Sunday, June 9, 2013

Meade at Petersburg

I've been reading Bruce Catton's A Stillness at Appomattox, and in pages 182 through 199 he describes Meade's work at Petersburg -- beginning with the Corps Commanders who failed to perform at Petersburg. Baldy Smith was there first and could have waltzed through Beauregard's meager defenses but cautiously prowled about fearful that the defenses he saw might comprise another Cold Harbor bastion. When he finally moved through them he stopped and waited for Hancock who was marching his tired troops in the wrong direction thanks to poor maps and guides. When Hancock finally arrived Beauregard thought it was all over because all Meade needed to do was send a force against the undefended south end of his defenses and, as Beauregard wrote, "I would have been compelled to evacuate Petersburg without much resistance."

This was taking place on June 17th. On June 16th Grant had foreseen this opportunity and wired Meade to get Warren over to the Jerusalem Road as fast as possible," . . . "but Warren found Rebel skirmishers in his front and they were busy and seemed to be bold and cocky, and Warren was cautious about pressing them too hard -- and, in the end, nothing in particular was done and the empty country [meaning country lacking Confederate defenders] west of the Jerusalem Plank Road remained empty all day long.

Burnside pushed ahead and gained some ground but paused to wait for Hancock to cover his flank. But Hancock's Gettysburg wound bothered him so much that he turned his command over to Birney who didn't immediately know he should move forward against the Confederates alongside Burnside.

Catton writes, ". . . control of the fight seems to have slipped out of Meade's hands, and no unit commander up front was concerned with anything except what lay immediately before him, and although the Confederate line had been broken in two places before noon nothing effective was done to exploit the openings. . ."

"it had occurred to no one to have troops ready to follow up a success, and there had not even been any routine arrangements for getting ammunition up to the firing line, and the strategy which had enabled the army to fight for Petersburg with eight-to-one odds in its favor was totally wasted."

What was Meade doing as failure after failure occurred on Beauregard's front? He was put in "a foul temper, which kept growing worse, and he emitted a furious stream of orders in a completely futile attempt to bring about the united attack which had been been designed. Hours passed, and the breakdown in the command system became complete, and by early afternoon Meade was wiring to his corps commanders: 'I find it useless to appoint an hour to effect cooperation . . what additional orders to attack you require I cannot imagine. . . . Finding it impossible to effect co-operation by appointing an hour for attack, I have sent an order to each corps commander to attack at all hazards and without reference to each other."

By the time Meade does get the attack he angrily demands, Lee has had time to get his Army in all those empty trenches that so frightened Meade's Corps commanders, making them at last as formidable as what Meade's generals feared they were.

Comment: Someone argued in an earlier note that Meade would have done as well as Sheridan in the Shenandoah campaign; so when I read the Catton account of Meade's forces at Petersburg I couldn't help but think that what was needed was Sheridan-like leadership to force the Corps commanders to do what was needful. I can't imagine Sheridan sitting back in his camp getting angrier and angrier thinking he had done everything necessary by issuing orders.

When we read of the bizarre behavior of Meade's Corps Commanders and blame them while we read, we may lose sight of the fact that they all worked for Meade. He was supposed to lead them and make sure they did what he told them to do. What does he do to his friend Warren, for example, who was typically dilatory? Nothing, but when Warren behaved in a similar fashion under Sheridan, Sheridan fired him: two very different approaches to holding Corps commanders accountable -- it seems to me.

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