Review: Rafuse (Ed.) “Corps Commanders in Blue”

26 03 2015

My review of Corps Commanders in Blue, written for Civil War Times, is running in the digital version of the June 2015 issue. For whatever reason, the review was reduced in length. As I believe this book was one of the best of 2014, I’m posting the full version below.

517bM0P30PL._SL500_AA300_Corps Commanders in Blue: Union Major Generals in the Civil War, Ethan S. Rafuse, Editor

Sometimes, too much familiarity with how “modern” armies operate can be a hindrance when studying those that operated under more primitive circumstances. Such is the case with the armies of the American Civil War. At some levels, strict obedience of orders was required. At others, limitations of distance and communications required subordinates to exercise much broader discretion than that with which we have become accustomed. Outside of army chief, at no level was an officer’s initiative and ability to exercise prudent discretion more desired and expected than at that of corps command. As such, the men who held these positions present a unique study opportunity, one seldom specifically explored. In Corps Commanders in Blue, editor Ethan Rafuse has called in eight prominent Civil War historians, including himself, and put together an equal number of case studies of Union Corps commanders, most familiar, and some less so.

John Hennessy starts things off with a very strong, and balanced, look at the Army of the Potomac’s controversial Fitz-John Porter, one ultimately critical of the “too superficial” conclusion that Porter was “ruined by his devotion to [George B.] McClellan.” Instead, it was his commitment to a conservative war policy – one that the Lincoln administration officially, at least, endorsed – that put Porter out of favor with the powers-that-were. Thomas Clemens gives a flesh-out of a relatively shadowy Joseph K. F. Mansfield, whose long antebellum army career could not overcome the “leadership and combat-experience problems” that pre-existed his late arrival to the Army of the Potomac’s 12th Corps prior to the Battle of Antietam. If Mansfield is shadowy, the subject of Kenneth Noe’s essay, Charles C. Gilbert, is a virtual unknown to many. His assignment to the command of the Third Corps of Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio was the result of a process of elimination of other candidates based on Buell’s personal and political considerations, and Gilbert’s experience in that role through the Battle of Perrysville was “a textbook case of how not to direct a corps.” In what may be the collection’s centerpiece essay, Christopher Stowe profiles George G. Meade in his role as commander of the Army of the Potomac’s 5th Corps. Stowe sets Meade’s record as corps commander straight, as an aggressive leader, as one who was held in high regard by peers and superiors, and as one who was clearly considered a leading alternative to Joseph Hooker as chief of the Army of the Potomac prior to Meade’s promotion to that post. Recent publications notwithstanding, Stowe notes that “[t]hroughout his career, Meade viewed himself not as a policymaker but as a public servant beholden to obey orders regardless of his personal feelings or impulses.”

While the first four essays cover their subjects’ entire careers in corps command, the last four examine specific periods of longer lengths of service in that role. Stephen Woodworth’s coverage of James B. McPherson in the Vicksburg Campaign, and Mark Snell’s of William B. Franklin in the Trans-Mississippi perhaps got a little side-tracked in the weeds of the details of the respective campaigns. Ultimately, McPherson’s “remarkably limited amount of experience” in the campaign “did not subject him to the most severe of tests.” Franklin appears to have performed as well as could be expected despite the highly dysfunctional command structure with which he had to deal. Ethan Rafuse’s sketch of Joseph Hooker’s stint in command of the 20th Corps of the Army of the Cumberland in 1864 reveals a competent, effective commander doomed by his inability to play well with others including Grant and Sherman, and by conniving anglers like John Schofield. Brooks Simpson’s essay on Winfield Scott Hancock’s command of the Army of the Potomac’s 2nd Corps in the Overland Campaign is a focused look at how “The Superb” performed those tasks peculiar to running and fighting a corps. While Hancock’s multi-layered command role at Gettysburg may be more well known, the author with good reason argues that the 1864 campaign is a better barometer of his performance strictly as a corps chief. In the course of a year, the nature of the fighting in Virginia had changed significantly. Those changes, along with failing health, limited Hancock in the use of the tactical skills and inspirational leadership for which he was best known.

Corps Commanders in Blue is an important contribution to the study of command in the American Civil War. Hopefully readers will be seeing more along this line coming soon.

T. E. Lawrence on Strategy and Tactics, and the Power of Ideas

13 03 2015

57936Right now I’m working my way through Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph, T. E. Lawrence’s memoir of his adventures in the Middle East. I’m enjoying it a good deal more than I anticipated. Lawrence was, it appears to me, a jerk. For instance, he spelled the names of places and people differently intermittently, and on purpose. He explained that this was because they were frequently spelled differently, which doesn’t help the reader much. But I suspect he really wasn’t writing for the reader. In fact, he says:

There are no lessons for the world, no disclosures to shock peoples. It is filled with trivial things, partly that no one mistake for history the bones from which some day a man may make history.

The edition I’m reading includes the historiography of the book, which is an adventure in itself, as well as some correspondence between Lawrence and his editor, in which you can see that not only was Lawrence a jerk, but he knew he was a jerk, he knew his editor knew he was a jerk, and moreover he knew that the editor needed him so badly that Lawrence had no motivation whatsoever to curb his jerk tendencies.

Enough of that – let’s get to it. In Chapter 33 (there are many short chapters – Lawrence anticipated the People Magazine approach to article length), Lawrence recounted the thoughts running through his head as he lay prostrate with illness, or as he described it “in impotence upon my face in this stinking tent.” I won’t get into the insight provided regarding the situation in the area then and its applicability to the world today, but will say if you’re interested you should really check the book out. This is the pivotal chapter (I think) where Lawrence hits upon the secret to “victory.” Not really being a military man by his own admission, Lawrence nevertheless found himself in a position of high command. So, with time on his hands, he started to think back on what he had read, beginning at Oxford, from “Napoleon to Clausewitz and his school, to Caemmerer and Moltke, and the recent Frenchmen” to “Jomini and Willisen” to “Saux and Guibert” to “Kuhne and Foch.”

Now, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about strategy and tactics and operations and goals and objectives, it’s that no matter how smart or well-versed you are, whatever your thoughts on them may be, somebody – somebody really smart and well versed – is going to tell you you’re thinking about it all wrong. If you’re really unlucky, they’ll toss about a few acronyms and initials to boot. So keep that in mind as you consider Lawrence’s thinking, which I’ve transcribed selectively.

But first, click on this link to give a little background music to the rest of the read:

When it grew too hot for dreamless dozing, I picked up my tangle again, and went on ravelling it out, considering now the whole house of war in its structural aspect, which was strategy, in its arrangements, which were tactics, and in the sentiment of the inhabitants, which was psychology; for my personal duty was command, and the commander, like the master architect, was responsible for all.

The first confusion was the false antithesis between strategy, the aim in war, the synoptic regard seeing each part relative to the whole, and tactics, the means towards a strategic end, the particular steps of its staircase. They seemed only points of view from which to ponder the elements of war, the Algebraical element of things, a Biological element of lives, and the Psychological element of ideas.

The algebraical element looked to me a pure science, subject to mathematical law, inhuman. It dealt with known variables, fixed conditions, inorganic things like hills and climates and railways, with mankind in type-masses too great for individual variety, with all artificial aids and the extensions given our faculties by mechanical invention. It was essentially formulable.

Lawrence went on to do the math with regards to the size of the area he wished to “deliver” and how his enemy was likely to defend it. Then he hits upon his true weapon, that of ideas:

…but suppose we were (as we might be) an influence, and idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. We might be a vapour, blowing where we listed.

(When it comes to Bull Run, I think this notion of an idea or ideal as a weapon needs to be explored. At this point of the war, the possibility of an ideological impact was greater than it would ever be again. In the north, some – even Lincoln – still held out hope that southern unionists were the key to bringing the wayward sisters home, so highly did they value the idea of “Union.” How, if at all, did this belief or hope affect Union strategy? There’s not much documentation to go on, but you have to wonder…)

Then Lawrence calculated the number of men his enemy would require to defend the ground, and the number required to achieve his aims. He moved on to the biological factor and makes some keen observations with regard to reserves.

[I] plunged into the nature of the biological factor in command. Its crisis seemed to be the breaking point, life and death, or less finally, wear and tear… A line of variability, Man, persisted like leaven through its estimates, making them irregular. The components were sensitive and illogical, and generals guarded themselves by the device of a reserve, the significant medium of their art. [Military theorist Colmer Freiherr von der] Goltz had said that if you knew the enemy’s strength, and he was fully deployed, then you could dispense with a reserve; but this was never. The possibility of accident, of some flaw in materials was always in the general’s mind, and the reserve unconsciously held to meet it.

The ‘felt’ element in troops, not expressible in figures, had to be guessed at…and the greatest commander of men was he whose intuitions most nearly happened. Nine-tenths of tactics were certain enough to be teachable in schools; but the irrational tenth was like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and in it lay the test of generals. It could be ensued only by instinct (sharpened by thought practising the stroke) until at the crisis it came naturally, a reflex.

This last bit touches on the popular belief, which some claim was predominant at least in the North, that great military commanders are born, not made. That a military education and experience might sharpen those with the innate ability to excel in command, but that it could not provide it. That the great, natural soldier who would lead the armies to victory could emerge from any walk of life. Some of this would come to a head in the debate over the value of West Point in the wake of the defeat at Bull Run.

Preview – Horn: “The Siege of Petersburg”

26 02 2015

Layout 1Savas-Beatie continues its series of 150th Anniversary revised editions with a rework of John Horn’s 1991 Howard Battles and Leaders Series study, Destruction of the Weldon Railroad Deep Bottom Globe Tavern and Reams Station August 14-25, 1864. The new title is The Siege of Petersburg: The Battles for the Weldon Railroad, August 1864, just so you don’t get confused. The subject is what’s known as Grant’s Fourth Offensive, dubbed the longest and most costly offensive of the Petersburg Campaign, and involved the battles of Second Deep Bottom, Globe Tavern, and Second Reams’s Station.

What you get is 313 pages of text, plus four statistical tables, and three Orders of Battle. The tables are new to this edition, as are the maps by Hampton Newsome (there appear to be plenty of them, but whether or not they serve to illuminate the text remains to be seen.) The text has also been updated with more than 20 years of new research, most notably provided by what has been published as Civil War Talks: The Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard and His Fellow Veterans, co-edited by Horn, the memoir of a Petersburg lawyer who was a member of the 12th Virginia Infantry.

As usual, you also get a quality hardback binding, real-live footnotes, and a sturdy and colorful jacket. And all for $32.95. Not too shabby!

Preview: Hood – “The Lost Papers of Confederate General John Bell Hood”

18 02 2015

514PKhia89L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I recently received from publisher Savas-Beatie a copy of Stephen M. Hood’s The Lost Papers of Confederate General John Bell Hood. This can be viewed as support, so to speak, for some of Hood’s earlier John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General (see my review here.) In this new, 269 page book author Hood presents and annotates his collateral ancestor’s (mostly) post war private correspondence which has been held by the family since his death (these are separate from his “war papers” which were mysteriously acquired by the National Archives in 1938.) Many of these were composed during the General’s writing of his autobiography, Advance and Retreat. Author Hood has presented the documents by topic, chronologically. Some of the topics: Dr. John Darby’s medical reports concerning Hood’s Gettysburg and Chickamauga wounds; The Atlanta Campaign; Cassville; War strategy after the fall of Atlanta; Spring Hill, Franklin, & Nashville; and Advance and Retreat. An appendix, Laudanum, Legends, and Lore, wraps things up. Richard McMurry provides a foreword. Also included are facsimiles of many of the 126 documents transcribed.

Notes to Review of “The Early Morning of War”

22 01 2015

downloadIn the coming days, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on Edward G. Longacre’s study of the campaign of First Bull Run, The Early Morning of War. Let me be clear – this is a well written and deeply researched book, is now the “definitive” study of the campaign, and I recommend you read it. Does that mean I agree with everything in it, or believe it is the best work out there? Well, that will become clear as we progress.

I finished the book about a month ago, and have let it sit. While reading, I use little Post-Its to mark passages I find interesting, or disagree with, or agree with, or which prompt me to do more digging. So what I’m going to do is start at the beginning, and share those bits with you. As I’ve said before, not many – maybe not ANY – folks out there agree with me regarding McDowell’s expectations, plans, or intentions, and Longacre is no exception. The trickle-down of this is substantial when evaluating or explaining (or failing to explain) what actually happened. But that’s not all I’ll discuss. So, keep an eye out for these installments – each may cover one, or more, or even less chapters, and I have no idea just yet how many installments there will be.

More on “Corps Commanders in Blue”

11 12 2014

517bM0P30PL._SL500_AA300_Back in October I gave you a sneak-peak at the Ethan Rafuse edited essay collection “Corps Commanders in Blue.” I’ve submitted a full review that will run in either Civil War Times or America’s Civil War – not sure which. This is a really good collection, and I’d put it on the short list for Best of 2014. While the eight authors varied in how well they stuck to the central theme (examination of the individual officers strictly as corps commanders), all produced informative sketches of their subjects. Best of the eight for me were Fitz-John Porter, George G. Meade (a great counter to some recent suggestions about the snapping-turtle), Joseph Hooker and 20th Corps, and Winfield Scott Hancock in the Overland Campaign. This last stuck to the theme best, I thought, while some others went astray into the weeds of operations. Thumbs up, and here’s hoping more along this line – especially more Union sketches – is on the way.

Preview: David Powell, “The Chickamauga Campaign, Vol. I”

25 11 2014

Layout 1The fist of David A. Powell’s proposed three volume study of the Chickamauga Campaign, A Mad Irregular Battle: From the Crossing of the Tennessee River Through the Second Day, August 22 – September 19, 1863, is now available from publisher Savas-Beatie. Even though Dave is a friend (about 10 years or so ago I spent a few of wonderful days on the Chickamauga fields with him as part of a very small group of about four or five, and have interviewed him here), I firmly believe that, unless something goes horribly wrong, when complete this will be the most important work on the campaign to date.

The skinny on Volume I: 631 pages of narrative (and yes, there are two more volumes!) with foot – not end – notes. There’s no bibliography in this volume – it will be included in Volume II. I imagine it will comprise a good chunk of that volume: Dave’s newspaper sources alone are extensive. Despite the title, this installment covers most of the summer of 1863, beginning with the Tullahoma Campaign June 24 to July 4, to the crossing of the Tennessee in August, and through the close of the second day of the battle on September 19. Photos and illustrations appear throughout (not in a separate photo section, which seems to be part of the Savas-Beatie MO, along with the footnotes) as do sufficient maps by David Friedrichs, who performed the same task in Powell’s earlier Maps of Chickamauga.

Don’t miss this one.


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