Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lincoln and McClellan at War by Chester G. Hearn

Lincoln and McClellan
Lincoln and McClellan at War presents the story of the stormy relationship between President Abraham Lincoln and General George McClellan.  Lincoln's opinion of McClellan changed from high regard to frustration and eventually anger.  The work by Civil War author, Chester Hearn, traces the disintegration of this relationship from the Peninsula Campaign to Antietam. 

Lincoln promoted McClellan on the advice of cabinet members and counted on the general "to whip the army into shape and end the war quickly."  McClellan impressed Lincoln by reorganizing the demoralized Army of the Potomac.  He forged  "the best army on the planet" but refused to make maximum use of the weapon. 
McClellan, like many officers in the Regular Army, was a staunch Democrat who never "lost his acrimony toward Republicans.  McClellan met Lincoln when the future President was an attorney representing the Illinois Central Railroad and immediately disliked him.  McClellan never changed his opinion of Lincoln.  The picture that emerges of McClellan is of a man who had a very high opinion of his ability which manifested itself in problems with both superiors and subordinates. 
Typical of McClellan's problems with authority is his relationship with Winfield Scott.  On July 18, 1861, he praises Scott saying, "all that I know of war I have learned from you,"  but two weeks later he complained about being hampered by the general-in-chief.   This difficulty soon arose with Stanton, Halleck, and Lincoln.  McClellan believed he was "the smartest guy in the room" and had little use for directions from military amateurs.  McClellan also had little confidence in his subordinates.  He refused to process their suggestions and failed to support them in critical situations. 
McClellan, who served as a staff officer during the Mexican War, never seemed to understand the importance of sound intelligence that his fellow officers learned under General Scott.  This seems odd because he performed reconnaissance missions during the war.  During the Civil War he relied on faulty reports by Alan Pinkerton that consistently overestimated the enemy's strength.  Whether McClellan believed these reports or used them to justify his inaction is not addressed.  The reports allowed McClellan to ask for more men to meet the imagined enemy threat and delay offensive plans until the additional men were received.
Hearn believes that McClellan's "intransigence" was based on his reluctance to fight offensively.   McClellan was "well-schooled in European defensive tactics" and preferred to defend rather than attack.  Lincoln's philosophy was for the offense to destroy the Confederate Army and stop the war.  It took Lincoln some time "to observe flaws in McClellan's strategy, which on one hand sounded aggressive but on the other suggested the employment of defensive tactics when it came to actual fighting." 
Lincoln and the Generals at Antietam
Lincoln and McClellan at War never probes the general's psyche to see why he refused to attack the enemy.  Was the reason a simple preference for a defensive philosophy or was he afraid of making a mistake?  The reluctance is seen most dramatically during the Peninsular Campaign.  Another possibility is that McClellan, like many staff officers, had difficulty in adjusting to the rapidly developing actions on the battlefield.  He sought perfection where it was not possible.  Even when he had Lee's plans,  McClellan moved slowly double-checking troop positions; paralyzed by over-analysis into inaction.  Hearn also hints that McClellan's actions might be an effort to subvert Republican political policy especially in regard to emancipation.

Mr. Hearn has produced a highly-readable book on the relationship between Lincoln and McClellan.  He lays the blame for their conflict on mistakes by both men.  He concludes by describing McClellan as "a military enigma, a talented organizer, a better-than-average strategist, but an ineffective implementer of his own strategy."   

Chester G. Hearn is the author of many volumes on the Civil War.  His  most recent books are Ellet's Brigade: The Strangest Outfit of All and When the Devil Came Down to Dixie: Ben Butler in New Orleans.  Hearn has also written other books on the U.S. military.  Mr. Hearn lives in Erie, Pennsylvania.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Historical Oops

13th Amendment Vote
I recently read about the mistake made in Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln. It seems that the writers were not as careful as they should have been concerning  the vote on the 13th Amendment.  In the movie, two Connecticut Congressman were reported to have voted against the amendment.  This surprised  Connecticut Representative Joe Courtney who quickly checked the facts.    He said an Internet search confirmed his suspicions that the movie was historically inaccurate.  He also asked the Congressional Research Service to investigate, and it reported that all four Connecticut Congressmen backed the amendment in a January 1865 vote.

Rep. Joe Courtney
Representative Courtney wrote to Spielberg asking for the error to be corrected.  He cited the voting record by the state's congressional delegation and noted the state's role in emancipating millions of blacks.  He asked, "How could congressmen from Connecticut – a state that supported President Lincoln and lost thousands of her sons fighting against slavery on the Union side of the Civil War – have been on the wrong side of history?"   The vote for Lincoln in the 1864 election was close with 51.4% of the state supporting Lincoln.  New York state only gave Lincoln 50.5%. 

Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner fired back. “We changed two of the delegation’s votes, and we made up new names for the men casting those votes, so as not to ascribe any actions to actual persons who didn’t perform them”  He added, “In the movie, the voting is also organized by state, which is not the practice in the House. These alterations were made to clarify to the audience the historical reality that the Thirteenth Amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn’t determined until the end of the vote.”  Mr. Kushner is right on the closeness of the vote which passed the House by 119 to 56 or 68%.  The Senate vote was 38 to 6 or 86%. 

Kushner explained, “The closeness of that vote and the means by which it came about was the story we wanted to tell. In making changes to the voting sequence, we adhered to time-honored and completely legitimate standards for the creation of historical drama, which is what Lincoln is.”

Kushner writes that he is proud that Lincoln’s “fidelity to and illumination of history has been commended by many Lincoln scholars.”  The screenwriter disagreed "with the congressman’s contention that accuracy in every detail is 'paramount' in a work of historical drama. Accuracy is paramount in every detail of a work of history.”

Mr. Kushner's comments are another example of how people have become adept in making excuses.  I do not understand why they chose to alter the facts when they were easily available.  Perhaps Mr. Kushner's is using the Hollywood definition of "fidelity." 

There also seems to be some confusion about whether Lincoln was present at the Hampton Roads Peace Conference.  In the movie Lincoln was not at the meeting on February 3, 1865.  However, the historical information I examined said he was there.  Even the New York Times says he was there.  What's the deal?

Several nights later I watched a History Channel program on Lincoln.  The program made two glaring errors.  The first said that the Emancipation Proclamation freed all of the slaves in the states. The document only freed slaves in those states and areas of those states in Confederate control.  The second was describing the casualties at Gettysburg as deaths.  In the Civil War casualties included killed, wounded, captured, and missing.   These are hardly little mistakes.

Now before I am called out as being a perfectionist, let me confess to be as guilty as any writer of the goofs.  Try as I will to check all my facts, I do miss things. 

Some will call these errors poetic license or capturing the essence.  We heard these phrases from Robert Redford's The Conspirator.  Still mistakes that involve rewriting history  should have never seen the light of day and need to be corrected.  Careful editing and vetting of articles, books, and scripts can eliminate most. 

However, Hollywood sometimes thinks that they are above all of the rigors scholarly research.  That may be true of fiction and "based on a true story" movies, but not motion pictures wrapped in "historical accuracy" that might find their way into classrooms. 

I liked Lincoln very much, but I wish Spielberg had run a historical "spell-check" on the content.    

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Confederate Currency by Pierre Fricke

Confederate Currency
Confederate Currency provides an introduction to the currency issued by the Confederate States of America.  Seven different series of currency were distributed.  The first thing we learn is that the paper money issued by the government was unlike money today.  The bills were bonds or promissory notes redeemable two years after the peace was signed between the Union and Confederacy.  Some of the bonds had interest rates of 7.3%. 

Initially the currency was equivalent to gold, but as the war continued and Southern fortunes waned the exchange rate continued to fall from $6 Confederate to one dollar gold in May 1863 to $80 on April 15, 1865.  By the end of the war the notes were worthless, but within a decade their collectability was on the rise.  Today, some notes are valued in the thousands. 


Pierre Fricke's concise history describes the various companies involved in printing the bills.  Counterfeiting became a significant problem for the South as criminals and Union spies took advantage of some of the poorly crafted money.

The book is not a comprehensive text on Confederate currency.  It's intended to be an introduction to the subject.  A purpose that it meets.  Confederate Currency is fine when it focuses on the subject, but falls short when discussing military and political events,  I would have preferred more discussion of financial matters and the various players.

Mr. Fricke is an expert on Confederate currency and operator of a rare coin and paper money collecting business.  He has been collecting Civil-War-era coins since 1969 and currency since 2000.  He is the author of Collecting Confederate Paper Money, 2008 Field Edition.

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