Why did the South invade the North?

4/2/2013 • Ask Mr. History

Mr. History,

Why was the South so set on invading the North? I would think that if they had just held out and conducted a war similar to George Washington’s tactics they would have faired much better. Was it also a matter of funding and resources for the war?


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Dear Mike,

Most Southerners, including President Jefferson Davis, were not for invading the North. Aside from the logistical risks, they thought it would undermine their status as the wronged party, defending their states’ rights and resisting aggression from the North. Carrying the war north was essentially General Robert E. Lee’s idea, based on more military considerations, starting with the unlikelihood of the Confederacy having the industry to sustain a prolonged, projected conflict. He hoped to land a knockout psychological blow by following up his startling victory on the Peninsula and at Second Manassas with a deep penetration into Maryland and Pennsylvania, threatening important cities such as Harrisburg or even Philadelphia, encouraging secessionists in Maryland and other borderline states to join the rebel cause and above all, spreading a nervous feeling of dread throughout Congress. By threatening Washington, rather than by taking it outright, Lee hoped to pressure senators and representatives to  pressure President Abraham Lincoln into curtailing hostilities, negotiating with Richmond and perhaps even recognizing the Confederacy. It was a bold long shot, but Davis finally, grudgingly, approved it. Even then, hundreds of members of the Army of Northern Virginia deserted on principal when Lee invaded Maryland in September 1862—only to rejoin him in Winchester after his return, to resume their defense of the South and the Cause.

Generals Braxton Bragg and Edmund Kirby Smith held similar ambitions with their invasion that fall, with the less sweeping hope of pushing Kentucky into official, active support of the Confederacy (but then again, they probably rationalized their move into Kentucky as more "liberation" than "invasion.") The earliest, most boldly ambitious and arguably the least plausible invasion of them all, launched from Texas in February 1862 by Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley, was to run through New Mexico and Arizona, seize the gold and silver mines of Colorado, and perhaps go from there to seize the mines and ports of southern California.




Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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