Monday, April 21, 2008

Jackson's Fredericksburg Tactic - Part Two

All appointments were perfect, every detail arranged, even to the reception committee of one brigade posted behind each breech in the line, concealed in the forest and covering the military road. Witness the artillery disposition. Fourteen guns were placed in line with the right brigade. But note well that they were concealed in the woods as long as practicable and were not opened on Meade until his advance came within eight hundred yards. On the flank of this right brigade, fifteen more guns were in position to cross fire with the fourteen in line. On the left and front of the left brigade, twenty-one guns were placed (here was one more crossing.) Meanwhile the fire of the infantry, disposed along a railroad fill and a supporting height, was reserved until the attacking force was within two hundred yards. After a deep infiltration of this line, it was only by masterly handling of his men that Meade was able to get out with a forty percent casualty return.

Is it likely that a man as skillful as Stonewall Jackson did a neat job like this and did not know he was doing it? It is likely that he arranged this perfect party for the Union I Corps just by carelessly neglecting to close two intervals in his line, the neglect continuining after warnings from enterprising young staff officers and brigade commanders who knew perhaps one-tenth as much about the art of war as Jackson? Could the whole thing have been just an accident, or "an error of judgement which cost many lives," as even so eminent an historian as G.F.R. Henderson described it?

Is it not more likely that it was a deliberate trap, carefully planned and set by the "Old Fox" in one of his most brilliant and characteristic moments? If so, it was planned and executed with such acumen and Jacksonian secrecy that even his own staff members knew not of it; or, if they did, they never told. Like most of Jackson's plans, it worked superbly.

Much has been made of the marshy ground between Archer and Lane. The time-honored theory is that Jackson considered this marsh impassable; hence his failure to occupy that portion of the line. Then, it is reasoned, the cold weather froze the marsh and it became passable; thus Jackson was not altogether guilty of bad judgment (his staunch Calvanistic piety not extending to direct communication with the Deity on future turns of the weather). At least two external facts impugn this theory: first, the marsh is not impassable today, and probably was not in 1862. Second, it was just as cold when Jackson made his disposition as when Meade's troops penetrated his line; there had been cold weather with snow on the ground for several days, but it is very questionable that it was cold enough to freeze the marsh to any considerable depth. Moreover, it should not be overlooked that the interval left between Lane and Pender was on dry ground.

It is worthy of careful note that, shortly before the battle, Jackson himself paused at Gregg's position behind the interval between Archer and Lane, and predicted the enemy would attack there.

Whether Jackson on December 13, 1862, was simply laying a deadly trap to annihilate Yankees, or was doing both and consciously experimenting with new defensive dispositions which might be practiced in a world war a half-century later, in undreamed-of front widths, is an imponderable question. But careful comparison of his formation at Fredericksburg with corps and army masses in the Eastern Front during the World War offers a profitable and interesting investment of time for the modern military student. It may conduce to the opinion that Stonewall Jackson was not only the smartest general officer on the field at Fredericksburg, but he was also ancestor of the modern flexible defense.