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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

ITS A FAMILY AFFAIR.

I suspect that most of us have extended family members we love but who also make us wince; the Aunt who pretends she doesn’t drink, the Uncle with the odd bathing habits or the nervous cousin who never went to college and yet seems to know a lot about certain kinds of chemistry. If you are so afflicted it may be helpful to remind yourself that that at least your family isn’t stark raving mad, and even if they are then at least one of them doesn’t think he is royalty. And in the unlikely event that they do, well then, at least they don’t think they are Herod I, also known as “Herod The Great”, also known as “Herod the Builder”, and “Herod the Fecund”. But he is probably best known as “Herod the Paranoid Homicidal Maniac”. But then no family is perfect, right?Herod was a second son and he certainly didn’t seem destined to be great. But then, neither did he look crazy, either. But he was. At 25 he had a wife (Doris) and child (Antipater) and was in charge of Galilee, a poverty stricken back water province of the Roman Empire. But then his father was murdered (poisoned), and his older brother committed suicide (he bashed his own brains out). And in 40 BC a rebellion actually overthrew Herod. Any less of a bullhead would have taken the hint and retired, but Herod refused. With a little help from Rome (the Senate officially elected him “King of the Jews” - without asking the Jews, of course), in 37 BC Herod returned, murdered the usurper and took the throne for himself. By this time he had dumped his wife and child. And to reinforce his ties to the religious fanatics (always a good idea in the Middle East) Herod now married the teenage daughter of a priest. Her name was Mariamne.Trying to keep peace in the family, in 36 BC, Herod appointed his new brother-in-law High Priest. But two years later somebody had a little too much to drink at a party and somebody said something stupid and Herod had his brother-in-law water-boarded to death right in front of the guests. It seems homocide was their "normal:". Then in 29 B.C. Herod had his wife Mariamne executed because he suspected she was conspiring against him.And if she had any brains, she was. So when his now ex-Mother-in-Law said Herod was so nuts he was “unfit to rule”, he had her eliminated too. In 28 B.C. Herod had his other brother-in-law (and the husband of his daughter) executed. And because he was now out of in-laws, in 23 B.C. Herod married his third wife, Miriamne II (And at some point a fourth wife, a Samaritan girl named Malthace, and a fifth wife, known as Cleopatra of Jerusalem). Herod now had enough in-laws to drive anybody crazy; not that he needed an excuse.As was to be expected, by 12 B.C. Herod had become convinced that his sons by Miriamne I, Alexander and Aristobulus, were out to murder him. Agtain. if they had any brains... The Emperor Augustus talked Herod out of killing his sons immediately, but when Herod got hold of a conspiracy theory he was like a paranoid dog in taxidermy school - he was convinced everybody was after his bones. It took him five years but Herod finally compiled enough evidence to convince Augustus that Herod was never going to let the matter drop, and with the Emperor’s reluctant acceptance, both of Miriamne I’s sons were tried and executed in 7 B.C. That left Antipas, his son by Doris (remember her?) the next in line, and in keeping with the tradition of dedicated paranoids before him, such as Ivan the Terrible, Josef Stalin and Dick Cheney, in 4 B.C. Herod had him executed, too.
What happened next must have left Harod speechless. He died - of natural causes in his own bed. I'll bet nobody in the Middle East saw that coming. After his passing Herod's kingdom was divided between his sons Phillip (by Cleopatra) and Archelaus and Antipas (by Malthace). But it was Herod Antipas who managed to best carry on his father’s high standards for familial lunacy, particularly when he divorced his wife to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias.
It may have been a "love match" it also ticked off his brother Archelaus, and two other people Antipas really didn’t need to have ticked off
at him. First, ala Governor Sarah Palin and the State Trouper, it angered Antipas' ex-father-in-law, King Aretas IV, of Nabtea, who promptly declared war on Antipas. And second it offended a local religious fanatic named John the Baptist. John condemned the marriage not only because Herodias had been his brother’s wife, but also because the new bride was Herod Antipas’s half sister.Generally it was a typical Herodian Family Feud. You see the lady at the center of this scandal, Herodias, had already produced a daughter with husband number one, Archelaus. The daughter was named Salome, and not only was Herod Antipas her uncle but now he was also her stepfather. The situation made Herod Antipas a bit sensitive to criticism, and he threw John the Baptist in jail, just to shut him up. And that was when, according to scripture, Salome did her little dance and dropped her seven veils. Her step-daddy Antipas then asked what he could do thank her for the performance, and Salome suggested, probably at the urging of her mother Herodia, that he could give her the head of John the Baptist. It seems a little strange that Josephus, who never met a tall tale he didn’t like, never mentioned this one, but it’s in the bible and I guess that means it just must be true. And the truth is, I’ll believe anything about that family.


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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The VICKSBURG Campaign: Chapter one

I want to try an experiment. Please bear with me while I try to tell the story of the most amazing military campaign in American history, U.S. Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg, Mississippi. I will try and tell it in sequence and in real time. And I will begin with the observations of an amateur military genius, Abraham Lincoln, who tried to explain it to those who were celebrating the capture of Memphis, Tennessee on June 6, 1862. He told them, “…Vicksburg is the key. Here is the Red River, which will supply the Confederacy with cattle and corn to feed their armies. There are the Arkansas and White Rivers which can supply cattle and hogs by the thousand. From Vicksburg these supplies can be distributed by rail all over the Confederacy….Let us get Vicksburg and all that country is ours. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pockets….We may take all northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can still defy us from Vicksburg. It means hog and hominy without limit, fresh troops from all the states of the far South and a cotton country where they can raise the staple without interference.” And I have never found a more cogent or accurate description of the strategic situation in the winter of 1862
*
New Orleans had been captured on May 1, 1862. That closed the Mississippi river at its mouth. And with the battles of Island Number Ten, and the river fleet Battle of Memphis, on June 6, 1862, the river was in Union hands down to the Tennessee/Mississippi border. Only a narrow waist between Fort Hudson, Louisiana on the West shore, and Vicksburg, Mississippi on the East, remained under Confederate control. Along its whole torturous course between those two high points, to a breadth of up to forty miles, the bottom land slowly melded into “The Big Muddy”, half swamp, part river and part solid ground only between floods. And only at Vicksburg was the ground on the East side of the river solid enough so that a railroad line could touch the stream. And so, after the debacles at Memphis and New Orleans, the Confederacy turned Vicksburg into “The Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” On paper it looked simple. The city was just south of a huge S bend in the river, which meant that any warships coming from the North would have to slow to make that bend. Accepted military thinking and some experience said they would never survive the bombardment from heavy artillery atop the bluffs at Vicksburg. And the town’s northern land shoulder was protected by the 200 mile wide and 50 mile thick swamp of the Yazoo river delta. That seemed to restrict any land assault from the North to the inland route, right down the line of the Mississippi Central Railroad.
*
Union Forces under General Steven Halleck followed that line and managed to occupy Corinth, Mississippi on June 1st, 1862, but every time he ventured out from that base, Rebel cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest would slip around “Old Brains”, capture his supplies and burn the railroad bridges. And Halleck would have to slink back again. At the same time the Union Navy ran war ships up the Mississippi River past the guns at Fort Hudson and tried to shell Vicksburg into quick submission. But this time the Confederates refused to give up the ground. By the end of the summer Halleck had been transferred to the East and by fall of 1862 Grant had been forced to retreat back to Memphis.
*
General Grant really had three enemies to defeat. His most dangerous opponent was the War Department in Washington, which meddled away the Union strengths. And then there was the river, which even after a century and a half of vast public works remains a twisting, tortuous, argumentative stream. It was worse so in 1862. Grant’s most easily defeated opponent was Lt. General John C. Pemberton, a Pennsylvanian who had chosen to fight for the South. He was a skilled officer who had been given limited means (12,000 men scattered between Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi) to defend an objective of unlimited importance. And Grant understood intuitively that all that mattered was to occupy the Vicksburg bluffs and permanently cut the rail line that ran from Vicksburg to Jackson, Mississippi. And it didn’t matter how he did it. He started by trying everything he could think of.
*
The Navy had begun a canal that might eventually cut off the river bend just above Vicksburg by joining the Walnut and Roundaway Bayous before reconnecting with the river below Vicksburg at the tiny hamlet of New Carthage. But when a dam at the northern end of the dig collapsed, flooding out the Union camps, the canal was abandoned. Next Grant tried less digging. There was a circuitous maze of bayous that logically seemed to eventually connect an abandoned Mississippi bend, Lake Providence, 50 miles North of Vicksburg, to the Red River just before it rejoined the Big Muddy above the high ground at Fort Hudson. But some how, no matter how close they came, the bayous always seemed to end just before reaching the Red. (We know now that in past ages the Mississippi did use the Red River’s bed to reach the gulf to the West of its current delta – and has been trying for fifty years to re-establish the same delta again.) Another route up the Tallahatchie was blocked by a Rebel fort. And an attempt to follow Steele Bayou to Black Bayou to Deer Creek to Rolling Fork Bayou to the Sunflower River to outflank Haines Bluff on the Yazoo also failed. And an attempt to dig another bypass of the big bend just North of Vicksburg, the Duckport Canal, also failed.
*
Still all those labors had kept Pemberton constantly trying counter and anticipate Grant’s next move. And Grant took notice of that. And that is why, on April 17, 1863, Grant sent Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson and 1,700 troopers of the 6th and 7th Illinois and the 2nd Iowa cavalry on a raid deep into Mississippi, to do as much damage to the Central Mississippi Railroad as possible, even cut it if he could. What was not clear at the time was that from the moment Grierson rode out of La Grange, Tennessee, Vicksburg had just five weeks left as a major Rebel supply base.

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