5 November: Hanson Hired, McClellan Fired, Heroes Sunk At Sea

Early November is a heady time, as the leaves are mostly gone, the American elections are over, and the northern hemisphere prepares for a long winter.  In 1781, 1862 and 1940, these events had very little to do with the year, or the weather, or the elections.

In 1781, the American Congress. still under the Articles of Confederation, elected John Hanson of Maryland as President of the United States Assembled, or President of the Continental Congress, or President of the Congress of the Confederacy, or President of Congress on 5 November.  This has confused people ever since, because “everyone knows” that George Washington of Virginia was the first President of the United States.  Not to be contrarian, but that’s…true and not true.  Hanson was elected by the Congress to a one year term under the Articles of Confederation; Washington was elected by Congress operating under the Constitution for a four-year term.  Hanson’s job was mostly ceremonial: Washington’s was as the head of the newly-create executive branch of the government.  Finally, and perhaps irrelevantly, the colonies had declared independence but had not yet won it (Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown less than a month before),  Peace talks, which would signal diplomatic recognition, were months away from even beginning when Hanson (presumably) took the oath.

On 5 November 1862, the day after the mid-term elections put Congress firmly in Republican control, President Abraham Lincoln relieved George B. McClellan of the command of the Army of the Potomac.  This was a generally unpopular move, but after McClellan’s disappointing performance as a commander, and despite his excellent service as an organizer and logician, Lincoln felt he had little choice.  Lincoln had removed “Little Mac” from the post of General in Chief the previous March so that he could concentrate on his brain child, the Peninsula campaign.  This led not to a march on Richmond but a scramble to save Washington and McClellan’s army.  McClellan was so enraged by Lincoln’s action that he went gunning for Lincoln’s job two years later, and lost badly.  Most of his beloved soldiers didn’t even vote for him.

But far away from the mid-Atlantic states, on 5 November 1940 and act of heroism indescribably removed from McClellan’s conduct took place.  On that date seven hundred-odd miles south south west of Reykjavik, HMS Jervis Bay, an Armed Merchant Cruiser (in other words, an ocean liner with a few guns) took on the German “pocket battleship” (a large cruiser with eleven inch guns) Admiral Scheer. Jervis Bay was the only escort protecting a 37 ship Halifax-to-Britain convoy.  The captain of Jervis Bay, Edward Fegen, ordered the convoy to scatter at about 12:50 in the afternoon and charged at Scheer with 6-inch guns blazing.  In a “battle” that probably lasted no more than two hours much of the convoy managed to escape behind smoke candles and darkness while their brave escort was shot to pieces.  While Scheer managed to get five of the merchantmen the rest made it to port.  Fegen was awarded the Victoria Cross on 22 November 1940…posthumously, having gone down with his ship (by one account he was already dead by the time his ship was abandoned).

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