Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sherman's failures during the Battle of Atlanta

McMurry in his Atlanta 1864, Last Chance for the Confederacy is hard on all of the top commanders. He was harder on Joe Johnston than I had read before. As to Hood (about whom McMurry wrote a separate biography) he was no harder than others I've read, and in a left-handed way Hood comes out a bit better. Hood did a lot of maneuvering against Sherman at Atlanta and guessed right more often than Sherman did. His failure (according to McMurry) was in overestimating what his lieutenants and troops could do.

McMurry's treatment of Sherman was harsher:

Page 182: "The Atlanta campaign itself showcased several of Sherman's weaknesses as a director of field operations. His chief shortcoming was his failure to see that the situation in North Georgia that spring and summer required him to act more as a field commander and less as a person responsible for a grand, overall war plan. His errors were ones of omission rather than of commission, matters of what he did not do that he could reasonably have been expected to do and almost certainly could have accomplished. He simply failed to realize that no single method of warfare is always best in every situation. He did not grasp the reality that sometimes armies must pursue routes to victory other than that dictated by their commanders' pet theories or personal preference. Specifically, armies sometimes have a great opportunity to win an old-fashioned, smashing military triumph on the battlefield that would be important enough to justify the risk it would involve and the casualties it would entail.

"During the Atlanta campaign two opportunities to win such a great battlefield victory presented themselves to Sherman. On both occasions, he was aware of his opportunity, and on both he chose not even to try seriously to take advantage of the situation. At Snake Creek Gap he had one of the war's few real chances to trap an enemy army in the open field and destroy it. Sherman elected instead to make only a limited effort with a relatively weak force. Again, on September 1 at Jonesboro, he had a second such opportunity. He stood then with six powerful infantry corps in the midst of weakened, widely separated parts of the Rebel army. Beyond question, he had that day had it in his power to destroy much or all of the opposing force. Had he chosen to pursue aggressively either of those opportunities, he almost certainly would have broken Secessionist power in the West for all time and hastened the end of the wary by many months.

"Arguably, Sherman had similar opportunities on at least four other occasions in North Georgia in 1864. . . ."

"In all those cases, we can legitimately criticize Sherman for what he failed to do. Because he did not seize any of the opportunities Johnston and Hood gave him, he left the Rebel army intact to march north in the fall after it had evacuated Atlanta. Destruction of Confederate military power in the West did not take place in North Georgia in the spring and summer of 1864. It occurred in Middle Tennessee in late November and December that year at the hands of troops commanded by John M. Schofield and George H. Thomas.

"To be sure, Sherman's handling of operations in Georgia in the spring and summer of 1864 was not inept. Two of his maneuvers, in fact, rate high among the war's operations and showed considerable skill. Seizure of Snake Creek Gap at the very beginning of the campaign was one of the strategic masterpieces of the war and made ultimate Rebel success in Georgia that year very unlikely. The crossing of the Chattahoochee two months later was a well-conceived and well-conducted operation. In both those maneuvers Sherman completely fooled Joseph E. Johnston, struck where he was not expected, and by so doing compelled the Rebels to evacuate very strong positions on which they had expended much time and labor.

"In summary, Sherman proved capable enough to achieve success for the Union cause. In the long run, that was what counted -- except, of course, to the men killed or maimed in the subsequent operations that would have been unnecessary had the war ended nine or ten months sooner than it did."

Comment: To my unskilled eye, it seems inconsistent of McMurry to on the one hand berate Sherman for not taking sufficient adavantage of his victory at Snake Gap and on the other telling us that "Seizure of Snake Creek Gap at the very beginning of the campaign was one of the strategic masterpieces of the war and made ultimate Rebel success in Georgia that year very unlikely."

Also, McMurry states that Sherman can be legitimately criticized for failing to take actions that he could have and should have taken. I have seen other historians make such judgments and wonder how they know that generals like Sherman "could have and should have known." McMurry in places chides Sherman for "guessing" wrong about what Johnston intends, but he provides no references describing what would have enabled Sherman to guess right.

Also, McMurry's main criticism of Sherman, i.e. that he could have destroyed or badly crippled the entire army of Tennessee if he had used a bit more foresight and competences in two places. How does McMurry "know" what Sherman could have known? He provides no references to answer that question. Sherman on p. 412 of Sherman's Memoirs wrote, "The movement by us through Snake-Creek Gap was a total surprise to him. My army about doubled his size, but he had all the advantages of natural positions, of artificial forts and roads, and of concentrated action. We were compelled to grope our way through forests, across mountains, with a large army, necessarily more of less dispersed. Of course, I was disappointed not to have crippled his army more at that particular stage of the game; but, as it resulted, these rapid successes gave us the initiative, and the usual impulse of a conquering army.

"Johnston having retreated in the night of May 15th, immediate pursuit was begun. A division of infantry (Jeff. C. Davis's) was at once dispatched down the valley toward Rome, to support Gerrard's cavalry, and the whole army was ordered pursue, McPherson by Lay's Ferry, on the right, Thomas directly by the railroad, and Schofield by the left, by the old road that crossed the Oostenaula above Echota or Newton. . . ."

Since McMurry provided no reference to show what Sherman should have known that he didn't or should have done that he didn't. Pursuing an army that hasn't been routed didn't in the Civil War result in the destruction of that army as far as I have read. Retiring in order was an art form. A military unit, either cavalry or one or two brigades would skirmish with the pursuing army and bring its forward units to a halt while they deployed. After additional forces came to the front, the delaying forces would move after the "retiring army" and set up at the next good spot to delay the pursuing army once again.

Maybe I'm missing something here, and of course I have read but the one account of the Battle of Atlanta, but McMurry hasn't convinced me that Sherman failed at Atlanta.

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