Saturday, April 07, 2012

Lick 'em tomorrow, though

Today is the 150th anniversary of the second day of the Battle of Shiloh - the first really big battle of the Civil War. (Bull Run resulted in some 5,000 casualties - Shiloh in 23,000 plus.) The war had been on for almost a year by then, but people on both sides still seemed to think it could be ended fairly quickly, and without the kind of cataclysm that did, in fact occur. But Shiloh rather demonstrated the contrary. It was a shockingly big battle for the time - and, looking back on it, it's also clear that it demonstrated a couple things that bode very ill for the coming years. It demonstrated the lethality of the war, the ability of modern armies (in 1860s terms) to deal out damage - and the resilience of armies, the difficulty of actually destroying an opposing force. The Confederates caught the Union by surprise - drove them well back - but both sides shot the hell out of each other, and the next day, the Union received reinforcements, and drove the Confederates back in turn, again, both sides shooting the hell out of one another. After it was done, the Southern army was a wreck, but the North wasn't much better off - a result that came up over and over in the war. Winning left armies almost as incapacitated as losing.

In any case... from here one, the battles got bigger and bigger - even in the spring of 1863, McClellan had 100,000 odd soldiers sitting on the Peninsular in Virginia - by the time he got around to using them, the Confederates were able to muster nearly as many, leading to fights that would start to dwarf Shiloh. And as the war went on, and arms got better (there were still a fair number of soldiers, especially in the South, armed with very old guns, smoothbores, shotguns and such, at Shiloh), and tactics and command structures got better, and the troops got better - the battles became increasingly deadly. A very bad time was in store for all.

Still. Things could have been worse. The Union could have lost, and if they had, odds are Grant, and Sherman to boot, would have gone the way of John Pope. Shiloh wasn't Grant's first major battle - he had already won the battle of Forts Henry and Donelson, in February - but it was one that, in a lot of ways, defined him. Nor for the good, at first - even after winning, he was blamed for the surprise, accused of drunkenness and so on - he spent the next several months in command limbo, a fact that probably contributed to the stagnation that developed in the west after Shiloh. EVen now, historians tend to see one of his more dangerous qualities at work here - he tended to make plans and execute them without really thinking about what the enemy might do. He seems to have expected them to sit there and take it - when they did, as at Henry and Donelson, at Vicksburg (especially in the spring and summer of 1863), even at Shiloh, on the second day - he gave them a shellacking. When they didn't sit there and take it - as at Shiloh, or in Virginia in 1964 - he ran into trouble. But what came next is probably what really defines Grant, and certainly distinguishes him from many of the other Union generals of the war. At Shiloh, and at the Wilderness, the enemy didn't do what he expected, and things went badly - but in both cases, he remade his plans on the fly. He was reinforced at Shiloh, and went on the attack on the second day, winning the field. And at the Wilderness, when it was clear he wasn't going to get through the wilderness by force - he switched directions, and went around. He did not, in either case, go away. The title of this post sums him up, in a lot of ways -"Well, Grant, we've had the devil's own day, haven't we?" said Sherman. "Yes. Lick 'em tomorrow, though." said Grant.

(Finally - expect a lot of these posts. I was not born in time for the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, and doubt I'll be around for the 200th anniversary - so I am going to seize on 150. It is a big deal - really, the biggest deal in American History. We must remember.)

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