December 24, 1814 I’ll have the Miss Piggott Special

Golden nuggets were plentiful during the Gold Rush era and sailors, were not. Infamous “crimps” like James “Shanghai” Kelly were happy to help, with both problems.

In modern times, governments have employed various strategies to meet the personnel needs of national armed services. Recruiting methods range from voluntary to compulsory service, and even a lottery or other form of draft, in times of national emergency.

During the age of sail, vast numbers of skilled and unskilled seamen alike, were required to meet the needs of naval vessels at sea. Governments resorted to more straightforward methods of meeting manpower requirements, namely, kidnapping.

Such involuntary service or “impressment”, was first made legal during Elizabethan times, but the practice dates back to the 13th century.

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“Press gangs” would patrol waterfronts looking for vagrants, raiding taverns and even pouncing on unsuspecting victims in their beds. Prints from the time show armed gangs barging into weddings and hauling away the groom. I can’t imagine the bride was too pleased but, good news. In 1835 the practice was limited to a single impressment per man with a maximum term of impressment, of five years.

Such “pressing” often took place at sea, where armed gangs would board merchant ships and take what they needed, sometimes leaving victims without sufficient hands to take them safely back to port.

Such methods were essential to the strength of the British Navy, particularly during the Napoleonic wars. American merchant vessels were often targets. The British Navy impressed over 15,000 American sailors alone, between 1793 and 1812.

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The American public was outraged and there were calls for war in 1807, when HMS Leopard overtook the USS Chesapeake, kidnapping three American-born sailors and one British deserter, leaving another three dead and 18 wounded.

This time, American retaliation took the form of an embargo. Five years later, continued impressment of American seamen would be a casus belli for the war of 1812, a conflict ended with the Treaty of Ghent signed this day, in 1814.

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Outside of the British Royal Navy, the practice of kidnapping men to serve as shipboard labor was known as “crimping”. Low wages combined with the gold rushes of the 19th century left the waterfront painfully short of manpower, skilled and unskilled. “Boarding Masters” had the job of putting together ship’s crews, and were paid for each recruit. There was strong incentive to produce as many able bodies, as possible. Unwilling men were “shanghaied” by means of trickery, intimidation or violence, most often rendered unconscious and delivered to waiting ships, for a fee.

Crimps made $9,500 or more per year in the 1890s, equivalent to over a quarter-million, today. The practice flourished in British port cities like London and Liverpool, and in the west coast cities of San Francisco, Portland, Astoria and Seattle. You also didn’t want to be caught out alone and drunk, in east coast port cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Baltimore.

Today the area from North Beach to Jackson Square in San Francisco, is ‘Frisco’s’ Chinatown. During the Gold Rush era this was the infamous Barbary Coast, a raucous red-light district of taverns and whorehouses where fewer left, than than ever came in.

Golden nuggets were plentiful during the Gold Rush era and sailors, were not. Happy to help with both problems James “Shanghai” Kelly kept several bars and a boarding house on the Barbary Coast. This character once shanghai’d 100 guys, in a single evening.

In the early 1870s, Kelly rented the paddleboat Goliath and widely publicized a free booze cruise, to celebrate his birthday. Bartenders drugged unwitting revelers with opium-laced whiskey, and then offloaded them to waiting ships. Shanghai Kelly’s biggest concern was returning after such a public event, with an empty boat. His luck held, when another paddle wheel steamer, the Yankee Blade, struck a rock and began to sink. Goliath rescued everyone on board, and continued the party. Nobody back at the waterfront, noticed a thing.

The Laurel & Hardy short film “Live Ghost” (1934) is about the practice, of crimping

Joseph “Bunko” Kelley was another infamous crimp, also working out of the San Francisco waterfront. The “King of Crimps”, Kelley once set a record rounding up 50 guys in three hours. The Bunko name stuck, when Kelley delivered one crewman for $50, who turned out to be a cigar store Indian. In 1893, Kelley delivered 22 guys who had mistakenly consumed embalming fluid, from a local mortuary. He sold them all for $52 apiece though most of them were dead, a fact to which the ship’s captain only became wise, after returning to sea.

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James “Bunko” Kelley

The “Shanghai tunnels” of Portland run through the Old Town/Chinatown section to the main business district, connecting the basements of hotels and taverns to the waterfront at the Willamette River. The tunnels themselves are real enough, though their history is shrouded in mystery. Originally constructed to move goods from the Willamette waterfront to basement storage areas, the number of unconscious bodies hustled down the dark chambers of the Portland Underground”, remains unknown. There are those who will tell you, the practice continued well into the WW2 period.

State and federal legislatures passed measures to curb the practice after the Civil War, but crimping didn’t go away easily. In their heyday, the owners of sailor’s boarding houses had endless supplies of manpower, fanning out across polling places to “vote early and often”.

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San Francisco political bosses William T. Higgins, (R) and Chris “Blind Boss” Buckley (D) were both notable crimps, and well positioned to look after their political interests. Notorious crimps such as Joseph “Frenchy” Franklin and George Lewis were elected to the California state legislature. There was no better spot from which to ensure that no legislation would interfere with such a lucrative trade.

A brief list of infamous crimps includes Andy “Shanghai Canuck” Maloney of Vancouver, Anna Gomes of San Francisco, New Bedford’s own “Shanghai Joe” and Tom Codd the “Shanghai Prince”. William “Billy” Gohl, the “Ghoul of Grays Harbor” of Aberdeen Washington, also happened to be, a serial killer.

In the 1860s and 70s, one “Miss Piggott” operated a saloon and boarding house, in San Francisco. This “ferocious old harridan” would maneuver unsuspecting guests over a trap door and serve them her “Miss Piggott Special,” a potion consisting of equal parts brandy, whiskey and gin laced with either laudanum, or opium. One knock on the head with her “bung starter”, a wooden mallet used to open whiskey kegs, and she’d pull the lever and down they would fall to the waiting mattress, below.

(From left) Colonel Jack Gamble, Miss Piggott and Sam Roberts of the San Francisco Dungeon in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday June 18, 2014. (photo by Beck Diefenbach / Madam Tussauds)

Imagine the hangover the next morning, to wake up and find you’re now at sea, bound for somewhere in the far east. Regulars knew about the trap door and avoided that thing at all costs, knowing that anyone going over there, was “fair game”.

Widespread adoption of steam power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did as much to curb shanghaiing as did any legislative effort. Without acres of canvas to furl and unfurl, the need for unskilled labor was greatly diminished. The “Seaman’s Act of 1915”, sometimes called the “magna carta of sailor’s rights,” ended the practice for good.

You might want to do yourself a favor, though, if you’re ever at Miss Piggott’s place. Look out for that trap door.

December 1, 2013 The First Full Day of Forever

Something sacred and wonderful happened back in 2013, and few of us heard about it, at the time.

November 11, nineteen short days ago, marked the end of World War One. Before they had numbers. “The Great War”. The “War to end all Wars”. There is barely a piece of 20th century history, you cannot trace back to that conflict.

International Communism was borne of the Great War, without which there would be no cold war, no Korean War, no war in Vietnam. The killing fields of Cambodia would remain in this alternative universe, mere fields. The spiritual descendants of Chiang Kai-shek’s brand of capitalism would today run all of China, and not some communist cabal.

In Flanders Fields

The modern boundaries of the Middle East arose from the Great War. While the region’s tribal alliances and religious strife are nothing new those conditions would exist in a very different form, if not for those boundaries.

World War II, a conflagration which left more dead, wounded or missing than any conflict in human history (WWI ranks only number 5), was little more than the Great War, part II. A Marshall of France, on looking at the Versailles Treaty formally ending WWI, said “This isn’t peace. This is a cease-fire that will last for 20 years”.

He was off, by something like 36 days.

It’s hard to know how any of us can be participating citizens of a self-governing Republic, how we can know where we want the country to go, if we don’t understand where it’s been. It’s a principle reason to study, history. It’s why I believe something wonderful happened back in 2013, and few of us heard about it.

In the summer of 2013, over 1,000 British and Belgian schoolchildren visited seventy battlefields of the Great War. Ypres. Passchendaele. Verdun. The Somme. All over Northern France and Belgium, the region known as “Flanders”. There those children collected samples of the sacred soil from those fields of conflict.

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The soil was placed in WWI-style burlap sandbags, each stenciled with a red poppy, where it came from, and the dates. 70 sandbags were transported to London and brought to Wellington Barracks, the central London home to some of the most elite regiments in the British military, regiments dating back to the time of the English Civil Wars who gave so many of their own, to the soil of Flanders Fields.

There at Wellington Barracks next to Buckingham Palace a garden was being built. The soil of the Great War would nourish and support that garden, planted to be made ready for the following year, and the solemn 100-years’ remembrance of the War to end all Wars.

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That day, December 1, 2013, was for the Flanders Fields Memorial Garden, the first full day of forever.

I cannot think of anything more fitting than that it was children, our own future and posterity, who retrieved the sacred soil of Flanders and brought it to that garden.

It is now for that posterity to keep our shared history alive, and never let it fade into some sepia-toned remnant of a forgotten past.

November 5, 1605 Remember Remember, the 5th of November

The plan was to decapitate the English state, blowing up King James I along with much of the nation’s religious and political leadership. The Gunpowder Plot would end in failure, and a rhyme known to British school children, from that day to this.

The Tudor King Henry VIII began to take control of the English church in 1533, barely 16 years after Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses to the church door. The Protestant Reformation was barely underway. With life and eternal damnation at stake both sides would come to regard the other, as heretical.

Henry fell out with Pope Clement VII over the latter’s refusal to grant him an annulment from Catherine of Aragon. By 1540, the break between the Church of England and the Church of Rome was complete.

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English Catholics became increasingly marginalized for the remainder of Henry’s reign, and that of his daughter, Elizabeth I, who died in 1603 without issue. There were several assassination attempts against Protestant rulers in Europe and England, including a failed plot to poison Elizabeth I and the assassination of French King Henry III, who was stabbed to death by a Catholic fanatic, in 1589.

King James VI of Scotland succeeded the “Virgin Queen” in 1603, to the great disappointment of English Catholics. The moderates among them favored James’ and Elizabeth’s cousin Arbella Stuart, a woman believed to harbor Catholic sympathies. More radical Catholics looked to the infant daughter of Phillip II of Spain, the Infanta Isabella.

There were already at least two plots to remove the King from office, when James discovered that his wife, Queen Anne, had secretly received a rosary from the Pope. James responded by denouncing the Catholic Church, ordering Jesuit and all other Catholic priests to leave the country. He re-imposed “recusancy fees”, which had earlier been implemented by Elizabeth. The sum of such fines soon rose to £5,000 a year, equivalent to well over £10 million today.

Among those who believed that ‘faith need not be kept with heretics’, regicide seemed the only way out.

The “Gunpowder Plot”, also known as the “Jesuit Treason”, was inspired by Robert Catesby, a man of “ancient, historic and distinguished lineage”.

In league with about a dozen others, Catesby planned to blow up the House of Lords on November 5, 1605, killing King James and his Privy Council along with untold MPs and government records. The plan was to spark a popular revolt in the Midlands ending in the installation of James’ 9-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, as Catholic head of state.

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Guy Fawkes, who had 10 years of military experience fighting for the King of Spain in the Netherlands by this time, was placed in charge of the explosives.

In those days, goods of all kinds were transported in kegs. The movement of even a large number, was perfectly ordinary. Anticipating the State Opening of Parliament on July 28, 36 kegs of powder were moved to an undercroft on the 20th, a small room beneath the House of Lords. There was a metric ton of the stuff, enough to destroy the parliament building and everything around it, for a radius of 100 meters.

And then the plague reared its head and with it the fear, of gathering in large numbers. Parliament was postponed, until November 5.

Others were brought into the plot. That was probably it’s undoing. As the day approached an anonymous letter came to light, warning of the plot. Two separate searches on the evening of the 4th revealed the gunpowder barrels, hidden under sticks and coal. Guy Fawkes was discovered nearby carrying a length of slow burning fuse, called a match.

Fawkes was defiant at first saying there was enough powder, to “blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains“. Days of torture lay in wait, beginning with shackles and increasing in severity until finally, his body was “broken” on the rack. In January, all but two of the 13 conspirators were hanged, drawn and quartered for their treason. Those two had died in the attempt to flee and these, were dug up and decapitated. Fawkes himself, weakened by torture and weeks of confinement in the tower of London, even now managed to jump from the scaffold and break his neck, and thus to spare himself the ordeal of being emasculated and disemboweled before his own dying eyes.

Guy Fawkes Mask

So it is that today, November 5th, is “Guy Fawkes Day”. People all over England will “remember, remember, the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot.” Effigies of Guy Fawkes will be burned throughout the land.

A stylized version of the “Guy Fawkes Mask” came to be in the 1980s, with a comic book series and its later film adaptation, “V for Victory”. The story depicts a vigilante effort to destroy an authoritarian government in a dystopian future, Great Britain.

Since that time, groups ranging from the hacker/activist group Anonymous to Occupy, even radical Libertarians have used the Guy Fawkes mask. A symbol of protest against out of control, tyrannical government, political and banking institutions.

November 4, 1781 Divas

Händel himself was no slouch when it came to being the Temperamental Artist. He was lucky even to be alive following a furious argument in 1704 when a button was all that stood in the way of the skewering blade of fellow composer, Johann Mattheson.

George III King of Great Britain and Ireland ascended to the throne in 1760 declaring that, “Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Britain”. It was his reassurance that, unlike his father and grandfather before him, George III would rule, as an English King.

Kings George I and II were in fact Hanoverian and as such, did not speak English. At least not, fluently. Queen Victoria, that most quintessentially British of monarchs was in fact of German ancestry and spoke German, as a first language. George I, Elector of Brunswick-Lüneburg ascended to the throne of Great Britain and Ireland in August 1714, the first of the British Kings, from the House of Hanover.

The German composer George Frideric Händel was well known by this time, in German and Italian opera. He became Kapellmeister to the German prince in 1710, “Master of the Chapel Choir”. Chorale works Händel composed around this time for Queen Anne and the young and wealthy “Apollo of the Arts” Richard Boyle made it almost natural, that Händel would settle in England.

George I enjoys the River Thames with George Frideric Händel, in 1717

In Italian opera, a prima donna is the leading female singer in the company, the “first lady” opposite the male lead or primo uomo. Usually (but not always) a soprano, prima donne could be demanding of their colleagues with grand and sometime insufferable personae both on- and off-stage. Opera enthusiasts would divide into opposing “clubs” supporting or opposing one singer, over the other. The 19th century rivalry between fans of Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi is an infamous example despite a personal friendship, between the two singers. When prima donne detest one another pandemonium, is sure to follow.

Händel’s work was popular in Georgian era society, so much so he was given free reign to hire his own performers. One such was Francesca Cuzzoni, a fiery soprano with the reputation as being among the greatest, of 18th century divas. Unkindly described by one opera historian as “doughy” and plain, a “short, squat” performer she nevertheless sang, with the voice of the angels. Widely regarded as one of the finest Sopranos in all Europe Händel hired Cuzzoni, in 1722.

Händel himself was no slouch when it came to being the Temperamental Artist. He was lucky even to be alive following a furious argument in 1704 when a button was all that stood in the way of the skewering blade of fellow composer, Johann Mattheson.

On rehearsal for her London debut, Cuzzoni became furious over one aria claiming the role was written, for someone else. She refused even to perform when Händel, a great bear of a man physically picked the woman off the ground by her waist, and threatened to throw her out a window.

Problem solved.

Francesca Cuzzoni, by James Caldwall

Francesca Cuzzoni went on to become a smashing success, for four years the undisputed Queen, of the London opera. In 1726, Händel sought to capitalize on this success and reached out to his Italian agents, for a second Star. So it was the mezo-soprano Faustina Bordoni was hired, for the following season.

Younger and considerably more attractive than the older Cuzzoni the pair had been rivals, back in Italy. Notwithstanding, Händel and other composers wrote a series of operas featuring a two-female lead taking great care to give the two, equal prominence.

You know where this is going, right?

Faustina Bordoni pastel, in 1724

Baroque opera loved nothing more than a love triangle and the two were often cast, as rivals for the affections of one man. The degree to which the two divas’ professional rivalry bled into their personal lives is a matter of some discussion but the behavior of their fans, is not.

The “clash” between the two soon became public knowledge. Opera-going aristocrats began to take up sides enthusiastically egged on, by the press. Society ladies would dress in the respective fashion of their particular heroine and hiss and catcall, at the appearance of the other.

Things got out of hand during a performance of Bononcini’s Astianatte. Fights broke out among the audience when Cuzzoni turned and unleashed a torrent of Italian invective, at her rival. The pair hurled insults at one another. You know the words. These two, knew ALL of them them. Verbal combat soon became physical the performance, be damned. The scene beggars the imagination. A wild west bar fight in stalls and stage alike as two divas tore at each other’s costumes, and pulled each other’s hair.

In the end, the two were physically dragged from the stage their performance, abandoned.

Theater management canceled Cuzzoni’s contract. King George would have none of that and threatened to withdraw their allowance, and that was the end of that. The two divas kept an uneasy truce for the following season, but something had to give.

In the end, Faustina Bordoni was offered a guinea more for the 1728 season. One schilling, one pence. Predictably, Francesca Cuzzoni threw a tantrum and immediately resigned, and returned to Italy.

Faustina Bordoni lived on to a happy and prosperous old age and died on November 4, 1781. No so Francesca Cuzzoni who faded into poverty and obscurity eking out a living it is said, making and selling, buttons.

Back in 1728, theater management dearly wished the whole sorry mess would just go away. No such luck. John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera was a smash hit that season, “the most popular play of the eighteenth century” satirizing Italian opera with its perpetually feuding heroines Polly Peachum, and Lucy Lockit.

Hat tip “Rival Queens” featuring Simone Kermes, and Vivica Genaux

September 30, 1946 Goobers

The British taxpayer still held a ration card a year after the war while his government owed a crushing 270% of the entire economy to its former colony, across the Atlantic. The answer to both problems became one of the greatest government boondoggles, of the colonial era.

Emerging from the door of the aircraft, the Prime minister began to speak. The piece of paper Neville Chamberlain held in his hand annexed that bit of the Czechoslovak Republic known as the “Sudetenland”, to Nazi Germany. Germany’s territorial ambitions to the east, had been sated.

The cataclysm of the War to end all Wars was as recent on September 30, 1938 as the horrors of 9/11 is, to our own time. Now, a world could breathe a little easier. It was “Peace in our Time”.

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Unlike the participants in this tale we know, how the story ends. World War 2 was all but foreordained. The world was an altogether different place on this day in 1946, a burned and broken thing struggling to emerge from the greatest catastrophe, in human history.

European GDP would triple between the end of the war and the turn of the century but, on September 30, 1946, a continent lay on its back.

At one point during the war, every major power on the European continent was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation. The island nation of Great Britain stood alone against the onslaught, aided by heroic contributions by individuals from Poland to Jamaica and massive economic support, from the United States.

A study by the World Bank once reported, national debt exceeding 77% to have a deleterious effect, on a nation’s economy. For every percentage point over that number, the situation gets worse. On this day in 1946, Britain owed fully 270% of its GDP, to the US.

Still a colonial power in 1946, Great Britain looked to her assets overseas to help settle those debts and hit upon one of the great hare-brained ideas, of the modern era.

During the late 1940s the British government tried to create vast plantations in Tanganyika (now known as Tanzania) for growing groundnuts (peanuts).; (add.info.: East African Groundnuts Scheme. .

They would grow goobers, in Africa.

Goober peas, monkeynuts, groundnuts or ground peas. Whatever you call Arachis hypogaea, microfossil and starch grain analysis dates the peanut back some 8,500 years to the Zaña mountains, of Peru. The Incas used peanuts as sacrificial offerings as early as 1500BC and entombed them, with their dead.

Today, worldwide peanut consumption amounts to some 42,600,000 tons making goobers the most popular nut on the planet by a factor of ten compared with the next nine nuts, combined.

East Africa was a German colony in 1914 under the military command of one Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, der Löwe von Afrika. The Lion of Africa, a German patriot who detested the upstart führer so much he once told Adolf Hitler to perform an anatomically improbable act. Only he wasn’t that polite.

Vorbeck returned to Deutschland a hero, the only German commander during all world war one, to be undefeated in the field. So it was that Britain took control of Tanganyika, as a League of Nations mandate.

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Which brings us back, to goobers. Peanuts and peanut butter were important parts of Armed Forces rations, during both world wars. Following WW2 the Labor party of Prime minister Clement Atlee faced what economist John Maynard Keynes called “financial Dunkirk”.

With the British population still on food rations in 1946, Frank Samuel, head of the United Africa Company, came up with a scheme to produce food and cooking oils, in Tanganyika.

Warnings of too much clay in the soil and too little rain fell on deaf ears as did 5,000 years of African experience, in farming their own soil. John Wakefield, former director of agriculture in Tanganyika led the delegation, that April. Three months work produced a favorable report. It didn’t hurt that the area contemplated was largely unpopulated solving the problems up front, of relocation.

There might be a reason nobody lived there but none of them noticed that.

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Some 3¼ million acres were designated for peanuts, an area the size, of Connecticut. European “Experts” soon discovered they had underestimated what the legendary British explorer Henry Morton called “an interminable jungle of thorn bushes…mile after mile of damn-all“. Former Labor politician Allen Wood wrote, “In patches the thickets of scrub are impenetrable. A rhinoceros can force a way through, a snake can wiggle through but no size or shape of animal in between, except a bulldozer“.

Early land clearing met with a maze of rubbery tree roots so thick as to defeat the efforts of all but bulldozers and even those broke down, within days. Towering baobab trees of a kind known to live 6,000 years and more were impervious, even to that. Even if you did knock one down you still had to deal with Volkswagen-sized hives, of African honey bees. Ever hear of “Killer bees”? Yeah. Those are what results when you “Africanize”, the North American variety.

With farm equipment in short supply in post-war Europe, Sherman tanks were retrofitted by the score at the Vickers corporation and converted to monstrosities known as “Shervicks”.

Even today you can ask someone, what animal kills more humans than any other, in Africa. It’s a great trivia question the answer to which, is the mosquito. Malaria, Dengue fever, sleeping sickness…entire textbooks have been written of mosquito borne diseases in this region to say nothing, of poisonous snakes.

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At the end of two years land clearing was 90 percent short, of projections. Peanut production was less than half of what was purchased as seed, in the first place.

And here’s where that clay comes in. During the dry season the soil becomes as hard as asphalt. Regular plows had a life expectancy of five hours in that stuff. With a miniscule percentage actually planted one worker claimed “Nothing but pneumatic drills and dynamite could get the nuts out“.

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Devices were attached to engines and operators were paid according to the time the engine was running. It wasn’t long before tractors were found running in ditches while their operators were off, drinking.

During the four year life of the Great Tanganyika Groundnut Boondoggle only one year brought enough rain, to sustain a peanut crop. Those groundnuts actually produced cost six times to grow, what they were worth. Making matters worse, many men abandoned family farms to the lure of high wages contributing to severe famines in 1947, 1949 and 1950.

A last ditch effort was made to save the whole trainwreck planting sunflowers, instead of goobers. At least those could be harvested above ground but even that failed, due to lack of rain. The plug was pulled after four years, about the time it took conservative politicians to quit hollering out “Groundnuts“! every time a Liberal rose up, to speak.

The whole boondoggle cost 36 million pounds equivalent to a Billion, today. Not a single British taxpayer ever received so much as an increase, in margarine rations.

September 20, 1066 Fulford Gate

Believing they had come to accept submission, the Norwegians must have looked at the horizon and wondered, how a peace party could raise that much dust.  This was no peace party. 

Edward the Confessor, King of England, went into a coma in December 1065, having expressed no clear preference for a successor. Edward died on January 5 after briefly regaining consciousness, and commending his wife and kingdom to the protection of Harold, second son of Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex and Gytha Thorkelsdóttir.

The Anglo-Saxon Kings didn’t normally pick their own successors, but their wishes carried import. Nobles of the Witenagemot, the early Anglo-Saxon predecessor to the modern parliament, were in Westminster to observe the Feast of the Epiphany. Convening the following day, the council elected Harold Godwinson, crowning him King Harold II on January 6.

For some, Harold’s quick ascension was a matter of administrative convenience and good fortune, that everyone just happened to be at the right place, at the right time. Others saw shades of conspiracy. A brazen usurpation of the throne. Edward’s death touched off a succession crisis which would change the course of western history.

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H/T By Amitchell125 at English Wikipedia

Harold’s younger brother Tostig, third son of Godwin, was himself a powerful Earl of Northumbria, and thoroughly detested by his fellow northern Earls. Tostig was deposed and outlawed by King Edward in October 1065, with support from much of the local ruling class as well as that of his own brother, Harold.

King Edward’s death a short two months later, left the exile believing he had his own claim to the throne. Tostig’s ambition and animosity for his brother, would prove fatal to them both.

After a series of inconclusive springtime raids, Tostig went to a Norman Duke called William “The Bastard”, looking for military support. William had his own claim to the English throne, and had already declared his intention to take it. The Norman Duke had little use for King Harold’s younger brother, so Tostig sought the assistance of King Harald of Norway, also known as Harald Hardrada (“harðráði” in the Old Norse), the name translating as”hard ruler”.

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Harald Hardrada. The Last Great Viking

Tostig sailed for England with King Harald and a mighty force of some 10,000 Viking warriors, arriving in September, 1066.  Six thousand were deployed on September 20, to meet 5,000 defenders on the outskirts of the village of Fulford, near the city of York.  Leading the defenders were those same two brothers, Edwin of Mercia, and Morcar of Northumbria.

The Anglo-Saxons were first to strike, advancing on a weaker section of the Norwegian line and driving Harald’s vikings into a marsh. With fresh invaders hurrying to the scene, the tide turned as the English charge found itself cut off and under attack, wedged between the soft ground of the marsh and the banks of an adjoining river. The encounter at Fulford Gate was a disaster. A comprehensive defeat for the English side and it was over, in an hour. On this day in 1066, two of the seven Great Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, were decimated.

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Perhaps not wanting to have his capital city looted, Tostig agreed to take a number of hostages, and retired seven miles south to Stamford Bridge to await formal capitulation.  Harald went along with the plan, believing he had nothing further to fear from the English.

Meanwhile, King Harold awaited with an army in the south, anticipating William’s invasion from Normandy.  Hearing of the events at Fulford, Harold marched his army north, traveling day and night and covering 190 miles in four days, on foot, completely surprising the Viking force waiting at Stamford Bridge.

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The new Stamford Bridge over the River Derwent, built in 1727

Believing they had come to accept submission, the Norwegians must have looked at the horizon and wondered, how a peace party could raise that much dust. This was no peace party. With their forces spread out and separated on opposite sides of the River Derwent, Harald Hardrada and his ally Tostig now faced a new army.

At the height of the battle, one Berserker stood alone at the top of Stamford Bridge, wielding the great two-handed Dane Axe.  Alone and surrounded, this giant of a man slew something like 40 English soldiers when one of Harold’s soldiers floated himself under the bridge, spearing the Viking warrior from below.

Stamford Bridge

The savagery of the battle at Stamford Bridge, can only be imagined. Before the age of industrialized warfare, every wound was personally administered with sword, axe or mace. Before it was over some 5,000 of King Harold’s soldiers lay dead, about a third of his entire force. Two-thirds of King Harald’s Vikings died at Stamford Bridge, about 6,000 including Harald himself and the would-be King, Tostig Godwinson.

So many died in that small area that, 50 years later, the site was said to have been white with the sun bleached bones of the slain. Of 300 ships arriving that September, the battered remnants of Harald’s Viking army sailed away in only 24.

Battle_of_Stamford_Bridge-04 (1)

Stamford Bridge is often described as the end of the Viking invasions of England, but that isn’t quite so. There would be others, but none so powerful as this. The Last of the Great Viking chieftains, was dead.

The Norman landing King Harold awaited took place three days later at Pevensey Harbor, just as his battered army was disbanding and heading home for the Fall harvest. The Anglo Saxon army would march yet again, meeting the Norman invader on October 14 near the East Sussex town of Hastings. King Harold II was killed that day, felled with an arrow in his eye. He was the Last of the Anglo Saxon Kings.

Twenty years later, William “The Conqueror” would commission the comprehensive inventory of his new Kingdom, the “Domesday Book“.

battle-of-stamford-bridge

Alternate histories are fraught with peril. It’s hard to tell the story of events, which never occurred. Even so, I have to wonder. Some of the best men in England were killed under King Harold‘s banner in 1066, in the clash at Stamford Bridge. Surely every last man among them faced some degree of exhaustion to say nothing of wounds, the day they faced Duke William’s Norman force on that Hastings hillside.

Those who survived Stamford Bridge performed a round-trip march of some 380-miles, in the three weeks since Fulford.

Those three weeks in 1066 altered the next 1,000 years of British history and with it, her former colonies in America. How different were those last thousand years, but for this one day’s conflict at a place called Fulford Gate.

September 16, 1906 One of a Kind

From the Catania (Sicily) to the Salerno landings of 1943, Mad Jack could be seen stepping onto the beach, trademark broadsword at his belt, bagpipes under an arm and an English longbow and arrows, around his neck.

On this day in 1906 a child was born .  John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill, the first son and grandson of British civil servants in the Ceylon Civil Service.  The family lived in Hong Kong at the time, returning to England in 1917.  “Jack” graduated from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, serving with the Manchester Regiment in Burma where he rode the length and breadth of the nation, on a motorcycle.

It was around this time Churchill learned to play bagpipes, a bit of an eccentricity for an Englishman of his era. Mad Jack was nothing if not eccentric.

He taught himself to shoot a bow and arrow, and became quite good at it. Good enough to represent his nation in the 1939 world archery championship in Oslo scoring #26, in the men’s recurve. A remarkable feat considering his weapon of choice, was the longbow.

Churchill left the military ten years later and worked as a newspaper editor for a time in Nairobi Kenya, along with the occasional stint as male model and even appeared in two motion pictures, The Thief of Bagdad and A Yank At Oxford. From there he may have faded into obscurity unlike his fellow Englishman of no relation, with the same last name. Except, then came World War II and that transformation into the truly one-of-a-kind, “Mad Jack”.

Churchill resumed his military commission and rejoined the Manchester Regiment later that year, when Germany invaded Poland. Part of the British Expeditionary force to France in 1940, Churchill signaled an ambush on a German unit, by taking out the Feldwebel (staff sergeant) with a broadhead arrow. No one could have been more surprised than that German NCO who surely died wondering, “How the hell did I get an arrow in my chest?”

That one unfortunate German is, to my knowledge, the only combatant in all WWII to be felled by an English longbow.

Not long after, allied military forces were hurled from the beaches of Europe. The only way back in, was via those same beaches. We’ve all seen the D-Day style waterborne assault: invading forces pouring out of Higgins Boats and charging up the beaches. Amphibious landings were carried out from the earliest days of WWII, from Norway to North Africa, from the Indian Ocean to Italy. In all those landings, there’s likely no other soldier who stepped off a Higgins Boat, with a bow and arrows.

On December 27, 1941, #3 Commando raided the German garrison at Vågsøy, Norway. As the ramp dropped on the first landing craft, out jumped Mad Jack Churchill playing “March of the Cameron Men” on the bagpipes, before throwing a grenade and charging into battle.  Mad Jack made several such landings, usually while playing his bagpipes, a Scottish broadsword at his belt.

Jack-Churchill-Speaks-During-a-Landing-Exercise
“Mad Jack” Churchill, speaking at a landing exercise

Churchill was attached to that sword, a basket hilted “Claybeg”, a slightly smaller version of the Scottish Claymore. He said “Any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.” From the Catania (Sicily) to the Salerno landings of 1943, Mad Jack could be seen stepping onto the beach, trademark broadsword at his belt, bagpipes under an arm and an English longbow and arrows, around his neck.

Churchill lost his sword in confused, hand to hand fighting around the town of Piegoletti, for which he received the Distinguished Service Order. Almost single-handed but for a corporal named Ruffell, Churchill captured 42 Germans including a mortar squad. “I always bring my prisoners back with their weapons”, he explained. “It weighs them down. I just took their rifle bolts out and put them in a sack, which one of the prisoners carried. [They] also carried the mortar and all the bombs they could carry and also pulled a farm cart with five wounded in it….I maintain that, as long as you tell a German loudly and clearly what to do, if you are senior to him he will cry ‘Jawohl’ and get on with it enthusiastically and efficiently whatever the … situation. That’s why they make such marvelous soldiers…” It looked, he said, like “an image from the Napoleonic Wars.

Churchill later trudged back to town, to collect his sword. He encountered an American squad along the way, who seemed to have lost themselves and were headed toward German lines. When the NCO refused to turn around, Churchill informed him he was going to be on his way, and he “wouldn’t come back for a bloody third time”.

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Archery historian Hugh Soar, pictured with four of “Mad Jack’s” English longbows

Mad Jack’s luck ran out in 1944 on the German-held, Yugoslavian island of Brac. He was leading a Commando raid at the time, in coordination with the partisans of Josip Broz Tito. Only Churchill and six others managed to reach the top of hill 622, when a mortar shell killed or wounded everyone but Churchill himself. He was knocked unconscious by a grenade and captured.

He’d been playing “Will Ye No Come Back Again?” on his pipes.

Hitler’s infamous ‘Commando Order” had long since taken effect, and Churchill and his surviving men escaped immediate execution at the hands of the Gestapo, thanks to the decency of one Wehrmacht Captain Thuener. “You are a soldier“, he said, “as I am. I refuse to allow these civilian butchers to deal with you. I shall say nothing of having received this order.” Churchill was able to pay Thuener back for his kindness after the war, keeping the man out of the merciless hands of the Red Army.

Churchill was flown to Berlin and interrogated on suspicion that he might be related to the more famous Churchill, before being sent off to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany. There, Mad Jack and Royal Air Force officer Bertram James escaped that September, slipping under the wire and crawling through an abandoned drain and walking all the way to the Baltic coast. They almost made it, too, but the pair was captured near the coastal city of Rostock, just a few miles from the coast.

Mad Jack was sent off to Burma, following the defeat of Nazi Germany. He was disappointed by the swift end to the war brought about by the American bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “If it wasn’t for those damn Yanks” he’d say, “we could have kept the war going another 10 years!”

As a Seaforth Highlander, Mad Jack was posted to the British Mandate in Palestine, in 1948. He was one of the first to the scene of the ambush and massacre of the Haddassah medical convoy that April, banging on a bus and offering evacuation in an armored personnel carrier. His offer was refused in the mistaken belief that Hadassah was mounting an organized rescue.

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No such rescue ever arrived. Churchill and a team of 12 British Light Infantry were left to shoot it out with some 250 Arab insurgents, armed with everything from blunderbusses and old flintlocks, to Sten and Bren guns. Seventy-eight Jewish doctors, nurses, students, patients, faculty members and Haganah fighters were killed along with one British soldier. Dozens were burned beyond recognition and buried in mass graves. Churchill later coordinated the evacuation of some 700 Jewish patients and medical personnel from the Hadassah hospital at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem.

Churchill served as an instructor at the land-air warfare school in Australia, where he became passionately devoted to surfing. Returning to England upon his retirement, he became the first to surf the 5-foot tidal surge up the River Severn, on a board of his own design.

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Surfing the Tidal Bore, up the Severn River

Once and always the eccentric, Mad Jack Churchill loved sailing radio-controlled model warships on the Thames. Little seemed to bring him more joy than the horror on the face of fellow train passengers, when he opened the window and hurled his briefcase into the darkness.

Not one of them suspected he was throwing the thing into his own back yard. It saved him the trouble of carrying it home from the station.

He scribbled a couplet once on a postcard, and mailed it to a friend.  The face of the card bore the regimental colors.

On the back, Mad Jack Churchill had written these words.

“No Prince or Lord has tomb so proud / As he whose flag becomes his shroud.”

He may have been talking about himself.

September 15, 1814 The Star Spangled Banner

The naval bombardment taking place that night, is scarcely to be imagined. At first exchanging shot for shot with the garrison the warships soon pulled back, out of range of the fort’s guns. For 27 hours in a driving rain, nineteen warships pounded shot, shell and rocket by the thousands onto the 1,000-man garrison.

3,000 years ago, the Greek poet Anacreon composed lyric verse intended to be recited or sung to musical accompaniment, usually that of the lyre.

Anacreon. Marble. Roman copy of the 2nd century A.D. after a Greek original of the 5th century B.C. Inv. No. 491. Copenhagen, New Carlsberg Glyptotek.

Today, Anacreon himself is all but unknown, save for the efforts of the Anacreontic Society of 18th century, Great Britain.

The English composer and church organist John Stafford Smith founded the Anacreontic Society somewhere around 1766, the group meeting in various taverns before settling on the old coffee house on Ludgate Hill, in London. A gentlemen’s club of amateur musicians and professionals meeting monthly and dedicating themselves to “wit, harmony and the god of wine”, the society presented regular concerts, the high point of which came in January 1791 with the attendance the Austrian composer, Joseph Haydn.

The low point came somewhere in 1792 when the Duchess of Devonshire attended a meeting and found the entertainments, displeasing to the fairer sex. That October it was reported, “The Anacreontick Society meets no more; it has long been struggling with symptoms of internal decay“.

Success has many fathers but failure, is an orphan. Today the Anacreontic Society itself is all but forgotten but for the theme song written by society member and lyricist Ralph Tomlinson and put to music by John Smith, remembered by the first four words: “To Anacreon in Heaven“.

From the first signs of discontent in the American colonies to the dissolution of the Articles of Confederation and adoption of our own modern constitution, the life of the Anacreontic Society tracks with the British colonies in North America’s struggle for independence.

Within a decade of that constitution the rise of a certain Corsican corporal embroiled Great Britain in a series of international coalitions against the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grande Armée. The former American colonies benefited from the European conflict, remaining on the sidelines and doing business with (while earning the animosity of) both sides.

Anachronistic to that collection of agreements both written and unwritten which together comprise the Constitution of the United Kingdom, the practice of Impressment traces back to the time of Edward Longshanks the Hammer of the Scots, King of England between 1272 to 1307. Naval service imposed massive manpower requirements in the age of sail. Several European navies employed the use of “press gangs” to forcibly “impress” (read, kidnap) the unsuspecting into terms of service at sea though the dominance of the British navy largely associates the practice, with that of the United Kingdom.

1780 caricature of the Press Gang

Widely detested on both sides of the Atlantic, the practice nevertheless survived a number of court challenges. Impressment of American sailors appears in the Declaration of Independence, along with 26 other grievances against King George III. While not entirely the cause of the War of 1812, impressment remained one among a number, of casus belli.

Neither side was ready for it when war broke out between the United States and the United Kingdom in June, 1812. Most of the British war machine was busy with that “Little Corporal”, whose “Waterloo” remained, two years in the future.  America had disbanded the National Bank by that time and had no means of paying for war, while private northeastern bankers were reluctant to provide financing.

Support for the War of 1812 was bitterly divided, between the Democratic-Republicans of President James Madison, and the Federalist strongholds of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  Of the six New England states, New Hampshire alone complied with President Madison’s requests for state militia.

New England may have actually seceded following the Hartford Convention of 1814 if not for future President Andrew Jackson’s overwhelming victory at the Battle of New Orleans. A battle I might add took place after the treaty of Ghent formally ending the war, but now I’m getting ahead of the story.

Like nearly everyone else in Baltimore, Fort McHenry commander Major George Armistead expected an attack, on the port city. Never one to run away from a fight Armistead wanted “a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.”

In July of 1813, Armistead ordered an enormous garrison flag measuring 30 x 42-feet and a smaller storm flag of 17 x 25 feet.  The job went to a 37-year-old widow and seamstress named Mary Pickersgill.  

Today the flag contains 50 stars, one for each state in the union and 13 stripes representing each of the original colonies. It was the practice in 1813 to add a star and a stripe for every state. In Mary’s time, there were 15 of each.

Using over 400 yards of hand-dyed fabric she fashioned white stars two feet across on a blue canton with stripes measuring two feet tall and assembled it all on the main floor, of a nearby brewery.

Such a project is beyond the abilities of a single seamstress. Mary enlisted the aid of her 13-year-old daughter Caroline, two nieces, 13-year-old Eliza Young and 15-year-old Margaret Young and a 13-year-old African-American girl named Grace Wisher indentured to her by her mother Jenny for a period of six years. Some sources report that Jenny Wisher, a free black woman, helped out.

Mary received $405.90 for the larger flag and $168.54 for the smaller. She was given 6 to 8 weeks in which to finish the commission, the largest one of her career. She completed the job in seven, delivering the two flags on August 19, 1813. Thirteen months later Mary Pickersgill, her flags and the team of women who helped her, took their place in American history.

This most unpopular of wars became even more so, following the sack of Washington and burning of the United States Capitol and the White House, in August, 1814. Major General Robert Ross’ men were met on this occasion by an inexperienced and poorly equipped militia of some 6,000 American forces at Bladensburg, Maryland, whose comprehensive defeat and humiliating rout went into the history books as the “Bladensburg Races”.

A month later the force facing General Ross’ 4,700 troops landing at North Point were not that hastily assembled collection of Maryland and DC militia routed at Bladensburg, but a thoroughly prepared force led by Brigadier General John Stricker, dug in across a narrows bristling with small arms and a battery of six 4-pounder field guns and flanked by tidal creeks, all but nullifying the invaders’ numerical advantage.

General Ross himself was shot in the engagement and mortally wounded, leaving British forces in confusion as the Americans affected a strategic retreat. While a tactical victory for the British side, the delay bought the Americans precious time in which to strengthen the defense.

The following day British troops encountered a massive force of some 10,000 men and 100 cannon astride the Philadelphia Road blocking the advance, on Baltimore. Invading forces were at a two-to-one, disadvantage and in need of naval support to dislodge American ground forces. There would be no advance on Baltimore harbor while Fort McHenry, remained in American hands. Fort McHenry had to be taken.

A lawyer and amateur poet called Francis Scott Key was on-hand at the time, a prisoner exchange negotiator along with Colonel John Stuart Skinner, dining as guests aboard the HMS Tonnant. The two had an inside view of British naval capabilities in the harbor and were held, pending the outcome of the battle.

So it is this Baltimore lawyer had a front row seat, as that battered storm flag disappeared in the twilight’s last gleaming.

The naval bombardment taking place that night, is scarcely to be imagined. At first exchanging shot for shot with the garrison the warships soon pulled back, out of range of the fort’s guns. For 27 hours in a driving rain, nineteen warships pounded shot, shell and rocket by the thousands onto the 1,000-man garrison.

Sometime during the night that battered storm banner was taken down and replaced by the garrison flag. By the dawn’s early light of September 14 This was the banner, which now came into view. Nineteen warships had taken their best shot and yet, the garrison held. Key was so moved by the sight he dashed out a few lines on the back of an envelope. He called his poem, Defence of Fort M’Henry.

Without Fort McHenry in British hands there would be no occupation of Baltimore harbor, no assault upon the city. Colonel Arthur Brooke’s forces were withdrawn, by September 15. Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane sailed for New Orleans to regroup for the next, and last, battle of the War of 1812.

Over the years some 200 yards were removed in souvenir chunks from the “Great Garrison Flag reducing the banner from 30 x 42 to 30 x 34.

It was Key’s brother-in law Joseph H. Nicholson who first noticed the words fit nicely, with the popular melody of “The Anacreontic Song”. The Baltimore Patriot and The American printed the song on September 20 with the note “Tune: Anacreon in Heaven”. A short time later Thomas Carr of the Carr Music Store in Baltimore published words and music together under the title “The Star Spangled Banner”.

The song grew in popularity throughout the 19th century to be played at 4th of July celebrations, military ceremonies and other patriotic occasions. By World War 1 many of the more stridently anti-British verses had been removed from sheet music to avoid giving offense, to our British allies.

The anthem was played during the 7th inning stretch of game one of the 1918 World Series, believed to be the first time the song appeared, at a baseball game. Six legislative attempts came and went during the 1920s, to make Star Spangled Banner the national anthem of the United States. In the end a petition from the Veterans of Foreign Wars did the job. President Herbert Hoover signed the bill into law on March 4, 1931.

While all four verses are included according to United States code, the last three are all but unknown today and rarely sung, if at all.

Long may it wave.

O! say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
    What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
    O’er the ramparts we watch’d, were so gallantly streaming?
        And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
        Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there —
            O! say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
            O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
    Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze o’er the towering steep,
    As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
        Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
        In full glory reflected now shines on the stream —
            ‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
            O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
    That the havock of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
    Their blood has wash’d out their foul foot-steps’ pollution,
        No refuge could save the hireling and slave,
        From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave;
            And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
            O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

O! thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
    Between their lov’d home, and the war’s desolation,
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land
    Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
        Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
        And this be our motto — “In God is our trust!”
            And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
            O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

August 30, 1776 1776

The astonishing part of this story is it all took place in the midst of a plague vastly more deadly than the COVID-19 pandemic, of our own age.

When George Washington raised his sword under the branches of that ancient elm on Cambridge commons, by that act did the General take command of an “army” equipped with an average of nine rounds, per man.

1776 started out well for the cause of American independence, when the twenty-six-year-old bookseller Henry Knox emerged from a six week slog through a New England winter, at the head of a “Noble train of artillery’.   Manhandled all the way from the wilds of upstate New York, the guns of Fort Ticonderoga were wrestled to the top of Dorchester Heights, overlooking the British fleet anchored in Boston Harbor.  General sir William Howe now faced the prospect of another Bunker Hill, a British victory which had come at a cost he could ill afford, to pay again.  

The eleven-month siege of Boston came to an end on March 17 when Howe’s fleet evacuated Boston Harbor and removed, to Nova Scotia.  Three months later, a force of some 400 South Carolina patriots fought a day-long battle with the nine warships of Admiral Sir Peter Parker, before the heavily damaged fleet was forced to withdraw.  The British eventually captured Fort Moultrie and Charleston Harbor with it but, for now, 1776 was shaping up to be a very good year.

The Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, that July.

Tory and Patriot alike understood the strategic importance of New York, as the center of communication between the upper and lower colonies. Beginning that April, Washington moved his forces from Boston to New York placing his troops along the west end of Long Island, in anticipation of the British return.

The fleet was not long in coming, the first arrivals dropping anchor by the end of June.  Within the week, 130 ships were anchored off Staten Island under the command of Admiral sir Richard Howe, the General’s brother. 

The Howe brothers attempted to negotiate on July 14 with a letter to General Washington, addressed: “Georg Washington, Esq.” The letter was returned unopened by Washington’s aide Joseph Reed who explained there’s nobody over here, by that address. Again the letter came back addressed to “George Washington, Esq., etc.,” the etc. meaning… “and any other relevant titles.” That letter too came back unopened but this time, with a message. The general would meet with one of Howe’s subordinates. The meeting took place on July 20 when Howe’s representative offered pardon, for the American side. General Washington responded as they had done nothing wrong his side had no need, of any pardons. But thanks anyway.

By August 12 the British force numbered some 400 vessels with 73 warships and a force of 32,000 camped on Staten island.

“British troops in the type of flat-bottomed boat used for the invasion of Long Island. Hessians in their blue uniforms are in the two boats that are only partly visible”. H/T Wikipedia

Patriot forces were badly defeated at the Battle of Brooklyn, fought on August 27, 1776. In terms of number of troops deployed and actual combat it was the largest battle, of the Revolution. The British dug in for a siege, confident their adversary was cornered and waiting only to be destroyed at their convenience while the main Patriot army retreated to Brooklyn Heights.

Cornered on land with the British-controlled East River to their backs, it may have been all over for the Patriot cause, but for one of the great tactical feats of all military history.   The surprise was complete for the British side, on waking for the morning of August 30 to discover the 9,000-strong Patriot army, had vanished. The silent evacuation over the night of August 29-30 had averted disaster, a feat made possible only through the nautical skills of the merchants and rum traders, the sailors and the fishermen of Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead Massachusetts militia, the “Amphibious Regiment”.

Following evacuation, the Patriot army found itself isolated on Manhattan island, virtually surrounded. Only the thoroughly disagreeable current conditions of the Throg’s Neck-Hell’s Gate segment of the East River, prevented Admiral Sir Richard Howe from enveloping Washington’s position, altogether.

Desperate for information about the attack he was sure would come Washington dispatched a 22-year old Connecticut schoolteacher named Nathan Hale on September 10, to keep an eye on British movements. Disguised as a Dutch schoolteacher, Hale naïvely placed his trust, where it didn’t belong. He was betrayed in just over a week.

As expected, Howe landed a force at Kip’s Bay on September 15 and the Redcoats quickly occupied the city. Patriots delivered an unexpected check the following day at Harlem Heights against an overconfident force of British light troops. It was to be the only such bright spot for the Americans who were now driven out of New York and into New Jersey and finally, to Pennsylvania.

A great fire broke out on the 21st that destroyed as much as a quarter of all the buildings on Manhattan Island. Both sides pointed the finger of blame at the other but the cause, was never determined. Nathan Hale was hanged for a spy the following day with the words, ‘I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country‘.

That October, the defeat of General Benedict Arnold’s home-grown “Navy” on the waters near Valcour Island in Vermont, cost the British fleet dearly enough that it had to turn back, buying another year for the Patriot cause.

Reduced to a mere 4,707 fit for duty, Washington faced the decimation of his army by the New Year, with the end of enlistment for fully two-thirds of an already puny force.  With nowhere to go but the offense, Washington crossed the Delaware river in the teeth of a straight-up gale over the night of December 25 and defeated a Hessian garrison at Trenton in a surprise attack on the morning of December 26.

While minor skirmishes by British standards, the January 2-3 American victories at Assunpink Creek and Princeton demonstrated an American willingness, to stand up to the most powerful military of the age.  Cornwallis suffered three defeats in a ten day period and withdrew his forces from the south of New Jersey.  American morale soared as enlistments, came flooding in.

The American war for independence had years to go.  Before it was over, more Americans would die in the fetid holds of British prison ships than in every battle of the Revolution, combined.  Yet, that first year had come and gone and the former colonies, were still in the fight. 

The astonishing part of this story is it all took place in the midst of a plague vastly more deadly than the COVID-19 pandemic, of our own age. Of 2,780,369 counted by the 1770 census* in this country no fewer than 130,000 died in the smallpox pandemic of 1775-1782. That works out to 4,815 per 100,000. Contrast that with a Coronavirus death rate of 194.14 per 100,000 according to Johns Hopkins University a death rate, of less than .2% *This figure does not include Native Americans who were not counted in the US census, until 1860.

A generation later and an ocean away, Lord Arthur Wellesley described the final defeat of a certain Corsican corporal at a place called Waterloo.  Wellesley might have been talking about the whole year of 1776 in describing that day in 1815, when he said  “It was a damn close run thing”.

Feature image, top of page: Battle of Long Island, by Alonzo Chappel.

August 29, 1854 The Resolute Desk

Once hopelessly caught in arctic ice the British vessel HMS Resolute was returned to her majesty Queen Victoria’s government and now serves as a desk for virtually every US President from Rutherford B. Hayes, to Joseph R. Biden.

Since the time of Columbus, European explorers have searched for a navigable shortcut by open water, from Europe to Asia.   The “Corps of Discovery“ better known as the Lewis and Clark expedition, departed the Indiana Territory in 1804 with, among other purposes, the intention of finding a water route to the Pacific.

Forty years later, Captain sir John Franklin departed England aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to discover the mythical Northwest Passage.

The two vessels became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island, in the Canadian Arctic.

Ship

Prodded by Lady Jane Franklin, the hunt for her husband’s expedition would continue for years, at one time involving as any as eleven British and two American ships.  Clues were found including notes and isolated graves, telling the story of a long and fruitless effort to stay alive in a hostile climate.  The wreck of HMS Erebus would not be discovered until 2014, her sister ship, two years later.

In 1848, the British Admiralty possessed few hulls suitable for arctic service. Two civilian steamships were purchased and converted to exploration vessels: HMS Pioneer and HMS Intrepid, along with four seagoing sailing vessels, Resolute, Assistance, Enterprise and Investigator.

HMS Resolute was a Barque rigged merchant ship, purchased in 1850 as the Ptarmigan and refitted for Arctic exploration. Renamed Resolute, the vessel became part of a five ship squadron leaving England in April 1852, sailing into the Canadian arctic in search of the doomed Franklin expedition.

Neither Franklin nor any of his 128 officers and men would ever return alive.  What HMS Resolute Did find was the long suffering crew of the HMS Investigator, hopelessly encased in ice where, three years earlier, she too had been searching for the lost expedition.

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Three of the Resolute expedition’s ships themselves became trapped in floe ice in August 1853 including Resolute, herself. There was no choice but to abandon ship, striking out across the ice pack in search of their supply ships. Most of them made it despite egregious hardship, straggling into Beechey Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, between May and August, of the following year.

The expedition’s survivors left Beechey Island on August 29, 1854, never to return. Meanwhile Resolute, alone and abandoned among the ice floes, continued to drift eastward at a rate of 1½ nautical miles per day.

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The American whale ship George Henry discovered the drifting Resolute on September 10, 1855, 1,200 miles from her last known position. Captain James Buddington split his crew, half of them now manning the abandoned ship. Fourteen of them sailed Resolute back to their base in Groton CT, arriving on Christmas eve.

The so-called ‘Pig and Potato War” of 1859 was resolved between the British and American governments with the loss of no more than a single hog, yet a number of border disputes made the late 1850s a difficult time, for American-British relations. Senator James Mason of Virginia presented a bill in Congress to fix up the Resolute and give her back to her Majesty Queen Victoria’s government, as a token of friendship between the two nations.

$40,000 were spent on the refit. Resolute sailed for England later that year. Commander Henry J. Hartstene presented the vessel to Queen Victoria on December 13. HMS Resolute served in the British navy until being retired and broken up in 1879. The British government ordered two desks to be fashioned from the English oak of the ship’s timbers, the work being done by the skilled cabinet makers of the Chatham dockyards.

In 1880, the British government presented President Rutherford B. Hayes the gift, of a large partner’s desk. A token of gratitude for the return of the HMS Resolute, 24 years earlier.

The desk, known as the Resolute Desk, has been used by nearly every American President from that day, to this. Every president from Hayes through Hoover used the desk either in the White House Green Room, the president’s study or working office. FDR moved the desk into the oval office where he had a panel installed in the opening, as he was self conscious about his leg braces.

There was a brief period of climate controlled storage during the Truman era as the White House went through major renovation. It was Jackie Kennedy who brought the desk back, into the Oval Office. There are pictures of JFK working at the desk while a young JFK, Jr., played underneath.

Stanley Tretick’s October 2, 1963 photo of John F. Kennedy Jr. playing in the kneehole of the Resolute desk

Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford were the only ones not to use the Resolute desk, as LBJ allowed it to leave the White House following the Kennedy assassination.

The Resolute Desk spent several years in the Kennedy Library and later the Smithsonian Institute, the only other time the desk has been out of the White House.

Resolute, Reagan

Jimmy Carter returned the desk to the Oval Office where it has remained through the Presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald J. Trump and, as of this article, Joe Biden.

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