Question of the Week—1/4-1/10/16


In the fall of 1863, as George Gordon Meade tried to grapple with the Army of Northern Virginia, his former III Corps commander, Dan Sickles, was back in Washington stirring up controversy: to cover his own blunder at Gettysburg on July 2, Sickles conducted a full-court press to discredit Meade’s overall performance at the battle. By the time Meade learned of Sickles’ slander campaign, he demanded that General-in-Chief of the Army, Henry Halleck, conduct an investigation.

“[N]othing would suit [Sickles] better than to get you into a personal or newspaper controversy,” Halleck replied. “He would there be perfectly at home, and, with his facilities for controlling or giving color to the New York press, would have greatly the advantage.”

Meade said he didn’t “consider it good policy to permit such slanders as have been circulated to pass entirely unnoticed,” but he took Halleck’s advice and largely let the matter go.

Knowing how badly Meade’s reputation has suffered as a result of his decision not to actively contest Sickles, Halleck’s advice, in retrospect, stands out as some of the worst advice he ever gave a subordinate.

What’s another instance from the Civil War where you think, in retrospect, advice turned out to be terrible?

9 Responses to Question of the Week—1/4-1/10/16

  1. Patrick Cleburne’s advice to arm the slaves to provide enough manpower to meet the increasing numbers of Union Soldiers. The advice itself had the potential of winning the war for the South, but the reaction to the advice was to freeze Cleburne’s chances of promotion and keep him at division level that doomed the Army of Tennessee to bad leadership for the rest of the war. Had Cleborne been elevated to corps command or higher, his performance record demonstrated him to be probably the best Confederate commander in the Western theater, who had the potential to successfully stop Sherman.

  2. Like Charles, I’m a fan of Cleburne. But I disagree that recruiting slaves into Confederate armies would have “had the potential of winning the war for the South.” Cleburne’s December 1863 suggestion came too late to save the South (thank God). Sherman’s Atlanta campaign and Grant’s Overland campaign were only a few months away. Also, how were racist Rebel officials going to convince slaves to fight for a cause whose main aim was to perpetuate slavery? I believe Cleburne, who immigrated from Ireland to Arkansas as a young man, never fully understood the deep and virulent racism that infected almost all of the South at the time. Most southerners believed blacks were sub-humans, capable only of toiling in cotton fields for 14 hours a day. To acknowledge that blacks could become brave and honorable soldiers (as they became in Union armies) was to deny the very foundation of the South’s slavery economy.

    1. I agree with almost everything you say and am a Yankee through and through completely satisfied with the result at Appomattox, but the potential of winning would have been stalemating both Grant and Sherman by replacing the losses in the overland campaign suffered by the Confederates. The Wilderness was close to an even match for Grant and Lee, at Spotsylvania Lee launched local offensives but generally remained on the defensive, North Anna was Lee’s last opportunity for a successful offensive, but was lost due to his illness, and by Cold Harbor and Petersburg, there were too few Confederates to allow an all out offensive against Grant (Early’s march down the Valley and showing up on Washington’s doorstep never amounted to anything more than a raid). The casualties of the Army of Tennessee at Atlanta removed the ability of Hood to resist Sherman’s March to the sea. If those losses were replaced by Black troops, Lee might have been able to go on the offensive, Hood could have swallowed up Sherman between Atlanta and Savannah, resulting in Lincoln being voted out of office by a war weary North. The winning scenario that the Confederacy was betting on was Lincoln losing the election and negotiating a peace with President McClellan. A cease fire in place would have been the victory that the Confederacy was counting on, and both Britain and France would have been more than happy to monitor the armistice and remove the blockade for the British to exchange cotton for manufactured goods and France to have a free hand in Mexico with Maximilian expanding the influence of Napoleon III. Again it was a potential, but far from a slam dunk.

      1. Charles:
        We agree to disagree, I guess. But I’m pretty certain we agree on one thing: the greatness of Pat Cleburne. John Bell Hood assured a Union victory in the West by several moves. As you noted, he virtually destroyed the Army of Tennessee during the three battles around Atlanta and the debacle at Nashville. But more importantly, he sent Cleburne and the rest of his army on a suicide mission at Franklin, Tenn. That battle resulted in Cleburne’s death and deprived the Confederacy of its best general in the Western theater. Like George Thomas for the North, Cleburne doesn’t get anywhere near the credit he deserves.

  3. My vote is for just about anything Allan Pinkerton ever advised General McClellan during the Peninsula/Richmond operations.

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