The Secret War for the Union – Edwin Fishel

Subtitled “The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War”, this book is a great exploration of the development of the methods by which the Union Army of the Potomac obtained information about the Southern opposing forces.

Like too many books, its focus is exclusively on the East, and virtually all before and during the Gettysburg campaign. The nearly two years after that until Appomattox, and everything west of the Shenandoah Valley is not a part of this study.  Since this results in a 700 page, relatively small print tome, it is hard to argue with the decision, but it is a little disappointing.

The sources of military intelligence are varied – there is physical observation by your own forces, usually cavalry.  There are reports of civilians, and spies sent out to gather information.  There is also information gleaned from the interrogation of deserters and prisoners.  There is the examination of captured papers and documents, even newspaper reports.  Properly used, all of these can give a picture of the composition, location, and even movements and plans.

The Southern efforts are mentioned for the Eastern Theatre, but in general aside from scouting with Cavalry, their efforts were uncoordinated and bore little fruit.  The North created several semi professional and fully professional organizations with the army, and in general did a better job all around.

There are several new bits of data to be learned:

  • The estimates of enemy force that McClellan presented early in the war have been blamed on bad techniques by the amateur work of Pinkerton and his detectives.  Actually, those reports were better estimates than McClellan gave to the government, and he knew that those were ‘worst case’ numbers.  As time when on, Pinkerton tried to enlarge his estimates to fit McClellan’s, but then Mac raised those even more.
  • During John Pope’s campaign, a spy delivered timely information that Lee was planning a move to trap his army, and Pope evaded the trap.  The source was reported to be from a cavalry raid capture, but this was a bit of disinformation to protect future attempts to insert a scout into Lee’s army.
  • The signal corps was a continual asset – they often intercepted Confederate unencyphered transmissions and even inserted false information for the Confederates to intercept.
  • Hooker developed an excellent service that gave him perfect knowledge of the size and location of Lee’s army which he used to almost trap him at Chancellorsville.  The fact that Hooker fumbled the chance after that was not due to bad information.
  • In the lead up to Gettysburg, the information confirming a move north also came from a spy moving with the Army of Northern Virginia.  Ironically, later an attempt by Lee to spread disinformation backfired.  Deserters reported that Hill’s corps was marching North across the Potomac, but bad information had this as the trailing corps.  The result was that Hooker crossed the river himself and stole a march on Lee.  If Hooker had known that Longstreet had not crossed, he would have had to hold forces below the river to avoid a strike at Washington from the south.
  • The final interesting tidbit was that the service was busy on the battlefield of Gettysburg finding the units of prisoners taken.  By the end of July 2, they could report that every division of Lee’s Army had been heavily involved in fighting except for Pickett – which meant that Meade knew that he had far more fresh troops to call on during day three.

This is one of those ‘must read’ books for the Civil War buff.  Now someone needs to expand this to the West and to the Late War in full.  There are hints of interesting work of spies and scouts in the West — the news that Grierson’s raid had safely arrived at Baton Rouge from the Memphis area reached Memphis in a matter of hours – it must have been telegraphed across the state of Mississippi using Confederate telegraph lines!


From the Earth to the Moon – Jules Verne

Another of Jules Verne’s classics, from a Kindle Collection.  This one again involves mostly Americans, who Verne seems at the same time find very odd and yet likeable.

The main thrust involves a Club of Artillery buffs from the Civil War, the Gun Club. Finding that the purpose of their club was over due to the lack of need for large artillery.  So they conceive the biggest artillery project imaginable – a cannon that can fire a round all the way to the moon!

It catches the imagination of the world, and many countries donate money to the project – here Verne pokes fun at various nations in how much money they give.  The 900 foot cannon is cast in Florida, after a big tussle with Texas over location.

Only one man opposes the project, Captain Nicholl, a long rival with Barbicane, the Gun Club president.  Nicholl makes armor plate, and so is the natural opponent of a maker of guns!  He makes a bet with Barbicane about the failure of the project.

Late in the process, a Frenchman, Michel Ardan, proposes to ride in the projectile as the first ambassador to the Moon.  After the two rivals meet and almost fight a duel to the death, except that they get distracted by rescuing a bird and solving a technical problem, Ardan solves the rivalry by proposing that all three ride to the Moon.

Nicholl agrees despite the bets he has that the project will fail in a number of ways that will result in his death.  This is very American.

The book ends with the shot, and the news that the projectile has missed the moon.  There is a sequel, Around the Moon, that follows the flight itself.

The engineering details in the book might deter the modern reader, but the ironic and humorous portrayal of the characters and the world – for example, the problems with spectators sneaking in and smoking around during the loading of the explosive charge before the shot – adds to the realism that makes the fantastic seem possible.

And the parallels between the actual moon shots, especially Apollo 8 – launched from Florida, three passengers in a cylindro-conical craft, and the first mission to the moon passing around the moon in December, are interesting.

Red Sun Setting – William T. Y’Blood

This book is about the Battle for the Philippine Sea, the 1944 battle between the US and Japanese navies.  It was the last true carrier battle in the war, as the losses incurred here made the carriers useless for real attacks.  In the last battle at Leyte Gulf, the surviving carriers were used as bait to lure Halsey away from protecting the transport fleet, as they had few planes or pilots.

The Japanese plan was tempered by the realities of their position.  Their aircrew were inexperienced, and fuel was difficult to get due to the ravages of US submarines.  The carrier fleet had to travel to Borneo to fill its tanks with raw unrefined oil.  It would not have the fuel for the fancy tactics that they liked – a single thrust at the US fleet was all they could do.  Another part of the plan was to move aircraft from other bases to Guam and catch the US between two fires.

The action was triggered by the US invasion of Saipan.  While the invasion proceeded, the US carrier task force bombed the airfields of the islands, and even sent part of the fleet to bomb the bases at Iwo Jima.  This did not knock out the airfields, but many of the aircraft that were supposed to attack the fleet were damaged or destroyed.

The Japanese fleet was spotted by US submarines en route, and the US fleet prepared for the action.  The recovery of the last missions to the island bases required the carriers to steam into the wind, away from the Japanese fleet.  The Japanese expected this and were staying beyond normal range of the US search planes.  When Admiral Spruance decided not to spend the night steaming towards the Japanese, this pretty much assured that he would be taking the first blow.

This advantage was lost due to Japanese inexperience.  Radar picked up the strikes very far out.  Instead of coming in at full speed, the flights had to orbit for a time to receive final strike orders from the flight leader – inside radar range.  This gave the defending fighters plenty of time to reach the strike and attack it well away from the carriers.  Most of the planes were shot down and never returned to the Japanese fleet. The results were so lopsided that the battle was called the “Marianas Turkey Shoot”.

Even more distressing for the Japanese fleet was that they sailed through a submarine patrol zone and two submarines fired at two carriers.  One, the Shokaku, was hit several times and sank.  Even worse was the one hit on the flagship Taiho.  While the torpedo hit did minor damage, blunders in damage control caused fuel and gas fumes to spread through the ship.  A spark set off huge explosions that gutted the ship and sank her.

Late the next day, the US struck back.  Because of the extended range, the attacks were poorly coordinated and hasty, but a third carrier, Hiyo, was sunk and the Zuikaku – the last surviving carrier from the Pearl Harbor attack, was heavily damaged.  A few other ships had slight damage.  Losses to the planes defending the fleet were heavy.

The US planes returned to the fleet in darkness and critically low on fuel.  Admiral Mitscher decided to risk turning on the fleet’s lights in full to aid recovery operations at the risk of attacks by enemy submarines.  In the confused operation, many planes were lost but most of the aircrews were saved.

This brought the battle to an end.  The US had destroyed the Japanese naval aviation, although they did not know it at the time.  Critics thought the carrier operations were a bit too tentative, despite the good results.  Of course, they were to find out that being over-bold can be just as bad in Leyte Gulf.

This is a good treatment of a battle that is usually glossed over in the histories.

Notable Historical Trials III – Major Andre

This installment in the four volume set of Notable Historical Trials from the Folio Society comes from the American Revolution.

In 1780, Benedict Arnold was becoming disenchanted.  The hero of the battle of Saratoga, which captured a British Army in its entirety, was being passed over for commands.

This did not sit well with him.  As the commander of West Point, he was in an important position and just up the Hudson River from the English post in New York City.  Arnold’s mind turned to betrayal – changing sides and giving up the post for a fat cash payment.

As part of the negotiations, the English required a face-to-face meeting.  It would be quite an embarrassment to pay some random schlub and get nothing in return.  Major Andre was sent to have this meeting with Arnold to work out the final details.

Andre was dropped off by a British vessel, and had the required meeting.  As the ship had moved off, Andre needed another way to get back.  Arnold suggested he remove his uniform, take a pass through the lines under an assumed name, and head to New York overland.

Andre did so, but on the way he was stopped by some suspicious ‘cowboys’ and taken in, and his story soon unraveled.  Arnold fled to the British lines, and the Americans were left with Andre, and the unsettling idea that a conspiracy of unknown size was underway in the officer corps.

Andre was tried as a spy.  The circumstances were pretty clear-cut.  His lack of uniform and possession of military information were damning, not to mention the whole ‘betray West Point’ conspiracy.  He was found guilty, and sentenced to hang.  He requested a more honorable end, but this was denied.  Many of the American officers were sympathetic to him because of his behavior as a prisoner, but he was hung despite all of that.

After the war, his body and a peach tree that was planted to mark the spot were moved to England. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Arnold would fight with some success for the British, but was never very popular partly due to the loss of Andre.

Interestingly, his three ‘cowboy’ captors were each honored with having counties in the state of Ohio named after them – Paulding, van Wart, and Williams counties.

Journey to the Center of the Earth – Jules Verne

Well that didn’t take long!

This is one of twenty books in a SF collection that I bought for the Kindle: The Ultimate Science Fiction Collection: Volume Three.  These are older books – Verne, H. G. Wells, Burroughs.

I’ve always liked Verne for the affection he shows for his characters, even in the worst situations.  There is quite a bit of humor in the different ways each of them get through life, but they get along despite their differences.

Axel is the nephew and assistant of the eccentric Professor Lindenbrock, a ‘mad geologist’.  He purchases an Icelandic book but finds inside a coded manuscript by the famed alchemist Arne Saknussemm.  After some difficulty, the message is decoded and Saknussemm claims to have reached the center of the earth via a volcano in Iceland.  There is nothing to do in the Professor’s eyes but to go the same way himself – with Axel as his assistant.

Axel is not as keen, since by prevailing theory the interior is molten lava.  There is a funny moment where he attempts to get sympathy from his lady friend but she is more keen on the expedition than he is.

They travel to Iceland, find a guide who will go anywhere as long as his pay comes at the end of the week on time, and find the entrance.  They have many adventures before being ejected in their raft of petrified wood out of the volcano on the island of Stromboli during an eruption – after which the guide Hans is dutifully paid his back wages.  Axel marries his girl and the Professor is famous.

Kids at Home – don’t try descending volcanoes yourself!  Leave it to the experts!

You can’t take this kind of book too seriously, but like any adventure story if accept the premise, and the rest makes sense, and you like the characters enough to want to see them through the adventure in one piece it has done its job.  Deservedly a classic.  After reading it you will be looking for Arne Saknussemm runes in your neighborhood.

The Mysterious Island – Jules Verne

I just finished this book on the Kindle – it is one of about a dozen or so books in a SF collection that I bought for the Kindle: The Ultimate Science Fiction Collection: Volume Three.

I’ve read the book before – my mom had a nice hardbound copy.  But Kindle is a great way to get a lot of these old classics at a reasonable price.

The story is about 5 Americans – an engineer, Cyrus Harding and a reporter Gideon Spillett, imprisoned in Richmond near the end of the Civil War. A sailor, Pencroft hatches a plan to escape in a balloon the Rebels have set up nearby but cannot use due to a storm. His ward Hebert, and a loyal Negro servant of Harding, Neb and the dog Top complete the escapees.

The escape works a bit too well, as they are blown to the South Pacific!  They have to drop all of their equipment to lighten the load and they just make it to an island, where they are stranded.

Verne likes to use his characters to tweak the nations they come from in a playful way, and in this book the American energy and pluck is a major factor. The five are not stranded – they declare themselves colonists of the Island of Lincoln, to be incorporated as a state when they regain contact with the USA.   Pencroft declares he won’t be satisfied until there are railroads across the island!

The mysteries about the island are not giant bees, but a set of inexplicable events that aid the five from time to time.  Harding was separated in the landing, and was found inland in a cave, unconscious.  The dog Top was pulled under water by a dugong, but was soon flung out and the dugong killed.  A box of supplies washes ashore where they can find it.

The colonists use their skills and knowledge and energy to survive and prosper, with the occasional aid of the mysterious ‘beneficial spirit’.  But the colony is doomed when the volcano becomes active, threatening to destroy them all if they cannot build a oceangoing boat to escape.

Reading Update – February


Notable Historical Trials III
Starting into a chapter on Major Andre, the British officer hung for conspiring with Benedict Arnold.
Red Sun Setting – the Battle of the Philippine Sea
The World War II Naval Battle, often called the “Marianas Turkey Shoot” because of the great success in shooting down Japanese aircraft.  It nullified the value of the Japanese carriers from that point on.  Just starting.
A critical year in the antebellum era as seen through participants. So far it has been pedestrian, with chapters on the Lecompton battle and one on Lee.  I prefer the treatment in the book “1857” so far.  There are chapters coming up on the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  This prompted me to look up the re-enactments that were done in 1994 that are available on the web.
 Guns of Cedar Creek
The 1864 Battle of Cedar Creek.  Haven’t progressed much.
Wings of War – Airborne Warfare 1918-1945
Currently reading about the early German airborne operations in the Netherlands and about to start the Crete operation. 
The Secret War for the Union
Military Intelligence in the Civil War.  A very good book. It gives a lot of credit to Hooker for creating a professional intelligence branch and using it effectively. It turned out that the spy service is not as useful in the heat of battle, and that contributed to his failure. Now the service is helping detect Lee’s march North.
Kindle Books
I re-read most of the H. Beam Piper books and stories.  I started reading “Mysterious Island” by Jules Verne from one of the collections I bought a few months ago.