Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas!

WE THREE CLODS (to the tune of "We Three Kings")

We three clods from Omaha are
Spending Christmas Eve in a car
Driving, drinking, glasses clinking --
Who needs a lousy bar?

Oh, oh ...
Drink to Charlie, drink to Paul
Drink to friends we can't recall
Swerving, speeding,
Signs unheeding --
Drink to anything at all.

We three clods are feeling no pain
Drunk as skunks with booze on the brain
Senses losing, 'till we're cruising
Into a wrong-way lane.

Oh, oh ...
Drink to Melvin, drink to Fred
Drink to those two trucks ahead
Headlights flashing
Screeching, crashing --
Drink 'till they pronounce us dead.

(This public service announcement originally brought to you by Mad Magazine, issue unknown. Don't drink and drive. It generally doesn't end well.)

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXIV: The Door


"The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on." -- General Ulysses S. Grant

It's very odd that Grant does not mention anything here about supply. From his actions, and from his memoirs, it's clear that supplies were always paramount in his thinking. He might not have read Wellington's memoirs himself, but clearly he was of the same school: if he had food and ammunition, he had soldiers; and if he had soldiers he could beat the enemy.

Which brings us back to Chattanooga, and the Union army trapped therein by a surrounding force of Confederates under Braxton Bragg. The encircled Union commander, General Thomas, didn't have enough supplies to last indefinitely. What he did have was assurance that Grant was on the way. For the moment, that was enough. Thomas and his army would hold out until relief arrived.

Grant's first order of business was to open what he called a "Cracker Line", to get some supplies in to Chattanooga. He began these operations in late October. Bragg had no idea what Grant was up to, but he did notice a Union force under Hooker crossing the river at Bridgeport, and ordered Longstreet to shore up his flank. But no flanking attack was called for. Instead, a Union force was floated unnoticed past Lookout Mountain -- spectacularly failing to live up to its name in this case -- to seize Brown's Ferry, from which Grant could resupply Thomas with ease.

This presented Bragg with a bit of a problem. Sure, he was still surrounding Chattanooga, in theory. In practice, the siege was already broken, and the strategic position had changed radically. Looking over all his options, the only one that didn't entail either humiliating retreat or suicidal attack was a movement around Grant's left flank. The problem with that option, though, was a Union corps under General Burnside at Knoxville. But as he was drawing up plans to attack Burnside, decisions from Richmond forced him to change his plans. Longstreet was being sent back to Virginia. It was decided that he'd attack Burnside along the way.

In the meantime, Grant wasn't idle. It wasn't his style to sit around and let the opposing commander come to him. His plan was the same as it always had been. The first two parts, finding them and getting there, had already been done. All that was left was striking them hard. His fresh troops, under Hooker and Sherman, would hit the Rebels from their left and right, respectively, while Thomas' men would come out of their defensive works at Chattanooga and hit the center.

Lookout Mountain again failed to live up to its billing. It's actually a fairly lousy defensive position. It's easily flanked, and if the attacker has decent artillery, they can make life miserable for the defenders. Once the Union got around the base of the mountain, the Confederate position was no longer tenable, and they were forced to withdraw.

This left Bragg with the bulk of his forces arrayed on Missionary Ridge, south of Chattanooga. Ordinarily, this would still be a fairly good defensive position. You'd think it would be a replay of Gettysburg, with the Confederates holding the high ground ... except for one key difference. Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg was shaped like a fish-hook, giving the defender a concave front with interior lines of communication. Missionary Ridge is line-straight. If anyone manages to turn the flank, the position folds up like a cheap suit.

That's more or less what happens.

Hooker was already halfway there, having run the Confederates off of Lookout Mountain. Once he got guns set up on the slopes, his gunners had a clean line of fire onto the Confederate left flank. In the meantime, Thomas was attacking from the front, and Sherman from the right.

Grant didn't actually expect the frontal assault to actually work. His orders were for them to advance only as far as the rifle pits. But a funny thing happened...

One of Thomas' brigade commanders, Philip Sheridan, raised a flask in a toast to the Confederates on Missionary Ridge. "Here's at you," he toasted. More or less at that point, a Confederate shell landed nearby, splattering him with dirt. "That was ungenerous," he said. "I'll have your guns for that!"

His soldiers took that as their cue to attack, with their goal being the Confederate guns at the top of the ridge, not the rifle pits at the base. When General Thomas saw this happening, he ordered a general attack, so that they wouldn't go unsupported.

It had no business working. It shouldn't have worked. Sheridan should have died right there, or been wounded, like every brigade commander at Pickett's Charge. Of course, that third day, everyone on the top of that ridge was expecting a charge. Here, on this day, just about no one was expecting them to come up the hill.

With both flanks threatened, and the center giving way, Bragg had no choice but to withdraw.

This was just about the last major action, east or west, for 1863. The respective armies began to go into winter quarters shortly thereafter. But with Chattanooga lost, and a strong Union force in possession, the door to the Deep South had been kicked off its hinges.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Video Del Fuego, Part LXIV

I'm a technology professional, so I really should never be surprised about how far technology has advanced. Really, I shouldn't. But every once in a while, I compare what we have now against what we thought was possible when I was young, and even though that's been less than thirty years ...

Case in point. The first computer I owned had 512K of RAM. Now, you can buy over 4,000 times the memory in a blister pack at the Target checkout line. And the first digital camera I ever saw was a huge, clunky, fragile thing. Now ... GoPro makes an amazingly small, amazingly rugged camera that not only can go anywhere, it has.

It's been on land:



And space.

It's hard for me to say which one's more thrilling: the backflip over a canyon on a bike, recording whale songs, jumping off a cliff in a flying squirrel suit, or stepping into the void 128,000 feet above New Mexico.

I don't have the skill to do any of these. But, thanks to modern technology, I can see what it looks like to have done it.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Big Data For Fun And Profit

I have seen the future, and it's pretty weird.

Several entities out there have set about ... well, just sitting and listening. And collating what they hear, trying to find patterns. Some we know about, others we don't. Whether we like it or not, the era of Big Data is upon us. No one, least of all those who are trying to tap into it, know exactly what that means yet.

What can you discover, if you have a big enough data set? What kinds of answers can you tease out of it?

That's part of the philosophy behind Wolfram Alpha, which I've written about before. Alpha is kind of like Google, but more focused. Let's say you wanted to know how many people lived on Earth in 1863. You can search Google for resources that will tell you about historical planetary population. Or you can go to Alpha, type "world population in 1863", and it'll straight up tell you that in 1863, the world's population was 1.26 billion people. If you're curious, you can revise your query to "India population 2013", and you're treated to the notion that the equivalent of the entire human race circa 1863 lives in today's India. I'm ... not entirely sure what to make of that. But it's definitely food for thought.

The point is, between them Google and Wolfram have harnessed an immense amount of publicly-available data, made it massively interconnected, and set it loose on the public at large. On the whole, this is a good thing. Back when I was in school, one of the first things they taught us was how to use the library's card catalog. You could find a lot of stuff in that card catalog. Well, nowadays, just about everyone carries a card catalog that indexes almost the entirety of human knowledge in their pocket. And with just a little more effort, they can unleash an agent who will go search that catalog, giving them just the information they're looking for. You can search for any kind of data: population, financial, historical, whatever.

And then, there's Akinator.

Akinator's conceit is that a genie is playing guessing games with you: you think of a character, and Akinator will ask questions until he guesses who you're thinking about. I suspect -- but I don't know for sure, since they're not really telling -- that it's an enormous database, one that grows and learns from each of its defeats. It's Big Data applied to amusement, as opposed to research. Yes, you can stump Akinator, but you really have to work at it. At least it's honest. Well-known characters and historical personages, he'll guess in fairly short order; more obscure references may take time to narrow down. Within another year, if they're still running by then, it may be nigh-impossible to put one over on the old boy.

Finally, you have the prediction markets, which are another expression of Big Data ... sort of. By allowing people to collaborate anonymously, they allow a real-time expression of the Wisdom of Crowds principle. This is an invaluable resource for ... well, just about all of us. In 2008 and 2012, no one who was regularly reading Intrade was surprised by the election outcome. Which is unfortunate, because government busybodies shut Intrade down earlier this year. Maybe they'll be back. I sure hope so. In the meantime, there are other prediction markets out there. I'm going to be giving the Iowa Electronic Markets a workout in next year's Congressional races, and I'll let you know how it turns out.

Lastly ... what must it be like, to grow up in this world? Our kids have never really known a world where everything wasn't indexed. I've touched on this topic before, and don't really have anything new to add. Whether we want to or not, whether we like it or not, we are now raising the first generation of cyborgs. They do not understand what it's like to be involuntarily lost. They do not understand what we mean by "privacy." And they do not understand what it's like not to have information at their fingertips. And increasingly, it's going to be their world.

And we're going to have to adapt to living in it.

But you know what? We will. That's what we do. We shape our tools, then our tools shape us, in an endless recursion. The future always looks weird to those who first see it.

But, eventually, we all get used to it.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXIII: The Cause


There's a scene from Band of Brothers that I'm fond of. Maybe I shouldn't be. But I enjoy a good rant, and here, he rips off a good one. David Webster is a private with the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment. He's well-educated, a Harvard man, and is able to find the exact words to give life to his frustrations.

Of course, shortly thereafter, they'd find out why they were there. Oh, not the reason why they'd set out. But they would discover to their horror why this war, and their sacrifice, was absolutely necessary. Once they'd discovered the camps, exactly no one ever asked that question ever again.

In late 1863, the Union was facing a similar quandary. Many people were beginning to ask if the restoration of the Union was worth the horrifying cost in blood and treasure that the task was demanding, with no clear end in sight. It was with this question as a backdrop that a new soldiers' cemetery was to be dedicated, at Gettysburg.

The Battle of Gettysburg, fought that summer, was the bloodiest battle yet fought in the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, a century and a half later, it remains so. Some of the soldiers, when identified, were sent home to be buried. Many couldn't. A section of the battlefield was set aside, then, as their final resting place, and in November a dedication ceremony was to be held.

It was a grand affair, with bands, choirs, and an oration by one of the most celebrated speakers of the day, Edward Everett. Everett's speech was a real stem-winder, lasting about two hours. The man delivered it from memory, which I find astounding. Men were made of sterner stuff in those days, speakers and audiences alike. This was to be the focal point, the main event, of the day. After Everett wound down, President Lincoln was to make a short speech billed as "Dedicatory Remarks". No one quite expected what was about to happen.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. 
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Edward Everett himself said afterwards, "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes." Others weren't nearly as kind. The Chicago Times, a paper with a heavily Democratic editorial board, wrote, "The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States." But love it or loathe it, Lincoln got one thing wrong. The world would long remember what was said here. Because while between them Vicksburg and Gettysburg would prove to be military turning points in the war, this speech would prove to be a political turning point. Lincoln was beginning to reframe the conflict.

His opening phrase, describing America as a nation "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," is a "take that" aimed directly at the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Davis, and his Vice-President, Alexander Stephens, characterized their nation as a union between States, and that only. The people have no business in the business of their nation, except second-hand, as citizens of their State. Also, "all men are created equal," a phrase drawn directly from the Declaration of Independence, stands in direct counterpoint to an address by Alexander Stephens, where he said, "Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition."

Here, he makes the distinction plain, without coming right out and saying it: this war must become a war for freedom. It must become the Final Solution to the Slavery Question. Too much has been paid, too many have been lost, for this war to merely be about recovering territory. It must become bigger than that, it must become better than that. The sentiment caught, and spread like wildfire.

What had been a war to restore the Union was becoming a crusade for human liberty. In some people's eyes it had always been such, for others, they'd be slow in coming around. But come around they would.

They'd paid too much and bled too deeply for it to be anything else.

Friday, October 11, 2013

And Then There Was One

The second American to orbit the Earth, Scott Carpenter, died yesterday of complications from a recent stroke. And so it becomes that the oldest Mercury astronaut, John Glenn, is the last one left.

Scott Carpenter took what we might call an unusual road to his 1959 appointment. While he was a graduate of the Navy's Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, he came to it as a pilot of P2V patrol planes, not of high-performance jet fighters. But a test pilot is a test pilot, someone figured, and he was in extraordinarily good physical condition.

It's tempting to say that his unusual path played into the difficulties experienced during the Aurora 7 mission, specifically the late retrofire and the resulting 250-mile overshoot of the landing zone, but that's probably unfair to Carpenter. Scratch "probably", I think it is unfair. Granted, the same kinds of control system problems happened on Gordon Cooper's flight, if not in a more severe form, and Cooper landed closer to the primary recovery ship than anyone else did. But, Carpenter's flight plan was jam-packed with experiments and tests, which may well have distracted his attention from other matters. If you look, you will no doubt notice that the last two missions had a vastly reduced experiment load, possibly for this very reason.

Nevertheless, Chris Kraft reportedly said that Carpenter would never fly for him again. And, he never did. Kraft's opinion might have had something to do with it, but a medically-grounding injury suffered in a 1963 motorcycle accident probably had a lot to do with it as well. Surgeries in 1964 and 1967 were unsuccessful, leading to Carpenter's resignation from NASA in 1967.

Not that he was done with exploration. Carpenter participated in several of the Navy's underwater research programs, spending 28 days underwater on SEALAB II, and serving as a director for SEALAB III.

Fair winds and following seas, Commander Carpenter.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXII: Chickamauga


"Of a truth, the gods do not give the same man everything: you know how to gain a victory, Hannibal, but you do not know how to make use of it." -- Maharbal

In fairness to most commanders in the first two years of active fighting in the Civil War, the levels of casualties were so far above what any of them had come to expect that no one knew how to handle them. No one knew how to tell an army that had just suffered over ten thousand casualties to follow up a hard-fought victory with a vigorous pursuit. So it was that even though the Confederacy reeled from the one-two punch of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, so also the Federal army reeled from the effort expended. So, the following months were spent on a go-slow basis, while the victors consolidated, and decided what to do next. In the East, the answer was, "not much". There would be a few inconclusive skirmishes, but no major movements for the remainder of the year. The East was so quiet, in fact, that President Davis was able to detach some forces from the Army of Northern Virginia under General Longstreet to go help out with the deteriorating situation in the West.

In the West, Grant was looking for a doorway into the heart of the Confederacy. Part One of the Anaconda Plan was complete: the Confederacy was cut in two and utterly isolated. Next ... well, the original plan was to sit tight and let them starve. That didn't sit right with Grant. What he really wanted was to put an army on the South's doorstep. Chattanooga seemed a likely place to do just that.

He sent General Rosecrans out to do the deed. To his credit, Rosecrans didn't try to charge right up the middle. He began shelling the city on August 21st, but that was mostly to keep the Confederate commander, General Bragg, from realizing what he was really up to: putting a large number of Federal troops across the river, off to the southwest. By the time Bragg caught wise, he was already well and truly screwed. To his credit, Bragg decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and abandoned the city. Thus ended the Second Battle of Chattanooga. There were casualties, although no one's entirely sure how many. Probably not a whole lot, on either side.

Rosecrans decided that he might as well strike while the iron was hot. He was probably never going to get as good a chance to pursue and destroy Bragg's army as he had right at this moment, having just recently run his army out of Chattanooga.

It was more or less at this point that Bragg's reinforcements showed up.

This presented Bragg, and the Confederacy, with what was (for them) a very unusual situation: they had a numerical advantage over a Federal army. I'm not sure it had ever happened before, or would ever happen since. One of the implications of the Tale of the Tape was always that the Union had men and to spare, while the Confederacy would always have manpower problems. But here, thanks to President Davis' temporary detachment of Longstreet, Bragg had the upper hand, if only temporarily. He had a narrow window of opportunity within which to exploit that advantage.

At Chickamauga, he'd have his chance.

Rosecrans had come south out of Chattanooga, across the Tennessee River, looking for Bragg's army. Skirmishers met on September 18th, and the main forces clashed on the 19th. The details of the first day's fighting aren't especially important. It's the same story that's become so dreadfully familiar: the first force on the field stakes out a defensive position, the second attempts to overcome it, and fails with appalling casualties. We've seen it so many times before that it scarcely merits mention. No, the interesting things happened on the second day.

Because on the second day, the Union blundered.

The dispositions of the Union's right flank were mishandled, leaving several gaps in the lines. Longstreet was in command of the Confederate left, immediately opposite, and remembering Gettysburg, asked himself, "Now where have I seen this before?" Remembering Dan Sickles and the goat-rope all in and around the Devil's Den, Longstreet may well have said to himself, "Oh no, you don't. Not again. Not this time." Here, the ground wasn't playing tricks on his lines of sight. Here, he could see plainly was was before him. Here, he'd make those damn Yankees pay.

The Union right flank folded up like a cheap suit. Rosecrans himself folded up with it, utterly demoralized. That might have been the beginning of a disastrous rout, except for the fact that the Union right was able to redeploy and reform so as to form a new right flank. General George Thomas was able to take command of what was left of the Army of the Cumberland, organize a defense, and hold his position until nightfall, when he was able to withdraw and rejoin the retreating troops. This skillful rear-guard action earned Thomas the name, "Rock of Chickamauga." With Rosecrans so totally demoralized, and discredited, Thomas would now assume command of the Army of the Cumberland.

Now, Bragg had a choice. The choice was, pursue Rosecrans and try to beat him back to Chattanooga, or reorganize his army. He chose the latter. Some have vilified him for that. I'm beginning to wonder if that's fair. Bragg would have had some pretty serious problems trying to pursue Rosecrans. For one, he charged into the battle so fast that his troops left their supply wagons behind. For another, Rosecrans had retreated across the Tennessee River, which was now an obstacle for Bragg, and Bragg had no pontoon bridges. Or boats, for that matter; Rosecrans' men took them all. All that was left for Bragg to do was to lay siege to Chattanooga. He did still enjoy a numerical advantage, after all.

It wouldn't last:

Gen. Thomas -- 
Hold Chattanooga at all hazards. I will be there as soon as possible.
                                                                           -- Gen. Grant

This telegram was all Thomas needed to see. Grant was coming. With him, enough and more than enough manpower to break Bragg's siege. He'd hang on until Judgment Day, or until he starved, whichever came first ... although he expected Grant to arrive well before either of those happened.

Grant would not disappoint.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Video Del Fuego, Part LXIII

Welcome to today's "Swords into Plowshares" installment of this feature, where we look at a few cases of former weapons given new leases on life.

It's fairly obvious, if you think about it. When you've written the requirements for a long-range artillery missile, you've also written most of the requirements for a satellite launch vehicle. That sort of works both ways, which is why everyone gets antsy when North Korea tries to enter the satellite launching arena, because exactly no one believes that Kim Jong-Un is trying to muscle in on Arianespace's market share. But while the list of would-be satellite launchers that have become successful weapons is somewhere between short and empty, the list of weapons that have gone on to a second life as satellite launchers is very long.

For the United States, it's a list that begins with our very first military missiles.

First, the Atlas. You may remember that a version of Atlas was used during the orbital phase of Project Mercury. What you may not have heard is that old, decommissioned Atlas-F ICBMs were refurbished by the Air Force, and used to launch spy satellites during the '60s, '70s, and beyond. The last of the "stage-and-a-half" Atlas rockets flew in 2004.

The next ICBM the U.S. deployed, the Titan, was also recycled for launch duty. Again, it played a role in the American manned space program as the launch vehicle for Project Gemini. And like Atlas, once the missiles were decommissioned in the '80s, they found new life as workhorses in the Air Force satellite program. One such missile sent the Clementine space probe on its way to the Moon in 1994, another was used to launch the NOAA-M weather satellite in 2002.

The next ICBM to be deployed, the Minuteman, hasn't been taken out of service yet. Its alleged replacement, the Peacekeeper, has been withdrawn. Depending on who you talk to, the Peacekeeper was taken out of service because of cuts mandated by treaty, or because the Air Force wasn't happy with its range. Maybe a little of both? Either way, its engines became available for Orbital Sciences Corporation to fool around with. Some Peacekeeper first stages were used in their Taurus launcher. But then, they got the idea to just use the whole darn thing, which was the beginning of the Minotaur. Last week, a Minotaur was used to send the LADEE probe on its way to the Moon.

Solid rockets don't waste a whole lot of time getting off the ground, do they?

Of all the missiles I just mentioned, only the Minotaur is still in service. Sort of. There's still an Atlas flying, the Atlas V, but it only shares a name with its progenitor. The American-built airframe uses a Russian-built RD-180 engine in its first stage.

The world is a weird place. If you were to ask an average American circa 1812 who our nation's strongest ally would be two hundred years hence, he'll pick anyone but the British, and he'd be wrong. And if you were to ask a Convair engineer in 1963 whose engines his Atlas rocket would be using in fifty years, he'd pick anyone but the Russians, and he'd also be wrong.

It's an interesting exercise in humility: just imagine what we're going to be wrong about, in fifty years' time?

Friday, August 30, 2013

When All Else Fails...

Statistically speaking, flying is the safest way to travel. As we proceed with today's subject, that's well worth remembering. But we all know that statistics are mostly about lying with figures, and that airplanes do fail ... leading to an obvious question. Let's say the worst has happened, and the lovely balance of forces keeping you aloft has suddenly turned ugly. Now what?

The answer to that question has varied considerably throughout the years.

The earliest answer was, well, find the softest thing in your line of sight and try to run into it as slowly and gently as possible. That "solution" was equally unpopular both among pilots and owners of haystacks, so the search was on for a better idea. They didn't have to look far.

Surprisingly, the parachute was invented very early, indeed. The modern parachute was invented by a Frenchman, Louis-Sebastien Lenormand, in 1783. If the year sounds familiar, it should; the first hot-air balloons were also invented around the same time, and necessity drove balloonists to find a ... slower descent should something unexpected happen. Despite this, it took several years after the invention of the airplane before parachutes were successfully adapted to the new machine. This is partly because an airplane's cockpit affords far less room than does a balloon's gondola. Eventually, the mechanics for packing a parachute within a pack worn on the back were worked out. Within ten years, aviators had a more-or-less reliable way to part company with a misbehaving aircraft, and live to brag about it afterwards. They're still the cornerstone of all escape mechanisms. But only the cornerstone. As aircraft flew higher and faster, the parachute would need a little help.

The problem that you face bailing out of a high-speed jet is simply this: you're not strong enough to overcome the blast of air howling outside the cockpit. You may find the solution either obvious or counter-intuitive, depending on how naturally you look to explosives as the answer to all your problems. Basically, if you're not strong enough to leap clear, you light off a solid rocket motor under your seat and let chemistry take it from there.


The early models ... didn't work so well. But they got better. Early seats had a minimum "safe" altitude, while modern seats can be used from an airplane sitting still on the ground, if necessary. (I'll admit, I'm having a hard time imagining when it'd be necessary to punch out of an aircraft sitting still on a runway. But I digress.)

This arrangement works well, up to a point. That point would be somewhere north of Mach 1, when the hammer-blows from the oncoming supersonic airstream can deliver a lethal beat-down to a man whose only protection is a flight suit. And that's to say nothing of the problems posed by the lack of oxygen at extreme altitudes. Three different methods have been proposed for dealing with this problem.

When drawing up what would eventually become the F-111, engineers at General Dynamics decided that since throwing a flight-suited man into a supersonic aistream was the problem, they just wouldn't do that. If getting him out of the cockpit was the problem, they figured they'd let him take the cockpit with him. In case of emergency, the F-111's crew cabin would separate from the rest of the aircraft, and descend under its own parachute. Once on the ground, the pilots could just walk out.

It works much better than it looks.

A similar escape pod was originally planned for the B-1A supersonic bomber, but when it was re-designed into the B-1B, the supersonic dash requirement was removed, and it was decided that ordinary ejection seats would serve just as well. While escape pods work quite well, they're very heavy, and thus very expensive.

Another group of engineers at General Dynamics, then called Convair, worked on a slightly different solution. Instead of ejecting the entire cabin, perhaps an enclosure that covered only the ejection seat would serve? This was the system they worked out for the B-58 supersonic bomber. Each of the three ejection seats had a clamshell door overhead. In the event of emergency, the shell would snap shut, protecting the crewman from the supersonic blast of air just outside.

This also works a lot better than it looks.

The capsules even had a set of controls, so that the pilot could attempt to keep the aircraft under control while his crew punched out. It wasn't a bad idea, but it does impose a weight penalty above and beyond ordinary ejection seats.

And then you had Kelly Johnson at Lockheed, who wasn't having any of that "enclosure" nonsense.

Because enclosures are for sissies.

No, when they built the A-12 and its follow-on SR-71 Blackbird, they'd put their crew in a full space suit, and have them sit in ordinary ejection seats. The suit would take the abuse of a Mach-3 aerodynamic beat-down, and also provide insulation and breathing air while the crew descended towards Earth. The few times its had to be used, it worked fine. The one time they lost a man post-ejection, it was due to drowning, not anything that happened at altitude. The thing Johnson liked best about this arrangement is that the weight penalty was almost negligible, being that they had to put the pilots in pressure suits anyway due to the aircraft's operating altitude.

And then, we come to the final frontier. The same question remains: what do you do when your spaceship quits on you, and you're still up in orbit? Take heart, my friend, for the engineers at General Electric have you covered! Or don't, because their brainchild, MOOSE, has been called "the single most terrifying form of transport ever devised by man." Basically, when things go cubist, you bring a suitcase-sized thing outside with you and open it up. You strap it on your back, then pull a cord to fill a cone-shaped shell with foam. Then, you use a hand-held gas gun to point yourself in more or less the right direction, before you light off a retro-rocket for re-entry. Then you spend the next half-hour desperately praying that you didn't forget to carry the one, because if you got any of that sequence wrong, your butt was gonna roast like a Thanksgiving turkey.

What could POSSIBLY go wrong?

No one especially liked this plan. Not NASA, not the Air Force, not anyone involved with sending astronauts into space. Once it was clear that no one was buying, GE basically shelved the whole idea.

Again, I'd like to remind you that flying is still the safest way to travel. Unless, of course, your trip involves supersonic flight or a voyage through outer space, in which case you knew the job was dangerous when you took it.

Friday, August 23, 2013

What Is The Measure Of A Planet?

A few days ago, on August 15th, NASA released the news that their efforts to keep the planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft operational just weren't going to work. Of course, that depends on what level of "operational" you're talking about. It can send and receive messages from Mission Control just fine. Its solar panels are providing plenty of electricity. Its sensors are fully functional. But it's only got two control gyros left, one less than it needs to do the super-accurate pointing it really needs to do in order to see the tiny wiggles that betray a planet around a sun tens to hundreds of light-years away.

They're open to suggestions for other uses. If you've got a notion about how to use the last two gyros in concert with its thrusters to point it accurately, and with stability, they'd love to hear from you.

Kepler, to date, has found 134 fully-confirmed planets orbiting 75 different stars, along with 3,277 unconfirmed candidates. Not a bad haul for four years' work.

If only we had a good, universal definition of what a planet actually is.

Once upon a time, a good way to start a bar fight at any astronomers' convention would be to throw out the question, "Is Pluto a planet?" Did I say "once upon a time?" It's still a fairly contentious topic, seven years after the IAU formally demoted Pluto to "dwarf planet" status.

The current definition states that a planet is:

1) In orbit around the Sun,

2) Has sufficient mass to achieve hydrostatic equilibrium (a nearly round shape), and

3) Has "cleared the neighborhood" around its orbit.

I've had seven years to think it over, and I'm not sure I like the third part. No, scratch that, I'm sure I don't like it. My beef with this definition is that it's not universal enough to be of real use. How do we know any of the 940 confirmed exo-planets discovered by all means at our disposal are real, genuine, bona fide planets?

Well, I suppose we could add a fourth qualification. If it's detectable from at least ten light-years away, it ought to be good, right? Well, not really. That definition relies on how good your telescopes are. So that really doesn't work, either.

Here's the real problem, which caused the IAU to write the definition the way they did: using only (1) and (2) above would give us an enormous -- and possibly ever-expanding -- number of planets. Unwieldy lists aren't good or useful for anyone. So there had to be a third discriminant. The orbital mechanics weenies -- and I was one, part-time, back in grad school -- crafted the requirement to "clear the neighborhood", and called the problem solved.

My issue with the definition as written is that you can't apply that rule over interstellar distances. You just don't have enough information. There's no way, even in principle, to make your observations so precise. But you still need a third rule, so that the list can't grow without limit. There's gotta be a way to draw a metaphorical line, saying "You must be this tall to be a planet."

There are two ways to draw that line, by mass, or by radius. Or use both, allowing the candidate to qualify by one or the other. The nice thing about this discriminant is that it's universal. It doesn't depend on how the object moves, it depends on what the object is. You can apply it here, or around Alpha Centauri, or Epsilon Eridani. It works equally well everywhere.

And I don't especially care where you draw the line. I give not a rip if Pluto is above or below the cut-off. Set the limit at Pluto's size plus five percent, or minus five percent, I'm good with either one.

All I want is a rule that I can use wherever my attention wanders. And it wanders pretty damned wide.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Video Del Fuego, Part LXII

Being an island nation at war is a decidedly mixed bag. On the one hand, islands tend to be somewhat defensible. Invading an island is exactly no one's idea of a fun time. But on the other hand, doing that whole wartime thing requires a whole bunch of stuff that's not always easy to find on an island. Therefore, it has to come from somewhere else. If you enemy has even an ounce of sense, they're going to try to keep you from getting it. So, now what?

This was the question running through the mind of Geoffrey de Havilland in the spring of 1938. At that point, a blind man could see the storm clouds gathering. De Havilland realized that being able to build an airplane with non-strategic materials would be of considerable advantage, not just to him personally, but to Britain. When he did a more detailed study, he realized that while wood had poor torsional characteristics, its strength-to-weight ratio was just as good as steel or aluminum. That came as a bit of a surprise. The projected performance also came as something of a surprise. When he turned the crank again, the equation he came up with looked something like this:

(2 Rolls-Royce Merlin Engines) + (Lightweight wooden structure) = Bat Outta Hell.

This two-engine light bomber would be faster than anything the Germans had, either flying or on the drawing board, outside of anything sporting either a jet or rocket engine. It took two years to refine the design, but by early 1940, what de Havilland was offering was something the Royal Air Force was very interested in having. Thus, the first prototype of the de Havilland Mosquito flew for the first time on the 25th of November.

While the Mosquito was originally sold as a light bomber, it also found use as a photo recon bird, a day or night fighter, a pathfinder for heavier bombers, a torpedo bomber, and even as a transport. It had three defining characteristics. First, it was fast. It could do better than 400 miles per hour, a speed matched or surpassed among prop aircraft only by the P-38 Lightning, the F4U Corsair, and the F8F Bearcat; none of which were in the Luftwaffe inventory. Second, it had legs. It could fly 1,500 miles with a full weapons load. A single Mosquito could, and sometimes did, make a solo raid on Berlin, just to make the point that it could. The Luftwaffe chief was not amused:
"In 1940 I could at least fly as far as Glasgow in most of my aircraft, but not now! It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminium better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they give it a speed which they have now increased yet again. What do you make of that?" -- Hermann Goering, c. 1943
The third thing ... It's often said that the Germans didn't have radar. That's not quite true. They knew all about it, and even used it themselves. But detecting a wooden plane with primitive radar? Yeah, good luck with that. At night, a well-flown Mosquito may as well have been invisible.

It was a beautiful, remarkable airplane, but the ravages of time are not kind to even well-tended wood. Not many are left today. But amazingly enough, one of them has been restored to flyable condition.

KA114 was built by de Havilland Canada in 1945, and was shipped to New Zealand for restoration in 2012. If you're alert, and lucky, you might be able to see it come to an airshow near you.

Man, there's nothing like the sound of a Merlin or two at full throttle. That symphony never gets old.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Rush To Judgement

For the most part, I studiously ignore talk radio in virtually all its forms. Virtually, I say; sports talk radio is pretty entertaining when done well. But news talk radio? Mostly useless.

I'm not going to go into why it's useless just right now. Suffice it to say that if it bleeds, it leads, and most media outlets try to lead you along by a steady diet of fear and/or outrage. I don't need anyone to tell me what I should be outraged about. What I need is someone to tell me what's actually happening out there. Outrage, I can work out on my own. (Or not. Unfocused outrage is also mostly useless.)

Anyway, my main point is that I mostly ignore what Rush Limbaugh has to say. Not because he's a conservative, but because his day job is to be a loudmouth schnook, and I already have as many of those in my life as I need.

Unfortunately, that means that when he does say something worth paying attention to, I usually miss it.

But even then, he often misses the point, like when he compared the Republican Party to Apple earlier this week. His point, near as I can understand it, is that just like mainstream tech bloggers often hate Apple, mainstream media hates the Republican Party.

What Rush doesn't actually get is why a lot of tech geeks hate Apple. The two words that explain everything aren't "media bias", but "vertical integration".

The reasons why Apple products have such a reputation for working so well, and the reasons why they're often so expensive, and the reasons why their competitors often end up with such a higher market share are all tied together in that one phrase. "Vertical integration" means that Apple owns it all. They control the entire user experience from cradle to grave. They build the hardware. They develop the operating system. They rule the APIs with an iron fist. If your app doesn't pass muster, it ain't going on their online store, no way, no how. And if it doesn't come from their app store, it isn't going on your phone. Computers are another thing entirely ... but the same broad principles apply.

Now, for the average Joe who wouldn't know a terabyte from a trombone, this is probably a good thing. With most Apple products, the rule of thumb is that something is either intuitive or otherwise immediately obvious, or it's just outright impossible. Which means if doing the obvious thing doesn't work, well, you don't have to waste time fiddling with it. That app just won't do that function, friend. Find another one.

But there's a breed of alpha-geek power-user out there for whom that's an enraging travesty. And a disproportionate fraction of them blog, or vlog, or post to YouTube, or otherwise make their outrage known.


My point is that they don't hate on Apple because it's cool to hate on Apple ... although there's probably a bit of that going around, too. But that's beside the point. The point is that they rage against Apple's iron-fisted control over all things Apple, and are bellowing YOU'RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME! at The Man.

Vertical Integration ... doesn't exactly describe the Republican Party. Maybe it did, once upon a time. But their establishment -- their equivalent of Steve Jobs and his top software architects -- lost control of the party's message a while back, and are scrambling like mad to keep pace with the Tea Party fanatics who are mostly in charge these days. What's vertically integrated in GOP-land these days? Not the message -- the loon with the biggest megaphone owns it, whoever that happens to be on a particular day. Not the legislative agenda. And definitely not the nomination process.

No, if there's a tech company that the GOP resembles, it's ColecoVision.

Pictured: the reason WHY you've never heard of ColecoVision.
Hint: they made REALLY BAD computers.

It's ... not a path I'd recommend emulating. But it appears to be the one they've chosen.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Assorted Stuff

Once again, we're in the that part of Summer where God turns the oven on broil and goes off to tend to other business for a while. The unrelenting fury of Mean Ol' Mister Sun does tend to sap my ability for deep thinking, but even so, I do notice a few things going on.

1) Sharknado. It's a movie about a tornado full of sharks. But it was always advertised as a movie about a tornado full of sharks. If you tuned into a movie called Sharknado expecting anything else, you have no right to your disappointment. Understand, I'm not saying it was a good film by any reasonable standard of the term. But lots of bad movies have been made, like, let's say, Battlefield Earth or Zardoz. (Oh God, Zardoz.)

Pictured: Sean Connery wearing a mustache, a diaper, and an expression saying "I quit James Bond for this?!?"

But they were just ordinarily bad. Sharknado, at least, has the potential to be legendarily bad. But that's beside the point. If you tuned in for the world premiere, you knew the job was dangerous when you took it.

2) Sikorsky Prize Won. There were two prizes awaiting the first man-powered aircraft: the Kremer prize for the first man-powered heavier-than-air vehicle, and the Sikorsky prize for the first man-powered rotary-wing aircraft. The Kremer prize was won in 1977 by Paul MacCready's Gossamer Condor. The Sikorsky prize proved to be a much tougher nut to crack ... until now. The AeroVelo team, funded by a Kickstarter campaign, designed and built an enormous contraption that, nonetheless ... well, you have to see this to believe it.

Yes, you saw that right. One dude, by himself, pedaled that enormous thing into the sky.

3) Photobombing Saturn. By the time you read this, it's already too late to participate, but someone noticed that one of Cassini's routine photo surveys of Saturn would include the Earth. So, someone at NASA HQ got the idea that everyone should go outside, smile, and wave to make it a proper photobombing. So I did. (I mean, why the heck not?)

4) For Sale: Rocket Engine, Used Once. Earlier, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos financed a salvage mission to try to recover some old discarded Apollo hardware from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Specifically, he was looking for remnants of the Saturn V first stages that were discarded after use, off the Florida coast. They found what they were looking for, but weren't sure what mission they'd come from yet. Well, after some analysis, they can report that yes, they found the engines that sent Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins on their historic voyage aboard Apollo 11. He doesn't intend to sell the engines, of course, but he does want to put them on display somewhere.

5) Zombie Satellite! A while back, the Kepler planet-hunting satellite lost another of its control gyros, leaving it with two left. Three has been considered the minimum number necessary to give the pointing accuracy needed for Kepler to do its job properly. I say "has been considered", because in a week or two, NASA will try a last-ditch effort to find a work-around for this issue. If it's successful, Kepler will continue hunting new planets for a little while longer.

And that's probably a good place to wrap up for now. For all the stuff and nonsense going on, it's worth remembering that we do live in a wondrous, beautiful world.

Wondrous and beautiful, even if it is a world with Zardoz in it.

What the HELL, Boorman?!?

Friday, July 05, 2013

Sesquicentennial, Part XXXI: The Fulcrum of History


July 1  --  July 2  --  July 3  --  July 4  --  July 5

"For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago..." -- William Faulkner

The American Civil War is, undeniably, the central event in American history. Well, I say "undeniably", but there may be a few other events that qualify. There's the Revolution, without which there wouldn't be a United States, at least not in its present form. And there's the Second World War, which not only transformed America's role in the world, but was the catalyst for an amazing cascade of changes that would reverberate through the decades to follow. But if you had to pick one event that was the pre-eminent watershed, one event that irrevocably separated what came before from what would come after, then you'd be hard pressed to choose anything but the secession of the Southern states, and the Constitutional crisis that provoked. It's like Shelby Foote once said, before the Civil War, you'd say "the United States are", and after you'd say "the United States is". Before, a collection of States; afterwards, a single, inviolable Union.

And if you had to pick the central event within the central event ... There are a few perfectly defensible candidates, but I'd have to pick the first week of July in 1863. Everything that happened in the previous three years led up to this point, and everything that followed flowed away from it.

You could pick the Emancipation Proclamation. Or the Thirteenth Amendment. But those would have come to naught, if the Union couldn't compel the Confederacy into obedience. And these last four days were the crucial turning point of that contest. Before the one-two punch of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the Confederacy had a shouting chance of holding out long enough for either Europe to intervene, or the North to tire of the effort. Now, although the latter might still be in play, the former was a hope gone forever.

You see, one of the ways that the Confederacy would raise money was by the sale of bonds in European markets. The bonds promised repayment in Confederate cash, once Confederate independence had been won and Confederate cotton was once again available on the world market in bulk. They did a fairly brisk trade, raising desperately-needed hard cash for the war effort.

After the news hit Europe, though ... bond prices crashed, and never recovered. Speculators saw that not only was the Confederacy's biggest army under its best commander seen off, but the Confederacy itself had been cut in two and isolated. No one was touching those instruments with a ten-foot pole after that.

But it's not just that. The character of the conflict has changed. One of those changes, I'll leave for another time. The other change is still fairly significant: the Confederacy has lost the initiative.

This isn't obvious, yet. But the Tale of the Tape was beginning to tell, and hard. Not only that, but the Confederacy's initial advantage in officer quality had finally slipped.

First, supply issues. The South was never able to support a modern field army. Their plan had always been to rely upon foreign support that never actually materialized. They didn't have the industry, or the transportation infrastructure, to keep an army well-stocked with ammunition, or guns, or food and clothing. They did well enough the first two years, but only by running their industrial plant ragged. They were desperately short of tools, and skilled men. And now, totally cut off from foreign trade, the supply problems would only get worse.

Second, officer quality. The Union's problem was never that they had poor officers, it's that they had to staff and garrison forts out West, where there wasn't any action to speak of. They also had to placate the long-serving officers in the Regular Army, who were of somewhat uneven quality. The Confederacy, as I've said before, had no such problem, and could immediately put their best men in key spots. Two years pass. These two years have been a particularly brutal sifting process for the Union. Just about anyone who's still alive at this point has, at a minimum, proven that they're not abjectly incompetent ... with a handful of exceptions. And the troops themselves? Hardened, skilled, tested in the fire; they've been weighed in the scales and found worthy. The Confederacy had an early advantage in officer skill and troop morale. But now, they face officers just as skilled, and troops hungry for victory. And there are more of them. That's the other side of the Tale of the Tape, that the Confederacy was always punching above its weight class. They knew that, but were betting that the Union didn't.

Well the Union knows it now. And they're about to spin the vise down and squeeze.

It wouldn't be quick. It wouldn't be easy. But Phase I of the Anaconda plan was now complete. Now it was time for Phase II to begin. And there was blessed little that the Confederacy could do about it.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Sesquicentennial, Part XXX: Vicksburg


July 1  --  July 2  --  July 3  --  July 4  --  July 5

"God gave us Lincoln and liberty, let us fight for both." -- General Ulysses S. Grant

Sieges aren't fun for anybody.

A siege combines the horrors of an extended campaign with the stultifying boredom of garrison duty. You're either on the firing line, shooting and getting shot at, or you're back in camp, doing a whole lot of nothing. It doesn't especially matter which side of the siege works you're sitting on. Except, that is, for the fact that the besieging force can resupply with food and ammunition. The besieged force, and the unfortunate civilians within the besieged city, have whatever food and stores they managed to lay in before the noose drew shut.

Eventually, it runs out.

That's how sieges have almost always ended. The dramatic version, where the attackers smash down the walls by force and take the castle, almost never happens. The counter-examples are exceptional, like when Alexander the Great seized the then-island city of Tyre. (Incidentally, Alexander's also the reason Tyre is no longer an island, but that's another story.) The usual result, especially in the medieval and early modern period, is that the opposing commanders would meet and fix a date. The date was related to how much food the defenders had. If that date passed without relief for the defenders, then the defending commander would surrender his garrison.

All this is important on this day, July 4, 1863, because General Ulysses S. Grant has been camped out outside of Vicksburg, Mississippi with his army since mid-May. General John Pemberton has been cut off from communications or supply since that date. In theory, a Confederate army could come to break the siege. It's a nice theory. Unfortunately, it depends on an army being available for siege-breaking that President Davis didn't already have busy elsewhere.

Grant didn't take inactivity well. He never did. All of the episodes of his reported drunkenness happened when he was cooped up with nothing better to do than taste-test whiskey. When his army was on the move, Grant had plenty to occupy him; but when it was encamped outside of Vicksburg, he had very few decisions that needed making. The main decision being, when to try another assault on the defensive works?

After a few bloody attempts in May, Grant gave those up as a bad idea. He simply surrounded Vicksburg with big guns, and let his artillerymen do all his talking from then on.

Eventually, Pemberton decided that his soldiers could endure no more. Starvation, and all the diseases associated with starvation, were becoming a real problem. He asked Grant for terms on July 3, 1863. At first, Grant began to issue his standard demand of unconditional surrender ... but then reconsidered, because he had no particular desire to have to feed some 30,000 hungry Confederate prisoners in Union prison camps. Instead, he worked out a parole arrangement, where the Confederate soldiers would go home until "exchanged" with similarly-paroled Union prisoners. This sort of thing was not uncommon up to this point in the war. The final terms were worked out on July 4, when Pemberton surrendered Vickburg to Grant.

Upon hearing of the surrender of Vicksburg, Lincoln exulted, "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea." With the surrender of Vicksburg, the Confederacy was not only cut in two, it was totally isolated from the outside world.

From now on, the Confederate Army's supply problems would only get worse.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Sesquicentennial, Part XXIX: July 3, 1863


July 1  --  July 2  --  July 3  --  July 4  --  July 5

"And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by, from this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remembered..." -- King Henry V

George Meade was not a man given to dramatic, flowery speeches. It would never have occurred to him to bust out in the kind of glorious oratory that Shakespeare attributes to old Harry in the famous play. But even if he were, Meade might not have thought it absolutely necessary. Yes, he expected Lee to try to run it up the middle, having already tried both of his flanks. But he liked his position, and he liked the mettle of his men. If that battle were his lot today, he'd take it.

Robert E. Lee wasn't famous for his stirring speeches, either. He was a quiet, private man by nature. He knew the dire straits his army was in, though, and if he had it in him to pull a St. Crispin's Day speech out of his hat, he'd have certainly given it a shot. But he had something almost as good: late yesterday afternoon, his "prodigal son" Jeb Stuart finally showed up. He wasn't exactly ... happy ... with his cavalry chief, but knew what he was capable of when his head was screwed on straight. And he needed Stuart's wizardry in the saddle if he was going to pull a victory out of this mess.

Meade was right: Lee was going to try to run it up the middle today. Now, if that was all he was going to try then there's no way the plan could possibly end but disaster. Marching men uphill against protected infantry plus artillery was a recipe for an enormous casualty list, to no gain worth mentioning. No, the plan had to have more. Now that Stuart was there with his cavalry corps, Lee felt he had all the pieces he needed.

The plan had three elements. First, his artillery commander E. Porter Alexander would lay on a barrage that would suppress the Union artillery on Cemetery Ridge. Second, Stuart would lead his cavalry around the right flank of the Federal line, to strike at their rear. Third, there would be a simultaneous assault by Longstreet's infantry on the front, concentrated such that the Confederates would be able to overwhelm the Union troops and break their line. By hitting them in two places at once, it was hoped Meade would be unable to shift reserves fast enough to seal the breach.

Unfortunately for Lee, the Plan Fairy wasn't his friend today, because things began to unravel almost immediately. The problems began with the artillery bombardment. Alexander faced two significant challenges. First, he was firing uphill, and the Union gunners were firing downhill. That automatically gave the Union gunners a significant range advantage. Alexander had to put his ammunition storage well back from the front, otherwise the Union artillery would blast them to scrap in fairly short order. This hindered Alexander's rate of fire. The other problem was one that Alexander had no way of knowing about. Most of Alexander's shells weren't hitting Union positions. They were sailing overhead, smashing into unoccupied areas in the Federal rear.

An idea began to dawn upon the Federal artillery commander, Brigadier General Henry Hunt. He wanted to save ammunition for the assault that was sure to come. But, he didn't want to cut fire all at once, since that would tip his hand. Instead, he had his batteries quit firing one at a time, in semi-random order. One here, another there, a third down the line... He wanted to give the impression that the Confederates were taking out his guns.

No one's sure if Lee or Alexander bought the ruse. It wouldn't have mattered. The orders went out for Stuart and Longstreet go prepare their attacks.

Stuart's ride started out well enough. He made it all the way around, east of the Federal positions. Unfortunately, when he began to turn to head towards the Federal rear, he found that the Federal cavalry was there waiting for him. By Civil War standards the casualties were almost negligible. But the damage to Lee's plan was incalculable.

The orders had already been given. No one knew, no one could know, that no attack from the rear was coming. Longstreet, who had deep misgivings about the plan from the start, could hardly bear to give the final orders to advance. Some say that a subordinate had to give them. But, given they were.

The Confederate bombardment had not silenced the Union guns. The Confederate cavalry had not pierced the Union rear. Fifteen thousand men marched into a Hell of fire and lead, about half made it back to the Confederate lines when it was over. Miraculously, they made it to the wall, General Pickett's men, from General Armistead's brigade, had actually broken through. But that wasn't enough. General Hancock was able to put enough men into the breach to seal it up.

This was an especially poignant moment. Armistead and Hancock had been the best and closest of friends before the war. Both men were wounded in the attack. Armistead's prayer was answered, after a fashion; Hancock recovered from his wounds, but Armistead did not. (Richard Jordan's work here is doubly poignant, since it was his last role before he died of brain cancer.)

Lee was appalled at the casualties, and would regret ordering this charge for the rest of his life. He had the survivors form up to receive a possible Union counter-attack, but none was coming. Meade had his hands full reorganizing his men, having pulled so many from other units to plug holes here and there. Besides, he saw how that whole marching-across-a-field-under-fire thing worked out, and wanted no part of it.

There would be no significant actions the next day. Under an unofficial truce, they collected their wounded and their dead. Later on that same day, Lee withdrew and began his retreat towards Virginia. While he regretted that charge on the third day, he nevertheless saw the campaign as an overall success. He'd achieved clear successes on two of his goals, gathering supplies and keeping the Union busy somewhere other than Virginia. As for the third goal, well, public opinion in the Union might turn against the war eventually. That was always a long-term project. He had a year and change, until November 1864, to make that happen.

He might have been less optimistic, had he known what was happening out West. As bad as Gettysburg's third day had been, worse news was yet to come.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Sesquicentennial, Part XXVIII: July 2, 1863


July 1  --  July 2  --  July 3  --  July 4  --  July 5

"On difficult ground, press on; on hemmed-in ground, use subterfuge; on death ground, fight." -- Sun Tzu

All through the night, Union reinforcements arrived at Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge. By morning, six of the seven Corps that made up the Army of the Potomac had arrived at the scene. John Sedgwick's V Corps was still enroute, about thirty miles away and closing. With the bulk of the Army of the Potomac came its new commander, General Meade. His was a difficult position: with only days to study the predicament, he had to join his new command while the battle was already in progress. Fortunately for him, the day's actions didn't commence straight away, and he had a bit of time to take stock of the situation. Holding such a strong defensive position, it seemed to Meade that the best course of action by far would be to sit tight, and let Lee come to him. He saw the same thing that Hancock had seen the day before, all the advantages lay with the Union -- high ground, interior lines of communication, more men and guns at his disposal. There was no need for him to come down off the ridge to engage the enemy. The enemy would have to come and fight, or go home. And Meade was fairly sure Lee wasn't going to go home, not just yet.

But a few peculiar things happened before the battle was joined in earnest. The first had to do with the peculiarities of the landscape, the second had to do with the peculiarities of a certain Union officer.

Lines of sight can be tricky things. I know of a place in the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma, a certain small gorge that is utterly invisible from the road. You can drive by every day for years and never notice it's there, but if you know just the right place to park, and walk just ten yards off the road, there it is. To an eye unfamiliar with the terrain, the hills south of Gettysburg can play tricks on you.

The main point being ... from his headquarters on Seminary Ridge, Lee could not see the Union deployments to the south or east of Cemetery Ridge. His plan of attack, meant to turn the Union left flank, was as follows: Ewell would mount a diversionary attack on Culp's Hill. If the diversion looked like it was actually going to go anywhere, Lee reserved the option to commit more forces there. But the main attack would be on the left, with Longstreet's divisions attacking through the Peach Orchard and the Devil's Den. After this attack was underway, A.P. Hill would attack Cemetery Ridge directly, to prevent Meade from reinforcing his flank. Lee was utterly unaware that Union troops were already deployed farther south than he expected.

The thing is ... Union forces were also deployed farther west than Meade expected, as well. Which brings us to the aforementioned peculiarities of a Union officer, the first man ever to use an insanity defense successfully in American legal history, General Daniel Sickles. Sickles didn't like his assigned place on the line. He thought another ridge slightly to the west offered higher ground, and a better vantage for his guns. So, without asking Meade's permission, or for that matter even telling him where he was going, Sickles redeployed his Corps.

When Longstreet's attack ran into Union forces pretty much where every officer who wasn't Dan Sickles expected empty ground, Lee's carefully-engineered plan started to go cubist. Not that Meade was any better off, since Sickles' extemporaneous reorganization left a few honking great gaps in his lines. Meade had two huge strokes of luck: first, Lee couldn't see those holes, the terrain being what it was; and second, he had enough reserves to plug the holes ... provided that Sickles and his men could blunt the charge long enough.

They were certainly going to try. It's not like they had much choice. Because of his forward stance, the Confederates could flank Sickles on both sides, and did so. But they could no longer pursue their original plan. Those of Longstreet's men who weren't already engaged had to march farther south and east than they'd originally intended, and by the time they got there, Meade had forces there waiting for them.

What was happening in the Peach Orchard and Devil's Den was exactly no one's idea of a fun time, with the possible exception of General Sickles, but we've already established that Dan-O was nuttier than a short ton of Almond Joy. We'll never know what the rest of Sickles' plan was, since a Confederate cannon ball caught him in the leg and took it off, taking Sickles out of the fight. One of his subordinates remarked, uncharitably, "Bad news for Sickles, good news for the Army." But even though it cost dearly in casualties, it's possible that his crazy stunt kept Lee's attack from coming off as he'd originally planned.

Even so, it was a near-run thing. Even so, Hood nearly turned the Union flank. The very end of the line was held by the 20th Maine Volunteer Regiment. They endured ninety minutes of fearful, intense, non-stop combat. They'd beaten off two charges by Hood's men, but had suffered nearly fifty percent casualties, and were just about out of ammunition. Before they could get additional men or supplies, the Confederates came for one last try. The commander of the 20th Maine, Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, made a decision that would later cement his place in American history.

The bayonet charge broke the last attack, and there were no more attempts on the left flank that day. There would be sporadic fighting on the right until nightfall, but as promising as Ewell's attacks were in the beginning, they were never able to gain enough of a foothold to matter. In time, they, too, had to withdraw.

Later that night, Meade called a council of war. He explained the situation as he saw it, and asked his senior commanders one question: go, or no go? Do we fight it out here, or do we withdraw?

On the one hand, every one of these men had memories of being badly mishandled by Lee. They had a healthy respect for his ability to seemingly pull miracles out of nowhere, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat more than once. But on the other ... they held their ground today. They felt good about their positions, had great confidence in the bravery and competence of their men. Gone were the green-horns that bolted in fear from Bull Run. The ones that were left after the brutal winnowing of two years of war were hardened, skilled veterans. The vote was: we stay. We fight.

Meade was relieved. He didn't think his men would vote to withdraw, but he was gratified that their confidence matched his own. He expected that Lee would try the center tomorrow, having tried to turn both flanks.

But come what may, the Army of the Potomac was going to stand its ground and fight.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Sesquicentennial, Part XXVII: July 1, 1863


July 1  --  July 2  --  July 3  --  July 4  --  July 5

"Where there is no vision, the people perish ..." -- Proverbs 29:18

Nowadays, we take the aerial, God's-eye view of the battlefield for granted. We forget that it's less than a hundred years old. Today's commander has a plethora of eyes to deploy: enormous downward-pointing telescopes in Earth orbit, telescopic sensors mounted on U-2 aircraft flying at 80,000 feet above the battlefield, any of several kinds of drones, or sensor pods slung underneath a low-flying helicopter or fighter jet. If an enemy is foolish enough to be out in the open, day or night, cloud or clear, rain or shine, it's Candid Camera time, followed shortly by an Explodium Candygram.

A century and a half ago, a commander's eyes were seldom any higher off the ground than horseback. A man on horseback made for a pretty good scout. Unfortunately for General Robert E. Lee, it had been about a week since he'd last seen his cavalry chief, General J.E.B. Stuart. And as a result, he only had the vaguest of ideas where the Union army was.

Partly, the Union army was busy changing commanders. Again. Hooker had gotten in a spat with someone at headquarters, and in the heat of argument offered his resignation to President Lincoln. Hooker hadn't expected Lincoln to accept. This, a moment when a rebel army was marching into your territory, seemed like a damned odd time to switch out the top officer of your largest field army. It was a puzzling decision ... except that Hooker had already lost Lincoln's confidence, and Lincoln was looking for an opportunity to replace him. In his stead, he sent General George Gordon Meade to take his place. In the meantime, the Union army would have to trundle along, trusting to the competence of its brigade and division commanders.

Fortunately, most of them knew their jobs pretty well. The Union army was shadowing Lee's northward progress, on the other side of the mountain ridge. Such was the paucity of information available to Lee that he didn't discover until June 29th that the Union army had crossed the Potomac river, several days after the event. The news was an unwelcome surprise, since Lee's army was strung out on an arc between Chambersville, Carlisle, and Wrightsville. He needed to concentrate his forces, quick, or be defeated in detail. He also needed to know where the Union army actually was, with equal urgency. He issued orders to assemble at Cashtown, which was in a reasonably defensible position.

The next day, General Pettigrew made what would become a momentous decision. He heard that a great store of supplies was available in a nearby town, called Gettysburg. He ventured a reconnaissance-in-force to see if these reports were accurate, because his troops were in pretty desperate need of shoes.

The good news is that they found shoes. The bad news is that they were attached to the feet of dismounted Union cavalry under Brigadier General John Buford. Both Union and Confederate commanders sent runners back to their respective armies that they had made contact with the enemy.

The Battle of Gettysburg had begun.

Buford knew that he wasn't going to hold his position with just one division of cavalry, so he laid out defenses on three ridges to the north and west of town, intending to fight a delaying action until the Army of the Potomac could occupy the far better defensive position south and east of the town. He was joined by two divisions of infantry, which gave him a little more staying power. With this many soldiers at his disposal, Buford and company could execute a fighting withdrawal through the city of Gettysburg itself, an operation that would chew up most of the day.

This, of course, is exactly what Buford had in mind. You see, people tend to see what they want to see. And, several times before, the Confederates had seen the Yankees flee before them in panicked rout. On this day, enchanted by the loot of Gettysburg itself, their eager eyes couldn't tell the difference between panicked rout and planned fighting withdrawal. Otherwise, someone might have said, "Hey, this is too easy. Are they playing us for suckers?"

Meanwhile, the Army of the Potomac was beginning to arrive in force, and took up positions on Cemetery Hill, just to the southeast of town. Meade had sent General Winfield Scott Hancock on ahead to take stock of the situation, and when he got there, he liked what he saw. "I think this is the strongest position by nature upon which to fight a battle that I ever saw," he said. Now, this might have been smoke and mirrors to boost the morale of the men, but this was a pretty fearsome defensive position. The hills surrounding Cemetery Hill formed a fish-hook shape, which not only gave him the advantage of high ground, but the further advantage on interior lines of communication. He had it all: high ground, a convex front, and a numerical advantage. Hancock liked those odds.

Lee didn't. As night was falling, he knew he had to do something about that before the rest of Meade's men showed up. He dashed off an order to one of his Corps commanders, General Ewell, that the position on Culp's Hill must be taken ... "if practicable."

Once again, Lee was far too polite for his own good. Ewell's men had been marching and fighting all day. Night was falling, and in such a state Ewell wasn't sure of his ability to control and co-ordinate a night-time battle. He decided that such an assault wasn't practicable, and did not attack.

Thus passed Lee's best chance for a victory. Because while additional Union forces would trickle in all through the night, Lee had as many men as he was ever going to get, minus Stuart's cavalry, whenever he decided to show up. The math wasn't ever going to get any friendlier for Johnny Reb. But that didn't matter.

Lee and Meade were encamped across a field from one another. Come Hell or high water, Lee was going to try to turn Meade's flank in the morning.

But on the bright side, the Confederates had achieved one of the major goals of the campaign: there were plenty of shoes to be had in Gettysburg.