Friday, January 30, 2009

Confederate Struggle for Command by Alexander Mendoza

Confederate Struggle for Command: General James Longstreet and the First Corps in the West by Alexander Mendoza

I have very mixed emotions about this book. I came in very interested, in fact its a book I purchased, and I wanted to like the book. As I read the first part I was not very impressed with the book. The last chapters were better but even in those sections there were things I found annoying. If I had received this as a review book I probably would not keep it but since I spent my own money on it I probably will. Maybe later I will find more use from the book but right now I’m disappointed.

One thing I thought the book did very well was covering the disputes between Longstreet, Law, McLaws and Robertson. For some reason when the First Corps came west all the simmering conflicts among the chief commanders came to a boil. Longstreet had problems with the leadership of both divisions (Jenkins vs Law in one, and McLaws in the other) almost as soon as the battle of Chickamauga was over. After the failure at Knoxville he also had a problem with the Texas Brigade’s commander, Robertson.

Here are some things I had issues with.

When the Union hastily formed a new line on Horseshoe Ridge they allowed a gap to form between them and Kelly Field. They never had the men to close this so they left it and lucked out that the Confederates never exploited it. Mendoza points out that Longstreet had men who could have been used to exploit the gap if he had known it was there. Then he absolves Longstreet of missing the gap by writing, “Longstreet’s blunder is understandable in the context of challenges facing him on the battle’s second day. The densely wooded terrain, in which the thick gunpowder smoke became trapped, limited visibility to a few hundred yards at most. Attempting a reconnaissance under such conditions would have been a dangerous undertaking.” (p 46) At the close of the chapter he again gives Longstreet a pass on this issue with, “But his unfamiliarity with the terrain and the limited visibility on the thickly wooded battlefield explain this blunder.” (p 52) My problem with this is that limited visibility on thickly wooded battlefields is the norm in the Civil War, especially in the West. I don’t think that any general can know all details of the battlefield but if we are to give a general a pass for missing a gap the reasons should be better than it was smoky, wooded, and unfamiliar ground. How many battles took place on a piece of ground the high command was intimately knowledgeable about?

On page 47 Mendoza wrote, “Bragg should have realized, however, that Longstreet still held Preston’s Division in reserve and could have moved those troops to the Confederate right for an enveloping attack on Thomas’s position.” Mendoza does have a point about Preston being in reserve. The problem though is that Preston was about 3 miles from the Confederate right, and that’s if he marched in a straight line, which was impossible due to troop positions. Even cutting through the woods he would have likely had to march 4 or 5 miles to get there. Once we factor in the time to change formations Preston would likely have to been in motion by noon to be able to do much in the battle. Longstreet began his attack at 11 AM and it would seem odd to pull the reserve division away so early in that fight. It would have been closer to 3 PM that Bragg could have made this decision, which is when Bragg and Longstreet met and was what Mendoza had just written about in the paragraph before the above quote. That means Preston likely wouldn't have been able to get into combat that day. Its fine to say Bragg should have done this or that but you need to have an understanding of the realities of Civil War combat first, in this case (unless Bragg moves Preston very early in Longstreet's attack) Preston is stuck on the left end of the Confederate lines.

There are some things that are just worded clumsily. Mendoza says that Longstreet was aided in placing his men by Tom Brotherton, “who lived in North Georgia before enlisting.” (p 39) That’s true but it would be better to say that Tom Brotherton’s house was about 300 yards away, that Longstreet used him because Tom probably knew every hog path through the woods since that is where he grew up. What makes Tom different than the hundreds or thousands of other Confederate soldiers who grew up in North Georgia? The fact that he grew up where the fighting would take place. Mendoza should have mentioned that fact but he did not. The only connection he makes is that he says the forces were deployed east of the Brotherton Farm.

A few sentences later Mendoza says Bragg’s main objective was “elements of the Federal XIV, XX and XXI Corps.” (p 39) True but wouldn’t it be simpler to say the Army of the Cumberland. I would understand this in the Chattanooga section because then there were a few different pieces of armies operating together so referring to the various corps individually makes sense.

Another odd wording cropped up in the discussion of the infighting in Bragg’s command. Mendoza says that this squabble reduced the communication between Bragg and his lieutenants. “In mid-August Rosecrans sought to exploit the paralysis affecting the Army of Tennessee by launching the Chickamauga campaign.” (p 61) I think Rosecrans was able to benefit from this squabble but I do not think he had any knowledge of it in mid-August and I do not believe it was part of his planning.

On that same page, 61, Mendoza has another very odd statement. He wrote, “Bragg knew that Polk was a popular figure in the Army of Tennessee and his removal would meet with disapproval. This is why he ordered both men [DH Hill being the other] to Atlanta, far away from the army.” I do not understand why sending Polk and DH Hill to Atlanta would lessen the impact of their removal on army morale. They were both suspended from command instead of being arrested which might look a little better to the common soldier but both were still removed from command. There might be a belief that the suspensions are temporary but even so they have been removed from command, that act, not where they serve their suspensions, is likely to matter most to the common soldier.

After describing how every general that had spoken out against Bragg had been transferred away or been demoted Mendoza says, “Longstreet’s mistakes convinced Bragg to order the First Corps into East Tennessee to operate against Union forces in that region.” (p 75) And that is the reason Bragg used in a telegram to Davis but I have a hard time believing that is the main reason. Bragg was already outnumbered, the Union now had an open supply line to bring their army back to fighting strength and Bragg decides this is the time to send Longstreet away. There is no debate that Longstreet had not been at the top of his game at Chattanooga but sending him away as the enemy gets stronger seems a very odd decision. If Bragg truly doubts Longstreet’s skill he should take a more hands on approach to his sector, or relieve him of command. But Bragg has decided he doesn’t want to see Longstreet at all and that leads me to believe that their earlier squabble is more at the root of this decision than any qualms about Longstreet’s ability. Also if Longstreet is performing so badly isn’t giving him a less supervised role away from the army an odder choice than closer supervision in Chattanooga?

“Starving men resorted to eating animal feed while the draft animals resorted to eating the bark off trees. The situation in the Army of the Cumberland became so precarious that officers had to post guards over the horses and mules while they ate to prevent the soldiers from stealing the few ears of corn available to them. Despite their hunger and being surrounded by the enemy, the Federal troops in Chattanooga had regained their optimism and anticipated reinforcements.” (p 83) The question I have from that section is why were they optimistic? Mendoza has just explained how bleak things were. The plans to open an effective supply line were in their infancy. There does not seem to be any reason for optimism. In hindsight we know that these lean days were not going to last too terribly long but when you’re living it I’m sure a short period of time feels like forever.

When Mendoza lists the hazards Hazen’s men will face as they drift down the Tennessee River on pontoon boats he lists artillery and picket fire, and drowning (p 95). Yes drowning was a hazard but unless the men did something to fall into the river the risk of drowning had to be pretty low on the list. I thought it odd to include it as a hazard. This may seem like a nitpicky kind of complaint but it was so odd that it stuck out like a sore thumb. It would be like saying that Burnside used the bridge at Antietam because his men might drown if they tried to ford the river and completely ignore the fact that there were not any good fords near the bridge. Anytime people are around water there is the risk of drowning but generally that risk is pretty low.

I thought Mendoza missed a good opportunity to be critical of Bragg in the chapter on the Knoxville campaign. On page 124 he says that Longstreet sends multiple messages to Bragg about the sorry condition of his army and that Bragg grew resentful of the constant complaints and questions. Then on page 129 he says that Bragg tells Davis that Longstreet hasn’t keep him informed of the situation despite repeated inquires to do so. This is a perfect place for Mendoza to expose Bragg’s lie and explore out why he might be lying. Instead Mendoza ignores the two differing passages and forges on with the story of the campaign.

“A year prior to arriving at Ringgold Station, Longstreet fell out of favor with President Davis and the War Department when he reportedly criticized the president’s close friend, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston …” (p 201) If it truly was one year earlier then it would have been September 1862 and Johnston had been dead five months. Again it is a case of Mendoza not picking his words carefully. Also there is no note of what Longstreet reportedly said about Johnston. Was Longstreet the sort of man to talk ill of the dead? I don't know for sure, my gut is to doubt it as usually people did not talk bad about the dead. If he complained about Johnston while he was still alive, which does make sense as many people blasted Johnston after the fall of Fort Donelson, then it would be a year and a half before the arrival at Ringgold. Mendoza should have been clearer about this because if Longstreet was complaining about dead men's campaigns then it does reveal another part of his character. If he complained while Johnston was alive then Mendoza's sentence is incorrect. Timing is everything in war.

A few times in the text there is reference made that the men of the First Corps suffered during the winter because they left their overcoats and baggage behind in Virginia, that they thought they’d be returning quickly. This I do not understand at all. Where did they leave the extras? Surely not in a camp as there could be no guarantee that Lee would hold that camp until their return. Was it in a warehouse in Richmond? If so then why wasn’t the stuff just sent out west. Surely it would have been separated by regiment so that when they returned they could find their stuff again, so sending it to the regiment would not have been impossible. I was always under the impression that the men carried all their stuff with them, that if they had too many supplies they sent it to loved ones or left it along the road. I have not ever read of storing the supplies in a warehouse. Not that it couldn’t happen but in 15 years of reading I’ve never read that. Since Mendoza repeats that soldier’s lament a few times I think he should have gone the extra step to inform the reader that those supplies were likely gone or could have been sent west if red-tape and/or transportation could have been cleared.

In a discussion of war strategy Mendoza has three sentences that bother me. “Longstreet grasped the fact that if the Confederacy were to win, it needed to concentrate forces and strike against the North itself” And, “His grasp of strategy continued into the spring of 1864 when he proposed an invasion of Kentucky to draw the Federals from Johnston’s front in northern Georgia. Even though Longstreet failed to take into account his plan’s logistical problems, it does not detract from the fact that he recognized the situation facing the Confederacy during the last eighteen months of the war.” These sentences bother me because there is considerable debate on what was the proper course for the Confederacy, Mendoza has clearly picked an aggressive route but he offers no support for why that was the proper method instead of a prolonged defensive that traded space for time. It seems to me that the defensive school of thought has been the more popular one lately. I think if Mendoza says Longstreet knew the correct way he should at least offer some support for why this was the correct method. Also I think failing to grasp the logistical problems facing the Confederacy means you do not recognize the “situation facing the Confederacy during the last eighteen months of the war.” Logistics are an important part of the Civil War from before the first shots are fired and yet in the spring of 1864 Longstreet is apparently to be congratulated for coming up with a plan to invade Kentucky that ignores the very serious logistical problems of the Confederacy (and Civil War armies as a whole).

There are some other things I thought seemed odd so I have requested his sources through inter-library loan to double check those. When I get those sources I'll report back because if its true its an interesting story to share. And if its false its one more thing to dislike about this book.

I was a little reluctant to post this negative review since the two other reviews I know of have been pretty favorable. But I felt that there were enough things I did not like to warrant it. Like I said in the first paragraph I will keep the book and might find in a few years that I like it better, but today I am not a fan.


Slamdunk said...

I am not familiar with the book and have only a basic understanding of Longstreet during this time, but after reading your comprehensive review, I feel compelled to learn more about the subject.

I think you are providing an invaluable service in detailing the specific issues that you had with the author's work.

If worded correctly, I have also found some authors to be responsive to questions such as yours when emailed (using google to find an email address)--at least you can get additional information from the writer.

Keep up the good work.

Nick said...

Thanks. I'm glad I helped get you interested in learning more about this.

I also meant to include in the original review that the maps were horrible. Somehow I forgot to include that earlier.

Chris said...

Enjoyed your review of this book. This was a book I was interested in picking up because I enjoy reading about Longstreet (Killer Angels and the movie Gettysburg helped start the fascination) and Chickamauga is one of my favorite campaigns to study. I've always wondered why Longstreet bombed so badly in the West after Chickamauga. Thanks for pointing out the flaws of the book. I'll have to think longer about picking that book at its present price.
Thanks again,

Anonymous said...


Good comments about Mendoza's Book. I had similar reactions.

Some Comments:

First, about the gap. Most folks don't seem to remember that the only CSA Infantry that ventured into that gap (Humphreys and the
8th SC of Kershaw) never reported it; instead Humphreys told Longstreet that the area was strongly defended. Humphreys was referring more to Snodgrass Hill than to the gap, but he certainly did not make this clear to Longstreet. Longstreet's own recon in the area encountered Union pickets as well, there was nothing to suggest that the gap was there. If the 8th had been more helpful this might have been a bigger issue, but they connected with Kershaw's line and never said a word to anyone about a gap.

Second, I think Longstreet was disatisfied with Law for good reason. Law did not perform well at Gettysburg for perhaps understandable reasons. However, when he got his second chance at Div command at Chickamauga, he failed to control his troops on either day. In each case his division fragmented, drifting across the field a brigade at a time, and he never managed to mass sufficient combat power in any one area. In fact, his record at Chickamauga was much as at Gettysburg, without quite the same excuses.

Dave Powell