When Blog Posts Expand

I’ve had this draft about the organizational differences between the Army of the Potomac and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and I was working on it yesterday. The detail involved in it is turning into a minor essay, which is making me wonder if I should take it off WordPress and publish it to Kindle on its own. I may or may not.

These things have a way of getting away from you sometimes.

Yes, The Civil War Was About Slavery

[This is a repost of an article originally posted to Medium.com that I downloaded and deleted from that website when I made my departure from it. I repost it after having read John C. Wright’s “A Question for Neoconfederates“, which is an intriguing philosophical fork, but rather gives the Rebellious States too much credit for their motives. ]

Henry: …Methinks I could not die anywhere so contentented as in the king’s company — His cause being just and his quarrel honorable.

Will: That’s more than we know.

Bates: Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough if we are the king’s subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.

– Shakespeare, Henry V

There is a strange idea lurking about, unexamined, that a soldier is responsible for the cause he fights for. He isn’t. This might seem counterintuitive, but it isn’t wrong. Governments declare wars, and then call upon soldiers to fight them. Governments alone are responsible for the cause being just or not. Whatever anyone thinks of recent American wars in the Middle East, no one blames the soldiers, Marines, airmen, etc., who served in them.

Thus, when I prove the assertion of my headline, I intend no accusation of any soldier or officer of the Confederate States Army. The list of men who disliked the practice of chattel slavery, or even opposed secession, but who felt obligated to follow their state when it seceded from the Union is long, beginning with Robert E. Lee himself. The vast majority of southerners owned no slaves and the majority of Confederate soldiers were fighting for no other reason than war had come and the state they lived in was on one side of it. That is how war works.

Witness Jefferson Davis’ statement of resignation from the U.S. Senate when his home state of Mississippi announced its secession:

If I had thought that Mississippi was acting without sufficient provocation…I should still, under my theory of government, because of my allegiance to the State of which I am a citizen, have been bound by her actions.*

But because of that strange notion, there has been a desire to spare dishonor to those long-dead soldiers by pretending that the cause for which they fought was other than it was. The attempts to argue that the Civil War was prompted by Constitutionalism, by resistance to federal tyranny, are as old as the war itself. Jefferson Davis again in the same speech:

We but tread in the paths of our fathers when we proclaim our independence and take the hazard…not in hostility to others, not to injure any section of the country, not even fo our own pecuniary benefit, but from the high and solemn motive of defending and protecting the rights we inherited, and which it is our duty to transmit unshorn to our children.*

So the claim has gone among neo-Confederates and others who would prefer that the whole ugly business about slavery not be mentioned. They were fighting, like the Founders before them, for their rights. What rights? Their high and solemn rights. Yes, but which ones in particular? Precisely which right was the Federal Government of the United States, in 1861, threatening?

One of the uses of the Declaration of Independence is that Thomas Jefferson et al. defined clearly what the Revolutionary War was about. Most Americans know the part about Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, but the bulk of the Declaration is a series of accusations made against the British government. 27 of them in fact. They mostly have to do with the interference with existing colonial governments and institutions, which were democratically controlled, by imperial bureaucracies and militaries, which were not. The accusation of tyranny by the British government becomes thus persuasive.

If only we had such a document to declare the motives of the Southern leaders.

As it turns out, we do. Several of them, in fact.

The link goes to a complete copy of the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union, at the Avalon Project. This statement was issued December 24th, 1860. South Carolina was the first state to secede: ten others would follow, and they formed the Confederate States of America. You may read it in full and decide for yourself if my characterization is accurate.

The document begins with a brief history of American political compacts and argues — reasonably — for the sovereignty of the states who created the Constitution and alone imbued it with power. It points out that only nine states of the thirteen were required to ratify the Constitution, but that any state that did not due so was not bound by it, and that two former colonies that did not ratify it immediately and functioned as independent nations until they did.

The rhetorical goal is to establish the right of secession, both in principle, as the Founders did, and under existing American law and tradition. It’s a deft argument.

But back to the cause of this specific secession: what were the gentlemen of South Carolina driven to this precipice by? What high and solemn rights were being violated by the federal government?

The right to keep slaves:

We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.

The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”

This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the States north of the Ohio River.

The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition by the several States of fugitives from justice from the other States.

The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution. The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.

This is the whole of the complaint against the U.S. Government by the South Carolina Convention. Not taxation without representation, not interference with freedom of speech, or of the press, or of religion. Not the quartering of soldiers in homes during peacetime. Not any of the 27 complaints that the Founders made against George III. Only this: that the government failed to enforce the rights of slaveowners to their slaves. Not that they interfered with the institution, mind: that they did not enforce it well enough.

No other complaint is listed. Read the document, if you doubt me. Given the nature of this document, it follows that they had no other complaint.

Secession happened because of slavery; it did not happen for any other reason. You might think that perhaps, other states that seceded had other reasons. You may examine their ordinances of secession as you will, but you will find the following:

  • Mississippi’s declaration focuses entirely on slavery and Northern hostility to slavery.
  • Florida simply secedes without mention of cause.
  • Alabama declares the election of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin to be “avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions and to the peace and security of the people of the State of Alabama, preceded by many and dangerous infractions of the constitution of the United States by many of the States and people of the Northern section”, which seems largely an echo of South Carolina and Mississippi.
  • Georgia goes into more detail than Alabama denounces the Republican Party as a purely anti-slavery party, and giving a brief history of it. It then echoes South Carolina’s complaint about failure to enforce slavery.
  • Louisiana simply secedes without mention of cause.
  • Texas echoes the complaints of South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia, stating that Texas was admitted to the union as a slave-holding state. It also accuses northerners of direct interference with the practice of slavery, by theft of slaves and violence against Southerners in the course of same.

After this, no further states succeed until Ft. Sumter is fired upon, so the Civil War has already broken out:

  • Virginia mentions briefly “the oppression of the Southern slave-holding states” but goes into no further detail.
  • Arkansas objects to the conduct of the War by the Federal government. It does not mention slavery.
  • North Carolina simply secedes without mention of cause.
  • Tennessee simply secedes without mention of cause.

With the exception of Arkansas, who condemned the war that secession has caused, there is no cause mentioned by any of the Confederate States of America, impelling them to secession, other than slavery. It follows, then, that secession was caused by slavery.

And the war was caused by secession. A grand fount of sophistry attempts to argue here that the secession of the various states was owed recognition by the U.S. Government from the moment of their enactment. These often reside in some manner of an appeal to Constitutional liberty, despite no provision in the Constitution requiring any such thing of the Congress, President, or Supreme Court. Secession literally doesn’t exist in the Constitution of the United States. It has nothing to say on the subject.

Which might mean that states are free, under Jeffersonian principle, to secede anyway, and take their chances, as the Founders did. But that means that the federal government is likewise free to not recognize any such secession, and to treat as traitors and insurrectionists those who do violence to the government under claim of such secession. Which is precisely what happened. The Founders knew that secession from Great Britain meant continued war and possible traitors’ deaths. Jefferson Davis knew it, too:

I glory in Mississippi’s star! But before I would see it dishonored I would tear it from its place, to be set on the perilous ridge of battle as a sign around which her bravest and best shall meet at the harvest home of death.*

The only alternative to connecting war with secession is to argue that the Northern States and the Republican Party were planning on abolishing slavery and using military force to enforce this even if the southern states had not seceded. Such a statement is bluntly, absurd. There is nothing in the 1860 Republican party platform, for example, to suggest that they intended any such thing. It speaks only that slavery should not exist where its state laws do not permit it, that it should not be extended to any new territories, and that the slave trade should not be reopened.

No slavery, no secession. No secession, no war. It’s precisely that simple.

Hence, the war was about slavery. Arguments about federal tyranny and states’ rights are entirely overblown, and in any case revolve entirely around the issue of slavery. There was no other issue that the Southerners mentioned. None.

This will discomfit those who would prefer to believe that their ancestors and ancestral heros were not fighting for a bad cause. But we need not smear men who believed themselves fighting for their homes and families. We need not judge them at all. They risked their all, and many did not return from that harvest home of death. And in any case, they have all gone on to whatever reward awaits them.

But we need not refrain from naming a bad cause a bad cause, or condemning those who led their people to butchery because of it. The fire-eaters who signed their declarations have a great deal to answer for.

Will: But if the cause be not good, the king himself have a heavy reckoning to make when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall joine together at the latter day and cry all, “We died at such a place;” some swearing; some crying for a surgeon; some upon their wives left poor behind them; some upon the debts they owe; some upon their children rawly left. I am afeared that there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument? Now if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.

-Henry V

*Quotations of Jefferson Davis’ speech of resignation from the Senate are found in Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville, Random House, 1986, pg. 5

Why Civil War Battles Were Fought That Way

This being the anniversary of Fort Sumter, I thought it useful to blog a bit about a topic near to the heart of The Sword.

Chickamauga Hero
The Battle of Chickamauga – Civil War Trust

The nature of battles – the typical maneuvers used and paths to victory – changed very little from the time of Alexander to the time of Napoleon. Some have gone so far as to say that if you put Alexander the Great in a time machine and gave him a command in 1800, he would have – after a short period of adjusting to the sound of gunpowder weapons – known exactly what to do.

But a mere 100 years after the time of Napoleon, war was vastly different, and the tactics that worked for thousands of years were no longer operative. The Trench warfare of World War One meant that the entirety of the Franco-German border became a giant line of siege works that extended through Belgium to the sea. The development of heavy artillery, rapid-fire weapons, smokeless powder, and mass-produced rifled-small arms mean the old battle tactics simply could not work. Alexander, skilled besieger though he was, would have been out of his depth at the Somme.

This transition was about half-way underway at the time of the American Civil War in the 1860’s. We see the early versions – breech-loading rifled cannon, Gatling Guns – of the weapons that bled Europe white fifty years later. But we also see the same old Napoleonic infantry tactics, centered around moving and marching in a line. And we still see  in the uniforms – Blue and Grey – that pastiche of Napoleonic pageantry. One of the sillier trends in military dress of that era were Zouave regiments, with uniforms of short jackets, fezzes, baggy pantaloons and calf-length spats. It was a fashion imported from the French in North Africa, and numerous regiments North and South were uniformed thus. It’s hard to imagine Americans fighting battles in such accoutrements, but thousands did.

“The Brierwood Pipe” by Winslow Homer. 5th New York Zouave Regiment.

The modern habit is to regard the odd things about the past as a lack of enlightenment, a failure to come to grips with the truths we have since learned. How absurd, we assume, for these men to march together in tight formations, wearing such colorful outfits. Were they trying to get shot?

And to be fair, the old tactics were losing their effectiveness. One of the things we see regularly in Napoleonic battles – massed cavalry charges – almost never happened in the American Civil War. From the time of Alexander through the time of Napoleon the speed and power of the horse made it an effective means of moving a warrior to a weak point in an enemy army. When effective range of firearms did not extend beyond 50 yards, cavalry could charge infantry and win. But by the 1860’s, improvements to standard infantry firearms made this practice completely untenable, and the use of cavalry as a combat arm was declining. The Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War of 1853-1856 was the death-knell for that sort of thing.

What were the changes to the infantry weapons? They were twofold:

  1. The Percussion Lock. Say it with me: Lock, Stock, and Barrel. The three parts of a gun are the lock, where the trigger is pulled and the powder ignited, the stock, the part you hold with your hands and that, in long guns, goes to your shoulder, and the barrel, where the explosion of the powder sends the bullet to its target. In the Revolutionary War/Napoleonic days, weapons were largely flintlocks. The trigger sent the hammer with a piece of flint against a steel plate, which created a spark that ignited the powder. They were an improvement over older matchlocks and wheel-locks, but they still misfired – i.e. the powder didn’t go off – about 30% of the time. With a Percussion Lock, the hammer strikes a small copper or brass cap containing fulminate of mercury or some other explosive substance. This cap is put on a small metal nipple underneath the hammer. Percussion locks reduced the rate of misfires to about 10%, and they were much more robust in bad weather.

    flint vs. percussion
    Above: A Flintlock Below: A Percussion Lock
  2. Rifling Becoming Standard. Rifling is the practice of carving grooves in the inside of a gun barrel. These grooves are curved, so as the bullet travels down the gun barrell, it is made to spin. This spin, like the spiral on a thrown football, makes the bullet go farther and more reliably get to where it’s intended. Rifling doubles if not triples the effective range of a gun. Now, rifling wasn’t a new technology in the 1860’s – but until mass industrialization it had been time-consuming and expensive. By the Civil War, almost all infantry muskets were rifled.

Consequently, the musket of the 1860’s was more accurate, more reliable, and had a greater range than those of the 1810’s. This not only stopped cavalry charges, it made infantry charges less effective. Strong defensive positions became all but unnassailable. One needs only look at the Battles of Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, Vicksburg, and Chickamauga to see the ease with which even an inferior force in a strong position could hold off a superior enemy. By the time we get to the Siege of Petersburg in 1864-65, we see elongated siege works that almost perfectly predict the trench warfare of WWI fifty years later.

Trenches at Petersburg.

So yes, improvements in technology meant that the way of fighting in massed formations that had been used since time immemorial no longer held the same effectiveness. So why were they still used? It’s tempting to say, “because they were too blind and too hidebound to realize what had changed”. And that might explain some of it. But there were other reasons why, despite the changes, the Union and Confederate Armies still fought in the grand old way. To wit:

  1. Rifled or not, Percussion or not, they were still muskets. Which is to say, they were still muzzle-loaders, that had to be loaded and fired through an elaborate series of steps, with ramrods like cannon.

    What this meant was that you had to be standing to load your weapon. You could theoretically fire it prone, but since they were so heavy most didn’t, especially since you would just have to stand up to load it again anyway. So while you were loading a gun, it made sense to have a fellow nearby firing his. Hence, mass formations still served a tactical purpose. It was common practice after firing one or two volleys to be ordered to “fire at will” so just this sort of cover-fire could be achieved.

    Breach-loading weapons, and even repeating weapons, such as the Spencer and Henry rifles existed, but they were like rifled muskets in the Napoleon’s time: rare and expensive. A mere year after Appomatox, the Prussians had perfected their breech-loading bolt-action Dreyse “Needle-Gun” to knock the snot out of the Austrians, who were still using muskets. Prussian troops were able to fire prone with a rate of fire 5 times that of the Austrians. But it had taken 25 years of fine-tuning to get the Dreyse ready for prime time. Muzzle-loading weapons demanded muzzle-loading tactics.

  2. And they were still using blackpowder. The use of cordite, or smokeless powder, as an explosive in firearms was still a generation off. Civil War weapons, like those of almost every firearm since the 9th century, used that classic mix of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate), known as blackpowder or gunpowder. Gunpowder is nowhere near as explosive as cordite, and gives off a great deal more smoke when ignited. Consequently, Civil War Battlefields, like those of their predecessors, were covered in smoke. So even though yes, their muskets had better accuracy and range, the reduced visibility of older battlefields were still there. You can’t hit what you can’t see.

    This explains the uniforms. They weren’t just peacocking plumage; they provided what is perhaps the most useful information on a smoke-covered battlefield – who is a friend, and who is a foe. And while it might seem like an advantage to dress wrong to fool the enemy, you’re just as likely to fool your friends and get shot by them by mistake. In the early days of the Civil War, the lack of uniform standards among locally-raised regiments resulted in numerous friendly-fire incidents.

As a consequence, while the massed infantry formations proved largely useless against strong defensive positions, they still worked well enough in the open field. And the technology had not yet allowed for the next phase of infantry tactics. And as World War One demonstrated, even when the tech was there, learning to use it would be yet another step.

The Sword Inspiration Pieces: Heart of Darkness

HoDI just finished a reread of Conrad’s novella. As with all retreads, it went faster than with the first time. And as with all rereads of this particular work, I stopped comparing it to Apocalypse Now as much (still heard “The End” in my head near the final act). My purpose was to absorb the soul of it to get myself in the right headspace to push through in writing The Sword, as a consequence, the socio-political aspects of it were less important to me.

But then, I don’t think they ever were. I don’t think Heart of Darkness is actually about colonialism per se. The rapacious aspect of Belgian rule in the Congo is just the setting for the novel’s true theme: the collapse of human spirit under harsh conditions. The encounter between human societies at differing stages of development, and the inevitable mistrust and exploitation that follows, is a vehicle for this theme. But you could set it in any hostile environment and get similar results. If you can get a character from a place of idealism to a place of “The horror!”, then you can get what Conrad was going for.

Their talk, however, was the talk of sordid buccaneers: it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things.

Which is to say, if you take a Union cavalry lieutenant who studied at a seminary before the War, and set him on William Tecumseh Sherman’s Savannah Campaign – aka, The March to the Sea – he will undergo a not-disimilar transition to that of Kurz in Heart of Darkness. And if the March to the Sea was not quite like a Mongol Khan building a pyramid of human skulls, it had enough of “the horror!” to still echo in the American psyche. If my skills are equal to it, The Sword will capture that.

Grant the Relentless Invoked as a Model for Authors

Amanda at Mad Genius Club:

One might argue that Grant’s simple faith in success, not only saved his career, it also saved the war for the Union, and made Grant into a legend. Not because Grant was the most talented or creative officer in uniform. He wasn’t. No, not in his own Army; and certainly not compared to the Confederate side, either. Grant was just the man who didn’t let setbacks cripple him as he drove forward. Grant’s friend (and right-hand man) General Sherman once said, after the disaster at Shiloh, “We’ve had the devil’s day.” To which Grant merely replied, “Yup. Lick ’em tomorrow, though.”

If you can be that author — the man or woman who simply refuses to accept setbacks — you will be able to carve legitimacy out of even the most inhospitable publishing terrain.

Now, the history nerd in me is bellowing that this is unfair to Grant. Managing armies in the 1860’s was a maddening affair, as the careers of McClellan, Rosecrans, Beauregard, and others will testify. One of the things Grant and Lee had in common was the ability to grasp the essential and edit out the rest, to keep operations focused, to select competent subordinates and not micromanage them. To look at Grant’s campaigns, from Fort Henry all the way through to Appomatox, is to see a man who made KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) his watchword (this is especially true of the Vicksburg campaign. No one but Grant could have pulled that off. No one).

That said, Amanda’s point stands. Grant’s thoroughgoing Relentlessness, his refusal to accept defeat, was perhaps his strongest characteristic. I submit that no general, North or South, who experienced what Grant experienced on the first day of Shiloh would have had the sands to fight back the next day. No, not even Lee or Stonewall Jackson (Lee’s retreat from Antietam is perhaps the best analogy for this).

Shelby Foote observed that at the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864, Grant was outfought by Lee as thoroughly as Hooker had been, at Chancellorsville the year before (and on much the same ground). But while that was an embarrassing failure to Hooker, it was a mere nothing to Grant, who simply moved south anyway, and fought again, dragging Lee on a game he could not win no matter how many times he knocked the Union army back from the objective of the day. “If it gets to Petersburg,’ Lee observed, that summer “it will become a siege, and then only a question of time.” It got to Petersburg, and became a siege, and then only a question of time. Lee understood the game. He could not undo it, because Grant was not the sort of man who would be undone. Grant was more than a general; he was a Terminator.


Referring to it as “faith in success” has perhaps a better ring to it, though. Anyone in the game of producing art of any variety ought to have some.

Anyway, read the whole thing, as it’s about a metric for “legitimacy” necessary for publishing in the new age.

The Myths of Gettysburg

The Union Forever!

150 years ago, today, my great-great-great-grand-uncle, Dallas Patrick, a private in 11th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry
(40th Volunteers), was taking part in the largest land battle ever to take place on the North American continent. I’ve been to Gettysburg on several occasions, and some part of me would kind of like to be there to see the re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge. But another part of me is just fine with sitting here and breaking down some of the mythic detritus that has gathered around this scar of history. To wit:

Continue reading → The Myths of Gettysburg