Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Capture of Fort Donelson, 13-16 February 1862

Battle of the Week 2011-07

It's fashionable across the south to talk about the first half of the American Civil War as a gallant struggle against overwhelming odds, a valiant defense of the Confederacy in which the brilliant Robert E. Lee, outnumbered and undersupplied, held off the inevitable for years by defeating army after army hurled against him by incompetent Federal generals. It's a romantic picture, and it puts the undeniable courage and devotion of the southern soldier in its best possible light, but it tells half the story at best. Because as brilliant as Lee was, as brave as his soldiers were, by the time he won his greatest victories at Fredericksburg in December 1862 and Chancellorsville in May 1863, victory was probably already inevitable for the Union.

That Union victory started in the west, with the armies that pushed south from Kentucky into Tennessee in January and February 1862 under Don Carlos Buell and Henry W. Halleck. Opposing them was Albert Sidney Johnston, another brilliant southern general outnumbered and undersupplied; but where Lee's task was to defend Richmond and threaten Washington, Johnston's was to keep the Yankees out of Tennessee and Mississippi and protect all of the Deep South. Such an ambitious mission left Johnston spread impossibly thin.

The plan was straightforward: in order to invade Tennessee, the Union first had to secure lines of communication--roads, rivers, and railroads--that would make it easier for them to move large bodies of men and supplies and concentrate them where needed. The first step of that plan was to secure the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. The Tennessee would allow the Federals to travel north to south easily through Tennessee, while the Cumberland would give them access to Nashville and the eastern half of the state. Fort Henry controlled the Tennessee; Fort Donelson, just eleven miles away, controlled the Cumberland. No gunboats or transports or supply ships could travel up or down either river until the forts, and their big guns, were in Union hands.

Halleck gave U.S. Grant the task of taking the forts, and Grant moved against Fort Henry, the weaker of the two, first; it fell easily on the 6th of February, 1862, most of its garrison evacuating to Fort Donelson. There the Confederates, under the combined leadership of Generals John B. Floyd, Simon B. Buckner, and Gideon J. Pillow, began feverishly strengthening their defenses, but made no attempt to move against Grant at Fort Henry before he could move against them.

Grant would have preferred to march on Fort Donelson immediately, but the weather was so bad his troops could not be resupplied for the new attack. He finally made his move on the 12th of February, marching from Fort Henry while a fleet of gunboats under Andrew H. Foote attacked the fort's batteries of heavy guns from the Cumberland river. But Foote launched his attack too close to the fort, and the big guns punished his fleet severely, knocked two of his gunboats out of action, and forced him to withdraw. Grant would have to make his attack without Foote's naval support.

The rule of thumb for a force attacking a fortified position is to launch the attack with a three-to-one numerical superiority over the defender; an even better advantage is five to one. But Grant understood that audacity--doing vigorously what your enemy least expects you to do--and initiative--following up one success with another as quickly as possible, leaving the enemy no time to adjust his plan or take action against you--often count for more than numbers. On the night of the 14th and 15th of February, he blocked the landward approaches to the fort with 25,000 men, against some 21,000 Confederates inside.

But the Confederates within Fort Donelson had been far from idle since Fort Henry had fallen. Rather than wait within their fort, they had built lines of entrenchments that gave them a measure of defense in depth--only after the Union forces had breached the outer defenses could they approach the fort itself. After some initial probing by sharpshooters and skirmishers on the 14th, followed by an unsuccessful attack, Grant decided to settle in and lay siege.

An aggressive attack from the fort by well-led and spirited troops might have broken Grant's lines and forced him to abandon his plan, but none of the Confederate commanders, Floyd or Buckner or Pillow, was aggressive or spirited or a talented leader. Instead of resolving to hold the fort, they decided on a breakout; they would attack Grant's right where it lay exposed some distance from the river, push him back far enough to open the Charlotte Road toward Nashville, and abandon the fort with as many men as could escape.

The Confederates launched their attack at dawn on the 15th. It worked beautifully; by noon, the Union right had been broken and pushed south past the Charlotte Road, leaving the way open for the bulk of the Confederate forces to escape. But there Floyd lost his nerve, ordering his men back to their entrenchments for fear of a Union counterattack instead of ordering the evacuation. He was too late. Grant, guessing correctly that the Confederates had weakened their own right in order to attack with their left, ordered his division on that side to attack. As night fell, both sides had resumed the positions they had held the night before--except that Grant's right no longer blocked the Charlotte road, and Union troops now occupied the formerly Confederate trenches on the Union left.

That broke Floyd's nerve completely, and he and Pillow decided to escape in the night and leave Buckner to surrender the fort. They used boats to escape across and upriver on the night of the 15th and 16th while Nathan Bedford Forrest and a brigade of cavalry escaped down the Charlotte Road. Buckner, now with some 11,500 men against Grant's 23,000 remaining, sent a messenger to Grant asking for terms of surrender on the morning of the 16th.

Grant's reply was brief and pointed, and gave him the nickname he carries to this day:

SIR: Yours of this date, proposing armistice and appointment of commissioners to settle terms of capitulation, is just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.

Translation: surrender now, with no conditions or agreements, or I attack. Buckner surrendered immediately without condition, and "Unconditional Surrender" Grant was born.

The taking of Fort Donelson opened the way into middle Tennessee and closed the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers to the Confederates. This allowed the Federal armies to start pushing south, both through Tennessee and down the Mississippi; in April, Grant and Johnston met at Shiloh near Memphis, and Johnston never left the field of battle. By Independence Day, 1863, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi, Vicksburg, had surrendered, leaving the Union in complete control of the largest waterway in North America. From there the Union troops turned east, pushing through Tennessee and Georgia to attack what was left of Lee's army from the south. Donelson was far from the end of the Civil War--but its capture set the conditions for ultimate Union victory.

Go get your nerd on!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Operation Cerberus (the Channel Dash), 11-13 February 1942

Battle of the Week 2011-06

Occasionally, victory in battle is the result of a commander's talent at reading the tactical situation, devising and communicating a plan to his subordinates, then directing its execution so flawlessly the enemy is left wondering what happened. Often it's the product of a sound but unimaginative plan executed against an incompetent or unsuspecting enemy. Sometimes it's the product of boldness and luck.

But most often, it's a combination of these factors: a sound plan, executed boldly against an enemy expecting something else, can prove as decisive as the presence of a Napoleon or a Lee or a Rommel.

Operation Cerberus--or as the British call it, the Channel Dash--was such an operation. Poor reading of the tactical situation, poor communication and coordination, bad weather, and bad luck made what should have been an impossible task for the German navy into a major naval embarrassment for Britain.

The German battle cruisers Gniesenau and Scharnhorst were key players in the early months of the Battle of the Atlantic. Fast and well-armored, they were ideally suited to hit-and-run raids against the merchant and supply ships that became critical to Britain's survival after the Blitzkrieg cut it off from the continent. Between them, they sank more than 115,000 tons of British merchant shipping in early 1941, making them extremely valuable to the German war effort--and extremely valuable targets for the Royal Navy.

The two warships returned to port in Brest for repairs in March 1941, but remained vulnerable; Brest, on the peninsula of Brittany, was easily within the range of British bombers. The sinking of the Bismarck in May threw their vulnerable position into new light, and the German navy, on orders from Hitler, began making plans to return them to less exposed ports in Germany. The order came in January 1942: the Gniesenau, the Scharnhorst, and the Prinz Eugen, which had joined them in June, would sail for the German ports on the North Sea to defend the Fatherland against a potential invasion from Norway.

The Royal Navy knew at once the ships were preparing to sail; French partisans reported they were being loaded, and Royal Air Force reconnaissance flights showed increased activity all along the Channel coast. Reconnaissance flights were increased accordingly, a submarine positioned to watch the Brest harbor, and swift, light torpedo craft called motor torpedo boats (MTBs) stationed where they could easily intercept any traffic trying to run up the Channel to Germany. All this, and the navy scrambled to add to the more than a thousand mines already scattered through the Channel passages.

But by the thirteenth of February, the three ships and their escorts lay berthed in German ports on the North Sea, having accomplished the impossible--without the loss of a single ship.

How had they done it? First, with a sound plan and excellent coordination between the component forces of the operation; the German Navy and the Luftwaffe had coordinated fighter cover for every segment of the operation well before it kicked off, and every ship in the convoy (the three cruisers were escorted by six destroyers, plus assorted support vessels) understood its mission and what it was to do at every point of the run. Every detail, from radar jamming to meteorology to minesweeping to spreading false rumors throughout Brest to deceive the partisans, was considered and dealt with.

The British, for their part, misread the German plans spectacularly. To their credit, they did not fall for the Germans' deceptive indications the ships would sail south, but their read of the German intentions seems to have broken down from there. The British believed the Germans would leave Brest in daylight, so as to run the Straits of Dover, the narrowest point of the crossing, in darkness; in fact the German fleet left Brest at 10:45 on the evening of the 11th of February, and was crossing below the Isle of Wight by daybreak.

British coordination seems to have suffered a catastrophic breakdown, as well. The submarine watching Brest harbor had ended its day's watch an hour before the German ships left port; an RAF reconnaissance flight failed to see the ships in the darkness because of unreliable radar; radar failures at Coastal Command and Fighter Command went unreported; the MTBs stationed to intercept the Gniesenau and her fleet were being refitted and rearmed from an action on the previous day; and, to top it all off, an RAF patrol passed directly over the fleet, identified the German vessels--and maintained radio silence, not reporting the sighting until it returned to its airfield.

The weather, too, worked solidly in the Germans' favor. Low clouds concealed the ships from British bombers; most did not even release their bombs, and those that did missed their targets. Heavy fog for most of the run kept shore-based spotters from seeing the fleet, and kept the shore batteries at Dover from hitting the ships as they pushed through the narrow strait. And the airfield Bomber Command's planes had planned to fly from to intercept the fleet, North Coates, was snow-bound and useless to them.

The result was embarrassment for the Royal Navy--but little gain for the Germans. The three cruisers spent the rest of the war in the North Sea, making Allied supply runs to the Soviet Union difficult but accomplishing little else. And bottled up in the North Sea, they could do nothing to influence the strategically more critical Battle of the Atlantic, which from that point the Germans left largely to their U-boats, or to hamper the even more critical Allied invasion of Europe.

So once again, a massive and expensive undertaking went off with hardly a hitch--and accomplished almost nothing. Such are the fortunes of war: the side that can see where their limited resources can be put to most effective use is the side most likely to push on to victory. The side that overextends itself, wastes its effort on operations that are unlikely to decide anything, soon finds itself asking for the terms of surrender.

Now go get your nerd on!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

History in the Making - a Ramble

We're watching the people of Egypt make history right now. Hosni Mubarak, the president who ruled the country for thirty years under an unending state of emergency, is gone. Gone largely without bloodshed, without fighting, without pointing of fingers or mass arrests or urban panic or violence spilling over into neighboring countries. Even the voices of radical Islam have been largely silent. A few people rose up and said, We are ready. We want Mubarak gone. And others joined them, and still others, until their voices could not be silenced.

And now Mubarak is gone.

How many times has this happened in the Middle East? How many times has this happened anywhere?

Of course, we make history every day, and watch it made before our eyes. When I sell my house, it's history. When you send a letter or an email to your friend in another state or country explaining how the recession has affected you, it's history. When your car spins on the ice and blocks traffic in the middle of the worst winter storm to hit North Texas in living memory, it's history. When a soldier leaves for Iraq, or gets shot at, or comes home, it's history. When the Superbowl comes to D/FW, it's history.

Of course, there are some events we can watch unfolding, or take part in if we're in the right place at the right time, and know we are participating in what will be known as a big, historic Event. The men who marched east into Russia with Napoleon knew they were part of such an Event. The men of the Union Army who shouldered arms as the Confederates filed past and stacked theirs at Appomattox Court House knew they were part of such an Event. So did the men and women watching the Japanese planes fly away from Pearl Harbor, and the men and women who with hammers and picks and earthmovers dismantled the Berlin Wall.

We are now watching such an Event unfold in Egypt.

Is it over? Not by a long shot. But for the first time in thirty years, the people of Egypt can go to their beds tonight knowing that tomorrow will be different than yesterday.

This could end badly for Egypt, and for the Middle East, and for Africa, and for the West. But it could end spectacularly well. Right now, none of us knows. But I, for one, am eager to find out.

What an exciting time to be alive!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Tet Offensive Begins, 30 January 1968

Battle of the Week 2011-05

The weapons of the battlefield are not the only weapons of war. In some cases, they are not even the most effective. A spy's report, a builder's schematic, or an assassin's dagger have at times proven more decisive to a war than anything that happened between the armies in the field. In many ways, the information a commander has going into a fight is more important than the weapons he will use to kill the enemy.

But there is another weapon a savvy enemy can use, a weapon whose effect is often unrelated to anything that happens on the field of battle. This weapon is particularly effective against a society that values the free flow of information, a society whose Constitution enshrines such liberties as freedom of speech and of the press. The weapon, information contrary to official reports, is usually directed not at the military might of such a state--but at the people hungry for knowledge of what is happening to their loved ones serving in that military. The information must be fed to its targets gradually and with great subtlety, much like a slow-acting poison. It cannot blatantly contradict the official reports; it must erode them, gradually destroying the faith of the people in the words of their government. Make them believe the people they are supposed to trust are lying to them, and they will become much more ready to believe what they hear from your sources.

The information machine of North Vietnam used this strategy to masterful affect against the American war effort in Vietnam. To be sure, the American media seem to have assisted with some enthusiasm--this was the first war waged on television, after all, and no one really knew how to wage war, or report it, on television. Faced with a military unwelcoming to their requests for information, a Vietnamese population distrustful of foreigners, and stateside editors demanding material for the evening newsreels, reporters on the ground snatched up whatever bits of information they could get.

That meant they got a lot of information from Saigon and other major cities where fighting was rare and reporters were relatively safe--and the propaganda agents of North Vietnam were operating in force. Not that they had to work very hard; exposing the corruption of the South Vietnamese government, ensuring rumors of American abuses came back to reporters, inviting them along to see the struggles of the noble Viet Cong or the people they claimed to represent and protect, all set the conditions for a major public relations coup to come.

The coup came on the 30th of January 1968, when North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) forces attacked across the length and breadth of Vietnam, hitting 36 provincial capitals, 64 district capitals, and Saigon in violation of a cease-fire proclaimed in observance of Tet, the Vietnamese new year. The attacks were highly organized, highly coordinated, and highly synchronized, and made for the kind of news footage the reporters had been dreaming of. A small team of VC even made it inside the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, fighting with American Military Police for more than six hours before they were all killed or captured.

In a tactical and military sense, the Tet Offensive was a complete disaster for the NVA and VC. Not a single attack accomplished its tactical objective, and all were beaten back with heavy losses. But the offensive accomplished its broader objective; everywhere the VC attacked, the news cameras sucked up reel after reel of the action. And the word went back to the states: the enemy is much stronger than we have been led to believe. Yesterday he was on his last legs, and victory was coming soon, we were told. But today he has shown us otherwise.

The offensive marked a turning point in the war. For many Americans, it was the end of trust in our national authority. If they could lie to us about the strength of the enemy, or at best be so appallingly wrong, what else were they wrong about? Why should we believe what they told us any more? Why should we continue to support this war when the men fighting it clearly have such an incomplete picture of who and what they are fighting? Support for the war was at least relatively strong before Tet, with many Americans seeing it as their patriotic duty to support the military and the president and to oppose communism wherever it appeared. After Tet, the antiwar movement gained strength.

No free country can long prosecute a war its people oppose, and Vietnam proves the point. U.S. forces would continue to slog it out for another five years, but we could no longer win the war for anything like a cost the American people would accept. Before long, the number of troops committed to the war began to decrease, and our politicians began talking about Vietnamization and peace with honor. The war, at least for the United States, began to end with Tet.

And so began an era of national shame--shame at failing to defeat communism, shame at allowing ourselves to become divided in the face of an overseas war, shame at the way we had treated our brave service members. Shame, self-doubt, and anger characterized the 1970s, gradually fading as we regained our military power in the 1980s and our economic power in the 1990s and through the 2000s, but the echoes of them remain part of us. I like to think facing our own weaknesses and surviving the ordeal has made us stronger as a nation, just as it does for an individual. There are many who disagree with me. But that discussion is beyond the scope of this page.

It's almost time for the Superbowl. If you plan to watch the game--as I do--enjoy it. Good luck to your team (unless, of course, you are rooting for the Steelers)!

Get your nerd on!

Nerducopia: 6 February 2011

I'll get to the battle of the week in a little while. First, I wanted to share some really cool sites I found last night while surfing through a service called Stumble Upon--probably one of the best web sites I have ever found. Give it a try yourself, but be prepared to lose hours as you click the Stumble! button over and over again.

These links represent some of my fairly eclectic nerd interests--a couple are historical, but there are plenty of others. Take a look! - This animated map tells the 5,000 year history of the Middle East in about 90 seconds, focusing on the empires that have occupied part or all of it since the high point of the Egyptian Empire. - This article from The Daily Mail describes a newly-discovered Roman road that crossed Britain 1900 years ago. - This graphic from Fast Company outlines the inefficiency--and downright wastefulness--of using bottled water instead of tap water. If you're looking to save the planet, looks like you're better off with a reusable bottle and a water filter. - This is a model of the solar system, showing the positions of everything from the sun to Neptune, including our moon and many of the moons of the outer planets. Set the date to whenever you want and see how the planets were or will be aligned on that date. Yeah. Talk about getting your nerd on! - The scale of the universe. How big is everything in relation to everything else? How big is an atom compared to a cell, or to a quark? This flash graphic puts everything in proportion. If it were any nerdier, it would have to include advanced math. - The Size of Our World. Pictures of models putting everything on its proper scale: Earth compared to the other rocky planets, then compared to the gas giants, then compared to the sun, then the sun compared to other stars. - Your Age on Other Worlds. Fill in your birthdate, and the page tells you how old you are in days and years on any planet in the solar system. At the bottom is a detailed explanation for why the numbers differ, as well as why the length of a day and year are different on each planet.

Now go get your nerd on!