Making war seem like fun?

Lately, my son Neil and I have been slugging our way through a couple of heavy books on the 1863 Vicksburg campaign in the Civil War.  When we finally figure out what happened and where and who did what to whom, we plan to spend a couple of days in the area walking the battlefield park.

Winston Groom, known to most as the author of “Forrest Gump,” is a well-respected writer of historical stuff including “Vicksburg 1863,” the second of our books (the other being Jeff Shaara’s “The Chain of Thunder”).  What makes Groom’s book a tad more enjoyable is the stuff he occasionally drops into the narrative. Like these, for instance….

ONE. Rebel General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a case study in a hundred things–ego, confidence, brilliance, foolhardiness, etc–caught up with Union Colonel Abel Streight near the Georgia line. Flying a flag of truce, Forrest invited Streight to surrender.  At the time he did such an outrageous thing, Forrest was out-numbered over three to one.

Streight agreed to surrender if Forrest could convince him that he had a completely superior force.

Forrest was ready.

He had arranged for his soldiers to haul the only two pieces of artillery they possessed around in a circle, “across and behind a high cut in the road, so that it would appear to Streight that whole batteries were being brought up to the front.”

Finally, Streight gave in. “How many guns have you got? There’s fifteen I’ve counted already!”  Forrest said, “I reckon that’s all that’s kept up.”

Sensing the futility of his position, the Yankee colonel handed over his 1,466 troops with all their horses, artillery, and equipment. When he learned that Forrest had only 400 men and two guns, he demanded that his men and arms should be returned and that they should fight it out.  Forrest laughed, patted him on the shoulder, and said, “Ah Colonel, all is fair in love and war, you know.”

So much of war tactics involves fooling the opposition into thinking you are somewhere you are not, have weapons you do not, and are about to accomplish something you cannot. All is fair.

TWO. Recounting the attempts of the Union to take control of the Mississippi River, which was defended by the Rebel guns on Vicksburgs high bluffs, Winston Groom writes: “Then there occurred one of those weird and wonderful incidents, which on the rarest of occasions can make war actually seem like fun.”

The Union’s David Porter, admiral of the Navy, grew tired of the Confederates destroying his ships as they tried to sail past Vicksburg, so he concocted a ruse to embarrass them. Commandeering a large flatboat, he set a crew of carpenters to work turning it into what appeared to be a Union ironclad. In a few hours, the barge was 300 feet long, with 40 ft high wheel-houses (made from a cabin hauled from a nearby plantation), two small smokestacks (barrels atop one another, with smoldering tar pots providing the smoke), and a huge “Quaker gun” (a log painted black) poking forward.  The dummy ship was painted with tar and christened “Black Terror.” The Stars and Stripes flew from a flagstaff. According to Admiral Porter, the entire project cost $8.63.

Just before midnight, a towboat pulled this dummy ship to the bend above Vicksburg and set it adrift.

The Rebel batteries on the bluff, seeing it only in the moonlight, assumed it was the real deal and opened fire.  The swift current of the river carried it by with no damage.

When word leaked out–the Union saw that word did get out–the Rebel forces were embarrassed. commanding General Pemberton was humiliated, and even the southerners got a kick out of the ruse.

Whether anything was accomplished of significance is another question altogether.

THREE. One morning, the Rebels defending Vicksburg were having breakfast around a fire. As John Harper was spooning boiled rice into his mouth, suddenly a small piece of shell flying through the air struck the spoon, tearing a hole in it, and spattering Harper’s face with the rice.  He calmly muttered, “That was cool,” wiped his face, and went on eating his breakfast.

When Winston Groom tells that story, he inserts the comment that this was a hundred years before saying this was “cool.”

I recalled a time three years earlier when Abraham Lincoln used the same word in the same way.

In his “Cooper Union” speech, delivered in New York City on February 27, 1860, Lincoln was discussing the puzzling situation the nation was facing in the upcoming election.  At the time, no one knew he would be the Republical candidate and the eventual winner.

Lincoln addresses the position of some in the South who say that if the nation elects a Republican, they will be forced to secede from the Union. Therefore, it will be the nation’s fault if they secede.  Lincoln said, “That is cool.” According to Harold Holzer’s book “Lincoln at Cooper Union,” laughter followed that line.

Then, Lincoln followed it up. “A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!'” Holzer adds: “Continued laughter.”

A few years ago when I came across Lincoln saying “That is cool,” I sent an email to Dr. Holzer inquiring about it. He responded that he gets more questions about that than anything else in the speech.  He replied something to the effect that Lincoln meant “that is odd.”

Look up “cool” in wikipedia and you will come away with the impression that this was an expression coined in the Jazz Age by hipsters.  Hardly.  If we have the future President of the United States using it as slang in 1860 and a Confederate soldier doing the same three years later, it’s no stretch to believe the expression “That is cool” or “That’s cool” was always widely known and used.

I love reading this kind of history.






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