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Strategy of the Civil War

The Civil War's first major conflict was the Battle of Bull Run, also known as the Battle of Manassas. The South's strategy was to outlast the North, while the North aimed to economically squeeze the South with the Anaconda Plan. The North had more resources, but the South had superior military leadership.

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Video transcript

- [Voiceover] All right Kim, so we left off in I guess, early-mid 1861, you have Lincoln gets inagurated, Fort Sumter which is kind of the first real conflict of the war, if not the first major battle. Lincoln forms his volunteer army, and then the rest of the southern states secede, four more states secede. - [Kim] Right. - [Voiceover] And then what was the first major conflict? - [Kim] So the first major conflict comes after a number of months. There are a couple of little skirmishes here and there, but nothing super large until about 60,000 troops meet outside of Manassas, Virginia, at a place called Bull Run. An interesting fact, I think, is that Union armies and Confederate armies actually named battles different things, if you've ever been confused about this. The Union armies tended to name battles after bodies of water, whereas the Confederate armies tended to name them by nearby towns. So if you've ever heard the Battle of Manassas and the Battle of Bull Run, they're the same thing, it's just the Union officers are talking about this creek, Bull Run, whereas the Confederates are talking about the town nearby. - [Voiceover] I see, and the 60,000 troops between the two of them. - [Kim] Right. So they meet, and this is very close to Washington, D.C., so much so that people go out and they bring picnics to watch this battle. - [Voiceover] They think it's going to be entertaining. - [Kim] Yeah, they think it's going to be like a football game. And it is not like a football game. It is a gigantic battle, 800 people die that day, which doesn't sound like a lot to us, but it was the most deadly battle ever in American history up until that point. So it's a Confederate victory, which is very surprising to the Union, because they think that they have such superior forces that this is really going to be a very short war. And this is a quick rebellion, in 90 days we're going to be able to, you know, suppress this rebellion and that'll be it. But Bull Run is really the first sign that this is going to be a major war. It's not going to be quick and it is going to be very deadly. - [Voiceover] This was July of... - [Both] 1861. - [Voiceover] Okay, so now it's clear to both sides, especially, I guess you could say the North, that this is not going to be a short war. So they need to prepare. How are they approaching this? - [Kim] Well, so both sides have some advantages and disadvantages. For the South, they have some of the same advantages that the United States would have had during the war for independence. They have home court advantage, we could say, which is that they know the territory very well and also there's a real incentive for people to protect their homes, right. You're gonna care more about a war that's happening on your property than a war that's gonna happen very far away. The other advantage that they have is just really, really terrific military leadership. So they have Robert E. Lee, who is widely considered the greatest general of his era. He's truly a military genius. He, in fact, was offered a commission in the Union army but when Virginia seceded, he went with Virginia. He preferred his home state. So he is a terrific general. The Union is gonna really struggle to come up with the kind of military leadership that the South has. - [Voiceover] Who is in charge of the Union or the Northern armies? You said, the United States Army. - [Kim] The United States Army. The first general that Lincoln puts in charge is George B. McClellan. This is problematic for a lot of reasons. One is that George McClellan is a Democrat, so he doesn't agree politically with Lincoln. I think he would have preferred peace, in fact in 1864 he runs against Lincoln for President on a platform of letting the South go, basically. And so Lincoln is struggling to match the South when it comes to military leadership, but he does have other advantages. For one thing, there are four times as many free people in the North as there are in the South. - [Voiceover] And you made the point, free people. - [Kim] Right. - [Voiceover] Because the South, as you mentioned, it has a majority of the population was not free. - [Kim] I wouldn't say a majority of the population, in many states, - [Voiceover] In Deep South. - [Kim] In the Deep South states, right. But so there are only about 9,000,000 people living in the South, and of those 9,000,000 people 3,500,000 to 4,000,000 of them are enslaved. So they're not going to be fighting to continue the institution of slavery. By contrast, the North has 22,000,000 people and it also has a terrific industrial base. One of the major cultural differences between the North and South that leads to the Civil War is that the South is primarily agrarian, and the North becomes very industrial. But industry is really helpful in a war. They've got miles and miles of railroad tracks which means that they can move supplies very quickly, and they also have hundreds and hundreds of factories that make it easy for them to make munitions. - [Voiceover] This is the middle of the Industrial Revolution - [Kim] Right. - [Voiceover] and an industrial base matters a lot. And so what's, given the North's advantages and the South's advantages, what's their strategies, how do they try to play to their strengths? - [Kim] Right, so the South, they are basically trying to outlast the North. They know that they have this territory, and if the North wants them to come back into the Union, they're going to have to conquer this territory. And even though it's hard to kind of tell, the territory of the South is actually larger than Western Europe. - [Voiceover] Wow. - [Kim] So in a way, the North has a bigger job to conquer the South than the Allies did in World War II, to conquer Europe. So they know that the North is gonna have to fight a war to conquer them, whereas the South just needs to win the war of waiting. - [Voiceover] Of attrition. - [Kim] Yeah, they're hoping that the North will get tired of fighting. - [Voiceover] Fighting in another person's land, you're not defending your own land. - [Kim] Right, and they know that there are plenty of whites in the North who don't care about slavery. It's not in their.. - [Voiceover] They're indifferent, what do they care. - [Kim] Yeah, what do they care, in fact some people are afraid that if the slaves are freed in the South, they're all gonna come up North and they're going to compete for labor with poor white people. So there are plenty of whites in the North who have no interest in the slaves in the South being free, even if that's not an early war aim of the North. So the South is hoping that maybe they can win a couple of really big battles that show this isn't gonna be a big war. - [Voiceover] Or it'd be so painful for the North to try to conquer the South, so to speak. - [Kim] And they're also trying to show that they're serious, to an international audience, particularly England, because the South is producing 3/4 of the world's supply of cotton at this point, and England is an industrial nation which is built in many cases around textile manufacturing. So they're hoping that if they show that they are serious about their own nationhood that they're going to win this war against the North that England will intercede on their behalf to protect their supply of cotton. - [Voiceover] So this would be an appeal to England on purely economic grounds. - [Kim] Right. - [Voiceover] Fascinating. Because England, they didn't have slavery. - [Kim] No. - [Voiceover] But purely economically, at least, appeal to them. - [Kim] So on the other hand, the North's strategy is what they call "The Anaconda Plan". And the idea of the Anaconda Plan is that they are going to squeeze the South, economically. What they want to do, - [Voiceover] Like an anaconda. - [Kim] Like an anaconda, right. So they want to blockade the Atlantic ocean because they don't want the South to be able to sell their cotton to get money, and they also don't want the South to be able to buy the kinds of things that they're going to need to make a war happen. They also want to control the Mississippi River cuz that's the real main artery of commerce in the West. Anyone who is gonna be shipping their grain or their cotton is gonna be shipping it down the Mississippi to the port of New Orleans. So the Union hopes that if they can basically surround the South, and make sure nothing gets in or out, then eventually they're just gonna starve to death. - [Voiceover] This also goes through the industrial bays, it can also produce more ships and etc. - [Kim] Right, and it takes them a while to do that, in fact at the start of the war, the Union only has 90 ships. I've heard it compared to "Five leaky boats". Right, we're not a naval power at this point and so it's gonna take them a while to build up the kind of naval power they need to do that, cuz this is 3500 miles of coastline that they're gonna need to patrol. - [Voiceover] I'm just looking at this map, not getting too much into details, it looks like a lot of the battles are concentrated right in this Virginia/Maryland area, and then there's more, it's a little bit more sparse but you have a few that are in the Deep South and along this Mississippi corridor. - [Kim] There are two major theaters of the war. We'd say the Eastern Theater, and this is that 100-mile corridor between Washington and Richmond, where a huge amount of the fighting takes place. It's important to remember that the capital of the Confederacy and the capital of the United States are only 100 miles apart. - [Voiceover] This capital is, you can't see it on this map but it's someplace in the middle of Virginia, and then D.C., literally, as you mentioned you said it was 100 miles apart? - [Kim] Yep. - [Voiceover] Fascinating.