The Confederacy Could Have Won — Unconventionally: A Thought Experiment for Special Warriors

The Confederacy Could Have Won — Unconventionally: A Thought Experiment for Special Warriors – civil war in the United States

Dr. John Arquilla

The American Civil War was the world’s first conflict to be largely shaped by the Industrial Revolution. Weapons, especially rifles, were mass-produced; millions of soldiers were mobilized and moved to the battlefield by rail; and command and control over a theater of war the size of Western Europe was maintained by telegraph.

Yet this was also a conflict in which preindustrial concepts of strategy remained dominant, particularly those of Baron Jomini. Union and Confederate generals alike strove to uphold Jomini’s precepts about offense dominance, massing and interior lines. [1] New technologies were thus married to old concepts of operations, with disquieting results: Field maneuvers of Napoleonic boldness were regularly defeated by rail mobility, and massed charges were repulsed by increasingly accurate, far-ranging rifle fire. The overall outcome of the war was driven by attrition rather than by military genius, and the greater resources of the North won out. [2]

Was the outcome inevitable? If not, how could the South have won? The most likely possibility of Southern victory would have come from intervention by Britain (and possibly other European powers), much like the alliance with France that had led to the success of the American Revolution. Despite some dicey moments, however, Britain withheld its support, partly because British leaders had for so long inveighed against slavery that they found it difficult to rally their public in support of a “confederacy of slavers.” Also, Russia, which was engaged in a wide-ranging “cold war” with Britain (what Kipling called “The Great Game”), worried that the breakup of the United States would leave no countering power on Britain’s western flank. Russia made it clear that its cold war with Britain might intensify if Britain were to help the South. [3]

The only other realistic possibility [4] of Southern victory would have come from what James McPherson refers to as the “power of contingency.” McPherson argues that the outcome of the war, Britain’s nonintervention, and even Lincoln’s re-election in 1864 were all contingent upon the interaction of other events.

McPherson points out that the slow progress of the Union forces during the summer of 1864 posed a threat to the North’s victory: “If the election had been held in August 1864 instead of November, Lincoln would have lost. He would have gone down in history as an also-ran, a loser unequal to the challenge of the greatest crisis in the American experience.” [5] McPherson’s theory implies that if the South had slowed the North’s progress for three months or more, the South could have won.

A delay of three months could have been achieved only if the military leadership of the South had cultivated an alternative concept of operations, composed of two parts. First, instead of being wedded to the ever more costly tactical offensive in conventional battles, the Confederates should have taken the defensive, as the North would surely have attacked them. Second, the South had one incomparable advantage over the North: its irregular raiding forces, who were led by some of the finest soldiers of the war, from John S. Mosby in the east to Nathan Bedford Forrest in the west. Although those forces performed admirably during the war, they could have been used more skillfully and more systematically to disrupt Northern offensives and to slow the Union’s overall progress (almost certainly by three months).

This two-part concept of operations has clear antecedents in earlier American (and even British) military experience. During the Revolution, Nathaniel Greene cleverly chose a well-integrated mix of conventional and irregular forces for his campaign in the South — a decisive campaign that ended with Cornwallis falling back on Yorktown, where he and his remaining forces were bottled up and captured. [6] Thirty years later, the Duke of Wellington pursued a similar approach while fighting a vastly superior French force in Iberia. He took the tactical defensive in his pitched battles and relied on Spanish guerrilla forces and commando-style Royal Navy forces to conduct offensive operations. The result was a masterpiece of blended war-fighting by regular forces and “special” (for their time and place) forces. [7]

Why didn’t the South see the possibilities in this kind of special warfare? Who stood in the way of the South’s cultivating such an approach?

First of all, the general mindset of Southern military leadership was overwhelmingly steeped in conventional offensive notions. Aside from forming a central part of the appeal of the Napoleonic/Jominian influences, the conventional offensive also exerted a powerful cultural pull on the Confederate commanders who saw it as a more honorable form of warfare. [8]

As to why unconventionally offensive strategies and tactics were not well-cultivated, one need look no further than to Robert E. Lee, who said of irregular ways of conducting war: “I regard the whole system as an unmixed evil.” [9]

These are the reasons, then, why the South didn’t generally pursue a “special approach” in fighting the war. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the South did conduct a considerable amount of special warfare, from extensive guerrilla operations to horse-mobile deep strikes behind Union lines. Those unconventional operations highlight the fact that the new transportation and communications technologies were vulnerable to disruption. [10] And even though the South carried out guerrilla operations and strikes in both the eastern and the western theaters, it was in the western theater (which was more expansive geographically) that special warfare had a greater influence and seriously impeded the North’s progress.

At times, Forrest and John Hunt Morgan caused such chaos that the Union forces were compelled to retreat, as Don Carlos Buell did in his campaign against Chattanooga. The Confederate raiders also became powerful “force divisors” because of their ability to strike almost anywhere and at any time. For example, at the outset of the crucial Atlanta campaign, General William T. Sherman’s forces numbered approximately 180,000, but he held back 80,000 of them to guard his rear areas against the Confederate raiders. [11] Sherman’s decision dramatically reduced his numerical superiority over Joseph E. Johnston’s force of some 60,000, and it accounted for Sherman’s slow progress during the campaign.

At least one major strategic thinker, B.H. Liddell-Hart, recognized the potential in skillfully blended conventional and special operations. Liddell-Hart, the British proponent of the “indirect approach” to war (which was intended to minimize the necessity of pitched battles), saw unique possibilities in the Confederate raiders, whose operations he studied closely. [12] Liddell-Hart was one of the few Europeans who drew deep lessons from the Civil War. [13] His research, however, only begins to imply what might have happened had the Confederates more fully integrated special operations into their conventional maneuvers.

The question remaining, then, is: “What would have happened had the South taken a conventional tactical defensive whenever possible, and an unconventional strategic offensive using the guerrilla and raiding forces at its disposal?” To answer this question, one must develop a sense of the losses that each side incurred and a sense of the offense-defense balance that existed during the war. While there will always be some uncertainty about the exact losses, there is a consensus that the North suffered 360,000 battle deaths and that the South suffered 260,000. There is also wide agreement on the number of various casualties (killed, wounded, missing, prisoners) that each side suffered during specific battles. [14]

The offense-defense balance is somewhat more difficult to calculate. However, after having performed a detailed analysis of the offense-defense statistics, Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones found that the defense won 17 of the 26 major battles of the war (about two-thirds). [15] The South took the tactical offensive just under half the time, with an even distribution of its attacks from the beginning of the war until the end. Hattaway and Jones also found that the Union’s combat effectiveness on the attack was only half that of the Confederacy’s. [16]

Considering that the North’s battle deaths were nearly a third higher than the South’s, it is clear that if the South had not made costly attacks (such as those at Shiloh, Gettysburg and Chickamauga or, perhaps worse, at Atlanta and Franklin, where Hood’s army was totally squandered), the North would have suffered even more severely.

A Southern tactical defensive at the conventional level, coupled with “rebel raiding” on the strategic offensive, would have greatly slowed the North’s progress. It would have also contributed to the rising political opposition to the war and to the ever-growing losses suffered by the Union. Perhaps the Confederacy’s improved performance would have also increased the possibility of European intervention. While this scenario is hypothetical, it is well-grounded in two key concepts: (1) Defensive operations were dominant throughout the war. (2) The South had generous resources with which to engage in special warfare against an enemy whose rail transport system and communications system were highly vulnerable to disruption. Simply put, the South could have won.

Why should special operators be interested in such historical matters? Basically, there are four central insights that the special-operations community should draw from a “thought experiment” such as this one that reanalyzes the Civil War.

First, the value in studying military history is reaffirmed. For just as this reconsideration of the Civil War has unearthed the powerful potential of special warfare during the 19th century one will find that there has been a “special” aspect in most other conflicts throughout history (from the Peloponnesian War to the Second Chechen War).

A study of special warfare throughout history will illuminate the strategic importance of irregular operations, and it should also sound a cautionary note that these kinds of operations can be neglected only at the risk of failure and ruin.

Second, the current mindset of the American military which seems to have a fixation for conventional operations and the offensive, is based on the military’s response to industrialization some 150 years ago. That mindset governed the military’s strategy not only during the Civil War but also throughout our subsequent major wars. [17]

That fixation is unfortunate, because American military culture has deep roots in irregular warfare. From the Rangers who helped guide conventional forces during the invasion of Canada in the French and Indian War; to the raiders of Francis Marion, Andrew Pickens and Thomas Sumter who enabled General Nathaniel Greene to weaken Cornwallis and to set the stage for victory at Yorktown, early American history is replete with special warfare. [18] But since the Civil War, those who have had ideas about unconventional approaches to war have had to struggle to be heard in the high councils of the American military.

In Europe, for example, the “stay behind” idea that led to the creation of Army Special Forces 50 years ago soon gave way, largely, to visions of a climactic armored clash in the Fulda Gap. In Vietnam, the unconventional approach was tried briefly, and then supplanted with the “big unit” concept of operations. In the Gulf; Special Forces was relegated largely to coalition support. And in Kosovo, an unconventional approach was readied but then rejected (in favor of a conventional air war), a decision that led to unfortunate consequences. Innocent Kosovars, for whose welfare we were ostensibly fighting, were subjected to the worst kind of unfettered Serb barbarism.[19]

The examples above show a trend that began during the Civil War, and that trend will continue unless we acknowledge the unwisdom of allowing our strategic culture to undervalue the much-needed unconventional complement to our conventional operations. We must hope that our appreciation for the special effect of irregular operations will deepen as we move into an era in which the number of irregular conflicts is likely to increase.

Third, the Civil War was waged early in the industrial age, when a revolution in military affairs, or RMA, was under way. At that time, the range of fire, the accuracy of fire and the rate of fire were vastly increasing. In addition, advances in manufacturing, in communications and in transportation were making it possible to create, supply, move and control large field forces. Yet the Confederates and the Federals failed to develop new concepts of operations. Senior military leaders on both sides relied on the ever-less-relevant Napoleonic paradigm, assuming that all changes would reinforce the timeless “principle” of the offensive.

Simply put, military leaders misjudged the effects of the RMA on the offensedefense balance. The results of early battles did little to stimulate innovative thinking about the value of unconventional warfare. As a matter of fact, military leaders clung ever more dearly to the old paradigm. They were not alone in their reluctance to change. Fifty years later, the massed frontal assaults of World War I reflected the failure of European armies to learn lessons from the American Civil War.

The fourth lesson one can draw from the Civil War is that it is difficult to predict the effects of RMAs at the outset. For this reason, militaries have had a tendency to incorporate new technologies into earlier concepts of operations. For the Confederacy, that tendency proved fatal. Even though the battle results clearly demonstrated the weakness of the old paradigm and the strength of the irregular-warfare approach, the South remained yoked to a doctrine that would eventually bleed it white.

Today, technological advances are once again improving both the accuracy of fire and the range of fire, and they are enabling the full networking of command and control in hitherto undreamed of ways. Unfortunately, these technological leaps are reinforcing the existing paradigm of modern maneuver warfare idealized by the aging AirLand Battle doctrine. The military’s dedication to the existing concept of operations persists despite the contradictory information revealed by recent battles. For example, irregular Hezbollah forces drove the Israelis from southern Lebanon; and twice, swarming bands of Chechen fighters have handled the Russian army roughly. Clearly, an unconventional strain of military thought is on the rise — one that the U.S. military, overall, is failing to perceive. [20]

If we can reflect on earlier periods of great change and see the possibilities of the alternative approaches that existed then, perhaps we can bring our thoughts back to the present, refreshed and primed with new insights that will help us visualize innovative ways of war that might emerge m a new era.

During the Civil War, the Confederates could have won if they had taken the conventional defensive and an unconventional offensive. Pursuing this tack would have allowed the Confederates to take advantage of an RMA that not only advanced the rate and the accuracy of fire, but also made military forces vulnerable to disruption of their transportation and information infrastructures. There would have been little the North could have done in response to such an approach. In order to restore the Union, the North had to take the offensive against the Confederacy. Operating in Southern territory, where the local populace opposed “Yankees” implacably, the North had little chance of successfully emulating the South’s unconventional tactics.

This in-depth reconsideration both of the Civil War and of the impact of industrialization may prove to be of particular analytic value: Our current “informatizing” RMA is providing similar beneficial effects for fire, but it may also may suffer disruption both in the logistics realm and in the command-and-control realm. If so, the RMA may provide a world of opportunity for the irregularization of warfare — an opportunity we ignore at our increasing peril.

Dr. John Arquilla earned his degrees in international relations from Rosary College (BA, 1975) and from Stanford University (MA, 1989; Ph.D., 1991). He is an associate professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif His teaching includes courses in the history of special operations, international political theory, the revolution in military affairs, and information-age conflict. He has written Lessons from the War with Saddam Hussein (RAND, 1991), Dubious Battles (Crane Russak, 1992), and From Troy to Entebbe (University Press of America, 1996), as well as many articles, book chapters, and monographs on a wide range of topics in security affairs. He is best known for his collaborative RAND studies with David Ronfeldt, notably Cyberwar is Coming! (1993) and The Advent of Netwar (1996). Arquilla and Ronfeldt’s most recent book, In Athena’s Camp (1997), explores the myriad political, social, and military dimensions of the future of conflict. Their next book, Networks and Netwars , is due to be published in 2001.


(1.) There is some debate about Jomini’s influence. T. H. Williams, “The Military Leadership of North and South,” in David Donald, ed., Why the North Won the Civil War (New York: Macmillan, 1962), argues that his ideas loomed large. Archer Jones, “Military Means, Political Ends,” in Gabor Boritt, ed., Why the Confederacy Lost (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), especially p. 50, sees his role more as an expositor of Napoleonic thought — with which generals on both sides were indeed enthralled. The West Point translation of Jomini’s Art of War (New York: Lippincott, 1862) sums up the view at the time in its translators’ preface (p. 7): “Jomini is admitted by all competent judges to be one of the ablest military critics and historians of this or any other day.”

(2.) There is also a view suggesting that the South lost from “lack of will.” See R. Beringer, H. Hattaway, A. Jones and W Still, Why the South Lost the Civil War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986), especially p. 64. Of course, one must not dismiss Edwin Pollard’s 1866 diatribe against Confederate political and managerial incompetence, The Lost Cause, a point of view that still has adherents. James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (London: Oxford University Press, 1988), 854-59, takes both of these theories to task, noting that loss of will did not occur until after four years and many decisive defeats in the field; and that Confederate bureaucratic mismanagement was more than matched by Northern displays of incompetence.

(3.) Norman Graebner, “Northern Diplomacy and European Neutrality,” in Donald, ed., Why the North Won the Civil War, makes both of these points convincingly.

(4.) This stricture about realism compels us to rule out the idea that time-traveling South African Broders armed with AK-47s might have come to the South’s assistance, as Harry Turtledove speculated in his epic Guns of the South.

(5.) James McPherson, “American Victory, American Defeat,” p. 39, in Boritt, ed., Why the Confederacy Lost.

(6.) On this campaign, see Russell Weigley, The Revolutionary Transformation of War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970).

(7.) Wellington’s approach to the Peninsular war is chronicled in detail by Elizabeth Longford, Wellington: Years of the Sword (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).

(8.) This theme is nicely developed in Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson, Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage (Montgomery: University of Alabama Press, 1982). Paddy Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) focuses more on the Confederate idee fixe with Napoleonic ways. J. I. Harsh points out why Clausewitz’s notion of the superiority of the defensive was, at this point, still unfamiliar, in his “Battlesword and Rapier: Clausewitz, Jomini, and the American Civil War,” Military Affairs, Vol. 38, 133-38 (December 1974).

(9.) Cited in Bruce Catton, The Civil War (New York: American Heritage, 1961), 177.

(10.) On guerrilla operations, see Thomas Goodrich, Black Flag: Guerrilla Warfare on the Western Border, 1861-65 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995). J.D. Brewer, The Raiders of 1862 (London: Praeger, 1997) provides detailed case studies of three of the most spectacular raids of the war in the West, all of which had very significant operational effects.

(11.) Sherman became obsessed with catching “that devil Forrest,” because of all the damage he was inflicting. See John Allan Wyeth, That Devil Forrest (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991). For coverage of both coup de main raids and guerrilla operations in the eastern theater, see J.D. West, Mosby’s Rangers (New York: Touchstone Books, 1991).

(12.) B.H. Liddell-Hart, “Analysis of Cavalry Operations in the American Civil War, with Special Reference to Raids on Communications” (written in May 1935). This is one of Liddell-Hart’s lesser-regarded essays, yet in many ways it easily serves as a blueprint for the sort of Southern concept of operations that I am suggesting could have won the war. See also his Strategy: The Indirect Approach (London: Macmillan, 1954) for a fuller exposition of his ideas. His original essay appears as an appendix in Jay Luvaas, The Military Legacy of the Civil War: The European Inheritance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), 237-44.

(13.) This is a central argument of Luvaas, The Military Legacy of the Civil War.

(14.) McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 854. The most comprehensive dataset of battles and casualties is still (Colonel T.L. Livermore’s Numbers & Losses in the Civil War in America: 1861-65 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1901).

(15.) H. Hattaway and A. Jones, How the North Won (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), 723-24.

(16.) Ibid., 728-30. The authors arrive at this figure by extensive study of numbers and losses in all battles, as well as of the respective ratios of forces confronting each other in every battle.

(17.) Russell Weigley, “American Strategy from Its Beginnings Through the First World War,” in Peter Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy (Princeton: (Princeton University Press, 1986), 410, notes that an internal tension existed as early as the debate between George Washington and Charles Lee about how to fight the British. He observes that Washington “accepted European tutelage in virtually every aspect,” while Lee “believed that a war fought to attain revolutionary purposes ought to be waged in a revolutionary manner.”

(18.) the role of special warfare during the French and Indian War, Francis Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe (Boston: Little, Brown, 1897), gives full credit to the Rangers’ activities as raiders and providers of what we now call “ground truth.” On Greene’s willingness to use special warfare in an integrated way, see especially Martin Treacy, Prelude to Yorktown: The Southern Campaign of Nathaniel Greene, 1780-81 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968).

(19.) the big-unit war in Vietnam, see Andrew Krepinevich, The US. Army in Vietnam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986). See J. Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, “Need for Networked High-Tech Cyberwar,” Los Angeles Times, June 20, 1999, M1-M6, for a description of how special-operations forces were readied for use — and could have won the Kosovo War decisively and quickly.

(20.) On the difficulty of understanding the true implications of technological change, see Keir A. Lieber, “Grasping the Technological Peace: The Offense-Defense Balance and International Security,” International Security, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Summer 2000), 71-104. On the special-warfare paradigm that may well be emerging, see J. Arquilla and T. Karasik, “Chechnya: A Glimpse of Future Conflict?” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Fall 1999), 207-29.

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