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Strategy (Civil War)

        In this military art, troops are maneuvered outside the battlefield to achieve success in a large geographic area. That geographic expanse can be a "front" (in the Civil War, part or all of one state) or a "theater" (several contiguous states possessing geographical, geopolitical, or military unity). When the expanse encompasses an entire country, the corresponding waging of war on the largest scale to secure national objectives is called "grand strategy."
        "Offensive strategy" carries war to the enemy, either directly by challenging his strength or indirectly by penetrating his weakness." Defensive strategy" protects against enemy strategic offensives. And "defensive-offensive strategy" (which Confederates often practiced) uses offensive maneuvers for defensive strategic results (e.g., Gen. R. E. Lee and Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson took the offensive May-June 1862 to defend Richmond and Virginia).
        Strategic objectives include defeating, destroying, or forcing enemy armies to retreat; seizing enemy strategic sites (supply lines, depots, arsenals, communications centers, and industry) crucial to his military effort; capturing the enemy capital; disrupting his economy; and demoralizing his will to wage war. While seeking such goals, the strategist must correspondingly protect his own army, strategic sites, capital, economy, and populace. He must strike proper balance between securing his rear and campaigning in his front. Supply lines and homelands must be guarded; especially in war between 2 republics, which the Civil War really was, the compelling necessity of protecting the political base cannot be ignored. Yet if too many troops are left in the rear, too few remain to attack or even defend against enemy armies at the front.
        Of these objectives, European experience, from which Civil War strategic doctrine derived, emphasized 3 strategies: destroying the enemy's army in 1 battle, seizing strategic sites, and capturing the enemy's capital. In the Civil War, attacking and defending Richmond and Washington consumed much effort, but their actual strategic importance, though great, was more symbolic than substantial, since neither was its country's nerve center, as European capitals were. Also illusory were quests for victory through seizing strategic sites and cutting "lines of communication" (supply lines); only a few Civil War campaigns, such as Holly Springs and Second Bull Run, were decided or even significantly affected by such captures. Most chimerical of all were hopes of annihilating the enemy's army in 1 great Napoleonic victory.
        Rather, Civil War strategists used a series of battles--each of them indecisive but cumulatively effective--to cripple the enemy, drive him back, and overrun or protect territory. Some strategies aimed directly at such battles. Other strategies sought first to maneuver so as to gain advantage of ground or numbers and only then to give battle under such favorable conditions. Whatever the overall numbers in the theater, strategy strove to assure numerical superiority on the battlefield; this principle was called "concentrating masses against fractions." Both sides practiced it, but it was especially important to the overall weaker Secessionists, as when Jackson performed it so effectively in the Shenandoah Valley.
        Again, each side, particularly the Confederates, used "interior lines" to move forces from quiet fronts through the interior to threatened fronts more quickly than the enemy could move around the military border. But, in practice, Southern supply lines were so primitive and Federal supply lines were so good that, despite longer distance, Northerners often moved in shorter time due to their "superior lateral communications." Even more effective against Confederate reliance on interior lines was Ulysses S. Grants grand strategy of concerting the armed might of the Union for simultaneous advances to pin and defeat Confederate troops on all major fronts.
        Besides these approaches, Civil War strategists, especially Union commanders such as William T. Sherman and Philip H. Sheridan, usually reluctantly but increasingly came to make the enemies economy and populace suffer. For the first time since the Thirty Years War, those 2 targets regained legitimacy. While free from the brutality of 1618-48, Federal strategy eventually crippled Southern capability and will to wage war though, to be effective, such strategy could only complement Northern success in maneuver and battle.
        Long-range strategic cavalry raids -- in brigade to corps strength -- played some role in such crippling, but those raids rarely had much military effect before collapse became imminent in 1865. Instead, the principal unit of strategic maneuver was the infantry corps, and the basic element of strategic control was the army. And in theaters where I side had several armies, those armies themselves became maneuver units, and control resided at military division headquarters or with the general-in-chief himself.
        Whatever the elements and whatever the means, the fundamental goal of strategy remains the same: the overall use of force to accomplish broad military and political objectives. Source: "Historical Times Encyclopedia of the Civil War" Editor, Patricia L. Faust

    This Page last updated 03/26/05


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