Brazen truths

Having given up on ever finding Generals in Bronze in a bookstore, I finally yielded to Eric Wittenberg’s long-ago urging and bought a copy through Amazon.

The book is made up of memoranda of conversations with generals, the conversations being recorded by artist and sculptor James E. Kelly (1855-1933). They were collected by William B. Styple and were published by his Belle Grove publishing venture.

Belle Grove is the name of Phil Kearny’s New Jersey home and Styple is a Kearny fan extraordinaire, on which basis I spoke to him a few years ago after founding the McClellan Society. He was working on a Kearny bio (and the dust jacket of Bronze tells me his is working on it still).

He is also one of those readers – like Beatie – with an eye for the picaresque, non-conforming detail. Bronze is, in its way, a celebration of such hard-to-digest fact and opinion and it would have been a very different book if a Gallagher, McPherson or some other consensus monger had chosen which of Kelly’s overabundance of memoranda to publish.

I want to give a small example regarding Sherman’s March to the Sea. The deep reader already knows that Generals John Schofield and William T. Sherman had issues. Asked why Schofield did not recount these in his biography, JS tells Kelly that his publisher wanted no controversy whatever in the book.

Kelly asked Schofield about the March and I will summarize (abstract) Schofield’s answers. Quotes indicate Schofield’s words rather than my paraphrase.

(1) In breaking away westerly after Atlanta, Hood “outgeneraled” Sherman.
(2) The correct Union course was to pursue and defeat Hood, then do a March to the Sea a month or so later.
(3) Any westerly pursuit of Hood would have embarrassed Sherman; it would seem on the face of it that a year of campaign gains had been lost.
(4) The March put Thomas and Schofield at considerable risk to no purpose.
(5) It was “completely unnecessary.”

Compare with the conventional wisdom offered by a James F. Rhodes, writing in 1917 (my emphasis):
The march to the sea, the march northward from Savannah and Thomas’s operations in Tennessee are a combination of bold and effective strategy, possible only after the Chattanooga-Atlanta campaign and a fit sequel to it. A hundred persons may have conceived the design of advancing to the ocean but the genius of the general lay in foreseeing the possible moves of his adversary, in guarding against them and in his estimate of the physical and moral results of cutting the Confederacy in twain. Wise in precaution and fully conscious of the difficulties of the venture, Sherman showed the same boldness and tenacity in sticking to his purpose when others shook their heads as Grant had shown in his Vicksburg campaign. No general who lacked daring and resolution would have persisted in his determination to advance through Georgia after Hood had crossed the Tennessee river …
And so on. Our general run of Civil War historians has not advanced since 1917, I think, except to curb its enthusiasm and dress it in robes of scholarship.

Thus Schofield told Kelly – in sum - is that Sherman risked two armies to spare himself personal and professional embarrassment and to make a prideful display. This need not be true, but it needs repeating when coming from the mouth of a colleague and the honest writer will deal with it - not avoid it.

p.s. In his memoirs, Schofield alludes to "Sherman's premature start for the sea" and aside from that remark and the disclosure that he told Sherman that Thomas's forces were too small to beat Hood, there is no more there on the wisdom of Sherman's March.