Fierce Patriot by Robert O’Connell

Fierce Patriot

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives Of William Tecumseh Sherman

It seems I can’t get enough of reading about the Civil War. This book was recommended to me and now I’m recommending it to you. Sherman was not only a historical figure but a memorable figure. O’Connell breaks the book up into three sections. We read about Sherman’s personal life, his life in the U.S. Army, and his role as leader of an army. Much like his close friend Ulysses Grant, Sherman ran into many difficulties before finding his place in life at the front of an army. O’Connell does a excellent job of illustrating Sherman’s character, Sherman’s army and its role in winning the Civil War. O’Connell’s writing style is easy to read and his subject is enjoyable.

354 pages

Excerpt From The Book

[This excerpt shows how Sherman was able to change his strategy as technology changed.]

From The General And His Army, Chapter 7 pages 236-239

There was something else. Something very important. They were doing it all in the midst of a firepower revolution. By the spring of 1862, both sides were largely equipped with rifles, not smoothbores, nearly identical weapons-the .58-caliber Springfield Model 1861 on the Federal side and the British-made .577 Enfield for the Confederates.Ts The sky to these guns was a dramatically improved bullet, the so-called mini6 ball, with a deep cavity at its base that filled with hot gas upon firing expanding the edges to form a tight seal with the bore, one that caused it to follow the twisted grooves, or rifling of the gun. Whereas slugs shot by smoothbores bounced up the barrel, these new projectiles emerged straight and with accuracy enhancing spin. Prior to shooting, however, mini balls could still be loaded as fast and easily from the muzzle as their smoothbore cousins-faster, actually, since the new rifles also employed all-weather percussion caps to ignite the charge, rather than the previous era’s cumbersome flintlocks, which were all but useless in heavy rain.

But firing at up to three shots per minute was the least of it. The accurate range of these guns was now extended to four hundred yards, roughly triple that of their smoothbore predecessors. At the tactical level, this shifted the dynamics of the battlefield suddenly and dramatically. Following Napoleonic precedent, American officers fighting the Mexican War had enjoyed great success by moving artillery forward with infantry to blow holes in enemy lines and soften them up for a final charge. Now, however, the accurate range of rifled small arms exceeded that of cannon (which mostly remained smoothbores), allowing infantry to slaughter artillery crews should they attempt to unlimber at close range out in the open.

The impact was even more devastating on cavalry, which traditionally had been used to break wavering infantry or to swoop down on artillery before they set up. Now, with the new rifles, a cavalry charge became tantamount to suicide. Early in the war, infantry had regularly practiced forming squares with bayonets fixed, the standard anti-cavalry maneuver, Sherman had employed one at First Bull Run. Now nobody bothered. Cavalry who wanted to survive stuck to reconnaissance and raiding and if they chose to fight, they got off their horses and deployed like infantry.

But if everything now turned on the foot solids adaptation at this level was also difficult. Officers, particularly the professionals, had been trained in traditional open-field, close-range infantry tactics at West Point, and many of the key leaders on both sides of the Civil War had fought in Mexico, where it had worked brilliantly. With smoothbores, such stand-up firefighting made sense; but these new guns facilitated engagement very early, inflicting casualties for much longer periods as the lines closed. With increasing regularity, frontal assaults became occasions for slaughter; yet mainstream commanders, typified by Grant and Lee, had great trouble understanding what was happening and continued to throw their men at one another.Ts

Sherman, who had not fought in Mexico, proved more circumspect. His tendency to break off combat when it appeared hopeless, along with his penchant for operational and strategic maneuver over sheer confrontation, pointed to a kind of instinctive understanding that the lethal dimensions of battle had grown far wider. Yet he could still be provoked into a frontal assault, as he would be at Kennesaw Mountain. Nor is it possible to cite any statement on his part that the new Springfields had made any difference, much less all the difference.

Sherman and his West Point brothers had grown up in a period that looked back on centuries of stability in weapons technology. The idea that the future was to be one of constant and revolutionary innovation, sometimes leading to huge disasters such as the western front, would have struck them as bizarre. On a case-by-case basis adopting rifled small arms, exploiting the possibilities of railroads they were not necessarily regressive technologically, but they missed the implications almost entirely, the second- and third-order effects. Their cognitive filters were simply not set up to receive such a message. Besides, they were in the midst of a great war.

The reaction of the soldiers themselves, the users and the targets, was a lot faster and more direct-individually, they lay low and sought cover whenever they could. But it was also complicated. Basically, the boys liked firepower. A number had complained bitterly over the early guns issued, and Federal troops universally greeted the new Springfields as a great improvement, regarding them with pride and affection.

And these western boys very likely knew how to use them, most having come from a rural background where early exposure to guns and hunting was part of growing up. The myth of the frontier marksman was no myth. The boys really could shoot.

But for most there was also a great deal of difference between picking off a squirrel, a deer, or even a bear and willfully gunning down a member of one’s own species. Strong, though definitely rescindable, human inhibitions against killing our own have been well documented. Yet this was bound to vary among individuals- inherently and also subject to differences in training and experience.

Some killed easily, some never could, and accurate small arms facilitated both. The days of bladed weapons, cutting and puncturing an adversity, were pretty much over-the bayonet played almost no role in Civil War death dealing. Instead, it now went on at increasingly longer ranges, making it easier physically and especially psychologically. For those who were good at it, this meant a great leap in lethality. For those who couldn’t do it at all, there were many reasons for missing. And then there was everybody in between.

Despite the huge amount of evidence and firsthand battle commentary, there is not a lot of reliable accounting as to how these differences played out; how the true shooters were recognized and their effect maximized, and also what everybody else did. For the most part, the men were reticent about killing. Even Upson, who was extremely efficient, never actually admits to taking another life.

Still, the way firing patterns developed among units under attack-less at the beginning and more as the aggressors got closer suggests that those known to be the best shots were continuously fill loaded rifles until putting up a storm of lead became paramount and then everybody picked up a gun and shot fast and blindly through a cloud of gun smoke at the advancing line. This is known to have happened, but how much remains an open question. Most didn’t want to be remembered as killers, but neither did they want to be known to posterity as loaders.

One thing is certain: If at all possible, they wanted to do it from behind cover. Vicksburg’s last chapter was the first major action in the Civil War to be fought from trenches. It was a siege, of course, but it was also prophetic. The new climate of lethality, though only vaguely comprehended in letters home, was changing behavior quickly.

Very suddenly, the boys became combat engineers. This was not the result of a command decision. The officers had nothing to do with it; the boys themselves had reacted, and their intent shot out across their soldier network until everybody was digging and piling on for dear life. “Troops, halting for the night or for battle,” Sherman later observed, “stacked arms, gathered logs, stumps, fence rails, anything that would stop a bullet; piled these to their front, and digging a ditch behind, threw the dirt forward, and made a parapet.” Other observers were amazed at how fast and skillfully they worked, yet they were also willing to dig deep into the night, anything for cover.

This happened on both sides: the rebels too were going to ground. To the consternation of their officers, they also had reacted to the new guns and now much preferred to fight on the defensive. This implied gridlock-something that actually happened on the western front during World War I courtesy of the machine gun and high-explosive powered artillery-but at this stage there were alternatives. Operational maneuver was certainly possible, and it became Sherman’s preference; but it often ended with both sides simply occupying a new set of field fortifications.


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