5 Worst Christmases in U.S. History

Not every Christmas season is uplifting, in fact, some American Christmases have been downright depressing. In today’s Friday History List, I look at the five worst Christmas seasons in United States history. If you ever get tempted to think that this holiday season is tough, just remember these, and be thankful for what we have.

5. Christmas 1963 – Barely one month before, the young and popular President John Kennedy had been killed in Dallas. At Christmastime, much of the nation was still in shock and mourning.

4. Christmas 1941 – In the days following Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded the Philippines, Burma, Borneo, Hong Kong and Guam..On Christmas Day 1941, Americans worried about Japanese midget subs in San Francisco Bay and German U-boats off the coast of New Jersey.

3. Christmas 1929 – This was the first Christmas after the Stock Market crash of October. With banks failing, companies shutting down and the life savings of many Americans having evaporated, there was plenty of coal in the nation’s stocking this year.

2.  Christmas 1862 – When 1862 began, both North and South were hopeful that “the late unpleasantness” might soon be over. The North trusted in their new commander, George McClellan, and the South was buoyant after the successes of 1861. By Christmastime, inconceivable slaughter at Shiloh and Antietam had ended all illusions. In the North, the families of Union soldiers mowed down at Fredericksburg only days before had even less to celebrate.

1. Christmas 1776 – The United States, barely five months old, seemed on the verge of extinction this Christmas. George Washington’s continental army had been driven from New York, chased through New Jersey and now sat, malnourished, sickly and demoralized, on the Pennsylvania shore of the Delaware River. Many of Washington’s troops planned on going home in a week, since their enlistment papers expired with the new year. The British busied themselves making preparations for their winter quarters, in full expectation of accepting the surrender of whatever remained of the American rebellion in the spring. A list had already been prepared, detailing which American leaders would be granted amnesty, which would be imprisoned, and which would be hung for high treason. What no one knew that Christmas morning was that Washington was about to save the American Revolution and in doing so, change the course of history.

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Top Ten Decisive Battles in Western Civilization

Today’s Friday History List examines the ten most decisive battles in the history of Western Civilization. These are battles that, by their outcomes, changed the course of events in a very dramatic way. They are listed chronologically:

202 B.C. – Zama. The Romans, commanded by Scipio, routed Hannibal and drove him from the field. Carthage was removed as a rival to Rome in the Western Mediterranean, and Rome became the dominate power in Europe. This in turn ensured that western Europe would become subject to heavy Latin and Greek influences.

312 A.D. – Milvian Bridge. Constantine, having seen a vision of victory (“in hoc signo vinces“), defeats Maxentius‘ armies to become the master of first the Western Roman Empire, and eventually all of it. Fulfilling a pre-battle vow, he converts to Christianity, taking all of the Empire with him.  At the Council of Nicea, Constantine assigns blame for Christ’s death to the Jews, and he makes Christianity the predominate religion of his empire. Much of Europe’s future has just been written.

451 – Châlons. Attila the Hun is defeated by a combined Roman/Visigoth force, preventing him from dominating Western Europe. Into the vacuum steps Germanic culture and the Catholic Church, expressed by papal power in Rome.

732 – Tours. Muslim invaders, intent on spreading the religion of Mohammed, enjoyed unchecked success as they expanded their influence from India to Spain. At Tours, Frankish leader Charles Martel defeated a Muslim force commanded by Abd er-Rahman, ending the Muslim threat to Western Europe, establishing the Franks as dominate in Gaul and preparing the scene for Charlemagne.

1588 – Spanish Armada. The Spanish, fueled by precious metals stripped from the Americas, achieved military and political hegemony in the 16th century. When England left the Catholic Church under Henry VIII, the Spanish became their sworn enemies; when English pirates began raiding Spanish galleons, threatening Spain’s financial windfall, the situation took on a new sense of urgency. In 1588, the Spanish, aided by the French, intended to invade England and forcibly reconvert the population. Stormy seas and a plucky English navy caused the destruction of almost half of the Spanish vessels and England not only survived, but rose to become the preeminent naval power in the world. With the Spanish badly weakened, the English decided to move rapidly into the colony business. England’s time had arrived.

1776 – Trenton. In the fall of 1776, it looked like the American Revolution had failed. George Washington’s dwindling army seemed on the verge of disintegration, and the British relaxed for the winter, intending on finishing off whatever remained of the rebellion in the spring. Rather than watch his army die, Washington led a surprise attack on his enemy’s forward position in Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas night, 1776. What resulted was a stunning victory over Hessian mercenaries that changed the direction of the war and set the stage for the eventual ejection of the English from their American colonies.

1813 – Leipzig. Napoleon, his army greatly weakened by losses the previous year during the Russian campaign, faced for the first time a combined allied army. At Leipzig Napoleon is defeated and forced to retreat to France; he will abdicate the next year, effectively ending his influence and dramatically shifting the balance of power in Europe.

1864 – Atlanta. The summer of 1864 was the North’s darkest hour, as the bright hopes of springtime campaigns had been ground away to dark disappointment. U.S. Grant’s battles against Robert E. Lee in Virginia had been enormously bloody (over 50,000 new Union casualties) with no end yet in sight. In the South, William Tecumseh Sherman’s army sat outside of Atlanta with little hope of breaking its own deadlock. To the public, and more particularly to prospective voters that year, it looked as if Mr. Lincoln’s war might never end. Confederate President Jefferson Davis did the Union a favor that summer as he replaced the defensive-minded Joseph Johnston with the reckless John Bell Hood. Within weeks Hood had taken massive casualties and was eventually compelled to give up Atlanta. The Union victory there gave the electorate in the North the optimism they needed to reelect Abraham Lincoln, which doomed any Southern hopes for victory. At Atlanta, both the Confederacy and American slavery died forever.

1914 – 1st Marne. One of the reasons Germany welcomed the start of the First World War was their absolute faith in the Von Schlieffen Plan, which they expected to result in the fall of France in no more than six weeks. (Don’t forget that the last time Germany and France fought, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the Germans had won a resounding victory.) In August of 1914, in spite of tough resistance from the Belgians and a combined British-French defense, all was on schedule. What the Von Schlieffen Plan didn’t take into account though, was the logistical nightmare of trying to keep rapidly moving troops adequately supplied in a day when most ammunition and provisions were still carried in horse-pulled wagons. Losing confidence, German Chief of Staff Moltke changed the plan in mid-stream and exposed his army to attack. This the French did at the 1st Battle of the Marne. By the first week of September, the German Army had been halted, and both armies began to dig trenches in a line that would eventually extend to the North Sea. A war of rapid movement had suddenly become a nightmare in the trenches.

1940 – Dunkirk. At the end of May 1940, it was clear that the Nazis would conquer France; all that was left to be decided was whether the 400,000 British and French survivors could be evacuated to England, where the fight might go on. If the Germans could have entrapped and destroyed those troops, the Second World War might have ended that spring, as Britain would have had little but the Home Guard with which to defend their island. The evacuation, called Operation Dynamo, was aided by German hesitation and the heroic efforts of those on the thousands of boats that helped in the rescue. In addition, the RAF inflicted serious losses on the Luftwaffe as it harassed the troops on the beach. By the time the effort was called off on June 4, 338,000 men had been taken out of France and the Germans had lost 240 aircraft. Hitler would eventually realize that he could never have England, instead, he turned his attention to the Soviet Union – with disastrous consequences.

Pearl Harbor: A Date That Is Being Rapidly Forgotten

Sixty-eight years ago today, your grandparents’ generation had their 9-11 moment. On that day, the Empire of Japan decided to sucker-punch the United States Pacific Fleet, stationed at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii. The Japanese military leadership hoped that by destroying America’s naval presence in the Pacific, they could bully the United States into accepting Japanese hegemony in the Far East. This would allow their aggressive expansionism to continue unchecked.

The attack began at 11:55AM Eastern time (6:55AM local time), with the aerial bombing beginning almost an hour later. The Americans at Pearl Harbor were taken by surprise, and nearly 3,000 were killed. The destruction was nearly complete: 4 battleships sunk; 4 battleships damaged including 1 run aground; 2 destroyers sunk, 1 damaged; 1 other ship sunk, 3 damaged; 3 cruisers damaged; 188 aircraft destroyed, 155 aircraft damaged; 2,345 military and 57 civilians killed, 1,247 military and 35 civilians wounded.

The United States, however, was fortunate on this day. The decisive weapon of the war in the Pacific would not be battleships, but aircraft carriers, and the American carriers were out to sea when the Japanese struck, and thus they survived. What the attack had accomplished more immediately, however, was to thrust the United States into the Second World War.

For the next six months, the Japanese Empire ran amok in the Far East, capturing nations at will as the United States at first reeled, and then began to build the most formidable war machine in human history to that point. By the summer of 1942, the United States had begun the process of taking the fight to the Japanese, winning two stunning victories at Coral Sea and Midway. From then on, the Japanese were on the defensive. But on December 7, 1941, Americans didn’t know how things would turn out.

Many expected a Japanese invasion of the West Coast; any American with an Oriental look about them was soon considered suspect. Many whites had no time for subtleties  -to them, they all looked like the guys flying Zeros at Pearl Harbor and Midway. Not long after this, the internment order for Japanese-Americans would be issued.

For my father, then a seventeen-year-old living at St. Mary’s Industrial School on the present site of Cardinal Gibbons School, the entry of the United States into the war brought him to enlist in the Marines. He would eventually be wounded on the Japanese island of Okinawa in 1945, but lived to tell the tale. He quickly recovered and would have been part of the invasion of the Japanese mainland had not the atomic bomb ended the war. For this, I probably owe my existence, because conservative estimates put American casualties in Japan at around one million.

Marines on Okinawa

The day after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt said that the date would “live in infamy.” For many younger Americans, the date has already lost its meaning, and the future looks bleak as less than 50 survivors of the attack remain. Soon, there will be no one to recall the events of that day, and we will become dependent on books, photographs and films.

But today, while we still have them here, let’s not pass up a chance to pause for a moment or two and recall their 9-11 moment, just as we hope that sixty years from now, our grandchildren will be able to recall ours.

10 Best States for Lovers of American History

10. New Jersey – There are a number of decent Revolutionary War sites here, such as the Trenton, Princeton, Monmouth and Ft. Mercer battlefields, plus Morristown, which for two years was the winter encampment site for Washington’s army. In addition, there’s a Civil War prison site, Ft. Delaware, which sits on an island in the Delaware River. Prisoners who died there are buried at Ft. Mott, on the shore. At Weehawken, you can see the monument on site of Hamilton-Burr duel, and at West Orange you can visit Thomas Edison’s home, laboratories and office. In New Jersey are the birthplace sites of James Fenimore Cooper, Grover Cleveland and the home of Walt Whitman.

A reenactment at Monmouth

9. Missouri – The battlefields in Missouri don’t compare to the ones in the east, but there are a few, such as at Athens and Wilson Creek. In Independence you’ll find Harry Truman’s home not far from his presidential library. There’s plenty of Lewis & Clark history here (they left from St. Louis and traveled the Missouri River west), and a farm once owned by U.S. Grant, before he was important. Missouri has the homes of Mark Twain, George Washington Carver, John Pershing, Scott Joplin, Walt Disney and Thomas Hart Benton.

Harry Truman's home in Independence, Missouri

8. Texas – The Alamo (need I say more?), not to mention other Battlefields of the Texas Revolution, such as San Jacinto and Gonzales. Near Brownsville, you’ll find Mexican War battlefields. In San Antonio, in addition to the Alamo, you’ll find old 17th & 18th century Spanish missions to explore. The Texas State Cemetery in Austin is the final resting place for lots of important Texans, including Stephen F. Austin, General Albert Sidney Johnston and Governor John Connally (who was wounded in the car with Kennedy). There were dozens of Civil War skirmishes in Texas, including ones at Galveston, Corpus Christi and Sabine Pass.

Cannon at San Jacinto

7. California – California doesn’t have the traditional battlefield-type sites that I like, but there’s still plenty of history here. In the Golden State, you’ll find Alcatraz, Death Valley, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Sutter’s Mill (Gold strike). If you like open spaces there’s the California Historic Trail, where hundreds of thousands of pioneers traversed and the Pony Express Trail. For the military buff, there’s the Presidio, which has been an army post for the Spanish, Mexicans and Americans. If you’re more into entertainment history, Hollywood and Burbank are mecca.

Alcatraz - Now Open for Tours!

6. Tennessee – Tennessee is second only to Virginia for sheer number of Civil War battles, including Shiloh, Chickamauga and Chattanooga, not to mention Forts Henry and Donelson. Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage is here, as well as the homes of presidents James Knox Polk (thumbs up) and Andrew Johnson (not so much).  For those who like a walk in the woods, you have Natchez Trace, a famous Indian/settler trail that is also where Meriwether Lewis met his end. Like Greek history? In 1897, Nashville rebuilt an exact replica of the Parthenon, including the statue of Athena inside. There are plenty of antebellum plantations that survived the war, if you like that sort of thing, and the Jack Daniels distillery if you get bored. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in the heart of Tennessee Valley Authority plants, was key to the Manhattan Project. And every American must at least once make a pilgrimage to Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley.

Graceland - Elvis' crib

5. New York – Home of the Bennington battlefield and Fort Ticonderoga, and Washington’s headquarters during the New York Campaign.You’ll also find plenty of War of 1812 history close to the Lakes. Sadly, almost all of the places fought over in New York City in the Revolution are now buried in asphalt, but you can still go there, just not at night, or alone. In New York City, there’s so much history that it’s impossible to list it all, so I’ll just mention the site of the Twin Towers, Trinity Church (Hamilton is buried there, along with many others), Wall Street (where Washington was sworn in as the first President), Ellis Island (I’m calling it New York, don’t even start that with me), the Statue of Liberty, and the Dakota. Lots of important people’s houses are in New York, like John Brown, Martin Van Buren, John Rockefeller, Thomas Paine (with grave), Susan B. Anthony and Millard Fillmore. Add to that the Military Academy at West Point (where a certain Benedict Arnold tried to sell us out). Oh, and the Erie Canal.

Alexander Hamilton's grave at Trinty Church

4. Massachusetts – Boston. Where do I begin? Let’s see, there’s the Old North Church, the Boston Massacre site, Boston Tea Party site, Bunker Hill, Old South Meeting House, the Paul Revere House, the USS Constitution and the JFK Presidential Library, just to mention the big targets. Getting outside of town, we get Fort Warren (where political prisoners were held during the Civil War, including the mayor of Baltimore) Lexington and Concord, John Adams and John Quincy Adams’ homes, the Lizzie Borden death house,  Waltham (Lowell’s girls), and Transcendentalist sites, like Walden Pond. And then there are the Puritan colonies, such as Plymouth (Pilgrims) and Salem (Witches), not to mention all of the Quaker and Shaker sites. For a small, state, it’s jammed packed full of history-goodness.

Lizzie Borden took an axe...

3. Pennsylvania – America started here (or so the Tourist Board says). Philadelphia, our nation’s capital for ten years, has Independence Hall (think Declaration of Independence, Constitution), the Liberty Bell,  the Constitution Center, the First (and Second) Banks of the United States, where Ben Franklin used to stay (and where he stays now, next to his wife, Deborah), Christ Church and Congress Hall. (I don’t mention Betsy Ross because it’s largely a myth.) You should also see Fort Mifflin, a Civil War-era fort (it’s haunted, you know). Outside of town we get the Washington Crossing site, Valley Forge, the Brandywine and Germantown battlefields, and as we move west, there’s Nirvana Gettysburg. Gettysburg is the site of the greatest battle in the history of the Western Hemisphere – I’ll just leave it at that. If this state had only Gettysburg, it would still be in the top ten. Continuing west, we get into lots of French and Indian War sites, including the Braddock battlefield, Fort Necessity and Fort Duquesne (sadly, you have to go to Pittsburgh to see this). James Buchanan’s house is in Pennsylvania, but there’s no need to stop there.

G.K. Warren's statue at Little Round Top

2. Virginia – Virginia is called the “Mother of Presidents” because so many were born there. Here’s the list: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, W.H. Harrison, Zachary Taylor, John Tyler and Woodrow Wilson. Many of their homes are on the must see list: Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier and Berkeley Plantation. Arlington National Cemetery was the home of Robert E. Lee; Virginia was also the home of Stonewall Jackson, J.E. B. Stuart, A.P. Hill and a slew of other Civil War greats. There are more Civil War battlefields in Virginia than any other state, and many of them were major, bloody engagements. Richmond, the Confederate Capital, has a ton of restored buildings and preserved artifacts. Down the Peninsula, we run into Yorktown, where the American Revolution ended, and Jamestown, where Virginia began. (Williamsburg is nice, but overly commercial.) Harpers Ferry was in Virginia when John Brown attacked it, so for the sake of this discussion, I’ve re annexed it. Newport News and Norfolk are wonderful if you like naval history (this is where the “Duel of the Ironclads” occurred).

The bed upon which Stonewall Jackson died, in the house where he died.

1. Maryland – OK, maybe I’m biased, but we’ve got it all! Let’s start at the start: Maryland’s First Colonial capital, St. Mary’s City, has been excavated and rebuilt and a replica of the ship that brought over the first settlers is there. Annapolis is loaded with colonial history, including the preserved room in the State House where George Washington resigned his commission. It’s also the home of the Naval Academy. South of town there’s Londontown, a colonial-era settlement currently being excavated; even farther south is the Surratt Tavern and the Mudd House along the path of John Wilkes Booth’s escape route. In Baltimore, there’s only Fort McHenry, the well-kept birthplace of the Star Spangled banner, Edgar Allan Poe’s house and grave, the B&O Railroad (America’s first), President Street Station (where the Baltimore Riot started), Westminster Cemetery, Greenmount Cemetery, the Carroll Mansion, the USS Constellation, the USCGC Taney (a Pearl Harbor survivor), the Flag House (where the Star Spangled Banner was made) and lots of historic churches and really old homes. Going west, we arrive at the South Mountain and Monocacy Battlefields, and then Antietam, the very well-preserved site of the bloodiest day in American history. Farther west we find Forts Frederick and Cumberland from the French and Indian War. The clincher for Maryland? It’s not only got its own historical stuff, it sits between Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. with all of their historical stuff. Living in Maryland, you are closer to history than anywhere else in America.

Fort McHenry

Five Greatest American Field Commanders

For today’s edition of History List Friday, I’m looking at what I consider to be the five best American field commanders of all-time. (Note that I didn’t say “United States,” because two of them displayed their genius while making war against the United States.)

Ready? OK, here we go:

5. Winfield Scott – Scott spent fifty years as a commander in the army, and participated in some of its most notable campaigns during the first half of the 19th century. In the War of 1812, Lt. Colonel Scott led the American assault on Queenstown Heights, Ontario. His troops were winning until New York militia refused to cross the river in support; Scott was forced to surrender. Exchanged in 1813, Scott commanded the First Brigade in the Niagara campaign of July 1814, decisively winning the battle of Chippewa before being wounded at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, ending his involvement in the war. In the Mexican War, Scott led a successful amphibious invasion of Mexico at Vera Cruz, and then through a series of flanking maneuvers, forced Santa Anna’s army to backpedal into Mexico City. (No less an authority than Wellington himself had predicted that Scott’s army would never be heard from again.) Santa Anna, believing that the walls of Mexico City could not be breached, fortified the town and secured the fortress-less castle of Chapultepec and dared Scott to attack. Scott did attack, his men carried Chapultepec, and Mexico City quickly fell. Wellington, learning of the feat, now called Scott the world’s “greatest living general.” At the outbreak of the Civil War, Scott was the commander of the Union forces, and as such, was the primary architect of the Anaconda Plan, which was a naval blockade of the South. While this plan took years to show concrete results, it was key in eventually choking the South off from resupply and severing in into easily managed segments.  During his lifetime, Scott published the Abstract of Infantry Tactics, Including Exercises and Manueuvres of Light-Infantry and Riflemen, for the Use of the Militia of the United States in 1830 and in 1840, he wrote Infantry Tactics, Or, Rules for the Exercise and Maneuvre of the United States Infantry.

4. U.S. Grant – Grant might not have been a brilliant military strategist, but he was at the least a very good one. It was Grant’s battlefield demeanor, however, that places him in the top five. Named a brigadier general in August of 1861, Grant quickly established himself as a bold, aggressive commander, seizing Paducah, Kentucky, a key port on the Ohio River.   (In the Western Theatre, control of the rivers would be the key to victory, and Grant understood this from the beginning.) A few months later, Grant seized Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. At Fort Donelson, Grant’s army suffered a surprise attack while he was away; Grant regrouped and counterattacked, and Donelson surrendered a few days later. In was here that Grant earned his nickname of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. When asked for terms by the Rebel commander, Grant coolly replied that he would accept no terms except “unconditional and immediate surrender.” Grant’s troops were taken unawares at Shiloh, but, once again, Grant calmly regained the offensive the next day and carried the field. Grant’s dogged persistence and gutsy, imaginative campaign at Vicksburg resulted in the capture of the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi. Coming east after having been given command of all Union Armies in March of 1864, Grant’s campaigns against the heretofore unconquered Robert E. Lee were brutally effective, though terribly costly. It is worth noting that Grant’s tactics changed when he changed theaters; in the West, he maneuvered to gain control of critical waterways. In the East, he used his massive manpower advantage to bleed Lee white. In both cases, he was ultimately successful.

3. George S. Patton – George Patton was the father of American armored tactics. During World War I he was the first officer assigned to the U.S. Tank Corps, and became a vocal advocate for expanded use of armor in battle during the interwar years. In 1942, following U.S. entry into World War II, Patton trained his tanks for battle in California before participating in the successful capture of Morocco from Vichy France.  Given command of II Corps after its disastrous losses against the Afrika Korps, Patton counter-attacked, and in combination with British General Bernard Law Montgomery, drove the Germans out of North Africa.  In Sicily, Patton commanded the U.S. 7th Army brilliantly, driving westward across the island and then north, again in conjunction with Montgomery, until the Germans and Italians were compelled to evacuate. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), while on Sicily, Patton’s slapping of a serviceman cost him the chance to follow the 7th Army into Italy, and he was instead rotated among several locations as a decoy to the Germans, who expected Patton to lead an invasion wherever he went. Eventually he was assigned to England, where again he was a decoy for the fictitious “First U.S. Army Group,” which the Nazis were convinced would be assaulting Calais. This misinterpretation resulted in the misplacement of several German Panzer divisions, making them unavailable at Normandy on D-Day. After D-Day, Patton was given command of the Third Army, which he relentlessly drove across France (until he outran his supplies and was forced to stop; the interval allowed the Germans to fortify Metz, which resulted in a protracted siege). When the Germans surprised allied troops with their 1944 Winter Offensive, Patton disengaged a corps-sized element of his army and turned it north toward the “bulge.” This complicated and dangerous move was executed to perfection, and within days Patton’s men were fighting at Bastogne, which the 101st Airborne were barely holding. The Germans, seeing the strength of the forces opposing them, retreated.  Patton’s army then continued moving east, cutting a swath across southern Germany, finally reaching Czechoslovakia in May as the war ended.

2. Stonewall Jackson – Thomas J. Jackson received his famous nickname at the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas), when his brigade’s unflinching stand in the face of coordinated Union assaults helped turn the tide of battle. In his historic 1862 Valley Campaign, Jackson’s 17,000 men marched 646 miles in 48 days, engaging three different Union armies (totaling about 60,000 men), and preventing them from reinforcing George McClellan’s drive against Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign. Union leaders were intimidated by Jackson, and refused to release any of the valley troops, fearing that Jackson would turn his attention to Washington, D.C. Called to Richmond’s defense just before the Seven Days Battles, Jackson removed his men by train unnoticed, and much to the chagrin of Union commanders, turned up in Richmond just as McClellan prepared to attack. Jackson joined Lee’s army for the battles around Richmond, but he did not distinguish himself there. It has been suggested that he was at his best when given independent command. Jackson’s men did much better at Second Bull Run, Antietam and Fredericksburg, but his fame was sealed at the Battle of Chancellorsville. There Jackson accomplished his famous flank march, which annihilated the right of Joseph Hooker’s Union Army and sent them flying north in panic. Sadly for Jackson, however,  as he was scouting for a night attack, he was accidentally shot by his own pickets. He died of pneumonia while recovering.

1. Robert E. Lee – No American commander has ever been as beloved as Robert Edward Lee. Taking command of the rebel army in June of 1862, with George McClellan’s vastly superior federal forces only nine miles outside of Richmond, Lee discounted the odds and audaciously attacked the Union troops repeatedly over a seven day period, driving them back down the Virginia Peninsula from which they had come. With the exception of the battle at Gaines Mill, each of Lee’s attacks had cost him more men than it had McClellan, but the federal commander was so disturbed by the carnage that he treated them as losses. Lee continued his aggressive tactics at Second Bull Run, where John Pope’s Union Army of Virginia was shattered. Largely because of bad luck (Lee’s campaign orders somehow fell into the hands of a Union soldier), his Maryland Campaign ended badly at Antietam, although the odds there were not in his favor. Lee routed the Union forces again at Fredericksburg in December and at Chancellorsville the next spring, before launching into the north again with a campaign that would end disastrously at Gettysburg. From this point forward, with Confederate supplies and men dwindling, Lee changed his tactics and took up a more defensive posture. In doing so, he was able to inflict devastating casualties on numerous Union armies. However, with the elevation of the determined Grant to command, and the reelection of Abraham Lincoln in November of 1864, Lee and the South were doomed. Ground down to a mere 25,000 men by the spring of 1865, Lee held out for as long as possible before accepting Grant’s offer to surrender. Rather than dispersing his army and continuing the struggle with guerrilla warfare, Lee asked his men to go home and become good citizens; his men did as they were told, and the nation’s reconciliation began. Even at the hour of his greatest defeat, Lee demonstrated that he was still a successful leader of troops.

Worst. Wars. Ever.

As I mentioned in a previous post, warfare is as much a part of human nature as is romantic love or the need for community. That doesn’t mean that all wars are necessary; in fact, some wars are positively pointless in their origins, destructive in their execution and meaningless in their result. Today’s Friday History List is what I believe to be the five most pointless wars in history. Let’s see if you agree.

5. The Siachen Conflict – This pointless war is to resolve ownership of an uninhabitable glacier that lies on the border between India and Pakistan in Kashmir at a height on 20,000 feet. It began in 1984 and continues to this day, which makes it the only ongoing conflict on my list. The problem started when the treaty ending the Indo-Pak War of 1971 (which would result in the creation of Bangladesh), forgot to mention who owned this icy plateau (frankly, the people who drafted the treaty didn’t think it was a big deal). The war has mainly consisted of raids and counter-raids against enemy outposts, resulting in over 2,000 casualties in 25 years. Certainly not a big number, I know, but completely pointless nonetheless.

4. The War of 1812 – On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain, largely because of British impressment of American sailors. (Impressment was the forcible repatriation of individuals thought to be deserters from the Royal Navy. The United States’ grants of citizenship meant nothing to the English, whose laws did not allow for the renunciation of British citizenship. Therefore, once a limey, always a limey. Americans claimed that many of the repatriated sailors had never been English.) Remember that the British at the time were engaged in a titanic death struggle with Napoleon, and were far less concerned with the complaints of offended Americans than retaining naval supremacy in the Atlantic.  Oddly enough, by the time war was declared, Britain had rescinded its Orders in Council authorizing the impressments – thus removing the major cause of the war. Unfortunately, the news failed to reach the United States in time. After three years of sporadic fighting, both sides could claim victories, but neither side achieved its strategic objectives. Eventually, the Treaty of Ghent ended the war and reestablished the status quo ante bellum (nothing changed from before the war). Four thousand were dead of wounds and twenty thousand were dead of disease, in what was at best a tactical draw.

3. The Iran – Iraq War – In 1980, Saddam Hussein, hoping to take advantage of instability in Iran after the Islamic Revolution, invaded Iran, looking to settle an old border dispute. However, his army quickly stalled and was driven back by the surprisingly resistant Iranians. Soon, both sides settled into its positions as an ugly, costly war of static attrition ensued. Before it ended in 1988, 500,000 were dead and the two nations had suffered economic losses of $1 trillion. When the war ended, nothing had changed.

2. The Russian Campaign of 1812 – One of the many Napoleonic Wars, this was the Emperor’s response to the Russian Czar’s withdrawal from Napoleon’s continental system, and it was a disaster. Russia, dependent on foreign trade but denied it under Napoleon, dared to challenge Bonaparte by removing themselves from his economic orbit. Napoleon, needing to demonstrate the costs of insubordination, invaded Russia in the summer of 1812. The French Grand Army made rapid progress as the Russians withdrew before him. By September, Napoleon had captured Moscow (which had been stripped of anything of value before its abandonment) and then settled in to wait for the inevitable surrender offer. It never came. What did come was the Russian winter. By the middle of October, Napoleon gave up and set out for the return march to France. His Grand Army, 600,000 strong, was caught in an early (and brutal) winter, attacked incessantly by roving bands of angry Cossacks and slowly ground away. Of those that left Moscow in October, only 40,000 made it home alive. The Grand Army had been crippled, setting the stage for the demise of Napoleon in the years that followed.

1. World War I – Easily winning the prize as the worst war ever, the Great War started for almost no reason, killed tens of millions, settled nothing and then, as if needing to prove itself again, set the table for World War II. In 1914 Europe, following years of military buildups and the creation of constricting alliances, was like a tinderbox just waiting for a spark. That spark came in June with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian extremists (probably with the tacit approval of the Serbian government). Soon, threats were being exchanged, mobilizations were being issued, and by August the great powers of Europe were at war. Stalemates followed invasions, and a war between the trenches was inaugurated. The war itself was typified by thousands of senseless frontal assaults against heavily armed positions by hundreds of thousands of doomed troops. By the time of the armistice in November of 1918, nearly 40,000,000 were killed, wounded or missing, the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires had fallen and France and Belgium had been laid waste. From the peace came the Bolshevik Revolution, the poorly conceived and only somewhat executed Treaty of Versailles, and an unstable Germany that would soon respond with the greatest evil known to mankind – and an even more deadly world war to settle the remaining issues from this one. Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a winner.

On Warfare as a Natural State (from the collected works)

In this essay, I shall demonstrate how war is a natural state of humanity that derives from a normal psychological reaction in individuals and groups. I will trace the development of law within the community and relate it to the use of force both inside and outside the community. I will also elaborate upon the psychic benefits of war to a community, and I will explain how these benefits are key to the development of identity within a community, without which the community cannot survive.

War has always been a part of the human experience, because war is an integral part of human nature. It is no more possible to be rid of the human need to go to war than it is to be rid other uniquely human psychological needs, such as the need for possessions or land ownership. Sigmund Freud, in a letter to Albert Einstein, reflects on this, calling war “the original state of things: domination by whoever had the greater might – domination by brute violence or by violence supported by intellect.” (Freud, 275) He notes that this “death instinct” enhances a creature’s ability to survive, by being able to destroy another creature, and therefore represents a “biological justification” for violent human conflict. (Freud, 282, 283) He even goes so far as to admit that it is pointless to attempt to eliminate this proclivity for war, and that any society that claims to have done so is perpetrating a fraud. (Freud, 283) In the end, he asks, “Why do we not accept it as another of the painful calamities of life?” (Freud, 285)

What is it that prompts people to react violently? Freud attributes war to “conflicts of interest between men” that are only settled when “one side or the other (is compelled) to abandon his claim or his objection by the damage inflicted on him and by the crippling of his strength.” (Freud, 275) J. Glenn Gray says it “arises from the frustration of action and consequently thwarted self-realization and deprivation of freedom” that, in turn, leads to passions for which the response is “violence, usually unplanned and spontaneous.” (Gray, 29, 11, 12) Gray goes on to differentiate between “force” and violence”; he gives “force” the legitimacy of authority while denying that legitimacy to mere “violence.” (Gray, 14) However, Freud notes, “law was originally brute violence and that even to-day it cannot do without the support of violence.” (Freud, 280) He says that law is simply the raw power of a community, as opposed to the “violence of a single individual.” (Freud, 275)

Key in development and the maintaining of any community is identity, which is often expressed as nationhood. Freud says “the structure of human society is to a large extent based upon” identifications. (Freud, 284) Michael Gelven calls these identifications the “we-they principle”. He calls the “we-they principle” an essential way in which we think about the meaning of our own existence. (Gelven, 14) He demonstrates the need for belonging to a larger group, the nation, saying that for humans, “being a native of my country matters (emphasis original).” (Gelven, 12) He goes on to say that this identification as a people typically outweighs our normal desire for peace. (Gelven, 17)

Part of this identification with the nation is the willingness to eliminate threats to the nation, which Chris Hedges calls “part of the redemption of the nation.” (Hedges, 139) Hedges insists that while war is “nearly always a sordid affair”, the state requires the “myth” of glorious, heroic warfare to survive as a community. (Hedges, 173)

In War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Hedges says, “War fills our spiritual void”, giving the nation a shared purpose or calling, satisfying our core beliefs, such as the belief in self-sacrifice. (Hedges, 158-159) Gelven notes this when he says, “…the more vivid and ghastly the depiction of (war’s) misery, the more it is treasured. (Gelven, 9) In this regard, war imitates love, and often feels like love at its outset. (Hedges, 159) Sullivan Ballou, a major in a regiment of Rhode Island volunteers in the Civil War, refers to this strong emotional pull in a letter he wrote to his wife only days before he was killed in battle. Ballou says, “Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.” This part of our communal identity can be traced back for centuries. The idealizing of “suicidal self sacrifice…is…part of the liberal state’s pre-Enlightenment Christian heritage.” (Huq, 1)

For many, war becomes a substitute for love. Hedges proposes, “…the most acute form of suffering for human beings is loneliness”, and he speculates that some “found fulfillment in war, perhaps because it is the closest they ever came to love.” (Hedges, 161)

In many ways, however, war can be more like a narcotic than love, in that it requires “…a higher and higher dose to achieve any thrill…finally, one ingests war only to remain numb.” (Hedges, 162) Hedges describes fighters in Central America engaging in a frenzied orgy of death, speaking in unintelligible shouts, “high on the power to spare lives or to take them.” (Hedges, 171)

Yet, Hedges insists that drugs are themselves a “pale substitute” for the “awful power and rush of battle.” (Hedges, 163) Coming down from war’s high can be difficult. Hedges notes that once removed from war, “we sink into despair, a despair that can lead us to welcome death.” (Hedges, 164) He furthers this connection by branding war as “necrophilia…hidden under platitudes about duty and comradeship.” (Hedges, 163) Hedges concludes that war leads us “into a frenzy in which all human life, including our own, seems secondary.” (Hedges, 166) Some can never relinquish the thrill of warfare, and are drawn back in until they are destroyed by it, consumed, Hedges says, “by a ball of fire.” (Hedges, 170)

For all of its destructive power, Freud insists that there is in war the potential for good. Sometimes, even within a community, there are injustices that will not be remedied by the ruling power, which creates laws by itself and for itself, with little regard for lower classes of society. (Freud, 276) Often “rebellion and civil war follow, with temporary suspension of law and new attempts at a solution by violence.” (Freud, 277) If war can become the vehicle for establishing a more lasting peace, a peace that “makes further wars impossible”, then war might be seen as appropriate. (Freud, 278) In this case, if war promotes justice and restores a long-lasting peace, future wars become less likely.

Freud says that “Wars can only be prevented with certainty if mankind unites in setting up a central authority to which the right of giving judgment upon all conflicts of interest shall be handed over.” (Freud, 278) Unfortunately, nations will never agree to such a surrender of sovereignty or self-interest, because to do so would be to dispose of their national identity, which, as we have seen, is indispensable to their survival as an individual people. Further, even if this universal surrender of authority were agreed upon, there would still occasionally be the rise of small groups or individuals for whom the rule of law or rights of the innocent are of little account, and for whom violence is the accepted path. For people such as these, war is often the only weapon that promises the restoration of peace.

So while it is impossible to permanently eradicate the scourge of war, it remains within our power to limit it to situations where war is the last available remedy for injustice, or in the instance where violence must be met with violence to restore peace. To do this, we must fully comprehend human nature as it is, rather than simply wish for human nature, as it is not.

As Michael Gelven so aptly put it, “To understand war is thus to understand ourselves.” (Gelven, 18) If we anticipate the factors that bring on war, such as permanent states of injustice, a people’s sense of powerlessness and situations that encourage acts of naked aggression, we might react with foresight and avoid large-scale conflicts later. Denying the human need for conflict is eventually counterproductive. Rather, by accepting the reality of warfare, we can then begin the process of making war less likely, which in this imperfect world might just be the best we can hope to do.