Tuesday, March 15, 2005

They don't name 'em like they used to.

I've been on a Civil War kick lately. It's becoming an addiction.

Normally, I like to read three kinds of books: Action fiction, eclectic history and sports.

But I bought a book on Gettysburg, the appropriately titled "Gettysburg," by Stephen Sears, and for about six months I've been reading virtually nothing but Civil War books.

Now, I'm from Pennsylvania, and besides multiple school trips to Gettysburg, about the most Civil War knowledge beyond the general schoolboy stuff I had was gleaned from a biography of Union Gen. John Sedgwick.

"Who?" you ask?

Gen. John Sedgwick, a colorless if beloved Union corps (bigger than a division, which is bigger than a brigade, which is bigger than a regiment) commander who despite his high rank was probably best known for his last words.

Now, when it comes to last words, you have the great (George Gipp's "Win one for the Gipper") and the not-so-great (Socrates' "I drank what?").

John Sedgwick's last words were, "Don't worry, men, they couldn't hit an elephant at this distance!"

The Petras couple's "776 Stupidest Things Ever Said" series filed that one under "Predictions, Bad." Although to Sedgwick's credit, the Confederates didn't shoot any elephants that day. Just a general.

But back to the point, my new addiction.

Having finished Sears' "Gettysburg" (an action in which Sedgwick took part somewhat before he left his crystal ball at home and traveled to Spottsylvania) I moved on to his book on Antietam, and that was it.

I've read at least 10 books, I've got a stack unread a mile high and my Amazon wish list is in tatters. Look, you've got to understand, I'm a completist with a touch of OCD and if you rose to at least a colonelcy and command of a regiment in the Civil War, on either side, you've got a chance at a 200-page biography by somebody. Same thing with battles that killed at least 100 men; ever heard of Chantilly? Ball's Bluff (I didn't make that one up)?

If you haven't, and you'd like to know more, you've got your choice of at least two books on each. Now imagine a battle you have heard of, like, say, Gettysburg (again). Dozens.

There are two whole theaters of the war that Civil War buffs feel have gotten short shrift: The West (Tennessee, for instance) and the South (where Ulysses S. Grant made his name). History may be written by the victors, but in the case of the Civil war, it's written by the Virginians. And if it isn't about Robert E. Lee, they're not too worried about it. Nowadays, though, people are falling all over themselves to get more information out there about the biggest armies you've never heard of, the Army of the Tennessee.

Reading all these books, or at least their descriptions on Amazon, I've come to a few undeniable conclusions.

One is that there are two types of generals: The ones who follow their orders to the letter, and the ones who march to the sound of the guns. That's the conclusion reached by the part of me that was a history major for about six weeks in college, until the day I walked out of the library with 15 books for one 10-page paper and realized I enjoyed reading for pleasure a lot more than I enjoyed reading because my QPA depended on it.

The other major conclusion I've reached is that the North had the numbers, but the South had the leaders. I would guess everybody who knows anything about the Civil War knows that, but you have to realize, Grant beat Lee basically by figuring out that as long as there were three Yanks for every Reb, the Rebs could kill Yanks at a 2-to-1 ratio, and Grant could drink all he wanted and still make it onto the back of some impressive green paper.

Getting back to that "history is written by the victors" thing, I've realized that the Civil War is an exception. You see, the Southern side has been romanticized into these great men leading brave troops who wanted only to defend their homes and their rights. Never mind that pesky slavery thing. That's a post for a far more serious blog than I intend this one to be.

(Although I'll probably make fun of the Germans at some point. Look at my profile and you'll notice I'm a Jew, and therefore entitled. That's another war, anyway.)

The thing is, I think I've figured out why the Southerners have cornered the market on being romanticized.

They have character. And more important, they have cool names.

This seems to stem from two 19th-century Southern nomenclature traditions: Giving the kid a middle name that's really a family name, and then calling the kid by that middle name.

Northern generals have such inspiring names as Irvin, George, John, George again, Ambrose (all right, that's a maybe), Joe, a different George and the real exception, Ulysses. Among lesser-ranked men, you get George, John, John, two Phillips and an Oliver.

On the other hand, Rebels followed leaders with names that would never be confused for your typical Tom, Dick or George.

(Well, Stonewall Jackson was really a "Tom," but he was anything but typical. And Dick Ewell's own men called him "Baldy." Ever see a picture of Dick Ewell? You'd understand.)

But many Confederate names sound like someone made them up.

Dorsey Pender. Dodson Ramseur. Rans Wright. Carnot Posey. Cadmus Wilcox. Raleigh Colston. Jubal Early. J.E.B. Stuart, who had so many names, his initials made another one. P.G.T. Beauregard, another man with three first names. Powell Hill. Howell Cobb. Maxcy Gregg.

And you can't say J. Johnston Pettigrew doesn't just roll off the tongue. J. Johnston Pettigrew sounds like an aristocrat, and by reputation Pettigrew was one of the smartest and best-educated men in the Confederate army. At least until he charged a Union cavalryman with only a pistol and a melodic name. You know you were born under an unlucky star when your men put up a casualty ratio of 39-to-2, and you're half the 2.

Even the nicknames were cool. Stonewall Jackson, I mentioned. Allegheny Johnson. Grumble Jones. Rooney Lee.

(There's a book out there on a Western general that calls him the Stonewall of the West, and someone on Amazon wondered why Jackson wasn't the Cleburne of the East. Reminded me of the T-shirts they sold at school that called M.I.T. the Carnegie Mellon of New England. Um, no.)

The Union nicknames? "Fighting Joe" Hooker, whose last name stuck around longer than his nickname. (Hint: To paraphrase an ex-girlfriend, Joe loved the ladies, and the ladies didn't mind.) That was actually a trend: Ambrose Burnside's impressive facial hair is, at least by urban legend, the source of the term that switches his last name around. Abner Doubleday didn't have a good nickname, but then, he didn't invent baseball, either. Take your fame where you can get it. The Yanks did have J.K.F. Mansfield in the three-initial category, but you've probably never heard of him because he had the misfortune to achieve the pinnacle of his long career - corps command - two days before Antietam. The Rebs could hit a general at THAT distance, too.

My vote's for Dorsey Pender and Dodson Ramseur as having the two most memorable names. Those guys just sound like major generals, which they were. Division commanders before the age of 30. Man, I'm 30 years old and I can't even get promoted to slot editor, these guys are commanding about 10% of the Army of Northern Viriginia.

Yes, there are biographies of both men, and the brilliant "Lee's Lieutenants" by Douglas Freeman makes them sound so dramatic in its cast of characters I had to buy both books. No, they don't have happy endings, if you get my drift.

Pender was a prolific letter-writer, at least until the end of June 1863, when he rode to Gettysburg and got in the way of a Union shell. Ramseur, meanwhile, was described by Freeman as being told on the eve of battle that his wife's crisis had passed and the baby was born. "More than that, he never learns."

How could you not buy a biography of Stephen Dodson Ramseur after a line like that?

Totally off topic, props to the North Carolinians: Pender, Ramseur and Pettigrew, the coolest of the cool, were all Tar Heels.

I'm currently (and my use of that word alone should tell you I'm not editing these posts) toward the end of a biography of Powell Hill (A.P. Hill, more formally) written by a guy whose name escapes me, but who I figured had to be good because he has a Prize named after him (that the author of another book I read won). I like Hill, and there's something to be said for a guy who was called out for in the last words of Jackson (which he could have answered) and Robert E. Lee (by then, he couldn't).

Blatant plug for a total stranger, as opposed to my usual blatant plugs for friends:

"And Then A.P. Hill Came Up" is about the best history Web site I have ever seen. Just incredible, and it really shows the power and limitless potential of the Web. There's a page on everything to do with Hill and the Light Division (another cool name, this one for an entire unit) except maybe the general's venereal disease, and I could live without a page on that, anyway.

After this, however, I'm not sure what to read. I've got some of the traditional overviews of the war, such as McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom," but I've always liked odd events and odd people in history, so I've been consciously or subconsciously avoiding both the traditional reads (Catton, Foote) and the overviews, and reading books on battles or biographies. So "Shiloh" might be next (the idea of Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston slowly bleeding death in the peach orchard without even realizing it has some tragic romance). Except I'm reluctant to move out West, where I'm less familiar with the history, when I have so many more books on the Virginia/Maryland/Pennsylvania campaigning that I could read. Including No. 3 on Gettysburg (with about six more on the wish list).

So if you've got any ideas, since more of these books are bound to inspire a post or two, well, that's what the comment link is for. Speak up!

As for when I'll shake this addiction, I'm guessing when the next book from either Matthew Reilly or Preston & Child (my favorite action fiction authors) comes out. Whenever that is.


And hey, I get home from work around 11:30, so that whole "post a day" thing doesn't count as missed if I can't finish writing before midnight!