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Custer and Gall, Jellicoe and Heisenberg and the Monkey Wrench

This week’s musings are a little more esoteric than usual, but there it is.  While we note the birth of Martin Van Buren on 5 December 1782, of Clyde Cessna in 1879, of Walt Disney in 1901, the patenting of nitrocellulose in 1846, and the end of Prohibition in the United States in 1933, today your intrepid researcher chooses some more closely related persons to expound upon…and things like pipe wrenches that your intrepid researcher and consistently failed plumber owns but cannot use.

By the end of the Civil War he was a major general of Volunteers (a strictly wartime rank) and a reputation as one of the boldest cavalry leaders in the Army.

On 5 December 1839 George A. Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio.  Known variously as Armstrong, Ringlets (for his hair, about which he was quite vain) and Iron Butt (for his stamina in the saddle), Custer graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point (albeit a year earlier than scheduled) and was commissioned a lieutenant in the cavalry in 1861. He distinguished himself with dash and initiative in the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 enough to be brevetted to lieutenant colonel dating from Antietam, and was made a brigadier general of volunteers just before Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, where he led the Michigan cavalry to stop JEB Stuart’s flanking maneuver on 3 July. By the end of the Civil War he was a major general of Volunteers (a strictly wartime rank) and a reputation as one of the boldest cavalry leaders in the Army. After his mustering out, Custer returned to the regular Army at his permanent rank, lieutenant colonel.  For the next decade Custer led the 7th Cavalry on long marches, campaigns and battles primarily with the Sioux in the northern Plains.  His death, with some 200-odd of his troopers at the Little Bighorn on 25 June 1876 has overshadowed the rest of his accomplishments.

After fleeing to Canada for a few years, Gall brought his people back to the United States, surrendered and was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation on the Dakota border.

Very little is known for certain about the early life of Hunkpapa Lakota/Sioux leader known as Chief Gall–who got his name, it is said, after he ate the gall bladder of an animal.  Born around 1840, almost certainly in modern South Dakota, Gall was a war chief by the time he was in his twenties, and was present at the Little Bighorn when Custer met his end.  After fleeing to Canada for a few years, Gall brought his people back to the United States, surrendered and was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation on the Dakota border.  Gall encouraged his people to assimilate to their lot in the white man’s life, and apparently they did for a time. Gall himself converted to Christianity, served as a tribal judge, and died peacefully in his sleep on 5 December, 1894 in Wakpala, South Dakota.  Gall was one of the only Native American chiefs of the Little Bighorn battle to die of natural causes, and ironically on Custer’s birthday.

Jellicoe, called “the only man who could lose a war in an afternoon” because of Jutland, was appointed First Sea Lord after Jutland, and after the war was Governor-General of New Zealand.

On 5 December 1859, John Jellicoe was born in Southhampton, England.  At the age of thirteen Jellicoe entered the Royal Navy, and was in that service for the rest of his adult life.  He was best known as an early advocate of Fisher’s “big gun” battleship and “large cruiser” ideas, resulting in the Dreadnaughts and the Invincible battlecruisers. He was also something of an innovator of naval gunnery, testing early central gun directors. Jellicoe was also the commander of the Grand Fleet, the renamed Home Fleet, at the beginning of World War I and was in charge at the largest naval clash of the Great War, the ambiguous Jutland/Skagerrak battle in late May 1916.  Depending on point of view, Jutland resulted in either a tactical draw, an operational defeat for Britain (who lost more ships), a strategic defeat for Germany (who never sortied the fleet again), and a grand strategic defeat for Tsarist Russia (who was completely cut off from any assistance from her allies).  Jellicoe, called “the only man who could lose a war in an afternoon” because of Jutland, was appointed First Sea Lord after Jutland, and after the war was Governor-General of New Zealand.   Jellicoe died 20 November 1935 in Kensington.

In 1939, Heisenberg was a part of the “Uranium Club,” the German effort to build nuclear weapons.

Werner Heisenberg was born on 5 December 1901 at Wurzburg, which was then a part of Bavaria.  In 1919, though he managed to avoid military service in WWI, he was a member of the Freikorps fighting the Bavarian Socialist Republic. This didn’t seem to have affected his studies: he studied physics in Munich and Gottingen, and met Niels Bohr in June 1922. His work on matrix and quantum mechanics earned him notoriety in the theoretical physics community, earning him a Nobel Prize in physics in 1932. In the early days of the Nazi government, Heisenberg was under examination for his work in “Jewish” (theoretical) physics, but was eventually rehabilitated into the fold of academics on the cutting edge of science. In 1939, Heisenberg was a part of the “Uranium Club,” the German effort to build nuclear weapons. By 1942, Heisenberg told his Nazi masters that 1) nuclear weapons were not possible to produce within the expected timeframe of the war, and 2) they were probably not within Germany’s industrial capacity within that timeframe.  Nuclear research in Germany thereupon switched priorities to energy extraction, which proceeded in fits and starts until the end of the war.  According to postwar interrogations of the leading German nuclear physicists in Allied hands, it seems clear that Heisenberg had miscalculated uranium decay by orders of magnitude, and likely would not have resulted in any practical applications.  Heisenberg died 1 February, 1976, in Munich.  His lasting legacy, it is said, is the “uncertainty principle” which says that a measurement affects the phenomenon.

His 5 December 1876 patent, one of many follow-ons, was for a wrench suitable for both pipe and flat-sided fasteners.  This one wasn’t near as successful, nor near as popular or emulated as his first.  

In the mid-19th century, indoor plumbing was beginning to matter a lot more than it had before.  Cities were growing; the flush toilet made buildings over three stories practical; sanitation was becoming a growing concern.  Threaded pipe, developed sometime between 1850 and 1860, wasn’t easy to tighten and was the only practical way to plumb in tall buildings.  A number of inventors tackled the problem of tightening pipe, but Daniel Stillson, working at the Walworth Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, came up with an innovative idea that took advantage of the relatively soft outside of a steel pipe by gripping it with angled teeth.  Stillson’s first wrench patent, issued 12 October, 1869, shows the familiar outlines of what we have come to call the monkey (for “monkey paw,” an appellation from South African plumbers), pipe, or Stillson wrench ever since.  His 5 December 1876 patent (above), one of many follow-ons, was for a wrench suitable for both pipe and flat-sided fasteners.  This one wasn’t near as successful, nor near as popular or emulated as his first, which made him well-off on royalties.  Stillson was granted a number of other patents over the years, nearly all for something related to pipes or plumbing, including fire apparatus. Stillson died in Somerville, Massachusetts on 21 August 1899. The original Stillson wrench still exists, is said to still work, and its parts are said to be interchangeable with a wrench of similar size manufactured yesterday.  Be that as it may, my wife still won’t let me touch water or gas-carrying pipes with tools, regardless of how much I know about my wrenches. Smart woman.

 

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Brétigny and Westphalia, Ft. Douaumont and Cuba

Where to start, where to start.  In planning this little missive, your intrepid researcher dithered for some time to find a common theme (yes, he does try), and finally settled on the lessons of war and peace.  But on 24 October also marked the first transcontinental telegraph in 1861 (which gave California the first breaking news of the Civil War), and the invasions of Ethiopia (in 1935, reported by live radio feeds for the first time) and Hungary (1956, reported by live television for the first time), and of course the first nylon stockings in 1939.  But, today, we look at the lessons of war and peace.

Beginning in 1337, a dynastic conflict called the Hundred Year’s War between the Plantagenet-Angevins of Normandy and England and the Anjous that controlled what is now eastern and southern France (modern France is largely a construction of the Bourbons in the 17th century) raged. By 1360, England was triumphant, having captured the French King John II at Poitiers in 1356, and much of western France in the bargain. After a peasant revolt threatened the food supply, John finally agreed to a treaty.  The Treaty of Brétigny was ratified on 24 October 1360 at Calais.  Also called the Treaty of Calais, the peace was only a nine-year breathing space, and barely that.

By 1360, England was triumphant, having captured the French King John II at Poitiers in 1356, and much of western France in the bargain.

Of a somewhat more permanent nature, the Peace of Westphalia (Westfälischer Friede) in 1648 ended a great deal more, for a little while at least.  Traditionally Westphalia was the end of the last of the four phases of the Thirty Years’ War, where much of Europe was ready to fight to the last German.  It was also where the Protestants and Catholics ended their Eighty Years’ War, where they were willing to burn the last German at the stake with any available torch for the heresy of being in the way.  That Germany survived the bloodletting, it is said, can only be attributed to the turnip and the potato, root vegetables that became popular mostly because they weren’t burned by rampaging armies. Westphalia was the result of over a hundred different belligerent delegations ranging in size and importance from three-county dutchies to multi-national empires that negotiated three major legal instruments.  First, there was the Peace of Munster, ratified  15 May 1648, between the Dutch Republic and their allies and the Kingdom of Spain and theirs that recognized the independence of the modern Netherlands. There was also a Treaty of Munster between the Holy Roman Empire and their gang of allies and France and theirs, and the Treaty of Osnabrück between the Holy Roman Empire and Sweden’s allies.  Both Munster and Osnabrück were ratified in Westphalia on 24 October, 1648. While Westphalia didn’t end war or even all the wars that raged across Europe and the New World at that moment, it did create a structure for a European congress, or at least a diplomatic protocol for recognizing the possibility that the bloodletting could end without destruction.

That Germany survived can only be attributed to the turnip and the potato, root vegetables that became popular because they weren’t burned by rampaging armies.

And while Europe learned to make peace, it still made war…terrible war.  By October 1916, the failed German offensive at Verdun had turned into a killing machine beyond the imagination of the diplomats at Westphalia, or, indeed, of anyone before or since. Verdun claimed 70,000 casualties a day for just short of a year, and it was all for a handful of concrete-reinforced structures that, before the battle, France was abandoning. Fort Douaumont had been captured by the Germans in February and was pounded by French artillery for  nine months.   On 24 October, 1916 the French recovered the ruined Fort Dounemount from the Germans. The months of shelling had finally breached Dounemount’s eight foot thick steel-reinforced concrete roof that was also cushioned by four feet of earth.  The prominence that the ruined fort was built on became known at Le Morte Homme–Dead Man’s Hill–and today is the site of an ossuary.

Verdun claimed 70,000 casualties a day, for just short of a year and it was all for a handful of concrete-reinforced structures that, before the battle, France was abandoning.

It should be said that humanity had learned something of all the wars and treaties by 1962.  After two decades of brinksmanship following WWII, the Soviet Union began to emplace nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba.  On 24 October 1962, after the Americans discovered the missiles that were within range of most of the lower 48 states, John Kennedy imposed a blockade-called-quarantine on Cuba, challenging the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev to not only acknowledge the installations (that the US showed photos of in the UN) , but withdraw them.  Not only Cuba, but also much of the US, Europe and East Asia, as well as large parts of European Russia were at risk of nuclear annihilation within days, if not hours. Writing in their memoirs decades after the events, American, Russian and Cuban officers at the center of the Cuban Missile Crisis fully expected the bombs and missiles to begin falling at any moment for over a week.  But the quarantine worked, and four days later Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the missiles.  Though the true “why” of that decision went to the grave with Khrushchev in 1969, it seems likely that the Politburo decided that Cuba was the wrong war in the wrong place over the wrong issue to risk the destruction of the Communist promise.

Not only Cuba, but also much of the US, Europe and East Asia, as well as large parts of European Russia were at risk of nuclear annihilation within days, if not hours.

If humanity learns no lessons ever, the lessons of Westphalia and Cuba should be clear: annihilation is not the answer to diplomatic issues.  But because of that lesson, we are left with Verduns and all their spawn. We get to destroy each other in middling-sized groups.

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Turtle, Little Willie, the Foxbat and the Marne

6 September has three warfighting technologies in common: the first submersible vessel to attack an enemy ship; the first purpose-built armored fighting vehicle; and the surprise discovery that an advanced-technology fighter wasn’t so advanced after all.  All of these are joined by one of the best-remembered counterattacks of WWI.

The idea of submersible vessels had fascinated people for centuries.  Diving bells (tethered air chambers) were described by Aristotle in the 4th century BCE.  Alexander the Great is said to have used one, but the earliest reliable accounts date from the 16th century.  Self-propelled diving submersibles were described as early as 1562, but it wasn’t until the invention of the ballast tank for submersibles in 1747 that they became self-sustaining.  David Bushnell, an American college student at Yale University, built a vessel he called Turtle in Old Saybrook, CT, in 1775.  On 6 September, 1776, with a volunteer operator named Ezra Lee at the controls, Turtle sailed into New York Harbor and tried to attach an explosive charge to HMS Eagle, a 64-gun third-rate ship and Richard Howe’s flagship.  That effort, and several others in successive days failed, and there is some speculation that the whole story was fabricated.  The original Turtle was sunk that October, and though Bushnell claimed to have recovered her, her whereabouts afterwards are unknown.

The idea of submersible vessels had fascinated people for centuries.

On much more solid ground historically, and somewhat less momentous, was the production of the first prototype armored vehicle that could be called a precursor to the modern tank.  Like the submarine, self-propelled armored vehicle designs had abounded since time immemorial, but few had ever been even attempted as practical designs because powerplants were always the biggest problem.  But by 1915, there was a growing demand for a vehicle that could support infantry in the attack in a trench-strewn environment. Variously called a Tritton Tractor (for the designer, William A. Tritton) and Number 1 Lincoln Machine, the vehicle that would later only be known as Little Willie officially rolled out of the William Foster agricultural machinery factory on 6 September, 1915, and began trials on 9 September.  Militarily, Wille was unimpressive: main gun was a 2-pdr pom-pom; weight 16.5 tons, crew six (operationally, but this design never saw a shot fired in anger).  Many larger vehicles followed, and eventually Willie made its way to the tank museum at Bovington.

…by 1915, there was a growing demand for a vehicle that could support infantry in the attack in a trench-strewn environment

Unlike Turtle and Little WIllie, the Foxbat’s (NATO code name for the Soviet-built MiG-25) entry into our story was accidental, or at least was once said to have been. Since its first flight in 1964  and entry into Soviet service in 1970, the record-breaking Foxbat had been an object of interest and dread by the Western air forces, who all insisted that Mikhail Gurevich’s last design was superior to all other Western aircraft: it spurred the development of the F-14 and the F-16.  On 6 September, 1976, Soviet Air Defence Forces Lt. Viktor Belenko landed his MiG-25P (the earliest production version) at Hakodate Airport in  Japan.  Early unofficial reports had Belenko confused as to where he was (the weather over the Sea of Okhotsk is hard to predict, so he may have gotten lost in a sudden overcast or storm), but later it was said that he had wanted to defect.  However it happened, the Japanese invited American and other Western intelligence officials to examine the much-fabled Foxbat, over strenuous Soviet protests.  Close inspection and complete dismantlement followed. It was discovered, among other things, that the airframe was nickel steel, and not titanium as once thought; the aircraft was welded by hand, and rather quickly at that; the acceleration load was rather low (2.2 Gs) with a relatively short operational range; the avionics were based on vacuum tube technology, not solid-state like most of the West.  The Foxbat was nowhere near as formidable as once thought.  The last Foxbat was built in 1984 after several design changes, and it remains in limited service with former Soviet clients.  It remains the second fastest military production aircraft in history, even if the speeds achieved usually destroyed the engines.

…the record-breaking Foxbat had been an object of interest and dread by the Western air forces…

The submarine, the main elements for the tank (the internal combustion engine and the crawler) and the airplane, the major mechanical elements for mechanized industrial warfare were in place when World War I, where all these came together for the first time, had just begun its first major bloodletting in the first full day of the first battle of the Marne on 6 September 1914. Though the war in Europe had been going on for a month and the casualties were already catastrophic by European standards, the French-British counteroffensive shattered all expectations of warfare. A million Germans and a million Englishmen and Frenchmen fought for a week in open country, resulting in a German retreat back towards the Aisne River and a quarter million casualties on each side.  This setback completely upset the German offensive timetable, and there was no real replacement for it, so they hunkered down to hold onto what they had grabbed.  Within a year, all of Europe would be in a state of siege called the Western Front, where fortified lines stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier and future advances were measured in yards per thousand casualties.  The Marne and the ensuing horror was why Little Willie and all that followed him were built, why the Germans in desperation resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare that would lead to the Americans entering the war, and why the war in the air was pushed to the limits of human and machine endurance and imagination that would culminate in the Foxbat and the ultimate-performance aircraft that followed it.

An auspicious day, 6 September.

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Roncevaux Pass, Napoleon and Anvil-Dragoon

One of the best things about looking at history through a somewhat empirical lens is that the skilled practitioner can make correlations that were simply not possible to contemporaries of events.  Then again, so can semi-competent duffers like your current correspondent.  Such is the correlation we can make with 15 August and France’s fate.

Roncevaux Pass was an ambush by a largely Christian Basque guerilla force and the rearguard of Charlemagne’s retreating army after his invasion of northern Spain on this day in the year 778.  The action killed Roland, the commander, and created a legend in the Christian-Moor conflict that would rage for another three centuries.  It also immortalized the sacrifices of Christian “knights” and other semi-nobles that would depict them largely as stories would depict them for generations: pure-hearted, noble-browed heroes on horseback in shining armor.  That most were paladins–soldiers for hire–seems to be left out.

Roncevaux Pass immortalized the Christian knights as pure-hearted, noble-browed heroes on horseback in shining armor.

On 14 August 1769 Napoleon Bonaparte was born to minor French nobility in Ajaccio, Corsica.  He was the master of Europe before he was thirty-five, by which time he was well on the way to destroying it as it was known under the Bourbons.  It was Napoleon who won France’s  last major war (War of the Sixth Coalition) in 1809: even if they were “victors” in WWI and WWII, France is better described as having survived, rather than “won.”  Napoleon, for good or ill, ingrained “libertie, egalitie, fraternitie” into the French soul even as he destroyed the economy, abandoned two armies in the field (Egypt and Russia), and became a romantic legend on both sides of the Atlantic that grew larger with each successive generation.

Napoleon, for good or ill, ingrained “libertie, egalitie, fraternitie” into the French soul

And, on this date in 1944, France managed to redeem itself somewhat for the disasters of 1815 and 1940, with their rebuilt army’s superb performance during the invasion of Southern France known in history as Operation Anvil-Dragoon   Originally intended to be conducted simultaneously with the better-known Overlord landings in Normandy, the landings on the French Riviera had to wait for landing craft.  Legend has it that Winston Churchill was unhappy with what he saw as a diversion from more important turf in the Balkans (contemporary discussion says this is not as true as Churchill would have later stated it was).  So, according to legend, the name Operation Anvil was changed to Dragoon because Churchill was “dragooned” into supporting it, though the reason for the name change was somewhat more prosaic and not Churchill’s at all.

...the landings on the French Riviera had to wait for landing craft.

Ultimately, in the distance of time, we can see that 14 August, for France, was just another day, though in 1945 it was, like the rest of the world, a relief when Japan agreed to surrender and the Showa Emperor Hirohito publicly agreed with the broadcast of the Imperial Rescript in 15 August, 1945.  But legends like the romantic knights of French stories, the “genius” of Napoleon and the landings in Southern France live on, as do the legends of a Japanese “surrender” by a “government” that was anything but.  But that’s another story.

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Ruminations On War

JDB Communications, LLC is pleased to announce the publication of another in the series of essay collections from John D Beatty.  “Ruminations On War” contains five essays on topics as wide ranging as air power, militias, disease, the origins of warfare, and early military theorists.

Speculation on issues like the beginning of war is usually beyond the pale of “military philosophy” and well into anthropology, but sometimes the thoughtful scholar has to want to know how humanity got from hunter-gatherer to suicide bomber.  Though these essays were written in an academic environment, I had given some thought as to how warfare in general came about for some time.  We like to think in Rousseau-like terms about early man, but I think about that idealistic picture long enough and there’s a disconnect.  The “Which Came First” essay is an initial foray into the possibilities of early hominid warfare, a rumination based on what we know, what we guess at, and the laws of physics and, very generally, on Jack London’s Law of Meat that he spent a whole chapter on in White Fang.

We like to think in Rousseau-like terms about early man, but I think about that idealistic picture long enough and there’s a disconnect. 

That the early Bronze-Age civilizations of North America were devastated not just by Old World technology but also by Old World diseases is not new, but the effects of contagious disease in combination with their already slow population growth was a fatal combination for their continued existence.  “Deadly Emigres” is an exposition into the dynamics of a one-two punch that the Indians got when the waves of invaders reached their shores.

“Obligations of Freedom” is an experiment in the legal and historical grounds for militia service.  Though it didn’t start out that way, it is a sturdy rejoinder against the argument that the US National Guard is what Amendment II of the Constitution meant by “militia,” when the record is clear that it is anything but.

Academic history is very certain that the four classical philosophers discussed in “Four Philosophers Revisited” were the ur-scribes of modern strategic thought.  The truth is that three of them at least were less concerned with philosophy than they likely were in seeing their name in print—and repeated what others wrote in the doing.  But one, the first—Sun Tzu—we can’t even be certain how he was compensated, or if he wasn’t a pen name for some scholar who put a lot of other writers together.  Writing during the Iron Age in China, whoever wrote the original text attributed to Sun Tzu really had little to say that others didn’t say afterwards who never heard of him, making him perhaps the first to re-state what was obvious to military professionals since the beginnings of organized warfare.

Traditionally, “a marriage made in Hell” was the unity of the machine gun and barbed wire on the Western Front in France and Flanders.  “A Divorce from the Marriage Made in Hell” is an exposition on the earliest philosophies that poses a question: are separate air forces the answer?  That, of course, depends on what the question is.

“Ruminations On War” is available on Amazon Kindle, and is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.  See other books from JDB Communications, LLC on John D. Beatty’s Author Page.

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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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13 November: An Admiral and a General and a Civil War

On this day in 1809 and 1814, important leaders in the American Civil War were born in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.  One would be known more for the artillery he made possible, the other for more ignominious things.

On 13 November 1809, John A. Dahlgren was born in Philadelphia to a Swedish merchant and diplomat.  From a very early age he dreamed of a life at sea, and when his father died in 1824 he was free to pursue his goal of joining the US Navy.  In 1826, at age 17 he joined as a midshipman.  At the time this was not unusual, as youngsters had been going to sea at much earlier ages since time immemorial.  He must have shown some knack for mathematics for he was assigned to the coast survey department in 1834.

For centuries ordnance design and its ancillary equipment had been a matter of experimentation, disaster and repeat.  In 1844, an explosion on USS Princeton of the new 12-inch bore banded wrought iron gun dubbed “Peacemaker” said to have been the largest naval gun in the world at the time, only proved that axiom.  The explosion killed six people, including the Secretaries of the Navy and of State.  Congress was aghast, and demanded new quality controls and inspection protocols.  By 1847, Dahlgren was in the Washington Navy Yard organizing the Navy’s first Ordnance Department.  It was there that Dahlgren found his niche, designing a boat howitzer, a percussion lock, and finally the process that manufactured the highly successful smooth bore naval gun that bore his name.  The method of water-cooling the mold while the metal was cast was highly controversial at the time, but it produced weapons of prodigious power: power enough for the Royal Navy to question whether or not they could defeat warships armed with them.  During the Civil War the Dahlgren was the standard broadside gun in the US Navy.  In 1862 he was promoted to rear admiral and sent to command a blockading squadron.  He continued his service in the Navy until his death in 1870.

On 14 November 1814, Joseph Hooker was born in Hadley, Massachusetts to an entirely English-ancestry family.  He graduated from West Point in 1837, branched to the artillery.  He fought Seminoles in Florida, was in staff jobs in Mexico (where he nonetheless won three brevets), but left the Army in 1853 and settled in California.  After the war broke out he finally wrangled a commission a brigadier general of volunteers after the first Bull Run battle, commanding a brigade then a division while training troops around Washington, DC at the Army of the Potomac was building.

In 1862 Hooker was promoted to major general and the command of a corps, then a “grand division” after Antietam, where he was wounded.  After McClellan was sacked and Ambrose Burnside took command of the Army of the Potomac, Hooker’s troops bore the brunt of the bloodletting at Fredricksburg and Hooker was vocal about the tragic and pointless sacrifices made there.  When Burnside told President Lincoln that he wanted to fire several of his generals, including Hooker, Lincoln fired Burnside instead and appointed Hooker to command the Army of the Potomac.  While he was an able administrator who restored the confidence of the troops he lost his nerve at Chancellorsville and nearly had his army destroyed.  Lincoln, desperate to find a general who could fight, fired Hooker three days before the army met Robert E Lee at Gettysburg.

But the Union was still short of reliable generals so Hooker was sent with two corps to meet Grant at Chattanooga, where he performed admirably until a personal dispute got him sent out of the theater after the fall of Atlanta.  Rumors of his wild living, heavy drinking and lax discipline leading to the proliferation of the ladies of negotiable virtue that came to be called “hookers” because of him are unfounded: he was not known to drink heavily, and the term “hooker” was common during the Revolution.  He left the Army in 1868 and died in 1879.

Two Civil War notables sharing a birthday.  Not unusual, but worth noting.

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It Wasn’t Supposed To Be This Way

It was the first Sunday morning in April–6 April, 1862, and had been raining for days in south central Tennessee.  The boys from Illinois and Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota, Indiana and Iowa were just waking up.  Down the Tennessee River, to the north of the 35,000 man Army of West Tennessee’s encampment, Ulysses S. Grant was at breakfast in his headquarters steamboat Tigress.near William Cherry’s mansion..  The northern boys were in those pine barrens split by creeks and streams because Corinth, Mississippi  was important.  The junction of four rail lines was just a day’s ride to the southwest, and this flatboat near Pitts Tucker’s long forgotten saloon–called Pittsburg Landing by then, was the best boat landing closest to the only road to Corinth that was thought (wrongly, as it turned out) to be complete with adequate space for an army.

For six days before that Sunday a 40,000 man Confederate Army of Mississippi under Albert Sidney Johnson had marched through the mud and water to position itself to the south and west of Grant’s.  William T. Sherman, who was encamped at a Methodist meeting house called Shiloh Church,  “knew” that Johnston was cowering at Corinth, waiting for Grant’s army to come and crush them.

It was not quite five in the morning when it started.  A bunch of Mississippi boys from William H Hardee’s corps ran into a bunch of Missouri and Michigan boys from Benjamin J. Prentiss’s division in the dark.  The Unionists were outnumbered and fell back to their camps, where they found the rest of the division, likely all  of two thousand or so, just getting out of their tents and falling in on the company streets.  Few had ever seen combat before.  Many never would again, but the first thunderous blast from Prentiss’ two brigades into Hardee’s men at about a hundred yards was probably what Grant and his staff heard nine river miles away that made them end their breakfast and cast off for Pittsburg Landing.  The time was about 7:00 AM.

Prentiss’ men held on for probably 45 minutes.  His command gradually disintegrated as Hardee’s and then Braxton Bragg’s corps edged closer and closer.  His two batteries finally pulled out and the last of Prentiss’ stalwarts broke for the rear.

The other Federals shook themselves out of their tents as the noise grew: the “bayoneted in their tents” meme of Shiloh has always been a myth.  Sherman finally came to understand what all the fuss was about for the past three days that he had been getting reports of Confederate movement when his aide was decapitated next to him that morning.  “My God,” he is said to have muttered, “we are attacked.”  After that bit of understatement, he lost two horses and was wounded five times that day.  John A. McClernand, another Federal division commander, sent a brigade south to join Sherman’s open flank to Prentiss’ while Stephen A. Hurlbut and WHL Wallace shook out their divisions and marched to the sound of guns.

The Confederates drove into every successive Federal line like a rising tide, but it was 10: in the morning before Sherman and McClernand’s forces were overwhelmed.  By then Prentiss’s survivors had combined with Wallace’s and Hurlbut’s arriving men to form around a small pond, several stands of woods, a sunken road and a peach orchard, where they stood for the next seven hours against more than a dozen brigade-sized attacks.  Grant had told Prentiss to hold onto his position “at all hazards” because the road around it was the direct route to Pittsburg Landing.

Despite their early success, Johnston’s army was hardly a well-oiled machine.  The officers had hardly any experience with commanding men on drill fields, let alone a battle field: most brigades had yet to create a morning report.  Regiments and even whole brigades were often found simply standing around in the Confederate rear.  Much of the army’s ammunition was stuck in a titanic traffic jam on the Corinth road; the army’s medical director was down with pneumonia.  There was little coordination between the disparate forces slamming the Federals.

By 2:00 that afternoon Prentiss’ survivors, about a third of Grant’s artillery, and Hurlbut’s and Wallace’s divisions were holding off attack after attack in a position on the Federal left that came to be called the Hornet’s Nest when Johnston caught a hot piece of metal behind his knee that killed him in half an hour.   By that time the fight around the pond and the peach orchard had devolved into a maelstrom of screaming metal and choking smoke, dying men and frustration.

On the Federal right, with a yawning gap that might have accommodated a Confederate division, Sherman and McClernand built line after line of men and guns they could get to stand for a few minutes: at least nine lines in ten hours.  All along the fighting line on both sides the fight was a desperate race against time and exhaustion, hunger and dehydration.  Water sources near the fighting line, despite the recent rains, were quickly exhausted or polluted by the dead and dying.  Gunners urinated into buckets so the guns could be swabbed; infantrymen discarded muskets after they became too fouled to load.

Behind the Confederate lines Daniel Ruggels organized the elements of a grand battery that would pin down the Federal guns in the Hornet’s Nest so that an infantry attack could finally push the Federals back against the Tennessee River.  On the eastern shore of the river, separated by the swollen torrent, Don C. Buell’s Army of the Ohio was scrambling to get across, but was badly placed to load on the steamboats, having only partly arrived just the day before after a fifteen day route march.  Footsore and short on food, William A. Nelson’s division gathered steamboats for the half-mile crossing of the river.  Miles away to the north, Lew Wallace’s Federal division marched to the sound of the guns, but was delayed by confused interpretations of Grant’s orders and arguments as to routes.

By 4:30 Ruggels’ grand battery was forcing the Federal guns to pull out of the Hornet’s Nest.  The few Federal infantrymen still on their feet clung to what cover they could find.  At the Landing behind them, men and animals strained to unload the steamboats loaded with heavy artillery, ammunition and the odd infantry regiment.  Refugees from the battle started to arrive at the Landing and the bluffs above it soon after the battle commenced.  By nightfall thousands of frightened men, women and children huddled under the bluffs waiting for the fighting to end.  The roads and trails were jammed with traffic going both ways all day.

By 5:00 the Hornet’s Nest collapsed as parts of five Confederate brigades pushed into the woods, capturing guns and Prentiss, a dying WHL Wallace, men and a geographic feature that they didn’t need.  The only reason that Johnston, then his successor Pierre G.T. Beauregard had been mesmerized by the place was because the Federals were there: sidestepping it would have been easy.  But the Confederates couldn’t see that at this stage of the war, their tactical reconnaissance at that time was nearly non-existent and their staff work was abysmal.  But behind the Hornet’s Nest there had been building a Federal grand battery, called alternately Webster’s Battery (after Grant’s chief of staff John Webster) or Grant’s Last Line. By 5:30 a brigade of Nelson’s division had got across and positioned themselves near the Landing, anchoring Grant’s line on the river.  At the other end of the line, Sherman and McClernand shoved what men and guns in they could grab into a semblance of a fighting line.  In between were more survivors and a half a dozen gun batteries that had yet to fire a shot   As two Confederate brigades–one without ammunition–inched closer to Grant’s line at about 6:00, the line erupted in a storm of fire and metal that was heard at Savanna nine miles away.  The shock wave blew off men’s hats and broke a mule’s back.  The Confederate attack ground to a halt; the sun went down at about 6:15; Beauregard stopped offensive attacks at 6:30; Lew Wallace’s division arrived near the Landing at about 7:00.

Through the night Buell’s men and guns were hustled across, but it was a logistic nightmare.  Landing stages were too small; the guns and horses had to be manhandled and hoisted; crowds of refugees partly blocked the Landing; the rain started again at about 10:00; steamboat skippers, few of whom knew the treacherous Tennessee well, were reluctant to break the sabbath to brave the rain-swollen river in the dark with so much traffic on it.  But by daybreak about 12,000 of Buell’s 32,000 men were across, and another gun battery.  Grant still outnumbered him, with about 25,000 men and fifty-odd guns on the line.  But few of the Federal guns had horses for limbers, let alone caissons or ammunition wagons.  Buell had brought few reloads, using most of his cargo space to bring riflemen across.

During the long night the Confederates did little to consolidate their position, feed their men or even resupply them with ammunition.  There were some 20,000 casualties on this field, a charnel house of some eight square miles.  Through the night two Federal gunboats shelled the Confederate line, some say without effect   While the physical damage was certainly small, the morale effect was great.  Every shot fired reminded the Confederates that as long as the Union gunboats were on the river, they would not be able to cross.  The nearest bridge was forty miles away, up the river.

In the morning Grant and Buell attacked the Confederates and pushed them off the battlefield.  Until mid-afternoon on 7 April Beauregard expected Earl Van Dorn’s 18,000 men from across the Mississippi to march up the road from Corinth.  Little did he know that Van Dorn’s army had saluted the Confederate “victory” at Shiloh while waiting for steamboats on the White River some four hundred miles to the west that same morning.

In his retreat Beauregard left behind thousands of his wounded, which were just a fraction of some 23,000 casualties, including about 3,000 dead, in two days of fighting.  The numbers shocked both North and South, and staggered financial markets worldwide.  In two days more Americans had been killed and injured from 19 April 1775 to 5 April 1862.  But war wasn’t supposed to be like this.  Up until Shiloh war for Americans was a lark; an adventure of men and animals, colorful uniforms and precision marching, dancing flags and cheering crowds.  Battles were supposed to end in parades, not abattoirs.

Exactly fifty-five years later, America was at war with Germany.  Woodrow Wilson had asked Congress for a war declaration on 2 April 1917.  Congress voted on it on 4 April, and it went into effect on 6 April.  It had come after hundreds of Americans died in passenger ships that the Germans torpedoed without warning, after a veiled threat of a German alliance with Mexico and Japan, after America had offered to mediate a just peace in Europe over and over again since 1914.

For Wilson it was a personal disappointment, but the decision for war he felt became inevitable because of Prussian intransigence. Long striving for progressive principles,  Wilson, whose father was with the Confederate army briefly, earnestly believed that men and nations should work out their differences peacefully, with solemn treaties openly arrived at.  That such beliefs should end in places called Tannenberg and Verdun and Argonne was to Wilson and his fellow progressives an aberration of human progress.

Humanity wasn’t supposed to be this way.  But it was.

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The Battle They Fought to End the War

They had come a long way, these young men. many of whom were still young.  In the fifth April of the war they felt both tired and energized: weary of a long winter of raids and bombardments, sharpshooters and endless mud, but energized because spring was coming, and the armies around Richmond were moving again.

In February Wilmington, North Carolina, the Confederacy’s last deep-water port with rail links, had been occupied by Union troops.  At Five Forks on 1 April 1865, a part of Army of Northern Virginia under George Pickett was trying to protect the Southside Railroad junction from the concerted attacks of Philip Sheridan.  Overwhelmed and badly placed, the Confederates were forced to run.  Using the Richmond and Danville line, Jefferson Davis and his government ran south while Robert E. Lee took the Army of Northern Virginia south and west, under close attack from the Army of the Potomac under George G. Meade.

With Meade behind him, William T. Sherman’s army group was somewhere to his south where Joseph P Johnston was trying to get away from Sherman and join Lee, and Federal cavalrymen were closing off the major roads.  After nine days of moving and fighting, and after his last ration train was captured, Lee saw little choice but to give up the fight.

So the patrician Lee and the plebeian Ulysses S. Grant, who commanded all the Union armies, met on 9 April 1865 to work something out.  They sat in the parlor of Wilmer McLean, a sugar broker whose house at Manassas Junction was the center of the first major battle of the war.  Now, at Appomattox Court house, it would see the end of the largest theater of what had become a global war. Photographs of the time show Lee resplendent in an immaculate, new, custom-made uniform, and Grant in a mud-spattered private’s coat with lieutenant general’s shoulder straps.  There was a little small talk: Grant recalled their only other meeting in Mexico, which Lee could not remember.

The talked about horses, weapons, rations, terms.  Grant wanted the return of what property the Federal government owned before the war, but realized that it would be impossible to separate it from the rest, so did not press the issue much.  Lee said his officers owned their animals and their sidearms, and Grant decided he would not confiscate them.  Much as he had at Vicksburg, Grant knew this 28,000 man Confederate army was spent, and with nearly a hundred thousand men in arms under his command in the area, could afford to be generous.  After Ely Parker wrote out the final terms, Lee signed the surrender.

Then the real battle commenced, and continues to this day. The “battle of the books” has been the most consistently acrimonious and contentious action of the American Civil War, and this scholar contends that while it is far from over it needs to end sooner than later.

There are two major battlefields of this fight: the cause and The Cause.  The first centers around the reasons for the fighting to begin with, where tariffs, slavery, secession, state’s rights, firing on the flag, and other issues are the most often discussed.  The second is by far the noisiest.  It has more to do with the end of the war and how the entire conflict has been perceived, remembered and recorded.  To many scholars this is embodied in Lost Cause Mythology, or LCM, a position that holds that the Confederacy was always going to be the loser, but was the nobler of the two factions fighting the war–hence the Lost Cause.  For others, LCM is part and parcel a product of Union/Yankee imagination.  But for a few, including this one, both factions are cooperating in the management of Civil War Inc., the robust and thriving enterprise where a reasonable and compromising explanation for the conflict is out of the question simply because there’s so much advantage (in the form of profit and reputation) in keeping the contending factions going.

Unlike other civil conflicts, the American Civil War holds a global audience.  One can search far and wide to find a thousand reenactors of all other civil conflicts in history in the United States, but nearly every nation on the globe has at least one group of dedicated souls who dress up in wool serge to replay Gettysburg.  American Civil War books outsell all other American history titles worldwide in every language.  Civil war scholars, nearly all Americans, are always welcomed to speak at conferences and seminars on 19th century topics.

But the battle that they fight, unlike the battle that their subjects fought, will never end.  And, in the interest of scholarship and sanity, it needs to.

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The Agony of Hills

On 23 March 1953, a series of battles began on a hill complex in the north of Yeoncheon county northeast of Seoul, Korea that would be immortalized in books and films as Pork Chop Hill.  In themselves these barren knobs of 300 meters or less in height had limited strategic value, but collectively they have had a meaning attached to them that has come to symbolize the seeming futility of the  “police action” in Korea, and are an excellent example of the differences between Soviet/Chinese-style warfare and American.  The UN forces in Korea, led by the Americans, fought relying on firepower–enormous firepower–that industrial armies had come to rely on since the middle of the 19th century.

The North Koreans in June of 1950 drove easily into the South Korean army, which possessed few tanks, and those were no match for the T-34s. As the Americans and other UN troops arrived, they were pushed them into a corner of the peninsula called variously the Pusan Perimeter or the Naktong River Line.  The Americans, building an army as they went along, defended along a series of hills in battles that would last for up to 60 hours straight.  Not accustomed to this marathon fighting, the Americans edged on exhaustion.

While the North Korean advantage was in its T-34 tanks in the battles of 1950, it lacked the capacity to repair or replace those tanks.  The Immun Gun, the proper name for the North Korean People’s Army, was a force built on a Soviet model, but with some differences.  Few North Koreans had much experience fighting industrialized armies; Japan was something of a Potemkin army with the appearance of industrial capacity but lacking in details.

By the time the Americans landed at Incheon in August 1950 North Korea had only a bare handful of tanks left operational.  Faced with overwhelming force, however, the North Koreans refused to just give up, and instead stood and fought, in some cases until their units were annihilated.  In the early stages of the war both sides strove for the high ground, and to secure supply routes as armies had since Napoleon’s time.  But in October 1950, that changed.

In three months, half the UN territorial gains in Korea were wiped out by a non-mechanized force that smothered the mechanized American, Commonwealth and South Korean forces in flesh–Chinese flesh.  Still clinging to hills, the UN forces were cut off again and again by the foot-borne Chinese who first avoided, then surrounded the major UN positions, cutting them off from retreat, but more important, from their desperately needed supply.  The Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA), who were at least as “voluntary” as any conscripted force, carried most of its logistic needs on its own back, lacked armored forces and heavy artillery, and could fight night and day for as much as 80 hours.  Like the Romans and the Soviets before them, their endurance was much greater than their enemies.

Following the pattern of industrial states with popular participatory governments, most of the UN forces relied on a core of professional soldiers, a framework of shorter-term technicians, and a mass of volunteers, draftees and earlier service members called back to the colors, for the most part WWII.  In this kind of war, as many have said before, the only thing that saved the UN was the strategic mobility and the tremendous firepower that armies like theirs had to rely on, and that the multitudes of Chinese (some of whom were veterans of the wars against Japan and of their civil war, and of service in the Soviet army against Germany) and the decimated North Koreans simply could not obtain.  When the Chinese closed to grenade range their numbers and fatalistic courage mattered, but before they got that close the UN could lay waste to them by the thousands.

By the spring of 1951 the mobile war had given way to an odd looking conflict that was a mix of WWI and WWII.  There were few frontal attacks but there were trenches.  There were mechanized assaults but few were decisive.  Casualties mounted, troops were rotated, whole national contingents came and went as peace talks stumbled and fluttered.  The one thing that was constant was that both sides were willing to prove their point using military force as needed.  Neither the Chinese nor the UN could “win” anything in the troglodytic twilight war of hills and bunkers, trenches and patrols.  Much of the mid-level Chinese field leadership–the company and battalion commanders on whom most of the tactical decisions fell– was dead by the end of 1950. UN morale dripped practically by the month; the “retreads” of WWII veterans called back to service were frustrated by this impossible no-decision way of war and just wanted to go home.

Ironically, it is becoming clear half a century later, both sides reached this conclusion at about the same time, but neither was willing to concede too much of anything.  One reason for this was neither Chinese nor American, but Soviet: Joseph Stalin.  The Chinese were convinced–wrongly–that without their war in Korea Stalin’s support in the Politburo the Soviet assistance for building their new country would dry up.   The UN, primarily led by the Americans, were facing increased tensions in the Mediterranean basin and in Europe from expansionist Soviet aims.  “The wrong war, in the wrong place, against the wrong enemy,” however glib and seemingly sage, was Omar Bradley’s short-sighted attempt to redirect attention from the global nature of the Stalinist/Soviet threat.

Peace talks began in the spring of 1951, going exactly nowhere but a few prisoner exchanges while the war of hills and outposts raged on and on.  In the late winter of 1953, nearly three years after it started and nearly two after the talks began, came the agony of Pork Chop.  Readers are likely familiar with the broad details of the American involvement due to the 1957 film starring Gregory Peck.  But it started nearly a week before when the Chinese pushed a Colombian battalion off Pork Chop and Old Baldy south of it in a marathon fight.   A week after the Colombians were displaced, K Company of the 31st Infantry, under the command of Joe Clemons (Gregory Peck’s character), was joined by L Company of the same regiment under Forrest Crittenden in a predawn assault on Pork Chop.  By dark less than a third of K Company was still on its feet; only about 10% of L Company answered the role.  The next day, they were reinforced by another battalion: seven of them walked off the hill.  Like a hundred hills before, the four-month’s fight over Pork Chop and Old Baldy would become a test of wills.

What was it all for?  Either not a lot of anything or a whole lot of everything.  This was the essence of Cold War brinkmanship, when neither would give up until the other slackened even for a moment.  It was played out in Korea as it had been in Greece, and in the Philippines,  and would be again in the Caribbean over some missiles in Cuba, and in Vietnam over a corrupt regime that played out bunch of hills around Khe Sanh, on another worthless rock called Hamburger, and another worthless pbend in a river called Hue.  “Worthless” only in the sense that something as intangible as “freedom” has a price that only a free person would be willing to pay for with his life, and that the free who are not brave will never quite appreciate.

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From Opposite Ends of the Country, Decisive Signs

Early March 1862 was an exiting and crucial time for America.  Nearly everywhere, signs that the Confederate rebellion would be short-lived were becoming clearer.

In the wilds of northwestern Arkansas, Earl Van Dorn’s Army of the West crawled back towards Little Rock having been struck the day before by a reorganized force under Samuel Curtis that broke his fragile command into pieces.  The Missouri State Guard held together, but the Arkansas troops and the Indians melted into nothing.  From the 16,000 that he started with, Van Dorn had perhaps 6,000 left under his command.  Missouri had been threatened by Van Dorn since late summer 1861, but now he would be lucky to hold onto northern Arkansas.

Curtis wasn’t a military genius, he was just another Federal officer doing his job with the resources at hand.  Van Dorn wasn’t a dummy, but he was doing the same as Curtis.  Trouble was Van Dorn’s resources were a great deal thinner.  The Confederacy would be able to mount no further threats to Missouri.  In two weeks, Van Dorn would be ordered to sent what men he could get together to Albert S. Johnson, who was mounting an invasion of Tennessee, that would start with an attack on the Federal encampment at Pittsburg Landing.

It was the same just west of the Hampton Roads, half a continent away.  On 8 March 1862 the casement ironclad ram Virginia attacked the US Navy blockade at the mouth of the James River, destroying USS Congress (one of the first warships the US Navy built) and USS Cumberland (a Raritan class post-1812 build) and grounding USS Minnesota (a fairly new 3,300 ton screw frigate) and USS Roanoke (a Merrimack-class screw frigate, the same as the hull of Virginia).  On the outside of it Virginia and her unarmored consorts (armed tow steamer Raleigh, gunboat Beaufort, armed steamers Patrick Henry and Jamestown and armed tug Teaser) had won a decisive victory.

But like all the Confederacy’s victories, she lacked the capacity to follow up on them, or hold onto their glittering promise.  While victorious, Virginia’s smokestack had been riddled, her boats entirely shot away, many of her iron plates rattled off their foundations, and her hardwood and pine frame cracked amidships   Just as the sun went down, USS Monitor , the first turreted steam warship and under the command of John L Worden, reached Hampton Roads and took station near Minnesota to protect the steamer from further attacks. Virginia and the James River Squadron had returned to Norfolk for coal and ammunition so missed the little craft’s entrance.  Monitor had just completed a harrowing passage from New York, having been launched just days before.  Worden and his crew, therefore, were the US Navy’ ironclad experts

Buchanan had been wounded during the battle and so relinquished command to Catesby ap Roger Jones. who was the captain of Virginia.  Next morning, 9 March, Virginia set out to finish off Minnesota but ran into Monitor, described as a “cheese-box on a raft.”  Commencing at about noon, Virginia and Monitor hammered away at each other for four hours at ranges of 100 yards an less (in an age where typical sea fights were conducted at about 200-400 yards) while Federal tugs tried to get Minnesota unstuck from the bar.  Though both vessels were hurt, neither was damaged so much as to have to withdraw.  Virginia had her entire structure shifted by one particularly vicious hit, and the damage from the day before had not been put entirely to rights.  Monitor lost her pilot house.  After some four hours, Monitor withdrew to the shallows to replenish her shot lockers, and Virginia took the opportunity to declare victory and return to dock, having expended so much ammunition and coal that she was exposing her hull below her armored skirt.

The battle was over and Minnesota saved, but that was hardly the end.  Within a year the James River squadron would all be sunk or captured; Monitor would sink in a storm.  But fear of Virginia would shift George McClellan’s logistical plans for his upcoming Peninsula campaign from the James River to the Fox, a smaller stream on the eastern side of the Peninsula, requiring an overland march to Richmond rather than a Navy-covered stroll up the James.  The resulting Yorktown siege and the Seven Days’ Battles would save Richmond, but at the cost of another three years of war.

But ultimately, Virginia’s “victory” was hollow.  While European observers were unimpressed by the duel, the Royal Navy was impressed by the 98 day construction time for Monitor, and were well aware that the Union could build three such ships at a time if desired, with proven Dahlgren guns that neither the Confederates nor Great Britain could match.  The Confederacy, in contrast, used nearly all her manufacturing capacity to build Virginia on a burned hulk, and were thus unable to build a single finished ironclad for the defense of New Orleans, already under threat.  The Confederacy could win many battles, but it was clear from 1862 onward that she could not win the war.

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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.