Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Gideon Pillow: Coward, Liar and Scoundrel for the Ages (But, Oh, What a Name!)

The Glory of a Great Name
In the movie Shakespeare in Love, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare are discussing Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter when Marlowe suggests the character Mercutio.  Later, Viola outlines the idea of Twelfth Night with a Duke Orsino.  “Good name,” Shakespeare says both times with admiration and a little envy, and I can entirely relate. As a writer, a good name can fill me with admiration, elation, and downright covetousness.  And so it was when, researching the Civil War, I stumbled across the perfidious Gideon Pillow.

As I pondered the near perfection of the moniker I could only sigh deeply. Since the real Pillow could not be incorporated into Beaufort 1849, and since naming a fictional character after a real person alive at the time could cause confusion, there was no way to include the glorious name in my book. I had to be satisfied with calling one of my characters Gideon Pickens, a weak echo at best. But there is more to Mr. Gideon Pillow than just his name! As Henry Birch says in Beaufort 1849, “My, my. We have a complete bounder on our hands.”

Born in Tennessee in 1806, Gideon Pillow practiced law in his home state as the partner of future president, James K Polk. Through his connections with Polk, he served as Brigadier General of the Tennessee Militia. Ten years later, when the Mexican-American War started up, Pillow deftly used political patronage to join the U.S. Army as a brigadier general. And then in 1847 President Polk promoted him to major general!  Lesson learned: make friends with those who will ascend to high places.

So far, so good. At the age of 41, Pillow appeared to be a rising star in the military. But then he made the mistake of crossing General Winfield Scott, commander of American forces in Mexico.  Now, “Old Fuss and Feathers” Scott is considered by many historians to be one of the ablest generals in American military history. (He was also responsible for at least a portion of the terrible human toll during the Cherokee removal from Georgia, but that’s another story.) After the major action of the war--action during which Pillow had altogether shown a great deal more incompetence than competence--Pillow felt he hadn’t received enough recognition and glory. So under the pseudonym “Leonidas,” he sent letters to the New Orleans Daily Delta and Picayune newspapers, as well the American Star and the Pittsburgh Post, crediting himself for recent American victories at Contreras and Churubusco. (Interesting to see that even in that day and age people worked the news media spin.)

Can't beat the caption above
Scott, however, knew very well that Pillow had done next to nothing to achieve those victories and that others deserved the credit.  When the dastardly letters were exposed as Pillow’s handiwork, Scott arranged for a court of inquiry into the matter.  Believing Scott’s actions politically motivated, President Polk came to the defense of his former law partner and recalled Scott to Washington. During the court of inquiry investigation, Pillow persuaded Major Archibald Burns to claim authorship of the letters and publicly take the fall for him. It was not widely believed however, and Pillow was discharged from the army all the same.

Said Scott in his memoirs, Pillow was "amiable and possessed of some acuteness, but the only person I have ever known who was wholly indifferent in the choice between truth and falsehood, honesty and dishonesty:—ever as ready to attain an end by the one as the other, and habitually boastful of acts of cleverness at the total sacrifice of moral character.”

Always ambitious, Pillow went on to try for the nomination for vice president but failed twice, in 1852 and again in 1856.  His next shot for public glory would be the Civil War. 

When the war began, Pillow joined the Confederate army as a brigadier general in the Western Theater.  He is best remembered for two battles, the first being the Battle of Fort Donelson.  Fort Donelson was a Confederate stronghold in Tennessee that protected the vital manufacturing and arsenal city of Nashville.  The battle turned out to be Ulysses S. Grant’s first big success, and indeed was a vital victory for the North at a time when the Union army was showing little progress at all.

Now Fort Donelson was under the command of Brigadier General John B. Floyd, a political appointee who, although he had been Secretary for War for the United States right up until nearly the Secession, had no actual experience in conducting war.  Second-in-command was our friend, Gideon Pillow, who in theory had experience in the Mexico, but as we know was really a fraud who tended to talk big and do little.

Confederate troops at Fort Donelson numbered 18,000, whereas Grant had about 25,000 Union troops at his disposal.  To capture a fortified position generally took a three to one advantage in numbers, so you can see Grant had almost no business even considering attacking Fort Donelson.  But fresh from his victory over nearby Fort Henry (mostly due to the badly-engineered Fort Henry conveniently flooding the Confederates out) Grant was confident of success at Fort Donelson as well.  It turns out this confidence was largely due to his knowledge that Gideon Pillow was in command inside that fort.  Said Grant in his memoirs:
Pillow deflator
“I had known General Pillow in Mexico, and judged that with any force, no matter how small, I could march up to within gunshot of any intrenchments he was given to hold. I said this to the officers of my staff at the time. I knew that Floyd was in command, but he was no soldier, and I judged that he would yield to Pillow’s pretensions.”

And Pillow did not disappoint! And yet to be fair, Pillow did actually achieve success in battle before he managed to completely screw it up.  With the fort surrounded in large part by Union troops, the Confederate officers knew things looked bad for them, so at dawn Pillow directed an assault of 10,000 men into the unprotected right flank of the Union line in an attempt to open up an escape route.  This way they would cede the fort but not lose the men.

Surprisingly, luck went with him. Pillow had a massive force filled with talented men, among them Nathan Bedford Forrest, and he had the advantage of surprise. Not expecting the Confederates to take action that morning, Grant was away consulting with a gunboat officer too wounded to come and make a report to him.  Other than telling his underlings to stand their ground, he didn’t leave much in the way of instructions, so when Pillow’s forces attacked, they found unorganized resistance, brigadier generals unwilling to help each other without explicit orders from Grant, and troops who were curiously clueless about how to resupply themselves with ammunition even when there was plenty lying about in boxes on the ground. 

After a few hours of heavy fighting, the Confederates pushed through and the escape route was clear!  The Confederate troops fought with backpacks of three days provisions on their backs.  They were ready to head to south to safety.

The heat of battle
It was right about then that Grant returned from his visit to his wounded officer.  Much to his surprise he found a battle going on, a battle in which his side was being routed. Wounded and demoralized men were everywhere; noise, smoke and chaos abounded.  Characteristic of Grant, he didn’t freak out.  (No matter how bad things were, Grant never freaked out, a good quality in a general.)  He quickly figured out that the Confederates were pressing for escape not a combat victory, he determined where they would be weakest, and he started giving orders.  From his memoirs:
 “I directed Colonel Webster to ride with me and call out to the men as we passed: ‘Fill your cartridge-boxes, quick, and get into line; the enemy is trying to escape and he must not be permitted to do so.’  This acted like a charm.  The men only wanted some one to give them a command.”

He had one general attack the enemy's west side, the other the enemy’s east.  And then Grant had his turn of luck in the expected form of Pillow’s bad judgment.  Just when the Confederates had created their escape route, and indeed, were halfway to leaving, for some incomprehensible reason Pillow decided to regroup and resupply his troops before pushing forward.  To the amazement of all he ordered his troops back into their trenches, and all advantages gained by the Confederates that morning were lost. Grant quickly exploited the opening given to him, and by the end of the day the Union army was poised to take the fort.

That night was a bad one for the Confederate leadership.  General Floyd was edgy. Having committed what amounted to treason as U.S. Secretary of War (shipping arms from northern armories to southern ones to better position the South when Secession came was just one example of why the North might like to hang him), he decided to skedaddle out while the going was good and offered the command of the 18,000 troops to his second-in-command, Gideon Pillow.  But Pillow then decided that it was also too dangerous for him to be captured for reasons known only to himself.  So he handed the command to third-in-command, Brigadier General Simon P. Buckner who accepted responsibility for the welfare of the troops, and Floyd and Pillow fled in the dark of night.  Nathan Bedford Forrest, furious at the general level of incompetence and stupidity, said, “I did not come here to surrender my command,” and stormed out.  He also left during the night, escaping with his cavalry of 700 by mucking through swamps and fording swollen creeks to the south.

Though the next morning Grant would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender from Bruckner, he and Bruckner were old buddies from West Point and the Mexican war.  They discussed Pillow’s flight the previous night, and how Pillow had expressed concern that his capture would be a disaster for the Southern cause.

"He thought you'd rather get hold of him than any other man in the Southern Confederacy," Buckner told Grant.
"Oh," replied Grant, "if I had got him, I'd let him go again. He will do us more good commanding you fellows."

The fall of Fort Donelson and the loss of so many men was difficult for Pillow to spin, though he did try.  But his next battle, the Battle of Stones River, where Major General Breckinridge found Pillow cowering behind a tree and had to order him forward, spelled the end for Pillow’s combat assignments.  Though he went on to administrative positions in the Confederate army (where he could do less damage), he had successfully earned for all time the distinction of being one of the worst generals in American history.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Five Simple Technologies to Improve Your Family's Resiliency

With this post I’m switching to another subject that, when I’m not writing fiction, I spend time researching and thinking about: energy and its sources and uses. Since there are many connections between energy and water (energy is used to pump and transport water, and in the case of hydroelectricity, water is used to make energy), when I'm energy blogging I’ll sometimes talk about water was well.

Whether it’s due to peak oil or a hurricane, war in the Middle East or a heat wave, there are many factors that could create spot shortages in energy, could cause prices to rise sharply in the short term, or could gradually but inexorably inflate energy costs in the long term.  Although different energy forms are not completely interchangeable (for example, electricity cannot easily substitute for oil in the US without major upgrades in our electrical grid and transportation infrastructure) they are fungible enough that a shortage of any one of them will cause prices to rise for all.  Even without natural disasters or wars, I expect short term we will see gasoline prices increase (unless the economy tanks sharply, pulling commodity prices down with it), and longer term we will see electricity prices rise significantly for peak hour use (i.e. periods of max air conditioning).

So, to make your family resilient either in the face of a temporary shortage or a longer-term escalation in price, here are some simple, highly cost effective technologies you can employ.  Though some may seem laughably obvious, the majority of Americans employ only one or two, and often even those ineffectively. 
1)   Attic sealing and insulation.  Very simple, fairly cheap, and yet not nearly as widely used as it should be.  It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between movement of heat and movement of air.  Insulation prevents movement of heat but if there are gaps, holes, etc, between the lower floor and the attic, it won’t prevent air movement.  At any temperature, air moving across the skin makes us feel cooler than we otherwise would, so sealing up these holes and gaps is a good idea.  If you already have some amount of insulation, someone may need to go into your attic, pull back that insulation, look for gaps and then seal them with caulk, expanding foam, or rigid foam board insulation.  Then you (or a service) can add insulation until it’s about knee deep.  If your house is now drafty and poorly insulated, you can save as much as ½ to 1/3 of your monthly winter heating costs. Remember also that heat wants to rise more than it wants to travel horizontally, so insulating your attic is more important than replacing single pane windows unless they’re very leaky and drafty.

2)   Ceiling fans.  As stated before, at any temperature, movement of air across the skin makes us feel cooler than we otherwise would.  So in the summer months, ceiling fans are a great way to combat heat using far, far less energy than air conditioning units.  In South Carolina I noticed many houses and shops use both air conditioning and ceiling fans so that the air conditioning can be set at a much higher level—say 80 degrees—and still be quite comfortable.  A ceiling fan can save you as much as 40% of your summer cooling costs.  Ceiling fans are more energy efficient than floor fans, but they are also more work to install properly.

3)   Programmable thermostats.  Don’t heat or cool your house when you’re not there to benefit!  And at night use a blanket or a ceiling fan to help warm or cool you to a comfortable temperature.  Programmable thermostats cost about $35. They are not all that difficult to install or program, though, sadly, 40% of Americans who have programmable thermostats never actually program them.  (Ouch!)  During the winter, take advantage of this simple technology to a.) automatically turn down the heat when you’re gone to 55 degrees, (most pets can do ok with 61 degrees), b.) turn the heat down at night to whatever temperature keeps you comfortable under a couple blankets, and c.) turn on the heat an hour before you get up so the house is pleasant again.  You can experiment with the settings that work best for you, but heating the house up to 70 degrees 24/7 costs you way more than you need.  In the winter, our house generally varies between 55 degrees at night and 63 degrees during the day, but I’m willing to wear lots of wool. (I also encourage my kids to use those other little technologies called sweaters and slippers.) In the summer, leave the air conditioning off until an hour before you’re going to return home. Or you could leave your blinds closed during the day and when you come home, open up the house to the cooler evening temperatures and use a whole house fan to push the hot air out and pull the cool air in.  Another low tech tip—plant deciduous trees on the south side of your house that will shade the house in the summer and let in warming sunlight in the winter.
4)   Bicycles, racks, and panniers.  The bicycle is one of the most efficient machines mankind has ever devised.  It takes less energy per mile to go by bicycle than by any other mode of transport, including walking.  For most terrains it’s easy to cover a mile by bicycle in six or seven minutes.  For distances under two miles, when you factor in time to walk and park your car, it’s generally as fast to bicycle as drive.  And you don’t need to be Lance Armstrong kitted out in Lycra!  You can wear regular clothes, ride an upright bicycle at a leisurely pace and be no sweatier or tired than if you’d spent the minutes strolling your neighborhood.  To make your bicycle useful for errands, get a rack with panniers.  This will allow you to carry two grocery bags full of stuff with ease—the load will be on your bicycle, not on your back!  If, like me, you live in an area with hills, consider an electric bicycle.  These are substantially more expensive but they essentially make the hills flat and can be an excellent car substitute if an oil shortage arises.

5)   Water Filters.  Why pay for bottled water if you can filter water from your tap that tastes as good for a fraction of the cost?  Having a good filter on hand also means you can tap many sources of water in case of an emergency (say an earthquake, hurricane or tornado) that shuts down the water supply system.  There are many filters on the market--one I like is the Big Berkey water filter.  From their website:
This system removes pathogenic bacteria, cysts and parasites entirely and extracts harmful chemicals such as herbicides, pesticides, VOCs, organic solvents, radon 222 and trihalomethanes. It also reduces nitrates, nitrites and unhealthy minerals such as lead and mercury. This system is so powerful it can remove food coloring from water without removing the beneficial minerals your body needs.
Even if you don’t use a filter to reduce chemicals in your normal drinking water, in a crisis it might be handy to turn water from a rain barrel, creek or pond into safe drinking water. For some reason, Berkey doesn’t ship to California or Iowa. (I think it has to do with these state’s laws.) Remember, as gasoline prices go up, any liquid shipped by truck is bound to increase in price as the shipping weight involved is substantial.  If you really like carbonated beverages, you can get a home carbonator like this for around $100.

So five simple, inexpensive technologies that can vastly improve your family’s ability to weather an emergency or save you nearly their upfront cost the first year by reducing your energy (or bottled water) bills. I hope you'll give them a try.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Head in the Beaufort Clouds

Carolina sky
It rained in San Francisco yesterday on the last day of May.  It rained again today. If you lived in San Francisco you would know that it never rains here this time of year. Nor in May do we get billowing, puffy clouds with dark undersides that roll northeast as if looking for trouble in the Sierras. Even though the sun sometimes shines through the downpour, one begins to despair of summer at all.  And so on these obstinately cool, winter-like days when my strawberries are unlikely to ripen and bike rides are sodden excursions, my thoughts turn to South Carolina--Beaufort, to be specific--where it did not rain yesterday and the temperature reached 97 degrees. Now there’s summer for you, even if the solstice has yet to arrive.

A view to what was
There was a time, a stretch of two years, when my thoughts often turned to Beaufort.  I thought of Beaufort while sitting at my kitchen table, while doing the Tai Chi form, while driving across San Francisco to pick my daughter up from school.  I remembered how the light filtered through the Spanish moss, how the river ebbed and flowed with the tide, how the cord grass swayed in the wind. I ruminated over the masses of oysters growing on the city’s piers, the daytime’s suffocating heat, the evening’s lively breeze. When I shut my eyes I saw the stately houses, the ancient arching trees. My thoughts were not so much of Beaufort as it exists, but of Beaufort as it was, though the present Beaufort was my signpost to the former age.

The way lamps used to be lit
The way to get around
Though I could visit Beaufort (and I did) I couldn’t visit 1849, at least not in person.  I read books and books, both factual accounts and narratives from the period, in my quest to digest the values and the language, the customs and the manners, the technologies, cuisine, and cultural reference points of the era. Armed with legions of details, I then had to think through my characters, how they moved through this world over a century and a half ago, parsing what would have been important to them and why. In 1849 women still wore petticoats because hoop skirts had yet to come into fashion. This made their clothing heavier and hotter than a decade later. In 1849, whale oil was still used to fuel lamps rather  than kerosene. In fact, the world had just about reached peak whales and peak whale oil, although no one then yet knew it. In 1849 laundry was a heavy, hot affair and no one with money did their own. In addition, since dyes were not colorfast, most top layers of clothing were brushed, not washed, preferably by a servant. In 1849 roads in the South were poor and trains not yet prevalent, so for a town like Beaufort, being on a steamer route connoted a nearly cosmopolitan connection to the exterior world.

In 1849, most Americans (Thoreau one of the few excepted) felt pride in the crushing of Santa Anna and the Mexican army and saw nothing amiss in forcing Mexico to sell of a third of its land at a cut-rate price to its stronger neighbor. In 1849, gold was practically leaping into the hands of miners in California, Chopin was writing his last waltzes in Europe, and the engines of the industrial North were revving up, even if the South couldn’t hear their echoes yet. In 1849, the last good president had been Andrew Jackson a dozen years before, John Calhoun (South Carolina’s “cast iron” senator) was on his last legs, and manifest destiny was no longer a doctrine but an achievement in progress. In 1849, things were changing in America with more speed and uncertainty than the average citizen was comfortable with. Though the last five sentences are all gross generalizations, it gives broad brushstrokes of the American 1849 mindset. But what their memories would have consisted of—that was harder to reconstruct.

What I gleaned from my reading was that historical cultural memory of the era proudly focused on the glorious revolution that their grandfathers had achieved and the momentous first-of-its-kind government they’d subsequently created. In 1849 these grandchildren knew they had inherited something grand but were growing uneasy as to whether it was a legacy they could keep.  The Bible, the Magna Carta, ancient Rome, and ancient Greece were their touchstones. George Washington and Mr. Jefferson had been known (or at least seen) by men and women still alive.  In 1849, most people were aware that life was less dangerous, brutal and short than it had been for their forefathers, and they were grateful. The Civil War and its awful grinding slaughter did not lurk unpleasantly in their past.  At that point the pain involved in rending the nation in two was not something they could conceive of. Though certainly adept enough at hangings, whippings and other brutality, they were also incapable of imagining the systematized factory barbarity that the twentieth century achieved at Auschwitz that still haunts our collective memory today. We can envy their innocence, but events that should have featured prominently in their historic conscience—the Trail of Tears, the horrific sea passage of the slave trade—most seemed to dispose of with a shrug.

No looking back
1849 in America was not a time of regret for past failings or longing for what was. That would come later, at least for the South. Instead it was a time of expansion and optimism, of growth and domination. For those growing cotton, it was a time of great wealth. For centuries now America, priding itself on its optimism and expansion--geographically, economically, and otherwise--has been little interested in all but the most superficial glances backwards. Perhaps those who are confident of the future always have little patience for history. Perhaps like a shark we must always swim forward or perish.

Salty pillar gets a good look
Perhaps only those who are uncertain about what lies ahead try to see what the past can tell us. Like Lot’s wife, they are the ones who, with wavering step, turn back to glimpse the fire and brimstone. For this momentary act of defiance, Lot’s wife (she never even gets her own name) is transformed into a pillar of salt. But the Bible gives us the story of Lot and his doomed cities precisely to encourage us to look back, to reflect, to learn. Sometimes looking back, even to the summer of 1849, is a means of swimming forward.