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Answering the question . . . or not

If the reviews here are any indication, my talk to the Puget Sound Civil War Round Table a few weeks ago seems to have gone over well with the audience.  (I certainly had a good time with its members.)  Evidently, though, my unwillingness to play the game of ranking the Army of Northeastern Virginia–Army of the Potomac-Army of Virginia commanders did not go gone over well with one member.

I, of course, understand this.  Both because I want to make my audience happy by answering their questions and because such exercises can be a lot of fun. Still, this is the sort of question that I am reticent to answer due to a reluctance to engage in exercises that can lead (especially given the time constraints one faces during the Q & A session that follows a lecture) to oversimplified analysis when the true reason we should study history is to understand historic actors and appreciate the complexity of events. Indeed, if there is one thing I have strove to push back against in my scholarship and teaching it is against oversimplified judgments about individuals and events–in other words, what Mark has labeled the “what fools they were” school of military history.  (And, yes, I am aware of the irony of this coming from a guy who recently published an article on “Civil War Generals We Love to Hate”.  I have pointed out that the purpose of my piece was to explain why the particular generals in question are hated, not say it was justified, though I can see how I might not have been as clear on that as I could and should have been.)

To illustrate the complexity of “grading” generals, take for instance what appears on the surface to be a simple question:  Was Grant a better general than McClellan?  The first response, naturally, is to say . . . absolutely!   Look who Lee surrendered to!   But, of course, there is the immensely inconvenient fact that, to get to the same place McClellan had in 1862, east of Richmond on the James River, fighting an Army of Northern Virginia that did not have James Longstreet or JEB Stuart for most of the campaign (and no Stonewall Jackson at all), which was symptomatic of the fact that two years of hard fighting had significantly dulled the strength and vigor of Lee’s army by May 1864, Grant pretty much wrecked the Army of the Potomac.   And, of course, one searches in vain for a Cold Harbor or Crater on McClellan’s military resume.

So move Grant down in the rankings and McClellan up, right?   Well . . .  wait a minute, there are certainly extenuating circumstances in Grant’s case (which Grant fanboys, of course, label “excuses” when presented on behalf of anyone else)–not the least being that one can easily imagine ways that having Longstreet, Stuart, and/or Jackson on hand in 1864 might have actually worked to Grant’s benefit!  After all, anyone familiar with Longstreet’s performance at Seven Pines and Jackson’s conduct during the Seven Days Battles, can certainly make a case that their presence was to McClellan’s benefit in those instances.   They certainly did not prevent Lee from getting his army blasted to pieces at Malvern Hill.

Then, there is the question of how much weight should be given to the degree to which a general contributed to the cancerous command climate in the Eastern armies (caveating, of course, that the real villains in the story resided in Washington).  How much does malignant conduct in this regard, in the case of Hooker, balance against the very real ability he demonstrated as an operational commander?   And what makes for a good tactical commander in the Civil War besides the good fortune to fight on the defensive? (Of course, good fortune being something any successful general has–not exactly something that goes down well in a society that possesses an active management guru industry. Indeed, Napoleon is supposed to have asked only one thing of a general–that he be lucky.)  Should we view Pope as a victim of the Eastern command climate, or a villain in the story of its poisoning?   Burnside, of course, very clearly was a victim of the poisonous command climate.  In this light, and given the extremely problematic operational problem he faced in December 1862, can we really consider his time in command a fair test of his–or anybody’s–ability?   And was Fredericksburg really a defeat for the Union?  By what measure?  If a Union defeat, why did Lee declare himself “depressed” afterward?

In the end, though, I am willing to play the game on one point.  There really is no question who the best commander of the Union armies in the East, and indeed the entire Civil War, was (although a continuous stream of books and his fans insist on insisting there is) . . . Grant.  (What, you thought I was going to say Ben Butler?)   Lee was a great commander, but what sets Grant apart is the fact that he demonstrated the ability to successfully negotiate the Washington game and conduct joint operations–two things Lee never had to do.

Great trip to Washington . . . The State!

Few things cooler in this world than being, like Hooker’s men at Chattanooga, above the clouds, watching the sunset to the west. Check out this view looking west from near the top of the Skyline Chair at Stevens Pass Ski Area shortly after a cloud descended on the lower 900 or so vertical feet of the mountain but left the top 300 or so feet crystal clear in a way that my camera does not do justice to.  

BTW, Stevens Pass is not, as some people believe, named for first Washington territorial governor and Civil War general Isaac Ingalls Stevens, but John F. Stevens, a late nineteenth/early twentieth-century railroad engineer, who also served awhile as chief engineer on the Panama Canal. Here is a view of the pass, where US 2 passes through the mountains, from the Seventh Heaven lift at Stevens Pass Ski Area:

I also had a great time with the good folks who belong to the Puget Sound Civil War Round Table–with a caveat, which I will address in a future post.

How not to win a battle . . .

You think John Bell Hood was bad at Franklin?

Inside the Battle of Hoth
By Spencer Ackerman

How did the Galactic Empire ever cement its hold on the Star Wars Universe? The war machine built by Emperor Palpatine and run by Darth Vader is a spectacularly bad fighting force, as evidenced by all of the pieces of Death Star littering space. But of all the Empire’s failures, none is a more spectacular military fiasco than the Battle of Hoth at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back.

From a military perspective, Hoth should have been a total debacle for the Rebel Alliance. Overconfident that they can evade Imperial surveillance, they hole up on unforgiving frigid terrain at the far end of the cosmos. Huddled into the lone Echo Base are all their major players: politically crucial Princess Leia; ace pilot Han Solo; and their game-changer, Luke Skywalker, who isn’t even a Jedi yet.

The defenses the Alliance constructed on Hoth could not be more favorable to Vader if the villain constructed them himself. The single Rebel base (!) is defended by a few artillery pieces on its north slope, protecting its main power generator. An ion cannon is its main anti-aircraft/spacecraft defense. Its outermost perimeter defense is an energy shield that can deflect Imperial laser bombardment. But the shield has two huge flaws: It can’t stop an Imperial landing force from entering the atmosphere, and it can only open in a discrete place for a limited time so the Rebels’ Ion Cannon can protect an evacuation. In essence, the Rebels built a shield that can’t keep an invader out and complicates their own escape.

The entire story can be found here.

Society for Military History Annual Meeting

The program for the 80th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History, which is being held on 14-16 March 2013, in New Orleans, LA, and sponsored by the Center for the Study of War and Society at The University of Southern Mississippi, with the National World War II Museum and Southeastern Louisiana University, has recently been posted.

Not much this year, unfortunately, to interest the Civil War enthusiast. I saw only one session dedicated to the subject, which is definitely odd considering this is the 150th anniversary of not a few events of note in the military history of the Civil War. No doubt this is in large part due to a program on the 150th at Gettysburg College that is running the same weekend. Still, there will once again be a decent contingent of Civil War historians in attendance, including George Rable, Susannah Ural, and Carol Reardon. As for me, I will be chairing a panel on “Alcohol and Drugs in Three Wars: The Great War, Korea , and Vietnam”.

Further information about the meeting, including the program and logistics, can be found here.

This Week in the Army of the Potomac

This, of course, is the 150th anniversary of a truly tumultous week in the history of the Army of the Potomac; one that generated the following documents:

January 23, 1863.

I. General Joseph Hooker, major-general of volunteers and brigadier-general U. S. Army, having been guilty of unjust and unnecessary criticisms of the actions of his superior officers, and of the authorities, and having, by the general tone of his conversation, endeavored to create distrust in the minds of officers who have associated with him, and having, by omissions and otherwise, made reports and statements which were calculated to create incorrect impressions, and for habitually speaking in disparaging terms of other officers, is hereby dismissed from the service of the United States as a man unfit to hold an important commission during a crisis like the present, when so much patience, charity, confidence, consideration, and patriotism are due from every soldier, in the field. This order is issued subject to the approval of the President of the United States.

II. Brigadier General W. T. H. Brooks, commanding First Division, Sixth Army Corps, for complaining of the policy of the Government, and for using language tending to demoralize his command, is, subject to the approval of the President, dismissed from the military service of the United States.

III. Brigadier General John Newton, commanding Third Division, Sixth Army Corps, and Brigadier General John Cochrane, commanding First Brigade, Third Division, Sixth Army Corps, for going to the President of the United States with criticisms upon the plans of their commanding officer, are, subject to the approval of the President, dismissed from the military service of the United States.

IV. It being evident that the following named officers can be of no further service to this army, they are hereby relieved from duty, and will report, in person, without delay, to the Adjutant-General, U. S. Army: Major General W. B. Franklin, commanding left grand division; Major General W. F. Smith, commanding Sixth Corps; Brigadier General Samuel D. Sturgis, commanding Second Division, Ninth Corps; Brigadier General Edward Ferrero, commanding Second Brigade, Second Division, Ninth Army Corps; Brigadier General John Cochrane, commanding First Brigade, Third Division, Sixth Corps; Lieutenant Colonel J. H. Taylor, assistant adjutant-general, right grand division

By command of Major General A. E. Burnside:

Assistant Adjutant-General.

U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 70 vols. in 128 parts (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), series 1, vol. 21, part 1: 998-99.

Though William Franklin’s and Baldy Smith’s service in the Army of the Potomac would soon come to an end, President Abraham Lincoln did not approve these orders. Nor did he punish “Fighting Joe” for his efforts to undermine his senior officers–which had in fact begun during George McClellan’s tenure in command. Rather, Lincoln did just the opposite, giving Hooker command of the Army of the Potomac. That was followed by this famous letter:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, January 26, 1863.

Major General Hooker:

I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and a skilful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. But I think that during Gen. Burnside’s command of the Army, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The government will support you to the utmost of it’s ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the Army, of criticising their Commander, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can, to put it down. Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army, while such a spirit prevails in it.

And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.

Yours very truly,

Roy P. Basler, ed. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953-55), vol. 6: 78-79.

In light of the circumstances, it is suprising that there is nowhere in the historical record anyone writing a letter to Lincoln at the time to this effect:

Dear Mr. President:

In light of your record of supporting officers who have worked to undermine their superiors over the past year and a half–from George McClellan in his dealings with Winfield Scott the previous fall to the circumstances under which the corps were created and their commanders appointed in the Army of the Potomac last March to the ongoing machinations of John McClernand, who the heck are you to bemoan the existence of and place responsibility elsewhere for the fact that such a “spirit” prevails in your army “of criticising their Commander, and withholding confidence from him”?

Perhaps, in surveying the history of the Army of the Potomac and its notoriously bad command climate, there is far more cause to be “not quite satisfied with you”?

Your obedient servant . . .

Get thee to the Kansas City Public Library–again (and again and again)!

This event is co-sponsored by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Foundation. The other talks in the Kansas City Public Library’s Sesquicentennial Series this year will be:

Presented by Dr. Gregory Hospodor
Thursday, April 18

Presented by Dr. Terry L. Beckenbaugh
Thursday, July 18

Presented by Dr. Randy Mullis
Wednesday, August 21

Featuring a roundtable of historians
Tuesday, November 19

And, hey, if you live on the West Coast and just can’t make it to Kansas City next week, I will be in Seattle next month speaking to the Puget Sound Civil War Round Table.

Maybe someday my name will be in lights

And maybe not . . . But it was pretty cool to see this the other day at the Naval War College:

Going Joint with General Grant!

Next week, I will be briefly leaving the nice little Army schoolhouse William T. Sherman established here on the banks of the Missouri River and traveling to Newport, Rhode Island, to get immersed in what Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson once referred to as “a dim religious world in which Neptune was God, Mahan his prophet, and the United States Navy the only true Church.” There I will be teaching a two-hour seminar that is part of a course a former West Point colleague, Jon Scott Logel, who is now now on the staff of the Naval War College, is in charge of. The subject of the seminar is “Grant in Command”, which is described thusly:

After Vicksburg and Chattanooga, Grant took command of the entire Union Army. Lincoln depended on Grant to develop and execute a strategy that could defeat the Confederacy in 1864. This lesson examines how Grant fought his strategy in Virginia and leveraged Sherman’s forces to end the rebellion in the spring of 1865. Students will assess the merits of Grant as strategist and as a leader of the U.S. Army in war.

The assigned reading consists of about 160 pages from Grant’s memoirs that cover the last two years of the war. Since this will naturally involve covering Grant’s strategy for 1864, I have asked that the students also read the following January 1864 letter Grant wrote to Halleck.

Hdqrs. Military Division of the Mississippi
Nashville, Tenn., January 19, 1864.

Major General H. W. HALLECK,
General-in-Chief of the Army, Washington, D. C.:

GENERAL: I would respectfully suggest whether an abandonment of all previously attempted lines to Richmond is not advisable, and in lieu of these one be taken farther south. I would suggest Raleigh, N. C., as the objective point and Suffolk as the starting point. Raleigh once secured, I would make New Berne the base of supplies until Wilmington is secured.

A moving force of 60,000 men would probably be required to start on such an expedition. This force would not have to be increased unless Lee should withdraw from his present position. In that case the necessity for so large a force on the Potomac would not exist. A force moving from Suffolk would destroy first all the roads about Weldon, or even as far north as Hicksford. From Weldon to Raleigh they would scarcely meet with serious opposition. Once there, the most interior line of railway still left to the enemy, in fact the only one they would then have, would be so threatened as to force him to use a large portion of his army in guarding it. This would virtually force an evacuation of Virginia and indirectly of East Tennessee. It would throw our armies into new fields, where they could partially live upon the country and would reduce the stores of the enemy. It would cause thousands of the North Carolina troops to desert and return to their homes. It would give us possession of many negroes who are now indirectly aiding the rebellion. It would draw the enemy from campaigns of their own choosing, and for which they are prepared, to new lines of operations never expected to become necessary. It would effectually blockade Wilmington, the port now of more value to the enemy than all the balance of their sea-coast. It would enable operations to commence at once by removing the war to a more southern climate, instead of months of inactivity in winter quarters.

Other advantages might be cited which would be likely to grow out of this plan, but these are enough. From your better opportunities of studying the country and the armies that would be involved in this plan, you will be better able to judge of the practicability of it than I possibly can. I have written this in accordance with what I understand to be an invitation from you to express my views about military operations, and not to insist that any plan of mine should be carried out. Whatever course is agreed upon, I shall always believe is at least intended for the best, and until fully tested will hope to have it prove so.

I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 70 volumes in 128 parts. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), series 1, vol.33: 394-95.

This document—as is the letter from Halleck laying out the Lincoln administration’s objections to the ideas contained in it—must figure prominently in any effort to understand or explain Grant’s thinking as he ascended to the office of general-in-chief and assumed responsibility for formulating Union strategy. Indeed, to revisit an argument I made over five years ago in an essay on Grant scholarship, it is astounding to me that so many works published since 1983 on Grant and his generalship neglect the subject. “Undoubtedly,” I argued, “the main explanation for the neglect of this document is the fact that Grant did not mention it in his memoirs. . . . Still, this is no excuse for ignoring a document that is readily accessible in both the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant and Official Records.”

Why 1983? Aside from the dismissive treatment of it in works by Bruce Catton and T. Harry Williams, it was not really until the appearance of Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones’s How the North Won that Grant’s letter seems to have received the attention and degree of sophisticated analysis it deserved. Since then, Brooks Simpson has followed in Hattaway and Jones’s footsteps to make serious consideration of this document a critical part of his analysis of Grant’s generalship. Yet, it seems that even though nearly thirty years have passed since the publication of How the North Won, Simpson remains rare in this respect among students of Grant’s generalship—though I like to think I have also given the letter appropriate attention in my own work on Grant and his relationship with Meade.

Of course, this is just further evidence of How the North Won’s status as one of the great books in the field people say they recognize, but have not taken the time to read with the care it requires and deserves.


Washington Times, 31 December 2012

Better Be Good for Goodness Sake

From yesterday’s Washington Times:

A Civil War Christmas: Santa Claus on the battlefield
Tuesday, December 18, 2012 – The Civil War by Martha M. Boltz

VIENNA, Va., December 18, 2012 — It’s difficult to write about the Civil War at Christmas time, since during that time of war, battles and skirmishes, most folks just did not sit down and commit their thoughts of Yuletide observances to paper and ink, that is if they had ink. But Christmas was celebrated to some extent both in the North and in the South.

However, you can never talk of the Civil War and Christmas without bringing up the name of Thomas Nast, who was a newspaper cartoonist and a rabid Northerner. It was Nast to whom we owe the word-picture and the actual drawing of Santa Claus, which flowed from his prolific pen.

He published his first Christmas-related cartoon in “Harper’s Weekly” during Christmas,1863, showing a bewhiskered gent passing out gifts to Union soldiers. A couple of fairly young looking boys are pictured on the floor, opening boxes.

The rest of the story is here.

For those who want a take on Old St. Nick/Father Christmas that is a bit more up to date:

West Point Summer Seminar

The Department of History at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point has posted its call for applications for the 2013 Summer Seminar on Military History. This three-week program brings together approximately two dozen junior scholars of military history (graduate students who have completed all but their dissertation are also eligible) at West Point to participate in a terrific program of seminars, lectures, and staff rides. In 2013, it is scheduled to run 3-22 June.

From the website:

The West Point Department of History will host the 2013 Summer Seminar from June 3-June 22. The Department of History has designed this intensive 20-day program to further develop scholars’ understanding of the study of war and military history.

The West Point Summer Seminar in Military History seeks to broaden its participants’ knowledge of military history, preparing them to develop or enhance studies in this critical field at the collegiate level. The Summer Seminar brings together a select group of historians for a series of seminars and lectures, as well as staff rides to Revolutionary War and Civil War sites, and a visit to the Army Heritage and Education Center at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. Led by members of the West Point faculty and a variety of noted military historians, these activities facilitate detailed discussions of historiography and pedagogy within the field of military history.

Due to the generosity of our donor, fellows attend the Summer Seminar without cost. Fellowships support lodging, meals, per diem expenses, and most travel costs. The Seminar also provides books and materials applicable to the program.

Fellowships for the West Point Summer Seminar in Military History are open to junior faculty and advanced graduate students in the field of history who desire to enhance their ability to study and teach military history. At a minimum, applicants must have completed all requirements for the doctorate other than submission of the dissertation (ABD). Applicants must have the ability to traverse difficult terrain of up to five miles on battlefields such as Saratoga and Gettysburg. We welcome applications from English-speaking students and faculty worldwide.

The deadline for application packets for the 2013 Summer Seminar is 18 January 2013. Application packets consist of a completed application form, curriculum vitae, a sample of academic writing, and a letter of recommendation. Click here for application information and materials.

If you have other questions about the program, please contact the Program Director Major William Nance 845-938-4395 or Major Richard Anderson 845-938-5592.

Gettysburg Semester

Recently received the message below from Dr. Jason M. Frawley, who did his Ph.D. at Texas Christian under Civil Warrriors alumnus Steven Woodworth. Dr. Frawley is currently serving as the Thomas W. Smith Post-Doctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

One of my responsibilities is helping the program’s director, Dr. Allen C. Guelzo, recruit undergraduate students for The Gettysburg Semester.

Each fall semester, the Civil War Era Studies program brings a group of undergraduate students to Gettysburg College, where they are immersed in the study of the American Civil War. From living in a 19th-century mansion to treading the battlefields where America’s fate was decided, The Gettysburg Semester students enjoy a unique experience.

As part of the program, they generally take four courses: Interpretation of the Civil War, Field Experience in Civil War Era Studies, and two courses of their choosing. Many students elect to forgo a fourth course and substitute it with a public history internship. In the past, we have had students intern at Gettysburg National Military Park, Antietam National Battlefield, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, the Adams County Historical Society, and the Shriver House Museum. Such hands-on internships and interdisciplinary study help to reveal a multifaceted history and shed light on the men and women who lived it.

More inforation is available by The Gettysburg Semester website.

If you are, or know of any possibly interested undergraduate students, please bring this to their attention. Application information is located on the website above.

If you should have any questions or concerns, you can contact me at the addresses and phone numbers below my signature. Thank you.

Jason M. Frawley, Ph.D.
Thomas W. Smith Post Doctoral Fellow & Visiting Assistant Professor
Gettysburg College, Civil War Era Studies
Weidensall Hall 403
300 North Washington Street
Gettysburg, PA 17325-1400

Interesting . . .

Wasn’t there an episode on Family Guy on this issue?

Secession petitions filed on White House site
Posted by Rachel Weiner on November 12, 2012 at 11:23 pm

From states across the country, Americans have filed petitions on the White House Web site seeking to secede from the union and form new state governments.

While most of the petitions come from states that supported Mitt Romney in last week’s election, a few swing states and even the deep blue Northeast are represented.

Petitions have been filed for Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York. North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

The rest of the story is here.

Where’s Nathaniel Lyon when you need him?


From Antietam National Battlefield’s Facebook page:

Looks pretty bad, but it has been through worse.

On the banks of the Chickamauga, October 2012