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Analysis of Confederate Military Strategy 1861-1865

Seal of the Confederate States of America

Analysis of Confederate Military Strategy 1861-1865 Our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating. Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee found themselves in an uncertain situation of leading a new nation into war for the first time on the North American continent since the War of 1812 while outmatched in resources, infrastructure, and manpower.

Adding to the uncertainty was the crossroads between 18th century warfare and the new Napoleonic warfare inspired by the French Revolution. Fighting against Napoleon for Germany, the bookish and intellectually arrogant Carl Von Clausewitz incorporated his 25 years of battlefield experience into his most famous work On War while the director of the Prussian War College starting in 1818 at the age of 38. In this manuscript, Clausewitz illustrated that war is in essence an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will, and that war is only the means of obtaining a larger political goal.

A painting of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fighting the U.S. Army at Spotsylvania in 1864

Due to little recognition and appreciation for the work soon after it was published, commanders and leaders of the Confederacy abstained from incorporating it into their military strategy. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point educated Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee in the Jomini war doctrine, emphasizing the mathematical elements of tactics and the logistical aspects of grand strategy.

Antoine-Henri Jomini was one of Napoleon’s best colonels, but due to a conflict in the ranks, left the French Army and accepted a commission as an officer in the Russian Army while later publishing his work Summary of the Art of War as a Russian general in 1838. The Confederacy had the opportunity to incorporate both the ideas of Clausewitz and Jomini, as both of these sources were written decades before the American Civil War, yet the South mainly implemented the military teachings of Jomini while leaving out key aspects of Clausewitzian doctrine in their fight for independence.  

Confederate mortar crew at Warrington, Florida in 1861, across from Fort Pickens

The Confederacy, in addition to its main army, attempted to organize guerilla units to fight the Union soldiers as they invaded the southern states. This effort turned out horribly for the Confederacy, and the failed guerilla warfare can be evaluated based on Mao Tse-Tung’s On Guerilla Warfare written in 1937. To convince Chinese political and military leaders on the necessary use of guerilla warfare tactics in the Second Sino-Japanese War, Mao writes guerilla warfare is the best way to make up for inferior numbers and equipment, while outlining the exact ways to achieve victory over a much larger and traditional military opponent.

The Confederacy would have greatly benefited if such a doctrine had been written before the American Civil War. With this in mind, I want to identify if the South’s absence of a broader-focused Clausewitzian war philosophical doctrine, the sole implementation of early 19th century Jomini military strategy, and misimplementation of Mao’s guerilla warfare contributed to the Confederacy’s military demise.

Clausewitzian War and its Absence in Confederate Strategy

Private Edwin Francis Jemison, whose image became one of the most famous portraits of the young soldiers of the war

In order to evaluate Confederacy military strategy through the eyes of Clausewitz, we must briefly outline the characteristics of Clausewitzian war. Carl von Clausewitz in On War, writes that war is an act of force with no logical limit to the application of that force. He is a believer of absolute wars and focusing as much force as possible on a single point to exploit the enemy. He also views war in a broader geopolitical context, in which war is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will and should never be thought of as something autonomous but always as an instrument of policy.

Clausewitz also sees the value in fortifications and defense, claiming that defense is a stronger form of fighting than attack and knows that men are always more inclined to pitch their estimate of the enemy’s strength too high than too low. Most importantly, and contrary to the Confederate leadership during the Civil War, Clausewitz believes that military calculations have an artistic element created by abstract thinking, and goes so far to say that absolute, so-called mathematical factors never find a firm basis in military calculations.

Clausewitz argues that a country’s physical features and population are integral elements among the factors at work in war. The absence of Clausewitz can be clearly seen in how the South militarily dealt with its surrounding geography. The Confederacy was tasked with a geographical disadvantage, having to defend the shorelines of both the Carolinas and Georgia while fighting a war in Virginia and farther west in Missouri. Not even George Washington’s Continental Army in the war of American Independence had this task of defending such expansive land, and as a result, followed Clausewitzian logic by consolidating to defeat the British.

Battle Of Gettysburg

Similarly undermanned and out-equipped, Washington’s force did not have the responsibilities of defending an entire coast and providing the defense for an entire population. The Confederate states pressured Jefferson Davis in these regards, and as a result, Davis scattered his already limited forces, appearing to defend the whole many-thousand-mile circumference of the Confederacy. In the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War, the southern states grew accustomed to having the federal government provide defense from Native Americans and foreign powers.

Civil War : Pulitzer Prize Winning Columbia History Professor Eric Foner on the Civil War

This dependence resulted in the Confederacy thinly spreading out its army from Missouri to the East Coast in an effort to deter Union attacks, instead of consolidating the entire Confederate army into the eastern theater and attacking the Union near Washington D.C. With the Union Navy encircling the Confederacy from the Chesapeake Bay to the Gulf of Mexico as a part of the Anaconda Plan, the Confederates relied on the established notion that coastal forts can defend and defeat invading forces.

Unfortunately, the old dictum about the superiority of coastal forts over ships was overturned. Union ships, stationed out of range of coastal forts, successfully bombarded the Confederates at Port Royal in 1861 and at New Orleans in 1862, later taking the cities with ease. This was a bad discovery for the Confederacy, which inherited the traditional United States system of coastal defense. Although the South at one point had strong forts for defending coastline, the South contradicted Clausewitz’s call for having strong fortifications by not having modern forts that could defend in the present.

Lastly, Clausewitz states the political object is the goal, while war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose. The Confederacy’s military strategy needs to be analyzed to see if and how it matched the political objectives of the nation. Clearly, the South’s political objective was independence and culturally keeping the status-quo. Elite antebellum southerners feared that abolitionism threatened slavery, leading southern politicians to advance the position of states’ rights. They argued the ultimate power rested in the states rather than in the federal government.

However, Confederate military strategy did not align with keeping the status quo as one would expect. Drawing out the conflict as long as possible and exhausting Union troops would have been the ideal grand strategy for the Confederacy. Scarce resources, along with an inability to keep access with the rest of the world, forced the Confederacy into fighting a war that was shorter in length and largely consisted of key battles that played to the Union’s strengths of superior equipment and numbers. 

Confederate Implementation of Jomini Military Strategy

Observing how the South solely implemented Jominian military strategy first requires outlining Jomini’s view from his work Summary of the Art of War. Jomini claims that proper reasons for going to war include defending the threatened independence of the state and protecting the great interests of the state, including commerce, manufactures or agriculture. Furthermore, Jomini in essence describes strategy as the art of directing separate masses on multiple decisive points, as opposed to Clausewitz who favors the whole army concentrating on a single point.

CSA M1857 Napoleon Artillery Piece

Jomini breaks down war into five military branches: Strategy, Grand Tactics, Logistics, Engineering, and Tactics. The emphasis on logistics and engineering directly contradicts Clausewitz’s writing that absolute, so-called mathematical factors never find a firm basis in military calculations. Lastly, Jomini states that the general should do everything to electrify his own soldiers and that the excited passions of a people are of themselves always a powerful enemy. 

As a West Point graduate, Jefferson Davis prided himself on his military knowledge and experience. On the whole he believed the best strategy would be a defensive strategy reminiscent of Washington’s in the similar circumstances of the War of the Revolution. Jomini writes that a defensive war is not without its advantages, and when wisely conducted, the adversary is weakened by sending off detachments, by marches, and by the privations and fatigues incident to his progress.

Fellow West Point grad General Robert E. Lee similarly became the biggest supporter of a defensive strategy at first, but soon favored an offensive-defensive strategy to defend the independence of the new nation, advocating for the South, not the Union, to determine in which places the critical military confrontations should occur. Listening to Jomini’s call for multiple masses on decisive points, Davis and Lee attempted to defend the South by dividing the Southern forces to try to confront each of the invading Federal groupings. The Confederacy with its inferior numbers, merely made each detachment so thin that each was threatened with engulfment. This division of the Southern forces went against one of Clausewitz’s core tenets that a force should never be divided and that the force should concentrate on one weakness of the enemy.

Confederate artillery at Charleston Harbor, 1863

CSS Tennessee 1863 : A Confederate Naval Legend

The Confederates even followed Jomini’s call for commanders to do everything to electrify their own soldiers by incorporating a “rebel yell”, resembling a Native American cry, while charging into battle that boosted morale and intimidated the Union soldiers.

Near the middle of the war, in 1862, Lee finally included some elements of Clausewitz into Confederate strategy by concluding that the only salvation for the Confederacy was to concentrate its forces and attack. Most surprising to Lee however, was the fact that despite all his training and implementation of traditional Jominian principles, the Union Army survived. Lee was troubled less by the Confederate casualties than by his conviction that under ordinary circumstances, the Federal Army should have been destroyed.

An 1895 illustration showing the uniforms of the Confederate Army contrasted with those of the U.S. Army

Mao Tse-Tung’s Writings in Confederate Guerilla Warfare

An analysis of the South’s guerilla warfare should include a comparison to a successful guerilla framework. Mao Tse-Tung, leader of the Chinese Communist army in the 1920’s against the Chinese Nationalists led by Chaing Kai-shek and in the 1930’s and 1940’s against the Imperial Japanese, outlined the reasoning for his success in his collection of writings called On Guerilla Warfare.

The Confederacy’s political and military situation certainly fit Mao’s theoretical description that when a nation is invaded, the people become sympathetic to one another and all in theory should aid in organizing guerilla units. In his writings, Mao calls for treating guerilla warfare and national policy as the same entity and that war must have a political end goal. His style of guerilla warfare is highly organized and structured, unlike the Confederate guerrilla war which was simply a collection of local defensive stands against invading Union soldiers and dangerous neighbors rather than being part of an integrated or coordinated military strategy.

These bands of Confederates shared the same political end goal of Southern independence, but failed to communicate and use this sentiment to combine their efforts on smaller missions. Despite tens of thousands of rabid Confederates wanting to fight as guerrillas, and at least 30,000 of them doing so, these numbers were too small to mount a successful guerilla war by Mao’s standards.

Mao makes multiple references to the importance of China’s tremendous, yet unorganized, population. He overcame this disorder by successfully instituting structure for each guerilla unit, but when Confederate officials finally tried to organize their guerrilla fighters into formal military units, called Partisan Rangers, these fighters outright refused to follow army rules, regulations and directives.

Although Mao suggests that guerilla forces can be formed from special detachments of the regular army, he writes the most fundamental way of recruiting men is from the people. The Confederate soldiers designated for this assignment became extrinsically motivated by their military superiors instead of intrinsically motivated to fulfill the political goal, as Mao designates as the true source of insurgency. The Confederate guerilla fighters put their personal well-being above the cause of independence, as few independent guerrilla bands were willing to sacrifice their freedom of movement or leave their communities to the mercy of the enemy.

General Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s most famous general

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The Southern tradition of states’ rights and strong protectiveness of one’s land possibly influenced this lack of response on behalf of the nation, as Confederates mainly used guerilla warfare to defend one’s own property instead of fighting on behalf of the entire cause.

For slaveholding households, guerrilla resistance amounted to a defense of the property, wealth, and status that owning slaves represented in Missouri society. As a result, Confederate guerilla warfighting was too defensive, with Mao stating guerillas need to take the initiative and the tactics of defense have no place in the realm of guerilla warfare. When an army loses the initiative, it loses liberty, becomes passive, and faces the danger of destruction.

However, despite all the failures in coordinating attacks and lacking the initiative, Confederate guerillas showed some instances of successful operations. The Confederacy treated guerilla warfare as one aspect of the larger war, as Mao suggests guerilla warfare is just one aspect of the entire war against Japan since it cannot produce final victory on its own. Attacking federal troops as they attempted to take over one’s property seemed to be the most successful form of Confederate guerilla warfare, but this was unsustainable in pushing back the Union.

In addition to attacking Federal troops, irregular partisans sabotaged bridges, railroads, and telegraph lines. Mounted on horseback and wielding pistols, guerrillas typically struck quickly, and their familiarity with the surrounding landscape enabled them to dissolve into the woods with seeming impunity.

Confederate troops marching south on N Market Street, Frederick, Maryland, during the Civil War

Striking quickly and using the landscape to their advantage were two key components to successful guerilla warfare and were analogous to the fighting style of the Communist Chinese guerillas under Mao.

The South also kept the Union from winning over the loyalty of local Southern populations and retained support for its guerilla efforts. The Federal Army struggled to eliminate the guerrillas by force. Southern families and other sympathizers actively sustained the guerrilla resistance by providing partisans with material aid, including food, shelter, clothing, fresh horses, and information about the movements and strength of Union forces.


Clearly, the South’s absence of a broader-focused Clausewitzian war philosophical doctrine, sole implementation of early 19th century Jominian military strategy, and misimplementation of Mao’s guerilla warfare all played different roles in the Confederacy’s military demise. The South failed to implement a military strategy that used geography to its advantage and aligned best with its political goal of independence, and instead of fighting a protracted war that would dissolve Union morale, the South fought on the Union’s rushed timeline.

A group of Confederate soldiers-possibly an artillery unit captured at Island No. 10 and taken at POW Camp Douglas (Chicago); photograph possibly by D. F. Brandon

In addition, the education of Davis and Lee resulted in the Confederacy fighting a defensive war in the beginning with the states pressuring Jefferson Davis to scatter his already limited forces across the entire span of the Confederacy. It was too late before Davis and Lee realized the South should consolidate strength into single attacks against weak areas of the Union according to Clausewitz.

Corporal of the Artillery division of the Confederate Army

However, the South’s later offensive-defensive strategy more resembled Jomini’s advice to attack multiple points with multiple forces, leaving Confederate forces vulnerable and unable to win decisively. The Confederacy’s political and military situation certainly fit Mao’s theoretical description for guerilla warfare, but the bands of Confederate guerillas failed to communicate and coordinate their efforts towards destroying morale among Union troops.

However, striking quickly, using the landscape to their advantage, and keeping the loyalty of the Southern population against the Union invaders were key components to successful guerilla warfare that Confederate guerillas incorporated into their strategy. In theory, without the resource and geographical restraints, the South should’ve arranged their main army through the lens of Clausewitz by consolidating the army into a single force that would overwhelm the Union at single decisive battles and organize effective guerilla units that would prolong and wear down the Union’s advance south.

 Analysis of Confederate Military Strategy 1861-1865 Written by Paul Griessel Jr.

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