June 23, 1865  Last Act of the Civil War

The Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah, Lieutenant James Iredell Waddell Commanding, was in the Bering Sea hunting prizes at this time, between the coasts of Alaska and Siberia.

The last shot of the Civil War was fired on this day in 1865, but it might not have happened the way you thought.

General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia on the 9th of April, President Lincoln was assassinated on the 14th, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured on the 10th of May.

The last fatality of the war occurred at the Battle of Palmito Ranch, Brownsville, TX over May 12–13, ending the life of Private John J. Williams of 34th Indiana.  The last man killed in the Civil War.

General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the remains of three Confederate Armies to General William Tecumseh Sherman at Bennett Place on April 26.  Organized resistance came to a full stop when Confederate General E. Kirby Smith surrendered his forces to General E. R. S. Canby in New Orleans on May 26.

Yet that final shot was still almost a month away.

Both sides had long practiced economic warfare.  The Union’s “Anaconda Plan” sought to strangle the economy of the South, while Confederate commerce raiders roamed the oceans of the world, destroying the other side’s shipping.

Rip_Van_Waddell
Editorial cartoon satirizing “Rip Van Waddell” still engaged in combat after everyone else thought the Civil War was over.

The Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah, Lieutenant James Iredell Waddell Commanding, was in the Bering Sea hunting prizes at this time, between the coasts of Alaska and Siberia.

It must have been a sight, to see a wooden hulled Union whaler, laden with oil, burned to the waterline under starlit skies amidst the ice floes of the Bering Sea.

On June 22, the last shot of the Civil War was a warning shot, fired across the bows of a whaler off the Aleutian Islands.

Waddell learned of Lee’s surrender on June 23, along with Jeff Davis’ proclamation that the “war would be carried on with re-newed vigor”.  Waddell elected to continue hostilities, capturing 21 more whalers in the waters just below the Arctic Circle.  The last 11 were captured in the space of 7 hours.

The only Confederate ship to circumnavigate the globe, Shenandoah had traversed 58,000 miles in 12 months and 17 days at sea, capturing or sinking 38 merchant vessels. Mostly whale ships.  The voyage had taken 1,000 prisoners, without a single battle casualty on either side.

Waddell was on the way to attack San Francisco on August 2, when he learned in a chance meeting with the British Barque Barracouta, that the war was over.

Believing they would all be hanged as pirates, Captain Waddell aimed to surrender to neutral England.  He took down his battle flag and put CSS Shenandoah through a radical alteration at sea. She was dismantled as a man-of-war; her battery dismounted and struck below, her hull repainted to resemble an ordinary merchant vessel.

There followed a 9,000 mile race down the coast of Mexico, around Cape Horn and across the Atlantic, with American vessels in constant pursuit. CSS Shenandoah made it to English territorial waters outside the Mersey, when the pilot refused to take the ship into Liverpool.  He needed to know, under which flag this vessel sailed.  The crew raised the Stainless Banner, the third and last official flag of the Confederacy.

CSS Shenandoah sailed up the River Mersey, her flag fully flying, spectators lining both sides of the river.  Captain Waddell surrendered to Captain James A. Paynter of HMS Donegal.  The Stainless Banner was lowered for the last time at 10:00am on November 6, 1865, in front of CSS Shenandoah’s officers and crew, and the Royal Navy detachment who’d boarded her.

The last act of the Civil War occurred later that morning, when Captain Waddell walked up the steps of Liverpool Town Hall, presenting the letter by which he surrendered his vessel to the British government.

The officers and crew were unconditionally released following investigation, as they had done nothing to justify their further detention. CSS Shenandoah was returned to the United States, where the Government sold her to Majid bin Said, the first Sultan of Zanzibar.  He renamed her El Majidi in honor of himself. She was blown ashore and wrecked in a hurricane, in 1872.

HMS Donegal survived longer than any other player in this story. Launched in 1858, she remained in service to the British Crown until 1925, when she was sold and broken up for scrap. Some of Donegal’s timbers formed the front of the Prince of Wales public house in Brighouse, which today operates as the Old Ship pub.

The-Old-Ship-by-Humphrey-Bolton
The Old Ship pub in Brighouse was built from the timbers of the decommissioned HMS Donegal in 1926

 

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June 22, 1918 Showmen’s Rest

The Michigan Central locomotive smashed into the rear of the stalled circus train at 60mph.  Strong men, bareback riders, trapeze performers and acrobats were killed instantly and others horribly maimed, as wooden circus cars telescoped into one another. 

In the circus world, the term “First of May” describes the first season when an employee comes to work with the circus.

There’s an oft-repeated but mistaken notion, that the circus goes back to Roman antiquity.  The panem et circenses, “bread and circuses” of Juvenal (circa A.D. 100), refers more to the ancient precursor of the modern racetrack, than to the modern circus. The only common denominator is the word itself, as the Latin root ‘circus’, translates into English, as “circle”.

Astleys_royal_amphitheatreThe father of the modern circus is the British Sergeant-Major turned showman, Philip Astley.  A talented horseman, Astley opened a riding school near the River Thames in 1768, where he taught in the morning and performed ‘feats of horsemanship’ in the afternoon.

Astley’s afternoon shows had gained overwhelming popularity by 1770, and he hired acrobats, rope-dancers, and jugglers to fill the spaces between equestrian events.  The modern circus, was born.

Equestrian and trick riding shows were gaining popularity all over Europe at this time, performers riding in circles to keep their balance while standing on the backs of galloping horses.  It didn’t hurt matters, that the “ring” made it easier for spectators to view the event.

In 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown of Somers New York replaced the wooden structure common to European circuses with a canvas tent, around the time when a cattle dealer named Hachaliah Bailey bought a young African elephant, which he exhibited all over the country.  The exotic animal angle was a great success.  Other animals were added and soon farmers were leaving their fields, to get into the traveling menagerie business.

The unique character of the American traveling circus emerged in 1835, when 135 such farmers and menagerie owners combined with three affiliated circuses to form the American Zoological Institute.

Phineas Taylor Barnum and William Cameron Coup launched P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus in 1871, where the “museum” part was a separate exhibition of human and animal oddities.  It wouldn’t be long, before the ‘sideshow” became a standard feature of the American circus.

There have been no fewer than 81 major circuses in American history, and countless smaller ones.  ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ broke down its tent for the last time last month, when the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus ended a 146-year run.  There was a time though, when the circus really Was, the greatest show on earth.

The American war machine was spinning up to peak operational capacity in 1918, as the industrial might of the nation pursued the end to the war ‘over there’.hagenbeck-wallace-circus

At 3:56 on the morning of June 22, 1918, an engineer with the Michigan Central Railroad was at the controls of an empty 21-car troop train.  Automatic signals and flares should have warned him that there was a stalled train on the track ahead.  A frantic flag man tried and failed to get him to stop.  Alonzo Sargent had been fired before, for sleeping on the job.  Tonight, Sargent was once again, asleep at the wheel.

The Hagenbeck-Wallace circus was a big deal in those days.  The famous lion tamer Clyde Beatty was a member, as was a young Red Skelton, on this night tagging along with his father, who worked as a clown.

The 26-car Hagenbeck-Wallace circus train was enroute from Hammond Indiana to Monroe Wisconsin, when an overheated axle box required them to make an unscheduled stop.

Most of the 400 circus employees were asleep at that early hour, in one of four rear sleeping cars.  The Michigan Central locomotive smashed into the rear of the stalled train at 60mph.  Strong men, bareback riders, trapeze performers and acrobats were killed instantly.  Others were horribly maimed, as wooden sleeping cars telescoped into one another.  Confused and bleeding survivors struggled to emerge from the wreckage, as gas-fed lanterns began to set all that wood on fire.

hammond-circus-train-wreck

Those lucky enough to escape looked on in horror, as friends and family members were burned alive.  Some had to be physically restrained from rushing back into the inferno.

127 were injured and an estimated 86 crushed or burned to death in the wreck.  Hours afterward a clown, his name was Joe Coyle, could be seen weeping inconsolably, beside the mangled bodies of his wife and two children.

The rumor mill went berserk.  Wild lions and tigers had escaped and were roaming the streets and back yards of Gary, Indiana.  Elephants died in the heroic attempt to put out the flames, spraying water on the burning wreckage with their trunks.  None of the stories were true.  The animals had passed through hours earlier, on one of two additional trains, and were now waiting for the train that would never come.

showmans-rest-circus-mass-grave

The Showmen’s League of America was formed in 1913, with Buffalo Bill Cody its first President.  The group had  purchased a 750-plot parcel at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois only a year earlier, calling it “Showmen’s Rest”.  They had no idea their investment would be used so soon.

Only thirteen were ever identified.  A mass grave was dug for the unidentified and unidentifiable.  Most of the dead were roustabouts or temporary workers, hired just recently and known only by nicknames.  Some performers were known only by stage names, their gravestones inscribed with names like “Baldy,” “4-Horse Driver”, “Smiley,” and “Unknown Female #43.

Only one show had to be canceled, as erstwhile ‘competitors’ Barnum & Bailey, Ringling brothers and others lent workers, performers and equipment.  The show would go on.

Today, the International Circus Hall of Fame is located in the former Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus winter headquarters in Peru, Indiana.

In the elephant world, an upraised trunk symbolizes joy.  Five elephant statues circumscribe the Showmen’s Rest section of Woodlawn cemetery.  Each has a foot raised with a ball underneath.  Their trunks hang low, a symbol of mourning.  The largest of the five bears the inscription, “Showmen’s League of America.”  On the other four, appear these words.  “Showmen’s Rest”.

June 21, 1633  Flipping History the Bird

The Inquisition forced Galileo to “abjure, curse and detest” his Copernican heliocentric views, returning him to his villa in 1634 to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.

Planet Earth exists at the center of the solar system, the sun and other celestial bodies revolving around it.    That was the “geocentric” model of the solar system, the common understanding during the Renaissance.  In the 15th century, Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus proposed a radically new model.  Copernicus described a “heliocentric” model of the universe, placing the sun at the center, with the earth and other bodies revolving around the sun.

Copernicus
Nicolaus Copernicus

Copernicus resisted the publication of his ideas until the end of his life, fearing that they would offend the religious Interests of the time.  Legend has it that he was presented with an advance copy of his “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) as he awakened on his death bed from a stroke induced coma.  He took one look at his book, closed his eyes, and never opened them again.

The Italian physicist, mathematician, and astronomer Galileo Galilei, came along about a hundred years later.  Galileo has been called the “father of modern observational astronomy”, the “father of modern physics”, and “the Father of Modern Science”.  His improvements to the telescope and resulting astronomical observations supported Copernicus’ heliocentric view.  They also brought him to the attention of the Roman Inquisition.

Galileo_facing_the_Roman_Inquisition
Galileo faces the Roman Inquisition

Biblical references such as, “the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” (Psalm 104:5) and “And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place.” (Ecclesiastes 1:5) became the basis for religious objections to the heliocentric view.  Galileo was brought before  inquisitor Vincenzo Maculani for trial in 1633.   The astronomer backpedaled before the inquisition, testifying in his fourth deposition of June 21, 1633, that “I do not hold this opinion of Copernicus, and I have not held it after being ordered by injunction to abandon it.  For the rest, here I am in your hands; do as you please”.

The Inquisition forced Galileo to “abjure, curse, & detest” his Copernican heliocentric views, returning him to his villa in 1634 to spend the rest of his life under house arrest. Galileo died on January 8, 1642, wishing to be buried in the main body of the Basilica of Santa Croce, next to the tombs of his father and ancestors.  His final wishes were denied at the time, though they would be honored 95 years later.  Galileo Galilei was re-interred in the basilica, in 1737.

Often, atmospheric conditions in these burial vaults lead to a natural mummification of the corpse. Sometimes they look almost lifelike. When it came to the saints, believers took this to be proof of the incorruptibility of these individuals, and small body parts were taken as holy relics.

Galileo's finger
Galileo’s finger

The custom was quite old when Galileo was reinterred in 1737. Galileo is not now and never was a Saint of the Catholic church, though it’s possible the condition of his body made him appear thus “incorruptible”.  Anton Francesco Gori removed the thumb, index and middle fingers on March 12, 1737, an act which would have been very much in keeping with the customs of the times. The digits with which Galileo wrote down his theories of the cosmos.  The digits with which he adjusted his telescope.

Be that as it may, the middle finger from Galileo’s right hand is on exhibit at the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy, to this day.  The only human fragment in a museum otherwise devoted to scientific instruments.

There is symbolism there, if only I could put my finger on it.

 June 20, 1782 The Great Seal

Some states adopted the eagle as their symbol as early as 1778.  The Continental Congress officially adopted the current design for the seal on this day in 1782. 

When the Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, several pieces of unfinished business remained.  Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were appointed to a committee to take care of one such detail.  The creation of an official seal.   The three came up with a first draft but Congress rejected it, approving only the “E pluribus Unum”, (of the many, one), attributed to Thomas Jefferson.

Six years and two such committees later, it was May 1782.  The brother of a Philadelphia naturalist provided a drawing showing an eagle displayed as the symbol of “supreme power and authority.”  An earlier submission used the phoenix instead of an eagle, representing a nation risen from the ashes of the American Revolution.  That bird would be replaced by the eagle in the final design.

Greatseal

Some states adopted the eagle as their symbol as early as 1778.  The Continental Congress officially adopted the current design for the seal on this day in 1782.  The final design of the obverse (front) side of the seal, depicts a Bald Eagle, the symbol of liberty and freedom.  The eagle grasps thirteen arrows in its right talon, symbolizing a strong defense of the thirteen colonies.  An olive branch symbolizing peace is held in the other claw.  A banner containing Jefferson’s E pluribus Unum, is held in the eagle’s beak.

Prominently displayed on the eagle’s breast is a shield, the thirteen red and white stripes symbolizing the states, all of which support the federal government, represented in blue.

In 1782, the federal government had yet to morph into the all-consuming leviathan which it has since become.

Finally, a constellation of thirteen stars breaks out of the clouds above, signifying a new nation, ready to take its place among the sovereign nations of the earth.

Benjamin Franklin objected to the selection of the eagle, preferring that the turkey made the national symbol.  He complained that the eagle tended to steal its dinner from other birds, and that he’d seen them driven away by the tiny Kingbird, no larger than a sparrow. Franklin later wrote to his daughter, saying, “For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America . . . He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

Some versions of the symbol used between 1916 and 1945 showed an eagle facing to its left, toward the arrows, giving rise to the urban legend that the seal is changed to have the eagle face towards the olive branch in peace, and towards the arrows in wartime.

OneD

On the reverse (back) side of the Great Seal, the pyramid represents strength and duration, like the great Pyramids at Giza.  The Roman numeral MDCCLXXVI at the base of the pyramid, stands for 1776. A Latin phrase, “Novus ordo seclorum”, translates as “New Order of the Ages.”  The pyramid itself has thirteen levels, atop which is the Eye of God, with the Latin phrase “Annuit Cœptis,” loosely translating as “favors undertakings.”  The hand of Providence, or God, would favor the undertakings of the United States, for all time.

The militant atheist type who’d like to divest himself of all that “church & state” stuff may at this point feel free to send his dollar bills, to me.  I’m happy to help.  I’m in the book.

June 19, 1864 Ship’s Duel

Alabama’s mission was to wage economic war on the Union, attacking commercial shipping from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, from Newfoundland to Brazil.

Maryland native Raphael Semmes was a career Naval officer, having served in the United States Navy from 1826 to 1860.  There was an extended leave of absence following the Mexican-American war, in which he settled in Alabama and practiced law.  Semmes was offered a Confederate naval appointment in 1861, following the secession of his adopted home state.  He resigned his commission, the following day.

Following a fruitless assignment to purchase arms from the North, Semmes was ordered to New Orleans, to convert the steamer Habana into the commerce raider CSS Sumter.  Semmes breached the Union blockade in June of 1861, outrunning the sloop of war USS Brooklyn.  So began the most successful commerce raider, in naval history.

Captain_Raphael_Semmes_and_First_Lieutenant_John_Kell_aboard_CSS_Alabama_1863
Captain Raphael Semmes standing by his ship’s 110-pounder rifled cannon. His XO 1st Lieutenant John McIntosh Kell, stands by the ship’s wheel.

His was a war on the economic might of the Union.  Sumter would eliminate 18 Union merchant vessels from the Caribbean to the Atlantic, constantly eluding the Union warships sent to destroy her.  In six short months, CSS Sumter was laid up in neutral Gibralter, her boilers too spent to go on.

On May 13, 1861, Queen Victoria issued a “Proclamation of Neutrality” in the American Civil War, prohibiting the sale of ships of war. Vessels were permitted neither to alter or improve their equipment while in British waters, but were permitted to enter.

Hull #290 was launched from the John Laird & Sons shipyard in Birkenhead, Cheshire, England as the screw sloop HMS Enrica on May 15, 1862.   Enrica left Liverpool that July on a “trial run”, a party of ladies and customs officials on board to allay suspicions that the trip was anything but ‘neutral”.

The ruse was a success.  Passengers were transferred to a tug only a short distance from Liverpool and returned to port, while the ship itself continued on to the Terceira Island in the Azores.  There she met her new captain.  Raphael Semmes.

Three days, 8 cannon and 350 tons of coal later, Enrica was transformed into the 220’, 1,500 ton sloop of war and Confederate States of America commerce raider, CSS Alabama.

CSSAlabama, artist unknown
CSS Alabama, artist unknown

Alabama’s mission was to wage economic war on the Union, attacking commercial shipping from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, from Newfoundland to Brazil. In her two years as commerce raider, Alabama destroyed the Union warship USS Hatteras off the coast of Galveston, Texas, and claimed 65 prizes valued at nearly $123 million in today’s dollars.

Alabama was badly in need of a refit when she put into Cherbourg, France, on the 11th of June. The Mohican-class Union sloop of war USS Kearsarge was then on patrol near Gibraltar, making it to Cherbourg by the 14th.

Seeing that he was blockaded, Semmes challenged Kearsarge Captain John Winslow to a ship-to-ship duel.  “My intention is to fight the Kearsarge as soon as I can make the necessary arrangements. I hope these will not detain me more than until to-morrow or the morrow morning at farthest. I beg she will not depart until I am ready to go out. I have the honor to be your obedient servant, R. Semmes, Captain”.

That suited Winslow just fine.  Kearsarge took up station in international waters, and waited.

USS_Kearsarge
USS Kearsarge

Alabama steamed out of Cherbourg on the morning of June 19, 1864, escorted by the French ironclad Couronne, which remained nearby to ensure that combat remained in international waters.  Kearsarge steamed further out to sea as the Confederate vessel approached.  There would be no returning to port, until the issue was decided.

Captain Winslow put his ship around and headed for the enemy at 10:50am. Alabama fired first from the distance of a mile, firing furiously as the range decreased.

Heavy, overlapping rows of chain armor allowed Kearsarge to be more deliberate, and she chose her shots, carefully.

Kearsarge Stern Post
Kearsarge Stern Post

The engagement followed a circular course at a range of a half mile; the ships steaming in opposite directions and firing at will.

Alabama’s forward 7-inch Blakely pivot rifle scored an early success, lodging a 56lb shell in Kearsarge’s exposed sternpost.  With its rudder thus bound, Kearsarge’s mobility was sharply limited.  It could have been far worse for Captain Winslow, however, had that shell not failed to explode.

One of Kearsarge’s 11″ Dahlgren smooth bore pivot cannon found its mark, tearing Alabama’s hull open at the waterline and exploding her steam boiler.   Alabama turned and tried to run back to port, but Kearsarge headed her off.  Within an hour of the first shot, the most successful commerce raider in history was reduced to a sinking wreck.

sinking_alabama
“Sinking of the CSS Alabama” by Xanthus Smith (1922)

Wounded in the battle, Semmes hurled his sword overboard, denying the Union captain that symbol of surrender.  He ordered the striking of his ship’s Stainless Banner and a hand-held white flag of surrender, as Alabama went down by the stern.

For those Confederate sailors rescued by Kearsarge, the Civil War was over. They would spend the rest of the war as prisoners.  Raphael Semmes escaped with 41 others, being plucked from the water and taken to neutral ports by the British steam yacht Deerhound, and the private sail yacht Hornet.

Battle_of_Kearsarge_and_Alabama_(1892)_by_Xanthus_SmithSemmes would recover from his wounds, returning to the war ravaged South via Cuba in February, 1865.  That April, he would supervise the destruction of all Confederate warships in the vicinity, following the fall of Richmond.  Semmes’ former command fought on as “the Naval brigade”, Semmes himself appointed Brigadier General, though the appointment would never be confirmed.  The Confederate Senate had ceased to exist.

Elements of the Naval Brigade fought with Lee’s rear guard at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, before their surrender at Appomattox, only days later.  Semmes himself was surrendered with General Joseph E. Johnston’s army near Durham Station, North Carolina.

Semmes returned to Mobile after the war, where he resumed his legal career.  There were those who wanted to try the man for piracy, but it never happened.  Raphael Semmes died an untimely death in 1877, as the result of eating some bad shrimp.

His 1869 Memoirs of Service Afloat During The War Between the States has been described as one of the “most cogent but bitter defenses ever written”, about the “lost cause”, of the South.

 

 

June 18, 1815 Waterloo

It was common practice of the age to “spike” enemy cannon, driving a nail into the touchhole to disable the weapon. But for a handful of nails, the outcome of the battle might have been different. Possibly, even the history of the world.

The Napoleonic Wars began in 1799, pitting Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grand Armée against a succession of international coalitions. The first five such coalitions formed to oppose him would go down to defeat.

The empire of Czar Alexander I had long traded with Napoleon’s British adversary. Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 intending to cut off that trade, but he made the same mistake that Adolf Hitler would make, 130 years later. He failed to account for Russia’s greatest military asset. General Winter.

For months Napoleon’s army pressed ever deeper into Russian territory, as Cossack cavalry burned out villages and fields to deny food or shelter to the advancing French army. Napoleon entered Moscow itself in September, with the Russian winter right around the corner. He expected capitulation.  Instead, he got more scorched earth.

Grand Armee Retreat from MoscowFinally there was no choice for the Grand Armée, but to turn about and go home. Starving and exhausted with no winter clothing, stragglers were frozen in place or picked off by villagers or pursuing Cossacks. From Moscow to the frontiers you could follow their retreat, by the bodies they left in the snow. 685,000 had crossed the Neman River on June 24. By mid-December there were fewer than 70,000 known survivors.

The War of the 6th Coalition ended in 1814 with Bonaparte’s defeat and exile to the Mediterranean island of Elba, and the restoration to the throne of the Bourbon King, Louis VXIII. That would last 111 days, until Napoleon reappeared at the head of another army.

Waterloo_Campaign_mapThe Congress of Vienna declared Napoleon an outlaw on March 13, 1815.  Austria, Prussia, Russia and the UK bound themselves to put 150,000 men apiece into the field to end his rule.

Napoleon struck first, taking 124,000 men of l’Armee du Nord on a pre-emptive strike against the Allies in Belgium. Intending to attack Coalition armies before they combined, he struck and defeated the Prussian forces of Gebhard von Blücher near the town of Ligny.

Napoleon then turned his attention to the coalition forces under the Lord Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, who fell back to a carefully selected position on a long east-west ridge at Mont St Jean, a few miles south of the village of Waterloo.

It rained all day and night that Saturday. Napoleon waited for the ground to dry on the morning of June 18, launching his first attack before noon while Wellington’s Prussian allies were still five hours away. The 80 guns of Napoleon’s grande batterie opened fire at 11:50, while Wellington’s reserves sheltered out of sight on the reverse slope of the Mont St. Jean ridge.

Fighting was furious around Wellington’s forward bastions, the walled stone buildings of the Château Hougomont on Wellington’s right, and La Haie Sainte on his left.  Eight times, French infantry swarmed over the orchards and outbuildings of the stone farmhouses, only to be beat back.

Waterloo, Chateau Battle

Most of the French reserves were committed by 4:00pm, when Marshall Ney ordered the massed cavalry assault. 9,000 horsemen in 67 squadrons charged up the hill as Wellington’s artillery responded with canister and shot, turning their cannon into giant shotguns tearing holes in the French ranks.

It was common practice of the age to “spike” enemy cannon, driving a nail into the touchhole to disable the weapon. But for a handful of nails, the outcome of the battle might have been different. Possibly, even the history of the world.  Eleven times French cavalry gained the hill and surrounded those guns. Eleven times the gunners retreated into defensive infantry squares, bristling with bayonets. Eleven times French cavalry withdrew only to form up, and do it all over again.Waterloo_Cavalry

Newly arrived Prussians were pouring in from the right at 7:30 when Napoleon committed his 3,000-man Imperial Guard. These were Napoleon’s elite soldiers, almost seven feet tall in their high bearskin hats. Never before defeated in battle, they came up the hill intending to roll up Wellington’s center, away from their Prussian allies. 1,500 British Foot Guards were lying down to shelter from French artillery. As the French lines neared the top of the ridge, the English stood up, appearing to rise from the ground and firing point blank into the French line.

The furious counter assault which followed caused the Imperial Guard to waver and then fall back.  Retreat broke into a route, someone shouting “La Garde recule. Sauve qui peut!” (“The Guard retreats. Save yourself if you can!”), as the Allied army rushed forward and threw themselves on the retreating French.Infantry Square

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, concerning Henry Paget, 2nd Earl of Uxbridge. One of the last cannonballs fired that day hit Uxbridge just above the knee, all but severing the leg. Lord Uxbridge was close to Wellington at the time, exclaiming “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!”. Wellington replied “By God, sir, so you have!” There’s another version in which Wellington says “By God, sir, you’ve lost your leg!”. Looking down, Uxbridge replied “By God, sir, so I have!”

According to Wellington, the battle was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” The French defeat was complete. Bonaparte was once again captured and exiled, this time to a speck in the North Atlantic called Saint Helena.  He died there in 1821.

Estimates of the total killed and wounded in the Napoleonic wars range from 3.5 to 6 million, at a time when the entire world population was about 980 million. Until Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte participated in, and won, more battles than Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Frederick the Great, and Alexander the Great.  Combined.

June 17, 1775 Bunker Hill

“On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.” – Dr. Joseph Warren

Charlestown, Massachusetts occupies a hilly peninsula to the north of Boston, at the point where the Mystic River meets the Charles. Like Boston itself, much of what is now Charlestown was once Boston Harbor.  In 1775 the town was a virtual island, joined to the mainland only by a thin “neck” of land.

Thousands of Patriot Militia poured into the area following the April battles of Lexington and Concord, hemming in the British who controlled Boston and its surrounding waterways.Bunker Hill, 2

Reinforced and provisioned from the sea over which the Crown held undisputed control, British forces under General Sir Thomas Gage could theoretically remained in Boston, indefinitely.

The elevation of Breed’s and Bunker’s Hill across the river, changed that calculation.  Should colonial forces obtain artillery of their own, they would be able to rain down hell on British forces bottled up in Boston.  It was just this scenario that led Henry Knox into a New England winter later that year, to retrieve the guns of Fort Ticonderoga.

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress received word on the 13th that the British planned to break out of Boston within the week, taking the high ground of Dorchester Heights to the south and Charlestown to the north. Major General Israel Putnam was directed to set up defenses on Bunker Hill, on the northwest end of the Charlestown peninsula.

Colonel William Prescott led about 1,200 men onto the peninsula on the night of the 16th. Some work was performed on the hill which gives the battle its name, but it was farmer Ephraim Breed’s land to the southeast, which offered the more defensible hill from which to defend the peninsula.Bunker_Hill_by_Pyle

Shovels could be heard throughout the night.  The sun rose on June 17 to reveal a 130′ defensive breastwork across Breed’s hill. Major General William Howe was astonished. “The rebels,” he said, “have done more work in one night than my whole army would have done in one month.”

The warship HMS Lively opened fire on the redoubt shortly after 4am, with little effect on the earthworks. 128 guns joined in as the morning bore on, including incendiary shot which set fire to the town. Militia continued to reinforce the high ground throughout the morning hours, as Regulars commanded by General Howe and Brigadier General Robert Pigot crossed the Charles River and assembled for the assault.

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First Assault

The British line advanced up Breed’s Hill twice that afternoon, Patriot fire decimating their number and driving survivors back down the hill to reform and try again. Militia supplies of powder and shot began to give out as the British advanced up the hill for the third assault.

“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”. The quote is attributed to Prescott, but the order seems to have originated with General Putnam and passed along by Prescott, Seth Pomeroy, John Stark, and others, in a desperate attempt to conserve ammunition.

Finally, there was nothing left with which to oppose the British bayonets.  The Militia was forced to retreat.

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Second Assault

Most of the colonists’ casualties occurred at this time, including Boston physician and President of Massachusetts’ Provincial Congress, Dr. Joseph Warren.  Dr. Warren had been appointed Major General on June 14, but the commission had not arrived as of yet.  On this day, he fought as a private soldier. He had been  but the commission had not yet taken effect.

Two months before the battle, Dr. Warren had spoken to his men. “On you depend the fortunes of America”, he said. “You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”

Act worthy of yourselves.  That they did.

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Final Attack

The Battle of Bunker Hill ended in victory for the British, in that they held the ground when the fighting was over. It was a Pyrrhic victory. Howe lost 226 killed and 828 wounded, over a third of their number and more than twice those of the Militia.

One Eighth of all the British officers killed in the Revolution, died on Ephraim Breed’s Hill. General Henry Clinton wrote afterward, of the battle:  “A few more such victories” he said, “would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America”.