Harry Truman and VE Day

The 8th of May has been a very popular day for momentous events.  For one thing, it’s early enough in the traditional Northern Hemisphere’s spring “campaign season” to be able to mark battles like Palo Alto in 1846, and Spotsylvania in 1864, among many others.  But also on this day in 1541 Hernan DeSoto reached the Mississippi River near modern Memphis, Tennessee, and a new celebration for Armistice Day–11 November–was proposed in a London newspaper on this day in 1919.  But today, we’re going to remark on a coincidence too big to miss.

On 8 May 1888, Harry S. Truman was born at Lamar, Missouri (the “S” was chosen to honor both his grandfathers).  Living most of his youth on various farms in central Missouri, he didn’t attend a conventional school until he was eight. Truman worked various non-agricultural jobs around Independence and Kansas City, including haberdasher.  He finished high school in Independence but never finished college.  Even though he was legally blind he joined the Missouri National Guard in 1905.  In WWI he rose to the rank of captain in Battery D, 129th Artillery in the hard-luck 35th Infantry Division.  Even after the war, Truman officially stayed in the Army Reserves until he was retired a Colonel in 1953.

After WWI Truman became active in Missouri politics until 1934, when he won election to the US Senate with the backing of the notorious Pendergast political machine.  Despite the stink of corruption that wafted around him, Truman kept winning elections, freinds, and a reputation for integrity and plain-speaking. While investigating waste and fraud in the War Department during WWII he is thought to have saved billions of taxpayer dollars–and enough notoriety to get him on the cover of Time Magazine. Truman was popular…and electable.

When Truman was approached by party officials at the 1944 Chicago Democratic Convention to stand as FDR’s Vice President, it was realized at the time that Roosevelt’s health was deteriorating, and that a replacement for the sitting VP–the unpopular Henry A. Wallace–had to be found. FDR was elected to a fourth term with Truman as his running mate in November, but less than three months after he was sworn in as VP, Roosevelt died and Truman took the oath as president.

April 1945 was an awkward time for a two-term senator from a rural state to become the Commander in Chief of the most powerful force of military projection the world had yet seen. Nearly four million Americans were in uniform in over a hundred countries, and only fifteen sovereign states worldwide had not gone to war by that fateful spring.

Though the end of the war in Europe was in sight, the war against Japan did not appear to be abating.The Soviets were hammering Berlin from the suburbs while they shook hands and swapped uniforms with the Americans on the Elbe; Vienna was on fire; concentration camps containing stark testimony of the enormity of the Nazi’s crimes were being found daily; Tokyo or some major city in Japan was being razed every fifth night; on a high spot in the ocean called Okinawa nearly 70,000 American soldiers and Marines had begun a campaign that was planned to last a month but was to go on for nearly three.

By the end of April the carnage in Europe reached it’s horrible crescendo.  Hitler killed himself on 30 April; German forces in Italy surrendered effective 2 May; the Berlin surrendered on 3 May.  On the evening of 8 May, 1945–Harry Truman’s 61st birthday–the German authorities signed an Instrument of Surrender at Karlshorst, a Berlin suburb. “The mission of this command was concluded…” Dwight Eisenhower telegraphed his Commander in Chief that evening.  One wonders if Ike knew (or if Truman remembered) that Eisenhower’s older brother Arthur worked and lived with Truman in Kansas City before they both became famous.

When we think of all the coincidences in daily life, this one–VE Day on Truman’s birthday– hangs on for a while.

Budapest, Dresden, Hal Moore, and National Clean Out Your Computer Day

 

Mid-February, and even though tomorrow is St Valentine’s Day, we’re talking about WWII because this is the 13th of February.  Oh, there was Galileo before the Inquisition in 1633, and William and Mary of Nassau being proclaimed joint sovereigns of England in 1689, and the beginning of ASCAP in 1914, and the birth of Chuck Yeager in 1923, and Andrey Chernienko was named Premier of the Soviet Union in 1984.  But today we talk about massacres in war, and brave men, and clean computers.

The Germans managed to cobble together some 180,000 men under Karl Pfeffer Wildenbruch, a competent policeman untested in heavy combat against the Soviets.

By late 1945, the German Army was entirely on the defensive.  In an effort to slow the Soviet drives into Germany, and above all to prevent them from linking with the Anglo-Americans, the Germans planned to hold several urban areas in Eastern Europe and to knock the Soviet mobile offensives off-balance.  One of these cities was Budapest, the capital city of Hungary that had been a German ally until October 1944. The Germans managed to cobble together some 180,000 men under Karl Pfeffer Wildenbruch, a competent policeman untested in heavy combat against the Soviets. The Soviets, on the other hand, were to capture Budapest quickly before Stalin met with Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta.  To do this, Rodion Malinovski commanded something over half a million men. The fighting over Budapest started in October, 1944.  The last road out was cut on 26 December. The remnants of the German Luftwaffe could barely support itself, but tried valiantly to supply Budapest until the last airfield fell 27 December.  The Germans tried three separate offensives in January 1945 to break out or relieve the siege, and all failed.  On 11 February a last breakout attempt resulted in tens of thousands of German and Hungarian casualties and the capture of Wildenbruch.  On 13 February, the last of the German garrison in Budapest surrendered about 60,000 or so German and Hungarian troops (with an unknown number of civilians added as padding).  Predictably, while the German/Hungarian casualties amounted to 130,000 in the fifty-day siege, the Soviet/Romanian casualties were somewhat more.

Official German casualty figures for Dresden at the time add up to somewhere between 22,000 and 25,000, but the Germans purposely inflated the numbers to 200,000 for propaganda purposes…

While the siege of Budapest is not well known in the West, the bombing campaign of Dresden is.  Starting on 13 February 1945, the RAF and the USAAF struck the “Florence of the Elbe” three times in three days.  In all over 1,300 heavy bombers dropped some 3,900 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on the city, destroying 2 and a half square miles of the city (in contrast, the March 9-10 1945 firebombing of Tokyo destroyed a little over 15 square miles in a single raid).  Official German casualty figures for Dresden at the time add up to somewhere between 22,000 and 25,000, but the Germans purposely inflated the numbers to 200,000 for propaganda purposes, and Holocaust-denier David Irving has put them as high as 500,000 in his 1963 book The Destruction of Dresden.  American author Kurt Vonnegut, who was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the bombing and wrote about his experience in his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five, declared that 130,000 casualties were either buried or incinerated. However, a 2010 study commissioned by the Dresden city council found that no more than 25,000 people were killed in the three raids.

Though I never met Moore, I did meet a survivor of the Ia Drang fight who was hurt and had to be evacuated.  As he remembered it, Moore personally carried one leg of his litter.  Sometimes, that’s as close as we can come to greatness.  

Not every general gets to be better known for what he did as a colonel.  Custer was one of that exclusive club; Hal Moore was another.  Moore died last Friday, 10 April 2017 at the age of 94. Moore’s career before and after Ia Drang was notable only for its relative routine: he had no one of influence to help his career, and as a Kentuckian no particular hindrances, either.  He graduated West Point a year early in 1945 because the Army needed replacement officers.  Branched to the Infantry, he served in the 11th Airborne and 82nd Airborne divisions, and the 7th Infantry in Korea.  In 1965, Moore was in command of the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. In November of that year, 2/7th Cav was in the Ia Drang valley of the Central Highlands of Vietnam, short-stopping two North Vietnamese Army regiments in a long fight over Pleiku, operating out of a place called Drop Zone X-Ray.  While Moore and his men were credited with “winning” the fight at the time and Moore won a DSC, the fight convinced Ho Chi Minh that he could win. After Ia Drang and a series of career progressions, Moore retired from the Army a Lieutenant General in 1977.  He wrote three books, the best known being We Were Soldiers Once, and Young with Joseph Galloway published in 1992.  The 2002 Mel Gibson film We Were Soldiers was based on the book.  Though I never met Moore, I did meet a survivor of the Ia Drang fight who was hurt and had to be evacuated.  As he remembered it, Moore personally carried one leg of his litter.  Sometimes, that’s as close as we can come to greatness.

Nonetheless, a clean computer is a laudable, if relatively unachievable, goal.  

Then, there’s Clean Your Computer Day, which is the second Monday in February.  The day was originally sponsored in 2000 by the Institute for Business Technology, a for-profit trade school in Santa Clara, California. IBT probably once had some computer training, but at this writing they concentrate on other skilled trades, including HVAC technician, massage therapy, and various medical office jobs.  Nonetheless, a clean computer is a laudable, if relatively unachievable, goal.  I have two computers that I have to keep clean, and all that scrubbing and dusting does get tedious…and that bitbucket…always full.  Does anyone know of a way to keep the RAM from getting so dirty and full of fleas…wait…there it is again…come back here, you ignorant herbivore…there’s no ewes over there…!

The M1 Garand, the JCS, Luzon and National Clean Off Your Desk Day

It’s a new year, it’s Monday, and your redoubtable correspondent is once again hard at work bringing you….aw, you know all that.  This week there was the coronation of Philip V (the Tall) as King of france in 1317, France declaring war on Spain once again in 1718, the Ft Robinson revolt in 1879, and the end of the Gallipoli mess in 1916, but we’re going to explore three interconnected events in US military history, and the bane of office life: desk cleaning.

For the next seventeen years the Garand was the main issue rifle of all the American services, producing somewhat over five and a half million units at four different plants.

By the 1920s, the venerable M1903 bolt-action Springfield rifle was reaching the end of its useful life, by American lights anyway. Though reliable and accurate, American infantry  tactical doctrine was headed in a different direction, towards using more support weapons –machine guns and artillery–to do a bulk of the work while the soldiers maneuvered.  To that end John C. Garand (rhymes with errand) a Canadian born weapons designer at the Springfield Arsenal, developed a gas-operated rifle that used the same 30-06 Springfield ammunition as the M1903 Springfield and the standard M1919 machine gun.  This satisfied the parsimonious among the Army purchasing boards and the then chief of staff, Douglas MacArthur.  On 9 January 1937, after fifteen years of development and trials, the weapon was adopted by the Army, and designated the M1.  The rifle went into mass production after the fall of France in 1940. For the next seventeen years the Garand was the main issue rifle of all the American services, producing somewhat over five and a half million units at four different plants. Springfield and Winchester made M1s during WWII, Harrington and Richardson and International Harvester also made them from 1953 onwards.  Called by George Patton “the greatest battle implement ever devised,” the diversity and number of weapons in service was exceeded only by the Kalashnikov in the 1970s.

By 1942, with America just getting organized for WWII, military planners and their civilian counterparts realized that there was no true joint command of the US military like the British had, and it became difficult to even talk to their counterparts without some unified planning structure.

The US Army was late in coming to the idea of a general staff.  Both the Army and the Navy were run for decades by peculiar creatures called the Bureau System that, since before the Civil War, didn’t even answer to the Army’s top officer, the Commanding General, and the Navy’s senior commander was the Secretary of the Navy until 1915.  All that changed for the Army in 1903 when the last Commanding General of the Army, Nelson A. Miles, retired and Samuel BM Young stepped into office as the first Army Chief of Staff.  (Technically, Henry W. Halleck stepped into the role as Chief of Staff to Ulysses S. Grant in 1864, when Grant was promoted to LTG, and that role died when he retired in 1865). The Navy created the Chief of Naval Operations in January 1915 by regulation. From 1903 to 1942, the Army Chief of staff was the senior service’s senior officer. By 1942, with America just getting organized for WWII, military planners and their civilian counterparts realized that there was no true joint command of the US military like the British had, and it became difficult to even talk to their counterparts without some unified planning structure.  While William Leahy was Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief, he lacked both seniority and structure for any combined planning with the Army or the Air Forces.  To that end, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were formed on 9 January, 1942 as the head advisory body to the chief executive.  The first members were Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, Navy Chief of Naval Operations Harold R. Stark, Chief of the Army Air Forces Henry H. Arnold, and Commander in Chief of the US Fleet Ernest J. King.   While Leahy technically presided, and Stark was posted to London, the body was not in the US chain of command.  This changed in 1986 with the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which turned the US military into a far more combined force than it had ever been before.  The all-powerful bureaus were finally dead.

By 1944, the Joint Chiefs had come far from the early days of confusion and building, and the M1 Garand had gotten American forces to the front yard of the Japanese empire. 

On 11 March 1942, Douglas MacArthur committed the US to retaking the Philippines with his grandiose “I shall return” phrase to a group of Australian reporters.  The phrase, so hopeful and full of meaning from America’s senior officer, was flashed all over the world as a beacon of hope.  If asked, however, American planners would have bypassed the Philippines in favor of Formosa and the Pescadores off the China coast, but politically they were stuck with the Philippines.  By 1944, the Joint Chiefs had come far from the early days of confusion and building, and the M1 Garand had gotten American forces to the front yard of the Japanese empire. On 20 October 1944 MacArthur fulfilled his promise by stepping ashore on Leyte.  On 13 December 1944, American forces landed on Mindoro, within easy fighter cover range of Luzon, the largest island in the Philippine Archipelago. On 9 January 1945, American forces under Walter Krueger landed at Lingayen Gulf on the west coast of the island.  While the fighting in the Philippines would last until the very end of the war and even beyond, the Japanese defenders would fight beyond all hope of success.

In the words of that forever-anonymous wiseguy who made the first sign that read: “A cluttered desk is a sign of genius,” topped only by “A clean desk is a sign of a timid mind.”

And, since this is the second Monday in January, we get to celebrate/commemorate/ observe/ignore National Clean Off Your Desk Day! Legions of experts in business organization, industrial psychology and  website creation agree with the other blowhards meddling about among the real workers that a clean desk provides a sense of serenity and improves productivity.  However, as Einstein once quipped: “if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then is an empty desk a sign?” In the words of that forever-anonymous wiseguy who made the first sign that read: “A cluttered desk is a sign of genius,” topped only by “A clean desk is a sign of a timid mind.”  Words to live by, indeed.  But, ultimately, who has the time to come up with these things?

But last Friday was National Cuddle-Up Day, and no one knows where that came from, either, other than it got to a high of 9 degrees above here in the Great Lakes, and it seemed like a good idea.

Winchelsea, Hatteras Inlet and Copenhagen

Three naval battles share 29 August, roughly seven centuries apart.  However, they do have a common thread: The influence of maritime traffic and navies on national affairs.  Though the Hundred Year’s War, the American Civil War, and WWII in Europe are usually viewed as predominantly land wars, their naval aspects were crucial to the course of the land wars.

In the Edwardian phase  (1337-1360) of the Hundred Year’s War, piracy along the Breton coast was costing English merchants dearly.  Today we think of “piracy” as a private enterprise between civilians, but until the mid-19th century commerce raiding by ostensible civilians was often sanctioned if not actively supported by states and monarchs.  Castilian ships regularly captured English cargo ships and murdered their crews.  When a Castilian/Genoese fleet loaded with Flemish cargoes was headed to the Basque ports in August, 1350, Edward III and a fleet of English and Genoese ships struck the Castilians as they sailed south just off French coast, but the battle got its name from the old Kentish town of Winchelsea that the English fleet departed from.  While not much is known for certain about the battle itself except that the English ships were generally larger but were likely outnumbered. It was all-day affair in an age when naval battles were essentially land battles fought on ships.  The English flagship was sunk, but Edward managed to escape to a captured Spanish ship.  By the end of the day the English had captured more Castilian vessels (14 according to most sources) than they lost (two for certain, but perhaps more).  Winchelsea, also known as Les Espagnols sur Mer (“the Spaniards on the Sea”) was followed a year later by a peace treaty with Castile, which set the conditions for a treaty with Portugal in 1353 and the isolation of France in the century-long conflict over who ruled what part of France.  The treaty with Portugal was the foundation of English diplomacy for centuries.

[Winchelsea] was all-day affair in an age when naval battles were essentially land battles fought on ships

At the beginning of the American Civil War a small group of naval officers met in Washington as what became known as the Blockade Board.  After a week of discussions, they laid a long-term plan for beginning the longest and largest blockade that had been conducted since the Declaration of Paris in 1856.  How they planned to do it with fewer than fifty warships in commission was anyone’s guess.  But, soon, it became clear that the Union wouldn’t have to blockade every port to have a maximum effect, just those served by railroads.  This simple conclusion reduced the number of seceded state ports to be covered–immediately, anyway–from fifty to less than twenty.  The first target was not a port directly but a place where blockading ships could seek refuge and resupply: the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  The Outer Banks had also been harboring a number of Confederate raiders and privateers.  The battle of the Hatteras Inlet Batteries on 28-29 August 1861–also known as Forts Clark and Hatteras–pitted seven ships of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron under Silas Stringham that was carrying parts of volunteer regiments and a handful of Regulars under Benjamin Butler against less than a thousand Confederates under WIlliam Martin and Samuel Barron manning two incomplete earthwork forts.  Landing the troops under bombardment on 28 August, there was little initial progress in part owing to bad weather which kept the largest Union ships far out to sea.  On 29 August the seas moderated and the big guns started blasting the beleaguered Confederates who, as so often was the case in the 1861-65 conflict, stood no chance of being reinforced.  At about 11 AM Barron surrendered, and just short of 700 men went into captivity.  The victory buoyed Union morale shortly after the disaster at Bull Run just a month before, and ended a threat to Union shipping that had already begun to be felt.

…the Union wouldn’t have to blockade every port, just those served by railroads.  This reduced the number of ports to be covered from fifty to less than twenty.

After April 1940, when Denmark was overrun in a nearly bloodless campaign by Germany, Denmark lived a primarily twilight existence as a “protectorate,” where most Danish institutions continued unchanged (including the monarchy). Danes even joined in the war against the Soviet Union. Most of the Danish Navy was in Copenhagen, though some units had been caught in Iceland, Greenland and the Faeroe Islands when the country surrendered, and had been working with the Allies. More Danes were killed in merchant marine service and in the Danish “Free Corps” fighting in Russia than as a result of the invasion and the occupation.  But, by 1943, Danish semi-neutrality was wearing thin. Niels Bohr had scattered Denmark’s best scientists all over the world before the invasion, and was profoundly uninterested in helping Germany’s nuclear ambitions.  Allied saboteurs and agents found easy egress into Europe through Denmark’s porous border with Sweden. King Christian was accused of disrespecting Hitler because of his brief response to one of Hitler’s overlong personal communications. Refusal to institute capital punishment for sabotage, failure to turn over Danish Jews, and a host of other perceived slights and offenses, aggravated by  the imminent fall of the Italian government and the Allied success in Sicily, moved the Germans to close down the Danish government and seize the ships in the Copenhagen dockyards in late August. On 29 August, 1943, scuttling charges destroyed thirty-two of them, leaving just fourteen small  vessels to the Germans.  Germany’s navy was small to begin with, and built on commerce raiding.  Denmark’s even smaller fleet included nine submarines, but even more minecraft–important commodities when the Germans and Russian between them had sewn more than a million sea mines in the eastern Baltic by then.

More Danes were killed in merchant marine service and in the Danish “Free Corps” fighting in Russia than as a result of the invasion and the occupation.

The English naval response to the Castilian nautical depredations could have been said to set the pace for the rest of the first half of the Hundred Year’s War, if there was a pace to that disjointed conflict. While the blockade that the Union Navy envisioned would take nearly two years to be emplaced, it would still be somewhat porous even to the end.  Still, no blockade could or should ever be perfect.  Winchelsea and Cape Hatteras had a great deal to do with trade, while the mass suicide of the Danish Navy, like that of the German High Seas Fleet in 1919, was at least in part to do with spite.  Sometimes, that is all that’s needed.  In capital-intensive naval warfare, where a single fleet unit can cost as much  to build, supply and operate for a month as a thousand land soldiers might cost in a year, the cost and pace of naval activity can rarely be judged by three actions.  But by destroying a Castilian fleet, grabbing a blockade base, and denying an important small-ship asset to a resource-starved enemy, England, the Union, and Denmark demonstrated, even if in a small way, how important navies can be to larger conflicts.

Roncevaux Pass, Napoleon and Anvil-Dragoon

One of the best things about looking at history through a somewhat empirical lens is that the skilled practitioner can make correlations that were simply not possible to contemporaries of events.  Then again, so can semi-competent duffers like your current correspondent.  Such is the correlation we can make with 15 August and France’s fate.

Roncevaux Pass was an ambush by a largely Christian Basque guerilla force and the rearguard of Charlemagne’s retreating army after his invasion of northern Spain on this day in the year 778.  The action killed Roland, the commander, and created a legend in the Christian-Moor conflict that would rage for another three centuries.  It also immortalized the sacrifices of Christian “knights” and other semi-nobles that would depict them largely as stories would depict them for generations: pure-hearted, noble-browed heroes on horseback in shining armor.  That most were paladins–soldiers for hire–seems to be left out.

Roncevaux Pass immortalized the Christian knights as pure-hearted, noble-browed heroes on horseback in shining armor.

On 14 August 1769 Napoleon Bonaparte was born to minor French nobility in Ajaccio, Corsica.  He was the master of Europe before he was thirty-five, by which time he was well on the way to destroying it as it was known under the Bourbons.  It was Napoleon who won France’s  last major war (War of the Sixth Coalition) in 1809: even if they were “victors” in WWI and WWII, France is better described as having survived, rather than “won.”  Napoleon, for good or ill, ingrained “libertie, egalitie, fraternitie” into the French soul even as he destroyed the economy, abandoned two armies in the field (Egypt and Russia), and became a romantic legend on both sides of the Atlantic that grew larger with each successive generation.

Napoleon, for good or ill, ingrained “libertie, egalitie, fraternitie” into the French soul

And, on this date in 1944, France managed to redeem itself somewhat for the disasters of 1815 and 1940, with their rebuilt army’s superb performance during the invasion of Southern France known in history as Operation Anvil-Dragoon   Originally intended to be conducted simultaneously with the better-known Overlord landings in Normandy, the landings on the French Riviera had to wait for landing craft.  Legend has it that Winston Churchill was unhappy with what he saw as a diversion from more important turf in the Balkans (contemporary discussion says this is not as true as Churchill would have later stated it was).  So, according to legend, the name Operation Anvil was changed to Dragoon because Churchill was “dragooned” into supporting it, though the reason for the name change was somewhat more prosaic and not Churchill’s at all.

...the landings on the French Riviera had to wait for landing craft.

Ultimately, in the distance of time, we can see that 14 August, for France, was just another day, though in 1945 it was, like the rest of the world, a relief when Japan agreed to surrender and the Showa Emperor Hirohito publicly agreed with the broadcast of the Imperial Rescript in 15 August, 1945.  But legends like the romantic knights of French stories, the “genius” of Napoleon and the landings in Southern France live on, as do the legends of a Japanese “surrender” by a “government” that was anything but.  But that’s another story.

11 November: Nat Turner, VMI, George Patton, and The War to End All Wars…That Wasn’t

It is axiomatic for a  military history scrivener such as myself to write about the end of World War I on Armistice/Remembrance/Veteran’s Day.  And I shall…in a moment.  First we should take a moment to consider that other things happened on that day in other years, both before and after.

In 1831, a Virginia slave, lay preacher and mystic named Nat Turner interpreted from the two solar eclipses of that year that the time was right for a slave rebellion.  There had been eleven such risings in the United States since 1712, the latest before Turner’s was in South Carolina known as the Denmark Vesey revolt in 1822.  On 21 August 1831, the revolt began.  For two days the seventy slaves and free blacks that participated in the rising ravaged farms and homes in Southampton County, Virginia, eventually killing some sixty white men, women and children.   As local militias rounded up and arrested the rebels, Turner hid out until 30 October.  Tried for servile insurrection rather than murder, Turner was hanged on 11 November 1831.  The Nat Turner Revolt, as it has been called since, sent a chill through the slave-holding South second only to the the more successful slave revolt in Haiti in 1804 that resulted in hundreds of slave owners being brutally murdered.  New and repressive laws were passed restricting slave social activities and what few liberties they had.

In 1839, the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) was founded in Lexington.  Originally one of several Virginia arsenals set up after the War of 1812, the first President was Claudius Crozet, a French-born graduate of the exclusive Ecole Polytechnique engineering school who had taught at West Point.   VMI has produced some of America’s best soldiers, including George C. Marshall, Lemuel Shepard, Leonard Gerow, and John Jumper.

On this day in 1885, in San Gabriel, California, George Smith Patton Junior was born.  Georgie, as he was called by his family, always had a marital career in mind.  He attended VMI as an undergraduate before being accepted at West Point.  Graduating 46th in a class of 103 in 1909, he was branched to the cavalry.  Patton always had a mind of his own, and a private fortune to back it up, so his career was only limited by his ability to get higher postings.  While he was a superb organizer and tactician he had little patience for those who disagreed with his plans, including his superiors.  Patton did not understand that the larger the units the bigger the politics and public exposure, and refused in some cases to be anything other than his own vision of marital glory.  Even as he rose in the ranks the consensus was that he was useful, but not indispensable.  As a tactical commander he was useful: as a senior officer, less so.  His death in a traffic accident in 1945 put a counterpoint on a style of soldier who had outlived its usefulness.

And on 11 November, 1918, when the guns finally fell silent on the Western Front, the killing did not yet stop, not for several days.  Parts of the Meuse-Argonne sector, where the Americans had been attacking since September, were out of communications, and the German forces in Africa wouldn’t get the word of the surrender at Compiegne.  Aside from that, Russia was in civil war, Germany was in revolution, and Austria and Hungary were in chaos,  Worse, the 1918 Influenza was still killing people at a rate that made the Western Front seem…amateurish…and was not a respecter of non-combatants or borders.  While the war caused some ten million dead directly, the influenza probably killed one hundred million, affecting one in four people on the face of the earth before it died out in 1921.

It Wasn’t Supposed To Be This Way

It was the first Sunday morning in April–6 April, 1862, and had been raining for days in south central Tennessee.  The boys from Illinois and Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota, Indiana and Iowa were just waking up.  Down the Tennessee River, to the north of the 35,000 man Army of West Tennessee’s encampment, Ulysses S. Grant was at breakfast in his headquarters steamboat Tigress.near William Cherry’s mansion..  The northern boys were in those pine barrens split by creeks and streams because Corinth, Mississippi  was important.  The junction of four rail lines was just a day’s ride to the southwest, and this flatboat near Pitts Tucker’s long forgotten saloon–called Pittsburg Landing by then, was the best boat landing closest to the only road to Corinth that was thought (wrongly, as it turned out) to be complete with adequate space for an army.

For six days before that Sunday a 40,000 man Confederate Army of Mississippi under Albert Sidney Johnson had marched through the mud and water to position itself to the south and west of Grant’s.  William T. Sherman, who was encamped at a Methodist meeting house called Shiloh Church,  “knew” that Johnston was cowering at Corinth, waiting for Grant’s army to come and crush them.

It was not quite five in the morning when it started.  A bunch of Mississippi boys from William H Hardee’s corps ran into a bunch of Missouri and Michigan boys from Benjamin J. Prentiss’s division in the dark.  The Unionists were outnumbered and fell back to their camps, where they found the rest of the division, likely all  of two thousand or so, just getting out of their tents and falling in on the company streets.  Few had ever seen combat before.  Many never would again, but the first thunderous blast from Prentiss’ two brigades into Hardee’s men at about a hundred yards was probably what Grant and his staff heard nine river miles away that made them end their breakfast and cast off for Pittsburg Landing.  The time was about 7:00 AM.

Prentiss’ men held on for probably 45 minutes.  His command gradually disintegrated as Hardee’s and then Braxton Bragg’s corps edged closer and closer.  His two batteries finally pulled out and the last of Prentiss’ stalwarts broke for the rear.

The other Federals shook themselves out of their tents as the noise grew: the “bayoneted in their tents” meme of Shiloh has always been a myth.  Sherman finally came to understand what all the fuss was about for the past three days that he had been getting reports of Confederate movement when his aide was decapitated next to him that morning.  “My God,” he is said to have muttered, “we are attacked.”  After that bit of understatement, he lost two horses and was wounded five times that day.  John A. McClernand, another Federal division commander, sent a brigade south to join Sherman’s open flank to Prentiss’ while Stephen A. Hurlbut and WHL Wallace shook out their divisions and marched to the sound of guns.

The Confederates drove into every successive Federal line like a rising tide, but it was 10: in the morning before Sherman and McClernand’s forces were overwhelmed.  By then Prentiss’s survivors had combined with Wallace’s and Hurlbut’s arriving men to form around a small pond, several stands of woods, a sunken road and a peach orchard, where they stood for the next seven hours against more than a dozen brigade-sized attacks.  Grant had told Prentiss to hold onto his position “at all hazards” because the road around it was the direct route to Pittsburg Landing.

Despite their early success, Johnston’s army was hardly a well-oiled machine.  The officers had hardly any experience with commanding men on drill fields, let alone a battle field: most brigades had yet to create a morning report.  Regiments and even whole brigades were often found simply standing around in the Confederate rear.  Much of the army’s ammunition was stuck in a titanic traffic jam on the Corinth road; the army’s medical director was down with pneumonia.  There was little coordination between the disparate forces slamming the Federals.

By 2:00 that afternoon Prentiss’ survivors, about a third of Grant’s artillery, and Hurlbut’s and Wallace’s divisions were holding off attack after attack in a position on the Federal left that came to be called the Hornet’s Nest when Johnston caught a hot piece of metal behind his knee that killed him in half an hour.   By that time the fight around the pond and the peach orchard had devolved into a maelstrom of screaming metal and choking smoke, dying men and frustration.

On the Federal right, with a yawning gap that might have accommodated a Confederate division, Sherman and McClernand built line after line of men and guns they could get to stand for a few minutes: at least nine lines in ten hours.  All along the fighting line on both sides the fight was a desperate race against time and exhaustion, hunger and dehydration.  Water sources near the fighting line, despite the recent rains, were quickly exhausted or polluted by the dead and dying.  Gunners urinated into buckets so the guns could be swabbed; infantrymen discarded muskets after they became too fouled to load.

Behind the Confederate lines Daniel Ruggels organized the elements of a grand battery that would pin down the Federal guns in the Hornet’s Nest so that an infantry attack could finally push the Federals back against the Tennessee River.  On the eastern shore of the river, separated by the swollen torrent, Don C. Buell’s Army of the Ohio was scrambling to get across, but was badly placed to load on the steamboats, having only partly arrived just the day before after a fifteen day route march.  Footsore and short on food, William A. Nelson’s division gathered steamboats for the half-mile crossing of the river.  Miles away to the north, Lew Wallace’s Federal division marched to the sound of the guns, but was delayed by confused interpretations of Grant’s orders and arguments as to routes.

By 4:30 Ruggels’ grand battery was forcing the Federal guns to pull out of the Hornet’s Nest.  The few Federal infantrymen still on their feet clung to what cover they could find.  At the Landing behind them, men and animals strained to unload the steamboats loaded with heavy artillery, ammunition and the odd infantry regiment.  Refugees from the battle started to arrive at the Landing and the bluffs above it soon after the battle commenced.  By nightfall thousands of frightened men, women and children huddled under the bluffs waiting for the fighting to end.  The roads and trails were jammed with traffic going both ways all day.

By 5:00 the Hornet’s Nest collapsed as parts of five Confederate brigades pushed into the woods, capturing guns and Prentiss, a dying WHL Wallace, men and a geographic feature that they didn’t need.  The only reason that Johnston, then his successor Pierre G.T. Beauregard had been mesmerized by the place was because the Federals were there: sidestepping it would have been easy.  But the Confederates couldn’t see that at this stage of the war, their tactical reconnaissance at that time was nearly non-existent and their staff work was abysmal.  But behind the Hornet’s Nest there had been building a Federal grand battery, called alternately Webster’s Battery (after Grant’s chief of staff John Webster) or Grant’s Last Line. By 5:30 a brigade of Nelson’s division had got across and positioned themselves near the Landing, anchoring Grant’s line on the river.  At the other end of the line, Sherman and McClernand shoved what men and guns in they could grab into a semblance of a fighting line.  In between were more survivors and a half a dozen gun batteries that had yet to fire a shot   As two Confederate brigades–one without ammunition–inched closer to Grant’s line at about 6:00, the line erupted in a storm of fire and metal that was heard at Savanna nine miles away.  The shock wave blew off men’s hats and broke a mule’s back.  The Confederate attack ground to a halt; the sun went down at about 6:15; Beauregard stopped offensive attacks at 6:30; Lew Wallace’s division arrived near the Landing at about 7:00.

Through the night Buell’s men and guns were hustled across, but it was a logistic nightmare.  Landing stages were too small; the guns and horses had to be manhandled and hoisted; crowds of refugees partly blocked the Landing; the rain started again at about 10:00; steamboat skippers, few of whom knew the treacherous Tennessee well, were reluctant to break the sabbath to brave the rain-swollen river in the dark with so much traffic on it.  But by daybreak about 12,000 of Buell’s 32,000 men were across, and another gun battery.  Grant still outnumbered him, with about 25,000 men and fifty-odd guns on the line.  But few of the Federal guns had horses for limbers, let alone caissons or ammunition wagons.  Buell had brought few reloads, using most of his cargo space to bring riflemen across.

During the long night the Confederates did little to consolidate their position, feed their men or even resupply them with ammunition.  There were some 20,000 casualties on this field, a charnel house of some eight square miles.  Through the night two Federal gunboats shelled the Confederate line, some say without effect   While the physical damage was certainly small, the morale effect was great.  Every shot fired reminded the Confederates that as long as the Union gunboats were on the river, they would not be able to cross.  The nearest bridge was forty miles away, up the river.

In the morning Grant and Buell attacked the Confederates and pushed them off the battlefield.  Until mid-afternoon on 7 April Beauregard expected Earl Van Dorn’s 18,000 men from across the Mississippi to march up the road from Corinth.  Little did he know that Van Dorn’s army had saluted the Confederate “victory” at Shiloh while waiting for steamboats on the White River some four hundred miles to the west that same morning.

In his retreat Beauregard left behind thousands of his wounded, which were just a fraction of some 23,000 casualties, including about 3,000 dead, in two days of fighting.  The numbers shocked both North and South, and staggered financial markets worldwide.  In two days more Americans had been killed and injured from 19 April 1775 to 5 April 1862.  But war wasn’t supposed to be like this.  Up until Shiloh war for Americans was a lark; an adventure of men and animals, colorful uniforms and precision marching, dancing flags and cheering crowds.  Battles were supposed to end in parades, not abattoirs.

Exactly fifty-five years later, America was at war with Germany.  Woodrow Wilson had asked Congress for a war declaration on 2 April 1917.  Congress voted on it on 4 April, and it went into effect on 6 April.  It had come after hundreds of Americans died in passenger ships that the Germans torpedoed without warning, after a veiled threat of a German alliance with Mexico and Japan, after America had offered to mediate a just peace in Europe over and over again since 1914.

For Wilson it was a personal disappointment, but the decision for war he felt became inevitable because of Prussian intransigence. Long striving for progressive principles,  Wilson, whose father was with the Confederate army briefly, earnestly believed that men and nations should work out their differences peacefully, with solemn treaties openly arrived at.  That such beliefs should end in places called Tannenberg and Verdun and Argonne was to Wilson and his fellow progressives an aberration of human progress.

Humanity wasn’t supposed to be this way.  But it was.