Sword in One Hand - review

Where Faust's Republic of Suffering was a meditation, so is Carol Reardon's new book, With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other. Their approaches differ. Faust presented thoughts-as-they-occur whereas Reardon gives the impression of building a case that never comes together. Reardon could better have written on the lines of "look what I found" but instead develops analysis and evidence tantalizing the reader with a payoff that never comes. Faust makes no promises - hers are free-floating observations. Reardon disappoints.

If you took any chapter from either book, it would make a nice New Yorker essay that would deliver pleasure in a waiting room or on a sunny patio. You know those old essays - erudite, observational, suggestive of a conclusion, vaguely pointing to a universal truth.

Woking against Reardon here is her title and maketing copy. The subtitle names a problem and we infer a solution will be given (The Problem of Military Thought in the Civil War North). This accurately indicates the structure of the work, but the argument stops after the "problem" is illustrated. I found this to be a tease.

The dust jacket has a line worth quoting: "She argues that the absence of a strong intellectual foundation for the conduct of the war at its start - or, indeed, any consensus on the need for such a foundation - ultimately contributed to the length and cost of the conflict." I did not find this argument or conclusion in the book.

I would have loved to see that idea developed to a conclusion and if this had been tried, we would be looking at a work of great importance.

Instead, we are looking at a kind of literature survey. These four pieces were once lectures and perhaps that explains the need to collect evidence and present analysis. Some of the evidence is interesting but the act of collecting and presenting it primes the deep reader for fault finding, since he is comparing his store of knowledge to Reardon's. And here there are faults to find, sins of omission and commission.

Chapter 1
Let's start with the big picture, the overarching analytic failures. Reardon's first essay is "Exorcising the Ghost of Jomini: Debating Strategy in the Civil War North."

For Reardon, "strategy" stands in for any kind of military thought, save perhaps drill or tactics. She confuses herself categorically because she doesn't make necessary distinctions that would cast light on her subject.

At the top of a conceptual hierarchy is the war aim. The war aim may be reunification, or reconstruction, or something else, alone or in combination. It is a truism that Lincoln changed his war aims and it is a game historians play to try to pinpoint when they changed. Reardon is aware of war aims changing but she does little with it except to mention the old soft war/hard war stuff. The potential effects on policy and strategy are not discussed here.

Below the war aim, we have strategy, which is about defining an end in military terms. You sometimes hear people say it is about ends and means, but means follow ends and they have more to do with military policy. Reardon is very fuzzy about what strategy is and she seems to follow the differing 19th Century usages of the word as it suits her narrative, which is very destructive to understanding. Consider Scott's thinking in his letters to McClellan. We might put a Scott strategy together this way: "I propose to compel the South to negotiate a settlement for reunification." He has an operation in mind to do that, but that is outside the strategy and it could change without affecting the strategy. Reardon confuses it with the strategy. Likewise, McClellan's August 1861 strategy might be stated as, "I propose unification without negotiation." He too has an operational idea - to occupy the entire rail network of the southeast via strongpoints set up at its junctions. I salute Reardon for being among the tiny number of historians who has read and understood McClellan's war-winning 1861 scheme of operations, but she misrepresents this scheme as a strategy.

Below strategy we have what are today called concepts of operations (CONOPS). The concept of operations describes a proposed method of realizing the strategy. Scott: riverine operations, 50,000 men, objective New Orleans. McClellan: occupy all key junctions following rail lines; garrison junctions while continuing advance until all railways are in Northern hands. For Reardon, as for so many historians, the CONOPS is the strategy, and this is a tragic failure of analysis that misses so many potential insights.

Below the concept of operations, or next to it, is military policy. Military policy touches on many things but at this level it allocates means to ends. Buell shall have this many units of that type to accomplish his mission. Buell's department shall include this territory. Buell shall be supplied with Belgian muskets until they can be replaced by Enfields. Buell shall have no control over the state militias. And so on: this idea of policy as a concept separate from strategy is not present here.

Below the CONOPS and military policy, doctrine is in play. The concept of doctrine is also missing here, or rather doctrinal issues get rolled up into strategy in Reardon's narrative. At the macro level, doctrine decides things such as what kinds of missions cavalry will be allowed to perform; what the correct use of artillery shall be; when entrenchments shall be employed and how they shall be operated against. These are doctrine in the sense of biblical (in a military sense). We have often discussed in this blog the fight of McClellan and Johnston against Sumner and Davis in antebellum cavalry doctrine. The analytic richness of "doctrine" is lost on Reardon.

Near the bottom of the conceptual ladder comes operations. The army advanced on three axes in this order given these objectives and those instructions. So many ACW authors confuse operations at this level with strategy or (just as bad) the execution of strategy.

At the very bottom comes tactics. Tactics represent the application of doctrine in operations. Doctrine says cavalry shall form on the battlefield in two ranks. Operationally, the cavalry did such and such (and they maintained or failed to maintain the two rank requirement.) Reardon understands that some matters are tactical (or drill) related, but everything above that, she rolls into "strategy" or the even more nebulous "military thought."

The sharp reader will now accuse me of anachronism in proposing this is a template for discussing military thought in the run-up to the Civil War. I plead guilty with an important caveat. Some scheme or organization is necessary in dealing with the many different levels and types of ideas being reviewed. You might take a contemporary schema - which would be less differentiated - and suffer the analytic consequences. But to take no schema, and lump all this into the same pot, makes for a mulligan's stew; it might be spiced with tasty historical morsels, but it's not history, it's just a kind of nonfiction soup.

We are still discussing the first piece in the book, "Exorcising the Ghost of Jomini" and the major analytic failures within. The theme of this chapter is that Jomini's influence is overrated. The proof is made through a literature review that shows many thinkers were published (commercially) pre-war and during the war. Reardon does not trouble herself with a look at how much non-Jomini publishing actually had Jominian content. In fact, there is also this constant back-and-forth between influences on "most Northerners" (i.e. civilians, p. 34) and army officers. This seems like a disingenuous blurring of the lines to score points against Jomini because the question is not whether his influence was strong among civilians (an interesting question) but among soldiers (a vital question).

Aside from failing to check the non-Jomini authors for Jominian content, Reardon ignores two other potential evidences for influence: military correspondence and speeches or lectures.

The case for Jomini's influence was made, as she says, by T. Harry Williams, Jones, Hattaway, and Hagerman. She completely fails to tackle the gist of their case: that the engine for Jominian domination in military thought was the Napoleon Club, the invitation-only off-duty seminars given by West Point Professor Dennis Hart Mahan to what became the future leaders of the military struggle. Hart gets two mentions in this chapter: (1) Scott read authors including Mahan and Jomini (p. 21) and (2) Scott and Mahan believed low casualties to be a mark of great generalship (p.41).

There is no hint here of Mahan's role as the foremost advocate of Jomini in America; there is no mention of his seminar or its illustrious roster of graduates. There is also no hint that Reardon knows she has adopted as her central question (Jomini's influence) a well-plowed field that has been turned for years among modern military authors - authors she has obviously not read. This is not a small scholarly failure on her part, for any claim to originality here is built on new questions yielding new insights.

In 1998, KSU Press published Col. James L. Morrison's "The Best School": West Point, 1833-1866. Morrison wote,
Another long-lived myth is the claim that Professor Mahan’s emphasis on Jomini became a dominating influence on Civil War strategy. This view not only exaggerates the impact of one small segment of the curriculum, while ignoring the effects of other characteristics of the West Point environment, it also overlooks such factors as differences in intellect and the influence of military experience after graduation.

In a thesis rebutting Col. Morrison, Major Michel Phipps wrote Mahan at West Point, “Gallic Bias,” and the “Old Army”: The Subconscious of Leadership at Gettysburg.

I don't want to recap point-by-point Phipps' rejection of Morrison's argument except to say that it is substantive in a way Carol Reardon is not. So for instance, Phipps:
The list of commanders in the Battle of Gettysburg who had endured a year under the uncompromising eye of “Old Cobbon Sense” [Mahan] is a long one, containing: James Longstreet, A.P. Hill, Richard S. Ewell, J.E.B. Stuart, Henry Heth, William D. Pender, Richard H. Anderson, Edward Johnson, Jubal Early, George Pickett, Lafayette McLaws, John Bell Hood, Richard Garnett, J.M. Jones, George H. Steuart, Junius Daniel, Stephen Ramseur, Cadmus Wilcox, Fitzhugh Lee, John Chambliss, Beverly Robertson, W.E. Jones, E.P. Alexander, George Meade, John F. Reynolds, Winfield Scott Hancock, George Sykes, John Sedgwick, Oliver Howard, Henry Slocum, Alfred Pleasonton, Henry Hunt, Gouverneur Warren, Robert Ogden Tyler, John Tidball, Abner Doubleday, John Gibbon, Andrew Humphreys, Romeyn Ayres, Albion Howe, John Newton, Horatio Wright, Henry Eustis, Alfred Torbert, Alexander Hays, Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, John Buford, David M. Gregg, Gabriel Paul, Norman Hall, Alexander Webb, Samuel Carroll, Stephen Weed, David Russell, Thomas Ruger, Thomas Neill, Adelbert Ames, George Armstrong Custer, and Wesley Merritt. This list includes virtually every man who made a critical command decision at Gettysburg, down to infantry brigade level.
Phipps argues that "It was [Mahan's] emphasis at West Point on Napoleon, taught through the vehicle of Jomini’s Summary of the Art of Warr, that affected the thinking of future commanders." I am very tempted to join in this discussion if only to reiterate many points Reardon ignored or was never aware of. Let me just offer this from club member Dabney H. Maury:
... best of all was the Napoleon Club. Professor Mahan was president of this, and gave out the Napoleon campaigns to be discussed by each member. Six weeks' time was allowed to prepare the paper. We had ample authorities, both French and English, at our disposal in the library, and worked diligently on our papers. The campaign of Waterloo, by Lieutenant B.S. Alexander, was considered one of the best discussions ever made of that notable defeat of Bonaparte. The campaign of Russia, by G.W. Smith and of Wagram, by McClellan, showed marked ability.
A second gap, less awful than Mahan's omission, involves the treatment of Halleck and his Elements of Military Art and Science. In this first chapter, the mentions of him tend to be toward that of General Halleck, his book getting the shortest shrift. This work is important to Reardon's analysis, but she gives no hint of what's inside. When she discloses that Halleck translated Jomini during the war, she fails to connect that fact with Halleck's ongoing advocacy of Jomini in military operations.

The frustrated tone of Halleck's operational correspondence in the early war often touches on this or that principle - usually Jominian - and the correspondent's failure to take note of this "settled science." Put in modern terms, Halleck treats Jomini's observations as doctrine when trying to correct this or that "error." I suspect his wartime translation of Jomini was intended to put officers on a comparable level where they could talk the same language in shorthand without Halleck having to give lengthy Jominian lectures in his letters. This seems obvious to me but is not touched on by Reardon.

She closes this chapter with the remarks of an observer who notes he "has seen [Jomini] carefully read by our Volunteer officers." This works against her skeptical position. The officers are reading HJ and trying to apply their reading.

The more important point for Reardon is that anecdotal evidence, used in this way, cannot be conclusive. There has to be method and system in the argument.

Chapter 2
Reardon's second chapter is called "Who Shall Command: The Cult of Genius versus the Primacy of the Professional."

This is a review of the changes in Northern command set against military theory (as expressed in the popular and professional press) against a further overlay, the education vs. natural talent controversy. To set this kind of 3-D challenge for yourself and then try to discharge it in 34 pages is impossible and deeply frustrating to the reader. The way Reardon deals with scholarship challenges reminds me of a rebuke I once received from a history professor. he said "You are trying to write your way out of a problem." This certainly applies here.

Chapter 3
Reardon's third chapter is "Lost in Jomini's Silence: The Human Factor in War." Here she takes a survey of the human cost of the Grant/Meade offensive of 1864 in a way that has not been done before - and which reflects devastatingly on Grant and Meade. She correctly delineates the cost of the campaign as uniquely horrible and as she counts the ways it does not occur to her that earlier commanders sought to avoid such a cost for good reason. (In the Centennial scheme of things bloodthirsty historians consider them shirkers and misfits.)

Here too, we have a failure in scholarship that is remarkable. In her discussion of psychiatric casualties, she makes no use of the available Civil War material. In my youth, Civil War psychiatry was all the rage in analyzing what we now call PTSD among Vietnam veterans. Hammond's general Treatise on Insanity in its Medical Relations, published in the 1880s, is replete with his own Civil War cases. See also Deutsch A. "Military psychiatry: The Civil War, 1861–1865," in One Hundred Years of American Psychiatry: 1844–1944.

Richard A Gabriel has also written on Civil War "shell shock":
Military physicians, at a loss to treat the problems, simply mustered the extreme cases out during the first three years of the war. “They were put on trains with no supervision, the name of their home town or state pinned to their tunics, others were left to wander about the countryside until they died from exposure or starvation,” reports Richard A. Gabriel, a consultant to the Senate and House Armed Services Committees and one of the foremost chroniclers of PTSD. Gabriel’s research tells us that in 1863 the number of insane soldiers simply wandering around was so great, there was a public outcry.
I have drifted into rewriting her book for her. Sorry.

The idea in this chapter singling out spring 1864 in this way and bearing down on what "success/lack of" meant to soldiers is original and interesting. in scope, this chapter had the best chance of accomplishing its goals. In execution, it lacks much but it makes its effect, as intended. I have difficulty believing back-cover-blurbers McPherson and Marszalek read this chapter as it poses so many problems for their interpretation of the war.

There is a fourth chapter here in the form of an epilogue. This is intended as a sketch of post-war military thought - where we have come from since Jomini. Reardon's conclusion is not very far at all and our mixed record in war displays that.

I am very sympathetic to this argument and would like to have seen this bit done right. For instance, here we meet Upton but not Palmer. The struggle of Army organization does not appear. The division of military thought into categories and such (theory, organization, doctrine, strategy, etc.) - a major conceptual breakthrough since Jomini - is not in these pages. And so it goes. Not having lived issues of contemporary military thought, not having brought them into her own heart and mind, Reardon is in the position of a journalist relating second hand what people told her and what she thinks it means.

In terms of military thought, Civil War generals had a problem indeed. Jomini represented the roof of a house. The foundation of the house could be said to be drill and military habits. The beams of the house would be doctrine; the walls, those years of combat experience that Napoleonic armies experienced; the windows, agreement on common procedure; the doors, a standardization making for likeness among armies.

Civil War thinkers were building the components that would allow them to get to the roof of this construct. To try to apply Jominian ideas using heterogeneous militia armies of no experience, with no standard practices, no common doctrine, no common experience, that would be an exercise in fantasy. Such exercises persisted in the press and pop culture and they enchant historians today, but they have no place in a review of military thought.

The Civil War thinkers did not complete their task. They did not get to the point where a roof could be erected. Historians have tried to complete the job and we see the result.

What we have is a failed book the individual lectures of which make interesting reading. In Civil War history, we'll take what we can get.

p.s. Drew's review is here and Harry's discussion is here. As of 5/22, Drew's review and this one are the only ones indexed by Google.