Archive for category Civil War

Bruce Catton and U.S. Grant

 

Having finished Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant, I decided to go back to my library and re-read Bruce Catton’s shorter treatment of the subject, U.S. Grant and the American Military Tradition. Catton did most of his writing in the 50s and 60s, so some of the scholarship is dated, but most of his conclusions have held up.

More than that, Catton’s writing verges on the poetic, both summarizing and illuminating a subject with an economy of words I often wish I had.  For instance, in describing frontier Ohio of the 1820s and 1830s:

Men who could do everything they chose to do presently believed that they must do everything they could.  The brightest chance men ever had must be exploited to the hilt.  And the sum of innumerable individual freedoms strangely became an overpowering community of interest.

When dissecting the rights and wrongs of secession, its present-day defenders (who do not defend the institution of slavery, it should be emphasized) tend to focus on the clinical, legal aspects of the matter.  Catton captures what they miss, and why the North and especially the West was willing to fight:

Against anything, that is, which threatened the unity and the continuity of the American experiment.

Specifically, they would see in an attempt to dissolve the Federal Union a wanton laying of hands on everything that made life worth living.  Such a fission was a crime against nature; the eternal Federal Union was both a condition of their material prosperity and a mystic symbol that went beyond life and all of life’s values.

On the post-Shiloh commanders:

McClellan, Halleck, and Buell, then, were the new team, and that hackneyed word “brilliant” was applied to all three.  The Administration expected much of them.  It had yet to learn what brilliance can look like when it is watered down by excessive caution and a distaste for making decisions, and when it is accompanied every step of they way by a strong prima donna complex.

And on how Americans view war.  Catton believes it goes a long way towards explaining why Grant – representative of his people – was doomed to substantially fail at the big post-war task of Reconstruction and restoration:

…the will-o’-the-wisp again, recurrent in American history.  Victory becomes an end in itself, and “unconditional surrender” expresses all anyone wants to look for, because if the enemy gives up unconditionally he is completely and totally beaten and all of the complex problems which made an enemy out of him in the first place will probably go away and nobody will have to bother with them any more.  The golden age is always going to return just as soon as the guns have cooled and the flags have been furled, and the world’s great age will begin anew the moment the victorious armies have been demobilized.

Sound familiar?

Catton was not, of course, infallible.  He had this to say about President-Generals, whose training is to treat Congress as supreme, the executive as the instrument of Congress’s declared war aims:

It made it inevitable that when he himself became President he would provide an enduring illustration of the fact that it can be risky to put a professional soldier in the White House, not because the man will try to use too much authority in that position but because he will try to use too little.

Catton wrote these words in 1954, with full awareness of who was then president.  But history doesn’t bear out his fear, entirely.  Washington maintained a strong sense of the office’s limitations, but worked to strengthen both the federal government and the executive.  Neither of the two previous Whig presidents – both generals – lived long enough to have much impact in the office.  And Eisenhower was working with an already-stronger executive, which he worked to professionalize, treating his cabinet a little like a corporate boardroom of competing ideas.

He differs with Chernow on a few points, and Catton is somewhat better at drawing connections.  Catton considers the Santo Domingo treaty not merely ill-advised but actually corrupt, for instance.  Both note that Grant manumitted the one slave he ever owned as quickly as he could (a gift), but only Catton points out that Grant did so even though he could really have used the money from a sale at that point in his life.

Catton is also harder on the Radical Republicans, and somewhat more forgiving of Andrew Johnson, than Chernow is, possibly because Catton was unaware of the postwar wave of white supremacist violence that swept over much of the Deep South.  He argues that the Radical Republicans were at least as interested in using blacks as a means to political power as they were in their welfare – not the last time that would happen in American history.  Catton also claims that Johnson adopted Lincoln’s view of postwar reconciliation, where Chernow states that Johnson adopted a softer line through misbegotten racial solidarity.  Whether this is from cynicism or greater political savvy, or from both, it’s hard to know.

 

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Some Short History Reading Lists

We were over at a friend’s house for lunch this Shabbat.  Knowing that 1) I have a lot of history books, and 2) I tend to read them, he was kind enough to ask me for some reading lists about the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Cold War.  “I haven’t had much luck with fiction, so I’m trying to round out my history.”

Here’s what I sent him.  These aren’t intended to be college syllabuses, or comprehensive.  They’re books that I have and leafed through, or that I’ve read.  I’ve tried to vary them by author.  I could have had the entire Revolutionary War list by Joseph Ellis, the whole Civil War list by Bruce Catton, but what’s the fun in that?  My library, while large by 19th Century standards, is limited by the size of the house.  Had I fewer books, I would paradoxically have more room for them.  But it’s a good list, enough to cover some key points, get an overview, or just when your appetite for more.

American Revolution

For a decent overview of the war as a whole, Liberty by Thomas Fleming isn’t bad.  I think it was originally written as a companion book to a PBS series, but it’s good in its own right.  For a deeper examination of the issues around the Revolution and the war, and how the Founders handled them, American Creation by Joseph Ellis is recommended.

We all know of Washington Crossing the Delaware; David Hackett Fischer has written a great in-depth review of the events surrounding that crossing and subsequent battles, and how they set the stage for the rest of the war, in Washington’s Crossing.

And for well-researched discussions of adoption of the two primary founding documents – the Declaration and the Constitution, Pauline Maier’s American Scripture and Ratification give surprising insights into what people were thinking at the time.

The Founders lived on into the post-Revolutionary era, and had a second act right after the Constitution in  1787, so some bios are in order.  Richard Brookheiser’s short Founding Father is a fine thumbnail bio of Washington; for something longer Ron Chernow has bios of both Washington and Hamilton.  And David McCullough’s John Adams is what the PBS series was based on.

Having come this far, read about 700+ pages about the early Republic, when were getting ourselves established, with Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty.  I’m reading it now, and pretty much every chapter has some surprise or another.

Civil War

For the lead-up to the war, and how we got to the point of secession and war, William Freehling’s long, two-volume The Road to Disunion is among the best.

Much of the same material is covered in the first volume of Bruce Catton’s very readable and shorter three-volume Centennial History of the Civil War.  These are The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat.  I would recommend anything written by Catton on the Civil War.

Also excellent is Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson.  As a guide to Lincoln’s war, what the events looked like from DC, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals is magnificent.

Cold War

This one is tougher, because it covers decades, not mere years, so the politics, military, and technology changed substantially from 1948 to 1989.  I’ve picked out the books I have and have read that do a good job talking about the Cold War.  My library is heavier on the spy stuff, but there was a lot of spy stuff.

Witness by Whittaker Chambers is indispensable.  He starts out as a Communist, and then converts over to the good guys, and was a key player in one of the great Cold War controversies, the Alger Hiss case.  Nixon’s rise to prominence began with this case, and the left never forgave him for being right.

The Great Terror, is one of the best books about Stalin’s Russia, by one of the best chroniclers of the 20th Century, Robert Conquest.

The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn is recognized as the best insider account of the Soviet punishment system.

Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe covers the building of the Berlin Wall.

Merchants of Treason by my friend Norman Polmar and KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents are old now, but a good guide to how to the KGB operated in the day, and how the Russians still operate today.

There’s also a vast literature of spy fiction, from Len Deighton’s devastating Game-Set-Match trilogy to John LeCarre’s oeuvre (start with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy).

That’s enough to keep you busy for a few years.  So what are you still doing on this page?

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The March To The Sea

One hundred fifty years ago today, Gen. William T. Sherman quit Atlanta, and began his March to the Sea.  The March was decisive in breaking the spirit of the slave-holding South, but Sherman always saw it as a repositioning of his army to prepare it for action in the Carolinas.  The army conducted itself with remarkable discipline.  It did not, contrary to the assertions of my Georgian 8th grade history teacher Miss Davis, salt the earth as they went.

Victor Davis Hanson describes the March better than anyone:

How in a moral sense could the March to the Sea be too barbaric in destroying Southern property yet at the same time not effective enough in killing Confederate soldiers? How could Sherman’s men be too lax in freeing slaves? How could his march be considered too easy when Grant and Lincoln–men known for neither timidity nor hysteria–feared for the very destruction of Sherman’s army when he requested permission to attempt it? And how else could Sherman move his colossal army to the east and be in position to march northward other than by living off the land and destroying property? Was he to pay for the food of slaveowners in prized Federal dollars with promises that such capital would not be forwarded to purchase more bullets for Lee and Johnston? Were his men to eat hardtack while secessionists fared better? Keep clear of railroads, as locomotives sped by with food, ammunition, and guns to kill Northerners in Virginia? Bypass slaveowning plantationists in a war to end slavery?

As for the charge that Sherman’s brand of war was amoral, if we forget for a moment what constitutes “morality” in war and examine acts of violence per se against Southern civilians, we learn that there were few, if any, gratuitous murders on the march. There seem also to have been less than half a dozen rapes, a fact acknowledged by both sides. Any killing outside of battle was strictly military execution in response to the shooting of Northern prisoners. The real anomaly seems to be that Sherman brought more than sixty thousand young men through one of the richest areas of the enemy South without unchecked killing or mayhem. After the war a Confederate officer remarked of the march through Georgia: “The Federal army generally behaved very well in this State. I don’t think there was ever an army in the world that would have behaved better, on a similar expedition, in an enemy country. Our army certainly wouldn’t.”

If you haven’t read Hanson’s description in The Soul of Battle, you’re missing out.

So we made a thoroughfare for Freedom and her train,
Sixty miles in latitude, three hundred to the main;
Treason fled before us, for resistance was in vain,
While we were marching through Georgia. 

Hurrah! Hurrah! We bring the jubilee!
Hurrah! Hurrah! The flag that makes you free!
So we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea,
While we were marching through Georgia.

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November 19, 1863 + 150

Today is the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.  There will be a great deal written about the speech itself, so I’m going to take a slightly different tack.

In 1982, Jacques Barzun was invited to give the Annual Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture, on the anniversary of the Address, to Gettysburg College.  His topic was “Lincoln’s Philosophical Vision,” and he broke it down into three parts: everyday life, ethics and morals, and man’s place in the universe.  I can’t find the whole speech online, but there is much in it that is relevant to today’s politics.

The fanatical temper on either side springs from the philosophy opposite to perspectivism – the philosophy of absolutism: according to it, once an important purpose has been adopted, nothing must stop its immediate carrying out – and damn the consequences.  Such thinkers are proud of their “principle” and they forge ahead thinking it is the only principle in the case.
Lincoln was a man of principle, too, but he understood how to handle principles – in the plural – in a world of actuality.  Just one year before the war broke out, he plainly told his first great audience in the east that he thought slavery wrong and that there was “no middle ground between the right and the wrong.”  But he went on to say: “Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is, because that much is due to the necessity arising from its actual presence in the nation; but can we, while our votes will prevent it, allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States?”  Lincoln wanted to stiffen resistance against the compromisers such as Senator Douglas, who was “groping” for “sophistical contrivances” that would in the end perpetuate slavery.
The lesson here is to beware of what absolutists call principles.  Principles necessarily take the form of abstract words… Such words…lack contents you can name, concrete reference to the world of fact and behavior.  That is the reason why the great English writer Dorothy Sayers said, “The first thing a principle does is to kill somebody.”  Her conclusion follows from the absolutist temper…Of such stuff are made the idealist, the crusader, the revolutionist.  He not only wants instant gratification, but he is also ever-ready to believe that his opponents are wrong on purpose, knowingly and wickedly; he is incapable of saying with Lincoln, “the southerners are just what we would be in their situation.”

And, as importantly:

One more word must be said about pragmatism by way of introducing the second part of Lincoln’s philosophy.  The word pragma, a Greek root, means “the thing done,” the upshot. Pragmatism therefore means the doctrine that all human thought is fundamentally directed at doing, at some desired action, now or in future.  The pragmatic test asks: What concrete difference would it make if this idea or that idea, this policy or that policy, were taken as the true one?  It is the test that mankind has used for thousands of years in accumulating what we call the truths of experience.

Lincoln was above all a practical politician, who wanted to work within the existing political system to effect change, but wasn’t willing to let its limitations be its demise.  He was also one who sought to understand where the other guy was coming from, even as he understood the profoundly moral nature of politics.

The deep irony of the current age is that President Obama, who pretends to Lincoln’s mantle, has based his entire political outlook on believing that his opponents are wrong on purpose, knowingly and wickedly, and being willing to say so, loudly and longly.

At the same time, there’s a small but loud group of Republicans who reject Lincoln’s pragmatism in the name of principle, without realizing that life often consists of sorting out conflicting principles.

The anniversary of that short, profound, complex speech couldn’t come at a better time.

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Dems Try to Tar Republicans With…Slavery?!?

Gawker seems to think it has a scoop of some kind, trumpeting the fact that the Republicans are meeting in the Burwell Room of the Kingsmill Resort (named for a formed slave plantation) to discuss – ta da! – minority outreach.  The irony, the sheer hypocrisy of such a thing is apparently too much for them to bear.  And local DU polisci professor Seth Masket, on Twitter, is equally enthralled.

Let’s remember that the GOP is the reason that neither Burwell Plantation nor the location of the resort are slave plantations any more.  Masket knows this, but still thinks that somehow the GOP is tarred by association with slavery.

Of course, the Democrats have been holding retreats there for years (1998, 2007, 2008, 2009 – where President Obama spoke), and President Obama did his 2nd debate prep there this past year, without anyone commenting on the location.  There’s a good reason for that – it doesn’t matter.  Many fine resorts in the south are located on former plantations; it’s a good use for the land.  That it was a plantation 150 years ago should be cause for celebration.

If anyone has reason to be embarrassed about holding meetings there, it’s the party of slavery and secession, not the GOP.

But then, trying to make the Republicans atone for Democratic sins is a favorite media and academic pastime.

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