Archive for the ‘Strategy and Tactics’ Category


Day Three, Spotsylvania Court House

Today is the 150th Anniversary of the third day of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, and I have always thought that this day provided an excellent illustration of what worked with the Army of the Potomac, what didn’t work, and the problems that posed for U.S. Grant.

The Day’s Events
Grant began the day by deducing from Rebel movements that Lee was about to strike at his left flank, held by II Corps. Based on that, he knew that Lee must have withdrawn troops from somewhere to reinforce the Rebel right for that attack, and guessed wrongly that the troops came from Laurel Hill in the center. He therefore planned on pulling back his threatened left while launching a general assault on the Rebel army, with the intent of breaking through the weakened center.

The first phase of Grant’s plan began in the morning, with II Corps, under Hancock, pulling back. The bulk of his corps went to support the attack in the center, leaving Barlow’s Division to cover the withdrawal. In the early¬† afternoon, Jubal Early sent Heth’s Divison to pounce on the isolated Barlow and very nearly caught and mauled him, but the Billies got away to security, north of the Po River.

Next came the Union’s late afternoon assault. With Hancock gone to extricate his men from Early’s attack, the senior officer present was G.K. Warren, commander of the V Corps. Sensitive to criticism that he wasn’t aggressive enough, Warren asked battlefield commander George Meade for permission to attack an hour earlier than scheduled. Meade rather stupidly agreed. As it happened, the rest of the general attack wasn’t in motion until 6 o’clock, whereas Warren went in with more than half the available strength at 4 o’clock. As a result, the one success of the day — Emory Upton’s celebrated penetration of the Mule Shoe — was left unsupported and inevitable repulsed.

Meanwhile Burnside’s IX Corps on the Union left did what one might have come to expect from an operation under Ambrose Burnside: nothing. As it turned out, the part of his line Lee had stripped to reinforce the Rebel right was his left, not the center, so only Wilcox’s Division was in front of Burnside’s gigantic army corps. Burnside stopped and dug in as soon as he encountered the slightest resistance.

A General Is Only As Good As His Army
Much has been made of Grant’s failures against Lee, and I think part of the blame for that lies with the human material he had to work with. While most of the troops of the Army of the Potomac were brave, hard working, doughty fighters, the officer corps was still very much what George McClellan had made them: sometimes slow, sometimes timid, sometimes uncoordinated.

I can’t find much fault in Grant’s choices on May 10, even though he guessed wrongly about where Lee had diverted troops from. The facts are he knew Lee’s army was smaller and knew Lee had diverted troops. His plan was such that if the line was weak anywhere, even where he didn’t expect it, a vigorous, competent attack should have succeeded somewhere.

The Battle of the Po is also often criticized, but this ignores the dictum that withdrawal in the face of the enemy is one of the most difficult maneuvers in warfare. That Hancock got II Corps back before Early could seriously come to grips says a lot about how good the Army of the Potomac was about backing out of sticky situations. That was something they did very, very well.

Meade’s concession to Warren shows the Army of the Potomac at its worst. I honestly can’t imagine what was going through Meade’s head that afternoon, because he was experienced enough to know that his change of plan would necessarily cause a disjointed, uncoordinated assault. Under the best of circumstances, getting word around to two whole army corps and 2/3s of a third corps that the timetable was moved up an hour would still have been a nightmare, and its not like the battlefield situation in any way justified doing so.

Finally, Burnside’s timidity cost him an opportunity to do what Early tried and failed to do to Barlow. The difference is that Wilcox needed to stand his ground, because pulling back the Rebel right would have turned the flank of the Laurel Hill/Mule Shoe position in the center, making it untenable. If Burnside had driven Wilcox back, Lee would have faced two choices: counter-attack Burnside or abandon the field. Counter-attacking Burnside would have taken time to organize, and consequently Upton would have likely been able to hang on to his penetration in the Mule Shoe.

If Warren hadn’t asked to move up the attack for no practical reason or if Meade hadn’t foolishly agreed to Warren’s request or if Burnside had merely attempted to do his job, Lee might very well have been forced to abandon his position at Spotsylvania. Grant’s plan wasn’t a bad one, but it was poorly carried out. Compared to Grant’s own army, the Army of the Tennessee, the Army of the Potomac was a powerful, but clumsy tool. Despite his own considerable gifts for war, he would always find himself at pains to land a heavy blow against Lee’s slicker and more vicious Army of Northern Virginia.

A fanciful depiction of the assault on Kennesaw Mountain

Hand in hand with the rifled musket, I think one of the most misunderstood tactical features of the Civil War is field fortification. The conventional wisdom is that if you put infantry behind a stone wall or an earthen embankment, they could hold off all comers so long as their ammunition held out or they were flanked. There is a nugget of truth to that, but like so many bits of conventional wisdom, the full reality is much more complicated.

The Three Features Of Field Fortification
As a rule, any complete system of fortification includes three things: protection for the defender; cleared fields of fire; and obstacles to slow or confine enemy movements. Where the conventional wisdom always goes wrong is that it focuses on the first part, takes the second part for granted, and ignores the vital, third part.

A finished system of “abatized” Civil War earthworks might look as follows. The troops would build up a dirt embankment by digging out ditches both behind and in front of said embankment. If time and timber permitted, that dirt embankment would be reinforced with logs and topped with head logs. The result was a wood-reinforced dirt wall maybe three or four feet high, but it would be higher for the defending troops standing in the ditch behind it. Head logs lining the top offered additional protection for the troops as they fired on attackers.

The ditch in front of the embankment would be the final obstacle, designed to make it harder for assaulting troops to scramble over the top. That ditch may or may not have had sharpened stakes. To create further obstacles and clear the field of fire, trees would be felled in front of the embankment with the tops facing out. If time permitted the branches of those trees would be whittled down into stakes, clearing off foliage at the same time. These became improvised abatis.

Like barbed wire in World War One, abatis weren’t intended to stop an attack. Instead, they slowed the enemy advance, keeping them under fire longer. Sometimes they also funneled the attack into “kill zones,” where more fire could be concentrated.

Overlooking Obstacles
I think the role of obstacles is so often overlooked because of the two classic examples of stone wall defense, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. In both cases, the attackers had to cross well over a thousand yards of open ground to reach the enemy. With such a long approach, there was little need for obstacles to keep the attackers under fire longer. At Fredericksburg, the Confederates had the additional advantage of being outside the range of Federal artillery.

Yet there was an obstacle facing Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg: the fence along the Emmitsburg Road. Although it was an organic feature of the battlefield, it had the same effect as laying abatis: delay, disorganize, and funnel the enemy. The importance of this key feature has only really come into focus in some historical studies in the last two decades.

Conversely, how partial the value of just a protective wall is can be seen in the many Civil War examples of combat in wooded terrain. Many times a defender would build up a barricade of stones and logs, but they were only somewhat better protected than the attacker, who had plenty of ready cover. Furthermore, a clear field of fire and no obstacles meant an attacker could come very close without suffering much damage. Most examples of this kind of combat saw the combatants cling on to each other at close range, blazing away with musketry and suffering slow but heavy, cumulative casualties until someone ran out of ammunition or men or darkness fell.

Fortification In Fiction
One of the underlying messages in the way I wrote the Battle of Lawrenceburg has to do with this tactical lesson. Union troops turned Coon Creek into a proper field fortress: a log barricade set behind a ravine filled with improvised abatis, with a clear field of fire of up to a few hundred yards. The Confederate attack there predictably failed.

“Uncle Billy”

Seeing as how the 150th anniversary of the Meridian Campaign came about, I thought I was blog on the real campaign, as well as the small ways in which it changed in Stonewall Goes West. Ever since I became acquainted with the details of Sherman’s February and March foray into eastern Mississippi, I saw it as the prototype for his style of generalship. In some ways, it is more instructive as to how Sherman’s mind worked than the Atlanta Campaign.

The Campaign
The intent of the Meridian Campaign was to break up Confederate rail communications in eastern Mississippi. In this way, Sherman hoped to make it much harder for the Confederates to make large scale forays against the Mississippi River line and its garrisons, which would in turn allow him to reduce the size of those garrisons and reinforce efforts elsewhere.

Sherman’s main force consisted of four divisions organized into two corps, plus some cavalry for scouting. This would march out from Vicksburg. A secondary column of more than 7,000 cavalry under William Sooy Smith was supposed to head out of Memphis, with the intent of confusing the Confederates as to Sherman’s intentions; to spread the destruction done; and to reinforce the main effort upon reaching Meridian. George H. Thomas was given the job of demonstrating in front of Joe Johnston in Georgia, to prevent the Army of Tennessee from dispatching reinforcements to Leonidas Polk and his Army of Mississippi. Finally, the U.S. Navy demonstrated in front of Mobile.

All of this activity was buttressed by false stories planted by Sherman in Northern newspapers. Sherman, who despised reporters, was happy to use them to feed misleading information to the enemy, and his plan worked. Sherman’s main target was Meridian, and he never seriously expected to penetrate any farther into the Southern heartland than Demopolis, Alabama. Southern leaders, however, thought his real aim was at least Selma, and that perhaps he intended to go as far as Mobile and take it on the landward side!

In his own way, Sherman was very concerned that the enemy never understood exactly what he was about. His practice of “putting the enemy on the horns of a dilemma” by threatening multiple points while intending to strike at only one, thereby dispersing their forces, was a hallmark of the March to the Sea.

“Bishop” Polk

The same principle was applied on a much larger, theater-wide scale for the Meridian Campaign. In terms of strategy, Sherman’s campaign was brilliant. With the exception of Nathan Bedford Forrest defeating Smith at the Battle of Okolona, the Army of Mississippi didn’t interfere and Sherman pretty much got his way without a fight, just as he had always intended.

Changes In SGW
The main change for the Meridian Campaign was due to Stonewall Jackson being the theater commander for the Confederate “center,” as well as field commander for the Army of Tennessee. Unlike Joe Johnston, Jackson was a man of decisive action, and he was far less concerned with being outnumbered. He also had responsibility for what happened in Mississippi and Alabama.

Consequently, he dispatched Cheatham’s Division to Polk as soon as he heard Sherman had left Vicksburg, and fended off Thomas’s probing with the remainder of the army. He expected Polk, reinforced to 16,000 infantry, to be able to stop Sherman. With the Bishop in charge that didn’t happen. Sherman had his way in my story much as he did in history, with Jackson’s prompt response coming to nothing.