August 23, 2004


Adam Gopnik gets one thing very wrong:

The New Yorker: The same high-command recklessness, after all, had been active in our Civil War, where massed rifle fire had some of the effect, on a smaller scale, of machine-gun fire. Yet no one calls Grant a bad general for sending his men forward at the Wilderness or Cold Harbor; in fact, Grant’s greatness as a general rested on his willingness to “face the arithmetic,” in Lincoln’s cold but accurate phrase....

I condemn Grant for Cold Harbor: his worst moment by far.

The Wilderness was not a good moment either--but much better than Lee at Gettysburg on the third day. At the Wilderness and at Spottsylvania Courthouse, Grant knew what he should be doing--finding the end of Lee's line and rolling it up--but he failed. At Cold Harbor, there is no such excuse.

If you want to see how a Civil War campaign fought by a good, real general looks, look at Sherman's Atlanta campaign, or the last stage of Grant's Vicksburg campaign, or, indeed, Grant's incredibly-rapid conquest of western Tennessee.

Posted by DeLong at August 23, 2004 01:35 PM | TrackBack

Take a look at George Thomas, too, who was an outstanding general equal to Sherman and Grant in ability, in my opinion.

Plus he was one of the rare Southern-born pre-war Army officers who refused to go back on his oath to the Constitution.

Posted by: FDRLincoln at August 23, 2004 01:45 PM

Gopnik's article is excellent on political and cultural issues, but the discussion of military issues is crap.

For example, he consistently gives figures for deaths which are actually for casualties, hence his figures are inflated by a factor of 2-3. (Specifically, there were 20,000 British dead on the first day of the Somme, not 50,000, and his figures for French deaths in the first month of the war are wrong too).

His dismissal of the importance the American army is absurd, as is his discussion of the reasons for the stalemate on the Western Front, etc., etc.

Oh, and if Grant had been in command of the allied forces in WWI, I think he would have been an "Easterner" and focussed on Salonika or Turkey, not Ypres.

Posted by: Chef Ragout at August 23, 2004 01:46 PM

One of the surprising, and revolting, things in Gopnik's article is his assertion that

new historians of the Great War conclude that the generals did the best they could, in the face of the defensive advantage offered by the machine gun and the rapid-firing rifle, not to mention the more tactically inconclusive but still lethal gas and flamethrower. If a steering committee of Grant, Montgomery, Napoleon, and Agamemnon had been convened to lead the allies, the result would have been about the same.

The best they could? This is self-satisfied armchair analysis at its academic worst. Look at the tactics: marching men into 600 round/minute machine gun fire. Look at the casulaty figures: again per Gopnik:

On one day during the Battle of the Somme, in the summer of 1916, more than fifty thousand British troops died walking directly into German fire, without advancing the front by a single foot. In fact, the entire front, which cost the lives of more than three million human beings, moved scarcely five miles in three years.

The best they could? How could they have done worse?

Posted by: Bernard Yomtov at August 23, 2004 01:53 PM

Sorry the italics didn't work. Paragraphs two ("new historians..") and four ("On one day..") of my comment are quoted from Gopnik's article.

Posted by: Bernard Yomtov at August 23, 2004 01:56 PM


Gopnik does give the impression that the typical WWI tactic was "marching men into 600 round/minute machine gun fire." This an accurate description of the British experience on the first day of the Battle of the Somme (but not the French experience), when 20,000 Brits were killed (not 50,000). But in general, WWI tactics were not nearly so stupid.

Posted by: Chef Ragout at August 23, 2004 02:02 PM

Among those who criticized Grant for Cold Harbor: Ulysses S. Grant.

"There is no doubt that this attack should never have been made. General Grant always regretted his decision of that day."
--Lt. Col. Joseph Mitchell, Decisive Battles of the Civil War (1955)

Posted by: JR at August 23, 2004 02:18 PM

Grant also regretted Cold Harbor, and says so in his memoirs. But his real strengths tend to get lost in the study of particular battles and campaigns. Grant was probably the best horseman in America, and his skills in this regard enabled him to move, and move men, faster than anyone could imagine. In Mississippi, he turned his infantry into a cavalry. He was also a superbly gifted mathematician, and this enabled him to do something that hasn't been done before or since in warfare: while serving as field commander in the Wilderness Campaign, he also served as the Supreme Commander of all Federal Forces. Every single decision--as of logistics, personnel, strategy, etc.--had to receive Grant's approval (he could fulfill this role thanks to the Corps of Engineering's command of telegraph technology). A field commander who's also a Supreme Commander? It's like combining Napoleon and Eisenhower in one person.

Posted by: alabama at August 23, 2004 02:27 PM

"Plus he was one of the rare Southern-born pre-war Army officers who refused to go back on his oath to the Constitution."

Oath to the Constitution? How were Southern officers "going back" on their oath to the Constitution...I mean, as opposed to Lincoln or FDR? ( ***there*** was a man who went back on his Oath to the Constitution! In fact, FDR thought his Oath to the Constitution was a great joke!) (Miserable piece of scum!)

Posted by: Mark Bahner at August 23, 2004 02:39 PM

The south didn,t have the rifled muskett.

Posted by: big al at August 23, 2004 02:40 PM

Cold Harbor was stupid, but it is easy to second guess a living, moving operation. At least Grant was fighting.

On the confed side, it is useful to view Stonewall Jackson's campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley.

Posted by: Troy McClure at August 23, 2004 02:42 PM

I wonder whether Grant's time a storekeeper made him more practical about details of logistics. (Not joking, just speculating). He might have had a good idea about how many wagons you need to carry food for 1000 men for a week, for example.

Posted by: zizka / John Emerson at August 23, 2004 02:42 PM

BTW, Grant did recognize his ordering of an attack at Cold Harbor as his biggest mistake of the war (drat, I think Alabama got that one in before I did). But at the same time, he was always able to maintain the strategic initiative and pressure on Lee even after tactical reverses and draws. I'm not sure if the tough going Grant faced in Virginia was so much due to a lack of imagination as the fact that he faced a superb defensive commander in Lee. But in the end, he won.

Interestingly, Grant did fight battles that resembled WWI (usually with the same result, which was bloody stalemate), but there was one big difference that helped him win these battles: there was always room to manuever. At Petersburg, for instance, he always kept pushing toward cutting off the reb train lines that kept the besieged troops fed and armed. WWI thus must have represented an incredible challenge for the thinking of the generals, who had all been trained in victory through manuever and not seige warfare on such a grand scale--there were no flanks to roll up. I do agree in wondering how the commanders could have done worse, but I don't blame them so much as the stupid politicians who ordered their boys to arms with no clear objective in mind apart from trumpeting national pride.

Posted by: Chris at August 23, 2004 02:45 PM

I think Jay McInerney must've been doing Gopnik's fact-checking.

Posted by: Anderson at August 23, 2004 03:04 PM

EVERYONE condemned Grant for Cold Harbor. Gopnik is an idiot!

Posted by: SW at August 23, 2004 03:09 PM

Good God, yes. Grant was for the longest time reviled as a butcher compared to the Napoleonic abilities of Robert E. Lee. It's only lately that things have gotten a little more sophisticated.

As to World War I, the generals did do the best they could, for the most part. At the Somme, they thought that the massed artillery barrage beforehand (1.7 million shells fired in a week) would be enough to destroy the German lines and allow the infantry to assault easily. They were badly wrong, but not because they were deliberately sending people into machine gun fire.

And it was the same British and French generals--for the most part--who broke through the German lines in 1918 (with American help). Why? Because they had figured out the enormously complicated process of managing a better offensive.

And if anyone thinks it got better in World War II, German and Russian casualties on the Eastern front (where the lion's share of the fighting was done) were just as bad as in WWI.

Posted by: David at August 23, 2004 03:16 PM

While I agree with Alabama's post, this:

Grant was probably the best horseman in America

should have be left at home. How could anyone know? FWIF, my guess would be that the best horseman in America at the time was a nameless-to-us Comanche. Not that Grant wasn't an excellent horseman and an outstanding general.

The claim that the generals in WW1 did the best they could seems somewhat question-begging to me. Since we're assuming they were trying to do as well as they could, in a way it's true by definition.

The question we really want to ask is a "due care" kind of thing. Given what they knew, *should* they have managed to get fewer men uselessly killed. As is noted above, by 1918 both sides had figured out ways to attack a trench line. Should they have done it earlier? Waited to attack on a large scale until they had? It seems to us so; I don't know enough to say what it should have seemed like at the time.

Posted by: Jonathan Goldberg at August 23, 2004 03:30 PM

To my mind, Grant's best quality is that he couldn't be befuddled or frightened by the maneuvers of the opposing general, or by a setback. He, and his troops, didn't do so well in the battle of the Wilderness, but instead of retreating over the Rapahannock, like every Union General before him, he ordered the troops forward.

He is the guy who could say, "Well, never mind, we'll lick 'em tomorrow", after being pushed to the brink.

To say that he had no sense of maneuver is mistaken, given his western campaigns. And don't forget, he's the only Union general to give Robert E. Lee the slip, as he did by building a pontoon bridge across the James River.

But yes, Cold Harbor was a big mistake.

Posted by: Jay at August 23, 2004 03:35 PM

For some of the critical comments above; remember that Gopnik is writing a kind of book review, not just coming up with original thoughts here.

Gopnik's comment about Britain's entry into the war is interesting:

"How a great power at the apex of its influence, with no obvous rivals in sight...grew convinced that is was beset by an overwhelming existential danger is difficult for a contemporary American to understand, of course, but somehow that is what happened"

I'd have to think that Americans in the post-9-11 climate can easily relate to that. The more so when we are flogged mercilessly with "terrorists are going to destroy our whole civilization".

RE: Grant, etc. certainly he blamed himself for Cold Harbor, just as Lee did himself for Gettysburg. But the public in general does not think of Grant as incompetent. (PS, the South by 1864 pretty universally had rifled muskets). Grant and Lee was working against a very rapidly evolving set of defensive tactics which changed substantially within a year. But they were both adaptable in working out alternative offensive tactics also. Strategically, Sherman had the advantage of a lot more room to maneuver in Georgia than Grant in Virginia.

To be fair to Grant, a major frontal assault had actually succeeded as recently as late 1863 (Missionary Ridge). Even Grant appeared to underestimate the tenacity of the Army of Northern Virginia under Lee, although, unlike his predecessors, he didn't let it shake him.

By 1914 the lessons of Missionary Ridge and Sedan were pretty stale. Grant gets more slack than Haig and Petain on the butchery index.

Posted by: Al Peck at August 23, 2004 03:46 PM

Event he best generals make mistakes. Perfection no more occurs in war than any other human endeavour. Unless that mistake causes you to lose the war, it should be forgiven no matter the tragic human cost. There is much difference between Grant at Cold Harbor and the Allied Generals at the Western Front who never even bothered to analyze their mistakes until 1918. Haig was a full and a blunderer. JFC Fuller, who fought in WWI, thought Grant was one of the great generals of history. Those who criticize Grant as a butcher never mention that Grant usually won his battles without much bloodshed, and only when he fought Lee did they happen. One might as well call Lee the butcher.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at August 23, 2004 04:38 PM

I'm a bit confused by the comment that the south didn't have the rifled musket. They seized a great many of them from Federal armories prior to hostilities (which caused a lot of talk about how arms had been moved into southern armories by a Secretary of War with southern sympathies). They also 'acquired' a great many muskets at places as diverse as First Manassas and Harper's Ferry. They were not well supplied with them at places like Shiloh but by late that year (after Jackson captured Harper's Ferry just before Antietam/Sharpsburg) the shortage was pretty much over.

Posted by: ursus at August 23, 2004 05:04 PM

The South did have rifle-muskets, but I'm not sure they were quite the machine-gun equivalent that some make it out to be. There are several reasons for this:
1. The regiments did not emphasize marksmanship at all. Ammunition was expensive, and it was hard enough just getting the troops to do close-order drill without marching into each other (so they spent nearly all of their time in drill). Most of the rifle fire, according to soldier accounts, went high.
2. Anytime the fighting got fierce, smoke obscured the battlefield, making aimed shots difficult. Go see a civil war re-enactment, and you'd be surprised at how much smoke a single rifle-musket puts out, let alone a volley or artillery.
3. The bullets of the time travelled at subsonic speeds, which is agonizingly slow compared to modern muzzle velocities (say, an M-16). Shooting someone at longer ranges (the chief advantage of the rifle) would have required a really cooperative target willing to stand still or move in a consistent speed/direction.

Anyway, by Grant's time, I understand that soldiers rarely fought a stand-up battle any more. Instead, the troops fought from cover or as skirmishers whenever they could, which kept the troops safer but made it harder for officers to direct the fire of their battalions. I can't guess why casualties were as high as they were in the civil war, except that many soldiers were exceptionally brave and a lot of actions were fought at short (i.e., smoothbore) range where it was harder to miss.

Posted by: Chris at August 23, 2004 05:44 PM

Unlike McClellen, Grant recognised that one of his advantages (in Virginia) was more men, men to spare. To put into action strategies and tactics that utilize this advantage takes great moral courage; Grant did it and was labeled a butcher. Try to imagine your orders will result in the death of ten thousand soldiers. Grant did not shrink from it. In addition to the other qualities mentioned above, Grant was capable of imagining and planning to win battles under conditions of massive death and slaughter, conditions from which others might shrink. It didn't always work (Cold Harbor), but it worked often enough that over the course of a couple years, he wore away Lee's army. Death by death, he realized his advantage of having more men to lose.

Posted by: tjallen at August 23, 2004 06:06 PM

Jonathan Goldberg, there are some remarkable tales about Grant's horsemanship from about the age of five. At the age of ten, he could break any horse within the hour (he was a "horse whisperer"), and folks from all over the county would pay to have him do this. He cleared an eight-foot jump, they say, on his graduation day at West Point, and pulled off some other equestrian stunts during the Mexican-American War that made him famous throughout the army. As for his horsemanship under fire, his most amazing performance was probably at Shiloh: surprised by a large army while landing his troops along the Tennessee, he deployed them in a matter of hours along a five-mile front, then patrolled it on horseback in a driving rain all night long, testing the disposition of the troops and the alignments of the heavy weapons. His army did fine the following morning....As a mathematician, by the way, he's said to have invented a proof in plane geometry that was adopted by textbooks all over the country (but not, however, accredited, it would seem).

Posted by: alabama at August 23, 2004 06:31 PM

Grant did flank the Confederate army at Petersburg, but Grant's commanders were too slow and it settled down into stalemate. Grant would have flanked Lee if he could have, but he ran out of real estate. Lee had always counterattacked and the Federals retreated in the past. Against Grant, Lee's counterattacks combined with Grant's determination produced a lot of casualties. Grant had difficulty flanking Lee because Lee always counterattacked his flanking moves. The terrain made it more difficult to flank Lee. Sherman was able to disguise his flanking moves and Johnston was not able to stop Sherman except at New Hope Church. Once Johnston started moving to counter Sherman's flanking moves, Sherman himself ordered a frontal assault on Kennesaw Mtn to keep Johnston guessing and prevent him from countering the flanking moves.

Grant was also concerned about the bigger picture. Sherman's army marching from Chattanooga to Atlanta was larger than Johnston's and Grant had to make sure that Lee did not reinforce Johnston. Grant continually tried to flank Lee and make Lee stretch his lines. It took a year but they finally broke.

Grant understood logistics, but left much of that task to those under his command. Sherman was in charge of logistics for Grant's combined Army Navy assualt up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers in 1862. It was Sherman who understood the value of enemy supplies which is why Grant sent Sherman to destroy Meridian and Jackson, MS.

Grant was the one who discovered that he could feed his army off the land surrounding Vicksburg long enough to reestablish supply lines. All of the Generals at Chattanooga understood the problem of logistics because the Union Army almost starved there.

Lee is the commander that gets off with the lightest criticism. Yes he stalemated Union armies for 3 years in VA, but Lee was much more willing to take casualties than the Union commanders until Grant. You can count the war dead of the Union army under Grant. But if you compare that to the war dead under Lee, both generals start to look like butchers.

The Confederate troops did have rifles, but not as many as the Federal troops. Prior to rifled barrels, it was possible for an attacking force to move cannon forward and blast a hole in the enemy formation where an attack could get a foothold. This was a common tactic in the Mexican War. The contribution of the rifle and sharpshooters was to pick off the horses and men bring the cannons forward and prevent their use against the defense.

The only major battle of the Civil War won by an offensive assualt was Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga.

Posted by: bakho at August 23, 2004 06:42 PM

At Cold Harbor, Grant found he could not advance after one day and the called a halt. Cold Harbor started as a flanking move and led to the later flanking at Petersburg. The high numbers of casualties in the summer of 1864 were not because of continuous frontal assaults of troops charging trenches, but a long line of entrenched armies refusing to break off the fight and taking casualties, much like WWI. The flanking tactics of Grant that were countered by Lee ensured that some of the fighting was done in the open and not behind well constructed fortifications. This also increased the casualties.

All Generals make mistakes in war. Ultimately, the responsibility to avoiding wars belongs to the politicians. WWI was a gross failure by the politicians of the time. The same is true with the ouster of Saddam and the "mission accomplished" in Iraq. Winning the war can rely solely on military tactics. Winning the peace relies on politics.

Posted by: bakho at August 23, 2004 07:07 PM

WWI is a great exception to the old refrain that "Generals always prepare for the last war." The experience of the American Civil War and that of the Russo-Japanese war should have taught the Western Powers that massed smoothbore fire and machine gun fire had changed the battlefield forever. As it turns out, WWI generals were fighting the Napoleonic Wars - with deadly results.

If the question is "should they have done better with what was known at the time" I think the answer is clearly yes. Towards the end of the Civil War trenches were being dug much as they would be 50 years later.

Also, it seems difficult for me to believe that the writings of Marshal Vauban would not have been read by the trained officer core. Vauban, writing in the 17th century, is best known for his fortification design. He also designed a way to beseige such a fort (diagonal trenches with covering fire). Vauban is less well known for having described how these same principles could be applied to a battlefield. He saw continuity between moving set-piece battles and strongly fortified positions.

Since the single worst trait a commander can have on the battlefield is a lack of flexibility, WWI commanders ought to have caught on earlier that the Napoleonic Era had passed, and, fishing for lessons from the past ought to have realized that the American Civil War had begun adapting lessons from Vauban's playbook. That they were incapable of doing this is shocking to me.

Posted by: Saam Barrager at August 23, 2004 07:14 PM

Sherman had his Cold Harbor moments, as did Grant in the later phases of his Vicksburg campaign. Sherman ordered a massed infantry assault on Kennesaw Mountain and his troops were shot down in windrows, kind of a mini-Fredricksburg. Same with Grant's assault on Pemberton's works at Vicksburg after Grant had bottled Pemberton up within Vicksburg. Grant himself said he regretted both Cold Harbor and the Vicksburg assault. I'm surprised Sherman didn't try to blame Kennesaw Mountain on George Henry Thomas.

As far as Sherman's brilliant Atlanta campaign goes, I'd say he blew it at the end when he became so fixated on pulling up rails that he let John Bell Hood's troops escape southbound.

Sherman's political connections (and his obvious brilliance as a writer) helped paper over some of his more disasterous decisions as a general.

Query: Why are current Forts Hood, Benning and Bragg all named after famous confederate traitors (and pathetically bad generals)? Why would the Army name bases after its enemies?

Posted by: kaleidescope at August 23, 2004 07:20 PM

Nitpick: "rifled muskett" is both an oxymoron and misspelled. A musket with a rifled barrel is de facto a rifle.

Second nitpick: Differentiate between "logistics" and "tactics". Civil War Generals, as a collective, get an "A" for logistics and an "F" for tactics.

Posted by: Dragonchild at August 23, 2004 07:21 PM

Nashville was a major battle of the Civil War and it was won by an offensive assault. True, it used cavalry with repeating rifles as a shock force, kind of an incipient blitzkrieg. But it was a brilliant assault by perhaps the best field commander of the war -- George Henry Thomas.

Posted by: kaleidescope at August 23, 2004 07:34 PM

Sorry, I should have qualified that as offensive assault against an entrenched enemy. Thomas launched a very effective counter attack against Hood's attacking army.

Thomas was an excellent commander. Sherman made the correct move in having Thomas defend Nashville while Sherman went to Savannah and marched through South Carolina. Each commander was given a situation best suited to his talents.

As for Hood escaping Atlanta, Hood was aggressive but he was not stupid. Of course Hood protected his lines of retreat from the city. Sherman had a lot of men, but not enough to surround Atlanta and prevent an army from fighting its way out in the weakest direction. I would affix credit to Hood in recognizing that time was running out and escaping Atlanta, rather than affix blame to Sherman. To Sherman's credit, he almost trapped Hood in Atlanta.

Why are these forts named after Confederates? I assume Congressmen from the home states on important committees get to name them. If you expect bright lights and wisdom to eminate from the halls of Congress you will usually be disappointed. Even today there are politicians in Washington who claim more loyalty to the old confederacy than they do to the USA.

Posted by: bakho at August 23, 2004 08:40 PM

Focusing on tactics obscures the major reason the later Civil War and, even more so, WW1 reverted to trench warfare. Its less about weapons and more about logistics - railway logistics.

A retreating force would tear up the rail lines behind them, so the attack proceeded at walking pace away from the attacker's railheads. But the defenders could move reinforcements up at railway pace. What changed in late WW1 was trucks - an attacker could now move men and supplies from the railhead as fast as defenders could rail them in.

Posted by: derrrida derider at August 23, 2004 08:56 PM

This thread seems incomplete without Nathan Bedford Forrest, surely the greatest commander of the Civil War, whose cavalry tactics were studied and adopted by tank commanders in WW1 and WW2.

Of course, you're not allowed to praise Forrest these days, because he went on to found the KKK. The fact he dissolved it six years later, on grounds that it had become a vehicle for personal vengeance, tends to go unreported.

The fact he was the among the first white men in America to advocate for blacks to advance as far as their abilities permitted in any profession, vocation, or discipline goes absolutely unreported.

(I suspect that sympathetic biographers are white supremacists, and they omit this, while unsympathetic biographers omit it as well, in both cases because it undermines their central contentions).

(The Klan, by the way, was restarted later by his great grandson).

Forrest won several battles *bloodlessly* through sheer audacity and imagination. He would send his troops in profile repeatedly over the same hill, with logs atop wagon axles to simulate cannon. Though he had only a few thousand men, Union scouts would report "That devil Forrest is yonder with 30,000 men!" and Union commanders would surrender forthwith.

It's a shame that this colorful character goes underexamined in our PC culture. Aside from the daft reference in Forrest Gump, of course.

Posted by: NBF at August 24, 2004 02:15 AM

Forrest was a racist and certainly not among the first white men to promote advancement of blacks. His troops were notorious for murdering black union soldiers that had surrendered.

Forrest represented the type of partisan warfare that Sherman most dreaded. Sherman was so anxious to not have the Confederate army break into bands of partisans such as Forrest, he gave terms of surrender to Johnston to end the war that were unacceptable to the political leadership.

The Federals had a tactic to defeat partisans such as Forrest. It was called scorched earth. Torching the Shennandoah Valley in 1864 made it impossible for partisans to operate there, but was devastating to the residents. Had Forrest not gone quietly in 1865 and continued his attacks, there could have been scorched earth all the way from MS to TX.

Fortunately, politicians on both sides recognized that a peaceful reconstruction would be better than partisan warfare. That is rarely the case with an occupying army. It worked after the American Civil War because we were always one people that had developed two distinct economic systems. With the collapse of the southern plantation economy at the end of the war and the irreversibility of ending slavery, reunification was inevitable because of mutual interests.

Such unity of culture is rarely shared by occupying armies. This is one reason why there is partisan warfare and partisan attacks on the US in Iraq. We never made peace with their political leaders. We are engaging in open warfare against some of their political leaders (al-Sadr) and militarily supporting political sides instead of brokering an honest peace. US policy is more interested in an Iraqi government that is compliant with US interests than in a government that is representative of Iraqis.

Posted by: bakho at August 24, 2004 06:38 AM

Very nice!

Posted by: poker online at August 24, 2004 07:56 AM

I'm not sure scorched earth was the Union's effective response to partisan warfare. The Shenandoah Valley was devastated so that a crow crossing the Valley would have to carry its own provisions. But that was mainly to deprive the Army of Northern Virginia of one of its principal breadbaskets. This was also one aim of Sherman's swath of destruction through Georgia and South Carolinia and the devastation of Meridian.

The only effective counter to partisan warfare (really cavalry operations) the North develped was the massive, extremely well armed cavalry force led by Gen. Wilson. It rolled over Forrest at the very end of the war. This was true to a lesser extent of the large cavalry force Phil Sheridan led briefly in 1864.

For the people who controlled the South, partisan warfare may have had emotional appeal, but it would've been economic and cultural suicide. The slave economy -- and the planter lifestyle -- couldn't survive without the active support of the legal system. That's a major reason the Civil War started in the first place. Once the mainline Southern armies were vanquished, there could be no legal slavery. The "slave power" knew this. The Southern economic elite also knew that their aristocratic culture -- their position of privilege and the genteel lifestyle -- depended on the active support of the legal system, which would not exist in a guerilla war.

The best analysis I've seen of the aftermath of the Civil War -- the social basis for kissing and making up and the effect of that on the larger society -- is the chapter on the U.S. Civil War in Barrington Moore Jr.'s "Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy."

Posted by: kaleidescope at August 24, 2004 08:50 AM


I think one practical difference between rifles and smooth bore arms is the relative superiority of the rifle in terms of accuracy, within the “smoothbore range.” As one approaches the limits of what would be considered smoothbore range, the greater accuracy of the rifle would matter. You would often be aiming at small groups, and more likely to hit a member of group with a rifle than a smoothbore. The fact that the South stole, commandeered, and eventually manufacture (rather bad) rifled arms suggests there was a marked advantage.

As to fighting from cover, it’s a great idea. Ideally, troops advance under cover, and certainly, they take defensive positions under the best available cover. Cover is rarely perfect, and each side is busy trying to erode the other side’s cover. High death tolls (ignoring disease and accidents) mean munitions were working, and soldiers exposed.

Posted by: kharris at August 24, 2004 08:54 AM

And the specific small group that was most dangerous to entrenched positions contained the cannons. The Mexican War was fought by bringing the cannons forward out of musket range and blasting huge holes in the defensive line before charging. Rifling added enough accuracy and distance that it was no longer possible to move cannon forward and blast holes in the defensive line. Without the threat of cannons destroying their efforts, it became possible to build an inpentrable works that would protect against small arms fire from a charging opponent.

Early in the Civil War, armies on the move would not entrench. Later in the war, armies entrenched as soon as they stopped to prevent surprise attacks. Johnston had prepared in advance a series of defensive fortifications between Dalton and Atlanta that he could occupy if Sherman forced him to retreat toward Atlanta. Marching through South Carolina, Sherman carried it a step forward with a corp of "Pioneers" that built roads and fortifications ahead of the main columns. By the end of the Civil War Trench Warfare was a primary tactic.

Posted by: bakho at August 24, 2004 12:47 PM

Good Points KScope.

Cavlary was fine in open territory, but not well suited to ambushes in densely forrested areas. Many of the partisans were local residents that would ambush passing soldiers then blend into the local population. In 1865, there were no partisans in the Shenandoah, in part because there was no local population left to blend into.

When a whole country turns to partisan warfare as has happened in Iraq, the occupying army has few options. Option 1, fighting a low grade partisan warfare over a long period will wear out the occupation army. It may take a while, but the occupation army will eventually give up (like the Brits in America, the Americans in Vietnam and the Russians in Afghanistan). Option 2 used by Ghingus Khan was to kill all the locals in one city, start over, and use the threat of total annihilation to stifle opposition. This is used occasionally today (Darfur) but results in a status of world wide pariah. Option 3 for ending partisan warfare requires the support of the local population. This will only happen if the occupation can convince the political forces to support the occupation. Option 3 requires a political solution. Trying to use a military strategy immediately reverts to Option 1.

The US is currently using Option 1 almost exclusively with some attempts at using Option 3. Option 1 has already failed in Fallujah and is on the ropes in Najaf and Sadr City. Attempts at Option 3 have suffered from poor concept, planning and implementation. Chalabi was Option 3 Plan A. We are now on plan C or D.

Posted by: bakho at August 24, 2004 01:04 PM

One other thought. William Frehling makes the point that the South was never united, since "the South" included slaves and ex-slaves. In many of the southern states more than half the population was black and actively supported the Union. This would've made effective white Southern guerilla warfare next to impossible except, perhaps, in the mountainous areas of Tennessee, Alabama, The Carolinas and Georgia. These areas had few blacks, but were precisely the parts of the South where much of the local population supported the Union. All in all, the South was not condusive to true guerilla warfare (as opposed to Forrest-style cavalry raids).

Posted by: kaleidescope at August 24, 2004 01:54 PM

"Nitpick: "rifled muskett" is both an oxymoron and misspelled. A musket with a rifled barrel is de facto a rifle."

Mispelled, maybe, but "rifled musket" is a contemporary term.

Posted by: rea at August 24, 2004 02:06 PM

The end of the civil war was written when the United States Military Railroad punched bridgeheads over the Rappanhannock:
"Also in 1864, the USMRR allowed Grant's army in Virginia to finally crack the Rappahannock River line and drive toward Richmond. During the Wilderness and Spotsylvania battles, Grant relied on the old Aquia Creek line of supply. He then shifted his base to Port Royal on the Rappahannock where water transport served as his line of communications. Upon moving south from the North Anna River toward Cold Harbor,'Grant directed elements of Major General Benjamin Butler's Army of the James to occupy White House on the Parnunkey River (a tributary of the York River) deep in enemy territory (see map 12). The USMRR opened and operated a section of the Richmond and York River Railroad from White House to Dispatch. Grant then advanced toward this new supply base. Later, when Grant passed south of the James River, the USMRR put the City Point and Petersburg Railroad into operation (see map 13). In the ensuing months, as Grant's army extended its siege lines south and west around Petersburg, the USMRR laid new track to facilitate supply of the Union left wing. Grant's army, supplied by one jerrybuilt but professionally operated railroad, fared better logistically than did Lee's Confederates in Petersburg, who had several preexisting rail lines at their disposal."

Supplies and fresh men killed Lee- and they came by rail straight to the battlefield. Lee was trying to rely on the failing and decrepit Virginia lines with no industrial base beyond that left in Richmond.

Similar support in the West had enabled Grant's victories and Sherman's March to the Sea. As for the fools that fought WWI- they should have learned to reinvent the behind the lines cavalry (tanks) falling on defenses from behind. Further once the war had degenerated into a pointless siege- suing for peace would have been a good option. Declare victory and go home for the Germans would have solved a plethora of problems.

Posted by: AllenM at August 24, 2004 05:07 PM