FT103: “If General Grant used Keynesian tactics he wouldn’t have given up the attack on Cold Harbor until all of his soldiers were dead.” Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 3rd, 2012

Fundamental Truth

On the Eve of Cold Harbor Grizzled Union Veterans pinned Scraps of Paper with their Names and Home Cities Inside their Jackets

General Grant has a few reputations.  That he was a drunk.  He wasn’t.  He just couldn’t hold his liquor.  And he hated inactivity.  And being away from his family.  Two things that led him to drink.  They also called him a butcher.  That he cared little for his men.  Which wasn’t true.  The bloodiest single day of battle in the Civil War was the Battle of Antietam.  Grant wasn’t there.  The bloodiest battle was the three days at Gettysburg.  Grant wasn’t there.  One of the greatest Union defeats was at Fredericksburg.  Grant wasn’t there.  So it wasn’t Grant.  It was the tactics used in the Civil War.  Napoleonic tactics.  Massing great ranks of soldiers opposite great ranks of soldiers.  Fire a few shots.  Close in on each other.  Then finish the job with the bayonet.  And plenty of finishing was needed as those Napoleonic weapons weren’t rifled.  Or all that accurate.

The weapons were rifled, though, in the American Civil War.  And far more accurate.  So they killed a lot of soldiers as they massed and fired.  And killed even more as they closed in to finish the job.  They soon learned that massing troops in the open on the field of battle was not a good idea.  Instead they looked for good ground to defend.  At Antietam there was a sunken road in the center of the Confederate line.  One of the first trenches used in warfare.  Lee failed at Gettysburg because General Ewell failed to take the high ground on the eve of the first day of battle.  Over night the Union entrenched strong defensive positions.  That held for days 2 and 3.  At Fredericksburg there was another sunken road.  This one was behind a stone wall.  It was also on the high ground.  And that’s where the Confederates were when the Union attacked.  And lost the battle.

General Lee was a combat engineer in the Mexican War.  Some called him the King of Spades.  So fortifying defensive positions was something he was good at.  And became better at.  Building breastworks.  Which even the odds in battle when a numerically superior force attacks a smaller entrenched force.  Like at Cold Harbor.  Where the breastworks zigzagged for 5 miles.  Allowing the defenders to shoot into the front of the attacking force.  As well as into the side of the attacking force.  Which is why on the eve of battle the grizzled veterans in the Union Army pinned scraps of paper with their names and home cities inside their jackets.  An early dog tag.  So when they attacked those heavily fortified defensive positions in the morning their surviving comrades could identify their bodies and send them home to family for burial.  Which, sadly, proved very useful after the battle.

The Problem with Keynesian Economics is that it interferes with Market Prices causing Inflation and Bubbles

The attack was over in less than an hour.  Seven thousand Union soldiers fell killed or wounded.  Grant regretted his order to attack until his dying day.  And he wouldn’t give such an order again.  Because he learned the folly of attacking entrenched positions.  And began adjusting his tactics to match the technology of the battlefield.

Sometimes it’s easier to identify failed policies in war.  It may have taken some time.  But it eventually became clear.  For when the casualty rates soared people were less willing to send their sons off to war.  Making the cost of those failed policies very real.  And personal.  Not abstract numbers.  Like in economics.  Where few understand what Keynesian economics is.  Or how to identify if these policies work.  Or if they fail.  For if you listen to Keynesian economists they never fail.  And when they do it’s not because they’re wrong.  It’s because those using them weren’t bold enough.  Such as using a Keynesian economic stimulus to pull an economy out of a recession.  It didn’t work in the Seventies.  And it didn’t work in the most recent recession.  The Great Recession.  And how do Keynesians explain this failure?  The economic stimulus wasn’t big enough.

The problem with Keynesian economics is that it interferes with the market forces.  By denying reality.  The business cycle.  The cycle between good economic times and bad economic times.  From periods of expanding economic activity to periods of contracting economic activity.  It’s this second half of the business cycle that Keynesians were especially trying to deny.  Recessions.  Those things that correct prices at the end of a growth cycle.  Before inflation can set in and wreak its havoc.  And when Keynesians interfere with this market mechanism the market doesn’t correct prices before inflation sets in.  So prices keep rising.  And they create asset bubbles.  Like housing bubbles.  Like the one that led up to the Subprime Mortgage Crisis.  And because Keynesians interfered all they did was delay the inevitable.  Allowing prices to rise higher than they normally would have.  Which meant they had further to fall.  Creating a longer and more painful recession than there would have been had they not interfered.

Unlike a Keynesian, General Grant Recognized a Failed Policy and Stopped Using It

Keynesians try to reduce economics down to a set of mathematical equations.  That they accept on faith.  Blinded by their ideology.  And refuse to recognize their failure.  Which is why they continue to interfere with market forces.  And continue to make recessions longer and more painful than they need be.  While strewing a swath of economic destruction in their path.  Like all of those home owners who lost so much value in their houses that their mortgages are now greater than the market price of their house.  Many lost their retirement nest egg in the process.  Some even had to alter their retirement plans because of their losses.  Or go back to work in their retirement.

These aren’t bodies littering a battlefield.  But the Keynesian carnage has destroyed lives just the same.  Impoverishing future generations to pay for their inept policies.  For people not even born today will have a tax bill so great that it will diminish their living standard far below what we enjoy today.  As bad as that is what’s worse is that they don’t change their policies after these failures.  Believing that the only reason they’ve failed is because they didn’t try them on a grand enough scale.  Or the government quit them before they had a chance to work. 

Thankfully General Grant didn’t use such Keynesian thinking at Cold Harbor.  Had he used such reasoning he would have ordered a second assault.  And a third. And kept ordering them as long as he had living men to send in against that entrenched defense.  But he didn’t.  Why?  Because he was smarter than a Keynesian.  He recognized a failed policy.  And stopped using it.

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LESSONS LEARNED #16: “The military part of the military has been a success story. The Big Government part of the military has not.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 3rd, 2010

BIG GOVERNMENT DID NOT create the greatest military power of all time.  It’s not a top down success story.  It’s a bottom up success story.  You win wars by winning battles.  And you win battles with a rifle in your hands.  Those who matter don’t hear the clash of arms from afar.  They hear it from within the battle itself.

The successes of the military are due to the people who fight the battles.  They are not due to governmental bureaucrats.  In fact, you can say the fighting people achieve success despite the governmental bureaucrats.  I can give you a list of esteemed military personnel that would agree with me.  Here’s an abbreviated list:  George Washington and Robert E. Lee.   Of course, you can’t ask either of them because they’re dead.  But the history speaks for itself.  Their most difficult enemies were the politicians.  And the ones on their side.  Not the enemies’.

THE AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY WAR was a lot like the Vietnam War, only without the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Both had the mightiest military power in the world taking on a military lightweight.  Therefore, both used Fabian tactics.  Like Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus, the underdog avoided major engagements with the enemy.  (Excluding the Tet Offensive, of course, which was very un-Fabian-like.)  Theirs was not to win.  No, theirs was not to lose.  For he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day. 

But the big difference between these wars was supply.  The Viet Cong and the NVA had the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  No matter how many of them you killed or how many of their supplies you destroyed, more just kept coming down that trail.  George Washington and his ragtag armies, on the other hand, were, well, ragtag.  Plead as he might for supplies the Continental Congress delivered little.  Including pay.  His armies were chronically under-supplied, under-fed and under-paid.  But still they carried on. 

When they took winter quarters in December 1777 on the barren hills on the west side of the Schuylkill River in eastern Pennsylvania, they had not received any supplies from the Quarter Master General since the previous July.  Now the winter at Valley Forge was not the coldest during the War, but it was cold.  Especially if you were barefoot and half naked.  And this was the condition of the average soldier.  While the British quartered themselves in the warm houses of Philadelphia and enjoyed the comforts of regular meals and warm beds, the Americans left trails of blood in the snow from their bloody, bare feet.  They slept by fire for warmth.  Shirts as well as blankets were lacking.  And there was a lack of food, for man and animal.  Hundreds of horses starved to death that winter.

But the British did well that winter.  Why?  Why did they have food, drink, clothing, blankets and forage for their horses?  Because not everyone felt the Spirit of ’76 as earnestly as others.  Thomas Paine, just before the Battle of Trenton a year earlier (at perhaps the low point of morale in the Army) wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”  There were no summer soldiers or sunshine patriots at Valley Forge.  They were in warm houses.  Well fed.  And making money.  From the War.  There were supplies, yes, but there were more profitable markets than Washington’s armies.

So while graft and speculation made some rich, the Army suffered at Valley Forge.  The Continental Congress did little for them.  The states did little for them.  They suffered that ordeal alone.  Together.  And they became better soldiers.  Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter of introduction for a Prussian captain, Baron Friedrich von Steuben.  He came with exaggerated credentials.  Franklin said he was a general under Frederick the Great even though he was only a staff officer.  And an unemployed staff officer at that.  But he knew how to make and drill an army.  And he did.  Washington held the Army together.  The men persevered.  And the army that emerged from Valley Forge could face any European army on the field of battle.  And they fought on.  And about 4 years later, General Cornwallis would surrender at Yorktown.

THE UNITED STATES offered the command of the Union Army in the American Civil War to General Robert E. Lee.  He declined.  He could not raise his sword against his own country.  Virginia.  So he would fight on the Confederate side in what they called the War of Northern Aggression.

There is an interesting exchange in the movie Gone with the Wind before war breaks out.  Rhett Butler is discussing the South’s prospects with his fellow southern gentlemen. 

RHETT BUTLER: I think it’s hard winning a war with words, gentlemen.
CHARLES: What do you mean, sir?
RHETT BUTLER: I mean, Mr. Hamilton, there’s not a cannon factory in the whole South.
MAN: What difference does that make, sir, to a gentleman?
RHETT BUTLER: I’m afraid it’s going to make a great deal of difference to a great many
gentlemen, sir.
CHARLES: Are you hinting, Mr. Butler, that the Yankees can lick us?
RHETT BUTLER: No, I’m not hinting. I’m saying very plainly that the Yankees
are better equipped than we. They’ve got factories, shipyards, coal mines…and a fleet to bottle up our harbors and starve us to death. All we’ve got is cotton, and slaves and…arrogance.

No.  The South’s prospects were not very encouraging.  And the North’s advantages would make up for her failings.  In time.

The American Civil War was not a war of Fabian tactics.  The First Battle of Bull Run (or the First Battle of Manassas as the Confederates called it) was a shock.  Casualties (killed, wounded and lost) were high.  About 4,800 in total.  No one had anticipated such carnage.  If that wasn’t enough to sober them up, then came Shiloh in the West.  This 2-day battle claimed about 23,750 casualties.  This exceeded the total of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War combined.  By the time the Civil War was over, casualties would top 1,000,000.  Over 600,000 Americans would eventually die.  Including a president.

Why such high casualties?  A couple of reasons.  This was one of the first wars benefitting from the Industrial Revolution.  Better and more powerful weapons created more powerful armies.  And a network of railroads brought them efficiently to the battlefield.  Unfortunately, these armies still employed Napoleonic tactics.  Mass in formation, fire and charge with bayonets.  Rifled barrels, though, replaced smoothbore muskets.  This tripled the effective range of an infantryman’s weapon.  Improved cannon, like the Parrot gun, made cannon fire more devastating.  So, while they stood en masse and fired, and marched forward with bayonet, they faced a withering, accurate fire.  Before the Battle of Cold Harbor, life expectancy in battle was such that soldiers sewed their name inside their jackets.  Why?  They wanted their fallen bodies identified and sent home for burial.

Another reason for the high casualties?  Two of the best armies in the world were fighting each other.  American was killing American.  In the beginning, the Confederates had the edge.  Robert E. Lee and General Stonewall Jackson were displaying by far the greater competence in battle.  But that was in the east.  In the west, Generals Grant and Sherman advanced along the Mississippi River with dogged determination.

At the Battle of Chancellorsville, though, Stonewall Jackson would fall from friendly fire as he reconnoitered the front.  He lost his left arm.  Lee would lament that Jackson may have lost his left arm, but he had lost his right.  Jackson would subsequently die from complications of pneumonia 8 days later.  A couple of months from that, Lee would be in Gettysburg, the ‘high water mark’ of the Confederacy.  And after 3 days of battle, he would lead his defeated army back across the Potomac.  Meanwhile, in the west, Grant had just taken Vicksburg and, as a result, control of the Mississippi river.

Lee’s foray into Pennsylvania may have not been a wise move.  It was only the second time a Confederate army invaded the North (the last resulted in the bloodiest single day of the war – Antietam).  Battle in the north favored the North.  Shorter lines of communications.  Better network of railroads.  Coal mines.  Factories.  It was a bold plan.  But a poorly executed plan.  The armies came into contact, after all, because barefoot Confederate soldiers looking for shoes came into contact with dismounted Union cavalry.  That’s what was in Gettysburg.  Shoes.  That, and one big-ass road intersection that brought all those armies together.

Lee’s forces started the Battle of Gettysburg prematurely because of singular defect in the South.  Supply.  Lee faced the same problems Washington did.  The Confederate Army was superior to the Union Army at many times.  They often outgeneraled the North.  And often outfought the North.  But they took heavy losses.  As did the North.  But, as Rhett Butler pointed out, the North was in a position to replace their losses.  The South simply was not.  It became a war of attrition.  And the north simply outlasted the South.  And had the time to become a superior army. 

The problem was the very thing they were fighting for.  States’ rights.  The north was able to wage total war.  The South, try as they might, could not.  States had some warehouses full of material, but a state allotted its material stores for its own regiments.  A state may have had a surplus of shoes, but they held them for their own soldiers while others went barefoot.

The southern soldier suffered beyond human endurance.  Days would go by without food or provision.  Some would pick up horse droppings and pick out undigested kernels to eat.  When they broke out of the siege around Richmond/Petersburg, they marched for days to promised provisions.  When they reached the rail cars, they opened them to find unneeded equipment.  Not food.  But they still fought on, emaciated as they were.  Until they found themselves surrounded near Appomattox Courthouse.  When faced with the choice of surrender or guerrilla warfare, Lee chose surrender.  He saw one country destroyed.  He did not wish to see another.

WASHINGTON DID PREVAIL in the end.  Despite his government.  Lee did not.  In part because of his government.  All the while the soldier in the fight persevered through great privations.  But never gave up.  They fought, and died, together.  For God.  For country.  And for each other.  All the while, no doubt, cursing their respective governments.

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