Civil War Command and Strategy Analysis

Archer Jones

Civil War Command and Strategy

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

CIVIL WAR COMMAND AND STRATEGY is a work which will appeal to a variety of publics: students of military matters, devotees of the conflict, and general readers interested primarily in history or in the operations of large, complex organizations, whether they be Civil War armies or modern corporations. There is much to learn from this volume, and Jones presents his material in brisk, lucid chapters which both examine and explain the facts.

Those facts have continued to fascinate; indeed the most enduring questions of our national history revolve about the Civil War. Why was it fought? Why did the North win? Under the circumstances, could the South have won? To these questions, Archer Jones has added, and answered, another: What were the commanders, North and South, doing when they fought the war?

To a large degree they were trying to do the same things. Both presidents, Lincoln for the Union, and Jefferson Davis for the Confederacy, proved adroit and generally effective commanders in chief. Both were plagued by a variety of political concerns which sometimes interfered with or even undermined the conduct of the war, but both displayed a remarkable consistency of purpose. The interaction of political and military leadership was a fascinating aspect of our Civil War, and one which Jones handles relatively briefly, but well.

There was considerable uniformity as well in Union and Confederate military thinking, as generals of both armies recognized the inherent power of the defensive, and sought to force retreats by threatening lines of communication and supply. This could work because Civil War armies were highly dependent upon those lines of supply. After all, as Jones points out, most Civil War armies were larger than many American cities of the time; it was no wonder that war came down, in William T. Sherman’s blunt words, “to grub and mules.”

Grub and mules may seem hardly the stuff of heroic legends, but they formed an essential part of the Civil War. It’s Archer Jones achievement in this work to have placed such mundane realities, as well as strategy and tactics, in proper relation to the heroic legends, and so helped us understand more of the total picture.

Sources for Further Study

Bookwatch. XIII, June, 1992, p. 2.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, February 15, 1992, p. 234.

Library Journal. CXVII, March 15, 1992, p. 100.

Civil War Command and Strategy

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

No sooner had the American Civil War ended in the exhausted spring of 1865 than the second Civil War began. When the soldiers laid down their arms, the historians took up their pens, seeking answers to questions that perplex us yet. Why had the South lost? Could it have won? Why had the North prevailed, and what did its victory mean? One central question sums it up: Why did the war end as it did?

Along with the American Revolution itself and the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, which carried the United States through both the Great Depression and World War II, the American Civil War stands as one of the three defining events in American national history, one that the American people, northern and southern, black and white, continually use as a reference and as a benchmark to national identity and purpose. So much treasure, blood, and emotion went into this struggle that it has become a central motif, a national epic, and it remains intensely felt even by Americans only slightly interested or learned in history. Its incidental symbols and basic causes, such as the Confederate battle flag or the abolition of slavery, stir feelings that can be explained only by reference to the words of Abraham Lincoln. Somehow these are linked to the present through the “mystic chords of memory,” a memory that reverberates as strongly as ever.

Yet a central question remains: How did they fight this war, the generals and commanders, the presidents and the common soldiers? What did they think they were doing, how did they try to achieve it, and how, amid the confusion and carnage, did they judge their efforts? Those are the questions Archer Jones attempts to answer in his study, Civil War Command and Strategy: The Process of Victory and Defeat.

As the title implies, this volume approaches the war in terms of its political and military leaders, their backgrounds, and the plans they conceived based on those backgrounds and their situations. Jones underscores the importance of leadership and strategic plans to the outcome of the war, because he believes that the conflict could have ended much differently. As he explained in considerable detail in his earlier work with Richard E. Beringer, Herman Hathaway, and others, Why the South Lost the Civil War (1986), Jones believes that a Union victory, despite the North’s preponderance in material advantages, was by no means inevitable.

The enormous extent of the Confederacy, the opportunities for prolonging the war until northern patience or endurance failed, the chance for foreign intervention, and the inherent advantages of the defense over the offense helped even the odds between the contestants. This being the case, leadership assumed a vital role. “because of the fairly even match between the antagonists,” he writes, “much would depend on the quality of each’s command and strategy.”

In the American Civil War, command and strategy began at the top, since both Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln sought to exercise the position of commander in chief to the fullest practical extent. To a large degree, therefore, the fortunes of their respective armies, and ultimately of their two nations, stemmed from actions and decisions made by these two leaders.

Both men were inclined to an activist presidency, not only by their own natures but also by the fairly recent example of James Polk, who had successfully managed military operations during the war with Mexico. Historians have often noted that military strategy and especially tactics in the Civil War were influenced by the earlier struggle, but Jones draws fresh attention to the political legacy perceived by both the Union and Confederate presidents. His analysis of their use of that legacy is incisive.

Davis, who had been graduated from West Point, had fought with distinction in the Mexican War, and served as one of the United States’ most effective secretaries of war, possessed considerable military experience. His detractors and critics—and these have been legion, including many of his contemporary Confederates—believed that Davis’ experience was not matched by talent or judgment. As a matter of fact, Davis’ interference in military matters has sometimes been given as a prime reason for the South’s defeat.

Jones clearly does not share in this view. Consistently, he rates Davis’ performance as seldom less than competent and often as highly innovative. Faced with the problem of creating a military structure from the ground up, Davis acted with remarkable vision and often with genuine strategic flair. His two major mistakes, if they deserve to be labeled so harshly, stemmed...

(The entire section is 1911 words.)