Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Steere on the Meade-Sheridan controversy

In my previous note I didn’t adequately explain Trudeau’s reference policy. I mentioned his apparently unique use of letters written home, but as to the basic narrative of each campaign he relies upon authorities he trusts. For example here is his reference paragraph pertaining to the Wilderness Campaign:

“After more than twenty years, the basic tactical and strategic study of the Wilderness fighting remains Edward Steere’s The Wilderness Campaign. Morris Schaff’s overly poetic recollections, published as The Battle of the Wilderness, contains many gems. The saga of the fight of the 140th New York at Saunders Field is derived from reminiscences by Henry Cribben, Porter Farley, and August Seiser. The adventures of the cub reporter Henry Wing are expansively told in his memoir, When Lincoln Kissed Me. There are so many different accounts of the ‘Lee to the Rear’ episode near the Tapp Farm that one diligent author was able to create a sizable book out of them. I have opted for one of the least romantic accounts, believing (along with Edward Steere) that it represents a version that ‘is most consistent with military psychology.’ Also controversial is Gordon’s flank attack. John Gordon’s oft-quoted memoirs represent, in places, the way he wanted things to be remembered and not necessarily the way they happened. Gordon’s account includes a dramatic, last-minute intervention by Robert E. Lee, over-riding the hesitancy of Ewell and Early with a direct command in favor of Gordon. No other significant account mentions this visit by Lee, an it seems utterly unlike the punctilious Southern commander to so clearly violate the chain of command. Early’s own memoirs have an agenda of their own and are not fully trustworthy. I have fashioned what is to me a plausible sequence of events, based on a number of little-known accounts by staff officers who were also present.”

In turning to Steere we perhaps for the first time (at least it is the first time for me) obtain the reason Sheridan quarreled with Meade over his use of cavalry. In Steere we find Meade’s “decision to employ a preponderance of his cavalry strength in a manner calculated to protect the great trains, while assigning a single division to the arduous tasks of covering the whole front of deployment, cannot be based entirely on the series of mishaps attending failure of the screening force and miscarriage of the venture toward Hamilton’s Crossing.

“In the first place, it must be conceded that Meade’s concern for the safety of his supply trains became a dominating consideration after abandonment of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad between Rapidan Station and Manassas Junction. When the rolling stock went back, in accordance with the plan of evacuation, beyond Manassas Junction, the great trains became a moving base on with the Army of the Potomac would be entirely dependent until a new supply point was established on the indented shore line of Chesapeake Bay.

“Again, the problem of achieving proper economy of force in providing the necessary protection called for a fine display of tactical judgment. Could infantry do the job without serious diminution of the army’s striking power? Mounted units, admittedly, were best suited for the job. It was an established practice in he Army of the Potomac. But would Meade be justified in denying his army the benefits of far-ranging cavalry reconnaissance before battle?

“In Meade’s opinion, the safety of the great trains in this extraordinary situation put claims on his cavalry to the exclusion of any other venture, however promising. . .”

[Steere further discusses Meade’s likely understanding of the use of the cavalry and then “Admitting that the mounted arm had been divested of the offensive power it wielded in bygone days when the awesome rumble and flashing steel of a massed charge heralded the climax of battle, the activists [of which Sheridan was one] contended that present-day cavalry, properly trained and armed with magazine rifles, was still a self-contained arm, capable of independent action in dismounted combat and indispensable in long-range reconnaissance before battle. They pointed to the exploits of Buford at Gettysburg and Forrest in Tennessee s shining examples.”

On page 286-7 Steere writes, “The Chief of Cavalry was directed to cover the left flank and protect the trains as much as possible. It was also suggested that Sheridan might take the offensive and harass the enemy if any intelligence coming to hand led him to believe that he might do so without endangering the trains. This latitude of discretion, however, was qualified by the warning that ‘our infantry has been heavily pressed all along the line.’ In short, Sheridan’s principal mission in the grand offensive required the adoption of dispositions that would guarantee the security of the great trains and, as a consequence, of the dispersion of force to this end, there could be no real offensive possibilities. Sheridan so interpreted his instructions when at 11:00 p.m., he replied: ‘Why cannot infantry be sent to guard the trains and let me take the offensive?”

Steere has quite a bit more to say on this matter, but perhaps we have enough here to see rather more fully what Meade’s concern was and that Sheridan was a cavalry activist after the manner of Buford and Forrest, that is, advocating utilizing repeating rifles in offensive engagements.

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