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[Jun. 6th, 2015|09:15 am]
John
I've been reading "Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship" by JFC Fuller after seeing some discussion of the 150th anniversary of the ending of the Civil War. It's a pretty interesting read, and I wish I knew more about the military so I could understand things a bit better. The book's written by a major general, and I suspect there might be a bit of "Grad Student Syndrome."

You know... "But it's trivial to note that the integral of an integrable function over the integrable domain must be differentiable...". Well, it is... if you've gotten through Calc I & II and really *understand* the material. (It's not quite a restatement of the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, but it's close.)


Anyway: there are times when he kind of breezes over things that are non-obvious to me, such as why X_Location was of immense strategic importance. And lord help me, I can't keep track of who's who in all the battles - then again, I'm sure I could find some sites if I had the energy to follow along. (I wonder if there are any other old books that are vastly improved (for some of us) by the existence of the world wide web and the internet?)


But it's an interesting discussion of personalities.

He counters the notions some people had advanced that Grant was no great general, just a brute with massive numbers of men to throw in the meat grinder. There's *a* kernel of truth to this - Grant was of the opinion that if his men had been fighting for three days, and had the enemy on the run, one might feel tempted to stop, rest the men, and regroup, but the enemy has also been fighting for three days, and is demoralized and on the run to boot. Your men are bad, their men are worse - press the attack, if you can. He makes Grant out to be a damn good general, one who made some mistakes, but learned from them, and didn't repeat them.

I'm sure some in the South would be scandalized by this, but he points out that Lee was no great general, and his charges sound plausible.

Lee, as described by Fuller, was the perfect knight, sure that if one fought bravely and well in a righteous cause, then God would decide the outcome, so you've done what you can. He was respectful of civilian authority - to the point of obsequiousness. He allowed his army to become under-supplied when there were plenty of supplies to be had, and didn't provide the strategic advice to civilian leadership that should have been given.

Discipline seems to have been lax - stragglers were common on the march, and desertion reached huge levels near the end, though that was also largely due to the under-supply problems. Lee didn't confide enough of his plans (and generated few written orders) causing huge troubles when communication was damaged, or when, for example, General Jackson was wounded, and no one else knew Lee's plans well enough to provide the level of assistance Jackson could have provided.

He acknowledges that Lee was a fine tactician, and the last person against whom one wanted to maneuver - one of Grant's major desires was to get Lee bottled up. But he strongly suggests that while Lee had fine qualities, being a general-in-chief was not his calling. The poor quality as "quartermaster in chief" seemed to be one of his biggest complaints, but his lack of a notion of overarching strategy was another.

Grant was not an immediate shining star, but there was a quality to him that struck me as fascinating. He had the ability to come into a terrible situation, and rather than throwing up his hands in despair, took action - and usually the correct action. Fuller describes Grant as "at his best when things were at their worst." Grant also had a deep understanding of the need for adequate supplies and over-arching strategy, always having an objective in mind, and pushing toward it.

There's more to the book. Fuller describes the Civil War as the first war of the rifle. Facing a musket, the danger zone is 30 to 100 yards - about enough time to get one volley of shots off, maybe two at the outer range. The bayonet or sword were what did the majority of the killing, and the cavalry was a great and terrible force to bring to bear.

With a good rifle, the danger zone is up to 500 yards, and I believe the Civil War is when the repeating rifle started appearing in large numbers. Here, a small number of people can hold off a far larger number of people, and charging an entrenched position could be suicidal. He mentions that the same mistake was made during WWI, a charge I'd heard repeated (only it was worse, since machine guns are yet more devastating).

Overall, a far better book than I'd expected.
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