Tuesday, June 7, 2016

That's the place to kill them

During the Battle of Champion Hill, part of the Vicksburg campaign of 1863, Union general John "Black Jack" Logan found some of his men trying to withdraw from the field. Logan sought out the superior officer on the spot and said to him,
"Adjutant, get your men together and prepare to advance."
"General, the rebels are awful thick up there," replied the Adjutant.
"Damn, it! That's the place to kill them – where they are thick!" shouted the general.
–private J.B. Harris, 34th Indiana

4 comments:

G. Verloren said...

This strikes me as spoken like a man who never left the safety of the back lines.

"Suicide? No, it's not suicide! Why, it's just the opposite! They'll never see it coming, and you'll catch them by surprise and rout them utterly! Trust me! Now if you'll excuse me, I must see to the disposition of the baggage train..."

The most cursory of research (as I know essentially nothing of Logan) tells me he had a reputation for being a very able general, so perhaps as a tactical assessment this little exchange might prove to have been sound. But from a strictly human standpoint (or perhaps rather a humane one), I can't help but find myself biased in favor the conscripted men seeking to withdraw from an apparently bleak situation.

The American Civil War in particular seems quite full of very able commanders who nevertheless were rather brutal and even despicable in a number of ways. Sherman's infamous march to the sea might have been a strategically sound decision, but that doesn't make it any less monstrous an act. I can only imagine from this exchange that many of Logan's deeds were comparable in nature.

John said...

Indeed the people who make for successful generals are not the ones you want for your friends. Logan was one of Grant's men, and then Sherman's, men who adopted a very hard attitude toward war because they believed it was the only way to win. And winning, they thought, was the only way to bring the war to a decisive end. Without much interest in the gallantry that Lee's men often invoked, they went for a pose of raw toughness and practiced lines like "War is hell" or "War means killing."

Champion's Hill was a Union victory because Grant had more men and kept sending them in until the Confederates cracked and fled. That sounds a lot easier than it is; compare the performance of all those eastern generals who had even better odds than Grant (McClellan at Antietam, Hooker at Chancellorsville, etc.) but were still unable to make their greater numbers decide the issue. Grant and Sherman knew how to do that, which is how they ended up the North's great heroes.

G. Verloren said...

"They will choke on our dead".

Attributed to Stalin in the aftermath of the Battle of Stalingrad, but I've always been unable to properly source it. Either way, even if it was never said, it may as well have been given the Soviet stance on "acceptable losses". Who cares if we lose 80% of our forces in this battle? Next month we'll just conscript another million!

David said...

I confess I'm with Logan, Sherman, and Stalin on this. War is hell, and if the cause is worth war, then you should fight like they did. If it's not worth it, don't fight.

I particularly have never understood the indignation that Sherman's march to the sea arouses. As far as I'm concerned, insurrection in defense of slavery got what it deserved.

And are we to actually dispute the moral status of Soviet victory in WWII? Nazi plans imagined 30 million dead from starvation in the first year alone as a way of clearing out excess mouths and making sure Germans were fed. Would that be an acceptable price to pay for Stalin to avoid G.'s moral condemnation? What was not permitted against a foe like that?

I can't remember their name, but a humanist commentator of unimpeachable credentials has commented that the Allies in WWII were under only one obligation: not to lose.