Archive for the ‘General History’ Category

When Captain John Winslow took USS Kearsarge to patrol the mouth of Cherbourg harbor and force CSS Alabama into battle, he did so having armored his ship by wrapping heavy iron chains around his midships. After his defeat, the celebrated Confederate raider Raphael Semmes claimed the improvised armor was ungentlemanly, and that he never would have ventured out to fight Kearsarge if he had known about the chains.

As Semmes is a romantic and popular figure, then and now and especially in Southern circles, his claim has been taken at face value by many. To me, it has always been fishy.

I’m a fan of Age of Sail fiction, such as the Master and Commander and Hornblower novels, and consequently I have studied quite a bit of the history of the period. As in so many things, the Civil War was a transition period in naval affairs. At age 56, Semmes was as much a product of the Age of Sail as Winslow was, so holding him up to those standards is very fair, and by those standards his claims are pure sour grapes!

Anglo-American Seamanship
First is Semmes’ claim that he knew nothing about the chains. Although there is no proof disproving his claim, placed into context it is highly dubious. Kearsarge blockaded Cherbourg for five days, and much of the time the vessel was within sight of land. The idea that an officer as savvy as Semmes would not take his telescope out and look over his enemy with all that time on his hands is ridiculous, so either Semmes knew about the chains or he was negligent.

Semmes’ assertion that there was something ungentlemanly about Winslow armoring his warship is also dubious. Winslow’s actions were in keeping with the Anglo-American naval tradition. I could easily see every fighting sea dog from John Paul Jones to Edward Pellew nodding in approval.

It’s The Gunnery
Finally, it seems that while Winslow’s extra armor helped him, it did not help him enough to change the course of the battle, and to that I point to the style and effect of the gunnery on the two warships. Alabama is known to have fired over 370 shots at Kearsarge, and scored several hits. Only two of these hits were known to have struck the chains, smashing the links where they hit, but not penetrating into the hull. Without the chains those shots would have done some damage and produced casualties, but neither would have crippled or sunk the Kearsarge.

By contrast, Kearsarge fired much more slowly and deliberately, scoring several highly accurate hits below Alabama’s waterline. It was there hits that sank the Confederate warship were scored, an important point when one realizes Kearsarge suffering no damage whatsoever below the waterline. If the Alabama had scored the same kind of hits as Kearsarge, the chains wouldn’t have mattered.

I’ve read a little about the career of CSS Alabama, and think both the record and the Alabama’s performance suggest that the gun crews were trained “dumb show” style. Alabama did not have access to ample resources for restocking its ammunition, which would have limited the crew’s ability to conduct live fire drills. In the Royal Navy, when a captain wished to train the crews without using up gunpowder and roundshot, he had them go through the motions of loading and firing without ammunition, the “dumb show.” The result improved a crew’s handling time, but did nothing to improve their accuracy.

By contrast, Kearsarge‘s gun crews were fully trained, and her armament very well handled. Winslow’s tactics also reflected the transition being made at the time from having lots of cannon to fewer, much heavier cannon. Both ships were sloops of war, which only 20 years before would have been armed with approximately 20 six-pounder cannon, yet in 1864 were armed with seven or eight cannon as heavy or heavier than the battleship guns of HMS Victory. Semmes’ tactics were those of the bygone era, where the fast, volume shooting mattered quite a bit because each hit mattered less.

Ultimately, Semmes lost because of the way he fought, and not because Kearsarge was wearing chains into the fight.

When I set out to characterize my “senior co-protagonist,” Thomas J. Jackson, I had three things in mind. First, as a novelist coming from a historical fiction and not a science fiction angle, I wanted to stick closely to the facts. That led into my second goal, which was to avoid producing a stereotyped portrayal of the man.

Finally, I did not want to create a Stonewall Jackson character that whitewashed the real person. I love the work of Colleen McCullough with Julius Caesar, Mary Renault with Alexander the Great, and Sharon Kay Penman with Richard III, but all treated their principle subjects with fawning admiration. I wanted my Jackson to have his warts, although I refused to exaggerate them into caricature.

When Life Hands You Lemons…
Jackson being such a famously eccentric figure, my interpretation almost necessarily produces some disagreement. I was in an e-mail correspondence with another author about Jackson’s lemon-sucking, and she insisted that the whole thing was a myth. Serious Jackson scholars know that Jackson had a passion for fruit, and his favorite was peaches, leading some to discount the lemon-sucking thing as little more than fable.

Yet growing up as a farm boy in rural Kentucky with family roots in Appalachia, I know first-hand that even today there are people who enjoy sucking on lemons. Were it not for that for that experience, I might discount the lemon thing as a myth too. Instead, I downplay rather than discount it, and highlight other fruits. Lemons appear only twice in Stonewall Goes West and just once in Mother Earth, Bloody Ground, and are sucked on but the one time in the three examples.

Perhaps the whole lemon-sucking thing is just a figment of Richard Taylor’s imagination, but I have my reasons for thinking there is a kernel of truth to it.

Mr. Stonewall Sandpaper
If I have found anything amusing about the response to my book in internet forums or blogs, it’s the notion that I didn’t make my Jackson caustic enough. He was infamous for his high standards, insistence on absolute obedience, and complete lack of patience. Some have even accused him, quite plausibly, of scapegoating subordinates in the wake of failure.

The path of caricature for these traits would have Jackson alienating all the prickly, proud, and/or hot-tempered Western generals, placing one after another under arrest. That view is simplistic, near-sighted, and historically inaccurate to boot, because it ignores all the instances where Jackson had no problems with his subordinates or was able to work past them.

To dwell on the examples of Richard Garnett and A.P. Hill (Hill in particular didn’t get along with Longstreet either) ignores “Allegheny” Johnson, who got along with Jackson just fine. It also ignores John Winder, who clashed with Jackson but maintained a working relationship right up to his death, and it ignores examples like Dick Ewell, who thought Jackson was nuts until he was won over by his victories. Instead of focusing solely on A.P. Hill and Turner Ashby, who were as much at fault for their stormy relationships with Jackson as Jackson himself, I drew on all the examples and applied them to my story.

“You’re Just Plain Wrong”
I knew getting into these novels that I’d get nitpicked a lot, because if there is one thing a lot of otherwise perfectly affable Civil War buffs are big on is thinking they know everything. I don’t even spare myself from that charge, but in acknowledging it I at least try to make sure I have my facts straight first.

Sadly, that isn’t the case for some who disagree with my choices. One blogger recently nitpicked me for supposedly getting it wrong that Jackson wasn’t a good rider, and implied that I therefore had a poor understanding of the character. Unsurprisingly, this same guy also took issue with Jackson not being abrasive enough.

I don’t think my work is infallible, but 99 times out of 100 it’s the nitpicker who has turned out wrong. In the aforementioned example, see for yourself and Google the neutral phrase “Stonewall Jackson’s horsemanship.” The result is page after page of links to stuff about how he wasn’t a good rider, how he chose Little Sorrel because he was small and undemanding, etc.

Part and Parcel
This sort of thing is part and parcel of being a writer, because people are always going to criticize your work. Sometimes it reflects nothing more than a difference of opinion, and sometimes its friendly and fair and acknowledges that. Sometimes its the critic’s limitations, which could be fair or unfair. Either way, it’s just what comes from working with historical fiction.

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson
17th President of the United States

150 years ago this weekend saw the national convention of the “National Union Party” in Baltimore. An alliance of Republicans (excepting the disgruntled Radicals who had nominated John Fremont about a week before in Cleveland) and War Democrats, the National Union Party’s major task was not renominating Abraham Lincoln. That master politician had sewn up his renomination long before, so that act was merely ceremonial.

Instead, the main duty was making the different party factions with a replacement for Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, and the choice made was Andrew Johnson, the Unionist Senator and Military Governor or Tennessee. Ever since my teens, I’ve puzzled over whether Johnson was the best choice.

I understand Lincoln’s reasoning behind Johnson, who was perhaps the only man in the country with appeal to both War Democrats (Johnson was one of them) and Radical Republicans, the latter approving of Johnson’s hardline approach to running occupied Tennessee.  Yet as a politician, Johnson had little to recommend him beyond a talent for invective.

Of course, vice presidents were basically cyphers until the last couple of decades. If lucky a vice president might be called upon for advice, but the role of veep as chief lieutenant is a creation of only the last few decades. I also doubt Lincoln was thinking at all of Johnson as his successor, since his health was basically sound.

Even so, one of those little rules of American Presidential contests — that a veep can’t help, but only hurt your chances at election — was as true in 1864 as it is today. I doubt Johnson’s place as literally the only man in America who was easily passable to everyone from Radicals to border state Republican conservatives who were softer on the war than any War Democrat was that vital. There were other ways to appease the disaffected, something Lincoln well knew. His choice of Johnson reflects how secondary the choice was in the first place.

It was Johnson’s lack of political skill that ultimately got him impeached and damn near removed from office, as he clumsily upset the Radicals over Reconstruction, so whenever that convention or Johnson come up I wonder about whether there might have been someone better. Perhaps a border state Republican, one whose political skills ran deeper than merely smearing the opposition?

Yet at the same time, Johnson accidentally stumbledupon  one measure that effectively derailed the Radical agenda for wreaking vengeance on the South: by the time the Radicals tamed Johnson with impeachment and then got Grant into office, Johnson had already demobilized most of the wartime army, largely as a budget-cutting measure. The Radicals could pass as many vindictive laws or enact measures to build up a voting base of landed, emancipated slaves as they wished, but without bayonets on the ground to repress popular white resentment such actions would go nowhere.

The result I think was certainly not the worst thing that could have happened, but not very constructive either. The Radical agenda was partially enacted, more in spirit than in fact, and as such was neither clement or severe, but somewhere in between. Like most half-measures, Reconstruction as it actually played out failed to achieve very much one way or the other, and with it a lot of social and political problems came to fester in America over the course of the next century, all of them going back to that choice of Andrew Johnson and whether someone else might have been able to have deflect more of Radical wrath.