Confederate Strategy

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Confederate Strategy

In the spring of 1863 the Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Robert E. Lee, launched an invasion into Pennsylvania in hopes of securing a negotiated war termination. This campaign would precipitate the famous Battle of Gettysburg, and consequently the lasting opinion that in adopting this invasion the Confederate leadership failed to recognize and adopt the optimal strategy. This paper will attempt to identify the origins and developments of the northern invasion, and illustrate why, given the circumstances, it was the Confederacy's only hope for independence through a negotiated war termination.

A detailed plan of the invasion into Pennsylvania which was eventually adopted was first presented in October 1861 by then Major General of the provisional army of Virginia; Thomas J. Jackson. His plan was offered to Gen. G W. Smith.

McClellan, with his army of recruits, will not attempt to come out against us this autumn. If we remain inactive they will have greatly the advantage over us next spring. Their raw recruits will have then become an organised army, vastly superior in numbers to our own. We are ready at the present moment for active operations in the field, while they are not. We ought to invade their country now, and not wait for them to make the necessary preparations to invade ours. If the President would reinforce this army by taking troops from other points not threatened, and let us make an active campaign of invasion before winter sets in, McClellan's raw recruits could not stand against us in the field.

Crossing the Upper Potomac, occupying Baltimore, and taking possession of Maryland, we could cut off the communications of Washington, force the Federal Government to abandon the capital, beat McClellan's army if it came out against us in the open country, destroy industrial establishments wherever we found them, break up the lines of interior commercial intercourse, close the coal mines, seize and, if necessary, destroy the manufactories and commerce of Philadelphia, and of other large cities within our reach; take and hold the narrow neck of country between Pittsburgh and lake Erie; subsist mainly on the country we traverse, and making unrelenting war amidst their homes, force the people of the North to understand what it will cost them to hold the South in the Union at the bayonet's point.1
Interestingly, Jackson was not the first to suggest a general northern movement. Col. Trimble, on June 4th, presented Lee with a plan to cross the Potomac and threaten Washington and Baltimore. In July, Beauregard offered a similar plan to defeat the three armies which threatened Virginia. But Lee and Davis disapproved, holding that the enemy was too close to their defenses and reserves, the Confederate forces were not sufficient, and that the plan was “based on the improbable and inadmissible supposition”2 that the enemy would remain motionless and isolated until attacked. Beauregard tried again in September as did Johnston. Thus the idea of northern movement was not new when Jackson first proposed his plan.

Though southern leadership considered an invasion into the heart of Pennsylvania the most effective strategy by which to fulfill their war aims, there have been many critics of that movement who claim that the offensive was foolishly ineffective, and needlessly destroyed hopes for southern independence. These critics argue that a defensive strategy such as J. Johnson applied at Atlanta would have proved most effective. They reason that the Confederate armies, operating across the vast southern landscape could have avoided unnecessary bloodbaths and, by exploiting maneuvering tactics, could have worn the enemy down to eventual defeat.

From a tactical standpoint, the underlying weakness of this argument is the "flawed assumption that all territory is created equal. Such thinking fails to distinguish between areas crucial to the Confederacy and areas that are expendable.”3 The expendable areas are those of little economic value, or strategic significance, those in which it is impossible to employ large-scale military maneuvers, and those which, in defending and maintaining, exhaust more resources than they produce. These credentials nullify more than half of Confederate geography. The major expendable areas were the trans-Mississippi states which “were simply not crucial to sustaining the Confederate bid for independence”4, and Florida which not only held little value but was extremely vulnerable to sea operations, making her a “liability to both herself and the Confederacy”.5 Appalachia, including what is now West Virginia, the Western Carolinas, Eastern Tennessee, and Northern Georgia was another expendable. “This remote, sparsely populated, generally infertile upland was so dissected and rugged that it proved impractical for large scale military operations.”6 Much of the territory that remained, formed the Confederacy's “breadbasket”. And the combination of its invaluable agriculture products and its extensive network of waterways which could be exploited by the Union navy, made it a dangerous place to expose to the enemy.

Confederate forces could not retreat into any part of the South without relinquishing vital areas and they did not have the luxury to be able to survive without these areas. Furthermore, the areas which did hold strategic value(human, financial, and industrial resources) lay on her peripheral frontiers.7 Along the South's northern border; lay Richmond: “arguably the most important rail hub in the South and undeniably preeminent as an industrial center.”8 Her railroads were linked to other key positions including the port at Wilmington. In fact, it was the most heavily fortified place in the Confederacy and the last access for foreign support. “Wilmington”, said Lee, “ ought to be defended to the last extremity.”9 The Western border held similar value. John Keegan observed that once the Union gained control of the Mississippi, they obtained :

a line of departure from the eastern bank of the great river - at rail heads of Memphis and Vicksburg and along such tributaries and sub-tributaries as the Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers, which led into the Southern heartland from the western direction - from which a succession of parallel offensives could be securely mounted.10
It was the same story for much of the South's border, it held critical places which the South simply could not afford to lose. In this light, it becomes clear that a primarily defensive, or Fabian, strategy would have failed.

How Fabian strategy affected the people is also an important consideration, for “the style and substance of Confederate military strategy sprang directly from the expectations of the Southern people.”11 The Southern people expected bold, relentless strategy, they “clamoured for bloody battles.”12 When the Army of Northern Virginia had begun its offensive movements towards the Potomac, a Georgian newspaper showed its relief:

Having in this war exercised Christian forbearance to its utmost extent, by acting on the defensive, it will now be gratifying to all to see...the war carried upon the soil of those barbarians who so long have been robbing and murdering our quiet and unoffending citizens.13

Such sentiments would not have allowed the defensive strategy to be adopted and maintained without depressing popular morale and threatening the South's will to resist.

Another option was to leave Virginia and focus on defending the Mississippi, namely Vicksburg. Lee knew that a decision must be made to either protect the Virginia front or the Mississippi's, that Confederate strength was not sufficient to do both and expect any lasting success. The most prominent flaw in this strategy was its failure to take into account the Union navy and the extensive waterways of the Mississippi and her tributaries. The Union navy was strong and without a navy herself, the South's only defense against the famed “ironclads” were river strongholds. These strongholds were sometimes difficult to destroy but ultimately they were no match for the Union navy. Gunboats could bombard cities, destroy ports, and sink enemy boats. This obviously had a devastating effect, but even more dangerous to Confederate survival was the Union navy's ability to rapidly maneuver U.S. troops. Gen. Johnston lamented:

Our disadvantage in this warfare is that the enemy can transfer an army from the Mississippi to Nashville before we can learn that it is motion, while an equal body of our troops could not make the same less than six weeks.14

After deploying troops the navy was able to provide artillery support as well as maintain them with supplies. This was very different from the eastern theater. If Lee had decided to shift his forces to the western theater, the main objective would be to repossess the waterways, but he had little or no naval support for the task. Again, the observation concerning a Union-controlled Mississippi, is applicable. In transferring Rebel forces to the western theater, the Upper South would be exposed, and Union forces would gain the opportunity to wreak even more havoc on disadvantaged Confederate armies.

Another strategy often proposed by critics of the Northern Invasion is guerilla warfare. Proponents argue that the South should have emulated the American Revolution's example:

with a mobile-route army to cover her heartland, Washington covered the interior of the Middle States, and with the commitment of the remainder of her forces to hit-and-run harrying operations.15

One danger of this strategy was that the South would have placed its citizens in an extremely vulnerable position given the fact that there existed 3.5 million enslaved black people whose actions were unpredictable.16 This threat of servile insurrection was felt keenly by the Southern populace. With guerrilla warfare underway, the Southern citizens, and the slaves, would have been in much closer and constant contact with the enemy. As a result, the slaves would have greater opportunities to rebel. As a Union army entered the vicinity of her home, a women voiced her concerns:

I am afraid of the lawless Yankee soldiers, but that is nothing to my fear of the negroes if they should rise against us.17

This factor gives rise to another danger: the loss of slave labor, a critical component of the Confederacy's economy. It also meant that the Union forces would at the same time be significantly strengthened.

But more importantly, guerrilla warfare would have placed the southern soldiers in an undesirable position. Before Appomattox, Gen. E. P. Alexander proposed to Lee the idea of guerrilla warfare. Lee said:

General, you and I as Christian men have no right to consider only how this would affect us. We must consider its effect on the country as a whole. Already it is demoralized by the four years of war. If I took your advice, the men would be without rations and under no control of officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live...We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.18

Alexander went away silent; he later wrote, as Lee “had answered my suggestion from a plane so far above it, that I was ashamed of having even made it.” Lee chose to surrender rather than to employ such a strategy and inflict misery on an already broken Southern people.

Before moving on, it is important to keep in mind that the South was significantly weaker than her enemy and therefore her only hope of succeeding was to convince rather than force the Union to bring an end to hostilities. And because the Confederacy grew weaker as time went on, the Confederacy had to convince the North before she lost all strength. The above strategies, compared to an invasion strategy, offered the North less incentive to seek peace and would taken more time to complete. The remaining option was to take the offensive and invade the North. Lee and Jackson believed this strategy offered what was needed for victory: disruption of Union industry and naval blockade, a convinced Great Britain, and an encouraged Peace Party. And most importantly, it would do so while the ever-weakening Confederacy still had the strength.

Lee's army needed supplies. The farmland of the Upper South was ravaged by fighting and the pressures of supporting so many people. By going North, Lee's army would have an abundance of supplies. Also it would relieve the Southern agriculture of much pressure, allowing it to recover. In addition, moving North would draw northern forces away from industrial centers in the Upper South. Lee believed that Richmond would be protected by this indirect means.

As mentioned in Jackson's plan, a major piece was interdicting northern railroads and coal mines. Pennsylvania was by far the country's largest supplier of anthracite coal which powered the Northern rail system, factories, and navy. To strike at this vital point, was to strike at the very heart of Union strength. The Confederacy was fortunate in having at her service Jedadiah Hotchkiss, Jackson's personal topographer and an important contributor to the invasion campaign, who had spent considerable time around the coal mine district in the Lykens Valley and was familiar with the terrain.19

The need to convince France and Britain of Confederate power in order to gain their support was of great importance. Perhaps the greatest asset such an alliance offered was continuing high quality logistic support. With some impressive offensive victories in the North, these European allies might have been secured.

Furthermore, impressing the Northern Peace Party was Lee's most pressing concern. With the impending Presidential elections the “copperheads” had the potential to oust Lincoln and bring in a President who was willing to negotiate peace. To maximize the group's influence, Confederate leaders realized that the Northern people must feel the ravages of war. As long as the fighting and destruction remained on Southern soil, the majority of Northerners would continue to support the war and their votes would keep in power those willing and determined to fight on.

Jackson's plan was initially rejected, but it was only a matter of time before the war situation changed and his plan came to be considered not only as feasible but as the surest means of Southern victory. On June 4th Jackson sent Alexander Botetler, member of Congress and Jackson's good friend, to President Davis with a message concerning his aforementioned plan. Davis sought Lee's advice who stated: “After much reflection I think if it was possible to reinforce Jackson strongly, it would change the character of the war....If those states(Georgia, S. Carolina, & N. Carolina) will give up their troops I think it can be done.”20 The invasion plan was approved, and preparations began immediately. In September, after a delay to defend Richmond from McClellan, the invasion was launched. Everything was going smoothly until 'special orders No. 191' was discovered by a union soldier, and the Lee's movements were revealed. The battle of Sharpsburg followed and Rebel forces withdrew from Maryland.

During the following winter, Jedadiah Hotchkiss wrote “Lee was considering a plan of campaign for the coming spring, having frequent consultations with Jackson and Stuart”21 It is important to note Stuart's presence at those meetings as it indicates that “Stuart knew what Lee and Jackson were hoping to do and how they hoped to do it.”22 This is an important detail to remember when evaluating the motives behind Stuart's actions in Pennsylvania

On June 1, 1863 Lee held a meeting with his generals and discussed the upcoming campaign. The invasion was planned to commence on June 3rd. Jed Hotchkiss states:

This was doubtless the identical campaign Jackson had in view, and which he probably discussed with Lee during the preceding winter, when he ordered the preparation of a detailed map of the Rappahannock to the Susquehanna23

The 1st and 2nd Corps moved to Culpeper while 3rd Corps remained in Fredericksburg monitoring Hooker. Meanwhile cavalry forces engaged and the Battle of Brandy Station ensued. On June 13th,the next phase began: Ewell's corps was to cross into the Shenandoah Valley before moving towards Winchester, while Longstreet's was “ordered north along the east base of the Blue Ridge Mountains to guard our line of march and cover, in a measure, the confederate plans, Stuart's cavalry to ride between the First Corps and the Union army”24 On June 14th Ewell found Winchester defended too strongly for attack and requested Lee's advice. Lee responded that he should use his own judgment and immediately ordered Longstreet to reinforce Ewell. The next day Winchester was stormed by Early's division. Both Longstreet and Hill began moving towards the Valley and Front Royal. On the 18th, Hood's division marched to the Valley to replace Early, “in order that you [Ewell] might have with you your whole corps to operate with in Maryland and Pennsylvania.”25 At this time the enemy was reportedly attempting to cross the mountains and get to the rear of 2nd corps. Longstreet was instructed to keep the enemy on the east-side of the mountains until Hill could support Ewell. Longstreet, however, removed his entire corps from the eastern side of the Blue Ridge, apparently unaware of Lee's desire to hold Hooker's troops in check and to send Ewell's into Pennsylvania. “It was a trying time for Lee. Ewell's hesitancy in front of Winchester and Longstreet's subsequent crossing of the Blue Ridge had seriously altered the plan outlined in his letter to Ewell.”26

Meanwhile, Union authorities were thoroughly confused and trying desperately to understand Confederate movements and objectives. Major General Butterfield, Hooker's chief of staff, urged Brigadier General Rufus Ingalls, chief quartermaster of the Army of the Potomac:

Try to hunt up somebody in Pennsylvania who knows something, and has a cool enough head to judge what is actually the state of affairs there with regard to the enemy. We cannot go boggling around until we know what we are going after.27

General Darius Couch, head of the Department of the Susquehanna, realizing the importance of that area, suspected Harrisburg to be the target of the Confederate offensive, requested supplies and troops from Pennsylvania and began fortifying the Susquehanna. On June 20th, Couch had a meager 1,321 troops to defend against Ewell's impending force of 22,000 advancing through Maryland. After entering Pennsylvania on the 22nd, Ewell ordered Early “to cross the south mountain to Gettysburg, and then proceed to York and cut the Northern Central Railroad, and also destroy the bridges across the Susquehanna at Wrightsville and Columbia.”28 By June 27th, Lee had 60,000 men in Pennsylvania. As Couch's defenses of the Susquehanna began to be probed and railroads destroyed, the invasion stood on the brink of success. But then Lee received the shocking news that Hooker was North of the Potomac and was advancing to Pennsylvania. Up to this point Lee had assumed that because no word had come from Stuart, nothing was wrong and Union forces remained east of the Potomac. “The situation instantly became one of gravity-and because of Stuart's unexplained absence, the army was blindfolded.”29 Lee was forced to abandon the prospect of taking Harrisburg and decided to concentrate his forces near Gettysburg. On July 1st the famous battle began. After three days of bloody and terrific struggle, a struggle which Lee had hoped to avoid, the Confederacy's northern invasion was terminated and on the 4th, Lee ordered his army back to Virginia.

Thus the seemingly reasonable, even promising plan Jackson had so energetically pursued came to naught; the major railroads and bridges remained intact and in union hands, industrial centers continued to operate, anthracite coal mines were undisturbed, Europe was unconvinced, and Northern morale subsisted.

Many historians fail to recognize Jackson's role in the planning of the Northern Invasion. In doing so, evidence justifying Stuart's absence at Gettysburg is obscured. For when it is understood that the meetings held by Lee, Jackson, and Stuart while they wintered in Fredricksburg, concerned the upcoming campaign, it becomes reasonable to conclude that Stuart fully understood the plan's components, and thus realized the importance of maintaining and exercising a force east of the Blue Ridge in order to protect and conceal the primary Confederate force. When Longstreet crossed the Blue Ridge, Stuart was the only remaining Confederate force east of the Blue Ridge. Stuart, in an attempt to mitigate the alteration's effect, decided to pass through a dispersed and motionless Union army to “gain information and possibly delay its pursuit of Lee.”29 But when Stuart rode arrived at Haymarket where he planned to turn north, his cavalry met unexpected Union forces. Stuart's intended route, which led directly to Early's course in Pennsylvania, had to be aborted and a easterly, more circuitous route followed. By the time Stuart began North, precious time had been wasted. This unintended movement crippled Lee, leaving him blind to enemy movement at a critical time. However, in defense of Stuart, on the 25th and 27th, he had sent two dispatches to Lee concerning the Union whereabouts and his delay, but they failed to reach his expectant Commander. Because Stuart and Lee were unable to write their memoirs, we will never know for certain Stuart's motives. But based on this information it seems reasonable to surmise that his alleged “wild goose chase” was based on concern for the original plan. And given the reports of his scout Mosby, it was a reasonable undertaking complicated by unanticipated Union movements and communication misfortunes.

In evaluating the failure of the Northern Invasion, historians have named many scapegoats. There is however, another factor that many historians, committed to revealing the most guilty culprit, fail to consider. For who is to blame for the loss of the two dispatches sent by Stuart to Lee? And who is responsible for Jackson's death? Perhaps the best answer is chance or what Lee and Jackson called “Providence”. At the collision on Cashtown Rd. on the 1st of July, 1863, the Union simply had better generals (Buford, Reynolds), than the South (Heth, Hill), thus losing the Gettysburg high ground. It was just another decisive reality that Lee could not overcome. Only by doing nothing, could Lee and the Confederate forces avoid suffering these ill-effects of chance. But war does not work that way; commanders must take risks. And frankly, even Jackson's plan, perfectly executed, was still subject to chance, and incapable of guaranteeing success. But it was simply the plan most likely to fulfill the South's aims.

Had chance treated the South better, Gettysburg would have been a different story. How different? We will never know. But there is weighty evidence that Lee carefully considered the situation, weighed both risks and possibilities, and made the only decision that would have won independence for the South.


Beliles, Mark A. and Stephen K. Mcdowell. America's Providential History. Charlottesville, Va: The Providence Foundation, 1989.

Beringer, Richard, Herman Hattaway, Archer Jones, William Still, Jr., eds. Why The South Won The Civil War. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1986.

Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1968.

Freeman, Douglas S. R. E. Lee. Abridged by James M. McPherson. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961.

Gallagher, Gary W. The American Civil War. Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses, 2000.

Gallagher, Gary W. The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism, and Military Strategy Could Not Stave Off Defeat. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Henderson, Lieut.-Col. G. F. R. Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War. Vol.1. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1905.

Hotchkiss, Jedediah. Make Me A Map of the Valley: The Civil War Journal of Stonewall Jackson's Topographer. Edited by Archie P. McDonald. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1973.

Kegel, James A. North With Lee and Jackson: The Lost Story of Gettysburg. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1996.

Kerby, Robert L., “Why the Confederacy Lost” The Review of Politics 35 (July 1973),

Lee, Cpt. Robert, E. Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee. Old Saybrook: Konecky & Konecky.

Macon, Journal and Messenger.

Nulty, William H. Confederate Florida. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990.

Pryor, Elizabeth B. Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.

Robertson, James I. Robert E. Lee: Virginian Soldier, American Citizen. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2005.

Tanner, Robert G. Retreat To Victory?: Confederate Strategy Reconsidered. Wilmington, DE.: Scholarly Resources Inc, 2001.

United States War Department, The War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1880-1901.

Winters, Harold A. Battling the Elements: Weather and Terrain in the Conduct of War Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998.

1 Henderson, Lieut.-Col. G. F. R. Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War. Vol. 1. (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1905), 149.

2United States War Department, The War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1880-1901Vol. 2, p. 505( hereafter cited O.R.)

3 Tanner, Robert G. Retreat To Victory?: Confederate Strategy Reconsidered. (Wilmington, DE.: Scholarly Resources Inc, 2001), 24.

4Ibid, p. 25

5Nulty, William H. Confederate Florida (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press), 2.

6Winters, Harold A. Battling the Elements: Weather and Terrain in the Conduct of War (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 118.

7Tanner, Retreat to Victory, 16.

8Ibid. 18


10 Ibid. 39

11 Gallagher, Gary G. The Confederate War (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press 1997), 15.

12 Ibid. 113

13 Macon Journal and Messenger, September 10, 1862.

14 Tanner, 43.

15 Kerby, Robert L., “Why the Confederacy Lost” The Review of Politics 35 (July 1973), 331.

16 Gallagher, 141.

17 Ibid. 149.

18 Freeman, Douglas S. R. E. Lee. Abridged by James M. McPherson. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961), 484.

19 Kegel, James A. North With Lee and Jackson: The Lost Story of Gettysburg. (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1996), 86.

20 Ibid. 105.

21 Hotchkiss, Jedadiah. Confederate Military History, Vol. 3, Virginia (Atlanta: Confederate Publishing Co, 1899), 375.

22 Kegel. 191.

23 Ibid. 241.

24 Ibid. 257.

25 Ibid, 281.

26 Ibid. 292.

27 O.R.,Vol 27, Pt. 3, pp.174-75.

28 Kegel, 357.

29 Freeman, 321.


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