Union corps commands: chaos at the top, 3d/4

Apologies, apologies - the citations are not at hand.

I gave away my review copies of Ernest B. Furgurson's Not War But Murder and Gordon C. Rhea's Battle of the Wilderness after the hardbacks came out in the same season at least five years ago. In one or the other - I can't recall which - there is a fascinating quote from William "Baldy" Smith (right). He said the Army of the Potomac in 1864 had reverted to a form of warfare from the earliest period of human history. (This observation does not come from his memoirs, BTW, in which the same thought is formulated verbosely.)

Given that Smith had a grudge against Grant (and perhaps Meade) we should nevertheless consider the extreme terms in which Smith portrayed a regression from the early war in which he was a division commander and later corps commander. He could have called Grant or Meade imbeciles in the idiom of the day, but he chose instead to express the AoP's predicament not in terms of failed leadership, but with an institutional metaphor. That is a fascinating choice and has much to do with the insane turnover at corps levels.

As noted previously, evidences of regression in the AoP abound and they are not necessarily about personalities (Grant and Meade) - they are signposts of an institution in catastrophic disarray.

Consider incidents of the late war in the East. I bring them up in the order that I encountered them, as best I remember, and they are but a sampling.

Charles Wainwright, in his diaries, notes on May 8 1864 that his movements as commander of I Corps artillery reserve in a night march were blocked by a huge column of infantry moving 1/2 a mile per hour. A veteran of the 1862 Richmond campaign, he says "Never before did I see such slow progress made." Assuming that night marches implied urgency, he sought out Meade's HQ to report the obstruction and found Meade and his staff sound sleep. Meade - this is me speaking - was relying on corps commanders to execute his orders, corps commanders some of which would reach the extreme limit of their experience after two months.

Charles Wainwright, Furgurson, and Rhea all note the phenomenon of snarled traffic at crossoads in 1864. To an early war reader, this is simply incredible. The AoP commander had fixed this problem in 1862 on the Peninsula with protocols to be followed anytime different units encountered each other at crossroads. The Meades and Hancocks had successfully followed those protocols in the early war. By 1864 all was forgotten. The AoP was now tending toward the popular concept of imbecility. Nor is there any way for Grant and his Western imports to discern that this was happening, whether the disintegrated AoP of 1864 was any different from that of 1862.

Wainwright, messing with senior AoP officers on June 26 1864, took especial delight in encountering potatoes and fresh vegetables. Another show-stopper for early war readers. These had been introduced into the enlisted man's daily diet on the Peninsula in 1862 following the recommendations of the Sanitary Commission. By 1864, they had devolved into an eccentric novelty in the mess tents of the senior-most officers.

Furgurson and Rhea quote from the unpublished diary of Captain Washington Roebling (photo right), General Warren's ADC, who refers to the AoP's 1864 night marches as unguided lunges into Egyptian darkness (referring to the Egypt of Mosaic plagues) in search of positions never reconnoitered. Again, to the early war reader, this is beyond shocking: the AoP of 1862 was led by engineers and ADCs in to the precise position intended for them. In the Mexican War Meade himself had been such an engineer-scout for Zachary Taylor; McClellan would argue his ACW reconnoitering engineers into alternate positions after his own, personal reconnaissances of corps positions. Egyptian darkness = archaic regression.

In his military history classic, The Wilderness Campaign, author and park historian, the late Edward Steere, is continuously (and erroneously) baffled by what he considers to be Meade's errors in the field. But Meade is delegating to a changing cast of characters with no institutional memory at corps level - they are the corps commanders du jour, accidental battlefield tourists. Meade's failure - if I can interpose here - seems to be that he imagines himself in some sort of time continuum connected to 1862 whereas in fact he exists in a fractured time-space in which all that was known in 1862 has been irretrievably lost and must be learned again. Grant, if I can again interject, appears as would a Martian landing in the middle of the Eastern theater in 1864 with only day-to-day realities to guide him towards norms.

Meade does not know he has regressed; Grant cannot know Meade has regressed; the corps commanders - the pounding engines of regression - live from moment to moment until their 60 - 90 days of fame is up. They are the time travelers who bring the AoP back to Smith's earliest phase of human warfare.

And so we find in Steere provacative section headings: Awkward Dispositions; Meade Withholds His Blow; Meade Miscalculates; Faulty Communications; General Offensive Bogs Down; Defective Planning and Faulty Execution; Blame is Shared; An Abortive Offensive; Grant Stops a Panic. We find observations like "It therefore seems incredible that a tactician of Meade's ability..." But it is not about Meade and Grant. Their share of blame is dwarfed by a personnel fiasco in the general officer ranks. 1864 is about the total breakdown of institutional memory through turnover in the high command.

There comes a point in 1864, perhaps I'll calculate it sometime, when the Union's enlisted turnover exceeds 100%. There comes a point in 1864, perhaps I'll calculate it sometime, when the Union's corps command turnover exceeds 500%. This is the point of certifiable institutional imbecility. This is Baldy Smith's earliest phase of human warfare. This is the point where Smith, in his memoirs, puts the cherry on the cake:
The great Civil War will hereafter afford many texts to show the ignorance of military principles and the utter absence of military genius but it developed no new principles and has left few examples other than those that serve for warning to future generals.