Friday, February 13, 2015

Sesquicentennial, Part XLIII: Looking Ahead, Looking Back


One hundred years ago, the Western Front had settled down into an awful stalemate. A system of trenches stretched from the Swiss border to the North Sea, and the land in between the trenches had been turned into a churn of mud by the combined efforts of German, Austrian, French, and British artillery. The men in those trenches probably thought to themselves that surely, no such vision of Hell had been brought to Earth before.

Except that, if any of them had thought to cast their sight back fifty years in time and two thousand miles to the west, they'd see quite clearly that it had.

The Siege of Petersburg was, in many ways, a preview of coming attractions.

Trenches? Check. Massive artillery pounding the Hell out of everything in sight? Check. Crazy plans to dig mines under the enemy works and pack them with explosives? Good God yes, check. People had every right to feel despair, disgust, dread, or any number of other emotions regarding what the Western Front had become ... but they had no right at all to feel surprised. The Western Front was really nothing more than Petersburg scaled up to fit a continent.

Granted, the Western Front nightmare lasted a good bit longer. But that's partly because Douglas Haig wasn't fit to stand in the company of either Grant or Sherman.

True, Lee was keeping Grant's army out of both Petersburg and Richmond. He was also pinned down there, unable to do anything but hold those two cities. He was also unable to keep Grant from extending his lines around Petersburg to the south, and Richmond to the north.

That was eventually going to be a problem.

You see, there was more to Sherman's plan than simple bloody-minded violence. Part of that can be seen by a modification to a map of Confederate railroads (the original can be found here).

Sherman's approximate line of march since jumping off in Spring 1864 is shown in orange. By mid-February, Sherman had reached the city of Columbia in South Carolina. That encounter ... went poorly for Columbia. Sherman claimed that he didn't order Columbia burnt to the ground ... but he wasn't exactly sorry it happened, either. That's neither here nor there, though; the main point I want to make is that he was exacting the maximum amount of damage possible against the Confederacy's ability to move supplies from where they were to where they weren't. Where they were tended to be the farms where food was grown and the shops where goods were made, and where they weren't was the Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee had exactly one life-line left open. And that was the rail line from Richmond to Danville. This had been recently connected to Greensboro in North Carolina, so in theory Lee could draw on supplies from points south ... except that due to Sherman's efforts, there wasn't much further south from which to draw.

This is more or less the point in a chess match at which you'd resign.

You resign in a chess match when you see the inevitable outcome, and know that no matter what move you make, even if you make the best move possible from your current position, you will lose. Your opponent will put your King in checkmate, and there's nothing you can do about it.

But Jefferson Davis was at least in nominal control, and he wasn't in a resigning mood. Was this stubborn pride, delusional lunacy, or some mix of the two? Because Davis had to have known the jig was well and truly up. Had to. He was a West Point man himself, and had enough military experience out on the sharp end to know what's what. But pride ... his pride would not allow him to admit he'd been beaten. Nor would it allow him to breathe a word of defeatism to another living soul.

No, surrender wasn't a word in Davis' vocabulary. So long as it was up to him, he'd grind it out to the last desperate inch.

And so it would go.

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