Sunday, January 25, 2009

Curious Comparisons

I can think offhand of just two veterans of the US Civil War who wrote at any length on the Thirty Years’ War: Theodore Ayrault Dodge and John Watts de Peyster. Both served in the Federal Army of the Potomac, Dodge in the infantry and De Peyster in the artillery.

Only Dodge’s writings, as exemplified by his magnum opus, Great Captains, have enduring value, and I’ll probably return to that work in a future post. But De Peyster’s rambling, shambling, and at times plainly strange forays into the rich history of the Thirty Years’ War have at the least a certain antiquarian interest for the modern reader, chiefly as illustrative of the blind Nativism that characterized large segments of the officer corps of the US Army and polite society in the northeast for the greater part of the 19th century and continued in a residual sense well into the mid-20th century.

This Nativism, composed in large part of anti-Catholicism and anti-foreign (mainly anti-Irish) convictions, saw history as a morality play in which the heritors of the Protestant Revolution had supplanted the decadent, reactionary Catholic powers of Europe. Quite naturally, in the eyes of De Peyster and others, the Thirty Years’ War marked an enormous step forward in that process.

To return to the subject line, De Peyster in one of his rambles provided a comparison of some Thirty Years’ War generals to generals of the Civil War. For the life of me, I can’t fathom his thinking in this exercise, but then that’s the nature of facile historical comparisons. You either buy them or you don’t (for example, the carefully-cultivated Obama-Lincoln parallel: Both are politicians from Illinois—therefore Obama is “like” Lincoln).

The following is from De Peyster’s article “The Thirty Years’ War: With Special Reference to the Military Operations and Influence of the Swedes” in The United Service (Dec., 1884):

... [T]he Archduke Leopold, in some respects, resembled Hood; Gallas, in others, McClellan; Piccolomini, a Lee, in his comprehension of the strength of positions; Koenigsmarck, a “Stonewall” Jackson in enterprise; Pappenheim, exactly a Sheridan; Wrangel Junior, might recall Sherman, able, erratic, and ever looking to the end; Condé was a butterfly general, who took the field in summer, had the support of the best in the French service, and rested on his laurels in winter, a Grant in pertinacity; Torstensson, and in a far less degree Turenne, was a Thomas. In this comparison there is no intention to introduce the question of morals, since, with the exception of Gustavus, Horn, and Torstensson, morals were an unknown quantity.

(That last sentence is a stunner: De Peyster states that morals haven’t entered into his calculus and then stakes out the moral high ground for three Swedes, including the king, Gustavus Adolphus.)

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