Archive for the ‘General History’ Category


Readers of Stonewall Goes West and Mother Earth, Bloody Ground who are familiar with the 1864 Nashville Campaign have probably spotted that Stonewall Jackson’s fictional Middle Tennessee Campaign is a commentary on John Bell Hood’s performance. Given that Hood was a product of the Lee & Jackson school, using Jackson himself to lead in a similar operation¬† was in my mind the best way to comment on where Hood went wrong.

Not A Man Of Papers
Robert E. Lee once wrote of Hood that he was “a good fighter, very industrious on the battlefield, careless off.” He was certainly careless off the battlefield in preparing for his crossing of the Tennessee River and his march on Nashville. Hood had no idea of the conditions he would encounter in trying to find a practicable place to bridge the formidable waters of the Tennessee, and essentially winged the entire business of crossing a field army over a major river into enemy territory.

One of the truths of military leadership is that the higher one gets on the ladder, the more important what happens on the desktop before the battle becomes. As the axiom goes, amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics. Confederate armies are often criticized by historians for their poor staff work, but I think as a rule the problem was one of lack of staff manpower rather than lack of talent.

Hood started to come under criticism for the poor performance of his staff as a division commander. The evidence suggests he had no aptitude for the management side of his job as he rose into higher command. My belief is that, aged 33, John Bell Hood just wasn’t enough of a mature, settled man to appreciate this side of his job.

A Broken Man
Any analysis of Hood’s command style on the battlefield cannot help but notice a stark change after Chickamauga, and for good reason. Hood had an arm mangled at Gettysburg, and that lost a leg at the hip in the mountains of northern Georgia. Hip amputations were terrible affairs, with the lowest survival rate of all amputation procedures during the Civil War.

One of the things I made sure to do in Stonewall Goes West was describe how shattered Hood must have felt at the end of a long day in the saddle, strapped in and unable to dismount with a lot of bother. Hood’s style before Chickamauga was see for yourself and lead from the front, but not afterward. Part of that might have been that he was leery of getting shot again, but for my part I believe most of it was that his body just wouldn’t let him be as active as he was in the past.

The result was that as a corps and army commander, things went awry because Hood wasn’t on the scene as often as he once would have been. He rarely had the kind of stellar subordinates, schooled in exercising independent tactical authority, that he would need for that, nor did he have the kind of staff work in the background to help make up the difference.

A Dilatory Man
In my opinion, the great lost opportunity of the Nashville Campaign was not Spring Hill, but when Hood chose to sit and wait at Florence and Tuscumbia, Alabama for three weeks. For a man who was supposedly of the Lee and Jackson school of boldly aggressive maneuvers designed to seize the initiative and baffle the enemy, it was an unforgivable delay.

Of course, the delay was necessary because of two factors. The most important one was that Hood wanted to collect 20 days of rations before invading Middle Tennessee, and nothing like that stockpile was either with him or waiting for him there. It was essential because even though Hood had not even an inkling how depleted Middle Tennessee was of forage, he had the experience to suggest that November is not the best time of year for an army to feed itself on the march, even in ostensibly friendly territory.

This was exactly the sort of thing that better attention to staff work would have overcome. His other reason was waiting for Nathan Bedford Forrest, then already in Middle Tennessee and engaged in a raid.

Schofield and his XXIII Corps were not even assigned to George Thomas’s forces until October 30, and Hood’s West Point classmate did not join Stanley’s IV Corps in Pulaski until November 13. If Hood had crossed earlier, he would have faced only IV Corps and a single brigade of cavalry, and his odds of cutting off that force and inflicting defeat in detail on the Union forces in Tennessee would have been that much greater.

My own thinking is that a true disciple of the Lee and Jackson school would have reckoned the invasion of Middle Tennessee was a huge gamble anyway, and if it was to have any chance of success in its stated ambition of halting Sherman’s March To The Sea it had to get moving sooner rather than later. Hood probably should have pushed off once he had sufficient supplies to reach to the Duck or the Harpeth at most, ordered Forrest to meet him in the middle, and thereby caught Thomas’s forces flat-footed.

A century ago today saw the formal end of the First Battle of Ypres, what was essentially the First World War’s introduction to what the Western Front was going to become. Five weeks of combat produced almost 210,000 casualties among the Belgians, British, French and Germans who fought there, but gave very little advantage to either side.

Some 56,000 of those casualties were British, and First Ypres was the last in a succession of meat grinders that chewed up the veteran soldiers of the British Army. Unlike the legend of the Kindermord (the supposed massacre of a disproportionate green German teenaged conscripts, when in reality only about a third of Germany’s casualties matched that description), the death of Britain’s old professional infantry is largely true. Yet this was not the only slaughter of professionals that year.

Britain and Russia: Europe’s Professional Soldiers
Following the experience of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, armies in Europe had by and large adopted the Prussian system of using the standing army as a training school to churn out legions of reservists who could be mobilized in wartime. Terms of service were typically two or three years. The only notable exceptions were Britain, which retained a volunteer, professional army, and Russia, which kept its conscripts in uniform so long as to make them professional soldiers.

Tsarist Russia had fed its army using conscription since at least the days of Peter the Great, and for a long time being tapped for the Tsar’s army was for life. Villages would send off conscripts with a ritual that strongly resembled a funeral, because for all intents and purposes the drafted man was never coming back, lost to the community whether he lived or died. By 1914 the term of military service had been reduced to six years plus nine years in the reserves, twice as long as in any other country at the time and longer than modern volunteer military contracts as well. For all intents and purposes, the 1914 Tsarist army was a professional force, but not a volunteer one.

The “Old Contemptibles” of the pre-war British Army were all-volunteer, something that gave them the reputation of recruiting from the dregs of British society. Despite this, the British Army had a proud tradition of producing tough, well-trained infantry. A Napoleonic marshal was once quoted as saying “The British infantryman is the best in the world, and thankfully there aren’t that many of them.” In 1914, His Majesty’s riflemen could get off 20 to 30 shots per minute with their Lee-Enfield rifles, and at the Battle of Mons the Germans thought they were opposed by massed machine guns and not infantry armed with bolt-action rifles.

The Meatgrinder
Whereas the relatively small British Expeditionary Force of regulars and reservists was chewed up by its experiences in France and Belgium, the Tsar’s force of six-year soldiers had been annihilated in battles with Austria and by the twin disasters of Tannenberg and the Marsurian Lakes.

The thing about highly trained professional warriors is that they are hard to replace, something both the British and the Russians found out. The British attempted to retain its all-volunteer ways for a time, but even so their salty cadres of rankers and sergeants was gone, and with it went the skill base of their army. The best infantrymen in the world were gone, and many have written, both then and now, that the British Army never quite got back that which went with them.

For the Tsar, the slaughter of his professional soldiers in a matter of months meant something more than the loss of skills, experience and effectiveness. Those conscripts were the bulwark of his regime, their devotion to his dynasty and the Orthodox Church reinforced by years of indoctrination. While the abominable treatment of the common Russian soldier during the war would have guaranteed the eventual alienation of even this Pillar of Tsarism in time, 1914 knocked it out all at once.

With Sin in the Second City, Karen Abbott carved herself a niche as the “sizzle historian,” spinning entertaining non-fiction tales of the seedier side of America’s past. She ably continues mining this rich vein of material for her third book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, which tells four concurrent stories of women engaged in espionage on both sides of the Civil War.

Abbott delivers a piping hot helping of material, and most Civil War buffs should find at least some of it new. Take Belle Boyd, one of the four. Most Civil War fans know her name, a fact that must give Boyd’s ghost a great deal of satisfaction, yet usually references to her focus on whether she actually did anything useful as a spy. Her character as a saucy firebrand and all-around bad girl who swigged whiskey with the best of them often goes unremarked, and the extent of her hijinks certainly came as news to me.

The thing I found most interesting in Abbott’s book was how the choice of the four women, two Confederate and two Union, illustrated the stereotype personalities of the two regions. Boyd and Rose Greenhow were both arrogant, vain women whose character flaws severely compromised their espionage careers. Both were caught, both courted notoriety, and the only reason either escaped the noose was that women generally weren’t hung for treason in the early 1860s (just a couple years later, however, they were: witness Mary Surratt). By and large, Boyd’s and Greenhow’s style of conceit died out after the Victorian era, but Abbott ably translates it into the modern era.

Against this we have the example of Elizabeth Van Lew, and with her story the book truly shines. Van Lew operated as an effective spy master for the Union in Richmond, the capital of her enemies, for the duration of the war. Abbott’s portrayal of Van Lew’s poise and caution stands in vivid contrast to Boyd and Greenhow, and her story provides the book’s continuing tension. She was never caught, although she came close to it on many occasions. It is in Elizabeth Van Lew that the narrative moves from action, farce and sex romp and into the territory of the hard-bitten espionage yarn promised by the John Le Carre-inspired title.

The history of the Civil War gives short space to women. When they do appear, it is as the wife of some important man, in connection with the U.S. Sanitary Commission or as a nameless member of an angry mob in the Southern bread riots. With the addition of Emma Edmonds, who played a double game by posing as a man, enlisting in the U.S. Army, and then serving as a scout and spy, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy delivers an entertaining spread of stories about women who did their wartime service on their own terms. The book is ideal summer vacation reading, and it’s not too late to pick it up and take it on a September getaway.