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Rise and Fall of the Strategy of Exhaustion

Armies that adopted the tactics of Napoleon Bonaparte, the great French general of the early 1800’s, achieved decisive victories. However, as the 19th century progressed, growth in the size of armies, combined with technological advances such as the railroad, the telegraph, and rifled and repeating weapons, reduced the ability of those tactics to lead to decisive victory. Napoleon’s tactics were still valid. The problem was that they tended to produce stalemates when employed by opponents who were relatively equal in strength and tactical proficiency. A significant advance in the practice of warfare was needed to help make Napoleonic tactics decisive again. Union General Ulysses S. Grant, with his strategy of exhaustion developed late in the American Civil War, provided that next step.

The strategy of exhaustion shifted an army’s main effort from either the enemy’s army or its key geographical points, such as its capital, to its strategic-level logistics. It supplemented the tactics of Napoleon with focused attacks on an enemy’s war-supporting infrastructure. By its willingness to target all of the things that enabled an enemy to wage war, an army could resolve a conflict more quickly.

Logistics, of course, had always been a target of opposing armies, but after February 1864 it would become the main target of most successful war campaigns. Attacking an opponent’s logistics at a macro level helped expedite the outcome of a war, but it also placed important new demands on any post-war peace. Victors were wise to provide sincere assistance to the loser in rebuilding its economy and in reconnecting with its people. Otherwise, insurgents and guerrillas were potential byproducts of the deep feelings of revenge that a war of exhaustion could engender.

The strategy of choosing an enemy’s logistics systems as its center of gravity helped an army win wars in three ways. First, it robbed the enemy of raw materials and infrastructure needed to support and maneuver its own large forces. Second, it weakened the resolve of enemy soldiers to fight by forcing them to question if the wartime hardships endured by their families and countrymen were worth the rewards that might come after a possible future victory. Finally, it countered the impact of technological improvements by focusing an army’s efforts on destroying enemy railroads and telegraphs while allowing it to bypass enemy concentrations of rifled and repeating weapons.

Deficiencies of Napoleonic Tactics

So what did Napoleon’s tactics lack by the time of the American Civil War in 1861? To answer that question, one must first examine the essential tenets of those tactics—

• Make the enemy react to your maneuver to disperse his mass and extend his lines into areas with reduced defensive advantages.
• Fix the enemy in place using skirmishes, artillery, feints, and demonstrations while probing his lines.
• Conduct attacks at multiple points of probable weakness, keeping the enemy off balance while still withholding a strong reserve.
• Use flexibility and interior lines to reinforce successes, divide the enemy force, and achieve decisive victory.
Napoleon’s tactics seemed comprehensive. Unfortunately for the infantry soldier in the attack during the Civil War, the battlefield situation had changed greatly in favor of the defender—

• Telegraphs conveyed intelligence rapidly, giving the defender much more time to react, tactically and strategically, to an attacker’s actions.
• Railroads were used to transport troops and materiel quickly to locations where telegrams had indicated to commanders they were needed most.
• Larger armies, more lethal weaponry, and entrenchments combined to make even the weakest defensive points relatively impregnable to attack.

Defenders thus could react to every flanking movement an attacker attempted, extend their lines, and still present defenses too formidable to be assailed. When attackers literally ran out of room to continue flanking, or realized that their next flanking movement would hit even stronger defenses than the ones currently to their front—which happened with the defenses of Richmond, Virginia, and Atlanta, Georgia, in the Civil War—stalemates ensued. Frontal assaults were always attempted as a last resort, but they were costly, and their failures eroded political resolve back home. So, what to do?

Exhausting the Enemy Wins the Civil War

The solution to stalemate was the strategy of exhaustion. In this strategy, the attacker maintained enough of a presence to discourage the defender from leaving his current positions to reinforce other positions. Then, after having fixed the defender’s main forces, the attacker launched aggressive, deep operations in force that targeted the defender’s means of waging a protracted war. This attack was not made just with cavalry, as in the past. Now, the attacker added large formations of infantry and engineers who had the means and training to more thoroughly destroy the enemy’s logistics infrastructure.

This strategy was first employed on the railroad junction at Meridian, Mississippi, in February 1864. Moving east from Vicksburg, Mississippi, Union General William T. Sherman hoped to destroy the railroads south and east of Meridian so completely that the Confederates could not rebuild them. Sherman’s troops were able to destroy 115 miles of track, 61 bridges, and 20 locomotives and render the depots and other support facilities at Meridian unusable by the Confederates.

Sherman’s success at Meridian validated the exhaustion strategy of his superior, General Grant, the commanding general of all Union armies. Thereafter, Grant’s strategy would be followed until the end of the Civil War, most notably in such operations as Sherman’s “March to the Sea” from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia, and General Phillip H. Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign in Virginia.

The solution to stalemate was the strategy of exhaustion. In this strategy, the attacker maintained enough of a presence to discourage the defender from leaving his
current positions to reinforce other positions.

The exhaustion strategy moved logistics warfare beyond tactical raids that targeted only enemy military resources and beyond armies living off the land, taking only what they needed to subsist. Now, anything that might directly or indirectly help the enemy wage war was destroyed. This strategy, however, did not take logistics warfare to the level of “total war” it would reach in World War I or the “annihilation” of the American Indian wars. Unlike those two conflicts, hate and xenophobia were not strong components of this strategy; exhaustion did not directly target the lives of civilians or assets unrelated to the making of war. As Grant explained, “. . . supplies within the reach of Confederate armies I regarded [to be] as much contraband as arms or ordnance stores. Their destruction was accomplished without bloodshed and tended to [generate] the same result as the destruction of armies . . . . Promiscuous pillaging, however, was discouraged and punished.”

New Strategy Counters Causes of Stalemate


A number of changes had occurred over the years since Napoleon was finally defeated in 1815 to make the strategy of exhaustion such an effective complement to Napoleonic tactics. First of all, the advent of large armies—the Union Army had 17,000 men in 1859 and 1,000,000 in 1864—meant that nations needed the economic and industrial strength to support such forces. This necessity turned industry and agriculture into viable, high-value targets. Large armies could be crippled by attacking their sources of support.

Second, railroads had become indispensable in both supplying and moving large armies. However, railroads also were vulnerable to attack and disruption. By 1865, everyone knew that a “Sherman necktie” was not something worn by a man with his suit—it was the uniquely mangled knot that Sherman’s men made of Confederate railroad tracks. Ripping up railroad tracks and bringing down bridges became prime military missions during the Civil War.

Third, the advantages in command and control brought on by the telegraph quickly disappeared when telegraph lines were destroyed. Finally, the manpower requirements of invading armies were reduced because they no longer were compelled to leave behind forces of occupation—they left nothing in their wake to protect.

Demoralizing the Enemy—And Its Costs


An exhaustion strategy not only savaged an enemy’s material means of waging war, it also debilitated the enemy in another way—psychologically. As Sherman observed, “Fear is the beginning of wisdom.” The psychological impact of having an enemy force “stroll” right into your heartland, and do extensive damage along the way, was very high. It eroded confidence in the defender’s war efforts and made its soldiers anxious over the well-being of their families back home. As Confederate General Robert E. Lee noted—

[The actions of the troops defending Richmond in 1864] were not marked by the boldness and decision which formerly characterized them. Except in particular instances, they were feeble; and want of confidence seemed to possess officers and men. This condition, I think, was produced by the state of feeling in the country, and the communications received by the men from their homes urging their return and abandonment of the field.

Ultimately, “want of confidence” turned into actual desertion. The great Confederate armies were plagued by desertions during the war’s final months. Some 40 percent of the Confederate troops east of the Mississippi River deserted during the winter of 1864 to 1865. Many soldiers voted for peace by heading home.

So it was that Grant’s strategy of exhaustion broke up a war that had degenerated into a protracted stalemate. When the exhaustion strategy was employed, it finally tipped the balance decisively in favor of the Union Army. Thereafter, it was given great consideration by strategists in conflicts all around the world. It had its inherent risks, though, for every time it was employed, attackers ran the risk of breeding strong emotions of hate and revenge in the civilians they affected. In World War I, for example, Germany gambled when it began unlimited attacks on Allied merchant shipping with their U-boats. They lost that gamble when the previously neutral United States, outraged by the U-boat attacks, entered the war on the Allied side.

Today, in the South, memories of Sherman’s march still engender more feelings of disaffection than any other event in the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln had anticipated such a reaction, however, and had planned to construct a very forgiving peace. By doing so, he hoped to minimize the chances of creating Southern insurgencies that might have continued the war as a guerilla conflict.

Demise of the Strategy of Exhaustion

The strategy of exhaustion played a notable role in warfare from the last year of the Civil War through the strategic bombing campaigns of World War II. After 81 years, however, the strategy was finally discarded. It went out with a bang when atomic bombs were exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, by the United States in 1945.

The strategy of exhaustion was eclipsed after 1945 for three basic reasons. First, the elevated risks that characterized the atomic era served to substantially restrict warfare and eliminate highly provocative strategies that might cause rapid escalations in conflict. Second, the new world order that emerged after World War II was deemed to be satisfactory by the major powers, and they worked toward preserving the status quo; a country that employed a destructive strategy of exhaustion during a conflict threatened that order by upsetting the balance of power. Finally, it was no longer in the best interest of countries to employ a strategy of exhaustion because, in modern conflicts, it did not serve their wartime ends; modern technology meant that an aggressor might face a severe retaliation and find itself the one “exhausted.”

When the United States unleashed its nuclear fury on civilian centers in Japan, it brought a decisive end to World War II. Attacks on nonmilitary targets that supported the war effort were the essence of a strategy of exhaustion. However, in 1945, the potential destruction inherent in these attacks became too much for the world to bear. Then, when nuclear weapons spread to the Soviet Union, people recognized quickly that there would be no winners in the world’s next total war. As British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan put it in 1957, “Let us be under no illusion; military forces today are not designed to wage war; their purpose is to prevent it.”

With the major powers too afraid to wage wars among themselves, they could only advance their interests indirectly by supporting “liberation movements” around the globe. A strategy of exhaustion had no impact in these small wars because each country (or movement) easily resurrected any damaged logistics capability with sustainment from its superpower sponsor.

Return of Stalemate

In the world order that emerged after 1945, a nice, tidy stalemate that kept each power in check became something of value, rather than frustration, to national leaders. While military leaders continued to promote strategies for total victory, such as General Douglas MacArthur’s China strategy in the Korean War and the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s recommendations during the Vietnam War, political leaders balked, apparently being more interested in a good tie than a victory.

Stalemates also were valuable in the new world order because they protected a growing global economy that could become depressed if any one country’s economy was significantly harmed. The emergence of “superpowers” such as the United States and the Soviet Union brought with it the notion of “super responsibility.” This notion compelled the United States and the Soviet Union to make all of their military responses proportional to their objectives. Otherwise, they risked the loss of international allies who did not want to align with a unilateral bully or, worse yet, a “flexible response” from the other superpower that pushed them down a slippery slope to nuclear destruction.

While it was no longer politically astute to attack a nation’s civil-military support systems, it was not militarily effective either. Smaller conflicts involving smaller, less technologically advanced armies were not impacted by a strategy of exhaustion. Bombing petroleum reserves in North Vietnam, for example, did little to impact the North Vietnamese Army because it did not use much fuel, and what little fuel it did need usually could be obtained from Soviet Bloc allies.

As technology increased, dependence on mass resources decreased and so did a nation’s vulnerability to an opponent’s strategy of exhaustion. The ultimate example of that trend came in Operation Iraqi Freedom, in which a very lean fighting force delivered awesome lethality in a very short period of time using rather austere lines of supply. Finally, the strategy of exhaustion, with its tendency toward high collateral damage, became a poor choice for major powers because it tended to increase the probability of post-war guerilla movements and insurgencies. Asymmetrical threats and terrorism became predominant worries after 1945. As a result, the “hearts and minds” of one’s opponents, rather than their support systems, became the new center of gravity in warfare.

The strategy of exhaustion played a notable role in warfare from the last year of the Civil War through the strategic bombing campaigns of World War II. After 81 years, the strategy was finally discarded.

So, after a period from 1864 to 1945 dominated by the strategy of exhaustion, we now have returned to fighting wars the way they were fought in Napoleon’s time. Conflicts again are resolved directly—by attacking opposing military forces—rather than indirectly—by crippling an opponent’s logistics infrastructure—and with great emphasis on military professionalism and restraint. Wars are limited with exacting refinement to achieve very specific political objectives. In such a world, the strategy of exhaustion—a strategy that helped bring decisive victory in some of the most horrific conflicts mankind has ever seen—no longer has a place. Its provocative nature, the greater perceived benefits of peace, and the scaled-down nature of modern conflicts have all combined to bring about its obsolescence.

Although we no longer see it determining the conduct of “hot” wars, one could argue that a strategy of exhaustion won the Cold War. After all, the Soviet Union crumbled without a shot being fired as a result of decades of military buildup that devastated its economy to the point where those in power decided that the price of pursuing victory was no longer worth paying. That kind of cost-benefit analysis is a hallmark of the strategy of exhaustion. Perhaps the powerful strategy of exhaustion has not really disappeared but rather has been “elevated” out of the military arena and into the political one. ALOG

Major Lawrence M. Smith, MDARNG, currently is serving on active duty with the Joint Staff (J–2) at the Pentagon. He has held a variety of duty positions in each of his three qualified branches—Intelligence, Engineer, and Chemical. He holds a B.S. in animal science from Cornell University. In civilian life, he trains thoroughbred racehorses on a farm near Baltimore, Maryland. This article is based on papers he prepared while a student at the Army Command and General Staff College.