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Bill Thayer

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Talk 7

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Soldiers Unmasked
William Addleman Ganoe

published by
The Military Service Publishing Company
Harrisburg, Pa. 1939

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Talk 9

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p72  VIII

More scramble

Over my bed in college hung a drawing made by a member of the Class of 1837. (Not a classmate of mine.) It showed a college youth of the time, quite wabbly from too great association with John Barleycorn. He was pointing his brace of pistols at a monkey perched on the foot of his bed. Underneath the picture were the words: "If you're a monkey, you're in a devilish fix. If you're not a monkey, I'm in a devilish fix." Just whether or not it was a real monkey I never knew, but there was no mistaking the fix. The more closely we study the Civil War, the more we find that we were in a terrible fix. And the more we get away from it, the more we hate to look the fix in the face, especially because the fix was our own fault. Today the World War is so close to us that it screens the errors and calamities of our Civil War. We forget too often that in the early sixties we endured the most awful catastrophe this country has ever seen — a thing far more bloody man for man than what we went through in the World War. But maybe it's a healthy thing to look at our Civil War fix now, as the doctor studies past epidemics  p73 in order to prevent future horrors to mankind. A picture of the year before that war is full of so many fixes — so many pieces of indulgence in artificial stimulation and neglect that they'd fill a book. But here are two. In 1860 just before we were rushed into the struggle, a bill was introduced into Congress to abolish the Navy, on the ground that we'd never have any more war. Fortunately it failed of passage. But the only legislation for the army that year was the appointment of a committee to look into West Point and an authorization to increase the sugar and coffee ration of the soldier. And all this, while the tension between the North and South was about to snap. A school and a drink, while blood and flame were in sight. And there was no fire department to quench the raging blaze. A hose in Oregon, a nozzle in Florida, horses in Arizona and an engine nowhere! And sudden Sumter's guns cracked out and set the nation on fire. We began to seethe and mill around. The President was caught in the furor and had to exercise his war powers. Later when Congress met, it made the entire set‑up for the war in less than four weeks. Less than four weeks! Why you couldn't do that with a new factory, much less a police department. And here we were with a massive business undertaking that meant life and death to the whole country. Of course, the  p74 legislation teemed with mistakes, which we paid for extravagantly and are still paying for. The men called out weren't soldiers any more than they could be lawyers, managers and operators without practice and education.

The thirty thousand collected for Bull Run were, in the mind of the North, going to march right through to New Orleans. And people came out from nearby towns to watch, from a very safe distance, the battle — congressmen in carriages, women in barouches, sutlers in wagons and reporters in tree-tops. They would behold this battle that was going to bag these rebels and drive them into the Gulf of Mexico. The spectators having comfortable and uncomfortable seats, the engagement after some delay started. Tyler was slow in getting into position and Hunter's brigade rested for refreshments by the waters of Bull Run a bit too long. After a time the Southern masked batteries began to have their telling effect. Lines were formed slowly and badly under fire. Many did not know the use of their muskets. Those in the rear were almost as deadly to friend as foe. Too many officers were killed or wounded in trying to get their men forward. The green troops finally mistook a regiment of Confederates for their own and received a murderous fire. Then the rout began. One regiment fled and then  p75 another. The untrained men stampeded across the field toward Washington. The eager observers scaled down the trees faster than they had climbed them. Barouches, carriages and wagons wheeled about and clattered away with much dust, the most and crowding. A vehicle overturned and blocked the main road, adding to the panic. The retreating recruits in their excitement fired mostly in the air, fortunately for those about them. Some officers sought to rally their men, here and there, but in vain. The majority rushed across fields, over lanes and pushed through jammed roads in their hurry to get away. And thus the first northern force evaporated.

Haste, haste everywhere. Haste in forming a force — haste in legislation — haste in getting away. Men who would otherwise have been staunch and vigorous — men who were naturally brave — were hurried into a life-and‑death-position they had no chance to fill. The size of the two forces had been about equal, but the South had had the advantage of six months' training, whereas the North had used mostly eight‑day wonders. And this decided jump of the Confederacy on us — their planning — their foresight — their business arrangements had meant the turn of the tide against the Union.

And it was so all through 1861. We had five other  p76 battles in that year, all of which we lost in the exact way for the same cause, except one. Drainesville — have you ever heard of it? That was all we had to show for the whole year's effort — a tiny battle having no influence on cutting the war shorter. And in that time we had killed and wounded three thousand three hundred seventy‑one men and spent four hundred nineteen million dollars — all to no purpose — sheer waste. In fact worse than waste, because the setbacks had paralyzed our efforts. Then came the mismanagement of the second and part of the third year of the war. While the Union was organizing as a loose Confederacy, the Confederacy was organizing as a close Union. The southern government keenly abandoned states' rights for their army shortly after they had begun to fight for states' rights as a national policy. The northern government inanely took up states' rights for their army immediately after they had begun to fight against states' rights as a national possibility. Both were inconsistent, but the South was inconsistent wisely. It did away with voluntary enlistments and the power of independent states to appoint officers and to offer whole units — and vested the control in its President. It made a unified army. It then enacted the first proper draft law in any English-speaking country — a thing which was afterwards  p77 the greatest single stroke of efficiency for America in the World War. On the other hand, the Union persisted in lopsided volunteering and gave away to the governors absolute authority to create organizations and appoint the officers over them. And Mr. Lincoln had to receive these irregular lots and do the best he could with them. He was powerless at the head of this great organization to have control over the selection of his employees. And the way they were selected didn't help much either. Political favorites, farmers, clerks, ward bosses and men about town, were given command of regiments and battalions, when they knew nothing about the technique, tactics or art of their undertaking — nothing about the real business of their jobs. Professional qualifications had little to do with their selection. Influence, popularity, deference, obligation and even pity put them in their positions. Why, one officer was elected a captain of a company because he had the most children and needed the money. Others were made colonels or majors for just as sensible reasons, while three hundred and eight trained officers were over­looked and kept in small positions throughout the war. Would we put plumbers or carpenters over our sick in the hospital? We did worse. We put them over well men, fine bodies, whose lives depended upon knowledge and  p78 experience against the awful things they had to face. For the camp and bivouac are even more deadly than the battlefield under untrained leaders. In more ways than one our hurried management caused the lengthening of the horror into four long years of unnecessary slaughter.

At the top, the North had a President and Secretary of War, distinguished members of the bar, but utterly unfamiliar with the technique and art of ending a war as quickly as possible. The country's policies had placed them in this unfair position. There was no active general-in‑chief of the armies. The Secretary of the Treasury was given the task of making an organization plan. Other members of the cabinet and bureau chiefs were given similar military problems. A group called the Second Aulic Council debated, fussed and mostly collapsed into grand meddling. It was the old story of a large cumbersome committee getting nowhere — a committee that rarely understood the vital needs of the occasion. So it was not surprising that the most ineffective soldier with military education was finally chosen as General-In‑Chief, General Halleck. And he added to the confusion. Generals in the field didn't know where they stood. They were promised troops that never arrived and shorn of troops they had with them. Their plans, by mail, telegraph or  p79 personal travel had to be approved in Washington before they could proceed. Often the opportunity passed before the veto or approval arrived. During his campaigns, McClellan received hundreds of telegrams, letters and courier packets a week, counseling one thing and then another — and often contradictory. He could not change his base, make a new plan, operate in a new place or go enthusiastically forward without first having his proposals crunch through the slow grinding mill of Washington. Commanders grew to be more fearful of the District of Columbia than the enemy. For it's hard to fight to your back and front at the same time. And your back happens to give you more creeps.

In a little over two years the main army of the East had in succession as commanders McDowell, McClellan, Pope, McClellan, Burnside, Hooker and Meade. In the whirlpool of mismanagement, heads fell fast. And subordinate generals notoriously feared most being placed in command of the Army of the Potomac. Certainly the whole fault couldn't lie with six different commanders. With the same system — or lack of it — sixteen would probably have failed. Certainly one could have been wisely selected who could have gone on, if properly backed up. The answer lies in the Confederacy. There, a single trained and experienced man picked a trained commander  p80 and placed him over better trained and organized troops than the North had. He was held on whether he won or lost and became more capable as he proceeded. This sample of management and organization, always a few steps ahead of the North is why the South held off the Union against odds of three to one for four staggering years. That is what was done while the Yankee was paying millions in bounties for recruits, uselessly wasting his men, undergoing draft riots and enduring one of the ablest mismanagements our country has seen. The lack of any action before the war — any wakefulness from our deep sleep — any use of ordinary sense plunged us into the waste of wastes and told the world ever since that we were the incompetent of incompetents. And for all this the North paid nearly ten billion dollars. And how we spent lives. Why, we were in such a rush at the beginning that we sent in three hundred thousand men without even examining them physically. Think of what that meant in mortality. We fed our manhood like babes into the burning cauldron of Moloch, all because we sat and waited with no idea of a preventive in those years and months before the war. Experts, foreign and domestic, agree that if we had had a trained force in the East in December 1860, of not more than twenty-five thousand, the war could not have lasted  p81 over three months, with a maximum of a thousand casualties. As it was in the North alone we threw away three hundred sixty thousand lives. With the South counted we filled prodigally way over a half million graves. No, we don't care to snuff things out at the source. We prefer to dam them at the mouth. We do that with crime. Why not do it with war?

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