May 25, 2015

Meade and the Central Position

On Memorial Day, we're to remember our military dead, and it is virtually impossible to do so without remembering the Gettysburg Address.  It is a remarkable speech, not just because it is short and stylistically excellent, but also because it challenges us to think about what we are going to do after the ceremony:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Like every other big Civil War battle, Gettysburg was monstrous slaughter, unlike anything seen in the western world since the Napoleonic Wars.  About 1/3 of the men engaged became casualties.

It fell to Lincoln to try to find some meaning in it.  It was natural for people to imagine that Union soldiers had "died in vain," in part because the people commanding them had often been fools.  The character Buckland in the movie Gettysburg expresses this perfectly:
These damn idiots use us like we were cows or dogs or worse. We ain't gonna win this war. We can't win no-how with these lame-brained bastards from West Point. These damn Gentlemen! These officers! 

I wonder if Buckland and his men could have been brought back into the fold so easily if they'd known that the man in charge of the Army of the Potomac, George Meade, had been on the job for just three days before the battle.

Meade is not remembered much today, but his conduct of the battle appears unimpeachable, in fact, it looks a little Napoleonic.  I know as much as man can know about Napoleon from playing war-games as a teenager, and his two defining characteristics as a strategist were:
  • Rapid movement: Napoleon moved fast, and even Arthur Wellesley, who had studied the him, was caught by surprise during the Waterloo campaign.  Learning of Napoleon's advance at a fancy dress ball, he said "Napoleon has humbugged me, by God; he has gained twenty-four hours' march on me."  Yeah, welcome to the big leagues, pal.
  • Occupation of a central position:   You can set up almost any Napoleonic battle, and you'll find the French seizing a central point - a crossroads or a town - and using it as a wedge to divide and dis-coordinate the opposing forces.
Here are Napoleon's dispositions at Leipzig on October 16:

Outnumbered 3-1 he ultimate lost this battle - a conflagration about twice the size of Gettysburg, by the way.  But note the virtues of the position.  Napoleon has great interior lines of support, and unless attacks on him are well coordinated, he can simply shuttle reserves from one side to another.

He (and Ney) employed this technique very effectively during the big reunion tour, at Quatre Bras:

By interposing their main force between Wellington and Blucher, the French were able to set up the opportunity - later squandered due to Grouchy's bungling - to defeat the enemy forces in detail.

My in-depth study of the Gettysburg campaign, which consisted of watching this War College video,  and this other one (both superb, btw) persuades me that Meade shared these same virtues.  While J.E.B. Stuart was browsing the shoe stores of Carlisle, PA, Mead was putting the Army of the Potomac between him and his commander-in-chief.  Ewell, stuck somewhere in the middle, marched down from the north, and after some preliminary slaughter, the following position was arrived at on Day 3:

In fairness, getting to this point was as much the work of Hancock as Meade, although it was Meade who picked him ahead of more senior officers, and sent him ahead with discretion to hold the position or pull back.

Once the position above was reached, however, Meade called Lee's bluff.  With numbers about equal, he occupied the central high ground and said, "well, here you are.  You came all this way.  Your job is to attack my army and destroy it.  Good luck with that."  (He could have made it even a little more Napoleonic by deliberately weakening a flank - a.k.a. The Austerlitz Maneuver - but full marks for getting the basics right.)

The Confederates took the bait.  Their uncoordinated attacks were turned away at brutal cost, at Culp's Hill, at Little Roundtop, and, finally and climactically, on Cemetery Ridge (map here).

You see what happens, Larry?  You see what happens when you don't coordinate your attacks!?

And so the Union was saved.  Pretty good work, for a new guy.

Casualties at Gettysburg were supposedly about even (who really knows), but the Confederates lost a greater percentage of their force and were not as able to make good their losses.  After the long walk back to Virginia they never conducted meaningful offensive operations again.

As every schoolchild knows, Meade failed to fully follow up on his great victory, and was subordinated to Grant when Lincoln promoted the latter to General-in-Chief of the Union Army.  His conduct during this transition made Grant think even more highly of him.  From Grant's Personal Memoirs:
I visited General Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, at his headquarters at Brandy Station, north of the Rapidan. I had known General Meade slightly in the Mexican war, but had not met him since until this visit. I was a stranger to most of the Army of the Potomac, I might say to all except the officers of the regular army who had served in the Mexican war. There had been some changes ordered in the organization of that army before my promotion. One was the consolidation of five corps into three, thus throwing some officers of rank out of important commands. Meade evidently thought that I might want to make still one more change not yet ordered. He said to me that I might want an officer who had served with me in the West, mentioning Sherman specially, to take his place. If so, he begged me not to hesitate about making the change. He urged that the work before us was of such vast importance to the whole nation that the feeling or wishes of no one person should stand in the way of selecting the right men for all positions. For himself, he would serve to the best of his ability wherever placed. I assured him that I had no thought of substituting any one for him. As to Sherman, he could not be spared from the West. 
This incident gave me even a more favorable opinion of Meade than did his great victory at Gettysburg the July before. It is men who wait to be selected, and not those who seek, from whom we may always expect the most efficient service.

Especially when they're channeling Napoleon.


Blogger Laird of Madrona said...

Grant's memoirs is one of my favorite books.

May 28, 2015 at 8:54 AM  

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