Another Side of General Washington
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.
An Artifact From Commodore Arnold
In the picture is actual shot from a swivel gun mounted on the Royal Savage. The quarter is there to show scale. So, what makes this so special? Well, it starts with a name you probably recognize, Benedict Arnold. In 1776 Arnold led an American fleet on Lake Champlain against the quickly advancing British. The Battle of Valcour Island was fought on October 11, 1776 and it was a stunning loss to the Americans. Or was it?
On the heels of their retreat from the failed campaign to turn Canada into the fourteenth colony, the Americans gathered every ship they had on the lake to take a stand against the oncoming British forces. Command of the makeshift fleet fell to Benedict Arnold who as an experienced ship captain as well as one of the “heroes” of the invasion of Canada, looked to have the best chance to make the stand.
In the end, the American fleet was almost totally destroyed, but even so, Arnold managed to accomplish an incredible fleet. He had managed to convince Guy Carlton, the British commander, to take a slower pace on his advance. Carlton came to the decision that it was too late in the year to continue his invasion of New York. The British withdrew back to Canada until the following year. Had they continued they would have found very little in the way of defenses. They could have made it all the way to Albany without much of a fight.
The Royal Savage was one of the ships in Arnold’s fleet, commanded by David Hawley. The ball in the picture was forged at the Skeene Foundry and was sized for one of the lightweight swivel guns on the vessel. Usually several of these balls were loaded into the canon. This turned it into a sort of giant shotgun.
As a part of my personal collection, it is a reminder of Arnold on his ascent. The battle at Valcour was just one in a series of episodes where Arnold very well may have saved the revolution.
The Governor’s Palace At Williamsburg
The picture above is the Virginia Governors Palace at Colonial Williamsburg. Construction on the original building started in 1705 and continued off and on until 1718. That year Governor Spotswood finally took up residence. It was not totally completed, however. Lack of funds and growing expenses dragged the construction out. A total of nine Governors would live in the “palace”. Including such men at Robert Dinwiddie, John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. In 1780 the capital moved to Richmond where it would stay.
The original palace burned down in 1781, and it pretty much stayed that way for a very long time. After the Revolution, the land was given over to the College of William & Mary and several instructional buildings took over the location. In 1928 The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation purchased the site and began an extensive archaeological survey of the site. During this survey, they were able to locate the original foundation and were able to get a good idea of the structure which for many had only ever existed in paintings of descriptions.
In 1929, armed with the results of the survey an extensive reconstruction of the original building started. In 1934 the restored building opened to the public and serves as a historic site and museum to this day.
Certainly one of the highlights of any trip to Williamsburg, there is no description that can possibly translate what it feels like to be standing on the top floor of that building and looking through the window, out over the town square and imagining what it was like in the days before the Revolution.
The Civil War Begins
This mural located at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, by artist Danilo Montejo, shows Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor under fire on April, 12th 1861. From the batteries on the shore, the Confederate States of America instigated hostilities. The shells began falling on the last remaining Federal outpost in the South. Of course, there is a case to be made that Lincoln’s actions up to that fateful day in regards to Ft. Sumter served to instigate the conflict and thus the war. Choosing to resupply the fort rather than surrender it opened the door to the bloody war that followed, regardless of who fired the first shot. That discussion is for a later time.
The bombardment of the fort started at 4:30 AM 4/12/1861 when the Confederate forces under General P.G.T. Beauregard (the first general in the Confederacy) opened fire from the chain of forts surrounding the harbor. The Union forces under Major Robert Anderson return fire the best they could, but they were dramatically outgunned. The fort could not hold and there was no chance of reinforcements. After 34 hours and thousands of shots being fired Anderson was forced to surrender.
It was a miracle for sure, but during the bombardment, no one was killed on either side. In what can only be seen as a bitter irony, during the surrender ceremonies on the 14th, a cannon exploded killing two Union soldiers, the first of the war.
The spectacular mural above does a wonderful job of capturing the events of the battle. There would be many, many more to come as the sound of the guns that broke the pre-dawn stillness that morning would continue for four very long years. The Civil War had begun.
To B-1B or not to B-1B
The above is the B-1B Lancer and for a good chunk of the later Cold War this was to be one of the primary aircraft that would deliver nuclear payloads, should it ever be needed.
Originally conceived in the 50’s and into the 60’s the idea was to create a replacement for the venerable B-52 that would have extended range and supersonic capabilities. The first of the prototypes, the B-1A, flew on December 23, 1974. Originally slated to cost in the area of $40 million, By 1975 the projected cost had ballooned to over $70 million per aircraft.
By the time that Jimmy Carter took over the presidency, this B-1 program, and several others were on the chopping block because of their expense and the feeling that would be no better in payload or penetration of enemy airspace than the B-52. Carter killed the program and decided to focus instead on ICBMs and “modernizing” the current B-52 fleet.
Upon taking office in 1981 President Reagan decided that the B-1 could fulfill a designated role. He ordered 100 of the planes to be constructed. The B-1B officially joined the US armory on October 1st, 1986.
It has a max airspeed of Mach 1.5 at high altitude and Mach 0.92 at low altitude. With a combat radius of almost three thousand miles. The crew of four would be able to deploy over 125,000 pounds of ordinance on a given target. Conventional as well as nuclear. The most amazing thing? With potential upgrades and increased capabilities, the B-1B could potentially be in services until 2038 or later!
Of course, the photo above is a model of the unit.
A Well Dressed Johnny Reb (Confederate Infantry)
The photo above is a representation of what a regular Confederate Infantry Soldier would have looked like. Notice the nice clean uniform. The musket, canteen, nice hat, bayonet hanging from his belt. There is even a backpack to hold rations and personal belongings. Wow. Looking at this you would think that this fellow was part of a well supplied and outfitted army.
Of course everyone started off with a nice clean uniform. There were a number of regulations that attempted to standardize the type of shirt and pants, the color of the fabric and the hat that should be worn. Unfortunately the South had a difficult time with the mass fabrication of uniforms. There ended up being a lot of variety.
Once the Southern industrial base caught up to war effort the uniforms became more standardized and better supplied. Being able to access cloth imported from Britain also helped. Some of the CSA units at the end of the war were better uniformed than at the start.
The hat worn here is not the regulation Kepi, but a wide brimmed usually wool hat that provided much more protection from the weather. These hats were popular among the enlisted and officers and were almost always of civilian origin.
The grey color of the uniforms was chosen for a number of reasons. First, many of the state militias uniforms were of that color. Or at least a shade or two off. Secondly, is was a cheap color to dye the cloth. Third, even though not actually intentional, the grey provided a basic level of camouflage against the tree lines.
Uniforms that came out of the the Richmond facilities maintained their color. The grey uniforms that were made in the Western and Deep South facilities often faded to a brown or tan color. Sometimes homespun fabric was used that was a similar color. This “butternut” color became almost as iconic as the grey you see above.
As Close As We Can Get
Gettysburg is more than a battlefield. It is also the home to a very good museum with a number of fantastic exhibits and artifacts at the visitor center. One artifact worth mention is the plaster mask of President Abraham Lincoln pictured above.
The practice of creating “life” and “death” masks dates far back into antiquity when men of note would allow a mask to be made of their features using plaster. Sometimes done during their life, sometimes not until after they died. These masks are the closest we may ever get to seeing what these men of legend actually looked like.
Lincoln himself had two life masks done . The first in 1860 before becoming president. The second in 1865, just months before his untimely death. The one pictured above comes from a cast of the 1860 original. It shows a Lincoln, sans beard, before the tolls of politics and war took their toll.
For more information on the masks themselves and the story of their castings visit Abraham Lincoln Online via this link.
Lincoln: Myth or Man?
No matter how you view Lincoln seeing his face, even in plaster, is sobering. Generally considered the best President of the United States he has become more myth than man. In recent years there has been a movement to try to demystify him, to make him more human and flawed. From efforts to paint him as a racist, who only used the issue of slavery as a political tool, to efforts underway to prove he was homosexual, Lincoln is still a touchstone for controversy.
But seeing that face, as close to reality as you will ever get, shows that he was a man upon which the history of the nation turned on. Standing in front of the exhibit at Gettysburg just adds to the over all feeling of awe at the place.
On February 18, 1898 the American battleship, USS Maine exploded in the harbor of Havana Cuba and catapulted the United States onto the world stage. Above is a photo of a porthole that was recovered from the wreckage and is on display at the National Infantry Museum.
Tensions between the US and Spain had been on the rise as the people of Cuba were fighting Spain for the freedom. America supported the rebels but was in such a position where they could not do so openly. In fact President McKinley sent the Maine to Havana, with permission from the Spanish government, to protect Americans in the country. When the ship inexplicably exploded that night over 200 American sailors lost their life and all any one could ask was why?
The initial investigation placed the cause for the explosion on a mine that had detonated underneath a powered magazine. When the results of the inquiry were made public, the American press immediately laid the blame on the Spanish and demanded that the US intervene in the rebellion on the side of Cuba. Before long the fervor for war grew and led to Congress declaring war on Spain on April 23, 1898. The war itself did not last long, Spain had long been on the decline and none of the other powers felt compelled to help. Before long the US Navy had all but obliterated the Spanish Navy while the ground forces took Cuba and the Philippines, among others.
Several years later, a follow-up inquiry into the fate of the Maine, contradicted the mine findings and instead suggested that the cause of the explosion was spontaneous combustion inside the power magazine. Even today the actual cause of the explosion is debated and serves as fodder for conspiracy theorists. It does seem mighty convenient that such an event occurred just when the desire to create and American Empire at the expense of a dying European power seemed the most, opportune.
To read more about the Maine click here.
The New World brought untold riches to the powers of the Old World. Gold, silver, furs, tobacco, and many, many other resources became the currency of conquest. There was however one other resource that can not be left off that list, souls. Religion, as is almost always the case, became a weapon and resource in the New World.
The natives that lived in North America had beliefs and religion of their own, but that didn’t really matter. The Catholic Church, under the auspices of both Spain and France saw the natives as savages and pagans. They sought to “rescue” their souls for God.
To do so they established missions all through the New World. These missions often became the center of life for many of the Europeans living in the frontier and became crucial to not only gaining support of the natives, but converting them to Christianity.
In particularity unsafe or contested areas, some times these missions would become forts and used as bases to attack enemies and to aggressively spread the word of God.
Not all native tribes took to the missionaries very well. They saw no reason to change their traditions and beliefs, just for favors from the Europeans. For the most part, along with trying to convert the natives, their was an effort to make them more like the white man by encouraging them to move from the hunter/gatherer society they had always known to an agrarian based society. All too often the attempts to “civilize” the natives lead to bloody conflict that never ended well for them.
The crosses that are shown in the picture above came were found in the area of one of the old mission/forts. Where the meaning of cross to some is death and rebirth, to others it could just as easily be about the end of way of life.