Saturday, June 30, 2012

Flashback, June-July 1862: Lee Takes Command

The creation of the Robert E. Lee legend in the collective mind of the South was hardly preordained. Many in the Confederacy—including the common soldiers he would call on, time and again, to perform extraordinary deeds on the battlefield—were apt to write him off in the early part of 1862 because of a poor showing in western Virginia over the winter.  And his visibility was not high, because of his largely behind-the-scenes role as military adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

But by mid-year 1862, several factors led Lee on a course with destiny:
           *   Union General George B. McClellan’s amphibious Peninsula Campaign represented the most serious threat to the Confederate capital, Richmond, up to that point.
·         * The wounding in late May 1862 of General Joseph E. Johnston, at the Battle of Seven Pines, necessitated that Lee take the field himself as his replacement.
·         * Lee’s determination to take the offensive, in a series of short, savage engagements known as the Seven Days Campaign, electrified the South—even though, in strategy and long-term results, it was more flawed than many realized at the time.

Lee had many gifts—resolution, daring, an aristocratic dignity that made men look up to him in absolute loyalty—but he was gifted in nothing so much as his early Union opponents. Generals as different as John Pope, Ambrose Burnside, and Joseph Hooker were nettled when he did something unexpected. The first of these commanders, McClellan, represented the most stunning example of how he could throw a Union commander way off guard.

“The Young Napoleon” had come to Washington with tremendous faith placed in him by the republic. In late 1861, he had begun raising, outfitting and training the Union’s Army of the Potomac, but still had to be prodded by President Abraham Lincoln to take the offensive against the Confederates.

The President, with good reason, wasn’t terribly keen on “Little Mac’s” eventual plan: to ship his 122,000 troops by sea to the tip of the York-James peninsula, then fight his way to Richmond. The campaign threatened to expose Washington to a Confederate attack, and one of its reasons for being—the supposed huge army obstructing the way to the rebel capital—already hinted at the tendency to see phantoms that plagued McClellan throughout the rest of his service as commander.

But Lincoln was happy at this point to get his general moving at all, and the plan did have two advantages: it exploited Union naval superiority and it sidestepped the problem of rebel concentration of forces behind interior lines, McClellan's principal objection to an overland campaign against Richmond. Lincoln, then, allowed the plan to move forward, and on March 17 McClellan began shipping his army—the largest ever to conduct an amphibious operation in North America—to Fort Monroe, guarding the way to Hampton Roads. Thus began the Peninsula Campaign, a 3½-month nightmare of feints, bad weather, muddy roads, badly coordinated attacks, and missed opportunities.

One of these was the Battle of Williamsburg, fought on May 5. Things had not been going well at all for the Federals until General Phil Kearny rallied his men with perhaps my favorite battle cry of the war: "I am a one-armed Jersey Son-of- a-Gun, follow me!"  Winfield Scott Hancock’s flanking maneuver then forced the Confederates to abandon the Wiliamsburg Line. But instead of seeing it as an opportunity to exploit, McClellan regarded it as "an accident caused by too rapid a pursuit."

Even before he assumed Johnston’s command, Lee had already made a significant contribution to the Confederate attempt to drive away the enemy. He suggested to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson that activity in the Shenandoah Valley would make the administration in Washington fearful of an attack against the Union capital. Jackson’s lightning-fast campaign in the region made his reputation in the Confederacy.

When Johnston fell wounded, Lee faced a desperate situation. The Union seemed to be pressing the Confederacy on every front: with Ambrose Burnside in North Carolina, with Ulysses S. Grant in Tennessee, with naval control of New Orleans—and now, an enemy so close to Richmond that Davis was seriously considering withdrawing from the capital. 

Moreover, the costs of war began to come home to Richmond for the first time, with the dead and wounded being brought into the city. As Constance Cary Harrison recalled the atmosphere a half century later in Recollections Grave and Gay (1911): “During the night began the ghastly procession of wounded brought in from the field. Every vehicle the city could produce supplemented the military ambulances. Many slightly wounded men, so black with gunpowder as to be unrecognizable, came limping in on foot. All next day, women with white faces flitted bareheaded through the street and hospitals, looking for their own.”

Once taking charge in the field, Lee issued one set of orders that seemed to confirm Johnny Reb's early misimpression: to dig extensive entrenchments outside Richmond. Soldiers would rather shoot than dig, especially in the hot early-summer sun, and it wasn't long before Lee was christened "The King of Spades." But the move gave him a foothold as he began to formulate a characteristically audacious strategy. 

In addition to Jackson in the Shenandoah, Lee made effective use of another subordinate, General J.E.B. Stuart, by ordering reconnaissance of the Union forces. Stuart’s implementation of the mission was daring (he rode completely around the Union forces) and, in contrast with his later performance in the Gettysburg campaign (when he did not provide Lee with adequate knowledge of Union troop movements just before the campaign), gave the commander serviceable intelligence: McClellan’s right flank was exposed.

Beginning on June 25, Lee attempted a series of frontal assaults, along with an envelopment of the Union right. At this point, the campaign became more than a clash of thousands of men, even of creative use of the latest military technology (ironclad warships, 200-pounder rifled cannon, battlefield telegraph, and aerial reconnaissance,) but instead boiled down to a contest of two commanders’ wills.

Key to Lee’s strategy was Johnston’s perception of the early days of the Peninsula Campaign: "no one but McClellan could have hesitated to attack." In one of the great intelligence failures of Army military history, McClellan’s intelligence adviser, Allan Pinkerton (yes, future head of the famed detective agency), advised the Union leader that he was facing 200,000 men.

Lee had nothing like these forces at hand—in fact, he had about 65,000 when he took control of operations—but what he had, he would use. From June 25 to July 1, he ordered several major battles that put McClellan back on his heels--Mechanicsville, Gaines' Mill, Savage's Station, Frayser's Farm, and Malvern Hill.   

About 10 years ago, I visited the Richmond National Battlefield Park. What impressed me about the park was its sheer size. The National Park Service advises to spend 1 to 1 1/2 days to visit the site. Even this feels inadequate. In these now-peaceful rural areas, the Union and Confederate armies squared off in some of the most intense fighting of a war filled with them.

Though he won all but one of these engagements, McClellan was rattled enough to withdraw to a defensive position on the coast, from which he withdrew a month later. The entire campaign demonstrated that McClellan had, as historian Stephen W. Sears noted in his fine history of the Peninsula campaign, To the Gates of Richmond, lost “the courage to command.”

In his perceptive study, Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship, the British Major General J.F.C. Fuller put the reason why Lee won so much acclaim for this campaign in as crisp a form as possible: “it was he and he alone who saved Richmond.” Immediately,  however, in the very next sentence, he qualifies that assessment: “His conceptions were brilliant, his executions faulty and unnecessarily costly.” 

In the century after the war, Ulysses S. Grant came in for much criticism as a “butcher” with his men’s lives. But it is hard to see how he can be faulted on this count more than Lee, and in another crucial respect—one that applies to the Seven Days and subsequent campaigns—he was the Confederate’s superior: Grant’s orders were crisply written, while Lee’s were oral and sometimes garbled. You'd be hard pressed to find a subordinate in any doubt what Grant wanted them to do, but Lee’s sometimes misconstrued his orders—and that can be seen in this particular campaign, when poorly coordinated Confederate attacks resulted from Lee's lieutenants not being in position to attack when he wanted them to do so.

In the confusion of war, even Lee could confuse what he wanted done. Appalled at the grim slaughter at Malvern Hill, he asked General John Magruder why he had pressed on with the attack in the face of McClellan’s strong defensive position. “Because of your orders, twice repeated,” Magruder responded. (Those Lee apologists who still blame James Longstreet for the failed Pickett’s Charge on the third, decisive day at Gettysburg might want to look to the earlier exchange with Magruder and reconsider their position.)

The talk with Magruder also raises the issue of casualties. Lee was already facing an overall numerical disadvantage in terms of manpower, and his predeliction for the grand offensive didn’t help matters. As Alan T. Nolan pointed out in Lee Considered (1991), throughout the Seven Days campaign, McClellan lost approximately 9,800 soldiers killed and wounded, or 10.7% of his force; Lee lost 19,700 men, or 20.7% of his army.

Similar numbers recurred throughout the rest of his campaigns. From McClellan through Hooker, Northern commanders were knocked so silly by Lee’s blows that they never really recovered their equilibrium after the first strike. In Grant, however, Lee faced a leader who, after agreeing with Sherman that they had had “the devil’s own day” in their first 24 hours at Shiloh, continued: “Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.”

If he could, Grant would stick with his initial tactics; if not, he would try another. But, whether inVicksburg or Northern Virginia, he would continue the campaign. Lee had never faced anyone quite like him before. The losses he sustained in offensive operations now came back to haunt him, as he had no men to spare for either other fronts or even his own offensives.

In the Seven Days, Lee had driven the Army of the Potomac away from Richmond, making him the victor of the campaign. The Confederacy could ill afford his kind of bloody victories in the future, though.

Quote of the Day (Thomas Hardy, With a Lament of a Spurned Groom)

"Ay, she won me to ask her to be my wife -
'Twas foolish perhaps! to forsake the ways
Of the flaring town for a farmer's life.
She agreed. And we fixed it. Now she says:
'It's sweet of you, dear, to prepare me a nest,
But a swift, short, gay life suits me best.
What I really am you have never gleaned;
I had eaten the apple ere you were weaned.'"—Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), from the sonnet “At the Altar-Rail,” from Satires of Circumstance (1914)

With June the most popular month for weddings, the mind thinks not only of the many happy unions begun but of the occasional ones never started, perhaps best epitomized by the bitterly sad, ancient spinster Miss Havisham of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.

That characterization was so indelible that, to this day, whenever I think of one half of a couple left high and dry on what should be the happiest day of their lives, it’s always a female I think of. But the great British poet-novelist Thomas Hardy has shown, even in the Victorian and early modern eras when women were at a decided economic and legal disadvantage, men could still end up losers in the game of love.

Ah, the road to love can be hard indeed!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Flashback, June 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal Russian Error

In less than 20 years, a little Corsican—a nobody in the army of his adopted country, France—had come to cast such a mighty shadow over Europe that kingdoms fell, worldly-wide counselors quailed at a baleful glance from him, and foreign ministers tried vainly to cobble together shifting alliances that could defeat him on at least one battlefield.

Yet in a fit of pique, while still engaged with enemies in Western Europe, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte led his feared Grande Armee of more than half a million strong on pontoon boats across the Niemen River from Poland into Lithuania, on their way to Russia, from June 24 to 26. The invasion of Russia--planned for the last year and a half, begun with soldiers in magnificent apparel loudly singing French patriotic songs--would unravel by the fall, depleting his forces and leading to his eventual loss of power.

It has not escaped historians’ notice that the two masters of the European land mass over the last 2½ centuries, Napoleon and Adolf Hitler, both began to fall to earth with foolhardy invasions of Russia. The similarities between the two were, in fact, so extensive and pronounced that they became the subject of an entire book, Desmond Seward’s Napoleon and Hitler: A Comparative Biography (1990).

Certainly, the same question—What was he thinking?—arises from both Napoleon’s 1812 campaign and Hitler’s in 1941. Both invasions occurred when the strongmen, though they had continually outguessed opponents on the field, still had not overcome opponents in the West (Napoleon’s: a force of British soldiers and Spanish guerrillas, led by the Duke of Wellington; Hitler’s: Great Britain, in North Africa).  Both strongmen were determined to strike at Russian rulers they deemed either vulnerable or downright treacherous. Both ignored pointed warnings that they would face a brutal Russian winter. And both thrust deeply into Russia before slowing down and suffering stinging losses from which they would never recover.

Yet the story of Napoleon’s Russian misadventure is astonishing in and of itself, even without the comparison to Hitler. His motives, and those of his opponent, Czar Alexander I, were more complex than the Nazi dictator’s, and the losses were, proportionately speaking, as staggering as those endured by Germans under their ruler in WWII.

To start with: Napoleon was peeved at Alexander’s vacillating attitude toward the Continental System, a blockade in which all trade with Great Britain was forbidden. After a defeat at the hands of Napoleon in the Battle of Friedland, Alexander concluded the Treaty of Tilsit with him, agreeing to leave most of Europe to the French leader while he maintained a free hand in dealing with Finland, Sweden and the Ottoman Empire. Once foes, the two took to proclaiming their brotherhood to each other, united by disdain for Great Britain.

It didn’t last long. Alexander, discovering that the freeze on British trade was having an adverse effect on the economy of his own country, too, looked the other way when Russian merchants began to break the blockade, angering Napoleon.

What may have annoyed the French emperor even more, however, was the Romanov dynasty’s refusal to facilitate his offer of marriage to Alexander’s youngest sister, Grand Duchess Anna. Like Britain’s Henry VIII, Napoleon’s fear that a lack of an heir would produce discord in France after his death led him to contemplate divorce from the Empress Josephine. Additionally, marriage between two royal houses would enable him to consolidate power in Europe—something he was in a great hurry to do, following one battle after another.

But Alexander’s father, Czar Paul, had given his wife, Dowager Empress Maria, right of approval over prospective grooms for her daughters—and Maria could not abide the thought that her youngest daughter would marry someone she regarded as a scoundrel. Additionally, a rumor appears to have reached her—spread by Napoleon’s soon-to-be-ex, Josephine—that the general, all-conquering on the battlefield, was rather less triumphant in the boudoir. (Incidentally, the saying that spread after this choice bit of gossip—“Not Tonight, Josephine!”—became the initial, ultimately rejected title for one of cinema’s great comedies: Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot.) The Dowager Empress—and, hence, Alexander—refused to consent to a union so disadvantageous.

Imagine you’re Napoleon. Not only has your diplomatic maneuver been stymied, but also your very manhood has been questioned. (And unfairly maligned, at that: After his marriage to Josephine was dissolved, he sired a child.) How would you react?

Napoleon, guessing the outcome, went off and married Maria Louisa of Austria. But he was still furious over the slight from the Romanovs. And Alexander, already concerned about this reaction to the matrimonial mess, grew worried as he saw the man he had once marveled at massing more and more troops in Poland, just beyond his sphere of influence.

Faced with Napoleon’s blustering about the Continental System as well as these latest military maneuvers, Alexander carefully went over with one of his diplomats what he wanted to convey to the French emperor:  France might have better-trained troops and more skilled generals, but Napoleon could never hope to conquer Russia. In fact, the farther he penetrated inland, the more likely his defeat at the hands of a vicious winter.

Napoleon ignored the warning and thrust his army into Russia. It seemed like a juggernaut, but that was a bit deceptive—only two-fifths were French. The other soldiers, as well-trained as they were, were not as highly motivated to fight for their country.

Alexander’s Minister of War, Barclay de Tolly, adopted a “Fabian” strategy (named for the ancient Roman general Quintus Maximus Verrucosus Fabius) of avoiding pitched battles and frontal assaults in favor of a war of attrition. In the American Revolution, George Washington’s patient implementation of this strategy bore positive results at Yorktown.

The strategy was meant to minimize the Russian Army’s huge liabilities, which, as summarized in Curtis Cate’s fine history of the campaign, The War of the Two Emperors, included the following:

*archaic army regulations dating back to Czar Peter the Great in 1716;
*widespread gambling, drunkenness, and dissipation among the officers;
*foot soldiers, taken from the vast population of serfs, recruited by their masters for 25 years—and, consequently, with low morale;
*inadequate food that left soldiers so weak they could not withstand disease or low marches;
*field artillery forces commanded not by skilled, trained officers, but by favorites of the hierarchy.

Again, Napoleon was warned about the nature of the strategy facing him. Again, he chose to plunge ahead, sure he could carry all before him.

Speed was required to make Napoleon’s strategy of enveloping the Russian army work, but that was precisely what he could not achieve in the coming campaign.  His opponent would simply pull back, denying him the decisive battle he wanted. His men became exhausted from the increasingly dire conditions of the march (clouds of dust that, after downpours of rain, could turn roads into mudfields; dying horses; mosquitoes; dysentery; etc).

Napoleon regularly pushed his men to their physical limits (e.g., their heavy wool uniforms made them wilt in the early summer heat). But the supreme strategist of the era had made a great error, and continued to do so, as he pursued an enemy that would never really give him the fight he wanted.
Most important, he lost time. A campaign that began in summer heat was continually delayed. After the Russian Army left Moscow with the city in flames, he waited for weeks for a surrender that never came, leaving him less time to pull out of the nation before the Russian winter.

The names of the battles in the subsequent campaign—Smolensk, Borodino, Maloyaroslavets, Berezina—would enter Russian legend, most memorably in Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel, War and Peace. The truth, though, was that the campaign was marked by terrible mistakes and hideous casualties on the part of generals on both sides. (The commander that Alexander eventually appointed to lead his armies in the field, General Mikhail Kutusov, pursued the withdrawing Napoleon in a leisurely manner that enabled the French emperor to escape utter destruction.)

Once Napoleon straggled home to France, John Quincy Adams, serving as America’s ambassador to Russia, remarked of the campaign that there was “nothing like it in history since the days of Xerxes.”

The toll on Napoleon’s army was astonishing. By mid-January, the once-Grande Armee—now placed under the command of General Joachim Murat—numbered a mere 40,000 organized troops and another 20,000 stragglers—physical, and often mental, shells of their old selves. In another year, Napoleon would be forced from his throne following another defeat. Even an escape from a prison at Elba could not regain the domination of the continent he once had, as the Duke of Wellington and his allies defeated him, at last, at Waterloo in 1815.

(The image depicts Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, in a painting by Adolph Northen.)

TV Quote of the Day (‘Jersey Shore’s’ Snooki, on Giving Birth)

“Honestly, I really didn't know that I could make a baby. So the fact that I can reproduce is very scary.”-- Nicole Polizzi (better known as “Snooki” of Jersey Shore to you and me), revealing her astonishment at being pregnant on her new show, Snooki and JWoww vs. The World, quoted in Iona Kirby, Snooki and JWoww Are Up to Their Old Tricks in First Trailer for Their  New Spin-off Show,” The Daily Mail, April 26, 2012

Correction, Snooki: The fact that you could go through middle and high school—including mandatory sex education—and not realize that you “could make a baby” is scary. The fact that you are about to unleash a young Snooki on the world that will carry your genes is scary.

The fact that you could conceivably bear multiple children is the stuff of horror films. As for the fact that millions of people are still watching your escapades (albeit on a new show with friend JWoww), and that an institute of higher learning (Rutgers) invited you to speak at its graduation—well, all that fresh evidence of American fecklessness is more than my mind can contemplate.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Quote of the Day (Albert Camus, from Newspapers’ Heroic Era)

“A free newspaper can be assessed by what it says but also and equally by what it doesn't say. This completely negative freedom, if it can be maintained, is by far the most important of all, for it prepares the way for the arrival of true freedom. Accordingly, an independent newspaper gives the sources of its news, helps its readers evaluate what it reports, rejects brainwashing, suppresses invective, augments the standardized presentation of news with commentaries, and, in short, serves the truth within the human limits of its possibilities. However relative those limits may be, they will at least allow such a publication to refuse to do what no power on earth can make it accept: to serve lies.”—Nobel Prize laureate Albert Camus, from article dated November 25, 1939, for his Algerian newspaper Le Soir republicain but censored by French authorities; subsequently published in Harper’s Magazine, July 2012

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Quote of the Day (Roger L. Simon, on Nora Ephron and What Splits and Unites Us)

“When I knew Nora, I was a liberal on her side of the fence. We never spoke after I made my political change, well over a decade ago now….

“But death, as any decent rabbi would say (so why shouldn’t I?), is a time to reflect. We all have our ideas and solutions for the world, how things should or shouldn’t be fixed. But we’re all just people, making our way. If we have compassion for each other even as we disagree, life might be better for all.

“God knows it’s short enough.”—Mystery novelist, screenwriter and conservative blogger Roger L. Simon, remembering fellow screenwriter Nora Ephron (1941-2012), in the blog post  “Nora Ephron Passes,” June 26, 2012

I had another piece I was going to post in this space, and I wasn’t even that keen to write about Ephron herself (about whom I have written before here, anyway). But the partisan divisions among Americans have become so screaming loud that it’s important to be reminded, as Simon does here, of the essentials in life.

“The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” the poet Thomas Gray wrote. So do our differences. If death is not a time for lowering the voices, when will that time ever come?