Lee's Failure to Entrench

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“Lee took longer to learn from his experience that the frontal assault contributed only to attrition without victory than any other field commander in the Civil War.”[i]

Lee

Edward Hagerman covers in detail the practices of the Federal and Confederate armies as it relates to entrenchment. McClellan and his successors employed it masterfully. Lee and his generals came to the practice slowly. Hagerman suggests that the reason may have been that, unlike McClellan, Lee lacked a peer group from the Corps of Engineers in the Army of Northern Virginia. [ii] Lee also graduated from West Point before Dennis Mahan (see post here) arrived to instruct cadets on the benefits and “how to” of entrenchment.

An example, despite having the time and equipment to entrench at Antietam (see photo below), Lee did not. According to Hagerman, “his failure to do so suggests that he may have identified with an extreme tendency in American tactical thought opposing all fortifications on the open field of battle, on the grounds that they made green volunteer troops overcautious and destroyed discipline and the will to fight.” [iii]

Burnside Bridge (below) taken from the Confederate viewpoint on the
west side of Antietam Creek looking east.

Burnside

Likewise at the Battle of Fredericksburg, where Lee assumed “a tactical defense where doctrine called for fortification of his front,” Lee again failed to entrench. “He had his troops construct only a few minor earthworks at scattered positions. This despite Antietam and despite the fact that the rifled musket, with its greatly increased range and accuracy, was now in general use in the eastern theater.” [iv]

 

Longstreet (above) finally broke the tactical pattern, not Lee.

“Although he occupied one of the strongest natural positions in the Confederate line, Longstreet ordered ditches, stone walls, and railroad cuts occupied and strengthened with rifle tranches and abatis. The Federal assaults against his positions on Marye’s Heights never got within a hundred yards of the stone wall. Behind the wall were four lines of infantry armed with rifled muskets, supported by sharpshooters in rifle trench, and entrenched artillery that directly covered and enfiladed the wall from the two terraces that rose behind it. Their fire cost the Union troops 3,500 dead to their own loses of 800 men.” [v]

Watching the battle with Longstreet, Lee (finally) ordered fatigue parties to entrench the heights as soon as the fighting stopped. [vi]

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[i, ii] Edward Hagerman, The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare: Ideas, Organization, and Field Command (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 123.
[iii] Ibid., 116.
[iv, v, vi] Ibid., 122

Civil War History Phrase of the Day – The Flying Column

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Supply and logistics were a huge challenge for the Army of the Potomac and this was certainly true as General Joseph Hooker (above, 1814 – 1879) contemplated moving his massive 163,000 man army offensively against Lee near the Rappahannock in the Spring of 1863. Breaking the logistical chain was the challenge.

According to author Edward Hagerman, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs (below) had circulated a sketch created by Alexis Godillot of the logistical organization of a “flying column” in the French army on January 2, 1862.[i]

digital file from original neg.

It was based on a concept developed in 1840 when “the French, particularly Thomas Robert Bugeaud (below, 1784-1849, Marquis de la Piconnerie, Duc d’Isly), recognized that because the Arab insurgents in North Africa had a tremendous mobility advantage over the French colonial forces, the classic style of logistics would not be effective there. To increase the mobility of his forces, Bugeaud created highly mobile independent detachments called “flying columns” by lightening greatly the logistical structure of his force. Around 1860 a study of Bugeaud’s (painting below) logistical methods was written by Alexis Godillot.”[ii]

Thomas Robert Bugeaud, Marshal of France.

The idea was this. Soldiers in a flying column carried eight days of compressed rations, including desiccated vegetables along with a blanket (no overcoat allowed). “Men were divided into squads of eight, one of whom was to carry a covered cooking kettle, another a large mess tin, another an axe, another a pick, and one a shovel. One man in each company carried the hospital knapsack. Each man carried his share of a shelter tent.” [iii]

“On march 7, 1863, general headquarters of the Army of the Potomac passed down Special Order no. 85, establishing a board to make recommendations on ‘the practicality and means of carrying an increased amount of rations…over the three days usually carried,’ having in view ‘the marching of troops without encumbrance of extra clothing or shelter tents, the use of desiccated vegetables or flour, and the carrying of fresh beef on the hoof, and the omission, in consequence, of beef or pork from the rations.’” [iv]

After some experimentation, the board recommended a workable configuration and these were “immediately implemented in preparation for an eight-day march designed to turn Lee out of his positions on the Rappahannock. Each corps, including the cavalry, was made into a flying column on the French model, with some modifications. In addition to the knapsack and haversack with blanket, the soldier carried his should arms, sixty rounds of ammunition, accouterments, and a piece of shelter tent. An extra pair of socks was allowed.” Unlike the French, entrenchment tools were brought up as required by the reserve train. “The soldier carried an average load of forty-five points.” [v]

According to James J. Schneider, “by 1864 Bugeaud’s method of flying columns formed the core of Federal Army logistical doctrine. This triumph over the old classical system was demonstrated decisively in Grant’s invasions of the South.” [vi]
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[i, iii, iv, v] Edward Hagerman, The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare: Ideas, Organization, and Field Command (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 71-72.
[ii, vi] James J. Schneider, “VULCAN’S ANVIL: The American Civil War and the Foundations of Operational Art,” June 16, 1992, online, http://cgsc.cdmhost.com/cgi-bin/showfile.exe?CISOROOT=/p4013coll11&CISOPTR=9&filename=10.pdf 
, accessed May 13, 2008, 44.
Photo source: Montgomery C. Meigs, Library of Congress, Rep #: LC-DIG-cwpbh-03111.
Painting of Thomas Robert Bugeaud, Wiki Commons.

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