13 thoughts on “The Sunday Question: Union Strategy in the East

  1. Bryn Monnery August 21, 2011 / 5:59 am

    This begs the question when?

    The correct strategy is the one that plays to Federal strengths and Confederate weakness. It needs to Fix (as in the modern doctrinal term) the Confederates in place. This basically means getting to Richmond and besieging it. Notions of annihilating the Confederate army in the field are flights of fantasy.

    All of McClellan’s (including Burnside’s, it was basically a continuation of McClellan’s strategy) and Grant’s plans were basically sound within the restrictions they worked within. Get to Richmond (by sea if possible, overland if not) and use the Union’s material advantage to make it just a matter of time. I am not surprised that the Union possessed good generals who could analyse the situation and make the best of it.

  2. Matt McKeon August 21, 2011 / 7:54 am

    The terrain tended to favor the South. The Blue Ridge and Shenandoah Valley led away from Virginia, but towards Washington. The rivers flowed from west to east, acting as barriers and channels, limiting the avenues of approach. Virginia was the strongest Confederate state. So any Union strategy would have to involve engaging the Confederacy at its strongest point.

    That means a hell of a fight. McClellan’s idea of moving South by sea and attacking west, changing the rivers from barriers to channels for waterborne supplies and naval gun support was a pretty good one, although he failed in executing it.

  3. Ray O'Hara August 21, 2011 / 9:25 am

    There was nothing wrong with the Union Strategy in either the East the West or the coastal.regions. What there was was operational failures.

    Lil’Mac had a good idea with the York Peninsula campaign idea and he achieved his objective of getting past the Rebel lines. but he then spent a month on the Yorktown-Williamsburg line which should/could have been taken on the run with Magruder most likely being gobbled up.

    After the Peninsula campaign fell apart due to Mac’s incompetence and gutlessness as a field commander the Union went back to the “overland” route, advancing south down the DC-Richmond corridor using the Telegraph Road as the main axis of advance and supply.

    At Fredricksburg Burnside’s attempt failed because the pontoon train wasn’t where it was needed. if it was Burn crosses unmolested and it’s on to Richmond.

    Hooker had the smart idea of crossing further up river and it worked brilliantly he was across and on Lee’s flank and in position to pin Lee between the AoP, the coast and the Rappahanock. again it was stupidity and gutlessness that caused that plan to fail

    Chancellorsville represents the nadir of Lee’s strategic sense while it was at the same time his apex of tactical skill. Lee staying at Fredricksburg in the aftermath of the battle there was nmadness, he asked to be flanked to his left. When it happened though he didn’t react as Hooker imagined, by fleeing south in haste, he instead showed a bold {but very weak} front to Hooker and Hooker like Mac, stopped to reassess things when a strong continuing forward movement would have caused Lee no end of trouble and most likely have bagged him.

    After Chancellorsville Lee smartened up and moved to Mine Run where he couldn’t be outflanked and was in a posiution to intercept any Ubnion moves down the Telegraph road. this is what Meade and later Grant/Meade faced

    Wilderness, Lee had found that against previous Union commanders just showing a bold front would cause the AoP to stop. That was what he attempted when Grant repeated Hooker’s crossing. that plan was to flank F-burg and open up the Telegraph road to used as a supply line.

    Lee told Ewell and Hill to move up but not get engaged, he expected the AoP would stop as it always had before, instead Grant when confronted thus attacked them both bringing on the battle before Lee was expecting it and was fully ready, He wanted Longstreet up before starting things

    Lee barely survived the battle due to Longstreet’s arrival in time to stem the defeat of Ewell’s Corps and leading to the most misunderstood day in the war, Longstreet did not “turn” Grant’s flank, he caught Hancock’s attack in an exposed position due to Burnside’s failure{him again!} to follow up in time.Gibbon the real AoP flank spent the day unengaged
    Had Gibbon moved to his right he could have caught Longstreet as Longstreet had caught Hancock, A little initiative here could have ruined Lee’s day, and I believe messages to Gibbon requesting this were sent but not received by him.

    All Union Strategy in the East was cast in the shadow of Lincoln’s concern for DC. he was possibly overly sensitive about this but losing DC would have been a political disaster in a highly political war. In the West there was no such prize to protect from the CSA so there commanders had a freer hand to move and take chances.

    • Mark August 21, 2011 / 1:50 pm

      Ray, that’s a fascinating account of the matter. My route of “education” on the Wilderness or Overland campaign, indeed the CW generally, was to get a handle on the major battles and then to get a basic handle on the politics that drove it all. Now I’m about ready to return to the military history aspect of it again and deepen my knowledge of that and your account intrigues me. Have you ever listed the best books to read on the Wilderness? I will read Rhea’s account soon (haven’t read a word yet,) but I have seen in an interview on the question of whether it was a win/lose/draw that in his view Grant lost all the battles of that campaign but won the war. Now not a lot turns on that for me, since I can find just as many reasons to admire Grant and army and entire effort either way, but it is an interesting question as far as how the public saw it, North and South, and how Grant or his men saw it as far as who was “winning” these battles. It surprised me a bit that Rhea said that since I thought the near-breaking of the Confederate line at Spotsylvania seems to me like more of a “just about bagged them,” rather than a “oh they lost again.”

      • Ray O'Hara August 21, 2011 / 6:07 pm

        Rhea,’s book. Edward Steere’s The Wilderness Campaign, , General JFC Fullers”The Generalship of US Grant” which was the first book I read that portrayed Grant as a great general. A.A.Humphrey’s Wilderness campaign, Humphrey was the AoP Cheif of Staff. A book called Into the Wilderness With The Army of the Potomac by Robert Garth Scott, and of course Lee’s Lieutenants by D.S.Freeman While, Freemanwas a loyal Southerner I found his book fair enough, William Frassinito’s Book of pictures from the Wilderness. I recommend reading every one of those books and of course Brook’s Grant bio

        One thing I found very useful was the game on the battle James Epperson a member of this blog did the work on. It has a great map and while the system was almost unplayAable due to counter overload {not HJFE’s fault} I found using the units and the map with the order of arrival helped me understand the battle more than any single book and of course a dozen visits to the battlefield itself.

        The Grant lost all the Battles crowd puzzle me, all they do is indulge in casualty counting and judge victiory and defeat by whether Richmond fell the day after the fight. a rather shallow way of looking at things.

        What was the Battle of the Wilderness about and who achieved their goal? Grant was attempting to cross two rivers and them move on Richmond. Lee wanted to drive Grant back across the rivers and prevent a drive on Richmond, Clearly Grant achieved his objective. Shelby Foote with his “Grant had both Flanks turned”{ is a pure idiot. If Grant’s left was turned how was it that the AoP was able to continue moving to his left towards the Telegraph Road,{ now US Rte 1} and the right flank turning was the late attack by Gordons brigade that caused a minor kerfluffle and which CSA memory has enhanced into a major what if.,

        How Sposylvania can be called a CSA victory is equally puzzling as the effect of that battle was the destruction of Edward Johnson’s CSA division, Lee’s Army went from 9 divisions to 8, and the loss of an entire organization is worse than the men lost as a major maneuver unit was lost causing one of the three ANV corps to be a third weaker in one blow. even if the manpower losses were made good that was a serious loss

        Armies that were defeated don’t keep advancing, Attackers will suffer more than defenders and these same people will say Lee was a great general and then turn around and complain he wasn’t easily defeated. it makes no sense to me.

        And again the AoP

        Also Allies lost more men on June 6th 1944 than the Germans did but anybody suggesting that meant the Allies were defeated on D-Day would be laughed out of the room but that is the standard applied to the Overland Campaign.

        • Mark August 21, 2011 / 9:10 pm

          Okay, well its good to know I’m not alone in thinking that much of the analysis is somewhat flawed on the win/loss tactical scoring. The D-Day analogy is a good one I think. I’ve also heard various (or perhaps all) battles of the campaign explained as a “tactical loss but retained the initiative,” and I wonder how one can retain the initiative by losing battles. Anything to preserve Lee as the brilliant tactician and the Union general and soldier as the less skilled I suppose.

          I read JFC Fuller when I first started on the CW, and I thought it had a lot of great insights that were very helpful, and I think it was something of a landmark in Grant scholarship given the times and the strength of the Lost Cause. It also evened the score a bit for me on the British, since they tended to buy into much of the myth wholesale for different reasons and I understand guys like Churchill worshipped Lee. At least Fuller showed me they hadn’t all drank the Kool-Aid. 🙂

          I also read Steere some years ago, but I found it difficult to follow because of the great detail as I recall. I might give it another go now. Otherwise, I’ve put the other ones you mentioned on my reading list. Regarding the game you referred to that James Epperson worked on, I googled up the board game “Bloody Roads South. Is that the one? But it sounded like you were referring to an electronic game.

          • Ray O'Hara August 21, 2011 / 11:16 pm

            Yes Bloody Roads South is the one, it was years ago I played. it was part of a series of games that were detailed but somewhat clunky to play.

            and yes Churchill, who I think is the most overrated man of the 20th century and that the Allies won WWII despite him and not because of him, was an admirer of the CSA in genera; as he was never a friend of the common man. he even called for machine gunning striking British workers. But not all British felt as he did and it was the British who christened the M3 and M4 medium tanks the Grant and the Sherman and started the whole naming of American tanks after American Generals, a custom we still observe.

  4. Jeff Davis August 21, 2011 / 10:01 am

    Considering the unchartered territory both sides were entering I find it difficult to see another course but the one steered by Lincoln. It took time for him to learn about strategy and tactics and the difference between them, and his advisor ealy on, Scott, was the product of a much earlier generation of soldiers.

    I believe that McDowell and Pope were both good generals but no one had any experience moving large bodies of men and manipulating those movements into a coordinated maneuver at the time of battle, or of the giant logistical tangle required to sustain such a force. The very scale alone of operations in the early months of the war were totally foreign to all but a few who had observed war in the Crimea. McClellan was one of those and his experience with railroads, and his grooming by Jefferson Davis early in his career made him both a desired leader and one who’s credentials were suspect — or should have been. Nevertheless, he was the obvious choice to do what Scott was too old to do: organize the army. At this he was excellent, but in the field he was less than stellar.

    But someone was required to counter the Confederate forces in Virginia. The first efforts to deal Virginia a telling blow at Bull Run were a disaster, and equally disasterous for the Southern Cause when that army failed to follow up its route of Union Troops.

    I guess what I am saying is that I think that we had to go through all we went through in the first three years of the war to get to a point where we had more than a cause of restoring the Union that the other side wanted to leave. We had to have the Emancipation Proclamation to put us on a higher moral plane that the South. That time also gave us a chance to winnow through the leaders who were barely competent or inept, and promote those who showed they were capable of larger command. Lincoln survived this period well, including two major incursions north of the Potomac by the ANV, both repulsed.

    To do all that, and survive, what I call the “political war” had to be fought in Virginia, while the strategic fighting was done along the Mississippi, along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, and in the deep South.

    A lot of men died in this 36 month holding action, but no year would be bloodier than the last 12 months .

    • Mark August 21, 2011 / 2:01 pm

      Jeff, I think this is an astute expression about its being a “political war.” Didn’t Sherman favor ignoring the Eastern theater and strangling the South from the West and letting the AnV collapse on its own or something like that? I may misunderstand his view, but if so, that tells me that he didn’t fully grasp the politics of it. The strategy might have worked militarily given enough time, but politically it would be an acknowledgement that the Union wasn’t confident it could beat RLee, and the political implications of that I think are quite severe. Though the Battle of the Wilderness looms large in the accounts of the Lost Causers as it is, and the fuzzy-thinking accomplices who think of it mostly in terms of material resources, but can you imagine what they’d be saying if it were never fought? The inferiority complex with Lee and AnV had to be faced.

      • Jeff Davis August 21, 2011 / 5:48 pm

        Thanks, Mark, and I agree. Nevertheless, Lee was there with an army had to be dealt with. Once the Confederates moved the government to Richmond at the end of May Virginia became the political center of the war. It’s long border with the northern “border states” required a strong defensive force, but as we know, Lee refused to fight that way once he took over.

        The seizure of the Mississippi, the taking of Mobile and New Orleans, and the operations in North Carolina, along with the blockade, effectively isolated the south. By the time of the Battle of Atlanta it was time to deal out the same spirit-breaking treatment to those Georgia and South Carolina citizens that the Union had been doing by losing battle after battle in northern Virginia, and winning them in Maryland and Pennsylvania — reducing their morale, and thus stealing the political motivation to sustain the Confederacy.

        Add to that the eventual isolation of Virginia [minus West Virginia] and North Carolina by early 1865, and the war of attrition being won by Grant in Virginia, the only political support remaining in the Confederacy was likely that manifest by the will of Jefferson Davis and other diehards in Richmond, and one or two southern governors.

        The politics of the war were fought out in northern Virginia, and eventually at Richmond. Strategically there was really nothing in Virginia except the farms and the naval facilities in the Norfolk area. Other states had key seaports, or controlled sections of the Mississippi, and once they fell, imports and exports, essential for the Confederate economy virtually vanished. What got through was barely enough to sustain a few.

        Even had Lee escaped southbor west from Appomattox, there would have been nothing to sustain him politically, economically, logistically, or militarily.

  5. Ray O'Hara August 21, 2011 / 12:49 pm

    The “should’ve pursue after Bull Run” is up there with “should’ve attacked Culp’s Hill”
    the forces available were in no shape to do so and by the time they would have been the Yankees were ready to fight again.

    As for Lincoln, his learning strategy and tactics merely allowed him to interfere in them usually to the benefit of the CSA

  6. James F. Epperson August 21, 2011 / 2:20 pm

    McClellan’s basic idea—to “out-engineer” the enemy—was OK, but it never seemed to occur to him that in order to get into position to do that, your army might have to fight and (hopefully) win some battles along the way. He should have more aggressively dealt with Joe Johnston, both in Northern Virginia and on the Peninsula. The idea of approaching Richmond via the Southside was sound, but it required two pre-conditions: (1) An aggressive commander on the Southside; (2) Centralized command (of sufficient forces) in Northern Virginia. Neither condition held in 1862, and the second one almost failed in 1864.

    The Overland approach was an adequate substitute strategy, if pursued by a commander willing to push the effort. I don’t think there was such a man until Grant came East.

    • Ray O'Hara August 21, 2011 / 6:20 pm

      Words G.S.Patton always kept in mind and Lil’Mac never would understand

      “Fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run”.
      Rudyard Kipling from the poem If I first encountered that in a Patton Bio.

      McClellan took an hour to move 60 seconds of distance.

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