Saturday, December 3, 2011

Hansen's Civil War

Just finished reading historian Harry Hansen’s 1961 opus, The Civil War: A History. At 654 pages, it goes just deep enough to give the armchair historian a well-grounded, thorough knowledge of the four-year conflict. I found it to be quite insightful and quite readable, putting away 30 to 40 pages a sitting. The author’s passion toward his subject often comes through, whether it’s praise of courage and ingenuity or sorrow at the always-grim realities of war.

My only bone of contention is his ever-present but necessary tendency to detail general after general after general in each and every skirmish and the number and types of men under his command (i.e. infantry, cavalry, artillery, even numbers of engineers and cooks and whatnot on occasion). My eyes glazed over through these parts, but I’d only place them at 1-5 % of the entire work. Usually Hansen will describe in vivid imagery the main gist and movements of a battle and conclude with these lists.

Far more numerous are the little tales the generously sprinkle the book. I’ve listed my main takeaways from this category below. * Towards the end there are whole chapters (of only a half-dozen or so pages each compared to the more lengthier ones detailing major battles such as Gettysburg and Antietam) that I felt to be so interesting as to kindle a desire in me to attempt a screenplay, of all things!

I decided to list a dozen items I took away from the book. Now, I’m not a historian and I don’t have a photographic memory, so if I err on any detail, please don’t crucify me. I encourage you to read more of this monumental struggle. As an aside, I am somewhat disappointed at the lack of American literature on the subject. You have Walt Whitman’s poetry, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. While all three truly are literary masterpieces, I’m sort of sad that there isn’t a greater volume of works about the Civil War. Maybe there is that I haven’t noted yet; I intend to revisit the subject maybe this time next year.

Anyway, here are some things that stuck with me –

1. Grant’s Astronomic Rise.

After a mediocre mid-level military career, Grant is working for his younger brother in a tannery owned by his dad at the start of the Civil War. A little over two years later he is the chief commanding officer of the military, bringing Lee to surrender a littler over a year after that. And five years after that, he’s President-Elect of the United States. I’d previously thought he was always a general or something, colonel maybe, and always had the president’s ear during the war. Not so.

2. The Union named battles after the nearest body of water; the Confederacy named them after the nearest population center.

I used to wonder why some sources called Bull Run Manassas and Second Bull Run Second Manassas. Now I know. Bull Run is a meandering stream in Virginia. Manassas is the town where Southern forces were encamped. Thus, Northern historians refer to the battles as First and Second Bull Run, while Southerners call it First and Second Manassas. Ahhhh.

3. The Union named its armies after the nearest body of water; the Confederacy named them after the largest population center.

A variation of #2. Quiz – which sides did the Army of Tennessee and the Army of the Tennessee fight for? How about the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia, armies that pretty much locked horns continuously throughout the four-years of fighting?

4. The naval aspect of the Civil War.

You all heard of the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac. The Monitor was one of the first functioning submarines (if you define “submarine” very loosely). The Merrimac was one of the first “ironclad” ships – wooden ships with iron plating making it all but impervious to traditional artillery. The battle raged on for a day at the Battle of Hampton Roads, a port in Virginia.

But what I didn’t realize was that, by war’s end, there were over 75 ironclads and a half-dozen monitor-class ships in the Union navy. In fact, the last “monitor” was decommissioned sometime in the 1930s.

Some of the best writing in the book occurs during these naval scenes. Of particular interest was Admiral David Farragut’s victories in the ports of New Orleans in 1862 and Mobile Bay in 1864; Cushing stealthily destroying the CSS Albemarle like a WW2 espionage mission; and the battle before the USS Kearsarge and the CSS Alabama, a fearsome Confederate privateering vessel, off the coast of France.

5. Only one man was executed after the war for war crimes.

Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville Prison, sight of thousands and thousands of deaths of Union prisoners-of-war. Deaths due to malnutrition, exposure, disease, and neglect. Now, I don’t know enough about the case to assess the man’s guilt, but I do know that at his military trial his lawyers enacted the Nuremburg Defense: “I was only following orders.”

6. The sheer brutality of the war.

Over 210,000 men died in the conflict (two-thirds of that figure Union forces; the rest Confederates). It was not uncommon for skirmishes to have hundreds killed and major battles thousands. Antietam, the bloodiest battle of the war, had over 2,100 Union soldiers killed and over 1,500 Confederate killed. (By the way, Antietam is a creek in Maryland. Sharpsburg is the nearest hamlet to the battlefield. In the south the battle of Antietam is known as the battle of Sharpsburg.)

Some of Hansen’s descriptions of the carnage are particularly nightmarish and infinitely sorrowful. The Battle of the Wilderness, where fallen soldiers, too wounded to move, were consumed by raging flames begun by artillery shells igniting the brush. Other wounded, such as those at Spotsylvania, lying in the hot sun during the day and the cold chill of night, unable to be rescued to due sharpshooters from either side. And those who were brought off the battlefield to reach the hospital often suffered much, much more. The most common “remedy” to a bullet wound was amputation. Sterilization was not practiced, and infection killed more than actual lead.

7. Lincoln as General-in-Chief.

The first two-and-a-half years of the war Lincoln desperately searched for a general who would lead Union forces to victory. A fruitless search, as he went through over a half-dozen generals – Scott, McDowell, McClellan, Halleck, Burnside, Hooker, Meade – before Grant stepped up with western victories. And throughout those two-and-a-half years Lincoln himself often had to suggest and even order various strategic and tactical objectives upon his indecisive and overly-cautious generals.

8. Novel aspects of the war –

Balloons used for reconnaissance, one of the first instances of such an application. “Torpedoes” – actually mines, which lined many Southern harbors and ports. The famous phrase “Damn the torpedoes!” is attributed to Admiral David Farragut during the naval battle of Mobile Bay, an 1864 clash that took the South’s last major open port.

I learned about “mining warfare” from the book. Apparently, in at least two battles, Vicksburg and Petersburg, Union soldiers from Pennsylvania and West Virginia, expert in mining, tunneled out 500-foot shafts underneath Southern battle lines. Hansen addresses how you do this, how you get fresh air down a hole that long, how the rebels could hear sounds of tunneling but couldn’t determine where. Then they’d send in a ton of explosives and set it off. Though the aftermath never really justified widespread use, it’s an example of war-time ingenuity that never occurred to me.

9. The sheer numbers of generals –

Wikipedia notes 1,600 (!) Union and 88 Confederate generals; Hansen’s mentions 153 generals of various stripes (determined by a quick count of names in the Index). Before I’d assume there was Grant and Sherman and a few others in the North, Lee and Stonewall Jackson plus a few others in the South. Hardly! And I was shocked to note the number of generals killed in action. You may know Stonewall Jackson shot by mistake by his own troops, but snipers, normal combat wounds, cannonballs – all claimed the lives of these high commanders.

10. The West Point fraternity of Civil War generals.

I found it strange and almost unbelievable that so many of the generals on each side knew each other – many roomed together – at the West Point Military Academy. A brief list of notable graduates: Generals Grant, Sherman, Meade, Sheridan, McClellan, Custer, Doubleday, Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, Hood, Stuart, Johnston, Johnston, Polk, Bragg, Kirby Smith. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was a graduate of the class of 1826. General Robert E. Lee was Superintendent of West Point for three years; his son was also a graduate, class of 1854, and became a Southern general himself.

I remember Hansen noting that Confederate General James Longstreet attended General U. S. Grant’s wedding before the war, and afterwards, after the surrender at Appomattox, the Confederate leader paid a visit to his long-time friend who’d been his opponent for four years. I wonder – would Longstreet put a bullet in Grant’s brain, given the opportunity, in the months before April 1865?

11. The war in the “west.”

Before, when I read about the western theater in the Civil War, I thought about California. It was a state back then, right? Right. But the war in the “west” refers to action along the Mississippi River. West of the Mississippi was mostly semi-settled territories controlled by both the North and South, plus Texas in the Confederacy and the new states of Kansas and Nebraska in the Union.

Part of the North’s strategy early on (devised by General Winfield Scott, aged hero of the War of 1812) was the “Anaconda Plan,” a plan to strangle the South. This entailed a naval blockade in the Atlantic and Gulf, and the capture and control of the Mississippi with the intention to bisect the Confederacy. Some of the most effective generals the Union produced – Grant, Sherman, Sheridan – rose to prominence in the battles of the west to wrest control of the Mississippi River from the South.

12. The whole slavery question.

Was the Civil War fought to abolish slavery? Did the South secede over the issue of States Rights? For a long time I did not know for certain. Then I read in an online forum someone smack-down the States Rights issue. The person wrote, “Yeah, the States Rights issue in question was whether one human could own another.”

It is true that Lincoln fought the war to retain the Union in its pre-1861 configuration. It is true that he said he would free all the slaves, free some of the slaves, or free none of the slaves if it would keep the Union whole. However, a majority of the North was trending toward abolition at the start of the conflict. Though it was not a majority’s majority by any stretch of the imagination. Some Union enlistees would be shocked to be asked to give their lives to “free the slaves.”

The callousness of Southern leaders, such as Jefferson Davis and John C. Breckinridge, toward the enslavement of other human beings, appalls Modern Me. Black soldiers fought on the Union side, and their lives were often forfeit to Southern hatred and atrocity were they to be captured. The Fort Pillow Massacre is one such example, though I concede that there are varying versions of the degree of “atrocity” in regards to the killing of captured black troops. Regardless, the whole issue brought to my eyes really for the first time, was quite disturbing.

* - Most of these “takeaways” are from Hansen’s Civil War, though a factoid or two or three may have been gleaned from another of the various books and sources I read and / or skimmed over the past two months.

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