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Confederate Tide Rising: Robert E. Lee and the Making of Southern Strategy, 1861-1862, Part 1

Confederate Tide Rising: Robert E. Lee and the Making of Southern Strategy, 1861-1862
by Joseph L. Harsh

I recently purchased the three books of Joseph Harsh's trilogy dealing with Confederate strategy during from the beginning of the war to the end of the Maryland Campaign in September 1862. The first of the trilogy, Confederate Tide Rising, discusses Confederate strategy in the first year and a half of the war, from Sumter to just after the Battle of Chantilly, which occurred on September 1, 1862. I have not heard a bad word yet about Harsh's books. Educated Civil War buffs who I know have told me that Harsh's books are excellent. As the title indicates, this is not one of the usual tactical studies I enjoy so much. But it is an extremely well-researched book which comes to some conclusions different than the commonly accepted views on Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Confederate strategy in the early portion of the Civil War.

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8

I've always been interested in Present for Duty strengths of various units throughout the war. Many members of the "Lost Cause" group tended to use their "effective" numbers so as to minimize their numbers while using "Present for Duty" numbers for the Union strengths. These comparisons make it look like the Confederacy accomplished even more against long odds. "Effective" numbers counted only enlisted men who were in the line of battle, excluding officers, stretcher bearers, and even senior NCO's. This meant that using effectives counted the fewest men possible. "Present for Duty" (PFD) strengths included all officers and men in combat. Thomas Livermore came up with a formula for converting Effectives to Present for Duty Numbers. Effectives represented 93% of an infantry or artillery unit's enlisted PFD strength, and 85% of a cavalry unit's strength. Add 6.5% to that number to account for officers, and you have successfully converted Effectives to Present for Duty. A much more detailed discussion of this numbers-crunching can be found on pages 21-23 of Steven H. Newton's Lost For The Cause: The Confederate Army in 1864. You may be asking yourself what the point of this tangent paragraph is. In all honesty, it is the reason I bought Harsh's three books. In a recent blog entry, I wondered how Lee's Army could go from a PFD strength of 75,000 men on September 2, 1862 (just after the Battle of Chantilly and the end of the Second Manassas Campaign) to a strength of approximately 35,000 PFD at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. That question, asked on several message boards, led me to purchase this book and the rest of Harsh's trilogy. I do not agree with the people who dismiss the counting of these numbers. They say that no one can accurately know the numbers of men who were present in a given situation. I agree that no one can know EXACT numbers, but historians can APPROXIMATE how many men were present on each side in a given campaign. Careful study of the Official Records, muster rolls, consolidated morning reports, individual service records, and other sources can reveal reasonably accurate totals for most major campaigns. To simply dismiss these numbers is ludicrous, in my not so humble opinion. In any case (and to end this tangential rant!), I own copies of two Masters Theses written on exactly this subject. They are John Owen Allen's "The Strength of the Union and Confederate Forces At Second Manassas" and Leon Tenney's "Seven Days in 1862: Numbers in Union and Confederate Armies Before Richmond". Interestingly, Harsh was involved as an advisor to both of these grad students. He conducts some similar numbers-crunching through Confederate Tide Rising.

The seven maps in the book are not tactical in nature, as that's not the purpose of the book. As such, maps aren't quite so important as in the average tactical study I read. As I write this blog entry, I'm about half way through the book. I've been pleased with the way the maps add to Harsh's text. I've also noticed that Harsh has five appendices at the back of the book. In glancing through these, I've seen some interesting things (including the PFD strength comparisons I mention in the paragraph above), and I'll be commenting on those in a later blog entry.

All in all, from what I've seen and read so far, this book looks to be a very interesting study which comes to some conclusions that do not coincide with the "Centennial View" of Civil War history. I look forward to reading it and relaying the information to others interested in Harsh's trilogy. I hope some of these entries engender more discussions similar to what is going on at the bottom of the PFD strengths blog entry I mentioned earlier.

Harsh's preface sets the stage and offers some interesting tidbits about how the book (and the trilogy) came about. He relays that this book was supposed to be the first six chapters of Taken at the Flood, but it was deemed to be too long. Hence, these first six chapters were made into a book of their own. Harsh says he didn't set out to write the book, but that it wrote itself as he tried to understand why Lee chose to enter Maryland in September 1862, and exactly what his thought process was while he was there. He maintains that in order to understand Lee's decision-making process during the Maryland Campaign, you must also look at earlier events and decisions. In other words, this campaign didn't happen in a vacuum. He believes that crossing the Potomac River into Maryland was a logical extension of Lee's earlier goals and battles. Opportunities kept leading Lee forward until the only barrier left was the Potomac. Harsh maintains that Lee acted from the start using an overall strategy for victory that fit within the Confederacy's (and Jefferson Davis's) views on how to conduct the war. The Confederates "pursued aggressive goals" in an effort to weaken the North's determination to win the war. Harsh has a more positive view of Davis than most, and he doesn't believe Davis used a "perimeter" defense as maintained by the "standard" view of Confederate strategy. He states that except for the winter of 1861-1862, the Confederacy's generals were encouraged to pursue offensive operations. Harsh draws two ultimate conclusions:

1. "Given the unbending determination of the North, the South probably could not have won the war."
2. "If the North could have been made to waver in its determination, Davis's policy and Lee's strategy were well suited to achieve Confederate independence."

Overture - "The most propitious time": Fate in Lee's Hands, September 3, 1862
On September 3, Lee dictated a dispatch to Davis that his army was crossing the Potomac River into Maryland. Lee had driven the North from the doorstep of Richmond all the way back to Washington, D.C. in only 95 days. Harsh, unlike David Welker in Tempest at Ox Hill, believes that Lee had intended to crush Pope at Chantilly. Even today, we still do not fully understand Lee's motives for crossing the Potomac River. Possible answers as to why Lee did this include suggestions include relieving Virginia of the war for a time, subsisting his army off of northern resources, causing Maryland to secede, influencing northern peace movements through upcoming political elections, and attempting to cause Great Britain and France to grant diplomatic recognition and possibly recognize the independence of the Confederacy. Harsh says these explanations have never been sorted according to importance or judged for probability. He explains that the nature of Lee's invasion has never been explained either. Was it an invasion, a raid, or (even more intriguing a thought) NEITHER? Harsh believes that Lee's actions show that this was neither an invasion or a raid and he plans to tell us exactly what it was in his trilogy. Other questions Harsh wants to answer include:

1. Can the Maryland Campaign be understood without looking at the wider picture?
2. Or, did it come about as a result of a consistent (with few exceptions) Confederate strategy for winning the war?
3. How could a military leader cross a national boundary without permission from his government?
4. Didn't the "incursion" (Harsh's word) into enemy territory contradict the "standard" view of Confederate policy of defense?
5. Should a nation so outnumbered in men and materiel conduct high-risk offensives?

Harsh ends the overture by saying that all of the questions above can be answered by looking at Confederate strategy in the first year and a half of the
war. I can't wait to read it to see the conclusions he draws.