Review: Confederate Tide Rising

by Brett Schulte on December 13, 2005 · 2 comments

Books On Civil War Strategy

Confederate Tide Rising: Robert E. Lee and the Making of Southern Strategy, 1861-1862.
Joseph L. Harsh. Kent State University Press (January, 1998). 296 pp. 7 maps.

This is a review and summary of Confederate Tide Rising: Robert E. Lee and the Making of Southern Strategy, 1861-1862 by Joseph L. Harsh. The book is the first of a trilogy (and what could later to expand to four or more volumes) covering Confederate strategy from the beginning of the war through the end of the Maryland Campaign of 1862. Confederate Tide Rising focuses specifically on Confederate strategy from the start of the war until September 1, 1862, just after the end of the Second Manassas Campaign and just prior to the start of the Maryland Campaign. Harsh states in his preface that this book and the second volume, Taken At The Flood, were meant to be one volume. However, that one volume soon grew to over 1,000 pages and the publishers decided to divide it up into two smaller books. In a little under 300 pages, Harsh focuses on Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, their professional relationship, and how it affected and drove Confederate strategic decisions. The first 208 pages contain the text of the book, and pages 208-254 consist of the lengthy and often extremely interesting notes. A select bibliography and the obligatory index round out the book. I enjoyed this work tremendously, and it whetted my appetite for the next book in the series. I can’t thank enough those from several Civil War message boards and forums who recommended this work and its author to me. He goes into great detail, in the text, in many appendices, and especially in the voluminous notes. Harsh argues (very persuasively, I might add) that Lee and Davis both were convinced that the only way to win the war was to assume the offensive. They believed the offensive was necessary because the Confederacy wanted to preserve its territory, expand to include other slaveholding states such as Missouri and Kentucky, and also to inflict such devastating losses on the North that they could erode the will of Northern civilians to continue the fight. He debunks the theory that Lee attacked because he had an aggressive personality or because of Southern “elan” and the “Cavalier” mindset.

Harsh’s preface sets the stage and offers some interesting tidbits about how the book (and the trilogy) came about. He relays that this book was supposed to be the first six chapters of Taken at the Flood, but it was deemed to be too long. Hence, these first six chapters were made into a book of their own. Harsh says he didn’t set out to write the book, but that it wrote itself as he tried to understand why Lee chose to enter Maryland in September 1862, and exactly what his thought process was while he was there. He maintains that in order to understand Lee’s decision-making process during the Maryland Campaign, you must also look at earlier events and decisions. In other words, this campaign didn’t happen in a vacuum. He believes that crossing the Potomac River into Maryland was a logical extension of Lee’s earlier goals and battles. Opportunities kept leading Lee forward until the only barrier left was the Potomac. Harsh maintains that Lee acted from the start using an overall strategy for victory that fit within the Confederacy’s (and Jefferson Davis’s) views on how to conduct the war. The Confederates “pursued aggressive goals” in an effort to weaken the North’s determination to win the war. Harsh has a more positive view of Davis than most, and he doesn’t believe Davis used a “perimeter” defense as maintained by the “standard” view of Confederate strategy. He states that except for the winter of 1861-1862, the Confederacy’s generals were encouraged to pursue offensive operations. Harsh draws two ultimate conclusions:

1. “Given the unbending determination of the North, the South probably could not have won the war.”

2. “If the North could have been made to waver in its determination, Davis’s policy and Lee’s strategy were well suited to achieve Confederate independence.”

On September 3, Lee dictated a dispatch to Davis that his army was crossing the Potomac River into Maryland. Lee had driven the North from the doorstep of Richmond all the way back to Washington, D.C. in only 95 days. Harsh, unlike David Welker in Tempest at Ox Hill, believes that Lee had intended to crush Pope at Chantilly. Even today, we still do not fully understand Lee’s motives for crossing the Potomac River. Possible answers as to why Lee did this include suggestions include relieving Virginia of the war for a time, subsisting his army off of northern resources, causing Maryland to secede, influencing northern peace movements through upcoming political elections, and attempting to cause Great Britain and France to grant diplomatic recognition and possibly recognize the independence of the Confederacy. Harsh says these explanations have never been sorted according to importance or judged for probability. He explains that the nature of Lee’s invasion has never been explained either. Was it an invasion, a raid, or (even more intriguing a thought) NEITHER? Harsh believes that Lee’s actions show that this was neither an invasion or a raid and he plans to tell us exactly what it was in his trilogy. Other questions Harsh wants to answer include:

1. Can the Maryland Campaign be understood without looking at the wider picture?

2. Or, did it come about as a result of a consistent (with few exceptions) Confederate strategy for winning the war?

3. How could a military leader cross a national boundary without permission from his government?

4. Didn’t the “incursion” (Harsh’s word) into enemy territory contradict the “standard” view of Confederate policy of defense?

5. Should a nation so outnumbered in men and materiel conduct high-risk offensives?

Harsh ends the overture by saying that all of the questions above can be answered by looking at Confederate strategy in the first year and a half of the

war. I can’t wait to read it to see the conclusions he draws.

The 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.

In chapter 2, Harsh narrows his focus to Robert E. Lee, his working relationship with Jefferson Davis, and their role as driving forces behind Confederate strategy for the rest of the war. Lee is the main subject of this chapter, and Harsh argues persuasively that Lee without exception pursued an offensive strategy designed to maximize the Confederacy’s chances of winning the war. Joseph Johnston had been wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines, and Davis had no one else to turn to other than Lee for the command of the main Confederate army in the east. Davis had no faith in Gustavus Smith, Johnston’s second in command. With the death of Albert Sidney Johnston at Shiloh and the wounding of Joseph Johnston at Seven Pines, Lee was one of the three remaining full generals in the Confederacy. As he did on prior occasions, Davis used Lee to plug the gap. Harsh says that although this choice would turn out to be wise, at the time it was “curious” based on Lee’s record to that date.

Harsh then narrows focus even more to take a look at Lee’s strategy during the Seven Days Campaign, a personal favorite of mine and Lee’s first as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. The Confederacy was at a low point in the war, and Lee needed to go on the offensive to turn the tide. His government did everything in their power to help him, assembling the largest Confederate Army ever to take the field (112,220 Present For Duty according to Harsh) for the start of the Seven Days. While Lee’s first campaign saw many tactical failures and did not feature “easy fighting and heavy victories”, it did give him some breathing room and “suggested his grand strategy for achieving Confederate independence could succeed.”

Lee had succeeded in driving McClellan away from Richmond, but in doing so, he found himself in an unenviable strategic situation in early July 1862. It was true that McClellan was not directly in front of Richmond, but he was still a threat at Harrison’s Landing, only 25 miles to the southeast. To make matters worse, Lincoln had called John Pope, victor at Island No. 10, east to command a new army. Pope’s Army of Virginia was created from the various units that had unsuccessfully chased Jackson around the Shenandoah Valley in the spring. This army, although smaller than McClellan’s, threatened Richmond from the northwest. Lee was stuck where he was for the moment. If he headed north to deal with Pope, McClellan might renew his drive on Richmond. Lee was also aware of the presence of Ambrose Burnside’s Union IX Corps, fresh off its victories in North Carolina. Lee had reports that Burnside was in Fredericksburg, forming a sort of “center” to Pope’s and McClellan’s “wings”. Lee sent Jackson to deal with Pope while he watched McClellan, but Burnside’s troops could move on Lee’s unprotected “center” with impunity. In addition, Pope’s and Burnside’s presence meant less of Virginia lay in Confederate hands, a condition Lee could not accept. Pope had been treating the citizens of northern Virginia with very little respect. Lee started referring to the general as a “miscreant” and spoke in terms of “suppressing” Pope and his army. The situation did not look good for the South, but Lee continued looking for ways to regain the initiative.

Lee was in an unenviable strategic position, with Jackson confronting Pope on the left flank near Culpeper Court House, Lee confronting McClellan on the right near Richmond, and the potential for an unguarded Union force to approach Richmond against Lee’s nonexistent center by moving south via Fredericksburg. Clearly, something was needed to break this impasse for Lee. He got his wish when McClellan was ordered by Henry Halleck to evacuate the Peninsula and sail north for a concentration with Pope’s Union Army of Virginia. Interestingly enough, however, Lee seems to have been heading north even before he got word that McClellan was withdrawing. He had decided to gamble on whether or not McClellan would attack Richmond in his absence, and he was willing to bet that the Union commander would stay put at Harrison’s Landing. On August 9, before he could have even received word of the results of the Battle at Cedar Mountain and before McClellan had boarded his transports, Lee ordered Longstreet’s Division north to break the strategic deadlock. The divisions of Evans and D. R. Jones soon followed. Pope was waiting for Lee behind the Rapidan River, but he also had the Rappahannock at his back. Eventually Pope retreated beyond the Rappahannock as well when Lee tried to flank him. Harsh gives Pope high marks for his success against these initial southern efforts to turn his flanks. Eventually, Lee sent Jackson west through the Shenandoah Valley, then north, and finally east again. He appeared in Pope’s rear and burned the main Union supply depot at Manassas Junction. Lee had again used a turning movement to get an enemy to retreat from a strong position.

Jackson’s famous flanking march around Pope’s army, his destruction of the massive number of Union stores at Manassas Junction, and the resulting Battle of Second Manassas are covered in this closing chapter of Confederate Tide Rising. Harsh believes that Lee wanted to avoid a fight in the aftermath of Jackson’s march, but that Stonewall’s aggressive actions led directly to the Second Battle of Manassas. I agree completely with the second part of that statement, but I’m not sold on the first part. In addition, Harsh covers the fight between Lee and Pope, and Lee’s tactical decisions during the battle. As this book ends and Taken at the Flood begins, Lee is within 25 miles of Washington pondering a potential invasion of Maryland.

Stonewall Jackson marched very slowly on the morning of September 1, wary of any enemy troops who could appear at any time. Stuart arrived and told him of the wagon train incident of the night before, but Jackson sent him out again to scout ahead in a fluid environment. Jackson caught up to Stuart at Ox Hill, and he sent the Cavalry commander toward Fairfax Court House around 4 P.M. At Difficult Run, they ran into Union forces deployed in some strength. Jackson was about to test these forces with Starke’s Division (and send Stuart north to try to turn the Union right at Flint Hill), but he was forced to turn his attention south to his own right flank. Reno’s forces of the Union IX Corps had suddenly appeared and had to be dealt with. Isaac Stevens and his small division attacked Jackson in the Battle of Chantilly. Stevens lost his life and his division was driven back. Luckily, Phil Kearny arrived with part of his III Corps division to hold the Confederates’ attention. Kearny lost his life trying to find support for the right flank of one of his brigades, but these attacks forced Jackson to pause, and his mission to insert his troops between Pope and his capital had failed. Harsh writes that the Confederates did not fight very well that day, and he provides an excerpt from a letter of Dorsey Pender to his wife saying much the same thing. Lee was apparently preoccupied with other things on September 1, mainly because he was severely limited by his injured hands. At the end of the battle near Ox Hill, Lee had been checked. Stuart had found Flint Hill firmly defended, and Union troops were in a strong line between Pope’s retreat route and Lee’s army. Lee, as Harsh points out throughout the book, would not want to launch a frontal assault for minimal gain on September 2. Lee also was out of room as far as flanking movements went. Only seven miles from Flint Hill lay one of the forts in the long ring protecting the northern capital. Basically, Harsh says, Lee found himself in a mirror of the tactical situation he had started in near Richmond, where McClellan was within 20 miles of the city. Lee did not have the strength to have any chance of successfully mounting a siege of Washington. Also, he simply didn’t have the time even if that were possible. Three hundred thousand more Union troops were on their way, and he needed to continue inflicting defeats on the Union armies to foster enough dissent at home to cause the North to lose hope in successfully bringing the war to a successful conclusion. Harsh sets up the beginning of Taken At The Flood quite nicely.

The six appendices are filled with a lot of interesting detail. In Appendix One, Harsh goes over definitions of key terms he uses repeatedly throughout the book. He believes that one must use strategic terms that would be understood by the participants themselves, even if they wouldn’t call what they did a specific term. In Appendix Two, the author covers the numbers he used in calculating Union and Confederate manpower pools, mobilization percentages, and Present for Duty strengths during the Seven Days and Second Manassas. Appendix Three concerns notes on Lee’s strategy. Harsh covers some of the sources he used to form his theories on Lee’s strategic thinking, and is also kind enough to explain what he perceives as biases in these sources. You cannot have concurrence on grand strategy without war councils and strategic conferences, and Harsh lists the various meetings Lee attended during the early years of the war through August 31, 1862. Harsh delves into controversies and other matters concerning Lee’s Seven Days Campaign in Appendix Five. The usual discussions, such as the one involving Stuart’s ride around McClellan are here, as well as some questions the reader might never have pondered over. The sixth and last appendix concerns the same types of discussions, only this time covering the Second Manassas Campaign. All in all, this is as fine and useful a set of appendices as I’ve seen in a long time.

Harsh appeals to a reader in many ways. First, his writing flows smoothly and kept me interested throughout. Second, the man admits up front that his theories are just that, HIS. He freely admits that he might have misinterpreted Lee’s thinking in cases, and he hopes that the book is just a starting point for future considerations covering the topics contained within. And lastly, and possibly most importantly, Harsh backs up his ideas with a tremendous amount of research. Harsh offers his sources both in the notes and discusses them in the text when necessary. He does not always agree with the generally accepted views on certain events (whether or not Lee wanted to fight a battle during the Second Manassas Campaign comes to mind), but I believe him when he says he came to his conclusions after consulting all of the available sources. The author, a native of Hagerstown, Maryland, has been interested in the Civil War since he was a boy, and his enthusiasm shows throughout this work. He left me wanting more, and fortunately we as readers have it in the large book Taken At The Flood, which covers Confederate strategy during the Maryland Campaign. Also, do not forget Sounding The Shallows, an oversized book of appendices the author could not fit into Taken At The Flood.

I have mainly focused on tactical battle studies as a Civil War reader. With that said, this is one of the finest books I’ve read on the conflict, no matter the specific topic. Harsh sets out to understand (and help the reader understand) the driving forces behind the strategy conceived and executed by Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, working in tandem to achieve Confederate independence. He succeeds marvelously at this task in my humble opinion. Anyone interested in questions of Civil War strategy will want to make this book, and the other books of the trilogy, an important part of their collection. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I believe it to be one of the top 5-10 books I’ve ever read on the war, and I believe others reading this would concur after reading Harsh’s work.

296 pp., 7 maps.

© Copyright Brett Schulte 2005. All rights reserved.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephen Graham December 14, 2005 at 12:00 am

One mark of the density of information in Harsh’s works: it was one of the few books where I absolutely had to keep a finger in the appropriate section of the endnotes, simply to get all the detail necessary, as I was referring to them continuously. Usually I’ll check particular footnotes based on the text and scan the notes for each chapter at the end of a chapter to see if there was anything of interest I missed. An engrossing read.

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Brett Schulte December 14, 2005 at 4:14 pm

I agree completely. As a reader who can never get enough detail, for me Harsh delivers and then some. After only a chapter of _Taken At The Flood_, I see that book is more of the same.

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