Why was it so difficult to "rip the innards out"

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Saphroneth

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McClellan and Halleck after him (and even more so) were not fond of very deep envelopments, evidently. The enclaves along the coast were never really followed up with anything deeply penetrating, even though many of the local commanders could see the wasted opportunities. It blows my mind how often there was an opportunity to cut the rail line leading right to the ANV with no sustained efforts made to take it out (though, to be fair, rail lines would be repaired quickly, so it would have to be something sustained rather than a raid).
As it happens, McClellan was quite in favour of them, but the problem was manpower.

The problem was pretty much always manpower.

The calculus was always:

How many troops will we need to land along the coast to make a battle group capable of surviving whatever the Confederates might concentrate against us if they go inland? (Probably quite a lot.)
Do we have those troops to spare? (Almost certainly not.)
Would those troops be more valuable with the main army? (Everyone thought so yes).

If the perception is that the enemy army has slightly more men than you around Richmond, or that another 15,000 men will give you enough of an edge to be decisive, or even that if you reduce the strength of your army a bit it might be defeated... well, there's not enough men with the main army yet.


It's once the main army is big enough that the manpower can be spared for peripheral operations in support of it.
To give some sense of the scale of the problem, one analysis I saw suggested that the total strength along the Confederate coastline in early 1862 was:
2500 in Texas
7000 in Louisiana (facing 2000 Federals)
12000 in Alabama and Florida
22000 in Georgia and South Carolina (facing 16000 Federals)
12000 in NC
And 31000 around Norfolk and Yorktown (facing 12000 Federals)

That's just the regular Confederate troops - militia is separate, and has to be considered as well. IIRC Livermore gave some estimates for early-1862 Confederate militia strength, and there's several tens of thousands of potential militia troops across the Southern states. (Which is why the CSA was able to sustain so many deaths in the war without their armies hollowing out far sooner than they actually did.)

The Union Army in early 1862 has a very big field force in Maryland and northern Virginia, but historically so much was required for Washington to be considered safe that it drained away offensive superiority even with the North Carolina expedition and the Dept. of the South stripped down. The first bolus of extra disposable troops would probably have gone into boosting the main eastern army, and then the second into peripheral ops, but it's almost impossible to find a point at which the Army of the Potomac is considered to be big enough.
 

Saphroneth

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McClellan got a good dose of that attempting to use a supply base fed east of the Peninsula, and Grant would not even attempt it, as to approaching Richmond.
Grant did actually end up using tidewater river supply lines, just like McClellan did. They're the best way to get supplies up close to Richmond, but that's partly because Richmond is on navigable water.


It is worth considering Grant, actually, because it's another way to look at the scale of the problem.

Functionally speaking, counting all reinforcements in one big lump, Grant started with about 142,000 PFD and got about another 60,000 before he reached the James - about 45,000 of them from Washington etc.
An alternative use of that manpower would have been to send them to form a new army of ca. 45,000 men, mostly green troops, to make a "deep" strike into the Confederate interior to try and, as the thread title says, "rip the guts out".

But how does that alter the rest of the campaign? Historically Lee got about 33,000 PFD in reinforcements over the course of the Overland, but with Grant's force much smaller he might not need them - or if he does use them to stop Grant cold and contain him, he might then be able to send some of them away again to deal with the other army.

Worst case scenario, Lee uses interior lines to smash the relatively fragile "new" army while keeping Grant at bay, and the Union's basically wasted its offensive concentration for 1864.

There is a way to sort of avoid this problem, and it's to basically take the Army of the Potomac plus reinforcements and split it in half. Send an army for a peripheral operation so big that Lee has to fully commit to taking it out if he's going to at all - one made of new and veteran troops mixed together. But then you've basically shifted the main effort to the amphibious route, and that brings us to the final problem.

Lincoln.

At least in the Eastern main theatre, Lincoln was Not A Fan Of The Amphibious Approach. His idea of how the war should be won in the East didn't involve taking places, it involved punching Lee's main army directly in the face regardless of whether or not it was fortified...
 

DaveBrt

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... and that brings us to the final problem.

Lincoln.

At least in the Eastern main theatre, Lincoln was Not A Fan Of The Amphibious Approach. His idea of how the war should be won in the East didn't involve taking places, it involved punching Lee's main army directly in the face regardless of whether or not it was fortified...
Lee/Davis were audacious. In a moment, I can think of 6 times Lee made bold moves, splitting his equal or smaller army in order to take the chance of winning. Lincoln's calculator never let him come up with a favorable result if he took a chance in the East.
 

Saphroneth

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Lee/Davis were audacious. In a moment, I can think of 6 times Lee made bold moves, splitting his equal or smaller army in order to take the chance of winning. Lincoln's calculator never let him come up with a favorable result if he took a chance in the East.
It's not even just that. Lincoln's way of calculating led him to - well, he spoke approvingly of Fredericksburg and felt that the problem was that the army just hadn't done Fredericksburg over and over again. Conversely, he felt that the idea that the South would be beaten by "strategy" was a delusion; my understanding is he even thought that men preferred attacking frontally into entrenchments to turning a position.
 

Joshism

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It's not even just that. Lincoln's way of calculating led him to - well, he spoke approvingly of Fredericksburg and felt that the problem was that the army just hadn't done Fredericksburg over and over again. Conversely, he felt that the idea that the South would be beaten by "strategy" was a delusion; my understanding is he even thought that men preferred attacking frontally into entrenchments to turning a position.
I think Lincoln recognized (and Grant came to agree) with two key points:

1. Attrition favored the Union. It was never the primary objective, but it was a beneficial side effect from seeking battle rather than avoiding it.

2. The Confederates could not be defeated by simply maneuvering them out of positions. They had to be fought in battle and their armies wrecked.
 

Saphroneth

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I think Lincoln recognized (and Grant came to agree) with two key points:

1. Attrition favored the Union. It was never the primary objective, but it was a beneficial side effect from seeking battle rather than avoiding it.

2. The Confederates could not be defeated by simply maneuvering them out of positions. They had to be fought in battle and their armies wrecked.
The problem is that Lincoln seems to have seen the East as a special case. He was quite happy to discuss capturing positions in the West, but in the East he wanted to attack the Confederate army instead.
The fact of the matter is that you can "wreck" an army in four ways:

1) Defeat it in battle so thoroughly that you have the excess combat power to mount a pursuit and destroy it.
This never happened in the American Civil War. Even at Nashville Hood's army "broke clean" and remained in being.
2) Have it attack into your entrenchments enough that it's lost the willingness to fight.
This happened occasionally, but it was rare and an army can recover from this.
3) Pin it so it has no means of escape (and possibly resupply) then compel it to surrender either with strong attacks or starvation.
This happened much more often, and is in fact the way that Grant generally dealt with the armies he destroyed.
4) Attack and take their base, so they can't effectively fight any more.
This also happened occasionally in the Civil War.

The important point about this is that:

1) Relies primarily on your having much more combat power than the enemy.
2) Relies on either taking a position the enemy cannot allow you to retain, or on the enemy being willing to attack into fortifications for no mandatory reason until they've destroyed themselves. That is, it relies either in the enemy being complicit in their own destruction, or in manoeuvre; often both.
3) Relies on manoeuvre.
4) Relies on manoeuvre.

The methods of destroying an army in the Civil War that actually worked (and that did not rely on the enemy being overly aggressive) rely on manoeuvre.

If you want to force attrition in your favour, manoeuvre close to an enemy base and start regular approaches.
 
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Saphroneth

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It is worth thinking about the three kinds of time that Lee/Davis split the AoNV apart to try to gain advantage.

Case one: a "tactical" split, where the army is marching divided and intends to fight united.

This is basically a matter of unit articulation. The Union often did it as well, but Confederate corps were generally larger so they had a bit less to fear about this; it's interesting to speculate about whether the near-catastrophe in the Pleasant Valley led Lee to tend to prefer large corps units for the rest of the war.

Case two: an "operational" split, where a part of the army is operating in the same theatre of war but sufficiently far from the main army that they're not in support.

An example of this is Jackson in the Valley, Jackson being the typical commander Lee relied on for this sort of thing (with Early replacing him for 1864). This generally involved the idea of using a small Confederate force to distract larger quantities of Union force away from the eventual decisive battle, but this is always when the Confederates are on the strategic defensive and generally behind heavy defences; that is, if the Union tries to force the decision before the Valley force re-unites with the main body they'll be placing themselves in a situation of significant disadvantage.

Case three: A "strategic" split, where part of the army is sent to an entirely different theatre.

The examples that come to mind are Chickamauga and the Suffolk operations.
In the first case (Suffolk) this is not all that long after the shattering casualties of Fredericksburg and the Mud March; the subsequent battle of Chancellorsville is a risky moment, but the defensive position along the Rappahanock is excellent for logistical reasons as well as tactical ones. In the second case it's after Gettysburg, again a seriously traumatic experience for the Army of the Potomac.
Importantly, in both cases the Army of the Potomac was not only badly damaged by a recent high-casualty battle but was also shut up north of the Rappahanock; as we saw in 1864, the process of getting over the Rappahanock and down towards Richmond is excruciatingly bloody.


Any case where large Union forces were doing things to try and cut Richmond off from the south by amphibious means would involve a strategic split for the Union. The problem here for the Union is that the Union is the power that has to attack, and if you're the Union making plans for summer you have the choice whether to attack in summer (i.e. seek a clash of main force for the armies) or not.

If you don't seek a clash of main force for the armies, then effectively Lee can do a strategic split of his own and concentrate force against your amphibious force; he still has to defend Richmond from the north, but he has the interior lines and a significant amount of ground to give up (amid good blocking positions) before he's in the Richmond forts. If Lee has to fight only on the defensive and give ground for four weeks in return for smashing a Union field army in the south, he may well take the chance, and if you're not going to do a clash of main force then you've let him without punishing him for it.

If you do seek a clash of main force for the armies, well, you're going to be fighting Lee's main army. The choice he faces is a bit trickier now, but you need enough force in the "secondary" army that Lee can't smash it even with however many troops he can detach - and, well, as stated above there was never really a point when there was enough strength to spare from the "main" army that the "main" amy could continue desired operations with such a large detachment. (There were periods when a small forted-up force like the Bermuda Hundred force could avoid being smashed, but the moment the secondary force goes on the offensive it's not got the ability to use those entrenchments any more.
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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Hm... this could be a whole separate thread, really. Were the war in the East and the war in the West significantly different for Union strategy? Was a war of geographic position more important in the west and a war of enemy-army-destruction (call it 'attrition,' I suppose, but that sounds too vague to me) more important in the east?

In the West, where *in general* Confederate forces were much more dispersed and the country more "open" to maneuver in many cases, I could definitely see where the taking and holding of vital rail junctions like Corinth and ports like New Orleans were very significant strategically. So I think it can be taken as given that the war of position strategy was correctly applied in the West. But how about the East? Could the war really not have been won by seizing strategic points... or was it just that Lee was too adept in covering the strategic points that the Union reached for?

It does rather seem when looking at it another way that the real 'butcher of Cold Harbor' was Lincoln rather than Grant, if one accepts the premise that Lincoln was solely focused on direct assaults on Lee's army. (I think that premise needs further discussion, however.)
 

Saphroneth

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It probably could be a separate thread, yes; I'm not the first to say it, though. Per Stotelmyer after Hattaway and Jones:


It’s hardly uncommon to find Lincoln portrayed as an astute self- educated military strategist in Civil War literature. Historians Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones argued that Lincoln was a conventional mid-nineteenth century strategist who fully “analyzed operations in terms of lines of operations, [and] believed in the superiority of the defensive over the offensive” as well as “the futility of trying to destroy an enemy army in the open field.” Yet, these same historians contend a “special case” for the Virginia theatre of operations. There Lincoln was obsessed with the idea that the Army of Northern Virginia could be annihilated in one decisive battle. For General Lee, Lincoln made an exception. Lincoln’s obsession was “apparently inconsistent with the strategy advocated elsewhere.” In other theatres Lincoln emphasized the capture of places, but in Virginia he preached attack on Lee’s army.

Stotelmyer, Steven R.. Too Useful to Sacrifice (p. 225). Savas Beatie. Kindle Edition.


The most important positions in the East, aside from those under Union control at the start of the war, are Yorktown and Richmond; Yorktown because it controls the York (one of the tidewater rivers) and allows a Union army to be supplied within miles of Richmond itself, and Richmond because the entire Virginia rail network is focused on it (and because of all the industrial resources of Richmond). Supplying a Union army much south of the Rappahanock is infeasible without Yorktown*; supplying a Confederate army much north of the Roanoke is infeasible without Richmond.

Take Richmond and the Army of Northern Virginia (and Confederate control) functionally can't exist in most of Virginia, Washington is secure from attack, the Confederacy has lost its biggest single industrial site and you're well placed for operations moving into North Carolina.


You do still eventually have to fight the Confederate army, unless it disintegrates before you get to it; this much is obvious. But not only is taking Richmond a good way to cause that disintegration but threatening Richmond with regular approaches is a good way to get the AoNV to attack into your entrenchments; either way, it's a good way to weaken the Confederate army before you actually have to fight it in the open, and the AoNV is much more vulnerable to attrition if it's not got access to its largest single manpower source. (Of the 202 non-battery regimental or battalion organizations in the Army of Northern Virginia in June 1862, 59 were "Virginia ___" regiments and a few others were Legions partly or wholly recruited in Virginia.)


*or Norfolk, though taking Yorktown gets you Norfolk anyway
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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Would Union control of the Weldon railroad in the spring of 1862 be as much of a threat to Lee's supply line as it eventually was in 1865?
 

Saphroneth

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Would Union control of the Weldon railroad in the spring of 1862 be as much of a threat to Lee's supply line as it eventually was in 1865?
Not by itself, because the other supply lines would be less damaged than they were in 1865 and even historically Petersburg hung on with the rail line cut. OTOH what you'd need to do to cut the railroad would probably create winning conditions depending on how you did it.

If you had a Union force up the Roanoke as far as Weldon, you also need to take either Gaston or Hicksford to actually cut the rail line proper (there's an alternate route) but you can't cut the Petersburg and Lynchburg (just to name one).

OTOH, if you have a Union force on the south bank of the James:
1) How did it get there? :tongue:
2) You can just reinforce it and make regular approaches to take out Petersburg, then Drury's Bluff, and unload Union troop transports supported by gunboats actually inside Richmond.
 

Mark F. Jenkins

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Oh, believe me, I'm the last one to try to claim that amphibious and combined operations wouldn't be worth it! :happy:

(But the Union Army was undoubtedly less adept/experienced in doing that sort of thing in 1862 than it would be a few years later.)
 

Saphroneth

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Oh, believe me, I'm the last one to try to claim that amphibious and combined operations wouldn't be worth it! :happy:

(But the Union Army was undoubtedly less adept/experienced in doing that sort of thing in 1862 than it would be a few years later.)
It's interesting to contemplate what could have been done with combined operations being actually, you know... combined, in 1862.

Early on Goldsborough insisted on all communications between him and McClellan going via Washington (to name but one case) and the chance to shell the Confederates out of Yorktown slipped by, while later on the Navy was willing or eager to cooperate but the Army was anchored to the Richmond and York by War Dept. order. A Navy expedition up the James in May got all the way to Drury's Bluff before it was stopped; it's not hard to conjecture a joint Army-Navy operation neutralizing that battery, and at that point there's nothing much between a Union gunboat squadron and Richmond but the current.
 

Robin Lesjovitch

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Grant did actually end up using tidewater river supply lines, just like McClellan did. They're the best way to get supplies up close to Richmond, but that's partly because Richmond is on navigable water.
My point was that Grant was not going to use White House or any other point supplied east of the Peninsula when going at Richmond. After Cold Harbor, he had to use the James River as he could protect a base there. That dicated that Grant had to approach Richmond from the south. McClellan's problems trying it the other way were well known.
 

Saphroneth

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My point was that Grant was not going to use White House or any other point supplied east of the Peninsula when going at Richmond.
Well, he did. That was his supply base as of Cold Harbor.

As Grant moved around, he went from supply via the RF&P and Port Royal to supply via the York (White House Landing) to supply via the James; you actually sort of have to supply from the R&Y for some of the Richmond approach if you're coming around from the north, passing to the east and aiming for an approach from to the south, because you need to cross the Chickahominy river.

As far as we can tell, McClellan's plan in 1862 was to cross the Chickahominy and then detach from the R&Y to switch to the James, probably because with the James you don't need to spread your forces across the Chickahominy - though if you've got the men to cover the north side of the Chickahominy and still operate against Richmond on the south I'd argue it's a somewhat superior route without close naval cooperation.
 

DaveBrt

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Would Union control of the Weldon railroad in the spring of 1862 be as much of a threat to Lee's supply line as it eventually was in 1865?
Lee was very concerned about the loss of the Weldon line OR1/19/2/681:
Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia
October 25, 1862
Hon. George W. Randolph
Secretary of War
Sir,
The completion of the Danville and Greensborough Railroad {Piedmont RR} as speedily as possible is almost absolutely essential to us in the operations of the ensuing campaign. The enemy will, doubtless, make his attack in the present winter south of the James River, and will make strenuous efforts to cut off our communication with the South by obtaining possession of the Petersburg, Weldon and Wilmington Railway {the Petersburg RR and the Wilmington & Weldon RR}. Should they succeed in this, hopeless disaster might ensue, unless we could rely on the interior connection, via Greensborough and Danville. This road should be pushed on to completion at once by every means in our power. I believe that I cannot urge its importance too strongly on the Government, and I therefore beg leave to call your attention to it.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
R. E. Lee
General
 

Saphroneth

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Lee was very concerned about the loss of the Weldon line OR1/19/2/681:
That's very interesting, because it reinforces the idea that the James is the place where Lee feels the most vulnerable.
Looking at Burnside's NC expedition, his next objective was Goldsboro; operations up that route would need to get clear up to Raleigh before Richmond was entirely cut off, which might be a big ask.

Going up the Roanoke river one only has to get to Gaston to cut Richmond off, but that's problematic because it's above the fall line and your seaborne supply can't get that high up.

Operating from the James river, naturally, one only has to either take Petersburg directly or cut it off in the historical manner.

There's also the separate problem of the line from Lynchburg to Atlanta, which is a long but feasible alternate rail route. Wonder when that one was cut off?
 

DaveBrt

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Burnside and the Navy worked well together in the Sound in early '62 (Roanoke Island for example). This potent force in the side of the Confederacy was only broken by Lincoln sending Burnside to McClellan.

If the eastern railroad line had been broken, Richmond and Lee would have to rely on Virginia itself and the weak railroad line through Knoxville. The Knoxville line was repeatedly broken by local bridge burners and Union cavalry. The loss of connection to the rest of the South would have removed the fruits of blockade running from Richmond and prevented the food and fodder supply from eastern Georgia and the Carolinas from sustaining Lee.

Virginia was so stripped of food supplies, that there was near panic in the War Department to keep the corn and hay flowing from the South as early as December 1862. In those southern supplies had been cut off in the summer of '62, the food crisis could have arrived much earlier.

To my knowledge, no one has written the story of feeding Richmond and the ANV throughout the war. There is a lot of information in the QM and railroad records, but it will be a hard slog to put it together. Lee was on the verge of starvation several times, even before being confined to the trenches.
 

DaveBrt

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The RR that Lee called for in the OR above was actually completed in June of '64. This poorly constructed slender thread is what kept Lee in the field after Grant cut the Weldon line in October.
 
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