Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Welcome Varyag!

The flagship of Russia's Pacific fleet has come to town and is docked at Pier 30-32. It is the first Russian warship to visit San Francisco since 1863, when the Russian Pacific and Atlantic fleets tied up in San Francisco Bay and New York Harbor. The weaponry has been upgraded somewhat. Those earlier vessels were formidable, but this one has 16 cruise missiles with a range of 3,400 miles.

One hundred and forty-seven years ago, the Civil War raged in the East, and U.S. relations with France and Great Britain remained tenuous. The importance of Russia's support for the Union goes underreported in the literature. The bi-coastal sojourns in the U.S. freed the Russian fleets from potential blockades in their home ports, and made for a strong show of force in the event that one of the great Western European powers recognized the Confederacy.

The Russians, of course, had a long and rich history on the West Coast of North America. San Francisco's Russian Hill (North of Nob Hill, and west of Telegraph Hill), was named for a small cemetery of Cyrillic-inscribed tombstones discovered on the crest by 49ers. In 1812, moving down from Alaska, the Russian
American Company established Fort Ross, north of San Francisco, which became the southernmost Russian outpost. Today, it's a well-preserved state historic park, and favored destination for school outings.

Hearty thanks go to the Russians for standing by the Union in her time of greatest crisis, and for the the sacrifice of six sailors who died fighting a conflagration during that 1863 visit. A plaque honoring those sailors was dedicated in San Francisco last week at the foot of Broadway.

[photo at top: Capt. Eduard Muskalenko, commander of the Varyag. Bottom right, a Russian stamp depicting Andrei Alexandrovich Popov, commander of the Pacific Fleet that patroled the U.S. West Coast in 1863.]

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Battle of Brandy Station

Today marks the 147th anniversary of what is frequently described as the largest cavalry battle on the North American continent. It's worth paying a visit to the outstanding web resources at the Civil War Preservation Trust site, where you'll find first-rate maps, an interview with author Eric Wittenberg, an article by Bud Hall, photos, video tours, and more.

On the weekend after Labor Day, Eric will be conducting a tw0-day bus tour of Brandy Station, from Kelly's Ford to Trevilian Station. The first 12 registrants (of which there are half a dozen so far) will receive a free copy of Eric's new book on Brandy Station. Additionally, $10 of every registration will be donated to CWPT. More information can be found here.

A Stillness at Appomattox

I'm back in the Golden State after a jam-packed Civil War weekend in Appomattox, and will take some time later this week to post some photos and reflections. After two days of following Patrick Schroeder around—this being my second visit to the area—I'm finally beginning to get the lay of the land. It's a difficult campaign to grasp, and pouring over maps is not quite enough.

For me, it's always been a challenging puzzle to visualize the disengagement of Lee's army from Petersburg, the rapid Federal pursuit, and the precise chronology and movement of pieces of both armies along a network of roughly parallel roads on either side of the Appomattox River. For the first time, I started to see a more complete picture of how the Army of Northern Virginia became disconnected, and how Federal cavalry closed off first one route and then another, forcing the remnants of Lee's army into a "punchbowl" with nowhere to go. Now I need to revisit some of the primary source material, and Chris Calkins's narratives, to finally achieve something approaching fluency in my understanding of the incredibly dramatic closing hours of the war in the East. Virtually all Civil War battlefields require a personal visit to make sense of the complicated and often clumsy descriptions intended to illuminate them, but some require it more than others.

You can't appreciate the swale that swallowed Longstreet's Assault until you personally make the walk to Cemetery Ridge. Once you've seen for yourself the ravines at Shiloh, you won't so casually fault Beauregard for not finishing the job on the first day. And until you
grok the geography and road network on Lee's retreat from Petersburg, you cannot appreciate how close we came to losing the poetry of Catton's title, A Stillness at Appomattox, in favor of a stillness at some other place. I billed this tour as "Unseen Appomattox," and Patrick did not disappoint. We made several forays into heavily wooded areas to locate the ruins of various wartime structures, and some extant defensive works, and saw many other sites that warmed the cockles of our uber-geeky Civil War hearts.

[Photo at top: Appomattox Court House National Historic Park historian Patrick Schroeder, holding up a period photo of Longstreet's headquarters in front of the ruins of that building.]

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

He Ho'omana'o No

You heard me. On this Memorial Day, 2010, the Honolulu Advertiser reports that "Henry Ho'olulu Pitman, the son of a Hawaiian high chiefess, was born in Hilo, served as a young man in the Union Army during the American Civil War, and died from the effects of being held in the South's Libby Prison."

The article asserts that as many as 40 native Hawaiians served on one side or the other during the war, including 12 on the famed raider CSS Shenandoah (probably pressed into service for their sailing skills).

Mustering best Johnny Carson impression: I did not know that.

Texas textbooks and the truth

Monday, May 31, 2010 19:01 ET

Texas is right: We should teach kids about Jefferson Davis
and the Confederacy. But let's tell the whole story

By Michael Lind

The Texas State Board of Education, the most astringently reactionary body since the Spartan Ephorate, has decreed that textbooks for the schoolchildren of Texas are to include Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address along with the first inaugural of Abraham Lincoln.

This controversy holds particular interest for me. I am a fifth-generation native of Texas. One ancestor of mine had his farm in Georgia incinerated by Gen. Sherman. Another came to Texas in the federal army of occupation of Gen. Custer. One of the last things that my late grandfather said to me was: "Sam Houston was a traitor to the South!" The Civil War ended in 1865, but clearly its meaning is still contested in the 21st century.

By all means, let schoolchildren in Texas read Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address. But there should be more material from the Confederate side of the conflict than that. For generations, apologists for the Confederacy have claimed that secession was really about the tariff, or states’ rights, or something else -- anything other than preserving the right of some human beings to own, buy and sell other human beings.

That being the case, the education of schoolchildren in my state should include a reading of the Cornerstone Speech made by Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy, on March 21, 1861.

You can find the full Salon.com article here. Be sure to read to the end, and behold Sam Houston's stirring appeal to reason in the face of secessionist fervor. Like the author of this piece, I was born in Texas, as was my wife. Something really went haywire when even the venerable Sam Houston was deemed a traitor. Lost Causersincluding the people behind the campaign to acknowledge vast legions of phantom Black Confederatespaint a rosy picture of a post-war, independent Confederacy naturally weaning itself peacefully from its economic dependence on slavery by the end of the century. Not likely, given the sacrifice they were willing to make to preserve it. To say nothing of the fact that the institution transcended economicsit was part and parcel of southern culture. Chances are good they would have given Brazil a run for its money when it came to the longevity of slavery. Lind's image of a post-war Confederacy sounds much more feasible, and as a fellow son of Texas, I share his sentiments about the liberation of the Lone Star State.

That is what my fellow Texans of younger generations should learn about the Lost Cause. Under British protection, the CSA might have evolved into a squalid banana republic run by landlords for the benefit of investors and industrialists in Britain. Without British protection, the CSA might have survived as a proto-fascist regime, with an economy of permanent war socialism and a government run by colonels. In either case, the victory of the Confederacy would have been far worse for most white and black Southerners than its well-deserved defeat. For ensuring that I would be born in the United States of America instead of a broken-down failed state that combined the least attractive features of apartheid-era South Africa and death squad-era Honduras, I say: Thank you, President Lincoln, and thank you, Gen.Grant.