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?

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