McDowell’s Real Plan

1 05 2014

Sorry this has taken so long.

The good folks at the Central Ohio Civil War Round Table – they’re in the Columbus area – invited me out to speak to them on the topic of my choice this past March 12. They invited me, jeez, must have been at least 18 months ago. They get really good speakers out there so the schedule is set many months in advance. This is the second time I’ve spoken to the group. I really like being invited back to a group, as I rightly or wrongly interpret that to mean they like what I do. Regardless, I’m to the point now where I won’t speak to any group unless they say “Hey, you want to speak to our group?”

My wife actually accompanied me on this trip; she’s never seen me speak before, and only once did she even attend a class I taught – because our soon to be son was due any day and she hoped discomfort and boredom would help spur things along. So this was an unusual trip right from the start, and continued on the unusual path when we got a flat tire very near our hotel. I changed the tire and we made it over to the hotel where our host Mike Peters (the historian of the COCWRT and the talent-booker) was waiting to take us to dinner.

After a nice meal we headed over to the venue in Westerville – a cool room in an old building at Otterbein University where veterans held meetings post-war. I renewed a couple of old acquaintances and made some new ones, and finally got to meet Phil Spaugy, with whom I’ve been “friends” on Facebook for awhile, and his posse from Dayton. Check out Phil’s blog here.

Towers Hall, Otterbein University

Towers Hall, Otterbein University

Meeting Room, COCWRT, Towers Hall, Otterbein University

Meeting Room, COCWRT, Towers Hall, Otterbein University

I was told by Mike that I had about 30 to 45 minutes for my presentation. I went over by about half an hour, but only one of the 20 or so in attendance left before the end (he is a lawyer, and I heard a siren going off only minutes before he left – coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.)

The gist of the presentation in a nutshell – my opinion, which I hope I supported adequately:

McDowell’s plan for the First Bull Run campaign was not a quick, tactical flank attack meant to overwhelm his outnumbered opponent and defeat him in the field. It was a deliberate, strategic turning maneuver, meant to compel a superior opponent to abandon his carefully chosen position, allowing McDowell to cut his line of communications. It did not fail because of slow movement, a complex plan, or the arrival of last minute Confederate reinforcements. It failed because McDowell was unable to establish his own line across Bull Run and move on the rail line at Groveton, and was instead drawn into a series of frontal assaults against a larger force occupying a superior position.

Sacrilege, I know. Of course, I had more to say than these four sentences, and that’s the fun part. You can read a recap of my talk here. I can quibble with a few things, but I’m not sure if the misunderstanding was due to a failure on my part to be clear. For now let’s just say that not all the details jive with what I meant to say. I really like this bit, though:

[Harry Smeltzer] reacts to consensus like a bull to the matador’s cape. Charge! And he lays waste to conventional wisdom. He doesn’t trust accepted “facts” and easy generalizations about battles, strategies, troop movements, and other assumptions that have been passed down as gospel over generations.

Yep, that’s me. I’m a loner. A rebel.

Afterwards we took a chilly walk to a nearby college pub where a few of us quaffed ales and had a generally ribald time. The next day, Mike and I went on a little field trip to nearby Lancaster, OH, while the wife made some sales calls and got the flat fixed. But that’s another story…

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6 responses

1 05 2014
Meg Thompson

YES!!! If it had been what historiography says, Winfield Scott would not have backed McDowell’s plan so thoroughly–thoroughly enough to get Lincoln to “see” it as well. When seen in these illuminating lights, the expression “green” becomes even more chilling–could sophisticated maneuvering be accomplished by so new an army? McDowell was correct to be so concerned. Huzzah!

2 05 2014
mike peters

Thans for the mention Harry! Comr back any time.

7 05 2014
Drew Wagenhoffer

Harry,
Have you thought about turning your thesis into an article?

Drew

8 05 2014
Harry Smeltzer

Drew, I think the grand total of two comments on this post is an indication of the public’s interest in reading more about my antithesis.

8 05 2014
Drew Wagenhoffer

Let’s hope that comment numbers are not related to interest level. Otherwise, we’re both wasting our time!

6 08 2014
W. T. Sherman’s Boyhood Home | Bull Runnings

[…] this year on my trip to visit his boyhood home in Lancaster, OH. The trip was made the day after my presentation to the Central Ohio Civil War Roundtable on March 12, courtesy of friend Mike […]

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