Lincoln as Strategist

21 07 2010

Another comment I made on Facebook the other day:

I saw a new book in the store today, The Grand Design: Strategy in the Civil War by Donald Stoker. Since the title has a colon in it, it must be a serious book ;-)

Anyway, this one quote from the jacket bothered me:

Lincoln, in contrast [to Jeff Davis], evolved a clear strategic vision, but he failed for years to make his generals implement it.

Here’s where I’m bothered: the statement implies that this vision of Lincoln’s evolved quickly relative to his attempts to get his generals to do what he wanted. And also implicit is the notion that he clearly and effectively communicated this vision to those same generals. I’m not sure I’m in agreement. Has anyone read this yet?





Interview: Larry Tagg, “The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln”

18 07 2010

Larry Tagg is the author of 2009’s The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln: The Story of America’s Most Reviled President.  Recently he took time to respond to some questions for Bull Runnings.

BR:  Larry, your background has been a topic of discussion due to its unique character.

LT:  I was born in Lincoln, Illinois. After living in the Land of Lincoln for eight years, my family moved to Dallas, Texas, where my father was Minister of Music at the Highland Park Presbyterian Church. As a high school senior, I won the city-wide high school extemporaneous writing contest. (I was lucky. The prompt was “Describe a concert,” and just the week before I had seen Jimi Hendrix for the first time, just after the release of Are You Experienced? Security was lax at the State Fair Music Hall in those days, and after the show I jumped onstage and walked backstage to Jimi’s dressing room, where I talked to his drummer, Mitch Mitchell. Jimi was across the room talking to someone else.)

I attended the University of North Texas, graduating cum laude in Philosophy in two years, and I was awarded a teaching assistantship at the University of Texas. After one semester of graduate school I knew academia was not for me. I was more a musician—a bass player, singer, and songwriter.

I moved to California in 1978 with an excellent band, Uncle Rainbow, to record under the aegis of Michael Hossack, one of the Doobie Brothers. In 1985, my band Bourgeois Tagg—with Brent Bourgeois, Michael Urbano, Lyle Workman, and Scott Moon—was signed to Island Records. We recorded two albums and had two hits, Mutual Surrender and I Don’t Mind at All.  We toured Europe and America with Robert Palmer, Heart, Belinda Carlisle, and others.

After Bourgeois Tagg broke up in 1989 during the making of our third album, I toured as a bass player and singer with Todd Rundgren and Hall and Oates. (My audition gig with Hall and Oates was in front of a million people at the Great Meadow in Central Park on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day.) During the 1990s I was signed as a staff songwriter by Warner Chappell Music. My songs were recorded by Eddie Money, Kim Carnes, Cliff Richard, and others. I released two solo albums—With a Skeleton Crew and Rover—in Europe and America.

By the mid-90s I had a family, and the road had lost much of its allure. I became in English and drama teacher and Lead Teacher of the Arts Academy at Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento, California. While I taught I began writing in my spare time. My first book, The Generals of Gettysburg, was published in 1998 by Savas Publishing, and the paperback edition appeared a couple of years later on Da Capo.

The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln, my latest book, took me about 7 years to research and write. It was a labor of love, of course. I love the scavenger hunt that is research, and I love trying to make the words come out right.

BR:  How long has Abraham Lincoln been a focus of your studies? 

LT:  Lincoln has been the focus of my studies since about 2001, when I was working on a follow-up to my book The Generals of Gettysburg.  Since I hadn’t seen a good history of the Army of the Potomac since Bruce Catton, I was working on a new history of that army that would take advantage of all the research that’s been done in the last 50 years, and which would concentrate more on the effects that the relationships between its generals had on the battles it fought.  I was starting at the very beginning, with Winfield Scott and Charles Stone and the District of Columbia militia during the Secession Crisis.

BR:  What first got you interested in tackling his “unpopular” side? 

LT:  Right away, I started turning up an alarming number of disparaging references by the generals to their Commander-in-Chief, Abraham Lincoln.  It seemed like none of them took him seriously, or worse, thought he was an ignoramus, totally overmatched by the crisis.  That jarred me, since it didn’t square with my education on The Great Emancipator, and it made me curious.  The more I looked into opinion on Lincoln, both within the army and without, the more incredibly poisonous stuff I found.   I thought, “Here’s the story!”

BR:  What challenges did the project present?

LT:  The most serious challenge in writing The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln was not to find material.  That abounded—I ended up including in the book only the “10s” on a 1-to-10 scale of slurs I found on Lincoln.  The hard part was walking the line between including enough examples of the violent criticism of Lincoln to make the book a good resource on one hand and writing a good narrative on the other hand.  I had to go to the University of California to send for microfiche of Democratic newspapers, then wade through those for hours sitting at a microfiche reader.  I had to be careful to balance those obviously biased sources with neutral observers that were more valuable as indicators of the lack of political support Lincoln had during almost his entire time in office.  I am also careful, on any Civil War topic, to take with a grain of salt any reminiscences written by the participants later in the century—these were so clouded over, after hundreds of dinner speeches and rose-colored retellings, that they’re not worth much.

BR:  Tell us about The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln.

LT:  The thesis of the book is that Abraham Lincoln accomplished more with less political capital than any other figure in American history.  I think the book is particularly valuable where it discusses the context of his presidency, the tenor of the times—I am particularly grateful to reviewers who appreciate these chapters of the book.  Lincoln was president when respect for all authority was at low ebb, and when respect for the presidency as an institution was at its lowest point.  (Just last week, I saw a new poll on presidents, and, as usual, the four presidents preceding Lincoln were in the bottom ten.  The low quality of presidents was the result of the same boss-run party system that produced Lincoln, and Americans of that time were increasingly horrified by the quality of the presidents produced by the system.  Lincoln seemed to many to be the worst of the lot.  As a result of the seeming capriciousness of his nomination by the Republicans in 1860, wags titled Lincoln “His Accidency.”)  Once he took office, he inherited a political milieu so overheated that everyone had flown to extremes right and left, which soon left Lincoln, a moderate, alone in the middle.  I think that the more one knows about this context, the more one appreciates what he was able to accomplish.

The audience for the book was not academia, although I am a teacher myself.  I was extremely scrupulous with my research and my conclusions so that my book would stand up to academic scrutiny, but I wrote for an intelligent general audience.  I have to say I continue to be amazed that this book had not been written before.  (As a songwriter, I knew a great song when I heard it and thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?”)  I think the “angle” I took in The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln is a particularly powerful one for studying Lincoln the President, the mood of the North, and the politics of the Civil War.  I recommend it as a primer on those closely related subjects.  Besides my effort as a historian, I also put in a lot of effort as a writer.  It is a great story—a wild ride.

BR:  Did you find out anything while researching The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln that changed – or reinforced – any opinions you already had?

LT:  It’s funny that in researching a book about how little people thought of Lincoln at the time, I can’t remember anything I found made me think less of Lincoln—the experience only added to my esteem for him.  Politician is so often used as an epithet, and Lincoln, who was an unapologetic, bare-knuckles fighter of a politician—reminds us how a great politician can be a crucial asset to the American people.  As a writer, I loved reading what Lincoln wrote; even his everyday notes to generals and politicians had a sinewy quality to them, a unique ability to see to the heart of a problem, small or large.  Along with the rigor of his logic, there was a gentleness and a humor in his writing that is the most incontrovertible testimony to his character.  However, I am not among those who think Lincoln was a military genius.  Although he was an excellent student of military principles, his lack of knowledge about logistics and the friction of war made him a poor general-in-chief, which he was for the four months that ended with the disaster of the Peninsula Campaign.  Also, he had inherited the racial prejudices of his place and time, and his flirtations with projects to deport African-Americans are embarrassing to us now.  However, they were serious attempts to solve monumental, centuries-old national problems, and it was with regard to race that he showed the most growth as a man and leader.

BR:  Considering Lincoln’s continuing unpopularity with Congress after Lee’s surrender, what’s your opinion of his prospects of successfully achieving a “soft” peace with the former Confederates and implementing the details of emancipation, while at the same time satisfying the Radicals?

LT:  Yes, Lincoln was still considered an enemy by the Radicals who controlled Congress, and his prospect of pleasing them, while he tried in his usual gentle way to make Southern governments out of nothing, were nil.  Andrew Johnson at least had a honeymoon period with the Radicals, while Lincoln had never been their man.  However, Lincoln was without a doubt the best man to establish a “soft” peace with the former Confederate states.  I consider the next hundred years, the hundred years of Jim Crow rule in the South, to be the biggest what if in American history:  I think Jim Crow might have been avoided if Lincoln had lived.  He was the one man who best knew how to navigate on the race question, and a president not squeamish about using presidential power to advance Jefferson’s principle that “all men are created equal.” 

BR:  How has the book been received?  [Tagg’s response here is brief and modest.  Personally I’ve noticed a profound silence from the Lincoln “establishment” on this, in my opinion, very important book, which gives us a rare look at Lincoln as he was viewed without the prism of martyrdom.]

LT:  The response to the book by those who have read it has been all I could have hoped.  However, not very many people have read it.
 
BR:  What’s next for you?

 LT:  I look around for quite a while to find a great subject before I start writing.  So I’m in the “read, read, read” phase right now, which precedes the research phase of my book writing.  Two subjects have struck me.  One is the two-week period after Fort Sumter when Maryland teetered on secession and Washington—with the entire government apparatus—was surrounded by rebellion and almost totally unprotected.  I think that could be a “cinematic” narrative, and tramping around Maryland to find primary sources on those two weeks would be fascinating (though not easy; I live in California).  The other subject is Lincoln and the Thirteenth Amendment, an act in which, unlike the Emancipation Proclamation, he did not take the initiative.  I think there’s probably a good story there—he was trying to get re-elected at the same time, and his feelings toward a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery were complicated.  I’ve got about six books next to my bed on that subject right now (though none specifically treats Lincoln’s role, which is good).  I may also write a book on statistical research on Civil War battles, a subject I’ve been gathering material on for about twenty years, especially since I’m now working with the company that has produced Scourge of War: Gettysburg, an excellent computer strategy game on the Battle of Gettysburg.

These would be smaller books than The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln—I’m in the mood to concentrate on a smaller subject.  I think, however, that The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln will be the “big book” to which people will return.

 Thanks to Larry for taking the time to share his thoughts with us all, and we look forward to his future work.  I’m intrigued by anyone who has an interest in exploring the numbers of the Civil War – it’s decidedly un-sexy but can be enormously enlightening.  Remember back when folks thought Lee was outnumbered by McClellan during Seven Days

Pick up a copy of The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln and give it a read.  You’ll be glad you did.

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Spinning My Wheels as Fast as I Can – Again

7 07 2010

Just an update on what’s going on here at Bull Runnings.  Despite an increased “real job” work load, I’ve got a few things going.  I’ve sent out the first round of questions for four author interviews.  The questions were fairly broad, so I think it will take a little while for the subject’s to get back to me.  But when they do, I’ll have nice previews of three very important books and one quarterly publication.

Bynum’s book continues and expands on her work on the definitive history of The Free State of Jones.  Clemens’s and Tagg’s books are perhaps the most important releases of 2009 and 2010.  And Lesley Gordon has some interesting plans for the long running academic journal.

Stay tuned.

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No, Honey, Your Big Butt Makes You Look Fat, Not the Dress

3 07 2010

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UC4K6n1iCgc

Awesome.  Fireworks to follow.

Happy Independence Day!





How First Bull Run was REALLY Lost

4 03 2010

Well, Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter hit the shelves day before yesterday.  By most accounts it’s a big hit, and may even be made into a movie (unlike some folks, I don’t see Johnny Depp as Abe – maybe John Wilkes Booth).  Anyway, seeing the book in Barnes and Noble today reminded me that there’s an, umm, interesting account of the fighting at Bull Run, and what turned the tide for the Confederacy.  An enlisted man in a Massachusetts regiment wrote home to his wife after the battle, in a letter residing in the Harvard University Archives (where it “has long been mistaken for a work of epistolary fiction”):

We had [the Confederates] whipped at the start.  Blessed with greater numbers, we drove south up Henry House Hill, and into a group of trees at its peak.  What a sight to see them scatter like mice!  To see our ranks spread half a mile wide!  Th hear the cracking of gunpowder from all directions!

“Let us chase them all the way to Georgia!” cried Colonel Hunter, to the delight of the men.

As we neared the top of the hill, the rebels covered their retreat by firing on us.  The gun smoke grew so thick that one could scarcely see ten yards into the trees where they hid.  From behind this curtain of smoke suddenly came a chorus of wild yells.  The voices of twenty or thirty men, growing louder by the moment.  “First Ranks!  Fix bayonets!” ordered the colonel.  As they did, a small band of Confederates emerged from the smoke, running toward us as fast as any men have ever run.  Even from a distance, I could see their strange, wild eyes.  There was not a rifle, or a pistol, or a sword among them.

Our first ranks began to fire, yet their rifles seemed to have no effect.  Melissa, I swear until my grave that I saw bullets strike these men in their chests.  In their limbs and faces. Yet they continued to charge as if they had not been hit at all!  The rebels smashed into our ranks and tore men apart all in front of my eyes.  I do not mean to suggest that they ran them through with bayonets, or fired on them with revolvers.  I mean to say that these rebels–these thirty unarmed men–tore one hundred men to pieces with nothing more than their bare hands.  I saw arms pulled off.  Heads twisted backward.  I saw blood pour from the throats and bellies of men gutted by mere fingertips; a boy grasping at the holes where his eyes had been a moment before.  A private three yards in front of me had his rifle plucked away.  I was close enough to feel his blood on my face as its stock was used to smash his skull in.  Close enough to taste his death on my tongue.

Our lines broke.  I am not ashamed to say that I dropped my rifle and ran with the others, Melissa.  The rebels gave chase, overtaking and savaging men on either side of me as we retreated.  Their screams following me down the hill.

Well, there you have it.  As if we needed any more proof of the evil that was the so-called Confederacy.  Just for fun,though, care to take a stab at the factual accuracy of the account, with the exception of bloodsucking assistance?

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Book Trailer – Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

2 03 2010

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a trailer for a book before, but this one is pretty cool.  It kind of reminds me of the Diet Mountain Dew commercial with a shirtless Abe.  The book comes out today.  I previewed it here, and reviewed it here.  I’m thinking a film is likely.

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An 11-Year-Old on Abraham Lincoln: “Even if it meant being hated by most of the country”

18 02 2010

The guest poster today makes his debut on the internet, with last night’s homework assignment.  I think it’s terrific, but I’m a little biased.  As he gets older, I’m sure his thoughts on his hero will be refined, but I hope the central theme of his admiration as expressed in the penultimate sentence doesn’t change.

My Hero: Abraham Lincoln

by Joey Smeltzer

There are a lot of people that I look up to. Most of them are either athletes or politicians. But the person who I look up to the most is Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of United States. I look up to Abraham Lincoln because he was the President during one of the toughest times in American history: The Civil War. His goal was to free the slaves. Because of this, many people hated him. Everybody in the South hated him, and if that wasn’t bad enough, many people of the North hated him because they were upset with the way that he was running the Civil War or were against freeing the slaves. Yet he still managed to get elected President twice. As soon as he was nominated, he started getting death threats from people who were scared he was going to end slavery. When he got into office, the death threats got even worse. Even though people wanted to kill him, he still stood up for what he believed in. On April 14, 1865, he was finally assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. If he did not speak out against slavery, he probably would have never been assassinated. But he still did it because he knew what was right. Abraham Lincoln was my hero because he always did the right thing no matter what – even if it meant being hated by most of the country. I think everybody should try to be like Abraham Lincoln.

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