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Richard M. McMurry

Författare till Atlanta 1864: Last Chance for the Confederacy

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Om författaren

Richard M. McMurry is an independent scholar and the author of John Bell Hood and the War for Southern Independence and Two Great Rebel Armies: An Essay in Confederate Military History
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McMurry, Richard Manning



Quick: Name one universally accepted opinion about the American Civil War. C'mon, I'm waiting....

There aren't many. But I can think of one: That the Confederates performed much better on the Virginia front than they did on the Western front from the Appalachians to the Mississippi. It's generally felt that the Confederates lost the war because they performed so poorly in the West that they first lost control of New Orleans, then most of Tennessee, then access to the areas west of the Mississippi, and eventually to everything west of Georgia. This was mostly the responsibility of the major army west of the Appalachians, called for most of its existence the "Army of Tennessee" or some variation on that.

This book is an attempt to evaluate why. It gives a great deal of attention to geography -- e.g. it points out that the Virginia front was narrow and easy to control, and offered significant defensive positions between Washington and Richmond, whereas in the West there was a front too wide to be defended by a single army and with relatively few places with the transport facilities to set up a good defensive position anyway. Then, too, the rivers in the west flow mostly north and south, giving the northerners easy routes into the south. The effect of this was to make it much harder for the western Confederates to choose the time and place of their battles.

Also the eastern Confederacy had more men with military training available on a per capita basis, and a stronger militia tradition; in effect, author McMurry argues that it was easier to turn their individual men into an army. I'm not sure I buy the militia argument, but I do accept the value of the greater resources of command.

McMurry argues a few other points, none of that degree of importance, but in the end, he argues one other point: Virginia had Robert E. Lee, and the West didn't.

This is, I think, where the work falls down. Oh, I am not arguing for a moment that Lee wasn't a better commander than (e.g.) Braxton Bragg, and that that made a tremendous amount of difference. But I don't think it makes all the difference. What if Albert Sidney Johnston hadn't been killed at Shiloh, or if P.G.T. Beauregard had simply set up the army so that the three Confederate "corps" had each attacked in a single sector rather than being spread out in waves that were too large for their commanders to control. What if Benjamin McCulloch had not been killed early at Pea Ridge and the Confederates had not botched that thoroughly winnable battle? What if Jefferson Davis had named someone other than the incompetent John Pemberton to command at Vicksburg? If there is one thing that history teaches us, it's that war involves a tremendous number of blunders and accidents, and a good case could be made (Lee's Lost Order notwithstanding) that much of the difference between the two Confederate armies lay in luck.

And, too, Lee made his mistakes. Malvern Hill. Antietam. Pickett's Charge. McMurray asks what might have happened had Lee had 15,000 more men at Mine Run in late 1863. Good question. Where could he have found those 15,000 men? Well, he could have found at least 5,000 of them by not making a nitwit charge into an obviously impregnable Federal position and getting those 5,000 men killed, disabled, or captured!

This book asks an important question, and it tries to give an answer -- and some of its suggestions (e.g. the geography and command resources points) are very good. The appendix -- about the training and availability of generals, state by state -- is also fascinating and very useful. But I can't feel that McMurry has added a whole lot to the debate. If he has had any success, it lies in reminding us of what issues we should be considering.
… (mer)
waltzmn | Jul 18, 2023 |
General Joseph E. Johnston, according to an account I read somewhere, was a crack shot. Yet when invited to go on a hunting trip, one of his companions recorded that he never took a shot -- he would sometimes prepare to fire, but he never pulled the trigger. Apparently he was so determined to never miss that he never actually made the attempt.

That anecdote is sometimes taken as a sort of microcosm of Johnston's career as an army commander. Certainly it has applicability to the Georgia campaign of 1864. In the aftermath of the Battle of Chattanooga in 1863, in which the Confederate armies were utterly routed, the Union had called Ulysses S. Grant to Washington to be General in Chief, and Grant had put his close friend William Tecumseh Sherman in charge of operations west of the Appalachians. Braxton Bragg, who had commanded the Confederates at Chattanooga, clearly had to go, and Jefferson Davis -- having no obvious alternative -- had put Johnston in charge of rebuilding the shattered army and defending Georgia.

Johnston did a fine job of rebuilding the Confederate army, but he committed to a strategy of mostly passive defense, hoping that Sherman would attack him head-on and get so badly hurt that Johnston could counter-attack. Sherman -- who had something like a 3:2 advantage in manpower, and a much greater advantage in the area of logistics -- was unwilling to play Johnston's game. He followed a strategy of threatening to go around Johnston's fortified lines and out-flank him. Johnston never seemed to anticipate those moves, and had to constantly retreat. Eventually Johnston found himself on the outskirts of Atlanta -- and out of a job. Jefferson Davis, tired of retreats and fearful that Johnston would give up Atlanta itself, promoted John Bell Hood to take over from Johnston. Hood, brand-new to army command, made a few attempts to attack Sherman, failed consistently, and was eventually forced to pull out of Atlanta. With that, this account ends.

Overall, it is an enlightening telling, showing (e.g.) just how bad Johnston's relations with Davis were, and how that contributed to to problems of the Confederate army. It reminds us that Sherman, although the first great proponent of so-called "modern war," was no great shakes as a tactical commander; he never planned a successful battle, and didn't really try -- he just kept maneuvering, and Johnston let him get away with it. Also, Sherman was a man of cliques, like his boss Grant, and often followed his prejudices, even when it meant promoting a pious nitwit like Oliver O. Howard over Joseph Hooker (pushing Hooker out of the army) or ignoring George H. Thomas, the best Union general of the war -- as McMurry points out, it was Thomas, not Sherman, who finally destroyed Hood's army. Not that Sherman was the only one; Johnston had inherited a clique-ridden army from Bragg, and while he improved things somewhat, he definitely didn't cure the problem, and it would be one of the reasons -- though hardly the only one -- for eventual Confederate defeat.

Finally, McMurry also gives us a look at Hood's command of the army. Most historians describe Hood as being basically mindlessly aggressive, attacking at every chance he had until his army was so ruined that it could do no more. McMurry shows that, in fact, Hood located genuine opportunities that might have allowed a Confederate victory if Hood's subordinates had been able to manage a real, coordinated attack. But they always ended up fighting piecemeal and getting lost, and so being defeated in detail. The Atlanta campaign was a story of failures all around, but the Yankees, who started with the strategic initiative and managed to hold it, doing somewhat better.

As a history of the battles, this is somewhat lacking; few details are given, and while there are helpful maps, they are all large-scale maps of the general theater -- there isn't a single detailed map of the areas where Johnston wanted to fight his battles, or of his and Sherman's positions, and Hood's attempts to save the city don't earn any maps at all. If you want to understand the actual fights, you'll need to consult another source. As a history of the campaign, it is much better, discussing strategy, logistics, and the political situation on both sides. I have a few quibbles -- I think McMurry is a little harsh toward Confederates Johnston and Hardee, his second in command, and perhaps doesn't do enough to look at the machinations of Union corps commander John M. Schofield. I disagree with his conclusion that putting Hood in charge of the army rather than Johnston actually let the Confederates hold Atlanta longer. But on the whole, I think this a very useful overview of the Atlanta campaign that is free of the usual biases. The Atlanta campaign rarely gets the coverage it deserves. This is a useful counterweight.
… (mer)
waltzmn | 1 annan recension | Jun 18, 2023 |
The author approaches the Atlanta campaign from both military and political aspects. He does not provide detailed information on the actual battles only summary information. For details on the battles see Decesion in the West by Castel. McMurry does provide perspectives that shed new light on the campaign. He evaluates the players and shows both their strengths and weaknesses. He addresses many of the what-ifs that would later be part of the Lost Cause theories. The book makes the reader doubt the perspectives outlined in many of the autobiographies written by the players.… (mer)
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dhughes | 1 annan recension | Nov 14, 2009 |


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