Retreat To Victory?: Confederate Strategy Reconsidered, by Robert G. Tanner
Would a Fabian strategy have served the Confederacy well? This is a question that is commonly asked by students of the Civil War as the size of the Confederacy and its demographic weaknesses, as it is clear to us in hindsight that the aggressive forward defense of the Confederacy did not serve it well in winning independence from the Union. What the author does, and does particularly well, is to comment on the strategic dilemmas that the South faced in a variety of ways based on its geography as well as based on its social structure. In the end, I personally find these arguments to be persuasive that the South ultimately had nowhere to hide and made the best of its strategic situation through seeking opportunistic offenses where possible and concentration against weaker forces as well as the occasional raid. The author’s understanding of geography and social factors as well as the politics of the Confederacy that encouraged different options. The author ultimately decides, for reasons that I think are sound, that a Fabian strategy would ultimately have been less successful than the strategy that the South adopted in the Civil War.
This book is a short one of about 150 pages. The book begins with an introduction in which the author talks about the language of Confederate strategy. After that the author gives an overview of Confederate strategy as it shifted during the war, from a cordon defense to a more opportunistic offensive-defensive (1). This is followed by a discussion of the weaknesses of Confederate geography, with a great many navigable rivers that allowed for Union advances into key areas, the phenomenon where its major cities were close to the coast or the borders with loyal states in the Union, as well as its remote areas being Unionist and too poor to support large armies in Appalachia (2). This is followed by a discussion of rebel armies on the move and their use of concentration (3). A further chapter discusses the issue of Clausewitz and the interaction of political and military strategy (4). The book then moves on to a discussion of how slavery (5) and southern desire for independence (6) shaped their military strategy, ending with a discussion of how it was that the South truly had nowhere to hide (7). After this the book ends with a bibliographical essay and index.
Let us ponder the implications of the author’s views. If you believe that the Confederate war effort was run at least reasonably competently based on their strategic situation, and that it was nevertheless unsuccessful, why did the Confederacy decide to rebel at all? It is not as if the Confederates were unaware of their vulnerabilities or their lack of industrial strength compared to the North. They went to wear knowing that the North had the capacity to raise large armies and blockade their ports and build railroads and so on. So what happened? I think that the makers of the Confederacy underestimated the North, the martial capabilities of the people of the North, the unity of the North in seeking to preserve union and eventually end slavery, as well as the ability of the North to exploit the South’s recognized liabilities. Had the elites of the South recognized the people of the North as their equals, they would not likely have made the decisions they did. The world may have been better for such a counterfactual change, but the author, I believe, is correct to note that adopting a Fabian strategy of avoiding superior Union armies and seeking to trade space for time ultimately would have led to an even quicker ruin of the Confederacy than would have been the case. And as someone who is no friend of the Confederate cause, perhaps that is one reason to recommend such a course of action.