Random thoughts on Grant and attrition warfare

Attrition warfare has a bad reputation. It is traditionally scorned by the intellectuals of military thought. It is seen as wasteful and slow. Especially after the slaughter of static trench warfare in WWI, the focus on military thought was on finding ways to avoid the stalemate of attrition warfare. The results of this school of thought include the Wehrmacht’s Blitzkrieg, and the US Army’s obsession with mechanization in WWII. Indeed, to this day, the US Army and Marines have placed enormous emphasis on maneuver warfare. Even in this day and age of COIN warfare, the land forces still discuss what is essentially an attrition campaign in maneuver terms.

The Civil War in many ways presaged the horrors that would be fully implemented 50 years later in Flander’s fields. It saw some of the first examples of trench warfare, and was on the cusp of the age of rapid fire infantry weapons. The formations of troop units were still those of the older age, where massed units were a necessity to mass the firepower of slower firing weapons. The speed of advance, on the battlefield itself, was that of a slow walk. But it was not uncommon for commanders to move units between theaters at the previously unheard of speed of locomotives.

The Civil War remains our deadly conflict. Roughly 600,000 dead. And in many ways, it really was a war of attrition. The North tried to attrit the South to destroy its ability to rebel. The South tried to attrit the North until such time as the North decided it was not worth the price to pay to keep the Union whole.

Grant gets a lot of credit in the general public for winning the war. But he’s often held in some suspicion by the military intellectuals for waging a campaign of attrition rather than one of maneuver. He fought Lee at damn near every opportunity, rarely taking the time to improve his approach or muster larger forces.

But here’s the thing about Grant’s attrition campaign in the East. It worked. It worked where every previous campaign had failed. And that’s all that matters.

Why did Grant succeed where his predecessors fail? All the previous commanders in the East had sought a decisive engagement with the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV). Each and every time the Army of the Potomac attacked, it was intended either as a knock-out blow that would destroy the ANV or to capture Richmond and force an end to the rebellion. Before every attack, the Union generals would amass troops and supplies. Time would be spent to move troops and equipment to launch the attack. Each time, the Union leadership would struggle to achieve sufficient mass and concentration to force a decisive engagement.

The problem was this. Not a one of the Union generals was even in the ballpark when it came to Lee’s talent. Lee is greatly thought of as a master of maneuver warfare. And he truly was. But he was also brilliant at the defense, and had the finest touch for economy of force.

Lee repeatedly attacked north into the Union, not to achieve a specific territorial gain, but rather to disrupt Union plans (spoiling attacks) and to force the Union to disperse its forces in the defense of its territorial integrity. There was always a great deal of fear that Lee might actually seize Washington, DC (remember, the Brits had burned it down only 50 years before, and the Potomac area was not the most Union friendly part of the world).

Also, whenever Union generals paused to prepare for their attack, Lee worked like a madman to prepare defenses to meet them. He would defend and draw a heavy price from the attacker. Either his defenses would bleed the Union troops white, or he would place them in such disarray that he could fall back from his defenses with little fear of a vigorous pursuit.

Grant took a more aggressive approach. Rather than spending time amassing all the troops available, he’d take those at hand (which always outnumbered the ANV anyway) and attacked. Relentlessly. Grant was not trying to achieve a decisive victory. He was trying to kill enemy troops. He knew that his hasty attacks would cost enormous numbers of Union casualties, but he also realized that he would receive replacements and reinforcements far faster than Lee could ever hope for.

Grant grasped that the South’s only ability to continue the rebellion was to have an army in being, namely the Army of Northern Virginia, and he realized that any other objective was purely secondary. Destroying the ANV was the Army of the Potomac’s only real objective. But Grant didn’t try to bring the ANV to decisive battle.

By attacking every time the opportunity presented itself, he slowly whittled away at its strength. He bled it of its core of veteran leadership, and hardened campaigners. It’s level of skill dropped precipitously as more and more of its replacements were mere boys or old men.

By attacking at the earliest opportunity, Grant denied Lee the chance to improve his defensive positions. He was able to inflict greater casualties on the AVN, and force it to displace sooner. Eventually, Grant was able hound Lee to the point where, at Appomattox, a decisive engagement was inevitable. It is easy to say that this attrition strategy was wasteful. But, again, it worked, where other approaches had failed. Indeed, had Grant been on hand to pursue such a strategy sooner, it may well have materially shortened the war, and reduced the bloodshed. Grant played to his strengths, and prevented Lee from capitalizing on his. That’s a sure sign of good generalship.

Interestingly, after shunning attrition warfare in the 20 years after WWI, searching for a workable maneuver warfare doctrine that would reduce casualties and force decisive engagements, the Allies in Western Europe, under Eisenhower, would actually use a very similar strategy. Eisenhower resisted advancing with one powerful thrust to the heart of the German land. Instead, his first objective remained the German armies in the field and by attacking across a broad front, he decimated the German armies.

One wonders if our current leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan have studied and appreciated the advantages of attrition warfare.

13 thoughts on “Random thoughts on Grant and attrition warfare”

  1. The view of “Grant the butcher” has attenuated over time. Partly as later wars were ghastly affairs. But also as we examine the campaigns. I for one would contest the notion that Grant chose to fight a campaign of attrition against Lee. Grant fought a war of maneuver from the crossing of the Rapidan River to Appomattox Courthouse, with a nine month pause around Petersburg.

    When you consider the opening moves of the Overland Campaign through even the operations at Petersburg, Grant was continually looking to slip onto Lee’s flanks. Even during the siege, Grant continually probed toward the rail lines south of the city. Battles like 2nd Reams Station and Globe Tavern are good examples.

    The attrition in the trenches of Petersburg was not part of Grant’s grand plan. It came about because Lee and Grant canceled each other out. Neither commander was able to gain the maneuver space needed to execute the preferred course of action. Lee could not repeat a 2nd Manassas/Chancellorsville event. Grant could not achieve a the decisive “cut” into the Confederate lines until Five Forks in the closing months. Then the campaign became a footrace.

  2. ..and further to Craig’s comments, the key enabler to Grant’s new ability to conduct that maneuver warfare was the coming of age of Northern Cavalry as a cohesively fought combat arm, instead of the scattered picket duty / patrol / raid force that it had been used as before.

  3. First, the South did not rebel. They withdrew, legally, IU might ad, from s Federal Union that was becoming much less Federal and oppressive. They fought a war of independence. The North fought a war of imperial conquest that has led directly to the mess we have today with Obama and the left. Lincoln was their type of guy.

    Grant was, alas, a butcher. He nearly destroyed the Army of The Potomac with his relentless frontal assaults, with the 9 month pause at Petersburg being required because the Army of The Potomac was exhausted. The Overland Campaign nearly caused the loss of the war. I am of the opinion that if Jackson had not been killed, and Lee had been able to make good just 10% of his casualties, the South would have won its independence.

    Of the men that survived the war, only Lee proved himself a great man. Grant proved just the opposite. His choice of the style of combat that he used to fight Lee also showed how small a man he was. Lee did all he could to spare the lives of his men. Grant spent them like water, and he has been judged harshly for it, and it is well deserved.

    One other thing the north is judged harshly for, the invention of total war. The Northern Armies waged war directly on the civilian population of the south. They incurred the well deserved bitterness of a section, and the opprobrium of history for acting as they did. The diaries of Northern Officers document the rape and repine (quit literal) the northern Army committed. They did not fight to end slavery, they came to conquer and destroy.

    Lincoln led directly to Obama and the unitary “Federal” State. The Confederacy fought on the side of Angels. And Grant is still a poor General and a butcher.

    1. Mr. Madison, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

      All kidding aside not a single one of your points is correct. The best thing that can be said about the legal basis for succession is that it’s an inference, one that has been emphatically denied. There’s no take-back clause in the Constitution.

      The war was about State’s Rights…to permit slavery. It’s obvious from the speeches and newspaper editorials, north and south, that the war was about slavery. Who are we to argue with those that started and fought the damn thing?

      Grant did what needed to be done. He was much less a butcher than the previous Union generals who dallied around fighting battles, getting people killed, and failing to do what needed to be done to ensure those lives weren’t wasted. Lee valued the lives of his soldiers because he had to, he didn’t have the ability to replace his troops. Grant lost half his army getting to Petersburg, so did Lee. The Army of the Potomac was no more exhausted than the Army of Northern Virginia. The Overland Campaign came to a halt because Lee was finally forced into the previously prepared final defensive ring around Richmond and the military technology of the time had just reached the point where properly prepared defense trumped offense (see WWI). Lee only left those lines when Sherman’s army coming up from Georgia threatened to cut Richmond off, turning the defense of Richmond into a siege, which could only have one outcome. Lee gambled he could evade Grant and lost.

      Speaking of Georgia, to claim that the north invented total warfare shows how partisan you are. You want to see total war look at the 30-years’ War. In Germany. In the 17th century. One of the purposes of the March to the Sea was to destroy one of the last logistical support areas for the Confederate army. Another was to destroy the socio-political system that started a war that killed half a million men, that’s why South Carolina received much harsher treatment than Georgia. Sherman may have wanted to make Georgia howl, but he wanted South Carolina to whimper. Finally the March was intended to place Sherman in a position where he could complete the encirclement of Richmond.

      The thing about Lincoln is he took the bit about “To secure these Rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” seriously. Any government that does not allow the majority (or a significant minority) of their population a say is, by definition, illegitimate. If the Confederacy fought on the side of angles they were Fallen ones. There’s no logical link between Lincoln and Obama, no matter how hard to latter pretends there is.

    2. An important point that often gets overlooked in the “Grant the butcher” discussions – Grant lost more men in the summer of 1864 to expiring enlistments than he did on the battlefield. Heck, in the middle of the battle of Spotsylvania several regiments were simply directed to the nearest port and transited home.

      Lee didn’t have to contend with expiring enlistments, by the way. His army at this point was a conscription army, filled by a military draft. Resistance to such actually hindered the Confederate war effort considerably. Davis was forced to suspend Habeas Corpus in some instances. Rather odd we don’t hear much about that….

    3. What about how the Confederate Army treated runaway slaves? The freed black regiments they fought?

      The radical republicans extended the federal govt. Lincoln simply fought a war to keep the union together.

      The South never had a chance, it just took Grant to see how to best beat Lee.

  4. I say this as a Northerner: I have never served in the military, I am not a chairborne tactical genius, If you give me enough liquor (Grant’s ration sent by Lincoln) I’ll order frontal attacks too. In the process you will all have called me a military genius too. Bear in mind, Grant was not a rifleman paying the butchers bill. Grant has his nose buried in the same infantry tactics texts as Napoleon. He couldn’t comprehend the effects of the rifle. At one time I was puzzled by a grade school text that listed Union causalities twice a great as those experienced to the Rebs. The reason is that Rebs knew how to shoot.

    Secondly, what would the outcome of the Civil War/Northern Industrialist War of Aggression have been if Lee’s conventional forces had not surrendered, but melted away into the countryside to begin a gorilla campaign? Grant’s war of attrition would have been a moot point. The Union forces would have been the victims of an attrition campaign.

    Southern society has been the nursery of military leadership, even today (save the military academies). 80% of the U.S. officer corps is of southern extraction.

    In closing, lets not make genius’ out of out-classed drunks.

    1. Secondly, what would the outcome of the Civil War/Northern Industrialist War of Aggression have been if Lee’s conventional forces had not surrendered, but melted away into the countryside to begin a gorilla campaign? Grant’s war of attrition would have been a moot point. The Union forces would have been the victims of an attrition campaign.

      See: Sea, March to the.

      If the south had stepped up a guerrilla campaign the north would have implemented plans to disposses souther landowners and resettle northerners. There was some talk of that around the end of the war, I have no doubt the north would have done whatever it took to remove the support for an insurgency. There simply wouldn’t be a south today. Remember significant number of Southern males were rotting in graves at that time.

      Remember that, even today, military doctrine calls for an offensive force to outnumber a defensive one by 3 to 1, because defensive forces are going to destroy much more. It wasn’t that the southerners were better shots, it’s that they were fighting a defensive war.

      Grant wasn’t as smart as Lee, but that doesn’t make him an idiot. Unlike every Union general that preceded him he recognized Lee was smarter than him and stopped fighting to Lee’s strengths. Grant won, it’s kind of hard to called him outclassed.

  5. Craig, I would say that at the tactical level, Grant did, to the extent possible, maneuver. But at the operational and strategic level, his campaign was one of attrition. His objective was always the ANV, and he seized terrain only to enable that objective.

    Quartermaster-As to whether Lee or Grant was the better General, I’d probably go with Lee. But that is beside the point. Grant knew what had to be done and did it.

    As to Grant nearly destroying the Army of the Potomac, so what? It existed only in order to destroy Lee’s army. If it wasn’t used for that purpose, it was of no worth at all. You argue that if Jackson had not been killed, and Lee had 10% replacements, he would have prevailed. Maybe, maybe not. But that’s entirely beside the point. Jackson was dead, and Grant knew beyond all certainty that he would receive a stream of replacements that Lee would not.

    Very often in battle both sides have reached the conclusion that they are about to fail or be destroyed. It is often the General that “takes not counsel of his fears” that prevails.

    1. Yes, Grant knew what he had to do and did it. But the judgment of history in ther lessons learned from such conflicts do not stand with Grant. Grant nearly lost the war by repeated frontal attacks wrecking the AOP in the process. To say with Grant, as he did to Meade, “your objective is Lee,” is to join with a process that with a little less resources leads to the destruction of your cause is foolish. The purpose of an Army, indeed, the entire military establishment, is victory and that does not automatically mean the destruction of the opposing Army.

      As for guerilla warfare, I have no doubt that the radical Republican thugs would have been more than happy to utterly destroy the population of the south. They wanted to do exactly that in the fist place. Their purpose was conquest and subjugation, not the salvation of the union, which they destroyed by their radicalism and resort to coercion, or the end of slavery.

      I find it amusing that the the US military’s attitudes towards miulitary service in conflicts such as WW1 & 2, are those of the Confederacy. You are in for the duration. Both Armies suffered tremendously from desertion. No sane man wants to endure the meatgrinder that Napoleonic tactics produces when the weapons agaonst you are rifled muskets. The War of Northern Aggression was merely a rehersal for WW1.

  6. “I would say that at the tactical level, Grant did, to the extent possible, maneuver. But at the operational and strategic level, his campaign was one of attrition. His objective was always the ANV, and he seized terrain only to enable that objective. ”

    Perhaps I’d need to see some examples of attrition at the operational and strategic level. In my opinion, at the strategic and operational tiers, Grant adopted a “full court press” by realizing the strategic mobility that the North possessed (and other commanders had not capitalized upon). Grant put troops in motion, not to fight salient battles, but to gain possession of strategic points – the Shenandoah, Atlanta, Mobile, and later Wilmington. Grant stated something to the effect “the south hasn’t got army enough” to cover all those points.

    Applied to football (because that’s where we go for military metaphors!), Grant lined up with four wide receivers. The “ground game” was not in his playbook. And he was not playing the clock for a field goal.

    1. The overall strategy of the entire war, the so-called Anaconda strategy was more maneuver than attrition, but Grant in the east was fixated on destroying the ANV. Further, as I say in the main post, he didn’t try to destroy it in one fell swoop, but rather, in your terms, used a full court press. As noted, Grant was sure he would be reinforced, but knew that Lee wouldn’t. Sooner or later, he would force Lee to either surrender or be destroyed. The key point is that he didn’t try to start with that decisive battle, but knew that in time it would come.

  7. I think it is easy to equate “starve them out” to an attrition strategy. Such can be the case, but was not the case in 1864. Yes, one of Grant’s strategic objectives was the ANV. And Grant detailed the AOP under Meade to do that. And yes, Grant took a personal approach to managing that task (about as light as I can get without saying Grant flat micromanaged the campaign).

    However, consider how Grant hoped to achieve the destruction of the ANV. Grant came east with the reputation of capturing two Confederate field armies and practically destroying the other. When the overland campaign started, Grant had Fort Donelson and Vicksburg in his mind. Moving by the left flank, Grant was looking for that opening that would put Lee in a pocket. And he eventually did just that along the banks of the Appomattox.

    As for Grant being reinforced, the funny thing is in 1864 the AOP dispatched more troops to other sectors than it received as reinforcements. Most of the Cavalry and a reinforced Corps went north to fight in the Shenandoah. (To counter the detachment of what was for all practical purposes the dispatch of a division from the ANV). The AOP also sent a corps for the Wilmington expeditions. Further, troops tagged for the AOP were re-routed to Nashville in November. Meanwhile, Lee stripped the SC and NC defenses, and also incorporated the Richmond defenses into the ANV during the 1864 campaign season.

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