I’ve been following the excellent multi-authored Disunion posts at the New York Times Opinionator blog. That is posts on the American Civil War with reference to a great variety of topics. I’m particularly taken with the most recent post, Lincoln’s Do-Nothing Generals by Mark Greenbaum. The do-nothing generals refers to George McLellan, the first Union commander in the Civil War, and his associates; and certainly not to Ulysses S. Grant, and his associates, who won the war for the Union, and what was by then the cause of the abolition of slavery. It was not a war to end slavery when McLellan was commander, he was a pro-slaver. Though the war was certainly prompted the detestation of southern whites for Abraham Lincoln (sometimes known as Honest Abe), an opponent of slavery, even if he did not intend before the war to enforce abolition on the South.
The point that is really at the centre of the post is the evolution of northern military strategy from explicit adherence to Antoine Henrı-Jomini to implicit adherence to Carl von Clausewitz. Jomini is not widely read now, but in the mid-nineteenth century was considered the author of The Book on war, The Art of War . This is based on the explicit thought of Napoleon and his generals, and helped spread various aspects of Napoleonic military practice beyond France. However, now the Napoleonic influence (including the reaction to Napoleon) is generally considered to be represented by Clausewitz’s On War, a book widely thought to elevate military theory to the status of the classics of political theory, and to bring politics into war, in its emphasis on war as continuation of politics and the struggle to break the collective will of the enemy. In terms of the American Civil War, this means a transition from outwardly gentlemanly battles to Sherman’s March on the Sea which deliberately destroyed the properly of southern white civilians. The other side of that is that considerable violence between, and among civilians, took place at the beginning of the war, while Sherman’s March hastened the end of the war and the emancipation of slaves.
Here are the two paragraphs of the post which deal with Lincoln’s unconscious affinity with Clausewitz.
While there is no evidence that Lincoln ever read his work, his views resembled the ideas of another 19th century theorist, Karl von Clausewitz. The Prussian officer emphasized the relationship between military strategy and politics, calling war “the use of engagement for the purpose of the war.” He defined the new style of war as one based on broad objectives like taking over countries and overthrowing sitting governments through the annihilation of an enemy’s center of gravity, generally its standing army.
Lincoln recognized the government’s core policy (total defeat of the rebellion), the size of the conflict (unlimited, across two theaters), the South’s keystone center of gravity (its army) and the Union’s inherent advantage (manpower and industrial production) together in concert and divined a simple strategy: Directly engaging Southern armies repeatedly, and ignoring the alluring prize of rebel cities in favor of seizing strategic points like railroad hubs and lines of communication. His intuition soon proved right, as the capture of major Southern cities like New Orleans, Nashville and Memphis by mid-1862 did nothing to hasten the end of the war.