Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Review - "The Iron Dice of Battle: Albert Sidney Johnston and the Civil War in the West" by Timothy Smith

[The Iron Dice of Battle: Albert Sidney Johnston and the Civil War in the West by Timothy B. Smith (Louisiana State University Press, 2023). Hardcover, 6 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxii,183/244. ISBN:978-0-8071-8048-8. $39.95]

A tantalizing host of high-ranking officers deemed promising before the Civil War and during its early years were killed in action over the conflict's first half, prompting a corresponding host of 'what-if' conjectures that continue to this day. For example, on the Union side generals such as Nathaniel Lyon and John Reynolds, along with other candidates like Jesse Reno, Philip Kearny, Frederick West Lander, and Isaac Stevens, have been championed by contemporary observers and latter-day writers alike for possessing top-flight leadership potential tragically lost to the cause. On the Confederate side of the equation, alternate history scenarios abound when it comes to Stonewall Jackson, but Albert Sidney Johnston provides another major source of vigorous debate. The Confederate western theater's distinctly underwhelming series of army command appointees, none of whom managed to come close to measuring up to the East's Robert E. Lee, has prompted many to ponder whether Johnston was truly irreplaceable (and the high command was fruitlessly chasing his ghost throughout the balance of the war) or, given the unquestionable results of Johnston's seven-month tenure, the man was simply not up to the job. Johnston's principal biographer, Charles P. Roland, offered a highly sympathetic portrait of his subject in the historian's 1964 classic study Albert Sidney Johnston: Soldier of Three Republics, but many of Roland's colleagues have been far less generous. Timothy Smith, the author of numerous works featuring key episodes of Johnston's Civil War career, has now thrown his own hat into the ring. Smith's The Iron Dice of Battle: Albert Sidney Johnston and the Civil War in the West is the first comprehensive reexamination of Johnston's life and generalship to appear in the now sixty years that have passed since the Centennial-era publication of Roland's biography.

At this point in time, the alleged shortcomings of Albert Sidney Johnston's leadership of the Confederacy's vast Department No. 2 are well grounded in the published literature and widely known among readers and scholars alike. Stuck in California when the war opened, Johnston's journey to the theater of war was a long one. Stopping at Richmond to receive his plum yet extremely challenging assignment, Johnston did not arrive in person to assume command of the western department until September 1861. Critics have condemned his maintaining an overlong forward defensive line held by far too few troops. Indeed, Johnston's inadequately trained, supplied, and armed troops manned a defensive arc that stretched five-hundred miles from the Arkansas-Missouri-Indian Territory borderlands eastward to the wilderness of southeastern Kentucky. That strategic bluff was instantly breached by Union forces operating in the winter of 1861-62, and wider disaster ensued as the western Confederacy's entire northern cordon collapsed. Judging from the nature of his interactions with headstrong generals such as Leonidas Polk, P.G.T. Beauregard, and John Floyd, it has also been claimed that Johnston, in assessing his ranking subordinates, was a poor judge of character and ability, and he was not forceful enough more generally when attempting to get them to carry out his wishes. Citing examples such as Johnston's persistent preoccupation with the Bowling Green position and his front line death at Shiloh, critics additionally allege that the general was unable to properly prioritize the duties and physical location of a department and field army commander.

On the other side of the equation, Johnston's supporters maintain that the general was placed in an almost impossible situation from the very start. In generals such as Polk, Floyd, Gideon Pillow, Felix Zollicoffer, George Crittenden, Sterling Price, and Earl Van Dorn, Johnston was saddled with arguably the worst collection of principal subordinates that any top Civil War general had to contend with when assuming department command. The strategic blunder of violating Kentucky neutrality and occupying Columbus happened in Johnston's absence, only days before he arrived. Johnston's own character and inspirational leadership ability are justifiably praised. At least early on, before a series of disasters prompted widespread fingerpointing, Johnston seemed to uniformly inspire the loyalty of those below him and he importantly possessed the full confidence of the government. Those qualities plus his unwillingness to openly blame subordinates for their mistakes and shortcomings, no matter how grave, has led some to believe he was the right man to keep the theater's notoriously fractious high command together in moments of crisis. Though forced to accept Johnston's culpability as the general in charge when the disasters of 1861-62 occurred under his watch, his most devoted followers nevertheless can still maintain that Johnston, though nearly sixty years of age, might still have had the self-awareness and personal will to learn from the mistakes made during his baptism of fire and conduct affairs in the West with heightened competence if not brilliance (perhaps with an arc similar to Lee's, whose early leadership, command style, and staff work gaffes in western Virginia and during the Seven Days were largely sorted out by the latter part of 1862).

All of the above-mentioned contentions are lined up for informed scrutiny in Smith's book, their strengths and weaknesses judiciously evaluated as the author sees them. An argument can be made that Johnston's tumultuous, event-filled seven months leading the Confederate war effort the West is enough of a record to justify strong opinions. Still, a generous nature can probably find at least some merit in all of the points raised above. In its addressing the important last part of the preceding paragraph, the element of Smith's reexamination that is most fresh and original is his pattern-seeking approach to Johnston's personality and style of action, one that takes the reader on an extended journey through Johnston's early life, interrupted U.S. Army career, his time serving the Texas Republic as high-ranking officer and later Secretary of War, his life-long economic struggles, and his return to uniform during the Civil War. In doing so, Smith finds distinct patterns of personality and behavior that heavily informed Johnston's capabilities as a department and army commander and very likely limited the general's growth potential he had lived. What emerges from Smith's analysis is a man given to extended deliberation over major life moments, those decisions in turn frequently upended through either bad luck or miscalculation. Johnston then attempted to retrieve lost fortune, honor, or professional stature through high-risk acts of desperation. This can be seen through actions such as his failure to avert a duel which nearly killed him, his leaving his young family behind to go to Texas, and his dabbling in large-scale land speculation. Smith's rating Johnston's rush to Texas an act of economic and familial irresponsibility (particularly in regard to the unwise land investment) is a point well taken though perhaps a bit too unmitigated. After all, taking such risks paid off for generations of American men, down on their luck and with few prospects locally, who sought opportunity on the open frontier or in other emerging parts of the country.

In addressing Johnston's brief Civil War career Smith is unquestionably correct in criticizing Johnston's failure to forcefully correct or rein in willful subordinates who were managing dangerous military hotspots poorly. He also instructively cites instances where Johnston's characteristically measured pace of decision-making could be overwhelmed by events. A similar analysis can be found in Smith's assessment of John C. Pemberton, another general who could not keep pace with Grant's aggressiveness. One might argue that Smith's repeated characterization of Johnston's command personality as "meek" borders on being too strong, but it is nonetheless true that Johnston allowed Polk far too much latitude when it came to carrying out orders and did not materially interfere with Beauregard's crafting of a very ill-advised approach march and battle plan for Shiloh. The general certainly did some things right. The concentration at Corinth for an all or nothing offensive gamble aimed at defeating the advancing federal armies in detail is conceded to be the only realistic option available to Johnston. In the end, the author is justifiably of two minds when it comes to Johnston's risky battlefield behavior at Shiloh that led to his death, recognizing both that it was not the proper place for an army commander to personally lead charges but also that the green volunteers that filled most of the regiments in his newly assembled army needed the inspiration that only officers leading from the front could provide. As anyone who has read Smith's other works already knows, the author does not believe that Johnston's untimely death at Shiloh was a key factor behind the failure to crush Grant's army on April 6.

In Smith's estimation, there is nothing in Johnston's handling of tactics, operations, and strategy to suggest high-order military genius, latent or otherwise. While Johnston, had he lived, could likely have maintained the confidence of the Davis administration through his close relationship with the president himself, there seems little reason, in Smith's view, to expect that Johnston's passive, excessively deferential nature could have forged in the West a cohesive, harmonious high command capable of reversing the theater's failing fortunes. Basically, a pattern of outlook and behavior established throughout the first six decades of Johnston's life would have to be shaken up and reorganized on the fly, a prospect the author rates as highly unlikely.

Ultimately, one's opinion of Johnston often depends on the willingness to characterize the general's interrupted career as the Confederacy's top-ranked field commander as either a glass half empty or half full. Timothy Smith's very sobering and convincing portrait of Sidney Johnston's potential makes it very clear that the author deems Johnston unable to grow into the western Lee that the Confederate war effort desperately needed. As the leading current expert on the key events of Johnston's Civil War career Smith's viewpoint expressed in this book carries great weight, its formulation powerful enough that even the general's most ardent defenders might be forced to stop short and reconsider their conclusions. A fascinating reexamination of a controversial general's life and career, one freshly weighted on identifiable personality and behavioral traits rather than on hopeful potential, The Iron Dice of Battle is highly recommended.

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