Partners in Command

This book by Professor Joseph T. Glatthaar starts out as a fairly conventional study with the standard interpretations of individuals such as Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan, but as we get into it we see it has some additional nuggets that make it worthwhile.

In describing the book, Dr. Glatthaar writes, “As American military history has demonstrated, an abundance of war resources does not guarantee success. Political and military leaders must generate power from those resources and direct and sustain it at what the Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz called the enemy’s center of gravity, its critical source of strength, to achieve victory. Even before the Civil War, nationalism and industrialization had magnified the scope of war exponentially. No longer could a single individual supervise mobilization, oversee policies, plan strategy, administer the forces, and direct field operations. Warfare had become too complicated for that. Political and military leaders had to collaborate, to establish effective partnerships that could translate strategic vision into battlefield execution. They needed to learn how to join with others to harness and employ their resources most efficiently in order to triumph in the war. This book is about those command relationships. It focuses on how commanders in chief interact with top field generals, and how those officers work with critical subordinates.” [p. vii]

As he tells us in the Preface, for this study Dr. Glatthaar focused on six relationships: R. E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, Lincoln and McClellan, Jefferson Davis and Joseph E. Johnston, Ulysses Grant and William T. Sherman, Grant’s and Sherman’s relationships with Admiral David Dixon Porter, and Lincoln and Grant. He tells us, “I selected these six because of the critical effect of each partnership on the success or failure of its armed forces. Interesting and sometimes colorful personalities individually, together they either offer a unique perspective on or provide distinctive insights into the varied forms of command relationships. All mightily influenced the course of the war, shaping its conduct and affecting its outcome.” [p. viii]

Dr. Glatthaar gives us a cogent analysis of the Lee-Jackson relationship, as well as a good analysis of the two generals. He tells us, “From active duty in Mexico and the Confederacy, readings on Napoleon’s campaigns, and mature reflection, Lee had honed his skills in the operational art of war. Simply stated, the operational art is the use of military forces to achieve strategic objectives in a theater of war. Often accomplished through a campaign or series of campaigns, it seeks to concentrate military power against the enemy’s center of gravity, its source of strength. Lee certainly possessed a powerful sense of vision and a firm grasp of the complex interrelationship of ends, ways, and means. Both qualities lay at the heart of effective thought on the operational level. Yet Lee also had an uncanny talent for anticipating the movements of the enemy. As a trained engineer and student of war for more than thirty years, Lee understood the possibilities that confronted his opponents, and by studying their decisions and courses of action, he gained great insight into the minds of the enemy leaders. He understood how they reacted to particular circumstances and used that information to predict how they would respond to specific situations that he created. In this instance, Lee most likely perceived Northern public opinion as the enemy’s true source of strength. If he could convince the populace that the price of victory was too high, or that the Union could not conquer the Confederacy, the Federal war effort would collapse. He also surmised that Lincoln, a politician with limited military knowledge, believed above all else that the Union could least afford to lose Washington to the Confederacy. The North could replace manpower; but shock waves from Washington’s capture could collapse public support for the Union war effort. The Federal president, then, took excessive precautions to defend the city, and Lee, sensitive to his opponent’s decisions, intuited this fear and intended on exploiting it.” [pp. 20-21] Where Lee failed, according to Dr. Glatthaar, was in an area most amateurs don’t appreciate. “Like Jackson, Lee suffered from poor maps, and his headquarters staff did not adapt well to operational duty. His most egregious problem was to repeat an error that surfaced in his initial campaign: Lee attempted to coordinate too many independent columns. He overburdened himself and his staff, and in the end, while his army drove the Federals back from the gates of Richmond, it squandered golden opportunities to carve up large chunks of McClellan’s command. What Lee achieved in boldness of plan and combat aggressiveness he diminished through ineffective command and control.” [p. 35] In other words, Lee’s major problem was not developing an effective staff that could handle all the minute details necessary for a modern army to function efficiently. Confederate soldiers and their combat leaders were great fighters, but the lack of an effective general staff crippled them because so many details were missed it caused the army to miss opportunity after opportunity.

While that was a very sagacious analysis, where Dr. Glatthaar’s study really shines is in his analysis of the raiding strategy Grant and Sherman developed during the latter part of the war, something most scholars have missed entirely. “At Halleck’s request, Grant submitted another plan in mid-January 1864, this one focusing on the Eastern Theater. As an alternative to the bloodbath of Virginia, Grant suggested a massive raid, some 60,000 troops, from Suffolk, Virginia, into North Carolina. The army would destroy the Weldon Railroad, one of Lee’s principal means of supply, and drive on to Raleigh, wrecking anything of military value, consuming foodstuffs and forage, confiscating slaves, and wholly disrupting life in the region. This campaign most likely would compel Lee to evacuate Virginia due to supply problems, and the chaos in North Carolina would lead to massive defections and desertions n the state. From Raleigh, the army had a viable escape route and supply base at New Bern, or it could attack Wilmington, still an open port, from the rear. Halleck dismissed the scheme before he even presented it to the president. In a clouded response that was uncharacteristic of the scholarly general in chief, Halleck insisted that he had not designated Richmond the primary target for the Army of the Potomac; rather, ‘that point is Lee’s army. I have never supposed Richmond could be taken till Lee’s army was defeated or driven away.’ Citing Napoleon Bonaparte as his source of authority, Halleck argued that taking the direct overland route from Washington toward Richmond and targeting the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia offered the best prospects for success. Presently, he doubted that the Union could generate a force of 60,000, which in any case might not be strong enough to accomplish the mission. ‘Our main efforts in the next campaign should unquestionably be made against the armies of Lee and Johnston,’ he persisted.” [pp. 201-202] And his next point drives home how Grant’s and Sherman’s view surpassed Halleck’s: “Neither Lincoln nor Stanton nor Halleck seemed to comprehend the merits of Grant’s proposals. Both the North Carolina and Mobile plans were so contrary to the traditional notions of warfare that had emerged from the Napoleonic era, so rooted in actual experiences in the Mississippi River Valley, that the leadership in Washington had no basis from which to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. Other than the idea of fighting all year long, they found little redeeming value in the concept of a raiding strategy.” [p. 202]

In explaining the raiding strategy, especially during Sherman’s March, Dr. Glatthaar writes, “Employing the fundamental principles of speed, surprise, maneuverability, economy of force, and concentration of power at the decisive point, the raiding strategy struck deep into the vulnerable enemy rear. It damaged Southern will to resist and sapped the strength of the principal Rebel armies indirectly, so that when Federals engaged them in major operations, the Rebel forces entered combat from a position of weakness. By demolishing the railroads, Grant and Sherman prevented valuable supplies from reaching Confederate troops, worsening the plight of the men, promoting desertion, and limiting the ability of Rebel armies to operate effectively. It eschewed the occupation of territory, which squandered the might of an army by siphoning off valuable manpower. ‘A large army,’ Sherman asserted, ‘is wasted in detachments.’ Without garrisons and supply lines, Federals removed primary targets from Rebel cavalrymen and guerrillas. As the raiding force penetrated a region, it dismantled railroads, burned bridges, destroyed any manufacturing facilities, consumed food, confiscated livestock, liberated slaves, terrorized civilians by the mere presence of the enemy, and wholly disrupted the lives of Confederate citizens. In turn, the raiding strategy demoralized the Rebel troops, who could not shield the folks at home from Yankee ravages, and spurred desertion, as soldiers abandoned the army to look after the needs of loved ones.” [p. 204] He next shows how Halleck and Lincoln didn’t understand the true nature of things. “Lincoln and his key advisors confused ‘ways’ with ‘ends’ in their strategic formulation. Defeat the Confederate armies, they believed, and you defeat the Confederacy. By comparison, Grant and Sherman argued that the ‘end,’ or what the Union hoped to accomplish by this war, was to compel the secessionists to return peacefully into the Union. Whipping the Rebel armies was only part of the equation; the Federals had to make war on the Southern people, to convince them that life within the Union far exceeded the quality of existence outside it. The Union needed to crush the secessionist spirit from the Southerners. Thus, the raiding strategy operated well in conjunction with a more traditional strategy that sought the destruction of Confederate armies.” [p. 205]

The discussion of Joe Johnston, David D. Porter, and Jefferson Davis is equally insightful. His view of McClellan and Lincoln follows the established patterns of Lincoln the unschooled genius and McClellan the brilliant fool. Those views are too simplistic in my view, and there are a few minor errors of fact along the way, such as saying before the war Lee was colonel of the First US Cavalry [p. 9] when Lee actually had been colonel of the Second US Cavalry in Texas. These don’t detract at all from the usefulness of the book. I can recommend this book to serious students of the war.

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