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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“Shall I arrest Colonel Taylor?” Confusion in Alexandria, May 1861

In the first days of May, 1861, with the echoes of Fort Sumter scarcely faded, Confederate forces stationed at Alexandria, Virgina, directly across the river from the Union capital, waited nervously for the next move. Flush with zealous patriotism, the new nation’s leadership in Richmond was adamant that not an inch of sacred Southern soil be yielded without a heavy price in blood. It was easier said than done.

Alexandria from Pioneer Mill, looking north-west (1865)
Alexandria from Pioneer Mill, looking north-west (1865)

Leading the Confederate soldiers in Alexandria was Lieutenant Colonel A.S. Taylor. With orders to stand ground “unless pressed by overwhelming and irresistible numbers”, he conducted a sober accounting of his fighting strength as compared to the swelling army across the Potomac. Two companies of “raw Irish recruits” armed with “altered flint-lock muskets of 1818, and without cartridges or caps…”; a company with 86 musket-armed troops; an additional 52 men in various states of armament (including 15 with no weapons at all); two companies of about 160 men armed with minie rifles, but only from five to nine cartridges each; and two companies of cavalry, one with 40 troops armed with carbines but “limited” ammunition, and one with no weapons except Colt revolvers. So with less than 400 soldiers, Taylor was tasked with holding or delaying the inevitable Federal invasion.

Probably about the same time as he received his orders, which had been delivered on 5 May, Taylor received intelligence from one Mister J.D. Hutton, who until recently worked as a cartographer for the War Department. From Mr. Hutton, Taylor was dismayed (but certainly not surprised) to learn that the Yankees intended to occupy Alexandria within days, either the 7th or the 8th of May (in fact, it would be a few more weeks before Union troops organized enough to even venture across the river). With forces arriving almost daily around Washington, and two steamers only a few miles downriver seemingly ready to move troops, the colonel decided the threshold for “overwhelming and irresistible numbers” had been met. He quickly gathered up his small command, and retreated to Springfield, 10 miles west of Alexandria.

The commanding general of the Potomac Department, General Philip St. George Cocke, was furious that Taylor had not

Philip St. George Cocke (1809–1861). After perceived slights from General P.G.T. Beauregard and General Lee following the Battle at Bull Run, General Cocke took his own life in December, 1861.
Philip St. George Cocke (1809–1861). After perceived slights from General P.G.T. Beauregard and General Lee following the Battle at Bull Run, General Cocke took his own life in December, 1861.

only retreated, but was in such a hurry that he didn’t bother to communicate his intentions. It’s this break down in command and control, as well as in the convoluted handling of intelligence, that is highlighted here. Taylor received credible intelligence from a trustworthy source, but his first instinct was not to disseminate this up the chain of command in order to coordinate a response or seek reinforcements. Cocke’s order to remain in place was clear that this should be done: “keep up your communications with the various parts in your rear, so as to call every resource to your aid and support in making a gallant and fighting retreat, should you be forced to it, and can stand at all without danger of uselessly sacrificing your command.” It wasn’t until 7 May that Cocke located Taylor, and up to this point he was still completely ignorant of why Alexandria had been abandoned. Late on the 6th, in a dispatch to Richmond, Cocke wrote that he had not “been able, from any other source, except that furnished me by the arrival of Mr. Skinner, direct from Alexandria…to learn the cause of that movement; and, so far as I am informed up to this moment, there was no proper or justifiable cause whatsoever for any such movement. After waiting for further intelligence and receiving none, and duly considering and weighing all the circumstances and bearing of that movement with the information before me, I have ordered the return of the troops, as communicated by telegram, a duplicate of which has just been transmitted to the general-in-chief.” Cocke even requested permission to arrest Taylor, but was talked out of it by Robert E. Lee, who instead asked for a reason the forces evacuated.

By the 9th, Taylor had explained his reasons, and this seemed to placate Cocke. On 13 May he forwarded Taylor’s written statement to Richmond. The request to arrest him was absent from this communication. But the lesson here is that, although strategic intelligence around the overall disposition and intent of the US military was becoming clear, operational intelligence operations were off to a rough start, at least in the northeast corner of Virginia. Unfortunately for the Union, more competent leadership would soon arrive, and intelligence preparations were to be put in place over the next three months that proved critical to the Confederate victory at Bull Run.

Military Theory and the U.S. Civil War (Part 2): The Union

This steroprint, entitled "Tending wounded Union soldiers at Savage's Station, Virginia, during the Peninsular Campaign", includes soldiers who fought at Gaines Mills, during the Seven Days battles.
This steroprint, entitled “Tending wounded Union soldiers at Savage’s Station, Virginia, during the Peninsular Campaign”, includes soldiers who fought at Gaines Mills, during the Seven Days battles.

First, let’s look at the evidence as it relates to the Union to determine whether there was any adherence to a guiding military theory, Jominian or otherwise. In With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other, Carol Reardon casts doubts on whether Jomini’s ideas had any significant influence over the decisions of Lincoln’s military leaders. When rebellion appeared inevitable, she traces a hypothetical search of Jomini’s types of wars by Lincoln’s first general-in-chief. The conflict before General Winfield Scott did not neatly fall into any of Jomini’s definitions. As Reardon observes, Jomini does briefly address “civil wars,” in which he states that a government “may find it necessary to use force against its own subjects in order to crush out factions which would weaken the authority of the throne and the national strength.” But even had Scott, or McClellan, or even Lincoln looked to Jomini, they would have found his advice in such matters to be nearly nonexistent.[1] In addition, the United States military did not possess the kind of general staff that Jomini – and much of Europe – prescribed.[2] Once the Union army was finally set in motion, the public and even her soldiers were often unable to discern any strategy over the subsequent years. Perhaps telling of the general opaqueness of Northern strategy, the 22 June 1864 edition of The Soldier’s Journal printed an explanation of a commonly heard tactic often confusingly used in strategic discussions: “The rank and file have a pretty good appreciation of the strategy of the campaign. They understand that it has been a series of splendid flank movements, and flanking ‘became the current Joke with which to account for everything from a night march to the capture of a sheep or pig. A poor fellow, terribly wounded, yesterday, said he saw the shell coming, ‘but hadn’t time to flank it.'”[3]

The greatest indication of whether the Union followed Jominian, or any other, theory should come from an analysis of the actual strategy followed throughout the war. If Davis Donald’s assertion is valid, then something of Jomini’s ideas should be reflected in the Union’s operations. What guided Lincoln and his line of Generals to act as they did between 1861 and 1865? Did their operations conform to an overall strategy that reflected a coherent military theory?

Abraham Lincoln on battlefield at Antietam, with General McClellan and staff. Did Union leadership adhere to  cogent military theory?
Abraham Lincoln on battlefield at Antietam, with General McClellan and staff. Did Union leadership adhere to cogent military theory?

From the outset, President Lincoln was sensitive to the fragile neutrality declared by the Border States – Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri. This political situation complicated war planning from the beginning. In Maryland, riots broke out on April 18, 1861, as pro-secessionists protested the movement of troops into Washington D.C.[4] In response, President Lincoln and General Winfield Scott, despite their concerns of a potential uprising in the capital or an invasion from the South, ordered that troops should march around Baltimore instead of traveling through the city.[5] In Kentucky, Lincoln initially hesitated to deploy Federal forces because of the fear such action would stoke sympathies with the South. In July 1861, he drafted a letter to the Inspector General of the Kentucky State Guard, assuring him that he had no intention of sending troops to his home state at that time.[6] It wasn’t until after state elections in August, which demonstrated that Kentucky retained significant Union support, that Lincoln authorized a force be sent to the state, despite the objections from the governor.[7]

This sensitive environment had a direct effect on the North’s ability to coordinate any kind of cohesive strategy that emphasized the quick massing of forces to concentrate on the enemy’s “fractions.” Lincoln understood this, and pressed his generals to find a way to be aggressive while minding the political realities the Union faced. With a clear superiority of men and materiel, the Union soon determined to use its navy to gain control of the Mississippi River, which would split the Confederacy, the Atlantic coastline of the Eastern states, and New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico. Firmly encircled, Lincoln thought to push all around the South’s periphery until the Southern army was exhausted. Eventually dubbed “Scott’s Anaconda Plan” (in spite of the fact that General Scott actually opposed the idea), this strategy required patience, and flew in the face of the popular understanding of Jominian and European warfare.[8]

Even as this plan took shape, pressure grew in the North to take action, particularly with an enemy force literally in sight of Washington. Yet due to the sensitive situation in Maryland, it took three months after the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861 to put together a 35,000-strong army to march south to try and seize the strategic Manassas Junction near Bull Run. Ideally, the Union force would have been much larger, but pressure from a public hungry for action eventually forced Scott’s hand. In addition, President Lincoln’s concern over the Border States and a potential attack on the capital sapped manpower from the army to be led by General Irvin McDowell (West Point Class of 1938).[9]

General Irvin McDowell led Union forces against the fledgling Confederate army at First Mananas.
General Irvin McDowell led Union forces against the fledgling Confederate army at First Mananas.

General McDowell proposed an approach to Bull Run that circled around the entrenched Confederate forces, which targeted the rail system that connected Manassas with Richmond. His intent was to threaten the Confederates, led by P.G.T. Beauregard, with isolation from Richmond.[10] The plan was complicated, but McDowell’s peers and superiors approved it. In Jominian terms, the decisive points had been determined within the theater of war. McDowell’s base of operations could be said to have stretched from Washington DC, or possibly immediately across the river at Alexandria, which the Union secured upon departing for Manassas.

Despite competent planning and a respectable initial execution, McDowell’s operations eventually broke down under the weight of the fog and friction of war. The Union general faced the unexpected combination of Beauregard’s and Joe Johnston’s forces, and so his ability to ascertain decisive points suffered greatly. Instead of flanking the main Confederate force and striking a fraction of the enemy with the mass of his own, his forces wound up engaging a concentrated foe. As the bloody conflict shifted to Henry Hill, the Union forces started to break down. The commander of a Union light artillery battery described how after almost a full day of combat, a mass of several thousand men without distinguishing colors rapidly closed in. At first, the troops were thought to be Union soldiers. Suddenly, the battery found itself under fire. “We had been surprised, and the enemy was close upon us in large numbers.”[11] By the early evening, Union forces were forced to fall back.

McDowell’s forces retreated back to Washington in a disorganized mess. Certainly, the Union general had to deal with challenges that Jomini and other famed European theorists famously ignored, such as the quality of troops. In the rush “on to Richmond” McDowell had been outfitted with raw recruits and had little time to train them. What might he had done with a more seasoned force is a matter of conjecture. The Federal action at Bull Run does arguably demonstrate the exercise of Jominian theory at the operational level. In addition, since Winfield Scott anticipated a victory that would open the way for a march on the Confederate capital at Richmond, the operation was planned to serve a strategic purpose that is arguably a reflection of Jominian theory. However, the route at Bull Run stumped the leadership in Washington, and whether by design or accident, the following years saw little in the way of a cohesive strategy.

Lincoln now had to contend with an emboldened rebellion, and not just in the South. Concerns arose that secessionists in the Border States might rally to the victorious Confederate cause. “We have just heard of the reverses our arms have sustained in Virginia and we anticipate a large increase of courage if not numbers in the rebels,” wrote an officer of the Missouri volunteer forces just days after Bull Run. ”North Missouri is throroughly [sic] indoctrinated with sublimated political themes at war with all government and now while the popular pride is aroused, may be easily set in flames.”[12] Lincoln had to move, but in a way that brought victory as quickly as possible without eroding the loyalty of the Border States.

General George McClellan stepped into the role of general-in-chief after General Scott retired on November 1, 1861. His

General George McClellan.
General George McClellan.

first plan of action was to attempt to concentrate forces for an attack on Virginia. In order to successfully execute Lincoln’s objectives, he needed the entire military apparatus to be unified into a single whole, and not operated piecemeal as even Lincoln recognized the case to be at the time.[13] This concept can certainly be traced to Jomini. But McClellan’s plans ran into the political snares Lincoln had been struggling with since the start of the war. The forces McClellan intended to draw to Washington were stationed in and around the Border States. Pro-Union politicians complained that moving these forces exposed their states to threats, and eventually McClellan had to alter his plans. Interestingly, this consisted of pressuring the South from all directions, which sounds quite a bit like “Scott’s Anaconda Plan.”[14] Against his better judgment, it seemed, McClellan was forces to operate outside of a Jominian paradigm.

General McClellan’s most notorious action was his conduct of the Peninsula Campaign, wherein he attempted a feint of sorts against Richmond. He planned to attack the Confederate capital by an amphibious operation rather than approach overland. When McClellan finally began his movement in April 2012, his actions displayed little evidence that he incorporated any military theory at all, much less any Jominian influence. McClellan’s penchant for delay and exaggeration were both on display. After arriving at Yorktown on 3 April, Union forces seized positions outside the town. By 5 April they traded artillery fire with the Confederates. But rather than continue his advance, the general opted to fortify his position by building earthworks. This move surprised Confederate Major General J. Bankhead Magruder, who had expected the Northerners to press forward with their superior numbers.[15] The delay allowed for Confederate reinforcements to arrive, which fueled McClellan’s belief that he was outnumbered, although even by 12 April he continued to maintain a 3 to 1 advantage over the rebels. Blaming poor weather and a lack of wagons, his further delay continued to cost him, as by 17 April General Joseph Johnston arrived, bringing the defender’s numbers to 53,000 (compared to the roughly 100,000 strong Union Army). [16]

On 3 May, exactly one month after arriving at Yorktown, Confederate forces fell back toward Richmond rather than face bombardment from McClellan’s siege. McClellan ordered a pursuit, but it was slow. Although his approach and the arrival of Union gunboats outside of Richmond caused a partial evacuation of the city, the Federal naval forces were forced to turn away by the prepared Confederate defenses.[17] From 25 June – 1 July, 1862, Union and Confederate forces slugged it out in what became known as the Seven Days. Within days of what was to be the final great battle of the Civil War, McClellan turned his forces back toward the James River and retreated.

The failure of the Peninsula Campaign demonstrated that the Union’s one time general-in-chief (he had been removed from that post only four months after stepping into it), who was hailed early on in the conflict as a master of the art of war, was unable to put anything resembling theory into practice. From the beginning, McClellan was at odds with Lincoln on how to prosecute the campaign. Although Richmond may have been the desired target of both the president and McClellan, there was little beyond that on which they agreed. The theater of war had been selected (Jomini’s first point of strategy), but McClellan seemed incapable of identifying the decisive points favorable to his operations (point 2). The general’s selected zone of operations could scarcely have been worse: when his forces approached Norfolk, he learned that the city had emptied and the river forsaken, which offered the ability to close on Richmond via the river instead of crossing over the swamplands of the Chickahominy.[18] Bafflingly, McClellan refused, and this may have contributed to the inability of Union forces to take Richmond since the Navy was not able to coordinate their attack with McCleallan’s ground forces. McClellan’s failures as wartime commander, brilliant in academics and planning but ineffective on the battlefield, did little to advance a competent Northern strategy, Jominian or otherwise.

[1] Antoine Jomini, The Art of War, trans. H. Mendell and W. P. Craighill (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1879), 23.

[2] Carol Reardon, With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other : The Problem of Military Thought in the Civil War North, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 19.

[3] “Flanking,” The Soldiers’ Journal (Richmond, VA), 22 June 1864.

[4] George W. Brown and Thomas H. Hicks to Abraham Lincoln, Thursday, April 18, 1861, The Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

[5] Lincoln To Thomas H. Hicks and George W. Brown, April 20. 1861, Collection IV.

[6] Abraham Lincoln to Simon B. Buckner, Wednesday, July 10, 1861 (Kentucky Neutrality), The Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

[7] Abraham Lincoln to Beriah Magoffin, Saturday, August 24, 1861 (Reply to Magoffin’s letter of August 19), The Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.

[8] Carol Reardon, With a Sword, 22.

[9] Ibid, 24.

[10] William C.C Davis, Battle at Bull Run: A History of the First Major Campaign of the Civil War (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), 73-74.

[11] Henry J. Hunt, Report of Light Battery M, Second Artillery, U.S.A., under command of Major Henry J. Hunt : Battle of Bull Run, July 21st, 1861 [Washington, D.C.?], [1861], 2.

[12] John M. Palmer to Lyman Trumbull, Wednesday, July 24, 1861 (Situation in Missouri; Endorsed by Abraham Lincoln, July 31, 1861). Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress.

[13] Carol Reardon, With a Sword, 27.

[14] Ethan S. Rafuse, “McClellan and Halleck at War: The Struggle for Control of the Union War Effort in the West,

November 1861-March 1862,” Civil War History, Vol. 49 Issue 1 (March 2003): 34.

[15] Major General Magruder’s Report on the Operations on the Peninsula, 1862, 5.

[16] James Ford Rhodes, “The First Six Weeks of McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Apr 1896): 466.

[17] Ibid, 470-471.

[18] Ibid, 468.

Flanking movements: Dark Humor and sarcasm from the US Civil War

The Soldier’s Journal, 22 June 1864
The Soldier’s Journal, 22 June 1864

I stumbled across this while doing research for a paper. Soldiers often develop a dark humor as they cope with the exasperating extremes of a military campaign…from the intensity of combat, to the boredom in-between battles, and often in the face of perplexing leadership decisions.

This article was printed in the June 22, 1864 edition of The Soldier’s Journal, a Union-sympathetic newspaper, toward the end of the war. It demonstrates very well this dark humor, and the amazing resilience of the soldiers fighting the war. Below is a close up of the relevant portion. In case you can’t read it, here’s a transcript:

“The rank and file have a pretty good appreciation of the strategy of the campaign. They understand that it has been a series of splendid flank movements, and flanking became the current Joke with which to account for everything from a night march to the capture of a sheep or pig. A poor fellow, terribly wounded, yesterday, said he saw the shell coming,’but hadn’t time to flank it.’”

Bear in mind, this shell took the soldier’s arm off just the day before.

Close up of article.

Military Theory and the U.S. Civil War (Part 1)

Last week I played spectator to a couple interesting debates on a Civil War round table page on Facebook. An article was posted with the perpetually provocative subject of who the best generals were during the Civil War. In the same forum, the question was asked “who was the most responsible for the length of the Civil War?” You can imagine the passions stoked here. I’ve got my own opinions about both of these debates, but they point to a larger discussion that periodically surfaces among Civil War historians, and that is whether the military leaders of the North and South adhered to, or were guided by, contemporary military doctrines? This series of articles explores this question, and I think sets up an interesting context when one considers things like “who was most responsible” for how long the Civil War lasted.*

Colonel Burnsides brigade at Bull Run, First and Second Rhode Island, and Seventy-First New York Regiments, with their Artillery, Attacking the Rebel Batteries at Bull Run. Sketched on the spot by A. Waud
Colonel Burnsides brigade at Bull Run, First and Second Rhode Island, and Seventy-First New York Regiments, with their Artillery, Attacking the Rebel Batteries at Bull Run. Sketched on the spot by A. Waud

When war broke out in April 1861, both the Union and the new Confederate government were faced with daunting tasks in building up their small, standing armies. Despite the looming threat of conflict prior to Fort Sumter, precious little had been done to prepare the people of the North or South for the war to come. It is often stated that neither side was truly ready for war when hostilities broke out. The same could be said for the preparedness of American military officers. Many of the most renowned Union and Confederate leaders were the products of the nation’s only national military education institution, the U.S. Military Academy. War theory was taught and studied by military officers in the pre-Civil War period, but the translation of theory into practice was uneven between the North and the South. Institutional and political obstacles complicated any semblance of a unified strategy for the Union, where military leaders clung to long-understood principles of mass and movement. In the South, the nature of the conflict and the existence of natural interior lines of operation allowed for a more plausible employment of a unified military theory.

The war was going to be won quickly, most seemed to agree, as both sides brimmed with confidence. The reality, of course, was far more traumatizing than most dared imagine: four years of war at a cost of over 620,000 soldiers killed by combat, disease, or malnutrition. The Confederacy mounted fierce resistance that frustrated and horrified the North. Legions of historians have debated how and why the South ultimately lost, or perhaps more accurately, why it took the North so long to win. This is particularly interesting since many of the most celebrated names from the conflict started their careers at the same place, West Point, and studied the same professional curriculum. Yet, most would agree that the first two years of the war went poorly, if not outright humiliatingly, for Union forces. The Confederate army, led by larger-than-life generals such as Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and P.G.T. Beauregard, repelled the Yankees at nearly every significant battle. Popular sentiment in the North turned indignant as defeat after humiliating defeat flew in the face of the real and perceived advantages supposedly at the Union army’s disposal. What could explain these outcomes? In particular, how could the Union army appear to be so lacking in the execution of war while their Southern counterparts, with whom they had studied the “art and science of war,” were so successful? Did either the Union North, or the Confederate South, formulate and execute strategy and/or operations using a shared military theory framework?

From the 1950s – 1970s, Civil War historians largely accepted that the writings of Antoine Jomini had the most significant influence on the military leading up to and during the conflict. J. D. Hittle, David Donald, Joseph Dawson III, and others have

Carol Reardon's
Carol Reardon’s “With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other” questions just how influential Jomini’s writings were with Civil War generals.

little doubt as the importance of Jomini to the 19th century American officer. Recent works however, such as Carol Reardon’s With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other, questions just how significant Jomini’s influence actually was during this period in the United States. Her work, which focuses on the North, places Jomini in a backdrop of many other theorists and writers of the 19th century, directly questioning the near exclusive influence earlier writers accepted. Scholars such as Reardon, Hermann Harraway, and Archer Jones, challenge Jomini’s influence, and in some aspects question whether there was any real theoretical underpinnings at all used by Civil War military generals. In the South, the assumption of Jominian influence is even more prevalent. Scholars point to Jefferson Davis’ “Offensive-Defensive” strategy as firmly rooted in the writings of Antoine Jomini. This, too, has come under criticism of late.

As stated, in the decades prior to the South’s break with the Union, the United States had only a single national institution for military education, the Military Academy at West Point. The focus of the academy’s mission, however, was not to be solely, or even primarily, military thought and leadership. President Thomas Jefferson, in an attempt to overcome the objections of politicians suspicious of a professional military establishment, allowed that the new academy would primarily be a scientific institution.[1] More specifically, engineering was the most important course of instruction from the time of its first class in 1802 to the Civil War.[2] A review of the curriculum – which varied over the years – demonstrates that of the decades leading up to the war, only in the student’s final year of instruction was there taught specific military education. For instance, in 1840, first year students studied primarily mathematics and French, which was essential to later engineering studies. Second year students continued these subjects, and added drawing and English grammar to the course load. In the third year, natural philosophy, chemistry, and more drawing was the focus. Only in the final year did students take on courses in infantry tactics and artillery, along with the study of ethics, mineralogy, and the course for which West Point was most famous, engineering. This curriculum would remain largely unchanged for fifteen years, when cavalry was added by 1855. By 1859, “ordinance and gunnery” was also included.[3]

The writings of Antoine Jomini were often copied and quoted by professional soldier and armchair generals alike during the Civil War
The writings of Antoine Jomini were often copied and quoted by professional soldier and armchair generals alike during the Civil War

This training orientation of West Point emphasized scientific learning over education in the art of war.[4] For some time during the antebellum period, West Point was considered the premier school of mathematics in the nation. Its reputation was such that, by 1819, some complained that the school was useless in producing soldiers since it was primarily concerned with mathematics.[5] The focus on science and engineering endured for decades. However, starting in the 1830s, recent Academy graduate-turned professor Dennis Hart Mahan started infusing concepts of the art of war into the courses.

Mahan, a brilliant engineer and mathematician in his own right, found much to learn from Europe in regards to both engineering and warfare. It is here that we see the most significant link between the teachings of Jomini and the curriculum of West Point. Interestingly, Mahan, who spent four years studying in Europe — from 1826 – 1830 – seemed to purposefully exclude Carl von Clausewitz from his personal study. Mahan rather brought back with him Antoine Jomini’s theories, and in 1836 not only published an adaptation of Jomini’s principles, but also published in 1847 his own guide to warfare titled Advanced Guard, Outpost, and Detachment Service of Troops, with the Essential Principles of Strategy, and Grand Tactics for the Use of Officers of the Militia and Volunteers. This lengthy title was shortened by his students to simply “the Outpost.” There are, arguably, Jominian influences throughout the book. Chapter one deals with tactics, which is broken down between minor and grand tactics, in a similar vein as Jomini. “Minor, or elementary tactics; under which head may be placed all that refers to the drill, or other preparatory instruction of the troops, to give them expertness in the use of their weapons, and facility of movement.”[6] Grand tactics is the “Art of combining, disposing, and handling of troops on the field of battle.” Compare these to Jomini’s definitions: tactics “begins with the details, and ascends to combinations and generalization necessary for the formation and handling of a great army.” Grand tactics, says Jomini, is the “art of making good combinations preliminary to battles, as well as during their progress.”[7] In like manner, we see parallels between Mahan’s concept of strategy with Jomini’s. Both are concerned with bases of operation, objective points, and lines of operations. While Mahan was certainly scholar enough to extract lessons drawn from history on his own (both Mahan and Jomini were greatly influenced by the study of the Napoleonic Wars and wars of antiquity), there is much that suggests European influence in his works. Perhaps not exact copies, but the definitions certainly share fundamental notions. Eventually, The Art of War itself was introduced into the West Point curriculum in 1860.[8]

Civil War era Military Academy Cadets
Civil War era Military Academy Cadets

Scholars have debated the quality of the military education provided to officers graduating the academy by the time the Mexican-American War broke out in 1856. Samuel Watson, in his review of the historiography of the US Army prior to the Civil War, notes that most scholars acknowledge the engineering focus of the school, as well as “moribund” military expertise. Others dispute this characterization, and argued that the engineering mentality imbued West Point students with a cautious mindset that served them well.[9] General Winfield Scott, who would be the first general-in-chief when the Civil War broke out, apparently agreed with the latter interpretation. He heaped praise on West Point graduates, saying that without them the war would have likely dragged on with significantly greater cost.[10] Even so, Mahan revised his thoughts on military theory after the war concluded in 1848, ever ready to refine the instruction on the art of war.[11]

For better or for worse, Mahan’s instruction and mentorship, which lasted from 1830 until his death in 1871, arguably shaped many of the primary leaders of the armies of the Civil War. This notable group includes Jefferson Davis (class of 1828), Robert E. Lee (class of 1829), P.G.T. Beauregard (class of 1838), George B. McClellan (class of 1846), Ulysses S. Grant (class of 1843), William T. Sherman (class of 1840), and many more. It therefore seems reasonable, if Mahan was an admirer or disciple of Jomini, to see the Swiss theorist’s ideas in play throughout the conflict. As previously mentioned, much Civil War scholarship of the 20th century is based on this premise. David Donald declares unabashedly that the first years of the conflict “reads like little more than exegesis of Jomini’s theories.”[12] But as recent scholarship challenges this assumption, we need to look at Jomini’s definition of strategy. From there, we can better judge whether the decisions and actions of the national and military leadership for the Union and the Confederacy conformed to anything close to his theory.[13]

* It was McClellan.

Notes:


[1] Stephen Ambrose, Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point (Baltimore: John’s Hopkins Press, 1966), 18.

[2] Ibid, 89.

[3] The West Point Official Registers detail student rosters, military and academic staff, and the “order of merit” of the students in each of the courses. West Point Official Registers for 1840, 1855, 1859,

[4] Stephen Ambrose, Duty, Honor, Country, 89.

[5] Ibid, 90.

[6] Dennis Hart Mahan, Advanced Guard, Outpost, and Detachment Service of Troops, with the Essential Principles of Strategy, and Grand Tactics for the Use of Officers of the Militia and Volunteers (New York, E. Craighead, 1847), 32.

[7] Antoine Jomini, The Art of War, trans. H. Mendell and W. P. Craighill (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1879), 132, 378.

[8] David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era, 2d edition (New York: Vintage Books, 1966),

[9] Samuel Watson, “Continuity in Civil-Military Relations and Expertise: The U.S, Army during the Decade before the Civil War,” The Journal of Military History, Vol 75, Issue 1 (Jan 2011): 223-224.

[10] R. Earnest Dupuy, Men of West Point: The First 150 Years of the United States Military Academy (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1951), 19.

[11] Ibid, 20-21.

[12] David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, 90.

[13] Jomini states that strategy embraces 13 points, the first eight of which are arguably more strategic than the final five, which are more operational: 1. the selection of the theater of war and the different “combinations” within it; 2. the determination of the decisive points in these combinations; the selection of a “fixed base” and zone of operations; the selection of the objective point (offensive or defensive); the strategic fronts and lines of defense; selection of the lines of operations leading to the objective point; the identification of the “best strategic line;” the eventual bases of operations and the strategic reserves. The final five points include “marches of armies” or maneuver; the relation of the maneuver to the selected depots; identification of strategic fortresses as a refuge; points for entrenched camps; and “diversions to be made, and the large detachments necessary.” Antoine Jomini, ibid, 137.

The Union’s Intelligence Chiefs: The Bureau of Military Information

Brandy Station, Va. Col. George H. Sharpe, John G. Babcock, unidentified, and Lt. Col. John McEntee, Secret Service officers at Army of the Potomac headquarters
Brandy Station, Va. Col. George H. Sharpe, John G. Babcock, unidentified, and Lt. Col. John McEntee, Secret Service officers at Army of the Potomac headquarters

The first such organization of its kind in a modern military, the Bureau of Military Information sought to provide the commander of the Army of the Potomac with contemporary all-source intelligence. Despite its rapid maturation and success, it was abandoned after the war. For a comprehensive history of the evolution of the Union’s intelligence capabilities, read Edwin C. Fishell’s excellent The Secret War for the Union, The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War.

General Joseph Hooker
General Joseph Hooker

General Joseph Hooker:

Quickly after taking command of the Army of the Potomac in January 1863, General Hooker ordered the establishment of an organization to “organize and perfect a system for collecting information as speedily as possible.” The order was directed to General Marsena R. Patrick, the Provost Marshall.

General Marsena R. Patrick
General Marsena R. Patrick

As part of his duties as Provost Marshall, General Patrick was responsible for the disposition and interrogation of prisoners and defectors. Originally concerned specifically with the security of Washington, Hooker’s mandate to create a “secret service” was the first step toward creating an institutionalized intelligence service for the military.

Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, Chief of Staff to General Hooker
Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, Chief of Staff to General Hooker

General Hooker’s Chief of Staff. Butterfield’s vision and administrative skills were critical to establishing an efficient intelligence reporting system.

Gen. George H. Sharpe, the first head of the Bureau of Military Information
Gen. George H. Sharpe, the first head of the Bureau of Military Information

The first chief of the new military information bureau, Sharpe would oversee the coordinated intelligence operations of espionage, prisoner interrogations, cavalry reconnaissance, the Union Signal Corps, newspaper intelligence gathering, and balloon and signal tower surveillance. (See Fishell, The Secret War for the Union, p297)

John G. Babcock (pictured at top, in group photo)

While a private in the Union army, Babcock’s gift for cartography caught the attention of General McClellan. After a stint working for the infamous Alan Pinkerton, General Burnside offered Babcock Pinkerton’s job once the McClellan spy chief left with his former boss. Babcock accepted, and was hired as a civilian. He stayed on once the Bureau of Military Information was established. (See Fishell, The Secret War for the Union, pp 154, 257-258).

The talents of these leaders were instrumental in the creation of an efficient intelligence organ for the Union.The quality of the Bureau’s reporting was quickly evident. In this dispatch, dated June 7, 1863, sent to General Butterfield, then-Col Sharpe outlines Confederate force disposition, assessed intent, and enemy troop strength.

“Letter of intelligence to Butterfield and Lincoln”, 7 June, 1863

The above image is only the first page (full letter and transcript can be found by clicking the image, stored by the Library of Congress), but within it Sharpe provides an updated threat assessment of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart’s forces since the battle at Chancellorsville (which ended 6 May, 1863). “I estimated them then at 4700 men in the aggregate, for duty. We now estimate the same at 7500 men for duty.” Equally as impressive is how Hooker sought to qualify other intelligence in the same letter, rather than present sketchy information as more credible than could be vouched for (as was often the practice by many a general before). “We have considerable reason to believe that two brigades of cavalry have recently arrived from the direction of North Carolina not heretofore connected with General Stuarts command. We can of course give no estimate of their force; but it would not be safe to put them down at less than 1500 men to a brigade.” The Bureau began to make rapid strides in making American intelligence operations more professional, more analytical, and more reliable.

WEL

Lieutenant Jones’ Intelligence Network and the Evacuation of Harper’s Ferry, 18 April 1861

The burning of the United States arsenal at Harper's Ferry, 10 P.M. April 18, 1861

“Up to the present time no assault or attempt to seize the Government property here has been made, but there is decided evidence that the subject is in contemplation, and has been all day, by a large number of people living in the direction of Charlestown; and at sun-down this evening several companies of troops had assembled at Halltown, about three or four miles from here on the road to Charlestown, with the intention of seizing the Government property, and the last report is that the attack will be made to-night. I telegraphed this evening to General Scott that I had received information confirming his dispatch of this morning, and later to the Adjutant-General that I expected an attack to-night. I have taken steps which ought to insure my receiving early intelligence of the advance of any forces, and my determination is to destroy what I cannot defend, and if the forces sent against me are clearly overwhelming, my present intention is to retreat into Pennsylvania.”

First Lieutenant Roger Jones, Mounted Rifles, U.S. Army, reporting on the situation at Harper’s Ferry, 18 April, 1861.

Days after the fall of Fort Sumter, the vulnerable military outpost at Harper’s Ferry was on high alert. Lieutenant Jones had been growing increasingly pensive as reports arrived of groups of Southern troops arriving in the vicinity intent on seizing government property. His concerns were quite legitimate. The Union army at this point was still woefully undermanned for any significant combat operations (perhaps explaining why a First Lieutenant was commanding the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry). Additionally, the historic arsenal was surrounded by high ground: the Maryland Heights to the east, and the Loudon Heights to the south. Harper’s Ferry was, in the words of historian James M. McPherson, a “trap waiting to be sprung by any force” that could place artillery at those locations.[i]

Harper's Ferry, photographed immediately after its evacuation by the rebels. 1861Both the Union and the Confederacy would find defending Harper’s Ferry difficult. This photo was taken after Confederate forces found the position untenable as well.

Of course, much has been written about these earliest days of the war. What I want to draw attention to here are these words of Lieutenant Jones above: “I have taken steps which ought to insure my receiving early intelligence of the advance of any forces…” This statement demonstrates the reality of military intelligence operations during the Civil War era. For most of the conflict, intelligence operations were the responsibility of the commanding officer. There was no institutional support for such activities, and the successful use of intelligence rested almost exclusively on the skill and disposition of the officers in charge. If the officer had little ability or faith in intelligence (as demonstrated by many military leaders of the time), then his operations usually would benefit his forces little, or actually impede battlefield success.

It would appear the Lieutenant Jones’ home-spun intelligence network was effective in this case. Shortly after the above dispatch was sent to Washington, Jones became convinced that he could not defend Harper’s Ferry. “Immediately after finishing my dispatch of the night of the 18th instant,” he informed Winfield Scott, ”I received positive and reliable information that 2,500 or 3,000 State troops would reach Harpers Ferry in two hours…” He set out immediately to destroy some 15,000 arms within the arsenal in an attempt to deny their use by the rebels, then evacuated his command to Carlyle Barracks, Pennsylvania. But the next four years of combat would reveal just how inconstant Union and Confederate leaders would be in the effective direction of intelligence operations.

WEL

[i] James M. McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 106-110.

Quotes of Lt Jones taken from the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. / Series 1 – Volume 2.