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Union Strategy For Winning The Civil War

        Soldiers and officers are the basic ingredients of all armies. Their strategic dispositions, how they are deployed, what grand strategy directs their movements largely determine the outcome of wars. It is not easy to reconstitute the general air of confusion and uncertainty in which the initial Union strategy took shape. There was a sharp division in the Cabinet and in the army as well over the appropriate strategy to pursue in attempting to subdue the South. At least three grand strategies were proposed. The first, the one favored by William Seward, the secretary of state and the most influential man in the Cabinet, was what Welles called "the border strategy." The notion here was to establish "borders" around the periphery of the Confederacy, assure the Southerners of the goodwill of the North toward them, and wait for pro-Union sentiment in the South to manifest itself and lead to a negotiated peace. This strategy virtually conceded the slavery issue in favor of restoring the Union.
        The strategy proposed by Welles likewise rested on the assumption that there were large numbers of Unionists in the South, simply waiting for indications of Northern support to declare themselves. "Instead of halting on the borders, building entrenchments, and repelling indiscriminately and treating as Rebels--enemies--all, Union as well as disunion, men . . . we should," Welles wrote,". . . penetrate their territory, nourish and protect the Union sentiment, and create and strengthen a national feeling counter to Secession.. . . Instead of holding back, we should be aggressive and enter their territory," Welles added. Both strategies were based on an overestimation of the strength of Union sentiment. Moreover, Welles's strategy ignored the fact that invasion of an enemy's territory invariably arouses the most intense hostility on the part of those invaded.
        A third "strategy," one almost indistinguishable in its practical effect from that of Welles, was based on the assumption that only an overwhelming display of superior force demonstrated by an invasion of the South at every vulnerable point could force the Confederacy back into the Union. It was this latter policy that was, on the whole, followed, but the emotional predisposition to the first strategy on the part of many Northerners in and out of the army frequently blunted the effect of the invasion strategy and in the most important theater of the war--Virginia--rendered it a nullity. General Scott himself was for what Welles termed "a defensive policy." As one general put it to Welles: "We must erect our batteries on the eminences in the vicinity of Washington and establish our military lines; frontiers between the belligerents, as between the countries of Continental Europe, are requisite."
        As the third strategy became clearly the strategy that Lincoln was determined to pursue--aggressive penetration of the South--the inevitable next question was how was that strategy to be best effected. One needs, first of all, to have reference to the map of the South which constitutes the endpapers of this volume. There it is seen that the South had two major lines of vulnerability: several thousand miles of virtually undefended seacoast running from Norfolk, Virginia, around the tip of Florida and along the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans and, in the West, almost a thousand miles of the Mississippi River, stretching from St. Louis to New Orleans, which constituted a line of access into the Deep South and, for the Southerners, an obstacle separating them from their trans-Mississippi allies--Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri. Moreover, the Ohio River entered the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois, and fifty miles to the east of that conjunction, the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers emptied into the Ohio, coming from a southeasterly direction parallel to each other and roughly parallel to the Mississippi. The South had to defend that river network at all costs. In the hands of the North it would leave the South vulnerable to invasion from a hundred points.
        New Orleans was the hinge of the lower South--the point where the coastline joined the great arterial waterway of the Mississippi. The Northern strategy was thus, like all proper strategies, dictated in large part by the terrain. Plans were made immediately for three amphibious operations, two combined land-sea operations, directed at vulnerable points on the North and South Carolina coast--one at Roanoke Island, the other at Port Royal, just south of Charleston; the other expedition was directed at New Orleans itself.
        Meanwhile, the Army of the Potomac, with McClellan in command, was organized with the mission of capturing Richmond. As the months passed, a series of additional armies were formed along the line of the Ohio and upper Mississippi--the armies of the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Frontier, Kansas, the Mississippi, the Mountain, the Southwest, the Tennessee, the West Tennessee, and, near the end of the war, the Shenandoah, finally fifteen in all (the Confederacy formed twenty-four "armies"). The real story of the war--the battles and campaigns that finally brought it to its bloody conclusion--took place far away from Washington and Richmond, at Shiloh, Tennessee, Vicksburg, Mississippi, Chickamauga, Georgia, and in a dozen other such engagements. But the facts that the capitals of the North and South were so close together, little more than a hundred miles apart, and that the Confederate capital was, moreover, in the extreme northeastern corner of the geographical area covered by the Confederacy produced a strange distortion, first in the war itself and then in our comprehension of it. The grand strategy developed by Lincoln, his Cabinet, and General Winfield Scott and the actual deployment of Union armies certainly took account of the points of Southern vulnerability, but the focus of public attention remained fixed on the two armies that confronted each other in Virginia--the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia.
Source: "Trial By Fire, A People's History of the Civil War and Reconstruction" by Page Smith, Volume 5, Chapter 4, Pages 97,98, and 99. 

This Page last updated 03/26/05

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