Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sesquicentennial, Part XXII: The Bloodiest Day

It's extremely hard to adjust to having the rules changed on you in mid-play.

That's really the thing you see when you study the Civil War close-up. These men trained extensively in Napoleon's tactics. It's axiomatic that you train for the last war, because for so very long, things didn't change much, if they changed at all. And many of the most important things don't change. That's why we still read Sun Tzu's Art of War, Miyamoto Musashi's A Book of Five Rings, and Clausewitz's On War. (Although I'd advise finding a Cliff's Notes version of the latter.) But with every change of technology, what a commander can do on the battlefield changes with it, and the Civil War brought with it a fairly broad range of new technologies that had never been seen before on such scale. And the learning curve was fairly horrifying.

As I said last time, I'm finding it difficult to come down too hard on most Civil War commanders as a result. Most did the best they could with what they had. It was mostly no fault of their own that they were found wanting. But only mostly. There were still a few good old-fashioned character flaws that came boiling to the fore. And our man George McClellan wasn't immune.

If the spring and summer of 1861 were the apex of McClellan's career, the spring and summer of 1862 were the nadir. I've said before that I excuse what some would call McClellan's temerity, because he was acting fairly reasonably given the information he thought he had. If he'd attacked in the face of those odds, he'd have been reckless, and it wasn't necessarily his fault that Pinkerton was giving him bad information. But I refuse to excuse his overweening pride, and stubborn refusal to allow another general to take any credit for victory. This is what turned the Second Battle of Bull Run into the debacle that it was.

It all began after the collapse of McClellan's Peninsular Campaign in June. With Johnston's death at Shiloh, Robert E. Lee was advanced to command in the field, and he was able to push McClellan's Army of the Potomac back to the James River. With the threat against Richmond removed, Lee was able to turn his attentions back to the north. This caused Lincoln to appoint John Pope as commander of the newly-formed Army of Virginia, with the mission of finding and engaging Lee's army. Pope requested reinforcements from McClellan, who refused. The reason McClellan gave was that he didn't want to leave Washington unguarded. It's widely suspected that the real reason was that McClellan didn't want Pope to succeed where he had failed.

The result was that the Union and Confederate forces met for a second time at Bull Run, on nearly even numerical terms. In such an engagement, what counts more than anything else is leadership and coordination. And as I've said before, the Confederacy still enjoyed an advantage. Not as much as the first time around, but still enough to win victory on that day. The defeated Union forces were able to retire in good order, though, so the humiliation of another rout was avoided.

Now, this left Lee with a bit of a problem. What to do next? His basic problem was always one of supply. The Confederacy's basic problem in general was always one of supply. This is because the Confederacy could raise an army, and it could equip an army, but it really couldn't do both of those at the same time. Part of the problem was finding trained, skilled men: machinists and mechanics. Those men were needed with equal urgency in the factories, and on the firing line. But there was also a material problem. The Union blockade was hurting, and severely. The "King Cotton" strategy had failed. Europe, far from being destitute without Southern cotton, had found other sources. And England wasn't going to risk war with the Union over those supplies in any event. The Confederacy got dribbles of supplies in via blockade runners, but this was never going to be enough to supply whole armies in the field. But Lee found a radical solution to his supply problem.

For the same reason that bank robbers rob banks, Lee went north: because that's where the supplies were.

But that wasn't the only reason. There were two other goals. First, he wanted to attack the North's will to fight, by showing that their armies couldn't keep him out. This might have a salubrious effect on the upcoming mid-term elections in November. Second, he wanted to show the Europeans, and England in particular, that the Union army couldn't keep him out. If he was able to demonstrate the Confederacy's military viability with major victories on Union soil, maybe they'd weigh in to stop the bloodshed as a humanitarian gesture. It was a long shot. But it was the best shot the Confederacy had at that point.

And so it was that Lee drafted Special Order 191, detailing his plans for the invasion. Copies were made for each of his senior commanders. Most of them safeguarded those orders closely. One, Major General D.H. Hill, wrapped them around a couple of cigars and forgetfully left them behind at a campsite.

You know, I think my first impression was actually correct. They really hadn't invented operational security yet.

This was like McClellan getting the Prima Strategy Guide to the Civil War. If you ask how he knew that the order was genuine, you have to remember, back in those days orders weren't typewritten. Orders were written by hand, and the veteran officers of the Union army generally knew one another's handwriting. It wouldn't have been hard to find an officer who'd served under Lee. It took maybe five minutes to assess the authenticity, and maybe five minutes more for McClellan to figure out what needed to be done. You see, the order not only gave him an idea of where Lee's army was headed, it also gave him for the very first time a truly accurate idea of its strength.

Knowing Lee's target let McClellan get there first, and dig in. It also let him get some forces in place to exploit Lee's flank. When Lee got to Sharpsburg on September 17th, McClellan was there waiting for him.

This time, McClellan had a decisive advantage, nearly two to one. This time, he held a clearly superior position. This time, he knew precisely what Lee had in mind. And still, he was mortally fearful of what Lee might do to him.

Yes, I mostly don't hold McClellan's timidity against him, except for this. When you have your enemy in a vise, you spin it down and squeeze. You lay to with every tool and weapon at your disposal. You do your damnedest to break him utterly. But McClellan? Fully a third of his men at Sharpsburg never fired a shot.

And for all that, it was still the bloodiest day in American military history. Commanders still hadn't come to terms yet with what rifled muskets could do. Companies marching to attack a prepared defensive position quite often simply ceased to exist, withered away by a veritable rain of steel. And this went back and forth on the field for most of the day. Until, finally, a Union attack managed to break the Confederate center. This forced Lee to withdraw, as his position was no longer tenable. A more alert, more vigorous commander might have pursued. McClellan ... didn't.

I still think that commanders were shell-shocked to some extent by the numbers of casualties. This was something beyond anything they could ever have imagined. It was, and still is, the bloodiest day in American military history. Some 23,000 men had fallen, on both sides.

Nevertheless, it seemed as if an opportunity had been squandered. Lee was allowed to escape. His army would live to fight again another day, having seized enough supplies from Maryland farmers to keep on going.

But for all that, it was still a victory. The Confederates had been beaten in open battle, and sent packing. That was good enough for what Lincoln had in mind.

Lincoln had drafted a proclamation regularizing what Union armies had already been doing. If you'll recall, Union armies had been confiscating slaves in Confederate territory, mainly to deny their labor to their masters. Emancipation began as an economic measure, designed to hurt the finances of the Union's enemies. Lincoln merely took that one step further. His proclamation summarily dispossessed all slave-owners of their property, in all territories then in rebellion. He had drawn this up shortly after learning of what his field commanders had already been doing, but didn't release it immediately. It would have sounded like a measure of desperation. He needed a victory, in order to give the order authenticity. The Battle of Antietam gave him that victory.

And at a stroke, any real possibility of foreign intervention died. Because whether or not it began that way, the war was now becoming one of liberation. It was becoming a war to settle the slavery issue once and for all. And now that this was out in the open, the odds that England would weigh in publicly for slavery and against emancipation were as near to zero as made no difference. If the Confederacy were to win, they'd have to win with whatever they had on hand. And much of what came in from abroad had to come in through Mexico, then through Texas and Arkansas, and across the Mississippi. And that was beginning to be a real problem.

It took a few months after the Battle of Shiloh to realize what would eventually become an important fact: with the fall of New Orleans, the Confederacy's only stronghold on the entire Mississippi River was the city of Vicksburg. While this is obvious in hindsight, it went essentially unnoticed for several months, while the other battles of the summer of 1862 played themselves out. But realize it they did, the Union with anticipation and the Confederacy with dread. This would be the hinge on which the whole thing swung.

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