“History is human nature writ large, and the better you understand the past, the better you’ll understand people in general, including those of our own day.”
— James Carlos Blake
There is a pernicious movement afoot to push aside liberal arts education in favor of more “practical” education. This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what is practical. I “use” my history education (which extends FAR beyond formal classroom time) every single day, in just the manner that Blake outlines in the quote above.
Examples from history inform my understanding of human behavior as profoundly as if I’d earned a degree in psychology — and that understanding made me a more empathetic and compassionate person. You cannot study history closely without recognizing that the best among us are fallible; that the most fallible among us are sometimes capable of unexpected grace and nobility.
Psychology and neuroscience are showing us that what we perceive as decision making comes out of deep-seated drives, an accretion of instinct, early imprinting, ingrained patterns of belief and behavior. What we perceive as “rational” thinking may be more on the order of rationalization of our feelings and emotions.
Which brings us to love and sex.
Running Iron Report reader, correspondent and podcast guest Rick Schwertfeger recently kicked up the very real possibility that the relationship of a British General and his mistress had a material impact on the outcome of the American Revolution. This notion sent me down a rabbit hole, where I dirtied my fluffy white tail — but I have returned with a tale to tell…
Sir William Howe was a British military aristocrat of the highest order. In 1776, he was Commander-in-Chief of his Majesty’s forces in North America, charged with putting down the rebellion of the American colonies. Howe’s brother Richard was an admiral in the British Navy, and his older brother George had been a pioneer of British light infantry and ranging tactics before dying a hero’s death in a firefight with French and Indian rangers just before the Battle of Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga) in 1758.
During the year of 1776, Howe outmaneuvered and pummeled General George Washington’s Continental Army on Long Island and captured New York for the British. The flame of the rebellion was guttering in the winter of 1776–77.
But General Howe seemed to display no sense of urgency in finishing off Washington’s wounded army — which would show its teeth in December 1776 with small but significant victories at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey. And Howe was downright obstructionist in enacting the 1777 grand strategy to split the New England colonies off from New York.
General John Burgoyne was to penetrate south from Canada during the summer of ’77, while a column under General Barry St. Ledger was to raid west-to-east through the Mohawk Valley. Howe was to support these incursions by pushing north from New York City, with the three columns converging on Albany, New York. The strategy did not fully account for the ruggedness of the wilderness terrain the first two columns would have to traverse, nor for the quality of the American forces that would mobilize to counter Burgoyne. But the strategy was sound, and had it been fully executed, it could well have won the war for the Crown
Howe simply didn’t bother to play his part. Instead, he moved into Chesapeake Bay and, in September 1777, he whipped Washington’s army twice and took Philadelphia. The taking of the rebel capital might have been a game changer, except that the Americans held off St. Ledger’s incursion into the Mohawk Valley and soundly defeated Burgoyne’s army, forcing his surrender at Saratoga in October 1777. Saratoga really was a game-changer; in the wake of the Burgoyne’s surrender, France entered the war as an ally of the fledgling Unite States.
Howe went complacently into winter quarters in Philadelphia — in the company of his mistress, a 33-year-old married woman named Elizabeth Loring.
Joshua and Betsey Loring were Boston Loyalists; Howe made her acquaintance during the British occupation of that tumultuous city. Betsy was noted for her extravagance and “love of play.” Her husband Joshua Loring was apparently a degenerate gambler (a besetting vice in an age of many and great vices) and he was amenable to allowing the General access to his wife in exchange for a lucrative and prestigious post managing American prisoners of war (quite terribly).
That Elizabeth had become Howe’s paramour is assumed — no trail of texts or dick pics exist, and the Howe family papers were destroyed by fire in 1845. They were constantly in each other’s company drinking, dancing and gaming in the extravagant social whirl of officer life in occupied Philly. Certainly, their relationship was the subject of gossip and the occasional verse, as exampled by a bit of whimsy from an American-penned propaganda ballad recounting the 1778 “Battle of the Kegs” in which American operatives tried to blow up some British shipping with kegs of gunpowder:
Sir William he,
snug as a flea,
Lay all this time a snoring,
Nor dreamed of harm
as he lay warm,
In bed with Mrs. Loring
Howe was not aggressive in prosecuting the war against the American rebels, and his strange sluggishness cost the British the initiative in the North.
Howe was no incompetent. On a tactical level, he was highly capable. He had demonstrated great personal bravery on the battlefield. Yet, he can readily be blamed for losing the American Revolutionary War for the British. The late historian Thomas Fleming explored “The Engima of General Howe” in depth in American Heritage:
During his two and one half years as British Commander in Chief, William Howe never lost a battle when he was in personal charge of his army. Every time he met Washington in the field, he thrashed him unmercifully. Yet Howe failed to end the rebellion. Again and again, Washington escaped to fight another day.
A New York Loyalist laid the blame squarely between sweet Betsey’s legs:
“As Cleopatra of old lost Mark Antony the world, so did this illustrious courtesan lose Sir William Howe, the honour, the laurels, and the glory, of putting an end to one of the most obstinate rebellions that ever existed.”
That’s a bit reductive. My take is that Howe’s heart simply wasn’t in it when it came to ruthlessly crushing the rebellion. All three Howe brothers had long been well-disposed to their American cousins, and the surviving brothers, Richard and William, seemingly clung through the early years of the war to an increasingly dim hope of reconciliation. They also may have had some partisan political motives for their less-than-ardent support of the Crown’s policies in America.
It seems to me that General Howe’s attentiveness to Mrs. Loring was a symptom rather than a cause of his dilatory attitude toward his military role. Fleming wrote in American Heritage that:
“A mistress was hardly remarkable among eighteenth-century English aristocrats, shocking though she may have been to pious Americans, and there is not an iota of evidence that Mrs. Loring ever had the slightest influence on Howe’s policies.”
Howe would resign his post in 1778. Elizabeth Loring would join her husband Joshua in exile in Britain after the war. He died at 44 and left her a widow with two children to provide for on a pension. The glamor of occupied Philadelphia must have seemed a long, long ways away…
No human drama is more strange or more terrible in its consequences than Europe’s slide into war in 1914 — a cataclysmic explosion that reshaped the modern world. The spark that set off the explosion was conflict between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia over the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at the hands of a militant Serb fanatic on June 28, 1914. For a month, the flame of war burned along a trail of gunpowder toward the cataclysmic explosion. The flame could have been stomped out along the way; it had been before. But this time it seemed as though men were yearning for the powder kegs to blow.
One of these, was a man in a position to shape events. Through the July Crisis, Austrian military Chief of Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf called repeatedly for war; a war he believed to be inevitable and necessary — and one he hoped would clear the way for him to marry his mistress, Virginia Reininghaus.
In his recent book on the July Crisis, Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark writes:
“It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this relationship; it was at the center of Conrad’s life throughout the years from 1907 to the outbreak of the war, eclipsing all other concerns, including the military and political questions that came to his desk.”
Conrad’s infatuation with the married Gina Reininghaus was obsessive and florid. He wrote her some 3,000 letters, one of them 60 pages long. It’s more than a little weird.
“Times are serious and the coming year will in all likelihood bring war. Should I perish in it you are relieved of me. Should I return laden with failure, then I shall disappear in the nothingness of solitude, if I can bear this strike at all. Should I, however, what I shyly dare to hope—return crowned by success—then, Gina, I shall break all bonds, in order to conquer ‘You’ the greatest happiness of my life, you as my dear wife. But what if things turn out different and everything drags on in lazy peace, Gina, what then? In your hands, I lay my fate, solely in your hands …”
“…If you read these lines, they will give you testimony of my unspeakable, passionate, desperate, all consuming love! Will I be able to endure this self-agony? What would I not endure for you! I love you, like one loves a woman, whom one desires to be one’s wife, and to whom one dedicates his entire life. Only now, after I found you, do I have the desire, to do great things, and to be worthy of you!”
Again, it is reductive to lay Austria’s reckless plunge into war, pulling all of Europe in after her, solely to a single man’s romantic obsession. In many ways, the European states in the early 20th century seemed determined to find a way to self-destruct, and Conrad’s manic obsession can be seen as a particularly lurid example of the fevered atmosphere of the times. But it is nevertheless significant that one of the key players in the drama continually poured gasoline on what could have been a containable a fire in the hope that the flames would purify his “unspeakable, passionate, desperate, all consuming love.”
As it turned out, Conrad got his war, which destroyed the Austro-Hungarian Empire along with most of the old order of Europe. But he won his bride. Gina’s husband finally divorced her in 1915, and she married the obsessed officer. She stayed with him till his death in 1925; Gina lived until 1961, in a world remade.
At least one pundit has pondered what might have been in 2016 had General David Petraeus been available to ride to the rescue as the Republican Party nominated Donald Trump for President.
He wasn’t, because in 2012 he’d been sacked as Director of CIA, and in 2015 he was sentenced to two years’ probation and fined $100,000 for sharing classified information with his biographer — and mistress — Paula Broadwell.
The affair came to light after a Florida socialite named Jill Kelley — a friend of the Petraeus family and other high-ranking military personnel — reported being harassed online by an anonymous person who turned out to be Broadwell. Apparently the biographer/mistress perceived Kelley as some kind of potential threat…
Tangled webs and all that…
If we take seriously the possibility that Petraeus might have become a viable presidential candidate, we can chalk up another case where a love affair affected history. In any case, it certainly derailed a couple of high-flying careers. As is often the case, the fallout was harder on the mistress than it was on the general. Petraeus has done pretty well for himself in the private and non-profit sector. Broadwell returned to her husband and children and attempted to find some normalcy.
History is often unkind to generals who take mistresses — at least if the affair is seen to negatively affect performance or if it makes the officer look ridiculous. We like our military personnel to be virile, but never besotted.
Yet what man among us hasn’t at least once in life behaved foolishly and recklessly on account of a woman?
History can be even meaner to a mistress, rendering her as a Jezebel or a Delilah — or a Cleopatra — who brought a fine man to ruin. Which is bosh, of course. Women are often drawn to the power and prestige of rank; we can argue endlessly whether that’s due to social conditioning or hard-wired, but it’s a persistent fact across centuries. As Henry Kissinger once noted, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” The involvement often proves to be a mistake.
And yet, what woman among us hasn’t made foolish or reckless choices for the sake of a man?
Perhaps it’s best to remember that those who are responsible for strategic decisions that affect thousands or even millions of lives are but men and women. Perhaps more than most, their position isolates them. Maybe their conduct comes down to one simple, fundamental human need: They seek connection — at any price.
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