Tuesday, April 15, 2008

How the South Could Have Won the Civil War by Bevin Alexander

How the South Could Have Won the Civil War: The Fatal Errors That Led to Confederate Defeat by Bevin Alexander.

This book suffers from one huge flaw, the war in the West is essentially ignored. Every so often there will be a sentence about a big battle in the West, but basically the author feels that if the Confederates win in the East they win the war. I would have liked at least a chapter explaining how an Eastern theater win translates into a war victory. I'm willing to buy that early in the war a huge Eastern theater win might have ended the war, but by 1863 too much has been lost in the West, that I don't think Lincoln would have quit after one huge Eastern theater loss.

But I did like this book. Even if you don't buy all of Alexander's arguments (and I didn't) it made you think about things in a different light. In fact I agreed with most of his points until the Gettysburg chapter. In there he keeps making the point that Lee should have done everything he could to get to Philadelphia first. That once he knows Meade is close he should have continued towards Philly instead of concentrating at Gettysburg, Lee is at least a few days march ahead of Meade and he should continue north, select the good ground and make Meade fight him. That Meade will be forced into a battle to save Philadelphia as Lincoln/Stanton/Halleck will be burning up the telegraph lines with messages to him to attack. I don't think this is true because even with Harrisburg out of the picture Philadelphia is not isolated and troops could have been rushed there from the north or from Washington to defend the place until Meade arrived. Then Lee might have found himself between two armies.

Then if Lee selects Gettysburg as his area for the battle Alexander feels that Lee should have retreated to Cashtown and used that ridge line to make his stand. Or even sat on Seminary Ridge and let Meade attack him. I don't think these would have worked out so well. It might have, but Meade had his cavalry with him and could have scouted for the best flank to hit. Lee's cavalry was at least a day away yet, but maybe Meade would have waited until the 3rd to strike, and then Stuart would have been in place to block Meade's cavalry. A whole lot of what ifs which I don't think Alexander deals with too well. In all of these Alexander makes the point that the defender usually wins the battle. But its much more than Lee going on the defensive at Seminary Ridge to guarantee victory, and Alexander makes it seem that simple. That once Lee is done maneuvering Meade (or any of the previous army commanders) into the spot he wants to fight at all he has to do is become the defender and he's the winner. This is too simplistic, it does not account for an Antietam at which McClellan might have won the day as the attacker if only he had kept attacking.

Alexander says that the best method of fighting was to anchor one flank on a hill or river, fight a defensive battle and then to strike the enemy's flank by using your flank that was not pinned down to a topographic item. That this was the method Jackson advocated but not what Lee always chose. At one point he says Longstreet also came to see Jackson's point and that after Jackson's death Longstreet advocated the same sort of battles to Lee. In one of those "what if Jackson had been at Gettysburg" moments Alexander says that Jackson might have been able to convince Lee to fight the battle differently, more along the Jackson model, that Longstreet tried to talk Lee into that sort of battle and that Jackson had more influence with Lee than Longstreet to convince him to fight differently. I thought it weird that Longstreet and Jackson were being compared similarly, but I can see his point. Alexander points out at every battle how Jackson's method was applied, and sometimes was not at all. At some battles it just was not possible because the position chosen did not allow the Confederates to make the flanking counter attack. Alexander stresses the point that better ground should have been chosen that would allow for this. That defeating the enemy is only part of the equation, that the Confederates need to score huge wins to win the war and the easiest way to knock out an army is to deliver a huge blow on the heels of a defeat. For instance, just imagine the destruction Jackson could have done to the battered elements of Burnside's army after Fredericksburg if a flanking counter attack had been possible. Instead the big guns across the river kept Lee's army away.

Alexander had one statement that I thought was particularly interesting. In a section on the Shenandoah campaign (page 63) he wrote: "War is fundamentally a struggle between two intellects rather than a conflict of masses. Jackson, in his surprise descent on Front Royal, was attacking the mind of Nathaniel Banks more than the forces of Colonel Kenly. Jackson had chosen a long and roundabout march rather than hazard a direct attack on Banks at Strasburg. He did this because physical obstacles are inherently less formidable than the hazards of battle. Human resistance is the one great incalculable in warfare. No general can predict human response, and therefore great generals avoid battles whenever they can." I thought this was a very interesting point and one I agree with. The truly successful generals in the war tended to avoid battles, instead achieving their aims through maneuver. Sherman seems to be the poster boy for this style as once he's an army commander his forces mainly maneuver to gain territory instead of relying on winning huge battles.

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