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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Thank You, San Francisco Civil War Round Table

My wife and I had a pleasant time at the meeting of the San Francisco Civil War Round Table Thursday night.  The subject was Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Kemble Warren and the fighting around Petersburg in August 1864.  Warren won the battle of Globe Tavern, August 18-21, but received little thanks for it from his superiors, who unrealistically wanted him to capture Petersburg.  At least he didn't get sacked for winning, as he did at Five Forks the following year.  The vote after my presentation was almost unanimous that he ought to have sought employment elsewhere after his victory at Globe Tavern.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gate!

On Thursday evening, October 19, I'll be talking to the San Francisco Civil War Round Table about General Gouverneur Kemble Warren's role in the fighting along the Weldon Railroad south of Petersburg in August 1864 as described in The Siege of Petersburg:  The Battles for the Weldon Railroad, August 1864.  Warren was an engineer.  He had raised a regiment of Zouaves, the 5th New York Infantry, crushed by Hood's Texas Brigade at Second Manassas.  He was a hero of Gettysburg for alerting General Meade to the significance of the Round Tops.  Warren led II Corps in the fall of 1863, giving A. P. Hill a bloody nose at Bristoe Station and angering Meade by (correctly) calling off an attack at Mine Run.  He led V Corps in the Overland Campaign, throughout which he annoyed his superiors to the point that shortly after Grant's army group arrived at Petersburg, Meade requested Warren's relief.  Though Meade's wish was not granted, Warren failed to realize that he ought to seek employment elsewhere.  Even his victory on the Weldon Railroad in August did not mollify his superiors.  Prior to the battle of Five Forks in April 1865, Grant unintentionally set up Warren for a fall by carelessly leading Sheridan to expect Warren's arrival much earlier than possible and giving Sheridan the authority to relieve Warren if he were too slow.  Sheridan waited until Warren had won the battle of Five Forks and then unjustifiably relieved Warren.  Denied a court of inquiry for many years through Grant's intransigence, Warren obtained some degree of vindication posthumously.

What were Warren's alternatives to his request for a court of inquiry?

Forgive me for mentioning such a thing, but earlier in the war, a Union Brig. Gen. Jefferson  C.Davis had shot dead Maj. Gen. William "Bull" Nelson in a personal quarrel.  Davis' political patron was present and Davis went on to command an army corps later in the war.  Ought Sheridan to have shot Sheridan dead on the spot when he was confronted and refused to rescind the order relieving Warren of command?  There was still enough Confederate lead flying around that a good defense lawyer might well have gotten Warren off.  But Little Phil's chief of staff seems to have been present, and terminating him with extreme prejudice would have taken the matter our of the realm of manslaughter and into that of murder though it was a matter of honor and people cut one another more slack for such things back then.

Another alternative would have been to challenge Little Phil to a duel.  Mark Twain had been challenged to a duel in 1864.  What did Warren have to lose? 

What do you think?  I think Warren should have sought a transfer after his victory on the Weldon Railroad.  He might have done better with Sherman, who ultimately granted him his court of inquiry.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Clio v. Prose Fiction: Ralph Peters' "Judgment at Appomattox"

Last night I finished reading Ralph Peters' Judgment at Appomattox.  It was such a good read that I regretted having to set the book down.  Peters has a gift for words that really brings to life the travails of our Civil War.  Those who have read all his books on the Civil War and want more of his writing can go on to read about his fictional Civil War detective, Abel Jones, composed under the pen name of Owen Parry.  Peters may have exceeded his Civil War achievement in the Abel Jones series, credibly creating the world of a Welsh detective in America.

How does the historian (our muse is Clio) compete with the ability of a talented writer of fiction such as Peters to bring events to life?  We can look at the work of Gordon Rhea, who just finished a five volume epic on the Overland Campaign, and the work of Noah Andre Trudeau, who has written about the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg as well, among other matters.  Even if we cannot write brilliantly alliterative prose, like Peters, we can still employ the words of the participants themselves to bring things back to life.  Many turns of phrase by the participants are inimitable and some real life incidents are off limits to the writer of fiction, who must heed Aristotle and obey the principle of probability.  Facts, however, are improbable.  And we historians may celebrate them by serving them up raw, in the unique words of their authors whenever possible.