Friday, January 30, 2009

Confederate Struggle for Command by Alexander Mendoza

Confederate Struggle for Command: General James Longstreet and the First Corps in the West by Alexander Mendoza

I have very mixed emotions about this book. I came in very interested, in fact its a book I purchased, and I wanted to like the book. As I read the first part I was not very impressed with the book. The last chapters were better but even in those sections there were things I found annoying. If I had received this as a review book I probably would not keep it but since I spent my own money on it I probably will. Maybe later I will find more use from the book but right now I’m disappointed.

One thing I thought the book did very well was covering the disputes between Longstreet, Law, McLaws and Robertson. For some reason when the First Corps came west all the simmering conflicts among the chief commanders came to a boil. Longstreet had problems with the leadership of both divisions (Jenkins vs Law in one, and McLaws in the other) almost as soon as the battle of Chickamauga was over. After the failure at Knoxville he also had a problem with the Texas Brigade’s commander, Robertson.

Here are some things I had issues with.

When the Union hastily formed a new line on Horseshoe Ridge they allowed a gap to form between them and Kelly Field. They never had the men to close this so they left it and lucked out that the Confederates never exploited it. Mendoza points out that Longstreet had men who could have been used to exploit the gap if he had known it was there. Then he absolves Longstreet of missing the gap by writing, “Longstreet’s blunder is understandable in the context of challenges facing him on the battle’s second day. The densely wooded terrain, in which the thick gunpowder smoke became trapped, limited visibility to a few hundred yards at most. Attempting a reconnaissance under such conditions would have been a dangerous undertaking.” (p 46) At the close of the chapter he again gives Longstreet a pass on this issue with, “But his unfamiliarity with the terrain and the limited visibility on the thickly wooded battlefield explain this blunder.” (p 52) My problem with this is that limited visibility on thickly wooded battlefields is the norm in the Civil War, especially in the West. I don’t think that any general can know all details of the battlefield but if we are to give a general a pass for missing a gap the reasons should be better than it was smoky, wooded, and unfamiliar ground. How many battles took place on a piece of ground the high command was intimately knowledgeable about?

On page 47 Mendoza wrote, “Bragg should have realized, however, that Longstreet still held Preston’s Division in reserve and could have moved those troops to the Confederate right for an enveloping attack on Thomas’s position.” Mendoza does have a point about Preston being in reserve. The problem though is that Preston was about 3 miles from the Confederate right, and that’s if he marched in a straight line, which was impossible due to troop positions. Even cutting through the woods he would have likely had to march 4 or 5 miles to get there. Once we factor in the time to change formations Preston would likely have to been in motion by noon to be able to do much in the battle. Longstreet began his attack at 11 AM and it would seem odd to pull the reserve division away so early in that fight. It would have been closer to 3 PM that Bragg could have made this decision, which is when Bragg and Longstreet met and was what Mendoza had just written about in the paragraph before the above quote. That means Preston likely wouldn't have been able to get into combat that day. Its fine to say Bragg should have done this or that but you need to have an understanding of the realities of Civil War combat first, in this case (unless Bragg moves Preston very early in Longstreet's attack) Preston is stuck on the left end of the Confederate lines.

There are some things that are just worded clumsily. Mendoza says that Longstreet was aided in placing his men by Tom Brotherton, “who lived in North Georgia before enlisting.” (p 39) That’s true but it would be better to say that Tom Brotherton’s house was about 300 yards away, that Longstreet used him because Tom probably knew every hog path through the woods since that is where he grew up. What makes Tom different than the hundreds or thousands of other Confederate soldiers who grew up in North Georgia? The fact that he grew up where the fighting would take place. Mendoza should have mentioned that fact but he did not. The only connection he makes is that he says the forces were deployed east of the Brotherton Farm.

A few sentences later Mendoza says Bragg’s main objective was “elements of the Federal XIV, XX and XXI Corps.” (p 39) True but wouldn’t it be simpler to say the Army of the Cumberland. I would understand this in the Chattanooga section because then there were a few different pieces of armies operating together so referring to the various corps individually makes sense.

Another odd wording cropped up in the discussion of the infighting in Bragg’s command. Mendoza says that this squabble reduced the communication between Bragg and his lieutenants. “In mid-August Rosecrans sought to exploit the paralysis affecting the Army of Tennessee by launching the Chickamauga campaign.” (p 61) I think Rosecrans was able to benefit from this squabble but I do not think he had any knowledge of it in mid-August and I do not believe it was part of his planning.

On that same page, 61, Mendoza has another very odd statement. He wrote, “Bragg knew that Polk was a popular figure in the Army of Tennessee and his removal would meet with disapproval. This is why he ordered both men [DH Hill being the other] to Atlanta, far away from the army.” I do not understand why sending Polk and DH Hill to Atlanta would lessen the impact of their removal on army morale. They were both suspended from command instead of being arrested which might look a little better to the common soldier but both were still removed from command. There might be a belief that the suspensions are temporary but even so they have been removed from command, that act, not where they serve their suspensions, is likely to matter most to the common soldier.

After describing how every general that had spoken out against Bragg had been transferred away or been demoted Mendoza says, “Longstreet’s mistakes convinced Bragg to order the First Corps into East Tennessee to operate against Union forces in that region.” (p 75) And that is the reason Bragg used in a telegram to Davis but I have a hard time believing that is the main reason. Bragg was already outnumbered, the Union now had an open supply line to bring their army back to fighting strength and Bragg decides this is the time to send Longstreet away. There is no debate that Longstreet had not been at the top of his game at Chattanooga but sending him away as the enemy gets stronger seems a very odd decision. If Bragg truly doubts Longstreet’s skill he should take a more hands on approach to his sector, or relieve him of command. But Bragg has decided he doesn’t want to see Longstreet at all and that leads me to believe that their earlier squabble is more at the root of this decision than any qualms about Longstreet’s ability. Also if Longstreet is performing so badly isn’t giving him a less supervised role away from the army an odder choice than closer supervision in Chattanooga?

“Starving men resorted to eating animal feed while the draft animals resorted to eating the bark off trees. The situation in the Army of the Cumberland became so precarious that officers had to post guards over the horses and mules while they ate to prevent the soldiers from stealing the few ears of corn available to them. Despite their hunger and being surrounded by the enemy, the Federal troops in Chattanooga had regained their optimism and anticipated reinforcements.” (p 83) The question I have from that section is why were they optimistic? Mendoza has just explained how bleak things were. The plans to open an effective supply line were in their infancy. There does not seem to be any reason for optimism. In hindsight we know that these lean days were not going to last too terribly long but when you’re living it I’m sure a short period of time feels like forever.

When Mendoza lists the hazards Hazen’s men will face as they drift down the Tennessee River on pontoon boats he lists artillery and picket fire, and drowning (p 95). Yes drowning was a hazard but unless the men did something to fall into the river the risk of drowning had to be pretty low on the list. I thought it odd to include it as a hazard. This may seem like a nitpicky kind of complaint but it was so odd that it stuck out like a sore thumb. It would be like saying that Burnside used the bridge at Antietam because his men might drown if they tried to ford the river and completely ignore the fact that there were not any good fords near the bridge. Anytime people are around water there is the risk of drowning but generally that risk is pretty low.

I thought Mendoza missed a good opportunity to be critical of Bragg in the chapter on the Knoxville campaign. On page 124 he says that Longstreet sends multiple messages to Bragg about the sorry condition of his army and that Bragg grew resentful of the constant complaints and questions. Then on page 129 he says that Bragg tells Davis that Longstreet hasn’t keep him informed of the situation despite repeated inquires to do so. This is a perfect place for Mendoza to expose Bragg’s lie and explore out why he might be lying. Instead Mendoza ignores the two differing passages and forges on with the story of the campaign.

“A year prior to arriving at Ringgold Station, Longstreet fell out of favor with President Davis and the War Department when he reportedly criticized the president’s close friend, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston …” (p 201) If it truly was one year earlier then it would have been September 1862 and Johnston had been dead five months. Again it is a case of Mendoza not picking his words carefully. Also there is no note of what Longstreet reportedly said about Johnston. Was Longstreet the sort of man to talk ill of the dead? I don't know for sure, my gut is to doubt it as usually people did not talk bad about the dead. If he complained about Johnston while he was still alive, which does make sense as many people blasted Johnston after the fall of Fort Donelson, then it would be a year and a half before the arrival at Ringgold. Mendoza should have been clearer about this because if Longstreet was complaining about dead men's campaigns then it does reveal another part of his character. If he complained while Johnston was alive then Mendoza's sentence is incorrect. Timing is everything in war.

A few times in the text there is reference made that the men of the First Corps suffered during the winter because they left their overcoats and baggage behind in Virginia, that they thought they’d be returning quickly. This I do not understand at all. Where did they leave the extras? Surely not in a camp as there could be no guarantee that Lee would hold that camp until their return. Was it in a warehouse in Richmond? If so then why wasn’t the stuff just sent out west. Surely it would have been separated by regiment so that when they returned they could find their stuff again, so sending it to the regiment would not have been impossible. I was always under the impression that the men carried all their stuff with them, that if they had too many supplies they sent it to loved ones or left it along the road. I have not ever read of storing the supplies in a warehouse. Not that it couldn’t happen but in 15 years of reading I’ve never read that. Since Mendoza repeats that soldier’s lament a few times I think he should have gone the extra step to inform the reader that those supplies were likely gone or could have been sent west if red-tape and/or transportation could have been cleared.

In a discussion of war strategy Mendoza has three sentences that bother me. “Longstreet grasped the fact that if the Confederacy were to win, it needed to concentrate forces and strike against the North itself” And, “His grasp of strategy continued into the spring of 1864 when he proposed an invasion of Kentucky to draw the Federals from Johnston’s front in northern Georgia. Even though Longstreet failed to take into account his plan’s logistical problems, it does not detract from the fact that he recognized the situation facing the Confederacy during the last eighteen months of the war.” These sentences bother me because there is considerable debate on what was the proper course for the Confederacy, Mendoza has clearly picked an aggressive route but he offers no support for why that was the proper method instead of a prolonged defensive that traded space for time. It seems to me that the defensive school of thought has been the more popular one lately. I think if Mendoza says Longstreet knew the correct way he should at least offer some support for why this was the correct method. Also I think failing to grasp the logistical problems facing the Confederacy means you do not recognize the “situation facing the Confederacy during the last eighteen months of the war.” Logistics are an important part of the Civil War from before the first shots are fired and yet in the spring of 1864 Longstreet is apparently to be congratulated for coming up with a plan to invade Kentucky that ignores the very serious logistical problems of the Confederacy (and Civil War armies as a whole).

There are some other things I thought seemed odd so I have requested his sources through inter-library loan to double check those. When I get those sources I'll report back because if its true its an interesting story to share. And if its false its one more thing to dislike about this book.

I was a little reluctant to post this negative review since the two other reviews I know of have been pretty favorable. But I felt that there were enough things I did not like to warrant it. Like I said in the first paragraph I will keep the book and might find in a few years that I like it better, but today I am not a fan.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Redoubt Brannan

The other remaining part of Fortress Rosecrans that you can tour is much smaller. Redoubt Brannan was basically a small fort within the fort that offered room for a battery's worth of cannon to operate. I've always seen the weeds pretty high here so there has never been any great shots of the redoubt. In person you can see more of the shape of the ground and can better picture where the various cannons would have been. These pictures don't do that part justice.

The outside wall of the redoubt, showing that if the fort had been attacked directly it would have been a difficult chore.

Fortress Rosecrans was barely attacked during the Nashville campaign in 1864. The Confederates exchanged fire with the fort but had no intention of attacking it. They had too few men to attempt it and there were too many cannon in the fort.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Lunette Palmer

After the Battle of Stones River Rosecrans kept his army in the Murfreesboro area. He decided to make Murfreesboro a huge supply depot for the next season's campaigns (one could argue he started that next campaign a little tardy). The supply depot he constructed was called Fortress Rosecrans and was huge, over 200 acres in size with 14,000 feet of earthworks. It controlled all the main transportation routes (rail and road) into the city. About 3,000 feet of earthworks remain in two areas, Lunette Palmer and Redoubt Brannan.

It is hard to get a good picture of the size of the fortress because there is so much vegetation blocking the views, but this drawing will give some idea of what Lunette Palmer looked like. I've included two pictures to show how the vegetation prevents long panoramas and then I have a copy of a postcard I scanned.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Confederate Dead from Stones River

Most of the Confederate dead from Stones River were brought to Evergreen Cemetery. They are buried without markers although there are two markers that list some names. In all about 2000 men are supposed to be buried here.

Monday, January 26, 2009

McFadden's Ford

After the first day of battle the two armies basically stared at each other on the second day. It was more complicated than that, there was some moving of troops and a little bit of fighting but very few casualties. It seems Bragg was hoping Rosecrans would retreat and Rosecrans thought his situation was too tight to retreat, plus he had fresh supplies and troops on the way (but couldn't be 100% sure that they would arrive as Wheeler was out there somewhere).

In any respect things were set for a third day of battle. During the day Captain John Mendenhall amassed plenty of cannon on the high ground near McFadden's Ford. This area had been where the Union had started their planned attack two days earlier and as events transpired during the day it is where the Confederates would attack as well.

Various sources put the number of cannon in the upper 50s. In fact the artillery monument lists 58 guns and the park plaque lists 57. I think 57 is right but either way it was a lot of cannon. When the Confederates made their attack on the other side of the river things went well at first. They pushed the Union back and had them on the run, but once they crested the ridgeline and were looking at 57 cannon things changed quickly. Some Confederates made it to the creek, probably more out of momentum than anything else. And there they met a horrible artillery barrage. The attack failed and the battle was over.

Mendenhall interests me because at Chickamauga he tries to do this exact same thing but doesn't have enough time to form the line before Longstreet's column is upon him. To me that is a big what if of Chickamauga, what if Mendenhall could have formed that line, what if he gets 57 guns again, maybe that ends Longstreet's attack. But that didn't happen. I don't think Mendenhall has ever received a biography, I'd love to read one if it exists.

Some guns near the artillery monument. I was told that the monument was made a large obelisk so that railroad passengers could see it without leaving the cars. An odd way of getting a tour but for someone on the move I guess its better than nothing.

The view from the line of cannon down to the river.
Looking back up the hill.
McFadden's Ford, or at least roughly near it.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Stones River National Cemetery

The national cemetery sits on historically important ground. This spot was a good artillery position just north of the Nashville Pike. It served as a rallying point for troops as they were pushed out of the cedar glades. They had to defend the Nashville Pike to keep their supply line open and infantry and artillery in this position did that job well.

During my Shiloh research I came across Alfred E. Mathews (who I've had in posts before). He essentially served as an army illustrator. He did his stuff freelance for his own profit, mainly in the lithograph business with some work appearing in newspapers. From what I call tell he also did some sketches and maps for Grant at Vicksburg. One of his Stones River prints was of the Union defense of this position and it is interesting to see that print produced on a park tablet near the area he sketched it.
In the national cemetery is one of the few monuments at Stones River, and one of the nicest monuments at any park. It is for the Regular units at Stones River. They were part of the force that fought in this area so this was a good place to put their monument, besides it being a nice location because of the cemetery.
And I thought I'd include some other views of the cemetery. I know I'm weird but I like walking around old cemeteries.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hazen's Monument

Following the battle of Stones River Hazen's men, along with the rest of the Army of the Cumberland, stayed in the Murfreesboro area. Hazen's men wanted to commemorate their part of the battle so in the early part of 1863 they built this monument. This marks it as one of the earliest monuments at a Civil War battlefield, and I'm nearly 100% sure that it is the earliest monument in the Western theater. Inside a stone wall they buried their comrades, and inscribed their names on the monument. Time has made the inscriptions hard to read but the park service has placed tablets around the monument so you know what each side has inscribed on it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Round Forest

The Round Forest was the hinge of the Union position. Some writers have described the Union line as a jack knife and that the Confederate attacks closed the knife with the Round Forest as the hinge. A bit of an odd way to describe it but it also is an accurate way. The Round Forest is the only position the Union was not driven from on that first day.

This location is outside of the park but the Tennessee State Historical Society has placed two nice markers explaining how Donelson's and Chalmer's Brigades attacked the Round Forest from this area. Basically it was a lot of wasted effort. The Confederates never combined their attacks in this area so each brigade attacked alone and was driven back. The nearby river somewhat constrained the area but better coordination could have been achieved.

And this is the view from the Union positions in the Round Forest.
Hazen's Brigade was the primary force holding the Round Forest, also called Hell's Half Acre. One big part of his defense was artillery, and the next several pictures show some of his artillery positions.
The gun on the left of this picture is the gun from the above picture. On the right of the picture you can barely see the outline of another cannon which faces at a 90 degree angle from the other gun. This cannon would have fired on Confederates as they pushed Sheridan's men out of the cedar glades.
And a better view of what that cannon would have been firing at. The Cowan House ruins mentioned in the state historical markers would have been in this field, I think it would have actually been out of the frame on the left but it is this area. This position would have worked well with Parson's Battery mentioned in an earlier post. The two would have been able to fire on two sides of an attacking force, so if this one had been attacked directly Parson would have provided flanking fire, and vice versa.