Friday, April 27, 2012

Sesquicentennial, Part XXI: East and West


When I began this project, there were a few people that I thought that I'd have a lot of fun roasting over an open fire, figuratively speaking. What I did not anticipate is the degree to which I would come to sympathize with them, once I began studying their positions more closely. To my surprise, one was President James Buchanan. And yes, I have raked him over the coals for his inaction while the Union was disintegrating during the winter of 1860-1861. But what else was he to do? What else could he have done? The Army was too far spread out for him to do much reinforcing -- his Secretary of War had seen to that. And he was morally convinced that he had no right to commit his successor to a course of action that he might not agree with. I still think he was wrong in this, and deserves the dubious honor of Worst President Ever, but he was at least honestly wrong.

Another one who has surprised me is General George McClellan.

It's unfair to judge him by his late record alone. He was a very able officer. He had a first-rate organizational talent. And, in the opening months of the war, he had shown a capability for bold, decisive action. He looked every inch just the man to replace Winfield Scott as overall Union Army commander. And initially, he did not disappoint. He took that dispirited rabble that had been so ignominiously routed from Bull Run, and drilled them back into a proper Army. He built a ring of defenses around Washington City so strong that the Rebels never even dreamed of testing them. He saw to every detail, making sure that his soldiers were housed, fed, and clothed properly. When the spring of 1862 rolled around, everyone expected General McClellan to take to the field, and win a glorious victory.

It was here that his tragic flaw was revealed. Some would call it timidity. Others might say cowardice. Once, I might have agreed with them, but now, I have to say differently. McClellan succumbed to what we now call "Analysis Paralysis."

Information traveled far faster in the 1860s than it ever had before, and in a sense, army commanders had far more information at their fingertips than they had ever had before. George McClellan had recruited Allan Pinkerton as his intelligence chief. You may know the name from the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency. An extensive network of spies and informants wormed their way through both the North and the South, working both ways. Sometimes this gave a commander good, timely information. Other times, it gave a man with a tendency to over-think things far more information than he really needed. McClellan, therefore, developed a tendency to far over-estimate his enemy's actual strength.

And looking at it from his point of view, if you grant that his information was correct, McClellan's caution was in every sense justifiable. But it wasn't correct. And so, General McClellan fought a campaign in the East that spring that ended up being fairly pointless, except for one thing.

Emancipation, you see, did not begin in the halls of Congress. It did not begin in the debating societies. It began on the front lines, when some runaway slaves sought refuge with Benjamin Butler, a Union commander. Later that day, a Southern officer approached under a flag of truce, requesting the return of the slaves, according to the law. Butler declined. Seeing a way to not only jab a sharp stick in the Rebel's eye, but also to make his abolitionist-leaning soldiers happy, he impounded the slaves as contraband of war. He reasoned that denial of their labor to the Rebels was a valid tool of war. Very soon thereafter, that became standard procedure throughout the Union Army. So, the spring campaign of 1862 in the East wasn't a complete waste of time.

Out West, it was another matter entirely. General Grant was driving down the rivers that the Confederacy needed for commerce and resupply. They could not allow him to do this with impunity. Confederate Generals Albert Sidney Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard marched to intercept Grant's force. On the morning of April 6th, Grant's army was encamped along the Shiloh Branch, near the Tennessee River. They weren't expecting an attack. Johnston and Beauregard took them by surprise. What followed was pure horror.

Armies of the era were still drilled, and still maneuvered, as they did in Napoleon's day, fifty years earlier. Such tactics made sense in an era when soldiers carried breech-loading muskets. With one of those muskets, hitting your target was as much a matter of luck as of skill, so they were only effective when firing in a line, all at once. Some of that volley of lead would find a mark in the opposing force. But something important had happened in the last fifty years. The soldiers meeting one another on the banks of the Shiloh weren't carrying those old muskets. They were carrying rifled muskets.

Claude Minie hadn't been looking for a way to make a more accurate rifle. What he was looking for was a rifle that wouldn't foul so easily. A rifle that could be loaded more rapidly. The new bullet he designed had a hollow base that would expand to grip the rifling, scouring the sides of the barrel as it went down. This did reduce fouling. But it also imparted a spin to the bullet, making it much more accurate. A soldier with a rifled musket using Minie ball ammunition was capable of six aimed shots every minute.

Six aimed shots. Not six shots in random volley. Six aimed shots.

Infantry armament had become orders of magnitude more deadly. And no one realized the horrifying implications of that, yet. No one realized what would, what must happen when men march in formation towards a position held by other men who can fire six aimed shots per minute.

The initial surprise attack startled the Union defenders, and they fell back. But they rallied at a position that became known as the "Sunken Road", and then retired to defensive positions around Pittsburg Landing. Casualties on both sides were appalling. While leading the assault on the Sunken Road, General Johnston was mortally wounded. One of the Union generals in the same fight, W.H.L. Wallace, was also mortally wounded. Troops marching in a line towards a prepared defensive position would expose themselves to murderously accurate fire. The Confederates managed to bring up enough artillery to reduce the salient at the Sunken Road, but by the time they broke through, Grant had already established a new defensive line in front of the docks at Pittsburg Landing. Day was giving way to nightfall, and the fighting ended. P.G.T. Beauregard was confident of a swift and complete victory, come the dawn.

General Sherman found General Grant smoking a cigar underneath a tree that night. "Well, Grant," he said, "we've had the devil's own day, haven't we?"

"Yes," Grant replied. "Lick 'em tomorrow, though." Grant knew something Beauregard didn't. General Don Carlos Buell was waiting on the other bank of the Tennessee River, for enough light for his men to cross.

Beauregard, unaware that he was now outnumbered, gave orders that he thought would push Grant back into the river. To his surprise, his attack met a Union counter-attack already underway. Sherman would later describe the sound as "the severest musketry fire I ever heard." The fighting was brutal, and fierce, and brief. Numbers told. Beauregard's men could not keep up the advance, and had to yield ground. By noon, they were back where they had started the day before, and still losing ground. A counter-attack gave Beauregard a bit of breathing space. He realized that he had lost the initiative, and that over a quarter of his force was either killed or captured. He ordered a retreat, leaving a blocking force to delay a Union pursuit. But there was no pursuit -- Grant's army was mauled almost as badly.

It was the bloodiest battle in American history, up to that point. The horrifying list of casualties seared a nation's conscience. There were many, then, who put pressure on Lincoln to relieve Grant, but Lincoln refused.

"I can't spare this man," Lincoln said. "He fights."

But the Union had won one key victory at Shiloh: they retained command of the Tennessee River, and continued to threaten the Mississippi. By the end of April, Admiral David Farragut would seize New Orleans in a daring assault, closing off the river at the other end. If ever the two met, the Confederacy would be cut in half.

The scorned, much-derided Anaconda Plan of General Winfield Scott was coming to fruition, slowly but surely.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Enter The Dragon

The Space Shuttle may be retired, but America's not out of the space business. Not yet. A week from Monday, on April 30th, a SpaceX Falcon 9 will lift off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying a loaded Dragon spacecraft bound for a rendezvous with the International Space Station. Here's a summary of what's planned:


If everything works as planned, Falcon9/Dragon will begin regular cargo flights. The next step? Well, they're building a model with seats, aren't they?


The obvious difference between the two is that the cargo version has a wider front hatch that uses the passive berthing mechanism, where the manned version has the active docking mechanism. The manned version also has some pretty beefy descent engines. Of course, the planned tests have to work. Things could still go horribly pear-shaped. But they've got a good track record so far. We're beginning to see a transition that I've been expecting for about ten years now. Then, the government was the sole source for space flight. Now, that is moving into private industry. It's too early to tell if that's a good thing or not, but I strongly suspect that it is. We'll see lower costs, and more innovation, as more private players get into the market. Bend the cost curve down far enough, and some really interesting things can begin to happen.

A week from Monday, we'll take a big step down that road. Cross your fingers.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Election 2012: Primary Post-Mortem

And, that's a wrap. (Warning: Strong Language, last lines from Burn After Reading)

So, what did we learn, if anything, from Primary 2012? For one, we learned that the Old Guard of the Republican Party, even though it's not near as strong as it used to be, is still alive and kicking. The Tea Party candidates surged and floundered in their turns, but Romney somehow churned through it all and came out on top anyway. The cachet of being "Not Mitt Romney" never gleamed brightly enough to attract enough voters. Even in the midst of their burgeoning ideological rigidity, electability still matters. And for another, we learned that "It's His Turn" is a very powerful thing within the Republican Party. That may come as part of the first point, but it still bears some mention. Since Nixon, the majority of Republican candidates seem to have been the strongest challenger from the previous primary. In 1980, Reagan was the nominee, who ran a strong second in 1976. In 1988, Bush was the nominee, who ran a strong second in 1980. In 1996, Dole was the nominee, who had been a perennial contender since the last Ice Age. Bush the Younger in 2000 was an anomaly. But McCain in 2008 was not, and neither is Romney in 2012.

This, of course, sets the stage for Santorum in 2016. But, as much as I might like to savor the bowel-freezing horror that portends, we have another important event to consider. The General Election is now on like Donkey Kong. (As always, the numbers are courtesy of Intrade, current as of Friday evening.)

Barack Obama, 60.8%: His probability took a big hit last summer during the debt crisis, but has since recovered to the 60% level he's enjoyed for most of the last year and a half or so. This is looking like a modestly incumbent-friendly year so far. We're in a recovery -- not a booming recovery, but still, a recovery. Unemployment is down. GDP is up. Stocks are up. We've wound down Iraq, and we're winding down Afghanistan. If these trends continue, and there's no major shock event, the public's general tendency has been to re-elect the incumbent. Incumbent Presidents standing for re-election have generally won, unless the economy had been trending downward. Carter was turfed for a sour economy, and the Iranian situation. Bush the Elder was turfed for a sour economy. Reagan, Clinton, and Bush the Younger all had rising economies to buoy their re-election bids. Currently, it's looking to hold true for Obama as well.

Mitt Romney, 38.0%: This is a fact that Romney understands about as well as anyone else. So, he has to paint a picture that highlights a sour, lackluster economy. On top of that, he still has to contend with the fact that the base isn't all that fired up about his candidacy. The biggest thing to watch for in the Romney campaign will be his Vice-Presidential pick. Right now, the four top contenders are Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Bob McDonnell, and Paul Ryan. But we may well see someone not on that list. The safe pick for Romney would be someone well-loved by the Republican base, someone who would solidify his right-wing street cred. But it's far from clear to me who that might be. The second biggest thing to watch for is whether or not Romney continues to tack to the right, both leading up to and after the Republican National Convention. Obama has enjoyed the incumbent's luxury of not having a serious primary challenger. The main advantage of that is that he's been able to command the center, at least so far. If Romney begins to tack to the center, he might be able to carve out some of Obama's softer centrist support ... but if he has to keep running to the right to tack down a slightly disgruntled base, he concedes the center to Obama, and with it the election.

And The Winner Is... I'd still take 3-2 odds in favor of President Obama's re-election. That probably won't change until convention time.

Speaking of which: the Republican National Convention begins on August 27, and the Democratic National Convention begins on September 3. The fun begins for real the weekend before August 27, which is when Governor Romney will probably spring his VP pick on us. Until then, vote early, and vote often!

Friday, April 06, 2012

Video Del Fuego, Part LIV

The history of Man can be read as a long litany of rage against Evolution's iniquities. Evolution didn't give us gills? Well screw you, Mr. Evolution, we're going to go diving anyway. Didn't give us wings? Up yours, we're going to go flying despite that. Can't breathe vacuum? So what? We'll bring air along in bottles.

The last few weeks have taken us from one extreme of Earth to the other. Last time, we saw an intrepid adventurer seeking to skydive from the edge of space. This time, James Cameron got it into his head to go somewhere only two other human beings have ever been before: the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Water, you have to remember, weighs in at just over a ton per cubic yard. And the pressure of that column of water is equal to the density (62.5 lbs/ft^3) times the depth. At the bottom of the Challenger Deep, 35,814 feet below the surface, the pressure is a staggering 1100 TONS per square foot. There's a damn good reason this has only been done twice. You basically have to design a submersible that can take a near-miss from a tactical nuke.

And, it goes without saying, he took cameras with him. And why not? Making movies is what the man does, after all. I have to admit, I skipped both Avatar and Titanic when they came out. But, I'm absolutely going to see this in 3D on opening weekend. Maybe even more than once.

Inveniam viam aut facium, reads an inscription on one of the memorials to Robert Peary. "I shall find a way or make one." It's a fit motto for any explorer, and one that James Cameron can now proudly claim. Well done, sir. Well done, indeed.