Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Problems of Command

On October 23, 1863, Ulysses S. Grant arrived in Chattanooga, to take over command of the effort to rescue the Army of the Cumberland, which was sealed up in that place.

After the battle of Chickamauga, the Union army had retreated, in great disarray, to Chattanooga. Half the army, and William Rosecrans, its commander, were completely wrecked - the rest, which had made an epic stand under George Thomas, retreated during the night. All of them were in a bad way. The Confederates came after them - but not at full speed. The Yankees were able to dig in around the city, though in the valley. The Rebels dug in along the hills ringing the city. The Union men were not exactly trapped in Chattanooga - but they were cut off from easy contact with the rest of the world. The Rebels could block the river, most of the main roads - food had to come in over the mountains, there in southern Tennessee. For the next month or so, the Southerners tried to starve the Yankees out. While this was happening, Grant was put in charge of everything from the Appalachians to the Mississippi, Rosecrans was replaced by Thomas, and Grant set out to save them. He worked his way through the wilderness to Chattanooga, followed by reinforcements - his own Army of the Tennessee, now led by Sherman, and a detachment from the Army of the Potomac, the XI and XII corps, led by Fightin' Joe Hooker himself.

Grant didn't waste any time getting to work on a plan (or accepting a plan that Thomas and Baldy Smith had already worked out) - but that can wait for now. I want to write about Command, right now. Especially, the difference between how the Union and Confederacy handled command problems after Chickamauga. The north we've seen - they were whipped and whipped bad at Chickamauga. Rosecrans himself could be blamed for the defeat, and was - and his indecisiveness after the battle sealed his fate. Lincoln put Grant in command, and gave Grant the authority to decide who commanded the Army of the Cumberland - Grant dismissed Rosecrans and appointed (or rather, accepted Lincoln's appointment of) George Thomas. Things went differently in the south.

Let's start with this - was there a more troublesome general on either side than Braxton Bragg? He was a strange case - it is not that he was incompetent, or even particularly unsuccessful; he acquitted himself well in his Kentucky campaign of 1862, and you could say that he actually won all three major battles he had fought to this point (Perryville, Stone's River and Chickamauga). But he had a knack for failure. He might have carried most of the field at Perryville and Stone's River, but he abandoned the field in both cases, and they went down as Union victories. He won clearly at Chickamauga, but it is hard to see how any credit could go to him - Rosecrans' and Wood's blunders, Longstreet's attack, and the Confederate division and brigade commanders deserve the credit there - and at the end of it, he did not pursue aggressively, and a wrecked Union army got back to Chattanooga intact, and dug in, to hold the town.

Bragg's underlings certainly blamed Bragg, and wasted no time before they started scheming against him. MOre or less openly. The usual suspects - Polk and Breckinridge and Buckner, joined now by the easterners, Longstreet and D.H. Hill - writing their political allies in Richmond, writing to Jeff Davis, writing open letters, anonymous letters.... And that is the real problem with Bragg. Whatever he was on the battlefield, Bragg was an astonishingly unsuccessful leader of men. From top to bottom. The men in the ranks hated him. His generals hated him and openly schemed against him. Politicians hated him. Everyone hated him, except a few toadies, and Jefferson Davis. It is hard to imagine what Jefferson Davis was thinking. Bragg's generals were lobbying for his replacement after Chickamauga - which is bad enough, except they did exactly the same thing after Stone's River and Perryville - and every time, Davis left him in charge. It is very hard to see why - you are left thinking that either Davis was a terrific fool, or he simply despaired of the situation.

It isn't as though he didn't have options. After Stone's River, Davis was prepared to let Joe Johnston take over, sent him to decide whether Bragg should go or not - but didn't order Johnston to take over. After Chickamauga, Davis had even more choices - Johnston again, with the added option of having Johnston bring his army east to combine with Bragg's. And Longstreet - who was on the scene, and seems to have been scheming for the job. Longstreet's behavior, especially, was rather unseemly - but then again - he was just about the only one of the lot willing to take the job if it were offered. Either general brought problems - Johnston was a resolutely defensive minded general - though for a siege, that might have been just what was needed. He had the added advantage of being able to bring reinforcements with him - the south outnumbered the north at Chickamauga, and could have maintained that, by adding Johnston to Bragg and Longstreet. Longstreet's politicking might have been unseemly, but he was a real general - men followed him, Lee trusted him, he was willing to act on his own - he would have been well suited for the job.

But Davis left Bragg in charge. He couldn't bring himself to make the change - even after Stone's River, he wouldn't make the decision, he left the choice to Johnston - a man very unlikely to make a decision if he didn't have to. So Bragg stayed in command, though by this time, he was an obvious liability. He had lost the confidence of his officers, and of the men in the ranks; he showed no sign of being able to run a campaign. He had to go.

It is ironic: there is a legend that the South went to war with far better soldiers and leaders than the north. Most accounts grant that the Union learned the business of war as they went along, and by the end had leaders who knew how to win with overwhelming odds. You could put it that way, but it misses the point, even of what you have just said. This story illustrates it: the fact is that the Union, when it failed, changed commanders. More in the east than in the west, but they failed more in the east than the west. The whole point is that Lincoln, once he got going, was willing to change. The Union high command - Lincoln and Stanton and company - were ruthless. They expected success and chased it hard. They found it. It took awhile - took a year’s worth of campaigning in the east, to basically shake out the lesser men and give the better ones time to learn their trade. By 1863, even in the east,m where things had gone so badly, Lincoln had men to choose from. Meade, Reynolds, Sedgwick - all of them had drawbacks, mostly their lingering McClellanisms, the institutional caution and ponderousness the Army of the Potomac never shed - but all were strong leaders, willing and able to fight, and any of the three, at least, would have won the battle of Gettysburg, as Meade did, for the reasons Meade did. They did their jobs. They knew what they had. They knew their underlings and knew how to use them (Meade’s decision to rely as heavily as he did on Hancock was inspired - it’s like Grant’s decision to rely on Sheridan at the end of the war, or on Sherman in the west. You could almost say that the difference at Gettysburg is that Meade had Hancock, and used him - Lee no longer had Jackson.)

The Union had better luck early in the west - Grant had an army by 1862, Sherman and Thomas were in positions of authority, and did well - though there were still bumps in the road. Rosecrans was a mixed bag - brilliant at some things, overwhelmed at others - after Chickamauga, he'd lost the confidence of much of his army and the Union high command... But again - the important point is that the Union high command was willing to act. It's true, Lincoln had had Grant and Thomas and Sherman on hand to take over - men he trusted, and who were, themselves, willing to take on the responsibility they were given. (Joe Johnston was not willing to relieve Bragg when given the option; Grant had no problem replacing Rosecrans with Thomas when given the authority.) The Union got there by being willing to change.

That refinement did not happen in the south. Partly, to be sure, because Lee found those men in 1862 - Longstreet and Jackson, the division commanders - A. P. Hill and Ewell and Hood and the like, people like Gordon and Rodes and Early, all very fine officers, who were identified fairly early. The Union found some good officers at the beginning of the war, but not as many, and they never quite managed to get them in position. The first round of leaders - Franklin and Porter, Sumner and Keyes - were not quite up to it. The next round - Hooker and Kearney, Richardson and the like, died or drifted - it’s the third generation, and the fourth - Sedgwick and Meade and Reynolds, Hancock, Howard, Gibbon, Birney, Barlow, and so on, who really distinguished themselves. BUt the emergence of strong officers later in the war in part of the difference - in the south, even in Lee’s army, as the top men were killed or disabled, the men moving into their place did not expand to their new responsibilities as often. Generals like Hill and Ewell, Early, Anderson, Rodes were all good men, but none of them as good as the men they replaced, none of them as good at higher levels as they were with their brigades and divisions. People like Sherman and Sheridan, meanwhile, got better as they rose through the ranks - they were better with more responsibility than less.

But all of this was far, far worse for the Confederacy in the west. You can imagine the way the north would have reacted to some of those battles - Bragg would have been done at least after Stone’s River. Lincoln, pulling a sad face, would tell him about the old farmer he knew, and his favorite cow, that wouldn’t give, and send him home. He’d have tried Polk or Hardee - he’d have given Breckinridge or Buckner a shot at it - he might even have been willing to bring back Beauregard or put Johnston in charge - but he’d have found someone, and if they fucked up, he’d have found someone else. They’d have gotten to the men who knew their jobs - in the Union army, men like Cleburne or Stephen Lee or Forrest, who had real talent, would have found their way to high command, the way Sheriden and Sherman and McPherson and James Wilson did. It is fascinating - in the long run, the Union did a far, far better job of identifying talent, developing it, keeping a fair stream of talent occupying high positions. And you have to say - that the Union did a much better job of moving people up successfully. The Meades and Hancocks and Warrens, later Humphreys - the Logans and Blairs, the Sheridans, Wilsons, etc., all made the transition from brigade to division to corps command, successfully. Yes - often with the institutional problems of their armies intact (which is a reason why people like Howard and Slocum seem so inept in the east and thrived in the west, maybe), but still, far more successfully than Hill or Ewell or Hood moved up.

In the end, if all comes back to Jeff Davis. He has to take a lot of the blame for this. He sustained Bragg in the face of universal condemnation, and in the face of Bragg never accomplishing anything. He sidelined Beauregard, marginalized Johnston, because he did not like them. He did insanely self-destructive things like putting John Hood in charge of the most important army in the “country”. He did many things - he pushed to hold all of Mississippi when it was impossible; kept Pemberton in command in the face of universal distrust; he could never act decisively - to concentrate, to scatter, to give Lee unqualified support, or to force Lee to support someone else. He let feuds and personal bickering simmer, never removing the people complaining or the target of their complaints, and nothing he did helped.

The closest comparison to Bragg's position in 1863 might be Burnside's at the beginning of 1863. It's true that Burnside had failed far more than Bragg. His army was melting away (as was Bragg’s). His officers were in open revolt (as were Bragg's). Burnside himself, usually a generous, good man (no one ever said that of Braxton Bragg), was on the warpath against them. What to do? Lincoln got rid of Burnside. He bit the bullet and turned to the most talented and successful general on hand, Fightin' Joe Hooker, even though he was also a self-aggrandizing blowhard who was openly (and surreptitiously) campaigning for the job (Lincoln's as much as Burnside's, I suspect. Giving interviews about the need for a military dictator?) It didn’t work out all that well - Hooker choked at the key moment. But Lincoln did it. And when Hooker failed - Lincoln turned him out and put Meade in. It's not hard to guess what would have happened in the south if Lincoln were their president - he would have sent Bragg home and put Longstreet in charge. There is no doubt. And the war might well have lasted another year.

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