Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Gettysburg Address

Without question, The Gettysburg Address is one of the most famous speeches in American history. Children recite in school, or at least they used to, and many of its passages are instantly recognized by many Americans. But, I would venture to say that most people do not truly understand its importance or, more importantly, even begin to sense the magnificence and power of Abraham Lincoln’s 269 word oration. It has inspired much historiography, most notably the recent work of Garry Wills and Gabor Boritt.

Photo-1Every word, every nuance, has been examined and the speech has even inspired many myths. One myth holds that the speech was allegedly written on the back of an envelope, while another states that the address was considered a failure by the audience, the press, and Lincoln himself. The envelope myth has most certainly been debunked by historians and, in fact, no one is precisely sure what copy was the actual text as spoken on November 19, 1863, given that there are five different written versions. However, only one copy was actually signed by Lincoln and, while it was written down several months after the address, that is the version most of us are familiar with. As for its popularity at the time, most recollections simply state that the audience was surprised by the brevity of the speech and the press primarily divided their opinions along political lines. As for Lincoln himself, most recent scholarship seems to indicate that he felt his point had been delivered.

Photo-2So, what was Lincoln’s point? While I cannot write a book here and provide the detailed analysis that men like Wills and Boritt already have, I will try to give you my views and do so as simply as possible. To do so, however, it is important to place the speech in context, both in terms of the war and the place it was delivered.

As for the war, in November 1863, the conflict was in the midst of its third full year. The previous summer, Union armies had been victorious both at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. But the fall had brought defeat at Chickamauga, which placed the defeated Union Army of the Cumberland under siege in Chattanooga. However, as Lincoln delivered his address at Gettysburg, the newly assigned Union commander in the West, Ulysses S. Grant, was preparing to break that siege, opening the door to the Deep South.

Photo-3 Still, the coming spring and summer would bring new campaigns, new battles, and ever more casualties. The war had already resulted in death and suffering on a scale the nation had never imagined possible, and Lincoln carried that great burden on his shoulders. His photographs from this time show deep lines on his face and one can sense his own intense suffering. He visited the hospitals in Washington D.C. constantly and saw firsthand the damage the war levied in broken bodies and souls. The nation was becoming war weary and the months ahead would not bring a swift end to the country’s pain. But, while Lincoln felt every bit of that pain, he also was keenly aware of what he called the “awful arithmetic of war.” He had not and would not lose his resolve to see the war through.

Photo-4 As for the place of the address, Gettysburg, of course, had been the site of the monumental three-day battle between the Union Army of the Potomac and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Following the battle, it was decided to place a military cemetery on the battlefield where the remains of Unions soldiers killed in the fighting would be interred. The President, along with former Massachusetts senator and noted orator, Edward Everett, were invited to the dedication ceremonies. Everett, however, was to deliver the main dedication oration, while Lincoln was only to provide a “few appropriate remarks.” Everett’s two-hour oration, a length typical for mid-19th century speechmaking, clearly focused on what was likely his and the audience’s vision of the battle as a monumental turning point, a great signal victory. And, while Lincoln certainly said nothing to indicate he felt otherwise, we know that he did not share that view. He was, of course, grateful that General Meade and his army had turned Lee back, but he saw the battle as a lost opportunity to destroy Lee’s army and thus hasten the war’s conclusion. In his mind, Lee and his formidable army were still safe, lying in wait in northern Virginia. Bringing them to bay would require even more bloodshed and sacrifice. I raise this issue solely for one reason: While Gettysburg was the place for this address, on that November day he could have and, likely, would have given the same speech at any battlefield of the war.

That brings us to the purpose and the meaning of his words. Lincoln begins with a simple summation of what he saw as the basis of the war. First, he reminds us that the nation was created as one where all men were to be equal. This is important to note because, here, he is really citing the Declaration of Independence, which he viewed as our “moral manifesto,” as the rock upon which the nation rested. The war, in turn, was testing whether a nation “so conceived and dedicated” could survive against those who challenged its very moral basis. Interestingly, however, Lincoln moves quickly past the idea that the ceremony of which he was part could do anything to commemorate, consecrate, or hallow the ground on which they stood—that had already been done by those who had fought there and sacrificed their lives. Rather, he said, they were there to rededicate themselves and the nation to the “great task remaining.” And what was that great task? Was it victory? Yes, it was certainly that. Was it restoration of the Union? Of course, it was that as well. But, it was also something far more, and it was something that would be, in Lincoln’s mind, the product of both—It was a “new birth of freedom.”

For Lincoln, that was the true goal—the creation of a nation free from the tyranny of human slavery, where all were free to reap the fruits of their labor, where all had value simply for who they were as human beings, where all had the opportunity to make a better life for themselves, no matter their race, their religion, or their ethnicity. And, I believe that, while Lincoln spoke in the sense of the more near term, he knew in his heart that a long road was ahead to truly achieve that kind of freedom in any complete sense. But first, to bring about the birth, victory must come and that would hopefully ensure the preservation of government by, of, and for the people.

So, in that sense, I believe that the true majesty of Lincoln’s words come from seeing them as a challenge to us all, to the generations that would follow, to continue the struggle, to not let those who died at Gettysburg, or hundreds of other places in the all other wars that followed, to have died in vain. In that sense, Lincoln, perhaps, said far more than he realized, and I believe the challenge he laid down that November day is as viable today as it was 147 years ago. As the great narrative historian, Bruce Catton, would write, our republic, our nation, “will survive only if it lives up to the promise that was inherent in its genesis. The fulfillment of that promise is in our keeping.” And that is why I cherish The Gettysburg Address so dearly.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Command Profile: Joe Johnston

Photo-1 Of all the men who held major commands during the Civil War, Joseph E. Johnson’s performance is, without doubt, the most perplexing. At the outset of the war, as a brigadier general in the Regular Army, he was the highest ranking officer to resign in favor of service to the Confederacy. He was also a man deeply respected by his peers and he retained that high stature throughout the war and into the years beyond it. He fought with distinction against the Seminole, Fox, and Sac Indians, and received two brevet promotions for gallantry in Mexico, where he was wounded twice.

Johnston was also a man with a deep, almost dysfunctional sense of personal honor, who valued order and proper procedure above all else. And, he was also a somewhat ambitious man. However, unlike men like Joe Hooker, his ambition was more subtle, quiet and far less aggressive. Still, he demanded what he felt was due him as a matter of course and could become extremely petulant if he believed he had been slighted. However, despite these apparent flaws, he was talented soldier of whom Ulysses S. Grant later said, when comparing him to other Confederate generals, “Joe Johnston gave me more anxiety than any of the others.” Further, those who served with him shared an equally high opinion. J.E.B. Stuart referred to Johnston as his best friend and James Longstreet once stated that he longed to serve under Johnston.

Photo-2 However, those high opinions would not be shared by President Jefferson Davis. Although, at the outset of the war, Johnston was a man Davis sought out, elevated to command, and the two seemed to have common strategic vision. But, once Johnston took the field, their relationship changed and not for the better. Davis quickly discovered that, when he gave Johnston the latitude and discretion the Confederate president thought this highly experience general deserved, Johnston would become frozen and demand detailed instructions. At the same time, however, when detailed policy directives were issued, Johnston would become incensed at what he saw as excessive interference in his ability to command.

Johnston and Davis’ relationship would permanently sour over the issue of rank and, more specifically, Johnston’s rank relative to other Confederate generals. Following a maze of guidance issued by the Confederate Congress, Johnston was promoted to the full rank of general, but he was ranked fourth in terms of seniority behind Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Robert E. Lee. Johnston was incensed by this perceived slight. He wrote an angry two thousand-word note to President Davis in which he argued that, as the highest ranking officer in the U.S. Army to enter Confederate service, he should be the highest in seniority. In point of fact, for a variety of complex reasons related to the guidance from congress, Davis was correct in ranking Johnston fourth and tried to explain this to him. But, Johnston took the matter very seriously and even after the dates of rank were adjusted, Johnston was still angry with Davis. He would later make matters worse by openly allying himself with politicians such as Senator Louis Wigfall of Texas, who was a bitter opponent of Davis. As a result, their personal relationship would never recover.

In addition, Johnston began to display his limitations as a general. In early 1862, Johnston commanded the forces that would eventually be named the Army of Northern Virginia. As such, he was opposed by General George McClellan and the Army of the Potomac, and was responsible for the defense of northern Virginia and the capital at Richmond. However, when McClellan moved his army to the Virginia Peninsula, Johnston’s sole response was to fall back to a line near the capital’s defenses and await further developments. When Davis and Lee, who was now commander of all Confederate armies, inquired as to what was Johnston’s strategic plan for countering McClellan, Johnston replied that he planned to take the defensive and see if McClellan made an error that could be exploited. Given McClellan’s superior numbers, one can see the logic of this approach, but, at the same time, it seemed a recipe for accepting potential defeat before there had even been a fight. Johnston was eventually prodded to move on the offensive, had some limited success, but was severely wounded in the process. This led to Lee taking command of what would become his army, while Johnston spent several months recovering from his wounds.

Despite the souring of their relationship, Jefferson Davis continued to have respect for Johnston and his military abilities. Therefore, in late 1862, when the general fully recovered from his wounds, Davis appointed him commander of all Confederate armies in the western theater. In Davis’ opinion, Johnston was clearly a more talented and experienced officer that either the two army commanders in the theater, Braxton Bragg and John Pemberton. Therefore, Johnston would be charged with developing and implementing operational strategies, and ensuring cooperation between the two armies. Further, whenever a Federal army would move against either Bragg or Pemberton, Johnston would be on the scene, develop a response, and then leave the army commander to implement it. On the surface, it seemed like the perfect job for a man of Johnston’s perceived talents.

Unfortunately, the concept failed in execution for two reasons. First, in Davis’ mind, any Federal attacks would occur in isolation, allowing Johnston to deal with either Grant or Rosecrans’ army in turn. He never imagined they would pose a threat simultaneously. Therefore, while Johnston favored consolidating both armies into one and opposing the greater Federal threat, Davis insisted that the armies remain separate and that they give up as little Confederate territory as possible. Additionally, the concept failed because Johnston could not grasp what his job really entailed. In his mind, if he responded to a Federal threat to either Bragg or Pemberton and developed a plan for their implementation, he was interfering in their rights as army commanders, which he saw as supreme. That is one reason why he preferred to unify the two armies under his command. That way, he would be the “army commander” and, therefore, any command decisions he made would be appropriate. Joe Johnston simply did not have the vision to achieve what Davis sought.

As a result, when Grant moved against Pemberton at Vicksburg while Rosecrans was pressuring Bragg, only disaster could result. In many ways, Johnston’s response to Grant’s campaign was appropriate. He first attempted to distract and even block Grant with forces taken from Bragg, but he did not have the strength to do so effectively. Then, he urged Pemberton to evacuate Vicksburg and break through Union lines so they could join forces. In Johnston’s mind, losing Vicksburg was a fait accompli. Therefore, what mattered most was the preservation of Pemberton’s army so it could continue the fight. Unfortunately, however, Davis had personally ordered Pemberton to hold the city at all costs, leading to the loss of an army of 30,000 men.

Photo-3 The loss of Vicksburg led to an end of Johnston’s command but he was soon thrust back into command when Bragg was defeated at Chattanooga in November 1863. Johnston was given command of the Army of Tennessee and told to defend the city of Atlanta from William T. Sherman’s advancing army. Johnston, once again, saw himself badly outnumbered and felt that he had no option but to be on the defensive. As a result, he spent the summer of 1864 fighting a war of maneuver against Sherman. Whenever the Union general shifted his forces in attempt to flank Johnston, Johnston would quickly move to block him. Except for the disastrous Union assault at Kennesaw Mountain, Sherman respected the defenses blocking him and continued to try to work his way around them. However, in executing this war of defensive maneuver, Joe Johnston was steadily falling back towards the city of Atlanta.

In Jefferson Davis’ mind, the loss of Atlanta was simply unacceptable, while, in Johnston’s mind, the preservation of the Army of Tennessee ranked highest. If he took the offensive, the army would be defeated with massive losses and Atlanta would still fall. Then, there would be no army capable of stopping Sherman from continuing an advance into the heart of the Deep South. However, Davis was always of an offensive mindset and he believed only violent, determined counterattacks would stop Sherman. Once again, the president and Joe Johnston were at odds.

Davis formally asked Johnston to detail his plan for dealing with Sherman, looking for some sense f that he would go on the offensive and, even more so, that Johnston would guarantee the safety of Atlanta. Johnston’s response gave him neither and Davis replaced him with the very offensive-minded John B. Hood. Hood would attack Sherman, as Davis desired, and the Army of Tennessee would be soundly smashed and Atlanta would fall, just as Johnston knew it would.

Photo-4 In the closing months of the war, Johnston was again given command of the tattered remnants of the Army of Tennessee. He would try in vain to first slow down Sherman as the Union army ploughed through the Carolinas and then to join with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. When he heard of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, he surrendered his army to Sherman at Bennett Place, North Carolina. He was so moved by Sherman’s kindness in issuing 10-days of rations to Johnston’s starving army, he would never allow anyone to speak ill of the Union general in his presence.

Photo-5 Johnston went on to success in the private sector following the war, served in the 46th U.S. Congress, and was a commissioner of railroads during the Grover Cleveland administration. But, his wartime record remains a disappointing and confounding puzzle. But, his sense of honor, which seems to have ruled so much of his behavior, provides a fascinating postscript to his career and his life. Johnston never forgot William T. Sherman’s magnanimity when he surrendered in April 1865.When Sherman died, Johnston served as a pallbearer at the funeral and, despite the cold, rainy weather during the procession in New York City, Johnston kept his hat off as a sign of respect. One bystander, who was concerned for the elderly general's health, asked him to please put on his hat. Johnston replied, "If I were in his place and he standing here in mine, he would not put on his hat." Within a few days, he became gravely ill with pneumonia and died on March 21, 1891.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

For Cause, for Country, for Comrade

Photo-1 If you ever happen to visit the Antietam National Cemetery and walk among the cold, white headstones, your eyes will inevitably be drawn to the colossal granite monument that stands at the cemetery’s center. Towering 44 feet, 7 inches high, the monument is capped by a statue of a Union soldier, depicted standing at the “in place rest” position, facing northward, towards what was home for so many of 4,776 Union soldiers who now lie at rest here. However, the most powerful piece of this monument is the inscription etched on its base: “Not for themselves but for their country.”

While this inscription was written at a time when the wounds of the war were fresh and the nation was desperately seeking a reason for its terrible loss, recent research and historiography indicates that the inscription below the soldier, known to the local population around Sharpsburg as “Old Simon,” is very appropriate. To be sure, however, conventional wisdom and history during much of the late 20th century said otherwise. That history said that the young men of both sides during the Civil War joined the fight because romantic 19th century notions of manhood and glory compelled them to enlist, and that, further, they had no real understanding of the reasons behind the war. In addition, so this version of history goes, they saw war as an adventure, but soon lost all their romantic visions and, in fact, their entire motivation for fighting amidst the harshness of camp life and horrors and carnage of war. After that, they simply wanted to survive and for the war to end.

Photo-2 There is little doubt that there is some truth to this perspective. The young man who enlisted in 1861 or 1862 almost certainly was motivated by a sense of “manly duty” and probably did see the war as an opportunity for adventure. And, this “Billy Yank” or "Johnny Reb”  was also very likely to have these romantic notions dashed by the reality of war. However, the recent work of historians such as James Robertson and James McPherson indicates there was far more to the motivations of these soldiers than mere romanticism and a desire for adventure. Plus, their work also demonstrates that, despite the horrors the war produced, many of these men never lost their core motivations.

McPherson’s work, which concentrated solely on the reasons Civil War soldiers enlisted and fought, is documented in two different books, What They Fought For: 1861-1865 and For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. In developing his theories, McPherson researched the letters and diaries of soldiers on both sides and makes a compelling argument for the authenticity of the feelings displayed in these writings, noting that these were words written in private, either as personal reflections in a diary or in letters to loved ones. They were not meant for public consumption and, therefore, there was no motive to utter them other than as a sincere statement of personal convictions. At the same time, McPherson was careful in that he detailed the size and nature of the material he used in studying this subject. He honestly states that these letters and diaries, no matter how seemingly voluminous, do not approach a truly scientific and accurate sampling of data. He is also cautious in noting that certain groups are over represented or underrepresented, and, therefore, allows the reader to apply caution in accepting his analysis.

However, it also cannot be overstated that these letters and diaries also afford a marvelous window into the minds of the men who fought this war some 149 years ago. The Civil War was the first conflict so abundantly documented through personal correspondence. Literacy rates were at an all-time high, especially in ranks of the Union armies, and the postal systems had advanced to a state where mail was delivered reliably and regularly. Therefore, men not only recorded their thoughts in journals and diaries, they also wrote home to family and friends on a regular basis. Therefore, what McPherson found in these documents is noteworthy and I, for one, believe his insights are on a solid ground.

First, it is apparent from what these men wrote that, while they did have romantic notions about the manliness of their duties in war, the soldiers on both sides also had well developed ideas on what the war was about, and they enlisted based upon what were strong personal beliefs. This counters the arguments of some authors that Civil War soldiers, like soldiers of more recent times, were not motivated by patriotism and had little interest in the ideological arguments surrounding the conflict. McPherson notes that, unlike World War II, where discussions of a “flag-waving variety” were taboo among soldiers, the diaries and letters of these 19th century soldiers contain many references to political debate and discussion among the men. In point of fact, many Civil War units, particularly in the Union armies, actually had organized debating societies to promote discussion of political and ideological subjects.

Photo-3 The other surprising thing is the nature and depth of the ideological motivations held by these soldiers. On the Union side, one sees an intense belief in fighting to save and preserve the nation, the republic, as the last best hope of humanity. Over and over, from officers down to privates, one finds an almost universal expression of the desire to fight to maintain the government that they saw as the great democratic experiment, the hope for the future of all men. Therefore, many of these soldiers seemed to possess a grand vision of their country’s place in the world and in the future of mankind, and were willing to fight for it.

The other interesting motivation was the issue of slavery. Conventional wisdom has always held that only a relatively few Union soldiers enlisted to fight because of the need to abolish slavery, and these letters and diaries support that view. In fact, following the Emancipation Proclamation, these documents indicate an intense anti-emancipation backlash, especially in the Army of the Potomac following the end of George McClellan’s reign as that army’s commander. However, as the war continued, this sentiment began to change and there were several reasons.

Photo-4 First, some Union soldiers began to see that, so long as slavery survived the nation would be divided and that, even more so, the end of slavery was crippling the South’s ability to fight. But, even more interesting was the change in attitude brought about by what Union soldiers saw of slavery and its effects as they moved deeper into the South. They not only experienced first-hand the pitiful flood of former slaves pouring into their lines seeking freedom and safety, they also saw the kind of society a slave-based economy produced. Their letters noted the bad roads, poor towns, absence of schools, and the rundown condition of southern farms, all further punctuated by the opposing magnificence of the plantations of the aristocracy. These factors combined with the rise of the anti-emancipation, anti-war Copperhead movement caused many Federal soldiers to change their views and gave Lincoln 80 percent of their votes in the 1864 election, even after the president proposed a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery.

But, what is perhaps even more intriguing is the role of slavery as a motivation for Confederate soldiers. Again, conventional wisdom has long held that, while those soldiers from the Southern aristocracy might have held the maintenance of slavery as a motivation to fight, albeit a secondary one, the majority of Confederate soldiers who filled the ranks were poor farmers who did not own slaves and, hence, they certainly did not fight to preserve that institution. Rather, most Southerners served the cause to defend home and hearth against a Northern aggressor. However, the letters and journals of these soldiers do not entirely maintain this conventional view.

Photo-5 First, a good number of the documents written by soldiers from the Southern landed class do mention slavery as part of the cause and do so very stridently. This isn’t really surprising. After all, black slavery was the primary engine behind their wealth, their social status, and their political power. Therefore they were not likely to surrender all that it gave them in Southern society. However, what is surprising is that a number of non-slaveholding soldiers also mention the preservation of slavery as a primary factor in their service to the Confederacy. So, why would a poor farmer who does not own a single slave, see the maintenance of the right to own slaves as a motivation to fight? The answer is simple: So long as black slaves and the slave economy were the bedrock of Southern society, that poor white farmer would not be on the bottom of the economic and social ladder.

The other interesting thing that McPherson shows us is that these soldiers did not lose their will to fight for these things that they believed in so deeply. While earlier authors such as Bell Irvin Wiley, Gerald Linderman, and even James Robertson argue that these soldiers lost their idealism as they hardened to the war’s harsh realities, McPherson’s work tends to refute what was once an almost universal viewpoint. While McPherson acknowledges there is no hard statistical evidence to support this, he states that the letters and diaries he studied, while they became far less romantic and more cynical and callous as the war continued, still refer to the “glorious cause” they believed in and that kept them fighting. For these soldiers, the hardness of war had perhaps transformed exuberant and romantic idealism into a steely resolve and a determination to set things right, especially in the Union ranks.

Photo-6 Finally, there is motivation of one’s comrades. Modern research has shown that one of the key things that makes a soldier willing to fight, especially once the shooting starts, is the other soldiers around him. This was certainly even truer among the men who fought this war. I remember standing on Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg, looking across all that open ground between myself and Cemetery Ridge, and wondering out loud why any of Pickett’s veteran soldiers would even consider following the orders to cross it when to do so meant almost certain slaughter. The answer here was also very simple: Because the man next to them was going to go, and they could not let that man down. One has to remember that this motivation was even stronger than it might be in a 21st century army because of the way Civil War units were formed, particularly from 1861-1863. Regiments on both sides came from individual counties and the companies within them came from individual towns and villages. As a result, the man next to you was likely someone you had known your whole life, a boy you had grown up with and gone to school with, or, in many cases, that man was your cousin, your brother, or even your father—you could not let them down. So, no matter how awful what lay in wait across that field, you would go for cause, for country, and for comrade.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The First Year of Blogging

Today is the first anniversary of this blog and I felt I should note that milestone in some fashion. In that time, I have had 12,689 visits to this site by readers from 72 different countries. Frankly, when I wrote my first entry, I would never have imagined numbers like those—they amaze me and also provide me with a deep sense of responsibility for the quality of what I write. I hope I have lived up to that responsibility thus far and that I can continue to do so.

More so, however, I hope that my essays have not only entertained you, but also provided food for thought and, most of all, for further learning about the Civil War. Nothing would make me happier than to know that some small thing I wrote made even one reader go find a book on the subject and seek to know even more than the little bit of information I provided here.

I also want to express my most humble thanks and gratitude to all of you have visited my blog. Your continued interest keeps me going and, while I do not get the opportunity to write as often as I would like, I promise to do my best to continue posting whenever I can.

I ended my first entry last year by saying, “So, let’s start this little journey and see where this takes us.” Now, let me say that we will continue the journey and I hope we find even more interesting places to go!