Monday, May 12, 2014

Spotsylvania Courthouse

Today, May 12, 186, the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse reached its climax.

My last couple Civil War posts have had a bit more to them - I've been thinking about the future, about how war will develop in the next 50 years after this, dropping hints about WWI and the trenches. Well - you can probably say that Spotsylvania is where the previews of coming attractions really started. It's there in the widespread and permanent use of fieldworks; it's there in the murderous, and hopeless attacks on trenches; and it's there in the sustained combat. I mentioned it after the Wilderness - that Grant changed the nature of the war, by not stopping after a battle - and when the armies get to Spotsylvania, that gets ratcheted up another notch. The armies arrived, fought - the Confederates dug in and the Yankees attacked; both sides dug in, and the Federals kept on attacking, over and over, day after day, attack after attack. And when Grant finally had enough of it - he started trying to move to a new position to attack again - not after a week or a month, but the next day. And on and on it went.

To sketch the events, broadly: Grant marched around the Wilderness, angling for the crossroads at Spotsylvania. Lee figured out where he was headed and got there first - the two armies ran into one another, fought, dug in, fought some more. Grant brought up his army - I already said this, didn't I? attacked. But by now the rebels were dug in, and were able to demolish any attacks. Grant tried going around their left, but Lee attacked there as well, and that fell apart. Grant sent Burnside against the rebel right, and might have been able to achieve something there, but Burnside was about as incompetent an officer as either side left in positions of authority for most of the war, so nothing happened. So Grant tried more head on attacks, without much success - he kept trying to get the whole army to attack at once, figuring they had huge numerical advantages and they should be able to find a weak point, but it never worked that way. Though things did happen - more later, but on May 10, Emery Upton, a Bright Young Man, launched an attack that broke the confederate line, but failed, due to lack of support; so Grant organized another attack on the same principals for the 12th - which also broke the line, and then bogged down, for lack of support... (Read Bob Bateman's post on Upton here.)

It was an ugly battle, Spotsylvania. (I've been reading Gordon Rhea's books on the 1864 campaign - depressing, but fascinating reading.) It's not Grant's finest hour, nor the Army of the Potomac's. Grant's decision to go south lifted the army's spirits - but it didn't solve the problems that had emerged in the Wilderness. Grant was increasingly making decisions and giving orders - but he still left things to Meade and the corps commanders, and they did not generally share Grant's aggression. Maybe because Grant was trying not to take over the army, maybe for other reasons, his planning was slipshod and careless - orders were vague or impossible and often got crossed up - with the result that the Federals were constantly losing the race to whatever spot they aimed for, were constantly attacking without preparation, without coordination, never coming close to getting their numbers into play at once. And since Grant was determined to try - it meant they kept attacking trenches, and kept getting shot to hell with no hope. They never quite shook that sort of thing - though later in the campaign, as Grant got his bearings, it seemed, the effect grew even more stark - at Cold Harbor and Petersburg, Grant stole a march on Lee - got his men to their objectives ahead of Lee - and then frittered the advantages away, and ended in bloodbaths. But that's still to come.

But there is a common theme, and it's a theme that also hints at what happens in 1914: it was possible to break trenches - the Union did it twice at Spotsylvania. It was possible to maneuver, get around the enemy - but almost impossible to stay there. The Army of the Potomac never really solved the problem of command, at the broader, operational level - and no one really solved the problem of how to move men through a battlefield to take advantage of the advantages they could get. Not in 1864, not in 1914.

So how could you break a strong trench line? Well - let's go to Emory Upton: what did he do? He proposed taking a force in as fast as possible, on as narrow a front as possible, pile-driving through the line. Basically, a form of attacking in column, instead of line - make a narrow front, move fast, break through and exploit the break. It worked - partly because Upton prepared the force for the attack: they deliberately chose the ground, they prepared the men making the attack, his superiors gave him a large enough force to do what he planned to do. And it worked, perfectly - they broke through - they started rolling up the rebel lines on either side of the breach - but it came to nothing. No one came to support them - the attacks that were supposed to happen after hue attacked either had already happened (and gone to nothing) or didn't happen... so back he went. But Grant was paying attention, and on the 12th he tried it again, this time with an entire army corps.

And - again - it worked. There was some luck in play this time. The attack was launched against a salient in Lee's lines; and Lee had guessed wrong about Grant's intentions, and pulled his artillery out of the salient, thinking he would need a head start on pursuing Grant. That made a big difference - artillery plays holy hell with columns of men (a big reason you saw so little fighting in columns in the Civil War). In any case - the II corps attacked at dawn, May 12 - again, in deep stacked masses of men, coming straight on to the tip of the rebel salient, following as much of Upton's pattern as possible, moving fast, moving as silently as possible - and they broke straight through and rolled it up with ease. And then? They piled in, broke the line, routed the front line of the rebel army - but were so broken up by the attack, that they could not keep going. I think this problem was somewhat inherent in Civil War era tactics - you had to attack in formation to be effective. You had to attack in a line to bring enough firepower to bear - since the rate of fire was too slow to sustain a really killing fire from a skirmish line. The problem is, a line is an easy target for another line of men - the line behind a pile of dirt is going to win that fight. So you could attack in column, mass formations like Upton's and Hancock's (II corps) - they broke the lines, but they lost all formation when they did. They needed to transform the spearhead into a firing line - they had to do it under fire in a killing zone. Suffice it to say, they did not succeed.

There were reasons. Certainly the Confederate response was one - they rushed men in and fought desperately to seal the breach. And of course, the attack had disordered the attackers. This was made worse by the attack's success - the whole II corps went in, all of them - and they were all caught in the confusion. What it added up to was an inability to shift men from the assault to exploitation of the break. Maybe they didn't expect a breakthrough - at least not the kind they got. No one thought about how to how to get another line of men into the battle after the breakthrough, in a position to attack the next line. But here again - while it's easy, and justified, to look at the shortcomings of the Union high command, I think you can ask yourself - how, exactly, could they have gotten another line in there? Grant tried to get his whole army to attack at the same time - to pin down the rebel army to allow any breakthrough to lead to a large one - but the army didn't do this, and it's doubtful it would have done any good if they did. Men in trenches were going to execute men attacking them in all but the most extraordinary cases. Maybe if they had planned some kind of attack in echelon, like Longstreet planned to do the second day of Gettysburg - when one unit started to waver, they were hit on the flank by another attack. Some of that happened at the Angle - but didn't extend beyond it. What was needed was a way to get troops through the Angle in good order - they needed to be able to move troops through the battlefield to the front, still intact, to attack Gordon (the Confederate general leading the counterattack), and then onwards, breaking Lee in half. But even with a plan - could they have done it?

They hadn't figured it out by WWI. It took a while to figure out how to break a line there - they tried frontal attacks, suppression fire (artillery and gas), all kinds of things. The front waves tended to get massacred - but even when they figured out how to take a line of trenches, they did not figure out how to get beyond it. There was no way to move fast enough to get at then before they built a new line. When breakthroughs occurred - they foundered for exactly this reason: that by the time you were through the first line, the second line was forming. It was impossible to get troops forward fast enough to stop this. Impossible - it wasn't quite a matter of tactics: it was physically impossible to get men across the battlefield before a new line, and a counterattack formed. And while Spotsylvania didn't quite pose the physical barriers to movement that the aftermath of a WWI battlefield did, it came close - especially given that it poured rain all day on the 12th of May. None of this changed, then, until tanks appeared, airplanes, ways to get past lines, or break up defensive lines before they could form. When you read about battles like Spotsylvania, or some of the fighting in WWI, you start to realize - there was nothing else they could do, except not fight. Once the armies dug in, they weren't going anywhere, until someone invented a better machine, or someone's economy collapsed. Or - as Grant eventually did: pin the enemy's best army in place, and let your vast resource advantages chew up the rest of the country.

And so: May 12, 1864 - Hancock's men broke through the rebel lines, but their attack bogged down. The rebels counterattacked, but only so far. The two sides basically hunkered down, in some places on opposite sides of the original trench lines, and proceeded to spend the rest of the day and night killing one another in the rain. a full day of face to face, almost hand to hand combat, neither side moving, or capable of moving the other guy, Grant feeding in fresh troops - Lee hanging on with what he had, while his reserved dug a new line in the rear. And that was the battle of the Bloody Angle.

And then? they kept at it - Grant trying to move around to find some weak spot, though much hindered by bad weather and a week of bloodletting. Lee trying to anticipate Grant's moves, avoid being caught out. And onward, until Grant decided to move south again. And another stage in the campaign was underway...

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