Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Washington's Address at Newburgh

Gen. Washington

Despite the American victory at Yorktown in October 1781, it wasn't until 3 September 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris (and its subsequent ratification in 1784 ) that America's War for Independence came to an end. Although Yorktown effectively brought an end to the major fighting, it was necessary to keep troops in the field to provide a counter to the British forces still garrisoned in America.

In 1783, the American Army, under the command of Gen. George Washington, was headquartered in Newburgh, New York. The Continental Army was growing increasingly unhappy with its lot and with Congress. The soldiers were owed months and sometimes years of back pay and many felt that Congress would not follow through with the promises that had been made to them. (The thirteen former colonies were now operating under the Articles of Confederation which gave the new government power over the Army, but did not give it the means to raise money to pay its soldiers).

On March 11, 1783 Gen. Washington, having learned that his officer Corps was planning on holding a meeting to discuss their situation, sent out an order condemning such an action. Washington was concerned about the seditious talk traveling through his army about marching on Congress or even disbanding the army. As a compromise measure, he asked that the meeting be postponed and said that he would send a representative to the meeting.

The meeting was postponed and rescheduled for Saturday March 15. The officers were then taken by surprise when General Washington himself went to the meeting. Washington made an appeal to his men with the following speech. At the conclusion of his speech he then began to read a message from Congress. Initially unable to read the text he paused and said the following:

"Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have grown not only gray, but almost blind in the service of my country".

Having served with Gen. Washington for so many years the gathered officers were quite moved by their General's sign of weakness and age and the Newburgh Conspiracy, as it has been referred to, advanced no further.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Siege of Yorktown

Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown
by John Trumball (1797)

On September 28, 1781 an allied army made up of American and French soldiers began the siege of British forces under the command of Lt. General Cornwallis in Yorktown, Virginia. Cornwallis' command of some 6,000 soldiers were divided between the towns of Yorktown and Gloucester on opposite sides of the banks of the York River.

Prior to his advance into Virginia, Cornwallis had been campaigning in the Carolina's. Without authorization from his superior in New York, Gen. Clinton, Cornwallis decided to invade Virginia in the hope of having greater success in that state. Gen. Lafayette, commanding militia, followed Cornwallis and his small army into Virginia and sent word to Gen. Washington in New York of Cornwallis' location.

Gen. Washington and his French counterpart, Gen. Comte de Rochambeau, together devised a plan to trap Cornwallis. Taking advantage of (temporary) French naval superiority, a French fleet under Admiral de Grasse was dispatched to the Chesapeake to prevent British reinforcement or escape by sea. Washington and Rochambeau, along with some 7,000 soldiers, quickly marched south to Virginia. Upon arrival the army quickly surrounded Yorktown and began conducting siege operations. With the addition of some 3,000 from Admiral de Grasse's fleet, Lafayette's militia and other allied forces, the British were now outnumbered by more than two-to-one.

Trenches were built closer and closer to the British lines. As soon as they were able the allied force began a heavy artillery bombardment of Yorktown and the British positions. The British attempts to break through the enemy lines failed and with the loss of two important redoubts, #9 and #10, the situation was rapidly becoming untenable. Finally with supplies running low and receiving word of the delay of the arrival of a relief force from New York, on October 17 Gen. Cornwallis sent word that he would surrender his forces unconditionally.

The surrender documents were signed on October 19. Marching out in regimental formation, British and Hessian soldiers surrendered their colors and laid down their arms in front of the massed columns of American and French soldiers. Claiming illness, Gen. Cornwallis sent his second in command to formally surrender his sword to the victors. Gen. Washington sent his senior commander, Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, to accept the surrender. According to tradition, British musicians played "The World Turned Upside Down" during the ceremonies.

News of the loss of yet another major British command (Gen. Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga brought the French openly into the war) was devastating to the British government. Once a new government was formed (in 1782) serious peace negotiations were begun. Although it would be two years before the Treaty of Paris was signed, the victory at Yorktown effectively ended the major fighting in America's War for Independence.

Friday, September 26, 2008

H.M.S. Victory

H.M.S. Victory
Portsmouth, England

The British Navy's most famous fighting ship, H.M.S. Victory, was built between the years 1759-1765 but was not commissioned until 1778. With some 230 years having passed it is the oldest commissioned naval vessel in the world - in drydock. (The U.S.S. Constitution is the oldest naval ship in the world still afloat).

The H.M.S. Victory is also the only remaining 18th century ship of the line still in existence. A British ship of the line was a main or rated ship, one that carried between 50 and a 100+ guns. The Victory was a first-rate ship, as she carried an armament of at least a hundred guns. This made the Victory one of the super battleships of her day, a ship that very few enemy vessels could match in firepower. (In contrast the U.S.S. Constitution is a frigate and not a ship of the line and carried between 46 - 60 guns).

The H.M.S. Victory is best known for being Lord Admiral Horatio Nelsons flagship during the Battle of Trafalgar. On 21 October 1805 Lord Nelson met and defeated a combined French-Spanish fleet off the coast of Spain. On that day the British fleet sank 22 enemy ships of the line without losing a single ship. This victory ended Napoleons plans to invade England and led to complete British dominance of the seas.

Unfortunately, Admiral Nelson was mortally wounded during the battle as he stood upon the quarterdeck of the Victory. Shot by a French Marine, he died shortly after learning that the battle had been won. Nelsons body was transported to England where he was given a state funeral and honored as a national hero. He is buried in St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

In 1812 the Victory's active career came to an end and she was berthed in Portsmouth harbor. In 1922 due to the ships poor condition she was placed in N0. 2 Drydock in the Royal Naval Dockyard. H.M.S. Victory is now a museum ship with an active duty crew and is open to the public for tours.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sudbury Colonial Faire - Sudbury, Mass.

Sudbury Faire

This Saturday (September 27) the Sudbury Companies of Militia and Minutemen and the Sudbury Ancient Fyfe and Drum Companies are hosting the Colonial Faire & Muster of Fyfe and Drums at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Mass. Fife and Drum Corps from all over the country will be attending this annual muster. British and American Revolutionary War reenactors, including the 4th Kings Own, will be joining the Sudbury militia on the field.

The Sudbury Militia will be taking the opportunity of the Faire to have a change of command ceremony welcoming in a new Colonel. (There is a chance this ceremony may be interrupted by the untimely arrival of the Kings troops). As always, there will be a number of food vendors and Sutlers at the Faire.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Saving Old Ironsides

U. S. S. Constitution

The U.S.S. Constitution was launched in 1797, one of six U.S. frigates ordered built in 1794 by Congress. These frigates would be the start of a new American Navy - at the conclusion of the American War for Independence, the Navy had been dissolved. Facing threats from both French privateers and Barbary Pirates the U. S. government realized it needed a Navy to protect its vital merchant fleet and its national interests.

The U.S.S. Constitution was a heavy frigate, carrying more guns than was usual for a frigate of the time. The ability to fire heavier broadsides, along with its strong construction, were instrumental in its great success as a fighting ship. Old Ironsides, as it affectionately came to be known, was never defeated in battle.

Old Ironsides greatest victories came in the The War of 1812. By defeating the British ships H.M.S. Guerriere and H.M.S. Java, the U.S.S. Constitution won everlasting fame.

In September of 1830 the Navy announced that the Constitution, now some thirty-three years old and needing extensive repair, would be scrapped. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes of Boston wasted no time in writing and having published this poem to lodge his personal complaint. A nation-wide protest led to the decision by Congress to fund the needed repairs.

In 1924 Old Ironsides was again on the chopping block. The frigate was in very poor condition and required a complete overhaul that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. A publicity campaign by the Elks Club enlisted the help of the nations schoolchildren, who contributed thousands of dollars by literally pitching in their pennies. Congress responded to popular pressure and provided the remainder of the funds.

Today the U.S.S. Constitution is the oldest commissioned war ship still afloat in the world. It has an a complement of active duty U.S. Navy personnel and is berthed in the old Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. It is currently undergoing renovations, but it is open to the public for tours.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Saturday Club

Omni Parker House Hotel
60 School St.
Boston, Mass. 02108

The Saturday Club was a social club that during the mid-1800's met on the last Saturday of every month in the Parker House Hotel on School St. in Boston. But this wasn't just any social club - the Saturday Club was made up of some of the greatest writers and brightest minds to be found in America at that time. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Professor Louis Agassiz, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Francis Adams, Francis Parkman, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier and Nathaniel Hawthorne were just some of the members of the club.

During the early 1800's Boston gained the title of Athens of America and the Saturday Club meetings gave credence to the name. Charles Dickens, while a guest staying at the Parker House, joined a Club meeting and read from his work A Christmas Carol. At yet another gathering Longfellow worked on an early draft of his famous poem Paul Revere's Ride.

Prior to their meetings the club members would often visit the Old Corner Bookstore, which can still be found on the corner of School St. and Washington St. They would then have dinner before settling down on a Saturday afternoon to discuss poetry, literature and engage one another in conversation. In our modern non-literary age it is hard to imagine that a comparable group of people could be found in the same city, never mind meeting together under the same roof.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Re-enactors delight in New York

The Saratogian

This weekend is a re-enactors - and the viewing publics - delight in New York state. First of all, starting on Saturday (Sept. 20) at 9:00 a.m. a Civil War encampment will be open to the public in Congress Park in Saratoga Springs. This event ends at noon on Sunday.

Also this weekend the National Park Service is commemorating the 231st anniversary of the Battles of Saratoga in Saratoga National Historical Park in Stillwater, New York. Revolutionary War re-enactors representing British and American soldiers will be in the park all weekend.

Finally at Fort Edward in New York, from an even earlier era of warfare, re-enactors will be taking part in recreating the French and Indian War (1754-1763). Re-enactors portraying British Regulars, Native Americans, Rangers and American Colonial soldiers will be turning out for this event.

For more details see Paul Post's article Passing Muster from The Saratogian linked here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Constitution Week

U. S. Constitution

On September 17, 1787 delegates from the thirteen states meeting in a special convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania voted to adopt a new constitution. The delegates had been sent to Philadelphia to make changes to the Articles of Confederation, but instead had exceeded their authority and decided to create an entirely new form of government. Rather than having a confederation of independent states, the new constitution called for the establishment of a federal government that would unite the states into one nation.

The new constitution still needed to be ratified by the people and the states. It was decided that rather than a needing a unanimous ratification it would require passage by only nine of the thirteen states. Constitutional conventions were called in all thirteen states and representatives were sent to say yea or nay to the constitution.

As soon as news went out from Philadelphia about the results of the convention the controversy began. Many of the people who had fought the hardest to gain independence for the thirteen American colonies were steadfastly against having the new Federal form of government. The Anti-Federalists, as they were called, were deathly afraid of trading one set of masters for another. They were concerned that putting too much power in the hands of a central government would lead to that power being abused.

The framers of the Constitution were also aware of the danger of too much power being placed in the hands of government. They quite deliberately built into the Constitution a series of checks and balances that was meant to limit the extent and the power of the government. The Federal government they established had three co-equal bodies - the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judiciary. Each body was meant to provide a "check" on the power of the other two bodies. The specific powers of each branch of government was laid out and the powers not given to the Federal or State governments were meant to stay with the people.

With many people believing that the Constitution as written didn't go far enough to protect the rights of the people, a number of amendments were proposed. Ten of these proposed amendments, which came to be known as the "Bill of Rights", were added to the Constitution and became part of the ratification process. Since then some 17 other amendments have been added to the Constitution.

The arguments of the Federalists held sway in the country and the U. S. Constitution was ratified. With New Hampshire voting on June 21, 1788 to ratify, the required number of states was reached. On March 4, 1789 the Constitution went into effect and it remains as the oldest written constitution governing a democratic nation in the world.

Monday, September 15, 2008

It must be Witchcraft ...

Witchcraft was blamed when a riot broke out on Sunday during a football (soccer) match in the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to the BBC a keeper (goalie) was caught throwing something into the net of the opposing team. He was accused of engaging in witchcraft and a fight broke out. When police tired to separate the combatants the fighting escalated into a riot. The violence and the use of tear gas is blamed for causing a panic which resulted in the deaths of thirteen people.

What is meant by the term witchcraft has changed over the years, varying from country to country and over time. Its basic meaning today is simply the practice of performing ritual magic to gain power over people, affect events or to attain unusual personal powers - all by some extraordinary, supernatural means.

Some have tied witchcraft to paganism, an ancient religion practiced world-wide that placed an emphasis on the worship of multiple gods, most especially the gods and goddesses having influence over nature and fertility. The Celtic people of Western Europe practiced an elaborate form of paganism that included Druid priests and sacred forests and isles. When the Roman Empire made Christianity its official religion, the Druids came to be viewed as enemies of the state and were all but obliterated.

Beginning as early as the late-Crusades in Europe, Christianity again took a violent and intolerant path when it began prosecuting those who were thought to be different or even heretics. Witchcraft came to be viewed as literally doing the Devil's work. Those who were accused of witchcraft were believed to be in league with the Devil and were treated as heretics. As heretics they were subjected to trial and/or torture to determine their guilt. Those who were found guilty were often sentenced to death, usually by being burnt at the stake.

These "Witch Hunts" continued until well in the 17th century and engulfed thousands of people all over Europe. Kings and Pontiffs made use of the hysteria to rid themselves of their enemies or those they feared were too powerful. The leaders of the Order of the Knights Templar, who had become rich and powerful as the bankers of Europe, were accused of horrible crimes to include witchcraft and some were brutally tortured and killed. The religious Order was subsequently dissolved. Many other groups were persecuted in the same manner.

In 1692 the Witchcraft hysteria reached the British colonies in America. It was in that year that throughout Essex county, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, witch trials were conducted. The most famous of these trials were held in Salem. The hysteria began when local children began having fits and behaving like they were mad or maybe even possessed. Upon questioning the children claimed to be the victims of witchcraft. They were also more than willing to accuse some of their neighbors as being witches.

From such a small beginning events took on a life of their own. Prominent members of the colony including the well-known Boston Puritan minister, Cotton Mather, took up the cause and actual trials by jury were conducted. Most of the victims of what came to be know as the Salem Witch trials were not surprisingly elderly women. One of the victims was Rebecca Nurse who lived in what is now Danvers. She was found guilty of being a witch by a jury and sentenced to hang. Her home still exists and is owned and managed by a non-profit organization. A monument was dedicated in 1885 to her memory and can be found on the property.

All together some 150 people were put on trial. Nineteen women and men were found guilty of practising witchcraft and were hanged. One man was pressed to death by stones as he was being questioned. At least four people accused of witchcraft died while in jail. Eventually the hysteria died down, the remaining prisoners were freed and the trials came to an end. But many years were to pass before any apology or admissions of guilt were made by those who were responsible for this great miscarriage of justice.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Baseball invented in England

British Baseball
(Olympic Team)

It was announced on Thursday that Americas great contribution to the world of sports and its "favorite pastime", the game of Baseball, was apparently invented in England. A diary by a Surrey solicitor that was recently found in a tool shed (how English is that?) has a 1755 entry that states the writer spent some time "playing at" the game of "Base Ball". This was followed by the drinking of Tea and a game of Cricket. (The game of Cricket was played in Colonial America but never achieved the long-lasting popularity it has in England).

The entry was made on the Monday after Easter, a Holiday in England and mentions that the game of "Base Ball" included women players. The solicitor, William Bray, was already well-known to the Surrey History Centre as a diarist and local historian when the diary containing the entry was turned over to them.

Prior to this it was believed Baseball was invented in the U.S. in the 1790's. (Although I seem to remember references to Baseball being played in America in the 1770's). With the addition of Baseball to the list of sports/pastimes invented in Great Britain the list has become an impressive one. Golf, Football (Soccer), Rugby, Cricket, Fly Fishing, Tennis and Badminton were all invented in the British Isles. Major League Baseball has been informed of this news.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Yankee Doodle Homecoming - Billerica, Mass.

Spirit of '76
by Archibald Willard

Starting today and continuing through the weekend (Sept. 12-14) Billerica, Mass. is celebrating its 17th annual Yankee Doodle Homecoming. This event, held every September, commemorates the role Billerica's Colonial Militia and the townspeople of Billerica played in America's War of Independence. The Billerica Minute Men took part in the fighting at Meriam's Corner in Concord on April 19, 1775 and the Battle of Bunker Hill.

As part of the weekends events the recreated Billerica Colonial Minute Men will have a weekend long Revolutionary War encampment and on Saturday members of the 4th Kings Own Light Company will "Tar and Feather" a member of the militia. This event is a recreation of the actual tar and feathering of Thomas Ditson Jr. (Billerica's Yankee Doodle) in Boston in 1775.

Seeking to arm himself in order to join the local militia, Ditson traveled into Boston and attempted to buy a musket from a Serjeant of the 47th Regiment of Foot. The Serjeant took him prisoner and the next day Ditson was "tarred and feathered" and paraded in public by members of the 47th. Ditson survived this brutal treatment and later fought with Billerica's Minute Men Company at Meriam's corner in Concord. A fuller account of this story is told here.

Also this weekend, on Saturday (Sept. 13), the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers and the Danvers Alarm List Company is hosting a Colonial Muster Day. In addition to having its muster the Colonial militia will skirmish with British Revolutionary War reenactors from the area, to include members of the 4th Kings Own.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Who are these Guys?

William R. de Vane King
U.S. Vice-President

The U.S. has had 46 Vice-Presidents since the U.S. Constitution went into effect. During that same time we have had 42 U.S. Presidents. The office of Vice-President has become vacate several times, either due to the death or resignation of the Vice-President or the President. Eight U.S Presidents have died while in office, one has resigned (Richard Nixon), leading to then current Vice-President being sworn into office as the new President.

Only fourteen Vice-Presidents have gone on to become President. With nine of those Vice-Presidents assuming the office through constitutional succession, those are not great odds. Two of those Vice-Presidents, Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon, were openly vilified and faced disgrace. I'm not an presidential historian, but looking over the list I would say that a majority of the remaining twelve had successful Presidential administrations.

The 46 U.S. Vice-Presidents who have served this country are, for the most part, unknown names and quantities to anyone other than professional historians. Most Americans can name at least some of our recent Vice-Presidents. Of the fourteen Vice-Presidents who became President, many of them are quite well-known. I'm familiar with the names Aaron Burr, George Clinton of New York, J.C. Calhoun and some others who achieved their own fame. But I'm afraid many of the others are just names on a page to me. (For instance, I never heard of William R. de Vane of Alabama, who died of tuberculosis after only 45 days in office. But maybe that's only me).

In the modern era, a candidate for President looks for a running-mate who can "balance" the ticket and increase the chances for winning in November. John F. Kennedy's choice of Lyndon B. Johnson was important in winning the 1960 election. Quite often the choice has made little or no difference. It remains to be seen how important the two Presidential candidates choice for Vice-President will be in the election of 2008.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Lafayette born

Marquis de La Fayette

On this date in 1757 Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de La Fayette (Lafayette), was born. Two years later, during the Seven Years War, his father was killed fighting the British at the Battle of Minden. With the death of his mother and an uncle a few years later he came into his family inheritance. As a young man Lafayette became a Mason and was introduced to the concepts of the "rights of man". Becoming enamored of the American colonists fight for independence he sought out a way to join the American cause.

Hiring and outfitting his own ship Lafayette sailed to America. The Continental Congress on 31 July of 1777 commissioned Lafayette as a Major General in the American Army. After meeting with Gen. George Washington, he was taken into Washington's "family" and made an aide-de-camp. The two men became extremely close, becoming almost like a father and son.

Lafayette went on to give proof of his own merit and fought in several actions and battles during America's War for Independence. He was wounded at the Battle of Brandywine and played a vital role in the final military victory at Yorktown.

After the war Lafayette returned to France. He played an important role in pre-revolutionary France helping to maintain order. When the radical Jacobites came to power Lafayette was commanding a French Army on the Austrian border. Knowing he was a likely candidate for the guillotine he attempted to flee the country, but was captured by the Austrians. He spent several years in military prisons. In later years Lafayette would again serve his native country in many important positions.

In 1824 Lafayette was invited back to come to America. Lafayette was feted as a returning hero and was everywhere treated as an honored guest as he traveled through all 24 states. President James Monroe issued a proclamation giving Lafayette honorary U.S. citizenship. All over the country the name Lafayette was memorialized as city's, towns, streets and parks were named in his honor.

Lafayette died on 20 May 1757. On 6 August 2002, by an official act of the U.S. Congress, Lafayette was posthumously granted honorary U.S. Citizenship.

On 4 July 1917 American soldiers of the 1st Army Division, coming to the aid of France in the First World War, paid a ceremonial visit to Lafayette's tomb in Paris. During the ceremonies Col. Charles E. Stanton gave a speech whose haunting final words will long be remembered: "Lafayette, we are here."

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Big River

The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut is opening a new production this month of the musical Big River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. During the 1980's Big River had a successful run on Broadway in New York and won several Tony awards including Best Musical. The story line is drawn from Mark Twain's novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and tells the tale of Huck and the runaway slave Jim as they attempt to gain their freedom by rafting down the mighty Mississippi River.

The Goodspeed Opera House is run by a non-profit group that specializes in producing musicals and is responsible for the first production of such well-known musicals as Man of La Mancha and Annie. The Opera House is situated on the banks of the Connecticut River and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Big River the musical runs from September 26 to November 30.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Dogs of War

Julius Caesar
by William Shakespeare

Mark Antony's famous line, "Cry Havoc and let loose the Dogs of War," in Shakespeare's play Julius Casar, was his promise to take revenge upon the conspirators who assassinated Caesar. He knew very well that this would lead to a bloody civil war of Roman against Roman. His term Dogs of War, which formerly simply meant soldier, has changed somewhat over the years. Today it is a term often used for mercenaries.

The hiring of mercenaries has been a part of statecraft for thousands of years. While it was usually preferable to use native soldiers, rulers in the past were often forced to hire foreign born troops to augment their armies. The ancient Greeks hired themselves out to the Persians, the men of Genoa were known for their ability with crossbows and the Swiss fought in many of Europe's wars under other flags.

Upon the outbreak of hostilities in his American colonies King George III was faced with the immediate prospect of needing more troops. Rebuffed in his efforts to hire Russian soldiers from Catherine the Great, King George turned to the divided German states for his needs. The German Princes were more than willing to rent out their native sons for currency. Most of the soldiers came from Hesse-Kassal, which led to the German troops being referred to as Hessian's, but soldiers from Brunswick and other states were also hired.

Also during the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette and Baron von Steuben, along with many others, took up the cause of freedom and fought the British. Ireland's Wild Geese, Irish soldiers fighting under foreign flags, made a name for themselves throughout the world. During the Spanish Civil War many idealists fought against Franco's regime, while Nazi Germany sent troops, including the Condor Legion, to support Franco. Frances Foreign Legion, whose enlisted ranks are made up solely of foreign born soldiers, has been making history since 1831. Finally Jews from all over the world have fought for Israel since its creation in 1948.

Under the Geneva Convention and according to the laws of many nations, a mercenary is someone who hires themselves out as a soldier and is paid more than the common soldiers whose army he has joined. This is to differentiate a mercenary from someone who has joined a foreign army to fight for a cause he believes in, or quite often, because soldiering is the only trade he knows.

In the past being a mercenary, or as he is sometimes referred to, a soldier of fortune, was considered an honorable profession. Myles Standish in his hiring by the Pilgrims, the Ronin of feudal Japan, the hired soldiers fighting for Biafra's independence, were all mercenaries. They all fulfilled a need to provide military expertise, or perhaps just a sword, in a dangerous world. Today's world is not really all that different. It is perhaps a much more dangerous world in that today many choose to believe that the world no longer needs mercenaries, or for that matter, soldiers.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Battle of Omdurman - Sudan

The River War
by Winston S. Churchill

On September 2, 1898, 11o years ago today, the Battle of Omdurman took place in the Sudan. A joint Anglo-Egyptian expeditionary force, with a complement of Sudanese troops, met and defeated a 50,000 man army of Dervishes on the outskirts of the city of Omdurman.

This was the culmination of months of intense effort by British General Sir Horatio Kitchener to mass an army deep in the Sudan to bring to an end the Dervish empire. The defeat of the Mahdi army would bring peace to the Egyptian - Sudan border, but this was also retribution for the death of British General Charles "Chinese" Gordon who died on January 26, 1885 during the siege of Khartoum. A British relief force had arrived too late to rescue Gordon - Khartoum fell to the Mahdi's revolutionary forces and Gordon was killed. The Sudan was now completely independent and no longer under Anglo/Egyptian control.

After the death of Gordon the British government concentrated its efforts in Egypt and put the Sudan on a back burner. Muhammad Ahmed, the self-proclaimed Mahdi, died not long afterwards. His successor, the Khalifa, continued a state of war with his neighbors.

With a change of government in London it was finally decided to bring this unsatisfactory state of affairs to an end. Gathering troops from all over the Empire, an army was collected on the banks of the Nile. Specially designed gunboats, armed with Maxim guns, were built for the expedition - they had to be capable of being broken down and transported overland to avoid the cataracts of the Nile. Infantry regiments from as far away as India were brought in to build up the army and garrison forts.

The army was to advance up the Nile with both a desert column and river force. The 21st Lancers, a regular cavalry unit, was attached to the expedition and used as a scouting force. Lt. Winston Churchill of the 4th Hussars was attached to the Lancers and later wrote a short history of the war in his book The River War. (A very readable account, but somewhat detached considering it was written by someone who was there).

The army advanced deep into the Sudan finally encountering the main Dervish army on the approach to Omdurman. The Anglo-Egyptian army was greatly outnumbered, but the combination of modern arms, discipline and fortitude, along with some luck, led to a decisive victory. The Mahdi army was efectively destroyed and except for some mopping-up operations, the subjugation of the Sudan was complete.

An interesting side note of the battle was the action of the 21st Lancers. Engaging what they believed to be a small force of Dervishes they rode over a small rise and found themselves instead charging a sizable contingent of the fierce fighters. The Lancers were forced to ride and fight their way through to freedom. Five officers, 65 enlisted and 120 horses were killed in the bitter fighting. Three Victoria Crosses were awarded to members of the unit. Lt. Churchill was not injured in the action. This may well have been the last time in its long history British cavalry ever conducted a charge in battle.