November 18, 2003

Department of "Huh?"

Glenn Reynolds writes: MY OFFICE IS A BATTLEFIELD. No, that's not a metaphor for the state of my desk (er, well, actually it is a metaphor for the state of my desk, but that's not what I mean). The Law School is in the Fort Sanders neighborhood, so called because it's the site of Fort Sanders, whose siege played the decisive role in the Siege of Knoxville during the Civil War, opening the path for Sherman's march to the sea. There were cannon, trenches, telegraph wire (substituting for barbed wire, which hadn't quite been invented), and snipers, one of whom played an important role...

And I say, "Huh?"

At the end of 1863--the time of the Confederate attack on Ambrose Burnside's army entrenched in Knoxville, TN--three union armies commanded by William T. Sherman, Joseph Hooker, and George Thomas (with Ulysses S. Grant there to direct all three) were in Chattanooga, more than 100 miles to the southwest. The road from Chattanooga to Atlanta to Savannah and the sea does not run through Knoxville. It does not run within 100 miles of Knoxville. Confederate success at capturing Knoxville would not have hindered Grant's and Sherman's plans and campaigns in the least.

Now it is true that Confederate army commander Braxton Bragg was an idiot of rare degree. And it is certainly true that his decision to divide his army and send his best corps, Longstreet's, with 1/3 of his strength northeast toward Knoxville just when Grant and Sherman were preparing to swing the hammer was one of the most-boneheaded and militarily inexplicable generalship decisions of the Civil War. Most generals concentrate their forces when about to be attacked by Grant and company: only Bragg chose to divide his.

On November 23-25 1863, while Longstreet's Confederates were still attempting to besiege Burnside's in Knoxville, the hammer descended: as Braxton Bragg wrote, "a panic which I had never before witnessed seemed to have seized upon officers and men" and Bragg's routed Confederate army fell back into Georgia.

It was Bragg's decision to divide his army and send Longstreet to Knoxville that sealed his fate and made Confederate defeat at Chattanooga a certainty--not anything that happened at Knoxville.

In fact, I have never understood what (besides the standard utter contempt that all of Braxton Bragg's subordinates seem to have had for him) possessed Longstreet to accept Bragg's order to move his corps to attack Knoxville at all.

Posted by DeLong at November 18, 2003 09:25 PM | TrackBack


Brad: your pal at calpundit commented about this Reynolds piece as well. Seems that Drums had a great great grandfather who was in the siege and quotes from his journal.

Posted by: Cal on November 18, 2003 10:38 PM


"the most-boneheaded and militarily inexplicable generalship decisions of the Civil War" - not that boneheaded and inexplicable compared to having the Civil War at all.

Posted by: Mats on November 19, 2003 12:04 AM


Uh oh. Brad, your comments section is about to be taken over by Civil War nuts who will argue every last detail of this, down to the last squad.

Can't we fix on something that evokes less passion, like religion?

Posted by: derrida derider on November 19, 2003 01:29 AM


"Now it is true that Confederate army commander Braxton Bragg was an idiot of rare degree."

This opinion isn't shared by Steven E. Woodworth
in Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West (Modern War Studies, 1990). IIRC (I don't have the book with me here in China), Woodworth makes the case that Davis's loyalties to ambitious mutton-heads like Polk and other subordinates whom Bragg had to manage made it nearly impossible for Bragg to properly exercise command in the West.

Posted by: William in Beijing on November 19, 2003 01:45 AM


"Brad, your comments section is about to be taken over by Civil War nuts ..."

And derrida sounds like a d*** Yankee. ;-)

Posted by: William in Beijing on November 19, 2003 03:59 AM


Telegraph wire substituting for barbed wire?


Posted by: Barry on November 19, 2003 04:26 AM


Dumb as the US Civil War was, Winston Churchill thought it among the least avoidable wars of the 19th century.

As far as stupidity in the Civil War, I think I'd argue for Burnsides' decision to make a frontal assault up the hillside at Fredericksburg as the dumbest military moment of the war, followed closely by Burnsides' earlier decision to force his way across Rohrbach Creek at Antietam (it was readily fordable) and followed closely by Burnsides' decision to send his entire Corps attacking through the mine crater at Petersburg WITHOUT LADDERS to get them out of the crater on the far side after they'd marched down into it.

Posted by: Anarchus on November 19, 2003 04:28 AM


And Instapundit showed his usual level of comprehension and truth, when discussing the results
of the occupation. Not holding a grudge? Riiiiigghhht.

Consider that it would have been in the interest
of the majority of white Southerners to have promptly executed their leaders for treason upon the declarations of secession. Instead, they instead willingly gave their lives for them, during the war, and revered them after the war (hmm, like Bush?).

That is a bad omen for Iraq.

Posted by: Barry on November 19, 2003 04:32 AM


Barry does not understand the remark about
barbed wire and telegraph wire. I think
Glenn Reynolds means: "You might imagine the
battlefield as littered with barbed wire.
Actually barbed wire had not been invented,
but the battlefield was littered with telegraph
wire, which would look sort of similar."

Posted by: David Mix Barrington on November 19, 2003 04:45 AM


Thank you for ratifying I'm not crazy. When I read Glenn's statement I sort of went "What?! That's not right!" but I was at work and couldn't spare the time to sort out what in the world he was talking about.

Re: the telegraph/barbed wire thing. I seem to recall reading somewhere that at Knoxville Burnside's troops strung telegraph wire along their front as a battlefield obstacle, promptng some Confederate or another to comment on infernal Yankee ingenuity.

Posted by: David B on November 19, 2003 05:36 AM


I would not classify Bragg as an "idiot of rare degree". It is true Bragg received little respect from his subordinates. However, anyone who has been to Chattanooga can see that Bragg should have been able to hold a defensive position against attack with even half his number of men. The defeat of Bragg at Chattanooga was the result of poor engineering and inattention to fortifications. The command of the ridge gave Bragg a sense of invulnerability to frontal attack. It should have been invulnerable. However, the fortifications were not properly located or extensive enough.

The unexpected frontal attack up the ridge by Union troops was not ordered and took the defenders by surprise. The attack was not a maneuver that would have been ordered by any competent general. It happened by troops separated from command in battle. Was Bragg an idiot because he did not expect a frontal assault by Union troops? Grant did not expect it either and he was commanding the Union troops.

The presence of Longstreet would probably not have made a difference in the outcome. Supplying additional troops on a high ridge would have made their deployment there unlikely. Bragg's failure was not in sending Longstreet to Knoxville but a failure to establish optimal defensive fortifications.

By 1863 Civil War, the available weaponry and defensive experience should have made the defensive invulnerable to assault. No frontal attacks in the Civil War after 1863 were ultimately successful. While Bragg was arrogant and disliked, he was a competent General. Bragg had success at Chickamaugua. Bragg was more a jerk than an idiot. True idiot status should go to General Hood, the last commander of the western army. Hood destroyed his army in a series of misguided frontal assaults against well fortified Union defensive positions.

Sending Longstreet to Knoxville probably had little effect on the outcome of the battle at Chattanooga. Sending Longstreet west to disrupt supplies could have made an impact. However, it was also important to prevent establishment of a supply line from Knoxville to Chattanooga.

Longstreet in Knoxville has parallels to US forces in Iraq. Knoxville was a hotbed of Union loyalty and insurgency against the Confederates. It was only through jailing opponents and executing insurgents that the Confederates were able to prevent attacks on supplies and maintain control of the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina early in the war. Longstreet was faced with a hostile population that was helping provision the Union army at Knoxville. The Confederates would have had difficulty maintaining a seige of Knoxville regardless of the outcome at Chattanooga.

It sounds like Knoxville is trying to cash in on the Civil War tourist industry by hyping the importance of the Knoxville seige. Knoxville was too remote to be a strategic asset in the Civil War. It had much greater political significance. Lincoln wanted to liberate his supporters in Knoxville in spite of its lack of military significance.

Posted by: bakho on November 19, 2003 06:00 AM


Remember Burnside.

Posted by: Ken on November 19, 2003 06:26 AM


Interesting Civil War commentary, bakho, though you may be understating the importance of the Knoxville supply line just a little.

Posted by: Brian A. on November 19, 2003 10:13 AM


In the 1860s, the rails from Knoxville went to Nashville, Chattanooga and Richmond. In 1863, there was no rail north to Lexington let alone Cincinnati. North from Knoxville was the Wilderness Road that ran through the Cumberland gap. Mules on this road would eat most of the forage they could carry. It was a poor supply route from the north. The major river and rail supply routes went from the Ohio River to Nashville. Brad is correct that Knoxville is out of the way. They sing Rocky Top in Knoxville.

In late 1863, Chattanooga was starving until supply lines to the west were opened. Eventually, the rail line from Nashville (not Knoxville) was opened to supply Chattanooga. Knoxville was not well provisioned and was not much help during Bragg's seige of Chattanooga.

After Chattanooga, Sherman hurriedly marched north to break the Longstreet seige because he thought Burnside was starving. Sherman was annoyed at making his march for nothing. Sherman found Burnside well fed and provisioned by the locals.

In 1864, the military under Sherman ran the railroad from Nashville strictly for military supplies. Nashville had access to the Ohio River by water and by rail to Louisville. Chattanooga is closer to Atlanta than Knoxville and a direct line from Nashville. Chattanooga, not Knoxville was the forward base for Sherman in 1864.

Logistics limited army movements. Sherman kept lots of spare parts, rails, ties, tressles, etc. and crews that could repair damage to the railroad in short notice. He stockpiled supplies in Nashville and Chattanooga so his army would not be deterred by attacks on the supply line, a single railroad track from Chattanooga to Atlanta.

After Sherman took Atlanta, he eliminated a logistics problem by depopulating the city and burning it. There was no way to adequately provision it from the north. The main Union force under Thomas destroyed the railroad in Northern Georgia and went back to the easily supplied Nashville, not the vulnerable Chattanooga or remote Knoxville. Sherman, a genius at logistics and supply, left Atlanta for the sea with a smaller mobile force that could supply itself. Economic considerations have a big effect on military strategy.

Knoxville was an important link for Richmond to the west (Nashville, Chattanooga, Atlanta). The Confederates would want to force the Union out of Knoxville after starving them out of Chattanooga in order to reopen rail lines to Richmond. However, Knoxville was not in the line of march or supply for the Union troops. An exploration of the principle trade routes for Knoxville, TN would be in order.

Posted by: bakho on November 19, 2003 02:53 PM


I find it very odd that Glenn Hubbard would write about Federal occupation of the South from Knoxville, TN of all places. Is there some need to pander to the neo-confederate historical revisionists within the GOP?

Lest we forget, East Tennesse and Knoxville was a hotbed of Union support during the Civil War. The Confederate army occupied Knoxville, arrested newspaper editors, Whigs and other union sympathizers and executed civilians suspected of attacks on Confederate supplies and installations. Brownlow, the future governor of Tennessee was one of those arrested by the Confederate army of occupation.

The way the Confederate Army conducted affairs in East Tennesse was a disgrace. Even though Knoxville had little strategic value for the north, Lincoln placed a high priority on liberating East Tennesse from its oppressive occupation. While Robert E Lee and the Confederate Army were run out of Unionist areas in the mountains of Virginia in 1861, East Tennessee suffered under 2 years of occupation by Confederates until Burnside was able to get his forces across the rugged terrain into Knoxville. Knoxville and East Tennessee were quite happy to have the Union army end the Confederate occupation in 1863.

Posted by: bakho on November 19, 2003 03:18 PM


>>I find it very odd that Glenn Hubbard would write about Federal occupation of the South from Knoxville, TN of all places.<<

It is decidedly odd. You can't read Glenn Reynolds's original post without getting the impression that it was the Confederates who were besieged in Knoxville, and that the fall of Knoxville was what allowed Sherman's troops to march from Chattanooga through Knoxville to Savannah...

Take this either as evidence of people's eagerness to write about things they don't know about, or as evidence of the power exercised even today by the "Lost Cause" ideological victory of Confederate sympathizers. Your choice...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on November 19, 2003 05:56 PM


Former confederate states such as Hubbard's home state of Florida often teach a revisionist version of Civil War history in their K-12 curriculum. Is this miseducation corrected at State Colleges such as Central Florida? Legislators are often annoyed if their fundamental beliefs about history or religion are challenged.

Posted by: bakho on November 20, 2003 08:36 AM


Perceptions do not limit reality.

Posted by: Ahmad Saif on December 10, 2003 01:27 PM


Believing in God does not require believing in religion.

Posted by: kim bo ram on December 10, 2003 01:27 PM


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