Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sherman, Thomas & the Snake Creek Gap controversy

I looked at Albert Castel's book on Atlanta and he pretty much agrees with McMurry (McMurry's Doctoral Dissertation was given in 1967 so "presumably" he advanced this theory before Castel). Castel is fairer than McMurry however because in an appendix he outlining an opposing view, that of B. H. Liddell Hart.

In the advocate-ridden world of Civil War commentary, admirers of General George Thomas, who first proposed the Snake Creek Gap maneuver, argue that if only Thomas had been in charge in place of Sherman the war could have been ended much earlier. Thomas proposed that he send his army (composed on April 30th of 72,938 officers and men, per McMurry) through the Snake Creek Gap to pounce on the undefended rear of Johnston's army. He (or some of his people) had done some reconnaissance and saw that the gap itself was lightly defended and if he could get his army through it he was confident he could defeat if not rout Johnston's entire army.

Sherman chose instead to send McPherson's smaller, 24,000 man army through the gap. Hart thinks Sherman made the right decision. "To swing Thomas out [and send him toward Snake Creek Gap] and pull in McPherson, who was already 'out' [in the direction of the trail to Snake Creek Gap] would mean a crossing of routes and a probably entanglement of lines of supply. And in this spy-ridden country the sudden disappearance of Thomas's army which had been so long facing the Confederates, would be likely to put them on their guard. The one objection to Sherman's decision was that it employed but a quarter of his force in the rear attack, and left an excessively large force to contain Johnston in front. At the same time, however, this covered Sherman's own base, which was within unpleasantly close reach of the enemy, and the loss of which would ruin not only his plan but his army. Moreover, the turning movement had to be made by an uncertainly known route, and with a still greater uncertainty as to whether Snake Creek Gap would be blocked. Sherman would look foolish if two-thirds of his force found itself locked out in front to this narrow defile, with Johnston free to strike swiftly at the remaining third and at Sherman's precious base.

"Thus, in sum, the one valid criticism seems to be that Sherman might have augmented McPherson's army from Thomas's. But Grant had previously discovered Thomas's sensitiveness and for Sherman, newly appointed and previously junior to Thomas, to have broken up an army of such jealous esprit de corps would hardly have been the way to eradicate jealousies and to ensure harmonious co-operation. Nor is there any serious reason to believe that McPherson's army was inadequate in strength to the task of closing Johnston's line of retreat."

Later on Hart writes about Johnston that "It seems curious that he should have concentrated so solidly and placed no part of his force to guard his rear near Snake Creek Gap. But apart from the lack of accurate maps of this tangled wilderness, Snake Creek Gap was so narrow and the mountain approaches to it so winding and difficult, that the Confederates did not seriously believe that Sherman would attempt such a maneuver."

Both McMurry and Castel, and in a slightly more ambivalent fashion Ecelbarger blame Sherman for "ordering" McPherson to stop once he got his army through the gap and wait for further orders. They all admit that Sherman chewed McPherson out for not destroying the railroad at Rasaca, but unjustly so, they tell us. Hart, however looked at the actual orders and they present a different view:

"These instructions, as contained in a letter of May 5, are so explicit that one can only marvel at the subterfuges to which in post-war controversy disgruntled partisans of Thomas were driven in their efforts to blame Sherman not merely for giving McPherson the task in preference to Thomas, but for McPherson's failure to execute it. 'I want you to move . . . to the head of Middle Chickamauga, then to Villanow: then to Snake Gap, secure it and make a bold attack on the enemy's flank or his railroad at any point between Tilton and Resaca. I hope the enemy will fight at Dalton, in which case he can have no force there that can interfere with you. But, should his policy be to fall back along his railroad you will hit him in flank. Do not fail in that event to make the most of the opportunity by the most vigorous attack possible, as it may save us what we have most reason to apprehend -- a slow pursuit, in which he gains strength as we lose it.' Sherman had clearly grasped the truth that to roll the enemy back along their communications means that their resistance will be solidified and expended by accretions like a snowball. 'In the event of hearing the sound of heavy battle about Dalton, the greater necessity for your rapid movement on the railroad. If once broken to an extent that would take them days to repair, you can withdraw to Snake Gap. . . .'

What actually happened when McPherson exited Snake Creek Gap does not seem to be in dispute. Here is Hart again: 'Thus when, early in the morning of the 9th, McPherson's corps, 24,000 strong, debouched into the valley about 4 miles due west of Resaca, there were only Cantey's brigade and a fraction of Reynold's, not much more than 2,000 men to stop it. After driving back a cavalry detachment, belatedly sent down from Dalton to watch this flank, McPherson came within sight of the frail line of Confederate entrenchments covering Resaca, and halted his army, taking up defensive dispositions with four divisions while he sent the fifth forward. This skirmished forward cautiously, and at 12.30 P.M. McPherson wrote a dispatch to Sherman saying that it was probably 'within 2 miles of Resaca,' and adding 'I propose to cut the railroad, if possible, and then fall back and take [up] a strong position near the gorge. . . .' The tone suggests that he was thinking more of the final clause of Sherman's order than of the earlier clauses about making 'a bold attack.'"

Castel accuses Sherman of destroying or hiding or ignoring some letters from McPherson describing his very reasonable (according to Castel) reasons for not attacking as Sherman ordered. Hart quotes from (presumably) those letters:

"At half past ten that night he [McPherson] sent a further and fuller report -- 'General Dodge's command moved up and skirmished with the enemy at Resaca this afternoon. While that was going on one company of mounted infantry ['actually eighteen men' Hart tells us] . . . succeeded in reaching the railroad near Tilton station, but were forced to leave without damaging the track. They tore down a small portion of telegraph wire. . . . After skirmishing till after dark . . . I decided to withdraw the command and take up a position for the night' -- at the mouth at Snake Creek Gap. He then explained that his decision was due, first to the fact that there were several roads down whcih Confederate reinforcements from dalton might arrive on his flank if he stayed out; second, that Dodge's division was 'out of provisions.' 'I shall have to rest my men tomorrow forenoon, at least, to enable them to draw provisions.' Lastly, he expressed regret that he had been unable to break the railroad owing to lack of cavalry, telling Sherman that Garrard's cavalry division had only reached Lafayette and that Garrard wished to wait there for his forage train."

"Sherman was never more bitterly disappointed in his life, and in acknowledging the message prefaced his fresh instructions by the remark, 'I regret beyond measure you did not break the railroad . . . but I suppose it was impossible.'"

Comment: The critics of Sherman defy the cliche "you can't argue with success," for that is exactly what they do. Sherman's taking of Atlanta saved Lincoln's presidency and may have saved the Union. Sherman did that with his three armies, but his critics with a great deal of venom argue that Thomas could have done it quicker and better.

As a long-time hiker I can't get my mind around the idea of old "Slow-Trot" Thomas sneaking his 72,938 through Snake Creek Gap and surprising Johnston. Most hiking trails I have been on require a party to hike single-file. How many miles I wonder would 72,938 men take up marching single file? I suppose that wouldn't have been all bad. If Johnston had noticed that Thomas army had gone missing from the front and decided to beef up his defenses at Snake Creek Gap and then decided to attack Sherman's depleted front, the latter part of Thomas' single-file army would still be close enough to Sherman to turn around and come to his his aid.

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