The Bohemians of War

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As wars go, the American Civil War was unique, on many scores. For one, more Americans killed each other in that war than the entire lot of them killed in the two world wars. Many historians regard it as the trial run for the Great War that followed, for its magnitude and technological and methodological innovations it threw up. However, the most interesting part was the bohemian personalities among the generals on both sides. Of the two most successful generals who led the Union Army to victory, Ulysses S Grant and William T Sherman, the former was an alcoholic, the latter a lunatic.

Grant, the Commander-in-Chief, was cashiered and thrown out of the army when a young captain for his excessive drinking habits, and was surviving as a clerk in the estate of his father-in-law, when the Civil War broke out, and the army, desperately needing all trained men on board, took him back. A reckless fighter, he soon rose through ranks for his prowess in combat, winning battle after battle, and ended up being a general and finally commanding the whole army, when one senior general after another was being meted out humiliating defeats by the highly combative Confederate Army, under its fiery commander, Robert E Lee. Grant didn’t leave his drinking habits behind either. Even as a senior general he had had his wild drunken sprees when he would gallop madly through the troops’ lines at night, sloshed outright. President Abraham Lincoln, fuming and frustrated by the never-ending news of defeats of his generals, when told of Grant’s drunken sprees, retorted, “Find out which whiskey he drinks, and send a barrel each of it to all our generals”. Grant, not only went on to win the war, but was elected the President of the United States for two terms.

Sherman, who commanded the army in the western theatre during the war and later took over command of the army from Grant when he moved on for the presidency, had interrupted his military career to pursue a business one and failed and later turned to being an academician to earn the sobriquet of “the mad professor”, returned to the army at the onset of the war. Notorious for his eccentrics, he is credited for the famous “March to the Sea” that led to the capture of the strategic city of Atlanta and is considered the original exponent of the infamous scorched-earth policy that broke the will of the confederate states to fight, because of the largescale destructions inflicted over the entire territories captured, rendering that barren.

Robert E Lee, the Confederate Commander, was one of the most distinguished generals of the United States Army and was the Commandant of the Military Academy at West Point, when the war began. He resigned his commission to join the Confederate Army, when his home state of Virginia seceded from the Union, although personally he was not in favour of the secession. Commanding the Confederate Army, he bested every other Union General with his aggressive tactics until Grant came by. Grant matched Lee’s aggressive tactics by his own recklessness. Ironically, Grant was a cadet at West Point, when Lee was the commandant.

The Confederates had to lose the war, despite their immense fighting spirit and early victories, because as Rhett Butler, the hero of Gone with the Wind, famously puts it “the North had everything going for them, manpower, industrial infrastructure and financial resources, whereas the South had just cotton and a lot of arrogance”. Even in defeat Lee’s nobility stood out. He shunned the advice of his senior aides not to surrender, but dissolve the army and continue the fight through guerilla warfare. He famously pronounced that he did not want to condemn his country to years of anarchy and suffering. “We have fought the good fight and lost and must accept the consequences as good soldiers”, he told them. He then advised his soldiers to go back to their homes and live as good citizens of the Unites States of America, a lesson India’s secessionist leaders ought to learn.

The surrender at Appomattox Court House was somewhat paradoxical. Grant, riding in from the field, in his muddy boots and unkept looks, was feeling self-conscious about appearing shabbily turned-out in front of Lee, who was, after all, the commandant of the academy, when he was a cadet. He was still in awe of him and feeling terribly bad about such an eminent soldier having had to surrender. And Lee was waiting for him, splendidly attired in parade ground perfection. Grant, in fact, opened the conversation by apologising for his poor turn out, before asking how many food packets should be delivered, knowing very well that Lee’s troops were starving. Grant’s respect for Lee naturally led to him offering overtly generous conditions of surrender, which helped immensely in the reconciliation of the Southern States and reconstruction that followed. History throws up strange personalities and strange situations indeed.

The Indian Army did have had some bohemians over the years like Lieutenant General Sagat Singh of the 1971 Meghna Heli-Bridge fame. Nevertheless, we could do with far more of their breed, if we are to notch up epic victories of the Bangladesh scale as we go on.

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Lt Col S V Sundar
2 months ago

A fascinating read..All three American Generals in the article are larger than life figures in American history..Their different backgrounds and how they performed in war is thestuff of legends. Brilliant ly brought out by the author. Glad the Capt DPR has thought it fit to mention Gen Sagat ” the whisky drinking tough battle tested Corps Cdr in the Patton mould”, as described by another author, and the need to have such able Commanders to retain ours as one of the best fighting outfits the world over. I had given 5 stars for the article but the button I pressed… Read more »

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