With the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg rapidly approaching (July 1-3, 2013), I recently picked up a copy of Allen Guelzo's new account...moreWith the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg rapidly approaching (July 1-3, 2013), I recently picked up a copy of Allen Guelzo's new account of the battle, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. This book is pretty well written (well, as well as an account of a battle can be written, I guess), and actually does provide some new information. I learned that Union Major General Oliver Otis Howard's role in 'saving-the-day' has largely been understated. Early on during the fighting on July 1, 1863, Howard recognized that holding the high ground on Cemetery Ridge and Culp's Hill was the key to the Union position. Also, I think I now more fully appreciate that the ferocious fighting that occurred at the southern end of the Union line, down by the Round Tops and the Peach Orchard, on the second day may well have been the "High Tide of the Confederacy". To this point in time, I think many historians have given that moniker to the ill-fated "Pickett's Charge" debacle of the third day.
Guelzo's book does a good job of telling the story of the battle through the eyes of the common foot-soldiers on both sides. This was carnage on an unbelievable scale, and of the nearly 200,000 men involved in the battle on both sides, nearly one in four was either killed, wounded, or ended up missing (or scarpered off). Even though Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia managed to limp off and return to Virginia after the battle and fight for nearly two more years, after Gettysburg the end of the Civil War really was a foregone conclusion. It was simply a matter of time (and U.S. Grant being brought east!). Guelzo's book is a solid enough addition to the host of books that have been written about the Battle of Gettysburg, and has the added bonus of being released on the 150th anniversary of this seminal moment in American history.(less)
The book that I am reviewing here is the first volume in a two-volume series about the Confederate Army of Tennessee, and is entitled, Army of the Hea...moreThe book that I am reviewing here is the first volume in a two-volume series about the Confederate Army of Tennessee, and is entitled, Army of the Heartland: The Army of Tennessee, 1861-1862 by Thomas Lawrence Connelly (1938-1991). Professor Connelly was teaching history at Mississippi State University when the book was published in 1967. As the title indicates, this is the story of the Army of Tennessee during the first two years of the Civil War. Depending upon who's doing the classification, there were something like seventeen different Confederate armies that were constituted during the Civil War, but only two of them really mattered--the Army of Northern Virginia in the eastern theater, and the Army of Tennessee in the west. I'd always understood that the Army of Tennessee was essentially the 'bastard child' of the Confederacy and never had the requisite supplies, lacked effective leadership, and was largely ignored by the political leaders in Richmond. I always wondered why this was so, particularly given that the theater of operations was so important to the ultimate Confederate goal of achieving its independence.
First, I want to make it clear that while this book was written and published forty-five years ago, it is not stale or out-dated in any respect. This is a quality piece of historical research that is written with style and lyricism. It is extensively footnoted and contains a superb bibliography. I actually found pristine hardcover editions of this two-volume set from a reprinting issued in the late-1980s and early-1990s by the Louisiana State University Press (I just love Amazon). I am so glad to add both volumes to my library.
In the first volume, Professor Connelly tells the story of this much-maligned army in five parts, with each part being the story of the army commander that was in charge during the period of 1861 through the end of 1862. Over a nearly two-year period there were essentially four different commanders of the Army of Tennessee, and even if they had all been incredibly competent commanders it still would have been difficult for the army to adapt to such frequent change at the highest level. The Army of Tennessee, as its name implies, was an army of and from Tennessee. It was originally raised as a state army shortly after Tennessee seceded from the Union, and then was later turned over to the Confederate government. The first commander was Tennessee Governor Isham Harris, and while he tried hard to ready the army, it was an army in name only, and lacked training, weapons, and professional military leadership, and was largely ignored by Richmond.
The Army of Tennessee began to take shape as a professional military entity with the appointment of General Albert Sidney Johnston as its commander-in-chief in September 1861. Johnston had resigned his U.S. Army commission and had traveled all the way across the country to Richmond from his post in California, and was given the command of the Army of Tennessee by President Davis. At that time, the Army of Tennessee was only about 27,000 strong, and was badly outnumbered by the numerous Federal armies adjacent to Tennessee in the region. While Johnston was certainly a decent man, and fully committed to the Confederate cause, Connelly maintains that he was largely overwhelmed in the job of trying to weld the army into an effective fighting unit and, at the same time, develop and implement a strategy for defending the 'Heartland' from Federal incursion and conquest. Greatly complicating the job, according to Connelly, was that Johnston was never able to corral and control his fractious subordinates, especially Lloyd Tilghman, Simon B. Buckner, Gideon Pillow, and the worst of the lot, Bishop General Leonidas Polk (Polk was also an Episcopal bishop). In fact, because of this failure to effectively develop a coordinated command structure among the army's leadership, Connelly observes that--
"Unlike the Virginia army, which depended for its morale upon a few individuals such as Lee or "Stonewall" Jackson, the men of the Army of Tennessee never attained a real esprit at a corps level. Instead, the peculiar western morale was usually most evident at the regimental or brigade level."
With the sudden and devastating losses of Forts Henry and Donelson, and because of the ineffective defensive strategy devised by Johnston, as well as the ineptitude exhibited by his subordinates, the army was largely maneuvered completely out of Tennessee and into northern Mississippi. At this juncture, Pierre G. T, Beauregard came west and joined Johnston as his second-in-command, and began advocating for a concentration of Confederate forces and going on the offensive against Federal forces in Tennessee. Connelly describes how Johnston essentially turned the army over to Beauregard, and then somewhat inexplicably sat back as Beauregard reorganized the army and developed the plan to attack U.S. Grant's Federal army at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River, just north of the Mississippi-Tennessee border.
On April 6-7, 1862, the Battle of Shiloh was fought as the Army of Tennessee attacked Grant's forces and by the end of the first day had pushed them back all the way to Pittsburg Landing by the Tennessee River. Because of Beauregard's initially complicated attack plan, and that the Confederate forces' unit cohesion became completely and hopelessly disorganized during the ferocious combat, the army was largely fought out by the end of the day. During the night, the Federals were able to tighten up and make a stand near the Landing and were also reinforced by elements of Buell's Army of the Ohio. On the following morning (April 7th), the Federal forces counterattacked strongly and ultimately routed the Confederate army from the field and back to its starting point in Corinth, Mississippi. Among the 23,000 total casualties in this bloody fight was the army commander of the Army of Tennessee--Albert Sidney Johnston--who was killed during the middle of the first day of fighting. Beauregard was now the commander-in-chief of the Army of Tennessee.
Beauregard didn't last long. In fact, Connelly describes this period as "the Beauregard Interlude" in his book. While a good organizer of the divisions and corps within the Army of Tennessee, Beauregard added to the overall malaise and issues of command performance within the army. Additionally, Beauregard and President Davis didn't, and just couldn't, seem to get along and the Army's relationship with the Richmond government soured.
On June 28, 1862, Davis removed Beauregard as army commander and replaced him with General Braxton Bragg. Upon assumption of command of the Army of Tennessee, Bragg inherited an army that was still fraught with command structure issues, and while Bragg was a personal friend of President Davis, he was considered irascible and rigidly inflexible and stubborn by his subordinates, and the personality clashes among the leadership within the Army of Tennessee were only exacerbated (again, Bishop Polk being one of the worst offenders).
The last section of the book tells the story of Bragg's conduct of the "Confederate Heartland Offensive", which was his campaign to invade Kentucky and see if it could be successfully brought into the CSA. Here again, Bragg's issues with his own subordinates, as well as with the independent command of 9,000 troops under Major General Edmund Kirby Smith, ends up with the rebel forces meeting the vastly larger Federal forces in a series of sharp engagements, culminating in the Battle of Perryville on October 8, 1862. While Perryville can be considered a tactical victory for Bragg and the Army of Tennessee, it was a strategic victory for the Union in that Bragg and his army had to retreat in face of the much larger Federal army, and that Kentucky stayed on the Union side of the ledger-book. The Army of Tennessee inflicted almost 4,300 casualties on the Union Army of the Ohio's First Corps, but it also incurred about 3,400 casualties itself. Bright spots for the Army of Tennessee that emerged from the forging fires of the army's fights at Shiloh and Perryville were that Confederate Generals Patrick Ronayne Cleburne and Alexander P. Stewart were well on their way to becoming superb combat commanders.
In the late-fall of 1862, following the Battle of Perryville, the 38,000-strong Army of Tennessee retreated out of Kentucky and towards a rendezvous with its own destiny at the end of the year with a Federal army at Murfreesboro on the Stones River in middle Tennessee. This story will be told early on in Professor Connelly's second volume of his history of the Army of Tennessee, Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee, 1862-1865.
In conclusion, I have to say that I really enjoyed reading this book and learned a lot about the reasons behind much of the early dysfunction in the Army of Tennessee, and that much of it stemmed from the general ineptitude or outright insubordination of general officers under the command of, first, Albert Sidney Johnston, and then Braxton Bragg. Based upon my interpretation of the material presented by Professor Connelly in the first volume, it is clear that both Johnston and Bragg should have been more forceful in exerting their leadership qualities as commanders, but I genuinely think the largest share of the blame can be squarely laid at the feet of Bishop Polk. Bluntly put, it is my opinion that the man was criminally negligent in just about all of his doings with the Army of Tennessee. The Army of Tennessee deserved so much better than that.(less)
As you can tell from the reviews I've recently posted, I have immersed myself in reading some really excellent books about the American Civil War. Bei...moreAs you can tell from the reviews I've recently posted, I have immersed myself in reading some really excellent books about the American Civil War. Being a history buff, especially an American history buff, I have always had an abiding passion for the political and military events associated with this momentous period in our republic's history. I often wonder if most people really realize just how close "the great American experiment" came to becoming a complete and abject failure? Reading books about the Civil War continues to remind me just how precious and fragile our great democracy really is, and that it has always taken great sacrifice and dedication to carefully protect and nurture it, and that remains so even today.
I also have a very personal connection to the American Civil War as my great-great grandfather served as a member of the 21st Massachusetts Volunteer infantry regiment. He started as a private and ultimately rose to the rank of 1st Lieutenant before being mustered out near the end of the war in 1865. The regiment was formed in Woburn, Massachusetts, and fought in Burnside's North Carolina coastal campaign (1862) and then many of the campaigns of the Union Army of the Potomac, including the Battle of Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Grant's Overland Campaign of 1864. My ancestor was actually badly wounded (shot through both legs) at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 at the fighting around Burnside's Bridge at the southern end of the battlefield.
With both my personal connection and my historical interest in the Civil War, I very much looked forward to reading Donald Stoker's relatively recent book, The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War in an effort to better understand how the rebellion was actually put down by the Union, and why the South wasn't able to reach its goal of independence. It is worth mentioning that Stoker is well-qualified to write about this subject as he is a Professor of Strategy and Policy for the U.S. Naval War College's program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. This well-written book guides the reader through the prosecution of the Civil War from secession through the surrender of the final Confederate armies in the field in May and June 1865.
I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable about most of the major political and military battles fought during the war, as well as with all of the various personalities on both the Confederate and Union sides, but I can't say that I was all that familiar with the national and regional realities that shaped the development and implementation of the over-arching strategies used to prosecute the war. This book does a superb job of setting the stage and then walking the reader through the development of the national policies and decisions that led to the fashioning of national and regional operational strategies by the civilian political leaders and military high commands. There was steep learning curve for leaders--political and military--on both sides during the first year or so of the war. Lincoln was perhaps more adept at drawing the bright line ensuring that military commanders didn't dabble in the political arena, but he was almost as guilty as Jefferson Davis when it came to meddling with day-to-day military matters. Many of the army commanders and their subordinates, on both sides, were graduates of the U.S. Army Military Academy at West Point, and many had years of field experience serving in the U.S. Army, including during the Mexican War (1846-1848). While many of the military commanders had solid resumes when it came to tactically leading troops into battle, most were not able to effectively develop and implement a larger-scale strategic vision. It would take a couple of years of hard fighting to weed out the more incompetent commanders and begin to identify those with strategic vision and that also shared strategic goals and objectives with their respective civilian authorities.
I think that there were two critically important themes that ran through this book that made all of the sense in the world to me once I stopped and considered them, including: (1) In order to develop an effective national strategy for winning the war, and then developing effective operational or theater strategies, first required the identification of specific "centers-of-gravity"; and (2) meaningfully addressing the logistical issues associated with the movement and sustaining of large armies in the field was of vital importance. The centers-of-gravity concept was an important one to fully grasp and understand. For example, some of the primary Union centers-of-gravity, in the context of militarily suppressing the rebellion included the following:
(1) Implementing and maintaining an effective blockade along the Confederate coast line; (2) Controlling and/or destroying the Confederate rail-road infrastructure; (3) Control of the rivers (especially the Mississippi River) and water-ways in rebel-held territories; (4) Maintaining the focus on the capture and/or destruction of rebel armies (especially the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee); and (5) Occupation and restoration of Union control within the State of Tennessee.
Obviously, there were sub-sets associated with these primary centers-of-gravity at both the national and/or regional or operational theater levels, and that strategies would necessarily need to be adapted and modified based upon conditions in the field, personalities involved, and the political climate at the time. Frankly, as the war wore on, the Union civilian and military leadership was much more effective at the identification of and then focusing on these centers-of-gravity than the Confederates ever were. Of course, there were notable exceptions, like Robert E. Lee in his role as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. He understood that perhaps the only realistic center-of-gravity that the Confederates had or could impact was associated with wearing down the North's will to continue the fight. In other words, if the South could just buy some time by defeating Union armies in the field, and interfere with the logistical challenges of transporting and supplying Union armies, that there might be a realistic chance of achieving a political solution leading to Southern independence and recognition by foreign governments of the South's right to exist. After the Battle of Antietam in the fall of 1862, and Lincoln's preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and the shift in Union thinking that part of the war's aim was to abolish slavery, it became less and less likely that the South could ever achieve that goal.
Clearly, Federal manufacturing, transportation infrastructure, ability to raise and sustain armies and replace those killed or wounded far out-stripped that of the Confederacy. If the Confederate States were going to achieve victory it really had to have occurred early in the war, and needed to occur decisively. Once the Union implemented the naval blockade, exerted diplomatic pressure on other countries not to interfere, and then brought the full weight of the Federal war-making machine down upon the South it really just became a matter of time. Stoker's book brought home the point that the war may well have gone on even longer had not Lincoln finally found and entrusted prosecution of the war to generals like Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, George H. Thomas, and Philip Sheridan, and like-minded others. These military commanders understood that victory meant the absolute and utter destruction of not only the enemy's armies, but the will of the citizens to continue the fight. This was the "Total War" developed and so effectively implemented by Grant at Vicksburg, and then greatly expanded upon by Sherman as he marched across Georgia to the coast and then northward through the Carolinas. From mid-1864 to early-1865, Sherman and his armies literally ripped the guts out of the Confederacy whilst Grant pinned and pummeled Lee's Army of Northern Virginia outside of the gates of Richmond and during the siege of Petersburg. Logistics was the determinative factor in bringing to bear and sustaining Union power in its strategic contest with the Confederate armies and civilian populations.
Professor Stoker's book does a great job of describing all of the key decision-making that led to the battlefield victories or defeats, and how the civilian and military leadership, on both sides, was able to adapt, or not, to changing circumstances as they developed national and/or operational strategies. The political and military conduct of the war is largely arranged chronologically in the book, and at the end of each chapter he provides an interesting summation and analysis of what worked, or didn't, and why. Additionally, at the end of the book, the last chapter essentially provides a "report card" and grades the political and military leadership of both the Union and Confederacy, and it makes for great reading and pondering. There are several large-scale maps scattered throughout the book, and I think if I had one reasonable criticism it would be that I would have liked a few more maps at the regional or theater scale that might have helped to better support and understand some of the issues associated with the geographical or logistical issues for both sides.
Finally, I think this is actually an important book that will appeal not only to readers interested in American history and military history, but that it really should be required reading among senior non-commissioned officers and officers in the military, as well as our national civilian political leadership. This would seem to be particularly pertinent as the United States enters its eleventh year of counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and other regions around the world. Understanding the concept of centers-of-gravity and the development and design of appropriate strategies would seem to be a pretty important element in successfully prosecuting a war through to its conclusion.(less)
Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June3, 1864 is the final volume in Gordon Rhea’s brilliant series of four books describing the “Overland Campaign”...moreCold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June3, 1864 is the final volume in Gordon Rhea’s brilliant series of four books describing the “Overland Campaign” of U.S. Grant and the Union Army of the Potomac against Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the spring and summer of 1864. This book picks up with the two armies maneuvering from their stand at the North Anna River crossings, and Grant’s efforts to continue to sidle south around Lee’s right flank and interpose the Union army between Lee and Richmond. Rhea masterfully describes the movements of the two armies as they come together again at the important road junction of Cold Harbor just nine or ten miles from the Confederate capital of Richmond. Much of the book then focuses on the particularly vicious and bloody fighting that occurred on June 1st and June 3rd during the Battle of Cold Harbor. Unfortunately, for Grant and the Federal army this is the continuing story of missed opportunities during the Overland Campaign, and just like during the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, those missed opportunities translate into great loss of life on both sides and the extension of the war by several months, if not longer.
Observations and what I learned reading this book and from Rhea’s series—
The Federal cavalry arm of the Army of the Potomac was now the master of the battlefield in the eastern theater. They had grown up, learned their lessons, and were now ruthlessly efficient and thoroughly professional. The days of pell-mell charges and saber-slinging were over, the Federal cavalry with their repeating carbines and well-fed horses were now being utilized as mobile infantry that, when they met their foes on the field of battle, generally dismounted and fought behind defensive protection or earthworks. While Federal cavalry units were now largely decisively defeating their Confederate counterparts when they met in combat, the primary problem associated with the Federal cavalry during the Overland Campaign revolved around the on-going feud between Army commander George Gordon Meade and the cavalry commander, Major General Philip Sheridan. Consequently, Meade typically wouldn’t ask for assistance from Sheridan (or even the tactically correct assistance), and Sheridan wouldn’t respond even when he did. Inexplicably, Grant could have stepped in and dealt with Sheridan’s insubordination, but never did. Worse yet, in my humble opinion, Grant never did utilize this professional cavalry corps as he should have—i.e., to effectively scout out Lee’s intentions, or use them as a blocking force, or to effectively determine the disposition of Lee’s forces on each of the battlefields, or even to use the cavalry to recon proposed Federal army corps movement routes. Again, in my opinion, this was one of a number of significant short-comings associated with Grant’s overall leadership of the Federal forces during this campaign.
In the context of the Battle of Cold Harbor, had Grant and Meade more efficiently or effectively utilized Sheridan’s troopers, they probably could have ‘sniffed’ out the inherent weaknesses in the southern portion of Lee’s lines near Cold Harbor early on June 1st. Lee’s right flank was more than ripe for turning and Grant could have opened him up like a tin-can and moved the Confederate army (or a portion thereof) out of its impregnable earthworks, and probably easily gotten himself between Lee and Richmond. This very well could have been the proverbial “straw that broke the back” of Lee’s army, but we’ll never know because at the time Grant and Meade hadn’t the foggiest idea of Lee’s positions and strengths along much of his Cold Harbor lines. Additionally, the Federal corps commanders weren’t any better at actively collecting or assessing information and then closely cooperating and coordinating with one another, or even passing that information on to Grant and Meade in a timely fashion. Ultimately, and tragically, the Battle of Cold Harbor really was nothing much more than a bunch of individual set-piece affairs of frontal assaults by brave Federal troops against Lee’s entrenched lines, and the results were all too familiar—bloody repulses and significant casualties.
Some of my observations about Grant vs. Lee that I picked up reading this series—
It probably goes without saying that the two commanders of the Federal and Confederate armies in the Overland Campaign—Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee—were the very best combat leaders on either side, and were mostly pretty evenly matched in skills. Both had a profoundly accurate sense of the overarching strategies required for prosecuting the war from both the Federal and Confederate perspectives. Maybe the nod goes to Grant in the sense that he and President Lincoln not only had a good working relationship, but he and Lincoln shared a firm grasp on the national strategy that involved ensuring that there was a combined and coordinated push by all Federal forces in all theaters of the war. This is something that Confederate President Jefferson Davis just wasn’t able to grasp; or, if grasped, just wasn’t able to effectively implement it with the resources he had available. Even Lee, to a large degree, was fixated and focused only on the strategic situation and potential tactical opportunities in the immediate theater surrounding Richmond and Washington, D.C. During the course of the Overland Campaign it very well may be that Lee knew that it really was just a matter of time before the Army of Northern Virginia was pinned, by Grant, with its back against Richmond; and that the best that he could do was try and hurt Grant and the Federal army enough to force a political solution that could lead to the independence of the Confederate states (i.e., through the defeat of Lincoln in the 1864 election by an anti-war candidate).
A lot has been made over the past 150 years of the notion that Grant was a “butcher” and needlessly wasted the lives of his men in senseless headlong assaults against Lee’s entrenched army. At first blush, this seems like an accurate assessment as Grant’s Overland Campaign cost something like 55,000 Federals killed, wounded or captured over a 45-day period (or, approximately 45% of the total number of men in his army). The Battle of Cold Harbor is always held up as the prime example of “Grant the butcher”. Frankly, in my opinion, the facts simply don’t warrant this conclusion. For example, at the North Anna River Grant and his corps commanders had tactically won some minor engagements, but he soon realized that the entrenched Confederate position was virtually unassailable and would lead to great bloodshed, and no material gain, if he attacked. Consequently, during the night he deftly withdrew three Federal army corps back across to the north side of the North Anna River and smartly maneuvered the entire army east and south again in an effort to turn Lee’s flank and engage him in open country.
Staying with this theme then, if any one general during the American Civil War is deserving of the moniker of “butcher” it perhaps could be fairly stated that it was Lee himself. For example, Lee, over the three days at Gettysburg, lost more men in battle than any other general, north or south. Another pertinent example is that Lee, during that horrific one day at Antietam in 1862, lost more men than any other general did during a single day. Finally, Lee’s combined losses during the 45-day period of the Overland Campaign were more than 33,000, or greater than 50% of the total strength of his vaunted Army of Northern Virginia. Bluntly put, once Lee’s blood was up he worshipped at the ‘Altar of Carnage’ with the best of them.
It is true that Grant’s army suffered significant losses while assaulting the Bloody Angle in The Muleshoe at Spotsylvania Court House, or during the frontal assaults at Cold Harbor, but these attacks were directly stimulated by the efforts of the Federals to exploit existing or perceived weaknesses in Lee’s lines during the heat of battle. I submit that most battlefield commanders would have made similar assaults given the facts at hand—witness Lee’s assault on the Federal center at Gettysburg on the third day, as he was confident that the center had been significantly weakened based upon the hard fighting that had occurred during the first two days of the battle.
Much has also been made that to Grant, Meade, and even Lincoln to some degree, the Overland Campaign was nothing more than a battle of attrition, and was just a numbers game. While in hindsight this is certainly true, and that at the time the Federal high command probably recognized it too, it certainly didn’t mean that Federal commanders were callous or negligent in their use of the troops at their disposal during the Overland Campaign. At best, the summer of 1864 was dicey period politically within the Union, and if it seemed that the war had simply turned into a blood-fest with no end in sight, it was clear that the President would likely not be reelected, and Grant and Meade, and even the Army itself, understood this probability well. Additionally, the Army of the Potomac could ill afford to ‘throw away’ any troops as it was bleeding strength anyway as a good number of regiments’ three-year enlistments were expiring and the existing conscription efforts simply couldn’t make up for the losses. More importantly, the three years of hard fighting had sapped the Army of the Potomac of many of its combat-hardened veterans. The new troops coming into the Federal army just weren’t of the same caliber as those who had fought their way through The Seven Days, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Second Bull Run, and Gettysburg. Having said all of this though, it was clear to both Grant and Lee that it was certainly easier for the Federals to replace their losses than it was for the Confederates. After four hard years of a war that had evolved into—as Sherman put it—a “Total War”, the Confederate ability to come up with additional troops, replace material, and even provide for the civilian population was becoming more and more limited with each passing day. It really was just a matter of time now.
Finally, I think Rhea’s books highlight the other significant element of Grant’s strategic vision that was critical to the long-term success of the Federal forces against Lee and the Confederacy and that was his management of the logistical issues for the Army of the Potomac once it moved south of the Rapidan River and began its relentless struggle with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Up to this point in time, all other Federal commanders had swooped south and fought Lee, and then shifted back (normally in defeat) across the river to rest and refit. Grant was determined to latch on to Lee and his army and not let go. Therefore, he needed to utilize the existing road and rail network in this part of Virginia to ensure that he could efficiently receive supplies, transmit and receive communications, and transport reinforcements and wounded to and fro. His ability to work with the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps and the U.S. Navy ensured that he could cut himself off completely and just focus on the task at hand—running Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia to ground. Grant kept his eyes on the prize, and he ultimately won the game because of this single-minded focus.
In writing these four volumes about the Overland Campaign of 1864, Gordon Rhea has performed an extremely valuable service for all who are interested in American history and especially those interested in the military history of the American Civil War. While each of the books are important in the detailed description of the tactical movements and outcomes on each of the battlefields, perhaps the real strength of the series is Rhea’s ability to continually review and update the strategic issues and realities from both the Union and Confederate perspectives. These four well-written volumes document and support Rhea’s assertion that it was not just the story of a series of independent battles—the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, the North Anna River, or the Battle of Cold Harbor—it was the assertion that Grant set out and entered upon a coordinated campaign with the overarching goal being the absolute and utter destruction of Lee’s army. The movements of the troops led to the battles, and the battles led to next series of movements and the next battle, and so on. The point being that these battles and movements were clearly inter-related and inter-dependent from start to finish, and I think that when you have completed reading all four books you’ll agree that by the time the two armies settled into the siege at Petersburg, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was largely finished as an effective combat force of any significant power.
In conclusion, I highly recommend the entire series that Gordon Rhea has written about Grant's Overland Campaign of 1864. I guarantee that you won't be disappointed, as these four books are a superbly well-written "you are right there" military history of a campaign and set of battles that hasn't really received all that much attention by scholars in the past. These books would be a valuable addition to the library of any Civil War history aficionado. (less)
Like two dueling grandmasters, Lee and Grant sat down over the 'chess-board' of the northern Virginia landscape that separated Washington, D.C. from R...moreLike two dueling grandmasters, Lee and Grant sat down over the 'chess-board' of the northern Virginia landscape that separated Washington, D.C. from Richmond, Virginia. For the first two weeks of May 1864, the two generals have been adroitly maneuvering their armies across the terrain and engaging in some of the most sustained, ferocious and horrific combat seen in the Civil War. It is spring 1864, and the Northern population is wearying of the war, and Lincoln and his administration are up for reelection in November. While the South may not be able to prevail any longer militarily on the battlefield, it is hoped that Lee can buy time for a political solution by conducting a careful and defensive campaign against Grant's much larger Army of the Potomac.
Rhea's third volume in his "Overland Campaign" series, To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864 is an incredibly fascinating story about the little-known period of time between the dreadfully bloody Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse (i.e., see Rhea's The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864) and the impending slaughter at the Battle of Cold Harbor. Following the bloodbath at Spotsylvania Court House, Grant gingerly disengages his army from his lines fronting Lee and deftly begins to sidle south and east around Lee's right flank.
Grant's short-term strategic goal is to turn Lee out of his earthworks at Spotsylvania and hopefully engage him in battle in more open ground. In fact, Grant even sends Hancock's Second Corps trundling off south as 'bait' in an effort to draw Lee out. Lee doesn't fall for Grant's trick and rapidly shunts his army 25 miles due south to the banks of the North Anna River and devises an ingenious system of defensive earthworks, and awaits the approaching federals with a trap of his own.
Following Lee's army, Grant and the Army of the Potomac move up to the North Anna River, and thinking that the Confederates have continued to retreat toward Richmond, move across the North Anna at two separate crossings that are a couple of miles apart. This has the effect of splitting the large Union army into two pieces separated by Lee's entrenched rebel army. In essence, with his interior lines, Lee can now attack each wing of the federal army and defeat them in detail.
Fate and Chance always seem to have a way of intervening on the battlefield, and it is no different here. Lee becomes very ill with dysentery and as he is bedridden he is really quite unable to aggressively lead the rebel army in these complicated maneuvers, and his subordinate command structure is unable to fill the void. Simultaneously, Grant does come to realize the predicament he is in and immediately has his army entrench and protect itself. With the opportunity to 'check-mate' one another now passed by, Grant is realistically left with just two options: (1) attack Lee's virtually impregnable position on the North Anna; or (2) disengage and sidle east or west of Lee's position and try and maneuver Lee out of his works toward Richmond. He chooses the latter option and determines to sidle easterly, and the two grandmasters continue their game of maneuver and probing for defensive weaknesses. In just a few days the two commanders and their armies will meet again on the field of battle near the tiny hamlet of Cold Harbor just nine miles from Richmond.
I really can't say enough about the quality of Rhea's writing and his ability to bring history alive. Somehow his story-telling manages to impart a real feeling of 'you are there as an eyewitness' so very effectively. While the decisions of the command structures of the two armies are certainly important to Rhea's narrative in the book, I think it is Rhea's attention to the stories of the common foot-soldiers, artillerymen, and cavalrymen that makes this book--and the entire series--so darned poignant and engaging. These books illustrate and describe accounts of patriotism, courage and extraordinary feats of heroism--on both sides of this bloody conflict--that are such an important part of the overall saga of the history of our American republic.
"Out of the frying pan, and into the fire"--Out of the butchery of The Wilderness, and into the horrific carnage of The Muleshoe and Bloody Angle of S...more"Out of the frying pan, and into the fire"--Out of the butchery of The Wilderness, and into the horrific carnage of The Muleshoe and Bloody Angle of Spotsylvania--this is the second entry in Gordon Rhea's masterful series describing the Overland Campaign of Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army of the Potomac against Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virgina in the spring and summer of 1864. Following the inconclusive horror of two days of bloody fighting in the tangled forests of The Wilderness, Grant has sidled the Union Army to the southeast, hoping to turn Lee's right flank and interpose his army between the Confederates and their capital in Richmond, Virginia. Unfortunately, for the federals and Grant, Lee's army beats him by a step to the tiny hamlet of Spotsylvania Courthouse, and there behind superbly constructed defensive works repels numerous assaults made by the large U.S. Army of the Potomac over the next week.
It was with riveting horror that I read of each of the attacks made against the rebel fortifications in what became known as "The Muleshoe"--a large salient that jutted out from the center of Lee's lines. The Muleshoe was nearly a half-mile in length and nearly as wide and was ably defended by Lee's Second Army Corps, commanded by Lt. General Dick Ewell. By the end of May 12th, at the conclusion of major fighting on this section of the battlefield, nearly 18,000 men had been killed, wounded, or captured (8,000 rebel, and almost 10,000 federal). It was carnage on a scale not seen before in the Civil War, and that the bulk of the fighting took place in the defensive earthworks ringing and within The Muleshoe, it portended the gruesome butchery that was to come in the trenches of the First World War just fifty years later.
Rhea is an excellent story-teller, and tells of these horrifying days and events through the use of the personal accounts (e.g., letters and diaries) of the officers and men that participated in the fighting. It is my understanding that perhaps William D. Matter's If It Takes All Summer: The Battle of Spotsylvania is an even better account of the Spotsylvania Campaign--that may be so, as I've yet to read it--but Rhea's is a gripping "you are there" account that is a page-turner from the very first to the last. The thirty maps that are included within the text are incredibly detailed, from both a strategic and tactical perspective, and perfectly complement Rhea's masterful prose and battle descriptions.
By the time one has finished this excellent book, one cannot help but completely agree with the conclusion reached in Rhea's epilogue--
"The Confederates were technically correct in considering May 10 and 12 as victories. After all, they had foiled Grant's assaults on each occasion. But a few more such victories would leave Lee's army in shambles. Eight days of fighting Grant had gutted the Army of Northern Virginia's capacity to go on the offensive. For the future, Lee had little choice but to continue his defensive tactics, hoping to thwart Grant's thrusts and to buy time for a political solution to the war."
Like two titans, U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee locked armies and ferociously grappled with each other over two days in early-May 1864 in a dense forbid...moreLike two titans, U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee locked armies and ferociously grappled with each other over two days in early-May 1864 in a dense forbidding patch of terrain and landscape in northern Virginia known as "The Wilderness". At the conclusion of these two days of some of the most severest fighting of the entire Civil War, the two armies had lost a combined total of nearly 29,000 men killed, wounded, or captured.
Gordon Rhea's account of Grant's first battle as the Union Army Commander-in-Chief, is a well-written and very thorough description of The Battle of the Wilderness. Grant was determined to maneuver the Union Army of the Potomac between Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederate capitol in Richmond, and in The Wilderness he very nearly succeeded. He started three extremely powerful Union Army Corps eastward down the Orange Plank Road and the Orange Turnpike and ran headlong into two Confederate Corps commanded by A.P. Hill and Dick Ewell. Unfortunately for the Federals, as the fighting started the corps and brigade commanders just couldn't maintain effective coordination and communication as the assaults progressed, and the out-numbered Confederate corps were able to beat back most of the Federal attacks at great cost to both attacker and defender.
The woods were so dense and disorienting that the attacking troops couldn't see but just a few yards in any directions, and unit movements became fragmented and went off-track almost immediately. The firing of muskets and artillery actually started numerous forest fires, which flared up among the troops as they moved through the woods, or lay wounded on the forest floor. The fighting was pretty much a unconstrained brawl between the two armies and just raged back and forth and up and down the turnpike and plank roads. Finally, after two days, the major fighting slowly sputtered out and the two armies were largely back in their original starting positions and just "scowled at each other".
Rhea assesses the result of two days of battle in The Wilderness as, at best, a tactical victory for Lee and the Confederates, but a strategic victory for Grant and the Federal army. The bottom-line was that Grant was not going to leave--not even after nearly 18,000 Federal casualties--but was going to latch onto Lee's army like a pitbull, and not let up up until the war was over. This attitude for prosecution of the war was a sea-change compared to all of the previous commanders of the Union Army of the Potomac. Grant, in The Wilderness, tried to exercise the use of power in attacking Lee's army, as he did so successfully in his campaigns in the western theater. The problem was that his commanders (i.e., Meade, Hancock, Sedgewick, Burnside, et al.) and the Army of the Potomac just weren't up to the challenge yet. Both Grant and the Army of the Potomac needed to learn how to fight differently and fight 'together', and this first step in The Wilderness was clearly part of that learning process.
I can't begin to relate how much I learned about Grant's leadership qualities and The Battle of the Wilderness in this excellent book by Gordon Rhea, and how much I am looking forward to reading the next three books in his series about the Overland Campaign. The maps included in the book are truly quite superb and make much of the complicated maneuvering of the units during the battle much easier to follow and comprehend. As usual, I wish there were even more maps, but that's a common litany of mine. Every serious Civil War buff ought to have this book on their shelf.(less)
Peter Cozzens is rapidly becoming one of my favorite Civil War authors, and The Darkest Days of the War: The Battles of Iuka and Corinth is just one g...morePeter Cozzens is rapidly becoming one of my favorite Civil War authors, and The Darkest Days of the War: The Battles of Iuka and Corinth is just one good example of why. This a well-written, fast-paced historical accounting of a campaign and two sharply fought battles in the extreme northeastern corner of Mississippi in early fall 1862. There may be other accounts of the battles of Iuka and Corinth out there in the many thousands of Civil War books that have been written, but I'm betting that this really is one of the best, if not the best. It is a relatively fast read at something over 300 pages. It contains some terrific illustrations and some truly superb maps.
Corinth was important from a strategic perspective to both the Union and Confederate forces, as it was a relatively important rail junction that accessed the Mississippi valley, Tennessee, and connected with Chattanooga and Atlanta. The Union needed to control the Corinth region in order to facilitate planned movements toward Vicksburg and Chattanooga. The bottom line was that Corinth was, in a sense, a magnet that drew the opposing forces to it; and if the war was going to be effectively prosecuted in the western theater, Corinth had to figure prominently in the plan and be controlled.
It was interesting to me that in reading this book I learned a lot about the early or formative periods, if you will, of Union Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William S. Rosecrans. While Grant had largely kind of stumbled into a major victory at Shiloh in April 1862, he really wasn't all that helpful or supportive of Rosecrans during the Corinth campaign described in this book. For his part, Rosecrans exhibited traits during both of the battles at Iuka and Corinth that should have had the Union high command sit up and take notice (and not in a good way). Rosecrans seemed to have not handled stress well at all during the actual fighting phase of the battles he was involved in, and would become almost bizarrely disconnected and even panic-stricken. Grant, following his experiences at Shiloh, would learn and steadily improve his performance as both a strategist and battle commander. Unfortunately, Rosecrans really didn't shake his bad habits, and later as the commander of the Army of the Cumberland he was badly beaten at the bloody Battle of Chickamauga (mid-September 1863). Also, the professional relationship between Grant and Rosecrans soured following the Battle of Corinth. After the Corinth campaign, Grant moved on and conducted the brilliant Vicksburg campaign, and largely made himself indispensable to the Union cause. Meanwhile, Rosecrans again got lucky and barely eked out a victory at the bloody Battle of Stones River (Murfreesboro) in Tennessee on January 1, 1863. By the fall of 1863, Rosecrans was out of a job, and Grant was on his way to eventually becoming the General-in-Chief of all Union forces in early 1864.
Intriguingly, the same sort of questionable leadership situation was sorting itself out on the Confederate side at Corinth too. The two rebel commanders, Earl Van Dorn, and Sterling Price were largely way over their heads in trying to conduct this campaign, and it was only through utter ineptitude, particular on the part of Van Dorn and several of his subordinate division commanders that Rosecrans wasn't decisively defeated at both Iuka and Corinth. The really tragic part of this story, and Cozzens tells it well in this book, is that because of the blunders of the commanders on both sides, a lot of good and patriotic men in butternut and blue were killed or horribly maimed.
Peter Cozzens has written several books about the Civil War in the western theater, and while I still think his masterpiece This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga is one of the best, this book about the battles at Iuka and Corinth is an excellent account about a somewhat forgotten, but still quite important campaign. Finally, I think by reading Cozzens' books about the Battles of Iuka, Corinth, Stones River, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga the reader can't help but begin to better understand the strategic importance of the western theater and the commanders, on both sides, that had to fight for and defend these regions. Cozzens, through his books, wants us to understand that there was much, much more to the Civil War than just the theater of operations around Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia, and that thousands upon thousands of men "gave the last full measure of devotion" on far-flung little western battlefields like those at Iuka and Corinth.(less)
I first read Coddington's brilliant analysis of the Battle of Gettysburg back in the early 1980s, and remember being completely blown away by the deta...moreI first read Coddington's brilliant analysis of the Battle of Gettysburg back in the early 1980s, and remember being completely blown away by the detail and the quality of scholarship. It almost seemed as though I was reading not only an eyewitness account, but that of an observer that also had been peering over the shoulders of the commanders--on both sides--who were leading the troops in this titanic struggle. This seminal book, first published in 1963, is probably still among the very best one-volume accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg, and that's not too bad after fifty years! Lets put it another way--if you are a serious student of the American Civil War, Edwin B. Coddington's The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command simply must be on your bookshelf, right next to the Gettysburg books of Harry Pfanz, David Martin, Stephen Sears, and Noah Andre Trudeau.(less)
Vintage Sears! This is an excellent account of the Battle of Gettysburg, and one that will appeal to those just becoming interested in the American Ci...moreVintage Sears! This is an excellent account of the Battle of Gettysburg, and one that will appeal to those just becoming interested in the American Civil War, to dyed-in-the-wool military history buffs. I very much enjoyed Stephen Sears' take on describing this immense struggle between Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his veteran Army of Northern Virginia, and Union Major General George G. Meade and the Army of the Potomac. Sears has a knack for telling the whole story from the perspective of the Army and Corps commanders, as well as that from the common foot-soldier, or even the non-combatants living in Gettysburg during three days of bloodletting at an almost unbelievable scale. The book is liberally illustrated with photographs and loads of excellent maps. (less)