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.