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eReview: Civil War Command & Strategy

by Archer Jones

Review by eHistory Team

[This review is one of the College Book Reports from the old eHistory site. The Reports were a more academic and thorough look at the text than our normal eReviews, complete with end notes and a bibliography]

Professor Archer Jones is a respected historian who has written and co-authored the books on military history and the American Civil War. His most recent, entitled Civil War Command and Strategy, provides a high-level look at the war, giving the reader new perspectives to consider. By emphasizing command and strategy, the book puts the war into a refreshingly different context, while also weaving into the narrative interesting and highly relevant information about national and international politics, logistics, industry, and comparisons to European warfare. This book is enjoyable and full of stimulating analyses; it also provides several theses new to this reader.

Dr. Jones believes that the protagonists were fairly equal as the war started; the great Northern advantage in numbers and industry offset by the South's large geographic size and its advantageous strategic defensive position. From this analysis, Dr. Jones' primary thesis is that the command structure and strategy used by each side provided the difference between winning and losing.1 While providing invaluable insights into command structures, Dr. Jones' thesis about Union strategy is not as swaying.

Civil War Command and Strategy keeps the attention of the reader. After building a solid basis for the idea that the sides were evenly matched, Jones begins the process of selling his thesis. He puts forth the "command" issues in a very detailed and compelling manner. Jones points out that, in 1860, the United States had a very small professional army of only 15,000 men, including just over 1,000 officers. At the outset of hostilities, the South obtained the services of many of the these professional soldiers, including 270 officers. Therefore, both sides faced the daunting challenge of raising and organizing armies while establishing a command structure effective enough to deal with the myriad issues associated with strategy, logistics, transportation, communications, and the industrial base needed by the military. Yet, very early in the war, during 1861, generals on both sides commanded the largest troop formations ever seen in North America. Even General Winfield Scott, by 1861 an ancient (75 year old) hero of the Mexican War, had never commanded a force as large as those with which Generals Irwin McDowell and Joseph Johnston faced each other at Bull Run.

Jones portrays the command structure of the combatants as having been very similar. He spends some time and effort in convincing the reader that while there were distinct differences in personalities of the commanders-in-chief, and differences among the generals themselves, both sides created and implemented similar organizational structures; indeed, Jones shows that the structures created lasted for some time. Jones sees both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis as strong, proactive leaders. As political leaders of large democracies, it was essential for both to be active in military matters and involved in all aspects of the war, from decisions about compulsory military service to military strategy. In addition to very significant political considerations, Jones points out that both Lincoln and Davis had to take such roles because, at least early in the war, neither had an effective equivalent of a military chief of staff2 (general-in-chief in Civil War parlance). Jones credits the North with evolving more rapidly into an efficient and effective command structure, and this evolution he sees as having been one of the two factors that led to a Union victory.

The North won both the command and strategy races. Both presidents started the war with ineffective secretaries of war. While Lincoln had General Scott, arguably the equal of any 19th century soldier, neither president benefited from the wise counsel of an able and energetic professional soldier. In his presentation of each side's command structure, the issues faced and the personalities involved, Jones is at his most compelling. Both the Union and Confederacy worked through numerous difficulties while their command structures evolved. For example, the Union established a "War Board," which provided, by 1863, expertise and effectiveness in logistics and other more technical aspects of war and which complemented the energy and drive of Lincoln's second Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. However, the Board failed completely in providing Lincoln with advice and counsel related to strategy. On the other side, Davis, whose strong military background contrasted completely from Lincoln's, might have been better qualified to serve as commander-in-chief when the war started, but he was unable to find an effective general-in-chief. Probably the best man qualified to serve in that capacity, Robert E. Lee, was appointed to the position in 1862; however, within months Lee took personal command of units that would become the Army of Northern Virginia, a task he liked more. Jones shows that while Lee had two very important qualities essential to an effective general-in-chief, namely the full trust confidence of the commander-in-chief and outstanding military capabilities, he lacked enough time in the day and he could not be two places at once. Davis' first three Secretaries of War, a post in which he personally had served the United States so ably, were not effective, thereby adding to Davis' burden. Although in time Davis created an effective team consisting of Secretary of War James Seddon and General-in-Chief Braxton Bragg, a failed army commander from the West, the South never was able to develop, much less implement, a coherent, winning strategy. Without such a strategy, with increasingly less use of its internal lines of communications, the South was doomed in the face of capable Union leadership. While each command structure evolved, Jones eloquently describes the intense and unremitting political pressures under which both administrations toiled. Though national and international political considerations were significant, causing presidents and generals alike to act in ways they otherwise would not have, politics weighed equally on both sides. Jones points out how politics drove both command structure considerations and strategic considerations, especially as the Union elections of 1864 approached.

Lincoln was not a man whose ego overwhelmed his judgment. In 1862, success by General Halleck in the West gave that officer Lincoln's confidence; Halleck's knowledge of strategy and his excellent communications skills made him a perfect advisor for Lincoln, and for the remainder of the war he served in that capacity, working well with the War Board. Lee on the other hand, torn between the requirements of his field army and the strategy of internal lines of movement and concentration in space that he had so long advocated, failed his commander-in-chief at a critical moment during 1863, proving that, as Jones points out, even the best of men cannot effectively carry out two demanding jobs in the face of conflicting requirements. Finally Davis put together a compatible command team, but no brilliant strategist emerged -- Lee clearly concentrating on the concerns of the Army of Northern Virginia. Davis never came to grips with the troubles of his western command, never put together a response to the Union concentration in time, and never was able to coordinate the efforts of his field armies to defeat Union raids.

Jones discussion of strategy and his thesis that neither side seized the correct strategic goals until the Union did in 1864 is not nearly so convincingly presented. Jones very ably describes the strategic concepts of "concentration in space," i.e., mass to the modern soldier, and "concentration in time," which is possible only when unity of command exists. The South's immense size and its interior lines of communications permitted it to pursue a strategy that relied on concentration in space. While the North, having to be the aggressor to bring the South back into the Union, always wanted to use concentration in time, simultaneous attacks on several fronts, to overcome the internal lines' advantage of its opponent. The North also sought to impose a blockade of the South for economic and political reasons, though it was never effective militarily.

As a prelude to strategy, Jones does an excellent job of presenting the strategic and tactical use of the "turning movement" by both sides. Using a series of diagrams and brief narrative descriptions, Jones shows how, in most campaigns from Manassas to Sherman's march to the sea, the use of the turning movement was influential. However, in describing "four kinds" of military strategy, presented in Table 1 below, Jones oversimplifies.

Table 1

 

Persisting

Raiding

Combat

#1

#3

Logistics

#2

#4

Jones argues that Grant and Sherman developed a #4 strategy to overcome the strategic impasse that existed at the end of 1863. However, except for the raid by Sherman against Meridian, Mississippi, Grant's strategy came to naught as he was unable to implement it on a large scale. A Southern raiding strategy, particularly by General Forrest's cavalry and the raider John Mosby, was effective on several fronts. The raiding diverted Union manpower away from the focus of primary effort while arousing great popular support in the South and anguish and discontent in the North. But even Forrest could not have defeated the North through raids, one could argue, as Jones persuasively does, that a raiding logistics strategy (#4) could have created significant political advantages for the South. If such a strategy had been employed early in the war, before the Union command structure solidified around Grant, Sherman, Thomas, Sheridan, McPherson and the other capable Union officers who rose to the top, and if the South had not relied on frontal assaults to such a great extent, a political victory may have been possible. However, Jefferson Davis was unable to create a winning strategy, let alone implement it.

However, to say that the logistics raiding strategy embarked on by Grant is the basis for that general's greatness is to oversimplify. Jones writes, "Yet in his masterpieces, Vicksburg and the movement to Petersburg, Grant turned his adversary in a consummate manner. In the stalemated Virginia theater he failed....3" There can be no doubt that at the Battles of the Wilderness and, especially, at Cold Harbor Grant pounded away using a persisting combat strategy (#1). In getting to Petersburg, he also used maneuver while employing a series of tactical raids, primarily by Sheridan, to keep Lee, and the high command in Richmond, off balance. If Grant had not been persistent in combat from his arrival in the East in the spring of 1864 until he accepted Lee's surrender at Appomattox the next year, his raids would have been far less effective. Indeed, other historians have observed that it was Grant "turning south" following the Battle of the Wilderness that not only gave a tremendous morale boost his troops, but also foretold the end to Lee's efforts.4 Had Grant been content to sit like McClellan or Meade, Lee would have been free to use interior lines of communications to concentrate in space and defeat even large raids like Sherman's march through Georgia or Sheridan's movement through the Shenandoah Valley. By grabbing onto Lee's army and not allowing his opponent freedom to reinforce in the West, Grant won the war. He made mistakes, such as the frontal attacks at Cold Harbor, but by persisting he won the political battle of wills more than any raid could have accomplished, and he made the South realize that the cost of continuing the struggle would have been far too high a price to pay. Certainly Sherman's march was instrumental and it struck a near fatal blow to Southern morale; but even more telling was that by Appomattox more of Lee's army had deserted or evaporated. Even if Lee had escaped to join Johnston in facing Sherman in North Carolina, it is doubtful their combined numbers would have defeated that Union army.

Thus, while Jones puts forth an interesting thesis about the importance of raids, and their significance as a centerpiece for Grant's strategy, he discounts too readily the trait that gave Grant his greatness, and which also provided the impetus to Union victory -- persistence.



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