Once More Unto the Breach

I tread carefully in this post because I have not read the related posts over at Buckethead’s site; he is blocked at my workplace.

However, as a loyal minion, I have the Maximum Leader’s back, even if I disagree about some details.

The Maximum Leader is correct that the Confederacy was stillborn. Once the fire-eaters shelled Fort Sumter, the march to crushing defeat was inevitable.

I too find it interesting to contemplate why it took so long for the vastly superior North to overthrow the South. The Maximum Leader attributes the delayed victory to some proportion of Northern military incompetence mixed with Southern military competence. “Better” Southern generals certainly bloodied the nose of Lincoln’s early political generals, but their skill would also be a contributing factor in the South’s inexorable march to ruin.

Let me ‘splain.

In the early years of the war, there was indeed a competence gap due to culture and experience.

The divergent cultures of the North and South had created a situation that favored the South in 1860. The best and brightest Northerners went into business fields. In the South, planters’ aristocratic mindset, consciously emulating the European nobility, looked down upon “money-grubbing” commerce (and we all know how well a refusal to adjust to capitalism worked out for the European bluebloods). The emulation of Europe also led to a modified system of primogeniture, in which the firstborn son would inherit the vast majority of a family’s land. Second sons would have to make their own way in the world. Socially acceptable avenues were the military, the clergy, medicine, or the law. So a good proportion of the South’s best and brightest went to West Point.

The South also had a huge advantage in military experience. Southerners provided the vast majority of soldiers and officers in the Mexican-American War (Northerners largely opposed the war as a transparent attempt to steal more land for the expansion of slavery).

The company-level commanders of 1846 would become brigade and divisional commanders in 1861. Folks like Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet cut their teeth on the plains of Mexico. There were future Northern generals who marched South in 1846 (Grant and Sherman come to mind), but they were in the minority.

The Mexican War experience was not entirely positive for the South’s Civil War chances. Between the 1840s and 1860s, Eli Whitney’s interchangeable parts revolution meant that the cost of rifles fell low enough to allow governments to equip all of their soldiers with rifles. Rifles had been around much longer, but the huge expense of handcrafting these weapons meant that most soldiers were armed with muskets. This situation lasted through the Mexican-American War.

Military history buffs will recall that the “tactics of the musket” require armies to line up and use volley fire to make up for the lack of accuracy in individual shots. This required immense courage and discipline. Muskets were lethal only at short ranges – 50 to 100 yards. In the Mexican War, the poor morale and worse leadership of the Mexicans meant that when an American unit poured a volley into them, they would break and run (would you die for a corrupt caudillo kleptocrat?).

Both the North and the South had better discipline in the Civil War. So battles were going to be bloody. Hearing about the carnage in the firing line, I am reminded of the Duke of Wellington on an earlier battlefield: “Hard pounding, this. Try who can pound the hardest.”

But 1861 was even worse than 1815. Eli Whitney’s cheap rifles threw rounds more accurately, at a higher velocity, and greater range. But Civil War generals, remembering how well the tactics of the musket worked at Vera Cruz, kept using Napoleonic tactics. The experienced Southern generals won many battles – but the musket tactics bled them badly. Southern losses could not be replaced.

The Union just drafted more immigrants – the “Northern scum” decried in Maryland’s state song.

Grant may have been the first union general to purposely engage in attrition, but that attrition began at Bull Run. In any high-casualty conflict, the South was doomed to lose.

(Note that there was one general who realized the military revolution wrought by the universal rifle – James P. Longstreet. He urged Lee to abandon Napoleonic tactics and follow the example of Hannibal’s nemesis Fabian. The best “what if?” scenario I have seen postulates Lee’s death and Longstreet’s ascension. I’m not sure if Longsteet’s defensive mentality could have survived the warrior culture of the Confederate government, but a miserly hoarding of lives and the brutal use of rifles from prepared defensive works from the very beginning might have dulled the North’s will to win. Although the South eventually adopted (by necessity, not choice) a defensive strategy in 1864, Lincoln had had three years to harden the North’s resolve and was able to counteract calls for the removal of “Grant the Butcher.” What if Cold Harbor had happened in 1861? Hmmmmm…)

1 Comment »
quasimodo said:

I’m reading these posts in reverse of the order in which they wee written. I think they are all great!



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