OLEAN -- The humorous and sometimes inexplicable quirks of friends are more important in life than is generally recognized, and since moving to Western New York from the Washington area three years ago, I miss many of them.
One that I had not expected to notice so absent was the odd habit of an Army historian and longtime buddy of assuming the character of a World War I pilot during phone calls -- sometimes live, sometimes on the voice mail recording. The voice was always in a high-pitched tremolo, as if delivered over some ancient and failing radio device hampered by weather, distance and the gyrations of a feeble biplane coming apart and about to crash.
For years, such messages never failed to brighten my day and make me laugh out loud. Last week, I received another, a welcome voice on my office voice mail from the recent past. Try to imagine the high vibrato that is impossible to replicate in writing:
"This is Monsieur Pompidou of the Lafayette Escadrille. I am approaching base at 800 feet and 120 miles per hour. My Sopwith Camel is filled with bullet holes from the Hun machine-gun fire. I am in the death spiral and losing altitude fast. Before I plummet into the earth, I want to tell you I have written a new book about the Civil War, and it will be in your mailbox soooooon ..."
Then, nothing. And Saturday, it was.
All of which is my way in this column of backing into another book review of a new work by a friend. You should take that into account, but realize I sometimes criticize the writing of friends, who sometimes turn into former friends. I'm not going to do that here.
"Lost Triumph: Lee's Real Plan at Gettysburg -- And Why It Failed," is a wonderful new Civil War history (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 352 pages, $25.95).
Tom Carhart, my friend described above and the author, is a decorated combat officer of the Vietnam War and currently a professor at Mary Washington College in northern Virginia. He has written several military histories, including the highly-regarded "Battles and Campaigns in Vietnam" and "West Point Warriors."
A graduate of West Point and holder of a doctorate in history from Princeton, Carhart has always thought big, and in self-assured terms that challenge conventional wisdom. Several years ago, without any significant political experience, he got it into his head that he wanted to return to his home state of Massachusetts and run against Ted Kennedy for the latter's U.S. Senate seat.
Kennedy, a national Democratic shibboleth and remaining generational survivor of a martyred clan of brothers from one of the republic's most consistently liberal states, is, of course, probably entrenched for life -- or until he chooses to retire -- in that unassailable high office. Friends, relatives and advisers eventually talked Carhart out of a costly electoral suicide, but his political game plan -- too intricate to describe here -- actually had some merit and reflected great imagination.
His methods as a military historian reflect the same innovation and irreverent perspective.
Most historians hold that bloody Gettysburg was the pivotal battle of the Civil War, and that a narrowly averted victory there by Robert E. Lee would have allowed the Confederacy to prevail and forever change the fortunes and character of this nation.
The third day was key, and the collective opinion of an overwhelming majority of historians is that Lee and the South lost because Lee made a profound tactical blunder by sending his dashing young general, George Edward Pickett, and 13,000 doomed men -- uphill and without cover -- against the well-armed Union center on Cemetery Ridge that distant July 3.
They were mowed down like summer wheat. Many retreated by stumbling backward because they realized they were walking dead and didn't want to be found in their last recline with the cowardly mark of a bullet hole in the back.
Carhart, unlike many so-called military historians, got to wondering years ago why Lee -- a careful thinker who outwitted many a Union adversary -- would stake everything in a battle he knew was key to the whole war on a direct frontal assault, and yet mysteriously deploy only a fifth of his total forces in the fruitless charge.
To find the answer, Carhart, brilliantly, decided he had to find out how Lee's brain worked in regard to strategy. He knew that Lee -- as West Point superintendent about a decade before the Civil War -- had made sure classic battles and essential lessons in the art of war were taught at that military academy. Many important Civil War officers on both sides were students there at that time. Carhart plunged into the archives to unearth what Lee actually insisted be taught to these young men.
The answer: Victories by Napoleon at Austerlitz, Hannibal at Cannae, Frederick the Great at Leuthen -- all of which featured classic infantry frontal assaults, which turned out to be clever diversions while devastating attacks on the enemy's flanks and rear, usually by cavalry, were being formed.
And so it was at Gettysburg.
What Carhart discovered through years of meticulous archival research at West Point and elsewhere is that Robert E. Lee actually intended the now infamous Pickett's Charge as a major distraction while his undefeated cavalry general, Jeb Stuart, at the same time conducted a piercing horseback assault on the rear of the Union lines. If successful, this maneuver would have cut the North's astonished forces in half and provided inevitable victory.
Only Stuart's cavalry attack did not pierce, nor was it successful. It came close.
Only in the final hours of the day-long carnage was the flamboyant Stuart reversed. He was thwarted by another daring, flamboyant, young and unheralded general who was later chiseled into American military history as a foolhardy blunderer himself -- George Armstrong Custer.
Most Americans think of Custer as the controversial Indian-fighter who died at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 and let his entire command perish when he stupidly sent his badly outnumbered Seventh Cavalry into the teeth of a superior force.
Custer is still one of America's most controversial generals. The superb author Evan S. Connell relates he was once asked to prepare a series of books on famous figures of the American West. He set out to do so by starting conversations with ordinary citizens in restaurants, diners and taverns. When Connell would mention Billy the Kid, or Wild Bill Hickock, or Calamity Jane, or Geronimo, or Jesse James, he would draw mostly yawns or ignorance. But every time he mentioned Custer, a fervent argument or even fistfights would break out.
Connell ended up writing a classic history about Custer alone: "Son of the Morning Star."
What many readers of the Old West don't realize is that Custer made his spurs at Gettysburg as commander of a Michigan cavalry brigade.
Princeton historian James M. McPherson, himself a popular, respected Civil War author and Carhart's mentor, writes in the foreword of "Lost Triumph," "Few realize that he (Custer) emerged -- beginning at Gettysburg -- as one of the best Union cavalry commanders in the Civil War."
Newly promoted to brigadier general, and commanding only 2,500 troopers, Custer at Gettysburg intercepted Jeb Stuart's force of 6,000 seasoned riders and, shouting "Come on, you Wolverines," twice led successful mounted charges against them.
"If Stuart's horsemen had charged the Union rear as scheduled," writes McPherson in the foreword, "Pickett (charging on the front of Cemetery Ridge) might have broken through. But Stuart never got closer than three miles to the Union rear."
More than two million visitors come to Gettysburg every year. They walk and ride through the fields where the largest and plausibly most significant battle in the history of our hemisphere took place 142 years ago. But only a tiny fraction ever see the 750 acres of rolling farmland called East Cavalry Battlefield where George Custer may have saved the Union and our way of life.
Some historians have been aware of Custer's bold charges on Gettysburg's last day so long ago.
"But until now," writes McPherson, "we have not understood how the fight at East Cavalry Field fit into the larger picture of Gettysburg. No historian before Tom Carhart has pieced together the whole story from the scattered bits of evidence."
One might think Lee and Stuart would have detailed this futile plan for history's sake, or at least to redeem their reputations. But there are only vague and incomplete references in their memoirs and writings.
"Success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan," notes McPherson.
McPherson, who wrote the celebrated "Battle Cry of Freedom" about this war, makes one other observation about "Lost Triumph" worth of repeating. Given the vast number of writings on Gettysburg, he notes, "it seems impossible to come up with new information and insights about the battle. But Tom Carhart has done it."
I think my phone-cavorting friend is about to become famous in the field of Civil War history.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||March 29 2005|