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.

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