Ralph Peters’ Civil War Insights – Part 1
‘Battle of Corinth, Miss., Oct. 4th 1862.’ Hand-colored lithograph by Currier and Ives, 1862. Library of Congress.
During the 150th anniversary month of the end of the Civil War acclaimed strategist and best-selling author Ralph Peters shares his superb insight on America’s bloodiest conflict in ArmchairGeneral.com’s exclusive 3-part article series. One part will appear each week for three weeks in April 2015. He begins Part 1 with an examination of some of the myths and misconceptions we hold about that war and its participants.
Our Civil War has haunted me for over a half-century. Since childhood, I’ve read about it and visited every battlefield I could. Later, I studied it seriously and taught it to fellow military officers. Then I wrote novels about it. I’m still writing and still learning: The Civil War is inexhaustible, with new sources of information still emerging. Along my pilgrim’s path, I’ve met some surprises and some of my initial beliefs have changed—usually notions based on “common knowledge” that wasn’t very knowledgeable. So as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the conclusion of that still-echoing war, I’d like to share a few insights—none of which were on the mind of the nine-year-old boy whose father took him to the centennial reenactment of First Manassas.
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There’s always another side to the story. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of perspective, of weighing opposing beliefs, but all too often we inherit only one set of heroes, whether in gray or blue. Yet, it was a rare battle or campaign in which the valor was only on one side. The common belief in the overall superiority of the Confederate cavalry is a good example. Early in the war, that certainly was the case, but by 1863 the old military maxim that it takes two years to train a cavalryman proved true and Yankee horsemen became increasingly capable. The real revolution arrived in 1864, driven by then–Major General Philip Sheridan and the Spencer repeating carbine. As Rebel horsemen struggled to provide fodder for hungry, worn-out mounts, well-provisioned Union troopers pioneered innovative cavalry tactics that European armies still had not figured out by 1914. Sheridan’s integration of mounted and dismounted tactics, as well as his employment of true combined-arms operations, bore a closer resemblance to mechanized operations late in World War Two than to the inept Austrian and unimaginative Prussian cavalry tactics at the massive battle of Koeniggraetz in 1866. We were pioneers, not laggards.
Another classic case of the “other side of the story” comes from the splendid stand of the 20th Maine at Gettysburg. Few realize that the opposing Confederates of the 15th Alabama had force-marched more than twenty miles in the July heat, only to be hurried into battle on unfamiliar terrain, with inadequate orders and empty canteens. And still those ferocious Johnnies, led by a marvelous wild-man, Colonel William C. Oates, managed to launch at least four and possibly five assaults on the flank of Little Round Top. The guts were on both sides, but we recall the glory of only one.
The myth of Johnny Reb, the greatest of infantrymen, happens to be true. Not only the courage and combat skill, but the sheer endurance of the Confederate foot soldier may have been equaled in a few other armies over the millennia, but none could claim the least superiority. Especially (but not only) in the Army of Northern Virginia, the physical toughness, fighting ability and raw determination of those men remains astonishing. Billy Yank showed plenty of courage, too, and yes, the Southern armies had their share of shirkers and deserters, but the fact that most Johnnies fought on against crushing odds, hungry, louse-infested and flea-bitten, clothed in rags and exposed to the elements, often sick and usually emaciated…the more I study those men, the more I admire them.
The Confederate battle flag is a symbol of bravery, not slavery. I’m a Yankee, born and bred, and my personal sympathies lie with the Northern cause (although, in writing, I strive to be even-handed). To me, though, that red flag with the blue St. Andrews cross strewn with white stars does not symbolize slavery—that’s nonsense—but the stunning bravery of those who fought beneath it. I object to flying the flag of the Confederate States of America, but not to displaying that battle flag. Let me be clear: I don’t believe the battle flag should be prostituted to politics or misused for bigotry. But its legacy is one of heroism, not hatred, and deserving of respect. I have to note, though, that when I see that flag on a vehicle with West Virginia plates, I’m inclined to remind the driver that his or her state only exists because their ancestors sided with the Union.
The Southern states were divided from the start. We’re more apt to hear of Northern Copperheads and anti-draft riots, but a fatal weakness of the South was its lack of unity—and worsening disunity, as the war progressed. Every governor wanted to fight his own war and to husband resources at home. The “mountain South” differed culturally from the plantation-dominated society of the low country and mountain populations tilted strongly toward the Union. Not only did West Virginia peel to form a new state, but eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina felt it was not their war. Even up-country Alabama and Georgia had their dissenters.
As the war dragged on, anti-Confederacy feeling in North Carolina reached such a pitch that Confederate president Jefferson Davis repeatedly pushed the governor, Zebulon Vance, to crack down on pro-Union sentiment … but Vance understood full well that doing so would lead to an explosion. A brilliant politician, Vance kept North Carolina in the war by pushing a carefully crafted “peace” program that cunningly stressed that peace should not be bought at a shameful price. A paradox to the end was that North Carolina regiments were among the bravest in the Confederate armies, but North Carolina units also faced soaring desertion rates as the war turned increasingly hopeless.
The South was legally right, but morally wrong; the North was legally wrong, but morally right. On one hand, all states had joined the United States of America voluntarily and none had explicitly pledged that the bond would be eternally indissoluble. On the other—contrary to revisionists—the war was fought over slavery. There were many other factors, but none that would have led to war in the absence of the “peculiar institution.” Simply put, had we somehow subtracted slavery from the American equation early in the nineteenth century, 750,000 of our ancestors would not have died in battle or from camp diseases. Yes, the war was about states’ rights: the right to preserve slavery.
Lincoln had a personal toughness Jefferson Davis lacked. Lincoln’s image is kindlier and his soul was the greater, but Davis had a stronger sense of loyalty to his friends. Lincoln learned to fire generals without remorse, but his counterpart—tragically for the Confederacy—had favorites whom he protected to the end. Lincoln sometimes had to wait for the right time to remove politically influential officers, but Davis defied politics and military evidence to keep generals such as Braxton Bragg or Leonidas Polk in major commands long after they’d proven inadequate.
Even when forced to remove old friends, Davis found them other high-level positions, drawing scorn from Confederate legislators, editors and private citizens. Lincoln had no friends among his generals—although he developed a unique bond with Grant. Lincoln was the all-time master of the aw-shucks pose, while Davis was snappish and self-destructively arrogant. Lincoln conciliated, Davis alienated. Davis demanded that men obey him, while Lincoln possessed a genius for persuading men that they wanted to do what he needed them to do. To a great extent, the outcome of the war was decided long before Appomattox, back when the respective sides selected their presidents.
End of Part 1. Click here to read Part 2.
Ralph Peters is the author of the prize-winning Civil War novels Cain at Gettysburg and Hell or Richmond, as well as of the new novel, Valley of the Shadow, which recreates the struggle between Sheridan and Early in the autumn of 1864. A long-time member of the Armchair General team, Ralph is a former enlisted man and a retired Army officer who now appears as Fox News’ Strategic Analyst.