Allen C. Guelzo continues to amaze. In the past two years he has published what is probably the best single volume history of the Civil War since James McPherson’s 2008 book, Battle Cry of Freedom (Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction), along with a detailed account of the battle of Gettysburg (Gettysburg: The Last Invasion). He combines grand theses with the most minute but telling details. These publications follow his definitive analysis of the Emancipation Proclamation, an intellectual biography of Abraham Lincoln, and other assorted insightful writings.
We cannot do full justice to these studies, but for the student of strategy, we can draw from them a renewed appreciation of the necessity, and difficulty, of translating war aims (policy) through the refraction of politics into military strategy, and then into the appropriate operational art and battlefield tactics. As we know from Clausewitz, this apparently straightforward movement is never a linear or static process. War aims are contentious and change under the pressure of conflict. Military strategy is an art, not a science. The battlefield is not the neat two-dimensional representation we see in books, with precise arrows moving across a featureless landscape. It is shaped, among other factors, by terrain and weather; by the condition, training, experience, and competence (or lack thereof) of commanders and common soldiers; and by the interactions of technologies and tactics, themselves products of military and civilian organizations and infrastructures. All this is affected in turn by the unpredictable forces of personalities, accident, and chance—the fog of war. But men and nations do fight wars and they must act, however imperfectly, to achieve their political ends. We offer some preliminary reflections on how they do so below, stimulated by our reading of Guelzo.
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In his inaugural address Lincoln outlined what he thought to be the stakes in the coming conflict, a conflict he hoped to avoid but was prepared to wage if it was forced upon the nation. They were nothing less than the future of liberal democracy, which rested on the premise that ballots, not bullets, must decide political outcomes. A factional interest or section, having lost an election, cannot deny the authority of the majority, as long as that majority is not unmistakably tyrannical and perpetual (an accusation that the South, in Lincoln’s mind, could not plausibly make). For Lincoln, this was more than a nice theoretical formulation of how democracy ought to work. To act otherwise would result in anarchy—secession would breed secession, as imagined grievances multiplied. Anarchy, in turn, would be the springboard of tyranny.
The unmentioned elephant in the room, of course, was slavery, and whether the peculiar institution was compatible with liberal democracy (and if not, how could it be justly remedied). In November 1860, a constitutional majority elected a president and Congress that held that slavery must not be extended geographically into the territories of the Union. Lincoln for years had insisted that the public mind must be assured that slavery would be placed on the course of ultimate extinction throughout the Union. The new president, however, did not make the abolition of slavery the object, or even anobject, of a war he hoped to avoid. That would have alienated large segments of Northern opinion, especially those in the strategically crucial slave-holding states outside the fire-eating deep South, like Kentucky, Maryland, and (potentially) Virginia, who were not about to fight a “nigger war.”
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That said, Guelzo makes Lincoln’s personal antipathy to slavery abundantly clear, along with his determination from the outset to use his administration to begin, if not end, the move toward emancipation. The secession crisis heightened both the need and opportunity to do so. Lincoln hoped however to deal with it by persuading individual states still in the Union to agree to gradual, federally-funded emancipation on terms highly favorable to the one-time masters. He could not emancipate slaves directly, through federal legislation, because this undoubtedly would have been struck down by the Supreme Court and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the author of the Dred Scott decision (1857). Delaware, a state with relatively few slaves, was thought to be a promising test case for this plan. As the seceding states recognized again the authority of the Constitution they presumably could be folded into the compensated emancipation program on whatever terms and timetable could be worked out.
Lincoln, born in the border state of Kentucky, believed that he had a special understanding of the views of the ordinary people of the slaveholding states, especially those who did not themselves own slaves or who were not part of the slaveholding gentry. He was convinced that most were Unionists at heart, pressured or deluded into supporting secession by a minority of radicals. He doubted that a majority of legally qualified voters in any state, save perhaps South Carolina, really favored disunion. For decades, pro-slavery radicals like John C. Calhoun had used the threat of secession to bully their way to effective control of the federal government and its policies. When Republican success in the election of 1860 effectively called their bluff, they raised the pot by summoning conventions composed of like-minded radicals and passing resolutions of secession. For Lincoln, the trick was for the Northern and silent Southern pro-Union majorities to call the radicals’ bluff again and to demonstrate that the tide of Unionism was greater than that of secession. When Fort Sumter was bombarded in April 1861, he initially hoped that the call for militia, volunteers, and an expansion of the regular army would force the secessionists to back down.
When this did not occur and it became necessary to use force, Lincoln, still following his assessment of pro-Union Southern opinion, sought to develop a military strategy that would expose the untenable political, economic, and military position of the would-be Confederacy. The senior officer in the U.S. Army, General Winfield Scott, proposed what derisively became known as the “Anaconda Plan.” The Federal Navy would blockade the Southern coasts while the Army established a strong defensive cordon across the northern borders of the Confederacy. This accomplished, Scott proposed a joint expedition of troops and gunboats, which would move down the Mississippi and secure the entire length of the river. This indirect approach would outflank and encircle the Confederacy, cutting it off from its supply lines with the outside world.
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Scott recommended the plan for two major military reasons. First, it was the best way to overcome the Confederate states’ interior lines of communication (everything else being equal, an army operating inside a given area can move and communicate faster than forces operating outside the area, which have to operate on exterior lines). Second, the plan did not rely on great Napoleonic offensives, designed to seek out and destroy Southern armies in climactic battles, which Scott thought beyond the ability of the motley army of volunteers and militia that the Union was assembling. As Guelzo notes, by squeezing the South in such fashion, “Scott believed that it would only be a matter of time before secessionist fervor would pale (and Scott was a Virginian who might have been presumed to know) and Southern Unionists would be able to seize control of their state governments again.” This strategic approach accorded with Lincoln’s notion that “secession was a political bubble that only required some measure of squeezing before it popped,” and as such “he advocated the application of just enough force to persuade the South that armed resistance was in vain.”
There was however another political dimension that Lincoln could not ignore in his initial days in office: the rush of patriotic Northern enthusiasm that accompanied the firing on Fort Sumter. With it came pressure for military action from a Republican-dominated Congress freed from its obstructionist Southern members. “On to Richmond!” was the cry. Lincoln himself thought that some sort of military demonstration was necessary to rally Unionist support in western Virginia and eastern Tennessee. The result was the Battle of Bull Run, in which an ill-organized and poorly led Union force of 35,000 troops under General Irvin McDowell—marching (it hoped) towards the Confederate capital—was routed by a hastily-mounted but effective Southern defense, in full view of picnickers from Washington who had gone out to enjoy what they assumed would be an easy Federal victory.
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After this debacle, Lincoln eased out Scott—hero of the Mexican War, but now old and obese—in favor of an up-and-coming battlefield star, George B. McClellan. McClellan, who had enjoyed early combat success in western Virginia, had the additional advantage of being a Democrat. Lincoln was anxious to make the Northern war effort as bipartisan as possible (Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s rival from Illinois but a staunch Unionist, had died in June 1861). McClellan favored the basic strategic outlines and assumptions of the Scott’s plan. By seizing favorable territory through maneuver before Confederate forces could do so McClellan expected that the Union Army would either force the enemy to fight on his terms, or cede critical terrain and resources. Such a strategy aligned perfectly with the political desire of Democrats to nudge the Confederacy back into the Union with as little muss and fuss as possible. They had no desire to punish the South, seize its property, emancipate its slaves, or effect a social and political revolution; “The Union as it was,” was their mantra. This military approach accorded for the moment with Lincoln’s own ideas of how to conduct the war. Slavery was to be dealt with on a separate, political track.
In the fall of 1861 and winter of 1862, Union forces operating on the western rivers enjoyed some progress. McClellan—under considerable prompting from Lincoln, whose shaky political position depended on demonstrable military success—reluctantly agreed that the Army of the Potomac would undertake a major campaign in the Virginia theater of operations. Rather than march overland to Richmond, however, McClellan decided to use the navy’s command of the Chesapeake waterways to outflank the Confederates, push up the James River, and besiege the Confederate capital. The Union Army hoped to steal a march on the Confederates before they could assemble an effective countervailing force. The fall of Richmond, effected perhaps without a major battle, would be a devastating psychological blow to the South and presumably cause second thoughts about secession throughout the remainder of the Confederacy.
McClellan’s so-called Peninsula campaign (March-July 1862) brought him close to Richmond before the Army of the Potomac bogged down. He claimed to be vastly outnumbered by the Confederates, which was not true. He also claimed to be hamstrung by political interference. Lincoln, concerned about the possibility of a Confederate counter-thrust at Washington, refused to send McClellan extra forces from the capital’s defenses. McClellan suffered several sharp repulses at the hands of Robert E. Lee, who had replaced the wounded Confederate commander, Joseph Johnston. Much to Lincoln’s dismay, McClellan then broke off the attack. Guelzo concludes that this reflected certain unfortunate character traits in McClellan, notably an inbred cautiousness and fussiness. But in the minds of many Lincoln supporters, and even the president himself, McClellan was acting primarily as a political general, driven by personal ambition and a determination to sabotage the Republican agenda, if not the war effort itself. Lincoln began to equate military caution and a propensity to favor maneuver over battle with this subversive political strategy.
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The Confederate success on the peninsula at first glance appeared to vindicate the South’s approach to war. Guelzo offers a somewhat less detailed account of this strategy. President Jefferson Davis and his military commanders apparently did not create anything as conceptually coherent as the Anaconda Plan. The Confederacy certainly did not think itself a military, political, or economic underdog. “For slavery was neither a backward nor a dying system in the 1850s,” Guelzo observes. “It was aggressive, dynamic, and mobile, and by pandering to the racial prejudices of a white republic starved for labor, it was perfectly capable of expansion.” Considered as a separate nation, the Confederacy would have ranked as the fourth most prosperous in the world in 1860, surpassed in Europe only by Great Britain.
The Southern elite did not believe that the industrial capitalism of the North provided the Union with any significant advantages. Quite the contrary. The Yankees’ focus on profit for its own sake, their materialism, and the growing underclass of disaffected workers (many of whom were newly-arrived immigrants, without any real attachment to the Union) suggested that the Northerners collectively would not be willing to fight once the bullets began flying. (Here a certain mirror-imaging was in effect.) The North was divided politically—the Confederacy had many ideological sympathizers there, and it could rely also on those with strong commercial ties with the slaveholding economy. The Southern aristocratic culture of honor, and the communitarian ethos which marked a slaveholding society, made its men natural warriors. One Confederate soldier was worth three or four of those of the North. A majority of U.S. Army officers were from the South and they had generally outshone their Northern counterparts in the most recent large-scale conflict, the Mexican-American War. The South was the world’s largest source of cotton, which not only provided it with income but also presumably provided the Confederacy with considerable diplomatic leverage. The major European nations, especially Britain and France, had strong economic and political incentives to aid the South, directly or indirectly.
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So the foundations of victory and independence seemed firmly in place. As for actual military operations, the initial strategic inclination of the Confederacy was to assume a defensive posture. This would take advantage of the South’s interior lines of communication and knowledge of local terrain. From a political standpoint, it would put the North in the position of seeming to act as the aggressor. A “defense of our own soil” posture would mobilize Southern opinion and further divide that of the North, as well as encourage European support. Even the naturally aggressive Robert E. Lee concurred. “Our policy should be purely on the defensive,” he advised in the first two weeks of the war, believing that it was still possible that “Reason” will “resume her sway” and convince the Lincoln Administration to turn to negotiations rather than conflict.
The Confederacy’s defensive strategy, however, was not intended to be passive. The South did not adopt a Fabian strategy of preserving its armies by avoiding battle and willingly trading space for time in order to conserve its forces. Such an elastic defense would have drawn the North deeper into the hostile interior, where the Federal forces would become overextended and exhausted (much like the Russian strategy against Napoleon). Instead, the Confederacy was to be defended forward through vigorous counterattack against invading forces. Virginia took on particular significance in this respect. Virginia’s accession to the Confederacy gave the southern cause considerable political prestige—it signaled that secession was not merely the product of a few hotheads from the deep South. The Old Dominion was the home of Washington and Jefferson, after all. The Confederate capital was established in Richmond, so its territory had to be protected on political grounds alone. A large Confederate force in northern Virginia also threatened Washington, thus tying down Union troops.
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The Confederacy also had certain natural geographic boundaries that had had to be secured because they anchored its defenses, while making the Union military position, and even the Union itself, untenable. In particular, if the Confederacy controlled the lower Mississippi River and New Orleans it was generally assumed that Northern farmers west of the Appalachians, cut off from their natural outlets to market, would either force Lincoln to sue for peace or would withdrawn from the Union themselves. (Guelzo argues that this was a misapprehension on the part of the South, one that Lincoln shared. In fact, by 1861, east-west railroad lines had made the Mississippi much less important to northern commerce. This economic and transportation revolution would accelerate during the war.) To defend this region, Jefferson Davis assumed that the Confederacy must also control the Ohio and the Missouri Rivers, the great tributaries of the Mississippi. Davis thought that the Ohio was the natural northern boundary of the Southern Confederacy. As Guelzo observes:
The Ohio would offer a natural defensive moat for southern armies to resist invasion by the Federals. A Confederate presence on the south bank of the Ohio would further paralyze Northern commerce and force the Lincoln government to the negotiating table. Most important of all, the Ohio was fed, near its confluence with the Mississippi, by two vital rivers, the Tennessee and the Cumberland, which led deep into Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. Unless the south bank of the Ohio was firmly in Confederate hands, Federal steam-powered transports, supply ships, and gunboats could enter the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers without obstruction and use them as easy invasion routes into Confederate heartland. In order to control the Ohio, the Confederates needed to control the border states, especially Kentucky and Missouri.
Confederate control of the border states was of course precisely what Lincoln was determined to prevent (neither Kentucky nor Missouri formally seceded, although both had strong pro-Confederate leanings and an intrastate war broke out in the latter). In September 1861 Lincoln publicly rebuked John C. Frémont, commander of Union forces in Illinois and Missouri, who had issued a proclamation declaring the freedom of any slave held by an owner in rebellion against the Union. Lincoln also did not rush Union troops into Kentucky, whose government had originally sought to remain “neutral.” The Confederacy was not so careful—by treating Kentucky as part of its natural forward defensive posture, it violated Kentucky’s “neutrality” and tipped the state’s political class into the hands of the Union.
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Within the first year of the war the Lincoln Administration was forced to fundamentally rethink its grand strategy. McClellan’s defeat south of Richmond, coupled with a near-disaster at the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862) in the west and other Union military setbacks, signaled that the South was both determined and able to wage full-scale war. At Shiloh, the Union Army under Ulysses S. Grant had been surprised and nearly routed. Grant’s forces rallied to hold the field but the horrific casualties stunned the North. “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,” Grant later recollected, but after that, “I gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.” As the next three years were to prove, armies had become too big to defeat in a single, cataclysmic battle. Guelzo explains in considerable detail why technology, terrain, and tactics conspired in such a way to ensure that the major battles would be both bloody and inconclusive.
Lincoln himself suffered comparable setbacks on the political front. Like Grant, by 1862 he realized that the easy dissolution of the Confederacy was not in the offing. If anything, it was the Union cause which seemed on the verge of collapse. The president was criticized by many anti-slavery Republicans, who thought him too soft. He was under direct assault by Democrats, even those who supported the war but who believed that Lincoln was incompetent and had deliberately sabotaged McClellan. Lincoln had relieved McClellan after the Peninsula campaign, restored him to command during Lee’s offensive into Maryland in September 1862 and then relieved him again. The general was thought to be the likely Democratic presidential candidate in 1864 but there were questions whether he would wait even that long. Rumors of a military coup abounded.
Perhaps most importantly, Lincoln’s plans for gradual, compensated emancipation by those slaveholding states still in the Union, coupled with public restraint on the future of slavery elsewhere, had proven to be a failure. The Delaware legislature refused federal funding for that purpose. Meanwhile, the slavery system provided the South with military resources that offset the manpower and industrial advantages of the North. It was increasingly clear that the war was going to be a long one and the price to be paid in blood and treasure far greater than anyone had imagined. In Lincoln’s mind, these events had created a new set of circumstances that required a new, comprehensive grand strategy. In July 1862, Lincoln told Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that if the Southern states persisted in their rebellion, it would be “a necessity and a duty on our part to liberate their slaves.” “We had about played our last card,” Lincoln decided, “and must change our tactics or lose the game.” It was not only the slaves who must be freed, Guelzo writes: Lincoln and Congress had to free themselves of thinking about slavery purely as a political problem.
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The escalation of the stakes of the war was signaled most dramatically by the Emancipation Proclamation, announced publicly after the Battle of Antietam, to enter into effect on January 1, 1863. Here, Lincoln altered fundamentally the political track of the war and united it with the military track. In careful, legalistic language, designed to thwart any challenge in the federal courts, Lincoln invoked his powers as commander-in-chief to take actions to destroy the economic and social system that underwrote the military power of the enemy. He declared a general emancipation in “any state or states, wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized.” It is often pointed out that Lincoln did not (and, in his mind, could not) free slaves in states that had remained in the Union, which included both the border states and areas then under Union occupation and control. The future freedom of any slaves under the terms of the Proclamation would depend on the success of the Union armies. (Lincoln, to be sure, had in mind complete emancipation and the legal end of slavery everywhere, through political means, once the slave power was defeated). This political shift required a much more aggressive military strategy, aimed at the widespread occupation and direct control of the South. It soon involved the enlistment of blacks in the Union Army, first for support and eventually combat duty.
Lincoln’s decision to assume a more ambitious and unified political and military strategy carried serious risks, beyond the fact that the South might now fight even harder to defend its way of life as well as its soil. Although some in the North were energized by what, in their minds, had become an anti-slavery crusade, many Democrats were appalled by the Proclamation. They objected to its substance (the subjugation of the South and states’ rights in the name of a social and political revolution) and its process (dictated by an all-powerful federal chief executive). They hoped to find a way to roll it back.
Those sympathetic to the Democrat’s position included a number of former and current senior Union officers, such as George Meade, who found himself in command of the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Gettysburg. Much to Lincoln’s anger—and to the disgust of other senior commanders, who identified themselves with the anti-slavery cause—Meade declined to pursue Lee vigorously after Gettysburg, citing the fatigue of Union troops. That argument had considerable military merit. But when Meade proclaimed that the Army had driven “from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader,” Lincoln was even more furious. Meade, McClellan, and their kind simply did not grasp the kind of unrelenting offensive war that Lincoln believed the Union now needed to fight.
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Lincoln eventually discovered and empowered such unrelenting commanders, most notably Grant and William Sherman. “The art of war is simple enough,” Grant commented. “Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.” Grant addressed the South’s presumed advantage in interior lines of communication by a variety of means. He advocated constant pressure on the South in all theaters (a strategic approach in which Lincoln had long believed) in order to take advantage of the North’s manpower and material. The Union’s control of rivers and its superior railroad system allowed Federal forces to get to many key places “furstest with the mostest.” Finally, when the opportunity presented itself, Grant was prepared to cut lose from his base of supply and to live off the land (an operational approach famously perfected by his successor in the West, Sherman). This approach took the war, in a very hard way, directly to the Southern population, especially in the deep South, the ideological heartland of secession.
Although Grant advocated constant, coordinated pressure in all theaters, his preferred strategy had strong geographic and positional priorities. He wanted to find and strike the enemy, not as an end in itself (because decisive victory in a single battle was highly improbable) but because the enemy would naturally be in the way of places Grant wanted to go. He wanted to go to places like Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and Vicksburg because they opened up Union access to the rivers of the west. Even this was a means to an end, to permit an offensive aimed at what Grant believed was the geostrategic (as well as ideological) heartland of the South in upper Alabama and Georgia. In Chattanooga and Atlanta the remaining pieces of the Confederacy’s two lateral rail lines intersected. This region contained the government-run gun foundries and ironworks at Selma and the great powder works in Augusta, as well as much of its grain-producing areas. “The real heart of the Confederate war effort lay along the terrible line that stretched from Fort Henry to Savannah,” Guelzo writes, “and once that line was in Federal hands, the Virginia theater, along with Lee and his fabled army, was living on borrowed time.”
When Lincoln appointed Grant commander-in-chief of the Union forces in the spring of 1864 Grant preferred to remain in the western theater, where he believed the Union offensive should be focused. Grant thought that the Army of the Potomac should only play a supporting role because Virginia was not the decisive theater. Union forces should be sufficiently active to keep the Army of Northern Virginia occupied, so that Lee could not transfer forces to the west. Union operations in the east ideally would tie Lee down by aiming to seize the key rail junctures and other facilities that would isolate Lee’s army from the rest of the Confederacy.
Here, however, politics overrode military strategy. Lee and his army had become the symbol of Southern resistance. For most Northerners, Virginia was seen as the central prize that would decide the outcome of the war. Also, with the 1864 elections on the horizon, the Lincoln Administration could not risk a third foray by Lee into Union territory. Grant reluctantly came east and led a bloody overland campaign towards Richmond, which ended in a lengthy siege of the critical railroad junction at Petersburg, the key to Richmond’s defenses. This campaign held Lee in place while Sherman and other commanders took over responsibility for offensive operations in the west. After a slow start, they eventually saw to the success of Grant’s overall strategic plan.
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There was also a turn in confederate strategy, although it was not as decided as that of the North. The shift began even before the Emancipation Proclamation but was surely accelerated by it. To be sure, there was no Southern general staff or unified conception of how to prosecute the war across theaters, but Lee’s prestige and his close relationship with Davis gave Lee the preponderate weight in setting the strategic agenda.
If the Union had its troubles in 1862-1863, Lee realized that the Confederate cause was objectively worse off. The South was appalled by the staggering casualties it suffered and simple math demonstrated that the North was better able to sustain such losses. The South was also losing control of the rivers in the west. As the prospect of European intervention faded and the Northern naval blockade tightened, Lee concluded that the South’s resources were too feeble to prevent the Northern juggernaut from gradually crushing a Confederacy that remained on the defensive and allowed the Union the strategic initiative. “Only by quickly meeting the Yankee armies straight on, using surprise and dexterity to defeat and embarrass them, and thus rapidly depressing Northern war morale to the point where disheartened Northerners would declare the war unwinnable, did the Confederacy stand a chance,” Guelzo writes. If Southern arms could not induce a swift Northern collapse, Lee privately considered the Confederacy to be doomed.
Lee, on the other hand, knew that popular governments do not easily bear the burdens of long wars. Public opinion cannot be regimented and drummed up repeatedly. If the Confederates were wise, Lee argued, they would “give all the encouragement we can, consistently with truth, to the rising peace party of the North,” which was calling for an armistice and negotiations “for a restoration of the Union.” If Lincoln could be forced by political pressure to go down this path, he would never be able to convince war-weary Northerners to restart the war. The Confederates could then dismiss any talk about reunion and demand a distinct and independent national existence.
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Lee needed to find a way to apply enough shock and awe to bring the Union to a political tipping point. He took the tactical offensive in every major battle he fought in those years (except for Antietam and Fredericksburg) but he felt that a successful invasion of the North was probably the only way to energize the peace party and force Lincoln to the bargaining table. Thus the Confederate campaigns in Maryland (1862) and Pennsylvania (1863). Lee envisioned destroying the Army of the Potomac piecemeal and perhaps temporarily occupying a major northern city to drive home his point about the futility of the war (and to ease the logistical burden on the war-ravaged Virginia countryside).
The cost in lives for Lee’s aggressiveness was considerable. It could not be sustained if the Union did not fold. Other Southern generals thought that the price that Lee paid was too high and was bound to accelerate the demise of the South before public opinion in the North would collapse. Joseph Johnston, in his effort to deflect Sherman from Atlanta, tried to make the best of his manpower shortage. He shifted to a Fabian-like strategy, avoiding direct battles with the advancing Union Army while Nathan Bedford Forrest and other Confederate raiders slashed away at the extended Union supply lines. (Johnston was much criticized for this approach but his successor, John Bell Hood, sought direct battles to defeat the Union offensive—with disastrous consequences.) For his part, Lee rejected suggestions that he shift forces from the Army of Northern Virginia to the threatened region in the west, or that he withdraw from Virginia altogether and focus instead on defense of the Confederate heartland. As Guelzo points, out, the defense of Virginia was personal for Lee. He had justified forswearing his oath as a U.S. Army officer in 1861 because of what he saw as the higher calling of aiding Old Dominion. Lee was not about to allow his “country” to be ravaged by the invader, as long as he had anything to say about it.
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Whether or not the south had any real chance of winning if it had adopted any of these strategies consistently, and been a little more lucky, is one of the imponderables of history. Even as late as September 1864, before Grant’s overall strategic concept finally bore military (and political) fruit with Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, it seemed likely that the Democratic party’s presidential nominee, McClellan, would win the November election. McClellan rejected his party’s “peace” platform, which called for a cease fire and negotiations without preconditions (in effect, this would lead quickly to recognition of Southern independence). McClellan favored the long-standing “War Democrat” policy of seeking reunion while making “reasonable” concessions necessary to bring the Southern states back in. That certainly would have included revoking the Emancipation Proclamation in some fashion or other. The War Democrats would continue fighting only if the South refused such terms and insisted on independence. McClellan had no doubt that his election—and presumably that of a Democratic Congressional majority—would win back most Southerners, who had broken with the Union originally because of their fears of Lincoln and his Black Republicans.
For his part, Lincoln had no doubt that the practical effects of McClellan’s election would have been to energize the peace Democrats as well as the bitter-enders in the South. Lee’s strategy, incomplete as it was in execution, would have thus been vindicated. Only Union military success, late in the game, headed off the Union’s political defeat. That left Jefferson Davis, at the end of the Confederacy’s rope, grasping for another dramatic shift in Southern strategy. In 1865, the Confederate Congress voted to recruit and arm slaves, presumably with the promise of emancipation, but without any real intention of revising the foundations of the slaveholders’ republic.