Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Savior Generals by Victor Davis Hanson - Sherman

I’m loving learning about the Civil War. So I was excited to see that Victor Davis Hansen included General Sherman as the 3rd story in his book The Savior Generals. He entitled the piece, “Atlanta is Ours and Fairly Won.” Compared to his contemporaries, Sherman seems an unlikely man to become one of the very few to be given the title “Savior General.” Yet his apparent background of “failure” provided exactly what he needed to go on to secure Atlanta for the Union.

Hansen writes, “Quite unknowingly, by taking on and losing job after job, he had been engaged in a three-decade-long course of practical and formal preparation for generalship in a new age of mobile and total warfare. At one time or another, Sherman had refined his formal education at West Point with jobs as diverse as college administrator, banker, businessman, farmer, lawyer, and trader. He had visited and been deployed throughout much of the United States even as he was written off as a hopeless failure. At one point, Sherman confessed, ‘I was afraid of my own shadow.’”

After victories at Shiloh and Vicksburg, Grant was moved to head the entire Union army in the east. Sherman was left to the western front. But Grant was bogged down on his way to Richmond after a devastating defeat at Cold Harbor. 

Politically, Lincoln was in trouble. The election was coming up and the nation was war weary. The country appeared ready to replace Lincoln with the incompetent general McClellan, whom Lincoln had fired. McClellan promised to end the war which would effectively leave the union split into two nations. Lincoln needed a major victory soon if he was to have any chance at reelection. 

Paradoxically, the farther into the South the Federals pushed, the harder victory became. They encountered the age-old problem in war. More land had to be occupied with fewer troops who more stretched and removed from their home territory and stable supply lines. Lee figured out that the battle had become political more than military. The longer he could hold out, the closer to the election it got, and the surer Lincoln’s defeat become. Lee just had to run out the clock, not defeat the North. 

Meanwhile, Grant was bogged down in the horrendous “Wilderness Campaign” on his way to Richmond. The mind-numbing number of casualties he was suffering continued to contribute to the nation’s sense of defeat. It became apparent that there was no way Grant would make it to Richmond in time to secure a victory before the election.

While Grant fought in the wilderness, Sherman set out from Tennessee with Atlanta in his sights. With the win at Vicksburg, the Union controlled the Mississippi. If Grant could march to Atlanta, the South would be cut in half again and the war effectively won. But the calendar read May 7. He had only a few short months to end a war which had been going on three years at this point.

Sherman instituted a three-pronged approach towards Georgia. As Sherman neared, Confederate general Johnston felt his position to be untenable and despite six months spent building fortifications, he retreated without a fight. 

The Federals continued to push Johnston who continued to retreat. Johnston was trying to do to Sherman what Lee was doing to Grant. Johnston sought to slowly draw Sherman towards a big decisive battle or costly stalemate, while keeping an eye on the calendar. However, the geography worked in Sherman’s favor. “There was simply not enough land between Sherman and Atlanta to ensure, at the present rate of advance, that he would not get there before the critical November election.” Sherman kept pressing and pushing Johnston inexorably closer and closer to Atlanta. Johnston hope the lengthening supply lines and wild terrain along with occasional skirmishes would run out the clock.

Despite his success at living off the land and continuing to push Johnston, in June, Sherman deviated from his plan. He decided to attack the now dug in Confederates at Kennesaw Mountain. Rather than being the decisive victory Lincoln needed, the Union forces suffered a punishing defeat. Unlike Grant, Sherman learned his lesson. He would not continue that suicidal head-on tactic, knowing that with his larger and more motivated army, he could keep pushing Johnston. 

As Johnston continued to retreat and the Union advanced further into the South, southern morale began to plummet. Jefferson Davis had had enough of the retreating Johnston and in a fatal decision replaced the cool, even-tempered general with the young, fiery and impetuous Hood. No more simply chasing the confederates. Hood stood his ground and fought. But he could not win against Sherman who continued to push the rebels towards Atlanta at devastating costs to the South. 

Sherman besieged Atlanta, destroying the life-blood railroad tracks that brought supplies into the city. On September, Hood pulled his forces from the city, blowing up the city’s munitions as Sherman entered. “In less than fifteen weeks since leaving Tennessee, Sherman with relatively light casualties had taken the second most important city of the Confederacy. His army remained over eighty thousand soldiers strong -- not that much smaller than when he had begun the Atlanta campaign.”

While Sherman was faulted for letting Hood and his army escape, he accomplished some pretty amazing things. First, he provided a huge morale boost to the North and destroyed McClellan’s presidential bid. Second, he ensured very light casualties. Third, the continued attacks on Hood’s forces at Atlanta had reduced the rebel numbers by half. Fourth, Hood was unable to reinforce Lee. Fifth, the North was positions deep inside the South. Sixth, Sherman gave deference to Grant and so saved the man’s sinking reputation. 

After the victory over Atlanta, Sherman continued to march to the sea, eventually making into Virginia and with Grant, forcing an official end to the war in April 1865. Sherman’s widely remarked upon pillaging and burning the South as he marched east had the desired effect of uncontrovertibly defeating and humiliating the South. He wanted them to see once and for all the ramifications of their decision to inflict war on the United States. 

Without the courage and decisiveness of Uncle Billy and his men, Lincoln might very well have lost the election and the United State today would look very different.

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