Civil Warriors Greatest Hits: From Williamsport to Warrenton

(this post first appeared on Civil Warriors on May 15, 2006)

I’m sure that by now you’ve heard of the complaints that we have too many books on too few campaigns on the Civil War. How many more Gettysburg overviews can we stomach? [One more, I hope.] Moreover, too many campaign histories proceed on predictable tracks, with the big picture rarely changing, or changing in ways that appear to be as outrageous as they are novel.

There are some understudied areas, to be sure. For example, the trans-Mississippi West continues to attract a sort of cult following detached from more mainstream studies (very few histories offer a meaningful integration of the two). Nor do we have a sustained study of operations along the Carolina coast (another area which is accorded a back seat). However, my favorite topic for examination is the only campaign in central Virginia that has been steadfastly ignored: the confrontation between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia between the end of the Gettysburg campaign and Grant’s arrival as general-in-chief. Oh, there are a few studies of specific battles that few can recall (and of one non-battle, Mine Run); but, aside from a nice compact narrative offered by Andrew A. Humphreys From Gettysburg to the Rapidan: The Army of the Potomac July 1863 to April 1864 [1883] there’s nothing out there that brings the whole campaign together. Perhaps that’s because, in the minds of many, nothing happened. Or at least that how it might seem to the untrained eye.

I’d suggest this is because we as readers are wedded to defining campaigns as either climaxing in battles or as a series of battles (we need to think far more about the relationship between campaigns and battles). This helps explain how Tullahoma’s nothing more than an acquired taste for a select few or as a prelude to a real battle like Chickamauga. Yet plenty of things happened during the period from mid-July 1863 to February 1864, and, in a sense, a study of that period would free us to examine those underlying themes rather than view campaigns simply as preludes to battle (I know some of you are going to have a hard time with that idea). Here are some of the themes such a study would examine:

1. How did both armies view operations in the East? Would it be better to launch an offensive to threaten the enemy capital or lure someone into battle in central Virginia? What did both sides see as the preconditions to launching offensive operations? What about adopting a defensive posture?

2. How did both sides weigh the importance of East versus West? Recall that significant portions of both armies were redeployed elsewhere in September 1863.

3. What was the nature of civil-military relations for both the Union and Confederate high command? Even a cursory exploration of the period reveals tensions between Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee and a more tortured triangle between Abraham Lincoln, Henry Halleck, and George G. Meade.

4. What about the importance of logistics, manpower, and morale? One of the recurring themes in Lee’s letters is his need for forage and horses; Meade faced a reenlistment crisis and decided upon a reorganization of his force.

5. What about the relationship between home front and battle front? Both generals were acutely aware of the importance of public opinion and the need to appease it: both thought that declines in public support might lead to calls for a new commander. Lee’s letters display a concern about desertion rates: Meade was all too aware of the political backbiting going on around him, including investigations of what had happened at Gettysburg.

6. What was the impact of Gettysburg? Even a superficial glance at correspondence reveals that no one saw Gettysburg as a turning point. Lee was still eager to take the offensive; Union commanders still harbored a fear that Lee might do something, and Union soldiers were just as likely to cheer Meade for not attacking as for attacking. It is in fact wonderful to see how both sides spin Gettysburg: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was yet another effort to spin the meaning of that battle.

And so it goes. If anything, a study of a period of time when there were no “major” battles (Bristoe Station appears to be largely forgotten, and Mine Run sounds a sour note in most studies) allows us to focus more clearly on underlying issues in Civil War military history. For example, those who worship Abraham Lincoln’s management of the war will have to take a closer look at both his strengths and weaknesses, for they are set forth rather clearly during this period. One comes to appreciate Meade even as one reaches the conclusion that while he would not lose the war, he could not win it. We see an impatient, even devious Lee, itching to strike another blow, and concerned that the folks at home lack the willpower to sustain the war effort.

I’ve just completed an overview of this period as part of a larger work that looks at the war in the East; I think it’s worth more study, and I might take myself up on my own challenge. I mention it now because I think it’s fine and dandy to tell others to look at the war with fresh eyes, but it might be more useful to show how I’d do it.

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6 thoughts on “Civil Warriors Greatest Hits: From Williamsport to Warrenton

  1. Has anyone read “ONE CONTINUOUS FIGHT: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4 – 14, 1863″?

    I noticed the title somewhere recently and want to read it, but haven’t yet.

    • It’s a reasonably good work. Another one to consider is Kent Masterson Brown’s Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign.

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