Decisive Defeat Was A Real Possibility for Robert E. Lee on Several Occasions
In my last post I asked the question, “What is decisive defeat?” The answer lies in the result achieved in relation to the objective of the operation. The first Principle of War is that of the Objective and is defined as directing all efforts to a decisive obtainable goal. Decisive means that the enemy loses a major element of his combat power or possibly even the war. As in chess, losing the queen or a rook may be decisive but a checkmate IS decisive.
The Confederate States needed only to convince the Union that victory was not possible and then they would achieve their indepedence. The Union, however had to bring the South to bay! A much more difficult goal.
Since Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was in many ways the heart and soul of the rebellion, it’s defeat by annhilation or capture would be decisive on many levels. Lee managed to stave off defeat until 1865 when the Union had massive combat power and Lee’s was rapidly dissipating with little or no hope of reinforcement or replacements not to mention rations and ammunition. So in the end Lee was decisively defeated and the Confederacy collapsed.
Lee had been close before. The Army of Northern Virginia was all but fought out at Sharpsburg. McClellan had un committed reserves that for whatever reason he did not put into the fight. Also, had the Federals attacked simultaneously the result may have been greatly different. One can say that the battle’s conclusion allowed President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation which had a major impact on European intervention. Neither France or England wanted to come out on the side of a slavery state. This meant it was only a matter of time unless…the Northern will could be broken and a political solution achieved.
At Gettysburg, Lee bled his army dry. Seventeen miles of ambulance trains and a close escape at Falling Waters once more allowed a the Union victory to be clear but not decisive. Had General Meade aggressively followed up and closed off the escape hatch at Williamsport Lee’s army would have been with its back to the raging Potomac and a general surrender possible. What would that have meant to the continuation of the war? An interesting conjecture indeed.
And what if Lee had somehow found a vulnerable flank and pulled another Chancellorsville with Longstreet? Could he have brought Meade to a decisive defeat? Probably not, in my opinion because the Union reinforcement capability was so large. He may have decisevely defeated Meade but the effect on the Union could only be felt if political will failed.
Next time I will discuss the situation at Chancellorsville…it could have gone both ways.