December 14, 1862  Angel of Marye’s Heights

No one will ever know how many lives were saved by his courage, and his kindness, this day in 1862. 

One of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War began on December 11, 1862, when nearly 200,000 combatants collided in the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

rappa5The Union crossing of the Rappahannock was intended to be a surprise, depending on pontoons coming down from Washington to meet up with General Ambrose Burnside’s Union army in Falmouth, across the river from Fredericksburg.

The army of the Potomac arrived on November 19, with no sign of pontoons.  When they finally arrived, heavy snows slowed military operations for an additional week.  Lt. General James Longstreet and Lt. General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson had more than enough time to prepare defenses.

Burnside’s crossing began on the morning of December 11, as engineer battalions constructed bridges in the face of determined Confederate fire. Several groups of soldiers had to row across the river, the battle then moving through the streets and buildings of Fredericksburg as Union and Confederate troops fought the first urban combat of the Civil War.

On the morning of the 13th, Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces occupied a seven-mile-long curving line, with the five divisions of Longstreet’s Corps on the left along Marye’s Heights, west of town.  Fighting began on both ends of the Confederate position, more or less simultaneously.  George Meade had some early successes against Stonewall Jackson’s dug-in positions on the right, but requested reinforcements never arrived.  By the end of the day, the old farmer’s expression “slaughter pen”, had taken on a whole new meaning.

Marye's HeightsIn contrast to the swampy approaches on the Confederate right, 5,000 soldiers under James Longstreet looked out from behind the stone wall on Marye’s Heights to an open plain, crossed from left to right by a mill run, 5′ deep, 15′ wide and filled with 3′ of freezing water.

Confederate artillery commander Edward Porter Alexander looked out on that field, and said “a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it”.  Alexander was right.  For six hours, the Union army threw one attack after another against the rebels behind the wall.  Fourteen assaults, in all.  As the sun went down on the evening of December 13, the ground below Marye’s Heights was carpeted with the mangled, dead and dying bodies of Union soldiers.

The Army of the Potomac suffered over 13,000 casualties, about two-thirds of them in front of that wall.  Lee’s army, by comparison, suffered around 4,500 losses.  Watching the great Confederate victory unfold from his hilltop command post, Robert E. Lee said “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”

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Sergeant Richard Kirkland

Union ambulance corps had all they could do to remove their wounded from the plains, but dared not enter within the Confederate’s range of fire in front of that wall.  All through the night of the 13-14th, the moans of mangled and dying Union soldiers could be heard along the heights.

I don’t doubt that some Confederate soldiers reveled in all that carnage, but I’m sure that the moans and cries of agony were difficult for most of them to hear.  There wasn’t a man among them who didn’t understand that, but for the grace of God, that could be himself.

For Sergeant Richard Kirkland, Company G, 2nd South Carolina Infantry, it wasn’t good enough to sit and listen.  He could no longer stand to hear “those poor people crying for water”.  Kirkland left his position and made his way to General Joseph Kershaw’s headquarters, asking permission to help.

On the morning of December 14, 1862, Richard Kirkland took as many canteens as he could carry, and stepped into the no man’s land between two watching armies.  No one fired, nor even moved.  Sgt. Kirkland worked his way alone from one wounded man to the next, straightening out a shattered leg here, there spreading out an overcoat, always with a quiet word of encouragement and a drink of water.

Angel of Marye's Heights

Kirkland was out there for no less than 1½ hours.  Alone in no man’s land, he never left until he had helped every fallen soldier, Federal and Confederate, on that part of the battlefield.

General Kershaw later gave this account:  “Unharmed he reached the nearest sufferer. He knelt beside him, tenderly raised the drooping head, rested it gently upon his own noble breast, and poured the precious life-giving fluid down the fever scorched throat. This done, he laid him tenderly down, placed his knapsack under his head, straightened out his broken limb, spread his overcoat over him, replaced his empty canteen with a full one, and turned to another sufferer.”

Richard Kirkland would not survive the war.  He met his end while leading an infantry charge the following September, at a place called Chickamauga. No one will ever know how many lives were saved by his courage, and his kindness, this day in 1862.

Richard Rowland Kirkland will forever remain, the Angel of Marye’s Heights.

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December 13, 1942 Ship’s Cook

Untold numbers of lives that could have been lost.  But for the actions, of a sixteen-year-old ship’s cook.

Similar to the Base Exchange system serving American military personnel, the British Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) is the UK-government organization operating clubs, bars, shops and supermarkets in service to British armed forces, as well as naval canteen services (NCS) on board Royal Navy ships.

NAAFI personnel serving on ships are assigned to duty stations and wear uniforms, while technically remaining civilians.

Tommy Brown was fifteen when he lied about his age, enlisting in the NAAFI and assigned as canteen assistant to the “P-class” destroyer, HMS Petard.

HMSPETARD
HMS Petard

On October 30, 1942, Petard joined three other destroyers and a squadron of Vickers Wellesley light bombers off the coast of Port Said Egypt, in a 16-hour hunt for the German “Unterseeboot”, U–559.

Hours of depth charge attacks were rewarded when the crippled U-559 came to the surface, the 4-inch guns of HMS Petard, permanently ending the career of the German sub.

U-559
U-559

The crew abandoned ship, but not before opening the boat’s seacocks.   Water was pouring into the submarine as Lieutenant Francis Anthony Blair Fasson and Able Seaman Colin Grazier dived into the water and swam to the submarine, with junior canteen assistant Tommy Brown close behind.

With U-559 sinking fast, Fasson and Grazier made their way into the captain’s cabin.   Finding a set of keys, Fasson opened a drawer, to discover a number of documents, including two sets of code books.

With one hand on the conning ladder and the other clutching those documents, Brown made three trips up and down through the hatch, to Petard’s whaler.

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U-185 sinking, after American depth charging

In the final moments, the ship’s cook called for his shipmates to get out of the boat. Brown himself was dragged under, but managed to kick free and come to the surface.  Colin Grazier and Francis Fasson, went down with the German sub.

The episode brought Brown to the attention of the authorities, ending his posting aboard Petard when his true age became known.  He was not discharged from the NAAFI, and later returned to sea on board the light cruiser, HMS Belfast.

In 1945, now-Leading Seaman Tommy Brown was home on shore leave, when fire broke out at the family home in South Shields.  He died while trying to rescue his 4-year-old sister Maureen, and was buried with full military honors in Tynemouth cemetery.

Fasson and Grazier were awarded the George Cross, the second-highest award in the United Kingdom system of honors.  Since he was a civilian due to his NAAFI employment, Brown was awarded the George Medal.

355b2-442_doenitz_paukenschlagFor German U-boat commanders, the period between the fall of France and the American entry into WW2 was known as “Die Glückliche Zeit” – “The Happy Time” – in the North Sea and North Atlantic.  From July through October 1940 alone, 282 Allied ships were sunk on the approaches to Ireland, for a combined loss of 1.5 million tons of merchant shipping.

Tommy Brown’s Mediterranean episode took place in 1942, in the midst of the “Second Happy Time”, a period known among German submarine commanders as the “American shooting season”. U-boats inflicted massive damage during this period, sinking 609 ships totaling 3.1 million tons with the loss of thousands of lives, against a cost of only 22 U-boats.

USMM.org reports that the United States Merchant Marine service suffered a higher percentage of fatalities at 3.9%, than any American service branch in WW2.

Bletchley ParkEarly versions of the German “Enigma” code were broken as early as 1932, thanks to cryptanalysts of the Polish Cipher Bureau, and French spy Hans Thilo Schmidt.  French and British military intelligence were read into Polish decryption techniques in 1939, these methods later improved upon by the British code breakers of Bletchley Park.

Vast numbers of messages were intercepted and decoded from Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe sources through the Allied intelligence project “Ultra”, shortening the war by at least a year, and possibly two.

The Kriegsmarine was a different story.  Maniacally concerned with security, Admiral Karl Dönitz introduced a third-generation enigma machine (M4) into the submarine service around May 1941, a system so secret that neither Wehrmacht nor Luftwaffe, were aware of its existence.

The system requires identical cipher machines at both ends of the transmission and took a while to put into place, with German subs being spread around the world.

M4All M4 machines were distributed by early 1942.  On February 2, German submarine communications went dark.  For code breakers at Bletchley Park, the blackout was sudden and complete.  For a period of nine months, Allies had not the slightest idea of what the German submarine service was up to.  The result was catastrophic.

U-559 documents were rushed back to England, arriving at Bletchley Park on November 24, allowing cryptanalysts to attack the “Triton” key used within the U-boat service.  It would not be long, before the U-boats themselves were under attack.

The M4 code was broken by December 13, when the first of a steady stream of intercepts arrived at the Admiralty Operational Intelligence Office, giving the positions of 12 U-boats.

The UK Guardian newspaper wrote: “The naval historian Ralph Erskine thinks that, without the (M4) breakthrough, the Normandy invasion would have been delayed by at least a year, and that between 500,000 and 750,000 tons of allied shipping were saved in December 1942 and January 1943 alone”.

Tommy Brown never knew what was in those documents.  The entire enterprise would remain Top Secret, until decades after he died.

Winston Churchill later wrote, that the actions of the crew of HMS Petard were “crucial to the outcome of the war”.

Untold numbers of lives that could have been lost.  But for the actions, of a sixteen-year-old ship’s cook.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy the same. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

December 12, 1937  The Road to Pearl Harbor

Interestingly, though the Japanese government held considerable animosity for that of the United States, the people of Japan seemed a different story.  Ambassador Grew was flooded with expressions of sympathy from Japanese citizens, who apologized for their government and expressed affection for the United States.

USS Panay was a flat bottomed river craft, built in Shanghai as part of the Asiatic fleet and charged with protecting American lives and property on the Yangtze River, near Nanking.

crew02Japanese forces invaded China in the summer of 1937, advancing on Nanking as American citizens evacuated the city.  The last of them boarded Panay on December 11:  five officers, 54 enlisted men, four US embassy staff, and 10 civilians.

Japanese air forces received word the morning of December 12, 1937, that Chinese forces were being evacuated on several large steamers and a number of junks, about 12 miles north of the city.

Anchored a short way upstream along with several Chinese oil tankers, Panay came under bombing and strafing attack that morning, sinking mid-river with three men killed.  43 sailors and five civilians were wounded.  Two newsreel cameramen were on board at the time, and captured part of the attack.

The American ambassador to Japan at the time was Joseph C. Grew, a man who was more than old enough to remember how the sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor brought the US into war with Spain, in 1898.  Grew hoped to avoid a similar outcome following the Panay sinking, though Japanese authorities were less than helpful.

US cryptographers uncovered information shortly after the attack, indicating that aircraft were operating under orders.  The Japanese government continued to insist that the attack had been accidental.

images (13)The matter was officially settled four months later, with an official apology and an indemnity of $2,214,007.36 paid to the US government.

The “accidental attack” narrative appears to be a safe story which both sides pretended to accept, but it seems a little hard to believe.   HMS Ladybird had been fired on that same morning by Japanese shore batteries, and the attack was followed a month later by the “Allison incident”, in which the American consul in Nanking, John M. Allison, was struck in the face by a Japanese soldier.

Added to the fact that American property was being looted by Japanese forces, it seems clear that relations between the two governments at that time, were toxic.

Interestingly, though the Japanese government held considerable animosity for that of the United States, the people of Japan seemed a different story.  Ambassador Grew was flooded with expressions of sympathy from Japanese citizens, who apologized for their government and expressed affection for the United States.

Letters came from citizens of all ages and walks of life, from doctors and professors to school children.  The wives of high ranking Japanese officials apologized to Grew’s wife without the knowledge of their husbands, while ten Japanese men describing themselves as retired US Navy sailors living in Yokohama, sent a check for $87.19.

A typical letter read: “Dear Friend! This is a short letter, but we want to tell you how sorry we are for the mistake our airplane made. We want you to forgive us I am little and do not understand very well, but I know they did not mean it. I feel so sorry for those who were hurt and killed. I am studying here at St. Margarets school which was built by many American friends. I am studying English. But I am only thirteen and cannot write very well. All my school-mates are sorry like myself and wish you to forgive our country. To-morrow is X-Mas, May it be merry, I hope the time will come when everybody can be friends. I wish you a Happy New Year. Good-bye.”

The two governments never did patch things up. What’s been called the “Rape of Nanking”, began the day after the Panay incident.  On December 13, Japanese forces smashed into the city of 600,000, murdering fully half of the inhabitants.  Newsreel footage may be found of live prisoners being used for bayonet practice, being mowed down by machine guns, or doused with accelerant and burnt alive.

The US placed an embargo on September 1940, prohibiting exports of steel, scrap iron, and aviation fuel, in retaliation for the Japanese occupation of northern French Indochina:  modern day Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

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Japan occupied southern Indochina by the summer of 1941, as the US, Great Britain, and the Netherlands retaliated by freezing Japanese assets.

Throughout that summer and fall, Japan tried to negotiate a settlement to lift the embargo on terms which allowed them to keep newly captured territory, while at the same time preparing for war.

General Hideki Tojo, future Prime Minister, secretly set November 29 as the last day on which Japan would accept settlement without war.

Air and naval forces of the Imperial Japanese government attacked the US naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, about a week later.

December 11, 1913  The Boll Weevil of Coffee County

ICYMI – “In profound appreciation of the Boll Weevil and what it has done as the herald of prosperity this monument was erected by the citizens of Enterprise, Coffee County, Alabama.”

Few machines have changed the course of history, like Eli Whitney’s cotton gin.

The long, hot summers of the southeastern United States have always been ideal for growing cotton, but there was a time when the stuff was extremely expensive to produce.  Cotton comes out wet from the boll, the protective capsule requiring about ten man hours just to remove the seeds to produce a pound of cotton.

By comparison, a cotton gin can process about a thousand pounds a day, at comparatively little expense.

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In 1792, the year that Whitney invented his machine, the southeastern United States exported 138,000 pounds a year to Europe and to the northern states.  Two years later, that number had risen to 1,600,000 pounds.  By the time of the Civil War, Britain alone was importing ¾ of the 800 million pounds it used each year, from the American south.

Enterprise, Alabama got its start when John Henry Carmichael first settled there in 1881.  Within a few years the Alabama Midland Railway came to Enterprise.  By the turn of the century the place was a major cotton growing hub.

bollweevil1Anthonomus grandis, the Boll Weevil, is a small beetle, about the size of the nail on your little finger. Indigenous to Mexico, the beetle crossed the Rio Grande near Brownsville, sometime around 1892.  The insect spread rapidly, producing eight to ten generations in a single growing season and preying mainly on the young cotton boll.

The insect is capable of destroying entire cotton crops, which it did in 1915, the year the insect reached Enterprise and most of Coffee County.  Facing economic ruin, local farmers were forced to diversify their crops, just to recoup some of the losses caused by that one wretched beetle.

Within two years, Enterprise became one of the leading peanut producers in the country.  Not only had farmers been able to stave of disaster, but they were already becoming prosperous as a result of the thriving new crop base.

Town fathers decided to build a monument, their “herald of prosperity”, to the boll weevil.  The bug that had almost ruined them.

Boll_weevil_monumentDesigned in Italy at a cost of $1,800, the monument depicts a female figure in a flowing gown, arms stretched high over her head, and holding in her hands a trophy.

The monument was dedicated on December 11, 1919 at the intersection of College and Main Street, in the heart of Enterprise’ business district.

You can’t have a Boll Weevil monument without a Boll Weevil.  Thirty years later, Luther Baker added a big bug on top of the trophy.  At the base of the monument appears this inscription:  “In profound appreciation of the Boll Weevil and what it has done as the herald of prosperity this monument was erected by the citizens of Enterprise, Coffee County, Alabama.”

The original has been vandalized so many times that it was moved it to a protected facility, and a replica put in its place.  So it is that you can drive down the Main Street of Enterprise Alabama today, in the footsteps of my own brother Dave, and there you will find a statue of…a bug.

December 10, 1917 Oh, Christmas Tree…

On November 30, a monument was unveiled on Boston Commons, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion.  The official 2017 Christmas tree lit up for the first time, that night.

A few days short ago, a Christmas tree was erected on Boston Commons. Symbolizing as it does the friendship between the people of two nations, this is no ordinary tree. This tree stands in solemn remembrance of catastrophe, 100 years ago, today.

As “The Great War” dragged to the end of its third year in Europe, Halifax harbor in Nova Scotia was the bustling scene of supply, munition, and troop ships destined for “over there”.  With a population of 50,000 at the time, Halifax was the busiest port in Atlantic Canada.

The Norwegian vessel Imo left its mooring in Halifax harbor on December 6, 1917, destined for New York City.   The French ship Mont Blanc was entering the harbor at this time, intending to join the convoy which would form her North Atlantic escort.

In her holds, Mont Blanc carried 200 tons of Trinitrotoluene (TNT), and 2,300 tons of TNP – Trinitrophenol or “Picric Acid”, a substance used as a high explosive.  In addition, the freighter carried 35 tons of high octane gasoline and 20,000 lbs of gun cotton.

Not wanting to draw the attention of pro-German saboteurs, the freighter flew no flags warning of her dangerous cargo.  Mont Blanc was a floating bomb.

Somehow, signals became crossed as the two ships passed, colliding in the narrows at the harbor entrance and igniting TNP onboard Mont Blanc.  French sailors abandoned ship as fast as they could, warning everyone who would listen of what was about to happen.

As might be expected, the pyrotechnic spectacle put on by the flaming ship was too much to resist, and crowds gathered around the harbor.  The high-pitched scream emitted by picric acid under combustion is a principal feature of fireworks displays, to this day.  You can only imagine the scene as the burning freighter brushed the harbor pier setting that ablaze as well, before running itself aground.

That was when Mont Blanc exploded.

Halifax explosion, 2

The detonation and resulting fires killed over 1,800 and wounded another 9,000, flattening the north end of Halifax and shattering windows as far as 50 miles away.

It was one of the largest man made, non-nuclear explosions in history. Mont Blanc’s anchor landed two miles away, one of her gun barrels, three.  Later analysis estimated the output at 2.9 kilotons, an explosive force greater than some tactical nuclear weapons.

Halifax explosion, 3

The first ray of light the morning of December 7 revealed some 1,600 homes destroyed in the blast, as a blizzard descended across Nova Scotia.

Boston Mayor James Michael Curley wrote to the US Representative in Halifax “The city of Boston has stood first in every movement of similar character since 1822, and will not be found wanting in this instance. I am, awaiting Your Honor’s kind instruction.”

Halifax explosion, 1

The man was as good as his word.  Mayor Curley and Massachusetts Governor Samuel McCall composed a Halifax relief Committee to raise funds and organize aid.  McCall reported that the effort raised $100,000 in its first hour, alone. President Woodrow Wilson authorized a $30,000 carload of Army blankets sent to Halifax.

Within 12 hours of the explosion, the Boston Globe reported on the first train leaving North Station, with “30 of Boston’s leading physicians and surgeons, 70 nurses, a completely equipped 500-bed base hospital unit and a vast amount of hospital supplies”.

Delayed by deep snow drifts, the train arrived on the morning of December 8, the first non-Canadian relief train on the scene.

Halifax HeraldThere was strong sentiment at the time, that German sabotage lay behind the disaster.  A front-page headline on the December 10 Halifax Herald Newspaper proclaimed “Practically All the Germans in Halifax Are to Be Arrested”.

$750,000 in relief aid would arrive from Massachusetts alone, equivalent to more than $15 million today.  Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden would write to Governor McCall on December 9, “On behalf of the Government of Canada, I desire to convey to Your Excellency our very sincere and warm thanks for your sympathy and aid in the appalling calamity which has befallen Halifax”.

The following year, Nova Scotia sent the city of Boston a gift of gratitude.  A very large Christmas tree.

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In 1971, the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association sent another tree to Boston, to promote Christmas tree exports, and to once again acknowledge the support of the people and government of Boston after the 1917 disaster. The Nova Scotia government later took over the annual gift of the Christmas tree, to promote trade and tourism.Halifax Tree Sendoff

So it is that, every year, the people of Nova Scotia send the official Christmas tree to the people of Boston.  More recently, the principle tree is joined by two smaller trees, donated to Rosie’s Place and the Pine Street Inn, two Boston homeless shelters.

events3406This is no Charlie Brown shrub we’re talking about. The 1998 tree required 3,200 man-hours to decorate:  17,000 lights connected by 4½ miles of wire, and decorated with 8,000 bulbs.

In 2013, the tree was accompanied by a group of runners, in recognition of the Boston Marathon bombing earlier that year.

This year’s tree stands 53′ tall, marking 100 years since the Halifax exlosion. It takes two men a day and a half to prepare for cutting, a crane holding the tree upright while the chainsaw does its work.  It’s a major media event, as the tree is paraded through Halifax on a 53’ flatbed, before boarding the ferry across the Bay of Fundy to begin its 750-mile journey south.download

For a small Canadian province, it’s been no small commitment.  In 2015 Nova Scotia spent $242,000 on the program, including transportation cutting & lighting ceremonies, and the promotions that went with it.

On November 30, a monument was unveiled on Boston Commons, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion.  The official 2017 Christmas tree lit up for the first time, that night.

Last year, Premier Stephen McNeil explained the program and why it was worth the expense:  “(It) gives us a chance to showcase our beautiful part of the world to a global community”.   Premier McNeil may have had the last word this year, at the tree lighting ceremony. “We had massive deaths and injuries,” McNeil said of the 1917 catastrophe. “It would have been far worse if the people of Boston hadn’t come and supported us.”

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy the same. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

December 9, 536 Byzantium

Most histories of the Roman Empire end with some event along a 476-586A.D. timeline, but the Roman Empire in the east lived for another thousand years.

A certain type of politician loves nothing more than to divide us against one another for their own advantage, but that’s nothing new. The tyrant Theagenes of the Dorian city state of Megara destroyed the livestock of the wealthy in the late 7th century BC, in an effort to increase his support among the poor. It may have been this tactic which drove Byzas, son of the Greek King Nisos, to set out in 657BC to found the new colony of Byzantion.

The Oracle at Delphi advised Byzas to build his city “opposite the city of the blind”. Arriving at the Bosphorus Strait (“boos poros“, or “cow-ford”), the narrow channel dividing Europe from Asia and the Mediterranean from the Black Sea, the party judged the inhabitants of the eastern bank city of Chalcedon to be blind if not stupid, not to have recognized the advantages of the European side. There they set down the roots of what is today one of the ten largest cities, in the world.

Byzantine_Constantinople-en

Byzantium city leaders made the mistake of siding with Pescennius Niger, a pretender to the Roman throne during the “Year of the Five Emperors”, 193-194AD. Laid siege and virtually destroyed in 196 by the victorious Septimius Severus, the city was rebuilt and quickly regained the wealth and status it had formerly enjoyed as a center of trade at the crossroads of east and west.

Constantine the Great, Roman Emperor from 306 to 337, established a second residence at Byzantium in 330, officially establishing the city as “Nove Roma”:  New Rome. Later renamed in his honor, “Constantinople” became the capital of the Byzantine Empire and seat of the Roman Empire in the east.

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Byzantine Empire and its vassal states, as it looked under Emperor Justinian the Great

The eastern and western Roman empires would separate and reunite in a succession of civil wars and usurpations throughout the 4th century, permanently dividing in two with the death of Emperor Theodosius I, in 395. The Western and Eastern Empires would co-exist for about 80 years.  Increasing barbarian invasions and internal revolts finally brought the western empire to an end when Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed, in 476.

The Ostrogothic Kingdom which came to rule all of Italy was briefly deposed, when the Byzantine General Belisarius entered Rome on December 9, 536. The Ostrogothic garrison left the city peacefully, briefly returning the old capital to its Empire. Fifty years later, there would be  little to defend against the invasion of the Lombards.  By 586, the Western Roman Empire had permanently ceased to exist.

Most histories of the Roman Empire end with some event along this 476-586 timeline, but the Roman Empire in the east would live for another thousand years. With traditions, customs and language drawn more heavily from the Greek than those of the Latin, the Byzantine Empire would last beyond the birth of Columbus, one of the most powerful economic, cultural, and military forces on the Eurasian landmass.

Theodosian walls
Theodosian walls

In 413, construction began on a formidable system of defensive walls, protecting Constantinople against attack by land or sea. Called the “Theodosian Walls” after the child Emperor Theodosius II, these fortifications were built on the orders of the Praetorian Prefect Anthemius, as a defensive measure against the Huns. One of the most elaborate defensive fortifications ever built, the Theodosian Walls warded off sieges by Avars, Arabs, Rus’, Bulgars and others. This, the last great fortification of antiquity, would fall only twice. First amidst the chaos of the 4th Crusade in 1203, and finally to the age of gunpowder.

Between the mid-5th and early 13th centuries, Constantinople was the largest and wealthiest city in all Europe. Located along the 4,000-mile long “spice roads” at the confluence of east and west, the city was guardian to some of the holiest relics in all Christendom, including the Crown of Thorns and the True Cross.  Constantinople was home to some of the architectural masterpieces of the age, including the Greek Orthodox cathedral of Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome, and the Golden Gate of the Land Walls. The vast Imperial library of the University of Constantinople was home to no fewer than 100,000 volumes and ancient texts, including some of the last remnants of the ancient library of Alexandria.

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Hagia Sophia, interior

The Byzantine empire entered a period of decline in the 13th century, following the devastation of the fourth crusade.  Constantinople would experience a brief recovery following the restoration of Nikephoros Palaiologos as sole Emperor in 1261, as territories and population of the greater Byzantine Empire were swallowed up by the fledgling Ottoman Empire.

Mehmed II
Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, “The Conqueror”

By mid-15th century, the former seat of the Byzantine Empire was little more than an island.

Constantinople, one of the most heavily fortified cities on the planet, fell in the wake of a 50-day siege to an army of 150,000, and the siege cannon of 22-year old Sultan Mehmed II, ruler of the Ottoman Turks.  It was May 29, 1453.

Constantinople, now Istanbul, became an Islamic stronghold.  Istanbul would remain seat of the Ottoman Empire until joining the losing side in WW1.  The Ottoman Empire was partitioned in the wake of the Great War, creating the modern contours of the Arab World and the Republic of Turkey, with its economic, cultural, and historic center of Istanbul.

Siege of Constantinople, 1453
Siege of Constantinople, 1453

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy the same. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

 

December 8, 1941 Day of Infamy

Roosevelt probably learned that he was riding in Al Capone’s limo after he got in, on the way to Capitol Hill.  He didn’t seem to be bothered, the President’s only comment was “I hope Mr. Capone won’t mind.”

On Sunday morning, December 7th, 1941, the armed forces of Imperial Japan attacked the US Navy’s Pacific anchorage at Pearl Harbor.

The President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was notified almost immediately.  It had been an act of war, a deliberate attack on one sovereign nation by another.  Roosevelt intended to ask Congress for a declaration of war.

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Presidential Limo “Sunshine Special”, used in both the FDR and Truman administrations

Work began almost immediately on what we now know as Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech, to be delivered to a joint session of Congress the following day.

There was no knowing if the attack on Pearl Harbor had been an isolated event, or whether there would be a continuation of such attacks, sabotage on facilities, or even assassination attempts.

The Willamette University football team, in Honolulu at this time to play the “Shrine Bowl”,  took up a defensive cordon around the Punahou school.

Roosevelt’s speech was scheduled for noon on the 8th, and the Secret Service knew they had a problem. Roosevelt was fond of his 1939 Lincoln V12 Convertible.  Roosevelt called it the “Sunshine Special,” but the car was anything but secure.  Armored Presidential cars would not come into regular use for another 20 years, after the assassination of President Kennedy.

Federal regulations of the time restricted the purchase of any vehicle costing $750 or higher, $10,455 in today’s dollars, and that wasn’t going to get them an armored limo. They probably couldn’t have gotten one that quickly anyway, even if there had been no restriction on spending.

Al Capones LimoIn 1928, Al Capone purchased a Cadillac 341A Town Sedan with 3,000 pounds of armor and inch-thick bulletproof windows.  It was green and black, matching the Chicago police cars of the era, and equipped with a siren and flashing lights hidden behind the grill.

Advanced syphilis had reduced Al Capone to a neurological wreck by this time.  By the time of FDR’s speech, Capone had been released from Alcatraz, and resided in Palm Island, Florida.   His limo had been sitting in a Treasury Department parking lot, ever since being seized in his IRS tax evasion suit from years earlier.

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Mechanics cleaned and checked Capone’s Caddy well into the night of December 7th, making sure that it would safely get the Commander in Chief the few short blocks to Capitol Hill.  It apparently did, because Roosevelt continued to use it until his old car could be fitted with the same features.  To this day, Presidential limousines have flashing police lights hidden behind their grilles.

Roosevelt probably learned that he was riding in Al Capone’s limo after he got in, on the way to Capitol Hill.  He didn’t seem to be bothered, the President’s only comment was “I hope Mr. Capone won’t mind.”

Afterward

Capone, FDR LimoThe internet can be a wonderful thing, if you don’t mind taking your water from a fire hose.  The reader of history quickly finds that some tales are true as written, some are not, and some stories are so good you want them to be true.

Napoleon once asked, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?” Winston Churchill said “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it”.

You can find on-line sources if you like, to tell you this story is a myth. Others will tell you it’s perfectly true.  CBS News reports: “After the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt made use of a heavily armored Cadillac that was originally owned by gangster Al Capone until the Sunshine Special could be modified with armor plating, bulletproof glass, and sub-machine gun storage“.

As a piece of history, you may take this one as you like.  I confess, I am one who wants it to be true.

 

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