Friday, June 21, 2013

Sesquicentennial, Part XXVI: A Series Of Unfortunate Events


... next fall there will be a great change in public opinion at the North. The Republicans will be destroyed & I think the friends of peace will become so strong that the next administration will go in on that basis.

-- General Robert E. Lee, April 19th

Lee's victory at Chancellorsville, while great, changed nothing. The Confederacy's one and only hope at this point was that the public in the Union become so sick of war that they will accept a peace that divides what was once held to be indivisible. When you ask why Lee would dare to invade a country so much larger and more populous than his own, this is one of the reasons. It is the only way to victory. There are, of course, several others.

Lee's immediate goal, of course, is supply. The Confederacy has but little to offer, and the Army of Northern Virginia is not the only army slowly starving in the field. The farms of Maryland and Pennsylvania, on the other hand, brim over with all manner of good things that a soldier can eat. And use. While Napoleon did say an army marches on its stomach, it also marches on its feet, and too many of those Southern feet had no shoes.

Also, while Lee was making mischief in Maryland, Hooker wouldn't be making mischief in Virginia. If Lee went north, Hooker would be forced to follow. Not only because Lincoln had decided that the objective was the destruction of Lee's army, but because Hooker's army was obliged to defend Union territory when threatened. And by marching north, Lee could threaten not only Washington, but Baltimore and Philadelphia as well.

And too, there was the equally important objective of sickening Union public morale. As I've said before, the only way the Confederacy could win its independence is if the Union grew weary of the struggle. The spectacle of a Southern army strutting its funky stuff across Northern real estate, with the Union army sniffing impotently at its heels, would go a long way towards accomplishing that objective.

The germ of this idea had long been percolating in Lee's mind, and if you remember, he had tried it once before. Last year's invasion ended disastrously at Antietam, due to a lost set of orders. Presumably, this time, Lee had banned all cigar smoking for the duration of this campaign.

And so, on June 3rd, Lee's army began to slip away from its positions near Fredericksburg, and headed northwest. Thence, Lee intended to keep the mountains between him and the Federals until he wanted to engage them in battle. He tasked his cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart with screening the Union forces from discovering his whereabouts.

This is where things began to go sideways. In war, nothing ever stays the same.

It's a typical story in American military history. Our armies tend to begin wars terribly unprepared. They don't stay that way, though, they learn. I said early on that the Confederacy enjoyed an early advantage in officer and NCO quality, insofar as they could immediately put their best men in key positions. That advantage had finally eroded. While the Union had not yet found a great overall commanding general, their soldiers were now hardened, experienced veterans, and many of their officers at brigade and lower were very good at their jobs. It's not that the Confederates had gotten any worse, it's that the Union had stepped up its game.

For the most part, Stuart's cavalry was able to screen the Union forces. But the Union cavalry under Pleasonton had learned its trade well, and were often able to pierce the Confederate screen and discern what Lee was up to, while Stuart wasn't often able to return the favor. The end result was that Hooker had a far better picture of Lee's disposition of forces than Lee had of Hooker.

It was more or less at this point that Lee made the first of a series of grievous errors. These errors were born of the fact that Lee was far too well-bred a gentleman to explain in exhaustive detail exactly what he wanted his subordinates to do.

He ordered Stuart to stop his screening operation, and move to the head of the Confederate column of forces. Left unspoken was that he meant for Stuart to resume the screen there, and that he should go there directly. Stuart was left with considerable freedom to interpret his orders.

And Stuart was a man with a flair for the dramatic.

Stuart mounted a daring, audacious series of raids on the Union rear, riding a great circuit around the entire Army of the Potomac. It was dashing, it was glorious, and it would make great waves in the papers.

Unfortunately ... it also left Lee blind. He was marching more or less Northward with no idea -- not even the remotest clue -- where the Union army was, or what it was doing.

And so it was, in the last week of June 1963, the Army of Northern Virginia was stumbling blindly through the Pennsylvania countryside, short of food, and short of shoes. Soon enough they'd find plenty of both.

They'd also find plenty of trouble.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Video Del Fuego, Part LXI

When most of you see the name Saab, you think about cars. And that's natural enough, since there's probably a Saab dealership within driving distance. But cars weren't Saab's original product. The name is an acronym for Swedish Aeroplane Limited. Yes, the original Saab made jets. Cars were a side-line.

After World War II, Sweden took a good look around them. There was one alliance forming up to the west, and another to the east. They decided not to join either one of them. On the whole, they were friendlier with the West than with the East ... but they'd learned from hard experience what "guarantees" of safety and security could actually mean once the fat was in the fire. Sweden was, by God, going to be prepared to meet its fate, alone if need be. In part, this meant a commitment to build their own armaments, from guns to tanks to fighter planes.

The result? Some of the most beautiful aircraft that have ever flown.

The Saab J-35 Draken is a spectacular airplane. In aviation, so often form follows function, and if it looks right, it probably is right. And, oh yes, the Draken looks right.

When I look at this, I have a hard time believing this is a design that's a dozen years older than I am. Surely, something so clean, so streamlined, has to have come along later than 1955? What I don't have any trouble believing is that some of them are still flying.

That arm of Saab is still in business. After building the J-35 Draken, they built a follow-on fighter, the J-37 Viggen. Today, they're building the JAS-39 Gripen, which is in service with Sweden, the Czech Republic, Hungary, South Africa, Switzerland, and Thailand.

The interesting thing about the Gripen is that it can refuel and rearm with a pickup truck's worth of crew and tools. The Swedes really take austere basing seriously. Of course, they knew all along that in a real war, their airfields would have been smashed almost immediately ... they always expected to have to operate from remote highways.

As an engineer, I find it interesting how a different set of constraints and priorities evolve a different approach to solving the same problem. In the unlikely event that the F-35 falls through, I wonder if one of our prime contractors would be interested in offering the Marines a license-built Gripen?

Never happen, of course, but it's interesting to think about.