Sunday, June 25, 2017

Is William Tecumseh Sherman Overrated as a General?

Since publishing my novel Shattered Nation in 2013, I have received lots of feedback from readers. Aside from a small number of angry people who have emailed to insist that the Civil War wasn't really about slavery (it was), the messages have been very positive and friendly. A few fine folks have been kind enough to offer constructive criticism and point out a few errors, which I have greatly appreciated. And some of these messages have led to friendly debates about varying plot points.

A few correspondents have politely suggested that I portrayed William Tecumseh Sherman in an unfairly negative light and that he was a better general than I give him credit for in the pages of Shattered Nation. I respectfully disagreed then and find my opinion only strengthened the more I consider the matter. Simply put: notwithstanding his obvious talents and his personal integrity, Sherman is perhaps the most overrated general in American history.

Let's consider Sherman's record over the course of the war. He started out as a brigade commander at the First Battle of Manassas, where actually did reasonably well despite the overall Union disaster. Lincoln was impressed enough to promote him and send him out west, where he ended up in command of Union forces in Kentucky. Here is where Sherman's troubles began. Convinced that he was about to be attacked by an overwhelmingly superior Confederate force (which, in fact, largely existed only on paper), Sherman had a nervous breakdown. He was relieved from command and went home, where he either considered or possibly even attempted suicide. Newspapers ran articles suggesting that Sherman was insane and his superior officers considered him unfit for further duty. Needless to say, this was not a promising start for Sherman's war.

Sherman spent a few months in what amounted to administrative duty, he was brought back to the field as a division commander under Grant in the aftermath of the Union victory at Fort Donelson. In the prelude to the Battle of Shiloh, Sherman failed to take adequate precautions for defense and ignored several signs of the impending Confederate attack. Though he fought well enough during the battle itself, the fact that the Union army was taken by surprise and nearly smashed must be blamed largely on Sherman.

Sherman's next major engagement was at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou, north of Vicksburg. In an ill-judged frontal assault, Sherman's thirty thousand troops were soundly repulsed and trounced by a rebel force less than half its size. Sherman lost nearly two thousand men, while the Southern forces suffered roughly one-tenth the number of men. All things considered, it was a miserable and humiliating affair.

In the spring of 1863, Sherman was one of three corps commanders under Grant during the decisive phase of the Vicksburg Campaign. Generally speaking, however, Sherman's corps was kept out of the way while the formations of James McPherson and John McClernard did the hard fighting in engagements such as the Battle of Raymond, the Battle of Champion Hill. The only time Sherman's corps was heavily engaged was during the frontal assaults against the Vicksburg defenses on May 19 and May 22. Sherman's troops failed to make any impression on the enemy defenses, being repulsed with heavy losses.

Sherman next played a major role in the Battle of Chattanooga in November of 1863. Grant's plan for defeating the Confederate Army was for the Army of the Cumberland under George Thomas to feint at the Confederate center while Sherman, leading the Army of the Tennessee, smashed the enemy right flank on the northern end of Missionary Ridge. Despite heavily outnumbering the Southern defenders, Sherman's attack was a dismal failure, making no gains and suffering heavy casualties (in fairness to Sherman, the opposing commander was Patrick Cleburne, arguably the best division commander in the Confederacy). It fell to Thomas to win the battle by smashing through the enemy center.

To sum up, Sherman's record prior to being made commander of the Union forces in the West was largely one of failure. At Chickasaw Bluffs, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, Sherman was bloodily repulsed in ill-advised frontal assaults that lacked tactical imagination. He had never been the overall director of military affairs, serving only as a loyal subordinate to Grant. Other generals, notable George Thomas, had much more impressive records. It seems obvious that Sherman received the command for the Atlanta Campaign almost entirely because of his personal relationship with Grant, rather than on his own merits.

Sherman's historical reputation today rests on his performance in the capture of Atlanta and the subsequent "March to the Sea". And it was here that his strongest military talents did indeed shine forth. Though I am writing this blog post as a criticism, one must be fair to Sherman and state without hesitation that he was an absolute master of logistics. Few other generals would have been able to keep his armies supplied with the necessities of war over hundreds of miles along a single, ramshackle railroad, without the benefit of water transport. That Sherman did so is very much to his credit.

And, of course, Sherman had the strategic vision to understand that the Confederacy would only be defeated when the popular will to go on with the war collapsed. That required the civilian population to experience the full brunt of the war. It certainly did help bring the war to an end, though whether it was an ethical approach will be debated as long as historical memory of the war endures.

But let us return to the subject. Though he was ultimately successful in capturing Atlanta, and thereby playing a major role in the defeat of the Confederacy, Sherman's record in the Atlanta Campaign is far from brilliant. Had Sherman been a better general, the Atlanta Campaign could have ended earlier and in a much more decisive manner, shortening the war by many months and saving thousands of lives.

In the opening stages of the campaign, the Confederate Army of Tennessee held a strong defensive position around the town of Dalton. But the Southern commander, Joseph Johnston, had made the inexcusable error to leave the vital Snake Creek Gap to the southwest almost entirely unguarded. Sherman dispatched the Army of the Tennessee under General James McPherson to move through the gap and cut the Confederates off from their supply lines. However, the force was too small and McPherson was too cautious to guarantee that the maneuver would be successful. Sherman should have sent a much stronger force and supervised the movement himself. Had he done so, the Army of Tennessee might have trapped and forced to surrender in the opening days of the campaign, almost certainly ended the war by Christmas. As it was, Sherman only compelled Johnston to abandon the Dalton position. It was a merely local success rather than the major victory it should have been,

Historiography of the Atlanta Campaign emphasizes Sherman's repeated flanking movements around the Confederate positions during the long approach to the city. It's therefore easy to forget that thousands of Union soldiers were killed or wounded in ill-advised frontal assaults on prepared positions during this phase of the fighting. At New Hope Church on May 25, Pickett's Mill on May 27, and above all at Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, Sherman hurled his troops against strong Confederate positions, needlessly suffering heavy casualties while inflicting little harm on his enemies.

As his army group finally approached Atlanta in mid-July, Sherman committed the grave error of dividing his forces in the face of the enemy, spreading them out so far that they were not able to support one another. This allowed the Confederates to concentrate the bulk of their army against only a portion of Sherman's forces, giving them a chance to fight on fairly equal terms. The subsequent Confederate attack at Peachtree Creek on July 20 was a botched affair, with the Southerners having only themselves to blame for their failure to crush the Army of the Cumberland. (My novel, Shattered Nation, deals with a scenario in which the attack is executed properly). Although a victory, Sherman deserves censure for placing his army in a position inviting defeat.

Two days later, at the Battle of Atlanta, Sherman missed a glorious opportunity to deal a fatal blow to the enemy army. After the Army of the Tennessee had repulsed the Confederate offensive, the Army of the Ohio was perfectly positioned to launch a counter attack into the enemy left flank. Had it done so, the Confederate army would have been shattered and Atlanta would likely have fallen within the next day or so. Yet Sherman inexplicably held back, despite being urged to attack by many of his subordinates. In his memoirs, Sherman offered the lame excuse that the men of the Army of the Tennessee would have been "jealous" if they had received aid from the other armies!

A bit over a month later, Sherman lost another golden opportunity to destroy the Army of Tennessee. Just after the Battle of Jonesborough, which doomed Atlanta, the Confederate army was badly divided across thirty miles of territory. Hardee's corps was far to the south, Stewart's corps had just evacuated Atlanta, and S. D. Lee's corps was somewhere in between. Sherman's army, minus only the XX Corps northwest of Atlanta, was concentrated in and north of Jonesborough. Sherman could easily have interposed his army between the divided segments of Hood's force, which were beaten and demoralized. Hardee and S. D. Lee would have been devoured for lunch and Sherman could have then had Stewart for dessert. The war in the Western Theater could have ended and the entire episode of Hood's invasion of Tennessee could have been avoided.

Finally, when setting off on his "March to the Sea", Sherman took the cavalry and all the best infantry, not to mention most of the equipment. This despite the fact that there was next to no enemy opposition left in Georgia. Sherman handed over the far more difficult task of defending Tennessee from Hood to George Thomas. To do so, Thomas had so little cavalry that his mounted arm had to be built up from scratch and so little infantry that divisions had to be brought in from other theaters before Thomas had the strength to beat Hood. Thomas succeeded in not only defeating Hood, but in destroying the Army of Tennessee as a fighting force. But it was no thanks to Sherman that he did this.

As stated above, Sherman had obvious military talents as a strategist and especially in the area of logistics. But as an army commander, he had serious flaws. He was below par on a tactical level, repeatedly being bested on the field by enemies he greatly outnumbered and using unimaginative tactics. He missed several opportunities to deliver a decisive blow against the Army of Tennessee, allowing it to fight on for several months after the conclusion of the Atlanta Campaign.

The thought has often occurred to me that, in the spring of 1864, George Thomas should have been given supreme command of Union forces in the West, with Sherman as his chief-of-staff. That would have been a winning combination and I would expect the Confederate forces to be overcome far earlier and more easily than they historically were.

What if...

Sunday, June 18, 2017

George Mason Memorial Needs to be Cleaned Up

I recently wrote a blog entry about my trip to Washington D.C. with several middle school students and how it reflected the old Roman virtue of pietas. However, I neglected to mention the most unpleasant experience of my time in our nation's capital, because I felt it merited a separate blog post altogether.

Our group arrived at the Jefferson Memorial on the evening of June 12. As my friends and colleagues (and readers of this blog) know, Thomas Jefferson is one of my great heroes. I was greatly excited to visit the memorial to the author of the Declaration of Independence, but I also planned to sneak away from the group for a few minutes to pay my respects at another memorial, just a stone's throw away. It is much smaller and almost entirely unknown, dedicated to another man who I count among my personal heroes: George Mason.

Mason is one of the most underappreciated figures in American history. When people hear his name, they think of an above average university in Virginia that has a good basketball team, but they know nothing whatsoever of the man. This is a shame, for every American owes Mason a debt of gratitude that is almost incalculable. The men at the times, including such luminaries as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, were never in doubt of Mason's extraordinary contribution to the American Revolution. It's not too much to say that Mason built the philosophical pillars on which our experiment in self-government rests.

A bit of background. George Mason was born in northern Virginia in 1725. The nature of his education is somewhat obscure, but he clearly drank deeply the ideas of the Enlightenment and in later life proved to have one of the best read and most insightful minds in America. He lived the life of a wealthy rural gentleman in his beautiful home, Gunston Hall, from where he supervised his extensive land holdings. Like most men of his social position, he involved himself in local and colonial politics, being elected to several local offices and becoming a member of the House of Burgesses, Virginia's colonial legislature.

When the crisis with Britain broke over the colonies in 1765, with the passage of the Stamp Act, Mason stepped up and did his duty, soon becoming known as one of the key leaders of the opposition movement in Virginia. In 1774, Mason authored the Fairfax Resolves, laying out the constitutional argument of the colonies more clearly and concisely than anyone else had ever done before. He asserted that the colonists had the same rights in the colonies that Englishmen had in England and that Parliament had no authority to legislate for the colonies, that right being held only by the colonial legislatures themselves. He called for a complete boycott of British goods and for representatives of the thirteen colonies to assemble together to coordinate their resistance (which happened later that year, when the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. Mason also took the opportunity to condemn the continuation of the slave trade. The Fairfax Resolves were among the most influential writings produced in the few years just before the war and helped steel American resistance in Virginia as well as other colonies.

Upon the outbreak of the war, Mason served on the Virginia Committee of Safety, playing a major role in organizing the war effort in Virginia. But his greatest contribution was his drafting of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. In this preamble to the new state constitution, Mason laid out the principles that have formed the American creed every since: the all citizens are created equal and have unalienable rights, that power rests with the people themselves, that hereditary power is illegitimate, that there must be freedom of expression, that there must be a separation of powers in the government, that there must be legal due process for all citizens, that the military must remain under civilian control, and that all citizens must possess religion freedom.

It's impossible to overstate the importance of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Its ideas infused Jefferson as he wrote the Declaration of Independence just weeks later. Its principles are found everywhere within the Constitution itself. And it served as a template for James Madison when he wrote the Bill of Rights in the years immediately after the ratification of the Constitution. It influenced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the fundamental document of the French Revolution, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued by the United Nations in 1948. Simply put, it is one of the most powerful and important assertions of human liberty ever created.

Mason always saw public service as a duty to be performed only reluctantly. In his heart, he always wanted to be home with his family at Gunston Hall. Despite the urging of his friends, he refused to leave Virginia to serve in the Continental Congress. He was never flamboyant and always preferred to work behind the scenes. When the war was over, he gratefully retired back to his estate, intending to live the remainder of his life surrounded by his children and grandchildren and contemplating his books.

Public service called Mason back, however, and he left Virginia for the only time in his life to serve as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. During the months of heated debate, Mason was one of the most important voices in formulating the new government. In the end, however, he became one of only three delegates to refuse to sign the Constitution, arguing that it should include a bill of rights. His opposition carried over to the ratification debates, in which Mason was cited as one of the most influential of the Anti-Federalists. Although Mason and the other Anti-Federalists lost the ratification debate, in the end his achieved his goal. In 1791, Congress and the states ratified the first ten amendments to the Constitution, thus incorporating what has become known as the Bill of Rights into the Constitution. Without Mason, it would never have happened. That accomplished, Mason stated that he was quite content with the Constitution.

George Mason's gifts to America and the world are incalculable. The Fairfax Resolves and the Virginia Declaration of Rights were, in a very real sense, the parents that gave birth to the three major founding documents of the United States of America: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Had Mason not initially opposed the ratification of the Constitution, it's entirely possible that the Bill of Rights would never have been added. He also was a principled opponent of slavery and the slave trade, being the only man in the Constitutional Convention who stood up and gave an explicitly anti-slavery speech.

The United States of America has honored George Mason. A prestigious university bears his name. A bridge over the Potomac River is named after him. His home at Gunston Hall has been lovingly preserved. And, in 2002, the George Mason Memorial was dedicated in Washington D.C., almost a stone's throw from the larger and grander memorial to his friend Thomas Jefferson. It is a quiet, reserved, and dignified memorial, exactly in keeping with Mason's own personality. Fittingly, it depicts Mason sitting calmly while reading a copy of Cicero, his hat and walking stick close by.

Unfortunately, when I entered the space of the George Mason Memorial, I was shocked and dismayed by its terrible condition.

The place clearly had not been maintained in any substantial way for a very long time. The fountain pool is empty of water. What is supposed to be a circular garden around the pool is nothing but empty dirt (I was told by our tour guide that there have been no flowers there for four years).

Weeds are beginning to grow up through the stones.

The etchings of quotes by or about Mason in the stone are virtually unreadable.

The statue itself is in decent shape (it's made of bronze, so it's hard to see how it could be otherwise), but a long line of muck has accumulated around the stone base.

A young couple who wandered in while I was there were similarly upset. "Don't they ever clean this place up?" the woman asked. It certainly didn't seem so. The pictures I have posted (taken by my good friend Jordan James) don't really do justice to the wretched condition the memorial is in.

This is a disgrace. The George Mason Memorial needs to be cleaned up and properly maintained. Anything less than that and we are dishonoring the memory of a man who gave so many gifts to the people of America. The Trust for the National Mall, a nonprofit partner of the NPS which helps fund restoration and maintenance projects for the memorials and monuments on the Mall, has announced plans to refurbish the George Mason Memorial, but with so many other projects competing for funds, it seems likely that the site will continue to lie as dormant as a fallow field unless people stand up and speak out.

I encourage all readers of this blog entry to take the following steps:

1. Contact the Trust for the National Mall. Tell them to make the George Mason Memorial their top priority. Their contact information is as follows:

  • Phone Number: 202-407-9408
  • Email:
  • Mailing Address: Trust for the National Mall, 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, Suite 370, Washington D.C. 20004
  • Facebook:
  • Twitter:

2. Contact the National Mall and Memorial Parks. This is the unit of the National Park Service that administers the George Mason Memorial. Express your concern over the condition at the George Mason Memorial and ask that urgent work be done to clean it up. Their contact information is as follows:

  • Phone Number: 202-426-6841
  • Email: Through their contact webpage at
  • Mailing Address: National Mall and Memorial Parks, 900 Ohio Drive SW, Washington D.C. 20024
  • Facebook:
  • Twitter:

3. Contact your representatives in the House and Senate. The monuments of the National Mall are the responsibility of the federal government. Members of the House and Senate are elected to serve as your representatives in Congress. Let them know that you are concerned with the condition of the George Mason Memorial and ask them to do something about it. After all, they are always on the lookout for easy, noncontroversial matters that their constituents contact them about.

  • To find your representative in the House, go here:
  • To contact your representatives in the Senate, go here:

4. Contact the White House. It couldn't hurt, after all.
  • White House Contact page:

5. Spread the word. Tell anyone you know who you think would care about this to follow steps 1-4 above. Feel free to forward this blog post to anyone and everyone.

The condition of a monument in Washington D.C. may not rank with climate change or the national debt as an issue. But neither should such things be ignored. As I said in a recent blog post, I truly think the underlying problems facing our nation stem from our drifting away from our common ideals, which used to unite us as a nation despite our political differences. We have lost our sense of pietas. Cleaning up the George Mason Memorial might not seem a particularly important matter at the present moment, when our nation is facing such great challenges. Yet in its symbolic value, it is very important indeed. For the thoughts and writings of George Mason represent the best of the American creed and it is incumbent upon all of us to respect and honor him if we are to be true to the values upon which our great republic was founded.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017


Late last night, I returned from a four day trip to Washington D.C. that I took with one of my colleagues (my dear friend Jordan James, who was born to be a teacher) and fourteen truly amazing 8th grade students. It was a great honor to bring these budding citizens to visit our nation's capital. It was also an enormous amount of fun. Everything ran very smoothly and the fine folks who arranged our trip (School Tours of America) certainly knew their business.

It was a jam-packed trip. We visited Ford's Theater, where President Lincoln was shot, as well as the Petersen House across the street, to stand in the room where Lincoln passed away. We went to the National Archives, to see the original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. We toured the Capitol Building and the Library of Congress. We went to the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian. We took two excursions out of town to see the battlefield at Gettysburg and the home of George Washington at Mount Vernon. We hiked around the Mall to see the memorials to Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King. And we paid our respects to those who have fought and died for the country at the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the Air Force Memorial, the Pentagon Memorial, and, on our last day, Arlington National Cemetery.

People who are overly pessimistic and cynical regarding the rising generation would have found their preconceptions happily shattered by the behavior of our students. Without exception, they were polite, inquisitive, and filled with excitement about what they were seeing. They bombarded me and Ms. James, as well as our various tour guides, with insightful questions and seemed to drink in the learning all around them. They goofed off every now and then, but whenever the occasion called for it, they were deeply respectful and serious. It was truly an honor and a privilege to take these wonderful young men and young women on this trip. When we all said goodbye at the baggage claim of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, it was heartwarming to hear them tell their parents what a wonderful time they had. Since then, Ms. James and I have received warm messages of thanks from their parents. We are already planning to take more students next year.

It was a fun trip, but that wasn't the important thing. For me, this trip was about far more than having an enjoyable time and seeing interesting stuff. As I told the students, it really was all about PIETAS.

It's a trick of teachers as old as time itself to use a word the students won't know so that they will ask you what it means, thus giving the teacher a chance to expound a bit. Pietas is a Latin term for which there isn't an exact English translation. It's the root of our word "piety", which means strong religious belief, and devotion to religion certainly is part of pietas. But for the Romans, it meant far more than that. Pietas might be described as the duty everyone has to be faithful and respectful towards their own families and, more generally, towards the foundations of their society. It was because of pietas that the Romans took such things as religious rituals, readings of omens, and ceremonies of state so seriously.

Pietas is everywhere in the buildings and monuments of Washington D.C. The FDR Memorial is entirely flat to reflect Roosevelt's status as the first president with a physical disability. The MLK Memorial is located halfway between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials to symbolize Martin Luther King's synthesis of the ideas of the two presidents. The Rotunda of the Capitol Dome is covered with beautiful art depicting crucial moments in American history. The Freedom Wall in the World War II Memorial has a gold star for ever one hundred American lives lost in the global struggle against fascism; it contains just over four thousand stars. The statue of Rosa Parks donated by the state of Alabama to the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building pointedly depicts her seated rather than standing up. Although Ford's Theater remains an active center for stage productions today, the presidential box in which Lincoln was shot is never used and is as carefully preserved to its 1865 appearance as possible. All of this is pietas.

The simple existence of the battlefield at Gettysburg is a manifestation of American pietas. The land where the fate of the nation was decided in the summer of 1863 could, like the battlefields around Atlanta, been turned into residential areas, shopping centers, and golf courses. Instead, the nation made a collective decision to preserve the sacred ground as both a monument to the bravery of the men who fought there and to allow future generations to explore the battlefield in order to understand what happened there. The same applies to the preservation of George Washington's home at Mount Vernon, and, for that matter, Jefferson's home at Monticello, Madison's home at Montpelier, and other homes of great individuals of American history.

Two moments on this trip really stand out to me in terms of what I am talking about. At Mount Vernon, four of our students participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at George Washington's tomb. First, one of the girls read out the pledge of allegiance. Then two boys carefully raised and carried the wreath into the tomb itself, setting it beside the sarcophagus. Finally, a girl read a prayer written by George Washington, beseeching God to protect the United States and calling upon all citizens to love and respect one another for the common good. The four students who did this behaved impeccably and all described the experience as extremely moving.

The second took place on the last day of our trip. We visited Arlington National Cemetery, walking for miles among the thousands upon thousands of gravestones marking the final resting places of the men and women who fought to keep America free. We saw the eternal flame marking the grave of President John F. Kennedy, the mast of the USS Maine, and the markers for the astronauts who died on the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia. But what stayed with me more than anything was the site of the endless fields of grave markers, stretching away across the horizon, like the grain and corn fields of the Midwest. During our tour, we could occasionally hear three volley salutes being fired as part of funerals taking place while we were there.

But nothing at Arlington National Cemetery illustrated American pietas more than watching the Changing of the Guard of the Tomb of the Unknowns. I can't quite articulate what it is about the deceptively simple ceremony: an officer arrives, inspects the sentry arriving for duty, who then relieves the sentry who has been on duty beforehand. The perfection of their movements, the precision of their walking, the exactness of their uniform, were all orders of magnitude higher than they needed to be if the point was simply to keep people from vandalizing the tomb. Why? Because it's not just about guarding the tomb; it's about showing the highest level of respect for the men and women who died defending our country. The poignancy of the ceremony is a statement to those brave heroes: we thank you, we honor you, and we will never forget you.

My students were standing in the sun on an oppressively hot and humid day while we watched the ceremony, yet I heard not a word of complaint from any of them. Some of them described the ceremony as the most incredible thing they had ever seen. During the whole time we were in Arlington National Cemetery, as when we visited the memorials to leaders of the past or the fallen heroes of past wars, all of our students displayed the deepest respect. Ms. James and I were more proud of them than words can express.

Sadly, not everyone we encountered during our trip behaved in the same manner. Another student group was on the grounds of Arlington that day and acted atrociously, tapping away on their smart phones during the Changing of the Guard and competing to see who could successfully flip bottles up onto the marble benches of the Memorial Amphitheater. I recall a foul-mouthed twentysomething loudly telling a profanity-laced joke amidst the crowd at the Martin Luther King Memorial. Obviously, there were plenty of people who did not appreciate what these historical sites and memorials truly represent. I was inclined to be a bit more forgiving at the Smithsonian, which isn't hallowed ground, but even there I was dismayed at how many people preferred to be goofing off or playing with their ubiquitous smart phones rather than exploring the fascinating exhibits that surrounded them.

Clearly, not everybody senses the need to maintain a sense of pietas. I think of all the people who think that Veterans Day and Memorial Day are the same thing or the adult men who are unaware that they are supposed to remove their hats during the singing of the national anthem. I think of the businesses that neglect to take care of the American flags that fly over their establishments, until they are gradually reduced to faded rags. I think of those people who don't know the name of their own representatives in Congress or who shirk their civic duty by failing to show up at the polls on Election Day. I think of all the people who are reading celebrity gossip magazines when they could be reading the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, and especially all the teenage boys who go home to play computer games for hours on end when they should be reading books.

The problems facing our country today have little to do with to do with how many people are conservatives or liberals. They have little to do with which party controls the House of Representatives, the Senate, or even the White House. I think that our problems stem from a lack of respect, or even understanding, of what the United States of America is supposed to be about. They stem from a lack of pietas.

It's easy to become disillusioned about the state of things in the United States today. I am probably more guilty of this than the average person. Yet when I look back on the last few days I have spent in our nation's capital with these fourteen amazing young men and young women, I find myself reinvigorated and renewed. To me, this experience underscores for me my responsibility as a teacher of American to nurture and mentor the leaders of tomorrow. These kids have pietas. And if they had it, others can have it, too.

America needs champions. It needs heroes. I hope that I have played at least a small part in encouraging some young people to step up and become the kind of citizens our country so desperately needs. And if I get the chance, I hope to do so again in the future.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

What If Abraham Lincoln Had Not Been Assassinated?

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was one of the most shocking moments in American history. It has been seared into the collective consciousness of the country in the same way that unexpected news of the death of parent is seared into a mind of an individual. We can all see ourselves in Ford's Theater, as Our American Cousin is being acted out on the stage, the President enjoying the production in his box seat above and to the right. We can almost hear the shocking sound of the gunshot, sense the confusion of the crowd as John Wilkes Booth leaps from the stages and shouts something before running away, and then feel the terror as Mary Todd Lincoln's piercing scream echoes throughout the theater. In that awful moment, Abraham Lincoln became the Christ-figure of the American civil religion, the man who had to die to exorcise the sin of slavery from the country.

It also created one of the most intriguing alternate history questions of all: what if Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated?

There is no need for any elaborate "point of divergence" in this scenario. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln were accompanied to the play by Major Henry Rathbone and his wife. Historically, Rathbone did not hear Booth as the assassin entered the box. The first inkling he had that something was amiss was when Booth fired the fatal bullet into Lincoln's head. He attempted to grab Booth and apparently struggled with him for a few moments. Booth seriously wounded Rathbone with a knife and leapt from the box onto the stage. For the rest of his life, Rathbone was torn by guilt over his failure to prevent the assassination. He eventually succumbed to complete mental instability and murdered his wife in a fit of rage, spending his remaining years in an asylum for the criminally insane.

What if Rathbone had heard the door open behind him and seen the shadowy figure of Booth approaching the President from behind? One can imagine the major, who was an experienced soldier, reacting quickly and accosting Booth before he had a chance to fire his gun. The President, no weak man even at the age of 56, would have reacted as any man reacts when his wife is threatened and jumped up to help Rathbone restrain the assassin. In all likelihood, Booth would have been pinned to the ground and President Lincoln would have ended the evening wiping a bit of sweat from his forehead and making a wry joke about Booth overplaying the role he had recently performed in Julius Caesar.

So what would have been the ramifications of Lincoln surviving the assassination attempt? To answer that question, we need to look at what the situation was on April 14, 1865. By that date, the American Civil War was effectively over. Robert E. Lee's vaunted Army of Northern Virginia had been forced to surrender at Appomattox. Joseph Johnston and the remnants of the Army of Tennessee in North Carolina were about to follow suit and the few remaining Confederate forces, scattered across the South, were either about to give up or simply falling apart. Attention was rapidly shifting from winning the war to securing the peace.

The Republican Party was of two minds regarding how to manage Reconstruction. Radical Republicans, led by men such as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Senator Charles Sumner (the latter will be a major character in my upcoming novel House of the Proud) were not interested in reconciliation. They believed that the South needed to be punished for secession, for bringing on the war, and for practicing slavery in the first place. They wanted to remold Southern society into something completely different from what had existed before. Lincoln disagreed, wanting Reconstruction to be as painless as possible and for normalcy to be restored as quickly as it could. His main goal was not revenge, but reconciliation between the North and South.

Lincoln's plan for Reconstruction had been articulated as early as 1863, after large portions of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana had come back under Union control. It was called the Ten Percent Plan. As soon as ten percent of a Southern state's voting population had sworn loyalty to the Union, those people could reform a loyal government and the state would be readmitted to the Union, provided that they accepted the abolition of slavery. Moreover, aside from a few high-level Confederate military officers and government officials, full pardons would be extended to those who had taken up arms against the Union. In Lincoln's vision, as the war was won, each rebellious state would come back into the Union as its territory fell under federal control. Once the Confederate armies disintegrated or were forced to surrender, it would a fairly straightforward matter for the states to be restored to the Union. The war would be won, slavery would be ended, and the Union would be restored.

The Radicals strongly disagreed with Lincoln's plan. Their view of Reconstruction was articulated most clearly in the Wade-Davis Bill, named for Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio and Congressman Henry Davis of Maryland. The bill required a majority of a state's voting voting population to take an "ironclad oath" that they had never supported the Confederacy before the state could be readmitted to the Union. This was clearly not going to happen, since the vast majority of the South's white population had supported the Confederacy. It would require a generation to pass before a majority of a state's voters could take such an oath and during all that time the conquered South would have essentially been subject to the rule of the Congress in the same way that the territories in the West remained subject to Congress until they became states themselves. In 1864, Lincoln pocket vetoed the Wade-Davis Bill, preventing it from becoming law and infuriating the Radicals.

So there were two competing Republicans visions of Reconstruction, those of the Moderates led by Lincoln, whose views were summed up in the Ten Percent Plan, and those of the Radicals led by Sumner and Stevens, whose views were summed up by the Wade-Davis Bill. The views of the Democrats, largely marginalized by the events of the war, were scarcely considered. The defeated Southerners, needless to say, could only wait and see what their Northern conquerors were going to do.

Historically, Reconstruction was essentially a failure. Andrew Johnson, the uncouth drunk who became President upon Lincoln's death, pursued the lightest possible Reconstruction policy. Former Confederates very quickly were returned to positions of authority in the Southern states, passing legislation known as "black codes" to prevent the newly freed slaves from exercising any real freedom. President Johnson actively opposed granting blacks the right to vote, utterly enraging the Radical Republicans. Aside from the bare fact that slavery was abolished and blacks were no longer the legal property of white people, it was almost as if nothing had changed since before the war.

Johnson's policies were so wildly unpopular that the Radical Republicans soon realized that they had sufficient strength in Congress to override the President's vetoes of their legislation and that they could pass anything they wanted. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 outlawed such state practices at the black codes, undermining the legitimacy of Johnson's Reconstruction policies. Not long after that, Congress attempted to throw Johnston out of office via impeachment. Though they failed by a single vote in the Senate, Johnson was so humiliated that whatever political power he retained was swept away. He remained an inert nonentity until replaced in the White House by Ulysses Grant in 1869.

Radical Reconstruction now began. The South was subjected to martial law by the occupying Union Army, which protected blacks from revenge attacks and ensured their ability to vote. Republicans gained control of the Southern state government via the electoral coalition of freed slaves, scalawags, and carpetbaggers. Former Confederates were largely disenfranchised. The 14th and 15th Amendments, ensuring equal rights to all citizens and guaranteeing that the right to vote would not be denied on account of race, were pushed through the ratification process.

Many of these efforts, such as the protection of the freed slaves and the passage of the constitutional amendments, greatly benefited the nation. Yet in treating the ex-Confederates as the people of a conquered province, rather than as wayward friends the way Lincoln had desired, the Radical Republicans were throwing kindling onto a dangerous fire. A ferocious anger and bitterness was instilled in the hearts of the proud Southern people, ensuring that they would take revenge as soon as Reconstruction ended.

And that's what happened. Reconstruction wasn't going to last forever, as the Radical Republicans should have realized. After the 1876 election, President Rutherford B. Hayes made a deal to break the impasse of his questionable election that removed the army of occupation from the South. Like bowling pins, the Republican state governments in the South were knocked over and replaced with Democratic governments dominated by former Confederates. Voting rights for the blacks were ruthlessly stripped away through such means as literacy tests and poll taxes, 15th Amendment be damned, The age of Jim Crow had dawned, which would last for nearly a century, until the age of Martin Luther King.

In my opinion, for Reconstruction to have been a real success would have required the voting rights of both the ex-Confederates and the freed slaves to somehow be protected. In this way, whites and blacks in the South would have had to learn to live with one another a century before than the civil rights movement. The ex-Confederates would not have been able to sweep their black neighbors under the political rug, but neither would they have been embittered by having their own rights stripped away from them by the Radical Republicans. If anything like a fair and stable society, on the road to equality for all people, could have emerged from the fires of the Civil War, something like this would have had to happen.

What if Lincoln had not been shot that awful night in April of 1865? What if he had served a full second term, only leaving office after the 1868 election?

Lincoln was perhaps the greatest political genius America has ever produced. He had a sense of perspective and a vision that no one else in American history has come close to matching. If anyone could have somehow created a political framework in which the voting rights of both blacks and the ex-Confederates were protected, it was Lincoln. Only he could possibly have navigated the minefield of Radical Republicans, ex-Confederates, Democrats, freed slaves, and all the other interest groups.

If Lincoln had survived and remained committed to his Ten Percent Plan, subsequent American history would have been radically different and, I believe, much more pleasant for all concerned. We should not think that the South would have been transformed into some sort of post-racial utopia in such a scenario, but it is at least possible that a surviving Abraham Lincoln would have been able to forge a political solution that would avoid the racial darkness of the Jim Crow era and set America on a more proper course.

In the meantime, with the war over, Lincoln could have pursued the goals of expansion and modernization that were his dream. It's often forgotten that more took place during Lincoln's presidency than the Civil War. The Homestead Act was passed, opening vast tracts of western land for settlement, and promoting the building of railroads to link the eastern and western sections of the nation together. He brought the National Academy of Sciences and the Department of Agriculture into being. His vision of a united America, in which distinctions of North and South were entirely secondary, was as clear as a shining star.

In firing the deadly bullet, John Wilkes Booth did more than just manifest his own hatred and bigotry. Booth crippled the United States of America for decades, perhaps a century. For that reason, his memory should be damned forever.