Friday, February 08, 2013

Sesquicentennial, Part XXIII: The Hinge


After you read about a few of them, Civil War battles begin to display a depressing sameness to them. One side, we'll call them the Defenders, get to the scene of a battle first. Then, the Attackers show up and try to dislodge them. They usually try flanking attacks first, and when those don't work they go right up the middle. The usual result: appalling casualties on both sides, but most especially for the Attacker. So the battles themselves aren't all that interesting.

Ah, but between the battles ... that's the meat of the matter. And it's not always the movements of armies and reassignments of officers that are of most interest. What really counts in a long war, especially in the modern age, is how well you can keep your troops resupplied. From the beginning, the plan that General Scott laid out for the war was one of ensuring the Union's ability to move men and supplies, while slowly denying the rebels the same. By early 1863, that strategy was beginning to show some fruit. The Union had blockaded all of the Confederacy's ports, severely hampering its ability to conduct trade. To all intents and purposes, aside from a handful of blockade runners, Confederate trade had to go through Mexican ports, then wind their way north and then eastward. Which brings us to one of Jeff Davis' most serious problems.

I've said before that the Confederacy had a fundamental problem: they could raise an army, or they could equip it. There wasn't any good way for them to do both. But I've never yet explained what I meant by that. If we go back here, we can see that the Confederacy really has no manufacturing to speak of. Their original plan was to rely on the power of "King Cotton" to bring Europe, specifically Britain, to come to their aid. Cotton would flow out, and arms would flow in, protected by the Royal Navy. By 1863, it had become painfully obvious that this wasn't going to happen. The Emancipation Proclamation had sunk just about the last nail in the coffin of that strategy. Now, the Confederacy would have to provide just about all of the arms and supplies that their armies in the field would use. Which they could do, if virtually all of their skilled work force weren't already in uniform.

Here, we see one of the fundamental disadvantages of a slave society. In the Union, unskilled workers formed an immense pool of manpower from which soldiers may be drawn. When the draft was instituted it was massively unpopular, to the point of riots in some cities, but the Union Army generally met its manpower goals. In the Confederacy, the vast majority of their unskilled labor pool was ambulatory property. If armed, they'd still be ambulatory, but would no longer be property. Nat Turner showed them what generally happened when you put hot lead and cold steel in a slave's hands. So, the Confederate Army would have to poach from the skilled labor force ... who were sorely needed to run the factories, foundries, and all of the other things that kept the war machine running.

Jeff Davis, then, was on the horns of a dilemma: he had to both raise and equip an army, but only had resources to do one of those well. He decided to take a third option: equip them, and then let them figure out the supply thing on their own.

Napoleon famously said that an army marches on its stomach. His opponent Wellington never said as much, but it's plain from his memoirs that he agreed. Upon reading them, one of his friends remarked that it seemed to him "that your chief business in India was to procure rice and bullocks." "And so it was," replied Wellington, "for if I had rice and bullocks I had men, and if I had men, I knew I could beat the enemy." Wellington's memoirs went into exhaustive detail about his logistical affairs. From his memoirs, we know that one of his cavalry regiments required some 25 tons worth of supplies for three days' action, and about 250 mules with which to haul them. (That's 246 mules to carry the supplies, and four more to carry the hay with which to feed the mules.)

In his honor, I call 25 tons a "Wellington": the amount of food and ammunition to keep a regiment in fighting trim for three days. The Union was usually able to provide a full Wellington for its troops in the field. The Confederacy was usually doing well to supply about half that, with the Rebel troops scrounging the rest as best they could. And that's with the Confederacy being able to move goods in and out of the country via Mexico.

Which brings us back to the hinge: Vicksburg. It was the last stronghold the Confederacy still held on the Mississippi. With Vicksburg, they still have a lifeline to the outside world. Without it, the Union owns the Mississippi from its headwaters to the Gulf, and the Confederacy is cut in two. Everyone knew that Vicksburg was Grant's next objective. Discovering Grant's plans for getting to Vicksburg was a major target of Confederate spies. They would be frustrated in their desires to discover Grant's plans, mainly because Grant himself had no idea how he was going to get there. The approaches from the Mississippi, where the Union generally enjoyed unquestioned naval superiority, were too well-guarded by guns on the bluffs. The city itself was ringed with fortifications. And outside of those were swamps, generally considered impassable.

Generally, that is. But Ulysses S. Grant wasn't going to take that for a final answer. One way or another, come Hell or high water, he was going to have Vicksburg. He'd spend most of the winter and spring figuring out how to get there, but he wasn't about to let anything get in his way.

He'd come too far to give up now.

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