Monday, June 3, 2013

Meade's competition with Sheridan

Meade along with virtually everyone else was enormously impressed by Sheridan's spectacular success at Cedar Creek. On page 221 of The Last Citadel Trudeau writes, "The idea that would become the grand movement of October 27 was suggested to Grant by George Meade, in a conversation they had on the evening of October 23. The Army of the Potomac's commander was acutely conscious that his prestige was at an all-time low: 'I undoubtedly do not occupy the position I did after the battle of Gettysburg,' he had written to his wife on October 13. Rumors abounded that he would soon be relieved of his command. 'I saw General Grant to-day,' Meade related on October 19, 'and we had a laugh over the ridiculous canard of my being relieved.' There was a bitter edge to Meade's laughter, though, and Sheridan's impressive come-from-behind victory at Cedar Creek did not help matters. With one eye fixed warily on the promotion ladder, Meade wrote home that the success would 'place Sheridan in a position that it will be difficult for any other general to approach.'"

On page 222 Trudeau writes, "A victory would silence his critics, Meade believed, and intelligence reports he had received suggested Federal lodgement on Peebles Farm, Robert E. Lee had put his men to work extending the Confederate defensive line as far south as Hatcher's Run; the impression gleaned by Federal scouts, and from POW interrogations, was that a large section of the lower end of this line was barely scratched out and would provide no obstacle to a serious attack. That evening, Meade suggested to Grant that the Army of the Potomac move against this position and close the ring around Petersburg. The more Grant thought about it, the more he liked the idea. . . ."

It would be difficult to describe all the things that went wrong with conduct of Meade's plan in this short note, but the impression I got in reading of the events, is that a huge distance existed between Meade, who created the plan, and those charged with carrying it out. He chose generals to attack the Confederate forces and yet most of them didn't exert the requisite aggression.

And why would Meade choose Warren for a key role in the battle that was to redeem his reputation? From what I read elsewhere, Meade should have known better by this time. Trudeau writes, "Warren's leadership had been both prudent and lackluster. As Grant's military secretary, Adam Badeau, later observed, 'Warren never seemed to appreciate the tremendous importance, in battle, of time. He elaborated and developed, and prepared, as carefully and cautiously and deliberately in the immediate presence of the enemy as if there was nothing else to do, and, while he was preparing and looking out for his flanks, the moment in which victory was possible usually slipped away."

According to Warren, he was going into battle with a substantial number of unqualified troops, soldiers he had no confidence in. If this were true, why didn't Meade know it? And if he knew it, why didn't he adjust his plan.

"Warren's men now marched after Parke's and Hancock's. Their commander's confidence in them was seriously limited; according to his anxious accounting, of the 11,000 Fifth Corps troops taking part in the operation, some 3,913 -- almost 36 percent -- had 'never fired off a musket.' Yet Warren's aggressive support of Parke (should he break through) or Hancock (should his flank swing prove to be the primary blow) would be crucial to the success of either."

Comment: There was a "primary blow," but it was against Hancock. Hancock was severely hammered and afterward on a dark night near stygian woods he had to decide to whether to hang on and rely upon the timely appearance of Warren -- or retreat. He "had little faith that Warren's men would join him in time to meet the Confederate onslaught he expected at dawn."

Few would disagree with Hancock on his point. So, having lost most of his force, Hancock pulled out . . . His "retreat was a perfect stampede . . . Their dead were left unburied, hundreds of wounded were abandoned, guns, cartridge boxes, ammunition . . . strewed the ground. . . ."

"To the end of his life, Winfield Hancock remained bitter about the failure of Parke and Warren 'to hold the enemy close to their entrenchments in their fronts. . . . The troops that attacked me were taken from the entrenchments in front of Generals Parke and Warren . . ."

An admirer of Grant who is also critical of the accuracy of Sheridan's dispatches should examine Grant's report of Meade's defeat. Trudeau writes, "The face-saving began almost immediately. All the Union dispatches referred to the action north of the James as a simple demonstration, while the fighting south of the river was defined as the result of a 'reconnaissance in force.' Hancock's action near Burgess' Mill, Grant reported to Washington, was a 'decided success. He repulsed the enemy in his position, holding possession of the field until midnight, when he commenced withdrawing.'"

On page 252 Trudeau writes "Few soldiers bought the official line. . . Charles Wainwright, wrote in his diary that the 'newspapers try to make the best of our failure last week, taking their cue from Grant's dispatch to Washington in which he calls the move a 'reconnaissance.' This affords a vast deal of amusement in the army, considering there were greater exertions and preparations for this expedition than any previous one.'"

Meade's plan was apparently a good one. Grant liked it and afterward Colonel Wainright writes that it was a good one, but it failed. Two key generals, Warren and Parke failed to be aggressive enough. Hancock did his best but his force was overmatched and those supposed to back him up did not do so. Can a general be blamed for the failure of his troops? General Burnside was fired after the failure of a well-thought-out plan to tunnel under the defensive walls at Petersburg. But perhaps Grant was too close to Meade in the subject failure. He could have countermanded Meade at any point but didn't. He would be blamed by the press, perhaps, as much as Meade would had he been accurate in his dispatch to Washington.

Years later Meade wanted to be made General of the Army, but President Grant awarded that position to Sheridan.

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