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The Strategic Choices of the North and South

Excerpt from Robert E. Lee’s Civil War, by Bevin Alexander, pages 7-9

Confederate President Davis put his faith in the importance of "King Cotton" to the immense textile industries of Britain and the continent. He believed the major European powers would intervene, force the North to accept Southern independence, and thereby save their economies. The South merely had to hold out until cotton stocks ran out at European mills. However, Europe learned quickly to do without Southern cotton, and Davis had to face the fact that he had staked the South's fortunes on this fiber and had lost.

To defeat the South, General [Winfield] Scott proposed the "Anaconda Plan": capture New Orleans and other Southern ports, seize the Mississippi River and cut off the Confederate states west of the river, and threaten Richmond, thereby containing Confederate forces east of the Allegheny Mountains. In this way, Scott believed, the South would be denied foreign arms, and its resistance would ultimately be squeezed to death, just as an anaconda snake squeezes its victims lifeless.

This was a good strategy, and Lincoln belatedly adopted it. However, it lacked a decisive offensive element to stamp out resistance in the event the Confederacy refused to quit. The answer was to seize Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia, through which ran the main lateral railways of the Confederacy.

Davis should have recognized that the strategic frontier of the Confederacy ran from the Potomac River at Washington, along the Alleghenies to Chattanooga, thence along the Tennessee River, crossing the Mississippi around Memphis, then to Little Rock on the Arkansas River. Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee were only advanced posts that could not be defended permanently.

The solution was to base the South's main force on Chattanooga, with another strong army in Virginia. A vigorous defensive war in Tennessee would have protected the supplies of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, kept open the railroads linking the entire strategical region with the Atlantic and Gulf ports, preserved crossings into Arkansas and Louisiana, and presented a constant threat to Kentucky and the main Union supply line leading back to Louisville. On the other hand, if Chattanooga-Atlanta were lost, the Confederacy in effect would be reduced to the Carolinas and Virginia.

Lincoln only insisted on the Chattanooga plan late in the war. Until then, both sides pursued vague, confused, and indecisive strategies west of the Appalachian Mountain chain. Davis saw the importance of Chattanooga too late, and he never insisted on positioning most Confederate strength to protect it.

Both sides instead riveted their attention and most of their strength on the Virginia theater and guarding their political capitals, Washington and Richmond. Consequently, the Confederate victory at Manassas on July 21, 1861, froze Union activity until Lincoln could find some way to end the impasse, and get Federal troops marching on Richmond again.

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