Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sesquicentennial, Part XXII: The Bloodiest Day

It's extremely hard to adjust to having the rules changed on you in mid-play.

That's really the thing you see when you study the Civil War close-up. These men trained extensively in Napoleon's tactics. It's axiomatic that you train for the last war, because for so very long, things didn't change much, if they changed at all. And many of the most important things don't change. That's why we still read Sun Tzu's Art of War, Miyamoto Musashi's A Book of Five Rings, and Clausewitz's On War. (Although I'd advise finding a Cliff's Notes version of the latter.) But with every change of technology, what a commander can do on the battlefield changes with it, and the Civil War brought with it a fairly broad range of new technologies that had never been seen before on such scale. And the learning curve was fairly horrifying.

As I said last time, I'm finding it difficult to come down too hard on most Civil War commanders as a result. Most did the best they could with what they had. It was mostly no fault of their own that they were found wanting. But only mostly. There were still a few good old-fashioned character flaws that came boiling to the fore. And our man George McClellan wasn't immune.

If the spring and summer of 1861 were the apex of McClellan's career, the spring and summer of 1862 were the nadir. I've said before that I excuse what some would call McClellan's temerity, because he was acting fairly reasonably given the information he thought he had. If he'd attacked in the face of those odds, he'd have been reckless, and it wasn't necessarily his fault that Pinkerton was giving him bad information. But I refuse to excuse his overweening pride, and stubborn refusal to allow another general to take any credit for victory. This is what turned the Second Battle of Bull Run into the debacle that it was.

It all began after the collapse of McClellan's Peninsular Campaign in June. With Johnston's death at Shiloh, Robert E. Lee was advanced to command in the field, and he was able to push McClellan's Army of the Potomac back to the James River. With the threat against Richmond removed, Lee was able to turn his attentions back to the north. This caused Lincoln to appoint John Pope as commander of the newly-formed Army of Virginia, with the mission of finding and engaging Lee's army. Pope requested reinforcements from McClellan, who refused. The reason McClellan gave was that he didn't want to leave Washington unguarded. It's widely suspected that the real reason was that McClellan didn't want Pope to succeed where he had failed.

The result was that the Union and Confederate forces met for a second time at Bull Run, on nearly even numerical terms. In such an engagement, what counts more than anything else is leadership and coordination. And as I've said before, the Confederacy still enjoyed an advantage. Not as much as the first time around, but still enough to win victory on that day. The defeated Union forces were able to retire in good order, though, so the humiliation of another rout was avoided.

Now, this left Lee with a bit of a problem. What to do next? His basic problem was always one of supply. The Confederacy's basic problem in general was always one of supply. This is because the Confederacy could raise an army, and it could equip an army, but it really couldn't do both of those at the same time. Part of the problem was finding trained, skilled men: machinists and mechanics. Those men were needed with equal urgency in the factories, and on the firing line. But there was also a material problem. The Union blockade was hurting, and severely. The "King Cotton" strategy had failed. Europe, far from being destitute without Southern cotton, had found other sources. And England wasn't going to risk war with the Union over those supplies in any event. The Confederacy got dribbles of supplies in via blockade runners, but this was never going to be enough to supply whole armies in the field. But Lee found a radical solution to his supply problem.

For the same reason that bank robbers rob banks, Lee went north: because that's where the supplies were.

But that wasn't the only reason. There were two other goals. First, he wanted to attack the North's will to fight, by showing that their armies couldn't keep him out. This might have a salubrious effect on the upcoming mid-term elections in November. Second, he wanted to show the Europeans, and England in particular, that the Union army couldn't keep him out. If he was able to demonstrate the Confederacy's military viability with major victories on Union soil, maybe they'd weigh in to stop the bloodshed as a humanitarian gesture. It was a long shot. But it was the best shot the Confederacy had at that point.

And so it was that Lee drafted Special Order 191, detailing his plans for the invasion. Copies were made for each of his senior commanders. Most of them safeguarded those orders closely. One, Major General D.H. Hill, wrapped them around a couple of cigars and forgetfully left them behind at a campsite.

You know, I think my first impression was actually correct. They really hadn't invented operational security yet.

This was like McClellan getting the Prima Strategy Guide to the Civil War. If you ask how he knew that the order was genuine, you have to remember, back in those days orders weren't typewritten. Orders were written by hand, and the veteran officers of the Union army generally knew one another's handwriting. It wouldn't have been hard to find an officer who'd served under Lee. It took maybe five minutes to assess the authenticity, and maybe five minutes more for McClellan to figure out what needed to be done. You see, the order not only gave him an idea of where Lee's army was headed, it also gave him for the very first time a truly accurate idea of its strength.

Knowing Lee's target let McClellan get there first, and dig in. It also let him get some forces in place to exploit Lee's flank. When Lee got to Sharpsburg on September 17th, McClellan was there waiting for him.

This time, McClellan had a decisive advantage, nearly two to one. This time, he held a clearly superior position. This time, he knew precisely what Lee had in mind. And still, he was mortally fearful of what Lee might do to him.

Yes, I mostly don't hold McClellan's timidity against him, except for this. When you have your enemy in a vise, you spin it down and squeeze. You lay to with every tool and weapon at your disposal. You do your damnedest to break him utterly. But McClellan? Fully a third of his men at Sharpsburg never fired a shot.

And for all that, it was still the bloodiest day in American military history. Commanders still hadn't come to terms yet with what rifled muskets could do. Companies marching to attack a prepared defensive position quite often simply ceased to exist, withered away by a veritable rain of steel. And this went back and forth on the field for most of the day. Until, finally, a Union attack managed to break the Confederate center. This forced Lee to withdraw, as his position was no longer tenable. A more alert, more vigorous commander might have pursued. McClellan ... didn't.

I still think that commanders were shell-shocked to some extent by the numbers of casualties. This was something beyond anything they could ever have imagined. It was, and still is, the bloodiest day in American military history. Some 23,000 men had fallen, on both sides.

Nevertheless, it seemed as if an opportunity had been squandered. Lee was allowed to escape. His army would live to fight again another day, having seized enough supplies from Maryland farmers to keep on going.

But for all that, it was still a victory. The Confederates had been beaten in open battle, and sent packing. That was good enough for what Lincoln had in mind.

Lincoln had drafted a proclamation regularizing what Union armies had already been doing. If you'll recall, Union armies had been confiscating slaves in Confederate territory, mainly to deny their labor to their masters. Emancipation began as an economic measure, designed to hurt the finances of the Union's enemies. Lincoln merely took that one step further. His proclamation summarily dispossessed all slave-owners of their property, in all territories then in rebellion. He had drawn this up shortly after learning of what his field commanders had already been doing, but didn't release it immediately. It would have sounded like a measure of desperation. He needed a victory, in order to give the order authenticity. The Battle of Antietam gave him that victory.

And at a stroke, any real possibility of foreign intervention died. Because whether or not it began that way, the war was now becoming one of liberation. It was becoming a war to settle the slavery issue once and for all. And now that this was out in the open, the odds that England would weigh in publicly for slavery and against emancipation were as near to zero as made no difference. If the Confederacy were to win, they'd have to win with whatever they had on hand. And much of what came in from abroad had to come in through Mexico, then through Texas and Arkansas, and across the Mississippi. And that was beginning to be a real problem.

It took a few months after the Battle of Shiloh to realize what would eventually become an important fact: with the fall of New Orleans, the Confederacy's only stronghold on the entire Mississippi River was the city of Vicksburg. While this is obvious in hindsight, it went essentially unnoticed for several months, while the other battles of the summer of 1862 played themselves out. But realize it they did, the Union with anticipation and the Confederacy with dread. This would be the hinge on which the whole thing swung.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Chasing the Dragon, Revisited

Mark your calendars, ladies and gentlemen. October 7th, at about 7PM EDT, the first of 12 regular cargo deliveries to the International Space Station will get underway. That is, if everything goes according to plan. Those of you who were here last time may remember that the launch window is pretty damned short. (I don't think I'll live-blog this one.) Still ... even with all of our problems, some pretty great things are happening. Despair is a sin. Here's how it finally went down last time:

And again, some music while we wait:

By the way, here's another date to mark down on your calendars: October 16th. Our man Donald has a new album coming out called Sunken Condos. He's been kind enough to put a preview out there for us:

This is good stuff, it really is, but I'd kind of like to see him get together with Mr. Becker again. It's been too long since Everything Must Go.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Election 2012: Post-DNC Update

Now, it's all official. The two parties have confirmed in convention what we've all known for months. The Obama/Biden ticket has been officially nominated by the Democratic Party to face the Romney/Ryan ticket of the Republican Party in November's Presidential election. The conventions have been illuminating. Not always in the ways that the parties expected, but illuminating nevertheless.

For one, Peter Beinart noted at the Daily Beast that the Democrats have acquired the knack for message discipline. Once upon a time, that was a Republican knack. Under Reagan, the Republicans reliably fell in line, heeding his half-joking commandment that Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill Of A Fellow Republican. It's almost impossible to imagine anyone at the 1984 Republican convention going rogue. The 2012 convention, on the other hand, consisted of almost nothing else, with the possible exceptions of Ryan and Romney themselves. The Democrats, on the other hand, all looked like they were pulling in the same direction. Sure, they were interested in making themselves look good. The Democratic National Convention has, historically, been the debut venue for the party's rising stars. The last two Democratic Presidents, after all, used their keynote addresses as springboards to launch their national presences. But their speeches were primarily touting the virtues of their ticket, as opposed to polishing their resumes for 2016. I don't know that it means anything in particular, but I just find it curious that the characteristically disorganized Democrats have discovered unity of message at the same time that the characteristically regimented Republicans seem to have lost it.

The other interesting difference, and one that I did not anticipate, was that Biden and Obama gave their speeches on the same night. Which is why I said last week that I'd be missing Biden's address. Instead, I missed Bill Clinton's. This leads to an interesting national variation in television ratings. Bill Clinton's speech won the ratings battle in most markets, with the exception of Texas. It's not that Texas hates Bill Clinton. It's that the Dallas Cowboys were playing the New York Giants. We'd probably skip a live broadcast of the Second Coming if the Cowboys were on the other channel. So, while most of the nation was watching Bill Clinton do what he does best, most of us were watching Tony Romo tear the Giants' secondary a new one. While I'd make that choice again with no regrets, I do kind of wish I'd seen it. Clinton was in rare form. He showed his skill, not just at communicating but at connecting, and reminded us how he won two terms.

Speaking of sports, James Fallows did a compare and contrast between political reporters and sports reporters. And he's right. You know who's brutally honest? Who tells it like it is, no matter if he's talking about friend or foe? The guy on your local sports radio station. You do find the occasional "homer", who finds no fault with his favorites, but they get no respect and hardly ever last long. People complain about our reporters covering elections like they were sporting events. Oh, would that this were actually true. Journalism would be better for it. We need for our political reporters to be more like sportscasters, not less.

Another interesting compare-and-contrast data point has come out of the conventions: the Romney campaign's heavy investment in air time versus the Obama campaign's heavy investment in the ground game. Romney's Super-PACs are producing ads and buying time like there's no tomorrow. Obama's campaign has far more local offices and workers in the swing states. It will be interesting to see how these divergent strategies play out against one another.

And now, let's have a look at the numbers. As usual, I'm drawing my information from Intrade, FiveThirtyEight, and Pollster. The data are current as of Friday evening.

From Intrade:

Barack Obama (D): 57.9%, 285 EV (+0.5%, +4 EV)
Mitt Romney (R): 41.9%, 247 EV (-0.7%, +15 EV)

From FiveThirtyEight:

Barack Obama (D): 78.1%, 314.2 EV (+6.5%, +11.8 EV)
Mitt Romney (R): 21.9%, 223.8 EV (-6.5%, -11.8 EV)

From Pollster:

Strong D: 211 (+/- 0)
Lean D: 36 (+16)
Tossup: 100 (-16)
Lean R: 16 (+/- 0)
Strong R: 175 (+/- 0)

I wish now that I'd pulled a set of numbers immediately prior to the RNC. Then, we'd have a better idea of exactly what the effect of each convention was. Obama has definitely gotten a poll boost, as seen in the Pollster data, but the Intrade numbers haven't moved much. Granted, Intrade is still giving him 3-2 odds for re-election. But FiveThirtyEight is quoting 3-1 odds at this point, with the convention giving Obama a quick +6.5% jolt. Another interesting point is what Pollster seems to be telling us this week: that Obama has picked up sixteen electoral votes from toss-up states as part of this boost. Even with a relatively lackluster economy, he's still chugging along.

What Romney Must Do: He basically has to run the table in the toss-up states. Add his "strong" and "lean" votes together, and he's still eighty electoral votes short, with only 100 on the table. Which is to say, all of them but Ohio. That's a pretty tall order. Not impossible, but he's got to run a flawless, error-free campaign from here on in. There's no margin for error. And one of the go-to tropes for Republicans, weakness on national security, is simply laughable now. Obama hasn't exactly been shy about handing out the explodium Candygrams and bullet fiestas for people he thinks need killing. They might try painting him as a weakling pacifist ... but Osama bin Laden and Moammar Gadhafi would probably disagree. If they could, which they can't. So, Team Romney has to hit the economic message hard. Without reminding the voting public that he looks like the guy who fired them.

What Obama Must Do: But this is no time for Team Obama to be complacent. If the electorate gets sufficiently discontented, they may well give Mr. Romney a tryout. And he's facing a pretty steep differential in available cash for advertisements. But he's got a few things that Romney doesn't. For one, he's got the Oval Office, and Air Force One. All the advantages of incumbency. And the public's deep distrust of Mitt Romney, the man. He's also got to run a fairly error-free campaign, but he's got more of a margin for error than Team Romney does. While Romney has to win 80 out of 100 toss-ups, Obama only has to win twenty-one. That's Florida, by itself. Or Ohio, plus any one other state. He's betting on his superior ground game to even out Romney's money advantage. That may prove the way to bet.

And The Winner Is: Obama still enjoys 3-2 odds on Intrade, much like most of the last year and a half. The next month bears watching. By the end of September, we should have a pretty good idea of how the air-versus-ground strategies are working. By the middle of October, we should have a really good idea. But for now, I'd take 3-2 odds on Obama/Biden for the win, and I'd still take 290 electoral votes for the over/under.

Remember, vote early, and vote often!