Wednesday, September 28, 2011

American Heroes

I just finished Grant's memoirs.  They are extraordinary, and show an extraordinary mind.  They've made me think quite a bit about Grant, and about American heroes in general.

I should preface this by saying that I have not read a good biography of Grant.  I know only what I've read in histories of the Civil War and from his own words.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has talked about Grant as a great American hero -- his name is Ulysses, and his initials are US.  He's a loving father and husband, functional alcoholic, gifted writer, brilliant general and a failure at everything he tried (save soldiering) until he was nearly 40.  He starts the war in a slave-owning family and ends it as a supporter of black solidiers, and as president does more for civil rights than anyone until LBJ some 80 years later.  Later, he writes his first and only book while dying of throat cancer, just so his family has enough money to live on when he's gone.  They become one of the greatest American bestsellers up to that date, are live on as some of the greatest military memoirs ever.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Military History is Worth Studying, Jim McPherson edition

Recently I was flipping through James McPherson's (of Battle Cry of Freedom fame) Drawn By the Sword, a collection of essays on the Civil War.

They run the normal gamut -- what caused the war, how it was fought, why we remember it, etc.  What really jumped out at me, though, was his discussion of why the North Won/Why the South lost.

He contrasts intrinsic explanations for Southern Defeat, which focus on Confederate weaknesses -- the South's relative lack of industry, it's disunity, it's poor leadership -- with extrinsic explanations of Southern defeat, which include Union Strength -- Union Strategic superiority, Lincoln's Leadership, Northern Industry, Northern manpower etc.  Ultimately, though, he finds that even the more convincing explanations -- Lincoln's Leadership, Union Material superiority, whatever -- are necessary but not sufficient conditions for Union victory.

As he goes on to say, the sufficient condition for Union victory is battlefield success.  Lincoln, a good plan, strong industry and superior manpower were all necessary, but in the end it really did come down to what happened at Gettysburg, or Chattanooga or outside Atlanta.

This is a point that he made implicitly in Battle Cry of Freedom by drawing our attention to these battles as pivotal points in the war.  Here he makes the point explicit -- victory hinged on the outcome of batttles, particularly several decisive ones.

This makes the study of those battles not just a fun exercise for hobbyists, but a crucial part of understanding the war.  This does not mean that we must study these battles like hobbyists are wont to -- Chancellorsville is not simply a story of Lee and Jackson's geniuses but a very complicated tale of miscommunications, mutual mistakes and bad intelligence.  Battles cannot be reduced to generalship, but so much really did hang on how Meade deployed his reserves at Gettysburg, or Thomas holding the line at Chickamauga.

Perhaps the general public does not need to hear this.  But from my limited exposure to academic historians, there are quite a few in the Academy that do.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Local Stuff

I live in Annapolis, Maryland.  If you live in the DC area, you've probably taken a day trip there, gotten something to eat, walked around town and then gotten ice cream* and gone out for drinks**.  At the conclusion of the day you probably said 'hey, that's a really cute town.  We should go there again.'  And hey, I'm not going to argue.

Needless to say, Annapolis is a tad more complicated for those of us who live here.  Rather than talk you ear off about local politics I'm going to mention one specific problem that's been bugging me for a while:

That's former chief justice Roger Brooke Taney, author of the Dred Scott decision, sitting right in front of the statehouse, glowering over the city.  Obviously, this is a tad troubling -- it's not really kosher to have a man who said that black people were not American citizens (using the most tortured legal reasoning to do so) immortalized in bronze in front of your statehouse.