How Civil War Battles Happened

on April 5, 2013 in American Civil War, Battles
Why was Franklin fought?

The Battle of Franklin is the only major battle of the Civil War where one side was forced to fight and with no major vital point at stake.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

One of the little lessons one can glean from a broad study of military history is just how hard it is to force a battle on a commander who doesn’t want to fight one. With the notable exception of being forced to defend a vital point, generally speaking a general who thinks he will lose a battle can and will leave rather than fight when he doesn’t think he can win.

Even when a vital point forces one side to defend it, choice on both side still plays a clear role in the when and exactly where of how that battle will unfold. Truly forcing a field army to stand and fight without threatening a vital point and against the will of its commander is an enormously difficult feat. Many of the Great Captains of history do not have such an achievement on their resumes.

Take the Atlanta Campaign of 1864. Under Joseph E. Johnston’s tenure as Army of Tennessee commander, and with the exception of Sherman’s brief assault at Kennesaw Mountain, the campaign can be summarized as follows: 1) Johnston would choose some ground to defend; 2) While he formed up on that position, the lead element of Sherman’s army would arrive, resulting in an encounter engagement involving only part of both armies; 3) Johnston refused to commit to attacking Sherman unless circumstances were perfect, which they never were; 4) Once Sherman had brought up his entire force, he would find Johnson massed and dug in, and would therefore choose to maneuver Johnston into retreating rather than attacking him.

Johnston only offered battle under circumstances Sherman refused to accept, Sherman could not be forced to attack, and Sherman couldn’t force Johnston stand and fight against his will. This pattern shifted only once the Army of Tennessee was in the vicinity of Atlanta, a vital point that couldn’t simply be given up.

A review of the major battles and campaigns of the Civil War reveals the rule in full effect:

First Bull Run: McDowell chose to attack Beauregard, who chose to stay and fight in Manassas
Shiloh: Grant could have easily fallen back on Buell had he so chosen, but he didn’t believe he was about to be attacked. Ergo, this is not a case of A.S. Johnston forcing Grant to fight, but of Grant choosing to fight by default. A bad choice is still a choice.
Fort Donelson: Defense of a vital point.
Seven Pines and Seven Days: Johnston and Lee had to attack McClellan to defend Richmond, while McClellan proved that he didn’t have to truly stand and fight at any time so long as he was willing to give up on attacking Richmond. On an individual level, it is hard to paint any single engagement as being a matter of McClellan being forced to stand and fight against his will.
Second Bull Run: Pope chose to attack Jackson in hopes of destroying him before Lee and Longstreet could arrive. Jackson likewise chose to stand and keep Pope in place, rather than retreat.
Antietam: Lee could (and probably should) have retreated out of Maryland, but chose to give battle to McClellan, who was actively (if clumsily) seeking it out.
Perryville: Both sides were looking for a fight.
Fredericksburg: Burnside certainly didn’t have to attack Lee, and Lee could have retreated back one river line (indeed, Jackson urged him to do so).
Stones River: Bragg could and ultimately did give up Murfreesboro; Rosecrans could have chosen to turn Bragg out of Murfreesboro. Instead, Rosecrans chose to attack Bragg, and Bragg chose to attack Rosecrans.
Chancellorsville: Hooker deliberately chose to stand and give battle in the Wilderness. Once again, bad choices are still choices.
Vicksburg Campaign Battles: Pemberton had to fight to defend Vicksburg, but if you study the campaign you can still see an element of choice in battles like Raymond and Champion’s Hill. The only thing he didn’t really have a choice in was abandoning Vicksburg.
Gettysburg: Do I really need to even briefly explain this one? Both Meade and Lee chose to fight.
Chickamauga: An argument could be made that as the battle drew near, Rosecrans could not have extricated himself from the area without getting mauled. However, Rosecrans wound up in that situation because he chose to take risks in rapidly pursuing Bragg. For his part, Bragg declined battle at numerous points on his way to Chickamauga; he didn’t fight until he was good and ready.
Chattanooga: Both sides had to have this vital point, so both sides were forced to fight for it. Yet like at Vicksburg, there was a big role for choices on both sides in the where and when that fight unfolded.
The Overland Campaign: Could anything be clearer? Most of the battles in the Overland Campaign lasted for days for no other reason than Grant and Lee chose to wrestle it out with each other where they were. The latter stages of the campaign saw Richmond and Petersburg under siege, at which point Lee ceased to have much choice in the matter if he was to keep the vital point of the Confederate Capital and main industrial center.
Franklin: This is a rare instance where the defender was forced to stand and fight, since Schofield had his back to the Harpeth and no way to cleanly and easily cross his army at the time. Even so, Hood could have chosen to try to swing around behind Schofield rather than attack. Literally every historian who has studied the Battle of Franklin thinks he should have. Forcing Schofield to stand and fight with no vital point at stake didn’t yield much of a dividend for Hood.
Nashville: The conditions were miserable, but Thomas could have tried to turn Hood out of his position. Likewise, Hood had no compelling reason to stay where he was and accept battle.

This might seem a bit obvious, but how often does a general claim, in hindsight and after a defeat, that he had no choice but to give battle? That explanation is so commonplace as to be a cliche, and many historians take such explanations at face value. A more objective description of what happens is that while neither commander was compelled to seek battle at that particular time and place, one or both misjudged the circumstances and/or their priorities.

As an author, this matters to me because it figures into imagining the story’s fictitious battles. I don’t want to create any spoilers on my own blog, but of the three battles in Stonewall Goes West, only the Second Battle of Kettle Run is an example of one side being forced to fight against its will. Holly Grove Crossroads and Lawrenceburg were actively sought by both sides, and that fact figures prominently in the how and why of how those battles unfolded.

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