Objective History, Part I

Most readers (all eight of you) should be familiar with the oft-told story of Grant and Sherman on the night after the first day of Shiloh.  On that night–so the story goes–General WIlliam Tecumseh Sherman found General Ulysses Simpson Grant on that bloody field during that long night.  Grant was dejected and long faced, smoking a cigar.  Sherman, carrying a lantern, is trying to be cheerful.  “Well, Grant,” says Sherman, “we’ve had the devil’s own day.”

“Yes,” Grant replies. “We’ll whip them tomorrow, though.”

What an exchange between two titans of American Civil War history.  Grant mumbling defiance in the midst of the greatest carnage of the war–indeed, of American history–so far, reassuring his principal lieutenant that everything would be all right.

What courage. What fortitude in the face of such great adversity.

What a load of bunk…probably

Yes, the tale has been told often enough, so often that it is no longer questioned.  Every history of the battle, from macro to micro, and nearly every biography and examination of the generalship of Grant and Sherman speaks of it.  But, if we look at this tableau objectively, it starts to come apart.

First, the scene.  It was raining, and by most accounts pretty steadily, from about 9 PM to just before 4 AM; it had been raining nearly every day around Pittsburg Landing for nearly a week.  But Sunday 6 April 1862 was dry, and fairly hot by most accounts, with small fires breaking out in several places in the piney woods and the clearings.  The woods and bottoms, especially around the creeks that split the area and along the Tennessee River behind the battlefield, were filled with smoke and fog.  Lost and wounded men, dying and frightened men, and the camp followers and assorted other civilians were scattered through the woods and every source of water in the area.  Travel around these areas would have been treacherous at best and dangerous at worst.

Sherman had had three horses shot out from under him that day.  He himself was grazed by at least three somethings hard enough to draw blood or cut uniform parts, lost a bodyguard/escort next to him by decapitation just as soon as he realized he was really, really being attacked, as he had admonished several officers before the battle (one hours before) was simply not possible.  He had lost a good portion of his division (dead, wounded, missing and captured) over the course of about 11 hours of intensive movement and combat.  A horrible insomniac who suffered from allergies most of his life, Sherman was by most accounts tirelessly working all that night to get his division ready for the next morning, and to tie in with Lew Wallace’s arriving division.

Grant, for his part, had greeted WIlliam Nelson’s arriving division at about 4:30 PM, had met with his Chief of Staff WIlliam Webster at about dusk (6:15 or so) and scribbled a note to be sent to Henry Halleck, his boss in St. Louis, by way of the nearest telegraph key (probably at Ft Henry, about three hours downstream), which likely went via Grant’s headquarters steamboat Tigress.  He had been hobbling around on a crude Army crutch for nearly three weeks after hurting himself in an incident with his normally surefooted horse.  At least one other officer reports Grant saying he was evicted from the cabin he was using for a headquarters at the Landing because the sight of the wounded sickened him, as did the sight of any blood. By his own account, he caught a few minutes of sleep under a tree somewhere.

The relationship between Grant and Sherman up to that point in the war had been cordial, but this was their first real battle together.  Sherman was three years Grant’s senior in service, but had agreed to serve under Grant because it meant getting him away from administrative duties.  He was terrified of being set on a shelf, as was Grant, though for different reasons.  Halleck trusted neither officer, and the press had had a merry time just months before ridiculing Sherman’s predictions for the requirements to win the war (hundreds of thousands of men and several years) as being the ravings of a madman.

The area around the Landing must have seemed like a Chinese fire drill that night.  Steamboats were coming in about every few minutes, with more and more of Don. C Buell’s men marching up the muddy ramp.  Initially, by most accounts, they had to work their way through thousands of stragglers that clustered by the river, but that was probably over by 9 that night: no one spoke of this after Nelson’s division had fully arrived.  The two Navy gunboats out in the river fired a round into the Confederate rear about every fifteen minutes from dark until just after sunrise (about 6 AM).  All the while, men were repairing cannons, finding ammunition, and sorting discarded weapons into compatible calibers for the hundreds who lost theirs in their hasty withdrawal to the Landing.  The wounded were legion; the officers and NCOs sorting out the men under the bluffs, who were frustrated by the cold rain but helped by the occasional coffee urn and cookpot, hearing their limits of endurance, many having been on their feet since before daybreak.  More, at least one battery of six guns made its way into the Landing and up the bluffs after dark, which would have required a monumental effort and several hundred horses.

Grant was never much of a detail-dictating general; his idol Zachary Taylor infrequently met with his juniors and Grant usually followed his example.  Grant met with Lew Wallace near dawn, but only because Wallace sought him out.  Grant met with Sherman twice during the battle, but being satisfied with his performance, not after 10:30 in the morning.  He met with Benjamin Prentiss, William HL Wallace and Stephen A Hurlbut at least three times (they were the hardest pressed), and with John A McClernand only once (they disliked each other).  Grant met with his fellow army commander Buell only once, and that only briefly (Buell hated Grant).

Give all the above, much of which is verified by multiple sources, when and where would Grant and Sherman have gotten together that night?  What’s more, why?  There was no council of war convened (Grant would do this only rarely throughout the war).  Both men were busy.  Further, and most crucial, who would have recorded such an exchange?  Neither man mentioned the meeting in their memoirs or in any correspondence known.  None of the several versions (which often exchange Grant’s “whip” with “beat” and Sherman’s “we’ve had” with “it’s been”) say anything beyond those few words.  Would these two very busy and weary men have gotten together for just that?  And, obviously, there were no recording devices at the time.  How could we know who said what?  There’s more holes here than there is story.

But why does this legend exist?  If most legends have some grounding in fact, what are the facts here?  The answer, I believe, is that this Grant/Sherman meeting with a sound bite is a parable, set on a horrid battlefield under miserable conditions: a oft-told tale repeated until it became the stuff of history, repeated in every book because everyone else does.  It may or may not have taken place; it may have been short; it may have been longer and had many witnesses, but there is no real evidence for it.

This is a somewhat long-winded introduction to what I’m calling “objective history,” a point-of-view, not a discipline, that examines the record and the sources (primary and secondary, physical and documentary and passed from mouth to mouth) of these oft-told stories.  Think about the long-winded Shakespearean oratories of worthies, malcontents and blowhards before even mechanical recording was available (like Pericles before a battle), and their shorter-version cousins: how plausible are they?  Every source, every artifact, every note and letter and report, compared to every other of their kind, tells a story.  Do all these stories add up?

Objective history takes a skeptical view of the historical record (when it’s there) and the evidence (especially, as in this case, it isn’t there and does not seem likely to have happened) and at the histories that are accepted as “true” and wonders how we think we know that.  It looks at pleasant and popular parks and sites and presidential libraries and museums and says “wait a minute: something doesn’t add up,“ especially when it does not.  It also says “traditionally” a great deal, and “according to one source” in excess.  What it does not say is “this is what really happened,” because such a statement is not possible without a time machine.

So: how objective is your view of the sources?  What oft-told tales are you suspicious of?

Next time, we’ll look at another famous (supposed) meeting, just before Shiloh.  If you want an objective view of Shiloh, I’d suggest The Devil’s Own Day by yours truly.

Does new technology render strategic theory irrelevant?


by Dr. DAVID MORGAN-OWEN The impact of technology upon warfare is a complex topic, but one which retains perennial relevance to militaries the world over. Can new weapons fundamentally alter the conduct of war, or do certain immutable ‘principles’ remain unchanged over time? These questions cut to the heart of history’s value to the military professional. After all, if technological innovation invalidates pre-existing strategic paradigms, then how can the work of strategists and thinkers from antiquity help to inform solutions to the challenges faced in the modern world? Listeners to BBC Radio 4’s Today program last week would have heard the former First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord West, advocate ‘a close blockade of the Libyian coastline’ as the most effective means of curtailing the activities of human traffickers in the Mediterranean. Lord West alluded to one of the enduring ‘principals’ of naval warfare; namely that it will always be easier…

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Cahokia and the Impulse For Good Intentions

This past week I went to, among other places, the Cahokia Mounds outside St. Louis, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi.  While the area is well documented and the Interpretive Center/museum/theater/snack bar/gift shop is well maintained, I found myself viewing the entire presentation with an increasing sense of skepticism that bordered on outright denial of the idyllic picture painted by the conservators of the site.  What struck me as being the least likely was, well, the whole interpretation being based on not a lot of hard evidence but a lot of what I believe is wishful thinking about Mesoamericans.

For those of you who have never been, Cahokia is the largest Native American archaeological and interpretative site north of Mexico, inhabiting a region called the Mississippi Bottoms that were formed when the main course of the river shifted west.  At one time it is thought to have had some 10,000 souls living and working there, trading as far north as modern Canada and as far east as Virginia.  The people have been dubbed “Mississippians.”  The place is thought to have thrived about 900-1200 CE, and to have been abandoned by 1400.

Because the Mississippians left no written records, much of what the site offers is, at best, guesswork.The settlement is thought to have been fairly sophisticated by the standards of the time, with set boundaries, hierarchies, social structures not unlike clans, and even some division of labor into farmers, hunters, gatherers and tradesmen.  Land may have been held in common even though one large central area was enclosed by a high stockade fence.  Agriculture (principally maize) thrived and produced enough surplus for trade, and craftsmen were knapping flints, working bone and puddling copper as well as weaving crude cloth and decorating skins.  There were even thought to be organized games.

The place is dominated by a series of mounds.  The largest is the largest manmade structure in pre-Columbian North America, known today as the Monk’s Mound after some French missionaries who built a settlement there in the late 18th century.  It is thought that building this one mound, said to be a chief’s residence, required fifteen million baskets of soil carried over the course of over two centuries.  Smaller mounds with half and less the volume of the Monk’s Mound dot the area.

The Interpretive Center at the site spends a great deal of effort to present an image of a nuclear family of two adults, two or three children and perhaps an elder.  They also spend a lot of time explaining that there was a great deal of work to do every day just to stay alive, much of it having to do with food preparation, shelter construction and tool-making.

And here’s the two main issues I have with the version shown: manpower for construction of the mounds and the motivation for it that spanned generations.  If the peak population was ten thousand and the family was nuclear, at most one person in five was going to be available for such heavy labor.  The available manpower pool (adult healthy males) at this peak is perhaps 4,000, of which at least 3/4ths would have to be involved in the work of food cultivation, hunting, trading and the rest.

Where are the haulers of dirt coming from?   Moving that much earth without any domestic animals (the New World horse and camel were hunted to extinction millennia before) meant that it had to be hauled on someone’s back.  At its population peak, there were perhaps a thousand surplus heavy laborers available at Cahokia, and those certainly would not be available year round.  While there were resource surpluses, someone had to feed the haulers who made no profits nor food, and feed their dependents.  Who would do that? Fifteen million baskets of soil dug up, hauled, dumped and shaped in the right way requires a considerable volume of labor–about 205 baskets of earth every single day–even spread over two centuries.  It also needs specialists to say where this stuff is to be dumped, and they need to be fed, too.

Which leads to the question of motivation.  Even the great pyramids of Egypt were built within a generation.  Egyptian and Mesoamerican chieftains were often regarded as divine, able to command such duty as a matter of religious fealty.  In the Mississippian culture, we don’t see that, at least not in the current image.  Altruism may be powerful, but all these mounds had to have had a great purpose for voluntary labor to toil so hard for so long, and that powerful and lasting an altruistic motive is not in evidence too much of anywhere.  Nothing even vaguely like the Mississippians apparently idyllic social structure has been found in North America.

The manpower and motivation questions lead, inevitably, to the thought that the mounds were built by slave labor: worked-to-death surplus humans that were driven by a tyrannical society (complete with an enormous stockade) to construct not only the great mound but all the others as well.  This latter picture fits the evidence, but not the picture presented at Cahokia.  The archaeological digs didn’t find any weapons that were exclusively for fighting, though hunting bows and spears were present.  Bows and spears can be used for combat, but so can axes.  Weapons might include slings (not found but known elsewhere in North America) and shields, but again these are not shown.  Either they have not been found and preserved, or they were not used.  Either way, the bows and spears could be used for the collection of slaves.

For decades scholars of the Mesoamericans have tried to paint a shiny, bright image of an uncomplicated people free of cares, woes, disease, strife, starvation or greed, like Adam and Eve in the Garden.  This Rousseauian view of the Noble Savage is based on a certain desire to show that the inhuman things that the European invaders of this continent, together with their African and Asian allies, did to the pastoral Amerindians destroyed a Heaven on Earth for reasons both nefarious and greedy.  The Cahokia site, if left on its own, would still have been abandoned by the time Columbus came, but the inhabitants simply, in this scholarly view, moved on.  If sympathetic scholars had to admit to slavery being responsible for building the mounds–even partly–there would also be the sticky issue of where the slaves came from, how long they might have lasted, and what happened to them.  It would also mean that there was either trafficking with, or conquest of (or both), other groups.

And there’s other points that can be as troubling.  The Interpretive Center is a place where we can see an image of how some Mesoamericans may have lived before Columbus, complete with National Geographic-approved waist-up nudity in illustrations and sculptures of both sexes at all ages…except notably the very old.  Question is: why cover that much?  We are told that modesty is an inherently Western trait that implies shame.  Why do we have Noble Savages showing such regressive traits?  It is an opportunity to show of the colorful finery…that could not have survived being buried for centuries?

While I have a great deal of respect for the work of our archaeological cousins in the historical trade, I have trouble with presentations like those at Cahokia that raise more questions than they answer.  We have no real good way of knowing which image–the idyll that is presented at Cahokia or the more savage and brutal one proposed here–is correct.  Probably, like most of history, some of both.

USS Montezuma

Never heard of USS Montezuma?  You and nearly everyone else.  But a painting by an unknown artist triggered a search.

An acquaintance of mine is an art salvager, discovering treasures in the oddest of places and putting them in the hands of dealers and collectors who might appreciate them.  A 30 x 35 inch oil painting, dirty with age, came into his hands entitled “USS Montezuma,” and he asked me for help identifying it.  The American flagged vessel shown is two-masted and clipper-rigged in some sea fight somewhere, at some time, but these sorts of representations are almost always some flight of the artist’s fancy.

What is mysterious is that no commissioned sailing vessel of that name was ever on US Navy roles.  There is little mention of her in standard references, and only on a handful of Web sites. Apparently she was a Chesapeake-built merchantman purchased into US naval service in 1798 exclusively for the Quasi-war with France (1898-1900) and sold out of service before the conflict was over.  She was probably never enrolled in the Navy ship list because she may never have been serviced by the Navy (entered into a shipyard with a contract to overhaul or repair), so nothing was spent on her other than the original price. She just may not have lasted in service long enough to get into the record.

USS Montezuma was called an 18-gun sloop or a 20-gun brig, and is said to have been  armed with 12 pounder guns.  Given the nature of small warships, she may have been both sloop and brig at different times,  She may not have been a very good warship and given her short service life this seems probable.  “Long nines” (12-pounders) would have been a too heavy for a two-masted vessel.  These weighed more than 6,000 pounds each and required a crew of 12.  This over-arming was typical of American ships of the time, and may have adversely affected her handling and effectiveness.  Clipper rigs were said to be bad station-keepers, straining to run with the wind all the time.  Two-masted clippers were somewhat rare, the traditional “clipper ships” having three or more masts and being built from the 1820s to the end of the 19th century.

Since she was not rated a “ship” (three masts or more) at the time, and the Navy did not contract to build her (as they had the other non-ships in the books), and she was probably never repaired under contract, she was only remembered by a handful of people who served in her.  She may have been “present” when other ships in her squadron took prizes, but that only means she was in sight, within ten miles or so, which was all that was needed at the time to collect on prizes.  The painting itself may have been commissioned or made by an owner or crew member who thought more of her service than the US Navy apparently did.  A yard tender/light tug built in the 1930s was dubbed Montezuma; her fate is unknown.

Of all the different kinds of research done on topics like this, the unexpected is often the most entertaining.

The Sinking of HMS Goliath 13 May 1915

As an aside, it is interesting how the RN started the project with enthusiasm but as soon as they started to take serious casualties, they simply gave up.

War and Security

Following the amphibious landings at Cape Helles and Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915 Allied warships continued to give fire support to the troops. Their fire was not always accurate, but its potential benefitted the Allies in both physical and moral terms.[1]

Each night two battleships, escorted by five destroyers covered the right hand flank of the Allied position, giving fire support to the French at the ravine of Kereves Dere. On the night of 12-13 May Kapitänleutnant Rudolph Firle, a German officer serving with the Ottoman navy, was given permission to take the destroyer Muavenet-i Milliye, captained by Senior Lieutenant Ayasofyali Ahmed Saffed, to attack them.

The night was dark and foggy, with no moon, which helped the Muavenet to avoid the British destroyers. However, she was spotted and hailed by the battleship HMS Goliath at 1:15 am. The Ottomans made some sort of reply, the challenge…

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The Sinking of the Lusitania 7 May 1915

It should be noted that Lusitania was listed as a merchant cruiser (her conversion had been deferred). Had she survived she surely would have been employed as a troopship; the Germans already thought she was one..

War and Security

On 1 May 1915 the Cunard Liner RMS Lusitania, captained by Captain William Turner, left New York for Liverpool. The German Embassy to the USA took out advertisements in US newspapers warning passengers that the waters round the British Isles were a war zone in which merchant ships were liable to be sunk without warning. The German ad did not specifically mention the Lusitania or Cunard, but the most commonly reproduced version shows it to be placed below Cunard’s announcement of the departure times of its services to Liverpool.[1]170px-Lusitania_warning

The day before the Lusitania sailed, the German U-boat U-20departed from Germany. Her captain, Kapitänleutnant Walther Schweiger, had orders to attack transports off Liverpool.[2] He had been in command when U20 sank three British merchants hips off Le Havre on 30 January, before the German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare. He had also unsuccessfully tried…

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Forgotten Battles: Gorlice-Tarnow, May-June 1915



Undoubtedly, the year 1915 has been largely ignored, if not forgotten, by British historians of the First World War. In part, this is because the year was one of success for Central Powers and failure for the Entente. In the West, the ‘Iron Wall’ of the German army repelled numerous major Franco-British offensives with minimal losses. In the Dardanelles, Turkish forces had warded off all attacks by British and French naval and land forces and were poised to inflict a stinging defeat on the Entente. In Mesopotamia, the Turks had stopped a British advance and laid siege to this force at Kut-al-Amara. It was on the Eastern Front in 1915, however, that the Central Powers had their greatest successes. With the exception of a recent book by Richard DiNardo and one of my earlier books, these victories by the Central Powers in the east…

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