January 23, 1795 When Cavalry bagged a Fleet

The history of human conflict is hardly a subject for humor, yet there are times when the irony rises from the ridiculous, to the sublime.

The study of warfare has rarely been a source of great mirth.  The history of human conflict is hardly a subject for humor, yet there are times when the irony rises from the ridiculous, to the sublime.

Confederate raider John Singleton Mosby, the “Grey Ghost“, once bagged Union General Edwin Stoughton while dead asleep, lifting the General’s nightshirt and slapping his bare ass, with a sword. Mosby and his 29 raiders made off with the Union General, two Captains, 30 enlisted men and 58 horses, without firing a shot. When the President heard the story, Lincoln lamented: “I can make another Brigadier in 5 minutes, but I can’t replace those horses”.

The Wonderful Story of France: Massacre of the Sicilian VespersIn the middle ages, a French soldier once saw fit to mouth off to an Italian woman on her way home from church, causing France to lose Sicily, to Spain.

At least one WWI battle was called off, on account of an amphibious landing force being attacked, by bees.

The same occurred outside Okalana, Arkansas on April 3, 1864. Union and Confederate troops got into it in a pecan orchard, overturning several hives of honeybees, in the process. If victory goes to he who holds the ground after the battle, this one must go neither to Blue nor Butternut, but to the bugs. Brave soldiers all, no doubt, prepared to take a bullet. But not a bee sting.

120,000 Chinese troops poured into North Korea between November 27 and December 13 1950, overwhelming 20,000 American and United Nations forces at the Chosin Reservoir.  Desperately low on ammunition, one Marine Corps mortar division called in re-supply, by parachute.  The battle of the “Frozen Chosin” might have ended differently, had some supply clerk understood the code-name for mortar shells was “Tootsie Rolls”.  As it was, the guy sent candy into the combat zone.  At least those Marines had something to eat, as they broke their encirclement and headed south.

chosin-few1

Speaking of sweet stuff.  Had the Romans of 48BC brushed up on their Xenophon, the Mithradatic wars may have ended sooner.  Roman troops pigged out on “Mad Honey” left for them by fleeing Persians, and were too stoned to defend themselves when they came back.  A thousand or more Romans were slaughtered, with few losses to the other side.  All of that, for a little taste of honey.

mel brooksIn 585BC, the battle between the Medes and Lydians was stopped in its tracks, on account of a solar eclipse.  In the 3rd Mithradatic War of 76-63BC, a meteor was enough to do the trick.

Who can forget that WW2 bomb disposal tech, Melvin Kaminsky.  Hearing German soldiers singing a beer hall song, Kaminsky grabbed a bullhorn and serenaded them back, crooning out an old tune that Al Jolson used to sing, in black face:  “Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye”.  After he was done, polite applause could be heard, drifting across the river.  In all military history, there may be one soldier who’d even think about entertaining his adversary.  Melvin Kaminsky did it.   We remember him today, as Mel Brooks.

zuiderzeeSo, yes, there is irony when men make war, if not always humor.  Yet, in all the annals of warfare, there may be no episode more amusing, than the time a naval force was defeated by men on horseback.

In early 1793, Austria, Prussia, Spain, Great Britain and the Dutch Republic formed the first of seven coalitions to oppose the French Republic.

France declared war on its neighbor to the north.  By the end of the following year, many of Holland’s provinces as well as those of the Austrian Netherlands, were overrun.

The winter of 1794-95 was brutally cold.  A number of Dutch ships sought shelter near the North Sea village of den Helder, becoming icebound near the mouth of a shallow bay called the Zuiderzee.

General Johan Willem de Winter, a former Dutch naval officer, had been in service to the Grande Armée since 1787.  On the night of January 23, de Winter arrived at the head of a regiment of “hussars”, the French light cavalry.  The following morning, a number of horsemen rode out over the ice to the Dutch ship-of-the-line “Admiraal Piet Heyn”, demanding its surrender.   The surgeon aboard another ship, the “Snelheid”, blithely wrote “On Saturday morning, my servant informed me that a French hussar stood near our ship. I looked out my porthole, and indeed, there stood an hussar.”

capture of the dutch fleet at den helder

This was a significant part of the Dutch fleet, 15 ships, 11 of which were manned and seaworthy.  The whole thing was now in the hands of French cavalry.

At least one source will tell you the event never occurred, or at least it’s embellished , as retold by the hussars themselves.   I guess you can take your pick.  A number of 19th century authors have portrayed the episode as unvarnished history, as have any number of paintings and sketches.

capture-of-the-dutch-fleet-frozen-in-at-den-helder-by-the-french-hussars

In February 1846, French Lieutenant-General Baron Lahure published a letter in the newspaper “Echo de la Frontière”, describing the event:

“I departed immediately with a company of tirailleurs in wagons and a squadron of light cavalry; before dawn I had taken position in the dunes. When the ships saw us, they prepared their defences. I sent some tirailleurs ahead, and followed with the rest of my forces. The fleet was taken. The sailors received us ‘de bonne grace’ on board… This is the true story of the capture of the Dutch fleet, devised and executed by a 23 year old Chef de Bataillion”.

Archibald Gordon Macdonell included the episode in his 1934 “Napoleon and his Marshals”.  It’s one of those stories that I Want to be true, even if it isn’t.  “(When) the ragged men” Macdonell  wrote, “thundered on their horses across the ice to capture with naked swords the battlefleet of Holland”.  The only time in recorded history, a naval fleet was captured by a cavalry charge.

frozen fleet

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

January 21, 1793 Grande Princesse

Marie Antoinette is supposed to have said “Let them eat cake” (“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”) in response to the bread riots, but there’s no evidence she ever said such a thing.

Alliances came and went throughout 18th century Europe, and treaties were often sealed by arranged marriages. One such alliance took place in 1770 when Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and his wife Maria Theresa, the formidable Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, married their daughter Maria Antonia to Louis-Auguste, the son of Louis XV, King of France.

10053278The happy couple had yet to meet when the marriage was performed by proxy, the bride remaining in Vienna while the groom stayed in Paris. At 12 she was now the Dauphine, Marie Antoinette, wife of the 14-year-old Dauphin, future King of France.

There was a second, ceremonial wedding held in May, after which came the ritual bedding. This isn’t the couple quietly retiring to their own private space. This was the bizarre spectacle of a room full of courtiers, peering down at the proceedings to make sure the marriage was consummated.

It was not, and that failure did damage to both their reputations.

The people liked their new Dauphine at first, but the Royal Court was another story. Insiders had promoted several Saxon Princesses for the match, and called Marie Antoinette “The Austrian Woman”. She would come to be called far worse.

marie_antoinette_by_joseph_ducreuxThe stories you read about 18th century Court intrigue make you wonder how anyone lived like that. Antoinette was naive of the shark tank into which she’d been thrown. Relations were especially difficult with the King’s mistress, the Comtesse du Barry.  Antoinette was somehow expected to work them out.

The King’s daughters, on the other hand, didn’t care for du Barry’s unsavory relations with their father. Antoinette couldn’t win. The sisters complained of feeling “betrayed” one time, when Antoinette commented to the King’s mistress “There are a lot of people at Versailles today”.

Court intrigues were accompanied by reports to Antoinette’s mother in Vienna, the Empress responding with her own stream of criticism. The Dauphin was more interested in lock making and hunting, she wrote, because Antoinette had failed to “inspire passion” in her husband. The Empress even went so far as to tell her daughter that she was no longer pretty. She had lost her grace. Antoinette came to fear her own mother more than she loved her.

Louis-Auguste was crowned Louis XVI, King of France, on June 11, 1775. Antoinette remained by his side, though she was never crowned Queen, instead remaining Louis’ “Queen Consort”.

With her marriage as yet unconsummated, Antoinette’s position became precarious when her sister in law gave birth to a son and possible heir to the throne. Antoinette spent her time gambling and shopping, while wild rumors and printed pamphlets described her supposedly bizarre sexual romps.

marie-antoinette over the yearsFrance had serious debt problems in the 1770s, the result of endless foreign wars, but Antoinette received more than her share of the blame.

As first lady to the French court, Antoinette was expected to be a fashion trendsetter. Her shopping was in keeping with the role, but rumors wildly inflated her spending habits. Her lady-in-waiting protested that her habits were modest, visiting village workshops in a simple dress and straw hat. Nevertheless, Antoinette was rumored to have plastered the walls of Versailles with gold and diamonds.

The difficult winter of 1788-89 produced bread shortages and rising prices as the King withdrew from public life. The marriage had produced children by this time, but the legend of the licentious spendthrift and empty headed foreign queen took root in French mythology, as government debt overwhelmed the economy.

French politics boiled over in June 1789, leading to the storming of the Bastille on July 14. Much of the French nobility fled as the newly formed National Constituent Assembly conscripted men to serve in the Garde Nationale, while the French Constitution of 1791 weakened the King’s authority.

Food shortages magnified the unrest. In October, the King and Queen were placed under house arrest in the Tuileries Palace. In June they attempted to flee the escalating violence, but were caught and returned within days. Radical Jacobins exploited the escape attempt as a betrayal, and pushed to have the monarchy abolished altogether.

Unrest turned to barbarity in September 1792, with rumors of foreign and royalist armies, coming to oppose the revolution.  Between 1,370 to 1,460 prisoners were summarily “tried” and executed by the mob, in the first twenty hours.   Antoinette’s close friend and Lady in Waiting, the Princesse de Lamballe, was taken by the Paris Commune for interrogation. She was murdered at La Force prison, her head fixed on a pike and marched through the city.

death-of-the-princess-de-lamballe-by-leon-maxime-faivre
Léon-Maxime Faivre (1908) Death of the Princess de Lamballe

There would be 65 to 75 such incidents.

Louis XVI was charged with treason against the First Republic in December, found guilty and executed by guillotine on January 21, 1793.  He was 38.

Marie-Antoinette became prisoner #280, her health deteriorating in the following months. She suffered from tuberculosis by this time and was frequently bleeding, possibly from uterine cancer.

massacre_à_la_salpêtrière
Thirty five women were dragged from the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, and murdered

Antoinette was taken from her cell on October 14 and subjected to a sham trial, the outcome of which was never in doubt. She was accused of molesting her own son, a charge so outrageous that even the market women who had stormed the palace demanding her entrails in 1789, spoke in her support. “If I have not replied”, she said, “it is because nature itself refuses to respond to such a charge laid against a mother.”

guillotineMarie-Antoinette’s hair was cut off on October 16, 1793. She was driven through Paris in an ox cart, taken to the Place de la Révolution, and executed by decapitation. She accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot on mounting the scaffold. Her last words were “Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it”.

Marie Antoinette is supposed to have said “Let them eat cake” (“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”) in response to the bread riots, but there’s no evidence she ever said such a thing.  It’s completely out of character and, despite her lavish lifestyle, she had always displayed sensitivity toward the poor people of France.

The phrase appears in the autobiography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Les Confessions”, attributed to a “Grande Princesse” whom the book declines to name, but is probably Maria Theresa, of Spain. Considering the lifetime of cheap and mean-spirited gossip to which Marie Antoinette was subjected, it’s easy to believe that this was more of the same.

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

December 29, 1778 The Siege of Savannah

For the Americans and their allies, the frontal assault of October 9 was one of the bloodiest engagements, of the Revolution.  It could have been worse.  As battered American and French soldiers fell back, 500 free men of color known as the Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint-Domingue stepped up, to cover their retreat.

Many of these Haitian soldiers went on to win their own war of independence, and credited their military experience, to Savannah.

As 1778 drew to a close, British military planners could look back on five years of trying to suppress rebellion in the American colonies, with little to show for it.   In March of that year, the British defeat at Saratoga had brought France into the war, on the side of the Rebels.

Two years of open warfare had centered mostly on the north.   Now, a “southern strategy” was devised to conquer rebellious colonies in the south, while isolating those to the north. Key to the Southern Strategy was Georgia and the colonial capital at Savannah, the southernmost commercial port of the thirteen Colonies.

General sir Henry Clinton dispatched a force of some 3,100 from New York under Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell, along with an unknown quantity of artillery. Campbell arrived outside Tybee Island on December 23.

Georgia was defended by two separate forces at this time, units of the Continental Army under the command of General Robert Howe, and state militia under the command of Governor John Houstoun.  The two men had a history of squabbling for control and most of their troops, had yet to be tried.

ArchibaldCampbell-by-George-Romney-239x300
Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell, British commander at the capture of Savannah in December 1778

The 850 under General Howe never really had a chance, against the battle hardened Regulars, Hessian auxiliaries and Loyalist militia, coming ashore on December 29.  Defeat turned to rout when Howe’s forces threw down their weapons and ran.  Campbell reported that “It was scarcely possible to come up with them, their retreat was rapid beyond conception.

Patriot forces suffered 83 killed, 11 wounded and 453 captured. Campbell suffered 7 killed and 17 wounded.

Howe was court-marshaled for the disaster, while Campbell bragged about being “the first British officer to [rend] a star and stripe from the flag of Congress

Brigadier General Augustine Prevost arrived from St. Augustine Florida two weeks later, with a mixed force of Regulars and Creek and Cherokee allies.   Campbell and a force of 1,000 would take the provisional capital at Augusta that February but soon retreated to Savannah, citing insufficient support among Loyalist and Native American populations.

American hopes soon fell back on their new-found alliance with France. During the following summer, French Admiral Count Charles-Hector Theodat d’Estaing captured St. Vincent and Grenada in the British West Indies, clearing the way to the Georgia coast. The powerful 47-ship French fleet arrived with 4,000 troops on September 1, surprising and capturing several British ships outside the mouth of the Savannah River.

french-shipsD’Estaing sent an ultimatum to British Commander Augustine Prevost on September 16, 1779. He was to surrender the city “To the arms of his Majesty the King of France”, or he would be personally answerable for what was about to happen. It could not have pleased General Benjamin Lincoln or his Patriot allies when d’Estaing added “I have not been able to refuse the army of the United States uniting itself with that of the King. The junction will probably be effected this day. If I have not an answer therefore immediately, you must confer with General Lincoln and me”.

“Bullet Head Prevost”, so called because of a circular scar on his temple, stalled for 24 hours, using the time in furiously building up his defenses and calling up 800 reinforcements from South Carolina.

Lincoln joined d’Estaing on September 23 with an army of 3,000 militia and Continental soldiers, laying siege to Savannah and the 2,500 British and Loyalist troops in occupation.

On October 1, a British relief column under one Captain French was coming to the city’s aid, camped on the banks of the Ogeechee River. Georgia Continental Colonel John White had two officers, a sergeant and three privates with him, when he tricked French into surrendering. These guys ran through the woods lighting so many fires that the British thought the entire continental Army was bivouacked around them. Captain French was unavailable for comment but, it must be a special feeling, knowing that you just surrendered 111 guys to six, without firing a shot.

Scene-of-Savannah
View of the siege works against the town at the Siege of Savannah September and October 1779 in the American Revolutionary War: contemporary picture by a French officer

Lack of horses and artillery carriages delayed the allies’ moving their cannon ashore, so French warships bombarded the city from the sea. At one point shortly after Midnight on October 3, with rum rations flowing far too freely, fire from French gunners became more dangerous to themselves than to the city itself.

For the Americans and their allies, the frontal assault of October 9 was one of the bloodiest engagements, of the Revolution.  It could have been worse.  As battered American and French soldiers fell back, 500 free men of color known as the Chasseurs Volontaires de Saint-Domingue stepped up, to cover their retreat.

Many of these Haitian soldiers went on to win their own war of independence, and credited their military experience, to Savannah.

Franklin-Sq-Monument
Franklin Square Monument remembers the contributions of the Haitian militia, in the Siege of Savannah

 The siege of Savannah inflicted untold misery among the population, but Patriot forces and their French allies, never did break the city’s defenses. The siege broke a short time later, amidst recriminations on both sides.   D’Estaing returned to France, where he lost his head to the guillotine in 1794.

Savannah would remain in British hands until the end of the war, finally evacuated on July 11, 1782. A coquina marker in a small Savannah park; that soft, seashell limestone common throughout the Caribbean basin to Florida and beyond, bears a small brass plaque, darkened with the patina of age.

COMMEMORATIVE OF THE BRITISH EVACUATION OF SAVANNAH 1782
PRESENTED TO THE CITY OF SAVANNAH
BY THE
LACHLAN McINTOSH CHAPTER
DAUGHTERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
1904

british-attack-on-american-forces-in-savannah-georgia-in-the-revolutionary-adw8m3-1
Attack of 2nd South Carolina Continentals on the Spring Hill Redoubt at the Siege of Savannah on 9th October 1779 in the American Revolutionary War: picture by A.I. Keller

November 30, 1953 Dien Bien Phu

The French staff formulated their battle plan, based on the assumption that it was impossible for the Viet Minh to place enough artillery on the surrounding high ground, due to the rugged terrain. Communist forces didn’t possess enough artillery to do serious damage anyway.  Or so they thought.

When we think of the French Republic, most of us envision a five-sided nation between Spain and Germany, located between the English Channel and the Mediterranean Sea. That would be right, but “la Métropole” or “Metropolitan France” today accounts for only about 82% of the landmass of la République Française. The overseas departments and territories which make up “la France d’outre-mer”, “Overseas France”, account for the rest.

That overseas percentage would have been higher in the mid-20th century, with many former colonial territories added in, among them Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Japanese occupation of southeast Asia caused the Europeans to leave French Indochina during WWII. Within a year of re-occupation, the French faced virulent opposition from the Nationalist-Communist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. Theirs was a low level, rural insurgency at first, later becoming a full-scale modern war when Chinese Communists entered the fray, in 1949.

9c1634a5854f89961f7694c088f61f84What historians call the First Indochina War, many contemporaries called “la sale guerre”, or “dirty war”. The government forbade the use of metropolitan recruits, fearing that that would make the war more unpopular than it already was. Instead, French professional soldiers and units of the French Foreign Legion were augmented with colonial troops, including Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese ethnic minorities.

The war went poorly for the French government.  By 1952 it was looking for a way out. Premier René Mayer appointed Henri Navarre to take command of French Union Forces in May of that year, with a single order. Navarre was to create military conditions which would lead to an “honorable political solution”.

In November and December of the previous year, the French army had air lifted soldiers into a fortified position at Na San, adjacent to a key Viet Minh supply line to Laos. Superior French fire power, armor and air resources had driven Vo Nguyen Giap’s forces back with heavy losses, in what French planners called the “hérisson” or “hedgehog” strategy.

dien-bien-phu-map.jpg

In June, Major General René Cogny proposed a “mooring point” at Dien Bien Phu, creating a lightly defended base from which to launch raids. Navarre wanted to replicate the Na San strategy, and ordered that Dien Bien Phu be taken and converted into a heavily fortified installation.

“Operation Castor” began on the 20th of November, when three parachute infantry battalions dropped into Dien Bien Phu. The operation was completed with minimal French casualties on November 30, as they continued to land supplies, troops, and engineering equipment into the isolated base.

Under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, French forces built seven fortified positions to defend the base, each allegedly named after one of his mistresses. 10,800 French troops were committed, with another 16,000 in reserve.

Dien_Bien_Phu_Map

Vo believed he had made a serious mistake at Na San, rushing his troops in piecemeal against French defenses. This time, he carefully prepared his positions, moving 50,000 men into position around the valley, meticulously stockpiling ammunition and placing anti-aircraft and heavy artillery, with which he was well supplied.

dien-bien-phu-may-7-1954The French staff formulated their battle plan, based on the assumption that it was impossible for the Viet Minh to place enough artillery on the surrounding high ground, due to the rugged terrain. Communist forces didn’t possess enough artillery to do serious damage anyway.  Or so they thought.

French officers quickly learned how mistaken they had been. The first sporadic artillery fire began on January 31, around the time when patrols discovered the enemy’s presence in every direction. Heavy artillery virtually ringed the valley in which they found themselves, and air support was quickly nullified by the enemy’s well placed anti-aircraft fire.

The Viet Minh assault began in earnest on March 13, when several outposts came under furious artillery barrage. Air support became next to impossible, and counter-battery fire was next to useless against Giap’s fortifications. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Piroth commanded the French artillery at Dien Bien Phu. He was a professional soldier and no lightweight, having had his arm amputated in 1946 with no anesthesia. When it became clear how wrong his assumptions had been, he circled the camp making apologies to his officers, returned to his tent, and killed himself with a hand grenade.

Slag-van-Dien-Bien-Phu“Beatrice” was the first fire base to fall, then “Gabrielle” and “Anne-Marie”. Viet Minh controlled 90% of the airfield by the 22nd of April, making even parachute drops next to impossible. On May 7, Vo ordered an all-out assault of 25,000 troops against the 3,000 remaining in garrison. By nightfall it was over.  The last words from the last radio man were “The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!”

Military historian Martin Windrow wrote that Dien Bien Phu was “the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle”.

dien-bien-phu-histoire-historyweb-6

The Geneva conference opened the following day, resulting in a Vietnam partitioned into two parts. In the north was the “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” administered by the communists, and the State of Vietnam in the south, under Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. The North was supported by both the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, and continued to terrorize patriots in the north and the south.

dien-bien-phu-battle-pictures-images-photos-009American support for the south increased as the French withdrew theirs.  By the late 1950s, the United States were sending technical and financial aid in expectation of social and land reform. By 1960, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF, or “Viet Cong”) had taken to murdering Diem supported village leaders.  President John Fitzgerald Kennedy responded by sending 1,364 American advisers into South Vietnam, in 1961.

The next war in Indochina, had begun.

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

September 22, 1663 The King’s Daughters

In the following ten years, 800 young French women immigrated to New France under the filles du roi program, sponsored by King Louis XIV and his colonial advisors. 

Around 1523, the Florentine navigator Giovanni da Verrazzano convinced the French King Francis I to fund an expedition to find a western water route to “Cathay” (China).  Some of the earliest French presence in the New World began ten years later, with Jacques Cartier’s exploration of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in present-day Canada. In 1534, Cartier planted his flag on the Gaspé Peninsula in present-day Quebec City, claiming the territory in the name of Francis I.

The first French settlement was attempted in 1541 when some 400 individuals put down in Fort Charlesbourg-Royal. That effort would come to an end two years later but, there would be others.

As early English colonists to North America struggled to put down roots in places like Roanoke and Jamestown, the Spanish developed toeholds in Florida and the American southwest. To the north, French fishing fleets sailed the Atlantic coast and into the St. Lawrence waterways, making alliances with Canadian First Nations and developing a rich trade in furs, particularly beaver, which were at that time becoming rare in Europe.

By its peak in 1712, the territory of Nouvelle-France (New France) consisted of five colonies, stretching from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and from Newfoundland to the Great Lakes.

800px-New-France1750

English settlers developed a farming economy, and men brought wives and families along, from the earliest days. Not so French settlers.  New France was a man’s world, a world of soldiers and fur traders, of missionaries, sailors and fishermen. A world with little to offer women.

Well into the 17th century, a great number of marriageable males would return to France following three-year terms of service.  If there was to be permanent French settlement in the New World, that would have to change.

In the thirty years beginning in 1634, private individuals and religious groups recruited a mere 262 filles à marier (marriageable girls) between Québec and Montréal, an area with some 2,500 men.

canada-story-of-us-episode-101-filles-du-roi-group-shot

Marguerite Bourgeoy set sail for the New World in 1653 aboard the Saint-Nicholas, along with another hundred or so colonists. There Bourgeoys lived in Fort Ville-Marie (now Montreal) where she educated young girls, the poor, and the native population.  Bourgeoys developed one of the first uncloistered religious communities in the Catholic Church and went on to found the Congregation of Notre Dame of Montreal.

Today, Bourgeoy  is a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church. It was she who first used the term filles du roi (King’s Daughters).

The term “King’s Daughters” referred not to parentage, but to sponsorship. In 1663, King Louis XIV took over direct control of governing New France, and initiated a system for recruiting and transporting marriageable women into the colony.

Recruiting took place in the northern cities, carried out by merchants and ship’s outfitters. Each girl was expected to be of appropriate age for giving birth, and to present a birth certificate and recommendation from her parish priest or local magistrate, stating that she was free to marry.

Graphique_sur_la_répartition_des__Filles_du_Roi__selon_l'âge_(vers_1663-1673)
The majority of the filles du roi were aged 16 to 25

Each girl was equipped with an assortment of practical items: a coiffe, bonnet, taffeta handkerchief, pair of stockings, pair of gloves, ribbon, four shoelaces, white thread, 100 needles, 1,000 pins, a comb, pair of scissors, two knives and two livres in cash along with suitable clothing and a few provisions.  The cost including passage came to 100 livres, equivalent to $1,425 in the year 2000, a cost which was paid by the French state.

On September 22, the first thirty-six Filles du Roi arrived in Québec.

While awaiting proposals of marriage, women were lodged in dormitory-style houses, under the supervision of a female chaperone or directress. Suitors would come to the house to make their selection, under the supervision of the Directress. Outward appearance was less important in this world, than that these women be equipped for the hardships of the New World.

It quickly emerged that city girls were too “lightheaded and lazy”. Good, strong peasant stock was needed. Marie de l’Incarnation, mother superior of the Ursuline convent at Québec City requested in 1668: “From now on, we only want to ask for village girls who are as fit for work as men, experience having shown that those who are not raised [in the country] are not fit for this country.”

filles-du-roi

In the following ten years, 800 young French women immigrated to New France under the filles du roi program, sponsored by King Louis XIV and his colonial advisors.  Unsurprisingly, Canada experienced a baby boom, such as never seen before, or since.  The average family had five children during this period, about twice as many as the “Baby Boom”, following WW2.   Families with more than 10 children got a bonus from the Crown:  an additional annual pension of 300 livres ($6,000).

According the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), two-thirds of modern French Canadians can trace their lineage back to one of those 800 women, including Hillary Clinton, Madonna and Angelina Jolie.

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

September 21, 1765 The Beast of Gévaudan

Precise identification of the Beast of Gévaudan has baffled cryptozoologists, from that day to this. 

In the summer of 1764, a young woman was tending cattle near the Mercoire forest in the Gévaudan region of south-central France, when a large animal emerged from the forest.    She later described the creature as wolf-like in appearance, but much larger.  The size of a calf, or a donkey.

Twice the animal attacked, only to be driven off by the bulls in the herd.  Twenty-nine days later, Janne Boule was not so lucky. The 14-year-old is officially recorded as the first victim of La Bête du Gévaudan.  The “Beast of Gévaudan”. Over the following three years, there would be many more.

Gevaudanwolf

Contemporary illustration depicts the Beast as a large wolf, or wolf hybrid.

A 1987 study of contemporary sources estimates 210 such attacks over the three-year period, resulting in 113 fatalities and another 49 injuries. Victims were most often killed, by having their throats ripped out. Ninety-eight of those, were partially eaten.

Precise identification of the Beast of Gévaudan has baffled cryptozoologists, from that day to this.  Eyewitness accounts describe a large animal with a long tail, about the size of a calf, or a donkey. With reddish fur and a flat head, the Beast was said to be exceptionally powerful, able to leap distances of 30-feet and more, and capable of carrying off a grown adult, in its jaws.

gevaudan-660x357Terror gripped the region in the later months of 1764, as the Beast attacked women, men and children.  Usually while alone, and often while tending livestock.

Suspicion centered on an unusually large wolf, dog, or some hybrid combination of the two.   Stories went to the supernatural, laying bare our most primordial fear, that of a shape shifter. A Werewolf.

The Epic of Gilgamesh comes to us from the second millennium BC, telling the tale of such creatures. The 1st-century BC Roman poet Ovid, was the first to write of shape-shifting as a conscious act of will.

Beast of Gevaudan, 1700s

In January 1765, the Beast came to the attention of King Louis XV, who decreed that the French state would help to find and destroy the Beast. First captain Duhamel of the Clermont-Ferrand dragoons was brought out with his troops, and sent to Le Gévaudan. The professional wolf-hunters Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval and his son Jean-François, arrived with eight bloodhounds, trained in wolf-hunting.

“Officer of the Royal Bedchamber” Antoine De Beauterne Marques Argents, Knight Equerry of the Royal Military Order of Saint Louis and Gun-Bearer to Louis XV of France (now, there’s a title) announced on this day in 1765 that he had killed the Beast of Gévaudan, to great rejoicing.

800px-François_Antoine_et_la_Bête_du_Gévaudan,_gravure

The animal was a large grey wolf measuring 5-feet, 7-inches and weighing 130-pounds. Eyewitnesses claimed to have recognized scars on the animal’s body and Beauterne himself swore that this was the Beast. “We declare by the present report signed from our hand”, he said, “we never saw a big wolf that could be compared to this one. Hence, we believe this could be the fearsome beast that caused so much damage.”

The animal was stuffed and brought to Versailles, but the joy was short-lived.

800px-Wolf_of_Chazes

Two boys were attacked on December 2 but managed to fight off the Beast.  A dozen more fatal attacks were reported to have followed, near La Besseyre-Saint-Mary.

The animal disappeared around the middle of 1767.  It is believed to have been shot a dozen or more times by this time, and poison baits were widespread.  A local farmer and inn-keeper named Jean Chastel is credited with killing the Beast of Gévaudan on June 19, 1767, with a bullet which he himself had cast, in silver.

ob_d62710_3ll2i-p1000111
Jean Chastel

The silver bullet meme did much to feed into werewolf mythology. Chastel himself is depicted as a werewolf in Patricia Briggs’ novel, Hunting Ground.  Here, the hunter and the hunted are one and the same, and some random wolf was shot, to throw everyone off the scent.

gevaudan-beast.jpg

National Geographic posits that the Beast of Gévaudan was in fact, a subadult male lion. African lions were by no means unknown at this place and time, though images of the era were usually quite stylized, depicting the full mane of the adult male.

Exotic animal menageries were common among the upper classes. It is quite possible that such an animal could’ve been on the loose.  Physical descriptions of the Beast including it’s reddish hair, flat head and furry ridge-line, match up with those of such an animal.  This combined with descriptions of the hunting and killing methods of the animal, make the lion theory quite plausible.

The Beast of Gévaudan may have been a wolf, or maybe a lion.  Perhaps it was several animals.  Or maybe Jean Chastel is a werewolf, after all.  A clever one who threw half a nation off his scent, and now only does his killing, in the dark.  Just another thing that goes BUMP, in the night.

56a793c27d
A monument was erected in the village of Auvers to honour those who fought against the beast.

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

August 11, 1885 Liberty Enlightening the World

Even the inebriates stepped up, when a Brooklyn home for alcoholics donated fifteen dollars. Not to be outdone, collection boxes were put out in bars and saloons all over New York City.

In the late 1860s, French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi conceived a great work of neoclassical sculpture. An enormous statue depicting a female figure in robes, this latter-day colossus holding high her Torch of Progress and standing by the water’s edge to greet the weary traveler – to Egypt.

Today, the 120-mile Suez canal connecting the Mediterranean with the Red Sea handles nearly fifty ships per day. Around Bartholdi’s time, Ottoman authorities were just getting around to digging the thing. Bartholdi had visited Egypt as a young man, and came away captivated by the Sphinxes, the Great Pyramids, and now this.

Bartholdi pitched his idea to the Khedive of Egypt in 1867, while attending the World’s Fair, in Paris. An enormous lighthouse in the form of a woman, holding high the lamp of welcome and dressed in the flowing cotton robe of the fellah, the “True Egyptian”, the peasant farmer and agricultural laborer of Egypt and North Africa.

The_potters'_market,_with_Mosque_and_Fellah_Women_in_the_Background,_at_Gizeh,_A_suburb_of_Cairo._(1911)_-_TIMEA

The Egypt deal fell through, when Bartholdi came to a land where he’d never been before, to sell his colossus.

The idea was originally that of French attorney Édouard René de Laboulaye. An observer of American civic culture and passionate supporter for the Union side of the Civil War, Laboulaye wrote a three-volume work on the political history of the United States and considered the gift of “Liberty Enlightening the World” to be symbolic of values repressed at that time, by the 2nd Republique of Napoleon III.

Bartholdi pitched the idea from Niagara Falls to Washington, D.C., from Chicago to Los Angeles, but Americans were slow to appreciate the idea of a lighthouse, in the shape of a woman. Back in Paris, the sculptor put on spectacles of every kind to raise money, charging visitors admission to the dusty workshop to watch the torch’s construction, and selling souvenirs.  At one point, Bartholdi even petitioned the French government, to let him hold a national lottery.

U.S._Patent_D11023
U.S. Patent D11023

The torch arrived late for the centennial festivities of 1876, celebrating the 100th birthday of the young nation. Nevertheless, the “colossal arm” proved popular with Philadelphia fairgoers, where visitors paid admission to climb up into the arm and take in the view from the balcony. The sculptor was so pleased that, for a time, he considered installing the finished statue in Philadelphia.

Fundraising committees were formed in New York, Philadelphia and Boston, to raise money for the foundation and pedestal. On his last full day in office, March 3, 1877, President Ulysses S Grant signed a joint resolution authorizing the President to accept the statue when presented by France, and to select a site for it. President Rutherford B. Hayes accepted Bartholdi’s suggestion and selected Bedloe’s Island, in New York Harbor.

1024px-Collossal_hand_and_torch._Bartholdi's_statue_of__Liberty._,_from_Robert_N._Dennis_collection_of_stereoscopic_views
Stereoscopic Image from the Centennial Exposition of 1876

Even then, fundraising went slowly for the New York committee.

With the full statue under construction in Paris, Boston made a play for the statue in 1882, offering to pay the full cost of installation provided that the statue was installed in Boston Harbor.  The New York Times was miffed as only the “Newspaper of Record” can be.  One editorial sniffed:

“[Boston] proposes to take our neglected statue of Liberty and warm it over for her own use and glory. Boston has probably again overestimated her powers. This statue is dear to us, though we have never looked upon it, and no third rate town is going to step in and take it from us. Philadelphia tried to do that in 1876, and failed. Let Boston be warned . . . that she can’t have our Liberty … that great light-house statue will be smashed into … fragments before it shall be stuck up in Boston Harbor”.

And here I thought that New York/Boston thing started with the Red Sox and the Yankees.

Fundraising toward the $100,000 required to complete the project was a constant and seemingly insurmountable challenge. New York Governor Grover Cleveland vetoed a bill in 1884, providing $50,000 for the effort. A bill to have the United States Congress pick the full tab the following year, was likewise defeated.

Head_of_the_Statue_of_Liberty_on_display_in_a_park_in_Paris
Head on display at the p 1878

With only $3,000 in the bank, the American committee organized a number of fund drives. Poet Emma Lazarus was asked to donate an original work for auction, but declined the request. At the time, Lazarus was involved in aiding Jewish refugees from the anti-Semitic pogroms of Eastern Europe. In time, Lazarus came to see the request as a way to help the cause. The resulting sonnet, The New Colossus, included the iconic lines “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer pushed the project over the top, offering to print names and brief notes from contributors of every size down to a single penny. It was a brilliant marketing scheme. Newspaper circulation went through the ceiling, as readers scooped up papers to see their names in print.

One kindergarten class in Davenport, Iowa raised $1.35. A group of children sent a dollar as “the money we saved to go to the circus with.” Another dollar was sent by a “lonely and very aged woman.” Even the Big Apple’s inebriates stepped up, when a Brooklyn home for alcoholics donated fifteen dollars. Not to be outdone, collection boxes were put out in bars and saloons all over New York City. (The two cities wouldn’t be merged until 1898).

Head_of_the_Statue_of_Liberty_1885
Unpacking the face, 1885

Hundreds of crates containing the disassembled Liberty Enlightening the World arrived in New York on June 17, 1885, aboard the French steamer Isère.  Two months later, the final piece fell into place.  On August 11, the World announced that $102,000 had been raised from 120,000 donors.  80% of the total arrived in sums of a dollar or less.

Despite the fundraising success, the pedestal wasn’t complete until April of the following year. With no room to erect scaffolding, workers descended down ropes to install skin sections to an iron armature designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel.

The formal dedication was held on the afternoon of October 28, 1886, with former New York Governor and now-President of the United States Grover Cleveland, presiding. As many as a million turned out for the parade held that morning through the streets of the city.  At the New York Stock Exchange, traders showered marchers with paper strips containing stock quotes, beginning an American tradition called the ticker-tape parade.

Festivities on the future Liberty Island were for dignitaries only that day, no member of the public was allowed.  Ironically, no women were permitted at all for the dedication of the world’s tallest female, save for the Sculptor’s wife, and the granddaughter of French diplomat, Ferdinand de Lesseps.  It was believed that women might be injured, in all that crush of humanity.

EdwardMoran-UnveilingTheStatueofLiberty1886Large

That didn’t keep a group of offended suffragists from chartering a boat, and getting as close to the island as possible.  I wonder what that sounded like.

Liberty Enlightening the World has opened and closed to the public, since that time. She has turned from a dull copper red to the rich green patina you see today. She was injured in a World War, in the Black Tom explosion of 1916. She was there to witness Annie Moore’s arrival at Ellis Island, that 15-year-old “rosy-cheeked Irish girl” from County Cork, the first of some twenty-five million immigrants who arrived at that place legally between 1892 and 1924, helping to transform this nation into the international all-star team, of the world.  She witnessed that Kiss on Times Square, ending another World War in Europe.  Built in the wake of the Civil War, she has watched over a nation sometimes torn along lines of race and color, as her people learned to get along with others, unlike themselves.

911statueoflibertyandwthx6

She has witnessed the worst terror attack of modern history and that brief, shining moment where we all seemed to be “One Nation, Under God”.  Throughout it all she has remained iconic.  Torch held high, the chain at her feet lying broken as she walks forward.  The stone tablet in her hand is inscribed “JULY IV MDCCLXXVI”.  July 4, 1776.

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