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 CuauhtĂ©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.