What were the South’s two main military strategies at the beginning of the war?

By jamesdcreviston Add a Comment 11 Min Read
Two images depicting the South's military strategy at the beginning of the American Civil War.

When the Civil War began, leaders in both the North and the South thought that it would be a short war, but the two sides had very different military strategies regarding how to bring about a quick end to the conflict.

When it came to strategy, the South had to consider their advantages and disadvantages when compared with the North. They had the advantage of having more experienced military leaders and they were more familiar with territory and terrain in the southern states. However, the Union had the advantage in funding, industrial production, a denser population, and a larger railway infrastructure. Thus the Union devised the “Anaconda Plan” while the Confederacy adopted a George Washington-style approach to the war.

The Southern strategy in the Civil War was three-pronged. Confederate leaders prepared for a defensive battle and focused on three primary strategies, two of which were military and one which was economic:

  • Defending their borders which was later limited to just strategic holdings.
  • Forcing Europeans to intervene and lend both military and financial support.
  • Putting up a large enough fight that the Union would abandon the war effort.

The basic war aim of the Confederacy, like that of the United States in the American Revolution, was to defend a new nation from conquest. This strategy had worked for the American army in 1776 and since warfare was fought similarly it seemed that such a strategy could work again. 

Going into the war, the Confederates believed that European dependence on cotton would be the key to their victory. Under this theory, sometimes referred to as the King Cotton strategy, England and France would get involved in the war to keep up their supplies of cotton, and their military strength would make it impossible for the Union to prevail.

The South held out hope that their goods would be worth more to the Europeans than the relations with the Union. This hearkened back to how the French had helped the Americans with the American Revolution. To them this meant that the South could “win” the war by not losing; the North could win only by winning. 

The Southern leadership had a defensive mentality, which was strong across the South, at the beginning of the war. They believed that the large territory of the Confederacy (over 750,000 square miles, which was twice the size of the thirteen original colonies), made Lincoln’s task as difficult as King George III’s in 1776. 

Early in the war, Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, envisaged a strategy like that of George Washington in the Revolution. Washington traded space for time, he retreated when necessary in the face of a stronger enemy; he counterattacked against isolated British outposts or detachments when such an attack promised success, and above all, he tried to avoid full-scale battles that would have risked the annihilation of his army and the defeat of his cause. This has been called a strategy of attrition–a strategy of winning by not losing, of wearing out a better-equipped foe and compelling him to give up by prolonging the war and making it too costly. 

The South’s primary goal in the war was to defend their territory and put up enough of a fight that the North would lose interest in the war effort and reunification. Southern military commanders initially implemented a cordon defense, in which the Confederate Army was stationed along all borders. Due to a lack of resources, they switched to an offensive-defensive strategy. The offensive-defensive strategy consisted of defending key strategic holdings and staging offensives only when at a clear advantage.

Two main factors prevented the South from carrying out such a strategy except in a limited, sporadic fashion, which stemmed from political as well as military realities. The first was a demand by governors, congressmen, and the public for troops to defend every portion of the Confederacy from penetration by “Lincoln’s abolition hordes.” Instead, small armies were dispersed around the Confederate perimeter along the Arkansas-Missouri border, at several points on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, along the Tennessee-Kentucky border, in the Shenandoah Valley and western Virginia as well as at Manassas. 

In addition, the armies of the Confederacy were not fully united, and the lack of a central command until late in the war made it difficult for the Confederacy to adopt a cohesive strategy. The Confederate military was organized into three distinct branches: the Army of Northern Virginia, the Army of Tennessee, and the Army of the Trans-Mississippi. Each branch was commanded by a general and was responsible for defending its territory.

The Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Robert E. Lee, was the largest and most powerful of the three branches. It was responsible for defending the Confederate capital of Richmond and the surrounding area. The Army of Tennessee, commanded by Braxton Bragg, was responsible for defending the western part of the Confederacy. Finally, the Army of the Trans-Mississippi, commanded by Edmund Kirby Smith, was responsible for defending the far western part of the Confederacy. The Confederate military was also organized into divisions and brigades. Each division was commanded by a major general and was responsible for a specific area of operations. Brigades were commanded by brigadier generals and were responsible for a specific area of operations within a division.

The second factor inhibiting a George Washington-style strategy of attrition was the temperament of the Southern people. Believing that they could  “whip any number of Yankees”, many Southerners scorned the notion of  waiting for the Federals to attack. The Southern press clamored for an advance against the Union in the same tone that Northern newspapers cried “On to Richmond”. The South had built up its forces in key defensive positions to block Union attacks, but when attacked the Confederate armies would always fight aggressively enough to put the Union on the defensive.

The Confederates eventually synthesized these various stands of strategic theory and political reality into what Davis called an “offensive-defensive” strategy. This consisted of defending the Confederate homeland by using interior lines of communication to concentrate dispersed forces against an invading army and, if opportunity offered, to go over to the offensive, even to the extent of invading the North.

The South had also hoped for European support because of European dependence on cotton. However, European nations had found cotton elsewhere and refused to intervene after the Emancipation Proclamation. Eventually, the South faced a severe supply shortage and a lack of manpower and funding. This was due to their dedication to states’ rights meant that the Confederacy could not implement an income tax or work to enforce the draft. State governments refused to levy an income tax to support the war effort, citing it as a violation of the state’s rights and interests. Without access to profits from the cotton trade, a lack of financing for the war became a real issue. 

When it came to troops, Confederate leaders ran into the same problem. Many state governments refused to comply with the draft fully. So, in April 1865, the Confederacy agreed to a ceasefire due in part to the shortage of everyday goods and military supplies and an overall lack of morale. The South had lost the war that it had believed couldn’t be won by the Union. 

What were the South’s two main military strategies at the beginning of the war?

The Southern military strategy in the Civil War was dual-faceted.
Defending their borders, which was later limited to just strategic holdings, and putting up a large enough fight that the Union would abandon the war effort.


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