Sunday, December 27, 2015

The South Could Have Won the Civil War

It is an article of faith among a great many historians, both popular and academic, that the South never had a chance to win the American Civil War and was doomed to defeat from the moment Fort Sumter was fired upon. This was central tenant of the "Lost Cause" school of history for nearly a century after the war; it was easier for people in the South to accept that they had lost if they could tell themselves that they had never had a chance to win. If victory had been possible, the white South would have had to explain to itself why it had failed. Modern historians, for their part, seem reluctant to acknowledge that a Southern victory was possible because, in the politically correct world in which we live, this might be somehow misinterpreted as a defense of slavery.

In the magisterial documentary series The Civil War, by Ken Burns, Shelby Foote sums up the idea with his typically wry and profound way.

I think that the North fought that war with one hand behind its back. At the same time the war was going on, the Homestead Act was being passed, all these marvelous inventions were going on. In the spring of '64, the Harvard-Yale boat races were going on and not a man in either crew ever volunteered for the army or the navy. They didn't need them. I think that if it had been more Southern successes, and a lot more, the North simply would have brought that other hand out from behind its back. I don't think the South ever had a chance to win that war.

It is quite true that the Union had enormous advantages over the Confederacy. There were twenty-two million people in the North and only nine million in the South. Moreover, a third of the South's population were black slaves, which might be used for manual labor but which could not be used as soldiers. After all, if the Confederates were to give their slaves weapons, how could they be sure the slaves wouldn't immediately turn them against those who enslaved them? Even worse, many of these blacks would join the Union army if they took control of the territory in which they lived.

Bottom line: the pool of military manpower was much larger for the Union than it was for the Confederacy. It's no surprise, therefore, that the Northern armies were larger in almost every major battle than were the Southern armies. Only at Chickamauga in September of 1863 was a major battle fought in which the Confederates outnumbered their opponents, and then not by very much. More typical were battles like Chancellorsville, in which the South was outnumbered by roughly two-to-one. As Voltaire said, "Dieu est toujours les gros bataillions."

Perhaps even more important than the North's numerical superiority was its vast advantage in terms of industrial power. Throughout the Northern states, pillars of smoke rose from countless factories producing every conceivable kind of war material. Rifles and cannon, of course, but also uniforms, saddles, boots, haversacks, camp equipment, and all other sorts of things. Wars are fought with more than weapons; if your men don't have boots or the means to cook their food, the armies will dissolve. It was very easy for the Union to produce massive amounts of war material, but extremely difficult for the Confederacy to do so.

Another crucial advantage, strangely overlooked by historians, is the North's financial superiority. Then as now, New York City was the financial center of the country. Abraham Lincoln's government would have an existing fiscal infrastructure and easy access to credit, while Jefferson Davis had to start the war by begging pitiful amounts of money from state governments or tiny banks scattered around the South. Wars are won and lost on the floors of the bond market no less than the battlefield and in this regard the North had an even greater advantage than in manpower or industrial power.

Finally, the United States Navy remained entirely under the control of the government in Washington. Though not nearly strong enough to effectively blockade the Confederacy at the outset of hostilities, it served as the foundation for the development of what would eventually become a powerful naval force that would play a crucial role in the conflict.

To summarize, the Confederacy started its struggle for independence vastly outnumbered in terms of the number of soldiers, vastly inferior to the Union in terms of the industrial and financial power necessary to wage war, and lacking any fleet with which to combat the naval strength of the North. Given these facts, combined with the fact that the South did, indeed, lose the war in the end, I don't blame those who claim that the South never had a chance of winning.

I do believe, though, that these people are wrong. The South could have won the war. Allow me to set out a few facts so as to convince you that I am correct.

While conceding the enormous advantages the Union enjoyed, we have to acknowledge that the Confederacy had certain advantages of its own. The most important was the simple fact that they were fighting on the strategic defensive. The Union had no choice but to invade the Confederacy and conquer its territory, but the South did not need to do the same to the North. It merely needed to defend its own territory. Put simply, the South did not need to really win the war; it simply needed to avoid losing it.

Fighting on the strategic defensive, the Southern commanders were much more likely to be familiar with the ground on which the campaigning would take place than their Northern opponents. This advantage should not be underrated. Such seemingly mundane things as knowing where a river can be crossed, where a ravine is in which a regiment of troops might be concealed, or whether a road on a map is a real road or just a muddy trail can sometimes make the difference between victory and defeat. Throughout the war, the South's knowledge of the terrain gave it a decided advantage.

Much is often made about the idea that the Confederate generals were better than the Union generals. On the level of army and corps command, I do not really agree. It is true that Union commanders like Ambrose Burnside, Nathaniel Banks, and George McClellan left a great deal to be desired. But the South had plenty of terrible generals, too: Leonidas Polk, Braxton Bragg, John Bell Hood (at least as an army commander), and John Pemberton come immediately to mind. The South had men like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, but then the North had men like Ulysses S. Grant and George Thomas. Both sides had a few outstanding army and corps commanders and a large number of mediocre or poor ones. I don't think either side can claim a significant advantage over the other in this area.

On a lower level, however, I don't think there's any question that Confederate officers were made of a higher caliber than their Yankee counterparts. The South excelled at bringing forth brilliant leaders on the regimental, brigade, and division level. Southern society before the war was militaristic to a degree unknown in the North. A much larger proportion of Southern families sent their young men into the military than was the case in the North. There were many more private military academies, such as the Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel, in the South than there were in the North. The militia system, largely in place due to fear of slave uprisings, was much more developed in the South than in the North. It should not come as any surprise to us that Southern society was able to bring forth outstanding military officers in a way that the North could only dream of.

As a representative example, consider General Robert Rodes. He was not a graduate of West Point nor had he been a career soldier before the war. He had graduated from Virginia Military Institute in 1848 and worked as a teacher and engineer. When the work broke out in 1861, he became a colonel and put his military education to outstanding use, rising first to brigade and then division command in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. He fought gallantly through the war until being killed at the Third Battle of Winchester in 1864. The South was full of men like Robert Rodes, while the North had a great deal more trouble finding them.

The South was largely able to negate the Union's industrial advantage through an amazing, and underappreciated, effort to create a war effort almost from scratch. During the first year of the war, the Confederacy relied on weapons taken from federal arsenals at the time of secession, weapons run through the blockade from Europe, and weapons captured from the Union on the battlefield. Later on, however, a fair chunk of the South's war material was being produced domestically. Factories in Richmond, Atlanta, Selma, and other cities were turning out large numbers of rifles, cannon and other war material. An enormous facility at Augusta, Georgia, was built to produce huge amounts of gunpowder. This was largely due to the hard work and brilliance of a single individual: Colonel Josiah Gorgas, the Confederate Chief of Ordnance, who oversaw the creation of this sprawling manufacturing empire. Because of this, the South never lost a battle because it lacked sufficient weapons and ammunition.

The situation was very different when it came to the Commissary-General, Colonel Lucius Northrop, whose job it was to produce and transport food, fodder, and clothing to the Confederate armies. Northrop quite simply had no idea how to do his job; the dictionary entry for "incompetent" should have Northrop's picture next to it. He probably did more to deprive Confederate armies of food and clothing than every Yankee cavalry raid put together. When asked to take the helm of the War Department late in the war, John C. Breckinridge told Jefferson Davis that he would only do so if Northrop, an old friend of Davis's, was fired (Davis reluctantly got rid of him). The lack of food and clothing that bedeviled Confederate armies throughout the war, quite in contrast to the situation regarding weapons and ammunition, was not due to any inherent lack of resources so much as one man's incompetence. One can only wonder how much more effective Confederate armies would have been had a man of Gorgas's caliber been Commissary-General. It is clear, however, that the South's difficulty in getting food to its armies was due at least as much to its own failings as to the efforts of the enemy.

Then there was the morale factor. At the outset of the war, white Southerners of all classes came together to defend their homes and their way of life. Their attitude towards African slavery revolts modern sensibilities, of course, but there is no denying the fervency of their devotion to the cause when the war began. Sacrifices were willingly made and a huge proportion of the white Southern population eventually found its way into uniform. Though Southern leaders disagreed bitterly about strategy and the suitability of Jefferson Davis to be President, there was no difficulty in persuading their people of the need to fight. Outside of East Tennessee and a few other pockets, there was effectively no genuine opposition to the war itself. Abraham Lincoln faced a much greater task in the Union, where there was a large and active anti-war movement from the commencement of the war. In 1864, anti-war Democrats almost succeeded in bringing about the defeat of Lincoln in that year's presidential election, which might have meant the end of the war.

This, then, was the Confederacy: a largely united people fighting on their own ground under competent and often brilliant officers, eventually armed with weapons produced mostly in their own factories, knowing that they only had to avoid losing in order to win. The North might have superior manpower and material, might subject them to naval blockade, and might have access to vastly more money, but to consider the Confederates as hopelessly outmatched is simply incorrect. They were able to make themselves into a truly formidable enemy to the Union.

There were two genuine paths to victory for the Confederacy, either one of which might have come to pass had the course of history been a bit different. The first was the possibility of foreign recognition of the Confederacy by one of the great European powers. The second was the possibility that Northern political will to go on with the fight might collapse, leading to the defeat of the Lincoln administration and the arrival of an administration willing to make peace.

Foreign recognition was a distinct possibility, especially early in the war. The Trent Affair in the fall of 1861 very nearly caused a war between the United States and the British Empire. Britain and France flirted with recognition of the Confederacy in the fall of 1862 until the failure of the Maryland Campaign caused them to reconsider. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation made foreign recognition much less likely, there was an effort by some members of Parliament to push British recognition of the South in the summer of 1863 and there remained substantial support for the South in London and Paris even towards the end of the war.

Lincoln had made it clear that recognition of the Confederacy by Britain or France would be a cause for war. As strong as was the Union, it paled when set against the British Empire. The Royal Navy would have gobbled up the Northern merchant marine and simply blockaded the ports of the Union until it agreed to peace. Fighting would surely have erupted along the Canadian border and the United States would have had an obvious advantage, but every brigade the Union sent there would be one less brigade the Confederacy would have had to deal with. It also would have opened up European financial markets to the South, making inflation a much less serious problem than was the case historically. Putting all these factors together, it's quite obvious that a conflict between the United States and the British Empire (and probably France) would almost certainly have led to Confederate independence.

The other path to Confederate independence, that of a collapse in Union political will, was probably more likely. In fact, it very nearly happened in the summer of 1864. Contrary to popular belief, Gettysburg and Vicksburg did not mark the great turning point of the war, after which the Confederacy steadily collapsed. The great turning point was the summer and early fall of 1864. The 1864 campaign had begun as little short of a disaster for the Union. In the East, Grant suffered unspeakably heavy casualties in a series of terrible battles against Lee, which ended with the Confederates still solidly in control of Richmond. Meanwhile, Jubal Early raided Maryland, came within a hairsbreadth of capturing Washington itself, and burned the town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. In the Western Theater, Sherman seemed unable to either defeat Joseph Johnston's army or capture Atlanta, while Nathan Bedford Forrest was smashing one Union force after another in northern Mississippi.

All these defeats brought morale on the Northern home front to a low point and brought forth increasing demands for a negotiated end of the war. The price the Union was paying in blood and treasure, it was clearly felt, was not worth paying any longer, as the Confederacy appeared to be as strong as ever. The Democrats set forth a platform at their national convention that year calling for a ceasefire. Even Henry Raymond, chairman of the Republican National Committee, quietly suggested seeking peace talks. Abraham Lincoln was keenly aware that a ceasefire would be tantamount to Confederate independence, for if the fighting ended there would be no political will in the North for it to resume later on.

It wasn't until the summer and early fall of 1864, just before the presidential election, that the picture changed. Three great Union victories - Farragut in Mobile Bay, Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, and above all Sherman at Atlanta - restored faith among the Northern public that they were going to win the war and that the terrible cost would eventually be marked by victory. Lincoln as reelected and, as we know, the Union went on to win the war within the next six months. But the situation had been balanced on a razor's edge and could easily have gone the other way. Had it, the Confederacy could have won the war.

(Many readers will recognize the above scenario, as it forms the basis of the plot for my novel Shattered Nation.)

To conclude, it is wrong to believe that the South could never have won the Civil War. Yes, the North had clear advantages, but the South had advantages, too. Whether by the path of foreign recognition or political changes in the North, there was every possibility that the Confederacy might have emerged triumphant. Indeed, had I been an observer in 1861, I might have placed my money on the South.

Had the Confederacy won, needless to say, historians today would be arguing that the North never had a chance of winning and the victory of the South was certain from the moment the war began.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Five Historical Events That Should Be Made Into Cable Miniseries

By and large, television has confirmed the famous 1961 prediction of then-FEC Chairman Newton Minnow, in that is has become a "vast wasteland". A quick glance at the what is being shown on the various cable stations on any given night easily confirms this. We are awash in reality television about disagreeable people doing disagreeable things, sitcoms that are not funny, pseudo-documentaries about made-up things, and other unpleasant programs. Whenever I scroll through the cable stations to see what's on, I feel a sudden need to wash my hands.

Amid the trash, though, there are a few gems. In particular, HBO has produced some outstanding history-based mini-series over the last twenty years or so. It started with From the Earth to the Moon in the late 1990s; I remember watching it in rapt fascination. The two wonderful programs about men in the Second World War, Band of Brothers and The Pacific, are both of top-notch quality. While the sex could have been toned down a bit and the incest done away with entirely (especially as it didn't advance the plot) I absolutely loved Rome, especially the first season. I wish it could have been spread out to four or five seasons instead of just two. Finally, John Adams was the best thing that has ever been on television, as far as I'm concerned.

HBO has done a great job and some other networks picked up on the trend. Showtime produced The Tudors, which I liked very much. I admit that I have not yet seen The Borgias, but have heard it was good. Netflix has also jumped on the history mini-series bandwagon with a show about Marco Polo. AMC has produced a wonderful show about the Culper spy ring called Turn, which highlights one of the lesser-known aspects of the American Revolution. A&E, back when it was making quality television, produced Longitude, a lovely two-part series on John Harrison's invention of the chronometer, based on the Dava Sobel book of the same name.

I often ask myself what historical event or period I would want to see made into a television mini-series. Assuming it would have a decent budget, good actors, and good writers, I eventually settled on the following five choices. Each has the amazing drama and astonishing characters to make for an outstanding show.

1. The Conquest of the Aztecs by Hernan Cortes
Could you ask for a more dramatic story? It's the tale of a small band of Spanish soldier-explorers journeying to an unknown land and discovering an empire vaster, more powerful, and more mysterious than they could have imagined in their widest dreams. They then embark on the seemingly mad quest to take control of this empire and loot it of its riches. The Aztecs, not understanding anything about the strangers, do not know how to respond to their intrusion until it is too late. The meeting of Cortes and Moctezuma on the causeway leading into Tenochtitlan is as dramatic as history gets. The events of La Noche Triste, the desperate and terrifying escape of the Spanish across the divided causeway out of the city, are seemingly tailor-made for a talented director to transpose onto the screen. The intrigue between and among the Spanish, the Aztecs, and the various native states (especially the Tlaxcallans, who became allies of the Spanish) rivals the plots and machinations one would find in the court of a Renaissance city-state.

It is a story of terrible battles, dramatic escapes, dark betrayals, grand settings, and forceful personalities. You cannot find a more astonishing character than Hernan Cortes in the pages of any novel ever written. The Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II could have served as a Shakespearean character who manifests indecisiveness as his chief character flaw. The Aztec leaders Cuitlahuac and Cuauht√©moc played the role of noble warriors determined to defend their people against the alien invaders. You even have a femme fatale in the form of La Malinche, the native woman who became the translator and lover of Cortes.

I'm amazed that this hasn't been made into a mini-series already.

2. The Fall of Constantinople
To describe this story of history as "epic" is to understate the case. Constantinople had stood as the capital of the Byzantine Empire for more than a thousand years. It was the magnificent citadel of Eastern Christianity, keeping alive the classical learning of ancient Greece and guarding Europe against the Islamic forces of the Arabs and the Turks. At its height, Constantinople was unquestionably the most impressive and splendid city in the world. However, wrecked by the Crusaders in 1204, it was a shadow of its former self by 1453, when the Ottoman Turks arrived outside its walls.

The Ottomans had risen quickly from nomads to empire-builders and they were determined to wrest Constantinople from the Christians and make it their own capital. But the walls protecting Constantinople were legendary for their strength. Week after week, the Turks attacked repeatedly only to be thrown back. Dramatic naval battles raged on the waters around the city. In nightmarish underground combat, Turks sought to tunnel underneath the great walls while Byzantine troops in turn sought to dig countermines to stop them. And then there was the final, terrible, irresistible assault of May 29, which finally overwhelmed the Christian defenders and allowed the Turks to force their way past the walls through sheer force of numbers.

Want interesting characters? You can't ask for better than you'd get from the story of the Fall of Constantinople. You have Emperor Constantine XI, heir of a line that goes all the way back to Augustus, determined to defend what remains of the once great empire no matter what the cost. You have Sultan Mehmed II, young, ambitious, brilliant, and determined to make his name in history by capturing the fabled city. You have the legendary Genoese soldier Giovanni Giustiniani, commander of the land wall, fighting gallantly in defense of Constantinople. You have the enigmatic Scotsman John Grant, military engineer extraordinaire, who could have only arrived in Constantinople after countless adventures the nature of which we can only guess at. You have the ruthless Ottoman commander Zagan Pasha, who showed no mercy to the Christians. You have the Ottoman Grand Vizier Halil Pasha, who constantly counseled caution to Mehmed and may have been playing both sides.

This is a story crying out to be made into a dramatic mini-series.

3. The Indian Mutiny of 1857
This story is utterly fascinating and enthralling and involves so many issues with which we are still dealing in the early 21st Century. Not even a decade after the end of the Sikh Wars solidified British control over the Indian Subcontinent, a significant portion of the British Indian Army revolted against its colonial masters. Because the soldiers were known as "sepoys" the conflict became known as the Sepoy Mutiny.

The setting could scarcely be more exotic or fascinating. India is perhaps the most ethnically, religiously, and linguistically diverse country in the world, with Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and others  not very harmoniously living together. Into this cultural mix, the British had come crashing a hundred years before. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 represented the greatest threat to the British Empire in India before its actual independence was achieved in 1947.

It's a story of terror and massacre, as both sides inflicted horrific atrocities upon the other. It's also a story filled with dramatic battles and sieges, narrow escapes, and astounding characters. You have the desperate British assault on the walls of Delhi in September, the men knowing full well that the British Empire in India would collapse if they failed and that their own deaths were also virtually certain. You have the Relief of Lucknow, a story so astonishing that one can scarcely believe it really happened.

For characters, you have Bahadur Shah II, dignified yet aging and uncertain, the last of the line of great Mughal Emperors stretching back to Babur in the early 16th Century. You have the brutal yet courageous British soldier and spymaster William Hodson, hero or villain depending on how one chooses to look at him. You have John Nicholson, British political agent and soldier without fear, whose forceful personality was such that a religious cult built around his memory persisted along the Afghan-Pakistani border into the 1980s. You have Rani of Jhansi, the warrior queen who courageously defied the British until the end. As with the other historical episodes we've discussed, the cast of characters in this drama is more extraordinary than the most imaginative creations of any novelist or screenwriter.

4. The Second Punic War
This conflict was the national epic of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire. It you took the American Revolution, the Civil War, and America's involvement with the Second World War and wrapped them all together, it would mean to America what the Second Punic War meant to the ancient Romans. And for good reason. It was a conflict of epic proportions.

There is drama aplenty here. The famous crossing of the Alps by Hannibal's army. The Battle of Lake Trasimene, the most successful ambush in military history. The Battle of Cannae, still regarding as the classic example of a double envelopment and battle of annihilation, bar none. The defeat and death of Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal at the Battle of the Metaurus, and the hurling of his head into Hannibal's camp by the Roman cavalry. The epic achievements of Scipio Africanus in Spain and his final defeat of Hannibal at the Battle of Zama.

Hannibal himself is a character screaming out to be put onto the big screen in a major way. He was one of history's great captains and most fascinating personalities, sworn by his father to destroy Rome in a terrifying religious ceremony when he was a little boy. Scipio Africanus was no less of a genius and their meeting at Zama was one of the few times in military history that two genuine military geniuses confronted one another on the same battlefield. You also have the careful, cautious and unperturable Roman leader Fabius Maximus, known as the "Delayer", who gave his name to the military strategy of avoiding battle and seeking to wear your enemy down through attrition and the denial of supplies.

HBO already took the story of the collapse of the Roman Republic in the late 1st Century BC and turned it into a magnificent mini-series. The Second Punic War is rich with potential for a similar epic.

5. Isaac Newton vs. Robert Hooke
This story would not feature epic military engagements, yet it would be no less dramatic if done correctly. Isaac Newton was the greatest scientist who ever lived and, aside from Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammed, the most influential human being of all time. All educated people have heard the story of the falling apple and how it inspired the thinking in his ferociously brilliant mind that eventually led to be development of the universal laws of gravitation. He also is formulated calculus, invented the reflecting telescope, and discovered the underlying laws of optics. Despite his undoubted genius, Newton was not an attractive personality. He was vengeful and vindictive, obsessively secretive, seemingly driven by forces and governed by concerns unknown to ordinary mortals.

Newton's great adversary was a man named Robert Hooke. Today, he is largely unknown, yet he was a giant in his time. A Renaissance Man in the truest sense, he comes across to us as England's answer to Leonardo da Vinci. He was an architect, surveyor, inventor, pioneering paleontologist, and scientist of great renown in his age. Hooke should be known as one of the great figures of the Scientific Revolution. Instead, he wallows in historical oblivion.

Perhaps the primary reason for his obscurity is Isaac Newton. The hatred between Newton and Hooke was ferocious and fiery. Newton accused Hooke of falsely claiming credit for his discoveries; Hooke accused Newton of doing the same thing. Each tried to turn the members of the Royal Society against the other. Their rivalry hovered above the English scientific community of the late 17th Century like threatening storm, which erupted into ferocious storms on more than one occasion. In the end, Newton won their personal war and tried to systematically excise Hooke from the Royal Society. To date, no portrait of Hooke has ever been found and rumors have persisted over the centuries that Newton had them destroyed.

In addition to Newton and Hooke themselves, either of whom is a more interesting character than ever graced the pages of a work of fiction, such a mini-series as this would feature other great men of the Scientific Revolution. Men like Edmund Halley, the astronomer whose name now graces the most famous comet in the Solar System. Or Christopher Wren, the greatest architect of the day and builder of St. Paul's Cathedral. Or Christiaan Huygens, the brilliant Dutch astronomer and inventor who influenced and was influenced by both Newton and Hooke. The great political philosopher John Locke, one of Newton's few genuine friends, might walk on for a cameo. Giants walked the Earth in those days.

A story of scientific discovery, flawed human beings, and fervent hatred, the rivalry between Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke would make for an outstanding television drama.

Any of these five historical episodes would make an outstanding cable mini-series and they're only the first five that popped into my head as I sat down at my desk to write this blog entry. If I really put my mind to it, I'm sure I could come up with dozens more. I'm even more sure that there are countless other historical episodes which would make great televisions dramas of which I am totally unaware.

Get to work, cable networks.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Thomas Jefferson's Big Wine Adventure

Thomas Jefferson was the ideal of a Renaissance Man. He was a statesman, political philosopher, architect, horticulturist, writer, musician, and pioneer of archeology, geology, and paleontology. He spoke seven different languages. On top of all of this, Jefferson was perhaps the greatest wine connoisseur of the 18th Century. Throughout his eventful life, he was always happiest enjoying a glass of fine wine over a lovely dinner in his beloved home of Monticello. In an age when most Americans drank nothing but beer or gin, Jefferson believed that promoting a love of wine among the people would help cultivate a more refined and elegant society in America.

Fittingly, in 1784 the Continental Congress sent Jefferson to Paris, where he succeeded Benjamin Franklin as the American Minister to France. During his years in Paris, he drank in the intoxicating atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary France, relishing its music, art, literature, architecture, and the polite and sophisticated conversation of the Parisian salons. He also delved deeply into the culinary arts of the French table and, of course, its wine.

In 1787, taking a much-needed break from his diplomatic duties, Jefferson set out on a three-month tour of France and northern Italy that would take him through the most famous wine regions of Europe. Being Jefferson, he travelled incognito and took detailed and extensive notes on everything he observed, from the salaries being earned by the winemakers to the type of bread being eaten by the peasants who worked in the vineyards. Because of Jefferson's meticulous documentation, historians have a nearly perfect picture of what is arguably the most famous wine tour in history.

Jefferson set out in late February, heading southeast from Paris in his own private coach. He passed through Chablis without stopping, for its wines were not as well known in his time as they are in ours. He soon arrived in the city of Dijon, the main city of the Burgundy wine region and even then famous for its mustard. For several days in early March, Jefferson moved south from Dijon to the city of Beanue, passing through the whole of the Burgundy region and exploring some of the greatest vineyards in the world.

In his short time in Burgundy, Jefferson developed a love for its wines that would last until his death. In particular, he prized the white wines produced at Montrachet and Meursault, which, like virtually all Burgundy whites, were made from Chardonnay grapes. Both of these are still available and highly prized today. Montrachet is designated a Grand Cru vineyard and its white wines are among the most expensive in the world. Among the Burgundy reds, Jefferson greatly enjoyed Chambertin, still among the most prized red wines in the world. He also delighted in the red wines of Vougeot and Volnay. Because of its affordability, Volnay became one of Jefferson's favorite red table wines, which he often served in later years both at Monticello and the White House.

In mid-March, Jefferson left Burgundy and proceeded south to the Rhone Valley, which he considered exquisitely beautiful. During his time in this part of France, ever the Renaissance Man, Jefferson seemed more interested in Roman archeology than he was in wine, but he still visited many vineyards and sampled several wines. Curiously, he did not think highly of red Rhone wines, although they are justly prized today (by none so much as the author of this blog post!). Jefferson reserved in praise of Rhone wines for their whites, which delighted him. In fact, he considered the dry white wine produced by the celebrated Hermitage vineyard to be "the first wine in the world without exception".

Jefferson arrived in Marsailles at the end of March, where he remained for a week as he explored the possibilities for American commerce in the great Mediterranean port. He then journeyed over the Alps into northern Italy. His primary goal was to investigate methods of rice production which might he useful to American farmers; he even illegally smuggled samples of rice seed out of the region and sent them to friends in South Carolina. Still, he took the time to sample some of the great wines of northern Italy. He described wine made from Nebbiolo grapes as "sweet", "astringent", and "brisk". These are traits that few wine wasters associated with Nebbiolo wines today, because the methods of making the wine have changed considerably. Still, Jefferson greatly enjoyed the Nebbiolo wines he sampled in Italy.

Returning to Marseilles in early May, Jefferson then spent several leisurely and relaxing days floating up the Canal du Midi to the city of Toulouse, then down the Garrone River to the famed vineyards of Bordeaux. His time in Bordeaux was perhaps the most extraordinary of his entire journey. Among the red wines of Bordeaux, Jefferson ranked Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Lafite, and Chateau Latour as the very best. Interestingly, the official 1855 classification of Bordeaux vineyards reached an identical conclusion, listing these four vineyards as the only First Growths. Another Bordeaux red that Jefferson particularly enjoyed was what he called "Rozan", which is today known as the Chateau Rausan-Segla.

Jefferson considered the wine produced at Chateau Mouton to be of the "third class" and ranked it with "common wines". This opinion stands in stark contrast to the opinion of posterity, which elevated Chateau Mouton to the level of a First Growth in 1973 (the only change from the original rankings that has ever been made). One wonders what the famously touchy Baron Phillipe de Rothschild, the owner of Chateau Mouton, would have had to say to Jefferson about his low consideration for Mouton.

Of the Bordeaux whites, Jefferson was very fond of Chateau Yquem, today the most expensive and famous of the Bordeaux white wines. Like most Bordeaux whites, it was made primarily from the Semillon grape, which is not widely produced or sold in the United States today. Interestingly, Jefferson became enamored with Chateau Yquem many decades before the accidental discovery that allowing them to be infected with botrytis cinerea, the parasite affectionately known as the "noble rot", would make them even better.

Jefferson left Bordeaux at the end of May, without visiting St. Emilion or Pomerol, today famed for their Merlot wines. Exactly why he ignored these wine regions is something of a mystery and is to be much lamented. He sailed north to the port city of Lorient and then down the Loire River back to Paris. He sampled many of the Loire wines as he went, asserting that they were good but inferior to the best wines of Bordeaux. On June 10, Jefferson finally returned to Paris and his great trip came to an end.

In a letter written shortly after his return, Jefferson said that he had "never passed three months and a half more delightfully." Indeed, it is doubtful if anyone before Jefferson had ever packed so many wine experiences into such an extensive trip in such a short time. Between the end of February and the beginning of June, the future president had explored the wine regions of Burgundy, the Rhone Valley, northern Italy, Bordeaux, and the Loire Valley, sampling wine at virtually every stop. What he learned on this amazing journey elevated him from being a mere lover of wine into one of the greatest wine connoisseurs in the history of the world.

(Two wonderful books to which readers can turn for more detailed about this amazing journey, and Jefferson's love of wine in general, are Passions: The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson by James Gabler and Thomas Jefferson on Wine by John Hailman.)

Jefferson's trip was more than a personal odyssey. Throughout his travels, Jefferson established relationships with wine merchants and vintners who became lifelong friends. Chief among these was Etienne Parent, a wine merchant in the town of Beaune who would later provide Jefferson with a constant flow of Burgundy wines to be served at the tables of Monticello and the White House. He also established personal contacts with many of the great wine merchants of Bordeaux. The informal network that Jefferson formed during his journey formed the foundation of the export trade of French wines to the United States, which has continued ever since.

In a very real sense, then, the great expedition Thomas Jefferson undertook to explore the vineyards and wineries of France and northern Italy in 1787 marked the birth of the American love affair with fine wine.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

What If D-Day Had Failed?

The Allied amphibious landing in Normady on June 6, 1944, is one of the most legendary military operations of all time and one of the most dramatic events of the Second World War. It has a particular resonance for Americans, for while the British tend to remember their great victory in the skies in the Battle of Britain, we Americans tend to recall our brave men storming ashore on Omaha Beach. Cinematic masterpieces such as The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan make this perfectly clear.

The success of the American, British, and Canadian armies on D-Day opened the way for the Allies to liberate France, press into the Low Countries, and ultimately invade Germany itself. It also forced the Germans to pull badly needed units from the Eastern Front and thereby assisted the Soviet Union in its own offensive against the Germans. In the end, the D-Day invasion was one of the most successful operations in military history.

But what if the D-Day landings had failed?

An Allied failure on the Normady beaches was far from impossible. Amphibious landings are among the most tricky of all military operations, requiring nearly perfect planning and a good deal of luck if they are to succeed. As a counterpoint to the success of D-Day, one has only to look at the utter fiasco that was the invasion of Gallipoli during the First World War. In that failed operation, the British, French, and ANZAC troops were contained on the beaches by the Turkish defenders, suffered enormous casualties in several months of fighting, and ultimately had to be evacuated, having achieved none of their objectives. Could the same disaster have befallen the men landing on Normandy in 1944?

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander at Normandy, certainly thought defeat was a possibility. Indeed, he drafted a public letter that was to be released in the event that the invasion failed. Here is the full text:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and placed was based on the best information available. The troops, the air, and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.

There were many scenarios in which the Allied invasion of Normandy could have failed. As Eisenhower hints in his letter, the timing of the invasion was crucial. The plan required attacking when there was both a full moon and a spring tide, limiting Eisenhower's options considerably and making the question of the weather conditions paramount. The weather in the English Channel is notoriously unpredictable and played a major role in the planning of the operation. Eisenhower's original plan called for the landings to take place in mid-May. Bad weather forced a postponement. Eisenhower then selected June 5, but again the weather was poor. By ordering the invasion to go forward on June 6, when his meteorologists told him there was a chance of good weather, Eisenhower was taking an enormous gamble.

If the weather had been bad on June 6, the outcome could have been a complete disaster for the Allies. Many of the landing craft were swamped and sank on June 6, carrying many Allied soldiers to a watery grave. If a driving rainstorm had been taking place, this fate would surely have befallen many more. If the seas had been rougher, the soldiers would have had much more difficulty disembarking from their landing craft, making them easy targets for German artillery and machine guns. Air support and naval gunfire, so critical to the success of the operation, would have been greatly hindered by poor visibility if the weather had been poor. Rather than creating successful lodgments on each of the five beaches, the coast of Normandy might have remained in German hands by the end of the day. Even had they succeeded in securing a beachhead in poor weather, the Allied forces would have been considerably weaker in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, leaving them perilously vulnerable to a German counter attack.

Alternately, had Eisenhower blinked and postponed the landing yet again, the next time the lunar and tidal situation would have allowed for a landing was two weeks later. As it turned out, this would have been in the midst of a severe Channel storm which would have certainly led to yet another postponement. If such delays had continued, it would not have been outside the realm of possibility for the entire year of 1944 being lost to the Western Allies.

There are many factors other than the weather, of course. Within striking distance of the Normandy beaches were three powerful German armored formations: the 21st Panzer Division, the 12th SS Panzer Division, and the Panzer Lehr Division. Due to a variety of poor German command decisions, only one of these - the 21st Panzer Division - was actually committed to combat on June 6. Had the Germans reacted quickly and effectively, all three divisions could have been used in a powerful counter attack. This would have posed a very serious problem for the Allies, who had enough trouble getting off the beaches as it was. If combined with a scenario of worse weather, the Allied forces on the beaches might well have been destroyed.

Another major failure of the German high command, most especially of Adolf Hitler himself, was believing that the Allies invasion of France would take place at Pas de Calais, far to the northeast of Normandy. The brilliant Allied deception plan, known as Operation Fortitude, succeeded so amazingly that the Germans continued to believe that Pas de Calais was the true Allied objective even after Operation Overlord had begun. In their minds, the landing in Normandy was merely a diversion. As a result, a powerful Germany army sat quietly around Pas de Calais, awaiting an Allied landing that never came, even as their outnumbered comrades were fighting desperately in Normandy.

Had the Germans realized that the invasion of Normandy was the real deal, whether before or immediately after the landings took place, the Allied forces in Normandy would have been faced with a considerably larger and more powerful Germany army. Considering the difficulties the Allies had historically, this development would have been very grave, indeed.

An Allied failure on D-Day could take one of two forms. The Allies might have had to evacuate the beaches altogether and withdraw their forces to England, which was the scenario Eisenhower envisioned. For the Allies, this would have been a disaster that defied any attempt at description. Alternatively, they might simply have remained trapped in their beachhead. Historically, even after the great success of the June 6 landings, the Allied forces were unable to break out of the Normandy beachhead for nearly two months, during which time they suffered heavy casualties in bloody fighting. If bad weather had disrupted the landing or if the German forces facing them had been stronger, the Allies might have found themselves with a smaller and less defensible beachhead. Could they have been pinned against the beach until winter brought an end to active campaigning for the year? Might they have suffered even heavier casualties than they did historically?

What would have been the consequences of an Allied failure on D-Day?

There can be no doubt whatsoever that Germany would still have lost the Second World War. Defeating the Allied at Normandy would not change the fact that Germany had already lost air superiority over Europe, leaving their cities completely vulnerable to the ever-increasing numbers of American and British bombers. The Western Allies had long since established themselves in Italy and, in August of 1944, invaded southern France. Conceivably, the forces which would have otherwise been allocated to the invasion of Normandy would instead have gone to those two sectors, placing the German forces there under an even greater strain.

There is a further consideration. If the Germans had still been fighting during the summer of 1945, two new Allied weapons would have made their appearance in Europe: the B-29 bomber and the atomic bomb. If the Germans had staved off defeat by winning the battle on the beaches of Normandy, the result might have been German cities being transformed into piles of radioactive rubble a year or so later.

But even if we could wave a magic wand and remove the Americans and British from the war altogether, Germany would still have eventually been crushed by the power of the Soviet Union. It's often forgotten by Westerners, by the biggest German defeat in the summer of 1944 took place not in Normandy, but in Eastern Europe. On June 22, 1944, the Soviets unleashed Operation Bagration, shattering the German Army in the East and bringing the Russians into Poland. The Germans suffered far heavier casualties as a result of Operation Bagration than the did as a result of the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Had the Germans defeated the Allies in Normandy, they would certainly have been able to shift much of their army in the West to fight against the Soviets in the East, but it is unlikely that this would have made much of a difference in the end. By 1944, the Soviet war machine dwarfed that of Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union by itself was producing more war material than Germany, the Soviet Air Force had achieved a clear superiority over the Luftwaffe, and the Red Army was fielding vastly greater numbers of troops, tanks, and artillery than were the Germans. Moreover, as the great victories at Stalingrad and Kursk had demonstrated, the Soviet military leadership had become truly formidable.

By 1944, the Soviet Union was perfectly capable of defeating Nazi Germany without the help of the Western Allies. If the Allies had failed in Normandy, the war might have lasted longer and cost more in blood and treasure. But by the summer of 1944, the eventual defeat of Germany was no longer in doubt.

The question we should ask is how far would the Red Army have gotten in Europe had the British and Americans been defeated on D-Day. Rather than stopping at the Elbe as they did historically, could they have gotten to the Rhine, or conceivably all the war to the English Channel? As was proven by actual events, once the Red Army took control of a place, they did not make a habit of leaving it. The Allied soldiers who stormed ashore at Normandy on D-Day might not have realized it, but they were fighting to keep Europe out of Stalin's clutches no less than they were fighting to free it from Hitler's.

If the D-Day landings had failed, Germany would still have gone down to defeat within the next year or so. The defeat might have come at the hands of American B-29s armed with nuclear weapons or at the hands of the Red Army, but it surely would have come. But this is certainly not to say that the sacrifices of the men who fought in Normandy were meaningless, for their brilliant success undoubtedly shortened the way by many months and thereby saved innumerable lives. They prevented Europe from falling to the dark forces of Soviet Communism and, perhaps ironically, saved unknown numbers of German cities from suffering the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And for that, the world will forever be in their debt.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Give Congressional Representation to the District of Columbia

The American Revolution was sparked by a belief among the colonists that the British had no right to tax them without their consent. Contrary to the popular belief of our cynical age, it was not the taxes themselves to which the colonists objected, but the constitutionality of their implementation. As far as the Americans were concerned, only their own colonial legislatures, and not Parliament in far-off London, had a right to tax the colonies. After all, the colonial legislatures were made up of Americans, elected by Americans, to govern Americans. Parliament, in which Americans had no representation, had no right under natural law to tax the colonies, no matter how trivial the amount. It was this belief - "no taxation without representation" - that first ignited the Revolution that would create the United States of America and reshape the world.

It is ironic that the capital of the nation created by the American Revolution today suffers the very fate that their ancestors fought so long and hard against.

The District of Columbia has a population of more than 650,000. This is more people than live in either Vermont or Wyoming. Although the 23rd Amendment gave the citizens of the District the right to cast their votes in Presidential elections, they are still denied any meaningful representation in Congress. The District has a single non-voting member in the House of Representatives and no representation at all in the Senate. Despite this lack of congressional representation, the citizens of the District of Columbia are subject to all forms of federal taxation just as if they were citizens of New York or Texas. This truly is a case of taxation without representation.

This shameful situation must be properly remedied by providing the citizens of the District of Columbia with representation in the United States Congress.

Some have called for this situation to be solved through the simple expedient of making the District of Columbia a state in its own right. Another possible solution is to simply give the district back to Maryland and toss the 650,000 D.C. residents into the political mix of that state. However, either of these two proposals face a particular problem: they would give a state control over the territory housing the federal government. James Madison pointed out in Federalist #43 that "a dependence of the members of the general government on the State comprehending the seat of the government, for protection in the exercise of their duty, might bring on the national councils an imputation of awe or influence, equally dishonorable to the government and dissatisfactory to the other members of the Confederacy." In other words, having the seat of federal government within the confines of a particular state could give that state disproportionate influence over the federal government.

Madison probably wrote this with a particular incident in mind. In late 1783, Congress had been threatened by mutinous soldiers demanding back pay. The Governor of Pennsylvania, who sympathized with the soldiers, refused to provide adequate protection for the members of Congress, thus forcing them to ingloriously flee to Annapolis. The lesson had been learned: the seat of the national government had to be under the direct control of the national government, otherwise the state in which it was situated with always have disproportionate influence vis-√†-vis the other states.

A better option than making D.C. a state or giving it back to Maryland would be to pass legislation that simply states that the District of Columbia should, for the purposes of elections to the House of Representatives, be considered a state. This was the intention behind a bill which was proposed back in 2007, which would have given an extra seat to heavily-Republican Utah to ensure the party balance remains unaffected. However, it seems quite clear that Congress does not have the constitutional authority to grant voting power to the District. Article 1, Section 2, Clause 1 of the Constitution states unambiguously that only "the people of the several states" can send representatives to the House. The District of Columba is not a state and therefore the law is unconstitutional.

It seems to me that giving D.C. representation in Congress would require a constitutional amendment. This was done in 1961 to give D.C. the right to vote in presidential election, when the 23rd Amendment was enacted. Congress did, in fact, pass an amendment to give D.C. congressional representation in 1978, but it was not passed by enough state legislatures to become law. We need to do it again, and this time do it right.

Whether D.C. representation in the Senate should be included in this proposal is up for debate. However, given the overwhelmingly Democratic voting record of D.C. residents, I think any measure that included D.C. representation in the Senate would have a difficult time becoming the law of the land, as the Republican party would make every effort to block any such proposal. It's better to push for legislation that gives you half of what you want and has a chance of actually passing then going to wall for legislation that gives you everything you want and has no chance of passing.

If enacted, this amendment would remove an institutional hypocrisy from the American governmental system that has been ignored for too long. If America really cares about democracy, it would get to work on this issue right away.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Save Princeton

Washington's crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Night of 1776 is one of the most iconic historical events that the American nation holds within its collective memory. Arguably the most famous painting in America depicts the crossing, albeit with massive inaccuracies. Most educated Americans have heard the tale of the surprise attack that caught the Hessians in Trenton completely by surprise (because they were hung over from drinking too much at Christmas dinner, at least according to legend). After several months of disastrous defeats, with the Revolution tittering on the brink of collapse, Washington's brilliant and daring strategy restored faith that America might actually win the war.

But Trenton was only the first of two American victories during that epic winter campaign. Less well-known, perhaps unfairly, was the battle that took place a few days after the crossing, a few miles to the northeast, at Princeton, New Jersey.

The story is dramatic.  The British were enraged by Washington's success at Trenton and moved swiftly against him. But Washington eluded the enemy at Assunpink Creek during the night of January 2, leaving his campfires burning to deceive the enemy and pushing his men out onto the roads for a night march. Quickly moving north around the British left flank and pushing deep behind enemy lines, the Americans arrived at Princeton in the morning. A fierce battle erupted between the Americans and the British regiments that were passing through the town.

By the standards of later conflicts, it was a not a big battle. 4,500 Americans faced off against 1,200 British troops. In the American Civil War, it would have been considered a medium-sized skirmish. Yet it was a fiercely contested engagement and the outcome of the American Revolution was going to be determined by its outcome. At first, the British appeared to have the advantage. General Hugh Mercer, one of the unsung heroes of the American Revolution, valiantly fought with his saber until being struck down by a dozen bayonets. Mercer's brigade broke under the British onslaught, for the redcoats at Princeton were some of the finest infantry in the world. American militiamen under General John Cadwalader appeared, but they also collapsed in a rout. It appeared that the British were about the win a decisive victory. If they did, it would surely result in the destruction of Washington's army and the end of the American Revolution.

It was at this moment that Washington himself appeared on horseback. It was a dramatic event, tailor-made for a Hollywood epic. A British bullet could have killed Washington in an instant, and with him the hopes and dreams of the infant American republic, yet no bullet touched him. With him were Virginia and New England Continentals, who took up good positions and poured volley after volley into the ranks of their British enemies. Stunned by the sudden turn of events, the British ranks broke and fled. The Americans had triumphed.

Just a week after their sensational triumph over the Hessians at Trenton, the Continentals had smashed a force of British redcoats and sent them fleeing. The effects were nothing short of dazzling. The British retreated almost all the way back to New York City, abandoning New Jersey back into the hands of the rebels. From New Hampshire to Georgia, the spirit of liberty and independence was restored as news of the victory spread.

Had the Americans lost the Battle of Princeton, it is quite likely that Washington would have lost his army and the last chance of an American victory in the Revolutionary War would have been snuffed out. The men who fought and died on that ground deserve the thanks of their nation.

Which is why I'm writing this blog post.

As Americans, it is incumbent upon us to protect and preserve the ground on which our ancestors fought and died. Much of the ground on which the Battle of Princeton was fought is today under terrible threat from developers who want to take the sacred soil and turn it into residential units. Although a fine battlefield park, run by the State of New Jersey rather than the National Park Service, currently protects and preserves 681 acres of the battlefield, the rest has little or no legal protections at all.

The Institute for Advanced Study, a division of Princeton University, wants to build residential units on a critical 7-acre portion of the battlefield. I happen to be quite fond of the Institute for Advanced Society, which has been the home of scientists as eminent at Freeman Dyson, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the great Albert Einstein himself. Yet its cavalier attitude towards the sacred ground of the Princeton battlefield is disgraceful and a stain upon the honor and dignity of a venerable institution. If it goes forward with its plans, and prevails in the legal disputes currently ongoing, history will neither forget or forgive what it did and its future reputation will be damaged beyond repair. For its own good and for the good of society, the Institute for Advanced Study should immediately renounce its plans to build homes on the sacred soil of the Princeton battlefield.

You can help save the priceless soil of the Princeton battlefield by supporting the Save Princeton effort of Campaign 1776, a national effort to preserve and protect battlefields of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The men who fought and died upon that ground in the early days of 1777 were fighting for our liberty and independence. The least we can do is ensure that the ground upon which they fought is preserved as an eternal monument to their sacrifice. Even a small financial donation can make a big difference.

Do it for them. After all, they did far more for you.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Homes For Our Troops

It's November 11. Veterans Day. This is the day we set aside every year to celebrate the sacrifices that our veterans have made in defending our country.

All 535 members of Congress are going to take to Twitter to express how much we owe to the veterans. Some might even go to the trouble of issuing a press release, written, of course, by some anonymous staff member since the officer-holders themselves will doubtless be too busy (though one suspects guys like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln would have found the time). Needless to say, none of this will make the slightest bit of difference in the life of a single veteran.

Around the country, well-meaning citizens will fly the American flag and some might even wear a yellow ribbon. but most will see it merely as a day of sales at mattress stores and, if they're lucky, a day off from work. As happens each year, people will confuse Veterans Day with Memorial Day or Armed Forces Day and forget whether November 11 is the a day we are supposed to honor people who died, people who served in the past but are still alive, or people who are currently serving. The fact that this is a source of confusion has always greatly annoyed me. But I suppose one of the freedoms the veterans fought for is the freedom to not care about public holidays if one so chooses.

I'm all for flying the American flag on national holidays, which I do as a matter of course, and I have no problem with wearing a yellow ribbon as a statement of support. What troubles me on Veterans Day is that people seem to think that making such symbolic gestures allows them to say that they "support the troops" and therefore absolves them from doing anything to actually help them. These men and women fought for our country, putting their lives on the line, and many have returned home with horrific injuries that will impact them for the rest of their lives. They deserve more from their country, whose freedom they have defended, then symbolic gestures and empty statements.

What is something concrete which can be done to help veterans? Allow me to make a suggestion. On this Veterans Day, I urge every individual reading this blog to become a financial supporter of the nonprofit organization Homes For Our Troops.

Founded in 2004, Homes For Our Troops has a simple, straightforward, and achievable mission. It seeks to build specially adapted houses for soldiers who have suffered serious wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as the loss of limbs, paralysis, or traumatic brain injury. These wounds are so severe that characteristics of an ordinary house which would be unnoticed by most people, such as the width of a doorway or the floor-plan of a bathroom, can be severely limiting. By building these specially adapted houses, Homes For Our Troops allows returning veterans who have suffered severe wounds to start the process of recovery and reestablish a life of independence and self-sufficiency.

Homes For Our Troops provides these homes to the wounded veterans mortgage-free. Coming out of the military with severe injuries and facing the challenge of finding a paying job to take care of themselves and their families, the last thing these veterans need is the pressure of making a mortgage payment. No one wants to live under the fear of losing their home. Considering the sacrifice these soldiers have made in defense of their country, removing the pressure of making a mortgage payment every month seems to be the least we can do.

These kinds of houses are not cheap. Indeed, their average cost is more than $400,000.  But these men and women deserve it. They risked their lives in place like Baghdad and Fallujah in Iraq and in Helmand province and Kandahar province in Afghanistan, which most of us know only as place names spoken quickly by talking heads on cable news networks. They have faced war in a way the rest of us never will. They did it for us. The least we can do is put forward some of the money to help build the houses that will enable them to live as normal a life as possible.

(I feel the need to state at this point that I am not officially associated with Homes For Our Troops in any way. I am a monthly financial donor, as I hope you will become, but that is the limit of my involvement with the organization.)

There are bitter political divisions about whether it was right or wrong to invade Iraq in 2003, just as there have been bitter political divisions about whether our forces should have remained in Afghanistan after Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011. These debates shouldn't matter when it comes to these veterans. Their country called upon them, they stepped up to the plate, and they made sacrifices for us far greater than the vast majority of us will ever be called upon to make. A small monthly donation to Homes For Our Troops is the very least we can do for them.

Abraham Lincoln, who knew a thing or two about the burden of ordering men to their deaths, said, "Honor to the soldier and sailor everywhere, who bravely bears their country's cause. Honor also to the citizen who cares for his brother in the field and serves, as best he can, the same cause."

We must heed Lincoln's words. We have an obligation to care for our brothers and sisters who have suffered debilitating wounds in the distant lands of Iraq and Afghanistan in defense of our nation's freedom. Please join me in becoming a regular donor to Homes For Our Troops. The veterans deserve it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

250th Anniversary of the Stamp Act Congress

The same year that has seen the end of the 150th anniversary commemorations of the American Civil War also, by historical coincidence, marks the beginning of the 250th anniversary commemorations of the American Revolution. Some might object to this, pointing out that the Revolutionary War began on April 19, 1775, which would suggest that the 250th anniversary is not until 2025. But the American Revolution was as much a political struggle as a military conflict and its beginnings stretch back long before the first actual shots were fired on Lexington Green.

It was on this date two-hundred-and-fifty years ago that the first embers of organized American resistance to British rule began to glow, when the Stamp Act Congress met in New York City on October 7, 1765.

The British Parliament in London had passed the Stamp Act in March of that year and it was due to take effect on November 1. It was a very simple piece of legislation, stipulating that all official papers had to have a governmental stamp on them; this stamp had to be paid for, which would generate revenue for the government. There had been almost no opposition to the legislation in Parliament and few seemed to think that the colonists in America would mind the tax very much. After all, the British government had just completed an enormous military effort in the New World that had driven the French off of the continent and thereby freed the colonists from the French threat.

The American reaction was swift and furious. Protests erupted in the streets across the colonies and stamp collectors were burned in effigy. Colonial legislatures passed resolutions against the act and created "committees of correspondence" to communicate with one another. In Massachusetts, enraged colonists even set fire to the mansion of the lieutenant governor, Thomas Hutchison, who barely escaped with his life. This ferocious response came as a complete shock to the British establishment, as it did to Benjamin Franklin, who was then living in London as a colonial agent for Pennsylvania.

In retrospect, we can see that the most important manifestation of colonial resistance to the Stamp Act was the convening of the Stamp Act Congress. The call for such a convention had come from the colony of Massachusetts, which thought a single coordinated response from all the British colonies in America would be more effective that a series of disjointed reactions. In the end, nine colonies sent representatives to New York City: Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and South Carolina. The legislatures in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia were blocked by their respective governors from sending delegates, while New Hampshire just never got around to it.

Among the brilliant minds who composed the Stamp Act Congress was a man who are almost unknown to Americans today, yet fully deserve to be ranked among the august group we call "the Founding Fathers". There was James Otis, one of the most brilliant lawyers of Massachusetts, who had made a name for himself by arguing that it was unconstitutional for British authorities to use the writs of assistance used by British authorities to search private homes without warrants. He is widely credited with coining the phrase "no taxation without representation". Other attendees would go on to play important roles in the Revolution, such as Robert Livingston, Caesar Rodney, Thomas McKean, and John Rutledge.

After a few weeks of debate and deliberations, the Stamp Act Congress issued the Declaration of Rights and Grievances, which stated that Parliament had no right to tax the colonies directly as the colonies were not represented in Parliament. Only the colonial legislatures themselves could tax the colonies. This was the first substantive assertion that there should be no taxation without representation. At the same time, the Stamp Act Congress proclaimed a loyalty to the king, for they did not want to appear as potential rebels. The idea of American independence had not yet entered anyone's mind.

There is something that needs to be stressed about the events leading up to the American break with Britain. Before the political crisis leading up to the war, the American colonists were probably the freest and most lightly taxed people in the world. The Americans were not protesting the amount of tax they were being asked to pay; they were protesting the fact that they did not believe the British Parliament had the constitutional authority to tax them. The American Revolution had its root causes in constitutional questions, not economic ones.

There are legions of revisionist historians who are always eager to tear down great figures from the past and they have given the American Founding Fathers more than their fair share of attention. Efforts are often made to persuade us that the Founding Fathers were simply a bunch of wealthy white guys, and largely slave-owners to boot, who rebelled against the British because they feared losing their privileged social and economic positions. It's true that the Founding Fathers were generally members of the social elite, but to suppose that their motives were self-serving has little basis. If they had really been interested in holding onto their power, the best thing they could have done would have been to remain loyal to the British, as many other members of the colonial elite choose to do. By following the path they choose, they were committing treason and placing their lives in peril.

I am sad that this anniversary is passing with next to no commemoration. We, the Americans of the early 21st Century, owe a tremendous debt to the brave men who met in New York in 1765. They lit the fuse that would explode on Lexington Green a decade later and give birth to our nation, the United States of America.

Thanks, guys.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Sadness and Hope Along the Siege Lines of Vicksburg

After my visit to the battlefield at Raymond last Sunday, I headed straight to Vicksburg National Military Park, which is one of those American treasures in which we should all take pride. It was my third visit to the place. The first was when I was a boy, on one of those countless wonderful trips across the country on which my parents took me. The second was not that long ago, in July of 2012, but my wife and I had found out the day before that we were going to become parents and my mind was understandably distracted. Besides which, we only had a few hours. This time I was able to concentrate all my focus on drinking deep the story of the Siege of Vicksburg.

Among preserved historical sites associated with the American Civil War, Vicksburg ranks among the best. In many ways, it is exactly what a national battlefield should be. The eighteen-mile driving route is festooned with statues and memorials, many of them placed by the veterans themselves or by their families. The dramatic events of the siege - the May 19 assault on the Stockade Redan, the May 22 assault on the Great Redoubt, the June 25 detonation of the great mine underneath the Louisiana Redan - are all described in the posted markers very well, in such a way that one can glance at the ground and follow the events in one's mind with great ease. The museum at the visitor's center, while surprisingly small, is very well done and the introductory video is well-written and well-produced.

It being Labor Day weekend, the park was crowded. It gave me great pleasure to overhear parents tell their young children about the Civil War and to watch little ones play on the cannon. The knowledge of our nation's history is passed from one generation to the next, and we need preserved historical sites like Vicksburg to continue this process, generation after generation. On the other hand, it struck me as somewhat ludicrous to hear the laughter of little children as they scampered along trench lines where hundreds of men were slaughtered a century-and-a-half ago, torn apart by artillery fire, gunned down by rifles, or stabbed or slashed to death by bayonets, knives, or swords. Many of those killed in 1863 were, it pained me to recall, scarcely more than children themselves.

The entire battlefield is covered with thick trees, foliage, and underbrush. This was not at all what the ground looked like during the summer of 1863, when the trees had been completely cleared by the Confederates in order to provide clear fields of fire in front of their fortifications. As much as I love trees, I found myself wishing that the National Park Service would clear them away from Vicksburg so that the lines returned as much as possible to how they appeared during the siege itself.

One of the most amazing aspects of Vicksburg National Military Park are the state monuments. These stone memorials, some grand and some subtle, have been erected by the individual state governments, both North and South. The grandest by far is that of Illinois, which contributed more than 35,000 men to the Vicksburg campaign. It is a great granite temple, clearly modeled on the architecture of ancient Rome. Moreover, it is a physical manifestation of peace, whose enabling legislation specified that no warlike image be depicted upon it, set amid ground that once echoed with the thunder and scream of battle. Stepping inside it is a deeply humbling experience.

Not all the monuments, frankly, were to my liking. The Kansas Monument was sculpted in 1960 in what apparently passed for some nameless avant-garde style at that time. Now it simply looks silly among so many beautiful and more traditional sculptures. Whatever meaning it is supposed to have was wholly indecipherable to me. Like all modern art, it struck me as the Emperor's New Clothes. It was nothing that a moderately talented high schooler couldn't have produced in shop class.

As a Texan, I made a point to visit the Texas Memorial. A yucca plant is carefully cared for in the center of the monument, which I thought was a nice touch. The monument was built from the same Texas red granite as were the Civil War monuments to Texas soldier all over the rest of the country, from Gettysburg and Gaine's Mill to Shiloh and Bentonville, and many points in between. One wonders, given the political climate today, whether any more of these monuments will be erected.

Perhaps the saddest monument on the battlefield is that to the soldiers from Missouri. As a border state, it sent its sons to both sides. Forty-two units of Missourians took part in the siege, twenty-seven for the Union and fifteen for the Confederacy. Cockrell's Missouri Brigade was perhaps the finest fighting unit of the entire Confederate Army and they played a crucial role at Vicksburg. The grand monument rests near the Stockade Redan, where bitter fighting took place. Tragically, Union and Confederate Missourians found themselves facing one another, with friends and even family members forced into a situation in which they had little choice but to try to kill one another. There is a sad resignation to the monument, witness to a horrible tragedy that need never have happened.

I found a different feeling at the monument to Kentucky, which like Missouri was a bitterly divided border state. It is somewhat confusing, as there is a Kentucky monument which specifically honors the service of the Kentucky Confederates, yet the second Kentucky monument honors all the men of the state, no matter which side they fought for. It's also very different, in that it's spaced out over a considerable distance and farther away from the driving path than any other monument.

I almost missed it. By the time I got to the Kentucky Monument, it was late in the day, I was quite tired, and it had become very hot. Moreover, the sandwich I had eaten for lunch was not sitting well on my stomach. I almost made the decision to drive on, but eventually decided that the monument deserved my attention. I got out of my car and walked the few hundred yards down a path towards the monument. It was the best decision I made during my visit to Vicksburg.

Leading up to the monument are five sculptures of prominent Kentuckians who served as general officers during the Vicksburg Campaign. I was happily surprised to see a sculpture of John C. Breckinridge, the primary character of my novella Blessed are the Peacemakers and one of the main characters of my upcoming novel House of the Proud. He was not present at Vicksburg itself, but commanded a division in the army the Confederates attempted to raise in Jackson to raise the siege. Looking up at the man's face, complete with his famous whiskers, I found myself wondering whether he might be offended by my taking his person and throwing it into a fictional story. I was almost tempted to apologize.

The centerpiece of the Kentucky Monument, though, is a circular plaza encased within an angled wall. On the wall are lists of the Kentucky units, both Union and Confederate, that participated in the Vicksburg Campaign. Standing at the center of the circle are bronze statues of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, both natives of Kentucky, the respective leaders of the two warring sides, seemingly engaged in an endless conversation. There was no one else around and I found myself strangely wanting to ask the two statues what on earth they could be talking about. They don't look happy to see one another, but neither do they appear angry or embittered. There are just two men, albeit two remarkable and strikingly complex men, representing different parts of America, staring level into one another eyes, talking the same talk we've been having with ourselves since 1776 and which we are still having with ourselves today.

Along the walls behind the two presidents are quotes from both men. The Lincoln quote is from the Second Inaugural Address and is familiar to every educated America: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

The words of Davis date from the 1880s, long after the war, and read as follows: "The past is dead; let it bury its dead. Let me beseech you to lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feeling. Make your place in the ranks of those who will bring about a consummation devoutly to be wished - a reunited country."

In this age of political correctness, when people who have no understanding of history seem determined to tear away historical markers and monuments to people about whom they know nothing, it seems to me that we can all learn some important lessons from the words of Lincoln and Davis. That, more than anything else, is what I took away from my trip to Vicksburg.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Visit to the Raymond Battlefield

I'm in Vicksburg, Mississippi, one of the towns that has to be on the bucket list of anyone interested in the American Civil War. After all, the campaign that led to the fall of Vicksburg, thus securing Union control of the Mississippi River and splitting the Confederacy in two, was arguably the decisive campaign of the war. Much more than the Battle of Gettysburg, the Siege of Vicksburg ensured that the Confederacy would eventually go down to defeat. Thousands of Northerners died to capture Vicksburg, just as thousands of Southerners died trying to protect it.

The story of the Union conquest of Vicksburg is a long one. It started with the naval attack of Admiral David Farragut in May of 1862 and ended with the final surrender of Vicksburg to General Ulysses Grant in July of 1863. It's a dramatic tale that has it all: ferocious battles between ironclads, daring cavalry raids behind enemy lines, spies and double-agents, near-suicidal assaults against seemingly invincible fortresses, fierce internal dissensions among the general officers of both sides, terrified civilians unwillingly caught up in the maelstrom of war, and, of course, epic pitched battles. Honestly, if HBO wanted to do a Civil War mini-series, the campaign for Vicksburg would be a perfect subject.

One of the most interesting episodes in the long struggle for control of Vicksburg is the Battle of Raymond. On May 12, 1863, having finally succeeded in getting his army on the east bank of the Mississippi River below Vicksburg, General Grant was moving his troops rapidly northeastwards, leaving the confused and scattered Confederate forces unable to even find him. It was an early example of a style of warfare that, in the 20th Century, would come to be known as blitzkrieg. That morning, on a hilly field southwest of the small town of Raymond, a single Confederate brigade slammed into a Union force that, unbeknownst to them, was roughly three times their strength. The result was a confused and brutal day-long battle.

This battle is of particular interest to me because it involved the 7th Texas Infantry Regiment. Readers of my book Shattered Nation will know that this is the regiment to which my fictional character, James McFadden, belongs. The Battle of Raymond was a small engagement by Civil War standards, with five thousand Confederates fighting against twelve thousand Yankees; there were quite a few Civil War battles with ten times as many combatants. Yet it certainly was important to the men of the 7th Texas. Of the Texans, twenty-two were killed, sixty-six wounded, and seventy captured. The regiment would go on to fight in such brutal battles as Chickamauga, Atlanta, and Franklin, yet it never again suffered losses as severe as those it sustained on the field of Raymond.

Anyone expecting a big visitor's center with a well-produced introductory video at the battlefield is going to be disappointed. There is an information kiosk with a few useful maps, a paved circular walking trail, and several reproduction cannon to signify the positions of artillery batteries, but nothing as fancy as one finds at any of the battlefields preserved and interpreted by the National Park Service. Still, we are fortunate that there is any battlefield at Raymond at all, for would certainly have been lost to real estate development had it not been for the hard work and dedication of a group of local preservation activists calling themselves the Friends of Raymond. These people deserve the thanks of all lovers of history for saving the Raymond Battlefield from disappearing, as so many other historical sites have sadly done.

When I visited the battlefield this morning, it was very quiet and peaceful. It might have been hard to find, but I had received a helpful email from a member of the Friends of Raymond in response to an earlier request for help and so knew pretty much where to go. No one else was there and the battlefield was quiet and peaceful, quite in contrast to the violence and death that had shaken the same ground just over a century and a half before. Not all of the battlefield has yet been preserved, but the land across which the 7th Texas made its gallant and ill-fated charge can be followed almost exactly. A creek bed in which savage fighting took place appears almost unchanged from what it must have looked like during the battle. It was very easy to get a feel for the battle.

I was particularly interested in finding the monument to the Texas troops that I understood had been erected in recent years. Frustratingly, though, I could not find it and got back into my car with a sense of disappointment. I hadn't gone more than a few hundred yards back down the road, though, before I saw the monument on the other side of the road. I quickly pulled over and walked over to it. I was a little surprised to see that it is right next to someone's driveway and don't understand why they didn't put it on the battlefield itself. Alas, some questions have no answers. What matters is that it is a dignified and appropriate monument to the men of the 7th Texas Infantry.

I'd encourage anyone to visit the Raymond Battlefield. Yes, there's not much there. Yes, the engagement was minor compared to other, more famous battles. But it is part of a crucial story that helped decide the destiny of our nation and was a shining example of the courage and endurance that the men of the North and South displayed on countless similar battlefields throughout the war. They deserve to be remembered.

As for me, it was on to Vicksburg.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Update on the Writing

It's been a long, hot, and dry summer in Central Texas. After our incredibly rainy May, I had hoped that this would be more mild than usual, but, alas, it was not to be. Granted, it hasn't been nearly as bad as the brutal scorcher of 2011, but now that we are approaching mid-August, with Fourth of July fireworks now a distant memory, I find myself longing for the crisp air of autumn. Much as I look forward to its end, though, I must say that it has been a good summer. I had a lovely trip out to the beaches of Florida with my wife and daughter, visiting with my parents. I've spent as much time as I can with my little girl, taking her for walks in the morning before the heat becomes too intense. My wife and I have had a few good date nights. I'm now beginning the traditional mourning period that every teacher in the country endures as mid-August approaches.

The defining characteristic of this summer has been the writing. My fingers have positively bled from all the writing I have been doing. I am very proud to say that there has not been a single day this summer when I have not written at least 1,000 words and most days have seen rather more than that. The record has been June 21, when I wrote 4,549 words in a single stretch. Anyone who thinks that's not an achievement ought to try it.

What am I writing, exactly? It's called House of the Proud and it's the sequel to Shattered Nation, the novel I published in the fall of 2013. Faithful readers will know that Shattered Nation explored the question of what might have happened if General Joseph Johnston had been kept in command of the Army of Tennessee in July of 1864, as opposed to being replaced, as he was historically, by General John Bell Hood.

(I published a short novella, Blessed are the Peacemakers, in the summer of 2014. It dealt with the counterfactual peace conference between the Union and the Confederacy and should be seen as a bridge between Shattered Nation and House of the Proud. I plan on writing novellas and perhaps collections of short stories set in the Shattered Nation universe between the writing of the major novels.)

House of the Proud takes place in 1867, three years after the events of Shattered Nation. The Confederacy is independent but unsettled, burdened with a crushing war debt and finding its political consensus in tatters as it approaches its first contested presidential election. More ominous than all this, however, is a slave rebellion in the lower Mississippi Valley, led by the mysterious figure known only as Saul. Meanwhile, a crisis sparked by the group of Irish nationalists called the Fenian Brotherhood threatens to cause a war between the United States and the British Empire.

The cast of characters is grand and sweeping. Charles Sumner, champion of abolitionism in the United States Senate, pursues his anti-slavery crusade in Washington. Robert Toombs, king of the Fire-Eaters, plots to bring about the downfall of his enemies and to solidify the South as an aristocratic slave-holding republic. Cavalry general John Hunt Morgan, once the darling of the Confederacy, finds himself matching wits with black insurgents in the swamps of Louisiana and Mississippi. Judah Benjamin, the wry smile rarely leaving his face, schemes to set the Confederacy on the course he know it must take if it is to survive. In distant Europe, the wealthy and cultured John Slidell, the minister of the Confederacy to France, bends every effort to bring France into an alliance with his newborn nation. In Canada, British Lieutenant-Colonel Garnet Wolseley battles with Fenians and dreams of a great war with the United States in which he might earn immortal glory.

John C. Breckinridge, once Vice President of the United States, then a Southern general, and now the Confederate Secretary of War, weighs his duties in the Cabinet and his desire to retire from public life against intense pressure to seek the presidency. Charles Russell Lowell, brilliant scion of one of Boston's great abolitionist families, must make a decision that will not only put his own life at risk, but might transform the history of both the Union and the Confederacy. And then there is the enigmatic Saul, leader of the slave rebellion against the Confederacy, who is both more and less than what he appears to be.

Finally, readers will again find themselves in the company of James McFadden, late of the 7th Texas Infantry. Once a tormented soul, yearning for death on the battlefield, McFadden is now trying to live a simple life on the Texas frontier with his beloved wife Annie and his toddler son Thaddeus. Yet the peace he has found is imperiled by an enemy he could not had foreseen and more dangerous than any he has previously faced. Their conflict is tied to the larger forces threatening to tear their nation apart and in which he will play an unexpected role.

I'm rather proud of the story, but I certainly am not going to reveal the specifics of the plot to anyone as yet. You'll have to buy the book when it comes out. Still, I will share a few tidbits:
  • Scenes take place in locations as varied as the Texas frontier, the border between Canada and the United States, Paris, London, Boston, New Orleans, Montgomery, and of course Richmond and Washington City.
  • Historical figures who show up, but are not perspective characters, include Jefferson Davis, George McClellan, P.G.T. Beauregard, Frederick Douglass, Alexander Stephens, Redvers Buller, William Porcher Miles, William Seward, Louis Wigfall, Edwin Stanton, Benjamin Disraeli, Basil Duke, Napoleon III, John B. Gordon and a host of others.
  • One of Britain's most storied infantry regiments, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, plays an interesting role. And no, I didn't misspell "Welsh" there.
  • Although the story is set in 1867, an epilogue depicts a scene from 1907.

I wrote a large chunk of House of the Proud last summer, before hitting a heavy wall of writer's block in the fall. During the winter, I fell into alternate history writing projects having to do with either the late Roman Republic or the American Revolution. But since March of this year, however, I have been writing furiously on House of the Proud. Before the school year was over, I dragged myself out of bed at four thirty or five o'clock every morning and wrote for as long as possible before I needed to get ready to go to work. Once summer break began, I locked myself in the study whenever I could and have written as much as possible.

It is not easy to remain focused on a single literary project for such a long time, so I have occasionally given my brain a rest and done some preliminary work on other writing projects I intend to pursue when House of the Proud is finished. Some of these are other books of the Shattered Nations series. Two of them are set in 1864 and explore how the "point of divergence" in Shattered Nation impacted events in places other than Georgia, one taking place in and around Charleston Harbor and the other in the Shenandoah Valley. I have some ideas for titles, but don't want to say them now as they may change later. I've also done some initial work on a novel that will take place primarily in Texas in the late 1890s, one that takes place in the 1920s in the midst of a world war, and another that takes place in the 1960s and is essentially a spy novel. Outside of the Shattered Nation universe, I have started work on an interesting alternate history novel set during the American Revolution, with cryptography emerging as a central theme. I've also started to do some early work on an alternate history novel set during the late Roman Republic, which I personally feel is perhaps the most fascinating and enthralling dramas in all of human history.

But House of the Proud remains the priority. It's a big book and it's not finished. As of this afternoon, the manuscript is 230,000 words long. It still has long way to go, but at least it won't be the behemoth that Shattered Nation, at roughly 600,000 words, turned out to be. I have no doubt that the commencement of the school year will disrupt the writing process a bit, but I hope to keep it up until I complete the narrative. Then it will take a few months of editing, cover design, and so forth until it is ready for purchase.

I'll be sure to keep everyone informed. Rest assured, I'm working as fast as I can.