On Victory

Douglas MacArthur famously said, “In war, there is no substitute for victory.” Yet as one gen-george-thomas-at-chickamaugalooks at the Civil War, many battles seem not to offer a clear winner, or at the least, they offer a complicated definition of who wins. The victors of some battles are still debated. This post is an effort to resolve the confusion on what “victory” actually means.

Before proceeding, it is important to define terms. These are largely taken from the U.S. Army War College, which divides war into three levels:

– STRATEGIC victories are ones that achieve major national objectives or alter the course of the war (Fort Donelson and Vicksburg for the Union; Seven Days for the Confederacy)

– OPERATIONAL victories advance strategic goals, and/or help a specific campaign succeed or fail (Shelbyville and Raymond for the Union; Second Winchester and Munfordville for the Confederacy)

– TACTICAL victories define who wins or loses on a specific battlefield or portion of a field (Malvern Hill for the Union; Fredericksburg for the Confederacy)

In many battles, one side wins clear-cut victories in all of these categories; the battles for Atlanta come to mind as examples of Union tactical and operational victories that result in a strategic Union success when the city falls.

Where confusion and debate sets in is when one side wins one level but not another. The Wilderness was a Confederate tactical victory, but the Federals held open the way south, thus giving them an operational and strategic victory. Perryville is another such case: the Confederacy won a tactical victory, but lost operationally and strategically because Federal operations could continue without change. In the Chickamauga campaign, the Union lost the battle but won the campaign because of the capture of Chattanooga—which was their main objective in the first place. The Army of the Potomac won tactical victories in most of the Seven Days Battles, but Federal retreats handed the operational and strategic victories to the Confederacy.

At first blush, it may appear that there is little difference between operational and strategic victories. The success or failure of individual campaigns/operations has strategic consequences; most Civil War campaigns/operations led to one climactic battle, so whoever won the battle often won the operational and strategic prizes. The differences become apparent in campaigns with multiple battles, like the Maryland Campaign of 1862: the Confederates won an operational victory at Harper’s Ferry, the Union won an operational victory at South Mountain, and the climactic battle at Antietam was a tactical stalemate that ended as a Union operational and strategic victory because it forced the Confederates to withdraw back to Virginia.

These definitions also apply at sea. The Union won a strategic, operational, and tactical victory at Mobile Bay in 1864; the Confederacy did likewise at Drewry’s Bluff in 1862. The CSS Albemarle won two tactical victories over Union forces in North Carolina, but failed to break the blockade, thus giving the operational and strategic advantage to the Union.

A final word regards stalemates: generally a stalemate ranks as a defensive victory, as it means a halting of the attacker’s operations short of their tactical, operational, or strategic objectives.

There may be no substitute for victory, but its definition can be elusive. By assessing through this prism, the winners and losers come into focus.

3 Responses to On Victory

  1. Not having the AWC around to help them, it appears to be the Civil War definition was the winner was the army that hung around after the battle. Hence, Lee waiting at Antietam and Gettysburg hoping the Yankees would retreat.

    Grant, OTOH, didn’t care whether he won or lost a tactical battle: all he cared about were what we would call Strategic Victories, i.e., the Wilderness. Indeed the entire Overland Campaign. Each tactical loss left USG that much closer to Richmond.

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