Union Options Into the South
History is what it is. When it came to the Civil War, we study what actually happened. But what if we looked at the other choices the participants had? It might change how we look at the entire event. As the Union made its move to end the war, there were options for them to choose from. The one they chose was not their only option.
Upper Mississippi River
The very size of the Confederate states allowed many avenues of possibility for the Union army to penetrate and defeat the seceding states. It was not as if there were limited choices. The South was pretty good size. President Lincoln had many choices before him with pros and cons accompanying each of them.
The most obvious route was the Mississippi River. This was the largest river network in the area and connected many of the states easily. The water was fast and relatively easy to navigate. Laying the options on the table, this was the first one probably mentioned by all giving their two cents to the President.
Aside from the obvious upper Mississippi River system, the Union had the choice of going through the Gulf of Mexico coast, through Virginia’s coast, and along the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers. These were wide open areas that could not all be manned. There were only so many people to fight and guard the borders. It was a matter then if how viable these options were.
The Gulf of Mexico
The second most obvious maneuver would have been to come at the Confederacy through the Gulf of Mexico. This was open water that led to the mighty Mississippi from the Southern end and had the largest Confederacy city located there, New Orleans. This strategy was part of the Anaconda Plan that was dismissed as a whole, but the value of coming at the Confederacy from the South was seen. This plan was taken into hand in 1862 by a combined effort of the Union army and navy at New Orleans. The fall of New Orleans was a momentous success for the Union as it handed over the large city as well as control of the largest waterway in the Confederacy to the Union army and navy. The move to come at the Confederacy from the South proved successful.
The avenue of attack from the sea on the Eastern seaboard, notably Virginia, was largely overlooked largely due to lack of amicable geography for the Union navy to use. This section of the Confederacy was largely attacked via the Union army as a direct attack from the North. As part of the Anaconda plan, the Eastern seaboard would have been utilized, but the young navy made that difficult. We are spoiled today with our large navy, but back during the Civil War, the navy was still in its infancy. Most military moves were planned strictly via land.
There was another option...
The Union had the option of moving South from the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers which they readily took advantage of. By taking control of Fort Donelson, the North took possession of these major waterways and moved further south taking Nashville. This avenue allowed the North to penetrate deep into the South and strike a huge blow against the Confederacy.
By putting a circle around the South, the North had an entire circumference of choices to penetrate and defeat the enemy. Each one came with its pros and cons. Most avenues were utilized, proving effective for the Union military. Again, the South could not cover all borders.
Putting Yourself in Lincoln's Shoes
Looking back, it might seem that Lincoln had easy choices. Nothing is easy especially when you are discussing war. He had voices in both ears giving opinions with few rarely agreeing. Lincoln had to end the war as quickly as he could, and the options were nearly too many to choose from. Could any of the options have shortened it? Should he have gone a different route?
The answers to these questions are never easy. A careful study has to be done, and even then the answers are not always clear cut. Looking back and finding solutions is one thing. Being there and making the decisions is an entirely different matter.