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July 2006
Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War
by Charles Bracelen Flood

Military History and Me
by Charles Bracelen Flood

Long ago—in the 1930s—when I was a boy in Manhattan, I belonged to an after-school military organization called the Knickerbocker Greys. It was in essence a twice-weekly class in close-order drill, held at the Seventh Regiment Armory at 67th Street and Park Avenue. Some 130 of us wore grey uniforms and marched back and forth to the beat provided by a drum corps. Perhaps 20 of us also went down there dressed informally on Saturday mornings to our Rifle Club, which involved firing .22 caliber rifles on an indoor range. As we rose through the ranks during our elementary school years, we acquired gold chevrons on the sleeves of our high-collared grey tunics; those of us promoted to sergeant carried swords, and those of us who became officers had more elaborate swords and plumes in our caps. The colors of our plumes designated our rank.

I loved it. Twice a year we held dress reviews, and it was a thrill to parade out onto the armory’s shiny hardwood floor behind the Seventh Regiment’s marching band, knowing that one’s family was watching from somewhere in the balconies. The pageantry had captured my imagination, and to this day I think we learned a lot over those very young years, taking and giving orders. In the midst of this yearly progression, Pearl Harbor came when I was 11 and in the 6th grade. If anything more was needed to fuel my pre-adolescent military fantasies, it was the sudden addition to our young lives of John Wayne movies and the sight of uniformed young men, only a few years older than ourselves, walking the streets of solidly patriotic New York.

In 1944, at the age of 14, I went off to Tabor Academy, a boarding school on the salt water in Marion, Massachusetts. Tabor had the designation of being an Honor Naval School, which meant that four seniors a year could apply to Annapolis without benefit of a congressional appointment. To qualify for this, the school was required to have, among other things, a program in close-order drill, so I went on marching without missing a beat. Indeed, I was now supplying the beat, as a member of the school’s drum corps. With the defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945, many of us found that our youthful interest in military matters abated, but along the way I had become a reader of such things as C.S. Forester’s Captain Horatio Hornblower stories in the Saturday Evening Post, and fascination with warfare on sea and on land had become a minor but definite part of my life.

When I entered Harvard in the fall of 1947, the conventional wisdom was that, if there were ever another war, it would consist of a nuclear—the word then was “atomic”—exchange that would be over within hours, leaving millions dead. As for what was available to study in the way of military history, I think it fair to say that in most American higher education of the time, military history was a little-regarded stepchild, history of a sort, but not real history. Then in June 1950 the North Koreans poured into South Korea, and my generation was called upon to serve in what became largely trench warfare in the hills of that distant peninsula. Eventually I enlisted in the Army and went through 16 weeks of infantry basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey before receiving an honorable discharge for orthopedic problems.

So where was I then? My youthful imaginary military world had been tempered by the reality of the intensive training, without plumes or marching bands, and the knowledge that my friends entering the “pipeline” at Fort Dix were emerging on battlefields from which some did not return. In the meantime, my civilian life took me into the world of writing novels, but in this work there were recurrent military themes and imagined experiences. An example of this occurred when I met a man who had been a prisoner of the Chinese during the Korean War. He really wanted his story to be told, and my stark rendering of his ghastly experience, fictionalized only in regard to the homefront part of the story, resulted in my More Lives Than One, which appeared in 1967, 14 years after the Korean War ended.

In the meantime, however, there was a brand-new war, in Vietnam, and now in my mid-30s, I was drawn to it as a moth to a flame. The result was a free-lance year spent there at the height of the conflict, which I recorded in my first-person account, The War of the Innocents. This time I could bring to the page my direct experience of being shot at on land and in the air, and of seeing various forms of combat at close range. I had seen the wounded and the dead of both sides; I had seen villages blown up, and women wailing, and children in the refugee camps and orphanages.

So was I cured? No. The romanticism had been pretty well beaten out of me, but the excitement lingered on, accompanied by a more sophisticated and scholarly interest in military matters. Sometimes I met this head-on, as in my book Rise, and Fight Again, about the four worst military disasters of the American Revolution. At other times the fighting was partly off-stage, as in my Lee—The Last Years, my account of the last years of Robert E. Lee’s life that starts at Appomattox, or my Hitler—The Path to Power, which begins with Lance-Corporal Hitler just emerging from the trenches of the First World War, takes him through the gunfire of the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, and ends with his release from prison at the end of his sentence for treason, during which time he wrote most of Mein Kampf.

Was all that enough? No. [In] October [2005] Farrar, Straus and Giroux [published] my Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War. Once again, there’s a different angle. But it’s war, it’s men fighting, men marching, and I suppose under there somewhere is the little boy who loved the utterly unrealistic version of the military he experienced marching back and forth on those hardwood floors of the armory on Park Avenue. I will, however, say this: I go back to the reunions of the infantry battalion with which I spent a lot of time on the Cambodian border, and I am welcome in the midst of those who have experienced a bond like no other. “Of arms and the man I sing”—that’s Virgil’s line, and it looks as if that’s a good part of what I do, and maybe was born to do. I don’t start these wars, I don’t think I glorify them, but I do like writing about them.

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