Friday, June 28, 2013

On McClellan's numbers

It is interesting that when Rowland (in his George B. McClellan & Civil War History) has occasion to treat McDowell, he defends him with some of the same tools he uses to defend McClellan: McDowell was perfectly competent but bullied by Lincoln into taking an untrained army, and relying upon unreliable senior officers to support him, against an entrenched position in July 1861. When McDowell objected, and presented sound reasons for not attacking quite yet, Lincoln told him the Confederates were as unprepared as his Federal force was. Rowland comments that Lincoln's folksy rejoinder "ignored the fact that offensive operations were much more difficult to conduct than defensive ones."

At this point I tried to recall if that has been sufficiently examined in recent discussions about McClellan, both in what I've read and in this thread. He is regularly ridiculed for wanting more troops when he outnumbered his foe, but did he outnumber it in the ratio needed for an offensive attack against an entrenched foe? And did both McDowell and McClellan realize that the ratios had changed from the time they had been taught by Mahon at West Point?

We can find plenty of generals who didn't know, or didn't fully appreciate the hazards of charging an entrenched enemy, but was McClellan one of them? McDowell thought he had the ability to defeat Beauregard if Patterson had did his job of distracting Johnston, but McClellan wouldn't have thought Patterson's failure cause enough for McDowell's defeat. When he took charged he gave his army proper training and thoroughly screened the officers he would be relying upon; so he clearly sought to avoid those McDowell mistakes. But in regard to the numbers McClellan thought he needed we have seen that Lincoln, the Press and his War Department scoffed at them, but did they take into account the numbers an offensive force needs to defeat an entrenched defender?

In Attack and Die, Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage, McWhiney'& Jamieson argue that the South never did learn that lesson -- at least not in a significant way. On page 18 they write, "By 1865 the South's supply of soldiers had about run out. 'It is a most sad and humiliating picture,' a general reported to President Davis in March 1865. 'You hear of victories, . . . I see disasters, disorderly retreats and utter confusion on our part, with combinations and numbers against us which must prevail.' A few months before a distraught Southern had exclaimed: 'I do not see what an extricate us but God. The West Pointers have . . . generaled us to the verge of death itself.' He was right; by attacking instead of defending, the Confederates had murdered themselves."

Jomini "in his 1838 Summary of the Art of War," wrote, "A general who waits for the enemy like an automaton without taking any other part than that of fighting valiantly, will always succumb when he shall be well attacked." The West Point Training Manuals reflected Jomini's thinking. Jomini was writing from experiences gained from the Napoleonic wars, what what he taught still sounded good a few years later at West Point and still guided the thoughts of many of the Generals who fought in the American Civil War.

Generals on both sides must have pragmatically realized that entrenched positions were harder and harder to overcome, and yet we see Grant still using the Jomini charge at Cold Harbor and Hood virtually destroying his army with Jomini's tactics. Certainly the attacker, Grant in this case, had justification for aggression against entrenched positions for after all, the North was invading the South, but what was the Hood's justification, and it wasn't just Hood's idea? Hood was doing what Davis wanted.

West Pointers thought they were accounting for the ability of the rifle to fire faster than the musket by increasing the speed of the charge. The old charge speed against a defense using muskets was 90 steps per minute, but Hardee's tactics (supposedly taking into account the rifle) increased the charge speed to 110 steps per minute, and if necessary the "double quick time" of 180 steps per minute."

This may sound a bit beside the point, but I'm wondering if the wunderkind, George McClellan perhaps understood the ratio needed for attacking an entrenched position better than his peers -- or did he think Hardee's Tactics adequate? He had a low opinion of his political superiors and in retrospect we can see that he should have explained himself better to Lincoln, but did he or could he have explained the ratio of attackers needed against entrenched defenders?

McClellan wrote a "cavalry manual" which I have only seen references to, but in it he wrote that "the strength of the cavalry is in the 'spurs and saber.' That sort of thinking had been abandoned by the time Sheridan led his cavalry, but this antiquated thinking wouldn't necessarily reflect upon his ideas of what it would take for an infantry force to charge an entrenched position.

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