Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Seven Days

Time for another of my occasional series of posts about the Civil War. Today is the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gaines' Mill - the largest, and most decisive battle of the Seven Days battles, itself the culmination of McClellan's peninsular campaign, and the biggest cumulative battle of the war so far. It is - the Seven Days - also Robert E. Lee's first fight as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia.

In some ways, this was really Lee's one good chance at winning the war. He had about as many men as he would ever have, against a Union position that was split across a river, under a commander who, shall we say, was quite beatable. Lee laid out a plan aimed at destroying the Union army - concentrate as many of his forces as possible north of the Chickahominy river, to attack the Federals there while most of the Union army was south of the river. It's a tactic Lee used over and over during the war - divide his force, to concentrate against a vulnerable point and thrash the enemy in detail - here, he had a pretty strong advantage in numbers, almost 2 to 1. And it worked, more or less - though in the end, Gaines' Mill turned out to be almost completely a frontal assault against an entrenched opponent. The Confederates carried the field - a relatively rare instance of such an attack winning during the Civil War - though 2:1 odds helps... the casualties were about the same ratio, before you factor in prisoners - 8,000 to 4,000, though the POW take came close to evening it out. The rebels carried the field, yes, but the Federals (Fitzjohn Porter's V corps) got away across the river, and the fight kept going. The rest of the Seven Days were something of a chase - McClellan, having had 1 of his 5 corps driven back from their somewhat exposed positions to join the rest of the army, decided to "change his base" to the James river, on the southern side of the peninsular, and pulled the army out of its lines and moved south; Lee tried to come to grips with them, trying to cut the retreat in half, to trap them, something, that would break the Union army. He failed - the Army of the Potomac made it out - a number of battles were fought along the way, but Lee never really caught them. At the end, on July 1st, Lee did catch up with them, at Malvern Hill - but here, as at Gaines' Mill, the northerners (mostly Porter, again) were dug in, on a hill, with most of the army's artillery in support. Lee attacked, and this time, was blown halfway to hell. That was the end - and a lesson in the killing power of massed artillery that neither side forgot. (Except in the heat of battle, more than once...)

All right. I want to go back to the point I made in my Seven Pines post - at this point in the war, no one, not even Robert E. Lee, seemed to know how to execute a battle. This campaign was masterfully planned - a bold strike that stood a fair chance of breaking his enemy, causing, at least, a headlong retreat - but the execution? First - even Lee seemed to think he could arrange complicated movements by multiple forces, under multiple leaders, over multiple roads, with sketchy maps and 19th century communication technologies - in such a way as to have everyone arrive at the same point at the same time and act in concert. No, it didn't work. Second - even given the inherent problems of coordinated movement, Lee's generals did not acquit themselves well. Later in the battle (at Savage Station and Glendale), lesser Confederates (Holmes and Huger and Magruder) made mistakes and let their commander down - but from the start, none other than Stonewall Jackson failed to carry out his part of the plan - and failed repeatedly. He didn't show up at Mechanicsville (the first big fight, the day before Gaines' Mill) - he was late at Gaines' Mill - he was passive at Savage Station and Glendale... Reading about it in detail, it sounds as if Jackson was suffering from something - a concussion? sleep deprivation? He had brought his men in from the Shenandoah Valley just as the battle started - they and he had had a busy stretch... The results - of his lethargy, the confusion on the battlefield, the shortcomings of other officers - were that Lee was never able to concentrate his forces for another effective strike at the Union after Gaines' Mill - all the subsequent battles were fought piecemeal, at even or less odds, and the Army of the Potomac got away.

On the other hand... there's George McClellan. Who, it probably has to be said, managed a fairly masterful retreat under pressure from the confederate army - which he outnumbered, something like 5:4 at this point (by the far the lowest odds the union had in the war, admittedly), and generally beat on the field of battle. Even Gaines' Mill, which the confederates won, fair and square and pretty unambiguously - didn't really do the Federals much harm. Porter got across the river, giving the northerners numerical advantages again - the army was hardly beaten. And while all this was happening, with Lee's 60,000 north of the river, the Union had at least 2:1, maybe 3:1 advantage south of the river in front of Richmond - not that they tried to do anything about it. Looking at this campaign - it's hard not to think that Lee was the luckiest general on either side of the war. Here - he attacked - every day - attacked, in the face of whatever odds were in front of him. His subordinates handled the battle poorly - breaking up his attacks, losing whatever advantages of numbers they might have had by moving fast; on the field, the union soldiers generally gave as good as they got - and McClellan kept going back, against the advice (and sometimes wrathful near insubordination) of his generals, who had won the field, and thought they could keep winning... But he kept retreating.

It kept happening, too. Lee got to fight McClellan, who had skill, but seemed paralyzed by the thought of actually fighting; John Pope - a nincompoop; then Ambrose Burnside - who could start things well, but froze up when circumstances changed (I assume I'll write more about this come Fredericksburg's anniversary in December); Joe Hooker - who is very hard to explain, because of the lot he seems by far the most competent - but who froze up like a jacked deer when the bullets started flying at Chancellorsville... all of them either incompetent or with a crack, that split wide open when faced with the ultimate test. All of them blew it - did stupid things - didn't do things that could have won decisive battles - all of them went to pieces in some sense, when Lee hit them. It didn't stop until Gettysburg, where Meade simply kept fighting until he was beaten - which is the real point of so many of these men. They gave up long before they were beaten. But not Meade. And when Grant came east, that stuff was done. It's one of the marks of the best generals of the war - certainly of Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, as well as Meade, Grant, Thomas, Sheridan and Sherman - that they did not stop until they were actually beaten, and even then, were loath to admit it.

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