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.