The “History of Rome” Podcasts


I added a historical link section to the blog.  The first entry is a site containing a series of podcasts on the history of ancient Rome. They are not too dry, but are packed with informaiton. Well worth the time to listen to – you can start with Romulus and catch up before he gets to the end of the Empire.

A Magnificent Disaster – David Bennett

This book is about the Battle of Market-Garden, the September 1944 attempt to reach the Rhine RIver by the use of three Airborne Divisions to drop deep behind German lines, to be linked up to by the British striking overland up a single highway.

The book really isn’t a detailed review of the tactical operations of the battle, but more a summary of the behind-the-scenes decisions of the planners and how they impacted the ground battle. The emphasis was more on how the overall plan was playing out, and how the minute-by-minute decisions helped or hindered the overall plan.  So the book is less for those who want to know what happened – for that there are other books, but more for those who want to know why things happened as they did.

I suppose the short summary of the book’s point of view was that the plan was extremely risky and not well thought out, the supplies were insufficient, and the execution was lacking at several key points.  The faults were partly overcome by the incredible skill and bravery of the airborne troops.  This was sufficient to get the spearhead to the Rhine, but not over it. The British 1AB division was crushed by the German reaction and more or less destroyed.

again, a Reading Update

The Vicksburg Campaign II

The book began in April 1863, and so far only a few weeks of historical time have passed. but the pace is picking up. Grant is moving troops south, to cross below the city. The Navy has run the batteries with success.

At the same time, Grant ordered his commander in Memphis, General Hurlbut, to launch a series of cavalry raids to distract. One, under Dodge, was halting and achieved little. The second, under Abel Streight, rode mules east across Alabama trying to cut the railroad north from Atlanta. This was run down by Forrest after a long chase and was forced to surrender. A third expedition was mounted to try to crush the Rebel cavalry in North Mississippi. It failed, but distracted them enough that the fourth expedition, under Grierson, was able to break out and successfully reach the center of the state, along the railroad from Vicksburg and Jackson to Meridian.

This explosion in Vicksburg’s rear led to complete chaos, far beyond the amount of damage 1500 horsemen could possibly do  General Pemberton, the commander in the district, was totally distracted by this raid, apparently losing track of what Grant was doing across the river in his front.  This was to lead to disaster…but I haven’t read that far yet.

Neptune’s Inferno – the us Navy in Guadalcanal

The disaster of Savo Island is in the past, but seems to dominate the minds of the commanders. The carrier admirals keep their ships well back from the island, exposing the Marines to the Japanese. Ironically, this isn’t keeping the ships safe, as several ships are torpedoed while in the rear area, including the aircraft carrier Wasp.  This loss was so serious that the news was suppressed to keep the Japanese (and perhaps the voters) from finding out about it.

Behind the scenes, the power of the Navy is growing as the nation gets organized for the war. What remains to be seen is if the captains can learn to fight before the Japanese sink their ships.

And watching the funk of the supreme commander in the area, Admiral Gormley, Nimitz is about to make a change.

Barbarossa Derailed  – the battle of Smolensk

Glantz’ newest East Front masterpiece delivers. If you wanted day by day orders of the Soviet officers, it has it. If you like scores of situation maps of the battle, it has it.

I can see already how the history confirms his thesis that even at this point, less than one month into the campaign, the German invasion is already in trouble. Even a general view of the course of the war shows that the Germans lacked the force to win in the end – in the second year, they could only mount an offensive on a third of the frontage, and in the next year their one major offensive was crushed. After that it was all a bloody recoiling back towards the starting point.

Here, Glantz is showing that even three weeks into the campaign, in the middle of some tremendous victories, the warts are starting to show. The central group of armies, after crushing the border armies, bounds forward to Smolensk.  This is more than halfway to Moscow. But here, they run into trouble – the armor is pinned against a second group of armies until the infantry can come up. While they are not defeated, they aren’t advancing either. Meanwhile, calls for support on the flanks and from the other army groups are growing. Already, the three army groups cannot all advance in unison. One of the groups’ power will have to be tapped to allow the others to advance. If Center is stripped, the Drive on Moscow is stopped.

It’s ironic that the image of the meticulous planning of the German Army almost always turns out to be a myth. They really don’t seem to have a plan already set up for what they want to do if the USSR did not collapse in a matter of a month. They are trying to figure out a plan on the fly, which is a pretty bad idea when you are talking about movements of tens of thousands of troops and vehicles..

What’s All This Then?


My legions of fans might be wondering why the change to the look of the blog. I liked the look of Choco, except on my portable the pretty date tags didn’t fit. When I tried to put in the picture of Aurelian a whle back I found that Choco was picky about picture sizes – they had to be full width of the screen. If I do some of the more detailed history posts I have in mind, including a map or picture might be more common.  This format has a lot of toys to play with..

Ed Bearss’ ‘The Vicksburg Campaign’ Part I

“Vicksburg is the Key”

This is the title of Volume I of Ed Bearss’ study of the campaigns to take the city of Vicksburg in the Civil War, and open the Mississippi River to commerce and divide the Confederacy.  The period covered in this volume is Fall 1862 to April 1863.

This covers the initial two prong assault with Grant advancing overland through Mississippi and Sherman taking the troops raised by McClernand down the river to attack from that side. It was McClernand’s idea to lead that attack as an independent commander, but army politics managed to finesse his troops away.

The attempt was defeated by a combination of bold cavalry raids under Forrest and Earl Van Dorn on Grant’s rear and railroad communications, forcing him to retreat north, leaving Pemberton free to concentrate against Sherman, who was defeated at Chickasaw Bayou.

After this, Sherman and McClernand used the time to raid Arkansas Post and capture the 5000 man garrison. Grant then joined them to manage the attack on Vicksburg as a single direction along the river.

It was now winter, and the river was flooding. Grant spent time trying to bypass the city or gain a foothold on the dry ground near the city with a series of operations – digging a canal to divert the river, trying to cut a route around the city, or using expeditions to gain the rear of the city from the north, through the Yazoo Delta swamps.  All failed, but at least kept the men busy and the enemy confused as to what was planned.

There is also a good description of Naval Operations that winter, where Admiral Porter tried to cut the traffic below the city with raiding vessels. A remarkable incident is the capture of the Indianola.

This ironclad was sent below to support the Queen of the West, which was tasked with hunting down the last boats the Rebels had.  In attacking a fort on the Red River, the Queen was grounded, and abandoned almost undamaged.  Now they had a second vessel in their fleet and went on the offensive, chasing the ironclad back toward Vicksburg.

In a savage action, the two rams attacked the Indianola and captured it. Now the Rebels had three boats, and an ironclad, if they could get it repaired.  Admiral Porter didn’t have enough ships to risk sending more down, so in one of those events that make the Civil War so fascinating, he tried on of the most spectacular bluffs in history.

He built a fake ‘ironclad’ in hours, using discarded parts and 8 dollars in material. The smoke in the stacks was just a bucket holding burning material inside a smokestack made of old barrels. This monster “Black Terror” with its slogan painted on its fake wheelhouse “Deluded People Cave In” was sent past the Vicksburg batteries which had no effect on it, and eventually drifted down to the Indianola. It was so impressive the Rebel Navy fled, and destroyed the Indianola wreck themselves!

This volume ends just as the main campaign is about to jump off. Grierson’s cavalry will raid from the north and Grant will swing to the south without a supply line to gain the city’s rear. Beset by threats from all sides over the last months, Pemberton will lose his grasp of the situation and have his forces broken up and penned into the city, where surrender is inevitable unless a new army can be raised to break Grant’s grip.

As it turned out, the north could and did pour troops into the area far faster than the south could or did, and the army and the city were lost.

As a history, the book has all the detail you could ask, and is written in a clear style that is easy reading. There are references to the original sources. Bearss’ himself is a legendary figure in Civil War historian circles, having worked as a Park Historian at Vicksburg itself and other parks for more than a generation.  It’s a classic, and deserves its reputation. I’m glad I finally got a hold it for my collection.

I have the Morningside Book reprint.  This is a small Ohio publisher that reprints a lot of these old sources.  I’ve picked up quite a few of their books over the years and the quality is absolutely first-rate.

Reading Update – all Navy

I started “Neptune’s Inferno” on the US Navy at Guadalcanal in WWII.   Pretty interesting so far although it’s just starting out.  I’m in the middle of the Battle of Savo Island, where the Japanese smashed our cruiser fleet, sinking three or four.  The US caught the Japanese off guard by snatching the island from them in August 1942, but somehow were not ready for this counterstroke.

I’m almost done with the first volume in Bearss’ Vicksburg trilogy. Grant has abandoned his attempts to bypass the city via digging canals, or cutting passages through swamps to make a supply line around the city. Before starting the late April movement, he is skipping back to the USN’s attempt to interfere with the supply of the town by cutting off river traffic.  Admiral Porter sent a ram ship, the “Queen of the West” through the fire of the city to the river below, where it took a number of ships captive.  The captain of the steamer, Captain Ellet, has just sailed up the Red River into a trap, where a disloyal pilot has grounded his ships under fire – the Queen was lost, and a second ship as well. The crew are fleeing in a captured boat, assuming the Confederate Navy will be chasing them.

I’m at the point where they have found Porter has sent an ironclad, the Indianola, below to help them and they have joined forces. Well, actually, the Indianola is a force, since Ellet only has his crew and an unarmed vessel now.

Have the tables turned? Or will the Confederates manage to keep the USN on the run? Or are they even chasing them?  Excitement!!

Dred Scott-a-lanche

I had 490 page views today, all but a few to my post a while back on Dred Scott.   To put that in perspective, I now have 950 lifetime for my whole blog.  Most of the people came via a search engine that I must have locked down.

I wonder what 500 people or so were doing searching for it today…or 1 person 500 times.

I imagine it will be a while before I top that one.

Edit: It seems to have topped out at 620 hits on that post. so far.

Kindle Report – Tacitus’ Agricola

I finished this work, another relatively short one. It’s a summary of the nobility and history of Gnaeus Julius Agricola,  a Roman general of the mid first century AD and not so coincidentally, Tacitus’ own father in law.

Still, given this source of bias, Agricola seems to be hot stuff. He was primarily responsible for the advancing of the border from the southern edge of Britain to the Caledonian frontier where it remained with small adjustments until the end of the Empire in the region.

Tacitus quotes Agricola in saying that Ireland could have been easily held by a legion, and the borders pushed even farther north.  But the victories led to the normal reaction under a weak emperor – Domitian had him recalled and kept idle and the moment passed away for good.

Luckily for Agricola (and Tacitus, for that matter), the emperor was content to let him remain in retirement and did not take the extra step of having him executed.

This was to be the weakest point in the Roman Empire – the informaility of its institutions.  All but the strongest emperors had to feel uneasy at the success of a subordinate, as they might be the next emperor.  And knowing this, a successful general was all the more likely to take his shot at taking the empire rather than be set aside.

This was a problem that was never solved to the very end.

TV Review – Rome, Rise and Fall of an Empire

This is a series that I have been TIVOing for a while.  It is one of my favorites, because unlike a lot of them, they actually explore the entire period of the empire, from start to end, without the usual tactic of having 10 episodes on Augustus and 1 on the next five hundred years or so.

The format is standard, you have a narrator giving the contexts, and a series of historians giving ‘color commentary’ to add perspective.  They also add some cut scenes of battles and of the main figures. Like most of these, they suffer somewhat from being done with a few dozen players instead of thousands. Some of the fight scenes are too  ‘Hollywood” with flips and judo throws rather than just hacking the other down in formation.

To give them credit, the costumes of the soldiers on both sides are pretty accurate. I think the Roman soldiers are a set of actual reinactors of the XX Legion, since you see their standards.  The Barbarians are done well too, not just hulks in bearskins.

The view of the series is on Rome versus the surrounding barbarians. Internal Roman politics is gone over more lightly, again in a difference from most histories who follow the Roman Senatorial historians and obsess over which senator is getting arrested instead of wondering if the borders will collapse.

This is may not be a full list of episodes, but I remember these

  • Marius versus the Cimbri and Teutones
  • Julius Caesar versus the Gauls
  • Augustus and Teutoberger Wald
  • Claudius’ Invasion of England
  • Marcus Aurelius and the Marcomanni
  • Trajan and the Dacian Wars
  • Decius and the Goths
  • Aurelian restores the Empire
  • Constantine
  • Stilicho and Alaric the Goth
  • Ricimer and Majorian
  • Odoacer and the End of Empire

Continue reading

Count Belisarius – Robert Graves

I just finished this book – its my”work walkabout” entry.  It’s a fictionalized .retelling of the life of Belisarius, the great Byzantine general under the Emperor Justinian.  The story of Belisarius is pretty famous – he was sent with absurdly small forces to retake North Africa and Italy back from the barbarians, and actually did so.  He got little thanks for it, and was often treated with suspicion and ingratitude by the Emperor.

I suppose that’s why the story has lasted – soldiers can identify with the loyal general being screwed over by venal politicians.

The book is pretty good, but not really a match for his more famous I, Claudius, and Claudius the God.  In those the protagonist is the author, the despised historian who accidentally gets made emperor.

I think one reason for the difference is that the protagonist can’t be Belisarius, as he is too noble. He instead chose to invent a servant/slave and have him tell the story. The problem is that this character is undeveloped, he just describes the action. Yet somehow this servant seems to be hanging around every battle and action of the wars.

A better choice might have been Antonia, Belisarius’ wife.  The narrator seems a lot more distant and uninvolved than Claudius was.

The literary sources for Belisarius are a lot weaker than that for Augustus and his successors, and that’s another reason the book suffers. It’s virtually a reframing of Procopius’ Gothic Wars and Secret History.

The book is worth reading if you haven’t heard about some of the amazing things that went on in his life – both stunning victories and frustrating defeat caused by bickering generals and short-sighted leaders. And if you like him, Belisarius is undergoing something of a comeback in recent years – he’s become a major player in alternate history science fiction for decades.