Friday, April 04, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXVI: Change of Command


"He who defends everything, defends nothing." -- Frederick the Great

President Abraham Lincoln had a command problem. The popular perception of the Union military leadership has it that Lincoln had a "revolving door" of generals cycling in and out of top command. That's not exactly correct, but it's close enough to the truth for any ordinary purpose.

It's more true for the Army of the Potomac than for Commanding General. Lincoln went through no fewer than four commanders for the Army of the Potomac before finding the one who finished out the war in that post, where he only went through three Commanding Generals. The first commander of the Army of the Potomac was Brigadier General Irvin McDowell. He was sacked not long after Bull Run, which some might think unfair. The goat-rope at Bull Run wasn't really his fault ... but he took the fall for it anyway. His replacement was Major General George McClellan, who was serving double duty as Commanding General. Maybe two hats were a hat too far, so to speak; he was replaced by Major General Ambrose Burnside. Burnside was replaced by Major General Joseph Hooker. Both men were sacked after disastrous battles. Then, Major General George Meade took over as the Battle of Gettysburg was underway.

The Commanding General of the United States Army at the outset of the war was Lieutenant General Winfield Scott. He was not well enough to serve as a wartime commander, which was unfortunate. He, more than anyone, knew what had to be done; he just wasn't in any shape to do it. And his first choice for his replacement, Colonel Robert E. Lee, went with Virginia when that state seceded. So, on November 1, 1861, Major General George McClellan took overall command. McClellan's tenure was ... well, mixed. He did turn the Army of the Potomac around after the disaster at Bull Run, and he did fortify Washington itself against assault. But he was not a very good overall commander. Lincoln tired of him quickly. He recalled Major General Henry Halleck from the West to take over. Halleck, as it happened, wasn't a bad administrator. He wasn't replaced as Commanding General for either infirmity or incompetence. It's just that a better man had come along.

That man, newly promoted to Lieutenant General, was Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant was fresh from victories both at Vicksburg the previous summer, and Chattanooga the previous winter. He had earned a reputation as a dogged fighter, and Lincoln hoped he'd bring that pugnaciousness to his new post. Surprisingly, he retained both Halleck and Meade. Neither man was incompetent, both could indeed be quite able when given suitable direction. But he did have an idea of where he wanted to go from here.

What had saved the Confederacy time and again was the fact that they were able to redeploy troops internally. They were able to shift Longstreet's corps from Virginia to Tennessee, giving Bragg a very temporary favorable balance of forces. Really, there was only one way to keep that from happening.

If Davis were forced to defend the Confederacy, the entire Confederacy, he'd be too hard pressed to reinforce anyone, from anywhere. What General Grant intended, and President Lincoln concurred, was an all-fronts press. Attack everywhere. And by everywhere, he meant everywhere.

Not one, but two Union armies would attack Virginia. General Lee would be forced to engage one of those armies, and that's where Grant would make his headquarters. Just as it was the year before, Richmond wasn't the actual goal; but threatening Richmond would force the Confederates to engage. At the same time, another Union army would attack the Shenandoah Valley, to tie up the Confederate forces there. And finally, General William Tecumseh Sherman, now in command in the West, was to attack southeast from Chattanooga, and capture Atlanta.

The Confederate plan ... was to last long enough that the Northern public would become sick of the fighting. Davis had his hands full keeping an Army in the field at all, and had no resources to spare for offensive operations. His hopes for foreign intervention were now completely dashed. The only European country that still wanted to give the Confederacy official recognition was France, under Emperor Napoleon III, but without British co-operation he wasn't about to go it alone. And Queen Victoria wasn't about to give a slave power the time of day, much less official recognition.

But Davis' hope to tire the Northern public out wasn't a vain one. Three years of hard fighting had produced casualties in heretofore unimaginable numbers. Draft riots weren't all that uncommon. The war was expensive, taxes were high, and the national debt was rising to alarming levels. If they could just hold on until Election Day in November, it might well transpire that Mr. Lincoln would be hanging his shingle out once more in Springfield come the next March. Davis might actually have a prospect for a negotiated peace with a Democratic President.

But for that to happen ... his soldiers would have to hold the line for seven more months. They could do it. Maybe, they could do it. It'd be a near run thing ...

... but they'd have to keep the Yankees out. That was going to be a neat trick.