….” [16]

On May 14th Lee travelled by train to Richmond to meet with President Jefferson Davis and War Secretary James Seddon. At the meeting Lee argued for an offensive campaign in the east, to take the war to Pennsylvania. Lee had three major goals for the offensive, two which were directly related to the immediate military situation and one which went to the broader strategic situation.

Lee had long believed that an offensive into the North was necessary, even before Chancellorsville. As I have already noted, Lee did not believe that reinforcing the Confederate Armies in the West would provide any real relief for Vicksburg. He believed, quite falsely, that the harsh climate alone would force Grant to break off his siege of Vicksburg. [17] Instead, Lee believed that his army, flush with victory needed to be reinforced and allowed to advance into Pennsylvania. He proposed withdrawing Beauregard’s 16,000 soldiers from the Carolinas to the north in order “increase the known anxiety of Washington authorities” [18] and sought the return of four veteran brigades which had been loaned to D.H. Hill in North Carolina. In this he was unsuccessful receiving two relatively untested brigades from Hill, those of Johnston Pettigrew and Joseph Davis. The issue of the lack of reinforcements was a “commentary on the severe manpower strains rending the Confederacy…and Davis wrote Lee on May 31st, “and sorely regret that I cannot give you the means which would make it quite safe to attempt all that we desire.” [19]

Lee’s Chief of Staff Colonel Charles Marshall crafted a series of courses of action for Lee designed to present the invasion option as the only feasible alternative for the Confederacy. Lee’s presentation was an “either or” proposal. He gave short shrift to any possibility of reinforcing Vicksburg and explained “to my mind, it resolved itself into a choice of one of two things: either to retire to Richmond and stand a siege, which must ultimately end in surrender, or to invade Pennsylvania.” [20] As any military planner knows the presentation of courses of action designed to lead listeners to the course of action that a commander prefers by ignoring the risks of such action, downplaying other courses of action is disingenuous. In effect Lee was asking Davis and his cabinet to “choose between certain defeat and possibly victory” [21] while blatantly ignoring other courses of action or playing down very real threats.

Lee embraced the offensive as his grand strategy and rejected the defensive in his presentation to the Confederate cabinet, and they were “awed” by Lee’s strategic vision. Swept up in Lee’s presentation the cabinet approved the invasion despite the fact that “most of the arguments he made to win its approval were more opportunistic than real.” [22] However, Postmaster General John Reagan objected and stated his dissent arguing that Vicksburg had to be the top priority. But Lee was persuasive telling the cabinet “There were never such men in any army before….They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led….” So great was the prestige of Lee, “whose fame…now filled the world,” that he carried the day.” [23]Although both Seddon and Davis had reservations about the plan they agreed to it, unfortunately for all of them they never really settled the important goals of the campaign including how extensive the invasion would be, how many troops would he need and where he would get them. [24] The confusion about these issues was fully demonstrated by Davis in his letter of May 31st where he “had never fairly comprehended” Lee’s “views and purposes” until he received a letter and dispatch from the general that day.” [25] That lack of understanding is surprising since Lee had made several personal visits to Davis and the cabinet during May and demonstrates again the severe lack of understanding of the strategic problems by Confederate leaders.

Lee believed that his offensive would relieve Grant’s pressure on Pemberton’s Army at Vicksburg. How it would do so is not clear since the Union had other armies and troops throughout the east to parry any thrust made had the Army of the Potomac endured a decisive defeat that not only drove it from the battlefield but destroyed it as a fighting force. Postmaster General Reagan believed that the only way to stop Grant was “destroy him” and “move against him with all possible reinforcements.” [26]

Likewise Lee believed that if he was successful in battle and defeated the Army of the Potomac in Pennsylvania that it could give the peace party in the North to bring pressure on the Lincoln Administration to end the war. This too was a misguided belief and Lee would come to understand that as his forces entered Maryland and Pennsylvania where there was no popular support for his invading army. In the meeting with the cabinet Postmaster-General Reagan, agreeing with General Beauregard warned that “the probability that the threatened danger to Washington would arouse again the whole of the Yankee nation to renewed efforts for the protection of their capital.” [27] Likewise, Stephens the fire breathing Vice President “wanted to negotiate for peace, and he foresaw rightly that Lee’s offensive would strengthen and not weaken the war party in the North….Stephens was strongly of the opinion that Lee should have remained on the defensive and detached a strong force to assist Johnston against Grant at Vicksburg.” [28]

Lee believed that if he could spend a summer campaign season in the North, living off of Union foodstuffs and shipping booty back to the Confederacy that it would give farmers in Northern Virginia a season to harvest crops unimpeded by major military operations. While the offensive did give a few months relief to these farmers it did not deliver them. Likewise Lee’s argument that he could not feed his army flies in the face of later actions where for the next two years the Army of Northern Virginia continued to subsist. Alan Nolan notes that if a raid for forage was a goal of the operation then “a raid by small, mobile forces rather than the entire army would have had considerably more promise and less risk.” [29] D. H. Hill in North Carolina wrote his wife: “Genl. Lee is venturing upon a very hazardous movement…and one that must be fruitless, if not disastrous.” [30]

Though Lee won permission to invade Pennsylvania, he did not get all that he desired. Davis refused Lee reinforcements from the coastal Carolinas, and insisted on units being left to cover Richmond in case General Dix advanced on Richmond from Hampton Roads. Much of this was due to political pressure as well as the personal animus of General D. H. Hill who commanded Confederate forces in the Carolinas towards Lee. The units included two of Pickett’s brigades which would be sorely missed on July third.

Likewise Lee’s decision revealed an unresolved issue in Confederate Grand Strategy, the conflict between the strategy of the offensive and that of the defensive. Many in the Confederacy realized that the only hope for success was to fight a defensive campaign that made Union victory so expensive that eventually Lincoln’s government would fall or be forced to negotiate.

Lee was convinced that ultimate victory could only be achieved by decisively defeating and destroying Federal military might in the East. His letters are full of references to crush, defeat or destroy Union forces opposing him. His strategy of the offensive was demonstrated on numerous occasions in 1862 and early 1863, however in the long term, the strategy of the offensive was unfeasible and counterproductive to Southern strategy. Lee’s offensive operations always cost his Army dearly in the one commodity that the South could not replace, nor keep pace with its Northern adversary, his men. His realism about that subject was shown after he began his offensive when he wrote Davis about how time was not on the side of the Confederacy. He wrote: “We should not therefore conceal from ourselves that our resources in men are constantly diminishing, and the disproportion in this respect…is steadily augmenting.” [31] Despite this, as well as knowing that in every offensive engagement, even in victory he was losing more men percentage wise than his opponent Lee persisted in the belief of the offensive.

When Lee fought defensive actions on ground of his choosing, like a Fredericksburg he was not only successful but husbanded his strength. However, when he went on the offensive in almost every case he lost between 15 and 22 percent of his strength, a far higher percentage in every case than his Union opponents. In these battles the percentage of soldiers that he lost was always more than his Federal counterparts, even when his army inflicted greater aggregate casualties on his opponents. Those victories may have won Lee “a towering reputation” but these victories “proved fleeting when measured against their dangerous diminution of southern white manpower.” [32] Lee recognized this in his correspondence but he did not alter his strategy of the offensive until after his defeat at Gettysburg.

The course of action was decided upon, but one has to ask if Lee’s decision was wise decision at a strategic point level, not simply the operational or tactical level where many Civil War students are comfortable. General Longstreet’s artillery commander, Colonel Porter Alexander described the appropriate strategy of the South well, he wrote:

“When the South entered upon war with a power so immensely her superior in men & money, & all the wealth of modern resources in machinery and the transportation appliances by land & sea, she could entertain but one single hope of final success. That was, that the desperation of her resistance would finally exact from her adversary such a price in blood & treasure as to exhaust the enthusiasm of its population for the objects of the war. We could not hope to conquer her. Our one chance was to wear her out.” [33]

What Alexander describes is the same type of strategy successfully employed by Washington and his more able officers during the American Revolution, Wellington’s campaign on the Iberian Peninsula against Napoleon’s armies, and that of General Giap against the French and Americans in Vietnam. It was not a strategy that completely avoided offensive actions, but saved them for the right moment when victory could be obtained.

It is my belief that Lee erred in invading the North for the simple fact that the risks far outweighed the possible benefits. It was a long shot and Lee was a gambler, audacious possibly to a fault. His decision to go north also exhibited a certain amount of hubris as he did not believe that his army could be beaten, even when it was outnumbered. Lee had to know from experience that even in victory “the Gettysburg campaign was bound to result in heavy Confederate casualties…limit his army’s capacity to maneuver…and to increase the risk of his being driven into a siege in the Richmond defenses.” [34] The fact that the campaign did exactly that demonstrates both the unsoundness of the campaign and is ironic, for Lee had repeatedly said in the lead up to the offensive in his meetings with Davis, Seddon and the cabinet that “a siege would be fatal to his army” [35] and “which must ultimately end in surrender.” [36]

Grand-strategy and national policy objectives must be the ultimate guide for operational decisions. “The art of employing military forces is obtaining the objects of war, to support the national policy of the government that raises the military forces.” [37] Using such criteria, despite his many victories Lee has to be judged as a failure as a military commander. Lee knew from his previous experience that his army would suffer heavy casualties. He understood that a victory over the Army of the Potomac deep in Northern territory could cost him dearly. He knew the effect that a costly victory would have on his operations, but he still took the risk. That decision was short sighted and diametrically opposed to the strategy that the South needed to pursue in order to gain its independence. Of course some will disagree, but I am comfortable in my assertion that it was a mistake that greatly affected the Confederacy’s only real means of securing its independence, the breaking of the will of the Union by making victory so costly that it would not be worth the cost.

 

[1] Fuller, J.F.C. The Conduct of War 1789-1961 Da Capo Press, New York 1992. Originally published by Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick N.J p.101 Fuller has a good discussion of the Anaconda strategy which I discussed in the chapter: Gettysburg, Vicksburg and the Campaign of 1863: The Relationship between Strategy, Operational Art and the DIME

[2] Ibid. Fuller The Conduct of War 1789-1961 p.101

[3] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.629

[4] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.5

[5] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.34

[6] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 p.525

[7] Fuller, J.F.C Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship Indiana University Press, Bloomington Indiana, 1957 p.193

[8] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.429

[9] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.429

[10] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee p.525

[11] Wert, Jeffry D. General James Longstreet The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 1993 p.241

[12] Longstreet, James From Manassas to Appomattox, Memoirs of the Civil War in America originally published 1896, Amazon Kindle Edition location 4656

[13] Ibid. Longstreet, James From Manassas to Appomattox, Memoirs of the Civil War in America location 4705

[14] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.5

[15] Ibid. Fuller Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and p.194

[16] Taylor, Walter. General Lee: His campaigns in Virginia 1861-1865 With Personal Reminiscences University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln Nebraska and London, 1994 previously published 1906 p.180.

[17] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.430

[18] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee p.528

[19] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p.51

[20] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.431

[21] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.431

[22] Tredeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.6

[23] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.647

[24] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.7

[25] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.7

[26] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.432

[27] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.432

[28] Ibid. Fuller Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and p.194

[29] Nolan, Alan T. R. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg edited by Gallagher, Gary W. Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio 1992 p.2

[30] Ibid. Sears. Gettysburg p.51

[31] Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and His CriticsBrassey’s, Dulles VA 1999 p.134

[32] Gallagher, Gary W. The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism and Military Strategy Could not Stave Off Defeat Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 1999 p.120

[33] Alexander, Edward Porter. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander, ed. Gary W. Gallagher, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill NC, 1989 p.415

[34] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.11

[35] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.11

[36] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.431

[37] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.4

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The Gettysburg Campaign: Lee Decides to Go on the Offensive

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I am preparing to lead a Staff Ride of our students to Gettysburg in early March. As part of my preparation I am doing a lot of study to refresh myself on both the campaign and the battle, not only as an operational study, but at the strategic level. This short essay deals with Lee’s decision to invade the North following his victory at Chancellorsville. I will follow it up with other articles the next talking about the Northern strategy at both the strategic and operational levels.

In early May 1863 General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia realized that the Confederacy was in desperate straits. Despite numerous victories against heavy odds, Lee knew that time was running out. Though he had beaten the Army of the Potomac under General Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville, he had not destroyed it and that Army, along with a smaller force commanded by General Dix in Hampton Roads still threatened Richmond.

The strategic situation was bad, even if many Confederate politicians realized it or cared in the post Chancellorsville euphoria. In the west the strategic river city of Vicksburg Mississippi was threatened by the Army of Union General Ulysses S Grant, and Naval forces under the command of Admiral David Farragut. If Vicksburg fell the Union would control the entire Mississippi and cut the Confederacy in two. Union forces also maintained a strong presence in the areas of the Virginia Tidewater and the coastal areas of the Carolinas, while in Tennessee a Union Army was stalemated, but still threatening Chattanooga, the gateway to the Deep South. The blockade of the United States Navy had crippled the already tenuous economy of the Confederacy.

Some Confederate leaders realized the danger presented by Grant in the West. Secretary of War James Seddon recognized the danger in the Winter of 1862-1863 both suggested to Lee that he detach significant units to relieve the pressure in the west and blunt Grant’s advance. Lee would have nothing of it, he argued that the war would be won in the East. It was his view that if Virginia was lost, so was the Confederacy, and was concerned that whatever units left behind should he dispatch troops from his Army west, would be unable to defend Richmond.

On May 14th Lee travelled by train to Richmond to meet with President Jefferson Davis and War Secretary James Seddon. At the meeting Lee argued for an offensive campaign in the east, to take the war to Pennsylvania. Lee had two goals three major goals, two which were directly related to the immediate military situation and one which went to the broader strategic situation. Unfortunately no notes from that conference are known to survive.

Lee had long believed that an offensive into the North was necessary, even before Chancellorsville. Lee did not believe that reinforcing the Confederate Armies in the West would provide any real relief, instead he believed that his Army, flush with victory needed to be reinforced and allowed to advance into Pennsylvania. Lee’s Chief of Staff Colonel Charles Marshall crafted a series of courses of action designed to present the invasion option as the only feasible alternative. Although both Seddon and Davis had reservations about the plan they agreed to it, unfortunately for all of them they never really settled the important goals of the campaign.

Lee believed that his offensive would relieve Grant’s pressure on Pemberton’s Army at Vicksburg. Likewise Lee believed that if he was successful in battle and defeated the Army of the Potomac in Pennsylvania that it could give the peace party in the North to bring pressure on the Lincoln Administration to end the war.  He also believed that if he could spend a summer campaign season in the North, living off of Union foodstuffs and shipping booty back to the Confederacy that it would give farmers in Northern Virginia a season to harvest crops unimpeded by major military operations.

However, the meeting evidently did not have all the results that Lee desired. Davis refused Lee reinforcements from the coastal Carolinas, and insisted on units being left to cover Richmond in case General Dix advanced on Richmond from Hampton Roads. Much of this was due to political pressure as well as the personal animus that existed between General D. H. Hill in the Carolinas towards Lee.

Likewise Lee’s decision revealed an unresolved issue in Confederate Grand Strategy. Many in the Confederacy realized that the only hope for success was to fight a defensive campaign that made Union victory so expensive that eventually Lincoln’s government would fall or be forced to negotiate.

However, Lee was convinced that ultimate victory could only be achieved by decisively defeating and destroying Federal military might. His letters are full of references to crush, defeat or destroy Union forces opposing him. His strategy of the offensive was demonstrated on numerous occasions in 1862 and early 1863, however it was unfeasible and counterproductive to Southern strategy. His offensive operations cost his Army dearly in the one commodity that the South could not replace, nor keep pace with its Northern adversary, his men.

When Lee fought defensive actions on ground of his choosing, like a Fredericksburg he was not only successful but husbanded his strength. However, when he went on the offensive in almost every case he lost between 15 and 22 percent of his strength, and the percentage of soldiers that he lost was always more than his Federal counterparts, even when his army inflicted greater aggregate casualties on his opponents. Lee recognized this as was evident in his correspondence but it did not deter his strategy of the offensive until after his defeat at Gettysburg.

The course of action was decided upon, but one has to ask if Lee’s decision was wise decision at a strategic point level, not simply the operational or tactical level where many Civil War students are comfortable. General Longstreet’s artillery commander, Colonel Porter Alexander described the appropriate strategy of the South well, he wrote:

“When the South entered upon war with a power so immensely her superior in men & money, & all the wealth of modern resources in machinery and the transportation appliances by land & sea, she could entertain but one single hope of final success. That was, that the desperation of her resistance would finally exact from her adversary such a price in blood & treasure as to exhaust the enthusiasm of its population for the objects of the war. We could not hope to conquer her. Our one chance was to wear her out.”  (Edward Porter Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander, ed. Gary W. Gallagher, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill NC, 1989 p.415 

What Alexander describes is the same type of strategy successfully employed by Washington and his more able officers during the American Revolution, Wellington’s campaign on the Iberian Peninsula against Napoleon’s armies, and that of General Giap against the French and Americans in Vietnam. It was not a strategy that completely avoided offensive actions, but saved them for the right moment when victory could be obtained.

It is my belief that Lee erred in invading the North for the simple fact that the risks far outweighed the possible benefits. It was a long shot and Lee was a gambler, audacious possibly to a fault. His decision to go North also exhibited a certain amount of hubris as he did not believe that his army could be beaten, even when it was outnumbered.  Likewise he took the offensive in spite of the fact that many of his commanders were untested at the levels of command that they exercised. He had lost his right arm, General Stonewall Jackson, who died following being wounded at Gettysburg.

He knew from his previous battles the heavy casualties that even a victory over the Army of the Potomac would entail deep in Northern territory and the effect that a costly victory would have on his operations, but he still took the risk. That was short sighted and diametrically opposed to the strategy that the South needed to pursue in order to gain its independence. Of course some will disagree, but I am comfortable in my assertion that it was a mistake that greatly affected the Confederacy’s only real means of securing its independence, the breaking of the will of the Union by making victory so costly that it would not be worth the cost.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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