The Battle They Fought to End the War

They had come a long way, these young men. many of whom were still young.  In the fifth April of the war they felt both tired and energized: weary of a long winter of raids and bombardments, sharpshooters and endless mud, but energized because spring was coming, and the armies around Richmond were moving again.

In February Wilmington, North Carolina, the Confederacy’s last deep-water port with rail links, had been occupied by Union troops.  At Five Forks on 1 April 1865, a part of Army of Northern Virginia under George Pickett was trying to protect the Southside Railroad junction from the concerted attacks of Philip Sheridan.  Overwhelmed and badly placed, the Confederates were forced to run.  Using the Richmond and Danville line, Jefferson Davis and his government ran south while Robert E. Lee took the Army of Northern Virginia south and west, under close attack from the Army of the Potomac under George G. Meade.

With Meade behind him, William T. Sherman’s army group was somewhere to his south where Joseph P Johnston was trying to get away from Sherman and join Lee, and Federal cavalrymen were closing off the major roads.  After nine days of moving and fighting, and after his last ration train was captured, Lee saw little choice but to give up the fight.

So the patrician Lee and the plebeian Ulysses S. Grant, who commanded all the Union armies, met on 9 April 1865 to work something out.  They sat in the parlor of Wilmer McLean, a sugar broker whose house at Manassas Junction was the center of the first major battle of the war.  Now, at Appomattox Court house, it would see the end of the largest theater of what had become a global war. Photographs of the time show Lee resplendent in an immaculate, new, custom-made uniform, and Grant in a mud-spattered private’s coat with lieutenant general’s shoulder straps.  There was a little small talk: Grant recalled their only other meeting in Mexico, which Lee could not remember.

The talked about horses, weapons, rations, terms.  Grant wanted the return of what property the Federal government owned before the war, but realized that it would be impossible to separate it from the rest, so did not press the issue much.  Lee said his officers owned their animals and their sidearms, and Grant decided he would not confiscate them.  Much as he had at Vicksburg, Grant knew this 28,000 man Confederate army was spent, and with nearly a hundred thousand men in arms under his command in the area, could afford to be generous.  After Ely Parker wrote out the final terms, Lee signed the surrender.

Then the real battle commenced, and continues to this day. The “battle of the books” has been the most consistently acrimonious and contentious action of the American Civil War, and this scholar contends that while it is far from over it needs to end sooner than later.

There are two major battlefields of this fight: the cause and The Cause.  The first centers around the reasons for the fighting to begin with, where tariffs, slavery, secession, state’s rights, firing on the flag, and other issues are the most often discussed.  The second is by far the noisiest.  It has more to do with the end of the war and how the entire conflict has been perceived, remembered and recorded.  To many scholars this is embodied in Lost Cause Mythology, or LCM, a position that holds that the Confederacy was always going to be the loser, but was the nobler of the two factions fighting the war–hence the Lost Cause.  For others, LCM is part and parcel a product of Union/Yankee imagination.  But for a few, including this one, both factions are cooperating in the management of Civil War Inc., the robust and thriving enterprise where a reasonable and compromising explanation for the conflict is out of the question simply because there’s so much advantage (in the form of profit and reputation) in keeping the contending factions going.

Unlike other civil conflicts, the American Civil War holds a global audience.  One can search far and wide to find a thousand reenactors of all other civil conflicts in history in the United States, but nearly every nation on the globe has at least one group of dedicated souls who dress up in wool serge to replay Gettysburg.  American Civil War books outsell all other American history titles worldwide in every language.  Civil war scholars, nearly all Americans, are always welcomed to speak at conferences and seminars on 19th century topics.

But the battle that they fight, unlike the battle that their subjects fought, will never end.  And, in the interest of scholarship and sanity, it needs to.

The Agony of Hills

On 23 March 1953, a series of battles began on a hill complex in the north of Yeoncheon county northeast of Seoul, Korea that would be immortalized in books and films as Pork Chop Hill.  In themselves these barren knobs of 300 meters or less in height had limited strategic value, but collectively they have had a meaning attached to them that has come to symbolize the seeming futility of the  “police action” in Korea, and are an excellent example of the differences between Soviet/Chinese-style warfare and American.  The UN forces in Korea, led by the Americans, fought relying on firepower–enormous firepower–that industrial armies had come to rely on since the middle of the 19th century.

The North Koreans in June of 1950 drove easily into the South Korean army, which possessed few tanks, and those were no match for the T-34s. As the Americans and other UN troops arrived, they were pushed them into a corner of the peninsula called variously the Pusan Perimeter or the Naktong River Line.  The Americans, building an army as they went along, defended along a series of hills in battles that would last for up to 60 hours straight.  Not accustomed to this marathon fighting, the Americans edged on exhaustion.

While the North Korean advantage was in its T-34 tanks in the battles of 1950, it lacked the capacity to repair or replace those tanks.  The Immun Gun, the proper name for the North Korean People’s Army, was a force built on a Soviet model, but with some differences.  Few North Koreans had much experience fighting industrialized armies; Japan was something of a Potemkin army with the appearance of industrial capacity but lacking in details.

By the time the Americans landed at Incheon in August 1950 North Korea had only a bare handful of tanks left operational.  Faced with overwhelming force, however, the North Koreans refused to just give up, and instead stood and fought, in some cases until their units were annihilated.  In the early stages of the war both sides strove for the high ground, and to secure supply routes as armies had since Napoleon’s time.  But in October 1950, that changed.

In three months, half the UN territorial gains in Korea were wiped out by a non-mechanized force that smothered the mechanized American, Commonwealth and South Korean forces in flesh–Chinese flesh.  Still clinging to hills, the UN forces were cut off again and again by the foot-borne Chinese who first avoided, then surrounded the major UN positions, cutting them off from retreat, but more important, from their desperately needed supply.  The Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA), who were at least as “voluntary” as any conscripted force, carried most of its logistic needs on its own back, lacked armored forces and heavy artillery, and could fight night and day for as much as 80 hours.  Like the Romans and the Soviets before them, their endurance was much greater than their enemies.

Following the pattern of industrial states with popular participatory governments, most of the UN forces relied on a core of professional soldiers, a framework of shorter-term technicians, and a mass of volunteers, draftees and earlier service members called back to the colors, for the most part WWII.  In this kind of war, as many have said before, the only thing that saved the UN was the strategic mobility and the tremendous firepower that armies like theirs had to rely on, and that the multitudes of Chinese (some of whom were veterans of the wars against Japan and of their civil war, and of service in the Soviet army against Germany) and the decimated North Koreans simply could not obtain.  When the Chinese closed to grenade range their numbers and fatalistic courage mattered, but before they got that close the UN could lay waste to them by the thousands.

By the spring of 1951 the mobile war had given way to an odd looking conflict that was a mix of WWI and WWII.  There were few frontal attacks but there were trenches.  There were mechanized assaults but few were decisive.  Casualties mounted, troops were rotated, whole national contingents came and went as peace talks stumbled and fluttered.  The one thing that was constant was that both sides were willing to prove their point using military force as needed.  Neither the Chinese nor the UN could “win” anything in the troglodytic twilight war of hills and bunkers, trenches and patrols.  Much of the mid-level Chinese field leadership–the company and battalion commanders on whom most of the tactical decisions fell– was dead by the end of 1950. UN morale dripped practically by the month; the “retreads” of WWII veterans called back to service were frustrated by this impossible no-decision way of war and just wanted to go home.

Ironically, it is becoming clear half a century later, both sides reached this conclusion at about the same time, but neither was willing to concede too much of anything.  One reason for this was neither Chinese nor American, but Soviet: Joseph Stalin.  The Chinese were convinced–wrongly–that without their war in Korea Stalin’s support in the Politburo the Soviet assistance for building their new country would dry up.   The UN, primarily led by the Americans, were facing increased tensions in the Mediterranean basin and in Europe from expansionist Soviet aims.  “The wrong war, in the wrong place, against the wrong enemy,” however glib and seemingly sage, was Omar Bradley’s short-sighted attempt to redirect attention from the global nature of the Stalinist/Soviet threat.

Peace talks began in the spring of 1951, going exactly nowhere but a few prisoner exchanges while the war of hills and outposts raged on and on.  In the late winter of 1953, nearly three years after it started and nearly two after the talks began, came the agony of Pork Chop.  Readers are likely familiar with the broad details of the American involvement due to the 1957 film starring Gregory Peck.  But it started nearly a week before when the Chinese pushed a Colombian battalion off Pork Chop and Old Baldy south of it in a marathon fight.   A week after the Colombians were displaced, K Company of the 31st Infantry, under the command of Joe Clemons (Gregory Peck’s character), was joined by L Company of the same regiment under Forrest Crittenden in a predawn assault on Pork Chop.  By dark less than a third of K Company was still on its feet; only about 10% of L Company answered the role.  The next day, they were reinforced by another battalion: seven of them walked off the hill.  Like a hundred hills before, the four-month’s fight over Pork Chop and Old Baldy would become a test of wills.

What was it all for?  Either not a lot of anything or a whole lot of everything.  This was the essence of Cold War brinkmanship, when neither would give up until the other slackened even for a moment.  It was played out in Korea as it had been in Greece, and in the Philippines,  and would be again in the Caribbean over some missiles in Cuba, and in Vietnam over a corrupt regime that played out bunch of hills around Khe Sanh, on another worthless rock called Hamburger, and another worthless pbend in a river called Hue.  “Worthless” only in the sense that something as intangible as “freedom” has a price that only a free person would be willing to pay for with his life, and that the free who are not brave will never quite appreciate.

From Opposite Ends of the Country, Decisive Signs

Early March 1862 was an exiting and crucial time for America.  Nearly everywhere, signs that the Confederate rebellion would be short-lived were becoming clearer.

In the wilds of northwestern Arkansas, Earl Van Dorn’s Army of the West crawled back towards Little Rock having been struck the day before by a reorganized force under Samuel Curtis that broke his fragile command into pieces.  The Missouri State Guard held together, but the Arkansas troops and the Indians melted into nothing.  From the 16,000 that he started with, Van Dorn had perhaps 6,000 left under his command.  Missouri had been threatened by Van Dorn since late summer 1861, but now he would be lucky to hold onto northern Arkansas.

Curtis wasn’t a military genius, he was just another Federal officer doing his job with the resources at hand.  Van Dorn wasn’t a dummy, but he was doing the same as Curtis.  Trouble was Van Dorn’s resources were a great deal thinner.  The Confederacy would be able to mount no further threats to Missouri.  In two weeks, Van Dorn would be ordered to sent what men he could get together to Albert S. Johnson, who was mounting an invasion of Tennessee, that would start with an attack on the Federal encampment at Pittsburg Landing.

It was the same just west of the Hampton Roads, half a continent away.  On 8 March 1862 the casement ironclad ram Virginia attacked the US Navy blockade at the mouth of the James River, destroying USS Congress (one of the first warships the US Navy built) and USS Cumberland (a Raritan class post-1812 build) and grounding USS Minnesota (a fairly new 3,300 ton screw frigate) and USS Roanoke (a Merrimack-class screw frigate, the same as the hull of Virginia).  On the outside of it Virginia and her unarmored consorts (armed tow steamer Raleigh, gunboat Beaufort, armed steamers Patrick Henry and Jamestown and armed tug Teaser) had won a decisive victory.

But like all the Confederacy’s victories, she lacked the capacity to follow up on them, or hold onto their glittering promise.  While victorious, Virginia’s smokestack had been riddled, her boats entirely shot away, many of her iron plates rattled off their foundations, and her hardwood and pine frame cracked amidships   Just as the sun went down, USS Monitor , the first turreted steam warship and under the command of John L Worden, reached Hampton Roads and took station near Minnesota to protect the steamer from further attacks. Virginia and the James River Squadron had returned to Norfolk for coal and ammunition so missed the little craft’s entrance.  Monitor had just completed a harrowing passage from New York, having been launched just days before.  Worden and his crew, therefore, were the US Navy’ ironclad experts

Buchanan had been wounded during the battle and so relinquished command to Catesby ap Roger Jones. who was the captain of Virginia.  Next morning, 9 March, Virginia set out to finish off Minnesota but ran into Monitor, described as a “cheese-box on a raft.”  Commencing at about noon, Virginia and Monitor hammered away at each other for four hours at ranges of 100 yards an less (in an age where typical sea fights were conducted at about 200-400 yards) while Federal tugs tried to get Minnesota unstuck from the bar.  Though both vessels were hurt, neither was damaged so much as to have to withdraw.  Virginia had her entire structure shifted by one particularly vicious hit, and the damage from the day before had not been put entirely to rights.  Monitor lost her pilot house.  After some four hours, Monitor withdrew to the shallows to replenish her shot lockers, and Virginia took the opportunity to declare victory and return to dock, having expended so much ammunition and coal that she was exposing her hull below her armored skirt.

The battle was over and Minnesota saved, but that was hardly the end.  Within a year the James River squadron would all be sunk or captured; Monitor would sink in a storm.  But fear of Virginia would shift George McClellan’s logistical plans for his upcoming Peninsula campaign from the James River to the Fox, a smaller stream on the eastern side of the Peninsula, requiring an overland march to Richmond rather than a Navy-covered stroll up the James.  The resulting Yorktown siege and the Seven Days’ Battles would save Richmond, but at the cost of another three years of war.

But ultimately, Virginia’s “victory” was hollow.  While European observers were unimpressed by the duel, the Royal Navy was impressed by the 98 day construction time for Monitor, and were well aware that the Union could build three such ships at a time if desired, with proven Dahlgren guns that neither the Confederates nor Great Britain could match.  The Confederacy, in contrast, used nearly all her manufacturing capacity to build Virginia on a burned hulk, and were thus unable to build a single finished ironclad for the defense of New Orleans, already under threat.  The Confederacy could win many battles, but it was clear from 1862 onward that she could not win the war.

Pea Ridge: A Lonely Fight in a Lonely Place

Generally, battles are fought over some geographic thing someone wants: a river crossing, a city, a peninsula, a mountain pass.  Few battles are fought literally in the middle of nowhere. But in early 1862, the United States had this problem called the Confederacy.  The Confederate States believed that they could just leave the Union at any time.  Most of the people in the United States objected to this idea, so there was this war….

In a nutshell, that’s pretty much how folks west of the Mississippi addressed their Civil War.  In Missouri, where slavery was technically legal but deeply unpopular in some parts, the conflict had taken on a life of its own, and had even before the Secession.  Missouri sent regiments to fight under both the Stars and Stripes and the Stars and Bars, and whole families were at war with others.  Neighboring Arkansas, however, wasn’t quite so divisive.  Admitted to the Union in 1836 as a slave state, she left the Union in May of 1861, after Lincoln called for volunteers to put down the rebellion.  A quarter of Arkansas’ population was slaves: she could hardly do any other.

The war in the west (generally referred to as anything west of the Appalachians) began at a place called Wilson’s Creek near Springfield on 10 August 1862, a bloody affair between a 5,400 man Union force and a 12,000 strong Confederate force primarily of the Missouri State Guard.  In a morning-long slaughter-fest the Confederates and Federals were both exhausted, but the casualties were about equal.  The barely-trained armies both withdrew.  At Lexington in September, the Confederates also fought the Federals to a standstill, but once again withdrew because their ammunition was critically low.

The pattern of major western battles was set: the Confederates may have outnumbered the Federals, but there was no way to defeat the Federals decisively without reliable logistics.  The most reliable supply lines were the rivers.  The Federals dominated the major waterways.  A plus B equals…it didn’t matter who won on land, because the Federals would be resupplied, ranks refilled, and back on the battlefield before the Confederates could.

By early 1862, a 10,500 man Union army under Samuel R. Curtis was in Benton County, Arkansas in the northwest corner of the state.  The Confederates under Earl Van Dorn commanding the 16,000 man Army of the West, decided to outflank Curtis.  But Curtis was a better general than that (at least, he had better intelligence) and on 6 March 1862 turned to meet Van Dorn at Pea Ridge near a small village called Elkhorn Tavern.  On 7 March, a firefight ensued (technically a meeting engagement since both sides were on the move and neither expected contact).  Even though outnumbered, the Federals logistics ensured that they had more ammunition.  Bone-chilling weather hampered the fighting on 8 March but Price counterattacked and managed to capture Van Dorn’s supply train. On 9 March, the long retreat began for the Confederates as the army disintegrated.  Another backhanded attempt to distract the Federals from their Mississippi Valley campaign was over.

The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War discusses Pea Ridge and other lonely and long-forgotten fights in the West during the spring of 1862.  Available in paper back and PDF at fine booksellers everywhere.

Kasserine: The Battlefield Experiment

There’s a great deal of confusion about the first major ground fighting between the Germans and Americans in Tunisia.  There is a distinct impression that it was one decisive, smashing battle, brilliantly executed by Erwin Rommel, the vaunted and fabled Desert Fox commanding the undefeated Afrika Korps, who humbled his primary opponents, American Lloyd Fredendall commanding US II Corps, and Englishman Kenneth Anderson, commanding the Allied First Army.

While Rommel did indeed plan the fight, for once he couldn’t do what he wanted to do.  It was his plan to severely drub the Americans in western Tunisia so he could fight Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army to his south.  But he an his men had been fighting more or less non-stop since September; his desert veterans were mostly gone.  In their place were replacements: capable, but not as savvy as the men who lay across a dozen battlefields from El Alamein to Tunisia.  Rommel himself was ill with a debilitating nasal condition that would compel his evacuation.  Since he failed, after a week of fighting, to completely eject the First Army from the Atlas Mountains, his attack only delayed the inevitable,.  The inevitable it was becoming clear, was the ejection of German and Italian forces from North Africa.
But American battle performance had been abysmal.  The 1st Armored Division’s M 2 tanks were completely outclassed by the German Pzkw IIIs and IVs; the M 3 tank’s riveted hull was poorly protected, even if the 75 mm main gun was better than most German tank guns in North Africa.  American infantry dug slit trenches instead of foxholes, could not (or would not) advance without considerable support, and generally acted like…green troops.
But they did not melt away, as British, French, Polish, Dutch and Russian troops did at first contact with German veterans.  At the end of the battle, a consolidated artillery group under the command of Stafford Irwin was able to pin down enough German assets forward to effectively starve them of ammunition and fuel, halting the offensive.  For the first time, American insistence on firepower and the Anglo/American polar plot fire control system combined with Anthony McAuliffe’s time-on-target barrage technique brought the German attacks to a halt.
As Rick Atkinson made clear in An Army At Dawn, the first clash at Kasserine was a portent of the future.  The Americans may not have been the best infantry in the world, but they were some of the most persistent, and they did have the best artillery fire control in the history of land warfare.  The Americans had fared poorly in nearly every “first battle” in every war they had ever fought.  But at Kasserine, the artillery that would mark their performance in future was consistently superb.

Verdun: Operation Judgement

Erich von Falkenhayn’s offensive of 1916 was aimed directly at the traditional invasion route between the Rhine and Paris.  The area had been used often enough that the area called the Heights of the Meuse were heavily fortified by the French over the years to have culminated in a series of forts that, if nothing else, put the entire Meuse-Rhine plain under observation for artillery.

The German plan was simple: take the forts, make the French commit their strategic reserves protecting the route to Paris, build up behind the bulge, press on to Paris in the summer months until France gave up and march home in triumph before fall.  The strategic motivations, however, were far more complex.  German agriculture was suffering under the loss of so much of its manpower, and was sorely affected by the British blockade–far more than Germany could withstand.  Though Germany had suffered less than had Britain and France in the battlefields, combined the Allies had far more manpower than did the Central Powers.  Germany, the most powerful of the Powers, was in the second year of a war she had anticipated would last two months.  Knocking France out of the war was the key to Germany’s survival.

On 21 February, the Germans unleashed their Fifth Army on the French Second Army manning the nineteen fortresses of the Verdun complex.  The first French fort to fall, three days later, was Douaumont, the largest and highest of the outer ring forts, by a small German raiding party.   Even though it had been unoccupied for months, the French were scandalized, and in Gallic rage they threw more and more men into the face of the German offensive.

While most scholars feel that this was the German intention all along, German military theory and doctrine never, ever had attritional battle in mind.  Prussia/Brandenburg, the font of Imperial German military tradition, never had the numbers nor the temperament for a drawn-out brawl, and always preferred maneuver–preferably to encirclement–to merely adding up casualties.  Tannenberg, the August 1914 double-envelopment of the Russian Second Army in East Prussia, was far more to Prussian/German liking than was the long slog of Verdun.  It is likely that post-Verdun German commentators merely claimed that attrition was the German plan all along, when in truth the French defense, orchestrated by Robert Nivelle, was more persistent and successful than they had imagined was possible.

Verdun would rage on unabated for ten months, consuming the lives of some three hundred thousand men out of the million committed, and occupying the full attention of over a hundred divisions. It would have been impossible for the rest of the world not to notice, and it would have been impossible for the Americans not to look on in horror, and in contemplation.  American military men may have been forbidden by President Woodrow Wilson to prepare contingency plans, but that did not prevent preparedness plans from being put into action with some urgency.  The Plattsburg Movement, a civilian-driven (if military favored) program of camps that trained young collegians in various places in the country, had finally come to fruition in the National Defense Act of 1916, that created the Army Reserves.  Approval of NDA 1916 and the increase in American preparedness had been spurred, in part, by the specter of the 2,300 French and Germans casualties About a regiment) every day on the Verdun front alone.

Two years after the worst of the fighting at Verdun had been concluded, the Americans were fighting to throw the Germans out of some of the 1916 gains at the Meuse-Argonne.  This battle was the largest American campaign between Appomattox in 1865 and the invasion of Sicily in 1943.  Wiley-Blackwell’s A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, edited by Ed Lengel, contains an essay by John D. Beatty entitled “We Can Kill Them But We Cannot Stop Them: An Evaluation of the Meuse-Argonne,” which looks at American performance there, and the influences of American preparedness before 1917.  Available in hardback and E-book from fine booksellers everywhere.

Iwo Jima: Strategic Convenience and Shape of Things To Come

The 19 February 1945 American invasion of Iwo Jima in the Bonin islands  was one of those peculiar events that means different things to different people.  The Bonin archipelago (also called the Ogasawara islands) is a volcanic desert: Iwo Jima, the largest of the islands, had no natural water sources and no place that could be used as a harbor.  The only reason anyone ever went there before the 1940s was because it was empty.  An American whaling outpost was established there in the 1830s after Spain and Britain had laid claim to it over the centuries, and Japan was the last to claim ownership in 1862.  No permanent residents were ever “permanent,” but transient fisher folk.

By early 1945, it was clear that the Americans were headed for the home islands of Japan.  Japan had fortified the place and built air fields, they realized that they could not hold the Bonins.  The Japanese 31st Army,  therefore, would be sacrificed in place.  The scanty air units were withdrawn in the face of fifty-odd American aircraft carriers.

At the time, the reasoning given for the invasion was to provide a fighter escort base for the B-29s attacking Japan out of the Marianas islands, and as an emergency landing field for crippled bombers.  About halfway between Japan and Saipan, the northernmost of the Marianas, this claim passes basic geographic muster,  But since the place was useless as a base for either the Army ground forces or the Navy, did the Air Force really need a base with no natural water?

Even the “fighter escorts for the bombers” claim was dubious.  Army fighters had the range to reach some of the big Honshu Island of Japan from the Bonins, but lacked the navigational equipment necessary for long flights over water.  Further, the Air Forces were changing tactics since their European-style high level daylight bombing wasn’t working in the Pacific.

After some 25,000 casualties (nearly 7,000 dead) in the six weeks fighting for Iwo Jima (Chichi Jima, a smaller rock with fewer flat spaces, its own water and a small harbor to the north, fell almost bloodlessly in less than a week) it raises a question: how many Marine lives does it take to save Army Air Force lives?  Of the 2,600 bombers that landed there, less than half “needed” the emergency fields, according to one estimate.  In this view, then, some 13,000 Army air crewman were saved.  The Japanese lost over 18,000 over the sulfurous wastelands.  “Worth the cost” has a whole new meaning with such numbers.   Furthermore, there is a school of thought that suggests that the three Marine divisions used in the Bonins were used up to be kept away from Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines, or his plan for Formosa.  Idle, those 50,000 men and supporting fleets were a tempting tool.  Deployed, they were beyond MacArthur’s reach.

Ultimately, however, like Peleliu, the Japanese needed the Bonins more than the Americans did, and that was the point. The Americans were taking strategic targets from the Japanese because they could, and each one hurt.  But too, like Okinawa would in a few months, it demonstrated to the Marines what the Army had found out on Saipan: the Japanese would fight to the death; military, civilian, man, woman, child–it mattered not.  What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan At War, 1941-45 is a study of the Japanese mindset, available at fine bookstores everywhere.