by Scott D. O’Reilly
The South has a habit of embracing lost causes. First, a Texan named LBJ adopted the Vietnam War; a conflict his advisors privately fretted was unwinnable. And now another tough-talking Texan, GWB, is refusing to wind down a war that most military experts believe is unwinnable. In both instances America’s policies seemed self-defeating, but proponents of fighting to the finish are singling out opponents of the war – not its architects – and laying the blame for not winning at their door.
In actuality, however, the South has tradition of producing larger than life figures filled with grand military ambitions that lead their followers into spectacular military failures. Perhaps the most pertinent example of a soldier of misfortune is General Henry Hopkins Sibley, a Confederate officer with a grand plan to defeat the Union with a daring raid into the heart of enemy territory. Sibley’s plan, if you will, was the Civil War equivalent of America’s “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq.
Sibley’s strategy was hatched, of course, in Texas. His plan was to march 2000 miles through hostile terrain in New Mexico and Colorado, capture key Union forts along the Santa Fe Trail, especially Ft. Union, which was the last outpost the North had in the West, thereby leaving Colorado’s vast gold and silver reserves unprotected, and giving the Confederacy a clear field to absorb California, its mineral wealth, and its warm water ports. It looked like a stroke of genius on paper, but it turned into of the most calamitous failures in the annals of American military history.
Sibley’s plan was hampered by his alcoholism and his reputation for cowardice. During crucial moments of the campaign Sibley had the habit of hibernating in a secure location while his men faced enemy fire. This did not always affect the morale of his men, however; many of them perished leading gallant charges against a heavily fortified enemy that knew the territory they were fighting in.
In the end, however, Sibley’s campaign was determined not by battlefield heroics, or even a failure to win critical battles, but by a logistical blunder of the first magnitude. After the Battle of Glorieta Pass, which the Confederates believed they had won, Sibley’s entire supply train, guarded by a only half-dozen or so Johnny Rebs, was quickly overrun in a chance encounter with a much larger force of Union cavalry. His supply lines cut, Sibley’s forces had no choice but to withdraw.
Sibley’s strategy for winning the Civil War in a masterstroke was as audacious as it was ill executed. Had it been implemented by a more capable commander it is possible those of us in the North might be whistling Dixie today. But losing the Battle of Glorieta Pass was just the beginning of the end of Sibley un-illustrious career. He was a decided failure in the Battle of Birmingham some years later. And soon thereafter he court-martialed for cowardice, though in the final verdict he was censured rather than convicted. He succumbed to some combination of drink and destitution after the war. Perhaps fittingly, even the date of death on his tombstone is wrong.
What lessons does Sibley’s story have for us today? First, in war things rarely go according to plan. Second, it’s much harder to attack than it is to defend, particularly when you’re in unfamiliar territory. And third, defending supply lines is frequently more important than battlefield heroics. In the final analysis, grand strategies, no matter how impressive they look on the drawing board, can be quickly come undone because of a logistical Achilles heel.
This may be where America is with respect to Iraq. The American military will not be defeated anytime soon on the battlefield, but keeping U.S. troops properly equipped is growing ever more difficult. The original strategic aims – capturing Baghdad, securing Iraq’s oil wealth, and establishing a beachhead for democracy in the Arab world -- are increasingly beside the point. Even President Bush admits we are not in the war we entered; our mission now, it seems, is to avoid a retreat that would usher in the kind of chaos the original invasion was meant to prevent. There is another lesson, of course: those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.