When the American Civil War started on April 12, 1861, both sides seemed to have the idea that the war would end quickly. Northerners and Southerners alike thought that one definitive battle would put things right. As the war ground on, however, it became clear to both sides that they must develop a long-term strategy to guide them to victory. In the first several years of the Civil War, the South was much more effective at this than the North. The Southern political and military leaders understood what was at stake.
For the Southern forces, defending was much easier than attacking. To win their independence, the South only had to not lose. This was a very similar strategy to that which General George Washington employed against the British.
The South would not be able to maintain a purely defensive posture, however. As the war continued, dwindling resources forced Southern commanders to attempt two significant invasions of the North. The South fought Northern forces to a draw at Antietam, a battle in which they were outnumbered two to one. The second Southern invasion ended in defeat at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
The Northern government and its military did not adopt a comprehensive military strategy until the war had already been going on for several years. The main reason for this seems to be poor leadership in both the political and military arenas. General Winfield Scott was the first General-in-Chief of the Union forces. He was one of the few who believed that the war would be long and protracted. He recommended a strategy of using the navy to blockade the southern ports. This would have a three-fold effect. It would begin the process of weakening the southern forces by denying them imported weapons, food, etc, and would prevent the south from exporting cotton to Europe. This blockade would allow the north time to develop their military machine.
General Scott was roundly criticized for his “Anaconda Plan.” He retired seven months after the war started. History would prove that Scott had the right strategy all along. In the end, it was the one the Union adopted much later in the war.
George McClellan was the next General-in-Chief of Union forces. He held this position for less than six months before being relieved by President Lincoln for his lack of activity. McClellan was an able administrator and organizer and he created a formidable army. His downfall was his unwillingness to take that army into the field and fight. McClellan’s strategy also conflicted with President Lincoln’s. The general was much more interested in capturing Richmond, the Southern capital, than he was in pursuing General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. McClellan was replaced as General-in-Chief by Henry Halleck. Halleck, like McClellan, was not anxious to fight but he fought enough that the President left him in that position for almost two years. Halleck was an excellent administrator but he was not the fighter that President Lincoln was looking for.
It was not until March of 1864 that the President had a General-in-Chief that he could trust. General U. S. Grant understood that the war would not be won by capturing cities or territory. The only way that the conflict would be brought to an end was by the destruction of the Southern armies. Grant directed his friend and subordinate, General William Sherman, to pursue and destroy the Confederate forces in the Western theatre.
Grant would make his office with the Army of the Potomac, led by General Meade. Grant directed Meade to pursue and engage General Lee’s Army of the Northern Virginia. This pursuit resulted in a number of significant battles over the next year. Grant’s army was defeated on several occasions. Instead of retreating, however, he merely continued to pursue Lee. It took Grant and Sherman over a year to defeat both of the Southern armies. The naval blockade had also done its part by denying the South badly needed supplies.
It took the Northern leadership several years to develop and implement a successful military strategy. Once the right general was found, this strategy could finally be executed. General Grant was the man that President Lincoln had needed all along.
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