The Texas Brigade Soldiered On

Conditions for the Confederate army worsened as the war dragged on. By 1863, the Texas Brigade was in Tennessee. It was common to see soldiers barefoot, men with no pants and some with no coat. Robert Campbell recorded that in late 1863, he had but one pair of pants with only one leg. Sgt. D.H. Hamilton kept the split sides of his shoes together by tying the pieces to his feet. He and some of friends learned to make rough shoes out of simple rawhide. Malachiah Reeves received rawhide shoes like this from home during winter and was thrilled. It was, he recorded, better than being barefoot. These “shoes” became known in camp as “Longstreet’s moccasins” – named for their Corps Commander, Gen. James Longstreet.

Yet, they fought on. In my time in the U.S. Army, no one would stay in a conflict with that sort of support. Even in Iraq, where we received many packages and thoughts from home, we would sometimes wonder if the folks back home remembered us. If we had to rely on “Longstreet’s Moccasins,” we would surely have despaired of support from home. Yet, the December, 1863 Confederates soldiered on.

Desertion Rates

Or, did they? The Texas Brigade, until November, 1863, was immune from the desertion rates found in other Confederate units. Letters home and diaries reflected their sense of abandonment and rejection. The desertion rate did spike between November, 1863 and March, 1864. According to Dr. Ural, during the entire war, Hood’s Texas Brigade suffered 6% desertion rate. 34% of these desertions occurred between November, 1863 and March, 1864.

To be fair, the homes in Texas were not as threatened by Yankee invaders as the homes in Virginia or Mississippi, or other Southern states. The Federal troops had not penetrated deep into Texas and had simply not burned and stolen as much in that distant state. The letters home reflect that relative lack of concern for the safety of their families. But, the Texas Brigade returned to Virginia in the Spring of 1864. Their support increased. The quality of their leadership vastly improved, as well. In time of war, those things do matter. And, some 300 soldiers returned from furlough, unauthorized leave and sick leave. Many of the returning soldiers had received wounds in prior battles and were returning for more. Yes, in the end, they did soldier on, even when all they had was “Longstreet moccasins.”

Source:

Susannah J. Ural, Hood’s Texas Brigade (Baton Rouge, La.: LSU Press 2017), pp. 198-201.

The Will to Fight

Modern day observers argue that the Confederate soldiers were fighting for slavery. See Journal of the Civil War Era post, which frankly accuses the Confederates of treason. See Journal of the CWE post here. But, even if that were true, what motivated the Confederates do willingly incur the sort of sacrifices they made? “Treason” alone cannot sustain a soldier for months or years.

Lack of Unit Cohesion

Russian troops have criticized their commanders as “stupid morons.” Speaking of his brigade commander, one Russian soldier said he “dumped us. His commander left his brigade. “We’re all dead in the water if he left.” See Yahoo news report here.

Longstreet Moccasins

That sort of talk rarely occurred among the Confederate soldiers. By 1863, it was common in the Texas Brigade to see soldiers barefoot. There were men with no pants and some with no coat. Robert Campbell recorded that in late 1863, he had but one pair of pants with only one leg. Sgt. D.H. Hamilton kept the split sides of his shoes together by tying the pieces to his feet. He and some of his friends learned to make rough shoes out of simple rawhide. Malachiah Reeves received rawhide shoes like this from home during winter and was thrilled. It was, he recorded, better than being barefoot. These “shoes” became known in camp as “Longstreet’s moccasins” – named for their Corps Commander, Gen. James Longstreet.

The Russian soldiers criticize their commanders for employing the same unsuccessful tactics over and over. Until November, 1863, the Texas Brigade enjoyed much lower desertion rates than other Southern units. The desertion rate then spiked in November, 1863, as the brigade moved to Tennessee under new leadership. Letters home reflected a sense of abandonment and rejection. They were far from their normal lines of communication. Packages from home were no longer available. The support from local families and homes did not compare with what they had known in Virginia.

Motivated by Patriotism

But, they returned to Virginia in April, 1864 and enjoyed better support. Their desertion rate then returned to its normal low rate. One Russian soldier told his wife in a phone call, “It’s unclear why we are even here.” The Confederate soldier, on the other hand, always knew why he was serving. He was trying to repel the Yankee invader and protect his home. As Dr. McPherson found in his book For Cause and Comrade, some 57% of Confederate soldiers espoused patriotic fervor for the South. That is, their service was motivated by patriotism. The Confederates were fighting for their homes and families. They were the Ukrainians repelling the invaders, as best they could. I previously wrote about Dr. McPherson’s study here.

Casual observers of military operations argue that what motivates soldiers the most is fighting for their buddy, for their comrade. Yes, unit cohesion motivates many soldiers. But, as we see with the Russian soldiers, there must also be a foundation involving some larger purpose justifying their sacrifice.

Sources:

Susannah J. Ural, Hood’s Texas Brigade (Baton Rouge, La.: LSU Press 2017), pp. 198-201.

James McPherson, For Cause and Comrade by James McPherson (Oxford Univ. Press 1997), p. 102.

Confederate Leadership Principles and the Afghan Army

Armies have trained and studied for centuries on how to develop unit cohesion or esprit d’corps. With proper unit cohesion, an army can accomplish any objective. But, how do we attain unit cohesion? In Afghanistan, we see a complete disintegration of an army. On paper, the Afghan army numbered 300,000 soldiers. But, we know in reality it was much less, perhaps only 50,000. Even so, they have surrendered several times within the last week, sometimes without a shot fired. An entire Afghan Corps headquarters surrendered last week. How big is a Corps staff? In the U.S. army, a corps staff would include upwards of 500 soldiers. However large it was, they surrendered without firing a round. Why?

The New York Times tells us that the Afghan soldiers were not supported by their chain of command. They generally surrendered because they lacked food and ammunition. One Afghan security force was given a box of slimy potatoes as their daily ration. A police officer yelled out, “These french fries are not going to hold these front lines!” just days before surrendering. Not stated is that it is likely the Afghan higher commanders did not visit their troops. Sometimes, we visit the subordinate troops just to “show the flag.” As a commander, you always need first-hand information about the soldiers’ welfare. Historians tell us that one problem with how the U.S. conducted the Viet Nam war was the lack of visits by field grade officers to company level troops. Field grade officers include colonels and majors, the mid-grade levels.

Confederate Leadership

The Confederate soldiers endured this and worse. Many times, they would have been happy to have slimly potatoes as their daily ration. The Confederate army made their own shoes from rawhide. It was common for soldiers to wear trousers with only one leg. 300 members of the Texas Brigade returned from furlough in the Spring of 1864, knowing food and clothing would be scarce. See my prior post about the Texas Brigade here. In 1863, the Rebels were receiving only one-quarter pound of meat per day. During one two week period, one company received only one-quarter pound of flour, one-quarter pound bacon, three ounces of sugar.  Tents and blankets were rare for an army that always slept outdoors. See my prior post here.

In 1864, the adjutant to Confederate Lt-Gen. William Hardee reported at the close of the Battle of Atlanta that his uniform included the following: a hat with no crown, socks with no feet, trousers with one large white patch on the seat, boots with no soles. This was W.L. Trask’s sole clothing for the prior four months. If that was what an officer wore, we can imagine what the enlisted men were wearing.

Yet, the Confederates did not disintegrate like today’s Afghan army. The Texas Brigade suffered from a 6% desertion rate, much lower than other Confederate units. But, the Texas Brigade also did not suffer from the sort of home problems other Confederate army units endured. The Yankee soldiers did not pillage and burn Texas homes as they did in other Southern states.

John Bell Hood Leadership

So, what did the Confederates do that the Afghan army did not? We find some clues in the experience of John Bell Hood. Then Col. Hood succeeded to command of the Texas Brigade after others had tried and failed. He succeeded because he talked to the enlisted men. He explained the “why” of an order. He respected them for their pre-war jobs, many of which were very respectable. When he imposed a rule, such as lights out by 10 p.m., he explained that keeping lanterns lighted would keep other men awake. He insisted that subordinate officers explain the necessity of particular rules.

We know that Gen. Lee practiced the same sort of leadership principles. Even though he was the most senior general in the army, Lee wore a modest uniform, without all the required marks of his rank. He did not erect the largest tent. In fact, Lee’s tent was no larger than any other officer’s tent. Lee rarely slept in a house. He almost always slept in a tent, just like his men. And, of course, we know that Gen. Lee three times tried to lead a charge himself and three times, his men turned him back. There is no better example than to assume the most dangerous position in an attack.

Jefferson Davis was roundly criticized throughout the war by Southerners and Southern newspapers. But, he often visited various communities and the troops. He heard their complaints. The president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, has rarely left the high blast walls of the presidential palace in Kabul. The Confederates simply practices excellent leadership. Of course, we call this “Confederate” leadership. But, they were actually practicing what they learned at West Point and in the U.S. Army.  It takes work to lead men. It requires a leader to listen to his men. The Confederates practiced those principles of good leadership. It appears the Afghans did not.

Sources:

Emory E. Thomas, “Robert E. Lee (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1995), p. 226, 275, 330

Russell S. Bonds, War Like a Thunderbolt (Pennsylvania: Westholme Publ. 2009), p. 296, 351-352

New York Times, Aug. 14, 2021, p. 1, col. 6

Leadership in the Texas Brigade, John Bell Hood

Way back when, back when I was a young Infantry Officer attending the Infantry Officer Basic Course in the 1980’s, we had a course called “Leadership.” How do you teach leadership to a group of some 40 lieutenants? The IOBC cadre used the case method, the same method you see in Business school or law school. We looked at a wide variety of stories and examples from real life about good and bad leaders. There was no one ultimate answer to how to be a good leader. But, the point the IOBC cadre drove home with us was that in regard to United States soldiers, the best approach was egalitarian or democratic. Authoritarian leaders did not do so well in U.S. military history. The truism we arrived at was that we, as Infantry leaders, should always expect to explain to the soldiers why a given order made sense. Don’t just tell them. Expect that you will also need to explain to your soldiers why they must follow a given plan or order. We in the U.S. have a different tradition, when compared to Europe and other places.

Some leaders failed the Texas Brigade long before the war began. J.J. Archer, from Maryland, was appointed the first colonel of the Fifth Texas Infantry. He was not well-liked, partly because he was from Maryland – too close to “Yankeedom” said one soldier. But, the fact that he was not from Texas probably played a greater role. The lieutenant-colonel of the regiment faced even greater scrutiny. Frank Schaller, a German émigré, on paper had all the credentials. His grandfather and father served in the French army. He graduated from a military school in Germany and college in France. He served briefly in the Crimea. But, as one descendant explained, he was shy and lacked social skills. He was short, slim and high-strung. In early October, 1861, he rode into the Fifth Texas Infantry Regiment camp. He wore gold lace and stars on his uniform, a regiment that prided itself on officers with well-worn boots and appreciated one officer who rode into battle with a pistol in one hand and a frying pan in the other. Upon seeing the elegant officer, one soldier asked “What is it? Is it a man, fish, or bird?” The last the men saw of Lieut-Col. Schaller, he was riding out of camp on his horse, the mane sheared and the tail cut off. And, the men laughed heartily at their prank. So much for one appointed officer.

John Bell Hood understood how this worked. He might be appointed, but he still had to earn the respect of his men. Not the first, but one of the best commanders of “Hood’s Texas Brigade,” he knew instinctively to treat the citizen-soldiers as equals, or as near equals. The Texans were difficult. They complained about some commanders and found ways to force them out. Not so with John Bell Hood. Gen. Hood was from Kentucky originally, but he had lived many years in Texas. He was a West Point graduate. So, he was “regular Army” when compared to the Texas volunteers. The Confederate army could elect their company grade officers, but regimental and above officers were appointed by the central government. So, the Texas Brigade did not ask for him. But, they took to him right away.

How did Gen. Hood succeed where others failed? He would say later that he devoted the entire winter quarters to show he valued his men, both as soldiers and for their pre-war status. Many men were persons of standing in their home communities, but were now just another soldier. In his way, Gen. Hood recognized they had a place of significance before the war. He made a distinct effort to make the junior officers better junior officers. He said later he lost no opportunity to “arouse” their pride and to impress upon them that they would be the best soldiers. That goal of being the best appealed to the brash Texans. He urged them to police themselves, to look out for soldiers not doing their best and to take steps to fix the problem.

Gen. Hood mentioned that his predecessors did not take the time to explain the “why” of a given order. They would just issue the order and expect instant obedience. Hood, on the other hand, would take the time to explain. For example, he had a rule that lights had to be out by ten o’clock at night. He explained to the Texans that in keeping a light on, the soldier would not just keep himself awake, but all the others in his tent or cabin. An army must have its sleep if it was to do well the next morning. The general insisted that officers had to explain the reason for orders, not simply issue the orde

I have to say that same approach certainly worked for me during my Army time. I spent almost all my time during a drill weekend talking or counseling with soldiers. A decent soldier always responds to respect and simple listening. I learned from IOBC and Ft. Benning. Col. Hood likely learned from simple trial and error and good instincts.

Susannah J. Ural, Hood’s Texas Brigade, (Baton Rouge, La.: LSU Press 2017), pp. 48-49, 79-80.

Gen. Lee to the Rear

In the annals of military warfare, it was so extraordinary. There is no record of this happening to Julius Ceasar, Hannibal or Napoleon. In May 1864, in a Battle known as the Battle of the Wilderness, Gen. Robert E. Lee tried to lead the charge of the Texas Brigade. Commanding generals do not typically seek to lead a charge themselves. It just is not done. The commanding general has to keep the entire battle in mind. He has to forecast as much as possible chess moves three or four moves in advance. He must respond to aides hurrying back and forth with urgent messages seeking aid, warning of supply shortages, and he must press recalcitrant commanders. The heat of battle is “prime time” for a commanding general. Yet, when the Texas Brigade moved up to block a penetration by Union General Winfield Scott’s forces, he knew the moment was dire. He knew too that the Confederates were being pressed in ways they had never been pressed. He wanted to be sure the charge succeeded.

Gen. Lee cheered as the Texans moved into position to plug the gap created by Gen. Scott. The Corps Commander, Gen. Longstreet planned to move one brigade into the gap, followed by a second brigade and then a third. When the Texans first arrived, Gen. Lee urged them, “We mustdrive these people back.” A man not given to frequent displays of emotion already showed more emotion than his soldiers were used to. “The Texans always drive them,” he added.  The commander of the Texas Brigade, Gen. Gregg, told his men, “The eye of Gen. Lee is on you.” The Texans responded with cheers. With a shout of “Forward,” the Texans and Arkansans started forward with a yell.

Immediately, the men noticed Gen. Lee was moving with them. Capt. Bedell noticed the general advancing with them well into the enemy fire. Dozens would later insist they were there and they held the reins of Traveller, pulling Lee back to the rear. Traveller was the name of Lee’s horse, named after the horse used by Gen. Washington during the American revolution.

Capt. Bedell had been wounded twice in prior battles. He was one of the original recruits into Co, L of the Texas Brigade. Co. L came from Galveston. Capt. Bedell implored Lee to stop. Gen. Lee responded, “I want to lead the Texas Brigade in this charge.” From commander to his men, bypassing three or four layers of command was unusual in itself. But, the overall commander was negotiating with his men. He could have simply told them to shut up and let him do his job. But, he was negotiating, asking them to let him do what he thought he needed to do ensure success.

It is hard for civilians to understand this remarkable military relationship during war. There is an unspoken understanding that each person, male or female, will do his/her best at all times to ensure success of the military unit. That principle is a sacred duty. It stays with you all your life. In this instance, the Commanding General was asking his men to let him do what he believed he had to do to plug this gap. His men were telling him, “no.” They were assuming the responsibility for the success of this charge. They were saying, “sir, we got this.” They were not just assuring him they would ensure the success of this charge, they were insisting. They were telling their boss, “no,” in terms that did not allow for negotiation.

The tender feeling in that moment cannot be overstated. They were also saying the possibility of losing Gen. Lee was too high a price to pay for the success of one charge. That is an extraordinary honor, one probably never made to as successful a general as Robert E. Lee. Napoleon’s soldiers respected the general, but they did not love him. I am happy to say my soldiers generally liked me, in the best sense of that word, but to insist that I not risk my safety would have been just so beyond the pale.

Other soldiers joined in. “You will get killed dad[d]y.” “We won’t go forward until you go back,” said another. One soldier watching this unheard of display remarked years later, “I would charge hell itself for that old man.” One soldier in a friendly way kicked at Traveller, saying, “Get out of the Wilderness with General Lee, you old looney!” That alone would merit court martial in today’s army. In the Confederate army, assaulting the general’s horse in other circumstances would have resulted in lashes or worse.

The general finally turned toward the rear, as the Texas Brigade surged forward into the fire. Dozens of Texans fell. But, Gen. Lee lived.

When I was a young company commander in the Louisiana National Guard, we trained with the Fifth Division at Ft. Polk. It was an active duty division and they were very good in the field. My company was not so good in the field, or at least in the past, they were not so good. I was new. I talked with my soldiers all the time. I thought they were a great bunch of men and pretty decent soldiers. We trained and practiced various forms of attack all summer camp. The climax was a battle against an active duty Infantry company. The platoon in the lead found a way through a mine field. There was no direct fire on the mine field. So, we cleared the mines and then burst into a seam in the opposing company. We penetrated into the rear of the “enemy” company. We cleaned their clocks. We whipped them. They under-estimated us and paid a price for their over-confidence. For about a day afterward, my soldiers saluted me right and left. I could not go the latrine without returning a half dozen salutes. But, that experience, however small it was, comes nowhere close to soldiers telling their boss, three or four layers up the chain of command that he could not lead them in a charge. And, he took it. He took it. He accepted their refusal. Yes, there is love between men in battle.

Susannah J. Ural, Hood’s Texas Brigade(LSU Press 2017), pp. 212-213.