Tag Archives: history

On Gettysburg

“Like my father before me, I’m a working man/And like my brother before me, I took a rebel’s stand.” The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Robbie Robertson, Canadian-born songwriter.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the delivery of the Gettysburg Address in 1863.

The address by Abraham Lincoln came four months after the actual battle, at the National Cemetery on the site of the battlefield.

(Sorry to American readers, who know all this. Sorry to those, again, without my interest in history.)

Gettysburg was one of those battles that are genuine historical turning points, like Hastings in 1066 or Manzikert five years later. We tend to believe that, given the North’s much greater industrial strength and population, the South could never have won the Civil War, or the War Between the States as it is known there.

True; but the North could easily have lost, and the South been allowed to secede. One such turning point was the first battle, First Bull Run or First Manassas. (The two sides had the confusing habit of often giving each engagement a different name.)

This was a disaster for the Union, whose forces fled – “The Great Skeddadle,” they called it. Had the army of the South advanced to the capital, not far away, the North would probably not have been able to pursue the war. They didn’t.

The South was a more agrarian society, the (white) inhabitants generally trained to shoot and ride at an early age. Most senior officers in the US Army on the outbreak of hostilities were from the South, and took its side. The North was chronically short of good officers and generals.

Gettysburg was a close run thing. The North, under George Meade, one of the better commanders, had the advantage of capturing Robert E Lee’s battle plan by accident beforehand. The climactic charge on Union lines by Maj Gen George Pickett, which failed, is known as the “high water mark of the Confederacy”. Had he succeeded, or it not taken place at all, Meade could have lost.

(See the magnificent Ted Turner-funded “Gettysburg”, one of the great war films of all time, for a coherent account of the battle.)

Had the North lost, it is arguable whether Lincoln could have pursued the war. There was great opposition in the North, and there were vicious riots protesting the draft in New York even after the victory. What would have happened next is one of history’s great counter-factuals.

In the event Lincoln, largely supported by the men in uniform, won the 1864 election. The North’s superior numbers and industry defeated the south.

Had Lincoln been forced to give up, the Confederacy would have been an independent nation. Texas, which had itself been independent with an ambassador in London before joining the union in 1845 and then seceding along with the other Confederate states, could have gone its own way again. California and the north western territories such as Oregon had not long been part of the United States and might also not have stayed with a weakened Union.

Add Mexico and Canada, both of which had engaged in hostilities with parts of the US, and the map of North America would have looked awfully like that of South America. Lots of independent countries, many with good reason to hate each other. The history of the southern half of the continent is of constant bloody wars over arbitrarily drawn lines on the map.

Look up the Great Paraguayan War, just after the US Civil War, Paraguay versus virtually everyone else. Guess who lost? Or the Chaco War of the 1930s, arguably the most pointless war on record. Had Pickett just held back… Had those battle orders not gone missing… A strangely changed world.


On The Iberian Pyrite Belt

I found myself writing the other day about the Iberian Pyrite Belt, and a mine in southern Spain. It got me wondering again about one of the great mysteries of the ancient world.

Sorry, one for historical enthusiasts like me, then. The Belt is a huge stretch of mineral-rich deposits that runs some 250 km across the bottom half of the Iberian Peninsula, from the Atlantic coast of Portugal well into southern Spain.

It has been mined for some three millennia and parts are still viable today, though there are plenty of abandoned mines such as the Sao Domingo in Portugal.

In the late Bronze Age, say 1,000 BC or later in Europe, there existed a rich and powerful city state in that region of southern Iberia called Tartessos or Tartessus. It is rather less well known than contemporary civilisations, Minoan Crete or Mycenae, for example, because little of the language survives and its location is debatable.

Some have put it around Huelva, some at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River that flows from Seville to the Atlantic. Tartessos was said by Greek historians to be at the mouth of a great river, and there is even, probably, a mention in the Bible, as “Tarshish”.

This lost civilisation will have owed its riches to the Iberian Pyrite Belt, and have traded in the minerals from there. Those Greek historians say it perished in a great flood, most probably because of a shift in the course of that river.

A great, sea-going lost civilisation out beyond the Pillars of Hercules/Straits of Gibraltar, in the Atlantic, then, that perished in a flood? Raises the odd thought.

(Actually, some historians have firmly identified Tartessos as the source of the legend of Atlantis. Some say not, though they accept it definitely existed. That’s historians for you.)

On “Vikings”

We have been watching, en famille, the historical series “Vikings”. This is one of those high budget imported TV packages with superb production values, a sensible script and good acting – many of the cast are Scandinavians and look the part. Not one looks like Brad Pitt. High quality popcorn entertainment, then.

The shots of the longships slipping through the fjords are breathtaking, even if those ships look a bit on the small side to me and there are no mountains in Denmark, where it is allegedly set. (Most of the filming was done in Ireland.)

The first series cost $40 million, reportedly, and the third starts in the spring. Think “Game of Thrones” without quite so many different exotic locations. Or any dragons.

It is also horribly violent, and follows the development of a cast of characters who have absolutely nothing in common with us, in terms of morality, what is deemed acceptable behaviour, and social norms. They rape and pillage, they torture, they slaughter the innocent, because that’s what the Vikings did, wasn’t it?

The series is compulsive, if that is your kind of thing. You really shouldn’t like these people, but perversely, you do. You root for them as they pillage, rather than the defending troops of the English kings. Curious, that suspension of normal moral feelings.

Within two centuries the Vikings had settled here and integrated to the point that the kingdom that fell to the barbarous Normans, themselves the descendants of Viking raiders, was an amalgam of English and Nordic culture. The kings could be drawn from either. Some believe it was a more decent, democratic society than the feudalism imposed by those Normans.