Glaze on Burke, 'Soldiers from Experience: The Forging of Sherman's Fifteenth Army Corps' (2024)

Burke, Eric Michael. Soldiers from Experience: The Forging of Sherman's Fifteenth Army Corps. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2022. 354 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 9780807178096.

Reviewed byRobert Glaze (Georgia Military College)
Published onH-CivWar(July, 2024)
Commissioned byLindsay Rae Smith Privette (Anderson University)

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Superb and innovative Civil War unit histories have proliferated in recent years. Scholars like Susannah J. Ural, Brian Matthew Jordan, Lawrence Kreiser Jr., and others have demonstrated the continued relevance of one of Civil War history’s oldest subgenres. In Soldiers from Experience, Eric Michael Burke joins the ranks of historians who seamlessly weave cultural and military history together to enhance our understanding of Civil War combat while also providing an effective model for future scholarship.

Inspired at least in part by his mentor’s (Joseph T. Glatthaar) pathbreaking The March to the Sea and Beyond: Sherman’s Troops in the Savannah and Carolinas Campaigns (1985), Burke explores how the Army of the Tennessee’s Fifteenth Corps became one of the general’s most reliable tools. Thanks to its formative experiences during 1862-63, as the corps marched southward toward Atlanta in May 1863, it did so with “a distinct set of assumptions, predispositions, and beliefs about the manner in which operations ought to be conducted, which tactics were most appropriate for particular situations, and even how the war itself ought to be prosecuted. These ideas, shared broadly across the command, all came from the specific experiences which had forged the Fifteenth Corps” (p. 5).

Structured around a chronological narrative, Soldiers from Experience chronicles the Fifteenth Corp’s operations from the Vicksburg Campaign’s earliest stages through the Union victory at Chattanooga. Every step of the way, the corps’ distinct tactical culture—the culmination of those “assumptions, predispositions, and beliefs”—was shaped by battlefield experiences (both victories and defeats), preexisting cultural convictions, and an ever-present tug-of-war between doctrinal theory and practical exigencies. Additionally, this distinguishing character was the result of a constant dialogue between enlisted men and officers as all parties involved tried to militarily succeed while surviving combat.

While the Fifteenth would not be formally organized until late 1862, many of the corps’ contingent units first saw combat during the Fort Donelson and Shiloh campaigns. The author credits Zouve tactics, characterized by skirmishing and firing from cover, for much of the corps’ embryonic tactical culture. The Eight Missouri evinced Zouve tactics’ efficacy in early western theater operations. Even this early in the war, Burke makes clear, convictions, behaviors, and assumptions that developed in one unit, often percolated into others—to both detrimental and advantageous effects. In the case of Zouve tactics, the influence proved to be an asset in the long term as the unit’s colonel rose to brigade and division command. Later, costly attacks during the Vicksburg Campaign at Chickasaw Bayou and Arkansas Post further cemented an already existing cynicism toward frontal assaults and distrust in senior leadership, which were additional hallmarks of the Fifteenth’s tactical culture.

Burke shows that noncombat actions also had a role to play in the evolution of the corps’ distinct character. Canal construction, foraging, and area and resource denial operations, many of which convinced the corps of the veracity of the Union’s ever-evolving hard war policies, all informed its martial culture. Continued interaction with the institution of slavery and its victims served to convince the men of emancipation’s practical necessity. Burke’s findings here reinforce those argued in Krisopher Teter’s superb Practical Liberators: Union Officers in the Western Theater during the Civil War (2018). Ultimately, the Fifteenth came into its own as a corps of maneuver and resource denial—a trait the Federal high command, namely Ulysses S. Grant and William Tec*mseh Sherman, eventually recognized and exploited. Successful operations in the Vicksburg Campaign’s final stages proved indispensable in removing the corps’ distrust of the Union high command.

The author’s assessment of Sherman is nuanced. Burke argues that Sherman was slow to learn the corps’ strengths and weaknesses during his command’s early months. Costly frontal assaults resulted in suspicion and bitterness between the men and their commander. Conversely, by the outset of the Atlanta Campaign, Sherman recognized the corps’ strengths, resulting in the “perfect marriage” of the unit’s “tactical culture and the specific operational tasks it was called upon to perform” (p. 275). Breaking from historiographical convention, Burke defends Sherman’s actions at Chattanooga—crediting them as evidence of the general’s growing appreciation of his men’s limitations and capabilities. Ultimately, Burke credits Sherman with superb adaptability. He also largely steers clear of the psychohistory that has characterized much of “Uncle Billy’s” historiography, maintaining his focus on Sherman’s maturation as a general.

In addition to a meditative study on the development and evolution of a martial culture, Burke’s volume is also a compelling narrative of some of the western theater’s most significant military operations. Readers will gain new insight into one of the Union’s most effective tools in conquering the western Confederacy. While a direct analysis of the Atlanta Campaign is beyond the scope of Soldiers from Experience, it was in Georgia, as the author makes clear, that the Fifteenth made its greatest contribution to ultimate Union victory.

Moreover, in his stated goal of providing a methodological model for future unit histories, Burke succeeds admirably. He states in his introduction: “Just as the behavior of individuals is not exclusively determined by genetic destiny, neither were all the volunteer units serving in the US Army during the American Civil War confined to, or even capable of, responding to any particular tactical situation in exactly the same manner as any other” (p. 7). Undoubtedly true, this should serve as inspiration for scholars of all stages looking to contribute to the often crowded field of Civil War military history.

Citation:Robert Glaze.Review ofBurke, Eric Michael.Soldiers from Experience: The Forging of Sherman's Fifteenth Army Corps.H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews.July, 2024.

This work is licensed under aCreative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0United States License.

Glaze on Burke, 'Soldiers from Experience: The Forging of Sherman's Fifteenth Army Corps' (2024)
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