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 disperse 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."

But here's the interesting bit: 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 only country he would have left. 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. With the Confederacy dead, the US would again exercise sovereignty over Lee's home state of Virginia.

So, in that moment, when Lee decided there would be no insurgency, he gave his once-former and future 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. Remember, he didn't know that Grant was going to offer him generous terms of surrender the following afternoon. In fact, Lee thought it more likely that Grant would arrest him and he would be tried, then probably hanged for treason. Facing that possibility, a lesser man might have lashed out at the enemy. Had Lee 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 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; and he sought to set the example for them. When he knew for certain the following day that escape was impossible, he chose to hand himself over to Grant—essentially to the United States—to answer for his actions instead of going down swinging.

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 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 our thanks; and those who would simply declare him an irredeemable traitor should spend some time studying 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 more complex man 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, unless you're motivated enough to hunt down and read the entire original four volume series.

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 2013...an 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.

45 Years Since Apollo 11

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon forty-five years ago, just a little over eight years after President Kennedy called for the US "to go to the moon in this decade."

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon... (interrupted by applause) we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

Eight years. The US did it in eight years with computers orders of magnitude more primitive than we have in the iPhones we carry around in our pockets. Would somebody please explain to me why we haven't put an astronaut on Mars yet?

The Greatest Hack of All Time

This was possibly NASA's finest moment ever. If you've seen Apollo 13, you know what I'm talking about.

The one time in history when making a square peg fit into a round hole was a literal matter of life-and-death.

The one time in history when making a square peg fit into a round hole was a literal matter of life-and-death.

"This is the mother of all hacks, the genius device that saved the Apollo XIII crew from dying in their emergency return to Earth, as photographed during that trip using one of their Hasselblad cameras. Here are the actual step-by-step instructions that helped turn this mission into NASA's most successful failure ever."

Follow the link to read the actual instructions NASA cobbled together for building the adapter. The engineers who figured that thing out were a bunch of steely-eyed missile men.

Today is the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion

6 June, 1944 — American troops preparing to land on Omaha Beach

6 June, 1944 — American troops preparing to land on Omaha Beach

On 6 June 1944 — 70 years ago today — 160,000+ Allied troops ferried by 5,000+ ships and supported by 13,000+ aircraft invaded French at five different points along the 50-mile Normandy coast in the largest seaborne invasion in history. Codenamed "Operation Neptune," the Allied troops faced over 50,000 Nazi defenders; 4,414 lost their lives in one day and estimates of total Allied casualties range from 9,000 – 12,000.

By the end of June, 875,000 Allied troops had landed along the coast and began the hard push to Berlin — the German "Atlantic Wall" had been breached. The Nazis would not surrender for another eleven months, but the liberation of Europe and the destruction of Hitler's regime — one of the most evil dictatorships in human history — was finally within reach.

Click here to listen to the full-day CBS radio broadcast from June 1944.

Click here to visit the US Army's official website documenting the D-Day invasion.

Tiananmen Square was 25 Years Ago Today

This is the 25th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

I published my thoughts on those events from June 4, 1989 in my first novel, Red Cell, telling the story of that day through the eyes of a Chinese student who would go on to be known as Pioneer —

"A political revolution is a living animal, conceived in outrage, fed with anger, and born in blood more often than not. In its early life, there comes a moment when its parents must decide what kind of animal their child will be. Some are allowed to run free and become wild predators that can only be killed by rising tyrants. Others are restrained to become loyal guardians who protect their children’s lives and liberties until those children can protect themselves. Washington, Lenin, Mao, Gandhi, Castro, and Khomenei each raised their own, and those revolutions, like all things in nature, looked and behaved like their parents.

The Second Chinese Revolution was killed during delivery by its grandparents on June 4, 1989 in the streets around an open ground called 'Heaven’s Gate'—Tiananmen Square.


Pioneer had been a student then. In the spring of 1989, the Iron Curtain in Europe was crumbling, rusted out from the inside by corruption and a half-century of oppression. The Soviet Union had built the Warsaw Pact through violence and was forced to watch its handiwork come apart at the political welds and economic rivets. In Gorbachev, the students saw the reformer that Deng Xiaopeng only pretended to be. When the Russian president agreed to come to China that May to discuss his programs of perestroika and glasnost, the student leaders anxious for democracy saw a singular opportunity to push their cause on the party elders. As if divine favor were behind them, Hu Yaobang, the venerated old former Secretary General and true reformer died in mid-April giving many a reason to mourn his passing by joining the crowd and calling for real change.

For his part, Deng wanted the world to see a summit where the two great communist powers were going to close ranks. He opened Beijing to the US media and they came in droves with their portable satellite dishes and microwave links by the hundreds. It was a mistake. On May 12, the student leaders called for a hunger strike before Gorbachev’s arrival. The following morning, four hundred students dressed themselves in white with headbands inscribed in Chinese characters with the printed protest “No Choice but to Fast.” They made their way to Tiananmen Square and before the day was over the number of strikers had grown to three thousand. By May 15, over one hundred fifty thousand people filled the Square, some protesting, some there only to see the protests, but even that was an act of courage. 

Pioneer was one of the latter at first. He was not one of the true believers in democracy, at least in the beginning. At first he came and went, not staying in the Square overnight but going home to his soft bed each evening. But he did come back. He watched as the student leaders gave their speeches unmolested by the uncertain police at the crowds’ edge. The more he saw and heard, the more he believed in the cause until he found his own faith in the vision of a democratic China. By the end, Pioneer was sleeping on the ground with the rest, chanting slogans during the speeches, and wondering whether he could become a leader in the movement. With no resistance from the government, it was easy to cultivate the seed of faith he had planted as a new convert to the cause.

Deng’s humiliation was mounting fast. The official reception for Gorbachev had to be staged at the airport instead of the Square. An official state visit to the Forbidden City, which was in full view of the unruly Square, was cancelled. Gorbachev was ushered into the Great Hall of the People through the back door.

It went on for weeks and the Politburo began to grow nervous. They knew a revolution when they saw one. Many of them remembered Mao’s revolution. Many of them had helped stage it. If Communism had only drilled one precept into their old, corrupt heads, it was that revolutions were inevitable in states where the masses were oppressed by the bourgeoisie, which the Party leaders had become. Now they were riding close to the edge of a historical trend they didn’t like. They were losing control of everything in full view of their own country and the world. Their private meetings devolved into vitriol and invective. They sent representatives to the students, pleading with them to leave Tiananmen Square, and were refused. Quite the opposite, protests emerged in other Chinese cities far from Beijing. Hunger strikers were collapsing and being taken to hospitals by their comrades, which generated television images and more sympathy for their cause. It seemed like the whole world was behind the students.

The crowd in Tiananmen Square surged to over one million. Common peasants and workers were joining the students, not as curious bystanders but as active protesters denouncing the Politburo and calling for democracy.

On May 20, the Politburo declared martial law in Beijing. The protests in the other cities were smaller and easily handled, but the Tiananmen Square mob refused to disperse. Journalists were banned from the Square and forced to stop their broadcasts. The students were ordered to evacuate. They refused. The PLA ordered divisions from the Beijing, Shenyang, and Jinan Military Regions into the city, totaling more than one hundred eighty thousand soldiers. When PLA commanders showed any reluctance to use the Army against the citizens, they were immediately removed from command and replaced. General Secretary Zhao Ziyang opposed the use of military force, for which he was removed from office and put under house arrest for the remainder of his life.

The soldiers began harassing those at the crowd’s edge, but the masses were too large and too determined to hold their ground. They fought back, building barricades to block vehicle traffic around the Square. Where they couldn’t build barricades, they laid down in the roads. The PLA fired tear gas into the crowd. Pioneer still remembered how his own eyes had burned when a canister had landed near him. Pioneer had picked it up and thrown it back at the soldiers but not before inhaling a full dose of the gas. He had gagged his breakfast onto the concrete. He had wanted to claw his own eyes out of his head as his lungs burned, a feeling that was refreshed every time he drew breath. His new friends held him on his feet as he recovered and he watched other protesters scuffling with the police in the streets. The People’s Armed Police were unprepared for the defiant response and retreated. Civilians had always treated them with deference and even fear, but there was no fear in these people.

The stalemate held. The Politburo and the students each squabbled amongst themselves as to the next move. The threat of military force seemed to fade and over the long days the number of protesters dwindled. The students finally decided it was time to go home, but they couldn’t agree on when or how. They argued and finally settled on June 20 as the day to walk away.

The ultimate irony of the Tiananmen Square massacre was that Deng decided to use force to break up a protest that was in its waning days. 

Other members of the Politburo pleaded for restraint but old Deng still had too much influence. Mao once said that political power flowed from the barrel of the gun. Deng held that gun. On June 1, he declared that the students were terrorists engaged in a counterrevolutionary plot against the socialist state. He ordered the PLA and the People’s Armed Police to clear Tiananmen Square by any means necessary.

The PLA soldiers began moving through Beijing to the Square and the citizens of Beijing flooded into the streets to stop them. They set up barricades, screamed at the soldiers, and threw rocks and debris at the marching formations. Some of the soldiers returned fire with live ammunition and wounded citizens in their own apartments. The 27th and 38th Armies fought their way to the Square, demolishing barricades and arresting and killing citizens. Mobs erupted, pulling soldiers into them and tearing them to pieces. Students threw Molotov cocktails. PLA vehicles burned in the street, filling the air with the smoke and stench of burning rubber, but flaming vodka bottles are a poor match for machine guns. Finally, the PLA troops turned their weapons on the crowd and fired with abandon.

Pioneer heard later that PLA troops had even fired on other army units that got in their way. With tens of thousands running in all directions, neither the student leaders nor the army commanders had been able to maintain order. The battle raged for three days and it was a slaughter. At least hundreds died, maybe thousands. If the Party had ever tallied a count, it hadn’t made it public and Pioneer had never been able to find it even in the private records.

To his unending shame, Pioneer had fled the battle. He’d never found comfort in the thought that thousands of others did the same thing. 

He remembered the supersonic crack of one bullet that passed close to his head and the wet noise it made as it punched through the soft body of a young woman standing by him. It severed her aorta and spilled her blood in great gushes onto the cobblestones. A second round took a young man’s face and life in the same instant with a gory display that had cost Pioneer at least a year’s sleep over the two decades since he’d seen it. His nerve and faith broke in that instant and when his friends held their ground and threw firebombs, he abandoned them on their field of battle. The PLA lines broke and the protesters flooded the streets. Soldiers started firing in self-defense to protect themselves from a mob that was far beyond obeying orders. Pioneer had jumped over the fallen bodies of trampled soldiers and revolutionaries alike, even climbed over a tank to get out.

The students had stayed too long, overplayed their hand, and it was too late to walk away. They asked to negotiate a voluntary withdrawal like the ones they had rejected so many times when offered. It was their turn to be refused. Most were arrested. The protest was broken. The PLA controlled Tiananmen Square and the streets of Beijing.

Pioneer was never identified as being present in Tiananmen Square. The Party could never identify everyone that had been a part of the event but that wasn’t considered a problem. It didn’t need to punish everyone. True leadership is a rare skill and they only had to punish those who had shown that talent. Many of the student leaders had died in the battle and the Party hunted the rest for years after. The government handed out lengthy sentences to many after trials that lasted only hours. 

No protest of significant size had occurred in Beijing since June 4, 1989. The Politburo banned any anniversary memorials and refused to conduct any investigations into its own conduct. As far as it was concerned, the massacre never happened.

Unarrested, unmolested, Pioneer’s cowardice had bought his life and freedom when his friends’ bravery bought them prison and death.


Two years later, Pioneer earned his Qinghua University degree. Then the MSS summoned him to a meeting after his graduation. At first he had thought that the Party had finally connected him to the protests. It took him a moment to realize that had it been so, the People’s Armed Police would have dragged him from his apartment instead of issuing him a polite request, really an order, for a private meeting.

The Party didn’t know about his place in the protests, but it did know about his then-rare skill with computers. Qinghua University was China’s MIT. It offered guanxi more potent in China than Harvard could offer graduates in America and the faculty had connections to people who needed to solve certain military problems. The Americans had just finished a war in Iraq using precision weapons whose efficiency frightened the PLA. The Iraqis had assembled the fourth largest army in the world, supplied with Soviet equipment and trained in Soviet military doctrine, very much like the PLA’s own forces. The United States tore that army to shreds in weeks. Computers had changed warfare to a degree that the PLA and the MSS had not appreciated before. Guns weren’t enough and that needed rectifying. 

Listening to the MSS bureaucrat talking about the glorious career he would have in the service of the Party that had gunned down his friends, Pioneer wanted to choke the man. Then, to his shame, the emotion passed in a moment, his cowardice reasserted itself, and he agreed to the request he was not free to turn down anyway. The conversation ended and he left the office. 

Perhaps his dead friends had talked to him or maybe the unknown God had whispered to his soul. Whatever the source, a thought entered his mind. There would be a better time and way to exact revenge than assaulting a bureaucrat who could be replaced without a second thought. He just had to learn patience and recognize that revenge truly was a dish best served slow and cold.


[T]wenty-five years came and went and he still hadn’t found peace. His friends still haunted him. Pioneer hadn’t set foot in Tiananmen Square in all that time but he pressed on for the cause his friends started there. If he had earned nothing else, the cowardice had been burned out of his soul. So, if he could not have peace, he had decided that under the Party’s law his inevitable execution would be well deserved. If the PLA took him to some nameless gulag, stood him before a brick wall and shot him, then maybe then his friends accept him as worthy to stand with them again."