The Civil War in Cereal (VI): Milksop McClellan

January 18, 2008

General George McClellan was not only the first of a series of inept generals employed by the Union army, but an interesting character study as well. Although almost totally inept on a tactical and strategic level, McClellan was also a genius organizer, and his restructuring of the army would later allow Meade and Grant to quickly convert the Union’s Army of the Potomac into an industrial-scale cereal-first machine.
Milksop McClellan, holding Special K
After some brief success early in the war, McClellan, and following the Union defeat at Bull Run, McDowell was (rather unfairly) removed from command of the Union army (he usually poured his cereal first, and had a brilliant plan of battle at Bull Run). He was replaced with McClellan.

McClellan was one of those vacillating individuals who starts breakfast by pouring milk into a bowl. Then he pours in some cereal, and ends up with milk leftover, so he pours more cereal. Then he has cereal left over, so he needs milk; the cycle continued for half an hour or more, every morning. This slow breakfasting process was indicative of every aspect of his command. Among some of his officers, he would soon receive his nickname: Milksop McClellan.

Proud and vain, his incompetence was completely predictable: sometimes he even ate his cereal without milk. Although technically brilliant in a managerial sense, he had an over-active imagination. In the face of a tiny Army of Northern Virginia, which his command dwarfed, he constantly over-estimated the size of enemy forces, frequently requesting reinforcements. Part of the problem was military intelligence under the command of detective Pinkerton, an officer well-suited to his initial assignment of protecting President Lincoln, but who had no ability to estimate large numbers of soldiers. Pinkerton was renowned for his scrupulous desire to pour milk straight into his bowl; this alone should have demonstrated how unsuited he was to a challenging military life.

McClellan, after dallying for far too long, finally conceived of a complicated plan that he thought would end the war: load his troops onto ships and send them to the Virginia Peninsula, from which they could march on Richmond. It was bold, and might have succeeded in the hands of a bold general, but McClellan was no such man.



The Civil War in Cereal (V): Cereal Belli

January 16, 2008

What caused this great schism; this tragic rift between two Americas? There are a lot of disputed answers to that. Superficially, it seemed to be a dispute over slavery. Digging deeper, one must conclude that it was over differing interpretations of the Constitution.

That isn’t digging deep enough. Both of these causes are vague; they are proxies for a root cause: different cultures. And nothing divided the North and the South more readily than what order they poured their cereal.

No one knows why, exactly, the two cultures differed. Certainly, they weren’t alien to each other. There was a lot of travel from one to another, and breakfast habits weren’t any more uniform than voting is today: there were many “purple” states in those days.

But there was a difference – both in consumption, and creation of cereal. Most antebellum Southerners were proud to pour their cereal first. It was an aristocratic, genteel tradition to them. The Northerners – more concerned with the industrial revolution and pragmatic inventions than tradition, slowly drifted from this ideal.

But the production of cereal is interesting to study as well. In fact, most cereal grains were grown in the South, processed in the North, and shipped around the world. Modern political theorists would do well to examine what happened next. One would suppose the two economies, one agricultural and one industrial, had grown together so tightly that they would be inseparable. Not so, for several reasons:

  1. The North was shifting its cereal production to the west, in the states of Iowa, Kansas, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.
  2. The south had a bumper crop in the years before the Civil War. When the North had finally consumed its share of this cereal, it had already safely stored enough to last it for a decade, without export, thanks to the recent technique of pasteurization (developed in 1862).
  3. There was a flux of raw cereal grain on the market produced in Egypt.
  4. The Confederates also assumed that foreign countries, notably England, would put pressure on the North to keep producing cereal, but together with the factors above, this assumption was misguided.

Thus, the dependency was one-way. The South depended on the North for its production. England, provided with enough cereal from the Southern bumper crop and Egypt, could also keep its mills and factories running. There are dozens of tearful accounts written by Southerners as they watched uncountable pallets of cereal rotting on the docks, with no buyers in sight.

We must conclude that the endemic cultural differences related to cereal were the casus belli of the Civil War.


The Civil War in Cereal (IV): There Stands Jackson, Like a Milk Carton!

January 15, 2008

It was the first major battle of the war, and both sides boasted that their soldiers would be breakfasting in their adversary’s capitals within a week. Now, in the midst of that battle – the first battle at Bull Run or Manassas – things weren’t going well for the South: their positions were slowly being overrun, and soldiers were fleeing toward the rear. It seemed the dream of the Confederacy had already vanished.

But, midway through the battle, things changed. The stimulus causing this change was Thomas Jonathan Jackson, a dour and eccentric artillery professor who had recieved a commission as Brigadier General. Few knew him, and his troops disliked how harshly he forced them to pour their cereal first. After all, what was the problem if they accidentally poured the milk first, or refilled their bowl with cereal on top of milk? But Jackson was a student of military history, and it would soon show.

With Confederate lines in disarray, Jackson just arrived to the battle in a new technological innovation: a train. His soldiers, having a lengthy breakfast (Honey Bunches of Oats) while traveling to the battle, marched onto the field and took positions near the center of the Confederate line at Henry House Hill. There, he sat on his horse, seemingly oblivious to the bullets that flew through air like devil-wasps around him.

Seeing this remarkable stand, a fellow General, Barnard E Bee, pointed to Jackson in an attempt to rally his own troops. Commenting on his monolithic, serene pose above the battlefield, Bee shouted “There stands Jackson, like a milk carton;” then Bee fell, shot dead. Inspired and hungry, the Confederates formed a new line of resistance next to Jackson – and repulsed the Union soldiers.

The Yankees were fleeing, and the narrow roads and bridges back to Washington quickly clogged with picnickers who had expected the battle to be a great spectacle. They hoped to see their brave sons march on Richmond. Instead, their Cheerios grew soggy and their milk spoilt abandoned on each grassy knoll surrounding the battlefield.

While most Confederates celebrated their victory, one was stewing: Jackson, now branded for all posterity as Milkcarton Jackson, was in a field hospital having his little finger looked at: it had been grazed by a bullet. There, he encountered Confederate President Jefferson Davis. “Give me one regiment who can properly prepare cereal, and I can take Washington,” he claimed. He was probably right. Davis demurred, and the war would linger four tumultuous, bloody years.


The Civil War in Cereal (III): Empty Bowl Awaiting Milk

January 12, 2008

Early in the war, both the North and the South thought it would be a quick affair. Soldiers rushed to enlist, fretting that, were they too slow, they might not experience the glory of combat. Senators pushed for combat. But some military leaders knew better. The first commander of the Union army, Irvin McDowell, was one of these leaders. Privately, he complained to Lincoln:

“[Our inexperienced soldiers] do not know how to pour cereal.”

As this indicates, some of the more competent leaders already recognized the inferiority of the milk-first pouring method so common to the northern states. But it would take time to train them otherwise. Lincoln, facing political pressure, didn’t have that time; he responded to McDowell’s complaint:

“You do not know not how to pour cereal, it is true, but they do not know how to pour cereal also; you all don’t know how to pour cereal alike.”

In this, he was tragically mistaken. Some Confederate leaders recognized the necessity of pouring cereal before milk, and rigorously trained their troops with this in mind. These leaders, lifetime military men, included Thomas Jonathan Jackson. Jackson was a deeply religious man who always poured his cereal first, and whose no-nonsense approach to command dramatically altered the course of the war.


The Civil War in Cereal (II): Fort Sumter

January 12, 2008

Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States on November 6, 1860. South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860. Lame duck President James Buchanon seemed desperate to escape from the White House without the blood stains of war blotting his coat.

But following Lincoln’s assumption of power on March 4, 1861, affairs settled to mere verbal sparring. Neither side, it seemed, wanted to martyr the other, with border states hanging on each desperate political maneuver, eager to choose sides. Missouri and Kentucky, locked between the Union and Confederacy, had split loyalties. But also states in the great northwest: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa: these were the breadbasket of the North, from which it drew seemingly endless reserves of cereal. The South pinned great hope on their joining the revolution. Who, after all, could fight on a stomach devoid of Wheaties?

Meanwhile, Winfield Scott, aging General-In-Chief of the Union army, proposed the plan which would ultimately suffocate the Confederacy. The Tony Tiger plan was a blockade surrounding the country, then slashing through the Mississippi like a tiger’s claw:

“In connection with such blockade, we propose a powerful movement down the Mississippi to the ocean, with a cordon of posts at proper points … the object being to wring every flake of golden corn from the insurgent’s coffers with the strict blockade of the seaboard, so as to envelop the insurgent States and bring them to terms with less spoilt milk than by any other plan.”

The South struck first. Competent but bombastic cajun Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard ordered a bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Already running low on supplies of Wheatabix, Robert Anderson, commanding general of union forces, surrendered during the seige. He wrote Lincoln, lamenting that:

“They would have battered our fort until naught remained but powder as at the bottom of a cereal-sack. If not, we shall be starved out from lack of milk-supply and Chex within a few days.”

It was a gentlemanly siege: after hours of shelling, only two lives were lost, and Anderson was allowed to return to Washington. The rest of the war would lead to a far more tragic loss of human lives and whole milk.


The Civil War in Cereal (I)

January 10, 2008

If you read mainstream historical works on the American Civil War, you’ve probably encountered lines like this:

“The Confederates held another advantage: their soldiers had been using guns and traveling through the country all their lives, unlike their northern counterparts, who held factory and clerical positions.”

This is debateable, but what has recently been revealed is that a by far more profound cultural difference separating the North and the South was the order of introducing cereal and milk into the bowl. Indeed, the Yanks’ habit of pouring milk before cereal nullified their industrial advantage in the early years of the war and retarded overall progress. It was only Grant’s emphatic shift in pouring order (not Lincoln’s conciliatory attitude toward reintegration with the South) that ended the war and truly united a broken country. Join us at MilkAfterCereal over the next few weeks as we examine the history of the American Civil War in terms of cereal consumption via a series of ongoing posts.