Saturday, June 16, 2012

Commanders of Armies, e.g., Hood & Bragg

In the Civil War, the best generals were believed (by the both governments) to be those who could send enthusiastic troops against an emplaced enemy and route him (not just that of course, but most notably that). Lincoln and Davis both favored that sort of general. One recalls the famous message Lincoln almost sent to McClellan,” My dear McClellan: If you don't want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a while. Yours respectfully, A. Lincoln.”

Jefferson Davis, a graduate of West Point was even more insistent than Lincoln on aggressiveness in his generals. He removed a very fine general, Joseph Johnston and replaced him with the Texas fire-eater John Hood to the detriment of the Western Army. What was Johnston’s sin? Davis thought he was too slow and too conservative. Unfortunately for Hood, who seemed to know this in advance, his army loved Johnston and hated the idea of seeing him replaced. Anyone would have had a difficult time replacing Johnston. It was a shocking thing to be moved out from under a sensible cautious general and turned over to a general who would send them in wave after wave against entrenched fortifications (which was in accordance with Hood’s reputation which was well known). Johnston would have been more cautious and left Franklin with far more of his army than Hood did. Hood didn’t do the sensible thing and retreat after Franklin but took his emaciated forces forward to attack Nashville and utterly destroy his own army.

But in Hood’s defense, what little chance he had was severely hampered by the generals who answered to him. Whether they overtly acted against him may be questionable, but in moving out from under Johnston, they did not do a very good job for Hood. The big example of that is that they let Schofield’s army march by them in the night at Spring Hill. An exhausted Hood was back in his tent suffering from his unhealed stump and paralyzed hand while his corps & division commanders let Schofield’s army string by in the night and get away to Franklin. There was a lot of finger pointing after that. Hood was ultimately responsible by virtue of being in charge of the Army but would Hood’s battlefield commander, Cheatham have been so lax if Johnston was still in charge of the Army? I doubt it. Schofield’s army might well have been routed as it attempted to march by Hood’s army at Spring Hill – if Cheatham and others were feeling loyal toward their commander.

As it was, Schofield’s army made it unscathed past the sleeping, inattentive and lax Confederates and on to Franklin where they dug in so well that when Hood sent his troops against its emplacements a great slaughter ensued. Hood’s army was decimated at Franklin by a force that should have been routed at Spring Hill.

Bragg had some of the qualities necessary to lead an army but like Hood at Spring Hill, Franklin & Nashville he had physical problems, “the work of years of dyspepsia, dysentery, and chronic headaches, afflictions that also conspired to sour his temper and enfeeble him, so much so, according to an intimate, that he was unable to endure long periods of stress or responsibility.” His troops hated him and as was the case with Burnside were willing to believe the worst stories about him. “During the retreat from Shiloh, when absolute stealth was imperative, Bragg directed that no gun be discharged, death being the penalty for disobedience. A drunk young Rebel chose to flout the order with a few random shots at a chicken along the roadside. The chicken escaped unscathed, but not so the soldier, who was summarily shot for having betrayed the route of march. Not surprisingly, given the army’s antipathy to Bragg, the incident became exaggerated in the telling. The unlucky soldier was said to have been condemned by Bragg for having killed a chicken. Similar tales followed. Some whispered that the commanding general had had a man shot for stealing apples, others insisted that he had hanged sixteen more from a single tree for an unspecified offense. It is pointless to demonstrate the absurdity of these accusations. What is significant is that many men within the Army of the Mississippi believed them, and that is more damning to Bragg’s reputation than a score of battlefield reverses.” [from Peter Cozzens No Better Place to Die]

Cozzens here is referring to Bragg’s reputation with his troops. If we compare Bragg (widely considered a poor army commander) with Sherman (widely considered an excellent one) we note that Sherman’s troops loved him. They called him “Uncle Billy,” and he took good care of them, treating them fairly and with consideration. Bragg didn’t have that sort of relationship with his troops. He doesn’t seem to have had it with anyone except perhaps Jefferson Davis. It is worth noting that General Hood did have that sort of relationship with his Texas troops – who willingly charged emplaced defenders and gave up their lives for him. Unfortunately there weren’t many of them left, if any, to look out for him as he slept the night away at Spring Hill.

Friday, June 15, 2012

"Petulant" Burnside at Antietam?

The person who opined that all had been said about everything having to do with the Civil War was only partially correct. For example, McClellan criticized Burnside for not crossing the “Burnside Bridge” in an expeditious fashion. That truly has been said time and time again. The crossing was to take place at 08:00 and he said he sent the order in plenty of time but Burnside didn’t attempt a crossing until after 10:00. Burnside, on the other hand, said he didn’t receive the order until about 10:00.

William Marvel in Burnside refutes Martin Schenck’s article “Burnside’s Bridge” (from the Dec 1956 ed of Civil War History) in writing “It bears noting that Schenck’s conclusions are drawn from rather superficial research: he employed only five sources of which only one Confederate memoir and the OR were not secondary works. [“OR” stands for War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 128 vols. GPO, 1880-1901]

“From the latter documents he used none of the correspondence, relying almost exclusively upon McClellan’s second report; therefore some of his most essential facts were distorted. For all of that Schenck’s article marked the beginning of the myth that Burnside lost the day at Antietam through his own petulance.”

Marvel writes “Thanks to McClellan’s corruption of the facts, the truth did not emerge until the last volumes of the OR went to press, years after both Burnside and McClellan were dead; therein appears a copy of McClellan’s order, bearing a heading of 9:10 A.M.

“If the message was copied down at 9:10, it was probably finished and in the courier’s hand by 9:20. Given the urgency of a pitched battle, and assuming the horseman was familiar with the haphazard road network (which was not necessarily so), he would have covered the distance to Burnside’s position at a moderate gallop, breaking gait for at least six turns of ninety degrees or more. That would have brought him to the vicinity of Benjamin’s battery no earlier than 9:30. If he had to ask directions or double back from a wrong turn, he could easily have been delayed until 10:00.”

Also, it is pertinent that McClellan didn’t allow his Corps commanders to position their own men. He sent staff officers out to do that. He sent “Captain James Duane “to post Burnside’s divisions.” Marvel writes “Possibly McClellan meant no particular offense by this, for General Cox observed the habit of delegating field commanders’ duties to members of the general staff was all too common in McClellan’s army: Cox disliked it because it tended to rob the various generals of self-confidence and independence of spirit.”

Stackpole doesn’t focus on Burnside to any extent. He is more concerned with McClellan’s inadequacies. McClellan sat a significant distance away viewing the battle through binoculars. He accepted information about Burnside and the bridge from his staff officers.

The Bridge would only permit four across passage. Furthermore the Confederates had a good field of fire on it. He was led to believe (as was verified by General Cox who had the same understanding) that the bridge crossing was to be nothing more than a diversion. But if Burnside needed to get people across elsewhere in order to chase the Confederate bridge defenders away, he was to use a river crossing found by Captain Duane. When Burnside’s men tried to use it they found it much too deep so they had to keep trying other likely places further south. Another group went north to attempt to find a crossing using the same trial and error approach.

Better evidence than that available to Schenck suggests that it was another of McClellan’s failures rather than Burnsides that prevented Burnside from getting across the bridge at 08:00

Why would McClellan have it in for his old West Point buddy Burnside? McClellan had a very strong motive. Lincoln as is well known didn’t like McClellan. He thought he was a good organizer and good at building an army but no fighter. He kept trying to get Burnside to accept McClellan’s job. Burnside turned the job down largely through loyalty to his friend, but if McClellan could thoroughly discredit Burnside then perhaps Lincoln would leave him in command. That can’t be proved but it seems a more creditable theory than Burnside’s petulance.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

General John Bell Hood’s Competency

Hood was never given enough troops to enable him to fight on an equal footing with his Northern enemies. The Southern Draft never worked properly and at some point no more troops were forthcoming. So a “draw” for Hood was not the same as a “draw” for Sherman’s generals. Sherman could replace his troops. Hood could not. Had Hood been able to replace his troops as Thomas or Schofield did, he would certainly have fared better.

I don’t believe that everything has been said about the Civil War. It is a historian’s stock in trade to find overlooked matters to write about. Wiley Sword took a strongly anti-Hood stance in his Confederacy’s Last Hurrah, Spring Hill, Franklin, & Nashville, but Sword generalizes about Hood based on his performance at a time when he couldn’t get adequate support. His fiancĂ© Sally Preston preyed that he wouldn’t be put in charge of the Western army because it was widely believed in Richmond that the Southern cause was lost and that the best the Confederate armies could do at that point was fight with honor and delay the end. The Confederate states by that time refused to support the war. That is, no state was sending more than token new recruits to the army and large numbers of soldiers were deserting and return to their home states.

To evaluate Hood’s overall performance one needs to look at his whole history and not just the period when he with one leg, one arm and an inadequate number of troops was drinking the last dregs of a losing cause. The reason he advanced so quickly in his career was that he was very good at his job. He kept winning. He was a “fighting” general in the midst of too much (according to the historians as well as Southern Leaders) caution. Lincoln you will recall dismissed his earlier generals because they were too cautious. He finally settled upon Grant because he was willing to fight. Lincoln probably would have loved Hood.

As to what the Civil War generals learned at West Point, Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson go into that in some detail, looking at the Civil War manuals, those written by Scott, Hardee & others. The tactics of Jomini had not been significantly improved upon. The bayonet was still the favored weapon. Running out of ammunition was no excuse for not charging the enemy. When the rifled barrel replaced the smooth all that did for tactics was to urge that the attacking forces moved slightly faster so they could more quickly get in bayonet range. And the preferred weapon of the cavalry was the sabre.

From our vantage point we think a bayonet charge against an entrenched position suicide, but everyone who fought in the Mexican War (which includes some of the biggest names in the Civil War) believed that tactic the only one that assured success. It wasn’t that Hood’s tactics were faulty when he sent his troops against entrenched positions at Franklin and Nashville. It was that he hadn’t been given enough men by Richmond to fight those battles.

We might try to fault Hood for fighting at Franklin and Nashville with inadequate forces but he had no reason to think he was going to fail. His opponent, Thomas, was fearful he might succeed. In the typical battle between the North and South, the North far outnumbered the South, sometimes as much as two to one, and the North didn’t always win. Thomas “retreated” before Hood when Thomas’s troops were no more numerous than Hoods, but as Thomas retreated he got more and more reinforcements. Lincoln and Grant were critical of Thomas for his retreats and Hood can be excused, perhaps, for thinking Thomas was afraid of him, but by the time Thomas reached Nashville he had overwhelming numbers and before Thomas’ replacement (he was being fired by Grant for not attacking Hood) reached him he attacked Hood and defeated him.

In pitting Sherman against Hood in one’s imagination, one shouldn’t forget that Sherman never won a major battle whereas Hood did. Sherman’s success came later when he conducted campaigns and commanded generals who won battles.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Civil War Intelligence

Someone asked for clarification of my note “on the reassessment of Civil War generals, e.g., General Hood”

In the post I am critical of historians who criticize the various civil war generals for not knowing matters that were in those days extremely difficult to know. For example, where is the enemy? In the modern U.S. we went from Gary Powers U2 spy plane which was shot down over Russia to unmanned drones and satellites which can see almost anything an army wants to see. But in the American Civil War (1861-1865) they had to get by with a lot of guessing. Sometimes they got useful information from spies, civilians and enemy deserters (who were sometimes sent to an opposing army to supply false information), but the best information came from the cavalry and the South had better cavalry units than the North until late in the war.

CSA Cavalry General Nathan Bedford Forrest was the very best, and when he was relied upon the South had an “intelligence” advantage. He would ride out with 2,000 to 3,000 troops and capture the Union’s pickets and take them back to be interrogated. He would engage in skirmishes with the Union’s cavalry or even its infantry to test how strong it was and whether the Union army was there in force. Then he would ride back and report.

But neither the Union nor Confederate forces used cavalry solely for intelligence purposes. They might beef up a cavalry unit and have it harry the enemy or alarm him into thinking an attack was happening where it wasn’t. When a cavalry unit was doing that it wasn’t supplying intelligence. Also, cavalry reports were sometimes wrong so generals might be forgiven for doubting information they received. In General Hood’s case he has been faulted for doubting reports coming from Forrest that turned out to be true. Also, he sometimes split Forrest’s forces and used them to support infantry rather than letting Forrest keep his unit in tact to provide intelligence and harry the enemy.

Interestingly, spy balloons were used by both the North and the South in the Civil War. They weren’t very successful but the idea intrigued Ferdinand Von Zeppelin who came over here to see them in action. He was apparently more impressed with the historians who later wrote about them.

Also, in defense of generals on both sides, President Lincoln in Washington and President Davis in Richmond issued orders that were not always sound from a military standpoint. One of the very best generals the North had was General George Thomas who was almost fired for not moving quickly enough against General Hoods forces. In retrospect and with the information we have today we can see that Thomas was planning a nearly perfect attack. His plans couldn’t be improved upon but Lincoln and not just Lincoln but Grant himself thought Thomas was moving too slowly and almost replaced him. It was the battle that Thomas planned and carried out that destroyed General Hood’s army. His army was routed and Hood himself resigned and never fought again.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

On the reassessment of Civil War generals, e.g. General Hood

Someone wrote me privately wanting to argue about Burnside. I’ll probably get more into him in a couple of weeks. At present I’m more interested in Hood whose reputation has traditionally been much worse than Burnside’s. After years of passionate debate about these and other generals some scholars are making “better” assessments. By “better” I mean that the information about the various generals has improved cumulatively, but also the task of the historian is better understood and practiced than in earlier times. It is very difficult not to impose our present views upon earlier times. Some historians have been able to put those times into a “better” more objective and accurate context.

An easy criticism is “he should have known”; which is truly an absurd criticism when we honestly attempt to put ourselves back into those times. Imagine taking your family into the woods with an inadequate map and no knowledge of the territory. Imagine getting lost. Then imagine all the authorities saying “you should have known.” Today that would mean you should have taken better maps, a GPS, or perhaps have “known better” than to have gone into the woods in those circumstances, but back in the 1860s there were huge tracts of land where virtually no one knew what was in them. The enemy was “out there” some place but you didn’t know exactly where.

Guessing was a big part of generalship. Sherman was a great guesser but on one occasion he did “a very dangerous thing. He had divided his army and made it possible for Hood to attack it unit by unit; and that is precisely what he did. He struck Thomas with the expectation of defeating him and then turning on Schofield and McPherson, several miles to the east, before they could effect a junction with Thomas.” Hood called his three corps commanders together and explained his plan. They agreed it was a good one and went off to get their troops ready for the attack. But because of the uncertain terrain nothing went as planned. When the attack did occur it was with an inadequate force and Thomas held out against it. Should Hood “have known”? I don’t see how he could have. The Corps commander who “failed” the worst was Hardee who many at the time rated better at managing an Army than Hood. But Hood took the blame for this failure.

Sherman realized it had been a near thing. If Hood’s plans had worked successfully as well it might, Sherman would have suffered a defeat. He called his own corps commanders together for a “lessons learned” session: “We agreed that we ought to be unusually cautious and prepared at all times for sallies and hard fighting, because Hood, though not deemed much of a scholar, or of great mental capacity, was undoubtedly a brave, determined, and rash man. . . .”

As we read the correspondence of Jefferson Davis and Braxton Bragg we learn that Hood’s approach was just what they were looking for. Previous generals were too defensively minded. Davis & Bragg wanted more aggression and Hood gave it to them. Unfortunately for Hood’s reputation Davis and Bragg didn’t give Hood enough men to pull off that ‘brave, determined and rash” sort of combat. So Hood ran out of troops, and his reputation suffered accordingly. He was no longer the most highly praised of generals and his fiancĂ© broke off their engagement – no one says that was why she broke it off but with the “shine” off of Hood, sitting there, wrinkled and worn with only one leg and one arm she realized she wasn’t really in love with him. Few people were. One woman however did love him. They married after the war and had eleven children – ending speculation that Hood’s injury may have damaged more than his leg.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Civil War: Who was fit to lead an army?

I wrote, “If either side had leaders who didn’t exceed their capabilities and would submit to their more competent compatriots it would have won in in a very short period of time.” But the people who fit that qualification seem to have been so doubt-filled that they never reached the top. Burnside for example was extremely competent but he didn’t believe he was qualified to lead an army. He refused the assignment until Lincoln insisted. Then through no fault of his own he had some bad luck, bad luck seemed to haunt him, as when an unseasonable rain bogged down his whole army as it tried to cross a river. He pleaded to Lincoln to relieve him but Lincoln was so refreshed by a leader who would list his own shortcomings and take responsibility for failures that he wouldn’t accept Burnside’s request. Burnside kept on requesting removal and when it became obvious that the army had lost confidence in him (because of his bad luck) Lincoln reassigned him.

Then there were others who started out shy & unassuming. John Bell Hood was one. He loved to serve under leaders who valued his fighting ability, but he was good looking, highly favored by Jefferson Davis, fearless and applauded wherever he went. He was a “rock star” and eventually thought it fitting that he be allowed to lead an army. He violated military protocol and sent telegraphs to Jefferson Davis running down his superior Longstreet until he got his Army and his chance and he blew it. His mistakes destroyed his army at the battles of Franklin and Nashville. Most historians, I gather, tend to abuse Hood today but if everyone keeps telling you that you are a rock star won’t you eventually believe it? Who has the character to resist that sort of praise?

Grant truly was a rock star as a general. Lincoln was delighted to have him in charge of the army. He wasn’t promoted beyond his ability – until he was offered the nomination to become president; so even Grant succumbed to the praise.

Sherman was another rock star and was closer to what we are looking for. He was one of the most “modern” of the generals who fought in the civil war (the other was Bedford Forrest). His battles are still studied today and he too was offered the presidency but said that he would not accept the nomination and that if he received it and won the presidency he wouldn’t serve as president. He wasn’t kidding.

Nathan Bedford Forrest was another rock star. He was truly brilliant. Douglas Haig, for example, studied Forrest’s tactics. But there was never a chance that Forrest would be promoted beyond his abilities because he was not a graduate of West Point. He wasn’t a graduate of anything. He proved himself time and time again. He kept doing the right thing but generals above him kept promoting West Point graduates in his stead.

Another question that might be asked is what sort of Civil War we might have had if there were no West Point?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The American Civil War, why and how it was fought

It is popularly assumed that the American Civil War forged American nation into a united whole, but is that true? And if so in what sense did it happen? The elimination of slavery would have occurred eventually even if there had been no Civil War. It wasn’t the initial cause. The casus belli was whether this nation would have a strong central government or strong individual states.

In the days when my understanding was even more superficial than it is now I thought with Lincoln that the war needed to be fought to preserve the Union. If the South won the Nation would be irretrievably fragmented, but I wonder now if it would have happened that way. As a practical matter, President Davis needed to impose a draft and get the Southern States to “unify” if the South was to have a chance of winning. This strikes me as a capitulation of principle. The Southern States didn’t want Union with the North but they could handle Union with each other in the South; except they couldn’t really. There was constant bickering throughout the Civil War about whether there was to be a centralized government in the South and whether the states were going to comply with a draft law.

In the North they had a successful draft. Young men were forced to serve terms of from one to three years. In the South they initially hoped to get by with an all-volunteer army but on April 16, 1862 the Confederate central government imposed a draft. Everyone 18 to 50 was supposedly subject to it; however the states never lost sight of the fact that they seceded individually and most of the state governors resisted the draft. A good case might be made for the argument that the North won the Civil War by “out-drafting” the South. In every book I read about the battles that the South lost, they had the best fighters and out fought the North up to a point, but the North was able to put more soldiers (inferior though they might be to their Southern adversaries) in the field. Had the Southern State senators supported the Confederacy’s draft the South might have won.

And suppose it did win, would the region of the present-day United States have been forever fragmented? Not necessarily. European Nations have far less in common with each other than do the American states and yet they hope to obtain a working unification; why couldn’t an even greater unification obtain in the American states after a few decades of the huffing and puffing by our long list of narcissistic “leaders”?

As I read narratives of the various battles, huge mistakes were made because egocentric leaders on both sides were arguing with each other. If either side had leaders who didn’t exceed their capabilities and would submit to their more competent compatriots it would have won in in a very short period of time. The best known example of this failure can be seen in the leaders preceding General Grant. Why did it take so long to get Grant in charge of the Union Army? To a very large extent it was due to the fact that inferior (to Grant) leaders with colossal egos put themselves forward and as a consequence were given their chance (by Lincoln) to fail; which they did; which wasn’t Lincoln’s fault for how could he know who was best? The same thing happened in the South. Evidence was strong against General Bragg, for example, but Jefferson Davis and Bragg were friends and Davis was very loyal to his friends.

The same was true of General Hood who was superb at the brigade and division level but a disaster when he was given a whole army and that may not have been due to character flaws as most historians suggest but due to the fact that he lost one leg at the hip (the stump of which never healed) lost the use of one arm, and probably spent every day in enormous pain. Was he taking anything for the pain? If he was it may have dulled his senses. If he wasn’t the pain would have made it difficult to think. All the historians I’ve thus far read fault Hood for sending wave after wave of soldiers against the Union forces at Franklin. You can’t charge a fortified army who has repeating rifles historians tell us. But that isn’t true. Hood made his reputation doing that. One rebel soldier got by the initial abates at Franklin and was outraged that the Union forces didn’t run as they had in the past.

Historians assume that Lee, Hood, Grant and others should have known better than to have sent their soldiers armed with bayonets against emplaced soldiers having repeating rifles. From our vantage a bayonet charge makes no sense. We wouldn’t do that today, but a lot of those bayonet charges succeeded. Hood made his reputation by means of his aggressive bayonet charges. The fact that the charges at Franklin failed could be chalked up to other reasons than the seeming foolishness of charging rifles with bayonets. If the Southern draft had supplied Hood with the soldiers he asked for the Battle of Franklin might have turned out differently.

And if Lee, Hood, and Grant should have known better, how is it that General Douglas Haig hadn’t learned that lesson?