Sunday, August 02, 2009

Endlessly fascinating: The Civil War

I have three favorite wars which I find endlessly fascinating. The first really isn't one war; arguably its four - the two wars between Persia and Greece and the two Peloponesian Wars (sometimes considered one war), all of which were fought mostly in Greece in the 5th century B.C.; then WWII and the third, the War Between the States aka The Civil War. I admit that I sometimes feel a little guilt glorying in the carnage and horrors of others, but that is a pleasure I share with millions of others. War is hell, but it is also riveting reading.

For the Greek Wars, I think I have absorbed what is most valuable, Herodotus' coverage of the Persian Wars, Thucydides study of the Peloponesian, and several of the works of the modern scholar, Donald Kagan. There are other authors who I have proffited from immensely (particulary Michael Grant and Barry Strauss), but modern historians are mostly relegated to commentating on the ancient recorders and I find Kagan the best of the bunch.

For WWII, the reading is endless. Churchill's The Second World War I read when I boy as my parents had it in the house, and I recently re-read one volume and will probably re-read a second this year. Readers of this blog know I am enthralled with Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. I am not a basher of the unfortunate David Irving and I believe a number of his books are excellent, including The Trail of the Fox (Rommell), Hitler's War and Churchill's War. Also, the German officer, Heinz Guderian's Panzer, the repentant Nazi, Albert Speer's Inside the Third Reich, Spandau and Infiltration, Winterbotham's ground breaking The Ultra Secret, John Toland's The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, Nigel West's little but excellent A Thread of Deceit, all come to mind, but I must break off here with the traditional "too many others to mention," or this will be what the whole post is about. John Keegan wrote a whole little book just on WWII books he has read.

The Civil War is equally difficult to limit to a few books and I know I can't do it without waking up tonight in a start with a sudden memory of what I forgot to add, but, I loved the fictional Traveler, Harry Hansen's The Civil War and any book by Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, James McPherson and Douglas Freeman. And, I've already posted here on the wonderful memoirs of Edward Porter Alexander on May 15th of this year, the best, in my humble opinion, from the war. Henry Steele Commager's Living History, The Civil War is the veritable horn of abundance. Of course, all that leaves out books just on Lincoln alone, an even bigger group, but I've said before I probably enjoyed most The Library of America's Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, Ronald Whites' The Eloquent President, and Benjamin Thomas' and Steven B. Oates' biographies. Many think David Donalds' Lincoln the best, and it might be. There are many others, of course and I'm sure someone somewhere is screaming what about Doris Kearns Goodwin's popular Team of Rivals, which I thought was really good, but not among the best.

Sometimes, alone with my library (that must sound pathetic, but really I enjoy it), I saunter through one of the wars, lately the Civil War and just mark down stuff that is interesting to me. Recently, doing so I found a bunch of stickies and pieces of paper stuck inside some of these books and figure I probably put them there so that I could blog about it. As usual, I look for the unusual.

Here's the legendary Sam Houston, governor of Texas, only a few years a state, vainly and powerlessly protesting against Texas' secession and entry into the Confederacy:

Fellow-Citizen, I have refused to recognize this Convention. I believe that it has derived none of the powers which it has assumed either from the people or from the Legislature. I believe it guilty of an usurpation, which the people cannot suffer tamely and preserve their liberties. I am ready to lay down the office rather than yield to usurpation and degradation.

At the end, he wrote in capital letters, screaming out his warning. Sorry, Sam. On a cheerier note, here's a paragraph from the inspirational Second Inaugural Address:

But the picture has its lights as well as its shadows. This great strife has awakened in the people the highest emotions and qualities of the human soul. It is cultivating feeling of patriotism, virtue, and courage. Instances of self-sacrifice contending are rife throughout the land. Never has a people evinced a more determined spirit than that now animating men, women, and children in every part of our country. Upon the first call, the men fly to arms, and wives and mothers send their husbands and sons to battle without a murmur of regret.

Stirring, no? I may have neglected to mention that this was from Confederate President Jefferson Davis' Second Inaugural Address, not Lincoln's. Davis was appointed president in 1861 when there was no time for elections and then elected the next year. As for Lincoln, let's take a look at what the London Times thought about our hero in 1862:

We do not think that even now, when Mr. Lincoln plays his last card, it will prove to be a trump. Powerful maliginity is a dreadful reality, but impotent maliginity is apt to be a very contemptible spectacle. Here is a would be conqueror and a would-be extirpator who is not quite safe in his seat of gevernment, who is reduced to such straits that he accepts a defeat as a glorious escape, a capitulation of 8,000 men as an unimportant event, a drawn battle as a glorious victory, and the retreat of an invading army which retires laden with plunder and rich in stores as a deliverance. here is a President who has just, against his will, supplied antagonists with a hundred and twenty guns and millions of stores, and who is trembling for the very ground on which he stands. Yet, if we judged only by his pompous proclamations, we should believe that he had a garrison in every city of the South. This is more like a Chinaman beating his two swords together to frighten his enemy than like an earnest man pressing on his cause in steadfasteness and truth.

Well, much of that was hard to argue with, and then General Grant came East. And, in the end, Lincoln did at least indirectly free the slaves when the 13th amendment was ratified. I admit those racist bits ("the Chinaman") that sneak into the language of even heroic sounding writing in the 19th and 20th century cracks me up a bit. I can't copy the whole article here but its tone was anti-slavery but also anti-Northern and condemned the emancipation proclamation as an incitement to murder. It's okay, the Brits and we fell in love in time for the two big wars.

Here's Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Gettysburg's Little Round Top skirmish, telling of a sad moment at Appomattox just as victory is in hand and a white flag has come in from the enemy with the messenge from Lee asking Grant to discuss surrender:

I was doubtful of my duty. The flag of truce was in, but I had no right to act upon it without orders. There was still some firing from various quarters, lulling a little where the white flag passed near. But I did not press things quite so hard. Just then a last cannon-shot from the edge of the town plunges through the breast of a gallant and dear young officer in my front line, -- Lieutenant Clark, of the 185th New York,--the last man killed in the Army of the Potomac, if not the last in the Appomattox lines. Not a strange thing for war,--this swift stroke of the mortal; but coming after the truce was in, it seemed a cruel fate for one so deserving to share his country's joy, and a sad peace offering for us all.

I hate it when that happens.

If ever there was a guy you love to hate on the side of the North, it was George B. McClellan, who was for too long Lincoln's General and possibly the most vain popinjay ever to wear stars, and that is saying a lot. The president's patience with him undoubtedly prolonged the war. Here is Lincoln's secretary of the navy, Gideon Welles, on McClellan:

McClellan is an intelligent engineer and officer, but not a commander to lead a great army in the field. To attack or advance with energy and power is not in him. to fight is not his forte. I sometimes fear his heart is not earnest in the cause yet I do not entertain the thought that he is unfaithful. The study of military operations intersts and amuses him. It flatters him to have on his staff French princes and men of wealth and postion; he likes show, parade, and power. Wishes to outgeneral the rebels, but not to kill and destroy them. In a conversation which I had with him in May last at Cumber-land on the Pamunkey, he said he desired of all things to capture Charleston; he would demolish and annihilate the city. He detested, he said, both South Carolina and Massachusetts, and should rejoice to see both States extinguished. Both were and always had been ultra and mischievous, and he could not tell which he hated most. These were the remarks fo the General-in-Chief at the head of our armies then in the field and when as large a proportion of his troops were from Massachusetts as from any State in the Union.

McClellan was extremely popular with the troops and blamed Lincoln for his problems. At Gettysburg, rumors of his appearence reportedly rallied the troops several times. But, Lincoln sacked him eventually, and replaced him with Fighting Joe Hooker. I like Bruce Catton's strange introduction to this charming character and probably above average general for the North, in his Glory Road:

Beyond any question, Joe Hooker was the handsomest commander the Army of the Potomac ever had. Crusty Publisher Alexander K. McClure grew fairly dreamy-eyed when he tried to describe him: "A man of unusually handsome face and elegant proportions, with a complexion as delicate and silken as a woman's." Major Dawes . . . spoke of Hooker's "Apollo-like presence," and a newspaper correspondent noted that the general had large gray-blue eyes, a rosy skin, and an abundance of blond hair, and said that he looked like an ideal soldier with his erect carriage and his square shoulders. To another correspondent Hooker looked "as rosy as the most healthy woman alive."

There are a million stories from the war. They are greater than any one man's ability to collect. Hence, we will never stop having volumes with new information. Here's a touching moment between Meade and Grant after the latter shows unusual anger hearing a subordinate berate Meade, this one from Catton's Pulitzer and National Book Award winning A Stillness at Appomattox:

For once in his life Meade was calm and not irascible. He stood facing Grant, towering head and sholders over him, and he murmured gently: his name's Griffin, not Gregg, and that's only his way of talking"; and as he spoke he leaned forward and buttoned up Grant's uniform coat for him, for all the world like a kindly father getting his son ready for school. Then Grant went back to his stump and his twigs and his cigars, and couriers dashed off with orders, and in the trackless forest the support troops shouldered their muskets and tried to go forward through the midday twilight.

Lincoln had as his two private secretaries (there was another one who is almost never mentioned in Civil War writings, but that's for another time) John Hay and John Nicolay, who were still young men. They sometimes seemed to me like they were having a great time even in the midst of the terrible pressure of working for Lincoln (whom they referred to as "the tycoon") during the war. Here's a letter from Hay, later the U.S. secretary of state, to Nicolay where the teasing reminds me of boys being boys wherever they are [brackets are mine]:

Glorious news come borne on every wind but the South Wind. While
P[ope] is crossing the turbid and broad torrent of the Mississippi in the blaze of the evening's fire and G[rant] is fighting the overwhelming legions
of B[eauregard] at Pittsburgh, the little Napoleon [McClellan] sits trembling
before the handful of men at Yorktown afraid either to fight or run. S[tanton][secretary of war] feels devilish about it. He would like to remove him if he thought it would do.

Things go on here about as usual. There is no fun at all. The Hell-cat [Mrs. Lincoln] is getting more Hell-cattical day by day.

Lamon has indicted Horace Greeley [powerful newspaper man not afraid to criticize Lincoln] criminally for libel and thinks of going to New York to bring him down to the jail here. He would not be persuaded by his best friends.

We have made Van Alen a Brig. Gen. The Senate, however, have not yet confirmed him. I am geting along pretty well. I only work about 20 hours a day. I do all of your work & half of my own now you are away.

Don't hurry yourself. We are getting on very well. I talk a little French, too, now. I have taken a devil of a notion to the Gerolts. I went to see them the other day. The children were less scared than usual and they and Madame la Baronne talked long and earnestly of the state of your hygiene and said, "it was good intentions you for to go to the West for small time."

The latest rumour in "our set" is that Mr. Hay and Miss Hooper are engaged, as Count Gurowski [Polish nobleman, writer and Lincoln critic] calls it. I wish I had that old nuisance's neck in a slip noose. I'm afraid the Hoopers will hear it and then my good times there will be up.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo, an economist who writes about Lincoln, is no fan of his. You do not need to agree with all of his conclusions to appreciate his work, as the field of Lincoln is one that is exceedingly hagiagraphic and needs sunlight. DiLorenzo points a torch where others would prefer dark. Here's a paragraph which points such a torch on General Sherman, whose march to the sea delighted many in the North, probably got Lincoln re-elected, and devastated the South:

Upon taking command in Tennessee, Sherman described the ultimate purpose in the war to his wife: "extermination, not of soldiers alone, that is the least part of the trouble, but of the people." His loving wife responded by expressing her sincerest wish that the war would be a war "of extermination and that all [Southerners] would be driven like the Swine into the sea. may we carry fire and sword into their states till not one habitation is left standing." "Sherman and his family," explains Sherman biographer John Marszalek, "saw everyone south of the Mason-Dixon Line as an implacable enemy."

There is always another side in any discussion of war. Harry Hansen, who wrote my favorite one volume history of the war, describes Sherman, replying to a plea from the mayor and councilmen of Atlanta not to make refugees of the remaining people, as follows:

Sherman was quick to defend his course. He deluged the mayor and councilmnen with a a flood of words about the war, the guilt of the South, and his determination to root out the enemy. Atlanta might again become a battleground, said he, so in asking the citizens to leave he was doing them a kindness. Hardships of war? "War is cruelty and you cannot refine it," said the general; "and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out." The Confederates had sent men and munitions to carry the war into Kentucky and Tennessee, and hundreds and thousands of women and children had fled from the Confederate armies and desperatdoes, "hungry and with bleeding feet."

Why not end this post with Lincoln himself, in one of my favorites among his letters, this one to his wife, mostly because it emphasizes just how different growing up then was from growing up now.

Think you better put "Tad's" pistol away. I had an ugly dream about him.

Tad was ten.


  1. "Those were the Days"????? How to explain the fascination with war without sounding glib or slightly sociopathic.... dunno. Anyway, some fun quotes. Thanks.

  2. So, did Tad's pistol get put away??

    Interesting post. Civil War does seem to hold an unusual fascination.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .