Civil War "Urban Legend" Wrap-up

I had a little too much fun writing the Howard and Hunter pieces.  They went a little long, and I have run out of time to examine the other three stories I mentioned last week.  Dmitri is due back tomorrow, and I want to quickly summarize these while I have the opportunity.

Grant’s Right Turn

We’ve all read Bruce Catton's wonderful account of the reaction of the Army of the Potomac upon the realization that their orders were to head south, not retreat, after the fighting in the Wilderness at the beginning of May, 1863.  We’ve also all at one time or another heard the rhetorical question “Who but U. S. Grant would have done so?”; the more prescient  statement “No former eastern commander would have done so”; or the even more God-like expression of omnipotence “None but Grant would have done so”.  In brief, and taking nothing away from what Grant did, I am not so quick to dismiss the possibility that none other than the AotP’s commander, George Gordon Meade, may very well have “done so.”  I base this upon his aggressive nature, demonstrated numerous times throughout 1862 and 1863, but mostly upon what others are quick to point to as an indicator that moving south is most likely not what Meade would have done; the 1863 Mine Run Campaign.  After the failure of that campaign, Meade opted to fall back across the Rapidan River rather than “move south”.  But Meade made it clear right away to his boss, Henry W. Halleck, that he would have preferred to have moved around Lee’s right, but could not do so because running his supply lines through Fredericksburg had been specifically denied him.  The suggestion that Meade should have attempted a move around Lee’s right anyway, at that time of year (winter), in that part of the country, is I think deliberately ignoring the reality of logistics.  See A. A. Humphreys’ excellent, if dry, "From Gettysburg to the Rapidan" and Ethan Rafuse’s "George Gordon Meade and the War in the East" for more on this.  Add to this Meade’s immediate and enthusiastic agreement with Grant’s later decision and I think the rhetorical question above becomes much more practical.  This illustrates one of the pitfalls of the “counterfactual” – they usually fail to consider many important variables, and different individuals at different times are rarely, if ever, in the same situation.

Hood’s Laudanum Induced Fog

There really is no evidence that John Bell Hood was using, let alone abusing, laudanum to ease his various pains while in command of the Army of Tennessee in 1864.  Most arguments supporting this theory assume that Hood must have been using laudanum because it was a commonly prescribed drug for treatment of the side effects of wounds similar to Hood’s.  From this, the instant leap to the conclusion that Hood’s use of the painkiller adversely affected his decision making, specifically during the Spring Hill/Franklin phase.  No possibility of judicious use of the drug, which would possibly have helped Hood more than hurt him, is considered.  To me, it smacks of excuse making, though modern day Hood supporters, who also reject the “junkie” picture, see it more as a smack (pun intended) at The Gallant.  I think that Hood’s condition at Spring Hill and Franklin can more easily be explained as the results of exhaustion as well as of rest and recovery.  A 1998 Stephen Davis article in Volume XVI, Issue #1 of Blue & Gray Magazine (Averasboro issue) covers this all pretty well, but the myth persists.

Banks and Red River

Nathaniel Banks is one of those guys people just love to hate.  He serves as the punch-line to many 1862 Valley Campaign jokes (“Commissary” Banks, they call him), and is typically viewed as a dangerous buffoon when it comes to the Red River Campaign.  An e-ssociate, Will Keene (with whom I don’t always agree), recently made a very convincing argument that historical convention has Banks all wrong in the case of Red River.  Responding to a Stephen Woodworth post at Civil Warriors, Will challenged the author’s characterization of Banks using a previous post on the same blog by Mark Grimsley.  Check it out (there’s also a comment by me in there).  As of today, Will’s post has received no response from Woodworth or Grimsley.

Later today I hope to post some thoughts on internet discussion group dynamics.