Civil War Reprise


Being back in the blogosphere feels so right that it can’t be wrong.

I love being all out of chewing gum.

After having (obscurely) proclaimed that I am about to kick ass, I offer our esteemed readers a caveat: Your humble Smallholder is not a Civil War specialist. Plus, I don’t feel like doing any research. So all ideas presented here as facts may simply be ephemera swimming around in my tiny little brain. So if you want to go all fact-check on my agrarian ass, please have at it.

Preliminaries aside, I will begin endeavoring to take Mitch H. and Steven den Beste to ye olde woodshed for their responses to the Maximum Leader.

Mitch H. wrote:

Whatever the politicians might have thought, Lee himself had no real hopes for European intervention, and those instances where he mentions the subject he seems to be throwing a bone to Davis’s wishful thinking on the subject. Rather, Lee seems to have aimed at the degredation of Northern morale & the politicial defeat of the Lincoln administration. Freeman pulls out an interesting quote of Lee’s from 1861, before First Manassas, where Lee noted that he expected a war of ten years duration or longer. Lee *expected* a long, bloody war of attrition.

Lee did not set out to fight a war of attrition. He was a bright fellow and could do the basic math to figure how the war would end. He wanted to degrade Union morale through flashy victories. In the face of Lincoln’s superb political ability, this was hopeless. And those flashy victories came at a price: attacking rifle-equipped battle lines is a costly business and it was strategy that would eventually bleed the South dry.

Your reading of Freeman is very likely to have been much more recent than mine, but I am under the impression that Lee did actively hope for European intervention. His invasion of Maryland had two goals: Bring Maryland (my Maryland!) into the Confederacy and to win a “Saratoga” that could convince the European powers to wade into the conflict. After his advance was halted at Antietem, he did not have the logistical ability to continue and had to withdraw. And then Seward and Lincoln used Article II powers to issue the Emancipation Proclamation – effectively ending any hope of European involvement. The fact that Lee could not support a sustained incursion onto Northern soil at the very beginning of the war did not bode well for the Confederacy’s long-term prospects.

Lee, again to this humble farmer’s understanding, didn’t realize that the door had been shut and tried for a “Saratoga” again in 1863. The culminating battle occurred at Gettysburg because Lee’s shoe-gathering foragers triggered a reinforcement frenzy on both sides. Note that the fact that Lee had divided his force in foreign territory out of desperation for footwear is damning commentary on the long-term prospects of the Confederacy. Lee, normally a brilliant tactician but driven to desperation by the third day of the battle, made a major blunder with Pickett’s charge. My understanding is that he gambled all in attempt to win a victory that he could present to Europe. It didn’t work.

If we want to play the “what if game,” imagine that Pickett’s charge succeeds. It would have been a bad day for the Union, but would have been unlikely to drive the Union army from the field. Day four of the battle opens with the exhausted Confederates, short of ammunition and materiale, facing a still-growing Union army receiving reinforcements and supplies from the rail lines.

Even if Lee had forced Meade to withdraw, he was not capable of pursuing him for a deathblow. He would have had to move back South like he did after Antietem. Even if the slavery issue didn’t preclude European aid, another strategic draw was unlikely to have been very persuasive. Northern losses would have been replaced by the draft and the Confederates still would have been enlisted septuagenarians.

Mitch continues:

As such, my favorite “what if” is a fatal or near-fatal wounding of Grant in the Wilderness in 1864. Now, I’m not one of those folks who idolizes Grant in terms of “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer”, but his combination of tenacity and political acumen wasn’t replicated in any of his subordinates or peers, Sherman and Sheridan included. Without the main army on the James, Lee would probably have plunged back across the Potomac in Early’s wake in the late summer.

The war could have easily settled into a sanguinary yearly back-and-forth in the East, with spring Union campaigns frustrated in the killing grounds on the south bank of the Rappahannock & reciprocal Confederate raids up the Valley into Maryland & Pennsylvania in the high summer. It happened in 1862, 1863, and to a lesser extent, again in 1864 with Early’s two raids. A reprise of the Gettysburg campaign in the summer of 1864 could easily have broken the Union Party’s back, no matter what Sherman and Hood got up to in the West.

Grant’s posited death would surely have been a setback. But it also would not have changed the outcome of the war. After Gettysburg, the South was literally incapable of large-scale force projection; they could not supply their armies in their own territory.

Early’s raids were small sideshows of fast moving cavalry. You can surely believe that Lee would not have allowed himself to penned up in the Petersburg earthworks if he had possessed any ability to maneuver his forces. “An 1864 reprise of the Gettysburg campaign” simply wasn’t possible in terms of either manpower or logistics.

Steven Den Beste said:

We don’t seem to disagree strongly on the facts; I think most of our disagreement has to do with calculations of probabilities. I probably overstated the odds of the Southern Strategy being a success (e.g. “it nearly succeeded”), but I don’t think that it was outright impossible — until, that is, the ironclads appeared. After that the strategy of relying on European intervention was hopeless.

This is interesting. I had never heard that the ironclads played a role in England’s deliberations over intervention. If you have a source, I’d love to read up on it. That said, based on my pre-existing knowledge (and once again, I’ll confess I’m no expert), I don’t think it would have mattered. The Royal Navy was already moving towards the steam-powered ironclad model. If the slavery and King Corn weren’t holding them back, they could have dealt with the U.S. Navy.

The Royal Navy could have broken the blockade at some particular port and escorted a convoy of cargo ships into some harbor, such as Charleston. But the RN had no ships capable of crossing the ocean which could have prevented Union ironclads from entering Charleston harbor and devastate most of those cargo ships while they were loading before the convoy was ready to leave again. Under the best of circumstances a large convoy would have taken days to unload and reload, and that would have been plenty of time for a squadron of ironclads to show up and wreck them. So once USS Monitor launched and was a success, the Confederacy was doomed. But it did have one other chance, about which more below.

Within close proximity to fortresses, American ironclads would have had a hard time. British guns, hastily installed in preexisting CSA strongpoints, could have kept any counterattack at bay. This isn’t like running the gauntlet before Vicksburg where one just has to sail past and move out of range; an attack on a convoy in port would have had to remain under accurate land-based artillery fire. Ask the British naval commander at Gallipoli how well admirals like to keep their ships proximate to gun batteries.

Steven continues:

Still, the leaders in the South in 1861 did have reason to believe that there was a non-trivial chance of inducing European intervention, and I don’t believe that they were on drugs.

Confederate leaders counted on King Cotton to force British intervention. But their belief rested on a lack of understanding of economics. Given that there was a huge supply of cotton sitting in London warehouses (the Maximum Leader says two years worth; I thought it was one. You say potato, I say po-tay-toe), even my high school students easily predict that British entrepreneurs would anticipate rising prices and invest capital in creating cotton plantations – all you need is a warm climate and a cheap labor supply. Neither of those things was in particularly short supply in the British Empire. So we agree that Jeff Davis, Judah P. Benjamin, et. al. were not on drugs. They were just economically illiterate.

Steven writes:

Discussing the probabilities of past events is problematic, because strictly speaking the probability of what happened is exactly 1.0 and of all alternatives is exactly 0.0. But looking forward in 1861, I don’t believe that Union victory was assured.

There was another point where it might have changed: the 1864 election. Lincoln certainly didn’t believe that his reelection was a sure thing, and the Democratic Party’s official platform for the 1864 election was to give up the war. (Though their candidate, McClellan, believed that the war should continue to be prosecuted.) As the Army of the Potamac continued to bleed without apparently accomplishing much in Virginia (at least as it was viewed back home), and as Sherman was frustrated by Johnston, who was fighting a brilliant disputed withdrawal, it all seemed like a “quagmire”.

First of all, the election didn’t turn out to be that close – and while Sherman’s gift of Atlanta might have brought in a few more votes, Lincoln probably would have won anyway. And if it seemed close, Lincoln and his boys weren’t playing fair. The biggest electoral manipulation in history was Lincoln’s order that regiments from heavily Republican areas be given leave in November while boys from Democratic areas were kept in the line. In 1864, absentee voting didn’t exist. If things were closer, you can bet that Lincoln would have ordered even more leaves – having already used his powers as Commander-in-Chief to alter the election, he wouldn’t have scrupled at doing more.

But if we are going to play the “what if” game, suppose McClellan did win the election. He had never accepted the peace plank of his party and would have prosecuted the war vigorously, if only to burnish his own deeply cherished military reputation (McClellan was not an abolitionist). The Democrats in congress were a minority. The radical-Republicans who were much more extremist in pressing the war than Lincoln would have found a way to work with McClellan. Remember that in 1864 the union army was still swelling, the Confederacy was putting teenagers and their grandfathers in the line, and the Confederacy’s economy was an absolute wreck. McClellan probably wouldn’t have won the war as quickly as Grant, since he preferred dancing with Lee (a generally bad idea) and though Grant’s bloody clinching was unsportsmanlike. But the outcome would have been the same. I’d even wager that the prolongation wouldn’t have been much – maybe until the summer of ’65. The South just did not have anything left.

Steven writes:

And that’s when Jeffy D threw the war away. He replaced Johnston with Hood and ordered Hood to slug it out. That was what Sherman had been hoping for; he crushed Hood’s force, marched on Atlanta, then made his march to the sea. That was the primary thing that convinced Northern voters that the war was not a lost cause.

Johnston wasn’t doing much to slow Sherman down. Sherman’s band was 100,000 strong and simply outflanked any defensive position the vastly outnumbered Johnston took. Johnston’s ill-fed, ill-armed band was no more than a nusiance. Johnston or Hood – it just didn’t matter. As Napoleon once observed, God is on the side with the bigger battalions. When he heard that Jefferson Davis had prophesized that Sherman would meet the same fate as Napoleon on the steppes of Russia, Grant laconically replied, “and who will supply the snow?”

Steven writes:

Had there not been that victory (and a couple of others) in 1864 before the election, the Democrats might have won, and even though McClellan wanted to continue to prosecute the war, he might not have been able to — and in that case, too, the Confederacy might have survived.

I dealt with this above, but why exactly would McClellan have been unable to prosecute the war? The Democrats did not control Congress, and the war would have been grinding on toward its conclusion in the months before his inauguration.

Steven writes:

Obviously we don’t disagree that the Union won and the Confederacy lost. Equally, I don’t think we disagree that the odds at the beginning of the war massively favored the Union. I just think that it’s overstating the situation to say that in 1861 the Confederacy had no chance at all of survival.

We’ll have to agree to disagree. I’ve seen no “what-if” scenario that can stand the harsh glare of light of day. The “Longstreet as Confederate commander” is intriguing, but it is unlikely he could have survived the political demands for offensive action long enough to sap the Lincoln-stiffened will of the North to fight.

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