"What have we learned, Palmer?"
"I don't know, sir."
"I don't &#!*@%$ know either. I guess we learned not to do it again."
-- Two CIA Officers from Burn After Reading
Fifteen decades later, what have we learned? Not nearly as much as the price on the box says it's worth, that's for damn sure.
The price ... the price was high. High enough to be nearly incomprehensible today. Even in purely monetary terms, it was staggering. Direct wartime costs amounted to $2.3 billion. Veterans' benefits -- benefits that, mind you, we were paying into the 1970s and 1980s to some wives and children -- amounted to $3.289 billion. Interest payments on the debt incurred during wartime came to $1.2 billion. The Federal debt at the end of the war stood at $2.7 billion, indicating that just about all wartime expenses were met by borrowing.
That's some serious cash. That's the Manhattan Project, Project Apollo, and just about everything in between, all rolled together. When you consider that the net worth of all slaves was in the neighborhood of $3.5 billion in 1860 dollars, it would have been cheaper -- far cheaper -- to buy out the slaveholders' interests. Cheaper, and far less bloody. Which brings us to the other kind of price.
Nearly three million Americans saw combat. Of those, over six hundred thousand died. About half that, three hundred thousand or so, were wounded. Right about a quarter of the South's men of military age were dead.
So ... what have we learned? I can hope that we have at a minimum learned not to do it again. But seeing all the Tea Partiers bleating "Secede!" at the least provocation, I despair of even that much.
But despair is a sin. The lessons are there, for those that care to look. I'm not going to pretend like I've got it all figured out -- I strongly suspect no one does -- but a few things have become clear to me over the last five years.
First, and this is no real surprise, the Lost Cause is utterly bankrupt intellectually. It hasn't the remotest basis in fact. Of the points listed in the article, the second is only tangentially true, and the fifth irrelevant. The others are hogwash, delusional fantasy, or outright lies.
(1) Southern commanders seemed better than their Union counterparts, but only because the South enjoyed the early advantage of putting their best officers in key posts.
(2) The Union's superiority in resources and manpower -- true, but this covers up the real reason.
(3) The loser's bleat -- we only lost because we were robbed. Buy a clue: Longstreet was right about Pickett's Charge, and Lee damned well ought to have listened.
(4) Horsefeathers. States' Rights to do what? The seceding States were perfectly clear why they seceded. This is an after-the-fact face-saving lie.
(5) Irrelevant. "Treason doth never prosper, what's the reason? For if it prospers, none dare call it treason." We say the American Revolution was justified, because we won. Secession failed, and therefore wasn't.
(6) I've actually never met anyone who could claim this with a straight face. We've made this much progress -- as recently as fifty years ago, a lot of people in the South took the hogwash that "slavery was a benign institution" more or less seriously.
Be that as it may -- down here in the South, you will always and forever run into people that will say the Civil War wasn't about slavery. A small part of me sympathizes. It's a hard thing to admit that your great-to-the-Nth grandfather fought for an evil cause. No one likes to think that. Nonetheless, it's true. Well, individual soldiers fought for a whole bunch of reasons. In the end, he ends up fighting for the man on his right and his left, because that's the way you come through with a whole skin. But their officers, their leaders -- as I've said before, and repeatedly, they were crystal clear about why they did what they did. Secession was about slavery. To believe anything else is to ignore everything the secessionists themselves said or wrote.
Second, this experience has reinforced a saying I learned many, many years ago during my days as an officer cadet: Amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics. General Scott's overall strategy for the Union was shrink-wrapped around logistics: secure the Ohio River valley and its railroads, secure the Mississippi, isolate and starve the enemy. It set a pattern we still follow. It was more or less irrelevant whether or not the Tiger was ten times better than a Sherman, because there was always an eleventh and twelfth Sherman. We seek to ensure adequate arms and supplies for our own soldiers, and just as diligently seek to deny the same to our enemies. If you've got plenty of food, ammo, and gas and your enemy is scrounging; well, that may not be victory, but you can sure see it from here. Had they ever been able to get England off dead center, and use the Royal Navy to guarantee free navigation to Southern ports ... but that was never going to happen. It was a faint hope until late summer of 1863, but a dead one afterwards. In any event, the South wasn't crushed by numbers, or the perfidy of some of its officers, it was strangled by a slow, patient encirclement. Just as General Winfield Scott intended.
Third, and this came as something of a surprise, the battles themselves were far less interesting than I thought they'd be. After a while, they all began to run together. That said, you do see a difference between how the armies moved as the war progressed. Early on, they'd just run pell-mell at one another. Then, in late 1863 or early 1864, they began to emphasize flanking movements and de-emphasize frontal attacks. That was an interesting development. Officers began to realize the power of the weapons they commanded, and how they must be employed on the battlefield. And you begin to see in the siege of Petersburg in late 1864 and early 1865 a microcosm of what would happen on a continental scale only fifty years afterwards. Even then, though, the movements and decisions between the battles were, and are, what have a lasting effect. As Sun Tzu once said, a battle is won or lost before the armies ever see one another. It's purely a pity Master Sun's wisdom wasn't widely available in 1860.
Fourth, and last, it's not really over. As Lincoln said at Gettysburg, it is still up to us to carry on the work left undone. It is still up to us to see to it that the words "all men are created equal" have real weight and meaning, and isn't just an empty phrase. That "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are things that each and every one of us can have and use. There are some who, upon realizing this, say that the war can still be lost.
I shun such defeatism. Rather, let us work to see to it that we truly experience a new birth of freedom. Six hundred thousand ghosts demand it. They expect us to take up the standard, worn and frayed though it be, and not rest until we've done our part such that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the Earth.
It's a worthy goal. And a life worthily spent. Truly, what more can a man want?
[Ed. note -- and that's a wrap. Thanks for taking this journey with me. In coming months, I'll be taking a spin through the articles, doing some light editing and fixing broken links.]