Combined Operations in the Civil War. By Rowena Reed. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1978.
Naval superiority marked one of the Union’s most clear-cut advantages in the Civil War, but subduing the Confederacy’s vast coastline and interior would require strategic, operational, and tactical cooperation between the U.S. Army and Navy. Rowena Reed’s 1978 work represents one of the first studies of these combined operations during the course of the Civil War. Reed posits that the Union high command inadvisably forsook George McClellan’s purportedly sophisticated vision for a grand combined operational strategy and that Union forces did not achieve effective combined arms tactics until the war’s final year.
Combined Operations in the Civil War overviews the major joint Army-Navy operations of the conflict, including Burnside’s North Carolina Expedition, the taking of Forts Henry and Donelson, McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign, the capture of New Orleans, the clearing of the Mississippi River, the failed siege of Charleston, and the amphibious capture of Fort Fisher. Reed, however, privileges policy and strategic analysis over simple narrative. She divides her history of combined operations into three stages, characterized by 1) the evolution of Union combined strategy, 2) the collapse of combined strategy in practice, and 3) the evolution of combined tactics. Reed touts an early plan by George McClellan as offering a truly sophisticated strategic vision for combined operations with the potential to quickly win the war, a plan partially inspired by his professional observation of successful British and French combined operations against the Russians in the Crimea. McClellan envisioned independently formidable Army-Navy columns moving against the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and along the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland Rivers to strike into the Confederate interior and seize key rail junctions. This Jominian strategy of maneuver, which assumed the improbability of destroying defending enemy armies in the field, promised to fragment Confederate forces and cut them off from support and supplies.
Reed contends McClellan’s grand strategy fell apart because the Lincoln administration demoted the “Young Napoleon” from general-in-chief to command solely of the Army of the Potomac and failed to adequately support his advance on Richmond up the James River. Much the rest of Union’s war effort, she argues, would be characterized by a “continental” approach which failed to take maximum advantage of Northern naval superiority. Reed highlights the capture of New Orleans as a victory which would not have been possible without successful Army-Navy coordination, but dismisses operations against Forts Henry and Donelson and against Vicksburg as victories more attributable to good luck and Confederate weakness and less to successful combined operations. Advancement would be left to the tactical level. Operations against Charleston and Fort Fisher (outside Wilmington, NC) were initially marked by poor interservice communication and coordination, but the successful capture of Fort Fisher in January 1865 witnessed the implementation of effective combined tactics. Rejecting the assumption that the success of the Army-Navy-Marine storm of the fort was a fait accompli, Reed argues the fort’s capture was made possible by Admiral David Porter’s daring and well-coordinated bombardment of Confederate batteries even as Union attackers penetrated the defenses.
Combined Operations in the Civil War sheds new light on the Union war effort, applying a professional strategic analysis of combined operations which provides greater sophistication than traditional campaign narratives. Reed reveals understudied aspects of the war, including McClellan’s 1861 plan, and questions common assumptions about Union strategy. She further persuasively argues that too often combined operations were undermined by poor coordination and that Union commanders too often failed to appreciate the need to combine naval bombardment with amphibious landings. Too often, however, the work is overshadowed by controversial, if not questionable, conclusions. Reed offers some of the most effusive praise for George McClellan one will read in Civil War historiography, minimizing how this supposed strategic visionary allowed himself to be bluffed into a tedious siege of Yorktown by a significantly smaller Confederate force and generally exhibited maddening slowness and caution. She hyperbolically dismisses Union operations on the Mississippi and Gulf as “probably one of the worst examples of combined operations strategy in the history of war” (260). Presumably this encompasses Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign, which she faults as improvised and impulsive, “undertaken for no strategic purpose except a desire to fight the enemy army wherever it could be found” (255). Reed unintentionally highlights exactly those qualities which made Grant’s generalship far superior to that of “Little Mac”: Grant targeted enemy armies with bulldog tenacity and could adapt once his plans made contact with the enemy, whereas McClellan squandered ripe battlefield opportunities in his reluctance to give battle and demonstrated strategic and operational inflexibility in the face of the enemy. Absent too is praise for Grant’s appreciation of naval capabilities, except as far as they reflect McClellan’s own strategy.
Jonathan Steplyk Texas Christian University
Combined Operations in the Civil War. By Rowena Reed.
In her book, Combined Operations in the Civil War, Rowena Reed describes army-navy operations of the Union military with a focus on planning and political aspects rather than operations and tactics. Reed uses the word “combined” to describe operations than involve more than one branch of the service. In the defense lexicon of the United States, the term for such activity is “joint.” A “joint” operation involves more than one branch of the military service, whereas a “combined” operation involves the forces of more than one nation. It is, of course, possible to have an operation that is both “joint” and “combined” when you have different services from more than one nation involved although such did not occur in the American Civil War. In fairness to the author, she did define what she meant with the term “combined” in the preface to the book.
The reader should note that throughout this book I have used the broad
British term “combined,” which includes all operations requiring strategic or
tactical cooperation between naval and land forces under separate command. The narrower American term “amphibious”
is appropriate only to operations involving actual waterborne landing, while the
even more specific “amphibious assault” refers to an engagement requiring
tactical cooperation to overcome a fortified position.
Her definitions for amphibious actions are accurate as far as they go, and we can accept her definition of combined operations for purposes of evaluating this book. But the use of standard military terminology would help maintain credibility with all elements of her reading audience. This review will accept and utilize Rowena Reed’s term “combined” in order to maintain consistency with her text.
Early in the war, the Union undertook two operations on the southern littorals, which ended in important—if somewhat uneven—victories for its cause. The capture of Hatteras Inlet and Port Royal resulted essentially from naval power. The function of the landing force in these two operations was to occupy the ground after the battles, although that was not the intention. Reed is very critical of these operations even to the point of belittling the participants. Her criticism is, for the most part, valid, but in deriding the leadership of the operation, she fails to recognize two important facts. First, these actions were early in the war, and many of the participants, particularly on the army side, had little experience in combined operations. Secondly, amphibious operations are among the most challenging tactics to execute proficiently. Even with experienced troops, who possess appropriate equipment and training, it is difficult to conduct such an operation in a well-integrated manner. Her characterization of these efforts as being almost comic-opera is regrettable.
Despite Reed’s unfortunate overstatements, much of her criticism is valid. Not only did the engagements go awry, but also Union leaders failed to analyze the results properly. Naval and army officers, along with the political leadership in Washington, wrongly concluded that in combined operations along the littorals, naval power must defeat the enemy and the landing forces would merely occupy the ground afterwards. This had happened by default at Hatteras Inlet and Port Royal because of inadequate doctrine, and lack of experience. They lesson they should have learned is that better coordination between seaborne and landing forces is necessary to ensure full benefit from combined operations. Despite tactical difficulties and the lack of incisive analysis, these two operational victories had important strategic value. In the author’s words:
The other point of importance concerns the strategic effect and strategic
role of combined operations, whatever their tactical character. A large fleet and a fair-sized army had
secured a permanent foothold at a vital spot on the enemy’s coast. This waterborne force pointed straight
at the soul—if not the heart—of the Confederacy, Charleston, and to another
place of only slightly less value, Savannah. How skillfully the Federals would use
the mobility and power conferred by command of the sea, and to what end,
remained to be defined.
Professor Reed may have added that although naval power forced the surrender of forts, the presence of landing forces provided psychological pressure upon the defenders. Even if not used to their full advantage, the availability of landing forces has the value of restricting defensive options.
The author holds a favorable view of George B. McClellan due to his strategic insight and his capacity for innovation. McClellan’s strategic plan of November 1861 differed substantially from the so-called Anaconda plan advanced by his predecessor, General Winfield Scott. Whereas Scott’s plan tended to be more defensive and passive, McClellan intended a series of combined operations aggressively applied across the entire breadth of the Confederacy. Although aggressive in concept, McClellan’s implementation was too slow for the political environment of the time. Under pressure to act with the Army of the Potomac, McClellan devised first the Urbanna plan to force Johnston’s army out of the Centerville area, and then the peninsula operation to capture Richmond from the south. The “on to Richmond” mentality was now driving strategic thinking in the North.
The early stages of the peninsula campaign reflected an excellent application of combined operations. The movement of McClellan’s army to Fortress Monroe and naval support in the bombardment of Yorktown proved excellent examples of interservice coordination and tactical use of combined arms. But Lincoln’s decision to withhold McDowell’s corps denied McClellan use of William Franklin’s division, which was the best amphibious unit in the army. As the campaign wore on, the relationship between navy objectives and those of McClellan became divergent and subsequent combined operations were less effective. Eventually, McClellan was able to have Franklin’s division sent to the peninsula, but by the time it arrived naval cooperation had diminished. As a result, it never became the effective instrument of aggressive action envisioned by McClellan. Despite difficulties, obstacles, and a skillful delaying operation by Confederate forces, the Army of the Potomac had succeeded in wresting the initiative. McClellan had maneuvered Johnston’s army out of the Peninsula, taken the Norfolk naval complex, isolated Virginia’s Eastern Shore, strategically established Burnside’s army in the Carolinas, and controlled the James River. It appeared that McClellan’s master plan was in the process of successful execution.
McClellan’s grand strategy and the lessons from his good use of combined operations in the peninsula campaign were all to fall victim to the actions of Robert E. Lee. In a series of hammering offensives, Lee drove McClellan’s forces from the gates of Richmond to a defensive enclave under protection of Union gunboats at Harrison’s Landing. Reed believes that despite his operational defeat, McClellan remained in a good position to resume offensive action against Lee’s army and the city of Richmond. But the failure of his effort in face of Lee’s attacks cost him credibility and reduced his freedom of action as commanding general. Reed has a high regard for McClellan’s intelligence, his planning skills, and his generalship. She believes that his failure on the Peninsula resulted from lack of political support in Washington and imperfect naval support during the second phase of this operation. In her own words:
The Federal government’s almost total failure to comprehend the most
elementary principles of war, or to trust generals who did understand them,
consistently ruined the soundest plans and disrupted the most careful
arrangements. Washington’s amateur
strategists, suspicious of the professional military mind, blundered into the
business of war with the usual overconfidence and ignorance. That they did not intentionally ruin
McClellan’s operations, as is frequently claimed, made no difference in the
With McClellan’s failure on the peninsula—Reed would call it Lincoln’s failure—came an end to his grand strategy, and with that, a breakdown in combined operational thinking until much later in the war. This happened at just the time when the navy began to understand the benefits of combined operations, and the army had created highly skilled units to execute such operations. In Reed’s view, the ascendancy of Henry W. Halleck and Ulysses S. Grant introduced an army-centric leadership with a continental orientation. After the peninsula campaign, battles tended to be either naval or land operations up to the final year of the war.
This change caused damage to the war effort as is amply demonstrated in the capture of New Orleans by the U.S. Navy on April 25, 1862. In the week between surrender of the city to David Farragut and its occupation by Benjamin Butler’s troops, the Confederates removed everything of military value leaving only a defiant population as the fruit of victory. Despite experiencing a number of tactical victories in the West, the abandonment of McClellan’s strategic plan gave new hope to the Confederacy. Halleck appeared to have no vision beyond the siege of Corinth, and Butler’s forces never moved aggressively outside the confines of New Orleans. This shift in thinking to a land war of attrition ensured a longer and more destructive contest. Aggressive actions by Sterling Price, Kirby Smith, and Braxton Bragg in the west, and Robert E. Lee in the east seemed to fill a void created by the freeze in strategic thinking that resulted from McClellan’s demise. This lack of strategic vision created risks to the Union, and only the inability of the Confederate government to exploit this situation prevented graver consequences.
Important Union successes such as Grant’s capture of Vicksburg tended to occur when local army and naval commanders cooperated on their own, despite the lack of coordination by the high command. Although this ensured combined operations did occur at some minimal level, it was far short of ideal. In Reeds words:
For combined operations, already more difficult to control than operations by an army or navy alone, the absence of careful study, of preliminary planning, of sustained and intelligent cooperation and, above all, of a clear idea of the objective to be attained by joint effort, has often proved fatal. The Federal offensive on the Mississippi and the Gulf after the collapse of McClellan’s plan, taken as a whole, is probably one of the worst examples of combined operations strategy in the history of the war. That the enemy’s tremendous relative weakness, especially on the water, allowed it to succeed anyway should not alter this judgment.
Professor Reed does not believe that Henry Halleck—despite his wrong minded strategic thinking—was the ineffective buffoon that many contemporaries and historians portray. Although not an admirer of Halleck, Reed considers him a shrewd and clever figure who learned from the example of George McClellan not to become a target of Northern politicians. By avoiding confrontation with the political structure, and transmitting orders through a diffused command system, he was able to have a far greater influence over events than is recognized. This is not an advantage in Reed’s mind because Halleck, like many army and naval leaders of his time, showed little appreciation for the value of combined operations.
Despite the land-based orientation of Henry Halleck, combined operations did not end entirely. A concerted effort to capture Charleston, South Carolina provided some real lessons on the coordination of services and the tactics of amphibious operations. The first attack on Charleston ended in failure whereas the second effort under John A. Dahlgren enjoyed at least partial success. This success was due to close coordination between Dahlgren and army commander Quincy A. Gillmore during the preparation phase, and after the landing force was ashore. Among the important lessons learned were the value of communications and the systematic and continuous use of overwhelming firepower from all arms in support of the amphibious assault. Although learned and applied imperfectly, these lessons had a great influence on future operations, especially the second attack on Fort Fisher later in the war.
Fort Fisher is, of course, the major fortification on the mouth of the Cape Fear River that protects the key port city of Wilmington, North Carolina. The first effort to capture Fort Fisher and Wilmington by David Porter and Benjamin Butler ended in disaster, due to a failure to apply the lessons of Charleston Harbor. The second effort—this time with Alfred Terry as the army commander—took in consideration both the lessons of Charleston and the failed earlier effort at Fort Fisher. The second attack on Fort Fisher is the best example of combined operations in the Civil War and perhaps the best amphibious attack up to its time. It had all the hallmarks of successful landing operation including good preparation and planning, appropriate organization for combat, strong preparatory bombardment, close and continuous fire support during the operation, close coordination between the landing force and naval element, and strong, fast aggressive action on behalf of the landing force.
For Professor Reed, the brilliant success at Fort Fisher and Wilmington is a validation of the strategy envisaged by George McClellan, and the possibilities offered by the proper use of combined operations. She contends that the loss of Wilmington had a far greater impact on Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia than Sherman's rampage through Georgia and the Carolinas. The Fort Fisher example suggests the possibility of earlier success for Union arms than was possible under the continental strategy of Halleck, Grant, and the Lincoln administration. In the words of Rowena Reed:
From a military point of view—that is, leaving aside Sherman’s personal ambition—the famous march accomplished nothing that could not have been more quickly and cheaply attained by other means. Had this large force, which Grant called his ‘spare army’ been brought to Baltimore after the Atlanta campaign to cooperate with the Navy in taking Wilmington and opening the Cape Fear, Lee would have been maneuvered out of Richmond in December 1864.
Reed gives Grant credit for recognizing the value of combined operations late in the war, although she considered him to have been slow in coming. She primarily blames Halleck for moving the war effort to a continental strategy, which was wasteful and long in duration. And she exhibits no great admiration for the ability of Lincoln and his advisors to offer innovative or incisive alternatives.
Combined Operations in the Civil War is an effort to describe the strategy of the Civil War and explain alternate possibilities. The author explains why certain courses were followed an others were not. Her thesis is often counter to “correct thinking” and conventional wisdom regarding certain events and leaders of the Civil War. As a result, Combined Operations in the Civil War is a refreshing different analysis and is often quite convincing. Although one may not agree with her idealization of George B. McClellan, her commentary does confirm the persistent suspicion that there was much more to this man than simply the General who could not beat Robert E. Lee in battle. Rowena Reed should be valued for this very scholarly study, and for having the courage to swim against the current.
Gary J. Ohls