military strategies, Northern vs. Southern

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Editor: Kenneth W. Osborne
Date: 2004
Publisher: Greenhaven Press
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 739 words
Lexile Measure: 1390L

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military strategies, Northern vs. Southern

When the Civil War began, leaders in both the North and the South thought that it would be a short war, but the two sides had very different military strategies regarding how to bring about a quick end to the conflict. In the North, the first proposed military strategy was General Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan, so named because the idea was to destroy the South by shutting off its supplies via a blockade, much as an anaconda snake squeezes the life out of its prey. Once this occurred, Scott suggested, the Union could take an army down the Mississippi River to split the weakened Confederacy in two. President Abraham Lincoln rejected this plan at first, because he knew that the Northern public wanted to see aggressive, immediate military action against the South in general and the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, in particular. Later, however, he decided to blockade Southern ports, although he stuck to the plan of invading the South. With this strategy in mind, Lincoln ordered General George McClellan to advance on Richmond.

McClellan, however, was slow to move into enemy territory, even after Lincoln ordered him to speed up his military campaign, and he hesitated to attack the Confederates even when it was the right time to do so. As a result, Lincoln replaced McClellan with another general, Henry Halleck, who led the Union forces from 1862 to 1864. During this period, the blockade began to take effect, and the Union gained control of the Mississippi River in order to split the Confederacy, just as Winfield Scott had originally suggested. Then in November 1863 a Union force led by General Ulysses S. Grant took control of Chattanooga, Tennessee, which was the gateway to the interior of Page 199  |  Top of ArticleConfederate territory. Lincoln realized that in Grant he had found a commander who was willing to prosecute the war on Southern soil with the right amount of forcefulness, and he replaced Halleck with Grant as his general in chief. Grant then took over the development of the Union's military strategy and ordered his armies to cut a swath of destruction from Tennessee down through Atlanta, Georgia, to Savannah, Georgia, on the sea, then drive upward through the Carolinas to meet Union forces already at Richmond, Virginia. Only by using this aggressive, bloody strategy, Grant believed, could the Union bring the war to an end.

In contrast, the Southern strategy was largely defensive rather than offensive. Going into the war, the Confederates believed that European dependence on cotton would be the key to their victory. Under this theory, sometimes referred to as the King Cotton strategy, England and France would get involved in the war in order to keep up their supplies of cotton, and their military strength would make it impossible for the Union to prevail. However, the Confederacy realized that these countries would not jump into the conflict right away, so in the meantime President Jefferson Davis adopted what he called an “offensive-defensive” military strategy. His idea was that the South build up its forces in key defensive positions to block Union attacks, but when attacked the Confederate armies would always fight aggressively enough to put the Union on the defensive.

A few Confederate generals argued that this was the wrong strategy. Instead they wanted the war taken into the North, and indeed Generals Robert E. Lee and Jubal Early did attempt to do this on a few occasions. However, these attempts failed because the Confederacy's leaders were unwilling to commit enough forces to an attack on the North, fearing that this would weaken their defenses of key positions. Indeed, shortly after troops were sent from New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1862 to participate in battles in Tennessee, that city fell into Union hands due to a lack of defensive manpower.

Since state and city leaders did not want to part with their defensive troops, the Confederacy maintained its offensivedefensive strategy even after it became apparent that European countries were not going to become involved. By this point, the South was hoping that it could hold on to its lands until the North either decided that it could never achieve a total victory over the South or simply grew tired of war. With this in mind, Confederate agents in the North secretly worked to support the peace movement there, but before they could make much headway the South experienced a series of crushing defeats from which it could not recover.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2277700274