Monday, February 2, 2009

Civil War pedantry

From Wilfred McClay, an interesting article on Abraham Lincoln and on how different history seems to those living through it than it does looking backward. As McClay says, Lincoln is now regarded as a great man, but at the time he was hugely controversial and widely hated.

We need to remember that this is often how history happens. Background music does not swell at the crucial moment, and trumpets do not sound, when the events of history are actually taking place. The orator or the soldier has to wonder whether he is acting in vain, whether the criticisms of others are in fact warranted, whether time will judge him harshly. . . .

So far, so good. But then we wander into nonsense:

We also need to remember how likely it seemed to Lincoln and others that he would lose the 1864 election, and thereby experience ignominious defeat and see the disintegration of the Union cause as he had fought for it. Had it not been for the miracle of Sherman’s and Grant’s decisive victories in the field, such a defeat at the polls would have been likely, as the American people had grown weary of this frustrating struggle.
Where to start? Grant's and Sherman's victories in 1864 were not a "miracle." Both men's armies outnumbered the Confederates opposing them by 2 to 1, and they were superbly equipped with everything from rifles and cannons to teams of railway men who could repair track faster than Confederate raiders could tear it up. Neither Grant nor Sherman was a military genius. They were both competent, disciplined commanders hand-picked by Lincoln because they had the particular skill needed at the time, that is, they knew how to advance aggressively and to make superior numbers decide the outcome of a battle. They had those superior numbers partly because of Lincoln's skill in mobilizing public opinion and Congressional support behind the war. Lincoln took a personal role, not just in choosing generals, but in making sure that the railroads ran, that promising new technologies like repeating rifles and ironclad ships were pushed forward, and that black troops were used in the battle line.

Yes, history is contingent. But it is rarely decided by "miracles," and great leaders like Lincoln actually have some impact on how it turns out.

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