This Week

Of course, this is the 150th anniversary of the week that the Maryland Campaign came to a head, with the finding of Special Orders 191, South Mountain, the Fall of Harpers Ferry, Antietam, and Shepherdstown. 17 September 1862, of course, remains not just the bloodiest day of combat in the American Civil War, but the bloodiest day in American history with over 3,000 killed outright and total casualties coming to a little over 22,700.

On Tuesday, 18 September, PBS will broadcast Death in the Civil War as part of its American Experience series, deliberately timed to coincide (appropriately) with the anniversary of Antietam. I received an advanced copy a few weeks ago (which is fortunate, given that I will be otherwise engaged on Tuesday night.) I cannot recommend this program highly enough. It is, of course, inspired by Drew Gilpin Faust’s great book This Republic of Suffering, features her prominently, and offers a powerful and moving treatment of the subject.

That being said, we should also remember that this is the 70th anniversary of critical events in the far larger and far bloodier battle of Stalingrad. It was on 14 September 1942 that Alexander Rodimtsev’s 13th Guards Rifle Division crossed the Volga River–in daylight, under fire (the experience of which is dramatized, with some license, here in the film Enemy at the Gates)–to launch a critical counterattack in the fight for the city.

From Earl Ziemke, Moscow to Stalingrad: Decision in the East:

The 14th was another dark day for the defense. In the south quarter, XXXXVIII Panzer Corps reached the railroad station and forced a spearhead through to the Tsaritsa. North of the river, LI Corps rammed two divisions abreast into the center of the city, by 1200 had the main railroad station, and at 1500 reached the Volga at the waterworks. By dark, the corps held almost a mile of river bank, and antitank guns set up there had sunk two ferries and a steamer. . . . Seydlitz’s LI Corps began to experience on the 14th and 15th what XXXXVIII Corps already had for several days: street fighting in a city that was being contested block by block, building by building, even floor by floor. Nothing was conceded. Houses were fought over as if they were major fortresses. According to the History of the Great Patriotic War, the main railroad station changed hands five times on the morning of the 14th and another thirteen times in the next several days. Who held what at any particular time was impossible to tell.

From Vasily Grossman, A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army:

The Sixth Army’s major offensive into the city was launched just before dawn on 13 September.

That evening, Fuhrer headquarters celebrated the success of the 71st Division reaching the centre of the city. Stalin heard the same news in the Kremlin when Yeremenko telephoned him and warned that another major attack could be expected the next day. Stalin turned to General Vasilevsky. “Issue orders immediately for Rodimtsev’s 13th Guards Division to cross the Volga and see what else you can send over.” Zhukov, who was also with them, poring over a map of the area, was told to fly down again immediately. Nobody was in any doubt that the moment of crisis had arrived. . . .

The battle on 14 September went badly for the defenders. The German 295th Infantry Division captured the Mamaev Kurgan as Chuikov had feared, but the biggest threat came in the centre of the city, where one of Sarayev’s NKVD regiments was thrown into a counter-attack on the main station. It changed hands several times during the day. . . .

As the [13th Guards] division was approaching the Volga, we saw a tall, dark cloud. One couldn’t possible mistake it for dust. It was sinister, quick, light, and black as death: that was the smoke from burning oil-storage tanks rising over the northern part of the city. Big arrows nailed to the trunks of trees said “Crossing.” They pointed towards the Volga. . . . The division couldn’t wait until night to cross the river. . . . Barges were rocking the waves, and men from the rifle division felt frightened because the enemy was everywhere, in the sky, on the opposite bank, but they had to encounter him without the comfort of solid earth under their feet. The air was unbearably transparent, the blue sky was unbearably clear, the sun seemed relentlessly bright and the flowing flat water seemed so tricky and unreliable. And no one felt happy about the clarity of the air, about the coolness of the river in the nostrils, about the tender and moist breath of the Volga touching their inflamed eyes. Men on the barges, ferries, and motor boats were silent. . . . Every head was turning from side to side in anxiety. Everyone was glancing at the sky.

“He’s diving, the louse!” someone shouted.

Suddenly, a tall and thin bluish-white column of water sprang up about fifty metres from the barge. Immediately after it another column grew and collapsed ever closer, and then a third one. Bombs were exploding on the surface of the water, and the Volga was covered with lacerated foamy wounds; shells began to hit the sides of the barge. Injured men would cry out softly, as if trying to conceal the fact of being wounded. By then, rifle bullets had already started whistling over the water.

There was one terrible moment when a large calibre shell hit the side of a small ferry. There was a flash of flame, dark smoke enveloped the ferry, an explosion was heard, and immediately afterwards, a drawling scream as if born from this thunder. Thousands of people saw immediately the green helmets of the men swimming among the wreckage of wood rocking on the surface of the water.

The date given for the scene from Enemy at the Gates linked to above is 20 September 1942. Grossman quotes a report written on that date by an officer from the 13th Guards Division that states:

May I report to you, the situation is as follows: the enemy is trying to encircle my company, to send sub-machine-gunners round to our rear. But all their efforts have so far failed in spite of their superior strength. Our soldiers and officers are displaying courage and heroism in the face of the fascist jackals. The Fritzes won’t succeed until they’ve stepped over my corpse. Guards soldiers do not retreat. Soldiers and officers may die like heroes, but the enemy musn’t be allowed to break our defence. . . . While the company commander is alive, not a single whore will break through. . . . We will die like heroes for Stalin’s city. Let the Soviet land be the [enemy's] grave. . . .

Folks who whine about what happened to the South during the Civil War merit little sympathy from anyone who knows the story of World War II on the Eastern Front. And while the death count from the Civil War of 750,000 is indeed sobering, it pales in comparison with Soviet losses in their Great Patriotic War. Moreover, World War II (in combination with the horrors of the Stalinist regime) decimated the generation that would have assumed leadership of Russian society in the 1970s and 1980s and it is no coincidence that it is during those decades that the Soviet Union really started to fall apart. It was Hitler’s objective to destroy Bolshevism and any fair assessment must concede that, as repugnant as it was, the Nazi regime made a not inconsiderable contribution to the outcome of the Cold War.

Just trying to keep things in perspective.

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