Union Success in the Civil War and Lessons for Strategic Leaders

By Erath, John | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2015 | Go to article overview

Union Success in the Civil War and Lessons for Strategic Leaders


Erath, John, Joint Force Quarterly


On April 10, 1865, Robert E. Lee the Army of Northern Virginia has wrote a letter to the soldiers been forced to yield to overwhelm of his army that began, "After ing numbers and resources." (1) At this four years of arduous service, marked moment, the Civil War essentially by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, ended in victory for the Union, and the process of reuniting the United States of America began. Lee's immediate view of the circumstances, that the Confederate armies had done everything possible but were overmatched by Northern numbers, provided a means by which his veterans could feel that they had served honorably, but it was challenged almost immediately by other Confederate military and political leaders who blamed instead such factors as incompetent government, social divisions, and political squabbling for their defeat. The Confederacy, many felt, would not have embarked on a war it could not win. (2) Indeed, its success in repelling invasions over the first 2 years of the war led many to believe that the war had almost been won.

A century and a half later, there remains considerable debate among historians as to the reasons for the outcome of the Civil War. Many explanations have been proposed for the Union victory: political, economic, military, social, even diplomatic. (3) Strong cases can be made as to why each was important to the Confederacy's downfall. Yet the key to victory was found in 1864, after President Abraham Lincoln appointed General Ulysses S. Grant the commander of all Union forces. In concert with Lincoln's other strategic efforts to weaken the Confederate will to resist, Grant devised a military plan that ultimately gave Lee no choice but to surrender. Although there was no written plan, Lincoln and Grant combined the separate elements of Union power in a complementary way to make continuing the war more painful to the Confederate population than rejoining the Union. This comprehensive strategy, which included political, economic, and diplomatic elements as well as military operations, led to victory.

By the early 20th century, however, a consensus had emerged among many Americans that endorsed General Lee's view of how the war ended: the Union simply had advantages in population and economy that made victory inevitable. The United States has enjoyed such advantages in every subsequent conflict and has generally sought to take advantage of them. Yet Lee's perspective was simplistic. When American leaders have been successful in war, it has been because they, as did Grant and Lincoln in 1864, implemented an overarching strategy that incorporated all aspects of U.S. power to achieve results; brute force and abundant resources alone are most often insufficient to achieve the desired outcome. By orchestrating a complete national strategy, Lincoln and his top general, Grant, provided the template for American success in war--a template that 21st-century strategic leaders would be well advised to follow.

Grant Changes the Game

In February 1864, Lincoln appointed Grant General-in-Chief of the Union armies, and they began piecing together the means to win the war. For over 2 years, Lincoln and his commanders pursued objectives without a unifying strategic goal. The only experience of strategy for most Americans was the war with Mexico (1846-1848) against a dictatorship in which the strategy was straightforward: defeat the army and capture the capital. More comprehensive means were needed against a large democratic opponent. Despite a string of Union successes in mid-1863, including Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and the capture of Chattanooga, Union prospects remained uncertain, and the new year would include elections in which voters unsatisfied with the progress of the war could support an accommodationist government. In the east, Army of the Potomac Commander General George Meade had not followed up the defeat of the Confederate invasion of the North with significant offensive operations, and Lee's army remained a potent force. …

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