Streetwise Professor

April 10, 2023

Burke’s “Soldiers by Experience”: Praising and Slandering Sherman’s XVth Corps in the Same Book

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 6:31 pm

The XVth Corps of the Army of the Tennessee was one of the most storied and successful combat formations of its size in the Civil War. (Not to mention two ancestors served in it.) It is therefore gratifying to see it receive a book-length treatment in Eric Michael Burke’s Soldiers By Experience: The Forging of Sherman’s Fifteenth Army Corps 1862-1863.

I can give the book a qualified endorsement. It is really a tale of two books, one very good, the other not so much.

The narrative history portion of the book is excellent. In particular, the extended treatments of three largely neglected campaigns/battles–Chickasaw Bayou, Arkansas Post, and the efforts of Grant to get at Vicksburg from the north via the twisting streams of the Mississippi Delta–are very well done and fill a gap in Civil War historiography.

I was particularly interested to read the role that Morgan L. Smith and two Zouave units–the American Zouaves (recruited in Illinois but incorporated into Federal service as the 8th Missouri Volunteer Infantry) and the 11th Indiana Volunteer Infantry–played in developing innovative tactics that eventually spread throughout what became the XV Corps. I’ve read a huge amount of Civil War history since I was 8, and never came across this fact. A nice riposte to the Confederate general Daniel Gladden’s remark that all it took to make a Zouave was 6 yards of red flannel and an Irishman.

The analytic part of the book is not up to the standard set by the narrative part. The basic thesis is banal: military units have a culture that is shaped by their experience. Well of course.

The more specific thesis, that as a result of the bad experiences at Chickasaw and Arkansas Post the XVth Corps was neuralgic about attacking fortifications, is borderline slanderous (because it insinuates cowardice), and repeated endlessly.

The XVth Corps’ neuralgia was hardly unique. Every unit, North and South, had an intense aversion to attacking earthworks–once they had experienced it. If the XVth Corps was unique in any way, it was that it had such unfortunate experiences earlier than any other large unit, and therefore learned of the futility of such assaults earlier than any other large unit.

The XVth Corps assaults occurred in December, 1862 (Chickasaw) and January, 1863 (Arkansas Post). Prior to that time, the only other major assault against field fortifications occurred when the Confederates attacked Corinth, Mississippi in October, 1862. Even then, the Corinth defenses were not as formidable or as heavily manned as those at Chickasaw Bluffs or Arkansas Post. (There were of course earlier attacks on troops stationed behind pre-existing defenses, like the Stone Wall at Fredericksburg or the Sunken Road at Antietam.)

Virtually every time other formations attacked earthworks subsequent to December 1862-January 1863 (a) the attacks were bloodily repulsed, and (b) like the XVth Corps, the attackers shuddered at the the thought of ever doing it again. The XVth Corps was therefore no exception possessing some distinctive culture involving a unique aversion to attacking earthworks: it was the rule, and the corps essentially pioneered the rule through its experiences in the winter of 1862-3.

In other words: they were no dummies, and learned quickly because they had to.

I note that bad experiences were not even necessary. Yes, the XVth Corps was reluctant to attack the formidable defenses of Vicksburg in May, 1863. But so were the XIIIth and XVIIth Corps, which had not had to attack earthworks prior to 19 and 22 May, 1863. As veterans they could quickly understand the likely outcome of rushing prepared defenses manned by veteran troops.

Crucially, after the grim experiences of the winter of 1862-3 the XVth Corps drew upon the Zouave tactics of the 8th Missouri and 11th Indiana to develop an open order, skirmishing-style tactical system that was well-adapted to the realities of the rifled musket, field fortifications, and combat in wooded terrain. Not all who would be bloodied in attacking trenches in the Civil War figured that out. Hell, 1914 armies (especially the French, but the Germans too) hadn’t figured that out.

I have to say too that as a book based on Burke’s PhD thesis, its academic style is sometimes rather grating: it comes off as somewhat pompous and stilted. And I say that as an academic.

In sum, if you are interested in the Civil War at a relatively deep level, I can recommend the book. It provides excellent coverage of some overlooked campaigns, and goes into considerable tactical detail. But if you do read it, discount the (academic) thesis and focus on the historical narrative.

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1 Comment »

  1. History is a funny game. A few years ago I read a short piece by an American historian who claimed to specialise in the English Civil War. It turned out that she thought the whole thing was a religious war between Protestants and Roman Catholics. What can you say?

    I have known two obviously able PhD students in history. The abler one went off to a career in university administration. The less able became Prime Minister. Hey ho.

    Comment by dearieme — April 13, 2023 @ 12:00 pm

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