Confederate Tide Rising, Part 2

by Brett Schulte on November 14, 2005 · 3 comments

Confederate Tide Rising: Robert E. Lee and the Making of Southern Strategy, 1861-1862
by Joseph L. Harsh

Chapter 1 – “He who makes the assault”: Confederate Strategy from Sumter to Seven Pines, April 1861-May 1862

This first chapter discusses Confederate strategy from the beginning of the war until Lee ascended to the command of the Army of Northern Virginia after the wounding of Joseph Johnston.

Harsh begins the first chapter by discussing Lee’s dispatch to Davis telling him Lee was crossing the Potomac River into Maryland. He notes that although the movement wasn’t explicitly authorized, it didn’t go against Confederate war aims or military policy. More importantly, Harsh has found no evidence of Davis ever chastising Lee for having done so. He says that one needs to study Confederate strategy up to this point to understand why this was so. Harsh lays out his arguments in great detail, discussing Confederate war aims, military policy, and grand strategy before covering the first two “Phases” of the war, and the start of the third.

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8

According to Harsh, the Confederates had three main war aims. These were:

1. Independence

2. “The Integrity of our Territory”

3. Expansion of National Boundaries

The author believes independence was the primary goal of the Confederacy, and it came “easily, bloodlessly, and virtually without external opposition” for the original seven deep south slave states. To be left alone, the Confederates had to just stay at home and beat back Northern invasion attempts. Instead, says Harsh, they conducted operations aggressively. “The Integrity of our Territory” was another war aim. In other words, the seven slave states of the deep south had to immediately go on the offensive to expel Federal forces located there at the time of secession. These offensive operations “set a pattern for future operations”, and Fort Sumter was the logical conclusion to this early aggression. Expansion of national boundaries was the third war aim. Southerners viewed the Confederacy’s natural borders as the Mason-Dixon line and the Ohio River in the north and the Colorado Rive to the west. This included all slave states and all southern territories. Even after the upper slave states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas seceded, Southerners still viewed their nation as incomplete. The Southerners wanted the border slave states as well, but the hopes of getting Maryland and Delaware became remote almost immediately due to proximity to the northern capital. In the end, Harsh believes that the Confederacy’s generally accepted stated goals of no aggression only applied to free states; it did not apply to slave states under northern control.

Harsh next moves on to Confederate military policy. He says that this policy was often fragmented and piecemeal, and that no formal policy was ever written down. The South wanted about half of the “old Union”, and according to Harsh, the South needed to mobilize fully to have any hope of success due to being outnumbered everywhere. They were most critically outnumbered in people, which Harsh estimates at 1 to 2.1 overall, 1 to 3.5 if counting only white Southerners, and an astounding 1 to 3.7 for white males aged 18 to 45. Confederate military policy is split into mobilization and deployment.

Mobilization was critical to Southern success, and they pursued a more determined mobilization than the North. The Confederates faced their first shortage of men in the Spring of 1862, and they responded by instituting mandatory military service. The South managed to mobilize 80% of its military pool, while the North never exceeded 30%. Harsh reminds us that the odds did not remain static. Manpower fluctuated, and the South’s best ratio was in the summer of 1862. On June 30 of that year, the ratio was 1 to 1.3, “easily the best odds the Confederates would face during the remainder of the war.”

Effective deployment of manpower was slowed by many reasons, including training, unfriendly geography, organization & administration, logistics, which the North also faced. Training wasn’t a long term problem since most Rebel forces were in the field by Spring 1862, and the Confederates added men to existing regiments rather than recruiting brand new regiments as the North did. However, the long coastline and strong Federal navy meant it was tough for the South to be strong everywhere. Organization into departments caused rivalries and made it tough for everyone to pull in the same direction. The Confederates organized their departments into theaters earlier than the Federals, giving them an edge. Armies had to be fed, and the South had a tough time with this given their lack of grown food and primitive railroads. The South faced two more problems peculiar to their bid for independence: they were committed to States’ Rights, and they had to deal with slavery. Most Southern states tended to resist giving up forces within their own state to serve elsewhere, and slave owners knew their slaves would run if their area was overrun by the North. Hence they tended to not want to give up any land and to defend all points. Harsh points out that the only way for Rebels to truly solve most problems was to wage a guerilla war, and that was not acceptable due to the loss of slavery.

Harsh believes the Confederacy did about as well as could have been expected. He says that if the South had been less successful and the North more so at mobilization and deployment, the Confederacy would have lost in less than four years.

Confederate grand strategy is the next topic Harsh focuses on. He agrees that no grand strategy is readily apparent on the surface. Sometimes the Confederates seemed to use a “perimeter defense” strategy, while other times they launched offensives into northern territory. Tactically, whether on the strategic defensive or offensive, the Confederates often preferred to attack. Harsh concludes that “the Confederacy did not possess a grand strategy in the modern sense of a highly detailed and unified program, nor even in the sense of the more primitive plans proposed by Winfield Scott and George McClellan for the North to restore the Union”, but he believes nonetheless that they did have a grand strategy, and that it can be found in the words and actions of Lee and Davis. Harsh says Davis was “an exceptionally strong war president” and believes that he carried a burden similar to both Washington and Lincoln combined. Harsh, in a view some may find contrary to their beliefs, says that Davis used a hands off strategy with his Generals, preferring them to make decisions for themselves while just giving general suggestions. He believes Davis did provide a grand strategy for the Confederacy, expecting his generals to take the offensive where possible. Harsh says Davis believed an “offensive grand strategy needed to be applied in three distinct but related ways”:

1. stop enemy advances to keep their territory

2. offensives were required to take Kentucky and Missouri

3. “carrying the war into Africa” (In other words, the North could only be defeated on its home ground. This is a reference to Hannibal and Carthage.

Except for the winter of 1861-1862, Davis pursued this policy, according to Harsh and his “phases” of the war. Davis denied this after the war, calling it an “offensive-defensive” strategy, a term he had borrowed from Jomini. Jomini believed a strict passive defense was worthless and would always result in a loss. He believed a nation not looking to take over enemy territory should use the “defensive-offensive”, maintaining initiative whenever possible. Davis agreed with Jomini, though Harsh isn’t sure if he did this consciously. The only place Davis exceeded Jomini, according to Harsh, was by including invasion of enemy territory as acceptable to the defense. Harsh agrees with the term “offensive-defensive” that Davis used, but he says you must stress the “offensive” part of this. He says from Sumter to Ft. Stedman, the Confederates consistently used the offensive both strategically and tactically. In the First Phase of the war from April-October 1861, the Confederates advanced on all fronts and occupied much of the territory they believed was rightfully theirs. The Second Phase from November 1861-April 1862 saw many Confederate disasters as they lapsed into a defensive-minded strategy. The Third Phase opened in April and May 1862 and saw the Confederacy retake the offensive as Lee ascended to the front of the stage. Harsh believes this Third Phase gave the Confederacy the best chance it ever had to win the war.

The First Phase of the war lasted from April to October 1861, and the offensive was predominant in these six months, featuring a dozen offensive campaigns. Harsh says that going on the offensive is tougher than standing on the defensive. It required more and better trained troops, and the lack of these prevented the South from launching even MORE offensives early on. There was little coordination and little guidance from the government in these early stages, but the timing was good because the Union wasn’t prepared either. In Missouri, Kentucky, and the southwest, “spontaneous and nearly autonomous efforts erupted to plant the Confederate flag at the farthest boundaries of its proclaimed manifest destiny”. Wilson’s Creek in Missouri, Polk’s capture of Columbus in Kentucky, and John Baylor’s entry into New Mexico Territory all furthered the boundaries of the Confederacy. In the Eastern theater, however, Confederate strategy “was more circumspect”. The Confederates withdrew from the Potomac River line, and Pierre Beauregard began to grow tired of the Confederate defensive policy in the east. Lee and Davis reigned Beauregard in, and Harsh says this meeting showed that Lee and Davis had already held lengthy discussions on Confederate strategy. The South won at Bull Run, but disorganization prevented a pursuit. After Bull Run, many Confederates grew impatient with the eastern army’s inactivity, including even Davis. The Confederate President wanted an invasion of Maryland to happen as soon as Johnston’s Army was strong enough. In late September 1861, Davis and Johnston discussed the possibility of an offensive in a meeting near Fairfax Courthouse. Johnston and his subordinates said they needed trained men, but Davis did not have them available. Harsh believes Davis would have approved an offensive had Johnston been willing to try one. The only bad news in this period was in West Virginia, where the Confederates lost two-thirds of the area. “October 1861 represented an early high-water mark in Confederates’ progress toward achieving their war aims”, says Harsh. He believes that the Fairfax War Council was the high point of the first phase. The Confederates discussed an invasion of Maryland in purely military terms, and their failure to act shows their limitations at this point of the war. These limitations led to the defensively disastrous Second Phase. The author believes Davis must take most of the blame for this thinking, saying “it is possible that the best chance the Confederates would ever have to establish their independence came and went in the fall of 1861”.

The Second Phase of the war lasted from November 1861 to the period of April/May 1862, and was wholly defensive in character for the South. Contrary to popular opinion, Confederate leaders knew the war would be long and difficult. The Second Phase was marked by defeat after defeat. This was not coincidence, says Harsh. Instead it was a direct result of moving away from the early policy of aggression. The overall troop strength ratio worse for the South, and the percent of troops in field armies slipped from 80 percent to 63 percent as they tried to protect scattered gains. At the same time, the Union succeeded to some extent in coordinating their pushes and concentrating troops. A. S. Johnston was given an impossible task to defend Kentucky with the troops at hand, and his own policy of dispersal made things even worse. He ultimately lost all of Kentucky and most of Tennessee as well. In Missouri things were pretty much the same. The South had to withdraw from the state in February 1862, and they lost the Battle of Pea Ridge to a numerically inferior opponent in March of that year. The Confederates also lost the southwest. Henry Sibley was defeated at the Battle of Glorietta Pass, and he was forced to retreat to Texas, ceding all of the Confederacy’s gains in that quarter. To make matters worse, the Confederacy’s long coastline led to Union occupation of Port Royal, South Carolina; New Berne, North Carolina, and New Orleans, with the port of Savannah also ending up blockaded. The eastern theater stayed pretty quiet, with the Battle of Ball’s Bluff as a Confederate bright spot. Johnston, fearing McClellan’s buildup of troops, fell back to Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock River. McClellan used an amphibious invasion of the York-James Peninsula to outflank Johnston’s new position. As a result, in early April, Johnston moved to the Peninsula to oppose McClellan. On April 14, Johnston had a meeting with Davis, Secretary of War George W. Randolph, Robert E. Lee, Gustavus Smith, and James Longstreet. Johnston and Smith didn’t want to concentrate on the Peninsula, while Randolph and Lee did. Lee raised three objections:

1. He wasn’t convinced McClellan couldn’t be stopped on the Peninsula

2. Lee believed Johnston’s flanks could be protected by the CSS Virginia on the right and Yorktown on the left

3. Lee believed if troops were stripped from Georgia and South Carolina, Savannah and Charleston would be lost

Johnston wanted to launch an offensive north, but Harsh believes Lee and Davis were not prepared to swap capitals at this stage of the war. So Johnston was denied for a second time on the question of launching an offensive. Lee did start concentrating troops and Davis gave Johnston Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula to enlarge Johnston’s own army, but the time for an offensive hadn’t quite arrived. By mid-May, Johnston had retreated to the outskirts of Richmond. After one year of war, the Confederacy was in bad shape on all fronts. The second disastrous phase was now coming to an end. By May 1862 the South was close to losing the war. Davis admitted the impossibility of defending every single point, and he moved back to a policy of offense.

At the end of Chapter One, Harsh focuses on the beginnings of Phase Three, which saw its inauspicious debut, in April and May. By March, Davis knew the South had to use extraordinary effort or they would lose the war. He mobilized more men, created a conscription bill, concentrated weak and exposed garrisons into the field armies. Lastly, Davis again went to an aggressive strategy. Harsh relates that these policies all initially met with failure, but they set the stage for the victories to follow. Of the first tentative offensives, only Jackson’s Valley Campaign succeeded. In the west, the South lost at Shiloh, and in the east they fought a bloody draw at Seven Pines/Fair Oaks. At both Shiloh and Seven Pines the Confederates surprised the enemy and achieved gains, only to lose on the second day. The South lost A. S. Johnston permanently when he was killed, and Joe Johnston for quite a long time when he was wounded at these battles. Harsh marks this as the low point of the war for the Confederates to this point.

This summary turned into a much longer blog entry than I had originally intended, but to understand Harsh’s future arguments (I’m three chapters into the book), you have to have a good idea of what this first chapter is all about. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Confederate Tide Rising to this point, and I’m eager to continue with the book. Continue to look for a blog entry every several days as I digest and discuss Harsh’s views and ideas.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Brad Meyer November 14, 2005 at 2:11 pm

From a variety of sources other then those Harsh uses it is very possible to conclude that Lee was, during this period, more or less in Davis’ dog house. Lee had rebuffed the CS comission offered via Davis, stating “My current comission [i.e. the Virginia State comission] satisfactory to me”, not the sort of rebuff Davis was wont to take gracefully. (It was actually the second one offered, the first was simply ignored. In the end Lee was appointed a CS Brigadier without any further enquiry to Lee on the subject.) Also, if Lee’s own postwar account is to be believed, it was during this period that Lee first told Davis that the slaves were “an impediment and home and an embarssment abroad” and ought to be freed. Also, Lee’s policy during the moblization was strictly defensive and clashed with the CS policy that Harsh outlined. IMO it is small wonder that Davis kept Lee in the background and away from a major command until his hand was virtually forced by events.


JZ Temple November 16, 2005 at 6:21 am

I want you to know that my wife is very irritated with you! I read your blog every day and every weekend when we do our shopping I tell my wife we have to hit the bookstores because I just read about this really good book I want to look for…

Seriously, I really appreciate the time and trouble you take to maintain this blog and provide such interesting information. I’ve alway been interested in history in general, but had drifted away from ACW history a decade ago. Your excellent discussions of these books has rekindled my interest and I now include them on my “must get and read” list.


Brett Schulte November 16, 2005 at 3:26 pm


Thanks. I’ll take that as a compliment. Coming up later this week: The Benefits of Being a Single Civil War Buff. 😉

I’m glad you like the site. I’ve said this before, but I think I’d blog even if no one was reading it. It’s going to be interesting a year from now when I can go back and see if my views have changed on a given subject.

Don’t worry, I’ll be posting about new ACW books until the cows come home. I currently have about 75 unread volumes on my bookshelves, and that number is growing faster than I can read them!

Brett S.


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