Confederate Strategic Options in 1864

In many ways 1864 was the critical year of the American Civil War. At the beginning of that year, despite a number of setbacks over the preceding twelve months, the Confederates were still in position to win the war (and thus independence) if only they could tire the Yankees (and the northern public) out. But how best to go about this?

You tell me whether the Confederates did about as well as they could have in the spring and summer of 1864 (and whether replacing Joseph Johnston with John Bell Hood really made much difference). What alternatives did the Confederates have, and why did they pursue the course they did?

15 thoughts on “Confederate Strategic Options in 1864

  1. Jerry Sudduth January 29, 2014 / 8:11 am

    In my opinion the Confederates did exactly as expected in the spring summer of 1864.

    The rebels didn’t have to win the war outright on the battlefield; all they had to do was make the war politically untenable for the Lincoln administration to the point that he couldn’t win reelection. The new administration would most likely sue for peace and the Southern Confederacy would gain independence from the Union. They came perilously close in doing so in 1864.

    I think the rebels were in a much better position in 1864 than one would expect. Yes, they lost at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chattanooga and Knoxville in the second half of 1863. The Union Armies were bigger and the Emancipation Proclamation and Conscription laws promised to refill the ranks of those armies. The South was in disarray by the effects of the war, but they were still in a good position to win the war.

    They held the interior lines of communication and supply, meaning they had shorter distances to move manpower and supplies than did the US forces. They could focus their not inconsiderable amounts of manpower on areas likely to be the targets of Grant’s armies. They could still grind the Federals to a standstill, which they succeeded to do throughout the first half of 1864.

    In the Georgia and Virginia offensives the rebels routinely escaped or stymied through fighting or maneuver attempts to outflank them. When battle was offered they fought behind the advantage of short, compact lines with good fortifications and fields of fire. They held the advantages, the Federals had to attack or maneuver in order to win. This cost in both terms of manpower and time, the Union really didn’t have an abundance of either. Bloodbaths at Kennesaw Mountain and Cold Harbor along with defeats on other fronts and the tedious advances to Atlanta and Petersburg disheartened the North.

    The defeats of the Federal Armies led by incompetent politicians such as Ben Butler, Franz Sigel and Nathaniel Banks didn’t help matters. All three had important roles in the Spring/Summer offensive of 1864 and none of then met their objectives. These reverses kept additional pressure in the form of numbers and the constriction of lines of communication and supply off of the two major rebel field armies. This meant they could deploy their full force against Sherman’s and Meade’s Union armies.

    Joseph Johnston competently slowed Sherman’s advance towards Atlanta. He gets criticized by constantly retreating in the face of Sherman’s forces, but he kept Sherman out of Atlanta and his army intact while in command. I think Sherman would’ve still taken Atlanta, but it is difficult to say whether he could’ve done it in the timeframe he did against Hood. Therefore the political effect may have been lessened. Also, Sherman’s forces wrecked Hood’s army, I believe Johnston would’ve kept the Army of Tennessee intact.

    Lee forced Grant into a grinding bloodbath in an attempt to outflank him. This was incredibly costly and demoralizing to the Union. The standstill at Petersburg was not the goal of Grant’s campaign. Lee used that standstill and the rebel victories in the Shenandoah Valley to send Early’s Corps on a raid into Maryland and come to the very gates of Washington before being forced back into Virginia. An army on the ropes couldn’t have done that. Grant had to detach vital troops from Petersburg to confront Early. However, by Lee detaching Early, it led to the destruction of that command, as Grant placed a competent and vigorous commander in Phil Sheridan to command the Federal forces in the Valley.

    The spring and summer of 1864 couldn’t have gone much better for the Confederacy, they came close to causing the very stalemate that would’ve seen the probable defeat of Abraham Lincoln in the presidential election. Yet, they made costly mistakes in replacing Johston with Hood and sending Early to the Valley. The Federal armies destroyed Hood’s and Early’s commands thoroughly and through hard fighting. That is what sealed the defeat of the Confederacy in my opinion.

    By late 1864 the Armies of the United States had the rebels right where they wanted them and finished them off in the spring of 1865. I see 1864 as the war’s most critical year and one where the Confederacy really lost the war.

    Editing note: could you delete the first post I made? I inadvertently hit post comment before finishing what I wanted to type, thank you.

  2. jfepperson January 29, 2014 / 8:21 am

    The Confederacy’s only hope was to hope Northern war-weariness compelled an end to the war, and the strategies East and West do seem to have supported that goal: Lee was generating shock casualties, Johnston was denying Sherman any major successes. Additional/larger raids into the north from the further western regions might have helped. The Johnston/Hood question hinges on an unknown: Would JEJ have stayed in Atlanta, or tried to defend it from his new line at Macon? (Or Tallahassee?) As badly as Hood got bloodied in July, he was keeping Sherman at bay for much of August; if Johnston stays in Atlanta, with a stronger army (not having suffered Hood’s casualties), he might have been able to hold out longer.

  3. John Foskett January 29, 2014 / 8:43 am

    Johnston – why on earth would anyone want to retain him in command by summer, 1864? The constant backpedalling on the Peninsula, capped by a poorly-directed attack at SP/FO once Davis required him to do something; the stationary, do-nothing “relief” of Vicksburg; and yet more backpedalling to the outskirts of Atlanta could have left Davis with no reasonable belief that this guy would actually fight Sherman. Somehow even today people think it was savvy technical chess. It wasn’t. There was nothing brilliant about walking backwards to set up trenches around Atlanta. And in no way am I suggesting that Hood was the answer. We know Lee’s views on Hood[‘s fitness for command at that level (even if the letter has been misinterpreted in a recent book).

  4. Ned B January 29, 2014 / 12:37 pm

    I agree with others that the rebels had to make the war politically untenable for the Lincoln. But I disagree in how they had to do this. They needed to deny the administration the appearance of progress or better yet undo some of the progress already achieved. To do this they needed to block forward movement and launch offensive actions. Despite the grinding losses, the Overland campaign kept moving closer and closer to Richmond. This is why Early’s campaigns was so important to 1864 — sending him there was one of the best things Lee did all year. And despite some good defensive moves, Johnston could not keep Sherman from getting closer and closer to Atlanta. While Hood failed at holding onto Atlanta, his movements after Atlanta had some promise.

    • John Foskett January 29, 2014 / 3:49 pm

      My problem is that Johnston was always making “good defensive moves”. He did it up the Peninsula and he did it towards Atlanta. To what end? He ultimately ended up on the very outskirts of (1) Richmond and (2) Atlanta. He only attacked in the first instance because of heat being put on him to do so, and then slapped together a poorly articulated verbal plan with too many moving parts that predictably turned out to be an ineptly executed attack. Does anyone think that he would have taken the tack Lee took in late June? As for Atlanta, what was his plan to take on Sherman there? Kennesaw was hardly a brilliant victory so much as it was a bad idea by Sherman – the end result of which was JJ withdrawing towards Atlanta. What do we think his plans were for Cump when Davis sacked him on July 17? I hope that they were better than those behind his “relief” of Pemberton. Johnston is in some ways the South’s version of McClellan. In hockey terms, he’s a guy who looked great “getting off the bus” but when the puck was dropped he was invisible.

      • Ned January 29, 2014 / 8:17 pm

        I agree with some of that. From what I can tell of his plans, they were reactionary and defensive — wait to see what the other guy does and then try to block it. In hockey terms, he’d make a great goalie but you cant win without scoring at the other end and he had no offensive vision at all.

  5. Scott Smart January 29, 2014 / 1:31 pm

    The best strategic option would be to get Peace Democrats nominated and elected in 64. Davis did make overtures via agents based in Canada to influence the political situation, but in many cases was hampered by state governors who saw making their own foreign policy with the Union a part of their “state rights”. The military planning should have been aimed towards that end.

    • Lyle Smith January 29, 2014 / 8:51 pm

      Yeah, this probably should have been their strategy from the start.

  6. Lyle Smith January 29, 2014 / 8:49 pm

    Johnston could have done better, although he had the right ideas about keeping his army intact until Sherman made a mistake that Johnston could take advantage of. However, he let Sherman get the jump on him and wasn’t able to ever seize the initiative back from Sherman. The battles fought before Atlanta, much like the Overland Campaign battles before Richmond, also wore down the offensive capabilities of those armies through attrition,which led to a deterioration of operational choices for the Confederate military.

    Lee, always thinking about how to get after the Army of the Potomac, might should have begun to think more defensively and not attacked Grant in the Wilderness. He might should have withdrawn to a prepared defensive line (along the North Anna?) that Grant had to attack. Lee didn’t know what Grant was all about though and that didn’t happen. Had it just been Meade in command, the attack in the Wilderness might would have paid the usual dividends.

    • John Foskett January 30, 2014 / 10:07 am

      Those are valid points but frankly Johnston (like our friend McClellan) seemed to always be waiting for the “right” moment to strike, all while sitting still or even going on the retrograde. And after his bungled exercise in late May, 1862 (for which he shares the blame, given his poorly-articulated verbal orders and unduly complicated plan which he failed to adapt to weather-induced conditions), I don’t think the guy knew how to strike. He never did it again – with the exception of Bentonville, when the game was pretty much up.

      • Lyle Smith January 30, 2014 / 8:14 pm

        I agree. He’s comparable to McClellan. He didn’t have the get right up in their face style that a Lee, Jackson, and Forrest had. I think he probably needed to stop Sherman’s initial advance out of the mountains during the Atlanta campaign and he totally failed to cover that Gap that came out in to his rear. Very poor decision.

        I think Johnston, like McClellan, had some sound ideas on strategy though. He might would have been a better Chief of Staff (he apparently was good with subordinates) of all military forces, but of course he felt jilted by Davis for not being ranked higher among the full generals and didn’t work well him. Oh well.

        • John Foskett January 31, 2014 / 8:56 am

          As a long-time McClellan basher, I’ve still always agreed that he could have served well in the position that was created for Halleck. The problem there (as it would have been with Johnston) is the poor relationship with the ultimate C-in-C.

          • jfepperson January 31, 2014 / 11:17 am

            I don’t think Mac’s ego would have allowed him to be in a “chief of staff” kind of position. Lincoln needed a George C. Marshall type of person, and Halleck wasn’t it. Mac would have been worse, IMO. This could be re-written for JEJ and Davis w/o changing the truth of it one bit. (Except that Davis did not think he needed a Marshall-type figure.)

          • Lyle Smith February 1, 2014 / 8:35 am

            To Davis’ credit he did lean on Lee as an advisor and maybe de facto Chief of Staff, and then of course Davis brought in Bragg in 1864 in a more official capacity.

            I think both Lincoln and Davis were right in being hands on (very much involved) Presidents for the Civil War.

          • John Foskett February 2, 2014 / 8:58 am

            I agree. That’s included in my assessment of McClellan’s relationship with Lincoln. But for that not inconsequential problem, he certainly had the skill set and instinct for that type of position – much more so than for field command.

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