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The crisis of the Confederacy

[The following brief comment on ‘The Crisis of the Confederacy’—‘A History of Gettysburg and the Wilderness’—Captain Cecil Battine, of the British ArmyLongman's (a work which has been favorably reviewed by the press), appeared in the News, Charleston, S. C., of May 24th, 1905. It is by the accomplished author of ‘Hampton and His Cavalry,’ Edward C. Wells, Esq., and by personal experience and study, is well qualified to duly estimate the causes of defeat in the sublime contest of the South for Constitutional rights.—Ed.]

To the Editor of the Sunday News.
The writer has not sufficiently studied the above book to warrant his attempting an exhaustive review, even if he were competent for the work, and space admitted of it, but still he would like to call attention to some points. Great wars come seldom, perhaps to nations, but when they do come they make or mar the welfare of countless generations, and, whether coming sooner or later, they do come to all peoples, and therefore it is that the subject is of interest to all thinking men.

In his book the author does not enter into the political questions involved. Our war to him is merely a military contest viewed from a purely military standpoint, but while he admires with a soldier's instinct the fine fighting qualities and endurance of the American soldier on both sides, yet he cannot help thrilling with enthusiasm when recounting the matchless heroism of the regimental officers and men of the Army of Northern Virginia, the high ability of the prominent generals, and above all the supreme genius of Lee. He is not a convert to the pessimistic theory, because the population and material resources of the South were less than those of the North, therefore the success of the Confederacy was from the outset hopeless, but on the contrary, believes that it was on the point of final attainment on several battlefields through the superiority of Southern generals over their opponents. Well may he hold these views, for the magnificent resistance so long sustained by a handful of Boers and the recent successes of Japan furnish convincing proof—if more [80] were needed, for history is full of it—that brains, education and pluck are of more avail in war than mere numbers.

Studying the subject only in his closet, necessarily without practical experience in war—for England has had none of any consequence since the Crimean—it is but natural that the author should have fallen into some errors. His opinion that Grant was great in strategy, but not strong in tactics, is exactly the reverse of the view taken in America. I think Swinton, the historian of the Army of the Potomac, characterizes Grant's repeated frontal attacks during the ‘Overland campaign’—notably at Cold Harbor—as ‘a reductio ad absurdum in hammering.’ The recoil of the hammer was vastly more destructive than the blow.

In estimating the numerical strength of the opposed armies, and their losses in battle, Captain Battine certainly often errs, making the odds against the Confederates less than they in fact were, and their losses greater. For instance, at Cold Harbor in June, 1864, he puts down the Federal losses at seven thousand and the Confederate at four to five thousand, but in point of fact Grant's casualties reached to about fourteen thousand and Lee's did not exceed fourteen hundred. Thus ended in bloody defeat for the Federals the thirty days ‘Overland campaign,’ the total losses of the Army of the Potomac being about sixty-four thousand—about equal to or greater than Lee's entire army at the commencement of the campaign—and those of the Confederates not over one-third of this number.

It may seem an easy matter to the theorist to approximate to numbers engaged and losses sustained, and it is easy to do so theoretically, but not practically. The official figures cannot in this respect be relied upon, not necessarily because they are intentionally doctored, but because the data from which they are derived are necessarily unreliable. The only way by which it can be known how many men are present for duty each day is by the morning reports, but in an active campaign, such as that of 1864, morning reports may not he, and very often are not, made out for days together—for there are far more urgent matters to attend to—and, when made out, are frequently lost or captured. When Federal recruits were being daily poured in by thousands to strengthen depleted regiments, these accounts, too, necessarily become very mixed up, or altogether lost. There is no time for book-keeping. In examing monthly and tri-monthly reports of the Army of the [81] Potomac, these facts will often be found confessed on the record. On the other hand, it was, of course, the cue of the Confederate army to make the best possible showing of strength by figures, and if you believed the accounts of Confederate prisoners, you would have come to the conclusion that the South had a population to recruit from as large as that of China.

Capt. Battine is a cavalry officer, and thinks that mounted charges —shock-tactics, such as Cromwell made use of with splendid results, when fire-arms were comparatively harmless—should have been practiced on a large scale on many occasions against discomfited infantry, thus effecting a complete rout. The war was fought on both sides, as far as infantry was concerned, with the muzzleloader rifle musket and minie ball, which the author thinks had an accurate range of only one hundred yards, and was not effective at over four hundred yards, but, as a matter of fact, the range was nearly four times as great, the accuracy satisfactory, where the weapon was decently clean, and the killing power infinitely more fearful than that of modern rifles, because of the size and shape of the bullet. Moreover the rough nature of the ground where fighting took place invariably forbade mounted charges in mass, and rifle fire in the open would usually render them impossible, or suicidal. All that could be accomplished by shock-tactics was effected against cavalry and small bodies of infantry, but the magnificent fighting qualities of the cavalry (developed by Hampton, and Forrest, and not by Stuart, as the author supposes), were displayed as dismounted riflemen, where they equalled infantry in deadly work and staying-power and were enabled to excel them in mobility and dash by means of their horses.

Gettysburg, the author considers the turning point of the war, and that if Lee had there completely defeated Meade it would have ended the contest victoriously for the South. His account of the battle is good—though he errs in numbers—but the main causes to which is attributed the failure to rout the Federal army are not given sufficient prominence. That the three days fighting was more like three separate battle than one is quite true, as Captain Battine says, and also that there were mistakes made by Confederate corps commanders, and lack of needed support to attack delivered, but Lee was not in fault. He necessarily depended upon the cavalry for keeping him thoroughly informed of the position of the enemy, and this duty he had entrusted to Stuart, who disappeared [82] with the flower and bulk of the cavalry, and did not report to the army until after the first day's fighting. The rest of the cavalry was required to guard lines of communication to the rear. Meanwhile Lee, deprived of the ‘eyes and ears of the army,’ was compelled to grope in the dark to feel for his enemy, which was a terrible handicap and spoiled his programme. Yet all would have turned out well at last if Longstreet had executed Lee's orders, and attacked vigorously early in the morning of July 2. Also if Longstreet had earnestly attacked and vigorously supported, as Lee ordered, on July 3, it is clear that the blow would have demolished Meade.

The author speaks in several places of divisions coming out of charges with ‘dripping bayonets.’ This must be considered only a figure of speech, for it is doubtful if on a large scale bayonets ever crossed, minie bullets doing the business.

The remarks of Captain Battine on the importance of the army compared to ‘sea power’ are worthy of deep consideration—Captain Mahan to the contrary notwithstanding. We must confess to thinking ‘sea power’ and ‘world-power’ twin fads, which will have run their course after a time, and yield place to sensible military defence to protect our own homes, not to shell the over-sea homes of others.

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