Victor Davis Hanson On Vicksburg And Gettysburg
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HH: I am completing my third day of the celebration of the sesquicentennial of, I think, the most significant week in American history, the week that the Civil War was actually put on a course that would lead to the Union victory, and to the triumph of the republic. Joining me for the first two hours today, Victor Davis Hanson, extraordinarily successful and well-known military historian, frequent guest on the program, and a prolific author. In the third hour today, Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College will join me to talk about the political theory of Abraham Lincoln who led the Union through this. But let me begin by asking you, Victor Davis Hanson, first, thank you for spending time with me today. Do you agree with me about the significance of the sesquicentennial of this week?
VDH: Yeah, I do. I think it’s, the Civil War was the moment when it was, whether the United States would survive as it is now was going to be true or false. And then the Civil War had these peak moments where it looked, between 1863 and 1864, the war was basically decided. And it wasn’t at all sure at the time the United States was going to exist as we’d known it, and as we know it now.
HH: You spent your life studying military history. And obviously, you can, and often do write about wars that extend back to hundreds of years before the coming of Christ right up through the wars in which we are engaged today. What’s unique about the Civil War as a historian? What do you find about it that most interests you?
VDH: I think first of all, it was completely contained. In other words, it wasn’t like a European civil war, or it wasn’t like a war for conquest. Britain was interested in the beginning, but more or less, the European powers were out of it. They supplied some arms to the South, but it was completely a North American phenomenon, and within the United States. So Mexico didn’t get involved, Canada didn’t get involved, Europe didn’t get involved, it was an entirely American war. That was one thing. And then the other was for all the controversy over slavery, slavery eventually just made all the other subsidiary issues irrelevant – states’ rights, industrialization, taxation, republic vs. radical democracy. Those all paled as the war went on. And finally, it was simply over an issue that there was no, there could be no compromise. 1864, George McClellan, the candidacy was sort of we can still compromise, we can still say we’ll bring the South back with slavery, or we’ll let the South go with slavery, but that was increasingly a crackpot idea. It had to be one way or the other.
HH: Now Victor Davis Hanson, and by the way, all of VDH’s works are available at Amazon.com, and I’ve linked his page at Hughhewitt.com, and www.victorhanson.com is where you can find everything he’s written. As you wrote about this, I want to begin by talking about Gettysburg and Vicksburg. But as you write about this over your entire career, the figures of Lincoln, everyone knows about. But who are the pivotal figures other than Lincoln, Grant, Lee and Jefferson Davis that people don’t know about that they really ought to know about?
VDH: Well, I think the key to understand the military aspects of the Civil War is that on the one star, two star commander of a small division, or even a couple of divisions, the South had better leadership, and there was nobody quite like Nathan Bedford Forrest or even people like Joe Johnston were pretty good. But if you look at the main luminaries in the North, that is after you got rid of Pope and Burnside and McClellan and Hooker, there were never on either side commanders of the caliber of Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Sheridan and Thomas, George Thomas. Those four right there were enormously important for the North, because it meant that they had people who were not only tactical, but strategic thinkers. They were solid. They didn’t make mistakes. And they had enormous material and manpower advantages. And by that time, the only real counterpart was Robert E. Lee, who proved brilliant on the defense of Richmond, but was not an offensive general of the caliber of Sherman, especially, and Grant as well.
HH: When he lost Stonewall Jackson in the battle of Chancellorsville…
HH: Was that when the South really lost its chance to win an offensive war?
VDH: Yeah, I think so. I think the loss of Jackson, and then earlier of Albert Sidney Johnston at Shiloh were important, but the South had a problem. Every time they went into the North, whether it was Lee going into, up to Gettysburg and through Pennsylvania, or earlier at Shiloh when they thought they might even get all the way to Cincinnati, they didn’t think strategically the way that the North did. The North, when Sherman went into Georgia, he was thinking with Grant, you’re going to go to Richmond, I’m going to go to Atlanta. One of us is going to take a capital before the 1864 election. That’ll ensure Lincoln will be reelected. It didn’t look like he would be. And then we’re going to humiliate the plants of plantation-owning class. When Lee, or Johnston went into the North, it was sort of a well, we’ll find Clausewitzianite, that we’ll find the Northern army and defeat it. And then we don’t know what quite will happen or how we will support ourselves. I guess what I’m saying is if Lee had have been Sherman, he probably would have gone into Pennsylvania, evaded the Northern Army, burned down Philadelphia or Pittsburgh…
VDH: …roamed wild, and then came in behind Washington, D.C., and obtained an enormous psychological victory. But he wasn’t thinking in the way that Sherman was.
HH: Now Victor, before we begin the long march from the 1861-1865 in this hour and next, was it in fact the first modern war? 600,000 people die, who knows who many hundreds of thousands are mutilated beyond any recognition and lost in the war. The republic of suffering is what Drew Faust, the president of Harvard, called it. Is there anything, any precedent for it?
VDH: Not really, you see, because it tapped into the American engine of entrepreneurial capitalism and technological advance in a way that the Napoleonic wars, to cite the most recent example, or even the Crimean wars, had not in Europe. And so where the war started with rifled muskets, within three and a half years, people were using Spencer and Henry repeating rifles. People had canned pork and meat. They had rubber ponchos. They had rifled cannon. They had ironclad ships. They were using the telegraph in a way that was just amazingly sophisticated. They had Dahlgren guns, and so the ability to kill people on a wide scale was geometrically advancing almost every month as the whole engine of American entrepreneurial capitalism, railroads, telegraph, high tech, was all applied to war making, and that just, that accelerated pace of military technology had been completely unseen to the same degree, at least, in Europe.
HH: At the conclusion of this week 150 years ago, did people know the war was done? When Vicksburg surrendered, and Lee retreated across the Potomac, was there a recognition it was done?
VDH: You know, there was a false recognition. There was just hysteria all over the North, and they though that the war was really going to be won. They bring Grant to the east in March of 1864, and they think well, he’s just going to prance down and take Richmond, and the war’s over. Sherman didn’t think it was, because as he said, it’s one thing to defeat the South militarily at key battles like Vicksburg or Gettysburg, but to get it back in, you’ve got to occupy it, humiliate it, and defeat it. And it’s the size of Western Europe with 11 million people. That’s a hard thing to do. So the public was not prepared, it’s sort of like World War II. They thought wow, we landed at Normandy, Patton raced, and somebody said yeah, but you’ve got Japan, and you’ve got to occupy Germany, and that’s not going to be easy. And so what happened is the summer of 1864, from June until September, that was the real bloodbath of the entire war. That’s where the army of the Potomac was basically destroyed at Cold Harbor, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Petersburg, a hundred thousand casualties. And Grant got the reputation of a butcher, and it was only because Sherman sort of flanked, and outflanked, and flanked, and outflanked his way to Atlanta, and was able to take Atlanta on September 2nd, 1864. Had he not done that, I don’t think there’s any way in the world Lincoln would have been reelected.
HH: You know, I spent Wednesday with Jeff Shaara, a very accomplished novelist of the war. His father, of course, wrote the wonderful…
HH: Killer Angels, and Jeff has written books of the western campaign. His portrait of Sherman is disturbing. What do you think of Sherman? I’ve read your book many years ago in which you profile him, but what ought people to know about him?
VDH: Well, I looked at him again in this latest book, The Savior Generals, about his taking of Atlanta. Well, he wasn’t, he was sort of uncouth, he was outspoken, he was brash. He had some psychological problems, but he was an absolute modern thinker in the sense that nobody else in a civil war was correlating civilian morale, technology, GDP, and the ability to make war. They were thinking you find the enemy, sort of like picking a tomato, and then you destroy the plant. And Sherman was saying no, you poison the roots, and the tomatoes fall off. And that’s his idea. He said this whole South is a sham. It’s based on a land-owning 3% of the population owning slave, a cavalier class heavily invested in horsemanship, chivalry, bravery. But 97% of the people are poor whites that don’t own slaves. And they’re going up and being butchered in Virginia. So what I’m going to do is I’m going to go to the heart of the South, and I’m going to make a big swathe across Georgia, and then through the Carolinas, and I’m going to dare people to come out and fight me, and I’m going to burn plantations. I’m not going to burn the houses of the middle and lower classes, but I’m going to humiliate this southern chivalry creed and show you for what it is, an abjectly amoral system of slaveholders, and try to separate that from the majority of southern people.
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HH: My guide through this week and through the Civil War this hour and next, Victor Davis Hanson, military historian extraordinaire, the author of another amazing new book, The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost From Ancient Greece To Iraq. One of them is William Tecumseh Sherman, about whom we were speaking. Victor, let me go to the second paragraph of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, in which he says, “On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago,” his own inauguration, “all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inauguration address is being delivered from this place devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war, seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.” It’s beautiful, even at this remove. Was it accurate? Was it inevitable?
VDH: Yes, I think it was. I mean, there were people on both sides who tried to find compromise and said the war, slavery shouldn’t be able, it shouldn’t be the issue that destroys the United States. And there were other issues that people tried to focus on, and they tried to have compromise. But ultimately, you had the richest people in the history of civilization, the plantation owning class, and they found that source of wealth based on chattel slavery, and they were not going to give it up peacefully. And they found other issues that you would not, that united the southern states that transcended slavery. But ultimately, slavery was at the core, and the question was would the Union be able to get the Midwest and the western states to hang in there and fight, even though culturally, there were a lot of people in Southern Illinois and Ohio, and Copperheads that were ambiguous, didn’t like what was going on in New England, they didn’t like rapid industrialization. They didn’t like the growth of the federal government, but they had to hang in there, and that was the genius of Lincoln as sort of a border state guy. He was a man of the people. He was not an abolitionist of the traditional type. And he was able to, I guess, hold together this Northern coalition in a brilliant fashion. So even though he was a Northerner, his accept, his mannerism, he was a populist sort of, almost Southerner in a weird way being from Kentucky originally.
HH: This choosing up of sides, which Jeff Shaara depicts in his novels and which you recount, is truly without precedent in most of our experiences, where professional warriors have to decide on which side they’re going to serve. Is there anything else like that, that you’ve studied, Victor Davis Hanson?
VDH: Oh, I think so. In the Peloponnesian war, when Athens fought Sparta, there were hundreds of city-states that didn’t really know which side to go on, and there were people within that city-state that joined the Spartans or the Athenians. The same thing during the Napoleonic wars and the hundred days return, and then with Cromwell, the same way. But what was unique about the American Civil War was that you had the South, and then you had the North, and then you had these border states and quasi-border states that were Southern in culture, but they may have been opposed to slavery. So places like Maryland and Delaware and Kentucky, and even the northern parts of the southern Tennessee and Virginia and Kansas and Missouri, you had all of these people that were, well you know, I kind of like southern culture, but I don’t like slavery, but I agree with the abolitionists on one sense, but I don’t like the culture that they represent. And they were really conflicted, and that’s where you got these terrible divisions within families and communities.
HH: My first job out of law school was for a federal Circuit Court judge by the name of Roger Robb, and he had a library, lived in Washington, D.C, grew up in Washington, D.C., and he had a library of 3,000 books on the Civil War. And early on in my relationship as a clerk to a judge, he said you know, the Civil War was the last great war in which the men who waged it actually wrote their own memoirs about it, and in great detail, and that there’s an extraordinary correspondence about it. And that’s why it’s so rich. Is that your experience, that this is simply a chronicle without end?
VDH: Somewhat, but I would beg to differ a little bit with him, because some of the best things that have ever been written war were written in World War II. I think of E. B. Sledge’s With The Old Breed about Okinawa. So there was actually I think more memoirs written about World War I and World War II. What was unique about, I think, the Civil War was there was a variety of people who were really good writers that were in positions to be able to write about things, and I’m thinking especially the brilliant memoirs of Sherman, and the brilliant memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, and then a whole host of other people wrote. So almost every major figure, political or military, as well as some of these diaries of average soldiers, looked at the war in a different way than somebody else did. So it was, it’s very hard to know exactly how to put it all together, we have so much information.
HH: How often do you find yourself just turning to read in the war, the Civil War, Victor Davis Hanson? You know, your library must be extraordinary when it comes to all sorts of military history.
VDH: I read a lot, because it’s so tragic, because I think all of us have elements where we sympathize with the South, the idea of a lost cause, the idea of protecting the home ground, the idea of an agrarian society. And then just as we get into that mode, we know that where it was headed, you couldn’t go there, and that it was based on a really sin of chattel slavery, and there was a plantation class that owned three, five, eight to ten thousand acres, two, three hundred slaves that were amoral, and that polluted that entire cause. And yet there were people who were not a part of that system, either directly or indirectly, that were ending up dying at places like Gettysburg or Vicksburg, and it was tragic. And so Sherman tried to filter all that out. He tried to say you know what? My army is the army of the west. I don’t really know about the army of the Potomac. Those are a bunch of easterners. I don’t have anything in common with that culture. My guys are Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and we’re farmers, and we like to camp out, and we’re going to march all the way through this South, and we don’t like plantation owners, either. We’re going to destroy that myth that they’re better than we are, and that was what was so different about the army of the west and Sherman, that they sort of destroyed the South, but on their own terms that were not quite like the abolitionists’ idea of how to do it.
HH: When we come back from break, we’re going to talk more about the western campaign, the army of the west, and Gettysburg. But I’ve got to say, you just reminded me of something. When I was in Charleston for the first, actually, the only time on a visit, the headline was they were raising the Hunley, the submarine.
HH: And it was last artifact of the lost cause. Now that was in a modern newspaper, not ironic.
HH: It wasn’t self-aware at all. They refer to the war in South Carolina as the lost cause.
VDH: And they even give you an actual date of early April, 1862, when Albert Sydney Johnston was on the offensive at Shiloh, and they had won on the first day, and they were going to win, and he was shot and died, and then there was a loss of command. They lost at Shiloh, and that was the end of it.
HH: But what are they talking about? What is the cause, Victor Davis Hanson?
VDH: Well, the lost cause is that we had the better cause, because we were more patriotic, we were rural, we were industrious, we hadn’t been polluted by modernism and industrial capitalism. We were not a bunch of just motley immigrants. We embodied the founding fathers who were mostly from Virginia. We should have won, because we were better fighters. We fought outnumbered and we won, but they had to rely on, you know, industrial weaponry. We didn’t.
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HH: If you joined me yesterday or Wednesday, you know I’ve been talking these three days around July 4th, July 3rd, 4th and 5th about the sesquicentennial of the week that we are remembering the week of Gettysburg and the surrender of Vicksburg 150 years ago in 1863, and how they drove American history. And joining me this hour and next, Victor Davis Hanson, America’s preeminent military historian, the author of the brand new book, The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost From Ancient Greece To Iraq. We’ve already mentioned, by the way, Victor Davis Hanson, that William Sherman is one of these five generals. Will you quickly tell people the other four so they know the others who are featured in The Savior Generals?
VDH: Oh, yes. The Athenian, Themistocles, that won the battle of Salamis and saved Greece after the burning of Athens. A thousand years later, the Byzantine, Belisarius, that recaptured much of the Western Empire and saved Byzantium for a thousand years, Matthew Ridgway, who the Korean War was lost after the Chinese invaded the Yalu River, and he was called December, 1950, and in just 100 days, he retook Seoul, South Korea, and got us back to the 38th Parallel, William Tecumseh Sherman that took Atlanta on September 2nd, and I think saved the election of 1864, the reelection for Lincoln, and David Petraeus, who through his surge and change of tactics was able to stabilize Iraq and really unite the country and save the reputation of the U.S. military.
HH: Do you think we’ll get a memoir from Petraeus?
VDH: Yes, I think so, especially given his recent problems. I think he’ll want to weigh in.
HH: Will a modern writer be as free as Sherman or any of the ancients would have been to discuss the war?
VDH: Yes, I think so. I think they’ll be looking at a lot of the memoirs that have been coming out since, I mean, there’s been no more graphic…War As I Knew It by George Patton is devastating, and Montgomery’s A Soldier’s General, has been absolutely devastating. So Ike was pretty mean to Ridgway, so I think you’ll see a candid memoir.
HH: All right, now let’s go back to this week, 150 years ago. Can you set up for us what the war is like in 1863 before Vicksburg is laid siege to, and before Lee invades the North?
VDH: Well, I think there’s sort of a bewilderment, because people in the North, they look at the population base, they look at the industrial capacity, they look at the banking, the accumulated wealth, and they see that they have enormous advantages. The problem with the North is that most of the colonel to what we would call today one or two star generals have gone and joined the South from West Point, and the people who are in command of the Northern military, whether it’s Halleck or McClellan, or at the higher level, Pope or Burnside, they’re not at the caliber of Southern generals. And so it’s going to take a while for the North, through the inevitable process of defeat and victory to find people who know how to lead a modern army and capitalize on the enormous advantages of population and technology that the North has. And so from 1862 to 1863, and whether it’s Bull Run or Chancellorsville, or even the first day at Shiloh, the South is just very hard to defeat, and there’s been a rapid demoralization in the North. High hopes have been dashed, there’s been riots, and then suddenly, Lee, after his victory at Chancellorsville, thinks you know what, I’m going to do what they did to me in the Shenandoah Valley, which…and he tries to invade the North, and not to defeat the North, but to obtain, he thinks, a decisive victory over a Northern army that will make them concede and allow us to secede peacefully. And so it was an effort to get a political settlement. And the same thing with Vicksburg, if they could stop the Union army from taking the Mississippi River, then they’re still a viable South. But after July of 1863, with the loss of Lee’s, terrible losses at Gettysburg and the Union victory at Vicksburg, and you know, the maintenance of the entire Mississippi River, then the whole war changes. The momentum goes to the North, and the South is saying wow, now we have a fallback plan as we can’t defeat them, and we can’t even force them militarily to accept our cause. However, they’ve still got to come down and take Richmond physically and grab it, and they’ve got to take Atlanta and grab it. And they’ve got to occupy us, and we’re a big country, and we’ve got millions of people, and we’re going to make war so terrible to them, to paraphrase Sherman’s own phrase, that they would be better to just quit. And that’s where we go to in 1864, and they almost pulled it off.
HH: With McClellan.
HH: And when we come back from break, we’ll talk about why the suffering and the carnage was so great, and we’ll talk about the scale of the battle of Gettysburg, and the scale of the suffering at Vicksburg with Victor Davis Hanson.
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HH: Let’s get us to that point, VDH, in rather rapid fashion. 1861, Lincoln is elected, and is about to assume office, and the South secedes, and they fire on Fort Sumter. How does the war open, sort of the thumbnail sketch for people who might just be arriving from Mars and not understand what happened then?
VDH: Well, almost immediately, there’s this anomaly that both sides didn’t really recognize the importance of it, but the Southerners make their capital at Richmond, in Virginia, and the Northern capital is not in New York or Boston or Philadelphia, but it’s at Washington, which it had always been, but the problem is they’re only 70 miles apart, and they’re basely, loosely speaking, in Northern Virginia. So that corridor is going to see Bull Run, Antietam, a bunch of horrific battles that one side or the other is going to try to knock out the army in between and grab that capital. And the irony is that at one point, with the Jubal Early raid, the Southerners almost get closer to Washington than the Northerners do. They get within five miles, McClellan’s Antietam campaign to Richmond, but that war is going to go, it’s kind of like, visually, like World War I with the trenches. And then other thinkers start to say well you know, if we can’t take Washington, and they can’t take Richmond, the war, we’ve got all these enormous assets in the west, so maybe we can take the Mississippi, or maybe we’ll protect the Mississippi, or we can get into Tennessee and to Georgia, and maybe they can get all the way up to Ohio, or even to Chicago or Cincinnati. So there was two fronts, a western and the eastern, because the eastern was deadlocked. And the eastern was far more important, because whoever won would have the iconic capital of the other side, and could kind of make a knockout blow right away, had, you know, at one point, in the raid of Jubal Early, they almost shot Lincoln. They were shooting at him, and he was out on the ramparts.
HH: In 1861 as well, Lincoln takes a page from Great Britain’s campaign against Napoleon, and declares a blockade. And not a lot of people realize this, but that was an extraordinary undertaking that by and large did succeed, didn’t it, VDH?
VDH: Absolutely. It was a brilliant strategy. It was dreamed up by Winfield Scott, the Anaconda strategy, and it was tripartite, and it was we’re going to, they didn’t have enough navy in the beginning, but they had more than the South did, so we’re going to blockade Southern ports, we’re going to issue a trade embargo on Southern exports and imports, and then we’re going to pretty much try to seal the border so that people are not going to be fluid going back and forth. We’re going to stop rail commerce. We’re going to stop importation of Northern goods. And then we’re going to sort of create these Northern armies, and we’re going to press all along the border, and squeeze them to death, I guess, is the idea of the anaconda snake imagery.
HH: And Scott is overlooked often, but he did have a good strategic genius.
VDH: Yes, he was. It did. In the South, that was the irony, as a lot of historians have pointed out, that Jefferson Davis’ secretary of war, I think, under James Polk, had a lot of military experience then did Lincoln, but Lincoln had people around him that were better strategic thinkers, that nobody in the South said we have to have a lightning raid to destroy the North, Northern capital at Washington, or for example, when Lee went into Pennsylvania, he gave an order that said let’s treat civilian property very well. Let’s not do this. Let’s not do that. Sherman didn’t have any of those reservations. If Lee had have said you know what, we’re going to destroy the ability of Pennsylvania to feed the army of the Potomac, we’re never going to meet the army of the Potomac, because they outnumber us by 20,000. But we’re going to destroy all of their sustenance, and then we’re going to come down to Washington and terrify the Northern population and make the Congress flee. And then we’re going to talk about peace. It would have been, I think, quite successful.
HH: You know, it was an abundant country when it began. Did anyone foresee the level of privation? I just finished reading the account of the Vicksburg siege and the people living in caves and eating mules and rats. Did…in such an extraordinarily fertile country, did anyone foresee what would happen?
VDH: No, I don’t think anybody did. I think nobody in their right mind believed that a large percentage of the productive capacity of the North would be diverted away from shovels and ploughs and harnesses into military equipment, and that the agrarian potential of the South, and the income, people forget that the South provided a great deal of the fiscal income of the entire United States with its lucrative cotton market, would be absolutely destroyed. And basically for four years, North and South lived on the fumes of their prewar production and civilian commodities. And it wasn’t sustainable, and when the war was over, the South was not just defeated, but psychologically humiliated and impoverished, and the North was, had to completely gear up. And it had its own traumas. But sort of what saved us after the Civil War was this western expansion and then the idea that we’re all going to make money now, and the industrial revolution really got into full swing.
HH: By saving us, you mean that given all the wealth that was exhausted, as Lincoln said, if it takes a year for every year that the bondsman toil has built up wealth, we will pay that price. But that was an exhausting price. Nevertheless, then we had…
VDH: It was.
VDH: We had California, and we had a lot of the displaced, impoverished Southern population that was wiped, the means of sustenance were wiped out, and they just flocked to places like Texas and Oklahoma and Arkansas, and even out west. We had a transcontinental railroad that had been finished during the war, but…I mean, right after the war. It started during the war, and soon to be finished, and the telegraph. And there was sort of a stored up energy that was so sick of war. They wanted to make money, they wanted to profit, they wanted to get their hands on the west. And so it was ironic. It was sort of like after World War II, we were exhausted, but boy, the Baby Boomers were born, and we came back. People wanted to get married and have families, get into new technologies, and that happens a lot in war. It happened after World War I with the Roaring 20s. So the late 1860s, 1870s, 1880s, 1890s were sort of a consequence of the depravation and poverty and suffering and sacrifice of the Civil War.
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HH: VDH, I’ve got to say, there’s a name that keeps coming up in the three days that I’ve been talking about this week, and it’s McClellan, and he’s the man who is never there, and he’s never also not there. He hangs over everything. And all of 1862 is really McClellan’s year. Let’s just take these three minutes. I would love to hear your opinion of the man and of his not unwise campaign of 1862 on the Peninsula, but also his character.
VDH: Well, he had been very successful, unlike Grant and Sherman had been utter failures before the war, and he’d looked well. He was dapper, he was called a little Napoleon, he was a genius at training and organizing troops. And he did the Union a great service, but…and he almost took Richmond. I mean, even though Antietam was the most deadly day in American military history, and even though he had been defeated at the seven days and the Northern Virginia campaign of Lee and Second Bull Run, in the Battle of Antietam, he almost did take Richmond. And he later, even though it was so costly, he later criticized Grant, and said you know what? I didn’t lose as many people as you did in your campaign in 1864, and I got closer to Richmond than you did. But he failed, and they failed again at Fredericksburg. And by the end of 1862, that was in December, there was nobody, not McClellan, not Burnside, not Hooker, that could defeat, Robert E. Lee, and the brilliance of Longstreet and Stonewall Jackson. In the west, Albert Sydney Johnston had created an enormous army, and had gone all the way up the Tennessee River, and he wasn’t that far from Cincinnati. And on the first day of the Battle of Shiloh in early April of 1862, they almost destroyed the entire Union army. Sherman was overrun for a while, Grant was sort of upset. They had a miscommunication about reinforcements. General Buell was on the wrong side of the river. Had they been able to sustain that in the second day of Shiloh, they would have had an open road up to Ohio. But essentially, at the end of 1862, the Union’s dilemma was they did not have, they had a leadership problem, and they did not have anybody of the caliber, as I said, of Lee and Longstreet and Joe Johnston, Stonewall Jackson. They hadn’t really appreciated what Grant had done at Fort Donaldson, Fort Henry, at Shiloh, who Sherman was. He’d had a mental breakdown, so to speak, earlier, and they didn’t really know who George Thomas or Philip Sheridan were. So it was going to take another year for the right people to be in the right place at the right time.
HH: When we come back in the hour ahead, we’re going to talk about the specifics of that collision of vision and talent. By the way, have you ever heard of General Knefler?
HH: That’s my wife’s great-grandfather.
VDH: Oh, boy.
HH: He almost lost Shiloh.
HH: And we’ll have to talk about that another time.
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HH: Victor Davis Hanson, before we go to Vicksburg, we do have to talk a little bit about the Battle of Shiloh.
HH: Because the western campaign is all about the Mississippi. And actually, I really have never paid much attention to that campaign. I mentioned to you earlier that my wife’s great-grandfather had a role at the Battle of Shiloh, General Knefler. And it went very bad for the Union because of miscommunication. But tell people about the western theater, and what Grant was doing at Vicksburg, because everyone’s talking Gettysburg this week as they should, but not many people are talking about 150 years ago on the banks of the Mississippi.
VDH: Well, Grant had been this obscure little colonel, and he’d raised a regiment, and at Fort Henry in Donaldson, on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, he had really seized control of the whole western border/theater of operations. And then when this, although he was surprised at Shiloh in this enormous army of 65,000, it’s amazing what the South did. They had four of five different armies they combined into one. He nevertheless, on the second day, defeated it. And after the Battle of Vicksburg, he had freed the Mississippi. So Grant took mythic proportions, because where in the east, as I said, they were going through Hooker and Rosecrans, and Burnside and all these mediocrities, suddenly they heard about this guy named Grant. And he had won four straight battles – Henry, Donaldson, Shiloh and Vicksburg. He’d never been defeated. And they wanted to get him east as fast as possible. And he had this brilliant subordinate at Vicksburg and Shiloh named Sherman that he trusted completely, and so the whole administration, the whole nation looked to the west, and they said wow, we have won the war in the west. Anything west of the Mississippi is irrelevant, because we’ve got the Mississippi. We’ve cut one-third of the South off. We’ve got the right guys in position. Let’s let Sherman continue and squeeze Georgia, and go perhaps even to the Carolinas at some point, and let’s let Grant do what he did out west east. The problem was that as the South constricted, it had interior lines of communication. It became harder, not easier to defeat, because it had less territory to occupy. And every time the North would take Southern territory, they had to slough off troops, they had to worry about their supply lines, they had to worry about guerilla people like Nathan Bedford Forrest, who’s an authentic military genius. And so the American public who had been so euphoric after Vicksburg and Gettysburg didn’t quite, they weren’t prepared psychologically for what it really meant to go into Virginia, and how many Southerners and how many Northerners had to die to take that capital, and how difficult it was going to be to humiliate and defeat a culture like the South.
HH: A lot of people in your business, the military historian profession, look at Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg and say it’s a work of strategic genius. You just mentioned Nathan Bedford Forrest as a genius. But what is it about what Grant did at Vicksburg that has the professionals like you admiring the novelty of what he did?
VDH: Well, the problem, Vicksburg was a fortress on the Mississippi River, and the genius was that to take that fortress, you had to assault it by land. You had to cut it off from its supplies, and you had to gain control of the River, because it had the high ground and the arsenal. And so what basically Grant was doing, he was like a maestro, so to speak, and he was conducting a symphony. He was the senior commander that had people attacking the fortress, attacking the territory around Shiloh, and securing the river. And he was overall, in some ways, he was a Marine, Naval and Army commander all in one.
HH: And running the ironsides down the river to get supplies down the river, was that as hard as it is made to sound now, because I have the image of these ironsides as being indestructible, even if you’re going underneath the cannons of Vicksburg.
VDH: Yeah, I think it was important, and what was really important about Grant was up to that time, when people had tried to assault or had failed, or had been under really heavy bombardment, most Union commanders backed off. This was what was unusual. Here was a Union commander, and he was not succeeding in the beginning in May and stuff, of actually taking Vicksburg through assault, and he was getting shelled, and yet he didn’t quit. And he kept taking this ring, and he kept around Vicksburg, and he kept compressing it and compressing it. And so this image that 50,000 Union soldiers were not going to give up, and they had a commander that really didn’t care about what people wrote about him or what they said about him, and they called him a butcher, or he had been defeated, it really created the myth of Grant that we saw later in 1864 when they ran up to Grant and said Lee’s doing this, Lee’s doing that, and he said I don’t care what Lee’s doing. Worry what we’re going to do to Lee. So this image of Grant’s temperament, or his coolness under fire, was established for the nation, at least, at Vicksburg.
HH: When I got done reading about Vicksburg, one of my notes had noted that there is a general down there, McClernand, who was working for Grant…
HH: And he got cross purposes with Grant.
VDH: He did.
HH: And Grant just fired him. Part of the untold story of Vicksburg is that Grant took control of his army and took it away from the politicians surrounding him.
VDH: He did, and he did it in a very clever way. He didn’t, he had not liked McClernand, and he’d waited and waited. McClernand was bragging to his troops, as I remember, and he waited until mid-June, and then he finally just said you know what, I’m through with this guy, and he meant it. And then I think he gave his corps over to Ord, and that was the end of McClernand. But that was important, because there had been a problem with Northern generals, that a lot of them were political, a lot of them were functionaries, a lot of them were mediocrities, and they were not, they were allowed to remain in command too long. And Grant was really good about that. And that was sort of, he set a style and a precedent, and said if you don’t perform, you’re out of here. And this was at a time when Lincoln himself had went through six or seven supreme commanders.
HH: You know, it’s interesting, Victor Davis Hanson. You’ve covered the wars in which we are still engaged so closely. And the media’s had a very, I think, malevolent impact on the way the war has been operated. But it was the same problem. Sherman hated the media, and the media traveled with the army, and Grant kind of made his peace with them in a way that prefigured the way American generals have to figure it out.
VDH: Yeah, Grant was very much more effective, partly because when he was transferred to Washington, he was physically more familiar. Sherman threatened to hang correspondents, especially from the New York Herald. So…and he didn’t like the Cincinnati and Cleveland reporters, and Chicago reporters. But they were fascinated by Sherman, because unlike Grant, he was not sober and judicious in what he said. When he went into Georgia, he said I’m going to make Georgia howl. I’m going to make war and ruin synonymous. Atlanta is ours, and fairly won. I take Savannah as a Christmas present. So he was an amenably quotable in a way that Grant was not sort of, wasn’t as flamboyant. And Sherman did this intentionally to sort of create a persona. And the irony of all this was that they actually liked each other, and Sherman was very loyal, because when Grant was considered a butcher in 1864, Sherman took Atlanta with just a fraction of the losses, and everybody was saying this is the Sherman way of war. We’ve got to, this is the better commander. He’s the guy we should have in the east, and Sherman really said no, no, no. These are complementary. They’re not antithetical strategy. I could only do this because Grant was wearing down Lee, and he was grinding him, and he was forcing the South in Virginia to bleed. And that allowed me to outflank and take Atlanta. And then when we went around again, the flank through Georgia and up the Carolinas, he always said that it was part of a grand Grant strategy, even though he may not have privately believed that.
HH: More on Sherman in Victor Davis Hanson’s most recent book. I wonder, Victor, if it’s true. When I went to the First Columbia Baptist Church many years ago…
HH: They told me that Sherman had sent someone to burn it down, because it was there that the Articles of Secession were signed.
HH: And that that person was misdirected to the church across the way. Is that true?
VDH: It’s still a lively debate, because there were people who let the liquor stores open before Sherman arrived. There were hay bales. And I think the more accurate is that somebody let them, arsonist or some type of thieves or renegades, allowed the, started fires. And then when Sherman got there, he wasn’t as quick to put them out as he might have been. But there’s no, I don’t think that you could argue that Sherman systematically burned down the city. But it’s very clear that when the army of the west left Savannah, Georgia, and they went into South Carolina, they understood that boy, this is the area that started the whole thing, both of the Carolinas. And people like Wade Hampton, these big plantation owners, Carolinian cavaliers, they were absolutely hated by the yeoman farmers of the west. And there was a lot of retribution that went on.
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HH: 150 years ago, Robert E. Lee led the army of Virginia across the Potomac into Southern Pennsylvania and towards a little town that no one had ever heard of, really, Gettysburg. How many people did he have with him in terms of soldiering, Victor Davis Hanson?
VDH: Well, the South probably had a little bit over 70,000, 71-72,000. And the North probably had about 20,000 more, probably somewhere around 94-95,000.
HH: And the collision occurs in Gettysburg. Was it planned, in your sense, in any way? Is that what Lee wanted?
VDH: Well, I don’t know if he wanted to fight at Gettysburg, but at some point, as a Clausewitzian, he felt that the way to end the war was to defeat and find, fix, focus on and defeat the Northern center of power. And then once you defeat the army, then the civilian population will come to terms. It’s exactly antithetical to the Sherman view that you avoid the army, and you humiliate or terrorize, or whatever word you want to use, depending on your views of Sherman, and you destroy the morale. And then without the morale, there’s not the physical, mental, psychological support for the army, and it dissolves, very different views.
HH: I’m curious. Do you think there’s a moral difference between, when you’re locked in a war that’s killing hundreds of thousands of people directly, and starving many, many more indirectly, is there a moral difference between a Lee who wants to engage, as you said, as Clausewitz would say, with the army, and Sherman, who wants to bring the war to a more quick conclusion?
VDH: Well, I think there is, but it’s most historians, and most readers of the Civil War, think that Lee is the greater humanist, because he deliberately avoided property and civilian farms and things like that when he went into Pennsylvania. He thought that wars should be properly between soldiers. They knew what they were getting into. And then one side would fight the other in decisive battle. And Sherman thought that that was amoral, that most of the people in Lee’s army did not own slaves. They were not invested in chattel slavery, and that he was going to end the war by focusing on the plantations, freeing the slaves of the slave-owning class. He was going to humiliate the South. And it sort of reminds me of what Machiavelli once said, that if you destroy a man’s inheritance, he’ll hate you a lot more than if you kill his father. And the reason the South to this day hates Sherman is he did certain things that they felt were worse than killing their young people in a fair fight, as Grant had done.
HH: I’m talking with Victor Davis Hanson, who knows of which he speaks, because his new book, The Savior Generals, is very much focused on William Tecumseh Sherman, who’s in the South when Gettysburg unfolds. So Lee comes up with this army of 70,000 in Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, and he fails to take the high ground, Victor Davis Hanson. This is still much debated among writers and military historians. Why do you think he halted?
VDH: It’s not sure. I think that the traditional explanation is that J.E.B. Stuart, his so-called eyes, his cavalry, had gone on a wild goose chase, and he didn’t really have good intelligence. But it became very important, because if you’re outnumbered by 20,000, you’re looking for the geography to be a force multiplier of your outnumbered army, and he didn’t get the high ground, which meant that for the next two days, if he was going to, he was going to have to do certain things that didn’t make military sense. A) he was going to go on the offensive, because after all, he was in enemy territory, and B) he was going to go on the offensive with a smaller army, and C) he was going to go on the offensive uphill. And that’s a bad idea to do that.
HH: Now on the very first day, the army of the Potomac gets there. It’s under the command of a new general, George Meade. Is he under-ranked, overrated, in the wrong job? What do you think of Meade?
VDH: I think Meade is one of those generals that if you put him in the right place at the right time, and you tell him to do one thing, he’s pretty good. So in Meade’s case, it was get the high ground, marshal and deploy the troops to defend it, don’t go on a wild offensive, and get your artillery placed and the right people there, and then hold the line. And he was absolutely, he didn’t panic, he didn’t withdraw, he was very good. But if you’d said to Meade, now it’s time to make sure that Lee doesn’t get back to the South, and go on a wide-flanking maneuver and cut him off and destroy that army completely and end the war, that was too much to ask of George Meade.
HH: We know a lot about the Confederate generals because of things like Killer Angels, and because of the myth of the South. But beneath Meade, there are a lot of people like Hancock and Joshua Chamberlain. Who are the unsung heroes of Gettysburg on the Union side, and if not unsung, at least unknown these days?
VDH: Well, I think twenty years ago, people didn’t know who Joshua Chamberlain was. But today, I think that not just because it was heroism at Gettysburg, but the wounds that he suffered his later career, he really became sort of an iconic figure in the North. So he’s certainly, he’s certainly, I think, the most interesting, and really the savior of Gettysburg at Little Round Top.
HH: Let’s talk about the second day. The first day is the maneuvering for position. Talk about Little Round Top and what happens there.
VDH: Well, the second day, it was pretty clear that the battle, I guess you would say it became static. There was not going to be a lot of fluid movement. The Union, it was sort of a semicircle, maybe even a fishhook, and it was, there was going to be a series of confrontations. And we know them, they’re iconic, the Peach Orchard, the Devil’s Den, Little Round Top. And there was going to be some full-scale assaults at places like Cemetery Hill. And the Union was actually going to lose probably more people on the second day than the South did. But the point I’m getting at, at the end of the second day, the South had not taken the high ground. And they had to make a strategic decision, and that is either give up and go back home, or see if you can find a weak spot, pulverize it with cavalry, and just rake through it. And they still had about 13-14,000 troops that were fresh, and that were capable of doing that charge, in theory, at least. And so that’s what set it up for the third day. And remember that even though the Union Army had 20,000 soldiers, they lost a greater percentage. They had more, but they lost the same amount, I should say. The South lost a greater percentage. 24,000 casualties, they had 3,000 killed. They actually had more wounded than the South did.
HH: Yeah, that’s just, it’s so, the carnage is so unbelievable. I know you’re seen many, many battles. You lead people on tours, of which one day, I’m going to get a Christmas present, and I get to go with you when you do one of these battlefield things. But I’ve been to a few, and I don’t think any of them stand out in my memory more than Devil’s Den. What else compares to the hideous geography for a war like that?
VDH: Well, I think the one that I find similar is, because it has a same number of different engagements, the farmhouse is something like either Shiloh, but especially Waterloo. When you look at the Battle of Waterloo, it’s the same two day back and forth, and the battlefield breaks down into separate battles between particular contingents. There’s Marshal Ney’s failed charge. And the old guard’s final charge is a lot like the old guard, is sort of the high water mark of the Napoleonic era. And when it failed, it’s sort of like Pickett’s Charge up Cemetery Ridge.
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HH: Victor Davis Hanson, when we went to break, we were talking about the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. And they didn’t, the Confederacy didn’t get the high ground on day one, they did not break Joshua Chamberlain in Little Round Top on day two, and Lee orders Longstreet and General George Pickett to attack on day three. Looking back, obviously, Monday morning quarterbacking with many thousands of lives at stake, was it insane for Lee to do that? Or was there military merit to his plan?
VDH: Oh, I think by One o’clock or Noon on the third day, it wouldn’t have been wise, because he’d tried even before that day. And the problem was that the North had good artillery, they had the high ground, they had good shots, and their army was still intact, and he had not been able on day two to dislodge it. and I think he was sort of lured in the idea that he had the largest artillery component that he’d ever had. I think it was larger, 160 guns, I think it was, and he didn’t, but he wasn’t a logistician. He didn’t know that he couldn’t keep that rate of fire up, so they started firing and firing for a couple of hours, and he thought you know, we’ve blown a hole in the Northern line, and now we’re just going to send this narrow column, this massive column of 12-13,000 people right through it. And he didn’t sit and think, wow, we haven’t been able to do this for two days, and how do I know that the North didn’t withdraw a little bit, and that this artillery fire was ineffective. And why don’t I have a creeping, continue a creeping fire, and maybe another hour? And the result of that it is even though the North had fewer artillery there, they had more ammunition, and they were able to engage the Southern charge in a way that the South could not give support. Their artillery was exhausted by the time they sent Pickett’s Charge up the hill.
HH: The high water mark of the Confederacy is what it’s called. But I’m confused. Napoleon attacked in columns that would be decimated.
HH: Why did Lee attack in a long, long line?
VDH: Well, Napoleon was unique. Remember, the British didn’t use the column. The column was a Napoleonic idea of revolutionary fervor. And his idea was that men when they’re crammed together, and this wasn’t yet the age of the repeating rifle, it was the musket, and not the rifle musket under Napoleonic war, that they can create shock, terror. The solidarity of the ranks as a revolutionary army, everybody’s alike, it’s sort of the reenactment of the legion, or better yet, the phalanx or the Spanish tercio. And they’re going to punch a hole, and that’s going to be a force multiplier, even though they really might not have at Austerlitz, they’re just going to break through the line, and people are going to say my God, the column has broken through. And so there were certain advantages, but the disadvantages, obviously, is not everybody can fight, shoot out of a column, because the ranks, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, and they’re inside the column, and they can’t use their weapons. So it’s a Southern idea, and an American idea in general. And it was to adopt the British system of spacing people out so that when you start to charge, everybody is able to fire their weapons without worrying about hitting somebody else.
HH: Down in Vicksburg, at the same time, or a week earlier, Grant had launched these massive attacks. Are they the same sort of attack against the same sort of defense with the same result?
VDH: It was a little different in that Grant was attacking an army that was not as well supplied, it was not as good, and was not as numerous. But when Lee sent Pickett up that hill, that army had not really been impaired by the first or second day where he was aiming at. And it had not been impaired by the artillery bombardment. So he was basically sending people uphill in July at 2:00, 3:00 in the afternoon against an army that had superior artillery at that point and was waiting for them.
HH: Wow, hard to believe. Very quickly before we come back and I talk to you about the last couple of subjects, Victor Davis Hanson, why isn’t Wellington in The Savior Generals?
VDH: Well, that’s a good question, but one of the criteria I used, criteria that I used, were that I wanted generals that had no advantages whatsoever.
VDH: So when Wellington met Napoleon at Waterloo, you could make the argument that with General Blucher and the assets of the Prussian-English alliance, he had greater number of troops. He probably had better logistics, and he had a lot more material advantages and the public support for him. I was looking for generals that there was almost nothing on their side as far as superior technology, manpower, public support, and the war was considered lost. When Wellington stopped Napoleon, most people will tell you he was going to win.
HH: Ask Victor Davis Hanson, you get an answer.
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HH: A couple of questions connected with both Vicksburg and Gettysburg, Victor Davis Hanson. First of all, the rebel yell, where did it come from? And was it truly unique? And did it have that, is that just mythology? Or was it the reality of its disconcerting impact on the Union?
VDH: Well, I think it was very effective in the first two years, because it enhanced this reputation that these Southern people did not have as nice uniforms, they didn’t have as much food, they didn’t even have as good arms, and they still won, and they won because they were, they had superior morale, they had better leadership, and they were just better soldiers. That was something about Southern culture created tougher people. That was the myth. And the yell was integral, and was thought, was sort of this rural sort of, it goes back to the Roman legions would yell, and the Greeks had a rebel yell called la-la-la-la-la, or ah-ah-ah-ah-ah, and it’s quite common in war. And there was the idea these are rural people, they have this sort of rural elan, and we’re just sort of off the boat from Ireland or Germany, and we don’t really know who these guys are, but they’re fanatic. And Sherman was really the first general to destroy that myth, and he basically said we’re going to go down to the heart of the Confederacy, and you guys from Illinois and Indiana are much tougher, because you’re yeoman farmers. You have to raise your own food. You’re tan, you live outside. And wait until they see that you’re not only better equipped, you have Spencer and Henry rifles, but you’re better led, you’re more disciplined, and you’re tougher people. So he was trying to hit that myth head on, the rebel yell, the rural superior Confederate soldier, and he was pretty successful in doing that.
HH: And you just anticipated my question by saying Spencer and Henry rifles. When did the technological advantage of the North really come to bear?
VDH: I think by early to mid-1864, you could argue that Union artillery was superior, mortars were much more common, and they started to issue, especially in Sherman’s army, cartridges and Spencer and Henry rifles. So the old rifled musket that a really good guy might shoot three shots per minute, suddenly he was confronted with ten, twelve shots, even more, depending on how skilled these new Spencer and Henry ripe carbines were. And more importantly, it’s kind of forgotten, but this is the period where the great industries in the Chicago area, steel, meat processing, rubber, were starting to create things that nobody had really heard about. So the North, when it rained, they had rubber ponchos. They had more canned meat. They had more telegraph. They had more rail lines than the South, and so they had better uniforms. They had more clothing. They had better medical care. They had more drugs. It was part of the new pharmaceutical industries.
HH: Let’s pause there for a second, because one of my things is to discuss the surgeries that were ongoing at both of these battlefields, both Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the number of limbs amputated. And we know from the last ten years how medicine advances on the terrible tragedy of war. But was that happening at Gettysburg in the surrounding years?
VDH: Well, they were, Civil War doctors understood they didn’t understand the science, yet, of bacteriology and infection. That was going to come with Lister and Pasteur and all those people. But they were right at that cusp, that edge. But they basically understood that if you got shot in a limb, that meant an artery or vein was going to be destroyed, you’re going to get infection, gangrene, and the only way to stop it was to take the limb off above the wound. And they were pretty good at that. They really had refined the art of amputation, tying off an artery, and then sealing, sewing up that wound. And they had about a 50-60% savior rate if they could get the person before he bled to death. But as far as what most people died of in the Civil War was not necessarily the wound itself, but it was things like influenza, pneumonia.
HH: Dysentery, right?
VDH: Dysentery, because we take things for granted, but if you and I were to go camp and walk out through Tennessee in February, where would be get water? We’d drink out of creeks, we’d have to eat game, and if we shot a deer, we’d have to hang it up for a couple of days. It would get infected. We’ve had to sleep out in the cold, and that really took a toll from a lot of people who weren’t used to that type of living. A lot of people, even in the Civil War, lived in cities.
HH: And key question, Victor Davis Hanson, if Meade had followed Lee back, could he have ended the war in 1863? After Lee breaks and he begins to retreat, Longstreet has theories of defense which nobody else has. But could they have stopped?
VDH: I don’t know if he could have, they could have ended the war, but they could have made the war, I think, end sometime in 1864, because had they cut off Lee, and they had, I mean, he still was able to retreat with 50,000 men, and more importantly, that became the corps for the resistance of 1864. Had they been able to take half that, or even more than that, I think that the South would have been exhausted, because what happens with Lee’s army is he gets back into Virginia, and then he rested. And then it’s reconstituted, and he gets a few more recruits. And pretty soon, it’s back up to 60 and 70,000 people, and they’re fighting on their home ground.
HH: Why did Meade not pursue? Why did he stop?
VDH: I think it’s the same reason that Halleck did not pursue, he came after Shiloh. And what happens, and it happens to a lot of generals throughout history, Wellington and Napoleon, of course, and Alexander the Great are exceptions, and so is Caesar. But there’s this idea that we’ve won the battle, and it’s been a tough battle, and let’s not throw it away by getting ambushed as we’re recklessly pursuing. So let’s consolidate our wins. And Lincoln was very upset, because he really understood that the time to destroy an enemy is after he loses a tactical battle. Then he’s, his back is turning, he’s disorganized. That’s when you really kill people. It’s sort of like the Battle of Lepanto, when the Christian League said you know what, once you sink these ships, you’ve got to kill all of these people, because they’re trained archers, and they’re going to get right back on Turkish galleys and do this again next year. And so it’s very hard for a commander to say at the pinnacle of his success this is not the omega, this is only the alpha, I’ve got to really now start and annihilate the enemy, not defeat him, but annihilate his ability, and stop his ability to make war.
HH: And that is one of the points of the western way of war which Victor Davis Hanson knows so well.
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HH: I hope you have enjoyed as much as I have talking about the Civil War this sesquicentennial celebration week of the Battles of Gettysburg and the surrender of Vicksburg with my guest, Victor Davis Hanson, of Hoover Institute, Stanford University, the author of many extraordinary books, the most recent of which, The Savior Generals, in bookstores now, How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost. I said going to break Sherman couldn’t have been Sherman, or Grant, Grant without Lincoln. All these great commanders that you write about, Victor Davis Hanson, they had to have political leadership behind them to allow them to wage war.
VDH: Yes, they did, and I think the best political leadership in wartime is when a commander does not micromanage, but he’s attentive. In other words, he says these are the strategic goals that are necessary for us to win, these are the political parameters. This is what you can do and what you can’t do. But the actual details to achieve that objective are up to you guys. So Lincoln said I’m, I can’t lose too many more people before this election in 1864. If I lose the election, we’re going to have slavery in the South forever. So here’s what you guys have got to do. One of you has got to take either Atlanta or Richmond. And you’ve got to do it without destroying Northern forces. Grant didn’t quite do that. In fact, he almost destroyed the army of the Potomac. But Sherman did, and that was enough to take the election. But Lincoln never said I want you to take this city, or I want you stop here for a week. He just, he gave the general impression. I think Bush did not do it that well in 2005 and ’06, but by 2007, he’d basically said to Petraeus I need a stop to American loss of life. No more than 120 soldiers per month. I need Baghdad secure. I need it quiet. I need a chance for a political settlement. I don’t care quite how you do it, but I’ve got to have that. And I can give you 30,000 troops, but I can’t politically give you a 100,000. And I think that was a good way of leading.
HH: Did Lincoln come close to pulling the cord on Sherman when the devastation…did he ever blink?
VDH: No, not at all. He, actually, he didn’t want, Grant didn’t want Sherman to leave Atlanta. He thought that Sherman had kind of got himself into a box. He was behind enemy lines, there were Confederates between Tennessee and Atlanta. Sherman had 130,000 men. He was sort of like, if you’d taken Moscow, but there was a Soviet army between you and the front, and people didn’t know what he was going to do, and he said, I’m not going to sit here and be attacked by renegades. I’m going to go out toward Savannah and keep moving. And so I’m not going to worry about rail or telegraph. I’m just going to live off the land. I’ve got westerners. I’m going to make Georgia howl. It’s right after harvest, it’s going to be full of produce. And Lincoln, and they thought wow, he’s going to throw away this great victory. And Grant said I don’t think you should do this. And he said, you know, Thomas is a great general. He can handle Hood. If I go out to Savannah, Hood, he won’t follow me, and he’ll deal with Thomas. And Lincoln said I don’t know what hole he went into, but he’ll have to come out of some hole, and that’s what he did.
HH: Wow. People need to read the whole story. It’s in The Savior Generals. Victor Davis Hanson, congratulations on another great book, and thanks for spending a couple of hours talking about Vicksburg and Gettysburg with me today. I appreciate it very much.
End of interview.