Saturday, September 25, 2010

General Oliver Howard at Pickett's Mill Part 1

General Oliver O. Howard’s orders as given to him by General William Tecumseh Sherman were to find the end of the Confederate line, attack it, and drive the enemy from his dug-in position. Did Howard accomplish this goal? No, he did not. The question then becomes, why not?

When examining the reasons for Howard’s actions it is paramount to consider them in the context of what he knew at the time, not with the hindsight we have today. So what did Howard know on the morning of May 27th? The left of the Union lines ended at the Dallas-Acworth Road (present day Mount Tabor Church Road) and at the time, the Union high command did not know of the shift in the Confederate lines, i.e. the movement of Stevenson and Cleburne’s divisions to the east of New Hope Church. Sherman’s orders in the early pre-dawn hours charged the Fourth and Twenty-Third Corps to advance down the Dallas-Acworth Road and seize higher ground to the south. Active skirmishing at first light revealed that the two corps were no longer at the end of the Confederate line, and this caused a change in plan. Sherman then ordered Howard to take a division from his corps and another from the Fourteenth Corps and march past the Union flank, find the end of the Confederate line, and attack enemy’s flank.

Howard dutifully complied, but it took longer than expected. He deployed the two divisions ready to fight, each regiment in line of battle. This slowed the advance considerably. Each regiment had to at least attempt to keep its formation, and also its alignment with the other units of the brigade, all the while marching up and down every ravine and draw, and through every briar patch and thicket.

His first attempt at navigating in the backwoods of Paulding County was a failure. He ended up behind the end of the Union line, instead of beyond its flank. He then had to reform the column facing east and march three quarters of a mile past the end of the army. Only then did he find the end of the Confederate line. By this time his men were understandably tired, if not exhausted. It was also 4 o’clock in the afternoon. There were only about 2 hours left before twilight, and another hour of rapidly diminishing daylight before total darkness around 7 o’clock. He would have to attack, break through the enemy’s defenses, consolidate his gains, and reform his attacking force against a possible enemy counterattack before nightfall. All the while almost a mile beyond and out of reach of the main body of his army. That’s a pretty daunting prospect for any general.

Howard had three options. He could aggressively launch most of his command at the enemy, perhaps prudently leaving a brigade behind as a last reserve. This option obviously had the most to gain, and the most to lose. If he drove the Confederates away from their position he could place himself beyond the end of the Confederate lines. Once there he would threaten the enemy’s direct line of retreat; the Due West Road was only half a mile away, with no defensible terrain feature in between. However, if he failed he would find himself isolated from the rest of the Union army with two divisions of tired, demoralized, and disorganized men. A commanding officer had to expect an aggressive foe to counterattack and destroy or capture such a force. It takes a bold and aggressive general to take that kind of gamble. Unfortunately, nowhere in Howard’s career had he exhibited that type of aggressiveness and daring.

His second option was to do nothing. He had prolonged the Union line considerably, and reinforcements would easily be able to fill the gap between himself and the Twenty-Third Corps the next day. While prudent, it was not what Sherman had ordered. Sherman had already taken Major General George Thomas to task for not attacking immediately at New Hope Church two days before. While this proved to be unfounded and unfair to Thomas, at the time Howard would only have taken it as a reprimand against an officer that Sherman deemed to slow or unwilling to bring on a battle. Since Sherman had sent him to find and attack the Confederate flank, to dig in without attacking would appear to Howard as a damaging or unwise career choice.

The third option was to attempt some course of action between the two. A reconnaissance-in-force would involve sending only a few of his units forward to feel the Confederate defenses. If they were successful, then Howard could order more brigades into action to support a breakthrough. If not, then he could call off his attack with minimal casualties (overall at least) and report the enemy too strong to assault. This would appear to be the course of action Howard decided to take.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Pickett's Mill finished!

The Pickett's Mill section of Civil War Virtual Tours if finished! Come take a tour!