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Monday, November 03, 2008

Fighting for time.

Major-General Lew Wallace had been a rising star in the Union Army in 1862. He fought well during the Fort Donelson campaign and had the makings of a superb commander. Then came the disastrous battle of Shiloh, a horrific bloodbath which saw the Confederate Army of Tennessee come within a hairsbreadth of destroying Ulysses S. Grant's forces in a surprise attack. The career of Grant was nearly destroyed in the debacle. Wallace had no nearly.

He had been in charge of the Union reinforcements and had mishandled what were poorly-written orders by Grant. He marched to the aid of the Federals, found they were not there, then marched back too slowly to contribute decisively to the battle. Grant's career was saved by his brilliant record during the Donelson campaign.

Wallace had nothing comparable to fall back on and was kicked to an irrelevant command, an interesting what-if/if-only haunting him all the way.

In July 1864, however, Wallace returned to the front line. Or, rather, the front line found him.

In that blazing hot summer, Jubal Early's rebels came storming out of the Shenandoah, 15,000 strong.

Straight for Washington, D.C., the most fortified city in the world. Or at least it was when there were enough troops to man the walls.

However, the city had been emptied of most of its troops during the extremely bloody Overland campaign earlier that summer, as Grant ground his way to Richmond and ended up setting up a siege around that city and the crucial rail junction of Petersburg.

There were precious few troops at the capital itself, and Grant saw this nearly too late, finally dispatching the hardened veterans of the Sixth Corps, a division at a time, to the capital.

But they hadn't arrived in D.C. when Early's troops marched into Maryland, and disgraced and forgotten Lew Wallace was staring down the barrel of a cannon with almost nothing to stop them.

Until, at nearly the very last minute, the first of the Sixth Corps divisions arrived. Wallace deployed the veterans and some very green troops, including 100-day enlistees, at Monocacy Junction, Maryland. All told, he had roughly 6000 troops, but he'd chosen his ground well. After a day of see-saw fighting, greater numbers told and the Federals were driven from the field, having suffered 20% losses. But they had bought a day's delay and the Confederates were fought out and too tired to march immediately to Washington. The next day, Early's troops arrived at the Washington outworks and saw green conscripts manning the forts, and too few of them. As he got his men in line to attack, he saw a dust cloud to the south.

The rest of the Sixth Corps had arrived and marched into line, with more veterans behind them.

Game over, and Early knew it. To attack now would be folly, and after some skirmishing that saw a young Oliver Wendell Holmes roar "GET DOWN, YOU FOOL!" to a bemused President Lincoln who was visiting the fortifications, Early reluctantly retreated, ending the last Confederate invasion of the north. As Grant said in his memoirs:

If Early had been but one day earlier, he might have entered the capital before the arrival of the reinforcements I had sent. ... General Wallace contributed on this occasion by the defeat of the troops under him, a greater benefit to the cause than often falls to the lot of a commander of an equal force to render by means of a victory.

Wallace, his honor partially restored, survived the war and later went on to write one of the greatest bestsellers of the 19th Century: Ben Hur.

Thanks for the history lesson, Dale, but is there a larger point?

Yep, there is.

This election is the pro-life movement's Battle of Monocacy. Sure, McCain blows an uncertain (or sometimes worse) trumpet on the life issues. No, he's not going to be able to reverse Roe if he gets elected. We're not going to win a decisive victory with him at the helm. But what a McCain triumph does is buy us time to consolidate and protect our (very real) gains and raise up or season the next generation of leaders. Those who can take the fight forward, the ones who have been more committed from the beginning and who breathe it and feel it differently from McCain's generation. Like Palin and Jindal, for starters.

I'm going into this with my eyes wide open, and I don't expect much. But holding the line is good enough, especially given the alternative. Which, after the capital falls, is a minimum of four years of desperate routs and rear-guard actions.

It's your pick, but there's something to be said for fighting even when you can't win the war that very day.

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