I’m about to embark on another Bull Run inspired distraction. I learned early on in this process that if I was going to gain an understanding of not only what happened but why it happened, I was going to have to understand what motivated the primary actors to do what they did. Recently, popular history has focused on psychological motivations. Unfortunately, not only are most writers that have participated in this baneful practice not historians, they aren’t psychologists/psychiatrists either. As a result what we get is a parlor trick, working backwards from an arbitrary diagnosis and picking out events or even unfounded speculations to “prove” the validity of the finding.
While it’s certainly not as sexy, I think we can find more sound basis for decision making in the actor’s training, his past experiences, and what was known or assumed to be true at the time. For instance, several authors dealing with First Bull Run have emphasized pre-battle incidents with masked batteries at Vienna and Big Bethel and how they affected the movements of McDowell’s army. The explanations seemed to make sense to me at the time, with lots of evidence in newspapers and soldiers’ letters. But what that really proved was that the newspapers and private soldiers were very concerned with masked batteries. I’ve found that the movements of McDowell’s army can be more reasonably understood by looking at military doctrine (training) and limited resources, primarily cavalry. Not very exciting, I know.
To understand a little better the workings of the minds of guys like McDowell, Beauregard and Johnston, I felt it was necessary to do some “fancy book learning”. First I sat down and read Makers of Modern Strategy – Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler, an old ROTC standard that has since been updated through the Nuclear Age, though I only read up through Clausewitz. (While I realize Clausewitz was not translated until after the ACW, Halleck referenced him in his 1846 Elements of Military Art and Science, so reading the summary on him made sense.) Then I read the 1862 edition of Jomini’s The Art of War. Dry, dry, dry, let me tell you, but important to read if only because reading it helps you realize that most folks who talk about Jomini have never read Jomini. Standard tactical manuals like Mahan’s Out-Post and Hardee’s U. S. Infantry Tactics are sitting on my shelves, too, as is the 1861 Revised Regulations for the Army of the United States. And of course an understanding of the War with Mexico is essential, so I read Eisenhower’s So Far from God which is a nice overview, but I think I need something with more meat, perhaps K. Jack Bauer’s (no, really, Jack Bauer!) The Mexican War. I’ve picked up some other interesting MW titles, including D. H. Hill’s letters, but I’m afraid of getting out of control. Input from MW aficionados is welcome.
But if there is one name which stands above all others as an influence on the minds of professional (and volunteer, for that matter) soldiers of the period it is Napoleon Bonaparte. And if there is one book that is considered The Book on Napoleon and his campaigns it is David Chandler’s 1966 The Campaigns of Napoleon. I finally found it (used, of course) at a reasonable price – $40. This doorstop is 1,095 pages long, which will put me behind on my Bull Run reading, but I think it must be done. I’m a s-l-o-w reader, so this will be the bulk of my reading for the next couple of months. I received one valuable tip from my friend Dave Powell, who says I should read the bit on Art of War first and then read the whole thing in sequence. Any other advice is appreciated.
Later tonight or tomorrow I’ll post some thoughts on several sources of confusion regarding accounts of the action at Bull Run, including Sherman’s Battery (once again), Zouaves and red pants and/or shirts.