November 27, 1868 George Armstrong Custer

Like many of his fellow “goats”, George Armstrong Custer would make a greater contribution to history than his academic standing might indicate.

Like Edgar Allen Poe and James Whistler (“Whistler’s Mother”) before him, George Armstrong Custer was a ‘Goat’. Dead last in his class, West Point, class of 1861. Like many of his fellow goats, he would make a greater contribution to history than his academic standing might indicate.

At 25, Custer was one of the youngest Major Generals in the Union army, when Robert E. Lee met George Gordon Meade at the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.
He wasn’t the youngest. That honor goes to Brigadier General Galusha Pennypacker, who at 20 was the only General Officer in history too young to vote for the President who appointed him.

As with another goat, George Pickett, Custer’s contribution at Gettysburg came on the third day. In fact, it was in opposition to Pickett’s Charge that Custer makes his biggest contribution to the Union war effort, though I believe his role is overlooked.
The Battle of Gettysburg is usually described as a contest of men on foot, that cavalry did not play much of a role. On the third day, that would change.

For 19th century armies, the cavalry acted as the eyes and ears of battlefield commanders. Their superior mobility allowed them to report information back on enemy troop strength and movements in a way that otherwise would have been impossible.

For his first two days at Gettysburg, “Marse’ Robert” was out of touch with cavalry commander James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart, leaving him effectively blind. Stuart reappeared at the end of the second day.

On the third came Longstreet’s assault, better known as “Pickett’s charge”. 13,000 Confederate soldiers came out of the tree line at Seminary Ridge, 1¼ mile distant from the Federal line. Prior to pushing off, Lee ordered upwards of 3,400 Confederate horsemen and 13 guns around the Union right, in support of the infantry assault against the Union center.

The “High tide of the Confederacy” is marked at a point on Cemetery Ridge, between the corner of a stone wall and a copse of trees. The farthest that the remnants of Pickett’s charge made it, before being broken and driven back. But, what if Stuart’s cavalry had come crashing into the rear of the Union line?  The battle and possibly the Civil War may have ended differently, if not for Custer and his “Wolverines” of the 7th Michigan Cavalry.
Historians write of the 13,000 crossing that field, bayonets flashing and pennants snapping in the breeze. Of equal importance and yet off the main stage, is the drama which played out earlier, at the “east cavalry field”. 700 horsemen collided in furious, point-blank fighting with pistol and cutlass, just as the first Confederate artillery opened against the Union line.

Let the battle be described by one of its participants: “As the two columns approached each other the pace of each increased, when suddenly a crash, like the falling of timber, betokened the crisis. So sudden and violent was the collision that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them”.

east-cavalry-fieldStuart sent in reinforcements from all three of his brigades: the 9th and 13th Virginia, the 1st North Carolina, and squadrons of the 2nd Virginia. Custer himself had two horses shot out from under him, before his far smaller force was driven back. The wolverines of the 7th Michigan weren’t alone that day, but of the 254 Union casualties sustained on that part of the battlefield, 219 of them were from Custer’s brigade.

Custer’s later career as Indian fighter would be what he is best known for. On November 27, 1868, then Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer led the 7th U.S. Cavalry on a surprise dawn attack against the Southern Cheyenne village of Peace Chief Black Kettle, in one of a series of battles that would end, for him, eight years later on a hill in the eastern Montana territory.

“What if” counterfactual scenarios can be dangerous. We can never know how a story which never happened might have played itself out. Yet I have often wondered how Gettysburg would have ended, had 3,000 Confederate horsemen crashed into Union lines from the rear, at the same time as Pickett’s, Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s men hit it from the front.

The Pennsylvania campaign had been Robert E. Lee’s gamble that he could make it hurt enough, that the Federals would allow the Confederate States of America to go its own way. On that third day at Gettysburg, the Civil War could have come to a very different ending.

November 26, 1703, The Great Storm of 1703

“Whatever the danger was within doors”,’twas worse without; the bricks, tiles, and stones, from the Tops of the houses, flew with such force, and so thick in the streets, that no one thought fit to venture out, tho’ their houses were near demolish’d within”

The storm came in from the southwest on Wednesday evening, November 24, and stayed until December 2. On Friday the 26th, barometers read as low as 950 millibars in some areas, a reading so low as not to have been seen in living memory. Before it was over, the southern part of Great Britain would see one of the most destructive storms in history.

Queen Anne sought shelter in the cellars of St. James’ Palace, while the lead roof blew off Westminster Abbey. Over 2,000 chimneys and 17,000 trees were toppled to the ground in London.  In the Thames, hundreds of ships of all sizes were piled up like toys.

At the Cathedral City at Wells, Bishop Richard Kidder was asleep with his wife next to him, when a toppling chimney killed them both in their bed.

Close to a third of the entire British Navy were drowned during the storm, as ships were driven as much as 15 miles inland. Many ships disappeared forever.  Others washed up on the shores of Denmark and Norway.

The most miraculous tale of survival was that of Thomas Atkins, a sailor aboard the HMS Mary. As Mary broke up, Atkins watched as Rear Admiral Beaumont climbed aboard a piece of its quarter deck, only to be washed away as Atkins himself was lifted high on a wave and deposited on the decks of another ship, the HMS Stirling Castle. Atkins was soon in the water again as Stirling Castle sank, when he was again thrown by a wave, this time landing in a small boat. He alone would survive of the 269 men aboard the Mary.

Hundreds of sailors found themselves stranded on Goodwin Sands, a ten mile long sand bar, six miles off the coast of Kent. In a race against the incoming tide, Thomas Powell organized the rescue of some 200 of them. They could have saved more, had the good citizens onshore stopped looting shipwrecks long enough to lend a hand.

With “Robinson Crusoe” still sixteen years in his future, Daniel Defoe was at this time a minor poet and pamphleteer. Defoe was freshly out of prison in 1703, having served his sentence for criticizing the religious intolerance of High Church Anglicans. Hearing the collapse of brick chimneys, the Defoes and their six children sought refuge in their gardens, but were soon driven inside to “trust the will of Providence”. “Whatever the danger was within doors”, he said, “”twas worse without;  the bricks, tiles, and stones, from the tops of the houses, flew with such force, and so thick in the streets, that no one thought fit to venture out, tho’ their houses were near demolish’d within.”

great-storm-of-1703
It’s hard to get an accurate count of the fatalities of such a cataclysm, when everyone who ever knew you is gone.

The 75,000 words which followed are recognized by many as the first work of modern journalism, forming Daniel Defoe’s first book length work, “The Storm”.

Storms of great severity are not unheard of in southern England. In 1362, part of the Norwich Cathedral spire was blown down, and severe gales were recorded in 1897, 1908 and 1943.  The gales of 1953 and 1987 left more damage than any storm of the last century. At the time, the storm of 1703 was seen as the Wrath of God, visited upon Great Britain for the “crying sins of this nation”. The storm would remain the subject of sermons for the next 150 years.

It’s hard to get an accurate count of the fatalities of such a cataclysm, when everyone who ever knew you is gone. Estimates range from 8,000 to 15,000 killed.  The final tally will never be known.

November 25, 1841 Amistad

In arguing the case, President Adams took the position that no man, woman, or child in the United States could ever be sure of the “blessing of freedom”, if the President could hand over free men on the demand of a foreign government

By 1839, the international slave trade was illegal in most countries, though slavery itself was not. In April of that year five or six hundred Africans were illegally purchased by a Portuguese slave trader, and shipped to Havana aboard the brig Tecora.

Fifty three members of the Mendi tribe, from the modern day country of Sierra Leone, were sold to Joseph Ruiz and Pedro Montez, who planned to use them on their Cuban sugar plantation. The Mendians were given Spanish names and designated “black ladinos,” fraudulently documenting that they had always lived as slaves in Cuba. In June, Ruiz and Montez placed the Africans on board the schooner la Amistad, (“Friendship”), and set sail down the Cuban coast to Puerto del Principe.

On the fourth night at sea, Africans broke free of their chains and seized control of the ship. They killed two of their captors, losing two of their own in the struggle, while two others escaped in a boat. The cabin boy, who really was a black ladino, was spared and used as translator.

The Mendians forced the two remaining crew to return them to Africa, which they pretended to do by day. But they were betrayed, the two slavers would steer the ship north by night, when the position of the sun couldn’t be seen. Amistad was apprehended off Long Island by a U.S. Coastal Survey brig and taken to New London, Connecticut where the Africans were put in prison. Connecticut was still a slave state at that time.

The Spanish Ambassador demanded that Ruiz’ and Montez’ “property” be returned and the matter settled under Spanish law. President Martin van Buren agreed, but the matter had already fallen under the jurisdiction of the courts.

The district court trial which followed in Hartford determined that the Mendians’ papers were forged, and they should be returned to Africa. The cabin boy was ruled to be a slave and ordered returned to the Cubans, however he fled to New York with the help of abolitionists. He would live out the rest of his life as a free man.

Fearing a loss of pro-slavery support, President van Buren ordered government lawyers to appeal the case up to the United States Supreme Court.  The government case depended on the anti-piracy provision of a treaty then in effect between Spain and the United States,

A former President and son of a Founding Father, John Quincy Adams, argued the case, in a trial beginning on George Washington’s birthday, in 1841.

SCOTUS upheld the decision of the lower court 8-1, ruling that the Africans had been detained illegally and ordering them returned to their home. John Tyler, a pro slavery Whig, was President by this time. He refused to provide a ship or fund the repatriation, so abolitionists and missionaries did so, returning 35 surviving Mendians to Africa on November 25, 1841.

In arguing the case, President Adams took the position that no man, woman, or child in the United States could ever be sure of the “blessing of freedom”, if the President could hand over free men on the demand of a foreign government.

Bill Clinton, Eric Holder and Janet Reno should have remembered that 152 years later, before kidnapping six year old Elian Gonzalez at gunpoint, and sending him back to Cuba over the body of the mother who died bringing him to freedom.