I just finished How the North Won, by Archer Jones and Herman Hattaway, an extremely thorough military history of the Civil War. If you are a little hazy on the difference between strategy and tactics, this book will cure that.
And you’ll learn about logistics. So much logistics. One of the major figures of the book is a gentleman I’d never heard of– Henry Halleck, who functioned as the northern chief of staff and, in Jones and Hattaway’s telling, something of the architect of the overall Northern strategy.
Mid-19th century warfare (i.e. post-Napoleon, pre-WWI) was transformed by two things: the rifle and the railroad, both of which made an infantry army almost impregnable to a frontal assault.
The rifle made cavalry virtually obsolete on the battlefield: it was fast and accurate enough that it could decimate an oncoming cavalry charge. And that in turn meant that soldiers didn’t have to stand to resist the charge with bayonets, but could lay down, or better yet take cover behind improvised earthworks, which protected them from artillery fire, the bane of Napoleonic warfare.
A frontal assault was almost always suicide– e.g. the famous charge by Pickett at Gettysburg, one of Robert E. Lee’s few mistakes. Commanders had better luck with turning movements– i.e. attempts to go right or left round the enemy’s flank, with hopes of moving against his weaker rear. But even this often failed; even fairly raw troops could be fairly easily turned around to face the threat. There were very few routs in the Civil War; if you did manage to turn the enemy, he almost always successfully retreated. (That might be enough to take a major objective; but the typical progress of a Civil War campaign was a series of battles a dozen miles apart, as the defending army fell back to a new defensive position.)
The fastest and cheapest transport and supply lines were still by sea; but the railroad was almost as good, allowing enormous armies to be moved at unprecedented speeds. Wagon trains, though they had to be resorted to, were a distant third. William Sherman once estimated that his advance to Atlanta would have required 36,000 wagons and 220,000 mules without the railroad, a simple impossibility.
The North had a bigger army and a huge edge in industrial production, but it faced a huge predicament: a large enemy army was almost impossible to dislodge. In particular, as one general after another discovered, taking Richmond– a tempting hundred miles from Washington DC– was almost impossible. Lee’s army was too strong, the city was too well connected by rail and canal to its supply regions, and Lee made no blunders that created openings. (The North tended to blame its succession of generals– McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, Meade, Grant– but it was an inherently difficult problem.)
Things were easier in the West, where initially the North had the great advantage of water transport along the great rivers as well as the Gulf of Mexico. This allowed the conquest of western Tennessee, New Orleans, and ultimately Vicksburg (July 1863). And that in turn suggested the better strategy: keep Lee busy in Virginia, but slowly conquer the West. By careful and strong provisioning the North managed to drive through eastern Tennesee to Chattanooga (Sep. 1863). The Navy was of course blockading the coast; the overall idea was to strangle the South and roll it up from the West– the “anaconda strategy“.
But further progress stalled. Conquests had to be protected, and the increasingly long supply routes protected; relatively tiny Confederate raiding forces tied up tens of thousands of Union troops. (This was the one remaining, and still very effective, use of cavalry.) And the interior railroad lines of the remaining Confederacy allowed armies to be quickly concentrated to resist any large-scale intrusion.
Grant‘s genius was to turn the Confederate raiding strategy against the South. Instead of small cavalry forces, he’d send a huge infantry force, which would have the usual protection from direct assault. It could cause immense destruction– tear up railroads, destroy factories, turn slaves producing for the South into soldiers fighting for the North– and best of all, it didn’t need a supply line to protect. By moving into new territories it would live off the land, and it could simply fight its way into a place where it could be reprovisioned.
Sherman tested out the idea with a raid from Vicksburg to Meridian, and it worked like a charm. He then fought his way conventionally from Chattanooga to Atlanta (Sep. 1864, just in time to pave the way to Lincoln’s re-election). He didn’t bother to occupy Atlanta, but just burned it. Then he cut his way in a wide swath to Savannah.
Grant tried to use the raiding strategy elsewhere, though he was dogged by a few incompetent generals. But finally some of them got it, notably Sheridan in northern Virginia. (A subtheme of the book is that both armies functioned as brutal meritocracies. By 1864 or so the incompetent generals had almost entirely been eliminated)
Grant meanwhile bludgeoned his way to Petersburg, just south of Richmond. This part of the campaign didn’t look any better than the earlier generals, but at least his attacks kept Lee’s huge army busy. (One enormous missed opportunity: a clever mining operation blasted a huge hole in the Confederate lines at Petersburg, in July 1864. At the last minute a well-trained unit of black soldiers was replaced by some less-ready white troops, who didn’t occupy the breach quickly enough.)
Sherman turned north, marching through the Carolinas and reaching Fayetteville in March 1865. This completed his work of devastation; the remaining railroad links to Richmond were cut. An ill-advised attempt by Hood to retake Nashville had devastated the Confederates’ last remaining large army besides Lee’s; nothing would prevent Sherman moving north to join Grant.
The end was anticlimactic; Sheridan joined Grant and turned Lee’s army to its right, forcing Lee to abandon Petersburg and Richmond and retreat westward. Grant followed and Sheridan moved on ahead, trapping Lee’s army.
Sherman’s March to the Sea was brutal, but Archer and Hattaway show that it was a brilliant and necessary military strategy. Defeating Lee by assault was impossible, and the slower conquest strategy in the west would have taken many more years. The only way to counter the advantages of the defense in 19C warfare was to destroy the enemy’s means of production.
The book glances only lightly at the political and social situation, besides mentioning Lincoln‘s basic difficulty: the public, the politicians, and the newspapers did not understand the anaconda strategy, but wanted battles won by direct assault… a type of campaign that just was not going to happen. Lincoln educated himself on military matters, however, and very effectively mediated between the civil and military points of view.
The story is slow-going at times, but that’s part of the point: warfare at this time was achingly slow. Some generals exacerbated this– Lincoln described several of them, especially McClellan, as having a case of “the slows”– but even the best generals took months to prepare any movement, and with good reason: maintaining a hundred thousand soldiers was an enormous logistical problem.
A particularly neat feature is the extensive maps– large-scale diagrams explaining the river and railroad network and overall strategy, as well as tactical maps, often several per battle. The authors also extensively quote diaries and letters of the generals, giving a fascinating glimpse into their mindset, as well as into the strange nature of a civil war– the generals usually knew each other and had often studied under the same professors at West Point.
There’s also any number of interesting facts… e.g., did you know the last Monitor class ironclad was retired only in 1937?