Friday, April 22, 2011

Sesquicentennial, Part XIV: Grand Strategy


With the secession of the border states, the battle lines were ... not quite drawn. The first few months of fighting were very, very confused. For one, especially in places like Kentucky and Missouri, it wasn't immediately clear which territory belonged to whom. And for another, both sides were not entirely sure how they were going to go about this. Everyone hoped that some kind of compromise could be reached, that some kind of deal could be struck, so very little actual planning had taken place if the worst came to pass.

Well, the worst had come to pass. Now what?

The Confederacy

Jefferson Davis was an 1828 graduate of West Point. He had served with distinction as a colonel of volunteers during the Mexican War, and had been Secretary of War under President Pierce. During the war that began with the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Jefferson Davis was, for all intents and purposes, his own Secretary of War. I say this mainly to draw your attention to one salient fact: Davis knew, Davis had to have known, that the Confederacy was punching out of its weight class. In every category that was measurable or quantifiable, the Confederacy lagged behind the Union. They had fewer men, they had fewer industries, they had fewer miles of railroad track. If it became a war of attrition, there was no possible result but defeat. President Davis was a man well-versed in military affairs, so none of this would have come as any sort of surprise or shock. So, from the very beginning, the Confederacy looked for salvation across the Atlantic.

The "King Cotton" strategy rested upon the reliance of European, and particularly British industries on Southern-produced cotton. Just as Southern plantations supplied the industrial mills in the North, they also supplied similar mills in England's industrial towns. Let the Union blockade as it will, if the might of the Royal Navy could be enlisted to keep the South's ports open, well, they'd be kept open. The might of the Royal Navy on the open seas was beyond question. From the very beginning, the Confederates had sent commissioners to London to seek recognition from the British crown. On the one hand, many Englishmen would find it quite pleasant to poke the Yanks in the eye with a sharp stick. But, there were two major strokes against such action. One, without question it'd mean war with the United States, carrying with it the loss of American grain exports, the probable loss of a great deal of English merchant shipping, and the possible loss of Canada to invasion. And for another ... England had abolished slavery in 1833. Much of the English public would find it disquieting at best to ally openly with an avowedly pro-slavery power. That all said, English merchants would have no qualms at all about doing business with Southern gentlemen. The South would receive small amounts of arms, and a few specially-built commerce raiders, from such contacts with the British.

No one else in Europe cared all that much. France was interested in propping up the government of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, and Emperor Maximilian was somewhat friendly to the Confederacy. The most important port for the Confederacy, then, would not be Norfolk or Charleston, it would be Vera Cruz, which the Union wouldn't blockade.

The Union

Lieutenant General Winfield Scott had been in uniform longer than anyone in American history, before or since. While President Abraham Lincoln was General Scott's commander-in-chief, Lincoln yet had much to learn about military strategy. Lincoln was rectifying that situation as fast as he could, by reading everything the Library of Congress had on the subject, but in the early months of the war he would lean heavily on General Scott's experience. And, in General Scott's opinion, one thing mattered above all else: supplies. Napoleon once said that an army marches on its stomach, and he was mostly correct. For most of history an army could pretty much live off the land. But a modern army, in addition to food, also needed powder and ammunition and rifles and cannon, all of which could only be made in a few specialized places. Then, all of that materiel had to be shipped from its point of manufacture, to where the army happened to be. General Scott saw the keys to victory as first ensuring that the Union army could stay well-supplied, and secondly denying the same to the rebels. Thus could the rebel army be starved out, rather than battered into submission. The Union would no doubt win a war of pure attrition, but the cost was horrifying to contemplate.

For the first, to ensure Union lines of supply, it was vital that the Union retain control of the Ohio river valley, and of the railroads that ran along its banks. This, among other reasons, was why it was so important for the Union to retain possession of Kentucky. With both banks of the Ohio river secure, the Union had a safe line of communication and supply between its western and eastern areas. This was essential, if the Union was to be able to use its advantages in men, manufacturing, and transportation to its fullest.

For the second, to disrupt the Confederacy's supply lines, the first element of General Scott's plan would be a Union naval blockade of Confederate ports. This would have two effects. First, the Confederacy would be unable to realize large shipments of military equipment from abroad, nor would they be able to engage in foreign trade. Second, the Confederacy would be forced to draw down its reserves of hard currency for those foreign transactions they could complete even in the face of a blockade. The next element of General Scott's plan would be to drive a Union army down the Mississippi river to cut the Confederacy in two. To an excellent approximation, the Mississippi river was the Confederacy's transportation infrastructure. Much of the rail network that the South had was focused on getting agricultural products to ports on the Mississippi. If the Union controlled the river, it would be very difficult for the Confederacy to keep its soldiers sufficiently supplied with food and ammunition. This would take a heavy toll on the Confederacy's ability to make war, and would facilitate the Union's victory, at a minimum cost in blood and treasure.

General Scott's plan was not immediately adopted. It was not popular with the political leadership, since it assumed a long war lasting years, not months. Virtually everyone, on both sides, assumed that the war would consist of a short campaign and a quick victory. And both sides were assembling the force that they were sure would win the coming battle. Spirits were high, and morale was excellent; visions of glorious deeds danced in young mens' heads.

Except for those that had read their history books.

1 comment:

Infidel753 said...

This series is really interesting, thanks!