The strategy of Jefferson Davis

June 18, 1861, and Jefferson Davis writes his brother,
Troops are daily arriving from the South and I hope before long to be able to change from the defensive to an offensive attitude. It will be thus only that we can hope to check the progress of the war.
We'll return to that in a moment.

Our comedians, the punchline writers of Civil War history say Davis had no strategy. In a new book, The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War, Donald Stoker repeats one of these jokes out of the mouth of toastmaster T. Harry Williams:
...there is no evidence in all the literature that Davis ever at any one time gave extended consideration to the basic question of what the South would have to do to win the war.
This is 100 proof Williams with hyperbole in the service of polemic: "no evidence," "in all the literature," "ever," "at any one time." A man would have to be drunk to write a line like that - or perhaps be a blogger or a Usenet troll.

It is now 2011 and we need to be done with T. Harry Williams.

Unfortunately, Professor Stoker opens and closes the case for Confederate strategy with that one liner. This clarifies the subtitle, "Strategy and the U.S. Civil War" which must truly be read as "Strategy and the Union's Civil War."

A professor (even at the Navy's War College) might treat his readers as freshmen, but a book on Civil War strategy is designed for advanced readers who deserve better than wisecracks and a slamming of doors on deep subjects.

As much as he borrowed from the Centennial generation of pop historians, even James McPherson could not make a mistake on this scale. McPherson said, to paraphrase, that Davis had a strategy that was Washingtonian. By that he meant Fabian in the manner of Barclay de Tolly, trading space for time. He also called it an attrition strategy focusing on the material cost to the attacker.

As in so many things, McPherson was/is flamboyantly wrong. The credit to him is that he perceived a strategy at work. The only possible credit to Williams is that if you read his statement a certain way it can mean that whether or not he had a strategy, Davis left no record of a complete statement of it. McPherson has constructed a strategy inferentially and erred.

But this is to give more credit to Williams than the objects of his criticism ever received. Williams meant that Davis had no strategy and that is wrong.

The advanced reader does not need me to construct a summary statement of Davis's strategy. We all know that Davis was going to defend the polity as far forward as feasible (the opposite of a Fabian strategy); he was not going to trade space for anything but blood; and he regarded the defensive as a temporary expedient until resolution could be obtained by offensive acts.

In the letter to his brother, Davis laments Virginia's lack of unity compared to the cotton states and muses that with a resolute Virginia, "Perhaps we might now have been contending for the bank of the Susquehanna instead of retiring from the Potomac."

Davis defends far forward. He looks for circumstances allowing "an offensive attitude." His calculations are Clausewitzian: political, political, political.

His forward defense is to stablize polities and local resources while minimizing political damage. His opportunistic offensives are to inflict polictical damage. Read his writings - they harp on teaching the North [political] lessons.

Everywhere the North gathers a force, the South gathers a counterforce. This is no accident. This is not trial and error. This is design. The opportunity to adopt an "offensive attitude" requires a force and the force must be forward.

Until Bull Run, Davis has no yardstick by which to measure political damage to the North. After that and the Trent affair and Ball's Bluff, Davis may have misjudged the strength of political effects. His main source of information would have been the press. The Republican press reaction to this or that failure was often out of proportion to the military significance, presenting the illusion of inflated political bonuses to the peace account.

The Rebel president - or anyone, even Lincoln - could easily be misled by this feedback loop. If the nonsense of Ball's Bluff can trigger a CCW, imprisonment of Stone, a witchhunt against McClellan, a Congressional vetting of the officer corps, imagine what contending for the Susquehanna might produce!

The Maryland Campaign is the first testing of the political basis of Davis's strategy. It comes in mid-war. The invasion of Pennsylvania comes a year later. The basis of Davis's strategy is in both cases invalidated. He is able to psychologically sustain the basis of his strategy only by investing in a hypothetical outcome to the 1864 elections, misled again in the same way Lincoln is misled by Northern newspapers.

The object was to hurt the enemy politically as opportunity arose. The object was to prevent political hurt on the CSA while awaiting those opportunities. This is not a sophisticated strategy but it is strategy.

This would have made the basis of an interesting study. We got a cheap laugh instead.

Take my Williams. Please, take my Williams.