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The Operational Battlefield: America’s Civil War 1861-1863

by Brian Holden Reid, Prometheus, 2008, $34.95

Other than to professional soldiers or students of warfare, the concept of the operational level of war is largely unfamiliar to most Ameri cans interested in the Civil War. We are familiar with strategy, the broad-based objectives or plan of a government or a general, and tactics, how battles are fought.

But what is the operational level? As defined by Brian Reid, “This is the area of military activity that links strategy and tactics that conceives of campaigns as comprising distinct but linked phases of effort that can be conceived as a coherent whole.”

In other words, Grant’s failed assaults against Vicksburg on May 19 and 22 were not isolated events of the siege of Vicksburg but were rather a linked part of Grant’s Vicks – burg campaign, which was a part of a larger strategic objective to gain control of the Mississippi River, which in turn connected to the Union’s strategic goal of dividing the Confederacy and contributing to its ultimate demise.

Reid applies this concept of the operational level of war to his study of the war from 1861-1863. What Reid sets out to do is not necessarily new. After all, Bruce Catton and James McPherson, among others, did a masterful job of connecting the military campaigns and battles of the war with the strategic objectives of the United States and Confederate States governments.

Where Reid departs from the above and most other scholars of the war is first, he is a British military historian, so he brings a different and perhaps more detached perspective to the subject; and second, he rejects many of our now commonly held assumptions about the war. In particular he takes on what he describes as the “Vietnam Syndrome,” which he argues has come to dominate how we view war, and hence the Civil War. He writes, “The Vietnam Syndrome underwrites the presumed “futility” of war: the notion that war can never succeed in its aims, never produce a positive outcome, and is thus destined to fail even before its initial operations are launched.” Great Britain, he points out, produced a similar set of arguments following its experience in World War I.

In this first of two volumes, Reid examines the causes of the war and how the war aims of the U.S. and Confederate governments, and the expectations of the people of both regions, shaped strategy. From this foundation he embarks upon his operational study of the war from its earliest battles to Grant’s victory at Chattanooga. Along the way he raises many thought-provoking points about the conduct of the war. Among them, he challenges the widely believed notion that the defender in the Civil War possessed great advantages over the attacker due to the advent of rifled weapons. He does not dis – count the firepower the defender could now deliver, but argues that it was entirely possible for the attacker to win a decisive victory over the defender. That this did not occur during the first 21⁄2 years of the war was due to several factors. Reconnaissance, mapping and staff work, he points out, were all inadequate.

This led to failure to coordinate attacks and a frequent squandering of resources. Lee’s failure to destroy McClellan’s Army of the Potomac during the Seven Days’ campaign is an example. Given McClellan’s errors of generalship, his army’s complete defeat was possible during the retreat following the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, but poor staff work and command and control thwarted Lee’s plans and allowed the Union army to escape. The Federals’ success in making good their retreat to Harrison’s Landing had less to do with the advantages of the defender over the attacker than it did with the Confederates’ failure to coordinate and take advantage of all of its available forces.

Reid is at his best when discussing the operational and strategic level of the war. He is on less solid ground when he ventures into the details of individual campaigns and battles, and one can find minor mistakes here and there.

But the strength of Reid’s book is in its incisive analysis of operations, and bringing an enhanced understanding to how the individual battles and campaigns connected at the operational and strategic level of war.

Readers may not agree with all of Reid’s arguments and interpretations, but few will deny that he has produced a compelling, solid contribution to our grasp of the operational level of warfare in our Civil War.


Originally published in the July 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here