Case Study 1, The Confederate States of America; Part 6: Does This Make Sense?

Pop Quiz!

  • Where was Alexander Vandegrift, commanding the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal, born? 
  • Where was George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, born? 

The reason for these questions will become clear.

There comes a time in any historical project when an analyst should stop and ask: Does any of this make sense? 

Or at least we should. This is where I’m doing just that. Some background…

JFK was in office when I first read Bruce Catton’s American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. My mother cut out the Life Magazine articles during the Civil War centennial. But WWII beckoned–my father jumped into Normandy, so I studied both conflicts avidly,. Of course, Vietnam was in the headlines then…my sisters’ boyfriends all concerned themselves with it because they were of that age. I got to Gettysburg in ’69, then I went into the Army myself in ’73, three months to the day after the draft ended. 

But the American Civil War kept calling me back while, after leaving the Active component, I made a living as a technical writer for thirty years AND stayed in the Reserves. Studying for my MA in American military history, I wrote extensively about the Civil War, more than I did any other American war. I wrote a book on Shiloh, another on the Pacific War, a few novels, and some short stories. Then came this germ of an idea: systematizing historical failure analysis, creating a methodology for what scholars do and buffs chatter about.

A buff knows how many cartridges a soldier’s pouch was made for; a scholar knows how that figure was derived and its effect on the fighting.

In a scholarly way, I’ve tried to look at the facts about the Confederacy, without romance or battle-smoke or blood or moonlight-and-magnolias. And I conclude that the Confederate leadership screwed up by leaving the Union in the first place, let alone starting the war; that they didn’t represent the interests of their constituents, and so as failure heaped on failure, support for the “cause” dwindled to nothing.

This. Is. Not. Conventional. Wisdom. And that’s a problem.

Alexander Vandegrift was born in Charlottesville, VA. Think that fact’s important to the study of Guadalcanal?

If not, why does George Meade‘s birthplace (Cadiz, Spain) appear in nearly every book about Gettysburg? How much more important is one than the other? 

While I was writing about Shiloh, I was struck by the conflict’s somewhat uniform treatment by the secondary sources. The Civil War is treated as a special case by American writers. This was especially noticeable when I read John Keegan’s The American Civil War: A Military History (Knopf 2009). Keegan was no stranger to Civil War studies, having spent a chapter of his The Mask of Command (Penguin 1988) on Grant. But his take on the Civil War, as an Englishman, was of a different feel. He didn’t care where this general was born or who that general had snubbed in an earlier career. His straightforward analysis of the available facts without romance was why it was panned by the few Civil War scholars who actually read it. It simply lacked the Lost Cause romance and mystique, the dash of the bold cavaliers, the grim determination of the gallant butternuts fighting for their Cause…and Civil War Inc. noticed. If Keegan, in his equally magisterial The First World War (Penguin Random House 1999), had talked about Pershing’s upbringing in Missouri or about Terry Allen’s grandfather at Gettysburg, it would have been thought quaint…and dismissed as romantic.

To Civil War, Inc., it is vital.

“Everyone Knows” how the American Civil War should be written about–everyone American, that is. When writing or speaking about the 1861-65 conflict, the filter of the Lost Cause must always be applied. Nostalgia for the Lost Cause is required; romance expected, intimate derails of leader’s lives detailed. New information in the form of diaries and letters that confirm with already accepted wisdom are acceptable. No diary entities by Confederate soldiers that call Lee a poltroon or an arrogant old fool could be authentic or ever see print without a firestorm of protest and claims of fraud; if they do exist we may never know. 

And here I am trying to say that the Confederacy screwed up from Day One, that the entire idea was madness.

A cottage industry of “counterfactual” history holds that making up events that did not occur is a valid historical interpretive method. Any lawyer introducing non-facts to a jury that they know are not facts might face disbarment. These “counterfactualists,” however, would have us believe that it’s OK, that somehow declaring that Jackson might have survived to Gettysburg and in so doing won the war is a legitimate argument that belongs in the history books.

If this study makes any sense, the Southern Confederacy was doomed from the start, and it doesn’t matter what one general in one battle did. Nearly everything I’ve looked at on the Civil War since the 1960s is a pleasant story. If I go any further than this blog on this project, am I saying that most writers didn’t do the work of analyzing where the Confederacy went wrong? Did they simply agree with what Pickett was said to have quipped about Gettysburg: I believe the enemy had something to do with it?

That should give me pause. Why doesn’t it?

There’s been a truism for writing and publishing about the Civil War: write what The South (TM) wants to see, or it won’t sell. This started in the late 19th century when public schools became more popular, and students needed textbooks. The Late Unpleasantness that was the War Between the States a mere generation before was presented from a distinctly “Confederacentric” viewpoint so that textbook publishers could sell them in the formerly Confederate states. Thus, history wasn’t written by the “winners” but by those who control the narratives for a given audience. In this case, American schoolchildren have for over a century gotten a distinctly distorted view of the 1861-65 conflict because the former Confederacy wanted it that way.

This slant was important from an economic viewpoint, but, too, it was important from a literary one. History tends to be rather dry in academic settings, and a certain amount of suspense is helpful. Yes, the results are known, but adding an element of struggle helps add interest for the reader. Combined, the factors of intentional bias in schoolbooks and the need for suspense–the latter reinforced by the former–have thus shown the American Civil War as a conflict that the Confederacy might have won…if only

If I’m up against a built-in social and industry bias against my conclusions, what part of my analysis could be faulty? What part doesn’t make sense? Where could I have gone wrong? What facts did I not throw in? This is why I have this step in the method. Let’s see…

First Failure: Davis and the Confederate Congress Ordering the Attack on Ft. Sumter and the Cotton Blockade

The school of thought–predominantly among southern sympathizers–that says that Lincoln should have just surrendered Ft. Sumter in April of ’61 uses a legal argument called “reversion.” Their position is that when South Carolina left the Union, everything in the confines of the state reverted to state ownership.

There are several problems with the reversion theory. The first is that the law is murky regarding extra-legal actions like secession–not covered in any law anywhere in 1861. Thus, reversion may or may not have applied. We will never really know since the Confederacy didn’t even try a legal challenge. Furthermore, the land that Ft. Sumter was/is on was never a part of South Carolina. It’s an artificial island built by the US Army Corps of Engineers, owned entirely by the US Government. How could it revert to a legal entity that it never belonged to in the first place? And if they are applying a legal argument, in what jurisdiction is this argument to be applied? If the Confederacy was no longer a part of the Union, how could it have applied the law of a foreign country? There were no World Courts at the time–the International Criminal Court was a century and two world wars off. Where would the Confederacy go for what it would consider “justice?” It would appear as if South Carolina and the Confederacy wanted to eat their cake and have it too.

But, too, that claim of reversion points out another question: why didn’t the Confederacy simply sue the United States for possession? Was it even discussed? The answer is no. The Confederacy saw only one solution to the problem of Ft. Sumter: force if they did not capitulate or were not ordered to surrender. The Confederate congress and cabinet were both full of lawyers. Did a legal solution–absent the problems above–ever occur to them? There is no record of it.

And if force was the only answer, were they prepared for a wider conflict? No, of course not. They were not prepared for Lincoln’s call for the militia nor a declaration of rebellion. How could they have been? But both Davis and the Congress should have been prepared for both…that’s what good leaders do. But they were not. The cotton embargo was imposed when the blockade wasn’t even polite. It presupposed that cotton really was king…and it wasn’t. The Confederate leadership failed to do their due diligence to determine if Europe’s demand for their exports was enough to get Europe to help them out. If they had, perhaps secession might never have happened. What then? That’s beyond the scope of this study.

Worst Failure: Lack of Real Representation

As the fortunes of the war turned decidedly against the Confederacy, domestic support for the war dwindled in very large part because the leadership goals were not the goals–necessarily–of the led. Separateness to enable an institution that few had any stake in made less and less sense the longer the casualty lists became. As the Union armies moved through slave-holding areas after 1863, the wave of freedmen became even larger, and even those non-slaves who had supported the Confederacy no longer had substantial reasons to support what was truly a losing proposition. At the end of the war, the Peace Commissioners were only empowered to seek a cease-fire and a return to the status quo antebellum, a losing argument. Just who they thought they were representing is an open question.

Most Influential Failure: Lack of True National Identity

Richard Beringer, Herman Hattaway,  Archer Jones and William Still, in Why the South Lost the Civil War (University of Georgia Press 1986), argued that the Confederacy failed because of a lack of civil religion. I argue that their civil religion–their peculiar institution of chattel slavery–defined everything that the leadership did. Each of the seceded states mentions their support of slavery; the Confederate Constitution enshrines it. State’s rights–the right to keep and maintain slaves–was mantra invoked before every battle, every argument, every discussion of the conflict–a conflict that defined the Confederacy. Their war and their national identity were tied up in that cause. Small wonder then that The Lost Cause should have been the primary reason for the conflict. Ironically, though Lincoln freed the slaves wherever the Union Army could not reach, it was the Congress that passed Amendment XIV that finally forbade chattel slavery…legally.

The Confederacy should not have been surprised that the war ended badly because the reason they were fighting not only was not popular even in the southern states, it wasn’t very humane, either.

Least Appreciated Failure: All Three Added Up to Catastrophe

Bad leadership, unrepresentative leadership, and lack of national identity is a disastrous combination. Each on their own would have been bad enough. Any two would have been worse. Combined, only failure could have been expected. Regardless of what generals survived what battles or what battles went one way or the other, the Confederate States of America was doomed to fail in the long term. Worse, they set themselves up for failure from the beginning. I have said it in the past, and I shall keep saying it: there is no scenario in which the southern Confederacy could have won a military victory that would have resulted in lasting and meaningful political and economic independence from the United States. There can be no debate of legal scenarios: under what law and in what court could secession arguments have been held?

But, too, would any judgment in any court that did not sustain South Carolina’s demands–and the demands of the slave owners of The South (TM)–would not have resulted in war, anyway? They wanted slavery legal all over–and they got it in Dred Scott. But it wasn’t enough. They wanted a reversal of the 1860 election. They wanted either a weak or a sympathetic chief executive who would allow them to do whatever they wanted to do. Ultimately, in a much larger sense, a civil war was almost inevitable because of this attitude. Every law, every legal move, every executive decision had to be run through the filter of the peculiar institution before 1860. Western expansion was slow because the slaveholders kept demanding decisions on the expansion of slavery. And the non-slave-holding states were held hostage by the impolite bellicosity of their slave-holding brethren.

Bad leaders, not caring what their constituents thought, led their country into an unwinnable war, supporting a policy that not everyone agreed with. Just how was such a state supposed to succeed?

This may be a fair analysis of the facts, but now…what to do with them? That’s for next time…

The Safe Tree

Wanna Know What Happened to Jimmy Hoffa?

The Safe Tree, Friendship Triumphs is now available. The final part of The Stella’s Game Trilogy follows JJ and Ann, Mike and Leigh for one more year–1986–and their adventures through two weddings, two gun battles, a fire…and some insight on one of the most enduring mysteries in American history: what ever happened to Jimmy Hoffa. Now available in paper-bound and many electronic media from your favorite booksellers

Historical Failure Analysis Case Study 1, The Confederate States of America; Part 5: Compare and Contrast

According to my original outline for this method, this phase is where we compare and contrast the various examples. Since there are no other examples, we’ll compare and contrast the multiple causes of the Confederacy’s ultimate failure and rank them in order:

  1. First
  2. Worst
  3. Most influential
  4. Least appreciated by historians/pundits/blowhards

Chickens and Eggs

A short chronology of major events up to the end of 1861:

  1. South Carolina and Mississippi secede;
  2. Star of the West fired on in Charleston Harbor;
  3. Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas secede;
  4. Confederate Government formed by seceded states, naming Jefferson Davis as Provisional President; 
  5. Confederate Constitution adopted;
  6. Lincoln inaugurated;
  7. Relief expedition for Ft. Sumter ordered;
  8. Davis orders Ft. Sumter to be reduced before relief arrives.
  9. Ft Sumter fired upon;
  10. Lincoln declares rebellion, calls for troops;
  11. Lincoln declares blockade;
  12. Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee (in order) secede.
  13. War traditionally begins at Bull Run/Manassas.
  14. Cotton embargo begins.

First Failure: Davis and the Confederate Congress

The Buchanan government’s response to the firing upon the unarmed cargo ship Star of the West  in January of 1861 was a strongly-worded nothing. US armories, arsenals, and barracks across the seceded states surrendered to armed mobs without a fight during his administration. Then the South Carolinians wanted Ft. Sumter to just give up…and they wouldn’t. In the patois of the time, reduced meant destroyed or taken. South Carolina started shooting and everything went downhill after that. Davis’ faulty assumption/poor leadership as to Lincoln’s reaction to an attack on Sumter led to the war, the first failure of the Confederacy.

But that blockade…

For a country that was so dependent on imports and exports, The Confederacy had no reliable means of defending any maritime assets. Yes, the Confederacy built ships to break the blockade, but the blockade was porous until late 1862. Nonetheless, the Confederate Congress, with Davis’s agreement, began to withhold cotton when cotton could get out as early as the winter of 1861. They believed that starved of their cotton, Britain and France would hasten to rescue the Confederacy.

But Europe depended too much on the North’s output and too little on the South’s, and the Confederacy never admitted this. The Confederacy believed Europe would break the blockade and land troops to fight off the Yankee invaders in exchange for cotton. When even recognition didn’t come, Confederate leaders tried all sorts of schemes to finance the war with cotton futures: all failed. As the war went on and they lost more territory, the schemes became even more fantastic. One even surrendered the Gulf of Mexico to whoever would support them…without asking the Gulf States.

It is a leader’s responsibility to act in the best interests of a majority of the led. Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress did not guide the Confederacy in a practical or realistic direction. Aside from the miscalculation about Lincoln, cotton diplomacy, continual insistence on ever more draconian draft and impressment regulations that ate up the future, then even the future of the future, destroyed what resources even a prosperous country would need to survive. The manifold failure of leadership at Montgomery, then Richmond, merely compounded Davis’ failure.

At the same time, Davis acted as if every setback was permanent, forever and ever. The frontiers of his country were impossible to hold with the resources at his disposal. Trying to hold them squandered manpower and resources the Confederacy could never replace.

By the end of 1863, when titanic battles had wiped out a quarter of his armies, Davis should have appreciated the dire straights he was in, but if he did, he didn’t do anything about it. Maybe, surrounded by fire-eaters, he couldn’t, but that doesn’t mean that he might not have been able to reach some accommodation with the more virulent of them. Again, there’s no evidence that he tried. After Lincoln’s reelection in 1864, after the fall of Atlanta and the clear signs that the Union Army was in charge, not him, he held firm with the policy that would become the Lost Cause. Feeling the need to hold impossible borders in defense of a hopeless policy was contributory, symptomatic of poor leadership.

Worst: Lack of Real Representation

The Confederacy needed everyone to be on board to fight off an invasion. The Confederate Congress was exclusively white, male, and almost exclusively slave-owning. While many had represented their same constituencies in Washington, that didn’t make them any better at representing their people. Sure, educated men in America were among the landed gentry. Many were attorneys that made them better at understanding and creating laws. Many were wealthy. But most people in the Confederacy were not slave-owners, and not all slave-owners were proponents of disunion willing and ready to expend their blood and treasure to stay out of the Union.

This became more apparent the longer the conflict lasted. Yet, the slave-owners in Richmond insisted on continuing the war, on not changing the policy that had clearly failed, and insisting that Europe would come to its senses any day now…coming right up…next ship…

After the last full measure of devotion had been served out by soldiers who hadn’t had a square meal in four years, Richmond finally allowed the arming of slaves. Politicians in Richmond and elsewhere were willing to sacrifice everyone else on the altar of their Noble Cause. Many of the most virulent supporters of slavery in 1861 were still adamant secessionists in 1865, still insistent that their peculiar institution could survive if only…if only….

North Carolina, which had sent fully half its military-age men off to war by 1865, contributing fully 20% of the Confederate Army, had had enough by early 1865 and was willing to call it quits. It was the second-last state to secede and was the first to counsel surrender, sacrificing more than any other state. And Richmond ignored them.

The peace commissioners of 1865 that Lincoln refused to see, well-meaning as they were, wanted the Union to pretend that the past four years of bloodletting just didn’t happen, that a peace based on nothing more than a cease-fire and a handshake, preserving their Peculiar Institution intact. Lincoln wouldn’t see them because there was no point. The Confederate leadership was living in Cloud Cuckoo Land. They always had been.

The leadership–as a class–of the Confederacy seemed aloof, not just from the country but from reality. Even as late as 1865, some senior Confederate officers thought that breaking up the armies to fight as guerrillas was possible. But most of the former Confederacy only wanted the fighting to end, and most of their would-be guerrillas thought so as well. The leader’s failure to recognize how the world was and what their people–who were not mere subjects or chattels–wanted seems inexcusable and yet another failure. Ranked against Davis’s and his government’s miscalculations, the non-representation of leadership was far worse.

Most Influential: Lack of True National Identity

The issues of national definition and sovereignty go hand in hand. The lack of definition seems innocuous compared to the other failure causes/modes, but let’s see.

A bunch of guys from various seceded states gathered together and called themselves the Confederate States of America. They wrote a constitution enshrouding their Noble Cause–their preservation of their Peculiar Institution of slavery–installed a government and waited for foreign recognition. In the meantime, they added a bunch of states that mysteriously failed to secede and parts of other states…and waited some more.

Then, one of the states started shooting and the government at Washington said “rebellion!” and called out the militia. More states seceded because of that call. The Confederate government moved from Alabama to Virginia and started collecting volunteers to defend the capital. And again, they waited for foreign recognition, intervention to secure their independence, and arms and money.

By 1865, they wondered why the army was melting into nothingness. And they asked why no one had recognized either the Confederacy or their Noble Cause. Unlike the guys in Richmond, a majority of people in the seceded states did not own slaves. And unlike them, not all backed a secession based on the preservation of the institution. Indeed, not all of them supported a war to preserve that policy, regardless of how it started or whatever reason anyone had that the violence began. Most may have been behind it when it started, but after years of deprivation and sacrifice, wearing black and digging grave after grave, their patriotism was worn thin, and what support there was evaporated for most by the end of 1864.

The Confederacy failed on many counts, but how long might they have survived if there was no war? Unknowable, but it’s hard to imagine that without an operating Fugitive Slave Act (it would have been a dead letter, without a doubt). Without the ability to expand beyond the confines of its undefined frontiers, there would have been some imbroglio someplace other than Charleston Harbor that would have triggered a war. By defining themselves as a place where only some people were free, they set themselves up for disaster. It is hard to imagine a shorter-sighted policy. That was a failure equal in devastating effect to the Confederacy’s overall poor leadership.

The Confederacy defined itself not as a country but as a cause

While the nascent United States built itself based on individual liberty for most of its citizens in the 1780s, it didn’t expressly state that it would only be for some people in perpetuity–1619 Project notwithstanding. From the outset, the United States said that anyone could be free of government intrusion. From the beginning of its existence, citing chattel slavery and perpetuating a strict class system, the Confederacy could not understand why everyone didn’t support them. They had cotton, after all. Here’s cotton, the Confederacy said. Buy our cotton; sell us arms; expend your blood and treasure to break this blockade nuisance. Yeah, those guys over there object to our firing on the flag, say we’re in rebellion. Forget that you’ve freed your slaves a generation or two ago. Here’s cotton

The Confederates defined themselves as slaveholders, not as a stable country to invest in. They had a political economy, yet they were more alike than different from those they left…except for that slavery thing. No, the North was not the land of universal suffrage, but neither was anywhere else in the mid-19th century. 

But the Confederacy was the land where people were bought and sold. No, they weren’t the only ones then. Let’s remember that Brazil kept slaves until 1888; Saudi Arabia–officially–until 1962; it still exists in other parts of the Muslim world. Regrettably, the Confederacy wanted the support of a state founded on liberty, equality, and brotherhood–France. And the British Empire abolished slavery in 1833. That they didn’t define themselves as a country but as a cause was a substantial failure, but one that was inevitable and led to inevitable failure.

In his magisterial War For the Union, Allan Nevins said that the Confederacy’s sole concern almost from its founding was the war against the Union. While the Union still expanded, added three states, and began a transcontinental railroad, the Confederacy lacked the resources to do any of those things, except add states that hadn’t seceded. The ONLY thing that they could spend their attention on was fighting and gathering resources for the war.

And that they did poorly, I submit, because of all the other causes of the Confederacy’s failure. The failure of cotton diplomacy stemmed from an overdeveloped belief in the supremacy of King Cotton. The leadership was either willfully blind or ignorant of Europe’s dependence on American food products, specifically wheat and corn. While the South grew those too, those products were primarily for their subsistence, not enough to export. Tobacco, rice, and pecans were popular exports but didn’t hold a candle to cotton’s cash value. 

This faith in cotton led to the consistent belief that Britain and France would recognize the Confederacy and intervene on their behalf with almost religious fervor. As late as November 1864, Confederate agents were offering France inducements from selling a decade’s worth of cotton at prewar prices to surrendering their sovereignty over seaports (which what states would agree to?). But France wouldn’t bite…because France could not afford to annoy the Union.

There’s a school of thought that suggests that Lincoln should have ordered Ft. Sumter’s evacuation and that he started the war by not doing so. Let’s not blame the mugging victim for getting beat up.

Least Appreciated: All Three Added Up to Catastrophe

  • Davis authorized the firing on Ft Sumter;
  • The Confederate Government didn’t represent those they said they represented;
  • The Confederacy was less a country than it was a cause; a way of life.

Thee was no single cause of the Confederacy’s failure, but several. One may not have been enough, but all three ganged up on a small bunch of people who couldn’t modernize their outlook or their industry fast enough to stop the tide of blue serge that overwhelmed them in 1865. How well, how long they might have survived if any one of these failures had not existed is impossible to say. One thing is certain: incompetent leaders who don’t understand their people and who expect the rest of the world to think as they do is a recipe for disaster.

The Safe Tree is Coming in March

The Safe Tree

After three years, The Stella’s Game Trilogy will be complete next month. For those you who have read Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, and Tideline: Friendship Abides, The Safe Tree: Friendship Triumphs follows JJ and Ann, Leigh and Mike for another year. They are apart, then together, then suffer fire and gun battles, treachery and personal loss, culminating a wild trip through time. Whatever you thought The Safe Tree was about, you’re probably wrong.

For those who are unfamiliar with The Stella’s Game Trilogy, it follows four young people from age eight to 31, watching them grow, learn, laugh, cry, love, and rely on their friends. From the Kennedy assignation through the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa to the Iran-Contra scandal, the four friends stick together, even when they are oceans apart.

Case Study 1, The Confederate States of America; Part 4: Analyze Factors

So now we come down to the why of the Confederacy’s failure.

  • The Confederate States of America couldn’t define its borders or its members
  • The Confederacy’s central government didn’t represent–truly–the majority of the populous of states that it could encompass and thus could not count on the support of its people.
  • The seceded states declared their support for the institution of slavery, but few in the states actually owned them.
  • The Confederacy really, really could not defend itself or its sovereignty.
  • The President of the Confederacy failed to lead his country in realistic economic, diplomatic, or military directions.

Defining Confederates and the Confederacy

While the seceded states were easy to encompass, the outlying slave-holding states were enigmatic and mocking. While Delaware was never disputed (in Delaware) because there were so few slaves there and minimal secessionist sentiment, Maryland and Missouri were thought of as merely intransigent. Secession ordinances failed in Maryland in early 1861 because the legislators didn’t feel they had the power to approve them. Before a second session could convene, Union soldiers arrested pro-secession legislators. Under US military occupation early on, Missouri had two legislatures by the end of 1861, and both sent representatives to both Washington AND Richmond. 

Kentucky declared neutrality in May 1861, then voted for a Unionist legislature in June. All the while, both Unionist and secessionist factions were raising troops in the Bluegrass State. That said Union Kentucky troops outnumbered their Confederate brethren by 10:1. Kentucky’s flimsy neutrality was violated when the Confederacy invaded the state in September 1861. A shadow legislature was formed, and representatives sent to Richmond. Kentucky was admitted to the Confederacy in October. After the Confederate army abandoned the state in the spring of 1862, it no longer mattered that the elected government had never voted on secession. 

Then there were those other places. The Confederacy claimed the Arizona/New Mexico territory. There was a secession convention in March 1861 that voted to separate the region south of the 38th parallel, elected a president, and authorized militias. Richmond hailed the move and admitted Southern/Confederate Arizona. Beset by Federal troops and California volunteers, the secession legislature fled the state in the summer of 1862, though there was minor resistance until 1865. Modern Oklahoma, then called Indian Territory, wasn’t coherent enough to secede and suffered through its own civil war, where native Americans fought each other with the Union and the Confederacy’s assistance.

A handful of pro-slavery Oregonians raise a secession flag in Jacksonville, OR, but were persuaded to haul it down by their neighbors. An 1865 incident called the Long Tom Rebellion in Eugene after Lincoln’s death resulted in the arrest of a pro-slavery blowhard and a few bruises. In California, secessionist sentiment was somewhat more robust in certain areas, but no secession ordinances were considered, and no shadow governments were formed in California. Some California secessionists journeyed east and fought with the Confederacy; more went to Confederate Arizona. About 60,000 Californians fought for the Union; perhaps 5,000 for the Confederacy.

Aside from these outliers, the Richmond government had trouble with parts of the states that had seceded. Texas was never quite a united front; unquestionably not as united as, say, Mississippi. East Tennessee was notoriously rebellious, and there was even talk of a West-Virginia-like secession. Though the third state to secede, Florida was always an enigma because 3/4ths of the state was uninhabited. The important bases in Key West, Fort Jefferson, and Fort Pickens were vital to the Federal blockade of the Confederacy, yet the Confederacy never had the resources to capture them. Only one of Florida’s major ports, Pensacola, was served by rail, and Fort Pickens effectively neutralized it.

The Confederacy had two conflicts on its hands: one with the Union and one with some of its more recalcitrant constituents. It should be remembered that the only state that did not send units to the Union Army was South Carolina. Simultaneously, the number of non-seceded states that sent troops to the Confederacy was just three: Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri; four, if we count Confederate Arizona.
There’s an expression in critical thinking: All poodles are dogs, but not all dogs are poodles. The states and parts of states may have seceded before Bull Run, but not everyone in those states were committed Confederates. This lack of commitment was reflected in the growing number of desertions after 1863.
A Government Not Of The PeopleThe government that met first at Montgomery, Alabama, and finally at Richmond, Virginia, was an anomaly. Many men in the government had been members of the US Congress; others had been cabinet secretaries. Nearly all were men of means, and almost all were slave-owners. And therein lay at least part of another cause of the Confederacy’s failure: slave-owners were not a majority of the southern population.

Slavery wasn’t as simple as owning human beings and trading them like baseball players. Slavery was an attitude, a way of thinking, and a way of life. Within its grasp were the southern states’ entire political economy–indeed, the Cotton Kingdom around the Gulf of Mexico rose and fell on the practices. Because cotton cultivation defied mechanization until the 1960s, the primary cash crop of at least half the Confederate states depended on human labor for planting and harvesting. This fact might have been a tremendous boon for people who could perform these back-breaking tasks, but because slaves could do it at a lower cost, it only made their situation worse. The planters who owned the land had a tradition of treating people who were not like them poorly. And it didn’t matter if those people were black, white, red, brown, yellow, or pink-polka-dot. If you were not a landed Southern aristocrat, you were a second-class citizen or less. And it was these men–less than 5% of the population–who claimed to represent the Confederacy in Richmond.

The big planters weren’t the only slave-owners. About one in four southern landowners owned at least one slave, but a majority owned fewer than five; indeed, most one or two. The rest worked their own land by themselves. It wasn’t that they didn’t agree with slave-owning, just that they either couldn’t afford it or didn’t feel the need. Many weren’t above hiring one or two from a neighbor for planting or harvesting. That said, many southerners agreed with the social system that kept non-whites from having the same rights that they did.  

But many were not all, and some estimates have as many as 15% of those living in Confederate states who did not agree with the social and legal stratification that their neighbors did…and many of them had money that the Confederacy needed. What was worse, as the war went on, what little support there had been in 1861 steadily eroded until, by late 1864, the trickle of army desertions, state defections, and domestic supporters of the Confederacy became an unstoppable torrent.

The Problem of Slavery After Emancipation

When Lincoln announced the Emancipation, he did it as a weapon and an administrative tool, not a humanitarian gesture. He only “freed” the slaves everywhere that Federal troops did not control, thus legally and theoretically taking them out of the control of their masters. Sounds great, but in fact, it was impractical because, well, the slave-owners were under no compulsion to pay attention, and most slaves knew nothing of it until Federal troops arrived. And that was the Confederacy’s problem.

Before the Emancipation, slaves who came into Federal lines or escaped to free territory had an ambiguous status. Some commanders allowed them to remain behind Federal lines; others felt compelled to return them. Indeed, slave-owners and their employees sometimes entered Federal lines to retrieve their charges. Just as often–because not all Federal officers believed the war was over slavery–they were allowed to pass through the lines again with the slaves. There was no clear policy. Which was one reason why Lincoln did what he did.
The other reason was to deprive the Confederacy of its cheap manpower, and that reason was, to be frank, problematic. If the slave-owners just ignored it, and the slaves never heard of it, what good did it do? For that, we fall back on the first reason: it required all Federal commanders to let the former slaves remain free. That meant that the cheap labor pool often dried up wherever Federal troops went, whether they stayed or not. The power of the Washington government that the Confederacy defied was such that the Confederate States could not prevent the Emancipation from being enforced on what had been their territory. The longer the war lasted, the fewer slaves they could keep.

The Shield That Didn’t 

While this study isn’t about why the Confederacy lost on the battlefield, it is an essential factor behind the Confederate States’ failure. For centuries, scholars and statesmen had been struggling to define “sovereignty” in absolute legal terms. By the 19th century, the theory was called Westphalian sovereignty, named for the treaty that ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. Loosely, it is the concept of nation-state sovereignty based on territoriality and the absence of external agents in domestic structures. In other words, no foreign power inside the defined borders of a sovereign state could interfere with the functions of either the established government or society.

Then it gets complicated. Buried in the Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law in 1858 was a definition for blockade that replaced ancient unwritten law. In 1861, Lincoln declared the “rebellious states” to be under blockade. What that did legally, among other things, provided a tacit admission to some that the Confederacy was legitimate. However, the 1826 Brazilian blockade of the Rio de la Plata during their war with Argentina was recognized by Britain but not by the US or France, so “legitimacy” was somewhat moot. Indeed, vessels of foreign registry that tried to run the blockade of the Confederacy stopped by the US Navy might have protested the violation of their sovereignty…but they usually didn’t. Even the famous Trent incident might have passed unnoticed if the two Confederate agents/diplomats hadn’t been removed. The fact that the Confederacy couldn’t protect its communications with the outside world affected her sovereignty because she could not trade as a state if she couldn’t assure that cargoes in or out would be safe.

As for land communications, that is a different matter. The borders were porous; the Confederacy could not control even the trade on the Ohio River. Other than few fixed forts in Kentucky, defending the long and ambiguous borders would always be done inside the Confederacy. And what did the Confederacy have to protect those long frontiers with? A collection of state-based units that, for all their zeal, were undermanned and poorly equipped. By some measures, fully 25% of the military manpower was exempt for reasons ranging from being overseers of more than 25 slaves to being members of the national, state, or local government or of local or state militias. While many of the militias did indeed fight when the war came to them, they were rarely used for anything more than rear-guards, for they were rarely good enough for more. By then, it was too late to save an already failed state.

Jefferson Davis: Poor Leader

Jefferson Davis believed in states’ rights to determine whether or not they could maintain slavery as an institution, and he accepted the presidency based on that belief. However, it is not clear that he believed that the CSA could have achieved lasting and meaningful political and economic independence from the United States. From the pie-eyed optimism of the cotton embargo early in the war to his oft-stated belief that any territory “lost” to the Union was “lost” forever to slavery, Davis was many things, but a true believer in the success of his country, he was not.

When the Union blockade was the weakest, the attempts at cotton diplomacy perhaps had the best intentions but the worst of effects. While cotton was short in Europe, Britain and France were more dependent on the Union’s wheat and corn shipments than on the Confederacy’s cotton. Southern belief in King Cotton drove the illusion that Europe would come to their rescue and drove many economic and diplomatic efforts. Even as late as 1863, the Confederacy expected diplomatic recognition any day now…real soon….yep, next month for certain….

Davis, who had been a Secretary of War and a member of the US Congress for years, should have recognized the British-French diplomatic stalling when he saw it, and counseled away from it…but he didn’t. Nor could he back away from defending the seceded states’ long and distant frontiers, believing that every foot of territory held by slave-believing power would be held forever, and every foot lost to the abolitionists would be lost forever. This belief contributed significantly to the defense of untenable positions in Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, and the border states. To read some of his writings, it was as if Lincoln and the Republicans had never uttered a word before Ft. Sumter, and he was consistently surprised to learn that they meant what they said.

The next step is to Compare and Contrast these factors to see which were the most damaging. Given the above…hard to tell, but we’ll work on it.


Sergeant’s Business, Second Edition

For those of you who like the stuff I write, you can enjoy the paperback of my short story collection for less than ten bucks and the e-book for less than a buck. Fun, travel, and adventure, celebrating the unsung, the un-celebrated, the un-heralded workhorses of the backwaters and the front lines of human conflicts.  Sergeant’s Business and Other Stories has it all.

Guadalcanal, Why the Samurai Lost Japan, and The Safe Tree

Yes, I’m trying to sell that one, too.

The Solomon Islands, Bismarck Archipelago, and New Guinea. Guadalcanal is in the lower right just about 10 degrees S latitude and bisected by 160 degrees E longitude.

The American operation in the Solomons Islands called WATCHTOWER began 7 August 1942, with the Marine landings on the northern coast of the island of Guadalcanal. For all the much-vaunted preparation that would later characterize American amphibious operations, the Americans barely knew how big the island was. All they really knew was that it was large enough to support an airstrip…and that the Japanese were building one there.

The threat from Tulagi
WIkimedia Commons

What had concerned the Americans before the Japanese started on that airstrip, however was the seaplane base at Tulagi, just across Skylark Channel. While it’s hard for us to understand now what a seaplane base meant then, this big bruiser to the left was known as an Emily–a Kawanishi H8K flying boat, with a combat range of about 3,000 miles carrying 4,000 pounds of bombs. Emilys had bombed Pearl Harbor on 4 March 1942, albeit ineffectively, and could hit Australia from Tulagi…and did NOT need an airstrip.

So the Americans sort-of planned this battle for this island…an island hardly anyone had ever heard of. The scant accounts there were of terrain and climate were studied assiduously. Jack London was one of the few Americans who had ever visited the Solomons before the war, writing a non-fiction account, Voyage of the Snark, and a short story, The Red One. But a few thousand words of prose, some descriptions from missionaries, magazine travel articles and information from a planter-refugee from the island didn’t provide tidal tables, or ground firmness above the beach, or were there was access to fresh water sources, or any of the other myriad other little bits and pieces the planners needed.

Thus…it was dubbed Operation Shoestring by the troops.

Why the Samurai Lost Japan: A Study in Miscalculation and Folly doesn’t talk a great deal about the American planning, but it does cover the Japanese plans for the island, their reasoning for being there in the first place, and their clumsy reaction to the American landings. For one thing, there were fewer than a thousand Japanese combat troops in the Solomons east of Bougainville, which was why the Marines met little initial resistance. Initially, the IJN believed that the American landings were only a Marine regiment–less than 2,000 men–instead of the division-plus-attachments–somewhere around 15,000–who were really there. Their first counterattack with a little more than 900 troops led by Ichiki Kiyonao was wiped out in what the Marines called the Battle of the Tenaru River on the night of 21 August.

After that, the Japanese became alarmed, but not distressed…not yet.

The Japanese buildup on Guadalcanal was gradual for several reasons, among them being distance: the nearest base was a day and a half sailing away, and the Americans were quick to build up their air strength on Guadalcanal Moving ships during the day became more perilous by the week.

And September didn’t get better. And the Japanese grip on the island slipped more every week, regardless of how the naval battles went because the Americans could replace all their losses and keep getting stronger, and the Japanese could not.

The Safe Tree: Friendship Triumphs–15 November

The Safe Tree

For those of you following the Stella’s Game Trilogy, the last installment is on track for publication on 15 November of this year.

Follow the friends as they solve the mystery that has plagued, threatened and endangered them since the ’60s. Whoever–whatever–threatens their lives and their families now, in 1986, will be discovered and, with any luck, ended.

For those of you who are now scratching your heads and saying “what’s a Stella’s Game Trilogy,” you have a chance to catch up with Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, and Tideline: Friendship Abides from your favorite booksellers.

Here’s what readers have said about Stella’s Game:

A rolliking roll through the ’60s…I could almost smell the tear gas…perfectly captures an era…

Various Stella’s Game readers

And Tideline’s getting some positive comments:

…felt like being in the Army after ‘Nam…a salute to service women between Vietnam and Desert Storm…smell the sawdust of Ranger school…the friends we made in uniform are with us forever…

Various Tideline readers

The Moon Landing and Stella’s Game

Who can’t remember where they were when the Eagle landed on Tranquility Base?

For some of us, it was forever ago; for others, yesterday. I was on vacation with my mom and my oldest sister; we were in New Bedford, Massachusetts, having already visited Gettysburg, Philadelphia, Trenton, and Valley Forge; I was fourteen, barely, and in the lobby of the Governor Bradford Hotel…and that huge-for-the-time 27-inch color TV in the wall had Jules Bergman narrating…closer…closer now….closer…

Houston, Tranquility Base here: the Eagle has landed.

Neil Armstrong, 20 July 1969

And who cared what Houston said after that, or where we’d been before? A guy next to me, though, declared “triumph of the capitalist system.” I puzzled over that for a long time before I came to understand that the US manned space program was more than propaganda: it was a way to bankrupt the Soviet Union by spending money on their own program that they couldn’t afford…and the West could.

Really? Why?

And a year later, 30% of Americans believed that the Moon landing was faked…

Twenty percent of Earth’s population had watched the landing live…and still many people insisted that it was produced in a movie studio…and many people still do. Though thoroughly debunked, the conspiracists also fail to explain just why they would do that, let alone how literally millions of people who worked on the project were persuaded to remain silent about the duplicity

President Kennedy’s goal he’d set eight years earlier had been reached. But a year later, fewer Americans cared about it. They moved on, except during the Apollo XIII mission. Perhaps it was supposed to be that way…

July ’69 and Stella’s Game

Cover of Stella's Game:
Cover of Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, Available Now from fine booksellers everywhere

The friends all know where they were when Apollo XI landed on the Moon, and readers who were around then might remember that Sunday, too. JJ and Mike met during that broadcast, wondering at the traffic noise outside: something exciting happened in Chappaquiddick, something to do with a Kennedy, so the reporters were torn as to which story they should cover.

One of the unique qualities to Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, is the feel that it has given some readers who remember that time not just in their lives but in history. One reader wrote me:

as I read … I remembered watching the Moon landing in my Grandmother’s kitchen, on her Motorola portable…I was nineteen…thanks for triggering that memory.

C. Lollard

Maybe Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships will trigger some pleasant memories for you, too. Now available in paperback and e-book from fine booksellers everywhere.

June And Stella’s Game

There’s a sense of renewal to June…supposed to be, anyway.

This June, hopefully more so. Most of us are in lock-down masquerading as “self-quarantine” or “sheltering in place,” having become so risk-averse that we’re afraid of stuff that the people in Stella’s Game would hardly have noticed except as another flu.

And, I submit, a decade ago we wouldn’t have noticed, either.

June is a time for graduations, for weddings, for the commencement of summer fun in the sun. On 19 June 1865, Juneteenth Day was first celebrated in Galveston, Texas, when news of the emancipation reached the city with the Union troops. In June 1942, of course, was the battle of Midway, an American victory that stopped the Japanese advance in the eastern Pacific. Same month, same year, the Allies lost Tobruk, the vital logistical base in North Africa.

Reinhard Heydrich, Protector of Bohemia and Moravia
Wiki Commons

And on 4 June, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich was died of wounds he had suffered in a Prague suburb by a team of commandos trained and equipped by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Heydrich was the head of the RSHA, the Reichssicherheitshauptamt , or Reich Main Security Office. This innocuous title belied its purpose, which was to oversee the annihilation of European Jewry. Heydrich was also the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia–what was left of Czechoslovakia at the time. As “Protector” he proclaimed martial law, executed hundreds, and began to “Germanize” the population by eliminating those not “German” enough to live.

Well, the “murder” of one of Hitler’s favorites was not to go unavenged, so the little towns of Lidice and Ležáky were selected to be erased. Beginning on 10 June, all males over 16 were executed; all but four women at Lidice were sent to Ravensbruck; the last four were suffered forced abortions and then sent to the camp. Eighty-one children were killed in gas vans at Chelmno. Lidice was burned and leveled. Over 1,300 people were killed in retribution.

Every once in a while, somebody repeats the old saw about this town or that country all wore the Star of David because the Jews were compelled to. To this I say “Lidice.” Given what the Germans did for the defiance there, it seems unlikely that open resistance by a whole town would be tolerated.

Stella’s Game and Tideline are now available

Cover of Stella's Game:
Cover of Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, Available Now from fine booksellers everywhere

In Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, the friends go through a number of changes in June: Friends are separated in 1967, siblings get married in 1970; they graduate in ’73; one gets married; two join the Army.

But where Stella’s Game ends, Tideline: Friendship Abides begins. Tideline follows the friends from 1974 to 1986, in a world where there is no Internet (it was still DARPANET), where “basic cable” was really basic, and where month-long lock-downs and “social distancing” are simply unimaginable. The Soviets were still glowering on the other side of the Iron Curtain (remember that?), and long-distance telephone calls were still not just expensive novelties but the only means of long distance communications…other than letters…and they write A LOT.

Cover of Tideline: Friendship Abides, Part Two of the Stella’s Game Trilogy

And in Tideline, friends find each other after long years apart; they laugh, they cry…and they try to solve an old mystery that controls their lives. There were few personal computers; Pong was considered a video game; risque TV was showing navels.

And Tideline leads to The Safe Tree: Friendship Triumphs . The concluding volume of the Stella’s Game Trilogy follows the friends to the end of the mysterious road that not just brought them together, but threatens their lives. Look for it in November

1917: An Appreciation, and Tideline

Something a little different this time: a movie evaluation. SPOILER ALERT! You may learn the ending if you haven’t seen it.

Allow a Great War dilettante a little leeway, here. Sam Mendes’ film 1917 is 119 minutes long; surely, you can take about a tenth of that to read, not a review, but an appreciation, of a technical marvel on a par with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948).

While the plot is pedestrian (sending two NCO’s across No-Man’s-Land to stop a doomed attack, saving a corporal’s brother), and the acting at best average. However, the viewer has to appreciate the flawless digital editing that makes the action seem to flow seamlessly as the cameras rotate around the characters as they move through the trenches, resulting in the impression that the film was shot in two VERY long, continuous takes. I cannot see how 1917 could have had any competition for Best Cinematography and Visual Effects at the Academy Awards. Hitchcock, who was at bottom a technician, insisted on shooting his version of the 1929 play Rope as all one scene, stopping the action only to change film every seventeen minutes by running the camera behind one actor’s back or another.

Allowing some leeway for a non-button-counter, the sets and costumes in 1917 gave the distinct impression that this was taking place there, in Flanders, sometime in 1917. The lead actors, however, don’t do it for you–it’s the rest of them. The weary lieutenant just before Schofield and Blake jump off into the wire looks like half a hundred such people I dealt with in my quarter-century in the US Army: OK, you’ve got stupid orders, but at least I don’t have to carry them out, so you go do it, you poor SOB. And the attitudes of the men in the “casual truck” were perfect: Brother, better you than me. The senior officers offer the two enlisted men the usual mix of “you have to do it” and “best you can” and “if not you, who”- style instructions that are the old sergeant’s curse.

But, too–spoiler alert–there are moments in an otherwise mundane plot when, because of the effects and the editing, I somehow expected to see Charleton Heston screeching “its a madhouse! A madhouse,” in Planet of the Apes (1968, Franklin J. Schaffner). Running through a burning village dodging German soldiers, one could almost feel the heat, the unbelievable panic, the terror. And suddenly materializing at his destination, the survivor of the little mission struggles to be heard amid the chest-beating and the inevitable “I follow orders” mentality, the resignation that he feels before he finally does get the General’s attention.

I know enough about WWI to know that such a mission would not be given to a couple of NCO’s. If there had to be such a thing, it would have been given to a lieutenant at a minimum and an infantry section, who would have brought more than one Lewis Gun with them. Also, I know that the wire men worked day and night to stretch the phone lines between all major headquarters: it is unlikely that a battalion would be out of touch for more than 12 hours even nine hundred feet, let alone nine miles, ahead of the MLR. At the same time, such a message could also have been carried by aircraft–quickly and more reliably than two soldiers risking their all. But, like the highly-unlikely mission in Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg), that truth wouldn’t make for much of a story, would it?

The technically questionable blunders I saw–an abandoned German artillery park with broken guns and shells strewn all over is one–have plausible explanations. That one is easy: not enough horses to pull the broken weapons and salvageable junk back. This is after the Turnip Winter, after all, and the German Army was starving. Sick animals weren’t treated in some places (I understand); weak ones were eaten, so there were real shortages of draft animals. Using trucks for a sneaky withdrawal–like that one was supposed to be–would give the game away. Also, the presence of non-white soldiers in the Devons: as casualties were taken, fragile British units might have been brigaded together in the field for a day or so, though unlikely. More likely that they were added to the otherwise all-white cast to alleviate the inevitable protests in the US if they were not there. The Movie Police, after all, work on feelings, not facts. Their made-up outrage over the all-white cast in Saving Private Ryan (1998; Steven Spielberg) was bad enough; allow the producers some rhythm here, OK?

But the criticisms about British generals not thinking much about the loss of 1,600 men in a single attack is, charitably, unfair by that time. The British Army no longer had the manpower to waste by that spring. While the whole story is made up, it would be incredible to imagine that any British general by the war’s third year would cavalierly just throw away a village’s worth of Englishmen…certainly if they had no artillery support.

Ultimately, though, we as film viewers have to remember that these products are intended to entertain and to make money. Movies are not time machines, and some are better than others at conveying a sense of being there. 1917 is an excellent film that deserves its accolades and its revenues, and at least some of its criticisms. But, as some have done, to dismiss it out of hand because of its plot and technical flaws is to deny what is otherwise a very entertaining nearly two hours… more enjoyable for some of us than the rest of the hokum at the theaters, anyway. If you haven’t seen it yet…sorry for the spoilers. If you have, think about it as a product of the entertainment industry, not an educational tool. It became available on DVD 31 March.

Tideline: Friendship Abides

Cover of Tideline: Friendship Abides, Part Two of the Stella’s Game Trilogy

Where Stella’s Game ends, Tideline: Friendship Abides begins….and is available now in paperback and E-book at your favorite booksellers

Life has its limitations, natural and artificial.  Natural limits are nature’s doing; the others are ours.

Natural limits are imposed by nature–like the ocean tides. The rest are imposed—often reluctantly, sometimes of necessity—by how we live our lives. We set limits on what we hope to achieve, the challenges we’re willing to face, or what we’re willing to tolerate, or to settle for.

Those decisions come easier when we don’t have to make them alone; when we have the love and patience of true friends.

But those limits are to be tested. The friends have goals to achieve; milestones to reach. They were eighteen when they joined the Army and Navy in 1973. But what do they do, these new Cold Warriors, without a war to fight? They work while they live: they write letters while they learn, love, laugh and cry…and wait for that next war. America’s war in Vietnam is ended, but the after-effects are still felt. Watergate is in the news; so is Cambodia. The world is still a dangerous place, and even “cold wars” have casualties.

A tideline  on a beach marks the sea’s normal limits, where the sea in a normal tide will stop. The tideline for these friends….well, we did say a normal tide… 

Tideline: Friendship Abides—Part Two of the Stella’s Game Trilogy–follows our cast of characters out of the ‘70’s and into the ’80’s. Expect to see Part Three, The Safe Tree: Friendship Triumphs by the end of the year.

Operation Homecoming, Stella's Game, and Tideline

The war was over; the last American combat casualties were months before; the POWs were coming home.

It was 1973, and the last negotiations had scheduled the return of some 500-plus American prisoners of war from North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, Laotian, and Chinese captivity. As the men were flown to the Philippines to be debriefed and treated, the medics were surprised at how resilient they were, how mentally healthy despite debilitating injuries and malnutrition.

Burst of Joy

LTC Robert L. Stirm, left, greeted his family at Travis AFB 17 March 1973, after six years of captivity. This photo Burst of Joy by Slava “Sal” Veder, won a Pulitzer Prize, and did more to encapsulate the end of America’s “Vietnam experience” than any other image. The cameras were more than happy to record every heartfelt greeting, every fragile survivor, every dash across the hardstand into the eager arms of fathers barely known; of husbands weak and tired; of sons and brothers who had experienced isolation that few could appreciate…

And not a protester in sight…

And frankly, THAT was weird as I recall. Though most of the protests had sputtered out after 1970 and the Kent State shootings, we seriously expected to see protesters outside the air bases and hospitals…but nothing. Maybe because we were tired, all of us in America were; tired of the division, of the shouting, the screaming, the whiffs of smoke and tear gas for no end other than to protest a draft that sent less than 30% of its inductees to a conflict that would see no victory because it wasn’t supposed to…

And there were those bracelets again…

The POW bracelets that many people wore, starting in 1970, nickel plated or copper, they were engraved with the name of a POW or a missing American; some five million of them were sold by Voices in Vital America (VIVA). They vanished from most wrists for unknown reasons in about ’72, but during Operation Homecoming, out they came again. Those who had bracelets engraved with men who came back celebrated; some sent their bracelets to “their” PWs. Those with bracelets engraved with names that didn’t come back got blue star stickers…and by July those bracelets were back in the drawers.

But there were still more than five hundred men missing…

“Missing” in war means a lot of different things, and in the mid-20th century it could mean burned up in their aircraft; suspended bleeding in a parachute harness until death overtook them and they were consumed by the jungle; blown to smithereens and unidentifiable by any means at the time, or even just took off, making a life elsewhere.

But some were still held captive…

In his book, Henry Kissinger stated that he knew there were still Americans captive in Southeast Asia, but the North Vietnamese could wait; Kissinger, Nixon and the whole Western world needed an end to the carnage. So, he signed the best treaty he could get for himself, Nixon, and the whole Western world…and for Vietnam, for that matter. But as a result of that treaty, the Saigon government almost certainly saw the writing on the proverbial wall. Most sources say that the Saigon regime gave itself no more than three years to live after January 1973. They were right.

Cover of Stella's Game:
Cover of Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, Available Now from fine booksellers everywhere

In Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, watching the POW’s come back is a family matter, hearing the commentators mention that this guy’s mother died while he was in a cage; that one’s family was so excited about his return that they took out a two-page ad in the local paper; that one’s wife didn’t want to wait and divorced him. These were teenagers–high school seniors–glad that the draft was ending but unsure about their own futures. Both the girls and the boys would watch the joyous reunions, be happy for the bracelet-owners whose men came home, and try to feel for those who did not. But it was hard: they had nothing to compare that agony to.

Tideline..Ever Rising

Footprints in the sand along the Tideline

Guess where this beach is for an autographed copy of Tideline: Friendship Abides. The kids grow up, as happens when you keep feeding ’em. But they have lives of their own, and they write letters to friends and loved ones wherever they are.

They write lots of letters…

They write because between 1974 and 1986, the Internet was still called DARPANET, there was no World Wide Web (hypertext wouldn’t come along until a decade later), no cell phones in general use, no blogs (I know; ancient history), so no e-mails. “Social media” was, well, sitting around and shooting the bull. But they still had fun, fell in love, fell out of love, went to war, and worked for success in their chosen professions: three of them in the Army; one in the Navy. And they wrote letters.

Tideline: Friendship Abides is the second part of the Stella’s Game Trilogy, and should be available at you favorite booksellers by mid-April.

My Lai, Stella’s Game, and Tideline

By 1968, the conflict in Vietnam had lost any popular support that it had had in the US…and in Vietnam.

Unidentified women and children just before they were killed
Ronald L. Haeberle photo, Wiki Commons

On 16 March, 1968, soldiers of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, and Bravo Company, 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry, both of the 23rd Division (also called the Americal Division), killed somewhere between 347 and 504 people in two hamlets called My Lai and My Khe in the Son Tinh district of South Vietnam. An unknown number of women were raped, some as young as 12; children were mutilated. It was the best known of several such atrocities in the entire conflict. It took place during Operation Muscatine, which started in December 1967 and went on until June, 1968, aimed at securing Chu Lai.

Gee…don’t that sound simple?

The first time the American public knew anything about these massacres was September 1969, in a vague press release from Fort Benning about charges of murder being filed against Lieutenant William Calley. In trickles, then in floods, photos, names, dates were revealed as more people came forward with more testimony, more photos. Several reporters and photographers had been there, had seen the aftermath; one even claimed to have stopped some of the killing. There was a Pentagon Vietnam War Crimes Working Group that investigated these and several other massacres, but “war crimes” were never brought against anyone.

Over a year later…

William Calley stood trial for murder on 17 November 1970. It was hard to get eyewitnesses to testify against Calley, but one did, and Calley’s defense team couldn’t shake the testimony. On 29 March 1971, Calley was found guilty of 22 specifications of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

No one else was ever convicted of anything related to these crimes…

Despite the protest marches and the riots and flag-burning in the streets of America, the general reaction over Calley’s conviction was one of mild outrage. Within the US Army, Calley was regarded as a victim of the war’s culture of body count: the higher the better. He and his men–over a hundred would have taken part–were also victims of the nature of the conflict. While most of the victims were women and children, many of these guy’s friends had been victims of women and children bearing satchel charges and grenades, using both their youth and their sex to get close to American targets before setting off their weapons. While the protesters could use the conviction to bolster their arguments of an “unjust” war, the paltry number that Calley was actually convicted of deflated their argument somewhat.

The most common name Calley was given was “scapegoat…”

Calley spent less than two weeks in prison; President Nixon ordered him placed under house arrest at Fort Benning on 1 April 1971. After numerous appeals, Calley was released in September, 1974. The biggest reason for the successful appeals was pre-trial publicity, lack of corroborating witnesses, and the refusal of both the Department of Defense and the US Congress to make available evidence that Calley’s defense team requested. That and the general outrage over the acquittal of Captain Ernest Medina–Calley’s boss–who had planned and ordered the sweep operation that, in part, resulted in the massacres. Despite the unpopularity of the war, there was a great stink of cover-up. I distinctly recall that the popular media at the time of his conviction was nearly schizophrenic.

But by then, US troops had been out of Vietnam for two years, and no one was interested anymore.

Stella’s Game...watch her deal

In Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, the characters react to the conviction of William Calley–and the crimes he was accused of committing–in significantly different ways. While one is outraged, others are resigned; most question why not others. Scapegoat, martyr, example are names Calley is given…but not baby-killer or murderer.

But this was the 70’s, and the characters are fifteen and sixteen, looking forward to a future with a war that does not appear to have an end, and a draft that may not, either. Though Nixon campaigned on an “end the draft” platform in ’68, it was renewed for two years in September ’71–while the Calley appeals were ongoing–though everyone knew it would not be renewed again.

They know all this, but the boy’s future was still a question mark, and the girls were concerned for them.

Tideline is Rising

Where Stella’s Game leaves off, Tideline: Friendship Abides picks up. Join JJ and Mike, Ann and Leigh after they leave school on their life adventures, from 1974 to 1986. Tideline is scheduled for publication by April, 2020.

Join in the adventure!

Khe Sanh ’68 and Stella’s Game

And we woke up on 31 January to learn a new place name: Khe Sanh. That afternoon we learned that Jeff’s there. No longer was Vietnam some abstract.

White bread America was as affected by that conflict as the rest of the country.

The controversial McNamara Line of outposts and electronic monitoring systems along the 17th parallel was built starting in 1967, and was anchored by combat bases like the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB), which was a series of revetments and artillery batteries that was a most impressive sandbag fortification with an air strip and helicopter landing pads enough to maintain a Marine battalion. In January 1968, there were some 6,000 Marines based out of the Combat Base, and an unclear number of South Vietnamese and Royal Lao troops. The struggle for Khe Sanh and the I Corps area started nine days before Tet ’68, but William Westmoreland insisted that Tet was a diversion from Khe Sanh.

Was the tail wagging this dog?

The day after the Tet offensive exploded on the news, the war became very personal for some of us, even at the tender age of 12. With older sisters who had boyfriends of a certain age…yes, two of them were in-country. One mailed a letter to my oldest sister just after Christmas, saying how this Khe Sanh place was just a maze of sandbags.

Every TV newscast about Vietnam became a contest to see who could spot Jeff

While the war raged and every evening people watched at the Marines fought for the hills and villages around the base, there were times when we thought “oh, there he is!” But we never knew for sure. No one heard from Jeff…not even his family…until after the siege was lifted on 6 April by the 1st Cavalry Division. His parents received a note–brief and hurried–saying he was OK and headed for Japan. The next my sister heard was a year later, after he got back Stateside. Yeah, that kind of thing happened, too.

Letters and Friends and Stella’s Game

Cover of Stella's Game:
Cover of Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, Available Now from fine booksellers everywhere

Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships is a story of four kids growing up in these turbulent times, when things like video calls, instant messaging with a device in your pocket were the stuff of science fiction. To communicate they wrote letters, and some letters arrived with odd timing, like Jeff’s to my sister. But the kids worry because their families worry, and that worry spills over to their friends sometimes, and friends offer what comfort they can.

Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships takes place in the Detroit area from 1963 to 1974, following four children trying to fit in, to learn, to love, to laugh and for one–to stay alive. Look for it on Amazon and everywhere else. Learn what it was really like growing up without too much concern about money, but a lot about your future, and about your friend’s futures. Money doesn’t, after all, buy security for everyone.