The Sunday Question: Confederate Strategy in the East

Should the Confederacy have remained on the strategic defensive and foregone invasions across the Potomac, limiting itself to countering enemy moves, or should it have followed the more aggressive approach of Robert E. Lee?  Should it have followed the advice of James Longstreet and used operational maneuver to force the Army of the Potomac to launch attacks at places of Lee’s choosing?  In short, how should the Confederacy have waged war in the East?

9 thoughts on “The Sunday Question: Confederate Strategy in the East

  1. Michael Lynch August 28, 2011 / 11:15 am

    I’ve always been inclined to think a more conservative approach would have been best, but of course it’s a lot easier to say that in hindsight, knowing that Lee’s northern ventures didn’t exactly pan out.

    That’s a tricky thing to manage–on the one hand the perspective of hindsight is necessary, but on the other hand you’ve got to respect the circumstances and knowledge available to the players at the time. Us Rev War aficionados criticize Howe for being too timid in ’76, but then we turn right around and criticize Cornwallis for being too aggressive in early ’81.

    All that being said, though, I’ll still go with my preference for a strategic defensive.


  2. Jeff Davis August 28, 2011 / 11:33 am

    Frankly, I believe the CSA was in a no win situation once they failed to follow up on 1st Bull Run. Had they done so, they could conceivably have been able to literally walk into Washington, and that, in my opinion, would have been that. Northern sentiment would have gauged Southern power as strong enough to keep their Confederacy and some sort of an armistice would have been signed. Short and sweet.

    That said, What Lee did was, IMHO, almost correct. I would have eschewed any sorties of any kind into Maryland or Pennsylvania, as occurred. I would have simply maneuvered the ANV in front of the AoP to force the AoP to attack. When they attacked, the lost, badly, until late enough in the way that the numbers started to make a stark difference. But instead of two losses [Antietam and Gettysburg], Lee could possible have racked up several more victories and that may have had an influence on the major parties that affected the decisions in the North, Northern Newspaper Editors, the Northern public, Euroopean nations, and a frustrated Lincoln.

    I believe the two major losses, at Antietam and the narrow escape that was Gettysburg cost Lee and the CSA any chance at European recognition and help, and any possibility at swaying northern public opinion in favor of the CSA.

  3. Will Hickox August 28, 2011 / 11:55 am

    First answer: The Confederacy shouldn’t have waged war at all.

    Second answer: Lee should have allowed the release of Longstreet much sooner in 1863, allowing him to beef up Johnson’s force marching to relieve Vicksburg. Without the raid into Pennsylvania, Hooker wouldn’t have bickered with Halleck and would have probably been kept at the head of the AoP. Then we have a repeat of the pre-Chancellorsville interlude, except that Fighting Joe has been chastened and humiliated by Lee and the AoP has to deal with the Chancellorsville casualties and the release of the New York 2-year regiments.

    But as Michael pointed out, hindsight is always 20/20.

  4. Daryl Black August 28, 2011 / 12:30 pm

    The question is an intresting one for a casual Sunday discussion. As a new subscriber, I hope that I am following the script. If not, please accept my apology.

    Any successful military strategy that Davis and his bunch could have dreamed up would first have had to take into consideration the raw material demands of their military forces, assessed the places from which those materials came, and tailored a strategy that would have kept the military forces supplied with copper, wheat, corn, hogs, guano, iron, and coal. While the Virginia Valley might have been the bread-basket of the Confederacy, Middle and East Tennessee was the real source of all of the “stuff” the supply bureaus needed to make gunpowder, fuel the factories, feed the soldiers, and perhaps most importantly produce percussion caps. Lee’s soldiers lived on Tennessee meat, used gunpowder made from Tennessee bat $@&#, and used percussion caps made with Tennessee copper.

    So. Lee’s strategy should have been dictated by the necessity of protecting the productive heartland. Insert Tom Connely footnote here.

    Thanks for the question – was a nice way to spend a few minutes.


  5. Lyle Smith August 28, 2011 / 3:55 pm

    Maneuver and defend, or defend and maneuver. Attack small portions of Federal forces when it could.

  6. Steve Witmer August 28, 2011 / 6:01 pm

    I think both invasions were faulty in hindsight — we can look back today and see that there wasn’t enough southern sympathy in Maryland to garner the ANV much support, we can see that both invasions, while causing local panic, would overall galvanize the north to action. But I can see Lee’s logic in both attempts based on what were the “known” facts. Had Marylanders proven much more sympathetic in 1862, and/or had McClellan not found the Lost Order, events could have turned out quite differently. Really, about the only factual advantage in the end for both invasions was that they took the fight out of ravaged northern Virginia for a time, but I don’t think the price the ANV paid for that benefit was worth it.

  7. Ray O'Hara August 28, 2011 / 8:11 pm

    Some say hindsite is 20-20. to me it is no better than 50-60.

    And Confederate strategy? they never developed one.
    all confederate strategy ewast and west was a reaction to a local problem.
    At some point the CSA high command should have had a meeting where they figured out what they needed to do to survive until the Union got tired.of it.
    The USA had to conquer the entire CSA, Davis never seemed to understand that and so he set his armies to meet every thrust at the earliest possible spot and not at the most defensible ones. Anything lost to the Union would have been recovered at the negotiating table. I don’t think Davisunderstood that

    In the East I think the only chance they ever had for a battlefield victory was at the Seven Days which Jackson ruined{take that Krick}
    Someone brought up 1st Manassas and the failure to pursue but I put that in the same category as Culp’s Hill, a what if that was beyond the capability of the troops.

    Lee should have remained south of the Rappahanock-.Rapidan line he never had the strength to destroy the ANV and even had he won a signal victory the Union had plenty of troops in DC with which to reconstitute a new army.

    Lee kept trying for the win and played it into a loss when all he needed was a tie which if he had preserved his army was possible.
    A problem the CSA had with Lee was that Lee wasn’t a Confederate he was a Virginian. His only goal was to defend Virginia that caused him to burn out his army trying to hold VA and Richmond when a little flexibility would have helped. Lee should never have allowed himself to be pinned in the Rich-Pete defenses, better to have given them up and moved west towards the upper Shenandoah or south towards northern NC, anything to preserve his ability to maneuver . once his lost mobility the Union resource advantage became decisive.

    The rain was nothing out of the ordinary, under 2 inches, the winds no worse than a typical North Easter, but with the ground saturated by the recent rains trees were in soft ground so some big ones fell over, we merely lost some tree limbs but something took out a power line and our power was out from 10:45am until 10:00pm.

    • James F. Epperson August 29, 2011 / 4:29 am

      We have to remember that the Gettysburg Campaign was highly successful as a massive foraging raid—beeves, horses, tools, grain, all sorts of things were taken from Pennsylvania to Virginia. If Lee had just pulled back south after July 1st, it would have been considered a major victory.

  8. Terry Walbert August 29, 2011 / 12:08 pm

    I doubt that the South could have followed a “Fabian” strategy as the Romans did against Hannibal in the 3rd century BC or George Washington in the Revolution. The Carthaginians and British were isolated armies far from their base amidst a hostile or neutral population. The North was just over the Potomac, the Ohio, or the Appalachians.

    Had the war been fought in the 1840s with armies the size of those in the Mexican War, the South would have had a better chance. The North couldn’t have thrown the weight of its industry and manpower as easily against the South. By the 1860s the material disparities were so great that the only way the Confederacy could have won would have been for the North to lose the will to fight.

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