Wednesday, June 5, 2013

J. F. C. Fuller on Sheridan’s Richmond Raid

From Fuller’s The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant, pages 259-261: “Closely connected with Butler’s movement from City Point, and largely dependent upon its success, was the raid carried out by Sheridan. That it accomplished nothing except the death of General Stuart, as some writers affirm, for instance Captain Battine, is absurd; but that it did not form part of Grant’s original plan is very true, for its origin may be traced to the quarrel between Sheridan and Meade on May 8. Grant, realising the danger of friction, saw that for the time being it was necessary to separate these two generals; and as was his invariable custom when faced by a difficulty, in place of seeking for some idea solution, he accepted the lesser of two evils, in this case, separation, simultaneously turning this lesser evil to his advantage.

“If Grant had raised the power of Sheridan’s breech-loading carbines, by dismounting part of his cavalry he might have used this weapon with deadly effect in the woods of the Wilderness and around Spottsylvania. Like most generals, he does not seem to have paid much attention to weapon-power – the cutting edge of tactics. . . .”

“The objects of this raid were: to attack Lee’s line of supply – his rear; to draw the Confederate cavalry away from the Army of the Potomac, and to reduce traffic from Fredericksburg forward. Critics of it frequently overlook the fact that Butler was at City Point, and under orders to move against Richmond. Had Butler occupied Petersburg, as he should have done, then damage to the railways in rear of Lee would almost certainly have compelled Lee to fall back or risk starvation.

“Sheridan’s orders were to move around Lee’s left; attack his cavalry wherever met; cut the Virginia Central and Fredericksburg railroads, and then move south and join Butler. Starting out on the 8th, on the 22th, when a few miles from Richmond, he met the Confederate cavalry under Stuart, and defeated them, Stuart being morally wounded. Next he entered the outer defences of Richmond, causing a panic in the capital; joined up with Butler on the 14th, and on the 24th reported to the Army of the Potomac when on its march from North Anna to Cold Harbor. During the sixteen days he was absent, a period of much administrative difficulty to Grant, who was in the process of changing his supply base to Port Royal, the Federal trains were never interfered with. On the other hand, there can be no question that Lee was seriously embarrassed by this raid; for some ten miles of Virginia Central railroad and several miles of the Fredericksburg were destroyed. ‘If Grant had succeeded in dislodging Lee’s army from its intrenchments at Spottsylvania, the advantage from the interruption of their supplies might have been very great.’ These points must be borne in mind when criticising Sheridan’s operation.”

Comment: Fuller’s account seems fair. He has a larger perspective than Sheridan’s critics it seems to me. I have but one quibble with Fuller. Earlier on page 64 he writes “For the first two years of the war the Federal cavalry were indifferent, but, after grant became Commander-in-chief, under Sheridan’s skillful leadership they became more than a match for their opponents. Both sides, however, failed again and again to combine cavalry action with infantry operations, because they did not fully recognise that the main duty of this arm was to reconnoiter and not to fight. Scarcely knowing how to employ them when battle was immanent, cavalry were dispatched on raiding operations. Lee committed this mistake at Gettysburg, and Grant, more excusably so, shortly after he plunged into the Wilderness.”

Fuller wrote this book in 1929. Had he written it a bit later I wonder if he would have said the same thing. Here are a few words from the Wikipedia article on “Blitzkrieg”: . . . describing a method of warfare whereby an attacking force spearheaded by a dense concentration of armoured and motorized or mechanized infantry formations, and heavily backed up by close air support, forces a breakthrough into the enemy's rear through a series of deep thrusts; and once in the enemy's rear, proceeds to dislocate them by utilizing speed and surprise, and then encircle them. Through the employment of combined arms force in maneuver warfare, the blitzkrieg attempts to unbalance the enemy by making it difficult for them to respond effectively to the continuously changing front, and defeat them through a decisive vernichtungsschlacht (battle of annihilation).”

Sheridan and Forrest weren’t capable of quite that, but their actions when using repeating rifles seem to me often elevated above mere raids, and maybe Forrest is the better focus for my point than Sheridan since Sheridan believed that “cavalry should fight cavalry.” Forrest had no such limitation in his thinking. He attacked many towns, defeating their defenses, and forced their leaders to supply him with funds and supplies. He didn’t engage in “battles of annihilation,” but he could have, and in those days he didn’t need to function in connection with infantry. In fact I don’t see quite what Fuller has in mind in that regard.

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