Saturday, June 30, 2012


Ambrose Burnside looked every bit the natural leader of men. He was tall and strong. He had amazing facial hair and a deep resonant voice. He could quickly and easily win the confidence and respect of just about everyone he met. No-one mentions this in contemporary descriptions, but I expect he gave a damn good handshake as well – the sort that leaves people with numb fingers but an impression of great sincerity.

In times of peace, men like Ambrose Burnside make great fortunes. They often manage to work their way into high political office and, when they do, invariably end up getting called ‘statesmen’.

In almost every case men like Burnside are, it's fair to say, psychopaths. They cynically manipulate those around them, carefully constructing the persona that people want to see. Their ambition drives them to constantly seek more power, more status, even when they don't have any idea what to do with it when they get it.

In times of war people like this cause disasters. The Burnsides of this world get entrusted with armies they don't know how to lead and soon discover that you can't win a battle through bluster and charm. It's not that they have some inherent quality that makes them shitty officers, it's just that they can never be as good as other people assume they will be.

Ambrose Burnside is fascinating because, as far as I can tell, he wasn't one of these people. He was, by all accounts, an honest, uncomplicated man who didn't plot or scheme and wasn't particularly ambitious. He wasn't a saint, by any means, but his vices seem no more prominent that those of anyone else.

The ineffable ‘leadership’ qualities that so many psychopaths work so hard to acquire seem to have been an involuntary thing for him. He didn't set out to make people think he would be the solution to all their problems, but they ended up thinking it anyway. When the American Civil War broke out, this useful oddity became something of a curse.

Before the war he'd served in the army for a while, but soon realised he wasn't really cut out for military life. During the 1850s he ran a munitions factory, selling rifles built around an ingenious breech-loading mechanism of his own design. He was persuaded to rejoin the army as the clouds of the American civil war loomed , and found himself getting rapidly promoted. Abraham Lincoln, whom he knew from his days as an arms manufacturer, seems to have become convinced that Burnside was the man to save the Union.

Burnside was no genius, and he was certainly prone to flattery, but he wasn't stupid or delusional. He knew that he was no Napoleon. He kept getting promoted, however, often against his will. By the summer of 1862 he had gone from Major to Colonel, from Colonel to Brigadier General, from Brigadier General to Major General and then through a sequence of successively more senior postings. Each time he protested that he didn't know what he was doing, that there were plenty of others more qualified than he, but Lincoln insisted. He turned down the command of the Army of the Potomac three times before Lincoln finally persuaded him to do the job.

On the battlefield Burnside was every bit the disaster he thought he was going to be. He was an excellent Major and a competent Colonel, but the responsibilities that subsequent promotions brought were too much for him. He was, like I said earlier, an uncomplicated man: he didn't have much of an imagination and, pivoting breech-mechanisms aside, wasn't very inventive. At Antietam, Fredericksburg and Petersburg he sent thousands of men to their deaths in clunky and rigid battle plans.

The whole situation seems a little nightmarish. He kept getting pushed into positions of terrifying responsibility where he had no idea what he was doing, like those bad dreams where you find yourself trying to fly a plane or play a Chopin prelude to an audience of extremely cultured bears. After his first really epic defeat, at Fredericksburg, he proposed launching one last attack against the enemy’s stronghold, that he would lead. Himself. From the front. His staff officers talked him out of it. He didn't quite have the nerve to just say ‘excuse me, I seem to have caused a disaster, if you don't mind I'm just going to pop outside and shoot myself’ so he had to come up with a less obvious way of doing it.

Even more nightmarishly, after the initial cock-up he kept getting assigned new commands. Demotion just didn't seem to stick. Lincoln would find him a new army each time he killed his last one. Once or twice he displayed some skill as a commander, most famously when he boldly outmaneuvered James Longstreet’s army in Tennessee – a feat that helped Grant win the battle of Chattanooga. Generally, though, it was just one disaster after another. They weren't always entirely his fault, but he usually played a pretty major role.

After the war he worked in various corporate directorships, before becoming a senator for his home state of Rhode Island. His charm managed to outweigh his dismal war record, and was re-elected until his death in 1881.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Stretch Armstrong Custer

Have a look at this picture. It shows a meeting of General George B. McClellan and President Abraham Lincoln shortly after the battle of Antietam in the summer of 1862. Behind them stands an assortment of staff officers and hangers-on.

I don't think I have to point out which one is Lincoln, and it's pretty easy to guess which one is McClellan (hint: his men called him ‘Little Mac’ or ‘Young Napoleon’).

At first glance, it's a fairly unremarkable picture – McClellan looks looks like he's about to pop Lincoln on the jaw (he probably wanted to), Lincoln looks freakish (although he actually looks less like an alien in this picture than he normally does), and this being the American Civil War, almost everyone is sporting a beard you could hide a badger in.

The remarkable thing about this picture is the figure on the far right, leaning insolently against a tent pole. The silly hat and comically oversized sword give away the fact that beneath the enormous mutton-chops hides a young George Armstrong Custer – cavalryman, indian fighter, and narcissistic prick.

Look closely and you see a terrible truth that historians have hidden from the American people for years. The Hero of Little Bighorn was a three-legged mutant.

This raises all kinds of questions, not least of which is ‘how on earth did he ride a horse?’