Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Grand Review In Harrisburg - Great Way To Cap The Sequicentennial

I thought I was done with Civil War Sesquicentennial events after the Grand Review in May.  It turns out that there is one more event, I just have to attend.  Another Grand Review - this one in Harrisburg.  The original Grand Review (although not its Sesquicentennial) had excluded black troops.  In November, though, there was a Grand Review for the United States Colored Troops and that will be commemorated on November 13th and 14th in Harrisburg Pennsylvania.

A Bit Of Historiography

The contribution of black soldiers and sailors to Union victory was one of those things that got thrown in the historiographical memory hole for a couple of generations.  It started creeping its way back into general consciousness in the nineteen sixties, when people started talking about Black History.

I have this fairly elaborate theory that I have been working on about views of American history.  A short version is that the culture of the United States America, the elements that explains why we are not European was well formed by the time Alexis de Tocqueville visited in the eighteen thirties.  Among the constituent elements are four pretty distinct groups from the British Isles, the indigenous peoples, people taken in captivity from Africa and a melange of German and Dutch in the middle colonies.  They baked the cake.  The wretched refuse yearning to breathe free started flooding in sometime after that and provided the icing and the cherry on top.

My theory is that a unified American history was really for the benefit of the wretched refuse.  Anybody who identified with one of the elements would have their own distinct narrative.  (A complication is that the identification with any of the elements does not necessarily imply ancestry.

 Jim Webb, the most badass of the participants in the most recent Democratic debate, in his Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America makes a strong case that much of the culture of the American military and white working class derives from the Scots-Irish, who came to America in the first half of the eighteenth century indirectly from the Scottish border region by way of Ulster.  They did not linger on the coast but sent straight to the frontier.  Think Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Andrew Jackson and about 95% of the Confederate Army.

The ironic thing is that that group probably has the most in common with African Americans of any, which is why they love one another so much or not.

At any rate Civil War historiography for the masses- post 1840 immigrants, their children, grandchildren etc was heavily influenced by a romanticized version of the Confederate cause and the notion, somewhat accurate, that white northerners, mostly, did not care that much one way or the other about slavery.  Paul Buck explained the process in his Pulitzer Prize winning Road To Reunion in 1937.
The memories of the past were woven in a web of national sentiment which selected from by- gone feuds those deeds of mutual valor which permitted pride in present achievement and future promise. The remarkable changes that had taken place within the short span of a single generation had created a national solidarity hitherto unknown in American life. The reunited nation was a fact.
The 180,000 black soldiers in the Union Army were an inconvenient fact in this narrative, so they slipped from popular memory.  In the segregated schools of the South, they were remembered though. And they resurfaced as part of "black history" or as we might more accurately say "history" beginning in the sixties.

One of the things that made them easy for them to be forgotten was that they came in heavily after the big exciting battles like Manassas, Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.

Black Reenacting

It is too bad I am such a lousy reporter, so I only have bits and pieces to support this.  As far as I have been able to tell Civil War reenacting got going seriously in the run-up to the Centennial which went real light on the issue of slavery.  It was a pretty white affair until the movie Glory in 1989

Most of the black reenactors I spoke with at different events either started after the movie Glory or were in the movie Glory.

Better Than Banning The Confederate Flag

You can't cut the romantic version, somewhat accurate, of the Confederacy -brave men defending their homeland from invasion - out of the American psyche,  Our country has the only world class military academy - West Point - that fought a heck of an intramural war before being called to rescue the world from totalitarianism.  It gave us a tradition of being magnanimous in victory, if not quite gracious in defeat.

But we cannot forget that the Civil War was a war for liberation by a significant number of the people who fought in it.  So rather than tearing down monuments to the Confederates, let's be putting up monuments to the USCT soldiers who faced them.


For Civil War nerds - As far as I can tell the Masschuessetts black regiments were never incorporated into the United States Colored Troops unlike Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson's First South Carolina Volunteers which became the 33rd USCT.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Some Unique WWII Memoirs

I really like memoirs and biographies. There are three that I just finished.  I would recommend two of them as really good reads.

The Yeoman

 Wake of The Wahoo by Forest J. Serling is a submarine memoir, something that I am a real sucker for.  It differs from most submarine memoirs in that Sterling was an enlisted man.  As a yeoman, though, he worked closely with the officers and has some very nice words for Richard O'Kane, Wahoo's exec who would later be awarded the medal of honor as skipper of the Tang.  Sterling was an old salt with a break in service having served two enlistments in the thirties reenlisting when the war broke out.  His hard scrabble depression background is an interesting contrast to the officer memoirs, which were written by pretty much straight arrow Annapolis graduates.

As yeoman, Sterling was something of a link between the officers and the men.  He also probably had a better sense of the big picture in that he was the one who typed the patrol reports.  During his first patrol, he didn't have much to do during attacks, but in subsequent ones he was in the middle of things taking notes in real time.

The other sailors sometimes gave him a hard time about being too close to the officers.  Kiddingly defending himself, he indicated that he always got the last words in when speaking with O'Kane - "Yes sir".

Contrasting this with the officer memoirs, it seems that at least in terms of really being off, liberty was better for enlisted men. There is a pretty good account of a week with a naval widow in Brisbane.

(Spoiler Alert)

Sterling had applied for stenography training, but Mush Morton asked him to go on one more patrol. Just before departing, Morton took him to the Squadron Commander and said to the commander that Sterling was a great yeoman and he had orders to Stenography School, could he have a relief?

That set up the haunting ending to the memoir.

"I threw my sea bag on the rough planks and sat down on it.  I lighted several cigarettes and smoked them before Wahoo, a tiny submarine silhouette on the horizon, headed into in a rain squall and disappeared from sight. Forever."

Subsequent reconstructions from Japanese sources indicate that Wahoo's seventh war patrol accounted for the sinking of four merchant ships.  Wahoo is, as they say, still on patrol - declared overdue on 2 December 1943

The Naval Airman

The Miraculous Torpedo Squadron is also a great read. It relates an event which was the critical link in the transition in Herman Wouk's fictional Winds of War and War and Remembrance.  Victor "Pug" Henry's ambition and dream was to command a battleship, but when he finally gets his wish, his battleship, California, is sunk at Pearl Harbor before he can take command.

Pug ends up with command of the Cruiser Northhampton.

The author of The Miraculous Torpedo Squadron tells the story of the sinking of the California.

"Buildings and other structures on the wharf made it hard for me to get down low, but I eventually cleared the obstacles and dropped down to about fifteen feet over the water.  I got the plane completely trimmed and horizontal.  At a speed of 130 kits (?) I closed to within 250 yards of California, held my breath and aimed just below and to the right of the ships bridge."

I do have to say that my bs detector was just a little bit on the alert as I read Juzo Mori's account of exploits as an enlisted naval pilot in the Imperial Japanese Navy. In the introduction it is  indicated that Mori ran a bar called the Cart Driver (slang for torpedo plane pilot) and there is a reason for the expression "war stories".  The other thing about the book that is a bit jarring is that the translator chose to use an informal colloquial style in the translation.  An illustration of this is in one of the most fascinating passage as Mori describes the scene in Tokyo after his carrier Soryu returns from operations in the Indian Ocean.

"We were surprised to see that many of the windows in the houses near the harbor were broken.  When we asked what had happened we were told that enemy bombers had attacked Tokyo."

"The newspapers were filled with stories about the sub-human American devils and other hyperbole, but those were just excuses.  The reality was that they had come in the front door, kicked our butts and got away without a scratch.  Unbelievable!"

In some ways though it seems like the translator made a good choice. Mori, even though an experienced pilot, was an enlisted man and it is reasonable to think that he must have sounded a bit salty.

The story takes us through Mori's brutal training through operations over China, Pearl Harbor, Midway, where Soryu sinks and operations over Guadalcanal where Mori was stranded on short rations from a while. Wounds on Guadalcanal disabled him as a pilot.

It really was interesting reading a memoir of those actions from the other side.  I really recommend this one.

The third memoir is actually not a very good read but it has a lot of very interesting information in it, so I think that Colonel Retread by Carlton Ketchum rates its own post, which I will try to get to soon.