The End at Appomattox

150 years ago today, just before 3:00 pm or so, this happened.


If you heard bells ring today for four minutes starting around 3:05 pm and didn't know what they were for, it was to commemorate the end of the US Civil War. The bells rang for one minute for each year the war was fought.

General Robert E. Lee's surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant didn't officially end the war. It did, however, mark the end of the Confederacy's military operations in the eastern theater of the war, which effectively killed the southern states' hopes for independence. Other Confederate armies and units would surrender in the coming months, and a few small battles were even fought after April 9, 1865; but the war was, for all practical purposes, ended by Lee's decision to surrender.

Robert E. Lee is a divisive figure. In the South, he is still revered as a hero. Outside of the South, views towards him are often, shall we say, less charitable. Richard Cohen summed up the opposing view in his April 29, 2011 column, "Dispelling the Myth of Robert E. Lee"

"The South, of course, was defeated on the battlefield in 1865, yet the Lee legend—swaddled in myth, kitsch and racism—has endured even past the civil rights era when it became both urgent and right to finally tell the 'Lost Cause' to get lost. Now it should be Lee's turn. He was loyal to slavery and disloyal to his country—not worthy, even he might now admit, of the honors accorded him."

Lee was a complex man, and I'm not here to declare Cohen right or wrong (though Cohen is wrong about Lee being "loyal to slavery," which he considered a serious political and moral evil). However, whether you revere or revile Lee, I would argue that one day before he surrendered to Grant, Lee made a decision which should earn him the gratitude of all Americans, if not their respect.

April 8, 1865 was a Saturday. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had retreated from Petersburg earlier in the week where they had defied a nine month-long siege by Grant's Army of the Potomac. They had been moving steadily westward, trying to reach a trainload of supplies and rations to feed the starving men and outfit them with new clothes and ammunition. Lee had lost more than half his army in less than seven days to straggling, desertion, and capture. Under Lee's direction, they made one grueling night march after another...but starvation was taking its toll, Grant's cavalry dogged them the entire journey and the Union infantry was never more than a few hours behind. Confederate quartermasters had been compelled to keep moving the supply trains westward to keep them safe from capture; but they were also keeping them tantalizingly just out of Lee's reach. He'd received several letters from Grant, trying to convince him of the folly of further resistance. Lee had replied in his own letters that he didn't think his men were beaten yet, but he did ask Grant what terms of surrender the Union general might offer. They both knew that without those needed supplies, the chase couldn't go on much longer.

When Lee reached Appomattox on the 8th, he learned that the Union Cavalry had captured the supplies waiting at Appomattox Station. The closest supply trains were now at Lynchburg, 20 miles further west and the Union cavalry was now in front of him. 

Lee convened his final council of war that night with Generals James "Pete" Longstreet, John B. Gordon, and Edward Porter Alexander. Longstreet and Gordon commanded the infantry, Alexander the artillery. Together, they decided that the army had enough strength to make one final attempt the following morning to break through the Union forces and push on to Lynchburg, but Lee realized that failure would leave him with no option other than surrender.

General Alexander disagreed. He suggested that Lee disburse the Army. The men would slip away during the night, dissolving into the woods, where they return to their homes and then fight on as guerrillas, raiding and killing Union troops and destroying Union property wherever and whenever they could. They would drag out the conflict for years and years until the Union grew weary of trying to extinguish the secessionist flame.

Alexander was suggesting, in short, that the Confederacy launch an insurgency.

The other generals turned to Lee, the most respected military officer the United States had produced since George Washington. He was beloved of his men, almost worshipped by Confederate civilians. He was the miracle worker who had defeated the Union army again and again, almost always outnumbered and outgunned. He had out-thought, outmaneuvered, and out-fought Union general after Union general. His troops trusted him implicitly. All he had to do was give the word and 28,000 Confederate soldiers would spread out and become, not to put too fine a point on it, terrorists. It would have been war without end for decades, a generation or more.

Lee rejected the suggestion out of hand.

"If I took your advice," Lee told Alexander, "the men would be without rations and under no control of officers. They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live. They would become mere bands of marauders...We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from."

The country he was referring to wasn't the Confederate States of America. He was talking about the United States.

Robert E. Lee had spent four years fighting for the Confederacy; but facing the end of that country, Lee was worried about what would happen to the United States. He'd served the US faithfully as an army officer for more than twenty years before the Civil War. It's clear from his letters and the recollections of associates that Lee fostered no sense of hatred towards the US despite having fought against it for four years. 

So, in that moment, when Lee decided there would be no insurgency, he gave his former country a gift for which we should all be grateful. He offered the US a chance to start healing. He didn't have to make that choice. Had he been a man filled with anger, hatred, and vitriol, he could have sent the entire continent spiraling down into unrestrained violence for decades to come. Had he been a more egotistical man, humiliated in defeat, he could have lashed out and told his men to lay waste at random as a way of salving his wounded pride. Instead, he told his men that they had fought honorably, would surrender honorably, and should live honorably as citizens of the United States.

I would argue that the decision that Lee made the night before was no less important than the one he made the next day to surrender. That one decision to not launch an insurgency merits a large measure of this country's gratitude. I'm grateful that Lee lost the war, but I'm also grateful that, when faced with defeat, Lee told his men to let go of the old cause and take up a new one — to rebuild the United States. For that act alone, General Robert E. Lee deserves thanks; and those who would tear him down would do well to study the decision Lee made that night. If they can come to understand what drove him to make that choice, they might come to see him as a man who might indeed be "worthy...of the honors accorded him"...or at least one more complex than one who was simply "disloyal to his country."

If you want to know more about Robert E. Lee, you can't do better than the abridged Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Lee, by Douglas Southall Freeman.

Sorry I've been away

BTW, my sincere apologies that my blog posts have become pretty infrequent of late, but I've been cranking hard on my third novel. Simon & Schuster's submission deadline is coming up soon and I've been spending my evenings working on that. So there won't be too many posts here until after the New Year, but hopefully the new book will be sufficient consolation when it comes out next May.

Amazon and Hachette cut a deal

Amazon and Hachette have finally negotiated a peace treaty to the war.

Hachette won an important victory on Thursday in its battle with Amazon: the ability to set its own prices for e-books, which it sees as critical to its survival. But even as the publisher and retailer announced a negotiated peace after sparring since January, hardly anyone seemed in the mood for celebratory fireworks. ...

And even if Amazon got less in the deal than it originally wanted, it still controls nearly half the book trade, an unprecedented level for one retailer. And the dispute showed it is not afraid to use its power to discourage sales.

I don't know the details, but it looks to me like the deal gets the major details right: Hachette gets to set prices for its own products, Amazon has to offer incentives to get lower prices. In other words, Amazon has to give up something to get something in return. That's the way any business transaction should work. If one party can get what it wants through threats alone, you don't have a commercial exchange -- you have extortion.

I don't know what the long term effects of the deal will be, but I'm thrilled that Amazon won't be able to force Hachette to lower prices just by threatening the publisher with oblivion.

Amazon's "Monopsony"

I almost never agree with Paul Krugman about anything when he's talking politics. But the man has a Nobel Prize in Economics, so when he talks about the institutional forces affecting commerce, I do at least pay attention.

Krugman wrote an editorial for the New York Times on the Amazon-Hachette feud, and, wonders never cease, I agree with every word.

"So far Amazon has not tried to exploit consumers. In fact, it has systematically kept prices low, to reinforce its dominance. What it has done, instead, is use its market power to put a squeeze on publishers, in effect driving down the prices it pays for books — hence the fight with Hachette. In economics jargon, Amazon is not, at least so far, acting like a monopolist, a dominant seller with the power to raise prices. Instead, it is acting as a monopsonist, a dominant buyer with the power to push prices down.

And on that front its power is really immense — in fact, even greater than the market share numbers indicate. Book sales depend crucially on buzz and word of mouth (which is why authors are often sent on grueling book tours); you buy a book because you’ve heard about it, because other people are reading it, because it’s a topic of conversation, because it’s made the best-seller list. And what Amazon possesses is the power to kill the buzz. It’s definitely possible, with some extra effort, to buy a book you’ve heard about even if Amazon doesn’t carry it — but if Amazon doesn’t carry that book, you’re much less likely to hear about it in the first place."

Krugman does miss one crucial point, which surprises me given that it's a purely economic one. It's not just that Amazon can kill the buzz surrounding a new book. It's that driving product prices down constricts the ability to make profit, and most authors and publishers' already have very thin profit margins. In fact, most authors (myself included) don't make a living through writing. Writing is something we do on the side, either before or after our day jobs.

To be fair, Amazon has proposed a deal it claims will pay authors more; maybe so. But there's only so much profit to be squeezed out of a single copy of any book, so when Amazon tries to reduce the amount of profit-per-copy, somebody gets less. It's simple math, and you can bet Amazon doesn't want that "somebody" to be Amazon. So either authors will get even less money, or publishers will get less and then either publish fewer books by new authors or pay authors even less in advances and royalties. It's really that simple.

The Imitation Game

It's about time someone made a feature film about Alan Turing and the British project at Bletchley Park during World War 2 to break the German Enigma system.

IN CINEMAS NOVEMBER 14-- Based on the real life story of Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), who is credited with cracking the German Enigma code, THE IMITATION GAME portrays the nail-biting race against time by Turing and his brilliant team at Britain's top-secret code-breaking centre, Bletchley Park, during the darkest days of World War II.

If you're not familiar with the story, the Germans started using Enigma in 1932 to encrypt  their sensitive military communiques and the Poles cracked it later that year; but the Germans kept refining the device and improving the cryptography. By 1939, the Poles had been overrun by the Nazis and were out of the game and Enigma's encryption was practically unbreakable as long as the German operators were using the machine correctly. The British took up the charge but couldn't decipher more than a tiny trickle of German Enigma messages.

The British Government launched a top secret effort, later codenamed "Ultra," to beat the machine. Turing was one of the mathematicians recruited from Cambridge University for the effort and developed much of the "bombe" technology that ultimately defeated Enigma. Sir Harry Hinsley, official historian of British Intelligence in World War II, said that Ultra's success in breaking Enigma shortened the war "by not less than two years and probably by four years." Sir Winston Churchill was even more definitive about Ultra's contribution, telling King George VI that "It was thanks to Ultra that we won the war."

In the process of developing the technology to defeat Enigma and helping save the free world from the Axis, Turing also made several breakthroughs that made modern computers possible. That desktop/portable device you're using to read this post? You can thank Alan Turing for it.

But Alan Turing was also gay. Homosexual acts were illegal in the UK in the 40s and 50s, and Turing was prosecuted for gross indecency. He accepted chemical castration as an alternative to prison and the British government stripped his security clearance. He was found dead in 1954 at age 41, and the autopsy ruled that he had committed suicide by ingesting cyanide. In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a formal apology for "the appalling way he was treated"; and Queen Elizabeth II granted Turing a posthumous pardon on Christmas Eve especially meaningful gesture when you realize that Turing was charged the very same month that Elizabeth began her reign (yes, she's has been on the throne that long).

It's a fascinating story and the movie is receiving rave reviews at pre-release screenings – Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing and Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke? Yes, please. If you're a fan of espionage thrillers or movies like A Beautiful Mind, go see this one on opening day, 14 November 2014.


And then, after my brilliant post about assumptions and sports broadcasters'  flawed methods of prediction about who will and won't make it into the new NCAA football tournament – my beloved BYU Cougars lose 35-20 to unranked Utah State University. These in-state rivalry games are killers.

My personal vow against profanity prevents me from using some pretty choice terms to express my feelings about now. BYU will be lucky not to fall right out of the Top 25But congratulations to USU for a well-deserved victory.

That said, I do note that the Utah Utes beat #8 UCLA yesterday 30-28. So don't think that my comments about assumptions are somehow invalid. Anything can happen. That's why we play the games, instead of just looking at a bunch of stats at the season's start and deciding who the national champion will be right then and there

Amazon vs Hachette: The Latest Move

Authors United is a group of 1,100+ writers who signed their names to a full-page New York Times ad calling on Amazon to abandon its tactic of blocking sales of authors' book in its negotiations with publishers. Amazon has pressed on, so the literary coalition has posted this open letter to the Amazon Board of Directors.

"[Amazon] has stated that the company was 'forced to take this step because Hachette refused to come to the table.' He has also claimed that 'authors are the only leverage we have.' As one of the world's largest corporations, Amazon was not 'forced' to do anything...Amazon chose to involve 2,500 Hachette authors and their books. It could end these sanctions tomorrow while continuing to negotiate. Amazon is undermining the ability of authors to support their families, pay their mortgages, and provide for their kids' college educations. We'd like to emphasize that most of us are not Hachette authors, and our concern is founded on principle, rather than self-interest.

We find it hard to believe that all members of the Amazon board approve of these actions. We would like to ask you a question: Do you as an Amazon director approve of this policy of sanctioning books?"

I signed.

Update: AuthorsUnited didn't just post the letter to the Internet. They've also sent copies via FedEx directly to each member of Amazon's board of directors, so nobody can claim ignorance on this one.