Friday, July 20, 2012

The Failure of the Confederate Command

I wonder whether David Powell got the inspiration for his title, Failure in the Saddle, from Steven Woodworth's "The Failure of Confederate Command in the West." Woodworth, rather than heaping his primary blame on the generals singles Jefferson Davis out for that distinction. The full title of Woodworth's book is Jefferson Davis and his Generals, The Failure of Confederate Command in the West.

Most people, perhaps, in reading about Bragg have wondered why Davis didn't fire him, and all the historians I've read deal with that issue. Historians who put Davis in the best light tell us that he was extremely loyal to the friends he made at West Point and in the Mexican War. Woodworth puts this matter in a slightly different light. The individuals Davis favored to lead the Confederate army were men he admired not necessarily men he was friends with. In addition, Davis didn't like to admit he was wrong about anything. Perhaps most of us are that way to some degree, but Davis, according to Woodworth, was that way to an almost pathological degree.

Davis's first failure, if we don't count General Pillow who was thrust upon him by political necessity, was Polk. Polk was a couple of years above Davis and in the same class as Albert Sydney Johnston, whom Davis would have chosen were he not way over on the other side of the continent in California. Soldiers were being signed up in both North and South for a very short war and Johnston, Davis believed, wouldn't be able to traverse the continent in such short period of time -- if at all. Federal Command offered Generalship of the Union Army first to Robert E. Lee. When he refused they offered it to Albert Sydney Johnson. That is a strong indication of how the Union leadership perceived Johnston. Believing as they did, they would try their best to keep Johnston from joining Confederate forces in Richmond. They sent out a number of small forces to look for him as he made the difficult journey overland.

Bragg didn't feel he could wait for Johnston. Besides, he thought the influential Episcopalian Bishop Leonidas Polk would probably work as well at reigning in the impulsive General Pillow who "lacked judgment," Woodworth tells us, "to direct his seemingly boundless energy."

Kentucky, who was Pillow's and Polk's immediate concern, was fairly evenly balanced between believers in Union and Secession. Then Fremont made the blunder which would have driven Kentucky into the hands of the south. He "ordered one of his subordinates, an unprepossessing brigadier general by the name of U.S. Grant, to take some troops and seize Columbus. Had Fremont sat down and contrived a scheme to drive Kentucky into the arms of the Confederacy, he could hardly have done better."

"If Polk could leave well enough alone for a few more days, Confederate victory might be much closer without a battle being fought." But, Woodworth tells us "Polk could not." Polk and Pillow decided to beat Grant to Columbus; which they did. "The operation had been a complete success. At the same time it was one of the most decisive catastrophes the Confederacy ever suffered. Kentucky's neutrality had been resoundingly flaunted. A Confederate army had not only entered Kentucky territory, it had possessed itself of a Kentucky town and was busily setting up fortifications there as if it intended to remain on a permanent basis -- which indeed it did. With the demise of Kentucky neutrality went whatever profit the Confederacy might have reaped from the blunders of Fremont. As if all that were not enough, Polk, having occupied Columbus, was slow in seizing Paducah, and U.S. Grant, a man who understood the importance of rapid movements, beat him there and seized the town, making Columbus a worthless position that had to fall whenever the North got around to pushing on its exposed flank."

Kentucky Governor Harris "was aghast at what Polk had done," and urged Davis to have Polk withdraw his forces from Columbus. "Harris was right," Davis apparently realized, "But what if Polk was also right and his presence was at the same time a military necessity. It was for the president to decide which should take precedence. But he did not. Instead, he left the decision to Polk."

Historians tell us that one of the reasons Bragg couldn't get along well with others was that he had several major illnesses. Davis seems to have had just as many. During the period Polk was ruining the relationship with Kentucky, Davis "had been too sick even to write a letter. In essence the Confederacy had been virtually without a commander during much of the summer of 1861." What were Davis's illnesses? While stationed in Northern Wisconsin "During one winter of unusually heavy snow and ice, he suffered such a severe case of pneumonia that he nearly died. Even after his recovery, he remained throughout his life highly susceptible to colds, which would in turn develop into bronchitis and trigger attacks of acute neuralgia that incapacitated him for days or weeks at a time. Chronic ill health was a factor in the sometimes rather irritable disposition that complicated most of Davis's dealings with other people, including his Civil War Generals."

In an earlier note we saw that Longstreet broke through the Federal right wing and routed it. But when Longstreet rushed back to Bragg and urged that he give him some troops to pursue the fleeing Federals, Bragg refused. We sought excuses for Bragg. Perhaps all his troops were tired and incapable of such a pursuit. Some historians seem to have thought so. But notice that all Bragg wanted to talk about while Longstreet was begging for troops was Polk and his betrayal. Cozzens completed his book on Chickamauga with this hollow Confederate victory. Longstreet broke through the Federal right wing and the whole Northern army fled. This was a Confederate victory surely. The Northern Command thought it was and punished Rosecrans accordingly, but Bragg whose army suffered far more than Rosecrans' was not punished. Bragg suffered no more for his blunders than Polk did after invading Kentucky.

Somewhat amusingly Cozzens introduces Bragg in chapter three of his book on Chattanooga with the words, "Braxton Bragg was on the attack. Unfortunately for the Southern cause, the object of his offensive was not the badly weakened Army of the Cumberland but rather his own generals. "President Jefferson Davis . . . came to the defense of his beleaguered friend, whose detractors within the Army of Tennessee had achieved a new level of audacity. . . As bloody September ended and the Army of the Cumberland was allowed to entrench unmolested in Chattanooga, twelve of Bragg's most senior generals, including James Longstreet, D. H. Hill, and Simon Bolivar Buckner, signed and submitted to the president a petition bluntly calling for the general's removal from command."

What did Davis do when confronted by 12 senior generals telling him that Bragg was all screwed up? Well, he couldn't admit that he was wrong about Bragg so these generals, most of them, had to go. Not only was the Army of Tennessee weak with Bragg in command, it was made even weaker by the dispersal of some of its best generals, and of those who remained it seemed that they couldn't do their best for a commander they had so little respect for.

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