Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Killer Angels - The First Day, Chaps. 2 and 3 - Buford and Lee

The First Day, Chapters 2 and 3 - Buford and Lee

First, Happy Independence Day to all! Today is the 145th anniversary of the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

We see the first day of battle really heating up through the eyes of Major General John Buford. Buford's goal is pretty straightforward - hold the good ground until General Reynolds and his reinforcements get there. Most of the chapter is devoted to Buford's observations. Buford's relief when Reynolds arrives is obvious and palpable:

...[Reynolds] motioned to Buford. They rode out into the road. Buford felt a certain dreamy calm. Reynolds, like Lee before him, had once commanded the Point. There was a professional air to him, the teacher approaching the class, utterly in command of his subject...

Unfortunately for Buford, Reynolds, and I suspect the entire Union army, the chapter is punctuated by Reynolds's death on the battlefield:

...Buford got one last glimpse of Reynolds. He was out in the open, waving his hat, pointing to a grove of trees. A moment later Buford looked that way and the horse was bare-backed. He did not believe it. He broke off and rode to see. Reynolds lay in the dirt road, the aides bending over him. When Buford got there the thick stain had already puddled the dirt beneath his head. His eyes were open, half asleep, his face pleasant and composed, a soft smile. Buford knelt. He was dead...

Chapter 3 - Lee

Meanwhile, back at the Confederate Army, Lee is doing his best to get much-needed information and to command an army with a lot of egos. I have a hard time understanding the logistics of battles because I tend to be unable to visualize them. Obviously, I would not make a good general for that reason. Suffice it to say that Lee's wish is to attack, while his generals, for a variety of reasons, are unable to do so. In any case, Lee is also hampered by the fact that the Union army has already gotten the jump on them - his understanding was that there was only a few militia men in Gettysburg but Buford's calvalry is there and the infantry will arrive soon.

Throughout the battle, Lee consults with Heth, who reports this confusion and then with A.P. Hill. Eventually, he orders General Ewell to attack when it appears he might have the Union on the run, but it has been clear throughout the day that his troops are exhausted. Lee and his men are not in a position of strength, and there is only so much strategy and testicular fortitude, I think, that can make up for that.

So at the end of the chapter, we have this:

Lee shook his head again. He was growing weary of this. Why didn't Ewell's assault begin? A cautious commander, new to his command. And A.P. Hill is sick. Yet we won. The soldiers won. Lee pointed toward the hill.

"They will probably retreat. Or Ewell will push them off. But if Meade is there tomorrow, I will attack him."

"If Meade is there," Longstreet said implacably, "it is because he wants you to attack him."

That was enough. Lee thought: docile men do not make good soldiers. He said nothing. Longstreet could see the conversation was at an end...

Friday, May 30, 2008

Wednesday, July 1, 1863 - The First Day - Chapter 1: Lee

The Killer Angels - First Day of Battle - July 1, 1863
Lee is the focus of the first chapter regarding the first day of battle, which is probably fitting. Throughout the chapter, and I suspect throughout the long battle, he asks for word of General Stuart, who stubbornly remains out of reach. There is the sense of why Lee is so beloved as a general - he is very much aware of the strengths and weaknesses of his generals even while he treats them all in a courtly manner - yet there is also a sense of apprehension around him. The loss of Stonewall Jackson, killed by his own men, seems to weigh heavily on Lee and the rest of the Confederate army.
There is a bit of strange moment in this chapter, but it is one that foreshadows both Longstreet's concerns and the Conferederacy's loss in this important battle. Lee's aide, Venable, asks the general to speak with Dorsey Pender, because Pender's wife has written to him:
"Mrs. Pender is, ah, a pious woman, and she believes that now that we have invaded Pennsylvania we are in the wrong, and God has forsaken us - you know how these people reason, sir - and she says she cannot pray for him."
A little later in the chapter, the general reflects: "Lee felt a deeper spasm, like a black stain. I swore to defend. Now I invade. A soldier, no theologian. God, let it be over soon. While there's time to play with grandchildren. It came too late. Fame came too late. I would have enjoyed it, if I were a younger man."
The chapter ends with a discussion between Lee and Longstreet. In his heart, Lee wants to attack. In his head, Longstreet knows that that is not the right move for the Confederacy's long-term prospects in winning the war.
...Longstreet loved the defense. But all the bright theories so rarely worked. Instinct said: hit hard, hit quick, hit everything. But he [Lee] listened. Then he said slowly, "that move will be what Meade expects."
"Yes, because he fears it."
Lee turned away from the table. He wanted no argument now. He had been down this road before, and Longstreet was immovable, and there was no point in argument when you did not even know where the enemy was. Yet it was good counsel. Trust Longstreet to tell the truth. Lee looked up and there was Traveler, led by a black groom. The staff had gathered. Time to move. Lee took a deep, delighted breath.
"Now, General," he said, "let's go see what George Meade intends."
And so, with that passage, you can see how a great general can lose a war - Lee recognizes the truth of Longstreet's counsel and yet cannot overcome his own instincts.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Killer Angels - Chapter 4

Chapter 4 - Longstreet

It is the night before battle, and General Longstreet is watching an English military visitor - Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Lyon Fremantle - learn to play poker in his camp when he is visited by old friends and colleagues, George Pickett, Lewis Armistead, Richard Brooke Garnett, and James Kemper. We get some sense of Longstreet the person here - he is a legendary poker player, but hasn't played since the deaths of his children. While he is waiting, Longstreet is also fretting about the lack of information from Stuart's cavalry.

When his colleagues arrive, there is some soldierly joshing that goes on and then Longstreet has private conversations with Pickett and Armistead. Pickett is vain and he wants to get his division into the action, a desire that will obviously come back to haunt him. At this point, the description of Pickett is pretty humorous. As he leaves to go off to join those playing poker, Shaara says, "Pickett excused himself, watchful of Longstreet. Pickett was always saying something to irritate someone, and he rarely knew why, so his method was to simply apologize in general from time to time and to let people know he meant well and then shove off and hope for the best. He apologized and departed, curls a jiggle."

Longstreet's conversation with Lewis Armistead is far more melancholy, and reflective of the personal nature of the Civil War. Armistead had a close friendship with Union commander Winfield Hancock, and Armistead expresses a desire to see his old friend, even if it is on a battlefield.

Longstreet and Armistead also have a long conversation on the nature of this conflict, with Armistead expressing the belief that this was a Noble, Holy War. Longstreet expresses skepticism at the idea that the Confederate's soldiers are so much better and more talented than those on the Union's side:

"Well, you've fought with those boys over there, you've commanded them." [Longstreet] gestured vaguely east. "You know damn well they can fight. You should have seen them come up that hill in Fredericksburg, listen." He gestured vaguely, tightly, losing command of the words. "Well, Lo, you know we are dying one at a time and there aren't enough of us and we died just as dead as anybody, and a boy from back home aint a better soldier than a boy from Minnesota or anywhere else just because he's from back home."

Longstreet is ostensibly talking about his belief in a defensive strategy, which he thinks is a mistake to abandon (and, of course, he is proven correct). But I also think that this conversation reflects the challenges of military command. You have to give your soldiers something for which they are willing to fight. The cause, in and of itself, isn't a bad thing but if the professionals mistake the cause for appropriate strategy, then you get yourself in trouble.

It is something that we always must keep in mind in this country. We have seen again - both with Vietnam and Iraq - the mistake of believing that the U.S. will win merely because "we have right on our side." For one thing, merely saying we have right on our side does not mean we actually do. For another, assuming that having right on one's side is some sort of talisman that will protect us from defeat is bad soldiering.

The Killer Angels - Chapter 3

Chapter 3 - Buford

This chapter focuses on Major General John Buford, who rides into Gettysburg the day before day one of the battle and encounters the advanced infantry of the Confederate Army - but no cavalry (a point that I know is key). It is a dramatic moment. Upon spying the Rebel army, Buford sends a message to General Reynolds. Buford has been burned before, holding good ground, and not being backed up by the generals in Washington. He has confidence in Reynolds but not so much in Meade and other commanders.

He had held good ground before and sent off appeals, and help never came. He was very low on faith. It was a kind of gray sickness; it weakened the hands. He stood up and walked to the stone fence. It wasn't the dying. He had seen men die all of his life, and death was the luck of chance, the price you eventually paid. What was worse was the stupidity. The appalling sick stupidity that was so bad you thought sometimes you would go suddenly, violently, completely insane jst having to watch it. It was a deadly thing to be thinking on. Job to be done here. And all of it turns on faith.

By the end of the chapter, Buford has heard back from Reynolds, instructing him to hold his ground. It is easy for the reader to realize that the battle, any battle, is won or lost based on many of these early decisions, decisions made before even a shot is fired. The frustration for men like Buford - and Longstreet on the other side - is that their professional understanding of battle and war is undermined by those higher up in the command chain. The lack of leadership probably explains why the war went on as long as it did. It wasn't until moments like Gettysburg, when the Union began to listen to its soldiers and the Confederacy began making the mistakes that the Union had been making, that the tide began to turn.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Killer Angels - a post-Vietnam war novel?

Before we move on to focusing on to Major General John Buford, I will note that it is interesting to read this book as a post-Vietnam War book (technically, I suppose the book was being written even while that conflict was still raging). Gettysburg has become such a pivotal and mythical battle in the American psyche and this book in particular has shaped our modern understanding of the battle and the men who fought it. But Shaara seems very much to be making a point about how we understand war, those who fight in it, those who lead us to it.

In Chapter 4, which I will be posting about some time soon, he has an exchange between Longstreet and Lewis Armistead, and Armistead has bought into the idea that the South cannot be beaten because there is a Cause and because their boys are special. After comparing this conflict to the Crusades, Longstreet's response is "they never took Jerusalem" and "it takes a bit more than morale."

There were so many who believed that sheer force of will would bring us victory in Vietnam. And, obviously, there are those who believe the same about victory in Iraq. It is striking to compare these observations with those who believe that a cause and mission is all that is needed to win armed conflicts. Of course it is important to impart a sense of mission to soldiers, to make sure they know that they are fighting for something worthwhile. But that sense of mission needs to coupled with competence and strategy - and I think we failed in Vietnam in doing that and we are failing to do so in Iraq.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Killer Angels, Chapter 2 - Michael Shaara

Chapter 2 - Chamberlain

Chapter 2 focuses on Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, trying to recover from sunstroke because he's from Maine and he walked too much the day before. Chamberlain has been informed that he is to take in a group of Mainers who are "mutineers." The mutineers had signed off for three years of service but their unit's enlistment had ended in two years. The 120 men still owe one year of volunteer service to the Army. Chamberlain is told to take them in, that he can do what he wants with them, and if they don't serve, he can shoot them. He knows he won't shoot them. He'd never be able to return to Maine if he did.

After they are brought to Chamberlain, he speaks to one of their number who has elected to speak for them, Joseph Bucklin. Bucklin represents an interesting counterpoint to the spy of the previous chapter:

...Bucklin said, "I'm tired, Colonel. You know what I mean? I'm tired. I've had all of this army and all of these officers, this damned Hooker and this god-damned idiot Meade, all of them, the whole bloody, lousy rotten mess of sick-brained potbellied scabheads that ain't fit to lead a johnny detail, aint fit to pour pee outen a boot with instructions on the heel. I'm tired. We are good men and we had our own good flag and these damned goddamned idiots use us like we was cows or dogs and even worse. We aint gonna win this war. We can't win no how because of these lame-brained bastards from West Point, these goddamned gentlemen, these officers. One one officer knew what he was doin: McClellan, and look what happened to him. I just as soon go home and let them damn Johnnies go home and the hell with it."

Putting aside the notion that McClellan actually knew what he was doing, Bucklin could represent all soldiers in all wars, not the least of which is the current conflict in Iraq. Soldiers get tired and they don't understand what they are fighting and those who are supposed to making the right decisions make the wrong ones. And the people who suffer for it are the soldiers themselves.

A little later in the chapter, though, Chamberlain ruminates on the answer to what they are fighting for:

...The faith itself was simple: he believed in the dignity of man... He had grown up believing in America and the individual and it was a stronger faith than his faith in God. This was a land where no man had to bow. In this place at last a man could stand up free of the past, free of tradition and blood ties and the curse of royalty and become what he wished to become. This was the first place on earth where the man mattered more than the state. True freedom had begun here and it would spread eventually all over the earth. But it has begun here. The fact of slavery upon this incredibly beautiful new clean earth was appalling, but even more than that was the horror of old Europe, the curse of nobility, which the South was transplanting to new soil. They were forming a new aristocracy, a new breed of glittering men, and Chamberlain had come to crush it. But he was fighting for the dignity of man and in that way he was fighting for himself. If men were equal in America, all these former Poles and English and Czech and blacks, then they were equal everywhere, and there was really no such thing as a foreigner; there was only free men and slaves. And so it was not even patriotism but a new faith. The Frenchman may fight for France, but the American fights for mankind, for freedom; for the people, not the land.

It is an extraordinary passage, especially through the light of today's politics. For one, the idea that Chamberlain's faith in American democracy is greater than his faith in God would run right up to those on the Christian Right who seek to tie those two things together. Secondly, the hatred of aristocracy as a rationale for fighting, even in an era in the U.S. where we seem to be trading presidential candidates from two families. And finally, the idea that the immigrants - the Poles, the Czechs, the English, the blacks etc. - can be just as American, and fight for the same ideals as those who are native born. And that they fight for the people, not the land.

Chamberlain eventually gets the men to fight, by expressing the sentiments he does above. And while the speech is described as inspirational, it is clearly the above passage that is the heart and soul of the chapter and Chamberlain's character. All but 6 of the mutineers decide to fight for Chamberlain's company, as they head out towards Gettysburg.

The Killer Angels, Chapter 1 - Michael Shaara

Chapter 1

Chapter 1 begins with a spy, a would-be actor, spying the movements of the Union Army. He is bringing this information back to Lt. General James Longstreet, right hand man to General Lee. The spy is not liked by Longstreet, and he is initially doubted, but eventually Longstreet takes him to Lee to communicate the information he has.

What comes through in this chapter is how feckless the spy, who the chapter is named after, is and how anxious and worried Longstreet seems to be:

If the spy was right, the army was in great danger. They could be cut apart and cut off from home and destroyed in detail, piece by piece. If the spy was right, then Lee would have to turn, but the old man did not believe in spies nor in any information you had to pay for, had not approved of the money spent or event the idea behind it. And the old man had faith in Stuart, and why in God's name had Stuart sent nothing, not even a courier, because even Stuart wasn't fool enough to let the whole damned Army of the Potomac get this close without word, not one damned lonesome word...

It seems that Lee believes in his standards but this is war, and Longstreet recognizes that to win a war, you have to do things that violate one's standards. On the other hand, we get a sense that the spy's commitment is less to the cause of the South and more to his own desire to act. Still, his commentary on how he acquires information is interesting:

The spy chatted amiably. He seemed to need to talk. He was saying, "Strange thing about it all, thing that bothers me is that when you do this job right, nobody knows you're doing it, nobody ever watches you work, do you see?...This current creation, now, is marvelous. I'm a poor-witted farmer, do you see, terrified of soldiers, and me lovely young wife has run off with a drummer and I'm out a-scourin' the countryside for her, a sorrowful pitiful sight I am. And people lookin' down their noses and grinnin' behind me back and all the time tellin' me exactly what I want to know about who is where and how many and how long ago, and them not even knowin' they're doin's it, too busy feelin' contempuous. There are many people, General, that don't give a damn for a human soul, do you know that? The strange thing is, after playing this poor fool farmer for a while I can't help but feel sorry for him. Because nobody cares."

One the one hand, the spy articulates in the last sentence the same sentiments that Rick in Casablanca does when he tells Ilsa that this crazy world doesn't care a hill of beans about the problems of three small people. It's war. Who cares about a farmer looking for his runaway wife when the war is in everyone's front yards. And it is hard not to understand where he is coming from with that.

On the other hand, this guy is able to get self-righteous about their lack of care even while he is taking advantage of it and "betraying" them with the information he is gathering. He's a spy. He's at risk, true, but one is somewhat able to understand why he is looked down upon by military folk because his way of fighting the war it is all about subterfuge and obfuscation. Therefore, it is difficult to understand how he feels superior to those that he perceive feel superior to him since he is precisely trying to take advantage of their normal human feelings.

The chapter ends without the spy, but with Longstreet and Lee discussing the information that they have, especially the news that Meade has been named the general of the Army of the Potomac. And the discovery that the town on the map that they will concentrate their forces on is Gettysburg.