Sunday, May 27, 2018

Northshire talk this Friday

Robert C. Conner - The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant

When: Friday, Jun 1, 2018 - 6:00 PM
Where: Northshire Bookstore, 422 Broadway
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866

Robert C. Conner, a former Grant Cottage
Interpreter, will read from and discuss his
spellbinding novel of Grant’s last days.

So says the notice, and I will read a bit from
the author's note, explaining why I wrote
a novel and not another biography (my
previous book was a nonfiction life of
General Gordon Granger).
But mostly I'll be talking about Grant, and the
people he knew, with photos projected
on a screen (yes, yes it's PowerPoint).
Come on up, keep civilization alive, throw out
questions and arguments. It'll be fun.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

From Khartoum to New York

Following up yesterday's post about British generals and Russian novelists, I note that Leo Tolstoy and Charles George Gordon served as junior officers in opposing armies at the Siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War.  Gordon then made his reputation working for the emperor of China and khedive of Egypt, as well as the British government. He was the first famous general to die in 1885, killed on January 26 at the fall of Khartoum. Grant, of course, died the same year on July 23, in bed at Mount McGregor, and his death was about as much of a journalistic sensation as Gordon's.

The poster is from the 1966 movie Khartoum, with Charlton Heston as Gordon, which I was impressed by at the age of 12 and on a later viewing. The British Guardian newspaper was less impressed in 2009. While I agree that the film took too many liberties with the historical facts, which I did not do in The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant, the 2009 review is crudely PC, and fails to mention Gordon's vigorous anti-slavery record.

The death of Gordon is discussed in Manhattan by Nellie Grant Sartoris, Tom Sweeny, Ely Parker, Matias Romero, Frank Herron and Grant himself in Chapter 11 of my book, with others including Adam Badeau and Samuel Clemens participating as the topics of talk come back to the American Civil War.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Turning Points

This is a view from the north, taken a few days ago (by Barbara Conner) of the 1890s Dix Bridge, which spans the main channel of the Hudson River north of Schuylerville, NY. It is where "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne's British and Hessian army crossed what was then known as the North River (as Schuylerville was known as Saratoga), on September 13-14, 1777.
Burgoyne already knew his campaign was going wrong. He was short of supplies, troops and horses. The western wing of the larger British campaign had been repelled from Fort Stanwix, and Burgoyne's own troops had been defeated at the Battle of Bennington the month before. Yet he crossed the river, to the same side as General Horatio Gates' waiting American army, because the road to Albany was on the western side. If the Civil War's turning point came in early May 1863, the Revolutionary War seems to have been decided by this unopposed crossing.
Burgoyne did not yet know that Gates' chief engineering officer, Col. Tadeusz Kosciuszko, was establishing an excellent defensive position at Bemis Heights, eight miles south of Saratoga (i.e. modern Schuylerville). But he knew he had uncertain prospects of reinforcement from the British base of New York City. The overall British commander, Gen. William Howe, had embarked from New York on a campaign against Philadelphia, the American capital. Howe had already won, unknown to Burgoyne, a victory at Brandywine. But Howe's subsequent capture of Philadelphia would in no way compensate for the British surrender at Saratoga.
In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (like Solzhenitsyn, a former soldier) lays out a theory that history works out its own ends, irrespective of the actions of human participants. It is not entirely convincing, but seems to apply here. If Burgoyne had retreated, instead of crossing the river, he probably would have saved his army, and with it the possibility of British victory in the war. But retreat would have been an admission of defeat. Instead, inevitably perhaps, he pressed on toward disaster.
Grant, in 1863, like Burgoyne in 1777, plunged riskily onward into the heart of enemy territory -- with a very different result.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Big Black River Bridge

`The Harper's illustration is of the Battle of Big Black River Bridge, which took place on this date in 1863. It shows a bayonet charge led by General Mike Lawler (an Irish immigrant like Tom Sweeny), of a brigade in the division of General Eugene Carr (the military mentor of Frank Herron), in the corps of John McLernand (one of several generals underappreciated in Grant's Memoirs). It came the day after a major Union victory at Champion Hill, which came after several other engagements in the preceding two-and-a-half weeks.
Lawler's charge swept the Confederates back into Vicksburg, upon which city in the next few days Grant, the army commander, launched two unsuccessful assaults. The second of these, like the attack on Cold Harbor the next year, he regretted ordering, as he wrote in his honest book. Then, at Vicksburg, he and the army settled into a siege. 
But in the preceding three weeks, in the mobile phase of the campaign which ended at Big Black River Bridge, Grant's generalship was as brilliant and significant as any in the history of America.
Strategically, the biggest decision came in early May, when he elected not to move south to join General Banks in Louisiana, as Lincoln and General Halleck expected, but went east, into the heart of Confederate territory between two rebel armies, and away from his Mississippi River supply line.
At the same time in Virginia, after winning for Lee the Battle of Chancellorsville, Stonewall Jackson lay dying, shot in error there by his own troops. That time, mid-way through the war, with its outcome very much in doubt, was the true turning point. Or so thinks the cancer-riddled former president a generation later as he is drifting into death, in The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant.
The Confederate army in Vicksburg would surrender to Grant on July 4, 1863, which happened to be the day after the conclusion of the Army of the Potomac's great defensive victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. July 4 also was the birthday not just of the USA but of both Nellie Grant Sartoris and her nephew, Ulysses Grant III. They were among the many family members with Grant in July 1885 on Mount McGregor.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Sherman, Jefferson and Solzhenitsyn

So maybe my last post, on the villainy of Benedict Arnold, was a tad preachy. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it in The Gulag Archipelago“... the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
The close friendship of William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant was strained but not overcome by political differences. Sherman was not a preachy guy, and laudably unsentimental about warfare. He opposed Grant's focus on the rights of the former slaves in Reconstruction, as well as his Indian peace policy. There is a moral element to those political matters, and most modern people, including me, are inclined to side with Grant's defense of blacks and Indians.
Before the war, when Grant was living on a Missouri plantation with his in-laws, he participated in the slave system. Yet he never shook off his antipathy to the "peculiar institution", which Sherman, living in Louisiana, seemed more comfortable with.
In 1859, at a time when Grant badly needed money, he did not sell the only slave he ever owned, instead writing manumission papers to free him. Compare that action to Thomas Jefferson holding on to his slaves at Monticello, not even freeing them in his will as Washington had done a generation earlier, and using their lives to undergird his own lifelong luxury. Is that record made better or worse by the facts that Jefferson was a sincere intellectual opponent of slavery in his youth, and in his maturity abolished the international slave trade? Jefferson's behavior is further complicated by his apparent sexual relationship with a slave, Sally Hemings.
Grant was a famously faithful and straitlaced family man, while Sherman was not, but it is dull to reduce matters of morality to sexual relations. Grant had failings, as he was all too aware at the end of his life. Even his last great accomplishment, the Memoirs, while a masterpiece of history and literature, is an account as fallible as anyone else's (see its unfair treatment of generals such as Rosecrans and Granger).
And Sherman, for all his mighty flaws, is a great American, albeit lesser than Grant. The bare facts (even when they can be nailed down) do not do his character justice. This can be taken as an argument for the limits of biography and in favor of historical fiction.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Four score and six years ...

Lincoln, of course, said "Four score and seven years ago" to commence the Gettysburg Address in 1863, by harking back to the Declaration of Independence of 1776. But it was the Battle (or battles) of Saratoga the next year, 1777, which in that generation made possible the endurance of "a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
There were two battles on the same ground there, three weeks apart, in September and October 1777, followed by the British retreat seven miles north up the Hudson, and then their surrender. It led to French entry into the war, and another British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, and American independence. The 155-foot monument built to commemorate the Saratoga victory was completed in 1883, and was pointed out to the dying Grant from the overlook at Mount McGregor, as chronicled in The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant.
Yesterday was rainy in Saratoga County, when a dozen people including my friend Larry and I took a tour that wound up at the famous 1887 monument to Benedict Arnold and his wounded leg -- a wound suffered at the climax of the second battle. There is an inscription on the back, but it declines to mention the traitor's name. A lot of trees blew down this year in a spring storm, and some parts of the battlefield were off limits.
In the photo, our expert tour guide, Dick Farrell, is in the brown hat. He said, contrary to some previous versions of the story, that the mercurial Arnold was operating under the orders of the commanding general, Horatio Gates, who deserves high praise.
Arnold's treachery later in the war is often ascribed to his jealousy over the promotions of other generals, or the influence of his Tory wife, the former Peggy Shippen. Dick put it down mostly to money, the 10,000 pounds the British offered (they only paid six thousand, because Arnold failed to deliver West Point). His betrayal seems less a matter of warped psychology, or an interesting play in the great game, than of failed morality, of doing the wrong thing. Fleeing from George Washington and the imminent prospect of discovery, Arnold reached a British boat in the river, and, Dick said, tried to have its captain arrest as traitors the two Americans whom he had ordered to row him over.

There are harsh critics of Lincoln, Grant, and Robert E. Lee, and many defenders of the first two  would call the latter a traitor worse than Arnold (I do think it was Lee's friend and fellow Virginian George Thomas who made the right decision in 1861). But Lincoln, Grant and Lee (and Thomas and Washington, too) were also capable of a moral grandeur which Arnold forever forfeited when he tried to give up West Point.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Mark Twain at High Water

The first two books published by Charles L. Webster and Co. in the United States were The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), and Grant's Memoirs. Both came out in 1885.
Webster was the husband of the niece of Clemens, who had essentially set up the firm himself because he thought he was getting a raw deal from other publishers. He thought the same about the proposed deal his friend Grant was considering from the Century publishing company, and persuaded the general to go with the Webster firm instead.
Huckleberry Finn was the greatest American novel written up to that time -- and perhaps up to this time. Grant's book remains the best presidential memoir (albeit not about  his presidency). Both works made considerable money for their authors (or in Grant's case the author's widow), and the publisher.
Clemens' focus on lecturing and business, especially publishing Grant's book, left him less time for writing in 1885, although he did come up with the superb short story or autobiographical fragment, The Private History of a Campaign That Failed. That story was among the last works which drew upon the creative wellspring of his Missouri childhood and youth. In the future, he would enjoy less literary success, and  struggle to overcome near bankruptcy (the result of business failures and personal  extravagance) with something of the same mettle that Grant showed in 1884-85. Also in Clemens' future were the deaths of his wife and two of his three daughters (they had already lost a son), which left a deep sadness over his last years.
Clemens is a character in The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant.  His interaction with another character, the former general Frank Herron, relates to the 1885 short story mentioned above, and moves away from humor.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Sherman and the Va-Va-Voom Factor

Not with this lady, the sculptor Vinnie Ream, although Sherman's biographer Michael Fellman claims they did have an affair in the 1870s. Fellman also reports a later relationship of William Tecumseh Sherman with the much less photographed Mary Audenried. That liaison was winding down in `1885 when The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant is set.
While it is not certain that Sherman (who was married) had these and other affairs, Fellman makes a good case for them. Sherman certainly had a very different character than his even more distinguished friend, the faithful husband and good family man Grant.
I had fun writing dialogue for Sherman, who was an energetic and controversial conversationalist, but structured his interactions with Mary Audenried from her point of view. The sex scenes' va-va-voom factor is perhaps limited by the ages of the protagonists -- he was 65, she 40 -- and the status of the relationship. Mrs. Audenried (the widow of an officer who had served on Sherman's staff), is in my version growing jaded and cynical about their long-running affair. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Problem of Publicity

Four years ago, Diana O'Brien, portraying the poet Emily Dickinson, and a goofy-looking Bob Conner flanked the actor Treat Williams on the porch of Grant Cottage. I'd just given him a tour, and Williams was thinking about playing Grant on screen. I don't think he's done that yet, but in 2016 was reportedly writing a play about the general.
Last Sunday, my novel The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant (which, the author's note will inform you, started out as a play) was mentioned in this Gazette article on historical sites in the region, and I'm told they will cite it again regarding book talks and so forth. But they apparently won't be running a story/review like The Saratogian did.
While I enjoyed working with a small press, and appreciate that I did not have to pay anything to get published, the big problem is getting the word out to people who might be interested. There's not a lot of spare money to scatter the seed of review copies on stony soil, although if any potential reviewers -- say a  Civil War periodical -- want one, they should contact me or the publisher.
For my previous book, I gave a lot of talks, pretty much saturating the general area where I live. For the new one, I've focused more on this blog, although I do have a talk coming up June 1 at the Northshire book store in Saratoga Springs, and will be at a Grant Cottage-sponsored event in Wilton in August
Meanwhile, since I haven't heard from Lin-Manuel Miranda, maybe I should try to find out if Williams would be interested in picking up a copy.

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