Wednesday, December 14, 2011

CIVIL WAR READALONG: Damage Them All You Can

      Damage Them All You Can by George Walsh is the history of the Army of Northern Virginia in the Civil War. The book covers all the major battles the army was involved in and analyzes command decisions. It is pro-Robert E. Lee, but Walsh’s opinions are solid and he does not hold back on criticisms. I will use this review to partly judge Lee’s performance in the major battles.

      Walsh sets the stage for the “Lost Cause” by pointing out how statistically dominating the North was. In 1860, there were 22 million whites in the North versus 5.5 million in the South. The North had 1.3 million factory workers versus 110,000. 97% of firearms were produced in the North, 94% of textiles and 90% of industrial production. The North had twice the railroad capacity and more than twice the draft animals (an often overlooked advantage) . Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had its work cut out for it. The book makes a case for the army doing as well as it could have.

1. Mechanicsville – Good plan, but Jackson did not launch a flanking attack and A.P. Hill prematurely launched a series of bloody frontal attacks on a very strong defensive position – Lee rating = 7

2. Gaines’ Mill - Good plan, again Jackson is slow in engaging 7

3. Savage’s Station - Plan was too complicated and relied on suspect generals (a recurring theme) 5

4. Glendale and Frayser’s Farm - poor coordination and poor performance by Jackson, but Lee is not forceful enough in demanding he move 5

5. Malvern Hill - suicidal frontal attacks that are ill-coordinated; inexcusable 2

6. Second Manassas - daring plan that came together for a stunning victory; first clear look at Lee’s formula for success: aggressive maneuvering, faith in his army, and his ability to read his opponent’s deer-in-the- headlights reactions; Longstreet begins to show his stubbornness when it comes to offensive tactics 8

7. Antietam - the decision to stay and fight was very questionable and the decision to remain on the battlefield for another day was borderline insane, but the handling of the battle was artful (although dependent on incompetency by McClellan) 8

8. Fredericksburg - not much planning involved here; credit for letting the opponent play the aggressor and accepting the defensive role (which thrilled Longstreet, but chafed Lee) 8

9. Chancellorsville - Lee’s masterpiece, but dependent on passiveness on the part of Hooker; should have been a terrible defeat; Lee’s decisions are breath-taking in their daringness 10

10. Gettysburg - Lee’s penchant to allow initiative by his generals back-fires in several instances, but the ultimate decision to launch Pickett’s Charge is totally on him 4

11. The Wilderness - Lee takes advantage of Grant leaving two flanks open and relies on the fighting ability of his men 8

12. Spotsylvania - Lee anticipates Grant’s maneuver, but mars the victory by agreeing to Ewell’s holding of the Bloody Angle salient 7

13. Cold Harbor – similar to Fredericksburg in that Lee allows the enemy to win the battle for him 8

      One theme of the book is that Lee was often let down by his generals. Walsh is especially hard on Ewell and Longstreet. However, it is apparent that Lee’s method of allowing his commanders flexibility in carrying out their orders was a double-edged sword. It led to some great successes, but also some failures. Lee can mainly be faulted for not realizing which of his generals (e.g. Ewell and Lonstreet) needed firm orders. He also should have fired some of them.

      The book is very well written. Walsh did copious research and it shows in the numerous quotes from both the officers and the foot soldiers. The first person accounts are kept short and blend in seamlessly with the narrative. Although the book does not have much on soldier life (other than an excellent chapter on the subject), the quotes by regular soldiers give a clear view of their combat experiences.

     Walsh humanizes the commanders. He provides interesting biographical information on most of them. Strangely, this drops off in the second half of the book. Another fault is the lack of maps. The book includes many interesting anecdotes.

      The main takeaway from Damage Them All You Can is the incredible bloodshed in these Civil War battles. Few Americans have any conception of what the soldiers went through. More amazing is the losses among the officers and generals. The power of honor and peer pressure has never been better used to the destruction of men than in the Civil War.


  1. This sounds like a good book and I appreciate the way that your review explains its composition and argument.

    The battle ratings make sense, although it is possible that there is a bias toward giving Lee higher marks for battles that went well and lower marks for failures, regardless of his own contribution to them. For instance:

    The Wilderness came close to going the other way; had Longstreet not arrived in the nick of time the Union might have broken the Rebel lines (and who knows what might have happened if Burnside had been replaced by anyone else). Also, the Rebel attacks on Grant's flanks fizzled out, due either to Federal reinforcements or from the lateness of the attack. It would admittedly have been difficult for Lee to coordinate these attacks in the confusion of that battle but these were probably Lee's last and best opportunities to decisively beat Grant, and he may perhaps be criticized for not more aggressively pursuing the chance (Yes, it is probably unfair to say that Lee should have devoted more forces to flank attacks in a paragraph that also notes that his front line was nearly broken, but if the Wilderness was a battle that he largely left to his subordinates it is fair to note that in doing so he gave up the chance to make it more than it was).

    Gettysburg: I think that Lee's decision to attack the Union center is very defensible, given that:

    1. Stuart was maneuvering to attack the Union Army from the rear, hopefully causing confusion in the Union Center.
    2. Historically there was a wing of the Union Army that tended to crumple and run under hard assault. The Rebels had hit it on the first day of Gettysburg, before the Union had retreated and reformed. On day two the Rebels had hit both flanks and they had held. It stood to reason that the soft wing was in the center. If that wing could be pierced the Union army would probably break up and lose morale, becoming vulnerable to pursuit.
    3. The rebels had limited supplies and would have a hard time fighting a protracted battle of maneuver on Northern soil against an able Union army. An all-or-nothing battle promised either to resolve the issue or to do enough damage to Union forces to pin them in place to allow for retreat.
    4. Lee knew that the Confederacy was about to lose its Mississippi River fortifications. It was unclear whether the Confederacy would be defensible or even viable once the Union gained control of the river. A powerful victory in the East could settle everything in favor of the Confederacy (and might even save those besieged river forts), while waiting for a better attack opportunity that might never come would expose the South to the full logistic and political consequences of the fall of Vicksburg.

    It was a long shot. But Lee was justified in taking it. Had he simply retreated, or maneuvered for another attack, the rest of the war would probably have gone more or less the way it did. As it is he gave the South a chance, though it did not pan out.

    1. Your reasoning is sound, but I still feel that to bash your head into a wall because you want a decision immediately, one way or the other, was a poor decision. Lee should have gone on the defensive after the first two days. Meade would have been forced to attack him at a disadvantage. The table would have been turned. As far as #4, my reading has informed me that Lee did not really care what happened outside his theater. I doubt he was thinking about the big picture on the third day.

    2. You are probably right that a defensive strategy would have been the best way for Lee to go on day three of the battle, but I still think that Lee's decision was not unreasonable, given what he knew at the time.

      A defensive stance has its own dangers, one of the greatest of them being the ceding of initiative to the enemy. Lee's army was spread out by its many attacks and vulnerable to being flanked or concentrated on by the Federal army, which enjoyed good interior lines.

      Lee could of course withdraw his army to a more defensible position but retreats are always tricky when done under the guns of the enemy army. Small mistakes made during the move might leave whole sections of the army vulnerable to attack, and the ample federal cavalry units on the scene would undoubtedly harry the Rebels the whole way.

      And what if Meade doesn't attack immediately, but builds up his forces for a more decisive battle? Lee's supply situation would not allow him to stay in place for long. Even if he managed to hold on, the fact that they are in Union territory means that the Rebel army is less likely to receive intelligence of Federal movements unless Stuart's tired cavalry is able to suss them out.

      Eighteen months later General Hood would try to win a defensive victory against a Union army at Nashville and would ultimately be routed by a carefully-planned Union attack. Lee was admittedly a better general than Hood and I'd rate the Union general Thomas higher than Meade, but the army that Thomas had to work with was arguably less capable than the army Meade had at his disposal.

      We now see Meade as a competent but uninspired general who was unlikely to take advantage of opportunities Lee might lay open. However, it seems that Lee had a high opinion of Meade and believed that it would be a big risk to give the Union General any openings.

      Under those circumstances I think Lee was very reasonable in electing against a defensive stand, even if in hindsight it might have been the better play.

    3. I have no problems with any of your analysis. The decision to launch Pickett's Charge was just the last in a series of blunders, mostly by Lee's subordinates, but Lee has to take a lot of the blame for either not being more forceful in his orders or being overconfident in his army's ability to whip a stronger foe, numerically. His best option in the campaign would have been to seek a good defensive position at the outset, knowing the Union had to come to him.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.