Snake Bite - Pt 5
Friday, August 26, 2005, 06:32 AM - Counterfactuals and Contingency

Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson, USA; Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, CSA


We come to the part I don't really like, when it comes to doing military history. That's making judgments about people under the pressures of actual combat. There's a reason we have phrases like "armchair general." We all know at some level that there is something tasteless, even mildly offensive about second-guessing field commanders. It's not just that we know more than they do--we have extensive if not complete information about an operation, while they made life-and-death decisions on the basis of missing or mistaken intelligence and conflicting reports. It's not just that we know exactly how things turn out, and can therefore backtrack to reach optimum solutions. It's also that we cannot, in the nature of things, readily think ourselves into the mental and emotional states of commanders--nor their physical condition, which often exerts at least some influence over the choices they make.

Nevertheless, if we military historians are not simply to chronicle military operations, we have to exert an evaluative function. But what sort of evaluations are we to make, and by what criteria?

Years ago John Keegan noted that "most British military historians . . . implicitly out someone in the dock—a general or an army, charge him or it with a crime—defeat if a friend, victory if an enemy—and marshal the evidence to show his or her responsibility.” (Face of Battle, 74). He added that American military historians seem to do the same. He thought we ought to quit it--to set aside the "accusatory" approach for what he termed the "inquisitorial" approach," True, his specific examples of the inquisitorial approach seem to turn away from the business of evaluating commanders. And true, in many of his books since then he has resorted periodically to the accusatory approach. Nevertheless, it's good advice.

What I want to do here, then, is to try to understand the decisions taken with regard to Snake Creek Gap, not to criticize them. That has been done ad nauseum by literally dozens of other commentators and historians ever since May 9, 1864, the day that Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson marched his army through the gap and then back in again.

Why does Snake Creek Gap matter? Two reasons. First, it succeeded in compelling the Confederate army to retreat, quite early in the Atlanta campaign, from a position that they reasonably expected to hold for much longer than they did. That set in motion a series of subsequent retreats that brought Sherman half the distance to Atlanta in the opening weeks of the campaign. If he had been held farther away for a longer period of time, he might not have captured Atlanta in time to affect the 1864 presidential election. If the Atlanta campaign matters at all, you have to look at Snake Creek Gap.

But second, it did not succeed to the degree that it could have. Many have argued that bolder action on the part of the Federal commander at Snake Creek Gap would have created conditions in which the Confederate army could have been "broken up" if not actually destroyed at the campaign's outset. In that event one cannot say what would have transpired next, but it is hard to see a seeming military stalemate developing in 1864. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to imagine the Union winning the war about six months sooner than it did. Maybe more.

The method I'm going to use will be to evaluate the choices made by the two key actors in the Snake Creek Gap affair: Union Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson, commander of the Army of the Tennessee, which comprised the right wing of Sherman's "army of invasion;" and Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, commander of the Army of Tennessee. (Not that confusing similarity of names: the former army was named for the Tennessee river, the latter for the state of Tennessee.) Like much of Civil War military history, this will be yet another version of a hoary old tale. But by a judicious use of counterfactual theory, by placing the tale in the larger context of the history of warfare, and above all by showing a little basic compassion for men operating under tough circumstances, I hope I can shed at least a little bit of light.

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7

Bitter Jubilee - Pt 2
Thursday, August 25, 2005, 02:27 PM - Douglass and Lee at War

The status of slavery in the Military Division of the Mississippi. (Click for larger image.)

Lincoln justified the Emancipation Proclamation as a military necessity, which in the broadest sense it was. But as I suggest in The Hard Hand of War:

From a soldier's perspective, given the half-million slaves who escaped or fell into Union hands during the course of the war, the one thing the government could helpfully provide was a consistent policy toward such refugees, and this the Lincoln administration deliberately did not do. A number of areas in the South were excluded from the proclamation and theoretically left "precisely" as if it had not been issued. The forty-eight counties of western Virginia were exempted, as were several counties in the southeastern part of the state. Most of Louisiana was also spared, as was the entire state of Tennessee, to say nothing of the border states which, although nominally loyal, were still the scene of active hostilities. Yet these were often the areas most thoroughly under Union control. As a result, department commanders in these regions had to sift between African Americans who were free--either through operation of the [First and Second] Confiscation Acts, or because they had fled from affected areas, or because they had always been free--and those who remained enslaved. The position was doubly awkward because loyal slaveowners demanded the Army's assistance in preserving their property, yet by Congressional order the Army was forbidden to return fugitive slaves. (139)

Military department commanders therefore had to improvise. In a few cases, as in the Sea Islands off South Carolina, the flight of the white owners created conditions in which the U.S. Treasury and certain northern philanthropic organizations could experiment with free labor. In Louisiana commanders created a contract labor system: Owners were designated "employers," slaves became "employees," and everyone was assumed to have agreed to a contract under which the slaves labored "faithfully" for one year in exchange for wages or a share of the crop. (The contract labor system was first created in parts of Louisiana formally exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation, so the terms "owners" and "slaves," not ex-owners and freedpeople, are correct.) The contract labor system eventually spread to many plantations in the Mississippi valley.

A third system involved direct Federal control of African American labor, usually through an archipelago of contraband camps that dotted much of the occupied South. Probably the best of these was a camp established outside Corinth, Mississippi, in late 1862. It was organized by Chaplain John H. Eaton under instructions from Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, then planning his first offensive against Vicksburg. Its history has been simply and beautifully told in Corinth: The Story of a Contraband Camp, a 1974 article by Cam Walker that appeared in Civil War History. I'll just summarize the story here:

Initially the African American refugees, commonly known as "contrabands," lived in old army tents, but the camp superintendent immediately put them to work constructing log cabins, as well a school, commissary, hospital, office, and church. By March 1863—barely into the fourth month of its existence—the Corinth camp population numbered 3,657: 658 men, 1440 women, and 1559 children. The camp had experienced 900 cases of illness, 189 deaths, and 45 births—on the whole, a very respectable health record.

A real community developed at Corinth, with regular schooling to foster literacy and an enthusiastic congregational life. As at other camps, the tone of supervision was rather severely paternalistic. This was in keeping with the prevalent belief in African American racial inferiority, coupled with the debilitating influence of long slavery. Even the fairly enlightened Eaton wrote, "Without special control, they [the freedpeople] do indeed exercise largely their liberty in running around." All contrabands not employed by the Army were required to work under the control of camp superintendent Chaplain J. M. Alexander, "to be detailed, hired or organized into working-parties, and provided for in such manner as shall best serve the interests of the Government."

The labor system worked more efficiently than most. Eaton put many contrabands to work on abandoned lands. Four hundred acres were placed under cultivation--300 in cotton (which the US Treasury could sell at lucrative wartime prices), and 100 in vegetables to maintain the camp. In addition, each cabin had its own subsistence garden. By May 1863 Eaton reported that the camp was not only self-sufficient, but was also returning to the Treasury a monthly profit of between $4,000-5,000.

In addition to its status as a source of labor for the Army, the Corinth camp also operated as a recruiting ground for black military manpower. In May 1863 the 1st Alabama Infantry of African Descent (later the 55th USCT) was organized from freedmen living in the camp, and Chaplain Alexander became its colonel. The regiment remained to garrison the camp--as well as a long line of outposts--for several months.

In the larger military picture, Corinth camp served three main purposes. First, it helped address the urgent problem of black refugees that constantly threatened to swamp the Union field armies. Second, it was a source of labor and third, a source of military manpower. Since, unlike many contraband camps, it was self-supporting, the Corinth camp was less of a burden on the Treasury and Quartermaster corps. But it still required military protection against guerrillas and Confederate raiders. Initially the white troops assigned to its protection could also guard the strategic railroad in the area, which lessened the burden of defense, and within a month or two the camp had organized a self-defense force that presaged the 55th USCT.

Even so, its existence, from a military standpoint, was at best awkward. In March 1863, for example, Grant wanted to withdraw troops from the now-unnecessary Memphis and Charleston rail line, and ordered the freedmen removed to Memphis. Eaton protested, arguing that the move would destroy all that had been accomplished, and Grant relented. A year later, however, Sherman reached the same conclusion. This time the camp, despite its proven success, was abruptly terminated in order to maximize the number of field troops for the Meridian expedition. "The order fell like a bombshell among our contented people,” wrote a white minister who worked in the camp, "but military orders are preemptory . . . and must be obeyed."

The 1,500 contrabands then living in the camp were placed on trains and shipped to Memphis in January 1864.

I will give Walker the last word:

The untimely evacuation and the unsuccessful attempt at resettlement dissipated the spirit and elan of Corinth. The community was never recreated. The freedmen, inarticulate still, had to face confusing new government regulations and policies. Some probably did become field hands on the confiscated plantations leased by northern speculators. Others doubtless found work in Memphis. The rest lived on in the several contraband camps around the city. . . . The destruction of the Corinth camp was one of the tragedies of the Civil War. Despite the obvious success of the policies pursued there, the camp had little impact on subsequent work with the freedmen of the Mississippi Valley. The idea of large-scale cooperative farming all but disappeared during the acrimonious War-Treasury Department struggle over plantation-leasing. The kind of community fleetingly existent at Corinth rarely reappeared. Only the similarly short-lived Davis Bend experiment, undertaken near the end of the war, followed the Corinth precedents.

The black men, women, and children at Corinth had demonstrated their determination to be free, their eagerness to learn, and their willingness to work. They had patiently accepted white tutelage. But in the end their attitudes and aspirations mattered little. For as Corinth had been born of the war, so, too, it was a casualty of the war.

Part 1 - Part 2

Did Atlanta Matter?
Wednesday, August 24, 2005, 07:47 PM - Counterfactuals and Contingency


Only the most devoted readers of this blog will recall that I'm under contract to write a book in the Oxford University Press Pivotal Moments in American History series, edited by David Hackett Fischer and James M. McPherson. McPherson published the inaugural volume in the series--Antietam: Crossroads of Freedom--in 2002. Fischer's contribution to the series, Washington's Crossing, came out last year. Six other books in the series have also appeared, with at least one more in press.

My "pivotal moment" deals with 1864. It was a presidential election year, so the most obvious pivot is the question of Lincoln's reelection. Usually this is framed in terms of whether the Democratic nominee, George B. McClellan, might have defeated him in November, and whether that, in turn, might have led to a compromise peace or even Confederate independence. But given that Lincoln faced no fewer than three challenges from within his own party, one must also think about the chances of his being replaced--by Salmon P. Chase, John C. Frémont, or some other candidate. Believe it or not, the name of Benjamin F. Butler was bruited about more than once. And Lincoln quietly but carefully sniffed out Grant for possible presidential aspirations before appointing him general in chief.

Eighteen sixty-four was also the year in which white Americans, North and South, began to come seriously to grips with a change in the racial status quo. African Americans had a significant, albeit informal, influence over this shift, most obviously because Blacks were becoming increasingly important as a reservoir of military manpower.

In the realm of counterfactuals and contingency, Lincoln's reelection is widely thought to have hinged on the perception of Union military success.

“If the election had been held in August 1864 rather than November, Lincoln would have lost. . . . This did not happen, but only because of events on the battlefield—principally Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, and Sheridan’s spectacular victories over Jubal Early in the Shenandoah Valley. These turned northern opinion from deepest // despair in the summer to confident determination by November.” (James M. McPherson, “American Victory, American Defeat,” in Gabor S. Boritt (ed.), The Collapse of the Confederacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 39-40.

"There was nothing inevitable about northern victory in the Civil War. Nor was Sherman’s capture of Atlanta any more inevitable than, say, McClellan’s capture of Richmond in June 1862 had been. . . .” (Ibid., 41)

Albert Castel agrees, and greatly amplifies this thesis in

Albert Castel, “The Atlanta Campaign and the Election of 1864: How the South Almost Won By Not Losing,” in Castel, Winning and Losing in the Civil War (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996), 15-32.

However, William W. Freehling--though in agreement that Atlanta “was the Confederacy’s last best hope to escape strangulation,” thinks that it was nonetheless a forlorn hope, that the point of no return had been reached in 1863. And he argues that certain structural factors--e.g., superior Northern military and industrial strength and internal stresses within the Confederacy--make Confederate victory unlikely in any event. As for Lincoln's reelection being dependent on a timely military triumph, and Union victory being dependent on Lincoln's reelection:

“[F]or military historians to be declared right that Sherman’s victory alone could have saved Lincoln’s victory, or that Lincoln’s victory alone could have saved Union victory, political historians must be proved dead wrong about antebellum politics in general and the Democratic Party in particular.” [William W. Freehling, “The Divided South, the Causes of Confederate Defeat, and the Reintegration of Narrative History,” The Reintegration of American History: Slavery and the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 226-227] The former because 90 percent of 19th century American voters remained loyal to party, the latter because Peace Democrats were a minority within that party.

See also Freehling's The South vs. the South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), esp. pp. 177-199.

William C. Davis shares Freehling's skepticism in “The Turning Point That Wasn’t: The Confederates and the Election of 1864,” The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996), 127-147. Davis does concede, grudgingly, that Confederate military success in 1864 could have unseated Lincoln, but ups the ante by implying it would have taken more than Atlanta.

“In the end the only Confederate acts that could have—not necessarily would have—affected the outcome were those in the one theater in which the war was being decided from the outset: the battlefield. If Jubal Early had captured Washington and held it for some appreciable time. If Sterling Price had wrested Missouri from the Union and been able to hold it. If the forts at Mobile had been able to repulse Farragut and his fleet. If Lee had been able to take some action against Grant, however small, to embarrass him in the trenches at Petersburg. And most important of all, if Joseph E. Johnston or John Bell Hood had been able to turn Sherman decisively, not just away from Atlanta, but back on his base at Chattanooga. If all these ‘ifs’ had come to pass, they would have constituted a series of body blows to Union morale and Lincoln’s prestige, at the rate of one every few weeks during the last four months of the election campaign. Then quite possibly, even probably, sagging Northern spirits would have translated into Democratic votes.” (137)

This comes fairly close to the famous Saturday Night Life sketch that asked, "What if Eleanor Roosevelt could fly?" Even if the Confederates ran the tables, it would have resulted only in a McClellan victory, and Davis argues that McClellan would have continued the war and would have inherited a military position in which he could hardly have failed to win it.

Larry J. Daniel concurs with Davis and systematically critiques Albert Castel's essay in “The South Almost Won By Not Losing: A Rebuttal,” North and South Magazine vol. 1, no. 3 (February 1998):44-48, 50-51. (BTW, I'm grateful to Eric Wittenberg for the loan of this article, which I was finding hard to locate.)

Most recently we have:

Richard M. McMurry, “The Atlanta Campaign and the Election of 1864,” appendix four of Atlanta 1864: Last Chance for the Confederacy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 204-208. He writes:

“[F]orays into counterfactual history can be instructive. They often help us get a better understanding of the past by forcing us to examine roads not taken and the reasons why they were not. Such exercises, however, lose validity as they become more and more complex. They must keep within the bounds of the possible. It helps if we limit them to possibilities that were probable.

“To apply such counterfactual speculations to the Atlanta campaign and the 1864 election, we have to work our way successively through a maze of at least a dozen counterfactual scenarios.”

Which he does on pp. 206-207, and concludes:

“In arguing that Lincoln had to have military success (or perceived success) in 1864 to win reelection, Castel was correct. I believe, however, that success came late on May 8 at Snake Creek Gap, not at Atlanta on September 2. Given the passive way [Confederate Gen. Joseph E.] Johnston was determined to conduct his campaign, loss of that meant that the Rebels could not—or at least really would not attempt to—halt Sherman’s advance into Georgia.” (207)

It's that last contention that justifies the focus on Snake Creek Gap in the Snake Bite series of posts. My purpose, however, is neither to introduce new revelations about this operation nor to argue that America's future necessarily hinged on what occurred here. It's to better understand the role of counterfactuals and contingency in historical interpretation--and figure out how to explain this to the readers of my OUP book.

Bitter Jubilee - Pt 1
Wednesday, August 24, 2005, 05:45 AM - Douglass and Lee at War

Black Americans living on an unidentified plantation on Davis Bend, Mississippi, 1865

The Snake Bite series of posts, still on-going, has so far mostly focused on the operational consequences of removing Sherman from the Civil War scene in early 1864. Some readers may have begun to wonder what happened to the old Mark Grimsley with his emphasis on things like "postcolonial military history." Have I gone back to the dark, traditionalist side? I must say that at times I'm tempted. It helps to have a sense of community, and among military historians that community is largely found away from the new social, cultural, and gender history. Scholars in those fields seem gratified when you take their preferred approaches seriously, but among some of them I get the feeling they regard me as not unlike Samuel Johnson's dog, walking on its hinder legs.

Still, it has to be pointed out that Civil War army commanders not only had control over field operations, they also had chief responsibiliity for the administration of civilian affairs within their geographical departments. This gave them, whether they sought it or not, a great deal of influence over the emerging post-emancipation social order in the American South. No single commander had more influence than the one who had charge over the Military Division of the Mississippi, which in early 1864 covered the states of Kentucky and Tennessee in toto and also encompassed vast parts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. As its armies advanced in Georgia its jurisdiction enlarged to include that state--and ultimately the Carolinas as well.

The man historically in charge of the Division was, of course, Sherman, who had little use for Blacks and none at all for the social order that would succeed slavery, at least not while the war still waged. In September 1862, while in command at Memphis, Tennessee, he chided his brother, Republican Sen. John Sherman, about the difficulty of making the army a tool by which to create a post-emancipation order: "[N]o army could take care of the wants of the hosts of niggers, women & children that would hang about it freed without the condition attached of earning food & clothing. Instead of helping us it would be an incumbrance." Certainly the army could make some use of African American labor, but that involved only able-bodied males. What about women and children? "Where are they to get work, who is to feed them, clothe them, and house them. We cannot now give tents to our soldiers, and our wagon trains are now a horrible impediment, and if we are to take along & feed the negros who flee to us for refuge, it will be an impossible task. You cannot solve the negro question in a day." (WTS to JS, September 3, 1862, Sherman's Civil War, 292-293)

Sherman never wavered from that basic stance, and as his zone of responsibilities increased he had more ability to place a dead hand upon efforts to assist the freedpeople. To be sure, he considered the circumstances of the rebellion to be revolutionary, and once suggested punishing guerrilla activity by summarily confiscating the property of disloyal planters "and let the negros have the houses & cleared land." (WTS to Philemon B. Ewing, Nov. 2, 1863, 320) But the razor Sherman used was always military necessity as he saw it. He once wrote James B. McPherson to suppress "riots disorders and irregularities" in his area of operations but not to bother "about the rights or wrongs growing out of the differences between Masters and Servants, the employer and employed. This is none of our business." (WTS to McPherson, Nov. 18, 1863, 574)

Sherman was also intensely skeptical of using Blacks as combat soldiers, and largely squelched efforts to recruit additional Blacks as soldiers within his Division, preferring instead to use them as teamsters, cooks, and laborers. During the Atlanta campaign he had the hide of some officers who tried to recruit African American men thus employed. He flatly refused to permit U.S. Colored Troops in his field armies, instead using them to guard his vast line of communications. When a black garrison was massacred at Fort Pillow, Tennessee (along with a number of white Tennessee Unionist soldiers), Sherman was philosophical. "Of course [Nathan Bedford] Forrest & all southerners will kill them and their white officers," he wrote his brother John. "We all knew that." (WTS to JS, April 22, 1864, p.628)

Part 1 - Part 2
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Snake Bite - Pt 4
Tuesday, August 23, 2005, 06:54 PM - Counterfactuals and Contingency

Capt. William E. Merrill

The blog has received a spike in hits today, which led me to poke around to see from whence they came. Aside from the usual--I get a number of visits each day from people searching for images of "yin and yang", for instance--I see quite a few from members of Civil War West, a moderated Yahoo discussion group.

The instigator, so to speak, was a member who posted this morning: "Everybody’s favorite topic is being covered in Mark Grimsley’s blog" and gave the link. This generated thunderous silence, so after a while the member wrote: "Hmmm…I really thought this would have stimulated some discussion on this group." Which did provoke a smattering of response, mostly along these lines:

What new information does Grimsley present that you feel would have stimulated discussion? Other than some nice visuals, like the satellite image, his articles seemed like the same-old same-old to me.


And indeed, if you search the group's archives for "Snake Creek Gap," you do find a number of hits--although frustratingly, the Yahoo search engine goes back only a few days at a time before calling it quits and forcing you to resend the query.

One recent respondent noted that I need to flesh out the counterfactual. He suggests that Grant might have appointed Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson over Thomas. Which is something I discuss in a comment to Part 1, but that's an easy thing to overlook.

What I have not seen on "Civil War West," nor on what I could find in searches of other Civil War groups, is a discussion that focuses on staff work rather than commanders. I do not claim credit for any great originality here. But it does seem to me that, at least in terms of knowledge of the existence of Snake Creek Gap among the high command, staff work is a key factor.

For example, Federal cavalry during the Atlanta campaign carried this map, lithographed on muslin so that it could be stowed in saddlebags:



You can click on it for a larger image, but it's a big file and if you're using dial-up, you might go make a sandwich while it loads. The key detail is here anyway:



It's still not that easy to make out, because I was limited by the resolution of my source image, but Snake Creek Gap is clearly visible, accurately located and named.

The guy responsible for the map was Captain William E. Merrill. He is mentioned just twice in the Union reports of the Atlanta campaign (OR 38:1, p. 128; OR 38:3, p. 64). He is not found at all in the index to Albert Castel's Lincoln Prize-winning Decision in the West, the standard study of the campaign and generally considered one of the best Civil War campaign studies, period.

Merrill's low rank and virtual invisibility tells a lot about the importance--or rather lack of it--attached to good staff work during the Civil War. He graduated at the top of his West Point class in 1859 but served throughout the war as an engineer, not a line officer. He supervised creation of the maps that helped Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans win the campaign of maneuver which resulted in the bloodless capture of Chattanooga, Tennessee, in September 1863. When Rosecrans got the boot after Chickamauga, Merrill went to work for George H. Thomas. Earl B. McElfresh, a student of Civil War mapping, notes that the pair "were a perfect match because Thomas believed wholeheartedly in mapping and engineering. . . . The Army of the Cumberland set the standard for mapping of all Sherman's forces." (McElfresh, Maps and Mapmakers of the Civil War (New York: Henry N. Abrams, 1999), 244). Merrill ended the war as--drum roll!-- a brevet colonel.

Even so, the Union army plainly had staff work capable of gleaning intelligence about the topography of north Georgia, collating it into a reasonably accurate map, and above all mass-producing and distributing that map widely. By contrast, I know very little about the map found among the papers of that Confederate brigade commander (see previous entry), but the fact that nobody noticed its existence for over a century suggests to me that it was not mass produced or distributed. Indeed, one would need to know much more about just how widely the map was circulated. If by some chance the Confederate brigade commander had it made for himself, it's entirely possible it never made it up the chain of command.

On few subjects connected with the Civil War is it possible to say that nothing has been done. But there are quite a few that are significantly understudied, and staff work is one of them. Offhand I can think of one book on staff and headquarters operations in the Army of Northern Virginia and a handful on military intelligence, the medical services, etc. That's about it. One thing's for sure, however. Compared to their European parts, Civil War army commanders did way too much work that properly ought to have been delegated. This is a structural shortcoming, not a matter of "negligent" generals. And the fact that Union staff work was incrementally better than Confederate staff work may have been a significant factor in shaping Union victory. It certainly bears consideration with regard to Snake Creek Gap.

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7
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Snake Bite - Pt 3
Tuesday, August 23, 2005, 06:51 AM - Counterfactuals and Contingency
Below is an image and a link to an image showing Snake Creek Gap, the route Thomas wanted to use to get at Johnston's army. Thomas's scouts had discovered the gap after some minor skirmishes in February. They got all the way through the gap to Resaca and discovered that it was unguarded by rebel troops. That seems astounding, but the Federals kept an eye on the gap and it continued to look unoccupied.


Satellite photo of Snake Creek Gap; image created using Google Earth. (Click to enlarge)

Link to TopoZone Map centered on Snake Creek Gap

Why was this? We used to believe that the Confederates may not have been aware of the gap, but in recent years a map has surfaced that was carried by a Confederate brigade commander during the campaign and which does show the gap. Stephen Davis, in his study of the Atlanta campaign, assumes that Johnston must therefore have known of the gap and so was "negligent." That is fairly typical in Civil War military history--and indeed, all military history. It's what I call "what fools they were" history. If a serious mistake is made (and in war they happen all the time), you just say the officer responsible was negligent or an idiot or sulking or some other bad adjective, and you don't have to perform any further analysis.

Personally I think Johnston wanted very much to hold his position at Dalton for as long as possible, blocking every known gap was indispensable to that end, and thus if Snake Creek Gap remained unguarded it would be worthwhile to look elsewhere for an explanation. My guess is that Confederate staff work was inadequate. Civil War staffs tended to be much smaller than their European counterparts, staff officers had no specific training for the job, and without a really good system a lot of details were bound to be lost. I'd want to check out that hypothesis before I started talking about somebody's negligence.

Incidentally, in no area does military history needs to be blogged or flogged or dogged out of the Stone Age--even on its own traditionalist terms--than in the realm of adequate maps. Operational history is fundamentally concerned with time-space relationships, and the more fluid the action, the more you need maps that convey the action and do not resemble a maze of squiggles. When we were restricted to paper, a dearth of maps could be excused (or not: Douglas Southall Freeman had hundreds of maps in his books, simple but serviceable). Nowadays you can create as many maps as you want and post them online. You can create Flash presentations that animate those maps. You can do all sorts of things that would make it a lot easier for readers (or viewers) to follow the action.

And there's certainly lots of material on the web to help, as the images above attest.

Here's a cropped (and slightly modified) version of a map used at West Point. It may serve as a useful supplement, though it shows the Snake Creek Gap maneuver as actually executed. But switch "McPherson" and "Thomas" and you'll have the picture of Thomas's proposal.

Sherman, to repeat, nixed Thomas's proposal. But when he discovered that McPherson's army would be short 10,000 men during the coming campaign--thanks to the unfortunate Red River campaign in north Louisiana, to which the troops had been "loaned"--he scrapped his own original plan and ultimately decided to send McPherson through the Snake River Gap. But there were two important differences. McPherson had only about 40 percent of Thomas's numerical strength, and Sherman's orders instructed McPherson simply to cut the railroad at Resaca and then withdraw back to the southern end of the gap.



Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7

Snake Bite - Pt 2
Tuesday, August 23, 2005, 05:36 AM - Counterfactuals and Contingency
On March 10, while Grant was in Washington to receive his promotion to lieutenant general and command of all Union armies, Sherman penned an adoring and somewhat anxious letter to his newly elevated friend:

Now as the future. Do not stay in Washington. Halleck is better qualified than you are to stand the buffets of intrigue and policy. Come out West; take to yourself the whole Mississippi Valley; let us make it dead-sure, and I tell you the Atlantic slope and pacific shores will follow its destiny assure as the limbs of a tree live or die with the main trunk! . . . For God's sake and your country's sake, come out of Washington! . . . Here lies the seat of the coming empirel and from the West, when our task is done, we will make short work of Charleston and Richmond, and the impoverished coast of the Atlantic.(Sherman to Grant, March 10, 1864, Simpson and Berlin (eds.), Sherman's Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860-1865, pp. 603-604.

Sherman obviously believed that Georgia, not Virginia, should be the main focus of the Union spring offensive. He wrote his wife Ellen:
Grant in command--Thomas the Center [John] Schofield the Left & Sherman the right, if we can't whip [Confederate general] Joe Johnston we will know the reason why. (WTS to Ellen, March 10, 1864, ibid., 605)

This sounds as if Sherman expected that Grant would wear two hats: as general in chief and commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi. McClellan in 1862 had done something like that--combining the post of general in chief with personal command of the Army of the Potomac. Grant, of course, rejected this idea. Historians usually highlight two reasons: first, he believed that the Army of the Potomac was unduly influenced by politics and that only his personal presence and authority could prevent this; second, he believed Lee's army in Virginia was the most important military objective. Would the disappearance of Sherman have caused him to reverse himself and, ironically, do as Sherman had urged? Not, I think, as long as Grant maintained his opinion that Lee's army was the first great object and that the potential for Washington to interfere in this matter had to be neutralized.

That leaves Thomas operating independently in the Mississippi valley. As he did with Sherman, however, Grant would have asked to know Thomas's plans for the coming offensive. We don't have to guess at this plan. We know its outlines because Thomas pitched it to Sherman in March 1864.

Henceforth the discussion requires some knowledge of the armies involved in the Atlanta Campaign and the way the campaign unfolded. Fortunately we have available the nicely done The Atlanta Campaign: An Album, which combines text, maps, and images (particularly present-day photographs) in a nice package. If you get confused or want further detail, try using that.

The Confederate Army of Tennessee under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston had taken up a strong defensive position on Rocky Face Ridge just west of Dalton, Georgia. Nobody wanted to attack this position directly. (Sherman, for one, called it "the terrible door of death.") It was obvious to everyone--Federals and Confederates--that the position would have to be "enveloped"--which means struck on its more vulnerable side; or "turned," which means a movement aimed at threatening the enemy's line of communications so severely that the enemy must abandon an otherwise good position. (Just as an aside: military historians who bemoan the obscure language of postmodern and new cultural historians ought to think about how our lingo sounds to outside ears.)

Here is Sherman's original plan. It's a turning movement, not an envelopment:



Essentially, Sherman would use most of his force--the Army of the Cumberland (Thomas) and the Army of the Ohio (Schofield) to "fix"--or pin--Johnston in place while the Army of the Tennessee (James B. McPherson) marched from its camps near Huntsville, Alabama, and seized Rome, Georgia. You'll see that a railroad runs east from Rome to Kingston, where it meets the Western & Atlantic Railroad. The W&A was critical to Johnston. It was the main conduit for supplies and reinforcements and his best way to keep in touch with Richmond and the rest of the South was by way of the telegraph lines that paralleled the tracks. If McPherson could get to Rome, he would have an easy shot at Kingston just thirteen miles to the east. Johnston would have to retreat, and Sherman would have gained.

Here is the plan Thomas vainly urged upon Sherman:



Once again, some forces pin Johnston in place--only this time it's the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of the Ohio that receive the job. The Army of the Cumberland will march via Snake Creek Gap to Resaca, also on the Western & Atlantic Railroad but much closer to Johnston's army, which means Johnston has a reduced chance of retreating unscathed. Thomas, in short, imagines an envelopment followed by a decisive battle. But wait--wouldn't the Confederates have foreseen and blocked such a dangerous move?

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7

Snake Bite - Pt 1
Monday, August 22, 2005, 07:22 PM - Counterfactuals and Contingency

William T. Sherman; George H. Thomas

When Grant was appointed general in chief in March 1864, his first act was to name a successor to his own previous job as commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi, a zone of responsibility stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. (See map.) That successor, of course, was Sherman, the subordinate Grant trusted most. But if we erased Grant and/or Sherman, what difference would that make? Were Grant and Sherman indispensable to Northern victory in 1865, as Civil War historians often imply, or did the North have a pool of senior generals who could have achieved equivalent results? Just how important was the military leadership of specific individuals compared with other variables, so-called "second-order" variables that would tend to push events back down the paths they took historically: superior Union military strength and manufacturing capacity, internal stresses within the Confederacy, and so on?

In keeping with the "minimum rewrite" rule of counterfactuals, let's remove only Sherman from the war. We'll assume that he suffered crippling grief over the death of his son Willy, though he could just as easily have contracted a fatal case of pneumonia, typhoid fever, or any of a dozen illnesses. (He did in fact have significant respiratory problems in January 1864 and did not fully recover until April). His most likely replacement would have been Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas. Grant, to be sure, is well known to have had quiet misgivings about Thomas. But few others did. By March 1864 Thomas had acquired the reputation of never having lost a battle. It was his Army of the Cumberland that had played the principal role in winning the battle of Chattanooga and it was Thomas's firm determination that had earlier saved that army (then under command of Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans) from complete disaster at the battle of Chickamauga. Thomas was also senior to anyone else Grant would have wanted even remotely for the job. (He was senior to Sherman, for that matter.) And although historian Richard McMurry is correct to point out that Thomas, a native Virginian, had few political patrons in Washington, he did have the full support of Tennessee's military governor, Andrew Johnson, who told Lincoln about this time that Thomas would be "one of the great generals of the war, if not the greatest." (OR 32:3, p. 105) Preferring Sherman to Thomas was one thing. Utterly snubbing Thomas would have been quite another.

We could stop our counterfactual exercise right here by noting that Thomas, historically, continued to be one of the war's most successful generals. Most military historians rate him at or near the same level as Grant, Sherman, and Philip H. Sheridan. Some consider him the best of the lot. But Thomas and Sherman were not interchangeable parts. Can we make any reasoned guesses about what Thomas would have done in Sherman's place, and do these guesses suggest any interesting questions?

But first we have to reflect on the unhappy position in which Grant would have found himself with his most trusted lieutenant incapacitated or extinct.

Grant would almost certainly have given Thomas the same mission that historically he gave to Sherman:

You I propose to move against Johnston's army, to break it up, and to get into the interior of the enemy's country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources. (OR 32:3, p. 246)

But whether he would have followed those lines with these is another matter:

I do not propose to lay down for you a plan of campaign, but simply to lay down the work it is desirable to have done, and leave you free to execute it in your own way.

The loss of Sherman would have given Grant one of three basic choices. He could indeed have given Thomas the same operational discretion as Sherman. He could have given Thomas more detailed instructions, as he often did with subordinates (unlike his predecessor Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, who believed on principle that field commanders were in the best position to judge what ought to be done). Or he could have scrapped his plan to travel with the Army of the Potomac and returned west to oversee Thomas the way he did historically with the Potomac army's commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. Simply considering which option Grant would most likely have pursued obliges us to revisit Grant's command style, his set of priorities, and the importance to him of his partnership with Sherman.

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On Getting It Done - Pt 2
Monday, August 22, 2005, 03:23 PM - The Craft of History
The mechanics of how I go about researching and writing a book are probably not all that unusual. When I set out to write a book, I begin by doing the research for it. I try to finish all of the research before I start writing, but sometimes an issue comes up during the writing that requires further research.

When I travel to manuscript repositories in distant parts of the country I ply the photocopy machines as freely as the staff and rules of the institution will allow, and when I run up against limits on copying I type notes into my laptop computer. A friend recently shared with me how he was able to use his digital camera to capture images of documents (with the permission of the staff, of course), and I’m looking forward to trying that method. The goal is to get as much information as possible during the briefest (and therefore cheapest) possible stay on location.

When I’m back home I key all of my research into my computer, from which I print it out on 4x6 “note cards.” Actually I print it on sheets of ordinary paper, formatted to fit on a 4x6 card. I turn the paper, print the other end, and then trim the notes down to 4x6 size with a paper cutter. It’s rather laborious, but the slips then fit into 4x6 filing boxes and are about the right size for me to work with while writing. I haven’t found any better way to manipulate information. In the heading of each note card I include the source citation, the project it belongs to (I often work on more than one book project at a time), and the historic date to which its information pertains.

Once I’ve finished gathering all of the information, then comes the task of organizing it. I read over the note cards, getting a feel for the sort of story they contain. Whereas during the research phase I function like a vacuum cleaner, sucking in every bit of pertinent information I can find, that now changes, and I begin to lay aside note cards that contain information that is extraneous, insignificant, or simply inferior to other anecdotes for illustrating a point. This process of winnowing continues almost every time I handle the note cards right up until I actually write the text. Because my favorite approach to history is narrative, I usually arrange my note cards in chronological order and then modify that according to the order in which I want to tell the story.

When the time for writing arrives, I have a pretty good idea of how I will divide the chapters. I then take the note cards for chapter one, read them again, lay aside more of them, revise their sequence, and begin writing. The writing process involves reading the ten or twelve note cards on the top of the stack, laying aside two or three of them, and telling the story that is contained in the remaining cards. Then I pick up the next bunch of cards and repeat the process. Of course, I frequently re-read and revise what I have written, so as to try to keep the story smooth and flowing.

As I write, I usually have a number of books spread around me. I usually don’t bother to take notes on secondary sources. Instead I just refer to the books now and then while writing.

I try to set aside one or two days a week for writing, even during the academic year—much more of course in the summer. I find I’m able to accomplish additional work by getting up at 4:30 and getting in a few hours of writing before class. Lately, though, I’ve been slacking off quite a bit and lying abed until 5:30.

I rather doubt there’s anything in all of this that is much different from what many other historians do, except perhaps the early mornings. So in the end, I’m still at a loss to reveal any secret to great productivity—other than an ability to get by on six hours of sleep every night.

Part 1 - Part 2
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On Getting It Done - Pt 1
Monday, August 22, 2005, 03:20 PM - The Craft of History


A guest post by Steven E. Woodworth, professor of history, Texas Christian University

Steven is the author of numerous books on the Civil War era. His latest, Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in October.

Mark and I were talking the other day, and he suggested that I write a short piece describing my methods for writing history. He was nice enough to say that I’ve been unusually productive, and he thought a discussion of my methods might be of use or interest to others practicing the craft of history.

The first problem I encounter in doing this is that I’m not exactly sure what has enabled me to write as many books as I have—24 authored, co-authored, or edited since 1990, two more in press. I have a very supportive wife, and thanks to her I’m able to put a lot of time into my writing. Early in my teaching career I developed a fairly austere way of organizing my classes. That is, I base each course around several exams and don’t assign a lot of what I would call “busy-work.” The students seem to like this regime and learn at least as much as they did back when I first started teaching and used methods that were much more laborious for me and, I assume, for them. This also has given me more time to write. Perhaps these factors account for any advantage I may have enjoyed in productivity.

As to the way I do my work, I’m a slow reader and a fast writer. The former means I have to struggle to keep up with all the reading a Civil War historian is expected to do, but the latter may have been of help to me in publishing. I think the two are related. I’m slow at reading because, unless I make a very strong effort not to, I tend to read silently the same way I would if I were reading aloud—but without vocalizing. However, I think that “listening,” as it were, to all of that prose has helped me to become fairly adept at stringing sentences together at a pretty good pace.

Whether the result is of high quality would be for my readers to judge. At times, reviewers, including one reader engaged by a press to review a book proposal I wrote, have said that I write too much and therefore my work is of inferior quality. That bothers me for a couple of reasons. First, I wish they would simply point out the flaws in my work and leave it at that. I know flaws exist, and occasionally I discover what some of them are. But criticism on the basis of productivity seems unfair when the reason for the productivity might be simply that I burn more midnight oil.

Second, such reviewers give me undeserved credit for being able to write better books if I would write them more slowly. I’m not at all sure that I could. Generally, when I send a manuscript to a publisher it’s as good as I know how to make it, given the type of work it is. By that I mean that short works of synthesis are not long works of primary research, but if I had known how to make any of my manuscripts better at being what they were supposed to be (with one exception that I can recall—a case of a frantically impatient publisher) I would have done so.

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