Strategic Victories

JerryD

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Aug 23, 2021
Just finished reading Donald Miller's book on Vicksburg, and was struck by a comment he made that Vicksburg was the biggest strategic victory during the war, and the only thing that compared was Antietam. By strategic, he meant it had war turning implications. That got me to thinking about other strategic victories, using Miller's definition of being a war turning event, and the ones that came to mind were 1. Forts Henry and Donaldson, being the first major Union victories and opening up the midwest to invasion, 2. the Seven Days, for turning back a severe threat to Richmond, 3. Vicksburg, for obvious reasons, and 4. the Overland Campaign, for bottling up Lee and making ultimate victory merely a matter of time. I am tempted to add Nashville, but by that time the course of the war was well established so I dont see it as being a war turning event. Note I dont include Gettysburg, in that the result pretty much maintained the status quo in the East of back and forth non-decisive battles.

What am I missing?
 

Georgia Sixth

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Texas
This is the sort of question that can be debated endlessly, which I guess is why they are so tempting. (See, I took the bait, too.) But these things can be argued so many different ways. For example:

The Overland Campaign (especially Cold Harbor coupled with Bermuda Hundred) could be seen as a strategic victory for the CSA as it broke the spirit of the Army of the Potomac and ensured that Richmond would not fall before the 1864 Presidential election. At this point, victory for the south would be a political one, not military.

The Kentucky campaign of Bragg and Kirby Smith reversed the progress of the Federal drive in Tennessee. It would be a full year before Union forces would again be in the vicinity of Chattanooga, which was arguably more important to the confederacy than Vicksburg.

Holding on to Vicksburg was more a symbolic middle finger at the Federals because it was such a priority for their war plan. As such, it was indeed a morale blow to the south when it fell, but was hardly a death knell. The infrastructure for getting supplies from Texas to the east was so minimal, it limited the real significance.

In my estimation, the single greatest strategic moment was the fall of Atlanta. This deprived the confederacy of one of their two great supply and logistics centers. A huge blow. And as it fell just before the 1864 election, it negated the benefit of Lee's dogged defense at Petersburg. Now a war weary northern voter could realistically believe the end was in sight.

Those are my thoughts. Have fun with them!
 

JerryD

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Aug 23, 2021
This is the sort of question that can be debated endlessly, which I guess is why they are so tempting. (See, I took the bait, too.) But these things can be argued so many different ways. For example:

The Overland Campaign (especially Cold Harbor coupled with Bermuda Hundred) could be seen as a strategic victory for the CSA as it broke the spirit of the Army of the Potomac and ensured that Richmond would not fall before the 1864 Presidential election. At this point, victory for the south would be a political one, not military.

The Kentucky campaign of Bragg and Kirby Smith reversed the progress of the Federal drive in Tennessee. It would be a full year before Union forces would again be in the vicinity of Chattanooga, which was arguably more important to the confederacy than Vicksburg.

Holding on to Vicksburg was more a symbolic middle finger at the Federals because it was such a priority for their war plan. As such, it was indeed a morale blow to the south when it fell, but was hardly a death knell. The infrastructure for getting supplies from Texas to the east was so minimal, it limited the real significance.

In my estimation, the single greatest strategic moment was the fall of Atlanta. This deprived the confederacy of one of their two great supply and logistics centers. A huge blow. And as it fell just before the 1864 election, it negated the benefit of Lee's dogged defense at Petersburg. Now a war weary northern voter could realistically believe the end was in sight.

Those are my thoughts. Have fun with them!
Well, to say the least, we disagree. The Overland Campaign was a huge strategic victory for the Union and a loss to the South. Basically it put Lee in a cage and neutered him. I just dont get the argument that delaying defeat was a strategic victory, since the purpose of war is to win, not to hold on. Lincoln did win the 1864 election, so you are engaging in what ifs. I am asking what were the actual strategic victories, not what could have been. For that matter Gettysburg could have been a huge strategic victory, if only the South had won it, but they didnt, so its not.

I'd argue against the Kentucky Campaign because, to my mind, it was not decisive and really just represented a continuation of the back and forth in the near west.

Same for holding onto Vicksburg. Yes, it was a morale booster to beat back successive Union attempts, but not one of them had a war changing effect. They merely maintained a status quo. To meet the criteria set out by Miller it has to have a war changing impact, and I think of your examples only Atlanta meets the test in the slightest, for exactly the reason you cite about the presidential election.
 

Pat Answer

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I see five (today… tomorrow may be different LOL):
Manassas 1 - there will actually be a war instead of a short lived uprising

Fort Donelson - the Federals cannot be kept off the western rivers

Pea Ridge - Missouri will not join the Confederacy

Seven Days - despite a string of Union victories (pretty much other than the Shenandoah) the war will not end in 1862

Antietam - not the battle but the fact that the subsequent EP ends real chance of foreign intervention (such that it was)
also with Perryville - no Border States will join the Confederacy

Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Atlanta really just confirm that the Confederacy is not able to defend the West, although there is no arguing that Atlanta sets a seal on Lincoln’s re-election. Agree that most other big battles merely swing the pendulum at the strategic level.

Once Grant sets the whole machine in motion in 1864, there really aren’t any more ‘turning points,’ just temporary albeit costly setbacks. Grant’s grand strategy ends at Appomattox, VA and Durham, NC.

But of course “This is the sort of question that can be debated endlessly…” indeed, as @Georgia Sixth says.
 

Belfoured

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Well, to say the least, we disagree. The Overland Campaign was a huge strategic victory for the Union and a loss to the South. Basically it put Lee in a cage and neutered him. I just dont get the argument that delaying defeat was a strategic victory, since the purpose of war is to win, not to hold on. Lincoln did win the 1864 election, so you are engaging in what ifs. I am asking what were the actual strategic victories, not what could have been. For that matter Gettysburg could have been a huge strategic victory, if only the South had won it, but they didnt, so its not.

I'd argue against the Kentucky Campaign because, to my mind, it was not decisive and really just represented a continuation of the back and forth in the near west.

Same for holding onto Vicksburg. Yes, it was a morale booster to beat back successive Union attempts, but not one of them had a war changing effect. They merely maintained a status quo. To meet the criteria set out by Miller it has to have a war changing impact, and I think of your examples only Atlanta meets the test in the slightest, for exactly the reason you cite about the presidential election.
I tend to agree on the Overland Campaign. Its strategic result was the one Lee had predicted and wisely feared - being forced to Richmond and into a siege. Had Lee tied Grant up to the north or even forced him to withdraw, the "holding on for time" effect might have been more important. But being forced back to Richmond made that less important. That was not Lee's intent or desired outcome. I concur on Atlanta - that was more clear cut and its timing had strategic effects.

As for Kentucky, I actually think it did have strategic implications, but in the other direction. The invasion had strategic objectives and failed. When it ended any CSA hopes involving Kentucky were gone.
 

Belfoured

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Joined
Aug 3, 2019
I see five (today… tomorrow may be different LOL):
Manassas 1 - there will actually be a war instead of a short lived uprising

Fort Donelson - the Federals cannot be kept off the western rivers

Pea Ridge - Missouri will not join the Confederacy

Seven Days - despite a string of Union victories (pretty much other than the Shenandoah) the war will not end in 1862

Antietam - not the battle but the fact that the subsequent EP ends real chance of foreign intervention (such that it was)
also with Perryville - no Border States will join the Confederacy

Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Atlanta really just confirm that the Confederacy is not able to defend the West, although there is no arguing that Atlanta sets a seal on Lincoln’s re-election. Agree that most other big battles merely swing the pendulum at the strategic level.

Once Grant sets the whole machine in motion in 1864, there really aren’t any more ‘turning points,’ just temporary albeit costly setbacks. Grant’s grand strategy ends at Appomattox, VA and Durham, NC.

But of course “This is the sort of question that can be debated endlessly…” indeed, as @Georgia Sixth says.
It is indeed that sort of question. Because strategy can mean different things and strategic objectives can vary, there are probably more than one or two that qualify. The only certain "turning point" was April-May 1865 - although by January 1864 it's fair to say that the handwriting on the wall was beginning to appear and the odds against avoiding that were clearly getting much larger.
 

JerryD

Private
Joined
Aug 23, 2021
I see five (today… tomorrow may be different LOL):
Manassas 1 - there will actually be a war instead of a short lived uprising

Fort Donelson - the Federals cannot be kept off the western rivers

Pea Ridge - Missouri will not join the Confederacy

Seven Days - despite a string of Union victories (pretty much other than the Shenandoah) the war will not end in 1862

Antietam - not the battle but the fact that the subsequent EP ends real chance of foreign intervention (such that it was)
also with Perryville - no Border States will join the Confederacy

Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Atlanta really just confirm that the Confederacy is not able to defend the West, although there is no arguing that Atlanta sets a seal on Lincoln’s re-election. Agree that most other big battles merely swing the pendulum at the strategic level.

Once Grant sets the whole machine in motion in 1864, there really aren’t any more ‘turning points,’ just temporary albeit costly setbacks. Grant’s grand strategy ends at Appomattox, VA and Durham, NC.

But of course “This is the sort of question that can be debated endlessly…” indeed, as @Georgia Sixth says.
Despite Miller including Antietam as a strategic turning point, I did not, for the reason you mentioned. It wasnt the battle that made it important, but the fact it was a convenient excuse for Lincoln to issue the EP. Lincoln had already made up his mind to issue it though, and was just waiting for an excuse. But I concede the point that the issuance was clearly a strategic turn in the war...I just think it was done politically, not militarily.

Interesting that you dont see any strategic victories after Antietam, which implies the war was basically well on the way to being won at that point. Not sure I can agree with that assessment.
 

JerryD

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Aug 23, 2021
It is indeed that sort of question. Because strategy can mean different things and strategic objectives can vary, there are probably more than one or two that qualify. The only certain "turning point" was April-May 1865 - although by January 1864 it's fair to say that the handwriting on the wall was beginning to appear and the odds against avoiding that were clearly getting much larger.
I mostly agree, but I might quibble that even in April and May, '65 the ANV was a dangerous thing and still had to be subdued. I dont think it was the same army it was in '62, but still very dangerous and capable to turn back the AOP with a little luck.
 

jackt62

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Location
New York City
Vicksburg can be considered a strategic victory in the sense that it was the culmination of a multi-year campaign to vanquish and seize Confederate forces and positions in the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland River Valleys. The fall of Vicksburg and Pemberton's army meant that the war in that region was essentially over, and the Union could now shift its dominant focus to the central axis running from Chattanooga to Atlanta. By that account, important battles that furthered northern goals or thwarted southern ones in the region (Fts. Henry and Donelson, Island No. 10, Shiloh, Corinth and Iuka) were not in themselves strategic, but simply elements of a successful strategic strategy.
 

JerryD

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Aug 23, 2021
Chattanooga.
I considered Chattanooga, but I dont think it really changed the course of the war, other than perhaps cementing Grant as the choice to be General in Chief. But to paraphrase the Dude..."that's just like, my opinion, man!" (Just saw a blurb on the Big Lebowski and was inspired...)
 

Coonewah Creek

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I think one overlooked strategic victory (although a tactical defeat), that did have an impact on the course of the war was the decision of the new Vicksburg commander, Major General Earl Van Dorn, who took command on June 27, 1862, to assume the offensive following the lifting of the naval siege of Vicksburg by the CSS Arkansas, by then moving against Baton Rouge, the occupied capital of Louisiana. Van Dorn is often characterized as an egocentric, glory seeking and incompetent commander, whose single noteworthy military success came in leading a cavalry raid to destroy Grant's supply depot at Holly Springs in December, 1862. In spite of his personal motives, the decision to move against the Louisiana capital with a combined arms task force and, at the urging of Major General Breckinridge, supported by the formidable ironclad Arkansas, I believe was based on sound strategic planning (if not a firm grasp of ship steam engine mechanics). The criticisms often directed at Van Dorn – that the whole operation was unnecessary and only resulted in unnecessary Confederate losses, including the loss of the irreplaceable ram – I think were largely unjustified, based on an assessment of the results of this campaign.

Two weeks after the battle of Baton Rouge (August 5, 1862), which can certainly be characterized as a Federal tactical victory, the Union forces abandoned the city, its 2,000-man garrison being recalled by Major General Ben Butler who feared New Orleans would be the next target of a Confederate offensive. In this less well-known "sideshow" of the first Vicksburg campaign, Union forces had been "persuaded" to retreat to New Orleans, expecting the next Confederate offensive to be directed toward the liberation of that city, and the departure of all but a token force of gunboats had opened the mouth of the Red River.

Port Hudson, with its 80-foot bluffs, the strongest strategic point on the Mississippi south of Vicksburg, was then occupied without Federal interference, garrisoned and fortified with heavy guns. In fact, Port Hudson did not surrender until after the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863, when the position was rendered untenable, the last Confederate bastion on the river to fall. The presence of Southern forces there withheld needed reinforcements from U. S. Grant's army during his Vicksburg campaign. They did that by keeping Major General Nathaniel P. Banks (who replaced Butler in December, 1862) and his army occupied in siege operations against the Louisiana stronghold. The Port Hudson garrison also held off Federal gunboats trying to travel upriver to join Grant. Because of all these consequences, Van Dorn's campaign prolonged the life of Confederate Vicksburg and the vital connection with the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy.

I'll sum up with a quote by Edwin Bearss, which I think reinforces my point:

"With one ironclad, a handful of guns...the Confederates had regained control of 250 miles of the Mississippi. The failure of Halleck and his Generals to grasp the strategic significance of what was happening on the Mississippi had cost the Union dearly. The first major campaign against Vicksburg had failed...The successful defense of Vicksburg and the recovery of the reaches of the Mississippi between Port Hudson and Vicksburg was a great victory by Confederate arms which had been largely bypassed by military historians."
 

JerryD

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Joined
Aug 23, 2021
I think one overlooked strategic victory (although a tactical defeat), that did have an impact on the course of the war was the decision of the new Vicksburg commander, Major General Earl Van Dorn, who took command on June 27, 1862, to assume the offensive following the lifting of the naval siege of Vicksburg by the CSS Arkansas, by then moving against Baton Rouge, the occupied capital of Louisiana. Van Dorn is often characterized as an egocentric, glory seeking and incompetent commander, whose single noteworthy military success came in leading a cavalry raid to destroy Grant's supply depot at Holly Springs in December, 1862. In spite of his personal motives, the decision to move against the Louisiana capital with a combined arms task force and, at the urging of Major General Breckinridge, supported by the formidable ironclad Arkansas, I believe was based on sound strategic planning (if not a firm grasp of ship steam engine mechanics). The criticisms often directed at Van Dorn – that the whole operation was unnecessary and only resulted in unnecessary Confederate losses, including the loss of the irreplaceable ram – I think were largely unjustified, based on an assessment of the results of this campaign.

Two weeks after the battle of Baton Rouge (August 5, 1862), which can certainly be characterized as a Federal tactical victory, the Union forces abandoned the city, its 2,000-man garrison being recalled by Major General Ben Butler who feared New Orleans would be the next target of a Confederate offensive. In this less well-known "sideshow" of the first Vicksburg campaign, Union forces had been "persuaded" to retreat to New Orleans, expecting the next Confederate offensive to be directed toward the liberation of that city, and the departure of all but a token force of gunboats had opened the mouth of the Red River.

Port Hudson, with its 80-foot bluffs, the strongest strategic point on the Mississippi south of Vicksburg, was then occupied without Federal interference, garrisoned and fortified with heavy guns. In fact, Port Hudson did not surrender until after the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863, when the position was rendered untenable, the last Confederate bastion on the river to fall. The presence of Southern forces there withheld needed reinforcements from U. S. Grant's army during his Vicksburg campaign. They did that by keeping Major General Nathaniel P. Banks (who replaced Butler in December, 1862) and his army occupied in siege operations against the Louisiana stronghold. The Port Hudson garrison also held off Federal gunboats trying to travel upriver to join Grant. Because of all these consequences, Van Dorn's campaign prolonged the life of Confederate Vicksburg and the vital connection with the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy.

I'll sum up with a quote by Edwin Bearss, which I think reinforces my point:

"With one ironclad, a handful of guns...the Confederates had regained control of 250 miles of the Mississippi. The failure of Halleck and his Generals to grasp the strategic significance of what was happening on the Mississippi had cost the Union dearly. The first major campaign against Vicksburg had failed...The successful defense of Vicksburg and the recovery of the reaches of the Mississippi between Port Hudson and Vicksburg was a great victory by Confederate arms which had been largely bypassed by military historians."
Excellent post and really made me think about this episode differently. Thanks!
 

Pat Answer

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Despite Miller including Antietam as a strategic turning point, I did not, for the reason you mentioned. It wasnt the battle that made it important, but the fact it was a convenient excuse for Lincoln to issue the EP. Lincoln had already made up his mind to issue it though, and was just waiting for an excuse. But I concede the point that the issuance was clearly a strategic turn in the war...I just think it was done politically, not militarily.

Interesting that you dont see any strategic victories after Antietam, which implies the war was basically well on the way to being won at that point. Not sure I can agree with that assessment.

Not so much that the shooting war was practically wrapped up (it sure wasn't) as not quite seeing how anything done after that really reverses the Union tide - and that is absolutely hindsight, which is why these kinds of questions, as fun as they can be, are 'loaded'. I think of strategy as always containing political along with military components, with the military ones rarely decisive on their own.
(And sometimes a tactical defeat is well worth the strategic results, as @Coonewah Creek reminds us in a great post.)

The twin pillars of Confederate hopes were foreign intervention and/or the collapse of Union political will. The EP killed the first and the second probably never came as close as it may have appeared on the surface, though again the timing of Atlanta's fall is pretty important. The political effects of, say, a sound Union defeat at Murfreesboro, or Gettysburg, or the halting of Porter's gunboats at Vicksburg, or Bragg winning Chickamauga and retaking Chattanooga afterwards, or Sherman still sitting outside Atlanta in November... etc., would be where I would go for potential "war turning" events after Antietam.

But "that's just, like, my opinion, man..." :D
 

JerryD

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Aug 23, 2021
Not so much that the shooting war was practically wrapped up (it sure wasn't) as not quite seeing how anything done after that really reverses the Union tide - and that is absolutely hindsight, which is why these kinds of questions, as fun as they can be, are 'loaded'. I think of strategy as always containing political along with military components, with the military ones rarely decisive on their own.
(And sometimes a tactical defeat is well worth the strategic results, as @Coonewah Creek reminds us in a great post.)

The twin pillars of Confederate hopes were foreign intervention and/or the collapse of Union political will. The EP killed the first and the second probably never came as close as it may have appeared on the surface, though again the timing of Atlanta's fall is pretty important. The political effects of, say, a sound Union defeat at Murfreesboro, or Gettysburg, or the halting of Porter's gunboats at Vicksburg, or Bragg winning Chickamauga and retaking Chattanooga afterwards, or Sherman still sitting outside Atlanta in November... etc., would be where I would go for potential "war turning" events after Antietam.

But "that's just, like, my opinion, man..." :D
I see where you are coming from. Definitely agree re: twin pillars, so I get what you are saying. Not sure I am convinced, though. I don't see an irreversible Union tide after Antietam and a lot still could have gone very wrong for the Union that could have affected Northern will.
 

Pat Answer

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I see where you are coming from. Definitely agree re: twin pillars, so I get what you are saying. Not sure I am convinced, though. I don't see an irreversible Union tide after Antietam and a lot still could have gone very wrong for the Union that could have affected Northern will.

Oh, I think you're right about that - that's what my if list was about. Those things didn't happen, so in hindsight the tide didn't get a chance to ebb. I think I should add the fall of Atlanta as my #6, though... it really was Lincoln's re-election that knocked down the second pillar.
 

Georgia Sixth

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Location
Texas
I think one overlooked strategic victory (although a tactical defeat), that did have an impact on the course of the war was the decision of the new Vicksburg commander, Major General Earl Van Dorn, who took command on June 27, 1862, to assume the offensive following the lifting of the naval siege of Vicksburg by the CSS Arkansas, by then moving against Baton Rouge, the occupied capital of Louisiana. Van Dorn is often characterized as an egocentric, glory seeking and incompetent commander, whose single noteworthy military success came in leading a cavalry raid to destroy Grant's supply depot at Holly Springs in December, 1862. In spite of his personal motives, the decision to move against the Louisiana capital with a combined arms task force and, at the urging of Major General Breckinridge, supported by the formidable ironclad Arkansas, I believe was based on sound strategic planning (if not a firm grasp of ship steam engine mechanics). The criticisms often directed at Van Dorn – that the whole operation was unnecessary and only resulted in unnecessary Confederate losses, including the loss of the irreplaceable ram – I think were largely unjustified, based on an assessment of the results of this campaign.

Two weeks after the battle of Baton Rouge (August 5, 1862), which can certainly be characterized as a Federal tactical victory, the Union forces abandoned the city, its 2,000-man garrison being recalled by Major General Ben Butler who feared New Orleans would be the next target of a Confederate offensive. In this less well-known "sideshow" of the first Vicksburg campaign, Union forces had been "persuaded" to retreat to New Orleans, expecting the next Confederate offensive to be directed toward the liberation of that city, and the departure of all but a token force of gunboats had opened the mouth of the Red River.

Port Hudson, with its 80-foot bluffs, the strongest strategic point on the Mississippi south of Vicksburg, was then occupied without Federal interference, garrisoned and fortified with heavy guns. In fact, Port Hudson did not surrender until after the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863, when the position was rendered untenable, the last Confederate bastion on the river to fall. The presence of Southern forces there withheld needed reinforcements from U. S. Grant's army during his Vicksburg campaign. They did that by keeping Major General Nathaniel P. Banks (who replaced Butler in December, 1862) and his army occupied in siege operations against the Louisiana stronghold. The Port Hudson garrison also held off Federal gunboats trying to travel upriver to join Grant. Because of all these consequences, Van Dorn's campaign prolonged the life of Confederate Vicksburg and the vital connection with the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy.

I'll sum up with a quote by Edwin Bearss, which I think reinforces my point:

"With one ironclad, a handful of guns...the Confederates had regained control of 250 miles of the Mississippi. The failure of Halleck and his Generals to grasp the strategic significance of what was happening on the Mississippi had cost the Union dearly. The first major campaign against Vicksburg had failed...The successful defense of Vicksburg and the recovery of the reaches of the Mississippi between Port Hudson and Vicksburg was a great victory by Confederate arms which had been largely bypassed by military historians."
Outstanding post!!! Until I read this, I never realized the connection between the Baton Rouge operation and the establishment of Port Hudson. The Bearss quote was excellent. Thank you!
 

Georgia Sixth

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The twin pillars of Confederate hopes were foreign intervention and/or the collapse of Union political will.
That's exactly right. And the collapse of the Union political will meant thwarting or exasperating the Federals militarily as long as possible to increase anti-war sentiment. The confederate leaders continually looked to George Washington, who won the Revolution while losing almost every battle he fought. The South must have come awfully close to achieving that second pillar, based on Lincoln's memo prepared in the event he lost re-election.
 

Belfoured

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Aug 3, 2019
I mostly agree, but I might quibble that even in April and May, '65 the ANV was a dangerous thing and still had to be subdued. I dont think it was the same army it was in '62, but still very dangerous and capable to turn back the AOP with a little luck.
Where I disagree is that after Petersburg was invested and as the siege went on, the ANV had lost its offensive capability and was leaking deserters. By March-April 1865, it literally was just a matter of time - and not much time. The failure of the desperate attempt to escape was completely predictable.
 
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