Interrogating the Project of Military History

March 30 - If there's one thing I can't stand, it's books on operational military history that don't have good maps, and plenty of them.  And Keep Moving On has sixteen maps to support 239 pages of text.  I insisted on them, and the "outside readers"--that is to say, historians recruited by the press to give the manuscript an expert assessment--supported me.  But I can't scan and embed all the maps I would need to support this analysis of Lee's generalship--I'm just too busy right now--so please use the ones in A Quick and Dirty Guide to the Virginia Campaign.  You can find additional maps at the U.S. Civil War Center.

The Q&D guide should give you a broad grasp of the campaign.  Henceforth I'm going to assume you've read it (or know the basic story already).

Back in 1994 the editors of the Great Campaigns of the Civil War series approached me to write a book on the Overland Campaign, the first grapple between Grant and Lee.  I agreed, but in my book proposal recast it as not The Overland Campaign but rather The Virginia Campaign.  That's because Grant's strategy was based on an energetic attempt to overwhelm Lee with multiple attacks:  the main one, by the Army of the Potomac on the Rapidan front, which was intended to fix Lee and ultimately destroy him; and  subsidiary Union offensives in the Shenandoah Valley, Bermuda Hundred, and southwestern Virginia, which were intended to pin down Confederate forces that would otherwise have gone to reinforce Lee.  When we consider Lee's generalship, then, we have to bear in mind that he viewed himself as under attack by about 200,000 Union troops--120,000 immediately in front of him, and another 80,000 in regions many miles distant but still within the zone of his military responsibilities.

I got a call yesterday from the editor of North and South magazine, asking if I had a title yet for the article.  I hadn't given it much thought, but suggested, "Second-Guessing Bobby Lee."  I filled him in on my basic approach--the counterfactual thing.  (I thought about mentioning the blog but opted not to--it might require too much explanation.)  He was intrigued and right away asked me at what juncture did Lee have the best chance of turning the tables on Grant.  I had been trying to avoid answering that question to myself, for fear of foreclosing the issue prematurely, but under the gun I said I thought the two best candidates were a) just before the campaign began, and b) in mid-May, when Beauregard, the Confederate general defending against the Bermuda Hundred offensive suggested combining forces to defeat first one threat (Butler) and then the other (Grant).  So we'll go with that.

On the eve of the campaign, Lee had his three army corps positioned in a triangle, with the primary mission of defending the key railroad junction at Gordonsville, where the Virginia Central Railroad (which linked Richmond with the foodstuff-rich Shenandoah Valley) intersected the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, which offered the Federals an obvious line of communications if they tried to advance south.  The Third Corps, under A. P. Hill, was behind the Rapidan River near Orange Court House.  Richard S. Ewell's Second Corps was behind the Rapidan east of Orange Court House, more or less near the hamlet of Verdiersville.  The First Corps under James Longstreet was encamped near the hamlet of Mechancisville, on the Virginia Central Railroad a few miles southeast of Gordonsville.  Known to his men as "Old Pete," Longstreet was Lee's most experienced senior lieutenant and, after the death of Stonewall Jackson in May 1863, the one on whom he most relied.

On May 2, Lee met with his senior officers atop Clark's Mountain, an eminence in Ewell's sector that offered a good view of the Rapidan River valley and the Union encampments around Culpeper Court House.  By this time he was certain that Grant would not strike directly at his army.  Instead he would try to "envelop" Lee's position--hit it on one end or the other.  One possibility was to envelop Lee's left, but Lee thought it much more likely that Grant would move around his right, crossing the Rapidan at Germanna and Ely's Fords.  Once across the river, Grant would immediately enter the Wilderness.  Lee predicted to his subordinates that Grant would do this, and explained that his own plan would be to strike Grant in the Wilderness, where Grant's superiority in men and artillery would be partially offset by the dense thickets, which would confine the fighting to the few open fields in that region.  Here's a sketch (I sure hope it looks the same on your screen as mine):

                                                                ARMY OF THE POTOMAC





_______________________________Rapidan river____________________(Lee expected Grant to cross here)____________

       III CORPS                II CORPS


                     I CORPS


Notice, in light of Lee's expectations, the location of the First Corps.  The Third and Second Corps could reach the Wilderness quickly--in about a day--but the First Corps was nearly two days' march distant.  As matters turned out, the Third and Second Corps became engaged with Grant's army around midday on May 5, but the First Corps did not arrive until the morning of May 6--and when it did, Hill's Third Corps was on the verge of getting its clock cleaned.  Even so the First Corps was able to unleash a powerful counterattack that relieved the pressure on the Third Corps and might have achieved greater results if its commander, Longstreet, had not been not seriously wounded at a critical moment.

Left:  E. Porter Alexander
Right:  Gordon C. Rhea

In his postwar memoirs, the First Corps chief of artillery, E. Porter Alexander, regretted that Lee had positioned the corps so far from the likely scene of the battlefield.  He reasoned that the Confederate army did very well with the force with which it was able to confront Grant on May 5, and that with 10,000 additional infantry--the number in the two divisions that comprised the First Corps--Lee might well have won the battle outright.  Gordon C. Rhea, in The Battle of the Wilderness, the book that inaugurated what has become a five-volume study of the Overland Campaign, endorsed Alexander's opinion and went further, arguing that Lee should also have posted cavalry close to the river and contested the crossings.  He's pretty hard on the Confederate chieftain:

"Inexplicably, Lee neglected to take any steps calculated to influence [Grant's] advance or to ensure that the Confederates would reach the Wilderness ahead of him.  [C]avalry patrols were instructed to sound the alarm on [Grant's] approach, but they were not expected to offer any serious obstacle to the Union army's progress.  No attempt was made to fortify the Rapidan crossings or to hold rebel infantry in readiness to offer resistance.  And not a single Confederate unit was ordered toward the Wilderness to get a jump on the northerners." (My italics)

Rhea continues that by leaving the pace of the Federal movements to chance, Lee made a gamble that "exposed the Army of Northern Virginia to fearsome risks. . . .  By failing to take steps to ensure that his army would meet the enemy on advantageous terms, Lee was courting disaster." (Again, my italics.)

This is the kind of stuff that gives armchair generalship a bad name.  I much admire Rhea's work, and he is a gifted individual, but these shots at Lee are unrewarding.  Rhea is basically accusing Lee of culpable negligence on the basis of a) hindsight and b) the fact that evidence of Lee's reasoning in making his pre-campaign dispositions has not survived.  But it is a long jump from absence of evidence to evidence of absence--in this case, that Lee's accustomed thoroughness was absent.

Are we really to believe that Rhea's ideas never occurred to Lee?  Maybe the better way to proceed would be to assume that the Lee was a competent commander who did in fact make his pre-campaign arrangements with care.  On the basis of this assumption, we could at least make plausible guesses about why Lee did what he did and omitted what he omitted.  For instance, if you want your opponent to do something, it's probably a good idea to make the move as attractive as possible.  Posting cavalry to oppose the Rapidan crossing and shifting infantry closer to the desired Wilderness battlefield strikes me as a very good way to telegraph to Grant that you know what he's going to do.  That increases the chance that he may decide to do something else.  Rhea makes the mistake of assuming that if one historical variable is changed, the rest will remain constant.

Even so, it does seem possible that Lee could have placed Longstreet within a day's march of the battlefield without arousing too much suspicion.  So why didn't he?  We know that Longstreet was at Mechanicsville for a reason:  to have immediate access to the Virginia Central Railroad in case it became necessary to shift him to another threatened sector in the state, particularly the eastern approaches to Richmond, where Lee had also correctly judged a Federal attack would be made.  Fine, Alexander says:  Lee could have kept our corps near the railroad, but farther east, say near Louisa Court House.

Unlike Rhea, Alexander doesn't think Lee was negligent.  Instead he writes:  "I think this is but one more illustration of one of the inherent weaknesses of our army in its lack of an abundance of trained & professional soldiers in the staff corps to make constant study of all matters of detail.  The enemy were far ahead of [us] in that, & they owed their final success to the precision with which they combined some of their great movements, which are models of logistics--the science of moving armies."  [Gary W. Gallagher (ed.), Fighting for the Confederacy:  The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 349].  This is an interesting thesis, one that Rhea might have considered.  (By the way, the larger issue of Civil War staff work has yet to be systematically investigated:  I can think of only a handful of works that address aspects of the question, and none that does so comprehensively.  So much for the idea that nothing new remains to be written on Civil War military history.)

Whatever the reason Longstreet's corps was at Mechanicsville, suppose that it had been placed within a day's march of the prospective battlefield.  How might it have influenced the combat in the Wilderness?  Rhea and Alexander believe that if the troops that fought on May 5 were able to achieve good results, more troops would have achieved even better results.  This is reasonable but it's also an example of linear thinking:  small inputs produce small outcomes, large inputs produce large ones.  As my colleague Alan Beyerchen would note, a lot of historical explanation is really done by way of implicit or explicit analogy and metaphor, and some of the basic  metaphors regarding causation are borrowed from Newtonian physics.  Complexity or chaos theory invites us to extend our metaphoric palette to encompass nonlinearity--the idea that small changes in inputs can produce huge changes in outputs.  This is the famous Butterfly Effect---the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon River basin can produce a typhoon in the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean.  It's also exemplified by the famous phrase:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost
For want of a shoe the horse was lost
For want of a horse the rider was lost
For want of a rider the message was lost
For want of a message the battle was lost
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

In researching the battle of the Wilderness, I saw instances in which the intervention of a few hundred troops halted an attack by a force several times larger.  I also saw an instance in which the absence of a Confederate division--that of George E. Pickett, which was over fifty miles from the battlefield--significantly retarded Federal movements because Union intelligence could not find it but it was rumored to be approaching the Union army's left flank.  I do not say Longstreet's earlier arrival would not have benefitted Lee.  Linear thinking isn't wrong; after all, we got men to the moon and back on the basis of Newtonian physics.  I merely point out that it would not necessarily have improved matters.

Situation, Chancellorsville, May 6, 1863

How would Lee have employed Longstreet's two divisions?  We know that he gave orders to Ewell and A. P. Hill not to bring on a general engagement--a battle whose result would be decisive--until Longstreet arrived, and the two corps present on May 5 achieved their success by standing on the defensive and delivering adroit local counterattacks.  But we also know that given Lee's  preference for the offensive, if possible he would have used Longstreet's troops, directly or by freeing up other troops, to launch a massive counterattack of the sort he had previously delivered in the battles of the Seven Days, Second Manassas, and Chancellorsville.

The Chancellorsville counterstroke is particularly instructive.  Often considered Lee's greatest triumph, it was fought just a few miles east of the Wilderness battlefield and stopped the Union spring 1863 campaign in about a week.  Yet it came nowhere near destroying the Army of the Potomac, then under Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker.  Instead, the Union army took up a strong defensive position with both flanks firmly anchored on the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers.  Lee wanted to launch a frontal assault on this position despite the fact that the Federals had entrenched, but Hooker retreated before he could do so.

Could Lee have broken through and destroyed the enemy army for good and all?   Certainly he was furious to have lost the opportunity.  But I think it more likely would have resulted in a sort of Cold Harbor in reverse.  Lee was fortunate that Hooker quit the battlefield.  He had in essence beaten the enemy commander, not the enemy army.  Put Grant in Hooker's place and he would have stayed, as he did under far worse circumstances at Shiloh.  Most likely, given his superiority in numbers and his advantage in having uncontested control of the Chesapeake Bay and Virginia's tidal estuaries, he would have eventually found a way to turn Lee's right and continue his offensive, as he did repeatedly in the 1864 campaign.

On balance, then, I'm skeptical that if Lee had positioned Longstreet more aggressively just before the campaign began, the resulting battle would have achieved Lee's aim of defeating Grant and gaining the initiative.  Although I won't be pedantic and show, point by point, the ways in which I've done so, I've tried to follow Prof. Lebow's nine criteria for a good plausible world counterfactual, especially by foregrounding the historical interpretations and assumptions on which my analysis rests.  My two biggest assumptions, it seems clear, are these:  Lee could not have mastered Grant psychologically no matter what he did, and Grant's superiority in numbers and resources, coupled with the resilience of Civil War armies, would have enabled him to absorb the worst blow Lee could deliver and keep going.

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