Book Review: Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage by Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson

Most of you who stop by here regularly know that I am a big fan of Grady McWhiney’s “Celtic South” idea.  That adherence didn’t come from theoretical considerations, but from hard experience.  Some people characterize McWhiney’s thesis as a form of “white supremacy,” but that only shows the decline of reading comprehension among Americans.  I think that it’s the key to showing that white supremacy is demonstrably false, but more about that later.

Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage by Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson concerns the central event in the conflict between the Scots-Irish and the rest of us: the Civil War/War Between the States.  The problem under discussion in this book is best summed up by this passage from the preface:

Charles P. Roland has pointed out that more than a fourth of the million men who served in the Confederate army died of wounds of disease, and that in relation to the southern white population “those service casualties were as great as those endured by major European participants in the wars of the twentieth century.  If the North during the Civil War had suffered commensurately she would have lost more than 1,000,000 men instead of 360,000.  The American colonies in revolt against England would have lost 94,000 men instead of 12,000.  The United States in World War II would have lost well over 6,000,000 men instead of somewhat more than 300,000.  The Confederacy rendered the heaviest sacrifice in lives…ever made by Americans.”

How and why the Confederacy lost so many men is the burden of this book.  We contend that the Confederates bled themselves nearly to death in the first three years of the war by making costly attacks more often than did the Federals…The Confederates could have offset their numerical disadvantage by remaining on the defensive and forcing the Federals to attack; one man in a trench armed with a rifle was equal to several outside of it.  But Southerners, imprisoned in a culture that rejected careful calculation and patience, often refused to learn from their mistakes.  They continued to fight, despite mounting casualties, with the same courageous dash and reckless abandon that had characterized their Celtic ancestors for two thousand years.  The Confederates favored offensive warfare because the Celtic charge was an integral part of their heritage.

Much of the middle part of the book details the changes in warfare that had taken place in the 1850’s that changed the whole tactical situation.  Most of the generals on both sides (and some of the politicians, such as Jefferson Davis) served in the Mexican War, and there the offensive definitely paid off.  As the Civil War began much of the officer corps on both sides basically prepared to fight the last war.

But that was a mistake.  The major technological change that took place was the change from smoothbore guns to rifles, which extended the kill range from around 300 yards to 1000 yards.  That shifted the advantage from the attacker to the entrenched defender.   The Federals were quicker to pick on this simple fact as opposed to their Confederate opponents, which led to an observation that didn’t get developed as well as it should: the Federals learned from their mistakes, the Confederates didn’t.  That’s as aspect of Southern culture that exasperates more than most, and it’s independent of educational level and socio-economic status.  The battle cry of “We’ve always done it this way” still resounds in these parts.

That affected the other aspects of the army, namely the artillery and cavalry.  The artillery was slower to convert to rifled bores, and in spite of its offensive value in Mexico found itself most valuable on the defense during the Civil War.  Cavalry charges were almost inevitably disasters, with the defenders “emptying the saddles” in short order.  The cavalry found itself more effective in dismounted conflict, reconnaissance, and flanking maneuvers.  As always Southerners loved the cavalry but their ability to keep it in the field deteriorated to the point that, in the last part of the war, most of the cavalry action came from the Federals.

All of this is presented in fascinating detail that will certainly alter the way one looks at the Civil War from a military standpoint.  The question is, how well do the authors link all of this information with the idea of the Celtic South?  Not as well as one would like; that comes at the very end of the book, and is to some extent sequestered from the rest.  There are several things that the authors could have pointed out which would have strengthened their case.

The first is that the most “Celtic” thing the South didn’t do leading up to the Civil War was to develop an industrial and transportation base to fight the modern war that it became.  Such requires patience and industry, both of which were in short supply south of the Mason-Dixon line.  That affected the South grievously in its ability to keep an army in the field.  The authors speak of the Southern soldier’s ability to endure hardship and deprivation, but both were accentuated by a faulty economic system that progressively found it difficult to furnish its army with weapons, uniforms and (in a rich agricultural region like the South) food.

The second is they point out Grant’s aggressive, offensive strategy in Virginia in the last two years of the war.  That needs to be seen as a part of the war of attrition that Grant was fighting.  Knowing that he had more men and the industrial base to keep them in the field, Grant simply beat Lee’s army into submission at Appomattox.  A different strategy was employed by Sherman, whose name is still cursed down here: he avoided the attack most of the time, inflicting damage on the Confederate civilian infrastructure as opposed to their military one.  (He made an exception at Kennesaw Mountain, which he lived to regret.)

The third (and they do mention this from time to time) is that a defensive strategy by the South was not only justified by the changes in weaponry but also by the difficult terrain that covered large parts of the Confederacy.  That terrain, coupled with the poor railroad and road system (which was in common with Russia during the World Wars) made the attack difficult.  The Confederates would also have done better with guerilla warfare, but their romantic culture didn’t allow for that.

One person that comes in for special opprobrium is Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s President.  His experience in the Mexican War made him an apostle of the attack, and much of the impetus for that came from the very top.  That had traction with Southerners, and led to many of the serious losses the Confederacy experienced, especially in the early years of the war.

The Confederates had company in not learning lessons from their own mistakes.  Europeans in general and the French in particular learned little or nothing from the American Civil War.  The French (the same native soil as Vercingetorix and his disaster at Alesia) went into World War I with an offensive strategy that lasted until Robert Nivelle’s offensive in 1917 that nearly broke the French army.   The Germans for their part attempted to replicate Grant’s war of attrition at Verdun, but it took a few years and another war for that investment to see a return.

Also, many Northerners had the same level of contempt for Southern whites has the latter had for black people, up to and including the desire for genocide.  This illustrates that the differences between the two cultures was understood at the time.  McWhiney’s thesis has brought back that difference into view.  Today the Scots-Irish are Donald Trump’s biggest supporters.  You’d think that the left would be eager to embrace McWhiney’s thesis to trash their opponents once and for all.  But they have not, and there are three reasons for this.

The first is that, if you can trash one ethnic group, you can trash another.  The left is afraid that, if they make this stick, someone else will come along and do the same thing with one of their own constituencies.  But anyone familiar with various people groups in this country should realize that the Scots-Irish are sui generis.

The second is that, underneath their contempt, the “hippie ideal” that the sixties types and their fans is really the Scots-Irish typical way of life: unbridled sex and drinking (and now opioids,) along with a lazy attitude towards work.  When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez first unveiled her “Green New Deal,” one of the planks in the platform that got removed early was the promise of income for those who didn’t want to work.  This is a Scots-Irish dream come true; the reason Southern states are so tight with their welfare systems is they know what would happen if they implemented such a plan.

The third is that the whole attack on “white supremacy” assumes that white people are a homogeneous group.  That’s simply not the case.  Once we realize that there are differences, a major cornerstone of intersectionality is knocked out.  The Scots-Irish are the boxcar hobos on the train of white supremacy, and the sooner both they and everyone else come to grips with that fact, the better.

Today this country is as divided as it has been since the days of attack and die.  Those of the Scots-Irish mentality are looking for that great victory that will wipe out their opponents, whether that victory be an election, a great preacher-led revival, or another shooting war.  It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is going to end badly, and in a world where we are not so isolated from the rest, while we fight each other our rivals will advance at our expense.  Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage by Grady McWhiney and Perry Jamieson is a good study in what happens when the big things in life are done on impulse and emotion, and that’s a lesson that needs to be learned today.

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