March 31, 1917: Birth of the US Virgin Islands

 

Today a century ago the US took possession of the Danish West Indies:  St. Thomas, St. Croix, Saint John and some 50 mostly uninhabited small islands, all of which were now known collectively as the US Virgin Islands.  The US and Denmark had been dickering over the islands since the Civil War, with almost complete deals falling through twice.  The Danes realized that for the good of the inhabitants of the island, the islands needed to become part of the American economy, and the Americans viewed the islands as a strengthening of American power in the West Indies as essential to the continental defense of the American mainland.  A Danish referendum approved the transfer.  No referendum was held of the inhabitants but Danish officials reported that the islanders seemed eager for it.  (more…)

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March 30, 1865: Prelude to Five Forks

 

By the 30th it became obvious to both sides that the Confederate right at Five Forks was in jeopardy.  Grant discusses this in his memoirs:

The next day, March 30th, we had made sufficient progress to the south-west to warrant me in starting Sheridan with his cavalry over by Dinwiddie with instructions to then come up by the road leading north-west to Five Forks, thus menacing the right of Lee’s line.  

This movement was made for the purpose of extending our lines to the west as far as practicable towards the enemy’s extreme right, or Five Forks. The column moving detached from the army still in the trenches was, excluding the cavalry, very small. The forces in the trenches were themselves extending to the left flank. Warren was on the extreme left when the extension began, but Humphreys was marched around later and thrown into line between him and Five Forks.    
My hope was that Sheridan would be able to carry Five Forks, get on the enemy’s right flank and rear, and force them to weaken their centre to protect their right so that an assault in the centre might be successfully made. General Wright’s corps had been designated to make this assault, which I intended to order as soon as information reached me of Sheridan’s success. He was to move under cover as close to the enemy as he could get.    
It is natural to suppose that Lee would understand my design to be to get up to the South Side and ultimately to the Danville Railroad, as soon as he had heard of the movement commenced on the 29th. These roads were so important to his very existence while he remained in Richmond and Petersburg, and of such vital importance to him even in case of retreat, that naturally he would make most strenuous efforts to defend them. He did on the 30th send Pickett with five brigades to reinforce Five Forks. He also sent around to the right of his army some two or three other divisions, besides directing that other troops be held in readiness on the north side of the James River to come over on call. He came over himself to superintend in person the defence of his right flank. (more…)

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March 29, 1862; First Use of Gatling Guns in Combat

 

The history of warfare reached a milestone on March 29, 1862 when Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley won a skirmish against Confederate troops at Middleburg, Virginia.  The Union troops used two gatling guns, nicknamed “coffer grinders” by the troops, the first use of the new weapon in battle.

The gatling gun was invented by Dr. Richard J. Gatling in 1861.  In later years he wrote down why he invented his gun:

“In 1861 … (residing at the time in Indianapolis, Ind.) I witnessed almost daily the departure of troops to the front and the return of the wounded, sick and dead: The most of the latter lost their lives, not in battle, but by sickness and exposure incident to the service. It occurred to me if I could invent a machine—a gun—which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a great extent, supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease be greatly diminished.” (more…)

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Llewellyn M. Chilson: One Man Army

Many brave men served in our armed services during World War II, but certainly one of the bravest was Llewellyn M. Chilson.  Born on April 1, 1920 in Dayton, Ohio, his father Frank was a veteran of World War I.  He was drafted into the Army on March 28, 1942.  He served with the 45th “Thunderbird” Infantry Division in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany.  By the end of the War he had risen in rank from Private to Technical Sergeant and earned the following decorations:  3 Distinguished Service Crosses (the second highest decoration for valor in the United States Army), 3 Silver Stars, 2 Bronze Stars, 1 Legion of Merit and two purple hearts.  Go here to read his citations for the decorations that he earned. (more…)

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Greene Reports on the Battle of Eutaw Springs

 

The last major engagement of the Southern Campaign, the battle of Eutaw Springs was fought on September 8, 1781.  The sides were numerically evenly matched with each side having about 2000 men involved.  Although tactically a draw or a slight British victory, strategically the battle was an American victory with the British left in control of only Charleston and its environs.  Along with Savannah and Wilmington, the British attempt to conquer the South was clearly failing, a result only underlined by the surrender of Cornwallis in the following month.  Here is the text of General Greene’s report on the battle to Washington.

 

 

 

Head Quarters, Martins Tavern, near Fergusons swamp So. Carolina
September 11th 1781

Sir,

In my dispatch of the 25th of August I informed your Excellency that we were on our march for Frydays ferry to form a junction with the State Troops, and a Body of Militia collecting at that place; with an intention to make an attack upon the British Army laying at Col. Thompsons near McCords ferry. On the 27th on our arrival near Frydays ferry I got intelligence that the Enemy were retiring.

We crossed the River at Howells ferry, and took post at Mottes plantation. Here I got intelligence that the Enemy had halted at the Eutaw Springs about forty miles below us; and that they had a reinforcement, and were making preparations to establish a permanent post there. To prevent this I was determined rather to hazard an Action, notwithstanding our numbers were greatly inferior to theirs. On the 5th we began our march, our Baggage and Stores having been ordered to Howells ferry under a proper Guard. We moved by slow and easy marches; as well to disguise our real intention, as to give General Marion an opportunity to join us, who had been detached for the support of Col. Harding, a report of which I transmitted in my letter of the 5th dated at Maybricks Creek. General Marion joined us on the evening of the 7th at Burdells plantation, 7 miles from the Enemies Camp.

We made the following disposition, and marched at 4 o’Clock the next Morning to attack the Enemy. Our front line was composed of four small Battalions of Militia; two of North, and two of South Carolinians; one of the South Carolinians was under the immediate command of Genl. Marion, and was posted on the right, who also commanded the front Line; the two North Carolina Battalions under the command of Col. Malmady was posted in the center, and the other South Carolina Battalion under the command of General Pickens was posted on the left. Our second Line consisted of three small Brigades of Continental Troops, one from North Carolina, one from Virginia, and one from Maryland. The North Carolinians were formed into three Battalions under the command of Lieut. Col. Ash, Majors Armstrong and Blount, the whole commanded by General Sumner, and posted upon the right. The Virginians consisted of two Battalions commanded by Major Snead and Captain Edmonds and the whole by Lieutenant Colonel Campbell and posted in the center. The Marylanders also consisted to two Battalions, commanded [by] Lt. Colonel Howard and Major Hardman, and the Brigade by Col. Williams Dy. Adjutant General to the Army, and was posted upon the left. Lieut. Col. Lee with his Legion covered our right flank, and Lieut. Col. Henderson with the State Troops commanded by Lieutenant Colonels Hampton, Middleton, and Polk, our left. Lieutenant Col. Washington with his Horse and the Delaware Troops under Captain Kirkwood formed a Corps de reserve. Two three Pounders under Captain Lieutenant Gaines advanced with the front Line, and two fives under Captain Browne with the second.

The Legion and State Troops formed our advance and were to retire upon the flanks upon the Enemy’s forming. In this order we moved into the attack, the Legion and State Troops fell in with a party of the Enemy’s Horse and foot about four miles from their Camp, who mistaking our People for a party of Militia charged them briefly, but were soon convinced of their mistake by the reception they met with, the Infantry of the State Troops kept up a heavy fire, and the Legion under Captain Rudolf charged them with fixed Bayonets, they fled on all sides leaving four or five dead on the ground, and several more wounded. As this was supposed to be the advance of the British Army our front Line was ordered to form and move on briskly in Line, [while] the Legion and State Troops take their positions upon the Flanks. All the Country is covered with Timber from the place the Action began to the Eutaw Springs. The fight began again between two and three Miles from the British Camp. The Militia were ordered to keep advancing as they fired. The Enemies advanced parties were soon driven in, and a most tremendous fire began on both sides from right to left, and the Legion and State Troops were closely engaged. General Marion, Col Malmady and General Pickens conducted the Troops with great gallantry and good conduct and the Militia fought with a degree of spirit and firmness that reflected the highest honor upon this class of soldiers but the Enemies fire being greatly superior to ours, and continuing to advance, the Militias began to give ground. The North Carolina Brigade under General Sumner was ordered to their support. These were all new levees, and had been under discipline but little more than a month, notwithstanding which they fought with a degree of obstinacy that would do honor to the best of veterans, and I could hardly tell which to admire most, the gallantry of the Officers or the bravery of the Troops. They kept up a heavy and well directed fire, and the Enemy returned it with equal spirit, for they really fought worthy of a better cause, and execution was done on both sides. In this stage of the Action the Virginians under Lieut. Col. Campbell, and the Maryland Troops under Col. Williams were led on to a brisk charge with trailed Arms, through a heavy cannonade, and a shower of Musquett [sic] Balls. Nothing could exceed the gallantry and firmness of both Officers and Soldiers upon this occasion . They preserved their order, and pressed on with such unshaken resolution that they bore down all before them. The Enemy were routed in all quarters. Lt. Col. Lee had with great address, gallantry, and good conduct, turned the Enemys left flank and was charging them in rear at the same time the Virginia and Maryland Troops were charging them in front. A most valuable Officer Lieut. Col. Henderson got wounded early in the Action, and Lieut. Col. Hampton who commanded the State Cavalry, and who fortunately succeeded Lt. Col. Henderson in command, charged a party of the Enemy and took upwards of 100 Prisoners. Lieut. Col. Washington brought up the Corps de reserve up from the left, where the Enemy seemed disposed to make farther resistance, and charged them so briskly with the Cavalry and Captain Kirkwoods Infantry as gave them no time to rally or form. Lieutenant Colonels Polk and Middleton who commanded the State Infantry, were no less conspicuous for their good conduct, than their intrepidity and the Troops under their command gave a specimen of what may be expected from men naturally brave, when improved by proper discipline. Captain Lieutenant Gaines who commanded the three Pounders with the front Line did great execution, untill [sic] his pieces were dismounted. We kept close at the Enemy’s heels after they broke, untill [sic] we got into their Camp, and [a] great number of Prisoners were continually falling into our hands, and some hundreds of the fugitives run [sic]off towards Charles Town. But a party threw themselves into a large three story brick House which stands near the Spring, others took post in a picquetted Garden, while others were lodged in an inpenetrable thicket, consisting of a ragged Shrub called a black Jack. Thus secured in front, and upon the right by the House, and a deep Ravine upon the left by the Picquetted Garden, and in the impenetrable Schrubs, and the rear also being secured by the Springs and deep hollow ways, the Enemy renewed the Action. Every exertion was made to dislodge them, Lt. Col. Washington made most astonishing efforts to get through the Thicket to charge the Enemy in the Rear, but found it impracticable, had his Horse shot under him, and was wounded and taken Prisoner. Four six Pounders were ordered up before the House, two of our own, and two of the Enemy’s which they had abandoned, as they were pushed on [so much?] under the command of the fire from the House, and the party in the Thickett [sic] as rendered it impracticable to bring them off again when the Troops were ordered to retire. Never were pieces better served, most of the Men and Officers were either killed or wounded. Washington failing in his charge on the left, and the Legion baffled in an attempt upon the right, and finding our Infantry [galled?] by the fire of the Enemy, and our Ammunition mostly consumed, tho’ both Officers and Men continued to exhibit uncommon acts of heroism, I thought proper to retire out of the fire of the House and draw up the Troops at a little distance [?] the Woods, not thinking it advisable to p[ursue?] our advantage farther, being persuaded the Enemy could not hold the Post many Hours, and that our chance to attack them on the retreat was better than a second attempt to dislodge them, which, if we succeeded, it must be attended with considerable loss.

We collected all our Wounded except such as were under the command of the fire of the House, and retired to the ground from which we marched in the Morning, there being no Water nearer, and the Troops ready to faint with the heat, and want of refreshment, the Action having continued near four Hours. I left on the field of Action a strong Picquett, and early in the Morning detached General Marion, and Lt. Col. Lee with the Legion Horse between Eutaw and Charles Town, to prevent any reinforcements from coming to the relief of the Enemy, and also to retard their march should they attempt to retire, and give time for the Army to fall upon their Rear, and put a finishing stroke to our successes. We left two pieces of our Artillery in the hands of the Enemy, and brought off one of theirs.

On the Evening of the 9th the Enemy retired, leaving upwards of 70 of their Wounded behind them, and not less than 1000 stand of Arms that were picked up on the field, and found broke and concealed in the Eutaw Springs. They stove [in?] between 20 and 30 puncheons of Rum, and destroyed a great variety of other Stores which they had not carriages to carry off. We pursued them the moment we got intelligence of their retiring. But they formed a junction with Maj. McArthur at this place, General Marion, and Lieut. Col. Lee not having a force sufficient to prevent it. But on our approach they retired [to?] the neighbourhood of Charles Town. We have taken 500 Prisoners, including the Wounded the Enemy left behind; and I think they cannot have suffered less than 600 more in killed and Wounded. The Fugitives that fled from the field of Battle spread such an alarm that the Enemy burnt their Stores at Dorchester, and abandoned the Post at Fair Lawn, and a great number of Negroes and others were employed in falling Trees across the Road for some Miles without the Gates of Charles Town. Nothing but the brick House, and the peculiar strength of the position at Eutaw saved the remains of the British Army from being all made Prisoners.

We purued them as far as this place but not being able to overtake them we shall halt a Day or two to refresh; and then take our [old?] position on the high Hills of Santee. I think myself principally indebted for the victory we obtained to the free use of the Bayonet made by the Virginians and Marylanders, the Infantry of the Legion, and Captain Kirkwoods Light Infantry and tho’ few Armies ever exhibited equal bravery with our in general, yet the conduct and intrepidity of these Corps were peculiarly conspicuous. Lt. Col. Campbell fell as he was leading his Troops to the charge, and tho’ he fell with distinguished marks of honor, yet his loss is much to be regretted. He was the great Soldier and the firm patriot.

Our loss in Officers is considerably more from their value than their number, for never did either Men or Officers offer their blood more willingly in the service of their Country. I cannot help acknowledging my obligations to Col. Williams for his great activity on this and many other occasions in forming the Army, and for his uncommon intrepedity in leading on the Maryland Troops to the charge, which exceeded any thing I ever saw. I also feel myself greatly indebted to Captains Pierce, and Pendleton, Major Hyrne, and Captain Shubrick, my aids de Camp, for their activity and good conduct throughout the whole of the Action.

This dispatch will be handed your Excellency by Captain Pierce to whom I beg leave to refer you for further particulars.

I have the honor to be with the greatest respect,

Your Excellency’s
        most obedient and most humble servant

Nath. Greene

His Excely. the President of Congress

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We’ll Fight For Uncle Sam

Something for the weekend.  We’ll Fight For Uncle Sam sung to the tune Whiskey in the Jar.  A nice tribute to the Irish volunteers who were a mainstay of the Union Army of the Potomac.  The song is also celebratory of George Brinton McClellan who led the Army of the Potomac in 1861-62.  Little Mac was a good organizer and he made sure his men were well fed and clothed.  He took care of his men and they were fond of him as a result.  Unfortunately, though not a bad strategist, he was a lousy battlefield commander.  During the battles of the Seven Days, although McClellan outnumbered the Confederates under Lee, he allowed Lee to take the initiative and force him back from Richmond.  At Antietam, in spite of enjoying better than two to one odds,  McClellan’s uncoordinated attacks blew a prime opportunity for the Army of the Potomac to destroy Lee’s army.  As a battlefield commander McClellan was worse than having no commander at all. (more…)

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March 25, 1846: Death of William Lee D. Ewing

Continuing on with my series on the Governors of Illinois down to the end of Reconstruction, we come to the fifth Governor of the State, William Lee D. Ewing.  Born in Paris, Kentucky on August 31, 1795, he practiced law in Shawneetown, Illinois.  James Madison appointed him a land office receiver in Vandalia in 1820.  During the BlackHawk War he served as Colonel of the Spy Battalion, a scouting unit.  Abraham Lincoln served for a time in that unit.  In 1830 he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives as a Democrat, previously having served as clerk of the House, and was immediately chosen as Speaker.  In 1832 he was elected to the State Senate and served as President Pro Tempore of that body.  In 1833 he was chosen as acting Lieutenant Governor of the state.  In 1834 upon the resignation of Governor Reynolds to take a seat in Congress, Ewing became Governor.  He served for two weeks until the newly elected governor could be sworn in.  This is the shortest gubernatorial term in the history of Illinois, and no doubt the most inconsequential.

Upon the death of Senator Elias Kane, Ewing was chosen to fill out his term.  He was unsuccessful in winning election to the Senate after Kane’s term expired,  and won election to the Illinois House later, serving once again as Speaker.  He died on March 25, 1846.

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The Last Confederate Offensive

Fort Stedman

 Few generals in American history have been as aggressive as Robert E. Lee.  Faced with a hopeless military situation in March of 1865, he decided that he had no alternative but to launch an attack.  His starving army was down to 50,000 men, and with the lines around Petersburg and Richmond so extensive, when Grant began to move with an army nearly three times the size of Lee’s it did not take a military genius to realize that he would break Lee’s lines.  However, if Lee could break Grant’s lines first, it might buy Lee time.  Grant would perhaps consolidate his lines around the breakthrough and delay his Spring offensive.  That might give General Joseph E. Johnston sufficient time to march up ahead of Sherman from North Carolina and link up with Lee.  At that time Lee could attempt to defeat Sherman and then Grant seriatim.  The plan relied far too much on hopes and wishes, but other than surrender, it was the best of the bleak options facing Lee.

(more…)

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March 23, 1775: Liberty or Death

 

 

 

A fine video on the great “Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death Speech” of Patrick Henry delivered in the Virginia House of Burgesses on March 23, 1775.  It is a remarkable speech, made even more remarkable when we consider that Patrick Henry was in deep mourning for his beloved wife Sarah who, after years of fighting a losing battle with mental illness, had died in February of 1775.   ( Henry refused to have her committed, against the advice of his physician, to the appalling insane asylums of his day, one he inspected would have had his wife chained to a wall, and Henry cared for her at home, bathing her, dressing her and keeping her from harming herself.)

Henry was perhaps the greatest American orator in a time of great American oratory.  It was said of him that cold print did not do justice to the passions he roused in his listeners with his speeches.  American school children used to memorize passages from this speech, a custom I hope is revived, because his speech goes to the core of what it means to be an American.  Here is the text of his speech, as it has been reconstructed, as no manuscript of it survives and our text is based on the recollections of men who heard it: (more…)

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March 22, 1862: Third Corps Ordered to Fort Monroe

 

 

In the latter half of March of 1862, General McClellan began massing his forces at Fort Monroe to begin the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia in April, perhaps the most strategically brilliant and operationally inept campaign of the Civil War.  In the Peninsula Campaign McClellan came achingly close to winning the War in 1862, only to see Robert E. Lee, in a brilliant counter-offensive, establish complete dominance over McClellan and gain the strategic initiative in Virginia which would only be ended with Grant’s Overland Campaign of 1864.

Logistically the Peninsula campaign was an immense undertaking, involving the transport by sea of some 121, 500 troops, 44 artillery batteries, 1050 wagons, 15,000 horses and endless tons of supplies.  Here is the order for the movement of the Third Corps: (more…)

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