Thursday, August 8, 2013
August 8, 2013: Back to Virginia: The Valley Campaign
[Two years ago, when the boys and I last traveled to Virginia, I wrote a series of blog posts about some of the state’s AmericanStudies connections. We’re headed back to my home turf in a week, so here’s another series on Virginia histories and stories. Add your Virginian takes for a weekend post that’s for AmericanStudies lovers, y’all!]
On the allure, importance, and limitations of military history.
As a young AmericanStudier, I was obsessed with the Civil War for a variety of reasons; but if I had to boil it down to one central obsession, it would have to be the maps of battles and campaigns. I flipped again and again to the lavish battle illustrations in Bruce Catton’s American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War; I laid out the forces in my favorite complicated board game, Avalon Hill’s Gettysburg; I even created my own maps for a futuristic “Second Civil War” (minus the whole slavery thing; what can I say, I was a younger AmericanStudier then). And when it came to perfectly mapped and charted strategies, I don’t know that any Civil War battle or campaign came close, in my young mind, to Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign of 1862.
I was ignorant of a lot in those days (see: that whole slavery thing), but from what I can tell most Civil War and military historians agree with my youthful assessment, defining the Valley Campaign as one of the most impressive strategic efforts of the war. By successfully occupying and befuddling more than 50,000 Union troops who were otherwise headed for an assault on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Jackson won at least as decisive a victory as far more overt ones such as First Manassas or Fredericksburg. Even for those Americans not at all interested in military strategy or history, the Valley Campaign offers many valuable lessons: about how intelligence and subterfuge can outweigh might and raw numbers; about the importance of knowing and responding to the geography and environment around us; about charismatic and effective leadership, even when said leader is also widely thought to be crazy as can be.
On the other hand, I’m no longer able to assess or analyze military history in a vacuum, and in context Jackson’s Valley Campaign is, at least from certain angles, a tragedy. Had those Union troops reached Richmond, the war might have ended three years earlier, hundreds of thousands of American lives (on both sides) might have been spared, slavery might have likewise ended far earlier (or perhaps not—history is never simple, and alternative history doubly so). Those historical contexts don’t make Jackson’s strategies any less impressive—and in pursuing them he was simply doing his job, and I don’t mean to argue otherwise—but, if this makes sense, they make me less impressed and more frustrated when I read about the campaign. To put it another way: there’s no doubt that the Union’s generals were for the first few years of the war consistently outmatched by the Confederacy’s; but while the youthful me responded to that fact with interest, as a student of military history, to the grown-up AmericanStudier it represents one of the great national horrors.
Next Virginia post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Virginia connections you’d share for the weekend post?