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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