Bullets and Shells, Book Review

Bullet and Shell, the Civil War as the Soldier saw it is an inexpensive book at Amazon and a good read. The mild fighting as the Arab regions shake off old dictators gives me a reason to write a book review for it: it’s a lesson on why civil war should be avoided.

The book was written in 1884 by George F. Williams, an author with a very common name and possibly several other books. The book is a fictionalized memoir of the U.S. Civil War, 1861-1865, and follows the experiences of a young college graduate who enlists in the union side.

Cover of Bullet and Shell

Since I’m writing this post with friends in mind from far away, I should explain some things. As I write this, the president of the US is Barrack Obama. He’s a member of the Democrat party. The previous president, George W. Bush, is a member of the Republican party. You may have noticed that the election of 2008 which replaced a Republican president with a Democrat president was widely reported, but didn’t result in any major changes in foreign policy. The reason for this stability (which for a world power is definitely a good thing, you don’t want to see the US alternating between Communist and Fascist governments) is that the US system of elections forces the political parties to compete over the center part of the population.

The change of power in the US in 2008 was peaceful, but that’s not how it always has been here. The election of 1860 split the nation into two sides with various names. The “U.S.A”, “North”, “Union”, or “United States of America” under Abraham Lincoln was Republican, while “South”, “Confederacy”, “CSA” or Confederate States of America was Democratic. The South included the slave states and slavery was probably the major issue of the war.

The war lasted 4 years and killed 620,000 people. Whether in terms of human life or destruction of property, it was the most expensive war the US has ever been involved in. The Civil war ended only after the larger and more industrialized North had produced enough munitions to kill or severely wound about half the adult males in the South. At that time the surviving Southerners agreed to rejoin the US.

Williams’ book was written in 1884, about 20 years after the Civil War. By that time, the two sides were on the road to reconciliation. Williams’ book was probably intended to help. It remains a reminder of the horrors of war. As with my other book reports, I’ll type in a few paragraphs to give a flavor of the book.

Late in the afternoon of the first day of July we [Republican soldiers] reached the picturesque town of Hanover. [Pennsylvania, a Republican stronghold] Near the cross-roads were lying the bloated carcasses of half a dozen cavalry horses, evidently slain in a brief skirmish between Pleasonton’s [a Republican general] and Stuart’s [a Democrat general] troops, a few hours before our arrival.

Close to the road, near the scene of the cavalry fight, stood a farmhouse, at the gate of which was an old-fashioned pump and horse-trough. The pump-handle was in constant motion, as the weary, foot-sore soldiers flocked around it to quench their thirst with the delicious water that flowed into the mossy trough.

Coming up and waiting for my turn to drink, I noticed a sunburnt, gray-haired man, leaning over his rude [primitive] gate, watching the troops. He was dressed in a faded, well-worn suit of homespun [home made cloth], having no doubt spent the day in the hayfield; and I could see that he was pleased that his pump was doing such good service.

“Good-evening, sir,” said I to him, removing my cap, and mopping the perspiration from my face. “It’s rather hot weather, this, for marching.”

“I ‘spose [suppose] it ’tis [it is], though I never did any marching,” was his brief response.

As the old farmer uttered the words he moved a little; and my eye was attracted by a new-made grave among a clump of rose-bushes, just inside the fence. Wondering at the sight, I ventured to ask the reason for its being there.

“Whose grave is that?” said I, pointing to the mound of fresh earth.

“A reb’s [Democrat’s]” he replied laconically. “One that got killed in the fight the horsemen had here to-day.”

“Indeed! and so you buried him.”

“Yes: buried him myself. They left him lyin’ in the road, out thar, just as he fell. I could do no less, you know.”

“Of course! buy why did you make your rose-garden a graveyard?”

“Wa-al [Well], it was the wimmen [women] that wanted it so. Yer [you] see, stranger,” and the old man’s voice trembled and grew husky, “yer see, I had a boy once. He went out with the Pennsylvany [Pennsylvania] Researves [Reserves], and fou’t [fought] along with McClellan [a Republican general], down thar [there] among those Chicka-oming swamps [In Democrat territory]. And one day a letter come. It was writ [written] by a woman; and she told us as how a battle had bin [been] fou’t near her house, while she and another woman lay hid all day in the cellar. When the battle was o’er [over], them wimmen came out, and found our Johnny thar [there], his hair all bloody and tangled in the grass. So they digged [dug] a grave in the soft earth of their gardin [garden], for the sake of the mother who would never see him agin [again]. So when I saw that poor reb [Democrat] a-layin’ [lying] out thar, all dead and bloody in the dust of the road, I sed [said] I’d bury him. And the gals, they sed, ‘Yes father, bury him among the rose-trees.’ That’s why I did it, stranger.”


Filed under book review, History

7 responses to “Bullets and Shells, Book Review

  1. “The Civil war ended only after the larger and more industrialized North had produced enough munitions to kill or severely wound about half the adult males in the South.” – Carl

    This is gory, but there is slightly different conclusion which says that the munitions of the Grant’s Union side failed at Petersburg in trench warfare, and nearly led to a Vietnam style (public apathy induced) defeat and the loss of presidency for Lincoln, the deciding factor being Sherman’s tactics:

    Trench Warfare – The Lines of Petersburg

    “When Grant deluded Lee as to his true intentions after the Wilderness Campaign, managing suddenly to appear in mid-June [1864] with massed forces at Petersburg … an army of 65,000 was insufficient to overcome the 40,000 men Lee had rushed to the spot by rail. … the Confederates extended their entrenchment to their right, always in time to meet each assault while fiercely contesting Grant’s further attempts to cut the line to Richmond or the one running Westward from Petersburg. … The attack on the Redoubt at Petersburg on 30th July demonstrated in utter confusion the inability … a mine containing four tons of black powder was to be exploded beneath the Redoubt and its [Confederate] defenders. … among the Confederates initial shock was overcome and a counter-stroke launched in the afternoon. Artillery sealed off the flanks of the 500-yard breach in the defences …

    “The [Union] Federals were flung back with the loss of 3,793 men. That day the Confederates lost 1,182, including those blown up. … Grant strove fitfully to break the deadlock … creating for the logistic support of his troops a comprehensive conglomeration of base depots, camps and railway spurs leading to within artillery range of the enemy. Facing the Confederate capital the entrenched front was some 37 miles long, manned by 90,000 well-provisioned Federal troops on one side, and 60,000 deprived but fanatically determined Confederates on the other. Try as he would to smash through, Grant was defeated. …

    “Had Grant’s exploits comprised the sole Federal effort in 1864, they could well have led to his and President Lincoln’s downfall in an election year. The disgruntled General McClellan was campaigning for the Democratic candidacy with a call for an end to the war. He might have won if General William Sherman, taking advantage of the drain of Confederate strength to the East, had not struck the decisive blow in the West.”

    – Kenneth Macksey, “Technology in War: the Impact of Science on Weapon Development and Modern Battle” (Arms and Armour Press, London, 1986, pp. 28-29)

  2. Carl Brannen

    Thanks Nige, the reason trench warfare couldn’t save the South was because the lines were way too long to adequately defend with the available manpower. Being from Texas and all, I’ve felt that the decisive campaigns were the ones that took control over the Mississippi.

    You have an interesting book; every now and then I run into people who have an exaggerated opinion of the effectiveness of certain weapons, particularly gas.

    On WW2, an indispensable book is “Wages of Destruction, the making and breaking of the Nazi economy” I agree with a reviewer; almost every page has an an important and true thing to tell even those who’ve read a hundred books on the war.

    P.S. I wonder why the spam filter caught your comment?

  3. Thank you very much Carl. I will read “Wages of Destruction”, which sounds interesting. I thought my comment was deleted when it simply disappeared after pressing “post comment”! I agree that the lines were too long for the South to defend adequately, although they still managed to hang on nearly long enough to see political anti-war problems emerging for Abraham Lincoln.

    Many wars seem to involve wanton exaggerations of weapons effects on the part of the aggressors, or underestimates of the effectiveness of simple cheap countermeasures. The German General Staff lost both of its world wars for essentially the same reasons, exaggerating offensive capabilities, underestimating defense countermeasures of its enemies, and hence underestimating the time the wars would drag on for, and the problem of the munitions production by its enemies during that long period of time.

    There is a rumor spread by teachers in military colleges here in England that the German General Staff made this error before WWI because it was ignorant of the facts of trench warfare in the American Civil War. This was partly due to wishful thinking by the arms industry. It seems that the first time a new weapon is used (machine guns, aerial bombing, etc.), it works very effectively because people are taken by surprise and react like rabbits in car headlights, or sitting ducks. Then this example is used for all future casualty predictions. Early WWI air raids on London (before “duck and cover” advice was introduced by the Government in July 1917 to avoid flying glass and blast translation casualties) killed sixty times as many as died per ton of bombs dropped on London during WWII. If this had been known in say 1935, Hitler could have been stopped without the public’s fear of London being wiped out in a single large Luftwaffe air raid.

  4. Hi Carl,

    You’re back! Have really missed your most educational blog. Hope you’ll be telling us what physics mischief you’ve been up to!

    Cheers, Kris

  5. AP

    “The “U.S.A”, “North”, “Union”, or “United States of America” under Abraham Lincoln was Republican…”

    Well, this is technically true, but Abe would be kicked out of the Republican party nowadays. Teddy Roosevelt too…kind of ironic, come to think of it.

  6. Do you have an updated link to your E8 java applet ?
    The link I have does not seem to work.

  7. Biplab

    Hi Carl, I see on your stack exchange profile you are a PhD candidate at Washington State and a member or the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. If you don’t mind me asking, what is your thesis topic and who is your advisor there?

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