Hanging in the visitor center at Colonial Williamsburg is this 1799 portrait of General Washington that was pained by Charles Willson Peale. This painting is breathtaking in person and truly presents the General as a figure larger than life.
One of the most amazing things about Washington was how down to earth he was. Even during the Revolution, his legend was well on the way to mythic proportion. There were times when his words alone spurred his men to fight. His promises were enough to keep the army together. Even when there was no food, no pay, and no prospect of victory.
The time though that he proved the most worthy of being a myth and legend was the time when he showed his officers how human he was.
The British were defeated at Yorktown, but the war would continue for several more years and the Continental Army had to stay in the field. Many officers and soldiers had not been paid for six years and dissatisfaction was mounting. In January 1783 a group of officers asked Congress to consider the back wages it owed the army. Congress refused. Tensions between the army and Congress worsened to the point that calls came to march on the Congress and collect the payments by force.
In Newburgh, NY, the officers gathered to plan the coup. Faced with the disgruntled offers and a recalcitrant Congress, George Washington called his officers to a meeting. He explained that Congress was doing what they could, he promised to do everything possible to have the issues resolved. Washington was loved and admired by his men but not even he could divert them from the course they were on, mutiny seemed inevitable.
Sensing he was losing the room, Washington started reading a letter from a Congressman that supported the officers. A few words in Washington had to pause and put on a pair of reading glasses to continue. Apologizing for the delay Washington said, “I have already grown gray in the service of my country. I am now going blind.” The officers saw the personal sacrifice of their commander. This one simple remark reached into the hearts and minds of the assembled men and placed their struggle into perspective. Instead of preparing for a military coup, the men asked Washington to do all he could and the war continued.
A gesture, as simple as putting a pair of glasses, saved the Revolution from becoming a dictatorship. If not for that one personal, and embarrassing moment for Washington, who knows how the story would have ended.
This is the Yorktown Victory Monument in Yorktown, Virginia. It was here in a siege that lasted from September 28, 1781, to October 19, 1781, that final act of the American Revolution started.
Wait a second. You do know that when the British surrendered at Yorktown, that was not the end of the war right?
The war did not officially end until the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783. That means the war lasted for almost two years after Yorktown. Then why is it called the end of the war?
The Battle Was Over, But Not The War
After Yorktown, the British ended offensive operations in North America. They were fighting France and Spain for control of the Caribbean (and other places). These were far more valuable to them than the American Colonies.
Fighting still occurred as both sides took every chance to raid and smack around the other guys. Besides, Britain still controlled Charleston, Savannah, and New York which were no small potatoes. That wasn’t the worst news. The United States was broke, so even though the major fighting was over other issues, just as deadly started to take root. With no money Congress could not pay the troops, without pay, many troops wondering why they even stay in the army. Some thought that they should simply turn on Congress and there was a very, very real chance that the army would turn on Congress and put a dictatorship in place. Luckily General Washington himself put the kibosh on this.
During this time also, behind the scenes of the treaty negotiations was a bunch of backbiting double-dealing that threatened to prolong the war. In the end, the treaty was signed and the war was officially over. The adventure for the new country was just about to begin.
What must it have been like in that room on September 22, 1862? After having stated with no uncertain terms that the war being fought was one of preserving the Union, President Lincoln announces his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Though not freeing a single slave, this document changed the shape and scope of the Civil War.
Lincoln had been of two minds. Personally, he had no use for slavery. He knew that just as the Southerners were fighting to preserve their “peculiar institution“, Northerners would not really be too keen to fight a war to end it. At the same time a number of border states, who were still clinging to slavery, teetered on the edge between Union and Confederacy. For Lincoln, his proclamation was a calculated risk. And it paid off.
Through careful wording of his document Lincoln skillfully re-framed the war as one to not only save the Union but to secure the basic tenets of human freedom. At least that is what it seemed. The document stated that as of January 1, 1863, all slaves in the rebellious states “shall be then, thenceword, and forever free.” Think about for a second. He only freed the slaves in states that the government had no control over. Slaves still in the North, and those in the border states (Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware) were not subject to the proclamation.
Lincoln heard from all sides. To some, it did not go far enough. To others, it seemed to go too far. What it did do for certain was stem the growing tide o support for the Confederacy in the courts of Europe. Most importantly though it allowed the United States to claim a moral high ground in a war that was tearing families apart.
The American Republic has always been a tenuous thing. In the Fall of 1864 is was undergoing one of its most dire tests as the Civil War raged on. The war had been going on for over three years and the outcome was far from decided.
President Lincoln had led the United States through the early defeats at the hands of the Confederacy and was only now begging to see the end of the conflict in sight. There was one more obstacle ahead of him that even he was not sure what the outcome would be. 1864 brought the next presidential election. An election that was going to happen in spite of the war.
Opposing President Lincoln would be General George B. McClellan, a man who Lincoln had put in charge of the army twice. McClellan ran as a Democrat on the platform that they would negotiate a peace and end the war. It was felt that the support he had with the army would give him enough votes to defeat Lincoln and end the war.
Besides the fact that the election was being held during wartime, this election would be the first time that soldiers in the field would be able to vote. The poll book in the picture is the method that this was carried out. Even in the throes of a civil war, the people would be heard from.
Against expectations, almost 70% of the army voted for Lincoln and in effect a continuation of the war. Lincoln won the election handily by over 400,000 popular votes, winning all but three states that participated.
Without that victory, the outcome of the war may have been completely different, and with it the fate of our country.
Gather round for a story about the indomitable President Lincoln and the famous Spencer rifle.
The popular version of the story tells how on late a Summer day in 1863 Christopher Spencer, the inventor of the Spencer repeating rifle, took his invention to the White House to demonstrate it for the President. On that day out in the backyard of the White House Lincoln took the rifle in his hand and fired seven rounds at a painted target board, hitting it in rapid succession. Duly impressed the story goes that he ordered a large quantity of the rifles on the spot.
That board that he shot at that day is in the picture above having been given to Christopher Spencer as a souvenir.
The Real Story
Now for the real story. It turns out that the Spencer rifle was already in service in the Federal Army in small numbers. The Navy Department had heard about it and wanted to order some for their own use. Eventually, the Navy’s request reached the desk of Lincoln who was intrigued and asked for a rifle to evaluate for himself. He received one, and it didn’t work. He took the second one, and it didn’t work. After that, he denied the request for the Navy and went about his business (you know, running a war).
A higher up at the Spencer Company heard about the President’s experience and sent Christopher Spencer to change his mind. Once in front of Lincoln, he had Spencer strip the rifle down. Once reassembled they went out and shot at the board. The same one in the picture above. The rifle worked perfectly this time. Lincoln thanked Spencer and sent him on his way.
The next morning Lincoln went out with his secretary and shot the rifle again and became duly impressed. Eventually, an order was placed and the Spencer became a part of history. So not quite as exciting as the campfire tale that is told, but even the biggest legends have to start somewhere.
Yes, it used to be en vogue for members of the US Military to carry swagger sticks. See way back in the day Roman Centurions carried rods of vine wood about three feet in length. They used these to guide drills of their soldiers and to discipline them when needed.
Not as long as a full staff or cane it found its way through the ages to the British Army. Where at one point it was part it became part of the “walking out” uniform for all ranks. It survived until off-duty soldiers were able to wear civilian clothes then it kind of faded from popular use.
In the US it started in the late 18th century and took strong hold during WWI when the troops saw how cool the British looked with them and in 1922 it became a part of the US Marines regulation uniform where it would come in and out of vogue several times until finally being dismissed from active service in 1960 when the Commandant of the Marine Corps officially designated it as optional.
It will surprise no one that General George S. Patton carried a swagger stick with him that also managed to conceal a blade, he was always prepared, but the best modern story of the swagger stick belongs to General William J. Livsey. From 1864 to 1987 he was the US 8th Army Commanding General in South Korea. He carried a very special swagger stick made from wood from the poplar tree that was the center of the Axe Murder Incident that occurred in the DMZ in 1976, that will be something we will we cover in another story though…
Propaganda is “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.” So you can say just about everything you see during the day is propaganda. The use of propaganda during wartime is almost as old as war itself and certainly has had its place in American Military History.
The examples that you see in the picture are from the Korean conflict. Pamphlets like these were disseminated to the general population to convince them that the UN/South Korean troops were the good guys. The goal was to either get people to fight, flee, or at least not support the enemy. There is an ongoing debate as to how effective it is or was during this conflict. Other times the effective use of propaganda has proven very valuable.
Before and during the American Revolution the use of propaganda was vital to sway people to the side of the rebels. Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre that took some liberties with events. The stories that surrounded young Jane McCrea led to the British defeat at Saratoga. Propaganda proved an invaluable tool in gaining the support needed to win the American Revolution.
Several times it was not just used to gain support for a war, but to actually get one started!
Don’t forget using the sinking of the USS Maine to throw us into war against Spain. There many more examples in our history. Now expand that to the rest of the world. It seems that propaganda is just as important as guns and money to starting, fighting and winning a war.
On display at the National Infantry Museum at Ft. Benning is this sweatshirt that belonged to General George S. Patton. With all his bombast, all his skill and his incredible military aptitude it’s kind of hard think of him as a guy that liked to play sports. In fact, he was always a bit of a sportsman.
In fact, during the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, he competed for the United States in the first modern version of the Pentathlon which was only open to military officers since it focused mainly on the skills every good officer was expected to have. The five events that made up the Pentathlon included pistol shooting from 25 meters, fencing, swimming (9300-meter freestyle) horseback riding (800 meters) and a four-kilometer cross-country run.
Twenty-six-year-old Patton did remarkably well in the multi-event sport, consisting of pistol shooting from 25 meters, sword fencing, a 300-meter freestyle swim, 800 meters horseback riding and a 4-kilometer cross-country run. He did very well in the competition. Ending up finishing fifth overall. If not for the shooting portion he may have won.
Are you saying he didn’t do well on the shooting portion? Patton? Well, see what happened was that for the competition all the other competitors used .22 caliber revolvers. Patton, however, felt that since the competition had its foundation in military training, a more appropriate weapon was needed.
So he used a .38 for his round. Unfortunately, after his score was tallied up he found that he had lost points when one of his shots missed the target. He tried to explain that he didn’t miss. One of the shots had gone through the hole left by a previous shot. The .38 leaving much bigger holes than the .22. The judges, however, did not agree with his contention and his score was docked.
Not to worry though, he bounced back from the defeat and did pretty good for himself.
The Berlin Airlift was one of the first events of the burgeoning Cold War. It saw the Western powers facing off against their former ally the Soviet Union. The picture above depicts diorama of the event, but let’s look at it a little more.
At the end of WWII Germany was divided into several occupation zones split between the US, The United Kingdom, and The Soviet Union. The split Berlin four ways between the US, UK, France and Soviet Union. The question of how to rebuild and reunify Germany became a political hot topic. No one could quite agree and Berlin was at the center of the argument. Sitting deep within the Soviet occupation zone the city was almost an island unto itself.
In January 1947 the US and UK merged their German occupation zones.,This move that caused great discomfort to the Soviets. By 1948 the Western powers had taken steps to grant their occupied section of Germany and Berlin statehood. It was to serve as the primary bulwark against Communist expansion into West Europe. The Soviets responded in kind within their occupation zone. Germany officially became split in two. As part of this and in an attempt to gain control of the city, the Soviets implemented a blockade of the Western part of the city blocking all major, road, rail and canal links to the outside.
Neither side wanted war, but the people of West Berlin needed supplies. As an answer, the US and UK opted to fly supplies in through an air corridor that was agreed upon at the end of the war. They gambled that the Soviets would not be willing to go to war. During the height of the crisis that ran from June 1948 to May 1949 the West was able to land almost one supply plane every 45 seconds in one of the major airports and were also able to put in place a counter-blockade of East Berlin, these things combined caused the Soviets to lower the blockade, but also solid split Europe for the better part of fifty years.
Located in Atlanta Georgia is Oakland Cemetery. Like many cemeteries in the south, it contains a large number of Confederate graves. During the Battle of Atlanta, many hospitals were close to the cemetery. So naturally it became the last resting place for many soldiers. In fact, there are even several Union soldiers buried there.
Oakland has many fantastic memorials and a fair number of resting places for well-known people. For anyone interested in history the Confederate section is a must see. The one certain must-see is the monument in the picture. The Lion of the Confederacy. Sometimes known as the Lion of Atlanta.
It sits in the Confederate section and is dedicated to the almost 3,000 unknown Confederate dead buried among their brothers. Most were collected from the battlefield and various mass graves. Over time they were interred in Oakland Cemetery.
The sculpture was designed by T.M. Brady of Canton, Georgia. It strongly resembles a monument to the Swiss guards lost during the French Revolution, the Lion of Lucerne. The 30,000lb block of marble that the lion is carved from came from north Georgia. At the time (1894) it was the single largest block of granite quarried in North America. The quarry that provided the stone for the Lion was the same quarry that would provide the granite for the Lincoln Memorial.
Seems a little fitting.
People, Places and Things from US Military History