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  • Federal EyesHow the Union Saw Kentucky's Civil War
  • Andrew Fialka (bio)

At the onset of America's Civil War, the first Union general in chief, Winfield Scott, outlined a straightforward path to victory: use the army and navy to split the Confederacy in half along the Mississippi River, then choke it with an economic blockade until Jefferson Davis had no choice but to negotiate a surrender. Scott's justification for this embargo was as simple as the proposition itself: it required only a gentlemen's diplomatic solution. No conquest, no bloodshed, no pesky guerrillas, no postwar occupation, and no need for reconciliation. He believed invading the Confederacy would lead the southern population to resort to irregular warfare just as the Mexican people had during the recent war in that country. Such a predicament would require expensive garrisons to maintain obedience over so large a populace, and even then, southerners might never "be brought into harmony with their conquerors," not to mention the ambivalent compromisers in Border States like Kentucky, whose fragile fidelity to the Union might break at any moment. Invading the South would require not one war but two: conventional defeat of the Confederate armed forces and military occupation of guerrillas and other resentful civilians. Scott's "Anaconda Plan" revealed his doubt in the United States' ability and commitment to fighting and winning both wars.1

Hawkish northerners advocating an immediate assault on Richmond mocked Scott's doubt, as immortalized in J. B. Elliot's 1861 cartoon Scott's Great Snake (see image below). Despite the cartoon's popularity, few people appreciate the illustrator's tongue-in-cheek depiction of Kentucky's "armed neutrality"—a musket-bearing man symbolically straddling a fence. Scott understood that such neutrals were a legitimate threat not merely to the war effort but to the occupation effort that would have to be conducted at the same time. In hindsight, Scott's doubts were well-founded. The Union army's traditional military organization and strategy won the war, preserved the union, and helped free the enslaved. Union occupiers employing the same strategies lost southerners' hearts and minds in the process, setting the stage for rampant guerrilla warfare in Kentucky (and beyond) during the conflict and a postwar battle over the meanings of freedom, democracy, and national identity that rages to this day. As the North's evolving vision of Kentucky illustrates—from sarcastic comic to conventional battle maps to this author's vision of the guerrilla theater—the North's failure was not a military one but a conceptual one; the Union army wrongly theorized the war as a conventional one with irregular sideshows, not as a war of occupation that was, by definition, simultaneously regular and irregular.2 [End Page 6]

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Great Snake (1861).

Investigating how the Union saw the war—on the ground, in thousands of maps, and through a spatially organized command structure—partially reveals how the army conceptualized the war, made sense of it, and fought it. For historians, spatial understanding provides one key to unlocking conceptual understanding. A quick perusal of The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War reveals the Union's vision: a conventional one privileging topography, transportation networks, fortifications, and regular armies. Seeing the war this way helped the Union prioritize destroying the Confederate military. However, the Union's maps blunted as much as extended its understanding. Seeing only a conventional war overemphasized that war's importance to the federal government's overarching goal: a united and free country. The Union's maps—which worked so well to solve regular military problems—would not, did not, and could not work for a war of occupation. Although Union armies increasingly saw guerrillas and civilian dissent on the ground, they never incorporated those players onto their maps and subsequently never developed a concise occupation strategy for what was, from the beginning, an irregular war. Instead, officers acted independently and usually attempted to exterminate guerrillas and the households supporting guerrillas by force more out of pique than policy. Such military solutions did not work; dismantling homes did not win over southerners, it infuriated them.3 [End Page 7...


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