The Awful Arithmetic is a non-fiction book, in two volumes, about the Civil War; it covers the entirety of the conflict, from its true cause——which was neither secession nor slavery——to the finer points of the war’s ending. For those seeking greater depth in understanding the war, The Awful Arithmetic presents far more than a basic narrative will offer, exploring new layers and levels of the conflict that are seldom touched in conventional accounts, whether in written form or in other media.
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Awful Arithmetic: A non-fiction Civil War Book
The Awful Arithmetic: A non-fiction Civil War Book
Continuation of The Awful Arithmetic Volume I
The high command in Richmond no longer ignored the West. It had been beaten into their heads now that they were bleeding territory on a massive scale, and Vicksburg was one of the very key places they had managed to hold on, but now they realized it was in dire jeopardy.
Meetings had been held over other failures and losses in the west, and by all means, the threat to Vicksburg was a source of meetings now.
A certain course of action was chosen, in an attempt to save Vicksburg, which will be described shortly, but a note must be made first.
The course that the Confederate leadership adopted now is seldom credited as an attempt to divert Grant away from Vicksburg. This operation became so famous and so grand in scale that the source of its genesis is usually overlooked.
First, it must also be noted that by now, the Confederate leadership, and even those at lesser strata, had entered a controlled panic mode as a result of the way the war was unfolding, and the now dire threat to Vicksburg only ramped up that panic feeling.
It should not have come as a surprise in Richmond that Grant would have found a way to “get at” Vicksburg sooner or later. The Confederate leadership would have known that Grant had zeroed in on the city as a target, and that he and the Union had huge resources for conducting major campaigns in the West. Sooner or later it should have seemed inevitable that with its own armies being relentlessly if slowly boxed into corners, the Confederacy could not hold Vicksburg forever, or even for very long, no matter what drastic measure might be devised to try and save it. After all, the Union had controlled much of the state of Mississippi more thoroughly than the Confederacy had for months.
When it finally dawned on the Confederate power base that Vicksburg was now on the endangered list, debate raged in Richmond about what to do. How could Vicksburg be saved, without using resources that would open up some other key place to the Union?
Already, General Pemberton, commanding at Vicksburg, had been reinforced with ten thousand men taken away from Bragg at Murfreesboro. He had also picked up a few from the Confederate forces on the other side of the Mississippi, but he had not been reinforced in anything approaching the amounts he needed to hold off Grant.
Joseph Johnston seemed to be the highest ranking member of the Confederate chain of command who understood the true state of the war. He had tried to fight it the way it should have been fought by the South all along, preserving men and only giving up position slowly, buying as much time in the process as possible. With the 6,000 men he had found at Jackson, he might have slowed Grant down for a few days, but at the end of that time, Grant would still have Jackson, and would still be in the position of threatening Vicksburg, and the Confederacy would be 6,000 men closer to the end of the road.
It was clear enough now that Vicksburg itself could not be saved by a direct fight between Pemberton’s forces and Grant’s.
Johnston faced up to the fact that Vicksburg should be written off because its loss was inevitable and the more men sent there, the more would die or be captured. In other words, Vicksburg was a sinkhole for resources that ought to be used elsewhere.
That view, unsurprisingly, was not shared by all in Richmond.
Quite the contrary, in fact: the consensus was in favor of concocting some grandiose effort to “relieve” Vicksburg of Grant’s threat. Beauregard, never one to shy away from grand schemes, proposed throwing all the available troops in the West into Bragg’s command and carrying out another, larger all-out offensive through Tennessee and Kentucky. The first step would be to destroy Rosecrans, still holding place at Murfreesboro. This new invasion, Beauregard argued, would force Grant to abandon his offensive against Vicksburg and rush north into Tennessee and Kentucky in the same manner the abortive Bragg-Kirby Smith debacle had been designed to do. And had totally failed.
By this plan, however, with Grant making haste up through Tennessee, Johnston should recruit twenty thousand men in Tennessee and Kentucky and move over to cut Grant off.
For some reason, Beauregard believed that if Johnston caught Grant flat-footed, on ground Johnston chose to his best advantage, he could somehow beat Grant. If this occurred, according to Beauregard, then Johnston would merge with Bragg’s rampaging army, making a force that consisted of a hundred fifty thousand. With Grant finished, half that army could retake the West, and the other would join Lee in Virginia and wipe out the Union army there, and that would be that, game over.
Beauregard proposed this in a letter to Johnston, which the latter never deigned to answer. Yet Beauregard was not the only one thinking in terms of a major reversal in the West. James Longstreet was Lee’s main deputy, having replaced Jackson after his demise, and Longstreet proposed a different kind of grand design. He suggested that Pemberton let Vicksburg go to Grant for now and throw in with Bragg at Tullahoma, and Johnston would also combine with Bragg, making a force strong enough to defeat Rosecrans. From that point, similarly to Beauregard’s theory, he believed Grant would be forced to let Vicksburg go to rush north and contend with this super-army. None of this seemed to take into account that Grant might take part of the bait, yet drop off enough men to hold Vicksburg with a garrison force, an eventuality which would have defeated the whole idea of the grand Confederate operation.
Prior to the May 14 evacuation of Jackson, Mississippi, Confederate Secretary of War Seddon had taken a different view, wanting Johnston reinforced at Jackson for a powerful strike against Grant in hopes of drawing him off of Pemberton’s back at Vicksburg. Lee opposed this strongly.
With these ideas flying around in the wind, on May 14, with Jackson, Mississippi being evacuated, Davis and Seddon called for a high level conference to put together a strategy on the fly to save the situation at Vicksburg, if one could be found. At question was the possibility of dispatching Longstreet with a major portion of Lee’s army in Virginia, to save Mississippi. Lee was aghast, believing that to give up the kinds of numbers being bandied about, he could not win in Virginia. Instead, Lee pushed the idea of carrying out another raid into Maryland and beyond. This, if successful, Lee said, would be the stroke that forced Grant to abandon Vicksburg and come to the defense of the North.
Lee reduced the situation to a simple equation: either carry the war into the North, with its attendant dangers but also potential awards, hopefully bringing Grant into the East, which would save Vicksburg and the West in general, or give up the West to Grant and withdraw Lee’s Virginia army back to Richmond and wait for the inevitable siege that was sure to come, and which could have only have one ultimate result.
Those who tended toward wild schemes for some reason persisted in believing that they could once and for all create a super-army in Tennessee and with it, defeat all the forces of the Union in the west. But the sober thinkers were ready to face the fact that the Confederacy was already in the early stages of ultimate defeat and that such desperate need called out desperate but actually feasible measures.
Of all the workable ideas presented, it was more and more Lee’s scheme that rose to the fore, the idea of another raid north. The theory behind it was that if one or two key positions in Pennsylvania or elsewhere could be taken, such as the state capital of Harrisburg, or even Baltimore or Philadelphia, and some key railroad bridge were destroyed, the Northern population would feel terrorized and at the same time, the Europeans still might recognize the Confederacy as viable and impose a negotiated settlement on Lincoln. Even if that failed, hopefully the danger to Northern cities would cause Lincoln to summon Grant and his army to abandon Vicksburg and come to the rescue in the east.
Three separate polls were conducted among five members of the leadership group in Richmond. Each time, the vote came out with three in favor of Lee’s plan to again invade through Maryland, and two against.
That was the genesis of the operation that would lead to Gettysburg. With that decision made, Lee returned to his troops at Chancellorsville, to begin moving north.
Meantime, Grant carried on his campaign to finally seize Vicksburg.