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in late December 1862 Union general Ambrose Burnside developed plans to march across the Rappahannock and execute a massive turning movement against Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s troops entrenched along the southern banks of the river. Burnside hoped to ring in the new year by trapping Lee and his Confederates against the river, capturing his army, and redeeming the recent Union defeat at Fredericksburg. in so doing, he would also establish a strong position for marching against Richmond, the ultimate Union goal. Under ideal conditions, Burnside’s plan was viable, if risky. However, as often happens in war, conditions were nowhere near perfect. on January 20, 1863, the day before Burnside planned to initiate the campaign, a winter wave cyclone passed into the area, bringing with it significant amounts of precipitation. “As soon as the general got his army in motion,” historian James McPherson wrote, “the heavens opened, rain fell in torrents, and the Virginia roads turned to swamps.”1 As geographer Harold Winters has pointed out, the soils of the region are primarily ultisols—fine-grained, massive, heavily weathered soils that tend to form underlying clay layers that impede percolation of water once saturated . Excess moisture must then run off into streams or pool on the surface.2 Despite worsening conditions, Burnside chose to push forward. Winters noted that the “churning action from moving men, horses, and equipment” turned the roads into “deep muddy tracks,” and the end of the day on January 21 saw Burnside’s nearly 75,000 men “bogged down and their equipment immobilized.”3 The next day the humiliated Union troops, still on the northern banks of the Rappahannock, retreated to their SEVEN Nature as Friction Integrating Clausewitz into Environmental Histories of the Civil War Li SA M. B RADY Nature as Friction 145 original base at Falmouth, haunted by jeers and taunts from their Confederate enemies. After Burnside’s disaster, no Union general commenced a winter campaign in Virginia again.4 in analyzing why Burnside’s so-called Mud March became such a colossal failure, several factors require attention. one element centers on Burnside’s strategy and whether or not it was inherently flawed. By the standards of the day, his plan was neither brilliant nor incompetent, but it only had reluctant support from Burnside’s fellow officers—a clear mark against it. However, had the rains not come and the roads stayed passable, the operation had a reasonable chance of success despite its critics. in the planning stages, Burnside had enjoyed fair weather and based his operations on the assumption that similar conditions would prevail. Another matter concerns whether or not the plan was effectively executed. The soldiers and the officers conducted themselves largely according to plan—as far as it was in their power to do so. A third issue is a question of leadership . Though the change in weather brought conditions that merited caution , Burnside’s decision to press on was not unwarranted. Harold Winters noted, “As is common in military operations, the mission was paramount to all other factors. on that basis, and regardless of the weather,” Burnside made his decision.5 in addition to strategic imperatives, there were political influences that impinged on Burnside’s deliberations. The Union troops had suffered a demoralizing defeat only a month before. The northern populace was losing faith in the army and Lincoln was pressing for a clear and decisive victory. All of these external pressures weighed on Burnside when he resolved to proceed. in the end, the problem lay not with planning or execution but in leadership . it was Burnside’s decision, and his alone, that resulted in failure. He erred in thinking his troops and his plan could overcome the obstacles nature presented. Burnside’s lapse in judgment was a classic example of leadership failure in the face of what the nineteenth-century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz called “friction” (Ger.: Friktion). in his now-classic treatise, On War, first published in 1832, Clausewitz outlined a universal paradox of warfare. He noted, “Everything [in war] looks simple; the knowledge required does not look remarkable, the strategic options are so obvious that by comparison the simplest problem of higher mathematics has an impressive scientific dignity. once war has actually been seen the difficulties become clear; but it is still extremely hard to describe the unseen, all-pervading element that brings about this change of perspective.” Clausewitz identified the source for this percep- 146 Lisa M. Brady tual shift as friction...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780820347752
Related ISBN
9780820347141
MARC Record
OCLC
898770323
Pages
256
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-23
Language
English
Open Access
No
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