Saturday, December 30, 2017

Women and the Medal of Honor

Last week, I wrote about father and son recipients of the Medal of Honor.  Almost immediately, I got email asking about women and the Medal—or about women in combat in general. 

The first part of that question is easy.  Only one woman, Mary Edwards Walker, has to date received the Medal for her service as a doctor during the Civil War.  Unusual for her time, she was a practicing physician and surgeon before the war started, and immediately volunteered for service—without pay—with the Union Army.  At Chickamauga, she crossed enemy lines to treat wounded civilians and was captured by the Confederacy.  Held as a spy, she was imprisoned in the infamous Castle Thunder in Richmond—actually a former tobacco warehouse—until she was part of a prisoner exchange. 

After the war, General Sherman recommended her for the Medal, which she received personally from President Andrew Johnson.  For more than fifty years, she was the only woman to receive the Medal.  In 1917, after Congress voted a pension for Medal recipients, the Army rewrote the rules for qualification and rescinded over 900 awards, including Dr. Walker’s and Buffalo Bill Cody’s.  Though ordered to return her Medal, Dr. Walker—now a supporter of equal rights and a suffragette—continued to wear hers until her death, two years later.  The tough old bird is pictured at right.

For a little over half a century, there were no female recipients.  In 1977, President Carter reinstated the Medal for Dr. Walker.  (Buffalo Bill got his back a decade later.)  So, as of today,  Dr. Walker is still the only woman to have ever received the Medal.   

Perhaps that needs to change, so, of course, I have a suggested nomination.

During the American invasion of Iraq, the capture of Jessica Lynch became a media sensation.  The press was fixated on the blond-haired Lynch and strangely quiet about the simultaneous capture of Private Shoshana Johnson, an African-American, and Private Lori Piestewa, a Native American.   Piestewa would become the first Native American woman to die in combat.  Most Americans remember the story of Jessica Lynch, but very few remember the two women who were captured along with her.

At the time of their capture, I was teaching military history at Enema U, and my phone rang constantly from reporters calling me to ask if Jessica Lynch was the first woman to serve in combat.  Patiently, I gave long, detailed accounts of many from the long list of women who have served in combat throughout American history.  And yet, each and every reporter ignored what I said, invented his own quotations, and produced reports that proved conclusively that a lunatic taught at the local university.  (Truthfully, I was only one of many.)

Though I recounted the following story to every single reporter, not one printed it.

In 1989, the American military invaded Panama in order to oust General Manuel Noriega from power.  Among the units taking part in the invasion was the 988th Military Police, under the command of Captain Linda Bray.  While women were prevented by law, from serving in direct combat roles, they could serve in military police units, since such units were technically "non-combat".

The military invasion of Panama was chaotic and the distinctions between combat and non-combat roles were blurred.  Only men were allowed to serve as fighter pilots, but women could pilot cargo planes and choppers that could be shot at (but which couldn’t defend themselves).  Without defined front lines and with Panamanian Defense Forces scattered all around the capital, there were no real "non-combat" areas.  An American officer had to be ready to defend himself and the troops he commanded at any moment.  Under the circumstances, the traditional roles of the military police became identical to those of combat personnel.

On December 20, Captain Bray was ordered to lead a force of thirty military police—which included women—to take over the dog kennel of the Panamanian Defense Force.  Although the site was supposedly abandoned, Captain Bray discovered that the kennel was heavily defended (perhaps serving as a cover for Panamanian Special Forces).  When her unit was fired upon, Captain Bray ordered her troops to return fire.

In an infantry battle that lasted three hours, the action was eventually forced to an end when an American Humvee crashed through the locked metal gates of the kennel.  Three Panamanian troops were killed, and a large cache of weapons and explosives was discovered at the erstwhile "kennel".

For the first time in history, a woman had led American soldiers in combat, achieving her objective without American casualties.  The next day, her actions were praised at the White House.  “It was heavily defended,” said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.  “Gunshots were fired on both sides and American troops could have been killed.”

Unfortunately, this was the high point of her military career for Captain Bray.  Almost immediately, politicians began citing Captain Bray's actions as justification for women's serving in combat.  When Patricia Schroeder, Chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee, said the operation led by Captain Bray proved the ability of women in combat in the military, suddenly, the military's reports of the mission "changed".

The Pentagon said that the three dead Panamanian soldiers had been found “in the vicinity of the kennel.”  The firefight had not lasted three hours, but only ten minutes, and while Captain Bray had been in charge of the forces, she had not been present at the battle, but had been safely back at her command post.  Captain Bray was abruptly unavailable to meet with the press and none of  the other female officers participating in the invasion was available, either.

Suddenly, the Army took steps to completely disassociate Captain Bray—and every other female officer—from any active role in the taking of Panama City.

Eventually, it was determined by reporters interviewing the soldiers present, that when the defending forces of the kennel fired on the military police, Captain Bray was, indeed, in her command post, but after ordering her troops to return fire, she made her way to the front lines, and it was she who drove the Humvee through the locked gate.  The confrontation did last three hours, with the fierce firefight  lasting over half an hour, and the defending forces eventually retreated into the trees out behind the kennel.

Captain Bray never received 8th Military Police Infantryman Badge, instead receiving the Army Commendation Medal for Valor—an award for non-combat service.  Though it is still difficult to obtain the military records for Operation Just Cause, the Baltimore Sun reported that more Combat Infantry Badges were awarded to troops than had actually participated in the invasion.  Though women accounted for roughly 4% of the American troops sent to Panama, none were awarded to women, none of whom were officially considered to have been in combat.

Note.  When criticized for not awarding the CIB to women during Operation Just Cause, the Army responded that technically, the award cannot be considered for anyone not in the Infantry, regardless of whether they served in combat or not.  When it was pointed out that numerous exceptions had been made to this rule, the Army made no reply, nor has it verified whether men not actually participating in the invasion received the award.  The same regulations say the CIB cannot be given to anyone over the rank of Colonel, but that has been done, too.

Not only was Captain Bray not recognized for her leadership, she was subjected to an official investigation to determine whether her soldiers had intentionally destroyed Panamanian government property.  Though cleared of the charges, Captain Bray decided to leave the Army, resigning her commission in 1991 and accepting a medical discharge related to training injuries.

Okay—maybe the actions of Linda Bray are not exactly the stuff of legends.  Her actions in Panama may not quite match Audie Murphy's in France or Desmond Doss's at Hacksaw Ridge.  But neither did the actions of Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines—he essentially received the Medal to honor the men he led.  Could not the same be said for Captain Bray as a symbol for all the women who served, without recognition, for over two centuries?

The American military would not lift restrictions on female personnel serving in combat until January 23, 2013.  No legal restrictions remain in force.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Father and Son Medals

The outside temperature has dropped to the point where I am invoking the Age Rule:  Until the outside temperature is greater than my age, I’m going to stay inside and read biographies. 

Trivia time:  Which father and son combination both received the Medal of Honor?  How many times has that happened?   What father received the Medal after his son did? 

Only twice in our nation’s history has this happened, so far.  Arthur MacArthur (Jr) and Douglas MacArthur each received the Medal.  Arthur MacArthur was a lieutenant in the 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the Civil War and participated in battles at Stone River, at Chickamauga (where one of my ancestors died fighting for the Confederacy), and in the Atlanta campaign.  On November 25, 1863, at a crucial point in the Battle of Missionary Ridge, MacArthur planted the regimental flag on the crest of the ridge, shouting “On Wisconsin!”  This inspired brevity not only rallied the troops to win the battle, but simultaneously got him the Medal, gained him a promotion to Brevet Colonel at the tender age of 19, established the Wisconsin State song, and created the fight song for the University of Wisconsin.  Not bad for shouting two words.

General Arthur MacArthur’s son, Douglas MacArthur, was nominated for the Medal three times; The first time during the American occupation of Veracruz, in 1914, for a reconnaissance mission so daring that the only reason he was refused the medal—despite the endorsements of both his commanding general and the army's Chief of Staff—was the fear that it might inspire other officers to act similarly. 

The second nomination was for his leadership on the Western Front during World War I.  Though he was again denied the Medal, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, seven silver stars, two wound chevrons, the Croix de guerre and made a commander of the L√©gion dhonneur.  For his actions during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive he was nominated for Medal of Honor and a promotion to Major General.  Although he did receive his second Distinguished Service Cross, he received neither the Medal of Honor nor the promotion. 

MacArthur finally did receive the Medal of Honor in World War II, for his leadership in the defense of the Philippines.  Nominated by General Marshall, he accepted it as recognition of the courage of the army he had led.

For almost six decades, the MacArthurs were the only father and son combination to have received our nation’s highest medal, but this changed in 2001.

The children and grandchildren of President Theodore Roosevelt have had distinguished and unusual military careers.  His youngest son, Quentin Roosevelt, died at nineteen as a pilot in World War I.  Kermit Roosevelt, the second-oldest, served as a US officer in the First World War, and as an officer in the British Army in WWII, then as an American officer again.  Archie Roosevelt is the only man in history to be discharged from the Army with a 100% disability—twice.  Enemy fire effectively destroyed his left knee twice—once in each of the world wars. 

Theodore Roosevelt, "Jr.", the oldest son, was an officer who served with distinction in the First World War.  In the late 1930’s, recognizing that another war was eminent, Roosevelt returned to the Army before Pearl Harbor.  Serving with the same regiment as in the First World War, Roosevelt fought in North Africa and Sicily, quarreled with Generals Patton and Bradley, and still managed to lead the invasion on Utah Beach, despite having a heart condition and crippling arthritis that should have ended his military service.  Among the men he led ashore was his son, Quentin Roosevelt II.  They were not only the only father and son combination in the Normandy Invasion, but at age 58, Theodore Roosevelt III was the oldest man on the beach and the only general to land in the first assault wave.

Walking the beach with a cane and a pistol, Roosevelt discovered that the invasion craft had drifted too far south to meet their initial objectives.  Gathering the commanders, Roosevelt calmly stated, “We’ll start the war from right here.”  He then redirected the units, assigning new objectives to every subsequent unit as it came ashore.

Years later, when General Omar Bradley was asked to give the best example of bravery under fire, he answered with, “Ted Roosevelt on Utah Beach.”

Less than a month later, Ted Roosevelt died of a heart attack, unaware that he had just been promoted to the rank of Major General and given command of the 90th Division.  Two months later, he posthumously received the Medal of Honor.  He is buried in France beside his brother, Quentin.

Which leaves Teddy Roosevelt, who would receive his Medal of Honor in unique fashion, some fifty-seven years after his son had received his medal and over a century after his own military service.  As everyone knows, Teddy was the leader of the Rough Riders during the Cuban campaign of the Spanish-American War.  On July 1, 1898, Roosevelt rode his horse, "Texas", at the front of his dismounted men as they attacked up Kettle Hill and then across the saddle of land to San Juan Hill.  His bravery that day would soon catapult him into the governor’s mansion of New York and then on to the White House.

His commanding officer, General Wood (himself a recipient of the Medal of Honor), recommended Roosevelt for the Medal—as did Wood’s commanding officer, General Wheeler, and his commanding officer, General Shafter—another recipient of the Medal.  Richard Harding Davis, the famous war correspondent, wrote glowing accounts of Roosevelt’s bravery, convincing most Americans that Roosevelt was a hero deserving of the Medal. 

The Army did not agree—and whether this was a political decision or it was because Theodore Roosevelt so openly coveted the medal is still a matter of debate.  At best, Roosevelt was denied the medal because he was so far in front of the action that there were few corroborating officers to have witnessed his actions.  At worst, Roosevelt was denied the medal because of the hatred and envy of Russell Alger, the Secretary of the Army who was later removed from office for incompetence.

And so the matter simply rested for over a century. 

In 1998, Congress passed a law changing the time limit for consideration for medals, chiefly to redress the shameful withholding of awards for minority soldiers during World War II and Korea.    Among the recommendations reviewed for reconsideration were the century-old documents for a Lieutenant Colonel of Volunteers for his action in Cuba a century earlier.

On January 16, 2001, President Clinton presented the Medal posthumously to Tweed Roosevelt, the president’s great-grandson.  It is on display, along with President Roosevelt’s Nobel Peace Prize, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

Of course, there are also the five sets of brothers who received the medal, but you will have to wait for a blizzard before I tell that long story.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Mass Murder in Lincoln County

This should be a well-known story—after all, people from all over the world visit Lincoln County to see where Billy the Kid shot his way out of jail, and although he claimed to have killed 21 men in his short life, Billy probably killed—at least on his own—only four men in his short sad life.  Nevertheless, over 50 movies have been made about the young outlaw, and today, a surprisingly large number of people make a living out of the tourism based on his legend.

There is more than one museum dedicated to the The Kid, and every day of the week, tourists trace his steps through the ghost town of Lincoln, New Mexico.

New Mexico is a poor state, and it seems a real shame that no one is making a living out of Lincoln County’s worst murderer—a youngster who killed almost twice as many people as Billy did.  Don’t misunderstand me:  I’m not praising his deeds, but the state could certainly use the extra income.  Unfortunately, there are no movies, no monuments, no historical markers, nor any tacky gift shops full of imported trinkets to memorialize the tragic short life of Martin Nelson.

You’ve probably never even heard of him at all.

I blame this on the railroad.  If it weren't for that, every year in the thriving little town of Bonito, New Mexico, people would reenact the murder spree of….Marty the Swede, for the benefit of tourists (and for the financial benefit of the town!).  Unfortunately for the state’s tourist industry, the scene of the crime is now under 75 feet of water and visited only by the large-mouth bass that inhabit the lake.

Following the Civil War, New Mexico enjoyed a brief gold rush.  Miners pushed into the state, and began panning gold out of the mountain-fed creeks, erecting a minuscule village at every wide spot in the road; each tiny town was usually clustered around a saloon and a general store.  The railroads dutifully followed the miners, building short spur lines in and out of these valleys, connecting those small mining communities to the rest of the nation.  Eventually, as the gold ran out, most of those communities became ghost towns, although still connected by long-abandoned, rusty rails.

Those steam-powered trains used a lot of water, something still in short supply in most of the state, so when the Southern Pacific Railroad noticed that Bonito was built along a mountain-fed creek that ran all year long, they bought the property and dammed up the valley.  The resulting Bonito Lake, provided a water stop for the railroad.  After the steam locomotives were replaced with diesel locomotives, the railroad sold the lake to the town of Alamogordo, that still uses it as a source of water.

For a while, though, Bonito was a thriving little village, perched on the side of a mountain and surrounded by tall pine trees.  There were three general stores, a saloon, a post-office, a small hotel, and a school.  The village had a blacksmith, a lawyer, and a justice of the peace who boasted that the town had no crime worthy of a visit from the territorial sheriff.  Any place where the bars outnumber churches is a wonderful place to live, and Bonito, whose name is probably an Anglo-corrupted pronunciation of the Spanish work for pretty, certainly qualified.

The picture at left, shows the post office, supposedly with Martin Nelson standing front of it.  (Or not.  Historians aren’t positive about the photos of Billy the Kid, either.)

The peace ended early one morning on May 5, 1885.  Dr. R. E. Flynn, a physician and owner of a drugstore in Boston, had come to the mountains for his health.  Sharing a room at the Mayberry Hotel with a young local prospector and day laborer named Martin Nelson, the doctor awoke at 3:00 AM to discover the 24-year-old man going through the pockets of his clothing, attempting to steal his watch.  During the struggle, Nelson struck the doctor on the head with his revolver, and when this failed to quiet the man, Nelson fired his gun, killing Dr. Flynn.

At this point, Nelson probably wanted to flee the hotel, but the gunshot brought the hotel’s owner, John Mayberry and his two teenaged sons, John Jr. and Eddie, running.  Nelson shot and killed all three, and as he made his way down the stairs, he shot the pregnant Mrs. Mayberry.  Though wounded, she fled the hotel, taking with her, Nellie, her fourteen year-old daughter.  Nelson followed them outside where he fired the sixth and final round from his revolver, killing the mother and wounding Nellie in the arm, before she was able to flee to the basement of a nearby house.

Nelson followed the young girl into the basement, and now armed with a Winchester rifle, told the girl to prepare to join her family in Hell.  As Nellie begged for her life, Nelson struck a deal with the terrified girl—he spared her life in exchange for her promise to come to his future hanging.  Satisfied, Nelson left the basement, and returned to Mrs. Mayberry, where she lay in the street.

By now, most of the small village’s citizens were awake and starting to investigate the nearby shooting.  As Herman Consbruch stepped out of his general store, Nelson fired a shot at him, driving the merchant back into his store.  Cautiously looking out a window, Consbruch watched Nelson use his foot to roll the body of Mrs. Mayberry over and down the side of the ditch that drained the community's single street. 

As Peter Nelson—the town’s saloon keeper and no relation to Martin—stepped out of the saloon, Martin fired a single shot from his Winchester, striking the bartender in the heart, killing him instantly.  Martin walked to the edge of the community and vanished into the trees.

By now, most of the men of the community had armed themselves and began to gather at the hotel.  Believing the murderer to be inside, they surrounded the building and waited for him to reappear.  Some of the ladies of the village tended to Nellie’s wounds, but the terrified young girl had no idea about the location of Nelson.

Nelson had made his way about a quarter of a mile to the Rademacher home, presumably looking for a horse to make good his escape.  Unfortunately, Mr. Rademacher, awakened by the distant gunfire, had ridden his horse into the community to investigate the trouble.  Unperturbed, Nelson ordered a terrified Mrs. Rademacher to cook his breakfast. 

After finishing his breakfast, Nelson walked back towards Bonito.  As he neared the village, he spotted groups of armed men standing outside the hotel.  Taking careful aim with this Winchester, Nelson fatally shot Herman Beck in the back.  As he ran towards the gathered men, one witness reported that Nelson yelled, “Hunt your holes!”

Though Charles Barry, the Justice of the Peace, was credited with firing the shot that killed Nelson, a later examination of the body revealed several bullet wounds.  One man claimed that even his hat was riddled with bullet holes.

Eight people (Nelson's seven victims & himself), representing a sizable portion of the town, had been killed.  A visitor to the community later remarked that half the inhabitants were making coffins.  Dr. Flynn’s embalmed body was shipped by stage to Fort Stanton, where it was shipped by rail back to his family in Boston.  The rest of the victims were buried in the Bonito Cemetery, while the body of Martin Nelson was placed face down in a crude pine box, buried with the murderer facing west.  (It was the practice of the time to bury people facing east so they could greet the sunrise on the day of resurrection.  A facedown body facing west was said to be denied eternal peace.)

No one has ever offered much of an explanation as to why a young man who had resided in the community for years suddenly erupted in violence.  Some of the ladies of the village later whispered stories that hinted that a budding love affair between Martin and Nellie was the real cause.  Others claimed that there had been a series of petty thefts in the region for years, and that Martin was afraid of being discovered as the thief.  Whatever the truth is, it will remain as buried as the rest of the town.

The hotel was abandoned and the locals claimed it was haunted.  Occasionally, visitors inspected the building, but the sight of the still-visible bloody footprints on the stairs usually frightened off even the most stalwart.  The rest of the town didn’t fare much better.  As the gold ore ran out, one by one the residents moved off.  By the turn of the century, only two people still lived in Bonito.

When the railroad bought the land, all of the buildings were torn down.  The remains of the victims were moved to a single mass grave in the cemetery in Angus, New Mexico while the remains of the worst mass murderer in New Mexico history was moved to the side of a nearby hill and marked with a simple cement tombstone.  

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Bloodiest Battle

Early in the War of 1812, there was a bloody battle between two evenly matched frigates that established long-lasting traditions for both the American and the British navies.  This was the single most violent ship-to-ship action in naval history up to that date, and probably the finest action of its kind in the history of sail.

Both ships were carrying long 18-pounder cannons on their gun decks with additional 32-pound carronades (heavy short-range cannons nicknamed, "Smashers"), on the main deck.  Captain James Lawrence, while new to the USS Chesapeake, was an experienced captain who knew he had a good ship and a superb crew.  Unfortunately for Lawrence, the British had a good ship with a good crew as well.  British Captain Philip Broke was a superb leader who had just spent the last seven years preparing his crew and ship for just such a battle.  For those seven years he had sought absolute mastery of naval gunnery and what he called naval honor.

A decade earlier, the British Navy had excelled in naval gunnery—in no small part due to constant gunnery drills conducted on all ships.  After the victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, the Admiralty ordered the gun drills halted to save on the cost of gunpowder.  At the time, the Admiralty believed that there were no more enemies left to defeat, effectively electing to take a Peace Dividend”.

Captain Broke ignored that order.  His crew were taught to fire their guns as fast as possible, to hit their targets, and to do it all in absolute silence so that the crew could hear shouted orders.  From his own pocket, he equipped his ships guns with sights, a relatively new innovation that had not yet been adopted by most of the worlds navies.  Long before it became standard practice, he developed an effective fire control system that was capable of concentrating fire on a single point on an enemy ship.  Broke also mounted 9-pound guns on his quarterdeck so he could sweep the decks of an enemy, and in particular, blast away a ships wheel.  If a ship loses their wheel, it cannot control the rudder, which means the ship cannot be effectively steered or controlled. 

Remember, at the time, the main armament of these floating wooden castles were the ships main guns which fired broadsides directly to the port and starboard.  You aimed these guns by turning the entire ship.

Captain Broke had spent his entire naval career practicing for a ship-to-ship action.  During the first months of the war, he had deliberately refrained from capturing American merchant vessels so he would not have to split his crew, despite the fact that taking good prize ship could make a captain and his crew independently wealthy. 

The battle started on June 1, 1813 with the Chesapeake in harbor and the Shannon waiting just outside the harbor.  When the Chesapeake came out, the Shannon withdrew out to sea to await the American vessel.  Due to the ponderously slow nature of warships under sail, both ships had to agree to the fight or it would be almost impossible for it to take place (should one ship be attacked and not wish to fight, it could—unless disabled—simply sail away).  In many ways this kind of battle was actually a duel.  Broke had sent a challenge ashore for Lawrence, but the American ship had sailed before it was delivered.  Even without the challenge, Lawrence had wanted to engage the English ship: before leaving port, he had written to his brother-in-law, entrusting his wife and children to that man's care if he should fall in battle.

This battle should never have taken place—the American navy consisted of only a handful of frigates, each of which was far too valuable to be risked in single ship-to-ship actions.  President Madison had ordered Lawrence to attack the merchant vessels supplying the British Army in Quebec, in support of Madisons planned invasion of Canada.  The odds were, that should Lawrence capture or sink the Shannon, his ship would be too damaged to accomplish his mission.

The Shannon moved about 20 miles off shore and awaited the Chesapeake.  The British ship lowered her sails, leaving just her jib aloft in order to steer.  The American ship had the weather gage—meaning she was upwind and had a tactical advantage.  As his ship approached, Lawrence could have turned at the last moment and passed behind the lightly-armed stern of the Shannon, allowing him to fire a devastating broadside down the length of the ship—a blow that would have almost certainly given him victory over the British ship.  Either Lawrence did not realize his opportunity or felt some misplaced gallantry, for he steered his ship to come alongside the Shannon, which was only a little more than a hundred feet away.

Unfortunately, the Chesapeake came in a little too fast and at an angle from which she could not fire at the British ship as she moved into position.  In most naval actions, this would not matter significantly since a single broadside was not that devastating.  But a broadside from Brokes excellent crew was different.  Every other gun was loaded with double shot, while those in between were loaded with a single cannon ball and a bag of shot. 

As the American vessel moved forward, one by one the British guns carefully fired.  Starting with the stern-most gun, every British gun crew fired and hit an American gun port, while the deck carronades all but destroyed the forecastle.  On both ships, the Marines in the rigging poured deadly musket fire down onto the deck of the opposing ship. 

Lawrence, wounded in the leg from one of the first volleys, realized his mistake, and turned his ship into the wind to halt the forward motion.  Finally, the Chesapeake fired back.  Since the ship was upwind and had just turned, she was heeled over, leaning towards the enemy vessel, lowering her port-side gun ports.  The British fired into the gun ports while the Americans aimed much lower, striking the Shannon at the waterline. 

Both crews fired rapidly, but well-placed carronades from the Shannon took a toll.  The Chesapeake deck was a slaughter house, with almost everyone either dead or wounded and only a third of her gun crews still working.  Every one of Chesapeake's officers on deck was either killed or wounded, but a far more crippling casualty was the ship's wheel, which accurate British fire had shot away, thus leaving her unable to be steered.

The Shannon was also suffering, but by chance, most of her officers were still capable of serving, and the ship could still be steered.

With no wheel to stop her turn, the Chesapeake’s bow continued to turn into the wind and away from the Shannon, exposing her stern to even more devastating fire.  Finally, heading directly into the wind, the Chesapeake lost speed and started moving slowly back towards the Shannon.

Now, had you been Captain Broke, you would have wanted to keep away from the Chesapeake, firing round after round into the ship until  either she struck or you decided to board her.  And Im sure this is what Broke would have done had a lucky shot from the American vessel had not shot away the Shannon’s jib. 

Captain Lawrence, still desperately trying to win this battle, prepared his crew to board the Shannon.  He ordered his men up from the gun deck to the quarterdeck to prepare to board….when he was shot again, by a lucky pistol shot from the Shannon’s chaplain, this time he is hit in the groin.  Lawrence called for help, and Third Lieutenant William S. Cox helped the Captain below decks to the surgeon.  Cox did not realize that he was actually in command of the ship, since every other officer had been either killed or wounded and incapacitated—four levels of command had been wiped out in less than ten minutes! 

Without an officer in charge, and with no one left to order the men to board the Shannon, the men on deck panicked and began to flee below deck.  By the time Lieutenant Cox realized his mistake, the press of men rushing to safety prevented him from returning to the deck.

Lawrence, as he was carried below, yelled encouragement to his men, Tell the men to fire faster! Dont give up the ship!

Now, the Shannon was still firing her guns right into the stern of the Chesapeake, wiping out what was left of the gun deck while her carronades and muskets were delivering pure hell to the upper decks.  Powder monkeys—young boys whose job it was to bring powder up from the hold to the guns—desperately spread buckets of sand on the wooden decks slippery with blood so the men could fight back even as the British ship continued to fire her cannons at an ever dwindling range.

Finally, the Chesapeake crashed stern first into the side of the Shannon, about 50 feet back from the bow, and was stuck there on a fluke of the Shannon’s anchor.  Captain Broke had never really considered boarding the Chesapeake, but he saw his opportunity and as the only British officer nearby who was still standing, he ordered his men to follow him as he jumped to the Chesapeake.

The outnumbered Americans were driven back along the deck to the forecastle, where they broke and sought cover below deck.  Then the two ships broke apart and separated leaving about 60 Englishmen on the upper deck of the American frigate. 

Even though this fight was pretty much over, three Americans, probably from the tops (high rigging), attacked Captain Broke.  Broke killed the first with his sword, but the second sailor clubbed the captain with a musket as the third swung a cutlass that slashed the Captains head.  In retaliation, the British boarding party hacked the two sailors to death with their swords.

As a small British ensign was hoisted from the Chesapeake, the Shannon stopped firing. Ironically, when the Shannon’s first lieutenant hauled down the small ensign so he could raise a larger version, a gun captain on the Shannon, believing that the Americans were retaking the ship, fired a round of grapeshot that killed the lieutenant and three other British sailors, putting British Second Lieutenant Provo Wallis in command of the Shannon.

The remaining American crewmen were driven below and the gratings secured over the hatches to keep them there.  Captain Lawrence, mortally wounded, called out for the crew to blow up the ship, but no one carried out his order.

This whole battle took eleven minutes and the butcher's bill was 147 American and 79 British casualties—over a third of the men present.  While the HMS Victory, after the six-hour Battle of Trafalgar, had a few more casualties, the percent of men falling casualty in this battle was much higher..  Captain Lawrence died after three agonizing days of peritonitis, becoming a national hero and his cry of “Don’t give up the ship!became a motto for the US Navy.

Under the command of Lieutenant Wallis, the Shannon towed the Chesapeake back to Halifax, where both ships were repaired.  Now a ship of the British Navy, the HMS Chesapeake returned to Portsmouth where she was broken up and sold for scrap lumber.  Her American flag, bullet-riddled and caked with dried blood is on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.

While Captain Lawrence, despite his poor judgement, became a national hero, Third Lieutenant Cox was court-martialed for abandoning his command.  Charged with dereliction of duty, he was discharged from the navy in disgrace.  Protesting his innocence, he joined the army and fought in the war as a private.  For decades, his family campaigned to overturn this conviction, and after 139 years they were finally successful.  Lieutenant Coxs rank was restored by President Truman in 1952.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Las Meninas

The painting at first glance seems to be a simple scene of a day in the life at the 17th Century court of Philip IV of Spain, however, the longer you look at it, the more questions arise. 

The painting is a deliberate puzzle and one that cannot be solved as in The Da Vinci Code.  There are no hidden clues, no information hidden in history, and no right answers.  The painter, Diego Velazquez, knew exactly what he was doing:  he wanted to confuse the viewer, and he  has succeeded in doing so for over three centuries.

At the center of the scene is the five year-old Infanta Margarita, the eldest daughter of King Philip IV of Spain.  On each side of her are her Maids of Honor, of whom one is kneeling and offering her a jug of water while the other curtseys.  The masterpiece is named Las Meninas, (The Maids of Honor), and it is the most famous of all Spanish paintings.  A later artist, Luca Giordano, famously said the painting shows the “theology of painting”.

The longer you looks at the painting, the more you notice incongruities:   To the Infanta’s right, is the artist himself, shown painting on a very large canvas.  But, what is he painting?  The artist—like almost everyone else in the painting—is looking directly at you.  Has he been interrupted while painting a portrait of the Infanta?  Or is he painting a portrait of the King and Queen, and we are seeing him from the King's point of view?

Is that a large mirror at the back of the room and has Velazquez depicted himself in the act of creating this painting?  He is working on an enormous canvas, and Las Meninas is the only painting of that size he ever created, but is the subject matter the Infanta, or the artist, or the royal parents?

Artists did not normally include themselves in royal portraits, and as the court-appointed portraitist, it would have been inconceivable for Velazquez to have done so without the prior consent of the king.  A few years ago, the BBC referred to the artist's appearing in this painting as "the first photobombing"—some 175 years before the invention of photography!

The artist is holding a palette of the raw paint that he uses to create the image of the palette and the paint itself.  This is the kind of anachronism we would expect in the surrealism of Magritte, but it is astounding in a 17th century royal portrait—or does this truly qualify as a portrait?

On the far wall is a ghostly image of the king and queen together.  Is this a mirror showing the reflection of the monarchs as they sit for their portrait?  At this point in history, monarchs were rarely depicted together in portraits.  Velazquez was the royal portrait artist, yet this small ghostly image is the only painting he ever did of the royal couple together.  Or is the slightly obscured image a window through which the monarchs are looking into the room where the portrait is being done?

One possible explanation is that the painting shows the world through the king’s eyes—what he sees as he sits for his portrait.  Could it be that this is what the painting meant to Philip, since he hung the painting in his private study for the rest of his life?

Without a doubt, the painting does give us a glimpse of a dying empire.  The Habsburg rule of Spain was quickly coming to an end that was a mostly self-inflicted death.  Fearful of dividing the family wealth, the Habsburgs had been inbreeding for centuries.  Whereas today, marriage between cousins is frowned upon, within the royal family of Spain, it would have been an improvement.  Philip IV married his niece, effectively making the Infanta Margarita her own cousin.  (And her father was her great uncle, her grandfather was her great-grandfather, her grandmother was her aunt, and so forth.)

If you engage in this kind of inbreeding, it is not very long before you produce offspring who sit quietly in the corner all day and lick their own eyebrows—which is exactly what happened in this case.  The Infanta’s brother/cousin, Charles II (after only sixteen generations of inbreeding) was a complete physical and mental wreck who would accomplish nothing more than preside over the funeral of an empire murdered by his father/uncle.  The family tree of Charles II shows one ancestor, Joanna the Mad, fourteen times.

Philip IV was a walking monument to superstition and indecision.  Though he had inherited a vast empire upon which the sun never set, he had also inherited a religious war against an increasingly Protestant Europe—a war that was impossible to win even as it consumed the empire’s remaining resources.  While a strong monarch might have salvaged the situation and saved at least part of the empire, Philip spent long periods in the family mausoleum, wracked in religious guilt for his 32 illegitimate children, his military defeats, and his failure to change the downward spiral of his empire.

Spain lost territories one by one, even while the increasingly strong British Navy robbed the treasure ships coming from the New World.  Portugal and Holland split off, Caribbean islands were lost, and Spain was too exhausted militarily to recover her lost possessions.  Perennially bankrupt, Spain kept raising taxes to fund a lost war to the point of economic collapse. 

If you look carefully at the artist, you will note he wears the Cross of the Order of Santiago on his left breast.  This was an honor added to the painting after Velazquez died (according to legend by the hand of the king, himself).  While Velazquez had applied for the honor before he died, the background investigation had not yet concluded.  Testimony was taken from 148 witnesses who testified that the artist was qualified to be a hidalgo, since he had never worked a day in his life for pay.  It is not hard to imagine the fall of a country that honors the idle over the industrious.

By the time this painting was done, the royal residence could no longer come up with the cash to purchase enough firewood to last the winter.  Even Velazquez was forced to withhold part of the pay of his staff to cover his bills.

And as Habsburg Spain slowly collapsed, protocol and ceremony at court actually increased.  When all else is lost, there is always comfort in pointless ritual.  Look back at that painting and notice how the two maids are kneeling and bowing—a necessity when anything was presented to a member of the royal family.  The infanta is standing proudly, displaying no emotion.  Her father was known to smile only twice at court in his entire lifetime.

The two dwarves to the Infanta’s left were part of a large contingent of court “monsters”, who were more numerous at the Spanish court than at other European Royal courts.  While exempt from the rules of court protocol, their presence at court was both to amuse and to give everyone who saw them a feeling of superiority.  It is not by accident that they are included with the mastiff.

The painting has fascinated generations of artists, each of whom created his own version of the masterpiece.  Goya, Degas, Manet, Max Lieberman, Franz von Stuck, and Salvador Dali recreated the painting in their own styles.  There is even a recreation of the painting in a sculpture garden that will allow you to "walk through the painting".  In 1957, Pablo Picasso became so obsessed with the painting that he recreated it fifty-eight times in less than five months! 

There is even a second version of this painting in England, on display at the Kingston Lacy Estate.  This smaller version was done by either Velasquez himself, or by his son-in-law and successor, Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo.  Some historians believe that this painting is the original, a model (technically a modelleto) to be used for the finished piece, and that the larger version (10.5 feet by 9 feet), on display today at the Prado in Madrid, is the copy.

In the rear of the painting, above the door and the images of the kIng and queen, are two paintings, done by del Mazo.  If the Dorset copy of the painting was done by the son-in-law, then Mazo copied Velazquez’s copy of Mazo’s paintings.  (And this is beginning to sound like something by Dr. Seuss.) 

After centuries of careful research and study, today we believe we know the name of everyone in the picture.  The guard, the Lady-in-Waiting, the Maids-of-Honor, even the two dwarves.  We know the name and rank of everyone in the painting, except the dog.  It is amazing that we know so much about a painting where the artist was deliberately enigmatic.

I confess to being fascinated by this painting, but I’m not exactly sure why.  It is either what the painting tells me, or what the mysteries buried within it do not tell me.