The poet John Hollander has died at 83. He wrote one of my favorite poems, Hobbes, 1651:
When I returned at last from Paris hoofbeats pounded
Over the harsh and relenting road;
It was cold, the snow high; I was old, and the winter
Sharp, and the dead mid-century sped by
In ominous, blurred streaks as, brutish, the wind moaned
Among black branches. I rode through a kind
Of graceless winter nature, bled of what looked like life.
My vexing horse threw me. If it was not safe
In England yet, or ever, that nowhere beneath the gray
Sky would be much safer seemed very plain.
Kind of wonderful to write a poem about one of founders of modern political philosophy. In 1651, Hobbes was returning to England from exile in Paris, and publishing his great work The Leviathan. So brilliant of Hollander to write about the act of returning, and the atmosphere of danger and portent which is at the hear of The Leviathan, rather than write about the work itself.
Given the size of the armies engaged, the Battle of Perryville, fought on October 8, 1862, was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Generally thought of as a confederate tactical victory but a Federal strategic victory–what that means is that after a ferocious, day-long the rebels forced the Yanks to withdraw from the field, but the weakened rebs then had to withdraw from Kentucky–the battle needs to be seen as a multi-pronged Confederate offensive (Antietam, fought three weeks earlier, was part of the overall campaign) that failed to throw the north on the defensive or to get it to capitulate. The Union retained control of the critical border state of Kentucky for the remainder of the war. As much as anything, the Kentucky campaign reveals Braxton Bragg’s weaknesses as a commander.
The gun at top was part of an Illinois battery commanded by a Captain Simonsen. The battery lost a quarter of its strength during the battle, and fired all of its ammunition, 795 shells, during the fighting. Above, monuments to the Union dead (left) and confederate (right). Note: The Malanowski Cannon Picture from Vacation Tradition continues!
Well, it was a cave, and it was mammoth. We took the short tour, and we were sated. Lots like this. The Park Ranger who guided the tour was very good. Later we visited Lincoln’s birthplace at Sinking Springs, most memorable for a majestic temple which contains a replica of the humble log cabin where Lincoln was born. Apparently, they have a humble cabin where some other bloke was born. Weird.
West Virginia, astonishingly vertical, rises like a wall nearly everywhere but right in front of you. The highways cut like ribbons through the hills, while below grade, little communities huddle in the hollers. We got off the highway and followed a thin road to Matewan (that’s MATE-wan), a coal and railroad town. Now kind of run down, it has a dramatic hertage of violence and tragedy: as the regional headquarters of Devil Anse Hatfield, of the Hatfied-McCoy feud (He does kind of resemble Kevin Costner!); as the site of labor conflicts in the 1920s, where cold-blooded shootings left unionists and goons dead in the street (I need to watch again the John Sayles movie); and after repeated floodings of the benign-seeming Tug River, which flowed quietly during our visit, indolently separating us from Kentucky. The modest museum was highly informative. After lunch, we drove on, pausing at the site of the Battle of Middle River, KY, a January 1862 scrap in which the young James Garfield first distinguished himself, and put himself on the pathto the presidency. Not really much of a battle; 15 dead on both sides combined, which is about what you get at your average Bronx social club on a hot night Saturday night in August, but it helped keep Kentucky in the union. We spent the night a nice bed and breakfast in Glasgow, KY, where Abraham Lincoln once slept or had tea or something.
hanks to the folks at Jackson-McNally Bookstore in Soho for hosting a panel discussion by three of us who have been contributors to The New York Times‘ Disunion series, and to the new compilation of pieces from the series published by Black Dog & Levanthal. Clay Risen of the Times, Ted Widmer of Brown University, and yours truly met with about twenty people, and we had a fun and lively discussion. Most pleasant surprise: meeting a young lady who turned out to be a cadet from West Point who was doing a summer internship at The Wall Street Journal and who had written about Alonzo Cushing, and why he deserves the Medal of Honor.
I don’t know who put the chili in Harry Reid‘s grits, as Ann Richards used to say, but I’m glad Reid had the gumption to begin to take on lipless Mitch McConnell and the other anti-government Republicans. Hey, I don’t hate filibusters; I studied political science, I know their value. And the last two filibusters of note–Rand Paul and Wendy Davis in Texas–were done in support of causes I support. But the way the Republicans have applied the threat of filibuster during the Obama era has just been to stifle and stymie government. Obama has won more than 50% of the popular vote in two successive elections; by any measure, he has won the right to govern. It should not be necessary for him to get a 60% majority in order to fill positions and appoint judges. Nor, for that matter, to pass legislation. I understand that occasionally there will be significant issues that the minority should be able to filibuster, but this is too much. These (mostly) southerners have tried this `If we don’t get our way, we’ll go home” trick before”– nullification, secession, and now obstructionism, it’s all the same deal. The Senate is already an inherently undemocratic institution; the profligate use of its own made-up rules must be discouraged.
The first engagement in which William Cushing distinguished himself was at the battle of Crumpler’s Bluff, which was in Franklin, Virginia. Federal officers designed a combined army-navy operation against elements of Longstreet’s army camped near Franklin on the Blackwater River in October 1862. While Navy gunboats under the command of Charles Flusser made their difficult way up the narrow, twisty Blackwater, the army was supposed to attack overland from the other side. They didn’t, leaving the gunboats perilously exposed. Under deadly fire, Cushing freed a cannon that had been strapped to the deck and fired, breaking the confederate attack. The pictures give an idea of how twisty the river is. By the way–there’s no bluff in sight. And for the record, yes, that’s a sewage treatment plant downriver to the left.
William Cushing‘s last engagement was at Fort Fisher, in January 1865. Located on a piece of land separating the Atlantic and the Cape Fear River in southern North Carolina, the fort protected shipping bringing goods across the Atlantic and up the river to Wilmington, which, in 1865, was the confederacy’s last open port. The fort, which was comprised of giant molded mounds of sand, was shaped like a 7. The Army attacked the western point of the fort, while sailors and marines under Cushing attacked the eastern juncture. Cushing’s assault was stymied, but the army broke though, and carried the day. Above, the Fort Fisher monument. Below, the mounds of Fort Fisher; ocean-battered trees; a gun placement on one of the western mounds.
The Maritime Museum at Newport News is just splendid. The museum has a lot of terrific artifacts, including the pricelss eafle figurehead from the USS Lancaster, and a whole exhibit on Nelson and his battles at Copenhagen, the Nile and Trafalgar. The highlight is the the terrific exhibit on the Monitor and the Virginia, including an excellent, detailed, informative, film, full size replicas of both ships, and amazingly, recovered pieces of the Monitor, including its turret, which is being restored. The visualizations were wonderful. I could have spent a lot more time there. Don’t miss it!