Why were there no decisive battles in the US Civil War?

There’s an interesting discussion going on in response to a post by James Q. Whitman at the New York Times’ Disunion blog. Whitman argues that the reason the US Civil War did not have decisive field battles, and instead ended as the result of the Union’s policy of total war against Confederate society, was that the US Civil War was an ideological war between two republics, whereas eighteenth century wars were characterized by decisive battles fought between legalistic monarchies, who accepted the outcome of trial-by-battle. Paul Krugman counters that the mass production of the long rifle neutralized the ability of cavalry formations to exploit the retreat of a defeated army, and hence the victors of a particular battle were unable to consolidate their gains, thereby dragging out the duration of the war.

There are some pretty big flaws with both interpretations. I think that Whitman misreads the eighteenth century wars when he states that:

The wars of the 18th century were legal procedures, fought over carefully stated legal royal claims to territory, and were justified by carefully formulated legal briefs. They were staged in orderly ways intended to symbolize the glory and civilization of royal courts. But in the mid-19th century the two Americans republics and the French Republic began to fight more bitter and more horrible wars, in the name of grander ideals. Hard though it is to accept, democratic idealism and widespread death began to march hand in hand.

While Whitman is correct that some of the intra-European wars were fought as disputes over royal claims to territory, particularly the claims of rival houses over the Spanish and Austrian empires, he overlooks the importance of imperial politics as generated from mercantile and colonial, rather than court, interests. While the claims of entities such as the various monopolistic trading companies, or the claims of colonial settlers, were frequently territorial in nature, they were presented in the language of national self-interest, with the language of royalism being a secondary consideration. Mercantile interests had also developed a nuanced ideology of national prosperity to justify their policies. Analysis of the limited nature of eighteenth century European warfare must take this into account. (Whitman also understates the extent to which civilians were victims of eighteenth century warfare; massive population displacement, such as the flight of the German Palatine refugees to London, and then to New York, was less severe than in the seventeenth century but not unheard of.)

Krugman makes a decent, albeit limited, point about the rifles changing the nature of a post-battle retreat. As long as a retreat was not completely chaotic, a cavalry charge on retreating infantry could easily be met by a highly accurate volley.This has more to do with maintaining formation than with a particular type of shoulder-fired weapon, however; the safe retreat of the Union armies at Chancellorsville and Chickamauga were due to the ability of General Winfield Scott Hancock and General George Thomas to organized corps-level rearguard defenses. At no point had the entire Union army been thrown into disarray. So the rifles were definitely a help, but the Union armies would probably have escaped in any event due to good generalship and the presence of troop reserves.

On the other hand, as Krugman points out, there were three cases of Ulysses Grant trapping and destroying Confederate field armies (Forts Henry & Donelson, 1862; Vicksburg, 1863; Appomattox, 1865), only one of which was decisive in ending the war. So while the rifle and good generalship can help explain why no Union armies were destroyed in the course of the war, it doesn’t explain why the surrender of Confederate field armies seemed unrelated to the Confederacy’s willingness and ability to sustain the war effort.

The Confederacy fought on despite the loss of several of its field armies because those field armies did not represent the extent of the resources it was willing to expend. This was, in fact, somewhat different from the eighteenth century wars in which European states expended limited resources. So why were the Confederates more motivated to expend greater resources?

This was due to the nature of the conflicts. European wars of the eighteenth century, be they for dynastic struggle or colonial expansion, were about the seizing of scarce resources, be it a throne, land, or a market. A war was therefore worth fighting only to the extent that the seizure of the scarce item was a good return on investment. This is why wars usually concluded in a round of jockeying for colonies during treaty negotiations, and why, for example, the French would value a sugar island more than they valued Quebec.

But the US Civil War was a much different thing. While control of resources, particularly slaves, was an element of the war, it was different in that it was a war of national existence for both sides. For the Confederates, their independence was at stake, while for the Union, the integrity of the national government was called into question. What was the price of the right to exist? Whatever the answer, that was the amount of human and material resources each side was willing to commit. The Confederacy fought on despite the loss of its field armies because those field armies did not represent the sum total of the value it placed on independence, not until Lee’s surrender in April 1865.

While this calculus of war is nationalistic, I wouldn’t go so far as Whitman in calling it “democratic idealism”. Whitman’s turn of phrase suggests that the war was fought by both sides for the sake of democratic governance. This is too broad and somewhat anachronistic. The Confederacy was motivated by a number of causes, including the preservation of slavery and hierarchical social order, as well as corporatist constitutional principle emphasizing state sovereignty instead of popular sovereignty. The Union was motivated by popular sovereignty and abolitionism but also social compact theory and big-city capitalism. “Democratic idealism” sounds too much like a twenty-first century explanation and does not capture the breadth of opinion motivating both sides.

So why would the Confederacy not accept the outcome of the elimination of its armies until 1865? Because up until 1865, national independence was still worth those losses. To the extent that this was the product of an ideology of nationalism, Whitman may have a point with his reference to “grander ideals”. But it wasn’t particularly democratic, and mass mobilization of American society involved a great deal more calculation than idealism would imply.


About Daniel Clinkman

I recently completed my PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh. My academic interest is in the transition from feudalism to liberalism in early modern Britain and its empire. My non-academic interests include public policy, political thought, international politics, social institutions, and travel. I grew up near Boston before attending the American University in Washington, DC. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow me @dclinkman on Twitter.
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One Response to Why were there no decisive battles in the US Civil War?

  1. Cheryl Copeland says:

    While President Lincoln elevated the ideological battlefield to one with the wrongs of slavery, I believe the pragmatic viewpoint, and the one stated by many in the US South is that the South was defeated in the Civil War because of the North’s superior manufacturing capability of military requirements, plus the discovery of competent generals in the North FINALLY by President Lincoln to develop the tactical and strategic competencies to defeat the Confederate forces. While both sides exhibited blunders and mistakes, the Union forces sorely missed in their ranks the resignations of key supremely-capable commanders with the loss of the Southern states. I have been impressed with the presentations [of to my mind objective Southern tour leaders] that each battle’s outcome was determined by the tactical and strategic competence of each general (North or South),

    Cheryl Copeland
    Bogart, Georgia

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