11 February 2008

What General Johnston Did

Some years ago I got a few people together to write some notes about what generals in ancient and medieval battles did. Partly it was inspired by John Keegan's book The Mask of Command. However, I was more interested in my own agenda, which was to figure out how a general spent his (or her, in those days) time during a battle. Of course, writing about the ancients means entering a difficult world for the historian, where resources are limited to the point of a starvation diet.

In one of those Internetly sort of ways, I came across General Joseph E Johnston's account of the campaign of Bull Run (or Manassas, as he might have called it) in the summer of 1861. It was mentioned in one of my favourite blogs, which served as a sort of inspiration for this, Civil War Book News, in connection with how military use of railroads was managed during the American Civil War. But, as I read it, I remembered my ancient generals' symposium, and decided to treat this text in the same way to see what Johnston actually did in getting his army into battle.

You'll note the first thing he did was to study the ground. Terrain (and weather) probably are far larger role in warfare than armchair generals perhaps appreciate. Yet, what confirms him in his decision of where to establish his base is a third factor, communications. Winchester enables him to support General PGT Beauregard's forces to the east, and presumably vice versa.

In the unique nature of American Civil War armies, Johnston's next job is to shape his army, an amateur force that is badly trained and equipped. George Washington will have known how he felt.

As Johnston's position comes under threat, his next job is to decide where he will best be situated to meet the enemy, and then to acquire as much information as he can about what the enemy is doing.

When he moves to support Beauregard, his first act as soon as he gets there is to pass active management of the fighting to Beauregard, because he is not acquainted with the troops' deployment and the local terrain. We're back to the significance of terrain again.

As the fighting begins, Johnston is in a central position with Beauregard, along the length of the Confederate deployment area. As it becomes clear that the Union forces have beaten the Rebels to the punch, Beauregard moves to the crisis point, while Johnston co-ordinates the movement of troops towards it. However, at this point it becomes unclear whether Beauregard or Johnston is directing the overall Rebel effort.

However, a quick look at Beauregard's own account, reveals that Johnston did indeed play a key role in directing the reinforcements to the appropriate place, at least that's what Beauregard himself admitted:

By this time, between half past two and 3 o'clock p.m., our re-enforcements pushed forward, and, directed by General Johnston to the required quarter...

Thus, once battle is joined the general's main task is both to anticipate where the enemy will strike and to anticipate where his forces can do the most good. No matter how good he has been in all the other analytical and managerial tasks outline in Johnston's official report, the test by which readers will judge him comes in this ability to second guess his opponent.

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