Vague Orders, Vanity, and the Need for Redemption: JEB Stuart’s Ride at Gettysburg

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today I am going back to the archives and re-posting an edited version of something that is part of my unpublished Gettysburg Campaign text. James Ewell Brown (J.E.B.) Stuart is legendary in American military history. A young cavalry officer from Virginia he was like a son to Robert E. Lee and was a man whose military accomplishments were matched by his unbridled vanity, which during the most critical moment in the history of the Confederacy led him to embark on an operation that left his commander in the lurch and helped doom the Confederacy. The story picks up following Stuart being surprised by Federal Cavalry at the Battle of Brandy Station in June of 1863 as Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was moving north in an attempt to bring the Army of the Potomac to Battle, destroy it, and end the war. Both Stuart and Lee had much to do with the failure of this plan, but I hope that you enjoy this account. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

While the embattled “Fighting Joe” Hooker slowly pursued Lee with the Army of the Potomac, a drama of major significance to the battle Robert E. Lee’s own making was beginning to engulf his operations and leave him blind to the movements of the Federal Army. It involved Lee and his Cavalry commander, J.E.B. Stuart and would be the first of a number of mistakes that would characterize Lee’s campaign. All of these failures dealt with Lee’s singular inability to get his commanders to understand his intent for the campaign and his inability to clearly communicate his wishes.

The necessity of subordinate commanders understanding the intent of their superior is essential to the success of any military operation. During the Gettysburg campaign Lee failed miserably to communicate his operational plan and desire to his commanders. The episode with Stuart was one of several that paint a portrait of Lee not being as good of General as the myth surrounding him.

After the surprise at Brandy Station Stuart’s troopers screened the right flank of the army as it moved north, defending the gaps in the Blue Ridge to keep Alfred Pleasanton’s Federal Cavalry Corps from interdicting the march of the Army of Northern Virginia, or discovering the location of Lee’s three infantry corps which were moving north behind the cover of the Blue Ridge.

In this Stuart was successful, but frustrated. Between June 17th and June 21st his troopers fought a series of engagements against the aggressive Federal Cavalry at Ashby’s Gap, Middleburg and Upperville in Northern Virginia. While Stuart’s troopers had held off Pleasanton’s confident troopers the “running combats were taking a toll on the Southern mounted arm, however. Stuart had already suffered several hundred casualties defending gaps and passes.” [1] Much to their dismay the Confederates noted the improvements in the Federal cavalry during these battles. Captain William Blackford, who served as an engineer on Stuart’s staff noted:

“the improvement of enemy cavalry was enormous, mainly in the heavy fire from long range carbines, and horse artillery that was a match for Stuart’s own These cavalrymen fought as if they had been taken from infantry regiments, for they knew how to fight with horses left behind.” [2]

Unlike the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia that was marching like victors into Pennsylvania and Maryland, Stuart’s Cavalry Division had little cause to rejoice. They had been surprised at Brandy Station and Stuart had been humiliated in the Southern press. The Federal cavalry under Pleasanton gave him no opportunity to redeem himself. While Pleasanton’s troopers never broke through Stuart’s screen, they had pressed him hard, and his division was “really fought out during those two weeks from June 9 until the misty morning of June 22…. Not only had Stuart’s cavalry been pressed on the defensive as never before, but also they had not been able to gain a spot of information about the enemy.” [3] Pleasanton’s troopers and proven that the days of “easy Confederate cavalry triumphs were gone,” [4] and Stuart, now “smarting over the cuts to his ego, refused to read the portents” [5] of future disaster.

Stuart had been fighting defensively the entire campaign, but desperately wanted to go on the offensive. As his troops battled at Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville, Stuart formulated a plan that he submitted to Lee. Stuart reasoned since now that “all the infantry were west of the Blue Ridge…that it would be possible to leave one or two brigades of cavalry to defend the gaps and with the remaining three to descend on the enemy and harass Hooker in any advance into Pennsylvania.” [6] For him the plan was designed for personal glory and redemption after the embarrassment at Brandy Station.

On the morning of the 22nd of June Stuart noticed that the Federal cavalry that had engaged him at Upperville the previous day was no longer present. That morning he also received an order from Lee; an order that was the first of a series of vague, poorly written and contradictory orders that was to plague Lee throughout the campaign.

Unlike his new infantry corps commanders, Ewell and Hill, Stuart was very familiar with Robert E. Lee’s method of command, and Lee had “so much faith in Stuart’s judgment and ability to make the right moves that after indicating his wishes he gave him considerable latitude in carrying them out. His orders were more suggestions than commands….” [7] However well that may have worked for Lee in the past with Jackson and Stuart, the nature of Lee’s orders to Stuart, being conditional, needed to clearly address “the conditions upon which they are based.” [8] This Lee did not do. His order read:

“I judge the efforts of the enemy yesterday were to arrest our progress and ascertain our whereabouts. Perhaps he is satisfied. Do you know where he is and what he is doing? I fear he will steal a march on us and get across the Potomac before we are aware. If you find that he is moving northward and that two brigades can guard the Blue Ridge and take care of your rear, you can move with the other three into Maryland and take position on General Ewell’s right, place yourself in communication with him, guard his flank, keep him informed of the enemy’s movements and collect all the supplies you can….” [9]

James Longstreet, commander of the Confederate First Corps who Stuart was cooperating with on the northward march, added his own comments to Lee’s instructions which even further clouded the order:

General Lee has enclosed this letter for you, to be forwarded to you, provided you can be spared from my front, and provided I think that you can move across the Potomac without disclosing our plans. He speaks of your leaving via the Hopewell Gap and passing by the rear of the enemy. If you can get through by that route I think that you will be less likely to indicate what our plans are than if you should be passing to our rear. I forward the letter of instructions with these suggestions. Please advise me of the condition of affairs before you leave, and order General Hampton, whom I suppose will leave here in command, to report to me at Millwood, either by letter or in person, as may be most agreeable to him.” [10]  

But even without an order from Lee, Stuart was already planning his offensive that he believed would restore his glory. He had sent Major John Mosby with a small detachment of troops to reconnoiter behind the Union lines. Mosby reported the location of all the infantry corps of the Army of the Potomac. Mosby reported to Stuart on June 23rd that the Federal corps were stationary and “were so widely separated…that a column of cavalry could easily get between them.” [11] It was news that Stuart was delighted to hear. Mosby painted a glowing picture of how an operation using the Hopewell Gap could create havoc in the Federal rear and cause panic in Washington as he could “severe communications between Hooker and Pleasanton, destroy a “large portion” of Hooker’s transportation, and take some of the pressure off Lee by creating a diversion for the Union cavalry.” [12]

The inactivity of the Federal army reported by Mosby was exactly the news Stuart wanted to hear, and he asked Lee for permission to plunge into the Federal rear, and in his after action report wrote:

“I submitted to the commanding general the plan of leaving a brigade or so in my present front, and passing through Hopewell, or some other gap in Bull Run Mountain, attaining the enemy’s rear, and passing between his main body and Washington, to cross into Maryland and joining our army north of the Potomac.” [13]

Lee was rather cryptic in his after action report and wrote “Upon the suggestion of the former officer (General Stuart) that he could damage the enemy and delay his passage of the river by getting to his rear, he was authorized to do so.” [14] In that same report of the campaign Lee wrote:

“General Stuart was left to guard the passes of the mountains and observe the movements of the enemy, whom he was instructed to impede and harass as much as possible, should he attempt to cross the Potomac. In that event, General Stuart was directed to move into Maryland, crossing the Potomac east or west of the Blue Ridge, as, in his judgment, should be best, and take position on the right of our column as it advanced.” [15]

That night, during a heavy rainstorm Stuart’s chief of staff Major McClellan received Lee’s reply to his superior’s request. When he received it he immediately delivered to Stuart. Lee’s instruction stated:

“If General Hooker’s army remains inactive, you can leave two brigades to watch him, and withdraw with three others, but should he not appear to be moving northward, I think you had better withdraw this side of the mountains tomorrow night, cross as Shepherdstown next day, and move over to Frederickstown.

You will, however, be able to judge whether you can pass around their army without hindrance, doing them all the damage you can, and cross the river east of the mountains. In either case, after crossing the river, you must move on and feel the right of Ewell’s troops, collecting information, provisions, etc.” [16]

However, Stuart does not deserve the entirety of the blame for what happened. The orders or suggestions that he received from Lee and Longstreet gave Stuart were “so badly worded that it is difficult to make sense of them.” [17] Lee implicitly trusted Stuart but he was wrong in assuming that the young officer should be able to divine his intent after Brandy Station without taking into account the effect the negative press of that battle had on his subordinate. Lee should have “established that Stuart’s most important task was to guard Ewell’s right and report on the direction of Hooker’s advance once Lee crossed the Potomac.” [18] This he did not do. Instead, Stuart was given several conflicting instructions. Lee directed that Stuart maintain contact with Ewell, screen the Blue Ridge gaps, collect information, “raiding around the rear of Hooker’s forces” [19] damaging the enemy and collecting supplies. Stuart could have done any of these tasks, but not all of them, and the smorgasbord offered by Lee played directly into Stuart’s need to redeem himself after the beating that he took in the Confederate Press after Brandy Station.

Specifically, Lee’s lack of clarity and vagueness allowed to Stuart interpret the order in a manner that benefited him. The order could easily be interpreted as getting Stuart and his men into Pennsylvania as quickly as possible to guard Ewell’s flank and discern the intentions of the enemy, which in hindsight appears to be Lee’s intent, or as permission to conduct a raid “roam in the enemy’s rear for an unpredictable period of time, raising havoc with his communications, supplies, and isolated commands” and then “seek out Ewell’s corps and use it as a place of refuge from an aroused enemy.” [20]

The fact is that as they are today that different standards apply to each course of action laid out by a commander and that orders must be clear, otherwise subordinates may interpret them in a far different manner that intended. Such vague orders can have far reaching effects, often contrary to the intent of the commander who issued them; this was the case here.

By giving Stuart the latitude to go around the Federal army Lee undercut his own preference that Stuart cross into Maryland via Shepherdstown and Frederick on June 24th. Lee had provided Stuart an opportunity for something that “Longstreet half-apologetically called “something better than the drudgery of a march around our flank.” [21] It was a critical mistake, which was then further compounded by Stuart and the movement of the Army of the Potomac.

Stung by the criticism of his conduct of the Battle of Brandy Station in the Southern press and frustrated by Pleasanton’s constant thrusts at his troopers screening Lee’s flank on the Blue Ridge Stuart interpreted the orders in the manner that appealed to Stuart’s sense of glory. He would repeat his triumph of the previous year when he rode around the Army of the Potomac. For Stuart this was a chance to regain the limelight and add to his luster. Stuart “summed up his interpretation of his orders when he said later: …it was deemed practicable to move entirely in the enemy’s rear, intercepting his communications with his base (Washington), and, inflicting damage upon his rear, to rejoin the army in Pennsylvania in time to participate in its actual conflicts.”[22]

Historians have long wondered why Lee was not more explicit in his orders to Stuart and why Stuart conducted an operation that left Lee blind and had no obvious advantages, except to allow Stuart to recover his tarnished reputation. Stephen Sears noted in his book Gettysburg that: “The very concept of Stuart’s expedition was fueled by overconfidence and misjudgment at the highest command level.” [23] In a sense the decision harkens back to the hubris of Lee and others about the superiority of his army, and Lee’s distain for the capabilities of Army of the Potomac and Federal troops in general.

In organizing his movement around the Army of the Potomac, Stuart decided to take his three best cavalry brigades with him, and leave the brigades of “Grumble” Jones and Beverly Robertson to defend gaps and screen the rear of the army. The choice was unfortunate; Robertson was unpredictable but was “senior to the dependable Jones” [24] who was considered the “best outpost officer in his command.” [25] The choice ridded Stuart of Robertson, who he did not trust in battle and Jones “whose antipathy for Stuart at least equaled Stuart’s for him.” [26] The intent was that Robertson would screen the army and follow it into Maryland, in fact Stuart gave Robertson “explicit instructions” [27] to do so, but instead “the two brigades would remain fixed, as if planted there, in an inanition of command which immobilized the men for whom Lee in Pennsylvania was anxiously watching.” [28] Longstreet had requested the industrious and dependable Hampton command the remainder of the cavalry, but Stuart disregarded his counsel and took Hampton with him.

Stuart set off with his three best brigades, Wade Hampton’s, Fitzhugh Lee’s, and Rooney Lee’s, the latter now with Rooney Lee having been wounded was under the command of Colonel John R. Chambliss. Chambliss was another former West Pointer who had retired from the old army but had responded to the call to secession.

Almost immediately after setting off Stuart and his brigades encountered a situation that should have immediately stopped movement to the Federal rear and instead brought Stuart to move back to the west of the Blue Ridge. Moving through Glasscock’s Gap Stuart’s troopers  “bumped unexpectedly into “an immense wagon train,” which happened to be the tail end of Winfield Hancock’s 2nd Corps, blocking the road in exactly the fashion Lee had described as a hindrance.” [29] Instead of going back when he had the chance Stuart elected to continue with his “plan to go around the Federal army. It was a crucial decision, for he still could have turned back without losing any more time.” [30] Even so, Stuart had to spend a day grazing his horses since he had no grain with him, delaying his advance north and east, placing him a day behind schedule. Though Stuart and his brigades made better time on the 26th, advancing twenty-five miles, he had to again stop to graze his horses at the Occoquan River. It had “taken forty-eight hours to march thirty-five miles.” [31]

Stuart continued on past the outskirts of Washington on June 27th and was again delayed when attempting to cross the Potomac at Rowser’s Ford where the “water level was two feet higher than normal.” [32] Upon crossing the river he then encountered a large Federal wagon train not far from Washington capturing over 100 wagons and 600 mules. He reveled in that feat and boasted that “he had taken more than one hundred and twenty-five best United States model wagons and splendid teams and gay caparisons,” containing “foodstuffs, oats, hay…bacon, ham, crackers and bread” but his progress was slowed by his enormous wagon train of captured supplies…” [33] He and briefly wondered “whether it might be worth “our entering Washington City” [34] before determining that the effort might be too costly.

On June 28th Stuart received word that Joe Hooker and the Army of the Potomac were across the Potomac. Likewise, Stuart “knew nothing of Lee’s position,” [35] and instead of abandoning the wagon train he sacrificed the speed and mobility of his brigades to keep it. This was a direct consequence of how badly Lee had written his order to Stuart. Now, “far from guarding Ewell’s right, he was now moving away from Ewell, with no idea where Hooker’s army might be and no communication with Lee, who frequently inquiring of his aides, “Can you tell me where General Stuart is?” [36]

On the wrong side of the federal army, encumbered by the captured wagon train, “Stuart would have to make a half circle of more than fifty miles around Gettysburg before arriving there about noon on the second day of battle with most of his troopers, his artillery, and his wagon train lumbering far behind him.” [37] On June 30th his men were engaged by Judson Kilpatrick’s Federal near cavalry division near Hanover, and “his men never fought more poorly…and General Stuart and his staff were nearly captured.” [38] By the time Stuart’s troopers arrived in Gettysburg, the once proud outfit was “exhausted and too late to be of any service.” [39] His arrival at Gettysburg was not a moment of triumph, but was humiliating. Instead of reporting to his commander with information that Lee needed, it was Lee who informed him of the position of his own army and the Army of the Potomac. Lee’s words to his much beloved subordinate were painful. He asked him “General Stuart, where have you been?” [40] Stuart seemed to wilt at his mentor’s words, and attempted to put the best face forward, and told Lee “I have brought you 125 wagons and their teams, General,” to which Lee replied “Yes, General, but they are an impediment to me now.” [41]

Stuart’s raid was disastrous for Lee. Until July 2nd, Lee was blind and had no idea where the Federal army was. He learned some when he told of the location of the Army of the Potomac by Longstreet’s scout Harrison on June 28th, but even then he had no clear idea of the Federal Army’s location, strength, or intentions until the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Stuart’s ride was “an act of folly – ill-planned, badly conducted, and (until the very end) executed with an almost total disregard for anything for any interest other than the self-promotion of J.E.B. Stuart.” [42]

To be clear, a number of important military factors important to those involved in planning campaigns are clear: Deception, commander’s intent, and unity of command. Lee successfully used deception to prevent the Federals from discerning his purposes, but that initial success was compromised by his lack of clarity in communicating his intent for the campaign to Stuart, and by Stuart’s careless disregard of any other consideration but his own reputation and vanity.

Both Stuart and Lee share culpability for the failure of the Confederate campaign at the operational and tactical level. Of course they were not the only ones, Longstreet, Ewell, A.P. Hill, Harry Heth, and Jubal Early and many others had a share in the defeat, but Lee in his orders, and his protégé Stuart in trying to redeem his reputation were most culpable in the defeat at Gettysburg.

Notes

[1] Petruzzi, J. David and Stanley, Steven The Gettysburg Campaign in Numbers and Losses: Synopses, Orders of Battle, Strengths, Casualties and Maps, June 9 – July 1, 1863 Savas Beatie LLC, El Dorado Hills CA 2012 p.41

[2] Davis, Burke J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier Random House, New York 1957 pp.319-320

[3] Dowdy, CliffordLee 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 p.57

[4] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee’s Lieutenant’s a Study in Command, One volume abridgement by Stephen W Sears, Scribner, New York 1998 p.553

[5] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.57

[6] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.553

[7] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.108

[8] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.108

[9] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.321

[10] Oates, Willam C. and Haskell, Frank A. Gettysburg: The Confederate and Union Views of the Most Decisive Battle of the War in One Volume Bantam Books edition, New York 1992, originally published in 1905 p.61

[11] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.109

[12] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.109

[13] McClellan, Henry Brainerd The Life and Campaigns of Major General J.E.B. Stuart Commander of the Cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia 1885. Digital edition copyright 2011 Strait Gate Publications, Charlotte NC Location 6087

[14] Ibid. McClellan The Life and Campaigns of Major General J.E.B. Stuart location 6106

[15] Lee, Robert E. Reports of Robert E Lee, C.S. Army, Commanding Army of Northern Virginia Campaign Report Dated January 20th 1864. Amazon Kindle Edition location 285

[16] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.324

[17] 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.226

[18] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 p.540

[19] Ibid Korda Clouds of Glory p.540

[20] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.110

[21] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.96

[22] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.555

[23] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 2003 p.106

[24] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.63

[25] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.324

[26] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.63

[27] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.112

[28] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.63

[29] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.96

[30] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.112

[31] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.325

[32] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.112

[33] Ibid Korda Clouds of Glory p.541

[34] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.98

[35] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.325

[36] Ibid Korda Clouds of Glory p.541

[37] Ibid Korda Clouds of Glory p.541

[38] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.73

[39] Ibid. Fuller Decisive Battles of the U.S.A. 1776-1918 p.227

[40] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.334

[41] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier p.334

[42] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.98

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The Largest Cavalry Battle in North America: The Battle Of Brandy Station

Cav Fight at Brandy Station

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I continue my rest so I can read and relax. take a look back at the battle of Brandy Station, the largest cavalry battle every fought on the North American continent. This is a section of my draft Gettysburg campaign text.

Have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

Movement to attain operational reach and maneuver are two critical factors in joint operations. In the time since the American Civil War the distances that forces move to engage the enemy, or maneuver to employ fires to destroy his forces have greatly increased. Movement may be part of an existing Campaign Plan or Contingency Plan developed at Phase 0; it also may be part of a crisis action plan developed in the midst of a campaign. Lee’s movement to get to Gettysburg serves as an example of the former, however, since his forces were already in contact with the Army of the Potomac along the Rappahannock and he was reacting to what he felt was a strategic situation that could not be changed but by going on the offensive that it has the feel of a Crisis Action Plan. Within either context other factors come into play: clarity of communications and orders, security, intelligence, logistics and even more importantly the connection between operational movement and maneuver; the Center of Gravity of the enemy, and national strategy. Since we have already discussed how Lee and the national command authority of the Confederacy got to this point we will now discuss the how that decision played in the operational and tactical decisions of Lee and his commanders as the Army of Northern Virginia began the summer campaign and the corresponding actions of Joseph Hooker and the his superiors in Washington.

“One of the fine arts of the military craft is disengaging one’s army from a guarding army without striking sparks and igniting battle.” [1] On June 3rd 1863 Robert E. Lee began to move his units west, away from Fredericksburg to begin his campaign to take the war to the North. He began his exfiltration moving Second Corps under Richard Ewell and First Corps under James Longstreet west “up the south bank of the Rappahannock to Culpepper, near which Hood and Pickett had been halted on their return from Suffolk.” [2]Rodes’ division of Second Corps followed on June 4th with Anderson and Early on June 5th. Lee left the three divisions of A.P. Hill’s Third Corps at Fredericksburg to guard against any sudden advance by Hooker’s Army of the Potomac toward Richmond. Lee instructed Hill to “do everything possible “to deceive the enemy, and keep him in ignorance of any change in the disposition of the army.” [3]

The army was tremendously confident as it marched away from the war ravaged, dreary and desolate battlefields along the Rappahannock “A Captain in the 1st Virginia averred, “Never before has the army been in such a fine condition, so well disciplined and under such complete control.” [4]Porter Alexander wrote that he felt “pride and confidence…in my splendid battalion, as it filed out of the field into the road, with every chest & and ammunition wagon filled, & and every horse in fair order, & every detail fit for a campaign.” [5] Another officer wrote to his father, “I believe there is a general feeling of gratification in the army at the prospect of active operations.” [6]

Lee’s plan was to “shift two-thirds of his army to the northwest and past Hooker’s flank, while A.P. Hill’s Third Corps remained entrenched at Fredericksburg to observe Hooker and perhaps fix him in place long enough for the army to gain several marches on the Federals.” [7] In an organizational and operational sense that Lee’s army after as major of battle as Chancellorsville “was able to embark on such an ambitious flanking march to the west and north around the right of the army of the Potomac….” [8]

However, Lee’s movement did not go unnoticed; Hooker’s aerial observers in their hot air balloons “were up and apparently spotted the movement.” [9] But Hooker was unsure what it meant. He initially suspected that “Lee intended to turn the right flank of the Union army as he had done in the Second Bull Run Campaign, either by interposing his army between Washington and the Federals or by crossing the Potomac River.” [10] Lee halted at Culpepper from which he “could either march westward over the Blue Ridge or, if Hooker moved, recontract at the Rappahannock River.” [11]

Hooker telegraphed Lincoln and Halleck on June 5th and requested permission to advance cross the river and told Lincoln that “I am of opinion that it is my duty to pitch into his rear” [12]possibly threatening Richmond. Lincoln ordered Hooker to put the matter to Halleck, with whom Hooker was on the worst possible terms. Hooker “pressed Halleck to allow him to cross the Rappahannock in force, overwhelming whatever rebel force had been left at Fredericksburg, and then lunging down the line of the Virginia Central toward an almost undefended Richmond.” [13] On the morning of June 6th Hooker ordered pontoon bridges thrown across the river and sent a division of Sedgwick’s VI Corps to conduct a reconnaissance in force against Hill.

Lincoln and Halleck immediately rejected Hooker’s request. Lincoln “saw the flaw in Hooker’s plan at once” [14] and replied in a very blunt manner: “In one word,” he wrote “I would not take any risk of being entangled upon the river, like an ox jumped half over a fence and liable to be torn by dogs front and rear, without a fair chance to gore one way or kick another.” [15] Halleck replied to Hooker shortly after Lincoln that it would “seem perilous to permit Lee’s main force to move upon the Potomac [River] while your army is attacking an intrenched position on the other side of the Rappahannock.” [16] Lincoln, demonstrating a keen regard for the actual center of gravity of the campaign, told Hooker plainly that “I think Lee’s army and not Richmond, is your objective point.” [17]

The fears of Lincoln and Halleck were well founded. In stopping at Culpepper Lee retained the option of continuing his march to the Shenandoah and the Potomac, or he could rapidly “recall his advanced columns, hammer at Hooker’s right flank, and very possibly administer another defeat even more demoralizing than the one he suffered at Chancellorsville.” [18] Hooker heeded the order and while Hooker maintained his bridgehead over the Rappahannock he made no further move against Hill’s well dug in divisions.

Meanwhile, J.E.B. Stuart and his Cavalry Corps had been at Brandy Station near Culpepper for two weeks. Culpepper in June was a paradise for the cavalry, and with nearly 10,000 troopers gathered Stuart ordered a celebration, many dignitaries were invited and on June 4th Stuart hosted a grand ball in the county courthouse. On the 5th Stuart staged a grand review of five of his brigades. Bands played as each regiment passed in review and one soldier wrote that it was “One grand magnificent pageant, inspiring enough to make even an old woman feel fightish.” [19] The review ended with a mock charge by the cavalry against the guns of the horse artillery which were firing blank rounds. According to witnesses it was a spectacular event, so realistic and grand that during the final charge that “several ladies fainted, or pretended to faint, in the grandstand which Jeb Stuart had had set up for them along one side of the field.” [20]That was followed by an outdoor ball “lit by soft moonlight and bright bonfires.” [21] Stuart gave an encore performance when Lee arrived on June 8th, minus the grand finale and afterward Lee wrote to his wife that “Stuart was in all his glory.” [22]

Hooker received word from the always vigilant John Buford, of the First Cavalry Division on the night of June 6th that “Lee’s “movable column” was located near Culpepper Court House and that it consisted of Stuart’s three brigades heavily reinforced by Robertson’s, “Grumble” Jones’s, and Jenkins’ brigades.” [23] Hooker digested the information and believed that Stuart’s intent was to raid his own rear areas to disrupt the Army of the Potomac’s logistics and communications. The next day Hooker ordered his newly appointed Cavalry Corps Commander, Major General Alfred Pleasanton to attack Stuart.

After Chancellorsville, Hooker had reorganized the Union cavalry under Pleasanton into three divisions and under three aggressive division commanders, all West Pointers, Brigadier General John Buford, Brigadier General David Gregg and Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick. While Stuart conducted his second grand review for Lee Pleasanton quietly massed his cavalry “opposite Beverly Ford and Kelly’s Ford so as to cross the river in the early morning hours of June 9th and carry out Hooker’s crisp orders “to disperse and destroy” the rebel cavalry reported to be “assembled in the vicinity of Culpepper….”[24] Pleasanton’s cavalry was joined by two mixed brigades of infantry “who had the reputation of being among the best marchers and fighters in the army.” [25] One brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Adelbert Ames consisted of five regiments drawn from XI Corps, XII Corps, and III Corps was attached to Buford’s division. The other brigade, under the command of Brigadier General David Russell was composed of seven regiments drawn from I Corps, II Corps and VI Corps. [26]

Stuart’s orders for June 9th were to “lead his cavalry division across the Rappahannock to screen the northward march of the infantry.” [27] The last thing that Stuart expected was to be surprised by the Federal cavalry which he had grown to treat with distain. Stuart who was at his headquarters “woke to the sound of fighting” [28] as Pleasanton’s divisions crossed the river and moved against the unsuspecting Confederate cavalry brigades.

The resultant action was the largest cavalry engagement of the war. Over 20,000 troopers engaged in an inconclusive see-saw battle that lasted most of the day. Though a draw “the rebels might have been swept from the field had Colonel Alfred N. Duffie, at the head of the Second Division acted aggressively and moved to the sounds of battle.” [29] The “Yankees came with a newfound grit and gave as good as they took.” [30]Porter Alexander wrote that Pleasanton’s troopers “but for bad luck in the killing of Col. Davis, leading the advance, would have probably surprised and captured most of Stuart’s artillery.” [31]Stuart had lost “over 500 men, including two colonels dead,” [32] and a brigade commander, Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee, General Lee’s son, badly wounded. While recuperating at his wife’s home a few weeks later Lee “was captured by the enemy.” [33]Stuart claimed victory as he lost fewer troops and had taken close to 500 prisoners and maintained control of the battlefield.

But even Confederate officers were critical. Lafayette McLaws of First Corps wrote “our cavalry were surprised yesterday by the enemy and had to do some desperate fighting to retrieve the day… As you will perceive from General Lee’s dispatch that the enemy were driven across the river again. All this is not true because the enemy retired at their leisure, having accomplished what I suppose what they intended.” [34] Captain Charles Blackford of Longtreet’s staff wrote: “The fight at Brandy Station can hardly be called a victory. Stuart was certainly surprised, but for the supreme gallantry of his subordinate officers and men… it would have been a day of disaster and disgrace….” The Chief of the Bureau of War in Richmond, Robert H.G. Kean wrote “Stuart is so conceited that he got careless- his officers were having a frolic…” [35] Brigadier General Wade Hampton had the never to criticize his chief in his after action report and after the war recalled “Stuart managed badly that day, but I would not say so publicly.” [36]

The Confederate press was even more damning in its criticism of Stuart papers called it “a disastrous fight,” a “needless slaughter,” [37]and the Richmond Examiner scolded Stuart in words that cut deeply into Stuart’s pride and vanity:

The more the circumstances of the late affair at Brandy Station are considered, the less pleasant do they appear. If this was an isolated case, it might be excused under the convenient head of accident or chance. But the puffed up cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia has twice, if not three times, surprised since the battles of December, and such repeated accidents can be regarded as nothing but the necessary consequences of negligence and bad management. If the war was a tournament, invented and supported for the pleasure of a few vain and weak-headed officers, these disasters might be dismissed with compassion, But the country pays dearly for the blunders which encourage the enemy to overrun and devastate the land, with a cavalry which is daily learning to despise the mounted troops of the Confederacy…” [38]

But the battle was more significant than the number of casualties inflicted or who controlled the battlefield at the end of the day. Stuart had been surprised by an aggressively led Union Cavalry force. The Union troopers fought a stubborn and fierce battle and retired in good order. Stuart did not appreciate it but the battle was a watershed, it ended the previous dominance of the Confederate Cavalry arm. It was something that in less than a years’ time would cost him his life.

Notes 

[1] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 2003 p.59

[2] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.436

[3] Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.25

[4] Wert, Jeffry D. A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph 1862-1863 Simon and Schuster, New York and London 2011 p.218

[5] Alexander, Edward Porter. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander edited by Gary Gallagher University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1989 p.221

[6] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.219

[7] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.60

[8] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 p.530

[9] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.436

[10] Wert, Jeffry D. The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac Simon and Schuster, New York and London 2005 p.260

[11] 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 p.37

[12] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.61

[13] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.50

[14] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.260

[15] 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.223

[16] Ibid Trudeau Gettysburg a Testing of Courage p.26

[17] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.50

[18] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.53

[19] Davis, Burke J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier Random House, New York 1957 p.304

[20] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two p.437

[21] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.63

[22] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.221

[23] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.54

[24] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.64

[25] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.54

[26] Petruzzi, J. David and Stanley, Steven The Gettysburg Campaign in Numbers and Losses: Synopses, Orders of Battle, Strengths, Casualties and Maps, June 9 – July 1, 1863 Savas Beatie LLC, El Dorado Hills CA 2012 p.7

[27] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.64

[28] Ibid. Davis JEB Stuart p.306

[29] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.261

[30] Wert, Jeffry D. General James Longstreet The Confederacy’s Most Controversial Soldier, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, New York and London 1993 p. 251

[31] Ibid. Alexander Fighting for the Confederacy p.223

[32] Ibid. Davis JEB Stuart p.310

[33] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.221

[34] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.59

[35] Ibid. Davis JEB Stuart p.310

[36] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.60

[37] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.57

[38] Ibid. Davis JEB Stuart p.311-312

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“It Was All About Diverting…” The Relevance Of Milton Mayer’s “They Thought They Were Free” Today

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am tired and pretty worn out and attempting to use this weekend to recuperate as I get ready for more medical appointments, physical therapy, and hopes that I will get a way forward with my pain ridden knees. Because of that I am doing some new reading, and simply reposting an older article that I think is pertinent.

The article tonight is a chapter from Milton Mayer’s “They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945.” Mayer was a visiting professor at the University of Frankfurt in the 1950s and lived in a small Hessian town near the city. The book is about the relationships that he built with ten ordinary citizens in the town and how they lived under Nazism and how most saw little wrong with it in the end.

The book is well worth the read and very timely when one compares the attitudes of the men who became Mayer’s friends and many people in the United States today. The last few chapters of the book are a reflection of the author’s opinions of the future of Germany at the time of his writing and he was mistaken on how the Germans would eventually become a society that embraced democracy and rejected authoritarianism (at the time he felt that it was very possible that democracy would fail in Germany,) they do not take away anything from the heart of the book and its message about how people adjust to authoritarian rule.

One chapter in particular struck me, it was a conversion that Mayer had with a colleague at the University who also reflected what it was like to live in the Third Reich and how in doing so he compromised himself and lost the opportunity to resist when resistance might have changed the course of events as Germany proceeded down the road to dictatorship and destruction. The chapter is particularly painful to read as the man understood that he should have known better but didn’t recognize the warning signs of the gradual nature of how life was changing with each new law or dictate from the Fuhrer.

In reading the chapter I see parallels in American society today. There are the Trump loyalists, many of who openly call for restrictions of liberty and crushing opposition to the President’s policies using extra-constitutional means including violence. Many are quite extreme while others, persuaded by years of right-wing talk radio, politically charged sermons by their pastors, and the daily dose of Fox News believe everything said by the President even when confronted by facts. Then there are Trump’s opponents, but many of the opponents are divided and cannot get along with each other. Some of these opponents actually helped Trump into office by circulating the Russian anti-Clinton conspiracy theories and falsehoods throughout the campaign. Each of these groups probably composes about 25-30% of the electorate each. The remaining segment are the people who simply go with the flow because life is too busy and crisis laden to get too deeply enmeshed in the political debate, and many have become so cynical that they see no difference in either side and are much more concerned about making it in a still uncertain economy.

So I invite you to read this and draw your own conclusions. Have a great day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Chapter 13: But Then It Was Too Late

“What no one seemed to notice,” said a colleague of mine, a philologist, “was the ever widening gap, after 1933, between the government and the people. Just think how very wide this gap was to begin with, here in Germany. And it became always wider. You know, it doesn’t make people close to their government to be told that this is a people’s government, a true democracy, or to be enrolled in civilian defense, or even to vote. All this has little, really nothing, to do with knowing one is governing.

“What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could not understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it.

“This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.

“You will understand me when I say that my Middle High German was my life. It was all I cared about. I was a scholar, a specialist. Then, suddenly, I was plunged into all the new activity, as the university was drawn into the new situation; meetings, conferences, interviews, ceremonies, and, above all, papers to be filled out, reports, bibliographies, lists, questionnaires. And on top of that were the demands in the community, the things in which one had to, was ‘expected to’ participate that had not been there or had not been important before. It was all rigmarole, of course, but it consumed all one’s energies, coming on top of the work one really wanted to do. You can see how easy it was, then, not to think about fundamental things. One had no time.”

“Those,” I said, “are the words of my friend the baker. ‘One had no time to think. There was so much going on.’”

“Your friend the baker was right,” said my colleague. “The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway. I do not speak of your ‘little men,’ your baker and so on; I speak of my colleagues and myself, learned men, mind you. Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There was no need to. Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about—we were decent people—and kept us so busy with continuous changes and ‘crises’ and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the ‘national enemies,’ without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?

“To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—please try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

“How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men? Frankly, I do not know. I do not see, even now. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice—‘Resist the beginnings’ and ‘Consider the end.’ But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men? Things might have. And everyone counts on that might.

“Your ‘little men,’ your Nazi friends, were not against National Socialism in principle. Men like me, who were, are the greater offenders, not because we knew better (that would be too much to say) but because we sensed better. Pastor Niemöller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing; and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something—but then it was too late.”

“Yes,” I said.

“You see,” my colleague went on, “one doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even talk, alone; you don’t want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ Why not?—Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.

“Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows. Outside, in the streets, in the general community, ‘everyone’ is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none. You know, in France or Italy there would be slogans against the government painted on walls and fences; in Germany, outside the great cities, perhaps, there is not even this. In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, ‘It’s not so bad’ or ‘You’re seeing things’ or ‘You’re an alarmist.’

“And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can’t prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don’t know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end? On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic. You are left with your close friends, who are, naturally, people who have always thought as you have.

“But your friends are fewer now. Some have drifted off somewhere or submerged themselves in their work. You no longer see as many as you did at meetings or gatherings. Informal groups become smaller; attendance drops off in little organizations, and the organizations themselves wither. Now, in small gatherings of your oldest friends, you feel that you are talking to yourselves, that you are isolated from the reality of things. This weakens your confidence still further and serves as a further deterrent to—to what? It is clearer all the time that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an occasion to do it, and then you are obviously a troublemaker. So you wait, and you wait.

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.

“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jewish swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God. The system itself could not have intended this in the beginning, but in order to sustain itself it was compelled to go all the way.

“You have gone almost all the way yourself. Life is a continuing process, a flow, not a succession of acts and events at all. It has flowed to a new level, carrying you with it, without any effort on your part. On this new level you live, you have been living more comfortably every day, with new morals, new principles. You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things that your father, even in Germany, could not have imagined.

“Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

“What then? You must then shoot yourself. A few did. Or ‘adjust’ your principles. Many tried, and some, I suppose, succeeded; not I, however. Or learn to live the rest of your life with your shame. This last is the nearest there is, under the circumstances, to heroism: shame. Many Germans became this poor kind of hero, many more, I think, than the world knows or cares to know.”

I said nothing. I thought of nothing to say.

“I can tell you,” my colleague went on, “of a man in Leipzig, a judge. He was not a Nazi, except nominally, but he certainly wasn’t an anti-Nazi. He was just—a judge. In ’42 or ’43, early ’43, I think it was, a Jew was tried before him in a case involving, but only incidentally, relations with an ‘Aryan’ woman. This was ‘race injury,’ something the Party was especially anxious to punish. In the case at bar, however, the judge had the power to convict the man of a ‘nonracial’ offense and send him to an ordinary prison for a very long term, thus saving him from Party ‘processing’ which would have meant concentration camp or, more probably, deportation and death. But the man was innocent of the ‘nonracial’ charge, in the judge’s opinion, and so, as an honorable judge, he acquitted him. Of course, the Party seized the Jew as soon as he left the courtroom.”

“And the judge?”

“Yes, the judge. He could not get the case off his conscience—a case, mind you, in which he had acquitted an innocent man. He thought that he should have convicted him and saved him from the Party, but how could he have convicted an innocent man? The thing preyed on him more and more, and he had to talk about it, first to his family, then to his friends, and then to acquaintances. (That’s how I heard about it.) After the ’44 Putsch they arrested him. After that, I don’t know.”

I said nothing.

“Once the war began,” my colleague continued, “resistance, protest, criticism, complaint, all carried with them a multiplied likelihood of the greatest punishment. Mere lack of enthusiasm, or failure to show it in public, was ‘defeatism.’ You assumed that there were lists of those who would be ‘dealt with’ later, after the victory. Goebbels was very clever here, too. He continually promised a ‘victory orgy’ to ‘take care of’ those who thought that their ‘treasonable attitude’ had escaped notice. And he meant it; that was not just propaganda. And that was enough to put an end to all uncertainty.

“Once the war began, the government could do anything ‘necessary’ to win it; so it was with the ‘final solution of the Jewish problem,’ which the Nazis always talked about but never dared undertake, not even the Nazis, until war and its ‘necessities’ gave them the knowledge that they could get away with it. The people abroad who thought that war against Hitler would help the Jews were wrong. And the people in Germany who, once the war had begun, still thought of complaining, protesting, resisting, were betting on Germany’s losing the war. It was a long bet. Not many made it.”

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 166-73 of They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 by Milton Mayer, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1955, 1966 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

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Why this, Why now? The Attacks on Tankers in the Gulf of Oman

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Over the past few weeks I have been watching the situation building in the Persian Gulf, between Iran and its allies, the United States, Saudi Arabia, the various Gulf States, and Israel.

The situation has grown more tense through the threats of the Trump Administration, its increasingly punishing sanctions on Iran, and its deployment of additional Naval and Air Force units. Iran’s economy is on the verge of collapse, and over the past few weeks there have been attacks on tankers in the waters in the Gulf of Oman, which lays just outside the Straits of Hormuz, the vital passage through which passes much of the oil produced in the Middle East for the world markets, especially Asian markets.

I am a naturally suspicious person. When things like this happen I ask “why this, why these people, and why now?” Or in the cases when someone is telling me a story, “why this, why me, why now?” People lie to preachers and priests all,the time, nations and leaders of nations lie all the time. All the characters involved in this drama spin events and intelligence to shape the narrative they want others to believe. That includes the Mullahs of Iran, the Saudi Royal Family, the leaders of the Gulf States, Benjamin Netanyahu Of Israel, and President Trump, and his often conflicted and contradictory administration.

The United States has accused Iran of the attacks on these tankers, there is some evidence that points that way. The Iranians are protesting that their Gulf rivals are conducting these operations in order to frame them. Either, or both explanations are possible. The first two attacks involved very small explosive charges which did minor damage to the first two tankers, most likely placed by divers on the hills of the ships while at anchor. The second set of attacks did significant damage to two tankers. The United States Central Command produced a video of what might be an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Naval Corps boat removing something from one of the recently attacked ships.

But the theory offered by the United States, that these two ships were approached by Iranian craft which placed limpet mines on them, without reporting close encounters with Iranian craft. That would be highly unusual. The explanation by CENTCOM that the craft on the video was removing an unexplored limpet mine from the ship also seems unlikely. The Iranians knew that U.S. warships, equipped with helicopters were near the ships, such a move would be unusual for the Iranians, even the Revolutionary Guards, especially since one of the ships was Japanese owned and the head of the shipping line that owned the ship said that the crew reported an object flying at it. That could have been a rocket, missile, or even an armed drone.

Of course the Iranians could have done any of those things, as could have the Saudis, the Gulf States, the Israelis, or even the Americans.

The rapidity that Secretary of State Pompeo and President Trump labeled the Iranians as the attackers under such opaque circumstances has inadvertently backed the United States into a corner. We now have to prove our allegations. Regardless of who actually conducted the attacks, the refusal of the United States to wait for more forensic evidence of who committed the attack, the quick finger pointing at Iran was unwise. The release of a video which cannot actually identify what was removed from the tanker further obfuscates the situation.

The fact is that in the current situation, it is better to wait for conclusive evidence rather than further ratcheting up the tensions with yet unprovable allegations. There are other parties quite willing to drag the United States and Iran into war to suit their strategic aims.

When I see something like this I think of the Gulf of Tonkin incident which led to a massive escalation of the United States military involvement in Vietnam. But my question is, who is behind it?

I cannot answer that question, however, I can predict that this situation will escalate with very unpredictable and probably tragic consequences. I do hope that I am wrong, but on thing that I know from history, is that leaders in trouble at home, frequently instigate crisis abroad to divert attention from their domestic problems. If that is the case all of the possible subjects, with the possible exception of the Iranians have something to gain from this.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t think that the Iranians couldn’t be behind these attacks, but they would be low on my motivational index, unless the Revolutionary Guard has chosen to act independently of the Iranian government.

Right now I see more questions than answers, and a war brewing that shouldn’t happen. A war that will bring many changes to our world, and very likely to the life we now know in the United States.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Nature Of Evil

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Thirty years ago when I was in seminary my Philosophy Of Religion Professor, Dr. Yandall Woodfin told our class that until we had death with the realities of evil, death, and suffering we had not yet done Christian theology. He was right, but I have not learned that by wrestling with theology per say, but rather human experience as recorded by history, especially my studies of the Holocaust, and American Slavery, as well as what the and as observed in my life as a trauma and surgery department chaplain in a number of large and medium sized hospitals, including Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.

Since that time I have witnessed hundreds of violent deaths. Most in the United States but some in Iraq. I have seen cruelty, committed by human beings that only can be described as evil. I have also spoken directly with men who killed in cold blood, including an assassination type hit on a man and his son who owed him fifty dollars. That man was a Navy Hospital Corpsmen with a wife and a child, his victims a couple of locals. When I looked in his eyes there was no feeling, it didn’t matter what he had did, he was a classic sociopath. He had no empathy for the men he killed or the devastation he left in the lives of his wife and child. The state he committed the murder in does have the death penalty, but he received two back to back life sentences. The Navy discharged him and that cut off my attempts to communicate with him.

But the question always comes back to the nature of evil itself, and the willing ignorance of many people of it. Having come face to face with this man and others like him, I have to agree with the comments of Captain and psychologist Gustave Gilbert about the Nazi War Criminals at Nuremberg:

“In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”

I have to admit that the amount of ignorance in the defense of evil that I see daily is simply mind blowing. It makes me shake my head. But then I cannot be surprised anymore. About two years ago I saw a poll in which nine percent of Americans said that holding White Supremacist or Neo-Nazi views and ideology was okay. 

Now nine percent doesn’t sound like a big number or anything to worry about until you extrapolate that percentage into the numbers of people who hold that view. Based on the population of the United States that nine percent equals about thirty million individuals. Now I’m sure that many of these patriotic Americans are not card carrying Klansmen or Nazis, but the fact that they would turn a blind eye to the evil of both in the name of some incomprehensible moral equivalence as did President Trump after Charlottesville is quite disturbing. Perhaps it is his example that enables them to be so open about their acceptance of evil. 

A while back on my Facebook page a friend of a friend commented on an article which discussed new research that indicates that the Nazis in their occupation of the Ukraine killed perhaps a half million more Jews than previously believed. That woman made the comment that there were others, and yes that is true. Had the Nazis won the war tens of millions more of the Jews as well as the Slavs who they referred to as Untermenschen or subhumans would have been killed, either directly or through a policy of intentional starvation. But make no bones about it, from the months that Hitler spent in Landsberg prison for his role in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 writing Mein Kampf until the end of the war as the Red Army closed in on his bunker in Berlin, the Jews above all were the object of his personal hatred. 

Close to six million Jews and millions of others were killed by the Nazis. Millions of Africans were enslaved in the United States and even after emancipation were by law treated as less than full citizens. Under Jim Crow they were discriminated against at every level of government including states that were neither a part of the Confederacy or not even States when the Civil War was fought, they were impressed as forced labor under the Black Codes and thousands were murdered, often in public by people who brought their children to watch Black men die. 

But these people were not just numbers. It’s all to easy to blur them into a mass of dehumanized humanity by talking about the millions, when every single one was a human being, yes, I believe created in the image of God. We have to see their faces and we have to recognize their essential humanity as men and women, children, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives, whose lives were in the case of the Jews obliterated as if they never existed, and others like African slaves who were simply property.

I explained that in quite a few fewer words and told her that she shouldn’t challenge me on the subject, which of course she did. So I went into more detail and shot her argument down in flames, to the cheers of other commentators on the post. When you have spent much of your academic life studying a subject it really gets old hearing people make excuse for evil by trying to minimize that evil, especially against the targeted people. 

It’s like Confederate apologists saying that the institution of slavery which enslaved millions of Africans was actually worse for White people. Yes it is true that many poor whites benefited little from slavery, but they were not bought and sold as chattel, sold away from their wives and children, whipped, and marched across country in chains to new owners, or yes even killed simply because they were not considered human beings but property. 

Sadly, as Dr. Timothy Snyder wrote “The history of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal, and its lessons have not yet been learned.” 

So there are about 30 million Americans who believe that holding Nazi and White Supremacist beliefs is okay. A few years ago I would believed that the number was lower, but after seven months of living in Trump’s America I believe that it might be even higher than the poll indicated. I only say this based on the postings I see on various social media platforms, news comment pages, the proliferation of websites that cater to these beliefs, and the lack of real condemnation of such individuals by the majority of the GOP Senate and House majorities, and the outright defense of them by other GOP representatives at the Federal and State level. These people have not learned the lessons of the Holocaust, nor American slavery. 

Again I don’t believe that the majority of these people are real card carrying Nazis or Klansmen. Most would probably be considered great citizens: they work, they raise families, they go to church, and many would claim that they have “a Black or Jewish friend” so obviously they cannot be racists. But that being said they turn a blind eye to the evil of race hatred and White supremacy, and sometimes join in on social media meme wars where they mock the victims. But no matter what, not condemning the purveyors of White Supremacist or Neo-Nazi ideology, or by using the arguments of moral equivalence to minimize those crimes against humanity makes these people as complicit in the past, present, and future crimes of Naziism as if they were. 

They may be ordinary people, as seemingly normal as anyone else, but as Hannah Arendt noted about Adolf Eichmann and other Nazis who advanced the destruction of the Jews was that they were so normal. She wrote: 

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” 

That my friends is as true as the day she wrote it after Eichmann’s trial, as it is today, and why we must constantly educate people in every forum possible that it is all too easy to become either a perpetrator or evil or a bystander. As Snyder wrote: “It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander. It is tempting to say that a Nazi murderer is beyond the pale of understanding. …Yet to deny a human being his human character is to render ethics impossible. To yield to this temptation, to find other people inhuman, is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position. To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.” 

Since they were human beings the Nazis were not unique to history. In every era of history human beings have committed atrocities, many in the name of some kind of ethnic, religious, or nationalist ideology of supremacy that held other people to be less than human. That may sound harsh, but it is all too true based on history.

Yehuda Bauer wrote: “The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.” 

In the movie Judgment at Nuremberg the judge played by Spencer Tracy noted something important about the defendants in the trial. His words need to be heard today as well:

Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and the death of millions by the Government of which he was a part. Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe.

But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.

It is high time that we learn that again and that we make up our minds to oppose the ideologies that made the Holocaust and Slavery possible. As Hannah Arendt observed: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

But then there are those who have no problem with it, sociopaths who have an extreme absence of empathy.

So until tomorrow, 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Silence in the Face Of Evil is Evil Itself

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the words “silence in the face of evil is evil itself.”

Today I blocked and deleted a former friend from a church I went to decades ago because of his attitude towards me and what I post on Facebook. I get tired of the hypocrisy of people who pretend to be patriotic when in fact they openly support a President who openly denies his oath when he said today that he would accept “dirt” on his political opponents from foreign sources.

This is a very difficult article to write because truthfully I believe that civility and mutual respect should be an ideal that we as Americans should not retreat from, as John F. Kennedy noted:

“So let us begin a new remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” 

I have written about that subject a number of times, the last being on November 22nd 2016 shortly after President Trump’s election and on the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. However, since that time I have seen the President lead a descent into depravity that I fully comprehended then, although I hoped for a different outcome. Trust me, as an American with a profound respect for the office of the President that is what I wanted, but it didn’t happen.

The fact is that the President has in his words, deeds, and tweets destroyed any hope of our political divide being healed, or of Americans of different viewpoints being able to reconcile their differences anytime in the foreseeable future. He stokes the hatred and division almost on an hourly basis, and of course his opponents having become wise to him are rolling up their sleeves and fighting back.

Too me that is an unfortunate situation that might become a tragedy for the United States and the world, as Abraham Lincoln noted “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” To GOP Congressman Steve King of Iowa the sight and sound of Trump’s opponents is like “Harpers Ferry” and what comes next will be “Fort Sumter.” Since King proudly displays the Confederate Battle Flag in his office I know exactly what side of this fight that he is on.

The fact is that he and many like him want bloodshed, they want Civil War, they want to remake the Union in a way that Jefferson Davis and his band of traitors failed to do. As a historian of the period with a book awaiting publication the fact is that in the end it comes down to the fact that King, many of the President’s supporters and quite probably the President himself are all White Supremacists. They want a full and complete return to White Man’s Rule and the subservience of all non-white races and non-Christian religions to it. They are the Know Nothings of the North and Slave Power Secessionists of the South rolled into one package of ignorance, incivility, and hatred.

I write often about comparisons of the attitudes and actions administration and its supporters to Nazi Germany, but truth be told there is a lot of dirty laundry in our own history that sheds light on Trump and his supporters.

The fact is that for nearly three decades the vast majority of Northerners were too polite to criticize the egregious actions of the Know Nothings in their midst or the Southern Slave Power Block that dominated the presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court for the three decades prior to the War of the Rebellion, also known as the American Civil War, or the War Between the States. Honestly, I think that the term ascribed to it by many Union Veterans in the Grand Army of the Republic after the war, the “War of the Rebellion” is the best.

Those opposed to the Know Nothings and Slave Power Block were condemned as being rude, impolite, and worse. Some were physical assaulted. In 1856 Senator Charles Sumner was attacked by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina on the floor of the Senate for his speech against the Kansas Nebraska Act. Sumner was beaten until he was unconscious and Brooks’ heavy cane which he used to conduct the attack broke. Brooks continued to beat Sumner aided by Representative Lawrence Keitt also of South Carolina who brandishing a pistol threatened Senators coming to his aid. Sumner has proclaimed no threats of violence but only spoken the truth about the Act and those that supported it. So much for civility and now.

The scurrilous and overtly violent threats against minorities and civil rights advocates by conservatives, especially White Christian conservatives have continued unabated since from the ante-Bellum South and the Know Nothing North, through the War of the Rebellion, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, to the modern day. Whole political campaigns including that of George H.W. Bush run by Lee Atwater turned on the demonization of African Americans. The same is true regarding the Republican revolution led by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, and again even more so from the time that Candidate Donald Trump descended to the lobby of Trump Tower in 2015 until now. The President proclaims that White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis are “very fine people.” 

The President and many of his followers including administration officials like Stephen Miller set the tone while Presidential spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders lies and denies the President’s words and vilifies anyone that dares to question her. So when she is asked to leave a restaurant, or when Miller or DHS Secretary Nielsen are shamed when trying to enter Mexican restaurants it makes makes my heart bleed. People who have no compassion, no sense of empathy and behave as sociopaths and then act the victim when the tables are turned only deserve scorn.

Their anti-immigrant and often blatantly racist tropes of the President, his administration, and his supporters on the Fox Propaganda Network, the Right Wing media, the Putrid Princes of the Captive Conservative Church, and his assorted sordid supporters should be condemned and opposed around the clock. If they are not then any of us who remain silent knowing the evil of these policies is as guilty as anyone that turned their backs on the Jews in Nazi Germany. The higher the office the greater the guilt and culpability.

That being said if had the chance to see any one of them in a public setting I would not resort to public shaming. I do not own a restaurant or business so I could not ask them to leave. However, that being said if any of them the President himself presented themselves to me at my chapel or any civilian church that I might be celebrating the Eucharist I would deny them communion which from a Christian point of view is “a fate worse than a fate worse than death.”

Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.” 

As for me I must tell the truth and protest against the violence and the arbitrary pride of power exhibited by the Trump administration and its supporters. I could not live with myself if I didn’t do so. Some might think this political and in some sense it is, but it is entirely based on my understanding of the Christian faith and the very premise of the founders of this country, that phrase in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

If need be I would die for that faith and that proposition and I will not be silent in the face of evil. I will live and die as a Christian who believes those sacred words of secular scripture found in the Declaration.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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A Criminal Campaign and Compliant Generals: Barbarossa 1941

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The 78th anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 is approaching. The German war against the Soviet Union was unlike any in modern military history. It was not just a war to defeat the Soviets militarily or to overthrow Stalin’s regime of terror. It was a war conceived to conquer as well as to exterminate and enslave.

The Nazis believed the Slavic peoples of the Soviet Union to what the referred to as untermenschen or sub-human and the plan was designed to provide the German master race with the necessary Lebensraum, or living space. The plan called for ethnic cleansing, the extermination of the Jews and the deliberate starvation of 30 million other people in the Soviet Union. The destruction of the Jews of the Soviet Union, which the Nazis linked with Bolshevism, and the elimination of anyone associated with the Soviet government or Communist Party was paramount. It was an ideological war without mercy in which civilized norms that governed the conduct of war were defied and trampled.

The German war in the east would differ from any previous war.  Its underlying basis was ideological. Economic and geopolitical considerations were given importance in relationship to the understanding of the German “Master Race.”  Race and Lebensraum was the goal of the State that “concentrates all of its strength on marking out a way of life for our people through the allocation of Lebensraum for the next one hundred years…the goal corresponds equally to the highest national and ethnic requirements.” 

Hitler set the stage on March 3rd 1941 when he told confidants: “the forthcoming campaign is more than a mere armed conflict; it is a collision between two different ideologies…this war will not be ended merely by the defeat of the enemy armed forces” and that “the Jewish-Bolshevist intelligentsia must be eliminated….”

On March 30th 1941 Hitler addressed 250 Generals about the nature of the war to come:

Shortly before the order was issued, Hitler previewed it to the generals saying that the war in Russia “cannot be conducted in a knightly fashion” and that it would have to be waged with “unprecedented, unmerciful and unrelenting harshness. Hitler told the Generals that they would have to “dispense with all of their outdated and traditional ideas about chivalry and the generally accepted rules of warfare: the Bolsheviks had long since dispensed with them.” He explained that his orders were beyond their comprehension, he told them “I cannot and will not change my orders and I insist that that they be carried out with unquestioning and unconditional obedience.” Few questioned the order and few protested, those that did were told by the Army Commander, Field Marshal Von Brauchtisch “the he would express their opinion to OKW and Hitler respectively.” 

But Von Brauchitsch refused to protest to Hitler and instead issued an order on his own authority “threatening dire penalties for excesses against civilians and prisoners of war” which he maintained at Nurmeberg “was sufficient to nullify the Commissar Order.” Yet Von Brauchitsch’s hands were not unsoiled and he later told his commanders to “proceed with the necessary hardness.” He knew what that meant as he was present.

General Franz Halder, Chief of the OKH, or the Army High Command took notes on Hitler’s speech. They are chilling to read as none present could have understood them in any other way than Hitler meant:

“Clash of two ideologies. Crushing denunciation of Bolshevism, identified with asocial criminality….We must forget the comradeship between soldiers. A Communist is no comrade before nor after the battle. This is a war of extermination….We do not wage war to preserve the enemy….War against Russia: Extermination of the Bolshevist Commissars and of the Communist intelligentsia….this is no job for military courts. The individual troop commanders must know the issues at stake. They must be leaders in the fight….This war will be very different from war in the West. In the East harshness today means leniency in the future. Commanders must make the sacrifice of overcoming their personal scruples.” 

General Erich Hoepner, commander of Panzer Group Four who would be executed following the attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1944, told his commanders that the invasion was “an essential part of the German people’s struggle for existence” and stated, “the struggle must aim at the annihilation of today’s Russia and must therefore be waged with unparalleled harshness”. Hoepner told his officers that they were fighting for “the defense of European culture against Moscovite–Asiatic inundation, and the repulse of Jewish Bolshevism … No adherents of the present Russian-Bolshevik system are to be spared.”

The German Army as well as the SS Einsatzgruppen and the German Order Police launched their attack in the early hours of June 22nd  and did not lack the hardness required to commit war crimes and atrocities that are unimaginable, and which can never be allowed to happen again.

I could go on but I will end for now.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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