Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Harvard College Founded

Massachusetts Hall
Harvard Yard
Cambridge, Mass.

On October 28, 1636 the Great and General Court of the Masachusetts Bay Colony voted to establish a "New College" to train the next generation of scholars. It was decided to locate the new college in New Towne or Newetowne, a village on the banks of the Charles River. In 1638 minister John Harvard of nearby Charlestown died leaving his library of 400 books and a sum of money to the new school. The college was then named Harvard in his honor. Also in 1638 the village was renamed Cambridge after the famous university in England.

Today Harvard College is just one of the schools that make up
Harvard University. Considered one of the most prestigious universities in the world, having started with humble beginnings, it is also the wealthiest. Harvard University is still managed under its original charter by the President and Fellows of Harvard College, making it the oldest corporation in the New World.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

Battle of Agincourt

On 25 October 1415, St. Crispen's Day, Henry V of England won an overwhelming victory against the French at the battle of Agincourt. Henry V was attempting to pursue his claim - by force of arms - to the title of the Duchy of Normandy and the throne of France by virtue of his descent from William of Normandy, the conqueror of England in 1066.

Henry's army of 6,000, consisting mostly of archers armed with longbows, faced an French army of between 20,000 - 30,000 men. Among the ranks of the French army were many aristocrats and knights - the so-called "flower of France".

Due to the constraints of a small battlefield and the muddy soil, the French were unable to make proper use of their heavy cavalry to overcome the enemy ranks. The deadly fire from the highly trained English archers led to a further break down in the ranks of the French army.

Sustaining heavy casualties and unable to mount a proper attack the French surrendered. Henry's desperate "band of brothers" had won the day. Fearing the possibility of another attack and having captured more of the enemy than he had men of his own, Henry V ordered the slaughter of French prisoners. How many were actually killed is unknown, but it is estimated that more died in the aftermath of the battle than in the actual battle. As was the custom of the day, those prisoners who survived and belonged to the aristocracy were held until a ransom was paid for their release.

Almost two hundred years later William Shakespeare wrote his play Henry V. In these memorable words from the Bard, here is Henry V speaking to his men on the eve of St. Crispens Day:

"This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day"

Friday, October 24, 2008

2008 Poppies Appeal

Poppies amidst headstones
The Royal British Legion has announced the start of its 2008 Poppies Appeal. This year the campaign begins in Basra, Iraq - the first time it has been launched in a war zone. The Legion sells red poppies in order to provide services for former and current members of the British military. This years theme puts it simply: "Serving those who serve".

The inspiration for selling red poppies comes from the poem "In Flanders Field" written by Major John McCrae, a doctor in the Royal Canadian Army, shortly after the battle of Ypres. Poppies were one of the few flowers to grow on the churned up earth of the World War I battlefield in Western Europe. Poppies are also associated with morphine, an opiate, which was used both to ease the pain of and to put wounded soldiers to sleep. "In Flanders Field" is arguably one of the most famous poems to come out of any war.

In Flanders Fields

by John McCrae, May 1915

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved,
and now we lie in Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep,though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Last Days of Pompeii

An empty cobblestone
street in Pompeii, Italy

The opening of a new exhibit entitled Pompeii and the Roman Villa at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the life, demise and rediscovery of the ancient city of Pompeii is the subject of an editorial review by Paul Richard in the City Guide section of the Washington
Post. Pompeii and Herculaneum were two Roman cities located on what is now the Bay of Naples, that were completely destroyed by volcanic activity when nearby Mt. Vesuvius erupted in August of 79 A.D.

Prior to these eruptions and some smaller eruptions in 62 A.D., Mt. Vesuvius had been dormant for a very long period of time. When the first rumblings began on 24 August 79 A.D. many of the Romans in the city failed to heed the danger and were trapped by the volcanoes dangerous fumes and ash. As a result they were suffocated in their homes and on the city streets. The two cities were totally buried and over time their location and even their existence were all but forgotten. They were finally rediscovered in the 18th century and excavations were begun.

Much of Pompeii was remarkably preserved. Colorful frescoes were uncovered, statues, pottery, fruit, clothing and all of the day to day items of Roman life were found. In addition to being a prosperous trade port Pompeii was also a popular seaside resort for the rich and powerful of the Roman Empire. Many large villas and homes were built in the city, as well as a large coliseum that could hold much of the cities estimated 23,000 people.

Today Pompeii is one of Italy's most visited tourist sites. Portions of the city are still buried under of the earth, but this is perhaps just as well. Since excavations were begun and Pompeii began to emerge into the open air, the city has suffered. Efforts are being made to preserve as much as possible of Pompeii in its "original" condition, but many buildings and especially the painted frescoes have deteriorated.

The exhibit opens October 19 and runs until March 22, 2009 at the National Gallery of Art. The National Gallery of Art is located at 600 Constitution Ave, NW Washington, D.C. Admission is free. The Museum is open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Mon - Sat and 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Sunday. It is closed December 25 and January 1.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

This Hallowed Ground - Gettysburg, Penn.

Statue of the 1st.
Penn. Cavalry
at Gettysburg

George Will writes again here in the Washington Post about the Battle of Gettysburg and the important role it played in U.S. and World History. It was here on this "hallowed ground" that the Union was saved and the Confederacy reached its "high-water mark", with Pickett's charge.

Wills article gives well-deserved credit to Bob Kinsley and the Gettysburg Foundation for the work they have done in building a new Museum and Visitor Center. Kinsley, who is from nearby York, Penn., was the founder of the Gettysburg Foundation. Kinsley hired Bob Wilburn, formerly of Colonial Williamsburg, who raised the funds necessary to build a new center - $103 million of private monies. Having just visited Gettysburg in 2006 I can testify that a new visitor center was badly needed.

The Museum and Vistor Center includes a theater, where a film narrated by actor Morgan Freeman can be seen and a new and proper setting for the Cyclorama, the 1884 circular painting of Pickett's charge. The Gettysburg Foundation has also purchased the 80-acre Spangler farm , that served as a hospital during the battle. The foundation is working to preserve more battle sites for future generations.

This is not new ground for George Will. Ten years ago he devoted another column to this topic. It has been reposted here.

On November 19, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln gave this short speech at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. If simple words can begin to give justice to the sacrifices made on those three days of battle in July of 1863, perhaps Lincoln's can:

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war. . .testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated. . . can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war.

We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate. . .we cannot consecrate. . . we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. . .that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. . . that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom. . . and that government of the people. . . by the people. . . for the people. . . shall not perish from the earth.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Guess Who's Coming to (Thanksgiving) Dinner?

The First Thanksgiving

Interested in spicing up the conversation at your Thanksgiving Dinner? Plimoth Plantation is sending Edward Winslow and Hobbamock to spend Thanksgiving with an anonymous winner of its auction on Ebay. The auction winner, a Cape Cod resident, will be hosting employees of Plimoth Plantation portraying Edward
Winslow, the former Governor of the Plymoth Colony and Hobbamock, a representative of the Wampanoag Indian tribe, for Thanksgiving. The winning bid was for $5,000. The Daily News Tribune of Waltham has their version of the story by Edward S. Colby here.

I thought this was a good idea from the people at Plimoth Plantation. This is kind of a variation of the old question: if you could meet an historic figure from the past, would would it be? A very difficult question to answer, but I'm going to answer a variation of the question. What if I could just choose my dinner companions?

In choosing dinner companions I would be naturally be looking for famous people from the past that I admire and who led interesting lives. I would also choose people who were famous for their intelligence, wit and after-dinner conversation.

Narrowing it down to just three, my choices would be: Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), Samuel Clemens (1835-1910) and Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965). First enjoying dinner and then spending an evening listening to the conversation of these three gentlemen, maybe while they played Billiards and smoked cigars, would certainly be a night to remember.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Christopher Columbus Sails the Ocean Blue

Sailing for the New World

On October 12, 1492 Christopher Columbus, having sailed across the Atlantic Ocean with three small ships from Spain, found himself off the coast of a "New World". Returning to Spain with news of his discovery, Columbus was able to convince his benefactors King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to pay for an even larger fleet of ships to further explore what he believed was China and the Far East. In all Columbus led four expeditions to the New World. Each trip was less successful than the last and at one point Columbus returned to Spain in chains.

The former "Admiral of the Oceans" died believing that he had found a route to Cathay, rather than his actual discovery of the islands of the Caribbean. Columbus, who was actually an excellent navigator, grossly underestimated the size and circumference of the globe. (It is a myth that geographers of the time thought that the world was flat and were unaware that the Earth is a sphere).

For many years Christopher Columbus was hailed as a great explorer and the "Discoverer of America". Columbus Day was declared a national holiday and Italian-Americans took pride in his common nationality. But in recent years his reputation has suffered greatly. He has been blamed for all of the ills that fell upon the people native to the America's with the coming of Europeans to the New World. He has also been blamed for introducing the slave trade to the Western Hemisphere, with all of the pain and death that caused.

To blame Christopher Columbus for the sins committed after his death by others is unfair I believe. It was only a matter of time until the New World was re-discovered and came to the attention of the European powers. Instead of the intrepid navigator from Genoa, Italy sailing with a Spanish fleet , it might have been an Englishman or a Frenchman who found himself off the coast of "Newfoundland" or "Florida" and who then claimed the land for his sovereign. From there what course history might have taken no one knows. (At least one of the great "sins" that the Europeans are blamed for - the introduction of foreign diseases - would have taken place at some point in time no matter what else happened).

Just as we acknowledge and give credit to the other European adventurers for the trips of exploration that they made, we can at least give Christopher Columbus credit for one of the most historic events of the last 500+ years - the re-discovery of the New World by an explorer from the Old World.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Battle of Tours

Charles Martel
Battle of Tours

A posting about the anniversary of the Battle of Tours by the BBC reminded me of an old line of poetry that I heard years ago: "In 732 at the Battle of Tours, Charles Martel defeated the Moors." As the battle is largely forgotten today, it is most likely due to this mnemonic device that I can even recall this famous battle that took place so long ago in France. (The actual fighting took place somewhere between the cities of Tours and Poitiers - the battle is sometimes referred to as the Battle of Poitiers).

In October of 732 a large Saracen army, under the command of Abd-er Rahman, crossed the Pyrenees from Spain into the land of the Franks seeking plunder and conquest. First defeating Count Eudo at the Battle of Bordeaux the Moors continued out into the French countryside. Count Eudo then made peace with his rival Charles Martel and combined their forces under Martel's command.

By then marching against the Moors and threatening their rear guard, Charles Martel forced Abd-er Rahman to retire from his attempt to take Tours and meet the new threat. Martel wisely dismounted his cavalry and formed a "wall" of armor to combat the enemy. It is estimated that the Moorish army was some 50,000 strong and made up mostly of cavalry. The Frankish army was of an unknown number, but usually is considered to have been a similar sized force made up of both cavalry and infantry.

Once the battle lines were formed, the Moorish cavalry made a series of attacks against the Franks. The Franks were able to hold their ground and even gained an advantage, threatening their camp. The Muslim army fell back from the attack with their leader killed. The next day the Moors began their retreat back south of the Pyrenees. Charles Martel had won the day and had earned his name the "Hammer".

Charles Martel and his victory at the Battle of Tours is credited with turning back the tide of Islam from Europe and saving Christendom for another day. He then founded a dynasty that included his even more famous grandson, Charlemagne (Charles the Great). Having saved the "western world" and then founding the Frankish Empire, it is no wonder that Charles Martel was the subject of poetry.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

"Don't Know Much About History..."

U.S. Constitution

An article posted on usaweekend.com brings to my mind the first line from an old Sam Cooke song - "Don't know much about History." (The title of the song is "What a Wonderful World"). The story by contributing editor Kenneth C. Davis cites a report by the Intercollegiate Studies Institutes's (ISI) and the results of their 2006 American Civic Literacy Test. The test was given to 14,000 freshman and senior college students from 50 colleges and universities.

The results from the test are disappointing to say the least. The average test score was 52% while the highest test score was from Seniors at Harvard who scored 69.6%. You have to wonder how average Americans would score on the test with students from what is arguably America's most prestigious university scoring the equivalent of a D+.

Davis makes the argument that the way History is taught in our schools could be a lot more "fun" than it is now. He illustrates the point by telling this "story":

For instance, did you hear the one about the 20-something American officer who disobeyed orders, led an ambush of some sleeping French soldiers, then signed a document amounting to a confession of assassinating a French diplomat and ignited a world war in the process? That's actually a true story about an ambitious, headstrong George Washington in 1754. And it's much more interesting than the hokey legend about the cherry tree.

That is a very interesting story and one that I'll go into further in a future blog. Davis also briefly mentions Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Abraham Lincoln and how some of what they experienced in their lives relates to stories in today's headlines.

As for the ISI's American Civics and History Test you can find that here. There are sixty questions on the test and you are tested in the following areas: American History, Political Philosophy and American Government, America and the World and The Market Economy. Having taken the test myself, let me just warn you that it is a challenging test.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Real Live Uncle Sam

Uncle Sam

According to tradition this colorful representation of the United States, Uncle Sam, had its beginnings with the life of a Massachusetts man - Samuel Wilson. Sam Wilson was born in Arlington, Mass. (known as Menotomy at the time) on September 10, 1766, making him just eight years old when the fighting took place near his home on April 19, 1775 that marked the beginning of the American Revolution. While still a boy his family moved to Mason, New Hampshire.

It was a later war, the War of 1812, that brought Samuel Wilson his "fame". Sam and his brother had a contract with the government to supply meat to the U.S. Army. The meat was shipped to the army in barrels that were marked with the letters U.S. to show that they belonged to the government. The soldiers at some point began to joke that the letters U.S. actually stood for the supplier of the meat and the name Uncle Sam came into being. The traditional military habit of referring to any item that was government issued (whether stamped U.S. or not) as "belonging to Uncle Sam" was begun.

Many years later political cartoonists began drawing a character representing the U.S.A. who was commonly referred to as Uncle Sam. But Uncle Sam is of course best known for the military recruiting posters of the First and Second World War that show his image with the caption: "Uncle Sam wants you for the U.S. Army". Millions of American servicemen became very familiar with this poster as they volunteered for the U.S. military.

During America's Bicentennial year of 1976 the town of Arlington, Mass. unveiled this monument to Samuel Wilson, the real life genesis for the symbol of our country, Uncle Sam. Theodore Catillo Barbarossa was the artist and sculptor. The monument bears a statue of Samuel Wilson, a graphic depiction of his life and the following inscription at its base:


Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Mohawk Trail

"Hail to the Sunrise"
Mohawk Park
Charlemont, Mass.

Historically the Mohawks were one of the five original Native American tribes who made up the Iroquois Confederacy or Nation. The Mohawks were the eastern most of the Iroquois tribes living in what was to become upstate New York.

Over the thousands of years that Native Americans resided in what is now New England and New York numerous hunting and trading trails were made through this largely forested region. Europeans naturally made use of these trials when they first started exploring and then establishing their own settlements.

The original Mohawk Trail was a well established trail that led from the lands of the Mohawk to the banks of the Connecticut River has it passed through Massachusetts. This footpath was used for access to the hunting and fishing grounds and for the trading and warfare that went on between the five tribes that lived in the area. With the mass migrations of Europeans into New York and Massachusetts in the 1600's the tribal lands of the Native Americans shrank. More and more European settlements were established which led to the building of roads that often built over and followed the old Native American trails.

With the advent of the automobile in the early 1900's, America began its love affair with the car and the roadway. One of the earliest major highways built for the automobile in Massachusetts was Route 2 which stretches east to west from Cambridge to the New York border. The westernmost portion of the state highway covers some of the same ground as the old Mohawk Trail.

On October 22, 1914 the Massachusetts legislature designated that portion of Route 2 that runs from the Connecticut river to the New York border, a 63 mile section, to be a "scenic tourist route". Commonly referred to as the Mohawk Trail, it continues to be a popular tourist route and attraction, especially in the foliage season.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Bombing of Dresden

Dresden, 1945

On the night of 13 February 1945 bombers from RAF Bomber Command flew over Dresden, Germany and dropped thousands of pounds of bombs. The next day U.S.A.A.F. bombers continued the bombing raids. In total, four bombing raids were conducted dropping tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs. The mixture of bombs created a firestorm that devastated the city and killed thousands of German civilians.

Exactly how many civilians were killed is the subject of a new study whose results were released today. The purpose of the study was to make an authoritative accounting of the number killed in order to put to rest part of the controversy that has arisen over the Dresden bombings. Since the war there have been claims that have placed the death toll to be between 40,000 and as many as 135,000 civilians killed in the bombing raids. The new study places the death toll to be no more than 25,000, which is still a substantial number.

Even in the midst of the horror and the mass killings of the Second World War, the bombing of Dresden has always been controversial. Dresden was considered the cultural capital of northern Germany and had little or no military value. Also, by February 1945 the war in Europe was almost over and Nazi Germany was clearly in its last days.

Held up against the crimes committed by Hitler's Third Reich, especially the deaths of as many as 11 million civilians in its work and death camps, questions about the necessity and even the morality of the Dresden bombings are pushed into the background. In hindsight and perhaps even at the time, it appears that the decision to go ahead with the bombings and the deliberate manner in which they were conducted, was the wrong decision.

What can be called the deadly equation of war, the costs of a war (which includes the number of deaths) weighed against the results that a country or an alliance can expect to achieve, changes over time. In the Second World War, the nations involved decided that no cost was too high to pay in order to defeat the enemy. As a result, large portions of Europe, Russia and Asia were devastated in the war and millions of combatants and civilians died. In the midst of all that carnage the desire for revenge and to spread the destruction can be a strong motivator in strategic thinking.