Monday, May 17, 2004

Magnolias by the Euphrates 2

I am reproducing reader Michael McCanles reply to Magnolias by the Euphrates, which compared some aspects of the Civil War to the campaign in Iraq, without comment, except to say that events that took place nearly 150 years ago still exercise the imagination. He tackles issues which may be of more than passing interest to those with an interest in Civil War history.

Your citation of a blogged comparison via the 3rd vol. of Bruce Catton's history of the American Civil War between that war and the situation in Iraq deserves, I think, some qualification. Pathetic Earthlings can't have read Catton very closely.

(1) >Once the war actually began, it was perhaps inevitable that the North (with gigantic advantages in everything, save perhaps talent)

A very old canard, this of the talent-laden Confederate army. In a match-up between the two eartern armies, doubtless true up through Gettysburg, but not after. D. S. Freeman's _Lee's Lieutenants_ is a study of precisely just that: the remarkably high rate of loss of brigade and division commanders in the Army of Northern Virginia, by comparison with the remarkable growth by way of hard experience of their counterparts in the Army of the Potomac by the time Grant took over in spring, 1864.

In the west, there was no contest. The quality of southern leadership in the Army of Tennessee is notorious in studies today for its crankiness, petulence, and self-willfulness. It was continually racked by political in-fighting, as was its criss-cross parallel, the Army of the Potomac in the east under McClellan and his epigones. The Confederate of Tennessee never had a winning commander--the citation of Johnston in that regard as in any other--is simply not factual. By comparison, at the brigade and division levels the quality of leadership particularly in the Union Army of the Tennessee, commanded first by Grant, then Sherman, then finally in a very interesting twist, by an Army of the Potomac cast-off, O. O. Howard, was extraordinarily high from the time Halleck left command in the west to Grant in 1862, through the very difficult Carolinas campaign under Sherman in winter and spring, 1865. In addition both Grant and Sherman were quick, deft, and successful in quashing political grandstanding, as witnessed by Grant's timing in letting the Lincoln-appointed political general McClernand hang himself by his own incompetence, leaving the War Dept. no choice but to send him back to politicking in Illinois. Sherman was if anything even more wily in dealing with several potential firecrackers, including another Potomac cast-off, "Fighting Joe" Hooker by maneuvering him into resigning.

I won't even go into the comparison between the massive development of a war government under Lincoln, and the pathetic "gang-who-couldn't-shoot-straight" devolution of the Richmond regime. A single comparison will do: while Sec'y of War Stanton (Rumsfeld's counterpart for being obnoxious, arrogant, and brilliant) developed what is historically the beginnings of America's modern cabinet-level military institution, the Confederate War Department turned into the increasingly sad comedy of posturing generals, incompetent bureaucrats, and ceaseless office infighting chronicled with running unconscious comedy by a war clerk, John B. Jones. His surviving diary stands today as a singular monument to the truism that stupid governments seldom survive.

(2) >Lee quickly recognized (particularly after the failure at Gettysburg) that the Confederacy’s best chance of victory was to drag the conflict out into a painful stalemate that would sap the North’s will to fight. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fell back into guerrilla mode: stick to known terrain, harass the supply lines, attack where the opportunity arises, and never let the enemy engage in strength. Farther south, Joe Johnston had a like strategy.

This statement is a non-starter re: both Lee's and Johnston's armies. As a matter of fact, Grant foresaw just such a guerilla maneuver as a possible, and had Sherman's army-group in the Atlanta campaign do the same thing Grant did when he went into the field with the Army of the Potomac, still commanded to the end of the war by the winner at Gettysburg, Meade: Grant insisted that both armies do something what was relatively new in maneuvering between large armies at the time--engage the two southern armies intimately 24/7. There was literally no time between May of 1864, and the conclusion of the war in April, 1865 when a major part of of both Union armies were not engaged with their southern counterparts. And as a matter of fact, the initiative was held by the Union armies in both cases, with the result that the maneuverability associated with hit-and-run guerilla warfare was out of the question. Both Lee and Johnston were forced continually to be reactive to counter the superior maneuverability of the two larger forces. The only exception to this generalization is Hood's notoriously failed attempt to do a "Stonewall Jackson in the Valley" move around Sherman after the capture of Atlanta. Hood's invasion of middle Tennessee while Sherman's Amy of the Tennessee marched in a mirror-image move in the opposite direction (a maneuver that would have the faint-hearted types of today in terminal apoplexy) was quashed most miserably at Franklin and Nashville by the other half of Sherman's army group, the Army of the Cumberland under Thomas.

On the subject of "supply lines," a tender subject for both Grant and Sherman on the basis of bitter experience, it is true that Lee attempted the "valley" strategy one more time in 1864, stinging Grant into laying the Shenandoah valley waste so that it could never again be a source of both left-hooks toward Washington and a provider of subsistence. Johnston tried, with the inept Wheeler, to disrupt Sherman's supply line during the Atlanta campaign, but to little effect. When it came to the next move, the Savannah campaign (better known as "the march to the sea"), Sherman indulged one of his favorite fantasies, and it worked. That fantasy was to operate without any base of supply whatsoever. He learned this from watching second-rate Pemberton constantly probing for Grant's "rear" during the crucial maneuvers south and east of Vicksburg, only to be frustrated because there was no rear. Grant then, and Sherman later, lived off the land.

I don't see, on this basis, much comparison with Iraq.