Wednesday, August 1


HTML Mencken, at the Labs, digs up some Hewitt on the wireless, swapping war stories with Mark Steyn:
HH: Victor Davis Hanson often comes on and reminds people about the summer of 1864. Prior to that, Lincoln was in terrible shape, politically. The war was stalemated. He found a commander and turned it around quickly. Do you think we might be in that same situation a year from now?

MS: Well, I think this is slightly different in that when you’re fighting the Civil War, you know, you’re up against an enemy that are, you know, in that case, your fellow Americans. And you kind of more or less know what the rules are. A lot of the problems we’ve had in Iraq, and in this broader struggle is that faced with an enemy that is depraved, we sometimes recoil from ruthlessness.

Apologies in advance; I've caught a bad case of summer indolence, which has prevented me from trying to find a copy of the broadcast, or looking up whether I've dealt with the Hanson quote before. Steyn's stammering response sounds curious, and I'd like to know if the live version answers whether he's massively uninformed or was simply dumbstruck by that question from Hewitt.

(However easy and obvious the answer seems, I'm trying not to prejudge. Which reminds me that I'm growing ever more perturbed that my faultless civility never comes up when people talk about the dire straits of partisanship we sail these days. To give you just one example, I'd like to wish John Roberts a speedy recovery, and a long and healthy life, immediately following his resignation.)

We'll begin with Steyn, and damn the charges of bullying the defenseless or Canadian. First, if the brutality of that war, not to mention the large-scale terrorism that both preceded and followed it, do not immediately come to mind when the subject is brought up, you do well to fumble and stumble. Bleeding Kansas? Morgan and Cantrill? Ft. Pillow, the March to the Sea? The Klan? Surely public instruction about the American Civil War isn't as intentionally smudged north of the border as it is here? At this point we'd be glad to vote Flummoxed by his Host's Pure Ignorance, except for two things. One, this exchange between Hewitt and a Hypothetical Intelligent Canadian Guest:
HH: Victor Davis Hanson often comes on and reminds people about the summer of 1864. Prior to that, Lincoln was in terrible shape, politically. The war was stalemated. He found a commander and turned it around quickly. Do you think we might be in that same situation a year from now?

HICG: (Cough, cough) Jeez, Hugh, have you or Hanson ever read your own history?

would result in very few invitations to return. Second, Steyn doesn't just cover up the whack from the 2x4 of Idiocy he's just received (as pure instinctual recoil, that "I think this is slightly different" is worthy of Willie Pep); he moves swiftly into the They're Not Fighting Fair routine, or, as we might term it, the 'If I Pretend Not Just Ignorance of the Whole of Military History, But of the Very Notion of Making Distinctions Itself the Debate Must Move to the Cloud of My Choosing' Gambit. We'll just close the door quietly on our way out.

So let's move on to HH, or possibly just through him. First, with apologies to Tom Lehrer, it is sobering to consider that by the time he'd reached this comparable point in the Bush Presidency, Lincoln had been dead for 2-1/2 years.

Second, let's address this history a tad (pardon). For all I know Hanson may still be coming on and saying this, but he started saying it in the summer of 2003, when it amounted to what it sounds like a faint echo of today: a pep rally speech for Bush supporters as the undeniable failure of the war fell into the general consciousness and the 2004 election season began. Hewitt's weaselly syntax--"prior to that", "was stalemated", "found a commander"--are a sort of tense memory of the original reason for Hanson's deceptions. I think bullets are appropriate:

• The South was defeated on July 4, 1863, when Grant took Vicksburg, and Lee was defeated at Gettysburg.

• Anyone who studies the Late Rebellion beyond 9th Grade History or Shelby Foote's semi-historical romance novels must come away in awe of Lincoln's meteoric rise from rank military amateur to accomplished strategist and tactician in a matter of months. By Antietam (September, 1862), Lincoln had Lee figured out. He knew Lee would have to cross into Northern territory, and he knew he'd be defeated there. This is clear from his communications with his successive commanders.

• "Stalemated" is not a word I'd use to describe the situation in 1864, nor any other time; Grant was doing in the East precisely what Lincoln had been urging on every commander since Burnside: make Lee's Army the target, grapple him and refuse to let go. "Hold on like a bulldog and chew & choke" he wrote to Grant in August of '64, when he was supposedly in such a panic over re-election.

• If you are going to use "stalemated" you can't use "found a commander" and "quickly turned it around" in the same breath. (You can, of course, do so when accuracy is not your aim; Davis was promising, without saying, that the flaccid Sanchez' replacement would be a real stud, the same way Hugh now fluffs Petraeus, oral sex being one of the few areas in life with a natural resistance to changes in fashion.) Grant was in command for all of 1864. In fact, let's use this as an excuse to strip away some of that "found a commander" romance: Lincoln was well aware of Grant's abilities long before he brought Grant east; he'd have to have been unconscious not to be. (His letter to Grant after Vicksburg is a remarkable document. He admits to having been confounded by Grant's wheeling at Big Black, but he had appreciated, even anticipated, all Grant's earlier moves, this despite the fact that Grant's actions below Vicksburg were the most audacious generalship of a war mostly known for high-level bungling.) Lincoln had good reason to believe that Burnside, then Hooker, then Meade, were capable of doing what he clearly told them needed to be done. And, of course, he kept making changes until that was accomplished. Compare George W. Bush.

• As for the politics of the thing, well, Bush did win reelection. See where that got him, and us. Lincoln, meanwhile, certainly benefitted from Sherman's late-summer presentation of Atlanta. But he'd won re-nomination earlier, and, most importantly, was a consummate coalition-builder among his other talents. He'd operated the war for two years after losing majorities in the Congress. In 1864 he ran--historical Fun Fact ahead--as a coalition candidate (the Union Party), not a Republican. Compare George W. Bush. Compare Hanson & Hewitt's bluster about military history with their complete silence on that.

• "Do you think we might be in the same situation a year from now?" Hugh Hewitt, Summer, 2007.

"We are near the end of such a pivotal summer ourselves, the type that defines not just a presidency, but an entire nation for generations to come." Victor Davis Hanson, Summer 2003.


Anonymous said...
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Julia said...

when you’re fighting the Civil War, you know, you’re up against an enemy that are, you know, in that case, your fellow Americans. And you kind of more or less know what the rules are

Bet that would come as a huge surprise to the folks who ran up against Nathan Bedford Forrest and Quantrill's Raiders

John deVille said...

I certainly agree with your broader point and 95% of your analysis. One quibble.

I think there is fairly broad consensus that Lincoln was indeed in trouble in 1864. Yes, he won renomination and it was as a Republican -- they did change their name for the 1864 election, but it was the same crew who got together in Chicago in 1860. After they won the election and the war, they reverted to their original name. More importantly, Stanton and other power brokers within the party saw Lincoln as a loser against McClellan in November and were poised to have a SECOND GOP convention in late August before Sherman's capture of Atlanta changed everything.

Lincoln was indeed a consummate coalition builder, perhaps the best Chief Executive on that score. Not only did he pick a Southern Democrat as a running mate in 1864, he was still reaching out to Jeff Davis in late 1863/early 1864 with an amazing offer. Historian Bruce Chadwick notes the offer included (1) full amnesty (2) full compensation for the last property (slaves) (3)a promise that the US would invade Cuba and fight Spain as soon as the military was able to catch its breath and that Jeff Davis would be placed at the head of that Army, and with a probable American victory, put Davis in position to run for the Presidency.
Davis, of course, turned it down.

The ironic thing about Hewitt quoting Hanson is that he is Hansonizing Hanson. In other words, Hanson is a slave to grand narrative and woe to the historical fact which doesn't fit -- he has a tendency to either toss the offending data aside or twist it pretzel-like until it fits, a frequent offense within the craft but there's a way that Hanson does it, maybe it's the romance with gore, that makes it more odious.

Hewitt twists Hanson in the same pretzel-like way. Hanson argues in The Soul of Battle that it was Sherman who saved the Union -- not the scraggly Grant. It was Sherman who demoralized the South and broke its will to continue -- Grant merely secured the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia not the CSA. And while the CSA as a polity never (to my knowledge) ever surrendered, Hanson gives the credit to Sherman for the de facto surrender. But since that story doesn't fit with the W/Hewitt/Malkin "Petraeus is the Second Coming of Christ" meme, then Hewitt gets out the hammer and tongs.

If you get a chance check out Michael Ware's Iraq reality check here.

Anonymous said...

While we're all here, any recommendations for historical reading on the Civil War? Something tells me that Doghouse won't be suggesting Shelby's trilogy.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and: Well, I think this is slightly different in that when you’re fighting the Civil War, you know, you’re up against an enemy that are, you know, in that case, your fellow Americans. is just fuckin' deep, man.

Anonymous said...

Not to be gushing, but I love the way you write, even though I don't always catch your perspective, and you make me wish I had studied history more often and vigorously.

John deVille said...

Reading list for Civil's your starter kit:

(1) Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson. Part of the Oxford US collection. Considered by most scholars to be the best single volume treatment.

(2) David Potter's Impending Crisis which covers the 13 years leading up to the war. Again, considered top-notch scholarship and a great read.

(3) Eric Foner's Reconstruction, available in an abridged edition.

You would find those three books on any Civil War scholar's shelf; what follows is more reflective of my own wanderings than what might be considered to be best scholarship.

(4)Gore Vidal's Lincoln. Historical fiction at its finest, breathes life into Lincoln for the Civil War period.

(5) Jay Winik's April 1865. The paleocons love this one. Too bad the neocons didn't read it or grasp the lesson -- the American Civil War was more of a case of like fighting like than like fighting "other" and that dynamic was critical in bringing the war to a relatively crisp close. Compare our civil war with almost any other and you'll find that most civil wars flare back up. Another great read full of stuff that you can't believe you didn't know.

(6)Charles Royster's The Destructive War. I just finished writing a paper on Sherman and read several biographies on him and his military career. Destructive War is a dual biography of sorts comparing Sherman to the other truly great general of the Civil War, Stonewall Jackson. Fascinating look at the new age of warfare the American Civil War ushered in as well as the styles of Sherman and Jackson. Winner of the Bancroft Award.

(7)David Blight's Race and Reunion. None of the previously mentioned authors are any slouch -- Blight may well be the most insightful of all. He is probably the foremost authority on "race as an idea" in 400 years of American consciousness. This book covers how we remember the war as part of a growing genre within historical research - the place of memory.

Three movies:

(1)Gettysburg based on Michael Shaara's Killer Angels. Yes, it suffers as so much in the literature from glorifying the generals and valour above anything else. But get over it. It was a goddamn slaughter and those men deserve the fine treatment the film gave. Sheen's Lee is a little lame but Berenger's Longstreet is probably close to dead-on. Stephen Lang's Pickett is marvelously animated before the charge and believably crushed afterwords. Richard Jordan played General Armistead who fell in the Charge was dying of cancer when he made this movie maximizing the pathos the role demanded.

Sam Elliot's General Buford does an excellent a job setting up the movie as the real Buford did grabbing the high ground for the Union.

But Jeff Daniels as Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine steals the movie. Watch the film and then go learn more about Chamberlain to take you to a place of total awe and respect.

Toss in several other great performances with hard core re-enactors as extras as well ss the film is shot on location and you have not only the best Civil War film but one of the best war movies ever. Considered to be fairly accurate even if seen through a fairly narrow prism.

(2) Glory. Based on the 54th Massachusetts colored regiment under the command of Robert Gould Shaw. A more arty film than Gettysburg and just as brilliant, many critics give it the nod for best Civil War film as well as best war movie. Denzel Washington took the Oscar for best supporting actor. Considered to be fairly accurate. Moving and highlights an essential fact absent most American's consciousness -- that 180,000 African American troops fought for the Union and may well have provided the pivotal manpower to win the war.

(3) CSA. A mockumentary/counterfactual on many white southerner's favorite fantasy list -- what would have happened if the South had won the Civil War. Done in the style of Ken Burn's comprehensive Civil War miniseries. Complete with mock commercials based on actual products from our history with racist marketing. Will make you think even if you disagree with many of the possibilities the film explores.