Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Fall of Constantinople

Five hundred and sixty-three years ago today, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks after an epic siege that lasted fifty-three days. It was one of the epochal events in world history and one in which I have always been deeply fascinated. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, it was one of those stories from history that is simply dying to be made into a well-produced cable mini-series. I thought I would take the opportunity to give the reader a quick account of this amazing story.

By the middle of the 15th Century, the once proud Byzantine Empire had faded into near-insignificance. It had persisted for more than a thousand years after emerging from the collapse of the Roman world in the 4th and 5th Centuries. Indeed, as far as the Byzantines themselves were concerned, they were the Romans. It is was they called themselves and they had every right to the title. After the Roman Empire had split permanently into western and eastern halves upon the death of Emperor Theodosius I in 395, the western half had collapsed under the weight of barbarian invasions in less than a hundred years, while the eastern half had survived and thrived. Eventually it developed its own character, rather more Greek than Roman and entirely Christian rather than pagan, morphing into the Byzantine Empire. But the Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, who had taken the Byzantine throne in 1449, saw himself as being of a line that went all the way back to Augustus Caesar.

The empire over which Constantine ruled, however, was but a shadow of its former self. In its heyday, the Byzantine Empire had ruled over Asia Minor, the Balkans, southern Italy, and many of the major islands in the Mediterranean. Its army had been respected, its navy feared, the brilliance of its artists admired and envied, the genius of its scholars and theologians held in awe, and the wealth of its capital city on the Bosporus positively the stuff of legends. The violence and upheaval of the Crusades fatally weakened the Byzantine state, however, culminating in the brutal sack of Constantinople by fellow Christians in 1204. Although the Byzantines recaptured their capital in 1261, their empire had been shattered by the experience like a fine china set cast down onto the floor. By the time Constantine XI came to the throne, the Byzantines controlled only the city of Constantinople itself, the Peloponnesian peninsula in southern Greece (then known as Morea) and a few scattered islands in the Aegean. Oh, how the mighty had fallen.

Worse, a deadly threat to Byzantine survival had emerged from the Islamic lands to the east. Following the chaos of the disastrous Mongol invasion of the Middle East in the 13th Century, a series of small Turkish states had set themselves up in Asia Minor, fighting one another for supremacy. Over the course of a century-and-a-half, beginning around 1300, the mighty Ottoman Empire had emerged as the winner of this Darwinian struggle, subjugating Asia Minor and crossing into the Balkans as it crushed a succession of Christian and Muslim enemies. When a young and dynamic Sultan, Mehmed II, came to the throne in 1451, he let it be known that the fabled city of Constantinople was first on his list of desired conquests.

The Ottoman army mobilized and arrived at the walls of Constantinople in early April of 1453. His army numbered upwards of one hundred thousand men, including thousands of ferocious Janissaries, perhaps the most feared warriors in the world. While the bulk of Ottoman infantry came from the tough hill tribes of Anatolia, many of Mehmed's troops were, ironically enough, Christians from the Balkans, lured to the force by pay or driven by compulsion. Most terrible of all was the artillery that Mehmed brought to the siege. Much of it created by an infamous Hungarian cannon maker named Orban, it was the most extensive and powerful collection of artillery yet assembled in world history.

The Byzantines, by contrast, had a mere seven thousand men to defend the city. Yet their cause was not seen as hopeless, for Constantinople was one of the most easily defended cities in the world. Roughly triangular in shape, it was faced on the south by the Sea of Marmara, the north by the wide bay known as the Golden Horn, and could only be approached by a land army from the west. Its walls had stood for ten centuries and had repelled enemies as diverse as the Persians, the Arabs, the Bulgarians, and the Vikings. Only the Crusaders had managed to break through the walls, and that had been from the sea. The Ottomans themselves had failed to take the city during two previous attempts, in 1411 and 1422.

Moreover, although the defenders were heavily outnumbered, no one could question the quality of their leadership. Emperor Constantine XI was himself quite a competent warrior, having fought against Muslim and Christian enemies in Greece during his time as Despot of the Morea before becoming Emperor. Nor did anyone question his courage, for he could easily had fled the city before the Turks encircled it. Instead, he choose to remain and defend it with his life. As the first Turkish troops appeared over the horizon, the Emperor had clearly already made the decision that the siege would end only when he was either victorious or dead.

Alongside him, Constantine XI had a remarkable assembly of Christian warriors. There was the Castilian nobleman Don Francisco de Toledo, who would serve bravely and faithfully. There was the Venetian sea captain Gabriele Trevisano and several other Venetian sailors. There was the mysterious military engineer alternately named Johannes Grant or John Grant, who was said to be a German but whom some historians (including Steven Runciman, one of my favorite historical writers) had speculated might have been a Scot, whose genius would prove pivotal in the fighting to come. Indeed, of the seven thousand defenders, fully two thousand were volunteers from overseas, willing to come and fight even as their own governments shamefully turned a blind eye to what was happening.

Of all the foreign fighters who came to the defense of Constantinople, however, none was as legendary as Giovanni Giustiniani. He was a Genoese soldier renowned throughout the Christian world for his military skill and daring. Having recruited hundreds of men at his own expense and sailed from Italy to Constantinople to protect the fabled city, the Emperor gave him the command of the land wall defenses. He would be the pillar around which the other defenders of Constantinople would rally in the difficult weeks to come.

The Turks quickly overran two forts that had long ago been built beyond the city walls. The prisoners, rather than receiving mercy from the Sultan, were impaled within full view of Constantinople. If Mehmed II thought that this would terrify the defenders, he was sorely mistaken. By seeing what their fate would be if they failed, Constantine and his men steeled themselves for the storm that was about to break upon them. They had to conquer or they would perish.

The siege artillery Mehmed had brought to the fight began a long, slow, but steady bombardment of the walls. It was unlike anything that had ever been seen before in warfare. Thought the Christians did everything they could to repair the damage at night, the walls that had withstood so many previous attackers were steadily worn down into rubble. Several infantry assaults were made against the walls as well, but these were repelled with heavy losses, Giustiniani knew his business well and led his troops with exceptional skill and courage.

A long chain drawn across the entrance to the Golden Horn had prevented the Turkish fleet from gaining access to that body of water, allowing the Byzantines and their allies to leave the sea walls on the north side of the city comparatively undefended. Numerous Turkish naval attacks on the chain had been repelled by Trevisano. Indeed, Turkish naval actions had been humiliating for Mehmed, for several Christian supply ships had managed to slip through his blockade, much to the delight of Constantinople's defenders. However, on April 22, the Turks put their effectively unlimited manpower advantage to good use and simply hauled their ships across land to a portion of the northern coast of the Golden Horn under their control, thereby establishing a Turkish naval presence in the bay. An attempt by the defenders on April 28 to attack the Turkish fleet with fireships turned into a fiasco. From that point on, the Turkish ships controlled the Golden Horn and the Christian defenders were stretched ever more thinly along the walls.

It was probably obvious by this point that the defenders had little chance of actually winning the battle. Their only hope was to hold out long enough for a relief force to arrive from the Christian powers to the west. The powerful city-states of Venice or Genoa, many of whose citizens were in the ranks of the men lining the walls, could each have dispatched a fleet laden with reinforcements and supplies, almost certainly securing the city from Turkish capture. Neither bothered. Pope Nicholas V pleaded with Christian rulers to send assistance to Constantinople, despite the theological quarrels between Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Nobody bothered. The defenders of Constantinople were on their own.

As their artillery continued to steadily erode the strength of the walls, the Turks also sought to undermine them. Soldiers brought from the silver mines of Serbia were put to work digging tunnels underneath the walls in order to collapse them. It was at this point that the mysterious man Grant made his mark for the defense. He dug countermines and broke into the Turkish tunnels. Some were destroyed by flooding them with water. In others, there was nightmarish underground combat in the dark as Grant's men attacked and killed Mehmed's diggers. The thought of dying in such conditions raises a chill in me even as I type these words. But the undermining effort was defeated.

Mehmed, far from a patient man, had become increasingly angered and frustrated by the stubbornness of the defenders. Moreover, he was worried that a Christian relief force might arrive before he could take the city. He sent an offer to Emperor Constantine, telling him that the people of the city would be spared and could leave without hindrance if they gave up Constantinople. The Emperor sternly refused, having long since decided to fight to the end. On May 27, the cannonading stopped and Mehmed let his men rest for a day, telling them that they would soon unleash a final, overwhelming attack. The Christians huddled in their churches, including the majestic Hagia Sophia, built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century, praying earnestly for deliverance. Constantine, the last in the long line of Roman Emperors, met with his key commanders and swore to defend the city to the last.

The night of May 28 passed quietly. Shortly after midnight, however, there came a terrifying cacophony of sounds from the Turkish camp as trumpets blared, drums pounded, and cymbals clanged. Wave after wave of Turkish infantry stormed forward and hurled themselves on the weakened defensive walls. The Christian warriors met them in furious combat and the sounds of battle filled the air. Mehmed had planned his attack carefully, with the first wave being made up of irregular and loosely disciplined troops known as bashi-bazouks. The Christians repelled them in bitter fighting, but suffered casualties in doing so and became tired and worn out. A second wave, made up of tougher Anatolian infantry, was likewise repulsed, but it was a near run thing and the Christian defenders were weakened further.

Finally, Mehmed sent his third wave forward. It was made up of his Janissaries, his elite shock troops. Nothing was held back; Mehmed was committing all his resources to this final assault. The Christians fought on, however, and for a time it appeared that this wave, too, would be turned back. It was at this moment that two terrible pieces of ill fortune befell the Christians. First, some Turkish troops discovered that a small sally port in the wall was still open and scurried through it to the other side, raising their banner on the small portion of the wall they had captured. At almost the same moment, Giustiniani was badly wounded (the accounts differ on whether it was a crossbow bolt or a fragment of a cannonball) and carried from the wall in agonizing pain. The Christian defenders lost heart. Exhausted, massively outnumbered, and finally giving in to terror, the soldiers abandoned the wall and fled back into the city.

The Turkish soldiers swarmed over the wall, now emptying of defenders. Some were already pushing their way into the streets of the city, beginning the traditional three days of looting and rape that befell a captured city during this period of history. Constantine XI saw that all was lost. He drew his sword and charged into the Turkish horde, slashing away at them until he was inevitably cut down and killed. With him died the last remnant of the Roman Empire. As some of the Christians fled to their boats, the city was given over to sack. The victorious Turks ran wild through the city, looting churches and homes, raping women, rounding up men, women, and children to be sold into slavery, and wrecking havoc. Terrified Christians crowded into Hagia Sophia, praying for a miracle, but the doors were hacked open by Turkish axes and the people within suffered the same fate as their fellows. The priests refused to stop conducting their holy liturgy and were killed.

The siege was over and the Turks were victorious. Mehmed soon rode his white horse through the gates and into the city, restoring order. It was the first step in the process by which Constantinople would be reborn at the capital city of the Ottoman Empire, which would last into the 20th Century. It would regain its former glory and become again one of the chief cities of the world, filled with people from all over the world, a center of trade and diplomacy. But it would forever after be a self-consciously Islamic city, having been made so by the man who would forever after be known as Mehmed the Conqueror.

The body of Constantine XI was never found, but there was no suggestion that he survived the battle. At least, not in any normal state. There was, however, an oft-repeated legend that is still remembered in Greece today. According to some, Constantine XI was rescued by an angel and turned into a marble statue. He was then taken to a secret cave somewhere near Constantinople, where he remains to this day. He will remain in his frozen state, so it is said, until the time comes for him to come back to life, reclaim Constantinople for Christianity, and restore the Byzantine Empire.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Forgotten Hero: Fabius Maximus

The Second Punic War posed the greatest threat to the existence of Rome before the actual collapse of Roman civilization nearly seven centuries later. The Carthaginian general Hannibal, ruthless, brilliant, and filled with a fiery hatred of Rome, made his famous descent from the Alps into the plains of Italy. A generation earlier, the Romans and Carthaginians had fought a long and bitter war over control of Sicily, with both sides suffering massive casualties. In the end, through sheer stamina, Rome had emerged victorious. Hannibal's father, Hamilcar, had made his son swear a blood oath that he would seek revenge on the Romans. In 218 BC, he emerged in Italy seeking more than just revenge. He was seeking the utter destruction of Rome itself.

The Romans were confident and self-assured. After all, they had defeated the Carthaginians before. Earlier than that, they had subjugated the warlike nations of Italy and beaten off the great Greek general Pyrrhus. Yet they had never encountered an enemy like Hannibal before. At the Battle of Trebia, in December of 218 BC, despite being heavily outnumbered, the Carthaginian commander utterly destroyed the opposing Roman army. The following summer, at the Battle of Lake Trasimine, Hannibal wiped out yet another army in one of the greatest ambushes ever staged in military history, killing the Consul Gaius Flaminius in the process.

The Romans were shocked beyond imagination. The two defeats had not only killed off a substantial chunk of their male population of military age, but had shaken their self-confidence to the core. Nothing like this had ever happened in living memory and it dawned on the Romans that they now faced a crisis unprecedented since the sack of Rome by the Gauls, nearly two centuries earlier. Stunned and terrified, the Romans made the decision to appoint a dictator, a constitutional procedure used only in extreme emergencies, in which full executive power was given to a single individual for six months.

The man they choose was a historical figure that is not well known, but whom I regard as one of the unappreciated heroes of the ages. His name was Quintus Fabius Maximus. Even the sound of his name seems to project strength and endurance. He was the scion of one of Rome's most ancient and distinguished families, which, according to legend, was descended from Hercules himself. The Fabii had served the Republic in many dramatic battles since the last king had been driven from the city, nearly three hundred years before Hannibal's time. The son, grandson, and great-grandson of consuls, Fabius had already served as consul twice before and had celebrated a triumph for defeating the northern Italian tribe known as the Ligurians. Now, the Roman people turned to Fabius in their darkest hour.

Fabius recognized what few other Romans were willing to see: in Hannibal, Rome faced a military genius of the highest order. The best way to deal with him, Fabius believed, was not to fight him at all. He raised more troops, but rather than challenging Hannibal to another battle, Fabius decided to concentrate on keeping the Roman army intact and wearing Hannibal down through attrition, denying him supplies through "scorched earth" tactics, harassing isolated detachments, and gradually letting the superior numbers and resources of the Romans work their cruel arithmetic.

For awhile, this "Fabian Strategy" worked. Hannibal was unable to score any more decisive victories, for Fabius simply refused to meet him in battle. In the meantime, the Carthaginian army slowly became weaker, as it was cut off from reinforcements and now being starved of supplies. Through it all, Fabius kept looking for an opportunity to entrap Hannibal. At one point, Fabius was able to encircle Hannibal by blocking some critical mountain passes, but the wily Carthaginian was able to escape.

Fabius was absolutely correct in his refusal to engage in battle with Hannibal and to wear him down with attrition. However, the Roman people and most of the Senate soon became disdainful of his strategy. The historian Plutarch tells us:

His dilatory way gave occasion in his own camp for suspicion of want of courage, and this opinion prevailed yet more in Hannibal's camp. Hannibal himself was the only man who was not deceived, who discerned his skill and detected his tactics, and saw, unless he could by art or force bring him to battle, that the Carthaginians, unable to use the arms in which they were superior, and suffering the continual drain of lives and treasure in which they were inferior, would in the end come to nothing.

The Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu once said: "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting." Sun Tzu lived four centuries before Fabius and the Roman dictator never heard of him (in ancient times, Rome and China were but distant rumors to one another), yet he was daily proving the man right. If he persisted in his strategy, Fabius would surely bring about Hannibal's ruin.

Hannibal resorted to a clever trick of psychological warfare. While his army passed through a region of Italy in which the great estate of Fabius stood, he had his men burn and pillage the surrounding farms and villages, but ordered them to leave Fabius's home untouched. Indeed, Hannibal even posted guards around it to prevent it from being damaged. The political enemies of Fabius back in Rome, of whom there were many, had yet more ammunition to use against him as they continued to denounce his strategy of avoiding battle. Was Fabius perhaps in the pay of the enemy? The proud Roman people couldn't stomach the Fabian Strategy, in any event. Their culture was one geared towards offensive warfare and the reluctance to meet Hannibal in battle was seen as cowardly. As an insult, the Romans began to refer to Fabius as "Cunctator", which roughly translates to something like "Delayer" in English.

A Roman dictator's term of office only lasted for six months. When Fabius's time was up, and regular government resumed, the decision was made to attempt to defeat Hannibal in another set-piece battle. Fabius argued against it, but no longer had the authority to stop it. The Romans raised the largest army they had ever put into the field, with over eighty thousand men, which outnumbered Hannibal's army by roughly two-to-one. Commanded by the two consuls, Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullius, the army was designed to overwhelm Hannibal by sheer force of numbers. Surely, with such might at their disposal, and with the courage and fortitude of the Roman fighting man, Hannibal would be crushed.

He wasn't. As Fabius feared, the Battle of Cannae resulted in the greatest disaster ever to befall Roman arms, for it was Hannibal's tactical masterpiece. Upwards of seventy thousand Roman soldiers were slaughtered in a single day, more people than were killed by the atom bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. When the fighting was over, there was no defeated army for Hannibal to bother pursuing, for it had been entirely destroyed. For a brief moment, Rome lay open to Hannibal and many of the cities of southern Italy renounced their allegiance to Rome and threw in their lot with Hannibal. Though no one could have fully understood it at the time, the fate of Western civilization hung in the balance.

Some of the aristocratic officers who had survived the massacre actually despaired of the Republic, suggesting to one another that they journey to Greece to become mercenaries, since Rome was now sure to be destroyed. One of the men who stopped this disgraceful plan was a young officer named Publius Cornelius Scipio, of whom we will hear more soon, for he would play an important role in the story of Fabius.

The fear that had followed the defeats at Trebia and Lake Trasimine was nothing compared to the terror that the defeat at Cannae struck into the Roman soul. In three years, three Roman armies had been snuffed out of existence. According to the ancient source, Hannibal sent one of his brothers back to Carthage, where he grandly poured hundreds of gold rings onto the floor of the Carthaginian Senate, each of which had been taken from the body of a Roman aristocrat slain on the battlefield.

Imagine a parallel situation in the United States today. Imagine that a fearsome enemy army were to invade our country, burn scores of our major cities to the ground, lay waste to vast portions of our country, and defeated the United States army in a series of terrible battles in which more than twenty million American soldiers were killed. Imagine the fear such a situation would create. That was what the Romans faced after Cannae.

It was Fabius who rallied the Roman people once again. Alone among them, he did not give in to fear and panic. He walked the streets of the city, speaking to nobles and commoners alike, encouraging them to remain calm and stay true to the Republic. Previously unthinkable measures were taken, including the enrollment of prisoners and criminals in the army. Thanks to the example of Fabius, the Romans recovered their wits. When a delegation from Hannibal arrived to offer the Romans peace terms, which essentially meant a Roman surrender, the Senate refused to receive them.

It was now clear that the Fabian Strategy of avoiding battle, employing scorched earth tactics, and wearing Hannibal down by attrition, had been the correct one. Fabius was elected consul three more times in the subsequent years and his strategy was followed by the Romans for the rest of the Second Punic War in Italy. Years passed. For more than a decade, Hannibal reigned supreme in southern Italy, occasionally catching Roman forces and defeating them. But whatever city fell to him or joined him did not remain in his hands for long, for the Romans would besiege and recapture them as soon as Hannibal's army had to move on. Fabius himself led the army which retook the city of Tarentum in 209 BC, a victory for which he received a triumph. Though Hannibal was never defeated in battle, he was eventually cooped up in the toe of Italy, lacking the power to continue his offensive. The Fabian Strategy had proved his undoing.

Yet Hannibal was not the only enemy with whom Fabius had to contend.

Scipio had been a young officer in the early battles against Hannibal, standing out for his bravery. A member of the prominent Cornelia family, his uncle and his father had died in the fighting against the Carthaginians in Spain. In spite of his youth, his family connections ensured that Scipio was chosen to lead the Roman armies in Spain, where Rome had been losing ground. In a series of dramatic and battles, displaying daring bravery and rapid movement that contrasted completely with the slow-moving positional warfare of Fabius, Scipio defeated the Carthaginian armies in Spain and secured the country for Rome.

I'm sure that Fabius was happy to hear about Roman victories over Carthaginians, but it's clear from the ancient historians that he was uneasy about Scipio. It's possible that simple jealousy was to blame, but there was clearly other reasons. He thought it unseemly, not to say unconstitutional, that Scipio had been granted proconsular authority in Spain despite being too young and not having held the required constitutional offices. He also distrusted Scipio's taste for Greek intellectual and artistic life, believing that such attitudes chipped away at the traditional Roman way of life. Perhaps he also sensed the people's adoration for the victorious general and the shifting of the soldiers' loyalty away from the state and towards their commander, things which would doom the Republic a century-and-a-half later.

When Scipio victorious in Spain, wanted to carry the war to Carthage itself by invading North Africa, Fabius was opposed to it. He said that all of Rome's resources should be devoted to the struggle against Hannibal in Italy. Perhaps he really felt this way. Perhaps Fabius was jealous. Perhaps he thought Scipio was as dangerous to Rome as was Hannibal, if in a different way. Perhaps all three are true to one degree or another. What is certain is that Fabius's effort to block Scipio's move failed. The Senate approved his invasion of North Africa, which led to the recall of Hannibal from Italy and ended with the decisive Roman victory at Zama. The Carthaginian general was finally defeated and the Second Punic War came to an end.

Rome had won and its victory set the stage for Roman domination of the Mediterranean world for the next several centuries. Yet the Roman triumph was as much Fabius's as it was Scipio's. The "Fabian Strategy" entered the military lexicon. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington became known as the American Fabius for his use of similar tactics. During the American Civil War, Confederate General Joseph Johnston (a major character in my novel Shattered Nation) was also compared to Fabius. The Russians used the Fabian Strategy against Napoleon. The North Vietnamese used a variant of it against the United States. He might never have won a dramatic set-piece battle, but his military genius should stand admired and respected. He never defeated Hannibal in battle, but he still beat him in the end.

I think we can learn a lot from the story of old Fabius. He possessed the supreme virtues of remaining calm in a crisis, of being patient, and of ignoring detractors when he knew he was right. Had it not been for Fabius and his brilliant strategy avoiding battle and using attrition, Rome almost certainly would have been destroyed by Hannibal. Everything that Rome bequeathed to Western civilization in terms of law, literature, architecture, to say nothing of the totality of Greek wisdom, which was transmitted to posterity through Rome, would have been lost to us. That would have been a mighty cataclysm. The world would look very different today had it happened and, I think it's fair to say, far darker. Because of that, we are all in the debt of Quintus Fabius Maximus.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Did Thomas Jefferson Father The Children Of Sally Hemings? Probably Not.

If I asked the average educated American to list three things about Thomas Jefferson, they would probably tell me that he was President of the United States, that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence, and that he fathered children with a slave woman named Sally Hemings. It's disappointing to me that so few would recognize his role in establishing freedom of religion and public education in America, as well as helping to enact judicial and currency reforms that impact us to this day. It bothers me that so many would overlook the fact that he was a brilliant architect, gardener, scientist, inventor, musician, wine connoisseur, pioneer archaeologist, and linguist as well as a statesman, More than anything else, though, it bothers me that the third "fact" most Americans would "know" about Thomas Jefferson is probably not true at all.

Here is the torrid Jefferson-Hemings story. It starts in 1802, with disreputable muckraker named James Callendar, who had previously been a Jefferson ally but had become deeply embittered when Jefferson had turned him down for a postmaster job in Richmond. He published a diatribe against Jefferson in which accused the President of having fathered a child with his slave Sally. This was the first public mention of the controversy. Although the Federalist press repeated the claims (journalism was no more polite then than it is today), no one seems to have taken it very seriously. Callendar was known to be an unstable alcoholic and it was clearly a case of personal retaliation by Callendar against Jefferson. Even fierce political enemies like Alexander Hamilton and Henry Lee, who were always willing to believe the worst about Jefferson, dismissed the charges as baseless. So did John Adams. Discussion of the Callendar accusations basically ceased after Jefferson retired from the Presidency.

Decades later, in 1873, a man named Madison Hemings gave an interview to an anti-slavery newspaperman named S. F. Wetmore in which he claimed to be the son of Jefferson and Sally Hemings. He told quite a story, alleging that when Sally was in France during Jefferson's tenure there as a diplomat in the 1780s (she had been brought as a companion for Jefferson's daughter Maria), Jefferson had initiated a sexual relationship with her and she had become pregnant. Madison Hemings claimed that, though she could have remained in France as a free woman, Sally choose to return to Virginia with the promise from Jefferson that her children would be freed at a later date. During this time, Sally would have been a teenager and Jefferson would have been in his forties. The story is frankly preposterous and is dismissed even by many who believe Jefferson to be the father of the Hemings children. Interestingly, much of the text in Wetmore story is lifted directly from Callendar's 1802 story, with many names incorrectly spelled in the same manner in both pieces, and much if not most of the Hemings testimony seems to have been written by Wetmore than quoted from Hemings. The story contains many obvious falsehoods, such as claiming that Dolly Madison was present at Madison Hemings's birth (the historical evidence conclusively shows that she was in Washington D.C. on the day in question). It's worth pointing out that Wetmore was abolitionist and Unionist who despised Jefferson for his connection to slavery and for advocating the states' rights positions that inspired the Confederacy. He had strong personal motives for wanting to chip away at Jefferson's reputation, rather in the same way that modern liberals like to chip away at Ronald Reagan and modern conservatives like to chip away at Franklin Roosevelt.

Throughout the 20th Century, few historians paid much attention to the Jefferson-Hemings story, deeming the evidence so slender as to not be worth bothering with. Dumas Malone and Merrill Peterson, perhaps the two greatest Jeffersonian scholars who ever lived, both dismissed the story as a myth akin to George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. It was only with the publication of Fawn Brodie's confusing and muddled "psychological biography" of Jefferson in the 1970s, in which she asserted that a Jefferson-Hemings sexual relationship did exist, that interest in the story revived. She provided no new evidence or, for that matter, any real evidence at all. Brodie, among other things, believed that Jefferson's comments of the color of dirt in the Rhine Valley, made while studying agricultural practices, revealed hidden details of his secret affair with Hemings. This is, to put it bluntly, so nonsensical that it's astonishing anyone might take it seriously. It should also be pointed out that Brodie wrote her book shortly after discovering that her husband was having an extramarital affair.

The biggest change in popular and academic perception of the Jefferson-Hemings story came in November of 1998, with the publication of a DNA study in the scientific journal Nature. It demonstrated a link through Y-chromosomal samples between a descendant of Field Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson's uncle) and a descendant of Eston Hemings, one of Sally's children. This proved conclusively that Eston's father was a member of the Jefferson family. The media had a field day, partially because of the then-ongoing sensational story of President Bill Clinton's infidelity, but also because the press loves any hint of a sex scandal and it has become fashionable to diminish the stature of America's Founding Fathers. Newspapers and television news programs ran stories asserting that the DNA study settled the question for all time. The public, and much of academia, swallowed of all of this hook, line, and sinker. Today, it seems to be a commonly accepted truth that Thomas Jefferson was, indeed, the father of all the Hemings children.

I disagree. The "evidence" for Jefferson's paternity is persuasive only to those who, for whatever reason, are already inclined to believe the story. If one adopts a rigorously rational attitude in approaching this question, it quickly becomes clear that the issue is, at the very least, far from settled. Personally, I would argue that the weight of the evidence is actually against the idea of Thomas Jefferson being the father of any of the Hemings children.

All of the solid information historians can amass about Sally Hemings can be written down on a postcard. We know how old she was, we know that she went to France with Jefferson's daughter, and we know that she had six children and when they were born. Abigail Adams met her in England while she and Jefferson's daughter were on their way to Paris and thought she was good-natured but childish and irresponsible. Many books have been written about Sally, fiction and nonfiction alike, but next to nothing is actually known about her. We don't know if she was literate, we don't know where she was on any given date, or anything else. We have no idea whether all of her children had the same father. All this is very important to keep in mind as we go forward in examining the question of Jefferson's paternity of the Hemings children.

Thomas Jefferson himself never publicly responded to James Callendar's claim that he had fathered a child with Hemings. Some people assert that the absence of a public denial was a tacit admission of guilt. But it was always Jefferson's policy to meet gossipy slanders from his political opponents with silence, believing that any response would be beneath his dignity. Moreover, in private correspondence, as in a July 1, 1805, letter to his friend and colleague Robert Smith, he did deny the story. He spoke of the various gossip being spread about him over the past few years and admitted that one story (that he had attempted to seduce his friend's wife when he was a young man) was true but that all the other stories were lies. He didn't mention Sally Hemings specifically, perhaps because he felt that the story was so absurd as to not be worth mentioning. It is quite clear that Jefferson himself considered the story preposterous.

Jefferson's family members and friends strongly rejected the claims. Edmund Bacon, Jefferson's overseer at Monticello and probably the person best positioned to know the truth, strongly refuted the idea of Jefferson's paternity of the Hemings children; he said he knew who the father was and refused to divulge his identity, except to stress that it was not Thomas Jefferson. Several of Jefferson's grandchildren denied the charges and pointed out that it would have been impossible for such an affair to remain concealed in Monticello, which was usually crowded with people. With the single exception of Madison Hemings, none of the Hemings children themselves said a word about their father being Thomas Jefferson. The slave Isaac Jefferson, who is an invaluable source of information about slave life at Monticello, mentions the Hemings family in his memoirs but makes no suggestion at all that the father of the children was Thomas Jefferson.

Now, a person might immediately object to the credibility of the denials by Jefferson family members, as they would have had a vested interest in protecting the reputation of their distinguished patriarch. But an equally valid objection can be raised to the oral history testimony of Madison Hemings (even if we accept that Wetmore's account of the interview was an honest one). I myself have met several people over the course of my life who assert dubious claims to be descended from prominent historical figures. Even assuming that Madison Hemings was who he claimed to be, which is far from certain, how do we know that Madison Hemings didn't simply want to make people think he was the son of Thomas Jefferson, rather than an undistinguished former slave like any other?

Because of the white complexion of the Hemings children, most people close to Jefferson assumed that their father or fathers were white men. Sally herself seems to have been at least partly white (it is often asserted that she was the daughter of Jefferson's father-in-law, and therefore the half-sister of Jefferson's wife, but there is no conclusive evidence of this). We know that some of the Hemings children lived without difficulty as members of the white community in Virginia after Jefferson's death, so it certainly seems likely that their father (or fathers) was (or were) white. Most members of Jefferson's family suspected that one of Jefferson's nephews, Samuel and Peter Carr, was the culprit. Both had a reputation for inappropriate intimacy with slave women and both were frequently at Monticello throughout Jefferson's life. Written evidence solidly places them at Monticello approximately nine months before the birth of three of the six Hemings children. Most importantly, some of Jefferson's grandchildren related that the Carr brothers admitted sleeping with Sally Hemings.

This is where the 1998 DNA test comes in. The Carr nephews were the children of one of Jefferson's sisters, not a brother. They would not have the same y-chromosonal DNA a Jefferson, so there is no way that either of them could have been the father of Eston Hemings. There is no evidence which rules out either of the Carr nephews as being the father of the other five Hemings children, but the identify of the father of Eston Hemings has to be a Jefferson.

Not necessarily Thomas Jefferson, though. There were a great many men within close proximity to Monticello who were directly related to Thomas Jefferson and carried the same Y-chromosonal DNA. They include Thomas Jefferson's brother Randolph and his five sons, Thomas Jefferson's first cousin John and his six sons, the seven sons of Thomas Jefferson's first cousin Peter, and the five sons of Thomas Jefferson's first cousin George. That's twenty-two people other than Thomas Jefferson whose paternity of Eston Hemings would have been consistent with the 1998 DNA test. There may be others who are unknown to historians. But of them all, the most important is Randolph Jefferson.

Randolph lived within an easy day's ride of Monticello and visited his brother often. According to a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote on August 12, 1807, Randolph was expected to arrive for a visit to Monticello at any moment. This was approximately nine months before the birth of Eston Hemings, the only Hemings child with a known DNA link to the Jefferson family. In other words, the available evidence places Randolph Jefferson at Monticello at precisely the time when the only Hemings child known to have been fathered by a Jefferson was conceived.

Why should we believe that Randolph Jefferson was more likely to be the father of Eston than Thomas Jefferson? Take a look at the two different personalities, as revealed by the comments of those who knew them. Randolph Jefferson had a reputation for excessive drinking and, according to the slave Isaac, liked to dance and play the fiddle in the slave quarters during his visits to Monticello. He was known to have fathered children with his own slaves on his own plantation. All this is in stark contrast to his brother Thomas, who rarely ventured into the slave quarters, never socialized with slaves with such familiarity, and whose writings express distaste at the blending of white and black races. Which of the two seems more likely to sleep with a slave?

Interestingly, the oral history of the descendants of Eston Hemings long asserted that Eston was not fathered by Thomas Jefferson but rather by one of Jefferson's relatives. In this, they were most likely correct. It was only with the publication of Fawn Brodie's book in the 1970s, and direct efforts at persuasion by Ms. Brodie herself, that the descendants of Eston Hemings began claiming that Eston's father was Thomas Jefferson.

There is something to be said about the dates of the births of all the Hemings children. All of Sally Hemings children were born between 1795 and 1808. This was between the death of Randolph's first wife Anne and his marriage to his second wife Mitchie, meaning that he was single when all of the Hemings children were conceived and born. This was also true of Thomas Jefferson, who lost his wife in 1782 and never remarried, but there is another element to that story. Two of the Hemings children, Madison and Eston, were conceived and born after Callendar had published the story and while Jefferson was serving as President. It is inconceivable to imagine that a man as emotionally controlled and careful of his reputation as Thomas Jefferson would have continued sleeping with Sally Hemings under such circumstances.

To me, it seems far more likely that Randolph Jefferson, and not Thomas Jefferson, was the father of Eston Hemings. As for the other children, who knows? Maybe Randolph was the father of them all. Perhaps the others were fathered by either of the Carr nephews. Perhaps they were fathered by a man historians have never heard of. Since we're talking about several different children, it could be some combination of all of the above. But the assertion that all of the Hemings children were fathered by Thomas Jefferson is not only dubious, but so unlikely as to be unthinkable.

In the popular media and in various reference sources, when the subject of Thomas Jefferson comes up, his paternity of the Hemings children is often stated as a confirmed fact, which it obviously is not. Alternatively, it is said that the Jefferson paternity of the Hemings children is the opinion of the majority of historians. I know of no poll of American historians undertaken to determine whether or not this is true. To date, there has only been one panel of genuine academic historians, the so-called Scholars Commission convened by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Foundation, who have systematically investigated the claims. It included such luminaries as Dr. Lance Banning of the University of Kentucky, Dr. Alf Mapp of Old Dominion University, and Dr. Forrest McDonald of the University of Alabama, among many other distinguished historians. Its conclusion is that Randolph Jefferson is more likely to be the father of Eston Hemings than Thomas Jefferson, that there is no reason to believe Thomas Jefferson was the father of any of the Hemings children, and that "Sally Hemings appears to have been a very minor figure in Thomas Jefferson's life."

For further information, I would encourage all readers of this blog to study the Scholars Commission's report (the executive summary of the report can be found here). Other books I would recommend would be In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal by William Hyland, Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings by M. Andrew Holowchak, and Jefferson Vindicated: Fallacies, Omissions, and Contradictions in the Hemings Geneological Search by Cynthia Burton. (Whatever you do, though, don't read the book on Jefferson by David Barton. Although he agrees that Jefferson was not the father of the Hemings children, the rest of the book is pseudohistorical nonsense. In fact, don't read any books by Barton at all, period.)

The idea that Thomas Jefferson was the father of the children of Sally Hemings is the product of two things, a media which loves a scandalous story and a cohort of misguided academics who are more interested in grinding their own cultural and political axes than they are in pursuing the truth. Such a conclusion cannot be reached through a dispassionate examination of the available evidence. Is it possible that Thomas Jefferson was the father of the Hemings children? From a purely logical point of view, obviously it is technically possible. But is it likely?

No, it's not.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Could Jubal Early Have Captured Washington D.C. in 1864?

One of the most fascinating episodes of the American Civil War was Jubal Early's Raid on Washington. It really should be made into a movie, as it has an amazing cast of characters and a plot of epic drama. It also has led generations of Civil War buffs to ask the question: could Jubal Early have captured Washington D.C. and won the war for the Confederacy?

A quick recounting the events is in order. In the summer of 1864, the Confederacy was desperately trying to hold back the massive Union offensives in both Virginia and Georgia. Its only hope was to hold out until the presidential elections in the North, which might see Abraham Lincoln removed from office and replaced with an administration willing to negotiate a peace. To achieve this, the South had to hold its major cities, inflict heavy Union casualties, and take any opportunities to embarrass or humiliate the Union armies, so as to persuade the Northern public that the continuation of the war would be a futile waste of life and treasure.

By early June, the Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee and the Army of the Potomac under General Ulysses S. Grant had almost wrecked one another in the series of bloody engagements collectively known as the Overland Campaign. In the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of Spotsylvania, the Battle of North Anna, and the Battle of Cold Harbor, the two armies had bled each other white. Lee had suffered around 30,000 casualties, while Grant had suffered somewhere around 55,000. It was slaughter on a scale never before seen on American soil. Grant, through attrition and sheer force of numbers, was slowly eroding the Confederacy's ability to continue military resistance. At the same time, Lee, with every Northern soldier who died at the hands of his men, was whittling away at the Union's willingness to continue the war.

With the battlelines momentarily stalemated outside of Cold Harbor, Lee faced a new threat when he learned that a small Union army under General David Hunter had defeated Confederate forces in the strategically important Shenandoah Valley. Though he needed every man to face Grant, Lee make the risky decision to detach his vaunted Second Corps, commanded by General Jubal Early, and dispatch it to the Shenandoah Valley. Early, a pugnacious and brilliant fighter (and, by all accounts, an accomplished master of profanity) was the perfect man for the assignment. Setting out on the morning of June 13, within a week Early had chased a frightened Hunter out of the Valley and recovered it for the Confederacy.

Early now put into operation the second phase of Lee's plan, which was daring in the extreme. In addition to clearing the Shenandoah Valley, Lee wanted Early to move rapidly north, cross the Potomac River into Maryland, and present a threat to Washington D.C. Lee well understood the nervousness of the Lincoln administration when it came to the security of the capital and he hoped that such a move would force Grant to detach significant forces from the Army of the Potomac in order to protect Washington.

Early had less than 15,000 men, who were tired, hungry and lacking shoes and proper clothing. Nevertheless, they were quite possibly the finest infantry in the world. They were mostly Virginians and North Carolinians, but also included Georgians, Alabamians, and Louisianans. Some Maryland cavalry cam along for the expedition, too, and their knowledge of the land would prove useful. These were the survivors of those who had marched and fought with Stonewall Jackson in the 1862-63 campaigns. Moreover, they were led by some of the best division commanders of the Confederate Army: John C, Breckinridge, John B. Gordon, Robert Rodes, and Stephen Ramseur. As Robert Kean, an official in the Confederate War Department, observed, these were "men to dare and do almost anything."

By contrast, the Union forces tasked with defending Washington were weak, scattered, and disorganized. With David Hunter having retreated into the wilds of West Virginia, there was no major Union field force between Early and Washington. General Franz Sigel had about 5,000 men defending the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and some scattered units in Maryland were under the command of General Lew Wallace, but no one seemed to be in charge and no one seemed to have any clear idea of what was happening. Even worse, the Union high command took a mystifyingly long time to realize that anything was wrong. In Washington, President Lincoln, Secretary of War Stanton, and Chief-of-Staff Halleck had no clear idea as to the location, intention, or size of Early's force. On July 3, just before the Confederates began crossing the Potomac, General Grant stated to Halleck his belief that Early's corps had returned to the Richmond area. It wasn't until July 5, the very day that Early began to cross into Maryland, that Grant decided to send reinforcements north towards Washington, and then only a single division under James Ricketts, which had a reputation for unreliability and had fought poorly at the Battle of the Wilderness.

As Early's men crossed the Potomac, scooping up Union supply depots at Martinsburg and Harper's Ferry as they did so, Sigel withdrew his smaller force onto the well-fortified high ground of Maryland Heights, just north of the river from Harper's Ferry, and awaited attack. Early spent two priceless days trying to pry Sigel out of these fortifications, but did not risk a direct assault, which he knew might fail and which would bring heavy casualties even if it succeeded. On July 7, Early decided to cut his losses, ignore Sigel and move on towards Washington. The lost time would soon be sorely regretted.

While this had been going on, Lew Wallace had suddenly emerged as the only Union man doing anything decisive or constructive. Without waiting for orders from his superiors, he began to assemble every soldier he could find at Monocacy Junction, on the direct route between Harper's Ferry and Washington. But his force was pathetically weak, made up of only of a few regiments of cavalry and a hobbled-together infantry brigade made up largely of inexperienced Ohio militiamen. In the pre-dawn darkness of July 8, salvation arrived in the form of Ricketts's infantry division.

Wallace technically had no authority to issue orders to Ricketts, who was not under his command. In a sign of the confusion that still infected the Union high command, Ricketts was under orders to proceed to Maryland Heights to reinforce Sigel. Had they marched on, the 3,000 Union troops of the division would have run directly into Early's 15,000 oncoming Confederates and been wiped out. Despite the uncertain command situation, Ricketts decided to disobey his orders and remain at Monocacy under Wallace's direction. This courageous decision very likely saved Washington City from Confederate capture.

On July 9, the Battle of Monocacy was fought. Early's 15,000 Confederates attacked Wallace's ad hoc force of less than 6,000. Early not only outnumbered Wallace nearly three-to-one, but his troops were of a much higher quality. But Wallace had selected an excellent defensive position behind Monocacy Creek and his troops fought with a surprising stubbornness. Early feinted on the left and launched his main attack on the right, spearheaded by Gordon's division. Ricketts's men dispelled rumors of their lack of fighting spirit and resisted stoutly, before superior numbers finally compelled them to give way. By the afternoon, Wallace's men had been soundly beaten and were retreating in disorder towards Baltimore. Yet, though undoubtedly a defeat, the Battle of Monocacy delayed Early's advance on Washington for a crucial day.

While fighting raged at Monocacy, confused Union authorities were making frantic efforts to prepare to the defend the capital. At first glance, it would seem to be an easy task. Three years of strenuous and expensive construction work had ringed Washington City with a vast chain of forts, trenches, and heavy artillery batteries. By the summer of 1864, it was the most heavily fortified city on the planet. Yet General Grant, in a display of overconfidence for which he has strangely escaped censure by historians, had ordered most of the garrison to join the Army of the Potomac for the spring campaign, leaving the immense defenses without the soldiers to make them worth anything. As Early approached the city, it was weakly defended.

No one appeared to be in charge in the city. Chief-of-Staff Halleck and Secretary of War Stanton seemed to be issuing orders almost at random to any officer they encountered. Stanton ordered General Alexander McCook to take command, while Halleck ordered General Quincy Gilmore to do the same and, for good measure, Grant at Petersburg sent word that he wanted General Edward Ord to be in charge. The whole thing was an enormous, confused mess.

The very muddle that was the Union command structure at Washington has made it difficult for historians to piece together exactly how many Union soldiers there were in Washington as Early approached. It might have been around eight or nine thousand men, but they were of distinctly low quality. Many were nothing more than government clerks hastily mustered into military service, who had received no training and who had never fired their weapons. The rest were members of the so-called Veteran Reserve Corps, known up until March as the Invalid Corps, men so disabled by sickness or wounds as to be unfit for active service and given jobs such as guarding prisoners and working as provost marshals. Against the men who had fought under Stonewall Jackson, these men could not be expected to put up much of a fight.

The strength of the Washington defenses lay primarily in its heavy artillery. But Grant had ordered all of the skilled artillerymen out of the capital's forts and into the ranks of the Army of the Potomac when he had embarked upon the spring campaign. Inspections rapidly undertaken during Early's approach at the orders of Halleck and Stanton revealed that many batteries were manned only by men who had no idea how to fire the cannon.

Washington City was there for the taking, if only Early could get to it in time.

But help was on the way to the beleaguered city. Down at Petersburg, Grant had finally woken up to the truth that Jubal Early and a significant chunk of the Army of Northern Virginia were in Maryland and posed a terrifying threat to Washington City, a threat that Grant himself had made possible by stripping the capital of its garrison. On the night of July 9, as Wallace's defeated troops streamed away from the battlefield at Monocacy, Grant gave orders for the VI Corps to depart by ship for Washington City without delay, as well as a division of the XIX Corps. These were seasoned veterans, led by an experienced officer in the form of General Horatio Wright. Behind the formidable Washington City defenses, these troops would easily hold even against Early's men. The question was whether or not they would arrive in time.

When the Battle of Monocacy ended on the night of July 9, Early and his small army were exhausted. They had marched hundreds of miles through the summer heat, fought innumerable skirmishes with the enemy, and capped it all off with a sharp and brutal battle along Monocacy Creek. Yet the prospect of capturing Washington City and perhaps carting Lincoln and his cabinet off to Libby Prison was so alluring that they were more than willing to continue. Early's men were on the road again on July 10, bearing down on the nearly defenseless city of Washington, while cavalry ranged across Maryland to burn bridges, tear down telegraph wires, and generally raise mayhem. Baltimore was in a panic and Washington City seemed almost cut off from the rest of the Union.

The road to Washington was hot in the extreme. There was much straggling along the way as exhausted men fell by the wayside, unable to keep up with their comrades. There had been no rain for some time and the dust was suffocating. Even for Stonewall Jackson's old "foot cavalry", there were limits to human endurance. July 10 would be remembered as one of the most difficult marches that these men had ever undertaken. When it was over, Early's troops were just north of Rockville, Maryland, within twenty miles of the Capitol Building and White House. But they were weak, thirsty, and exhausted, with many soldiers having become separated from their units along the way.

The march on July 11 started well before dawn. As exhausted as his men were, Early knew he had to push them. Though he could not have known that the ships carrying the men of the VI and XIX Corps were already on their way, he had to assume that Union reinforcements were rushing to protect Washington. He knew it was a race against time. But, as with the day before, it also turned into a contest with nature, as it was again unspeakably hot and dry on the road. Confederate cavalry under General John McCausland were the first to arrive in front of the Washington defenses. Though impressed by the formidable fortifications, he sent back word to Early that the works appeared only lightly manned. One can imagine how Early's pulse quickened when he heard the news and how his legendary cursing was put to use hurrying his men along, no matter how hot and tired they were. The greatest prize

As the day wore on, more and more Confederate troops marched up to the ramparts of Fort Stevens, one of the chief defensive points on the northern side of the city's defenses. It took time to get the men in position and they would need rest before being able to launch an attack. Brisk skirmishing took place out in front of the fortified line, while Confederate sharpshooters took positions from which they could snipe at Yankees within the fort. Artillery banged out. Unfortunately for Early, simply getting his main force to close up on Fort Stevens took most of the day. His men were in no shape for fighting. By the time enough men had assembled for a serious attack, darkness was already beginning to fall. A night's rest would be enough for his men to recover their strength and they would attack in the morning. Early could only hope that Union reinforcements were still more than a day away.

Yet even as Early and his commanders met at the mansion at Silver Spring, raided its wine cellar, and made jokes about returning Breckinridge to his old chair in the Senate chamber, the ships carrying the VI and XIX Corps were arriving on the Potomac River wharves. One can imagine the relief felt by Lincoln, Halleck and Stanton, to say nothing of the citizenry of Washington (aside from the pro-Southern element) as thousands of tough veteran infantrymen marched north from the boats to take up positions in the forts and trenches.

When the sun rose on July 12, Early saw a sight that must have made his heart sink. Fort Stevens and the adjacent trenches were filled with blue-coated soldiers. The heavy guns were manned by experienced artillery crews. Even with his whole force, notwithstanding the unmatched quality of his infantry, any attack on the Washington defenses would accomplish nothing but the slaughter of his own men. Moreover, he knew that his small army was now in great danger itself. The Union forces previously hemmed in at Harper's Ferry were possibly approaching from that direction and Hunter's force was finally emerging from the mountains of West Virginia. Combined with the two corps of the Army of the Potomac now in Washington, there was a risk of being caught between two fires. It was time to get away while the getting was good.

After a day of fruitless skirmishing in front of Fort Stevens, during which President Lincoln famously if foolishly came up to watch the fighting, Early and his men quietly stole away during the night. Laden with supplies they had gathered during their liberal foraging in Maryland, as well as a large amount of livestock and horses they had collected, they withdrew across the Potomac River and, a few days later, were safe in their lair of the northern Shenandoah Valley. The Union had not seen the last of Jubal Early.

Early's Washington Raid was over. It's one of the great dramas of the American Civil War and, ever since, historians have asked themselves whether he might have actually captured Washington D.C. The answer seems to be an emphatic yes. Had Jubal Early's force arrived at Washington D.C. a mere twenty-four hours before it actually did, it could have punched its way past the untried clerks and invalids without much trouble. The most obvious point of divergence that would have allowed this to happen would have been for Early not to have wasted the crucial two days trying to pry Sigel off of Maryland Heights by Harper's Ferry. Had he immediately decided to do what he eventually did - ignore Sigel and march on towards Washington - he would have had plenty of time to get there before reinforcements arrived.

Moreover, on two occasions, Grant ordered reinforcements to the north that made the difference at a critical moment, on July 5 when he ordered Ricketts's division to Baltimore and on July 9 when he ordered the VI and XIX Corps men to Washington. Had he delayed in either instance, the consequences for the Union would have been disastrous. Had Grant waited even one more day before sending Ricketts, Wallace would not have been able to delay Early at the Battle of Monocacy, Early would have arrived in front of Washington on July 10 rather than July 11 and would have been able to capture it. Had Grant waited even one more day before sending the VI and XIX Corps, Early would have been able to take the city on July 12, for the defenses would have still been feebly manned.

The consequences of a capture of Washington City by the Confederates in July of 1864 can scarcely be overstated. There would have been no way for Early to have held the city for very long after capturing it, but Grant would have had little choice but to send additional heavy reinforcements away from Petersburg to deal assist with the recapture and this might have forced the termination of the Siege of Petersburg altogether. It might even have allowed Lee to go onto the offensive. What seems almost certain is that Grant's campaign to capture Richmond would have been completely derailed.

Almost as important would have been the impact of Union war logistics. Washington City was not just the political capital, but the greatest military supply depot in the world. Warehouses were jam-packed with rifles, artillery, ammunition, blankets, uniforms, saddlery for cavalry and artillery horses, camp equipment and every other conceivable kind of military supply. Whatever Early's men would not have been able to carry off with them would have been put to the torch. The Washington Arsenal on the peninsula between the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers was the largest such facility in the United States and Early's men would have surely destroyed it, just as they would surely have burned down the Navy Yard. The War Department, the Navy Department and the Treasury Department (after being looted of its greenbacks) would have just as surely been burned. Conceivably, Early's men might have left the Capitol Building and the White House nothing but charred bits of rubble. The Southerners, having marched through the towns and farms of the Shenandoah Valley that had been left in ruins by the Yankees, were not going to be in any mood for leniency against their Northern enemies, as was historically shown by their destruction of the town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. The destruction of military facilities in Washington City would have inflicted a mortal blow on the Union efforts to win the war in Virginia before the end of 1864.

Yet catastrophic as they would have been, the military consequences would have paled against the political ones. Historically, the summer of 1864 was a disastrous time for the Union war effort, with fiascoes at Cold Harbor, Kennesaw Mountain, and Brice's Cross Roads. Historically, the near-capture of Washington by Early was humiliating for the Lincoln administration. Imagine how more humiliating its actual capture would have been. The Democratic Party would have had a field day with political cartoons featuring Lincoln as he escaped down the Potomac River on a boar while Early's men ransacked the capital. All possibility of Lincoln winning that year's presidential election would have been finished. Even worse for the Union cause, the pro-peace wing of the Democratic Party would have seen its hand immensely strengthened. Combined with the fact that the Confederates would certainly have been in a stronger military position when the new president would have taken office in March of 1865, it seems virtually certain that a negotiated peace with the Confederacy would have followed, perhaps along the same lines as those which I outlined in my novel Shattered Nation.

The outcome of momentous historical events is often balanced on the edge of a knife. There is no better example of this in American history than the story of Jubal Early's Raid on Washington.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Reaching the Half-Way Point of Life

I expect that tomorrow morning will be pretty much like every other weekday morning for me. I will wake up at five o'clock and stumble downstairs to turn on the coffee maker (I've never figured out how to work the timer). I'll put in my regular hour-and-a-half of writing on House of the Proud before I have to start getting ready for work. Then I'll shower, get dressed, grab the lunch my wife will have packed for me, and head off to teach my students for the rest of the day.

There will just be one difference. I will be a forty-year-old man.

Yes, I know that forty is the new thirty and all that. I know that lots of people who read my books are older than I am and have already gone through this particular moment in their lives. But I can do math as well as anybody else and I can see that the average life expectancy in the United States is about eighty years. In other words, I am in all likelihood about halfway through my time on this little ball of dust that we call Earth. It's a bit unsettling. As is my habit, I turn to history and flip through the words of those who came before me to make sense of this rather profound realization.

On August 18, 1805, Meriwether Lewis, along with William Clark and the other members of the Corps of Discovery, was near the Continental Divide in what is now Montana. He had just made contact with the Shoshone Indians, who gave them the horses they would need to make the difficult crossing of the Rocky Mountains and reach the Pacific Ocean. As he usually did, Lewis wrote in his journal and, after making a few routine descriptions of the various activities of the members of the expedition that day, he decided the dwell a bit on the fact that it was his thirty-first birthday.

This day I completed my thirty-first year, and conceived that I had in all human probability now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this Sublunary world. I reflected that I had as yet done little, very little indeed, to further the happiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now sorely feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended, but since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought and resolved in future, to redouble my exertions and at least endeavor to promote those two primary objects of human existence, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which nature and fortune have bestowed on me; or, in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.

Reading these words brings tears to my eyes, for I know exactly how Lewis felt. If all the waking hours of my adult life were color-coded on a spreadsheet, with green indicating "well-spent" and red indicating "wasted", how many would be green and how many would be red? It's impossible to know the answer, of course, but I suspect that I would be grief-stricken if somebody were able to tell me. After all, every one of us only has so many boxes in the spreadsheet of life. Lewis was heartbroken at the time he had wasted, though one can argue that he did more than all but a very tiny number of other people to advance human knowledge and human happiness. How, then, should most of us feel?

When I was a university student, I spent much more time playing computer games and watching television than I did reading or studying. When I go back and visit the campus of my alma mater, Texas State University, I could tear my hair out in rage to think at how many more books I might have read if I could have taken all the hours I spent on the computer or in front of the television and applied them to reading. After all, nobody on their death bed is going to say that they wished they had spent more time playing Call of Duty or watching reruns of Friends. On the other hand, if I never get around to reading all of the great classics that sit on my shelf, or expanding my mind by reading the best books about history or science, I know I will bitterly regret it.

I remember one night in the spring of 2001, which I now rank as one of the most important nights of my life. I had already established a rule that I would never turn on the television unless there was a specific program I intended to watch; I would entirely refrain from turning the television on "to see what's on". Unfortunately, I found that the time I saved by doing that had simply become consumed with my computer game playing. I had gotten back from class in the later afternoon and begun playing Red Alert: Command and Conquer. Before I knew it, it was well past one o'clock in the morning and I was still playing. It hit me instantly, like a brutal punch, that I could have spent those many hours expanding my mind by reading or studying. Without a second's thought, I took the disk out of the drive, gathered up all my other computer games, went outside, and tossed them all in the dumpster. I have never played a single second of a computer game since that moment and have never regretted it.

Turning forty and passing the halfway mark of the average lifespan certainly forces one to reflect on the shortness of life. In the opening words of his essay On The Shortness of Life, the Roman philosopher Seneca said it far better than I ever could.

The majority of mortals, Paulinus, complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live. Nor is it merely the common herd and the unthinking crowd that bemoan what is, as men deem it, an universal ill: the same feeling has called for complaint also from men who were famous.

But then Seneca goes on:

It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is - the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it.

Today, I'm trying to absorb the lesson that Seneca is trying to teach me. Do I really need to check my email so often? Is that extra half hour spent on paperwork at school, long after the students have left, just to triple check that it's absolutely perfect, really worth it if the alternative would be to spend a half hour doing a puzzle with my three-year-old daughter on the floor of our kitchen? Should I really be watching funny YouTube videos when I could be reading Homer, or a biography of Peter the Great, or a book about the most recent discoveries in quantum physics? And should I really be "vegging out" with NetFlix when I could be having a candlelit dinner with my wife?

I have as much time in each day as did Cicero, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, or any of my other heroes. I live in an age where such things as dishwashers and laundry machines have made my life vastly easier than the lives of those who came before me. I have no excuse, none whatsoever, to ever say that I don't have enough time to do the things I want to do. I've always wanted to learn French. What's stopping me? I've always wanted to make amateur astronomy a bigger part of my life. What's stopping me? I've always wanted to plant a vegetable garden in my backyard. What's stopping me?

There are any number of things that I want to do which I don't do due to a perceived lack of time. What's stopping me from doing any of them? Nothing, except my own laziness. Well, as I embark upon what I hope and expect to be the next forty years of my life, I hereby resolve to spend my time wisely and fully and to waste not a moment. I have children to raise, a wife to love, family and friends with whom to spend time, and books to write, Best to get started and make haste.

We all have only so many grains of sand in our own personal hourglass. Each one that falls without being used well is, in a sense, a little bit of death that could have spent living. And until I head to what Shakespeare called "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns", I plan on living as much as possible.