Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg


The 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg

Given the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, I thought I'd share one of the many incredible stories of valor from Gettysburg.  If you've watched the movie 'Gettysburg' or if you've watched Ken Burns' 'Civil War' documentary series (which I highly recommend) then you know the big stories from Gettysburg... Pickett's Charge, the Wheatfield, Little Round Top, and so on... but for every big story there are dozens of little stories.  For this one, I chose the 1st Minnesota.

The 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment was made up of officers and men who had joined in 1861 and had seen action at First Bull Run, the Peninsula Campaign, Antietam, and Fredericksburg.  On the morning of 2 July 1863 the regiment mustered 262 hardened veterans under command of Col. William Colvill.  They were in reserve as part of the 2nd Corps when the Confederate attack fell onto Dan Sickle's exposed 3rd Corps and crushed it in battles we still remember for their ferocity; the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, Devil's Den, and so on.

Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of the 2nd Corps, was on top of Cemetery Ridge as the Confederates broke through the shattered 3rd Corps.  Advancing rapidly on Cemetery Ridge was Wilcox's Alabama Brigade, some 1,500-1,800 men.  Nothing stood between the Alabama men and the rear of the Union Army, nothing except for the 1st Minnesota.

Hancock knew what had to be done.  He rode to Col. Colvill and ordered his men to attack.  Hancock needed time to find and bring up more troops or the Union line would be split in two and Gettysburg would turn into yet another Southern victory.  The Minnesotans looked behind them at the unprotected supply wagons, field hospitals, and mess tents then looked in front of them at the 1,500-plus advancing rebels.  The 1st Minnesota were not green troops.  They had seen the killing fields of Northern Virginia.  They knew both what needed to be done and what the cost would be... and they attacked.  After the war, Lt. William Lochren would remember, "“Every man realized in an instant what that order meant – death or wounds to us all, the sacrifice of the regiment to gain a few minutes time and save the position.  And every man saw and accepted the necessity for the sacrifice."

Wilcox's Alabamans were stunned by the sudden ferocity of their charge.  The Alabamans were forced to give battle, unequal as it was.  Wilcox would later write, "Three several times did this last of the enemy's lines attempt to drive my men back, and were as often repulsed. This struggle at the foot of the hill on which were the enemy's batteries, though so unequal, was continued for some thirty minutes."

Those thirty minutes, paid for in blood by the men of 1st Minnesota, gave Hancock enough time to bring up additional troops and force the Alabamans to retreat.  When the smoke cleared, only forty seven Minnesotans were still standing.  All of the senior officers had been killed or wounded and the surviving men were under command of Captain Nathan Messick.  Depending on which historical records you believe, between 215 and 240 Minnesotans were killed or wounded.  No other unit in the history of United States Armed Forces has lost a higher percentage of its men in a single battle.

As if that wasn't enough story for a lifetime...  Hancock gathered the remnants of the 1st Minnesota, the survivors of the day, plus 86 men who had been previously sent to other parts of the Union line.  He gathered them and placed them at the center of his Corps where he thought they would be safe.  That spot turned out to be the center of the Union line where Pickett's charge would land on July 3rd.

Other men might have broken.  No one would begrudge the 1st Minnesota if they did.  They did not.  They fought the 28th Virginia hand-to-hand, capturing their regimental colors.  Captain Messick was killed in the fighting, as was their next commander, Captain Farrell.  When the fighting was done on July 3rd, seventeen additional men had been killed or wounded.  For their actions on the 3rd, two soldiers of the 1st Minnesota, Corporal Henry D. O’Brien and Private Marshall Sherman would both receive the Medal of Honor.

In an ironic postscript, in the 1990s a group of Virginian descendants of the 28th Virginia asked for their regimental battle flag back.  The Minnesota Historical Society, who still have that flag today, politely refused.  When the Virginia group threatened to sue, the Attorney General of Minnesota stepped in and essentially said that if anyone wanted that flag back, they would need to go through the State of Minnesota to get it.  The request was quietly withdrawn.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

History is Changing


History is Changing

History is changing... quite literally.  I don't mean that the way we view history is changing or the way historians do research is changing, I mean that history itself is changing, and it's because of the internet.  The internet is changing the way that historians work, the availability of resources, who can do really good history, and... consequently... it's changing history itself.

A very wise man used to tell me that there is no such thing as objective history.  Being the naive and intellectually arrogant teenager that I was, I vehemently disagreed with him.  Surely there was an objective series of events that happened in the past and if we just looked hard enough, we could figure out exactly what those events were and capture forever a perfect, and objective, view of exactly what happened at a certain time or a certain place.  I had a Newtonian physics view of history.  If we could account for all of the people and sequences, we could state, beyond a shadow of a doubt, exactly what happened.  Objective history, right?

Unfortunately for my teenage worldview, the reality is that we don't... and can't... know everything perfectly.  Heck, we don't even know exactly what words Lincoln spoke in his Gettysburg Address (there are five known manuscripts that vary from version to version and from contemporary accounts, including an AP reporter's account who wrote it down in shorthand as he listened) and the Gettysburg Address is one of the most famous speeches in American history!  How can we hope to know what happened in a conversation between two generals at some obscure battle or what was said between two congressmen as they struck a back room deal?  Beyond the events themselves, trying to determine an individual's emotional state, motivations, fears, or other deeply personal feelings is effectively impossible.  What happened here or there and, more importantly, why it happened, is sometimes not much more than guesswork.  That's where historians and the tools of their trade come into play and that's where the internet is fundamentally changing everything.

I recently read "John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General" by Stephen Hood.  I had seen "Sam" Hood speak at several Civil War conferences (thank you, C-SPAN) and I found his talks fascinating.  Sam Hood is a indirect descendant of General John Bell Hood and isn't a "professional" historian.  He's just a smart guy with a love of history who happens to be a meticulous researcher and a pretty good writer.  He's produced a well-researched book about General Hood that's as much an exercise in historiography (the study of historical writings) as it is a history of the life of John Bell Hood.  General Hood had been widely trashed by historians for the last 50 years (to the point where he got trashed in Ken Burns' "Civil War").  Sam Hood thought it seemed a bit unfair and when he started digging, it turned out that it was.

Sam Hood took General Hood's biographers to task and rightly so.  Sam Hood went back through the footnotes in these scholarly biographies, dug back to original sources, and tried to ferret out what really happened in certain situations.  It turned out that, for whatever reason, mid-20th century historians engaged in hyperbole, speculation, and some flat out making up crap when it came to General Hood.  Time and again, Sam Hood was able to cite primary sources that showed biographer bias and how they ignored source material counter to their stances.  Sam Hood also turned a light on the intellectual laziness of later 20th century historian who simply repeated, and in some cases, embellished, the unfair or untrue earlier stories about General Hood.  To some extent, the internet made this renewed examination of General Hood possible.

One advantage Sam Hood had was the internet and the vast sources that have been digitized and put online by numerous libraries and projects.  That doesn't excuse earlier historians for not checking primary sources or picking and choosing only only primary sources that suited their story line.  The biographies cited by Sam Hood were largely written by professional historians, history professors at prestigious universities, and at least part of their job was to check their sources vigorously.  It certainly didn't excuse the second wave of historians who simply repeated the stories from the first without doing the additional research of verifying claims.  It reminds me of one brand of false news cycle where a fringe web site states something as fact, two other fringe web sites quote the first, then a mainstream site posts it, claiming that they have an original source and two additional sources that have verified whatever ridiculous claim was originally made.

I was still brooding over Sam Hood's book when I searched YouTube for lectures on General Hood.  Sure enough, there was a recent one by one of the Hood biographers that Sam Hood had taken to task, at least to some extent.  Hood hadn't ripped him too badly except on the question of repeating fairly serious charges against General Hood without going back to original sources.  The lecture was recent enough that it would have been after Sam Hood's book was generally available.  So I watched it.

At first, the lecturer (and I don't want to name names) avoided the more controversial parts of Hood's military career, which were mostly towards the end of the Civil War.  When he got to that point in General Hood's career, the speaker alluded briefly, and I thought somewhat rudely, to Sam Hood's book.  Referring to Sam Hood somewhat insultingly as a "shirt tail historian", the lecturer defended his practice of using stories from previous biographers as essentially something that everyone does so it was okay.  The speaker did certainly calm his rhetoric towards some of the events around the fall of Atlanta and take a more neutral position so at least in that sense, Sam Hood's book had had some success.

I was still thinking about the Hood lecture and the "everybody does it" excuse, when I saw that there was an upcoming lecture about the Grant presidency (thank you again, C-SPAN).  I decided to watch it.

The lecture was by Charles Calhoun and was in conjunction with the release of his book "The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant".  It turned out to be fascinating to watch and, in part, addressed the same kinds of issues that were raised by Sam Hood.  Dr. Calhoun addressed both the history of the Grant administration as well as the historiography around it.  And, it turns out, the opinion of biographers regarding the Grant administration has changed considerably over time.  Early in the 20th century, Grant was ranked as one of the worst presidents (even below James Buchanan) although over the century rose to be somewhere in the middle.  Dr. Calhoun was just as fascinated with this change in perception as he was in the Grant administration itself.

Dr. Calhoun went on to talk about how it took eight years to write the book.  Among the reasons that he cited for taking so long, he spoke about going back to primary sources to make sure he got the story as correct as possible.  He mentioned letters, diaries, newspapers, and other contemporary sources.  There was no "I copied from this guy because that's good enough".  It was, in a way, a remarkable presentation, especially set against the lecture about General Hood that I had watched only a few days before.  Was easier access to primary sources a factor in Dr. Calhoun's decision?  He didn't answer that question specifically but I have to wonder if it was.  Regardless, Dr. Calhoun made it clear that not going back to primary sources does a disservice to future readers and, if an author truly wants accuracy, they have to do the work.

There is no objective history but there's no excuse for sloppy history.  More and more archives are being digitized.  More and more archival material is being translated and being made available in multiple languages.  The past never changes but our lens into it, and the history we see through that lens, is clearer than ever.


Thursday, September 7, 2017

Lee was overrated

R. E. Lee


Robert E. Lee is overrated as a general.  There, I said it. I'm not saying that Lee was a bad general, far from it. There is no doubt that Lee was a great general, one of the finest to take a Civil War army into the field, but to read many histories of the Civil War, you’d think that he was an infallible military genius who was a mix of Hannibal, Napoleon, and Patton, with a dash of Mars himself thrown in for good measure. It's this canonization that I take issue with.


I’ve been reading a lot of Civil War history books lately and Lee as a military genius is often assumed as a given.  He’s the icon of the Lost Cause, the noble Virginian who led a proud and honorable defense of his homeland despite overwhelming odds.  As the story goes, he won again and again with nothing more than a rag tag army of barefooted country boys facing off against the mighty Union military machine.  It certainly makes for a good story, as long as you don’t let the facts get in the way of a good yarn.


First, Lee’s opposing generals early in the war sucked.  They might have been the worst crew of generals that have ever led major armies on the winning side of a war.  Prior to Gettysburg, Lee faced McClellan, Pope, Burnside, and Hooker.  McClellan was afraid of his own shadow, Pope was so indecisive that it nearly got his entire army killed at Second Manassas, Burnside thought the attack at Fredericksburg was a good idea (across the  Rappahannock against the dug in Confederate troops on Marye’s Heights), and Hooker was more interested in self-promotion than in being a good officer.  It wasn’t until Meade that Lee faced an army with even a passably competent commander, and Meade was just okay (although you could argue that he was actually pretty good, but that's another another story for another day).  When the Union finally found a truly hard-charging commander in the form of Grant, Lee’s winning streak was over for good.


Second, Lee’s subordinate officers were by and large much better officers than opposing Union officers.  From the corps commanders to the the division commanders down to the brigadiers and regimental officers, Confederate officers were much more skilled, particularly at the beginning of the war.  The vast majority of southern general officers were military school grads.  The Union army’s officer corps was stuffed full of political appointees.  On the Confederate side, Lee could lean on Jackson, Longstreet, Stuart, Early, Hood, Ewell, and so on.  The Union got dunces like Dan Sickles, the political general who, without orders, marched III Corps out to the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield, abandoning the Cemetery Ridge line and Little Round Top on the second day of Gettysburg, and came within a hair of losing the battle for the Union.  This advantage slowly wore down as the war went on, as Confederate officers were killed and Union political generals were sacked or forced into backwater commands.  Certainly by 1864, this advantage had largely evaporated.

Third, at least at the beginning of the war, Confederate cavalry was vastly superior to Union cavalry. Armies at the time were dependent on cavalry for a wide variety of functions, most notably intelligence gathering and enemy intelligence denial. Brandy Station in 1863 was the first time that Union and Confederate cavalry fought even close to evenly. Stuart stepped up his game a little bit after Brandy Station but the advantage continued to erode as the Union officer corps improved, attrition worked against the South, and the Union weaponry (e.g. multishot carbines) advanced beyond Confederate capabilities.


Even the strategy of Lee’s greatest military campaigns could be disputed as bad ideas.  Tactically, yes, he won a number of victories, but at what cost?  He left a quarter of his army on the field at Antietam and another quarter the next year at Gettysburg.  The South didn’t have those kinds of numbers of men to spare.  The North did and Grant used that grim calculus to his advantage when he put Lee’s command through the meat grinder in 1864.  By the spring of 1865 it wasn’t a question of if the South was going to surrender, only when.  Would Lee have done better by following a Fabian-like strategy, more similar to Washington’s strategy versus the British?  Perhaps.  You can certainly make the argument that it would have avoided the costly invasions of Maryland and Pennsylvania.  However, the political reality was that without recognition from foreign powers, succession was destined to fail, just as the American Revolution might very well have failed without recognition from the French. You can write your doctoral dissertation on whether or not Lee's invasions of the North were political necessities.

Lee, especially from a tactical perspective, was a unique and outstanding commander.  Strategically, you could make an argument that he was less skilled.  He had the initial advantages of incompetent opponents, superior subordinates, and better cavalry.  When those advantages eroded, he showed that he was a mere mortal.  

F**k Yoko Ono

I Hate Yoko Ono.

I was never much of a Beatles fan.  It's not that I didn't like their music, I just didn't listen to much of it.  I caught what they played on the radio and at one point owned a copy of the White Album but that was about it.

Then one day I was looking through albums to listen to and saw Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in the suggestion list, so I gave it a shot.  Wow.  End to end it was a tremendous album.  The background story of how it was one of the first concept albums and how much influence it had on the direction of popular and rock music got me thinking that I really should listen to more Beatles.

Over the next couple of weeks, I listened to a large chunk of the Beatles discography, especially the later albums.  Every album was stunningly fantastic.  I knew about the White Album but Rubber Soul, Revolver, Yellow Submarine, Magical Mystery Tour... they were all great.  And their last two albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be, were absolute masterpieces.

To me, the Beatles were hitting their artistic peak with their last two albums.  The song Let It Be alone is one of the most moving pieces of music that I've ever listened to.  If you aren't moved when listening to Let It Be then you need to check to see if you still have a pulse.  I think it stands up to any piece of music, ever.  Listen to Let It Be and then listen to Fuer Elise.  Which is more moving?  It's impossible to answer.

Which brings us to that screeching harpy, Yoko Ono.  Who knows how many more musical masterpieces the Beatles would have written if she hadn't poisoned Lennon's mind.  What great pieces of art did she steal from all of us?  How much beauty did she destroy just to satisfy her need to be just as famous as artists that were hundreds or thousands of times more talented than she is?

You can make the argument that the Beatles would have broken up eventually anyway.  They probably would have.  Each of the four had different visions and different artistic pulls.  I firmly believe however, that they would have kept it together, at least for a time, if it weren't for Ono whispering her craziness into Lennon's ears.  Who knows?  We might have had two, three, or four more Abbey Road's or Let It Be's in the discography of what may have been the greatest band of the twentieth century.

F**k Yoko Ono.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Frankenfood

Frankenfood

I just finished reading an article from Fortune about the problems plaguing Big Food.  The article, “Special Report: The war on big food” (https://fortune.com/2015/05/21/the-war-on-big-food/) was interesting but I think it missed something.  The author clearly did his research and spoke with quite a few food company executives.  They can’t seem to understand why their mass-produced, mass-marketed, smartly packaged, and heavily advertised brands aren’t selling the way they used to.  They blame the fringe elements who rail against GMOs, who scream for dolphin-safe tuna, and who want their chickens to run free.  They point to how cost effective their strategies are and how slick and efficient their business processes are, producing ever more food to feed a hungry world.  They don’t understand why consumers buy organic, buy from small producers, or… *gasp*… buy fresh.

What they really need to do is look in the mirror.  The reality is… their food tastes like crap.

Think about the most bland, tasteless thing you can eat.  How about a bologna and cheese sandwich on white bread?  I’ll even throw on some cheap yellow mustard.  Crap, right?  No one wants the bologna that they sell at the deli counter.  And why is cheese wrapped by the individual slice?  Hell, it’s not even real cheese.  It’s a “cheese product” that tastes more like plastic than cheese.  And mass-produced white bread might as well be made of sawdust.  Yellow mustard is mustard in name only and probably has more bright yellow coloring than actual mustard in it.


Now, imagine thick slices of bread fresh from a local bakery, mortadella from your local Italian market sliced thin and piled high, maybe some fontina or gouda, and a hearty, whole grain mustard.  Cripes, just writing that is making my mouth water.  This is the food you *could* have.  The crappy sandwich is the one that Big Food wants you to eat.  Is that really a choice?

UPDATE:  I got into an argument over GMOs and the person I was energetically disagreeing with pulled out the one line that pro-GMO folks use all the time and that irks the shit out of me...  "GMOs are no different than selective breeding.  Humans have been doing this for thousands of years!"

I call bullshit.

Claiming any relationship between what scientists are doing now and what Gregor Mendel was doing with peas is as disingenuous as it is condescending.  Saving the seeds from the tallest or fastest growing plant or the one with the prettiest flowers is not adding DNA from brazil nuts to corn to add resistance to something or other.  Crossing various strains of tomatoes to create hybrids is not the same as snipping DNA from completely unrelated species in the hopes of cooking up something new.  Lord Tweedmouth didn't create Golden Retrievers by adding deer DNA (or whatever) to an existing dog breed.  He carefully bred together existing dog breeds and slowly created the characteristics that he wanted in his hunting dogs.

There are many good arguments to be made for GMOs.  It may very well be that GMOs are going to be necessary to feed the exploding human population.  They may be perfectly safe to eat.  But don't try to rationalize the frankenfood aspects of how these new variants are created by trying to claim that this is the same as selective cross-breeding.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Corporate IT and Top Chef

I stopped watching ‘Top Chef’ a couple of seasons ago.  It isn't that I didn't like the concept of the show or that I don’t like cooking shows, in fact, it’s just the opposite.  I love cooking shows and I love watching talented chefs create amazing dishes from everyday ingredients.  My problem is the ‘Top Chef’ judging system.

In case you've never seen ‘Top Chef’, the contestants participate in various culinary challenges and at the end of each episode; the person who did the worst is eliminated.  All well and good.  The problem is that the judging system rewards mediocrity.  There’s no running score, no collected achievement, no history of performance.  All that counts is how you do on the specific challenge in front of you today.  You can be the absolute best for three weeks in a row, blow one dish, and find yourself packing your knives.

Invariably, as the group of contestants winds down, there is at least one chef left who sucks.  They've never done badly enough to be the absolute worst, but they've been consistently in the bottom half.  Try something daring and fail?  You’re gone.  Try something average and do ok?  Live to survive until the next week.

Unfortunately, this reminds me of a lot of the IT shops I've worked in over the years.  You don’t get rewarded for taking risks or trying to be innovative but sure as hell you’ll get punished for failing.  Big Corporate IT staffs are notoriously risk averse for just this reason.  The problem with this is two-fold.

First, young technical studs who are looking for interesting projects aren't looking for the career safety of doing COBOL code maintenance.  They’re looking for doing something with cutting edge technologies.  Eventually they get tired of working for a management chain that preaches innovation but punishes free thinking and they move on to smaller, more nimble IT shops where they actually can get their hands on some new technologies.

Second, when layoffs come, and they always do in Big Corporate IT, the people that get axed will invariably include anyone who made his manager look bad in the last year.  Hey, didn't Bob try out that new virtualization platform and make me look bad to the boss?  Let’s put him on the list.  Well, yeah, Charlie isn’t the best at his job but we went to college together!  I can’t lay him off!

The net is that our Big Corporate IT staffs tend towards being a cluster of B- / C+ students.  Our executive management can chirp, “We want to be like Google!  We want to be like Microsoft!” until the cows come home.  Until they can get middle management to act that way, Big Corporate IT will continue to be the mediocre ‘Top Chef’ contestant that somehow manages to just squeak through.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Tax the rich? We already do...


In all probability, the tax load on higher income Americans is going up.  It's simply the reality of the current fiscal situation.  However, before we go too far with the "they should pay their fair share" argument, let's look at what higher income Americans already pay today.  My numbers are based on IRS data for 2009 tax returns, which is the most recent that they have posted on their web site.

Let's do some math...

Americans who filed income tax returns in 2009 with adjusted gross income of $75,000 or more made up a little over 20% of all returns (29 of 140 million returns).  That group paid $727B or 84% of all income taxes paid.  In other words, 1 out of every 5 income tax filers paid 5 out of every 6 income tax dollars.  The other 4 out of 5 filers paid only 1 dollar out of 6.  Push the dividing line to an AGI of $100k and it ends up being 12.5% of filers pay $646B / 75% or 1 of every 8 tax filers paid 3 of every 4 dollars in income taxes.  That's where any income tax revenue increase, by definition, has to come from.

The ugly reality of the fiscal corner we've been painted into by decades of irresponsible federal spending is that taxing higher income Americans is inevitable.  Lower income taxpayers simply don't make enough to make a difference even if we all paid higher tax rates.  Let's look at the numbers from the other direction.

Filers who had AGI of under $50k made up 66% of all returns but paid only $61B in taxes or 7% of income taxes paid.  Filers with an AGI of under $75k made up 79% of all returns but paid only $139B or 16% of taxes paid.  Using a cut off of $75k as an example, you could increase tax rates by 10% on everyone under $75k per year in AGI and only generate another $14B in taxes, not enough to even make a dent in the deficit reduction target of $500B that we need.  You might as well leave rates alone on lower income tax brackets because it won't make a difference anyway (at least not as it relates to deficit reduction).

Higher income Americans will just have to carry more of the burden, as they do already.  Before we vilify people for having the audacity to dare be successful, maybe we should thank them first for paying the bills.