Defensive Strategy of the Confederates in the Civil War

President Jefferson Davis proclaimed his strategy to be one of “offensive-defensive.” The strategy in fact was one of defending all resources, stockpiling supplies and taking the offensive when the supply situation warranted or the opportunity was provided by the enemy. With the exception of a few notable offensive forays his strategy would evolve into one of passive defense. Whether intentional or not President Davis, with his statement on strategy, acknowledged two of the eminent military theorists of the nineteenth century. There can be no doubt that Prussian General Carl Von  or French General Antoine Jomini would not have endorsed the evolved defensive strategy of the Confederacy. They agreed that a passive defense was doomed to defeat.

Graduates of West Point and V.M.I. in the early and mid-nineteenth century would not have been familiar with Clausewitz’s great work “On War” as it was not translated into English until after the Civil War. Jomini’s works were translated prior to the war and some if not all of the graduates should have been familiar with his theories. Many of the theories of Clausewitz and Jomini originate from the Napoleonic Wars and we know for a fact the graduates were familiar with Napoleon. Jomini is considered the offensive minded of the two theorists though it is definite that he concurs with Clausewitz that offense must emanate from solid defense.

Clausewitz emphasized that military success would be measured by, “the political object of the war.” The South’s political objective was independence. Militarily this goal did not require the total defeat of Union forces or the occupation of large areas of Northern territory. The North’s political goal was the preservation of the Union. This goal did require the total defeat of Confederate forces and the occupation of large areas of the South. At the onset of hostilities Confederate Secretary of War, George Wythe Randolph, wrote, “There is no instance in history of a people as numerous as we inhabiting a country as extensive as ours being subjected if true to themselves.” The North’s ambitious political goal and the vast land area of the South, suggest a defensive strategy of Jomini’s, which has been labeled the space and time defense.

In the space and time strategy the defending forces will execute a retrograde movement drawing the attacking forces with them. The mission of this movement is to continually lengthen the attacking forces lines of communications. In the military sense time means the simultaneous movement or attack of two or more forces in two or more separate locations. The defender will employ simultaneous raids or attacks against the attacker’s line of communications. The initial mission of these raids and attacks would be to disrupt these lines but not to cut them. The goal of the defender is to force the attacker to guard as much of his lines of communications as possible, thereby reducing the man power of the main attacking force. This strategy does not call for large armies such as the Army of Northern Virginia or the Army of Tennessee. If the defending commander had 40,000 troops, his dispositions could be 25,000 in the main defensive force, with the remainder being allotted to three or even four raiding units.

In order to employ the time and space strategy effectively are there requirements that must be met. The area of operations must be large. With the exception of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, the South was the largest field of continuous operations to date. The ground within the area of operations must be defensible. The South’s topography, with its mountain ranges, rivers, wide streams, heavily wooded areas, swamps and marshes, was conducive to defense. The commanders of the raiding units must be intrepid and innovative. The commander of the main defensive force must be well versed in maneuver and defensive tactics. The Confederacy had officers that would have excelled in this strategy. Perhaps the most important and most necessary factor to this strategy lies with the civilian population. The strategy does not call for the active participation of the civilians in the military aspect. Loss of home territory, whether by force or by the strategy employed, can adversely influence the morale on the home front. Resistance to the loss of morale and passive resistance to the attacker are crucial to the success of the space and time strategy. The spirit and determination of the Confederacy’s civilians made up for many military deficiencies that the South suffered. This spirit and determination would have been fully sufficient for the employment of the space and time strategy.

Effective space and time defensive

An example of how effective the space and time defensive strategy could have been during the Civil War is William T. Sherman’s Atlanta campaign. Sherman’s forces were totally dependent on the Western and Atlantic railroad. As General Joseph E. Johnston’s forces retreated towards Atlanta they took or used all the forage and supplies along their line of march, forcing Sherman to be even more dependent on his one railroad. No one was more aware of his precarious lines of communication than General Sherman. At the start of his campaign he had assigned no less than 20,000 troops to defend this single railroad line. On May 5, as the Army of the Tennessee prepared to move through Snake Creek Gap, Sherman stressed to McPherson, “Strike hard as it may save us what we have most reason to apprehend, a slow pursuit, in which he gains strength as we lose it.” Sherman may have been referring to the possible reinforcement of Johnston and the prepared defensive fortifications ahead of which the Confederates would surely make use. The weakening of his own forces could only have come from attrition, as reinforcements were readily available. In any movement that a force undertakes attrition is a natural occurrence. The remedy for this natural attrition is found in the availability of supplies. As he moved toward Atlanta, Sherman knew his line of supply was being stretched, resulting in difficulty supplying his troops at the front.

As General Johnston retreated he was executing part of the equation of the space and time strategy, albeit unknowingly. The strategy does not dictate if the retrograde movement is forced or planned. It does stress that the defender does not allow the attacker to draw them into a major engagement. General Johnston was successful in this. In his memoirs he wrote that, on June 13, he requested President Jefferson Davis to have all available cavalry not assigned to his army, placed under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest’s mission would be to fall on Sherman’s one line of communication disrupting and if possible destroying it. Johnston maintained that he wrote six letters to Davis on the subject. Two letters were sent directly and four routed through General Braxton Bragg. Richmond turned a deaf ear to Johnston even though his plan was endorsed by Polk and Hardee, Johnston’s corps commanders. At a later date General Robert E. Lee urged the implementation of the plan but Richmond still did not act. Did Richmond’s indifference to this plan cost the Confederacy Atlanta and subsequently the war?

Had Forrest been ordered to execute Johnston’s plan, the second part of the space and time defense equation would have been met. To finish the equation, Forrest would have to attack the railroad at more than one location simultaneously. Forrest had made use of this tactic in previous raids. Sherman’s greatest apprehension for the success of his campaign was Forrest receiving the very orders that Johnston’s request had asked to be issued. General Forrest’s record shows that he was successful in these types of operations and there is no reason to believe he could not carry this mission to success. If Sherman’s lines of communication, his one railroad, had been consistently disrupted or even destroyed what options could Sherman entertain?

Jomini’s theory of the space and time strategy allows for three possible courses of action open to the attacker in response to his threatened lines of communication. General Jomini believed that these three courses were inclusive of all variations. The first, likely the least viable for Sherman, is the drawing of reinforcements from areas outside the immediate theater of operations. This response requires time to concentrate and organize a new force to defend or open the lines. Sherman had over 100,000 men and 35,000 animals in his force. He wrote home in June, “I wish we could make an accumulation of stores somewhere near, but the railroad is taxed to its utmost to supply our daily wants.” The disruption of Sherman’s railroad would not have to have been of long duration for his forces to be in jeopardy. There would not have been time enough for the first response to be employed. The second option allows for the attacker to draw troops from his main attacking force in an attempt to defend or reopen his lines. This course weakens the main attacking force and subjects the second force to consistent attacks by the defender. The third course of action, the most desirable for the defender, is the retreat of the attacking force along its lines of communication. This virtually guarantees the reopening of the attackers lines but at the least delays his attainment of his primary goal. It is quite possible, through the defender going on the offensive, that the attacker’s campaign could be altered or even negated. The offensive tactics available to the defender, when the attacker opts for the second or third response, are material for another article.

Had the Confederacy employed the space and time defense against General Sherman’s invasion, it is quite probable that the fall of Atlanta would have at the very least been delayed. It is even possible that Atlanta’s capture could have been prevented. Many credit the fall of Atlanta for the re-election of President Lincoln in 1864. How many “what ifs” exist if McClellan had won the election?

The Confederacy had no coordinated defensive strategy. Given the tremendous handicap in manpower and resources that faced the South, I believe this lack of any such strategy was a fatal flaw. The “offensive-defensive” strategy of Davis was in fact one of dispersed defense. By attempting to defend widely dispersed areas, Davis weakened the overall defensive ability of the Confederacy. General Jomini’s space and time defensive strategy was seemingly tailored for the Confederacy. The strategy does not require large armies, a benefit to the manpower-short South. The defensive typically does not require the resources of the offensive, an aid to the South’s supply situation. The ground of the South, being extremely advantageous to the defense, would have been utilized fully for that purpose. With their lack of a coordinated defensive strategy, any such strategy would have been an advantage to the Confederacy. Though there may be other defensive strategies that the South could have employed, I submit that Jomini’s space and time defensive strategy is the best of these alternatives. I will not state unequivocally that Jomini’s strategy would have changed the fortunes of the Confederacy in the war. I will, however, say that if the strategy had been employed from the beginning the possibility exists.


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