(Note - this blog post delves into modern-day issues. Issues related to the Civil War, to be sure, but modern-day issues just the same. Which as many of you are probably aware, is an off-limits subject on the discussion board. The same rule does not apply to blogs however, so if you are a member of the board, wish to start up your own blog and talk about such things, you're welcome to do so. Just don't start advocating violence, or endorsing groups like the KKK, Neo-Nazis, Antifa, and the like. That will get your blog shut down, as it still resides on the SDG's site. Aside from that, you're free to express your views. And you are of course aware that you alone are responsible for your views.)
Let me start here by making a few points:
First, I'm a card-carrying Republican, and have been since 1980.
Second, I firmly believe, beyond any doubt whatsoever, that slavery was the foundational cause of the Civil War.
Third, had it been up to me, I would not have built Confederate monuments anywhere outside of battlefield parks.
And fourth, I am not in favor of removing those Confederate monuments. More on that later.
Going all Political
I mention my political affiliation because I think people make a lot of assumptions based on such things, and I'm not sure I always fit those assumptions. For instance, it seems to me that a lot of people assume that if you're a Republican, that automatically means you think the war was about states' rights. And if you're a Democrat, you think the war was caused by slavery.
Neither of those assumptions apply to me. I'm a Republican who believes, quite strongly, that the war was caused by slavery. (I agree that this is a simple answer to a complex issue. But it's also an accurate answer.) I also believe that the states' rights argument is and always has been a giant smokescreen to hide that fact.
Does that mean that I don't believe in states' rights at all? No, of course not. (Hello? Republican? ) But states' rights wasn't the cause of the war. My being a Republican doesn't change that. (On a side note - I tend to think of myself as more of a classic liberal, although that's of little importance here. To be sure though, I am not, and never will be, a modern-day liberal. There is a difference.)
As far as slavery causing the war, my belief there is based on a brutally simple idea - evidence, rising to the level of what I regard as irrefutable proof. That's why I say that slavery caused the war. Not because I necessarily want to, but because that's what the evidence points to with screaming clarity.
Declaring the Cause
What evidence? Well, there's a lot of it, but a good place to start might be the declarations of causes issued by four of the original seven seceding states, where they outlined the why behind the what.
Secession took place in two rounds so to speak, with the first round occurring in response to Lincoln's election and prior to war breaking out. Tellingly, six of these seven states were in the Deep South, where slavery had its strongest grip, with over 48% of the total population being enslaved. (The outlier among these first seven states to leave was Texas. But as we'll see, they were not an outlier when it came to Deep South kinship.)
Here's a link to an 1860 map from the Library of Congress, based on that year's census, showing the distribution of slaves in the South as a percentage of the total population: https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3861e.cw0013200/
It's broken down by county. And here is a screenshot from that same site, below the map itself, showing the percentage breakdown by state:
If the fact that almost half of the Deep South's population was enslaved is an eye-opener for you, you've got a lot of company. I think it's an eye-opener for everyone when they first learn about it. (In two of those states, as seen in the table above, the slave population was more than half of the total. The order in which these two states left the Union? First - South Carolina - and second - Mississippi.)
And it speaks volumes as to why this region was the first to leave - all six states - in response to the first president in American history to be elected on an anti-slavery platform. This is not a coincidence.
Which brings us to those documents explaining why they left. Here's a link where you can read through them, courtesy of the Civil War Trust:
(Note - you can view these documents elsewhere online by doing a search, if you wish to compare them. Virginia's is included here, although they did not secede until after Lincoln's call for volunteers following Fort Sumter.)
To be sure, there are defenses made for secession's legality. They wanted it clear that they believed they had the right to do what they were doing. But of interest here is the why behind it.
Some key excerpts, starting with Mississippi:
"Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery - the greatest material interest of the world."
"A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that 'Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,' and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction."
"The prohibition of slavery in the Territories, hostility to it everywhere, the equality of the black and white races, disregard of all constitutional guarantees in its favor, were boldly proclaimed by [the North's] leaders and applauded by its followers."
"In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color - a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States."
Perception vs. Reality
It's worth pointing out that some of these claims about the North championing racial equality are wide of the mark. There were certainly exceptions, especially among the abolitionists. By and large though, white northerners were lukewarm, at best, about racial equality, even though they were also mostly anti-slavery. (It was entirely possible at this time for someone to be both anti-slavery and anti-black. Which speaks to the complex nature of slavery and race-relations in 19th Century America.)
But as often happens, perception (in the South) was more powerful than reality (in the North), and what drove them is what they believed. And it should be added that the South was indeed right about one thing - Lincoln's election pointed toward slavery's eventual, if not immediate, eradication.
By 1860, words like "eventual" and "immediate" were distinctions without a difference. Collectively speaking, the South simply didn't care, or even believe, that Lincoln and the Republicans were not out to bring an immediate end to slavery in the South. The threat to the institution was real enough, to be sure. To southern leaders, that made it immediate, and that's all that mattered.
Davis and Stephens
More proof of slavery-as-the-cause can be found in the words of the men who became president and vice-president of the Confederacy. Here is an excerpt from future Confederate President Jefferson Davis's farewell address to the U.S. Senate on January 21st, 1861, following the secession of his home-state of Mississippi:
"It has been a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi into her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races."
He then goes on to explain how, in his view, the Declaration was never meant to do any such thing. We can argue back and forth about that if we wish, but the point here is that Davis is accusing the North in general, and Lincoln and the Republicans in particular, of wanting to bring about racial equality. And this - in Davis's own words - "made the basis of an attack upon [Mississippi's] social institutions."
Translation: Mississippi wasn't going to sit idly by while the Republicans tried to impose racial equality on the country.
Ending slavery and bringing about racial equality - this was the threat, perceived or real (it was a little of both), that Davis and the collective South were responding to. It represented a nightmare scenario for the South, and was a threat that was far too important to ignore.
Here's a link to the entire speech, via the Papers of Jefferson Davis, at Rice University:
And then we come to Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens, and his infamous Cornerstone Speech in Savannah Georgia, on March 21st, 1861. Here is the key paragraph, which speaks entirely for itself:
"Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery - subordination to the superior race - is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."
Here's a link to the speech, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's web site, along with an excerpt from another, similar speech he gave the following month to the Virginia secession convention: https://www.ucs.louisiana.edu/~ras2777/amgov/stephens.html
The Defining Difference
Stephens in these two speeches hit upon the single most important difference between the United States and the Confederacy, and he did so knowingly and deliberately. It's a difference that cannot be emphasized strongly enough. And it comes down to this:
In all of human history, there has only ever been one country - one - founded on an ideal. That country is the United States. And that ideal upon which it was founded is the ideal of freedom and equality.
This bears repeating - there has never, before or since, been a country that came into existence based on the ideal of freedom and equality. The list includes one country and one country only – The United States. The emergence of this incredibly unique country was, quite literally, a world-changing moment.
In looking at the Confederacy, we find a nascent country that was also founded on an ideal. But - as Alexander Stephens pointed out - with an all-important distinction.
Whereas the United States was founded on the ideal of freedom and equality for all, the Confederacy was founded on the ideal of freedom and equality for some.
This critical difference is exactly what Stephens meant when he said that the Confederacy was the first country in the history of the world based on the inequality of the races. What Stephens referred to as “this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” The exact opposite of the United States, in its ideal form, as the native southerner Stephens well understood.
Human nature being what it is, the United States has clearly, and unsurprisingly, not always lived up to its lofty ideals. (Within the context of world history, the surprise is that the ideal was proclaimed as a nation's founding principle.) But it is far closer to them, in no small part because the foundation was already in place. The foundation on which the Confederacy was built, in contrast, allowed for no such evolution.
As I said to a friend in a recent conversation on this same subject, the Confederacy could never have evolved into what the United States has become without a complete reversal of its fundamental reason for existence.
(This is an argument that I've made before, and I'll continue to make it because I firmly believe it. It also speaks to why protests against the American flag are misdirected. The flag represents America's ideals, symbolizing why it came into existence. The ideals do not exist to protect the country. The country exists to protect the ideals. This matters.)
There is far more evidence then just what I've outlined here for slavery as the cause of the Civil War. I may cover some of it in future posts, but this entry is long enough already, so we'll leave it here for now.
But the bottom line is this: the Confederacy came into existence because of a threat to the future of slavery. The record on this is not simply clear, it is starkly clear. Post-war and present-day arguments to the contrary notwithstanding. And there have been many.
Slavery was the main strand in the social and economic fabric of the ante-bellum South, and to remove that strand would be to completely unravel the South itself. They viewed this as simply too much to risk. The irony is that by seceding and engaging in a long and bloody war, the end of that society came much faster and with more violence than what, almost certainly, would otherwise have been the case.
So now you know why, had it been up to me, I would never have built any Confederate monuments aside from those in the various battlefield parks. I have no issue with, and in fact support, acknowledging and honoring the courage displayed by these men and their northern counterparts. As well as trying, however imperfectly, to understand what all of them endured in those hellish nightmares in places we now stroll across in silent wonder.
But I would have raised no monuments to their leaders. To people who set out to ensure permanent, government-sanctioned inequality based on skin color, ethnicity, religion, or anything else. The Confederacy represented an attempt at such a thing. Thankfully it failed.
Our role as students of history is to take the entire story and learn from it, so that we might better understand ourselves, where we come from as both a people and as individuals, and find a way to move ever closer to those ideals on which this country is based. Ideals that represent fundamental truths about humanity and life that transcend any border. It's a tough assignment. But that's why we drew it.
So if I'm against monuments to Confederate leaders, why did I also say that I'm against removing them? Because they're part of our history. We can learn from them. I would not have put them up, but since they are already there, use them in our quest to understand. Place them within the context of the times in which they were built. What do they tell us about those times? About those people? About ourselves? About human nature in general?
They're silent stone and marble, and yet they can speak to us, and teach us. If we're willing to listen and to learn from them. Maybe we can't always agree on the lessons to be drawn. But the conversation has to start somewhere. So let it start with us.
It was the Old West that first called to me. Specifically, the Colorado Rockies, mountain men, ghost towns, and old abandoned silver mines.
Most summers when I was a kid, my dad would take me on camping trips far up into the Rockies, and maybe that speaks to the why. Something about being there and seeing it, firsthand. In person. We'd go places that most tourists wouldn't see, including, I'm sure, more than a few places that we weren't supposed to go. You'd have to have known my dad.
And we'd learn about the history. It was just part of the deal. You'd travel somewhere, take it all in, and learn about what once was, back in the long-ago time, and why it mattered. Sometimes you learned that maybe it didn't matter very much to the rest of the world. But it mattered somewhere. And it came to matter to you. Just because.
I loved those trips. I loved those mountains, those silent ghost towns, those lonely, forgotten mines. Those stories. Something about it all made me feel as if I belonged there. It was part of me in a way I'm not sure I could ever describe, or explain.
When I was about nine, my sister married a Tennessee man and moved to Chattanooga. So along with our camping trips out west, we also began taking trips back east. And I saw a different kind of history firsthand, in person. I looked down on Chattanooga from Point Park atop Lookout Mountain. Visited Chickamauga. Gazed upon Missionary Ridge. Learned the stories. Read the history.
And I heard the Civil War calling to me.
On the way back home to Oklahoma one time, we passed a sign along I-40 for someplace called Shiloh National Military Park. We'd never been there before, and Dad asked me if I'd like to go see it. He knew of course that I was getting interested in the war, and here was another war-related park.
It was fifty miles out of the way, and maybe a lot of parents would have understandably passed. But, well, as I said, you'd have to have known my dad. He was a natural-born student. And a natural-born teacher.
I have no idea what my problem was, but for whatever reason when he asked that question I just shrugged my shoulders, and said something about how I didn't really care. (It's funny how you remember certain things, and not others.)
Maybe it was a loyalty thing. I was becoming attached to Chattanooga by that point, and all the history that went with it, and to visit some other war-related park almost seemed, well, wrong. Kind of like cheating or something.
Or maybe I was just tired and cranky, and wanted to get home. You'd have to have known me as a kid.
Whatever the case, Dad made the decision for us. “I think we'll go see it,” he said, and hit the turn-signal as the exit came up.
And that's how, decades later, this web site that you're on right now came to be. Because my teacher/student dad took us fifty miles off the beaten-path to a place I didn't want to see, and that would come to have a profound impact on my life starting that same day.
I didn't know much about Shiloh at that point, beyond what I'd learned in a general way from my limited Civil War reading. The main thing I knew was that it was a legendary battle from American history. What started to dawn on me on that long drive was that it also wasn't someplace that you just happened across. Clearly, if you wanted to go see Shiloh, you had to decide to go see it. Like a ghost town, or an old abandoned silver mine. This appealed to me.
I've always been drawn to places that are kind of out-of-the-way. Probably because most people won't go see them. To me, that makes them unique. Shiloh is a place like that, and I first began to realize it on that long drive through the Tennessee countryside with my dad.
The other thing I remember from that first visit is simply the experience of being there. Not the details really, but just the experience. The cannons, the markers, the monuments, the old wooden fences. I'd seen them at Lookout Mountain, and Chickamauga, and Missionary Ridge. I knew what they represented. But I didn't know about these cannons and markers and monuments and fences. I did not yet know the story of this incredibly transfixing park that felt so timeless.
It was familiar ground that I'd never before seen.
We always made a point to stop at Shiloh after that, going to or coming from Chattanooga. It remained off the beaten-path, but it was never out of the way.
Late May of 1979 was the first time I visited the park on my own. Dad had passed away less than six months earlier, and I was heading out on my first trip alone after graduating high school. My first stop was Shiloh, at the end of an all-day drive in my 1974 Ford Mustang II. (A quart of oil every 100 miles kept it happy.) I got to the park a little before dark, and immediately drove to my favorite spot – Duncan Field.
I still remember how hauntingly quiet it was that evening. I'd experienced that before – it's hard not to at Shiloh - but never alone. And never quite like this. I think it was probably then that I first dimly began to understand something that you simply have to experience to understand: That the battlefield parks actually speak to us.
They don't use words. But they do indeed speak.
Two things happened on a visit in 1983 that forever changed the way I viewed the battle of Shiloh, the war in general, and in some ways, even life. Those two things were a book, and a talk.
The book was called, Shiloh: Bloody April, by historian Wiley Sword. As I later found out, it was the first full-scale book on the battle in around 60 years at the time of its release in the 1970's. Sword's book truly opened my eyes for the first time to the wider battle of Shiloh outside the Hornet's Nest. A process that continues to this day, and in some ways has come full-circle. He also introduced me to an obscure Union officer named Everett Peabody, and his long-overlooked role in helping to save Grant's army.
The talk took place in Duncan Field, by a ranger who was about to give a demonstration on how to load and fire a Civil War musket. Before he did that however, he said he was going to give a little talk on what it was like to experience the battle of Shiloh.
I doubt I will ever forget how I felt at that moment, before he gave his talk. Or how I felt a few minutes later, after he finished. Before he started, I stood there smugly thinking to myself, at 22 years of age, that I could probably not only give as good a talk on Shiloh as he could, but probably do better. By the time he finished, I had already started to seriously question if I knew anything at all about Shiloh, the war, or much of anything else.
Without going into a lot of detail, I'll just say that he spent the next ten or twelve minutes painting a word-picture of the battle that I will never forget. I remember that talk and the impact it had on me as if it was yesterday. He put you there, in the middle of the battle, in a way that no one else had ever before done. He took the story and brought it alive. Gave it names and faces. Made it human. He waved away the decades and compelled you to look, and time quite simply stopped.
For the first time, the reality of what Shiloh – and by extension, war itself - was actually like hit me with full force. It left me speechless, and feeling about an inch tall.
It was the closest I think I've ever come to simply quitting the Civil War altogether. I'd spent over ten years reading about it and wandering across some of its most famous places, from Shiloh to Chickamauga to Gettysburg. I thought I knew about it. Only to learn, in ten minutes' time, that I didn't know the first damn thing about it at all.
That feeling has never left me from that day to this. Not completely. When I visit Shiloh anymore, or any other battlefield park, there's a sense of something that's just beyond reach of my understanding. It doesn't stop me from trying to grasp it. But somehow, I'm aware that really and truly doing so is probably never going to happen.
I'd like to say that I've come to terms with that, and in some ways I think I have. But not completely.
There have been many more Shiloh moments since that memorable visit, each of which adds to and builds on what has come before. The reenactment in 1987, the first time I had ever attended such an event, and that left a lasting impression. The unusual fellow I met out in the park in the fall of 2000, looking to make a movie about the battle. The “footsteps” I heard approaching my tent late one night, in the campground just south of the park. Only to find upon going outside (when I finally got up the courage) that there was no one there. The picture I took in 2008 that finally helped me put words to something about the park that I'd felt for years but could never describe. The anniversary hikes. The April snow in 2007. The Epic Treks with Tim. The dinners at Hagy's. The sunrises and sunsets. The beautiful Tennessee River. The wind in the trees. The deafening, haunting, silence.
In a very real sense, I've learned a great deal about life from that park, that battle, and the people that I've met along the way as a result. Some of those people have been gone since long before I was born. Others are still very much with us, and perhaps not always aware of the impact they've had, and continue to have.
Sometimes people will thank me for this board, and while I do sincerely appreciate this, it also tends to catch me a little off guard. That might sound odd perhaps, but there it is. Maybe because to me, there's more to it. This site began in 2007, but it has a history that goes much farther back than that, and involves a great many more people than me. People that perhaps you've never met, and some of whom not even I have met. But they're part of this site and what it has accomplished, all the same.
Simply put, if you've ever gotten anything useful at all from this web site, you can thank my dad. You can thank Wiley Sword. You can thank a ranger in Duncan Field who's name I'm ashamed to say I did not learn.
You can thank people who died before we were born. You can thank people who's opinions you may not agree with. You can thank rangers who take time out of their day to explain things we try hard to understand. You can thank authors who spent time trying to make sense out of senseless insanity, and revealing the best and the worst of what it truly means to be human.
Most of all though, the one who needs to say thank you is me. To all of you who are members here, and who have made this board what it is. In a sense, we're all on a journey, unique to each one of us, yet common to all of us. We can perhaps mark its beginning, but its end is not yet in sight.
I have some truly wonderful memories that revolve around Shiloh, and some sad memories as well. It's a reflection of life in that way, and that campaign, that battle, that park, this web site, and all of you – all of us – are a part of that.
Thank you for all of it. The good parts, the bad parts, the happy and sad parts. The learning, the striving, the arguing. The sharing. And the understanding.
It matters that you're here and part of this journey. Never forget that. And never forget those who made the journey possible, and meaningful, to begin with.
I have a saying about the war that I sometimes use to poke my Eastern Theater friends:
The East was a beast, but the best was out West!
I like to use the same phrase about the NBA, mainly because it's fun. (Go Thunder!)
But if you ever want to stir up a good war-based argument on something other than The Cause, try tossing out something about how the Eastern or Western theater was the "most important" theater of the war.
Then sit back and watch the fun, and maybe join in just to keep the embers stirred up.
I've been a card-carrying, flag-waving member of the Western Theater side of that debate pretty much since I started reading about the war. Which was....well, a long time back now. (The first book I ever read about it was The Golden Book of the Civil War, if that tells you anything.) My first personal exposure to the war was in Tennessee, at Chattanooga and the surrounding area. (Point Park on Lookout Mountain, along with the old "Confederama," is really where I got hooked on the war as a kid.) The next park I got to see in person was Shiloh. So you might say that I came into the War through the Western Theater door. (Okay, sorry for that one.)
Given that, it's probably no surprise to hear me say that I think the Western Theater has tended, over time, to get the short end of the attention-span where the war is concerned. That seems to have changed some over the last couple of decades or so, but by and large I think the East still tends to get the most attention, along with top-billing as the "most important" theater of the war.
What exactly does that mean anyway - most important theater of the war? Well for our purposes here, it simply means where the war was largely won and lost.
You'll find plenty of people, including some historians, who will kill a large number of electrons to show why East or West should rate as the war's most important area. (Fans of the Trans-Mississippi - I feel your steady stare. Keep the faith, we're going to include you in this conversation, and it won't be merely as an afterthought.)
I'm not going to lay out a long and complex case here for either side - mainly because I don't have the patience or the ability - but I am going to state my case for what I think the answer truly is. So stay tuned for the thrilling (unexpected?) conclusion!
To start, we're going to choose two comparison points - the spring of 1861 on the one hand, and the spring of 1864 on the other. Specifically where 1864 is concerned, early May, prior to the start of the Overland Campaign in the East and the Atlanta Campaign in the West. Why those two points in time? Because of an incredibly stark difference that points us toward the answer to our "most important" question.
The spring of 1861 in the East saw the two major armies squared off in northern Virginia, between the Union and Confederate capitals. Three years later, the spring of 1864 saw......the two major armies squared off in northern Virginia, between the Union and Confederate capitals.
Between those two dates, tens of thousands of men had died, more still had been wounded or crippled, millions of dollars in property had been destroyed, and countless lives had been shattered. Some of the most famous people and places in American history came to out attention within those three horrific years. Over that span of time, the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War saw some of the bloodiest, most ghastly fighting anywhere on the North American Continent, since forever. (It was about to get even worse, but that's for another day.)
And yet there in the spring of 1864 stood the two famous armies, for all practical purposes in the identical spots they had occupied in the spring of 1861. So much had changed. Yet so little had changed.
What does this tell us about the fighting in the East? It tells us that the Confederacy was winning.
To win the war, the Confederacy had to do one thing: Continue to exist. Do that long enough - make the North throw up their collective hands and say "enough," and the war, and independence, are won. Fail to do that, and they lose. Brutally simple reality.
Keep the Union at bay. That's the goal. In the East - at enormous cost to both sides - that's exactly what they're doing.
In fact, had the Eastern Theater been the entire Civil War, then we have a clear winner by the spring of 1864, and it isn't the North.
So now it's time to pose a question: Given what we've just seen, why didn't the Confederacy win the war? More to the point, why didn't they have the war all but won by the spring of 1864?
Lets take Horace Greely's advice, and go West for a possible answer. (See what I did there?)
The Western Theater is night to the Eastern Theater's day. (Day to its night?) The spring of 1861 in this theater saw the northern frontier of the Confederacy up in Kentucky, stretching from the Mississippi River over to the Allegheny Mountains. Three years later in the spring of 1864, the Union had pushed and shoved its way through Kentucky and Tennessee as well as much of Mississippi and Louisiana, and stood poised with three armies on the doorstep of Georgia. Along the way they had taken control of three major rivers, captured forts and railroads, major cities and towns, and eliminated two entire enemy armies. Basically speaking, they beat the fool out of the South.
As with the war in the East, it didn't come without a terrible price in lives, and a terrible price in property. The armies weren't as big in the West, for the most part, but the fighting was just as vicious.
But the outcome over that same three-year span was not just different, it was vastly different. In the East the Confederacy was holding its own. In the West? They were getting their collective head handed to them.
What does this tell us about the Western Theater? (Yes, I know - "Well duh!") It tells us that the North was winning.
Time for another question!
If the North was so incredibly successful in the Western Theater - and they undeniably were - why didn't they win the war before 1865???
Okay, you've probably figured out where I'm going with all this by now. But I'm going there anyway, because you can't quit in the middle of the story. Before we get there though, we have to say an important word about a forgotten area - the Trans-Mississippi.
Pretty much everyone seems to neglect this area, at least when it comes to our 'most important' discussion. We scream and holler and blog about East and West, but forget about Trans-Miss. Did it matter in the big picture? ( "Well Duh!" fits here again.) Yes it did, but for what might be an ironic reason.
What probably ranks as the war's most bitterly contested theater had something in common with the East - it was largely a stalemate for three years. Neither side really gained a major advantage, though both sides certainly tried.
In the East, this virtual stalemate played to the South's advantage. But out here in the wilds beyond the Mississippi, military stalemate actually helped the North.
How so? Had the Confederacy been able to make any serious headway west of the Mississippi, it would have forced the Union to divert troops and material to that area in order to deal with the threat. These forces would almost certainly have come from the Western Theater, thus robbing the Union of strength in that area at a vital point in time. Enough to alter the course of the war? That's forever an unknown. But the possibility most certainly exists. To be sure, there's no real way it could have hurt the South or helped the North.
And here's the main point - it was a realistic possibility.
The outcome in Trans-Mississippi was not a foregone conclusion, anymore than it was in the other two major theaters. Tip the balance one way or the other off the center-line, it will have important repercussions across the board, and especially in the Western Theater. So overlook the Trans-Miss at your own peril. Better yet, don't overlook it at all. It may not rank as the war's most important theater, but it may rank as the war's most important stalemate, given what happened elsewhere.
Okay, so final question time - Which is the war's most important theater, East or West?
The answer, as I'll bet you've guessed (or at least guessed that I'm going to say) - is both of them.
Does that seem like a cop-out on my part? Maybe, but I don't think it is myself. It's what the evidence points to, to me. And I say that as a still-card-carrying, flag-waving Western Theater advocate. But the evidence is what it is, so that's what I've got to go with.
Change the outcome in either theater, it changes the war itself. That much seems clear to me. You simply can't ignore either theater. You can't. If the Union in the East matches its success in the West, the war probably won't ever see 1864 let alone 1865. And if the Confederacy can somehow manage to duplicate its Eastern results in the Western Theater, we're reading in our history books today about the South's victorious war for independence. (Before they broke up into several more countries, but that's a different hollering match. )
So there you have it, and we can all sleep better now, knowing the "most important" question finally has an answer - The Oklahoma Sooners. (Pardon? The most important college football team, of course! What did you think I meant???)
It rained during the afternoon. That's one of the things I remember from twenty years ago today.
Dozens of us had been standing in line for a few hours by that point, and the wait would end up being a few more hours yet. The small strip-mall where the blood donation center was located fortunately had a covered walkway. Those of us already underneath tried to scoot a little closer together so the ones further back might have a some cover. The line was already starting to stretch around the corner by the time I got there. It was far past that point by now.
A few umbrellas appeared as if by magic, handed out by someone. No one complained about the weather. Almost no one left, regardless of how long the wait was. Sometimes when someone did leave because they finally had to, they usually apologized to no one in particular, as if they had done something wrong. They hadn't. Everyone understood.
We were all there for the same reason.
My car was maybe twenty or thirty minutes away from being finished when the blast occurred earlier that day. I was in the waiting room of a local tire shop, reading some magazine, not really paying attention to the nearby TV, or much of anything else. The building was six miles away from the explosion.
Three miles further out, my mother's house shook so hard she thought the windows might break. A few miles directly north of downtown, the floor of the building in which my sister worked suddenly lifted up, and for a moment, everything was weightless. It was accompanied by a sound she'll likely never forget. She knew instantly that a bomb had gone off somewhere. There would later be reports that the sound of the bomb going off could be heard dozens of miles away, in every direction.
I've wondered from time to time if I heard or felt the blast, but didn't realize it, sitting there in that waiting room, six miles to the east. A major Air Force base sits only two or so miles directly south, and we were used to hearing jets scream by overhead, and the sound of engines roaring to life as they were tested over on the base. So used to such things in fact, that we tended to ignore them, or pay very little attention.
If those of us in that little waiting room heard or felt anything, it did not register. I don't recall hearing or feeling anything at all.
Sometime shortly after 9:00, a report suddenly came on the TV about some sort of major explosion in downtown Oklahoma City. They had no further word, but they would let us know when they did. I don't recall much else about that moment except feeling very uneasy as a I listened to that report.
As further reports came in, I found myself more or less praying that it was a gas line explosion. Something, anything, other than what I began to fear more and more it might actually be. Each report was worse than the one before, and it didn't take long to understand that whatever had happened, it was very bad.
Finally, the channel we were watching cut to their helicopter, circling overhead downtown. When the picture first appeared, there was nothing to see. Everything was completely obscured by smoke. The helicopter circled around to the north, looking back toward what appeared to be a building. Suddenly the smoke cleared away, and there it was.
The only thing I remember feeling right then was stunned disbelief. And knowing instinctively that no gas line explosion had done what I was looking at on that little television set above my head.
The rain only lasted a little while. The day had started out bright and sunny, with a high perhaps in the 60's. A typically gorgeous April morning in Oklahoma. When the clouds began to clear that afternoon after the shower and the sun returned, the day turned gorgeous once again. I doubt anyone noticed.
Typically when I would donate blood, my blood pressure would be on the high side. Not enough to prevent my donating, but often enough that whoever was taking it would comment that it was a little elevated. I'd usually make a joke about being nervous about someone coming at me with a needle, or blaming them for having so many cute gals working there.
On this particular day, after standing in line for some six hours following the most horrific thing ever to happen to my home town, my blood pressure was the lowest it had ever been when donating blood. Not just normal, but actually in the low range of normal.
I still can't explain that.
For a few years, I was drawn to the bomb site and memorial on an almost weekly basis. The original memorial consisted of a simple chain-link fence on which people would leave mementos and personal messages. Often it would be nothing more than a small key-chain, or a hat, or whatever the person had happened to have on them at that moment. Something to leave behind as a way of saying they were there, and they cared.
A few people, perhaps having nothing to leave, took small twigs lying on the ground nearby, fashioned them into tiny crosses, and left them against the fence.
Part of the fence is still there, incorporated into the the final design of the memorial. The entire memorial is touching in a way you have to visit to really experience. Those who do visit still leave things on the fence. They were there. And they cared.
At some point I'd had enough of hearing about the bombing and visiting the site, and went through a phase where I literally avoided going downtown, let alone to the memorial. Maybe it was part of my own personal healing process. I lost no one in the bombing. I know people who did. But I lost no one. It still affected me. I had dreams for several weeks after it happened, the details of which I don't remember. Only that they were bad.
I eventually got past that phase, and anymore I'm okay with being downtown, and visiting the memorial. It's unspeakably beautiful at all times. At sunrise and sunset.....words don't do it justice.
I still haven't been able to bring myself to visit the accompanying museum about the bombing and aftermath. That's the next step for me. It may happen very soon. It may happen never.
What does any of this have to do with the Civil War? Not much I suppose. Except perhaps that going through traumatic experiences, painful though they are, sometimes inexpressibly so, teaches us about compassion, and caring, and empathy. In the worst way perhaps. But even the worst things can be turned into good things, if we're willing to do it.
I've always felt a connection to the war, and the people who lived through it, in a way that I often find difficult to explain, even to myself. When I find myself standing on a silent battlefield, the words often don't come, and understanding quietly steps back just beyond reach. But the connection is there. And the connection is personal.
It's the same way when I visit the memorial in Oklahoma City. I wasn't there twenty years ago today. But I'm connected to what happened. And to the painful, remarkably wonderful, recovery and re-birth of this city that followed.
Earlier this afternoon, as I was thinking back on the events of 1995 and where I was that day, I heard thunder in the distance. A short time later, it rained for a little while before clearing off. The sun came back out, and it was another gorgeous April day in Oklahoma.
We hold them in our hearts as we move forward.
Today is July 4th, and as we're often told, the date marks an important turning point in American history. Pardon? No, not that turning point, back in 1776. Yes, that one was a fairly big deal too, I'll grant you. But the one I'm talking about is said to have taken place in 1863, with the retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia following the three-day battle of Gettysburg. According to tradition in fact, this was the biggest of big turning points in the American Civil War.
Only one minor problem for me with that idea. I don't agree with it. At least, not in the sense I think it was the single most important turning point of the war.
Maybe at some point I'll get into why I don't think Gettysburg ranks as "the" turning point of the war. And bring up the little matter of Vicksburg while I'm at it.
For now though, I have another turning point in mind, and it took place about a year before Gettysburg was anything more than just a sleepy little name on a Pennsylvania map. And if anything, this particular turning point might just rank as not only the most astonishing turning point of the Civil War, but also be in the running for the most astonishing turning point of any war in American history. It would have some competition. But it would be quite a contest.
To see what I mean, let's set the stage by returning to mid-June in 1862. Keep in mind that there is a common (mis)perception out there that says the South won the first two years of the war while the North won the last two years of the war. Well, it wasn't quite that simple, as we're about to see.
Broadly speaking, this was the situation as of mid-June, 1862....
In the East, the Union Army of the Potomac was on the doorstep of Richmond, after a slow, meticulous advance up the Virginia peninsula that the defending Confederate army had been able to delay but not stop. Plans were being made to evacuate the capital and relocate the Confederate government elsewhere, as the fall of the city seemed all but inevitable. Confederate newspapers had taken to derisively referring to the army's new commander, Robert E. Lee, as "Granny Lee," among other things, due to his apparent penchant for digging trenches as opposed to actually fighting. The mood in and around the Confederate capital was grim.
In the West by this same point in the war, the Confederacy had lost control of Kentucky, most of Tennessee including the vital state capital at Nashville, virtually all of the Mississippi River except for a small stretch centered around Vicksburg, lost the important port city of New Orleans, lost control of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, lost a 15,000-man army with the fall of Fort Donelson, lost the titanic fight at Shiloh, after which they were forced to abandon the crucial railroad junction at Corinth in Mississippi, and along with thousands of lives and millions of dollars worth of property had lost control of enormous amounts of territory. Similar to what was occurring back East, an immense army was also now poised to strike at the heart of the Mississippi and Tennessee valleys, ripping the guts out of the Confederacy.
In short, barely one year into the war the South, while not yet knocked out, was very clearly on the ropes, standing on a couple of pretty wobbly legs. Not quite fitting the image of "winning the first two years of the war."
If you knew nothing else about the American Civil War, including what happened next, and had only studied events up to the late spring/early summer of 1862, you could be forgiven for thinking that the North had probably won the war by the end of that year. That's how bad things looked for the Confederacy by this point.
Yet what happened next ranks as just this side of astounding. Or maybe just that side of astounding. By late spring of 1862 the Confederacy appeared to be on its knees. By late summer of 1862, it was the Union that appeared to be on its knees.
There may be other moments in other wars when fortunes changed with such breathtaking speed. But such things are the exception. Not the rule.
So what the heck happened? How did the Confederacy go from death's doorstep to victory's doorstep seemingly overnight? As is often the case, it was a combination of factors that came into play. And many of you already know the details.
In the East, Lee unleashed a series of relentless attacks on his cautious opponent, George B. McClellan, racking up enormous causalities but eventually driving the enemy army away from Richmond. Shortly afterward, Lee embarked on what probably ranks as his greatest strategic masterpiece of the war, resulting in another Union defeat at the battle of Second Manassas. By early September, Lee had his army splashing across the Potomac into Union territory, and had leaders in France and England talking about possible intervention.
In the West, the Union's top commander, Henry W. Halleck, elected to turn his giant strike force into a giant occupation force, spread out over a considerable area of Tennessee and Mississippi. Thus did Halleck - about to become the Union's General-in-Chief - cede the initiative to his southern opponents. Who were only too happy to run with it. By September, Confederate forces in the West, so recently on their heels, now found themselves on the offensive, taking the war to a greatly surprised enemy. Just like their counterparts back East.
Seldom has history witnessed such a rapid, widespread turnaround as what took place during the summer of 1862.
Although it might be a matter of opinion, between these two nearly simultaneous events - one in the East and one in the West - the harder to understand of the two, at least for me, is the one out West. What Halleck did with what was, to the end of the war, the largest army ever assembled in the Western Theater, was remarkably shortsighted, and as we've seen effectively handed the initiative to an overmatched opponent. His decision, made for what he no doubt believed to be logical reasons, very likely helped to prolong the war.
Halleck's elevation to supreme Union command also resulted in his leaving the Western Theater at a crucial moment in the war. This may have proven to be one of the worst things, and also one of the best things, to happen to the Union war effort in the West. Halleck's removal left a major void in Union leadership in the West, but it also eventually opened the door for U.S. Grant to step into that void. As well as, later on, step into the even larger void that Halleck created as General-in-Chief.
Maybe the only thing as surprising as the speed with which the Confederacy's fortunes turned around in 1862 is the speed with which it all came to a screeching halt. Near simultaneous Confederate defeats in Maryland and Kentucky - an early echo of even more simultaneous twin-defeats the following summer - brought to a crashing halt the only widespread Confederate offensive the war would ever see. Never again would the South be so close to final victory all across the board.
But for a few short, incredible months in 1862, the South showed that it was not quite as dead as many observers seemed to believe. Not by one heck of a long shot. Even though the idea that the South "won" the first two years of the war is largely untrue, when all seemed lost in the spring of 1862 and they absolutely had to do it, win is exactly what the South did.
For as long as I can remember, my preferred way to visit a battlefield park has been on foot. If you really want to experience a battlefield park - not just see it but experience it - tramping around on foot is the only way to go. In the past my typical tramping gear would usually consist of me, my camera, my camera bag, and however many books, magazines, and snacks I could cram into the bag and into my pockets. The suddenly homeless camera would be slung over one shoulder with the over-stuffed camera bag slung over the other one. And off I'd go.
If it sounds a little nuts, it probably is. But it's also something else. Grand fun. Not many things I enjoy as much as tramping around a battlefield park with a few books, a magazine or two, my camera, and smushed granola bars. That to me qualifies as a good day.
Anymore though, it would probably also qualify as an "old school" way of visiting a battlefield park. At least, taking along actual books and/or magazines would be considered old school. Not that this will stop me from doing it you understand. At least sometimes, just for old habits' sake. But you're more likely anymore to find someone walking around a park pulling up something about the battle on their favorite portable electronic device instead of hauling a copy of the Official Records out of their camera bag. (They have no idea what fun they're missing, either. Especially when it's time to figure out how to put the book back in the bag.)
Truth be told though, this isn't really surprising. And it isn't really new. People have adapted to new ways to learn about and study history the same way they've learned to adapt to doing all sorts of things in new ways. Visiting a battlefield park, or just learning about the war itself, is no different.
Technology has changed, and continues to change, the way we learn about the war. And even the experience we can have when we visit sites that are related to the war, including many of the various battlefields. For instance, if you have a Kindle or similar e-reader, you can now walk around a battlefield with, quite literally, an entire Civil War library in your hand. Or in your camera bag for that matter. (And even have room left over for your camera. Happy days!)
And the difference isn't just limited to paper books transforming into electronic books. There are many other examples. Heck, the fact that you're reading this blog entry right now is an example of how technology is transforming the way we learn about the war. Thanks to the Internet we all now have access to information that, for decades, only history scholars typically could access. And often with the kind of ease that scholars from years past could only have dreamed about. Old books, maps, transcripts, reports, photographs, drawings.....if you're looking for it, chances are you can find it online somewhere. Some people call this an information revolution, but I think of it as being more of an information access revolution.
And if you want to visit a battlefield park but don't have the time to do so, well hey, you can do so anyway. Just head over to a site such as Google or Bing, pull up their astonishingly clear maps, and your birds-eye visit to your park of choice is underway. You can almost literally visit an entire park without ever setting foot in it, and without even leaving your home.
What would Douglas Southall Freeman and J.F.C. Fuller have thought about that?
And the technology continues to evolve, and change the way we learn. On some battlefields you can now download and use an app on your cellphone (if it's so equipped) to watch a video about the area of the battlefield you're visiting. Which I don't mind telling you, pretty much blows me away. Even if it's not quite the same as a book pulled out of your camera bag. No doubt such apps will become more popular and widespread in the pretty-darn-near future.
And in time, we will also no doubt see more interactive displays at visitors centers and even out in the parks themselves. Some day, you'll be able to walk out into the remotest part of the woods and ravines east of the Peach Orchard at Shiloh, and watch a complete interactive multimedia presentation about what took place around where you're standing, even beyond what the present-day apps can do. (Or around where you're sitting, if you get tired. Climbing up and down those ravines can wear you down a little. And require snacking on one or more smushed granola bars.)
Time was you would visit a battlefield park by taking a train or boat ride, or on horseback. Once there you would go out in the park on foot, horseback, or in a carriage. Sometimes, if you were lucky, you had an actual battle participant along who could give you a perspective that no future generations would ever be able to have. There were few if any park rangers, information pamplets, park maps, or numbered tour stops with explanitory tablets to help guide your visit, if you were on your own. Over time, the veterans began to thin out, and the way we arrived at and visited their former battlefields began to evolve. They evolve still, and will continue to do so.
Someday, perhaps, a student of the Civil War will be able to wander out into his or her favorite park, press a button on some kind of futuristic device, and be swept up in a three-dimensional experience the likes of which we can only now imagine. Or quite possibly, have that exact same experience just sitting at home.
Time often seems to be almost frozen in place to me when I visit a battlefield park. As if that little patch of ground has somehow been past by, and allowed to remain exactly as it was so many years ago. It's an illusion of course. Or at least, it's mostly an illusion, although not completely. But as timeless as the parks often seem, the way we experience them, as well as learn about them and from them, continues to change. History keeps right on marching into the future, and we're along for the ride.
But you'll forgive me if I bring my book-stuffed camera bag along, just for old times' sake. I love the new school gizmos, but deep down I'm still an old school kinda guy.
Okay, so maybe I'm a hypocrite.
That thought occurred to me as I was sitting at a traffic light the other day. The light was slow, the radio was off, and nothing else was going on, so my mind did what it does best and started to wander. For some reason it wandered on over to Gettysburg, and ended up at their new visitors center.
I've not been there in person yet.....well, except for the wandering mind thing....but I've seen pictures and read up on it some. Mighty spiffy-looking place. But when they built the new visitors center, they added something that had not been present in the old visitors center. Something, in fact, that is not typically found at other Civil War battlefield park visitors centers. When they built the new one at Gettysburg, they included a section about what brought about the war.
In other words, they're telling folks who visit Gettysburg about the Big C - "The Cause."
No big deal you say? Well bear with me, because yes it is. When word first got out that they were going to do this, or were thinking about doing it - I forget which or when it happened - but when word first got out, it caused something of an uproar. Some folks thought it was a darn good idea, others thought it was a darn bad idea.
The lines were basically drawn along what you might think of as the context divide. The battle-context crowd on one side, and the wider-context crowd on the other.
The battle-context supporters will say that the purpose of a battlefield park, and the visitors center that goes with it, is to tell the story of that particular battle. That's it. No need to bring in outside issues. Folks can learn about those somewhere else if they want. But the battlefield park and its visitors center is for learning about the battle. (A bit more to it than just that of course, since it would include learning about some of the people involved, human-interest stories, perhaps some background about the larger campaign, etc. But, all of that still falls within the context of the battle. This is how visitors center typically approach it.)
This, in fact, was the original approach when the first Civil War parks were created around the turn of the 20th Century. The timing there is important because of.....brace yourself because here it comes.....the wider context of who was behind the creation of those parks, and what was occurring in the rest of the country at that time. But that's an entry for another blog day. Suffice to say for now that the Civil War vets behind the creation of the original parks weren't interested in bringing The Cause into their new parks. That was not their purpose, or their focus.
In any case, the wider-context supporters will usually agree that the focus should be on the battle; but they will add that you need to place that battle in a wider context for people, since it did not occur in a vacuum. That means you have to include something about what brought about the war in which the battle took place. Otherwise......brace yourself again.....you have no real context for the battle. It's as if the battle exists as its own world, with nothing before or after.
Now I'm sure you're dying to know which side of this divide I fall on myself. Well, I ended up landing on the wider-context side of the line, and it wasn't nearly as big of a jump as I thought it would be. I've always been a study-the-battles kind of guy, but I've also always been drawn to the larger issues of the war. So when this whole issue cropped up about the new center at Gettysburg, I could see both sides, but when it came right down to it, I had to vote wider-context. Because I do agree that the battles did not take place in a vacuum. To paraphrase George Michael, ya gotta have context.
And that's why I'm a hypocrite. Sort of. Maybe.
What do I mean? The Shiloh Discussion Group. When you browse through the categories and topics on the board, you'll see that there's more there than just the battle itself. The categories and discussions go back as far as Fort Henry in early February, and extend through to the siege and fall of Corinth at the end of May. There's also a section about some of the people involved in not just the battle, but the campaign as a whole. So in other words, we try to place the battle of Shiloh in a wider context. The focal point is the battle. But the battle did not take place in a vacuum. It was part of a wider campaign and even a wider war.
We all know this of course, it's not like some big secret. But the point is, while our discussion board focuses on Shiloh, it tries to look at the battle in a wider context. That's no accident. I'm a big believer in the whole wider context idea.
Now, obviously, you have to draw the context line somewhere and say this is as far as we go, or you end up placing things in the context of the entire history of the known universe. We'd have categories for The Big Bang Theory on a discussion board about Shiloh. Probably not a good idea. So I had to draw the line somewhere, and even though I was tempted, sorely so, to draw it back around the summer of 1861, I finally decided on Fort Henry. You can make an incredibly strong case that this is where the Shiloh Campaign - or Corinth Campaign if you prefer - really began. And you can make an equally strong case that the fall of Corinth is where it ended. Even though there's that whole wider context thing again, and the impact of the battle was felt long after Corinth fell. But, again, you have to draw that line.
So how does all of that make me a hypocrite? Well, because I don't allow discussions about "The Cause." No Big C stuff on our Shiloh board. The wider context of why the war that included Shiloh came about isn't open for discussion. So, I'm a hypocrite. But it didn't start out that way.
I actually did allow such discussions for the first few years of the board. But what I was afraid might happen finally did, and that's why things changed. What happened was - and if you were there, you well remember it - a discussion about The Big C quickly turned into a discussion about The Big S - Slavery. And when you discuss slavery, folks get worked up about it. Big time. It's still an emotionally charged issue. That's just the way it is.
I've been on a lot of discussion boards centered on the war, and this is the way it always works: Slavery discussions, once they fire up, always dominate everything else. Always. It's like a flash-fire in dry grass. Once it starts, it's going to burn everything else to the absolute ground. And you simply cannot have a discussion about "The Cause" of the war without slavery entering into the conversation. You can't avoid it. Just. Doesn't. Happen.
So when the same thing started to happen on our Shiloh board, I was faced with a choice. I could let the discussions go, and watch them do what those kind of discussions always do - push every other discussion on the board into the deep dark corner of the room, seen only by the occasionally curious - or ban them altogether. The problem for me is that I did not want folks coming to a board they thought was about Shiloh, and find out instead that it's just one giant hollering match about slavery, states rights, and what caused the war. Shiloh? What's that, a battle? To heck with that, we're arguing about The Cause!
The thing is, I hate banning discussions. As in, Hate. It. But I just didn't see that I had a real choice. Not if I wanted to keep the board focused on what it was meant to focus on. So ban them I did. Nothing more about The Big C or The Big S do we have on the board, from that day to this.
And rather smug about it all did I feel, until the other day at that traffic light. I'm sitting there thinking about the new visitors center at Gettysburg, the controversy about it, and how I think they've done the right thing however difficult and controversial it may have been.
And then I suddenly think about what I did on the board. The decision I made about the board was the complete opposite of the decision they made in Gettysburg, which I supported. Suddenly realizing this, smug so much I no longer felt.
I briefly considered lifting the ban on such discussions because of that, but decided against it for the same reasons I originally had. Nothing's changed there. The board is centered on Shiloh, and anything that takes away from that has to go. Yes, I do allow non-Shiloh related discussions to take place, in the Campfire forum, but you'll notice that they don't take over the planet the way slavery discussions do. If they did, off they'd go as well.
So what does all this prove? Maybe it simply proves that sometimes things aren't always as straight-forward as they may seem. Sometimes they are, but sometimes not. I'm a big believer in the whole wider-context thing, and yet here I've deliberately gone against that belief on a discussion board that I run. I think I have good reasons for doing so, just as I think there are good reasons for not doing so at Gettysburg with their new visitors center. The two situations are not identical. Still, it bothers me a bit. Maybe it shouldn't. Maybe each decision was made for solid reasons.
Or maybe, I'm just a hypocrite. Such a thing is possible. But if so, I can live with it.
Today marks the 149th anniversary of the second day of the two-day battle of Antietam.
And chances are, you just did a double-take. Being that Antietam was only a one-day battle.
But that's exactly my point. Today should be the anniversary of the second day of what should have been the two-day battle of Antietam. The fact that it isn't can be attributed to one man - George B. McClellan. And the fact that it nearly was a two-day battle instead of a one-day battle can also be attributed to one man - Robert E. Lee.
I seriously wonder about both of these decisions. Which I'm just sure would bother the heck out of both men, if they were still around and knew about it. If the three of us were to sit around and compare military knowledge, one of us would be dismissed from the table in short order. Odds are incredibly high this person would not be named George B. McClellan or Robert E. Lee.
Still, I seriously wonder about the decision each man made at Antietam. Lee's decision on the evening of September 17th to stay put and offer battle again the next day; and McClellan's equally surprising decision to decline the offer.
Let's start with Lee. Without recounting the battle or the events leading up to it, I'll just say that I can understand his reasons for entering Maryland when he did. It's a bit oversimplified to put it like this perhaps, but you could sum it up by saying it was mostly about keeping the momentum going.
Things took a very unexpected turn following the loss of Special Order 191, and immediately after South Mountain, Lee decided, understandably, to retreat. But then a funny thing happened. He got word that Harper's Ferry was about to fall, and that Jackson would be available to join him again.
Lee being Lee, and not being me, he changed his mind about retreating. He would stand and fight, along the banks of Antietam Creek.
Good decision? Well, it was Lee. Much like Grant, when Lee had a choice between retreating or fighting....actually, I'm not sure it wasn't even a choice in his mind. If he could fight, he fought. Period. Never mind that he was vastly outnumbered or that Little Mac was acting uncharacteristically aggressive. Or that his back was now to a river with only one good fording sport nearby. Major stuff when you're me. Minor stuff when you're Robert E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia.
So he offered battle to McClellan, and after hemming and hawing for a couple of days, Little Mac said sure, why not. So they spent the day of September 17th, 1862, going about the business of getting more Americans killed in a single day than any other day in our history. It was about as awful a day as you could possibly imagine. When it was over, Lee's men had held their own. But it was an incredibly near thing.
Pretty much everyone in his army seemed to assume they'd be retreating that night. Since it was obviously madness to stay and fight anymore. Madness to everyone, apparently, except the one guy charged with making the decision.
Lee said that if Little Mac wanted round two the following day, well by golly we're going to give it to him. Never mind that his army barely survived round one, had both eyes swollen nearly shut from the pounding, and needed help lifting up either glove to ward off another blow. Or that the men could barely stand up, let alone fight. None of that mattered. If McClellan wanted another fight, they would give it to him.
It's obvious that to Lee, this was the right thing to do. To me, it's something else, equally as obvious.
I have no earthly idea what Lee hoped to gain by offering battle on the 18th. What was he going to do, route McClellan's army and send it flying back to Washington? His army was battered all to heck, vastly outnumbered, and his men could barely raise their guns they were so worn out from the previous day. Antietam was as epic a battle as that war or this continent ever saw. It lasted one day. One day was more than enough to place it in the forever book of records.
The best that Lee could have done on the 18th was what he had managed by his teeth's skin to do on the 17th - a draw. That was the absolute, top of the chart, best possible outcome he could have achieved on September 18th. A draw.
And for that possibility, he risked a complete, total, unmitigated disaster.
Had McClellan attacked, Lee's army would have been destroyed as a fighting unit. Goes without saying they would have put up another hellacious fight. The problem was they only had so much hellacious left in them. And it simply was not enough to ward off another such attack as what they just - just - fended off the day before.
I've seen reasons given for why Lee elected to stay and fight rather than pull back across the Potomac. Bottom line, I do not agree with any of them. Lee had nothing to gain that compensated for the enormous risk he was running. The risk to reward ratio was so skewed against him, it probably doesn't even register. The reward of a potential draw vs the risk of quite literally losing his army, thereby effectively ending the war in the East in 1862.
For my money, this decision by Lee was the worst he made during the war. It beats anything he did at Gettysburg by a country mile.
Which brings us to the other player in this odd little drama - George B. McClellan.
Little Mac had at least one golden chance to insert the dagger on September 17th, when his army pierced Lee's line in the center. Reverse the roles here, and put Lee in McClellan's place at that moment. What do you think Lee would have done? Easy answer, isn't it. The guy risked losing his army and the war just because he didn't want to retreat. You think he's going to hesitate to rip his enemy to shreds the instant the chance is there?
But McClellan was no Lee, and McClellan was no Grant. Grant was someone else who would not only have inserted the dagger right there, but twisted the blade around to boot. McClellan would not even unscabber the sword.
I've often wondered what must have run through his mind on the morning of the 18th, when he realized that Lee had not retreated during the night. Did he find his fears of being outnumbered realized? Did he really and truly think Lee's army along that little creek actually outnumbered his own? Lee had poured in virtually every reserve body he had available to him. McClellan still had like an entire corps in reserve, with more men on the way. Yet Lee was the one opting to roll loaded dice, with not prayer of hitting seven. McClellan was the one refusing to bet on a sure thing.
Little Mac would later write, "Those in whose judgment I rely tell me that I fought the battle splendidly & that it was a masterpiece of art."
Read up on Antietam then read that above sentence again. And keep in mind that he's being serious.
McClellan has his defenders, and they make some good points about the man. But there is no getting around the fact that Little Mac lacked that killer instinct it takes to win battles and wars. Never was that more evident than on September 18th, 1862. The victory, the end of the war, enduring fame, probably the presidency at some point in the near future, all awaited him. All he really had to do was give the order to renew the attack.
It was an order he never gave, because he simply did not have it in him to give it.
Maybe, when you get down to it, this is the reason why Lee offered battle on the 18th. Maybe he knew, deep down, that McClellan did not have the stomach for it. Maybe he had it all figured out, and maybe that explains everything.
There's only one problem with that for me. McClellan did attack, on the 17th. What he had done once, he might very well do again. And had he done so, Lee's army could not have withstood it.
I'm not a military expert, and deserve no seat at the table with Lee or McClellan either one. But what each of these men did outside the little town of Sharpsburg Maryland in September of 1862 has always put a good bunch of confused into my thinking.
One man risked everything to gain nothing. The other refused to risk anything to gain everything.
The beginning of the end of the American Civil War should have arrived on September 18th, 1862, on the second day of the two-day battle of Antietam. That it did not, will forever remain one of the greatest what-ifs of that incredibly bloody war.
The main thing I remember from ten years ago today is the disbelief I felt. I flipped on the TV that morning and there on the screen was this image of a building with this big, oddly-shaped smoking hole in the middle of it. Instead of hearing about what the weather was supposed to be like that day or who won the Monday Night Football game that I was too tired to watch the night before, I'm standing there looking at what I'm suddenly hoping is nothing more than a terrible accident. It was, of course, much more than that.
Like a lot of folks in Oklahoma, it was also a little bit of a nightmarish deja vu for me, bringing back unpleasant memories of the 1995 bombing in downtown Oklahoma City. Another day filled with incredible disbelief. The kind that makes you want to close your eyes and wish it all away. But knowing that you simply can't.
More than once, I've heard the 9/11 terrorist attacks compared to Pearl Harbor. How unexpected it all was, and the shock, disbelief, and rage that greeted the rapidly spreading news about what had happened.
Prior to September 11th in fact, when people thought about surprise attacks, the one that probably came to mind for most was Pear Harbor. Whether you were around when it happened or not, that was the image you very often had of what a surprise attack and the reaction that followed it looked like. Then came 9/11. And now we have another searing image of surprise attack. And of the shock and disbelief that came with it. A new Pearl Harbor for a new generation to reflect back on, whether they want to or not.
I sometimes think that the Civil War generation had it's own Pearl Harbor, only it occurred about a year after the war had already started. The battle of Shiloh.
It's not a perfect comparison of course, and there were other moments in the war prior to Shiloh that certainly caused shock and disbelief. In some respects though, the reaction to the start of the war, at Fort Sumter, almost seems to have caused an opposite response. It was almost as if a lot of folks were glad the war was finally here. Which probably speaks to the seemingly endless, building tension that preceded those opening shots. The actual event itself was almost like a release. Although not for everyone. One of the vivid images I have of that event is Mary Boykin Chestnut writing about how the first shot out in Charleston Harbor caused her to leap out of bed, hit her knees, and pray like she had never prayed before.
And the reaction to First Manassas was very often stunned disbelief, especially in the North. The size of the causality list was a shock to both sides, as was the fact that the Union army had not only lost, but then did wind sprints getting back to D.C. Which, from then till now, has unfortunately obscured just how close a battle it really was.
But the closest thing the 1860's saw to a Pearl Harbor or 9/11 reaction came in April of 1862, when word of what had just occurred at some obscure spot on the Tennessee River began to circulate. A battle that not even the epic struggle at First Manassas could approach. A battle so titanic, so incredibly horrifying, that you had to line up every battle from all three of the country's previous wars put together to try and match it.
And you still came up short.
Papers filled with casualty lists that seemingly had no end. Thousands dead or missing. Boatload after boatload of wounded. Accounts that defied belief. In some cases perhaps, with fairly good reason. But in those early days, no one knew fact from fiction. All they knew was that something unprecedented had taken place in Tennessee, and the news was as awful and unexpected as anything they had ever known. It was Pearl Harbor before there was a Pearl Harbor. 9/11 long before a plane first took to the sky.
Shiloh garnered a kind of response that no other battle of the war ever matched. That's not really a good thing though. It's just saying that it was awful, and that unlike equally horrific battles that followed over the next three years, people were not prepared for the extent of awful that Shiloh was. This is why the Pearl Harbor generation could have related to that generation of 1862. And why those of us who lived through 9/11 can do so as well. They might be 150 years removed from us, but there are moments when that time chasm means nothing.
History does repeat itself. Sometimes, we wish it would not. But it reminds us that the past is not always as past as we think it is. And that people, and their emotions, are about the same as they've always been. We might not be able to relate to the details of life in the 1860's, but we can relate to things like fear, dread, disbelief. As well as joy, hope, and the promise of a new and better day. Human then, and human now.
No one knew what the future held on April 8th, 1862. None of us knew what the future held on September 12th, 2001. We only knew we had to face it, and we did so. Sometimes with fear, sometimes with dread. And sometimes with hope that comes with the promise of a new and better day. Just as did those folks in those dark and endless days of the American Civil War.
Be safe today, and take a moment to remember the folks who are no longer here so that we can be.
I've never had a blog before. So this is a first for me. Blogs seem to be all the rage these days, and I've read some here and there on various things. Some are darn good, others, for me at least, not so much. But starting one of my own never really held any great interest for me. Yet here I am, writing a blog. Go figure.
Maybe it's the timing. I recently got my first-ever smartphone, which is a great deal smarter than I am by any measure. But it's pretty fun to use, even if it will be close to next century before I get it all figured out. (Took me five full minutes to figure out how to make my first call on it.) And this is the first new platform for our discussion board in around three years. And it came with free extras. Like, well, blogs.
So I guess it's just a good time for me to be trying new stuff. Including a blog.
No promises about it being anything profound or fancy. Or even relevant or worth reading. And it probably won't be getting regular, breaking-news type updates. More than likely, just whenever something hits me that I think the rest of the world simply cannot live without knowing about where the Civil War is concerned, in here it will go.
I also want to encourage the other board members to explore the idea of starting up their own blog. Doesn't have to be about the war. And you don't even have to own a smartphone first. Just give it a try along with me. If nothing else, we'll have a little fun trying out some of this new technology stuff.
Oh, and about the name, Wrapin About the War. It's a take on my original screen name here on the board - Wrap10. So now I have to explain about that, since it's one of those things you can't live without knowing. Hey, I told you how this was going to work.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away....wait, wrong movie.
Actually it was back in the late 90's, on a now-defunct online service called Prodigy. Prodigy had their own chat room, which I never used until finally being convinced by other members to try it out. Back in those days everyone had to use their real names on Prodigy, but to enter the chat room you had to pick a screen name. I went through a laundry-list of names, all of which were rejected by the system as already taken. I was just about to give up and leave when on a whim, I tried one more - Wrap10.
I've been a bowler since I was 6, and wrap 10 is a bowling term that describes what happens when a seemingly perfect pocket hit results in you leaving the 10-pin standing. When you thought you were about to get a strike. The pin that would normally take out the 10-pin instead goes flying around it. It's called by various names, some of which aren't really family friendly. But one of the names it goes by is, you guessed it, wrap 10.
So I entered the chat room that evening as Wrap10, and I've been Wrap10 online ever since. And as Paul Harvey might have said, now you know the rest of the story. I'll be back with another entry at some point, but for now, I've got more things to figure out on this darn smartphone. See you next time....