Military Theory and the U.S. Civil War (Part 3): The Confederacy and Conclusion

The army of General Fremont crossing the north fork of the Shenandoah at Mt. Jackson—Pursuit of Stonewall Jackson
The army of General Fremont crossing the north fork of the Shenandoah at Mt. Jackson—Pursuit of Stonewall Jackson

In the South, the evidence is perhaps greater that a more cohesive strategy was followed based on an established understanding of Jominian precepts. Jefferson Davis has long been considered the author of the South’s so-called “Offensive-Defensive strategy.” This strategy, variously defined by numerous scholars, essentially states that the South assumed a defensive posture and awaited Union advances while seeking opportunities to initiate offensive action.[1] The very name of this strategy was seemingly borrowed directly from Jomini when describing a nation forced into a defensive position. In Article XXXI “Offensive Battles, and Different Orders of Battle,” Jomini writes “An army reduced to the strategic defensive often takes the offensive by making an attack, and an army receiving an attack may, during the progress of the battle, take the offensive and obtain the advantages incident to it.”[2]

Jefferson Davis, photographed by Mathew Brady
Jefferson Davis, photographed by Mathew Brady

A number of scholars, however, dispute the existence of a coordinated strategy in general, and a strategic model based on Jominian influence in particular. Donald Stoker, one of the most outspoken of such critics, asserts that historians have been inclined to confuse strategic concepts with operational and tactical ones, much as Jomini himself had been known to do. Stoker argues that this long-held belief is founded on the misinterpretation of the meaning behind President Davis’s comments on how he intended to defend Richmond, which is more appropriately placed in the operational, or even tactical, levels of war.[3] Stephen Badsey and Joseph Dawson III, both of whom rebut Stoker’s claims, firmly believe that in the context described by Jomini, Davis’ plans were arguably strategic.[4] While Donald Stoker disputes the Jominian-inspired strategy, there is evidence to support the notion that Confederate leaders executed a loose strategy based on precepts of maneuver and attacking fractions of an enemy while they protected their own “lines of operation,” all of which are Jominian ideas that were plausibly learned at West Point.

It is instructive to note that one of the more flamboyant of the South’s military leaders demonstrated an academic inspiration from Jomini. In 1863, P.G.T. Beauregard published his Principles and Maxims of the Art of War. A much more abbreviated work than D.H. Mahan’s Outpost, it nonetheless contains significant similarities with Jomini’s The Art of War. Of Beauregard’s three principles upon which “[e]very true maxim of war can be deduced,” two of them appear be borrowed directly from Jomini. Principle number one instructs the leader “To place masses of your army in contact with fractions of your enemy.”[5] This is nearly identical to Jomini’s second maxim of his Fundamental Principle of War – “to maneuver to engage fractions of the hostile army with the bulk of one’s forces.” Beauregard’s principle number two reads “To operate as much as possible on the communications of your enemy without exposing your own,” which also sound similar to Jomini’s more wordy first maxim, “To throw by strategic movements the mass of an army, successfully, upon the decisive points of a theater of war, and also upon the communications of the enemy as much as possible without compromising one’s own.” With these principles established, Beauregard then launched into a series of 34 maxims, many of which echo Jomini.[6]

Beauregard is an excellent example to demonstrate a Southern adherence to both a Jominian Offensive-Defensive strategyGen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard and operational concepts. For the South, the success in taking Fort Sumter in 1861 came with the recognition that a Union counterattack was not only likely, but further action toward the strategic Manassas Junction would follow.[7] After Davis and General Lee consulted with Beauregard, he was dispatched to prepare for the defense at the previously discussed town of Manassas. Thus, the Confederate national leadership and military leadership concurred on the nature of the war, the first thing that must occur in executing strategy, according the Jomini.[8] The theater of war was selected, and Manassas Junction was determined as a decisive point in the theater, as it was a veritable highway from northern Virginia into the heart of the Confederacy. This was not only due to the geography – Manassas Junction was the connecting point for the major rail lines on which Virginia relied to defend itself. Not only did the Confederacy need this for its own defense, but to allow it to fall to the Federal Army opened up two major routes for Federal invasion.[9]

Beauregard was dispatched to Bull Run in July, where he was joined by General Joseph Johnston to prepare the defenses and establish the fixed base (Bull Run) and zone of operations. In this case, this was the territory surrounding Bull Run where Beauregard divided his eight brigades. Of note, General Johnston recounts that Beauregard proposed “instead of remaining in the defensive positions then occupied, to assume the offensive, and attack the enemy” before the advancing Union forces could be joined.[10] This operational planning reflects the non-strategic aspect of Jomini’s “Offensive-Defensive” discussion as highlighted by Stoker. However, this doesn’t take away from the strategic context that Beauregard and Johnston established their plan. The preparations undertaken by the Southern generals arguably reflect Jominian influence.

Evidence of an Offensive-Defense strategy can also be seen in General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley campaign in 1862. Following the victory at Bull Run, the Union failed to make any significant inroads into the South for the rest of the year. In March of 1862, General Johnston withdrew his forces south toward Richmond as McClellan prepared his Peninsula Campaign. Over the ensuing months, Jackson commanded a unit of 5,000 troops to strike the larger forces of Union General Banks (with approximately 20,000 men), and successfully prevented the Union from concentrating as McClellan moved toward Richmond.[11] His small force engaged the Union armies attempting to converge on the Confederate capital. General Lee needed the Federals to remain separated, and so Jackson continued to move throughout the Valley, striking offensively to keep Union forces off balance.

Jackson’s Valley campaign allowed his elite soldiers to concentrate on fractions of the Union army. He never possessed the ability to annihilate the numerically superior Federal armies moving through the area. But by rapid movement and a clear appreciation for lines of operation within the Shenandoah Valley, his actions helped to prevent the Union armies from effectively leveraging their advantages of men and materiel. This was crucial to the survival of the Confederacy, and served in the defense of Richmond and the Confederate heartland by way of offensive operations.[12] Therefore, although the actions of Jackson were operational in nature, they served the strategic plan outlined by Davis and Lee.

Perhaps the most significant examples of the offensive nature of the “Offensive-Defensive” strategy are Lee’s invasions of the north, which culminated in the battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. Here, Stoker admits that the foray into Pennsylvania comes closest to conforming to a strategic action in support of a hypothetical Offensive-Defensive strategy. However, Lee’s objectives were unclear. Ultimately, Stoker argues that the action was a defensive strategic act through a singular offensive action, and does not prove the existence of a larger offensive-defensive strategy.[13]

The battle of Gettysburg
The battle of Gettysburg

Yet, the raid into Pennsylvania seems to be the very definition of the strategy, which dictated that the South would hold a defensive posture while seeking for opportunities to take the offense. Arguably, there was no better time than the summer of 1863 for such a move. For the majority of the war, General Lee and his men had accumulated success after success. The disaster that was the First Bull Run was a stunning defeat for the Union, and a vindication that both strategy and God were on the side of the Confederates. “We recognize the hand of the Most High God, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, in the glorious victory with which He crowned our armies at Manassas,” wrote Stephen Elliot in the prelude to his sermon commemorating the Confederate win.[14] Over the ensuing years, Lee came to expect victory. The Confederate army was so confident of its superiority over their Northern brethren that there was little effort to conceal their plans to take the fight to Pennsylvania or New York.[15] In addition, the action would serve to move the conflict out of Virginia, where it had largely been centered, to the North. This would also likely stoke President Lincoln’s fears of an attack on Washington, and throw the Northern war effort into disarray.[16]

Part of Lee’s objectives were fulfilled before the catastrophic defeat at Gettysburg. His forces did harass Northern towns which had previously been sheltered from the war. In addition, his army acquired critically needed supplies.[17] But the hoped for payoff of the attack, which conceivably might have forced the Union to negotiate a peace, clearly never came to fruition. This does not make the attack any less indicative of being an offensive expression of an offensive-defensive strategy; it simply means the attempt failed. With the perceived potential to force a quick end to the war, the attack clearly served a strategic purpose.

Of course, not all historians accept that the South followed such a conscious strategy. Donald Stoker, after his critique of the Offensive-Defensive strategy, concludes that the South started the war with a “modified cordon,” and simply engaged in offensive and defensive operations as situations developed.[18] T. Harry Williams reaches a similar conclusion, writing that the Confederacy’s entire strategy was almost entirely defensive (as opposed to “offensive-defensive”).[19]

In conclusion, the Union North did not adhere to any coherent strategy theory throughout the course of the Civil War. Political restrictions and military timidity combined to make any attempt at such practically impossible during the early years of the conflict. While at the operational level Jominian precepts may have been applied, this was not apparent at the national/strategic level. It is important to note, however, that the lack of any cohesive Jomianian strategy by the North is not an indictment on the political leadership of the Union. In spite of the Union army’s struggles for more than half of the war, T. Harry Williams concludes that the North’s overall strategy and eventual unification of command was still superior to Confederate strategic leadership.[20] In fact, by surrounding the Southern States, and eventually attacking from the east and the west, Lincoln and his generals overwhelmed their enemy in spite of violating Jominian notions of concentration.[21] It is perhaps somewhat ironic that Ulysses Grant once said “If men make war in slavish observation of rules, they will fail.” Such sentiment more closely echoes Jomini’s rival Carl von Clausewitz, whose ideas D.H. Mahan, the shared mentor of the students of West Point, avoided most purposefully.[22]

For the South, the evidence supports a more cohesive strategy based on Jominian theory. In 1864, Union General T. Seymore wrote an article entitled “Military Education: A Vindication of West Point and the Regular Army.” In it, he argues that the North squandered the talents of West Point graduates by subsuming many of them to political appointees, while Jefferson Davis took care to place his Academy graduates carefully for maximum effect. “[T]he best possible vindication of the Military Academy is to be found in the history of the Confederacy…”[23] The successful first years of the rebellion supports this assertion. D.H. Mahan’s students, one of which was the Confederate President, were able to operate within a more cohesive theoretical framework than their Northern counterparts. But again, somewhat conversely with the North, the South’s more authentic adherence to Jominian military theory clearly did not translate into ultimate victory. In fact, David Donald believes this adherence to tired theory was responsible for the South’s ultimate defeat. Bull Run, Chancellorville, and other victories, says Donald, were executed with only minor deviation from Jominain principles. But while the North was willing to experiment, the South remained locked into inflexible maxims.[24] This inflexibility lead to final defeat.

[1] Donald Stoker, “There was no Offensive-Defensive Confederate Strategy.” Journal Of Military History 73, no. 2 (April 2009), 574.

[2] Antoine Jomini, The Art of War, 396.

[3] Donald Stoker, “There was no Offensive-Defensive Confederate Strategy,” 581-582.

[4] Stephen Badsey, Donald Stoker, and Joseph G. Dawson III, “FORUM II: Confederate Military Strategy in the U.S. Civil War Revisited.” Journal Of Military History 73, no. 4 (October 2009): 1273 – 1287.

[5] P.T.G. Beauregard, Principles and Maxims of the Art of War: Outpost Service, General Instructions for Battles, Review (Charleston: Steam Power Press of Evans and Cogswell, 1863), 3.

[6] Such as Maxims 1 – 4, which stress lines of operation and communication. Ibid, 4-5.

[7] William C.C Davis, Battle at Bull Run, 51.

[8] “[T]he first care of its [the army’s] commander should be to agree with the head of state upon the character of the war;” Antoine Jomini, ibid, 132.

[9] William C. Davis, The Battle at Bull Run, 28-29.

[10] Joseph E. Johnston, Official Reports of Generals Johnston and Beauregard of the Battle of Manassas, July 21st, 1861, 7-8.

[11] John Keegan, Intelligence in War (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), 84-85.

[12] Ibid, 88-92.

[13] Donald Stoker, “There was no Offensive-Defensive Confederate Strateg,” 588.

[14] Stephen Elliott, God’s Presence with our Army at Manassas!, 21st of July, 1861. Savannah : W.T. Williams, 1861.

[15] Stackpole, Edward, They Met at Gettysburg (Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1956), 3.

[16] Ibid, 73-75.

[17] Ibid, 19, 24.

[18] Ibid, 589.

[19] T. Harry Williams, “The Military Leadership of North and South,” in Why the North Won the War, ed. David Donald (New York: Collier Books, 1960), 53-54.

[20] Ibid, 53.

[21] Ibid, 54.

[22] R. Earnest Dupuy, Men of West Point, 18.

[23] T. Seymore, “Military Education: A Vindication of West Point and the Regular Army,” [U.S.] 1864, 7.

[24] David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, 100-101.

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