expanded command and control capabilities but created
a rich target. Here, soldiers of the U.S. Military
Telegraph Construction Corps run a telegraph line
near Brandy Station, Virginia, in 1864.
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
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
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
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
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—
march across Georgia was a prime example of the strategy
of exhaustion. This photo shows the ruins of a depot
blown up as Sherman’s
troops left Atlanta for Savannah in the fall of 1864.
[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
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
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
railroads was an important goal of both Union and
Confederate armies, and repairing those disruptions
a constant activity. Here, workers repair tracks
Tennessee, in 1863.
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.
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