Friday, April 19, 2013

Sesquicentennial, Part XXIV: Friction


"Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult." -- Carl von Clausewitz

"All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near." -- Sun Tzu

History tells us that the famous generals Lee and Grant first clashed in the Battle of the Wilderness, in May of 1864, but this is not entirely accurate. Lee's and Grant's decisions first began to contend with one another's in the spring of 1863, as they were each drawing up their plans of campaign for the coming season. It's not known whether either man read Clausewitz's masterwork Vom Kriege, but they were certainly becoming familiar with one of its most famous dictums. Everything they needed to do was simple, but even the simplest thing was fraught with difficulty.

Grant wanted Vicksburg. But every effort he had made to date ended in the same result: failure. He had tried twice to build canals that would get his forces in position to encircle Vicksburg, and had tried three times to use his naval superiority to bypass Vicksburg and encircle it that way. His last option was risky: march down the west bank of the Mississippi, and then cross the river below Vicksburg. Naturally, if the Confederates got wind that this was his plan, they would be able to cover the landings fairly easily. Although Grant had never read (or indeed even heard of) Sun Tzu, he nevertheless had an instinctive grasp of the obvious: he would have to deceive the Confederates of his specific intent. He would send out not one but two diversionary operations. General Sherman would command an attack on Snyder's Bluff, while Colonel Grierson would lead a sweeping cavalry raid through the entirety of central Mississippi. This, plus the thrashing around Grant had been doing for the last several months, ought to confuse the defenders of Vicksburg enough to keep them from hindering his real plan.

Oddly enough, Lieutenant General John Pemberton also wanted Vicksburg, because that was where his army was headquartered. Pemberton and Grant knew each other from their days in the Army during the Mexican War. Unusually for a Confederate officer, Pemberton was a Northerner by birth. Long years of service in the Southern states, along with having married a Virginian, shifted his sympathies such that when the break came, he went with his wife's people. In October of 1862, he was promoted to Lieutenant General and assigned the defense of Vicksburg, with orders to hold it at all costs. He didn't have nearly enough men for the task. He had 50,000 men within the works at Vicksburg, against about 100,000 men under General Grant. The only thing in his favor so far was that Grant's men were not yet at Vicksburg. This gave a small breathing space, within which he could bolster Vicksburg's defenses, provided that President Davis could conjure up the men to send him.

Sadly, conjuring would be what it would take, because there were no natural means by which President Davis could get so many soldiers.

General Joseph Johnston was in Jackson, Mississippi, and close enough to act in support, but held few men under his command. In principle, once the spring's actions in the East had been sorted out, some of Lee's troops from the Army of Northern Virginia could be detailed west to support Pemberton. But it would be up to six weeks before that decision could be taken. It would be foolish to denude Lee of men, until they knew what General Joseph Hooker would do with the Army of the Potomac.

And in any event, it might already be too late for Lee to march to Vicksburg in support.

Lee was about a thousand miles from Vicksburg. There's no practical way for an army the size of Lee's to cover that amount of ground in anything under two months. And that's by using the most direct route possible, assuming no interference by Union forces. It's safe to say that there'd be at least some effort to interfere. In any case, there are some significant dates to note: March 9, and April 24. March 9 is the last date that Lee could leave his camp and arrive at Vicksburg by May 15, and April 24 is the last day he could leave and arrive by June 30. We won't say what those last two dates signify, not quite yet. But the meaning is fairly clear, isn't it? Everyone knew that a noose was drawing around Vicksburg, the only questions were where and when.

Which brings us back to their basic problem: they still weren't entirely sure what Grant was up to. They knew he was headed to Vicksburg. But that was all they knew.

This, of course, was exactly what Grant wanted.

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