Smith’s Gorillas – Pt 2
In my previous post I began presenting the case for writing a book on the exploits of the detachment of the Army of the Tennessee known as A. J. Smith’s Gorillas (among other things). I argued that straight-forward, more-or-less traditional military history still has a valid place in the study of the past. This time I’d like to continue by presenting my reasons for considering the Gorillas a worthwhile topic for such a study.
The three-division detachment commanded by A. J. Smith had a knack for turning up in the midst of many of the key events of the last year of the war. Their presence helped saved Nathaniel P. Banks’s dismal Red River Campaign from ending in complete disaster with the possible loss of thousands of prisoners and even the bulk of the Mississippi River gunboat fleet, an outcome which might have at least temporarily reversed the flow of the war in the West. They dealt a rare check to Bedford Forrest in northern Mississippi in the summer of 1864, helping to keep the Wizard of the Saddle off of Sherman’s vulnerable supply lines during the Atlanta Campaign. Later that year they helped repel Sterling Price’s Missouri raid and then traveled to Nashville, where they were first to break Hood’s line, beginning the rout of the Confederacy’s only major army west of the Appalachians. In the closing weeks of the war, they became a key element in the campaign to take Mobile, Alabama, the Confederacy’s last remaining strategic port. Thus a history of the Gorillas provides an opportunity to discuss some of the important, if peripheral, events of the closing year of the Civil War.
However, it is more than that. It was not simply coincidence that put the Gorillas in all of those key points. Rather it was the fact that they had become, quite unintentionally, Grant’s main strategic reserve. For this insight I am indebted to my friend and colleague Steven H. Newton of Delaware State University. A central feature of Grant’s grand strategy during 1864 and 1865 was the focusing of Union strength by having all Union forces advance and engage the enemy more or less simultaneously — in Lincoln’s homey phraseology Union efforts would no longer be like a balky team, with no two horses pulling at one time. This cured some of the problems that had plagued Federal high command previously in the war, and it might have brought even more favorable results if it could have been more thoroughly implemented. However, Grant’s program, as was typical of his planning, did not leave much margin for error, much provision for dealing with what the enemy might do if the enemy got the chance to do anything. Specifically, it did not provide for a strategic reserve.
One reason that Grant’s program was not more thoroughly implemented was the blundering of N. P. Banks. His gross mismanagement of the Red River Campaign meant that when the main spring offensives got started in 1864, they would not include a campaign against Mobile on the part of Banks’s Thirteenth and Nineteenth corps, and they would not include A. J. Smith’s three divisions as part of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth corps of the Army of the Tennessee, marching as part of Sherman’s campaign against Atlanta. Had Banks done as ordered and gotten back from the Red River on time, a spring 1864 offensive against Mobile would have pinned down Leonidas Polk’s 20,000 Confederates, preventing them from reinforcing Joe Johnston at Resaca. Meanwhile, McPherson’s flanking maneuver through Snake Creek Gap would have been stronger by the 10,000 or so members of Smith’s detachment. The result might (though it might not) have been that Sherman would have trapped Johnston’s army between Dalton and Resaca, captured it, and taken Atlanta within a few weeks. The war might have ended before the end of 1864, and thousands of lives might have been saved.
Of course, that is not what happened, nor can we be certain that it would have in any event. What did happen, of course, is that not only did Banks muff the Red River Campaign, but Benjamin Butler and Franz Sigel also failed to carry out their parts of Grant’s coordinated offensive. The war did not end in the summer of 1864, and its prolongation into the following year gave the Confederacy at least a few limited opportunities to seize the initiative and attempt to break Grant’s grip and turn the momentum of the war. In countering this series of Confederate threats (some of which were of course much more serious than others) Grant made extensive use of a strategic reserve he had not planned on having.
That reserve consisted of Smith’s corps-sized formation of veteran troops. Smith’s men had seen a fair bit of hard combat, but not too much of it. So they were veterans without being skittish and fearful like the bled-white units of the Army of the Potomac had become by mid-June. Smith’s detachment was composed of Midwestern recruits who were tough and resourceful, and they had learned the craft of warfare under Grant and the officers whom he had promoted and cultivated—men like Smith himself as well John MacArthur, T. Kilby Smith, and especially Joseph A. Mower. They had been under arms for at least a year and half by the beginning of the 1864 campaign, and they were inured to heat, dust, cold, rain, hard marching, and rough living. Hours of tedious drill assured that battlefield evolutions would come more or less automatically even under the pressure of combat. During that last year of the war they were probably as formidable a fighting force as any unit of similar size on the continent.
Finally, Smith’s men gained a reputation for destructiveness—the source of the “gorillas” nickname. I’d like to try to find out if they really were that destructive, or if their reputation was exaggerated. Did they differ from other Civil War soldiers in this respect? If so, why? What did they think of their reputation? And how did they feel about whatever destruction they actually did wreak on southern property?
So I’m looking forward to plunging into this study to answer a number of questions—about Grant’s strategy and the significance of some of the events of the last year of the Civil War, as well as about what factors made a Civil War unit particularly effective, and, possibly, particularly destructive.
Part 1 – Part 2