Sunday, March 20, 2011

Lincoln's decision

In light of current events as of today in Libya and the questions of what is to be gained now that Qaddafi has regained the upper hand in the rebellion I got to pondering another rebellion and choices that Lincoln had to make after the first six southern states seceded and fortified Charleston Harbor.

What would you do? Withdraw from Sumter or defy the rebel forces and reinforce/supply the old fort?

Fort Sumter and Fort Moultier were federal forts meant to protect the critical harbor of Charleston should another war with Britain occur. But, the presence of both was a thorn in Charleston's side as it protected the mouth of the harbor and could fire on any foreign ships wishing to get in or rebel ships from getting out.
As a matter of principle, Lincoln and the War Department refuse to surrender the fort and withdraw. Yet, there are slave holding states who have not yet seceded, Virginia being the most prominent of them and whose loyalties are somewhat divided between the federal constitution and the growing threat of the abolitionists in northern politics.
P.G.T. Beauregard and South Carolina politicians send the War Department an ultimatum; if Sumter is reinforced or supplied, the Confederacy would consider it a hostile act.
Sumter was only lightly held, and though Major Anderson was able to abandon and destroy the guns at Fort Moultier and combine forces in Sumter, the fort could not hold out for an extended period of time without supply.
One act leaves the status quo and avoids an immediate war, but the other calls the rebel's bluff.
This is less a what if question than a discussion of what the issues are if you are Lincoln.

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Friday, December 24, 2010

Civil War Armies in 1862

When reading up on official histories of Shiloh, one gets the impression that both U.S. Grant and A.S. Johnston were in command of great armies. One reads of the brigades, divisions, and corps and it is easy to build a picture of that organization with an eye on our modern military. We share titles and ranks and indeed there are some former volunteer regiments, national guard formations that can trace some of their lineage to the Civil War and the Spanish American War.

Easier still to envision that the regiments and brigades were organized and trained as whole organizations where brigade and division commanders were men of note and experience. Since WWII, we have lived in a nation where a large standing army was the norm, not the rule. This army is professional in character, all volunteer until the Vietnam conflict, and made up of men from all over the fifty states who trained as specialists in war.

The Civil War armies were of a vastly different character, more akin in make up to our current National Guard formations where men served with other men from the same geographic location and then only served in time of war. They were not professional at this early stage, only the experience of time would make them the soldiers who marched and fought each other at Gettysburg in June of 1863.

To understand Shiloh as a campaign and battle, we need to look at the character of these formations, how they were formed, and how they trained.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

A.S. Johnston or P.G.T. Buearegard, who was to blame part II

In the military, it is the commanding officer who bears both the responsibility for victory and the blame for defeat. A subordinate's actions can bring credit not only on themselves but on the one who sanctions their actions.

In the two accounts of the actions taken before and during the final act of the campaign now called the Shiloh Campaign, Buearegard and the younger William Johnston lay out the strategic situation prior to the fall of Forts Donelson and Henry and the ultimate decision to risk all and initiate a preemptive strike on the gathering federal army.

When the capture of Fort Henry separated Tennessee into two distinct theaters of war, General Johnston assigned the district west of the Tennessee River to General Beauregard, who had been sent to him for duty. This officer had suddenly acquired a high reputation by the battle of Bull Run, and General Johnston naturally intrusted him with a large discretion. He sent him with instructions to concentrate all available forces near Corinth, a movement previously begun. pg. 616 Serial: The Century; a popular quarterly Volume 0029 Issue 4 (Feb 1885)
Title: Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: Albert Sidney Johnston and the Shiloh Campaign. By His Son [pp. 614-629]
Author: Johnston, Wm. Preston

Though Johnston acknowledges that Beauregard had already begun to gather the available forces in his district in Corinth, he either neglects to give Beauregard credit for foresight or puts the situation in the correct light.

Beauregard, on the other hand, saw it a little differently.

February 16th, in answer to a dispatch of mine, asking if any direct orders had been issued to General Polk with regard to the troops at and around Columbus, Colonel Mackall, A.A. G., sent me this telegram: . You must do as your judgment dictates. No orders for your troops have issued from here. And General Johnston, in another telegram, dated February 18th, said: You must now act as seems best to you. The separation of our armies is now complete. pg. 9 Serial: The North American Review Volume 0142 Issue 350 (January 1886)
Title: The Shiloh Campaign, Part I [pp. 1-25]
Author: Beauregard, G. P. T.

Given free reign with the severing of Johnston's department into two halves, Beauregard attempts to show that it was his own initiative and not Johnston's directive to dispose of his forces accordingly. Although one can easily relate to the natural inclination to defend oneself or claim credit, both men play a duplicitous game with the facts.

If indeed it is Johnston's authority and ultimate responsibility to claim credit or endure blame for the actions of his lieutenants, then the younger Johnston can hardly claim credit for gathering Buearegard's district in Corinth and yet blame him for the abandonment of Columbus, Tennessee.

His own plan was to defend Columbus to the last extremity with a reduced garrison, and withdraw Polk and his army for active movements. Beauregard made the mistake, however, of evacuating Columbus, and making his defense of the Mississippi River at Island Number Ten, which proved untenable and soon surrendered with a garrison of 6ooo or 7000 men. pg. 616

Or, was it this way?

I was then at Jackson, Tennessee, where Colonel Jordan, my chief of staff, had just arrived, after an inspection tour at Columbus. His report, coupled with that of Captain Harris, my chief engineer, about the exaggerated extension of the lines there, the defective location of the works, and the faulty organization of the troops, strengthened my own opinion as to the inability of Columbus to withstand a serious attack, and rendered more imperative still the necessity of its early evacuation. General Polk, who had considered the situation in a different light, and who believed in the defensive capacity of the place, was at first averse to the movement. He changed his mind, however, upon my showing him the saliency of Fort Columbus and the weak points of its construction, and cheerfully carried out my instructions, when, on the 19th of February, the War Department having given its consent to the evacuation, he was ordered to prepare for it without delay. pg. 10

If Beauregard is to be believed, it was his own suggestion, with approval of the Confederate War Department, of the saliency of his opinion to abandon Columbus and concentrate then at Island no. 10. Yet, he could hardly have acted without Johnston's consent and approval, though in command of General Polk, he himself was under command of Johnston. William Johnston attempts to deftly ignore his father's acquiescence in allowing Beauregard to abandon Columbus and blame him for what became a lynch pin in the eventual loss of Island no. 10 in the end. If it was his responsibility to accept the acclaim of a right decision, it was also his to accept the blame for a wrong one, regardless of whose idea it was.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

A.S. Johnston or P.G.T Buearegard, who's to blame pt. 1

Long after the guns fall silent a war of a different sort wages. Death is not guarantor of protection from blame and the living take sides, often regardless of their wartime affiliation to pen excuses and treatises cataloging their hindsight and deflecting or laying blame where appropriate.

In researching for a timeline of events leading up to the April 6th attack by the Army of Mississippi, A.S. Johnston commanding on U.S. Grant's encamped Army of the Tennessee at Pittsburg Landing, I found two articles, one in New Century Magazine from 1885 describing the Shiloh campaign from the Confederate point of view, one written by A.S. Johnston's son, William P. Johnston defending his father's legacy and decisions leading up to the battle and his subsequent death on the field and one from American Review in 1886 in response by Johnston's second in command P.G.T. Beauregard.

The turn of the year in the western department of the Confederacy began with a shaky start. Grant had been surprised at Belmont but managed to recover his camp when Confederates under Leonidas Polk began ransacking his camp, allowing Grant to counterattack and then successfully debark his forces onto waiting river boats unmolested.

In his own article, Beauregard states the situation thusly:

General Buell's command was then at Bacon Creek, on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, not farther than forty miles from Bowling Green, and consisted of fully seventy-five thousand men. General Grant was near Cairo, and had twenty thousand men with him, ready to move either against Fort Henry or Fort Donelson, as might best serve his purpose. General Pope commanded not less than thirty thousand men, in the State of Missouri, and was, just then, seriously threatening General Polk's position.

With only 47,000 men of all arms and scattered about both Kentucky and Tennessee, Johnston had a problem. Numerically inferior and spread out over a large department, holding two rivers open and keeping union forces guessing, there was little room for loss.

Enter Ulysses Simpson Grant, his command strengthened after the Belmont debacle, and begins moving on Fort Henry.

William Johnston, lays out the strategic situation in the following light:

There has been much discussion as to who originated the movement up the Tennessee River. Grant made it, and it made Grant. It was obvious enough to all the leaders on both sides. Great efforts were made to guard against it, but the popular fatuity and apathy prevented adequate preparations. It was only one of a number of possible and equally fatal movements, which could not have been properly met and resisted except by a larger force than was to be had.

Beauregard, is a little more succinct:
Pressing upon Johnston that in his judgement, Forts Henry and Donelson could be saved by a concentration of available forces to prevent Grant's victory by fiat, he should ...
...concentrate at once all our available troops upon Henry and Donelson, and thus force General Grant to give us battle there, with every chance of success in our favor, and hardly any hope by him of obtaining assistance elsewhere. The adoption, I said, and above all the vigorous execution of such a plan, would not only restore to us the full control of the Tennessee, but insure likewise the possession of the Cumberland, and eventually secure a much better position to our troops as to the defense of Nashville.

To further jab at Johnston's son and propose himself as having been in the right, he adds:

My views were not adopted. General Johnston agreed to their correctness, in a strategic point of view, but feared that a failure to defeat General Grant, as proposed, would jeopardize the security of our positions at other points, and might possibly cause our forces to be crushed between Grant and Buell.

In the end, Fort Henry fell without a shot fired and Johnston, carrying what of the national stores had been kept in Bowling Green as could be carried, retired to Nashville.

Fort Donelson in turn is also lost as are a significant number of its defenders.

Relating this, William Johnston sates:

At midnight of February 15/16 General Johnston received a telegram announcing a great victory at Donelson, and before daylight information that it would be surrendered. His last troops were then arriving at Nashville from Bowling Green. His first words were: I must save this army. He at once determined to abandon the line of the Cumberland, and concentrate all available forces at Corinth, Mississippi, for a renewed struggle.

Or, was it Beauregard?

was then determined, that Fort Henry having fallen, and Fort Donelson not being tenable, preparations should at once be made for the removal of the army of Bowling Green to Nashville; that the troops at Clarksville would cross over to the south of the Cumberland, leaving behind them a force sufficient to protect the manufactories and other property established there by the government; that from Nashville, should any further retrograde movement become necessary, it would be made to Stevenson, and thence according to circumstances.

Absent is any mention of Corinth. An omission in his zeal to the younger Johnston's crime of omission (Beauregard is barely mentioned at all) or a taking of historical license by the surviving second in command?

We'll see more in coming posts.

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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Confederate History Month, a racist’s dream come true?

I listened to a portion of a local radio talk show where callers were pontificating over the evils of the newly elected Republican Governor's declaration of April as Confederate History Month. I listened as several callers attempted to espouse pro or anti sentiments and in general showed their total ignorance of this period of our history. But, with little emphasis on critical thinking being taught in schools in favor of Politically Correct history, I can't but cease to wonder at how little the vast majority really understands of where we have come. It does not help that anyone can label a political enemy as a racist if they do not espouse a certain level of liberal ideology. The term itself has become the broadly stroked brush of enmity by which we stifle debate or impugn someone's character.

Hence, any discussion of the Civil War and the Confederacy in general devolves into harsh and superficial epithets and I fear much of what people know today is colored by the demonization of one race or people in the effort to artificially prop up another.

I listened to callers who berated even Robert E. Lee for not freeing the slaves he inherited from his Father-in-law George Washington Parke Custis whose will stipulated manumission of the slaves living on his Arlington plantation; Lee chose to pay off his father-in-law's debts by hiring his slaves out. To this caller, Nathan Bedford Forrest was the most despicable human being who ever lived for his actions during the war and after in the formation of the KKK. The problem I had with these callers was their self assuredness in their feeble understanding of history and the view of our ancestors. Personally, Forrest was a ruthless man and Lee was misguided in his allegiance to Virginia, but I will also admit that these are statements from today using today's standards and knowledge of how history played out. To paint them both as racists simply because they owned slaves and fought for the south is to oversimplify and ignore the whole of northern public opinion that little differed from their own: that the black race was inferior to the white race.

That is not the historian's purpose, to paint the past with the brush of today but to paint it with the brush of yesterday and bring full meaning and understanding of where we are today by the road we have travelled. It would take a war and the grudging enlistment of black regiments to begin to sway northern opinion toward recognition of the negro race as deserving of equal treatment under the law.

Truth be told, any but the most radical abolitionist of the 1840's through 1865 would be considered as acceptable today and John Brown only notable for his having failed to lead a servile insurrection. The Great Emancipator himself in private and in public statements did not believe the negro could live in harmony with the predominant white population nor would they be suitable for fighting in the army. On several occasions he dismissed commissions from free northern blacks offering their services in raising all black regiments to fight. Lincoln supported an enterprise to colonize freedmen in Haiti, an effort that ended in failure and brought down on his head the almost universal condemnation of black newspapers and orators alike. Northern public opinion was little different than in the south save that they believed that the south should be deprived of her slaves. Few even of the New England states where blacks could enter into the professions allowed him to vote or to testify against a white. That the north held opinions of the black race little different from their southern counterparts is little portrayed in our history books but is information easily found if one bothers to look.

Do I support Confederate History Month? Do I care? Not really. I can't oppose it seeing that we allow for and even throw money at Black History Month, Women's History Month, Hispanic History Month … I'm personally lobbying for Dutch-German History Month as I feel I am underrepresented in the pantheon of me-to ethnic recognition. To paint this month as inherently racist is to practice poor critical thinking when we look at the gender and racial motivated months previously mentioned. Is not Black History Month racist? Only if one really wants to be fair about their opposition to Confederate History Month must they in the same breath admit that these other ethnic months too must be racist in their raising up of one group over and above another in their focus. It is the focus that is the critical point, not their content. To know why the southern states have a Confederate History Month is to also acknowledge the same need for a Black, Hispanic, or Women's history month. It is a call for balance, one that is sorely lacking in much discourse when race is involved and our poor history at treating the colored race.

One look at the first paragraph of the following Wikipedia page on this and a look at the discussions tab is all one needs to understand the issues:

That the original author of the post misrepresented the purpose for the month by including a statement from Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephen's proclamation regarding the ratification of the Confederate States of America's constitution as "… especially designed to celebrate … a new government . . . founded upon exactly the opposite idea [from that of the United States in 1776]; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."

Nowhere in the proclamation or in any such state designations is this statement alluded to or the purpose for the recognition, but that mattered little to the person who started the information page. It was instead meant to harbor ill will and frankly a gross misappropriation of the historical record to front a claim of racism as the motivator.

Back to the radio show, some callers expressed their opinion that Virginia was doing this because there was a black man in the White House and as a protest against his election. With no proof and all hyperbole the discussion went on without any mention (at least of the part I heard, the host is usually good at reading the text of this stuff prior to opening up for calls so I can assume the audience had a full hearing of what the proclamation said) because it was Confederate therefore it was racist. That, is what rankles me the most: the misuse of our history and the view of the past with our standards of the day. The one caller who made the most sense was someone who asked why we had all of these special months to begin with; are we not all Americans? Shouldn't we instead have an American History Month?

In reading what Fredrick Douglass spoke in his orations or wrote in his newspaper and the writings of other clergymen and laymen about the need for the negro race to shoulder the burden of fighting in the war and then proving once and for all that there was no difference between the races in ability, for gaining the rights of suffrage in all of the states, and rejecting the Haiti and Nigerian colonization schemes it becomes clear that these men saw themselves as Americans, born in the land and deserving the same rights as the whites.

Do I believe that Confederate History Month is a celebration of racism? Only in so much as Black History Month is racist. Is the Confederacy a racist experiment in governance? Only so much as the whole of US history up to that time was. Is the celebration of Confederate leaders and their contribution to southern history racist? Only so much as recognition of Malcom X and Dr. Martin Luther King's contribution to black history is racist. I use the simple to make the point. In actuality the latter two are ethnocentric and not racist per the classical definition. But, to label someone ethnocentric just doesn't carry the same political and social power that the label racist does, yet to engage the critical thinking one has to admit that both center on one race to the exclusion or subjugation of the other. One cannot support the goals of Black History Month without supporting the same reasoning behind the other. If Confederate History Month is racist then so is Black History Month for both form exclusive ethnocentric paradigms of celebration and focus: to wit – to celebrate the contributions of Black/Confederate personages that make up a critical part of American/Southern History.

We should probably hold to a truer definition of racism before throwing that term around so handily today. The Reverend Jesse Jackson is famously quoted as saying that a black man cannot be a racist for he lacks the power to carry it out. That statement says it all about the use of the term today and its total lack of thought and simple stupidity that one can say no more about it. Yet, it is the common thought prevailing today, and that is just sad.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Alamo accounts

I have been reading Eyewitness to the Alamo and coming to the conclusion that the history we have of wars and battles has to rely on reports and eyewitness accounts of what the participant experienced. Cross checking other witnesses and the official reports are all that a historian can rely upon to reconstruct an engagement. How often is the eyewitness covering for himself or someone else? How often is the report motivated by a desire to extol the virtues of the honored dead over revealing the truth of human frailty?

The Alamo is a mystery because the survivors did not see most of the combat and had obvious interest in not revealing anything that might dishonor the dead. The other witnesses were the enemies of the defenders and had motivation to extol their own prowess and righteousness of their cause and the villainy of the rebellious elements.

The timing of the accounts also bears upon the content and the thesis behind the story. This can be seen in the changing narrative given over a forty year period of Susana Dickinson, wife of Lt. Dickinson who died in the Alamo and who was found hiding in an inner room in one of the mission apartments. Her story changed in certain ways given the period of time that spanned her recorded testimony. Certain names changed here or there, some of the events changed or were dropped. But, her thesis never changed: all of the defenders died for God and country and none but one man asked for quarter. Hers and the slave of Travis and two local women are the only non-combatant testimonies we have. Did her husband really come in one last time, declare the enemy had breached the walls and bid her adieu, brandish his sword and charge back out into the fray? No other testimony is present to corroborate the actions of the defenders during the battle save for recollections of the Mexican participants who claim to have seen certain corpses of Travis and Bowie and alternately of Crocket who either died fighting or died by execution.

The Mexican accounts also range over the decades and were usually printed second or third hand thus leaving much to question of their validity and accuracy. The official reports give low casualty estimates and latter reports give overly high estimates. Some accounts had as thesis the evilness of Santa Anna in a bid to keep him in prison and others even to the heroism of the Texians. Did Crocket really die fighting as Dickinson swears or was he executed as other accounts state? Did 60 men attempt to escape after the breaching of the walls as some Mexican accounts state or did only one man ask for quarter? We will never know, for the Alamo is a symbol and that symbol was a rallying cry steeped in emotion. Why would not Santa Anna quarter to rebels and insurgents who were rebelling against the official government of Mexico? Much has been made of his refusal to give quarter and based on the account and when it was given that refusal was seen in the light of eventual Texan victory.

We will never know what really happened in the Alamo from the Texian point of view for no one who saw it lived to give an account. The enemy accounts are the only ones we have and they are suspect, just as suspect as the civilian accounts of the aftermath.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Alamo

I don't stray very far from WWII or Civil War history in my studying/research, but my wife and I are on vacation this week in San Antonio and of course we had to go to the Alamo. Time and development have not been kind on this significant location. Now, it is an old Mission and no building can survive the ware of time with grace, but this one has had only limited preservation given the significance of the legend and place some of the names hold in our lexicon of heros.

The chapel ediface is the only real part of the Alamo that still stands, other buildings have been re-created and turned into museum space, but of all that still stands it is the most recognizable as an old mission church.

Because the site is run by the Daughters of the Texas Revolution, I was given a renewed appreciation of the NPS run civil war battle sites. The museum portion did lay out the events that lead up to the siege and fall of the Alamo garrison. The story sticks to what is generally accepted as indesputed fact. The Alamo was garrisoned by at least 147 men (could have been as many as 300 but due to the militia nature of its primary defenders there are records to account for only the 147 known), was besieged and was attacked and its defenders wiped out to a man.

From just a casual observer, one would wonder that anyone besides Jim Bowie, William Travis, and Davey Crocket were the only ones present and of those Davey Crocket must have been the most important. The DTR does little to speak to historical realities but instead would rather feed the sense that Crocket was the saving grace and saint of the whole episode. While Crocket was a personage of fame in his own time, he looms larger than the role he actually played in the battle. This then brings to bear an uncomfortable situation for an historian. We need heroes, they remind us that regular people can do or participate in extrodinary deeds. But, is Crocket really the hero of the Alamo? I like John Wayne, but his version and vision of Crocket loomed large in his making of The Alamo. The heroic death where he blows himself and a handful of Mexican soldiers with him, the story of attacks beaten off at incredible odds before they finally overrun the defenses is a fiction. Yet, how many, myself included until I undertook independant study, have this very series of events as our understanding of what really happened?

In the shrine, the now covered ediface of the chapel, are a few personal items on display belonging to Travis and a few other officers as well as Crocket. Yet, by far the Crocket memorabilia and artifacts are the mainstay of the display. In the gift shop John Wayne's face emblazons many curios. Wayne has probably done more for Davey Crocket than Fess Parker and probably more for the DTR and the Alamo than anyone.

I did pick up Bill Groneman's "Eyewitness to the Alamo" at the Tower of the America's gift shop and read through Paul Hutton's forward to the book. I studied under Hutton at UNM and remember his relating how he began recieving hate mail after writing an article defending the Pena diary description relating that Crocket was one of a number of survivors who surrendered and were executed after the battle. I'm curious to read this book as Groneman is on the opposite side of the debate as to how credible the Pena diary is.

So, again, the delimma. Should people know the truth even though it challenges a myth and legend? How much should that myth be allowed to stay because it does speak to our need to see something good and noble about our history?
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