Civil War Strategy and Tactics

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Civil War Strategy and Tactics

Civil War Strategy and Tactics of the Union and Confederate Armies

At the onset of the Civil War, William Thomas (Cherokee chief, Confederate colonel, state senator) believed in defensive guerrilla warfare and, since the Union army typically outnumbered the Confederate army by more than two-to-one, he wisely opposed the traditional Napoleonic Tactics and even discussed his "defensive only strategy" directly with Confederate president Jefferson Davis himself. Thomas was not a Fire-Eater, he initially opposed secession, and during the war a $5,000 bounty was offered to "anyone that would assassinate the Confederate Chief."

For most of the Civil War, the Confederate Eastern Cherokee were equipped with the ,69 caliber musket, which could only kill at a short distance (50-100 yards) compared to the Union soldier’s Springfield and Enfield (200-300 yards). In other words, the Union soldier had a superior advantage, unless the Cherokee, without being detected, could shorten the distance. And guerrilla warfare allowed the Cherokee to meet that objective. (Civil War Small Arms, Cherokee Indians: Weapons and Warfare, and The American Civil War and Guerrilla Warfare.)

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The mountaineers, like their "Overmountain Forefathers" during the American Revolution, vehemently believed in a defensive war. Their mountain ancestors proved their defensive strategy by surprising and destroying the British Army at two key southern battles: Kings Mountain and Cowpens. Furthermore, who knew the Western North Carolina geography and topography better than the indigenous Cherokees and Mountaineers?

From the beginning of the Civil War, Thomas believed and pleaded with Governors Henry Toole Clark and Zebulon Vance, President Jefferson Davis, and various commanding generals that the mountaineers would be most effective as a locally employed guerrilla unit. Moreover, these highlanders were a unique blend of individuals possessing indepth knowledge and understanding of their region. Because of the lack of western North Carolina defenses, bushwhackers and outlaws reigned and the slaughtering of non-combatants continued, for most of the war, with impunity. Eventually, Governor Vance, President Davis, Generals Martin, Bragg, Buckner, and many others stated that a force similar to the Thomas Legion would have been sufficient for defense of North Carolina's western counties.

"Many of them [Thomas' Legion*] joined with the promise that they were not to be taken out of the State except in the North Carolina mountain of defense." Captain Robert A. Akin, Company H, Walker's Battalion, Thomas' Legion

Thomas petitioned Richmond to authorize the recruitment of "additional Indians and such whites as I may select." His goal was to raise a "full battalion" and ultimately a "mounted regiment" to act as an independent guerrilla force for the local defense of the Cumberland Gap in pro-Unionist East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. According to Thomas's writings, Davis agreed to arm and supply the unit. In future correspondence with Davis, Thomas stated, "I have increased the Battalion of Indians and Mountaineers to a regiment and am progressing with a Legion. Not for one year but for three years or during the war" (North Carolina Division of Archives and History, April 17, 1862, and Storm in the Mountains: Thomas' Confederate Legion of Cherokee Indians and Mountaineers: Vernon H. Crow 12-36). Thomas wrote to Davis and "submitted a plan for the defenses of East Tennessee." November 8, 1862, Strawberry Pains, TN. (O.R., Ser. I, Vol. 20, pt. II, p. 395)

General Ulysses S. Grant, while traveling through the Cumberland Gap in 1864, noted: "With two brigades of the Army of the Cumberland I could hold that pass against the army which Napoleon led to Moscow."

Roman Emperor Hadrian and the world’s greatest military power were brought to their knees by inferior guerrilla bands in the early second century. Because of Rome’s losses to guerrilla raids from the north, it succumbed to a stalemate and constructed a massive wall, known as Hadrian's Wall, to separate the Roman Empire from northern Britain, a location now known as the Scottish Highlands. The Roman Empire never conquered northern Britain, and Hadrian's Wall is considered a great "guerrilla victory." Applying their familiar terrain and home field advantage, King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, with their Greek allies, defended the Pass of Thermopylae and inflicted at least 20,000 casualties on the invading Persian Army. Prior to surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia, General Lee seriously contemplated disbanding the army, creating a massive guerrilla force, and relocating it to the mountains. And in the twentieth century, the Vietnamese excelled in guerrilla warfare and proved to be a very formidable foe.

Thomas had officially petitioned North Carolina Governors Clark and Vance, Jefferson Davis and General Braxton Bragg. His petition was to employ the Thomas Legion "to defend the passes of the Smokies." And in February 1864, Thomas reminded South Carolina officials that in the beginning of the war, he had urged the Carolinas to “make preparations to defend the passes in the Smoky Mountains for their common protection…and by express permission of President Davis, I raised a legion of Indians and highlanders” (O.R., Series 1, 53, p. 313). Richmond had ordered Thomas and the Cherokee Battalion to the Smokies, however, in May 1864 it advanced the bulk of the Legion to the Shenandoah Valley. On May 2, 1864, in a letter to Headquarters Armies Confederate States,  Bragg proclaimed  that "General Longstreet’s army having left East Tennessee opened all of Western North Carolina, Northeastern Georgia, Northwestern South Carolina, to incursions of the enemy." And in May 1864, Colonel Black, with the First South Carolina Cavalry, stated that although Thomas and the Cherokees were assigned to Western North Carolina, "a wide gap is open for the inroad of the enemy" (O.R. Series 1, 53, p. 333). Bragg and Black voiced their concerns the exact month that the "bulk of the Thomas Legion" was ordered to the Shenandoah Valley. During the 1864 Valley Campaigns, General Early's Army of the Valley absorbed the majority of the Department of East Tennessee and Western District of North Carolina. By transferring the bulk of both commands into the Valley, it allowed bushwhackers to plunder, at will,  East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. One incident, the Shelton Laurel Massacre, epitomized the region's lawlessness and anarchy. It is the writer's view, with overwhelming evidence, that the Thomas Legion desertions was the direct result of the Confederacy ordering the majority of the Thomas Legion beyond the region and defense of the mountains. (See conditions in Western North Carolina: O.R. Series IV, 2, 732, O.R., 53, 324, O.R., Series 1, Vol. 32, pt. II, pp. 610-611, O.R., Series 1, Vol. 53, pp. 331-335, and Jefferson Davis's Letter of Confidence in Thomas' Legion - January 4, 1865.)

While Thomas and the Cherokee Battalion were assigned to Western North Carolina, the persuasive colonel recruited dozens of Confederate deserters to the Thomas Legion, but to his dismay, he received a court-martial.

Thomas was a superior leader, outstanding manager, wise planner, and skillful organizer. However, many of his proposals fell upon apathetic ears. He opposed the Conscription Act of April 1862 and stated that it would "force the pro-Unionist, tory, and abolitionist to flee." He believed that these citizens could be best used as "Home Guard" and in non-combatant roles such as sappers, laborers, and miners (engineers). His vocal opposition to the Conscription Act fell upon apathetic ears, and thousands fled because of it. He also stated that all slaves should be emancipated and employed as engineers and laborers. This too was denied. He desired to allocate the highlanders as a local defense force; after all, they were most familiar with the area. This too was ignored, thus allowing bands of bushwhackers, deserters, and escaped Union prisoners to operate as saboteurs and insurgents and freely exploit the Southern Appalachian Mountains. In 1864, Thomas proposed an amnesty bill which he believed would encourage deserters, abolitionists, outliers, and pro-Unionists to return to Western North Carolina. They could be employed as Home Guard, and this bill would assist in defusing the disaffection and mounting chaos in the mountains. Thomas believed that the bill would keep the Carolinians from killing each other. His amnesty bill failed, however, causing a continuation of war crimes in the region. During May 1865 in White Sulphur Springs (Waynesville), Thomas would exit the war after conducting psychological operations. (Cherokee War Rituals, Culture, Festivals, Government, and Beliefs.)

Postponing the order was viewed as a cancellation and outright breach of promise to defend the North Carolina mountains.
On May 5, 1864, the War Department issued Special Order 105 (O.R., 36, II, pp. 958-959 and O.R., Series 1, Vol. 39, Part II, p. 579), sending Thomas' Legion to Western North Carolina; this action was in response to the deplorable acts of the bushwhackers and outlaws. It was also designed to defend the region against a Union attack. However, Federal movements in the Shenandoah Valley postponed the Order. Subsequently, Thomas' Legion would return to Western North Carolina with Special Order 267 (O.R., 1, 43, Part II, p. 919).

During the last months of the Civil War, Confederate General Martin (O.R., 1, 49, Part 1, p. 1048), Union General Stanley (O.R.,1, 49, Part II, p. 309), and Lt. Colonel Stringfield (Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-1865, Volume 3, p. 761) recorded similar strength for the Thomas Legion.


Apart attrition from deaths, diseases, wounds and imprisonment (prisoners of war) sources reflect that most of the Thomas Legion deserters had rejoined the legion. They had previously deserted or returned to Western North Carolina to perform Home Guard  duties. They had protected their homes and families during the area's anarchy and, subsequently, had rejoined the legion for the remainder of the War. This legion had been mustered into service with the intent to defend East Tennessee and Western North Carolina.

*At the beginning of the Civil War, Thomas' Legion mustered more than 2,500 soldiers. The unit was North Carolina's only legion and it recruited Cherokee Indians and mountain men.

Editor’s Recommended Reading: The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War (528 pages) (Oxford University Press). Description: Of the tens of thousands of books exploring virtually every aspect of the Civil War, surprisingly little has been said about what was in fact the determining factor in the outcome of the conflict: differences in Union and Southern strategy. In The Grand Design, Donald Stoker provides a comprehensive and often surprising account of strategy as it evolved between Fort Sumter and Appomattox. Continued below…

Reminding us that strategy is different from tactics (battlefield deployments) and operations (campaigns conducted in pursuit of a strategy), Stoker examines how Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis identified their political goals and worked with their generals to craft the military means to achieve them--or how they often failed to do so. Stoker shows that Davis, despite a West Point education and experience as Secretary of War, failed as a strategist by losing control of the political side of the war. His invasion of Kentucky was a turning point that shifted the loyalties and vast resources of the border states to the Union. Lincoln, in contrast, evolved a clear strategic vision, but he failed for years to make his generals implement it. At the level of generalship, Stoker notes that Robert E. Lee correctly determined the Union's center of gravity, but proved mistaken in his assessment of how to destroy it. Stoker also presents evidence that the Union could have won the war in 1862, had it followed the grand plan of the much-derided general, George B. McClellan. Historians have often argued that the North's advantages in population and industry ensured certain victory. In The Grand Design, Stoker reasserts the centrality of the overarching military ideas--the strategy--on each side, arguing convincingly that it was strategy that determined the war's outcome. About the Author: Donald Stoker is Professor of Strategy and Policy for the U.S. Naval War College's program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

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Related Reading:


Recommended Reading: The Bloody Crucible of Courage: Fighting Methods and Combat Experience of the Civil War (752 pages). Description: In this groundbreaking achievement in Civil War scholarship, acclaimed military historian Brent Nosworthy leads an all-out attack on the many myths and misunderstandings about how the North and South fought, and covers for the first time in any book the variety of Civil War combat methods in their entirety. Continued below…

Now everything from grand tactics to hand-to-hand combat during our nation’s costliest war is given its proper due in the development of warfare. Nosworthy weaves together the story of newly emerging weapons, the resulting changes in military doctrine, and the combatants’ experiences as these innovations were applied to the battlefield. Detailing methods of warfare from General Irvin McDowell’s first tentative efforts at Bull Run to Lee’s and Grant’s final exertions at Petersburg and Appomattox, the author examines tactical variations due to regional differences and the distinctive circumstances of each campaign. Along with maps, diagrams, and illustrations throughout, The Bloody Crucible of Courage recognizes the primacy of the war’s most compelling voices, and contains hundreds of firsthand accounts from the front lines.


Recommended Reading: Battle Tactics of the Civil War. Description: Was the Civil War really the birthplace of modern battlefield tactics? Paddy Griffith argues that despite the use of new weapons and of trench warfare techniques, the Civil War was in reality the last Napoleonic-style war. Rich in description and analysis, this is a book of interest both to military historians and to Civil War buffs. Continued below…

Reviews: "Belongs on the shelf of every historian, Civil War buff, and military tactician." -- Maj. James T. Currie, Army. "Provides a fresh and provocative appraisal of the [Civil] War. . . . An essential read for anyone interested in the subject." -- Military History Illustrated. About the Author: Paddy Griffith, formerly a senior lecturer in war studies at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, England, is the author of several other books on military subjects, including Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army's Art of Attack, published by Yale University Press.


Recommended Reading: Storm in the Mountains: Thomas' Confederate Legion of Cherokee Indians and Mountaineers (Thomas' Legion: The Sixty-ninth North Carolina Regiment). Description: Vernon H. Crow, Storm in the Mountains, spent 10 years conducting extensive Thomas Legion's research. Crow was granted access to rare manuscripts, special collections, and privately held diaries which add great depth to this rarely discussed Civil War legion. He explores and discusses the unit's formation, fighting history, and life of the legion's commander--Cherokee chief and Confederate colonel--William Holland Thomas. Continued below...

Numerous maps and photographs allow the reader to better understand and relate to the subjects discussed. It also contains rosters which is an added bonus for researchers and genealogists. Crow, furthermore, left no stone unturned while examining the many facets of the Thomas Legion and his research is conveyed on a level that scores with Civil War students and scholars alike.


Highly Recommended Viewing: Indian Warriors - The Untold Story of the Civil War (History Channel) (2007). Description: Though largely forgotten, 20 to 30 thousand Native Americans fought in the Civil War. Ely Parker was a Seneca leader who found himself in the thick of battle under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant. Stand Waite--a Confederate general and a Cherokee--was known for his brilliant guerrilla tactics. Continued below...

Also highlighted is Henry Berry Lowery, an Eastern North Carolina Indian, who became known as the Robin Hood of North Carolina. Respected Civil War authors, Thom Hatch and Lawrence Hauptman, help reconstruct these most captivating stories, along with descendants like Cherokee Nation member Jay Hanna, whose great-grandfathers fought for both the Union and the Confederacy. Together, they reveal a new, fresh perspective and the very personal reasons that drew these Native Americans into the fray.


Recommended Reading: Bushwhackers, The Civil War in North Carolina: The Mountains (338 pages). Description: Trotter's book (which could have been titled "Murder, Mayhem, and Mountain Madness") is an epic backdrop for the most horrific murdering, plundering and pillaging of the mountain communities of western North Carolina during the state’s darkest hour—the American Civil War. Commonly referred to as Southern Appalachia, the North Carolina and East Tennessee mountains witnessed divided loyalties in its bushwhackers and guerrilla units. These so-called “bushwhackers” even used the conflict to settle old feuds and scores, which, in some cases, continued well after the war ended. Continued below...

Some bushwhackers were highly organized ‘fighting guerrilla units’ while others were a motley group of deserters and outliers, and, since most of them were residents of the region, they were familiar with the terrain and made for a “very formidable foe.” In this work, Trotter does a great job on covering the many facets of the bushwhackers, including their: battles, skirmishes, raids, activities, motives, the outcome, and even the aftermath. This book is also a great source for tracing ancestors during the Civil War; a must have for the family researcher of Southern Appalachia.

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