"The Art of War" and the American Civil War - Sun Tzu and Gettysburg

Joined
Jan 24, 2017
I recently watched a History channel documentary on Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" which in part alluded to the CW and specifically to the Battle of Gettysburg.

Some of the ideas expressed in that program were as follows:

Sun Tzu: No nation has ever benefited from prolonged war. Suggested the ACW is Sun Tzu's nightmare scenario.

Sun Tzu: Those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle. They are not brought by him. At the time of the Battle of Gettysburg Lee decides the time is right to invade Union soil. According to the program Lee's plan was to destroy as many military posts as possible in Maryland and Pennsylvania while Union armies continued to defend Washington D.C. One key target is Camp Curtin outside of Harrisburg, the largest military supply depot in the North. Lee's motive is described as political, with potential victory designed to cause Northerners to lose faith in the war. This was described as a strategy Sun Tzu would have admired. The cavalry skirmish at Gettysburg leads to the erroneous belief the Union army is amassing there and Lee orders his whole army to mobilize, abandoning the original plan and giving up strategic aim. It is stated he allows operational developments to drive strategy and that he should have used his resources to find out what was really happening rather than use them on what he thought was happening.

Sun Tzu: Move only when you see an advantage and there is something to gain. Only fight if a position is critical. Union forces awaiting reinforcements withdraw to Cemetery Hill. Lee gives Ewell an order to "attack when you think it is practicable". Lee does not order him to attack. Ewell decides not to attack. His troops are exhausted and he wants them to rest. Sun Tzu: If the orders are unclear it is the fault of the General. The commentator suggests Lee gave unclear and ambiguous orders to his subordinates. Union troops strengthen their position.

Sun Tzu: When the enemy occupies high ground, do not confront him. If he attacks downhill do not oppose him. Longstreet is said to have grasped the situation from Sun Tzu's perspective. He wants to abandon the idea of attacking the Union high ground. He wants to go around Cemetery Ridge and then east right towards Washington D.C. The Union army would need to come off Cemetery Ridge and attack the Confederates where they were which would likely have secured the Confederates a victory. Lee says "no - the enemy is there and I am going to attack him there." Longstreet is stunned. The commentator said Sun Tzu would have told his men to assess the situation, adjust their forces and find another way to attack the enemy. Second day at Gettysburg is hell on earth and sees some of the bloodiest hand combat of the war.

Sun Tzu: There are some armies that should not be fought, some ground that should not be contended. Commentator suggests one thing you never want to do in war is throw good money after bad. Use an attack to exploit a victory, never use an attack to rescue a defeat. Longstreet understands this. The Confederates are outnumbered, do not have the high ground, and have suffered terrible casualties in the last two days of fighting with no real chance of pushing the Union off the high ground. He makes his suggestion again to move around Cemetery Hill. Lee feels his men have sacrificed too much to turn back and gives the order to attack. George Pickett leads the charge after asking Longstreet twice if he should he go, to which Longstreet never replies knowing the attack is suicidal. Sun Tzu believed in using the intellect rather than force and never using force if you could do otherwise.

I found the program a really interesting study on this ancient text in the context of more modern warfare. There were a lot of interesting comparisons and much knowledge to be gained. As I haven't read the full text yet I plan on doing so soon. I wonder what it might teach about other battles of the CW?
 
Joined
Jan 24, 2017
Thank you @Copperhead-mi . This was the program I saw and there's obviously some disagreement around it which surprises me since it is military experts giving their opinions. No doubt some have differing opinions to this day and the study of the Civil War goes on. I did do a second take on the issue of the shoes as I have seen discussion around that here before, but how could the military experts get it so wrong in other aspects according to the video you shared? One of the things that came up earlier in the program was the idea of a leader having the will of the people behind them. If a people were becoming war weary and losing faith in the leadership to produce the expected result, not to mention the loss of life involved and gruesome images being portrayed, then it might be possible with a pronounced Confederate victory for the government to lose the will of the people. This would mean a call from the populace to end the war, lead to a withdrawal of their troops and allowing the Confederate States to separate. So, the concept of the will of the people is what is being highlighted in terms of politics and Lee's intentions. A successful strike on the North may have turned the tide in favour of the Confederacy with regard to the will of the people.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
No military philosophy ever written has a principle that states that a meeting engagement in enemy country cut off from communication is a wise move. The campaign that Lee proposed in his letters to Davis had a real chance of success. The raid cut off from support that he was forced to mount was a gross misuse of scares resources.
The peering through a soda straw-Virginia-centric thinking that plagued CSA is exemplified by the Battle of Gettysburg. On July 4th, Vicksburg surrendered & the Tullahoma Campaign had driven Bragg’s army out of Tennessee. Win or loose, a meeting engagement 40 miles into nowhere PA was not going to counterbalance those two strategic hammer blows. Sun Tzu’s principles applied to that reality are unambiguous.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
I recently watched a History channel documentary on Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" which in part alluded to the CW and specifically to the Battle of Gettysburg.

Some of the ideas expressed in that program were as follows:

Sun Tzu: No nation has ever benefited from prolonged war. Suggested the ACW is Sun Tzu's nightmare scenario.

Sun Tzu: Those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle. They are not brought by him. At the time of the Battle of Gettysburg Lee decides the time is right to invade Union soil. According to the program Lee's plan was to destroy as many military posts as possible in Maryland and Pennsylvania while Union armies continued to defend Washington D.C. One key target is Camp Curtin outside of Harrisburg, the largest military supply depot in the North. Lee's motive is described as political, with potential victory designed to cause Northerners to lose faith in the war. This was described as a strategy Sun Tzu would have admired. The cavalry skirmish at Gettysburg leads to the erroneous belief the Union army is amassing there and Lee orders his whole army to mobilize, abandoning the original plan and giving up strategic aim. It is stated he allows operational developments to drive strategy and that he should have used his resources to find out what was really happening rather than use them on what he thought was happening.

Sun Tzu: Move only when you see an advantage and there is something to gain. Only fight if a position is critical. Union forces awaiting reinforcements withdraw to Cemetery Hill. Lee gives Ewell an order to "attack when you think it is practicable". Lee does not order him to attack. Ewell decides not to attack. His troops are exhausted and he wants them to rest. Sun Tzu: If the orders are unclear it is the fault of the General. The commentator suggests Lee gave unclear and ambiguous orders to his subordinates. Union troops strengthen their position.

Sun Tzu: When the enemy occupies high ground, do not confront him. If he attacks downhill do not oppose him. Longstreet is said to have grasped the situation from Sun Tzu's perspective. He wants to abandon the idea of attacking the Union high ground. He wants to go around Cemetery Ridge and then east right towards Washington D.C. The Union army would need to come off Cemetery Ridge and attack the Confederates where they were which would likely have secured the Confederates a victory. Lee says "no - the enemy is there and I am going to attack him there." Longstreet is stunned. The commentator said Sun Tzu would have told his men to assess the situation, adjust their forces and find another way to attack the enemy. Second day at Gettysburg is hell on earth and sees some of the bloodiest hand combat of the war.

Sun Tzu: There are some armies that should not be fought, some ground that should not be contended. Commentator suggests one thing you never want to do in war is throw good money after bad. Use an attack to exploit a victory, never use an attack to rescue a defeat. Longstreet understands this. The Confederates are outnumbered, do not have the high ground, and have suffered terrible casualties in the last two days of fighting with no real chance of pushing the Union off the high ground. He makes his suggestion again to move around Cemetery Hill. Lee feels his men have sacrificed too much to turn back and gives the order to attack. George Pickett leads the charge after asking Longstreet twice if he should he go, to which Longstreet never replies knowing the attack is suicidal. Sun Tzu believed in using the intellect rather than force and never using force if you could do otherwise.

I found the program a really interesting study on this ancient text in the context of more modern warfare. There were a lot of interesting comparisons and much knowledge to be gained. As I haven't read the full text yet I plan on doing so soon. I wonder what it might teach about other battles of the CW?
I happened to look back on this thread & was immediately struck by something. Compared with the Chinese Civil Wsr that occurred in the 1850-60 period, the US Civil War was a skirmish. It ran for decades & an astonishing Carl Sagan number of people were killed. It has occurred to me that all of the critic of the US Civil War through the lens of Sun Tzu’s dicta were magnified with exponential factors by the Chinese CW. An analysis with the Chinese CW on one hand, Sun Tzu in the middle & the US CW on the other might really be something.
 
Joined
Jan 24, 2017
I happened to look back on this thread & was immediately struck by something. Compared with the Chinese Civil Wsr that occurred in the 1850-60 period, the US Civil War was a skirmish. It ran for decades & an astonishing Carl Sagan number of people were killed. It has occurred to me that all of the critic of the US Civil War through the lens of Sun Tzu’s dicta were magnified with exponential factors by the Chinese CW. An analysis with the Chinese CW on one hand, Sun Tzu in the middle & the US CW on the other might really be something.
The program brings up the war that Sun Tzu actually fought and the way he applied his philosophy during it. The ideas were also applied to the Vietnam War and WWII with the landing at Normandy. So there was a broad application involving wars fought by Americans. Now there may be further argument/discussion around those, but I was intrigued by its application to the ACW and Gettysburg in particular. I have no idea about the Chinese CW or if Sun Tzu's text was ever applied in that situation, or has been since.
 

GAH

Cadet
Joined
Jan 15, 2021
If I missed this in this thread... apologies for repetition...

Well known historian- Bevin Alexander, 2011 book- Sun Tzu at Gettysburg "Ten major battles or campaigns that could have been won using the principles of the art of war"...chapter 5- Gettysburg...
 
Joined
Jan 24, 2017
If I missed this in this thread... apologies for repetition...

Well known historian- Bevin Alexander, 2011 book- Sun Tzu at Gettysburg "Ten major battles or campaigns that could have been won using the principles of the art of war"...chapter 5- Gettysburg...
Thank you for adding that. It sounds like a very interesting read. I wonder how many of the ideas he shared would correlate with what was said in the documentary? And what other battles he discusses. It was something I never thought of before I saw the documentary - how different philosophies might be applied to the CW.
 
Joined
Jan 24, 2017
Me thinks Sun Tzu would not approve of Marse Robert.
It seems he would have approved of Lee's original plan in terms of his incursion into the North, but not the fact he changed his plans in light of unexpected circumstances. I posted what was said in the documentary in the OP, just to make it clear these are ideas pulled from the documentary.

What was also interesting was the way Lee's and Longstreet's differing ideas were compared and contrasted in the circumstances based on Sun Tzu's philosophy. While he would have approved of Lee's original objective and strategy, his approval would have shifted to Longstreet's in light of the changing circumstances. At least that's the impression given in the documentary.
 

datameister

Private
Joined
Apr 29, 2018
Location
Westfield, IN
No military philosophy ever written has a principle that states that a meeting engagement in enemy country cut off from communication is a wise move. The campaign that Lee proposed in his letters to Davis had a real chance of success. The raid cut off from support that he was forced to mount was a gross misuse of scares resources.
The peering through a soda straw-Virginia-centric thinking that plagued CSA is exemplified by the Battle of Gettysburg. On July 4th, Vicksburg surrendered & the Tullahoma Campaign had driven Bragg’s army out of Tennessee. Win or loose, a meeting engagement 40 miles into nowhere PA was not going to counterbalance those two strategic hammer blows. Sun Tzu’s principles applied to that reality are unambiguous.
The intent was not to conduct a meeting engagement but achieve the decisive destruction of the Army of the Potomac, which had proved so elusive. Longstreet was in full concordance with this concept.

Why would Lee waste men by sending them to less than competent commanders? It was also a logistical nightmare for the South to move troops from one theater to another. As Lee stated in a telegraph to Seddon, "The distance and the uncertainty of the employment of the troops are unfavorable." It simply would have been more fodder for Yankee cannons. If the ground in the West was so strategically valuable, why did the war rage on for two more years at an even greater loss of life than before?

Also, Lee was not cut off from communications. He had a rather secure albeit extended LOC through the Shenandoah and Cumberland Valleys. I recently saw a presentation from the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center (USAHEC) that pointed out how much Lee's invasion had rattled the North and reinforced the idea that Lee had the opportunity for a major military/political victory.

Tactically, we can bash Lee but operationally his invasion of the North was Sun Tzu-Esque, the nonsensical orders to Stuart notwithstanding. After all, he started out against "Mr. FJ Hooker" who had lost the faith of his fellow subordinates.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
The intent was not to conduct a meeting engagement but achieve the decisive destruction of the Army of the Potomac, which had proved so elusive. Longstreet was in full concordance with this concept.

Why would Lee waste men by sending them to less than competent commanders? It was also a logistical nightmare for the South to move troops from one theater to another. As Lee stated in a telegraph to Seddon, "The distance and the uncertainty of the employment of the troops are unfavorable." It simply would have been more fodder for Yankee cannons. If the ground in the West was so strategically valuable, why did the war rage on for two more years at an even greater loss of life than before?

Also, Lee was not cut off from communications. He had a rather secure albeit extended LOC through the Shenandoah and Cumberland Valleys. I recently saw a presentation from the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center (USAHEC) that pointed out how much Lee's invasion had rattled the North and reinforced the idea that Lee had the opportunity for a major military/political victory.

Tactically, we can bash Lee but operationally his invasion of the North was Sun Tzu-Esque, the nonsensical orders to Stuart notwithstanding. After all, he started out against "Mr. FJ Hooker" who had lost the faith of his fellow subordinates.
Line of communication does not mean a route that Lee could use to send messages. In his planning for the PA incursion, Lee included a deployment of forces that would have maintained his communications, i.e., a supply line, with his base in Virginia. When those forces did not materialize, he chose to cut loose from his base & march into PA without an active supply line (communication) supporting his army. That is what cutting communication meany in that context & exactly what Lee, in his own words, did.
 

RobertP

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Nov 11, 2009
Location
Dallas
No military philosophy ever written has a principle that states that a meeting engagement in enemy country cut off from communication is a wise move.
Yet Grant did the same thing in the Vicksburg campaign and is hailed as a genius. That goes with winning. Had Lee been more emphatic in his order to take Culps hill or had a more aggressive corps commander like say Jackson in place, he very well might have won. And we’d be calling him a genius.
 

Viper21

Brigadier General
Moderator
Silver Patron
Joined
Jul 4, 2016
Location
Rockbridge County, Virginia
Yet Grant did the same thing in the Vicksburg campaign and is hailed as a genius. That goes with winning. Had Lee been more emphatic in his order to take Culps hill or had a more aggressive corps commander like say Jackson in place, he very well might have won. And we’d be calling him a genius.
While it's certainly true Lee's orders to Ewell were ambiguous, I believe it has been argued previously that Jackson would've made the attack. Even though Lee could've/should've been more clear, I've heard multiple people studied on the subject suggest that, Jackson & Lee were much more on the same page. Meaning, Jackson would not have interpreted Lee's words as ambiguous.

An analogy or example would be, your spouse tells you, "go ahead, do what you want". Yet, you know full well what their preferred result, or outcome is. They may have made it appear as an open choice for you, but reality is, it's not.

Does Lee deserve some criticism for this..? Absolutely. The onus was on Lee to be clear, & precise in his orders. Did that scenario's outcome influence Lee to be more precise on his orders to go ahead with Pickett's charge..? Probably. I've heard plenty of criticism over the years about that charge. I can admit it's somewhat justified however, I've always viewed it as a "hail mary pass", or "onside kick". Even though the odds are very slim of success, one thing is certain. If you don't try, you're guaranteed to lose.
 

RobertP

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Nov 11, 2009
Location
Dallas
While it's certainly true Lee's orders to Ewell were ambiguous, I believe it has been argued previously that Jackson would've made the attack. Even though Lee could've/should've been more clear, I've heard multiple people studied on the subject suggest that, Jackson & Lee were much more on the same page. Meaning, Jackson would not have interpreted Lee's words as ambiguous.

An analogy or example would be, your spouse tells you, "go ahead, do what you want". Yet, you know full well what their preferred result, or outcome is. They may have made it appear as an open choice for you, but reality is, it's not.

Does Lee deserve some criticism for this..? Absolutely. The onus was on Lee to be clear, & precise in his orders. Did that scenario's outcome influence Lee to be more precise on his orders to go ahead with Pickett's charge..? Probably. I've heard plenty of criticism over the years about that charge. I can admit it's somewhat justified however, I've always viewed it as a "hail mary pass", or "onside kick". Even though the odds are very slim of success, one thing is certain. If you don't try, you're guaranteed to lose.
Agree. Jackson would’ve been on the move with just a nod in the right direction.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Yet Grant did the same thing in the Vicksburg campaign and is hailed as a genius. That goes with winning. Had Lee been more emphatic in his order to take Culps hill or had a more aggressive corps commander like say Jackson in place, he very well might have won. And we’d be calling him a genius.
Grant ordered the most effective cavalry raid of the ear, ran the gauntlet of the Vicksburg batteries, established a bridgehead, cut off communications, fought three successful battles, captured an enemy capital, encircled & successfully besieged a fortress, captured an entire army, opened the Mississippi River & effectively cut the CSA in half. I am having a little trouble seeing how anything Lee might have done is the equivalent of Grant’s operations.

In his letters to Davis, Lee stated that the intent of his PA incursion was to inflict a blow that would break Union civilian morale & bring about a negotiated peace. I know of no historians or even Lost Cause theorists that believe that some kind of tactical victory in nowhere PA could have achieved that goal.

The triple hammer blows of Vicksburg, Tullahoma & Gettysburg were strategic victories that set the stage for the ultimate CSA defeat. Going 40 miles into nowhere PA & loosing a meeting engagement is a textbook example of a disastrous strategic mistake.
 

Viper21

Brigadier General
Moderator
Silver Patron
Joined
Jul 4, 2016
Location
Rockbridge County, Virginia
Going 40 miles into nowhere PA & loosing a meeting engagement is a textbook example of a disastrous strategic mistake.
Easy to say after the fact. I think his overall plan was a good one. I believe Lee's strategy was a mostly political one, to sway Northern public opinion, & bring public opinion closer to negotiation. I don't believe that Lee had any delusions of running all over Northern territory, & or continuing further into Yankee territory. I think he was doing exactly as I suggested, trying to strike fear, & or put pressure on Northern folks to end the war.

One has to remember, human nature has always been rather aloof to things that don't personally affect us. It's one thing to be pro-war, when that war is hundreds or thousands of miles away. It's quite another when it's literally happening in your front yard, as it was for many a Southern family. People are affected quite differently reading about casualties in the newspaper, vs seeing people die, & the real horrors of war, with your own eyes.

While Lee's strategy on this lost, his thinking wasn't as ridiculous as implied. In my opinion, it was one of very few actual opportunities, to win the war. By winning the war, I'm not suggesting a military defeat of the US was even possible. I'm specifically referring to a political victory. ie: The northern populace losing the taste for war, & allowing the Southern states to separate from the US without further bloodshed.

I've read, The Art of War. While I agree Sun Tzu would've had some negative things to say about Lee's actual battlefield orders at Gettysburg, & combat operations, I believe he would've approved of Lee's initial strategy for the campaign.
 
Top