Sunday, March 13, 2011

"One or two more such assaults would use up this army."

June 1864 was hot and muggy on the outskirts of Atlanta, much as it is today.  Billy Sherman's Federals had performed a masterful 80 mile dance down the railroad line from Chattanooga, using flanking maneuvers to repeatedly dislodge the Confederates under General Johnston.  At Kennesaw Mountain, that would change.

Uncharacteristically, Sherman attacked the strongest portion of Johnston's line, the twin peaks of Kennesaw Mountain.  Not only were the rebels deeply entrenched, but their artillery was dug in on the crests of the mountains.  The result wasn't a battle, but butchery.

3,000 of the 12,000 attacking Federals were shot down in the southern heat.  Johnston lost around 500.  Sherman wired General Thomas - the "Rock of Chickamauga" and perhaps his best subordinate - to ask if another assault would give favorable results.  Thomas replied with the words in the title of this post.

Billy Sherman was perhaps the most cold blooded of the Union generals, and his assessment of his failure was entirely in that vein.  Shelby Foot describes his post-mortem of the battle:
"This assault I made was no mistake; I had to do it," he wired Halleck, explaining that after nearly eight weeks of gingerly skirmishing, all the time conforming to a pattern about as precise as if he and Johnston were partners in a classic minuet, Federals and Confederates alike "had settled down into the conviction that the assault of lines formed no part of my game."  Now that both sides knew better, having seen the dance pattern broken as if with a meat axe, he expected to find his adversary "much more cautious."
#2 Son and I are off to see the battlefield, which is only a half hour's drive ("Take Marietta Highway west to the Big Chicken, then head north until you see signs for the park.")  It's a far prettier day than that one in June when the mountaintops were wreathed in black powder smoke.

Sherman resumed his flanking, which led him here to Rowsell where they burned the mill before forcing a crossing under fire across the Chattahoochee.  They still hate him here; it wasn't the butcher's bill in that terrible conflict, rather it was how he made war on the women and children in his path.  400 women were working in the Roswell textile mill, and he sent them all north to concentration camps in boxcars.

That's one cold SOB.


wolfwalker said...

Yes, he was a cold S.O.B. Intentionally so. And he did the same thing on the March to the Sea a few months later. And all for the same reason: he was specifically out to break the Southerners' will to resist, and you don't do that by playing nice. The records indicate that he didn't like it, didn't like having to do it, and knew full well just how nasty it was -- but he believed it was the best way to win.

"If the people raise a great howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war, and not popularity seeking." -- General William T. Sherman,

TJIC said...

Well, on the bright side, independent states were conquered and brought into the US against their will, and Lincoln's imperial federal government gained in power and authority - that pretty much makes Sherman the patron saint of modern Leftists, no?

Raptor said...

@ TJIC. You have no idea. I'm a recent product of a very Leftist public school district, and I remember my American History lessons well. The textbook made Sherman out to be the greatest General in the entire Union army, and Lincoln to be the greatest American President, period, all because they "sacrificed so much to preserve the Union."


IMO, the only reason that Sherman is better than Himmler is because Sherman didn't carry out genocide against a specific ethnic group. But he's a close second on my list of "Most Evil Military Figures of All Time."

Bob said...

And yet Sherman was far more generous in the terms of surrender that he agreed to with Johnston than Grant was to Lee; the terms were so generous, in fact, that Sherman came under fire from the Union government for their perceived leniency. The surrender terms made him a lifelong friend in Johnston, who would hear no criticism of Sherman thereafter, and who died as a result of pneumonia that he developed while standing in the rain as one of the pallbearers at Sherman's funeral.

Johnston was a capable general, but believed in wearing down an enemy through defensive tactics, which is probably the proper strategy when your army is outnumbered by the enemy. He was argumentative, though, and made an enemy of Jefferson Davis, which resulted in his dismissal on a couple of occasions. His men, however, adored him, since he was willing to stand alongside them and pitch in when necessary, helping to push wagons out of the mud, for instance.

Jehu said...

Johnston's tactics had the potential to delay the Union long enough for Lincoln to lose the election, possibly resulting in a negotiated peace. He likely understood that he didn't have to win, rather simply cause the Union to lose by the expedient of exhausting the will to continue. Hood, who replaced Johnston, gave the kind of decisive engagements that Sherman needed to give Lincoln the electoral boost that he needed.

Chris said...

I would submit that General Thomas was the best the Union had. Tactically superior, always prepared, never surprised, he never lost a battle in which he was in command. He was not, however, very good at self-promotion, as both Grant and Sherman were. A good biography is "Master of War" by Benson Bobrick.

Kansas Scout said...

I will tell you who the cold SOB's are. People who hold men, women and children in slavery. Sell them like cattle and then attack the nation it belongs to at Charleston Harbor and then blame the North for doing so. The South brought this on to itself. Karma is a bitch. Yes I am a Yankee.

wolfwalker said...

Chris, I might agree with your assessment but for one thing: My understanding is that Thomas was a steady, by-the-book fighter with little imagination and less willingness to take risks. He was a masterful defensive general, but much less impressive on the offense.

Anyway, though, this argument about "who was the best" runs afoul of the age old problem: the best at what, exactly? Grant was an excellent strategist, as proved by his Vicksburg campaign. Sherman was a master of tactical maneuvering. Thomas was the best in the ranch at defensive fighting. Then there was Admiral Farragut, whose naval operations captured several otherwise-untouchable Confederate port cities. And so on.