Monday, May 02, 2005

Finished Harsh's Taken at the Flood yesterday, which is less satisfying than I expected it to be, largely because it's apparently the second in a series of three [possibly four] intricately connected volumes Harsh has written about or around Lee's Maryland Campaign, or, as Harsh puts it, the culmination of Lee's "Overland Campaign". A good third of the endnotes in Taken at the Flood are pointers to sections of the third volume, Sounding the Shallows, which apparently is the companion "fiddling little details" volume, full of the technical mucking about Harsh excised from the main volume for reasons of time and space. (The first volume, Confederate Tide Rising, is apparently a general consideration of Lee's summer strategy, but I get the feeling from Taken at the Flood that you get the high points of Harsh's thoughts of the subject in the latter volume.)

Harsh was the big news a few years back on the newsgroups, but I haven't gotten around to reading all the new work until recently. The big controversies are, as always, about McClellan, not Lee, and since Harsh's focus in all of these volumes is on Lee, I didn't find it as illuminating as I had thought on that subject. Harsh promises in the text yet another companion volume on McClellan's side of the story, but if he's finished it, I haven't heard of yet, and neither has Amazon.

Harsh does a good job of correcting my impressions of the campaign, which I have to admit were largely constructed from a reading of Paisley's the Antetiam and Fredricksburg nearly ten years ago. He makes an aggressive argument for Lee's early-campaign strength, and against the traditional "a third of the ANV never crossed over into Maryland" narrative, although I'm not sure I buy his argument entirely. To a certain extent, I get the feeling that in the absence of evidence, he tends to credit Lee with greater knowledge of his own strength than is properly speaking warranted, given the evidence Harsh himself provides.

The most interesting thing I took from Taken at the Flood was Lee's disability throughout the campaign, having been incapacitated at Second Manassas in a fall from his horse, and confined to an ambulance up to the very evening before Sharpsburg. Such confinement would seem to my mind to limit Lee's ability to assess the conditions of his own forces, and to reduce his feeling for the tenor of the campaign.

Another thing I took away from Harsh's study is the opposite of what Harsh wanted to argue, which is Lee's rationality in strategy. Harsh makes the case that the Maryland campaign was the latest in a series of driving turning movements which characterized Lee's "Overland Campaign", and that Lee looked to fight another Second Manassas in the vicinity of Hagerstown. He makes a very good argument that, after a bad night on the 14th of September, Lee tried on three separate occasions to arrange for a northward movement out of the Sharpsburg position towards Hagerstown and the projected turning movement.

That is, he arranged his position at Sharpsburg, while waiting for the Harper's Ferry expedition to reunite with the defeated main column, in such a way as to allow a rapid debouchment towards the north; he ordered Jackson to organize a turning movement against the shaky Union right on the afternoon of the 17th in the same direction, and he evacuated the Sharpsburg battlefield on the evening of the 18th with the express purpose of moving the army via the fords back to Williamsport to return to his projected Hagerstown axis, and an immediate return to the open field in the Cumberland Valley. He only gave up on his extension of the overland campaign when the near-disaster at Shepardstown (where the Union vanguard managed to overrun the ANV's artillery reserve, and half the army had to deploy in order to restore the situation) revealed that his army was hopelessly shattered and in no condition to continue.

All three aggressive attempts were conducted after the reduction of Lee's army, by defeat, straggling, or whatever - of this Harsh is in agreement with everyone else. Now, either Lee was unaware of his army's infirmity, due to his own infirmity or the ANV's famed paucity of paperwork or for whatever reason, or else he was willing to continue to move in a violently aggressive fashion with a broken, shrunken army. No, more than willing - compelled. Harsh argues explicitly against the recent, revisionist notion of Lee as a beserker maniac, fanatically obsessed with the offensive. I have difficulty reconciling Harsh's insistence on this point when he implicitly contrasts Lee with the famously aggressive, remorseless Jackson, shocky and cowed, anxiously struggling for any way out of Lee's orders to find a way for that visionary turning attack around Hooker and Franklin's right on the afternoon of the 17th.

Harsh makes the case that Lee's driving relentlessness in the pursuit of his turning movements were the intellectual product of Lee's analysis of the strategic situation, that this wasn't instinctual or a product of character, but rather the result of pure reason applied to a desperate situation. Harsh's characterization of Lee's strategic behavior is "desperate" - he uses that term repeatedly, even in the discussion of the victorious flush in the period immediately after Second Manassas. I think that Harsh negects the intellectual component of beserkism, personally. Rationality itself can produce via the action of a strong will a condition which is practically indistinguishable from the thoughtless fury of the blue-dyed naked savage in the height of his rage. The difference between the fury of the Celt and Lee's mania for the turning left, is that when balked the Celt retreats with a celerity which matches the charge. Lee never broke for the rear, even when he should have. From the view-point of the soldier, Lee at Sharpsburg is an illustration of how purpose can become monstrous in the service of desperation.

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