Cry Havoc!

28 02 2007

cryhavoc.jpgI’ve been agonizing over the writing of two book “reviews” for over a week.  It’s been difficult because I really liked both books, but I’m concerned that my criticisms may overwhelm those assessments.  So let me preface this recap of the first book, Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861 by Nelson D. Lankford, by saying I give it a thumbs up.  Also note that I have no delusions about the potential influence of my comments, as I am just a guy who likes to read about the period.

Cry Havoc!, as the full title implies, is primarily concerned with the period between the formation of the Confederacy by the “lower south” and the moments of decision affecting the remaining “upper south” states.  The prologue covers John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and Chapter 1 picks up with Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861.  As such, the causes of secession are not explored in depth.  Lankford correctly identifies the central issue as slavery, and the word “tariff” happily does not even appear in the index.  The book focuses on the struggle for the at-heart loyal upper south, the prize sought by both the Federal government and that of the new Confederacy.

The book’s strengths are substantial.  Lankford has a nice style, and the story is an easy read which in and of itself is a rarity in Civil War literature.  He does a good job of telling what happened when and, generally, why.  Various primary accounts, mostly newspapers, are mixed in with many of the standard secondary sources.  These strengths outweigh what to me are some flaws.

Where the book falls short is in the execution of its “hook”.  Each chapter identifies various turning points at which, if things had been handled differently, events might have been profoundly affected.  The problem is that the alternative choices are seldom specific, and the alternative outcomes are rarely identified.  Think of the 1927 World Series, which pitted the Pittsburgh Pirates against what was arguably the greatest team ever to take any baseball field, the New York Yankees – Murderer’s Row (though I think a good case can be made for the ’29 A’s).  The Bucs lost in 4 games.  Would things have been different had they won Game 1?  Sure.  But how could they have won that game, and how could the series have turned out differently as a result?  That’s the hard part.

Another problem is the failure of the author to recognize that the fundamental difference between the Union and the seceded states were their mutually exclusive objectives – Union or Disunion.  The failure of most peace at any cost arguments is a refusal to recognize the costs.  The corollary to peace at any cost is that every man, or every ideal, can be bought.  In the case of mutually exclusive basic requirements, there can be no compromise, only capitulation.  Either the Federal objective (Union) or the Confederate (Disunion or Independence) would be achieved.  There was no middle ground, no compromise.  To suggest that there was is, to me, either naïve or willfully ignorant.  Lankford does eventually address the conundrum on page 229 of a 241 page book by saying that Jefferson Davis’s April 29 statement that “All we ask it to be let alone” was “irretrievably at odds with Lincoln’s determination to preserve the Union whole”.  But this had been the case since secession and the formation of the Confederacy.  On that one issue, Union, the Civil War turned.  Those states were not coming back, and Lankford never suggests that they could be so coaxed.  At the same time he seems to indicate that the only way to “save” the upper south for the Union was by “letting the wayward sisters go”, as Winfield Scott once said.  So, where is the compromise?

The author identifies Lincoln’s reaction to the attack on Ft. Sumter, the call-up of 75,000 volunteers, as the straw that broke the camel’s back for upper south.  This very well may have been the real or rhetorical reason for the decision of some of them to bolt, but the author’s suggestion that Lincoln could have used more “restraint” ignores the reality of the situation.  The lower south Confederacy had already authorized a 100,000 man army.  Lincoln’s call for 75,000 could hardly be considered sufficient to crush the rebellion, and would simply put the Federal forces at a level similar to that of what the chief executive had to assume was a hostile presence.  Lincoln’s call was nothing if not restrained.

Lankford also notes that Lincoln faced “a dilemma that every wartime president of the republic to follow him would confront.  He believed he had to curtail some civil liberties in order to preserve the greater good.”  While it is true that Lincoln believed this, and acted on it (as did and would Davis in a similar fashion), Lincoln was hardly the first president to do so as suggested by Lankford.  One of Lincoln’s predecessors wrote:

A strict observance of the written law is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen; but it is not the highest.  The laws of necessity, of self preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation.  To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself with life, liberty, property, and all those who are enjoying them with us, thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.

Such were the thoughts of our third president, Thomas Jefferson.  He would invoke the legal maxim inter arma silent leges – laws fall silent when guns speak.

I know that this review, for lack of a better term, sounds like an indictment of Cry Havoc!, but I really do think this book contributes to the literature as a concise overview of the period between the secession of the lower south and the ultimate decisions of the remaining slave states.  I think Lankford’s contribution could have been greater if he had provided more specifics in his turning point analyses, but I also doubt the existence of viable alternatives in many cases, and am not a big fan of “what-ifs” or “counter-factuals” anyway.  As I’ve said before, I don’t advocate throwing babies out with the bathwater.  Read the book.

Giving Thanks

27 02 2007

Just a quick note of appreciation to two noted Civil War historians and authors for taking the time to answer emails.  Thanks to Pete Carmichael for tracking down some info on a Bull Run personality, and to Lesley Gordon for offering to share information on a regiment I am researching.  A couple of writing assignments will benefit greatly from their friendly assistance.  I am repeatedly amazed at how ready and willing are the big-shots to help out us regular folks!

I am in the middle of writing up my notes on Cry Havoc!, and have a reasonable expectation of posting my thoughts later tonight.

Taking Hits

22 02 2007



You can see it at the bottom of the right hand column of this page, under Blog Stats:  Hits.  That’s the number of people who have visited this blog.  Each day, starting for some reason at 7:00 PM eastern time, WordPress counts the number of individual IP addresses that view Bull Runnings.  It counts each address only once, and of course does not count mine.  Each day the slate is wiped clean, and each address can again be counted once.  The number you see is the total of the daily counts since I started this blog last November.

Hit counts are but one of a number of tools provided by WordPress to help give a blogger an idea of how his site is being used.  But hits is the biggie.  Despite my frequent self-admonishments that the success of this site can not be quantified, my impressions trend with the number of hits.  This is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that I have no idea what represents a good or respectable hit count.

A friend told me when I started out that I shouldn’t be too concerned with the numbers.  I totally agree, theoretically.  In practice, I think I am not very like the Buddha.  As Walter Sobchak (pictured above) might say, I’m being very un-Dude.  (In the unlikely event you are unfamiliar with The Greatest Movie Ever Made, Walter is John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski; The Dude is Jeff Bridges.)  I find myself a willing slave to the stats.  In fact, I have set the WordPress icon on my Windows toolbar to take me straight to my blog stats page.

The same friend also told me, quite accurately, that blog hits are very much a “what have you done for me lately” thing.  If folks have a reasonable expectation of finding something new on your site when they visit, they tend to visit more often.

I’ve noticed also that more people are viewing my “feed”.  I’m not really sure how all that stuff works, to tell you the truth.  Feeds remove all the pretty stuff from a blog, essentially making all of them look alike.  Feeds are the great equalizer in Blogland, creating a world not unlike that presented in one of the chapters of the Kilgore Trout novel Venus on the Half Shell, a world in which the quest for social equality reduced everything and everyone to the lowest common denominator.

I need to fight the tendency to let the numbers dictate the content and number of posts I make.  I do, to some extent.  Otherwise you would have seen many more articles on Peyton Manning.  But I need to learn to abide.  Like The Dude. 






21 02 2007

Last week, a phone call and a couple of email exchanges resulted in four writing “assignments”. 

First: a project which I thought was dead has been revived; a survey piece on how academia views resources available on the Web, which will be presented in a question and answer format.  I’m a little concerned with how to go about pulling together responses that vary significantly.  Second: confirmation of continued interest in a biographical piece on a First Bull Run personality (this one is the epitome of “pulling threads” – the more I find out, the more there is to find out).  Third: a request for a short summary of a recent series of posts on this blog.  Fourth: a real surprise, a bit on the history and commemoration of a regiment that played a prominent role in the Battle of Antietam.  I think the third of these will probably be the first to hit the streets, and the second will probably come last.

I’m honored that there is some market for what I have to say, or at least for how I say it.  But this is all a little surreal.  I think it just goes to show that the difference between someone who has published and someone who has not is that one has published, and the other has not.

Later This Week (I Hope)…

19 02 2007

There are a few things I hope to get to later this week.  I’ve finished the Lankford book Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861, and will give my thoughts on it, for what they’re worth.  In brief, I found it a highly readable, very informative, deeply flawed book.  And I’ve started reading a biography of Samuel P. Heintzelman – I’ll give some preliminary thoughts on that one as well.

I didn’t post any pictures from my personal collection this past Friday.  I’ve selected two from a trip to North Carolina a couple of years ago which I think you’ll find interesting, if not at all related to Bull Run.

I’ll discuss some new writing assignments, and I’ll comment on the effect of hit counts on the fragile psyche of this blogger.  So check back over the next few days.

Beet Poet – Pt. II

15 02 2007

It seems there is more to the Bee poem.  You can find the details, and more wonderful drawings, here.  The site says that the poem was written in 1856, when Bee was a captain of the 10th Infantry – that is to say, not by a young Bee in Mexico.  Here is the full text (I particularly like the slam to the dragoons):

Our Army is a Motley Crew

In dress and armour, duties too,

And each and all I love to see –

But most I love the Infantry.

In tented field, in Ladies bower

Alike they shine – all feel their power.

Though other corps are dear to me

Yet most I prize the Infantry.

The engineer, with science crowned,

For action, traces out the ground.

Artillery at distance play,

Dragoons sometimes do clear the way.

The sharp advance, the pistol shot,

The quick retreat, at rapid trot!

The foe advances, light and free.

Who meets him then?  The Infantry!

And so that glorious host move on,

Their bayonets glistening in the sun.

Onward they hold their steadfast way

Tho’ deathshots round them madly play

Their comrades slain (?), their banners torn

These noble hearts, still proudly form.

And hark!  A shout – ’tis Victory!

Who would not love the Infantry?

Beet Poet

14 02 2007

My apologies for failing to wish Barnard Bee a happy 183rd birthday last Thursday, February 8.  It’s really inexcusable since I had already written two bits (here and here) about him and his monument.  Mea culpa, General, and I hope you had a grand time on your big day there in your niche.

While searching around for info last week I ran across a drawing and poem that, according to this site, is attributed to young Bee in Mexico.





Here’s the text of the poem, in case you have trouble reading it:



Our Army is a Motley Crew

In dress and armour, duties too,

And each and all I love to see –

But most I love the Infantry.

In tented field, in Ladies bower

Alike they shine – all feel their power.

Though other corps are dear to me

Yet most I prize the Infantry.