There are two important aspects when it comes to examining history that I constantly remind my students. The first is to always be cognizant of the fact that whatever has happened in history did not have to happen the way that it did. Second, the history that did come about often came about at an incredible cost in blood, sweat and treasure not to mention exacting some sort of emotional and mental price on all of those involved. We need to be mindful of this. It is easy to take history for granted and assume that what played out is how it was destined to play out. The reality is that history is not a conspiracy in it of itself. Past events were shaped by people and their choices and decisions in real time, by circumstances that were fluid and malleable not rigid and predetermined. Two examples in American history that can help better explain these two important aspects of looking at history are found in the years 1864 and 1944. In both of these years America was embroiled in war and conflict and in both of these years America was approaching each war’s end- within a year. Together too, they share a distinction of being two of the most brutally violent and traumatic years in our history.
In 1864 America was in the third year of civil war. Although the tide of the war had begun to turn in favor of the Union due especially to victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the latter allowing for the Union to control the entire Mississippi River and therefore making the splitting of the Confederacy finally possible, Union victory was anything but a sure thing. Casualty rates were at a staggering level. The war and the federal draft needed to support it were becoming increasing unpopular in the north. The public was becoming war weary. Lincoln himself throughout the summer of 1864 did not believe that he would be reelected president in November. Complete Union victory was still very much in doubt.
But often times, especially in textbooks this escapes the narrative. Instead what is too often portrayed is that once the victory at Gettysburg occurred in July of 1863 marking the high water mark for the Confederacy the war’s outcome was a pretty much fait accompli. That the weight of the Union’s seemingly limitless manpower and ever expanding war time economy were finally exacting tolls on the Confederacy. Sure the war lasted until April of 1865 however the Union was destined to win. The reality however was that nothing could have been further from the truth.
Ulysses S. Grant was not promoted by Lincoln to Lieutenant General of all Union armies until early March of 1864. Attaching himself to the Army of Potomac still technically under the command of George Meade Grant’s Overland Campaign to annihilate Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia did not get under way until May of 1864. The casualties the Army of the Potomac took at the beginning of this campaign were obscene- between May and June of 1864 Grant’s strategy had cost 60,000 casualties with major engagements against Lee at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse and Cold Harbor. Grant’s tactics earned him the nickname “the butcher” in some northern newspapers as a result. This new war strategy which was a dramatic shift from previous campaigns ran the very real possibility of alienating an already war fatigued northern public.
Unlike 1861, 1862 or 1863, 1864 was a presidential election year. The November election would be a referendum on Lincoln’s handling of the war. In fact the Democratic nomination for president was George McClellan. The same George McClellan that created the Army of the Potomac and was relieved of his command not once but twice by Abraham Lincoln. McClellan ran while still on active duty in the U.S. Army. His platform focused on finding an honorable end to the war and keeping southern institutions intact, namely slavery. He was the counter argument to Lincoln and how Lincoln was prosecuting the war. The stark fact facing Lincoln was the realization that the public might tolerate increased Union casualties but only if apparent and measurable progress were being made against the Confederacy. By the time Grant began to lay siege of Petersburg south of Richmond after the Union’s horrible experience at Cold Harbor real concern began to take over Washington that the end of this war was nowhere in sight. Grant was amassing more and more casualties with no politically meaningful points for Lincoln to score; not to mention Washington, D.C. was still being threatened by Confederate General Jubilee Early via the Shenandoah Valley. Things did not look particularly promising for the Lincoln administration and this new total war strategy.
Fortunately for Lincoln, Philip Sheridan, William Sherman and Ulysses Grant will all play a role in saving his presidency and winning the war. This new union strategy had very much a hitting and holding element to it according to historian Clark Reynolds. It was a military strategy of concentration. Initially drawn up to have Grant continuously hit Lee’s army, Sheridan and Sherman were to play more of the holding element. From a military standpoint, the hitting aspect would be where the main drive or attention would be concentrated, whereas the holding element would be designed to harass and most especially prevent enemy forces from linking up. In this case, Philip Sheridan was ordered into the Shenandoah Valley to wreak havoc on its resources and neutralize any Confederate threat to Washington which he achieved effectively. William Sherman was tasked with orders to take the war into the virgin confederate territory if at all possible. Georgia. And both men’s activities were designed to prevent any link up of any viable Confederate armies to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Keep it all separate. This new strategy was fraught with significant risk and did not have the luxury of time. November is the election.
As is often the case war is unpredictable. And this ties into the notion that things in history are not destined to play out one particular way or another. As 1864 moved from summer and into the fall it became clear that the hitting and holding elements of the Union strategy reversed. Not so much with Sheridan but certainly with Grant and Sherman. Grant becomes the holding element laying siege to Petersburg and Sherman hits the hell out of the Confederacy in Georgia and then South Carolina. Remarkable. Sherman’s military success perhaps saved the war, but at the very minimum (and a very important minimum) saved Lincoln’s presidency.
William Sherman took the commanding reigns in the west marching his union army out of Tennessee into Georgia as part of the Atlanta Campaign. This campaign which began in the spring of 1864 concluded with the taking of Atlanta in September of 1864. The taking of Atlanta resulted in two major developments. First, that Lincoln would be reelected in November as president and second, that the deep interior of this section of the Confederacy was finally going to be exposed to the horrible effects of war in a way which had not been the case up until this point. Implementing a scorched earth policy Sherman truly made “Georgia howl.” John Bell Hood’s Confederate army failed at drawing Sherman back into Tennessee when he chose not to pursue Sherman but rather move on Nashville. Sherman did not take the proverbial bait. Sherman’s March to the Sea began in November 1864 and concluded with the taking of Savannah, Georgia just prior to Christmas of that year.
1864 was a pivotal year for the civil war and our country. Two simultaneous military campaigns brought a combination of death, violence, destruction, conquest, annihilation, subjugation and hope to America. It was in many ways the final horrific chapter needed to be taken if the war was to eventually end; Lincoln, Grant and Sherman understood that in order to win the war the war needed to be fought more than just on battlefields. They also were keen enough to recognize opportunities when they were presented and to not hesitate in terms of adjusting strategy and flipping the script. 1864 was a helluva year for America.
1944 was a critical year for America in World War II. This year marked the moment that the Allies established a permanent foothold in Europe by opening up a western front through the invasion of Normandy, France. Once again the narrative tends to minimize the difficult challenges the allies faced moving then on Germany. It becomes instead a very simple- The Allies landed in Normandy, moved on to Paris by the end of the summer and it was more or less all downhill from there into Germany. Another fait accompli. Germany therefore was destined to lose.
Now an argument certainly could be made that our position in Europe in 1944 was not nearly as perilous or delicate as the Union cause in 1864, after all, Roosevelt was not dealing with political uncertainty, the war effort was not becoming unpopular throughout the public and the Soviet Union was showcasing itself as a very viable ally on the eastern front as its counteroffensive was in full swing. But some of the most brutal fighting of the war for America took place after Normandy. There was nothing easy about marching on to Germany despite the fact that many believed the war against Germany would be over by the end of the year.
Dwight Eisenhower the overall Allied Commander in Europe put forth a broad front strategy in regard to moving east out of France and into Germany. This was both by choice and being pragmatic. Although the invasion was a success providing steady and consistent war material and equipment was a significant challenge because of the unpredictability of the weather as well as the fact that adequate ports needed to be taken and refurbished (German forces on the retreat and general combat decimated various ports that would have otherwise been used immediately.) The breakout beyond the Normandy coast called for controlling and sealing off the Brittany peninsula, moving on and liberating Paris as well as landing Allied troops in the South of France to put maximum pressure on the Germans. The plan was overall effective and would force Germany to defend against a broad front instead of at a single drive or allied thrust which was what Field Marshal Montgomery lobbied Eisenhower for. Eisenhower was unmoved and continued the broad front course destroying all German opposition west of the Rhine before advancing over and into the heart of Germany.
That said, Eisenhower did green-light a very daring and risky maneuver from British Field Marshal Montgomery for September 1944 that attempted to use airborne forces to get in behind German lines. Known as Market Garden the net result of this mission further reinforced Eisenhower’s position of using a rather broad plodding front and provided significant evidence that the war in Europe was not to be over by the end of the year.
The purpose of Market Garden was to secure and create a pathway into Northern Germany via the Netherlands. The Market aspect of the operation would use allied airborne to secure and hold a series of bridges. The Garden aspect of the operation would use a ground attack that would link up with the airborne stationed at these bridges securing a route into Northern Germany which was its industrial epicenter. This was a bold operation that perhaps looked good on paper because it might actually catch the Germans off guard, however, like most operations timing had to be absolutely perfect. German resistance was significantly stiffer than anticipated especially at Arnhem. The ground assault also was hampered by poor weather and road infrastructure delaying the arrival of relief forces. The net result was close to 16,000 Allied casualties between September 17th and September 25th.
At the same time as Market Garden U.S. forces were going up against Germany’s Siegfried Line. The German version of France’s Maginot Line. This was a German defensive line through various towns, villages and communities comprised of an intricate network of tunnels, bunkers, tank traps. Aspects of the line will remain intact through March of 1945. The U.S. objective of course was to smash through this line- very much easier said than done. In order to prevent German troops from reinforcing the line U.S. attention focused on the Hurtgen Forest, an area about fifty square miles just east of the Belgian/German border. The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest lasted from September 1944 until December of 1944 and it was an absolute nightmare for all soldiers involved. The forest had few roads and very little infrastructure. Dense trees, poor weather and rugged terrain made movement extremely difficult and perilous, not to mention making it nearly impossible to establish any sort of front line. The forest became known as “the meat grinder.” U.S. casualties by the end of the battle exceeded over 30,000. The battle resulted in a German defensive victory.
Unbeknownst to American forces the reason German forces defended the forest so fiercely is because this area comprised the staging area for what will become the last German offensive on the western front- Battle of the Bulge. This battle lasted from December 1944 to January 1945. Out of nowhere over 400,000 German troops with over 1,200 tanks poured out of the Ardennes in one last ditch effort to cut the Allied advance in two. It will fail but not before inflicting horrific casualties on U.S. forces.
The entire Allied Siegfried Line campaign resulted in over 135,000 American casualties. The Battle of the Bulge resulted in close to 80,000 casualties. Horrific numbers. Especially when one considers that many believed the war in Europe would be over by the end of 1944.
As we get further and further removed from historical events it is important to realize that how events play out are never predetermined in any way shape or form. That yes, in both years 1864 and 1944 the overall picture was more or less promising for Union forces and American forces respectively, but that does not mean that Americans did not face untold hardship, violence and brutality. There is a cost associated with everything despite how we often cavalierly and carelessly share the historical narrative.