10.12.05

THEY DROVE OLD DIXIE DOWN.

It took more than a night, but the Army of the Tennessee, under Genls. Grant and Sherman, enjoyed Nothing but Victory, our Book Review No. 43. The Amazon site includes at least one reviewer who discovered that the Army of the Tennessee is The Neglected Actor in winning the War of the Southern Rebellion. I have long intuited that. Perhaps it comes from having walked most of the Shiloh Battlefield and later discovering collateral grand-uncles in the 31st and 34th Wisconsin. (And I must confess upon paying my respects at Little Round Top to thanking the 20th Maine for buying enough time for the Midwestern -- at the time of the Rebellion, Northwestern -- units to finish the job in the West and make it possible for President Lincoln to pension off his political generals and get the job done in the East.)

The book will frustrate the military enthusiast who is looking for campaign maps and tactical analysis. On the other hand, it provides a great deal of insight into the thinking of commanders and corporals as well as some contemporary lessons. It provided me with some new information.

Consider, for example, the blunder that might have lost the Rebellion for the Confederacy. (One of the guests on the recent
Extension 720 Civil War evening offered that assertion.) Some years ago, I visited the so-called "Gibraltar of the West," a fort overlooking the Mississippi River at Columbus, Kentucky. I was not aware then that this fort, established by Bishop Leonidas Polk, a Confederate general, was the consequence of a Rebel invasion of a neutral state. President Lincoln and his advisors were wise enough to restrain impetuous Union commanders, who saw the strategic value of Columbus, from occupying it and giving secessionist legislators in Kentucky reason to claim the Yankees had invaded. But with Rebel units in Columbus, the Union commanders could petition the Kentucky legislature for permission to eject the Rebel invaders from Kentucky. Although Kentucky remained a battleground for the duration, the clearance of Columbus was ultimately obtained by passing through Kentucky to obtain control of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, thus getting in the rear of a Rebel army now stuck on the Kentucky bluffs.

(I'll leave the politics of the Confederacy to others. Commanders enjoyed greater freedom of action than their Union counterparts, often to the despair of president Jefferson Davis, and brain-cramps such as Bishop Polk's were less likely to be punished with a demotion. And many of the Rebel soldiers were fighting for principles of individual autonomy. But it's a bit of a paradox to invoke libertarian-sounding principles such as local control and states' rights in defense of the right to own another human being, the "property gained by honest toil" in Bonnie Blue Flag.)

A careful reader will also discover the origin of Genl. Grant's fighting style. At the Battle of the Wilderness, he dressed down the querulous Army of the Potomac staff, "Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is about to do. Some of you seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do."(*) That thinking was in place as early as the
battle for Fort Donelson. I was not aware until reading this book that the Rebels attempted to break out from the fort, and nearly defeated the Union army in the process. The story credits Genl. Grant with intuiting that the Rebel army was probably as tired as his own, and the army that made the next aggressive move would prevail. (And I can imagine, can't I, that somebody might have attributed the phrase "fatigue makes cowards of us all" to the General, and that became part of West Point lore, and Vince Lombardi learned it assisting Red Blaik at Army?) We see the same pattern at Shiloh. Rather than retreat across the Tennessee River and fort up with the reserve, the usual Eastern pattern in those days, Genls. Grant and Sherman organized a defensive line along the river and brought the reserves across. The story at Vicksburg is even more interesting. I'm not an expert in getting into the enemy's O-O-D-A loop, but that sure sounds like what happened. The Army of Northern Virginia was not used to being treated that way.

I'm also given to wonder what former Army of the Potomac commander Joseph Hooker, whose units acquitted themselves well at
Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain, might have thought after observing the western fighting style. "Dang ... Jackson's corps had to have been worn out after marching all day ... if only we'd hit back immediately..."

But in some ways the lessons one might draw from the Army of the Tennessee for today's troubles are the most instructive. Consider a recent New Republic essay by
William Stuntz, which addresses the thesis that longer, more difficult wars lead to more careful thinking about the war's objectives and the permanence of the results. Here's his opening.
Abraham Lincoln led what was left of his country to war to restore "the Union as it was," to use the popular phrase of the time. Free navigation of the Mississippi River, the right to collect customs duties in Southern ports, the status of a pair of coastal forts in South Carolina and Florida--these were the issues over which young American men got down to the business of killing one another that sad summer.

It was all a pipe dream. "The Union as it was" was gone, forever. Events proved William Tecumseh Sherman--the prophet of that war--right, and everyone else wrong: An ocean of blood would be required to reunite the United States, and once that blood was spilled, the country over which James Buchanan had presided was as dead as the soldiers whose corpses littered the battlefields of Shiloh and Gettysburg, Antietam and Cold Harbor.
But here is where we part company. (I'm going to leave aside the absence of a loss function with more power against a false positive where the false positive is nuclear weapons in the contemporary part of Mr Stuntz's thesis.) Mr Stuntz suggests the Union war aims had changed by 1864.
Similarly, control over the Mississippi wasn't worth the bloodletting across the length of the Confederacy's border that took place in Lincoln's first term. Thankfully, Lincoln saw to it that the war's purpose changed.
No. President Lincoln earned a second term because the first war aim, reopening the Mississippi, was achieved, and Atlanta occupied. What went on across the Virginia border was in some ways an expensive sideshow. General Lee could have occupied Washington but without the Mississippi and the northern Atlantic ports, what good would it have done? (One of the four battles named in the quote is not like the others. If you've been paying attention, you know which one, and why.) The purpose remained the same. President Lincoln had the political capital to replace some of his political Eastern generals with real commanders, who, well, one of the four battles is not like the others, get the picture?

Then, if you think national politics are fractious today, let me give you some perspective from 1864. (Scroll down for some perspective from 1968.) Open Nothing but Victory to p. 296. Read about the "
copperheads (peace Democrats)" who visited Army camps encouraging soldiers to desert. Then flip to p. 454. Vicksburg surrenders.
That afternoon, crowds of boys stood around shouting and ringing cowbells outside the houses of [Mt. Pleasant, Iowa's] three antiwar residents, and the local menfolk made the three Copperheads display the Stars and Stripes.
Or consider how the Army of the Tennessee cleared improvised explosive devices, which is what the land mines of the day were. See page 602.
The use of land mines was still quite new, and it was considered to be outside the bounds of civilized warfare unless they were planted directly in front of a fort, within the range of its guns. Then they were allowable as part of the fort's defenses. But, as Henry Hitchcock of Sherman's staff wrote, to "leave hidden in an open public road, without warning or chance of defense, these murderous instruments of assassination" was "contrary to every rule of civilized warfare.(+)" [Brig. Genl. Frank] Blair dealt with the matter by having Rebel prisoners brought up and ordered to clear the road of mines. Just as they were being assigned their task, Sherman and his staff rode up. Some of the prisoners "begged" Sherman very hard to be left off, but" as Hitchcock noted, "of course to no purpose." Sherman told the prisoners that "their people had put these things there to assassinate our men instead of fighting them fair, and they must remove them; and if they got blown up he didn't care." The prisoners went to work "very carefully" and successfully cleared the minefield without further incident.
Nothing quite like a spat among neighbors to bring out the worst. I haven't mentioned the foraging. That sub-story is almost worth another column. Just read the book.

(*)Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press 1994, 421-22)

(+)Isn't "civilized warfare" an oxymoron?

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