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Civil War - 1861-63 - Overview

The Northern strategy was to defeat the Confederates by focusing on three factors or features; first, by blocking the coast, second, by securing the Mississippi and third, as the main goal, by capturing the capital at Richmond. The Anaconda plan included a complete blockade of the South coast and control of the Mississippi River. Even though the North relied on a logistics strategy, it was necessary to conquer the Southern territory. This strategy created of the Union was so successful that it pushed the Confederates to counterattack aggressively in response.

The first large battle of the war, at Bull Run, Virginia (also known as First Manassas) near Washington, stripped away any illusions that victory would be quick or easy. It also established a pattern, at least in the Eastern United States, of bloody Southern victories that never translated into a decisive military advantage for the Confederacy.

In contrast to its military failures in the East, the Union was able to secure battlefield victories in the West and slow strategic success at sea. Most of the Navy, at the war’s beginning, was in Union hands, but it was scattered and weak. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles took prompt measures to strengthen it. Lincoln then proclaimed a blockade of the Southern coasts. Although the effect of the blockade was negligible at first, by 1863 it almost completely prevented shipments of cotton to Europe and blocked the importation of sorely needed munitions, clothing, and medical supplies to the South.

A brilliant Union naval commander, David Farragut, conducted two remarkable operations. In April 1862, he took a fleet into the mouth of the Mississippi River and forced the surrender of the largest city in the South, New Orleans, Louisiana. In August 1864, with the cry, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead,” he led a force past the fortified entrance of Mobile Bay, Alabama, captured a Confederate ironclad vessel, and sealed off the port.

In the Mississippi Valley, the Union forces won an almost uninterrupted series of victories. They began by breaking a long Confederate line in Tennessee, thus making it possible to occupy almost all the western part of the state. When the important Mississippi River port of Memphis was taken, Union troops advanced some 320 kilometers into the heart of the Confederacy. With the tenacious General Ulysses S. Grant in command, they withstood a sudden Confederate counterattack at Shiloh, on the bluffs overlooking the Tennessee River. Those killed and wounded at Shiloh numbered more than 10,000 on each side, a casualty rate that Americans had never before experienced. But it was only the beginning of the carnage.

In Virginia, by contrast, Union troops continued to meet one defeat after another in a succession of bloody attempts to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital. The Confederates enjoyed strong defense positions afforded by numerous streams cutting the road between Washington and Richmond. Their two best generals, Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. (“Stonewall”) Jackson, both far surpassed in ability their early Union counterparts. In 1862 Union commander George McClellan made a slow, excessively cautious attempt to seize Richmond. But in the Seven Days’ Battles between June 25 and July 1, the Union troops were driven steadily backward, both sides suffering terrible losses.

After another Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run (or Second Manassas), Lee crossed the Potomac River and invaded Maryland. McClellan again responded tentatively, despite learning that Lee had split his army and was heavily outnumbered. The Union and Confederate Armies met at Antietam Creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862, in the bloodiest single day of the war: More than 4,000 died on both sides and 18,000 were wounded. Despite his numerical advantage, however, McClellan failed to break Lee’s lines or press the attack, and Lee was able to retreat across the Potomac with his army intact. As a result, Lincoln fired McClellan.

Although Antietam was inconclusive in military terms, its consequences were nonetheless momentous. Great Britain and France, both on the verge of recognizing the Confederacy, delayed their decision, and the South never received the diplomatic recognition and the economic aid from Europe that it desperately sought.

Despite Major General George B. McClellan's "victory" at Antietam, Lincoln never for a minute lost his desire to relieve the general, because the General never for a minute recovered from "the slows." McClellan was better at organizing than fighting. He always had an excuse for not engaging the enemy: his men were outnumbered (actually, they were not); he needed more troops; and it wasn't a good time or place or season for a battle. Once, Lincoln was so frustrated at McClellan's failure to act that he sent the general a telegram that read, "If General McClellan does not want to use the Army, I would like to borrow it for a time, provided I could see how it could be made to do something."

After the 1862 mid-term elections, Lincoln finally ordered the replacement of McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac on November 5, 1862. For nearly fifteen months Lincoln tolerated undisguised resistance, incompetence, and clear insubordination from McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac and, for a few months, General-in-Chief of all Union armed forces. The President delayed his eventual decision to relieve McClellan from command for several reasons, including a misplaced respect and trust in McClellan's character and professionalism; his inability to find the right time and person for replacement; his nagging fear of both the Confederate potential and a McClellan inspired insurrection of Union forces.

Lincoln, aware of the public's growing support of abolition, issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, declaring that all slaves in areas still in rebellion were, in the eyes of the federal government, free. After the battle of Antietam and the subsequent Emancipation Proclamation, Great Britain and France wanted to back a winner and saw the tide turning in favor of the Union.

In practical terms, the proclamation had little immediate impact; it freed slaves only in the Confederate states, while leaving slavery intact in the border states. Politically, however, it meant that in addition to preserving the Union, the abolition of slavery was now a declared objective of the Union war effort.

The final Emancipation Proclamation authorized the recruitment of African Americans into the Union Army, a move abolitionist leaders such as Frederick Douglass had been urging since the beginning of armed conflict. Union forces already had been sheltering escaped slaves as “contraband of war,” but following the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union Army recruited and trained regiments of African-American soldiers that fought with distinction in battles from Virginia to the Mississippi. About 178,000 African Americans served in the U.S. Colored Troops, and 29,500 served in the Union Navy.

The South strategy started as defensive in nature to protect the land already under Confederate control. At the beginning of the early stages of the Civil War in 1862, the Confederate strategy changed from defensive into an offensive strategy. After military setbacks in Tennessee and Virginia in early 1862, the Confederates started to reflect, see and think about the end of slavery on a bigger scale than ever before. Also due to the black exodus of the North, the Confederate leadership commenced pursuing a strategy which was more aggressive and offensive.

Initiallly, Davis’ cordon defence strategy was used by the Confederates for most of the first year of the war and included the placement of troops around the confederation borders in order to defend the entire territory. Although this strategy had much political praise, it was militarily disastrous, because in 1862, the federal forces, as a result of lessons from the western area of operation, launched an attack and had little difficulty in breaking the Confederates’ military line of defense along the border. Due to the federal incursions, the Confederates abandoned their strategy of keeping all of their territories. The second, Davis’ offensive-defensive strategy was in nature as the previous strategy and followed the same path. As a result of this strategy, the Confederate government abandoned some areas which were less important to concentrate their main effort and resources on the protection of the key strategic areas or points. The Confederates were able to utilise their internal lines of communications, especially the railways, to rapidly change and shift their military forces to protect and defend the points from the Union. Third, Robert E Lee’s protective strategy; it was basically a version of the previous strategy with a greater emphasis on the defensive segment, and it was adapted by Robert E Lee in the winter of 1862-1863. He recommended and suggested that the Confederates take the initiative and try to repel the Union’s balance and superiority by attacking, focusing on and winning a decisive victory in this area over the North military troops, thereby convincing the North that they had to abandon their efforts to preserve the Union status. In this regard, and due to the strategic and operational circumstances, Lee realized that the Confederation had no human, financial, material and logistic resources to carry out a lasting war and that, because of its losses in the Western area of operations they were facing an impending loss of the war. The only possibility to reverse this was to have a huge military victory over North military forces that would demoralize the people of the North and allow the Confederate armies to dictate the conditions of peace and allow the South to gain its independence. This strategy represented a considerable risk for Lee and with retrospective wisdom, it was doomed to fail.

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