Book Review: Civil War Command & Strategy

Civil War Command & Strategy: The Process Of Victory And Defeat, by Archer Jones

This book is an interesting one, and it has an interesting approach in that it looks at the campaigns of the Civil War with an eye towards demonstrating the sophistication and strategy on both sides of the Civil War. Although it is often popular among students of the civil war to denigrate the strategic insights of the leaders of both sides of the Civil War, Jones is engaged in doing the exact opposite, pointing out that both sides in the Civil War actually did have a sound understanding of their strategic situation and how to act according to that and, moreover, that the North’s success came in large part because of a greater learning of and exploitation of the vulnerabilities of the Confederacy to the strategic raid. This was all the more notable because it leads the reader to ponder why it is that the author wants us to reflect on the North and South as being sophisticated and competent in their strategic understanding in light of the massive casualties that were involved in the war. Rather than seeing the leaders of the North and South as bumbling idiots who slaughtered their soldiers (like World War I), we see war as horrible because when two competent leaders like a Grant and Lee fight each other, the result is wholesale slaughter. It is well that war is so horrible, else we would grow too fond of it, and all that.

This book is about 300 pages including the very worthwhile appendices, which I think could very easily and very profitably be read first. The book begins with a preface and map of the Civil War map of operations. After that the author talks about the balance of power and military preparations at the beginning of the war (1). This is followed by a discussion of initial high commands and political strategy (2). Manassas has been viewed as a representative battle (3), and there is also a subject of the South’s approach of strategic concentration in space (4) as well as the North’s attempt at the strategic turning movement (5). After this comes a look at the evolution of high command (6), emergence of raids (7), and the Northern focus on concentration in time (8) to take advantage of their numbers. Further chapters look at the battles of 1862 to demonstrate the maturity of the high command (9), development of strategies on both sides (10), and the strategic framework (11). This is followed by a discussion of the maturity of operational skill in Chancellorsville and the Vicksburg and Gettysburg campaigns (12), the Chickamauga and Chattanooga campaigns (13), and Grant’s conception of the strategic raid (14). The main content of the book ends with chapters on the political and military campaigns of 1864 (15), the collapse of the Confederacy (16), and the conduct of the war (17). Appendices follow on the European art of war (i), the development of the American army (ii), as well as diagrams, bibliography, and an index.

One of the aspects that comes out in this book that is very admirable but also somewhat unusual is that the author frames his discussion of the indeterminacy of Civil War battles and their lack of decisive outcomes in the context of the superiority of the tactical defensive to the tactical offensive and in the transition period that warfare in Western Europe and the United States was going through during the period where increasing firepower had decreased the tactical role of heavy cavalry (something not developed in general in the American military tradition at all) and thus limited follow-up to battles, since the replacement of cavalry had not yet been developed. We are meant to understand the plight of leaders who tried to attack on flanks but found that their enemies were very willing to turn their flanks to face their enemies face to face and dig in and make charges very costly, a tradition that would continue even further in World War I. I think it is good for readers to understand hat a great deal of what frustrates contemporary readers of the Civil War is that their situation was a difficult one and generals both North and South struggled to pursue very ambitious goals with the very limited military means that were available to them. And when we respect the competence and intelligence of leaders on both sides, we can greater appreciate the result all the more.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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