Small Wars Journal

A Knife into the Heart of the Confederacy: How General Sherman’s Georgia and Carolinas Campaign Helped Empty Southern Hearts and Minds of the Will to Wage Insurrection

Tue, 06/05/2012 - 5:45am

In July 1862, after a series of Union military setbacks, President Abraham Lincoln wrote that slavery was the “the heart of the rebellion.”[1]  Lincoln recognized how slavery provided the South with cheap labor that could sustain Southern agriculture and industry while the white population went to war.[2]  Slaves also provided valuable military service, constructing fortresses and infrastructure that enhanced Confederate combat power and mobility.  Destroying slavery, Lincoln understood, could deny the South a valuable source of productive strength that would reduce the Confederacy’s military and economic power. 

Over the next three years, Union military strategy evolved from its initial conciliatory phase to the “hard hand” phase that sought to destroy Southern military power—a power that owed much to the institution of slavery.[3]  The most famous campaign of the “hard hand” phase of the war was General William T. Sherman’s 1864-1865 campaign in Georgia and the Carolinas—the birthplace of the insurrection.  The campaign, which started with the burning of Atlanta and ended with a furious, vengeful march through the Carolinas, brought the Union Army into some of the South’s largest slave plantations.  The presence of Sherman’s armies inspired countless blacks to flee slavery into Union lines.  This influx of blacks into Sherman’s ranks enhanced Union intelligence and combat power, while dealing a devastating blow to the South’s ability and will to fight.  Sherman’s campaign, therefore, helped plant a knife through the heart of the rebellion.

When Sherman entered Georgia in mid-1864, his three armies inspired and enabled countless slaves to escape from bondage into the Union lines.  Thousands of these escaped slaves crowed into the rear of Sherman’s advancing armies.[4]  So long as they remained within Union lines, where they could evade recapture, they were free—a freedom legally guaranteed by President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation that declared all blacks living in states that remained in open rebellion “then thenceforward forever free.”[5]  Entering Union lines offered more than protection and freedom – it also offered promises of economic gain.  In January 1865, General Sherman, in the aftermath of his famous march to the sea from Atlanta, issued Special Field Order 15.  This order set aside large swaths of fertile, coastal land that stretched from north Florida to South Carolina “for the settlement of the negroes now made free.”[6]  Around 20,000 blacks settled this land by the end of the war.[7]  In return for promises of freedom, economic gain, and an opportunity to undermine the society that had placed them in bondage, slaves provided vital support to the Union Army that helped quell the Southern insurrection. 

Escaped slaves provided Sherman’s Army with critical intelligence on the physical and political landscape of its area of operations.[8]  Moving armies over long distances in an era when maps and roads were highly unreliable was a significant challenge to military commanders.  However, Sherman’s campaign benefited from the influx of escaped slaves, many of whom had lived and worked their entire lives in the fields and towns of Georgia and the Carolinas.  These escaped slaves likely provided critical intelligence on the locations of river crossings, impassable terrain, water sources, etc.  In addition to providing support with navigation, escaped slaves probably had some awareness of who were rebel sympathizers.  These sympathizers, throughout the war, aided or participated in guerilla raids that harassed Union lines and drained valuable resources from the front.  Information on who supported these raids would have helped Sherman’s armies implement more effective counterinsurgency operations.  It would also have allowed the Union forces to focus the intensity of their “hard war” policies on the rebellion’s strongest sympathizers, while sparing loyal Unionists.  Without the aid of escaped slaves, who served as important intelligence assets, the Union Army’s march across Georgia and into the Carolinas would likely have moved much slower and may have encountered more guerilla resistance.

While ex-slaves helped navigate the Union Armies across hostile, unpredictable terrain, other ex-slaves provided valuable combat support services that enhanced the mobility and combat power of Sherman’s Armies.  Although Sherman himself was not a proponent of emancipation, he recognized the value blacks could provide his army in combat support.[9]  Union Armies, by late 1864, occupied over 100,000 square miles of enemy territory—territory that drained critical manpower and resources to hold and tame.[10]  Taming the land often required large garrisons of troops, reducing the amount of combat forces at the disposal of commanders in battle.  Escaped slaves offered Sherman and other commanders a solution to this problem.  Instead of using professional soldiers to garrison forts and protect their lengthy, vulnerable lines of communication, Union commanders utilized escaped slaves and, later in the war, black soldiers who were increasingly coming into their lines as the war progressed.[11]  While on the march, Sherman’s armies used the ex-slaves to drive wagons, herd livestock, chop wood, and construct and repair transportation networks.[12]  With an increased supply of labor, provided by escaped slaves, Sherman’s Armies were able to better supply their armies and concentrate more combat power in battle, rather than diffusing it to protect the ever-expanding Union lines of communication.

Each slave removed from bondage decreased the power of the Confederate Army.  Slaves were critical resources for the South; they helped maintain its ability to wage war and sustain its economy. Slaves worked the fields, produced ammunition, and built fortifications, enabling white, male Southerners to fill the army’s ranks.  But, by 1864, slaves were becoming scarcer resources; Georgia alone had lost over 60,000 slaves.[13]  Without this pool of cheap labor, whites would have had to fill these important economic and military support roles, reducing the manpower allotted to the front line.[14]  Southern farmers, by late 1864, worried they would be unable maintain their agricultural output, leading to political pressure on the Confederate government.[15]

 General Sherman, as early as August 1862, had recognized the importance of removing slaves from the South to deny them a source of economic and military labor.[16]  By 1863, General Halleck, General in Chief of the Union Army, agreed with Sherman’s assessment and made it official Army policy “to withdraw from the enemy as much productive labor as possible.”  Halleck argued, “[s]o long as the rebels retain and employ their slaves in producing grains, they can employ all the whites in the field.  Every slave withdrawn from the enemy, is equivalent to a white man put hors de combat.”[17]  Even regular Union soldiers and officers had recognized the importance of slaves to the South’s capability to wage war.  In response to the Second Confiscation Act of 1862, a colonel of the 5th Minnesota observed how confiscating slaves was “striking a blow at the heart of the rebellion.”[18]

The South also recognized the importance of slavery to its military and economic power.  In February 1863, Governor John Milton of Florida argued, “Upon slave labor, the Agriculture of Southern States is mainly dependent.”[19]  Milton added that slave labor secures “subsistence for the armies in the field, the support of families at home, and…ensure[s] the revenue necessary to the Confederate and State Governments.”[20]  The importance of slavery to the South was evident by large-scale movements of slaves away from approaching Union armies, which, slaveholders feared, would free their slaves.[21]  In 1864, Congressman Warren Aiken of Georgia, observing the importance of slaves in Southern society, commented on how slaveholders would “give up their sons, husbands, brothers & friends…to the army; but let one of their negroes be taken, and what a houl you will hear.”[22]  Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas certainly made Southern slaveholders howl, as it pulled in escaped slaves and used their knowledge and skills against their former masters. 

In addition to the material consequences of Sherman’s campaign in Georgia and the Carolinas, the campaign dealt a serious psychological blow to the South that reduced its will to wage war.  The psychological shock produced by the freeing slaves in Georgia and the Carolinas sparked deep fears among local residents.  Georgians, like Congressman Warren Aiken of Georgia, worried how free slaves will lead to white subjugation.  “We and our children,” Aiken feared, “will be slaves, while our freed negroes will lord it over us.”[23]  Whites also feared how freed blacks may instigate a race war.[24]  This fear spread throughout Southern society and into the ranks of the Confederate Army, where soldiers began to worry about the welfare of the family and farms, leading many to desert and return home.[25]

With Southern morale collapsing in the face of Sherman’s onslaught through Georgia and the Carolinas, the fabric of the slave system unraveled.  Slave flight shed light on the inhumanity of the system, as countless blacks risked their lives to escape and head towards battle, rather than continue to live in bondage.  Some even chose to take their own lives when caught to avoid the horrors of slavery.[26]  Despite the dangers, slaves continued to escape, demonstrating the declining power and influence of the slaveholder.  As the institution of slavery declined, white Southerners even began to consider employing blacks in their own military with a promise of freedom.  One Georgian wrote to President Jefferson Davis after Sherman conquered Atlanta and pleaded for the South to conscript blacks and “force them into the army… upon the condition, if necessary, of freedom after the war.”[27]  The Confederate government eventually agreed to black conscription in March 1865, but, by then, it was too late; Lee’s Army surrendered at Appomattox a mother later.  The war was over.  Slavery officially died less than a year later with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment that officially outlawed the institution that had become the heart of Southern power.  

General Sherman’s campaign in Georgia and the Carolinas dealt a devastating physical blow to the South’s ability to wage war, by destroying and confiscating irreplaceable resources and draining the heartland of the Confederacy of its critical slave labor, which, simultaneously, enhancing the intelligence and combat power of Union forces.  This physical shock also produced a potent psychological shock to the South by exposing the frailty and corruptness of its social order.  Combined, the physical and psychological shock produced by Sherman’s advancing armies helped destroy the ability and the will of the South to continue its insurrection. 

[1] James M. McPherson, “Tried by War: Lincoln as Self-Taught Strategist,” Major Problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction, ed. Michael Perman, 2nd ed. (Boston: Wadsworth, 1998), 183.

[2] Mark Grimsley, Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians 1861-1865 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 122.

[3] Ibid., 2.  

[4] Ira Berlin and others, Slaves No More: Three Essays on Emancipation and the Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 68. 

[5]Ira Berlin and others, eds., Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War, ed. Ira Berlin and others (New York: New Press, 1992), 71.

[6] Ibid., 318.

[7] Ira Berlin and others, Slaves No More, 176.

[8] Ira Berlin and others, Slaves No More, 31. 

[9] General William T. Sherman to Thomas Hunton, August 24, 1862, in Free at Last, ed. Berlin and others (New York: New Press, 1992), 68.

[10] Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War, 165.

[11] Berlin and others, eds., Free at Last, 436.

[12] Berlin and others, Slaves No More, 129.

[13] Robert Q. Mallard and others to Brigadier General Hugh M. Mercer, August 1, 1862, in Free at Last, ed. Ira Berlin and others (New York: New Press, 1992), 61.

[14] Ira Berlin and others, eds., Free at Last, 129.

[15] Wm D. Taylor and others to President Jefferson Davis, October 13, 1864, in Free at Last, ed. Ira Berlin and others (New York: New Press, 1992), 153-154.

[16] General William T. Sherman to Thomas Hunton, August 24, 1862, in Free at Last, ed. Ira Berlin and others (New York: New Press, 1992), 70.

[17] General in Chief Henry W. Halleck to Major General Ulysses S. Grant, March 31, 1863, in Free at Last, ed. Ira Berlin and others (New York: New Press, 1992), 101.

[18] James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 120.

[19] Governor John Milton to Hon. James A. Seddon, February 17, 1863, in Free at Last, ed. Ira Berlin and others (New York: New Press, 1992), 130.

[20] Ibid., 131.

[21] O.G. Eiland to President Jefferson Davis, July 30, 1863, in Free at Last, ed. Ira Berlin and others (New York: New Press, 1992), 133.

[22]Warren Aiken to Nathan Land, October 13, 1864, in Major Problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction, ed. Perman, 2nd ed. (Boston: Wadsworth, 1998), 223.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Pierre Soniat to General Nathaniel P. Banks, December 20, 1862, in Free at Last, ed. Ira Berlin and others (New York: New Press, 1992),, 84.

[25] Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War, 170.

[26] Pleas. Smith to A.A.G.J. Thompson, January 8, 1863, in Free at Last, ed. Ira Berlin and others (New York: New Press, 1992), 96. 

[27]F. Kendall to President Jefferson Davis, September 16, 1864,  in Free at Last, ed. Ira Berlin and others (New York: New Press, 1992), 151. 


About the Author(s)

Andrew Chadwick is an Army ROTC cadet at the University of Maryland in College Park, where he also studies Military History.  In May 2013, CDT Chadwick will commission as an officer in the Army Reserves. Cadet Chadwick holds an MA in International Security from the University of Denver and a BA in Political Science from the University of Saint Mary.  CDT Chadwick previously served two years in the Maryland Army National Guard as a Combat Engineer. 



Fri, 06/08/2012 - 1:46pm

In reply to by Bill C.

At first, the North believed it could wage a limited war that would convince the South to reintegrate back into the Union without altering the social landscape of Southern states. This view assumed that the majority of the South did not back the rebellion. Yet following the bloody battles of 1862, the North hardened its stance on the South, as they realized support for the rebellion was not limited to a small minority. No longer was the North’s aim limited to just restoring the Union; it now aimed to gain the unconditional surrender of the South. Moreover, during and after 1862, with the Confiscation Acts and the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln and the Republican Congress slowly chipped away at the institution of slavery, which they viewed as antithetical to the social norms of the North.

The social norm that slavery clashed with the most was the idea of Free Labor. The Free Labor ideology believed that all forms of labor should be respected and that men had the duty and right to work hard, reap the rewards of their hard work, and, ideally, gain economic independence. Slavery violated these deeply held beliefs in the North, for slavery prevented men from profiting from their labor and barred them from economic independence, unless they were freed by their masters. Although whites in the north viewed blacks as inferior, many still believed, especially the ardent abolitionists, that all men deserved these basic rights.

To gain a lasting peace with the South and its complete reintegration into the Union, the North, in its estimate, had to re-shape the social landscape of the South from a slave based economy and society to one that respected the principles of free labor, as espoused by the Republican Party and its many supporters.

To re-shape another societies social identity is a tremendous undertaking that, in most cases would be unrealistic. However, given how high the stakes were for the North, they were able to gain the requisite consent and resources from their society to pursue this objective. It could also argue that Southern society was never fully reshaped until the 20th century, as slavery in the form of institutional racism continued to prevent blacks from enjoying the fruits of their labor and obtaining economic independence.

Applying the same method to the modern struggle with al-Qaeda and its associated movements is problematic for at least two reasons. First, al-Qaeda does not pose the same threat to American interests as the South did during the Civil War. Therefore, American society would be unwilling to provide the necessary morale and material resources necessary for undertaking a large-scale effort to re-shape the social groups that support al-Qaeda and its associated movements. Second, the North and South, although different in many ways, had similar cultures: shared history, common language, religion, etc. The North, therefore, had more legitimacy and support in the South than, say, the U.S. has in the Middle East or Central/South Asia.

The most realistic way to re-shape the social norms that produced and sustained al-Qaeda and its associated movements is to have that effort take place organically, from within the societies in question. This approach is problematic as well, for it assumes these societies are willing and capable to transform themselves. Moreover, as we may learn with Egypt, the re-shaping of the social order does not necessary mean it will conform to the interests of the United States.

In short, re-shaping the social landscape of the societies that produced al-Qaeda could help improve U.S. National Security. But this is an unrealistic proposition for the United States to embark upon, as it is not worth the expense in blood and treasure. Also, the U.S. lacks the legitimacy to do so. Organic change is the best method--a method that is also problematic.

Bill C.

Fri, 06/08/2012 - 10:29am

Thus, should we say that it was the "way of life" of the South that stood in Lincoln's way and gave the South viability?

Much as it was the "way of life" of the American Indians that stood in the way of the western settlers and gave the American Indians there ability -- and their reason -- to try to persevere?

Same argument re: the way of life known as communism.

Likewise, today is it not the present "way of life" of certain outlier states and societies which tends to get in our way?

Accordingly, and as in the cases of the American South, the American Indians and the USSR of old, likewise today should the goal be/is the goal not: to erradicate the inconvenient "ways of life" of these remainder states and societies; said "ways of life" tending to give their populations strength, sustainability and the reason and ability to fight back and which, accordingly, must be our focus to alter in our favor or to destroy?


Tue, 06/05/2012 - 11:24pm

In reply to by Move Forward

This article is not meant to serve as a guide for action in Afghanistan. I wanted to highlight a less discussed aspect of Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas: slave flight and its impact on Northern and Southern power.

The methods employed by Sherman and other Union commanders against the South are not appropriate or realistic for the current conflict in Afghanistan. For the North and South, the Civil War was a war for national survival and the future of the two sides’social systems. The stakes were high, which eased the restraints place on violence. The stakes are not as high for the U.S. in Afghanistan; therefore, the U.S. ability to employ violence is far more constrained than in the Civil War.

Furthermore, Sherman’s methods, I would argue, did not approach total war in the sense of unrestrained violence. In fact, very few civilians were killed during his march in Georgia and the Carolinas; it was not rampant murder, rape, and pillaging, as legends would suggest. He did, however, destroy and consume valuable resources that the South depended on to sustain its war effort. Consuming these resource was also a necessity for Sherman, since his army had to forage for supplies, given it overextended lines of communications until he reached the Georgia coast. This type of behavior, although uncommon in modern war, was quite normal in early modern and pre-modern war, when crude transportation and communication networks, as well as other technological limitations, prevented armies from obtaining consistent supplies once they moved into enemy territory.

Finally, I am wary of attempts to use case studies from the past to prescribe actions for the present. Wars are unpredictable and their outcomes are shaped by the unique historical, technological, and social conditions of the forces waging them. But we can use case studies like Sherman’s March, to gain insight into some basic truths of war (the importance of logistics, local knowledge of the terrain, psychological shock, etc)and the difficult choices commanders must make in war and the effects of their decisions.

Move Forward

Tue, 06/05/2012 - 9:30pm

No offense to the messenger, but is there a suggestion here that we should have:

1) pursued Pakistani Taliban by invading or bombing sanctuaries in a nuclear armed nation

2) bombed fertilizer factories even though 80% or more of the Pakistani products are used by their farmers

3) burned poppy crops even though it was the sole income source for many Afghan farmers

4) punished Pashtuns by burning their homes and crops for harboring Taliban and not reporting IEDs

5) acted like the carpetbaggers after defeating the Taliban in 2002

6) bombed homes that Taliban were firing from regardless of presence of civilians

7) not protected the population from the Taliban, and instead should have pursued them slowly on foot on mountainous terrain that they knew better

8) employed the cavalry lessons of Jeb Stuart by placing the enemy between our main body and our reconnaissance force

9) used any lesson from the civil war in modern warfare, to include the mindless slaughter of hundreds of thousands because lack of technology dictated stupid ways of fighting and mission command: side-by-side, loading slowly, and dying quickly in very static warfare

10) used General Sherman as a positive example of total war that should be employed by modern U.S. warfare

And of course, the confederates were not a different ethnicity than union forces. There was nothing like Pashtunwali or more radical religious beliefs (despite Southern Baptists;)) to differentiate defeated southerners from northerners and lead to an insurgency.


Tue, 06/05/2012 - 1:14pm

It seems to demonstrate the fine line between COIN and Total War, where winning hearts and minds can blur into destroying entire population centers.

Also, I wouldn't call it the start of the American Way of War. I agree with David Bell's work on this subject. He describes war of, by, for, and on the people as an Enlightenment phenomenon born in the Vendee.

Undoubtedly Uncle Billy Sherman must have benefited by some helpful information on the lay of the land which was contributed by freed black slaves on his march. However, I would be a bit more circumspect on how much information Sherman paid attention to, as Sherman was known to regard blacks as inferior, and in fact was known to sympathize with the Southern cause, but conversely not the rebellion.

Sherman is further known to have repeatedly tried to turn blacks back from following his force, concerned they would interfere with his progress . . . And no incident highlights this best than what occurred at Ebenezer Creek in Georgia, where a pontoon bridge was ripped-up, stranding blacks on the other side, as well as contributing to many of them drowning.


Wed, 06/06/2012 - 2:41am

In reply to by gian gentile

You are most certainly correct about Lee's lack of operational awareness at Gettysburg. It was my error. I should have noted that my statement about Lee's "deeper operational awareness" did not refer to his generalship at Gettysburg, but was instead a reference to the content of Lee's early 1863 correspondence.

In that pre-Gettysburg correspondence Lee noted the effectively deteriorating condition of his army by noting that its (and the South's) decreasing manpower levels resulting from their heavy casualties winning tactical victories against a union army constantly being reinforced; his noting that while he won tactical victories on the strategic defense (in modern terms) those battlefield successes were not impacting either the Union's home front or giving them pause about continuing their military effort (despite its costs) to subjugate the South; and his notation in letters that his army's ability was limited (by its size(?)) to defeating the Union Army, but lacked the capability of "destroying" it on the battlefield. Correspondence content which his assistant adjutant Lt. Col. Walter Taylor (who prepared much of Lee's correspondence) similarly noted in his post war book.

I clearly failed to clarify that my statement concerning Lee's "operational awareness" referred only to his assessment of his army's condition and capabilities expressed in his early 1863 (pre-Gettysburg) correspondence. I have never been counted among the fans of Lee's generalship, but was impressed by his frank assessment of his army's condition and realizing what was going to be the long term failure of his attempt to gain victory (through attrition) on the strategic defensive. Lee's limiting his strategic objective in the North to "defeating" (not the impossible destroying) of the Union Army in Pennsylvania and recognizing the potentially political impact of those defeats, and the cost of his provisioning his army from Union farms, on Northern public opinion also impressed me and provide a different picture of Lee than most present. However, his inability to conduct warfare at the operational and tactical level on the strategic offense, and what appears to be his ignoring of the need to logistically support his army, at least as concerns ammunition and manpower replacements, demonstrates his fatal limitations. The latter of course calls into question whether his strategy was really feasible or just interesting to note.

In his Book "The Second Day at Gettysburg" Harry Pfanz (A WWII Artillery Officer--I believe) described in detail the fighting in the Wheat field, etc. While I enjoy studying the Battle of Gettysburg, I was a Navy Officer from a long past era and my expertise, such as it was, lies on and from a different surface (the Ocean). I learned at survival training (in 1965) that while I could easily navigate and determine our location on the flat or wave ridden ocean, I was totally confused by the maps the army used and hopelessly lost on the ground, so I will accept your noting there was a path to success for the South through the Wheat Field. I still can't develop a mental picture of the ground from those maps. Give me the open ocean, a Ssextant, RDF, etc. and geometry and I was happy. I would certainly agree that Lee failed to grasp that many Union generals at the corps and division level had become very competent after more than two years of war. Union generals had grown into their positions while in many respects (on the strategic offense) many Southern generals did not rise to the occasion, perhaps because so many of them were newly performing at the corps and division level due to Southern casualties (on the tactical offensive) at those levels in previous battles.

In my opinion, Meade, at the Army level on the strategic defense performed in an outstanding manner. Applying the analytical ability of an engineer (or at least those who are successful) he rapidly organized his army effectively into three wings and deployed them in an effective manner that forced Lee to recall Ewell's corps westward to the Gettysburg area and placed (kept) his left wing comparatively strong and under Reynolds. Buford was clearly destined for greater fame had not disease took his life far to young. Henry Hunt (almost lost in history) was a brilliant artillery officer, etc.

gian gentile

Tue, 06/05/2012 - 7:57pm

In reply to by CBCalif


Nice post.

A quibble though with regard to your point about Lee's correspondence and your assertion tht he had a "deeper operational awareness" than is often showed. No, not at Gettysburg. To be sure there was logic, agressive as it was, to his strategy of invading Pennsylvania with the hope of a significant battle and defeat of the Union Army on their home ground. But in the actual conduct of the battle Lee was horrible. Partly of course as has already been mentioned he was quite sick with diarrhea and he was suffering from angina. On day two he was immobile, and he completely misread the makeup of the union defensive line on cemetery hill. He based his plan on one reconnaissance trip early in the morning by a couple of staff officers, yet did not follow up on that report the entire day. Once the assault started on day 2 he and Longstreet and his other two corps commanders had no idea that they had no chance at all in an enveloping attack en echelon to roll up the union flank. In fact there were opportunities to puncture the Union line through the Wheatfield corridor, but because he was out of touch he could never discern these possibilities.

And the Day 3 Picket-Pettigrew-Trimble charge, forget about it. Lee did not meet with Longstreet the night before, he had no sense of the condition of his own army, and most important if he had a better awareness of the Day 2 fight he would have realized that the Union army fought well and under competent generals. Yet he clung to his contempt of the Union army and his spiritual belief in the fighting prowess of his own men. Yet the mark of effective generalship is adaptability and learning, and Lee showed none of that at Gettysburg.

I am just tired of writing about coin and design :) so it is nice to write for a change about the undergraduate level of war :)


Tue, 06/05/2012 - 5:27pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

In his first 12 months commanding the Army of Northern Virginia Lee was successful when operating on the strategic defensive. Whether that success resulted from his generalship or the lack of strategic / tactical competence on the part of his opponents could be debated. Lee's operational and battlefield performance on the strategic offense however was nothing short of disastrous.

Lee moved is army north into Maryland with the "strategic" objective of inciting the citizens of that border state to rebel and join the Confederacy, influenced by the presence of his victorious army on its soil. However, he divided his forces, had some linger around Harper's Ferry in the Shenandoah Valley and crossed the Potomac River with around 40,000 men which he positioned with their backs to that river; doing so in the face of an arriving and much larger Union Army. A Union Army, fortunately for Lee commanded by George B.McClellan. Regardless, if it hadn't been for the fortunate arrival of A.P. Hill's division and the CSA's retreat the next day--unopposed by McClellan, his army would have been doomed.

Lee's strategic goals underlying his invasion of Pennsylvania were actually quite clever--and not as most historians state. The details of his correspondence and OR provide that information. His early 1862 correspondence with Seddon and Davis show he knew he had been drawn into a defensive war of attrition that was draining the South's manpower pool and that he realized his army was to small to destroy the Union Army on the battlefield. Add to that the then failure of the CSA Quartermaster Corps to adequately provision his men and animals. Lee cleverly planned to move into Pennsylvania, find a place to provision his army for some period of time, and assume a defensive position which he believed the Federal Army would be forced to attack, which assaults he believed he could defeat. Defeat[s] of the Union forces on their home soil, due to that location, that he believed would so undermine Northern civilian morale they would bring about a negotiated end to the war and cement Southern Independence.

Despite its somewhat slow progress, Lee marched his army deep into the Union rear almost unopposed, but there his plan fell apart due to his operational incompetence on the strategic offensive. He had no practical means for resupplying his ammunition as his closest base was over 100 miles away. He never selected a position where his forces could defensively position themselves with sufficient provisions in their rear, and he scattered his forces--sending Ewell's Corps east to the Susquehanna River and three of his cavalry brigades with Stuart to the East of Ewell. The remainder of his Army he held in the Chambersburg area, with Longstreet's Corp in the Cumberland Valley and A.P. Hill's Corps eastward on the Chambersburg / Cashtown Road --a single small road leading east coincidentally to Gettysburg. This resulted as Lee never had units of his army conduct reconnaissance of Pennsylvania when they arrived in the area and, even worse, he had no idea where the Union Army was located.

He eventually decided to concentrate along the Susquehanna River, but the same day he issued those orders he was alerted by a spy / scout that the Union Army under Meade was effectively moving between his main body and that of Ewell's. He then ordered his army to concentrate between Chambersburg and Cashtown on what was a single narrow road--which he later changed to the area between Cashtown and Gettysburg. Men from A.P. Hill's lead brigade under Pettigrew, on their way to the Susquehanna,ran into Union General John Buford's cavalrymen in Gettysburg, and withdrew. Pettigrew hurriedly informed Hill and Lee concerning the Union presence.

Realizing the strategic significance of the hills south of Gettysburg, Buford moved his two brigades forward on both to the eastern and western roads, positioning his single cavalry division to bring Lee's much larger forces to battle far from those hills and to slowly retreat, thereby, holding back Lee's forces until the three corps (I, II, and XI)of the Union left wing under Reynolds arrived. Lee promptly lost operational control of his army, his corps commanders committed their men to battle piecemeal, and Buford's brigade commanders held them back long enough to allow the Union Army to gain the key ground. Lee had originally positioned himself to the rear with Longstreet's Corp rather than with A.P. Hill's advance corps. His only (ignore) command to his corps commanders was to not bring on a battle until they were concentrated--and he never instructed them where to concentrate specific divisions, etc.

Battlefield generalship at its worst, despite a decent strategic plan / approach that possibly could have won the war for the South.

I would also agree that Lee's generalship, at least on the strategic offensive, for the above and other reasons, has been grossly overrated. On the other hand, his often ignored correspondence shows that he had a deeper grasp of strategy and a deeper operational awareness then is often recognized. Sort of the opposite understanding compared to the results and strategic plan / approach (or lack thereof) when compared to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.


Tue, 06/05/2012 - 4:30pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Antietam also sheds light on Lee’s somewhat reckless decision-making. After surviving the first day of the battle, with his back to the creek and a numerically superior Union force at his front, Lee remained on the battlefield overnight and into the next morning. If McClellan had released his reserves or attacked more aggressively on day one or in the early morning of day two, Lee’s Army may have been destroyed in 1862, forever changing the course of the war. Fortunately, for Lee, McClellan acted cautiously as ever, allowing Lee to escape back into Northern Virginia.

Also, in the lead-up to the invasion, Lee and others had assumed residents of Maryland would rally behind his army, given Maryland was a slave state. This assumption proved false; few Marylanders flocked to his ranks during his invasion.

Moreover, the invasion of Maryland and Lee's retreat provided Lincoln with the political capital to issue his preliminary emancipation proclamation--a major political victory for abolitionists that enabled the Lincoln and the Republicans to expand the scope of the war from restoring the Union to the complete destruction of southern slave society.


Tue, 06/05/2012 - 11:33am

In reply to by gian gentile

Much can be said about Lee's performance at Gettysburg, and certainly he was not at his best, having suffered what some suspect were several minor heart attacks/strokes previously, as well as in pain from suffering from falling-off a horse.

Lee himself must have paused in reflection on his performance afterward, because we know he submitted three different reports, but with one consistent theme among them: that being his subordinate commanders failed to measure up!

On the other hand, Lee never questioned his own plans and how he conveyed them to those commanders, along with his intentions, and whether they were doable or even understood. It may be that Lee simply couldn't accept any modifications to his plans so fixated was he in his head on those plans, regardless of how the situation changed against him?

However, in comparing Lee to Grant, we shouldn't overlook that Grant understood one of his greatest resources over Lee was man power, and Grant knew he could afford dispensing it liberally, whereas Lee couldn’t, but still did.

My thoughts above mentioned, perhaps a better example to use, and still keep the author's intent, is that many of these same personalities that waged total war against the South, did the same with hard war in the West against the Plains Indians, but with less charity than was shown in the South . . . After all, during the seige of Atlanta and the accompaning fire, it is reported only about 24 civilians were killed.

gian gentile

Tue, 06/05/2012 - 10:44am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Lee (like Abrams :)) is one of the more overrated generals in american military history. I certainly would not ascribe to him a "genius" for battle. To be sure in the first few years of the war in the north he was relatively better than almost all of the union generals he faced. But that had changed by Gettysburg, and Lee was unable to see that change.

His performance at Gettysburg along with his other three corps commanders was abysmal; in fact in a purely objective sense (which of course was not the case) Lee should have been relieved after Gettysburg for gross incompetence in generalship at the operational and tactical levels.

But hey, this is a really nicely written article by Mr Chadwick, well done.

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 06/05/2012 - 9:29am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

I think that General Lee rightfully is remembered as having a genius for battle, and he certainly was relentless in war.

General Grant, on the other hand, was relentless in battle and had a genius for war.

For a nation's top war commander, one is better served by a Grant than by a Lee.

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 06/05/2012 - 7:42am

Sherman in Georgia and the Carolinas; likewise with Sheridan in the Shenandoah. I have long believed that these were Grant's true main efforts. Not COIN per se, but more "PRIN" (Preventive Insurgency- ok, just made that up, but it describe what this was). Critical aspects of a conventional warfare campaign to target the critical production center of all manner of support for the war effort and the populaces who lived there. To disrupt and destroy that production and to break the will of the people to continue to support conventional warfare. Military efforts to pursue Lee and to take Richmond were, I believe (I realize the majority position is the reverse), were to Grant critical supporting efforts, but that he understood that in warfare between nations he needed to take Richmond and the Army of Northern Virginia to WIN the war, but he needed Sherman and Sheridan to be successful to END the war. This was the beginning of the "American Way of War" and shaped our strategy in WWII as well. Grant continued his wise PRIN with how he handled Lee's surrender and his overall attitude of reconciliation toward the South. Under almost any other General of that time or the present, the actions, focus, and thus the results would have been very very different.

In limited conflicts, such as Iraq, where we had mixed raid-like purpose with war-like action we did not apply Grant's formula. Result was we "Won" the War, but did not End it. And Insurgency resulted.

I guess the lesson is, that if one has more than temporary results in mind, one must go in hard and defeat popular will as part of the overall campaign plan, or one must stay home. Or, if one truely has a raid-like purpose to punish some nation, one cannot stay and hope to control the emerging governance and place controls over what happens after the fighting starts, or one will logically and inevitably find themselves neck deep in resistance insurgency.

There are countless excellent Civil War historians, professional and amatuer alike; but I think most apply very conventional thinking to their analysis of the strategy applied, and their for miss the critical unconventional component as to why certain things were done, or even more importantly (because Grant may have just gotten lucky), why those things produced the effects they did.

One precondition of any COIN campaign is the limited use of power, coercion, and violence. When there is NO limit COIN is meaningless. "Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius."—"Kill them all, the Lord will recognise His own." Armand Amaury before storming Beziéres in 1209. See Cathar heresy