Winchelsea, Hatteras Inlet and Copenhagen

Three naval battles share 29 August, roughly seven centuries apart.  However, they do have a common thread: The influence of maritime traffic and navies on national affairs.  Though the Hundred Year’s War, the American Civil War, and WWII in Europe are usually viewed as predominantly land wars, their naval aspects were crucial to the course of the land wars.

In the Edwardian phase  (1337-1360) of the Hundred Year’s War, piracy along the Breton coast was costing English merchants dearly.  Today we think of “piracy” as a private enterprise between civilians, but until the mid-19th century commerce raiding by ostensible civilians was often sanctioned if not actively supported by states and monarchs.  Castilian ships regularly captured English cargo ships and murdered their crews.  When a Castilian/Genoese fleet loaded with Flemish cargoes was headed to the Basque ports in August, 1350, Edward III and a fleet of English and Genoese ships struck the Castilians as they sailed south just off French coast, but the battle got its name from the old Kentish town of Winchelsea that the English fleet departed from.  While not much is known for certain about the battle itself except that the English ships were generally larger but were likely outnumbered. It was all-day affair in an age when naval battles were essentially land battles fought on ships.  The English flagship was sunk, but Edward managed to escape to a captured Spanish ship.  By the end of the day the English had captured more Castilian vessels (14 according to most sources) than they lost (two for certain, but perhaps more).  Winchelsea, also known as Les Espagnols sur Mer (“the Spaniards on the Sea”) was followed a year later by a peace treaty with Castile, which set the conditions for a treaty with Portugal in 1353 and the isolation of France in the century-long conflict over who ruled what part of France.  The treaty with Portugal was the foundation of English diplomacy for centuries.

[Winchelsea] was all-day affair in an age when naval battles were essentially land battles fought on ships

At the beginning of the American Civil War a small group of naval officers met in Washington as what became known as the Blockade Board.  After a week of discussions, they laid a long-term plan for beginning the longest and largest blockade that had been conducted since the Declaration of Paris in 1856.  How they planned to do it with fewer than fifty warships in commission was anyone’s guess.  But, soon, it became clear that the Union wouldn’t have to blockade every port to have a maximum effect, just those served by railroads.  This simple conclusion reduced the number of seceded state ports to be covered–immediately, anyway–from fifty to less than twenty.  The first target was not a port directly but a place where blockading ships could seek refuge and resupply: the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  The Outer Banks had also been harboring a number of Confederate raiders and privateers.  The battle of the Hatteras Inlet Batteries on 28-29 August 1861–also known as Forts Clark and Hatteras–pitted seven ships of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron under Silas Stringham that was carrying parts of volunteer regiments and a handful of Regulars under Benjamin Butler against less than a thousand Confederates under WIlliam Martin and Samuel Barron manning two incomplete earthwork forts.  Landing the troops under bombardment on 28 August, there was little initial progress in part owing to bad weather which kept the largest Union ships far out to sea.  On 29 August the seas moderated and the big guns started blasting the beleaguered Confederates who, as so often was the case in the 1861-65 conflict, stood no chance of being reinforced.  At about 11 AM Barron surrendered, and just short of 700 men went into captivity.  The victory buoyed Union morale shortly after the disaster at Bull Run just a month before, and ended a threat to Union shipping that had already begun to be felt.

…the Union wouldn’t have to blockade every port, just those served by railroads.  This reduced the number of ports to be covered from fifty to less than twenty.

After April 1940, when Denmark was overrun in a nearly bloodless campaign by Germany, Denmark lived a primarily twilight existence as a “protectorate,” where most Danish institutions continued unchanged (including the monarchy). Danes even joined in the war against the Soviet Union. Most of the Danish Navy was in Copenhagen, though some units had been caught in Iceland, Greenland and the Faeroe Islands when the country surrendered, and had been working with the Allies. More Danes were killed in merchant marine service and in the Danish “Free Corps” fighting in Russia than as a result of the invasion and the occupation.  But, by 1943, Danish semi-neutrality was wearing thin. Niels Bohr had scattered Denmark’s best scientists all over the world before the invasion, and was profoundly uninterested in helping Germany’s nuclear ambitions.  Allied saboteurs and agents found easy egress into Europe through Denmark’s porous border with Sweden. King Christian was accused of disrespecting Hitler because of his brief response to one of Hitler’s overlong personal communications. Refusal to institute capital punishment for sabotage, failure to turn over Danish Jews, and a host of other perceived slights and offenses, aggravated by  the imminent fall of the Italian government and the Allied success in Sicily, moved the Germans to close down the Danish government and seize the ships in the Copenhagen dockyards in late August. On 29 August, 1943, scuttling charges destroyed thirty-two of them, leaving just fourteen small  vessels to the Germans.  Germany’s navy was small to begin with, and built on commerce raiding.  Denmark’s even smaller fleet included nine submarines, but even more minecraft–important commodities when the Germans and Russian between them had sewn more than a million sea mines in the eastern Baltic by then.

More Danes were killed in merchant marine service and in the Danish “Free Corps” fighting in Russia than as a result of the invasion and the occupation.

The English naval response to the Castilian nautical depredations could have been said to set the pace for the rest of the first half of the Hundred Year’s War, if there was a pace to that disjointed conflict. While the blockade that the Union Navy envisioned would take nearly two years to be emplaced, it would still be somewhat porous even to the end.  Still, no blockade could or should ever be perfect.  Winchelsea and Cape Hatteras had a great deal to do with trade, while the mass suicide of the Danish Navy, like that of the German High Seas Fleet in 1919, was at least in part to do with spite.  Sometimes, that is all that’s needed.  In capital-intensive naval warfare, where a single fleet unit can cost as much  to build, supply and operate for a month as a thousand land soldiers might cost in a year, the cost and pace of naval activity can rarely be judged by three actions.  But by destroying a Castilian fleet, grabbing a blockade base, and denying an important small-ship asset to a resource-starved enemy, England, the Union, and Denmark demonstrated, even if in a small way, how important navies can be to larger conflicts.

Bosworth Field, the Industrial Revolution, and the Irish Mess

The Crown of England, the Industrial Revolution, and the course of Irish politics all pivoted, more or less, on events taking place on 22 August, albeit centuries apart.

Revolutions and civil wars–distinguishable only by critics–often pivot on a single throw of the dice. By 1485 the York branch of the Plantagenet dynasty in England was headed by the ambitious Richard III, who had literally walked past five coffins to set the crown on his own head in a campaign dramatized and fictionalized in Shakespeare’s Richard III.  Richard had probably killed his nephews, who included Edward V, who was supposed to be protecting him, and likely had otherwise deposed all claimants ahead of him.  After Henry Tudor, the champion of the Lancaster branch of the Plantagenets, landed in Wales, Richard and his retainers met the challengers in modern Leicestershire.  After indecisively fighting for much of 22 August 1485, Richard ordered a cavalry charge to kill Tudor that failed, and Richard was killed instead.  The subsequent Tudor dynasty would last just over a century, but would be the most storied of England’s long history.

The Crown of England, the Industrial Revolution, and the course of Irish politics all pivoted, more or less, on events taking place on 22 August, albeit centuries apart.

A little less than three hundred years later, Henry Maudslay was born in Woolwich, England, on 22 August 1771.  While not as well remembered as an inventor as say Edison or Fulton, Ford or Bessemer, Maudslay’s innovations in the manufacture of screw threads made the Industrial Revolution and interchangeable manufacture possible. Until Maudslay built the first practical screw-cutting machines, what we now think of as common threads were anything but.  Individual craftsmen and shops cut their screws by hand, or with individually-made tooling.  Maudslay, still in his early twenties, made a lathe with a rigid tool post, replacing the hand-held tool that did not allow for much precision–defined in this case as repeatability.  WIth repeatability came standardization, and with standardization came interchangeability, and soon after, mass production.

It was a century and a half later Michael Collins,  a fiery and controversial figure in Irish and English politics leading up to the Irish Mess at the end of WWI (there’s no good way to refer to that time and place succinctly and accurately that satisfies all parties and partisans), was killed in an ambush in Cork.  At the time Collins was President of the Irish Provisional Government and representative for Cork and Armagh, among other constituencies. Collins favored the treaty with Great Britain that would both allow an independent Ireland and the separation of the six counties that make up Ulster in the northeast of the island.  He was killed on 22 August 1922 by members of an Anti-Treaty faction in Ireland who disagreed with him.  Because there are no independent witnesses, the ambush has been a matter of controversy ever since.

While Eli Whitney is credited with inventing interchangeable manufacture, Maudslay’s innovations made it possible.

Ultimately, the meaning of the terms “civil war” and “revolution” are solely a matter of taste.  While the War of the Roses that primarily ended at Bosworth has been called a civil war because of its internecine nature, the Irish Mess has been variously called a civil war and a revolution, and–to confuse things–a war for independence, for part of it, anyway.  While most revolutions and civil wars rely a great deal on chance, Henry Tudor was even further from being the “rightful” king of England than the man he replaced. Collins, one of a long line of Irish firebrands leading the fight against England, had no real claim on any office or honor other than what he fought for himself.  And chance, like the final Yorkist charge at Bosworth, played a prominent role in that long struggle.

While Maudslay only perfected what already existed (except he is credited with inventing the bench micrometer), his innovations accelerated the industrial “revolution” that was ongoing when he died in 1831.  While Eli Whitney is credited with inventing interchangeable manufacture, Maudslay’s innovations made it possible. But, unlike other “revolutions,” there was no chance involved.

Roncevaux Pass, Napoleon and Anvil-Dragoon

One of the best things about looking at history through a somewhat empirical lens is that the skilled practitioner can make correlations that were simply not possible to contemporaries of events.  Then again, so can semi-competent duffers like your current correspondent.  Such is the correlation we can make with 15 August and France’s fate.

Roncevaux Pass was an ambush by a largely Christian Basque guerilla force and the rearguard of Charlemagne’s retreating army after his invasion of northern Spain on this day in the year 778.  The action killed Roland, the commander, and created a legend in the Christian-Moor conflict that would rage for another three centuries.  It also immortalized the sacrifices of Christian “knights” and other semi-nobles that would depict them largely as stories would depict them for generations: pure-hearted, noble-browed heroes on horseback in shining armor.  That most were paladins–soldiers for hire–seems to be left out.

Roncevaux Pass immortalized the Christian knights as pure-hearted, noble-browed heroes on horseback in shining armor.

On 14 August 1769 Napoleon Bonaparte was born to minor French nobility in Ajaccio, Corsica.  He was the master of Europe before he was thirty-five, by which time he was well on the way to destroying it as it was known under the Bourbons.  It was Napoleon who won France’s  last major war (War of the Sixth Coalition) in 1809: even if they were “victors” in WWI and WWII, France is better described as having survived, rather than “won.”  Napoleon, for good or ill, ingrained “libertie, egalitie, fraternitie” into the French soul even as he destroyed the economy, abandoned two armies in the field (Egypt and Russia), and became a romantic legend on both sides of the Atlantic that grew larger with each successive generation.

Napoleon, for good or ill, ingrained “libertie, egalitie, fraternitie” into the French soul

And, on this date in 1944, France managed to redeem itself somewhat for the disasters of 1815 and 1940, with their rebuilt army’s superb performance during the invasion of Southern France known in history as Operation Anvil-Dragoon   Originally intended to be conducted simultaneously with the better-known Overlord landings in Normandy, the landings on the French Riviera had to wait for landing craft.  Legend has it that Winston Churchill was unhappy with what he saw as a diversion from more important turf in the Balkans (contemporary discussion says this is not as true as Churchill would have later stated it was).  So, according to legend, the name Operation Anvil was changed to Dragoon because Churchill was “dragooned” into supporting it, though the reason for the name change was somewhat more prosaic and not Churchill’s at all.

...the landings on the French Riviera had to wait for landing craft.

Ultimately, in the distance of time, we can see that 14 August, for France, was just another day, though in 1945 it was, like the rest of the world, a relief when Japan agreed to surrender and the Showa Emperor Hirohito publicly agreed with the broadcast of the Imperial Rescript in 15 August, 1945.  But legends like the romantic knights of French stories, the “genius” of Napoleon and the landings in Southern France live on, as do the legends of a Japanese “surrender” by a “government” that was anything but.  But that’s another story.

The Bronx, Nagasaki and Jerry Ford

What possible connection could there be?  9 August.

The Bronx, the northernmost of New York’s five boroughs, is named after the Dutchman who bought it for four hundred beads in 1678, Jonas Bronk.  Right next to Manhattan and Alaska in the pantheon of savvy American real estate deals (legend or not), the Bronx is the most fabled of New York City’s many neighborhoods.  And,today is said to be one of the poorest, with over 8% unemployment in April.

But Nagasaki: not a “deal” at all, but the antithesis of one.  In 1945, a B-29 named Bock’s Car flown by Chuck Sweeny dropped a plutonium-core nuclear bomb on Nagasaki, with its shipyards, armaments plants and other important military assets.  More than seventy thousand people died at Nagasaki in a few moments.

Now, the raw facts of the event make it sound cold, but really, not so much.  Japan had been at war with pretty much everyone for nearly fifteen years by then, and even after Hiroshima three days before was still spouting defiance.  There are arguments on both sides of the “Japan was about to give up” debate, but none are more compelling than the fact that it took an announcement from the Showa Emperor Hirohito himself to compel the militarists to stop fighting, and even then a good number of them didn’t want to.  Yes, “Japan” had sought peace as early as the summer of 1944, but those in the very early offerings had no authority, and were not offering a peace as much as an armistice: a cease-fire in place.

But, like the native Americans who sold Manhattan to Pieter Minuit and Jonas Bronk the Bronx, many Japanese didn’t understand what was going on in the late summer of 1945.  Similarly, it is not clear to history how well native many Americans understood the European’s custom of placing a price on land.  The fury that the Americans and other non-Japanese felt towards Japan in general was only dimly realized by most of the Japanese population.  The samurai leadership of Japan had done an excellent job of keeping most of their citizens in the dark about not only the course of the war, but also the reasons for it.

Fast forward to 1974, and America’s first (arguably) unelected President was sworn in at noon, Eastern time.  Gerald Ford of Michigan had been the minority whip in the House for eight years before Richard Nixon tapped him for the vice-presidency after the resignation of Spiro Agnew in 1973.  When Nixon resigned before impeachment for, among other things, his involvement in campaign finance irregularities on 8 August, Ford became the first president since Washington who had never stood for a national election before he was sworn in.

Ford seemed unclear on the concept of how he went from the Congressional Office Building to the Oval Office in less than a year, and like the native Americans in the seventeenth century and the Japanese in the 1940s, seemed unsure of their future.  Though most Americans were familiar with Nixon’s issues, the Japanese of 1945, while they knew there was a war that wasn’t doing well, weren’t sure why.  And the native Americans of 1678 were, likely, just as baffled about having to leave because their homes had been sold for a bag of beads.

Kinda makes the choice that American voters have in November 2016 seem simple in comparison: one pathological liar or the other.  The republic will survive Trump or Clinton if it survived Nixon, just as Japan survived Nagasaki and the subsequent surrender.

Regardless of how hard it is to see now, America will survive.  Yet, like the Japanese in ’45, and the native Americans in the seventeenth century, and Jerry Ford in ’74, most voters will wonder how we got to this point.