Saturday, June 01, 2002

MORE ON MCCLELLAN V. GRANT: Tony Woodlief quibbles that my post should have pitted McClellan versus Sherman":
You are right that Grant was willing to engage the enemy, which is why he rose through the ranks of politicians who infested the Army of the Republic. I don't think there is great evidence that he was an especially skilled general, however; he ultimately required massive numerical superiority to finish off Lee's army. It seems that all of his great victories as a commanding general, in fact, required a combination of overwhelming firepower, a willingness to trade 2 of his own for every enemy's life, and the patience to sit out a siege. A better example, if you must stick with the Yankees, might be Sherman (don't tell my Southern friends I said so), who had all the qualities you mention of Grant, but who also evidenced, to this untrained historical observer, at least, a cunning and daring that Grant lacked.
I can't really disagree: as a strategist and tactician, Sherman beats Grant any day, just as Patton beats Marshall any day, too. (See Victor Hanson's The Soul of Battle, which argues that the Boetian general Epaminondus -- who humiliated Sparta -- Sherman, and Patton epitomize how generals of great democratic armies should fight, namely by driving massive armies deep into the enemy's territory, using constant, rapid movement to outflank his forces, and by freely romping in his heartland, humiliating his military and demoralizing his civilian population.) But I contrasted McClellan with Grant because they held analogous positions of authority -- both were generals in chief -- and were such polar opposites in temperment. McClellan wouldn't fight, because he was afraid to risk damage to his army; Grant would, even at a horrendous cost in lives. Grant shouldn't be celebrated for needlessly getting thousands of Union soldiers killed. Sherman's rapid movement and flanking maneuvers, which won battles at a much lower cost in lives than Grant's meat-grinder, victory-by-attrition approach, was much more humane and consistent with the value a democractic society places on individual lives. But Grant gets credit for putting the Union armies on the offensive, for giving generals like Sherman free rein, and for using his armies as weapons, not shields. (Would it be accurate to say, using modern terminology, that Grant was a good theater commander?) But it's too bad Grant didn't turn over the Virginia campaign to someone like Sherman. Another reader argues that the armies on both sides of World War I had McClellans too:
A recent book about World War I (The Myth of the Great War, by John Mosier) makes the same point. France and Britain were losing to Germany in 1917, which is why America decided it had to enter the war. Why were they losing? Both sides began the war with a load of McClellans, good desk generals who turned out to be totally unfit for wartime duty. But Britain and France couldn't find the will to replace these old boys, because they were politically well connected. Germany acted quickly to retire (or at least re-desk) any officers who couldn't handle the reality of war, and then moved younger leaders out into the field. The result was that Germany was well on the way to winning despite numerical disadvantages.
It figures that McClellan and Grant are characters that show up in every army. What's unnerving is that success depends on (a) someone finding a Grant and (b) putting him in charge. That's not inevitable.

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