Tuesday, June 4, 2013

On the adequacy of Rhea's book as it pertains to Sheridan

An admirer of Rhea wrote, “I don't have any problem with Sheridan setting out to beat Stuart actually; I just think it was terribly neglectful for him not to leave a sufficient amount of cavalry with Grant when he did so. He took practically his entire Cavalry Corps, whereas Stuart left Lee with plentiful cavalry for his immediate needs; all Stuart had with him at Yellow Tavern was Fitz Lee's cavalry, and despite the numbers they still escaped reasonably intact. I quote Overland Campaign authority Gordon Rhea.”

“In the larger picture, Sheridan's raid proved to be a costly mistake. Chasing Stuart was another side show for the campaign, which would be decided by what the armies did at Spotsylvania. By abandoning the main theater of conflict to pursue his whimsical raid south, Sheridan deprived Grant of an important resource. His victory at Yellow Tavern offered scant solace to the blue-clad soldiers hunkering in trenches above the courthouse town. Sheridan's absence hurt Grant at Spotsylvania in much the same way that Stuart's absence from Gettysburg had handicapped Lee.”

I have Rhea's "The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern May 7-12, 1864" and have been so disappointed in Rhea that I haven't read as far as I otherwise might have. I'll quote a few passages as examples of his slanting and his use of pejorative terms. Purported arguments that fail to work from evidence can usually be found some place on a list of fallacies." [See Wikipedia's list of fallacies at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies] One obvious fallacy Rhea is guilty of is the “Abusive fallacy – a subtype of "ad hominem" when it turns into name-calling rather than arguing about the originally proposed argument.”

On pages 9-10, the first time he mentions Sheridan, he provides references for what precedes and what follows but no references for the following: “Sheridan, however, had scant experience with cavalry and squabbled with Meade over the appropriate role of his horsemen. With the army heading into relatively uncharted territory, Meade understandably wanted Sheridan to screen his advance, locate the enemy, and protect the supply train.”

Pausing here, note that Sheridan has “scant experience” and “squabbles,” but Meade “understandably” wants Sheridan to screen his advance, locate the enemy, and protect the supply train.” I looked for reference about what Meade “understandably” wanted but didn’t find any. When I read the several accounts of this matter in my library, Meade seems delighted to be rid of Sheridan. I’ve found no reference to his “understandably” wanting to hang onto him to perform the functions Rhea describes. But more to the point a casual reader will read this and favor Meade over Sheridan because Sheridan has scant experience and squabbles; whereas Meade “understandably” wants to do the proper thing. Rhea doesn’t produce the arguments that would enable us to draw those conclusions. He uses the abusive fallacy to trick us into following his lead.

On page 36 Rhea writes, “Sheridan’s decision to withdraw was a costly mistake. He forfeited over a mile of valuable road and afforded Fitzhugh Lee an opportunity to construct new barricades for the next day’s combat. Lee was rightfully proud. In what a Richmond paper termed the ‘most hotly contested cavalry fight of the war,’ he had stalled Sheridan’s advance and bought valuable time for the Confederate infantry. A soldier of the 4th Virginia Cavalry aptly summarized the affair in his diary. ‘Off and on we drove them and they us,’ he wrote. ‘Very warm time indeed.’ Hampton, too, considered the day a success. He had plugged the Cartharpin Road and erected an impenetrable cavalry screen shielding Anderson’s maneuver toward Spotsylvania Court House from the Federals.”

Rhea’s references for this paragraph are as follows: ‘The cavalry Fight Near Spotsylvania CH,’ Richmond Daily Dispatch, May 10, 1864; Woodford B. Hackley, The Little Fork Rangers: A Sketch of Company D Fourth Virginia Cavalry (Richmond, 1927), 89. Fitzhugh Lee Lost about 225 men, mostly from Wickhams brigade.

We see Sheridan here committing a “costly mistake” according to Rhea, but notice his two references: an article in the Richmond Daily Express and a history, written long after the event by a professor of the University of Richmond who was born in 1891. Neither of these references comprise primary documentation. The Richmond Daily Express might comprise primary evidence of what someone on that paper or in Richmond believed, but not of actual evidence of what actually happened.

Looking to other sources I turned to Trudeau to see what he said Sheridan was doing. On May 6th “Sheridan’s frustration at his own inability to take an aggressive role while he was tied to the lumbering army supply train strained his patience. “I cannot do anything with the cavalry, except to act on the defensive, on account of the immense amount of material and trains here. . . Why cannot infantry be sent to guard the trains and let me take the offensive. . .?

At 10:00 A.M. Sheridan got his wish: “the Union cavalry commander, Phil Sheridan, was finally freed from his order to protect the great army supply trains parked around Chancellorsville. His riders were replaced by Burnside’s black division, and the pugnacious cavalry general was given permission ‘to detach any portion of your command for offensive operations.’”

Let me pause at this point to observe that what Trudeau tells us in the preceding paragraph is in distinct opposition to the allegation that Sheridan abandoned an ongoing duty to supply Meade with intelligence.

Returning to Trudeau’s account of Sheridan’s activities on May 7th. He was freed from wagon-train duty at 10:00. “By noon, mounted Federals [Sheridan’s command] had cleared most of Todd’s Tavern, retaken the Tavern area itself, and were pressing Confederate cavalry westward along the Cartharpin Road.” Sheridan’s attack confused Lee: “Sheridan’s assaults could be merely spoiling attacks to cover a Yankee retreat to Fredericksburg, or they could be a move to pry the Brock Road open to allow for a general Federal advance toward Spotsylvania.

“Lee made preparations for covering both possibilities.” But ultimately Lee is fooled. He guesses that Sheridan’s assault is to cover a retreat to Fredericksburg; whereas it was intended to open Brock Road for a general advance toward Spotsylvania. Lee went to sleep the night of May 7th firmly convinced that Grant intended to retreat to Fredericksburg; whereas Grant, enforcing extreme silence marched his army through the night across Brock’s road (previously opened up by Sheridan I presume). Shortly after sunrise on May 8th, “Robert E Lee realized he had guessed wrong.”
Maybe I am missing Rhea's virtues, but whenever I pick his book up he gives me a headache.

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