Unanswered Questions: Civil War Campaigns

Let’s try something a little different.

Over the next week, I’d like people to submit in the comments section of this post their questions about Civil War campaigns that, to their mind, remain unanswered. I’d like people to refrain from counterfactual questions (“What if Jackson had been at Gettysburg?”), because that’s a different sort of query (and “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer, because no one, in fact knows what would have happened when it comes to historical what-ifs). I also request that questions address campaigns as distinguished from battles (we may turn to battles later, but let’s see how this goes first). I’ll take the questions, frame them in separate posts, and then everyone can have at it (so don’t try to answer the questions in the comments section of this post).

The floor is open.



23 thoughts on “Unanswered Questions: Civil War Campaigns

  1. Shek October 13, 2013 / 6:22 am

    Would the capture of Richmond in the 1862 Peninsula Campaign have ended the war? The thrust of the question is two-fold. First, would the Confederacy have simply surrendered or would it have moved the capital and carried on the fight. Second, pre-supposing that it would have resulted in surrender, since Union policy at the time was conciliation, the root cause of the war (slavery) would have remained, and so what would have prevent a renewal of hostilities in the future over some later spark?

  2. John Foskett October 13, 2013 / 8:15 am

    How should the Overland Campaign be evaluated vs. the option of redoing in some fashion the Peninsula Campaign? By constantly trying to turn Lee’s right and eventually ending up in the Cold Harbor vicinity, it seems that Grant landed where McClellan landed, at a far greater price. (This assumes that the campaign was over when Grant decided to back away from Richmond by crossing the James and going after Petersburg/the railroads).

    • Shek October 13, 2013 / 12:27 pm

      John, I’d offer that to a certain extent, they are apples and oranges. The policy in 1862 was conciliation, and so the Peninsula Campaign sought to coerce the Confederacy by seizing Richmond. In 1864, Union policy had shifted to the hard hand of war and it was clear that the Union would have to compel the Confederacy into surrender. Thus, while Richmond remained a decisive point, the prize was now the Army of Northern Virginia, and so Richmond was now a means to an end rather than the end. While Grant was unable to bring the ANV to a battle of annihilation with the Overland Campaign, he was able to attrit it to the point that it no longer was able to regain the initiative with offensive operations. Contrary to 1862, where Lee went north, in 1864, Lee was fixed, allowing Sherman the ability to move through the South without fear of portions of the ANV combining with another force to attack him. Also, by going Overland, Grant kept DC covered, and by always going to Lee’s right, he was able to leverage Union seapower and concentrate forces at the front rather than bleeding manpower to protect land lines of communication.

      • John Foskett October 14, 2013 / 8:04 am

        I think that simply fails to account for McClellan’s objectives in his Urbanna/Peninsula plan. The goal was to flank the Confederates by getting between them and their capitol/supply lines. As it worked out, the objective changed (somewhat) because the Rebels got to Richmond and bolstered their numbers before McClellan got himself in position to do much of anything. By that point the ANV and Richmond were one and the same so that became the “objective”. But McClellan and Grant had initial intentions which were far more similar than the popular history suggests. Grant’s objective was not “attrition” – he was a little smarter than that, as he showed in the Vicksburg campaign. Lee’s ANV was no longer capable of broad offensive actions – that had been destroyed with the losses at Chancellorsville and then at Gettysburg, especially in the officer corps. Two of his three corps were commanded by officers who were more and more obviously not up to that level of command. While he could still manage to take the local tactical offensive on a battlefield (e.g., the second day’s attack at the Wilderness), that was about it. As for protecting D.C., there were ample troops on hand to handle that task – until, ironically, Grant started yanking them away because of the attrition he was inflicting on himself. The popular history, short form version that the “objectives” in 1862 and 1864 were different misses far too much.

    • Nick Fry October 13, 2013 / 2:15 pm

      I would say that the objectives of the two campaigns were different. Peninsula was a campaign built around the capture of Richmond. Overland was a campaign built around the engagement, defeat and destruction of a field army.

  3. Mike Rogers October 13, 2013 / 9:12 am

    Curious about Hood’s Tennessee Campaign in 1864. If Hood had actually gotten into Tennessee on his original schedule or if the Spring Hill attack had worked as planned, would it have made a material difference in the outcome of the war? Might either of those scenarios have forced Sherman to abandon his Georgia/Carolina march? Or, would Grant have been forced to ease the siege on Petersburg?

    • Will Hickox October 13, 2013 / 2:49 pm

      Did Sherman’s March contribute materially to the defeat of the Confederacy? Instead of doing the logical thing for an army commander to do–march after the enemy force that was trying to win back Tennessee and invade the North–he merely left behind some forces for another general (Thomas) to organize and do the fighting, while he (Sherman) marched off in the opposite direction on a giant raid through enemy territory that offered no threat.

      Did showing the Confederacy was a “hollow shell” make the march justified, or should he have dealt with Hood first?

      • Joshism October 14, 2013 / 5:01 pm

        I am under the impression Sherman felt he couldn’t deal with Hood after Atlanta fell. At that point, Sherman’s army was the exposed one as he couldn’t defend his supply line back to TN against Hood’s raids. Rather than trying to chase Hood around GA or AL with a strained supply line Sherman cut free instead.

  4. R. Kubera October 13, 2013 / 11:21 am

    Respectfully, (and off topic but, still, imo, a good question) I would really like to know what was so great about R.E. Lee.

    I understand that he contributed to the peace by his behavior after the war.

    But as a general who won battles, he never completed the job.

    Personally, he lost his wife’s estate, did not help her pack (including items that belonged to George Washington, his hero), did not find her a place to stay, did not drive her there, did not help her settle in, and rarely visited her. Sure, he wrote to her, but that was all about him, seems like.

    Oh, and he is said to have enjoyed flirting with young women ( something a person in his position probably would not get away with today. )

    Is he great because he was beloved as a general and hero of his country, and so therefore respecting and maintaining esteem for him after the war contributed greatly to sustaining peace?


    • R. Kubera October 20, 2013 / 6:10 am

      Hi, Dr. Simpson.
      I have been thinking about my question: What’s so great about R.E. Lee? And I’m thinking maybe there was no point in asking it. He was a man from another time, another world. He inspired and led his people. He was successful even in defeat.
      As for treatment of his wife, well, I am reading Porter Alexander’s “Fighting for the Confederacy” and when the South was defeated Alexander’s plan was to join an army in South America somewhere so he could keep up his career. He had a wife and, I think, three little kids. Leaving them seems not to be part of the equation — not mentioned, at least, as a factor in his decision making.
      John Brown also chose “career” over needs of or obligation to his wife and family.
      You wanted questions about battles. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were at war, a civil war, at this time…… but that’s really off topic, so forget it.
      I feel for Mary Custis Lee. If she was born male, I bet she would have stayed with the union and kept her property. There’d be no Arlington National Cemetery.
      It is interesting to consider what made a man like R.E. Lee tick – not as a soldier but as a person. I listen to lectures about him and his army. I read a bit. But so far I don’t hear what I’m trying to understand about who this person was. Maybe it’s a question for the Psychology Department?

  5. Nick Fry October 13, 2013 / 11:24 am

    I’m curious why it took until 1864 to move a second Union Army to the Virginia tidewater after the withdrawal from the Peninsula in 1862. Was the idea so attached to McClellan that nobody wanted to be associated with it or was the experience so bad for the generals on the Army of the Potomac that they lost all enthusiasm for fighting in that area?

    • Stephen Graham October 13, 2013 / 10:29 pm

      Dix’s Peninsular Campaign of June and July 1863 was small and unsuccessful, but it did take place.

  6. Patrick Young October 13, 2013 / 11:43 am

    The largest disaster for the Confederacy in the first 13 months of the war was the Union capture of New Orleans. The city was the largest in the Confederacy, the second largest port in the U.S. in 1860, and the principal likely port for shipment of cotton to Liverpool if exports were resumed. Could Confederate forces engaged in quixotic expeditions into northern Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, etc. have been moved to Louisiana in time to forestall the capture of the city and thereby deny the Union a choke hold on any possible commercial use of the Mississippi? This would have also substantially complicated Union moves against Vicksburg and denied the Union of the political and manpower advantages that came from capture of the city.

  7. Schroeder October 13, 2013 / 12:40 pm

    Why do some groups downplay the major role that slavery played in the Civil War? Why do some parts of the modern-day South feel that they can secede? Why the chip on shoulders about the Civil War? In my opinion, the entire East Coast is now meshed pretty much together with people from all over – and I think that Florida probably has the most retired Northerners that I’ve ever seen! Florida is its’ own melting pot, if you will.

  8. Don October 13, 2013 / 1:14 pm

    Why did the Army of the Potomac halt in the Wilderness on the first day of the Overland Campaign, when all the planning had emphasized the importance of avoiding the battle that occured? The whole idea was to get into open country in order to bring to bear the USA advantage in numbers and artillery. The halt was sought by Meade and approved by Grant despite the early hour. Why?

    • R. Kubera October 15, 2013 / 4:08 am

      I have always wondered about this, too.
      Was Grant trying to please Mead? Trying to get along…?

  9. Lyle Smith October 13, 2013 / 1:57 pm

    I’m not sure this is an unanswered question about a campaign, but why didn’t Longstreet stay east of the mountains and in contact with part of the Army of the Potomac during the Gettysburg campaign?

  10. Tony October 14, 2013 / 12:09 am

    Here’s one: how did McPherson’s insubordinant outburst after Raymond affect his personal and professional relationship with McPherson and relationships with other subordinates? Immediately, did it affect Grant’s decision whom to send to Jackson / Cattanooga (McPherson would seem to have shown more operational savvy of the two between Sherman and McPherson at that point in the war). Later, might Grant have placed McPherson in charge in the west? Subsequently did it affect the personal relationships that Grant might have extended to other subordinates such as Sheridan?

  11. Joshism October 14, 2013 / 5:16 pm

    1) Why did Burnside end up in VA with Grant for the Overland Campaign rather than staying in TN/GA for Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign? (I believe Schofield replaced him as head of the Army of Ohio.

    2) Were the Army of the Valley and the Army of the James allocated to Sigel and Butler from the beginning of planning for the coordinated 1864 campaigns? Did Grant make any effort to argue for other commanders or did he accept these political officers without debating the issue with Lincoln?

    3) Rosecrans got command of the Army of the Cumberland in Oct 1862 with heavy pressure to fight Bragg before winter which lead to Stones River just over 2 months after he got commander. Yet he stalled until June 1863 before finally starting the Tullahoma Campaign. Was Rosecrans in serious danger of being relieved of command (presumably to be replaced by Thomas)?

    4) What campaign of the war do you think gets far less study than you believe it deserves? I personally feel like the Bristoe and Mine Run Campaigns have been glossed over because they didn’t involve any large battles.

  12. TF Smith October 14, 2013 / 8:55 pm

    The 1862 “Western” Grand Campaign –

    Why didn’t or couldn’t Halleck gets off the dime in 1862 after Henry-Donelson, Island Number 10, pea Ridge, etc? Did Shiloh have that much impact that he really thought Iuka-Corinth was the way to go? Could he have done better?

    If not, would it have taken Grant getting the supreme command in the West after Henry-Donelson, rather than Halleck – maybe Halleck goes east immediately after GBM’s relief as G-in-C?

    Either way, the US had what would historically be Grant’s six divisions from the AotT (ie, Shiloh OOB), and about 9-11 divisions made up of Buell’s (AotO) and Pope’s (AotM) forces, all made up of 1861 long-service regiments…call it 17 divisions of 6,000-8,000 men each, at this point, from Cumberland Gap to Island Number 10. Heck, throw in Curtis’ division in Southwest Missouri to make it 18 divisions.

    Butler can presumably handle New Orleans – could the US have taken control of the Mississippi in 1862? Memphis and Vicksburg and Port Hudson? Take and hold Nashville and Middle Tennessee along the Duck River and then “liberate” East Tennessee and Knoxville? Chattanooga? Mobile?

    All of the above?


  13. Craig A. Cellitti October 15, 2013 / 8:24 am

    During the 2nd day at Gettysburg, did Wright’s brigade really reach the crest of Cemetery Ridge or was Wright confused in the smoke and stress of battle as to where he actually was? Allen Guelzo’s book says that he was on the crest; Coddington says he wasn’t. Which is right?

  14. Nick Fry October 17, 2013 / 8:16 pm

    Ok,. here’s a question that’s come up in my mind recently after doing some research on railroad surveys before the war. Why did the Confederacy waste their resources on an undermanned expedition to the Southwest? They could have sent troops from Texas in force early in the war to go to California if they wanted. Instead those troops went East from Texas. And after sending those men away, they still send a small force that got beat up at Glorieta Pass. So, what were they thinking?

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