Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What would have become of hockey if Benedict Arnold had succeeded?

Great battles such as Gettysburg and Waterloo were waged by hundreds of thousands of soldiers. However, it is the battles fought with small forces that often have the greatest implications. Few battles fought with just over 3000 men have had as great of impact on history and geography as the December 31, 1775 Battle of Quebec. 

The rebellion in the American colonies had just begun. In December of 1775 independence was still over half-a-year away. The colonists were still sorting out who would side with them, and who would oppose them. While General George Washington blockaded Boston, Major General Benedict Arnold led a force up Lake Champlain into Canada. His mission was to bring the Canadian colonists over to the side of the rebellion.

Arnold captured Fort St. John and Montreal. In late October Arnold reached Quebec. The long journey had taken a toll on Arnold's army and he was short of men. Arnold demanded that the Quebec garrison surrender or fight. After they did neither, he attacked. The attack failed. 

Arnold waited until Brigadier General Richard Montgomery arrived with reinforcements. Together they assaulted Quebec on December 31st during a snowstorm. The American and British forces each numbers around 1200 men. Montgomery's assault was repelled. Montgomery was killed. Arnold's troops were able to gain the city wall. Troops that had defeated Montgomery rushed to meet Arnold's troops. The American colonists that were in the city were soon captured. Arnold was wounded during the attack.

The failed campaign marked the only attempt to bring the Canadians in on the side of the Americans. Canada would remain in British hands after the war, and even into the 20th century. If the Americans had succeeded in capturing Quebec it is quite possible that all of Canada would have come under control of America. A combined Canada and United States would be the largest country in the world, rich in abundant natural resources. As for hockey, perhaps it is best that Arnold failed to make Canada the 14th American colony.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Visit to Grant's Canal

I created a post about Grant's Canal several years ago. I got to visit the last remaining part in April 2014.  The canal is just off I-20 on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi across from Vicksburg, Mississippi. The canal had plenty of water seeing that it had rained the day before. Some photos I have seen elsewhere of the canal show it dry. If you make it to Vicksburg, be sure to visit Vicksburg National Park, the National Cemetery, and the amazing USS Cairo display, in addition to the canal.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Battles of Saratoga

The battles of Saratoga marked a turning point in the American War of Independence. More of a mini-campaign than single battle, Saratoga was actually two major battles, with multiple skirmishes in between. The two main battles were fought 18 days apart on the same ground near Saratoga, New York.

British general John Burgoyne was attempting to drive down from Canada through the heart of New York in an effort to cut the colonies in two. The campaign started out well for Burgoyne. On September 19, 1777 he defeated American forces under Horatio Gates at the Battle of Freeman's Farm. This engagement is also considered the first Battle of Saratoga.

Logistical problems and attrition would lead to Burgoyne's downfall. By October 7th he only had about 5,000 combat-ready troops. The Battle of Bemis Heights, or the Second Battle of Saratoga, was fought that day. Over 8,000 American troops led by Gates and Benedict Arnold took to the field. British grenadiers opened the battle at 2 p.m. A charge by the grenadiers was broken up by short-range fire. Burgoyne lost 400 men and six of ten field pieces in the first hour. Agitated, Arnold led a successful attack on Breymann's Redoubt as darkness descended. Burgoyne retreated northward, but his dwindling army was soon surrounded. He surrendered his army on October 17th at Saratoga.

Not only did Saratoga prevent the British from cutting the colonies in two, it encouraged the French to enter the war on the side of the Americans. The War of American Independence turned decidedly in the favor of the Americans. The battlefield is preserved as Saratoga National Historic Park.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Siege of Bastogne ranks high on any list of American military triumphs. In late 1944 Nazi Germany was in retreat, pursued from the east by Stalin's Red Army and from the west by a coalition of American, British and minor allies. Out of desperation, Hitler launched what would prove to be the final German offensive of the war, in hope of securing a favorable settlement with the Western Allies before the Russians reached Berlin.

The German name for the operation, Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein, meant "Operation Watch on the Rhine." The Germans decided to attack along a lightly defended area of the Allied line in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. Launched on December 16th, Germans armored columns plunged westwards in hope of recapturing the port city of Antwerp. 

The 101st Airborne Division, along with various other units, was stationed in a the small village of Bastogne. One look at the map tells everything one needs to know—all roads led to Bastogne. Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz, commanding the 26th Volksgrenadier, 2nd Panzer, and Panzer-Lehr divisions was tasked with capturing the town before pushing onward. The attack caught the Americans off guard and the Germans succeeding in surrounding the village on the 20th.

The Americans held on tenaciously. Finally, on the 22nd the Germans sent forward a flag of truce to offer the Americans and ultimatum. Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, acting officer since Major General Maxwell D. Taylor was at a conference in America, allegedly crumpled the German paper while saying "Ah, nuts!" The offhand remark became the basis for McAuliffe's reply: "To the German Commander, NUTS! The American Commander." 

Air-dropped supplies kept the Americans supplied until General George Patton's 3rd Army punched through the line. The 101st was ordered to go on the offensive, pushing the Germans back to their starting point by January 17, 1945. Patton received many of the headlines and much of the glory, but the 101st boys see it differently. They thought they were fine and that Patton was simply a late comer.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Battle of Borodino

Napoleon might have met his ultimate fate at Waterloo, but it was the Russian Campaign that proved to Europe that the Little Corporal could be undone. Napoleon missed a glorious opportunity to destroy the Russian army at Borodino that proved to be the last offensive action of his invasion of Russia.

The French Grande Armée entered Russia in June 1812 and steadily advanced. On August 29th, General Mikhail Kutuzov took over command of Russian forces. The Russians wisely retreated towards Moscow. Kutusov realized that the time had come to offer battle, if only to bolster the morale of his troops. He chose to make his stand at Borodino. The Russians began to construct a line with earthworks, including three arrow-shaped "Bagration fléches" named after General Pyotr Bagaration.

Despite attrition from the tiring campaign, the French Army was still the finest in Europe. A tense but futile attempt to stop or delay the French at the Shevardino Redoubt left the Russian army in confusion. The battle, fought on September 7, 1812, quickly became a defensive effort on the part of the Russians.

Repeated, heavy attacks eventually drove the Russians from Bagration's fléches, but smoke, dust and exhaustion prevented the French from advancing and destroying Bagration's army. Napoleon, sick with a cold and far from the battlefield refused to release the Imperial Guard, his last reserve.

The fiercest fighting took place at the Raevsky redoubt. The position changed hands a number of times as each offensive and counteroffensive added to the mounting toll of casualties. The Russians abandoned the redoubt for good when a division of French cuirassiers, along with Polish and Saxon cavalry squadrons shared and captured the contested area. Casualty estimates vary widely, but it is likely that more 70,000 men were captured, wounded or killed in the epic struggle.

Despite the slaughter, the Russian army had survived and Napoleon's had suffered losses that could not be replaced so far from home. A French victory, some scholars believe it could easily have been a glorious Russian victory if Kutuzov had better placed his forces. Napoleon would make it to Moscow, but with a greatly weakened army. After his eventual retreat, less than 10% of Napoleon's 286,000 troops would cross the Russian border alive. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Battle of Smolensk

Smolensk has been the site of a number of key battles in history. In 1941 the German Wehrmacht was dealt its first serious delay during Operation Barbarossa at Smolensk. In 1943 Soviet forces methodically cleared Smolensk of the German occupation force on their way to Berlin.

In 1812 Smolensk was the site of the first major battle of Napoleon's Russian Campaign. As can be seen from the map, Smolensk was a small but heavily-fortified city of about 13,000 souls. General Barclay de Tolly was in charge of Russian forces in the region. General Pytor Bagration corps was actually in the city. 

On August 14, 1812 Napoleon ordered his marshals to cross the Dneiper River and race to the city, intending to capture it without a fight. Poor communication allowed Bagration, against orders, to slip into the city. Two days later Napoleon assaulted the city in an effort to lure out the Russians. An intense artillery barrage soon had the city in flames. A lack of siege equipment, including ladders, hampered the French effort. On the 17th Tolly ordered the city abandoned in order to save the army. Though Napoleon succeeded in capturing the city, its destruction meant it was useless as a base of operations. French losses exceeded 4,000, with the Russians suffering at least 6,000. Some estimates double the numbers for both sides.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Battle of New Orleans

The War of 1812 should have never happened. Enraged by the British practice of impressment, trade restrictions, and support of Native Americans, U.S. President James Madison convinced Congress to declare war. Signing the declaration on June 18, 1812, Madison would not learn for weeks, due to slow communications, that new Prime Minister Lord Liverpool was seeking to avoid war.

The war was fought in three theaters: At sea, along the northern border and in Canada, and along the American Gulf Coast. The most significant land battle was for New Orleans. Ironically, like the start of the war, this battle should have never took place. The Treaty of Ghent, signed on December 24, 1814 officially ended the war. News of the war's end would not reach Louisiana until February of the following year.

In December 1814 a British fleet laden with 8,000 soldiers moved against New Orleans. Capture of the city, strategically located near the mouth of the Mississippi River would have threatened the entire Louisiana Territory and the course of Manifest Destiny that would fuel American expansion in the 19th century.

General Andrew Jackson was charged with the defense of the city. British troops disembarked onto the west coast of the Mississippi on December 23rd. A quick movement by General John Keane might have easily resulted in capture of the city. A spoiling attack by Johnson's forces (technically a British victory) unnerved Keane enough to delay until all his forces arrived at the beginning of the new year. The Americans used the time wisely, converting a canal into a strong defensive line.

The main attack got under way before light on the morning of January 8th. British soldiers, hemmed in by the Mississippi on one side and swamps on the other, bravely crossed the open field towards the American positions. Despite having superior numbers and reaching several American positions along the bank of the river, the British attack never truly stood a chance. Two large assaults were repelled. Americans suffered 71 casualties; the British a staggering 2,042.

The battle secured American rights to the Louisiana Territory and made Andrew Jackson a national hero. In 1828 Jackson would be elected president, serving as one of the most memorable presidents in American history. The battle also bolstered American morale and unity, propelling the young nation into a time of great growth and optimism known as the "Era of Good Feelings."

The battle was the subject of a song, The Battle of New Orleans, written by Jimmy Driftwood and made popular when recorded by Johnny Horton in 1959.

The map is from The Library of Congress.