von Moltke's "armed mobs"

Richard F. Miller and I let slip a misattribution: Bismarck was given credit for the supposed von Moltke chestnut about armed mobs. Brooks Simpson pointed out the error.

I had originally seen this in American Heritage 40 or so years ago and it was (to complete the thought) more along the lines of armed mobs chasing each other through the forest (which sounds rather like the premise of an exciting Tarzan movie).

Note that this quote is of a piece with "masterly inactivity." It is an endlessly repeated bit of color that can liven the dullest passage. A search on Google for armed mobs moltke "civil war" yields 1,640 hits, many of which use quote marks to render the insight:

"And he replied, with an icy stare "I have no time to waste in studying the struggles of two armed mobs."
But is it a quote? Whence the icy stare?

The more cautious user will show this as a paraphrase if he uses it at all. BFC Fuller offers it in paraphrase in two books, The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant and War and Western Civilization 1832-1932 without attribution. That's probably where the American Heritage gang got if from. Bruce Catton, a leading light behind AH, borrowed liberally from Fuller and we find him opening a talk with the quote, so fond of it was he:

As devotees and self-appointed analysts of the Civil War, I suppose all of us have heard of von Moltke, who is supposed to have said that he didn't find our Civil War worth study because it was simply a contest of armed mobs.
The quote is not sourced and Catton wisely remarks "supposed to have said." However, as so many Centennialist doubletalkers have done ever since, he proceeds from the uncertain attribution to the ironclad conclusion:

What I would like to suggest is that this Prussian general was more nearly correct than most of us are willing to admit.
Von Moltke was correct about something he may not have said, you see. And it behooves us to be willing to admit he may have been right about this something he may never said.

Welcome to the Civil War history that inspired this blog.

James M. McPherson, who synthesized Catton, Williams, Nevins, and others, offered the mob quote in Battle Cry followed by the curious caveat that Moltke "denied having said" it. Again, this is not sourced, leaving open the possibility that McPherson, in recapitulating the work of others, distorted "may not have said" into "denied having said."

This armed mob seems to come out of the life and legends of W. Tecumseh Sherman. Glatthaar, a slob in the citations department, tantalizes us with

After the war, word circulated that the great Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke had said of Sherman's army that there was nothing one could learn from 'an armed mob.'
That was from his The American Civil War and again source is not noted, despite the quote marks.

I have seen somewhere and lost track of the second half of that vignette which appears elsewhere, in which Sherman, hearing the criticism, issues a rejoinder. In other words, there seems to be a Sherman anecdote abroad in which the von Moltke quote is brought to his attention and Sherman responds. It does not appear in the wartime correspondence edited by Simpson and Berliner.

If you take Catton's screwy logic to the next level, you can base an entire academic paper on an event rooted in maybe. Hence this gem:
Helmuth von Moltke's alleged statement the U.S. Civil War was an affair in which two armed mobs chased each other around the country and from which no lessons could be learned underlines a grave misjudgment of this war in contemporary Germany.
Emphasis added. If it didn't happen, can it underline a grave misjudgement? Yes says German Observations and Evaluations of the U.S. Civil War: A Study in Lessons Not Learned.

Lessons learned from things that might not have been said. Chapter the First: Our Missing Attributions.

In any case, the mobs and von Moltke the Elder were so established in the American imagination early on that the U.S. journalist Poultney Bigelow confronted Kaiser Wilhelm II on the question, filing a story the day after von Moltke's death (datelined 4/25/1891 and accessible via the NYT archives).

I asked the Emperor about von Moltke's reported reference to the American Civil War, the general having been quoted as calling our armies armed mobs, from which nothing of the science of war could be learned.

"Gen. von Moltke never said any such thing, nor had he any such opinion," said the Emperor. "On the contrary, he had the highest respect for your generals, as every one acquainted with his administration of the general staff must know. Even to this day, every German officer is obliged to study carefully the history and tactics of your war. We Germans are thoroughly acquainted with the campaigns of Grant, Sheridan, Sherman, and Lee, and your other generals. Gen. von Moltke has repeatedly expressed his admiration of them to me. You taught us the art of intrenchments, transportation, military telegraphing, and forced marches; in fact, the whole science of military warfare was illustrated in your war. Gen. von Moltke always recognized this and that we had much to learn from your generals. Nothing could be further from the truth than that silly story."

Note that this is from a latecomer - Kaiser Bill had been on the throne under three years at the time - and it comes through a news report. Yet, I have some reason to put confidence in this second or third hand report.

McClellan met von Moltke in Europe and von Moltke was both complimentary of his generalship and familiar enough with the war to comment on the combined army/naval operations against Richmond. McClellan reported that von Moltke said GBM's approach was the correct one and would have won the war, given proper support. See Sears's Young Napoleon; here's an unsourced account as well.

This resonates with von Moltke's concerns in 1864, combined operations against the Danish islands in the Baltic. It also resonates with what Justus Scheibert presented to the Prussian General Staff upon his return from observing McClellan and the Rebels in the mid 1860s (see A Prussian Observes the Civil War). Von Moltke was head of that staff and must have been familiar with Scheibert's insights, which are in no way "armed mobs" characterizations. One of the more interesting "lessons" Scheibert drove home to the GS was that Grant's campaign represented a fulfillment of McClellan's 1862 plans.

Thus, the Prussian GS was discussing American strategy, plans, combined operations, and personalities. Von Moltke, whatever he may have said about McClellan's first Richmond campaign, was conversant enough with the war to discuss it with McClellan at the strategic level.

The origins of the "armed mobs" story remains obscure. Got a line on it? Drop a line.