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The War Nerd / October 16, 2011
By Gary Brecher

There are actual American heroes. Not a lot, and you don’t hear much about them, but there are a few.

I don’t mean working moms who spend their Saturdays spooning soup into winos. I mean classic citizen-soldiers who get it right every time, in battle and in everything else.  My favorite at the moment is Benjamin Grierson, because he not only led the finest cavalry raid of the Civil War (according to James MacPherson hisself) but managed to be right about everything, all his life—one of the few who look as good now as they did then.

The last straw for me, the thing that made me put “Grierson Column” on the topside of my hand (if I really mean to do something I write it on top of my hand; if I’m lying to myself I put it on the palm where nobody’ll see it) was when I went to what’s left of the library here and found a book actually called Heroes of the Civil War. Grierson wasn’t in it. Not even the index. I can’t forgive that. There’s an old song called something like, “If I ran the world,” and if I actually did a lot of writers would be standing against the nearest pockmarked wall.

If Grierson’s not a hero, nobody is. He looks as good today, maybe even better, than he did back then. That’s not as easy as it sounds. Heroes age pretty fast; a new issue comes up every few years, and these dead guys get vetted like they were running for office. That’s when the embarrassing parts come out: Forrest has Fort Pillow and the whole KKK thing, Grant had to go and ruin it by being President, and Sherman blew his chance to change the life of the freedmen.

But Grierson…I can’t find a bad thing about him. Even on the racial stuff, which is usually fatal to heroes from back then, Grierson comes off more heroic now than ever. I’d never believe that anybody could be that perfect, if it was somebody from these days. But those Victorians were all crazy, so when one of them was good—and there weren’t many who were—the good ones are crazy-good, a perfect mix of Dudley Doright and Subotai.

Even Grierson’s back-story is too perfect, movie-perfect. He was a music teacher in Ohio, a tall skinny Jimmy Stewart guy with the perfect comedy touch: He was scared to death of horses. What makes that perfect is that Grierson went on to lead what James MacPherson called the greatest cavalry raid of the whole war, riding from Tennessee 600 miles almost due south through enemy territory to land safe in Baton Rouge, LA, inflicting ten times the casualties he had himself—and then going on to be the one white officer who stood up for the black freedmen “Buffalo Soldiers” in the far West, at a time when America was using white-vs-black to heal up the raw North-vs-South scars.

It’s a script touch you’d drop if you were doing a movie, because it’s too much to believe.

But he had the scar to prove he came by this horse-o-phobia honestly. As a kid Grierson was kicked in the face by a horse, and carried the hoofprint on his face for the rest of his life, along with a good healthy fear of horses.

If you grew up in church, you get that story in a hot second: He was one of the Elect, horse-wise. God got him kicked, marked with the hoofprint to tell him he’d have to crawl to the ol’ rugged hoss, like it or not, and added the horse-phobia to make it more interesting. Although I’m not sure being scared of horses is even a phobia. It’s just common sense. Any animal with a tiny brain and an iron-tipped back leg cocked like a bear trap is a good thing to be scared of. I had some horsey relatives and every time they wanted to show us Gypsy or Joker, I’d be edging around trying to stay out of range of that twitchy back leg. I’d already read enough military history to know that horses killed and crippled a whole lot of soldiers. One thing I’ll say for cars: they may kill you but at least it won’t be personal. A horse can nurse a little grudge for weeks, then kick your brain out the back of your head.

Or the horse can stop short and send a rider flying into a log. That happened to Sherman in his early career, nearly crippled him. In fact there are still Civil War dudes getting hurt by horses, like these two poor guys, probably UPS drivers in real life, who were just trying to reenact the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, where Frank James got his start shooting people—except their horses weren’t as thrilled about making military history come to life as their riders were:

One man playing a Confederate cavalryman got pinned under his horse, while a Union cavalryman got injured when his horse stepped on his groin. Exactly how he got into a position where his horse could do that is unclear.

Yes, there it is, the tragedy of Civil War, brothers divided, one in gray and one in blue,  but both cursing their dumb drooling dinosaur-brained animals while they waited for the paramedics, with the groin-injury Union man groaning, “I regret that I have but two gonads to give to my reenactment society.”

Ridiculous as it sounds, they probably did a better job of reenacting the real battle than most, because real Civil War cavalrymen (and officers, who rode most of the time) got kicked, stepped on, thrown, rolled on, trampled and bit by their horses all the time. Having your horse step on your balls has to be the worst, because you know everyone’s going to make a joke of it when they’re with their friends. Even the reporter here can’t resist, with that chuckly last line about “Exactly how he got into a position where his horse could do that is unclear.” When something like that happened in a real war—and it did, all the time—they probably didn’t even bother to hide the laughs.

Grierson, growing up with a reminder on his face of what horses could do, just wanted to play his trumpet, make a little extra teaching music, and keep out of trouble. He was Southern and when the war started he said he couldn’t imagine fighting against his family. Besides, he was broke, deep in debt, with a wife to support.

Interesting thing about the best men in the Civil War: Most of them were lousy businessmen. It took the war to show what they could do. That backs up something I’ve been thinking lately, now that we’re all supposed to worship business: I don’t like business. Business is good for some people and bad for others, and the ones who are bad at it generally turn out to be the best soldiers.

Grierson finally faced the fact that he was going to have to go to war and started studying from scratch, recruiting a company, the 10th Illinois Infantry. The way he backed into command was typical of a lot of Union officers, especially the ones from the West. In the newer states like Ohio, it all came down to local politics. That’s one big change between their time and ours. These days local politics is nothing, but in 1861 it made way more difference in your life who was the local postmaster or mayor than it did who was in the White House. And the bitchy fights over influence carried right over to the command of all the units that formed up in the early days of the war.

Grierson got caught up in the fight between Grant and Ben Prentiss. Grant took quick and hard dislikes to some people and Prentiss was one of them.  A good soldier—proved it at Shiloh—but Grant was elbowing for influence in the Western theatre and Prentiss was in his way. Since Grant was a natural power forward, he got the rebound and Prentiss ended up retiring mid-war, bitter about the whole thing.

Grierson was one of the extras in their fight and got bounced into the cavalry. Now this had to be one of the funniest moments in the whole war, this geeky, skinny music teacher with a hoofprint on his face and a huge fear of horses finding out he was transferred fro the 10th Illinois Infantry to the 6th Cavalry.

Grierson went from horse-hater to regimental commander because he lucked into another of those classic early-Civil War situations: The commander of the regiment, Col. Cavanaugh, was one of those hopeless drunks (Irish too, from the name) who from what I can tell made up about half the male population of the country back in 1861. Cavanaugh didn’t make much of an impression on the men, what with being gone most of the time and bombed out of his mind the rest, so they petitione the governor of Ohio to get rid of him and put the new guy, Grierson in his place.

He took to it in a second. God knows, maybe they found a horse he could relate to, or maybe he just had that insane duty-bound attitude that made battlefields like Franklin and Cold Harbor such unhealthy places for a few hours at a time. One way or another, he got back on the horse–like literally. And in a few months he turned into one of the few Federal cavalry commanders who stood out at a time when the Union cavalry was considered a joke by the rebels.

Grierson’s first assignment was chasing guerrillas in Tennessee, where his kin came from, under  Gen. Lew Wallace. The one thing everybody knows about him is he wrote Ben Hur, which I had to watch as a child because it was supposedly “Christian,” but Wallace was a pretty good officer, and he set Grierson to work hunting fellow Tennesseans. Here again Grierson is like this ridiculously perfect officer-and-gentleman type; he crushed the local bushwhackers but the Tennessee ladies loved him for his perfect manners. You don’t get that a lot from ladies you meet while hunting down their kin, but that was Grierson, Mister Ridiculously Perfect.

And he hadn’t even started the raid that won him the real glory. That came in the spring of 1863, one of the distractions Grant used to cover his cross-river move south of the city. Grant wanted Pemberton to look anywhere but downstream toward Grand Gulf and Bruinsburg, where the surviving riverboats from the big gun-running gauntlet ferried his men across to the Vicksburg side. So he sent Sherman to Snyder’s Bluff—and “bluff” was a good name for it because Sherman’s job was to pretend he was going to try his big failed Chickasaw attack again. To make sure Pemberton wouldn’t know where to send his reinforcements, Grant sent out cavalry expeditions in different directions.

Grierson’s route: Straight South

The unlucky raid was commanded by Abel Streight, and the unlucky part of it was that he was tracked by Nathan Bedford Forrest. Streight started from Nashville with a brigade of about 1600 cavalry, tiptoed downstate to the Mississippi-Alabama line, and staggered east/southeast across ‘Bama. Streight’s diversion ended at Cedar Bluff, almost at the Georgia border, where Forrest bluffed Streight into surrendering by marching his few dragoons back and forth to make them look like a whole corps. Weird how these old tricks work sometimes, but you’ll notice they usually work better when they’re played by somebody like Forrest who inspired sheer terror in their opponents.

Misdirection was going to turn out to be crucial in the whole Vicksburg campaign, at tactical and strategic level. Grant’s strategy was to make Pemberton, commanding the defense of the city, fling units around against feint attacks while Grant landed the real force far to the south, on the east bank. Tactically, units operating in the West, where there was a huge territory to be covered by mostly small units, were fighting a more mobile force than the slow gyro-carving in Northern Virginia and had much more opportunity to use false moves, and old-school deceptions like Forrest’s in Cedar Bluff, to fool the enemy.

But capturing Streight took Forrest out of the Vicksburg campaign and left the second brigade under Grierson free and clear. Streight was set up to lose; his men got the nags, Grierson’s got prime horseflesh. You have to figure the choice of commanders went the same way: Streight wasn’t a bad officer, but he wasn’t a star either. Grierson already had a reputation.

And with Forrest busy chasing Streight, Grierson was up against some real C-League Confederate commanders, like Robert Richardson, whose only contributions to Civil War lore are a whiny letter home begging for more skillets and the fact that he survived the war just to get himself shot in the back outside a tavern, proving that even back then the most dangerous thing you can do is win a fight in a bar.

Subtract Forrest and the Confederate talent pool in the West is as shallow as the L. A. River. Pillow, Van Dorn, Price—it’s a hall of shame. Of course it didn’t help that some of their best, like Col. Rogers of the 2nd Texas, were slaughtered early on or blocked for promotion by that fool Jeff Davis (Rogers had both those handicaps) but that waste of talent happened on both sides, so you have to go with the survivors.

Forrest, who made it through the war and had enough energy left to start the Klan and make a fortune, made some of his best military decisions when he disobeyed these fools’ orders, like when he carried 4000 troopers out of the wreck of Fort Donelson by himself, or near the finish of his career as a cooperative subordinate, when he told Braxton Bragg that if they ever met again, one of them would die and it wouldn’t be the guy who looked like Chuck Liddell in a bad mood. (Although Bragg was a looker himself–living proof that great-grandma Bragg had a thing for Neanderthals.)

Forrest, Definitely Not Gump

Chuck Liddell Looking Forrest-al

Grierson left Tennessee in mid-April 1863 with a brigade of about 1700 men from two Illinois and one Iowa regiments. From the beginning he was in enemy territory, which like MacPherson says is one handicap Forrest never had to face. Grierson used diversion to confuse the local snitches who tried to report his location and destination along the raid route. When he crossed a river, he did it at three or more different points; when he was

planning to move in force, he sent fake recon units galloping in all kinds of fake directions, knowing the locals would exaggerate the numbers and assume the worst, which locals always do when they spot enemy movements.

Grierson had a real genius for misdirection plays. Like Sherman did when he moved out of Atlanta, he culled all the weak or sick men from his force—but unlike Sherman, Grierson used the cull to fool the enemy. Instead of culling the force before he started out, he waited until he was well inside Mississippi and had already captured a major town before he sent his weakest 200 men back to base, along with all prisoners and surplus captured horses, giving the local spies the impression he was leading a standard short-range patrol. Grierson also pioneered the tactic of having picked men plant rumors, “disinformation” as the Soviets would have called it, in every town he passed about where the column was going. It must have been a great time for all the frustrated actors in uniform—staggering around drunk or weeping about a made-up relative who was in harm’s way, then adding a tearful beg to “tell Granma the Yankees is comin’ and she needs to git”—and then leaving the Confederate forces waiting all jilted outside granma’s house while Grierson’s troopers zigged the other way.

Grierson’s wildest, most effective juke was a false-flag operation worthy of the North Korean People’s Army. He dressed his best scouts in drab gray-brown outfits that could pass for standard Confederate irregular-cavalry uniforms and sending them ahead. If the locals happened to think these guys were fighting for Dixie, well, that wasn’t Grierson’s fault. A whole lot of useful info came to Grierson thanks to these spies, I mean scouts.

These misdirection plays let Grierson come close to doing the impossible: Conducting successful conventional warfare without atrocity in enemy civilian areas. And these weren’t the scared peasants you get in a lot of wars; this was the South back when it expected to win the war and took all Yankees but especially Yankee cavalry for hopeless cowards. Most commanders would solve this “problem of perception” the obvious way by burning villages and hanging all male civilians without a good alibi. Grierson never did.

Grierson, a softie (in some ways)  who hated making the local women cry and never let his men get rough or even search private houses, actually USED the fact that the civilians were agin’ him against them, by sending so many vanguards in so many false directions that any enemy force would be swamped with useless intelligence. An under-used tactic in low-impact CI warfare. Anybody know where else it’s been used and how well it worked? The obvious flaw is that you’d expect to lose a lot of men on these misdirection missions to casual sniping, but the level of gore around 1863 probably made that a non-worry. At that point they were worrying about losing whole units, not little individual lives.

Grierson headed straight south into Mississippi, scattering militia as he rolled into Pontotac, the first big town on the route. From 1862 on, any veteran unit—on either side—could crush pretty much any force scraped up from local militia, no matter how big it was. Grierson sent Hatch’s Iowa regiment east to threaten the Mobile and Ohio, which paralleled his line-of-march near the Alabama border. The few real Confederate regulars in the area fell for it and massed to the east, assuming this was just a standard cavalry raid with no aim besides brief tactical rail disruption (Grant on the subject: “Any damage inflicted on a railroad by cavalry is soon repaired.”)

Nobody got the bigger purpose, freeing up the territory around Vicksburg for Grant’s infantry. Nobody understood Grierson’s nerf-war CI tactics, either. But there was a bigger, maybe the biggest, strategic gain that was another year showing up in Sherman’s raid: Grierson was showing, by pushing right through the heart of Mississippi, what Sherman figured out a year later: “The South is hollow, all hollow inside”—over-mobilized and helpless once the outer defenses were beaten, classic defenseless-villager stuff that in any other country, any other era, would have meant rape’n’pillage galore. All that was holding the Union back from winning the war Mongol-style was a notion that white Americans weren’t fair game for the classic cavalry campaign, the kind that explains why Genghis Khan’s personal genes can still be found in some huge percentage of Western Asia and Eastern Europe. Me, I’d’ve gone for it, mounting all Federal troops and giving them sabers, torches and compasses that pointe south—but then you wouldn’t pick Jimmy Stewart to play me.

Grierson was such a Jimmy Stewart softie—and such a damn genius at it—that when he actually wanted to stop locals from sending info to the enemy (instead of encouraging them the way he usually did) he managed that without hanging or shooting anybody. That happened when he reached Louisville, more than halfway down Mississippi. The fact that his men were in Louisville, on a line for the rail line running west to Vicksburg, was worth keeping as quiet as long as possible. So, taking advantage of the fact that most towns in Mississippi didn’t have working telegraphs, he sent small, disciplined cavalry pickets to the edge of town to make sure no public-spirited Rebs got the idea of playing Paul Revere. And, because he was one of these insanely fair officers you get in the Civil War, he kept other pickets along his men’s route through town to stop any pilfering. Again, it was me I’d be annoyed: We’re in their territory, and we don’t get so much as a gold watch? I mean c’mon, sir, you think we signed the enlistment papers for the generous wages or the medical plan? It’s like you don’t even want to kill people or something, all these
violence-prevention strategies.

But there you go—the Jimmy Stewart thing. Wannabe Bummers like me need not apply when Grierson was in command.

Grierson’s men hit the east-west railroad at Newton Station, where his “scouts” jumped a train just coming in full of supplies, commandeered it, and did the same to another right behind it. Then, for once, there was work for the guys like me in his command, a few hours to pay the locals back for all those saddle sores. The whole depot went up in flames along with all the rolling stock, and with only a few hours to enjoy the show—the ammo cars made some great fireworks, by all accounts—Grierson headed on south.

But the fun has to end sometime, and the Confederates were scared enough by this time to send troops south after Grierson. Here’s a classic moment between your standard tactically effective officer and a real genius like Grierson. A good officer with no imagination would go out with a bang, accept that he’d done his job in the big picture—drawing troops away from Vicksburg—and surrender on cue. Grierson had other ideas, and his nerf-Mongol style really came into its own as he faked and juked the Confederates right in their heartland.

With Pemberton’s forces slogging south after him, and another Southern force under Wirt Adams waiting for him to the south, at Union Church, Grierson did something Subotai would have loved, jumping into Wirt’s defenses as if he was going to plow through to the south, then sagging to the east, right out of Adams’ range.

Adams’ cavalry shadowed them south, so they couldn’t join up with the main Union forces pushing north to Vicksburg, so Grierson kept on south, burning rails and munition depots as he went. The most incredible thing about the whole raid is that he didn’t have to do a full-on frontal attack, thanks to all those feints, until he was at the Tickfaw River on the road to Baton Rouge, which was in Union hands. At the crossing he finally had to face what every commander hated most: A river crossing under fire from an enemy entrenched on the opposite bank.

Grierson crossing Tickfaw under fire–I love dioramas, ain’t ashamed to say it.

Grierson tried one attack which failed, then redeployed his men according to what Rommel discovered fighting in Rumania in WW I: “Two men in support-fire to one man on the attack.” That was enough to drive the enemy away from the crossing, since they were too stingy or stupid to burn Wall’s Bridge in the first place, which would actually have delayed Grierson a while.

Grierson’s brigade reaches Baton Rouge

When Grierson’s men rode into Baton Rouge, half of them were zombies, since they’d been going on about three hours’ sleep a day for way too long. But they were heroes in the North, with an illustration in Harper’s Weekly and everything, and at a time when most of the opinion-makers in NYC were as on-top-of-it as they usually are, moaning about Grant being “bogged down in the mud before Vicksburg, no good to themselves or anybody else.”

As MacPherson said in Battle Cry of Freedom, Grierson’s raid outshines anything Forrest did (except maybe capturing steamboats with cavalry, but that’s more of a Buster Keaton novelty act than a strategic victory). Imagine Forrest riding 600 miles through New England with minimal casualties and ending up safe in Confederate lines, and you’ll have an idea of what a phenomenal accomplishment it really was.

It was a tactical victory, with far more casualties inflicted than suffered and huge amounts of materiel destroyed; it was a mid-range strategic victory, and a great one, preventing the reinforcement of Vicksburg at a key moment; and it was a long-term decisive demonstration that the South was over-mobilized, “all hollow,” as Sherman said. Most historians credit Grant’s return march after that earlier failed Vicksburg campaign with showing Sherman that a mobile force could live off the land, but Grierson’s raid showed something even more important: the fact that there was no defense worth mentioning inside the walls of Festung Dixie.

Grierson survived the war and fought Forrest twice, coming out of it with a 1-1 record, which was about the best anyone ever did against Forrest. But the rest of his wartime service was a letdown after the Raid, and it deserves the capital letter.

Grierson took a drop in rank when the war ended, like most Union officers. (Well, you could say Confederate officers took a bigger one.) Grierson was a brevet Major General in 1865, dropped back to Colonel after Appomatox. But it was while he commanded a regiment in the Indian Wars that Grierson proved he was more than a raider. He was one of the few Union officers who got the point that it wasn’t enough to free the blacks and leave them to hang with the surviving relatives of the people who used to own them down South. He volunteered as Colonel of the 10th Cavalry Regiment, which Sherman had ordered formed from black Union vets. It was the usual Civil-War setup: White officers with black troops. The 10th was posted to Kansas in 1866, assigned to protect the Kansas Pacific RR from Injun attacks, then Oklahoma (“Indian Territory” at the time) and finally the Dakota Territory.


10th Cavalry troopers

You didn’t get sent to Dakota if you were the brass’s pet unit. Once the Civil War was over, the race issue was done as far as most of America was concerned. Col. Hoffman, the commander of Fort Leavenworth, the 10th’s first assignment, made it real clear to Grierson and his troops that they weren’t wanted by ordering them to camp in a swamp a mile from the fort. Just in case the blacks hadn’t got the message, Hoffman ordered them not to line up within 15 yards of the white units at Leavenworth. Grierson stood up for his troops and had a yelling match right in front of the assembled troops. Since Hoffman was base commander—and more important, Hoffman had the whole place behind him, nobody in the mood to let the blacks into their little club—Grierson pushed to get the 10th transferred to another base, Fort Riley, as soon as he could.

There were gunfights between white and black troops—just like Nam almost exactly 100 years later, after Tet broke morale. The theatre commander was Phil Sheridan, who wasn’t exactly a racist—when he was in charge of reconstructing Texas, a job which would be right up there with reconstructing Afghanistan, he was disgusted by the white mobs who killed three dozen blacks and said, “If I owned Texas and Hell I would rent Texas and live in Hell.” But Sheridan was a total-war man; he’d proved that in the Shenandoah and he kept the same policy on the plains. If the Sioux were the enemy, starve ’em out, kill the last buffalo—no mercy. Sheridan gets called a racist and blamed for that “only good Indian” remark, but it’s not all that clear he really said it and my take is, if he’d been in any other war in history, he’d have said the same thing about the planter families of Dixie. He was just a natural war-of-extermination man.

Grierson leading 10th Cavalry

Grierson wasn’t. In fact, Grierson’s position on the plains makes Job’s troubles look like a casual Friday afternoon in a cushy civil service job. In the first place Grierson was trying to prove that black Americans could make good troopers, but he also sympathized hard with the Indians—who were the only enemy those black troopers had to prove their worth
as soldiers against. Dudley Doright would’ve shot himself, but Grierson stayed on the horse like he always did, did his best in a rotten world. He fought the other white officers who wanted his troops out of sight, out of the army, just plain out; but he fought for the Indians too, as much as he could.

There were a few decent people out there, and Grierson worked with them, especially this Quaker Indian agent. It’s kind of a constant: Over and over, in the worst place, you can count on the Quakers. Too bad they’ve disappeared. On second thought, that’s probably WHY they disappeared.

Grierson kept trying, picking the best spots he could to put the reservations, get respect for his buffalo soldiers, make the land-grabs that were bound to come a little less brutal. Sheridan thought he was a wuss, and his brother officers thought he was crazy for refusing a transfer away from the black regiment and the plains winters. He stayed on the job until 1890, which is not bad when you consider it was one of those situations where there’s no good solution. It’s got nothing much to do with that Wounded-Knee/bleeding-heart dumbed-down story of bad whities and good Injuns. When the power difference is as big as it was between the US and the Sioux, it’s going to end the same way if both sides are purple with green spots. But it’s not something you can feel good about.

Maybe that’s why it’s so much easier to think about The Raid than Grierson’s way longer time on the plains afterward. The Indian Wars could only end one way: Extinction of the Plains Tribes. The Civil War was one of the real few other kinds of war—the only other one I can think of is the English Civil War—when people who see themselves as being the same blood, the same language, the same everything, fight each other hard but clean, at least by normal standards—one of those rare wars where most encounters are actual battles, not massacres. Grierson, who doesn’t seem to have had either a weak or a mean bone in his body, was made for a war like that. The Plains wars brought out what you might call a more standard kind of warrior, people as messed-up as me.

The other Americans, the Griersons, are hard to believe in sometimes. There don’t seem to be a lot around right now, and they went away pretty fast after 1865 too, turned fast to a generation of bankers, like now—scum of the earth. Weird process, that quick turn, but we seem to do it over and over. The only Grierson I ever met was this big kindly Swede from Minnesota who taught my Social Studies class. He actually believed in democracy and debate, which in Bakersfield, believe me, put him in the world’s tiniest minority.

We laughed at him; he retired for psych stuff after his wife left him for another woman and it got around. We thought that was the funniest thing in the world. He told us on the last day, “I thought I was a teacher, but you have shown me otherwise.” That was his style, full-sentence with no contractions—raw meat for class-clown types.

Maybe there has to be what a bio teacher would call a habitat for people like that. Imagine a Grierson born in 1860, in time for the Robber Barons. He’d be ground up and sold to Purina, like Grant would—like both of them would if they were around now.

Would you like to know more? Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to gary dot brecher at gmail dot com. Read Gary Brecher’s first ever War Nerd column by clicking here.

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Add your own

  • 1. Warren P  |  October 16th, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    Another fine Civil war article, I always said the American male peaked between 1861-65. How about General George Henry Thomas next?

  • 2. Anarchy Wolf  |  October 16th, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    Hate to break it to you Gary, but an animal capable of holding a grudge isn’t exactly dinosaur brained. You can piss a horse off once, and the fucker will hate you forever. You stay on his good side, and he’ll take care of you, keep you on when you should be getting a mouthful of dirt.

  • 3. Zhu Bajie  |  October 16th, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    “Interesting thing about the best men in the Civil War: Most of them were lousy businessmen. It took the war to show what they could do. ”

    I’ve always suspected this is why Bush invaded Afghanistan — he wanted to prove he was another Grant, not just another chronic fuck-up! But he fucked it up.

  • 4. Jedi Mind Trick  |  October 16th, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    I’m not a fan of business either War Nerd. I was also a terrible soldier, so I guess I’m just screwed.

  • 5. darthfader  |  October 16th, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    Great piece as always.

    Remember when we went to war against Libya and then the rebels won and we declared victory, and all the gruesome fighting ended permanently without an ongoing civil war, because Gaddafi had no support among the population, especially not in Sirte, because all those people marching out unarmed to die for him were just fakin’ their bacon, and then Gaddafi went to trial and never ever showed up on TV again to order this or that person dead?

    Good times, good times. I’m so glad we spent all that money on that civil war in Africa that we totally won, all those months ago.

  • 6. darthfader  |  October 16th, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    Anarchy Wolf, we have already established that animals are assholes and now we are just haggling over the clade.

    Proof that Gary is right: if a parrot can hold a grudge, then dinosaur brains can hold a grudge, because parrots, like all birds, are theropod dinosaurs (unless you’re a Rick Perry Creationist type who thinks a good anal sex party with the bros fools your virginity into continued existence).

  • 7. Peter  |  October 16th, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    Great work. Those last three paragraphs were absolutely beautiful.
    Thank you for writing the things you do.

  • 8. allen  |  October 16th, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    I really enjoy these civil war articles. I think this is my favorite so far, though less poetic than the cosmic battle of the ironclads one. Still, it’s nice to believe in the good guys sometimes I guess, and all that sappy crap.

    Thanks …

  • 9. Grimgrin  |  October 16th, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    I think it’s interesting that business people love to adopt the symbols and language of war, when the two have almost nothing in common with each other, and trying to run them like they do will always end in disaster.

  • 10. Bradford C.  |  October 16th, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    Good men like Grierson get stuck doing non-combat duties these days. Modern militaries are very effective at making sure hard killers end up doing the dirty work, while people who display conscience get stuck in support. Conscript armies like the IDF have a big problem with this, which is a big reason they lost Lebanon after getting their egos inflated by squatting on the West Bank. It was all spook and no bite.

    Generally the whole system is geared to grind down independent thought and action, at every level and in every institution. The only solution for great people these days is to hide their truths in symbolism as an artist, or go out in the streets to be homeless or be a punching bag for the police.

  • 11. Phoenix Woman  |  October 16th, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    Hell, the Genius Warrior/Sucky Mercantilist trope is deeply embedded in Western culture and history. Thomas Cochrane, a man outshone only by Nelson himself in terms of wartime greatness, was like Nelson utterly hopeless in his dry-land dealings, and was unjustly convicted of stock-exchange fraud. (Cochrane served as the inspiration for both Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey.)

    And for those interested in looking at the war substitute known as organized team sport, the unquestioned most decent, hardworking and honorable man ever to pick up a baseball bat and do well with it was Harmon Killebrew, the most feared home-run hitter of the pitcher-dominated 1960s, whose one black mark against him was that he tried too hard to be a businessman when his baseball career ended, at the cost of his first marriage and at least one trip to bankruptcy court. (By the way: Harmon’s grandfather, Culver Killebrew, was said to be the strongest man in the Union Army and its best wrestler, able to stand flatfooted and then leap onto a horse.)

  • 12. swr  |  October 16th, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    Re: The Horse Soldiers

    I’ve always wondered why John Ford decided to make a movie about the Grierson raid and change Grierson’s character from the fascinating person he was in history to just another boring John Wayne hero.

    Maybe some modern filmaker could rectify the way Ford travestied history.

  • 13. Punjabi From Karachi  |  October 17th, 2011 at 12:52 am

    I’m really warming up to these Civil War articles, and as an anti-secessionist myself, I respect and appreciate the eXile’s anti-secessionist position.

    I would also like to add; fucking fix you fucking gif sized fucking maps you tech fucking noobs.

  • 14. G.A.  |  October 17th, 2011 at 1:56 am

    Pretty cool article, like War Nerd said, this is some prime movie material. I hope some screenwriter out there is taking notes.

  • 15. John Figler  |  October 17th, 2011 at 4:51 am

    Oh bitch… you made me feel strangely attracted towards a man again…

    A side note:

    “Business is good for some people and bad for others, and the ones who are bad at it generally turn out to be the best soldiers.”

    I can’t recall his name right now but I remember a guy with Napoleon, a cavalry general who arrived late or simply missed a very important battle because he was with the best part of his outfit out there “requisitioning” horses. He was known to run one of the best second-hand horse joints in Central Europe…

    It was bellow Murat and I think the battle was Leipzig, but not sure.

    War has been a business most of the time, and not talking about big cigar evil profiteers back at home. But now, those damn no-looting articles…

  • 16. garry everson  |  October 17th, 2011 at 6:55 am

    A movie was made of this

    The Horse Soldiers – starring John Wayne.

    I am not sure if his character was ever named as Grierson…

  • 17. Homer Erotic  |  October 17th, 2011 at 7:10 am

    Are you trying to imply that the world isn’t a nice place? I am shocked. Shocked and appalled, I tell you! 😉

  • 18. Zhu Bajie  |  October 17th, 2011 at 7:25 am

    “I’m so glad we spent all that money on that civil war in Africa that we totally won, all those months ago.”

    If you liked Libya, you’ll love our “advisers” in Uganda!

  • 19. Caleb367  |  October 17th, 2011 at 9:40 am

    @John Figler: could it be you mean Michel Ney? I’ve checked on Wikipedia and he was somewhat late in a battle against Wellington, before Waterloo.

  • 20. G.A.  |  October 17th, 2011 at 9:51 am

    @6. Gee, you’ve convinced me if Sirte loves Gaddafi, that means everyone does! That’s entire 100 000 people out of 6 000 000 large population!

  • 21. korman643  |  October 17th, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    I wholeheartedly support the proposal for a WN article on George H. Thomas and Chickamauga and Nashville. In fact, I’ll buy a huge reserve of wine and pretzels in anticipation of it, and I may even take out of my closet my dusty copy of “Barren Victory” (the tabletop wargame) to celebrate. Bring it on, War Nerd!, I’ll keep the pretzels ready!

    “Horse Soldier” is not a bad film, I even used to own a copy (as a toddler) of the 45rpm single with the two songs out of the soundtrack (this may give you a hint of my age). The best scene (completely apocryphal, I’m being told) is the one of the military school youth trying a desperate rear guard action to slow down the Union raiders. Even the Newton station battle is decent, I just don’t care much for John Wayne’s character non stop whining.

  • 22. dcvbn  |  October 17th, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    The English civil war wasn’t that clean (particularly in the countryside where it was possible to have villages next door to each other on opposite sides). It is just that the history books stopped talking about the more messy stuff around 1900.

  • 23. super390  |  October 17th, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    Phoenix Woman @11:

    Well, at least neither of those skippers are remembered for butchering striking workers like Wellington. The worst businessman/general combination of all: a brilliant general who is willing to slaughter his own countrymen because they threaten the rotten landlord class into which he has been promoted.

    Now that I think about it, that’s only a more extreme version of MacArthur trampling the Bonus Army. I understand Dugout Doug moved in some pretty affluent circles in the Midwest and the Philippines.

  • 24. super390  |  October 17th, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    Korman643 @ 21:

    I think the scene with the military school kids is based on something that people actually claimed happened, but I also think you can’t expect Southerners to be telling the whole truth about their beloved military academy. Since boys of the same age as in that scene were getting killed in battle all the time, there wouldn’t have been many qualms about sending them into a skirmish.

    Now, I recall that the William Holden character was pretty whiny too; in fact it seems they just turned him into the David Janssen character in The Green Berets a couple of years later.

  • 25. super390  |  October 17th, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    It sounds as though Grierson wasn’t a cavalryman, he was a modern military mind who needed horses to carry out his plans. So he was more objective about how to get his men to do their jobs than the tradition-encrusted cavalry lifers. I’m wondering how much of his fighting was done dismounted, which sort of became the Union’s specialty over time. We even created horse infantry units, which were easier to train and ended up doing about what the cavalry was doing.

    He also reminds me of those few U-boat officers at the beginning of WW1 who tried to get the drop on merchantmen and then ordered them to abandon ship before sinking it. Some were still trying to do this in ’39! Ultimately the larger reality of ever more total war and the judging of efficacy by bean counters dooms fellows like this when their opponents fail to be as gentlemanly.

    But then, once your military has been taken over by soulless total-war number crunchers like Curtis LeMay, what happens when you need a sensible fellow to run a hearts ‘n’ minds campaign in the boonies? You find that your society no longer produces men like that, or at least that none of them want to get within a mile of the military.

  • 26. swr  |  October 17th, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    “Horse Soldier” is not a bad film, I even used to own a copy (as a toddler) of the 45rpm single with the two songs out of the soundtrack (this may give you a hint of my age). The best scene (completely apocryphal, I’m being told) is the one of the military school youth trying a desperate rear guard action to slow down the Union raiders. Even the Newton station battle is decent, I just don’t care much for John Wayne’s character non stop whining.

    Wayne’s character (supposedly Grierson) is named “Marlowe” and he’s an out and out fucking idiot.

    He wants to deny medical care to his soldiers because he blames a doctor for having killed his wife? WTF?

  • 27. korman643  |  October 17th, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    @super390: Well, yeah, pretty much sure that children out of military college died performing that kind of insane stunt (linear tactics had been out of fashion well before Napoleon except in the Prussian Army). It’s a strangely poignant scene, but the fact that “Marlowe” prevent any real killing (ok, they couldn’t show that in a movie of the 50s!) and in the end the kids almost “win” (even if it’s the Reb arty that does the trick) seems to somehow deflate the effect.

    @swr Another thing that I can’t really stand any more about the Wayne & Holden characters – if you see any picture of any Civil War general, they’re all bearded and have that possessed, ascetic look (even those not exactly thin, like Wood). Sort of cross between Captain Achab and a Victorian mountain climber, but with a uniform. Holden and Wayne (and every god damn character in a pre-Sergio Leone western film) look so… HARMLESS (actually I’m trying to find the word, it’s not really harmless, is something like “this guy is really an Hollywood actor from mid-XX century”, but I don’t know if there’s a single term encompassing this. It’s that if you don’t look either ascetic or possessed or both I don’t think you’ve not really the physique du role to play a Civil War officer (I’m not phrasing this the way I wanted, but I hope you’re getting my point)

  • 28. Mudhead  |  October 18th, 2011 at 12:40 am


    I got your point. All the officers from the Civil War look like the face of doom. I don’t know if it was the state of photography or if they were really that possessed, but they almost all look like nobody you’d want deciding your fate. Just take a look at that picture of Forest – how would you like to beg for clemency from THAT guy? Or Sherman? Stonewall Jackson looks absolutely insane in photographs from the war. Even Lee looks far more resigned and fatalistic than virtually any 20th century soldier.

    And it’s pretty easy to see why the bad businessman/good officer distinction exists. In business you have to put up with endless petty bullshit and it just wears you down, especially if you like to get things done and have an active, independent mind. Every asshole tries to nickel and dime you to death, until you finally say fuck it, and give up. Good businessman are very often insane, utterly obsessed maniacs who literally care for nothing but money. Men like Grierson, Grant, etc. just have no tolerance for that kind of life.

  • 29. Bradford C.  |  October 18th, 2011 at 2:57 am


    There are no shortage of character actors out there. I’m sure one could be scouted out that fits the bill for Grierson.

  • 30. swr  |  October 18th, 2011 at 5:10 am

    if you see any picture of any Civil War general, they’re all bearded and have that possessed, ascetic look (even those not exactly thin, like Wood).

    With any luck, Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln might help make up for this a bit.

    The cast in the film Gettysburg was OK, but most of them were far too old.

    The Civil War wasn’t about 50 and 60 year old generals and pudgy 30 and 40 year old soldiers.

    It was about 35 and 40 year old generals and 19 and 20 year old soldiers.

    They were well fed on the Union side but barefooted and starving on the Confederate side.

    Wayne’s soldiers in “The Horse Soldiers” looked too old to be senior officers, let alone rank and file cavalrymen.

  • 31. swr  |  October 18th, 2011 at 5:23 am

    I think another thing John Ford did in The Horse Soldiers was to shoehorn a World War II mentality into Civil War soldiers.

    John Wayne’s character is the typically boring “Greatest Generation” warrior, a tough guy who’s reluctant to talk about the war.

    NO Civil War vet (on either side) was reluctant to talk about the war. They talked about the war all the time then talked about it some more.

  • 32. Ilona  |  October 18th, 2011 at 9:48 am

    A Civil War hero? What a strange concept.

    Like Heinrich Severloh?

  • 33. Ilona  |  October 18th, 2011 at 10:02 am

    Well, Heinrich Severloh wasn’t a Civil War hero – not a best analogue, actually quite a poor one – but a remarkable hero none of the less. Wasn’t he? A fukken super hero.

  • 34. Mudhead  |  October 18th, 2011 at 1:46 pm


    The Gettysburg cast of re-enactors are ridiculously overweight. Alleged Confederate infantryman with beer-guts, waddling up Cemetery Ridge. Now they would probably just CGI the thing, which would probably be worse, but the obesity of the alleged film’s combatants is hilarious.

  • 35. Mudhead  |  October 18th, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    Severloh? A hero? A brave and effective soldier, but not particularly heroic. There were probably 10 German machine gunners who inflicted over 1000 casualties on the first day of the Somme, and other battles. Shit, on the Eastern Front some guy probably reached five figures in 24 hours.

    Now THIS dude was a hero. Or to put it another way: If this guy wasn’t a hero, there is no such thing:

  • 36. DR  |  October 18th, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    Everyone – may I remind you to buy War Nerd’s book !!

  • 37. darthfader  |  October 18th, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    Well that’s good, G.A., because I never made that claim, so enjoy feeling stupid about your comment.

  • 38. CensusLouie  |  October 18th, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    Speaking of war and business, there is NOTHING on this green Earth more reprehensible than a businessman who owns and quotes a copy of Sun Tzu. There exists no surer sign of an irredeemable asshole scumbag.

  • 39. CensusLouie  |  October 18th, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    Also #25 gave me an idea for a future War Nerd article. I’d love to read his account of LeMay and the whole strategic bombing campaign of WWII. I’m no expert, but from what I’ve read it was largely ineffective (at least against everything that wasn’t a fuel refinery) and huge waste of resources, and how the Allies experienced a huge upswing the few times they diverted their bomber force from strategic to tactical and bombed the begeezus out of the German front line (most notably the breakout from the Normandy pocket).

    I’d love to see a WN style writeup of that: the bungled logic of the higher ups and the politics that shut out the smart contrary ideas.

  • 40. my talkative ringpiece  |  October 18th, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    If you’re in a warm climate, bare feet are great. Don’t wear out, you can get great traction by digging your toes in, and very quiet. No blisters, corns, bunions, or dirty socks.

    The “mean free path” of an honest good guy isn’t generally this long in American society. Particularly modern American society.

  • 41. helplesscase  |  October 18th, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    I think WN approaches his most poetic turns when he writes about the Civil War. Always good.

    Also, I think we need to bring back that “possessed, ascetic look” (and the insane awesomeness that comes with it).

  • 42. Jack Boot  |  October 19th, 2011 at 9:35 am

    This WWI U-Boat commander’s name was Lothar von Arnauld de la Periere.

    His U-Boat sank 194 Allied ships – still the world record.
    Warships were fair game, of course; but he always gave civilian passengers & crews enough time to scramble into their lifeboats before dispatching their ships – usually with his deck gun.

    A nobleman of the old school…

  • 43. Brezz  |  October 19th, 2011 at 11:12 am

    You know what’s funny? People in the comments pretending they are of the Warrior Caste and hate the Merchant Caste, when in fact they are nerds living in their mom’s basements – in other words, Untouchables…

  • 44. korman643  |  October 19th, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    @swr amd @mudhead: it’s strange, because I don’t think anyone as taken the time to check all these Matthew Brady portraits and tried to stare in the eyes of these people and ask the inevitable question – who they really were? The more I look at them and the more they seem ALL interesting to some degree, people I would have liked to know in real life (I agree with you Mudhead, maybe not in the battlefield).

    Look at Sherman– he’s a cross between Philip K. Dick and General Jack D. Ripper (so it’s a cross between Dick and Sterling Hayden, which is an even more interesting, if you think about it). And he goes from “depressed look” to “insane look” back to “depressed look” and in between you know that he’s the same guy who lead the most destructive military operation ever performed on US soil. AND at the same time he was probably a closet nut case AND at the same time he was intelligent and reasonable AND at the same time he could be ruthless enough to make Stalin stare back in amazement… it’s all this contradictory stuff that makes the whole thing interesting, even more than all other tactical, operation, strategic and political consideration (which are still interesting, mind you, and think this come from an Italian who’s not particularly big on US historical stuff)

    Almost all the others seem to fit pattern. Jackson he’s how I imagine Fedallah, the Parsi harpooner of Achab in Moby Dick. Grant and Thomas share a sort of – how can I put it? – “Cro-Magnon holy man” look (I’ve stolen this definition from Gus Hasford) , the stunning thing is this aura of placidity they seem to radiate, at the same time negated by the ferocity of their stare. (I find Thomas particularly interesting, because in real life he was a cross of stolidity, perseverance and often puzzling naivety in the way he considered fellow humans) And Forrest – oh , Forrest is just awesome. Cut his hairs, shave the beard, dress him with a mimetic tunic with a eagle on the armband, and voilà – he’s ready for a top job in any W-SS Panzergrouppe, destination Kursk. I believe he would have scared Paul Hausser shitless (well, Hausser was a moron, so maybe he doesn’t count).

    Even the blatantly incompetents have something on them – take Burnside for instance, absolutely despicable from every side you may take him, but his “cuckolded husband out of an operetta” look is priceless.

    They’re all ancient and mythical. That’s the thing America (and the whole western world) need to bring back as soon as possible – people who seems to come out of some kind of saga, or seems ready to be the main character in one.

  • 45. korman643  |  October 19th, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    @CensusLouie: that’s a bit more my home turf. Strategic bombing during WWII has been always the subject of endless debates, particularly during Vietnam War, but the truth is relatively simple. The British night bombing (or “area bombing”) campaign was, if not exactly a disaster, wildly inefficient and relatively ineffective. It didn’t break enemy morale, because after the first few waves people simply relocated children and women outside urban areas, so most of the casualties happened to be among people who was never a big morale factor in German society of the time. And claims that it helped to pin down German resources who could have been used better elsewhere doesn’t take in account the big strategic picture, and seems to ignore the way Germany fought the war. The Luftwaffe HQ wasn’t exactly full of military geniuses, but they learned quickly that interception was not the best way to deal with waves of bombers at night– so they improved the use of “flak” (which was way cheaper to produce) and limited the use of altitude interceptors mainly to deal with daytime raids. For the rest, they resorted to what remains the best countermeasure against those slow, massive night raids – namely disperse what you can disperse and hide the rest.

    Italy was more a sitting duck on this, as we had limited resources for the anti aerial defence, but the pattern followed here was similar to Germany – disperse, hide and simple expect to have to sweep a lot of ruined concrete the next day. Night raids here were also incredibly imprecise, so most of the damage was seriously collateral. And no, while it really made an impression a the beginning, it didn’t destroy an already low Italian morale (the aftermath of Russia and the invasion of Sicily did the trick). Both my parents and all my grandparents survived both daytime and night raids (my grampa being nearly hit by a bomb that didn’t explode) and while the experience was awful, it was nothing compared with having the Wehrmacht on their back for two years.

    Daytime “precision” bombing against Germany and Italy fared a little better, but not THAT much. Losses among the attackers were high, but they had the advantage of way greater precision in target. Problem was that target (with few exceptions, like those aircraft factories at Schweinfurt) were not evident, and the destruction-to-attacker-losses ratio was way too unfavourable for the Allies. You read often claims of the contrary, but you may notice that the “effectiveness” of these raids seems to be limited to late 1944 and 1945, when war for Germany was already lost.

    It remains to be seen what real political and economical goals these raids had (I’m limiting this amateurish analysis to the Allied effort: for all the rhetoric we continue to hear, Germany’s strategic bombing campaign in the West was a losing affair right from the beginning). It’s clear that until 1943 the scope was to destroy Germany’s morale and industrial capacity. From the sheer point of numbers, this was an abject failure; morale was NOT destroyed and Germany industrial output was slowed but not to a significant measure. Any claim of the contrary is based on hot air or very poor research; period. Soviets (who in theory could have benefited from this) were particularly dismissive of the result strategic bombing had on the balance of war, as their attitude until June 1944 was more or less “Fight already and stop fooling around with those bombers” . It should be noted that Stalin was not a big strategic bombing fan, and most of the Stavka shared this view. And Germany DID a strategic bombing campaign over Russia, with massive civilian and material losses for Russia, but very little actual effect on the big view of the Eastern Front. The most “celebrated” case was the destruction of Stalingrad in July 1942 in a raid much more destructive than anything happening over Dresden and Hamburg. This should have made Paulus job infinitely easier, but in fact did the reverse. A mound of ruins is easier to defend than a city of tank-friendly avenues, as Stalingrad once was.

    Strategic bombing against Japan was a different business. Curtis LeMay was a miserable rat, and someone I would have gladly seen hanging at the end of a rope, but everyone with a bit of brain must admit that he planned it right. “Planning right” in this context means, “do it gigantically, not just massively and go for easy target where you maximize the scale of death and destruction”. In this sense LeMay was obviously assisted by luck and geography – all convenient targets where on the Pacific shores, Japanese anti-aerial measures were a joke, most of Japanese cities were made of wood and paper… a wet dream for anyone trigger happy enough and with the right resources (and remember, LeMay had at his disposition the largest strategic bombing fleet of ANY combatant nation in WWII).

    Results were, as you may have heard, impressive. Nothing infuriates me more than when people sees Dresden as the non plus ultra of the bombing horror. I wouldn’t have fancied to be in Dresden that night (Kurt Vonnegut’s description was vivid enough for this), but compared to what Tokyo went through in March 1945, everything else is positively mild. Even if you take a very conservative stance, 50% of the city (on a much, much, much larger area than Dresden) was flattened, and another 30% was severely damaged. Death was in the range of 80.000 to 100.000 just for the March raids. Tokyo was/is the command centre of everything in Japan, the real brain of the nation, and was almost completely wiped out, millions of people was left homeless, with a cascade effect on the already strained Japanese infrastructure that was impossible to absorb.

    By the way, a real plus was the the use of fire canisters, who had on Japanese urban areas a far more destructive effect that the use of explosives (fire canisters can be deployed in a wider area than bombs). The total number of bombing victims in Japan was almost certainly well above half a million people, but something like 2 millions lost everything they had.

    (If you want a well done recreation of what’s was like being on the receiving end of one of those raids, you should check Isao Takahata’s sublime “Grave for the Fireflies”, an animation movie. Just don’t complaint afterwards that you feel depressed)

    Now the big question – was all this deliberate carnage effective? It definitely made life in Japan absolutely unbearable for 95% of the population (only those rich enough to get evacuated or lucky enough to live or have relative in the NE were spared), and I suspect this was LeMay real goal. As a display of power and ruthlessness, it was very much up to anything the Mongols did in Asia in XIII century. But did it work as a war ending or war shortening measure? Well, It may sound as a contradiction with what stated above, but the truth is that LeMay could have bombed (conventionally) every single Japanese city until the end of time, and the scale of destruction would have been unimaginable, nut without a ground assault the Japanese wouldn’t have surrendered. If they eventually did it, it was because of the twin effect of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombs AND – the major factor – because of the stunning Soviet win in Manchuria. I hope no American here feel offended by what I’m going to write, but I speak/read Japanese and I’ve somehow researched this. Mmy impression is that, while the Japanese ended up feeling definitely “impressed” by US logistical/industrial/technical capacity, the Soviets gave them a far more lasting shock, has they unleashed a ground force that the Japanese Imperial Army had no hope in hell or heaven to match. In other words: if you bomb people back the stone age, you may impress them, but they will rarely give up whatever they’re up to (Vietnam was a nice demonstration of this).

    Phew – finished. Hope the Almighty Exiled Editor doesn’t cut it too much.

  • 46. helplesscase  |  October 19th, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    @korman643: Great stuff, man. I think Brecher/Dolan has brought up the impact of the Soviet victory in Manchuria before as a key factor in demolishing Japanese morale. As for Dresden, my conscientious objector great uncle hopped on a merchant vessel over to Germany after the bombings. He told me that the worst part about the wreckage was the stench: tons of people asphyxiated in their houses, leaving a city filled with rotting (as opposed to incinerated) corpses.

  • 47. Mudhead  |  October 19th, 2011 at 3:49 pm


    “Racing the Enemy,” published a couple of years ago, pretty much concludes that the Japanese surrendered because of the Soviet entry into the Pacific War. The Japanese knew that they’d get a far better deal from the Americans, so they threw in the towel. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were distant, secondary factors.

  • 48. Flatulissimo  |  October 19th, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    You know what the world needs?

    A War Nerd Civil War book.

    That’s what this fucking world needs. Bad.

  • 49. Gatorade  |  October 19th, 2011 at 7:47 pm

    This article was amazing, Brecher.
    As for strategic bombing, there was a really fantastic section that totally debunked all the myths of its magic superiority in america’s defense meltdown, which you can probably find a free pdf of if you look on google blog search enough. It’s just not very good at winning wars.
    But it is very ‘American’ in the sad modern sense of being expensive and horrible

  • 50. Toba  |  October 19th, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    It probably has much to do with the music. It is a fact that the heirs to the thrones in ancient Egypt,China,Persia,Greece and most empires were carefully trained in music. It tempers and develops the human nature.
    Grierson’s disposition and character shows the influence of music.

  • 51. swr  |  October 19th, 2011 at 10:08 pm

    Jackson he’s how I imagine Fedallah, the Parsi harpooner of Achab in Moby Dick

    My God. That’s so true I wonder why it never occurred to me. Stonewall on a whaling boat. Yes. Of course.

    FWIW, Sam Elliott in Gettysburg did a pretty good job of capturing the intense, driven Buford.

  • 52. DrunktankDan  |  October 20th, 2011 at 5:39 am

    Hey Chinks, Russkies, and self-hating Eurofags. . .keep gloating over the death of the American Empire. . .cause we just blasted Daffy for even MORE petroleum, without losing a single fuckin troop! Bwahaha!

  • 53. DrunktankDan  |  October 20th, 2011 at 5:53 am

    Also. . .Gary! Daffy got blasted! Curious to see what happens to the rest of the loyalists now

  • 54. Niccoli  |  October 20th, 2011 at 7:55 am

    Great article, Gary. Some really insightful comments too. I do find it somewhat amusing that some individuals think that the atomic bombs didn’t break the back of the Japaneze. You really think they were going to sit back as we layed their whole nation to ruins?

    ONE bomb, 50,000 dead.. massive fallout. Nah. It was Manchuria. Sure.

  • 55. Jaime  |  October 20th, 2011 at 8:49 am

    @25 & @42

    there was also Otto Weddigen, comdr of the U29, who besides sinking 3 (admittedly old) armoured cruisers in one engagement, was known as the “polite pirate” for his gallant treatment of the merchant crews whose ships he sank.

  • 56. Phoenix Woman  |  October 20th, 2011 at 10:53 am

    super390 @ 23: Don’t get me started on Wellington. A graceless berk if ever there was one. Cochrane and Nelson were by far the better men.

  • 57. Karel  |  October 20th, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    You all get it wrong : Dresden and Hiroshima/Nagasaki was not to do the Gerries/Japs in – it was to put the fear of God on Stalin so he would not grab more than what was agreed

  • 58. missdolansbookreviews  |  October 20th, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    Sorry to say but there is nothing heroic in the modern U.S. armed forces. Contrary to what Hollywood tells us, it relies and depends on financial/technological superiority, not on an individual heroism. Basically, it is a business, a huge corporation that dominates the market by outsourcing competition.

    And it wins {?} its battles by bombing its opponents to shreds, not by actual fighting.

    In *Arena,* an interesting piece by Fredric Brown, two enemies are forced to fight each other starting with bare hands/tentacles and by using their brains/morale to win.

    Call me unpatriotic, but I wouldn’t bet on an average G.I. Joe facing an average Iraqi/North Korean/Somali/whatever fighter and finding himself without all those DoD toys. I.e. on the hypothetical *Pure Soldier’s Value* Scale the nowadays U.S. Rambo would be somewhat beneath everybody else, haven’t fought a fair battle ever. But then again, it’s just business and history isn’t written by heroes.

  • 59. joe  |  October 20th, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    Here is John Dolan’s review of a book on the topic of the Japanese surrender.

    The books thesis is that the Japanese leaders thought the Soviets would act as an intermediary and help the Japanese negotiate a piece with the Americans.

    Geo politically its not that far fetched of an idea. Everyone could see that the Soviets and Americans were going to be the next superpowers. Its understandable that The Soviets would prefer an independent Japan to a US dominated Japan.

  • 60. franc black  |  October 21st, 2011 at 8:16 am

    They got Ghaddafi, Gary, tell us a story ! Tell us a story !

  • 61. Vendetta  |  October 21st, 2011 at 9:15 am

    Eagerly looking forward to Brecher’s take on the death of Gaddafi.

  • 62. Tyler  |  October 21st, 2011 at 11:51 am

    What about gaddafi? Come back, war nerd!

  • 63. Kestrel  |  October 21st, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    Amusing that cracker trash morons like drunktankdan think Libya will give two shits about America once they use their newfound democracy to elect an Islamist government in a landslide. Typical freeper fantasy wank. Now shush little boy, and let the adults finish talking.

  • 64. joe-bob  |  October 21st, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    About WW2 heavy bombers…

    1. They became more effective once they figured out which targets to hit & how to hit them

    2. But far more important, it was a strategic offense/tactical defense – like Longstreet wanted to do & that the Germans did so well in WW1. Heavy bombers compelled Germans to oppose them with their fighters, which were opposed by the US long range fighters.

    That ground down German fighter strength, sapping away fighter cover from the eastern front but more importantly ensuring air superiority in the West so Allied tactical bombing could go on unopposed. That was a big deal. Germans with lots of experience in the East were shocked, stunned. They said it was worse than the eastern front. Modern combat operations were rendered essentially imposible on the German side.

    Due to the fighter-bombers hitting bridges and harrassing therail & roads, it took longer for reinforcements to get from the border of France to the fighting than it did to get from the Eastern front to the border of France. The fighter bombers had total freedom because of the heavy bomber campaign. Had the Germans declined the engagements and hid/dispersed their fighters, maybe they could have made a real difference around d-day.

  • 65. super390  |  October 22nd, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    Since there’s been so many replies since my last comment, I’m going by broad topics:

    On strategic bombing –

    There were Americans who understood daylight bombing was inefficient. A Strategic Survey was formed to try to calculate the weak points in the German economic system, the one factory that could be destroyed over and over again because everything else depended on what it produced. That is why USAAF carried out suicidal attacks on the Schweinfurt ball bearing factory. But the McClellans in the high command apparently couldn’t stomach the horrible losses from hitting a target with a fully aware enemy.

    The strategic bombing cult consisted of guys who read Douhet, who really wanted to terror-bomb civilians into submission. Like Nobel before him, he thought the newest toy would make war too horrible to contemplate, but this proved to be one toy too early.

    In later wars the USAF cult ran up against economies so primitive that there was no Schweinfurt, no one factory that really mattered to the agrarian system. I’ve heard it suggested that the bombing went on anyway because the commanders (in chief?) decided if they couldn’t beat Vietnam, they could at least wreck it so badly that no other nation would ever dare defy US demands again. Well, that wears off after a while…

    Thank you, Korman, for recommending “The Graveyard of the Fireflies” (US title), a film that I can barely watch because it’s so depressing, but probably as accurate as any account of what modern war is really about – the destruction of an opposing society at its very roots.

    Civil War photos –

    General Ben Butler looks as worthless as Burnside, and was. Once I saw a photo in the Ken Burns series of a New York officer named “Capt. Dafoe”, and damned if he didn’t look just like actor Willem Dafoe. So keep him on the casting list for the next Civil War movie.

    Generals versus businessmen –

    Miss Dolan, it’s more like the US Army treats war as an industry, not a business. It’s inherent to a democracy that properly fears a professional military class, and avoids a large standing army. An army of conscript citizen-soldiers is a broadsword, not a rapier, and it can only be used to smash skulls. McClellan really was a businessman, from the then-sexy railroad industry, and he did a fine job of building the Army of the Potomac into a timetable-meeting machine. But then he tried to use it as a rapier for a clean kill. Grant, as any photo will show, was meant to wield a broadsword, and it was he who cast the United States Army into a mold that it cannot escape. Our army won its great struggles with logistics and artillery. Math and scheduling. Since the Great Powers fighting wars before 1945 were all industrialized societies, they increasingly fought the way we were good at fighting. If the war doesn’t fit that model, God help us. Naturally, the world of peoples who might potentially come into conflict with us (many for good reasons) increasingly refuses to give us a war that will fit our model.

  • 66. super390  |  October 22nd, 2011 at 6:25 pm


    There’s probably a lot of truth to the argument that we forced the Luftwaffe to defend factories instead of the thing it was really good at, tactical ground support. But did we really understand that at the time, or did we just get lucky?

    Here’s an example of how important the luck of good timing is. In 1940, anticipating that he’d beat Britain with the weapons he had on hand, Hitler shut down a lot of warplane research. By the time this was reversed, a big time lag had been introduced into the Luftwaffe’s ability to respond to Allied technology. Germany was stuck in 1943 with a lot of planes that were a little too primitive to get into a tangle with the P-51s and P-47s and later Spitfires that finally began escorting bombers. But those planes would likely have done fine in anti-infantry operations, while the ME-262 that should have handled the bomber escorts suffered from the delay and an attempt to divert it to ground support.

    However, consider a more obscure story. The USAAF was utterly committed to the B-17 because at some point the War Department had to commit to which weapons it would order every damn factory in America to produce. I think this edict came in ’41. Ironically, the P-51 was not part of that edict but it was so easy to mass produce ($50,000 each) that it got shoehorned in and saved the B-17s over Germany. But unlike Germany, US plane development was never suspended, and Douglas was privately working on a radical new bomber called the B-42 Mixmaster that would have changed everything over Germany. While the B-17 had become encrusted with extra turrets that slowed it down, the B-42 was a smaller torpedo-shaped plane with two counter-rotating props in the tail and two side-by-side bubble cockpits, aerodynamic and capable of 410 mph with an 8000 lb bomb load (the average B-17 load was only 5000). But the USAAF had already committed, so it only bought a few prototypes, the first of which flew in ’44, too late to matter.

    Since none of the B-42’s parts were new (a pair of P-38 engines instead of the B-17’s four thirsty radials), this plane could have been designed and put into production years earlier. No German prop plane could overtake it in ’44. If one was lost, that only meant three dead instead of thirteen. We could have built more, and run them on less fuel. Schweinfurt would have gotten bombed every week for the rest of the war.

    In fact, the B-42 was the ancestor of modern bombers, along with the Arado Blitz and the Mosquito. It was a sound concept, and it could have saved a lot of airmen from a horrible fate if it had gotten the priority of, say, the Manhattan Project.

    Failing that, I think we could have accomplished almost as much just by building thousands of F-82 Twin Mustangs, which could carry 4000 lbs of bombs 1280 miles. Imagine the nightmare those would be for the Luftwaffe. But the idea for the F-82 came too late, though the parts were already available.

  • 67. DF Sayers  |  October 23rd, 2011 at 11:58 am

    Hilariously, our UPS driver admitted to being a civil war re-enacter.

  • 68. dale  |  October 23rd, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    excellent article Gary, you should develop a book or further concept articles for forgotten civil war heroes like this grierson fellow

  • 69. Joe  |  October 23rd, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    I think history is pretty clear that terror bombing does not work. Instead of crushing enemy morale it enhances it. Raids like the blitz of London and the bombing of Dresden were a complete waste of bombs. They only destroyed useless civilian structures and pissed off the enemy.

    History is also pretty clear that close air support is extremely effective. The Easter Offensive and the Ardennes Offensive completely ground to a halt as soon as the weather cleared.

    As far as strategic bombing of enemy war production goes its a mixed bag. Certainly bombing German oil production was effective but those resources may have been better applied elsewhere. I would argue that since there the western allies had the advantage of the English channel for protection spending resources on strategic bombing was a good idea. Bombers could be used right away to apply pressure. Other war material like tanks had to be accumulated until there was enough for a cross channel invasion. Russia on the other hand didn’t have that luxury and had to devote all her resources to stopping the ground advance.

    Strategic bombing also has diminishing returns. The 100th bomber off the assembly line is much more cost effective than the 1000th. I was under the impression the decision to bomb Dresden was because we had produced too many bombs and were running out of targets. The war planners figured bombing civilians was better than letting the ordinance sit in a warehouse.

    Here is a good resource on the effectiveness of bombing:

    The evidence indicates that while strategic bombing was useful, it was overemphasized in WW2. Its effectiveness depends on what is being bombed and how accurate it is.

  • 70. Cum  |  October 23rd, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    Targeting of civillian infrastructure with air strikes with the goal of turning the populace agianst their domestic leadership is a strategy NATO employed in Serbia and Libya and wars in between and so on. Terror bombing, shock and awe campaigns, strategic targeting of non-military targets… whatever you call it, it’s clearly still a popular tactic employed by the US. There have to be people within our military establishment that know this strategy can backfire, just as there are probably some that understand aircraft carriers are metal coffins. Our politicians and generals at least give some lip service to the importance of “winning hearts and minds” (meaning “bribe people to stop murdering each other so much”). But usually that’s all it is – lip service. Clearly, the drive to use up all those expensive surplus bombs (so greedy weapons manufacturers can build more) is a primary motivator in shaping our military strategy.

  • 71. Dark Markets  |  October 24th, 2011 at 6:39 am

    @64 joe-bob: right on.
    It was the BLEND, the HIGH + LOW punch, of U.S. (& Brit) strategic AND TACTICAL air that made D-Day possible. The 8th AF AND 9th AF Thunderbolts blasted everything that moved, Stukas on steroids.
    (EIGHT, count ’em, EIGHT forward firing .50 caliber guns – plus up to 1,000 lbs of bombs. T-bolt (& Tempest) pilots – both those returning from STRATEGIC deep escort missions, and Tac Air – loved nothing better than catching a German armored column (or supply train) on the road, and leaving ’em a blasted, burning, smoking, shattered remnants.
    (Ironically, in Korean war, it was the INFERIOR in ground-attack role P-51 Mustangs which did the bloody mass bloodletting of Chinese troops wherever they were concentrated – but 6 fifties, and 1,000 lbs of bombs, wasn’t a bad “2nd best,” it was just that Mustang radiators could be destroyed with a single bullet.)

    Although Speer’s relocation & dispersal of German industry was sheer genius, and negated SOME of the impact of USAF “pin-point” bombing – for example, German industry wasn’t ground down to zero by bombing of ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt as US commanders hoped – the loss of ECONOMIES OF SCALE couldn’t help the Germans – and it was those DEEP PENETRATION raids which ground the Luftwaffe down.

    Imagine if the Luftwaffe had been able to assemble 2,000 (dispersed) fighter-bombers to repulse D-Day: against sitting-duck ships & especially troop-ships, it would have been a bloody massacre, to make Omaha beach look like a picnic in comparison.

  • 72. darthfader  |  October 25th, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    Gary, your columns fully prepared me for Gaddafi & son getting dragged out of a burning car and shot in the head, and so I would love to read your take on this pressing matter of dome-peelin’ in the desert

  • 73. Ilona  |  October 28th, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    “A Civil War hero? What a strange concept.”

    A tired man I am. Today I fucked my h-u-u-u-g-e chunky lovely lady only twice. If she tells you I fucked her three times, I’d call her a liar.

    She’s lovely.

    Still no proper answer to my question.

    I’ll take the caps off, perhaps it’ll do the trick: a civil war hero? What a strange concept. Is my question more sensible this way now? Nooo…


    OK. I don’t know much about history, but it seems to me that civil war heroes aren’t that much celebrated around the world, because of a real

    good old fucking civil war terror factor that makes one’s cranium explode out of of cheer joy if thinking any of it.

    Civil wars were quite often quite bloody ones. A brother against brother, a sister against sister – sometimes even within the family. All in the

    family against the family and perhaps your neighborhood against your family too. Nice. Basically, the working class against the ruling class.

    If there wasn’t enough blood spilled in the battlefield for your blood hungry appetite, then perhaps prision concentration camp mass

    executions without trials and starvation and etc. would satisfied your elegance – all the good stuff a human being can come up with

    when thinking about the best of his/her fellow brother’s and sister’s wellbeing.

    In many countries these civil war issues are very sensitive indeed, thus: no civil war heroes. Why? No need no further extra polarizarion –

    trying to heel the wounds of the Civil War and shit.

    So, my extended question is: is the Civil War (note the caps) hero an American concept?

    Perhaps a romanticized one?

  • 74. joe-bob  |  November 11th, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    C’mon war nerd…. 11/11…. Armistice Day. The Grierson peice was awesome but I’m tired of seeing his face at the top of your column. I haven’t seen you do a lot of WW1 stuff, which is weird because it was foreshadowed in large part by the american civil war.

    If you haven’t delved too deeply into ww1, I highly recommend The Myth of a Great War by Mosier, it’s right up your alley in subject mater, style, cynicism, etc. It also shows why the standard take on that war is so *$#%ing boring – cause it’s not what happened! (and the British wrote it…)

  • 75. R. Mike  |  November 20th, 2011 at 11:55 am

    “Over and over, in the worst place, you can count on the Quakers. Too bad they’ve disappeared. On second thought, that’s probably WHY they disappeared.”

    Oh, we’re still around. I think you’re thinking of Shakers.

  • 76. Oksana  |  November 22nd, 2011 at 2:56 am

    Dear Gary,

    it is to my utmost support and sympathy that you have decided, either consciously or through a growing sense of unease, to abandon The eXiled.

    This publication has become the embodiment of unstructured intellectual venom, of a perpetual adolescent rebellion that is unable to integrate into the adult world and which therefore is of no use to human civilization other than being an antithesis to what is worthy.
    A writer, thinker, and personality of your caliber has nothing whatsoever in common with the founders and hosts of this website, or what they have turned into.

    I hope you will get through the grief soon – other great men and women have been there before you when we mourned the loss of our bright youth as we saw them degrade into the mind-numbing self-hatred of the non-accomplisher.

    You shall rise again, and find yourself a worthy place in this virtual universe. No doubt it will be a nice, conservative website defending the traditional American values that are the pure essence of what you yourself honor.

    Let us know when you have found them, or when they have found you.

    Your faithful reader and supporter,

    PS: Where shall I email a jpeg of my conservative snapper?

  • 77. Patrick  |  November 22nd, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    I love your articles. Can you do a new one again sometime soon? where ya been? get a new girlfriend or something?

  • 78. pat b  |  December 2nd, 2011 at 8:42 am

    Business is very different from war.
    People lose money in business, in war they lose life and limb. It takes a real committment to stay at a shooting battle when a stock trader flees at a 10 point drop in the dow.

  • 79. OogaBooga  |  December 30th, 2011 at 1:12 am

    So Grierson was a hero in large part because he cared so deeply for the noble negro and the injuns, huh?

    Hard to believe this sort of drivel comes from the pen of the same guy who wrote “Please Don’t Eat the Pygmies”, a classic exposure of what the negro really is.

    How about an article on the Lord’s Resistance Army Gary? Can’t bring yourself to write about the little pickaninnies in Joseph Kony’s child army gobbling up the flesh off their nappy-headed relatives’ bones? That’s something that doesn’t fit the usual Brecher template of swooning adoration for anything with black skin.

  • 80. stonelifter  |  January 3rd, 2012 at 12:45 am

    this would have been a much better article if it wasn’t laced with the writers snide comments

  • 81. Brian Wilkey  |  January 26th, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    Excellent story, with interesting side comments.

    I served in the Army and was stationed at several forts in southern states (where most forts are now located). In the south, their civil war veterans are still revered and honored.

    Griereson was from Jacksonville, Ill., when the war started. When he retired from the Army, he returned to Jacksonville, where he died. He is buried on the east side of town, in what is probably the least prestigious cemetery in town. His grave is docorated with a newer government tombstone for the rank of general. Someone, I don’t have a clue, had seen to it that his old, damaged stone was replaced. Unfortunately, on Memorial Day, his gravesite was not decorated with the flag. (This was back in 1999.) I am proud to say that I went to the local Walgreens and purchased one and put it on his grave. My way to honor such a man. Again, thanks for your article, it did much more to honor him than I did.

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