Kevin Dougherty on the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War

Kevin Dougherty, author of the recently released title, The Campaigns for Vicksburg 1862-63 discusses the impact, strategies, and staying power of the Civil War 150 years later.

2012–2013 marks the sesquicentennial of many of the major battles of the Civil War.  As a Civil War historian and history instructor, do you believe that Americans are generally well-informed on the Civil War and its political, military, and social roots and implications?  What do you hope to impress upon students in your teachings about the war? 

I think Americans, especially in the South, are very aware of the Civil War based on the abundant presence of battlefields, monuments, and places named after Civil War heroes.  At the same time, the “Lost Cause” is certainly fading as the defining point in the self-identity of the states of the former Confederacy due to changing cultural mores, an improved understanding of civil rights and race relations, political correctness, the influx of non-natives to the region, and the simple passage of time.  I’ll admit to having mixed feelings about that.

As far as enduring lessons, I’d note that it is common for some news commentators to say America is now more divided than it has ever been since the Civil War.  If that is true, I think the important thing to remember is that our country withstood the test of the Civil War and Reconstruction and continued as a politically united nation.  It wasn’t easy, pretty, or quick, but we did it then and I’d like to think we can do it again now.

In what ways did the strategies employed by the Union and Confederate armies—both successful and failed—affect U.S. military planning and operations moving forward?

I think the Civil War clearly showed the importance of strategy.  Both sides began with inadequate strategies, but with the accession of Ulysses Grant to command, the Federals developed a coordinated strategy that treated the South as a whole and optimized the North’s manpower advantage.  Less well-planned was the post-conflict phase.  Many observers conclude “the South lost the war, but won Reconstruction.”  The need to plan the post-combat phase, to conduct nation-building activities, to create institutions, and to provide security after victory has been won on the battlefield continues to be a difficult-to-achieve aspect of military operations, as seen for example in Iraq.

The Battle of Vicksburg has increasingly been recognized as one of the decisive battles of the Civil War; some argue Vicksburg’s role in the outcome of the war surpasses that of Gettysburg.  How has new research changed our collective understanding of the war and the views of our nation’s complicated past? 

The east was generally considered the primary theater during the war and that assumption dominated the initial historiography.  Increasingly, however, scholars such as Steven Woodworth have convincingly argued the importance of the west.  The trans-Mississippi was a critical source of both agriculture and personnel for the Confederacy and control of the Mississippi would isolate the eastern Confederacy from these important resources.  It would literally split the fledgling nation in two.  Also, at the time of the war, the Mississippi River was the single most important economic feature of the continent.  Northern farmers used it to move their crops to market, and so long as the Confederates controlled key choke points such as at Vicksburg, northern commercial interests suffered.  Steam power also made the Mississippi and other rivers important avenues for the North to project its combat power into the interior of the Confederacy.  President Lincoln recognized the importance of the Mississippi, noting, “See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key! The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket…. We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can defy us from Vicksburg.”

I guess one way to look at it is that both theaters were important.  The twin Federal victories at Gettysburg in the east and Vicksburg in the west did not end the war.  What ended the war was Grant’s coordinated strategy that treated the South as a whole and applied constant pressure everywhere simultaneously.

Aside from being America’s most costly war in terms of human lives, in what ways may one consider the Civil War unique in the broader context of military history, and what enduring lessons can be derived from a study of the conflict? 

The Civil War required both adaptability and leadership.  The adaptability required a recognition of the changing nature of warfare.  By the time of the Civil War, the innovations of the Industrial Revolution had made their way to the battlefield, requiring a change in tactics.  The rifle for example changed the relationship between the offense and the defense.  Steam power changed the relationship between the ship and the fort.  Railroads could negate the advantage of physical central position.  The war became increasingly total as it progressed.

Good leaders recognized these developments and adjusted.  Although the South is generally considered to have begun the war with superior generals, it was the Northern generals that grew and developed during the war.  Grant and Sherman are oft-cited examples.

Certainly one of the enduring lessons of the Civil War is that the art of war is not stagnant, and the key to generalship is continuous learning.  The military must always be careful to avoid “preparing to fight the last war.”  The end of the Cold War, the changing nature of the threat, the impact of globalization and new technology, the increasing presence of civilians on the battlefield, and the legal implications involved in combating terrorism and asymmetry are all issues that today’s military and political leaders have had to adjust to.  Their Civil War predecessors struggled with similar challenges and provide examples, both good and bad.

To hear more from Kevin Dougherty, listen to his interview with John Batchelor here.

Also by Kevin Dougherty, Strangling the Confederacy: Coastal Operations in the American Civil War.

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