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Union Strategy Civil War Facts

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 3 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. Gen. 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 50 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 3 amphibious operations, 2 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 15 in all (the Confederacy formed 24 "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.

By dictionary definition, strategy is "the science and art of military command exercised to meet the enemy in combat under advantageous circumstances". A broader understanding of the term encompasses all aspects of waging war- both on and off the battlefield- including the political, psychological, and economic mechanisms employed by a nation at war to defeat its enemy.

The overall plan employed by one country to defeat another is called the "grand strategy". The North, fighting a war of subjugation, had to use an "offensive strategy", which meant carrying the war to the enemy. In the part of its grand strategy known as the "Anaconda Plan", the Union hoped to isolate the South from outside aid by means of a blockade along the coast and control of the Mississippi River. The North also planned on invading Southern territory on many different fronts, disrupting the South's economy, destroying its material means of waging war, and, eventually, liberating the country's slaves.

At the beginning of the war, the grand strategy of the Confederate states was a "defensive strategy": gaining military and economic aid from European countries, demoralizing the North's will to wage and continue the war, and defending the South at its borders. None of these strategies proved very fruitful, however, and the Confederacy's grand strategy was altered to address the realities of the situation.

To counter the North's strategic initiatives, the Confederacy attempted to meet the more powerful enemy at places and times advantageous to Southern success on the battlefield. To gain defensive strategic results, the Confederacy often employed offensive maneuvers, and the resulting "defensive-offensive strategy" proved effective in many campaigns, such as the offensive undertaken by Gen. Robert E. Lee to defend Richmond, VA, during the Seven Days' campaign.

A recurring strategic goal of both countries during the war was the capture of the enemy's capitol city. The success of such a move would be primarily symbolic, with psychological rather than strategic importance to the course of the war.

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