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.

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