March 6, 2006 There’s an RPG in Me

Explosives expert Staff Sgt. Dan Brown.  Two surgeons, Major John Oh and Major Kevin Kirk and the whole team at the aid station.  Three surgical staff.  All did their jobs knowing that, at any instant, the whole team could be vaporized.

Paktika Province is a wild and lawless region in the east of Afghanistan, a border crossroads with the west of Pakistan and home to a number of Taliban and Al Qaeda units. An article from Time magazine describes the U.S. base:

“The U.S. firebase looks like a Wild West cavalry fort, ringed with coils of razor wire. A U.S. flag ripples above the 3-ft.-thick mud walls, and in the watchtower a guard scans the expanse of forested ridges, rising to 9,000 ft., that mark the border. When there’s trouble, it usually comes from that direction.”

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Channing Moss, second from right

The morning of Thursday, March 16, 2006 dawned bright and clear, as a force rode out from the 10th Mountain Division.  Their mission was to seek out a remote mountain village, and meet with village elders. They were twenty-four American soldiers in five Humvees and a handful of Afghan National troops, riding a pickup truck.

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Paktika is a trackless wilderness of ragged hillsides and wadis, seasonal riverbeds flowing southwest from the mountains of Sar Hawza, to the north.  The land appears custom made for an ambush, with dangerous high spots in nearly every direction.

Gunfire broke out from above, some four hours into the mission.  First small arms, then came the rocket-propelled grenades.  One gunner, twenty-three-year-old Private Channing Moss, remembered it sounded like rattling spoons.

RPGs were soon raining down.  The pickup exploded, killing two Afghan soldiers.  The rest scrambled to get out of the “kill zone”, as three rocket propelled grenades struck Private Moss’ Humvee.  Staff Sergeant Eric Wynn, 33, felt one slice through his face.  Channing Moss, standing with his upper body out of the Humvee, felt something and smelled smoke.  He looked down to see it was himself.  He was smoking.

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RPG ammunition, found on the outskirts of Basra

A rocket propelled grenade is exactly what it sounds like, a weapon roughly the size of a baseball bat, propelled at the speed of a bullet.  Standing as he was, Channing Moss had taken one of these things in the hip, leaving nothing but the fins, sticking out of his body.  The weapon inside of him was capable of turning everyone in the vehicle into a “pink mist”.

What happened next, is beyond belief. When every human instinct says “get the hell away from that thing”, Moss had a whole team by his side, throughout the ordeal. Company medic Spc. Jared Angell, 23, working to stabilize that thing for transportation. Lieutenant Billy Mariani came over once the fighting had died down: “I grabbed his hand and I just said, ‘Hey, buddy, we’re gonna get you out of here.'” Badly wounded himself, Wynn held his own face together while reporting casualties over the radio, and holding Moss’ hand.

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Private Channing Moss

The MEDEVAC crew arrived escorted by an Apache attack helicopter, they knew what they were dealing with. Army regulations say it’s too dangerous to carry such a human bomb. It could take out every man on the chopper and blow the bird out of the sky: four MEDEVAC crew members, and three wounded soldiers.

Pilot CW2 Jorge Correa spoke with his team: “I asked my crew, you know, ‘Are you guys comfortable with this?  Because I wasn’t gonna put my crew in jeopardy if they weren’t comfortable with it.”  Co-pilot Jeremy Smith recalled the moment:  “We all said, ‘Yeah, let’s get him on board and let’s get outta here.'”

It was the same thing, back at the aid station.  Explosives expert Staff Sgt. Dan Brown.  Two surgeons, Major John Oh and Major Kevin Kirk and the whole team at the aid station.  Three surgical staff.  All did their jobs knowing that, at any instant, the whole team could be vaporized.

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Channing Moss was well beyond the “golden hour” with expectations of survival, growing dim.  The man’s heart actually stopped and the surgeons administered epinephrine, knowing that physical heart massage could detonate the ordnance still inside the man’s body.

Private Moss survived, despite massive injury to his body.  There were four more surgeries back at Walter Reed and an endless hell of physical therapy as the man progressed from bed to wheel chair to crutches, to a cane.  Moss had a Purple Heart coming and then some and refused to receive it, until he could stand on his own two legs and walk to receive his medal, himself.

Explosives expert Dan Brown spoke for the whole team, I think, in explaining what they had done:  “He was American, he was a solider, he was a brother and he was one of us. And there was nothing gonna stop us from doing what we knew what we had to do … We knew we did right. In that screwed up world we did something right.

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Channing Moss and his wife Lorena, reunited with Majors Oh and Kirk

A Trivial Matter

While rare, unexploded ordnance has been lodged inside living human bodies on no fewer than thirty six occasions between WW2 and the modern era, requiring surgical removal.  All but four, survived.

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March 14, 1918 Concrete Fleet

Steel was in critically short supply by the time the US entered the war in 1917, the need for new ships, higher than ever.  Something had to be done.  One answer, was concrete.

The final third of the nineteenth century was a period of unprecedented technological advancement, an industrial revolution of international proportion. 

The war born of the second industrial revolution, would be like none before.

From the earliest days of the “War to end all Wars”, the Triple Entente powers imposed a surface blockade on the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, throttling the maritime supply of goods and crippling the capacity to make war. One academic study from 1928 put the death toll by starvation at 424,000, in Germany alone.

The Kaiser responded with a blockade of his own, a submarine attack on the supply chain to the British home islands. It was a devastating incursion against an island adversary dependent on prodigious levels of imports.

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Joseph Louis Lambot’s first prototype, built 1848

1915 saw the first German attacks on civilian shipping.  Total losses for that year alone came to 370 vessels against a loss of only 16 U-Boats.  Steel was in critically short supply by the time the US entered the war in 1917 with the need for new ships, higher than ever.  Something had to be done.  One answer, was concrete.

The idea of concrete boats was nothing new.  In the south of France, Joseph Louis Lambot experimented with steel-reinforced “ferrocement”, building his first dinghy in 1848.

By the outbreak of WW1, Lambot’s creation had sunk to the bottom of a lake, where it remained for 100 years, buried deep in anaerobic mud.  Today you may see the thing at the Museum of Brignoles, in the south of France.

Italian engineer Carlo Gabellini built barges and small ships of concrete in the 1890s.  British boat builders experimented with the stuff, in the first decade of the 20th century.  The Violette, built in Faversham in 1917, is now a mooring hulk in Kent, the oldest concrete vessel still afloat.

 

 

The Violette built in 1917, is the oldest concrete ship, still afloat.

The American government contracted with Norwegian boat builder N.K. Fougner to create a prototype, the 84-foot Namsenfjord launched in August, 1917.  The test was judged a success.  President Woodrow Wilson approved a twenty-four ship fleet, consisting of steamers and tankers to aid the war effort.  The first and largest of the concrete fleet, the SS Faith was launched on this day in 1918, thirty days ahead of schedule.

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“Constructed by the San Francisco Shipbuilding Company in 1918, the SS Faith was the first concrete ship built in the United States”. – H/T warfarehistorynetwork.com

The New York Times was ecstatic:

98260463‘”When the first steel vessels were built people said they would not float, or if they did they would be too heavy to be serviceable,” said W. Leslie Comyn, President of the concern which built the boat. “Now they say the same about concrete. But all the engineers we have taken over this boat, including many who said it was an impossible undertaking, now agree that it was a success”‘.

All that from a west coast meadow with two tool sheds, a production facility 1/20th the cost of a conventional steel shipyard.

The Great War ended eight months later with only half the concrete fleet, actually begun.  None were completed.  All were sold off to commercial shippers or for storage, or scrap.

For all its advantages as a building material, ferrocement has numerous drawbacks.  Concrete is a porous material, and chunks tend to spall off from rusting steel reinforcements.  We’ve all see that on bridge abutments.  Worst of all, the stuff is brittle.  On October 30, 1920, the SS Cape Fear collided with a cargo ship in Narragansett Bay Rhode Island and “shattered like a teacup”, killing 19 crewmen.

SS Palo Alto was a tanker-turned restaurant and dance club, before breaking up in heavy waves, in Monterey Bay.

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SS Palo Alto

SS San Pasqual was damaged in a storm in 1921 and became a warehouse for the Old Times Molasses Company of Havana. She was converted to a coastal defense installation during WW2 and outfitted with machine guns and cannon, then becaming a prison, during the Cuban revolution. The wreck was later converted to a 10-room hotel before closing, for good.  That was some swanky joint, I’m sure.

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SS San Pasquale

The steamer SS Sapona was sold for scrap and converted to a floating liquor warehouse during Prohibition, later grounding off the shore of Bimini during a hurricane.  All the liquor, was lost.

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SS Sapone as she looked, in 2009.  H/T Compsciscubadive

The SS Atlantus was destined to be sunk in place as a ferry dock in Cape May New Jersey in 1926, until she broke free in a hurricane and ran aground, 150-feet from the beach. Several attempts were made to free the hulk, but none successful. At one time, the wreck bore a billboard. Advertising a marine insurance outfit, no less. Kids used to swim out and dive off, until one drowned. The wreck began to split up in the late 1950s. If you visit sunset beach today, you might see something like the image, at the top of this page.

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SS Atlantus, Insurance billboard

In 1942, the world once again descended into war.  With steel again in short supply, the Roosevelt administration contracted for another concrete fleet of 24 ships.  The decades had come and gone since that earlier fleet.  This time, the new vessels came off the production line at the astonishing rate of one a month featuring newer and stronger aggregates, lighter than those of years past. Like the earlier concrete fleet, most would be sold off after the war.  Two of the WW2 concrete fleet actually saw combat service, the SS David O. Saylor and the SS Vitruvius.  

In March 1944, an extraordinary naval convoy departed the port of Baltimore. including the concrete vessels, SS David O. Saylor and SS Vitruvius.  It was the most decrepit procession to depart an American city since Ma and Pa Joad left Oklahoma, for California.  A one-way voyage with Merchant Marines promised a return trip, aboard Queen Mary.

Merchant mariner Richard Powers , described the scene:

“We left Baltimore on March 5, and met our convoy just outside Charleston, South Carolina,” Powers recalled. “It wasn’t a pretty sight: 15 old ‘rustpots.’ There were World War I-era ‘Hog Islanders’ (named for the Hog Island shipyard in Philadelphia where these cargo and transport ships were built), damaged Liberty Ships.”

1,154 U-boats were commissioned into the German navy before and during WW2, some 245 of which were lost in 1944.  The majority of those, in the North Atlantic.  The allied crossing took a snail’s pace at 33 days and, despite the massive U-boat presence, passed unmolested into Liverpool.  Powers figured, “The U-Boats were not stupid enough to waste their torpedoes on us.”

Herr Hitler’s Kriegsmarine should have paid more attention.

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On June 1, Seaman Powers’ parade of misfit ships joined a procession of 100 British and American vessels.  Old transports and battered warships, under tow or limping across the English channel at the stately pace of five knots.  These were the old and the infirm, the combat damaged and obsolete.  There were gaping holes from mine explosions, and the twisted and misshapen evidence of collisions at sea. Some had superstructures torn by some of the most vicious naval combat, of the European war.  Decrepit as they were, each was bristling with anti-aircraft batteries, Merchant Mariners joined by battle hardened combat troops.

Their services would not be required.  The allies had complete air supremacy over the English channel.

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A line of U.S. Liberty ships deliberately sunk off the coast at Omaha beach to form a breakwater for the Mulberry harbor there.(U.S. Army) H/T wearethemighty.com

These were the “gooseberries” and “blockships”.   Part of the artificial “Mulberry” harbors intended to form breakwaters and landing piers in support of the D-Day landing, charged with the difficult and dangerous task of scuttling under fire at five points along the Norman coast.  Utah.  Omaha.  Gold.  Juneau.  Sword.

Later on, thousands more merchant vessels would arrive in support of the D-Day invasion.  None more important than those hundred or so destined to advance and die, the living breakwater without which the retaking of continental Europe, would not have been possible.

 

A Trivial Matter
The British Army lost 19,240 killed on the first Day of the WW1 Battle of the Somme. French and German forces suffered a whopping 975,000 casualties on one single day of the ten-month Battle of Verdun. Imperial Russia lost five million soldiers, in the first two years of WW1. Many single day’s fighting of the great battles of 1916 produced more casualties than every European war of the previous 100 years. Combined.

March 9, 1974 The Last Holdout

Japanese explorer and adventurer Norio Suzuki set out, looking for “Lieutenant Onoda, a wild panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order”.

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Ford Island Burning

On December 7, 1941, Imperial Japanese air forces attacked the US Pacific Naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor.

The attack killed 2,335 and wounded another 1,178.  Four battleships and two other vessels were sunk to the bottom.  Thirteen other ships were damaged or destroyed.

188 aircraft were destroyed and another 159 damaged, most while still on the ground.  All eight battleships then in harbor, were damaged.

The following day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of Congress, asking for a declaration of war.  Little did anyone know.  The war with Imperial Japan would rage for 33 years.

Wait.  What!?

Alright, not really. Representatives of the Empire of Japan signed the instruments of surrender aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, formally ending the war in the Pacific.

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Except, some were so isolated from the chain of command, they never got the message.  Others believed it to be a ruse.  So steeped were these guys in the warrior code of bushido, it was impossible to believe their leaders had accepted dishonorable surrender.  Still others were true believers, fanatically dedicated to the mythical “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”.  Never mind those mass graves, over there.

Whatever it was, WW2 came and then left without them.  For thousands, the war went on.

On June 7, 1944, the largest gyokusai (honorable suicide) of World War 2 exploded from three sides against United States Army and Marine Corps troops, on Saipan.  Some five thousand Japanese emerged shrieking from caves and hiding places, in the largest Banzai Charge of WW2. Savage fighting was hand to hand, the tide of humanity overrunning American forward positions and penetrating miles, into the rear. One rear-echelon regimental headquarters was overwhelmed.

Bonsai chargeThe struggle raged for fifteen hours.  In terms of American casualties, the Battle for Saipan was the third costliest battle of the Pacific war, after Okinawa and Iwo Jima. Some 4,300 Japanese troops were killed in the Bonsai charge of June 7.  William O’Brien of Troy, New York, Benjamin Lewis Salomon of Milwaukee Wisconsin and Thomas Alexander Baker of Troy New York all earned the Medal of Honor. Posthumously.

Following the Battle of Saipan, Captain Sakae Ōba led a small band of survivors in guerrilla actions against American troops.  The small group couldn’t know, the fleet of Japanese ships expected to bring relief from the Philippines was destroyed in the largest naval action of the war, in Leyte Gulf.   And so they fought on, 47 men raiding by night, and taking pot shots, from a distance.  When medical supplies ran out, Ōba cannily inserted the weak and infirm into American POW stockades, taking with him a like number among the strongest.  He was “the fox”:  so clever was this guy at evading capture.

Photographs were dropped after the war, depicting the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, pictures Ōba deemed to be fakes.  When Americans set up outdoor movie theaters in the fields of Saipan, none could know.  Captain Sakae Ōba sat in the (way) back seat.

Captain Ōba’s band held out, for 512 days.

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Captain Sakae Ōba surrenders his sword to Lieutenant Colonel Howard G. Kirgi

20 Imperial Japanese Army personnel emerged from a tunnel on Corregidor, surrendering to an American serviceman.  Navy Lieutenant Hideo Horiuchi was arrested by on August 13, 1946, while recovering from wounds received in a battle with Dutch troops.

Lieutenant Ei Yamaguchi led 33 soldiers in an attack on an American Marine Corps detachment on Peleliu in March, 1947. Reinforcements were sent in, including a Japanese admiral who finally convinced these guys the war was over. The group surrendered in April, 1947.

• On May 12, 1948, two Japanese soldiers surrendered to civilian policemen in Guam.
• Two machine gunners from the Imperial Japanese Navy surrendered on Iwo Jima on January 6, 1949.
• Several went on to fight for the Viet Minh against French Imperial troops, in Indochina.
• Seaman Noburo Kinoshita hanged himself in the Luzon jungle in 1955, rather than “return to Japan in defeat.”

Private Bunzō Minagawa and Sergeant Masashi Itō held out for sixteen years on the American territory of Guam.  Minagawa described the experience:

“We ate roots, worms, grass, and grasshoppers. It’s no use telling you because you wouldn’t believe it. You can’t imagine such a life. We were sleeping every night in the rain on the ground“.

The pair surrendered in May 1960, rotted uniforms hanging in tatters from from their bodies. Shoichi Yokoi also served under Itō.  Corporal Yokoi evaded capture, for another twelve years.

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A cleaned-up and no doubt sweeter smelling Masashi Ito and Bunzo Minagawa in hospital, following capture

In June 1941, 36 soldiers and sailors survived the sinking of 3 Japanese supply ships off Anatahan, swimming ashore on the tiny speck of an island in the Marianas chain.

Anatahan island had two occupants at the time, the Japanese head of a coconut plantation, and his wife.  Kikuichiro Higa “disappeared” under mysterious circumstances while his wife Kazuko, became the object of affection for thirty-six starving castaways.

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Japanese ship sinking under allied attack

Kazuko, a “lantern jawed” woman the Japan Times “charitably described” as “handsome’, “married” Kikuichiro Higa as protection, from the rest. Higa was soon shot and Kazuko’s third “husband”, had his throat slit. For six years, a dwindling number of starving waifs vied for the affections of the island’s only female.

Over the years, one erstwhile beau was stabbed, thirteen times.

After twelve murders and countless assaults and fist fights, “The Queen Bee of Anahatan Island” returned to Japan in 1951. Press adulation was short lived.  Kazuku Higa fell into a life of prostitution and died in abject poverty at age 51, while working as garbage collector.

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The media highly glamorized (and highly sexualized) the dismal story of 36 soldiers and sailors and one civilian woman stranded on Anahatan Island

After the war, 2nd Lieutenant Hirō Onoda took to the mountains of Lubang Island along with Private Yūichi Akatsu, Corporal Shōichi Shimada and Private First Class Kinshichi Kozuka, carrying out guerrilla raids and engaging in shootouts with local police.  Akatsu left the other three in 1949, and surrendered six months later.  Shimada was killed by a search party in 1954.  Kozuka was shot and killed by local police in 1972, while burning rice collected by farmers.

Two years later, Japanese explorer and adventurer Norio Suzuki set out, looking for “Lieutenant Onoda, a wild panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order“.  On February 20, 1974, the pair met.  Suzuki nearly got himself shot for his troubles, but he was quick.  “Onoda-san”, he said, “the emperor and the people of Japan are worried about you.” Years later, Onada himself described the encounter:  “This hippie boy Suzuki came to the island to listen to the feelings of a Japanese soldier. Suzuki asked me why I would not come out…

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Hirō Onoda – CNN

I am a soldier and remain true to my duties.” Onada would surrender when ordered to do so by a superior officer.  Not before. Suzuki returned to Japan and located Onoda’s commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who was now working in a book store. The pair flew to Lubang, where Taniguchi issued the following orders:

“In accordance with the Imperial command, the Fourteenth Area Army has ceased all combat activity.
In accordance with military Headquarters Command No. A-2003, the Special Squadron of Staff’s Headquarters is relieved of all military duties.
Units and individuals under the command of Special Squadron are to cease military activities and operations immediately and place themselves under the command of the nearest superior officer. When no officer can be found, they are to communicate with the American or Philippine forces and follow their directives”.

Thus properly relieved of duty, Onada surrendered, turning over his sword, his rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition and a number of hand grenades along with the dagger his mother had given him.  To kill himself, should he ever be captured.  It was March 9, 1974.

Private Teruo Nakamura, born Attun Palalin to the aboriginal Amis people native to the island nation of Taiwan, was the last confirmed holdout of WW2.  Nakamura, who spoke neither Japanese nor Mandarin, was discovered by the Indonesian Air Force on Morotai.  He surrendered to a search patrol on December 18, 1974.

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Teruo Nakamura

Twenty-nine years, three months, and sixteen days after the Japanese instrument of surrender, World War Two was finally over.

Afterward

51D9hvd+N+L._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)As a member of the Japanese Army, Hirō Onada received back pay and a pension equal to $160,000(US), equivalent to $850,000, today.  Not so, Teuro Nakamura. As a member of a colonial army, Nakamura’s thirty-years service to the former Japanese Empire got him $1,186(US) and a trip back to Taiwan where he died of lung cancer, in 1979.

Private 1st Class James Donald “Don” Jones of Eastland County, Texas was a veteran of Tulagi, Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Tinian and helped defeat the great bonsai charge of Saipan, in 1944.  Curious about his own history, Don Jones met with Captain Ōba in 1980, and returned the former geography teacher, his sword.  You can read Private Jones’ story in his own words, if you like.  It’s available from $16.93, in hard cover.

A Trivial Matter

On March 16, 1631, the first recorded fire in the city of Boston burned the home of Thomas Sharp to the ground.  Thatch roofs and wooden chimneys were outlawed, not long after.

March 8, 1863  I Can’t Replace those Horses

Some sources report the general was “sleeping it off”, possibly following an evening’s celebration with a young lady of southern sympathies. 

Small and frail as a boy, John Singleton Mosby was often the target of much larger bullies.  Many years later, he’d write in his memoirs.  He never won a fight.  Seems that he never backed down from one, either.

Like fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee, Mosby opposed secession.  When it came, he left the Union along with his home state of Virginia.

Mosby participated in the 1st Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) as a member of the Virginia Volunteers Mounted Rifles, later joining James Ewell Brown “JEB” Stuart as a Cavalry Scout.  A natural horseman and gifted tactician, information gathered by Mosby aided Stuart in his humiliating ride around McLellan’s Army of the Potomac in June, 1862.

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Dr William Gunnell House

In 1863, JEB Stuart authorized Mosby to form and take command of the 43rd Battalion of the Virginia Cavalry, a regiment sized unit operating out of north central Virginia.  These “Partisan Rangers”, 1,900 of whom served between January 1863 and April 1865, were under the authority of Stuart and Lee and subject to their commands, but were not a traditional army unit.  “Mosby’s Rangers” shared in the spoils of war but had no camp duties, and lived scattered among civilian populations.

Known for lightning raids on the Virginia countryside, Mosby’s 43rd Cavalry would be called together to strike a specific target, dispersing afterward and making themselves next to impossible to run to ground.  So successful were they that parts of Virginia’s Piedmont region are known to this day, as “Mosby’s Confederacy”.

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Union Brigadier General Edwin H. Stoughton

In Early March 1863, a Federal brigade was stationed near Fairfax Court House south of Washington.  Mosby received word that two ranking officers, Brigadier General Edwin H. Stoughton and Colonel Sir Percy Wyndham, were headquartered in the town itself.

“Sir” Percy Wyndham was an English officer and adventurer, a professional soldier and veteran of the Italian Risorgimento, the French Navy and the Austrian Army’s 8th Lancers Regiment. In October 1861, the Englishman came to America, to offer his services in the American Civil War.

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Colonel Sir Percy Wyndham

For some time now, Wyndham had chased Mosby’s rangers across the Virginia countryside. There was a special kind of hate between these two men. Sir Percy had even gone so far as to call the man, a horse thief.  Mosby retorted “The only horses he had every stolen had Union troopers on their backs armed with two pistols and a saber.”

With his nemesis in sight, Mosby’s Rangers formed up for a raid on the night of March 8, 1863.

As it turned out, Wyndham was away that night, visiting in Washington city.   General  Stoughton was asleep in his quarters in the home of Dr. William Gunnell.

The “Gray Ghost” and a small detachment entered the Gunnell home in the small hours of March 9.  Mosby’s rangers quickly overpowered a handful of sleepy guards, and crept upstairs to where the General slept.

Let Mosby’s own words, paint the picture:

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The Fairfax Raid, by Civil War artist Mort Kustler

“There were signs in the room of having been revelry in the house that night. Some uncorked champagne bottles furnished an explanation of the general’s deep sleep. He had been entertaining a number of ladies from Washington in a style becoming a commanding general”.

Entering the chamber, Mosby lifted the general’s nightshirt and slapped his bare backside, with a sword. Confused, Stoughton sputtered awake, demanding “What is the meaning of this“. “General, did you ever hear of Mosby“, came the question.  Stoughton replied, “Yes, have you caught him?” “I AM Mosby,” said the Gray Ghost, “he has caught you. Stuart’s cavalry has possession of the Courthouse;.  Be quick and dress.”

That night, John Singleton Mosby and 29 rangers captured a Union General, two Captains, 30 enlisted men and 58 horses, all without firing a shot.  On hearing the story the next day, President Lincoln lamented:  “I can make another Brigadier in 5 minutes, but I can’t replace those horses“.

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March 6, 1836  Remember the Alamo

The final assault began at 5:00am, on Sunday, March 6, 1836. 1,800 troops attacked from all sides.  Santa Anna’s troops were shattered by concentrated artillery fire, but the numbers were overwhelming.

In 1831, Mexican authorities gave the settlers of Gonzales, Texas a small cannon, a defense against Comanche raids.  The political situation deteriorated in the following years.  By 1835, several Mexican states were in open revolt.  That September, commander of “Centralist” (Mexican) troops in Texas Colonel Domingo de Ugartechea, came to take it back.

Dissatisfied with the increasingly dictatorial policies of President and General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the colonists had no intention of handing over that cannon.  One excuse was given after another to keep the Mexican dragoons out of Gonzalez, while pleas fr assistance secretly went out to surrounding communities.  Within two days, 140 “Texians” had gathered in Gonzalez, determined not to give up that gun.

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Militarily, the skirmish of October 2 had little significance, much the same as the early battles in the Massachusetts colony, some sixty years earlier.  Politically, the “Lexington of Texas” marked a break between Texian settlers, and the Mexican government.

Settlers continued to gather, electing the well-respected local and former legislator of the Missouri Stephen F. Austin, as their leader.  Santa Anna sent his brother-in-law, General Martin Perfecto de Cos to reinforce the settlement of San Antonio de Béxar, near the modern city of San Antonio.  On the 13th, Austin led his Federalist army of Texians and their Tejano allies to Béxar, to confront the garrison.  Austin’s forces captured the town that December, following a prolonged siege. It was only a matter of time before Santa Anna himself came to take it back.

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Gonzalez Flag

Two forts – more like lonely outposts – blocked the only approaches from the Mexican interior into Texas: Presidio La Bahía (Nuestra Señora de Loreto Presidio) at Goliad and the Alamo at San Antonio de Béxar.  That December, a group of volunteers led by George Collinsworth and Benjamin Milam overwhelmed the Mexican garrison at the Alamo, and captured the fort  The Mexican President arrived on February 23 at the head of an army of 3,000, demanding its surrender.  Lieutenant Colonel William Barret “Buck” Travis, responded with a cannon ball.

Knowing that his small force couldn’t hold for long against such an army, Travis sent out a series of pleas for help and reinforcement, writing “If my countrymen do not rally to my relief, I am determined to perish in the defense of this place, and my bones shall reproach my country for her neglect.” 32 troops attached to Lt. George Kimbell’s Gonzales ranging company made their way through the enemy cordon and into the Alamo on March 1. There would be no more.

Estimates of the Alamo garrison have ranged between 189 and 257 at this stage, but current sources indicate that defenders never numbered more than 200.

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The final assault began at 5:00am, on Sunday, March 6, 1836. 1,800 troops attacked from all sides.  Santa Anna’s troops were shattered by concentrated artillery fire, but the numbers were overwhelming. The walls were breached and to hand fighting moved to the barracks, ending in the chapel. As many as seven defenders remained alive when it was over.  Many believe former Congressman Davy Crockett was among them.

Santa Anna ordered them all, executed.

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By 8:00am there were no survivors, saving a handful of noncombatant women, children, and slaves, slowly emerging from the smoking ruins. These were provided with blankets and two dollars apiece, and given safe passage through Mexican lines with the warning:  a similar fate awaited any Texan who continued in their revolt.

On April 21, a force of 800 Texans shouting “Remember the Alamo!” and led by Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna’s force of some 1,500 at San Jacinto, near modern day Houston. The victory secured Texan independence.  Mexican troops occupying San Antonio were ordered to withdraw by May. Texas became the 28th state of the United States on December 29, 1845.

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Santa Anna went on to lose a leg to a cannon ball two years later, fighting the French at the Battle of Veracruz. following amputation, the leg spent four years buried at Santa Anna’s hacienda, Manga de Clavo, in Veracruz. When Santa Anna resumed the presidency in late 1841, he had the leg dug up and placed in a crystal vase, brought amidst a full military dress parade to Mexico City and escorted by the Presidential bodyguard, the army, and cadets from the military academy. This guy was nothing if not a self-promoter.

The leg was reburied in an elaborate ceremony in 1842, including cannon salvos, speeches, and poetry read in the General’s honor. The state funeral for Santa Anna’s leg was attended by his entire cabinet, the diplomatic corps, and the Congress.

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Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna served 11 non-consecutive terms as Mexican President, spending most of his later years in exile in Jamaica, Cuba, the United States, Colombia, and St. Thomas. In 1869, the 74-year-old former President was living in Staten Island, trying to raise an army to return and take over Mexico City.  In a bid to raise the money, Santa Anna brought the first shipments of chicle to the United States, a gum-like substance made from the tree species, Manilkara chicle.  This, he proposed to use as rubber on carriage tires.

Thomas Adams, the American assigned to aid Santa Anna’s stay in the US, also experimented with chicle as a substitute for rubber. He bought a ton of the stuff from the General, but those experiments would likewise prove, unsuccessful. Instead, Adams helped to found an American chewing gum industry with a product he called “Chiclets”.

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.

March 5, 1776 Head Fake

It’s doubtful whether Washington possessed either powder or shot for a sustained campaign, but British forces occupying Boston didn’t know that.

Over the night and the following day of April 18-19, 1775, individual British soldiers marched 36 miles or more, on the round-trip expedition from Boston.  Following the early morning battles at Lexington and Concord, armed colonial militia from as far away as Worcester swarmed over the column, forcing the regulars into a fighting retreat.

In those days, Boston was a virtual island, connected to the mainland by a narrow “neck” of land.  More than 20,000 armed men converged from all over New England in the weeks that followed, gathering in buildings and encampments from Cambridge to Roxbury.

siege-of-boston-1775-1776-grangerA man who should have gone into history among the top tier of American Founding Fathers, the future turncoat Benedict Arnold, arrived with Connecticut militia to support the siege.  Arnold informed the Massachusetts Committee of Safety that Fort Ticonderoga, located along the southern end of Lake Champlain in northern New York, was bristling with cannon and other military stores.  Furthermore, the place was lightly defended.

The committee commissioned Arnold a colonel on May 3, authorizing him to raise troops and lead a mission to capture the fort.  Seven days later, Colonel Arnold and militia forces from Connecticut and western Massachusetts in conjunction with Ethan Allen and his “Green Mountain Boys” captured the fort, and all its armaments.

The Continental Congress created the Army that June, appointing General George Washington to lead it.  When General Washington took command of that army in July, it was a force with an average of nine rounds-worth of shot and powder, per man.  British forces occupying Boston, were effectively penned up by forces too weak to do anything about it.

The stalemate dragged on for months, when a 25-year-old bookseller came to General Washington with a plan. His name was Henry Knox. His plan was a 300-mile, round trip slog into a New England winter, to retrieve the guns of Ticonderoga:  brass and iron cannon, howitzers, and mortars.  59 pieces in all.  Washington’s advisors derided the idea as hopeless, but the General approved.

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Knox set out with a column of men in late November, 1775.  For nearly two months, he and his team wrestled 60 tons of cannons and other armaments by boat, animal & man-hauled sledges along roads little better than foot trails.  Across two barely frozen rivers, and through the forests and swamps of the Berkshires to Cambridge, historian Victor Brooks called it “one of the most stupendous feats of logistics” of the Revolution.  It must have been a sight on January 24, 1776, when Knox returned at the head of that “Noble Train of Artillery”.

For British military leadership in Boston, headed by General William Howe, the only option for resupply was by water, via Boston Harbor.  Both sides of the siege understood the strategic importance of the twin prominences overlooking the harbor, the hills of Charlestown to the north, and Dorchester heights to the south.  It’s why British forces had nearly spent themselves on Farmer Breed’s hillside that June, an engagement that went into history as the Battle of Bunker Hill.

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With Howe’s forces in possession of the Charlestown peninsula, Washington had long considered occupying Dorchester Heights, but considered his forces too weak.  That changed with the guns of Ticonderoga.

In the first days of March, Washington placed several heavy cannon at Lechmere’s Point and Cobble Hill in Cambridge, and on Lamb’s Dam in Roxbury.  The batteries opened fire on the night of March 2, and again on the following night and the night after that.  With British attention thus diverted, American General John Thomas and a force of some 2,000 made plans to take the heights.

As the ground was frozen and digging impossible, fortifications and cannon placements were fashioned from heavy 10′ timbers.  With the path to the top lined with hay bales to muffle their sounds, these fortifications were manhandled to the top of Dorchester heights over the night of March 4-5, along with the bulk of Knox’ cannons.

General Howe was stunned on awakening, on the morning of March 5.  The British garrison in Boston and the fleet in harbor, were now under the muzzles of Patriot guns.  “The rebels have done more in one night”, he said, “than my whole army would have done in a month.”

Plans were laid for an immediate British assault on the hill, as reinforcements poured into the position.  By day’s end, Howe faced the prospect of another bunker Hill, this time against a force of 6,000 in possession of heavy artillery.

A heavy snowstorm descended late in the day, interrupting Howe’s plan for the assault.  A few days later, he had thought better of it.  A tacit cease-fire settled in over the next two weeks, with Washington’s side declining to open fire, and Howe’s side refraining from destroying the town, in the course of withdrawing from Boston.

British forces departed Boston by sea on March 17 with about 1,000 civilian loyalists, resulting in a peculiar Massachusetts institution which exists to this day. “Evacuation Day”:

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British evacuation of Boston. March 17, 1776

It’s doubtful whether Washington possessed either powder or shot for a sustained campaign, but British forces occupying Boston didn’t know that. The mere presence of those guns moved General Howe to weigh anchor and sail for Nova Scotia. The episode may be the greatest head fake, in military history.

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.

March 2, 1864 A POW story

Four men, each of whom played a part in the most destructive war, in American history.  Without any of these four, I wouldn’t be here to tell their story.

In the early days of the Civil War, the government in Washington refused to recognize the Confederate states’ government, believing any such recognition would amount to legitimizing an illegal entity.  The Union refused formal agreement regarding the exchange of prisoners. Following the capture of over a thousand federal troops at the first battle of Bull Run (Manassas), a joint resolution in Congress called for President Lincoln to establish a prisoner exchange agreement.

In July 1862, Union Major General John A. Dix and Confederate Major General D. H. Hill met under flag of truce to draw up an exchange formula, regarding the return of prisoners. The “Dix-Hill Cartel” determined that Confederate and Union Army soldiers were exchanged at a prescribed rate:  captives of equivalent ranks were exchanged as equals.  Corporals and Sergeants were worth two privates.  Lieutenants were four and Colonels fifteen, all the way up to Commanding General, equivalent to sixty private soldiers.  Similar exchange rates were established for Naval personnel.

My twice-great grandfather, Corporal Jacob Deppen of the 128th Pennsylvania Infantry,  was paroled in such an exchange.

President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation of September 1862 not only freed those enslaved in Confederate territories, but also provided for the enlistment of black soldiers.  The government in Richmond responded that such would be regarded as runaway slaves and not soldiers.  Their white officers would be treated as criminals, for inciting servile insurrection.

The policy was made clear in July 1863, following the Union defeat at Fort Wagner, an action depicted in the 1989 film, Glory.  The Dix-Hill protocol was formally abandoned on July 30.  Neither side was ready for the tide of humanity, about to come.

The US Army began construction the following month on the Rock Island Prison, built on an Island between Davenport Iowa and Rock Island, Illinois. In time, Rock Island would become one of the most infamous POW camps of the north, housing some 12,000 Confederate prisoners, seventeen per cent of whom, died in captivity.

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On this day in 1864, the first prisoners had barely moved into the most notorious POW camp of the Civil War, the first Federal soldiers arriving on February 28.

The pictures at the top of this page were taken at Camp Sumter, better known as Andersonville.  Conditions in this place defy description. Sergeant Major Robert H. Kellogg of the 16th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, entered this hell hole on May 2:

“As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness. “Can this be hell?” “God protect us!” and all thought that he alone could bring them out alive from so terrible a place. In the center of the whole was a swamp, occupying about three or four acres of the narrowed limits, and a part of this marshy place had been used by the prisoners as a sink, and excrement covered the ground, the scent arising from which was suffocating. The ground allotted to our ninety was near the edge of this plague-spot, and how we were to live through the warm summer weather in the midst of such fearful surroundings, was more than we cared to think of just then”.

Over 45,000 Union troops would pass through the verminous open sewer known as Andersonville. Nearly 13,000 died there.

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Andersonville

Now all but forgotten, the ‘Eighty acres of Hell’ located in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago was home to some forty thousand Confederate POWs between 1862 and 1865, seventeen per cent of whom, never left.  No southern soldier was equipped for the winters at Camp Douglas, nor the filth, or the disease. Nearby Oak Woods Cemetery is home to the largest mass grave, in the western hemisphere.

Union and Confederate governments established 150 such camps between 1861 and 1865, makeshift installations of rickety wooden buildings and primitive sewage systems, often little more than tent cities.   Some 347,000 human beings languished in these places, victims of catastrophically poor hygiene, harsh summary justice, starvation, disease and swarming vermin.

The training depot designated camp Rathbun near Elmira New York became the most notorious camp in the north, in 1864.  12,213 Confederate prisoners were held there, often three men to a tent.  Nearly 25% of them died there, only slightly less, than Andersonville.   The death rate in “Hellmira” was double that of any other camp in the north.

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“Hellmira”

Historians debate the degree to which such brutality resulted from deliberate mistreatment, or economic necessity.

The Union had more experience being a “country” at this time, with well established banking systems and means of commerce and transportation.  For the south, the war was an economic catastrophe.  The Union blockade starved southern ports of even the basic necessities from the beginning, while farmers abandoned fields to take up arms. Most of the fighting of the Civil War took place on southern soil, destroying incalculable acres of rich farm lands.

The capital at Richmond saw bread riots as early as 1862.  Southern Armies subsisted on corn meal and peanuts.  The Confederate government responded by printing currency, about a billion dollars worth.  By 1864, a Confederate dollar was worth 5¢ in gold.  Southern inflation exceeded 9000%, by 1865.

Captain Henry Wirz, commandant of the stockade at Camp Sumter, was tried and executed after the war, only one of two men to be hanged for war crimes.  Captain Wirz appeared at trial reclined on a couch, advanced gangrene preventing him from sitting up.  To some, the man was a scapegoat. A victim of circumstances beyond his control. To others he is a demon, personally responsible for the hell of Andersonville prison.  I make no pretense of answering such a question.  The subject is capable of inciting white-hot passion, from that day to this.

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Family cemetery, Scotland County, North Carolina.  Note the peaked tops of Confederate stones.  It’s said they were shaped that way, so no Yankee could sit on them.

On a personal note:

There are many good reasons to study history, among which is an understanding of where we come from.  How do we know where we’re going, if we don’t understand where we’ve been.

Should our ancestors be towering historical figures or merely those who played a part, the principle applies on the micro, as well as a larger scale.

Among those farmers who laid down their tools were the four Tyner brothers of North Carolina:  James, William, Nicholas and Benjamin.  My twice-great Grandfather, Private James Tyner, 52nd North Carolina Infantry, was captured at Spotsylvania Courthouse and imprisoned at “Hellmira”.  He died in captivity on March 13, 1865, less than a month before General Lee surrendered at Appomattox.  Nicholas alone survived the war, to return to the Sand Hills of North Carolina.

Corporal Jacob Deppen of the 128th PA Infantry re-enlisted with the Army of the James, after his parole.  He and Nicholas Tyner would lay down their weapons at Appomattox, former enemies turned countrymen, if they could only figure out how to do it.

William Christian Long was Blacksmith to the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and survived the war.  His name may be found on the Pennsylvania monument, at Gettysburg.

Archibald Blue of Drowning Creek North Carolina wanted no part of what he saw as a “rich man’s war” and ordered his five sons away.  He was murdered for his politics in 1865.  The killer was never found.

Four men, each of whom played a part in the most destructive war, in American history.  Without any of these four, I wouldn’t be here to tell their story.

Rick Long