Friday, May 18, 2012

Why Was There A Valley Campaign?

In which we look at Northern organization and strategy

This is the second in a two part post on Northern mistakes in the first month of May.

Last week we looked at how mistakes in intelligence gathering and analysis led leaders of the Northern war effort to coalesce behind a likely enemy course of action that ended up being drastically different from the one actually pursued by their Southern opponents. But history is full of poor intelligence gathering and analysis that nevertheless ends in victory. So this week, we'll look at the mistakes those same leaders made in their own planning--mistakes that allowed Stonewall Jackson to execute his brilliant Valley Campaign.

Central to our discussion is what are known in modern military doctrine as the "levels of war." The concept goes back to ancient times, when it was recognized that some leaders needed to tell individuals where to stand and who to fight, while others needed to decide where the battle should occur. The "general" officer was created precisely to make those sorts of general decisions. By the time of the American Civil War, it was already long understood that even among general officers there were further levels of responsibility, with some moving groups of men in the field, and some deciding where to move armies several months hence. Today, we recognize roughly four levels of war: national-strategic, theater-strategic, operational, and tactical.

Prior to the American Civil War, there had never been a clear delineation of responsibility for military strategy in the United States--who to put where and when, in order to win a war. At the highest level, which we would call today "National-Strategic" and some 1862 contemporaries would have called "Grand Strategy", control depended on the personality of the Secretary of War. More aggressive secretaries would locate and direct men and materiel themselves, while secretaries selected more for their politics than their smarts would defer to the senior general in the U.S. Army, which, after 1841, meant Winfield Scott. But there was no clearly expressed distinction between the responsibilities of the general-in-chief and the Secretary.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Why Was There A Valley Campaign?

Wherein we examine failures of intelligence

The first of two posts on mistakes by the North the first week of May 1862.

May 8, 1862, was the date of the Battle of McDowell, the beginning of Stonewall Jackson's legendary Valley Campaign. Much has justly been written about Jackson's operational-level brilliance and an equal amount has unjustly been written about his rather mundane tactics. Only in recent years, have reevaluations of the campaign been conducted, most notably in Peter Cozzens fantastic Shenandoah 1862 which acknowledges the immense personal cost to the soldiers of Jackson's army and, in the words of the friend who gifted the book to me, "bothers to examine the Yankee sources."

The Valley, though technically in the Potomac watershed, has simply been beyond the capacity of your blogger to post on, which means the area that drains directly into the Shenandoah has usually been beyond the scope of this blog. But Jackson's campaign deeply threatened the area we usually cover, and ended up being the strategic center of gravity for the entire Virginia theater. Without Jackson's operation, Joe Johnston, hundreds of miles away on the Virginia Peninsula, would have been unable to fend of McClellan's army, and Richmond would have been scrambling to find defenders in fall 1862 instead of Washington.

Edwin Stanton
It was largely planning mistakes made in Washington at the strategic level from May 8 to May 17 that allowed Jackson to conduct his famous campaign. This post focuses on the first part of those mistakes, the failure in intelligence collection and analysis.

With the demotion of McClellan in March, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton became the Administration's principle war planner. Unlike his predecessor, Simon Cameron, Stanton believed the Secretary should be active in decisions about the prosecution of the war, rather than only concerned with supplying and administering the armies. Stanton signaled this when he added Peter H. Watson as a second Assistant Secretary of War as a condition of joining the Administration himself. Watson was appointed to straighten out and manage the contracts the Department made to supply the army, which was usually a tightly held responsibility of the Secretary in order to bestow political favors.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Before It's Too Late

Wherein the end of the war is imminent

On May 6, 1862 nowhere was the imminent Union victory in the Civil War more apparent than in Northern Virginia, and no one in Northern Virginia was working harder to put the final nail in the Confederacy than the man who had botched up the whole thing ten months earlier. Maj. General Irvin McDowell, commander of the Department of the Rappahannock was working night and day to repair both the historic Potomac Path [U.S. 1] and the Fredericksburg and Richmond Railroad to allow a full advance towards Richmond.

McDowell can be forgiven for being swept up into the prevailing opinion that the end of the war was months away. In the West, several armies had been united under the command of Maj. General Henry Halleck in what we would call an "Army Group" today, with the purpose of capturing Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi and, by controlling the continent's great river, slicing the Southern nation in half and crushing their internal economy. Halleck's armies were drawing tight around Corinth, the key to defending Memphis, and General P.G.T. Beauregard, in command by accident after the death of the preferred Albert Sidney Johnston, appeared out-manned, out-gunned, and out-generaled.

At the other end of the Mississippi, Tennessee native and loyal Unionist Commodore David Farragut had completed a daring operation in cooperation with Maj. General Benjamin Butler and captured New Orleans, providing an ideal harbor for the Gulf Blockade Squadron as well as closing the best blockade-running port for cotton transited south from the cotton-growing Confederate heartland. With major Northern armies present in Pensacola, Port Royal, and Roanoke, too, the South was being dissected.

And in Virginia, McClellan was finally on the move. By May 6, word had arrived that the siege at Yorktown on the Virginia Peninsula was over, and McClellan was on the heels of Joe Johnston's army as it bolted back towards Richmond. Lincoln and his Secretaries of War, Navy, and the Treasury had taken the revenue cutter Miami the evening of May 5 to Fort Monroe to view the collapse of the major army defending Richmond personally. While they did so, Johnston had made a stand at Williamsburg, where after a brutal day of fighting for Joe Hooker's division, the Army of the Potomac had triumphed [Johnston's army had belatedly and at last assumed its famous name, the Army of Northern Virginia].

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Happy Cinco de Mayo

As you tip back your Corona or Dos Equis or maybe even Tecate to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, save a moment of sympathy for Secretary of State William Seward.

On May 5, 1862, Seward had reached a low point in his term as Secretary of State. In 1860, despite being the front-runner, he had failed to secure the Republican nomination, then he had made a failed last ditch effort in the lame-duck Senate to appease Southerners and keep the Union together that had been viewed as a betrayal by his anti-slavery supporters. Nonetheless, Seward had insisted he would be prime minister to the yokel Lincoln, ensuring that wise judgment prevailed. But Lincoln had publicly contradicted Seward, and in recent days appeared to be relying more on Stanton than his Secretary of State.

Seward had been a flop diplomatically as well. France and Great Britain had declared neutrality, opening their ports to Southern shipping. And during the Trent Affair his abrasive approach to diplomacy had led to the mobilization of British soldiers in Canada to prepare for an invasion of the United States. And most significantly, the British and French had taken advantage of the U.S. Civil War to send troops to Mexico in order to demand the Juarez government repay its foreign debts.

By April, the British had realized that the French Emperor had much greater intentions than securing repayment. The French had assembled an army designed for occupation. William Seward had fruitlessly invoked the Monroe Doctrine, but with no ships or troops to enforce it, the French were free to conquer Mexico.

But 150 years ago today, the Mexican Army shocked the world and beat the French at the Battle of Puebla. Seward wouldn't find out for a few more days, but it temporarily solved a problem for him. The French would be back, and Seward would eventually begin covertly supplying them in order to boost U.S. coffers and prevent French recognition of the Confederacy, leading to three years of French occupation before the end of the American Civil War allowed Phil Sheridan to "lose" several tens of thousands of surplus rifles on the border and the Mexicans were finally able to drive out the French.

But surely when he first found out, Seward must have enjoyed a drink.