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.

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