12.7.10

ANTICIPATING SHERMAN'S MARCH. In the early days of the Southern Rebellion, the senior generals east and west dithered and delayed, while ambitious junior commanders did what they could subject to the objections of their superiors. Grant and Sherman ultimately emerged as the commanders, and the Army of the Tennessee as the instrument of victory. Before them, however, was Ormsby McKnight Mitchel, also an aggressive commander, who secured the improbable cooperation of a smuggler named James Andrews in an attempt to isolate Chattanooga prior to investing it and moving to Atlanta. The project, in military histories as the Andrews Raid, and on film as The Great Locomotive Chase, failed.




The received version of the chase makes for great theater, with trains jumping gaps in rails and boxcars left in position to derail the chasing locomotive or to destroy bridges.

The reality is not as dramatic, although what actually happened is compelling enough, and well-told in Russell S. Bonds's Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor. Mr Bonds has investigated official records, located photographs of most of the protagonists of the chase, reconstructed what happened in those six hours from a stolen train making an unauthorized departure from Big Shanty, Georgia to the same train running out of fuel near Ringgold, Georgia. The raiders might have missed some opportunities to impede their pursuers. The capture, imprisonment, trial, and execution or exchange of the raiders receive the attention they deserve. The Medal of Honor that many of the raiders won has a most humble beginning. An agrarian republic with little use for a martial tradition has to make up the techniques and trappings of industrial war as it goes along, learning lessons that the French and the Prussians ignored to their grief two score and three years later, and also creating a medal that only later became special recognition for extraordinary acts.

I'll leave most of the details out of Book Review No. 15, noting that a careful reader will learn much, and that the raiders described their unit's ultimate objectives in terms anticipating Sherman's March. General Mitchel is an intriguing figure. Mr Bonds credits him as prototype for Walt Whitman's Learned Astronomer, and had he lived, the lineup of field commanders in the west might have been imposing indeed. (To this day, Fort McPherson in Atlanta is a subtle reminder to aspiring secesh.)

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

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