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THE CIVIL WAR DEVASTATED THE SOUTH AND SAVAGED THE ARMIES OF BOTH SIDES, exacting a casualty toll that made it one of the costliest wars in modern times and the worst in American history. At the heart of the bloody struggle lay the grand strategy of the North. As with grand strategy through­ out history, Northern strategy emerged only gradually. The strategic path to victory was not clear on either side in 1861. Nor was the outcome of the war preordained. Political and military  leaders on  both  sides enjoyed  few of the prerequisites in education, inclination, and background to wage a war of this magnitude and  intensity.

The North was eventually victorious because its leadership learned from its mistakes and adapted to the “real” conditions of war. In particular, Abra­ham Lincoln, a backwoods Illinois lawyer with only 90 days of militia experience in the Black Hawk War of 1832, and Ulysses S. Grant, perhaps the clearest-thinking general in American history, solidified Northern strategy and grasped victory from the wreckage of the early days.

The North, of course, relied on its great superiority in population, indus­trial resources, financial reserves, and agricultural production. Why, then, did it take so long for the federal government to achieve victory? We might begin by examining several popular explanations for the length of the war. The most persistent is that Southern soldiers, largely drawn from a yeoman class of farmers, had spent their lives shooting game and inuring themselves to hard­ ship in a healthy outdoor environment. The Northern population, on the other hand, condemned to work in dark, dank factories, supposedly had devel­oped few of the attributes that an army requires. Such a view, however, flies in the face of social evidence and the testimony of those who fought. One Southern officer, writing to a Northern friend immediately after the war, put the case differently. “Our officers were good,” he commented, “but consider­ing that our rank and file were just white trash and they had to fight regiments of New England Yankee volunteers, with all their best blood in the ranks, and Western sharpshooters together, it is only wonderful that we weren’t whipped sooner.” The fact is that nearly 80 percent of the Northern popula­tion lived in rural areas, like their Southern counterparts, and it is hard to see much difference in the social composition of the armies.

A corollary argument holds that the crucial factor in the war’s length lay in the natural superiority of Southern officers and generals, an aristocratic group of West Point cavaliers who had been raised in the antebellum South to appreciate warrior values. The legends surrounding Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jeb Stuart lend a certain plausibility to the argument, and the dismal record of the Union Army of the Potomac in the eastern theater of operations supports it. With two victories (Gettysburg and Five Forks), 12 defeats, and one draw (Antietam), the Army of the Potomac had a record of unambiguous failure matched by no other unit of equivalent size in the history of the United States Army. But historians have for too long over­ emphasized the war on the Eastern Front.

In fact, in the West, the reverse was true:  There, Confederate forces fared just as badly as their counterparts in the Army of the Potomac and as a result of the same kind of wooden-headed leadership. Floyd, Pemberton, Bragg, and Hood on the Confederate side in the West fully matched the incompetence of McDowell, McClellan, Hooker, and Burnside in the Army of the Potomac. In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant recounts one anecdote from the prewar army that captures the nature of  Bragg’s leadership:

On one occasion, when stationed at a post of several companies commanded by a field officer,  [Bragg] was himself  commanding  one of the companies and at the same time acting as post quartermaster and commissary. He was first lieutenant at the time, but his captain was detached on other duty. As a commander of the company he made a requisition upon the quartermaster-himself-for something he wanted. As quartermaster he declined to fill the requisition, and endorsed on the back of it his reasons for doing so. As company commander he responded to this, urging that his requisition called for nothing but what he was entitled to, and that it was the duty of the quartermaster to fill it. As quartermaster he still persisted that he was right. In this condition of affairs Bragg referred the whole matter to the commanding officer of the post. The latter, when he saw the nature of the matter referred, exclaimed, “My God, Mr. Bragg, you have quarrelled with every officer in the army, and now you are quarrelling with yourself.”

One of the soldiers in the Army of Tennessee reflected a perfect under­ standing of Bragg’s leadership when asked whether he was in the general’s army. “Bragg’s army? Bragg’s got no army. He shot half of them himself up in Kentucky, and the other half got killed at Murfreesboro!” The superior com­mand skills of the Confederate generals in the East were more than counter­ balanced by the quality of Union leadership in the West.As for the romantic image that clings to eastern Confederate generals, one might well remember Jackson’s and Lee’s ruthless brand of leadership. The farmer’s marches up and down northern Virginia were frequently punc­tuated by summary executions of deserters; under his cold-eyed Presbyterian command, there was nothing cavalier about serving in his army. As for Lee, he was as ferocious a combat leader as the American army has produced. At Malvern Hill he brashly threw his men against a Union artillery concentration deadlier than any in the war. He won the day, but only at tremendous cost. War is a nasty business, and the Confederate generals in the East were extremely good at it.

The length of the war has far more to do with the immensity of the geographic arena and the complexities of modern war than with the supposed superiority of Southern manhood and the competence of Southern generals. Geography offers a major clue as to why the North found it so difficult to project its industrial and military power into the Southern states and end the rebellion. Taken together, Mississippi and Alabama are slightly larger than present-day West Germany. The distance from central Georgia to northern Virginia is approximately the distance from East Prussia to Moscow. The distance from Baton Rouge to Richmond exceeds the distance from the Franco-German border to the current Soviet-Polish frontier. Considering that it took Napoleon from 1799 to 1807 to reach the frontiers of czarist Russia, one should not be surprised that it took the North so long to conquer the South. Exacerbating the challenge was the fact that primeval wilderness covered substantial portions of the South, particularly in the western theater of operations. While the eastern theater was relatively close to the centers of Northern industrial power, the starting point for the western armies–Cairo, Illinois–was nearly a thousand miles from the North’s industrial center. Without railroads and steamships, the North would  not have been able to bring its power to bear and probably  would have lost the  war.

The first formidable problem confronting the North in the Civil War lay in mobilizing its industrial strength and population and then deploying that power into the Confederacy. The problems of mobilization were daunting. The regular army was little more than a constabulary designed to overawe Indians on the frontier; it was certainly not prepared for large-scale military operations. Nowhere was there a body of experience from which to draw in solving the issues that now arose; the armies and their support structure had to come from nothing. The politicians knew nothing about war. The military leaders may have read a little of Baron de Jomini’s works on the Napoleonic Wars, but the knowledge they derived was probably more harmful than help­ful. Certainly no one had read Clausewitz; and though by 1864 Lincoln and Grant were to evolve an approach resembling Clausewitz’s, their success re­sulted more from trial and error and common sense than from military history or theory.

The South did possess one significant advantage at the beginning of the war. Since it had no regular army, officers who resigned their commissions in the federal army to return home and serve the Confederacy found themselves spread throughout the newly formed state regiments, where their experience could at least provide an example to others.

But in the North, since regular units continued to exist, the experience of those within the professional officer corps was not used to best advantage in creating the Northern volunteer armies. Grant records the value of just one experienced officer–himself–in training the 21st Illinois. “I found it very hard work for a few days to bring all the men into anything like subordination; but the great majority favored discipline and by the application of a little regular army punishment all were reduced to as good discipline as one could want.” The 20th Maine, trained by another lone regular officer, Adelbert Ames, also suggests the importance of experience in the training process. Not only did Ames turn out one of the best regiments in the Army of the Poto­mac, but Joshua Chamberlain, second-in-command of the regiment and up to July 1862 a professor of Greek at Bowdoin College, arguably became the best combat commander in the Army of the Potomac by the end of the war. All too of ten Union regiments did not have that one officer and therefore had to learn on the battlefield–which was an expensive process.

The armies themselves, whichever side one describes, retained a funda­mentally civilian character. Photographs of even the units of the Army of the Potomac, supposedly the most spit-and-polish of all the Civil War armies, suggest a casualness that perhaps only the Israelis have exemplified in the 20th century. When properly led, however, these troops were capable of sacrifices that few units in American military history have equaled. The per­formance of the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg is only one case among hun­dreds. Although it sustained 80 percent casualties on the second day, it was back in the line receiving Pickett’s charge on the third.

The whole first year of the war largely revolved around the complex task of raising, equipping, training, and deploying the forces that the strategic and political requirements of the war demanded. These problems presented them­selves concurrently, not sequentially. Nor could Civil War military leaders depend on former certainties of war. The rifled musket had drastically altered combat. With killing ranges extended by 300 to 400 yards, Napoleonic set­ piece tactics were no longer valid. Through a process of learning on the battlefield, Civil War armies substantially changed the manner in which they deployed and defended themselves as the war proceeded. How to wage offen­sive warfare against modem long-range firepower, however, remained an un­solved problem. Ultimately it would require the four long years of World War I before answers to this question began to appear.

The initial strategic moves of the war turned out entirely in favor of the federal government. Above all, Lincoln’s political acuity brought the all-important border states over to the Union camp. Ruthless action secured Mary­land and Missouri, while cautious maneuvering led the South to mistakes that tipped Kentucky to the North. Gaining Maryland secured Washington; Missouri represented the first step down the Mississippi; and the securing of Kentucky would in early 1862 allow an obscure Union brigadier general to move against Forts Donelson and Henry. The latter success may have been among the most decisive in the war; the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers were now open to federal naval power as far as they were navigable. In effect Grant not only captured an entire Southern army but also made Tennessee indefensible by the South, while affording the Union the opportunity to cut the only east-west railroad that the Confederacy possessed.

However, the North’s grand strategy took considerable time to emerge, at least in its fullest, winning form. The federal government’s senior com­mander at the start of the war, General Winfield Scott, had a three-point strategic framework, the famous Anaconda Plan: (1) to blockade the South, (2) to capture its capital, and (3) to open up the Mississippi. It was a start, but only a start; the North would have to add a number of elements to achieve victory. The Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, which underlined how drastically the tactical game had changed, should have warned how difficult this war would prove to be. The federal government was going to have to break the will of a population–a population, moreover, inflamed by nationalism and possessing both a huge territory on which to draw and a Confederate govern­ment willing to take drastic measures to keep shirkers in line. Little of that was clear in April 1862; thus Grant was widely criticized in the North when Shiloh’s casualties became known. But Grant at least sensed the depth of Southern hostility and its implications after the slaughter of Shiloh:

Up to the battle of Shiloh, I, as well as thousands of other citizens, believed that the rebellion against the Government would collapse suddenly and soon, if a decisive victory could be gained over any of its armies. Donel­son and Henry were such victories. An army of more than 21,000 men was captured or destroyed. Bowling Green, Columbus, and Hickman, Kentucky, fell in consequence, and Clarksville and Nashville, Tennessee, the last two with an immense amount of stores, also fell into our hands. The Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, from their mouths to the head of navigation, were secured. But when Confederate armies were collected which not only at­ tempted to hold a line farther South, from Memphis to Chattanooga, Knox­ville and on to the Atlantic, but assumed the offensive and made such a gallant effort to regain what had been lost, then, indeed, I gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.

Grant’s emergence in 1862 was seemingly one of the great surprises of the war; certainly the vicious backbiting that characterized Major General Henry Halleck’s reports on the future Northern commander did little to speed the process. Nevertheless, one should not assume that Grant was en­tirely an unknown quantity. Confederate General Richard S. Ewell wrote in spring 1861: “There is one West Pointer, I think in Missouri, little known, and whom I hope the Northern people will not find out. I mean Sam Grant. I knew him in the Academy and in Mexico. I should fear him more than any of their officers I have yet heard of . . .  .”

Grant, of course, exercised little influence over Union grand strategy at the beginning; that was left to supposed prodigies such as George McClellan, whose sense of personal importance came close to losing the war in the East. Grant’s conquest of the Mississippi in 1862 and 1863 opened up the great inland waterway, split the Confederacy, and cemented the alliance of the eastern and western states that would ultimately crush the Confederacy. His opening move at Forts Donelson and Henry exposed the one crucial geo­graphic weakness of the Confederacy: the fact that its rivers in the West allowed Northern armies to penetrate into the very heartland of the Confed­erate nation. Tennessee, northern Alabama, and northern Georgia were all now within reach of invading Union troops. But under the constraints of Halleck’s insipid leadership and Brigadier General William Rosecrans’s tardy drive, the Union push took a considerable length of time to develop. There were some in the Confederacy who recognized how dangerous this threat might become, but Jefferson Davis continued to emphasize the eastern thea­ter at the expense of the West and to support the inflexible and incompetent leadership of Braxton Bragg.

Unfortunately, Grant’s second great victory–and his second battle of annihilation–at Vicksburg never realized its full potential. Once the Missis­sippi had been opened, his victorious army dispersed and the Union high command wasted Grant during the summer of 1863. The humiliating Sep­tember defeat at Chickamauga, however, forced the high command to reorga­nize the western theater under Grant’s control, sending him considerable reinforcements from the East. Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton redeployed two corps from the Army of the Potomac, moving 25,000 men, along with their artillery and horses, over 1,200 miles in less than two weeks. This awesome logistic accomplishment underlines how far the North had advanced in its ability to mobilize and utilize its resources. Grant more than repaid the trust of the Lincoln administration with his smashing victory at Chattanooga in late November. His devastating defeat of Bragg’s army solidified the Northern hold over Tennessee and established a solid base from which the Union’s western armies could break the South apart at its very heart: Georgia. None of this had been imaginable at the onset of war. By now the North could logistically deploy, maintain, and put into battle an army of 100,000 men in the very center of the Confederacy.

Chattanooga set the stage for the Lincoln-Grant partnership–and the full evolution of Northern grand strategy–that saw the war through to its victorious conclusion in spring 1865. By the beginning of 1864, the Anaconda Plan had for the most part been realized: The Mississippi was open; the blockade was largely effective; and only Richmond remained untaken. North­ern strategy moved in new directions. Lincoln had seen early in the war that a concerted, concurrent Union effort in all theaters would be required to break the outer ring of Confederate resistance. But George McClellan had babbled about the foolishness of such an approach and had contemptuously dismissed Lincoln’s proposal. McClellan, as a disciple of Jomini, could think only in terms of capturing the enemy’s capital or seizing some central position that would lead to a decisive battle. Lincoln thought in far broader terms. He would learn, while McClellan, like the Bourbons who briefly regained power between the reigns of the two Napoleons, learned nothing.

Both Lincoln and Grant looked beyond the eastern theater. Grant’s grand strategy for 1864, after being made commander of all the U.S. armies, aimed to crush the Confederacy with thrusts from a number of different directions. His instructions to General William Sherman (similar orders were given to General George Meade) made his intentions clear.

It is my design, if the enemy keep quiet and allow me to take the initiative in the spring campaign, to work all parts of the army together and somewhat toward a common center. For your information I now write you my pro­ gramme as at present determined upon.

I have sent orders to [Major General Nathaniel P.] Banks by private messenger to finish up his present expedition against Shreveport with all despatch . . . . With [his] force he is to commence operations against Mobile as soon as he can. It will be impossible for him to commence too early. [Major General Quincy] Gillmore joins [Major General Benjamin F.] Butler with I 0,000 men, and the two operate against Richmond from the South side of the James River. . . . I will stay with the Army of the Potomac, increased by [Major General Ambrose E.] Burnside’s corps of not less than 25,000 effective men, and operate directly against Lee’s army wherever it may be found. [Major General Franz] Sigel collects all his available force in two columns. . . to move against the Virginia and Tennessee. . . . You I propose to move against [Joseph E.] Johnston’s army, to break it up and to get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflict­ing all the damage you can against their war resources.

I do not propose to lay down for you a plan of campaign, but simply to lay down the work it is desirable to have done, and leave you free to execute in your own way.

Grant concluded by telling Sherman that Sigel probably had the smallest chance of achieving his objective, but, as Lincoln had suggested during the strategy briefing, “if Sigel can’t skin himself, he can hold a leg whilst someone else skins.” There is no dearer, more concise strategic conception in American military history. It spelled the end of the Confederacy by 1865.

Why it did not spell defeat for the Confederacy in 1864 is worth examining. Failure to achieve victory before 1865 reflected the extraordinary difficulty in planning, coordinating, and executing military operations, as well as the inevitable impact of political reality on the world of military operations. Unfortunately, two key elements in Grant’s strategy–Banks’s move against Mobile, and Butler’s move from Bermuda Hundred to cut the Petersburg­-Richmond railroad failed to materialize. Banks remained tied to the disastrously inept Red River campaign; consequently his move against Mobile, which would have tied one corps of the Army of Tennessee to Alabama, did not occur and that unit reinforced Johnston’s defense of Atlanta. Butler’s attack from Bermuda Hundred collapsed in a welter of incompetence rarely seen this late in the Civil War. As Grant noted in his memoirs, Butler “corked” himself and his army into a position where he could exercise no influence on the unfolding campaign. Had he succeeded, Lee would have been forced to divide his forces against two foes. As it was Butler’s army was simply subsumed into the Army of the Potomac. The results of these failures prevented victory in 1864. Sherman faced far more effective resistance in his offensive against Atlanta, while the Army of the Potomac confronted an Army of Northern Virginia that was able to devote full attention to the defense of northern Virginia.

Significantly, Grant did not complain in his memoirs that the great spring offensive failed because of the incompetent leadership of “political” generals. He was well aware that Lincoln needed the support of “war Demo­crats” in the upcoming presidential campaign and that keeping Butler and Banks in positions of high responsibility was therefore essential for political reasons; both were “war Democrats.” Good strategy, as with all things in war, is a fine balance of choices. As the British commander James Wolfe com­mented before Quebec in 1759: “War is an option of difficulties.” The deli­cate coalition that Lincoln was holding together in the North was essential to the successful settlement of a war that had opened wounds not only between the North and the South but also within the North itself. To risk damaging that coalition by removing Banks and Butler was to risk losing the presidential election, and defeat in November might well have eviscerated whatever bat­tlefield successes the Union army would achieve in 1864.

In assuming his position as commander of all Union forces, Grant was initially inclined to remain in the West. But his justified trust in Sherman’s competence led him to change his mind: He would accompany the Army of the Potomac. Meade’s competent but hardly driving brand of leadership in the last half of 1863 suggests that the Army of the Potomac’s commander required the support of a more senior officer upon whom he could rely in moments of crisis. Grant would provide that support. He understood, however, that as an outsider he was not in a position to replace that army’s senior leadership. He therefore was compelled to fight the coming battles of spring 1864 with a fundamentally flawed instrument-a military organization whose cohesion, willingness to sacrifice, and dogged determination were second to none in American military history, but whose repeated failures to seize the initiative, incapacity to take risks, and sheer bad luck resulted in a long record of defeat and reversal.

Thus, the Army of the Potomac fought the spring and summer battles in Virginia at appalling cost to itself and the nation. As a brigadier in the Army of the Potomac wrote his wife after Spotsylvania Court House: “For thirty days it has been one funeral procession past me and it has been too much.” However, while Grant pinned Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia to Richmond, Sherman battled General Johnston back in Atlanta. The pressure on Lee prevented the Confederate government from reinforcing Johnston. Jefferson Davis then made the fatal mistake of replacing Johnston with Gen­eral John B. Hood. Hood’s slashing attacks from Atlanta wrecked his army, lost Atlanta, and opened the way for Sherman’s March to the Sea. The march again allowed Union forces to bisect the Confederacy and further fragment the span of Southern control, while opening up the last undamaged areas of the South to attack.

It also opened the way for the final chapter in the evolution of the war’s strategy: a straight-out Union policy aimed at breaking the will of the South­ern population by destroying the property, homes, and sustenance on which the survival of the South rested. In May 1864 Sherman had already confided to his wife his perplexity that the Southern population had not yet given up: “No amount of poverty or adversity seems to shake their faith. . . . [N]iggers gone, wealth and luxury gone, money worthless, starvation in view, yet I see no sign of let up-some few deserters, plenty tired of war, but the masses determined to fight it out.” Sherman’s frustration in front of Atlanta had led to bombardment of the city irrespective of the danger to civilians or to its military usefulness. The March to the Sea had taken place soon afterward, and while Sherman’s progress through Georgia was not aimed directly at civilian lives, its “collateral” effects–the ruthless destruction of homes and foodstuffs and the starvation and disease that followed in its wake indicated how far the North was willing to go in this war. As Sherman warned in a letter to the citizens of northern Alabama in 1864:

The government of the United States has in North Alabama any and all rights which they choose to enforce in war, to take their lives, their houses, their land, their everything, because they can not deny that war exists there, and war is simply power unconstrained by constitution or compact. If they want eternal warfare, well and good. We will accept the issue and dispossess them and put our friends in possession. To those who submit to the rightful law and authority all gentleness and forbearance, but to the petulant and persistent secessionists, why, death is mercy and the quicker he or she is disposed of the better. Satan and the rebellious saint[s] of heaven were allowed a continuance of existence in hell merely to swell their just punishment.

Sherman then noted that the American Civil War, unlike traditional European warfare, was “between peoples,” and the invading army was entitled to all it could get from the people. He cited as a like instance “the dispossession of the people of North Ireland during the reign of William and Mary.”

General Philip Sheridan’s conduct of the Shenandoah campaign suggests that Sherman’s treatment of Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina was not a matter of idiosyncratic choice but rather represented a larger strategic and policy design of the authorities in Washington and the Union high command. Clearly indicating this were Grant’s instructions to Sheridan to turn the Shenandoah into “a barren waste . . . so that crows flying over it for the balance of this season will have to carry their provender with them.” Sheridan followed his orders. His remark to the Prussians during the Franco­ Prussian War of 1870-71 that they were “too humanitarian” in their treatment of the French population suggests how far the Union’s strategy had descended into a relentless crushing of popular resistance. As he added to his European listeners, “Nothing should be left to the people but eyes, to lament the war!” Admittedly, neither Sherman nor Sheridan reached the level of Bomber Command’s “dehousing” campaign of World War II. But Northern military forces were on the ground; they could spare the inhabitants their wretched lives while destroying the economic infrastructure, homes, food­ stuffs, and farm animals far more effectively than “Bomber” Harris’s force could ever dream of in World War II.

The Civil War was the first modern war, one in which military power, built on popular support and industrialization, and projected by the railroad and steamships over hundreds of miles, approached the boundary of Clausewitz’s “absolute” war. Neither the strategic vision nor the military capacity to win the war existed at the onset. The mere creation of armies and their requisite support structure created problems that were neither readily appar­ ent nor easily solved. The Union leadership did evolve a strategy that at last brought victory, but the cost was appalling: somewhere around 625,000 dead on both sides, equaling the total losses of all our other conflicts up to the Vietnam War. A comparable death toll in World War I would have been about 2.1 million American lives. Given what we now know of the cost of war in the modern world, we should not be surprised at the cost of this terrible conflict. We should, rather, wonder how the leaders of the Union–unversed in strategy at the beginning of the war, masters by its end–were able to see it through to its successful conclusion. MHQ


This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1989 issue (Vol. 1, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: What Took the North so Long?


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