Americans at War

[This extract comes from the same chapter of A Tale of Two Nations as the post on Australians at war.]

‘I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right and I was wrong’.  President Abraham Lincoln to his successor, General Ulysses S Grant.

The turning point in the battle of Gettysburg came on its second day.  Lee was determined on staking the fortunes of the South on a major battle – he thought that the North was just too strong to lose the war.  He was intent on taking the North by its flank on his right, near a hill called Little Round Top.  His men charged again and again.  The southern boys were not used to losing straight fights.  The casualties were, as usual, appalling.  The end of the northern line was commanded by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (who taught Rhetoric at Maine.)  Chamberlain saw that his men were nearly out of ammunition and the will to resist.  He gave orders to them to perform a manouevre that is hard on the parade ground.  They were in part to retire at an angle behind the end of the line and then advance in a sweeping movement around the enemy.  In the movie, Jeff Daniels plays Chamberlain, and when he gives the order for ‘Bayonets’, you can see the whites of his eyes, and he is staring straight into eternity.  He is, as they say, running on adrenalin – and upbringing.

The manouevre was perfectly and successfully executed.  The southern boys were thrown back by the charge.  The northern line held.  The next day Lee saw his army smashed in Pickett’s charge.  The proud Army of Virginia would never be the same threat again.  Had that battle been lost, Lincoln may have had to sue for peace, and the Union may have been lost.  God only knows how Europe may have responded to Germany – twice – without aid from the nation that we know as the United States.  All those consequences turned on the extraordinary valour and coolness of a lecturer in Rhetoric from the State of Maine.  It is on such slim and personal threads that history hangs.

We saw that the war of independence was a frightful guerilla war with atrocities on either side.  The Civil War would be a more orthodox war, a war of attrition, with casualty rates piled up by a mode of warfare that would offer a ghastly premonition of the Great War.  Once the colonies decided to revolt, it was victory or death for the leaders of the colonies seceding from the crown.  That threat was not so real for those seceding from the Union, but in that war, both sides were equally charged morally.  In the first war, the rebels never lost the moral high ground, and motivating English or Scots or Irish soldiers to fight against Britons on foreign soil cannot have been simple.  We have tried to list in this book the military advantages of the home side.  Because of the course that events took, the first war was a precondition of the birth of the Union; the second war was a precondition of the survival of the union.  From Paul Revere to George Washington, the war of independence was mythologised in a way that looks completely American.  There was no need to mythologise the Civil War.  It had its own stark grandeur that would be given precise expression by the greatest American of them all.  For some people outside America, this was the real birth of the nation that they so admire.

George Washington was pompous and patrician, a vain old Tory.  He was in many ways definitively Un-American.  As a general turned politician, Eisenhower would be everything that Washington was not.  But the new nation needed more than a hero; it needed something like a cult.  The very shortness of American history led to almost indecent haste in making Washington a saint.  As Daniel Boorstin said, ‘Never was there a better example of the special potency of the Will to Believe in this New World.  A deification which in European history might have required centuries was accomplished here in decades.’  Might perhaps the Americans have a propensity to talk themselves up?

Never did a more incongruous pair than Davey Crockett and George Washington live together in a national Valhalla.  Idolised by the new nation, the legendary Washington was a kind of anti-Crockett.  The bluster, the crudity, the vulgarity, the monstrous boosterism of Crockett and his fellow supermen of the subliterature were all qualities which Washington most conspicuously lacked.  At the same time, the dignity, the reverence for God, the sober judgment, the sense of destiny and the vision of the distant future, for all of which Washington was proverbial, were unknown to the ring-tailed Roarers of the West.  Yet both Washington and Crockett were popular heroes, and both emerged into legendary fame during the first half of the 19th century.

The Civil War was so much more bloody and destructive than that fought in England more than two centuries before.  It was fought over four years after southern states, with nearly half their population enslaved, wanted to secede from the union on issues of the extension of slavery into the new territories.  About 620,000 Americans died in the conflict.  Names like Fort Sumter, Bull Run, Antietam, Shiloh (‘Place of Peace’), Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Appomattox would lie deep in the national consciousness, and become well known outside because of the outstanding TV documentary by Ken Burn.

It was a mechanised and industrial war.  The northern economy was so much stronger, and they had the numbers to win, but dreadfully inept military leadership against a brilliant southern general prolonged the war until the North produced two generals that were as good.  In the meantime, the emancipation of the slaves had been proclaimed, and the nation is still picking up the pieces.  The whole people of the United States had paid a most fearful price for that lesion in the Declaration of Independence on the equality of all men.

Not the least of the pain and tragedy of this war came from the hold that the States held over men of ‘honour’, a term of elevated content in the South.  Nearly one hundred years after the Union was born, there were many who saw their paternity and therefore loyalty in their home states, something that most Australians now, one hundred years after federation, find very odd.  There is no doubt that state loyalty is still much stronger in the US.  It strikes people as odd that a man could be Virginian first, and American second.

Robert E Lee had served the Union for thirty-two years, but he could not raise his hand against his family in Virginia, and he resigned his commission.  God knows how many other families would mourn that decision.  Lee was a great commander, and he was not scared to take risks.  He had the stamina to go on to win and not just to avoid defeat.  He was brilliant in manouevre.  Those were all qualities that his early opponents did not have.  He developed an aura of invincibility, and his later trumpeted virtues led to a reaction.  This is the balanced assessment of a British military historian:

Lee’s victories were won against the odds….This is an unusual experience for American commanders, who usually enjoy the benefits of plenty…His victories remain among the greatest humiliations ever inflicted on the armies of the United States.  None the less, the link with the other American commander, George Washington, who battled against the odds, is a just one.  For this reason, Lee still ranks among the very finest of American generals, for like his hero, Washington, he managed to achieve much with the most meagre resources.

What other general on the losing side, including Hannibal and Rommel, ever inflicted so much loss and damage on the enemy?

Ulysses S Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman had been failures before the war; Grant had hit the bottle, and Sherman was deeply unstable, too wobbly to command.  After the horrendous first day of Shiloh, when Grant had lost about ten thousand men, Sherman sought him out to discuss withdrawal.  He found Grant under a tree, hurt and leaning on a crutch, rain dripping from his hat, and chewing on a cigar.  Sherman decided against withdrawal, and the next day they won the biggest Northern victory so far.

Grant was a gift from God to his president, and Sherman held the same place for Grant.  Grant had force of character and military intuition; Sherman was an intellectual and widely read in history and theory (as Patton was).  They both had the iron nerve and steely determination required of commanders in a bloody civil war.  Their comradeship was sustaining.  Sherman wrote to Grant: ‘We cannot change the hearts of the people of the South, but we can make war so terrible that they will realize the fact that however brave and gallant and devoted to their country, still they are mortal….’Sherman and Grant were facts of life men.  ‘They cannot be made to love us, but may be made to fear us.’  Grant said this of Sherman: ‘I know him well as one of the greatest and purest of men.  He is poor and always will be.’

Best of all, Sherman said of Grant: ‘He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now, sir, we stand by each other always.’  You may not find that in the Iliad of Homer, but it is a thing of great beauty.  Grant and Sherman are, like Lee, assuredly American heroes.

The Americans were latecomers to both world wars, but their intervention was decisive, especially in the Second World War, both in Europe and in the Pacific.  In the Second War, America was directly attacked and its military and industrial mobilization left it the most powerful nation in the world.  Wilson and America failed at Versailles, but so did other Allies.  America produced more real military heroes in Bradley and Patton, and the future President Eisenhower.  The Marshall Plan was statesmanlike and humane, and by crushing Germany and Japan militarily and then being generous in victory, the U S avoided the awful errors of Versailles.  Korea was at best a draw; Vietnam was a moral and strategic black hole; and whatever else might be said about the perceived failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the memory of them is not inducing America to try that kind of thing again.  America has retired hurt as the world police officer.

The defining war for the U S, at least to one outsider, is the Civil War, and its enduring legacy not just for America but the whole world is Abraham Lincoln. What might be called the original sin of the young republic was a blood libel that would have to be redeemed in blood.  Abraham Lincoln was the chosen instrument of the redemption of the United States.

Born poor and low down in the back blocks, Lincoln learnt English through the King James Bible and Shakespeare.  While doing labouring jobs, he largely taught himself law, often reading with his long legs up a tree.  He was also a crack shot.  He practised rough and tough law before rough and tough juries, commonly sleeping head to toe fully clothed with his opponent when on circuit.  He rose up through state politics and came to national renown in great debates on the poisonous issue of slavery.  His marriage was difficult and he knew personal tragedy.  His election as President effectively signalled the beginning of the Civil War.  He had a God given ability to get to the heart of the matter and then express himself in language that will not die.  He also had the political gifts of being forever underestimated, and of having immense personal appeal and humour right up close.

But under that rustic open charm lay a mind of rat cunning and political genius.  He had to endure awful generals and awful defeats.  It is very doubtful if any lesser person could have held the nation together.  But in Grant and Sherman, he found generals who could and did win the war for him.  Lincoln had seen his job as being to preserve the Union, and he did so.  It is impossible to imagine what might have happened if he had failed.  He also emancipated the slaves.  He was assassinated at the end of the war.

Here is the full text of the Gettysburg Address.

Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.  We are met on the great battlefield of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract.  The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.  It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who have fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause or which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead men shall not have died in vain; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Here is the full text of a letter to Grant.

Not expecting to see you again before the spring campaign opens, I wish to express in this way my entire satisfaction with what you have done up to this time, so far as I understand it.  The particulars of your plans I neither know nor seek to know.  You are vigilant and self-reliant; and, pleased with this, I wish not to obtrude any constraints or restraints upon them.  While I am very anxious that any great disaster or capture of our men in great numbers shall be avoided, I know these points are less likely to escape your attention than they would be mine.  If there is anything wanting which is within my power to give, do not fail to let me know.  And now, with a brave army and a just cause, may God sustain you.

Here is the text of a telegram to Grant.

I have seen your despatch expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are.  Neither am I willing.  Hold on with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke as much as possible.

The second inaugural contained the following.

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained.  Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease.  Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and sustaining.  Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other.  It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us not judge that we be not judged.  The prayers of both could not be answered – that of neither has been answered fully.

There follows a passage of remarkable Biblical intensity to a people raised on the Old Testament, in which Lincoln says that the scourge of war might continue ‘until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword’.  And then, as in Wotan’s farewell, we reach distilled peace at the end.

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all that which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.

Lincoln was a colossal achievement for the humanity in us all. When Lincoln left us from the wounds received at the Ford Theatre, a member of his cabinet said ‘Now he belongs to the ages.’  He certainly does, and we stand in awe of him.

Between the two world wars, the U S faced a more direct threat to it that saw another authentic hero arise.   The Oyster Bay Roosevelts were the tops in up-market clannishness.  The old New York families addressed each other as ‘Cousin’ in a way that caused the late Roy Jenkins to reflect on the story about the Armenian family which claimed to be so old that they always spoke of the virgin as ‘Cousin Mary’.  When F D Roosevelt introduced to his mother a young lady from the best Boston society, his mother said: ‘I understand your father is a surgeon – surgeons always remind me of my butcher.’  Those upper East Coast toffs really were the best – they could hold their own with the English in the snobbery stakes (although the French might pose an even stiffer challenge).

Roosevelt overcame that background to be elected President four times.  He understood the remark of Alexander Hamilton that ‘energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.’  From 1932 until his death in 1945, Roosevelt led the U S through the Great Depression and the Second World War.  No other president – not even Lincoln – has had to face and to overcome such threats to his people.

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