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Why the North Won the Civil War


Why the Confederacy Lost

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Shifting Strategies: Military Theory in the American Civil War 
Shifting Strategies: Military Theory in the American Civil War
by Daniel T. Rean, CWO3 USN Ret. Professor of History Franklin Pierce University

In four years of civil war stretching from the deserts of New Mexico to the valleys of Vermont, more than 620,000 Americans died. Many of those soldiers were victims of violent combat, shot by rifles or pistols, run through by bayonets, or blown apart by cannon fire.[1] However, many of those soldiers were also victims of a combat style that combined nineteenth century technology and weapons with eighteenth century tactics. The devastating effect of rifled muskets and cannons exacerbated the difficulties of developing a workable offensive strategy among generals whose West Point Military Academy (USMA) education emphasized a reliance on defense.[2] The inability to devise an offensive strategy that could destroy an enemy was particularly troubling to the majority of Union generals who, at the earliest stages of the Civil War, seemed reluctant to fight at all. It would not be until Ulysses S. Grant took command of the Union Army that northern strategy was modified with the goal of seeking "the utter destruction of the Confederacy's capacity to wage war."[3]

This essay will analyze the military and political factors related to the Civil War to demonstrate that the evolution of the conflict, from its early emphasis on winning individual battles to the final application of a total war policy, was a reflection of the military theories of Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz. While it would be impractical to analyze every skirmish, the work will focus on battlefield strategy, both militarily and politically inspired, employed by Union and Confederate commanders where there was a clear application of Jominian theory to the fighting. Jomini's theories on war were familiar to most of the generals and statesmen on both sides and taught those leaders how to fight their battles. Clausewitz's theories were not as familiar to either side, but their unwitting application taught the Union leadership something more important than how to fight battles – it taught them how to win the war.[4]

Both Jomini and Clausewitz developed and refined their theories based on their experiences with European warfare as it related to the conflicts of the Seven Years' War, and afterwards as war and society were transformed by Revolutionary France and the Napoleonic Era. Since the United States military would be measured by the standards of European military powers to test itself in matters of security, it was only natural that those European practices be taught at the USMA as a means of building a more professional corps of officers.[5] As such, the earliest military theory taught at USMA was based on the Napoleonic model of warfare. That model relied on the prolific expenditure of manpower to impose significant losses on the enemy in a battle of annihilation. Napoleon's favorite method for winning decisive victory was to employ several divisions in support of one another using some units to hold their position and batter the enemy while he exploited the capabilities of his cavalry to out maneuver and envelope the enemy. The battle of annihilation became the identifying feature for this new model of warfare.[6]

To bring the academy a proper European consideration of strategy, the curriculum included a summary of Jomini's theoretical precepts. The most important elements in Jomini's work stressed the ideas that war should be treated as a science where the key to victory was a strategy controlled by "invariable scientific principles."[7] However, by ignoring the work of Clausewitz the Unites States Army was relying on only one source of historical information upon which to base its formulation of military theory. This choice was problematic for several reasons. As historian Russell F. Weigley notes:

Jomini's intellectual roots were deep in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. He was repelled when he found elements of the chaotic and demonical in Napoleon's character and methods of war. He abhorred indiscriminate bloodshed. He did not approve of armies' living off the country through which they marched and spreading devastation and suffering in their paths. His mind moved in orderly and logical ways which impelled him to define the principles of war in such a manner that they would form a neat system. Though he criticized earlier military writers of the Enlightenment for system building, he was himself both a system-builder and a traditionalist, whose interpretations emphasized less what was novel in Napoleonic war than its continuity with the warfare of the eighteenth century.[8]

There were also positive aspects to using Jomini's interpretation of Napoleon's methods of warfare as a basis for American military theory. Jomini had served with Napoleon's armies and later with their Russian opponents and had first-hand experience of Napoleonic tactics. :

The USMA overcame several other problems in establishing a curriculum based on strategic thought. Complicating matters of justifying the requirement for educating professional officers was the fact that because of its geographic isolation, America had historically been afforded ample time to raise an army before battle. In turn, the armies were filled with volunteers who came directly from the workplace or state militias with officers who were chosen by their social status – not for their leadership skills. As a result, many officers went into combat without any real training. Popular literature romanticizing the "citizen soldier" made it even more difficult for ordinary Americans to see a need for a professional military officer.

To justify its usefulness in an era when the United States had no apparent enemies, the USMA had largely become a school of civil engineering where its students could demonstrate their abilities to do work in times of peace.[9] The study of engineering concepts was not without military value. A portion of the course was dedicated to the building of proper field fortifications in siege warfare. This practice was readily applied by Civil War commanders when they halted their marches, even for short periods. Experience had shown that field fortifications were the preferred method of defense when protecting troops from the destructive firepower of modern weaponry.[10]

Mahan's star pupil at West Point, and the foremost American expert on Jomini, was Henry Wager Halleck.[11] "Old Brains," as Halleck came to be known, had translated Jomini's Life of Napoleon and was intimately familiar with Jomini's master work, The Art of War. [12] The new emphasis on professional soldiering inspired him to write the first American treatise on the systematic exploration of the principles of strategy. It was Halleck's work on strategy and tactics that was taught to the West Point Class of 1846 – a class whose students included "Stonewall" Jackson, George B. McClellan, Ambrose Powell "A.P." Hill, and George Pickett.[13] Through the leadership of those future field commanders and the training of their subordinate officers, the tactics that were employed for many of the battles in the Civil War were clearly the products of Jominian theory. However, it is important to remember that West Point did not graduate Jackson, McClellan, Hill, and Pickett at the ranks of general.[14] Their understanding of Jominian theory, as interpreted by Halleck, was also reinforced through their own experiences in the field while fighting in the Mexican War and later in America's Indian wars.[15]

Halleck's manual contained a dichotomy that would ultimately affect the tactical thinking of his students. On one hand, his manual advanced the idea of the strength of offensive operations in warfare using examples of Napoleon's European campaigns. Yet even as it appeared to advocate bold and ruthless strategies in combat, it qualified those statements with numerous cautions against overaggressive behavior. He suggested that much of Napoleon's success was due to the product of luck.[16] In general, Halleck downplayed the role of the invader. He continually pointed out the dangers that awaited an invading army deep in enemy territory, and his work suggested that the speed at which an army moved was less important than keeping that army together to guard against a surprise attack from the enemy.[17]

Halleck's text ultimately tried to apply Jominian principles of defensive strategies to the military situation of the United States. Several of its chapters were dedicated to the practice of building defensive fortifications while assembling a force of superior strength capable of being brought to bear on the decisive points of an enemy's position. His concern for the use of fortresses reflected his vision of war based on the possession of territory – not the Napoleonic or Clausewitzian principle of destroying an enemy's army.[18]

Halleck was a firm believer in the geometry of warfare and his work emphasized the Jominian idea of "lines of operation."[19] Natural lines of operation used the advantages of terrain, such as mountains and rivers, to provide protection against the enemy. This was a factor that was overlooked to some extent when Halleck adapted Jominian principles to America without considering the differences in the terrain. The natural lines of operation in America, and those that would determine the battlefields of the Civil War, were clearly defined in the west by the area between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains. In the east, the fighting would take place between the Atlantic Seaboard and those same mountains.[20] There were few broad plains in America that allowed for Jominian-style combat that favored precision movements of soldiers organized in columns designed to "dominate three sides of a rectangular zone of operation."[21] Because of the geometrical approach to warfare, some Civil War generals actually tried to transpose the theoretical mathematical lines of operation written on their maps to actual lines of combat on the battlefield.[22]

Interior lines of operation referred to the simple idea that one side may have a position between – "inside" – separated enemy forces. With such an interior position, it was possible to keep one's army concentrated and strike at first one part of an enemy force, then the other, defeating each in turn, even though the enemy's total force size might be superior. Jomini's theory constantly stressed the value of interior lines of operation in combat while pointing out the disadvantages of an army forced to fight using exterior lines of operation.[23] In the attempt to introduce rationality and rules into war, Jomini's work served to downplay the violent nature of the conflict and made it seem like a game or geometric exercise in which the maneuvering of troops on a board became more important than the combat.[24] The Jominian influence in strategy was so strong that General J. D. Hittle, joked, "Many a Civil War general went into battle with a sword in one hand and Jomini's ‘Summary of the Art of War' in the other."[25] It was this basic knowledge of strategy – one that stressed defense and a calculated methodical approach to offensive actions – that prepared West Point graduates to begin their careers as army officers.[26]

When the Civil War began, politicians and generals on both sides were convinced that the other side would give up quickly. One foolish senator offered his services to "mop up all the blood that would be spilled with his handkerchief."[27] One of the few generals who thought differently was the Union Army's Commander in Chief, General Winfield Scott. In March of 1861, Scott advised President Lincoln that it would require two or three years and a force of at least 300,000 men (expecting 100,000 casualties) to reconquer the Confederate States and restore the Union.[28] There was no predetermined strategy on either side and no generally agreed upon coordinated plan by which either the Federals or the Confederacy could achieve its war objectives. From the perspective of the South, it needed only to repel any Northern invasions and maintain its territorial integrity to be victorious. The North had to invade the South and force them to agree to terms that would end the rebellion in order to be successful. The Confederacy could afford to lose all the battles, if only to persuade the Union that the price of victory was too high.

The Jominian principle that applied to such situations was that of a politically defensive war, one that required only frustrating the aims of the enemy. As Jomini explained:

A defensive war is not without its advantages, when wisely conducted. It may be passive or active, taking the offensive at times. The passive defense is always pernicious; the active may accomplish great successes. The object of a defensive war being to protect, as long as possible, the countryside threatened by the enemy, all operations should be designed to retard his progress, to annoy him in his enterprises by multiplying obstacles and difficulties, without however, compromising one's own army. He who invades does so by reason of some superiority; he will then seek to make the issue as promptly as possible: the defense, on the contrary, desires delay till his adversary is weakened by sending off detachments, by marches, and by the privations and fatigues incident to his progress.[29]

The war should have followed a logical strategy that made the Union army the attackers and the Confederate army the defenders. In actuality, the strategic plans of the North and South were just the opposite of what logic suggested.

Before the first major battle of the war, Confederate President Jefferson Davis declared that the Government was waging a war solely for self-defense, but defensive tactics were not what the Confederates elected to use. Their Secretary of State, Robert Toombs, announced that the South was taking the initiative and carrying the war into the enemy's country. He strongly opposed any delay and vociferously spread the idea that, "We must invade or be invaded."[30] By taking the offensive, the Confederates hoped to crush or capture a number of large Union armies, but they were never able to accomplish that goal. Instead of conserving their resources and remaining in a defensive position, they attacked the Union forces in eight of the first twelve major battles of the war. Over the course of the first three years of the war, the Confederate army almost bled itself to death by taking the offensive.[31]

Jefferson Davis saw the Confederacy's early victories as great morale boosters for the South and clear indications that Northern strategic goals could be defeated.[32] If the Confederates could extend the war, without losing a majority of their soldiers, they could make the conflict costly enough to the Union where a political settlement might be reached.[33] In his Summary of the Art of War Jomini devoted chapters to the best means of applying military strategy to achieve the political objectives of a nation at war.

The champion of the Confederate strategy was General Robert E. Lee. Determining exactly where Lee learned his exceptional operational skills in battle would be purely speculative. What is known is that he graduated from West Point before the Jominian Revolution in tactical thought took place. According to historian Jay Luvaas, "Lee developed a special interest in Napoleon's campaigns, and the books he is known to have checked out from the West Point library probably contributed more to his military education than any other experience."[34] During the war with Mexico, he served on the headquarters staff of General Winfield Scott, whom he accompanied for the remainder of the campaign. According to Lee's biographer, those were probably the twenty most useful months of his training as a soldier, contributing to his knowledge of strategy and tactics, and where he sat in council when the most difficult operational problems were being discussed.[35] Lee's knowledge of Napoleonic warfare served him well after he assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia in May of 1862.

His first action upon assuming command was to establish an army corps system modeled after Napoleon's. He found capable corps commanders in generals Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet and A. P. Hill, and created a cavalry corps under the direction of Major General J.E.B "Jeb" Stuart. Like Napoleon, Lee relied on subordinate officers to fight the battles while he remained in charge of the overall strategic plan. The action that seemed most to represent his understanding of Napoleonic warfare was in his decision to reassign the Confederate troops defending distant borders to field units that could strengthen his forces in fighting his offensive-defensive campaigns. As Lee explained, "It is only by concentration of our troops that we can hope to win any decisive advantage. We must decide between the positive loss of inactivity and the risk of action."[36]

President Lincoln realized that he needed a general who could lead the army to the decisive victory needed to calm the civil and political unrest gripping the North. The longer the war went on, the more bitterness and division it would cause among the civilian population. The man he chose to lead the Army of the Potomac seemed to be the perfect candidate, the general known as "Little Napoleon," George McClellan.

Lincoln expected great things from his "Little Napoleon" and extended him free reign to shape the army in preparation for the decisive victory the president coveted so badly. As the winter of 1861-1862 melted into spring, McClellan had amassed an army of over 100,000 soldiers. Lincoln, Washington politicians and the civilian population demanded that the general take his great army, which he had trained for nine months, and soundly defeat the Confederates.[37] McClellan refused to make a move, even after Lincoln implored him to make "even a diversionary maneuver so as to gain the confidence of the public."[38] The president needed a show of military strength to demonstrate to the northern population that the Union Army was capable of defeating the Confederates and reuniting the nation. McClellan's unwillingness to assume the offensive was the result of Jominian thinking. He, like many other of Lincoln's field commanders, blindly accepted the Jominian doctrine of concentration of force in a defensive posture – not the concentration of forces for offense favored by Lee. McClellan had not planned to invade the South until he had an even greater army.[39] McClellan was a genius when it came to organization and logistics, but his strategy was anything but Napoleonic in conception or application.

The differences in operational style between Lee and McClellan – the Union Napoleon pitted against the Confederate Napoleon – were never more evident than in the Peninsula Campaign, a massive amphibious assault designed by McClellan to conquer Richmond and end the war. When he finally headed south, with a manpower advantage estimated to be more than 30,000 soldiers, the battle was his to lose – and he did so in spectacular fashion.[40] Lee's corps commanders functioned exactly as Napoleon had intended – they located the enemy army, selected the terrain, made battle on their own terms and coordinated infantry, cavalry and artillery to route the Union forces.[41] When Lee's aggressive tactics forced McClellan into action before he was fully prepared, he could not cope with the Confederate Napoleon. Lee understood McClellan's methods, saying of him, "He is an able general, but a cautious one."[42] After several days of fighting, McClellan was forced to withdraw his troops after repeated frontal assaults proved ineffective in capturing Richmond.

The only field commander who seemed to learn from his mistakes and aggressively pursued the enemy in the Napoleonic style was Ulysses Grant – a soldier who accepted the strategy of annihilation espoused by Clausewitz as the prescription for victory in a war of popular nationalism.[43] Grant's actions as head of the army are seen as non-Jominian because they ran counter to the strategies that had been enacted by General Halleck. Halleck's orders to his field commanders were, "Wherever the enemy concentrates we must concentrate to oppose him. We must act with caution and keep our troops well in hand, so as to prevent him from catching us by surprise."[44] However, Grant favored the Jominian idea of concentration of forces to be used in mass attacks – not as a defensive tactic. In fact, his strategic plan was a simple one calling for the concentration of all available forces to be thrown against the Confederate Army in the field.[45] Grant's plan designed to prevent the Confederate Army from concentrating its forces in a strong defense was the same type of plan Jomini proposed to defeat Frederick the Great during the Seven Years' War – one that combined the strategies of attrition and exhaustion.[46]

Grant is credited with fighting in the Clausewitzian style based on his appreciation for the annihilation of the enemy as the means to victory. To defeat Lee, Grant realized that he had to think like Lee. Grant also did not ignore the Jominian idea of territorial gains in war. He realized that it was the threats against the political and logistic centers in Richmond and Atlanta that had forced Lee and his other generals to fight in the past.[47] With a Napoleonic decisive victory in battle no longer possible to end the war, Grant embarked on his strategy of annihilation. His plan followed the dictum of Clausewitz who wrote, "If you want to overcome your enemy, you must match your effort against his power of resistance."[48] To accomplish his plan, he appointed two Union Corps Commanders, Generals William Sherman in charge of the Union Army in the Carolinas, and Phillip Sheridan in charge of the army in the Shenandoah Valley. He ordered both generals, "To strike against [the enemy] and break it up, get into the interior of the enemy's country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can upon their war resources."[49] Declaring war on the civilian private property was not a new idea. It had been practiced in counter-insurgency warfare in Europe earlier in the century, but Americans were not used to it. The technique also allowed Sherman and Sheridan's troops to live off the land.[50]

It was Grant who added the new dimension of destroying the South's economic and social capacity to wage war in his strategy of annihilation, but it is General Sherman who was credited for developing the policy of "Total War" during his "March to the Sea." Sherman's marches were not aimed only against the resources of the enemy – he developed a deliberate strategy of psychological terror aimed against the civilian population. Sherman wrote to the Army's Chief of Staff, "We are not only fighting hostile armies, but hostile people [who] must be made to feel the hard hand of war."[51]

Shortly after Sherman's forces occupied Atlanta in 1864, he wrote a letter to President Lincoln and outlined his plan for the "March to the Sea" suggesting to the president that adopting a policy of total war might be a means of ending the fighting by applying political pressure and arousing the people's underlying resentment toward Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government. General Sherman showed little moral concern for the civilian population in his plan to employ the tactics of total war when he remarked:

War is cruelty, and you can not qualify it, and those who brought war in our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour on. War is the remedy our enemy's have chosen. They dared us to war, and you remember how tauntingly they defied us to the contest. We have accepted the issue and it must be fought out. You might as well reason with a thunderstorm. I say let us give them all they want; not a word of argument, not a sign of let up, no cave in till we are whipped or they are.[52]

That policy parallels a similar idea of Clausewitz's in describing the treatment of civilians during wartime, where he noted that it would be a "fallacy to disarm or defeat an enemy by moderating the violence. If the enemy was to be coerced, he had to be put into a situation of hardship that he could not endure or simply ignore and wait until things got better."[53]

Sherman's tactics in the American Civil War were carefully planned to degrade the infrastructure and supply system that supported the Southern army, thus limiting its ability to carry out any sustained offensive campaign. Having ordered his troops to forage liberally, they targeted railroads, cotton gins, warehouses and the food and grain stores of every plantation they passed on the march across Georgia. Sherman later claimed that of the $100 million dollars in property damage inflicted during his March to the Sea, only $20 million had real military purpose and the remaining $80 million was "simple waste and destruction."[54]

Grant's unyielding pursuit of Lee on the battlefield coupled with Sheridan's and Sherman's strategies of exhaustion, exemplified the policy of total war that led to the defeat of the Confederacy – a strategy that appears to be inspired by Clausewitzian theory. However, Sherman's policy of exhaustion also reflected Jominian strategy. It was only the element of psychological warfare where Sherman differed from Jomini's insistence that military means must be in harmony with political goals, and that a belligerent force should treat the enemy in a way that "calms their popular passion."[55] It is easy to question Sherman's motives in implementing his total war strategy. It may have been born out of a desire for punitive measures, but experience also taught Sherman that it was the most effective means of winning the war.

To summarize, Historian David Donald suggests that the Jominian strategies approved by Jefferson Davis – a man who had studied Jomini's work at West Point – and carried out by General Lee, greatly contributed to the Confederate defeat. He argues that under Davis's leadership Southerners were stiff and inflexible and incapable of experimenting in any strategy other than one inspired by Jomini, whereas on the other hand, Northerners innovated, adapted and won.[56] Those ideas are hard to accept in the face of historical evidence. It was Lee who developed a Corps system where none had existed before in the American military structure, making it difficult to blame the Confederate defeat on the inflexibility of their Jominian strategy. What is determined to be historically reliable information is that the Confederate Army initially had better generals in command. They learned military theory at West Point at a time when the available text was heavily based on Jominian theory. They practiced that theory in the war with Mexico, and used it in the offensive-defensive strategy demanded by President Davis. The South should have engaged in what Jomini described as a defensive war to accomplish their political and military goals. Lee's invasion of the north and defeat at Gettysburg, and the deaths of a significant number of his troops, contributed to the Confederate defeat because he failed on the battlefield, not because his Jominian strategy was flawed.[57]

The Union generals were influenced by an early Jominian strategy that emphasized winning battles, controlling territory and exhausting the Confederate's capacity to wage war. President Lincoln planned to reunite the nation through a policy of war guided by the fundamental idea that decisive victory was more important than anything else. To achieve that victory, Union generals could afford to make mistakes, they could afford to sustain casualties and waste, they could afford almost anything except the failure to make constant use of the power that was available to them.[58] A strict Jominian reliance on territorial conquest to achieve victory limited that available power.

Only with the emergence of Grant and Sherman did Union military leadership break away from traditional Jominian concepts of warfare. Grant clearly favored experience over theory when it came to fighting. In Grant, like Napoleon, the full political and military powers of their respective nations were brought together in one person.[59]

The adaptation of a total war policy to fit the military and political situations of the Union was based on necessity – not driven by the sudden discovery of Clausewitz's writings. It is a historical coincidence that the total war policy practiced by the Union Army was a reflection of the Prussian theorist's work. The South did not lose the war as a result of an intellectual duel between Jomini and Clausewitz. The Confederate forces were defeated because they were worn down by the relentless military offensives of Grant, Sherman and Sheridan in the Clausewitzian mold of destroying the enemy's capacity to cause harm without regard to limiting violence. Sherman said it best, "War is simply power unrestrained by constitution or compact. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it."[60] However, it is ironic, that Grant, the one general who had little knowledge of Jomini, and none of Clausewitz,[61] should have broken the stalemate of the American Civil War by applying elements of their theories in accomplishing the task.

* * *

Show Footnotes and Bibliography

* * *

Copyright © 2008 Daniel T. Rean, CWO3 USN Ret.

Written by Daniel Rean. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Daniel Rean at:
dtrean@yahoo.com.

About the author:
Daniel Rean is originally from NY where he enlisted in the Navy in 1972. He spent 14 years as a submarine sailor and diver. From 1980-84, he was assigned to the Navy's deepest diving manned submersible the Bathyscaph TRIESTE II (DSV-1) where he served as Chief of the Boat, Engineer, and Assistant Officer in Charge. He qualified as a Deep Submergence Pilot in 1983. He was commissioned as a CWO-2 in 1986 and assigned to the USS PROTEUS (AS-19) at Apra Harbor, Guam. He completed tours as a technical instructor at Submarine Officer Basic School and as a division officer at the Naval Submarine Support Facility in New London, CT. He retired in 1993 and completed his college undergraduate degrees at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire and his Master's at Norwich University in Vermont. He is married to the former Kyle Harrington, and he has 4 children and live in Portsmouth, NH.

Published online: 03/16/2008.
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