Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Review - "Strategies of North and South: A Comparative Analysis of the Union and Confederate Campaigns" by Gerald Earley

[Strategies of North and South: A Comparative Analysis of the Union and Confederate Campaigns by Gerald L. Earley (McFarland, 2021). Softcover, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:v,288/309. ISBN:978-1-4766-8566-3. $39.95]

On the eve of the Civil War, more than a few northern observers feared that the American South possessed better material when it came to military leaders and fighting men, and many below the Mason-Dixon Line advanced the ludicrous proposition that one southern soldier could whip five or even ten northern foes. Gerald Earley's Strategies of North and South: A Comparative Analysis of the Union and Confederate Campaigns "investigates the validity of the perception of Southern martial superiority" (the key word being perception) and provides an "account of Federal and Confederate military operations and battles with a view of delivering a non-biased assessment of performance as well as outcomes," one that "takes into account the challenges and circumstances encountered during the course of the war." The reader can well imagine the many directions such a project might take, and the author readily admits that "this type of analysis is inherently subjective" (pg. 2).

The book opens with a solid critical summary of long-held antebellum views of the martial prowess and traditions of each section, all of which were frequently infused with ethnic and cultural stereotypes. How irrational those assumptions proved to be after actual civil war put them to the test is a common theme of the book. The reader is frequently reminded by the author that none of those pre-war assumptions adequately explained southern victories. In truth, through southern battlefield defeats suffered in many different circumstances and environments, they were clearly shown to be without foundation. According to Earley, the initial series of southern victories in 1861 is better explained by the transient morale boost from a confluence of surging war/independence fever and the motivation that comes from defending hearth and home rather than any kind of inherent disparity in sectional martial capabilities. The pile-up of disastrous Confederate defeats as the grimmer realities of 1862 set in quickly undermined the more extreme prewar expectations regarding southern fighting prowess.

The bulk of the study is a year by year assessment of the war's campaigns and battles in the context referred to above. Though some secondary actions are included to illustrate a particular point, these chapters mainly comprise a chronological summary and analysis of the major land campaigns, east and west. Both the merits of the battle descriptions and the persuasiveness of the author's leadership analysis vary, but much of the latter is predictable given the lack of consensus among amateur and expert alike. In leaving no leader immune to his sometimes strident criticism when it's due, Earley avoids making a paragon out of any particular general of either side. However, subjectivity and the necessities of brevity often combine to display overly reductive conclusions regarding the generalship displayed during numerous campaigns. For example, the author perhaps too often cites inferior opposition as the sole or overarching reason to conclude that certain celebrated operations are overrated in their artfulness and results. Indeed a major conclusion of the book made along those lines is that "most of the major Confederate battle victories resulted from serious mistakes or blunders by Federal commanders" (pg. 285). In the author's point of view, that made southern armies appear more efficient than they really were and unfairly diminished perceptions of the fighting qualities of northern soldiers. There is clearly some truth to that line of thinking, but as a general conclusion it still represents a gross oversimplification of a complex combination of relevant factors. Also, in not applying the same standard to Union battle victories in the West, the author's record of mostly evenhanded application of his arguments breaks down. In the book, Earley frequently engages in the ever popular but justly criticized 'if X had been done instead of Y, the enemy army would have been destroyed' brand of alternate history conjecture, but he does also retain some respect for the ideas advanced by historian Wayne Hsieh and others that West Point-oriented symmetries in army leadership, organization, training, and weaponry rendered opposing Civil War armies especially difficult to cripple in open combat.

The book's tight focus on major land campaigns in the main theaters means that many other elements of strategy are either left out entirely or only addressed tangentially. These include more broad features of land operations, one example being the Confederate raiding strategy in the West using its disproportionately large cavalry forces, along with the naval affairs of both sides. On the other hand, clustered at the rear of the book can be found some topics not specifically related to particular battles and campaigns. For instance, in that section the author presents the conventional critique of the volunteer army practice of raising new regiments instead of filling the ranks of veteran ones with replacements. More controversially, Earley suggests that the Union Army's high percentage of immigrant soldiers did not represent an advantage. On some level, the political need to promote dangerously incompetent officers due solely to their ethnic representation, army communication issues stemming from language barriers, and the uneven performance record of ethnic regiments can be reasonable objections, but it seems inescapable that their numbers alone comprised a massive advantage for the Union war machine. Additionally, there were many talented immigrant officers of all levels in the Union Army, and evidence of mixed combat records is just as easily found in native-born units.

Though condensing a descriptive commentary of the entire military history of the war into less than three-hundred pages of text admittedly forces upon the author shortcuts and some level of reductive distortion of the complex, many readers will question the author's overreliance on older, entrenched premises that have been directly challenged, often convincingly, in newer books released through both mainstream and academic publishing. The volume's bibliography is basically a collection of published works, and a very limited selection at that. This becomes a pretty significant drawback in more than a few instances. As just one example of a topic that is currently hot in the field of Civil War military studies, the book presents Union general George Meade as nothing more than George McClellan 2.0, fully adopting the Lincoln administration's insistence that Robert E. Lee's army would surely have been destroyed after Gettysburg had the Union army only pursued more aggressively. This flies in the face of nearly all of the most recent literature, with the two best works on the retreat (one by Kent Masterson Brown and the other from Eric Wittenberg et al) absent from the analysis and bibliography altogether. The book would really have benefited from casting a wider source net, even just a modest one. Given the richness of the Civil War military history literature and the diversity of learned opinions regarding the generalship involved in every major campaign and battle, the author's commentary would be more credible if it much more consistently revealed more than one line of reasonable historical interpretation before offering a general conclusion.

One of the questions Earley seeks to answer is which side had the more difficult task. He agrees with the common conclusion that the United States had the much more difficult road to victory, though he does this without balancing it against the many factors that rendered the Confederacy's presumed easier job of "winning by not losing" very, very difficult. On the matter of which side exhibited better strategy, the author again aligns himself with the predominant view. Though he frequently and quite astutely points out several moments when federal strategic blundering threatened ultimate victory by prolonging the war, it is stating the obvious that the US proved far more capable than the Confederacy in developing and implementing winning strategies. Earley might usefully have added that the Union war machine had far more margin for error and could absorb major mistakes and blunders that the Confederacy could never afford to make and still win.

In addition to this mixed review of the quality of the book's content, it should also be mentioned that the manuscript really needed another once over to correct its overabundance of typos, especially its misspelled names of generals. Books on Civil War strategy are rare enough that any new entry into the field will draw attention, but this one unfortunately doesn't merit the kind of unqualified recommendation earned by other recent contributions such as Donald Stoker's excellent The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War (2010). That said, parts of Strategies of North and South are still thoughtful and engaging enough to lead one to not want to dismiss the whole or strongly dissuade anyone else from giving it a go.


  1. John Douglas AshtonOctober 13, 2021 at 2:14 PM

    An excellent and balanced review! I recently read Donald Stoker's THE GRAND DESIGN: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War and consider it one of the most interesting and insightful books I have ever read on the ACW. And I have read many over the past 60 years. Perhaps this book was "a topic too far" for the Author!

    1. To be fair, the two are very different types of strategy books.


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