USS Cairo, USS Panay, SS Normandie, Hovercraft and Keeping Friends after the Election

So today we’re at sea…or at least on the water.  Yes, we know all about Washington DC being established as the US capitol  on 12 December 1800, and the donation of so much swampland in Manhattan for the UN in 1946, even the birth of Stand Watie in 1806 and the Maastricht Treaty in 1991.  Today, we’re afloat.

In June, at Memphis,  Cairo was a part of the largest naval battle fought on the Mississippi.

The lead vessel in the City class ironclad gunboats built on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in the Civil War, USS Cairo was built by the Eads firm in Mound City, Illinois. Cairo displaced about 512 tons and was armed with 3 8-inch Dahlgren guns throughout her service, with a number of different rifled smoothbore guns (13 when she was commissioned in January 1862; 12 in November).  Cairo participated in the occupation of Clarksville, Tennessee on the Tennessee river in February 1962, in the occupation of Nashville later in the month, and was on the Mississippi by April, escorting mortar rafts at Fort Pillow. In June, at Memphis,  Cairo was a part of the largest naval battle fought on the Mississippi. In November, Cairo became a part of the Yazoo Pass expedition, an ill-fated attempt to outflank Vicksburg.  On 12 December, 1862, Cairo was sunk by a command-detonated mine, the first warship to ever be sunk by such a device.  Rediscovered in 1956, Cairo was raised in 1965 and is on display at Vicksburg.

In 1937, after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, Panay was increasingly called on to evacuate Americans in the path of the oncoming Japanese.

Built on the other side of the world for the US Navy, USS Panay (PR-5) was built at the Kiangnan Dockyard and Engineering Works, Shanghai for Yangtze River service and launched in November 1927.  Panay (named for an island in the Philippines) was armed with a single 3-in main gun and a number of small arms: her only mission was the protection of American citizens, missions and property along the river against the lawless elements that roamed China during her civil war. In 1937, after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, Panay was increasingly called on to evacuate Americans in the path of the oncoming Japanese. On 12 December 1937, Panay and a number of other non-Chinese vessels carrying evacuees were attacked by Japanese aircraft above Nanking. Unknown to the Japanese at the time, a number of newsreel photographers on Panay shot the entire incident, right up until the little gunboat sank. The “Panay Incident” became an international sensation, and an embarrassment to the Japanese. Though reparations were paid in the amount of $2.2 million, relations between the US and Japan deteriorated.

A very fast ship that could cross the Atlantic in less than four days carrying more than 1,400 passengers, neither the French nor anyone else wanted Normandie to fall into German hands: the threat of surface raiders alone was compelling enough.

Before 1941, many of the largest European ocean liners had docked in neutral countries.  SS Normandie, an 86,000 ton French liner belonging to the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique out of Le Havre, had been interned in New York on 3 September 1939. A very fast ship that could cross the Atlantic in less than four days carrying more than 1,400 passengers, neither the French nor anyone else wanted Normandie to fall into German hands: the threat of surface raiders alone was compelling enough.  Though her crew stayed aboard and her captain still commanded, she was going nowhere.  On 12 December 1941, five days after Pearl Harbor, the US Navy seized Normandie.  Conversion into a troopship named USS Lafayette commenced almost immediately, but a fire gutted and capsized her at the dockyard.  She was raised and scrapped in 1946.

Though they are considered aircraft by some, the first successful hovercraft (able to travel on water or land) prototype was demonstrated on 12 December 1955 by Christopher Cockerell.

The use of air cushions to make vehicles “float” had its origins in the 1870s, but powerplants were lacking for construction. An “air cushion boat” was built and demonstrated in Austria during WWI, but it died of lack of interest. Though they are considered aircraft by some, the first successful hovercraft (able to travel on water or land) prototype was demonstrated on 12 December 1955 by Christopher Cockerell. At the time the entire concept of a vehicle that traveled on a cushion of air was deemed classified in Britain, so funding had to come from either the Ministry of Defense or nowhere else. But the RAF called it a boat, and the RN called it an airplane, and the British Army simply wasn’t interested.  The idea languished for a short time until MoD realized that if no one in the defense establishment was interested, then it could hardly be a secret.

…there is still reason to find common ground in mutual disgust of the bobbleheads that the political establishment–even those beyond the usual Ds and Rs–seem to be putting up for the sake of friendship.

I have had exchanges with some of my oldest friends (some going back to the days of Nixon) over the consequences of the November election. Though I realize that our politics don’t always align, that doesn’t mean that we can’t find common ground somewhere, at least in shared experience over a lifetime. In all these cases when my interlocutor expresses anguish or anger over the defeat of Clinton,  I found myself condemning all the candidates at being unworthy of our votes as a means of keeping peace: the exercise of a franchise that the world envies, and all too many people either ignore or find to be too tedious to be used.  Putting a pox on all their houses in this way has been surprisingly effective.  None of my more left-leaning friends or even relatives have found any reason to defend either the Greens or the Democrats, other than that, well, they didn’t have Trump on the ticket.  Similarly, no one has any great love for the Republicans, or have considered the Libertarians anything more than a distraction. As much as I believe the American electoral system has been corrupted by both money, favoritism and blatant media biases among other abuses, there is still reason to find common ground in mutual disgust of the bobbleheads that the political establishment–even those beyond the usual Ds and Rs–seem to be putting up for the sake of friendship. Then again, the minute media scrutiny that anyone in the spotlight is subject to is not for everyone.  I do wish that the major media would pay more attention to policy statements than to sound bites; past sins of word, thought and deed; recent gaffes and irrelevant current peccadilloes. Maybe someone, somewhere in some position of influence has never had a speeding ticket, never said anything that would potentially offend a future audience, or changed their minds on any issue, ever. Maybe, but not likely.

Custer and Gall, Jellicoe and Heisenberg and the Monkey Wrench

This week’s musings are a little more esoteric than usual, but there it is.  While we note the birth of Martin Van Buren on 5 December 1782, of Clyde Cessna in 1879, of Walt Disney in 1901, the patenting of nitrocellulose in 1846, and the end of Prohibition in the United States in 1933, today your intrepid researcher chooses some more closely related persons to expound upon…and things like pipe wrenches that your intrepid researcher and consistently failed plumber owns but cannot use.

By the end of the Civil War he was a major general of Volunteers (a strictly wartime rank) and a reputation as one of the boldest cavalry leaders in the Army.

On 5 December 1839 George A. Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio.  Known variously as Armstrong, Ringlets (for his hair, about which he was quite vain) and Iron Butt (for his stamina in the saddle), Custer graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point (albeit a year earlier than scheduled) and was commissioned a lieutenant in the cavalry in 1861. He distinguished himself with dash and initiative in the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 enough to be brevetted to lieutenant colonel dating from Antietam, and was made a brigadier general of volunteers just before Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, where he led the Michigan cavalry to stop JEB Stuart’s flanking maneuver on 3 July. By the end of the Civil War he was a major general of Volunteers (a strictly wartime rank) and a reputation as one of the boldest cavalry leaders in the Army. After his mustering out, Custer returned to the regular Army at his permanent rank, lieutenant colonel.  For the next decade Custer led the 7th Cavalry on long marches, campaigns and battles primarily with the Sioux in the northern Plains.  His death, with some 200-odd of his troopers at the Little Bighorn on 25 June 1876 has overshadowed the rest of his accomplishments.

After fleeing to Canada for a few years, Gall brought his people back to the United States, surrendered and was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation on the Dakota border.

Very little is known for certain about the early life of Hunkpapa Lakota/Sioux leader known as Chief Gall–who got his name, it is said, after he ate the gall bladder of an animal.  Born around 1840, almost certainly in modern South Dakota, Gall was a war chief by the time he was in his twenties, and was present at the Little Bighorn when Custer met his end.  After fleeing to Canada for a few years, Gall brought his people back to the United States, surrendered and was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation on the Dakota border.  Gall encouraged his people to assimilate to their lot in the white man’s life, and apparently they did for a time. Gall himself converted to Christianity, served as a tribal judge, and died peacefully in his sleep on 5 December, 1894 in Wakpala, South Dakota.  Gall was one of the only Native American chiefs of the Little Bighorn battle to die of natural causes, and ironically on Custer’s birthday.

Jellicoe, called “the only man who could lose a war in an afternoon” because of Jutland, was appointed First Sea Lord after Jutland, and after the war was Governor-General of New Zealand.

On 5 December 1859, John Jellicoe was born in Southhampton, England.  At the age of thirteen Jellicoe entered the Royal Navy, and was in that service for the rest of his adult life.  He was best known as an early advocate of Fisher’s “big gun” battleship and “large cruiser” ideas, resulting in the Dreadnaughts and the Invincible battlecruisers. He was also something of an innovator of naval gunnery, testing early central gun directors. Jellicoe was also the commander of the Grand Fleet, the renamed Home Fleet, at the beginning of World War I and was in charge at the largest naval clash of the Great War, the ambiguous Jutland/Skagerrak battle in late May 1916.  Depending on point of view, Jutland resulted in either a tactical draw, an operational defeat for Britain (who lost more ships), a strategic defeat for Germany (who never sortied the fleet again), and a grand strategic defeat for Tsarist Russia (who was completely cut off from any assistance from her allies).  Jellicoe, called “the only man who could lose a war in an afternoon” because of Jutland, was appointed First Sea Lord after Jutland, and after the war was Governor-General of New Zealand.   Jellicoe died 20 November 1935 in Kensington.

In 1939, Heisenberg was a part of the “Uranium Club,” the German effort to build nuclear weapons.

Werner Heisenberg was born on 5 December 1901 at Wurzburg, which was then a part of Bavaria.  In 1919, though he managed to avoid military service in WWI, he was a member of the Freikorps fighting the Bavarian Socialist Republic. This didn’t seem to have affected his studies: he studied physics in Munich and Gottingen, and met Niels Bohr in June 1922. His work on matrix and quantum mechanics earned him notoriety in the theoretical physics community, earning him a Nobel Prize in physics in 1932. In the early days of the Nazi government, Heisenberg was under examination for his work in “Jewish” (theoretical) physics, but was eventually rehabilitated into the fold of academics on the cutting edge of science. In 1939, Heisenberg was a part of the “Uranium Club,” the German effort to build nuclear weapons. By 1942, Heisenberg told his Nazi masters that 1) nuclear weapons were not possible to produce within the expected timeframe of the war, and 2) they were probably not within Germany’s industrial capacity within that timeframe.  Nuclear research in Germany thereupon switched priorities to energy extraction, which proceeded in fits and starts until the end of the war.  According to postwar interrogations of the leading German nuclear physicists in Allied hands, it seems clear that Heisenberg had miscalculated uranium decay by orders of magnitude, and likely would not have resulted in any practical applications.  Heisenberg died 1 February, 1976, in Munich.  His lasting legacy, it is said, is the “uncertainty principle” which says that a measurement affects the phenomenon.

His 5 December 1876 patent, one of many follow-ons, was for a wrench suitable for both pipe and flat-sided fasteners.  This one wasn’t near as successful, nor near as popular or emulated as his first.  

In the mid-19th century, indoor plumbing was beginning to matter a lot more than it had before.  Cities were growing; the flush toilet made buildings over three stories practical; sanitation was becoming a growing concern.  Threaded pipe, developed sometime between 1850 and 1860, wasn’t easy to tighten and was the only practical way to plumb in tall buildings.  A number of inventors tackled the problem of tightening pipe, but Daniel Stillson, working at the Walworth Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, came up with an innovative idea that took advantage of the relatively soft outside of a steel pipe by gripping it with angled teeth.  Stillson’s first wrench patent, issued 12 October, 1869, shows the familiar outlines of what we have come to call the monkey (for “monkey paw,” an appellation from South African plumbers), pipe, or Stillson wrench ever since.  His 5 December 1876 patent (above), one of many follow-ons, was for a wrench suitable for both pipe and flat-sided fasteners.  This one wasn’t near as successful, nor near as popular or emulated as his first, which made him well-off on royalties.  Stillson was granted a number of other patents over the years, nearly all for something related to pipes or plumbing, including fire apparatus. Stillson died in Somerville, Massachusetts on 21 August 1899. The original Stillson wrench still exists, is said to still work, and its parts are said to be interchangeable with a wrench of similar size manufactured yesterday.  Be that as it may, my wife still won’t let me touch water or gas-carrying pipes with tools, regardless of how much I know about my wrenches. Smart woman.

 

Tours, Blue Springs, Heartbreak and “Landing Day”

Most weeks this blog discusses births, deaths, and the occasional battle, but today battles in France, Tennessee and Korea will occupy us.  Decisive warfare, defined as an action that concludes a conflict, has been an elusive thing.  More common before national and industrial warfare, the subject was covered exhaustively by the late Russell Weigley in Age of Battles: the Quest for Decisive Battle brom Breitenfeld to Waterloo.

But Tours, our first battle from 10 October, 732, predates any battle in Weigley’s work by nearly a thousand years.  Also called Poitiers (which makes it confused with the 1356 battle between the English and the French by that name) and, by Arab sources, the Palace of the Martyrs, Tours was one of the actions covered by Victor Hanson’s Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power.  After two centuries of incursions into former Roman provinces of Gaul, the Franks and Burgundians (proto-French) under Charles, Prince of the Franks, defeated an army of the Umayyad Caliphate under the command of Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, the Governor-General of al-Andalus, a province of modern Spain that then bordered Aquitaine.  Very little definitive is known about the battle itself.  Strength for both sides is given as somewhere between 30,000 and 80,000, thought the lower figure seems more likely.  The battle did stop further Umayyad incursions into “Christian” Europe, and formed the basis for the Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne.  Three things are known for certain: Charles, the grandfather of Charlemagne, earned the nickname “Martellus, the Hammer” (Martel), Al Ghafiqi was killed in the fight, and the Franks fought the battle without horse cavalry. The location, thought to be at the junction of the Clain and Vienne rivers between Tours and Poitiers in north-central France, has been the site of several archeological digs with mixed results, other than to establish that at least two pre-industrial battles were fought there.

Very little definitive is known about the battle itself.  Strength for both sides is given as somewhere between 30,000 and 80,000, thought the lower figure seems more likely.

Much more recently, much more is known about a little-known 10 October, 1863 skirmish in Tennessee. Confederate forces under John S. Williams met a part of Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Ohio. A Federal cavalry division under Samuel Carter at Bulls Gap on the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad in Greene County clashed on 3 October, sparred for a week, and met in earnest a Blue Springs on 10 October. By then, the Federal horse soldiers had been reinforced by infantry. After a day of indecisive fighting, Edward Ferrero’s 1st Division of IX Corps attacked the Confederates, breaking their line just before dark.  The Confederates withdrew into Virginia.  Though casualties at Blue Springs were minor (less than five hundred) compared to Tours (depending on accounting, probably over 10,000), the effects were similar: East Tennessee was being cleared of Confederate troops.  Much less well known than Tours, the Civil War in East Tennessee has been graced with a good account by Earl Hess, The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennesseea few memoirs, and that’s about it.

Though casualties at Blue Springs were minor (less than five hundred) compared to Tours (depending on accounting, probably over 10,000), the effects were similar

On 10 October 1951, after a little more than a year of bloody and inconclusive fighting in Korea, a rather messy and prolonged fight over another mass of hills began.  This one was nearly seven miles long and about a mile north of Bloody Ridge, near Chorwon, and was called Heartbreak Ridge by the American forces, Bataille de Crèvecœur by the French, Wendengli by the Chinese (who also confuse it with Triangle Hill a year later). The fighting for Heartbreak started as early as 13 September, but the main UN attack began on 10 October.  The US 2nd Infantry Division and an attached French battalion were savaged in piecemeal fights over limited objectives by well-entrenched NKPA (North Korean) and PVA (Chinese) forces before a concerted armored thrust was mounted 11 October into the Mundung-ni Valley west of Heartbreak to destroy the communist supply dumps there. While the fighting was savage on the track-called-a-road into the valley, the tanks barely made any headway while the 2nd Division clawed its way up the main hill mass.  Eventually, forces from South Korea, the Netherlands and the Philippines joined the American and French in the battle.  While the United Nations forces “won” Heartbreak, senior planners were horrified at the cost (nearly 3,700 UN to over 25,000 Chinese and North Korean).  The cost of such attacks by the casualty-averse UN forces would be weighed against the “benefits” gained against opponents that disregarded losses.  Arned Hinshaw’s Heartbreak Ridge: Korea 1951 is a worthy effort, and the only known book-length treatment of Heartbreak, aside from a couple of novels (one of which was the basis for the 1986 Clint Eastwood film Heartbreak Ridge that had absolutely nothing to do with Korea).  There is also an excellent description in T.R. Fehrenbach’s This Kind of War.

While the fighting was savage on the track-called-a-road into the valley, the tanks barely made any headway while the 2nd Division clawed its way up the main hill mass.

Today, the second Monday in October, 2016, is designated as “Landing Day,” a Federal holiday in the United States, that is intended to “honor” all the many discoverers of the New World by concluding that the all arrived on some floating day in October.  Christopher Columbus landed somewhere in the Caribbean on 12 October 1492.  From the 19th century up to the 1970s Columbus was regularly honored in the United States on 12 October, but since then the Italian explorer has become associated with slavery, oppression, disease, and the genocide of the indigenous peoples of what are now North and South America.  Further, certain influential groups have determined that the “other discoverers” of the Americas, such as the Norse and Polynesians, should also be honored.  This gesture would have a great deal more meaning if, a) history had any idea who these discoverers were by name (Leif Erickson is thought to have led the Norse expedition that may have hung around Newfoundland briefly ca 1000 AD), and b) if there were any contemporary records of their “discoveries” that would have made them have some meaning.  As it is, the current reasoning only makes for an excuse to make another three-day weekend for banks and some Federal workers. While this correspondent doesn’t get a day off for it and doesn’t recall even the Active Army doing it, his wife does.

Eh, whatever.  Another excuse for pre-Christmas sales.

 

 

Chickamauga, Garfield and Talking like a Pirate

As unlikely as it seems, the battle of Chickamauga, the death of James A Garfield, and an inane, made-up holiday all share 19 September.  Apologies for this one…Well, I’ll be blowed: this hearty’s pirate name , according to http://www.piratequiz.com/result.php, is Dirty John Read.  Sure an’ he’s been called worse things.

In the summer of 1863, William Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland managed to winkle  Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee out of a fairly strong position at Chattanooga, Tennessee, a rail hub of great importance on the road to Atlanta, the Deep South’s most important industrial center.  Proceeding south out of Chattanooga, Rosecrans issued contradictory and confusing orders to the two opposite wings of his army.  Just as they separated near the Chickamauga Creek in northwestern Georgia, James Longstreet and a small detachment from the Army of Northern Virginia walked into the gap on 19 September, 1863, severing the Army of the Cumberland in two.  A third of it, the part that Rosecrans was with at the time, scrambled back the fifteen miles to Chattanooga, convinced that the army was destroyed.  About half of the Federal force rallied around Horseshoe Ridge and a corps commander named George Thomas, who would forever after be known as “the Rock of Chickamauga.”  Chief of Staff to Rosecrans was James Garfield, who, suspecting that a large part of the army was still engaged with the Confederates, rode up Missionary Ridge overseeing the battlefield on the night of the 19th and saw that he was right.  This fueled the critics of Rosecrans’ leadership (he was not well liked, even though he had won all but one of his battles, and most with minimal casualties).  Chickamauga is considered by most to be the last major Confederate victory (even though the Confederates lost more than the Federals), and it shut up the Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga for two months until reinforcements and the duo of WIlliam Sherman and Ulysses Grant broke the siege.  Chickamauga also made James Garfield’s reputation.

Chickamauga is considered by most to be the last major Confederate victory

Garfield rode that reputation all the way to the White House in 1880. First elected to the House in 1862, Garfield finally took his seat in December 1863.  In 1880, after serving in both the House and Senate, Garfield was elected president against another Civil War hero, Winfield Hancock.  He had barely made his cabinet and gotten started with his administration when, on  2 July, 1881, Charles Guiteau, upset after not being appointed to a civil service job, shot Garfield on a railway platform in Washington.  Garfield lingered for eleven weeks, eventually dying on 19 September 1881, exactly eighteen years after the event that made him famous.

…after serving in both the House and Senate, Garfield was elected president

Now, much of what is known about International Talk Like a Pirate Day derives from WIkipedia and the Talklikeapirate.com, two sources of unimpeachable information about the…holiday.  According to these, a couple of guys known as Ol’Chumbucket and Cap’n Slappy in Albany, Oregon started the tradition in 1995, when one of them responded to an injury with an “arrr.”  While this may have sounded like a pirate to an American who knew nothing of the Old English dialect usually gracing the stage and screen whenever pirates are depicted in popular fiction, it was enough for humor columnist Dave Barry to popularize the date, for his own reasons, of course.  The date (19 September) is the birthday of Cap’n Slappy’s ex-wife.  The “historical significance” of this event (which didn’t even take place on 19 September, but 6 June, which is famous for its own reasons) is nil, but these things take on a life of their own.  Two states, Michigan and California (which one would hope would have bigger fish to fry) have recognized the day; two fast-food chains (Krispy Kreme and Long John Silver’s) offer discounts; the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has declared it a holiday for those of their…faith.

…a couple of guys known as Ol’Chumbucket and Cap’n Slappy in Albany, Oregon started the tradition in 1995, when one of them responded to an injury with an “arrr.”

OK…whatever.  Chickamauga and Garfield, anyway, have some serious bent.  And I can say that the “pirate flag” above is an invention of the entertainment industry, and that the “pirate dialect” is nothing more than an affectation from 18th Century English popularized by Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Treasure Island and a couple hundred movies, TV series, and other popular entertainments.   Let’s hold onto that.

Now, you be likin’ this here post or I’ll be havin’ yer liver fer lunch, ya lubber!

 

“Diving Boats”, Foote, Laconia and “What We Knew”

On 12 September 2001, it seems, we “knew” a lot more than we did just a few days before.  One of these was the extreme depths of courage, and of fear.  But even before we “knew” all of that, there were important events in the Thames, Connecticut and the South Atlantic.

Of many submarine boat experiments in history, the first multi-source documented public exposition of a submersible craft was in the River Thames on 12 September 1620.  Cornelius Drebbel, described as a Dutchman in the service of King James I of England, had designed and constructed the vessel, the nature of which is unclear, but is depicted as having oars.  Regrettably, oars would ill suit a submersible, so we really don’t know what Drebbel’s invention looked like.  But, it is accepted as the first public exposition of a submarine craft.

Cornelius Drebbel, described as a Dutchman in the service of King James I of England, had designed and constructed the vessel, the nature of which is unclear…

On 12 September 1808, Andrew Hull Foote was born in New Haven, Connecticut.  Knowing nothing of submarines except rumors and legends, Foote began his career at West Point, resigning in 1822 when he was appointed a midshipman (officer cadet) in the US Navy (the Naval Academy was established in 1845).  Foote rose steadily in the ranks until the Civil War, when he was appointed to command the Mississippi River Squadron, when it was less a squadron than an idea for a squadron.  By 1863, after Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, and Island Number Ten on the Mississippi had all fallen under the guns of the gunboats he helped to organize, Foote was appointed the US Navy’s second Rear Admiral, and sent to command the Southern Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  En route, however, he suddenly and unexpectedly died in New York on 23 June 1863.

Foote rose steadily in the ranks until the Civil War, when he was appointed to command the Mississippi River Squadron when it was less a squadron than an idea for a squadron.

On 12 September 1942,  HMS Laconia, a 19,000 ton former Cunard liner that had been launched in 1922, taken into the Royal Navy and converted into an Armed Merchant Cruiser (AMC) in 1939, then converted to a troopship in 1941, was torpedoed in the South Atlantic by U-156.  These are the bare facts of the matter but, like many such incidents, they tend to get buried under details.  Realizing that of the two thousand plus passengers and crew of the fast liner, sailing alone, stood little chance of surviving in the open Atlantic north of Ascension Island, the commander and crew of U-156 surfaced.  While broadcasting his humanitarian intent, the U-boat skipper began to rescue the survivors, along with other U-boats that were sent to the area.  The British thought it was a ruse, and after four days, in company with at least three (Vichy) French ships, an American B-24 bomber attacked the German submarines, which were then compelled to dive and abandon the rescue effort.  About half the passengers and crew were eventually lost.  The incident spurred Karl Doenitz to issue the “Laconia Order,” which forbade German U-boats from offering any humanitarian assistance to their victims.  Before this, many U-boat captains, especially after surface attacks, provided food and water, medical aid and navigational assistance, but rarely afterwards.  U-156 was lost with all hands off Barbados on 8 March 1943 by an American PBY. At Nuremberg in 1946, the Laconia Order became part of Doenitz’ indictment,  but was later withdrawn.

While broadcasting his humanitarian intent, the U-boat skipper began to rescue the survivors, along with other U-boats that were sent to the area.

For many of us who remember that fateful Wednesday in 2001, when we woke to find that the body count in New York, Arlington and Shanksville was considerably less than had been originally feared, what we all “knew” on Tuesday night was a great deal less than we thought.  What we were becoming certain of was that some outfit called Al Qaida had sent people–mostly middle class young men who had never seen a refugee camp–to crash airplanes kamikaze-like into buildings.  What the fourth target was is, to this day, still uncertain, though most evidence points at the White House.  And that next morning many of us who were military members in the Guard and Reserve took off with bag and baggage, while others who had been military members were called to service again, and many more who were hoping to separate were told “not today.”  Though this correspondent had retired earlier that year, they just didn’t need a beat-up old infantryman/interrogator/ analyst badly enough to call him up.  But, they did call many of this correspondents squad mates, classmates and former associates, twenty of whom were either killed or injured badly enough to be out of the military for good.  But, that’s all in the service of the Republic, and that’s what matters, right?

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Winchelsea, Hatteras Inlet and Copenhagen

Three naval battles share 29 August, roughly seven centuries apart.  However, they do have a common thread: The influence of maritime traffic and navies on national affairs.  Though the Hundred Year’s War, the American Civil War, and WWII in Europe are usually viewed as predominantly land wars, their naval aspects were crucial to the course of the land wars.

In the Edwardian phase  (1337-1360) of the Hundred Year’s War, piracy along the Breton coast was costing English merchants dearly.  Today we think of “piracy” as a private enterprise between civilians, but until the mid-19th century commerce raiding by ostensible civilians was often sanctioned if not actively supported by states and monarchs.  Castilian ships regularly captured English cargo ships and murdered their crews.  When a Castilian/Genoese fleet loaded with Flemish cargoes was headed to the Basque ports in August, 1350, Edward III and a fleet of English and Genoese ships struck the Castilians as they sailed south just off French coast, but the battle got its name from the old Kentish town of Winchelsea that the English fleet departed from.  While not much is known for certain about the battle itself except that the English ships were generally larger but were likely outnumbered. It was all-day affair in an age when naval battles were essentially land battles fought on ships.  The English flagship was sunk, but Edward managed to escape to a captured Spanish ship.  By the end of the day the English had captured more Castilian vessels (14 according to most sources) than they lost (two for certain, but perhaps more).  Winchelsea, also known as Les Espagnols sur Mer (“the Spaniards on the Sea”) was followed a year later by a peace treaty with Castile, which set the conditions for a treaty with Portugal in 1353 and the isolation of France in the century-long conflict over who ruled what part of France.  The treaty with Portugal was the foundation of English diplomacy for centuries.

[Winchelsea] was all-day affair in an age when naval battles were essentially land battles fought on ships

At the beginning of the American Civil War a small group of naval officers met in Washington as what became known as the Blockade Board.  After a week of discussions, they laid a long-term plan for beginning the longest and largest blockade that had been conducted since the Declaration of Paris in 1856.  How they planned to do it with fewer than fifty warships in commission was anyone’s guess.  But, soon, it became clear that the Union wouldn’t have to blockade every port to have a maximum effect, just those served by railroads.  This simple conclusion reduced the number of seceded state ports to be covered–immediately, anyway–from fifty to less than twenty.  The first target was not a port directly but a place where blockading ships could seek refuge and resupply: the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  The Outer Banks had also been harboring a number of Confederate raiders and privateers.  The battle of the Hatteras Inlet Batteries on 28-29 August 1861–also known as Forts Clark and Hatteras–pitted seven ships of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron under Silas Stringham that was carrying parts of volunteer regiments and a handful of Regulars under Benjamin Butler against less than a thousand Confederates under WIlliam Martin and Samuel Barron manning two incomplete earthwork forts.  Landing the troops under bombardment on 28 August, there was little initial progress in part owing to bad weather which kept the largest Union ships far out to sea.  On 29 August the seas moderated and the big guns started blasting the beleaguered Confederates who, as so often was the case in the 1861-65 conflict, stood no chance of being reinforced.  At about 11 AM Barron surrendered, and just short of 700 men went into captivity.  The victory buoyed Union morale shortly after the disaster at Bull Run just a month before, and ended a threat to Union shipping that had already begun to be felt.

…the Union wouldn’t have to blockade every port, just those served by railroads.  This reduced the number of ports to be covered from fifty to less than twenty.

After April 1940, when Denmark was overrun in a nearly bloodless campaign by Germany, Denmark lived a primarily twilight existence as a “protectorate,” where most Danish institutions continued unchanged (including the monarchy). Danes even joined in the war against the Soviet Union. Most of the Danish Navy was in Copenhagen, though some units had been caught in Iceland, Greenland and the Faeroe Islands when the country surrendered, and had been working with the Allies. More Danes were killed in merchant marine service and in the Danish “Free Corps” fighting in Russia than as a result of the invasion and the occupation.  But, by 1943, Danish semi-neutrality was wearing thin. Niels Bohr had scattered Denmark’s best scientists all over the world before the invasion, and was profoundly uninterested in helping Germany’s nuclear ambitions.  Allied saboteurs and agents found easy egress into Europe through Denmark’s porous border with Sweden. King Christian was accused of disrespecting Hitler because of his brief response to one of Hitler’s overlong personal communications. Refusal to institute capital punishment for sabotage, failure to turn over Danish Jews, and a host of other perceived slights and offenses, aggravated by  the imminent fall of the Italian government and the Allied success in Sicily, moved the Germans to close down the Danish government and seize the ships in the Copenhagen dockyards in late August. On 29 August, 1943, scuttling charges destroyed thirty-two of them, leaving just fourteen small  vessels to the Germans.  Germany’s navy was small to begin with, and built on commerce raiding.  Denmark’s even smaller fleet included nine submarines, but even more minecraft–important commodities when the Germans and Russian between them had sewn more than a million sea mines in the eastern Baltic by then.

More Danes were killed in merchant marine service and in the Danish “Free Corps” fighting in Russia than as a result of the invasion and the occupation.

The English naval response to the Castilian nautical depredations could have been said to set the pace for the rest of the first half of the Hundred Year’s War, if there was a pace to that disjointed conflict. While the blockade that the Union Navy envisioned would take nearly two years to be emplaced, it would still be somewhat porous even to the end.  Still, no blockade could or should ever be perfect.  Winchelsea and Cape Hatteras had a great deal to do with trade, while the mass suicide of the Danish Navy, like that of the German High Seas Fleet in 1919, was at least in part to do with spite.  Sometimes, that is all that’s needed.  In capital-intensive naval warfare, where a single fleet unit can cost as much  to build, supply and operate for a month as a thousand land soldiers might cost in a year, the cost and pace of naval activity can rarely be judged by three actions.  But by destroying a Castilian fleet, grabbing a blockade base, and denying an important small-ship asset to a resource-starved enemy, England, the Union, and Denmark demonstrated, even if in a small way, how important navies can be to larger conflicts.

Five Essays on the American Civil War

JDB Communications, LLC, is proud to announce another essay collection by John D. Beatty.  Five Essays on the American Civil War is a foray into the complexities of Civil War scholarship as much as it is into the conflict itself.

The American Civil War (even the way it is written: always capital “C,” capital “W”) sits isolated in a pristine crystal dome of American history, separate from all other events.  There are certain ways to write about it that make it acceptable to Civil War scholars and their audiences, and these rules must be observed else the offending material will be relegated to the isle of broken essays.  My own foray into Civil War book writing, The Devil’s Own Day, has been met with institutional silence, in part, I believe, because it challenges the doctrines of AS Johnston’s unrealized genius that ended in his death at Shiloh, and because it directly refutes the generally accepted narratives about Buell saving Grant at that savage battle in the Tennessee pine barrens.

The distinct and contrarian position in these essays is unacceptable to “mainstream” Civil War scholarship: Civil War battlefield presentation isn’t what it’s cracked up to be as “Of Parks and Excuses” explains; the Southern Confederacy, always a “Forlorn Hope,” could not have gotten what she wanted by military means; Grant’s military legacy is much deeper and longer lasting than Lee’s, as “Bigger than History” and “Grant, the Army and the World” explain.

These essays were written over the course of perhaps ten years, a period of my academic harrying of long-suffering professors, Civil War Round Table members, and other unfortunates who tolerated my distinctly odd view of the 1861-65 conflict.

Enjoy these essays because they should challenge what you may think of the American Civil War, its place in world history, and how it is indeed tied to the rest of the world.

Five Essays on the American Civil War and other works by John D. Beatty are available on Amazon.

The Turning Point

For generations, schools have taught that the turning point of the American Civil War was the battle of Gettysburg, that titanic clash in southeastern Pennsylvania where the Army of the Potomac under Meade and the Army of Northern Virginia under Lee fought for three days to decide the fate of a continent.

Sounds romantic, don’t it?  Too bad it just isn’t true.

Turning points are handy for teaching history because they give a certain sense of being somewhere in what may otherwise be a dreary time line.  Unfortunately, outside of a teaching environment or some dramatic exposition, they don’t make a lot of sense because there just aren’t that many of them that are that distinct.

By the 19th century, war had become a very complex matter, where events on the battlefield were often eclipsed by events in the halls of government, the trading floors or in the hearts and minds of the populace (yes, it did matter, ‘60s cynicism aside).

In the case of the Civil War, what happened in Pennsylvania in the first three days in July of 1863 was indeed a large battle, but it was pretty irrelevant to the war as a whole.  For two years the two principle armies of the Union and the Confederacy had been glaring at each other between Washington and Richmond, fighting occasionally, maneuvering up to Maryland and down into the Wilderness, but mostly just glaring and camping.  In the 90 miles of space between the two capitals there was a marked dearth of real activity for months at a time.

However, in the West (which was anywhere west of the Appalachians) a typical army (there were four principal hosts and several others in the theater) covered 90 miles every quarter and fought at least one major battle every third month.  One reason for this was that there was so much more war to fight out there, with more critical objectives and three times the space.  One fact that most people don’t appreciate is that it is a greater distance between Chicago and New Orleans than it is between Berlin and Moscow.

While most of the population and a large percentage of the manufacturing and dairy production were in the east, most of the grain, cotton, lumber, niter, salt, mules and horses, not to mention specie, were not.  Armies by the 19th century traveled not just on guns and butter, but on wood and iron, on fodder and wheat that had to be paid for with gold and silver, not IOUs as they are today.  And, in the west was the great Mississippi River, which made nearly all the other rivers on the continent pale in comparison not only for sheer size, but for its value as a transportation axis.

The fighting for control of the Mississippi River was far more crucial for the success and failure of the war than was who controlled the capitals.  The free flow from the grain silos, lumber yards and steel mills of the Midwest to the markets of Europe and Latin America was crucial to the success or failure of both causes.  Further, the flow of gold and silver from California, which the South could never affect and seemingly never seriously tried, ensured that, baring disaster, the North could buy an army if it needed to.

The blockade of the Southern coasts, dreary and relatively uneventful as it was, had global importance few nations appreciated at the time.  After the Declaration of Paris in 1858, the ability for a nation to control its own ports determined who could recognize them as a political entity, and thus whether or not they were a country at all.  As long as the South couldn’t permanently open their ports,  their legitimacy as a country was doomed by international law.  The South would have had to have open-water warships capable of consistent operation in all weathers to break the Union blockade, something they never came close to having.

On top of all this, there was the slavery issue.  Chattel slavery had largely vanished from the major powers of Europe, where all the money and manufactured goods were, and when Russia freed the serfs in 1862 all the Great Powers were, theoretically, free societies.  As the Confederacy insisted that their “peculiar institution” was critical to their existence, so too would most of Europe insist that slavery was an abomination that was anathema to the rising trade union movement, let alone the waves of liberal social reforms that were transforming the industrialized world.

You could make convincing arguments for Champion’s Hill that slammed the door on Vicksburg and was the penultimate battle for control of the Mississippi as being the turning point of the Civil War .  You could also, given the nature of war in the Industrial Age, argue that Fort Sumter was the turning point for, as soon as the South started the war, they started to lose, because they never had a chance for a military, diplomatic, or economic victory.

So, if you’re looking for a single event that changed the destiny of the Civil War,  Gettysburg surely isn’t it.  I’m not quite sure that there was one.

The Butcher’s Bill: Casualty Creation in the American Civil War

By the 1860’s the mass armies of the industrial age had devised new ways to destroy human beings in large numbers and with alarming speed, but the most common casualties came from causes other than combat.  This article will address primarily the Union figures for the simple reason that they were better documented, even if the figures given here are still in dispute.  Numbers for the “housewives” attached to the regiments (three for every hundred privates) and the numerous camp followers uncertain at the best of times, are to this day unknown.  Since these essentially undocumented people (which included not only the expected ladies of negotiable virtue but also soldier’s wives and other family members and the numerous vendors from unlicensed sutlers to cutlers to embalmers, scriveners and laundresses) were uncounted at the time and the armies never seemed to care about them enough to document them, their casualties shall be forever unknown. However, it could be assumed that they were killed at similar rates and by similar causes, albeit with somewhat smaller numbers for combat.

The biggest single killer of soldiers on both sides by far was disease, killing over 149,000 (of 294,000 total fatalities) in the Union army alone.[1]  Throughout the conflict, the primary killer on both sides was diarrhea, which could dehydrate a victim to death in a day and a half.  Disease struck the armies in two separate waves, each with its distinct causality.  The first wave was primarily the diseases of exposure, which included modern childhood maladies such as measles, mumps, chicken pox, and whooping cough, mostly accompanied by pneumonia.[2]  These diseases started to appear at the initial camps of instruction as early as April 1861, where large populations of unrelated men first gathered together.  Those who were immune to these diseases, or had already been exposed, were sometimes carriers. This wave lasted until late in 1862.[3]

The second wave was more insidious, and actually caused more casualties over a longer period.  Beginning in the winter of 1862-63, most of maladies in this wave were known as “camp” or “prison” diseases, so called because they were common in dense populations with poor sanitation and food.  They included typhus, typhoid, yellow fever, tuberculosis and malaria.  The second wave also included nutritional deficiencies (which took some time to show up) including scurvy, which weakened the immune system, making the victims more susceptible to whatever opportunistic affliction came by.  Since the cause of most disease was still a mystery to medical science of the time, treatments (other than anti-ascorbics for scurvy and rickets, and the palliative care provided by various opiates) ranged in efficacy from harmless to deadly.  This second wave lasted until the end of the war.[4]

The second biggest casualty creator in the Civil War was desertion, which claimed over 190,000 in the Union.[5]  The Confederate figures for desertion are almost certainly higher, especially in the winter of 1864-65.  Men deserted for a number of reasons, and some even had to do with combat.  Simple fear was one reason, but privation, hunger, loneliness or needing to take care of loved ones at home were the most common.  There was also a large number (probably some 15% of the totals) of men who accepted a bounty in one unit, deserted, and joined another for another bounty.  These “bounty jumpers” were almost unique to the North, though they existed in small numbers in the South where substitutes could be purchased.[6]  In the winter of 1864-65, all of these and a certain sense of inevitable defeat drove many Confederates to just give up and go home.[7]

The third highest killer, combat, claimed just over 61,000 men in the Union army killed outright.[8]  Most combat casualties (about 51%) came from small-arms fire, and 40% from artillery (primary and secondary projectiles).[9]  Bayonets accounted for less than 100 casualties treated in the Army of the Potomac,[10] and cooking implements (a fry pan) for one known.[11]  Numbers for swords and other edged weapons are unknown.

As the war progressed the location of the wounds on the body moved upwards.  In 1861-2, most wounds from small arms and artillery were in the abdomen and chest.  By 1865, the predominance of wounds were in the head and shoulders.  This phenomenon is probably attributable to the development of entrenchments as the war went on.[12]

The fourth largest category of casualties was died of wounds, or sometimes of treatment.  Civil War medicine knew little of antiseptics, nothing of antibiotics, and practically nothing of sanitation. Though anesthesia was known not all practitioners were trained in its use, and supplies frequently ran out, especially on the Confederate side. A soldier brought to the surgeons for treatment was often better off (and usually survived longer) waiting for the surgeons to get to him.  Amputation was a common treatment for wounds in the extremities (infection and shattered bones being just two reasons why).  Severe wounds in the chest and abdomen were usually not treated at all.  The best that could be said about Civil War medicine was that they kept fairly good records, and were able to provide their successors with valuable insights into the development of medicine after the war.[13] “Died of wounds” is also one of the most aggravating cause of death in Civil War studies because there is and was no agreed-upon time limit for it.  Since it sometimes took decades for some wounds to finally be fatal, and some (not all) chroniclers faithfully adjusted numbers when it suited them, the casualty figures for some battles can vary widely from source to source, or from decade to decade.

Suicide accounted for just over three hundred Union soldiers, the most common being hanging.  There were just over a hundred homicides, often by gunshot or knife, but beatings were not unusual.  One hundred and twenty one Union soldiers were executed for crimes committed (rape and looting being the most common offenses); most of these were shot, a few were hanged.  The totals on the missing are elusive, as most of those “missing” may have been maimed beyond recognition in battle, or changed names and left the field (or not) or some other cause or another that could confound researchers for centuries.[14]

The remaining casualties fall under the heading of mysteries, though some are probably part of the other totals.  About 800 were killed by accident, but that number is almost certainly low (in July 1945, accidental casualties in the US services were about 1,400 a week), and some must have been homicides or suicides.  There are about 3,200 “unknown” causes, though many may have been natural causes of which Civil War doctors knew nothing.  But the usual ways for people to die—heart attacks, heat exhaustion—account for some 4,100 deaths, which also seems low.[15]

Making casualties in war is always a primary tool behind victory, but in the 19th Century just the threat of war forced mobilization and that was all that was needed to create a bulk of the casualties of the age.  Combat just added to the butcher’s bill.

 

NOTES

 

 

[1]. Frederick. Phisterer, Statistical Record of the Armies of the United States (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2002), 67.

[2]. Russell Frank. Weigley, A Great Civil War a Military and Political History, 1861–1865 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 135.

[3]. Ibid., 140.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. Phisterer, op. cit., 69.

[6]. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom : The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 210.

[7]. Ibid., 412; Weigley, A Great Civil War a Military and Political History, 1861–1865, 311.

[8]. Phisterer, op. cit., 67, 68.

[9]. Paddy. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War (Mansfield, England: Fieldbooks, 1986), 39.

[10]. Francis Alfred Lord, They Fought for the Union (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1960), 108.

[11]. Gordon C. Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5–6, 1864 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994), 310.

[12]. Russell Frank. Weigley, History of the United States Army, Wars of the United States. (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 312.

[13]. Patricia L. (Editor) Faust, “Medicine,” in Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), 484.

[14]. Phisterer, op. cit., 68–70.

[15]. Phisterer, op. cit., 68–72.