January 13, 1997 Buffalo Soldier

From the second floor of a house, Lieutenant Fox directed American defensive fire by radio, adjusting each salvo closer to his own position.  Warned that his final adjustment would bring down artillery fire on his own head, the soldier who received the message was stunned at the response. 1st Lt. John Fox’ last known words, were “Fire it.” 

In September 1867, Private John Randall of Troop G, US 10th Cavalry Regiment, was assigned to escort two civilians on a hunting trip. The hunter became the hunted when a band of 70 Cheyenne warriors swept down on the trio. The two civilians were killed in the initial attack and Randall’s horse shot out from under him.

hardpicCornered in a washout under some railroad tracks, single handed, Randall held off the attack with his revolver, despite a gunshot wound to his shoulder and no fewer than 11 lance wounds.

By the time help arrived, 13 Cheyenne warriors lay dead.  Private Randall was still standing. Word spread among the Cheyenne about a new kind of soldier, “who had fought like a cornered buffalo; who like a buffalo had suffered wound after wound, yet had not died; and who like a buffalo had a thick and shaggy mane of hair.”

The US 10th Cavalry, formed on September 21, 1866 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, was the first unit of “Negro Cavalry”, an all-black unit which would soon be joined by the 9th, 24th and 25th Cavalry, and come to be known as “Buffalo Soldiers”.

Several all-black regiments were formed during the Civil War, including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry depicted in the film, “Glory”.  The “Buffalo Soldiers” were the first peacetime all-black regiments in the regular Army.

The original units fought in the American Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, the Border War and two World Wars, amassing 23 Medals of Honor by the end of 1918.

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At one time, “Buffalo Soldiers” was a catch-all term, used to describe American troops of African ancestry. Today the term is used as a badge of honor only by those units who trace their lineage to the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments. Here, the 92nd Division (segregated) in the Argonne Forest of WW1. The 92nd’s insignia is a buffalo: a tribute to their predecessors.

The old met with the new during WWII when Mark Matthews, veteran of the Pancho Villa Expedition, WW1, WW2 and the Battle of Saipan, was sent to train with the Tuskeegee Airmen.  In the end, Matthews would prove too old to fly.  A member of the Buffalo Soldiers Drum & Bugle Corps, Matthews would play taps at Arlington National Cemetery, always from the woods. Blacks of the era were not permitted at “white” funerals.  1st Sergeant Matthews retired shortly before the Buffalo Soldiers were disbanded, part of President Truman’s initiative to integrate United States’ armed forces..

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1st Lt. John Robert Fox

In December 1944, the segregated 366th Infantry Regiment of the 92nd Infantry Division was fighting in the vicinity of Sommocolonia, in northern Italy.  On Christmas day, German soldiers began to infiltrate the town, disguised as civilians.  A heavy artillery barrage began in the early morning hours of the 26th, followed by an overwhelming attack of enemy ground forces.  Vastly outnumbered, American infantry were forced to conduct a fighting retreat.

First Lieutenant John R. Fox, forward observer for the 598th Field Artillery Battalion, volunteered to stay behind with a small Italian force, to help slow the enemy advance.  From the second floor of a house, Lieutenant Fox directed American defensive fire by radio, adjusting each salvo closer to his position.  Warned that his final adjustment would bring down artillery fire on his own head, the soldier who received the message was stunned at the response. 1st Lt. John Fox’ last known words, were “Fire it.”

When American forces retook the town, Lieutenant Fox’ body was found with those of about 100 German soldiers.

The King James Bible translates John 15:13, as “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends“.  After the war, Sommocolonia erected a Memorial.  A tribute to nine brave soldiers who gave their lives, that their brothers might live.  Eight Italians, and one American.

In a January 13, 1997 ceremony at the White House, President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously, to the family of 1st Lieutenant John R. Fox.

Memorial Day celebration in Washington, D.C.1st Sergeant Mark Matthews, the last of the Buffalo Soldiers, died of pneumonia on September 6, 2005 at age of 111.  A man who forged papers in order to join at age fifteen and once had to play taps from the woods, was buried with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, section 69, grave #4215.

An American Hero.

The rank of General of the Armies is equivalent to that of a six-star general, the highest possible operational rank of the United States Armed Forces.  The rank has been awarded only twice, once posthumously to George Washington, and only once to an active-duty officer: John Joseph Pershing.

Then-1st Lieutenant Pershing served with the Buffalo Soldiers from October 1895 to May 1897 plus another six months in Cuba, and came to respect soldiers of African ancestry as “real soldiers”, in every way.  As West Point instructor beginning in 1897, Pershing was looked down upon and insulted by white cadets and officers, aggrieved over Pershing’s strict and unyielding disciplinary policies.

The press sanitized the favored insult to “Black Jack,” delivered, no doubt, behind the man’s back, but that’s not they said.

During WW1, General Pershing bowed to the segregationist policies of President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of War Newton Baker.  It seems Pershing understood what the Connecticut academic and the Ohio politician had failed to learn, a principle the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. would spell out, some fifty years later:

“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools”.

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.
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January 6, 1842 I Am the Army

That afternoon, a single mangled soldier rode into Jalalabad on a wounded horse. He was Dr. William Brydon. When asked where the army was, Brydon replied “I am the Army”.

The British East India Company was a British joint stock company, chartered by Queen Elizabeth in 1600 with a trade monopoly in Southeast Asia and India. It was the first of several such companies established by European powers, followed closely by the East India Companies of the Dutch, Danish, Portuguese, French and Swedish, and associated with the valuable trade in such commodities as cotton, silk, indigo, salt, saltpeter, tea and opium.

India means British troops on the Kabul Plain

These organizations were much more than what we associate with the word “company”. In their day they could raise their own armies, enforce the law up to and including trial and execution of accused wrong doers, and largely functioned outside the control of the governments that formed them. By the early 19th century, the British East India Company ruled over large areas of India with its own private armies.

Firmly entrenched by the 1830s and wary of Russian encroachment south through Afghanistan, the British tried without success to form an alliance with the Emir of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammad Khan.

Lord Auckland’s “Simla Manifesto” of October 1838 laid out a justification for British intervention in Afghanistan, based on the need for a trustworthy ally on India’s western frontier. The pro-British, Shuja Shah Durrani was installed as ruler, backed up by an army of 21,000 British and Indian troops under the command of Lieutenant General John Keane, 1st Baron Keane, veteran of the Peninsular War, and the battle of New Orleans.

Afghan Tribesmen

Most of these troops returned to India the following year, as Dost Mohammad unsuccessfully attacked the British and their Afghan protégé, only to be defeated and exiled to India in late 1840.

By 1841, disaffected Afghan tribesmen were flocking to support Dost Mohammad’s son, Akbar Khan, against what they saw as an occupying force. There were warning signs of the deteriorating situation as the spring of 1841 turned to summer, and British freedom of movement around Kabul became increasingly restricted. The British government in India was dismayed at the cost of keeping the Kabul Garrison, when they cut off funds, ending the stream of bribes that all but kept the tribes in check.

It was around this time that Sir William Elphinstone stepped in as commander of the Kabul Garrison. Described by fellow General William Nott as “the most incompetent soldier who ever became General”, Elphinstone found himself in charge of 4,800 Indian and British troops, along with 16,000 camp followers: families, servants and civilian workers.

Akbar Khan

On November 2 1841, Akbar Khan proclaimed a general revolt. Several British officers were murdered along with their families, servants and staff. Afghan leaders invited Civil servant Sir William Hay MacNaghten for tea in December to discuss the situation; only to seize and murder them as the delegation dismounted their horses.

On January 1, Elphinstone agreed to hand over all powder, his newest muskets and most of his cannon, in exchange for “safe passage” out of Kabul, guaranteed by Akbar Khan along with the protection of the sick, wounded and infirm left behind. 16,000 soldiers and civilians moved out on January 6, heading for Jalalabad, 90 miles away.

Akbar Khan’s “safe passage” lasted about as long as it took the column to get out in the open, when Afghans moved in firing at retreating troops while setting fire to garrison buildings containing those left behind.

At one point Akbar Khan met with Elphinstone, claiming ignorance of any betrayal. He claimed that he had been unable to provide the promised escort because they had left earlier than expected, and then asked Elphinstone to wait while he went ahead and negotiated safe passage with local tribesmen.

The delay accomplished nothing more than to allow Akbar Khan time to set up the next ambush. By the evening of the 9th, the column was only 25 miles outside of Kabul. 3,000 people were dead, mostly killed while fighting or frozen to death, while a few had taken their own lives. By January 12, the column was reduced to only 200 soldiers and 2,000 camp followers

Last stand

The last stand took place on a snow-covered hill near the village of Gandamak, on the morning of January 13, 1842. 20 officers and 45 British soldiers were surrounded, with an average of two rounds apiece. That afternoon, one mangled soldier rode into Jalalabad on a wounded horse. He was Dr. William Brydon. Brydon had part of his skull sheared off by an Afghan sword. He was only alive because of a Blackwood’s Magazine, stuffed into his hat to fight off the cold of the Hindu Kush. When asked where the army was, Brydon replied “I am the Army”.

In the end, 115 captured officers, soldiers, wives and children lived long enough to be released. Around 2,000 Sepoys and Indian camp followers eventually made their way back to India, while others were sold into slavery, or abandoned to a life of beggary.

The 1842 Kabul expedition was the most egregious loss to British arms in history, eclipsed only by the fall of Singapore 100 years later, nearly to the day.

According to legend, Brydon’s horse lay down on arrival in Jalalabad, and never got up again.

January 5, 1976 The Killing Fields of Cambodia

Imagine feeling so desperate, so fearful of this alien ideology invading your country, that you convert all your worldly possessions and those of your family to a single diamond, bite down on that stone so hard it embedded in your shattered teeth, and fled with your family to open ocean in a small boat.  All in the faint and desperate hope, of getting out of that place.  That is but one story among millions.  Those were the lucky ones.

Between the 7th and 14th centuries, the Khmer Empire occupied much of modern-day Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and southern Vietnam.  Now extinct, this powerful civilization was once home to the largest city in the world.  Until recently overrun by Jungle, the capital city of Angkor, whose original name was Yashodharapura (“Glory-bearing city”), was nearly the size of modern day Los Angeles, and home to roughly a million people.

Even today, the Hindu temple complex of Angkor Wat, built circa 1122, remains one of the largest religious monuments in the world.

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Temple Complex at Angkor Wat

During the 1950s, a group of some 200 middle-class Cambodian kids were educated at French Universities.  The greater part of that group formed a student organization of Marxist-Leninist intellectuals, dreaming of an agrarian utopia on the Indo-Chinese peninsula.

What began as a small leftist insurgency grew in power, thanks to support from Communist China and North Vietnam.  From only a few hundred individuals in 1960, these “Red Khmers” (Khmer Rouge) grew into an effective insurgency against the Khmer Republic’s government of King Norodom Sihanouk and Prime Minister Lon Nol.  By early 1975, the Khmer Rouge had overwhelmed Khmer National Armed Forces.

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As the last, humiliating scenes of America’s war in neighboring Vietnam played themselves out in the capital of Saigon, Khmer Rouge forces captured the Cambodian capital at Phnom Penh, overthrowing the Khmer Republic and executing its officers.

This was to be “Democratic Kampuchea”, the name representing a local pronunciation of the word as it comes into English, as Cambodia.

The Kampuchean constitution, formally approved this day in 1976, theoretically vested power in a 250-member, directly elected “Kampuchean People’s Representative Assembly”.  This body met once in April, and never again.  Unlike the cult of personality grown up around the Kim family of North Korea or that of the Stalinist USSR or Maoist China, all power in the CPK (Communist Party of Kampuchea) belonged to “The Center”, a shadowy, nine-member standing committee of those same leftist intellectuals from the Paris student days, led by Prime Minister and Communist General Secretary Saloth Sar, better known as ‘Pol Pot’.

This nine-member “Angkar”, (pronounced ahng-kah), meaning ‘The Organization’, ushered in one of the great horrors of the twentieth century, a four-year genocide remembered as the “Killing Fields”, of Cambodia.

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Khmer Rouge Uniforms

The “Khmer Rouge”, self-described as “The one authentic people capable of building true communism”, murdered or caused the deaths of an estimated 1.4 to 2.2 million of their own people, out of a population of 7 million. All to build the perfect, agrarian “Worker’s Paradise”.

Imagine feeling so desperate, so fearful of this alien ideology invading your country, that you convert all your worldly possessions and those of your family to a single diamond, bite down on that stone so hard it embedded in your shattered teeth, and fled with your family to open ocean in a small boat.  All in the faint and desperate hope, of getting out of that place.  That is but one story among millions.  Those were the lucky ones.

The very embodiment of the “ivory tower intellectual”, the Angkar was detached and incapable of connection with the masses.  Theirs was a radicalized ideology, heavily influenced by French communists and the writings of Lenin and Mao, and heavily tinged with ideas of racial superiority.  Paradoxically, it was a creed altogether averse to an educated or merchant class and determined to use violence in pursuit of “class struggle”.

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The Khmer rouge set out to create a peasant’s utopia.  An agrarian, atheist state.  Among the first to go were the Buddhist monks, nearly 25,000 of them murdered, most often with a rock, or a club.  All religion was banned, repression of Christians and Muslims, extensive.

For generations, European colonists exploited the mineral resources of “French Indochina”.  Now, abandoned mine shafts filled with the bones of the slain.

Whole cities were liquidated as “parasitic” and “corrupt”.  Shop owners, business people and educators.  Police officers, government employees and ethnic minorities such as Chinese, Vietnamese and Cham.  All were driven from their homes and murdered as “class enemies”.  Anyone who so much as wore eyeglasses or owned a wristwatch, was as good as dead.

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Today, the Tuol Sleng (“Hill of Poisonous Trees”) Genocide Museum occupies the former  Chao Ponhea Yat High School, operated during the Cambodian Genocide as Security Prison 21.  In its day, “S-21” held and estimated 20,000 people at one time or another – no one knows for sure.   Between 1976 and ’79, only seven adults survived this place.

The Khmer Rouge operated at least 150 such torture and execution facilities.

There, Khmer interrogators extracted “confessions” by torture.  After two to three months, victims would eagerly agree to anything, thousand-word “confessions” weaving true stories into outlandish tales of conspiracy with Vietnamese, KGB and CIA operatives.  Friends, families and acquaintances would be identified in such narratives as they in turn, would be brought in for “interrogation”.

All were turned over to extermination centers, where squads of blank-eyed teenagers awaited with machetes, pick axes and iron bars.  Ammunition was too expensive.

The vast majority of victims were Cambodian, but not all.  488 Vietnamese passed through S-21, as did 31 Thai, one Laotian, an Arab, one Brit, four French, two Americans, a Canadian, one New Zealander, two Australians, and an Indonesian. An unknown number of Indians and Pakistanis also passed through the facility.  Not one foreigner survived.

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One among 20,000 mass grave sites, in Cambodia

The Khmer Rouge is estimated to have executed over 1.38 million people in this way, with death by starvation, torture, overwork and disease accounting for some 2½ million more.  Twenty-five per cent, of the entire nation.

The last straw came on April 18, 1978, four miles over the border into Vietnamese territory.  Khmer Rouge troops took a page out of their own playbook, murdering 3,000 Vietnamese civilians in what came to be known as the Ba Chuc Massacre.

The New York Times reported:

“The Khmer Rouge then used the same formula for execution as in Cambodia. ‘They pointed their weapons and ordered us to come to a meeting with their superiors,’ said Nga, a dignified, soft-spoken woman.

She was forced toward the border with parents, siblings, husband and six children. Suddenly, their escorts began clubbing the children. Her youngest daughter was struck violently on the head three times and cried ‘Mother, Mother.'”

Four years earlier, North Vietnam had helped the Khmer Rouge take power.  Now the Vietnamese government staged a massive invasion of its neighbor.  By January 7, 1979 it was over, the Khmer regime toppled and a new government installed in Phnom Penh.

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Cambodian journalist Dith Pran managed to escape the regime, one among millions swept up in the humanitarian disaster in the wake of the war in Vietnam, and the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia.   It was he who coined the term.

Justice was slow in coming.  Most senior Khmer officials would not be tried, until well into the twenty-first century.  Pol Pot died quietly in his bed, in 1998.

Feature image, top of page:  At least 10,000 children were bashed to death against “killing trees”, of which this is but one.

January 2, 1492 La Reconquista

A Christian military force under Pelagius,(aka “Pelayo”), the future first King of Asturias, met the invaders at “Covadonga”, meaning “Cavern of the Lady”.  The Arabic name for the place is “Sakhrat Bilāy” “the Rock of the Affliction”.  The two names tell the tale about the outcome, of the battle.

The manner by which Roderic ascended to the throne of the Visigothic Empire is unclear. His history as any other, was written by the victors.  Unbiased contemporary sources do not appear to exist. What Is known is that someone in the early 8th century Iberian Peninsula, thought Roderic an illegitimate King.

al-andalusThat someone appears to have gone to Mecca looking for help from the BanūʾUmayya, the “Sons of Umayya”, the second such center of Islamic power since the time of Muhammad and known to history as the Umayyad Caliphate.

In 711AD, a force of some 1,700 Arab and North African horsemen, the Berbers, landed on the Iberian Peninsula led by Tariq Ibn Ziyad.  384 years before the first Christian Crusade, the Umayyad conquest of Hispania was on.  Within ten years, most of what we now know as Portugal and Spain had become “al-Andalus”; five administrative districts under Muslim rule, save for the fringes of the Pyrenean mountains, and the highlands along the northwest coastline.

The first significant Christian victory and what may constitute the beginning of reconquest, “La Reconquista”, took place along that northern fringe. That sliver of Christianity was the Kingdom of Asturias. The refusal to pay the Jizya, the Muslim tax on “unbelievers”, brought them into conflict with an Umayyad force in the summer of 722.

A Christian military force under Pelagius, (aka “Pelayo”), the future first King of Asturias, met the invaders at a place called “Covadonga”, meaning “Cavern of the Lady”.  The Arabic name for the place is “Sakhrat Bilāy” “the Rock of the Affliction”.  The two names tell a tale about the outcome, of the battle.

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Covadonga

The Arab chronicles record Covadonga as a small skirmish while the Spanish record a great victory, but two things are near certain. In 770 years, no Muslims force ever returned to Asturias.  Without Pelagius’ victory at Covadonga, we’d almost certainly never have heard of Ferdinand and Isabella, let alone a certain Italian explorer whom the pair sent off in 1492, in search of a sea route to China.

It was close to 400 years before the crusading knights of Europe came to the aid of the Iberian Kings. With help from the Knights Templar and Hospitaller. Alfonso VI captured Toledo in 1085, beginning a long period of gradual Muslim decline.

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The Portuguese nation was a mere county in the early 12th century, dependent on the Crown of León and Castile, one Alfonso VII. His cousin, three year old Alfonso Henriques, followed his father as the Count of Portugal in 1122.

At the age of 14, the age of majority in the 12th century, the boy proclaimed himself a knight and raised an army against his cousin. The county’s people, church and nobles were demanding independence when, his cousin vanquished, Alfonso Henriques declared himself Prince of Portugal. Following ten years of near-constant fighting against Moors and rival Christian Kingdoms alike, Alfonso was unanimously proclaimed the King of an Independent Portugal on July 25, 1139.

Portugal would be annexed to Spain in 1580, regaining its independence sixty years later and leading many to believe that Portugal is the younger between the two countries. It isn’t so. Portugal was an independent, self-governing nation, more that 350 years before her Spanish neighbor.

Following the Christian re-conquest of Córdoba in 1236, the Emirate of Granada was all that was left of al-Andalus. Granada became a tributary state to the Kingdom of Castile two years later.  Finally, on this day in 1492, Emir Muhammad XII surrendered the Emirate of Granada to Queen Isabella I of Castile, and her husband King Ferdinand II of Aragon.

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Ferdinand & Isabella. March 31, 1492 Edict of Expulsion

For the six years I’ve written “Today in History”, the first thing I do is search on a date, and select an interesting topic from the list.  To date, I’ve written about seven hundred. 

As I review these lists, I am perpetually surprised and not a little horrified, at the never ending recurrence of barbarity against the Jews of the world. It’s not the pogroms and the massacres which surprise me, but rather their appalling frequency, over 2,000 years.

The paroxysm of cruelty and paranoia now known as the Spanish Inquisition begun in 1478, was not a standalone event. In part, this passion for religious unity was the result of 700+ years of Muslim domination of the Iberian Peninsula. One of the early results of this manic drive for ideological purity was the Edict of Expulsion of 1492, resulting in the forced conversion of some quarter-million Spanish Jews, the “conversos“, and the expulsion of as many as 100,000 more.

Untold numbers lived lives of “marranos” (from the Hebrew marit ayin: “the appearance of the eye”), secretly practicing Jews forced on pain of death, to adopt the outward signs of Christianity.

Maimon-Marrans

This date, originally selected to signify Ferdinand and Isabella’s final defeat of the Islamic conquest of Spain, has yet another significance. It is only within living memory that descendants of Spanish Jews, the Sephardim, have returned in any significant numbers to their homeland. The first native Jewish child born in Spain since Christopher Columbus discovered America, was born on this day, January 2, 1966.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

December 26, 1776 Hell Ships of the Revolution

British and American forces and their allies fought no less than seventy-one major engagements from the April 19, 1775 battles of Lexington and Concord, to the 1783 Battle of Arkansas Post.  The prison ships of the British killed more Americans than every single one of them, combined.

Since the first Geneva Convention of 1864, nations have attempted to codify a system of international law, concerning acceptable limits on the conduct of war.  These laws address a range of considerations including declarations of war, acceptance of surrender and proper treatment of prisoners.

Such discussions are nothing new, the earliest examples dating to the ancient Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata, and to the old testament (Torah) Book of Deuteronomy. The first Caliph, Abu Bakr, laid down ten rules of warfare for his Muslim army, in the 7th century.

In the New World British colony in North America, one of twenty-seven grievances enumerated in the Declaration of Independence was that King George IIIhas endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions“.

unknown-8-1489678956-1972The American Revolution was on its last legs in December 1776. The year had started out well for the Patriot cause but turned into a string of disasters, beginning in August. Food, ammunition and equipment were in short supply by December.  Men were deserting as the string of defeats brought morale to a new low.   Most of those who remained, ended enlistments at the end of the year.

General George Washington and a force of 5,000 performed the famous crossing of the Delaware River in the howling blizzard of Christmas day, 1776. The assault on the Hessian garrison at Trenton, was do or die. The cause of Independence needed decisive victory, or it was over. The pass word on that frigid night was “Victory”.  There was only one acceptable response: “Or Death”.

The tactical surprise was complete in the early morning hours of December 26.  Hessian losses were 22 killed, 92 wounded and 918 captured.  Only 400 escaped. The Americans suffered two who had frozen to death in the march on Trenton, and five wounded. It was the colonist’s first major victory of the Revolution.

What to do with all those prisoners was a new problem for Washington, who ordered his troops to treat them with humanity.  “Let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren who have fallen into their hands.”

Washington’s position on the treatment of prisoners was clear and consistent. On September 14 of the previous year, the General wrote to Colonel Benedict Arnold then in camp in Cambridge Massachusetts: “Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]…I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require.”

No such consideration was given American prisoners of his Majesty’s government.  King George III personally declared American revolutionaries to be traitors in 1775, denying them prisoner of war status.  Land based detention facilities in British-occupied cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Charleston quickly filled up when the hulks of spent vessels were brought into service as prison ships, little more than waterlogged coffins.

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Prison Ship HMS Jersey

Conditions on board these prison ships, were gruesome.  The stifling hold of  HMS Jersey alone held no fewer than 1,000 men in Wallabout Bay, modern-day site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Authorities were loath to execute detainees for “treason” for fear of inciting sympathy.  Prisoners were left instead to wallow in their own filth, starved and tormented by most every disease and parasite, known to modern medicine.   The Connecticut Gazette recounted the experience of one Robert Sheffield in July 1778, one of precious few to escape:

The heat was so intense that [the 300-plus prisoners] were all naked, which also served the well to get rid of vermin, but the sick were eaten up alive. Their sickly countenances, and ghastly looks were truly horrible; some swearing and blaspheming; others crying, praying, and wringing their hands; and stalking about like ghosts; others delirious, raving and storming, all panting for breath; some dead, and corrupting. The air was so foul that at times a lamp could not be kept burning, by reason of which the bodies were not missed until they had been dead ten days. One person alone was admitted on deck at a time, after sunset, which occasioned much filth to run into the hold, and mingle with the bilge water …

Bodies of the dead were tossed overboard, ten or fifteen every day from Jersey, alone.  Thousands of dead fouled the brackish waters of Wallabout Bay, from which water was drawn to boil “soup” for survivors, more like a toxic sludge, sometimes augmented with moldy bread or rancid meat.

Even after Cornwallis’ surrender in 1781, prisoners languished in the holds of Jersey and other Hell ships until the Treaty of Paris formally ended the war, in 1783.

A host of place names enter the popular imagination, when we think of the American Revolution.  Bunker Hill.  Trenton.  SaratogaYorktown.  British and American forces and their allies fought no fewer than seventy-one major engagements from the April 19, 1775 battles of Lexington and Concord, to the 1783 Battle of Arkansas Post.  The prison ships of the British killed more Americans than every one of them, combined.

Thousands of remains washed up on the shores of Brooklyn.  Bones were still being found in 1801, during construction of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

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Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial Fort Greene Park Brooklyn

Locals collected as many as they could for burial in a local tomb.  The bones were eventually moved to a crypt in Fort Greene Park, a half-mile south of Wallabout Bay.  Today, a 149-foot martyrs memorial topped with an eight-ton bronze brazier marks the location of their Fort Greene crypt.

In eight years, an estimated eleven to twelve thousand men perished of the filth, abuse, neglect and disease of these Hell Ships.  Untold thousands more passed through their stinking holds, and lived to tell the tale.

That such men ever lived, may be counted among the blessings of Liberty.

Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Martin “Marty” Maher is quoted in Smithsonian.com“These were ordinary citizens, fighting for a country that had barely been born. Every man was offered freedom if he would swear to stop fighting. But there’s no record that anyone took up the offer. No prisoner renounced the revolution to gain his freedom. Not one.”

fort-greene-park-brooklyn

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December 22, 1944 The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne

The forgotten angel of Bastogne was eighty-six when the knock came on the door of that Belgian nursing home.  It took months for the Scottish historian to coax the story out of her. 

The Battle of the Bulge is a familiar tale: The massive German offensive bursting out of the frozen Ardennes forest on December 16, 1944. The desperate drive to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp, vital to German re-supply efforts.

Battle of the BulgeThe terrain was considered unsuitable for such an attack. The tactical surprise was complete, British and American forces separated and driven back, their positions forming an inward “bulge” on wartime battle maps.

The story of the “Battered Bastards” is likewise, well known. 22,800 Americans, outnumbered five to one in some places and surrounded, in the do-or-die fight to hold the indispensable crossroads, of Bastogne. The German demand to surrender, of December 22. The response from American General Anthony McAuliffe, the one word response, “Nuts”, the American slang, confusing to the German delegation.

The siege of Bastogne would last another four days, the German encirclement at last broken by elements of George S. Patton’s 3rd Army. By the end of January, the last great effort of German arms was spent and driven back behind original lines.

BastogneHistorian Stephen Ambrose wrote “Band of Brothers” nearly fifty years later, a non-fiction account later broadcast as an HBO mini-series, of the same name. The story refers to a black nurse named Anna. There is a brief appearance and then she is gone. No one knew who Anna was, or even if she was real.

Sixty-one years after Bastogne, military historian Martin King was conducting research for a book, Voices of the Bulge.  The knock on the door came in October 2007, in a geriatric home outside of Brussels.

In the months following the Great War, Henri Chiwy (pronounced “SHE-wee”) was a veterinarian, working in the Belgian colony of the Congo Free State. The name of the Congolese woman who bore his child is unrecorded, the name of their baby girl, Augusta Marie.

NursesAugusta Chiwy came back to Belgium when she was nine, one of the luckier of thousands born to European fathers, and African mothers. Back to the doctor’s home in Bastogne, a small town of 9,000 where Augusta was loved and cared for by her father and his sister, whom the girl knew as “aunt Caroline”.

Augusta was educated and raised a Catholic. She always wanted to teach but, due to the rancid racial attitudes of that time and place, it would not do to have a black woman teaching white children. She became a nurse instead, on the advice of her father and his brother, a well-known Bastogne physician.

Nursing school was about 100 miles north. Augusta became a qualified nurse in 1943 and returned home the following year for Christmas. She arrived on December 16, the day Adolf Hitler launched his surprise offensive.

Bastogne was soon surrounded, part of one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles, of WW2. Poorly equipped American GIs were outnumbered five to one. These guys didn’t even have winter uniforms.

Bastogne

US Army Doctor Jack Prior was desperate, the abandoned building serving as military aid station, home to some 100 wounded GIs. Thirty of those were seriously wounded. With virtually no medical equipment or medicine and the only other medical officer an Ohio dentist, Dr. Prior badly needed nursing help.

Augusta Chiwy did not hesitate to volunteer, knowing full well that she would be executed, if caught.

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Scene from the HBO mini series, “A Band of Brothers”

Working conditions were grisly in the weeks that followed. With no surgical instruments and no anesthesia, amputations and other procedures were performed with an army knife, with cognac to dull the patient’s pain. On Christmas eve, a direct hit from a 500-pound bomb hit one hospital building, instantly killing dozens of wounded GIs and the only other nurse, Renée Lemaire.  She would be remembered as “The Angel of Bastogne.”

Bastogne buildingAugusta Chiwy was in a neighboring building at the time. The explosion blew the petite nurse through a wall but, unhurt, she picked herself up and went back to work.  There were grisly injuries and many died due to inadequate medical facilities, but many lived, their families reunited thanks to the tireless work of Dr. Jack Prior, and nurse Augusta Chiwy.

Given the month of hell the pair had been through, Augusta was heartbroken when Dr. Prior had to move out, in January.  The pair exchanged addresses and stayed in touch, writing letters and exchanging small gifts, of candy.  They last saw each other in 2004, when Dr. Prior returned from his home state of Vermont, for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.

Prior, ChiwyAugusta Chiwy suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition poorly understood at that time.  She would go long periods without speaking, becoming quiet and withdrawn even years later.  She married a Belgian soldier in 1959 and the couple had two children.  It would be twenty years, before  she resumed her nursing career.  She almost never spoke of her experience in Bastogne.

The forgotten angel of Bastogne was eighty-six when the knock came on the door of that Belgian nursing home.  It took months for the Scottish historian to coax the story out of her.

Thanks to King’s efforts, Augusta Chiwy would finally receive the recognition she had earned.

“On June 24, 2011, she was made a Knight in the Order of the Crown by King Chiwy and KingAlbert II of Belgium. Six months later she received the U.S. Army’s Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service. And on March 21, 2014, Augusta was recognized by her hometown as a Bastogne Citizen of Honor”.  http://www.augustachiwy.org

When asked about her heroism, she’d always say the same thing: “I only did what I had to do.”

Augusta Marie Chiwy died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 94, on August 23, 2015. How many lives would have been cut short, will never be known.  But for the selfless and untiring efforts, of the Forgotten Angel of Bastogne.

Hat tip to http://www.augustachiwy.org, for most of the images used in this essay

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