Civil War on the Web (and one other)

by Fred Ray on July 16, 2011 · 4 comments

John Swansburg takes a marathon Civil War tour from Vicksburg to Gettysburg and wonders if he can become an expert that way. The answer is “no” but it’s still a fun read. Gettysburg on Segways?

Over the course of this road trip, my companions and I have found ourselves drawn to certain figures, and we’ve grown particularly fond of Jackson. A devout, humorless man who was notoriously hard on his troops, Jackson nevertheless enjoyed their devotion and was forever pulling off victories that seemed next to impossible. He was also a delightfully odd duck. Notes historian James McPherson, “Jackson constantly sucked lemons to palliate his dyspepsia and refused to season his food with pepper because (he said) it made his left leg ache.”

Jackson’s military prowess and personal eccentricities make him a natural object of curiosity. Admiration, too, though here things get stickier. Out on the battlefield, listening to a talented guide like Struhelka describe one of Jackson’s brilliant tactical maneuvers, it’s easy to find yourself pulling for him and indeed for the Confederates, who fight valiantly, are often outnumbered, and thus have the appealing air of the underdog. More than once, I’ve had to stop and remind myself what, exactly, the Rebels were fighting for. Earlier in the trip, I’d become fascinated by cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest. A self-made man, Forrest enlisted in the Confederate Army as a private, worked his way up to lieutenant general, and despite having no prior military experience, routinely outclassed his Union opponents. Yet these facts are also true: Forrest made part of his fortune in the slave trade; oversaw a massacre of black soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tenn.; and was a founding member of the Ku Klux Klan.

In that other war, the Canadians are treading carefully on the subject of the War of 1812, in which the United Statesians got an almighty thrashing when trying to invade the frozen wastes of Canuckistan.

Ottawa’s messaging, though, is carefully crafted to steer Canadians away from chauvinistic jingoism or triumphalism at having repelled the Americans in the long-ago war.

“This is not meant to be antagonistic. This is not in any way meant to upset or put a sour taste in anybody’s mouth,” federal Heritage Minister James Moore said of 1812 commemorations.

“This is meant to remind Canadians of the importance of the War of 1812 in the development of Canada.”

While it will celebrate historical icons such as Isaac Brock and Laura Secord, the government is preparing to play up the relative lack of conflict with the United States since. In more than one news release on remembering the war, the Tories also mention “two centuries of peaceful co-existence with the United States” that followed.

Don’t worry, lads, we can handle it. We celebrate killing each other all the time down here, and everyone seems to love it.

One of the principals in the American (ahem) invasion of Our Northern Neighbor was Wade Hampton I, grandfather of the Wade Hampton we know from the Late Unpleasantness. Fortunately for the Canadians (then British), he was not the soldier his grandson would be.

During the War of 1812, Hampton led the American forces in the Battle of Chateauguay in 1813. On April 6, 1814, he resigned his commission and returned to South Carolina after leading thousands of U.S. soldiers to defeat at the hands of just a little over a thousand Canadian militia and 180 Indian warriors then getting his army lost in the woods.

UPDATE: Why did the Americans do so poorly in the War of 1812? Although there were bright spots like Winfield Scott at Lundy’s Lane, the defense of Baltimore, and of course Jackson at New Orleans, the overall performance of US land forces can be summed up in a single word—miserable. The big reason was the lack of any sort of military professionalism. After their experience with Britain the Founding Fathers were very suspicious of a standing army, and thought a militia system like Switzerland’s preferable. James Madison’s predecessor, Thomas Jefferson, was especially big on this idea (and besides it was cheap). While the militia system served fairly well on the frontier and for domestic disturbances like the Whiskey Rebellion, it became painfully clear that it would not work against a professional army like the British.

The result was an increased emphasis on the development of a professional officer class, something Winfield Scott was instrumental in creating. The improvement was evident in the Mexican War, in which the core of the army were military professionals, and later in the Civil War.


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

jmnlman July 16, 2011 at 8:09 pm

It’s quite funny considering that the current Canadian government is probably the most Vocal nationalists of any Canadian government in the last 60 years.

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Robert Taubman July 17, 2011 at 6:39 am

Greetings from one of your neighbours to the North. I too find it amazing that our Conservative government, that has raised the profile of our military, would be so afraid of promoting the celebration of the War of 1812. After 200 years, I think we co-exist quite nicely. Anyone interested in 1812, might like to read “The Civil War of 1812” , by Alan Taylor. Winfield Scott saw action in that war and then in the ACW with his Anaconda Plan, IIRC.

Have a nice day, eh.

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Brett Schulte July 17, 2011 at 6:59 am

I’ve always been interested in all early American wars, so the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 is something I’m very much looking forward to. I find it fascinating that American attempts to capture Canada failed so completely. If we’re looking to suggest books on the war of 1812, Where Right and Glory Lead! The Battle of Lundy’s Lane, 1814 by Donald Graves is a nice look. I have an earlier edition that I read so many times I ruined the spine!

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Robert Taubman July 17, 2011 at 9:03 am

I have Where Right and Glory Lead on my shelf along with several hundred ACW books and magazines still to be read. I also have Graves “Field of Glory, The Battle of Crysler Farm, 1813”. I am close to Crysler and the eastern end of Lake Ontario. So many books, so many battles, so little time.

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