Friday, June 21, 2013

General Wright at Cedar Creek

I finished William Bergen’s article “The Other Hero of Cedar Creek, the ‘Not Specially Ambitious’ Horatio G. Wright,” appearing in Gary W. Gallagher’s The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864, published in 2006.

I had some initial doubts but ended up being impressed by Bergen’s work. If he were to write a book I would buy it just based upon the way he dealt with his material in this article.

While I don’t recall that I actually said that Wright never planned a counterattack after Early’s initial success at Cedar Creek, it did surprise me and beyond that I didn’t have clearly in mind that Wright had control of the Sheridan’s entire army in his absence, but Bergen provides more detail about what happened before Sheridan’s arrival than I have thus far read – or at least thus far paid attention to. Here is what Bergen writes on pages 108-109:

“Once Wright had reformed the army north of Middletown, he ordered preparations for a counterattack to begin in early afternoon. ‘General Wright was active in his effort to retrieve the day,’ remembered one officer who witnessed him personally bringing up the Nineteenth Corps to extend the Sixth Corps line. ‘He has never admitted that he had given up the battle or had lost hope of renewing the offensive.’ Another officer recalled carrying orders to various commands, telling their officers to ready their troops for an advance at 3:00 P.M. Writing soon after the war, a veteran of Getty’s division recalled that Wright ‘frequently said that he could yet defeat the enemy, and his staff have claimed that he issued orders looking to a counter-attack, but it is doubtful if such a movement would have been successful, as the army was much disheartened.’ He characterized the army as being in ‘sort of a dogged gloom.’ General Keifer concurred, writing that though ‘the army loved Wright, and believed in him, his temperament was not such as to cause him to work an army up to high state of enthusiasm.’ A member of the Nineteenth Corps similarly remembered doubting that a counterattack led by Wright would be successful, though he had the ‘entire confidence of the corps.’

“Whatever preparations Wright had made for a counterattack, Sheridan’s arrival around 10:30 A.M. made all believed that it could, and would, happen. . . The magnetism of his fiery energy electrified the army with a kindred spirit, and they fought with just that desperate valor that was needed to turn the tide of affairs in our favor.’”

COMMENT: Assuming that my untrustworthy memory is accurate, most modern historians would go along with what Bergen has written above, but there are others, and Bergen quotes some who think that Wright would have succeeded as well as Sheridan. What I’m reminded of at this point is a study done years ago with Howler Monkeys in South America. Naturalists constructed a complex catwalk up above these monkey’s and observed them over a long period of time. Among other things they assigned each monkey a “dominance rating.” It was based upon who made the decision to go to the watering hole, to return home, to fight with the neighboring monkey tribes, etc. Something like a 3 or a 4 was a high number. A 3 or a 4 was most likely to make the decisions for the tribe. Each tribe had its territory and while it might fight a bit with its neighbors it returned home afterward. Then to the surprise of all those up above in the catwalks, one tribe began walking all over the island, taking whatever it wanted from the other tribes, and no one, no tribe challenged them. At last they were able to define what they were seeing. One of the monkeys had a “dominance factor” far above any of the others. It was so high that no other monkey would challenge him.

Something like this is true in humans as well. Few would challenge the assertion that Hitler, for example, had an extremely high “dominance factor.” In terms of modern generals, Patton comes to mind as being up there above most of his peers. Administrators like Eisenhower and Bradley probably wouldn’t rate as high.

If I am right, Sheridan had an extremely high dominance factor, probably higher than Grant’s or Sherman’s. I read one account, perhaps in Horace Porter’s memoirs, of Sheridan showing up at Grant’s headquarters. All the generals there, including Grant and Sherman, were uplifted and encouraged by Sheridan’s presence.

The idea that Sheridan had a very high “dominance factor” and that no one, including Wright himself, asserted that Wright had one, suggests that at the very least, the army had a much better chance of a successful counterattack under Sheridan than under Wright.

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