Monday, October 08, 2012

Perryville, Kentucky

To day is the 150th anniversary today of the Battle of Perryville - the western theater's answer to Antietam, in some ways. Just as Antietam halted the Rebel's movements into Maryland, Perryville stopped their adventuring in Kentucky, an invasion that could have caused almost as much mischief if things had gone a bit better. It's an odd battle - the Union army outnumbered the confederates 3 to 1, but during the battle itself, only about a third of the Union men got involved, the rest all within reach of the battle, but not involved. The results were a savage stalemate, both sides gunning down about a fourth of the other with little actual result. At the end of it, Bragg and the confederates left, to rejoin Kirby Smith, also in Kentucky, with as many men again - but rather than renew the fight on roughly equal terms (which they could have), Bragg chose to retreat. It would not be the first time he would fight a battle, sort of win, but abandon the field at the end - something similar happened at Stones River...

I've gone on a bit about generalship in some of these battles - Bragg is a reminder that it wasn't just the north that had trouble finding adequate commanders. In fact, in a lot of ways (going well beyond generalship, actually) the eastern and western theaters of the war are opposite one another. In the east, Lee and Jackson, and a host of strong underlings fought a series of incompetents, or competents who lost their nerve at the crucial moment (Fighting Joe Hooker comes to mind.) There were good generals in the Army of the Potomac, but they were always somehow just off - tangled up in the politics of the army (Porter and Franklin might have been good men, but were infected with McClellanism from the start); brave, but in over their heads (Sumner, particularly); or they took a couple years to rise to positions of true authority (Sedgewick, Reynolds, Meade, Hancock - the best, really, of the corps level officers). And even when they did get better generalship at the corps level, there were always men who had no business being there - Dan Sickles the most notable and unfortunate example.

In the west it was almost the opposite. Grant and Thomas were in important positions almost from the start - though both tended to stall for months at a time. Sherman and Sheridan and MacPherson all rose to some authority in 1862 - and even more dubious characters, like Rosecrans, had good moments. And the South - may have had talent, but it was always flawed. Bragg was as good an organizer as McClellan, but was hated almost as much as McClellan was loved - and though unlike McClellan he was willing to fight, like McClellan, he tended to back off before the fight was over. He made enemies quickly and kept them throughout the war - but none of the generals under him ever did anything to show they deserved his position. And they maintained a mediocre record throughout the war. (There were outstanding cavalry men in the west, fighting for the south - but the Forests and Wheelers and Shelby's never rose to command the larger armies, and weren't able to do much more than cause trouble for the north. Getting th best men in command was not a southern strength in the west.)

And, as usual when generals underperformed in war, the men in the ranks paid the price. The west featured some of the bloodiest toe to toe fighting in the war - Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga were all bloodbaths, at least relative to the size of the forces - all of them concentrated straight up fights that sooner or later involved head on attacks on strong positions.... That described Shiloh - you can put Corinth in that category too - and of course at the end of the war, you would get the carnage of Franklin and Nashville as well. Bad, unimaginative generalship got lots of men killed - though to be fair, inspired, audacious generalship got lots of people killed as well - Lee had as bloody a record as you could ask.

And so - 150 years ago - they fought at Perryville, fought to draw, with one side never committing their significant manpower advantages, and the other side moving off, then retreating after reuniting with another army.... and Kentucky was safe for the Union, and whatever chance the south might have had to force the north to negotiate or convince the European powers to stick their noses in, was gone. And the war went on.

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