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Journal of a graduate student in military history and the American Civil War

Archive for April 2008

Military History Phrase of the Day: A Pyrrhic Victory

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I ran across the phrase “A Pyrrhic Victory” this evening in reference to the Battle of Guilford Courthouse (teachers, see great lesson plan on this battle here) where Nathaniel Greene and Lt. General Charles, Earl Cornwallis clashed in one of the most important battles of the American Revolution.

Charles, Earl Cornwallis (pictured below, see bio here)

Cornwallis

Nathaniel Greene (pictured below, see bio here)

Charles Willson Peale painted a portrait of General Greene from life in 1783, which was then copied several times by C.W. Peale and his son, Rembrandt Peale.

“The armies met at Guilford Courthouse in a furious battle in which the British won a Pyrrhic victory. Cornwallis’s losses were so severe that he moved to Wilmington to recuperate and be resupplied by sea.”[i]

According to the good folks at dictionary.com,

Pyrrhic victory\PIR-ik\, noun:
A victory achieved at great or excessive cost; a ruinous victory.

A Pyrrhic victory is so called after the Greek king Pyrrhus, who, after suffering heavy losses in defeating the Romans in 279 B.C., said to those sent to congratulate him, “Another such victory over the Romans and we are undone.” [ii]

Pyrrhus of Epirus.

Pyrrhus of Epirus

I am quite sure that a number of hard fought American Civil War battles had Pyrrhic victories.

[Note that the papers of Nathaniel Greene are available here.]

—–
[i] Allan R. Millett and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America, (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 76.
[ii] Pyrrhus defined. http://dictionary.reference.com/wordoftheday/archive/2003/07/16.html
Photo source for Pyrrhus, Cornwallis, and Nathaniel Greene: Wikicommons, public domain.

Sobering Numbers

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As I was finishing up my reading on the American Revolution this evening, I learned the following regarding the percentage of the American population killed in several of our wars.

1st place:  Civil War  – 1.6 %  of population killed

2nd place: American Revolution – 1.0 % of population killed

By contrast, 0.06 % of Americans met their demise in the Mexican War, 0.12 % in World War I, and 0.28 % in World War II.

Indeed sobering.
——
Source: Allan R. Millett and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America, (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 82.

Fixing an Army – Steuben

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The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783 (norton In-house Inst PbI’m still finishing up last week’s reading of A Revolutionary People at War: The Continential Army and American Character, 1775 – 1783 by Charles Royster which has been very interesting albeit a bit redundant at times. It covers in some detail the character of both American (and to some extent British) enlisted men and officers. Also examined are the experiences of “camp,” march, battle, and discipline. Of absolute certainty is that Continental enlisted men had an independent streak and “such a high opinion of their own prowess that an officer had to be exceptionally overweening to outdo them.” [i] This puts in perspective my study of Civil War enlisted soldiers who still swaggered with independence.

Prior to the arrival of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (right), who became Inspector-General to the Baron Von Steuben Continental Army, American officers made a concerted effort to pattern themselves after their British peers. A rather startling example… Commander-in-Chief George Washington lobbied congress for permission to allow 500 lashes as punishment to maintain discipline among his soldiers! Congress never approved above 100 lashes. The British allowed 1000! Officers were becoming more and more “separate” from the enlisted cadre. The divide was often one of respect.

When Steuben arrived at Valley Forge (see the park site here), he found an army still struggling with many military basics. He introduced “skills of the parade ground, then attention to dress, cleanliness, equipment, health, camp sanitation, orderliness on the march, grievances among the men, and all the other elements of mutual respect and hierarchical obedience. These provided a code by which soldiers could judge officers and expect to be judged by both their officers and their fellow soldiers. ” [ii]

“The survival of American independence entailed not only the preservation of revolutionary ideas and the reluctant use of the coercive powers of government, but also the growth of military discipline that proudly replaced individual freedom with the professionalism of an army.” [iii]

Steuben helped the Continental army become “an internally disciplined group apart, more self-consciously virtuous than the society at large. The professional loyalty and pride of achievement that Steuben encouraged provided a tangible partial expression of the unity in unselfish service to which revolutionaries aspired.” [iv]

[i] Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War: The Continential Army and American Character, 1775 – 1783, (The University of North Carolina Press, 1979), 222.
[ii] Ibid., Ibid.
[iii] Ibid., 228.
[iv] Ibid., 223.

 

New Acquisitions – Indian Wars and Military History

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Have acquired several new books this week that relate to the class at hand – Studies in U.S. Military History – (see details here). 

The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000
By William H McNeill
ISBN 0-226-56158-5
The University of Chicago Press, 1982
405 pages
$17.10
Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000

King Philip’s War: The History and Legacy of America’s Forgotten Conflict
By Eric B Schultz and Michael J. Tougias
ISBN 978-0-22150-483-5
The Countryman Press, 1999
416 pages
$18.95
The History and Legacy of America's Forgotten Conflict

The Skulking Way of War: Technology and Tactics Among the New England Indians
By Patrick M. Malone
Copyright by Plimoth Plantation
ISBN 1-56833-165-7
Madison Books, 1991
133 pages

Technology and Tactics Among the New England Indians

The following two books were mentioned as excellent resources / predecessors of For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America. I picked up both…

Arms and Men: A Study of American Military History
By Walter Millis
Rutgers University Press, 1956
384 pages
$22.00 (although I got a copy for less than $6.00)
A Study in America Military History

The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy
By Russel F. Weigley
ISBN 0-253-28029-X
Indiana University Press, 1973
584 pages

A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy

Howe Wins 2008 Pulitizer Prize for History

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Daniel Walker Howe’s (right) 2007 book, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1818-1848, has won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for History. It is a part of the Oxford History of the United States series. The citation can be read here. I have not read the book yet but plan to. Appreciate any feedback from those of you who may have already read it.

The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States)

What Hath God Wrought
The Transformation of America, 1815-1848

Daniel Walker Howe
ISBN13: 9780195078947
Hardback, Sep 2007
Price: $35.00

 

 

photo credit: Julie Franken

A People’s Army

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I am heavily into reading A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers & Society in the Seven Years’ War by Fred Anderson (pictured right) this week. Professor Anderson (Ph.D., Harvard University) teaches history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The book won the following distinctions according to the publisher, University of North Carolina Press: Winner of the 1982 Jamestown Prize in Early American History, Institute of Early American History and Culture
Winner of the 1987 Distinguished Book Award, Society of Colonial Wars

Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years' War

A People’s Army
Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War

by Fred Anderson
292 pp., 6 x 9, 31 tables, 3 maps, 2 figs., appends., notes, index
$19.95 paper
ISBN 978-0-8078-4576-9
Published September 1996

It is part of a series published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, a very fine organization affiliated with The College William and Mary and Colonial Williamsburg

Interestingly, I found a study guide for the book for one of Mark Grimsley’s United States Military History courses at Ohio State University (Autumn 2003) here. If you follow the links to the syllabus, there is a nicely done reading list for topics around American Military History as well. Professor Grimsley blogs, of course, over at Blog Them Out for the Stone Age and Civil Warriors.

OK I’m obviously procrastinating from my reading…. back to the books and my coffee…

Ahem.

Thoreau, Whitman and Emerson Added to My Library

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One of the things I’ve been a bit surprised by along the way of my military history studies is my growing interest in all aspects of the times I’m studying. During my first course on the American Civil War, it became obvious that the artists of the time played an important role. I was very pleased that PBS aired a profile of Walt Whitman tonight on The American Experience. Good stuff.

To that end, I’ve added the following three books to my library this week. You’ll find them on my virtual bookshelves here.

Poetry and Prose (Library of America College Editions)

Whitman: Poetry and Prose (Library of America College Editions)
By Walt Whitman

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers / Walden; Or, Life in the Woods / The Maine Woods / Cape Cod (Library of America)

Henry David Thoreau : A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers / Walden; Or, Life in the Woods / The Maine Woods / Cape Cod (Library of America)

First and Second Series / Representative Men / English Traits / The Conduct of Life (Library of America)

Essays and Lectures: Nature: Addresses and Lectures / Essays: First and Second Series / Representative Men / English Traits / The Conduct of Life (Library of America)
By Ralph Waldo Emerson

Written by Rene Tyree

April 14, 2008 at 9:22 pm

Posted in Books

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