Saturday, June 13, 2015

For five days, I've been busting my balls trying to get this article on Beekman Du Barry done. (That's him, to the right, in 1900, the year before he died.) He was an obscure brigadier general in the U.S. Army from 1890 to 1892. I say "obscure", but that's not fair: Congress limited the Army to just 10 brigadiers in staff jobs and 15 brigadiers in field jobs until 1901. With just 10 of them at a time, it's not really fair to say that he was "obscure". But, on the other hand, have you heard of him? Yeah, no.

His father was one of the French Du Barrys, and the family was related to Madame Du Barry, mistress of Louis XVI. Du Barry's grandfather owned a plantation and lots of slaves in Haiti, and fled (with good reason) to the United States when the Haitian Revolution broke out and the black slaves slaughtered a couple thousand white folks (with good reason, I might add). Du Barry's father was a doctor. When Joseph Bonaparte -- Napoleon's brother -- was forced to abdicate the Spanish throne, he came to the United States and settled near the Du Barry house in New Jersey. Du Barry's father became his personal physician and looked after the Bonaparte estate. (The estate still exists, by the way, and is a historic spot.)

His mother, Anne Louise Beekman, was the young widow of the elderly Count Alexander Chodkiewicz of Poland. Its from her that he got his first name.

Du Barry wanted to become aphysician, like his dad. But for entirely obscure reasons, he went to West Point instead. West Point was "the" engineering school in the United States at the time, and Du Barry joined the artillery after graduating. He spent most of the next 15 years out West, harassing Indians in New Mexico and Minnesota and subduing pro-slavery ruffians in Kansas. The Army was teensy tiny during this time -- just 2,600 officers, and 8,500 men. People still believed in George Washington's dictum that a large standing army meant trouble for democracy. Du Barry did double-duty on the frontier as a "commissary", someone who purchased food for the troops.

Commissary work was muddled in those days. Congress experimented with purchasing supplies directly from contractors, but the contractors often failed to provide the goods in the specified amounts, or at the specified time, or even in good condition. It was pretty common to find your "fresh beef" to be green, slimey, and moldy. Fresh vegetables? Fuggedabodit. Worse, the Quartermaster Corps also had purchasing duties. So did the Commissary of Ordnance. And both Commissary departments had to rely on the Quartermaster Corps to move things from supply depots to the troops in the field. It was a mess, and it only got worse when the Civil War broke out.

Du Barry, though, was a highly efficient commissary officer, and he resigned his commission in the artillery to take a job in the Commissary of Subsistence (food) bureau. He was intially stationed in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he got super-good at his job. So good, in fact, that Ulysses S. Grant ordered him to come west and be Commissary of Subsistence for his Army of the Tennessee. General-in-Chief Henry Halleck got wind of Du Barry's skills, and stole him away from Grant (not that Grant didn't try to get him back). After two years in Cincinnati, supplying most of the food for the Union armies in the West, Du Barry got sent to Washington, D.C., where he was the deputy Commissary-General of Subsistence.

That's Du Barry's claim to fame: Not battles, not warrior ethics, not strategy. Just good old-fashioned bureaucracy. Keeping an army fed. And winning the war because of it. He got promoted twice (to lieutenant colonel and again to colonel) because of it, and when he retired in 1892 the Secretary of War issued a special "general order" noting his excellent performance.



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The problem, for me, in writing articles like this is, in part, that they're boring. A U.S. Army officer's military career is pretty well laid out in the official records, and so writing an article like this can be awfully boring. It's just "And then on January X, 18ZZ, he got promoted to major." Over and over and over. Bleah.

The other thing is how awfully, shittily vague most military history is. Just try and find out exactly what unit Du Barry served with in Harrisburg. Good luck with that. Most historians are horribly vague about such things. Even when it comes to the units Ulysses S. Grant himself commanded, or the dates on which he took command, are missing. You have to dig, dig, dig for those things. And after four hours' work, what have you got? Three sentences.

The other thing about it is that I'm no military expert. Just what, pray tell, was the "Commissary of Subsistence"? Did it include uniforms as well as food? Did it include transporting food, or just buying it? Did it include animal forage, or just human food? Fat lot it'll do you to look for this online. There's very, very, very little information out there on historical stuff like this. Online research leads you, instead, to half-assed Web sites written by warrior-wanna-bes who don't do a lick of research and get things very, very wrong. And that sort of crap has PROLIFERATED on the Web, so that it's almost impossible to find really well-written, cited, authoritative sites that explain things.

In the end, how many people are going to care about Beekman Du Barry? Five. Or six. Almost a week's work, and for what? Nothing. Just to get rid of a red-link in another article.

Bleah.

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