Art of War Part 1 - Marengo, Gettysburg, and Compass

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Art of War Part 1 - Marengo, Gettysburg, and Compass

Postby Questers » Mon Jun 24, 2019 9:43 pm

On a sweltering July afternoon, General John Bell Hood went to the head of his old brigade, ordered them to fix bayonets, and charge the Federal positions. He, and the Texans, must have been hot and tired; they had marched all morning and all afternoon across poorly reconnoitered roads and terrain and it was one of the hottest July days ever recorded.

Unlike the portrayal in films and books, Hood did not see his division torn to shreds. Moments later, the division commander was struck by shrapnel from an exploding shell and had to be taken from the field. He never regained the use of his arm. That day, the 2nd July 1863, was a personal disaster for the general; it was a more momentous disaster for the Army of Northern Virginia, as two of its finest divisions were destroyed without any gains whatsoever in desperate, and frankly pointless, attacks on very well held ground.

Gettysburg, though, was hardly a victory for the Federal army either. It lost a huge quantity of trained men, and ultimately failed in its objective – to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia, which made off with all the supplies it had spent two months ‘sequestering’ from the civilians of Pennsylvania and Maryland. Without those supplies, the rebel army would have starved to death completely, without the use of a single Springfield rifle or Ordnance cannon. Those supplies, carried by more than a thousand pack wagons and several thousand horses, allowed Lee’s forces to survive a very harsh winter and an unforgiving harvest, and come back in the next year to inflict a bitter defeat on Grant at Mechanicsville and the Wilderness, where, Grant lost more than 40,000 men.

One wonders what might have happened if Lee had chosen not to give battle, but instead to manoeuvre his force and between Meade’s lines of communications and invited him to battle. Since the Federal cavalry was on the other side of the state as Lee’s supply lines, which in fact were well guarded by his reserve cavalry, such a manoeuvre might have been possible. We only need to look to a prior example, which all the generals of the civil war must have known of, to see an example of such an operation.

By 1800, with Napoleon in Egypt, the Russian armies under Suvorov had pushed the French out of the Alpine regions, and despite their withdrawal from the theatre, Austrian general Melas had been able to force the French to Genoa, where General Massena barely held out. Napoleon returned to France and led the Reserve Army through the hills and the valleys, directly via the Great St Bernard Pass. It was too late to relieve Massena; his force had surrendered, but it had performed one good job: it had kept all of Melas’ Austrian force distributed throughout the countryside and against the coast.

With lightning speed, Napoleon carried Milan, and then moved on down the Po valley, interposing his much smaller force between Melas and the Austrian supply bases, refusing his ability to either withdraw or receive reinforcements or supplies. An accidental battle at Montebello secured Melas in place. Napoleon believed Melas would attempt to move his troops further south to retreat and he could then catch the Austrian army in detail. Instead, Melas decided to attack Napoleon in full force.

The date – 14th June 1800. The place: Marengo.

The Austrians nearly won. They attacked again and again and were held back by only thin lines of the French troops. By early afternoon, Napoleon’s line looked to crumble. One wonders what the short little man must have thought. As the afternoon dragged on, the French began to break and move away from their lines. Luck, however – or perhaps, sound military manoeuvre - was on Napoleon’s side. General Desaix arrived from the south, with his reinforcements, and immediately gave battle. So close was the fighting that grapeshot felled entire ranks of Austrians. It likely looked something much like George Pickett’s oblique attack on Cemetery Hill.

Then, a successful French cavalry charge set upon a thinly held portion of the Austrian line and sent them fleeing; the retreating troops ran into one another and caused a general rout. The next day, Melas surrendered, offering very generous terms to France.

It is easy for observers to say that if Desaix hadn’t arrived in time, Napoleon would have lost. This is a facile opinion because the principal reason that Desaix arrived in time was because Napoleon performed the superior manoeuvre. It can easily be compared to General Lee’s manoeuvre at Sharpsburg; Lee was able to bring Early’s division into battle at the last moment and save the day precisely because he disposed of his troops more intelligently than McLellan. The disposition of troops and the direction of their movements is the principal manner in which battles in the post-renaissance era are won, because large armies are dependent, like a mosquito is on blood, on geography and communication. The assertion of luck is facile because the tactical focus over the operational and strategic focus is facile. Napoleon disposed of his troops better. That is why Desaix was able to essentially choose the point of ingress to the battle, which eventually decided the outcome of the entire campaign.

If Marengo and Gettysburg are very famous engagements, then the final comparison is only a minor celebrity. However, it provides us with the final contrast between the tactical focus and the importance of the disposition of troops.

The lack of celebrity for this battle is overshadowed by future, greater battles; but its importance in the scheme of world history should not be lost, because it more or less secured for the allies not a total victory, but the possibility of any kind of victory at all.

In September 1940, Mussolini had deployed more than 150,000 men in the Italian Tenth Army upon the border of British Egypt. They rapidly advanced and conquered significant portions of British Egypt until running out of supplies. Just one road connected them to their main supply depots at Benghazi and Tripoli hundreds, and in the latter case thousands, of miles away. British Marshal Wavell had only 35,000 men at his disposal, less than half the number of tanks and aircraft, and less than one tenth the number of howitzers.

Practical military logic might have compelled Wavell to dig in depth and hope to wait until reinforcements arrived, slowly delaying and attritting the Italians. It was still a long drive to Cairo and the Canal, but it was also obvious to anyone who possessed strategic nous that the occupation of the Suez Canal would bring an end to the British Empire and any kind of organised resistance to German hegemony.

Therefore, against all sound military logic, and against Italian prediction, Wavell opted to attack. The Italian divisions were encamped in bases straddling the single road that connected them to their supply lines. Wavell decided to see what would happen if he drove around these bases. In fact, his orders to his subordinate, General Wilson, was to more or less find out what was possible, and if something good could be done, to do it.

This echoes General Lee’s famous order to General Ewell to take the hill if practicable. Except that order was tactical, whereas Wavell’s order was operational. In the event, Wilson found it was very possible to drive around the Italians. The British mechanised units, massively outnumbered, drove around the Italian camps and severed them from their lines of communication, and then surrounded them and forced them to surrender in detail. The Tenth Army was not beaten in the field of battle. It surrendered because it was disconnected from its lines of communication. No fewer than 130,000 Italians went into captivity. 500 British troops were killed.

By interposing between Italian General Rudolf Graziani’s lines of communication and his main force, Wavell had made Italian manoeuvre impossible; the superiority in the placement and disposition of troops had made the tactical level immaterial. By comparison, the infamous Rommel never inflicted such a defeat on the British Army in Africa. In a stroke of irony, a year later against the Germans the British employed the same ill-advised system as had the Italians, but Rommel was never able to place his troops in such a position that the battle was decided before it was begun. Real victories eluded him.

The purpose of this essay is not to propose that if Wavell or Napoleon had been present at Gettysburg the outcome would have been different, or even to consider whether the outcome could have been different had Lee acted a different way. The idea is to show that superior numbers, morale, or experience are mostly immaterial if the enemy is allowed to place his troops in a position that determines the course of a campaign.

After the death of General Lee, historians of that war sought to show that Gettysburg was a mistake and that his feckless subordinates brought an engagement against his will and then refused to prosecute it once it had begun. This stands up to no evidence. The evidence strongly implies that the General had got his dander up after Chancellorsville and had decided to fight the Federal Army directly. The allure of tactical victory lead to perhaps the greatest waste of American life in history. It did, however, spawn a very good motion picture.
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