Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Regiments, divisions, brigades, oh my

Scotts-Fitzhugh Bridge, Paris Landing to Dover (1960's)
On a warm Sunday afternoon long ago, my family undertook a road trip in Dad's new used car, a black-and-white '56 Chevy. With the windows open to summer, we headed to an uncle's house in Erin, TN. Upon crossing the Tennessee River bridge at Dover, I cried because of the high bridge, and to distract me, Dad slowed at a small marker and veered off of Highway 79 onto a barely passable gravel road.

Bouncing down the winding road for several minutes, we arrived at a hill, where an old cannon stuck up over a low wall, pointing out into the river. My brother and I gleefully climbed and sat astride upon this iron plaything. This was Fort Henry, but neither my parents nor teachers ever provided me with an explanation of why a cannon was to be found there. I thought nothing of it; in parks throughout Tennessee, one can find these old civil war cannons--objects of mild curiosity. Imagine my surprise when, decades later, this particular childhood cannon belched forth black smoke and a missile intended to kill, as I was reading Ulysses S. Grant's Memoirs. Where was this action-packed thriller, truth stranger than fiction, during my education? Totally missing, is where.

Are you looking for a good read? The Memoirs are free at Project Gutenberg. Grant assembled his book hastily during the last year before his death, and Mark Twain edited and published it. The book's subsequent popularity restored Grant's family to prosperity after his continual failures at money management during his lifetime. The tale includes Grant's childhood, his army service in the Mexican war, his being busted out of the army for alcoholism, his eventual reinstatement to the army during the civil war, and it glosses over his tough period of poverty between the wars. Then follows the nugget--Grant's civil war years, as gripping a story as any work of fiction ever written--except that it wasn't fiction.

One interesting thread throughout the story is Grant's emphasis on the role of luck in human affairs. Again and again he describes how plans went awry, new plans were made, and many times yet something else completely ended up occurring. These are life lessons for any of us. An example is how Grant almost didn't get reinstated into the army at all when the civil war was starting up. He had done a lot of volunteer work, people had noticed him, but his requests at rejoining the army as an officer (due to having graduated from West Point) had been ignored. He declined to join as an enlisted man, and was on the verge of giving up and going home, when (due to the private intervention of friends), a governor made him colonel of a brigade (a troubled one whose previous colonel was unable to control them--but Grant could!).

Recently, I also read Jean Edwards' excellent biography of Grant, appropriately called Grant, which draws heavily from Grant's own Memoirs but fleshes out the story with explanatory footnotes, battle maps, and more context. It might even be best to start with the Edwards book, and then read Grant's own book later. But do consider reading them. Don't be in a hurry. This will keep you off the streets for a good long while, and make you happy in the reading.

In order to plow through either book, you'll need to know: What is brigade? What is a colonel? Here the definitions are (thanks to a footnote on page 99 of Edwards' book):

  a company = 100 men
  led by a captain

  a regiment = 1000 men (10 companies)
  led by a colonel

  a brigade =  4000 men (4 regiments)
  led by a brigadier general

  a division = 12,000 to 16,000 men (3-4 brigades)
  led by a major general or a brigadier general

  a corps = 24,000 (officially) to 30,000 men (2+ divisions)
  led by a major general

  an army = several corps
  led by a major general

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