Comparing Union & Confederate Civil War Strategies

Comparing Union & Confederate Civil War Strategies
Coming up next: The End of the Civil War: Summary & Timeline

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:00 Armies with Different Goals
  • 1:07 Union Strategy, 1860-1863
  • 2:21 Confederate Strategy,…
  • 4:49 The Early War
  • 6:24 Turning Point &…
  • 8:28 Lesson Summary
Add to Add to Add to

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up


Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

Learn about the different strategies that the Union and the Confederacy used during the American Civil War, and how those strategies reflected their political goals.

Armies With Different Goals

In the American Civil War, there were important differences between the goals of the Union and the Confederacy. The Union originally wanted to reunite the country, but after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, the Union goal changed to include the abolition of slavery. The Confederacy had the same goal throughout the war: to incorporate all slave states and secede from the Union, survive, and defend its territory. To accomplish its goal of reunification, the Union needed to capture Confederate territory, but the Confederacy didn't need or want to invade Union territory; it just had to defend its own turf.

In war, strategy is the large-scale way that military power is used in service of political goals. Small-scale details like the maneuvers of forces during a specific battle are called tactics. Let's look at how those political goals determined Union and Confederate strategy throughout the war.

Union Strategy, 1860-1863

The initial political goal of the Union was to reconquer Confederate territory and force Confederate states to rejoin the nation. The Union chose an offensive strategy that combined attacks on Confederate territory with economic pressure.

The Union army went on the offensive into Confederate territory, invading Virginia in a campaign that culminated at the First Battle of Bull Run, also called First Manassas. After that campaign failed, Union armies continued to attack Confederate territory. However, even though President Abraham Lincoln clearly understood the need for aggressive attacks, he struggled to find generals who could carry out his strategic vision.

The Union also deployed its navy to blockade Confederate coastlines and put the Confederacy under economic pressure by interrupting its cotton trade with Europe. This was called the Anaconda Plan, a slow economic stranglehold that would eventually force the South to surrender. Union forces also invaded the great rivers of the South, like the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers, which cut off the ability of the Confederate army to transport men and resources.

Confederate Strategy, 1860-1863

The Union needed to go on the offensive and invade Confederate territory, but the Confederacy just wanted to survive and defend its right to secede. It was officially uninterested in conquering Union territory. And even if the Confederacy had wanted to invade the Union, it didn't have the resources. The North had a higher population of potential soldiers, a much greater industry capacity, more railroads for easy troop and supply transport, and an overall greater ability to fight.

But even though they weren't interested in invading the Union, Confederate generals didn't want to just stay on the defensive and wait for the Union to decide the time and place of every battle. At the very beginning of the war, the Confederacy tried a cordon defense strategy of manning the entire border of their territory. But this stretched their forces too thin. Confederate president Jefferson Davis eventually chose an offensive-defensive strategy, a more flexible defense system in which troops moved around to meet military needs instead of trying to keep every part of the border defended at all times.

The offensive-defensive strategy was ultimately designed to protect Confederate territory, but it allowed for strategic offensives or counteroffensives when the risk was low and the potential gains were high. Southern generals would retreat when necessary, but also go on the offensive, especially against isolated Union forces that were weaker than their own.

One example of a strategic Confederate offensive was the early expedition into the Southwest, an attempt to gain control of important resources like the highly productive mines of Colorado and even the gold mines in California. But the expedition failed to reach the Pacific. In March of 1862, Union forces defeated a Confederate army at the Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico, a setback that started a slow but steady retreat. The Western offensive had failed.

The offensive-defensive strategy also included counterattacks. For example, Confederate troops successfully mounted a counterattack against General George McClellan's army to defend Richmond, VA, in 1862. After the Second Battle of Bull Run, Davis took more of an offensive position, making counterattacks against the Union into Kentucky and Maryland.

The Early War

For the first three years, from 1860 to 1863, the Confederacy looked likely to win the war. All it had to do to win was hold onto its territory until the horrifying cost in men and resources destroyed Northern political support for the war. The soldiers of the Confederate army were more unified and dedicated to a common cause, and the leaders were more effective. Jefferson Davis did not struggle with his generals the way Lincoln did. The Union won some victories in the early years of the war, but in 1863, things began to turn around, and a Union victory started to seem inevitable.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create An Account