January 9, 1492 Mermaid Sighting

Columbus seems not to have been impressed, describing these mermaids as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

“Pax Romana”, or “Roman Peace”, refers to a period between the 1st and 2nd century AD, when the force of Roman arms subdued most everyone who stood against them.  The conquered peoples described the period differently.  Sometime in 83 or 84AD, Calgacus of the Caledonian Confederacy in Northern Scotland, said  “They make a desert and call it peace”.

The conquests of Genghis Khan and his successors accomplished much the same during mongol-warriorsthe 13th and 14th century.  The “Pax Mongolica” effectively connecting Europe with Asia, making it safe to travel the “Silk Road” from Britain in the west to China in the east.  Great caravans carrying Chinese silks and spices came to the west via transcontinental trade routes.  It was said of the era that “a maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”

The “Black Death” and the political fragmentation of the Mongol Empire brought that period to an end.  Muslim domination of Middle Eastern trade routes made overland travel to China and India increasingly difficult in the 15th century.  After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, such travel became next to impossible.   Europe began to look for a water route to the East.

toscanelli-mapIt’s popular to believe that 15th century Europeans thought the world was flat, but that’s a myth.  The fact that the world is round had been understood for over a thousand years, though 15th century mapmakers often got places and distances wrong.  In 1474, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli detailed a scheme for sailing westward to China, India and the Spice Islands.  He believed that Japan, which he called “Cipangu”, was larger than it is, and farther to the east of “Cathay” (China).  Toscanelli vastly overestimated the size of the Eurasian landmass, and the Americas were left out altogether. This is the map that Christopher Columbus took with him in 1492.

Columbus had taken his idea of a westward trade route to the Portuguese King, to Genoa and to Venice, before he came to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1486.  At that time the Spanish monarchs had a Reconquista to tend to, but they were ready in 1492.  The Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria sailed that August.mermaid

By January 9, 1493, the expedition had been at sea for six months.  Sailing off the coast of Hispaniola, what we now call the Dominican Republic, when Columbus spotted three “mermaids”.

They were Manatee, part of the order “Sirenia”.  “Sirens” are the beautiful sisters, half birdlike creatures who live by the sea, according to ancient Greek mythology.  These girls, according to myth, sang a song so beautiful that sailors were hypnotized, crashing their ships into rocks in their efforts to reach them.

mermaid-manateeColumbus seems not to have been impressed, describing these mermaids as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

Small wonder.  These marine herbivores measure 10’ to 13′ from nose to tail, and weigh in at 800-1,200 lbs.  Not everyone was quite so dismissive.  A hundred years later, the English explorer John Smith reported seeing a mermaid, almost certainly a Manatee. It was “by no means unattractive”, he said, but I’m not so sure.  I think it’s possible that ol’ John Smith needed to get out a little more.manatee

January 8, 1790 State of the Union

In the electronic age, the media business model depends on the ability to rent an audience to a sponsor. The SOTU is usually go-to programming, but not always

Article II, Section 3 of the United Sates Constitution requires of the President that: “He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient”. While the language is nonspecific, the President traditionally makes his report sometime in late January or early February.

george_washingtonOn January 8, 1790, a joint session of Congress gathered to receive the first such address. It wasn’t where you might think. A mob of angry soldiers had converged on Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in 1783, demanding payment for their service in the Revolution. The Congress fled Pennsylvania all the way to New York.  It wouldn’t be until July 6 of 1790 that Congress passed the Residence Act, placing the permanent seat of the Federal Government on the “River Potomack”. For the time being, the government was conducting its business in Federal Hall, built in 1700 as New York City Hall.

President George Washington delivered that first regular annual message before a joint session of Congress, but Thomas Jefferson ended the practice in 1801, considering it “too monarchical”. Instead, he wrote his annual message and sent it to Congress where it was read by a clerk, starting a tradition which would last for over 112 years.

Woodrow Wilson delivered the message himself in 1913, re-establishing the old practice inwoodrow_wilson spite of initial criticism.

Today we call it the “State of the Union”, but that term didn’t come around until Franklin Roosevelt used it in 1934. In prior years, it was “the President’s Annual Message to Congress”.

Most of the Presidents who followed would deliver the message in person, though not all. 1981 was an inauguration year and the last of three when we had two SOTUs: Jimmy Carter’s written address, and the personal State of the Union address from the incoming President, Ronald Reagan. The first two were 1953 with the transition from the Truman Presidency to that of Eisenhower, and the Eisenhower/Kennedy transition of 1961.

Woodrow Wilson was the first sitting President to address the Congress at night, when he asked for the declaration that brought us into WWI. President Roosevelt set a precedent in 1936 when he delivered the SOTU address at night, and it’s been a nighttime event ever since.

harry_trumanCalvin Coolidge’s 1923 address was the first to be broadcast on radio, and Harry S. Truman’s 1947 State of the Union was the first to be broadcast on television. Bill Clinton’s 1997 SOTU was the first to be broadcast live on the internet.

For a time, television networks imposed a time limit on the address. That ended with Lyndon Johnson’s SOTU in 1968, the first address followed by extensive commentary, provided by Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Milton Friedman, among others.

The 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster forced President Reagan to postpone his State of the Union for a week, the first time the address had ever been so postponed.

In the electronic age, the media business model depends on the ability to rent an audience to a sponsor.  The SOTU is usually go-to programming, but not always.  In 1997, Bill Clinton prepared to deliver his State of the Union, as a California jury delivered the verdict in OJ’s civil trial.  Coverage decisions must have made media executives pull their hair out.  Lucky for them, the verdict came in just as Clinton was finishing up.  CBS, ABC and CNN stayed with the President’s address.  NBC did likewise, while its cable affiliate MSNBC switched to the verdict.  At least one CBS affiliate split the screen and showed both.

It’s customary for at least one cabinet member to act as “designated survivor”, remaining away from the address in case some catastrophic event takes out the President along with the first three in line of succession: the Vice President, Speaker of the House and President pro tempore of the Senate. Since the Islamist terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, a few members of Congress are asked to stay away as well. These few are relocated to an undisclosed location where they would form the nucleus of a “rump congress”, in case of some unforeseen and catastrophic disaster.

When now-President Elect Donald Trump delivers his first State of the Union address, he will preside over a fiscal operating debt of $19.95 Trillion, $1.03 Trillion higher than the day Barack Obama delivered his last and $8.9 Trillion higher than his first.  My fellow pachyderms are so fond of talking about fiscal responsibility.  I’d hope this first Republican President in eight years will talk about unplugging the national ATM from our kids’ credit cards, and putting an end to this generational theft.  Or at least slowing it down, but I’m not holding my breath.

us_capitol_building

January 4, 1642 The Great Rebellion

Agree or disagree with US war policy, what we do in this country we do as a nation. It would seem absurd to us to see the President and the Congress raise separate armies to go to war with one another

Agree or disagree with US war policy, what we do in this country we do as a nation.  It would seem absurd to us to see the President and the Congress raise separate armies to go to war with one another, but that’s just what happened in 17th century England.

Queen Elizabeth I passed away without issue in 1603, succeeded by her first cousin, twice

elizabeth-1
Elizabeth I

removed, King James VI of Scotland.  For the first time, the Kingdoms of England and Scotland were united under single rule.

The English Parliament of the age didn’t have a permanent role in government, instead being a temporary advisory body, summoned and dismissed at the will of the King.  Practically speaking, the King had no means to enforce his will on matters of taxation, without the consent of the “gentry”, the untitled land owning classes who were the primary means of national tax collection.  This gave rise to an elected “House of Commons”, joining the House of Lords to form a Parliament.

James thought of Kings as “little Gods on Earth”, and had long gotten whatever he wanted from a supine Scottish Parliament.  The English Parliament was another matter.  James’ entire reign and that of his son Charles I was one long contest of wills with the English governing body.

three_faces_van_dyck
The Three Faces of Charles I

Charles’ 1625 marriage to a Roman Catholic, French princess Henrietta Maria, did little to win him support in Protestant England.  His interventionist policies in the 30 years’ war made things worse, ending with Parliament bringing impeachment proceedings against his minister, the Duke of Buckingham.  Parliament drew up the “Petition of Right”, invoking the Magna Carta and severely limiting the King’s right of non-Parliamentary taxation, along with other restrictions on the Royal Prerogative.  Charles looked to the House of Lords to check the power of the Commons, but both houses ratified the measure by the end of May.

The King dissolved this first Parliament in 1629, putting nine of its leaders in prison and unwittingly making them martyrs for their cause.  The following 11 years are sometimes called “the personal rule” or the “eleven years’ tyranny”.  Charles had severe money problems by 1640, forcing him to call another Parliament.   The King wanted a more docile body this time, so he appointed many of his adversaries as Sheriffs, knowing that this would require them to stay within their counties, making them ineligible for election.  To others he bestowed aristocratic titles, making them ineligible for the House of Commons.  Of course, that only moved them to the House of Lords.

What the King saw as reasonable, the legislative body saw as opportunity to negotiate, and this “Short Parliament” was dissolved within a month.  That was May 1640, and Charles once again called a Parliament in November.  This was to be his “Long Parliament”, proving as uncooperative as any before it.

attempted_arrest_of_the_five_members_by_charles_west_cope
Lenthall kneels to Charles during the attempted arrest of the Five Members

In January, Charles directed Parliament to surrender five members of the Commons and one Peer on grounds of high treason.  On the following day, January 4, 1642, the King himself entered the House of Commons with an armed guard of 400, demanding that the offenders be handed over.  The Speaker, William Lenthall, replied, “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”  He might as well have told the King “I work for these people.  I don’t work for you”.

It was a grave breach of protocol, no King had ever entered the House of Commons.  Making things worse, the botched arrest had cut the feet out from under Charles’ supporters.  The two sides began to arm themselves that summer.  Full-scale civil war broke out that October.

when_did_you_last_see_your_father
The son of a Royalist is questioned by Parliamentarians during the English Civil War, in “And when did you last see your father?” by William Frederick Yeames

What’s been variously described as one or two separate civil wars ensued, in which 300,000, 6% of the country’s population or roughly twice the percentage lost in the American Civil War, lost their lives.  A “Rump” House of Commons indicted the King on treason charges, in a trial which was never recognized by the upper house.  Charles maintained that he was above the law, while the court argued that “the King of England was not a person, but an office whose every occupant was entrusted with a limited power to govern by and according to the laws of the land and not otherwise”. Execution of Charles I

Charles I was found guilty of treason and sentenced to die by decapitation.   Clothed in two shirts by his own request, lest any shiver of cold be misinterpreted as a sign of fear, the King of England put his head on the block on January 30, 1649.  “A subject and a sovereign are clean different things,” he said. “I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be”.  With that, he extended his hands to signal he was ready, and his head was parted with a stroke.

The Rump House of Commons disbanded the House of Lords and England was briefly governed as a Commonwealth, but Charles soon came to be seen as a Martyr King.  Oliver Cromwell established a Protectorate with himself as Lord Protector.  He was briefly succeeded by his son on his death in 1658, but the son was not the equal of his father.  Parliament was reinstated and the monarchy restored to Charles’ eldest son, who became Charles II in 1660.billofrights

In the American colonies, Charles II renamed a slice of southern Virginia after his father “Carolus”, the Latin for Charles, and North and South Carolina were born. The Petition of Right would pop up 129 years later, reflected in the Third, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh amendments of the United States’ Constitution, part of what we now know as the Bill of Rights.

January 1, 45 BC Happy New Year

In most English speaking countries, the traditional end to the New Year’s celebration is the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”, a poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of an old pentatonic Scots folk melody

From the 7th century BC, the Roman calendar attempted to follow the cycles of the moon. The method frequently fell out of phase with the change of seasons, requiring the random addition of days. The Pontifices, the Roman body charged with overseeing the calendar, made matters worse. They were known to add days to extend political terms, and to interfere with elections. Military campaigns were won or lost due to confusion over dates. By the time of Julius Caesar, things needed to change.

emperor-julius-caesarWhen Caesar went to Egypt in 48BC, he was impressed with the way they handled their calendar.  He hired the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to help straighten things out. The astronomer calculated that a proper year was 365¼ days, which more accurately tracked the solar, and not the lunar year. “Do like the Egyptians”, he might have said, the new “Julian” calendar going into effect in 46BC. Caesar decreed that 67 days be added that year, moving the New Year’s start from March to January 1. The first new year of the new calendar was January 1, 45BC.

Caesar synchronized his calendar with the sun by adding a day to every February, and changed the name of the seventh month from Quintilis to Julius, to honor himself. Rank hath its privileges.

Not to be outdone, Caesar’s successor changed the 8th month from Sextilis to Augustus. 2,062 years later, we still have July and August.

Sosigenes was close with his 365¼ day long year, but not quite there. The correct value of a solar year is 365.242199 days.  By the year 1000, that 11 minute error had added seven days. To fix the problem, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius to come up with yet another calendar. The Gregorian calendar was implemented in 1582, omitting ten days and adding a day on every fourth February.

Most of the non-Catholic world took 170 years to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Britain and its American colonies “lost” 11 days synchronizing with it in 1752.  The last holdout, Greece, would formally adopt the Gregorian calendar in 1923. Since then, we’ve all gathered to celebrate New Year’s Day on the 1st of January.

boston_time-ball
Boston Time Ball, 1881. Equitable Life Assurance Society building, corner of Devonshire and Milk Street.

The NY Times Newspaper moved into “Longacre Square” just after the turn of the 20th century. For years, New Years’ eve celebrations had been held at Trinity Church. Times owner Adolph Ochs held his first fireworks celebration on December 31, 1903, with almost 200,000 people attending the event. Four years later, Ochs wanted a bigger spectacle to draw attention to the newly renamed Times Square. He asked the newspaper’s chief electrician, Walter F. Painer for an idea. Painer suggested a time ball.time-ball

A time ball is a marine time signaling device, a large painted ball which is dropped at a predetermined rate, enabling mariners to synchronize shipboard marine chronometers for purposes of navigation. The first one was built in 1829 in Portsmouth, England, by Robert
Wauchope, a Captain in the Royal Navy. Time balls were obsolete technology by the 20th century, but it fit the Times’ purposes.

times-square-ballThe Artkraft Strauss sign company designed a 5′ wide, 700lb ball covered with incandescent bulbs. The ball was hoist up the flagpole by five men on December 31, 1907. Once it hit the roof of the building, the ball completed an electric circuit, lighting up a sign and touching off a fireworks display.
The newspaper no longer occupies the building at 1 Times Square, but the tradition 2014 New Year's Eve Waterford Crystal Installationcontinues. The ball used the last few years is 12′ wide, weighing 11,875lbs; a great sphere of 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles, illuminated by 32,256 Philips Luxeon Rebel LED bulbs and producing more than 16 million colors.  It used to be that the ball only came out for New Year.  The last few years, you can see the thing, any time you like.

 

In most English speaking countries, the traditional end to the New Year’s celebration is
the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”, a poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of an old pentatonic Scots folk melody. The original verse, phonetically spelled as a Scots speaker would pronounce it, sounds like this:

“Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an nivir brocht ti mynd?
Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an ald lang syn?
CHORUS
          “Fir ald lang syn, ma jo, fir ald lang syn,
           wil tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn.
           An sheerly yil bee yur pynt-staup! an sheerly al bee myn!
           An will tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn”.
“We twa hay rin aboot the braes, an pood the gowans fyn;
Bit weev wandert monae a weery fet, sin ald lang syn”.
                                        CHORUS
“We twa hay pedilt in the burn, fray mornin sun til dyn;
But seas between us bred hay roard sin ald lang syn”.
                                        CHORUS
“An thers a han, my trustee feer! an gees a han o thyn!
And we’ll tak a richt gude-willie-waucht, fir ald lang syn”.

December 30, 1863 The Confederate States of…Bermuda

“There are a great many Southern people here”, wrote the American Consul in Bermuda, in 1862, “14 came in the steamer ‘Bermuda’. They & their friends are down on me & have threatened to whip me”.

When South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860, it was the first of 11 states to do so. War broke out in April, and the Confederacy desperately needed ships for its fledgling Navy. They needed manufactured goods as well, which could no longer be obtained from the industrialized North. The answer, in both cases, was Great Britain. While remaining officially neutral, England soon became primary ship builders and trade partners for the Confederacy.

For the British military, Bermuda had already demonstrated its value. Bermuda based privateers captured 298 American ships during the war of 1812. The place served as a base for amphibious operations as well, such as the 1815 sack of Washington, DC. British Commander Sir Alexander Milne, said “If Bermuda were in the hands of any other nation, the base of our operations would be removed to the two extremes, Halifax and Jamaica, and the loss of this island as a Naval Establishment would be a National misfortune”.

President Lincoln issued a proclamation soon after taking office, threatening to blockade southern coastlines. It wasn’t long before the “Anaconda Plan” went into effect, a naval blockade extending 3,500 miles along the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico coastlines and up into the lower Mississippi River.

runnerbritanniawilm
Blockade runner Britannia in Wilmington harbor

Running the blockade was no small or occasional enterprise. The number of attempts to run the Federal stranglehold have been estimated at 2,500 to 2,800, of which about 2/3rds were successful. Over the course of the war, the Union Navy captured over 1,100 blockade runners. Another 355 vessels were destroyed or run aground.

Cotton would ship out of Mobile, Charleston and Wilmington as well as other ports, while weapons and other manufactured goods would come back in. Sometimes, these goods would make the whole trans-Atlantic voyage.  Often, they would stop at neutral ports in Cuba or the Bahamas.  North Carolina and Virginia had long-established trade relations with Bermuda, 600 nautical miles to the east.1blockadeusnavyhandout

The most successful blockade runners were the fast, paddle wheeled steamers, though surprisingly little is known of the ships themselves. They were usually built in secrecy, and operated at night. One notable exception is the “Nola”, a 236-foot paddle steamer that ran aground on December 30, 1863, en route from London to North Carolina. Nola ran aground on her maiden voyage, attempting to enter Bermuda to take on coal. She was wrecked near Western Blue Cut on Bermuda’s reefs, and remains a popular dive destination to this day.

President Lincoln appointed Massachusetts native Charles Maxwell Allen Consul to Bermuda in 1861, where he remained until his death in 1888. There were times when it was a great job, I’m sure, but not in the early days. “There are a great many Southern people here”, Allen wrote in 1862, “14 came in the steamer ‘Bermuda’. They & their friends are down on me & have threatened to whip me”. People were getting rich running the blockade, Allen estimated that one blockade runner alone, which sank after three voyages, generated a profit of more than £173,000.

Today, the capital of Bermuda is Hamilton, moved across the island in 1815 from the old port of St. George and leaving the former capital in a kind of time warp, where you can walk down streets that look like they did 150 years ago. Portraits of Robert E. Lee and Confederate battle flags can still be found on the walls of the old port, beside paintings showing the harbor filled with blockade runners, lying quietly at anchor.

st-george-harbor
Confederate blockade runners at anchor in St George Harbor, Bermuda

Sheryl and I traveled to Bermuda a while back, visiting the old port at St. George. At some point we learned about the maritime history of the island, as well. Making a living at sea in the 19th century was a dangerous business, so much so that one in ten of the married women living in Bermuda at that time, were widows.

It occurred to me that all those Confederate officers and enlisted men were spending a lot of time in Bermuda, and the possibility that followed soon morphed into a probability and then a certainty. At this point I can only wonder how many English citizens there are, residents of Bermuda and loyal subjects of the Queen, who can trace their paternity back to the Confederate States of America.

December 27, 1913 My Favorite Curmudgeon

Today, any writer who wants to be the least bit controversial had better keep his lawyer’s number on speed dial. In Bierce’s day, he’d better carry a gun.

bierceAmbrose Bierce was born in Horse Cave Creek, Ohio, to Marcus Aurelius and Laura Sherwood Bierce, the 10th of 13 children, all with names beginning with the letter “A”.

Marcus and Laura never had much money, but they were inveterate readers and imparted a love of books that would last young Ambrose all his life. At 15, Bierce left home to become a “printer’s devil”, fetching type and mixing ink, following in the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and his contemporary, Mark Twain.

He enlisted with the 9th Indiana Regiment at the outbreak of the Civil War, where he developed map making skills.  Bierce would frequently find himself in the hottest part of the front lines, while he drew out and mapped some difficult terrain feature.  He would later say of the experience that “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography”.

For Ambrose Bierce, the Civil War ended at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, when a severe head wound took him out of the war for good. He later headed west, making the first usable maps of the Black Hills, before winding up in San Francisco.

Long hours spent in a boring job at the San Francisco mint, gave him plenty of time to read the classics and brush up on his writing skills. He soon found himself in the newspaper business, one of the top columnists in the city.

Today, any writer who wants to be the least bit controversial had better keep his lawyer’sambrosebierceoncabbage number on speed dial. In Bierce’s day, he’d better carry a gun. Ambrose Bierce didn’t shy away from politics, he jumped right in, frequently using a mock dictionary definition to lampoon his targets. One example and my personal favorite, is “Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage”.

Bierce worked for the Hearst Newspaper The San Francisco Examiner in 1896, when he was sent to Washington to cover a railroad bill that was working its way through Congress. The Union and Pacific Railroad received $130 million taxpayer dollars (about $3 billion in today’s money) laundered through the Federal Government and lent to them on extremely favorable terms. One of the railroad’s builders, Collis P. Huntington, had persuaded a malleable congressman to forgive the loan altogether, if only they could keep the measure quiet.ambrosebierceonego

Bierce lampooned the crony capitalist and the politician alike.  The offending bill was anything but quiet when an infuriated Huntington confronted Bierce on the Capital steps. When asked his “price”, Bierce answered “My price is $130 million dollars.  If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it over to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States”. The bill went on to defeat.  We can only wonder how things would be today, if such a man were to replace the partisan lapdogs who pass themselves off as the national press corps.

Bierce’s biting satire would often get Hearst and his newspaper in trouble.  Nothing wasambrosebierceonphilosophy off limits. Politics was a favorite target of his columns, such as: “CONSERVATIVE, n: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others”, or “POLITICIAN, n. An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive”.

These mocking definitions became so numerous that they were published in 1906 as “The Cynic’s Word Book”.  It is still in print today as the “Devil’s Dictionary”. The topics are seemingly endless. On Motherhood: “SWEATER, n.: garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly”. On the Arts: PAINTING, n.: The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather, and exposing them to the critic”. Or “MARRIAGE, n: the state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two”. And then there’s education, “ACADEME, n.: An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught. Academy, n.: A modern school where football is taught”.

Bierce left San Francisco in October 1913 at the age of 71, to revisit some of his Civil War battlefields. He then headed south into Mexico, which was at that time a whirlpool of revolution. He joined Pancho Villa’s army as an observer in Ciudad Juárez, arriving in Chihuahua some time in December. Bierce’ last letter was written to a close friend, Blanche Partington, on December 26, 1913. He closed the letter saying, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”

And then, he vanished.

If you visit Sierra Mojada, in Coahuila, Mexico, they’ll tell you that Ambrose biercemarkerGwinnett Bierce was executed by firing squad in the town cemetery. It’s as good an ending to this story as any, as one hundred and three years ago today is as good a day as any on which to end it. The fact is that in that 103 years, there’s never been a trace of what became of him, and probably never will be.

He would have had a good laugh, reading the monument that Meigs County, Ohio erected in his honor in 2003. So many words to commemorate a life, when his own words would have done so well. “MONUMENT, n:  A structure intended to commemorate something which either needs no commemoration or cannot be commemorated.”ambrosebierceonplan

December 26, 1776 Trenton

Washington himself, who had become Commander-in-Chief of an Army with an average of nine rounds’ powder per man, feared they may have reached the end, writing to his cousin in Virginia “I think the game is pretty near up”.

1776 started out well for the Patriot cause, with the British evacuating Boston in March, the June defeat of the British Navy at Fort Moultrie South Carolina, and the Continental Congress adopting the Declaration of Independence on July 4.

Things took a turn for the worse in August, with General George Washington’s defeat at the Battle of Long Island, and the loss of the strategically important port of New York that September. It wasn’t all bad, Benedict Arnold’s October defeat at Valcour Island in Vermont, cost the British dearly enough that they had to turn back, buying another year of life for the Patriot cause.

By the end of November, General Howe pushed the last American troops out of New York, chasing Washington’s shrinking army through New Jersey and across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.

Washington’s men gathered up or destroyed every boat they could find for miles, while across the Delaware, British General Lord Cornwallis established outposts from New Brunswick to Burlington, including one at Trenton, New Jersey.

Camping on the western banks of the Delaware, Washington was in desperate straits. Food, ammunition and equipment were in short supply, men were deserting as the string of defeats brought morale to a new low.  Most of his troops were about to end their enlistments, effective at the end of the year. Washington himself, who had become Commander-in-Chief of an Army with an average of nine rounds’ powder per man, feared they may have reached the end, writing to his cousin in Virginia “I think the game is pretty near up”.

The Americans needed a decisive victory, and quickly, if their cause was to survive. Washington planned a three-pronged attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton, himself at the head of a 2,400 man army, flanked by a 1,900 man diversionary force under Colonel John Cadwalader and a blocking move by 700 men under General James Ewing.

march-on-trenton-webAs the army began the famous crossing of the Delaware that Christmas night, the
password was “Victory”. There was only one recognized response:  “Or Death”.

Washington’s three-pronged assault soon dissolved into one, as Cadwalader and Ewing both turned back. The weather that night was dreadful.  A howling ‘nor-easter’ came up at 11:00, hampering the crossing as freezing rain changed to sleet and sleet to snow. Horses balked at being led onto flat-bottom barges, while cannon had to be tied down to prevent capsize. With visibility near zero, several men fell overboard during the crossing.  One soldier said “it blew a perfect hurricane”.

Two froze to death on the overnight march to Trenton. Men were so poorly equipped that washington-delaware-lmany of them lacked boots, the soaked and freezing rags wrapped around their feet not enough to keep them from leaving bloody footprints in the snow.

Loyalists had warned the Hessian commander, Colonel Johann Rall, that American forces were planning an action. As late as December 22, a spy had warned British General James Grant that Washington was holding a war council.  His warning to the Hessian commander was “Be on your guard”.

Approaching Trenton along parallel roads, General John Sullivan sent word to Washington that the weather was wetting his men’s gunpowder. Washington responded, “Tell General Sullivan to use the bayonet. I am resolved to take Trenton.”

trentonThe Patriot force arrived at Trenton at 8am December 26, completely surprising the Hessian garrison. There is a story about the Hessians being drunk or hungover after Christmas celebrations, but the story is almost certainly untrue. Unaware of Washington’s march on Trenton, 50 Americans had attacked a Hessian outpost earlier that morning. While Washington worried that his surprise was blown, Colonel Rall apparently believed that this was the attack he’d been warned about. He expected no further action that day.

The tactical surprise was complete for the American side. Hessian soldiers spilled out of their quarters and tried to form up, but most were shot down or dispersed. A few American civilians, residents of Trenton, even joined in the fight. All told, Hessian losses were 22 killed, 92 wounded, 918 captured and 400 escaped. Four Hessian colonels were killed, including Rall himself. The Americans suffered the two who had frozen to death, and five wounded. They had won the first major victory of the Revolution.

On December 30, the Americans once again crossed the Delaware, eluding a main forcetrenton-1 under Generals Cornwallis and Grant, proving on January 3rd at a place called Princeton, that they could defeat a regular British army in the field.

Encouraged by these victories, many of Washington’s men extended their terms of enlistment, and new enlistments flooded in. The American Revolution would slog on for almost six more years, but for today, it had lived to fight another day.

 

December 24, 1913 Italian Hall Disaster

Today, (falsely) “Shouting fire in a crowded theater” is a commonly understood limitation on the 1st amendment right to free speech

In 1913, there were about 15,000 men working in the copper mines of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP). The Western Federation of Miners (WFM) had been actively organizing the area since 1908, by 1913 they claimed 9,000 members.

At this time, the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company (“C&H”) was the largest copper mining company in the UP. In July, union members demanded that C&H recognize the WFM as their collective bargaining agent. The company refused to recognize the union, and a strike was called on July 23, 1913.

Five months later, the two sides were still at an impasse. Striking miners and their italian_hallfamilies gathered on Christmas Eve at the “Societa Mutua Beneficenza Italiana”, the Italian Hall in Calumet, Michigan, for a Christmas party sponsored by the Ladies Auxiliary of the WFM.

The party was held in the second floor of the hall, accessible only by a steep stairway, a poorly marked fire escape, and a few ladders propped up against the back of the building. There were over four hundred people in the room when someone yelled “Fire!”  There was no fire, but panicked people rushed for the door. 59 children were crushed or trampled to death in the stampede, along with 14 adults.

In the wake of the catastrophe at Italian Hall, President of the Western Federation ofitalian_hall_disaster_in_pictures_-_kitchen Miners Charles Moyer publicly accused members of the pro management “Citizens Alliance” of responsibility for the disaster. He was subsequently assaulted by members of the Alliance, who shot and kidnapped him, placing him on a train with instructions to leave Michigan and never return. Moyer would later receive medical attention in Chicago, holding a press conference where he displayed his gunshot wound before returning to Michigan and resuming his work with the WFM.

A coroner’s inquest failed to determine who shouted “Fire!” and why, though 8 people testified in a 1914 Congressional investigation, that the man who first raised the cry of “fire” was wearing a Citizens’ Alliance button on his coat, indicating that he was an ally of mine owners.

The first unionized strike in Michigan’s UP had been called in pursuit of shorter work days, higher wages, union recognition, and to maintain family mining groups. Though unsuccessful, ending after nine months with the union being effectively driven out of the Keweenaw Peninsula, it would be a turning point in the history Michigan’s copper country.

Woody Guthrie wrote and performed a song in 1941, called the “1913 Massacre”. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=oz7oguguIZE) In it, Guthrie repeated the claim that the doors were held shut from the outside by management hired thugs. Others have blamed inward opening front doors, which became stuck shut in the crush of bodies, though photographs seem to suggest two sets of doors which open outward.

In 1856, a false cry of “fire” created a stampede at the Royal Surrey Gardens Music Hall of London, killing seven.   Similar disasters followed in Harlem in 1884, and the Shiloh Baptist Church disaster of 1902, when more than 100 people died when “fight” was misunderstood as “fire” in a crowded church.

Today, (falsely) “Shouting fire in a crowded theater” is a commonly understood limitation on the italian_hall_doorway1st amendment right to free speech.  It’s a paraphrasing of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s opinion in the 1919 SCOTUS decision, Schenck v. United States, a case which turned, in part, on the Italian Hall disaster of seven years earlier.

Italian Hall was demolished in October 1984, leaving only the archway to the front steps, behind which a state historic marker describes the events that took place there on December 24, 1913. Responsibility for the stampede and the 73 deaths resulting from it, has never been determined.

December 22, 1944 Battered Bastards of Bastogne

The American medic, knowing he had to convey the intent of the message, translated as “Du kannst zum Teufel gehen”. You can go to hell.

The largest German offensive of the western front burst out of the frozen Ardennes forest on December 16, 1944, aiming to drive a wedge between British and American forces, and to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp, vital to the German’s ability to re-supply. It was called “Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein”, “Operation Watch on the Rhine”.

The tactical surprise was complete, allied forces driven back through the densely forested regions of France, Belgium and Luxembourg. Wartime news maps showed a great inward “bulge” in the lines, and the name stuck. The Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the US in WWII, fought in the harshest winter conditions in recorded history and involving 610,000+ Americans.WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  WORLD WAR II/WAR IN THE WEST/THE LOW COUNTRIES

The seven roads leading to Antwerp converged in Bastogne, in what the Germans called “Straße Oktopus”, “Road Octopus”. The town was strategically indispensable to the German drive on Antwerp, and all or parts of 7 German armored divisions converged on the place. Over 54,000 men. The Allies understood the importance of the place as well as the Germans, and General Eisenhower dispatched the 101st Airborne Division to hold the town at all costs.

bastogne_resupply1944_smFor two days, a desperate defense of the nearby villages of Noville and Foy held back the 2nd Panzerdivision, as 11,000 men and 800 officers of the 101st joined a combined force of 11,000 converging on Bastogne. By the 21st, Bastogne’s field hospital was overrun, they were surrounded by forces outnumbering them 2½ to one. Poorly supplied for the cold winter conditions with air supply made all but impossible by weather conditions, the citizens of Bastogne gave their blankets to the American soldiers, along with white linens which they used for camouflage.

On the morning of December 22, 1944, two German officers appeared at the American perimeter along with two enlisted men, carrying a white flag. They were a Major Wagner of the 47th Panzer Corps, and Lt. Hellmuth Henke of the Panzer Lehr Operations Section. They carried a note from German General Luttwitz, 165 words in all, and reading in part: “To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne. There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note”.

The note worked its way up the chain of command to the acting Division Commander, General Tony McAuliffe. Told that there was a surrender ultimatum, McAuliffe first thought that it was the Germans who wanted to surrender. Soon disabused of that notion, he laughed and said: “Us surrender? Aw, nuts!”

Knowing that he had to reply, McAuliffe said “Well I don’t know what to tell them.” Lt. General Harry Kinnard spoke up, saying, “That first remark of yours would be hard to beat”. McAuliffe said, “What do you mean?” and Kinnard replied “Sir, you said ‘Nuts’.” They all agreed, and McAuliffe wrote his reply. “To the German Commander, “Nuts!” The American Commander.”

Joseph H. “Bud” Harper was the American army officer who delivered the reply, with medic Ernie Premetz acting as translator.

Confused by the American slang, Henke asked “What does that mean?” Harper said to Premetz “You can tell them to take a flying shit.” The medic, knowing he had to convey the intent of the message, translated as “Du kannst zum Teufel gehen”. You can go to hell. Harper then said, “If you continue to attack, we will kill every goddamn German that tries to break into this city.” Henke replied, “We will kill many Americans. This is war.” Harper then said, “On your way Bud, and good luck to you.”

Years later, Harper would say that he always regretted wishing them luck.

Elements of George Patton’s 3rd Army would break through from the southwest four days bastognelater, ending the German encirclement.

By the end of January, the last great effort of German armed forces had been spent and driven back beyond their original lines. An official report by the US Army on the Battle of the Bulge lists 108,347 casualties, including 19,246 killed, 62,489 wounded and 26,612 captured and missing. Those numbers could have been far worse, if not for what newspapers would soon call the “Battered Bastards of Bastogne”.

Afterward

Augusta Marie Chiwy (“Shee-wee”) was the bi-racial daughter of a Belgian veterinarian and a Congolese mother she never knew.  Thinking it safe to visit her father in Bastogne that Christmas, Chiwy found herself, like everyone else in that place, surrounded.  A trained nurse, Chiwy spent the augusta-chiwy-at-workentire siege tending to the wounded, along with Dr. Jack Prior.  Once, she even ran through enemy fire to collect the wounded from the field.  On Christmas eve, she was blown off her feet and through a wall. She got up and went back to it, despite the direct hit that killed 30 American wounded, along with the only other nurse at the Rue Neufchatel aid station, Renée Lemaire. 

A Black nurse called “Anna” briefly appeared in Historian Stephen Ambrose’ ‘A Band of Brothers’, and on the HBO series based on the book.  But who was Anna?  Was she a myth?  British military historian Martin King discovered her in a nursing home, 61 years after the encirclement ataugusta-chiwy-in-old-age Bastogne.  Chiwy married after the war, and rarely talked about her experience in Bastogne.  It took King a full 18 months to coax the story out of her.  The result was the 2015 Emmy award winning historical documentary, “Searching for Augusta, The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne”.

In 2011, she was awarded a Knighthood in the Order of the Crown in the name of King Albert II of Belgium.  The United States Army awarded her the Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service, presented by the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium.  Augusta Chiwy died on August 23, 2015, near Brussels.

December 21, 2007 MWD Lex

Tactical Explosive Detection Dogs, or “TEDDs”, come in many shapes and sizes. They can be German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers or Belgian Malinois. Even Pit Bulls. The first thing they have in common is a high “ball drive”

Tactical Explosive Detection Dogs, or “TEDDs”, come in many shapes and sizes. They can be German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers or Belgian Malinois.  Even Pit Bulls. The first thing they have in common is a high “ball drive”. To these dogs, a tennis ball is the beginning and end of all joy. From that starting place, the dog is trained to associate finding a bomb with getting the tennis ball as a reward. The results can be astonishing.

The first official American bomb dogs were used in North Africa in the 1940s, where they were used to detect German mines. Today’s TEDD is a highly specialized and well trained soldier, working with his handler and able to detect 64 or more explosive compounds.

Military Working Dog (MWD) Lex was one such dog, deployed to Iraq with the Unitedlex-lee States Marine Corps in 2006. The dog’s second deployment began in November, when he was paired with Marine Corporal Dustin J. Lee, stationed in the military police department at Marine Corps Logistics Base (MCLB), “Albany”.

Detached as an explosive detection and patrol team for the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, then part of Regimental Combat Team 6, the pair was patrolling a Forward Operating Base on March 21, 2007, when they were hit by a 73 mm SPG-9 rocket attack. Lee was mortally wounded, Lex severely injured with multiple shrapnel wounds. Despite his own injuries, Lex refused to leave his Marine and had to be dragged away before corpsmen could attempt treatment. There is little in this world to compare with the magnificent loyalty of a dog.

lexThe most dreadful moment in the life of any parent, is when they receive word of the death of a child. It wasn’t long after Jerome and Rachel Lee were so notified, that they began efforts to adopt Lex. Dustin was gone, but they wanted to make his partner a permanent part of their family.

An online petition was created by the Lee family, soon gaining national media attention as well as that of Congressman Walter B. Jones of North Carolina’s 3rd congressional district, which includes Camp Lejeune. US armed forces don’t commonly release MWDs prior to retirement age, but there can be exceptions.

Meanwhile, Lex had gone through a 12-week recuperation at Camp Lejeune, later re-deployed to MCLB Albany on July 6. He was once again at full working capacity, despite the more than 50 pieces of shrapnel veterinary surgeons had left in his back, fearing that removal would cause permanent damage to his spine.

Lex was at this time under the jurisdiction of the Air Force working dog program managers at Lackland Air Force Base.  Marine Corps Headquarters made a formal request for the dog’s release in November. Lex was released on December 6, and turned over to the Lee family in a ceremony on December 21, 2007.

Lex was 8 years old at the time.  He soon began to visit VA hospitals, comforting wounded veterans and assisting in their recovery. He received an honorary purple heart in February, 2008, and the 7th Law Enforcement AKC Award for Canine Excellence in September.  On March 19, 2010, the base dog kennel at MCLB Albany was named in honor of Corporal Dustin J. Lee, with Lex in attendance.

Lex’ injuries troubled him for the rest of his life, despite stem cell regenerative therapy at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital, assisted by the Humane Society of the United States and Kentucky Congressman Ed Whitfield. Lex succumbed to cancer on March 25, 2012.

nate-zinoIn telling this story, I wish in some small way to honor my son in law Nate and daughter Carolyn, who together experienced Nate’s deployment as a Tactical Explosives Detection Dog handler with the US Army 3rd Infantry Division in Soltan Kheyl, Wardak Province, Afghanistan. Months after departing “The Ghan” in 2013, the couple was reunited with Nate’s “Battle Buddy”, MWD Zino, who is now retired and lives with them in Savannah.  “Here & Now”, broadcast out of ‘Boston’s NPR News Station’ WBUR, did a great story on the reunion.  You can hear the radio broadcast HERE.  Thanks for the great job, Alex.

To those TEDD teams deployed today and those of the 2013 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division: Spec.Nate Korpusik & K9 Zino, Sgt. Austin Swaney & K9 Rudy, Sgt. Logan Synatzske & K9 Bako, Spec. Chase Couturiaux & K9 Nina, Spec. Jake Carlberg & K9 Abby, Spec. Ethan Mordue & K9 Moto, Spec. Matthew Shaw & K9 Senna, Spec. Luke Andrukitis & K9 Robby, Sgt. Jeremy Shelton & K9 Rexy, Spec. Sean Bunyard & K9 Kryno, and Spec. Luke Parker & K9 Max:  I say with great respect and profound appreciation to these men, their dogs and their families, Thank you.