Friday, July 24, 2009

Taking a Break

Folks, Civil War Et. Al. will be on hiatus for two weeks. My wife and I will be taking a vacation. I wish you all the best and look forward to chatting with you about all things Civil War related when I return.
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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Bull Run and its Impact

During these days in 1861, both sides endured the impact of the first battle of Bull Run. The Civil War had a number of turning points that changed people's perceptions, from the man on the street to the elite at the top.
Bull Run or Manassas dispelled some craven illusions. Southerners assumed that the North would let them drift away. Northerners assumed that a quick show of force would sweep the South back into the fold. Neither side expected the shedding of blood.

Few people foresaw a long-term conflict. Those that did were not heeded. Before hostilities broke out, Confederate Attorney General Judah Benjamin proposed that a big shipment of cotton be sent to Europe. He wanted to use that revenue to pay for the war. His proposal went nowhere and the Confederacy eventually resorted to printing money to meet its expenses. Runaway inflation resulted.

There is also the episode of Sherman's "insanity" when he correctly predicted the armed strength the North would need to win the war.

Prophecies require time for the general mass of people to accept them.

Bull Run shattered any chance of a peaceful parting of ways. Shiloh demolished any hope of either side obtaining a cheap victory. Vicksburg and Gettysburg ended any opportunity of Southern victory short of Northern exhaustion.

Battles are like disasters. They shatter dogmas and sometimes, beliefs.
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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Lincoln the Advisetaker

On this day in 1862, President Lincoln revealed the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his stunned Cabinet. He had not briefed anyone about this initiative. On Secretary of State William Seward's advice, Lincoln waited to release the Proclamation until a military victory. That would not come until September and the Battle of Antietam.

This decision shows Lincoln's greatness as a leader. He felt sure of himself yet he was willing to accept good advice. We have all worked for managers whose attitude was "When I want your opinion, I'll give it to you." By accepting the advice, Lincoln added to the impact of the Proclamation. In so doing, he made it impossible for Britain and France to recognize the South.

He possessed that quality that every successful politician must have: good timing.
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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Comments on the Comments-The State of Jones

After writing my critique of The State of Jones, I took some time to read some of the criticisms of the book (i.e., I sat around in court and played with my Blackberry).

I read about the alleged historical holes in the book pointed out by the author Vicki Bynum. Specifically, my fellow bloggers discussed the lack of proof that Newton Knight actually served during the siege of Vicksburg. Second, they also talked about the evident lack of a declaration of secession by the Unionists in Jones County.

I think you might give the authors a pass on the Vicksburg question. Knight was captured before the siege and his unit found itself trapped in the city. It is a fair assumption to make that he was there. The lack of documentary proof of his presence there is understandable. Thousands of Confederate soldiers languished in the Southern earthworks and in the city itself. It was a chaotic situation. The authors of The State of Jones could hardly be expected to produce doumentation that probably did not exist or was most likely destroyed. There was no needle in that haystack because the needle probably never existed.

As for the declaration of secession, that may be correct. Throughout the book, I did not remember reading about a formal document severing Jones County from the Confederacy. It is clear that Southern authorities lost control of the county due to the depredations of Newton Knight and others. However, I don't recall a mention of a formal secession. As I mentioned in my review, they quoted extensively from their primary source materials. Such a declaration would definitely have made their list.

I hope Stauffer and Jenkins can answer these questions. They spent four years researching and writing their book. Perhaps they can come forward with an adequate rebuttal.
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Monday, July 20, 2009

An Unlikely Civil War Buff

One of my friends made an unlikely admission to me. He too is a Civil War buff.

His name is Getinder Singh (his friends call him GT). In accordance with Sikh religious customs, he wears a turban, a full beard and a kara (bracelet) on his arm. He is a criminal defense attorney who practices in the New York City and Long Island courts. He defends felons and drunk drivers. His job is to keep people from the iron bars. GT grew up in Richmond Hill, Queens from parents who came from the northwestern Indian state of Punjab.

We had known each other for a while when he told me that he had been to all the major battle sites in the East. He told me,"I dragged my kids there." He remarked about how amazing they are and how he wants his children to have some appreciation of American history.

Isn't is amazing? This is a man who is a first generation American yet he has a deep interest in our Civil War. This is also a man who has traveled all over the world yet he chose to see Gettysburg and Spotsylvania. It shows you what a compelling event it is. Civil War buffs are a diverse lot.
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Sunday, July 19, 2009

The State of Jones-Review

This is an interesting story that would have worked better as a novel. The protagonist's narrative overcame the flaws in the writing. This book does not live up to its promise.

As the work progresses, the reader gets the sense that there is simply an insufficient amount of material about its protagonist, Newton Knight, and his men. The authors are at times reduced to guessing about what Knight and his group did. For instance, the authors write on P. 175, "It is quite possible that a member of Newton Knight's company..."

This is especially true on the subject of Knight's romance with Rachel Knight. The authors, Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, are unsure about her appearance. The reader is given a choice between two prospective photos about how she might have looked. There are no notes or letters between them. This is not the authors' fault but there is clearly a lack of material here.

Indeed, Jenkins and Stauffer often engage in exercises of speculation. On P. 277, they write,"Newton left no record of his mood after the election of 1875, but it can be guessed at..."

Jenkins and Stauffer then try to compensate by bombarding the reader with what they do know. When they quote from documents, they provide overlong extracts. For example, the authors subject the reader to the two-page report of Colonel William Brown of the 20th Mississippi on P.206-208. There is no reason for two pages of documents. The same holds true for their odd choice of attaching transcripts and testimonials at the end of the chapters. Primary source materials should be woven into a historian's prose. The skill in historical writing is the ability to make the quoting appear seamless.

This war book also suffers from a lack of maps. Like most of the readers and the authors themselves, I am not from Mississippi or Jones County. I would have liked to have seen the locations of these events.

Jenkins and Stauffer also show a fundamental ignorance of the nature of warfare. Their 21st-century prejudices become glaring. They describe John Bell Hood's actions as commander of the Army of Tennessee. They characterize John Bell Hood as "almost psychotically combative." Clearly, the authors fail to realize that generals succeed and fail on being aggressive. They are supposed to be combative. Lee and Grant gained their victories by having that characteristic. In addition, these men were fighting in the 19th century with the example of the Napoleonic charge over their shoulders. Hood was a conventional but incompetant 19th century general.

Jenkins and Stauffer, in their determined effort to lionize Newton Knight, are unfairly critical of the man's son Tom Knight. The authors seem blind to the fact that Newton's romance with Rachel, though racially progressive, was still adultery. Any son would be deeply angry when a father betrayed his mother in such an open manner. Newton, however brave, still engaged in baleful personal behavior. Though his conduct had racial undertones, Tom Knight's rejection of Newton and the man's second family seem quite understandable when you consider what Newton did.

On the positive side, the authors do a good job of evoking life in Mississippi during and after the war.

They also show how the old order reasserted itself in Mississippi after the war. Stauffer and Jenkins describe how Grant's lack of will allowed the return of the ex-Confederates to power. Basically, Jefferson Davis's Unionism of the 1850's became reality. He saw the South staying formally within the Union with the whites dominant and the blacks in a servile state. That vision came true by the end of Reconstruction.

This book does not live up to the caption on its front cover. Jones County returned to neo-Confederate control during Reconstruction. The only broad repercussions from Newton Knight's rebellion seemed to be for him and some of his men. The loss of rights for the blacks in Jones County also occurred to the rest of the freedmen in the South.

This book is interesting and worth reading on the subject of Southern Unionism. However, its flaws outweigh its virtues.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Joseph Johnston-A Great Civil War Commander?

Today in 1864, John Bell Hood replaced Joseph Johnston as commander of the Army of Tennessee.

Will someone explain to me why Joseph Johnston was considered a great commander? The man only seemed to know how to retreat. During McClellan's Peninsular Campaign, he withdrew until the Federals were within eight miles of Richmond. When he finally launched his attack at Seven Pines, the results turned inconclusive. When he became head of the Army of Tennessee, his failure to reinforce Pemberton in Vicksburg was a direct cause of the city's fall. The loss of Vicksburg might have been forestalled if Johnston had attacked Grant from behind. Finally, his relentless withdrawal before Sherman showed his lack of fitness for command.

Perhaps I'm missing something here. Maybe someone out there can enlighten me but I do not see the attraction or ability of this man. He has a name because he was part of crucial events. However, he failed to perform when those tests arrived.

I'm curious to see what you out there think.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Can You Blame Them?

The Christ Lutheran Church in Gettysburg will remove two linden trees that "witnessed" the Battle of Gettysburg.

It is a tough but understandable decision. According to the Evening Sun, the trees are 170 years old and they lie in front of Chambersburg Street in Gettysburg. They are dying and pose a threat to the safety of passersby and to the buildings around them.

They also create a potential for liability. People like me have created this danger (yes, I am a lawyer). It's unfortunate that legal concerns override so much else, including our history. I wonder what we tort lawyers might have done after the Battle of Gettysburg. We might have sued General Lee for intentional infliction of emotional distress. As a defense lawyer, I might have responded, "Gentlemen, you assumed the risk. Fighting a battle is an inherently dangerous activity."

However, we Civil War buffs will gain something at Gettysburg. The National Park Service will soon be cutting down the trees at Culps Hill. They will make the site look similar to the way it did at the time of the battle. Visitors will soon be able to imagine the true historical conditions.

So we will lose trees but improve on a historical site.

What do you think of the church's decision?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Hope in the Wilderness

Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, a Democrat, and Virginia House of Delegates Speaker William Howell, a Republican, have raised the stakes in the Wilderness Wal Mart debate. They have jointly signed a letter to the Orange County chairman Lee Frame urging the county to choose an alternative site for Wal Mart's proposed superstore.

The two politicians also offered to mediate a compromise to this dispute.

Though the ultimate decision rests with the county's Board of Supervisors, this creates a real possibility that an alternative site could be chosen.

As previously noted on this blog, John Marcantoni, a developer in Orange County, has offered land owned by him and his partner for Wal Mart's new store.

The supervisors in Orange County might take note and require Wal Mart to find another location. They now face public pressure to do so. It might be in their self-interest to seek a compromise.

The second battle of the Wilderness might yet be won.
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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Kenneth Stampp-A Real Loss

I read about the death of Kenneth Stampp with sadness. Like David Herbert Donald, we are losing another grand old historian.

Stampp was unique because he challenged and won against preconceived myths. In his Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South, he debunked the notion that slaveholders were preservers of racial harmony. Rather, they kept blacks out of economic choice. He slayed other myths in "The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877" when he portrayed that period as an era of progress instead of the previously-portrayed morass of corruption and rapacity.

It takes a certain intelligence to successfully take on and debunk cherished assumptions. People's ideas of history are often a mass of myths and images. They hold to their assumptions with great force. Stampp must have had a great deal of courage to challenge those viewpoints.

Professor Stampp will be read and missed.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Slaves: Deception and Guile-The Necessary Survival Tools

An article in the Civil War Interactive site discusses the espionage of Mary Elizabeth Bowser, the black nanny of Jefferson Davis's children. When Davis realized that a mole existed in his household, he never suspected her. She put on the front of an illiterate slave.

I am currently reading State of Jones, by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer. In a revealing section about Rachel, the lover of Newton Knight, the hero of the book, the authors discuss her necessary tools for survival. She conveyed an outward image of submission to her masters. Behind the scenes, she aided the Unionist guerrilas in Jones County, Mississippi. She helped to feed, arm and provide them with information. Like Bowser, she used the preconceived image that white people had to her advantage.

Fortunately for the Union, these two women and others played their parts very well.
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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Civil War National Parks-Nature Preserves

Civil War parks are not only historical sites, but great nature preserves as well.

Greg Wolcott, a maintenance worker at the Pea Ridge National Park, gives monthly walks pointing out the birds on the site. After several years, he can distinguish them by sight and sound. The wildlife has given him a lot of material.

The nature is also wonderful at the other parks. During my visit to Shiloh National Park, I saw a deer roaming nearby. At Spotsylvania, the area near the Angle has a wonderful trail. The place is silent at many points in the day. It is so quiet and peaceful. Apparently, I am not the only one who thinks so. At Chancellorsville, I noticed an elderly man jogging. The hiking in these places is wonderful. With the federalization of these sites, they have become nature preserves.

The quiet is in utter contrast to the force and violence that occurred at these battle sites.

The beautiful nature at these parks is a way to sell a visit there. You can tell your spouse,"Honey, you'll love the trees."
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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Potential Solution to Wal Mart in the Wilderness

Orange County developer John Marcantoni may have an answer to the potential Wal Mart in the Wilderness.

He is proposing an alternative site owned by him and his business partner along Virginia State Route 3. The site consists of 75 acres. Above all, it does not impinge on the Wilderness battle site, as the proposed Wal Mart location will.

This could serve as a win-win situation for Wal Mart and Orange County. The retailer could get its superstore and the county could buttress its tax base.

Though Wal Mart has initially objected to a relocation, Marcantoni has a valid response to their reservations. Marcantoni's spot is zoned for agricultural use whereas the current proposed location is already zoned for commercial use. The alternative site would have to be rezoned. However, the developer points out that Wal Mart is already taking the equivalent bureaucratic steps for rezoning because it is applying for a special use permit. Wal Mart would simply have to perform the same steps for Marcantoni's location.

This could save the Wilderness battle site. We should all write to the Orange County Board of Supervisors to advocate for the alternative site.

This is our chance for a good, creative solution to this problem.
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Monday, July 6, 2009

Confederate Flag and the Statehouse

Nine years after the Confederate battle flag was taken from its perch over the statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina, it remains over the Confederate soldiers memorial there.

The debate still rages over whether it should even be where it is. Some say that the flag is a symbol of degradation. The NAACP maintains a multi-year boycott over this issue. Yet there are black state lawmakers in South Carolina who support the flag remaining over the memorial.

I think it should remain there. The Confederate battle flag is a part of history that cannot be erased. Hundreds of thousands of Southerners fought and died for the Confederate cause. They were Americans too. Whatever one thinks of their cause, they too should be honored and remembered.

However, that flag is not an identity. I once read an estimate that over forty percent of Southerners fought against the Confederacy. The recent book State of Jones (which is sitting on my shelf waiting to be read) describes such an anti-Confederate revolt in Mississippi. Prominent ex-Confederates like James Longstreet and P.T. Beauregard risked ostracism from their neighbors to fight for the rights of black people after the war. No, to be a Southerner did not necessarily mean being a Confederate. Longstreet and Beauregard fought for that flag. Should their wartime and postwar services be denigrated by lowering it?

Democracy means living with and tolerating people who don't agree with you and may have different viewpoints on the same history. Keeping the flag over the soldiers memorial symbolizes that spirit of toleration.
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Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Gettysburg Address and my Nephews

In honor of Independence Day, I read the Gettysburg Address to my nieces and nephew. My wife and I visited them in Virginia. Each year, I read the Address to myself. This year, I shared it with them.

Between playing catch, doing wheelies on my five year-old nephew's scooter and digging for buried treasure (we found a rock), I caught them taking an interest in my Blackberry. I seized my chance and downloaded the speech off of Google. With them seated around me, I read the speech. It pleased me to see their rapt attention. I then rounded off reading the speech by telling them how the photographer at Gettysburg dedication got lazy and managed to take a picture of the president sitting down after delivering the Address. They laughed. I tried to keep it entertaining.

When I finished, I asked them what they thought of it. My eleven year-old niece Priyanka said that it was about how America is about equality and peace. Priya, my nine year-old niece, agreed. I was just happy that their eyes didn't glaze over from boredom.

I think it is very important to introduce children to the Civil War and American history at an early age. You have to get to them before the teenage years claim them. For us Civil War buffs, this is an important responsibility because our school system is so atrocious. Students come out of high school not knowing when the Civil War occurred. I remember going to a movie theater and overhearing an Ivy League-bound high school senior asking when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred.

We have to take matters into our own hands. We have to teach the children in our families.

What about you out there? How have you tried to spread the knowledge to the children in your family?
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Friday, July 3, 2009

Day 3-Gettysburg

On this day in 1863, the Confederacy lost its final chance for a battle of annihilation. Like Napoleon in his wars, Lee sought a final battle that could end the war. With the failure of Picketts Charge, the Union Army destroyed the South's offensive striking power. Lee's army no longer had the ability to mount a knockout blow that would bring strategic victory. Henceforward, every battle would be a defensive or tactical loss or win.
The loss of Picketts Charge also showed Longstreet's strategic insight. He knew that the Charge would fail. For that reason, he gave his assent to the attack at 4pm on July 3rd with a silent nod of the head. He understood the need for defensive warfare. I think Longstreet saw that the days of the Napoleonic charge were over. He would have made a very good World War I general. Like most people ahead of their time, he was ignored or despised.

He seemed like a very interesting man. Can anyone recommend a good biography about him?

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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Gettysburg-The Great Accidental Battle

Happenstance controlled a great deal of what happened at Gettysburg on Days 1 and 2. Lee could not have foreseen that AP Hill's corps would encounter Union cavalry in this town in south central Pennsylvania. Meade certainly hadn't planned on it. He had just received his command several days before.

The Union was very lucky in its junior officers. John Buford and his cavalrymen held the line until John Reynolds's corps could arrive. Gouverneur Warren ensured that Little Round Top would not be taken and the Union flank rolled up. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlin saved that flank with the 20th Maine's defense and bayonet attack. If anything, the higher command served as a liability, especially with Daniel Sickles's movement of his corps that led to his forces being cut to pieces.

If not for the junior officers, the North's successful defensive maneuvers would have failed. It seems as if the North won in spite of the generals, not because of them. Fate placed capable, competent men into the right place at the right time.
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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

If Stonewall Had Lived

Since today is the anniversary of Day 1 of the Battle of Gettysburg, I want to advance a pet theory of mine. It's always enjoyable to engage in these what-ifs.

I think the South would have won at Gettysburg if Stonewall Jackson had lived beyond Chancellorsville. He would have performed one of his brilliant flanking maneuvers a la Second Bull Run and Chancellorsville. Though he had not performed the same magic at Antietam, I think it could have happened at Gettysburg. Regardless of Stuart's failure of reconnaisance there, Stonewall would have surveilled the ground and found a weakness. His implementation made Lee's grand tactical thrusts in 1862 possible.

For these reasons, I think Jackson's death was a catastrophe for the Confederacy. The South's chief asset during the war was its brilliant military leadership. Once Stonewall was gone, the South lost an irreplaceable asset.

What do you think of my theory? I am interested in your views.
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