May 2011


I just finished How the North Won, by Archer Jones and Herman Hattaway, an extremely thorough military history of the Civil War.  If you are a little hazy on the difference between strategy and tactics, this book will cure that.

And you’ll learn about logistics.  So much logistics.  One of the major figures of the book is a gentleman I’d never heard of– Henry Halleck, who functioned as the northern chief of staff and, in Jones and Hattaway’s telling, something of the architect of the overall Northern strategy.

Henry Halleck

Mid-19th century warfare (i.e. post-Napoleon, pre-WWI) was transformed by two things: the rifle and the railroad, both of which made an infantry army almost impregnable to a frontal assault. 

The rifle made cavalry virtually obsolete on the battlefield: it was fast and accurate enough that it could decimate an oncoming cavalry charge.  And that in turn meant that soldiers didn’t have to stand to resist the charge with bayonets, but could lay down, or better yet take cover behind improvised earthworks, which protected them from artillery fire, the bane of Napoleonic warfare.

A frontal assault was almost always suicide– e.g. the famous charge by Pickett at Gettysburg, one of Robert E. Lee’s few mistakes.  Commanders had better luck with turning movements– i.e. attempts to go right or left round the enemy’s flank, with hopes of moving against his weaker rear.  But even this often failed; even fairly raw troops could be fairly easily turned around to face the threat.  There were very few routs in the Civil War; if you did manage to turn the enemy, he almost always successfully retreated.  (That might be enough to take a major objective; but the typical progress of a Civil War campaign was a series of battles a dozen miles apart, as the defending army fell back to a new defensive position.)

The fastest and cheapest transport and supply lines were still by sea; but the railroad was almost as good, allowing enormous armies to be moved at unprecedented speeds.  Wagon trains, though they had to be resorted to, were a distant third.  William Sherman once estimated that his advance to Atlanta would have required 36,000 wagons and 220,000 mules without the railroad, a simple impossibility.

The North had a bigger army and a huge edge in industrial production, but it faced a huge predicament: a large enemy army was almost impossible to dislodge.  In particular, as one general after another discovered, taking Richmond– a tempting hundred miles from Washington DC– was almost impossible.  Lee’s army was too strong, the city was too well connected by rail and canal to its supply regions, and Lee made no blunders that created openings.  (The North tended to blame its succession of generals– McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, Meade, Grant– but it was an inherently difficult problem.)

Things were easier in the West, where initially the North had the great advantage of water transport along the great rivers as well as the Gulf of Mexico.  This allowed the conquest of western Tennessee, New Orleans, and ultimately Vicksburg (July 1863).  And that in turn suggested the better strategy: keep Lee busy in Virginia, but slowly conquer the West.  By careful and strong provisioning the North managed to drive through eastern Tennesee to Chattanooga (Sep. 1863).  The Navy was of course blockading the coast; the overall idea was to strangle the South and roll it up from the West– the “anaconda strategy“.

But further progress stalled.  Conquests had to be protected, and the increasingly long supply routes protected; relatively tiny Confederate raiding forces tied up tens of thousands of Union troops.  (This was the one remaining, and still very effective, use of cavalry.)  And the interior railroad lines of the remaining Confederacy allowed armies to be quickly concentrated to resist any large-scale intrusion.

Ulysses Grant

Grant‘s genius was to turn the Confederate raiding strategy against the South.  Instead of small cavalry forces, he’d send a huge infantry force, which would have the usual protection from direct assault.  It could cause immense destruction– tear up railroads, destroy factories, turn slaves producing for the South into soldiers fighting for the North– and best of all, it didn’t need a supply line to protect.  By moving into new territories it would live off the land, and it could simply fight its way into a place where it could be reprovisioned.

Sherman tested out the idea with a raid from Vicksburg to Meridian, and it worked like a charm.  He then fought his way conventionally from Chattanooga to Atlanta (Sep. 1864, just in time to pave the way to Lincoln’s re-election).  He didn’t bother to occupy Atlanta, but just burned it.  Then he cut his way in a wide swath to Savannah.

Grant tried to use the raiding strategy elsewhere, though he was dogged by a few incompetent generals.  But finally some of them got it, notably Sheridan in northern Virginia.  (A subtheme of the book is that both armies functioned as brutal meritocracies.  By 1864 or so the incompetent generals had almost entirely been eliminated)

Grant meanwhile bludgeoned his way to Petersburg, just south of Richmond.  This part of the campaign didn’t look any better than the earlier generals, but at least his attacks kept Lee’s huge army busy.  (One enormous missed opportunity: a clever mining operation blasted a huge hole in the Confederate lines at Petersburg, in July 1864.  At the last minute a well-trained unit of black soldiers was replaced by some less-ready white troops, who didn’t occupy the breach quickly enough.)

Sherman turned north, marching through the Carolinas and reaching Fayetteville in March 1865.  This completed his work of devastation; the remaining railroad links to Richmond were cut.  An ill-advised attempt by Hood to retake Nashville had devastated the Confederates’ last remaining large army besides Lee’s; nothing would prevent Sherman moving north to join Grant.

The end was anticlimactic; Sheridan joined Grant and turned Lee’s army to its right, forcing Lee to abandon Petersburg and Richmond and retreat westward.  Grant followed and Sheridan moved on ahead, trapping Lee’s army.

Sherman’s March to the Sea was brutal, but Archer and Hattaway show that it was a brilliant and necessary military strategy.  Defeating Lee by assault was impossible, and the slower conquest strategy in the west would have taken many more years.  The only way to counter the advantages of the defense in 19C warfare was to destroy the enemy’s means of production.

The book glances only lightly at the political and social situation, besides mentioning Lincoln‘s basic difficulty: the public, the politicians, and the newspapers did not understand the anaconda strategy, but wanted battles won by direct assault… a type of campaign that just was not going to happen.  Lincoln educated himself on military matters, however, and very effectively mediated between the civil and military points of view. 

The story is slow-going at times, but that’s part of the point: warfare at this time was achingly slow.  Some generals exacerbated this– Lincoln described several of them, especially McClellan, as having a case of “the slows”– but even the best generals took months to prepare any movement, and with good reason: maintaining a hundred thousand soldiers was an enormous logistical problem.

A particularly neat feature is the extensive maps– large-scale diagrams explaining the river and railroad network and overall strategy, as well as tactical maps, often several per battle.  The authors also extensively quote diaries and letters of the generals, giving a fascinating glimpse into their mindset, as well as into the strange nature of a civil war– the generals usually knew each other and had often studied under the same professors at West Point.

There’s also any number of interesting facts… e.g., did you know the last Monitor class ironclad was retired only in 1937?

Forgot about this when writing my review.  Glaeser has a way of making a point by assertion— e.g. he just asserts that Jane Jacobs was wrong about the value of low-height neighborhoods, and that Bloomberg was bold and businesslike to create open-plan offices both for his financial firm and at City Hall.   He doesn’t bother to make a case for either proposition.

As it happens I agree with him on the first point and not the second.  High-density construction is the best for the environment, encourages economic growth, and best leverages infrastructure.  (Though about the worst plan in the world is the high-rise-in-a-concrete-slab that architects used to create for public housing, which very likely is what Jacobs was trying to address.)

Open-plan workplaces— i.e. cubicles— are however just horrible.  They’re noisy, distracting, dehumanizing, and surprisingly expensive.  They offer the illusion of flexibility… come on, how often do people ever re-arrange the cubes? I think the only people who really like them are authoritarian managers who imagine that they can keep track of everything their underlings are doing at a glance.  I suspect Glaeser, a university professor, has never worked in one.

The Democrats picked up a house seat in western New York tonight, suggesting that things do look bad for Republicans.  Kathy Hochul won 47-43; compare to 2010 where Republican Chris Lee won 74-26.  (Republicans had also won the previous four elections.)

There was a Tea Party spoiler who got 9%, but that really only underscores the growing predicament of the Republicans.  Continue full steam toward Ryansville and they’ll pretty much guarantee themselves  spectacular wreck; but stop doing so and they’ll face revolts from the wingnuts.

There have been reports that some of the GOP didn’t want to jump off the cliff.  But now that they’ve jumped, how do they get back?  In ordinary life when you make a mistake you can apologize and undo it, but the usual plan in politics is to intensify your mistake instead, till you lose the election.  The craziness won’t abate.

Edit: Davis, the third-party candidate, called himself Tea Party but seems to be something else— mostly anti-trade and anti-immigration, I gather.   When the Republicans attacked him, his numbers went down but theirs didn’t go up.  This only makes it worse for the GOP: Davis wasn’t dividing the GOP vote, but siphoning off some from all candidates.  The end-Medicare plan is a clear loser.

 I picked up Triumph of the City, by Ed Glaeser, who’s been coming up a lot lately.  I got about halfway through it, to page 127, where I read this paragraph

There is even a statistical reality behind the passion for shoes of the urbanites in Sex and the City.  Big-city households spend 25 percent more on footwear, again relative to their total budgets, than households outside of cities, presumably because they are buying fancier shoes, although it is possible that their shoe leather is wearing out faster pounding the city pavement.  As in Sex and the City, the urban desire to present an attractive appearance also reflects the fact that big-city density serves to connect people romantically, creating a market for mates that is, in its way, as important as the labor market.

And just kind of sighed and put the book away.  It’s not just this passage; it’s most of the book.  It reads like an overgrown magazine article, full of semi-pointless anecdotes and obvious facts.  I just don’t feel that it’s groundbreaking work to talk about footwear sales, or the origin of the word “restaurant”, or the fact that Bangalore is hopping, or the fact that the Harlem Renaissance “brought together a dizzying array of writers”.

That’s not to say there’s no meat.  He has an excellent point about city poverty: that it should be accounted a sign of success rather than failure; it’s better than rural poverty, and that a city attracts the poor means that it’s offering opportunities to move up.  He also has some good reflections on how First World cities overcame their 19th century problems– corruption and poor health, and how telecommunications paradoxically enhances the value of face-to-face interaction.

Glaeser is a conservative, which mostly comes out in some snark about government boondoggles and an unargued confidence in schools vouchers.  But for that very reason, I’d recommend the book to my conservative readers, if I still have any.  Conservatives could stand to hear one of their own explaining that cities are hotbeds of entrepreneurship and innovation, that they prosper when there’s heavy investment in education, that high-density development is good for people and for the environment, that immigration benefits the host country, that the government should stop supporting sprawl.  Just try to skip the anecdotes about shoes.

I’m finally done with a year-long rewrite of the Historical Atlas of Almea.

A sample

 All the maps have been redrawn (a little larger) and the text entirely revised and Unicoded.  In the ten years since the original web version, I’ve added a whole lot more information about Almea, so there is often more detail to add or refer to; there are also more languages done, so quite a few names have changed. 

Plus I revised the climate for the whole planet, and that required a bunch of changes on the base map: the northwest of the map is now steppe and savanna rather than savanna and jungle; there’s a desert south of the Barbarian Plain; and Gurdago had to be moved to the west side of Luduyn because climatically eastern Luduyn really wanted to be tundra.

I’ve been collecting nice quotes for years, and finally got a new page up.  The previous page was done in 2001… I’m very selective.

On every video game designer’s desk must be a post-it note with three three imperatives:

  • Crates!
  • Parental abandonment!!
  • Betrayal!!!

Family issues are the old reliable of storytelling, one I’ve complained about before.  And they certainly do occur in real life, though surely with a significantly lower frequency. 

Tip for just about any video game: Look around near the start, you'll see a betrayer

But it’s hard to get through a video game without one major betrayal.  It’s easy to see why it’s so common: it almost always succeeds in giving the player the same emotion the character should feel.  You can’t necessarily make the player feel honored or loving or grateful, but you can sure make them feel pissed and probably surprised when an NPC turns on them.

It’s so useful that we’ll probably never get rid of it.  But, designers, please at least consider that it’s overdone, over-melodramatic, and overly stupid on the part of the betrayer.  After all, according to your own plot, the player is going to get mad, claw their way back up into a position to take revenge, and then take it. 

The worst type is the one where Mr. Betrayer, for half the story, is actually helping the PC work against his interests.  You’re in your own base killin’ your own dudes.  Very evil, yes, but dumb.  You’ve helped train the hero, you’ve got him personally acquainted and pissed with you, and you’ve reduced your own resources.  

The impetus for this post was learning accidentally that an upcoming game sequel actually features just this last sort of betrayal.   Ugh. 

(Almost as annoying, by the way: the betrayer dude who happens to the ugly and scowly one among the allies you have at the beginning of the game.)

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