Category: History

The Battle of Harlem Heights

On 15 September 1776, General Howe landed 4000 men at Kip’s Bay in Lower Manhattan. Washington’s spies knew of the landing and he planned to meet them at the waterline, but the Americans broke at the sight of the Royal Navy, despite Washington’s exhortations to stay and fight. Private Joseph Plumb Martin said of the embarrassing episode, “The demons of fear and disorder seemed to take full possession of all and everything on that day.” Washington reorganized the Continental Army on Harlem Heights and left Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton’s Rangers to monitor and harass the British.

Knowlton’s Rangers was arguably America’s first Special Forces unit. He patterned his men on Robert Roger’s Rangers from the French and Indian War (Roberts was fighting for the British in this war.). On the morning on 16 Sep, Knowlton’s 150 men surprised the pickets of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the Light Infantry. Once the British were roused, Knowlton fell back, and the British pursued. The Light Infantry dragged the entire 42nd Highlander Regt, the Black Watch, with them: the uppity Americans had to be chastised. The Light Infantry liked to use fox hunting calls in their pursuits, and Washington took the sound as an insult.

The infuriated Washington organized an ambush for the cocky Brits, but a jittery young officer prematurely ordered his men to fire just as the Brits entered the kill zone. The British retreated to a field on Morningside Heights, but they were exposed and Washington decided to attack. All was going well for Washington, but a bungled flank attack (and death of Knowlton) failed to isolate them. The Brits retreated into the trees of Hollow Way, but Martin said of the withdrawal, they “were entering a thick wood, a circumstance as disagreeable to them as it was agreeable to us at that period of the war.”

At this point both Howe and Washington fed troops into the battle and they pounded each other for several hours, with the Americans having the upper hand in what was described as a “cursed thrashing” by one British officer. Nevertheless, Washington knew he was pressing his luck in the slug fest, as he was unwilling to commit more troops and risk the loss of the very defensible Harlem Heights behind him. When Howe arrived with the bulk of his 9000 man army, Washington prudently withdrew back up the hill.

The Battle of Harlem Heights, as it subsequently became known (it was named for the location of Washington’s headquarters, not the location of the actual battle), was Washington’s first battlefield victory. The Continental Army locked horns with best regiments in the British Army and gave better than they got. It proved a significant boost to the morale of the wavering Americans, which had only known defeat in New York.

The Tank

For two solid years, the trench systems of the First World War claimed the lives of millions. Russia (briefly) broke the stalemate through imaginative planning, rehearsals, and targeting, while Great Britain and France took a more technological approach. Under the auspices of the Royal Navy, “landships” were created which were heavy enough to crush the wire of no man’s land, long enough to cross trenches, impervious to shrapnel and machinegun fire, capable of traversing the tortured countryside, and with enough firepower to break the German lines. The caterpillar vehicles, code-named “tanks” (to hide their development), were tested and manufactured in the south of England in response to the butchery on the battlefields of Flanders in 1915. On the Somme in 1916, a new level of slaughter was achieved, and British leaders decided to unveil their secret weapon.

On 15 September 1916, Mark I tanks of the eager and frustrated Heavy Section advanced at a walking pace toward the Germans between the French villages of Flers and Courcelette, followed closely behind by British infantry. 19 of them would break down or become stuck before reaching their objectives. But 13 of the Iron Behemoths rumbled forward like the Juggernaut crushing all before them. German soldiers who just the day before were well entrenched and confident of victory, fled at the sight of the earth shaking, fire breathing impenetrable steel beasts. The British advanced over three kilometers in a battle whose gains for the last 76 days had been measured in yards. One French pilot observed from above, “Tank walking up High Street of Flers with British Army cheering behind”.

Regrettably, the British had no plan to exploit this breakthrough, and the Germans recovered all of the ground in subsequent counter attacks. Many derided the effort as at best a premature disclosure of an asymmetric advantage, and at worst a failure and waste of resources. It would be months before another tank saw action. Nonetheless like the bow, stirrup, gunpowder, bayonet, and the Dreadnought before it, the tank changed warfare forever.

Michelangelo’s David

In the High Renaissance, the feuding Italian city states were constantly at war with each other, when they weren’t at war with France or Spain. Perhaps the greatest rivalry of the city states was between Papal Rome under Cesare Borgia and Pope Alexander VI, and the idealistic (and relatively corruption free) Republican Florence under Piero Soderini, Niccolo Machiavelli, and the various merchant families (notably the recently deposed Medici).

For decades, the Office of Works for the Florence Cathedral wanted a series of Old Testament statues for the tops of the Duomo’s buttresses, but for various reasons little came of them. They were concerned for the hugely expensive block of magnificent Carrara marble exposed in the sacristy courtyard. At the behest of Leonardo Da Vinci, they commissioned 26 year old Michelangelo to sculpt Florentine David in direct defiance to Rome’s Goliath.

On 13 September 1501, Michelangelo began sculpting the colossal five m/17 ft David, which became one of the greatest achievements of High Renaissance art. The statue is of the young shepherd in the moments after he decided to fight the massive Philistine warrior Goliath, but before combat began. The tense, frightened, but observant David is poised but about to spring into action. The exquisitely and meticulously crafted sculpture took two years to finish.

A commission led by Da Vinci and Botticelli was so impressed with David that instead of placing it on Il Duomo, it be given a place of greater prominence. Michelangelo protested briefly because David was proportioned to be seen from below, but his concerns were dismissed. On 25 January 1504, David was unveiled at the entrance of the town hall in the Palazza Vecchio, gazing defiantly toward Rome.

The Siege of Svigetvar

After his loss at the Siege of Malta the year before, Suleiman the Magnificent turned his attention to expansion into the Kingdom of Croatia and Hungary in 1566. As the massive Ottoman army approached, its foragers and scouts were constantly ambushed and harassed by men of Croatian Count Nikola Zrinski, whom even defeated the Turkish vanguard at the Battle of Siklos. In response, Suleiman decided to make an example of him and marched straight to Zrinski’s ancestral seat of Svigetvar.

Zrinski was a skilled tactician, and a veteran of decades of border skirmishing with the Ottomans and their subjects in the Balkan marches. However, the odds were daunting: he had just 2300 Croatian and Hungarian knights and men at arms to face Sulieman’s 150,000. Svigetvar was very defensible, with two walled sections of the town (one with a medieval castle) separated by the swampy tributaries of a river, and a final star fortress with two baileys. But at 65-1 all Zrinski could hope to do was hold out long enough for Holy Roman Emperor to come to his aid (which he wouldn’t because the Hapsburg administration and the German princes were paralyzed with fear, but Zrinski didn’t know that).

Suleiman arrived on 2 August and was easily repulsed after ordering an immediate assault. So the Ottomans settled into a siege, with their usual constant bombardments, mining and the occasional surprise assault. Zrinski didn’t even entertain the frustrated sultan’s peace envoys, despite the increasingly more lavish promises by Suleiman. By the beginning of September, the New Town fell, the Old Town and castle were burned to the ground, and all that remained was the fortress, held by Zrinski and 600 grim survivors of the previous month. But the Ottomans suffered much worse – 20,000 warriors dead. Moreover, disease caused by the marshy ground was rampant, and Suleiman himself died of dysentery on 6 September. His advisers and viziers, at great pain, kept his death a secret lest it break up the army. They ordered a last assault for the next day.

But Zrinski had other plans. His fortress walls were rubble, the buildings inside were ablaze, and he would attack. As the sun poked over the horizon, with flaming embers drifting down from above, and the drums and yelling of the Turks permeating the air, Zrinski beseeched his men to accompany him on one final charge. They followed.

The stage was set for an epic clash on the causeway. As the Turks surged across the causeway they were surprised to see the gates of the fortress open before them. The surprise turned to horror as they glanced the giant maw of a great mortar leveled at them. The monstrous belch flung nails, cooking utensils, spare daggers, and even door hinges, into the Turks. 600 immediately were slain, and thousand more wounded. More importantly, it cleared the causeway. At the van, Zrinski charged across and his men crashed into the surprised Turks in the Old Town. They cleared the plaza and took the fight into the charred narrow streets and alleyways. But numbers matter, and no 600 men in history could stand against those odds. Zrinksi and his men were overwhelmed.

But that isn’t the end of Zrinski’s tale. Thousands of victorious Turks swarmed into the fortress in bloodlust to butcher the remaining inhabitants. But before he charged, Zrinski had the extensive powder magazine lit with a slow fuse. As the Ottomans were gleefully looting the remains, a massive explosion leveled the fortress, killing thousands and wounding thousands more.

In its state, the Ottoman army could not continue on to Vienna, and it slowly drifted back to Constantinople. Cardinal Richelieu of France called Zrinksi’s defense of Svigetvar, “the battle that saved the civilization”.

Star Trek

In the early 60s, television was dominated by declining Westerns. Furthermore, the genre of Science Fiction was well past its Golden Age of Arthur C Cark, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and the best episodes of the Twilight Zone. Enter Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry, a former B-17 pilot in the Pacific, Pan Am pilot, and LAPD beat cop. He had a vision of combining the two genres. In 1964, he pitched a treatment for a very different television show to Desliu executives (a production company formed by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball), and the show was eventually picked up by NBC.

Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” was set on a futuristic 23rd century spaceship, the USS Enterprise, that explored the unknown expanse of our galaxy. Unlike Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, the star ship was a naval vessel with a lingo that seemed familiar to the World War Two generation, which was the original target and most lucrative audience at the time. The show’s liberal interventionist and character driven plots would revolve around the three main characters. This trio consisted of the Horatio Hornblower-esque captain and decision maker, and the two halves of his conscious: the coldly logical science officer and the emotionally charged medical officer. The agreement of the three was then supported by a diverse crew – the swashbuckling physicist and helmsmen (the first Asian character portrayed in a positive light), the stereotypical but willful nurse (and ship’s computer), the supremely competent, if irascible Scottish engineering officer (a hit with the generation that saved the world), and the stupid hot and always capable African-American communications officer (the first African American on prime time TV not in a menial role), among many others. (The youthful mop topped navigator, for the girls spellbound by the contemporary band The Monkees, did not join the crew until the second season.)

The first episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap”, aired on NBC at 8:30 pm on 8 September 1966. Most critics hated it, particularly the New York Times and the Boston Globe. And it also opened to generally poor ratings among most viewers, except one key demographic: young people. They had never before watched TV in these numbers in this timeslot. Young viewers were drawn to the unheard of combination of heady science fiction, utopian respect, cultural diversity, egoless teamwork, unbridled optimism, and all wrapped up in good old fashioned American “Can Do” attitude. The show only lasted for three (glorious) seasons, mostly due to the peace movement, the Vietnam War, and the souring of American attitudes to intervening in other cultures.

However, the fans of the show wouldn’t be kept down for long. In 1972, a surprisingly successful convention for Star Trek enthusiasts was held in New York City, and the first “fandom” was born (not to mention the “con”). It was this fan base, and their renewed interest in Science Fiction, that would form the lines outside movie theaters to see the future Star Wars and Close Encounters, and lead directly to the intellectual property model of entertainment we enjoy today. These fan bases would go on to make Science Fiction, and its off shoots in comic books and fantasy, among America’s greatest cultural exports. The informal networks of the shared interests in these fandoms would not only precede social networking by 40 years, but form their models.

In many ways, Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scottie, Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu prompted America ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before”.

The League of the Three Petticoats and The Seven Years’ War

In 1754, a young Virginia militia officer, Lieutenant Colonel George Washington, renewed the centuries’ long conflict between Britain and France when he ambushed the French at Jumonville Glen in the moraine-carved, serene, and picturesque wilderness of what would become Western Pennsylvania. King George II dispatched troops to the New World, and we would know this conflict as the French and Indian War. Although the war raged in the colonies, in 1756, the conflict had yet to spread to Europe. However that year, George II felt that his ancestral home in central Germany, Hanover, was threatened by France. So he made an alliance with King in Prussia, Frederick I, to protect the small city state.

The new alliance upset the delicate balance of power in Europe at the time. Maria Theresa of Austria, a traditional enemy of France and ally of Britain was upset with George’s new alliance with her rival, Prussia. She desired the return of the rich Polish province of Silesia, which she lost the decade before, and furthermore despised Frederick whom never failed to insult her every chance he got. She made an ostensibly defensive alliance with France in May 1756.

France was also ready for war with Prussia. For twenty years the second most powerful woman in France was Madame de’ Pompadour, the 13th handmaiden to the queen. This doesn’t sound like much but she was intelligent, driven, an economic genius, ran the royal household, and was the highest authority in France on matters of taste and fashion, not to mention the king’s mistress, and the queen’s closest confidant. In the spring of 1755, Frederick insulted her through their mutual friend Voltaire, and Madame de’ Pompadour never forgave him. She was not above using her influence, and the mechanisms of the state, to avenge the insult.

That summer, a third target of Frederick insults also decided the time was ripe to avenge her honor. The wily Empress Elizabeth of Russia loathed Frederick for calling her a “superstitious and indolent voluptuary”. So she put aside Russia’s traditional hostility with France to chasten the insolent Frederick… and take advantage of Prussia’s isolation. In July, 1756, Russia joined the anti-Prussian Alliance, which throughout Europe became known as the “League of the Three Petticoats”.

Frederick, surrounded by three of the most powerful nations in Europe, decided to attack before Prussia was overwhelmed. On 29 August 1756, the Prussian army of Frederick the Great crossed into Saxony to subdue his troublesome smaller neighbor before turning on Austria.

And with it, a remote colonial dispute and the salon games of the affluent, became a world war.

Private Richard Winters

On 25 August 1941, Richard “Dick” Winters, a June graduate and Magna Cum Laude of Franklin and Marshall College, walked into a recruiting office in Lancaster, PA. With the recent passage of the Selective Service Extension, he figured it was only a matter of time before he was drafted. He’d go to Camp Croft, SC for Basic Training, and then Ft Benning, GA for Officer Candidate School. In August 1942, he volunteered for the new Parachute Infantry, and was assigned to E Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment at Camp Toccoa, GA.

You can watch the rest on Band of Brothers.

Escape From Brooklyn

In the afternoon of 28 August, 1776, after a council of war with Greene, Putnam, and Sullivan, George Washington decided that the storm could be used as a cover to gather boats and escape the trap. It took a full day and then some to gather all the small craft on the East and Hudson rivers in the middle of the nor’easter, but by the evening of the 29th, they were assembled below Brooklyn Village. Just after dusk, almost as if Baby Jesus turned off the faucet, the storm dissipated, and left the East River calm.

Two Massachusetts regiments would ferry the Continental Army to Manhattan in great secrecy. Pvt Joseph Plum Martin wrote that the men were “enjoined not to speak, or even cough”, and that “orders were passed from officer to officer, and then to the men in a whisper…” All night Washington’s soon-to-be indispensable regiments of fishermen, mostly from Marblehead, slowly rowed the stores, powder, tents, cannon, horses and men of the heretofore doomed army across the mile wide East River.

In the morning twilight of the 30th, the men left behind in camp to stoke the fires scampered down to the bank, and were surprised to find three regiments, and Washington’s headquarters, still awaiting transport. The operation would be exposed at dawn for all eyes to see, whether Manhattan loyalists, the elder Howe’s gunners, or the younger Howe’s pickets. Washington, personally supervising the embarkation, briefly entertained the idea of sending the men back to the entrenchments to make a fight of it. But just as the sun was about to peak over the horizon, another freak accident of nature, some would say a miracle, happened – a heavy fog descended on the river. It was so thick men “had to hold the shoulder of the man in front of him”. When the fog finally lifted two hours later, Lord Howe, looking through his spyglass in the New York Harbor, watched the final load cross the river, which contained Washington as he was one of the last to embark.

The Continental Army would live to fight another day.

Almost a hundred years later, German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck would say, “There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children, and the United States of America.”

The Nor’easter

On the evening of 27 August 1776, General Sir Henry Clinton and Lord Cornwallis were furious with their commander, General Howe: Washington’s army was just waiting on destruction and instead of attacking, Howe ordered siege works constructed. He later explained to Parliament in 1779 that his men were tired after marching all day, and he wanted to avoid another Bunker Hill. Furthermore, his brother, Admiral Lord Howe could easily trap the Americans by sailing into the East River the next morning. Nevertheless, Clinton and Cornwallis felt that when total victory was within your grasp, you seize it with both hands, lest the opportunity slip away. They were right.

On the early morning of 28 August, in the exhausted and battered American camp on Brooklyn Heights, the sentries’ eyes began adjusting to the twilight and they could just make out their British and Hessian counterparts 150 meters below them. But before their besiegers’ camp could become more than thousands of tiny fireflies in the black, darkness reemerged. In less than a minute, the clear starlit sky was a mass of dark angry clouds streaked of lightning. In its horrible fury, the thunder awoke both camps, and the horizontal rain blew over tents and extinguished fires. A Nor’easter had blown down the coast.

The storm, uncommon in the summer, howled all day, and showed no signs of abating. In New York Harbor, it was all Lord Howe could do to save his ships, much less than trying to sail up the East River.

It was the second time that year that Washington was saved by a freak phenomenon of the weather. It would not be the last.

The Battle of Long Island

New York was LTG George Washington’s nightmare: the city was on the southern tip of Manhattan Island and dominated by the western tip of another island, the Brooklyn Heights on Long Island, and he had no navy. In July, Washington politely rejected Lord Howe’s offer of pardons, just after Howe’s adjutant pointed out these exact inconvenient facts. He also dismissed Nathaniel Greene’s suggestion to burn the wretched hive of loyalists to the ground and fight somewhere else. Washington understood that the Continental Army had to be seen defending all Americans, not just particular groups. Despite the difficulties, a defense of New York would at least be attempted. Washington had 22,000 men but Howe had 35,000 so he split his army: half on Manhattan, 1/10 in forts blocking the Hudson (Forts Lee and Washington. We will speak of them later), and 2/5 on Long Island.

On 21 August 1776, Washington’s spy network determined that Brooklyn would be Howe’s next target. That night Washington rushed reinforcements to Long Island, where MG Sullivan discerned that the best place to meet Howe would be the Guan Heights south of Brooklyn Village. The Guan Heights were a series of hills and passes which was thought would negate Howe’s advantage of superior numbers. But the defensive preparations were muddled. It was clear that Washington and his subordinate commanders and staffs were still having difficulty with all aspects of running the army, particularly one so large as the Continental Army in the summer of 1776. The three western passes were defended, but far to the east, the Jamaica Pass, was thought too far away for use by the British. They were wrong.

On 22 August the first British and Hessian troops landed at Gravesend Bay on Long Island. By 25 August Howe had 20,000 men on the island. On the evening of 26 August, Howe led a night march of 10,000 guided by loyalist farmers around the American defenses through the Jamaica Pass. At 0300, Cornwallis and Clinton attacked the Guan Heights to fix Washington, and at dawn Howe crashed into Sullivan’s unprotected flank and rear. The entire left of the Continental Army broke. Washington ordered a retreat for the fortifications of the Brooklyn Heights but the entire army was in chaos. That so many men would escape was solely the result of the defense and counterattacks of the 1st Maryland Line, led by MAJ Mordecai Gist, known to history as “The Maryland 400”.

MG William Alexander Lord Stirling, in command of the Washington’s right on Battle Hill thought he was winning the day against the Hessians and Royal Marines to his front until British regulars appeared behind him. He ordered most of his troops back but stayed with Gist and the rearguard of Marylanders. The Maryland 400 had never been in a fight together before that morning and took on 2500 British and two cannon. They alternated between breaking up attacks and counterattacking with bayonets, which they did six times, twice to capture an old stone house, before being destroyed. 256 Marylanders were killed, the rest wounded and captured, including Gist and Stirling. Washington watching from a nearby hill, said of them “Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose.” Only twelve made it back to the Brooklyn Heights.

That afternoon, Washington and his commanders scrambled to reorganize the shattered army to defend the Brooklyn Heights for Howe’s inevitable assault that evening.

But it never came. Nonetheless, as soon as the Royal Navy entered the East River the next morning, Washington would be trapped, and there was nothing he could do about it.