Sunday, April 22, 2012

Someone has to Manage the Ash and Trash

I've finished The Artillery of Gettysburg ( which was great. So now I'm on to (thank you Kim!) R. Steven Jones The Right Hand of Command - Use and Disuse of Personal Staffs in the Civil War (the American civil war).

American civil war staff officers, standing around. Probably McClellan's staff

Robert E. Lee
The premise for the book is in this paragraph, at the end of the preface:

In the end, when a general sought personal staff improvements, three factors usually encouraged him to do so. The first factor was army size: Simply, the larger the force under his command, the more a general might seek staff help controlling it. The second factor was cooperative operations--separate columns or armies working toward a mutual objective......The last, and most important factor, was the commander's willingness to improve staff work. If a general saw no real benefit in staff work, then neither the presence of a large army, nor a plan calling for cooperative operations could encourage him to improve it.
US Grant

William Tecumsah Sherman
This seems reasonable to me, but I know little about how the generals profiled in this book (McClellan, Lee, Grant, and Sherman) organized and used their staffs, because nothing much has been written about that. We know that Lee often divided his army, and did that in the face of numerically superior forces. Sherman did the same during his first independent command, the infamous "march to the sea" through Georgia (though he was in frequent contact with Grant during that independent command). I'm frankly uninterested in McClellan's staff work, because all that should demonstrate is how to misuse a large army through timidity and inaction. I think the meat of this book will be how Grant, the winningest general of the civil war, used his staff to manage the huge Army of the Potomac. I also expect, from what I know, that Lee's use of staff will be found wanting by Jones, and I think that may well be a fair complaint. While it is awfully hard to argue with Lee's successes he did tend to keep to himself.

I've been looking forward to reading this book, a lot.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Cool Photographic Technique - Ortonization

I use Picasa as my ordinary photo tweaking tool. It's not Photoshop, but it does do stuff.

Now I only do photography for fun, so I've been fooling around with some of the transformations available in Picasa. This one is called "Orton-ish", after Michael Orton's slide overlay work. His stuff is more complicated than what Picasa does to mimic it, but it's still way cool. At it's simplest, it's stacking slides of the exact same shot, but of different sharpness to make a composite image. You can google Michael Orton if this technique  interests you.

I'm old enough to have tried Ansel Adams "dodge and burn" techniques in the darkroom. He was a better photographer and printmaker than me obviously, so it worked great for him, less so for me. I mention this because I have no problem with using whatever tool is available to change a photograph. We all shoot a bit wide and then recompose by cropping, although I know one photographer who consistently composes brilliantly at shoot-time. I'm not that good and never will be. But why not use anything to create the image you imagined when you shot it? The craft of making a photograph is the craft, but the pre-visualization of the image is the the hard work. I know I'm not there yet, but I keep at it.

So here's how Orton-izing a couple of photos I like went.

As it was shot

After Orton-ization. I really like this effect, its sort of painterly.
As it was shot
After Orton-ization. Less effective for this shot, I think. I think because the water is such a big part of the picture.
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Thursday, April 05, 2012

Alternative History - I'm Reading Gingrich?

Normally, I don't read much fiction, but when I ordered a book on the other day that they said it might ship sometime in May, I took a closer look at versions. The kindle version I could get right away, and also the free PC kindle software. Downloaded the kindle app, and was reading the book a few minutes later. I'm now a kindle fan and will buy one.

So I started browsing kindle books, and happened on Newt Gingrich, William Fortschen, and Albert Hanser's "Gettysburg - A Novel of the Civil War". This is an alternative history of the battle of Gettysburg that happened on the first three days of July 1863.
I said what the hell, let's see what this is all about, and downloaded the kindle version.

I love this whole kindle experience, by the way. Books are cheaper, they download in no time at all, and the reading experience is fine.

Bobbie Lee. Just as Lee only
called one of his generals by their
first name, only one person on earth
is allowed to call me Bobbie.

So, as background, what happened at the real battle of Gettysburg, as succinctly as I can put it, was a meeting engagement on July 1 north and west of town, that ended with the routed Union army spending the evening rallying and entrenching on Cemetery Hill and Culps Hill just south of town. They eventually extended their line further south, where it was to be anchored on the roundtops. On July 2, Longstreet's corps executed an en echelon attack against the now fully extended Union left, crushing Sickles idiotically deployed third corps, with Hancock and Meade (and McGilvery, for that matter) barely saving the day after Sickles nearly singlehandedly lost the Civil War by mis-deploying his corps. Longstreet got a brigade up onto the Union position on Cemetery Ridge, which had to withdraw, being unsupported, but proving that the Union line could be breeched. The third day brings the infamous Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble assault, better known as "Picketts Charge".

Gingrich's book recounts the first day pretty much as it happened, but then it diverges dramatically from the actual events, and it works well. We know that on the second day of the real battle, Longstreet argued for a flanking movement around the Union left, to get in their rear, and also cut their lines of communication with their supply base at the railhead in Westminster, Maryland. Lee vetoed this.

In this book, Lee agrees with Longstreet's concept, and maneuvers his army south, flanking Meade, capturing the Union supply depot at Westminster, and establishing a strong defensive position along Pipe Creek, where Meade had originally planned and hoped to fight his own defensive battle. A nice irony, one of many in this book.
PPT Assault
The Army of Northern Virginia is now between Meade's army, and Washington, DC, the one thing Meade had been specifically ordered to prevent from happening.

That's as far as I'll go, not wanting to spoil this book for anyone who might want to read it without knowing how it all turns out. But the amateur Gettysburg historian in me has to point out one troublesome reality with this.

A big reason Lee renewed his attack on the Union center on July 3 was simple logistics. His army, once it was concentrated in the Cashtown/Gettysburg area, could only survive a few days due to lack of supplies. Remember, Lee's artillery ran out of ammunition on the third day. Food and forage were similarly scarce by day three. Logistics was not a Confederate strong suit. This was a major reason for Lee not trying the flanking movement Longstreet proposed. This in addition to the fact that the PPT assault on the third day was not the entire plan and in my opinion stood a good chance of success.

So, the plot device in this book is the capture of Westminster, which allows Lee's army to operate for nearly a month without re-supply from Virginia. I'm frankly not qualified to say whether Lee could have accomplished the capture of Westminster, but for the sake of this otherwise really fun book, let's take it as read that he could have done it. This is fiction, after all, and I don't think this distracts from what the authors are doing with this book one bit..

Pipe Creek Line
And it's well done fiction, from an historical perspective. A big part of the charm of this book is the accurate knowledge the authors bring to the major players in the battle of Gettysburg, and their obvious familiarity with their habits and foibles. For example, Lee refers to General Heth as "Harry" - Harry Heth was the only general under Lee's command who he called by his first name, and the authors know this arcane fact. This sort of knowledge of minutiae, coupled with their using their also obvious knowledge of what actually happened in the real battle to craft ironic alternate situations is very entertaining. The 20th Maine, for example, once again finds itself, ass in the air, anchoring the flank of the Union army as they did in the real battle, only this time they are the right rather than the left flank.

The more detailed knowledge of the actual battle you have, the more fun this book will be. I don't know how this effort stacks up against other alternative history works like Turtledove's stuff, but this is an entertaining read I think, regardless of your knowledge level of the real battle.