Monday, June 27, 2016

Failure to Pursue

A popular topic for Civil War armchair generals to tear their hair out over involves the general inability of armies (Union and Confederate) to effectively pursue beaten enemies. General histories deal with the subject in an anecdotal manner, and many campaign studies examine some of the salient difficulties involved, but Failure to Pursue: How the Escape of Defeated Forces Prolonged the Civil War by David Frey (McFarland, Dec 2016) is likely the first book entirely devoted to the war's pursuit/retreat dynamic. The publisher's description is brief, with the following key passage: "Taking a fresh look at the zero-sum tactics that characterized many major combat actions in the war, this book examines the performance of unsuccessful (sometimes insubordinate) commanders and credits two generals with eventually seeing the need for organized pursuit." How systematic (or analytical vs. merely descriptive) the author's approach will be is impossible to tell from the limited information available. I hope the book also looks at Civil War pursuit in the wider context of military history, as one suspects the annihilation of retreating forces to be far more rare across eras than popularly supposed. Napoleon is often cited as a particularly fine practitioner of the art of operational pursuit, but his epic hounding and destruction of the beaten Prussian Army during the 1806 campaign was hardly typical of the Napoleonic Wars [and maybe the current scholarship has shown even that to be exaggerated, I don't know]. Anyway, I am looking forward to reading what Frey has to say on the matter.

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