Question of the Week: July 28, 2014

Historians have given much attention to the decision to replace Joseph Johnston with John Bell Hood, but little attention is given to the Federal command change that happens at the same time. When Army of the Tennessee commander James McPherson is killed, several possible candidates are available as a replacement. The job ultimately goes to Oliver Otis Howard.

What do you think of that decision?

8 Responses to Question of the Week: July 28, 2014

  1. One immediate thought comes to mind on this date, 150 years after the Battle of Ezra Church: Howard’s caution won that battle. Sherman was pressing Howard to swing his new command quickly around the west of Atlanta toward the vital railroads south of the city. Howard correctly believed a Confederate force to be aimed at his flank, a concern dismissed by Sherman. In the same way before the Battle of Atlanta, the commanding general had belittled McPherson’s fears for his flank, ordering him instead to concentrate on wrecking the railroad, but McPherson followed his own counsel by moving Dodge to the army’s left just in time to meet Bate’s attack head-on, unfortunately losing his own life in the process. Howard similarly resisted his impatient commander by halting, turning, and digging in, and thus his well-prepared army rendered Stephen Lee’s attack ineffectual. At least as far as today’s battle, the choice of Howard seems to be a good one.

  2. A bit surprising since his Eleventh Corps performed poorly at both Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, although the circumstances of those shortcomings were arguably beyond his control. Apparently the “buck stops here” did not apply to him at those events and then again sometimes the sins of the past did not follow officers to other theaters of war. Of course the performance of the troops under his command during the Atlanta Campaign was far better than his “Dutchmen” at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. At least he wasn’t drunk during those battles as he didn’t drink (his nom de guerre was The Christian General).

    1. “Of course the performance of the troops under his command during the Atlanta Campaign was far better than his “Dutchmen” at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.”

      Have to disagree with you there. As several historians have noted, Howard’s preparations for defense at Chancellorsville were stunningly lax, with only (I believe) one brigade placed in line to defend against an attack from the west. He also ignored several reports of enemy troops movements in the area. Additionally, Jackson’s attackers outnumbered the unprepared 11th Corps by over two to one.

      Regarding Gettysburg, division commander Barlow’s faulty placement of troops had at least something to do with the 11th Corps’s rout.

      Blaming Howard’s screw ups at Chancellorsville on his “Dutchmen” (less than half of the corps’s members were German) is an assumption straight out of an 1863 nativist newspaper.

      1. My recollection was that warnings of an imminent Confederate attack easterly on the Orange Turnpike did not make it up to corps command level. Eleventh Corps subordinate commanders at regimental, brigade and even division level completely disregarded reports of an impending assault. The official line at army headquarters at Chancellorsville was that Jackson was retreating when observed passing in Sickles’ front.

        The assumption that the Germans broke to the rear prematurely may have been exactly what insulated Howard from responsibility for the success of Jackson’s flank attack. Barlow’s deployment may have been faulty, but when Early’s division showed up on Barlow’s flank, there were simply not enough troops in the Eleventh Corps to extend or refuse Barlow’s line to make a coherent defense north of Gettysburg. In fact, holding von Steinwehr’s division of the Eleventh Corps in reserve on Cemetery Hill assured that the bend in Meade’s fishhook would stay in Union hands at the end of the first day of battle.

    2. Howard was, indeed, told to fortify his position, but later Hooker decided that the column of Confederate infantry was on the retreat rather than maneuvering for attack. Both commanders share culpability.

  3. That was a good decision as Blackjack Logan showed his true colors later.

  4. Sherman considered naming John A. Logan–who had commanded the army since McPherson’s death–to the permanent command, but he was talked out of it by George H. Thomas, who threatened to resign if Logan was named. Thomas suggested Howard receive the appointment, and Sherman–who greatly preferred West Point-trained officers such as Howard to volunteers like Logan–agreed to Thomas’s request.

    It’s worth noting that Sherman’s appointment of Howard to replace McPherson had a significant ramification in that it caused the resignation of Joseph Hooker as commander of the Twentieth Corps. Hooker was Howard’s senior and thought he was entitled to command the Army of the Tennessee. While Sherman heartily disliked Hooker and was happy to see him go, the rank and file of the Twentieth Corps idolized Hooker and deeply regretted his departure.

    I’ve always found it interesting that a few months later, when Sherman divided his army into two wings in preparation for the March to the Sea, his choices for wing commanders were former Army of the Potomac men, Howard and Henry W. Slocum.

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