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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Civil War Sesquicentennial and Memorial Day, Honoring our War Dead

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 30th, 2011

Union Armies Advance along the Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers into the Confederacy

While General Robert E. Lee and his right hand, General Stonewall Jackson, won battle after battle in the east, the Union Army won the war in the west.  A West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican War was an unemployed failure at the beginning of the war.  In need of commanders, the Union Army gave Ulysses S. Grant a command.  He jumped off from Cairo, Illinois, nervous and lacking self-confidence.  As his army advanced to Fort Henry, protecting the Tennessee River, he found the fort already had surrendered after a naval bombardment.  His counterpart was just as nervous as he was.  Filled with a new sense of confidence, he advanced to Fort Donnellson, protecting the Cumberland River.  Assaulted it.  And took it.  Opening the Tennessee and the Cumberland rivers to Union navigation.  Grant then took the Tennessee to a place called Pittsburg Landing.  Near a one-room church at a little crossroads.  Shiloh.

The Confederate’s finest general would meet Grant in the 2-day Battle of ShilohAlbert Sidney Johnston.  Who won the first day of battle.  But did not live to see the second day.  With Johnston dying the night of the first day, the attack was not pressed.  A mistake.  For the Army of the Ohio reinforced Grant that night.  And turned defeat into victory.  It was the first of the bloody, big battles that would define the Civil War.  Over 23,000 dead and wounded, stunning a nation that expected some Napoleonic battle charges, one army retiring from the field of battle and a victory parade.  Not four years of battles where they count the dead and wounded by the tens of thousands.

The Union armies advanced in the west.  General William Rosecrans won a bloody battle near Murfreesboro (called the Battle of Stones River in the North).  And then went on to take Chattanooga without a fight with some well executed marches, leaving the enemy on unwinnable ground.  So they abandoned Chattanooga.  Rosecrans followed.  To a career-ending battle called Chickamauga in northern Georgia, the Gettysburg of the West.  The Confederates exploited a hole in the Union line and sent the Union Army running all the way back to Chattanooga.  The only thing saving the army from annihilation was the great stand at Horseshoe Ridge on Snodgrass Hill by General George Thomas, keeping the door open to Chattanooga long enough to save the army.  With the Union army back in Chattanooga, the Confederates laid siege.  This time, they had the high ground.  If you ever traveled on I-75 near Chattanooga, you probably saw billboards for Lookout Mountain and Ruby Falls.  This is the high ground the Confederates held during the siege.

Lincoln Promotes Grant Commander of all Union Armies after his Successes in the West

Meanwhile, Grant was making progress down the Mississippi River, trying to cut the Confederacy in half.  And the biggest obstacle on the river was the impregnable Fort Vicksburg.  Sitting high on a bluff on a hairpin turn of the river.  It commanded the river.  As traffic slowed to negotiate the turn Vicksburg cannon could plink them out of the water.  Grant tried numerous ways to best Vicksburg.  Even building a ship canal through the bayou on the west side of the river.  Nothing worked.  So with the help of Admiral David Porter and the Union Navy, some gunboats ran the Vicksburg gauntlet while the army marched through the bayou.  They got south of Vicksburg.  Crossed the river.  And attacked.  First took Jackson, Mississippi.  Then marched back towards the river and laid siege to Vicksburg.  The fort fell on the Fourth of July.  A day after Picket’s Charge at Gettysburg.  And the day Lee began his retreat from Gettysburg.  With the fall of Vicksburg, Grant had cut the Confederacy in half.

They promoted Grant.  Grant promoted William Tecumseh Sherman in his place.  And left to lift the siege of Chattanooga.  Which he did.  And then the Union Army drove the Confederates from Lookout Mountain.  And sent them in a retreat that never ended.  Abraham Lincoln promoted Grant to commander of all Union armies.  Grant then left for the Eastern Theater.  While Sherman and Thomas took over in the west.  Sherman advanced and took Atlanta.  A vital rail junction.  Then marched unopposed through Georgia to the sea.  Shrinking the size of the Confederacy into an island of Union-held territory.  He made the South “howl.”  And he made it hungry and in want of the necessities of life.  The war wasn’t over.  But the outcome was now inevitable.

Meanwhile, Grant now advanced with General George Meade who commanded the Army of the Potomac.  And followed Lee.  Looking to outflank Lee and force him onto some favorable ground for one last battle to end the war.  For his forces outnumbered Lee’s.  He just needed one open battle to end it all.  They soon squared off in battle.  Not on open ground.  But in a tangle of forest.  The Battle of the Wilderness.  Both sides suffered heavy losses.  But Lee no doubt sensed impending doom.  Where all the previous commanders retreated after suffering such losses, Grant didn’t.   He was relentless.  He took a lot of casualties.  But he inflicted more.  Worse, Lee had run out of replacements.  It was a battle of attrition in the bloodiest sense. 

Grant, Sherman, Lee and Johnston Win the Peace

This kicked off the Overland Campaign.  A series of bloody battles that pushed the Confederates back towards Richmond.  But it was a costly campaign.  Losses were high.  On both sides.  Lee, having been an engineer during the Mexican War, used his engineering skills in building defensive fortifications.  To even the odds against a numerically superior attacking force.  And did.  Grant’s bloodiest days were at Cold Harbor.  Veterans by then were writing their names on scraps of paper and pinning them inside their uniforms.  So if they fell in battle someone could identify their bodies and send them home for burial.  After the last assault, days passed before they called a truce to tend to the dead and wounded between their lines.  Most of the wounded by then had died.  One wrote in his diary presumably as he lay dying from a mortal wound.  When they found his diary, the last entry read, “June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed.”

Though paying a high price for every inch of ground, Grant did what no other commander had done.  Push Robert E. Lee back.  All the way to Richmond and Petersburg.  Where his army was besieged by Grant’s.  The Confederacy had nothing left to give Lee.  Sherman had emerged from Georgia and was now attacking up the coast.  Lee broke from the besieged lines and made it as far as Appomattox Courthouse.  Grant had him surrounded.  They met.  Grant’s terms were so favorable that Lee accepted them.  Surrendered his army.  Ending the specter of a protracted guerilla war.  Sherman later met with General Joseph Johnston.  Who surrendered his forces after receiving favorable terms, too.  Lee and Johnston’s actions were followed by other commanders who laid down their arms and gave up the fight.  Even the feared General Nathan Bedford Forest.  Whose cavalry still ran at will within Union controlled territory. 

The war was over.  And the easy peace Abraham Lincoln wanted and discussed with Grant and Sherman before his assassination prevailed.  Not without a few hiccups.  But it prevailed.  Thanks to Grant, Sherman, Lee and Johnston.  There would be no guerilla war.  Instead, there would be reunification.  But still soldiers died.  The last being a Union soldier.  John Jefferson Williams, a private in Company B of the 34th Regiment Indiana Infantry.  Killed on May 13, 1865.  In a battle occurring after the official end of the Civil War.  The Battle of Palmito Ranch.  Ironically, a Confederate victory.  On the banks of the Rio Grande.  Near Brownsville Station in Texas.  Little over a month after Lee’s surrender.

The Civil War changed the United States from an ‘Are’ to an ‘Is’

Over 620,000 died during the Civil War.  It was America’s deadliest war.  A war that started with the cessation of the South over the issue of slavery.  That was the political reason for the war.  But that wasn’t why most fought.  To free the slaves.  Or keep them enslaved.  For those fighting the battles had other reasons. 

Some started out with thoughts of military glory.  But those thoughts soon vanished after their first battle.  Instead, what kept them fighting after that first battle was one simple thing.  They wanted to go home.  To the family they left.  To the life they left.  And the way home was through one bloody battle after another.  Which they fought with grim determination.  Accepting that the odds were not in their favor of ever going home.  But the war would end one day.  It had to.  After they fought enough battles.  And those still standing could then go home.  Of course, what that home would be like depended on the outcome of the war.

Before the war people identified their country by their home state.  Especially in the South.  People were Virginians.  Georgians.  South Carolinians.  They weren’t Americans.  We were a nation of united states (small ‘u’ and small ‘s’).  Foreign nations, when addressing the United States would ask, “Are the United States…”  After the war, they would start asking, “Is the United States…”  As the historian Shelby Foote said, the Civil War changed the nation from an ‘are’ to an ‘is’.  Singular.  Which is more the way the North felt.  The South preferred the ‘are’ interpretation.  So that’s another reason why they fought.  To keep the country like it was before the war.  The way their homes were.  So they could go home.  To the way it was.  For the North it meant keeping it an ‘is’.  For the South, it meant keeping it an ‘are’.

I want to go Home

Home is the most powerful force in the world.  When those soldiers pinned their names inside their uniforms before those ill-fated assaults at Cold Harbor, they were thinking of home.  Some would make it.  Many would not.  It’s what made them form ranks and charge into that withering fire.  Because that was the way home.

For every Grant, Sherman, Lee and Johnston, there are thousands of names we will never know.  Like the men who fell at Cold Harbor.  And all those who died in Civil War battles few will ever know the name of.  Or battles since.  Leyte GulfOmaha Beach.  The Hürtgen Forest.  The Battle of the BulgeOkinawa.  The Chosin ReservoirKhe SanhHuếFallujahKandahar.  And the list goes on.  So many battles.  And so many dead.  Whose last thoughts were probably a single word.  Home.

Many of us are fortunate enough to be home this Memorial Day.  Be thankful for that.  And think of those who never made it back home.  Think of them.  If you drink, raise a toast in their honor.  The bravest of the brave.  Who knew the way home was through yet another battle.  They may not have survived that last battle, but their spirit lived on.  And returned home.  Where it lives on.  Forever part of the home they once left.

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