Friday, August 01, 2014


We chafe at limits.

We don't like being told something is impossible, even -- or maybe especially -- if it is. Virtually anytime someone says "it can't be done", you can find someone willing to put the matter to the test. And whatever can be done, you can be sure someone's on the prowl looking for a way to do it better. A way to go higher, or farther, or faster.

For most of human history no one ever traveled faster than a horse could gallop. The steam engine changed that. Man got his first taste of higher speed in 1804, when Richard Trevithick built his "Puffing Devil" steam locomotive. Towards the end of the century, the first automobiles were built, and were soon faster than locomotives themselves.

It's understandable and perfectly excusable if you think that electric cars are a recent innovation, but that's actually not the case. The first land speed record held by an automobile, set in 1898 by the French vehicle Jeantaud Duc, was set by a car with an electric motor. Steam engines were too heavy, and gasoline engines too unreliable, so in the early days of the automobile electric engines were the motors of choice. That didn't last very long, though. Four years later, a steam-powered car overtook the electics with a then-blistering speed of 75 miles per hour. Lest you think that steam was making a comeback, it was displaced in mere months by a gasoline-powered car driven by the American driver William Vanderbilt. This would begin an American dominance of land speed records that would last ... oh, about five years. A Frenchman would take the lead in 1909, and then an Englishman in 1914. The English would hold the record for a while. Almost fifty years, in fact.

Their dominance came to a temporary end for two reasons. First, they were hitting a hard limit with what could be accomplished with wheels. Second, some might say that the Americans ... cheated.

First, the problem. If we go back a few years, I wrote about the maximum speed a running man could achieve. It's the same basic principle with cars. You can only drive the wheels so hard before they start slipping. You can make the tires extra-sticky, you can hold the test on the most favorable ground possible, but there's only so much direct drive can do. Which means ... you have to do something that isn't direct drive.

Purists would call what comes next cheating. If direct drive doesn't give you enough satisfaction, you heed the maxim "everything's better with fire", and use a jet engine, or better still, a rocket.

Which is exactly what Craig Breedlove did in 1963. Granted, the Spirit of America only raised the speed record from 403 to 407 miles per hour, but it showed what a jet-powered car could do. Two other Americans would yank the record away from Breedlove before he came back to the ring with a new and improved Spirit, this one called Sonic 1, built around an engine from an F-4 jet fighter. He set a record at 555 miles per hour, then broke his own record a few weeks later when he hit 600 miles per hour. The record rested comfortably in his hands for about five years. Then, Gary Gabelich comes along with the Blue Flame, a rocket-powered car that hit 622 miles per hour in 1970. This is where the record would stay for another thirteen years. It would stay there, because engineers were beginning to reach another problem.

Compressibility becomes a huge problem when you get that close to Mach 1. That's true for any vehicle. That's doubly true for a vehicle that has to maintain contact with the ground. The shock wave really wants to get between you and terra firma, which would be ... a problem. And not "a problem" as in "this is a really sticky equation," but "a problem" as in "holy mother of God, I've been flipped like a pancake at 700 miles per hour." Only there'd be a lot more screaming and loss of bladder control involved. It would take some high-power computational wizardry to figure out how you build a car that can go that fast without killing its driver.

Richard Noble started the climb up that steep hill in 1983 with the Thrust 2. This car, built around a Rolls-Royce Avon jet engine, hit 633 miles per hour. Nowhere near Mach 1, but it did claim the record. Noble would spend another fourteen years designing and building its successor, Thrust SSC, powered not by one, but two Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan engines. Power was only half the problem. Control was the other half. Thrust SSC has a triangular control surface on its aft fin, to help keep the vehicle on the ground during high-speed runs. Appropriately enough, the car was driven by a Royal Air Force fighter pilot, Wing Commander Andy Green. And in October of 1997, Thrust SSC broke the sound barrier.

That's where the land speed record stands. There are a couple of teams at work trying to beat it, but no one's succeeded yet. It's the longest gap between broken records, and it's liable to stay that way for a while.

But don't feel too bad for rail-based vehicles, so unceremoniously left behind in 1898. They got the last laugh. In 2003, at a test range near Holloman AFB, a four-stage rocket sled pushed its payload to the staggering speed of 6,416 miles per hour -- EIGHT AND A HALF times the speed of sound -- as a test of the High-Speed Test Track.

It's ... gonna be a while before anyone drives that fast.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Video Del Fuego, Part LXV

No unifying theme today ... well, except for the second and third items. And maybe the fourth. Anyway, here goes:

Forty-five years ago this coming Sunday, human beings first set foot on another world. Twenty-nine years later, Tom Hanks and Ron Howard teamed up to tell the story in miniseries form. I'm not sure anyone streams From The Earth To The Moon online, at least not legally, but the series is available on DVD, and is well worth watching.

It features a fairly large ensemble cast. Of course, you're bound to see some familiar faces. The actors here also had roles elsewhere. Most of the time, that's not a problem. But once in a while, you come to a jarring realization. Like, for example, the fact that Tarzan was the first man to walk on the Moon. And his Lunar Module Pilot was a crystal meth kingpin. Oh yes, and the fact that their ride home was under the control of an infamous pirate.

In an unrelated matter, a while back I saw a video of an Islamic heavy metal band. What does an Islamic heavy metal band sound like, you ask? Like Cookie Monster chasing a drum kit down a stairwell.

Then again, just about all heavy metal these days sounds like Cookie Monster chasing a drum kit down a stairwell. I suppose that means they're doing it right.

Speaking of which ... A Reddit thread going south isn't all that unusual. What is unusual is that a Reddit rant about the KFC Double Down sandwich by a vegetarian became a death metal song.

And to wrap up -- and, hopefully, leave you with something that won't melt your brain -- here's Weird Al with a grammar rant.

Use complete sentences, boys and girls. If you use 1337speak, the terrorists win.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXVIII: Decision '64, Part 1


It has long been a grave question whether any government, not too strong for the liberties of its people, can be strong enough to maintain its existence in great emergencies. On this point the present rebellion brought our government to a severe test, and a presidential election occurring in regular course during the rebellion, added not a little to the strain.

-- President Abraham Lincoln, 1864

One hundred fifty years ago, a Confederate force 10,000 men strong made an assault on the Federal capital. It didn't amount to much. By this point, Washington was the most heavily fortified city on Earth. This detached force under General Jubal Early was a desperation move by General Lee, who'd been well and truly backed into a wall. Lee was in Richmond, which by this point was more or less surrounded by Grant's Federal troops. While Lee had never lost a battle during the Overland Campaign, and while Grant had never won a battle, Grant was nonetheless able to continue forcing Lee to yield ground. And so it came to pass that Grant was encamped in front of Petersburg, his siege works facing off against the Confederate fortifications.

The Battle of Fort Stevens didn't amount to much. The most interesting thing about it was that it was probably the last time that an American President came under direct enemy fire. Lee didn't actually expect Early to capture Washington. What he did expect -- and more or less got -- was that the assault would draw off some of Grant's strength, so that Grant wouldn't be able to crack the Confederate works like a walnut.

Lee had a secondary intent, though. He also wanted to remind the Northern voter that the war wasn't over yet. Yes, Grant was besieging the Confederate capital. Yes, Sherman was slogging his way towards Atlanta. But neither general had managed to close the deal yet.

Something was about to happen that had never happened before in the history of the world. A nation riven by civil war was about to hold a general election for its head of state -- an election where the head of state stood a non-trivial chance of loss.

The Democrats had split in 1860. In 1864, it was the Republicans' turn.

It must be said, though, that the rift wasn't as deep or as rancorous. A wing of the Republican party, the Radical Republicans, weren't happy with Lincoln's management of the war. They nominated John Fremont as their candidate, just as they had during their very first Presidential election in 1856, and they were preparing to run under the banner of the Radical Democracy Party.

The remainder of the Republican Party, along with the loyal elements of the Democratic Party, joined forces that year under the National Union ticket. They nominated Abraham Lincoln for re-election, and chose as his Vice-Presidential running mate Andrew Johnson, a former United States Senator from Tennessee who had stayed staunchly and vocally loyal to the Union. Johnson was the then-current Military Governor of Tennessee.

But the Democratic Party itself hadn't quite disappeared. While the Radical Republicans thought Lincoln too dilatory, the rest of the Democrats wanted peace at virtually any price. Their nominee? The one-time hero of the Union, George McClellan. Again, I think it important to remember McClellan's early contributions. He won one of the Union's most significant early victories. And, he turned the dispirited mob that had run away from Bull Run into a real army again. But his positive contributions to the war basically ended there. Now, he was running on a platform that would essentially let the Southern states go, damning the consequences.

They had a good deal of support, especially since the offensive seemed to have bogged down. Lee's bet that the Northern voter would eventually tire of the effort wasn't an especially bad one. Scott's Anaconda Plan was always going to end in a slow war of attrition, and no one loves a siege. Not the soldiers on the outside, the inside, or anyone footing the bill. They look pointless and wasteful, right up to the time they don't.

Lincoln was beginning to fear he wouldn't have that time.

His fortunes, and quite possibly the fortunes of his nation, now hung on the efforts of two men. General Ulysses Grant outside of Petersburg, and General William Tecumseh Sherman marching towards Atlanta. How well they did their jobs would probably determine whether or not Lincoln would be able to continue doing his.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Any Landing You Can Walk Away From...

As the old saying goes, any landing you can walk away from is a good one. And if they get to use the airplane again? That's a great landing. A couple of things I saw recently brought that to mind.

First, an incident reported by CNN. They didn't say which ship this was, but a Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier II pilot had a bit of excitement during a training mission. Takeoff was routine enough, but when he raised his landing gear, the nose gear didn't come all the way up. OK, that's bad. Time to go around for a landing. But wait, there's more!

CNN doesn't do embedding, sorry to say. But the rest of the story is that the nose gear wouldn't come all the way back down, either. But that's OK, because they're prepared for just such an emergency. Turns out they've got a standard piece of equipment to catch the nose. The pilot just has to line up on it exactly for it to work. Fortunately, lining up exactly is what Marine Corps aviators do for a living.

But, I have to say, that feat of airmanship pales by comparison to something I saw on my way home. The traffic seemed worse than usual. You almost never know exactly why. As I took the Highway 287 exit south from I-20, I saw some police cars parked on the overpass below. I didn't see what they'd stopped for. I was kind of busy driving. But, after I got home and checked up on some news, I saw what it was and wish I'd actually seen it.

Pictured: A lifetime supply of luck, expended.

Yes, you're seeing that right. Someone landed an airplane. On a curved highway overpass. IN RUSH HOUR. And they're probably going to live long enough to brag about it.

I'm trying to think of something else to say about this, and I'm failing miserably. If you pitched this as a scene in an action flick, they'd laugh you out of the room. No one would believe it. This is either a harebrained stunt gone wrong, or an unbelievably awesome feat of airmanship, bringing a busted bird home. I really hope it's the latter.

Either way, they've got a story to tell their grandkids that'll be hard to top.

Friday, June 13, 2014

"A 21st Century Spacecraft"

A week or so ago, we finally got a look at the long-anticipated manned version of the Dragon spacecraft. Originally, we were expecting something not too dissimilar to the existing Dragon. We've seen it presented like this:

Designs often change, though; what we saw a few weeks ago looked like this:

The unveil event can also be seen on YouTube, if you haven't seen it yet. I'm not going to talk about it much, but here it is in case you're interested.

A few non-obvious points:

First: This gives us something we haven't had in a long time, if ever: a manned spacecraft with a crew abort option throughout the flight envelope. We had that after a fashion with Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Mercury and Apollo had a launch escape tower, and Gemini had ejection seats. The Shuttle had its own ... special problems. First of all, while the SRBs burned, you had no options. None. As I say sometimes, if something goes wrong before you punch those things off ... well, the Chaplain briefs that Emergency Procedure on Sunday mornings. And the Return to Launch Site abort wasn't much better. In simulated aborts, I've heard they got the Orbiter back about one time in three. They got the crew back somewhat more often, two times in three. Not. Good. But now, we'll get a fully controlled, accurate landing capability, available throughout ascent. This is much better.

Second: I find the relocation of the solar cells interesting. Look at the proposed Falcon Heavy for a minute:

I ran the numbers a while back, and a Falcon Heavy can put a nearly-full Falcon second stage plus Dragon payload in Earth orbit. The second stage has enough juice left for Translunar Injection, Lunar Orbit Insertion, and Transearth Injection. That said, I wasn't sure how the "wings" on the current Dragon would hold up under thrust. Well, that's a moot point with Dragon V2. Now that the cells are mounted flush against the outer wall, it's all good. Clearly, they're looking ahead to using V2 with the heavy-lift version.

Third: Seven seats. And, they look like pretty nice seats. 

Hand-tooled leather available as an upgrade option.

As I've said before, seven seats is what you really want for ISS crew change-out. Six space station crew plus one pilot. More to the point, we will no longer need to rely on the good graces of the Russian government ... good graces that we're having more and more reason to doubt.

Fourth: A proper, modern "glass cockpit" instrument panel, with the most critical functions having manual back-ups. I didn't see a standby instrument cluster in that middle area, but by the time they ship the first unit I wouldn't be surprised to find one there. Standby instruments are important, people...

In any case, now we know what it'll look like. If all goes well, next year we'll find out how it flies.

Friday, June 06, 2014

D-Day Plus Seventy

Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark on the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven for these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has greatly reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our home fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!

I have full confidence in your courage and devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!

Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God on this great and noble undertaking.

-- General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Order of the Day, 6/2/1944

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.

-- General Dwight D. Eisenhower, handwritten note of a message to be released if the landings failed

That is the price of liberty. Vive la France!

-- Contre-Admiral Janjard, Free French Navy, giving the order to bombard the French coast

Will someone tell me how we did this?

-- Colonel James Rudder, Ranger commander, at Pointe du Hoc twenty years later

It's a fair question.

Mine is slightly different: Where do we find these men?

Without fail, every generation of Americans has stood forward to the call. And I do mean without fail. I can remember being worried about our country's future, back in the early to mid 1990s. I looked at the younger generation, teenagers then, and they looked feckless and mostly useless. I despaired of them rising to meet any challenge ... then 9/11 came, and they surprised the Hell out of me. As useless as they looked, they grew into fine, strong men and women.

Seventy-odd years ago, it was my father's generation's turn. In early 1939, America had about 300,000 men under arms. We barely had an Army. That changed in December of 1941. The attack happened on the 7th, a Sunday. On Monday the 8th, recruiters had as much business as they could handle. And so the work began, turning civilians into soldiers. Accustoming men to had been used to doing their own thing to routine and discipline. There was exercise and hardship to develop their bodies, and other forms of training to focus their minds. They always knew, even from the start, that they'd have to invade continental Europe. They also knew they'd have to put paid to Imperial Japan, more or less at the same time. They didn't know how just yet, they just knew they'd have to do it.

Amphibious assault wasn't new ... except as a matter of scale. The invasion of Europe was the most complex undertaking in human history to that point, perhaps equalled by the construction of the Great Pyramids, but not surpassed. Before the men could even begin to assault the beaches, stupendous amounts of weapons, vehicles, and supplies had to be amassed in England; and plans drawn up to ship those ashore. The raid on Dieppe early in the war showed that capturing a port intact probably wasn't going to happen, so they had to develop a work-around for that. And, at the same time that they were assembling such amazing amounts of stuff that a blind man could see the invasion coming, they had to deceive the Germans as to where the blow was to fall. They sold a bogus Army to the Germans, aimed at the Pas de Calais, while the real invasion was targeted for Normandy. The kicker was that the fake Army was under the command of General George S. Patton, probably the one American commander the Germans actually respected. Maybe not as an equal, but as a near-equal. That sold it: they bought the deception hook, line, and sinker.

They originally wanted to go in May, but the weather wouldn't cooperate. It looked like the weather wouldn't cooperate for June, either ... but in the late hours of June 5, they got a lucky break. The storms would let up for the morning of the 6th. Eisenhower wasn't totally happy with the odds, but he was even less happy about waiting another month. He didn't much like it, but didn't see any other option but give the order: Go.

Assault transports, destroyers, and battleships stood out to sea. Transport aircraft stuffed to the gills with paratroopers took off, followed by other transports towing gliders. The finely-honed plan went cubist almost immediately, with the airborne troops dropping all over the target zone, and landing craft missing their mark by as much as a mile. It didn't matter. From the commanders ashore like Norman Cota and Theodore Roosevelt Jr., to the common private, everyone improvised to the utmost to do the most important thing that day: break the Atlantic Wall. Get inland. Establish a foothold.

It was a near-run thing, especially on Omaha Beach. But all five beaches were secure by the end of the day, thanks to the skill and courage demonstrated by the British at Gold and Sword, the Canadians at Juno, and the Americans at Omaha and Utah. It would be a while before enough strength amassed ashore to break out, but with the Atlantic Wall ruptured, the Germans would be unable to do a single thing about it.

But none of that answers my question: Where do we find these men?

I think the answer is ... we find them everywhere. Because in a real sense we don't find them. They find themselves. Free men, given the liberty to choose, see their home in danger, and refuse to let anyone else do their job.

This, of course, leaves us with a very important question, one that I'm not sure we've ever answered adequately.

Are we keeping faith with the sacrifices they've made on our behalf?

I look at the VA ... and I am ashamed.

Surely, we can do better. Surely, we must do better.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXVII: The Scrum


"I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer." -- LTG Ulysses S. Grant, May 1864

The first element of the Union's new "attack everywhere" plan began in May of 1864, when Grant, Meade, and the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan river into Virginia on the 4th of that month. Grant's hope was to force Lee into battle by threatening Richmond, and defeat his army in an open battle. What he didn't expect was that Lee would respond aggressively. And as I write that, I realize how little sense it makes -- anyone who knew anything about Lee ought to have known he'd respond to an invasion of Virginia aggressively.

Historians call this the Overland Campaign. I call it The Scrum, because while you can divide it into a number of set-piece battles, what it really entailed was a non-stop engagement that rolled southeast through Virginia across the Rapidan, across the Anna, down the Pamunkey and then across the James over a period of about six weeks.

The first direct clash between Grant and Lee began while Grant was trying a quick move through the underbrush of the Wilderness. Lee sent two of his Corps, under Ewell and A.P. Hill, on a parallel course to intercept.

This ... wasn't the ideal setting for Grant. The dense underbrush that hindered movement also rendered his numerical advantage mostly irrelevant. But the underbrush was an equal-opportunity hindrance. It made Confederate movement difficult, too.

The underbrush had another unexpected effect, and a horrifying one: it sometimes caught fire when a soldier fired his weapon from a kneeling position. An unwounded man could run free. A wounded man could not. Eyewitness reports note that, once this became known, many wounded men would keep their piece loaded. Not against the enemy, but because there's one way a man can be sure he wouldn't burn to death.

The fighting around Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road on May 5 was confused and confusing, lasting until nightfall, but Grant and Meade were able to keep their Corps under control and hold a steady line. They were planning a counterattack the next morning, when fresh troops would show up, but fresh Confederate troops showed up, too. So the fighting on May 6 wasn't much different. There wasn't a whole lot of movement going on, and the Confederates were beginning to throw up earthworks to defend themselves from Union fire.

Grant didn't like the looks of this. He had as much of direct assaults on prepared positions as he ever intended to at Vicksburg. So, he elected to disengage.

And so the story might have ended here, had any man but Grant been in charge. The previous two summers, a largely unharmed Union army had disengaged from Lee and gone home. But not Grant. He was going to disengage, try to move around Lee's right flank, and try again.

This was a novel experience for the Army of the Potomac. When the artillery withdrew to the rear, they expected to march back north. When they realized that the Sun was on their left and not their right, it hit them. They were still on the attack. They'd been fighting hard for three days, but that didn't matter. Their minds were reinvigorated. This is what they'd longed for. A commander who'd follow up a hard-fought battle with an advance. Surviving veterans would look back on this moment as a major turning point.

There would be more fighting. Lee was nobody's fool. He knew what Grant was doing. He disengaged as well, and marched to the southeast as fast as he could, to interpose. Fighting would resume at Spottsylvania Court House on the 8th, and would last through the 21st via a series of attempted flanking movements on Grant's part. The armies would fight more or less constantly, through several major battles, for the better part of both May and June. Yellow Tavern, where J.E.B. Stuart would fall. Wilson's Wharf. Haw's Shop. Cold Harbor. Trevilian Station, and Saint Mary's Church.

Strictly speaking, Lee didn't lose any of these battles. And Grant didn't win any of them. But even so, it had to give President Davis pause. Because while the Confederate papers trumpeted Lee's glorious victories ...

... those glorious victories were getting, day by day, closer to Richmond.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXVI: Change of Command


"He who defends everything, defends nothing." -- Frederick the Great

President Abraham Lincoln had a command problem. The popular perception of the Union military leadership has it that Lincoln had a "revolving door" of generals cycling in and out of top command. That's not exactly correct, but it's close enough to the truth for any ordinary purpose.

It's more true for the Army of the Potomac than for Commanding General. Lincoln went through no fewer than four commanders for the Army of the Potomac before finding the one who finished out the war in that post, where he only went through three Commanding Generals. The first commander of the Army of the Potomac was Brigadier General Irvin McDowell. He was sacked not long after Bull Run, which some might think unfair. The goat-rope at Bull Run wasn't really his fault ... but he took the fall for it anyway. His replacement was Major General George McClellan, who was serving double duty as Commanding General. Maybe two hats were a hat too far, so to speak; he was replaced by Major General Ambrose Burnside. Burnside was replaced by Major General Joseph Hooker. Both men were sacked after disastrous battles. Then, Major General George Meade took over as the Battle of Gettysburg was underway.

The Commanding General of the United States Army at the outset of the war was Lieutenant General Winfield Scott. He was not well enough to serve as a wartime commander, which was unfortunate. He, more than anyone, knew what had to be done; he just wasn't in any shape to do it. And his first choice for his replacement, Colonel Robert E. Lee, went with Virginia when that state seceded. So, on November 1, 1861, Major General George McClellan took overall command. McClellan's tenure was ... well, mixed. He did turn the Army of the Potomac around after the disaster at Bull Run, and he did fortify Washington itself against assault. But he was not a very good overall commander. Lincoln tired of him quickly. He recalled Major General Henry Halleck from the West to take over. Halleck, as it happened, wasn't a bad administrator. He wasn't replaced as Commanding General for either infirmity or incompetence. It's just that a better man had come along.

That man, newly promoted to Lieutenant General, was Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant was fresh from victories both at Vicksburg the previous summer, and Chattanooga the previous winter. He had earned a reputation as a dogged fighter, and Lincoln hoped he'd bring that pugnaciousness to his new post. Surprisingly, he retained both Halleck and Meade. Neither man was incompetent, both could indeed be quite able when given suitable direction. But he did have an idea of where he wanted to go from here.

What had saved the Confederacy time and again was the fact that they were able to redeploy troops internally. They were able to shift Longstreet's corps from Virginia to Tennessee, giving Bragg a very temporary favorable balance of forces. Really, there was only one way to keep that from happening.

If Davis were forced to defend the Confederacy, the entire Confederacy, he'd be too hard pressed to reinforce anyone, from anywhere. What General Grant intended, and President Lincoln concurred, was an all-fronts press. Attack everywhere. And by everywhere, he meant everywhere.

Not one, but two Union armies would attack Virginia. General Lee would be forced to engage one of those armies, and that's where Grant would make his headquarters. Just as it was the year before, Richmond wasn't the actual goal; but threatening Richmond would force the Confederates to engage. At the same time, another Union army would attack the Shenandoah Valley, to tie up the Confederate forces there. And finally, General William Tecumseh Sherman, now in command in the West, was to attack southeast from Chattanooga, and capture Atlanta.

The Confederate plan ... was to last long enough that the Northern public would become sick of the fighting. Davis had his hands full keeping an Army in the field at all, and had no resources to spare for offensive operations. His hopes for foreign intervention were now completely dashed. The only European country that still wanted to give the Confederacy official recognition was France, under Emperor Napoleon III, but without British co-operation he wasn't about to go it alone. And Queen Victoria wasn't about to give a slave power the time of day, much less official recognition.

But Davis' hope to tire the Northern public out wasn't a vain one. Three years of hard fighting had produced casualties in heretofore unimaginable numbers. Draft riots weren't all that uncommon. The war was expensive, taxes were high, and the national debt was rising to alarming levels. If they could just hold on until Election Day in November, it might well transpire that Mr. Lincoln would be hanging his shingle out once more in Springfield come the next March. Davis might actually have a prospect for a negotiated peace with a Democratic President.

But for that to happen ... his soldiers would have to hold the line for seven more months. They could do it. Maybe, they could do it. It'd be a near run thing ...

... but they'd have to keep the Yankees out. That was going to be a neat trick.

Friday, March 21, 2014


Many preachers have a go-to phrase that expresses their take on the ministry. You might even say it's their mission statement. For Saint Francis of Assisi, it was "Preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary using words." A former pastor of mine liked the phrase, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." The church I currently attend used the motto "Love Matters" when I first joined. They let you know what kind of person, what kind of congregation, they aspire to be.

Then, you have Fred Phelps. His motto ... well, it wasn't so much a motto as it was an answer to an interviewer's question. When asked about his approach, when asked what he felt about being so widely hated, he said, "Good. If I were not hated, what claim could I have on the ministry of the Gospel?"

That, I think, is the key thing you had to understand about Fred Phelps, and the key thing you had to understand about how to deal with him and his followers. He loved being hated. It was his measure of success. Back when supporting civil rights got you death threats, he was all about civil rights. If you ask how someone who was so right back in the '50s could be so wrong now, you ask the wrong question; the man simply enjoyed the opprobrium of his fellow citizen. Now, why he enjoyed it so is a fair question, but one that has now been rendered somewhat moot.

I never wasted a whole lot of time thinking about him, or his bloated distortion of Christianity. And I never wasted much time on hating him or his followers. Hate is the wrong response anyway, since that's what they crave. No, I'll tell you the proper way to treat them -- as they deserve.

You don't hate clowns. You point, and laugh at them.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXV: Of Fish And Men


One of Mankind's defining characteristics, I think, has been a state of constant rebellion. Call it rebellion against God if you like, or rebellion against Nature, but Man has never been one to accept the limitations placed upon him by evolution. In time immemorial, he rebelled against not being able to swim as well or as far as whales, so he built boats. He rebelled against not being able to fly like birds, so in time he built the hot-air balloon. And he rebelled against not being able to dive to the depths of the sea -- again, like whales -- and so he tried to build submersible craft ... with somewhat uneven results.

Moving across open water was one thing. Floating in the air yet another. But in both of these media, Man could count upon breathing the air around him. When he sought to go under the waves, though, he had to contend with the sad and sorry fact that no, he cannot breathe water. His Savior could walk upon it, but the record is silent on the breathing thing.

The first attempt to build a submersible water craft that we have reliable information about was in the 17th Century, when a Dutchman under contract to King James I of England had a go at it. Going up and down wasn't much of a problem, but lateral movement proved to be a real problem, one that the technology of the 17th Century was not up to solving. So, the matter was shelved for a while. In the late 18th Century, necessity drove an American, David Bushnell, to try to build a military submersible, called the Turtle. It ... didn't work very well. But it worked well enough for its time, and was the first submersible able to move under its own power while underwater. It failed utterly as a practical weapon, though.

Necessity is a harsh taskmaster, though, and the problem of breaking a blockade from within is one that would come up again and again in naval warfare. Which brings us to the story of one H. L. Hunley, who was practicing law in New Orleans when the balloon went up at Fort Sumter.

You may say that a New Orleans lawyer was no expert in submarines. Well, that's okay. No one else was, either. Hunley saw the need, and aimed to meet it.

His first attempt might have succeeded, and might not have. We'll never know: it had to be scuttled when Union forces took New Orleans in 1862. The second attempt ended with a prototype sinking in Mobile Bay. But as they often say, the third time's the charm, and Hunley financed that third attempt on his own. The result was a vessel that would bear its inventor's name: the H. L. Hunley.

Hunley would kill its first two crews. Building a submarine is one thing, operating it was a whole other ball game, and much like there were no veteran submarine engineers in 1863, there were also no veteran submarine sailors then, either. And nautical knowledge must be paid for in blood. All sailors know this. Mr. Hunley himself would be one of those casualties, in the second sinking of the Hunley.

The third crew was either luckier or more skilled, it's hard to say which. But they managed to practice the tricky maneuver of sticking a barbed explosive torpedo into an enemy ship, then backing up to fire the device, often enough that their commanders felt confident enough to risk a real target. And so it was, on February 17 of 1864, Lieutenant George Dixon took her out to engage the Union steam sloop USS Housatonic.

The record becomes somewhat confused at this point, for reasons we'll see shortly.

What is indisputably true is that an enormous explosion tore a hole in Housatonic's hull, sending it to the bottom of Charleston harbor in just five minutes. From this, we must conclude that Hunley's mission was a success.

Except ... that no one ever heard from Hunley, or Lieutenant Dixon, ever again.

A number of legends would attach themselves to the Hunley and her crew over the years. One of them was that Dixon, a Confederate Army officer at Shiloh, carried a gold dollar given him by his sweetheart. The dollar was struck by a bullet during the fight, probably saving Dixon's leg. He'd carry the coin ever after as a good-luck charm.

Time passes.

In time, nautical technology would become advanced enough that the wreck of the H. L. Hunley could, and would, be found. It would eventually become advanced enough that it could, and would, be raised. Analysis of the wreck would reveal that, most probably, the sub was too close to its target when the torpedo exploded, knocking the crew unconscious -- a fatal wound, for a hand-cranked sub with no on-board air supply. Another find would prove more surprising.

The legendary coin we talked about earlier? It's real.

While Hunley, man and ship, came to bad ends, they earned their place in the history books: for the first time ever, a submarine craft sank a surface craft. Hunley was the first. It would not be the last.