The Military Geography of the Civil War

GEOGRAPHY, the most important of all factors that impinge on war-making, has had a cardinal importance in war-making in North America, where the vast extent of territory and its varied and dramatic character oblige soldiers to conform to its demands more rigorously than in almost any other region of the world. By 1861 there had already been a great deal of European war-making in North America. European wars had acquired American names to denote the parts of the action fought there: Queen Anne’s War for the War of the Spanish Succession, King George’s War for the Austrian Succession, the French and Indian War for the Seven Years’ War, 1754-1763. The Seven Years’ War was by origin American, bleeding back across the Atlantic to provoke campaigns in Europe and as far away as the Indian Ocean, a tribute to the commercial importance colonial America had achieved by the mid-eighteenth century.

Geography had determined how the chief protagonists of colonial war-making, the British and the French, had fought each other on American soil. At first they had struggled to take control of key points on the Atlantic coastline. As they extended control inland, the conflict had shifted to control of lines of communication, mainly rivers. By 1754, when the French and Indian War broke out, France had defined a strategic policy for North America, based on securing possession of what it controlled, largely the Great Lakes and the eastern tributaries of the Mississippi, and of denying Britain any opportunity to penetrate the territory of New France. The policy, called the “policy of posts,” had its origins as early as the 1680s, when Governor D’Iberville had begun to build forts blocking the ways leading from the coastal plains across the Appalachian Mountains into the Ohio country, watered by the great Mississippi tributaries, the Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers. The French were also determined to control the smaller northern rivers, the Mohawk and Richelieu, which led from the New England coast to “the great highway of the continent,” the St. Lawrence. The logic of French policy was simple. Since they lacked population, while the British colonists were numerous, possession of the continent required that the British be confined to the coast east of the Appalachians, held there by the operations of the French colonial militia, a small French regular army, and their Indian allies. For eighty years the policy of posts served very successfully. In the end, however, numbers told. In 1754, when there were only 55,000 French colonists, there were a million British, many of whom were on their own initiative seeking the gaps in the French defences to reach into the interior. The Cumberland Gap, the easiest crossing place through the Appalachians, had been discovered in 1750 and exploited by adventurers to take trade goods to the Indians on the other side, in return for furs, America’s chief product of wealth. In 1759 the British broke into the St. Lawrence Valley and destroyed the bases of French power at Montreal and Quebec. Once the St. Lawrence was theirs, the British quickly secured control of the Great Lakes and got onto the Mississippi. That spelt the end of New France, since its “policy of posts” depended on keeping control of two cordons, the Appalachian chain and the line of the Mississippi, in order to deny to the British entry into the vast area in between, the Ohio country, the “Old Northwest,” and the huge tracts which would become the central United States. The French policy was unsuccessful. Their tiny settler population, reinforced with the assistance of Indian allies, was overwhelmed by the sheer size of their empire, most of which was not settled at all. The French had done much to define the outline of what would become the United States. They had traversed the Mississippi along its whole length, from its confluence with the Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico; they had founded the cities of New Orleans and St. Louis; they had penetrated as far west as the Black Hills of Dakota. They had not, however, reached the Pacific or discovered the Rockies.

The British, in the brief period when they ruled North America unchallenged, added little to the French achievement. Their American empire remained a coastal one. They even perpetuated the French attempt to keep the settlers east of the Appalachians, though as a sop to the Indians of the Ohio country rather than as strategic policy. The war they fought to suppress their colonists’ rebellion was fought in a narrowly confined area, down the Atlantic coast and along the border with Canada. Like the French they were prevented from attacking the thirteen colonies from the landward side by shortage of numbers. Unlike the French they could compensate for their inability to manoeuvre in the interior by their control of the sea, though they profited little by it. Their decisions to carry the war into the South in the latter years of the War of the Revolution did not hamper the colonists’ war effort as it might have been expected to do. Throughout the war George Washington showed himself the superior of the British by the skill he displayed at using waterways to cover his lines of march and the coastal forests as hiding places. However, both the human and physical geography of northeastern America told against the British. There were no long-distance roads, while the rivers of the Atlantic coast, being short and running west-east, did not lend themselves to use as strategic avenues. The campaigns of 1776-82 anticipated in many respects those of 1861-62 during the Civil War, and for the same reasons: bad or nonexistent roads, misleading maps or none at all, and rivers that ran the wrong way.

Geography defeated the French attempt to conquer America and undermined the British. By the time the Civil War came to America in 1861, the political extension of what was by then the United States seriously compounded the problem. It was greatly to the North’s disadvantage that a geostrategic overview of the territory of the United States scarcely existed. Generals could say, as Winfield Scott did right at the beginning, where the armies ought to go and what places ought to be secured. They could say it, however, without knowing what difficulties lay en route or whether the marches they predicated were even possible. There was the absence of maps, for one thing; for another, there was an absence throughout the United States of the sort of knowledge of the country soldiers in Europe, even in a country as vast as European Russia, could take for granted.

European armies had staff colleges and schools of military geography in which geographic lore was studied and collated. No such body existed in America, North or South. West Point was a school of military engineering in the narrow sense. There was no other or higher school of military science in the country. The South’s military academies, state or private bodies such as VMI and the Citadel, were imitations of West Point and of lower academic status. Had the United States possessed a staff and war college and had it collected the available topographical knowledge, a graduate might have summarised the geostrategic problems facing the United States Army in 1861 something as follows:

The principal problem confronting the Federal government in its effort to restore the union is that of distance. From the northern border of Virginia to New Orleans is a thousand miles. From the mouth of Chesapeake Bay to the Mississippi at Memphis is nearly nine hundred miles. From Louisville, Kentucky, to Mobile, Alabama, is more than five hundred miles. The territory of the eleven seceding states thus forms a rough quadrilateral of nearly a million square miles’ extent. No through roads penetrate this enormous area; within much of it, roads are of local significance only and do not connect with others in neighbouring states or even counties and often peter out without apparent reason. Railroads provide some long-distance communication, over a total distance of 8,783 miles, as compared to 14,000 miles of track inside Union territory. Southern railroads, however, are of flimsy construction, most having been hastily engineered as cheaply as possible. They also fail to conform to a standard gauge. Some lines are the normal 4’8½” but some were 5’ and others 5’6;” where they met, transhipment has to take place. As a result, there are only two through routes in the South, one running from Richmond via Chattanooga to Corinth, Mississippi; the second, still under construction, from Montgomery, Alabama, to Petersburg, Virginia, via Atlanta, Augusta, and Wilmington. The two systems scarcely interconnect, the only links between them being from Chattanooga to Atlanta and, less usefully, the Corinth link with Mobile.

The separateness of the Southern rail systems is dictated by the large landforms, particularly the Appalachian chain, which diagonally divides the Upper from the Lower South; the Chattanooga-Atlanta rail link makes use of the Chattanooga gap as a way through the mountains. Although the Appalachians complicate the South’s inland communications, they also offer a valuable defensive barrier against attack from Union territory in the Midwest, shielding northern Virginia and the Carolinas from invasion, though also providing Northern armies, should they adopt an offensive strategy, a covered approach corridor into the Union’s mid-Atlantic states in the Shenandoah Valley.

The Appalachians are not the only major geographical feature to lend protection to the rebellion. Equally important are southern and borderland rivers. The Ohio and its big tributaries, the Cumberland and the Tennessee, form a line of moats protecting the central Upper South, while the Mississippi, with which they connect, denies the Union any hope of penetration, even were lines of communication to become available from the West.

On the other hand, the great topographical features offer advantages to the Union, as well as conferring disadvantages. The Mississippi and the Appalachians impose critical internal divisions, the Mississippi in particular. Can it be seized, Texas and Arkansas are thereby cut off from the rest of the Confederacy. The eastern Mississippi basin then becomes a theatre of war on its own, which it should be a Union object to dominate. Entry into the basin will be facilitated by using the river itself as an axis of advance and its tributaries, the Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland, as approach routes.

The eastern boundary of the Mississippi basin is the Appalachian chain. It cannot be captured and secured as the great river can be. Nevertheless, it too defines a theatre of war, that of Georgia and the Carolinas, bounded to the east by the Atlantic. Control of Georgia and the Carolinas is an essential war aim, because of the wealth of the region and size of its population, particularly its male population. The region, however, is difficult of access, its seacoast being low-lying and waterlogged, its mountain boundary forming a natural rampart, and its rivers running the wrong way to provide avenues of advance. The region can only be entered from the north, through Virginia, or the south, via Alabama, or by a flank march round the bottom of the Appalachians. All these routes present physical as well as military difficulties.

Any Northern war plan is also complicated by the absence of any obvious objective for a major offensive operation. Unlike the Union, which contains a number of large cities situated within easy striking distance of its borders—Baltimore, Philadelphia, even New York—the South lacks large cities and those that it has almost all lie deep within its territory—Charleston, New Orleans, Atlanta—and are difficult to approach. Only Richmond lies within easy reach and it is defended by complex water barriers. Its status as the Confederacy’s capital makes it, moreover, an obvious target and will encourage the Confederate government to defend it with strong man-made defences, which will probably necessitate prolonged siege operations if a way in is to be forced. The rural character of the Southern interior and the absence of large centres of population imposes on the Union the need to make long cross-country marches with the object of bringing the enemy to battle where he can be found. If the enemy refuses battle and chooses to fight a campaign of evasion and delay, the war will be very prolonged. Even if the enemy does fight, his enormous extent of territory offers him the opportunity to disengage at will and retreat into his territory’s empty spaces, which, while sparsely built up, are agriculturally productive enough to provide ample supplies to passing Confederate armies.

The Union therefore faces the prospect of fighting a long-distance, hard-marching war, characterised by the difficulty either of bringing the enemy to battle or, if he does fight, of having to fight fiercely and perhaps frequently on ground of the enemy’s choosing. The only regions where the Union enjoys an uncontested advantage are coastal, where its naval superiority will allow it to land forces at advantageous points, threaten Southern cities, and shorten marching distances. The retention of some of the great federal sea fortresses further favours such amphibious strategy. An important and obvious line of coastwise advance is down Chesapeake Bay, from which there are riverine approaches towards Richmond, and a secure base at Fortress Monroe.

Had such a geostrategic appreciation been written at the outset of the war, events would have borne out its accuracy. Perhaps the most prescient of the observations would have been that touching on the ferocity and frequency of battle. During almost exactly four years of conflict, 237 named battles were fought, together with many minor actions and skirmishes, the largest characterised by their bitter intensity and high casualties on both sides. The American Civil War was to prove one of the most ferocious wars ever fought, a factor of its geography, since the enemy’s personnel, in the absence of obvious geographic objectives, presented itself as the only target at which to strike.

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