Thursday, September 24, 2015

Civil War in Texas and the Southwest by Roy Sullivan

Civil War in Texas and the Southwest by Roy Sullivan is a fine narrative of the Civil War battles in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. I discovered Sullivan's work while preparing for my class on "Texas in the Civil War."

Battle of Sabine Pass
The book contains descriptions of the well-known Texas engagements at Galveston (Galveston, TX I and Galveston, TX II), Sabine Pass (Sabine Pass, TX I and Sabine Pass, TX II), and Palmito Ranch (Palmito Ranch, TX). Sullivan also includes the out-of-state battles at Val Verde (Valverde, NM) and Glorieta Pass (Glorieta Pass, NM).

Battle of Galveston
What I liked best about Sullivan's book were his descriptions of actions in the Rio Grande Valley and on theGrande Valley were fought by two Tejanos: Santos Benavides, a staunch supporter of secession and Confederacy, and Juan Cortina, the “fearless, self-possessed, and cunning” fighter who was aligned with the Union. One of my students discovered a link supported by the University of Texas Pan American called Rio Grande Valley Civil War Trail, which is worth visiting.
Texas Gulf Coast. The battles in the Rio

Union Lieutenant J. W. Kittredge led the assaults along the Texas coast. He captured Aransas Pass, burned homes on Mustang Island and Matagorda Island, and raided undefended coastal villages and stole food and supplies. Kittredge failed to take Corpus Christi and was eventually captured by Confederate forces.
The book focuses 

Sullivan's book focuses on the military engagements in Texas and the Southwest. It does not discuss the activities of Texas units, such as the Texas brigade, in other theaters of war. The author does not describe the role that civilians played in war effort or the Gainesville Hangings, Nueces Massacre, and Juneteenth. The author uses invented dialogue or what appears to be invented dialogue in describing some of the battles, which straddles the fence between historical fact and historical. The absence of footnotes detracts from its use by historians. In spite of these issues, I found that the book was most enjoyable to read.

Sullivan is a retired US Army colonel and author of Scattered Graves: The Civil War Campaigns of Confederate General and Cherokee Chief Stand Watie

For those readers interested in the topic, the Texas State Historical Association has just issued a free e-book called Civil War In The Lone Star State

Friday, September 18, 2015

"Bitumen: Its Varieties, Properties, and Uses" by Lieut. H. Wager Halleck

Henry W. Halleck
I am always delighted when my vocation and avocation cross paths. When I was researching some background information on General Henry Halleck, I discovered he had compiled information on bitumen. Halleck performed his research in 1841 under the direction of Colonel Joseph G. Totten, Chief Engineer of the Corps of Engineers.  Halleck described his report "Bitumen: Its Varieties, Properties, and Uses" as "an abstract of all the important publications, within the compiler's reach, on the properties and uses of bitumen."

Halleck began his paper by mentioning the ancient uses of bitumen and petroleum.  He divided bitumen into solids and liquids.  "When liquid, they are sometimes yellowish or brownish, and sometimes limpid and transparent: the more solid varieties are black or brown." Bitumens  "burn easily and with a bright flame, yielding a thick smoke."
Halleck listed the different "varieties" of bitumen including naphtha, which is used for illumination, curing rheumatism, preserving potassium, and in combination with caoutchouc (natural or India rubber) water proofing textiles. The next variety is petroleum, which Halleck said, is "much more abundant than naphtha." He said that it was found in "secondary rocks, particularly in coal strata, and in the vicinity of beds of coal." It was mined by digging deep pits and retrieving the liquids in buckets from the bottom. This may remind readers of a scene from "There Will Be Blood" in which the oil was recovered in the same fashion. Interestingly, Halleck notes that the surrounding soil contains clay, limestone, and sand. These are the types of rocks where geoscientists find crude oil today. Oil mined in very deep pits was found to contain gas, which we identify today as associated gas. Halleck cites a number of different uses including illumination, fuel, and lubrication.   The next variety identified by Halleck is mineral tar, which the author says, is really only a mixture of asphaltum and petroleum. Asphaltum is dry and solid and in biblical times it was referred to as Jews' pitch.  It was used to seal the bottom of ships, as a coal substitute, and to pave roads. Halleck then mentions pitch, which he describes as "intermediate between" mineral tar and asphaltum.
Joseph G. Totten
The report also describes  retinaphaltum, which is "a brownish yellow" color "of different shades, sometimes with a shade of red" that is  found "adhering to brown coal or lignite."  Other varieties identified by Halleck include fossil copal that was found in a "bed of blue clay" and hatchetine that has the "hardness of soft tallow."
The second chapter contains definitions of mastics (adhesives, cements, and pastes) and indicates how mineral tar and asphaltic stone were used to form bituminous or petroleum-based mastics. The next chapter contains "remarks on the geological character of the asphaltic rock and mineral tar of the Val-de Travers." The rest of the report is essentially a manual on the preparation and use of bituminous mastics in construction of roads, sidewalks, roofs, and other projects.

Please click on the link to read the complete report, "Bitumen: Its Varieties, Properties, and Uses." 
This paper was written in 1841, eighteen years before Edwin Drake drilled for and discovered oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Was Jefferson Davis a "good" president?

President Jefferson Davis
While Jefferson Davis is hailed as hero of the Confederacy in the South and vilified as a traitor in the North, his performance as president is criticized by historians.

Author William C. Davis in Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour, points out Davis’s failures and notes several key decisions made by Davis that aided and prolonged the life of the Confederacy. Davis cites the president's "appointment and continued support of Robert E. Lee as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and his critical role in organizing the civil and military institutions of the new nation." On the negative side, the author lists Davis’s "inability to effectively work with either the prideful politicians or disgruntled commanders of the South, his tendency to overwork himself with details better left delegated, his refusal to admit error and replace highly appointed but incompetent friends, and his numerous health problems all proved to limit his effectiveness as a wartime president." William C. Davis concludes that “for all Davis’s flaws as an executive, without his performance of his civil functions as president, the Confederacy would not have lasted until 1865." [From review of book  by Than Dossman]

In another review of Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour, Ashley Lauman states: 

As chief executive, Davis found himself troubled by the shortcomings that had plagued him since his early years—an inability to deal with equals unless they fawned upon him, excruciating difficulty in making decisions, and a stubborn refusal to admit wrongdoing. Much of author Davis’s coverage discusses his subject’s difficulty in cooperating with his several generals; and he praises Robert E. Lee for discovering early on how to maintain a harmonious relationship with his president. As president, Davis lacked the instincts of a true administrator; rather, his abilities and personality were more suited to a bureaucratic position. Nonetheless, despite taking the brunt of public outrage for the declining success or individual failures during the war, Davis performed as well as any human could be expected to as the underdog Confederate leader facing the much stronger Union foe.
In William J. Cooper's A Reassessment of Jefferson Davis as War Leader: The Case from Atlanta to Nashville, the author quotes a comparison made by Eric L. McKitrick:

It seems apparent that the leadership of Abraham Lincoln was superior to that of Jefferson Davis.“ Lincoln was flexible; Davis was rigid. Lincoln wanted to win;  Davis wanted to be right. Lincoln had a broad strategic vision of Union goals; Davis could never enlarge his narrow view. Lincoln searched for the right general, then let him fight the war; Davis continuously played favorites and interfered unduly with his generals, even with Robert E. Lee. Lincoln led his nation; Davis failed to rally the South. Simply, Lincoln contributed mightily to the Union victory; Davis contributed mightily to the Confederate defeat.
The biography on the Mississippi History Now web site notes that Davis had the same difficulties as Lincoln in dealing with generals, states, and Congress.

As the only president of the Confederacy, Davis was in a unique situation as he struggled to run a war and, simultaneously, to mold a new country. Like his northern counterpart, Abraham Lincoln, Davis had epic struggles with his army commanders, the state governors, and Congress. Unlike Lincoln, he lacked the essential resources to ensure success. 
Davis' biography on the Civil War Trust web site also mentions his failures as a president.

Initially, Davis was a popular President with the Southern people. He had a dignified bearing, a distinguished military record, extensive experience in political affairs, and — most importantly — a dedication to the Confederate cause. Unfortunately for Davis, these attributes were not enough to triumph over the harsh challenges posed by his new position. His early popularity was a result of war fervor and he did not have the personality necessary to sustain it. He was impatient with people who disagreed with him, and he had the unfortunate habit of awarding prominent posts to leaders who appeared unsuccessful. Davis’ loyalty to these people led to bickering and quarrels throughout his administration. In addition, he was plagued by chronic illness. 
Was Davis a victim of an unwinnable situation? Did his illnesses affect his ability to be an effective leader? Was his personality, formed by past successes, at the root of his problems? What do you think?  

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Civil War on PBS

The Civil War, the award-winning film produced and directed by Ken Burns, will be rebroadcast over five consecutive nights starting September 7, 2015. The broadcast, which coincides with the 25th anniversary of the series’ initial broadcast in September 1990, will present for the first time a newly restored, high-definition version. This is also the first time the film will be seen with the same fidelity and framing as the negative that Burns and his co-cinematographers Allen Moore and Buddy Squires shot more than twenty-five years ago.

Check out the PBS web site for the series.

Other Ways to Celebrate the End of Summer Encampment

The Plain in 1828
United States Military Academy plebes have marked the end of the summer encampment with a huge nighttime pillow fight. The fight is considered a "harmless way to blow off steam and build class spirit." A West Point spokesman said the annual fight is organized by first-year students as "a way to build camaraderie after the summer program that prepares them for the rigors of plebe year."

However, this year's fight was anything but "harmless" fun when some plebes took things a step too far. Instead of pillowcases filled with foam padding, some took off their "protective" helmets and placed them in their pillowcases. The hardened pillowcases resulted in split lips, broken bones, dislocated shoulders, and unconscious students. The pillow fight turned into a brawl that injured thirty cadets of which twenty-four suffered concussions.

The fight was monitored by upperclassmen who "allowed the spirit activity to occur out of the desire to enhance the spirit of the class." The upperclassmen took “mitigating measures” to prevent injury, including requiring cadets to wear helmets.

Summer camp on the Plain, 1907
West Point cadets had mixed reactions to the injuries. While some saw the injuries as part of a military rite of passage, others considered the injuries as a lack of judgment and restraint. 

What is regrettable here is that a West Point tradition may be ending because the plebes did not know when to stop. Having been involved in a few pillow fights, I can understand what happened. The "mock physical contact" can easily get out of hand and transition to more competitive, violent battles.   
I believe the saddest part of the incident was a failure on the part of students and future officers "to make good decisions and follow the rules."[1]
Cadet tent during
summer camp, 1905
My suggestion is to consider the ways that summer camp ended in 1840. The encampment ended with two rituals. The first was the grand ball where cadets and plebes had the opportunity to demonstrate the skills they learned dancing with each other. The second event was the striking of tents the following morning. The cadets gathered around the floors of their tents with clubs and brooms. Two cadets grabbed each corner of the floor. On a signal, they picked up the floor to release thousands of rats. Then, to the screams and cheers of delight, the cadets attacked the scurrying rodents and slaughtered as many of them as possible.[2]

[1] Philipps, Dave, "At West Point, Annual Pillow Fight Becomes Weaponized," The New York Times, September 4, 2015.
[2] Register of the Officers and Cadets of the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, June, 1840, 5.