Five Essays on the American Civil War

JDB Communications, LLC, is proud to announce another essay collection by John D. Beatty.  Five Essays on the American Civil War is a foray into the complexities of Civil War scholarship as much as it is into the conflict itself.

The American Civil War (even the way it is written: always capital “C,” capital “W”) sits isolated in a pristine crystal dome of American history, separate from all other events.  There are certain ways to write about it that make it acceptable to Civil War scholars and their audiences, and these rules must be observed else the offending material will be relegated to the isle of broken essays.  My own foray into Civil War book writing, The Devil’s Own Day, has been met with institutional silence, in part, I believe, because it challenges the doctrines of AS Johnston’s unrealized genius that ended in his death at Shiloh, and because it directly refutes the generally accepted narratives about Buell saving Grant at that savage battle in the Tennessee pine barrens.

The distinct and contrarian position in these essays is unacceptable to “mainstream” Civil War scholarship: Civil War battlefield presentation isn’t what it’s cracked up to be as “Of Parks and Excuses” explains; the Southern Confederacy, always a “Forlorn Hope,” could not have gotten what she wanted by military means; Grant’s military legacy is much deeper and longer lasting than Lee’s, as “Bigger than History” and “Grant, the Army and the World” explain.

These essays were written over the course of perhaps ten years, a period of my academic harrying of long-suffering professors, Civil War Round Table members, and other unfortunates who tolerated my distinctly odd view of the 1861-65 conflict.

Enjoy these essays because they should challenge what you may think of the American Civil War, its place in world history, and how it is indeed tied to the rest of the world.

Five Essays on the American Civil War and other works by John D. Beatty are available on Amazon.

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The Turning Point

For generations, schools have taught that the turning point of the American Civil War was the battle of Gettysburg, that titanic clash in southeastern Pennsylvania where the Army of the Potomac under Meade and the Army of Northern Virginia under Lee fought for three days to decide the fate of a continent.

Sounds romantic, don’t it?  Too bad it just isn’t true.

Turning points are handy for teaching history because they give a certain sense of being somewhere in what may otherwise be a dreary time line.  Unfortunately, outside of a teaching environment or some dramatic exposition, they don’t make a lot of sense because there just aren’t that many of them that are that distinct.

By the 19th century, war had become a very complex matter, where events on the battlefield were often eclipsed by events in the halls of government, the trading floors or in the hearts and minds of the populace (yes, it did matter, ‘60s cynicism aside).

In the case of the Civil War, what happened in Pennsylvania in the first three days in July of 1863 was indeed a large battle, but it was pretty irrelevant to the war as a whole.  For two years the two principle armies of the Union and the Confederacy had been glaring at each other between Washington and Richmond, fighting occasionally, maneuvering up to Maryland and down into the Wilderness, but mostly just glaring and camping.  In the 90 miles of space between the two capitals there was a marked dearth of real activity for months at a time.

However, in the West (which was anywhere west of the Appalachians) a typical army (there were four principal hosts and several others in the theater) covered 90 miles every quarter and fought at least one major battle every third month.  One reason for this was that there was so much more war to fight out there, with more critical objectives and three times the space.  One fact that most people don’t appreciate is that it is a greater distance between Chicago and New Orleans than it is between Berlin and Moscow.

While most of the population and a large percentage of the manufacturing and dairy production were in the east, most of the grain, cotton, lumber, niter, salt, mules and horses, not to mention specie, were not.  Armies by the 19th century traveled not just on guns and butter, but on wood and iron, on fodder and wheat that had to be paid for with gold and silver, not IOUs as they are today.  And, in the west was the great Mississippi River, which made nearly all the other rivers on the continent pale in comparison not only for sheer size, but for its value as a transportation axis.

The fighting for control of the Mississippi River was far more crucial for the success and failure of the war than was who controlled the capitals.  The free flow from the grain silos, lumber yards and steel mills of the Midwest to the markets of Europe and Latin America was crucial to the success or failure of both causes.  Further, the flow of gold and silver from California, which the South could never affect and seemingly never seriously tried, ensured that, baring disaster, the North could buy an army if it needed to.

The blockade of the Southern coasts, dreary and relatively uneventful as it was, had global importance few nations appreciated at the time.  After the Declaration of Paris in 1858, the ability for a nation to control its own ports determined who could recognize them as a political entity, and thus whether or not they were a country at all.  As long as the South couldn’t permanently open their ports,  their legitimacy as a country was doomed by international law.  The South would have had to have open-water warships capable of consistent operation in all weathers to break the Union blockade, something they never came close to having.

On top of all this, there was the slavery issue.  Chattel slavery had largely vanished from the major powers of Europe, where all the money and manufactured goods were, and when Russia freed the serfs in 1862 all the Great Powers were, theoretically, free societies.  As the Confederacy insisted that their “peculiar institution” was critical to their existence, so too would most of Europe insist that slavery was an abomination that was anathema to the rising trade union movement, let alone the waves of liberal social reforms that were transforming the industrialized world.

You could make convincing arguments for Champion’s Hill that slammed the door on Vicksburg and was the penultimate battle for control of the Mississippi as being the turning point of the Civil War .  You could also, given the nature of war in the Industrial Age, argue that Fort Sumter was the turning point for, as soon as the South started the war, they started to lose, because they never had a chance for a military, diplomatic, or economic victory.

So, if you’re looking for a single event that changed the destiny of the Civil War,  Gettysburg surely isn’t it.  I’m not quite sure that there was one.

The Butcher’s Bill: Casualty Creation in the American Civil War

By the 1860’s the mass armies of the industrial age had devised new ways to destroy human beings in large numbers and with alarming speed, but the most common casualties came from causes other than combat.  This article will address primarily the Union figures for the simple reason that they were better documented, even if the figures given here are still in dispute.  Numbers for the “housewives” attached to the regiments (three for every hundred privates) and the numerous camp followers uncertain at the best of times, are to this day unknown.  Since these essentially undocumented people (which included not only the expected ladies of negotiable virtue but also soldier’s wives and other family members and the numerous vendors from unlicensed sutlers to cutlers to embalmers, scriveners and laundresses) were uncounted at the time and the armies never seemed to care about them enough to document them, their casualties shall be forever unknown. However, it could be assumed that they were killed at similar rates and by similar causes, albeit with somewhat smaller numbers for combat.

The biggest single killer of soldiers on both sides by far was disease, killing over 149,000 (of 294,000 total fatalities) in the Union army alone.[1]  Throughout the conflict, the primary killer on both sides was diarrhea, which could dehydrate a victim to death in a day and a half.  Disease struck the armies in two separate waves, each with its distinct causality.  The first wave was primarily the diseases of exposure, which included modern childhood maladies such as measles, mumps, chicken pox, and whooping cough, mostly accompanied by pneumonia.[2]  These diseases started to appear at the initial camps of instruction as early as April 1861, where large populations of unrelated men first gathered together.  Those who were immune to these diseases, or had already been exposed, were sometimes carriers. This wave lasted until late in 1862.[3]

The second wave was more insidious, and actually caused more casualties over a longer period.  Beginning in the winter of 1862-63, most of maladies in this wave were known as “camp” or “prison” diseases, so called because they were common in dense populations with poor sanitation and food.  They included typhus, typhoid, yellow fever, tuberculosis and malaria.  The second wave also included nutritional deficiencies (which took some time to show up) including scurvy, which weakened the immune system, making the victims more susceptible to whatever opportunistic affliction came by.  Since the cause of most disease was still a mystery to medical science of the time, treatments (other than anti-ascorbics for scurvy and rickets, and the palliative care provided by various opiates) ranged in efficacy from harmless to deadly.  This second wave lasted until the end of the war.[4]

The second biggest casualty creator in the Civil War was desertion, which claimed over 190,000 in the Union.[5]  The Confederate figures for desertion are almost certainly higher, especially in the winter of 1864-65.  Men deserted for a number of reasons, and some even had to do with combat.  Simple fear was one reason, but privation, hunger, loneliness or needing to take care of loved ones at home were the most common.  There was also a large number (probably some 15% of the totals) of men who accepted a bounty in one unit, deserted, and joined another for another bounty.  These “bounty jumpers” were almost unique to the North, though they existed in small numbers in the South where substitutes could be purchased.[6]  In the winter of 1864-65, all of these and a certain sense of inevitable defeat drove many Confederates to just give up and go home.[7]

The third highest killer, combat, claimed just over 61,000 men in the Union army killed outright.[8]  Most combat casualties (about 51%) came from small-arms fire, and 40% from artillery (primary and secondary projectiles).[9]  Bayonets accounted for less than 100 casualties treated in the Army of the Potomac,[10] and cooking implements (a fry pan) for one known.[11]  Numbers for swords and other edged weapons are unknown.

As the war progressed the location of the wounds on the body moved upwards.  In 1861-2, most wounds from small arms and artillery were in the abdomen and chest.  By 1865, the predominance of wounds were in the head and shoulders.  This phenomenon is probably attributable to the development of entrenchments as the war went on.[12]

The fourth largest category of casualties was died of wounds, or sometimes of treatment.  Civil War medicine knew little of antiseptics, nothing of antibiotics, and practically nothing of sanitation. Though anesthesia was known not all practitioners were trained in its use, and supplies frequently ran out, especially on the Confederate side. A soldier brought to the surgeons for treatment was often better off (and usually survived longer) waiting for the surgeons to get to him.  Amputation was a common treatment for wounds in the extremities (infection and shattered bones being just two reasons why).  Severe wounds in the chest and abdomen were usually not treated at all.  The best that could be said about Civil War medicine was that they kept fairly good records, and were able to provide their successors with valuable insights into the development of medicine after the war.[13] “Died of wounds” is also one of the most aggravating cause of death in Civil War studies because there is and was no agreed-upon time limit for it.  Since it sometimes took decades for some wounds to finally be fatal, and some (not all) chroniclers faithfully adjusted numbers when it suited them, the casualty figures for some battles can vary widely from source to source, or from decade to decade.

Suicide accounted for just over three hundred Union soldiers, the most common being hanging.  There were just over a hundred homicides, often by gunshot or knife, but beatings were not unusual.  One hundred and twenty one Union soldiers were executed for crimes committed (rape and looting being the most common offenses); most of these were shot, a few were hanged.  The totals on the missing are elusive, as most of those “missing” may have been maimed beyond recognition in battle, or changed names and left the field (or not) or some other cause or another that could confound researchers for centuries.[14]

The remaining casualties fall under the heading of mysteries, though some are probably part of the other totals.  About 800 were killed by accident, but that number is almost certainly low (in July 1945, accidental casualties in the US services were about 1,400 a week), and some must have been homicides or suicides.  There are about 3,200 “unknown” causes, though many may have been natural causes of which Civil War doctors knew nothing.  But the usual ways for people to die—heart attacks, heat exhaustion—account for some 4,100 deaths, which also seems low.[15]

Making casualties in war is always a primary tool behind victory, but in the 19th Century just the threat of war forced mobilization and that was all that was needed to create a bulk of the casualties of the age.  Combat just added to the butcher’s bill.

 

NOTES

 

 

[1]. Frederick. Phisterer, Statistical Record of the Armies of the United States (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2002), 67.

[2]. Russell Frank. Weigley, A Great Civil War a Military and Political History, 1861–1865 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 135.

[3]. Ibid., 140.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. Phisterer, op. cit., 69.

[6]. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom : The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 210.

[7]. Ibid., 412; Weigley, A Great Civil War a Military and Political History, 1861–1865, 311.

[8]. Phisterer, op. cit., 67, 68.

[9]. Paddy. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War (Mansfield, England: Fieldbooks, 1986), 39.

[10]. Francis Alfred Lord, They Fought for the Union (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1960), 108.

[11]. Gordon C. Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5–6, 1864 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994), 310.

[12]. Russell Frank. Weigley, History of the United States Army, Wars of the United States. (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 312.

[13]. Patricia L. (Editor) Faust, “Medicine,” in Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), 484.

[14]. Phisterer, op. cit., 68–70.

[15]. Phisterer, op. cit., 68–72.

20 November: Cambrai and Tarawa

As a matter of perspective, these two battles shouldn’t even be in the same century.  The British attack on the German positions in front of  Cambrai  in norther France were a part of a conflict that Tarawa could not seriously have been a part of, but the slaughter-fest of Tarawa was easily a throwback to the butchery of the Western Front of WWI.

By late 1917 the Allied planners were not only running out of men they were running out of generals willing to use their soldiers bodies as battering rams against each other.  1917 was a weak mirror of 1916’s horrific bloodletting on all fronts from Flanders to the Caucasus.  The French Army was on the verge of collapse, the British relying on Canadians and Australians to shore up their staggering troops, and the Americans were unwilling to do what they were supposed to do, which was to turn over their milk-and-beef-fed manpower to the French and British to shore up their bleeding divisions.

So the British turned to Winston Churchill’s “land battleships” that we now know as “tanks.”  They had nearly four hundred of the huge mechanical contraptions on hand, and thought that with creeping barrages, infiltrating infantry, close air-ground coordination and some good weather they might achieve a breakthrough that could seize the German supply hub at Cambrai, cutting off supply to the Hindenburg Line and displacing the whole of the German force in France.  Although this sounds a great deal like what the Germans would do six months later in the “Michael” offensive and beyond, the British had taken the same lessons from the success of the Huitier tactics first seen in Russia that the Germans who developed them had.

A generation later, the Americans were trying to decide the best way to grapple with the Japanese in the Pacific.  With New Guinea in hand, the Solomons more secure than they were, and the Japanese fleet unbalanced, the planners looked at the next step towards the prewar plan to blockade Japan prior to invasion.  They needed the Marshall Islands as bases, and from the Solomons and the Allied bases in New Zealand and French Polynesia, that meant they needed the Gilbert Islands.  The largest island in that chain was Betio, a part of the Tarawa atoll.

The Americans had spent much of the period between Versailles and Pearl Harbor thinking about how to cross a quarter of the world to bring Japan under its guns.  The US Marines were the US Navy’s base-grabbers, and the Marines had been built from the fire team level up to secure the bases needed to do that.  But like the large numbers of tanks at Cambrai, they had very little live experience at capturing hot beaches.  They had been blooded in the Solomons (where the landing was essentially unopposed) and at Makin (a raid), but their long training and many beach landings had not prepared them for an opposed landing.  They knew that the Gallipoli campaign was, to put it mildly, a negative example of what to do.   But, tactically, how this would work was still a theory.

Cambrai kicked off on 20 November 1917 with the British Third Army under Julian Byng barraging the German Second and Third Armies under Georg von der Marwitz in front of Cambrai, followed by a fraction (sources differ, but probably more than  400) of the tanks that made it to the front and their accompanying infantry.  Though the Germans were ready and had some antitank weapons the sheer number was a problem, even if the early machines were more likely to simply break down than be knocked out by enemy action.  The result was an unexpectedly spectacular British success in some places, unexpected failure in others.

At Tarawa, success was a matter of staying alive.  By the time the Marines stormed ashore on 20 November 1943 the Americas had pounded the two mile by 800 yard coral rock with more ordnance in three days than the Americans used in their civil war.  As the landing craft carrying Julian Smith’s 2nd Marine Division approached the beaches they grounded, often as not, on  coral reefs that hadn’t been accounted for in pre-battle planning.  No one had expected that around that blasted coral rock, oceanographers would first discover the maximum neep tide that would only occur about twice a year, and not everywhere at the same time.  But the landing craft grounded on the reefs that were supposed to be underwater a hundred yards or so from the beach, the ramps would drop, and the Marines would step out into the water often over their heads, and the lucky ones would merely drown.  Many of the rest would be shredded by the Japanese of Keiji Shibazaki’s garrison’s automatic weapons and artillery, which were quite unaffected by the American bombardment.  By dark on the first day the Marines were barely ashore, their casualties in some companies was more than 50%, and the Japanese just kept fighting.

Cambrai turned into a version of what had already happened over and again on the Western Front: attack, counter-attack, bombardment and repeat.  This went on until 7 December, and the territorial gains were minuscule compared to the human cost.  Both sides used the new infiltration tactics, but in the end the artillery dominated, as did exhaustion and a weariness of killing.  Very little changed for another eighty thousand casualties and a quarter of the tanks in the world.

On Tarawa, the slaughtering went on for three days.  The first use of what what would be called “corkscrew and blowtorch” tactics were used against Japanese strongpoints (essentially pinning the defenders down with automatic weapons fire so that flamethrowers could get close enough to be effective).  The Marines suffered some three thousand casualties with about half killed out of a 16,000 man division.  Of somewhat more than 4,600 Japanese defenders, all but 150 or so were killed.

Cambrai pointed the way to eventual success of armored thrusts and coordinated air/ground tactics, together with quick and intense artillery barrages that the Germans would use in 1918, and again in 1939.  Tarawa would point the way to Japanese destruction by isolation because death was their only option as long as they kept faith with the leadership in Tokyo.  It would also show the Americans that hot beaches would need somewhat more than raw courage to overcome.

19 November: Lincoln and Garfield

This day in the 19th century was more of a coincidence than a connection, but still Abraham Lincoln and James A Garfield shared seminal events on this day, 32 years apart.

On 19 November 1831 James A Garfield was born in Orange Township, Ohio.  As a young man his education started late, but he took to language and public speaking naturally and entered the Ohio legislature in 1861.  In August of the same year he was commissioned a colonel in the Ohio volunteers, and marched with his regiment in the Army of the Ohio under Don C Buell.  As one of the last units to cross the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing in April 1862, Garfield commanded a brigade during the non-pursuit of the retreating Confederate Army of Tennessee, stopping after a brief skirmish with Nathan B Forrest’s rear guards at Fallen Timbers on the road between the Shiloh battlefield and Corinth, Mississippi.  It was his last combat command.  After a period of rehabilitation after a bout of jaundice, Garfield was elected to Congress in 1862, despite the fact that he was serving as chief of staff to William S Rosecrans in the Army of the Cumberland at the time.  He was promoted to major general of volunteers before he resigned his commission to take his seat in Congress in December 1863, after serving during the fighting at Chickamauga and the subsequent siege of Chattanooga.  Garfield served in the House of Representatives until his election as President in 1880.  His presidency was brief  (four months, effectively) before he was shot in July 1881, lingering until mid-September.  His assassin’s trial was nearly as long as his administration.

On 19 November 1863, Abraham Lincoln was the last of several speakers at the dedication of the Gettysburg battlefield.  His speech was short–less than two hundred words–and following Edward Everett’s two hour oration most of the audience didn’t even hear most of it.  Lincoln was not a pleasing speaker to listen to, with a somewhat high-pitched, sing-song delivery.  Too, Lincoln was to deliver “a few appropriate remarks,” not a campaign stump speech or a rousing after-dinner stem-winder.  The reader needs to remember that there had been some fifty thousand casualties at Gettysburg, that many of the casualties had been evacuated as late as October, and that there were still unburied dead on those fields, including the carcasses of thousands of horses.  The graves for the amputated limbs at the field hospitals had still not been limed.  But of every speaker that spoke to that audience, only the bold and uncompromisingly powerful speech that included “[f]our score and seven years ago,” and “of the people, and by the people” were ever remembered, even a week after it was delivered.  And for every version of that Gettysburg Address that exists (at least four at the time), none has ever been forgotten.  One modern scholar called it “the words that remade America.”

But there is another connection, not quite a celebrated: Lincoln was the first, and Garfield the second, US president to be assassinated.  Which makes Garfield’s birthday and Lincoln’s most celebrated speech all the more poignant that they happened on the same calender day.

18 November: Pictures Static and Moving

18 November connects two of the most inventive and ground-breaking innovations in image delivery: the photograph and the sound-tracked animated moving picture.  The birth of two of the best known innovators in imaging is celebrated on this day.

On 18 November 1787, Louis Daguerre was born in France.  Apprenticed in architecture, he eventually came to work with Pierre Prevost, a celebrated panorama painter.  Skilled as a theater artist and designer, Daguerre built the first dioramas, showing the first of them in 1822.  In 1829, Daguerre joined with the inventor of the heliograph,  Nicéphore Niépce,  and developed the process that would come to be called the daguerreotype, the first permanent photographic image process.  Created on a highly polished copper plate treated with a chemical wash and fixed by mercury vapors, daguerreotypes were introduced to the world in 1839.  Wildly popular for twenty years but potentially deadly for the creators because of the heavy metal vapors required, it waned on popularity until it was replaced by glass plate photography in the 1850s.

On 18 November 1928,  Columbia Pictures and Walt Disney Studios released “Steamboat Willie,” the first animated film with an integrated sound track.  The film used the Cinephone system based on the work of Lee DeForest, which later landed both Cinephone and Disney in hot water. It was also the first major outing for the character of Mickey Mouse, and because if featured fully synchronized post-production sound effects, music and dialogue integrated into the film itself, it is considered the first of its kind.  “Steamboat Willie” has become such an icon that Congress has extended copyright protections four times to cover it.

While daguerreotype was long gone by the time Disney started making cartoons (during the First World War as a teenager), without the still image and the drive to improve on the process, Mickey Mouse might never have ever whistled “Turkey in the Straw.”

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17 November: A War with No Casualties Begins

On 17 November 1810, the Anglo-Swedish War began between Great Britain and Sweden, one of the more remarkable conflicts in the chaotic world that Napoleon made.  What makes it remarkable is simply that the conflict had no casualties between belligerents. no campaigns were planned, and that neither “side” wanted any, either.  It ended with a treaty when a third party got invaded by yet someone else.

It will be easier for the reader to understand that Napoleon Bonaparte may have been a brilliant general very early in his career, but never was he much of a diplomat.  After he spread the French revolution across Europe he invented something called the Continental System to punish Great Britain for not being as accessible to his armies as he wanted them to be, and for smashing his fleet at Trafalgar.  Since the British were so vile as to impose a blockade on Europe, he would impose a blockade on them.  But the Continental System wasn’t a blockade as we might understand it, where cargo ships are stopped and seized on their way to English ports since France lacked the shops to do that.  No, this was a blockade imposed on Europe, to cut off British goods from Europe and vice versa.  As blockades go, it was pretty lame, but it did work, somewhat.  The Americans happily violated it wherever possible and so did everyone else, since even the French couldn’t be everywhere at the same time, and there were more than a hundred seaports in continental Europe.  Where there’s money to be made, folks will find a way to make it.

So back to Sweden.  After the Russians were defeated at Friedland on 14 June 1807, the Treaty of Tilsit was imposed on Russia, and Sweden, being a part of the Fourth Coalition against Napoleon. was compelled by Tilsit to become a part of the Continental System.  Sweden was slow to comply, so by 1810 Napoleon was issuing ultimatums.  Eventually this led to Sweden declaring war on Great Britain on 17 November 1810.

More than once source maintains that there were no casualties in this war, at least none in engagements between Swede and Englishman.  There were a handful of Swedish peasants killed in a conscription riot, it would seem, but Britain still maintained its naval base on the Swedish island of Hano.  When Napoleon occupied Swedish Pomerania and the island of Rugen in 1812 while invading Russia, Sweden made peace with Britain with the Treaty of Orebro.

The Anglo-Swedish War is an example of what a mess Europe was in at the time, and was proof positive that Napoleon may have been a good general once, but he had a tendency to overstep the capabilities of his diplomats and his forces.  Irritating Sweden while not bothering Britain at all was not a way to win his vision…which as time goes on is less and less clear to scholars.