Thursday, December 9, 2021

Review - "Southern Strategies: Why the Confederacy Failed" by Christian Keller, ed.

[Southern Strategies: Why the Confederacy Failed edited by Christian B. Keller (University Press of Kansas, 2021). Hardcover, maps, photos, chapter notes, index. Pp. 275. ISBN:978-0-7006-3218-3. $34.95]

It is tempting to take conflict analysis paradigms developed by and for today's national security professionals and test their strength and validity against historical belligerents and the wars they fought long ago. Employing timeless elements, the DIME model of strategy analysis seems to be a particularly appropriate candidate for such an exercise, and the way it is used in Southern Strategies: Why the Confederacy Failed exposes in fresh ways a number of well-recognized shortcomings in Confederate strategic thinking and execution.

Over the more than 150 years that have passed since the end of the Civil War, historians have proposed a great multitude of factors that help explain Confederate defeat. Many of them go in and out of fashion and no two scholars will ever rank their relative significance in the same order. However, everyone will agree that key flaws and mistakes in Confederate civilian and military leadership and strategy contributed mightily to the downfall of the rebellion. Essays in Southern Strategies explore how those faults impacted the four instruments of national power represented in the DIME model, the "synchronicity" of which is necessary to maintain that power in wartime and achieve strategic goals. The Diplomatic, Informational (on both fighting and home fronts), Military power, and Economic instruments of a nation's strategic DIME must all work hand in hand to achieve defined ends (in the case of the Confederacy, independence and international recognition). Though each is focused on a single instrument, all six essays in the book stress that synchronicity and many showcase, directly or indirectly, the Confederacy's doom-inducing inability to counteract failures in one DIME facet with achievement in the others. Importantly, each contributor also fully recognizes that it is just as important for a warring power to understand the opponent's DIME (and seek ways to undermine it) than it is to try to successfully manage its own.

Volume editor Christian Keller's opening essay reminds readers straight away of the impact of contingency on the Confederate strategic DIME. As readers of Keller's award-winning 2019 book The Great Partnership: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and the Fate of the Confederacy know, the author strongly believes that the successful Lee-Jackson command team (part of the 'M' in DIME) represented the Confederacy's best chance to achieve military success in the eastern theater, and Jackson's death was a heavy blow to southern hopes for independence and diplomatic recognition. Much of the argumentation and conclusions presented in that earlier book are summarized again here, but there is also a renewed look at a counterfactual situation in which Jackson, fresh off his Spring 1862 Shenandoah Valley exploits, has his invasion plan for Maryland and Pennsylvania approved. In reasoning that a successful movement north would have had significant diplomatic impact abroad, boosted domestic morale, and, if it successfully damaged the Pennsylvania coal industry as intended, injurious effects on the Union economy, the chapter also incorporates other DIME elements into the discussion. Keller is fully aware that the pressure on Richmond exerted by the Army of the Potomac advancing up the Peninsula likely required Jackson's presence there and giving Jackson all of the reinforcements he wanted impractical, but the author also reasonably argues that a narrow window of opportunity did exist for a bold, though more modest-sized, counterstroke. On the other hand, if one subscribes to the common view that Jackson's Valley campaign had reduced the general to a state of physical and mental exhaustion by the beginning of the Seven Days, it can be questioned whether Old Jack was up to conducting a long raid fraught with danger. Indeed, in theorizing how such a movement by Jackson during the latter half of 1862 might have turned out, Keller readily acknowledges the situation to be one where "counterfactual clouds become so dense that to speculate further begs incredulity" (pg. 40). Still, it can be a useful mental exercise to imagine how such an operation could have effected both Confederate and Union DIME instruments.

Eric Johnson's chapter provides both a wonderful summary of post-Industrial Revolution methods available for war financing and an insightful comparison between successful Union fiscal strategy and disastrously unsuccessful Confederate fiscal policy. In contrast to the Lincoln administration, which possessed an existing national revenue-raising bureaucracy and adopted a suitable combination of new taxes, bonds, and paper money issuance to finance the war, the Davis government was unable to overcome traditional sectional opposition to national tax levying, and its newly organized Treasury Department was not up to the task of putting the war effort on sound enough financial footing before being overtaken by rampant inflation. The 1864 balance of 5% war financing revenue from taxation, 30% from bonds, and 60% through paper money printing contrasted sharply and unfavorably with Union funding estimates of 60% bonds and short-term loans, 21% taxes, and just 13% paper money. Apart from the singular success of the Erlanger loan, Confederate defeats, hyperinflation, and diminishing confidence in the viability of the rebel movement made bonds an unappealing investment in relative short order, and the overreliance on paper money printing furthered the economic death spiral. Though naturally focused on the 'E' instrument, the chapter effectively incorporates additional context in the form of Union and Confederate diplomatic efforts (the former much more effective than the latter), Union intelligence operations abroad, and naval blockade effects on the Confederate DIME.

Special Orders 191 often dominates discussion of how intelligence contributed to Confederate defeat in the 1862 Maryland Campaign, but Kevin McCall's detailed examination of the 'I' in the Confederate DIME at a critical moment in the history of the war draws attention toward challenges to Confederate strategic, operational, and tactical intelligence that stemmed from the abrupt shifting of the theater of war from friendly Virginia to mostly hostile Maryland. Using modern military intelligence terminology, McCall interestingly and convincingly outlines how rapid change in the army's operational space upended every aspect of Lee's established Virginia-based intelligence gathering system (including human, communications, and open source collection). The writer also holds previously reliable Jeb Stuart directly responsible for much of Lee's blindness. According to McCall, after successfully establishing a screen, Stuart failed to go further and obtain operational and tactical-level information regarding enemy strength, locations, and key terrain to evaluate and report to his commander. Naturally, it is understood that operating in enemy territory is more difficult than operating in friendly territory, but the chapter clearly demonstrates that multi-level intelligence failures as well as unavoidable short-term barriers contributed heavily to the squandering of a strategic opportunity (the possible dimensions of which are certainly up for debate). As accomplished by the other contributors, McCall also successfully integrates other instruments of the Confederate and Union DIME (primarily diplomatic and military components) into his 'I'-focused examination. He also includes an appendix that provides a new perspective on the Lost Order controversy from a counterintelligence perspective that envisions the possibility, though purely speculative, that the loss of the document was not accidental.

Erik Anderson boldly sees the role of diplomatic failure in the overall misalignment of the Confederacy's strategic DIME as "the most critical issue" that held the breakaway republic back from achieving its goal of independence. Unlike most diplomacy discussions found in the Civil War literature, Anderson's centers on what the paradigm shift in post-Napoleonic Wars Great Powers statecraft and diplomacy meant to Confederate officials seeking European recognition. After reading Anderson's explanation of how international relations goals and priorities among European powers had profoundly altered the diplomatic landscape by the mid-nineteenth century, one arrives at a fuller realization of the true scope of the impediments that Confederate diplomats needed to overcome. The strategic partners that the Confederate government sought (mainly France and Britain) catered to their own best interests not by weakening rivals through far away foreign entanglements but rather by striving to maintain hold on their own domestic power, by blunting nationalistic movements on the continent that threatened peace for themselves and their neighbors, and through preserving the continental balance of power. Though France did insert itself into Mexican affairs, Britain especially had little stomach for military adventures in North America that could threaten its ability to uphold the empire's central concerns in domestic and "near abroad" spheres. That said, much of the essay focuses on matters that the Confederate government had more ability to control. Anderson does agree with those that maintain that the Confederacy still did have a narrow window of opportunity in 1861-62 to take advantage of its still robust military strength (accentuated by victories in the East not yet diminished by disasters in the West) and coordinate that with a strong diplomatic push. That never happened because, as Anderson keenly observes, the Confederate government moved too slowly, made very poor choices in diplomat selection, and never articulated a message that could help mitigate foreign opposition to slavery. In not understanding geopolitics and where European interests primarily lay (and thus devising influence-seeking diplomatic initiatives that could take those into account), Confederate leaders did not manage to integrate diplomacy with the other elements of DIME, such missteps including underfunded propaganda efforts in the informational sphere and an economically and diplomatically disastrous (though unofficial) cotton embargo.

Of course, strategy is pointless if it is never applied, and in the military instrument that action is performed operationally and tactically. Chris Compton's reassessment of Robert E. Lee's pursuit of strategic goals in the summer of 1863 presents the Army of Northern Virginia's commander as well informed regarding the Confederacy's overall strategic position and restates the many arguments both for an against reinforcing the West versus going on the offensive in the East. Using the modern FAS-R (feasibility, acceptability, suitability, and risk) paradigm for testing strategy, the essay author has determined that Davis administration approval of a northern offensive had defensible underpinnings and Lee's conduct of the operation was mostly sound. In Compton's view, both Lee and Davis displayed conscientious understanding of the risks to the strategic DIME that such bold action imposed. Compton persuasively argues that Lee managed the operation reasonably well during planning, preparation, and in the early stages of execution before his summer strategy decisively unraveled at the climactic phase of operational and tactical execution (through a combination of subordinate actions, Lee's own mistakes, and the determined efforts of the enemy). In the competing schools of thought regarding the extent of Lee's strategic myopia, risk-taking, and overreliance on the offensive, Compton's essay is a solid ally to the more traditional positions espoused by Gary Gallagher, D.S. Freeman, and others, and a pretty formidable challenger to the most strident parts of the harshly critical revisionist literature that has become widely accepted.

While the bulk of the book addresses affairs east of the Appalachians, the final chapter offers a trenchant critique of Confederate strategy west of the Mississippi River. Centering once again on the military power instrument, essay author Michael Forsyth highlights the key ways in which the Davis administration failed to closely integrate Trans-Mississippi affairs into the Confederate DIME, perhaps most notably by appointing a string of district and departmental commanders lacking compatible strategic vision (though, to be fair, one could argue that Davis's pool of qualified candidates was very shallow). In judging strategic affairs within the department, Forsyth keenly observes that the Trans-Mississippi commanders, isolated as they were, tended to the view the defense of the department as a strategic end of its own rather than an integral part of national strategy, and this flawed command thinking was only abetted by the Confederate president and his successive secretaries of war. According to Forsyth, the depth of that myopia was demonstrated most clearly by the lack of cooperation during critical moments of the Vicksburg Campaign, but the post-Vicksburg establishment of a vast, essentially self-ruling department under General Edmund Kirby Smith that essentially pursued its own strategic DIME proved almost as harmful. Smith's department was clearly limited in what it could do to assist the West but, according to Forsyth, it nevertheless failed to grasp national-level strategic opportunities when they did arise (ex. during the 1864 Red River Campaign and Camden Expedition) in favor of meeting more localized defensive goals. In Forsyth's view, the trans-Appalachian departmental system as created by the Davis administration (with the Mississippi Valley serving as both critical invasion corridor and administrative boundary) and the consistently poor leadership appointments to it left the vast region west of the Mississippi critically disconnected from the Confederate DIME.

Authored by seasoned individuals possessing decades of military/national security service and/or extensive experience in professional military education as student and teacher, the essays in Southern Strategies demonstrate the usefulness of the modern DIME model in fruitfully discussing and reappraising the flaws and missteps in Confederate civilian and military strategic leadership. Though they begin with the generally accepted assumption that the fledgling Confederacy possessed enough DIME strength at the beginning of the war to achieve its goals, the essayists nevertheless recognize that the challenges were immense and margins for error decidedly slim. Collectively, volume contributors effectively illustrate how policymaking, planning, and execution breakdowns in one instrument of power placed compensatory burdens on the others that Confederate strategic leaders were consistently unable to mitigate or overcome, even though the war effort overall still proved surprisingly resilient. Of course, it was the contrasting and successful wielding of the United States's DIME power that ultimately crushed the Confederacy (and wouldn't that make for a fitting companion volume), but that is still only part of the equation. All of the essays in Southern Strategies are highly recommended for their freshly formulated insights into arguments new and old regarding the Confederate leadership's role in its own defeat.

No comments:

Post a Comment

When commenting, PLEASE SIGN YOUR NAME. In order to maintain civil discourse and ease moderating duties anonymous comments will be deleted. Comments containing outside promotions and/or product links will also be deleted. Thank you.