Writing the Civil War: The Quest to Understandby James M. McPherson (Editor), William J. Cooper (Editor), James M. McPherson, William J. Cooper,Jr. (Editor), William J. Cooper (Editor)
No event has transformed the United States more fundamentally -- or been studied more exhaustively -- than the Civil War. In Writing the Civil War, fourteen distinguished historians present a wide-ranging discussion of the vast effort to chronicle the conflict -- an undertaking that began with the remembrances of Civil War veterans and has become an increasingly prolific field of scholarship. Covering topics from battlefield operations to the impact of race and gender, this volume is an informative guide through the labyrinth of Civil War literature. The contributors provide authoritative and interpretive evaluations of the study and explication of the struggle that has been called the American Iliad.
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Blueprint for Victory
Northern Strategy and Military Policy
GARY W. GALLAGHER
The United States government and its loyal citizens confronted an imposing task in suppressing the Confederate rebellion. The fledgling southern republic spread over 750,000 square miles, and it quickly demonstrated the ability to field armies numbering in the hundreds of thousands and commanded by a cadre of professional soldiers. Only a gigantic effort would yield success on so vast a landscape against so numerous an enemy. Yet many historians, seemingly entranced by the image of Confederate surrender at Appomattox, have explored the military side of the Civil War with the assumption that the southern effort was a quixotic struggle against impossible odds. Northern manpower and industrial might, goes a common argument, represented obstacles too great for the Confederates to overcome. Shelby Foote, whose impressive trilogy on the conflict has reached a huge audience, typified this approach. "I think that the North fought that war with one hand behind its back," Foote observed in 1990. "I think that if there had been more southern victories, and a lot more, the North simply would have brought that other arm out from behind its back. I don't think the South ever had a chance to win that war."
Had northern advantages predestined Confederate defeat, the Union's search for a suitable strategy would not have been critical. Lincoln's government simply could have raised more regiments whenever necessary andwaited for the inevitable southern collapse. But observers in 1861, well aware that material factors favored the North, understood that the side with the strongest battalions does not always prevail. They had to look no further than the American Revolution to find evidence of that fact. A perceptive Confederate typified the degree to which people at the time appreciated the magnitude of the North's challenge. George Wythe Randolph, who served the Confederacy as both a brigadier general and secretary of war, commented in the autumn of 1861 that northern forces "may overrun our frontier States and plunder our coast but, as for conquering us, the thing is an impossibility." Randolph believed that history offered no instance of "a people as numerous as we are inhabiting a country so extensive as ours being subjected if true to themselves."
The North developed strategic plans on two levels to meet the challenge of defeating the Confederacy. The first and higher level, usually termed national or grand strategy, consisted of deciding just what political goals the United States hoped to achieve from the war. Would the majority of northerners settle for restoration of the status quo ante bellum, or would they use the conflict to redefine the nature of the Union? Debates in this arena were shaped by the president and his cabinet, the Congress, public opinion, and the actions of thousands of people, both black and white, who lived in the seceded states. The second level of strategic planning, typically termed operational or military strategy, involved deciding how best to employ the North's martial resources to achieve national political goals. Here the principal actors included the president and a group of senior generals, but Congress, public opinion, and the press also played noteworthy roles. Planning at both levels proceeded concurrently, and decisions about political goals dramatically shaped the ways in which the North applied its military power against the Confederacy.
Because literally thousands of books have addressed northern strategy and military policy, coverage in this essay must be highly selective. For example, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Winfield Scott, George B. McClellan, and Henry W. Halleck stood out among leaders who influenced northern strategy, but a survey of the biographical literature on these figures is impossible (virtually every biography of Lincoln devotes some attention to his role as Union strategist). A review of the myriad general works on the Civil War that inevitably accord some attention to strategy is equally infeasible. The focus will be on twentieth-century works specifically addressing issues relating to national or operational strategy and to the individuals who shaped and directed them.
The most important questions examined in this historiography may be summarized quickly. Did the North win because of sound strategic planning and execution, or would the Confederacy have lost in any event because it struggled against impossible odds? The latter view, propounded by southern Lost Cause writers in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, has proved remarkably tenacious (as suggested by Shelby Foote's image of a North using just of half its energy and resources). It depends in large measure on interpreting Grant's contribution to victory as simply committing without limit Union manpower and material resources. This conception conceded minimal skill to northern military planners and held sway in much of the literature until the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century. In the 1920s and 1930s, scholars increasingly argued that only good strategic decisions brought Union success, a formulation that pushed other questions to the fore. Who framed that northern strategy? What impact did political imperatives affecting national strategy, including the debate over emancipation, have in the operational sphere? Did this political dimension trigger a shift from limited war to a more modern form of total war? Once freed from the restrictive Lost Cause framework within which "Grant the butcher" acted as the agent of inevitable northern triumph, the literature touching on northern strategy and military policy assumed greater interpretive depth and complexity. The best work demonstrated that neither the North's national nor its operational strategy could be understood in isolation; they intersected and influenced one another at myriad points.
The North's national strategy evolved during the course of the war. Initially framed to bring the wayward states back into an unchanged Union quickly and with minimal bloodshed, it eventually became a strategy designed not only to destroy the Confederate political state but also, through the eradication of slavery, to transform the southern social system. Lincoln articulated the early Union strategy in a message to Congress in December 1861. "I have ... thought it proper to keep the integrity of the Union prominent as the primary object of the contest on our part," stated the president, who hoped the conflict would not "degenerate into a violent and remorseless revolutionary struggle." Over the next two and a half years, emancipation joined union as a strategic political goal for the North. In Lincoln's terminology, the struggle became far more revolutionary, as Union armies targeted Confederate slaves and all other civilian property that might bolster the southern resistance.
Emancipation too often has been cast exclusively as a political element of the war when in fact it figured prominently in both the North's national and military strategies. Virtually all scholars now agree that the addition of emancipation to union as a northern goal altered the strategic configuration of the war, but they part company in allocating credit for the shift in policy. More than sixty years ago, W. E. B. DuBois argued that, after an initial period of waiting to see where their interests lay, slaves decided that northern armies held out an excellent opportunity to seize freedom. "[A]s it became clear that the Union armies would not or could not return fugitive slaves," wrote DuBois, "... the slave entered upon a general strike against slavery by the same methods that he had used during the period of the fugitive slave. He ran away to the first place of safety and offered his services to the Federal Army." With what DuBois termed "perplexed and laggard steps," the United States government "followed the footsteps of the black slave." By the time of Lincoln's proclamation, hundreds of thousands of slaves had reached Union lines and were "free by their own action and that of the invading armies, and in their cases, Lincoln's proclamation only added possible legal sanction to an accomplished fact." Most Confederate slaves still lay beyond Federal reach, however, and could cast off their bondage only if they emulated those who already had left their masters. Stressing Lincoln's vision of emancipation as a military measure intended to harm the Confederate war effortas opposed to a revision of the North's national strategyDuBois argued that the president sought to inspire an exodus of slaves from Confederate plantations that would "break the back of the rebellion by depriving the South of its principal labor force."
Recent work has expanded on DuBois's points, insisting that the slaves themselves, rather than Lincoln or Congress or Union armies, played the central role in placing emancipation alongside union as a national strategic goal. In Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, Leon F. Litwack cautioned readers that the "various dimensions of slavery's collapsethe political machinations, the government edicts, the military occupationshould not be permitted to obscure the principal actors in this drama: the four million black men and women for whom slavery composed their entire memory." The editors of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project's massive Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867 joined Litwack in suggesting that slaves took the lead in the "varying, uneven, and frequently tenuous" process that destroyed slavery. "Once the evolution of emancipation replaces the absolutism of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment as the focus of study," they commented, "the story of slavery's demise shifts from the presidential mansion and the halls of Congress to the farms and plantations that became wartime battlefields. And slaveswhose persistence forced federal soldiers, Union and Confederate policy makers, and even their own masters onto terrain they never intended to occupybecome the prime movers in securing their own liberty."
No one has taken this argument further than Barbara J. Fields, who maintained that the United States "government discovered that it could not accomplish its narrow goalunionwithout adopting the slaves' nobler oneuniversal emancipation." Fields declared that preservation of the Union, "a goal too shallow to be worth the sacrifice of a single life," had become impossible to achieve by January 1863. Emancipation would have to be added to the northern national strategy if victory were to follow. Fortunately, slaves had flocked to Union lines, forcing first the military and then Congress to address the issue of emancipation: "By touching the government at its most vulnerable point, the point at which its military forces were fighting for its life, the slaves were able to turn their will to be free into a political problem that politicians had to deal with politically." A recalcitrant Lincoln lagged far behind Congress but finally got on board with his proclamation. "The slaves decided at the time of Lincoln's election that their hour had come," concluded Fields (in a statement that begs an obvious series of questions). "By the time Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, no human being alive could have held back the tide that swept toward freedom."
Mark E. Neely, Jr., challenged Fields and others who posited what he called the theory of self-emancipation. He acknowledged that writers who cast Lincoln as the "Great Emancipator" ignored the "quietly heroic roles" of tens of thousands of African Americans who actively seized freedom. "But, to say we should not ignore the small acts of individual heroism of nameless slaves who turned a proclamation into an actual emancipation," he stated, "to say that is not to say that Abraham Lincoln was not a great emancipator." Neely observed that advocates of the idea of self-emancipation were vague about how many slaves took an active role and suggested, quoting Lincoln and Frederick Douglass from late summer 1864, that most slaves remained unaware of the possibility of emancipation until they came into contact with the Union military. By mid-July 1862, Lincoln had decided that the "formidable power and dimensions of the insurrection" demanded "extraordinary measures to preserve the national existence." He cited military necessity as he pushed his cabinet to support emancipation, counted on northern arms to carry the promise of freedom ever deeper into the Confederacy, and hoped thousands of slaves would avail themselves of the opportunity to cast off their shackles. In the end, argued Neely, Lincoln's proclamation brought freedom to a great many slaves.
James M. McPherson and Joseph T. Glatthaar both noted that Lincoln's proclamation initially served as part of the North's military rather than its national strategy. The president expected it to subtract laborers from the Confederate work force and add black soldiers to northern armies, thereby, as Lincoln put it, striking "at the heart of the rebellion." "But if it remained merely a means it would not be a part of national strategythat is, of the purpose for which the war was being fought," wrote McPherson. Lincoln's reconstruction policy, which required acceptance of emancipation and other Union measures relating to slavery before seceded states could rejoin the Union, revealed the president's intention to make emancipation part of the national strategy. McPherson believed Lincoln's "sense of timing and his sensitivity to the pulse of the Northern people were superb" in this instance. Navigating deftly among the demands of constituencies ranging from conservative Democrats to Radical Republicans, the president forged a coalition among War Democrats and Republicans that eventually accepted emancipation as part of the national strategy.
Glatthaar discussed Lincoln's ability to adapt his strategic vision to meet changing circumstances. Early in the war, the president used "razor-like acuteness" to discard "all extraneous concerns until only a single, core issue remained: the reunion of the states." Juggling military commanders and sometimes promulgating revolutionary policies in pursuit of this national strategy, Lincoln eventually admitted that "slavery was the root cause of the sectional crisis and by seeking its destruction, he elevated emancipation from a military policy to a political objective as well." For him and for the North "restoration of the Union and emancipation became sine qua non, the indispensable demands for cessation of hostilities. They were the goals of Lincoln's national strategy."
However much credit may be apportioned to Lincoln and the slaves for advancing the cause of emancipation, there can be no doubt that the radical wing of the Republican Party consistently demanded that black freedom be made a national strategic goal. T. Harry Williams highlighted this point in Lincoln and the Radicals, which has stood for more than fifty-five years as the fullestif scarcely the most temperatetreatment of its subject. "Almost from the day when armed conflict began," noted Williams, "the radical and conservative factions clashed over the purposes of the war." Lincoln considered emancipation "incidental to the larger issue" of union and worked to build a coalition of Democrats and moderate and conservative Republicans. But the radicals "felt no enthusiasm for a war that did not include as one of its inevitable results the destruction of slavery." In language that revealed his dislike for the radicals (if not for their stance on emancipation), Williams wrote that "the Jacobins inveighed, ranted, and sneered" against Lincoln's mild program and eventually "forced the adoption of emancipation as one of the objectives of the war."
Writing nearly three decades after Williams, Hans L. Trefousse adopted a far more positive tone in underscoring that radicals wanted emancipation to be the focal point of the North's national strategy. Aware that the war presented a unique opportunity to strike a decisive blow for freedom, they consistently badgered Lincoln to move more quickly. The fall of 1862 marked a watershed: "Lincoln's promulgation of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and his dismissal, little more than six weeks later, of General McClellan, emphasized more clearly than anything up to that time the similarity between his and the radicals' war aims. Like them, he was determined to carry on the conflict as rigorously as necessary." Whereas Williams had claimed that the radicals frequently dominated Lincoln, Trefousse argued that the president cooperated with them in "a voluntary relationship in which he always retained the upper hand."
One important variable too often has been absent from the equation of emancipation. In one of the war's many ironies, the Confederate people almost certainly influenced northern policy to a far greater degree than did slaves who fled to northern lines. They joined the army by hundreds of thousands, accepted a national draft before the conflict was a year old, died in huge numbers, and otherwise displayed a willingness to wage a costly war for independence. In the absence of such impressive resistance, the war might have ended before it took a revolutionary turn toward emancipation. Confederate actions mocked the idea, embraced by Lincoln and many other northerners during the war's first year, that a majority of the white South really opposed secession and had been seduced or duped by evil secessionists. Radical Republicans and abolitionists never doubted that most white southerners supported the Confederacy. They also understood that Confederate resolve abetted their hopes to convert the national strategy to one of union and freedom. Every enemy victory lengthened the conflict and increased the odds that the northern populace would have to strike at slavery to bring down the Confederacy.
Democrats fought bitterly against expanding the North's national strategy to embrace emancipation. Although thousands of Democrats stepped forward to fight for the old Union, they almost universally loathed the prospect of risking white lives for black freedom. For them, the perfect end to the conflict would be a return to the Union as they had known it before Lincoln's election. As Joel H. Silbey observed in his perceptive survey of the North's opposition party, Democrats "forcefully challenged the government's policies, particularly the administration's determination to use whatever means necessary to destroy the South and inflict blows against its social system in the name of winning the war." In a study of the Democrats most supportive of making war against the Confederacy, Christopher Dell admired Lincoln's political skill in creating a "mighty forcethe so- called `War Democracy'which agreed to fight against its own instincts and prejudice, at the expense of men and theories and principles it had been worshipping for many years." Yet Dell demonstrated that even most of the War Democrats balked at emancipation as a part of the national strategy.
The transformation of the North's national strategy heralded a change of policy toward Confederate civilians and their property that many historians writing since World War II have described as "total war." Definitions of what constitutes total war vary, but Civil War scholars who apply the term generally agree that it represents a conflict in which the enemy's entire war-making capacity is targeted. A limited war strategy seeks to conquer places and occupy territory; total war seeks to destroy armies, lay waste to economic infrastructure, and erode civilian will.
T. Harry Williams spoke of the conflict as "the first of the modern total wars." A clash of ideas in which neither party "could compromise its political purposes, it was a war of unlimited objectives." Bruce Catton similarly wrote that northern generals fought "a total war, and in a total war the enemy's economy is to be undermined in any way possible. Slavery was the Southern economy's most vulnerable spot, and a Northern general could not be neutral in respect to it.... Slavery, indeed, was the one institution which could not possibly survive an all-out war." James M. McPherson averred that "Lincoln's policy toward slavery became a touchstone of the evolution of this conflict from a limited war to restore the old Union to a total war to destroy the Southern social as well as political system." Most recently, the authors of The American Civil War: The Emergence of Total Warfare stated that the Emancipation Proclamation "signaled the demise of conciliation, and by early 1863 Union policy makers increasingly realized that more destructive measures were necessary." The war's final year, concluded these scholars, "witnessed the full bloom of total war," a key component of which was the North's decision to target for destruction "Southern crops and resources."
Despite their use of the phrase total war, the authors of this last work noted that Union armies never resorted to "wholesale killing of Southern civilians." This fact alone, argued Mark E. Neely, Jr., proved that the Civil War never met the savage standard that has become all-too-common in the twentieth century. "[N]o Northerner at any time in the nineteenth century embraced as his own the cold-blooded ideas now associated with total war," wrote Neely. "The essential aspect of any definition of total war asserts that it breaks down the distinction between soldiers and civilians, combatants and noncombatants," he maintained, "and this no one in the Civil War did systematically, including William T. Sherman." Nor did the northern war effort meet the modern test of national mobilization. Lincoln's government never sought to control the economy or to muster resources for anything like World War II's Manhattan Project. Neely conceded that the Civil War "approached total war in some ways" but quickly restated his main point: "By no definition of the term can it be said to be a total war."
Neither Charles Royster nor Mark Grimsley, who produced the most extensive works on this theme, accepted the idea of a northern total war. In The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans, Royster specifically rejected it because there were no mass killings of civilians. He pointed out, however, that some northerners, especially Republicans, were prepared to attack the Confederacy's economy and social structure from the outset. Lowering his analytical lens from civilian and military leaders to Union soldiers in the ranks, Royster found growing sentiment that the entire South must suffer for the sins of the slaveholders: "In order to overthrow the principle `that capital ought to own labor' and to show the hollowness of `rebel cavaliers who claim to be better stuff than Puritan mud-sills,' it finally seemed necessary to ruin the Confederacy, not just defeat its armies and government." Sherman stood first among generals known for their skill at "drastic war-making"a function of both his actions during the last eighteen months of the conflict and his brilliantly inflammatory rhetoric. Many northerners equated his name with "war that punished all rebels," even as thousands of Union soldiers, "making their vision of the country an extension of their pride in their own success, ... vindicated free labor through combat and devastation." Curiously, Royster devoted little attention to the ways in which emancipation fit into his portrait of the North's waging "destructive" or "drastic" war.
Grimsley borrowed Sherman's phrase "hard war" to describe the North's ultimate military policy regarding Confederate civilians. He situated hard war third in a progression of northern policies. At first hoping to attract support from southern unionists with a conciliatory approach, Lincoln and the North shifted gears after military reverses in the summer of 1862. The Emancipation Proclamation "firmly repudiated the conciliatory policy" and ushered in a "pragmatic interlude" that preceded the appearance of hard war. During this interlude, which lasted about eighteen months, Union generals "sought victory exclusively on the battlefield; their stance toward civilians tended to be whatever seemed best calculated to produce operational results." The dividing line between pragmatism and hard war tended to blur, acknowledged Grimsley, with commanders in the western theater moving more rapidly than eastern counterparts "who clung to a conservative style of warfare much longer." By the spring of 1864, with Grant in control as general-in-chief, the North's hard war program witnessed major military operations that sought "to demoralize Southern civilians and ruin the Confederate economy, particularly its industries and transportation infrastructure."
Yet even at its most destructive hard war differentiated among overt secessionists, neutral or passive people, and unionists. In contrast to Royster, who described a pervasive wish among Federal soldiers to punish Confederates of all classes, Grimsley found that wealthy secessionists suffered most harshly from the new policy. "The three-way division among Southern civilians remained to the end of the conflict," he suggested: "So did orders that forbade wanton acts of destruction. And although needless destruction occurred, it is remarkable that generally the policy held up." Generals and politicians wanted this discriminating policy to work, but "[i]t also survived because tens of thousands of soldierstoughened by war, hungry for creature comforts, and often angry at the civilians in their midstnevertheless understood the logic and abided by it." Only by examining "the interplay between formal directives issued at the top; informal attitudes held by Northern generals, private soldiers, and civilians; and the actions of Union forces in the field," asserted Grimsley, is it possible to grasp the evolution of Union policy toward Confederate civilians.
In a pioneering social history of the army that marched with Sherman through Georgia and the Carolinas, Joseph T. Glatthaar reached conclusions about attitudes among Union soldiers that anticipated both Royster and Grimsley. Glatthaar described, as would Royster, Union soldiers eager to execute "a strategy to make southerners feel the iron hand of destruction derived from prolonged years of hardship and sacrifice and an unfaltering commitment to the cause of reunification." Sherman's soldiers, virtually all of whom were veterans, "adopted the total-war concept as retaliation for the deaths and tragedies that their ranks had endured and also because they saw it as the most effective means of winning the war." Yet Glatthaar's Federals, like Grimsley's, differentiated among groups of Confederatesin this instance wreaking greater havoc on civilians in South Carolina, which had led the way toward secession, than on those in Georgia and, especially, in North Carolina, where there had been greater unionist sentiment in 1860 and 1861.
Archer Jones reminded readers of a historical context within which the North's strategy of taking the war to Confederate civilians appeared almost benign. Sherman knew the history of England's wars to control Ireland, wrote Jones, and would have understood that his campaign through Georgia and the Carolinas "was a humanitarian venture compared to Irish warfare, which traditionally depended on raids to cow opponents, burning barns and villages and taking cattle being routine military operations." The English responded to Irish resistance by deliberately starving thousands of noncombatants and attempting to replace them with English settlers. Several hundred years earlier, William the Conqueror initially pursued a conciliatory policy but later resorted to brutality when English opposition persisted, devastating a portion of "the country so thoroughly that many died and for years afterwards it remained uninhabited wasteland." Although Jones appreciated the destruction wrought by Sherman's raids and comparable Union operations, as well as "the malevolence and viciousness" of the some of the conflict's guerrilla warfare, he concluded that the "Civil War was hardly more a total war than many others in the past in which invaders encountered or provoked popular resistance."
Whether described as total war, hard war, drastic war, destructive war, modern war, or in some other way, the ultimate northern military strategy met the test of saving the Union and killing slavery. By the spring of 1865, northern arms had persuaded the Confederate people that further resistance was futile. A Georgia woman grimly catalogued the decisive impact of Union military operations. "We never yielded in the struggle until we were bound hand & foot & the heel of the despot was on our throats," wrote Sarah Hine: "Bankrupt in men, in money, & in provisions, the wail of the bereaved & the cry of hunger rising all over the land, Our cities burned with fire and our pleasant things laid waste, the best & bravest of our sons in captivity, and the entire resources of our country exhaustedwhat else could we do but give up."
Who deserved credit for formulating and implementing the successful northern military strategy? T. Harry Williams addressed this question in the 1950s and 1960s in a series of works that made his reputation as an immensely influential interpreter of northern military leadership. Notable for their attention to the conjunction of politics and military affairs, Williams's writings prompted other scholars to take a similarly broad approach to questions of northern strategy (regrettably, many historians persist in divorcing the political and military spheres).
In Lincoln and His Generalsthe best-known of his Civil War books as well as in shorter studies, Williams celebrated Lincoln's genius, praised Grant and Sherman, and dismissed the rest of the Union high command as utterly unable to comprehend the nature of the massive war that engulfed them. Williams considered Lincoln "a great natural strategist, a better one than any of his generals. He was in actuality as well as in title the commander in chief who, by his larger strategy, did more than Grant or any other general to win the war for the Union." Lincoln rapidly grasped the advantage inherent in superior northern manpower and material resources "and urged his generals to keep up a constant pressure on the whole strategic line of the Confederacy until a weak spot was foundand a breakthrough could be made." Equally important, according to Williams, was Lincoln's early insight that "the proper objective of his armies was the destruction of the Confederate armies and not the occupation of Southern territory." The North must ceaselessly press the offensive, believed the president, who conveyed this message to Union generals with his famous order for simultaneous advances to begin on Washington's birthday in 1862 (Williams argued that Lincoln knew this was impractical but wanted to jar his generals out of lethargic postures).
Williams described most of Lincoln's generals as disciples of the Swiss military thinker Antoine Henri Jomini. In Williams's view, Jomini's strategic thinking ignored the profound connections between war and politics. Jomini "disliked the destructiveness of warfare," emphasized cities and territory rather than enemy armies as targets, and taught concentration of force for action at one point. Lincoln's generals had learned Jominian theory at West Point from Professor Dennis Hart Mahan, and they proposed to fight the Confederacy "in accordance with the standards and strategy of an earlier and easier military age.... They hoped to accomplish their objectives by maneuvering rather than fighting." This was impossible in a contest between two democratic societies, each of which refused to compromise on its major political objectivesindependence for the Confederacy and reunion for the North. Officers such as George B. McClellan, Don Carlos Buell, and George G. Meade failed to see that the American conflict "was bound to be a rough, no-holds-barred affair, a bloody and brutal struggle."
One by one, Williams classified Union generals-in-chief as strategically naive or inept. Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan amounted to "more a diplomatic policy than a plan of strategic action"; the old hero further entertained the illusion that "the war could be won by a single effort of some kind." Scott's successor McClellan lacked a talent for grand strategy, preferring to focus on the Virginia theater and his beloved Army of the Potomac. Although McClellan devised in August 1861 an ambitious blueprint for Union action against many points in the Confederacy, the document left Williams notably unimpressed: "It was a pretty paper exercise, and it had no relevance at all to anything in the existing condition of affairs." Henry W. Halleck fared marginally better than McClellan, emerging as a doctrinaire Jominian whose western victories in 1862 had been won by Grant and others but who belatedly realized that only "techniques of total war" would vanquish the rebels. As the general-in-chief who served between the tenures of McClellan and Grant, however, Halleck "exercised little control over military operations.... because he disliked responsibility and did not want to direct."
Williams considered Grant "the greatest general of the Civil War," an officer who towered "head and shoulders above any general on either side as an over-all strategist, as a master of what in later wars would be called global strategy." Unlike the narrow Jominians, Grant possessed a "modern mind" most evident "in his grasp of the concept that war was becoming total and that the destruction of the enemy's economic resources was as effective and legitimate a form of warfare as the destruction of his armies." He shared Lincoln's vision of simultaneous Union offensives and knew "the great truth that the ultimate objective in war is the destruction of the enemy's principal army." (Williams claimed elsewhere that Lincoln had to school his new general-in-chief about the need to make Lee's army rather than Richmond the goal of northern arms in the Eastan instance of the historian's clearly misreading Grant's original intention for the spring 1864 offensives.) Grant also accepted the political nature of the conflict "for what it was, an inevitable and perhaps even desirable concomitant of modern war."
Sherman completed Williams's triumvirate of successful northern strategists. A "typical Jominian at the beginning of the war," the Ohioan grew into the conflict's "greatest exponent of economic and psychological warfare" and thereby moved "the art of warfare significantly forward." Sherman excelled Grant in understanding "that the will of a nation to fight rests on the economic and psychological security of its people and that if these supporting elements are destroyed all resistance may collapse." Sherman's kind of war inflicted deep wounds on the enemy, but only the death of Lee's army could topple the Confederacy. That fatal blow would come from Granta general "who made his best preparations and then went in without reserve or hesitation and with a simple faith in success."
Williams invoked the name of German military theorist Karl von Clausewitz to add a comparative dimension to his analysis of Union strategists. In Grant and Sherman, the "North was fortunate in finding two generals who between them executed Clausewitz's three objectives of war: to conquer and destroy the enemy's armed forces, to get possession of the material elements of aggression and other sources of existence of the enemy, and to gain public opinion by winning victories that depress the enemy's morale." Here were modern warriors who, together with their brilliant commander-in-chief, developed a strategy that took note of the enemy's entire society and willingly attacked it root and branch. They anticipated the future of warfare while the backward-looking Jominians fumbled along, defined the enemy and the war in outmoded terms, and became anachronisms long before Appomattox sealed the North's military triumph.
Historians writing about northern strategy before and after Williams also typically focused on Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman, giving different emphases to the relative strategic abilities and contributions of each. Winfield Scott, George B. McClellan, and Henry W. Halleck, the other major strategic players on the northern roster, also inspired considerable analysis but usually fared poorly at the hands of historians. Grant's reputation underwent the most dramatic change. Frequently characterized through the mid-twentieth century as an unimaginative, straight-ahead basher whose only strategic insight lay in knowing the North's resources should be committed unsparingly, he has, over the past several decades, more often been labeled a surpassingly gifted soldier whose strategy as general-in-chief brought Union victory.
A trio of British historians who also were professional soldiers contributed to the historiographical shift in the 1920s and 1930s away from Lost Cause explanations for Union victory. Two of the three also helped rehabilitate Grant's reputation as a strategist. Major General J. F. C. Fuller, the more influential of this pair, published The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant in 1929 and Grant & Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship four years later. A self-styled admirer of Lee who accepted much of the "Grant the butcher" interpretation when he commenced his study of Civil War military leadership, Fuller soon found himself unabashedly enthusiastic about Grant. The Union commander understood the meaning of grand strategy, stated Fuller, which he defined as "the correlation of the operations of war and the policy of the Government supported by the resources of the country." For Fuller, Grant's "central idea was concentration of force from which he intended to develop a ceaseless offensive against the enemy's armies, and the resources and moral of the Confederacy." Grant possessed "something cosmic" that permitted him to grasp features of a new type of warfare that involved civilians and their property as well as soldiers. Grant also knew how large Lee's army loomed in both the northern and Confederate popular minds: "Thus we see that whilst Grant's outlook was general, embracing the whole theatre of war, his leading idea was single, namely, the destruction of the enemy's main army."
Lieutenant Colonel Alfred H. Burne joined Fuller in praising Grant's strategic "broadness of conception and singleness of aim." He argued that Grant took in the whole strategic picture but made his overriding goal in 1864 and 1865 the destruction of Lee's army, "to which all resources direct and indirect were to be devoted." Burne anticipated Williams's use of Clausewitz to categorize Grant: "Clausewitz placed as the principal object in war `to conquer and destroy the enemy's armed forces.' Clausewitz was right, and Grant knew it." (It is unclear whether Burne thought that Grant had read Clausewitzhe had notor that he simply reached the same strategic conclusions on his own.) Sherman, whose style of warfare in 1864 and 1865 Burne incorrectly described as place-oriented, "might help to prepare the ground" for final Union victory, "but it was Grant who struck the blow." In one sense, Sherman's destructive marches contravened Grant's efforts to achieve the North's national strategic goals. "[W]hatever military claims may be made for such a policy," wrote Burne in apparent belief that Grant had not urged Sherman to do just what he did in Georgia and the Carolinas, "it had in the long run unfortunate effects, causing such an intensity of animosity in the South as to delay by at least a decade the true unification of the countrythe object for which the Northerners went to war."
Colin R. Ballard's aptly titled The Military Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which appeared in a British edition in 1926, looked to the Executive Mansion rather than to Grant's headquarters for northern strategic direction. A general in the British army, Ballard wrote that Lincoln proved an exception to the rule that civilians should leave military strategy to their officers, asserting hyperbolically that "Lincoln was solely responsible for the strategy of the North." Anticipating many of T. Harry Williams's points in Lincoln and His Generals (the first American edition of Ballard's book appeared the same year Williams's book was published), Ballard listed five crucial areas in which the president displayed his strategic talents: he saw the importance of sea power in helping to isolate the Confederacy; understood the profound connections between politics and military strategy; called for northern pressure across an extensive geographical line; specified the best rebel army (Lee's) as his primary target; and never settled for half measures. Ballard described the Emancipation Proclamation as a move with both national and operational implications. It placed the North on record in favor of freedom, thus barring the way to foreign intervention "perhaps a decisive factor in the war." It also brought manpower to northern armies and weakened the economic infrastructure supporting their Confederate opponent.
Kenneth P. Williams, Bruce Catton, Russell F. Weigley, and John Keegan, whose work spanned the period from the late 1940s through the 1980s, added to scholarship crediting Grant with essential contributions to northern victory. In his preface to the first volume of Lincoln Finds a General: A Military Study of the Civil War, Williams defined the North's strategic dilemma: "Lincoln's chief military problem was to find a general equal to the hard task the North faced in the Civil War.... Great superiority in man power and munitions was needed; but it was not sufficient. It was a case of Napoleon's maxim of the necessity of the man." That man, affirmed Williams, was Grant, "a soldier's soldier, a general's general" who combined offensive spirit, strategic grasp, and respect for the problems his superiors faced. Of all generals in the conflict, only Grant demonstrated the ability "to plan and direct the operations of several armies." Williams completed four volumes and part of a fifth that brought the war nearly to the point at which Grant assumed command of all Union forces. Although death cut short his plan to carry the series through Appomattox, there can be no doubt that Williams would have laid out in great detail the reasons he saw Grant as the irreplaceable part of the Union's war machine.
Catton seconded the observation, made by Kenneth P. Williams and many others, that Grant utilized resources previously available to all of his predecessors. "[W]hat the Northern war effort had always needed was a soldier who, assuming the top command, would see to it that they were applied steadily, remorselessly and without a break, all across the board." Grant was for Catton, as he was for Williams, the man: "He used the means at hand to discharge the obligation which had been put upon him. The war was won thereby, and it is not easy to see how it would have been done without Grant." In language reminiscent of T. Harry Williams, Catton also noted Grant's coming to terms with "an all-out war in the modern manner," his sensitivity to political imperatives in a democracy at war, and his ability to coax simultaneous action out of far-flung elements of the Union military.
In his widely influential The American Way of War, Russell F. Weigley discerned in Grant's strategic planning as general-in-chief a combination of Clausewitzian and Jominian elements. Rejecting Napoleon's "infatuation with the battle as the supreme means in war," Grant nonetheless knew heavy losses would be necessary to defeat the Confederacy because he "accepted a Napoleonic strategy of annihilation as the prescription for victory in a war of popular nationalism." In the spring of 1864, he hoped to obliterate the Confederacy's major field armies but "could not ignore the Jominian territorial objectives" because it "was threats against the political and logistical centers of Richmond and Atlanta that compelled Lee's and Johnston's armies to fight." Grant envisioned annihilation of the enemy's military forces through attrition along an extensive front rather than through climactic battles. The high cost of crushing Confederate armies via direct confrontation, however, led him to add another element to his strategy. While he fought and bled Lee's army in Virginia, other Union armies would savage the South's logistical capacity: "To strike against war resources suggested an indirect means of accomplishing the destruction of the enemy armies."
Sherman further refined this prescription for victory by adding a psychological dimension to what Grant initially had envisioned as campaigns against Confederate logistics. Sherman declared that the North fought "not only hostile armies, but a hostile people." He therefore "not only carried on war against the enemy's resources more extensively and systematically than anyone else had done, but he developed also a deliberate strategy of terror directed against the enemy people's minds." The team of Grant and Sherman ensured that the North would pursue total military victory. Grant concentrated Union power to ruin Confederate armies and logistics and also encouraged Sherman's strategy of terror. Of the pair, Sherman better understood "the war as a contest between peoples beyond the contest of armies." Weigley concluded, much as T. Harry Williams and Burne had earlier, that Sherman's indirect pressure applied during the March to the Sea and in the Carolinas could not have been decisive by itself. Indeed, those campaigns were possible only "because the main Confederate armies either had already been destroyed by a direct strategy of annihilation or were otherwise occupied." Sherman's campaigning after the fall of Atlanta probably prompted some desertion from Lee's army, but "there is no good reason to believe that the Army of Northern Virginia could have been destroyed within an acceptable time by any other means than the hammer blows of Grant's army."
British historian John Keegan harkened back to T. Harry Williams in emphasizing Grant's non-Jominian approach to a total war. Unlike Union generals hamstrung by Jomini's "narrow geometrical strictures," Grant, whom Keegan labeled an "anti-Jominian," "knew, or was quickly to discover, that in a war of people against people, dispersed in a vast, rich but almost empty land, an army need have no permanent base at all." Union forces could use rivers and railroads to the greatest extent possible and procure food and fodder from the areas through which they campaigned. In May 1863, Grant reached the "momentous decision" to cut loose from his bases during the Vicksburg campaign: "And to this strategy of making the enemy give him what he wanted he added the twist of denying the Confederates what they wanted for themselves." As an old Jominian, Sherman at first opposed this "strategy of `baseless' campaigning" but "a year later would take it to extremes that Grant had not yet contemplated." Above all, Keegan pointed to Grant's willingness to slug it out with the rebels if necessary. While others "dabbled in remembered classroom theory, aped their European counterparts, or even sought to reincarnate Napoleon, he confined himself to practicalities." Grant took the war to the rebels, made Confederate civilians experience the burden of conflict, and constructed a strategy that supplied enough victories to maintain northern morale.
In his enthusiasm for Grant, Keegan failed to note that the general's decision "of immense daring" in May 1863 almost certainly owed a good deal to the example of Winfield Scott's brilliant campaign from Vera Cruz to Mexico City in 1847. Keegan also incorrectly claimed that Grant did not defer to Lincoln on strategyonly on "non-strategic matters" such as emancipation and recruiting black troops.
In fact, Grant understood perfectly that he lacked ultimate authority to determine either national or military strategy. For example, he preferred an indirect raiding strategy in North Carolina to a major effort against Lee in the spring of 1864, but Lincoln, supported by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Henry W. Halleck, insisted that the focus in the eastern theater be on the Army of Northern Virginia. Sensitive to the political pressure that helped explain Lincoln's stance, Grant quickly acquiesced. John Y. Simon, whose editorship of the Grant papers project has given him unequaled knowledge of the general, neatly summarized both Grant's challenge as general-in-chief and his relationship with Lincoln: "Charged with vast responsibilities, General-in-Chief Grant had to act vigorously within the military sphere, tread softly in the political sphere, and understand as well the politics of command. Under Lincoln's guidance, sometimes oblique, sometimes imperious, Grant succeeded." The key to the two men's association was that Lincoln "held the reins and taught Grant what was permitted and what was not."
Grant stood out among top Union commanders in his ready deference to civilian control of northern strategy. "Because he had plain sense," wrote T. Harry Williams, "Grant was capable of grasping the political nature of the war. This was the aspect of the conflict that McClellan raged at and Sherman sneered at." The addition of emancipation to the North's national strategy set in especially stark relief a difference between Grant and Sherman. Michael Fellman has explored the ways in which Sherman actively worked against his government's policies on emancipation. "Of all the leading Union generals," observed Fellman, "Sherman was by far the most outspoken in his resistance to this revolution ... and the most openly insubordinate to civilian dictates, from those issued by the president on down." The terms of surrender Sherman offered Joseph E. Johnston at Durham Station in April 1865, which amounted to a lenient policy of reconstruction, showed the general's contempt for parts of the national strategy?
Sherman's terms surprised Grant. Brooks D. Simpson, author of the best analysis of Grant the soldier and politics, remarked that the "general-in- chief could not believe that Sherman, far from avoiding issues of civil policy ..., had plunged right into the maelstrom of the peace process." Throughout the conflict, added Simpson, Grant "embodied Clausewitz's most important maxim: `War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.' ... Grant understood Clausewitz's argument that `the first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that a statesman and commander have to make' is that `the kind of war on which they are embarking' is shaped by the goals of policy." Lincoln allowed Grant great freedom in the realm of operational strategy not only because the latter was a proven winner, but also because he knew that Grant respected the North's national strategy and would bend every effort to make it a success through his military decisions.
Joseph T. Glatthaar reminded readers how important Lincoln considered this trait in a general-in-chief. "The president had struggled to find a commanding general who could utilize the Union's resources efficiently, campaign actively, and serve dutifully within the political parameters that the government established," a combination of strengths lacking in both McClellan (who opposed emancipation and refused to fight aggressively) and Halleck (who adopted a passive stance during his time as general-in-chief). By late winter 1864, Lincoln knew Grant was his man: "His military exploits, sensitivity to political necessities, and wholehearted implementation of government policies distinguished Grant from all other Union generals in Lincoln's mind."
Although Lincoln had found his ideal general-in-chief, he did not abdicate his role in helping to formulate operational strategy. Glatthaar suggested that Lincoln was slow to comprehend Grant's strategy of exhausting the Confederacy through logistical raids. Lincoln believed victory lay in defeating rebel armies (especially Lee's); Grant and Sherman had decided that gutting the Confederacy's interior would bring the same result. In 1864, northern forces made great strides toward accomplishing both goals, demonstrating that "the raiding strategy operated well in conjunction with a more traditional strategy that sought the destruction of Confederate armies." Pleased from the outset with General-in-Chief Grant's simultaneous advances, Lincoln did not appreciate fully the potential value of raids against logistics until Sherman captured Savannah. "Piecing together Confederate newspaper reports and snippets from Sherman," wrote Glatthaar, "Lincoln finally visualized just how disruptive to Confederates and productive to Federals these raiding campaigns could be." Although lacking Grant's skills at operational strategy and sometimes vetoing good ideas, Lincoln proved his greatness as a war leader by generally giving Grant and Sherman freedom to achieve national strategic goals.
Grant's three predecessors as general-in-chief never worked out a comparable arrangement with Lincoln, and their strategic thinking has garnered few encomiums from historians. Winfield Scott almost certainly possessed the analytical and administrative skills to succeed but, at age seventy-five, lacked the physical stamina to oversee the northern war effort. Scholars such as T. Harry Williams and John Keegan have argued that Scott hoped merely to sit back and allow the blockade and northern seizure of the Mississippi River to precipitate a Confederate collapse. Many other historians, after an obligatory mention of the Anaconda Plan, have simply ignored the old general in assessing northern strategy. In fact, Scott foresaw large-scale invasions of the South as a possible feature of northern operational strategy. In March 1861, long before the Confederacy exhibited its ability to mount an impressive military effort, he advised William H. Seward that the North might have to "[c]onquer the seceding States by invading armies." "The destruction of life and property on the other side would be frightfulhowever perfect the moral discipline of the invaders," noted Scott presciently, and would entail a toll of "enormous waste of human life to the North and Northwest" and bitter postwar feelings that would frustrate the northern national goal of speedy reunion. A modern study of Scott as a soldier, which should give full attention to the early period of the Civil War, is long overdue.
George B. McClellan's strategic planning as general-in-chief has attracted far less attention than his actions as a field commander in Virginia. Many scholars have emulated T. Harry Williams in labeling him an inveterate Jominian who became seriously engaged with strategic questions only when they pertained to Virginia. None of "Little Mac's" critics has been more blistering than Kenneth P. Williams, who stated that "McClellan was not a real general. McClellan was not even a disciplined, truthful soldier. McClellan was merely an attractive but vain and unstable man, with considerable military knowledge, who sat a horse well and wanted to be president." Although T. Harry Williams dismissed as foolish McClellan's comprehensive strategic plan in August 1861, Bruce Catton and Stephen Sears credited the general with trying in 1861 and 1862 to apply the type of simultaneous pressure that Grant would achieve in 1864. "IT]he difference was," wrote Catton, "that he could not make anything happen the way he wanted it to happen." Sears lauded McClellan's "activist interpretation" of the position of general-in-chief and his "formulation of a grand strategy for prosecuting the war" that was not matched "until another general with the same vision, U. S. Grant, took over the post." But McClellan's obdurate refusal to bow to civilian direction "virtually nullified his accomplishments."
A few scholars have offered a more sympathetic reading of McClellan's strategic failures. Edward Hagerman mentioned the general's political squabbles with the Republican administration but argued that the main limiting factor was a logistical framework that made it difficult to maneuver large bodies of men over distance and time. Grant and Sherman succeeded later, stated Hagerman, in considerable measure because they benefited from improved Union "field transportation and supply organization." Warren W. Hassler rendered an even more favorable verdict. McClellan's early attempts at simultaneous advances ran afoul of weather, logistics, and balky lieutenants. By 1862, the Radical Republicans bombarded him with "intense and unrelenting attacks" that eventually triggered his removal. Hassler considered McClellan a fine soldier whose "achievements had been substantialsome masterful," but whose hope to fight the war free of political entanglements had proved impossible.
The scholarly consensus portrays Henry W. Halleck as a general-in-chief unwilling to exercise the power proffered by a chief executive anxious to have a controlling hand at the strategic helm. Refusing to accept authority equal to that Grant later would wield, wrote Bruce Catton, Halleck "reduced himself to a sort of high-level adviser, a paper-shuffler who neither laid down nor enforced a comprehensive strategy for the war as a whole." Joseph T. Glatthaar similarly observed that Halleck "never seized the reins of the Union war effort," and Stephen E. Ambrose, in the most detailed (but perhaps not the most satisfying) examination of Halleck's Civil War career, judged that he "made no outstanding contribution to either tactics or strategy." John Keegan pronounced Halleck "a pedant of the worst sort"; of all the generals-in-chief, this rigid Jominian "comprehended the war's nature least of all." Keegan went too far in charging Halleck with unwavering allegiance to Jomini. As T. Harry Williams, Ambrose, and others pointed out, Halleck modified his initial Jominian attitude to embrace a much tougher operational strategy that punished Confederate civiliansthough he never took the lead in pushing for this type of war.
The best broad treatment of northern military strategy is Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones's How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War. Exhaustive, perceptive, and often revisionist, it might have come first among the books discussed in this essay. Because it plays off much earlier literature, however, it seems a good candidate for a position closer to the end. Hattaway and Jones dedicated their book to T. Harry Williams, adding that they sometimes disagreed with him but sought to continue "the same tradition of Civil War military history that he did much to establish." Departing from Williams's Jominian/Clausewitzian classifications, they assessed the roles of Lincoln and all of his principal generals in harnessing northern resources to crush the Confederacy. The authors gave well-deserved credit to Winfield Scott, who "focused his powerful intellect and vast experience on the North's infinitely complex strategic problem." Analyzing both the Anaconda Plan and Scott's ideas about what else might be needed to achieve victory, Hattaway and Jones observed that "[e]xcept for underestimating by one-half the number of men and the time needed, the old general had provided a fairly accurate forecast of most of the ... elements of the strategy ultimately used."
Lincoln's generals understood that the rifled musket gave defenders the tactical advantage and rendered decisive battlefield victories unlikely. "Avoiding a futile pursuit of the strategy of annihilation," wrote the authors in opposition to some of Russell F. Weigley's points, "Union generals sought to conquer the Confederacy to deprive its armies of their source of supplies, weapons, and recruits." This strategy of exhaustion initially worked well in the West, where Henry W. Halleck coordinated brilliant offensives along the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers. When the North ran out of these vital logistical lifelines, however, progress stalled and a restive northern public and its political leaders (most notably the Radical Republicans) "grew impatient for decisive victories that would end the rebellion quickly." This tension bedeviled Lincoln throughout the war as he searched for a means to satisfy the popular clamor for Napoleonic victories even as he understood that "military realities" militated against such triumphs.
By the summer of 1863, the strategy of exhaustion predicated on seizing territory "began to seem quite dubious when the Union armies confronted the task of conquering and holding the large, populous, and thoroughly rebellious state of Georgia." (It had taken the North two years to conq uer East Tennessee, with its large unionist population.) In response, Lincoln and Grant each devised a variant strain of the strategy of exhaustion. The president's "was political and psychological in that he sought to draw states from the Confederacy by amnesty and a liberal reconstruction policy while demoralizing the enemy through wholesale employment against them of their former slaves enlisted as soldiers." If successful, this plan would deprive the Confederate economy of crucial workers. Grant proposed a series of huge raids into the Confederacy by Union forces that would "occupy no territory" but "would destroy the logistical base of the Confederate war machine." Grant's friend Sherman later used the raiding strategy to bring "the war home to all rebel states, thus exhibiting the inability of the Confederacy to protect its territorial integrity."
Lincoln determined by early 1862 that simultaneous pressure against the Confederates at several points held the key to victory. Scott had understood this, as did McClellan and Halleck; so acknowledged Hattaway and Jones. They aligned with many earlier scholars in stressing that not until Grant assumed command of all United States forces in March 1864 did the North find a general-in-chief capable of orchestrating the requisite pressure. During the war's final year, Grant, bowing to public and political demands, confronted Lee directly in Virginia. Meanwhile, Sherman captured Atlanta, which slaked northern thirst for dramatic victories, and then cut his destructive swath through Georgia and South Carolina. Other northern forces inflicted significant damage to the Confederate logistical base in the Shenandoah Valley and elsewhere. By April 1865, "Grant's systematic application of the strategy of exhaustion through raids had been truly successful in carrying out his objective to `leave nothing for the rebellion to stand upon.'"
Having underscored how effectively northern arms gutted the Confederacy's material resources (by April 1865 the Confederacy also had lost half of its military-age white men killed or maimed), the authors reached the somewhat puzzling conclusion that "Union victory was not exclusively, nor perhaps even predominantly, military." The war ended, they insisted, because the Confederate people, who had only a weakly developed sense of nationalism, lost their will to resist.
Hattaway and Jones bestowed primary credit for northern military achievements on Lincoln and Grant. "Lincoln's military performance supports his acknowledged greatness"; his preeminent gift "lay in his intelligence, which enabled him to learn the elements of the art of war of the mid-nineteenth century and grasp quickly the realistic and sophisticated ideas of the country's capable military leadership." The president kept his eye on the big strategic picture, consistently called for broad pressure against the enemy, and evinced "a superior ability to integrate military and political factors." His use of black troops, for example, strengthened the Union army, heartened the Radical Republicans, and weakened the Confederacy. Among Lincoln's generals, Grant "made the major military contribution to victory." The strategy of exhausting the Confederacy through raiding was his brainchildthough Sherman, who executed the most famous such operation, often gets the credit. To an unerring grasp of the right course of action "Grant added his unobtrusive but firm dominance of his subordinates, his talent for delegation, and his good management."
Hattaway and Jones affirmed that they worked in the tradition of T. Harry Williams. They represented that tradition at its analytical and descriptive best, often disagreeing with Williams's conclusions and imposing a stiff standard for subsequent scholars who adopted a similar approach. Anyone undertaking an evaluation of Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, or other top Union leaders as strategists must take into account their interpretation.
Neither the size of the existing literature nor the excellence of such studies as How the North Won should obscure numerous aspects of northern strategy that beckon future scholars. Several examples will illustrate this point. Since publication of T. Harry Williams's Lincoln and the Radicals, only one scholar has examined in depth the influential Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War as it related to northern strategy. In Over Lincoln's Shoulder: The Committee on the Conduct of the War, Bruce Tap agreed that Williams was "probably correct in his negative assessment of the committee's overall effect on the Union war effort." Among other things the committee "contributed to the unhealthy practice of basing military appointments on political considerations," pursued "blatantly political and partisan ends" in investigating the operations of the Army of the Potomac, and too often drew simplistic conclusions because as a group its members lacked military knowledge. More analysis of the ways in which Benjamin F. Wade, Zachariah Chandler, George W. Julian, and their allies on the committee, through hearings and other means, sought to sway Lincoln and the northern public on a variety of strategic issues would be useful. On a larger canvas, the role of Congress as a whole concerning the North's military strategy and policy deserves additional attention. Scholars studying the Civil War Congress too often have avoided delving into the ways in which its members influenced operational and, to a lesser degree, national strategy."
Historians interested in military campaigns similarly have given minimal attention to how northern armies reacted to congressional policies affecting the strategic shaping of the war. In an essay on the Army of the Potomac during early 1864, John J. Hennessy suggested why this weakness in the literature must be rectified. Many of the army's officers, wrote Hennessy, "fiercely resisted radicalization and spent much of their energy in 1862 and early 1863 trying to define northern war aims." Letters from generals and commanders of lower rank reached "newspaper editors, senators, congressmen, and governors" as well as uncounted family members. "Theirs was not an organized effort," continued Hennessy, "but it attained considerable volume and hence influence. It simultaneously reflected and contributed to social divisions afflicting a nation caught up in a transforming conflict."
Emancipation ranked among the divisive issues that prompted these letters. Quite remarkably, there has yet to be a comprehensive examination of the impact on northern soldiers of the Emancipation Proclamation, the recruitment of African Americans for military service, and the addition of freedom to Union goals of the national strategy. John J. Hennessy has noted that Lincoln's proclamation "stimulated an avalanche of commentary" in the Army of the Potomac during the winter of 1863, but a detailed study of responses across time that includes a geographical comparison would be enlightening. Did soldiers from the Midwest react differently than their Middle Atlantic and northeastern comrades? Did soldiers in the Army of the Potomac, many of whom retained a fondness for McClellan throughout the war, differ from western counterparts who fought under Grant and Sherman? Estimates of support among white veterans for emancipation as part of the North's national strategy thus far have been impressionistic. It would be helpful to have a better sense of the proportion of men who were or became genuinely committed to emancipation as a major strategic goal.
A pair of recent historians probed largely unexplored connections between the northern press and Union strategy. Eric T. Dean, Jr., wrote that numerous historians who have characterized "the Civil War as the 'first modern war' ... have seemingly overlooked the communications revolution and the effect it might have exerted on perceptions, expectations, and the course and outcome of the war." Dean argued that the press created "extravagant expectations" regarding McClellan's 1862 Peninsula campaign that resulted in a public belief that the general had failed strategically. Later in the war the media exercised "a modicum of self-restraint and the government began to employ methods of news management and censorship," which together muted the "excesses of the expectations game." In an essay on Grant's overland campaign, Brooks D. Simpson took issue with Dean's conclusions, maintaining that by May 1864 "[t]hree years of war apparently had taught the northern public little about the patterns of war." Northerners still craved decisive battlefield triumphs and pushed their generals to achieve them. Editors encouraged such thinking prior to Grant's commencing operations against Lee and continued to do so even after two weeks of bloody and indecisive combat. Democratic editors proved especially strident in calling for quick victory, but their Republican counterparts also "gave in to the notion of swift triumph." A detailed study of how the press dealt with strategic questions would constitute a worthy addition to the literature.
The role of the navy languishes among the most neglected aspects of northern strategic planning. Beyond perfunctory consideration of how the blockade figured in Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan, most discussions of northern strategy virtually ignore its naval component. In light of the absence of a modern, manuscript-based study of the United States Navy during the Civil War, it should not be surprising, though it is lamentable, that no historian has written a specialized study about Union strategists and the navy.
Rowena Reed took a step toward remedying this problem in Combined Operations in the Civil War. In a narrative flecked with analysis that went against the prevailing interpretive grain, Reed praised McClellan for attempting to employ the full array of Union military might in his planning as general-in-chief and especially in devising his 1862 Peninsula campaign. Having "built his grand strategic design around interservice cooperation," he failed when Lincoln's government reduced his authority over the North's armed forces. No other northern general ever matched McClellan's grasp of the potential inherent in combined operations, argued Reed, and his peers as Union army commanders "agreed with the Lincoln administration that wars were only won by slugging it out on the battlefield." McClellan's retreat from the Peninsula "signalled both the demise of Federal grand strategy and the breakdown of combined operations planning." Subsequent Union success along the western rivers and the Gulf of Mexico, which included an obvious naval component, did not impress Reed. "The Federal offensive on the Mississippi and the Gulf after the collapse of McClellan's plan, taken as a whole," she wrote, "is probably one of the worst examples of combined operations strategy in the history of war." The North succeeded only because of "the enemy's tremendous relative weakness."
The advent of Henry W. Halleck as general-in-chief "practically ensured that, except for the capture of Vicksburg, all subsequent major offensives were conducted by the land forces." This short-sightedness, in Reed's opinion, might have lengthened the conflict. For example, Sherman's famous march to Savannah represented a spectacular but ultimately empty campaign that, "leaving aside Sherman's personal ambition ... accomplished nothing that could not have been more quickly and cheaply attained by other means." Had Sherman's army been shifted to Baltimore after the fall of Atlanta to cooperate with naval forces in a massive expedition against Wilmington, "Lee would have been maneuvered out of Richmond in December 1864."
A pair of historians challenged Reed's conclusions about the quality of combined strategic planning and execution in the western theater. Writing thirteen years before Reed's book appeared, John D. Milligan attributed to Grant and naval squadron commander David Dixon Porter a working relationship that permitted the North to achieve its strategic goal of seizing control of the Mississippi River. Porter sought always to defer to Grant: "This fact alone made it possible for Grant to lay his plans with the navy always included as an equal partner, and only because he was able to do this could the final Vicksburg campaign take the form he gave it." Joseph T. Glatthaar took a similar view in Partners in Command, which devoted a chapter to the successful collaboration among Grant, Sherman, and Porter. Highlighting the ways in which the navy contributed to the Vicksburg campaign, Glatthaar emphasized the respect for one another and confidence in joint operations that developed among the three men. As Grant put it after capturing the Confederate stronghold, "Without this prompt and cordial support [from Porter and his naval squadron], my movements would have been much embarrassed, if not wholly defeated." Porter subsequently fell out with Grant over the 1864-1865 campaign to capture Wilmington, North Carolina, a venture for which the naval officer believed Grant took credit despite having done little to help ensure its success.
One last naval title deserves mention. In From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War, Robert M. Browning, Jr., lamented the fact that American historians have treated "the United States Navy as a minor player." His study of one component of the Union naval effort serves as a case study of how seaborne power bolstered the North's strategic agenda. Operating along the coasts and rivers of Virginia and North Carolina, the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron intercepted blockade-runners, which harmed the southern economy and by extension its armies; disrupted Confederate transportation in coastal areas, thereby exacerbating Robert E. Lee's logistical problems; and tied down thousands of troops who otherwise could have reinforced rebel field armies. Like Rowena Reed, Browning criticized the North's neglect of naval power as a potentially decisive weapon in Virginia after the Peninsula campaign (unlike Reed, he labeled McClellan unable fully "to understand the advantages that the navy provided him"). "The successive Union commanders attempted to outmaneuver the Confederate army to capture Richmond," averred Browning, while failing to exploit "the advantages that control of the water could give them." The situation changed during 1864 and 1865, when Grant made full use of the squadron to guard communications and bases of supply, transport soldiers, and support vulnerable positions along the James River. At Wilmington, the army and navy eventually mounted "a model operation" that "dealt a severe blow to the Confederacy." Browning quoted Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen A. Mallory's observation in April 1865 that Confederates were "weary of the war and desire peace." "The United States Navy," he concluded, "was a key factor in making this happen."
Scholarly interest in the development and application of northern strategy undoubtedly will continue. Compelling figures such as Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, and McClellan invite constant re-examination. The seismic impact of emancipation on Union policy makers and on armies in the field virtually guarantees that this dimension of the North's strategic debate will be explored repeatedly. Some historians undoubtedly will follow familiar analytical paths in responding to and revising the conclusions of T. Harry Williams, Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones, and other influential writers. Just as surely, future scholars will come up with new questions and approaches that illuminate heretofore obscure facets of the subject. The navy should receive a larger share of scholarly attention, which will illuminate the nautical dimension of Union strategic planning. The result will be a more nuanced understanding of how the North traversed its difficult course from Fort Sumter, which signaled the need to confront a monumental military challenge, to Appomattox, which placed the stamp of victory on national and operational strategies that had experienced a fascinating evolution.
- Princeton, New Jersey
- Date of Birth:
- October 11, 1936
- Place of Birth:
- Valley City, North Dakota
- B.A., Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN) 1958; Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University, 1963
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