Streetwise Professor

June 18, 2020

When Judging History, Remember Matthew, Not Marx

Filed under: Civil War,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:22 pm

A little less than 3 years ago, during the last spasm of nihilistic iconoclasm that wracked the United States, I wrote:

It is because of this loss of historical memory that I am averse to iconoclasm. I am also quite conscious that iconoclasm is itself almost always an assertion of political power, and as such can be as divisive as the erection of the icons was. A cycle of symbolism can sow discord, and generate much more heat than light. In a deeply divided country, we should be looking for ways to improve understanding and to provide fora for reconciliation, rather than to inflame divisions. Building the monuments was a way of showing who is on top: taking them down is a way of doing the same. But assertion of power relations exacerbates conflict and detracts from the advancement of true equality.

The Confederate monument controversy has also catalyzed tribalism, perhaps intentionally so, as this has definite political uses, most notably making it possible for the left to claim that the fringe mouth breathers who rallied to defend the monument are representative of all its political adversaries. It is also the last thing the increasingly tribal US needs at present.

Today is like that. Only on steroids and meth.

Especially the part about iconoclasm being an assertion of political power. For that is the real driving force behind the current orgy of destruction–which is no longer limited to the US, but has spread around the world.

In the US, the hard left is hell-bent on imposing a Howard Zinn version of history on the entire country. A version in which the nation’s history is a litany of crimes, with no redeeming features or redeeming figures. For a nation such as that must be uprooted, destroyed, and then remade. The past must be erased–no, extirpated–in order to clear the way for a glorious utopian future.

Hence everything–everything–has to go. No historical figure is safe. The monument to the (black) 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in Boston. The statue of abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier in the town in California that bears his name. No one is pure enough to meet the standards of today’s Jacobins and Red Guardists.

The most commonly cited justification for this is “but slavery!” Where once upon a time people played Six Degrees From Kevin Bacon, we now play–or are forced to witness and assent to–Six Degrees From Slavery, in which lines are drawn from various figures or places to slavery. (Although not consistently–Kente cloth being an notable exception). If there is a connection within six degrees–into the furnace! And such connections inevitably exist in any nation or culture with a history of slavery. Which, as it happens, is every nation and culture. Meaning everything is at risk.

This has reached its most ludicrous (but not necessarily the ultimate in ludicrousness–there’s still time!) in campaigns against Penny Lane in Liverpool (allegedly, but not proved, to be named for a Mr. Penny who was involved in the slave trade in the distant past) and the University of Virginia logo, upon which the depictions of handles of crossed swords included a wavy pattern evocative of the Serpentine Walls at UVA–walls which, we are now told, “former President Thomas Jefferson designed . . . to muffle the sounds of slaves and hide them from public view.”

Color me skeptical. (Can I say that?) This is attributed to “historians.” I have looked fairly extensively to see which historians, and the basis for this conclusion, but to no avail. If someone can provide the documentation, I would be glad to evaluate it.

Building walls around universities is hardly a novelty. Creating cloistered spaces at universities or other scholastic institutions to isolate them from the intrusions of the outside world dates back to medieval times–visit a college at Oxford sometime. Or most monasteries.

But never mind, whatever the origins of the walls, they have long been recognized as architecturally distinctive (though they harken to English precedents). So the interest in and aesthetic value of the walls has existed and exists independent of whatever thought gave impetus to Jefferson to create them.

No, this seems like a classic Alinskyite effort intended to dragoon a public institution, and its craven administrators (don’t dare call them “leaders”) into genuflecting before the power of the radicals. They pick a target–the wall–freeze it, personalize it, polarize it.

And then they move on to the next target, because there is no limiting principle here. Again, the imposition of the Howard Zinn view of American history recognizes no limits: everyone and everything that preceded Year Zero is evil, and must be destroyed.

If an abstract representation of the Serpentine Wall is today considered an affront and offensive, how can the walls themselves be any less so? If you must eliminate the image, how can you possibly tolerate the real thing? In other words: how long before there is a call for the walls to be torn down, or a mob takes the job into its own hands?

The radicals will march from surrender to surrender. Given that they will never compromise, the line has to be drawn at no iconoclasm, period. Monuments are a testament to their time and place. Let them stand as such, and let our interpretation of those things change with the times and knowledge.

Quite interestingly, French President Emmanuel Macron, agrees, and forcefully so:

Would that there would be someone equally articulate taking such a strong stand here, or in the UK, or elsewhere in the Anglosphere. Bravo, M. le President.

This is about history, but it’s not only about history. It’s not even mainly about history. Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” The delegitimization of the American past (and the British past and the Western past (“decolonize your bookshelf”)) is just one part of a concerted campaign to delegitimize our institutions and our cultures, in order to replace them with those imagined in the radicals’ fevered brains.

The Jacobins brook no opposition and in fact demand complete subservience. It is not sufficient to say, reasonably enough, that black lives matter. No, it is necessary to endorse (or at the very least, not dare to criticize) Black Lives Matter, thereby giving your asset to its entire radical, Marxist, crypto-Marxist, divisive, and race-charged agenda. In this way, the radicals opportunistically use empathy and goodwill and shock at shocking events as a Trojan Horse to smuggle their extreme agenda inside America’s (metaphorical) walls–and inside your heads. And we know what happened to the Trojans when they accepted the Greek gift.

So call me Cassandra: beware of radicals bearing “gifts.”

Particularly narcissistic radicals, like those who dominate today. They cast judgment on everyone else, and everyone who went before. All fail to live up to their lofty standards. But they apparently assume that they are perfect, and no future people, radical or otherwise, will judge them.

They would be wise to heed Matthew 7:1-3:

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you

They should. But they won’t. Because the history that they so haughtily disdain shows they never do. So they must be fought. Hammer and tong.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

June 11, 2020

Will Miracles Never Cease? A Voice of Sanity–From Berkeley

Filed under: Civil War,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 5:54 pm

Here is a powerful “UC Berkeley History Professor’s Open Letter Against BLM, Police Brutality and Cultural Orthodoxy.” Let that sink in–a letter from a Berkeley history prof against “BLM . . . and Cultural Orthodoxy.”

Powerful, but understandably–and sadly–anonymous. How many times have you been told we have to have a “conversation about race.” That’s a lie. Anybody saying that doesn’t want a conversation. They want to deliver a lecture. A monologue. And for you to listen, nodding in assent, preferably on your knees.

Here is a person who makes a sincere effort at having a thoughtful conversation, but knows that s/he cannot do so openly except at professional and personal peril.

You should read the entire thing, but I will highlight the most important point:

The claim that the difficulties that the black community faces are entirely causally explained by exogenous factors in the form of white systemic racism, white supremacy, and other forms of white discrimination remains a problematic hypothesis that should be vigorously challenged by historians. Instead, it is being treated as an axiomatic and actionable truth without serious consideration of its profound flaws, or its worrying implication of total black impotence. This hypothesis is transforming our institution and our culture, without any space for dissent outside of a tightly policed, narrow discourse.

Exactly right.

I will go further. The theory of systemic racism is quintessential pseudo-science, an unfalsifiable hypothesis, analogous to Marxism (“scientific socialism”). To which it can trace its roots, via the Frankfurt School in particular.

It has all the hallmarks of pseudo-science that Karl Popper identified decades ago. It purports to be a theory of everything. Those who propound this theory invoke it as an explanation of virtually every aspect of society and social relations. Moreover, those who dispute it are not joined factually or logically. Instead, their disagreement is taken as evidence of proof of the theory (“if you dispute the theory it proves how pervasive racism is and that you are a racist”) just as Marxism dismissed opponents as merely representing prevailing production relationships in society, or false class consciousness, or other such drivel. Opponents are guilty of Wrongthink, to be shouted down, ostracized, and marginalized–if they are lucky.

The last thing that its proponents want is that it “should be vigorously challenged by historians.” Or anybody else for that matter. Those who challenge the revealed truth are heretics, and must be treated accordingly.

Of course it is the current fashion in academia, and among the intelligentsia. But, as Orwell trenchantly said, “Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them.”  My modification: “Some ideas are so malign that only intellectuals believe them.”

This has become a new secular religion, like Marxism. And like traditional religions, it has saints and heretics, and especially hell.

Because the theory is unfalsifiable, it is a fool’s errand to argue against it, factually or logically, at least to the people who propound it or claim to believe it. I know many people–smart people–who make gallant efforts to do so. Factually and logically they are persuasive. But attempting to falsify factually and logically an unfalsifiable and logically defective theory is futile, and only brings the furies down on your head. As the Berkeley history prof (an assistant prof, I’m guessing) clearly understands.

Further, note that when it comes to concrete policy choices and decisions, the game is rigged. If you buy into “systemic racism”, no mere reform of a police department or voting procedures or what have you is adequate. The frenzy unleashed on hapless Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey shows that. If you are not with the Jacobins 100 percent, you are an enemy.

Which means that the only prescription acceptable to those who actually believe this theory (or are smart enough to not believe it, but find it politically useful) is a complete revolution in our social relations, our economy, our government, and every institution public or private. No half measures are acceptable. No 99.9 percent measures are acceptable.

This in part explains the appeal of this theory to intellectuals and academics. They like all encompassing, gnostic theories and explanations. (See Thomas Sowell’s indispensable A Conflict of Visions for a trenchant analysis.) Intellectuals also fantasize about being in power, and deeply resent not having it.

The honest advocates of this theory will have no dispute with that: they forthrightly advocate a complete destruction and then reconstruction of society, from top to bottom. Because they think it is “systemically” rotten.

Because such attempts have always worked out great, right?

The iconoclasm and vandalism we are seeing is testament to the totalitarian, millenarian vision. Every monument has been desecrated (including a monument to black soldiers who fought in the Civil War) or is at risk of desecration, because it is the product of an evil past that lives on in an evil present. Year Zero calls!

The more than passing resemblance between the way that “conversations” are carried out today, and they were under the Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution, is further evidence. You must recant every wrongthought and embrace Newthink, or you will be destroyed.

The perversity of all this is too much. The consequences are utterly foreseeable, and dire. Most importantly, realization of only a trivial portion of this vision would hurt most the people whom are the supposed beneficiaries.

Case in point. The Chicago Police basically abandoned most neighborhoods in Chicago during the last weekend in May in the aftermath of the riots that wracked the city. Aldermen from minority wards were apoplectic. Even a hardcore leftist like Michael Pfleger were appalled:

“On Saturday and particularly Sunday, I heard people saying all over, ‘Hey, there’s no police anywhere, police ain’t doing nothing,’” Pfleger said.

“I sat and watched a store looted for over an hour,” he added. “No police came. I got in my car and drove around to some other places getting looted [and] didn’t see police anywhere.”

And on that weekend had the largest number of murders in Chicago’s recorded history. Given that history, that is a truly appalling statement.

Hopefully this episode is like the Ghost of Christmas Future, that will awaken people to where this is headed so that it can be stopped in its tracks. But hope is not a plan. This has to be fought, and the most important strategic move is to not fight this battle on the ground that the opponents choose–the pseudoscientific theory of systemic racism.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

November 28, 2019

America is Exceptional, and Its Foreign Policy Failures Stem From Americans’ Failure to Acknowledge That Fact

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 1:47 pm

When reading Allen Guelzo’s review of Elizabeth Varon’s narrative history of the Civil War, Armies of Deliverance, this jumped out at me:

What will redeem even this quibbling is the significance of the basic trope around which Varon builds her narrative. It is Varon’s fundamental belief that Northerners entered into—and stayed in—the Civil War out of the conviction that they were rescuing the deluded Southern white masses from the tyranny of Southern slaveholders. Northerners saw the Confederacy as a vast kidnapping by these elites, who had turned the slaveholding states into a closed economic system approximating what Karl Marx called “feudal socialism.”
By overthrowing this slaveholder coup d’etat, and by destroying the yoke of slavery for both white and black, the way would be opened to redeem the South, through opening its doors to “free labor”—to open markets, competitive wage contracts and, in a word, capitalism. “What a commercial world this State of Virginia should be,” marveled a Union army surgeon in 1862. With the overthrow of the slave oligarchs, insisted Henry Ward Beecher, “Schools will multiply. Books and papers will spread. Churches will bless every hamlet.”
Confidence that Northern victory would bring this deliverance in its train motivated the constant refrain in Northern writing that the war was aimed only at the oligarchs, and that poor whites and freed slaves would flock eagerly to the banner of Unionism. Hence the joyful predictions that, sooner or later, a latent Southern Unionism would rise from its repressed well; hence, also, Lincoln’s attempt to negotiate a generous amnesty and Reconstruction policy. Varon acknowledges that other historians have recognized the attraction of “the deluded-masses theory,” but virtually all of them limit its influence to the early months of the war, before the stiffening of Southern resistance led Northerners to embrace instead a “hard war” of conquest and subjugation. Varon sees no such evaporation. To the contrary, she demonstrates the “deliverance” idea’s persistence, marshalling evidence from Edward Everett’s 1863 Gettysburg oration (the “other” Gettysburg address) to soldier diaries to newspaper pronouncements—all the way to Lincoln’s last cabinet meeting on April 14, 1865.
The painful irony of this conviction was that Southerners—and not just the oligarchs—simply did not share it. They repudiated the accusation of oligarchy and instead stressed Southern white solidarity, a solidarity fired by the sufferings they endured during the war. The end of the conflict left Southern whites militarily defeated, but even more defiant in their loss—and more contemptuous of Yankee missionary efforts to convert them to free labor—than they had been in 1861. And from this refusal springs the bitter fruit of Reconstruction.

During the nadir of the American experience in Iraq, I often drew parallels with Reconstruction. One major parallel was that utter military defeat was a necessary, but by no means sufficient, condition to bring a vanquished region to heel. Conquering a populace is much harder than defeating armies.

The other major parallel is related to Varon’s interpretation of Northern thinking about the implications of victory. Per Varon, Northerners believed they were liberating oppressed masses from a small ruling class, and that the subjugation of that class would make the oppressed Southerners, black and white alike, into stereotypical Yankees who would adopt Yankee institutions and ways. In 2003, Americans (especially the neoconservatives) believed that the US was liberating oppressed Iraqis from a small (Sunni) ruling class, and that once liberated, (mainly Shia) Iraqis would adopt American (Western) values and institutions, and we could ride off into the sunset, like the Lone Ranger.

The happy visions of 1865 Northerners and 2003 Americans soon crashed into the reality that white Southerners and Iraqis didn’t want to become Yankees. The underlying reality here is that culture goes deep, culture is extremely particularist, and most of the world doesn’t share universalist American (Yankee) pretensions. Indeed, Civil War and Reconstruction demonstrate that at one time many Americans didn’t share such universalist pretensions.

If you look at many of the myriad debacles of what passes for American statecraft (e.g., the Wilsonian failure post-1918, Vietnam), they can be traced to a similar source: the American failure to understand the immense power of civilizational and cultural identity, and the concomitant belief that if given the chance–if “liberated”–everyone everywhere would become Americans.

Ironically, these beliefs have proved utterly resistant to repeated and decisive empirical refutation. Indeed, the near hysterical (well, maybe not so near) reaction to Trump in particular, and various strains of “nationalism” generally, among the establishment/government class demonstrates that they are still in thrall to such beliefs.

The ongoing impeachment farce is the most pathetic manifestation of this. Trump’s instinctual distrust of a corrupt and dysfunctional Ukraine clashes with the most deeply held convictions of The Interagency, AKA, the establishment Blob, which still pursues the chimeras that enticed Civil War-era Yankees and Iraq War-era policy elites. This time it will work! Trust us on this! Pay no attention to the sad litany of failures! We can make Sovoks into Yankees!

In a weird way, this is why I am an American exceptionalist, in the literal meaning of that term. I believe that the United States is largely an exception that proves the rule. America’s repeated attempts to make its very historically contingent institutions, culture, and development the universal rule are doomed to failure because they founder on the very historically contingent institutions, cultures, and developments of those it presumes to change.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

October 22, 2019

Chickamauga Connections

Filed under: Civil War — cpirrong @ 6:38 pm

The weekend before last I traveled to northern Georgia to visit the Chickamauga and Chattanooga battlefields. They are among my favorites. Chickamauga was the first battlefield preserved by the federal government (in 1890). This early action, plus the fact that the area was economically marginal, meant that virtually the entire field is preserved. It is well-marked. I quibble with some of the market placements (especially at Snodgrass Hill and Horseshoe Ridge, where I agree with Archibald Gracie rather than the original Battlefield Commission), but the battle was incredibly complex and confusing so no definitive interpretation is possible.

There are family connections here. My GGGF, George Immel, fought with the 92nd Ohio at Chickamauga and the assault on Missionary Ridge. (The 92nd was in Turchin’s brigade, which along with Harker’s, Croxton’s and Vandeveer’s turned in the best performance of any Union brigades in the battle.) My GGM’s brothers fought in the 46th Ohio in the assault on Tunnel Hill at Chattanooga. Here’s yours truly at the Napoleons placed to market the position of Key’s Arkansas Battery, which the 46th and the other regiments of Corse’s brigade, Ewing’s division, Sherman’s corps, attacked on 25 November, 1863:

I hit most of the major important points at Chickamauga, but having been there on the order of a dozen times, I expanded my horizons a bit this trip. I followed the route of Thomas’ 14th Corps over Lookout Mountain, into McClemore’s Cove, and then to Crawfish Spring.

Crawfish Spring is currently the site of the town of Chickamauga. The Spring (pictured below) was the site of a Union hospital during the battle, and also a vital source of water:

Across from the Spring is the massive Gordon Mansion, which was a Union headquarters prior to the battle:

The mansion is particularly impressive, when compared to the hardscrabble cabins (like the Brotherton, Kelly, and Snodgrass houses) that most local folk lived in. Talk about your inequality of wealth!

Walking around the spring and the mansion, I learned some interesting facts. One is that a slave of the Gordon family who buried the dead at Chickamauga (I get the image of Morgan Freeman in Glory), Mark Thrash, remained in the area until his death, reputedly at the age of 122 years, 357 days (making him the oldest man in the world at the time, reputedly).

The other story is even more fascinating. I went to the monument of the 88th Illinois, “The Second Board of Trade Regiment”

but didn’t expect another Chicago Board of Trade connection;

Specifically, the area around Crawfish Springs was a training camp (Camp Lytle, later renamed Camp Thomas) during the Spanish-American War. (Ironically, the 88th Illinois was in Lytle’s brigade, and the monument is on the lower slope of Lytle Hill). Sanitation was horrible, and recruits were dropping like flies from typhoid and dysentery. A Chicago philanthropist, Mary T. Leiter, heard of the disaster, and paid $10,000 to buy the Park Hotel near the springs and convert it to a hospital.

Mary Leiter was the wife of Levi Leiter, the financial/business brain behind Marshall Fields. Her son, Joseph, became a notorious speculator on the CBOT. His massive failed attempt to corner the wheat market in 1897-1898 was the inspiration for Frank Norris’ novel, The Pit: A Story of Chicago. Hence the CBOT connection.

Levi had to pay $5 million to bail out his son after the corner collapsed–and that’s when $5 mil was a helluva lot of money. This would have been a few months before Joe’s mom popped a mere $10k for a hotel/hospital.

One of Leiter’s daughters (Mary Victoria) was famous in her own right, marrying Lord Curzon and becoming the Vicereine of India before her premature death at age 36.

Quite a fascinating story, and an unexpected place to find it.

All in all, a trip filled with connections, personal and professional.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

November 30, 2018

The Most Tragic Day of a Tragic War

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 9:19 pm
The American Civil War was an extremely grim conflict from first to last, but few–if any–days of that war were as grim as 30 November, 1864.  On that bleak day, John Bell Hood launched his Confederate Army of Tennessee in an assault over 1.5 miles of open ground against a larger force of steely Union veterans behind strong entrenchments.  The result was predictable–to all but Hood, apparently: an epic slaughter of some of the finest infantry of that or any war.

The battle is known–to the extent it is known, which is too little–for the deaths of six Confederate generals, namely Cleburne (not of Texas, but for whom a town in the state is named because a brigade of Texans served under his command), Carter, Granbury (of Texas, and commander of that Texas brigade, for whom a Lone Star town is named), Strahl, Gist, and Adams.  Seven other brigade or division commanders were wounded.   No other battle took such a toll on general officers.

Officer casualties at Franklin were horrible, but the carnage in the ranks was almost as bad.  Many excellent formations were nearly obliterated.

Case in point: the storied Missouri Brigade.  Arguably the best combat unit in the western theater, and arguably of the entire war, the brigade went into the battle with 696 men, of whom 419 (over 60 percent) were rendered hors du combat.  53 out of 56 officers–think about that for a minute, 95 percent–went down.  Although a pathetic remnant of the brigade tramped on to Nashville, to participate in the defeat there, for all intents and purposes the finest unit in the Army of Tennessee was wrecked beyond repair.

In some respects it is invidious to single out a particular brigade: virtually every Confederate formation was ravaged.

Virtually nowhere did the Confederates penetrate the Union entrenchments. General Adams made it literally half-way: he attempted to leap his horse over the rampart, only to have his horse–and himself–riddled by bullets in the attempt.  Adams was found dead on his horse, which had its forelegs on the Union side of the parapet, and the hind legs on the Confederate side.

The one exception was in Cleburne’s and Brown’s sector near the Cotton Gin and Carter House.  A blunder had resulted in two small Federal brigades (Conrad’s and Lane’s) of Wagner’s IV Corps division remaining several hundred yards in front of the main Union line, holding a thinly-manned rudimentary set of earthworks.  These men were overwhelmed by the assault of the two Confederate divisions and they broke for the rear, as sensible men will.   A cry went up from the Confederate lines: “Shoot them in the back! Follow them into the works!” And they did.  The defenders of the main line were hesitant to fire because Lane’s and Conrad’s men were in the way, and thus the Confederates were largely spared from the withering volleys that stopped their comrades on their right and left in their tracks, allowing Cleburne’s and Brown’s men to surge over the works.

But only for a short while.  Wagner’s third brigade, under Emerson Opdyke (which contained the 2d Board of Trade regiment, the 88th Illinois, by the way), launched a frenzied counterattack that resulted in hand-to-hand fighting around the Carter House (which stands today, along with outbuildings that still exhibit hundreds of bullet holes).  Supported by troops that had been driven from the works (including the 1st Board of Trade Regiment, AKA the 72nd Illinois), Opdyke drove back the Confederates.

But not far.  The rebels congregated in the ditch on the outside of the Union lines.  Because that was the safest place: to recross the field would have been suicidal.

For the next several hours, in the darkness of the late-autumn day, the contending forces slaughtered each other at point-blank range.  General Strahl was shot handing loaded muskets to his men.  Carried to the rear, he was shot in the neck and fatally wounded in the field beyond the ditch.  Men would thrust their muskets over the parapet one-handed, and discharge them into the seething mass on the other side.  Soldiers launched bayoneted rifles like spears into the masses on the other side of the line. Some became frenzied, and jumped on top of the works, only to be shot down.  By late in the evening, the ditch in front of the works was a crawling mass of wounded men, intermixed with the dead.

There is nothing like it in the Civil War.  Pickett’s Charge was similar in terms of numbers, and ground crossed, and ultimate result, but when the Confederates were repulsed, they withdrew.  That fight did not drag on for hours at point-blank range.  The carnage at Franklin did.

In the end, exhaustion caused the fight to ebb away, just as the lives of hundreds of men were ebbing away.  The Union army had bought the time to rebuild the bridges over the Harpeth River necessary to continue their retreat to Nashville, and stole away in the night.  The Confederates were too tired, and too bloodied, even to notice, let alone to try to stop them.

This was truly one of the great tragedies of a War full of them.  In a conflict full of futile and pointless assaults, Franklin stands out for futility and pointlessness.  The Union army ended up exactly where it would have if the battle had never been fought.  But a third of the 23,000 Confederates who made the assault were killed (around 1750) or wounded (5500).  The casualty rates were even higher in Cleburne’s and Brown’s divisions.  60 of 100 regimental commanders went down.

The Federals suffered about 2400 casualties, of whom 1100 (primarily in Conrad’s and Lane’s brigades)  were captured.  Only battles like Fredericksburg or Cold Harbor resulted in a similar disproportionate loss on the contending sides.

So why did this tragedy occur?  It clearly is the responsibility of one man: John Bell Hood.  I agree with (the General’s distant relation) Stephen Hood’s debunking of Wiley Sword’s claim that Hood’s judgment was warped by his reliance on laudanum to ease the pain of his horrific wounds (an arm crippled at Gettysburg, a leg lost almost at the hip at Chickamauga).   Accounts make it clear that Hood was outraged that his subordinates had let the Union army escape a trap at Spring Hill (to the south of Franklin), and this almost certainly dominated his thinking and made an attack seem to be the only option.  It has also been argued that Hood wanted to punish his army for its failure at Spring Hill, but I tend to doubt this interpretation.  He was mad (“as wrathy as a rattlesnake” in the words of one witness) at seeing what he considered to be a Jacksonian stroke come to naught, almost certainly exhausted, and predisposed to aggressiveness.  A deadly combination for the hardy and valiant men under his command.

Franklin illustrates like few battles the incredible deadliness of veteran soldiers by that stage of the war.  Whereas the brutal losses of the Overland and Petersburg campaigns had made Army of the Potomac regiments shadows of their former selves, re-manned with draftees with dubious combat effectiveness (as illustrated by battles like Ream’s Station), western Union regiments had seen extensive combat experience, but still had a strong core of veteran soldiers.

The Army of Tennessee had suffered in battle after battle (Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, the battles around Atlanta) but although these losses led to shrunken ranks, those who remained were lethally effective and brave beyond measure.  Veterans that they were, they were certainly under no illusions about their prospects as they stepped off from Winstead Hill for the long trudge to the Union lines at Franklin.  But forlorn hope or no, they attacked with a will.  Awesome is the only word for it.

Unfortunately, the field where these men underwent their agonies is largely unpreserved.  All of the trenches are gone.  The site of the climax of the battle around the Cotton Gin was scarred by a Domino’s Pizza for years.  Fortunately, preservationists have acquired that property, razed the structures, and have created a small park there, including a monument to Cleburne.  The Carter House exists, and preservationists are painstakingly buying property around it in an attempt to create a larger commemorative space.  But most of the Union line to the right and left was covered by pleasant suburban houses years ago.

Carnton Plantation, where the bodies of 4 of the slain generals were laid out after the battle, is still exists.  A Confederate cemetery is located on the grounds–one of the largest at any Civil War battlefield.  The fields around Carnton, where the Confederate right stepped off, are undeveloped, but the target of their assault is suburbia.

Although you can’t experience Franklin in the same way as you can Antietam, or Chickamauga, or Shiloh, or Gettysburg, perhaps that’s for the best.  Bucolic scenes with granite monuments cannot possibly convey the experience of those men who were sacrificed without prospect or purpose 154 years ago today.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

November 23, 2018

The Looming War on Thanksgiving

Filed under: Civil War,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 12:47 pm
Attacking Columbus day? Confederate monuments? Old news!  The new hotness is attacking Thanksgiving.  Yes, the criticism can best be characterized as a swell today, but after long experience of observing the dynamics of these things, I expect that it will become a tidal wave next year, or the year after.

The grounds of the attack: it is a racist celebration.  Here is one particularly angry example of the criticism, but it differs from other things I’ve read and heard more in atmospherics than substance:

Nobody but Americans celebrates Thanksgiving. It is reserved by history and the intent of “the founders” as the supremely white American holiday, the most ghoulish event on the national calendar. No Halloween of the imagination can rival the exterminationist reality that was the genesis, and remains the legacy, of the American Thanksgiving. It is the most loathsome, humanity-insulting day of the year – a pure glorification of racist barbarity.

We at [Black Commentator] are thankful that the day grows nearer when the almost four centuries-old abomination will be deprived of its reason for being: white supremacy. Then we may all eat and drink in peace and gratitude for the blessings of humanity’s deliverance from the rule of evil men.

Thanksgiving is much more than a lie – if it were that simple, an historical correction of the record of events in 1600s Massachusetts would suffice to purge the “flaw” in the national mythology. But Thanksgiving is not just a twisted fable, and the mythology it nurtures is itself inherently evil. The real-life events – subsequently revised – were perfectly understood at the time as the first, definitive triumphs of the genocidal European project in New England. The near-erasure of Native Americans in Massachusetts and, soon thereafter, from most of the remainder of the northern English colonial seaboard was the true mission of the Pilgrim enterprise – Act One of the American Dream.  African Slavery commenced contemporaneously – an overlapping and ultimately inseparable Act Two. The last Act in the American drama must be the “root and branch” eradication of all vestiges of Act One and Two – America’s seminal crimes and formative projects. Thanksgiving as presently celebrated – that is, as a national political event – is an affront to civilization.

In a nutshell: Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday.  America is uniquely evil.  Therefore, in the coming Year Zero, Thanksgiving must be expunged, “root and branch.”

I will agree that Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday.   Everything after–appalling tripe.

First, to say that “[t]he near-erasure of Native Americans in Massachusetts and, soon thereafter, from most of the remainder of the northern English colonial seaboard was the true mission of the Pilgrim enterprise” is a lie and a libel.  Few things of that era are as well documented as the genesis of the voyage of the Mayflower, and the intent of those who sailed on it across storm tossed seas to an exceedingly uncertain shore.  The Puritans were people of intense religious feeling, suffering from intense religious persecution in their native England.  Decamping first to Leiden in the Dutch Republic, they decided to establish a New Jerusalem in a land outside of the control of the secular and religious authorities who persecuted them.

This was an inwardly-directed, insular, and arguably cultish group that was obsessed with inner salvation and communal adherence to strict religious principles.  It was the antithesis of a band of imperial adventurers and would-be conquerors: such a label might apply to the settlers of Jamestown, but not Plymouth.  There was not a Cortez among them.  They wanted to be left alone to pursue their vision of religious perfection.  Further, their settlement was founded based on a rather democratic and egalitarian document, the Mayflower Compact.

As a small band clinging to a precarious foothold, they posed little threat to Native Americans and intended to pose no such threat.   The initial relations with local tribes were mainly friendly.  Interestingly, competing tribes sought to cultivate their support in inter-tribal struggles.

As it turned out, their initial communitarian (bordering on communist) ideals turned out to be utterly impractical, with common property and communal labor leading to near obliteration by starvation.  The first Thanksgiving was a celebration of survival.  A genuine gesture from a sincerely religious people.

Being quicker learners than modern-day socialists, they jettisoned their Bible-inspired economic model, embraced private property and private labor, and within a few years of landing were becoming increasingly prosperous. During this period, relations with the native peoples were largely peaceful.

Continued religious persecution in England led other dissenters to leave their homeland for the New World.   Eventually the population growth, and the somewhat different ethos of these latter day Puritans, led to conflict with native tribes.  This culminated in the mid-1630s with the outbreak of the Pequot War.  But even that conflict is impossible to represent honestly as a conflict between grasping Europeans and persecuted natives.  Instead, it grew out of inter-tribal conflict, and in particular the aggressive imperialism–there’s really not a better word for it–of the Pequots.  In this war, the Puritan settlers were basically another tribe, but one with greater military capacity.

The Pequot War culminated in the Mystic Massacre.  Notably the Puritan attackers of the Pequot’s Mistick Fort were joined by Indian allies (the Mohegans and Narragansetts).  The attack against the fortification was almost a disaster, and in their desperation to escape the attackers set fires that spread, eventually consuming most of the fort and killing most of the Pequots trapped in it.

Like all history, this history is complicated.  Attempting to jam it into simplistic narratives intended to advance present-day political agendas necessarily does great violence to the truth, and leads to bitterness and conflict rather than understanding.

To make the Puritans emblematic of every American transgression does violence to the truth.  In particular, to tar them with the stick of slavery is particularly wrong.*  Moreover, to celebrate their laudable accomplishments, and their humble appreciation of God’s sparing them, does not excuse them or their followers from their failures and sin.

The modern holiday also attempts to appeal to the better angels of our nature (to quote Lincoln).  Consider Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation:

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness. Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us. And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best. Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

It is clearly aspirational, and even acknowledges “national . . . transgressions,” for which it asks forgiveness in Christian fashion.  It also appeals for strength to be better as a people.

Or consider Lincoln’s, proclaimed during the depths of a Civil War:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

It also acknowledge’s America’s “sins,” and “our national perverseness and disobedience,” and calls for “humble penitence” therefore: read in context, coming as it did the same year as the Emancipation Proclamation, it is evident that Lincoln is referring to slavery.

In other words, from the outset in Plymouth or subsequent declarations in 1789 or 1863, Thanksgiving was anything but a chauvinistic celebration of a haughty people.  To the contrary.  It was an appreciation for the bounties that Americans had reaped, bound with a recognition of human (and national) failures to realize ideals, and a commitment to do better.  It is more gratitude and humility, than chauvinism and haughtiness.

This is why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and why I for one will push back at the swelling progressive attacks on it.

*One of my direct ancestors, Samuel Fuller, was a Mayflower passenger and a survivor of that first horrible year.  His parents, Edward and his wife (whose name does not appear in the records), were not so lucky, and died soon after they stepped off the boat.  Samuel was taken in by his uncle, also named Samuel Fuller, and survived to the ripe old age of 75, dying in 1683.

It is possible that Samuel Fuller was the only slaveholder among the Mayflower Puritans.  His will bequeaths an Indian named Joel to his son.  There are no other similar records of slaves, Indian or otherwise, held by these Puritans.  Slavery in Massachusetts Bay colony probably dates from the time of the Pequot War, but was relatively marginal there through the mid-18th century.  There were fewer black slaves than free blacks in Massachusetts in this period.   And of course, the descendants of the Puritans formed the core of the American abolitionist movement.

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

October 15, 2018

The Media on Trump on Lee: Don’t Trust, But Verify

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 11:08 am
The latest media Trump freakout derives from his statement during a campaign rally in Ohio last week that Robert E. Lee was “a great general.”  Since every Confederate is beyond the pale 153 years after the end of the Civil War, any praise of any Confederate is deemed evidence of racism.

As we’ll see, that spare characterization of Trump’s remarks was grotesquely misleading.  But hit pause on that for a moment, and just consider the objective truth of the part of the statement that was reported.  (Does truth even matter any more?)  There is little doubt that Lee displayed excellent generalship and leadership at the operational level.  Some of his campaigns–Second Manassas and Chancellorsville in particular–are justifiably renowned as examples of a smaller force defeating a larger one through maneuver.  His defense during the Overland Campaign was also laudable. Other campaigns–notably Gettysburg–were less creditable: but no modern general (not even Napoleon pre-Waterloo) was uniformly successful in campaign or battle.  The main objections to his generalship were that his operational success was not achieved pursuant to a broader strategic vision, and relatedly, that his tactical methods produced casualties that the Confederacy could not afford.  (Indeed, the casualties at his greatest victory–Chancellorsville–cast some shade on the achievement.)

Further note that acknowledging that someone was a great general does not imply an endorsement of the cause for which he fought.  Were Manstein and Rommel great generals?  Yes–much to the world’s cost.  Similarly, Zhukov.  The greatest generals in world history–Alexander, Caesar, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Napoleon–drowned their worlds in blood in their pursuit of grandeur.  Alas, one of the tragedies of history is that generalship exhibits some correlation with the depravity of the cause in which it is employed.  (This raises interesting questions regarding causation.)

So even if Trump said only what was widely reported, the facts were on his side.  But what was reported was not all he said.  Here are his remarks in full:

But maybe someday he will. It also gave you a general, who was incredible. He drank a little bit too much. You know who I’m talking about, right? So Robert E. Lee was a great general. And Abraham Lincoln developed a phobia. He couldn’t beat Robert E. Lee. He was going crazy. I don’t know if you know this story. But Robert E. Lee was winning battle after battle after battle. And Abraham Lincoln came home, he said, “I can’t beat Robert E. Lee.”  And he had all of his generals, they looked great, they were the top of their class at West Point. They were the greatest people. There’s only one problem — they didn’t know how the hell to win. They didn’t know how to fight. They didn’t know how. And one day, it was looking really bad. And Lincoln just said, you — hardly knew his name — and they said, don’t take him. He’s got a drinking problem. And Lincoln said, I don’t care what problem he has, you guys aren’t winning. And his name was Grant. General Grant. And he went in and he knocked the hell out of everyone. And you know the story. They said to Lincoln, you can’t use him anymore. He’s an alcoholic. And Lincoln said, I don’t care if he’s an alcoholic. Frankly, give me six or seven more just like him. He started to win. Grant really did. He had a serious problem. Serious drinking problem. But, man, was he a good general. And he’s finally being recognized as a great general. But Lincoln had almost developed a phobia, because he was having a hard time with a true great fighter and a great general, Robert E. Lee. But Grant figured it out, and Grant is a great general, and Grant came from right here.

So in a campaign rally in Ohio, Trump was praising Ohioans–a staple of stump rhetoric.  One Ohioan he praised was Ulysses S. Grant.  In the process of praising Grant, he touted the generalship of Grant’s most famous foe–Robert E. Lee.  This wasn’t about Lee, except indirectly.

Trump employed a standard rhetorical technique: he enhanced the achievements of the person he was praising by emphasizing the personal obstacles he had overcome (in Grant’s case, alcohol) and the brilliance and strength of the enemies that he vanquished (here, Lee).  Would David have become a legendary figure had he felled Irving, the Philistine Dwarf, instead of Goliath, the Philistine Giant?  Er, obviously not.  Nor would Grant have been as famous if he had vanquished Benjamin Huger or Leonidas Polk or any of the many non-entities that achieved general rank in the Confederacy.  (Indeed, one reason to question Lee’s brilliance is that his victories were won against a parade of incompetents.)  But beating Lee is a true accomplishment.

But the media ignored this in its haste to find another charge to add to the Trump indictment, and to further the narrative that he makes racist appeals to the Confederacy.   Indeed, some media couldn’t satisfy its frenzy by stopping merely at ripping a sentence fragment out of context: NBC falsely enhanced the narrative by claiming that Trump had said that Lee was “incredible.”   Actually, that is a classic case of projection: It is NBC, and the rest of the media that ran with the “Lee is great” meme that lacks credibility.

Yet they whine when he blasts them for spreading “fake news.”  Here’s a thought: if you don’t want Trump to accuse you of spreading false news, don’t spread false news!

If there’s anything objectionable in Trump’s remark, it is the first part of that rhetorical technique: Trump arguably exaggerated seriously Grant’s alcohol problem, at least as of the time of the Civil War.  There is still much debate over whether and when and how much Grant consumed alcohol.  Many of the reports of his abuse of liquor were insinuations by nasty backbiters (e.g., Henry Hallack) that exploited the reputation Grant developed in the 1850s while marooned at Fort Humboldt in California.  There is no credible report that he was impaired at any time in the conduct of his duties 1861-1865.

And as Lincoln said when those backbiters criticized Grant: “I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.”  For Grant carried out one, and arguably two, of the greatest campaigns of maneuver in the Civil War.  The Vicksburg campaign, in fact, is one of the most brilliant campaigns in modern military history anywhere.  The crossing of the James in June, 1864 was also operationally brilliant, though barren of results due to the blundering of the generals in charge of carrying the attacks at Petersburg home–and arguably due as well to the exhaustion and casualties and loss of aggressiveness brought on by the relentless grinding of the Overland Campaign of the prior 5 weeks.

Further, Grant excelled Lee in that his operational successes all advanced broader strategic goals.  By March, 1864 Grant had responsibility for Northern grand strategy, and seized the opportunity with a relish, whereas Lee invariably avoided this responsibility.  Although the frictions of war–notably the incompetence of Franz Sigel, Benjamin Butler, and Nathaniel Banks–prevented the immediate consummation of Grant’s strategic vision, its breadth and flexibility eventually led to its success.  (There is some similarity between the fate of Grant’s strategic plan and his grand tactical scheme at Chattanooga in November, 1863.  Neither scheme worked according to plan, but since neither was dependent on the success of any single element, the failure of one or two aspects of the plans did not preclude their ultimate success.)

This sorry episode illustrates yet again what should by now be obvious.  If the media reports anything about Trump, modify Reagan’s famous remark about the USSR: don’t trust, but verify.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

June 2, 2018

A Day at Antietam

Filed under: Civil War — The Professor @ 6:39 pm
Ever since I was 9, and my grandparents took me on an epic road trip to Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Richmond, Petersburg, the Seven Days, Fredericksburg, Spottsylvania, Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Antietam, and Gettysburg, visiting Civil War battlefields has been an important pastime for me.  I’ve been to every major field multiple times, and the site of pretty much every action worthy of the name battle at least once (with the exceptions of Jenkins’ Ferry, Olustee, and Poison Spring).

If you had to ask me to choose just one to go to, I would pick Antietam/Sharpsburg, where I visited today (for the 11th time, give or take).  Why? Several reasons.

It’s relatively compact.  I walked the entire field in about 5 hours.  And I mean the entire field.  From Cornfield Avenue to the North Woods (Poffenberger Farm) down the old Hagerstown Pike to the West Woods, into the West Woods all the way to the line of Sedgwick’s furthest advance, over to Dunker/Dunkard Church, up the Smoketown Road back to the Corn Field.  Then over to Mumma’s Lane up to the Sunken Road, into the field where Richardson’s division charged, and then over to the end of the road where Barlow and the rest of Caldwell’s brigade broke the line.  The only drive was from there to the other side of the Boonsboro Pike, where I walked most of the road down to the 40 Acre Cornfield (where Gregg turned the Union left after Hill’s epic march from Harpers Ferry), into the cornfield, and then down to Burnsides’ Bridge. All in all ~11 miles.

It is sobering to think that one can walk in half a day an area that saw the greatest slaughter that has occurred on any single day in American history.  The concentration of carnage was awful–and only seeing how small the battle area is can make that plain.  The contrast between the tranquility and quiet of the field today (where often I heard only the chirps of birds, and was accompanied only by gophers, rabbits, and deer) and the chaos and noise that prevailed 156 years ago is also somewhat eerie.

The Battlefield Park also encompasses virtually the entire area in which fighting took place, and the landscape is relatively unchanged–it is one of the best preserved and most complete fields, and most vistas are free of modern visual pollution.  One can therefore get a more comprehensive and undistracted perspective of the battlefield than is possible anywhere else.  Further, it is much less crowded, and much less touristy than Gettysburg. Sharpsburg the town is charming, and again, much less touristy than the Pennsylvania burg an hour’s drive north.  Not a ghost tour sign in sight.  Thank God.

Unlike Chickamauga and Shiloh, which are densely wooded, much of the ground at Antietam is open and rolling, giving pleasing perspectives and panoramas.  Further, one gets a great sense of the role that terrain played in the battle.  For instance, one can walk over the crest where the Irish Brigade advanced immediately in front of the Sunken Road and see how close the Confederate line was, and understand how devastating the shock would have been as the Union line took fire once it became visible from the road, a mere few yards away.  One can visualize how short the distance between the lines was (there, and a little to the north where French’s division charged), and remark at how intense the fire must have been to make it impossible to charge successfully over so few yards.  (The only comparable place I can think of is The Nek at Gallipoli–and there the Turks had Maxim guns to mow down the Australian Light Horse as they tried to cross the 30 yards between the trenches.)

The vistas and ability to appreciate the terrain is perhaps best on the southern part of the field, where the IX Corps advanced after crossing the Antietam.  I had given that area short shrift in previous trips, but made up for it this time.  Here the country is almost completely open, with several prominent ridge lines that allow one to observe and imagine the scope of the struggle.

Here’s a panorama view taken from just north of the 12th Ohio monument, overlooking the 40 Acre Corn Field where Gregg’s brigade smashed the IX Corps left, and turned the tide of the battle.  (Although it should be noted that Gregg’s brigade gets too much credit–Archer, Branch (who was killed) and Toombs also played pivotal roles in stopping the final Union advance.)  If anyone’s interested, I can post the rest of the album of photos I took today.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

March 17, 2018

Fighting Joe Hooker

Filed under: Civil War,History,Politics — The Professor @ 11:14 am
Or the Joe Hooker entrance to the Massachusetts State House, anyways.  In a further illustration of the descent of the US into PC madness, MA State Rep. Michelle DuBois (D-Plymouth)  is calling for the removal of a sign designating one entrance of the State House as the General Hooker Entrance because it is an “affront ‘to women’s dignity.'”

Oh please. Fightin’ Joe’s last name has been a source of much tittering over the years.  (Tittering–can I say that? Or will that trigger Mizz DuBois too?) Some have claimed that his name inspired the slang for “prostitute” but that has long been disproven.  Yes, Joe’s moral character was rather dubious, but hardly that bad.

Why did Massachusetts honor Hooker with a statue, and emblazon the entrance to the State House facing said statue with his name?  Well, Hooker’s Civil War record was largely creditable, with a few exceptions.  He was a very solid division and corps commander, both in the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the Cumberland.  His rejuvenation, reorganization, and reform of the Army of the Potomac after the disaster and deep demoralization of the Burnside era was truly remarkable, and laid the foundation for the Army’s eventual triumph.

Hooker’s initial moves in the Chancellorsville Campaign were excellent, and seriously wrong-footed Lee.  Then, as Hooker himself said, Joe Hooker “lost confidence in Joe Hooker.”  Rather than pushing out of The Wilderness, he stopped his advance and left the initiative to Lee.  Lee launched Jackson against Hooker’s right flank, which Oliver Otis “Uh-oh” Howard failed to post properly.  Even after Jackson’s stunning flank attack, Hooker could have prevailed, but he made some fatal errors (notably ordering Sickles to withdraw from Hazel Grove, thereby gifting the Confederates with an artillery position that dominated the Union lines, and then withdrawing from an extremely strong position that Lee could not have possibly driven him from) and eventually slunk away from the battlefield.

Ironically, given the location of his statue, Hooker’s biggest flaw was politics.  He was an inveterate schemer who attempted to advance himself by pulling down his superiors, in part by saying nasty things about them to politicians.

But all in all, Hooker’s accomplishments were not undeserving of memorialization by his native state. Who else would Massachusetts so honor? Its other sons who reached army command–Ben Butler and Nathaniel P. Banks–were serial disasters as commanders, and only reached and retained their elevated positions because they were prominent Massachusetts politicians. For all his flaws, Hooker far outshone them.  (The other Civil War general to have a statue on the State House grounds, Charles Devens, was a rather undistinguished division commander–including ironically in Howard’s XI Corps at Chancellorsville–whose post-war career that culminated in his service as Attorney General in the Hayes administration was actually much more impressive than his war service.)

But service and achievement in America’s greatest historical episode is irrelevant to twits (that’s with an “i”, people) like Rep. DuBois. Their sensitive feelings must come first, history be damned.

This is yet another example of iconoclasm as an assertion of power by those with an agenda.  Hooker fought against slavery, and was indeed closely aligned with the Radical Republicans.  Perhaps that was merely political opportunism on Hooker’s part, but it definitely went against the grain in the high command of the Army of the Potomac, which was adamantly opposed to waging war on slavery.  You’d think that would win Joe some plaudits from Mizz DuBois–but no! His name is an affront to her dignity, and what’s more important than that?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

December 29, 2017

Remembering a Forgotten Battle: Stones River, 1862-63.

Filed under: Civil War,History — The Professor @ 6:49 pm
New Years Eve day will be the 155th anniversary of one of the forgotten battles of the Civil War–Stones River (styled Murfreesboro by the Confederates). The battle was actually fought over two days–31 December, 1862 and 2 January, 1863. It resulted in almost 25,000 casualties, but was overshadowed by other events. The Union disaster at Fredericksburg on 13 December and the subsequent Mud March fiasco in January–these events took place much closer to the political capital and media centers of the North–attracted far more notice. The destruction of Grant’s supply depot at Holly Springs on 20 December, and his subsequent retreat from northern Mississippi (thereby terminating his first attempt at Vicksburg) and the nearly simultaneous bloodying of Sherman at Chickasaw Bluffs outside of Vicksburg also detracted attention from the battle in middle Tennessee. The indecisive nature of the combat also helped doom the battle to obscurity: there was no real victor, and no major strategic outcome from all the bloodletting.

The 25,000 combined casualties ranks only 6th on that grim list for the Civil War. But it was the bloodiest major battle in proportion to numbers engaged–the percentage loss on both sides was almost one-third of the troops that fought there. In contrast, the loss rate at Gettysburg was about 28 percent. Absolute casualties were larger at the Wilderness, but more than twice as many men fought in that 1864 Virginia battle.

Yet Stones River is obscure. This is unfortunate, and a slight to those who fought there. And fight they did.

Stones River was the middle of three gruesome battles fought between the Army of the Ohio/Cumberland and the Army of Mississippi/Tennessee between 8 October, 1862 (Perryville) and 19-20 September, 1863 (Chickamauga). All three battles demonstrated the offensive prowess of Bragg’s Confederate army. At Perryville, a Rebel offensive pulverized McCook’s corps. At Stones River, the Southern assault wrecked McCook’s Corps again, and did considerable damage to Crittenden’s as well. At Chickamauga, the Confederate onslaught crushed both. Only when Union troops fought behind fortifications were they ever able to withstand an attack by the Army of Tennessee, until that attack was spent.*

But the battles also illustrated the limits of the offensive. The casualty toll suffered by the Confederate attackers, and the disorganization, physical and emotional exhaustion, and chaos resulting from even  successful assaults, made it impossible to sweep the battered Union armies from the battlefield. In each case, it was easier for the defenders to retreat and form a coherent defense than it was for the winded and bloodied attackers to regroup for a final decisive charge.

Moreover, in each battle, stalwart defenses by relatively small Union commands delayed and disrupted the Confederate attacks sufficiently to allow the Union troops to rally sufficiently to avoid annihilation. At Perryville, Starkweather’s brigade performed this vital task. At Stones River, Sheridan’s division held long enough in the cedars to permit Rosecrans to form a final line at the Nashville Pike. Further, Hazen’s brigade held the Round Forest against repeated attacks. At Chickamauga, the stand around Horseshoe Ridge anchored by Harker’s and Vanderveer’s brigades plus the detritus of many Union regiments permitted Thomas to extract the Union army from its parlous position.

And in all three battles, the failure to achieve decisive victory despite driving Federal troops from position after position, set off bitter recrimination’s in Bragg’s army. After Stones River, Bragg and division commander Breckenridge (former Vice President of the US, and eventual Secretary of War for the Confederacy) engaged in a vicious argument over responsibility for Breckenridge’s disastrous assault on 2 January. In the rest of the army there was grave dissatisfaction over the failure to achieve victory. The poisonous atmosphere hamstrung the army for the remainder of Bragg’s unhappy tenure as commander.

The performance of Confederate troops during this and the other two battles is all the more remarkable given the utterly dysfunctional command structure that ordered and led them into battle.

So take a moment to remember this forgotten contest. Those who fought and bled there do not deserve the obscurity that has characterized the battle almost since the day it was fought. It demonstrates the remarkable qualities of the private soldiers and many of the field grade and company officers on both sides–and the extreme limitations of their commanders. It was a soldier’s battle par excellence, and those soldiers deserve recognition for their stalwart performance on two wintery days in middle Tennessee.

*To this I should add the Army of Mississippi’s assaults on the first day at Shiloh, which almost succeeded in driving Grant’s Army of the Tennessee into the river from which it took its name. Van Dorn’s Army of West Tennessee smashed Rosecran’s Army of the Mississippi on the first day of the Battle of Corinth (3-4 October, 1862), and its assaults on the second day pushed back Rosecrans’ right wing into the town: the Union left was heavily fortified, and this allowed it to hold off the attack on its sector.  Some units of Van Dorn’s army, notably Moore’s Texas Brigade and the Missouri  Brigade fought with the Army of Tennessee during the Atlanta and Nashville campaigns. The counterattack of Bowen’s Division at Champion Hill, which almost brought Grant’s army to ruin in that decisive battle, is another example of the striking power of Confederate troops in the Western Theater. Most of the Confederate attacks on the first day at Chickamauga, with the exception of Cheatham’s Division’s assaults in the Brock Field Area, were initially successful, but ultimately indecisive because of the inevitable loss of impetus due to casualties and disorganization. Breckenridge’s attack on 2 January at Stones River also succeeded in smashing the Union left flank across the river, only to be repelled by the massed artillery battery (57 guns firing on the Confederate  front and flank)  assembled by Captain John Mendenhall.

No other army on either side mounted so many successful frontal attacks. (Many of the Army of Northern Virginia’s successful attacks, e.g., Second Manassas, Chancellorsville, were flank attacks, while others such as on Barlow Knoll the first day at Gettysburg or against the Emmitsburg Road on the second day involved a numerically superior force attacking badly positioned Union defenders.)

What accounts for the great shock effect of Confederate infantry attacks in the West? Sheer aggressiveness and elan has to be part of it: even attacks against breastworks that failed (e.g., Franklin, the Battle of Atlanta) were pressed with extreme vigor. (Peachtree Creek and to some degree Ezra Church and Jonesboro were exceptions). I would also surmise that the difference in performance in attacks on unfortified and fortified defenders demonstrates that the attackers’ fire was particularly accurate and heavy. Inflicting heavy casualties while advancing a defending force increased the odds of success. Entrenchments or barricades largely eliminated the ability of the advancing force to render large numbers of the defenders hors de combat.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

« Previous PageNext Page »

Powered by WordPress