Interrogating the Project of Military History

April 2 - I pasted my entries on the counterfactual Lee assessment, ran a word count, and discovered I had 6,900 words:  a nice start on the article for North and South.  Now I need to revise what I have, condensing the discussion of the "what-if" stuff and adding a discussion of other issues the piece needs to include.

The most important of these concern Lee's relationships with key subordinates.  When the campaign began he had four corps commanders.  By the campaign's conclusion, he had replaced three of them.  That attrition at the highest levels reflected a command attrition on a similar scale at lower levels.  The following table appears in Douglas Southall Freeman's Lee's Lieutenants:

 Attrition Among General Officers of the Army of Northern Virginia, May4-June 3, 1864
  Present Killed Wounded Captured
Army HQ 1 - - -
First Corps 11 1 3 -
Second Corps 16 4 4 2
Third Corps 16 1 5 -
Cavalry Corps 11 2 - -
Artillery 3 - - -
TOTAL 58 8 12 2

This amounts to a loss ratio of 37 percent.  In Freeman's view, the campaign from the Rapidan to the James all but destroyed the army's reservoir of experienced commanders.  "Except as Lee himself embodied it," he concludes, "the old organization was gone."

With his veneration of Lee, Freeman nowhere holds him responsible for this calamity.  Critics, however, have done exactly that, arguing that Lee's aggressive generalship was ill-suited to the Confederacy's limited manpower base.  "In the end," the late Russell F. Weigley wrote of Lee, "he destroyed not the enemy's armies, but his own."  Implicitly and often explicitly, they argue that he should have followed a more defensive strategy.  Indeed, somewhat ironically in view of the loss rate of the campaign--by recent estimate, the army suffered 33,000 casualties out of the 65,000 men with which it began--these same critics often point to Lee's generalship during the May 1864 campaign as the way he should have handled his army all along.  I am inclined to think a more defensive stance on his part would have hastened Confederate defeat; if not, then certainly the loss of Richmond.  But either way, Lee faced an acute crisis in senior leadership during the campaign.





Lee lost two of his corps commanders to enemy fire.  His most senior general, James Longstreet, suffered a serious throat wound on May 6 and was out of action for months.  The chief of the Cavalry Corps, "Jeb" Stuart, was mortally wounded at the battle of Yellow Tavern on May 11.  Though Lee mourned the loss of Longstreet, his "old war horse," and Stuart, "the eyes of the army," he could take comfort in the performance of their successors.  Longstreet was replaced by Richard. H. Anderson, a seasoned division commander.  Stuart's mantle was assumed by the cavalry's senior division commander, Wade Hampton.  Hampton served Lee ably for the rest of the campaign.  Anderson's performance was more open to criticism but still good enough that Lee retained him as a corps commander almost until Appomattox.

Lee had greater problems with his remaining corps commanders:  A. P. Hill and Richard S. Ewell.  Hill arguably made two important mistakes during the campaign.  I'll spend the balance of this entry reviewing the first questionable episode, although I'll say at the outset the mistake was probably Lee's, not Hill's.

At the time of the campaign, Lt. Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill was 39 years years old.  As a division commander early in the war, he compiled such a reputation as a hard-driving fighter that Lee considered him "the best soldier of his grade [rank]" and promoted him to command the newly-created Third Corps just before the Gettysburg campaign.  Thereafter Hill performed erratically.  He was ill and almost invisible during the three-day battle of Gettysburg and botched a major attack the following October.  "Well," Lee told him after hearing his explanation for the costly mistake, "let us bury these poor dead men and say no more about it."  Lee retained Hill in command and surely hoped the "best soldier of his grade" would make a reappearance, but he could not have helped but harbor tentative doubts about him.

The first questionable episode occurred after the intense Wilderness fighting on May 5.  By evening, Hill's  two divisions then on the field had became badly jumbled.  Their lines, wrote his chief of staff, "were like a worm fence, at every angle."  Yet when evening fell a decision was made--by Hill or by Lee, and there has been much question as to which--not to reorganize the lines until daylight.  The men who composed those lines were hungry, thirsty, and utterly spent.  They paid a bad price for the decision in the morning, for a massive Union assault at dawn smashed through their positions, killed or wounded hundreds, and sent the rest flying.  Only the arrival of Longstreet's troops prevented a disaster.

A lot of finger-pointing ensued, first by Hill's veterans and later by historians.  When writing And Keep Moving On I elected to stay out of it, partly from considerations of space but mostly because I dislike to judge too closely the decisions of men in combat.  I simply established the basic issue:  whether it was best to let exhausted men recover a bit from the day's fighting (and the day's march that preceded it) or exhaust them further by having them shift their lines after nightfall.  The glare of hindsight suggests that the decision to let them rest was a false mercy--but if the lines had been rearranged during the night, and still broke in the morning, we would all say that it would have been better to let the men rest.  Combat is one tough decision after another, and there is something crass about an ex-National Guard sergeant (me) second-guessing a choice like that.

COL William O. Odom*

An anecdote a friend once told me may serve to underscore the point.  During my recent trip to Virginia I visited my old friend Bill Odom, whom I had not seen since he left the country a few years ago to assume command of a combat brigade in Korea.  He and I were once graduate students together.  He was then a captain preparing for a two-year stint in West Point as a military history instructor.  Another captain, David Gray, was a graduate student at the same time and for the same reason.  They were dubbed "The Ranger Twins" because they were pretty much inseparable and had both gone to Ranger school--Bill in fact once commanded a Ranger company.

The anecdote Bill told me concerns an incident during Ranger school.  It was at an advanced stage of the school, his cohort had been in the open elements for many days, and the strain was nearing its maximum point.  Bill was taking his turn as the platoon leader.  On this particular night he posted sentries and secured his platoon's perimeter, then returned to the rest of the force.  After a few minutes an instructor said, "Let me show you something."  He led Bill to the edge of the perimeter where one of the sentries was sound asleep.  Bill shook the man awake, then proceeded to the next sentry, who had also dozed off.  Again the silent, urgent shaking, again the trip through the dark to the next sentry.  Asleep.  And so it went, one sentry after another, until they returned to the first man, by this time asleep once more.  Bill wondered to the instructor what he could do about it.  The instructor just shook his head.  After a certain point, exhaustion catches up with even the most hardened soldier, and that was the "something" the instructor wanted to show.

One occasionally encounters the view  that there is something illegitimate about "civilian" military historians; that one must be a veteran, preferably a combat veteran, to understand the subject well enough to write about it.  By and large I think that's as foolish as saying that one must be a former king, monk, or peasant in order to tackle other kinds of history.  My colleague Joe Guilmartin, who won the Silver Star in Vietnam, is surely correct to point out that no one alive has firsthand experience of what it was like to be a Greek hoplite or Swiss pikeman; and in any event a good deal of the issues involved in military history are the similar to those in political or social history.

On certain issues, however, I think a civilian military historian needs to tread carefully, and the question of Hill's exhausted troops is one of them.  I could praise or criticize the decision to let them rest, but I have no idea why anyone would think my judgment held merit.  The best I can do is to explain the situation and the arguments made by about it by participants who were there.  In this instance, because of the near-debacle on the morning of May 6, everyone assumed the decision was a mistake.  The question became, who made it?

Henry Heth, who led one of Hill's divisions, stated that Hill made the decision and that although he tried three times to persuade Hill the lines must be reorganized, Hill refused.  "Damn it, Heth, I don't want to hear any more about it; the men shall not be disturbed.  One of our tendencies as historians is to believe that while eyewitnesses may shade the facts, they don't just make things up.  After all, if we thought they often did, we'd pretty much be out of business.  Even so, the closest students of this incident suspect that Heth just made all this up.

Others have said that Lee did:  that he was positive reinforcements would be on the field before daybreak and (since night attacks were almost unheard-of during the Civil War) that the benefits of letting the men rest far outweighed the risks.  The evidence, on balance, favors the latter.  I doubt if such things are ever that cut and dried.  It would have been quite unlike Lee to have insisted that Hill let the men rest if Hill had advocated repositioning them.  Lee's orders to corps commanders were usually discretionary--what, after all, is the point of having senior subordinates if you can't trust their judgment?  I suspect the way the decision was made is that Hill, Lee and others discussed the matter, though Lee formally made the decision.  Hill's chief of staff recalled that Hill privately disagreed with the decision, searched out Lee at midnight to urge that the lines be reorganized, and that Lee reaffirmed the decision.  Maybe.    Personally, this sounds made up too.  To locate division, brigade, and regimental commanders, awaken thousands of men from slumber, get them into formation, and shuffle them into new fighting positions in conditions of darkness would have required hours.  If the process began at midnight, I doubt seriously it could have been completed before daylight, when the same operation could be carried out more effectively and in a fraction of the time.  Whatever the demerits of the original decision, Lee was correct to reaffirm it when Hill approached him at midnight.  But I doubt Hill would have considered a redeployment at so late an hour feasible enough to suggest it in the first place.  This piece of testimony reads to me like a loyal staff officer protecting the memory of his former commander.

If Lee indeed made the decision to let the troops rest, there would seem to be no reason to mention the episode as a possible query against Hill.  That's how it seems on paper.  It would surprise me very little, however, that after the rout of Hill's two divisions the next morning, Lee did not feel at least a little bit that Hill had let him down.  Lee may not have realized how truly vulnerable the lines were and thought that Hill, being responsible solely for those two divisions, should have been more closely attuned to their vulnerability.  We don't know, can never know, the interior thoughts of another, and in any event, having made the decision, Lee could not criticize Hill for the sequel without appearing to be a blame-shifting cretin.  But most people feel the need to shift blame--look at all the presidents who have taken theoretical responsibility for something while leaving no doubt that a subordinate was really responsible.  Fairly or not, the incident may well have increased Lee's doubts about Hill.  We think of Lee as beyond the foibles of ordinary men, but he was, like the rest of us, all too human.

* Bill, incidentally, has just retired from their Army after 25 years to pursue his dream of opening a karate school.  Check it out:

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