Thursday, April 6, 2023

Review - " More Than Just Grit: Civil War Leadership, Logistics and Teamwork in the West, 1862 " by Richard Zimmermann

[More Than Just Grit: Civil War Leadership, Logistics and Teamwork in the West, 1862 by Richard J. Zimmermann (McFarland, 2023). Softcover, maps, photos, drawings, charts, tables, appendix section, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:vii,176/216. ISBN:978-1-4766-8871-8. $39.95]

By any measure, 1862 was a catastrophic year for Confederate military fortunes in the West and Trans-Mississippi. While one should hesitate to argue that those events collectively rendered ultimate defeat inevitable, it is beyond contention that the extent of losses in manpower, territory, and resources suffered during the period rendered any further margin for error razor thin. Additionally, the defeats of 1862 clearly exposed deep flaws in leadership and strategy that would have to be ruthlessly addressed if the Confederate West was going to have any hope of reducing, let alone stopping, the hemorrhaging of the rebel nation's lifeblood. With the battlefield strength of Union and Confederate armies more evenly matched in 1862 than they were in any subsequent year, the question arises as to why the former was so successful in the West and the latter, conversely, so very unsuccessful. Creatively supplying a verifiable and repeatable framework through which that question can be addressed is Richard Zimmermann's More Than Just Grit: Civil War Leadership, Logistics and Teamwork in the West, 1862.

Recalling Union-Confederate symmetries in leadership selection, military culture, morale, training, tactics, and weapons (readers might remember work from Wayne Hsieh and others on those topics), Zimmermann attempts to arrive at more convincingly measurable factors through which to explain winning and losing. In connection to that, the author also rejects applying the concept of military "genius," or even tactical-level generalship itself, as being too subjective to offer meaningful, pattern-based conclusions. Leadership is a key part of the book's analysis, of course, but the focus is on other elements of it. Zimmermann anticipates materiel-based objections from readers regarding what effect modern weapon disparities might have had. He recognizes that early-year battlefield conditions created problems with, for example, flintlock-armed Confederate regiments but remains unconvinced that it played a major role in winning and losing. It is also argued that the opposing sides deployed antiquated artillery types in similarly large enough proportions for that factor to be discounted as a major influence, too. As outlined in an appendix, Union artillery forces in the West were rapidly modernized beginning in 1862, but the most significant effects of that improvement process (which was completely unmatched in scale by the struggling Confederates) were, in the author's view, primarily borne out during the western war's second half.

After reviewing lists of common principles of war and other aspects of what went into winning or losing Civil War battles, Zimmermann eventually arrived at a pared-down analytical framework, all six parts of which he feels are both a major part of every battle and, just as important, factors that can be reasonably measured in some consistent manner. Thoroughly explained in the book, the six key elements can be summarized here as follows: [1] objective (the more successful side is the one that receives "clear and attainable" objectives from the civilian leadership and is able to meet them; [2] initiative (regardless of which side strikes hardest first, the successful general is the one who can seize the initiative during the closing stages of the battle; [3] command unity (the more successful general is the one who receives the greatest level of support and cooperation from his principal subordinates); [4] staff effectiveness (the successful general has a staff that manages army communications and logistics more efficiently than his opponent); [5] resource commitment (the most successful general uses all of his available resources and deploys them at the right moment in time); and [6] strategic result (the most successful generals are able to convert victories on the battlefield into strategic outcomes).

The six-part analysis is applied to nine battles (Mill Springs, Forts Henry & Donelson, Shiloh, Richmond, Perryville, Corinth, and Stones River in the West and Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove in the Trans-Mississippi), a chapter being devoted to each. Chapters are comprised of background context and battle narrative sections (descriptive in nature, with some commentary) followed by critical analysis based on the six elemental concepts outlined above. In many cases, arguments formulated in one chapter inform and build upon those subsequently raised in others. Some other battles, such as the contest for New Orleans, are not afforded the same full treatment and are collectively addressed in a single chapter. Text discussion is supported by schematic maps along with command and staff flow charts for both sides. Each battle chapter ends with a table that graphically summarizes how the leadership of both sides handled each of the six "elements of victory." Rather than offer a sliding scale for each commanding general's performance, Zimmermann applies in its stead a simplified "achieved" or "not achieved" rating. The author is fully cognizant that expressing such ratings in a completely reductive yes/no fashion will lead to a greater number of disagreements with his readers, but his contention that inevitable points of dissent here and there will not alter the overall effect is largely borne out in the frequently lop-sided results presented. For example, it is not uncommon to find Union forces garnering "achieved" ratings and the Confederate opponent "not achieved" for all six elements, or close to it.

Clear patterns emerge from the analysis. There are exceptions, of course, but on the whole Union forces profoundly overmatched their Confederate opponents with it came to the ability of their leaders to formulate clear and realistic objectives, achieve high command harmony (even when challenged through interpersonal and professional differences), harness all available resources, and employ more efficient and effective army staffs. Indeed, the emphasis on army-level staff work is perhaps the most interesting and forceful of the book's comparative analysis features. Both sides appointed staff officers of varying military and civilian world backgrounds, but Zimmermann, much like Thomas Army before him, believes that the North's wider and deeper pool of skilled technicians and managers was a major comparative advantage. One might expect that strategic outcome would rank among the most difficult elements to achieve, and Zimmermann's analysis seems to bear that out. There is a correlation between the number of "achieved" ratings (along with corresponding "not achieved" ratings on the other side) and the scope of the battlefield victory, but strategic outcome is more elusive. Zimmermann resists the temptation to rank the six elements in terms of their relative importance, and that hesitancy strikes one as being well placed. The author does hint, or at least seems to, that his elemental framework might need to evolve further as the character of the war itself evolved (for example, between 1862 and 1864), and that possibility is an interesting one to contemplate.

Why Civil War campaigns and battles were won or lost will always be a source of vigorous debate, and Richard Zimmermann's More Than Just Grit is a freshly framed, consistently interesting, and astutely argued addition to the discussion. In providing a theater-wide focus on one of the war's most critical intervals, the study also effectively highlights a number of factors that contributed to contrasting fortunes between East and West for both sides.

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