High-Water Mark, part one

"Great battles beget great results."

Timothy Reese invokes this shibboleth in the introduction to his new book, High-Water Mark: The 1862 Maryland Campaign in Strategic Perspective.

You recall the Bible story where one party chose a password particularly difficult for others to pronounce. Infiltrators would give themselves away in saying "shibboleth."

If, in the midst of Reese's intro, you are nodding in agreement with the idea that "Great battles beget great results," you are not going to pass through Reese's lines. Take his gently expressed contempt for this notion not just as a curiousity, but as a personal token to take home to Philistinia.

Civil War nonfiction is choked with reader assumptions that are not only wrong but have nothing to do with the events of the war per se. "Great battles beget great results" is a marvelous example and a fine early test of any reader's sensibilities.

It is Reese's strength that he understands how degraded Civil War history is; it's his strength that he wants to share important insights despite the double burden of explaining and unexplaining at once; and it is the reader's great burden to attempt Reese's work with the highest levels of alertness and flexibility.

I want to spend a little space on our foibles as ACW readers.

Goss's War within the Union High Command has this insight: "... the need for popular support for the war drove a tendency to measure the mood of public opinion on questions of the war's conduct." In other words, the crudest understanding of military progress and strategy conveyed by newspapers often drove military perceptions and actions. (Goss was explaining why Lincoln failed to live up to his analytic potential in army affairs.)

In How the North Won, Hattaway and his co-authors proposed that a politician's view of an optimized Civil War schedule would translate into a series of small victories incrementing into larger ones culminating in a final battle of annihilation. This pattern would generate the greatest amount of political capital for the winner. (Hattaway and company were explaining the odd ideas and behavior of certain ardent public figures of the time.)

Hattaway, Goss, Reese, and others can look past the nonsense but the run-of-the-mill Civil War reader cannot. He thrives in a publishing space where the crudest popular "military" ideas of 140 years ago drive all analysis today.

For example, no vintage fantasy has been more thoroughly debunked in the last 25 years than the possibility of a battle of annihilation between Civil War armies (thanks to Jones, Hattaway, Griffin, and many others); but the failure to annihilate still remains a keystone in reader evaluations of military capacity.

And for the many readers who buy into the most simplistic 1860s attrition theories, no battle is ever wasted because every battle changes the manpower pool calculations, hence the balance of power, thus bringing victory closer to one side or the other. For such readers, tactics is whatever produces the most casualties for the enemy; the concept of strategy has almost no meaning whatever. As one intelligent Civil war author told me a few years ago, "Strategy is anything a general does with an army."

Stanton's amazing tirades against strategy resonate with the reading public today. The spittle he once spent denouncing "cowards" and "imbeciles" was not wasted. Success is a body count. Don't attack a strategic point, attack the enemy army!

Across this muddy current of easy assumptions and impoverished, time-honored groupthink, Reese has to launch little models of insight, in directions non-linear, and non-intuitive; gently nuged, they form large, inescapably beautiful patterns despite waves of reader prejudice, ignorance, and doubt.

You see my difficulty in explaining this book.

Here is his full quote from the introduction:

A combat pecking order evolved within the Maryland campaign, arrayed according to size, in descending order - Antietam, Harper's Ferry, South Mountain, Crampton's Gap, Shepherdstown Ford - all arranged according to number of troops engaged and losses sustained. The prevailing perception is that great battles beget great results. By extrapolation, small engagements are therefore reckoned of little account.

Within this tangled forest scholars passively stunted the growth of those lying beneath Antietam, each in its turn diminished by the one preceding.

Thus, "it became nearly impossible to discuss that Crampton's Gap was, in the eyes of Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan, the pivotal event of this, the pivotal campaign of the war."

Another shibboleth: are we, as readers, willing to take the testimony of McClellan and Lee on matters of importance? The honest mainstream reader will answer no immediately, "no" flatly or "no" cloaked in rationalizations about what the generals' testimony "really" means and how it cannot be admitted if it contradicts the "common sense" of the broad reading public.

Locked into the 1860s newsmonger's concept of tactics and strategy, we cannot hear the testimony of Lee or McClellan; should we hear it, we can make no sense of it. Because absolutely everyone agrees that

"Great battles beget great results."

More about this new book on Friday.