That question is even more complicated than it appears.
Yes, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had one key strategy, but many of his top generals had others that put them in endless conflict with Davis.
Davis originally patterned his plan after George Washington and the American Revolution. It was a strategy of attrition designed to wear down the better equipped (and more numerous) Union troops just like Washington did with the British.
It was a plan that made sense because many of the Southern military leaders had direct family ties to the Revolutionary War. For example, Robert E. Lee was the son of Revolutionary War hero "Light Horse" Harry Lee. His father-in-law, George Washington Parke Curtis, was the adopted son of George Washington, who first witnessed the success of hit-and-run tactics in the French and Indian War.
The plight of the Confederate states was not unlike that of the American Colonies in 1776.
Washington realized early that the best strategy was to harass the British. "We should on all Occasions avoid a general Action, or put anything to the Risque, unless compelled by a necessity, into which we ought never to be drawn," he wrote to the Continental Congress. Ensuing battles saw him fall back slowly, then strike unexpectedly. Finally in 1781 with the aid of French allies – he forced the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Davis planned on cultivating foreign allies as well. In October 1861, the Confederate president appointed John Slidell and James M. Mason diplomatic agents with power to enter into conventions for treaties with England and France. Mason, was the grandson of American patriot George Mason. Slidell, a diplomat by profession, was the brother-in-law of American Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who opened U.S. trade with Japan in 1853.
The two Confederate diplomats were traveling on the British ship, "The Trent," when they were taken prisoner by Capt. Charles Wilkes commanding the U.S. sloop of war, San Jacinto. The boarding of "The Trent" caused an international incident that almost pulled Britain into war. The U.S. capitulated and returned the diplomats, whose missions ultimately failed.
Militarily, the CSA had more success implementing its strategy, which included capturing Washington D.C.
That could have happened at the first major battle of the Civil War, which was fought July 21, 1861 near the Manassas, Va., some 35 miles south of Washington.
The Federal forces under Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell numbered some 30,000 men, many of which were fresh, "90 day wonders." The Confederate forces consisted of two "armies." The Confederate Army of the Potomac was under the command of Brig. Gen. Pierre Beauregard, and Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston commanded the Army of the Shenandoah. These two armies equaled McDowell's strength.
The Confederates were in a defensive mode, geared up to protect the rich Shenandoah Valley and the CSA capital of Richmond. Beauregard was the hero of Charleston, who had taken Fort Sumter less than two months earlier.
Beauregard wanted to flank McDowell and "liberate" Washington and sent that plan to Jefferson Davis, who rejected it and thus began a feud between the president and one of his most talented generals.
Just like Gen. George McClellan, who was called the North's "Little Napoleon," Beauregard earned a similar nickname among Confederates. Beauregard was well schooled in European war strategies and believed a massive Napoleon-style army could successfully invade the U.S. and sever the Northeast from the rest of the country.
The Confederates routed the green Union troops at Manassas, but Beauregard was prevented from pursuing them back to the Potomac.
"The military result of the victory was far short of what it should have been … The true immediate fruits of the victory should have been the dispersion of all the Federal forces south of Baltimore and east of the Alleghenies, the liberation of the State of Maryland, and the capture of Washington, which could have been made only by the Upper Potomac. And from the high source of this achievement other decisive results would have continued to flow," the egomaniacal Beauregard wrote.
Actually more important was the way that Johnston's "Army of the Shenandoah" quickly joined and reinforced Beauregard's force. That sort of movement was to be used successfully time and time again throughout the Civil War. Technically called the use of interior lines, the strategy is based on the concept that lines of movement within an area are shorter than those on the outside. Using the strategy of interior lines, a surrounded unit could make a series of surprise attacks on the forces that is encircling it, and move quickly enough and so unpredictably that the surrounding military unit would be forced to retreat.
Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was to use this strategy with tremendous success until his death at Chancellorville.
Confederate cavalry commanders used this strategy effectively as well. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest called it "getting there first with the most." In Middle Tennessee, Gen. Joseph Wheeler created havoc amongst Gen. William S. Rosecrans Army of the Cumberland when he wheeled his cavalry around the entire Union army, destroying and capturing wagon trains of supplies. In Virginia Confederate Cavalry Gen. Jeb Stuart recorded similar successes.
This defensive strategy, with major offensive actions carefully limited, offered the Confederacy a chance to gain independence by exhausting its opponent's will. But it wasn't a popular one with the public who longed .
However, the Confederates failed to fully exploit its tactical advantage against federal installations and transportation lines. Part of that was due to the fact that Robert E. Lee didn't buy into the idea of a war of attrition.
Lee thought the best way to use the South's limited resources was to strike hard and decisively making the North abandon the war.
Lee's concept did have its strengths. In the opening months of the war, the Union and Confederates were evenly matched. As the war stretched on, the Union's advantages in manpower, material and transportation quickly grew.
In many ways, Lee's brilliance as a battlefield commander ended up hurting the Confederate cause as the Army of the Potomac lost vast numbers of irreplaceable troops. In 1861, the Union's population was 22 million compared to 9 million for the Southern states. That difference grew when the Union was able to isolate Tennessee and the Trans-Mississippi area of the South.
But as Lincoln grew stronger in his role as commander in chief of the United States, Jefferson Davis grew weaker. A gifted speaker and a good strategist, Davis had a cold, often petty personality. He tended to always side with his friends, no matter how worthless they were as commanders. Gen. Braxton Bragg is the perfect example of that. He also tended to replace bad generals with ones who were even worse like Gen. John Bell Hood.
Also undermining Davis' grand strategy was the basic structure of the Confederate government. For the plan to succeed, the Southern states had to be unified under a strong central command, but that conflicted completely with that most basic of Confederate tenants: State's rights.
Tennessee Gov. Isham Harris saw the need for a centralized Confederate government.
"Unity of movement, to secure unity of purpose in attack or defense, is absolutely necessary to success. The people of the whole South, thus united by a firm political compact, moving under the direction of one Government, and animated by the sense of common perils and by a unanimous determination to maintain their rights, liberties, and institutions, are invincible, and must speedily conquer an honorable peace," Harris said in his April 25, 1861 address to the General Assembly.
While Harris saw the advantages other governors did not and Jefferson Davis didn't even try to cultivate good working relationships with many of the Southern governors.
The passage of time ultimately made it impossible for the South to win as the U.S. won a different kind of war of attrition with the modified Anaconda plan that strangled the South into submission.
For further reading:
"Battle Cry of Freedom," James M. McPherson
"Civil War: A Narrative," Shelby Foote
"The Trent Affair: A Diplomatic Crisis," Norman B. Ferris