Yet another Distraction

17 07 2007


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. 

chandler.jpgBut 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.



6 responses

18 07 2007
Dave Powell

Congrats, Time to do the hard work of really understanding 19th Century war. the good Baron can be confusing at times, what with all of his geometry, but Jomini is really essential to understanding the nuts and bolts of operations. Chandler’s exegesis on Napoleon’s campaigns presents some practical applications of what Jomini was talking about, so that it makes more sense when you read it.

And the most interesting thing that I always note is how Clauswitz is usually presented in opposition to Jomini – Clauswitz targeted armies while Jomini focused on terrain. This is very wrong. In fact, where the two overlap, they are pretty similar. Both are explaining the same operational art in different ways. Jomini has more of an “Age of Reason” feel to him, which modern readers can struggle with. Clauswitz goes beyond Jomini to discuss the larger political and social aspects of total war, which is the main difference between the two – Jomini never tackles that stuff.


19 07 2007
Mike Peter

Harry wrote the following:

“Zouaves and red pants and/or shirts”


I look forward to your thoughts/comments.



19 07 2007
Harry Smeltzer


I think I’ve at least figured a couple of things out for sure. I really hope to get to this tonight, because I know I’ve been promising to discuss this for awhile. The long and short of it is that there is a whole lot of confusion about what units were where doing what, and first person accounts often should be taken with huge grains of salt. Too many “historians” have failed to do this over the years, and stories get set in stone and accepted uncritically. Just because things “make sense” and fit in with what we already “know” does not mean they are true reflections of what happened.


20 07 2007

Good thread. I felt the impulse to educate myself and bought that “Makers of Modern Strategy” nine years ago when I began reading CW in depth. Haven’t made much headway in it, sorry.

The CompuServe Civil War Forum will be touring Atlanta and environs next March 27-30, so I’ve been re-reading Sherman’s letters, as noted in my reply in the Gen Tyler thread. In this case, I see that Sherman makes references – to his wife, for one – to Napoleon which support what you say above:

>>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.<<

On August 12, 1861, Sherman wrote to Ellen about the short amount of time available for training the volunteers for battle. Having suffered through the rout of Bull Run, he’s down on three month enlistments! “They brag but dont perform.” “Had I some good Regulars I could tie to them. As it is all the New Brigadiers must manufacture their Brigades out of Raw Material – Napoleon allowed 3 years as a *minimum*. Washington [George-my insert] one year – Here it is expected in nine days and Bulls Run is the consequence.” (p. 129)

A week earlier he got very snarky about the complaining volunteers. Also to Ellen: “Indeed I never saw such a set ob grumblers as our volunteers about their food clothing arms & and I shall make a Requisition for two wet nurses per soldier, to nurse them in their helpless pitiful condition.” (p. 127)

There are other references to Napoleon scatted in this opening section. I look forward to stopping in her for coming attractions.

Terry Blaurock


20 07 2007
Harry Smeltzer


You’ve probably already seen that Sherman had big-time troubles with some of his volunteers after the battle, notably with a mutinous 69th NYSM. He even received some backup from Lincoln in person!


20 08 2007
History – What Is It? « Bull Runnings

[…] been working my way through Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon (described here).  It’s slow going.  Sometimes when I find myself stalling out in a book, I break it up with a […]


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