Thursday, April 9, 2015

Strike the colors

On this day in 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. General Joe Johnston's army was still in the field, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis was still at large, but Lee's surrender effectively ended the Civil War.

Shelby Foote's "The Civil War" had enormous influence on me. I can't remember when I purchased the first volume, but I devoured it in a week. The American War of Independence gave birth to the political entity called the United States of America, but the Civil War set in stone what sort of political entity it was going to be. Before the 1860s, Americans often said "The United States ARE," and only after Appomattox did the plural become the singular: "The United States IS."

Leaving aside for a moment the political aspects of the war, militarily the South never stood a realistic chance. Granted, the American colonists were severely outmatched in materiel and wealth by the British empire, but the British had to ferry troops across 3000 miles of ocean to fight in a war that wasn't particularly popular at home. At the start of the Civil War, the Confederacy had a population of 9 million - with one or two million of that number being slaves - to the Union's 22 million. William Tecumseh Sherman had the Confederacy's number before the shooting began at Fort Sumter:
You people of the South don't know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilizationYou people speak so lightly of war; you don't know what you're talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it … Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth — right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.
A question that has long haunted military history buffs and science fiction/fantasy writers is "What if the South had won at Gettysburg?" The answer is, they'd have still lost the war. Vicksburg, more so than Gettysburg, was the final nail in the Confederacy's coffin. William R. Forstchen and Newt Gingrich teamed up a few years ago to write a trilogy of alternate history novels positing a Southern victory at Gettysburg. The first novel, Gettysburg, makes Robert E. Lee a good deal more ruthless in his prosecution of the battle. He takes the advice of James Longstreet and withdraws from the outskirts of Gettysburg to a friendlier position for the Confederates, luring the Union into smashing their heads against a brick wall as they did at Fredericksburg all over again. This prompts Lincoln to move Grant east sooner than he did in real life.

One thing that makes reading of the Civil War so enjoyable is that the major players come across as men of honor fighting for what they believe in. Of course there were bad men in the Civil War as there are in all wars, but this was when war was still cruel and glorious and before it became cruel and squalid as Churchill put it.

Both Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant are personal heroes of mine. Lee was a Christian gentleman, an audacious soldier, and his post-war commitment to binding up the wounds of a bleeding nation are an example of true courage and humility in the face of defeat. Grant is one of those rare generals in military history who never lost a battle. Lost Cause apologists and the historically ignorant deride Grant as a butcher who simply used the North's comparatively bottomless resources to club the South into submission. The truth is, Grant just was the better general. Reading his life, one gets the impression that he was born to fight the Civil War; he was a failure at most everything he did before the war. He went on to be elected President of the United States though historians have perennially ranked him in the bottom three presidents of all time. If you've never read The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, I strongly recommend you run to the library or purchase a copy right now. Grant raced against the reaper to finish them. He died of throat cancer a day or two after finishing the manuscript which was compiled and edited by Mark Twain.

150 years later, both sides of the Civil War read like dispatches from a foreign nation. The 14th amendment, originally intended for the children of freed slaves, is now one of the chief weapons the Coalition of the Fringes uses to wage war on the core Americans they despise. If all of the blue states decided to secede from red state America, my attitude would be, "So long and good riddance." If the South rose again, I wouldn't take up arms to keep them here against their will. The Union officers frequently wrote about how the Southern rebellion simply had to be crushed or else democracy would be a failure. They couldn't have known that they were delaying the inevitable. Democracy could have endured in a comparatively homogeneous society like mid 19th century America. 21st century America is a polyglot empire that will begin breaking apart in earnest by the 2030s.

1 comment:

  1. Re: American War of Independence. Despite popular mythology to the contrary -- the Colonists did not defeat the British Empire. Besides the American colonies being the British Empire, it was the entry of France, Spain and virtually every other power in Europe into the war against Britain that lead to Britain's defeat.

    Had, say, Britain, France and Russia entered the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, the United States would have lost. It's that simple.

    Grant never lost a battle? Ever hear of Cold Harbor? Even Grant admitted in his memoirs that that was one big f*** up.

    More to the point, unlike Lee, Grant never fought a single battle without the overwhelming advantage in numbers.

    Providence is on the side of the big battalions.

    No, Grant wasn't crap, but had Lee enjoyed the preponderance of forces in any one of their engagements, Lee would have won -- decisively.