Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 12/13/2021: Christmas Countdown Edition (Part I, The Past)

Burl Ives is one of those long dead artists of yore who would be nearly completely forgotten were it not for an annual revival every Christmas season. He had popular recordings of “Frosty…” and “Rudolph…,” and was featured in one of the Rankin-Bass animated Christmas shows as a singing snowman. The one Christmas song he made his own was “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas, and it’s a pretty annoying one at that. Ives was a fascinating character, a burly ex-NFL player who profitably turned to folksinging in the Thirties. He became famous doing that until he was the definitive Big Daddy on Broadway and on film in Tennessee Williams’s classic drama “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (Williams wrote the part with Ives in mind), leading to a long acting career.

He was blacklisted during the Red Scare, named names for HUAC and alienated the folksinging crowd. Ives had such a pure, light voice that he had great success with children’s songs (like “I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly”), yet on screen and stage he was usually a menacing presence. I always found the image of “Big Daddy” singing “Holly Jolly Christmas” bizarre.

December 13 is one of those banner days for ethics, good and bad. In 2000, Al Gore gave an admirable speech abandoning his efforts to flip the results of the too-close-to-call (literally) Presidential election, the ethics high water mark in his otherwise sketchy career. TIME disgraced itself on this date in 2019 by naming exploited teen mouthpiece for the climate change lobby Greta Thunberg as its “Person of the Year.

The worst December 13 historical event is probably “The Rape of Nanking,” which began in 1937, a prelude to Japan’s greater ambitions expressed in World War II. Nanking, then the capital of China, surrendered to Japanese forces and Japanese General Matsui Iwane ordered that the city be destroyed. Nanking was burned, and the Japanese army slaughtered an estimated 150,000 captured Chinese soldiers, massacred  50,000 male civilians, and raped at least 20,000 women and girls of all ages, often mutilating or killing their victims afterwards.

Or maybe, taking the long view, the worst thing to happen on December 13 was President Woodrow Wilson arriving in Paris for the crafting of the Treaty of Versailles. America’s worst President essentially abandoned his efforts to be a moderating influence on the vengeance-minded representatives of France, England and Italy, instead focusing his efforts on an ego-driven quest to make a pet personal obsession a reality, a “League of Nations.” The brutal treaty inflicted on Germany proved a catalyst for the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, and Wilson’s failed “Fourteen Points” led the U.S. into a period of isolationism and official neutrality that helped facilitate the Holocaust.

All moral luck, of course: Wilson couldn’t foresee the damage the Treaty would trigger. No one could. But bad ideas generally have bad consequences. The trick is recognizing that they are bad in time.

Finally, this date witnessed the horrible Battle of Fredericksburg, the Union’s Pickett’s Charge, in 1862. Just visiting the battlefield today is sufficient to drive home the utter incompetence demonstrated by Union General Ambrose E. Burnside.

Robert E. Lee had moved his troops into place along Marye’s Heights above Fredericksburg, along a sunken road protected by a stone wall, looking downhill on Fredericksburg. One Southern officer claimed “a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it,” and he was right. Chickens had the sense to stay away, but Burnside, the newly appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, was certain he was no chicken. On December 13 ordered 14 attacks against the Confederate line above him, each as bloody as the one before. No Union soldiers reached the wall at the top of Marye’s Heights. The North’s casualties were an estimated 12,650 killed and wounded, while Lee lost a third of that. During the bitterly cold December night, many of the Union wounded froze to death. Nevertheless, Burnside, an idiot, wanted to try again with more attacks on December 14. His subordinates had to physically restrain him from giving the order.

22 thoughts on “Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 12/13/2021: Christmas Countdown Edition (Part I, The Past)

  1. If I may, a couple of book recommendations:

    1. Regarding “The Rape of Nanking”, I would recommend Iris Chang’s book with the same title. I read it a few years back and it is an excellent, though very sobering and sometimes gruesome, account. It also highlights those who risked their lives to create a safety zone in the midst of the brutality and ultimately saved thousands of Chinese.

    2. Wilson and Versailles: “A Shattered Peace” by David Andelman. I also read this one a few years back during my This-Day-in-History website era and I thought it pretty insightful.

    • That comment struck me too. A good argument could be made for several candidates, but hearing the argument is always interesting.


      • Back when Democrat historians were spreading the lie that Wilson was a “great” President, Buchanan, Pierce, A. Johnson, Grant and Harding vied for the “worst” title. Harding, like Grant, was blamed for the scandals of his appointees and associates, but he was on the upswing when he died, and didn’t get a whole term to show whether he was competent or not. Grant’s work to protect freed slaves in the South has rescued him from the competition, and he was the only one to have two terms to harm the country rather than one.

        Buchanan (and Pierce) were weak and vacillating, and did nothing to stem the momentum to a Civil War: the question is whether they, or anyone, could have done any better. But in two terms Wilson gave steroids to Jim Crow, undermined integration in the federal government, got us into WW I for no good reason, spread the Spanish Flu (or Wilson Flu), paved the way to WWII by allowing the Treaty of Versailles to be so punitive, AND allowed his wife and doctor to run the country secretly for almost a year.

        I don’t see how anyone can top that.

        • I don’t know if I’d call Wilson the worst. Without a doubt he was the biggest racist ever to occupy the office, plus doing all the other things you mention, not to mention getting the US involved in interventions around the Western Hemisphere that accomplished almost nothing (i.e. the Banana Wars, hence “Banana Republic”). I have a hard time moving past the gut feeling that at least Wilson was DOING something, as opposed to Buchanan the do-nothing and Pierce the drunk. Then of course we have Jimmuh Cahtuh, the complete incompetent. I’ll refrain from calling the current president or the two before him the worst, since we don’t have the distance of history yet, although, going by how this year has gone, Biden could end up being a second Carter if he doesn’t turn things around in the next few months. Otherwise, his party will get a major drubbing next November, his chances of any major legislation will evaporate, and you-know-who will return for revenge in 2024.

  2. Strangely, the success at Fredericksburg didn’t prevent Lee from using almost the same tactics the July after at Gettysburg, in an obviously worse circumstance (marching UPHILL against an entrenched force). The thing is, both Lee and Burnside knew or should have known about the British disaster at the Battle of New Orleans, where British General Pakenham foolishly decided to advance across an open and very muddy field against Andrew Jackson’s dug-in, polyglot army, including rank on rank of frontier marksmen armed with Kentucky long rifles (as well as Indian braves, pirates, and black militia known as the Free Men of Color), and the rest is history. Burnside handled things about as poorly as he could have that day, but, unfortunately, it wasn’t the end of his troubles. During the Battle of Petersburg his plan to destroy the Confederate fortification at Elliot’s Salient was thrown into chaos when General Meade, victor at Gettysburg, ordered him to pull his black troops who had specially trained for this particular attack, off the attack. Forced to use untrained white troops and unable to decide which division to send, he had his three division commanders draw lots. James H. Ledlie was the unlucky one, and a more unlucky choice couldn’t have been made. He not only failed to even inform his men what to expect, but he remained behind the lines getting drunk (he had actually run out on his men a few weeks before at the Battle of Cold Harbor, but no one reported it to Burnside). You can look up the Battle of the Crater if you want all the details, but it was a huge failure. Ledlie was sacked by Meade, and Burnside was court-martialed, found responsible, and sidelined for the rest of the war. Meade should probably have been held responsible also, since he was the one who ordered the change in units involved, but no one was going to touch the winner at Gettysburg. Maybe Burnside should have been sidelined earlier.

    Yes, I remember Gore’s speech. I frankly sneered at it, since Gore didn’t take as much responsibility as he should have and admit he dragged the nation to the brink of a Constitutional crisis by trying to litigate his way into the White House. At least he didn’t break into song at the end, quoting patriotic song lyrics. By the way, his line about returning home to Tennessee to mend some fences, literally and figuratively, was complete bs. He moved right from the Vice Presidential residence at the Naval Observatory to a private house in DC, the city he had always considered home. He’s now 73, and I wish I could say finis, but given the age of some of the other Democratic politicians out there…

    Matsui at least got what was coming to him, after he tried to pin Nanjing on declining moral standards in the Japanese Army generally and led the other condemned war criminals in three cheers of “Banzai” before they all hung. I don’t know what’s a more pathetic statement on the banality of evil, that, or Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher’s final defiant shout of “Heil Hitler!” before mounting the scaffold to his doom.

    I’ve spilled plenty of pixels on Wilson, so I’ll say no more.

    I just looked up Burl Ives (who I mostly remember as Sam the Snowman, playing the banjo and singing the not-at-all-bad “Silver and Gold”) on Wikipedia. It doesn’t mention “The Wayfaring Stranger” playing in the NFL, which was in its first decade when he was in college (born 1909). He did play football in college (at what’s now Eastern Illinois University) while training to be a teacher, but walked out in his junior year when he realized he was wasting his time.

    • My recollection of the events leading up to Fredericksburg was that Burnside actually stole a march on Lee and arrived there before the Confederates. All they had to do was to cross the river and Lee’s flank was open to them.

      One of the sad features of the Army of the Potomac throughout the war was that things tended to be done slowly and huge opportunities lost (the Battle of the Crater was another such). The engineers and their pontoon bridges took another day or two to arrive at Fredericksburg, and by the time they did — Lee was in place. What might have been earlier was by then hopeless, but Burnside refused to recognize that — and the rest is now history.

      I believe it was Bruce Catton who wrote that the one lasting impact Burnside had on the Army of the Potomac was to straighten out its logistics. From then to the end of the war they at least were able to supply the army adequately, which had not been the case prior to that.

      The one Burl Ives song I play over and over is a recording he did in 1949 of “Ghost Riders in the Sky”. It’s by far the best version I have heard of that song. And then there is the Leroy Troy song “Ghost Chickens in the Sky” that is really a hoot.

      • Burnside was hosed by Hallek who didn’t act with any urgency on Burnside’s request for the pontoon boats. There was nothing keeping those pontoon boats from arriving quickly and Burnside potentially being a hero of the Republic except some leadfooted bureaucracy and some potential sluggishness by a 1st rate clerk.

        Then again, when your leading general tells you he has no business commanding an Army, you should believe him. This was Lincoln’s mistake. Of course, Lincoln was in a tough spot and Burnside, in fairness, had just run a fairly competent and successful campaign in North Carolina (which was cut short by McClellan’s self-created panic on the Peninsula).

          • Antietam was before Fredericksburg.

            But what happened after North Carolina and his joining the AoP?

            North Carolina wasn’t spectacular, but it was competently managed, and if it hadn’t been for being recalled to the Peninsula was likely on it’s way to capturing the key rail hub at Goldsboro (instead it was merely raided later after Burnside’s departure).

            Maybe the toxic command climate and generals sniping at each other behind their backs wasn’t what Burnside was constitutionally able to operate with?

            • Oh brother, am I embarrassed!
              But then, Abe should be too. You recall that Burnside fought a costly battle to get control of the bridge when it wasn’t needed: the water was shallow enough to wade across. They make a big point of that during the Battlefield tours.

              • I don’t disagree about Burnside’s assessment after he joined the Army of the Potomac. Burnside had the same assessment of himself.

                But something happened between North Carolina and Antietam that took something out of Burnside…because, again, he seemed competent in the North Carolina expedition.

                Perhaps it’s a matter of scale and the AoP was just too unwieldy for his capabilities? Or he wasn’t constitutionally able to handle the wild complexities of that many bickering general officers?

    • Pakenham would have won at New Orleans if he’d been patient. He had a solid battle plan that relied upon two components, an initial “Shaping Operation” which was to occur on the opposite bank of the river prior to the “Decisive Operation” on his side of the river, ended up being a success. But it was a success *after* the “Decisive Operation” was chopped up in front of Jackson’s defensive line.

      On the other side of the river the Americans had established an artillery battery to cover that approach. Pakenham’s plan was to capture that battery to prevent it from firing into his main attack’s flank AND to turn it on the flank of Jackson’s main defensive line.

      Only, the Shaping Operation started late AND took awhile to develop. Pakenham didn’t wait and ordered his main attack which suffered the flanking bombardment of that battery and was sent off in disarray. Then the American battery was captured.

      If Pakenham had showed some patience and let the supporting battle play out, he could have attacked a very vulnerable position at Chalmette instead of attacking a solid position supported by flanking fires.

  3. “But bad ideas generally have bad consequences”

    As a friend of mine often says, “”Stripping motivated people of their dignity and rubbing their noses in it is always a very bad idea.” There seems to be a good bit of that going on lately in this country.

  4. I always liked “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas”, but maybe that’s because we had that 33 1/3 LP with his Christmas songs and album cover decorated like wrapping paper. “The Little Drummer Boy” on that album was also one of my favorites. Alas, those days are gone but I still remember all those Christmases and family gatherings.

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