April 1865. by Jay Winik

My dad married a Northerner. But he could hardly be accused of having been one himself. The year I turned twelve, our family spent the muggy summer evenings reading aloud to each other Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. Huck and Jim already had become close friends to the imaginations of my brother and me, not to mention Aunt Sally and Tom Sawyer.

Winik April 1865Yes, the Washington I grew up in had become the post-WWII ‘capital of the free world.’ But I never loved my hometown for that reason. I loved, and love her still, for the same reason that Robert E. Lee loved Virginia.

The land you come from deserves and demands your loyal affection, whether that particular land lies thick with trees and hedgerows or with streets and buildings. I never had any serious interest in the halls of national and international power near the places to which I delivered pizzas during high school.

Marion Barry meant more to me during the 1980’s than Ronald Reagan ever did. During the Grant administration, they debated moving the U.S. Capitol to Kansas. If they had, I wouldn’t love Washington, D.C., any differently than I do. My hometown, south of the Mason-Dixon, originally a swamp bordered by two slave states.

Just trying to explain why the month of April, 1865, fills me more with a sense of tragedy than triumph.*

Also, the end of the Civil-War Sesquicentennial, now upon us, fills me with guilt, because I haven’t paid more attention to it. And with sadness that it’s over.

Anyway: If you share any of these feelings, or if you simply seek a short, readable book with which to begin your acquaintance with Civil-War history, read April 1865 by Jay Winik.

Continue reading April 1865. by Jay Winik”

#Tsarnaev

When I saw the head part from the body, and each of them fall separately into a box with a thud, I understood–not in my mind, but with my whole being–that no rational doctrine of progress could justify that act, and that if every man now living in the world, and every man who had lived since the beginning of time, were to maintain, in the name of some theory or other, that this execution was indispensable, I should still know it was not indispensable: that it was wrong.

Leo Tolstoy–Leo Tolstoy, upon returning from France in 1857

Blood can not restore blood.

–Abraham Lincoln, after the Fort Pillow Massacre, when surrendering soldiers were slaughtered in cold blood

Peninsula, Seven Days, Fortnight for Freedom

I don’t drink tea, so I’m not really sure how much it costs. But I guess a person could pay $10/lb. for tea these days.

As it happens, that is also how much it cost exactly 150 years ago, in Richmond, Virginia. Shortages led to outrageous price inflation.

But let’s back up…

Countless eons ago, the water came down and filled up the oceans. Some of it became the York and James Rivers. Between these rivers: a peninsula.

John Smith & Co. made camp on this peninsula back in May of 1607. Later, colonists built Williamsburg on it, and from there the statesmen governed the vast Commonwealth that extended to the Ohio River basin and gave homesteads to countless Scotch-Irish families.

Thomas Jefferson studied on the peninsula.

Then he and some others signed the Declaration of Independence, and war ensued.

After an inconclusive battle campaign, the British, under Lord Cornwallis, holed-up in a town on the north side of the peninsula, a town named for the river on which it sat. Their king had the best navy on earth, so it made sense to secure a sea port. Yorktown offered an ideal situation.

To defend the town from land attack, Cornwallis and his army piled up enormous earthen tranches around the town.

But they never counted on the French navy fighting for the Americans, keeping mother England’s ships at bay at the mouth of the river. Nor did they anticipate that the French army would attack their stronghold, alongside George Washington’s Continentals.

The British did not bring siege cannon for their campaign. They travelled with only portable field cannons. The French and Americans showed up with long-range siege artillery. Cornwallis could not answer fire. The British surrendered.

…Eighty years later, Virginia seceded from the Union. Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy. The city between the James and the tributaries of the York had more wealth and power then any other southern town.

If you wanted to defend Richmond from invasion from the sea, from the Chesapeake—you might well decide to garrison an army at Yorktown. You could easily build up the trenches. Much of the earth that the British shoveled still remained in big piles around the town. From Yorktown, your Confederate army could cover the river with batteries of artillery and prevent Federal ships from sailing up close to Richmond via the Pamunkey, which fed the York.

If you thought along these lines, you would be thinking like Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ military advisor thought in 1861. Namely, Robert E. Lee.

The following spring, if you were like U.S. General-in-Chief George McClellan, you might decide to get the meddlesome, apish chief executive off your back by formulating a grand plan to ferry all your troops down the Potomac, to the storied peninsula. Then you could slowly lay an elaborate siege on Yorktown. Once it fell, on to Richmond!

Honest Abe, a prudent man if ever there were one, did not think that this made for a very good plan. Why not just march south to Richmond over land? But the President was desperate for McClellan to something, anything. ‘Okay. Go for it.’

So: Once again, eighty-one years after Cornwallis, the besiegers of Yorktown outgunned the besieged. Massively.

But, this time, the besieged had somewhere else to go. Confederate General Joe Johnston didn’t even wait for the shooting to start. He craftily allowed McClellan and Co. to spend weeks lining everything up for an extended siege. Then Johnston evacuated Yorktown under cover of night and retreated to trenches around Richmond. (George Armstrong Custer, scouting from a hot-air balloon, was the first Federal to learn that Johnston had cleared out.)

A battle between the Federal vanguard and the Confederate rear erupted just south of sleepy old Williamsburg. They re-enacted the battle nine days ago. (Your servant had the pleasure of encountering one of the re-enactors.)

You may be wondering, does Father have a point here? Do I need one? Listen:

McClellan moved his armies up towards the Confederate capital. He planned to besiege it with all the might he could muster. He had plenty of guns and troops to beat the Rebs. But a pathological timidity would soon overcome him.

In a battle east of Richmond on May 31, Johnston suffered severe wounds. Who would replace him in command of the army defending Richmond? Jefferson chose to put his military advisor in command. Robert E. Lee.

It rained and rained. Lee knew that he did not have time on his side. If he faced a more reasonable man than McClellan, then the Confederate capital almost certainly could have been taken during the summer.

So Lee planned a dangerous, complicated offensive maneuver. It required Stonewall Jackson to come east from the Shenandoah Valley.

Jackson had just conducted a campaign with the dexterity of a magician, keeping Federal troops occupied to the west, making McClellan crazy that he couldn’t have a juggernaut as big as he wanted for the peninsula.

Jackson’s biographer James “Bud” Robertson titles his chapter on this phase of the war “Fatigue.” Jackson managed completely to bungle his role in Lee’s plan. Stonewall never really even understood Lee’s orders. Robertson recounts how Jackson was fighting off sleep when Lee was explaining his plan.

What ensued has come to be known as “The Seven Days.” Bloody battle after bloody battle, every day for a week, June 25 to July 1.

Panicky, paranoid McClellan ran for a secure route of retreat. He did this even though he had more men and much more firepower. Lee again and again tried and failed to make himself understood by his generals—men who would eventually become legends right alongside him: “Pete” Longstreet, J.E.B. Stuart, John Bell Hood, and Jackson.

Tiny twists of fate could have changed things so that July 1862 could have seen Abraham Lincoln walking the streets of Richmond—almost three years before he actually did. Or July 1862 could have seen the Federal war machine ruined, for all intents and purposes. Such a victory lay within Lee’s grasp. But he could not get his generals to do what he thought he had told them to do.

In other words, the war could have ended, with either side the victor, but for a few details one way or the other. If Little Mac weren’t there, and Grant was: Richmond taken and war over in 1862. Or: if Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson really understood what they were saying to each other: Federal army crippled, Northern morale crushed, and war over in 1862.

Instead, it all came to nothing in the short run. By the end of the summer, the Union army was back in Washington.

I really do have a point. Kind of.

I would like to be the first blogger on the interwebs to point out that: The “Fortnight for Freedom” declared by our Bishops coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Seven Days battles.

I leave it to you, dear reader, to interpret the significance of this fact.

Ghosts of Kennesaw + Why

Another link between Atlanta and NYC: Two identical names get a lot of public use. Robert Fulton (steamboat inventor) and Johann DeKalb (Lafayette’s protégé, a German who fought in George Washington’s Continental Army). Both of these last names get barked out by countless municipal employees and traffic reporters in New York and Atlanta: Fulton and DeKalb counties in Georgia, Fulton Street in Manhattan and DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn…

…William Tecumseh Sherman, commanding three armies, marched south from Chattanooga, Tenn., bent on wreaking destruction. The war had entered its fourth year. The pre-war South no longer existed. The city of Atlanta had grown almost four-fold since 1850, full of sweaty factories cranking out the war machine.

Uncle Billy
Uncle Billy: 43 years of age, under the command of the highest ranking U.S. military officer since Washington, 41-year-old Ulysses S. Grant.

One hesitates to refer to this duo as the Two Towers, a la Sauron and Saruman. But without question the Union command stood united in the spring of 1864 like it had never been.

Can we imagine these two stony, understated, and straight-talking generals–a new breed, really, with no courtly trappings to speak of–can we imagine the two of them having a mutual understanding between them: “Okay. Enough. Let’s finish this thing off for the old ape” (the president).

Joseph Johnston, Leonidas Polk, John Bell Hood, and Co.: They had no thought of prevailing against Sherman’s armies. Outmanned and outgunned more than two-to-one.

But, imagine this! ‘If we can only hold them until the presidential election in the fall. If we can only get Lincoln knocked out of office, then it’s a whole new ballgame.’ (American politics hasn’t changed too much in 37 election cycles.)

Anyway, Polk (our old friend the Bishop-General) baptized Johnston and Hood as Sherman made his way south towards them. Grim? Fatalistic? No. Praise God. We all die, after all.

Johnny Reb had been renewed and rejuvenated by Johnston’s attentions to him, especially when an extra whiskey ration came down the line following a huge early-spring snowball fight…

…Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield Park attracts more visitors than any other Civil War site, 200K more per year than Gettysburg. But a lovely morning reveals that the Kennesaw count may be inflated by Cobb-county soccer moms slipping away to get some exercise on the short and scenic trail up the mountain.

This sunny Atlanta suburb, though, has a lot of ghosts.

I beheld that which I cannot describe, and which I hope never to see again. Dead men meet the eye in every direction…To look upon this, and then the beautiful wild woods, the pretty flowers as they drink the morning dew, and listen to the sweet notes of the songsters in God’s first temples, we were constrained to say, ‘What is man, and what is his destiny, to do such a strange thing?’*

The Fighting Bishop breathed his last here, felled by a shell as he reconnoitered. The battles on the mountain and in the nearby plains came to a draw. But Sherman kept out-maneuvering Johnston and backed him up to the Chattahoochee. Jefferson Davis did not like Johnston’s “retreat,” nor his lack of a clear plan. So Richmond suddenly put Hood in command instead.

…Taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming, I now provide, for anyone interested, an explanation of the four reasons why I love the Civil War (special hat tip to the dearly departed of Smith Mountain Road)…

Continue reading “Ghosts of Kennesaw + Why”

The American Thomas More?

APTOPIX Obama Bulls Wizards Basketball

John Salmons
John Salmons
Discussion Question #1: Are the Georgetown Hoyas the most disappointing ballclub in the nation this season?

President and Bulls fan Barack Obama was at the Verizon Center this evening, as was Moses-beard-wearing Bull John Salmons.

Both were disappointed. The Wizards managed to beat the Bulls by 23 points. (Not a typo.) Let’s hope the President comes to more Wizards games!

…Not long ago, the Bishop of Wilimington, Delaware, sent his people a pastoral letter about Abraham Lincoln. The title of the letter is a quote from President Lincoln’s first inaugural address. The quote concludes with the famous phrase, “the better angels of our nature.”

Continue reading “The American Thomas More?”

Presidents’ Day Miscellany

The NBA All-Star Slam Dunk contest is always better than the game itself.

The game, however, was okay. Kobe could not miss in the third quarter. (I only watched the third quarter.) It is absurd that 265 points were scored in one game. The 192 points scored in the Syracuse-Georgetown game on Saturday set a dangerous precedent.

Shaq went out with a bang. This was Shaquille O’Neal’s last of fifteen N.B.A. All-Star games. (He was voted onto the team fifteen times, even though he didn’t play all fifteen games, due to injuries.) Only Kareem Abdul Jabbar has been voted onto more all-star teams–seventeen.

Today at Holy Mass we heard the account of Cain and Abel from Genesis.

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No Fears and No Pride

Alex Ovechkin
Alex Ovechkin
Abraham Lincoln is 200 years old. The Capitals lost a heartbreaker in Madison Square Garden on a shootout last night. And we are NOT worried about any Friday the Thirteenth.

To fear Friday the 13th is a type of superstition. “Divination” seeks knowledge about the course of events from dates, signs in the sky, or other auguries.

God provides for us every day of every month. To be afraid of Friday the 13th is a sin against the First Commandment.

orangeNonetheless, if you have an orange bathmat or doormat, make sure to use it on Saturday.

Stomp on anything orange, especially between noon and 2:00 p.m

Louisville Notre Dame Basketball…How did Notre Dame just manage to beat Louisville by 33 points?

…Okay, here is today’s homily:

A man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh (Genesis 2:24)

Continue reading “No Fears and No Pride”

The Irony of the Lincoln Bible

The Lincoln Bible
The Lincoln Bible
Some bloggers seem to relish being killjoys. I do not. I am not trying to rain on anyone’s parade, especially his inaugural parade.

I googled like mad in the hopes that some better writer had already made the following points. Alas, my searches came to naught.

So I am duty-bound to make the following points myself.

At his inauguration, Barack Obama will lay his hand on the same Bible that President Abraham Lincoln used when he took the oath of office in 1861.

I leave to others the consideration of whether this is a presumptuous and grandiose gesture on Mr. Obama’s part. Or if it will be a beautiful moment when he lays a black hand on the Bible used by the Emancipator of the slaves. Neither of these is my topic.

I just want to point out the following irony involved in using the Lincoln Bible: Abraham Lincoln did not believe in the Bible.

Continue reading “The Irony of the Lincoln Bible”

New, Special-Edition ‘Bests’ Above

THESE ARE HEREBY RETIRED…

Lincoln's Second Inaugural is chiseled into the wall of his Memorial, along with his Gettysburg Address
Lincoln's Second Inaugural is chiseled into the wall of his Memorial, as is his Gettysburg Address

Best Presidential Inaugural Address: Lincoln’s second

Best New Olympic Event in a Long Time: BMX Biking (2008)

Best Tracy Chapman Song: Mountains of Things

Best Beethoven Symphony: Ninth

Best way to say you aren’t going to something you don’t want to go to: “I can’t make it.”

Best Robert Duvall Movie: “The Apostle