Monday, July 10, 2000

The Whirlwind of War: Voices of the Storm, 1861-1865 by Stephen B. Oates

I really like this book. I know, I said that about the last one, but there’s no comparison between that one and this one. I really enjoyed Oates’ first book in this series—it gave me information and insights into what led up to the war like nothing else has—and, so far, this book is setting the same standard.

For example, I know that in the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln only freed the slaves in states or parts of states currently in rebellion against the U.S. where the Confederacy was in control. That I picked up from numerous sources and, even though it never seemed to make sense to me, none of those sources ever explained why Lincoln only did part of the job. Well, I’m not even to that point in the book yet and I know why Lincoln phrased it that way. If he had freed to slaves everywhere slavery existed, the four Union states where slavery was still legal—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri—would have quit the Union and joined the Confederacy. That would’ve put Washington, DC in the middle of Confederate territory and the northern border of the Confederacy on the Ohio River.

Other unique insights so far include how desperate the Union situation was when the war first began—no army to speak of, no armed force in Washington, enemy territory right across the Potomac River, and Marylanders sympathetic to the Southern cause fighting with Northern troops moving through Baltimore—and the episode in which Sherman was accused of being crazy and drummed out of the service happened before Shiloh. Sherman, in fact, had fought at First Manassas and was temporarily in command of all Union forces in Kentucky. When asked how many men he needed to invade and conquer Tennessee and he said 200,000, he was relieved of command and reassigned to the West, where he eventually wound up as part of Grant’s command, actually in charge of all forces in the opening hours of Shiloh until Grant arrived from Pittsburgh Landing.

The whole episode reminds me of how I want to start following individuals through the war—to start reading books about the people instead of the battles. The battles are interesting, but I get the impression the real insights came from knowing the people. I don’t think I’ll find too many that are written in the first person like this one is. Oh, I guess there are probably autobiographies and memoirs out there (Grant and Sherman being two obvious examples) but will they be as honest as a historian would be? Guess I’ll have to read them to find out.

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Lee was really hobbled at the battles of the Seven Days. I guess I never realized that before. When people talk about the Seven Days they talk about how great Lee was, about how he drove the vastly superior forces of McClellan from the gates of Richmond and clear off the peninsula, about how he took hold of the offensive and never let go, about how he executed one of the greatest turnarounds in the history of military combat. That may all be true, but what more could he have done if his army was organized the way he organized it after the Seven Days, what more could he have done if he had known the ground as well as he did at Second Manassas, what more could he have done if Jackson had only done what he was told? He could’ve bagged McClellan’s entire army instead of just pushing it out of the way.

The organization of Lee’s army fascinates me more than it did before. I knew that after Chancellorsville, after Jackson’s death, when Lee reorganized it into three parts, it was never quite what it had been before. Now I know that before Second Manassas, before Lee had organized it into two parts, it wasn’t yet what it was going to be. The two wings, with Jackson at the head of one and Longstreet at the other, that was the secret, that’s what gave them the successes they had. But why? Why was that so special? Was it the two parts or was it the men who commanded them? Would two other commanders have done the same things, would they have been able to accomplish as much? You probably know what I think about that one. Was Ewell able to take that hill at Gettysburg? There was some kind of bond between those three men—Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet—and that’s what enabled them to do what they did. I believe that, and to me, that’s one of the most interesting things about that war.

I wonder if there are any books written about those three men—not the battles they fought, but them. How they related to each other, what they thought about each other, what they did when in each other’s company and how many times the three of them were actually together. If that book is out there, I want to read it. If not, maybe I’ll write it some day.

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I found another reason why Lincoln restricted the emancipation of slaves only to those states then in rebellion against the United States. It was because the Emancipation Proclamation as Lincoln issued it was an act of the president’s emergency war-time powers. It wasn’t something he could’ve done during peace time because the Executive ordinarily had no power over slavery in the states. But during war time, the Executive was empowered to take whatever actions were necessary to protect and defend the country. Using this as his rationale for issuing the proclamation, Lincoln didn’t think the freeing of the slaves in the states loyal to the Union could be termed an action necessary to protect and defend the country. Another nice explanation that should be included with any discussion of the proclamation.

Something else I wasn’t previously aware of was Jefferson Davis’ reaction to the proclamation, or at least the extent of it. He issued a proclamation of his own which, among other things, said that any freed blacks captured thenceforth by the Armies of the Confederacy would be sent back into slavery in order to help restore the natural condition of the two races. I think that reveals a lot about what men like Davis really thought about blacks. Oh, there might be legal mechanisms by which black men may gain their freedom, and there may be slave owners foolish and misguided enough to employ those mechanisms on behalf of their slaves, but when you come right down to it, the black was the slave and the white was the master—and that was the way things were supposed to be. That’s the way God intended them to be. I mean, we all knew the southern leaders were racist, but I at least had always been willing to consider that the cause may not have been, that the cause, fought for some other principle besides the continuation of slavery, wouldn’t have been so lost after all, and a lot more people might’ve taken it up. But when I read things like that, it really makes me second guess some of those assumptions about the Confederacy, that maybe it wasn’t as much about states’ rights as I thought, and maybe it was a lot more about keeping the black man down.

My wrist is sore, but I’ve got to say something about Gettysburg. It was just about the longest chapter in this book, all told from Lee’s viewpoint, and what struck me the most was how clear it was that Lee just wanted to war to be over, that he wanted that battle to be the last one and the war to come to an end. Yes, he overestimated the abilities of his men, we all know that, he thought they were invincible and asked more of them than men should be asked, but he also wanted that damn war to be over. He was so tired, at least as Oates portrays him. I wonder how he hung on for two more years after Gettysburg and more importantly, why?

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The Whirlwind of War: Voices of the Storm, 1861-1865 by Stephen B. Oates
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Stephen B. Oates on Wikipedia
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