By Capt Brett Friedman, EWS
(That’s right. EWS. Posting on Blackjack’s Crossing. Where’s your post, Major?)
In her post Chancellorsville Redux, Dr. Johnson raised the question of whether one can sieze and maintain the initiative while on the defensive. MCDP-1 tells us that you can, and is careful to point out that the initiative and the offense are not mutually exclusive. An illustrative example, and one that’s quite nearby, is the battle of Fredericksburg.
In late 1862, Ambrose Burnside, newly appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, was clearly on the offensive. Lincoln’s orders were to “Cross the Potomac and give battle” and Burnside’s predecessor, George McClellen, was relieved for his failure to execute a vigorous offense. Lincoln’s driving need for a victorious battle and Burnside’s need to succeed where McClellan had failed stripped him of the initiative. Burnside had to attack towards Richmond and he had to do it soon.
Lee, of course, had to defend Richmond, but he could choose when and where to defend. He did so only at a place where he couldn’t help but beat the Union advance: Fredericksburg, Virginia where Burnside was attempting to cross the Rappahannock. Lee even chose to allow Burnside to cross, placing only a disruption force in position to oppose the actual river crossing. The Union army, propelled forward by the need to attack, shattered itself on Lee’s defenses above the town.
While it cannot be said that Lee gained the initiative through any action on his part, he certainly realized that the Union was locked into the offense on both strategic and operational levels. The battle of Fredericksburg is an example of what can be achieved through a combination of initiative and the stronger form of warfare, the defense. Union casualties almost equaled Antietam. The defeat turned even Republicans against the Lincoln administration; Republican Congressional leaders drafted and passed a bill urging Lincoln to “reorganize,” meaning fire, his cabinet. After learning of the defeat, Lincoln said, “If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it.”
Lee’s ability to emplace tactical defensive position, at an operationally significant time and place, had far-reaching strategic effects. The defense might be the less decisive form of warfare, but that’s not to say it’s never decisive. MCDP-1 says that “By taking the initiative, we dictate the terms of the conflict and force the enemy to meet us on our terms.” This certainly describes Lee’s coup at Fredericksburg, despite the defensive nature of his mission.