Friday, May 31, 2013

Sheridan and Forrest as rules-breakers

On page 289 of his book April 1865, the month that saved America, Jay Wink wrote about Nathan Bedford Forrest, "And, like one of his Union counterparts, Phil Sheridan, he was also a victim of soldierly vanity. He called his horse Kink Phillip."

It may not be a coincidence that those who admire Forrest also admire Sheridan. There is nothing wrong with a general having a huge ego if his actions support it.

The only general I can bring to mind at the moment who didn't have a colossal ego was Ambrose Burnside. He didn't think he deserved one, and historians typically agree with him. But there are many others who never managed to live up to what their egos told them were their just deserts.

Sheridan and Forrest didn't mind too much if they stepped on the toes of their superiors. Forrest stepped a lot harder on the toes of Bragg than Sheridan did on Meade's. Forrest and Sheridan were job-oriented. They knew what needed to be done and wanted their superiors to get out of their way so they could do it. The bulk of the historians in my Civil-War library (slightly shy of 200 books) approve of them.

When you read about generals who weren't like that, Meade and Warren for example, you will find them complaining that they have not received the credit they deserved. Joseph Johnston, another example, was so crippled by not getting the promotion he thought he deserved (from Jefferson Davis) that he was never able to function up to the standard some writers think he was capable of.

I for one admire and would rather read about the "devil may care" battling of Sheridan and Forrest than the complaints of Meade, Warren, Baldy Smith, Johnston and others.

As to the "rules" Bedford Forest and Phil Sheridan violated, where did these rules come from? In reading about the Mexican War and the teachings provided at West Point, we do see antiquated rules being perpetuated. "Tactical Theory," McWhiney and Jaimeson write on page 31 of their Attack and Die, Civil War Military Tactics and Southern Heritage? "recognized that individual musket fire was inaccurate and tried to compensate for this by keeping infantrymen in close-ordered lines to concentrate their firepower."

On page 40 they write, "Time and time again in Mexico the Americans took the tactical offensive, suffered fairly light loses, and were successful. Close-order musket and bayonet tactics succeeded for the Americans in every major engagement of the war. Whether or not the Mexican defenders were behind field works seemed to make little difference. Every arm of the service shared in the successes on the tactical offensive. In 1859 Henry W. Halleck summarized the American victory at Rasaca de la Palma: 'The Americans attacked the whole line with skirmishers, and with dragoons supported by light artillery, and the charge of a heavy column of infantry decided the victory.'"

Jomini in his 1838 Summary of the Art of War, wrote, "A General who waits for the enemy line an automaton without taking any other part than that of fighting valiantly, will always succumb when he shall be well attacked." This was a "rule" of combat taught to and accepted by all the Generals who attended West Point. It took a lot of bad experience to convince them that repeating rifles obviated Jomini's rule.

By the same token, the role of the cavalryman had changed. There was frequent mention of surprise at discovering Forrest's troops actually engaged in combat. Infantrymen traditionally scoffed at the cavalry for never getting their uniforms dirty. The infantry did the actual fighting. But that too had been changed by the repeating rifle. Sheridan and Forrest could ride on ahead in advance of their main force, take a position and with 600 or so of his cavalrymen armed with repeating rifles, hold it against the enemy, armed with single-shot rifles and using the old Jomini rule.

Cold Harbor was the last time Grant used the Jomini rule. It was at last realized that a sizable defensive force, well-dug in, could not be dislodged without unacceptable losses.

The Sheridan-Meade dispute

In regard to Sheridan’s dispute with Meade, Horace Porter, Grant’s aide, provides a narration of the event in his Memoirs. I can’t quite tell whether he witnessed the event itself or merely heard Meade’s recitation of it to Grant, but here is what he says on page 83 of his Campaigning with Grant.

“Sheridan had been sent for by Meade to come to his headquarters, and when he arrived, between eleven and twelve o’clock that morning, a very acrimonious dispute took place between the two generals. Meade was possessed of an excitable temper which under irritating circumstances became almost ungovernable. He had worked himself into a towering passion regarding the delays encountered in the forward movement, and when Sheridan appeared went at him hammer and tongs, accusing him of blunders, and charging him with not making a proper disposition of his troops, and letting the cavalry block the advance of the infantry. Sheridan was equally fiery, and, smarting under the belief that he was unjustly treated, all the hotspur in his nature was aroused. He insisted that Meade had created the trouble by countermanding his (Sheridan’s) orders, and that it was this act which had resulted in mixing up his troops with the infantry, exposing to great danger Wilson’s division, which had advanced as far as Spottsylvania Court-house, and rendered ineffectual all his combinations regard the movements of the cavalry corps. Sheridan declared with great warmth that he would not command the cavalry any longer under such conditions, and said if he could have matters his own way he would concentrate all the cavalry, move out in force against Stuart’s command, and whip it. His language throughout was highly spiced and conspicuously italicized with expletives. General Meade came over to General Grant’s tent immediately after, and related the interview to him. The excitement of the one was in singular contrast with the calmness of the other. When Meade repeated the remarks made by Sheridan, that he could move out with his cavalry and whip Stuart, General Grant quietly observed, ‘Did Sheridan say that? Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him do it.’ By one o’clock Sheridan had received his orders in writing from Meade for the movement. Early the next morning he started upon his famous raid to the vicinity of Richmond in rear of the enemy’s army, and made good his word.”


Was this a case of insubordination? Grant’s aide clearly doesn’t think so and, apparently, neither did Grant. Sure, Meade was angry, but Porter implies that this wasn’t an isolated case, Meade had a pattern of getting so angry he nearly lost control of himself.

Did Sheridan’s “Raid” do any “good”? Porter and apparently Grant were impressed by it. Sheridan said he could “whip Stuart,” Grant put him to that test, and Sheridan succeeded.

Meade on the other hand was not highly thought of back in Washington. After Early’s raid against Washington it was decided to create a new command to prevent a recurrence. Grant deemed “it absolutely necessary that the Departments of Susquehanna, West Virginian and Washington be merged into one department and one head, who shall absolutely control the whole. . .” This proposal wasn’t acted upon until after George Crook’s defeat at Kernstown. Grant proposed Meade for the job, but Lincoln declined because he had been “resisting calls for Meade’s removal as commander of the Army of the Potomac and did not want to be seen as capitulating to those demands; so General Hunter was left in charge. Hunter didn’t do well; so on “August 1, Grant informed Halleck:

“I am sending General Sheridan for temporary duty whilst the enemy is being expelled from the border. Unless General Hunter is in the field in person, I want General Sheridan put in command of all the troops in the field, with instructions to put himself south of the enemy and follow him to the death. Wherever the enemy goes let our troops go also. Once started up the Valley they ought to be followed until we get possession of the Virginia Central Railroad. If General Hunter is in the field, give Sheridan direct command of the Sixth Corps and cavalry division.” This is from Scott Patchan’s Shanandoah Summer, the 1864 Valley Campaign (published in 2007). Patchen comments, “Sheridan’s appointment to command the Union forces assigned to the Shenandoah Valley would bring about the largest, bloodiest, and most decisive battles ever fought in that region.”

In the period between July when Grant proposed Meade to August when he appointed Sheridan he may have thought the two about equal as generals, but after that, after Sheridan began doing the job, I suspected he realized that Sheridan was the more effective general (IMHO).

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Trudeau’s Bloody Roads South

I read Noah Andre Trudeau’s Bloody Roads South, The Wilderness to Cold Harbor, May-June 1864 (pub 1989) and started his sequel The Last Citadel, Petersburg, Virginia, June 1864-April 1865, but I began having doubts about Trudeau. I thought he did an excellent job in Bloody Roads South, but my red-necked wife tells me you can’t trust anyone who has worked for NPR. That hasn’t been my experience, but I thought I’d do a bit of checking in case she challenged me later.

I ran across the following video from the Pritzker Military Library: In it Trudeau discusses his book Sherman’s March to the Sea; which wasn’t the subject I was currently interested in, but it gave me a good idea (it seems to me) of Trudeau, his approach to study, and his “agenda” which wasn’t political. He believes as others I’ve read have that the first generation of historical writers as well as those who wrote memoirs couldn’t be completely trusted. He noted that those who wrote memoirs years later about the march didn’t say the same things as those who wrote letters home during the march. Trudeau’s agenda was ferreting out ‘the truth’ which meant that he would be challenging a lot of presuppositions made by previous historians.

In regard to Bloody Roads South I began with a prejudice against historians who wrote history based on letters soldiers wrote home, but I soon warmed up to Trudeau. He doesn’t lose sight of the goal, much as Grant didn’t lose sight of his goal. On page 321 Trudeau writes, “Forty-seven days before, Lincoln had wished Grant well and asked ‘that any great disaster, or the capture of our men in great numbers, shall be avoided.’ What Grant provided for Lincoln was a succession of nightmares: the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor. His strategy had resulted in massive casualty lists, and the piteously groaning evidence of the slaughter wheeled almost daily through the streets of the capital. . . .”

“In the deepest, darkest part of his heart, Lincoln knew that the war had had to come to this – a mutual butchery in which the strongest would live and the weakest die. The Confederacy could not be defeated in a normal sense – no loss of arms or land could make it recant its defiant secession. Defeat would have to be total, overwhelming. . . .”

“It would take cold, hard resolution to see the combat through to its inevitable conclusion, but Lincoln knew now that he had found his man. Throughout all the horrors – Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor – Grant had never once wavered, not once asked that he be allowed to pass on the cup of responsibility. . . The Army of the Potomac went on; Grant went on; the war would continue. It was as Lincoln knew it must be.”

Trudeau is very much an admirer of Grant and one of the hardest things, I would imagine, for a Liberal to accept in Grant (if Trudeau is indeed a liberal; which I have some doubts about despite my wife’s assurance) is his huge body-count. He lost many more men than Lee in the battles he fought against him, but as Trudeau said approvingly, “he never wavered.” Most Northern generals would have (and did) back away after being hammered by Lee, but if Grant couldn’t go through Lee then he went around him and Trudeau, Lincoln, and apparently the America Press and the bulk of the North admired him for that. They could forgive the body count, because he brought them victory.

My contrast, generals Warren and Burnside don’t fare so well. Warren tries desperately to prove himself, but despite doing some good work never quite measured up. Burnside is brave and solid but much too slow. He often gets there after a battle is over. Meade is someone Grant can work with but in Meade’s conflict with Sheridan, Grant sees Sheridan as being like himself, someone who will not back down, and gives him what he wants, a cavalry not tied to Meade’s army. Sheridan angrily boasted to Meade that he could defeat Jeb Stuart if he was allowed an independent force. Meade repeated that boast to Grant expecting Grant to disapprove of Sheridan, but Grant let Sheridan have what he wanted which was very much the right thing for Grant to do because Sheridan going after and defeating Stuart would further Grant’s goal and spending time salving Meade’s hurt feelings would not.

Someone else Meade largely disapproved of, Warren, was another matter. Grant gave Meade the right to fire him if he didn’t measure up. Warren wasn’t doing or proposing too much, he was instead explaining why he couldn’t do what was asked of him. Perhaps what Warren explained was plausible, but too much of that was unacceptable. But it took an overachiever, Sheridan (which Meade never was), to actually fire Warren.

The Battle Jericho Mill was one of Warren’s successes and Meade congratulated him and his Fifth Corps ‘for the handsome manner in which you repulsed the enemy’s attack.’ But “Charles Wainwright (Trudeau tells us) was less charitable in his assessment. . . Wainwright . . . felt that his gunners had not gotten the credit they deserved. General Warren has not given me one word of commendation for myself or my batteries,’”

There was never any thought of firing Burnside, but on May 24, Grant demoted him and put him under Major General Meade.

Trudeau was asked after his Pritzker presentation what he thought of popular novels that had been written about matters he has studied. He said that a novelist’s job differed from that of an historian. The novelist’s job was to tell a good story, and when the story conflicted with the facts, the facts were dispensed with. Trudeau implied that was also true of the Ken Burns documentary.