Sunday, November 19, 2006

Foster: "Sherman's Mississippi Campaign"

[Sherman's Mississippi Campaign by Buckley Foster. (University of Alabama Press: Tuscaloosa, Alabama. 2006) Hardback, 10 maps, notes, bibliography. pp. 232, ISBN 0-8173-1519-5] $29.95

In February 1864, William T. Sherman took two infantry corps on a march from Vicksburg across the width of central Mississippi, ending up at the important railroad junction at Meridian. At the same time, a Union cavalry force under William Sooy Smith was to depart the Memphis area and travel down the Mobile and Ohio Railroad to meet Sherman in Meridian. From there a decision would be made whether to continue on into Alabama. Both wings were to forage liberally and destroy everything of military value (with particular attention paid to the rail transportation network).

An excellent, minutely detailed military study of the campaign has already been written (Margie Bearss' Sherman's Forgotten Campaign: The Meridian Expedition, OP-1987, Gateway Press), but Buckley Foster's new book Sherman's Mississippi Campaign is the first modern attempt at an in-depth analysis of the campaign. Foster marks the Meridian expedition as a crucial milestone in the evolution of W.T. Sherman's strategic thinking, a proving ground for the later Georgia and Carolinas campaigns. For this campaign, Sherman completely abandoned his supply lines and lines of communication. He stripped down his complement of wheeled vehicles, taking along only a minimal number of artillery pieces and supply wagons. The two infantry corps would advance on parallel axes; which aided speed and provided as wide an area as possible for the collection of food and forage. Any public property (and large amounts of private property as well) that could aid Confederate forces would be destroyed.

However, the one part of Foster's analysis that I am particular skeptical of is his assertion that Sherman developed a workable policy of allowing a wide latitude for destroying private property only in towns and areas deemed important to the Confederate war effort. Beyond finding no convincing evidence for it, I would object to this proposed framework in terms of both practicality and effectiveness. I don't believe the comparatively indisciplined citizen soldiers were particularly concerned with such nuances. An idea that the high command could turn the 'looting switch' on and off at their whim is unrealistic. Additionally, with comparatively little attempt to apprehend even serious looters/pillagers and no consistent application of punishment, the lack of deterrence value seriously harms the credibility of the direction from above. Then there is the question of just what constitutes property essential to the enemy war effort. While I quibble with Foster on this particular point, I commend his attempt at creating a framework of understanding for such a difficult and highly contradictory subject. In my mind, the great disconnect between evolving "hard war" policy (as nicely outlined in Mark Grimsley's Hard Hand of War) and actual enforcement is an area of study that deserves much more attention.

Beyond analyzing the larger meaning and effectiveness of the Meridian Campaign, the author (aided by a number of helpful maps) does provide the reader with a clear and concise operational military history. The blow by blow recitation of military events in Sherman's Mississippi Campaign is not nearly as detailed as Bearss' earlier account, but it's more than adequate and Foster does do a much better job than Bearss did of integrating Sooy Smiths' cavalry column into his account.

In the final estimation, Buckley Foster's Sherman's Mississippi Campaign is an important contribution to the historiography of the Civil War in the West and of the military career of William T. Sherman. Students at all levels should find much to appreciate and much to ponder.

2 comments:

  1. Hello Drew I'm new to your blog and I'm enjoying it very much. Not sure this is the best place for this question. Recently noticed that E. Longacre has ground out another biography, Joseph Wheeler. This one is soon to be released. I wanted to get your opinion and perhaps other blogger's opinions concerning his vast number of books. What do you think of his books? I think most of his subjects needed biographies, just not sure he was the right person to do them?

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  2. Hi, thanks for visiting. In this case, I'm definitely the wrong person to ask. The subjects EL writes about (mainly eastern cavalry) are low on my scale of interest and I've heard such decidedly mixed reviews of his work that I've generally avoided them. I would ask Eric or J.D. (see sidebar links to other bloggers).

    DW

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