Friday, November 07, 2014

CW Sesquicentennial, Part XLI: Decision '64, Part 2


As late in the year as July, President Lincoln's re-election chances were looking sketchy, at best. The Republican Party was undergoing a split, similar to the one the Democrats suffered in 1860. The war had dragged on far longer than anyone had ever thought possible. One group of voters just wanted the war over, at any cost. The other wanted it won, by any means necessary. Neither group was happy with Mr. Lincoln.

But events conspired to deliver Lincoln a reprieve. One, we've already talked about: Sherman's capture of Atlanta. The other wasn't nearly as dramatic, but still important. A Union army under General Philip Sheridan had routed the Confederate army defending the Shenandoah Valley, and Sheridan had rendered the once-productive farmlands to a state such that it was said that a bird flying overhead would have to bring along its own rations. As is so often true, victory covers a multitude of sins. The Radical Republicans were somewhat mollified by the improved fortunes -- and the vindication of Lincoln's overall war plans those improved fortunes indicated. Fremont did get something for his trouble, though; as his price to drop his candidacy, he did manage to get the Postmaster General replaced.

History does not record what beef Fremont had with the existing Postmaster General, who was presumably doing an acceptable job.

Incidentally, there was no Confederate Presidential election. The Confederate Presidency was limited to a single six-year term, with the first actual election scheduled for 1866. Provided, of course, that the Confederacy would last so long.

The November election, when it came, was something of an anticlimax. The popular vote was much closer than the Electoral vote. Although the popular vote counts weren't what you'd call close -- Lincoln won 55% of the vote to McClellan's 45%. In the Electoral College the totals were much more lopsided, 212 to 21. McClellan won his home state of New Jersey, Delaware, and Kentucky. That was about it. Many Northern voters were tired of the war -- McClellan did quite well, winning a sprinkling of counties across the country -- but not enough of them were ready to throw in the towel just yet. With the events of the last year, particularly the last few months, they could smell a sea change.

And ... so could Southerners.

I think they knew they were doomed. Depending on who you ask they'll draw the line here or there, the point at which they knew the jig was up. Some will say Gettysburg, others Vicksburg. General D.H. Hill said Chickamauga was the breaking point ... ironically, a Confederate victory, but one they were unable to exploit. "It seems to me the élan of the Southern soldier was never seen after Chickamauga," Hill would later write. "He would fight stoutly to the last, but after Chickamauga, with the sullenness of despair and without the enthusiasm of hope." But I think it was the re-election of Lincoln that well and truly drew a line under it. They first pinned their hopes on a foreign intervention that never came, and then upon a Northern war-weariness and exhaustion that would not come in time. Undergirding it all was a reliance upon the daring and dash of their soldiers, and now that was gone, too.

But fight they would, with as much as they had, and with all the time they had left.

And so the war rolled on. The Southern armies still in the field had to be subdued. General Sherman in Atlanta had advanced a ... somewhat unconventional proposal to Grant and Lincoln. And, for all its risk and all his worries about it, Lincoln finally decided to let Sherman off the chain.

It was time to end this.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween!

There are some people who claim that the last 20-odd minutes of 2001 were originally intended to have a score by Pink Floyd. It's hard to disagree.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Against All Odds

Seventy years ago, the pieces were in motion that would lead to the largest battle in naval history.

The Pacific strategy that the Allies had been pursuing for two years and change had begun to show fruit. The Naval forces under Admiral Chester Nimitz, and the Army forces under General Douglas MacArthur, had zig-zagged across the ocean, bypassing some pockets of Japanese strength, while seizing other islands to use as way stations. Now, in late October of 1944, the fleet stood off of the Philippine Islands to support the Allied invasion.

This was not merely a vanity project of MacArthur's, although the man had vanity and to spare for it to be so. No, if the Allies were to win possession of the Philippines, the Japanese Navy would be in a terrible fix. Their weapons and ammunition were in Japan. Their fuel, though, that was in Southeast Asia. They had one chance, and one chance only, to smash the invasion.

They basically threw everything they had into the operation. It wasn't a suicide operation per se, it was a cold realization that if they lost the Philippines, the fleet wouldn't be worth much in any event. If they stayed in southern waters, they could maneuver, but couldn't shoot. If they stayed in northern waters, they could shoot, but wouldn't have enough gas left to get anywhere. It was well and truly "smoke 'em if you got 'em" time.

The Japanese fleet was divided up into three sections. The Northern Force, under Admiral Ozawa, had the remaining fleet carriers capable of sailing. Those carriers were mostly devoid of planes or pilots. The disastrous Battle of the Philippine Sea had seen to that. Nevertheless, Ozawa figured he could dangle the flat-tops out there as bait. If he could draw Admiral Halsey into a wild goose chase, if Halsey would go chasing carriers and leave the invasion beaches mostly unguarded, the operation had a decent chance of success. The Southern Force and Center Force would be heavy on large surface combatants, battleships and cruisers, and their target would be to strike the invasion beaches thus left unprotected. Southern Force would be under the command of Admiral Nishimura, and the Center Force under Admiral Kurita. Admiral Kurita's group had the Yamato and the Musashi, the largest battleships that had ever been (or would ever be) built.

The Northern Force would approach the Philippine Sea from the north. The Southern Force would wind its way through the Surigao Strait on its way to the landing grounds. The Center Force would drive up the middle, through the Sibuyan Sea and the San Bernardino Strait.

The plan would depend greatly upon whether Halsey would take the bait. He took it, all right ... hook, line, and sinker.

Of course, the Southern and Center Forces still had to get there. And that was far from guaranteed. The Southern Force was turned back in the Battle of Surigao Strait after taking heavy damage. The Center Force came under heavy air attack from Halsey's carriers, and the Musashi went down somewhere in the Sibuyan Sea. They must have thought that they'd taken care of the Center Force, because no one would thread the San Bernardino Strait at night, in bad weather. Or so they thought.

So, overnight on the 24th, Halsey took most of the Third Fleet north to go hunting for carriers. He left Admiral Kinkaid with a small force of destroyers, destroyer escorts, and escort carriers to guard the invasion beaches from attack. This force was divided into three groups. Task Unit 77.4.1, call sign "Taffy 1", was under the command of Rear Admiral Thomas Sprague, on the escort carrier USS Sangamon. "Taffy 1" also included the escort carrier USS Santee, which I mentioned earlier. Task Unit 77.4.2, call sign "Taffy 2", was under the command of Rear Admiral Felix Stump, on the USS Natoma Bay. Task Unit 77.4.3, call sign "Taffy 3", was under the command of Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague (no relation), on the USS Fanshaw Bay. Near enough, the Task Unit deployment ran from south to north, meaning "Taffy 3" held the north flank and "Taffy 1" the southern flank.

Thus it was at dawn on Wednesday, the 25th of October, that "Taffy 3" was the first to spot the ships of Admiral Kurita's Center Force.

The thing that you must understand, here, is that Yamato -- by itself -- outweighed all of "Taffy 3" put together. Against four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eleven destroyers, "Taffy 3" had six escort carriers, three destroyers, and four destroyer escorts. A more lopsided mismatch could hardly be found. And yet, they had one ace in the hole -- the other two Task Units were not under attack, and could throw their air wings into the fight. Clifton Sprague could count on four hundred aircraft -- mostly fairly new Grumman Wildcats and Avengers -- to turn up the heat on the Center Force.

Not that it mattered. Those thirteen small, thin-hulled ships were all that stood between the Japanese bug guns and the invasion transports. There was only one option.

Commander Ernest E. Evans on board the destroyer USS Johnston said to his crew, "A very large Japanese fleet has been contacted. They are fifteen miles away and headed in our direction. They are believed to have four battleships, eight cruisers, and a number of destroyers. This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can."

Evans ordered flank speed, and charged directly at the Center Force. He was followed shortly thereafter by Commander Copeland on the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts. After that, Admiral Sprague ordered the rest of his destroyers and destroyer escorts to attack, while he took his carriers towards a nearby rain squall. With all the aircraft launched, the escort carriers had only a single 5" gun, and weren't worth much in a gun fight.

The American ships had one other key advantage, though; their guns had radar-controlled gun directors. While the Japanese ships used dye markers on shells to gauge the range to a target, the American ships merely pointed their gun directors towards what they wanted to hit. Not that the tiny American guns had any realistic chance of piercing the Japanese armor ... but the Japanese had this odd habit of storing their torpedoes on deck, in unarmored containers. They would pay for that design decision today.

The Japanese guns would not have that problem ... except for two minor issues. One, the armor-piercing ammo the Japanese used would more often than not smash straight through the thin-hulled ships without arming, fuzing, or exploding. And two, the American ships were charging in so close that the guns could depress low enough to fire upon them anyway.

The Americans had a run of astounding good luck. Johnson's radar-guided guns scored at least 45 hits on the heavy cruiser Kumano's superstructure, setting it ablaze. Then, as soon as they were in torpedo range, they fired a full salvo of ten torpedoes at the Center Force, hitting Kumano, blowing off its bow. The battleship Kongo was forced to make a hard turn to avoid four torpedoes heading its way. The heavy cruiser Suzuya, stopping to assist Kumano, was taking heavy damage from aircraft. Even the flat-tops got into the action. The Japanese cruiser Chokai got close enough to the USS White Plains to get a reminder that yes, they do carry live ammunition. The gunner on White Plains knew that his 5" gun wouldn't do much damage to Chokai ... but those Long Lance torpedoes sitting on her deck? Another story. The resulting explosion was quite impressive, taking out her rudder and engines. A 500-pound bomb dropped a few minutes later finished the job. But their luck could not last forever.

Johnston was eventually hit, several times, and sank. So was the Samuel B. Roberts, but not before winning the name "The Destroyer Escort That Fought Like A Battleship." Survivors tell of Japanese sailors standing at attention and saluting while their ships went down. Japanese guns would sink two escort carriers, and one more destroyer.

Time and again that morning, these small fragile ships would charge ships ten and twenty times their size, doing what they could. Time and again, aircraft attacked with bombs, then with machine guns, and then lined up to make "dry" attack runs, so that they could draw fire from their comrades that still had ammunition. But as much damage as they were doing to the Japanese, they did not have the firepower to destroy many more ships.

They wouldn't need it. Admiral Kurita had lost two crucial things: surprise, and control of the battle. His ships were maneuvering wildly all over the place. They would have to be regrouped for a strike against the transports ... assuming they could get to the transports. The Third Fleet could show up at any moment, and then the tables would turn with a vengeance. Not that the tables were looking all that great in any case. Kurita had already lost three heavy cruisers, had three more damaged, and just about all of his ships had taken some abuse. He no longer believed he could accomplish his mission, and called for a withdrawal.

The Nihon Kaigun would never again sail in such force. The Battle of Leyte Gulf had broken the back of the Japanese Navy.

(Personal Note: My father was a Machinist's Mate on the escort carrier USS Santee, CVE-29. His assignment was as a ball turret gunner on a Grumman TBF Avenger in Torpedo Squadron 26. Seventy years ago, he fought in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.)

VT-26 Insignia

TBF Avenger from VT-26

USS Santee, CVE-29

Friday, October 17, 2014

How Long? Not Long...

I've been keeping an eye on fusion research for quite some time. Some thirty-odd years ago, I made a short list of developments that would figuratively keep the wolf from our door. There's no particular order to them. As I saw it then, our key long-term problem was resource exhaustion. It's still our key long-term problem. There are three things that can solve that problem if they arrive soon enough. Back then, I saw the first as cheap access to low Earth orbit. I still think that's important ... but I also think that we'll basically get it for free if we get the other two items. So today's list gets pared down to two: high-temperature superconductors, and controlled fusion.

Modern civilization is electrical power. That's a gross oversimplification, but it's nonetheless true that given enough economical, clean power, a lot of our problems go away. Not all, not by any stretch of the imagination, that's an unfortunate consequence of human nature. But just about any resource-based problem you can name can be either greatly reduced or even eliminated if you can throw enough power at it. Water shortage? Cheap desalinization fixes it. Emissions? Plentiful clean power fixes it. And once you take those two off the table, that buys us time to deal with what's left.

High-temperature superconductors are a force multiplier. Most of the power we generate -- about two-thirds of it -- vanishes between the generator and the user. This isn't due to sloth or inattention. This is a fundamental physical fact. If you push one ampere of current across one ohm of resistance, you lose one watt of power. Two amps, four watts. The power lost is equal to the square of the current times the resistance. High-tension lines run at scarily high voltage on alternating current, so that they can reduce the amperage to as low a value as possible. And even with some of the country's best electrical engineers having worked on it for a century or more, a two-thirds loss is the best we've been able to manage. Now, replace those power lines with a high-temperature superconductor. The resistance drops to zero. So do the power losses. At a stroke -- without adding any extra generators -- you triple the deliverable power. And that's before you get to the other things superconductors can do for you: better electric motors, better generators, better everything ... except heaters. The guy who tries to use superconductors to make a better electric heater is going to be a sad, sad man.

Controlled fusion is the other key. We're getting into a resource exhaustion problem to begin with because everything we try to extract power from runs out on us. Coal, oil, even radioactive isotopes will run out on us eventually. Fusion power relies on hydrogen, which is the most abundant element in the entire Universe. Something like 95-99% of everything you see when you look up at night is hydrogen. It is, therefore, something we're extremely unlikely to ever run short of.

Virtually limitless power will change ... well, just about everything.

This is what makes Lockheed's announcement this last Wednesday so important.

For the last decade, several teams have been investigating odd corners of plasma physics to try to find a better way to control the fusion reaction. I've written several times about the Polywell project, founded by the late Robert Bussard, and they had some promising results from 2007 to about 2010, when they went dark. They're still working under a Navy contract, I think. But there were other approaches, too: dense plasma focus, inertial confinement, field-reversed configuration, Z-pinch ... one of them was bound to pay off sooner or later.

The announcement didn't have much detail. What Lockheed said is that they'd build a small reactor within the year, and have a prototype for a 100-megawatt model within five.

First, what this says to me is that the Navy is their primary customer. That's the right size to be a reactor replacement for the Navy's submarines and carriers, but it's also the right size to re-engine their frigates and destroyers. The Navy would like to start putting things like railguns on their surface combatants, but they don't have the power available to do that yet. This will change that.

Second, this is a project Big Oil won't be able to stifle. The small guys, like Bussard's old outfit, they could bully or stymie. Lockheed is the DoD's biggest supplier. If there's anyone that can tell Big Oil to help themselves to a tall, cool glass of SHUT THE **** UP, it's probably Lockheed, the DoD, or both.

Third ... we're close. Real close. I've always said fusion would be the transformational game-changer. We've never been closer to it becoming reality. It won't change everything, and not right away, but fission power will become obsolete overnight. The knock-on effects are going to be tremendous.

There does remain the possibility that it won't work. There's always that chance. I don't think it's very high, though; they wouldn't make such a public pronouncement and stake the company's name and reputation on it unless they were pretty damn sure of their success.

By the end of the decade ... we'll know.

And our world will never be the same.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Small World, Musical Division

You never know what you're going to find when you go down a rabbit hole.

Each of the armed services has a different scheme for aircraft identification. They all use tail numbers. But they have two different ways of coming up with those numbers. The Army and Air Force use the same kind of scheme, where aircraft are identified by fiscal year, and then by sequence within the year.

If you look close at the tail, you'll see black letters "AF", then under those the number 67. This aircraft was procured in FY67, and was the 463rd aircraft procured that year.

The Navy doesn't do that.

If you look very carefully under the horizontal tail -- and I do mean carefully -- you'll see the number 165675. That, very simply, means this is the 165,675th aircraft the Navy has bought since 1940. It's a nice, straightforward system. The downside is that you can't tell by BuNo when an airplane was bought ... but that's a fairly minor quibble.

A couple of weeks ago, I found a web site where you can look up all of those Navy numbers. All of them. So, I got to thinking ... Could I find the TBF Avenger my Dad flew on in WWII? (Flew on, not flew -- he worked the ball turret.)

That list contains the disposition of each airframe, when known. And that first run of Avengers makes for mighty depressing reading. Those that didn't crash or ditch either fell off the catapult, or fell overboard, or were shot down, or just took off for a sortie one day and no one ever saw it again. It made you wonder how anyone survived a tour of duty in Naval Aviation, back in the day. But I did find out a few interesting tidbits that I hadn't known before. For one, air wings went from one ship to another with some frequency. Not all the time, mind you, but if one ship was laid up for repairs its air wing would embark upon an available ship. Which is how the USS Santee, CVE-29, was carrying Torpedo Squadron 26, that you'd ordinarily expect to be embarked upon CVE-26, USS Sangamon. The other discovery came when I stumbled upon a web site devoted to the former sailors aboard the Santee. What I found ... wasn't at all what I was expecting.

See that kid with the saxophone, kneeling on the right? You may have heard of him.

Yes, Tito Puente, the King of Latin Music himself, played with the ship's band when my Dad was in the Navy. And he never once mentioned this. I'm guessing it's because Latin Jazz wasn't his thing. I don't think it was racial. When Chappie James got his fourth star, he told us about how he'd been his crew chief in Korea. But anyway ... I just wish I'd have known sooner.

And that's the other thing I found out: Santana's "Oye Como Va" was a cover. Speaking of covers ...

Anyway, I never did find what I was looking for. But I've found a whole new area of music to enjoy, so it's all good.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XL: The Golden Age of Beards


Something very puzzling happened back in the 1830s. But, I get ahead of myself...

This train of thought got started a few days ago with the announcement of Attorney General Eric Holder's impending resignation. A wise guy, I forget precisely who, lamented the fact that President Obama's Cabinet was now a mustache-free zone. Which brought up the question, how long had it been since we had a President with facial hair?

The answer was kind of surprising. Our last mustachioed President was William Howard Taft. Yes, the Oval Office has been whisker-free for over a century. But before him? An almost unbroken reign, from 1861 to 1913, of bewhiskered Chief Executives. From Lincoln to Taft, excepting only Johnson and McKinley, for fifty-two years our Presidents had beards, mustaches, or both. But only in that era. Before Lincoln, there were none. Likewise, after Taft, there have been none.

The question is ... why?

I read somewhere that the Founding Fathers consciously emulated the Roman Republic in a lot of things, facial hair being one of them. Romans, at least in that period, were famously clean-shaven. But, so were just about all of the European upper-class of the late 18th Century. Even the Russians, whose nobles were famous beard fans ... at least, up until Peter the Great instituted a tax on them.

Along about 1830 or so, that's when things started changing.

I haven't been able to find a source that will tell me exactly why. Near as I can tell, all over the European-controlled world, all at once, men decided that growing beards was the manly thing to do. It became an expression of strength, virility, courage, what have you. And there was an impressive variety to be had.

Grant and Lee wore beards, of course. They were fairly ordinary, and their owners kept them well-trimmed. Other men, they let it hang out. Like Ambrose Burnside, for example.

Seriously, he could take off with a decent headwind.

Or James Longstreet.

A small squirrel could find refuge.

Or Jubal Early.

Combs? For the weak and the cowardly.

Or Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

Are you calling me a coward?

And let us not forget John Brown.

He was right. But he was more than a little crazy.

By 1860, it was pretty uncommon to find men in public life who went whisker-less. Joe Hooker was one of the few Union generals who came to mind. And as the Civil War generation grew old, the younger generation emulated them. The generation after that, not so much. Men still wore beards, of course, but they were on their way out as of 1914. The Great War finished the job.

That part, I understand. With the advent of chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas on the battlefield, whiskers weren't just unfashionable. They were a deadly hazard, because they prevent your gas mask from making a proper seal. Clean-shaven once again became the thing, for fashion and for safety.

Recently, beards have been making a comeback, at least amongst civilians. They're still a no-go under military regulations ... pretty much for the same reasons as a hundred years ago.

But I do wonder. How much longer, before we see some whiskers in the White House again?

It ain't a bad look...

Friday, September 19, 2014

In Praise Of Federalism

Yesterday, Scotland went to the polls and decided they still wanted to be part of the United Kkngdom, as opposed to a separate nation. Not everyone is happy with that decision. However, I can't help but think the question itself could have been avoided, had Westminster been willing to devolve some real power to the constituent nations -- Wales, England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

If you squint at Devo-Max in bad light, it looks a lot like something familiar to those of us here in the States... Not that we haven't had our own problems with it.

A hundred and fifty years ago, six hundred thousand Americans died sorting out the primacy of the Federal government over the several States. That notwithstanding, the several States still enjoy a fair degree of autonomy. That autonomy is what prevents such a referendum from becoming an issue over here. Paradoxically, autonomy undergirds unity.

It has several other advantages.

I've heard Federalism described as "fifty laboratories of democracy." It's not a bad image. Each state tackles issues in its own way, some successfully, some less so. The bad ideas get left behind. The good ones -- a key example being the Massachusetts health care reform law that became the basis for the Affordable Care Act -- become more widely adopted. We are seeing it happen in marriage law, too. And in marijuana legislation. A few States try something new, others see it work -- well OR poorly -- and take the lessons to heart.

And sometimes, different conditions will perforce lead to different laws. Montana, with cities separated by miles upon miles of a whole bunch of nothing, will NEED different highway rules than Rhode Island. It's lunacy to force identical rules on both.

And, last but certainly not least, our founding documents state clearly that a government's legitimacy rests upon the consent of the governed. As a practical matter, it's easier to secure that consent at the local level, than at the State or Federal level. The more decisions that are made closer to the citizen, the better. You feel more like you have a real stake, more like you can have a real effect on policy.

I have a lot of friends who disagree. I expect I'll be hearing from a few shortly. Nonetheless, I'm still a Federalist.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Video Del Fuego, Part LXVI

Kidney stones are a whole bunch of no fun. The treatment is marginally preferable to the ailment.

Oh, I'll probably feel much better about the whole thing in a few days. But on Wednesday morning, I had an extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy ... which is a fancy way of saying I got punched in the gut by Science.

This is how you feel the morning after:

So, how was your week?

(Note: I do have to say that the folks at USMD Hospital in Arlington, Texas did a fine job, and I have nothing but good words for their care and treatment. And they did warn me that there'd be some pain afterwards, so it's not fair to imply that they were at fault in any way.)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXIX: A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight


No one loves a siege. (Am I repeating myself?)

By the end of August 1864, the Union had settled down to besiege not one, but two Southern cities: Richmond and Atlanta. Granted, the Atlanta siege was new, but Richmond had been under siege since late Spring, at the conclusion of the Overland campaign. As I said before, sieges combine all the things least enjoyable about campaigning: you have all of the danger of active engagement, plus all of the boredom of garrison life. And into that, you can add the rampant disease of so many men quartered so closely together.

It sometimes sounds odd to the modern ear, but up until fairly recently, disease claimed more lives in wartime than did enemy action. A Union soldier was more likely to fall to cholera, fever, or some other illness than he was to fall to a Confederate Minié ball. Scientists were beginning to understand the link between germs and disease -- Louis Pasteur was wrapping up his landmark experiments at almost this exact time in 1864 -- but they had not yet applied this knowledge to military sanitation or medicine. It had long been known that a clean soldier was a healthy soldier, and that if you dig your latrines just so it holds off the sickness longer ... but they did not yet know why.

All that said, the siege of Atlanta was less than a month old, and Sherman didn't think it would last much longer. He knew that the Confederate army under John Bell Hood didn't have much in the way of supply stored up in Atlanta, and if he could manage to destroy his last rail link with the outside, he'd have to abandon Atlanta in short order.

Here we begin to see the payoff of two Union strategies: first, the long-range strategy of isolating the Confederacy; and second, the "attack everywhere" plan that kept the Confederate armies from supporting one another. The first essentially guaranteed that no Confederate force had any more than a few days' supplies on hand at any given time, and the second guaranteed that a hard-pressed Confederate army could not depend upon support or reinforcement. Armies that were based at or near a major city, such as the Army of Northern Virginia at Richmond, could draw upon considerable supplies ... but were essentially immobile. Armies like Hood's, on the other hand, either had to have a steady source of supplies or had to keep moving. Atlanta had no fortifications like those that had been built up around Richmond, nor did Atlanta have any natural defenses like Vicksburg. So hunkering down in Atlanta wasn't a real option.

So it was, then, that when Sherman's army threatened Hood's last rail link at Jonesborough, Hood was forced to come to its defense. Hood sent two corps under General Hardee to keep Sherman from cutting him off. But Hood seriously underestimated how much force Sherman was willing to commit to this effort.

Of his seven infantry corps, Sherman sent six. And a Union corps was larger than a Confederate corps to begin with.

If this had been 1862 or 1863, the Battle of Jonesborough probably would have been a bloodbath. But the survivors of 1862 and 1863 had learned the value of maneuver. And they also learned when to cut their losses. Hardee's two corps made a stand as long as they could, but were forced to yield or be destroyed.

For Hood, it may as well have been six of one or a half-dozen of the other. With Sherman's army in Jonesborough, his position in Atlanta was no longer tenable. If he stayed put, he'd be crushed. So on September 1st, Hood's army retreated from Atlanta, destroying all stores of military use beforehand.

That night, Atlanta burned.

The next morning, Sherman and his army arrived. "Atlanta is ours, and fairly won," he exulted in a message to President Lincoln. It was the best news Lincoln had received all summer. It was the best news anyone in the Union had received all summer. The capture of Atlanta had several effects.

First, the capture and reduction of an important supply center would have long-ranging implications for the Confederate war effort. The already-precarious Confederate supply system would now be in truly dire straits. Worse still, from Atlanta, Union forces could threaten the most valuable, most productive agricultural areas.

Second, it was an important symbolic victory. Vicksburg had cut the Confederacy in half. The capture of Atlanta had gone halfway towards doing it again. This was a boost to Union morale, and a dreadful blow to Confederate morale -- what was left of it. The first half of 1864 was a dreadful slog, with no end in sight. That had changed. With the capture of Atlanta, and the measurable progress that represented ... well, that's not victory, but you can see it from there.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it provided a powerful boost to Lincoln's re-election chances. McClellan's candidacy was predicated upon a negotiated peace. Why negotiate, when the matter is so very nearly settled? Sherman's victory at Atlanta took the wind out of McClellan's sails. He'd still have his partisans, of course; he'd still have a fair share of people who'd had enough. But the voters still in the undecided middle were now going to be that much harder for him to win.

For now, though, Sherman needed to take time to reorganize his army, and figure out what he was going to do next. A plan was taking shape ...

... a plan that would be the biggest gamble of his life.

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.