Surprises Don’t Last

December is when my thoughts turn to an fascinating battle I like to study, Stones River. The Confederates were able to mass and overwhelm the Army of the Cumberland on the first day of the battle, December 31, 1862.

Yet their success was short lived, within a few hours Union resistance stiffened, and by the next day, the Army of the Cumberland had recovered sufficiently to hold off any further attacks (which did not come until January 2).

This got me thinking: it was an overwhelming attack that broke the morning stillness that day, just like at Shiloh or Cedar Creek. These three Confederate surprise attacks stand out in my mind. They began with overwhelming force. Yet these attacks all unraveled eventually. Even a routed and disorganized army can recover, while an attacker gradually gets weaker and disorganized. Was this a Confederate problem? Clearly not: plenty of Union attacks that met with initial success then sputtered out. Look at Spotsylvania or Fort Harrison.

I was reminded of a great quote from the Gerald Prokopowicz’s book, All for the Regiment. It is one of the finest studies of Civil War combat I’ve read. As he writes, Civil War armies “absorbed enormous punishment without shattering.” Armies were bent, but did not break, despite seemingly overwhelming surprise attacks. The same holds true for other battles where a major breakthrough occurred like Chickamauga.

What accounts for this? Resiliency on the part of the defenders? The inevitable confusion and breakdown in control among the attackers? I believe both.

Prokopowicz writes, “the survival of most of their regiments as functioning units made it relatively easy for Civil War armies to reassemble themselves.” He goes on to say, “The decentralization of loyalty and the concentration of unit identification at the regimental level made these armies so elastic that they could not be broken, yet also made them into awkward weapons that their leaders could not wield with decisive effect.”

Authors Joseph Frank and George Reaves in their landmark study on Shiloh, Seeing the Elephant, write of the importance of

“. . . ties with friends and the sense of confidence they had in their territorially recruited units. This type of regiment embodied both political and community bonds with military traditions, such as esprit de corps and devotion to comrades. The volunteer regiment was thus a source of overlapping powerful loyalties.”

Several good points to ponder there. Civil War armies were large, unwieldy organizations: difficult to manage given the challenges of space and distance. No one had ever commanded armies this large before, there was no precedent.

And I think they’re onto something regarding unit cohesion. Many regiments were recruited at the local level: one town, county, or neighborhood. At the small unit level units could reform and rally.

Returning to my initial example, at Stones River, the Confederate onslaught struck at dawn, around 6:30, on December 31, 1862. Overwhelming numbers and the element of surprise drove Union defenders back from their camps.

Within five minutes, the first Union camp, troops of General James Kirk’s brigade, were crushed. By 8 o’clock Union troops had been driven back one mile and over 1,000 prisoners were scooped up.

Then fog began to disrupt the Confederate advance. There was also poor communication between division commanders as the action unfolded. As the front lines pursued fleeing Union troops, they were drawn off course. By the time the rest of General William Hardee’s Corps were engaged, the entire Union army was alerted, and scrambling for a defensive posture.

Enthusiasm got the better of some Confederates. William Matthews, colorbearer of the 1st Arkansas, exclaimed, “Boys, this is fun!” A nearby soldier replied, “Stripes, don’t be so quick, this is not over . . .”

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Among the cedars and rocky outcroppings at Stones River, Union defenders slowed the Confederate advance.  Author photo.

Although five Union brigades were routed and panic was spreading through the other defending units, resistance was stiffening. By 9 o’clock, the Confederates encountered a division led by General Phil Sheridan. They gave ground stubbornly for a few hours, allowing reinforcements to arrive from the other side of the field.

By the time the Confederates crested the Nashville Turnpike in the afternoon, where they had the potential to cut off or destroy the Union army, they were spent. The southerners had been fighting for hours, units were intermingled, and officers struggled to coordinate with each other.

Once fighting began, officers had no way to effectively control events, they took on a life of their own. In the case of Stones River, fighting devolved into small unit actions. Regiments, often organized at the local level, could effectively fight and rally, but often not act in concert with other units and fight effectively in brigade or division formations.

A surprise attack launched with overwhelming numbers had stalled. Confederate commander General Braxton Bragg did not renew his attack on this Union flank. After a failed assault on the other side of the battlefield, Bragg withdrew.

Despite the initial success of an attack, the small units: regiments and companies of the defender’s brigades, could rally and recover. Combined with the inevitable fatigue, confusion, and loss of momentum by the attacker, a rout could only last so long.

Some examples from the morning’s routed units illustrate the point: Captain Hendrick Paine of the 59th Illinois reported, “We continued to move to the rear in reasonably good order, forming twice and firing upon the pursuing enemy . . .”

Colonel Jason Marsh of the 74th Illinois wrote that he could “rally about half of the regiment” and that they fell back “in good order.”

In fact, most of the units overrun in the dawn attack had rallied within a few hours, but at the regimental level, not as brigades or larger units. Most of these units reengaged later in the battle. They were out of the fight temporarily, but not for good.

Conversely, as the attacker advanced, his units became gradually worn down.

Some officers recognized the issues with maintaining an attack’s momentum, and experimented with various tactics like new formations, infiltration, deception, etc. Emory Upton’s attack at Spotsylvania comes to mind. Yet no one overcame the issue entirely.

Prokopowicz writes, “The Union army that fought at Perryville, Stones River, and Chickamauga proved amazingly resilient in the face of devastating flank attacks, but incapable of following up any of its limited battlefield successes. These traits remained constant, no matter who was in command, because they were inherent in the army’s social structure.”

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Shiloh: Where a massive surprise Confederate attack also ultimately stalled.  Author photo.

In terms of an army’s structure and morale, never mind the lives and health of its members, perhaps British general Wellington said it best when he declared, “Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.”

Stones River, Shiloh, and Cedar Creek were battles that lacked complex maneuver, they were head-on fights in which sheer numbers and force made the difference.

Perhaps commanders on both sides should have heeded the advice of General Jubal Early, quoted at Cedar Creek as saying his army had glory enough for one day. Maybe there was a point at which an attacker had inflicted the maximum amount of damage that was possible on a defender, before which his own forces began to unravel.

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16 Responses to Surprises Don’t Last

  1. Bert, great post. Very thought provoking. I have a probably irrelevant question about the first cannon photograph. I haven’t walked the entirety of the Stones River battlefield so I don’t have an answer from my own experience. Is the cannon intended to be displayed disabled among the rocks and trees or was it vandalized? Or is there another explanation?

    • BillF says:

      It’s displayed like that intentionally to illustrate the effect of the rocky, jagged terrain on movement and placement of artillery and infantry formations.

    • Bert Dunkerly says:

      Thank you Rosemary. Yes the disabled guns are placed there on purpose. This is my favorite area of the battlefield, well worth walking!

  2. Eric Sterner says:

    I agree. Really thoughtful discussion. I haven’t read Prokopowicz’s book, but will have to put it on my list. One thing that came to mind, though, in explaining an army’s ability to recover from a tactical defeat was the development of the corps system under the French at the turn of the 17th/18th century. Once upon a time, I studied revolutions in military affairs from the perspective of a political scientist and looked at different arguments debating the question: was Napoleonic warfare an RMA. One book that really stuck with me was Robert Epstein’s Napoleon’s Last Victory and the Emergence of Modern War. IIRC, he basically argued that greater articulation in armies, particularly that represented by the development of army corps, made the total collapse of an army in the face of a tactical defeat unlikely. Despite the title, I also seem to recall that his focus was on the Austro-Hungarian army, which suffered fewer lopsided and irretrievable defeats once it started to copy some of the French innovations: namely, shifting from ad hoc “wings” to established corps. When I compare the differences between the federal army that fought at First Bull Run and the AoP later in the war, I’m always reminded of Epstein’s argument.

    Just throwing it out there as food for thought.

    • Bert Dunkerly says:

      Thanks Eric, good points. There may be something too that. I think having the army divided into smaller subsections may have enabled it to function more efficiently.

  3. Dan Nettesheim says:

    In all 3 battles despite the initial shock, Federal units succeeded in taking a toll on the attackers even as they traded space & their own casualties for time. The momentums of the attacks were disrupted by the defenders, terrain, casualties & loss of command & control. The other salient factor was that each Federal Army was commanded (or command-influenced) by a Western general (Grant, Rosecrans(Thomas), & Sheridan) who perpetually refused to retreat. Instead those commanders focused on regaining the initiative to finish the potential disaster as a victory.

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  5. Mike Burns says:

    Gen. John Brown Gordon certainly differed with Ole Jubal Early on the “enough glory for one day” theory. Gordon had those Yanks on the run, and Jubal called off the pursuit. Big mistake.

    • I agree with you Burt that Prokopowicz’s study on small unit stands as one of th finest and really compliments Larry Daniel’s Day’s of Glory. I believe the brigade commander was Edward Kirk who command was routed. For Stones River and Shiloh, endurance and cohesion are crucial in driving home these attacks and artillery support proved logistically a nightmare for both. The rebel’s could not bring an artillery support the great distances through the terrain at Stones River, while the Federals regrouped along the Nashville turnpike and massed significant artillery to blunt the final Confederate push. Much like Rosecrans at the brink at Stones River, so did Grant at Shiloh on his “last line” where the adding of artillery took the fight out of the Confederates that had fought all day and were worn out. Is it a coincidence both Beauregard and Bragg sent overzealous and premature messages to Davis of the victory’s?

  6. I agree with you Burt that Prokopowicz’s study on small unit command stands as one of th finest and really compliments Larry Daniel’s Day’s of Glory. I believe the brigade commander was Edward Kirk whos command was routed. For Stones River and Shiloh, endurance and cohesion are crucial in driving home these attacks and artillery support proved logistically a nightmare for both. The rebel’s could not bring an artillery support the great distances through the terrain at Stones River, while the Federals regrouped along the Nashville turnpike and massed significant artillery to blunt the final Confederate push. Much like Rosecrans at the brink at Stones River, so did Grant at Shiloh on his “last line” where the massing of artillery took the fight out of the Confederates that had fought all day and were worn out. Is it a coincidence both Beauregard and Bragg sent overzealous and premature messages to Davis of the victory’s?

    • Bert Dunkerly says:

      Thanks! I did not focus much on artillery’s role but you make a good point. And yes, how ironic that the claims of victory in both battles had to be backpedaled.

  7. Dave Powell says:

    All offensives have what the US Military (and military forces the world over) define as the culminating point. On the offense, the CP is that moment when the attacker can no longer continue and must consider reverting to a defensive posture. On the defense, the CP is considered to be that moment when a counter-offensive is no longer possible.

    In a civil war army, the CP was often short – measured in hours or a few thousand yards. This is as much to do with the inability of senior command to direct fresh forces into action at the key point, due to lack of communications or the difficulty in a passage of lines. The defense, by contrast, can continually move troops in front of the attacker, as the battle in effect comes to them, not the other way around. All of the three offensives you name suffer from that same disadvantage.

    • Bert Dunkerly says:

      Thank you so much for sharing, this Dave! Great point, and I think you’re right on. This sums it up pretty well.

  8. Chris Kolakowski says:

    Great post, Bert – it is always good to see Stones River get some well-deserved attention. I’d add Van Cleve’s Division at midday on the 31st as another example of the “break and rally and go back in” concept you discuss.

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