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Objective History, Part I

Most readers (all eight of you) should be familiar with the oft-told story of Grant and Sherman on the night after the first day of Shiloh.  On that night–so the story goes–General WIlliam Tecumseh Sherman found General Ulysses Simpson Grant on that bloody field during that long night.  Grant was dejected and long faced, smoking a cigar.  Sherman, carrying a lantern, is trying to be cheerful.  “Well, Grant,” says Sherman, “we’ve had the devil’s own day.”

“Yes,” Grant replies. “We’ll whip them tomorrow, though.”

What an exchange between two titans of American Civil War history.  Grant mumbling defiance in the midst of the greatest carnage of the war–indeed, of American history–so far, reassuring his principal lieutenant that everything would be all right.

What courage. What fortitude in the face of such great adversity.

What a load of bunk…probably

Yes, the tale has been told often enough, so often that it is no longer questioned.  Every history of the battle, from macro to micro, and nearly every biography and examination of the generalship of Grant and Sherman speaks of it.  But, if we look at this tableau objectively, it starts to come apart.

First, the scene.  It was raining, and by most accounts pretty steadily, from about 9 PM to just before 4 AM; it had been raining nearly every day around Pittsburg Landing for nearly a week.  But Sunday 6 April 1862 was dry, and fairly hot by most accounts, with small fires breaking out in several places in the piney woods and the clearings.  The woods and bottoms, especially around the creeks that split the area and along the Tennessee River behind the battlefield, were filled with smoke and fog.  Lost and wounded men, dying and frightened men, and the camp followers and assorted other civilians were scattered through the woods and every source of water in the area.  Travel around these areas would have been treacherous at best and dangerous at worst.

Sherman had had three horses shot out from under him that day.  He himself was grazed by at least three somethings hard enough to draw blood or cut uniform parts, lost a bodyguard/escort next to him by decapitation just as soon as he realized he was really, really being attacked, as he had admonished several officers before the battle (one hours before) was simply not possible.  He had lost a good portion of his division (dead, wounded, missing and captured) over the course of about 11 hours of intensive movement and combat.  A horrible insomniac who suffered from allergies most of his life, Sherman was by most accounts tirelessly working all that night to get his division ready for the next morning, and to tie in with Lew Wallace’s arriving division.

Grant, for his part, had greeted WIlliam Nelson’s arriving division at about 4:30 PM, had met with his Chief of Staff WIlliam Webster at about dusk (6:15 or so) and scribbled a note to be sent to Henry Halleck, his boss in St. Louis, by way of the nearest telegraph key (probably at Ft Henry, about three hours downstream), which likely went via Grant’s headquarters steamboat Tigress.  He had been hobbling around on a crude Army crutch for nearly three weeks after hurting himself in an incident with his normally surefooted horse.  At least one other officer reports Grant saying he was evicted from the cabin he was using for a headquarters at the Landing because the sight of the wounded sickened him, as did the sight of any blood. By his own account, he caught a few minutes of sleep under a tree somewhere.

The relationship between Grant and Sherman up to that point in the war had been cordial, but this was their first real battle together.  Sherman was three years Grant’s senior in service, but had agreed to serve under Grant because it meant getting him away from administrative duties.  He was terrified of being set on a shelf, as was Grant, though for different reasons.  Halleck trusted neither officer, and the press had had a merry time just months before ridiculing Sherman’s predictions for the requirements to win the war (hundreds of thousands of men and several years) as being the ravings of a madman.

The area around the Landing must have seemed like a Chinese fire drill that night.  Steamboats were coming in about every few minutes, with more and more of Don. C Buell’s men marching up the muddy ramp.  Initially, by most accounts, they had to work their way through thousands of stragglers that clustered by the river, but that was probably over by 9 that night: no one spoke of this after Nelson’s division had fully arrived.  The two Navy gunboats out in the river fired a round into the Confederate rear about every fifteen minutes from dark until just after sunrise (about 6 AM).  All the while, men were repairing cannons, finding ammunition, and sorting discarded weapons into compatible calibers for the hundreds who lost theirs in their hasty withdrawal to the Landing.  The wounded were legion; the officers and NCOs sorting out the men under the bluffs, who were frustrated by the cold rain but helped by the occasional coffee urn and cookpot, hearing their limits of endurance, many having been on their feet since before daybreak.  More, at least one battery of six guns made its way into the Landing and up the bluffs after dark, which would have required a monumental effort and several hundred horses.

Grant was never much of a detail-dictating general; his idol Zachary Taylor infrequently met with his juniors and Grant usually followed his example.  Grant met with Lew Wallace near dawn, but only because Wallace sought him out.  Grant met with Sherman twice during the battle, but being satisfied with his performance, not after 10:30 in the morning.  He met with Benjamin Prentiss, William HL Wallace and Stephen A Hurlbut at least three times (they were the hardest pressed), and with John A McClernand only once (they disliked each other).  Grant met with his fellow army commander Buell only once, and that only briefly (Buell hated Grant).

Give all the above, much of which is verified by multiple sources, when and where would Grant and Sherman have gotten together that night?  What’s more, why?  There was no council of war convened (Grant would do this only rarely throughout the war).  Both men were busy.  Further, and most crucial, who would have recorded such an exchange?  Neither man mentioned the meeting in their memoirs or in any correspondence known.  None of the several versions (which often exchange Grant’s “whip” with “beat” and Sherman’s “we’ve had” with “it’s been”) say anything beyond those few words.  Would these two very busy and weary men have gotten together for just that?  And, obviously, there were no recording devices at the time.  How could we know who said what?  There’s more holes here than there is story.

But why does this legend exist?  If most legends have some grounding in fact, what are the facts here?  The answer, I believe, is that this Grant/Sherman meeting with a sound bite is a parable, set on a horrid battlefield under miserable conditions: a oft-told tale repeated until it became the stuff of history, repeated in every book because everyone else does.  It may or may not have taken place; it may have been short; it may have been longer and had many witnesses, but there is no real evidence for it.

This is a somewhat long-winded introduction to what I’m calling “objective history,” a point-of-view, not a discipline, that examines the record and the sources (primary and secondary, physical and documentary and passed from mouth to mouth) of these oft-told stories.  Think about the long-winded Shakespearean oratories of worthies, malcontents and blowhards before even mechanical recording was available (like Pericles before a battle), and their shorter-version cousins: how plausible are they?  Every source, every artifact, every note and letter and report, compared to every other of their kind, tells a story.  Do all these stories add up?

Objective history takes a skeptical view of the historical record (when it’s there) and the evidence (especially, as in this case, it isn’t there and does not seem likely to have happened) and at the histories that are accepted as “true” and wonders how we think we know that.  It looks at pleasant and popular parks and sites and presidential libraries and museums and says “wait a minute: something doesn’t add up,“ especially when it does not.  It also says “traditionally” a great deal, and “according to one source” in excess.  What it does not say is “this is what really happened,” because such a statement is not possible without a time machine.

So: how objective is your view of the sources?  What oft-told tales are you suspicious of?

Next time, we’ll look at another famous (supposed) meeting, just before Shiloh.  If you want an objective view of Shiloh, I’d suggest The Devil’s Own Day by yours truly.

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Cahokia and the Impulse For Good Intentions

This past week I went to, among other places, the Cahokia Mounds outside St. Louis, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi.  While the area is well documented and the Interpretive Center/museum/theater/snack bar/gift shop is well maintained, I found myself viewing the entire presentation with an increasing sense of skepticism that bordered on outright denial of the idyllic picture painted by the conservators of the site.  What struck me as being the least likely was, well, the whole interpretation being based on not a lot of hard evidence but a lot of what I believe is wishful thinking about Mesoamericans.

For those of you who have never been, Cahokia is the largest Native American archaeological and interpretative site north of Mexico, inhabiting a region called the Mississippi Bottoms that were formed when the main course of the river shifted west.  At one time it is thought to have had some 10,000 souls living and working there, trading as far north as modern Canada and as far east as Virginia.  The people have been dubbed “Mississippians.”  The place is thought to have thrived about 900-1200 CE, and to have been abandoned by 1400.

Because the Mississippians left no written records, much of what the site offers is, at best, guesswork.The settlement is thought to have been fairly sophisticated by the standards of the time, with set boundaries, hierarchies, social structures not unlike clans, and even some division of labor into farmers, hunters, gatherers and tradesmen.  Land may have been held in common even though one large central area was enclosed by a high stockade fence.  Agriculture (principally maize) thrived and produced enough surplus for trade, and craftsmen were knapping flints, working bone and puddling copper as well as weaving crude cloth and decorating skins.  There were even thought to be organized games.

The place is dominated by a series of mounds.  The largest is the largest manmade structure in pre-Columbian North America, known today as the Monk’s Mound after some French missionaries who built a settlement there in the late 18th century.  It is thought that building this one mound, said to be a chief’s residence, required fifteen million baskets of soil carried over the course of over two centuries.  Smaller mounds with half and less the volume of the Monk’s Mound dot the area.

The Interpretive Center at the site spends a great deal of effort to present an image of a nuclear family of two adults, two or three children and perhaps an elder.  They also spend a lot of time explaining that there was a great deal of work to do every day just to stay alive, much of it having to do with food preparation, shelter construction and tool-making.

And here’s the two main issues I have with the version shown: manpower for construction of the mounds and the motivation for it that spanned generations.  If the peak population was ten thousand and the family was nuclear, at most one person in five was going to be available for such heavy labor.  The available manpower pool (adult healthy males) at this peak is perhaps 4,000, of which at least 3/4ths would have to be involved in the work of food cultivation, hunting, trading and the rest.

Where are the haulers of dirt coming from?   Moving that much earth without any domestic animals (the New World horse and camel were hunted to extinction millennia before) meant that it had to be hauled on someone’s back.  At its population peak, there were perhaps a thousand surplus heavy laborers available at Cahokia, and those certainly would not be available year round.  While there were resource surpluses, someone had to feed the haulers who made no profits nor food, and feed their dependents.  Who would do that? Fifteen million baskets of soil dug up, hauled, dumped and shaped in the right way requires a considerable volume of labor–about 205 baskets of earth every single day–even spread over two centuries.  It also needs specialists to say where this stuff is to be dumped, and they need to be fed, too.

Which leads to the question of motivation.  Even the great pyramids of Egypt were built within a generation.  Egyptian and Mesoamerican chieftains were often regarded as divine, able to command such duty as a matter of religious fealty.  In the Mississippian culture, we don’t see that, at least not in the current image.  Altruism may be powerful, but all these mounds had to have had a great purpose for voluntary labor to toil so hard for so long, and that powerful and lasting an altruistic motive is not in evidence too much of anywhere.  Nothing even vaguely like the Mississippians apparently idyllic social structure has been found in North America.

The manpower and motivation questions lead, inevitably, to the thought that the mounds were built by slave labor: worked-to-death surplus humans that were driven by a tyrannical society (complete with an enormous stockade) to construct not only the great mound but all the others as well.  This latter picture fits the evidence, but not the picture presented at Cahokia.  The archaeological digs didn’t find any weapons that were exclusively for fighting, though hunting bows and spears were present.  Bows and spears can be used for combat, but so can axes.  Weapons might include slings (not found but known elsewhere in North America) and shields, but again these are not shown.  Either they have not been found and preserved, or they were not used.  Either way, the bows and spears could be used for the collection of slaves.

For decades scholars of the Mesoamericans have tried to paint a shiny, bright image of an uncomplicated people free of cares, woes, disease, strife, starvation or greed, like Adam and Eve in the Garden.  This Rousseauian view of the Noble Savage is based on a certain desire to show that the inhuman things that the European invaders of this continent, together with their African and Asian allies, did to the pastoral Amerindians destroyed a Heaven on Earth for reasons both nefarious and greedy.  The Cahokia site, if left on its own, would still have been abandoned by the time Columbus came, but the inhabitants simply, in this scholarly view, moved on.  If sympathetic scholars had to admit to slavery being responsible for building the mounds–even partly–there would also be the sticky issue of where the slaves came from, how long they might have lasted, and what happened to them.  It would also mean that there was either trafficking with, or conquest of (or both), other groups.

And there’s other points that can be as troubling.  The Interpretive Center is a place where we can see an image of how some Mesoamericans may have lived before Columbus, complete with National Geographic-approved waist-up nudity in illustrations and sculptures of both sexes at all ages…except notably the very old.  Question is: why cover that much?  We are told that modesty is an inherently Western trait that implies shame.  Why do we have Noble Savages showing such regressive traits?  It is an opportunity to show of the colorful finery…that could not have survived being buried for centuries?

While I have a great deal of respect for the work of our archaeological cousins in the historical trade, I have trouble with presentations like those at Cahokia that raise more questions than they answer.  We have no real good way of knowing which image–the idyll that is presented at Cahokia or the more savage and brutal one proposed here–is correct.  Probably, like most of history, some of both.

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USS Montezuma

Never heard of USS Montezuma?  You and nearly everyone else.  But a painting by an unknown artist triggered a search.

An acquaintance of mine is an art salvager, discovering treasures in the oddest of places and putting them in the hands of dealers and collectors who might appreciate them.  A 30 x 35 inch oil painting, dirty with age, came into his hands entitled “USS Montezuma,” and he asked me for help identifying it.  The American flagged vessel shown is two-masted and clipper-rigged in some sea fight somewhere, at some time, but these sorts of representations are almost always some flight of the artist’s fancy.

What is mysterious is that no commissioned sailing vessel of that name was ever on US Navy roles.  There is little mention of her in standard references, and only on a handful of Web sites. Apparently she was a Chesapeake-built merchantman purchased into US naval service in 1798 exclusively for the Quasi-war with France (1898-1900) and sold out of service before the conflict was over.  She was probably never enrolled in the Navy ship list because she may never have been serviced by the Navy (entered into a shipyard with a contract to overhaul or repair), so nothing was spent on her other than the original price. She just may not have lasted in service long enough to get into the record.

USS Montezuma was called an 18-gun sloop or a 20-gun brig, and is said to have been  armed with 12 pounder guns.  Given the nature of small warships, she may have been both sloop and brig at different times,  She may not have been a very good warship and given her short service life this seems probable.  “Long nines” (12-pounders) would have been a too heavy for a two-masted vessel.  These weighed more than 6,000 pounds each and required a crew of 12.  This over-arming was typical of American ships of the time, and may have adversely affected her handling and effectiveness.  Clipper rigs were said to be bad station-keepers, straining to run with the wind all the time.  Two-masted clippers were somewhat rare, the traditional “clipper ships” having three or more masts and being built from the 1820s to the end of the 19th century.

Since she was not rated a “ship” (three masts or more) at the time, and the Navy did not contract to build her (as they had the other non-ships in the books), and she was probably never repaired under contract, she was only remembered by a handful of people who served in her.  She may have been “present” when other ships in her squadron took prizes, but that only means she was in sight, within ten miles or so, which was all that was needed at the time to collect on prizes.  The painting itself may have been commissioned or made by an owner or crew member who thought more of her service than the US Navy apparently did.  A yard tender/light tug built in the 1930s was dubbed Montezuma; her fate is unknown.

Of all the different kinds of research done on topics like this, the unexpected is often the most entertaining.

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Vietnam Part 1 (aka the French Indochina War): Another French Revolution

In the distance of time historians look at the French experience of 1945-54 as a lead-in to the American experience in what would become Vietnam.  This merging has become a shorthand for academics in and out of the United States, like slavery has become the prime issue for the American Civil War (when it was only one of the most visible), and the Moro rebellion has been called a struggle for independence for the Philippines after the Spanish-American War (submerging the religious aspects completely beneath nascent nationalism).  But the issues in the colony were much deeper than simple nationalism, and began a path to yet another French revolution that would bring down the Fifth Republic.

France has had a fractious history.  Since it became a unified state under Louis XIV the various regions have shown non-national sentiments every other generation or so, bursting out into full rebellion against the Bourbons in 1789.  The revolution began with the spirit of “strangle the last noble with the guts of the last priest,” seeking to remake French society separate from the landed and imposed hierarchy that put Church and King above all else. As the revolution compromised just to keep society itself from spiraling into chaos, it ultimately  just made things worse, especially for future colonies.   The conflict with Europe from 1794 to 1815 provided the external threat that the forces of “revolutionary” nationalism used to forge a new kind of state: a representative republic.  Under Napoleon Bonaparte the ideals of liberty-equality-brotherhood were extended to all those who would embrace French suzerainty.  By 1804 the new-style state had an old name: empire; new wine in old bottles.  The Church still dictated who would have a voice, but after the Terror, bureaucrats made the desired voice heard, and Napoleon recreated his own aristocracy whole cloth, to the resentment of many.

In 1809 France won its last war, negotiating a treaty with Austria after Wagram.  Though Napoleon would fight many more battles, no other conflicts would go his way.  By 1815 Europe was exhausted and the French emperor banished to a water stop in the South Atlantic.  France had restored the Bourbons briefly in 1814, but wasn’t interested in the royal institution as it had been and went through a number of constitutional monarchies.  The Second Republic lasted until 1852, when a Second Empire under Napoleon’s nephew, Louis (Napoleon III) was declared.  Under Louis, Algeria became a colony in 1830, and in 1861, Indochina.  France was growing her empire as a counterweight to Britain, Germany and Russia, but treated the indigenous peoples to modified forms of citizenship.  As long as they adhered to French revolutionary principles they were treated as philosophical and moral (but not social, legal or economic) equals.

French adventures in Mexico 1862-66 taxed France’s treasury and the patience of her military establishment.  Ongoing insurgencies in North Africa, Senegal, and Caribbean colonies magnified the multiple-tiered nature of French society, even while the “equality” of the revolution was being used as a bedrock of French polity.  The disastrous 1870-71 war with Germany cost France little territory but great prestige at home.  The Second Empire (technically) blew away with the smoke of the Paris Commune.

Meanwhile French law and law enforcement developed a multi-tentacle law enforcement structure that made future revolutions within France practically impossible.  Layer after layer of information-gathering apparatus joined separate security agencies, each responding in secession to every riot and disturbance in metropolitan France.   The Third Republic was practically a fortress of security organizations.

All this insulated the French from any thought that some of their “citizens” in the distant parts of their empire might be unhappy, but, in that remote event, France created a military structure to ensure that Frenchmen would never know of any unrest.  The French Foreign Legion, created in 1831 to protect France’s overseas colonies, was unique for a time in that no French citizen could join directly, but where French officers gained rank quickly.  They fought in every war and campaign France engaged i in every corner of the earth from Mozambique to Mexico, and from the Sahara to Saigon.  In the 1914-18 war Frenchmen marched against German invasion, auxiliaries from all over were brought to the Western Front, primarily as laborers.  One of these, present at the Versailles conference in 1919 with a list of grievances for his people that were never heard, became known later as Ho Chi Minh.

World War I frightened France.  Though she declared herself a “winner” of the conflict, she was more a survivor than a winner.  Her industrial heart had been gutted by German occupation, her best farmland blasted and gassed into muddy abattoirs, and one in five of her military age men killed or injured.  The next 20 years saw her military primarily become fortress troops within France, and the brutal mercenaries of the Legion labored under a veneer of military law abroad.  Heavy handed policies suppressed labor unrest with tear gas in the Caribbean and New Caledonia, machine guns were used on protesters in Senegal and Saigon.  Legionaries, primarily Russians and Germans by 1930, had no idea that the very structure of French society made the French administrators of their colonies blind to the protests of their charges.

World War II devastated France, and completely destroyed her military establishment.  Re-equipped by the Americans and British, only the Legion survived anywhere near intact as an organization.  Other French Army units were rebuilt using whatever manpower could be had, but a fundamental rift in French military policy stayed.  Those who obeyed the Vichy government’s orders to stop fighting in 1940 were labeled traitors and collaborators by 1944; those who ignored those orders were hailed as heroes, including the Legion.  The French Pacific colonies never surrendered but were small; the African colonies split, but the North Africans eventually started fighting the British, then the Americans, then the Germans and Italians–following the loudest orders.  Physically reconstructed after 1945, France’s military was a long time in recovery.

The Legion filled up with men from all over the world whose lives had been displaced and their countries destroyed, giving them a home and an income; all they had to do was fight France’s wars.  These desperate men were sent to Southeast Asia under French officers who barely understood where they were, and were told to fight Vietnamese farmers, students, agitators and guerrillas under a flag that had proclaimed liberty, equality and brotherhood for over a century.

The depth and gravity of the disconnect between France’s desires to hold onto its overseas territory that did not want to be held onto was played out in a long agony from 1945 through 1954. Militarizing two essentially civil conflicts, playing for time, enjoying successes rarely and ambiguous or disappointing results normally, support for the conflict in Southeast Asia waned as the Cold War warmed up, Korea and China became hot spots, and Algeria became troublesome in stages.  By Dien Bien Phu in 1954 the French were so weak in comparison to the Viet Minh that every draw was a Vietnamese victory.  After months of preparation and weeks of horrific and one-sided fighting, the last French stronghold in Asia fell to the Viet Minh, who had been armed with the weapons of the Germans and Japanese who had humiliated her before.  France finally found peace only after another republic fell and the disobedient hero of the 1940-45 war, Charles deGaulle, took charge.

The “first Vietnam War” was less a “war of liberation” from European oppressors than it was a symptom of the failure of French society to realize and appreciate that its high-sounding philosophy had to be evenly and consistently applied.   Noble social philosophies forcibly applied by desperate men with nowhere else to go will likely fail, and military organizations with strategic direction at odds with social policy will always fail.