The battles and campaigns of the American Civil War were fought across the entire scope of the United States and its western territories. There was not an area that was untouched and almost every battle would have a local, regional and national impact. That said, some battles had greater impact than others and some theaters were more politically important than others. It has been pointed out that for the North to win they had to win first in the West, starting with the opening of the Mississippi and then slice through the heart of the Confederacy from Nashville to Atlanta. Then with its transportation, industrial and agricultural sectors destroyed, captured or broken up, the effectiveness of the Southern armies would gradually, but inexorably decline and with that the Confederacy would inevitably implode. As long as the Union maintained the collective political will to continuously rebuild and expand its armies and to – once again — sift through its generals until it found those that could win – then, the North would prevail — if not this year, then perhaps the next.
Odds were Stacked Against the South
For the South to win the war it had to do more that win defensive battles. It had to do more than successfully defend its territory. It could not be war of attrition, as the South could never deplete the North’s resources either in manpower or material. To win, the Confederacy would have to break the Union’s resolve to continue as only that would undermine the political power base of the Lincoln administration. Then, and perhaps only then, would the North be willing to consider and possibly accept the division of the country. The South would win impressive victories in the West – such as Chickamauga, which left a Union Army routed and besieged in Chattanooga – but, such victories were not on the doorstep of Washington and consequently did not produce the required political effect. The Union merely brought in a different general – Ulysses S. Grant — andprovided the resources to lift the siege.
For the South to win and to force the Union to accept a political separation would require the shattering of the North’s premier military force, the Army of the Potomac, in a manner and location that would produce a political shockwave sufficient in Washington to fracture the administration’s congressional support to continue the war, regardless of cost. For the Confederacy, this created the conundrum that while the North could eventually win the war by winning in the West, the South could only win it by winning in the East and win it in a manner that would be perceived as threatening Washington itself. This fact was not lost on President Lincoln and was a major factor in his almost paranoiac insistence that the first mission of the Army of the Potomac must always be that of shielding Washington from any possible Confederate threat. In many instances, Lincoln’s fixation on protecting Washington made questionable military sense and resulted in a number of strategic setbacks; but, in a larger sense, it made perfect political sense.
General Robert E. Lee
In an attempt to create the situation that could lead to a victory with political impact, General Robert E. Lee would directly threaten Washington or other significant northern cities three times: in 1862 with the Antietam campaign, in 1863 with the invasion of Pennsylvania and in 1864 when Lee sent Jubal Early north through the Shenandoah Valley. Each time, the Army of the Potomac responded to Lincoln’s exhortations to place sufficient troops between the Confederates and Washington so as to block any threat.
In 1862 and 1863, while Gen. Robert E. Lee was successful in forcing the Army of the Potomac to redeploy and protect Washington the major battles that did result – Antietam and Gettysburg – were hardly the decisive victory Lee was hoping for. And while Jubal Early’s drive in 1864, did create some panic in the city, his 15,000 men were eventually checked by the Washington fortifications and the dispatch of three divisions of the VI Corps from the Army of the Potomac.
The following additional rules can be applied to any ADF scenario and highlight a particular tactical nuance of the civil war battlefield. Read More.
While there were many other significant battles in the East from Maryland to the Carolinas, these campaigns and battles represented the three times Lee was willing to send forces north in a hopeful gamble to turn a military opportunity into a political victory.