Pyrrhus envy

As a reader, I know I am in deep trouble when paragraph one of chapter one of my summer reading tells me: "If the Bull Run debacle proved anything, it proved that the army needed new leadership, so McDowell had to go." (In the background: Sound of slamming doors up and down a long hallway.) Ah, joy. Another my-way-or-the-highway author speaks his piece.

Never mind that at the time of Bull Run, McDowell was new leadership. Never mind the wild notion that events prove just one thing. We are in Stephen R. Taaffe’s Commanding the Army of the Potomac, where the future is always with us as we stumble through retellings of a past. Thus, with a glance forward to Appomattox Courthouse, Taaffe tells us that McClellan, "could not bring himself to launch the ferocious all-out attacks necessary to grind down the opposing Confederate Army." Unlike our ferocious ACW historians, I would add.

Whenever I encounter this stock sentiment, I wonder what people think Antietam was? What were the attacks on the gaps if not winner-take-all assaults? More often, I think of Patton’s formula of making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country because ferocious all-out attacks is how the attacker is himself ground down ... as Hattaway and Jones have pointed out in their many Civil War works.

Odd that Pyrrhus is not a name seen much in Civil War histories.

The defender conserves his strength in exchange for loss of the initiative. That is the bargain made between attacker and defender.

McClellan’s game was to place his army into a situation where the enemy would have to spend the initiative on ferocious all-out attacks on good positions. Consider Hancock’s captured redoubts at Williamsburg; the position at Beaver Creek Dam, personally selected by GBM; Malvern Hill, ditto; and not least, his second Richmond campaign where he successfully interposed between Jackson and Longstreet to create a "fight your way back to Richmond" situation for the Rebels. (Burnside opted out of this battle, in favor of a ferocious all-out assault at Fredericksburg.)

McClellan’s careful analysis of the disproportionate power between attacker and defender quickly became a truth to live by, considering how widely it was adapted outside the AoP.

Taaffe lists Archer Jones and Herman Hattaway in his bibliography but has not absorbed their material, which presents McClellan's methods to a general readership.

The analysis of McClellan’s "offensive/defensive" tactics in Hagerman do not seem to be anything Taaffe has read at all, judging by Hagerman’s absence from Taaffe's extensive list of secondary sources. Also missing from that list is Rowena Reed’s seminal Combined Operations in the Civil War which explains how well McClellan’s offensive/defensive was served by naval projection. Harsh’s analysis of McClellan as a tactician are absent from the bibliography. And who else is missing here? Let’s see, Ethan Rafuse and Russel Beatie!

So one recognizes a stacked deck but reads on anyway.

Setting aside the matter of exactly how Rebels are to be attritted, note that for Taafe to grind down the opposing side is a given and he forebears any argument in favor of so obvious a point. Taaffe regards it as such a natural fact that he expects the men on the scene, like McClellan, to understand this instinctively. Failure to act as Pyrrhus casts a pall on Taafe's historical figures, despite the many competing contemporary views on how to end the war. Funny thing about history and about assumptions and about proving just one thing.

Well, I haven’t gotten to the third page of the first chapter and I am worn out. Some summer reading.