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.

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