Armchair Generals, Historical Narrative, and Revisionism (Civil Warriors Greatest Hits)

(This post originally appeared at Civil Warriors on September 26, 2006, in response to a series of posts Mark Grimsley had offered on the Bermuda Hundred campaign)

I’ve read Mark’s summary of a reassessment of the Bermuda Hundred campaign with some interest.  It’s based in part upon a book that I had heard about in dissertation form when I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia: I recall a major in ROTC repeatedly telling me how it would change our understanding of the campaign.  That book, of course, is William Glenn Robertson’s Back Door to Richmond.  Another book, also of interest, is Herbert M. Schiller’s The Bermuda Hundred Campaign(1988).

I’d agree with Mark that the “traditional” narrative of the campaign is sprinkled with stereotypes that have persisted over time, so much so that they at first defy challenge simply because of how ingrained they have become in accounts of the campaign that depend so heavily on secondary sources: yet I’d also contend that several other forces are at work here.  First, of course, is that the stereotype was so extreme, so unexamined, that one could have bet that it would fall apart under careful reexamination, although the extent to which that reexamination would influence subsequent accounts usually remains problematic.  I think of Gordon Rhea’s work on Cold Harbor, in which he has provided the most detailed reexamination of that battle available, especially the June 3 assault.  For years some of us had found the traditional story troublesome, precisely because the evidence did not fit the narrative, and a return to the sources often cited revealed that they had been misused over time to the point that to chip away at the story was to risk being called an apologist for Ulysses S. Grant.  Rhea’s work has done away rather decisively with the old “7,000 men in 30 minutes/an hour” account of Union losses during the main assault on June 3, but I’m sure the legend will persist, in part because it serves an agenda of criticizing Grant’s generalship.  Oddly enough, there are other ways to criticize Grant’s generalship in 1864, and Mark’s series has alluded to some possibilities, but for some people familiar tales are best because they are familiar.

Another force that is at work here is a combination of retrospective armchair generalship and the desire among some people to offer fresh perspectives that may in the end prove as distorting in their own ways as do the traditional narratives they challenge and hope to displace.  Since we know that the Bermuda Hundred campaign ended up being a disappointment, we wonder how it could have been more successful from the point of view of the Union.  Robertson, Schiller, and Mark seem to agree that a better knowledge of the command skills of Butler, Gillmore, and Smith, along with clearer orders from Grant, would have helped; there’s also a hint that once these operations began to unfold, difficulties in communication and Grant’s increasing absorption with Lee made it difficult to coordinate operations.  I agree.  Yet it is difficult to determine exactly what Grant knew and when he knew it.  What did he know of Butler’s skills?  Had not Smith shown himself to be an able subordinate during the Chattanooga campaign?  Why did Grant select Gillmore?  Are we to assume that the only communication between Grant and Butler is that for which we have a documentary record, or have we been unable to recapture conversations that might have clarified points of contention?

I think the planning of the campaign challenges two assumptions often made about Grant and argued in the literature.  First, contrary to myth, Grant’s orders were not always clear and direct.  Second, contrary to myth, Grant was not always a great judge of military talent.  That said, of course, some of the responsibility for what happened in May 1864 must be shouldered by others, including the personalities that made the command situation along the James so dysfunctional.  By mid-June, 1864, Grant had better grounds upon which to assess the generalship of several key subordinates, and it’s what he decided to do with that knowledge in hand that I think opens him to much more damaging criticism.

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13 thoughts on “Armchair Generals, Historical Narrative, and Revisionism (Civil Warriors Greatest Hits)

  1. I thought Gillmore “selected himself,” i.e., he was supposed to stay in the South (where X Corps was drawn from) but came north anyway, thus commanded the corps.

  2. I also think that Grant came away impressed w/Butler’s native intelligence and believed that Smith could provide the leavening of military professionalism necessary to guide the campaign. Smith’s many defects—being quarrelsome, inability to work with others, etc.—did not become apparent until the campaign was underway.

    • I don’t think that Grant had much choice regarding Butler but was left with, as you indicate, trying to make sure that at his right hand was a ‘military professional”. Grant could not have been unaware of the fact that the only military operation which Butler conducted without the Navy doing the hard work was Big Bethel – which was an ineptly-run debacle. I’ve always been more puzzled by Grant’s faith in Smith. It appears that he was unduly impressed by Smith’s work with him as a staff officer and dismissed Smith’s thoroughly mediocra (albeit not incompetent) performance in the Army of the Potomac at division and corps commands. Review of that record means that the events of mid-June, 1864 should not have come as a surprise.

      • Smith’s real problem was his fault-finding attitude, combined with zero diplomatic skills. (A good diplomat can criticize you and not be offensive; Smith couldn’t do that.) This would not have been apparent to USG at Chattanooga.

        • That’s a fair point. Smith also did nothing to distinguish himself from a strictly military standpoint in his various commands in the Army of the Potomac. There were worse, to be sure, but his performance was hardly noteworthy. As for the character trait you point to, that would seem to have been on vivid display in his dealings with Burnside when the latter was his CO.

  3. It’s hard for me to envision that one could plausibly determine how Bermuda Hundred could have been a Union success unless the Butler factor is removed. Butler was a general 99.9% for non-military, political “value”/influence reasons. The limits of his military “skill” were amply displayed at Big Bethel in 1861, when his inept plan of attack with two converging columns of amateurs at night predicatbly resulted in a stinging defeat. Until 1864 the rest of his experience was primarily as the competent adminstrator of captured New Orleans with its undertone of blatant enhancement of Butler’s bank accounts. Flash forward past Bermuda Hundred to Fort Fisher and yet again we have a graphic display of why Ben was woefully unsuited for military command. (His other military “accomplishments”, North Carolina coast and then New Orleans, were actually the result of actions by the Navy while Butler was pretty much along for the ride). So even if Grant’s orders/ directions to the Army of the James and his assignment of subordinates can be critized, I’m not sure it makes much difference given the millstone at the top. And I don’t see how he could have ditched Butler in May, 1864, given the state of the War and the administration’s “need” for Butler. I guess that Butler is one stereotype which cannot be removed from Bermuda Hundred. As is obvious, however, I’m far from an expert on that one (and I should read Robertson’s book, which I’ve had for years).

    • I enjoyed Chester Hearn’s “The Devil Came Down to Dixie” and a 1969 biography titled “Stormy Petrel” whose author escapes me. One of his staff officers, aptly named Puffer, produced a well-written work in 1863, “General Butler in New Orleans,” which is very good for giving Butler’s perspective but has been described as “the most complete whitewash job in American history.” (Although even Puffer admits that Butler made a tidy profit as military governor.)
      While he was certainly a disappointment as a field commander, I have a more favorable view of Butler’s rule in the Big Easy than do some others, such as Alecia P. Long. He cleaned up the city-literally and figuratively-and was nice to the women who didn’t insult his troops!

      • I second the recommendation of Hearn’s book. Unfortunately I can’t second the recommendation of Ben as Czar of New Orleans. Much good was done, to be sure, but I’ve never quite figured out how Ben’s bank accounts went nuclear based on his military pay. And from the strictly military side he was pretty much an unmitigated disaster.

      • Actually, “General Butler in New Orleans” was written by James Parton. Puffer wrote a long, worshipful piece for Atlantic Monthly titled “Our General,” essentially an abridged version of the book.

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