Sunday, June 25, 2017

Is William Tecumseh Sherman Overrated as a General?

Since publishing my novel Shattered Nation in 2013, I have received lots of feedback from readers. Aside from a small number of angry people who have emailed to insist that the Civil War wasn't really about slavery (it was), the messages have been very positive and friendly. A few fine folks have been kind enough to offer constructive criticism and point out a few errors, which I have greatly appreciated. And some of these messages have led to friendly debates about varying plot points.

A few correspondents have politely suggested that I portrayed William Tecumseh Sherman in an unfairly negative light and that he was a better general than I give him credit for in the pages of Shattered Nation. I respectfully disagreed then and find my opinion only strengthened the more I consider the matter. Simply put: notwithstanding his obvious talents and his personal integrity, Sherman is perhaps the most overrated general in American history.

Let's consider Sherman's record over the course of the war. He started out as a brigade commander at the First Battle of Manassas, where actually did reasonably well despite the overall Union disaster. Lincoln was impressed enough to promote him and send him out west, where he ended up in command of Union forces in Kentucky. Here is where Sherman's troubles began. Convinced that he was about to be attacked by an overwhelmingly superior Confederate force (which, in fact, largely existed only on paper), Sherman had a nervous breakdown. He was relieved from command and went home, where he either considered or possibly even attempted suicide. Newspapers ran articles suggesting that Sherman was insane and his superior officers considered him unfit for further duty. Needless to say, this was not a promising start for Sherman's war.

Sherman spent a few months in what amounted to administrative duty, he was brought back to the field as a division commander under Grant in the aftermath of the Union victory at Fort Donelson. In the prelude to the Battle of Shiloh, Sherman failed to take adequate precautions for defense and ignored several signs of the impending Confederate attack. Though he fought well enough during the battle itself, the fact that the Union army was taken by surprise and nearly smashed must be blamed largely on Sherman.

Sherman's next major engagement was at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou, north of Vicksburg. In an ill-judged frontal assault, Sherman's thirty thousand troops were soundly repulsed and trounced by a rebel force less than half its size. Sherman lost nearly two thousand men, while the Southern forces suffered roughly one-tenth the number of men. All things considered, it was a miserable and humiliating affair.

In the spring of 1863, Sherman was one of three corps commanders under Grant during the decisive phase of the Vicksburg Campaign. Generally speaking, however, Sherman's corps was kept out of the way while the formations of James McPherson and John McClernard did the hard fighting in engagements such as the Battle of Raymond, the Battle of Champion Hill. The only time Sherman's corps was heavily engaged was during the frontal assaults against the Vicksburg defenses on May 19 and May 22. Sherman's troops failed to make any impression on the enemy defenses, being repulsed with heavy losses.

Sherman next played a major role in the Battle of Chattanooga in November of 1863. Grant's plan for defeating the Confederate Army was for the Army of the Cumberland under George Thomas to feint at the Confederate center while Sherman, leading the Army of the Tennessee, smashed the enemy right flank on the northern end of Missionary Ridge. Despite heavily outnumbering the Southern defenders, Sherman's attack was a dismal failure, making no gains and suffering heavy casualties (in fairness to Sherman, the opposing commander was Patrick Cleburne, arguably the best division commander in the Confederacy). It fell to Thomas to win the battle by smashing through the enemy center.

To sum up, Sherman's record prior to being made commander of the Union forces in the West was largely one of failure. At Chickasaw Bluffs, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, Sherman was bloodily repulsed in ill-advised frontal assaults that lacked tactical imagination. He had never been the overall director of military affairs, serving only as a loyal subordinate to Grant. Other generals, notable George Thomas, had much more impressive records. It seems obvious that Sherman received the command for the Atlanta Campaign almost entirely because of his personal relationship with Grant, rather than on his own merits.

Sherman's historical reputation today rests on his performance in the capture of Atlanta and the subsequent "March to the Sea". And it was here that his strongest military talents did indeed shine forth. Though I am writing this blog post as a criticism, one must be fair to Sherman and state without hesitation that he was an absolute master of logistics. Few other generals would have been able to keep his armies supplied with the necessities of war over hundreds of miles along a single, ramshackle railroad, without the benefit of water transport. That Sherman did so is very much to his credit.

And, of course, Sherman had the strategic vision to understand that the Confederacy would only be defeated when the popular will to go on with the war collapsed. That required the civilian population to experience the full brunt of the war. It certainly did help bring the war to an end, though whether it was an ethical approach will be debated as long as historical memory of the war endures.

But let us return to the subject. Though he was ultimately successful in capturing Atlanta, and thereby playing a major role in the defeat of the Confederacy, Sherman's record in the Atlanta Campaign is far from brilliant. Had Sherman been a better general, the Atlanta Campaign could have ended earlier and in a much more decisive manner, shortening the war by many months and saving thousands of lives.

In the opening stages of the campaign, the Confederate Army of Tennessee held a strong defensive position around the town of Dalton. But the Southern commander, Joseph Johnston, had made the inexcusable error to leave the vital Snake Creek Gap to the southwest almost entirely unguarded. Sherman dispatched the Army of the Tennessee under General James McPherson to move through the gap and cut the Confederates off from their supply lines. However, the force was too small and McPherson was too cautious to guarantee that the maneuver would be successful. Sherman should have sent a much stronger force and supervised the movement himself. Had he done so, the Army of Tennessee might have trapped and forced to surrender in the opening days of the campaign, almost certainly ended the war by Christmas. As it was, Sherman only compelled Johnston to abandon the Dalton position. It was a merely local success rather than the major victory it should have been,

Historiography of the Atlanta Campaign emphasizes Sherman's repeated flanking movements around the Confederate positions during the long approach to the city. It's therefore easy to forget that thousands of Union soldiers were killed or wounded in ill-advised frontal assaults on prepared positions during this phase of the fighting. At New Hope Church on May 25, Pickett's Mill on May 27, and above all at Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, Sherman hurled his troops against strong Confederate positions, needlessly suffering heavy casualties while inflicting little harm on his enemies.

As his army group finally approached Atlanta in mid-July, Sherman committed the grave error of dividing his forces in the face of the enemy, spreading them out so far that they were not able to support one another. This allowed the Confederates to concentrate the bulk of their army against only a portion of Sherman's forces, giving them a chance to fight on fairly equal terms. The subsequent Confederate attack at Peachtree Creek on July 20 was a botched affair, with the Southerners having only themselves to blame for their failure to crush the Army of the Cumberland. (My novel, Shattered Nation, deals with a scenario in which the attack is executed properly). Although a victory, Sherman deserves censure for placing his army in a position inviting defeat.

Two days later, at the Battle of Atlanta, Sherman missed a glorious opportunity to deal a fatal blow to the enemy army. After the Army of the Tennessee had repulsed the Confederate offensive, the Army of the Ohio was perfectly positioned to launch a counter attack into the enemy left flank. Had it done so, the Confederate army would have been shattered and Atlanta would likely have fallen within the next day or so. Yet Sherman inexplicably held back, despite being urged to attack by many of his subordinates. In his memoirs, Sherman offered the lame excuse that the men of the Army of the Tennessee would have been "jealous" if they had received aid from the other armies!

A bit over a month later, Sherman lost another golden opportunity to destroy the Army of Tennessee. Just after the Battle of Jonesborough, which doomed Atlanta, the Confederate army was badly divided across thirty miles of territory. Hardee's corps was far to the south, Stewart's corps had just evacuated Atlanta, and S. D. Lee's corps was somewhere in between. Sherman's army, minus only the XX Corps northwest of Atlanta, was concentrated in and north of Jonesborough. Sherman could easily have interposed his army between the divided segments of Hood's force, which were beaten and demoralized. Hardee and S. D. Lee would have been devoured for lunch and Sherman could have then had Stewart for dessert. The war in the Western Theater could have ended and the entire episode of Hood's invasion of Tennessee could have been avoided.

Finally, when setting off on his "March to the Sea", Sherman took the cavalry and all the best infantry, not to mention most of the equipment. This despite the fact that there was next to no enemy opposition left in Georgia. Sherman handed over the far more difficult task of defending Tennessee from Hood to George Thomas. To do so, Thomas had so little cavalry that his mounted arm had to be built up from scratch and so little infantry that divisions had to be brought in from other theaters before Thomas had the strength to beat Hood. Thomas succeeded in not only defeating Hood, but in destroying the Army of Tennessee as a fighting force. But it was no thanks to Sherman that he did this.

As stated above, Sherman had obvious military talents as a strategist and especially in the area of logistics. But as an army commander, he had serious flaws. He was below par on a tactical level, repeatedly being bested on the field by enemies he greatly outnumbered and using unimaginative tactics. He missed several opportunities to deliver a decisive blow against the Army of Tennessee, allowing it to fight on for several months after the conclusion of the Atlanta Campaign.

The thought has often occurred to me that, in the spring of 1864, George Thomas should have been given supreme command of Union forces in the West, with Sherman as his chief-of-staff. That would have been a winning combination and I would expect the Confederate forces to be overcome far earlier and more easily than they historically were.

What if...

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