Archives For Military

A unique and compelling character, John Brown Gordon was one of Georgia’s most consequential political and military leaders of the nineteenth century. He studied at the University of Georgia, though he dropped out shortly before graduation to read law. He possessed no formal military training, yet he rapidly ascended through the officer ranks of the Confederate army to where, by the end of the war, he commanded a corps in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Apart from the protagonist in my Civil War historical novel That Deadly Space, John B. Gordon’s role is one of unequalled importance. His fictionalized involvement in the novel is that of a mentor to, and the commander of, the central character Conor Rafferty. Conor serves with John Gordon in the battles at Antietam, Gettysburg, The Wilderness, Petersburg, and at the close of the war near Appomattox Court House.

What made John Gordon so unique? For starters, he was a gifted military commander with astonishing bravery.

At Antietam, the audacious Gordon led his regiment in the desperate struggle at an old eroded farming road that would thereafter be referred to as Bloody Lane. He was shot twice in the same leg, once in the arm, then the shoulder, and finally in the face. He was eventually nursed back to health due in large measure to the efforts of his wife, who travelled with him throughout the war.

During the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania, Gordon’s brigade occupied Wrightsville, on the Susquehanna River. When Union militia burned the long covered bridge spanning the river to thwart Gordon’s crossing, embers from the fire quickly spread to Wrightsville. Gordon formed his Confederate troops into a bucket brigade and managed to prevent the fire from destroying much of the town.

At the war’s end, as the defeated Confederate soldiers were turning in their muskets and other associated military equipment, Union General Joshua Chamberlain, who earned the Medal of Honor at Gettysburg, called for his men to salute their conquered foe. Seeing Chamberlain’s salute, Gordon sat upon his horse, drew his sabre, and returned Chamberlain’s salute. It was an impressive display of mutual respect that would never be forgotten by either general, nor by those who close enough to witness it.

After the war, John B. Gordon served as a United States Senator and later as Governor of Georgia. Gordon opposed Reconstruction, and was thought to be the titular head of the Ku Klux Klan though his role there was never conclusively determined. However, as a politician he shaped a vision of national unification, an economic vitality of a South free of slavery, and care for veterans. He died in 1904 at the age of 71 and was buried in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery. A crowd estimated at 75,000 attended the service.

A man of many talents, John B. Gordon was indeed a unique and consequential figure of his time.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Maryland battlefield at Antietam (or Sharpsburg, to the Confederates) where, on September 17, 1862, the bloodiest single-day battle of the Civil War took place. At the conclusion of the day’s fighting, over 22,000 combined casualties were incurred. The battle pitted Confederate General Robert E. Lee against Union General George B. McClellan in what became a standstill by the end of the battle. The fighting took place in a cornfield, at a bridge crossing, and at a sunken road worn down by years of wagon traffic. The carnage was horrific all across the battle area, but it was at this bloody lane that best illustrated to me the slaughter that occurred at Antietam.

The fighting began at Bloody Lane with Confederates firing into successive Union lines of attack with devastating results. By the time the Union soldiers finally flanked the embattled Confederates, the road was so thick with bodies that it would have been possible to walk its length without setting foot on the ground. Colonel John B. Gordon, commanding a Confederate regiment, suffered five serious wounds, one to his face. Gordon would recover and eventually lead an entire Corps near the end of the war. The Union suffered 3,000 casualties, the Confederates 2,600. The fight lasted from 9:30 am until 1:00 pm. When the last of the Confederates finally peeled away from Bloody Lane, the exhausted Federals no longer had the momentum to pursue.

Here is a description of my main character in my novel That Deadly Space, Conor Rafferty, awakening in a converted hospital in Sharpsburg:

Conor awakened several hours later in a house in Sharpsburg that was being utilized as a field hospital. A doctor saw him attempt to sit up and walked over to check on him.
“I’m Doctor Whitmire, one of the regimental surgeons. Your wounds have been dressed, Captain, and your wrist has been immobilized. You should be fine in due course.”
“Did you have to amputate anything?” Conor asked as he began taking an inventory of his extremities.
“No, nothing that wasn’t already missing,” he said with a point toward his hand, which was heavily bandaged. “You were only minutes away from expiring due to blood loss. And no, we didn’t take your arm or leg off, and your scalp wound was sufficiently minor that we didn’t take your head off.”
“Sufficiently minor. All right, then,” Conor said, feeling the bandage on his head. “With all due respect, Doctor, I find your humor so sufficiently minor that you’ll forgive me if I don’t laugh myself into a coma. Do you have any word from the field on the outcome?”
“It’s stopped. Appears to be a stalemate, and a damned bloody one, at that. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“Where is Colonel Gordon? Do you have any word on his condition?”
“I haven’t seen him here. I don’t know where he is.”
The surgeon then heard his name called and abruptly left.

By 5:30 pm, the battle was over. The wounded were treated in makeshift hospitals throughout the region. Wounded Confederates who could not be transported by wagon back across the Potomac into Virginia were left to the mercy of the Union doctors. McClellan did not pursue the battered Confederates, angering President Lincoln, who would soon replace him. Lincoln, incidentally, used the standoff as enough of a victory to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. The United States’ war aims thus changed from preserving the Union to preserving the Union and freeing the slaves.

Antietam, thus, was a battle of major importance.

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Once again it is the occasion of the U.S. Marine Corps’ birthday, and I often think about this officer when I consider the Corps’ rich heritage. His name was Michael P. Ryan. In 1973, I was about to complete my obligation to the Marines and would soon leave Okinawa to return home to my wife and two young sons in Atlanta. By chance, I happened to be in the Officers Club one night when Gen Ryan, the Commanding General of the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force, dropped by as a guest of our Battalion Commander. I introduced myself to Gen. Ryan and informed him that I would soon rotate home and separate from the Marine Corps.

Gen. Ryan graciously thanked me for my service. I noticed the Navy Cross medal he wore, the highest decoration the Naval Service can award for combat valor, second only to the Medal of Honor. In addition, I remembered from my study of Marine Corps history that he had served with great distinction at the bloody World War II battle of Tarawa in November 1943.

“General,” I asked, “what’s the one thing you remember most from Tarawa?”

Gen. Ryan replied without hesitation, “The salute.”

The battle of Tarawa was the first U.S. offensive in Central Pacific. To get to Japan, the Americans needed to take the Marianas; to take the Marianas, the U.S. needed to take the Marshalls; and to take the Marshalls, it was necessary to take Betio, on the western side of Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands.

Tarawa was the first U.S. invasion that was opposed at the landing beaches. Planners had expected a rising tide to provide a five-foot depth over the reef, but the depth was only three feet. The Higgins boats ferrying the Marines from ship to shore needed four feet of depth. Consequently, Marines had to wade ashore under murderous fire, greatly slowing their progress. “Situation in doubt” was communicated to the top U.S. commanders.

Casualties in first waves were shocking. It was a scene of utter chaos and destruction. Still, the young Marines kept advancing.

Then-Maj. Mike Ryan landed his company to the west of the main landing areas where he consolidated the stragglers from units that had been obliterated on the beaches. Suddenly, out of the smoke comes an old staff sergeant, dragging a wounded hip, who sought out Maj. Ryan and asked what he could do to assist. When Maj. Ryan explained the situation and suggested a leadership role for the sergeant, the man straightened, voiced a resolute “aye-aye, sir,” and gave a crisp Marine Corps salute.

The attack was a success and provided pressure on the enemy’s right flank, which eventually broke. The battle turned on Maj. Ryan’s audacious gallantry and inspiring leadership. The Japanese commander had said before the battle that it would take a million Marines a hundred years to take Tarawa. It took Maj. Mike Ryan, a shot-up old staff sergeant, and 5,000 other leathernecks 76 hours.

Mike Ryan never saw the old NCO after the battle, so he never knew whether the man had survived the battle or the war. He only knew that, of the tens of thousands of salutes he received in a long and distinguished military career, the sergeant’s salute at Tarawa was the one he cherished the most.

On this the 241st birthday of the Marine Corps, I salute the Marines of the past who made our Corps into the finest fighting organization in the world. And I salute the Marines of the present who have maintained those core values of honor, courage, and commitment.

Semper Fi.

 

GeneralDavis2Gen. Raymond G. Davis, United States Marine Corps, is one of the more legendary figures in the fabled history of the Corps. He was a combat veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He was awarded virtually every decoration this nation can bestow for acts of gallantry, including the Medal of Honor. And he attained four-star rank when he was named Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps near the end of his illustrious career.

His Medal of Honor citation reads in part: “Always in the thick of the fighting Lt. Col. Davis led his battalion over 3 successive ridges in the deep snow in continuous attacks against the enemy and, constantly inspiring and encouraging his men throughout the night, brought his unit to a point within 1,500 yards of the surrounded rifle company by daybreak. Although knocked to the ground when a shell fragment struck his helmet and 2 bullets pierced his clothing, he arose and fought his way forward at the head of his men until he reached the isolated Marines.”

The temperature that night in Korea was 30 degrees below zero. He rescued his Marines and opened up a critical mountain pass.

When I was a Basic School student at Quantico, Virginia as a Marine second lieutenant in 1970, Gen. Davis attended a formal dinner for our class, by tradition referred to as Mess Night. I knew of his exploits in combat, and I saw the Medal of Honor around his neck and the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and numerous other decorations on his chest. He was soft-spoken, of average height and build, but he had the unmistakable presence and aura that great leaders exude, all without a trace of vanity or condescension.

When I mentioned to Gen. Davis that I was from his home state of Georgia, he asked what school I had attended. I knew the general had graduated from Georgia Tech, and when I mentioned that I had attended his school’s chief rival, he smiled and said, “Ah, a Georgia Bulldog.”

The years passed, and I now wish that I had arranged to visit him before his death in 2003, at age 88. I could have taken along the three novels I’ve written and we could have talked about the football fortunes of Georgia and Georgia Tech. And I’m sure we would have talked about the Marine Corps. What a rich wellspring of Marine history he would have been.

Thank you, Gen. Davis, for the remarkable service you rendered this nation in its times of need. You will forever be remembered by your fellow Marines.

arl2More than 285,000 people have been buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Headstones of veterans from the Revolutionary War to the current struggle in Afghanistan adorn Arlington’s rolling Virginia hills. Soldiers of every age, sex, race, and creed are buried there. Many were killed in action, some dying in places named Bull Run, Belleau Wood, Iwo Jima, Hungnam, Quang Tri, Fallujah, and Kandahar.

There are generals and admirals and decorated heroes at Arlington, along with astronauts, Supreme Court justices, and two U.S. presidents. The Tomb of the Unknowns is guarded around the clock and holds the remains of one unknown each from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.

Suppose for a moment we could hear from a group of twenty-year-old soldiers who died on the battlefields of each of our wars since the Revolution. Also suppose they never achieved high rank, never became fathers or grandfathers, and never tasted their mother’s cooking again. They were never again buoyed when their misty-eyed fathers extended a hand while saying, “I’m proud of you, son,” or saw the look of admiration on the faces of their younger siblings. They were just scared, homesick, acne-faced young men who confronted the enemy, fought bravely, and met a violent death in the flower of their youth.

So what would they tell us about what they understood they died for? What would they think of the America we now have, as opposed to the one they knew and loved? What advice would they give us about how we should live our lives, or treat others, or act as citizens of a free and great nation?

What would they tell us?

If we told them about how some of us felt our individual liberties seem to be eroding more and more, would the young solider of the Revolution roll his eyes and giggle at the seeming abundance of liberty we now enjoy? If we complained about the deep-rooted unethical and corrupt behavior of so many of our public officials nowadays, would the Civil War solider shrug his shoulders as if to say, “What else is new?” If we complained about having to deal with a ruthless, ideological enemy who wanted to blow us all up, would the World War II soldier say, “Been there, done that.” If we expressed our concern over our nation’s seeming incoherent foreign policy, would the Vietnam soldier consider the issue for a brief moment before erupting in loud laughter? But what about Benghazi? The American people don’t seem to care about this, we explain to the Korean War soldier. “Yeah? So get over it,” he might say.

But if we asked those young warriors if they would do it all over again, knowing their outcomes would still be the same, what do you think they would say? I don’t know about you, but my strong sense is they would all say, “Yes! My America was worth dying for.”

Is our America still worth dying for?

Well, ask a twenty-year-old soldier on active duty. He comes from the same stuff as did those who preceded him, and it’s good stuff indeed— firm, unselfish, enduring stuff. Ask today’s young soldier if the multiple deployments are worth it; if seeing a buddy’s limbs blown in different directions by an IED is part of the price; if America, despite its divisiveness and imperfections, is still worth a small plot in Arlington.

Again, my strong sense is they would say, “Yes!” They still believe in the greatness and goodness and resiliency of America. They still want to make a difference. They honor their brothers-in-arms from Arlington by their service and their sacrifice, and in so doing they honor us. All of us. Red state, blue state, every state.

May God bless them for it. And bless those in Arlington and other military cemeteries whose voices are silent.