Bitter Jubilee - Pt 1
Wednesday, August 24, 2005, 05:45 AM - Douglass and Lee at War

Black Americans living on an unidentified plantation on Davis Bend, Mississippi, 1865

The Snake Bite series of posts, still on-going, has so far mostly focused on the operational consequences of removing Sherman from the Civil War scene in early 1864. Some readers may have begun to wonder what happened to the old Mark Grimsley with his emphasis on things like "postcolonial military history." Have I gone back to the dark, traditionalist side? I must say that at times I'm tempted. It helps to have a sense of community, and among military historians that community is largely found away from the new social, cultural, and gender history. Scholars in those fields seem gratified when you take their preferred approaches seriously, but among some of them I get the feeling they regard me as not unlike Samuel Johnson's dog, walking on its hinder legs.

Still, it has to be pointed out that Civil War army commanders not only had control over field operations, they also had chief responsibiliity for the administration of civilian affairs within their geographical departments. This gave them, whether they sought it or not, a great deal of influence over the emerging post-emancipation social order in the American South. No single commander had more influence than the one who had charge over the Military Division of the Mississippi, which in early 1864 covered the states of Kentucky and Tennessee in toto and also encompassed vast parts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. As its armies advanced in Georgia its jurisdiction enlarged to include that state--and ultimately the Carolinas as well.

The man historically in charge of the Division was, of course, Sherman, who had little use for Blacks and none at all for the social order that would succeed slavery, at least not while the war still waged. In September 1862, while in command at Memphis, Tennessee, he chided his brother, Republican Sen. John Sherman, about the difficulty of making the army a tool by which to create a post-emancipation order: "[N]o army could take care of the wants of the hosts of niggers, women & children that would hang about it freed without the condition attached of earning food & clothing. Instead of helping us it would be an incumbrance." Certainly the army could make some use of African American labor, but that involved only able-bodied males. What about women and children? "Where are they to get work, who is to feed them, clothe them, and house them. We cannot now give tents to our soldiers, and our wagon trains are now a horrible impediment, and if we are to take along & feed the negros who flee to us for refuge, it will be an impossible task. You cannot solve the negro question in a day." (WTS to JS, September 3, 1862, Sherman's Civil War, 292-293)

Sherman never wavered from that basic stance, and as his zone of responsibilities increased he had more ability to place a dead hand upon efforts to assist the freedpeople. To be sure, he considered the circumstances of the rebellion to be revolutionary, and once suggested punishing guerrilla activity by summarily confiscating the property of disloyal planters "and let the negros have the houses & cleared land." (WTS to Philemon B. Ewing, Nov. 2, 1863, 320) But the razor Sherman used was always military necessity as he saw it. He once wrote James B. McPherson to suppress "riots disorders and irregularities" in his area of operations but not to bother "about the rights or wrongs growing out of the differences between Masters and Servants, the employer and employed. This is none of our business." (WTS to McPherson, Nov. 18, 1863, 574)

Sherman was also intensely skeptical of using Blacks as combat soldiers, and largely squelched efforts to recruit additional Blacks as soldiers within his Division, preferring instead to use them as teamsters, cooks, and laborers. During the Atlanta campaign he had the hide of some officers who tried to recruit African American men thus employed. He flatly refused to permit U.S. Colored Troops in his field armies, instead using them to guard his vast line of communications. When a black garrison was massacred at Fort Pillow, Tennessee (along with a number of white Tennessee Unionist soldiers), Sherman was philosophical. "Of course [Nathan Bedford] Forrest & all southerners will kill them and their white officers," he wrote his brother John. "We all knew that." (WTS to JS, April 22, 1864, p.628)

Part 1 - Part 2
6 comments 6 comments ( 95 views )   |  permalink

Snake Bite - Pt 4
Tuesday, August 23, 2005, 06:54 PM - Counterfactuals and Contingency

Capt. William E. Merrill

The blog has received a spike in hits today, which led me to poke around to see from whence they came. Aside from the usual--I get a number of visits each day from people searching for images of "yin and yang", for instance--I see quite a few from members of Civil War West, a moderated Yahoo discussion group.

The instigator, so to speak, was a member who posted this morning: "Everybody’s favorite topic is being covered in Mark Grimsley’s blog" and gave the link. This generated thunderous silence, so after a while the member wrote: "Hmmm…I really thought this would have stimulated some discussion on this group." Which did provoke a smattering of response, mostly along these lines:

What new information does Grimsley present that you feel would have stimulated discussion? Other than some nice visuals, like the satellite image, his articles seemed like the same-old same-old to me.


And indeed, if you search the group's archives for "Snake Creek Gap," you do find a number of hits--although frustratingly, the Yahoo search engine goes back only a few days at a time before calling it quits and forcing you to resend the query.

One recent respondent noted that I need to flesh out the counterfactual. He suggests that Grant might have appointed Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson over Thomas. Which is something I discuss in a comment to Part 1, but that's an easy thing to overlook.

What I have not seen on "Civil War West," nor on what I could find in searches of other Civil War groups, is a discussion that focuses on staff work rather than commanders. I do not claim credit for any great originality here. But it does seem to me that, at least in terms of knowledge of the existence of Snake Creek Gap among the high command, staff work is a key factor.

For example, Federal cavalry during the Atlanta campaign carried this map, lithographed on muslin so that it could be stowed in saddlebags:



You can click on it for a larger image, but it's a big file and if you're using dial-up, you might go make a sandwich while it loads. The key detail is here anyway:



It's still not that easy to make out, because I was limited by the resolution of my source image, but Snake Creek Gap is clearly visible, accurately located and named.

The guy responsible for the map was Captain William E. Merrill. He is mentioned just twice in the Union reports of the Atlanta campaign (OR 38:1, p. 128; OR 38:3, p. 64). He is not found at all in the index to Albert Castel's Lincoln Prize-winning Decision in the West, the standard study of the campaign and generally considered one of the best Civil War campaign studies, period.

Merrill's low rank and virtual invisibility tells a lot about the importance--or rather lack of it--attached to good staff work during the Civil War. He graduated at the top of his West Point class in 1859 but served throughout the war as an engineer, not a line officer. He supervised creation of the maps that helped Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans win the campaign of maneuver which resulted in the bloodless capture of Chattanooga, Tennessee, in September 1863. When Rosecrans got the boot after Chickamauga, Merrill went to work for George H. Thomas. Earl B. McElfresh, a student of Civil War mapping, notes that the pair "were a perfect match because Thomas believed wholeheartedly in mapping and engineering. . . . The Army of the Cumberland set the standard for mapping of all Sherman's forces." (McElfresh, Maps and Mapmakers of the Civil War (New York: Henry N. Abrams, 1999), 244). Merrill ended the war as--drum roll!-- a brevet colonel.

Even so, the Union army plainly had staff work capable of gleaning intelligence about the topography of north Georgia, collating it into a reasonably accurate map, and above all mass-producing and distributing that map widely. By contrast, I know very little about the map found among the papers of that Confederate brigade commander (see previous entry), but the fact that nobody noticed its existence for over a century suggests to me that it was not mass produced or distributed. Indeed, one would need to know much more about just how widely the map was circulated. If by some chance the Confederate brigade commander had it made for himself, it's entirely possible it never made it up the chain of command.

On few subjects connected with the Civil War is it possible to say that nothing has been done. But there are quite a few that are significantly understudied, and staff work is one of them. Offhand I can think of one book on staff and headquarters operations in the Army of Northern Virginia and a handful on military intelligence, the medical services, etc. That's about it. One thing's for sure, however. Compared to their European parts, Civil War army commanders did way too much work that properly ought to have been delegated. This is a structural shortcoming, not a matter of "negligent" generals. And the fact that Union staff work was incrementally better than Confederate staff work may have been a significant factor in shaping Union victory. It certainly bears consideration with regard to Snake Creek Gap.

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7
21 comments 21 comments ( 137 views )   |  permalink

Snake Bite - Pt 3
Tuesday, August 23, 2005, 06:51 AM - Counterfactuals and Contingency
Below is an image and a link to an image showing Snake Creek Gap, the route Thomas wanted to use to get at Johnston's army. Thomas's scouts had discovered the gap after some minor skirmishes in February. They got all the way through the gap to Resaca and discovered that it was unguarded by rebel troops. That seems astounding, but the Federals kept an eye on the gap and it continued to look unoccupied.


Satellite photo of Snake Creek Gap; image created using Google Earth. (Click to enlarge)

Link to TopoZone Map centered on Snake Creek Gap

Why was this? We used to believe that the Confederates may not have been aware of the gap, but in recent years a map has surfaced that was carried by a Confederate brigade commander during the campaign and which does show the gap. Stephen Davis, in his study of the Atlanta campaign, assumes that Johnston must therefore have known of the gap and so was "negligent." That is fairly typical in Civil War military history--and indeed, all military history. It's what I call "what fools they were" history. If a serious mistake is made (and in war they happen all the time), you just say the officer responsible was negligent or an idiot or sulking or some other bad adjective, and you don't have to perform any further analysis.

Personally I think Johnston wanted very much to hold his position at Dalton for as long as possible, blocking every known gap was indispensable to that end, and thus if Snake Creek Gap remained unguarded it would be worthwhile to look elsewhere for an explanation. My guess is that Confederate staff work was inadequate. Civil War staffs tended to be much smaller than their European counterparts, staff officers had no specific training for the job, and without a really good system a lot of details were bound to be lost. I'd want to check out that hypothesis before I started talking about somebody's negligence.

Incidentally, in no area does military history needs to be blogged or flogged or dogged out of the Stone Age--even on its own traditionalist terms--than in the realm of adequate maps. Operational history is fundamentally concerned with time-space relationships, and the more fluid the action, the more you need maps that convey the action and do not resemble a maze of squiggles. When we were restricted to paper, a dearth of maps could be excused (or not: Douglas Southall Freeman had hundreds of maps in his books, simple but serviceable). Nowadays you can create as many maps as you want and post them online. You can create Flash presentations that animate those maps. You can do all sorts of things that would make it a lot easier for readers (or viewers) to follow the action.

And there's certainly lots of material on the web to help, as the images above attest.

Here's a cropped (and slightly modified) version of a map used at West Point. It may serve as a useful supplement, though it shows the Snake Creek Gap maneuver as actually executed. But switch "McPherson" and "Thomas" and you'll have the picture of Thomas's proposal.

Sherman, to repeat, nixed Thomas's proposal. But when he discovered that McPherson's army would be short 10,000 men during the coming campaign--thanks to the unfortunate Red River campaign in north Louisiana, to which the troops had been "loaned"--he scrapped his own original plan and ultimately decided to send McPherson through the Snake River Gap. But there were two important differences. McPherson had only about 40 percent of Thomas's numerical strength, and Sherman's orders instructed McPherson simply to cut the railroad at Resaca and then withdraw back to the southern end of the gap.



Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7

Snake Bite - Pt 2
Tuesday, August 23, 2005, 05:36 AM - Counterfactuals and Contingency
On March 10, while Grant was in Washington to receive his promotion to lieutenant general and command of all Union armies, Sherman penned an adoring and somewhat anxious letter to his newly elevated friend:

Now as the future. Do not stay in Washington. Halleck is better qualified than you are to stand the buffets of intrigue and policy. Come out West; take to yourself the whole Mississippi Valley; let us make it dead-sure, and I tell you the Atlantic slope and pacific shores will follow its destiny assure as the limbs of a tree live or die with the main trunk! . . . For God's sake and your country's sake, come out of Washington! . . . Here lies the seat of the coming empirel and from the West, when our task is done, we will make short work of Charleston and Richmond, and the impoverished coast of the Atlantic.(Sherman to Grant, March 10, 1864, Simpson and Berlin (eds.), Sherman's Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860-1865, pp. 603-604.

Sherman obviously believed that Georgia, not Virginia, should be the main focus of the Union spring offensive. He wrote his wife Ellen:
Grant in command--Thomas the Center [John] Schofield the Left & Sherman the right, if we can't whip [Confederate general] Joe Johnston we will know the reason why. (WTS to Ellen, March 10, 1864, ibid., 605)

This sounds as if Sherman expected that Grant would wear two hats: as general in chief and commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi. McClellan in 1862 had done something like that--combining the post of general in chief with personal command of the Army of the Potomac. Grant, of course, rejected this idea. Historians usually highlight two reasons: first, he believed that the Army of the Potomac was unduly influenced by politics and that only his personal presence and authority could prevent this; second, he believed Lee's army in Virginia was the most important military objective. Would the disappearance of Sherman have caused him to reverse himself and, ironically, do as Sherman had urged? Not, I think, as long as Grant maintained his opinion that Lee's army was the first great object and that the potential for Washington to interfere in this matter had to be neutralized.

That leaves Thomas operating independently in the Mississippi valley. As he did with Sherman, however, Grant would have asked to know Thomas's plans for the coming offensive. We don't have to guess at this plan. We know its outlines because Thomas pitched it to Sherman in March 1864.

Henceforth the discussion requires some knowledge of the armies involved in the Atlanta Campaign and the way the campaign unfolded. Fortunately we have available the nicely done The Atlanta Campaign: An Album, which combines text, maps, and images (particularly present-day photographs) in a nice package. If you get confused or want further detail, try using that.

The Confederate Army of Tennessee under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston had taken up a strong defensive position on Rocky Face Ridge just west of Dalton, Georgia. Nobody wanted to attack this position directly. (Sherman, for one, called it "the terrible door of death.") It was obvious to everyone--Federals and Confederates--that the position would have to be "enveloped"--which means struck on its more vulnerable side; or "turned," which means a movement aimed at threatening the enemy's line of communications so severely that the enemy must abandon an otherwise good position. (Just as an aside: military historians who bemoan the obscure language of postmodern and new cultural historians ought to think about how our lingo sounds to outside ears.)

Here is Sherman's original plan. It's a turning movement, not an envelopment:



Essentially, Sherman would use most of his force--the Army of the Cumberland (Thomas) and the Army of the Ohio (Schofield) to "fix"--or pin--Johnston in place while the Army of the Tennessee (James B. McPherson) marched from its camps near Huntsville, Alabama, and seized Rome, Georgia. You'll see that a railroad runs east from Rome to Kingston, where it meets the Western & Atlantic Railroad. The W&A was critical to Johnston. It was the main conduit for supplies and reinforcements and his best way to keep in touch with Richmond and the rest of the South was by way of the telegraph lines that paralleled the tracks. If McPherson could get to Rome, he would have an easy shot at Kingston just thirteen miles to the east. Johnston would have to retreat, and Sherman would have gained.

Here is the plan Thomas vainly urged upon Sherman:



Once again, some forces pin Johnston in place--only this time it's the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of the Ohio that receive the job. The Army of the Cumberland will march via Snake Creek Gap to Resaca, also on the Western & Atlantic Railroad but much closer to Johnston's army, which means Johnston has a reduced chance of retreating unscathed. Thomas, in short, imagines an envelopment followed by a decisive battle. But wait--wouldn't the Confederates have foreseen and blocked such a dangerous move?

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7

Snake Bite - Pt 1
Monday, August 22, 2005, 07:22 PM - Counterfactuals and Contingency

William T. Sherman; George H. Thomas

When Grant was appointed general in chief in March 1864, his first act was to name a successor to his own previous job as commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi, a zone of responsibility stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. (See map.) That successor, of course, was Sherman, the subordinate Grant trusted most. But if we erased Grant and/or Sherman, what difference would that make? Were Grant and Sherman indispensable to Northern victory in 1865, as Civil War historians often imply, or did the North have a pool of senior generals who could have achieved equivalent results? Just how important was the military leadership of specific individuals compared with other variables, so-called "second-order" variables that would tend to push events back down the paths they took historically: superior Union military strength and manufacturing capacity, internal stresses within the Confederacy, and so on?

In keeping with the "minimum rewrite" rule of counterfactuals, let's remove only Sherman from the war. We'll assume that he suffered crippling grief over the death of his son Willy, though he could just as easily have contracted a fatal case of pneumonia, typhoid fever, or any of a dozen illnesses. (He did in fact have significant respiratory problems in January 1864 and did not fully recover until April). His most likely replacement would have been Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas. Grant, to be sure, is well known to have had quiet misgivings about Thomas. But few others did. By March 1864 Thomas had acquired the reputation of never having lost a battle. It was his Army of the Cumberland that had played the principal role in winning the battle of Chattanooga and it was Thomas's firm determination that had earlier saved that army (then under command of Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans) from complete disaster at the battle of Chickamauga. Thomas was also senior to anyone else Grant would have wanted even remotely for the job. (He was senior to Sherman, for that matter.) And although historian Richard McMurry is correct to point out that Thomas, a native Virginian, had few political patrons in Washington, he did have the full support of Tennessee's military governor, Andrew Johnson, who told Lincoln about this time that Thomas would be "one of the great generals of the war, if not the greatest." (OR 32:3, p. 105) Preferring Sherman to Thomas was one thing. Utterly snubbing Thomas would have been quite another.

We could stop our counterfactual exercise right here by noting that Thomas, historically, continued to be one of the war's most successful generals. Most military historians rate him at or near the same level as Grant, Sherman, and Philip H. Sheridan. Some consider him the best of the lot. But Thomas and Sherman were not interchangeable parts. Can we make any reasoned guesses about what Thomas would have done in Sherman's place, and do these guesses suggest any interesting questions?

But first we have to reflect on the unhappy position in which Grant would have found himself with his most trusted lieutenant incapacitated or extinct.

Grant would almost certainly have given Thomas the same mission that historically he gave to Sherman:

You I propose to move against Johnston's army, to break it up, and to get into the interior of the enemy's country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources. (OR 32:3, p. 246)

But whether he would have followed those lines with these is another matter:

I do not propose to lay down for you a plan of campaign, but simply to lay down the work it is desirable to have done, and leave you free to execute it in your own way.

The loss of Sherman would have given Grant one of three basic choices. He could indeed have given Thomas the same operational discretion as Sherman. He could have given Thomas more detailed instructions, as he often did with subordinates (unlike his predecessor Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, who believed on principle that field commanders were in the best position to judge what ought to be done). Or he could have scrapped his plan to travel with the Army of the Potomac and returned west to oversee Thomas the way he did historically with the Potomac army's commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. Simply considering which option Grant would most likely have pursued obliges us to revisit Grant's command style, his set of priorities, and the importance to him of his partnership with Sherman.

Part 1- Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7
7 comments 7 comments ( 111 views )   |  permalink

On Getting It Done - Pt 2
Monday, August 22, 2005, 03:23 PM - The Craft of History
The mechanics of how I go about researching and writing a book are probably not all that unusual. When I set out to write a book, I begin by doing the research for it. I try to finish all of the research before I start writing, but sometimes an issue comes up during the writing that requires further research.

When I travel to manuscript repositories in distant parts of the country I ply the photocopy machines as freely as the staff and rules of the institution will allow, and when I run up against limits on copying I type notes into my laptop computer. A friend recently shared with me how he was able to use his digital camera to capture images of documents (with the permission of the staff, of course), and I’m looking forward to trying that method. The goal is to get as much information as possible during the briefest (and therefore cheapest) possible stay on location.

When I’m back home I key all of my research into my computer, from which I print it out on 4x6 “note cards.” Actually I print it on sheets of ordinary paper, formatted to fit on a 4x6 card. I turn the paper, print the other end, and then trim the notes down to 4x6 size with a paper cutter. It’s rather laborious, but the slips then fit into 4x6 filing boxes and are about the right size for me to work with while writing. I haven’t found any better way to manipulate information. In the heading of each note card I include the source citation, the project it belongs to (I often work on more than one book project at a time), and the historic date to which its information pertains.

Once I’ve finished gathering all of the information, then comes the task of organizing it. I read over the note cards, getting a feel for the sort of story they contain. Whereas during the research phase I function like a vacuum cleaner, sucking in every bit of pertinent information I can find, that now changes, and I begin to lay aside note cards that contain information that is extraneous, insignificant, or simply inferior to other anecdotes for illustrating a point. This process of winnowing continues almost every time I handle the note cards right up until I actually write the text. Because my favorite approach to history is narrative, I usually arrange my note cards in chronological order and then modify that according to the order in which I want to tell the story.

When the time for writing arrives, I have a pretty good idea of how I will divide the chapters. I then take the note cards for chapter one, read them again, lay aside more of them, revise their sequence, and begin writing. The writing process involves reading the ten or twelve note cards on the top of the stack, laying aside two or three of them, and telling the story that is contained in the remaining cards. Then I pick up the next bunch of cards and repeat the process. Of course, I frequently re-read and revise what I have written, so as to try to keep the story smooth and flowing.

As I write, I usually have a number of books spread around me. I usually don’t bother to take notes on secondary sources. Instead I just refer to the books now and then while writing.

I try to set aside one or two days a week for writing, even during the academic year—much more of course in the summer. I find I’m able to accomplish additional work by getting up at 4:30 and getting in a few hours of writing before class. Lately, though, I’ve been slacking off quite a bit and lying abed until 5:30.

I rather doubt there’s anything in all of this that is much different from what many other historians do, except perhaps the early mornings. So in the end, I’m still at a loss to reveal any secret to great productivity—other than an ability to get by on six hours of sleep every night.

Part 1 - Part 2
2 comments 2 comments ( 87 views )   |  permalink

On Getting It Done - Pt 1
Monday, August 22, 2005, 03:20 PM - The Craft of History


A guest post by Steven E. Woodworth, professor of history, Texas Christian University

Steven is the author of numerous books on the Civil War era. His latest, Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in October.

Mark and I were talking the other day, and he suggested that I write a short piece describing my methods for writing history. He was nice enough to say that I’ve been unusually productive, and he thought a discussion of my methods might be of use or interest to others practicing the craft of history.

The first problem I encounter in doing this is that I’m not exactly sure what has enabled me to write as many books as I have—24 authored, co-authored, or edited since 1990, two more in press. I have a very supportive wife, and thanks to her I’m able to put a lot of time into my writing. Early in my teaching career I developed a fairly austere way of organizing my classes. That is, I base each course around several exams and don’t assign a lot of what I would call “busy-work.” The students seem to like this regime and learn at least as much as they did back when I first started teaching and used methods that were much more laborious for me and, I assume, for them. This also has given me more time to write. Perhaps these factors account for any advantage I may have enjoyed in productivity.

As to the way I do my work, I’m a slow reader and a fast writer. The former means I have to struggle to keep up with all the reading a Civil War historian is expected to do, but the latter may have been of help to me in publishing. I think the two are related. I’m slow at reading because, unless I make a very strong effort not to, I tend to read silently the same way I would if I were reading aloud—but without vocalizing. However, I think that “listening,” as it were, to all of that prose has helped me to become fairly adept at stringing sentences together at a pretty good pace.

Whether the result is of high quality would be for my readers to judge. At times, reviewers, including one reader engaged by a press to review a book proposal I wrote, have said that I write too much and therefore my work is of inferior quality. That bothers me for a couple of reasons. First, I wish they would simply point out the flaws in my work and leave it at that. I know flaws exist, and occasionally I discover what some of them are. But criticism on the basis of productivity seems unfair when the reason for the productivity might be simply that I burn more midnight oil.

Second, such reviewers give me undeserved credit for being able to write better books if I would write them more slowly. I’m not at all sure that I could. Generally, when I send a manuscript to a publisher it’s as good as I know how to make it, given the type of work it is. By that I mean that short works of synthesis are not long works of primary research, but if I had known how to make any of my manuscripts better at being what they were supposed to be (with one exception that I can recall—a case of a frantically impatient publisher) I would have done so.

Part 1 - Part 2

Heart of Darkness - Pt 7
Sunday, August 21, 2005, 01:42 PM - A Postcolonial Military History?


We have arrived at San Pedro Sula, gone through customs, and boarded the chartered van that will take us on the two-hour drive to La Ceiba, where Hands to Honduras, one of many American NGO's [Non-Government Organizations] in this country, maintains a compound with dining facilities and dormitories for its volunteers. As we leave the airport and head for the main highway, CA 13, we pass an old F-86 fighter jet with the markings of the Honduran air force. Even by Honduran standards the aircraft is a relic, but it has been placed on display in what I suppose must be a gesture of pride. I wonder idly if Honduran pilots have ever heard of Douhet, Seversky, Mitchell, or any of the other air power theorists. If they have, I can't imagine why. Pretty much everything I've ever learned about military history and strategic theory has no relevance here.

On a sticky June night, the slow, hot salsa on the jukebox at the Toucan Club urges the American troops and Honduran women to dance closer. The loud music and the language gap makes heavy petting the only communication available, and dozens of locking bodies take full advantage. "You like? You like?" a dainty young Honduran woman wearing high heels and a sheer white blouse asks her muscular dance partner, gasping for air. The young soldier responds in a thick, Southern twang: "Bueno, Bueno, B-u-e-n-o!" (177)

That's a quote from Clifford Krauss, Inside Central America: Its People, Politics, and History (1991). Krauss used to cover Central America for the Wall Street Journal, UPI, and the Atlanta Constitution. I was reading his book the last time I made the trip from San Pedro Sula to La Ceiba. For the sake of this post, let's say I'm reading it in July 2005. I'm certainly thinking about it as the green countryside slides by.

The Toucan Club is located on the Soto Caño Air Base, which is officially a Honduran military facility but is run by and for the United States. Soto Caño is the headquarters for an ongoing series of U.S. military maneuvers that were designed to intimidate Honduras's southern neighbor, Nicaragua. It is also the launching site for top-secret Air Force unmanned, remote-control spy flights that keep track of guerrilla positions to the west, in El Salvador, and to the north, in Guatemala. What little recreation there is for the 1,500 American servicemen stationed at Soto Caño comes from the busloads of perfumed and rouged Honduran señoritas who arrive at the Toucan Club for bingo, pizza, and disco Thursday and Saturday nights. It has been that way since American troops were restricted to the base after an August 1987 bombing of a nearby Chinese restaurant that left six American soldiers wounded. (177-178)

So far as I know it is not like that now. The Sandanista regime ended in 1990, American military aid to Honduras diminished, and the American military presence--once so extensive that the country was dubbed the "USS Honduras"--is minimal. But that's as far as I know. Merely visiting a country does not make you an expert.

The Americans call the ritual "Bimbo Bingo" and "The Leg PX." On benches outside the club, American soldiers were sometimes so sexually aggressive that Honduran soldiers felt obliged to step in. But to hear Honduran women tell it, the American soldiers would make perfect husbands.

"I would like to find an American soldier to take care of me," Cleopatra Guilan, a twenty-seven-year-old secretary from the nearby city of Comayagua, told me as we watched the dance floor fill with couples. Angélica Suezo, thirty, gave birth to a girl fathered by an American soldier who has long since abandoned her, yet she still thinks the Yanks are superior to Honduran men. "Americans are just nice. You see that medical clinic over there?" Angelica asked, to make her point. "American doctors deworm dozens of Honduran children every day. The Americans help us. We are poor and we need them." (178)

We are poor and we need them. Well, here we are. "We" consist of seven midwesterners. Three of us have special expertise: a physician; a dentist; and a retired human resources manager who nowadays organizes and leads such trips. The remaining four of us are just lay people who are along to lend a hand. With one exception, everyone has been to Honduras at least twice before. The dentist has made eight previous trips; the leader, eleven.

For reasons I have never quite learned, such groups are called brigades. Ours is a much smaller brigade than on my two previous trips. Here, for instance, is a group shot of the team who went on the first trip I made in 2002:



But we've been asked to limit the numbers since this year we'll be working in two towns on the Mosquito Coast. It will be expensive to get there and cumbersome to get around, and a large group would be unwieldy. In La Ceiba we'll be joined by a Honduran dentist, a Honduran physican, and the physician's wife. So ten people in all.

Something is wrong at the Toucan Club, and in Honduras itself. The disparity of expectations between the soldiers and their dates is part of what makes the ever-close Honduran-American relationship so unhealthy. While the Honduran people have the highest opinion of the United States of any people in Central America, they have the lowest self-esteem and, ironically, receive the most disrespectful treatment from Washington. (178)

"If you visit Honduras and just drive along the main highway," notes Elvia Alvarado, "you might think Honduras is a rich country. The road is all smooth and paved, and the people who live alongside the main highway look pretty well off." (p. 19) I wouldn't go that far. The view from Highway CA13 reminds me a lot of the more backward parts of the rural South. Even so, you would never guess that Honduras is the second-poorest country (after Haiti) in the western hemisphere. The road is indeed smooth and paved, the gas stations resemble their American counterparts, and if you don't see many houses that would qualify as nice by American standards, you don't see many shanties, either. Instead you see a lot of plantations: sugar, bananas, palm oil. Nearly all of them are owned or controlled by Americans agri-business firms. It is the same in the mountains, where the chief crop for market is coffee.

The deep Honduran feelings of powerlessness, dependency, and self-deprecation are rampant. This is not a new or inexplicable phenomenon. Such feelings of inadequacy are rooted in the fact that Honduras has failed to build a modern state, a unified national economy, or a national identity--three characteristics that U.S. policy unwittingly discourages though all are necessary for healthy political and economic development.(179)

I enjoy my ventures to Honduras. As a professor it's seldom clear if I am helping anyone or not. My impact on others is largely intangible. I have to take it on faith that I am doing any good at all. In Honduras I can help in ways that are unmistakable. Even so, I often have the sense of putting a band-aid on a gaping wound. Who made the wound? What is really needed to heal it?

We reach the compound at last. By American standards it's a modest affair, but here you would have to be very wealthy to afford it. Like every house of substance in the developing world, it is surrounded by a high wall. There is even a guard hired to keep a vigil at night. Even so, it is impossible to build a stockpile of medical, dental, or pharmaceutical supplies. They always disappear during the periods between brigades.

We clamber out of the air-conditioned van. The air is warm but not too humid and it feels pleasant. The afternoon sunlight slants through the lush trees and we can hear the Caribbean Sea just beyond the back wall. I walk over to have a look through the wrought iron bars that form part of the wall. Inexplicably, there are horses feeding on the grass next to the beach. It's in moments like this that I realize how much I like this country. I feel somehow as if I'm home.





Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8 (link not yet active)

Hard War
Saturday, August 20, 2005, 05:05 PM - History of War in Global Perspective


Ohio soldier James E. Taylor made this ink wash drawing of Federal cavalry in northern Virginia, called "Mosby's Confederacy" because it was the haunt of Colonel John S. Mosby and his Partisan Rangers. Unable to locate and destroy Mosby's band in combat, Union forces resorted to cutting off its supply of food and forage. The practice was part of a larger policy of stripping the Confederacy of anything that could support its war effort. The drawing shows this policy in idealized form. Soldiers have torched the barn and are driving away the livestock, but the main residence at right stands unscathed. In practice, the inhabitants might or might not escape acts of theft and vandalism, though outright assaults were rare.
1 comment 1 comment ( 19 views )   |  permalink

Atrocity
Saturday, August 20, 2005, 04:31 PM - History of War in Global Perspective


"Soldiers Plundering a Farmhouse," by Sebastian Vrancx (1573-1647), vividly illustrates that marauding and mayhem directed against civilians did not originate with the Civil War. Although it depicts a scene from the 16th-century Dutch Revolt, with minor changes to the soldiers' clothing and equipment it could apply to virtually any European war from the Middle Ages through the mid-18th century. Rape, pillage, torture, and outright murder were common occurrences. The Civil War was remarkably free of such extreme violence directed against civilians--with one important exception: the fierce guerrilla struggle in Missouri and eastern Kansas. The worst single incident took place on August 21, 1863, when pro-Confederate guerrillas sacked Lawrence, Kansas, killing an estimated 150-200 men, though refraining from assaults on women.
1 comment 1 comment ( 29 views )   |  permalink


Back Next