Sunday, March 6, 2011

Some Really Old Civil-Military Relations

I have been reading a massive tome on the military history of the American Civil War: How the North Won by Hattaway and Jones.  I really have not read anything of consequence about the Civil War since high school, and, with my recently revised interest in the area of civil-military relations, I thought it would interesting.  And I was right.  So, what did I learn?
  1. War is politics by other means.  Hey, we all knew that, but interesting to see how the battles affected the politics, and vice versa.  I guess I never appreciated how fragile Lincoln's standing in the North was, and how important Sherman's run through to Atlanta and beyond was for the politics.
  2. The other side of this coin--that the politics shaped the selection of generals, especially in the North.  And not in a good way. 
  3. That the Europeans were idiots.  This war showed that the increased rate of fire and accuracy of the firearms made it very, very difficult for either side to attacked a semi-prepared defense.  The folks preparing for World War I should have known better, given the American experience with the new weapons, even before the machine gun.  
  4. The larger armies, with such a great thirst for food, ammunition and all the rest, became tied to railroads or waterways.  Warfare may have been about logistics before, but this war demonstrated the centrality of the stuff and getting it to the front; or cutting off the other guy's supply of the stuff. 
  5. I developed a new appreciate for Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman--and I discovered a new key actor up north--General Halleck who mentored the latter two and managed the former.  While we are tempting to think that the relative balance of power determined the outcome of the war, we have seen since then that war is not just about the number of guys and guns on either side.  Individuals do make a difference.  The South had some very sharp generals but a very difficult situation.  If the North had not had some equals, the Southerners could have made a re-election campaign by Lincoln far more difficult.
While I joke about wishing the South had won (so that the GOP would be far less right wing), I am glad that Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman held the Union together.  This book helped to inform me of how difficult this task was.

1 comment:

Chris C. said...

Interesting coincidence: I read the same book last week.

It's not the best book on the Civil War by far-there are a number of factual errors and they show a strange amount of love for people like Halleck, almost entirely despised by everyone else (Halleck's inch-by-inch advance on Corinth is one of the more laughable campaigns of the war).

Their discussion of logistics doesn't give enough credit to the people who actually developed some of the best logistics in the war. Gen. Thomas on the Union side was ahead of his time in having a full staff HQ, cartography crew, railroad blockhouse/repair system, and pioneer brigade to build roads.

The Confederates benefited from a strong system of signals, especially atop Clark Mountain in Northern Virginia which allowed them to keep track of Northern movements.

But in general, they do a good job of emphasizing the importance of waterways and railroads to a degree that few other histories have achieved.

Sherman lucked out in that he faced some of the stupidest Confederate generals out there. Hood was probably the worst choice the Confederacy could have made, but it's interesting that they decided on a more aggressive commander as their military fortunes declined. Perhaps there's something interesting there about choices losing sides make as they try to reclaim a forlorn hope at victory.

But as you mention, the really interesting part of this is how much the war depended on the election of 1864. Did the South recognize this? This really should have been where they did something a la the Tet Offensive and tried to conjure up an image of raids, guerrilla attacks, sabotage, etc. Yet that didn't happen. Why didn't the South make a greater effort to preserve manpower and such (esp. in the West) for causing maximum havoc in October? In some sense, they shot their bolt too soon with Early's raid on DC and Price's raid in Missouri all taking place too early in the season. Delay those until say, the week before the election, and the prospect of Confederate columns marching on St. Louis and Washington (esp. if Atlanta had held out until then too) could have swung the election.