Quit Talkin' Smack About Bob
A Reasoned Justification For Offensive Operations and Tactics
"Bob", lover of animals, women, children, and fried chicken - butcher of men?
| "But General Longstreet, the enemy is in front of us.
We must attack him." This line from the movie "Gettysburg"
may not be entirely historical, but it's close to it. It is spoken by
General Lee, portrayed by notorious peace activist in
apparent need of Ex-lax and nasal decongestant.
Could it possibly be that simple
- "The enemy is in front of us. We must attack him."?
Could the methods of one of history's great captains be explained in these two short
sentences? Not quite. There were good reasons for the Confederates
to take the offensive operationally and tactically, and to be fair, the movie
version of Bob goes into a somewhat more lengthy explanation.
In recent years it has become stylish to criticize the aggressive methods of Lee and other Confederate commanders. Strongly implied is that Confederate attacks were rash and not based on sound analysis of the situation. They harmed the Confederate war effort by their futile waste of manpower. The Battle of Franklin is given as a prime example, and by all accounts it was a complete waste. Some historians like Grady McWhiney have suggested that the propensity to attack was a racial or ethnic characteristic. His books, "Cracker Culture" and "Attack and Die" seems to argue that southerners liked, among other things, to drink and fight, so attacking the enemy was natural, but entirely counterproductive. The tactical defense, he argues, would have been more effective. Some even suggest that the abandonment of large areas of the South would have been wise. Could decades of conventional wisdom be wrong? Could General Lee have been a butcher? Maybe, but I don't think so. In fact, I suspect that these historians' opinions are influenced by the ultimate result of the war. It can be easy to ignore the fact that good decisions can have bad results - and bad decisions can lead to good results. As hard as it is, we must judge decisions on the information available at the time they were made, not on what we now know. Just because a battle or war turned out as it did doesn't mean that it was pre-ordained. The result might not have even been likely!
From some internet polls I've seen, it appears that many people believe that the Confederacy couldn't have won the war. They couldn't be more wrong. Perhaps people are willing to believe these judgments because of their own prejudices. It is obvious that many people have an anti-Confederate prejudice, but Confederate sympathizers can also hold these opinions because they seem to justify defeat. I can't help but detect that many people's opinions on the war are held with near religious faith, that no amount of logic and reasoning will change their mind. You may even think similar things about me. But if you are willing to accept the possibility that I might be right, please continue.
Bob vs. The Rifled Musket.
"He always runs while others walk ... He acts while other men just talk ... His fight goes on and on and on .... But he thinks that the fight is worth it all ... So he strikes like thunderball" - Tom Jones.
A Rifled Musket Revolution?
It is often stated that the rifled musket transformed warfare, giving the defense a decisive advantage. Indeed, there is some truth to the argument. Rifled muskets were more accurate and could be used more effectively at longer ranges. With the old muskets, the loose fit between the bullet and barrel meant that when fired, the bullet would bounce around on its way down the barrel, with the final trajectory determined by its last bounce. So, yes, the rifled musket did give the bullet a better, more predictable flight.
But many of the other problems of the musket remained. Slow bullet velocity meant that vertical aim was vital to accuracy, much more so than today. A minor error in vertical aim would lead to an overshoot. In "Arms and Equipment of the Civil War", Jack Coggins gives the example that a bullet fired at a man's belt buckle 300 yards away would be too high to hit a man at 250 yards, and would fall at the feet of a man at 350 yards. So like smoothbore muskets, the allegedly accurate rifled muskets were only effective at short ranges for most soldiers. Paddy Griffith in "Battle Tactics of the Civil War" calculates average ranges for initial volleys of from 120 to 140 yards, and this figure may be skewed by occasional irrational volleys at 400 yards or so. He even states that combat ranges in World War II and Korea were only around 100 yards - this with much superior high velocity weapons with a flatter trajectory. Despite the alleged great lethality of Civil War weapons, in most cases, casualty rates of past wars were higher than those of Civil War battles.
Other factors served to reduce a soldier's battle effectiveness. Smoke, a constant feature of battles of the gunpowder era, made aiming virtually impossible after a round or two, reducing soldiers to merely pointing their weapons toward the enemy. Nature's way of preventing violent death, fear, significantly reduced a soldier's efficiency in battle. Men would straggle or rush to help their wounded comrades off the field. And you can bet that if a man was frightened enough to soil himself, he wasn't putting much thought into using his weapon. Indeed, at Gettysburg, 18,000 of 37,000 recovered muskets had multiple rounds in the barrel. Here's the most likely explanation - The weapons misfired, perhaps because the soldiers had simply placed the contents of their cartridges into the muzzle in the wrong order - then more amazingly not even noticed that their gun hadn't fired.
Under circumstances like these, there is no doubt that like soldiers of the past, well disciplined Civil War soldiers with high morale, who were willing to close with the enemy and skewer him, would triumph on the battlefield. So instead of two bodies of fearful men blasting a away at each other indefinitely, the attack of one less fearful body would likely put to flight the more fearful body - at least in 1862 and 1863.
In 1862, rifled muskets were rare, and this was
the heyday of Confederate attacks. Yes, by 1864 combat WAS different.
Exactly why is an interesting and debatable question. The greater use of
rifled muskets is a possible explanation, maybe even a good one. But the
increased use of field fortifications definitely strengthened the defense.
They protected the defender from the attacker's fire and delayed attacking
troops, putting them in harm's way for longer. Although late Civil War
experience is often represented as a revolution in warfare, the use of
entrenchments to protect entire regions or whole armies was common in the War of
Spanish Succession and the Seven Years War. So it wasn't really new.
What was new was the wide dispersal of armies that resulted when armies spread
themselves thin to outflank their opponents. Widely spaced troops were
less able to carry fortified lines, and awkward communications made coordinating
attacks harder. But given the right circumstances, attacks on fortified
lines could and did succeed.
Actual Contributors Toward Indecisiveness
Certain factors did tend to make Civil War combat less decisive than it could have been, specifically problems with the artillery and cavalry, caused in part by terrain. It is often said that artillery was less effective during the Civil War because of rifles. But if you accept that the rifle was largely ineffective at normal artillery ranges of 700 yards or more, you have to look elsewhere. With rolling terrain and forests, terrain conspired to make the guns less effective. Some historians use the Wilderness as an example of the uselessness of artillery. Although there is some truth to this argument, areas like the Wilderness were the exception and not the rule, and in fact Lee chose the Wilderness as a battlefield in order to negate Union artillery superiority. Guns were still quite useful, in fact, Malvern Hill, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg are among the battles fought where artillery played a major role. Artillery was even of decisive importance during the last day of Chancellorsville, despite its being fought in the depths of the Wilderness.
Unlike European warfare, cavalry was lacking in numbers in America. It was also generally unwilling to charge infantry, so the infantry could spread out, making them less vulnerable to artillery and small arms fire too. By 1864, battlefields were considerable wider than in 1862, and armies were harder to co-ordinate. Why was cavalry relatively scarce and unwilling to charge infantry? Probably not because of the rifle - at least at first. Among the few incidents of cavalry charging infantry is 1st Manassas, fought before the large scale use of rifles. Although the charge was successful, it seemed to dissuade Stuart from similar behavior in the future, like at Gaines Mill, where it was suggested. Cavalry was expensive and difficult to feed in an area of low population density, unlike Europe. Terrain also made cavalry battle difficult, especially the large number of fences, unlike in Europe. So the Napoleonic ideal of close cooperation among infantry, cavalry, and artillery was never realized. In some ways, Civil War combat more closely mirrored 18th Century pre-Napoleonic tactics, an era of less decisive combat, but probably more decisive than many people perceive.
Poor staff work is a frequently cited deficiency of Civil War armies. With staffs only a fraction of the size of their Napoleonic counterparts, coordination between units on the battlefield was difficult. Perhaps the best example of this is the second day at Gettysburg, where Lee's en echelon attack broke down due to the failure of one unit to advance. As a result, the most vulnerable part of the Union line, northern Cemetery Ridge, was not attacked. As will be shown later, despite all these difficulties, decisive battle very nearly did happen on a number of occasions.
So if you can accept my assumptions, isn't it reasonable to look at the wars and great captains of the gunpowder era to see what example had been set for Civil War generals. Because the socket bayonet put the pikeman out of business, lets look to the time after 1700 for guidance, when men were formed into thin lines for battle. It will be same wars and commanders that educated Civil War generals would have studied. As we will see, none of these examples argue for defensive or guerilla warfare. None.
A token of the Queen's gratitude.
|Marlborough - Although this frugal Duke was known to visit his subordinates at dinner time, he nevertheless understood the necessity of expending his soldiers' lives in battle. Detractors of his time would label him a butcher, but his numerous victories in battle won the War of Spanish Succession. When possible, Marlborough took the war to the enemy, and fighting in enemy territory helped make war pay for war. Marlborough specialized in frontal attacks, and even after his methods made him predictable, he was still victorious.|
Maurice de Saxe - Yes, his most famous battle, Fontenoy, was a defensive victory. A British attack was compacted into an enormous column which nearly pushed the French into the river at their back to their total destruction. Only luck saved him. As the War of Austrian Succession continued, de Saxe was consistently the aggressor, using maneuver to push the allies out of the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) and using columns for maneuver on the battlefield and sometimes even for attack.
|Frederick the Great - King of the small militarized nation of Prussia and surrounded by larger enemies, Frederick did not wait for his enemies to act in concert and invade his country. His only real option was to advance into enemy territory and seek out and destroy the enemy army. Possessing a superior army capable of speedy movements on the battlefield, he placed his army on the enemy's flank and mercilessly attacked their most vulnerable point. He often used the en echelon attack, with troops advancing in stair step formation, a more efficient method because later troops could be diverted into a breakthrough - or at the least face troops more concerned with the threat to their flank. Although his attacking style sometimes led to costly battles like Zorndorf, his victories at Rossbach and Leuthen against heavy odds ensured his place as a Great Captain. There can be no doubt that his use of strategic, operational, and tactical offensives were the only reasonable solution to his predicament and enabled his survival. And looking at the Civil War, it is clear that Confederate flank attacks like those at 2nd Manassas, Perryville, Chancellorsville, and Cedar Creek all were inspired by Frederick the Great's methods. And why not? He won.||
Fred - homosexual military genius.
|American Revolution - Detractors of Confederate offensive methods often point to the American Revolution as an example of the kind of war the Confederates should have fought. A closer look raises the question, "Why?" Yes, the rebels succeeded in part because their militia controlled the countryside, denying supply areas to the British. But since the British were tied to undependable overseas supply, they were largely unable to advance very far from their bases. Militia control of the land and the population would have been impossible without the backing of a standing army. Indeed, in December 1776 when Washington's army was on the verge of disappearing, no one seriously believed that a guerilla war would succeed, and no one seemed to be planning for one. The cause looked hopeless. But the Revolution survived because the standing armies took the offensive when opportunities arose. Firstly, Washington saved the Revolution with his attack at Trenton, then at Princeton a few days later. With these successes, public opinion shifted, recruits flocked to the army, and the British were forced back into New York City where they were dependent of overseas supply. Next year when a British force advanced from Canada, it was destroyed at Saratoga - not because the American army stood behind their entrenchments, but because of the bold attacks of Benedict Arnold. When he saw the chance to destroy a British army, Washington attacked too, at Germantown, and although he failed, this battle combined with Saratoga convinced the French to intervene, virtually ensuring American success. Finally in 1781 the opportunity arose to take out another British army, and after hundreds of miles of marching, the armies of Washington and Rochambeau took the initiative in Virginia and forced Cornwallis to surrender at Yorktown, essentially ending the war. So does the Revolution show us that a guerilla or defensive war was the best option - in general, or for the Confederacy? I don't think so.||
George the Great
In this portrait, he almost looks like he wouldn't invade your country.
|Napoleon - During the Wars of the French Revolution, although
they were often ill trained and incompetently led, French armies advanced and attacked -
and were frequently victorious. A few years later, Napoleon continued the
aggressive methods of the previous wars with a much better army, and showed
himself to be the greatest soldier of all time. He
was also not coincidently the most offensive minded. When commanding a well disciplined army, he was able to
consistently gain decisive victories. Cavalry screened his speedy advances,
informing him of the locations of the enemy while hiding his own intentions.
maneuvering into the enemy's rear, like in the Marengo and Ulm campaigns (or
Manassas for that matter), was
entirely feasible. On the battlefield, new light and mobile artillery
blasted holes in the enemy line which were then attacked by a combined arms team
of infantry and cavalry preceded by skirmishers. Decisive battle was no
longer a dream, but a reality. Even when vastly outnumbered and
outclassed, like in 1813 and 1814, Napoleon saw that the only alternative was to take the offensive, seeking to
engage isolated enemies and destroy them.
Spain - After largely destroying the Spanish army, Napoleon's French army was faced by a guerilla war. But it must be noted that the Spaniards resorted to this only AFTER conventional defeat. Indeed, guerilla warfare is for those unable to stand up to the enemy directly, much like modern day terrorists. Without the help of Wellington's army, the Spanish guerilla war was doomed to eventual and bloody failure. This is much like the American Revolution, which succeeded because of the combined efforts of the militia and the standing army. Spain suffered greatly from the guerilla war, and it's inability to defend itself encouraged the South American colonies to rebel, so although they were victorious in the end, Spain's standing as a world power was destroyed forever.
|Wellington - The Iron Duke is generally regarded as a defensive general. But was he? I don't think so. In India, he was known for rapid advances into enemy territory and for storming fortresses. When on the defensive, he used the traditional British battlefield technique. This involved silence by the men, which was a show of discipline intimidating to a less disciplined enemy. After firing a volley or two, they CHARGED and routed the enemy. In Spain, the technique was the same except that he deployed as much as one third of his force as skirmishers. So the French skirmishers, a vital part of the French system, were routinely defeated, and as a result, French columns, which should have deployed before contact, were charged during the vulnerable transition into line. This isn't exactly a static defense, is it? It also shows that war is a mental, or psychological, event and not simply a math problem or map exercise. And his defensive victories alone could not and did not win the war. To do so, Wellington took the offensive, advancing from Portugal all the way into France, winning offensive battles at Salamanca and Vitoria. At Waterloo, Wellington's army was too weak to take the offensive, and although Napoleon's attacks were uncoordinated and uncreative, they nearly succeeded. Only the Prussians arriving and attacking the French flank saved the day.||
Wellington - desperately wanting to take a bath.
Mexican War - Many a future Civil War general saw that the smaller, better quality American army took the initiative and consistently defeated the Mexican army. Importantly, Robert E. Lee twice conducted reconnaissance missions before successful flank attacks, the system by which Winfield Scott gained his victories. Despite the passage of nearly a century, the methods of Frederick the Great still looked fresh.
Crimean War - Although the war is mainly known for the siege of Sevastopol, several battles occurred, none of which demonstrated any great change in how war should be fought. Notably at Alma, British, French, and Turkish troops successfully assaulted a Russian force entrenched on commanding ground.
Solferino - In 1859, Napoleon III intervened in Italy and went to war against Austria. After an offensive victory at Magenta, the French and their allies continued the advance. In a large battle at Solferino with around 150,000 men on each side, the attacking French won the day.
If you look after the Civil War for a new era in warfare in which the defensive was supreme, you'll be looking for a while. In 1866, the Prussians advanced into Bohemia and attacked and defeated the Austrians at Sadowa or Koniggratz. In 1870, they advanced into France, surrounding a French army at Metz, then surrounding the French relief force at Sedan. This despite the fact that small arms on both sides were superior to those used in the Civil War. The French even used a primitive machine gun- like device. Only in the First World War, nearly fifty years after the Civil War, do we see the defense pre-eminent, and this would only last until 1918 when the Germans and Allies both found ways to break the enemy line.
The Civil War
Having demonstrated that the example from military history of the time, concerning an era when similar weapons were used, argues for the strength of the offense, let's look at the Civil War and examine a number of operational offensives and battlefield attacks.
Jackson's Valley Campaign - This complex campaign was studied and admired by the German army before World War II. Jackson used operational maneuver, surprise, and attack to great advantage, tying down several times his number of the enemy. What alternative was there for the Confederates? Should they have abandoned the breadbasket of the Confederacy? Should they have allowed the Union troops near Fredericksburg to advance on Richmond and join McClellan, giving him an overwhelming advantage?
Seven Pines - Having fallen back nearly to the defenses of Richmond, Joe Johnston took advantage of McClellan's position astride the Chickahominy, and attacked the southern portion of the Union army. Had the attacking columns simply used the proper roads, the Yankees would have been enveloped and probably destroyed. Instead of attacking, should Johnston have withdrawn further and allowed McClellan to besiege Richmond? Why?
The Seven Days - With Johnston wounded at Seven Pines, "Granny" Lee, the King of Spades, took over the army. He considered indirectly saving Richmond by shifting troops to the Valley for an advance into Union territory. But Jackson's Valley Campaign had been very successful, and the plan was found to be impractical as there were simply too many Union troops in the area. Lee is criticized for several costly attacks, and indeed the campaign was bloody. This time concentrating north of the Chickahominy, Lee sought to destroy the Porter's isolated corps. A.P. Hill's portion of Lee's army rashly attacked at Mechanicsville to no purpose and without orders. The later frontal attack at Gaines Mill did eventually succeed against strong defenses. But importantly, it was never intended to be a frontal slugfest. Jackson took a wrong turn and did not end up on the Union flank as planned, which could have resulted in the loss of an entire Union corps. So with both Seven Pines and Gaines Mill, we can criticize the Confederates for incompetent planning and coordination, but the plans were solid. Malvern Hill was another costly failed attack, but it too, was unintended. The attack was intended to be only after an artillery bombardment, but confusion about the signal to attack led to a premature and bloody assault. Nevertheless, the campaign saved Richmond and gave Lee room to maneuver. He would exploit the success to the maximum, carrying the momentum all the way into Maryland.
2nd Manassas - With McClellan moving by water to join Pope's army in Northern Virginia, potentially creating an enormous combined army, Lee's only reasonable choice was to strike Pope before they joined. Lee's separation of Jackson and Longstreet during the march into Pope's rear risked total annihilation, but it was the only way to safely manage the movement. Further, Confederate cavalry completely dominated their opponents, so Lee knew where his enemy was while his opponent was blind. Pope was so clueless, Jackson had to attack him at Brawner Farm for him to learn where the Confederates were positioned. Although many historians speak of a relative weakness of attack on the battlefield, it should be noted that although Pope's attacks on Jackson were disjointed and based on flawed intelligence, they nearly succeeded. More importantly, Longstreet's attack into Pope's flank nearly won the war. Only luck, or Mahone's bungling on the far right flank, saved Pope's army from destruction. How could the Union have survived such a defeat?
Antietam - Lee's invasion of the north was the necessary next step to maintain the momentum after the incredible victories of the Seven Days and 2nd Manassas. A victory on Union soil could have destroyed public support for the war and won Confederate independence. With the capture of around 12,000 men at Harper's Ferry, the incursion was going well. But Confederate orders had been discovered, and McClellan moved more quickly than usual. Without use of his whole army, Lee failed to successfully defend the passes of South Mountain. Had he succeeded, or had McClellan been slower, Lee could have continued further north then moved east like during the later Gettysburg campaign, securing his rear by advancing - and demoralized the Union populace. As it was, Lee necessarily assumed the defensive at Sharpsburg, where he could easily have been destroyed. There was no good reason to make a stand, nothing to gain but face. Only McClellan's incompetent plan, a perversion of the en echelon attack, with his corps entering the battlefield from different directions, made Lee's survival possible. A flank attack was always preferable, but had McClellan simply attacked with everything he had at once, victory would have been all but assured. Only AP Hill's timely arrival from Harper's Ferry saved the day.
Fredericksburg - McClellan was replaced by Ambrose Burnside, a man with the honesty and character to admit to his incompetence. Because of delays bringing up the pontoon train, Burnside's army was unable to advance quickly on Richmond against Lee's scattered army. Instead, Lee had time to concentrate his army and took up a well chosen defensive position. Burnside threw his army at Lee and was repulsed with heavy losses. This battle is often cited as an example of how Lee should have fought. But could he count on opponents being as inept as Burnside? And what great advantage did Lee gain from this battle? None. The body count wasn't as favorable as you might think. Could he have lost the battle? Yes. In Jackson's sector, Union troops poured through a marshy area left completely undefended. Only tough fighting pushed them back. Had they followed Burnside's plan and flanked the position, Jackson could have been pushed back. The Union attack against Longstreet was to commence only after success against Jackson, but the attack was started anyway. In Longstreet's sector, Union troops were idiotically thrown into the same area repeatedly. What if Burnside had acted rationally and attacked elsewhere? Clearly, the result was not pre-ordained as it is so often represented.
Chancellorsville - Burnside was replaced by his arch rival, alleged hard drinking womanizer Joseph Hooker, who, contrary to popular belief, can be defended as competent. His plan was good - take half the army upstream from Fredericksburg, cross the river and attack Lee's flank or force him to retreat. In theory, Lee retreating and joining Longstreet's two divisions from Suffolk would seem to be the best course of action. Problems with the health of the army's horses may have been the deciding factor for Lee, as he stated that a defeat would lead to disaster; without horses to pull the guns, for instance, the artillery arm would be lost! So Lee did not co-operate with Hooker's plan and met him in the Wilderness, attacking him and forcing him back on May1st. The Confederate advance alone had complicated the ability of the Union army to coordinate its advance over parallel roads as the rebels occupied vital connections. So aggressive action set up a situation in which one of Hooker's columns could be successfully attacked, which it was relatively cheaply. Hooker then fell back to a defensive position and ordered his forces at Fredericksburg to attack. Once again, Lee did not co-operate. Sending Jackson on a long flank march, he attacked obliquely, like Frederick the Great, smashing the Union right flank. Only darkness and luck saved the Union army. After Jackson's wounding, the next day's Confederate attack was not creative, but it convinced the Union army to retreat. Lee then turned on the other portion of the Union army and defeated it also at Salem Church. All this was despite being vastly outnumbered. The Union advance had been repulsed, lowering the Union's will to fight, but otherwise to no great advantage. It was time to take the war north.
Pre Gettysburg - There was nothing to be gained by remaining on the defense and allowing the Union army another try. The area couldn't sustain a large Confederate force, and indeed Longstreet's corps had been near Suffolk partly to ease the supply situation. Union lands were ripe for the picking. Vicksburg was threatened by Grant, and many people recommended that Lee send troops west. But the time needed to transport a force from Virginia to Mississippi as well as Joe Johnston's lack of aggression justified not sending eastern troops.
Gettysburg - Being concentrated against a portion of the Union army, attacking was the only reasonable option for Lee, and in fact, this option presented a near ideal opportunity to defeat the Yankees in detail. The 1st day's attacks were costly because they were unnecessarily frontal. The same decisive result could have been achieved cheaply by attacking the Union flanks, followed by a vigorous pursuit. For the second day, Longstreet's suggestion of marching to the right behind the Union army was impractical without cavalry and with Union observation posts on the Round Tops. A Rossbach type disaster could have easily ensued. Longstreet's plan was pure fantasy, much like his later idea of mounting an army on mules to invade Kentucky. Attacking on the second day was the only reasonable choice, and it nearly succeeded. Lee's original plan to pull Ewell to the right and join Longstreet in an attack on Cemetery Ridge is interesting, and may have succeeded, but as the battle developed, ANY supporting second line could have carried Cemetery Ridge. Had the whole line merely advanced as planned it would have succeeded. Nevertheless, as events transpired, it was still possible to capture Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill, but this, too, was bungled. For the third day, Lee's attack was a desperate measure, but had the artillery preparation been longer and used good fuses, and had the attack been supported with additional troops to its flanks and rear, it could have succeeded. The wavering of Union troops near the Copse of Trees shows this. Gettysburg is often touted as the decisive battle of the war, but it is important mostly because of what didn't happen. Like the many battles before, despite the opportunities, neither army was destroyed. And perhaps significantly, both armies still used a number of smoothbore muskets at this stage of the war, and entrenchments were rare, so the war had not yet degenerated into its relatively indecisive 1864 state.
Forts Henry and Donelson - Without Kentucky in the Confederacy, the new country lacked an easily defended frontier. Advocates of a defensive war should take note of this campaign as it shows that mistakes are not a monopoly of the attacker and that defensive war can be very costly. Because of poorly sited batteries and because of the great distance of supporting troops, these forts fell. And because of the configuration of the rivers, most of western and central Tennessee also fell, including the important industrial center at Nashville. When the Confederates under Hood approached Nashville late in 1864, the defenses had been built up to the extent that the city, and the whole area, was invulnerable.
Shiloh - In reaction to Forts Henry and Donelson, the Confederates concentrated for an attack on Grant's army. Despite being a simple frontal attack, the Confederate effort here achieved surprise and nearly routed the Union army, which had little room to retreat. With darkness, Grant had time to rally and reorganize his men, saving them from disaster.
Stones River - With his back to the Stones River, Braxton Bragg attacked the Union army under Rosecrans, bending it's right flank back on the army's line of retreat, nearly cutting off its escape. But Bragg ruined this terrific opportunity to destroy a Union army. After receiving false intelligence that a Union force was on his flank, he ordered a retreat.
Tullahoma - Rosecrans' near bloodless masterpiece of maneuver shows that taking the initiative doesn't necessarily lead to a costly and bloody battle. Conversely, it also shows that remaining in a defensive posture doesn't mean that the enemy will bloody himself attacking you. And of course, the more territory the defender loses, the harder it is for him to recruit and supply his army.
Chickamauga / Chattanooga - With advancing Union columns separated widely, Braxton Bragg knew what to do - concentrate on a portion of Rosecrans' army and destroy it. Although it was a good plan, in reality it didn't work out, and the two armies faced each other across Chickamauga Creek. On the second day of battle, Rosecrans wrongly believed that a gap existed in his line, so he ordered one of his divisions to pull back from the line and move north. This created a real gap in the line through which hordes of Confederate troops promptly attacked. With only a few exceptions, the Union army fled in panic to Chattanooga. Only Bragg's bungling saved the Union army, which was eventually relieved by Grant, whose men against orders successfully stormed the poorly designed rebel siege lines, once again proving that frontal attacks could be surprisingly successful.
Atlanta - Outnumbered and faced by Sherman's advancing army, Joe Johnston sought opportunities to strike isolated portions of the Union force. Perhaps Johnston's nature prevented him from forcing a battle, while Sherman aggressively turned his defensive positions, forcing him back to Atlanta. A defensive stance had done nothing to stop Sherman and had done great damage to the cause. With Atlanta endangered by Johnston's presumed timidity, President Davis replaced him with his exact opposite, the rash Gen. Hood.
Franklin - Hood, with his desperate and costly attack at Franklin, became the poster boy for everything defensively minded historians despise. But Hood's subordinates knew that his attack plans were foolish, but that his accusations of cowardice forced their hand. Hood should be seen as an aberration and not as a typical Confederate commander. Franklin doesn't demonstrate the folly of attacking, it demonstrates the folly of hopeless and stupid attacks.
Overland Campaign - Outnumbered, facing a much more numerous opponent, and lacking the overwhelming cavalry superiority that he had in the past, Lee was on the defensive. But Lee struck Grant's army as it passed through the Wilderness, knowing that Union artillery superiority would be largely negated. Despite its being a difficult area, for a time it looked like Lee's army might rout the Yankees. At Spotsylvania there was a brief opportunity to attack and destroy an isolated Union division, but it slipped away. Although ultimately unsuccessful, Union attacks on the Mule Shoe showed that given the proper circumstances, entrenchments could be carried. Lee missed another opportunity to destroy isolated portions of the Union army at North Anna, and Grant continued the advance further south. In his June 1st attack at Cold Harbor, Grant's men lucked out and entered a gap in the Confederate line. Had the attack been launched earlier, and had it been better supported, the result could have been very successful. Perhaps rifled muskets were making a difference now, but Grant's awkward command arrangements with Meade caused numerous problems, and neither man seemed to do any personal reconnaissance. They merely ordered the troops forward regardless of the circumstances, and the men knew it. So the men in the ranks decided on a course of personal preservation, and attacks that could have succeeded and won the war during the initial Petersburg assaults failed, resulting in thousands more needless deaths. Although Grant seemed intent on attacking Lee's army directly, his numerical superiority created other opportunities to end the war in Virginia less directly. Had he and Lincoln taken the political risk and replaced Benjamin Butler with a competent general, the Army of the James could have captured Richmond fairly easily. Similarly, had Franz Sigel in the Valley been replaced, perhaps the Union troops there could have succeeded and combined with Crook's and Averell's raiders in Southwest Virginia and taken Lynchburg. Had either of these efforts been successful, Lee would have been in serious trouble.
Summary - A cynic would say that my analysis is full of "what ifs", and indeed it is. Of course there are plenty of "what ifs" for the Union side too - the potential capture of Jackson in the northern Shenandoah Valley in June '62, McClellan committing the reserve at Antietam, Hooker attacking the enemy flanks on May 3, '63, and the early capture of Petersburg - in either the summer of '62 or mid June '64. But with the many opportunities the Confederacy had to destroy a Union army, or a significant Union force, what were the chances that they would all fail?
A Defensive War? Why?
With all of these examples of attacks and offensives which could have won the war or changed it dramatically, how can anyone believe that the defensive was best option for the Confederacy? Even without the destruction of a Union army, Republican defeat in the Presidential or Congressional elections could have gained independence for the Confederacy. Even if intervention by foreign powers was unlikely, couldn't a significant Confederate victory along with a foreign offer of mediation have ended the war? Within the Union, wouldn't enlistments dry up with sagging public support for the war? Was the draft even feasible without public support? So where exactly was the unlimited Union manpower advantage?
If you disagree with me, that doesn't mean that you are a sheep. But I beg you - think and decide for yourself, and remember that it is better to be a sheep herder than a sheep. That way, no one gives you a forcible haircut or turns you into a lamb chop.
Every option has pluses and minuses in its favor. Others can tell you the advantages of a Confederate defensive war better than I can, so I won't try. Instead, let's ask some questions to investigate the downsides. We will hardly be the first to ask these questions - the Confederate high command was undoubtedly the first. Perhaps the most important question to ask about the defensive option is this - what if the invading Yankees DON'T attack you frontally and suffer heavy losses? What if they do like Sherman did and turn you out of strong defensive positions? If you're fighting defensively, how much territory do you give up? Do you abandon coastal cities and eliminate your ability to produce warships to fight the blockade? Do you forsake the ports needed to export cotton and import arms? And wouldn't these ports give the enemy supply areas they could use to advance inland? Do you give up the plantations and the slaves that grow the cotton you use to buy arms? Do you abandon the salt production facilities and lose the ability of your people - and your army - to preserve meat? Do you abandon Richmond, one of the few industrial centers of the country, and eliminate most of your capacity to produce cannon and small arms? Since Richmond and Petersburg were vital rail centers, wouldn't giving them up also mean abandoning the whole state of Virginia and the manpower it provides the army? If you were a North Carolinian, how would you perceive the abandonment of Virginia? Would you see it as a brilliant war winning stratagem? Or would you believe that your government wasn't able to protect you? Why would you fight and risk your life for a losing cause? Isn't all this a downward spiral of defeat? Wouldn't future historians write books questioning your doomed defeatist strategy?
At some point don't you have to make a stand and fight to defend your nation? If you wait for your enemy to attack, won't he attack when it is to HIS advantage? But if you see an opportunity, an enemy weakness, or an isolated detachment, what reason is there NOT to attack? What's the worst thing that could happen? A repulse? A defeat? Is time on your side? Suppose you have unquestioned cavalry superiority, like the Confederates did early in the war, don't you have a tremendous advantage? Can't you see your opponent's positions and intentions while at the same time hiding you own? Can't you search out and even try to create opportunities? What if, like the Confederates, your infantry is superior - better disciplined and with higher morale? Why not attack? Is there really any other choice?
Contrary to some stereotypes, the Confederates were NOT stupid. They understood the situation as we will ever will. Regardless of whether or not their ancestors were violent sheep herders, they were capable of acting rationally. All their decisions weren't right, but they were more right than wrong.
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