Streetwise Professor

November 30, 2022

Franklin Redux

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 3:48 pm

Today is the 158th anniversary of the Battle of Franklin, one of the most brutal in the entire Civil War–which is saying something. It is hard to overstate the intensity of the fighting between two veteran armies, which resulted in an extended exchange of fire at point-blank range over earthworks lasting well into the night. The only thing comparable is the Bloody Angle at Spottsylvania on 12 May 1864.

Here’s my post from the sesquicentenary of the battle.

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November 25, 2022

The Apotheosis of My Family’s Civil War Service

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 11:27 am

25 November 1863 was the high point of my distaff side’s Civil War service.* Three of my ancestral relatives fought on that day at the Battle of Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga, Tennessee.

My grandmother’s grandfather George Immel fought in the 92nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. This regiment was part of Turchin’s Brigade, Baird’s Division, XIV Army Corps (commanded by John M. Palmer), Army of the Cumberland. It was one of the regiments that made what at the time seemed to be the insane attack up the precipitous ridge, but which resulted in the routing of the Rebels: when seeing the Cumberlanders commencing their scaling of the ridge without orders, Ulysses S. Grant bit down on his omnipresent cigar and muttered that someone would pay if the attack became a bloody shambles, as he expected. But it didn’t end that way. To the amazement of all, the Confederates fled before the charging Unionists.

Immel had enlisted at 18 years of age over the vehement protests of his parents: they could not understand why he would do so because they had emigrated from Hesse precisely to protect their sons from military conscription. He said I am a free American now and enlisted of his own free will. He served through the war, supposedly (according to family lore) serving at one point as General Ivan Basilovich Turchin’s courier, though I have not been able to document that. (Turchin–his name anglicized to John Basil Turchin–is one of the war’s remarkable characters, as was his wife. Since his wife traveled with the general, if George was Turchin’s courier he would have known her.)

The war memories he passed down were of the Battle of Chickamauga, of which he related that his main memory was of the continuous roar of gunfire for two days. Turchin’s brigade distinguished itself in the battle, repelling several Confederate assaults, and at the end of the day mounting a wild charge that opened the way for the rest of the beleaguered XIV Corps to escape.

This is a Don Troiani print of Cleburne’s Confederate division fighting at Chickamauga. In the print, Cleburne is passing out ammunition to shoot at my GGGF, because Cleburne’s division was attacking the 92nd’s position:

The other memory passed down is that of Sherman’s march through the Carolinas, when he picked up lots of booty, including a Confederate sword, but it got too damn heavy to carry so he disposed of it. Meaning that the only thing that he brought back from the war was a case of rheumatism which plagued him the rest of his life.

My grandmother remembered him well. He was a stern Teutonic figure (you can take the boy out of Germany but can’t take the Germany out of the boy, apparently) who whipped his grandchildren every Christmas eve to punish them for their sins of the prior year. He married a woman of English heritage, and according to my grandmother they fought constantly. Her grandmother said: “Well, the Germans and the English always fight.” They did more than fight apparently, because they had 8 children: or maybe that was the result of the fighting, if you know what I mean.

Ironically, the attack that the Army of the Cumberland mounted up Missionary Ridge was initially planned as a limited operation to relieve pressure on Union forces fighting about a mile up the ridge which included my grandfather’s uncles, members of the 46th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. The 46th was in Corse’s Brigade, Ewing’s Division, XV Corps, operating under the command of William T. Sherman (who is, by the way, a distant relative via a shared ancestor who settled in Connecticut in 1635–my GGGM’s name was Lois Sherman, and her father was Eli Sherman).

On the 24th, Grant assigned Sherman the limited objective of establishing a position at the north end of Missionary Ridge and digging in. Due to a misunderstanding of the ground (that was not directly visible from where Grant and Sherman stood when concocting the plan), Sherman’s forces dug in on a hill (Billy Goat Hill) that was separated from the north end of Missionary by a wide swale. The next morning, Grant revised Sherman’s orders and commanded an attack up the ridge. Sherman assigned Corse’s brigade for the task.

The ridge was so narrow that the entire brigade could not deploy in line, but assaulted in column of regiments against . . . the same Patrick Cleburne who had attacked George Immel two months prior. Cleburne beat back Corse’s attack, and the attack of other brigades that Sherman sent against him.

Walking over the terrain you can see that it was a futile effort. But everyone thought that the Army of the Cumberland’s charge would be futile too.

My grandfather never knew his uncles. One, Eli Hatfield (named after his maternal grandfather), was apparently something of a sad sack. He was captured at Shiloh, spent a few months in a Rebel prison camp (Cahaba in Alabama) before being paroled. He complained that prison had ruined his health, and his file contains several doctor’s notes claiming he was unfit for service. This worked for about a year, but eventually his appeals were unavailing and he was ordered to rejoin the regiment shortly before the Battle of Chattanooga. After the battle, he was assigned as a teamster (something that company commanders sometimes did to get rid of screwups), and was fined $20 for losing his accoutrements (cartridge box and belt).

Far less comically, on 27 May 1864 Eli was shot at the Battle of Dallas (Georgia). The bullet struck him in the left arm right below the shoulder joint. Minie balls were large, low velocity projectiles that shattered bone, and hence Eli’s arm was pulverized. The wound was too close to the shoulder for amputation, so all of the bone between the shoulder and the elbow was resected. My great grandmother told my grandfather about his “Uncle Eli with the dead arm from the war,” and how when he would sit down at a table he would grab his (useless) left hand with his right, and then put his left forearm on the table. He lived until around the turn of the century.

(The details about his wound are from a report that the surgeon who operated on him filed, and which is retained in his service record at the National Archives. The letter is a full page in length. I’ve often wondered about how tiresome and dreary a task it would have been to write such letters, especially considering the exhaustion that the surgeon surely suffered in the midst of a long and bloody campaign.)

The other uncle, John Hatfield, returned to Athens County, Ohio after serving the remainder of the war. He fought at Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, the Atlanta Campaign (including the Battle of Resaca, The Battle of Dallas, the assault at Kennesaw Mountain, the Battle of Atlanta, the Battle of Ezra Church, and the Battle of Jonesboro), the March to the Sea (including the Battle of Griswoldsville, the largest of the campaign), and the March Through the Carolinas, never receiving a scratch. Unlike his brother’s, his service record is dull: just appearances on the regular muster rolls, with nary an absence noted. He eventually made it to the exalted rank of corporal.

Farming or coal mining in Ohio (his father was a coal miner, as his younger brothers became) apparently didn’t appeal to him, so not long after the war he set off for Kansas. His sister never saw him again.

To round out the story, after seizing the top of the ridge, along with the rest of Baird’s division the 92nd pivoted left, moved north, and drove Cleburne’s division from the ridge where it had held off the 46th. So as darkness fell on an overcast and gloomy 25 November 1863, unbeknownst to them, my ancestors were looking at one another across the field of one of the Union’s most spectacular triumphs of the Civil War.**

*Well, that means that the acme of my entire family’s Civil War service occurred 159 years ago today, because all of my father’s ancestors arrived after the Civil War, the earliest in 1867.

**The Hatfield and Immel families intersected about 62 years after a few of their members were looking at each other through the smoke and haze on Missionary Ridge: my grandparents married on 2 January 1925.

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September 17, 2022

Antietam at 160

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 12:39 pm

Today is the 160th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg to the Confederates). As is widely known, it was the bloodiest single day in American history.

Charge of the 1st Texas, The Cornfield, Antietam

What is remarkable is that although the casualties on 17 September 1862 were the largest in American history, the armies were relatively small. Both had experienced substantial wastage in the Second Manassas Campaign, in the march into Maryland, and in the Battle of South Mountain. By the time the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia reached Sharpsburg on 16 September, the Federals numbered only about 65,000 and the Confederates somewhat south of 40,000 (with 37,500 being a common estimate).

Meaning that relatively small armies absorbed the massive casualties. (By contrast, at Gettysburg Lee’s army was around 75,000 strong, and Meade’s probably 10,000 more).

Confederate casualties are usually given as 10,300, which amounts to a percentage loss of 27.5 percent. When accounting for the fact that about 20,000 Union troops (of the V and VI Corps) were only slightly engaged, the Federal percentage loss is similar. The bulk of the fighting was done by the I, II, IX, and XII Corps, which amounted to around 46,000 men (not much more than Lee, and certainly not a large enough margin to overcome the defender’s usual advantage) that suffered 11864 casualties, or about 26 percent.

Interestingly, though high, these percentages do not match Stones River or Chickamauga, although those were admittedly 2 day battles.

Like many Civil War battles, Antietam is the subject of considerable controversy. Should Lee have invaded in the first place? Once he invaded, and learned that McClellan was hot on his heels, should he have fought the battle where he did, or withdrawn to Virginia? How was McClellan’s generalship? And of course there are many subsidiary controversies.

On the first, it’s a close call. Given what he knew at the beginning of September, there were defensible reasons for Lee to take the offensive to Maryland: exploiting the initiative and the momentum from Manassas, the apparent chaos in Union ranks after the Manassas debacle, the possibility of recruiting in Maryland (which of course came a cropper but Lee could not have known that in advance), giving northern Virginia a chance to recover from Yankee occupation (and depredations), influencing the fall of 1862 congressional election. Against all that was the exhausted state of the Army of Northern Virginia, which had been fighting and marching intensely since the end of May. The march into Maryland only exacerbated that exhaustion and the slow bleeding of his ranks–something that Lee should have been able to predict. He did not, perhaps because a form of what the Japanese called “victory disease” had given him the perception that his men were superhuman.

Once in Maryland, the decision to fight on the banks of Antietam Creek is far less defensible, especially once Lee had learned of McClellan’s unexpected speed in reconstituting shattered Union formations and moving west to confront Lee. Lee courted catastrophe by fighting with his back against the Potomac, with a tired and diminished force. He escaped disaster by only the thinnest of margins.

Which brings us to McClellan, who is largely responsible for Lee’s escape. The Union general is always a lightning rod, and he has intense partisans for and against at Antietam in particular. My view is that his conduct of the campaign up until early on the 17th of September was quite creditable, and somewhat atypical. He did move with relative alacrity: whether the “Lost Order” and its disclosure of Lee’s distributions was the cause of McClellan’s unaccustomed aggressiveness will never be resolved. His assembling a fighting force from the hodgepodge of defeated and demoralized units from two armies (his Army of the Potomac and Pope’s Army of Virginia) is quite remarkable.

His plan on the morning of the 17th was understandable, and somewhat conventional in that (like Lee on 2 July 1863 at Gettysburg) he ordered an en echelon attack, with the left attacking first, then the center, then the right. (Civil War commanders seemed to favor the echelon attack, despite its repeated failure.) In the event, however, this gave Lee the opportunity to shift troops from one sector of his front to those under direct threat: the near destruction of Sedgwick’s division by units that Lee frantically shifted from his center and right is the best example of this. A simultaneous attack would have increased the odds of success.

Moreover, McClellan’s hands-off approach to the battle contrasts poorly with Lee’s decisive hands-on generalship. For most of the day, McClellan was a spectator watching from the Pry House while his units fought essentially three separate and uncoordinated battles on the left, center, and right. In contrast, Lee imposed his will and personally pushed divisions to where they were desperately needed when they were needed.

McClellan’s distant approach is even less defensible given that he was working with subordinates and units with whom he was unfamiliar in their current roles, or whom he had considerable cause not to delegate control to. On the left, Hooker was new in command to the I Corps, which had been under the Army of Virginia and which McClellan had never seen in action. Also on the left, the XII Corps was another ex-Army of Virginia unit under a commander (Mansfield) that had never led any unit, let alone a corps, in the field. In the center, the II Corps was commanded by “Bull” Sumner, of whom it was said bullets would bounce off his hard head. McClellan knew Sumner to be brave, but totally unsuited for autonomy on the battlefield. Burnside was an old friend of McClellan (though they would be estranged after Antietam), but he too had never commanded a large formation in a major battle anywhere, let alone under McClellan’s eye. What’s more, none of these Corps commanders had worked with each other before.

So McClellan had ample reason to realize that the Army of the Potomac and its corps commanders needed close supervision and could not just be turned loose to execute a plan while he watched from afar. Yet watch from afar he did.

Moreover, whereas Lee used every man–and used many men at multiple points on the battlefield–two of McClellan’s major units–V and VI Corps, ironically commanded by McClellan’s “pets” Porter and Franklin–remained largely idle the entire day. Based on numbers compiled by Antietam historian (and battle veteran) Ezra Carmen, only about 30 percent of those units saw action, and even those did not engage in intense fights: those engaged suffered less than 10 percent casualties.

Even though Lee’s center was virtually naked in the afternoon, I am skeptical that a push by Porter’s Corps would have resulted in a disaster for Lee’s army: space/time factors meant that any such attack would have lost force in or shortly beyond Sharpsburg itself even if it had pushed Lee off the Sharpsburg ridge. But “putt[ing] in all your men” (as Lincoln told Hooker when he assumed command of the Army of the Potomac, no doubt with the memory of Antietam in mind) would have greatly increased McClellan’s odds of achieving a more decisive victory than he did–especially if he had put them in all at once.

By the time the sun set on America’s bloodiest day, the outcome on the field was a stalemate. But it was arguably the most decisive and important drawn battle in history. For Lee was forced to withdraw across the Potomac, and that gave Lincoln enough of a claim to victory to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which changed not just the trajectory of the Civil War, but of American history.

I’ve written before that I have visited Antietam dozens of times, and that it is my favorite battlefield. I can’t be there today except in memory. If you have been there, or even if you haven’t, it is worth spending a moment to remember the carnage in the pastoral countryside of western Maryland, and the weighty history birthed by the death of so many.

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July 23, 2022

Black Jack: A Coda

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:04 pm

To round out the picture of Logan’s antagonism to service academies, it is worth noting that although he was a pre-War Democrat from a part of Illinois (“Little Egypt,” in the far south of the state) that was widely deemed to be sympathetic to the South, post-War Logan was an ardent pro-Reconstruction Republican and one of the most widely renowned practitioners of “bloody shirt” politics. He hated the South with a passion, and this also contributed to his West Point/Annapolis animus.

Logan’s book The Volunteer Soldier in America has a very strong populist, republican (small “r”) tone. Many of his arguments against the academies echo those of Jeffersonians and Jacksonians before him, perhaps not surprisingly given Logan’s upbringing in a staunch Jacksonian area of the country. Logan believed the academies to be anti-republican, aristocratic, and oligarchic in nature, and believed their graduates to be anti-republican and aristocratic in turn. Thus, they were a threat to self-government, whereas a military firmly rooted in the people, through a militia system, would not be.

Logan linked this aristocratic predilection to the South, which he viewed as being aristocratic and anti-republican due to slavery. He believed slavery was incompatible with popular rule, and inevitably led to the dominance of an aristocratic class. He argued that if secession had succeeded, the South would have become a monarchy, not a republic.

This was in turn linked to his view of the pernicious effects of the political nature of academy appointments: anti-republican elements in the country (especially in the South) corrupted the academies, and hence the military, with their appointment of like minded cadets and midshipmen.

Logan also expressed what could be called an early version of capture theory. He argued that the military establishment had captured the government, and as a result was able to extract lavish benefits from it. No doubt this astounded those serving in the 1870s-1880s military, who commonly complained of low pay, glacial promotion, and inadequate numbers.

So I think it’s fair to say that Logan’s anti-academy, anti-professional military views were a combination of bitter personal experience and political populism. In many ways, he was a 19th century expositor of a debate that had raged in the United States since before the founding: did the US need a professional military?; was a professional military a threat to self-government?

Bloody shirt politics became less and less popular after the Hayes-Tilden election, and the end of Reconstruction in 1877. Within a decade Logan was increasingly unpopular, as this print from 1885 shows:

That’s Logan getting booed off the stage. Note the blood-stained shirt hanging on his back.

As an aside, when skimming through Logan’s book I was reminded of the works of a contemporary, and another Civil War veteran, Theodore Ayrault Dodge. Dodge wrote many books on military history, including biographies of Gustavus Adolphus, Hannibal, Alexander, Napoleon, Frederick, and Caesar. In his book on Caesar, he repeatedly lauded the citizen-based Roman armies of the Republic, and compared Caesar’s professional army to them in very unfavorable terms.

Dodge was also a volunteer soldier, losing a leg at Gettysburg–ironically while in O. O. Howards XI Corps. He obviously shared Logan’s beliefs regarding the correct military for a republic, and the superiority of a popular, volunteer army over a professional one.

You can see echoes of these views in modern American politics, especially in this age of resurgent populism–and the reaction against it.

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Black Jack and West Point

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 3:11 pm

Yesterday I posted a thread on Twitter on the anniversary of one of the most fascinating battles of the Civil War, Hood’s Second Sortie AKA the Battle of Atlanta.

As say in the thread, and as I wrote about here in 2010, the performance of the Union Army of the Tennessee was extraordinary. It was assailed from front, flank, and rear, yet gamely hung on and repelled everything thrown at it. In my opinion, in the summer of 1864 the Army of the Tennessee was the finest fighting force of its size in the world. It was battle tried but not battle wearied. It had a core of veterans who had experienced nothing but victory, and had not suffered the debilitating casualties (especially among officers) that had made the Army of the Potomac and even the Army of Northern Virginia shadows of their 1862-1863 selves.

The last tweet in my thread was about General John “Black Jack” Logan, commander of the Army of the Tennessee’s XV Corps, who rallied the shattered center of his line and drove the Confederates back to their lines in Atlanta. (The image in the first tweet in the thread is Don Troiani’s depiction of the culmination of the counterattack, with the 66th Illinois (“Birge’s Sharpshooters”) recapturing the 20 pounder Parrot rifles of DeGress’ Battery H, 1st Illinois Light Artillery.)

James McPherson, the commander of the Army of the Tennessee, was killed during the fighting on 22 July. Logan was named as his replacement–but this was temporary. W. T. Sherman (my Twitter avi :P) distrusted Logan because he was a politician, not a West Pointer. So he named Oliver O. Howard (known to some cynics as “Uh-oh Howard”) as McPherson’s permanent replacement.

Logan was understandably bitter. He had fought with distinction with the Army of the Tennessee or its antecedents from Belmont in November, 1861 through Shiloh, the Vicksburg Campaign (playing a vital role at Champion Hill and the Siege), and the entire Atlanta Campaign. Howard, on the other hand, was a stranger, having come from the Eastern Theater only in October, 1863, and then serving in the Army of the Cumberland. Moreover, he had accumulated a record of failure in the East, seeing his XI Corps routed at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.

But if they had had USMA class rings back then, Howard could have knocked one, and consequently he got the nod over the man who was likely the most accomplished political general of the war.

Major General John A. Logan

In the years after the war, Logan resumed his political career, and was a prominent Senator from Illinois and was the VP candidate on the (failed) Republican ticket in 1884.

During his Senate career, Logan was an outspoken critic of West Point (and the Naval Academy as well). As the leader of volunteers during the Civil War, and as a civilian soldier himself, he was a fervent supporter of Union veterans (being the second commander of the GAR and the moving force behind Memorial Day) and the ideal of the citizen soldier. He believed passionately that an army and navy of–and led by–motivated, patriotic, and talented civilians was far superior to one led by careerists churned out of the service academies.

Near the end of his life, he summarized–if that’s the right word to apply to a 682 page book–his case against the professional military, and professional military education, in his The Volunteer Soldier of America. He made many criticisms of the service academies, but the gravamen of his criticism was that the appointment system (in which every aspiring cadet or midshipman had to secure an appointment from a member of Congress-as is true to this day) meant that the officer corps was selected on the basis of political considerations, rather than merit or military talent. As a result, the military was dominated by unimaginative, unimpressive people. You know, like O. O. Howard. He was also deeply offended by preferences shown to regular officers in terms of pay and retirement benefits.

When you think about it, these are rather remarkable criticisms for a career politician to make. But Logan was extremely serious about them. And his criticisms were thoughtful ones, and backed with not a little evidence. But the real foundation of Logan’s brief was his experience in the Civil War leading volunteers (and arguably the most exceptional group of volunteers 1861-1865) while under the command of West Pointers. He was obviously highly unimpressed.

And understandably outraged at the slight of being supplanted by a plodding professional after almost three years of exceptional service, most notably on 22 July, 1864.

Although deprived of the command of the Army of the Tennessee for the March to the Sea and the Carolinas Campaign, Sherman did give Logan the honor of leading the army during its triumphal procession during the Grand Review in Washington in May, 1865. There, the throng of spectators marveled at Logan’s westerners, and remarked at their height, hardy appearance, and long loping strides (in contrast to the crisp easterners of the Army of the Potomac who had marched the day before).

Logan is third from the right, on the light horse.

Here is the New York Times account:

Immediately following was Maj.-Gen. JOHN A. LOGAN, the successor of Gen. HOWARD, in the command of the Army of the Tennessee, mounted on a superbly dapple grey stallion, which careered and plunged just enough to show the General’s fine horsemanship. LOGAN, with his firm set features, deep black moustache, and military bearing was marked for the most vociferous applause from the very moment his prancing steed appeared on the avenue.

Soon comes the head of the Fifteenth Corps, led by the accomplished HAZEN, the hero of Fort McAllister, and now all eyes turn upon the bronzed veterans while move by with steady, sturdy step. The magnificent physique of the men at once elicits the admiration of all; tall, broad-shouldered, stalwart men, the peasantry of the West — the best material in the whole world for armies. The brigades move by with elastic, springing step, in excellent order, and fully equal to the marching of yesterday, save that the intervals between brigades and divisions were longer, though the regiments themselves were kept well closed up. At the head of each brigade was a battalion of black pioneers, the simon pure contraband, in the garments he wore on the plantation, with shovel and axe on the shoulder, marching with even front, sturdy step and lofty air. The badge of the Fifteenth Corps (for the Western armies have also adopted this insignia) is a cartridge-box, half encircled by the words, “forty rounds.” It is just forty rounds more than is now needed. 

(Two of my ancestors, one in the XV Corps, the other in the XIV Corps, participated in the Review.)

As one of its foes–Joseph E. Johnston–said,  “I made up my mind that there had been no such army since the days of Julius Caesar. And every man, and virtually all of the officers, was a volunteer. John Logan thought that it was men such as those, not drones trained on The Plain at West Point, to whom America should trust its defense.

PS. I wrote this post in response to a suggestion from my friend Ty Kelly, who said I should edit Logan’s Wikipedia page to fill out the story in my last tweet. I thought the subject deserved a fuller treatment, hence the post.

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July 4, 2022

Gettysburg: A Movie Out of Time

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:29 pm

Seeing as Friday-Sunday were the 159th anniversary of the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg, I decided to watch the eponymous movie again. It’s long, so I broke up the watching in parts to match the three days, saving the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble charge climax for yesterday, 3 July.

I still rate the film as one of the best Civil War movies. Now admittedly, that’s a low bar. There aren’t a lot of great ones. Unlike WWII, Korea or Vietnam movies which can focus on a squad or other small group of men and build on the interpersonal dynamics of men under mortal threat, in the Civil War pretty much the smallest group was the company, which in turn was usually part of a regiment that operated as a unit. That doesn’t lend itself to the same cinematic treatment as say Sands of Iwo Jima or Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan. Even WWII movies that focus on big battles, like The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far, tell the story through the actions of small groups of men.

This is why some of the better Civil War movies involve guerrilla warfare, which involves smaller groups, and which can also utilize tropes from Westerns: Confederate guerrilla bands in Missouri, for example, were the proto-outlaw gangs of the post-Civil War West.

So Gettysburg spends little time focused on the enlisted men: the one main enlisted character, Buster Kilrain, is an everyman foil to the intellectual Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Instead, most of the film’s main characters are generals–Buford, and especially Lee and Longstreet, with Hancock, Hood, Trimble and Stuart also getting attention. The private soldiers are parts of masses of men, sweeping forward across open fields or firing volleys from behind stone walls, not individuals.

Like the book on which it is based, The Killer Angels, the movie does a pretty good job of depicting Lee’s decision making, and the tension with Longstreet. It doesn’t take a Jubal Early Longstreet is the Devil approach, nor does it condemn Lee for fighting, and fighting the way he did on those three days. Yes, I would say that a viewer will lean towards sympathizing with Longstreet and questioning Lee’s judgment, but there is considerable basis in the historical record for that interpretation so I don’t take the depiction as unfair to Lee. And it gives Lee plenty of opportunity to explain himself and his objections to Longstreet’s contrary views. Both sides are presented fairly, and it’s really up to you to decide.

The main thing that struck me upon rewatching in 2022 is that the movie could not have been made today. Not a prayer in hell. And that does not speak well of us.

For one thing, the focus is on the Confederacy. John Buford is lionized in the first 45 minutes or so, and Chamberlain of course gets a lot of play, but the emphasis is clearly on the Confederate command and Lee’s decision making: Meade barely makes a cameo. The tragic figures are mainly Confederates, especially Lewis Armistead and Richard B. Garnett. During the remarkable Pickett’s charge scene, the Confederate advance is clearly the dramatic focus.

Nowadays, of course, the Confederacy and Confederates are synonymous with evil. Lee has been knocked off his pedestal–literally. In fact he has literally been knocked off of several pedestals in Richmond and Charlottesville and elsewhere. Monuments to Confederate enlisted men are under threat all over the South. The thought of treating Confederates at all sympathetically is an anathema.

The film and Killer Angels let the characters from both sides speak about their reasons for fighting. Confederate brigadier James L. Kemper expresses the Southern justification for secession to visiting Englishman Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, who has considerable sympathy for it. No doubt you will disagree with Kemper, but the movie presents the Southern view honestly, thereby allowing you to judge it on its merits without having to deal with an ideologically twisted, tendentious presentation of it: the only hint of directorial/authorial judgment is George Pickett’s clownish summary of the Southern cause. Similarly, when Thomas Chamberlain, Lawrence’s brother, converses with a captured private, the Southerner disclaims any racial motivation for his taking up arms, and Chamberlain takes him at his word: no way that would be allowed today.

Even a Northern view, expressed by Kilrain, would be verbotten 29 years after the film was released. Kilrain expresses what at the time was a conventional view among conservatives, and which many old school liberals held as well:

Chamberlain: What do you think of Negroes?

Kilrain: Well, if you mean the race… I don’t really know. This is not a thing to be ashamed of. The thing is, you cannot judge a race. Any man who judges by the group is a pea-wit. You take men one at a time. To me, there was never any difference.

In this identitarian age, this is wrongthink that if expressed, puts one at risk of cancelation, loss of job, loss of friends, and perhaps even social death.

For in 2022 (Woke Year 7, at least), in contrast to 1993 (Clinton Year 1), judging by the group is a moral imperative. Judging individuals “one at a time” on their merits, independent of their racial/gender group is considered a sure sign of cis patriarchal white supremacism, and hence evil.

So watching the movie in 2022 made me sad. Not because watching Lewis Armistead’s torment at raising his hand against his best friend and getting shot down by his best friend’s men is sad, but because in 2022 America you are not allowed to find that sad and tragic and human, because Confederacy, and you are prohibited from sympathizing with Armistead as a man irrespective of the nature of the cause for which he perished. Because today a movie that reflects Lincoln’s Second Inaugural (“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right”–which implicitly acknowledges that we might be wrong), as Gettysburg does, is currently outside the bounds of accepted civil discourse. Now charity is a fugitive, and malice is regnant.

And that is precisely why a second Civil War is not inconceivable today. Which is the saddest thing of all.

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May 20, 2022

Meade at Gettysburg: A Gap in the (Story) Line

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 6:26 pm

This C-SPAN video of Kent Masterson Brown talking about his Meade at Gettysburg was sufficiently intriguing that I bought the book, and I’m glad I did. it is a thorough analysis of Meade’s generalship. I am in agreement with most of Brown’s full-throated defense of “that damned old goggle eyed snapping turtle” and his actions at Gettysburg. Laboring under tremendous disadvantages, having been thrown into command unexpectedly, operating with little information about his enemy, and knowing that a baying mob in Washington would crucify him if he failed, Meade responded smartly and professionally, and came away with a great victory.

Hell of a lot of good that did him, though. His post-battle actions were the subject of brutal criticism, by Lincoln no less. As Brown explains in detail, this criticism was incredibly unjust. His battle actions were also second guessed, most notably by the notorious Daniel Sickles and his coterie of political, military, and journalistic backstabbers. Those criticisms were also unfair, as Brown shows. Meade’s shade must be smiling to know he finally has an able defender.

What convinced me to buy the book was the video’s retelling and interpretation of Meade’s actions leading up to the battle, and in particular the “Pipe Creek Circular” (which was also the subject of much post-battle and indeed post-war discussion). In Brown’s telling, thrust into command, Meade was going by the book. The books, actually, namely those of Jomini, Clauswitz, and his old West Point instructor Dennis Hart Mahan.

The textbook approach was (a) to establish a strong position, (b) send out a force (a reconnaissance in force) to cause the enemy to concentrate, (c) have that force withdraw, fighting, drawing the now concentrated enemy back onto the prepared position. According to Brown, this is what Meade intended left wing commander John Reynolds to do with the I and XI corp when he dispatched Reynolds north. Knowing Lee was generally oriented along the Chambersburg Pike that ran through Gettysburg, and receiving word from John Buford that many Confederates were near the town, Meade dispatched Reynolds as his reconnaissance force with the intent of using it to lure Lee onto Meade’s extremely strong Pipe Creek Line some miles to the south.

But Reynolds lost his head, and instead of fencing with Lee and drawing him back onto Pipe Creek, the Pennsylvanian advanced to support Buford, even leading the brigade in the van–the storied Iron Brigade–personally into the fight. For his troubles, Reynolds got a bullet in the back of the head. His successor, Abner Doubleday (whom, ironically, far more people have heard of for exactly the wrong reasons than have ever heard of Reynolds or Meade for that matter), did not know what Reynolds’ or Meade’s intentions were. He concluded that Reynolds must have wanted to fight west and north of Gettysburg, and therefore he would too.

Although the I Corps and some elements of the XI Corps fought valiantly, they were eventually overwhelmed. And here Reynolds’ precipitate decision to fight with the town on his line of retreat turned defeat into disaster. Retreating through the town led to a breakdown in units and mass confusion, and the loss of thousands of prisoners. The panting, panicking remnants, much thinned, rallied–just–on Cemetery Hill to the east of town.

So far, Brown’s story hangs together. Meade sent out a reconnaissance in force, but its commander either misunderstood its purpose or forgot it in the excitement, and brought on a battle in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It’s the next act in the drama that raises questions about Brown’s interpretation. Hearing of the situation in Gettysburg, Meade sent his trusted chief engineer, Gouverneur K. Warren to reconnoiter and report back. But crucially, he also sent his junior corps commander, Winfield S. Hancock to Gettysburg with the following instruction: “If you think the ground and position there a better one to fight a battle under the existing circumstances, so advise [me] and [I] will order all the troops up.”

This is not the action of a man with a plan, particularly a plan to draw Lee onto a strong, prepared position. Meade delegated a crucial decision to a man, capable though he was, who had no full understanding of the current disposition of the Army of Potomac or its lines at Pipe Creek or its logistical situation–all relevant considerations for determining the best course of action. Further, if Meade had been so set on his plan (a) he would have explained that to Hancock, so the II Corps commander could have used that information to determine whether it was “better” to fight at Gettysburg or follow Meade’s original plan to fall back to Pipe Creek drawing Lee along with him, and (b) asked Hancock whether a fighting withdrawal from Gettysburg was possible.

Punting such a major decision to an uninformed subordinate does not bespeak commitment to a plan. But Brown is silent on this, which is the weakest point of the book, and something that undercuts his up-until-then plausible argument.

In the event, Hancock concluded that Gettysburg was “the strongest position by nature on which to fight a battle I ever saw,” and recommended to Meade to bring up the army.

Except it wasn’t–as Brown discusses in detail. Hancock only saw a part of what became the battlefield, which happened to be the strongest position. The rest of it, as Meade found out when he arrived and performed a detailed reconnaissance, had severe disadvantages. These almost cost the Army of the Potomac the battle on 2 July.

Moreover, by moving forward to Gettysburg instead of withdrawing the battered survivors of the 1 July battle back to Pipe Creek, Meade greatly exacerbated the already serious logistical handicaps under which he was operating. One of the best parts of Brown’s book is his detailing of these handicaps–including his extended description about how the march away from established supply lines to Gettysburg stretched the Army’s logistics to the breaking point.

Furthermore, advancing to Gettysburg required his already fagged soldiers to undertake forced marches of dozens of miles in heat, humidity, and dust, with too little food and water. It put tremendous strain on horseflesh–another under-appreciated consideration that elsewhere Brown gives due weight. In essence, Meade gave Lee the gift that Meade was hoping to get from Lee: advancing and concentrating on an enemy already in position.

Perhaps there is an explanation for Meade’s actions. Maybe he, like Reynolds, got his blood up and this clouded his judgment. Perhaps he believed that a retreat would be considered treason by the febrile politicians in Washington. Perhaps something else.

But Meade’s decision and decision making (especially delegating such an epochal decision to a subordinate with an extremely narrow perspective) is problematic, at best. I think that it is worse than that, especially given that it cut against every consideration that Brown raises to explain Meade’s actions from the time he took command until news arrived of Reynolds’ death. So an explanation is required, but Brown does not give it. According to Brown, Meade was going by the book. Then he threw the book out the window. Why? We’re not told. There is a serious gap in Brown’s line.

Many mysteries and conundrums surround the battle of Gettysburg–which is why 159 years after the fact it is the subject of book after book, few as good as Brown’s. This is another mystery, and I wish Kent Masterson Brown had attempted to unravel it–not least because he poses it implicitly. Alas, he doesn’t even acknowledge it as a mystery. Which, I guess, creates an opportunity for yet another author to write another book about Gettysburg.

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March 24, 2022

Stalemate . . . And Then What?

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 3:36 pm

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has ground to a shuddering halt. Not that it was ever that dynamic, but with the exception of meager gains achieved at great cost in Mariupol, the Russian army is not advancing. Indeed, in crucial sectors, including Kiev and Mykolaiv it is giving ground in the face of local Ukrainian counterattacks (not a counter offensive–that’s something different) and digging in. For now, at least, Russia has shot its bolt. And that bolt did not travel far.

Some of the stories that have been reported are rather remarkable. Most come from Ukrainian sources, so they must be taken with some skepticism, but given the situation on the ground, and a knowledge of the nature of the Russian military they are plausible. For example, desertions of large numbers of soldiers; orders to shoot deserters and malingerers (a tradition dating back to the Russian Civil War and World War II); large numbers of frostbite casualties; appalling medical care; failures to recover the dead; killing of officers (including one story of a tanker driving his vehicle over the legs of his commander in a unit that had suffered 50 percent casualties). Even discounting the most lurid of these stories, this is a picture of an army on the verge of collapse (if not past it). This would be consistent with the near cessation of offensive operations.

Perhaps the most remarkable data point is the largely confirmed (including by official Russian sources in some instances) spate of fatalities among generals and colonels. A handful of generals (including a lieutenant general) have been killed, and many handfuls of colonels are also apparently dead.

These are American Civil War rates of casualties among army, division, brigade, and regimental commanders–and those guys were on horses on the front lines under fire from massed musketry from a hundred or two yards away. Modern warfare has (until now) much safer for colonels and generals.

The explanation being floated by Ukrainian and western sources is that a breakdown in communications has forced these officers to go right to the front to get things under control, where they get taken out by snipers. Well, I’m pretty sure that communications have something to do with it, but I doubt it’s that simple: if it were, casualties among the rank and file would be greater than the (already appalling) 20-25 percent that has been estimated by US and UK sources.

My conjecture is that the communications problems (which I alluded to in earlier posts) have allowed the Ukrainians (likely with US help) to hack and monitor Russian communications, allowing them to target the Russian commanders. In other words: hack them, track them, and whack them.

Regardless, this has to be very demoralizing to both officers and enlisted alike. Further, it exacerbates the command and control problems that the communications issues already created.

So what next? Most likely stalemate, and increased Russian reliance on indirect fire–including most horribly largely indiscriminate shelling and bombing of urban centers, notably Kiev, in an attempt to break the as of now unshaken will of the Ukrainian people and government. The Russians do not have the manpower to mount serious infantry and armor attacks into the cities. They have already taken appalling casualties (human and materiel), and urban combat is a notorious consumer of men and machines.

The biggest potential for a dramatic change in the battle is if the Russians are able to break through on one of the shoulders of the salient in eastern Ukraine, thus allowing them to trap large numbers of the Ukrainian army. This is something I’ve warned about in previous posts. Western military sources have expressed a similar concern lately.

I suspect the Americans and Nato militaries have been telling the Ukrainians about this, but they are reluctant to leave. Hence, “defense officials” are making these concerns public in order to pressure the Ukrainians.

Giving up territory would be a bitter pill to swallow, especially given the success that Ukraine has had on the battlefield. But a flexible defense that trades space for time is advisable if the Russians threaten the bases of the salient. Withdrawal under pressure is difficult, and requires skill. But with well-timed counterattacks and indirect fire to interfere with Russian attempts to press the retreat, the demonstrated inability of the Russians to advance rapidly and to coordinate the movements of their various units, and the lengthening of Russian communications that the Ukrainians have already proven adept at attacking, a withdrawal that takes a far bigger toll on the attackers than the retreaters is very achievable.

So what next, if indeed a stalemate emerges? For better or worse, the initiative is in Putin’s hands. He can choose to accept defeat, fight it out by shelling Ukraine back into the stone age, or escalate in some way. Any escalation (e.g., use of a nuke, tactical or otherwise, attack on a Nato country–such as an attempt to build a corridor between Russia and Kaliningrad, or an attack on staging areas for supplies going to Ukraine) would be a horrible prospect, but cannot be ruled out.

The tone emanating from Russia is increasingly hysterical. Dmitry Medvedev’s recent diatribe on VKontakt is an example. Medvedev claims that the US wants to end “our Motherland,” and

“This means that Russia must be humiliated, limited, shaken, divided and destroyed,” Medvedev wrote, saying if Americans succeed in that objective, “here is the result: the largest nuclear power with an unstable political regime, weak leadership, a collapsed economy and the maximum number of nuclear warheads aimed at targets in the US and Europe.”

One interpretation of this is that Medvedev views the war in Ukraine as being an existential issue for Russia, and merely a battle in a Manichean struggle between the US and Russia, defeat in which would represent the end of the Russian state. Put this together with Kremlin spokesman Peskov’s statement that Russia would use nuclear weapons if the existence of the state is threatened, and the potential for nuclear escalation is very real.

Is this a bluff? Do we want to find out?

The US and Nato have to walk a fine line here, between concessions that could encourage Putin to pocket gains today and seek more tomorrow (and not just in Ukraine) on one hand, and an aggressive response that leads a paranoid, bitter, aggrieved Putin to play Sampson.

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July 23, 2021

FBI Delenda Est-But No Cato or Scipio Are In Sight

Filed under: Civil War,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:58 pm

The Babylon Bee, as usual, nails the idiocy and absurdity of the FBI:

This refers, of course, to the FBI’s and DOJ’s weighty pronouncement that one of the 1/6 arrestees was in possession of–wait for it!–an assembled Lego model of the Capitol. Except it wasn’t actually assembled. It was still in the box. But still! Obviously he was planning dastardly deeds with Legos! It’s amazing the Republic survived. Thank God the FBI is there to protect us!

The FBI has of course been going all out to apprehend the trespassers, gapers, gawkers, and other assorted invaders of the Capitol. They announced with pride some weeks back that they had made 535 arrests. (Gee. Why that number?) (And none for sedition. Why is that, if this was a greater threat to “our democracy”–which it ain’t–than the Army of Northern Virginia?)

But of course the FBI had advanced warning. So why didn’t they stop it?

Why do I say that they had advanced warning? Because I guarantee that every remotely open access organization or ad hoc grouping is penetrated by the FBI. FFS, the FBI has surveilled the “Concerned Women of America,” as if it’s the ISIS Women’s Auxiliary. What next? Red state sewing circles?

A necessary–but not sufficient–condition to prevent being infiltrated by the FBI is a classic cell structure. But take-all-comers groups like Proud Boys or Oath Keepers or Concerned Women of America or a bunch of idiots bragging on Twitter will attract FBI agents and/or assets like a dog attracts fleas.

Oh. And not joining any organization won’t help. The FBI is also deeply concerned about “lone wolf” white extremists. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. (I’m sure I’m already damned, so this post won’t make any difference.)

So was the FB I complicit in 1/6, or just incompetent in not stopping it?

One cannot rule out the latter. After all, the FBI had advanced warnings about the Pulse nightclub shooter, the Parkland HS shooter, the Fort Hood shooter, and the San Bernardino shooters. Yet they all blazed away unmolested by our vigilant Federal dicks. (I also wonder about the Las Vegas shooter, whom the FBI cannot even figure out ex post. Or supposedly can’t. Maybe their ex post befuddlement is an attempt to conceal ex ante knowledge.)

Although I do not rule out incompetence, I lean towards complicity. Why? This sick-making statement by the current FBI Douchenozzle*, Christopher Wray:

“Darn tootin'”? Are you effing kidding me? “Golly gee willikers Mr. G-man! I’m sure glad we have you to protect us!” “Aw shucks, Jimmy. Just doin’ my job.”

That performance was so transparently phony that Wray would have earned an F in any community college acting class. But our “elite” eats it up.

And that’s the point, exactly. The FBI operates as the elite’s political police. Not the president’s–as demonstrated by its concerted campaign to get Trump. The elite’s/oligarchy’s/ruling class’/administrative state’s political police.

(The FBI also shanked Nixon, BTW. Cf. Mark Felt.)

What is the FBI good at? Setting up mouth breathers to commit crimes, whom it can then arrest and then claim with great fanfare to have protected us from. If you look at most of the high profile terrorism cases the FBI prosecuted post-911, they were low-IQ losers cajoled by FBI informants (operating, of course, at the direction or at least strong suggestion of FBI agents) into committing crimes.

Most recently, the hair-on-fire claims about the allegedly dastardly plot to assassinate Wretched Gretchen Whitmer, governor of Michigan, appear to be less than a real threat than another prêt-à-porter FBI setup, with 12–12!–FBI informants/provocateurs outnumbering the actual dim bulb alleged conspirators.

But this is just one part of the bill of particulars against the FBI. It has also proved shockingly inept (to give it the benefit of the doubt) or complicit in some horrible crimes.

For example, in addition to the terrorism fails mentioned above, it let serial sex offender Larry Nasser operate with impunity for years. Its response to the revelations by the DOJ IG? Not even a “whoops, my bad.” It had copious information on Jeffrey Epstein whom it also allowed to continue his romps for years. (Given Bill Clinton’s and others’ involvement with Epstein, this may have been part of its political police function.) And just recently, FBI agent David Harris was arrested by Louisiana authorities–n.b. state authorities, not the FBI itself–for a sickening trail of child sexual abuse.

Again, in each case: incompetent, or complicit?

In the Nasser case (and others) an FBI agent lied when being questioned. If you or I lie when the FBI questions us–hard Federal time. They lie? No biggie!

Some on the right have called for the “reform” of the FBI. Spare me your naivete. The FBI is unreformable because of its deep internal rot, and the fact that anyone who would be in a position to “reform” it no doubt quakes in terror at the prospect of FBI blackmail or slanderous leaks. (Cf. MLK.)

No. The only peace we could obtain from the FBI is a Carthaginian one. But there’s no Cato or Scipio in sight.

*Four years ago I referred to James Comey as a douchenozzle, for which I apologized profusely, for having insulted douchenozzles. But “Douchenozzle” is clearly a much more descriptive title than “Director.”

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July 5, 2021

The Haters Don’t Take These Truths to be Self Evident

Filed under: Civil War,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:02 pm

A few posts back I said that the America Founding is a political Rorschach test. Yesterday–4 July 2021–proved that beyond cavil: the haters were out in force. The NYT claimed that flying the American flag is divisive–reading between the lines, what they meant was only knuckle dragging right wingers do it. NPR–your tax dollars at woke!–makes the banal point that people were not equal under the law–some were indeed enslaved–at the time that Jefferson penned “all men are created equal.” It adds that the Declaration includes a racist slur–“Indian Savages.” (I guess I will have to take a sledgehammer to may GGGGGF’s tombstone, which reads: “Here Lies the Body of ABEL SHERMAN Who Fell By The Hand of the Savage,” said Abel being ambushed and scalped by Silverheels on 15 August, 1794.)

The likes of NPR were joined by some of our illustrious solons, including Rep. Cori Bush:

(Pssst. Cori. You’re living on stolen land! Please move!)

And Maxine Waters:

As I said before, this point is so banal. FFS, people (including especially the British) were pointing this out about, oh I dunno, 5 July, 1776.

But it completely misses the truly subversive effect of the Declaration. Accepting it as a statement of founding principle made the reality of slavery untenable. These things could not coexist. The logical tension was too great–one would have to give way. In the end, slavery did. Not easily, but it did.

This was a point Lincoln pounded on in speech after speech, starting from the Lyceum address in 1838, and especially in his debates with Douglas in 1858. If you believe in the Declaration, you must believe slavery is wrong. You cannot have both. Pick one.

That is, the Declaration started two revolutions, one immediate, against the British, and one that took generations to ripen, culminating in the Civil War four score and five years after the first. The very contradiction between ideal and reality that so exercises midwits (feeling generous today) like Bush and Waters and NPR sparked a dialectic that culminated in emancipation. (Leaving, of course, other contradictions, meaning that the dialectic continues to operate.)

The language of the Declaration–“that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”–reveals plainly its natural rights roots. And this is another thing that drives leftists mad–although they are more circumspect in criticizing this aspect of it. The modern left in particular finds natural rights an anathema. (Not all conservatives embrace natural rights, but the modern left loathes the idea.)

Those of you who are old enough might remember Joe Biden’s weird questioning of Clarence Thomas about natural rights at the latter’s confirmation hearing, back when Joe was a compos mentis Senator idiot rather than a non compos mentis President idiot (not feeling that generous). To Biden and his ilk, the idea that rights exist independently of the government is dangerous crazy talk.

Relatedly, the Declaration is subversive because it asserts that the people have the right to revolt against a government that deprives them of their natural rights. It’s that subversive thinking that leads Joe to threaten nuking anyone who dares act upon it.

Lincoln’s treatment of the Declaration–which he venerated, over the Constitution, in fact–represents a far more sophisticated and lucid approach than the simplistic screeds of the NPRs, the Cori Bushes, and the Maxine Waters of the world. (I could expand that list greatly.) Lincoln venerated the principles the Declaration espoused, and dedicated his life to making those principles reality–and eventually gave his life in the attempt. The haters can’t get past the fact that the principles weren’t the reality instantaneously. And many of the haters don’t actually venerate the real principles–the natural rights principles–of the Declaration. In fact, they loathe them.

And that’s the nub of the real division in America today. The Declaration, though a statement of universal principles, is not universally embraced. Not just because the principles were not reality in 1776. But because some venerate the Declaration’s principles of liberty and natural rights–including the right to resist a tyrannical government–and some don’t. What’s happened progressively over the years (pun not intended) is that the ranks of the don’ts have swelled, and the ranks of the dos have thinned. The Fourth of July has therefore become a national Rorschach test that reveals the shift in that balance.

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