Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Review - "Soldiers from Experience: The Forging of Sherman's Fifteenth Army Corps, 1862–1863" by Eric Michael Burke

[Soldiers from Experience: The Forging of Sherman's Fifteenth Army Corps, 1862–1863 by Eric Michael Burke (Louisiana State University Press, 2022). Hardcover, 8 maps, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xii,282/350. ISBN:978-0-8071-7809-6. $50]

A handful of new Union Army corps histories have cropped up of late. While these studies largely offer scaled-up versions of conventional approaches to Civil War unit history writing, Eric Michael Burke's Soldiers from Experience: The Forging of Sherman's Fifteenth Army Corps, 1862–1863 is like no other that's come before it. By tracing the development, originating from both commanders above and junior officers and enlisted men below, of what he calls a corps-level "tactical culture," Burke reveals a Civil War army corps with a distinctive way of war. The definition of tactical culture, and all that is attached to it, is refined throughout the book. Essential components are the "capabilities, skills, predispositions, and assumptions that each regiment, brigade, and division" developed through training and "specific experiences across its distinct operational heritage." Those experiences were "transformed by officers and men into habitual practices, ways of thinking, and webs of meaning that informed their behavior on and off the battlefield" (pg. 50).

Burke argues that the initial training and fighting practices of Morgan L. Smith's Eighth Missouri "American Zouaves" regiment had a germinating impact on the adoption of Zouave tactics at the brigade level from Donelson through Shiloh. From there, a more open order tactical culture eventually spread outward and upward throughout William T. Sherman's Fifteenth Corps, which was formed from disparate elements (including Smith's now divisional command) in December 1862. A combination of factors were behind the origins of the tactical shift and the mechanics of the spread are largely inferred in the text, but the fact that Smith was a clear Sherman favorite might have further greased the adoptive wheel while at the same time reducing potential objections from those in the higher ranks. Given the strong degree through which relatively decentralized training and direct field experiences informed unit tactical culture, one might be justifiably skeptical of a thesis advancing the concept of a Zouave regiment originating a transformation of an entire army corps. At the same time, though, it's not difficult to concede that a society in arms, already primed by antebellum "Zouave Fever" and having a long tradition of irregular and loose order fighting, could be readily influenced by unconventional Zouave tactics. However one might rank the Zouave-specific influence, Burke's battle by battle analysis, as presented in the book, steadily constructs a strong argument that the ways in which the corps experienced battle over the roughly twelve-month period bookended by the battles of Chickasaw Bayou and Chattanooga led to entire formations within the corps rejecting conventional textbook tactics in favor of more ad-hoc and open order variations on their training. Thus, unhappy patterns and results from Chickasaw Bayou, Arkansas Post, and the Vicksburg assaults, where the advancing rank and file quickly went to ground in the face of forbidding terrain and enemy earthwork defenses before breaking into smaller, junior officer-led groups employing Zouave-style tactics behind favorable cover, collectively sparked tactical changes that became ingrained habit and a defining element of Fifteenth Corps tactical culture going forward through Chattanooga and beyond.

In both defeat (Chickasaw Bayou) and victory (Arkansas Post) the infantry regiments of Fifteenth Corps failed to successfully assault and breach enemy lines, and Burke sees in the experience of and internal reaction to those events an emerging tactical culture of aversion toward frontal assaults. While many historians frame the Confederate surrender of Arkansas Post as a morale-raising salve to the bloody repulse outside Vicksburg that preceded it, Burke instead emphasizes the very different takeaway message of deep disappointment in army leadership that was expressed at the time by the officers and men tasked with the main assault. Rank and file objections to Sherman's handling of the corps were briefly assuaged by the relatively easy capture of Jackson, Mississippi on May 14, 1863, but longstanding criticisms of their corps commander returned only a week later after the failed May 19 and 22 assaults on Vicksburg. According to Burke, there was no real impetus from any source toward improvement in direct assault capabilities during the main 1862-63 period examined in his book. The men in the ranks blamed their commanders and Sherman on down blamed lack of success on inexperience and lack of discipline among junior officers and private soldiers rather than on faulty leadership and coordination from above. It would take some time before lessons would be learned and Sherman accepted the corps tactical culture both shaped by and forced upon him.

As mentioned above, the two fruitless assaults on the ramparts of Vicksburg, which resulted in high casualties and no gains, revived junior officer and common soldier disapproval of Fifteenth Corps leadership. Though sympathetic to the difficulties of overcoming terrain obstructions and strong fortifications, Burke concurs with the common view that Sherman and those around him continued at Vicksburg to display little tactical creativity and worse coordination. The city would have to taken by siege, the process of which further developed and evolved Fifteenth Corps tactical culture. Modern Vicksburg Campaign historians have credited the swift advancement of Union siege lines, and accompanying inability of the defenders to retard their progress, in large part to enormous expenditures of artillery and small arms ammunition. Burke takes this a step further and marks the siege period as one of being a laboratory for perfecting the corps' infantry and artillery ranging and accuracy, a reinforcement of corps tactical culture emphasizing fire and maneuver over direct assault. After the successful conclusion of the siege, the corps quickly put those well-honed skills to good use, with swarms of sharpshooter fire on the skirmish line and accurate counterbattery fire going some way toward convincing General Joseph E. Johnston, who rarely needed much convincing when it came to retreating, to quickly abandon Jackson's improved earthwork defenses. The return of Union occupation to the Mississippi capital in July 1863, and with it much less interest in proscribing limits to targets of destruction, marked an even more intensified "war in earnest" the second time around. In Burke's analysis, the 'every man his own engineer' experience gained at Vicksburg along with the confidence and competence achieved among junior officers and their charges in areas such as skirmishing and sharpshooting were core elements of tactical culture that significantly offset the inability to breach enemy lines through direct assault.

Over the time period examined in the book, Sherman was not yet the beloved "Uncle Billy" of Civil War legend. Contemporary writings reveal bitter criticisms of Sherman's hasty logistical arrangements that prioritized speed over comfort, with Fifteenth Corps officers and men often accusing those at the top of a pattern of operational mismanagement and corresponding lack of care for the command's well-being. That Sherman's corps lost upwards of an astounding 3,500 soldiers through sickness, discharge, and death over a period of mere months while camped along the Mississippi levees in early 1863 did not endear the commander to his men. On the other hand, while non-combat losses piled up, non-combat operations bore significant fruit. Floundering around the Yazoo bottomlands was unpleasant, but Grant's "experiments" in that highly productive agricultural region provided a way to strike heavy blows against the enemy war effort without resorting to further costly frontal assaults. Indeed, Burke interprets lingering bitterness over Chickasaw Bayou and Arkansas Post attacks as driving forces behind popular support among Fifteenth Corps soldiers for both emancipation (and to a lesser extent black recruitment) and war in earnest by early 1863. Scholars who have written about wartime emancipation and hard war practices among Union armies would certainly agree with Burke that frustration on the battlefield increased support for harsher war measures off the battlefield. Serving as the tip of the Union spear that first penetrated the interior of the Deep South, the part played by the Fifteenth Corps in those events profoundly shaped the formation's evolving tactical culture. Fifteenth Corps activities during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, the March to the Sea, and the 1865 Carolinas Campaign are also briefly surveyed in the volume's conclusion, facets of which recapitulate earlier arguments regarding tactical culture as an important factor driving support for emancipation and hard war.

Sherman's Fifteenth Corps gained a reputation, both fair and unfair, for overeager foraging and outright pillaging. In line with previous historians such as Clay Mountcastle, Daniel Sutherland, and others whose research has uncovered the roots of hard war in early-war Trans-Mississippi and Mississippi River Valley operations, Burke finds that the Missouri experiences of many of the regiments in Sherman's command informed a deep mistrust of civilians that extended in multiple directions, including toward a generalized lack of concern for individual property rights. The "area denial" and "resource extraction" operations conducted by elements of Sherman's corps along the Yazoo bottoms and especially later at Jackson, when the prioritization of speed over oversight led to widespread pillaging, did much to establish this controversial aspect of corps tactical culture.

Burke sees things differently than most western theater military historians have when it comes to evaluating Sherman's alleged timidity during the decisive battle that broke the Confederate siege of Chattanooga in late November 1863. Many observers see the lack of Union progress on the left, during which casualties incurred were not matched by appreciable gains, chiefly as the product of terrain and the defensive skills of Patrick Cleburne and his crack Confederate division rather than on Sherman's alleged tactical incompetence. Burke adopts a different approach, crediting terrain constraints as others have done but also interpreting events on the Union left flank as a clear expression of the limits of Fifteenth Corps tactical culture. Operating under the assumption that the topography in his front would not have permitted the type of full-scale assault that many Sherman critics have proposed and that attacking with more men used in that fashion would most likely have just increased the casualty list, Burke finds in Sherman's hesitancy a reasonable (even insightful) reaction to his corps's consistent history of trying and failing to breach well-defended and well-placed enemy works. The author's addendum regarding another part of tactical culture, that of rotating heavily engaged units from earlier fighting into reserve positions (leaving them unavailable for fresh assaults), is a bit less convincing, given that such concerns were often overridden in emergencies. Basically, the argument is soundly advanced that the Chattanooga battle marked Sherman's culminating acceptance of what his command was capable of achieving and what it was not capable of doing.

So what in the end defined the matured tactical culture of Fifteenth Corps? On Page 256 Burke summarizes it, in all of its strengths and limitations, as follows:
"(1) a preference for fundamentally conservative tactical choices (even when assigned less than conservative missions), with an emphasis on the use of artillery and open-order skirmisher "clouds" and sharpshooting details as the main effort in almost all offensive operations, (2) a glaring lack of confidence in the capability of massed bayonet assaults to successfully overcome even modest breastworks, (3) an affinity for indirect over direct maneuver solutions, and finally (4) a strategic preference for long-range maneuver and resource denial over direct armed confrontation with Rebels."

As defined, Fifteenth Corps tactical culture clearly had it drawbacks, with consistent inability to coordinate assaults that could directly carry enemy positions (skirmisher swarms themselves did not  even possess the weight to do so) or stand on the defensive outside of earthworks, but Burke shows how leaders were able to work around them, aligning operational goals toward core strengths. While problematic, past failures of massed assaults did not create an expected crisis of confidence. Quite the contrary, patterns of success on the strategic level, regardless of tactical setbacks, bred immense confidence in achieving ultimate victory. Of course, clearest proof of a truly distinctive corps-level tactical culture requires direct comparison with similar-scale formations from either side, but that brand of extensive exercise is beyond the scope of this volume. However, that's not to say the book is devoid of content exploring differences in tactical culture between Fifteenth Corps elements and other Union Army formations, it's just limited. For example, in his discussion of the Ringgold rear guard battle that ends the book, Burke contrasts in illuminating fashion the very different tactics employed by Fifteenth Corps elements and select post-Chickamauga reinforcements sent to Grant's army group (in this case, Creighton's brigade of western regiments that fought in the East). Neither broke the Confederate line, but the approach of the latter was far closer to the "forbearance" model of conducting attacks using massed formations that were expected to persevere under murderous enemy fire and heavy casualties.

Burke's detailed mini-narratives of Fifteenth Corps battles fought over this period (specifically Chickasaw Bayou, Arkansas Post, both Jacksons, the Vicksburg assaults, the Vicksburg siege, Chattanooga, and Ringgold Gap) are so good that one earnestly wishes that standalone campaign and battle history writing of some kind lies in his future. Particularly powerful is Burke's account of the bloody Union repulse at Chickasaw Bayou, his wonderfully vivid descriptions and keen analyses of both terrain and failed assault tactics a strong complement to Timothy Smith's excellent recent account of the battle in 2022's Early Struggles for Vicksburg. The author also notably engages with other elements of recent Civil War military historiography. For example, he agrees with Earl Hess that rifled muskets in the hands of volunteer infantrymen did not have a revolutionary-scale dominating impact on the Civil War battlefield, their overall potential instead deeply restricted by the continent's thick vegetation and rough terrain (though Burke appropriately cautions toward going overboard on those factors). In addition to both historians acknowledging the important role of the rifle on the skirmish line and in sharpshooting, Burke mirrors Hess in arguing that, largely as a function of terrain, short-range "shock" firing predominated over long-range "attritional" fire on the Civil War battle line, though Burke seems more open to further refinement on that issue. Important to this study, Burke presents a strong argument that the strengths of the rifle over the smoothbore musket, particularly when placed in the hands of skirmisher swarms employing organically developed proto-'fire and maneuver' tactics, saw their greatest impact on the offensive rather than defensive side of the infantry battle line. In this way, the rifle served as one of the principal physical tools of Fifteenth Corps tactical culture.

Eric Michael Burke's detailed conceptualization of a distinctive army corps tactical culture offers the Civil War field a truly novel approach to analyzing how and why Civil War formations, large and small, fought the way they did. This is exactly the kind of fresh new study that offers shining proof of the enduring value of military history and the endless possibilities of fresh directions through which to explore it. Soldiers From Experience is so good that one hungers for the same or similar approach be applied to core elements of other Civil War armies. It's unknown if Burke is interested in doing that, but this marvelously inventive study makes any publishing project he might embark upon in the future an object of great anticipation.

1 comment:

  1. I bought this based on this review. It looks interesting, but the author is using an off-putting, tendentious slant on the Confederate army. He refers to them only as “rebels” and I have seen two instances already (only read the introduction so far) of the phrase “so-called Confederacy”. Is the insertion of irrelevant, tendentious bias such as that now required to have a Civil War book published or something? I know he is a protege of Glatthaar, who spent the first 50-60 pages of his book on the Army of Northern Virginia claiming every soldier in Lee’s Army was fighting for slavery, so maybe that has something to do with this highly annoying and utterly irrelevant phrasing.


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