Roman Conquests: Asia Minor, Syria and Armenia – Richard Evans

The “Roman Conquests” series by Pen & Sword books is a nice collection of books collecting the information about Rome’s campaigns of expansion in a district into one book.  Often this is spread about in many books, often ones that the semi-casual reader can’t easily find.

This book covers what I think of as an almost ‘absent minded’ period of growth.  Rather than have any plan, provinces were acquired by inheritance, wars were entered while Rome was busy elsewhere but won nonetheless.  I don’t think at any time Rome had some plan of becoming the master of the Eastern Mediterranean, but once they were in the region, they had no objection to settling matters in their favor.  And no one in the area could face Rome’s strength, even when distracted with other matters.

The first contact with the power in the region, the Seleucid Empire under Antiochus III came in the latter stages of the Roman “conquest” of Greece.  His expeditionary force to help the Greek states objecting to Roman hegemony was run out of the area fairly easily.  It did not help relations that Hannibal was staying with the king in his court.

The next struggle was for some of the states of Asia Minor that had allied with the Romans.  The Romans again outfought the Seleucid army and most of Asia Minor was freed from Seleucid rule, although not yet under Rome.  Rome began using its influence even more after the war, in one great story sending a single senator, Popillius Laenas to meet an invasion of Egypt alone.  He famously drew a “line in the sand” around the feet of the Seleucid king and told him to decide before crossing it – if he crossed to the side of Egypt, it was to be war with Rome, otherwise he could go home.The king went home, and the power of that state was gone.

After this there were the wars with Mithridates of Pontus, who fought war after war with Rome while they were occupied with civil strife at home.  He was a punching bag for Sulla, Lucullus, and finally Pompey but was saved from final destruction by the distractions of Roman politics, only to come back for more.  At the end Rome was the ruler of the entire region.

The Grand Design – Donald Stoker

Strategy and the U.S. Civil War

The author touts this book to be the first book to exclusively be about strategy and the Civil War.  It isn’t, I have a few others.  It also isn’t really a book about strategy.  In the end it is yet another single volume book on the war with the word ‘strategy’ tacked into the book here and there.  It is nowhere close to “How the North Won” or “Civil War Command and Strategy” to take two examples.

So, after tossing out the ‘bonus’ text recapitulating the course of the war, what strategic information do we obtain?  The first warning sign is the approving nod to George McClellan’s strategic insight.  No, not the Peninsular Campaign.  Instead he credits his January 1862 “Plan” where he was to get 273000 men to advance on Richmond, while the rest of the Union forces were to follow a half dozen or so lines scrawled on the map to hold his coat-tails.  This is more a fantasy than a serious plan.  Proper strategy needs to be grounded in some kind of reality.  This doodle is not.

Matters only grow worse when discussing Lee and his strategy. Basically, Stoker seems to feel that whatever Lee felt like doing was a good strategy.  First, of course, is the issue that Lee, a general, had no real right to decide and implement a war strategy in a vacuum.  This was the job of the Civil authorities of the CSA – Jefferson Davis.  There has been much discussion of late about to what extent Lee’s invasions were approved by Davis, or against his will.  I won’t go into that here, but Stoker just sails right past the issue without discussing it.  Lee wants to invade and win the war – sure, fine.

Even then, the discussion falls flat, because we aren’t allowed to examine the pros and cons of the strategy.  Essentially, if Lee says he had to do something, well, end of the matter.  This becomes increasingly tedious when Lee quotes saying the exact opposite are trotted out in subsequent chapters as additional axioms that we are not allowed to examine.

Lee’s invade the North strategy is questionable on several grounds. First, the geography of the region constricts the ground of maneuver increasingly strongly as you move north.  So an army above the Potomac is at the end of a long, unsecured supply line, with rail lines allowing deployment from all sides, and doesn’t have the room to avoid battle if it wanted to.  A strategy of decisive battles is questionable, but to try and win one in a poor strategic position is even more questionable.  But hey, Lee says there was no alternative, so that’s that!

Even using the facts presented in the book it is fairly clear that one of the major driving forces of the Gettysburg invasion was the desire to avoid having parts of his army detached to reinforce other theaters.  I suspect that this mulishness overrode good sense here, but there is room for a discussion.

So what was Lee’s Strategy, according to Stoker?  Oddly, he never really says.  Several times he states what it was not, but he doesn’t ever say what it was, nor measure what the results were.

After Gettysburg, like most books, the rest of the war is given short shrift.  Lee’s third offensive is passed off in a few lines.  The varying fantastic options discussed to send the southern forces in Tennessee and West Virginia north are given far too much credence — a proposal to mount 10000 men and send them through a range of mountains in winter is silly on its face. When you don’t have 10000 horses or mules to put them on, well, it is just that much sillier.  In the other direction, once Chattanooga was taken a drive north flanking to the West would be forced to abandon its own supply lines and open Georgia to invasion down the rail line – as Hood’s later 1864 operation demonstrated.

There are better books on strategy, and better books giving the history of the war. This mix is a confusion of both types, and in the end even fails to define what the Southern strategy was.  It may have a tough time making it to a place on a bookshelf in my house, which is pretty rare.



Lee’s Army During the Overland Campaign – Alfred Young III

A Numerical Study

This was a much more interesting book than I expected. One thing that you notice when  you read much on the Civil War is how the information in the Eastern Theater dries up once Gettysburg is over and Lee is unable to run roughshod over the Union.  There are a few mumbles about the Fall ’63 campaigns,. a bit on the Wilderness, some on Spottsylvania, then we mumble about huge Union forces until Appomattox, usually in a chapter or two.

The forces and losses also get the handwaving treatment.  The CSA records become scattered, the army stopped even pretending to report ‘slightly wounded’ as casualties. And most historians just want to pass over the last year of the war to the ‘good parts’ of peace and reconciliation.

The author Young has spent years trying to get a better handle on the actual casualties of the ANV in the Overland campaign.  He uses a few techniques, like reading the rosters of the regiments for entries of wounded, and finding original period newspapers that reported losses for regiments and integrating them into the complete picture.

He has also sharpened the picture of what units joined the army and participated.

What were the results?  In this bloody month, the Union lost around 40 percent. But the Army of Northern Virginia lost more. Longstreet’s Corps lost 45 percent, Hill’s Corps lost 42 percent, while Ewell’s Corps lost 67 percent.  If it had not been for the addition of numerous reinforcements and replacements during the struggle, Grant might have won the battle of attrition.  The checking of the two thrusts at Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley allowed the transfer of new units that gave the ANV the ability to carry on.

But not to carry on like it was.  The army would never be able to act with the freedom it had been and fight in the open field against the Army of the Potomac.  Ewell’s Corps was shattered, and soon sent off on another distracting Valley campaign and a thrust at the capital, Washington DC.  But in the fall it was cornered and crushed by Sheridan and his forces.

While the ANV could use its fortifications to survive and inflict damage on flanking forces around Petersburg, it could never halt or reverse the creeping advance of the Union position.  Once the exhaustion on the Union side from the Overland Campaign had passed, and Grant had rebuilt the armies into the sort of forces he liked, the spring saw the breaking of the Petersburg lines, and the relentless pursuit that led to the defeats at Sayler’s  Creek and the final trapping at Appomattox.

The book itself isn’t all tables – but about half the book is tables, maps, notes and index. (normal books at this level are about a quarter to a third note and index),   Half of the remainder is an overview of the methods and results, while the rest is a brigade by brigade story of the unit and its losses and the changes found.  This section in particular was better written and more interesting than I expected.  Each section is like a small unit history for the month.

Is this book for everyone?  Possibly not, but it does form a nice corrective to the older works that had to work in the preexisting frame of mind.  Now you can appreciate the crisis Lee was under during that time, and understand why he might need to expose himself to hold the line in the ‘Lee to the Rear’ incidents, and why the defeats of Butler and Sigel were so important – if those had not been accomplished, Lee might well have been broken on the North Anna or Cold Harbor fields.