civil war and games

Thursday, January 13th, 2005

One of the things that continues to work through my interests is history teaching and learning. History and its relationship to memory. I remember distinctly what I have read about the American Civil War, for example. And there are important reasons why. One of them is personality. I remember distinctly reading correspondence, personal writing, and war history relating to campaigns after Gettysburg and the Vicksburg seige, especially as they dealt with the western war in Tennessee and Georgia, the principles being Resecrans (Blues) and Bragg (Greys).

We know that Bragg and Rosecrans spent the ’63 winter (about the time the Spencer repeating rifle was introduced into the conflict) wrestling with supply and command issues. Bragg, a sickly, tortured, and confused general, who gained his reputation in Mexico, had mighty issues with his subcommanders, such as Polk (why do I remember this so vividly), opposed to Rosecrans, who suffered very little conflict with his lieutenants. Rosecrans had all kinds of scuffles under Halleck about supplies, reinforcements, and what was perceived as his slow going through the Cumberland, especially during Rosecrans’ push towards Chatanooga in the summer of ’63. The correspondence and wires between Halleck and Rosecrans are interesting just for their clever and competent writing.

Why do I remember? Because the complex story of the western campaigns can be told around the generals’ personal problems, their tempers, their relationships with brigadiers, presidents, and the foot soldiers, even the weather and politics, the day to day crap that mucks up the machine of war and state. We know that Bragg’s generals expected his orders to be written down on paper, despite the inconvenience of this, while Rosecrans faired a lot better with his men. When confronting choices in planning and writing, the choices made had vast consequences and reminds of the “problem” of choice enmeshed in the stories of Borges. You make the choice and go with it. In the civil war, we reflect on the choices but shake our heads against the inevitable and say, “why that instead of another choice.” It’s one problem in sophisticated study. Why did Rosecrans hang back at the Duck river? What if Longstreet had been in charge in Tennessee? What ifs are a looming consequence of the study of what happened.

Peter Cozzens tells the brief story of competent signal officer Otey of the Army of the Tennessee who identifies Wilder’s approach to Chatanooga.

Glancing toward Raccoon Mountain that Friday morning, he was startled to see his signalman frantically waving word of the approach of Wilder and Wagner. Otey immediately rushed off a message to army headquarters. The report could not be true, came the reply, scouts had sighted no Federals for miles around. Before a flustered Otey could scratch off another message, a shell whizzed overhead and fell into the heart of town, then another and another, and headquarters had its answer. “Ah, then and there was hurrying to and fro, and gathering tears and tremblings of distress,” recalled Otey. (source CV 8 no. 3)

Otey might have gotten a more satisfactory reply had someone in authority been at headquarters.

And the tale continues. It happens that this day is a day of prayer, declared so by Jefferson Davis. Command is at church. And Bragg is off sick. The branching of consequences. Can the what ifs serve to instruct?

Or we could put it this way:

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What should Otey do next?

1. Compose another dispatch
2. Call in the signalmen
3. Run like hell

>

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3 responses to “civil war and games”

  1. Christopher says:

    The civil war is a very interesting view of military actions. There were some brilliant military strategists and we have detailed records of the engagements.

    The issues faced though were slow and poor communication along with the political issues associated with fighting a war in your own backyard. Generals were second guessed by Washington and then second guessed their own actions in an attempt to make Washington happy.

    The Confederates seemed to have less of this, perhaps because they were outnumbered and fighting for the survival of their way of life.

    Writing a history class in the way shown, would be interesting, but could potentially become a very involved hypothetical alternate history, or the material needs to be written in such a way that no matter what, the outcome is the same.

    Taking Gettysburg as an example, if the Confederates had “gone to the right” instead of peforming their frontal assault, the battle would have gone differently. So, that would need to not be presented as an option to the student. The goal is to teach the lesson, not the alternate history of the lesson.

    In this case, I’m not familiar with the incident, but if it were me, you do all three. You call in the signalmen, send another dispatch which says “we are retreating” and then run like hell.

  2. gibb says:

    Perhaps this is why I never did like history, the looking back; and yet you raise your question again of paths, and this confuses me. We’re told we shouldn’t worry about the couldas, wouldas shouldas and this is a whole new philosophical direction. We can, of course, change history through memory and perception, and is the study of it such to guide the pathways up ahead? Once again, I’m off in my own trail of thought, but that too is a “what if,” no? While Christopher takes the sensible, the literal, I take the philosophical; and maybe this is the real basis for the veering and the changing of minute by minute history as it’s being made.

  3. Christopher says:

    To me, as a history teacher, the woulda coulda shoulda is important as well. Then again with hindsight it’s easy to see what should have been done. So making a “game” of a historical event is difficult in that you either need to force the player along a path (like Photopia) or your need to let them branch off on their own version of history, in which case they aren’t learning the real event.

    I became frustrated with Photopia because I was unable to influence events.