Friday, February 17, 2012

Sesquicentennial, Part XIX: Man In Motion, Cont'd


From antiquity, prime campaigning season has always been from the spring thaw through harvest time. It is by no mere coincidence that the first month of Spring was named by the Romans for their god of war. March was the month in which the Legions would take up their implements and, well, march. As technology improved, the "season" broadened somewhat, but not by much. You still had to keep your troops fed, and marching troops around in the winter snow wasn't the easiest thing in the world. Major winter campaigns were very rare indeed, and the successful ones were successful mostly by virtue of surprise. So, not a whole lot happened between November and February.

"Not a whole lot" didn't mean "nothing", although it wasn't immediately obvious to a casual observer. The United States Navy was slowly extending its blockade southward down the Atlantic coast. By December 1861, the blockade had been extended down past the Carolina coast. By the month, the Confederacy had fewer and fewer ports with which to receive and ship foreign goods. And while the blockade inched its way down the Atlantic coast, the Union Army was making its way down the Mississippi River.

Which brings us back to Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, encamped in Cairo, Illinois. When we last left General Grant, he had been preparing to sally forth to meet the Confederates at Belmont. It was an inconclusive affair. While General Grant was able to take the Confederate fort, he did not have enough men with him to keep it. When General Gideon Pillow arrived with reinforcements, Grant was forced to retire back to his base of operations at Cairo. But this was only a temporary setback. The battle had given Grant and his volunteer force a much-needed jolt of confidence. Plus, Grant had gotten some reinforcements of his own. Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote had shown up, with some brand-new U.S. Navy gunboats, and Grant decided that this was a good time to introduce the Confederates to what combined arms could do.

Basically, when asked "Shall we attack by land, or by sea?" Grant answered, "Why not both?"

It was with this in mind that, in early February, General Grant set forth out of Cairo, and marched down the Tennessee River, towards the Confederate-held Fort Henry. Fort Henry had eleven guns trained on the river to prevent unfriendly traffic. Only six were positioned to guard against a landward assault. Although hastily constructed, Fort Henry could probably have withstood one or the other. Grant gambled that they couldn't handle both. On February 4th, he landed his troops about three miles downriver, and deployed to prevent the garrison's escape, and also to prevent its reinforcement. Within two days, he had all the approaches covered, and his main attack began on the 6th, with a sustained bombardment by the Union Navy gunboats. The battle lasted a little more than an hour before the Confederate garrison surrendered.

The fall of Fort Henry opened up the Tennessee River to Union shipping and gunboats all the way into Alabama. But that wasn't all that Grant had in mind for this campaign. Nearby, on the Cumberland River, was another Confederate stronghold, Fort Donelson. He marched his troops twelve miles overland, while Flag Officer Foote sailed his gunboats down the Tennessee River, then up the Cumberland, in order to fire on the fort. Fort Donelson's gunners had better luck, or better aim, than their counterparts at Fort Henry, and Foote's gunboats had to withdraw. But the real damage had been done. Grant had Fort Donelson surrounded, by the evening of February 14th. The next day, on the 15th, General Floyd made a breakout attempt that was almost successful. Only almost. This left General Floyd in a bit of a pickle.

Because, you see, General Floyd is a man we've met before. John Floyd, you may remember, was President Buchanan's Secretary of War. The Union might just want to have a few words with him about some of his deployment orders, two years or so ago. So, General Floyd resigned his command, and handed things over to General Pillow. General Pillow, in turn, handed his command over to General Buckner, for reasons that aren't entirely clear to me. General Buckner remained, and attempted to negotiate surrender terms with General Grant.

I say, "attempted." Buckner's request for an armistice, and terms for surrender, prompted this reply from Grant:

Sir: Yours of this date proposing Armistice, and appointment of Commissioners, to settle terms of Capitulation is just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.

I propose to move immediately upon your works.

I am Sir: very respectfully
Your obt. sevt.
U.S. Grant
Brig. Gen.

Buckner was left with the unappealing choice of either accepting unconditional surrender, or attempting to defend his now-undefendable position. Buckner chose the former. Fort Donelson surrendered to the Union on February 16, 1862.

The news of this victory shot through the Union like a lightning bolt.

On the one hand, it's easily understandable: this was, after all, the first major victory by Union forces against the Confederates. It went a long way towards erasing the sting of the ignominious defeat at Bull Run. But on the other hand, it was a very small matter, far away from what most people thought was the more important theater of war, back in the East. But on the other other hand, a very important goal had been achieved. Union gunboats, supply boats, and troops could now freely navigate the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Free navigation of same had also been denied to Confederate forces, whose transportation network wasn't all that good to begin with.

And, overnight, Ulysses S. Grant had become a national hero. His victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson won him not only fame, but a promotion to Major General. He wouldn't rest on his laurels, though. He wasn't quite finished in the Tennessee River valley just yet. He aimed to push his troops as far up the Tennessee River as he could possibly go.

Up ahead was a sleepy little town that few had heard of yet, called Shiloh.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Video Del Fuego, Part LII

I used to love building model airplanes, right up to the point when I didn't. I'm not exactly sure how that happened. Mostly, I think I just lost the patience for detail work and painting. So basically, I was out of the modelling hobby before I discovered the various kinds of radio-controlled flying models.

That's probably for the best. If I'd discovered that this sort of thing was available, I'd have never gotten any productive work done. Ever.

The ingenuity of the truly dedicated hobbyist is astounding. It's hard to believe some of the things they've come up with. There are flyable models of just about every aircraft you've ever heard of. They can get pretty big. Especially since there's no way to make a small flyable model of a B-36:

And while you can make a smaller flying model of a Spitfire, some things are easier when you go big:

But you haven't seen anything yet ... Back in the day, they used to sell radio-controlled models of "jets", which were models that kind of looked like jets, with propellers on the front. Not very interesting. So naturally, someone figured out how to make a really small jet engine. And behold:

Actually that one sounds like a ducted fan, as opposed to a real jet. But never fear, those do exist.

The problem with real jet engines? When things go wrong, they can get really explodey, really fast. Which is why just about everyone carries a fire extinguisher:

But what if that's not enough to slake your need for speed? Scale modelers like Steve Eves take it to the next level, with a flying 1/10 scale model of a Saturn V. (Yes, that Saturn V.)

Which leads us to these guys, who built a rocket of their own design, and punched it up to 121,000 feet.

Which just about defies description. Bear in mind, this is what our hobbyists do. On their own time. For fun. Now, imagine what our professionals could do, given clear direction...

National Engineers Week is February 19th through the 25th. Remember, if you can read this, thank a teacher; but if you're reading this on a computer, thank an engineer.