Assessing Confederate Military Options

From Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief, by James M. McPherson (Penguin, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2566-2603:

Where could we get a better or a wiser man” than Jefferson Davis for commander in chief? wondered Josiah Gorgas in 1865. There was of course no right or wrong answer to that question. Nobody can say whether Robert Toombs, Howell Cobb, or any other potential Confederate president would have been more successful. What we do know about those gentlemen elicits skepticism. Most delegates to the Montgomery convention in 1861 believed Davis to be the best man for the job, and no clear evidence exists that they were wrong. The fact that the Confederacy lost the war does not prove that it could have been won with a different commander in chief. And under Davis’s leadership, the South appeared to be on the cusp of success on at least three occasions when Confederate victories had caused deep demoralization in the North: the summer of 1862, the winter and spring of 1863, and the summer of 1864. But Union victories at Antietam, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Atlanta blunted Southern momentum and revived Northern determination to fight through to ultimate triumph.

Could Jefferson Davis have done anything different on those three occasions or at any other time during the war to produce Confederate victory? That question too is ultimately unanswerable, but this has not stopped historians from speculating. Such speculation focuses mainly on two subjects: military strategy and military commanders. Would a different strategy have brought Confederate success? The political necessity to defend all frontiers of the Confederacy produced a strategy of dispersed defense in 1861. Davis would have preferred a strategy of concentration for an offensive-defensive campaign (as he termed it), but demands from state governors and other officials required dispersion. The initial poverty of weapons and logistical capacity precluded large offensives.

Union success in breaking through the thin gray lines of dispersed defenses in 1862 forced a revision of Confederate strategy. With new commanders of the two principal Southern armies, Robert E. Lee and Braxton Bragg, the Confederates embarked on their most ambitious offensive-defensive campaigns in the late summer of 1862, with a reprise in Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. After experiencing initial success, these campaigns ultimately failed. Subsequent Union offensives compelled the Confederacy to fall back to an essentially defensive strategy for the rest of the war.

The two principal exceptions to that defensive strategy were Jubal Early’s raid to the outskirts of Washington in July 1864 and John Bell Hood’s invasion of Tennessee in November. They resulted in the virtual destruction of these two Southern armies in the Shenandoah Valley in October and at Nashville in December. These two campaigns were clearly beyond the Confederates’ capacity to execute by that stage of the war. Lee’s prosecution of offensive-defensive operations in 1862 and 1863 may have represented the Confederacy’s best chance for victory, but Hood’s effort to repeat that strategy in 1864 was wrongheaded, and Davis’s approval of that invasion may have been his worst strategic mistake.

Two other options were available to the Confederacy. The first was a “Fabian” strategy of yielding territory to the enemy until the moment came to strike at his most vulnerable tentacles. Like the Roman general Quintus Fabius in the Second Punic War, or George Washington in the American Revolution, or the Russian general Mikhail Kutuzov in 1812, Confederate commanders could have traded space for time, kept the army concentrated and ready to strike enemy detachments dangling deep in Southern territory, and above all avoided destruction of their armies. Such a Fabian defensive strategy, so the argument goes, might have worn out the will or capacity of the Union to continue fighting, as the Americans and Russians had done to the British and French in 1781 and 1812–13. To a considerable degree, this was Joseph Johnston’s apparent strategy in Virginia in 1862 and especially in Georgia in 1864. But Johnston seemed prepared to yield Richmond and Atlanta rather than risk his army—and he did stand by while Vicksburg fell. To Davis this was a strategy of surrender that would have had fatal consequences for the Confederacy. He was probably right. In the end the strategy of the offensive-defensive did not work either, but as practiced by Robert E. Lee it probably came closest to success.

Another strategic alternative was guerrilla war. Confederate partisans were active behind Union lines in several theaters, and quasi-guerrilla cavalry commanders like Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan also carried out many successful raids. Although Davis approved of these activities, he showed relatively little interest in guerrilla warfare as a primary strategy. In this lack of interest his instincts were probably sound. The Confederacy was an established polity with the institutions of a nation-state and an organized army with professional commanders. Conventional warfare supplemented by auxiliary guerrilla operations or cavalry raids behind enemy lines represented its best strategic mix. Guerrilla actions as the main strategy are most appropriate for a rebel force trying to capture the institutions of government, not to defend them. And a slave society that practices guerrilla warfare is playing with fire, for it opens up opportunities for the slaves to carry out their own guerrilla actions against the regime.

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