The American Civil War (March 1862)

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written March 1862


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Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 19, p. 186
Written: between March 7 and 22, 1862;
First published: in Die Presse, 85, March 26 and 27, 1862.
Collection(s): Die Presse

From whatever standpoint one regards it, the American Civil War presents a spectacle without parallel in the annals of military history. The vast extent of the disputed territory; the far-flung front of the lines of operation; the numerical strength of the hostile armies, the creation of which hardly drew any support from a prior organisational basis; the fabulous cost of these armies; the manner of commanding them and the general tactical and strategic principles in accordance with which the war is being waged, are all new in the eyes of the European onlooker.

The secessionist conspiracy, organised, patronised and supported long before its outbreak by Buchanan’s administration, gave the South a head-start, by which alone it could hope to achieve its aim. Endangered by its slave population and by a strong Unionist element among the whites themselves, with two-thirds less free men than in the North, but readier to attack, thanks to the multitude of adventurous idlers that it harbours — for the South everything depended on a swift, bold, almost foolhardy offensive. If the Southerners succeeded in taking St. Louis, Cincinnati, Washington, Baltimore, and perhaps Philadelphia, they might then count on a panic, during which diplomacy and bribery could secure recognition of the independence of all the slave states. If this first onslaught failed, at least at the decisive points, their position must then become worse from day to day, while the North was gaining in strength. This point was rightly understood by the men who in truly Bonapartist spirit had organised the secessionist conspiracy. They opened the campaign in the corresponding manner. Their bands of adventurers overran Missouri and Tennessee, while their more regular troops invaded eastern Virginia and prepared a coup de main against Washington. If this coup were to miscarry, the Southern campaign was lost from a military point of view.

The North came to the theatre of war reluctantly, sleepily, as was to be expected considering its higher industrial and commercial development. The social machinery there was far more complicated than in the South, and it required far more time to get it moving in this unusual direction. The enlistment of volunteers for three months was a great, but perhaps unavoidable mistake. It was the policy of the North to remain on the defensive in the beginning at all decisive points, to organise its forces, to train them through operations on a small scale and without risk of decisive battles, and, as soon as the organisation had become sufficiently strong and the traitorous element had simultaneously been more or less removed from the army, to go on to an energetic, unflagging offensive and, above all, to reconquer Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. The transformation of civilians into soldiers was bound to take more time in the North than in the South. Once effected, one could count on the individual superiority of the Northern men.

By and large, and allowing for the mistakes that arose more from political than from military sources, the North acted in accordance with those principles. The guerilla warfare in Missouri and West Virginia, while protecting the Unionist population, accustomed the troops to field service and to fire without exposing them to decisive defeats. The great disgrace of Bull Run was, to a certain extent, the result of the earlier error of enlisting volunteers for three months. It was absurd to let raw recruits attack a strong position, on difficult terrain and having an enemy scarcely inferior in numbers. The panic, which seized the Union army at the decisive moment, and the cause of which has yet to be established could surprise no one who was at all familiar with the history of people’s wars. Such things happened to the French troops very often from 1792 to 1795; this did not, however, prevent these same troops from winning the battles of Jemappes and Fleurus, Montenotte, Castiglione and Rivoli. The only excuse for the silliness of the jests of the European press with regard to the Bull Run panic is the previous bragging of a section of the North American press.

The six months’ respite that followed the defeat at Manassas was utilised to better advantage by the North than by the South. Not only were the Northern ranks replenished in greater measure than the Southern ones. Their officers received better instructions; the discipline and training of the troops did not encounter the same obstacles as in the South. Traitors and incompetent interlopers were increasingly removed, and the period of the Bull Run panic is a thing of the past. The armies on both sides are naturally not to be measured by the standard of the great European armies or even of the former regular army of the United States. Napoleon could in fact train battalions of raw recruits in the depots during the first month, have them on the march during the second and during the third lead them against the enemy, but then every battalion received a sufficient reinforcement of experienced officers and non-commissioned officers, every company some old soldiers, and on the day of the battle the new troops were brigaded together with veterans and, so to speak, framed by the latter. All these conditions were lacking in America. Without the considerable amount of people of military experience who had immigrated to America in consequence of the European revolutionary unrest of 1848-49, the organisation of the Union army would have required a much longer time still. The very small number of killed and wounded in proportion to the total of the troops engaged (usually one in every twenty) proves that most of the engagements, even the most recent ones in Kentucky and Tennessee, were fought mainly with firearms at fairly long range, and that the occasional bayonet charges either soon halted in the face of enemy fire or put the adversary to flight before it came to a hand-to-hand encounter. Meanwhile, the new campaign has been opened under more favourable auspices with the successful a advance of Buell and Halleck through Kentucky and Tennessee.

After the reconquest of Missouri and West Virginia, the Union opened the campaign with the advance on Kentucky. Here the secessionists held three strong positions, fortified camps: Columbus on the Mississippi to their left, Bowling Green in the centre, and Mill Springs on the Cumberland River to the right. Their line stretched for 300 miles from west to east. The extent of this line prevented the three corps from rendering each other support and offered the Union troops the chance of attacking each individually with superior forces. The great mistake in the disposition of the secessionists sprang from their attempt to occupy all the ground.

A single fortified, strong central camp, chosen as the battlefield for a decisive engagement and held by the main body of the army, would have defended Kentucky far more effectively. It was bound either to attract the main force of the Unionists or put them in a dangerous position, had they attempted to march on, disregarding so strong a concentration of troops.

Under the given circumstances the Unionists resolved to attack those three camps one after another, to manoeuvre their enemy out of them and force him to fight in open country. This plan, which conformed to all the rules of the art of war, was carried out with energy and dispatch. Towards the middle of January a corps of about 15,000 Unionists marched on Mill Springs, which was held by 10,000 secessionists. The Unionists manoeuvred in a manner that led the enemy to believe he only had to deal with a weak reconnoitring body. General Zollicoffer at once fell into the trap, sallied from his fortified camp and attacked the Unionists. He soon realised that a superior force confronted him. He fell and his troops suffered as complete a defeat as the Unionists at Bull Run. This time, however, the victory was exploited in quite another fashion. The defeated army was hard pressed until it arrived broken, demoralised, without field artillery or baggage, in its encampment at Mill Springs. This camp was pitched on the north bank of the Cumberland River, so that in the event of another defeat the troops had no retreat open to them save across the river by way of a few steamers and river boats. We find in general that almost all the secessionist camps were pitched on the enemy side of the river. To take up such a position is not only according to rule, but also very practical if there is a bridge in the rear. In such a case, the encampment serves as the bridgehead and gives its holders the chance of throwing their fighting forces at will on both banks of the river and so maintaining complete command of these banks. Without a bridge in the rear a camp on the enemy side of the river, on the contrary, cuts off the retreat after an unsuccessful engagement and compels the troops to capitulate, or exposes them to massacre and drowning, a fate that befell the Unionists at Ball’s Bluff on the enemy side of the Potomac, whither the treachery of General Stone had sent them.

When the beaten secessionists reached their camp at Mill Springs, they at once understood that an enemy attack on their fortifications must be repulsed or capitulation must follow in a very short time. After the experience of the morning, they had lost confidence in their powers of resistance. Accordingly, when the Unionists advanced to attack the camp next day, they found that the enemy had taken advantage of the night to cross the river, leaving the camp, the baggage, the artillery and stores behind him. In this way, the extreme right of the secessionist line was pushed back to Tennessee, and east Kentucky, where the mass of the population is hostile to the slaveholders’ party, was reconquered for the Union.

At about the same time — towards the middle of January — the preparations for dislodging the secessionists from Columbus and Bowling Green commenced. A strong fleet of mortar vessels and ironclad gunboats was held in readiness, and the news was spread in all directions that it was to serve as a convoy to a large army marching along the Mississippi from Cairo to Memphis and New Orleans. All the demonstrations on the Mississippi, however, were merely mock manoeuvres. At the decisive moment, the gunboats were brought to the Ohio and thence to the Tennessee, up which they sailed as far as Fort Henry. This place, together with Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, formed the second line of defence of the secessionists in Tennessee. The position was well chosen, for in case of a retreat beyond the Cumberland the latter river would have covered its front, the Tennessee its left flank, while the narrow strip of land between the two rivers was sufficiently covered by the two forts mentioned above. But the swift action of the Unionists broke through even the second line before the left wing and the centre of the first line had been attacked.

In the first week of February the Unionists’ gunboats appeared in front of Fort Henry, which surrendered after a short bombardment. The garrison escaped to Fort Donelson, since the land forces of the expedition were not strong enough to encircle the spot. The gunboats now sailed down the Tennessee again, upstream to the Ohio and thence up the Cumberland as far as Fort Donelson. A single gunboat sailed boldly up the Tennessee through the very heart of the State of Tennessee, skirting the State of Mississippi and pushing on as far as Florence in northern Alabama, where a series of swamps and banks (known by the name of the Muscle Shoals) prevented further navigation. The fact that a single gunboat made this long voyage of at least 150 miles and then returned, without experiencing any attack, proves that Union sentiment prevails along the river and will be very useful to the Union troops should they push forward as far as that.

The. boat expedition on the Cumberland now combined its movements with those of the land forces under generals Halleck and Grant. The secessionists at Bowling Green were deceived over the movements of the Unionists. Accordingly they remained quietly in their camp, while a week after the fall of Fort Henry, Fort Donelson was surrounded on the land side by 40,000 Unionists and threatened on the river side by a strong fleet of gunboats. Just as in the case of the camp at Mill Springs and Fort Henry, the river lay beyond Fort Donelson, without a bridge for retreat. It was the strongest place the Unionists had attacked up to the present. The works had been carried out with greater care; moreover, the place was capacious enough to accommodate the 20,000 men who occupied it. On the first day of the attack the gunboats silenced the fire of the batteries trained towards the river side and bombarded the interior of the defence works, while the land troops drove back the enemy outposts and forced the main body of the secessionists to seek shelter close under the guns of their own defence works. On the second day, the gunboats, which had suffered severely the day before, appear to have accomplished but little. The land troops, on the other hand, had to fight a long and, in places, hard battle with the columns of the garrison, which sought to break through the right wing of the enemy in order to secure their line of retreat to Nashville. However, an energetic attack by the Unionist right wing on the left wing of the secessionists and considerable reinforcements received by the left wing of the Unionists decided the victory in favour of the assailants. Various outworks had been stormed. The garrison, pressed back into its inner lines of defence, without the chance of retreat and manifestly not in a position to withstand an assault next morning, surrendered unconditionally on the following day.

II[edit source]

With Fort Donelson the enemy’s artillery, baggage and military stores fell into the hands of the Unionists; 13,000 secessionists surrendered on the day of its capture ; 1,000 more the next day, and as soon as the advance guard of the victors appeared before Clarksville, a town that lies further up the Cumberland River, it opened its gates. Here, too, considerable supplies had been accumulated for the secessionists.

The capture of Fort Donelson presents only one riddle: the flight of General Floyd with 5,000 men on the second day of the bombardment. These fugitives were too numerous to be smuggled away in steamers during the night. If certain precautions had been taken by the assailants, they could not have got away.

Seven days after the surrender of Fort Donelson, Nashville was occupied by the Federals. The distance between the two places is about 100 English miles, and a march of 15 miles a day, on very bad roads and in the most unfavourable season of the year, redounds to the honour of the Unionist troops. On receipt of the news that Fort Donelson had fallen, the secessionists evacuated Bowling Green; a week later, they abandoned Columbus and withdrew to a Mississippi island, 45 miles south. Thus, Kentucky was completely reconquered for the Union. Tennessee, however, can be held by the secessionists only if they give and win a big battle. They are said in fact to have concentrated 65,000 men for this purpose. Meanwhile, nothing prevents the Unionists from bringing a superior force against them.

The leadership of the Kentucky campaign from Somerset to Nashville deserves the highest praise. The reconquest of so extensive a territory, the advance from the Ohio to the Cumberland in a single month, evidence energy, resolution and speed such as have seldom been attained by regular armies in Europe.

One may compare, for example, the slow advance of the Allies from Magenta to Solferino in 1859 — without pursuit of the retreating enemy, without endeavour to cut off his stragglers or in any way to outflank and encircle whole bodies of his troops.

Halleck and Grant, in particular, offer good examples of resolute military leadership. Without the least regard either for Columbus or Bowling Green, they concentrate their forces on the decisive points, Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, launch a swift and energetic attack on these and precisely thereby render Columbus and Bowling Green untenable. Then they march at once to Clarksville and Nashville, without allowing the retreating secessionists time to take up new positions in northern Tennessee. During this rapid pursuit the corps of secessionist troops in Columbus remains completely cut off from the centre and right wing of its army. The English papers have criticised this operation unjustlyEven if the attack on Fort Donelson had failed, the secessionists kept busy by General Buell at Bowling Green could not dispatch sufficient men to enable the garrison to follow the repulsed Unionists into the open country or to endanger their retreat. Columbus, on the other hand, lay so far off that it could not interfere with Grant’s movements at all. In fact, after the Unionists had cleared Missouri of the secessionists, Columbus became an entirely useless post for the latter. The troops that formed its garrison had greatly to hasten their retreat to Memphis or even to Arkansas in order to escape the danger of ingloriously laying down their arms.

In consequence of the clearing of Missouri and the reconquest of Kentucky, the theatre of war has so far narrowed that the different armies can co-operate to a certain extent along the whole line of operations and work to achieve definite results. In other words, for the first time the war is now assuming a strategic character, and the geographical configuration of the country is acquiring a new interest. It is now the task of the Northern generals to find the Achilles’ heel of the cotton states.

Before the capture of Nashville, no concerted strategy between the army of Kentucky and the army on the Potomac was possible. They were too far apart from each other. They stood in the same front line, but their lines of operation were entirely different. Only with the victorious advance into Tennessee did the movements of the army of Kentucky become important for the entire theatre of war.

The American papers influenced by McClellan are full of talk about the “anaconda” envelopment plan. According to it, an immense line of armies is to wind round the rebellion, gradually tighten its coils and finally strangle the enemy. This is sheer childishness. It is a rehash of the so-called cordon system... devised in Austria about 1770, which was employed against the French from 1792 to 1797 with such great obstinacy and with such constant failure. At Jemappes, Fleurus and, more especially, at Montenotte, Millesimo, Dego, Castiglione and Rivoli, the final blow was dealt at this system. The French cut the “anaconda” in two by attacking at a point where they had concentrated superior forces. Then the coils of the “anaconda” were cut to pieces one after another.

In densely populated and more or less centralised states there is always a centre, with the occupation of which by the enemy the national resistance would be broken. Paris is a brilliant example. The slave states, however, possess no such centre. They are sparsely populated, with few large towns and all these on the seacoast. The question therefore arises: Does a military centre of gravity nevertheless exist, with the capture of which the backbone of their resistance will be broken, or are they, just as Russia still was in 1812, not to be conquered without occupying every village and every plot of land, in short, the entire periphery?

Cast a glance at the geographical shape of the secessionists’ territory, with its long stretch of coast on the Atlantic Ocean and its long stretch of coast on the Gulf of Mexico. So long as the Confederates held Kentucky and Tennessee, the whole formed a great compact mass. The loss of both these states drives an enormous wedge into their territory, separating the states on the North Atlantic Ocean from the States on the Gulf of Mexico. The direct route from Virginia and the two Carolinas to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and even, in part, to Alabama leads through Tennessee, which is now occupied by the Unionists. The sole route that, after the complete conquest of Tennessee by the Union, connects the two sections of the slave states goes through Georgia. This proves that Georgia is the key to the secessionists’ territory. With the loss of Georgia the Confederacy would be cut into two sections, which would have lost all connection with one another. A reconquest of Georgia by the secessionists, however, would be almost unthinkable, for the Unionist fighting forces would be concentrated in a central position, while their adversaries, divided into two camps, would have scarcely sufficient forces to put in the field for a joint attack.

Would the conquest of all Georgia, with the seacoast of Florida, be required for such an operation? By no means. In a land where communication, particularly between distant points, depends much more on railways than on highways, the seizure of the railways is sufficient. The southernmost railway line between the States on the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast goes through Macon and Gordon near Milledgeville.

The occupation of these two points would accordingly cut the secessionists’ territory in two and enable the Unionists to beat one part after another. At the same time, one gathers from the above that no Southern republic is viable without the possession of Tennessee. Without Tennessee, Georgia’s vital spot lies only eight or ten days’ march from the frontier; the North would constantly have its hand at the throat of the South, and, at the slightest pressure, the South would have to yield or fight for its life anew, under circumstances in which a single defeat would cut off every prospect of success.

From the foregoing considerations it follows:

The Potomac is not the most important position in the war theatre. The seizure of Richmond and the advance of the Potomac army further south — difficult on account of the many rivers that cut across the line of march -could produce a tremendous moral effect. From a purely military standpoint, they would decide nothing.

The outcome of the campaign depends on the Kentucky army, now in Tennessee. On the one hand, this army is nearest to the decisive points; on the other hand, it occupies a territory without which secession cannot survive. This army would accordingly have to be strengthened at the expense of all the rest and the sacrifice of all minor operations. Its next points of attack would be

Chattanooga and Dalton on the Upper Tennessee, the most important railway junctions of the entire South. After their occupation, the link between the eastern and western states of Secessia would be limited to the lines of communication in Georgia. The further problem would then be to cut off another railway line, with Atlanta and Georgia, and finally to destroy the last link between the two sections by the capture of Macon and Gordon.

On the contrary, should the anaconda plan be followed, then, despite all the successes gained at particular points and even on the Potomac, the war may be prolonged indefinitely, while the financial difficulties together with diplomatic complications acquire fresh scope.