Category Archives: Political Commentary

The Only Church that Truly Feeds the Soul

163017_10150113444907059_3944470_n

“The Only church that truly feeds the soul, day-in day-out, is the Church of Baseball” Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) in Bull Durham (MGM 1989)

Tonight I am going to the last home game of the Norfolk Tides. The Tides are our local Triple-A Minor League farm team of the Baltimore Orioles who are now 7 games up on the Yankees in the American League East. I love baseball. For me it is a source of peace, comfort and meaning in the sea of so much hatred, violence, inequity and injustice, angst and despair that fills our world.

Now honestly, while things seem are not good we tend to see life at any given time through they could be worse and certainly could be better they are not nearly as apocalyptic as the bearers of bad news make them out to be. Barbara Tuchman wrote “Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts….The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five-to tenfold.”

This is especially true for those who follow that loathsome Trinity of Evil, the Politicians, Pundits and Preachers who make their living causing people to be angry, covetous, anxious and on edge.

When I read or hear some of the vile things being said by allegedly conservative Bible believing Christian leaders be they politicians, pundits or preachers, or in the case of Mike Huckabee a despicable combination of all three, I become more convinced that Annie Savoy was right… the only church that truly feeds the soul is baseball.

In fact when I hear the likes of the Partisan Political Parsons, any of the big Mega-Church Pastors or television ministry hosts, or even some Catholic bishops start spouting off I feel like I have left this country and ended up in Medieval Europe or maybe Saudi Arabia. I wonder where the love has gone. When I read the words of men like Pat Robertson, James Robison, James Dobson, Bryan Fischer, Scott Lively, Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins, Gary Bauer and so many others I understand why people are fleeing the church in droves and so many hold the Christian faith, as well as other religions in such disdain.

Jonathan Swift once mused about the religion of his time, “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough for us to love one another.”   Swift’s words are a perfect description of the American Religious Right as much as they are of non-Christian groups who hate, the Moslem extremists of ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Boko Haram and the Taliban; the Ultra-Orthodox Jews who think that they are the only acceptable form of Judaism and physically attack other Jews for not being Jewish enough even while persecuting Israeli citizens who are Christian or Moslem; and the Hindu fundamentalists that burn down Christian and Moslem villages in India.

Thankfully, though I am still a Christian and at that a rather miscreant Priest and Chaplain that struggles with faith and belief, I also belong to the Church of Baseball. I am so because I agree with the late Commissioner of Baseball A. Bartlett Giamatti, who said, “there is nothing bad that accrues from baseball.” 

While I am very frustrated at what I see going on in the Christian church as well as in other religions that dominate other countries or cultures, when I think about baseball I know that God still cares. Every time that I look at that beautiful green diamond that sits in the middle of the great cathedrals and parish churches of the Church of Baseball, my sense of hope and faith is renewed.

To true believers, that may seem like heresy. But God even loves heretics and unbelievers. For me baseball speaks to the soul, maybe it is because baseball is more than a game.  Conservative political commentator and long suffering Chicago Cubs fan George Will said “Baseball is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes or games are created equal.” 

If that is heresy I don’t care. But then what is heresy? I don’t actually think that Jesus would recognize a lot of what we Christians do today as even being Christian.  I could be wrong but I recall Jesus was really big into the whole “two commandment” “love God with your whole heart and love your neighbor as yourself” way of life; and he wasn’t really cool with pompous religious leaders that give preference to the rich and powerful, and seek their own political power so they can use the state to enforce their religious views on non-believers like we do.

That is why I find something so right about baseball. Unlike the message of the political preachers that specialize in making themselves rich by keeping their followers anxious and angry while preaching the message that “God loved the world so much that he can’t wait to come back, judge and destroy it because of fouled up humanity” especially women and homosexuals; baseball caters to our hopes and dreams while recognizing that none of us, even those who play at the Hall of Fame level are perfect.

Unlike the false religious message preached by so many members of the Trinity of Evil, baseball deals with reality and life so well because of its ebb and flow. It deals with the grind of the long season, the constant demand for excellence and quest for perfection; but there is a realization that most of the time you won’t get there, and if you do, tomorrow you won’t and that is part of life.

Personally I don’t understand why if the Gospel of Jesus and God’s grace and love is actually true that we can’t apply this to our faith. Jesus, at least in the Gospel accounts seemed to accept the imperfections and foul ups of his followers, and not only that seemed to accept the people who the really righteous, religious leaders rejected and treated as less than human.

In fact, my paradigm of understanding the Christian faith comes from baseball. In baseball perfection is illusory and that life is full of times when things don’t go our way. It is much like real life and what is presented in Scripture. Ted Williams, the last player to hit for .400 said “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.”

For some of us it seems like reaching the Mendoza Line* is the best we will ever do, and if we believe in God’s grace, that is probably okay.

Tommy Lasorda the Hall of Fame Los Angeles Dodgers’ manager put things in excellent perspective “No matter how good you are, you’re going to lose one-third of your games.  No matter how bad you are you’re going to win one-third of your games.  It’s the other third that makes the difference.”  That is true in life and faith.

While I am definitely a Christian I struggle and I admit it. I have enough of my own problems to empathize with others that struggle, but who in embracing the wacky formulas offered by greedy self-serving preachers treat Jesus and his message like some sort of magical talisman or good luck charm. But sorry, I agree with what Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert) said in the movie Major League: “Jesus, I like him very much, but he no help with curveball.”

Thus I have many problems with the perfidious political and prosperity preachers that seem to have forgotten the Gospel, who are basically Elmer Gantry like snake-oil salesmen more attuned to keeping their market share than tending their flock. In fact, I think are actually driving people away from Jesus, and the polls of Barna, the Pew Religious survey, Gallup and others as well as the statistics kept by various denominations say that I am right.

When I watch baseball I feel renewed. As Sharon Olds wrote back in the early 1970s “Baseball is reassuring.  It makes me feel as if the world is not going to blow up.” That my friends is why I agree with Annie Savoy that the only church that truly feeds the soul day in and day out is baseball.

Churchofbaseball

 

The late great and legendary Detroit Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell said: “Baseball?  It’s just a game – as simple as a ball and a bat.  Yet, as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes.  It’s a sport, business – and sometimes even religion.”   Yes, for me, the heretic that I am it is the latter, and tonight I am happy to be going to the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

*Mario Mendoza was a Major League Shortstop who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates and other organizations. He was an outstanding defensive player but was not much of a hitter. His career batting average was only .215 but a batting average of .200 is considered the minimum that a player can have to remain at the level that he plays.  I think that my career batting average in both baseball and softball barely clears the Mendoza Line. 

About these ads

Leave a comment

Filed under Baseball, Batlimore Orioles, faith, movies, Political Commentary, Religion

Reembracing the New Birth of Freedom

gburg address

I am always humbled when I travel to Gettysburg as I did a week and a half ago. It is hard to believe in that now peaceful pastoral setting that over 157,000 Americans, almost 82,000 Union and 75,000 Confederate met in a three day battle. In those three days over 28,000 Confederates and 23,000 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, missing or captured. It was the greatest number of casualties inflicted in one battle on American soil in history.

The places that the battle was fought have become legendary, for they are “hallowed ground” as President Abraham Lincoln so eloquently put it. The places, McPherson’s and Herr’s Ridge, Seminary Ridge, the Railroad Cut, Barlow’s Knoll, Cemetery Hill, Culp’s Hill, The Wheat Field, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, Little Round Top, Cemetery Ridge, the Apse of Trees, the Angle and the High Water Mark are in a sense holy, or hallowed, consecrated by those who struggled there, those who lived and those who gave the last full measure of devotion to their country. When I take my students there I always finish at the Soldier’s Cemetery where Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.

I think about those men of both sides, fully convinced of the rightness of their cause who fought valiantly in the struggle. That being said when I go there though my family predominantly fought for the Confederacy my heart is drawn to those men who remained loyal to the Union and those who answered the call of Abraham Lincoln to serve in a cause greater than their own interests, the great and the small alike.

Lincoln was a masterful orator who managed to rally the Union and bring hundreds of thousands of men volunteer before Gettysburg. They came for an ideal an ideal which Lincoln’s oratory was probably the most effective at articulating in a way that men would volunteer to suffer hardship, fight and die to bring about. It was well put in the movie Gettysburg where Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, played by Jeff Daniels said:

“This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you’ll see men fight for pay, or women, or some other kind of loot. They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we’re here for something new. This has not happened much, in the history of the world: We are an army out to set other men free. America should be free ground, all of it, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow, no man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here you can be something. Here is the place to build a home. But it’s not the land. There’s always more land. It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me. What we’re fighting for, in the end… we’re fighting for each other…” [1]

On November 19th 1863 Lincoln delivered a “few words” at Gettysburg which were in all practical aspects a benediction at the dedication of the battlefield cemetery. Lincoln was the second speaker at the ceremony following former Pennsylvania Congressman Edward Everett who spoke for more than two hours, a typical speech from the period.

Everett was one of the leading orators of his day. Everett was “a scholar and Ivy-League diplomat who could hold mass audiences in thrall. His voice, diction, and gestures were successfully dramatic, and he always performed his carefully written text, no matter how long, from memory.” [2]

The 270 words of Lincoln’s address are perhaps the most important of any speech or document in American history save the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, in those words “Lincoln, nevertheless managed to justify the ways of democracy more than anyone, then or now.” [3]

The speech was so powerful that Everett wrote Lincoln the next day:

“Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery. I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” [4]

The speech is short, but its eloquence is unmatched. Lincoln wrapped ideas, concepts and ideals that men have written volumes about into a speech so powerful that many have memorized it.

But few realize the context that it must be placed. Though the Union had defeated Lee’s Army at Gettysburg and Grant had taken Vicksburg to cut the Confederacy in half the North was growing war weary. During the fall of 1863 after a series of inconclusive battles in northern Virginia both Lee and Meade’s armies had sent significant numbers of troops to the west, to support operations in eastern Tennessee.

Lee sent Longstreet’s First Corps, which took part in the bloody battle of Chickamauga, which “is a Cherokee word meaning “river of death.” [5] where on September 19th and 20th the Federal Army of the Cumberland under General Rosecrans “were soundly whipped at …and driven back into the strategic point of Chattanooga.” [6] The number of casualties on both sides, over 16,000 Federal and 18,000 Confederate, a “combined total of 34,634 was exceeded only the three day slaughter at Gettysburg and by the week-long series of five battles known collectively as the Seven Days.” [7] Despite the number of casualties it was one of the biggest Confederate victories of the war. A clerk in Richmond wrote “The whole South will be filled again with patriotic fervor, and in the North there will be a corresponding depression.” [8] That changed rapidly when the Union reacted quickly and reversed the strategic situation. One action taken was to deploy Oliver Howard’s XI Corps and Henry Slocum’s XII Corps west, where “they would be commanded by Joe hooker, who was conveniently at hand and unemployed.” [9]

In the east during the following weeks “Lee and Meade, like two wounded, spent gladiators, sparred listlessly along the Rapidan. It seemed to Northerners that the fruits of Gettysburg had been thrown away.” [10] Lee sensed an opportunity to go back on the offensive against Meade’s weakened army, but his offensive was stopped on October 14th when “the Union Second Corps shattered a reckless attack by A.P. Hill’s corps at Bristoe Station, five miles south of Manassas.[11]

There was a faction in the North, the Copperheads, who were willing even after Gettysburg and Vicksburg to end the war on terms favorable to the Confederacy, even allowing for Confederate independence and the continuation of slavery. The efforts of the Copperheads to gain governorships in Ohio and Pennsylvania met defeat in November 1863, although their efforts would persist through the 1864 Presidential election.

However, the anti-abolitionist and racist views espoused by the northern Democrat Copperheads had begun to lose their potency in the North after July of 1863 with the onset of “the New York draft riot, which shocked many northerners into a backlash against the consequences of virulent racism” [12] and the sacrifice of the African American 54th Massachusetts Infantry when it assaulted Fort Wagoner outside of Charleston South Carolina, which occurred “just after the Democratic rioters in New York had lynched black people and burned the Colored Orphan Asylum. Few Republican newspapers failed to point the moral: black men who fought for the Union deserved more respect than white men who fought against it.” [13]

The speeches of Everett and Lincoln are deeply connected with Romanticism, the Greek revival and the Transcendentalist movement in the United States. Both were children of the enlightenment, and Everett, a former President of Harvard was well versed in these subjects and Lincoln, though a politician who appealed to the tenets of the Enlightenment, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Lincoln appealed to the “sacred principles of the laws of nature,” and hailed “the constitution and laws” as “hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason.” For Lincoln, the war was a test of the practical worth of liberalism.” [14]

Everett had been a mentor to some of the leading Transcendentalist thinkers of his era including Ralph Waldo Emmerson who found that the experience of “Everett’s classroom gave him an entirely new direction in life. He wrote:

“Germany had created [literary] criticism in vain for us until 1820, when Edward Everett returned from his five years in Europe, and brought to Cambridge his rich results, which no one was so fitted by natural grace and splendor of his rhetoric to introduce and recommend….The novelty of the learning lost northing in the skill and genius of its interpreter, and the rudest undergraduate found a new morning opening to him in the lecture room at Harvard.” [15]

Everett, who had previously dedicated battlefields at Bunker Hill, as well as Lexington and Concord, was at his best when dedicating battlefields and cemeteries. He spent weeks preparing his speech. Everett had studied the battle and knew it well from official reports and talks with those who fought it. Everett painted a vivid picture of the battle for his audience and connected the sacrifice of those who fought and died to preserve the Union form antiquity and from those who founded the nation. In his narrative Everett aspired to more than mere accuracy. Along “with Bancroft and other romantic historians of his time, he meant to create a tradition that would inspire as well as inform. Like the Attic orators- and dramatists- he knew the power of symbols to create a people’s political identity.” [16]

Lincoln was sick when he delivered the address having what was mostly likely a mild form of Smallpox when he gave the address. Thus the tenor, simplicity and philosophical depth of the address are even more remarkable. It is a speech given in the manner of Winston Churchill’s “Blood sweat toil and tears” address to Parliament upon being appoint Prime Minister in 1940. Likewise it echoes the Transcendentalist understanding of the Declaration of Independence as a “test for all other things.” Many in the United States and Europe did not agree and argued that no nation found on such principles could long survive. But Lincoln disagreed. He believed that the “sacrifices of Gettysburg, Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Chancellorsville, and a hundred other places demonstrated otherwise, that men would die rather than to lose hold of that proposition. Reflecting on that dedication, the living should themselves experience a new birth of freedom, a determination….”that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.[17]

The Unitarian pastor and leading Transcendentalist Theodore Parker wrote:

“Our national ideal out-travels our experience, and all experience. We began our national career by setting all history at defiance- for that said, “A republic on a large scale cannot exist.” Our progress since that has shown that we were right in refusing to be limited by the past. The practical ideas of the nation are transcendent, not empirical. Human history could not justify the Declaration of Independence and its large statements of the new idea: the nation went beyond human history and appealed to human nature.” [18]

Likewise Lincoln’s address echoes the thought of George Bancroft who wrote of the Declaration:

“The bill of rights which it promulgates is of rights that are older than human institutions, and spring from the eternal justice…. The heart of Jefferson in writing the Declaration, and of Congress in adopting it, beat for all humanity; the assertion of right was made for the entire world of mankind and all coming generations, without any exceptions whatsoever.” [19]

Parker’s words also prefigured an idea that Lincoln used in his address, that being: The American Revolution, with American history since, is an attempt to prove by experience this transcendental proposition, to organize the transcendental idea of politics. The ideal demands for its organization a democracy- a government of all, for all, and by all…” [20]

Lincoln delivered these words on that November afternoon:

Four score 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 a great battle-field 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 can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor 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 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 honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.[21]

In a time where many are wearied by the foibles and follies of our politicians, even wondering about our form of government can survive Lincoln’s words matter. Dr. Allen Guelzo, Professor of Civil War Studies at Gettysburg College wrote in the New York Times:

“The genius of the address thus lay not in its language or in its brevity (virtues though these were), but in the new birth it gave to those who had become discouraged and wearied by democracy’s follies, and in the reminder that democracy’s survival rested ultimately in the hands of citizens who saw something in democracy worth dying for. We could use that reminder again today.” [22]

Dr. Guelzo is quite correct. Many people in this country and around the world are having grave doubts about our democracy. I wonder myself, but I am an optimist. I do believe that we will recover because for the life of me I see no nation anywhere else with our resiliency and ability to overcome the stupidity of politicians, pundits and preachers.

The amazing thing was that in spite of everything the Union survived. Lincoln was a big part of that but it was the men who left lives of comfort and security like Joshua Chamberlain and so many others who brought about that victory. Throughout the war, even to the end Southern political leaders failed to understand that Union men would fight and die for an ideal, something greater than themselves, the preservation of the Union and the freedom of an enslaved race. For those men that volunteered to serve, the war was not about personal gain, loot or land, it was about something greater. It was about freedom.

Now I for one do not think that we are currently living up to the ideals enunciated by Lincoln that day at Gettysburg. I can understand the cynicism disillusionment of Americans as well as those around the world who have for over 200 years looked to us and our system as a “city set on a hill.” That being said, when I read these words and walk that hallowed ground I am again a believer. I believe that we can realize the ideal, even in our lifetime should we desire.

[1] Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels, Ballantine Books, New York. 1974 p.28

[2] Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York 1992 p.25

[3] Guelzo Allen C. Fateful Lightening: A New History of the Civil War Era and Reconstruction Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2012 p.407

[4] Everett, Edward Letter from Edward Everett to Abraham Lincoln, (Transcription) 20 November 1863 retrieved from http://www.in.gov/judiciary/citc/files/everett-to-lincoln.pdf July 18th 2014

[5] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lighteningp.352

[6] Hebert, Walter H. Fighting Joe Hooker University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London 1999. Originally published by Bobbs-Merrill, New York 1944

[7] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.758

[8] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.757

[9] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.764

[10] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, New York 2004 p.513

[11] McPherson, James M. Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief Penguin Books, New York and London 2008 p.200

[12] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.686

[13] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.687

[14] Ibid. Guelzo. Fateful Lightening pp.406-407

[15] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.45

[16] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.51

[17] Ibid. Guelzo. Fateful Lightening p.408

[18] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.110

[19] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.105

[20] Ibid. Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg p.105

[21] Lincoln, Abraham The Gettysburg Address the Bliss Copy retrieved from http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm

[22] Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln’s Sound Bite: Have Faith in Democracy New York Time Opinionator, November 17th 2013 retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/17/lincolns-sound-bite-have-faith-in-democracy/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0 July 18th 2014

 

2 Comments

Filed under civil war, History, philosophy, Political Commentary

Remembering the Sacrifice: A Weekend in Gettysburg

Gettysburg_Unknowns.JPG

I am on the way home from Gettysburg with my students after concluding the second day of our Staff Ride. As always it has been a really good experience. We concluded the event by going to the Soldier’s Cemetary, which is located on the western section of Cemetary Hill. It is the place that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address as well as the final resting place of many of the Union soldiers who died during the battle or shortly thereafter from their wounds. Many of these men are unknowns. They are buried in sections which simply note how many unknown soldiers are in that section, and each of these graves is marked by a small stone engraved with a number.

I strongly believe that all citizens should have to make a pilgrimage to Gettysburg. I do not limit this belief to the military professionals who have to prepare for war and fight it when it breaks out, like the men and women of my class. But I  especially believe others need to walk the battlefield and be taught by someone that can put the events of the battle into proper perspective. This includes the politicians and policy makers that get us into wars, the think tank wonks and business leaders who profit from war, and the pundits and preachers who stir up the passions of people to support war, need to walk the battlefield.

Guy Sager wrote in his book The Forgotton Soldier:

“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual…One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!”

The same is true today. Too many people, especially those with “no skin in the game” eagerly urge the President to throw U.S. Military power into conflicts that have little chance of being solved by the application of that power. To me it seems like the lives of our military personnel are cheap for many people, especially the politicians, pundits and preachers; but also the war profiteers, while most citizens are apathetic at best, as bumper sticker patriotism is easy.

Basically this is because for most people war is remote from their lives. The military is a voluntary organization with comparatively stringent standards required for enlistees. Even at the peak of our Iraq-Afghanistan wartime strength under one percent of the population actually served in the military. So when I hear people yammering about committing troops to places that many citizens, including the politicians, pundits and preachers, cannot even find on a map, with no plan or purpose once we commit ourselves to war, I get spun up.

For me Gettysburg, and many other battlefields are powerful reminders of the cost of war. They are also reminders of the grave responsibility of those who take a nation into war or who counsel leaders to go to war, responsibilities that many people seem to take lightly. I think that those with that responsibility, which in a democracy is all of us, need that reminder and most of us don’t get it.

Since so few citizens actually serve in the military, I think that everyone should spend two or three days walking that battlefield and learn the lessons as they stand in the elements, exposed to whatever the weather gods can throw at them. People should learn the lessons when they are tired and uncomfortable. This weekend the weather was very similar to what the men than fought at Gettysburg experienced, it was warm and humid, and walking across the field that Pickett’s soldiers advanced, or over the craggy rocks of Little Round Top gave us an appreciation for what those soldiers experienced, without the shooting and death.

As I walked the cemetary with my students spent some time talking about the number of casulaties incurred at Gettysburg, because there is a real flesh and blood cost associated with war, it’s not like the movies or a video game.

Abraham Lincoln reminded the nation of that cost, and the responsibility of the nation, when he spoke “a few words” following the main speech dedicating the Soldier’s Cemetary. Those immortal words are known as the Gettysburg Address. I read them to my students as I dispatched them to walk around the cemetary, and I post them here as well:

 “Four score 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 a great battle-field 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 can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor 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 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 honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like it when soldiers die in vain.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Leave a comment

Filed under civil war, History, philosophy, Political Commentary

The Night the Lights Went Out in Europe: August 3rd 1914

grey-bastard

Sir Edward Grey addressing the House of Commons 

The mobilization of millions of soldiers across Europe was moving rapidly as the sun set on the night of August 2nd 1914 when the German Ambassador to Belgium Klaus Bulow-Selaske delivered an ultimatum to the Belgian government. The ultimatum gave the Belgians 12 hours to decide if they would allow the German armies free passage through the country. The Belgians, treasuring their independence and led by a truly heroic leader, the young and humble King Albert refused the German ultimatum and vowed to fight.

The next morning the British House of Commons met and for the first time since 1893 every member was present, with many spectators in attendance, Britain’s participation in a war on the European Continent in nearly 100 years was being contemplated. Britain was divided between interventionists and non-interventionists, and the pressure was on the government.

The British Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey urged giving support to France. He told the assembled Members of Parliament about, British military understandings with France, and the German ultimatum to Belgium. Grey asked them whether Britain “would quietly stand by and witness the perpetration of the dirtiest crime that ever stained the pages of history, and thus become participators in the sin.” He added that “we are going to suffer, I am afraid in this war, whether we are in it or stand aside.” If Britain dis stand aside, forfeiting her “Belgian Treaty obligations” the she would “sacrifice our respect and good name and reputation before the world.” Grey had not convinced everyone, but he had carried the day. However, the Germans did not believe that Britain would go to war over Belgium.

At seven that evening the German Ambassador to France Baron Schoen delivered a declaration of war against France, his counterpart in Berlin, the French Ambassador was given his passports.

As Grey pondered the content of an ultimatum to be sent to Berlin he returned to his office in Whitehall. “Watching with his failing eyes, the lamps being lit in St. James Park, Grey was heard to remark that “the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them again in our lifetime.”

The next morning the German army began its assault on the Belgian fortress city of Liege. That afternoon Poincare and Foreign Minister Viviani addressed the combined houses of the French Parliament, asking for war credits, discussing German violations of French territory and “implored the deputies, and the French people “to help us in bearing the burden of our heavy responsibility, the comfort of a clear conscience and the conviction that we have done our duty.”

The members of all parties, from the nationalists, the Catholic right and the Socialists overwhelming committed themselves to a sacred union. Poincare recalled later “Never has there been a spectacle as magnificent as that which they have just participated….In the memory of man, there has never been anything more beautiful in France.”

kw31_reichstagsprotokolle_bild

Bethmann-Hollweg address the Reichstag 

In Berlin Prime Minister Bethmann-Hollweg accused the French of violating German borders and of the Russian mobilization. He asked the Reichstag deputies “Were we to wait in further patience until the nations on either side of us chose the moment for their attack?” He was interrupted with cries of “No! No!”

Bethmann went on and admitted that Germany had violated Belgian territory and that it was a “breach of international law” ironically what he had just accused the French of doing, but Bethmann promised that “this wrong- I speak openly-the wrong we thereby commit we will try to make good as soon as our military aims have been attained.” Grand Admiral Tirpitz considered the admission of wrongdoing “the greatest blunder ever spoken by a German statesman.”

Bethmann called the nation to stand behind the military and as in France “Reichstag party leaders rose as one to vote war credits.”

A similar ultimatum was delivered to Russia by the German Ambassador and a similar scene repeated as Russia declared war.

That evening the British Ambassador to Germany Sir Edward Goschen paid a visit to Foreign Minister Jagow with a British ultimatum for the Germans to withdraw from Belgium within twelve hours, or face war. Bethmann, who had helped lead his nation into war believing that the British would remain neutral was stunned. Likewise, none had counted on the Russians to fight. The Germans had given Austria-Hungary a “blank check” and that nation’s leaders cashed it with grave consequences for the world. Austria’s actions led to Czar Nicholas making the fateful decision to mobilize on July 29th, which set Europe on course for war.

There was no turning back, in four hours the two greatest military powers in the world, Great Britain and Germany would be at war.

All all of the leaders in their speeches had left out information that would be embarrassing to their claims in their addresses, duplicity was the order of the day. The lights were going out across Europe. And the leaders of all of the nations, with the exception of Belgium shared some degree of responsibility.

The questions for us today are similar: Will all of our leaders allow the lights to go out again, not just in Europe but the Middle East and Asia? and will world leaders allow some foolish action somewhere to bring about more war?

Admittedly the situation is not identical, but there are troubling similarities. It is something to think long and hard about.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Leave a comment

Filed under History, history, national security, Political Commentary, world war one

The Beginning of the Never Ending End: August 1914

wwimobilization

“An event of great agony is bearable only in the belief that it will bring about a better world. When it does not, as in the aftermath of another vast calamity in 1914-18, disillusion is deep and moves on to self-doubt and self-disgust.” Barbara Tuchman

On August 1st 1914 the armies of Europe were mobilizing for war. The last feeble efforts at diplomacy were failing as leaders, and diplomats sought a way out of the situation that their policies had brought about. They had allowed the military instrument to drive policy, rather than for policy to dictate how the military should be employed as an instrument of national strategy. As such they became prisoners to their military mobilization plans, all of which depended on speed in order to gain advantage over their adversaries.

The nations and militaries of Europe were devoted to the “cult of the offensive” by which they would crush their enemy’s armies in a quick campaign. In Germany there was the modified Schlieffen Plan that was about to be executed by the army commanded by Von Molkte the younger in which Germany would violate the neutrality of Belgium in order to invade France, risking war with England in the process. In France, the offense was also the rule of the day, Plan 17 dictated an advance to recapture the Alsace and drive into the heart of Germany. Russia had “Plan 19” nicknamed by some “the Russian Steamroller,” while Austria-Hungary, the chief protagonist of the War dithered with plans to attack Serbia and defend against Russia, which her military commander Conrad von Hotzendorf neither shared with his German allies, or the politicians leading his country to war.

The numbers of troops were massive, the Germans mobilizing nearly four million troops in less than two weeks, the Austrians three point three million, the French over three million and the Russians nearly five million. Serbia, Belgium and Great Britain were mobilizing as well, but the numbers of soldiers that they mobilized were a fraction the size of the major land powers. Soon other nations would become involved, the Ottoman Empire on the side of Austria and Germany, Italy on the side of England and France. Bulgaria and Romania would become involved as well as far away Japan, which saw the opportunity to expand its empire and influence at the expense of Germany.

No leaders had planned for a long war; they did not believe such a war could last. “One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.”

But they were wrong and in the opening weeks and months of the war, every army lost massive numbers of troops ensuring that victory would not come quickly or cheaply. Between August and December 1914 the Germans had sustained about 800,000 casualties, the French about the same, the Austrians close to a million, the Russians at least 500,000 and the tiny British expeditionary force took about 87,000 casualties of the 110,000 troops deployed to France.

The war dragged on until November 1918. An armistice was signed; a peace treaty made, territory divided but the war never really ended, and in a way continues today in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe. The “War to end all War” really never ended, it continues today in some many places. It really was a war without end.

Of course in August 1914 the leaders of Europe gambled everything on a roll of the dice. The decisions that they made were made deliberately and with forethought, but the logic of those leaders was fatally flawed, and the implications of their flawed decision making process are still haunting us today. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like the politicians, pundits and preachers, that “Trinity of Evil” that find glory and profit in war have learned anything. Like Conrad von Hotzendorf many leaders today believe that “the essence of politics lies in the use of the means called “war.” As Barbara Tuchman said “Learning from experience is a faculty almost never practiced”

Peace

Padre Steve+

Leave a comment

Filed under Foreign Policy, History, leadership, Military, Political Commentary

The National Security State thru the Lens of Star Trek Deep Space Nine

nsa-operations-center

Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges, in time of war the law stands silent…

James Madison wrote that “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.”

I am amazed when I read the reports about the activities of the National Security Agency and the reactions of citizens to them. I know that I feel a sense of apprehension about those activities. The national security state and the seeming all pervasive security and surveillance apparatus which demolishes any sense of privacy, especially the protections enunciated in the Fourth Amendment and to some extent the First Amendment.

I also feel, or rather understand from history and empirical evidence that many others, many from unfriendly countries do not share those apprehensions. It makes for an ethical, legal and even constitutional conundrum that I am not sure if anyone of us is quite comfortable with and perhaps maybe we shouldn’t be.

It is very easy on one hand in light of history, our Constitution and democratic process to condemn the NSA, the FISA courts and other lawfully constituted agencies and those that drafted the laws over the decades that allow the activities which they now conduct. The same can be said of foreign intelligence agencies which all engage in similar activities including the British GCHQ, the German Bundesnachrichtendienst and so many others including the Chinese and Russians.

Likewise it is equally easy in light of history, current events and national security to jump to the other side of the fence and not only defend the activities of the NSA and agencies like it, and to demonize those that expose such activities.

I find looking at such issues in light of Star Trek sometimes more interesting and provocative than simply doing the whole moralizing pundit thing. The fact that the particular episode of  Star Trek Deep Space Nine was aired well before the events of 9-11-2001, and the subsequent Global War on Terror, make it more interesting. The episode deals with an agency in Starfleet that is secretive, but legal operating in the gray areas between the ideals of the Federation and the threats that it faces. Even when the Federation is a peace, Section 31, as it is called is engaged in activities against historic or potential enemies.

At the beginning of the Deep Space Nine Episode Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges the head of Section 31, a man only known as Sloan comes back to Doctor Bashir to involve him in an operation, spying on the Romulans who are working with the Federation against the Dominion.

BASHIR: You want me to spy on an ally.

SLOAN: To evaluate an ally. And a temporary ally at that. I say that because when the war is over, the following will happen in short order. The Dominion will be forced back to the Gamma Quadrant, the Cardassian Empire will be occupied, the Klingon Empire will spend the next ten years recovering from the war and won’t pose a serious threat to anyone. That leaves two powers to vie for control of the quadrant, the Federation and the Romulans.

BASHIR: This war isn’t over and you’re already planning for the next.

SLOAN: Well put. I hope your report is equally succinct.

BASHIR: How many times do I have to tell you, Sloan? I don’t work for you.

SLOAN: You will. It’s in your nature. You are a man who loves secrets. Medical, personal, fictional. I am a man of secrets. You want to know what I know, and the only way to do that is to accept the assignment.

The fact is that the situation we face today and the arguments of both sides should make us uncomfortable. The fact is that like it or not or not the incredibly rapid technical and communication advances of the past couple of decades have primed us for our present time. Likewise they have also enabled a generation to grow up in a virtual world in many ways detached from the moral and ethical balances of individual rights and liberties as well responsibility to community. All the wonderful gadgets that we employ in everyday life make it easy for enemies and “friends” to do things that were unimaginable to people other than science fiction writers even twenty to thirty years ago. Likewise they were must certainly beyond the wildest imaginations of any of the founders of this country or drafters of the Constitution. The reality is, the things that make are lives so easy are also the things that are potential instruments of our destruction.

That being said throughout history, even our own there have been operatives within the government in charge of secrets, and even spies. In the Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges episode we see an operation that is full of duplicity and moral ambiguity all committed in the name of security. It involves the mysterious Section 31 and Starfleet Admiral Ross who attempt to use Doctor Bashir to double cross a Romulan Senator who had been working with the Federation to keep the secret of the head of the Romulan secret police who is a Federation agent. When Doctor Bashir figures out the plot he confronts the Admiral. Part of their exchange is very enlightening because it practically mirrors how many on both the civil liberties and the national security side of the current controversy feel about the War on Terror.

BASHIR: You don’t see anything wrong with what happened, do you.

ROSS: I don’t like it. But I’ve spent the last year and a half of my life ordering young men and young women to die. I like that even less.

BASHIR: That’s a glib answer and a cheap way to avoid the fact that you’ve trampled on the very thing that those men and women are out there dying to protect! Does that not mean anything to you?

ROSS: Inter arma enim silent leges.

BASHIR: In time of war, the law falls silent. Cicero. So is that what we have become? A twenty fourth century Rome driven by nothing more than the certainty that Caesar can do no wrong!

ROSS: This conversation never happened.

In light of the controversy of today, that of the NSA, FISA and government secrecy and gathering information on its own citizens we face a growing tide of reporters and others seeking to reveal those secrets. Back in 1989 ethicist Sissela Bok wrote something very important in her book Secrets: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life:

“…as government secrecy expands, more public officials become privy to classified information and are faced with the choice of whether or not to leak … growing secrecy likewise causes reporters to press harder from the outside to uncover what is hidden. And then in a vicious circle, the increased revelations give government leaders further reasons to press for still more secrecy.”

As we wade through this controversy we will see people do exactly this and the these exact arguments are being made by the people and officials directly involved as well as former elected and appointed officials as well as the press. The interesting thing to me is that very few of the people or agencies, past and present, Republican and Democrat involved really have clean hands. It is amazing to see former champions of civil liberties defend the NSA actions and those that empowered the NSA in the Patriot Act now condemn it. I find it fascinating.

At the end of the Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges episode the mysterious Sloan pops back in on Doctor Bashir who is in his quarters, asleep and depressed by what he experienced during the operation on Romulus and with Admiral Ross.

SLOAN: Good evening.

BASHIR: Are you expecting applause? Have you come to take a bow?

SLOAN: I just wanted to say thank you.

BASHIR: For what? Allowing you to manipulate me so completely?

SLOAN: For being a decent human being. That’s why we selected you in the first place, Doctor. We needed somebody who wanted to play the game, but who would only go so far. When the time came, you stood your ground. You did the right thing. You reached out to an enemy, you told her the truth, you tried to stop a murder. The Federation needs men like you, Doctor. Men of conscience, men of principle, men who can sleep at night. You’re also the reason Section Thirty one exists. Someone has to protect men like you from a universe that doesn’t share your sense of right and wrong.

BASHIR: Should I feel sorry for you? Should I be weeping over the burden you’re forced to carry in order to protect the rest of us?

SLOAN: It is an honor to know you, Doctor. Goodnight.

We live in this kind of world and maybe it is good sometimes to find other ways to look at it. I really don’t have the answers. I am a civil libertarian who places a high value on the openness of a government to its people. I also know that there are those that have no regard for such openness or, to quote Sloan don’t “share your sense of right and wrong.”

Maybe that is not a good answer. I really don’t know. All I know is that as uncomfortable as this all is that those on both sides of the issue have valid points and concerns and they come back to the balance that a society needs to have between individual rights and responsibility to the community, openness and secrecy, civil liberties and national security. But that being said it is a debate that needs to happen, even if it makes us uncomfortable. I for one think that it is better that we be uncomfortable when looking at such an important debate than to be prisoners of our certitude.

Peace

Padre Steve+

1 Comment

Filed under civil rights, Foreign Policy, national security, Political Commentary, star trek

Strategy and Policy: Lee’s Offensive Gettysburg Campaign -The Worst of Both Worlds

A cohesive national strategy involves true debate and consideration of all available courses of action. It must look at the ends, ways and means of achieving national strategic objectives as well as the risk entailed in each course of action. It has to involve both the political leadership and military commanders. Clausewitz said: “the supreme, most far reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.” [1]

“Wars are not free flowing events, sufficient unto themselves as objects for study and understanding. Instead they are entirely the product of their contexts.” [2] Thus it is imperative that both political and military leaders understand for what purpose they embark on a war or begin a campaign. Even in the recent American experience we can recount time after time where American political leaders of both the Republican and Democrat parties, as well as military leaders and planners have failed to grasp the central truth of was Clausewitz wrote about the nature of war.

davis and cabinet

British political and military theorist Colin S. Gray writes: “Choice of strategy can determine whether or not policy goals will be attainable. And that choice must provide the most vital contexts for tactical behavior. Once policy objectives have been chosen, strategy is the function that delivers victory.” [3] In our recent wars and in the American Civil War this maxim has been born out time and time again.

Thus, the Gettysburg campaign has to be looked at in the context of Grand Strategy and what was necessary for both sides to achieve their goals. For the Confederacy this was independence and in the context of the Gettysburg campaign the key question is whether it should have been made at all. While Lee is regarded as a masterful commander by many, the myth created by the Lost Cause school of history, in which the failure of Confederate war aims cannot be ascribed to Lee, keeps many people from asking the hard questions of strategy, and how Lee as commander failed to understand what was best for his country.

The key consideration, as Alan T. Nolan observes “must be whether a general’s actions helped or hurt the cause of his government in view of that government’s grand strategy. In short, the appropriate inquiry is to ask whether a general’s actions related positively or negatively to the war objectives and national policy of his government.” [4] The question was one of following a strategy of the defensive as Washington had done in the Revolutionary War, or a strategy of the offense culminating in a climactic battle that would decide the outcome of the war.

A defensive strategy was seen by British observers early in the war as the most feasibly for achieving Southern military and political goals in relationship to attaining independence. In the Revolution, Washington remained on the “grand strategic defensive” and “lost many battles and retreated many times, but they kept their forces in the field to avoid being ultimately defeated, and they won because the British decided that the struggle was either too hopeless or too burdensome to pursue.” [5] They had no doubt that this was the best policy for the Confederate government and military to achieve their strategic end.

The terrain of Virginia, particularly the number of east-west running rivers, the swamps that lay to the east of Richmond and the nearly impassible Wilderness to its north made any Union offensive a costly proposition. Clausewitz noted that terrain has “a decisive influence on the engagement, both as to its course and to its planning and exploitation….Their principle effect lies in the realm of tactics, but the outcome is a matter of strategy” [6]

This naturally advantageous terrain gave the advantage to Lee on the defense, but Lee seemed to never fully appreciate the strategic strength that the nature of the terrain, especially that of the Wilderness offered him. J.F.C. Fuller noted that “the Wilderness had been his staunchest ally. It was not only a natural fortress protecting Richmond, but a spider’s web to any army advancing from the north. Lee never fully realized this, for if he had done so his strategy would have been based upon maneuvering his enemy again and again into this entanglement and defeating him.” [7]

However, the strategic defensive was not that of Robert E. Lee. Lee’s view throughout the war, even as late as the siege of Petersburg was that of the offensive and climactic battle: “If we can defeat or drive the armies of the enemy from the field, we shall have peace. Our efforts and energies should be devoted to that object.” [8]

In 1863 the Confederacy was confronted with the choice of how it would deal with the multiple threats to it posed by Union forces in both the West at Vicksburg, as well as in Tennessee as well as the East, where the Army of the Potomac was in striking distance of Richmond. The strategic situation was bad but few Confederate politicians realized just how bad things were, or cared in the post Chancellorsville euphoria.

In the west the strategic river city of Vicksburg Mississippi was threatened by the Army of Union General Ulysses S Grant, and Naval forces under the command of Admiral David Farragut and Admiral David Dixon Porter. If Vicksburg fell the Union would control the entire Mississippi and cut the Confederacy in two. Union forces also maintained a strong presence in the areas of the Virginia Tidewater and the coastal areas of the Carolinas; while in Tennessee a Union Army under Rosecrans, was stalemated, but still threatening Chattanooga, the gateway to the Deep South. The blockade of the United States Navy continually reinforced since its establishment in 1861, had crippled the already tenuous economy of the Confederacy. The once mocked “anaconda strategy” devised by General Winfield Scott was beginning to pay dividends. [9] Of the nine major Confederate ports linked by rail to the inland cities the Union, all except three; Mobile, Wilmington and Charleston were in Union hands by April 1862. [10]

However, the Confederate response to the danger was “divided councils and paralysis” [11] in their upper leadership, between those like Lee who advocated for the offensive and those like Davis who advocated a defensive strategy. The military relationship between Lee and Davis “represented a continuous compromise between the president’s undeclared policy of outlasting the enemy and the general’s purpose of winning by breaking the enemy’s will to continue their effort at subjugation.” [12]

Davis, though he was Commander-in-Chief wavered between the two strategic ideas throughout the first years of the war, something that was worse than coming to no decision at all. Lee’s latest biographer Michael Korda makes the point that: “The danger that the Confederacy might unravel from west to east, whatever happened between the Rappahannock and the Potomac, was Grant’s central strategic idea, and should have been the overriding concern of the Confederate government; but Lee’s position as the South’s most respected and admired military figure, the high drama of his rapid marches and his victories against much larger armies had a profound effect on southern military strategy.” [13] Instead it was not, and a fog of confused policies confounded Confederate war efforts.

Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon and President Jefferson Davis recognized the danger in the winter of 1862-1863. During the winter Davis and Seddon suggested to Lee that he detach significant units, including Pickett’s division to relieve the pressure in the west and blunt Grant’s advance. Lee would have nothing of it; he argued that the war would be won in the East. He told Seddon that “The adoption of your proposition is hazardous, and it becomes a question between Virginia and the Mississippi.” [14] From a strategic point of view it is hard to believe that Lee could not see this, “but in the post-Chancellorsville aura of invincibility, anything seemed possible.” [15]

However, much of Lee’s reasoning can be explained by what he saw as his first duty, the defense of Virginia. Lee’s biographer Michael Korda points out that Lee’s strategic argument was very much influenced by his love of Virginia, which remained his first love, despite his deep commitment to the Confederacy. Korda noted that Lee: “could never overcome a certain myopia about his native state. He remained a Virginian first and foremost…..” [16] Fuller wrote that Lee “was so obsessed by the idea of threatening Washington in order to relieve Northern Virginia, that throughout his generalship he never saw the war as a whole.” [17] It was Lee’s view that if Virginia was lost, so was the Confederacy, and was concerned that whatever units left behind should he dispatch troops from his Army west, would be unable to defend Richmond.

Likewise, despite the success of his defensive battles at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Lee was not encouraged. Those victories had elated the Confederacy and caused great concern in the North. But Lee was depressed after each. Lee told Harry Heth after Chancellorsville: “Our people were wild with delight- I, on the contrary, was more depressed than after Fredericksburg; our loss was severe, and again we had not gained an inch of ground, and the enemy could not be pursued…” [18]

Some Confederate leaders realized the mortal danger presented by Grant in the West including officials in the War Department, one of whom wrote “The crisis there is of the greatest moment. The loss of Vicksburg and the Mississippi river…would wound us very deeply in a political as well as a military point of view.” [19]

Despite this Seddon did remain in favor of shifting troops west and relieving Vicksburg. He was backed in this by Joseph Johnston, Braxton Bragg, P.T.G. Beauregard and James Longstreet. In Mid-May of 1863 Beauregard proposed a strategy to concentrate all available forces in in Tennessee and going to the strategic defensive on all other fronts. Beauregard, probably the best Southern strategist “saw clearly that the decisive point lay in the West and not the East.” [20] Beauregard’s plan was to mass Confederate forces was crush Rosecrans, relieve Vicksburg and then move east to assist Lee in destroying the Army of the Potomac in his words to complete “the terrible lesson the enemy has just had at Chancellorsville.” [21] His plan was never acknowledged and in a letter to Johnston, where he re-sent the plan he noted “I hope everything will turn out well, although I do not exactly see how.” [22]

James Longstreet had proposed a similar measure to Seddon in February 1863 and then again on May 6th in Richmond. Longstreet believed that “the Confederacy’s greatest opportunity lay “in the skillful use of our interior lines.” [23] He suggested to Seddon that two of his divisions link up with Johnston and Bragg and defeat Rosecrans and upon doing that move toward Cincinnati. Longstreet argued that since Grant would have the only Union troops that could stop such a threat that it would relieve “Pemberton at Vicksburg.” [24] Seddon favored Longstreet’s proposal but Jefferson Davis having sought Lee’s counsel rejected the plan, Longstreet in a comment critical of Davis’s rejection of the proposal wrote: “But foreign intervention was the ruling idea with the President, and he preferred that as the easiest solution of all problems.” [25] Following that meeting Longstreet pitched the idea to Lee who according to Longstreet “recognized the suggestion as of good combination, and giving strong assurance of success, but he was averse to having a part of his army so far beyond his reach.” [26]

In early May 1863 Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia realized that the Confederacy was in desperate straits. Despite numerous victories against heavy odds, Lee knew that time was running out. Though he had beaten the Army of the Potomac under General Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville, he had not destroyed it and Hooker’s Army, along with a smaller force commanded by General Dix in Hampton Roads still threatened Richmond. He had rejected the western option presented by Seddon, Beauregard and Longstreet. Lee questioned “whether additional troops there would redress the balance in favor of the Confederacy, and he wondered how he would be able to cope with the powerful Army of the Potomac.” [27]

In Lee’s defense neither of these suggestions was unsound, but his alternative, an offensive into Pennsylvania just as unsound and undertaken for “confused” reasons. Confederate leaders realized that “something had to be done to save Vicksburg; something had to be done to prevent Hooker from recrossing the Rappahannock; something had to be done to win European recognition, or compel the North to consider terms of peace…[28] However added to these reasons, and perhaps the most overarching for Lee was “to free the State of Virginia, for a time at least, from the presence of the enemy” and “to transfer the theater of war to Northern soil….” [29]

On May 14th Lee travelled by train to Richmond to meet with President Jefferson Davis and War Secretary James Seddon. At the meeting Lee argued for an offensive campaign in the east, to take the war to Pennsylvania. Lee had three major goals for the offensive, two which were directly related to the immediate military situation and one which went to the broader strategic situation.

Lee had long believed that an offensive into the North was necessary, even before Chancellorsville. As already noted, Lee did not believe that reinforcing the Confederate Armies in the West would provide any real relief for Vicksburg. Lee believed, quite falsely, that the harsh climate alone would force Grant to break off his siege of Vicksburg. [30] Russell Weigley wrote that “In truth, Lee seems to have been less than fully responsive to the problems of the West, partly out of Virginia parochialism- he always regarded his sword as serving his first state of Virginia-and partly in adherence to his military philosophy,” [31] that of the offensive. Lee was not willing to sacrifice Virginia for the west, and “tenaciously fought every suggestion that the Army of Northern Virginia be denuded to reinforce the west, and his influence over Davis guaranteed, at least until the fall of 1863, that the defense of Virginia would always be able to outweigh the demands for help from the Confederate forces in the West.” [32]

Instead of sending troops west, Lee believed that his army, flush with victory needed to be reinforced and allowed to advance into Pennsylvania. Lee proposed withdrawing Beauregard’s 16,000 soldiers from the Carolinas to the north in order “increase the known anxiety of Washington authorities” [33] and he sought the return of four veteran brigades which had been loaned to D.H. Hill in North Carolina. In this he was unsuccessful. He received two relatively untested brigades from Hill; those of Johnston Pettigrew and Joseph Davis instead two of Pickett’s veteran brigades. The issue of the lack of reinforcements was a “commentary on the severe manpower strains rending the Confederacy…and Davis wrote Lee on May 31st, “and sorely regret that I cannot give you the means which would make it quite safe to attempt all that we desire.” [34]

Lee’s Chief of Staff Colonel Charles Marshall crafted a series of courses of action for Lee designed to present the invasion option as the only feasible alternative for the Confederacy. Lee’s presentation was an “either or” proposal. He gave short shrift to any possibility of reinforcing Vicksburg and explained “to my mind, it resolved itself into a choice of one of two things: either to retire to Richmond and stand a siege, which must ultimately end in surrender, or to invade Pennsylvania.” [35] As any military planner knows the presentation of courses of action designed to lead listeners to the course of action that a commander prefers by ignoring the risks of such action, downplaying other courses of action is disingenuous. In effect Lee was asking Davis and his cabinet to “choose between certain defeat and possibly victory” [36] while blatantly ignoring other courses of action or playing down other very real threats in the West.

Lee embraced the offensive as his grand strategy and rejected the defensive in his presentation to the Confederate cabinet, and they were “awed” by Lee’s strategic vision. Swept up in Lee’s presentation the cabinet approved the invasion despite the fact that “most of the arguments he made to win its approval were more opportunistic than real.” [37] However, Postmaster General John Reagan objected and stated his dissent arguing that Vicksburg had to be the top priority. But Lee was persuasive telling the cabinet “There were never such men in any army before….They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led….” So great was the prestige of Lee, “whose fame…now filled the world,” that he carried the day.” [38]

Although both Seddon and Davis had reservations about the plan they agreed to it. Unfortunately for all of them they never really settled the important goals of the campaign including how extensive the invasion would be, how many troops would he need and where he would get them. [39] The confusion about these issues was fully demonstrated by Davis in his letter of May 31st where he “had never fairly comprehended” Lee’s “views and purposes” until he received a letter and dispatch from the general that day.” [40] That lack of understanding is surprising since Lee had made several personal visits to Davis and the cabinet during May and demonstrates again the severe lack of understanding of the strategic problems by Confederate leaders.

Lee believed that his offensive would relieve Grant’s pressure on Pemberton’s Army at Vicksburg. How it would do so is not clear since the Union had other armies and troops throughout the east to parry any thrust made had the Army of the Potomac endured a decisive defeat that not only drove it from the battlefield but destroyed it as a fighting force. Postmaster General Reagan believed that the only way to stop Grant was “destroy him” and “move against him with all possible reinforcements.” [41]

Likewise Lee believed that if he was successful in battle and defeated the Army of the Potomac in Pennsylvania that it could give the peace party in the North to bring pressure on the Lincoln Administration to end the war. This too was a misguided belief and Lee would come to understand that as his forces entered Maryland and Pennsylvania where there was no popular support for his invading army. The fact was that those that “though there was a strong peace party in the North, they did not realize that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had settled once and for all the question of foreign intervention, and second that to invade the North would consolidate the Federals instead of dividing them.” [42]

In the meeting with the cabinet, Postmaster-General Reagan, agreed with General Beauregard and warned that “the probability that the threatened danger to Washington would arouse again the whole of the Yankee nation to renewed efforts for the protection of their capital.” [43] Reagan was decidedly against Lee’s offensive. He “saw everything wrong with Lee’s plan and everything right with the plan it had superseded. Grant was the main threat to the survival of the Confederacy, and it was Grant at whom the main blow must be aimed and struck.” [44] But “Lee’s opinion carried so much weight that Davis felt compelled to concur” [45] with Lee and voted with the remaining cabinet members to allow the offensive.

Stephens the fire breathing Vice President “wanted to negotiate for peace, and he foresaw rightly that Lee’s offensive would strengthen and not weaken the war party in the North….Stephens was strongly of the opinion that Lee should have remained on the defensive and detached a strong force to assist Johnston against Grant at Vicksburg.” [46] However, he was kept in the dark as to Lee’s plans until after Lee had crossed the Potomac.

Likewise, Lee, the consummate defender of Virginia was determined to at least for a season remove the war from his beloved state. He believed that if he could spend a summer campaign season in the North, living off of Union foodstuffs and shipping booty back to the Confederacy that it would give farmers in Northern Virginia a season to harvest crops unimpeded by major military operations.

While the offensive did give a few months relief to these farmers it did not deliver them. Likewise Lee’s argument that he could not feed his army flies in the face of later actions where for the next two years the Army of Northern Virginia continued to subsist. Alan Nolan noted that if a raid for forage was a goal of the operation then “a raid by small, mobile forces rather than the entire army would have had considerably more promise and less risk.” [47] D. H. Hill in North Carolina wrote his wife: “Genl. Lee is venturing upon a very hazardous movement…and one that must be fruitless, if not disastrous.” [48]

Though Lee won permission to invade Pennsylvania, he did not get all that he desired. Lee wanted, and believed that he would have his entire army to conduct his offensive. However, Davis did not understand or conceive that Lee’s offensive scheme was a “change in the existing policy, a shift from the defense to the offense. To Davis, Lee’s invasion was merely a necessary expedient in the policy of static, scattered defensiveness.” [49]

Davis refused Lee reinforcements from the coastal Carolinas, and “had not the slightest intention of reducing a single garrison to support Lee’s offensive.” [50] Davis insisted on units being left to cover Richmond in case General Dix advanced on Richmond from Hampton Roads. Much of this was due to political pressure as well as the personal animus of General D. H. Hill who commanded Confederate forces in the Carolinas towards Lee. The units included two of Pickett’s brigades which would be sorely missed on July third in the doomed effort to break the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. As a result Lee was without a significant portion of his army when he moved north. Lee did not learn “until he had crossed the Potomac that four of his best brigades, the equivalent of a division, were to be uselessly employed away from the army.” [51]

Lee’s decision revealed an unresolved issue in Confederate Grand Strategy, the conflict between the strategy of the offensive and that of the defensive. Many in the Confederacy realized that the only hope for success was to fight a defensive campaign that made Union victory so expensive that eventually Lincoln’s government would fall or be forced to negotiate.

The conflict between those who believed in the offensive like Lee, and those that advocated a strategic defensive strategy resulted in indecision, which resulted in a policy that brought about “the worst of both worlds.” [52] The fact that Lee got permission to invade but was denied significant numbers of experienced troops as well as support from other departments meant that “what Lee designed as a total stroke from a concentration of its armed strength, was reduced to a desperate, unsupported gamble of one man with one army-and not all of that.” [53] Knowing this, Lee still chose to continue his offensive, something that along with his “own awareness of factors that argued against it.” [54]

Lee was convinced that ultimate victory could only be achieved by decisively defeating and destroying Federal military might in the East. His letters are full of references to crush, defeat or destroy Union forces opposing him. His strategy of the offensive was demonstrated on numerous occasions in 1862 and early 1863, however in the long term, the strategy of the offensive was unfeasible and “counterproductive in terms of the Confederacy’s “objects of war.” [55]

Lee’s offensive operations always cost his Army dearly in the one commodity that the South could not replace, nor keep pace with its Northern adversary, his men. His realism about that subject was shown after he began his offensive when he wrote Davis about how time was not on the side of the Confederacy. He wrote: “We should not therefore conceal from ourselves that our resources in men are constantly diminishing, and the disproportion in this respect…is steadily augmenting.” [56] Despite this, as well as knowing that in every offensive engagement, even in victory he was losing more men percentage wise than his opponent Lee persisted in the belief of the offensive.

When Lee fought defensive actions on ground of his choosing, like at Fredericksburg, he was not only successful but husbanded his strength. However, when he went on the offensive in almost every case he lost between 15 and 22 percent of his strength, a far higher percentage in every case than his Union opponents. In these battles the percentage of soldiers that he lost was always more than his Federal counterparts, even when his army inflicted greater aggregate casualties on his opponents. Those victories may have won Lee “a towering reputation” but these victories “proved fleeting when measured against their dangerous diminution of southern white manpower.” [57] Lee recognized this in his correspondence but he did not alter his strategy of the offensive until after his defeat at Gettysburg.

The course of action was decided upon, but one has to ask if Lee’s decision was wise decision at a strategic level, not simply the operational or tactical level where many Civil War students are comfortable. General Longstreet’s artillery commander, Colonel Porter Alexander described the appropriate strategy of the South well, he wrote:

“When the South entered upon war with a power so immensely her superior in men & money, & all the wealth of modern resources in machinery and the transportation appliances by land & sea, she could entertain but one single hope of final success. That was, that the desperation of her resistance would finally exact from her adversary such a price in blood & treasure as to exhaust the enthusiasm of its population for the objects of the war. We could not hope to conquer her. Our one chance was to wear her out.” [58]

What Alexander describes is the same type of strategy successfully employed by Washington and his more able officers during the American Revolution, Wellington’s campaign on the Iberian Peninsula against Napoleon’s armies, and that of General Giap against the French and Americans in Vietnam. It was not a strategy that completely avoided offensive actions, but saved them for the right moment when victory could be obtained.

It is my belief that Lee erred in invading the North for the simple fact that the risks far outweighed the possible benefits. As Russell Weigley noted “for a belligerent with the limited manpower resources of the Confederacy, General Lee’s dedication to an offensive strategy was at best questionable.” [59] The offensive was a long shot for victory at best, and Lee was a gambler, audacious possibly to a fault. His decision to go north exhibited a certain amount of hubris as he did not believe that his army could be beaten, even when it was outnumbered. Lee had to know from experience that even in victory “the Gettysburg campaign was bound to result in heavy Confederate casualties…limit his army’s capacity to maneuver…and to increase the risk of his being driven into a siege in the Richmond defenses.” [60] The fact that the campaign did exactly that demonstrates both the unsoundness of the campaign and is ironic, for Lee had repeatedly said in the lead up to the offensive in his meetings with Davis, Seddon and the cabinet that “a siege would be fatal to his army” [61] and “which must ultimately end in surrender.” [62]

Grand-strategy and national policy objectives must be the ultimate guide for operational decisions. “The art of employing military forces is obtaining the objects of war, to support the national policy of the government that raises the military forces.” [63] Using such criteria, despite his many victories Lee has to be judged as a failure as a military commander.

Lee knew from his previous experience that his army would suffer heavy casualties. Lee also understood that a victory over the Army of the Potomac deep in Northern territory could cost him dearly. He knew the effect that a costly victory would have on his operations, but he still took the risk. That decision was short sighted and diametrically opposed to the strategy that the South needed to pursue in order to gain its independence. Of course some will disagree, but I am comfortable in my assertion that it was a mistake that greatly affected the Confederacy’s only real means of securing its independence, the breaking of the will of the Union by making victory so costly that it would not be worth the cost.

In light of all of these factors one has to ask a question that is applicable as much today as it was to Lee. Since the object of a campaign is to be able to connect national strategy to the operational and tactical objectives of any campaign, in other words the connection of the campaign to grand-strategy objectives of a nation. In the case of the Confederacy it was to achieve independence, and as Clausewitz so keenly noted that “the political object, which was the original motive, must become an essential factor in the equation.” [64] The Gettysburg campaign, “Lee’s most audacious act, is the apogee of his grand strategy of the offensive.” But the question that has to be asked is “whether Lee should have been there at all.” [65] The same question should be asked by any political or military leader before embarking on a war or campaign within the war.

Notes

[1] Clausewitz, Carl von. On WarIndexed edition, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1976 p.88

 

[2] Gray, Colin S. Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy Potomac Book, Dulles VA 2009 p.3

[3] Ibid. Gray Fighting Talk p.54

[4] Nolan, Alan T. Robert E. Lee: A Flawed General in Major Problems in American Military History: Documents and Essays Edited by Chambers, John Whiteclay II and Piehler, G. Kurt Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York 1999 p.175

[5] Nolan, Alan T. R. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg edited by Gallagher, Gary W. Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio 1992 p.9

[6] Clausewitz, Carl von. On WarIndexed edition, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1976 p.348

[7] Fuller, J.F.C Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship Indiana University Press, Bloomington Indiana, 1957 p.192

[8] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.5

[9] Fuller, J.F.C. The Conduct of War 1789-1961 Da Capo Press, New York 1992. Originally published by Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick N.J p.101 Fuller has a good discussion of the Anaconda strategy which I discussed in the chapter: Gettysburg, Vicksburg and the Campaign of 1863: The Relationship between Strategy, Operational Art and the DIME

[10] Ibid. Fuller The Conduct of War 1789-1961 p.101

[11] McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.629

[12] Dowdy, Clifford. Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation Skyhorse Publishing, New York 1986, originally published as Death of a Nation Knopf, New York 1958 pp.20-21

[13] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 pp.524-525

[14] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.34

[15] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.647

[16] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 p.525

[17] Ibid. Fuller, J.F.C Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship p.193

[18] Guelzo Allen C. Fateful Lightening: A New History of the Civil War Era and Reconstruction Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2012 p.339

[19] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.5

[20] Ibid. Fuller, J.F.C Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship p.193

[21] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.429

[22] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.429

[23] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee p.525

[24] Wert, Jeffry D. General James Longstreet The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 1993 p.241

[25] Longstreet, James From Manassas to Appomattox, Memoirs of the Civil War in America originally published 1896, Amazon Kindle Edition location 4656

[26] Ibid. Longstreet, James From Manassas to Appomattox, Memoirs of the Civil War in America location 4705

[27] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.5

[28] Ibid. Fuller Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and p.194

[29] Taylor, Walter. General Lee: His campaigns in Virginia 1861-1865 With Personal Reminiscences University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln Nebraska and London, 1994 previously published 1906 p.180.

[30] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.430

[31] Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military History and Policy University of Indiana Press, Bloomington IN, 1973 pp.114-115

[32] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening: A New History of the Civil War Era and Reconstruction p.340

[33] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee p.528

[34] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p.51

[35] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.431

[36] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.431

[37] Tredeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.6

[38] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.647

[39] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.7

[40] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.7

[41] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.432

[42] Fuller, J.F.C. Decisive Battles of the U.S.A. 1776-1918 University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln 2007 copyright 1942 The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals p.222

[43] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.432

[44] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.432

[45] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.647

[46] Ibid. Fuller Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and p.194

[47] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburgin the First Day at Gettysburg p.2

[48] Ibid. Sears. Gettysburg p.51

[49] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.27

[50] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.27

[51] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.36

[52] Ibid. Weigley The American Way of War p.118

[53] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.28

[54] Ibid. Nolan Robert E. Lee: A Flawed General p.176

[55] Ibid. Nolan Robert E. Lee: A Flawed General in Major Problems p.176

[56] Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and His CriticsBrassey’s, Dulles VA 1999 p.134

[57] Gallagher, Gary W. The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism and Military Strategy Could not Stave Off Defeat Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 1999 p.120

[58] Alexander, Edward Porter. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander, ed. Gary W. Gallagher, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill NC, 1989 p.415

[59] Ibid. Weigley The American Way of War p.118

[60] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.11

[61] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.11

[62] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.431

[63] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.4

[64] Ibid. Clausewitz On War pp.80-81

[65] Ibid. NolanR. E. Lee and July 1 at Gettysburg in the First Day at Gettysburg p.10

Leave a comment

Filed under civil war, History, leadership, Military, national security, Political Commentary