Maps of the Wilderness – Bradley M. Gottfried

An atlas of the wilderness campaign, including all Cavalry operations, may 2-6 1864

This is the latest of the Savas-Beatie series of atlases on Civil War campaigns.  Each page has a map on the right page and text on the left explaining the map. In the thick of the battle the time intervals per page can be as short as 15 minutes, but are usually about an hour.  Each part of the field has its own connected set of pages so there is a minimum of mental scene switching.

The text is contains a good amount of tactical detail, but is by its nature more of an overview of the battle than a more in-depth study is.  The strength of the book is that it does give the tactical details and maps that usually are described in a sentence or so with a map every chapter or so.  In that way it is a good counterpoint to those other books.

The battle itself is the start of the Overland Campaign, the first where Grant met Lee in the field.  The Army of the Potomac had been overmatched by Lees’ Army in part due to its own faltering leadership.  This fact was compounded by fact that it had to fight on Lee’s turf, and being so close to the capital it was both under scrutiny and was tempted to play politics itself.  It isn’t a coincidence that the two times Lee invaded the North and there was a clear purpose for the Army it fought much better and turned him back with a drubbing.

The Overland Campaign would be a strategic defeat for Lee, ending with him being pinned against the vital rail lines protecting the capital for the winter, then routed out of them and forced to surrender.  Thus it starts the period where Confederate history starts to lose interest in the battles and shade into vagueness.and excuses.  A recent study shows that by examining the newspapers of the time there is evidence that Lee received more reinforcements and lost more men in all these battles than estimated previously.

The Army of the Potomac had just been reorganized by Meade in the fall because the small corps previously in use were hard to manage and required many commanders, which could not be found due to battlefield losses.  Complicating matters was the fact that Confederate corps were larger than Union due to the way regiments were recruited, so it required multiple Union Corps to contend with a Confederate one.

However, in retrospect the new size of the Union Corps was probably too large, compounded by the propensity of the high command to attach and reattach divisions from place to place in battle.  Repeatedly the Union found its corps commanders unable to handle their large units, most having doubled in size or more since their last battle.  As the campaign went on this tended to be ‘solved’ by losses and veterans going home, thus making the units more in line with what commanders were used to.

The main change in this battle was that at the top, Grant had no reluctance to engage the Confederates when encountered.  Lee, despite what historians claim for him, did not realize this as his usual rush to contact on two widely separated roads put him in an embarrassing position when Grant attacked his forces, pinning them in place.  Meanwhile, an entire Union division was in-between the two, able to pitch into the  flank or rear of either.  Sadly for the union, the high command did not realize this and the forces retired later to the main line.  Later attempts to hit this wide gap from the front never quite managed to strike home.

A second crisis happened at the start of the second day of the battle.  The southern prong of Lee’s army had been hard pressed at nightfall.  Lee refused to pull the men back to another position claiming that his last corps, Longstreet’s, would arrive before the Union would attack.  Since they had marched 32 miles and were still 15 miles off, this shows that he did not consider a dawn attack a possibility.  Longstreet did arrive at 6 AM, but only after Hancock had routed Hill’s corps and driven them back nearly a mile.  Only a stellar performance by Longstreet and the confusion of the attack column allowed the situation to be stabilized and kept his army from being driven west away from the capital.  This would not be the last time in this campaign that Lee avoided disaster by luck and the Army of the Potomac’s fumbling rather than by his own decisions.  By the next spring, the middle leadership of the Union Army had absorbed Grant’s attitude and become much more deft, and the result was a series of crushing defeats and eventual surrender.

Grant, as supervisor of Meade’s army, played a more limited role in tactical issues than he would later.  He loses some points for confusing the command structure by dispatching divisions all over the field outside of their chain of command.  This added to the hesitantness of the remaining troops who lacked reserves, and to the confusion of the arriving troops and the burden of the other corps commander.  While you might expect poor commanders like Burnside to have problems, all the others also did, even veterans like Hancock and Sedgwick.

Historians have been hesitant to call this battle what it was, a decided Union victory. Unlike most other battles in the East, even Union victories, there was no long rebuilding pause and no change in policy by the army commander.  Losses were proportionally even (or by modern research, higher for the South), and losses aren’t the point.  Grant’s objective was to press Lee continually, and he continued to do so.  Lee’s objective was to disrupt this campaign and gain time for the South, and he failed to do so.

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The Slave Power — Leonard L. Richards

The Free North and Southern Domination 1780-1860

I continue to try and catch up to the pile of books read over the last few years waiting for recap, with a little success.  I find if I wait too long, I get a little vague on my impressions, or am tempted to read it all again.

This is one of the “read again” group, even though it hasn’t sat on the pile for as long as some others.  It is another in the cluster of books I read in sequence on ante-bellum politics.  The American Civil War is a great interest to me, although the blogs here don’t reflect that as much as writing in the field has tapered off slightly.

So the drift to all-out war is of great interest, as any sensible person would need to wonder what failures led to the all out cataclysm of the war.  And failures there were – one side lost its entire basis for political contention and was physically devastated, while the “winners” paid a huge price in wealth and lives.

This short but information packed book describes the continuing huge influence of the slave power bloc in the young country from the very start, and how it distorted politics during the entire time.  Picking up on the term that the young Republican Party used for them at the climax of their influence in the 1850s, he calls it “the Slave Power”.  And rather than dismissing it as a conspiracy theory of the politicians of the time, he takes it as a real and important factor.  It is almost always a good idea to assume that actors in the past actually knew what they were talking about rather than the reverse.

He goes all the way back to the initial “Three Fifths Compromise” debate in the development of the Constitution.  Today, this is usually totally characterized as “those racists saying that blacks were only 3/5 of a person”.  If only.  Actually, blacks were considered no fifths.  Rather, their owners got a political bonus for owning slaves without any cost.

Before this book, I was under the impression that the quid-pro-quo the rest of the nation was supposed to get was additional taxes from the slaveholders under the direct taxation principle.  The government would assess the states based off of the representation, and thus the slaveholding states would pay more per capita.  So at least both sides were honestly intending to exchange something.

As it happens, however, direct taxation never took off and other means that applied evenly per head such as import and export tariffs and assessments dominated, so the South got extra representation for nothing.  This book, however, shows that even at the time there was significant opposition to the deal, because they knew that direct taxes would never fly politically.  So rather than a bargain that went sour, it was instead a power play from the start, with a fig leaf of cover.

The effect of this was huge, as these extra seats were a large lump of political power at the federal level, and the federal spoils system could and did put these men in control of money that affected every corner of the country.  Every postman in the entire country owed his job to the party in power, and more often than not this party depended on the slaveowning bloc for its victory.

To make matters worse, other issues came and went, and thus advocates would in other states get turned out of office more frequently.  Slave holding never went out of style, so the seniority system at the federal, and the political party level all increasingly favored the influence of southern leaders.  Even the most northern politician had to kowtow to them, and if they wandered too far the hammer of political purges could and did destroy them,

This would have a huge distorting effect on the democracy.  The ideal is that a representative, or senator, would owe his job primarily to his own voters in his own district. Even the views of his opponents in his district would be of some interest, as then he could undercut future political battles before they began.

But if men instead owed huge debts to out-of-state power brokers, then at some level they have to pay that back in votes, votes that oppose those of their own region. And as this effect grew, the division of the parties outside the South grew as voters tried to call them to account.  Factions beholden to the South warred with opponents to win control of State parties, again at the cost of their own constituents.

Finally, the use of this power broke loose – first with a sectional party that owed nothing to the South, and then with the northern Democrats having to break with the South in order to survive the wrath of northern voters increasingly angry at the domination.  The Southern bloc then decided that war was preferable to a political solution without them as a dominant force.  It turns out they were wrong.

An excellent book full of new insights on the politics of the US.

 

 

Valley Thunder – Charles R. Knight

The Battle of New Market and the Opening of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, May 1864

This is another short history, this time by Savas-Beattie publishing.  But rather than being an obscure battle, this is a new retelling of a battle and campaign that probably gets written about more than it deserves from a military sense.

In the start of Grant’s 1864 campaign in Virginia, he set the satellite forces about the state to advance to occupy the forces the Confederates had opposing them and keep them from reinforcing Lee.  In the end, these aims all failed for the North, mostly due to these forces being led by high ranked generals shunted off to these unimportant regions to keep them away from the main army,

Here, the man in question was Franz Sigel, a German born officer who fought in the early campaigns in Missouri in 1861 with mixed success, and then was moved east and never had mixed success again.  Grant was hoping that Sigel would watch while the more talented General Ord took command of the advancing forces.  Sigel, however, wanted to lead the attack and his political importance with the German citizens was too much to overrule him.

The military moves were simple.  Sigel moved south.  The rebel general Breckinridge scrambled to collect troops to face him, most notably including the student militia troops of Virginia Military Institute.  The two armies met north of town, in a narrow location that made the best of the inferior numbers of the Confederates.  That, and the inertness of Sigel led to his troops being shot up piece by piece.  Eventually after being worked on the Confederates drove them out and they retreated North.

Even so, at a point of the battle Breckinridge needed to commit the VMI troops to the battle, and in the final charge to win the day they famously took a battery.  Hence the battle being kept alive in VMI, and overall Southern memory,

The writing has the appropriate level of detail for such a battle.  It doesn’t overdwell on it, or skip little incidents.One charming note about the book is the annotation on one map of the location of the author’s house.  I haven’t seen that before.

The battle did get Sigel fired, and Breckinridge and most of his men sent on to join Lee.  Within a month or so, a second attempt by General Hunter overran the Valley, so there was little impact of this battle on “saving the Valley”.   Hunter himself would be driven off in June and July by Early, and finally Grant would send Sheridan and overwhelming force to put paid to the military importance of the Valley by fall.

This is a great updated treatment of the battle and campaign, even if it isn’t that important of one.

 

 

The Siege of Lexington, Missouri – Larry Wood

The Battle of the Hemp Bales, 1861

This little volume is another in the History Press’ Civil War Sesquicentennial series.  Rather than produce yet another book on the major battles, or even one on a small element of such a battle, the series covers less known battles or campaigns so as to increase the coverage in print of these lesser known aspects of the war.  The smaller format works to add a little meat past what you get from flyers from military parts, say, And there are plenty of local historians that can write, or contribute to such a book.

At the start of the American Civil War both sides seemed hesitant to get the ball rolling.  In the east, the Union defeat at Bull Run put an end to serious action.  The state of Kentucky’s quixotic attempt at neutrality was convenient to both governments who were scrambling to raise enough forces to even cover the frontier.  That left the final border state of Missouri open for serious action, and unlike the rest of the country there was leadership on the Northern side that provided action.

Fiery Nathaniel Lyon was in charge, and from the initial move of secretly carrying off the armory’s weapons to Illinois was showing that he was serious about acting.  One of the unintentional comedies of the period was the outrage of the local Southern sympathizers that he stole the guns before they could raise a mob to do so themselves, as happened in most of the rebel states.

Lyon moved out to crush the military forces in the southwest part of the state, near Springfield.  He had bit off more than he could chew, as the troops from Missouri and other states that could be gathered began to seriously outnumber him.  The lack of decent communication to the east, and a new district commander who was not a man of action meant that reinforcements weren’t coming soon.  Lyon, worried about retiring, decided to attack instead to catch the raw troops napping.  While it was initially successful, the over bold plan failed, and the superior numbers won the day,  Lyon himself was killed.

After the victory, the winners were in a bit of a quandary themselves.  The army consisted of two elements:  official Confederate troops dispatched from Arkansas and beyond, and a southern sympathetic “Missouri State Guard” under local general Stirling Price.  These forces were not under the orders of the CSA, as the breakaway government of the state had not seceded or joined the Confederacy at this time.

The leader of the CSA troops was not interested in risking his troops in any adventures into other parts of the state.  Opposing this, the breakway legislature wanted to increase its holdings from a nominal part of the Ozark hill country while it had an advantage. These aims were not reconcilable, so the army broke up and the Missouri State Guard was left to act alone.

Far to the north, on the Missouri river, is the town of Lexington.  There was an outpost of Union troops holding the town along the line of communication to Union sympathetic regions in Kansas.  The natives of the area were solidly southern in sympathies, as this is the slave holding belt in the state.  Supplies would also be easier to obtain than in the poorer sections they were in.  The decision was made to take that town and win a victory.

By mid September they were on the march and approaching the town.  The Union forces barricaded themselves into buildings in and around the grounds of the Masonic college north of town, and looked to be a nasty opponent.  So far, the inexperience of the troops had proven no bar to both sides fighting hard and long.

Then someone (who is disputed) came up with the idea of using hemp bales from around the town to use as protection.  These large cylinders of cut plant matter would stop a bullet, and if soaked in water would not burn.  Also, if tipped on their side they could be easily rolled by the men behind into new positions, closer to the defenders.  The creeping walls of hemp were the signal item that made this little battle notable at the time and now.

With this protection, the defenders lost the advantage of being able to shoot down the attackers faster, and the numbers began to tell.  Soon the defenders had to give up, and Price and his men had the victory and the fame.

Long term, of course, this could not be sustained.  Even the slaveholding Missourians were doubtful about long term prospects, both from sentiment and from the very practical realization that troops coming from Kansas and upriver from the rest of the country would make holding the area impossible.  The integration of the state forces with the CSA in the winter made the defense of the state much lower in priority, and the State Guard and Price would be diverted to the defense of Mississippi for the rest of the war.

Another great entry into this series that I need to get more of.

 

 

Confederate Reckoning – Stephanie McCurry

Power and Politics in the Civil War South

I was very afraid of this book when reading the preface.  There was quite a bit of modern buzzwords about feminist theory and gender politics.  I’ve been burned before by books on even Ancient history suddenly being tarred by modern political posturing and trying to fit the more complicated values of the past into a simplistic framework to fit modern theories.  Marxist historians used to be especially prone to this.  Real life is a lot more complex, and a good history needs to remember that.

It did not take long to show that my fears were groundless, and that this is one of the most valuable corrective histories I’ve come across on the Civil War.  The author starts out with a direct expression of the nature of the Confederate Experiment – that the founders of the CSA intended to produce a Republic for White Men, and founded on a bedrock institution of Slavery.  This has been evaded for various reasons by the ex-Confederates after the war and by historians since.

The first case study is an examination of the secession campaigns in 1860.  The speeches of pro-secession speakers was avowedly based on fears of amalgamation between the races, claiming that Lincoln was elected by black votes.  The campaigns, even in South Carolina, featured armed bullies showing up at meetings to intimidate loyalists. Even there tensions between the upper class and lesser folk had to be papered over to gain the point.  Other states, like Georgia, were likely only won by fraud.  Even the official result of 54 percent for secession is hardly a mandate.  One of the first acts of the new independent Georgia was to define a treason statute giving the death penalty for allegiance to the Union.

In theory, women had no part of this political action, as their sphere was defined to be the home.  However, soon imperfections in this view were evident.  When resistance to the Confederate state began, there were serious questions if a woman, as not really a citizen, could be treasonous.  In practice, though, these mothers and wives of disloyal men were routinely harrassed, sometimes to the point of torture to get information.

The separation of women from the state continued to break down as the war continued.  As more and more men were pulled into service, and killed there, the problem of relief for soldiers’ wives became acute.  The CSA government was built as a war-making device, and to suddenly have to divert significant resources to nationwide welfare programs was a constant distraction.  And to lobby to get these claims, women had to group and lobby from a local to national level.

The strain became even worse with the bread riots led by women in the late war period. As prices rose, the food kept by the government or by speculators became a matter of resentment and finally, mobs of women took matters into hand and looted shops and warehouses. While the lawlessness was troubling, the government response was conflicted since the claim that women were not being sheltered from want was undeniable.

The issue of slaves became a problem too, for similar reasons.  The conventional excuse for slavery was that slaves, like children, were not responsible enough on their own.  Thus slave relations were a personal issue between master and slave, and not a government matter.  And again, slaves were purposely not part of the Confederate State.

So the war at once started to disrupt this pattern.  Slaves would flee to, or inform US forces about military matters.  If caught, masters usually resisted severe punishment. As the war continued, more white men left slaveholding regions so actual enforcement became difficult and counterproductive.  Slaves often left and lived off in woods for months at a time.  Owners resisted calls to divert slaves to the military for labor – partly out of fear they might be mistreated, partly out of fear they might lose them entirely.

As the end grew closer, the disjunction between the image of slaves and the reality grew more apparent.  Overt violence was not common, but reports of a kind of watchful waiting that the owners found unsettling were common.  And if the masters fled the plantation, slaves routinely took over and looted them.  This happened to Jefferson Davis and his brother themselves.

The final rock that broke the image was the fight over slave soldiers.  In the end, the overt need for more soldiers to preserve the nation could not quite prevail over the idea that each master could keep control over his own slaves.

Even to someone like me, that has read hundreds to thousands of Civil War books and articles, this book showed me something new and added depth to matters I already knew from the rare mentions in other books.  This will definitely stay on the shelf with the other important books in my collection.

The Chickamauga Campaign Part 2 – David A. Powell

Glory or the Grave:  The Breakthrough, the Union Collapse, and the Defense of Horseshoe Ridge, September 20, 1863

This detailed look at the second (or third depending how you look at it) day of Chickamauga is the best treatment I’ve read yet.  Not only does it give additional detail on parts of the day often glossed over – I don’t think most other books do more than have a few paragraphs on the withdrawal from Kelly Field– but at many points an anecdote will be presented, then confirmed or questioned by appeals to knowledge presented or by other sources.

The scenario for this day of the battle is complicated.  Bragg’s’ Army is being reinforced by Longstreet’s Corps from the Army of Northern Virginia.  Rosecrans’ Union Army has been edging northward to block efforts to cut him off from the recently captured key rail junction of Chattanooga, TN.  Some good moves by the Union and fumbles by the hastily assembled Rebel army have preserved the Union force, now outnumbered.  Most of Longstreet’s troops were on the field for the first day, and at dark Longstreet himself arrives on the scene.

Bragg decides to reorganize the army overnight and give Longstreet half.  Normally, this would be a dubious decision, but given the chaos of the current command structure it probably was the right decision.  Just to complicate things even more, there an immense amount of confusion where various generals in the high command failed to make contact for an early attack.  Possibly this, too, was less of an issue than thought.  With the need for Longstreet to even find his command, and then organize it, a rapid assault by the other wing might just have led to even less unity of action than actually happened.  It is questionable that the Union made good use of the time.

The Union army was drawn up with a very thin, long line.  To the south, a major hospital complex had to be held until evacuated.  To the north, Thomas had a nice, compact position, but not one that protected the route to Chattanooga.  Thus he kept demanding more troops, but there weren’t enough to cover all the needs.

Rosecrans was starting to lose control of the situation.  Despite Thomas hoarding units like a crazy cat lady, he still respected him enough to send him more.  Thus he had virtually the southern third of the army in motion at once, edging northward and changing positions back and forth.  This confusion would cost them at a critical time.

When the Confederates to the north finally get going, they do manage to outflank Thomas on the north and cause some confusion.  Some of the dispatched units help repel this attack.  However, there were other units crammed into Thomas’ front that could and should have been pulled into a reserve for these contingencies.

Near noon, Longstreet gets going and smashes into the center.  In a final confusion of orders, Wood pulled his division out of line just as the attack started and created a hole.  The handling of this controversy is excellent – rather than the usual suspects, Powell gives all the details of both sides and points a finger at a new suspect for blame – the Corps commander McCook,  This chasm tore the army apart, and the lack of command control just made things worse.  Units were driven from the field, but thousands of others left under the orders of their commander without much cause, taking ammunition with them.  The corps commanders with the exception of Thomas went to pieces even more than the dire situation required.

A stand by some fragments was made on Horseshoe Ridge, to protect Thomas’ rear.  Luckily for the Union, a detached Corps to the north came south to add to the defense.  This line held for a time, but before nightfall Thomas had to leave the fleld in some confusion.  Again, the story of these retirements are told in great detail here.  A third volume will cover events after the night of September 30.

This is a great book.  It gives the history as best as we can understand it – it gives the arguments on both sides in controversies so we can decide the likely truth.  It tells the old stories and tries to confirm them, or cast doubt on them if they are post-war fudging.  It is fair to the scapegoats without necessarily exonerating them, and even identifies a few more.  And it is written in an interesting style that tells the stories of men on both sides, from privates to Generals.

The March to the River – Robert G. Schultz

From the Battle of Pea Ridge to Helena, Spring 1862

In early 1862, General Samuel Curtis’ Army of the Southwest defeated Earl Van Dorn at the Battle of Pea Ridge in the northwest corner of Arkansas.  This victory assured that the South could no longer hope to contend for the state of Missouri.  Aside from cavalry raids and endemic violence from guerrillas, Missouri was a northern state for good.

After the battle, Van Dorn collected as much of his demoralized and scattered army as he could locate – he had attacked from the north to be more decisive and the retreat was a matter of scattering in every direction and meeting up later on the other side of the Union Army.  At this point, the point of crisis moved across the Mississippi – the South was looking for any troops to try and drive back Grant’s army at Shiloh.  Van Dorn was called, and took not only his entire army, but every stick and stitch of military equipment with him across the river to defend Mississippi.

Meanwhile the Union forces were in a quandary of their own.  There were not the roads, rails or rivers available to support an advance of the army further into Arkansas towards the capital, Little Rock. A shorter and better way was needed.   A look at the map suggested that perhaps a move to southeast Missouri and over the border would be a better way.  The route was shorter to the nearest railhead, Rolla.  The country was more settled, so the roads might be better and support the army more.  And as you advanced south, the major rivers might allow the Union river navy to add supply and combat power.

But changing the direction of the advance was no easy task, as the rugged Ozark hills needed to be crossed.  And the counterattack at Shiloh led to the recall of much of Curtis’ troops to Tennessee.  While this did ease the supply situation, it can’t have been comforting to General Curtis to have his force lessened just as he began a march deep into enemy territory.

Down the White River

Curtis moved down the White River towards the town of Batesville, AK.  He got there in early May after a difficult 250 mile march.  There he was joined by some additional troops from Missouri under Gen Frederick Steele.  He then sent forward a probe halfway towards Little Rock – reaching less than 50 miles off.

Then things started to go wrong.  The weather continued to be rainy, making roads difficult and river crossings impassible. The South had collected some irregular cavalry from Texas, who were actively raiding the supply trains and foraging parties needed to supply the army.  And the descent of a large army on a small settlement soon exhausted nearby supplies.

But the flooded rivers did allow steamboats to reach the army.  If the navy could set up an alternate supply line the occupation might continue and be used as a base for a move to Little Rock.  And during the march the Navy did manage to drive down past Memphis and thus could reach the mouth of the White River.

Relief Expedition

The Navy was willing, but circumstances began to change at once.  While the South struggled to put together a defense of the White River, the river levels began to rapidly fall. Soon steamboats wouldn’t be able to reach the army.  And at St. Charles, the batteries managed to score a critical hit on the boiler of the ship “Mound City” and most of the crew was killed or scalded by the steam.  And in addition, the Texas Cavalrymen fired on swimmers in the water, raising the ire of the Union forces.  The expedition had to fall back ahead of the falling river levels.

Advance on Helena

This defeat made the occupation of Batesville untenable.  Rather than retire, though, Curtis decided to advance south and east towards the town of Helena, on the Mississippi. This still ceded the middle of the state to the Confederates, but advancing rather than retiring salved the pride of the army somewhat.

The advance was well conducted, and the conditions in the boggy riverlands were difficult. Supplies were short, and if the Confederates managed to block the advance things might have been difficult.  However, the Union troops were veterans and the South had no serious blocking force, so eventually the army reached its destination and obtained much needed supplies.

The mission given this force was just more than a small army could tackle at this time in the war.  Still, the ability to march over 600 miles through enemy country, defeating any attempt to bring it to bay, was a foreshadowing of the later long marches by Grant and Sherman through the hollow core of the Confederacy.  It would take another year before Little Rock fell to the Union, from forces advancing from near the Pea Ridge battlefield.

The Battle of Shiloh and the Organizations Engaged – David W. Reed

This thin book is a short but curiously complete description of the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862.  It has often been used as a jumping off point for other historians writing about the Civil War, and is only being published recently to the general public.

The author was a veteran of the battle, and worked at the park in the 19th Century collecting other veteran reports to complete this book.  It is the kind of thing that nobody can repeat now.

It also comes with some maps of the battle on CD-ROM.

A nice little book, if better limited to the enthusiast than someone starting out.

 

To the Gates of Atlanta – Robert D. Jenkins, Sr.

From Kennesaw Mountain to Peach tree Creek 1-19 July 1864

This book is something of a prequel to his other work on the Battle of Peach Tree Creek.  Unlike that other volume, though, this period of the campaign is short on battles.  It does cover the controversial removal of Joe Johnston and his replacement by John Bell Hood.

The book covers the actions and marches well.  It tries to be fair to the generals, giving Joe Johnston’s difficult task its full due while noting Hood’s difficult position being dropped into command at a critical time.

It does seem that he soft-petals Hood’s deceptive back-channel bashing of other commanders and Johnston to the president.  Hood repeatedly lied about his own wishing for retreats and about the support for other generals for retreats. Clearly, he was aiming to replace Johnston by hook or crook – so it is hard to feel sympathy when he got it at the worst possible time.

There is also some defense on Hood’s failure at defending Atlanta.  Again, his chickens came home to roost after claiming for months how weak the US forces were to have to attack them continually as a policy.  In 1864, even against an army of equal numbers the days of driving them off with a single battle were long over.  Against a superior force, the chances of making a determined army retire due to offensive action was nil.  A sharp attack here or there or a flanking move might delay them, but driving them off was not going to happen.

Johnston might well have been too passive, but also he had Hood sabotaging any offensive or defensive risk he might have taken.  Time and time again, the name that keep coming up thwarting an offensive here, an attack there, a defense of a river line there is Hood failing to attack, Hood falling back.  And then he would write Davis saying how he was the only one who wanted to attack.  Johnston might not have been the man to stop Sherman cold. but with Hood betraying him the rebels had no chance to thwart the drive to Atlanta.

 

The Battle of Peach Tree Creek – Robert D. Jenkins, Sr.

HOOD’s First Sortie, 20 July 1864

The West in the US Civil War is in general very under-represented in the literature which seems far more ready to produce yet-another-Gettysburg book.  Even so, from time to time a book comes out to fill in one of the gaps with an excellent battle study.

This book succeeds in being one of those for the Battle of Peach Tree Creek, the first battle around the city of Atlanta, and the first for John Bell Hood as the leader of the Confederate Army of Tennessee.  The author claims to have started with a smaller history of the Mississippi regiments that his ancestors served in that paid a high cost in the battle, and then enlarged the project to include the entire battle.  It is a good thing that he did.

The MARCH TO Atlanta – May to July 1864

In the winter of 1864, U.S. Grant was named general in chief of the war effort, and he named General W.T. Sherman as the general in the West.  His mission was to advance to Atlanta and take the city.  Joseph E. Johnston was tasked to stop him.  The campaign started in the ridges and mountains of North Georgia and required the guarding of a single rail line for supply.  Sherman had a considerable advantage in numbers, but at this point in the war the use of field fortifications on defense by the veteran troops made attacking a prepared position costly and likely to fail.  Even a few hours of preparation could make a line that could hold against almost anything thrown at it.

The problem Johnston had in defense is that Sherman had enough men to eventually outflank any position he held.  And Sherman, for the most part, was content to find the main position, entrench part of his men in front, and send the rest marching to the flanks.  Johnston was skilled at detecting and checking these moves before they could lead to a disaster, but he had to give ground to do so.

An even more serious problem was Johnston’s poor relationship with the President of the CSA, Jefferson Davis.  This had been the case for years, and at this point Davis had no confidence in him and was forced by political pressures to use him.  He sent John Bell Hood west to take over an army corps….and to report to him unknown to his commander. And Hood took every chance to undermine Johnston.

Personally, I’ve always liked “Old Joe” Johnston, and his task here was a daunting one. That said, he probably could have done more to retard Sherman than he did.  There was one attempt at a counterattack at Cassville, but Hood called it off due to a mistaken sighting of forces on the flank.  Johnston erred in not overriding this, and Hood reported to Davis that the failure was all on Joe Johnston.

So when Sherman neatly flanked Johnston out of the line on the Chattahoochie River, the last major river before Atlanta, Davis had had enough and fired Joe Johnston and replaced him with Hood, as Sherman approached the suburbs of the city.

Peach Tree Creek

North of Atlanta, Peach Tree Creek runs across the line of advance of Sherman’s Army. They needed to cross this creek in the face of Hood’s army.  Johnston himself had planned to strike the US forces of the Army of the Cumberland, one of Sherman’s three armies, as they crossed the river and defeat them.  Then he was fired, and Hood took up the plan, but had to delay a day to take up the reins of the army.  This gave time for more forces to cross the creek, and to begin entrenching.

Hood was also finding that pulling off an attack was a bit more difficult than writing nasty-grams to the President.  It turned out that the forces needed to be shifted sideways to avoid being outflanked, which cost even more time.  It was now afternoon and the US had had even more time to concentrate and cross the creek.

The attack went in, and had some momentary successes where US troops were caught unaware or in flank.  In other spots, the line was fortified and the cost of the assault was high.  The Mississippians broke one line, but then were caught in crossfires from supporting units and suffered severely.  In other spots, the Rebels didn’t try very hard to overcome a line that seemed too strong.  This would bear bitter fruit in subsequent battles as Hood came to believe that this sensible caution was a kind of cowardice that needed to be cured by a diet of frontal attacks.

So after some tense hours the battle ended with no real result aside from the casualties.

Flankers

What neither Hood, or apparently Johnston knew when making this plan was that Sherman had sent about a third of his army on a wide circle to the east of Atlanta, which was entirely unguarded.  Only a few regiments of cavalry were delaying these 30.000 men from walking into the city.  A little less caution by the Union General McPherson and Atlanta would have fallen that day.

As it was, reserve forces had to be rushed to block the path, which was just as well rather than be bloodied in a frontal attack at Peach Tree.  Hood now had to plan a second battle for the day after tomorrow, to take McPherson in the flank and drive him back.  The troops that fought at Peach Tree Creek would form this flanking column, and would have to march all night to do it.

COULDA, WOULDA, SHOULDA

Like most battles, this one has come in for a lot of recriminations afterward.  Should Davis have fired Johnston? Could the attack have routed Thomas?  Could Sherman have been driven back?

Davis probably did the right thing by replacing Johnston, although doing it earlier would have been better.  The relationship was so poisoned that no information was moving between the two, leaving only Hood’s lies.  That said, Hardee might have been a better choice, even though he had declined command in the past.

The delay of a day may not have mattered much.  If they got there too early, there would be no forces on the south side of the creek to attack.  Punishing a brigade or so wouldn’t reverse the tide of the war.  And ironically, a more successful attack might have led to Sherman forcing McPherson to expedite his movement from the east, and led to an early capture of the city!

Hood just did not have the force to totally defeat Sherman’s three armies, even at the end of the long supply chain.  Wishing for that is like wishing for a miracle.  By this point, a win made the other side fall back a mile or so and come on again, and a loss meant you fell back a mile or so and stood again.  Hood managed to delay the fall for some time, but failed in the end.  It isn’t clear that Hardee or Joe Johnston would have done better.