Friday, June 27, 2014

Kennesaw Mountain

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, one of the largest and most significant battles of the Atlanta Campaign. I have been giving short shrift to Sherman's campaign in the west in my attempts to follow along with 1864. There are reasons - ranging from the relative fame of the eastern battles (Grant vs. Lee and all that), to the books I've been able to find to read, to my background - reading Bruce Catton's Army of the Potomac books in 5th grade made me the nerd I am... But a big part of it is that the western campaign did not have the kind of cataclysmic battles the east had. Triggering posts on anniversaries favors those kinds of events - there aren't as many of them in the west, and they weren't as dramatic. It was a very different campaign in the west - Sherman was determined to avoid the kinds of frontal assaults on fortifications that caused so much havoc in the wast; his opponent, Joseph Johnston, was just as determined to avoid any kind of fighting out of trenches. So Sherman maneuvered and Johnston defended...

And so it went. Johnston started the campaign in a very strong position - Sherman sent his armies marching around him, and Johnston retreated, rather than be cut off. He had new lines prepared to the south - Sherman flanked him again - he retreated again. And so on. Kennesaw mountain, just outside Marietta Georgia, was the fourth defensive position Johnston occupied - and it looked to be more of a problem for Sherman than the others. It was a very strong position in itself - a defensive line built along the top of the mountain and the ridges around it - but more than that, it was in a place Sherman was going to find it hard to get around. By this time, the Union army was well inside Georgia, dependent on one rail line for supply - Sherman had doubts about his ability to conduct any kind of flanking maneuver away from the railroad, and Johnston had him blocked on the railroad. So he decided to try breaking the lines. There were other considerations - Sherman had been trying to slide around the ends of the rebel lines, and found that his own lines were starting to get very thin - he reasoned that if he was thin, the rebels, with half as many men, should be even thinner. If he attacked, then, at several points of the line, while demonstrating against the whole line - there was a chance that someone could break the lines. So - on June 27, the union army attacked.

It went about as well as frontal attacks went in the east. The attackers went in - the defenders cut them down - the attackers either went back or dug in where they were stopped. There were places where the Union soldiers got to the confederate lines, engaged in some nasty close in combat - but they never came close to breaking the lines. In fact, the results are not that different from the big final attack at Cold Harbor - Sherman's men lost about 3000 casualties, in an hour or two of fighting, without a thing to show for it; the rebels a fraction of that. Like Cold Harbor, the attacks were piecemeal - that was by design at Kennesaw Mountain. Sherman attacked with 3 or 4 divisions, on fairly narrow fronts - the hope was to punch a hole in the lines, and send in reinforcements to exploit the breakthrough. It didn't work - it was just about impossible to break an entrenched line in any circumstances - and when it failed, Sherman called off the attacks. The attacking forces were cut to pieces - the rest of the army avoided most of the fighting. The Yankees dug in again, and waited for dark, and went back to siege warfare....

But in the end, Sherman won the day anyway. He'd ordered part of his army around the far left of Johnston's line, as a pure distraction - but this flanking movement worked. They got in behind the rebels, giving the Yankees a starting point to continue the flinching movement - and Sherman started moving the rest of his army around in that direction. And so, a few days after the battle, Johnston was obliged to abandon another defensive line, falling back even closer to Atlanta, where they would start up the process again.

By that time, though, Johnston was gone. He was replaced by John B. Hood, who was put in command to attack, and so attack he did, thus hastening the end of the war. We'll be back for those battles, I imagine - but Hood was a superb division commander who was completely lost as an army commander. Though again - he was put in command to attack, and he did what he was expected to - the strategy was a disaster for the south - they were outnumbered in Georgia 2 to 1 or more, and never had a chance. Johnston, for all his flaws, could string the thing out, which in the end was the only hope the South had...

And so... Sherman's campaign in the west was a very different kind of campaign from the east, for many reasons. The personalities of the commanders certainly mattered - Johnston was defensive minded and cagy where Lee was aggressive, and willing to gamble to win, and Grant was as aggressive as Lee, while Sherman was more of a planner. But as much as that, the land itself mattered. Virginia was a fairly constricted theater - there wasn't a lot of room to move. And everything led to Richmond (strategically at least) - there was only so far you could move back. In the west, Johnston had plenty of land to trade for time; Sherman had room to move around him. The war in the west featured its share of bloody fighting, but it was also shaped by the spaces of the west - it was a war of marching and logistics. The South survived there due the spaces the Union had to cover; the Union marched and turned the South out of positions.

And finally - this campaign was like the eastern campaign in being sustained - once the armies started, they kept going. By this time, the campaign had been going two months - it could continue for another two months before Atlanta fell. In its way, it was groping toward modern warfare itself.

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