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?

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