Electoral Realities and Military Strategy in the Civil War and Iraq

Clausewitz famously wrote “war is a continuation of politics by other means”. Clausewitz meant this as a description of war, but it should also remind politicians and war-planners alike that there are electoral realities that must be taken into account by a democracy at war.

The Civil War is a clear example of the interplay between electoral reality and military strategy, and it should influence our thinking as we come to an election during the war in Iraq.

The willingness of a democracy’s voters to support a war must influence strategy, and Lincoln understood this clearly. The North was not limited by its material resources in perpetuating a war against the South, but its time horizon was shortened by the realities of its political culture. The election of 1864, and the imminent possibility that Gen. George McClellan, the Democratic candidate, would defeat Lincoln unless the Union won a dramatic victory, drove Lincoln to put Grant in command with the order to find Lee’s army and destroy it.

The Confederacy faced an inverse reality. Since the South needed only to outlast the North in order to win, Davis was under no pressure to find generals who would win decisive battles. He was satisfied with commanders who simply endured to fight another day (Lee, Johnston), whereas Lincoln was forced to replace generals until he found one who could win the victory that would cement public opinion behind the war. Moreover, there was no real peace movement in the South, and Davis was in no danger of being ousted by a peace party. However, the grim material reality was the ticking clock on the dwindling chances for Southern independence. For both South and North, victory hinged upon a favorable outcome in the 1864 election.

This reality, especially Lincoln’s need for a decisive victory, birthed the 1864 Overland Campaign in Virginia. Grant’s aim was to lure the ever-aggressive Lee out into the open field and destroy his Army of Northern Virginia. Grant understood that Lincoln must win the upcoming election if the North was to have the leadership necessary to remain in the controversial fight. In order to create the atmosphere Lincoln needed, Grant had to foster the public belief that the North could win. There was one sure way to do that- destroy Lee’s army. This was Grant’s goal in the Overland Campaign, and it was behind every decision Grant made. To destroy the Army of Northern Virginia, Grant needed to lure Lee into a decisive open-field battle. Grant knew that Lee was a master at multiplying the effectiveness of his small forces, and he aimed to keep Lee’s army as small as possible by pinning down Confederate reinforcements in theaters on Lee’s flanks. The Peripheral Strategy involved five subsidiary campaigns designed to threaten sufficiently Lee’s logistics and national capital to force him to allocate desperately needed regiments to deal with these threats. Because of the logistical crisis looming over Lee as Southern resources dwindled, he could reasonably be expected to protect vigorously his railroads and supply depots.
If Grant knew that time was on his side, why did he press for a decisive battle instead of a slow war of attrition? The answer lies in the Army of the Potomac’s morale problem. Even after the setbacks of 1863, the invaluable morale advantage lay with Lee’s men. They expected to win, and responded to tactical setbacks with renewed vigor. The Army of the Potomac had developed a loser’s psychology, and even Union generals let Lee’s aura of invincibility force them into blunders. Grant himself grew exasperated at his staff’s idolization of Lee, telling a brigadier during the Wilderness, “I am heartily tired of hearing what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land on our rear and on both flanks at the same time.” If Grant’s army had not been moving aggressively and winning, the soldiers and their public would have assumed Lee had beaten them again. Such a strategy would likely have resulted in Lincoln ousting Grant just in time to lose the November election to Gen. McClellan.

This was just the outcome on which Lee’s strategy depended. Faced with the “fundamental strategic problem” of dwindling resources, Lee could not overrun the North. If it could outlast the North, or more specifically, the will of its citizens, the South would have its independence. Lee and Davis understood that as long as Lincoln was in office, outlasting the North was extremely unlikely. Lee identified in his dispatches “the importance of this campaign to the administration of Mr. Lincoln.” The best way to doom Lincoln’s reelection chances, reasoned Lee, was to bog down Grant in a campaign in which Lee, the defender, could inflict the preponderance of casualties on Grant’s army. Whenever Grant advanced in Virginia, Lee was there to block him and fight on the Confederacy’s terms. In Lee’s eyes, the growing casualty list and lack of faith in Grant’s ability to find a path to victory would inflame Northern anti-war sentiment sufficiently to cost Lincoln his office.

While both commanders had reasonable strategies, Lee was consistently better at advancing his own while thwarting his adversary’s. Grant’s plan was hobbled by his generals’ inability to perform their fundamental charge- to bring the appropriate number of troops into battle under competent command at key moments. Gen. A.T.A. Torbert’s attack on Lee’s right flank at Cold Harbor Junction failed when he managed to send only three brigades into the fight against a much larger Confederate force, who consistently reinforced critical points despite being outnumbered as an army. Gen. Franz Sigel, a Lincoln political appointee and a commander of a Peripheral force, had his abysmal performance at New Market summarized by William C. Davis:
“Having begun his march with an army that outnumbered all of Breckenridge’s forces almost two to one, he had no mismanaged and maneuvered himself into a position where he was ordering an attack that outnumbered him by more than three to two. The verdict is clear: Franz Sigel was not just an incompetent; he was a fool. ”

Lee’s strategy was served by the conduct of his corps and division commanders. Because of their aggressiveness, instinctive counterattacks, and consistent ability to bring enough troops to the key location in the battle at the crucial moment, they were able to thwart Grant’s maneuvers and force him into a war of attrition. Like a threatened rattlesnake, Lee always sought the opportunity to strike a lethal blow from the defensive. The Confederate generals in Virginia internalized Lee’s operational style, and instinctively counterattacked whenever Union troops managed to penetrate their lines. When Gen. John B. Gordon heard from frantic soldiers that the Union had broken through at the Mule Shoe on May 12, without orders Gordon did “what commanders in Lee’s army seemed to do automatically. He counterattacked”. Unlike Grant’s army, Lee’s generals managed to move the necessary forces to critical locations through their internal lines.
Lee gambled Confederate independence on his strategy. When Lincoln emerged victorious in the 1864 election, Lee’s war of attrition became the Confederacy’s cancer. As resources and manpower hemorrhaged away from the Army of Northern Virginia, it became only a matter of time until Lee would present his sword, and his army, to Grant.

There is a harsh electoral reality with which democracies at war must contend. When the public stops supporting the war, chances of victory are diminished significantly, especially when an election looms. In addition, the material reality influences both the political situation and the strategy chosen. In the Civil War, the material crisis in the South limited its longevity, and made the Union election of 1864 its last chance for independence. The danger presented by the political reality in the North made the 1864 election just as important to Union planners, and that situation created the Overland Campaign. Material concerns drove policy, which drove strategy. Material concerns also influenced strategy directly. Understanding this interaction is crucial to understanding the Overland Campaign, and that understanding gives us a new lens with which to frame the election of 2008 and the War in Iraq.

The situation of the Union at the outset of the Overland Campaign contains lessons for the United States today as it continues its unpopular war in Iraq. Electoral realities and public opinion have a direct influence over whether the United States will succeed in Iraq despite its overwhelming material advantage. Depending on their image of ideal civil-military relations, some will take solace and others umbrage at the power the voting public wields over the success of a democracy at war.

In one hundred years, our historians may look back and opine that the U.S. lost the war on Iraq, or even the War on Terror, when the voting public decided that it no longer had the will to continue. Of course, it could be that refocusing on Afghanistan will turn out to be a strategy celebrated by scholars of the war. Either way, the success of the war depends largely on the will of the American voter.

6 Responses to Electoral Realities and Military Strategy in the Civil War and Iraq

  1. David says:


    I have no idea what your point is supposed to be. You assume far too much in making your analogy, completely dissipating your effort.

    My take, which may or may not have any bearing on what you are really trying to say, is that you’ve confused the War in Iraq with the War against Islamic extremism. While both sides view it that way, US initiating this conflict was an immense blunder: the war is unwinnable – success can only come if Iraqis choose to take the opportunity to develop civic culture and Western-style democracy. Who really thinks they want that opportunity or will take it? Since 2002 I’ve told friends it would be a 50 year undertaking, if we were lucky. South Korea is the right analogy, not Germany. Given that, the real issue is when/how to cut/minimize our losses there. The Surge’s surprising, temporary success lets us declare victory and leave – let’s get that done. Let’s also invest in the fight in Afghanistan, and really take the fight into the Pakistan hinterlands and try to win the fight we should’ve undertaken 6 years ago. I have little doubt fighting the Islamofacists retains very broad support in the US electorate, so long as they have any faith in the President.

    Put differently – the real lesson of Vietnam is not to lie to the electorate about what you are doing and how hard it will be. Bush failed as badly as possible. Obama comes closest to saying the right things (about Afghanistan and Iraq) and I hope he means them. I also think he’s bright enough to react better as we struggle with the enemy.


  2. Lorenz Gude says:

    As I recall Lincoln petitioned the Deity for a general who would fight. He got Grant. It is not yet known if Bush made a similar plea, but the Democrats and others who were certain the conflict in Iraq was unwinable clearly did not get the general they wished for. They got the general God sent. It is clear that an incoming Obama administration needs to dismiss Petraeus and his subordinates who have learned how to defeat Islamic extremists before they can achieve any more success. (Sarcasm alert)

    I don’t think Iraq was ever going to adopt a Western style democracy, but I think they are a much more modern country than Afghanistan which is showing some capacity to develop an Iraqi Muslim style Democracy. We currently have dominance by traditional Shiites – led by Grand Ayatollah Sistani – who sees a separate role for church and state different from out Western model, but none the less a model that provides a clear role for politics and politicians as opposed to Mullahs dominating politics as Sadr would if he succeeded or the Iranians do. If we keep enough troops there to maintain stability I think there is a chance of Iraq working through the trauma of the Saddam years and building a prosperous decent society on its own terms. A big step up from Saddam. I think that we have succeeded well enough in Iraq in the end that we do not have to just leave. The Iraqis may not love us, but they don’t want us to leave too quickly. That would be a serious mistake that Obama may be determined to carry out. Afghanistan is not just that country but Pakistan too and a very tricky problem that has worsened while we cleaned up the result of our blunders in Iraq. The central question is can Patraeus and the younger guys who succeeded in Iraq like McMaster succeed in the quite different circumstances in Afghanistan and Pakistan. My guess is that Obama would be a blind ideological driven fool to throw away what has been achieved in Iraq. The course forward is to keep Iraq stable and growing and work harder on Afghanistan. Robert Gates has some clear thought about the limitations of military force in Afghanistan in a speech to the Institute of Peace here http://www.realclearworld.com/articles/2008/10/pacify_afghanistan_takes_more.html

  3. pacific_waters says:

    “Either way, the success of the war depends largely on the will of the American voter.” What don’t you understand about this David? The surge will fail? Yeah, Obama was prescient as hell about that. Temporary success? Still waiting for it to fail David? And going into Pakistan would certainly be a stroke of political and military genius.

    “not to lie to the electorate about what you are doing and how hard it will be.” is the first rule in obtaining long term public support. Public support in Vietnam began it’s rapid decline after the slanted reporting about Tet. The lesson there is that public support is fickle at best and is entirely dependent on perception. The South Vietnamese government fell after we cut off funding while the NVA were still being receiving support from russia and china. the lesson there is that support from outside powers is critical in internecine warfare.

  4. David says:


    I’m waiting for the Surge to either succeed or fail – you have a pretty short-sighted view if you think it’s done either yet. It has started well, but it has a very long way to go. There will almost certainly be a counterstroke at some point. And if Maliki’s govt. keeps screwing the Awakening vets, it’ll crash sooner rather than later.

    Also, to flesh out my point on dishonesty, I think the Tet reporting was slanted because it was in response to the crap the army was feeding the press for the previous years. It’s easy to go too far the other way if you’ve bought a line about how close we were to winning. Was there a lot more going on? Of course – it was a shaky intervention in the first place. In this case, if no one is going to be more cautious about the “success” of the Surge this early in the game, there are going to be a lot of bitter, angry people when the Islamists or Iran strike back.

    There, spelled out a few more steps in the logic for you.


  5. Rich Rostrom says:

    I must question your interpretation of Davis’ command selections. To begin with, he was constrained by seniority: Lee and Joe Johnston were two of the five original CSA full generals. Bragg had finally been fired after Chattanooga; A. S. Johnston was dead; Beauregard and Davis hated each other. (Beauregard did get command of the Richmond-Petersburg defenses in 1864.) So Davis chose Johnston by elimination.

    Second: Johnston did what you contend Davis needed him to do – hold out as long as possible, retreating as required. But then Davis replaced him with Hood, specifically because he wanted someone who would seek a decisive victory. Lee also sought “decisive victory”. That is why he attacked at Gettysburg, instead of following Longstreet’s advice to move around the Federal left and force the Yankees to attack.

    I also think I disagree with your chronology regarding Lincoln, Grant, and the need for victory. The Union had been pretty successful in 1863: Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and then Chattanooga at the end of the year. When the 1864 campaigns started, there was general expectation of victory within a few months. It was only after Grant’s campaign stalled out at Petersburg, with associated fiascoes in the Shenandoah and Bermuda Hundred, failures at Wilmington and the Red River, and Sherman’s apparent failure in Georgia, all with more heavy casualties, that the war began to look like a failure. But Lincoln did not then change generals – and he was right: Sherman captured Atlanta, Grant’s deputy Sheridan cleared the Shenandoah, Grant had Lee trapped at Petersburg, and Lincoln won the election.

    Unfortunately, the parallel to this election fails. The fall of Atlanta was a clear sign of success that changed all perceptions. In the present war there can be no such signs. Success is there, visible in the complete pacification of Anbar province (no U.S. troops needed there now), the removal of barriers in Baghdad, very low casualty rates. But these are things the public will not see unless the press actively reports them – and we know what the press has done instead. Maybe the death or capture of Osama Bin Laden… but if it happened now, there would be more insinuations about the timings than applause of the achievement.

    Obama has given lip service to continued intervention, but everyone knows what his election means: the U.S. running up the white flag to “world opinion” and Islam. Some kind of face-saving deal, like the 1973 Vietnam accords – then Iraq will be abandoned. Though there is a major difference, in that the opposition is divided (and subdivided), with separate outside backing. Iran and Saudi Arabia have opposing agendas, and the Iraqi Shia are not Iranian surrogates. It is likely to get very ugly.

    Of course, to the extent that the press deigns to notice, it will all be blamed on Bush.

  6. Lazar says:

    Richard- Thanks for the interesting discussion. Regarding Johnston and Hood- it seems that Johnston’s sins were that he retreated too much without giving much of a fight at all, and ultimately, Davis sensed that Johnston was willing to give up Atlanta. Lee advised against putting in the aggressive Hood, who was “All lion, but none of the fox”. For further reading, I would refer you to McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom”, Chapter 25.

    I would not agree that the Union expected victory in 1864. Lincoln himself expected to lose the election, and there were fatal draft riots well after Gettysburg. Union soldiers and generals still held Lee in the highest regard, and expected him to whip them at every turn. In hindsight, it might seem strange to us, but I get the sense that the situation was very uncertain in the North. Lincoln stuck with Grant because he would not retreat to the North after getting his nose bloodied, even though he struggled to get Lee into the open battle Grant desired.

    The parallel does not have to be perfect regarding this election- indeed, the situation in 1864 might be the exact opposite, and my point would be valid. While Lincoln worried constantly about the effect of the war on the election, I am not convinced that the U.S. planners have. My goal was to introduce the relevance and importance of elections in democracies’ military strategy.

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