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Thursday, May 15, 2008

FIFTY-FOUR FORTY OR FIGHT

I couldn't help wondering, when Senator Barak Obama first called for a “new” politics, why the politics we’ve been using for the last 2,500 years needs to be replaced. Okay, Shrub has sanctioned a "disconnect" with the American people over the last four years, the natural result of "wedge" politics.But maybe the real problem lies not with the lying, two faced, double dealing, back-stabbing, opportunistic, insincere politicians but with the idiots who vote for them: i.e. us. Check my math, please: politicians lie, politicians get elected; could there be a connection? Let me give you a little example from ancient history, so nobody feels insulted.
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James K. Polk was our eleventh President, serving from 1845 to 1849. He was, until Richard Nixon, our most secretive President. He didn’t even tell his own cabinet members what he was thinking. He was a Jackson Democrat and no matter what your history book tells you he did not campaign on the Fifty-Four Forty or Fight platform – that came up later. During the campaign, what Polk was most famous for was for not branding his slaves. And trust me, this smear was so good they still haven’t figured out who did it.
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The story was first published in the August 21, 1844 edition of the Ithaca New York Chronicle, (a Whig newspaper) and claimed to be a 3 paragraph extract from an unpublished book, “Roorback’s Tour Through the Western and Southern States…” It claimed to detail the author's (Baron Von Roorback) conversations with a group of slave traders on the Duck River in Tennessee. “Forty of these unfortunate beings had been purchased, I was informed, of the Honorable J.K. Polk…; the mark of a branding iron, with the initials of his name on their shoulders, distinguishing them from the rest.” Even in 1844 the idea of branding human beings, even those treated as slaves, was appalling to many people...in places where the economy hadn't been built on slavery.
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Which was why the story was picked up by the Albany Evening Journal, and other Whig newspapers, particularly in the 1844 “battleground states” of New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Some voters in those three states were outraged that a man standing for President would do something so despicable as to brand human beings. To Whig politicians that story was almost too good to be true. And almost as quick as Republican Bloggers caught Dan Rather, the Democratic press found out there was no such book and no such Baron. The details about Polk had been inserted into a story from a real travel book, of a run in with some slave traders on Virginia’s New River. Polk’s farm was in Tennessee. And it was not common practice to brand slaves since, like whipping scars, they tended to reduce their price, like a car door a different shade than the other three. Slaves were certainly whipped and branded because it wasn’t illegal. Most people in 1844 America still believed slaves were property and would have been equally offended if some government offical tried to tell them how to treat their horses or how to slaughter their hogs.
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Still, embarrassed at being caught repeating what was so obviously a fabrication the Whigs pinned the whole thing on William Linn, a lawyer and a Democratic operative in Ithaca. But why would a Democrat smear his own candidate? Well, if I were a believer in conspiracy theories – and this may be one – an allegation that Polk branded his slaves was actually a fairly safe charge to make. Polk did own slaves, but his Whig opponent, Henry Clay, owned more. And it has been suggested by some historians that the “Roorback” story was a case of nineteenth century “wedge” politics. Abolitionism was still a minor issue in 1844, but abolitionists formed a solid voting block in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, those key battleground states. Convince enough abolitionists in at least two of those states that the Whigs were pulling a dirty trick on them and abolitionists voters might just choose Polk over Clay as the lesser of two evils. And the letter to the Ithaca Chronicle had been signed, “An Abolitionist”, thus adding insult to the injury.
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Well, maybe: the theory implies a level of sophisticated conspiracy that may not have existed in the simpler culture and times of 1844 – and probably didn’t exist in Athens in 415 B.C. when Alcibiades was accused of vandalizing statues of the God Hermes. Politicians have been gaming voters since voting was invented. And voters have been playing along, else the game would not have remained so popular for so long. And that is why, with all due respect to Senator Obama, when a politician tells me he is selling something new, my reaction is, “Pull the other one,” because when the American political system works (which it did not do in the last two presidential elections) it is been based upon pragmatism, as it was in the 1844 election results: Polk won 49.5% of the popular vote to Clay’s 48.1 %, and part of that razor thin margin was victories in New York and Pennsylvania - by less than 6,000 votes each. Those two states gave Polk 62 Electoral Votes, out of his sixty-five vote margin of victory (170 to 105). It seems that if the Roorback was a trick, it worked.
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Oh,... and “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!” was actually invented by Ohio Senator William “Earthquake” Allen, well after the election. It was the Southern border (54 degrees & 40 minutes of latitude) claimed by Russia when they owned Alaska. A simple glance at a modern map will confirm that the actual border agreed upon by President Polk is at the 49th parallel. So much for the “…Or fight!” part of the slogan. Have you noticed how often politicians don’t actually mean what they seem to say? You might say they make a career out of it. And if Obama proves to be any good as a politician and a President, he will have to be good at it too.
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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

MONDAY MAY 18, 1863

Sherman’s Corps has been directed to cross the Big Black River some 11 miles above the point at which McCernand’s and McPherson’s Corps have thrown across pontoon bridges. By 8 am the pontoon bridges are open and Grant is one of the first to cross over them and quickly moves cross-country to join the rapidly advancing Sherman's Corps.
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It is early that afternoon that Sherman and Grant together reach the rear of the Confederate batteries atop Haynes Bluff’s of the Walnut Hills. Confederate troops are in the process of evacuating the position, and retreating inside the Vicksburg defenses. And Grant is happy to allow them to leave. With Haynes Bluff in Union hands, “Supplies and reinforcements could now flow to Grant’s army unimpeded by either geography or Confederate action.” Grant wrote, “(Sherman) turned to me, saying that up to this minute he had felt no positive assurance of success. This, however, he said, was the end of one of the greatest campaigns in history, and I ought to make a report of it at once. Vicksburg was not yet captured, and there was no telling what might happen before it was taken; but whether captured or not, this was a complete and successful campaign.”
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Grant began his own account of his campaign with the following words; “The campaign of Vicksburg was suggested and developed by circumstances.” Others have been more impressed. “During the 17 day period after the landing at Burinsburg, Grant’s Army…marched 180 miles and won five major engagements…inflicting 7,200 casualties to 4,300 of his own, pinned Pemberton’s army inside the defenses of Vicksburg, and with his right flank now anchored on the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers North of the city, reestablished his communications and supply…Those who think of Grant as a butcher need to examine this masterpiece of operational art.” (Mackubin T. Owens, Associate Dead at the U.S. Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island.)
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Grant would later observe; “All of (Pemberton’s) troops had to be met. We were fortunate, to say the least, in meeting them in detail…They were beaten in detail by a force smaller than their own, upon their own ground” This was, of course no fortunate accident. Grant achieved this amazing feat because he had to. Grant could not have known before he crossed the Mississippi that Pemberton would play into his hands, although he must have suspected it given Pemberton’s reactions to all of the digging and maneuvering before that fateful May. Still, the resolve to make the crossing was all Grant's.
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There was a fundamental mistake made in the defense of Vicksburg, as detailed by (amongst others) General Joe Johnston; “An immense entrenched camp requiring an army to hold it, had been made instead of a fort requiring only a small garrison." But Grand Gulf had been just such a fort and it fell without even being defended directly because Pemberton knew Grand Gulf could not stand alone and he abandoned it. Why did he not do the same with Vicksburg? The core of the problem of Vicksburg is that all fortresses, even a Gibraltar, require an army in the field to defend them – generals and soldiers and teamsters and all the sinew of war. And Vicksburg had little of that sinew. The destruction of so much as one mile of track on the Vicksburg & Jackson Railroad was a catastrophe for the South, reducing the value of Vicksburg. Pemberton knew this. We know he knew this because he had faced the same choice in South Carolina and had not hesitated a moment before reaching the logical military solution. What was different about Vicksburg?
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What was different was Davis – Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In the words of recent historian he was, “a poor judge of character…” I would add that Davis was a martinet, with a blind adherence to the form rather than the function of command. When Davis was the supertendent of West Point he was infamous for handing out demerits wholesale to no end than ti make life for the cadets that much harder. But it seems a little simple to condemn Davis for the realities of the war, once the war began. Davis knew that Vicksburg must be held. And if that was an impossible task, it was still a task the Confederate President was required to ask of his generals. But Davis had been in Washington when the war had started. In the words of Bruce Catton, he was one of those men who helped to bring on the firestorm. And if once the fire was started he could do little to control it, then Davis can most certainly be blamed for arson. In the pantheon of “Southern Heroes” Jefferson Davis should not be praised. If, as he said, the Confederacy died of a theory, it was his theory. And all the dead of Vicksburg, on both sides, can be laid at his doorstep, much more so than Generals Pemberton or Johnston.
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And the hero of Vicksburg must be Grant. Any telling of the Vicksburg campaign of the spring of 1863 must be his story. Between April Fools day and July 4 of that year the two armies suffered 19,232 dead and wounded, a slight majority union. But at Vicksburg, six weeks after Grant and Sherman stood atop Haynes Bluff , a full Confederate army of 31,600 men, with 172 cannon and 60,000 muskets were surrendered to General U.S. Grant. He was the man who conceived and directed that campaign and who eventually brought the war to an end.
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Monday, May 12, 2008

SUNDAY MAY 17, 1863

As Pemberton’s battered men march through the night, they number less than 10,000: exhausted, defeated and mishandled. By now Pemberton is aware that he cannot stop at the Big Black, but must reach the safety of the Vicksburg entrenchments. He leaves three brigades from General Bowen’s division behind to slow the Union advance, perhaps 2,000 men, and drives the rest of his weary men on to Vicksburg some 20 miles away.
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Bowen’s men occupy positions prepared a week earlier, across the neck of a bend in the Big Black. The river at this point is so narrow that a riverboat has been jammed between the banks and is being used by the Confederates as a footbridge. The Vicksburg & Jackson railroad also bridges the river here, but it can not be used by horses or wagons. Grant describes the rebel position across the bend as covering an old bayou. “The bayou was grown up with timber, which the enemy had felled into the ditch. All this time there was a foot or two of water in it. The rebels had constructed a parapet along the inner bank of this bayou, by using cotton bales from the plantation close by and throwing dirt over them. The whole was thoroughly commanded from the height west of the river.” Now General John McClernand’s Corps is in the lead again, and as Grant watches, his artillery begins firing on the rebel trenches while General Michael K. Carr’s division prepares to assault the Confederate works.
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It is at this moment that (according to Grant) a messenger arrives with instructions from General Halleck in Washington, via General Banks - who is still struggling in the hinterlands of Louisiana in order (allegedly) to eventually, somehow, proceed against Port Hudson on the Mississippi River. The message is dated May 11 and orders Grant to immediately return to Grand Gulf and proceed against Port Hudson. And only after its fall will Grant be allowed to return to his actions against Vicksburg. After reading the message Grant tells the messenger that if Halleck knew the present situation he would not insist on the order. The messenger insists that Grant must obey his instructions. *
Just at that moment, with a bold charge, Irishman General Michael K, Lawler puts his military philosophy into practice (“If you see a head, hit it.”) by storming the Confederate breastworks in the face of a withering fire. Union Secretary of War Charles Dana would later describe Lawler as “…brave as a lion,…and has as much brains”, but with this one fell swoop the battle is won. Allegedly Grant now turns to the messenger and says, “It may be too early to end this campaign.” Whatever Grant said (if anything) he later wrote, “I immediately mounted my horse and rode in the direction of the charge, and saw no more of the officer who delivered the dispatch, I think not even to this day.”
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As the Confederate troops began to flee from the battle line the Confederate engineers set fire to the bridge and boat, to deny their use by the Union. The Union could claim 1,751 Confederate killed, wounded and captured, and an unknown number drowned when their bridges burned beneath their feet. Union losses are 39 killed, 237 wounded and 3 missing. Pemberton will return the next day to his original position inside the Vicksburg fortifications but with less than half the 17,000 men he had on the morning of Saturday, May 16.
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On this morning General Sherman rouses his men before daylight and spends the entire day marching up the Vicksburg/Jackson road. He finally calls a halt after 2AM having reached Bolton. It is now May 18, the last day of Grant’s Vicksburg campaign.
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Sunday, May 11, 2008

SATURDAY, MAY 16, 1863

At 6:30 in the morning cavalryman Wirt Adams reports to Pemberton that his pickets are already skirmishing with Federal troops near Raymond. During his report a telegram arrives from Johnston: “Our being compelled to leave Jackson makes your plan impractical. The only mode by which we can unite is by your moving directly to Clinton, informing me, that we may move directly to that point. I have no means of estimating the enemy’s force at Jackson.”
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It is a damning message. Johnston is hinting that it is possible Grant is shifting his weight from Jackson towards Vicksburg, but he offers Pemberton no evidence. Pemberton is already too far out on the limb, and he now has no choice but to support Johnston. He orders an immediate countermarch, back toward Edwards, so he can shift his axis of attack toward Clinton. Thus, at the very moment of contact with Grant, Pemberton is like a boxer, caught while shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
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On the Confederate left flank General Stevenson has just reversed his march when, at about 7 am he receives word of enemy skirmishers just beyond the Raymond road junction. Immediately he throws his own skirmish line across the Jackson/Clinton road, and hurries (as best he can) the supply wagons back across the still flooded Baker’s Creek. He also throws his men to work building a defensive position 3 miles long across the hilltop farm of Matilda and Sid Champion. At about 9:30 that morning McClernand’s cavalry captures the tiny village of Bolton, and continues to press forward.
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Pemberton also faces Federal troops on his right, in front of Loring’s division on the Raymond road. Still, most of the firing seems to be coming from his own left flank, at Champion Hill. And when Stevenson reports that he must be reinforced or lose the hill, Pemberton orders Bowen’s division to the left. But Bowen says he can not move unless Loring gets out of the way. And Loring says he cannot move because of the Federal troops to his front. Frustrated, Pemberton convinces Bowen to send at least one brigade to Stevenson’s assistance.
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By 10 am Sherman’s men have finished their destruction in Jackson and are on the road to Clinton. Johnston’s troops do not follow the retreating Yankees, struggling instead to put out fires and resurrect the telegraph lines in Jackson. At about the same time Grant arrives on the field before Champion Hill and orders an immediate assault by McPherson’s men on the right and McClernand’s Corp on the left. By 1 pm McPherson’s men have carried the Confederate works and captured the hill.
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Frustrated by the lack of co-operation on the parts of Loring and Bowen, General Pemberton has been reduced to feeding individual battalions into the fight for Champions Hill piecemeal. Now, in reaction to the Union success of 1 pm, Col. Cockrell, the same man who had so harassed McClernand on the Louisiana shore, now leads a charge that retakes the works for the Confederates. But Pemberton knows the hill cannot be held for long. He sends yet another order to Loring, instructing him to move to the left in support of Bowen and Stevenson. But Loring replies that the Federal troops to his front are moving to flank him. It is a reasonable argument. Except that Pemberton hears no firing coming from his left flank.
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What Pemberton cannot know is that the Federal troops in front of Loring are commanded by General McClernand, who is showing no more inclination to force a fight than Loring. But Grant has chosen not to press McClernand, even though his inaction is in violation of direct orders from Grant. Instead the Union commander reaches for Sherman’s men coming up from Bolton. He throws these men into a counter attack on Champion Hill, retaking the crucial position by about 4 pm. At last Stevenson’s division, which had been driven back but not broken, now breaks.
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Confederate General Loyd Tilghman’s brigade fights the rearguard action until he is killed. Then, the Confederate forces retreat across Bakers Creek. Luckily the stream has now fallen enough to make the ford useful again, but this means it will also be useful for the Yankees as well. Pemberton makes the decision to retreat at once back to the Big Black River. All the way, Pemberton continues to expect General Loring to act as the rear guard. But Loring has used the excuse of distant fire from Union cannon to retreat South along Bakers Creek, wandering for several hours, as if a petulant child resisting a call home for dinner. Eventually Loring turns north and rejoins the Confederacy at Jackson. Johnston thus acquired yet another temperamental general, something he did not need. But to all effects and purposes one third of Pemberton’s defeated army has simply vanished.
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Champions Hill would prove to be the crucial battle of the entire campaign. The Union army (32,000 strong) have 410 dead, 1,844 wounded and 187 missing (total casualties 2,441), while the Confederates, weaker at the start of the battle (just 17,000), have suffered 3,840 dead, 1,018 wounded and 2,441 missing (total casualties, 7,299). Pemberton has lost 13% of his strength, (in addittion to the 1/3 under Loring who have declared independence), proving the point that in fulfilling his orders from Jefferson Davis while also trying to answer Johnston’s urgent requests, Pemberton has gambled more than he can afford to lose. But what choice did he have?
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To have stayed behind the Vicksburg lines, as Davis wanted him to, would have simply made Grant’s job that much easier. If Pemberton had brought his entire force out to defeat Grant, that would have meant Vicksburg could have been captured by a U.S. Naval landing force, as Grand Gulf had been. Yes, if Grant had been defeated and forced to retreat, the city on the bluffs could have been recaptured at Pemberton’s leisure. But the problem was that Pemberton had direct orders to hold the city. And Johnston’s use of such tactics at Jackson, had not brought success either.
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To quote Bruce Catton on the subject, “Vicksburg was one of the places which the Confederate nation had to possess if it was to win its independence…But if this bit of the river was lost…then the Confederacy would begin to die…(and) Unless help could be brought in from outside the department the game would be lost…But all the troops that could conceivably be brought in were urgently needed somewhere else…To accept this argument was in effect to admit that the Confederacy was being tried beyond its strength, an admission Mr. Davis would never make.”(Catton, “Never Call Retreat” pp 3-4.)
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It reminds me of the quote attributed to Jefferson Davis, that the epitath of the Confederacy should read, "...Died of a theory."
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In effect, the fall of Vicksburg was no more Pemberton’s fault because he could not find a solution to the problem of how he could defeat Grant while defending Vicksburg, than it was Johnston’s fault for not finding the same solution, or Jefferson Davis’s fault. You might as well blame Robert E. Lee for not giving up Lonstreet’s Corp to save Vicksburg. It could not be done, by anyone. And after Champion’s Hill, it was only a matter of playing out the cards that had already been dealt.
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FRIDAY MAY 15, 1863

In the pre-dawn darkness, Pemberton’s 17,000 men begin their march for Dillion. They set out from Edward’s Station, intending to follow the Raymond road South East, but the downpour from the 13/14 May has swollen Bakers Creek which they must cross about a mile and a half out of Edwards. The ford is so flooded as to be useless. So Pemberton is forced to backtrack 1 ½ miles on the Clinton Road to cross the stream by the bridge on the Jackson/Vicksburg Road, and then detour 4 miles South before rejoining the road to Raymond. Wirt Adam’s cavalry leads a mile in front of the infantry, followed by Loring’s and then Bowen’s Division, and finally Stevenson’s division, followed by the army’s wagon trains.
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Also this morning another 4,000 Confederate troops arrive at General Johnston’s position on the Canton Road, six miles North of Jackson. He now has a force of 15,000 men. But the rebel troops are not a single cohesive unit yet and cannot be expected to fight a complicated engagement with Grant’s veterans. So Johnston holds back, waiting for word of Pemberton’s intentions. Meanwhile, in Jackson, two divisions of Sherman’s Corps begin their work destroying the industry and communications centers of the city.
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This morning, at seven, McPherson’s Corps leaves Jackson, led by Logan’s division, and bound for Clinton and then Bolton, where the Vicksburg Road crosses the old Natchez Trace. Directly in front of McPherson's column on the Vicksburg Road is McClernard’s Corp, now with orders to about march and advance toward Edward’s station. Bit McClernard is also cautioned by Grant not to bring on a general engagement.
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Grant rides as far as Clinton, where he is met by two captured engineers from the Vicksburg & Jackson Rail Road. They tell him that Pemberton is at Edward’s station with 3 divisions. Having earlier captured one of the couriers carrying a copy of Johnston’s message to Pemberton, Grant thus expects there to be contact with Pemberton’s army this day near Edwards. He urges Sherman to hurry the destruction of Jackson and bring up his full Corps to Bolton.
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Meanwhile on the road to Raymond, Pemberton spends the night in a private home. But he is now growing ever more confused. Where are the Union supply trains? Wirt Adam’s cavalry report no traffic on the Grand Gulf/Raymond road. The troops of Stevenson and Loring are on the march past midnight, trying to close up the column. They all expect to make contact with the Federal cavalry guarding the wagon trains in the morning. But Pemberton goes to bed without issuing any orders for his troop on the next day. Clearly he is unsure of where Grant is and what he intends on doing next.
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