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Pea Ridge: A Lonely Fight in a Lonely Place

Generally, battles are fought over some geographic thing someone wants: a river crossing, a city, a peninsula, a mountain pass.  Few battles are fought literally in the middle of nowhere. But in early 1862, the United States had this problem called the Confederacy.  The Confederate States believed that they could just leave the Union at any time.  Most of the people in the United States objected to this idea, so there was this war….

In a nutshell, that’s pretty much how folks west of the Mississippi addressed their Civil War.  In Missouri, where slavery was technically legal but deeply unpopular in some parts, the conflict had taken on a life of its own, and had even before the Secession.  Missouri sent regiments to fight under both the Stars and Stripes and the Stars and Bars, and whole families were at war with others.  Neighboring Arkansas, however, wasn’t quite so divisive.  Admitted to the Union in 1836 as a slave state, she left the Union in May of 1861, after Lincoln called for volunteers to put down the rebellion.  A quarter of Arkansas’ population was slaves: she could hardly do any other.

The war in the west (generally referred to as anything west of the Appalachians) began at a place called Wilson’s Creek near Springfield on 10 August 1862, a bloody affair between a 5,400 man Union force and a 12,000 strong Confederate force primarily of the Missouri State Guard.  In a morning-long slaughter-fest the Confederates and Federals were both exhausted, but the casualties were about equal.  The barely-trained armies both withdrew.  At Lexington in September, the Confederates also fought the Federals to a standstill, but once again withdrew because their ammunition was critically low.

The pattern of major western battles was set: the Confederates may have outnumbered the Federals, but there was no way to defeat the Federals decisively without reliable logistics.  The most reliable supply lines were the rivers.  The Federals dominated the major waterways.  A plus B equals…it didn’t matter who won on land, because the Federals would be resupplied, ranks refilled, and back on the battlefield before the Confederates could.

By early 1862, a 10,500 man Union army under Samuel R. Curtis was in Benton County, Arkansas in the northwest corner of the state.  The Confederates under Earl Van Dorn commanding the 16,000 man Army of the West, decided to outflank Curtis.  But Curtis was a better general than that (at least, he had better intelligence) and on 6 March 1862 turned to meet Van Dorn at Pea Ridge near a small village called Elkhorn Tavern.  On 7 March, a firefight ensued (technically a meeting engagement since both sides were on the move and neither expected contact).  Even though outnumbered, the Federals logistics ensured that they had more ammunition.  Bone-chilling weather hampered the fighting on 8 March but Price counterattacked and managed to capture Van Dorn’s supply train. On 9 March, the long retreat began for the Confederates as the army disintegrated.  Another backhanded attempt to distract the Federals from their Mississippi Valley campaign was over.

The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War discusses Pea Ridge and other lonely and long-forgotten fights in the West during the spring of 1862.  Available in paper back and PDF at fine booksellers everywhere.

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Verdun: Operation Judgement

Erich von Falkenhayn’s offensive of 1916 was aimed directly at the traditional invasion route between the Rhine and Paris.  The area had been used often enough that the area called the Heights of the Meuse were heavily fortified by the French over the years to have culminated in a series of forts that, if nothing else, put the entire Meuse-Rhine plain under observation for artillery.

The German plan was simple: take the forts, make the French commit their strategic reserves protecting the route to Paris, build up behind the bulge, press on to Paris in the summer months until France gave up and march home in triumph before fall.  The strategic motivations, however, were far more complex.  German agriculture was suffering under the loss of so much of its manpower, and was sorely affected by the British blockade–far more than Germany could withstand.  Though Germany had suffered less than had Britain and France in the battlefields, combined the Allies had far more manpower than did the Central Powers.  Germany, the most powerful of the Powers, was in the second year of a war she had anticipated would last two months.  Knocking France out of the war was the key to Germany’s survival.

On 21 February, the Germans unleashed their Fifth Army on the French Second Army manning the nineteen fortresses of the Verdun complex.  The first French fort to fall, three days later, was Douaumont, the largest and highest of the outer ring forts, by a small German raiding party.   Even though it had been unoccupied for months, the French were scandalized, and in Gallic rage they threw more and more men into the face of the German offensive.

While most scholars feel that this was the German intention all along, German military theory and doctrine never, ever had attritional battle in mind.  Prussia/Brandenburg, the font of Imperial German military tradition, never had the numbers nor the temperament for a drawn-out brawl, and always preferred maneuver–preferably to encirclement–to merely adding up casualties.  Tannenberg, the August 1914 double-envelopment of the Russian Second Army in East Prussia, was far more to Prussian/German liking than was the long slog of Verdun.  It is likely that post-Verdun German commentators merely claimed that attrition was the German plan all along, when in truth the French defense, orchestrated by Robert Nivelle, was more persistent and successful than they had imagined was possible.

Verdun would rage on unabated for ten months, consuming the lives of some three hundred thousand men out of the million committed, and occupying the full attention of over a hundred divisions. It would have been impossible for the rest of the world not to notice, and it would have been impossible for the Americans not to look on in horror, and in contemplation.  American military men may have been forbidden by President Woodrow Wilson to prepare contingency plans, but that did not prevent preparedness plans from being put into action with some urgency.  The Plattsburg Movement, a civilian-driven (if military favored) program of camps that trained young collegians in various places in the country, had finally come to fruition in the National Defense Act of 1916, that created the Army Reserves.  Approval of NDA 1916 and the increase in American preparedness had been spurred, in part, by the specter of the 2,300 French and Germans casualties About a regiment) every day on the Verdun front alone.

Two years after the worst of the fighting at Verdun had been concluded, the Americans were fighting to throw the Germans out of some of the 1916 gains at the Meuse-Argonne.  This battle was the largest American campaign between Appomattox in 1865 and the invasion of Sicily in 1943.  Wiley-Blackwell’s A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, edited by Ed Lengel, contains an essay by John D. Beatty entitled “We Can Kill Them But We Cannot Stop Them: An Evaluation of the Meuse-Argonne,” which looks at American performance there, and the influences of American preparedness before 1917.  Available in hardback and E-book from fine booksellers everywhere.

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Tragedy and Triumph

18 February marks two events in 1945 that would have profound consequences for the future of warfare.  First, after fifty days of siege that cost some 50,000 military and civilian lives, Budapest fell to Rodion Malinovski’s 2nd Ukrainian Front.  Some ten thousand or so Germans and a handful of Hungarians had broken out to the west on 11 February, only to be caught on the road to Vienna and wiped out.  The Soviets suffered some 100-150,000 casualties during the long siege.

Russia at War: From the Mongol Conquest to Afghanistan, Chechnya and Beyond (edited by Timothy Dowling) discusses Budapest and a thousand other battles.  John Beatty’s essays of Soviet casualties 1941-45, Soviet armor development in WWII, Joseph Stalin and the battle for Berlin in 1945 are also featured.  Russia at War is available in hardback from fine booksellers everywhere.

On the same day, the three-day tragedy of Dresden began.  Spared heavy bombing for most of the war, Dresden was attacked three nights and two days in a row, devastating most of the medieval city.  One young American POW caught in the bombing was Kurt Vonnegut, who described his ordeal in his novel Slaughterhouse Five, named after the shelter he was trapped in.  He was also quoted in Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and complained more than once that he could never get the smell of Dresden out of his nose.

The bombing has been heavily criticized ever since. Dresden has been the subject of more than one book, one of the worst being David Irving’s Apocalypse 1945, which severely inflates the already tragic casualty count.  Officially and finally refuted in a libel trial in London described in Richard Evans’ Lying About Hitler, Irving has even served a term in jail for denying the Holocaust.

On 13 February 1951, United Nations forces (mostly Americans of the 23rd Infantry, but also the French Battalion, and a Dutch company among the 4,500 or so men) met Chinese troops (about 25,000 from the 39th, 40th and 42nd Armies) at Chipyong-ni (Dipingli in Chinese) in Korea.  The two day battle would be called the “Gettysburg of the Korean War,” and because of its disconnected and decentralized nature, one of the biggest “soldier’s battles” in history, costing the Chinese about 3,000 casualties and the US forces about 300.  It was the “high water mark” of the Chinese incursion into southern Korea, and the beginning of the gradual retreat of the Chinese and North Koreans to around the 38th parallel.

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Ft Donelson on Lincoln’s Birthday

After a forced march of some five days, some 25,000 men under US Grant started his assault on Ft Donelson on 12 February 1862.  The weather on 6 February when they left Ft Henry on the Tennessee River was balmy, but by the time they were halfway to the Confederate fort on the Cumberland it turned cold and wet.  The Federals, few of whom had ever heard a shot in anger nor gone more than a day’s walk from where they were born, suffered in the cold in part because they had discarded their heavy winter coats and blankets along the way.

The Confederates, less than a week after the loss of Ft Henry, scrambled to protect the last bastion protecting Nashville, just three days’ march south.  Nearly all the Confederate uniform manufacturing west of Virginia, and half the ammunition manufacturing, was in Nashville.  That and some 16,000 Confederate troops (probably more) at Ft Donelson, as well as 48 irreplaceable artillery pieces were in peril from the larger Federal force.  Albert S. Johnson, the Confederate commander of District Number 2 that encompassed everything Confederate between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, knew that holding Ft Donelson was key to holding middle Tennessee and the gateway to the Southern interior, but had nearly nothing to send to John B Floyd, the garrison’s commander.

As Grant began his siege (Impractical, since his batteries only had the ammunition in their batteries, as his staff had neglected to send any more), he realized that if Ft Donelson held out more than a few days, he would have to withdraw or wait for reinforcements.  Henry W. Halleck, Grant’s boss, had already said that Grant had to win to get stronger.  Excuses were not to be tolerated, for Grant’s reputation in the Army was not one of a stellar officer, but tainted by allegations of drink.  To go any further at all just to provide for his family, Grant had to take Ft Donelson.  To hold the western theater at all, Pillow had to hold it.

If Grant informed Halleck that he had reached Ft Donelson it would have been by horseback messenger to Ft Henry (or by steamboat to either Paducah or Galena), then by relays of telegraph stations to Halleck at St Louis.  If Lincoln had heard about Ft Donelson before it was captured, it would have been at least a day after his 53rd birthday.  Still, when he and the rest of the country heard about the fall of the fort, he regarded it as a wonderful gift.

The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War is the story of the middle Tennessee campaign in the spring of 1862, of which Forts Henry and Donelson were just the opening act.  Available in paperback and PDF at fine booksellers everywhere.

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The Founding of Japan and the Meiji Constitution

On 11 February in the year 660 BCE, it is said that the emperor Jimmu founded the empire of Japan.  Jimmu is said to have been descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu through her grandson Ninigi, and from the storm god Susanoo.  All of this is founded on myth, but far more reliable sources indicate that the Meiji emperor Mutsuhito’s constitution for the restored Japanese state/empire/arsenal was adopted on this date in 1889.

Most readers think “representative democracy” when they read the word “constitution,” but this is not always the case, and certainly it wasn’t for Japan.  The Meiji Constitution was a document that, by intent, ensured the tyranny of the hereditary samurai class by placing veto power for any policy in their hands, and their hands alone.  All the samurai had to do was withdraw their war minister (appointed from the ranks of the Army, samurai all), or later the navy minister (ditto) to force the imperial cabinet (selected from the Diet) to reform the government.  This they would do, repeatedly, when the governments–especially under the reign of Yoshihito, the weak Taisho emperor that followed the Meiji in 1912–did not support another of their unsanctioned outrages such as grabbing German territory in the Pacific at the outset of WWI, invading Manchuria, then China proper, in 1914, 1932 and 1937, respectively.  The process would be repeated during the reign of the Showa emperor Hirohito right up until 1941, when the appointment of General Tojo Hideki as prime minister obviated the need.

Most of the early 20th century was punctuated by assassinations, violent uprisings (food riots were common in japan, averaging two a year for the better part of a thousand years) and attempted coups d’état in Japan that everyone caught in the middle would support any measure that looked like it pointed to stability.  To the samurai, of course, this meant them running things.  And they “ran things” right up to August of 1945, when their emperor had had enough.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan at War 1941-45 examines the political reality of the samurai against a backdrop of a world that moved beyond the need for them.  Available from fine booksellers everywhere.

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Beginnings: Crop Duster a Winner; Japan Attacks Russia and Britain; Bloody Mary is Beheaded; Elizabeth II Becomes Queen

As the badge on today’s post says, Crop Duster: A Novel of WII is an Honorable Mention in the 2014 Writers Digest Self-Published E-Book Awards for Mainstream Fiction.  This is a long-winded way of saying that Crop Duster is regarded at one of the five best of over a hundred submitted books in this category.  It’s also a Notable Book in Shelf Unbound’s Self-Published E-Book Awards for 2014 for Page-Turners. Find out what the judges see is so great about Crop Duster today.  Available in paperback and E-book at fine booksellers everywhere.


On the night of 8 February 1904, Japan attacked the Russian naval base at Port Arthur with torpedoes from four destroyers.  A Russian protected cruiser (Pallada) keeled over and sank, and two battleships (Retvizan and Tsarevich ) were damaged.  An indecisive daylight action the next morning damaged vessels on both sides, but the Japanese had the advantage of being able to sail out of range of the Russian shore batteries, while the Russians were trapped in port by the strong Japanese fleet.

As the opening battle of what would come to be called the Russo-Japanese War, Port Arthur was a template for Japanese conflict initiation for the next fifty years: strong attacks with little warning followed by relentless pressing of the advantages of surprise.  While the Japanese attacks in 1904, 1914, 1932, 1937 and 1941 were expected in a general sense, their location often was not.  The 8 February 1942 invasion of Singapore after two months of attacks all around the Pacific Rim was forewarned, but the British had never expected an attack from landward along the Malay Peninsula.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look At Japan at War, 1941-1945 probes the Japanese mindset reaching back to before the Tokugawas. Available in hardback, paperback and PDF.


Two distantly related events, ironically, are marked in early February.  Mary,Queen of Scots was beheaded on 8 February 1587, an unfortunate victim of a dynastic feud begun in prehistory, for all intents and purposes.  The Stuart throne of Scotland dated from the 14th century (or 12th, for purists) in a country that had the poor luck of being weaker than most of her neighbors but stronger than her closest kin.  Britain had the sense to try to “civilize” the traditionally tribal Scots off and on for centuries, while Scotland allied with France and was used as a cudgel against Ireland in between periods of independence.  Mary’s poor timing that she would reign while Elizabeth I sat in Windsor, but was lucky enough that Elizabeth would be childless, so that her son would inherit the throne of England.

Nearly four centuries later, Elizabeth II,oldest daughter of George VI would be proclaimed queen on 6 February 1952.  She would be the first British monarch for over a century who was not also empress of India. She is at this writing the longest reigning British monarch in history.


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Mill Springs: the Battle for the Ohio Country Begins

At sunrise on 6 February 1862, a small Confederate army under George B. Crittenden attacked a small Federal force under George H. Thomas near Fishing Creek on the Cumberland River in Kentucky, about a week’s march from Nashville, the capitol of Tennessee.  As Civil War battles go this one was fast and microscopic, but it had momentous consequences for the war, all out of proportion to its size and remote location.

The Confederates, in an attack that would be eerily similar to the attack two months later at Pittsburgh Landing, marched through the rain and fog with ancient weapons, poor organization and even worse discipline to surprise the Federals before their breakfast.  Initially successful, the Confederates were stymied by rallying Federals under Thomas himself, and the death of Felix Zollicoffer, Crittenden’s second-ranking officer.  As the Confederates abandoned the battlefield, in their hasted to cross the Cumberland they abandoned precious artillery (about two batteries’ worth) and supplies, as well as their wounded.  The bulk of the fighting, where less than a thousand casualties were incurred, was done by noon.  The battle is best known as Mill Springs if you’re a Yankee, or Logan’s Cross Roads if you’re a Confederate.

Tactically inconsequential, it made both the Richmond and Washington governments pay closer attention to the Ohio country, where fully a quarter of the population lived.  The Confederacy, for their part, sent PGT Beauregard, the victor of Mananas, to assist Confederate commander Albert S. Johnson in the fight to preserve the area.  The Union sent more troops and gunboats to aid Henry W. Halleck, the Federal commander.  Soon, while George B. McClellan whipped the Army of the Potomac into shape, a new general’s star rose in Middle Tennessee: a quiet, unassuming officer named US Grant.

The Devil”s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War by John D. Beatty, describes the run up to the momentous April 1862 battle in the pine barrens of Tennessee.  “No study of the war in Middle Tennessee is complete without consideration of Beatty’s ideas,” one critic said.  Available in paper and PDF at fine booksellers everywhere.

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The Long War

On 5 February 1985, in a solemn ceremony of unknown origins and unclear location, the mayors of Rome and Carthage signed a peace treaty ending the Third Punic War.  This conflict was the longest in human history, but had had no practical effects on either city for more than two thousand years.  No doubt the two were prodded into the peaceful and wholly ceremonial action to promote international relations, or a cruse line, or something else without either warlike or other international implications.

The conflict had begun in 151 BCE, and (openly) ended when Carthage fell to the Romans under Scipio Aemilianus after a three year siege that ended in the spring of 146. In the nature of such things, the city was rebuilt by Julius Caesar as a Roman city, and would become a major trading center under the Empire.

Unlike the Third Punic War, the prospect of a “long war” has reared its ugly head in the mass media as a conflict between militant Islam and the rest of the world–principally the industrial West–that would have a very active presence for generations.  Despite the protestations of some on both sides, it has very little chance of a peaceful resolution within the next news cycle or before the next elections.  It seems likely, indeed probable, that it will only end when people in the most influential factions (not necessarily the most powerful) realize the futility of continuing.  And that could take a very long time.

As the American Indians were gradually assimilated (by and large) over the course of 500 years, and the Irish insurgency against Britain waxed and waned over the course of at least as long, some elements will eventually ask how they could possibly prevail.  Both the Indians and the Irish, the Walloons and the Basques, the Armenians and the Maori and countless other small ethnic cultures eventually simply had to stop struggling against the inevitability of demographic defeat everywhere even if they won every battle in their own back yards.  After the fall of Carthage, it was likely that partial assimilation–not armed resistance–became the obvious key to survival.

Not that it would necessarily happen, but it could.  Declared wars, or open warfare, don’t always end in victory parades.  They don’t even always end in clear military success.  But they do always end.  The real challenge is to still be alive when the shooting stops.

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America Ascendant and Germany Descendant

On 2 February 1848 the Mexican-American War came to an official end, though for all practical purposes it had ended weeks before.  Winfield Scott, the only American General-In Chief to take field command (a whole other story, that) was the most celebrated soldier since Andrew Jackson.  An entirely self-educated officer who was first commissioned at age 22 as a captain of artillery (1808), “Old Fuss and Feathers” had led the American invasion of the Mexican Plateau in the first such expedition since Cortes.  What was remarkable was that European observers were all convinced that the European-trained Mexicans would handily defeat the Americans, whose last outing against European-style armies was in 1815.

Scott’s army never lost a battle, nor left a battlefield in retreat.  Six different American forces invaded Mexican territory from 1846-48 ranging in size from company to Scott’s small army, and none were unsuccessful.  “A little more grape, Captain Bragg” became a buzz phrase for a generation before the Civil War.  Mexico, beset by internal division, class warfare, and political uncertainty since its independence in 1822, would gradually settle into a twilight state between revolution and civil war that would obtain until the European invasion in 1862, and return until the Cristero War ended in 1929.


And then there was Stalingrad.  Though German Sixth Army officially surrendered on 31 January 1942, it would be two days until the last pockets of resistance were destroyed.  Between the Axis Allies and the Soviets, somewhere near two million soldiers and at least as many civilians died in the carnage and bitter weather at the City of Stalin.  Films like Stalingrad (1943) and Enemy At the Gates (2001) depict desolation, privation, random death and injury only to well-fed Germans and Russians, but the truth was that both sides were nearly on starvation rations even before the November 1942 offensive cut off the Germans and their allies.

Stalingrad changed the entire face of WWII in Russia, and arguably lost the war for Germany.  Between the loss of Guadalcanal by Japan earlier in the week, the brawl that was the American’s return to combat in North Africa in the next month, the British offensive into Libya and then Tunisia, the cracks in the Axis empires were becoming bigger, if not deeper.  It was clear that, if the Allies would fight long enough, both the German and Japanese monsters could be tamed.

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The End of The Great Harry

Henry VIII, King of England and head of its church, died on 28 January 1547.  Though he was certainly mourned as any monarch was, some parts of the world found reason to celebrate.  As king for three decades and then some years, Harry had overseen a great overhauling not just of the Church in England but the idea of the rule of law.  No crown sat easy on any royal head in Britain, but ultimate authority in the Middle Ages seemed to rest in two places: the throne of St Peter in Rome and whatever monarch happened to rule.

Martin Luther nailed his theses on the door at Wittenburg in 1517, when Harry was still an impressionable young king anxious to father an heir to the throne.  After his father’s tenuous claim to the throne after the death of the last Lancaster, Richard III, and the death of his elder brother while Harry was still a boy, there was great trepidation over the succession.  England had been wracked by civil wars off an on for centuries, and could ill afford another dynastic struggle.

When his first wife failed to produce a male heir Henry wanted to divorce her, but there was no clean way to do it.  The Church discouraged divorce to the point of excommunication; Catherine of Aragon, his wife, was a princess of Spain that was enraged at the idea.  But too, England needed money.  Churches paid no taxes and were wealthy.  Confiscating their wealth in the name of the Crown made sense, only if one wanted also to enrage the Holy See and every other Catholic prince in Europe, especially the Holy Roman Empire, whose Emperor was Catherine’s nephew.  If it were only that simple.

But every prince in Europe wanted to do what Henry eventually did: take full control of the destiny and the incomes of their nations without the Pope or some local bishop telling them how to run things and taking their tax money.  In his struggle with the rest of the world, Harry formed the basis for church/state understanding and cooperation without one dictating to the other.

Too, the Anne Boleyn crisis began a movement in England called the “Patriots,” a movement that supported the monarch because he was the monarch, not because of who he was married to.  During the Stuart period a century later, Patriots would back whoever sat on the throne, and later became a movement that was the nucleus for the American Tories of the 18th Century, as well as the original Patriots who imagined that George III was being usurped by the English Parliament and addressed their Declaration of Independence to him.  In American history books beginning in the 19th century, the Tory Patriots are all but forgotten.