Saturday, March 28, 2020

Battles of attrition: Grant, Lee and Haig

I recently criticized Haig and Grant for their battles of attrition.  James M. McPherson would disagree with me, at least in regard to Grant.  He wrote, “. . . Grant did not admit culpability for the heavy Union casualties in the whole campaign of May and June 1864.  Nor should he have done so, despite the label of ‘butcher’ and the later analyses of his ‘campaign of attrition.’  It did turn out to be a campaign of attrition, but that was more by Lee’s choice than by Grant’s.  The Union commander’s purpose was to maneuver Lee into a position for open-field combat; Lee’s purpose was to prevent this by entrenching an impenetrable line to protect Richmond and his communications.  Lee was hoping to hold out long enough and inflict sufficient casualties on Union forces to discourage the people of the North and prevent Lincoln’s reelection. 

“Lee’s strategy of attrition almost worked.  That it failed in the end was owing mainly to Grant, who stayed the course and turned the attrition factor in his favor.  Although the Confederates had the advantage of fighting on the defensive most of the time, Grant inflicted almost as high a percentage of casualties on Lee’s army as vice versa.  Indeed, for the war as a whole, Lee’s armies suffered a higher casualty rate than Grant’s (and higher than any other army).  Neither general was a ‘butcher,’ but measured by that statistic Lee deserved the label more than Grant.”

However, it was well known that Lincoln couldn’t find a general who would fight against Lee.  They all backed down or were defeated.  But Grant had a reputation for not backing down and not being defeated; so Lincoln gave him control over all the Northern Armies, and Grant promised there would be no more turning back.  There never was a time, apparently, when Grant, at least during a battle, considered the butcher’s bill too high.  In retrospect, however, he wished he had backed away from Cold Harbor because the bill was too high for the little that was at stake.   Did he keep at Cold Harbor too long because of his promise to Lincoln? 

Haig, it seems, was willing to get in the trenches and grind the German’s down, knowing The British Empire, had more men at its disposal than did the German’s.  Lee got his men into trenches assuming Grant wouldn’t be willing to pay the expense in men’s lives necessary to drive them out, but Grant was willing, and when Lee moved back and retrenched, Grant was willing to drive him out again. 

Years later Yamamoto spent some time in the U.S. and had some idea of its industrial might, but he had a poor opinion of America’s military might, and he was a little bit right because the U.S. military was tiny and not very serious.  Lincoln had to go through a number of inept generals before he ended up with Grant, Sherman and Sheridan and a trial by error process had to occur before America in the Pacific war found admirals able to stand up to Yamamoto.   Lee kept hoping Grant would back down – either that or that the Northern government would force him to stand down.  Yamamoto assumed that America had no ability to produce admirals comparable to his.   Tojo and his army believed the same sort of thing about American Generals.  Tojo's and Yamamoto's forces were surprised in island after island by Marines on the ground and Naval support at sea. 

Late in WWI the Germans had reason to fear the masses of men the U.S. was willing to send to oppose them in Europe, but it was their quantity rather than quality that the German’s feared.  The Americans didn’t fight the Germans long enough to be able to go through the trials and errors necessary to find Generals comparable to Grant, Sherman, Sheridan and Patton. 

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