Thursday, December 08, 2016

December 7, 1941 - a few Citations

From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division

1796 - In his Eighth Annual Message to Congress, President George Washington urges Congress to increase naval strength.

1941 - In one of the defining moments in U.S. history, the Japanese attack the U.S. Pacific Fleet and nearby military airfields and installations at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and remove the U.S. Navy’s battleship force as a possible threat to the Japanese Empires southward expansion. The U.S. is brought into the World War II as a full combatant.

1941 - As the Japanese attacked Midway Island, 1st Lt. George H. Cannon, USMC remained at his post until all of his wounded men were evacuated, though severely wounded himself. Because of his dedication to his men, Cannon died due loss of blood from his wounds. For his "distinguished conduct in the line of his profession", Cannon is posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.  Lt. Cannon is the first Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor in WW II.

1941 - Capt. Mervyn Sharp Bennion, commanding officer of USS West Virginia (BB 48), evidenced apparent concern only in fighting and saving his ship, and strongly protested against being carried from the bridge. For devotion to duty and courage during the Pearl Harbor attack, Bennion posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

1941 - Ensign Francis C. Flaherty remained in his turret, holding a flashlight so the remainder of the turret crew could see the escape, thereby sacrificing his own life. For devotion to duty and courage during the Pearl Harbor attack, Flaherty is posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

1941 - Lt. Cmdr. Samuel Glenn Fuqua rushed to the quarterdeck of USS Arizona, where a large bomb hit and penetrated several decks.  The explosion started a severe fire and also stunned and knocked him down. Upon coming to, he began to direct the firefighting and rescue efforts. A tremendous explosion forward appeared to make the ship rise out of the water, shudder and settle down by the bow. Flames enveloped the forward part of the ship and spread as wounded men poured out of the ship to the quarterdeck. Despite the mayhem, Fuqua kept calm under pressure and continued to direct the firefighting efforts so that the wounded could be taken from the ship, and in so doing inspired everyone who saw him. Realizing that the ship could not be saved and that he was the senior surviving officer aboard, he ordered the crew to abandon ship. Fuqua remained on the quarterdeck until satisfied that all personnel that could be had been saved, after which he left the ship with the last boatload.  Lt. Cmdr. Fuqua is awarded the Medal of Honor.

1941 - Chief Boatswain Edwin Joseph Hill, while leading his men of the line-handling details of USS Nevada to the quays, cast off the lines and swam back to this ship. Later, while on the forecastle attempting to let go the anchors, he was blown overboard and killed by the explosion of several bombs. Chief Hill is posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his distinguished conduct in the line of his profession, extraordinary courage, and disregard of his own safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor.

1941 - Ensign Herbert C. Jones organized and led a party in supplying ammunition to the antiaircraft battery of the USS California after the mechanical hoists were put out of action. Jones was then fatally wounded by a nearby bomb explosion and when two men attempt to take him from the area which was on fire, he refused to let them, saying, in words to the effect, “Leave me alone! I am done for. Get out of here before the magazines go off.”  Ensign Jones is posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

1941 - Rear Adm. Isaac C. Kidd immediately went to the bridge and as the commander of Battleship Division One, he courageously performed his duties as Senior Officer Present Afloat until his flagship, USS Arizona, blew up from magazine explosions and he is killed by a direct bomb hit on the bridge.  Admiral Kidd is posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

1941 - As the mechanized ammunition hoists are put of action in USS California, Chief Radioman Thomas James Reeves, on his own initiative, in a burning passageway, assists in the maintenance of an ammunition supply by hand to the antiaircraft guns until he is overcome by smoke and fire, resulting in his death.  Chief Reeves posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

1941 - As his station in the forward dynamo room aboard the USS Nevada became almost untenable due to smoke, steam, and heat, Lt. Cmdr. Donald Kirby Ross forced his men to leave the station and performed all the duties himself until blinded and unconscious. Upon being rescued and resuscitated, he returned and secured the forward dynamo room and proceeded to the aft dynamo room where he was again rendered unconscious by exhaustion. Again he recovered consciousness and returned to his station where he remained until directed to abandon it.  Machinist Mate [Later Lt. Cmdr.] Ross is awarded the Medal of Honor.

1941 - Chief Aviation Ordnanceman John William Finn manned a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on an instruction stand in an exposed section of the parking ramp, under heavy enemy machine-gun strafing fire. While painfully wounded, he continued to man the gun and return the enemy’s fire with telling effect throughout the enemy strafing and bombing attacks. He was at last persuaded to leave his post to seek medical attention after being specifically ordered to do so. After receiving first-aid, the chief returned to the squadron area and actively supervised the rearming of returning planes. Chief (later Lieutenant) Finn earned the Medal of Honor that day for his extraordinary heroism, distinguished service, and devotion above and beyond the call of duty during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor.

Novus Livy

”Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history."-- Abraham Lincoln

Now in our 12th Year!

Copyright © 2005-2016: Novus Livy and The History of the World Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

"Air Raid Pearl Harbor, this is no drill!"

"Air Raid Pearl Harbor, this is no drill!"

The radio message flashed out in the clear from Pearl Harbor

Seventy-five years ago this December 7th Wednesday, Japanese aircraft slashed through the morning skies over Pearl Harbor Naval Station, Ford Island Naval Air Station, Hickam Field Army Air Corps Station, and Wheeler Field and the Schofield Barracks Army Station on the northwest side of Oahu.

Alerted by the thump of bombs falling from high above, and from the rattle of machine gun fire from low flying Japanese A6M-2 Zero-Sen Fighters on strafing runs, the ships of the United States Pacific Fleet were slow to react. Slowly, battle stations were manned, and ammunition broken out from magazines was finding its way to US Navy gunners. It was far too little and far too late. Japanese Val dive bombers and Kate torpedo planes began streaking in on their runs, delivering telling blows to the big ships.

In human lives, the attack on Pearl Harbor was horrific. 2,403 were dead, and 1,178 wounded.

188 planes were destroyed, the vast majority on the ground, as only a few Army Air Corps fighters managed to get airborne. A further 159 aircraft were significantly damaged, leaving only 43 planes operational at attack’s end.

It was the toll in ships that was staggering, however.

· Arizona blown up with a loss of 1,177 men.
· Oklahoma capsized with a small part of her hull above water.
· California “sank gradually for about three or four days: and came to rest rather solidly on a mud bottom, with her mainmasts and the upper parts of her main batteries above water. “The quarterdeck [was] under about twelve feet of water...”
· Nevada, which got under way, beached in the narrow channel opposite Hospital Point in a wrecked condition.
· West Virginia sunk at her berth.
· Maryland moderately damaged but not needing to go into drydock.
· Tennessee, seriously damaged aft in the officers’ quarters from fire and otherwise moderately damaged.
· Pennsylvania, in drydock, with considerable damage, “but not of vital nature.”
· Utah, then used as a target ship, capsized, having been at the Saratoga’s regular berth.
Light Cruisers
· Raleigh, Helena, and Honolulu moderately damaged.
· Cassin and Downes, in Drydock No. 1, severely damaged.
· Shaw’s bow blown off while in floating drydock, severely damaged.
· Vestal (repair ship) was along side the Arizona when the raid commenced and was beached at Aeia to prevent further sinkage.
· Curtiss (seaplane tender) was badly damaged by a crashing plane and one 500-lb. bomb.
· Oglala (minelayer) capsized.”*

For the Japanese, the cost was minimal.

“Twenty-nine planes did not return: fifteen dive bombers and high-level bombers, five torpedo planes, and nine fighter escorts. The midget submarines inflicted no damage, and none returned to their mother ships; four were sunk, and one was wrecked on a reef, its captain captured. One I-class submarine was also sunk.”*

[*Dull, Paul S., A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy (1941-1945). United States Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1978.]

In spite of the overwhelming destruction inflicted on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were foiled by a number of things that did not go according to plan, or were missed by the planners. The attack called for strikes particularly on the US Aircraft Carriers, however, they were at sea at the time of the attack and were missed. Additionally, millions of barrels of oil were stored in large tank farms behind the US Submarine base at Pearl Harbor, and also between there and another tank farm near Hickam Field. The Japanese left them totally unscathed. They also failed to attack the submarine section of the sprawling naval base. With the exception of a number of Cruisers and Destroyers based elsewhere throughout the Pacific, the surface fighting arm of the Pacific Fleet was on the bottom at Pearl Harbor, but the Aircraft Carriers, their pilots and planes were intact, as were the submarines, and their facilities at Pearl Harbor. The remains of the Pacific Fleet would not suffer for the want of oil to patrol the waters of the Pacific either.

The Japanese sneak attack catapulted the isolationist American nation to a Declaration of War, made by Congress the following day, at the request of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his stirring “Day of Infamy” speech.

The rest of the story…Arizona was the ship that suffered the most damage. Devastated when a bomb ripped through the main deck and exploded in the forward magazine. Arizona has come to symbolize the events of December 7th at Pearl Harbor. Some of her dead lie still entombed within her, the rest buried in the cemetery at the “Punch Bowl”. The USS Arizona remains in commission as a U.S. Navy ship.

The former battleship Utah was converted to an auxiliary vessel in 1931 and used as a radio controlled target ship. Later, she was converted back to a gunnery training ship. Moored on the opposite side of Ford Island from Battleship Row on December 7th the Utah was in the spot where the aircraft carrier Saratoga usually was to be found. Utah received the attention of dozens of Japanese planes; struck repeatedly by bombs and torpedoes, she rolled over and sank. Later the hulk was raised and moved closer to Ford Island where she remains today.

Horribly mangled by bombs and torpedoes, the Nevada, the only battleship to get under way, was intentionally beached to prevent her sinking. Repaired and returned to service by 1943, she took part in a raid on the Aleutian Islands and eventually made her way to the Atlantic where she provided shore bombardment at Normandy on D-Day in 1944.

Capsized, the Oklahoma was eventually partially raised but never repaired. A frantic rescue effort went on for days after the attack trying desperately to free men trapped inside the overturned hull.

Flagship of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Pennsylvania was in drydock at the time of the attack, sharing the drydock with the destroyers Cassin and Downes. Pennsylvania’s damage was minimal, thanks in no small part to the sturdiness of the drydock caissons. Japanese aircraft tried repeatedly to torpedo the Pennsylvania, but the drydock walls absorbed the hits. Not so lucky were the two destroyers in with the Pennsylvania, USS Cassin DD 372 and USS Downes DD 375. The Downes and Cassin were both salvaged with much equipment taken off their ruined hulls and installed on new hulls in the U.S. Re-launched, these “new” vessels went on to fight in many of the western Pacific Campaigns from 1943 on. The Pennsylvania was quickly repaired and returned to service. In 1944 she participated in the bombardment of Guam prior to the invasion there, and later saw action at the Battle of Surigao Strait.

The Tennessee was moored inboard of the USS West Virginia, and was thus protected from torpedo attack. She was scorched by the flaming oil from the Arizona, and received two bomb hits on her main gun turrets. After a period of repair and modernization in California, the Tennessee resumed duty, participating in all the major offensives of the Western Pacific from early 1943 on. Tennessee took part in the Battle of Surigao Strait and later had a hand in the sinking of the IJN super battleship Yamato.

Severely damaged by torpedoes and bombs, and sunk at her berth, California was a major salvage undertaking and was not completed until January of 1944. She took part in the major Pacific campaigns of 1944 and 1945, and fought in the surface action against Japanese Battleships at the Battle of Surigao Strait.

Perhaps the least damaged of all the battleships at Pearl Harbor, Maryland turned out to be the unluckiest. After a brief overhaul stateside in 1942, Maryland returned to combat status. While supporting Marine amphibious operations at Saipan in 1944 she was torpedoed by a Japanese plane. After another repair period, Maryland returned to the firing line at the Palau Islands, and operated with the fleet during the Leyte invasion in October 1944, including the Battle of Surigao Strait. A month later she was struck in Leyte Gulf by a Japanese Kamikaze aircraft, requiring still another overhaul. She returned to the line just in time for the end of the war in the Pacific.

Next to the Arizona, the West Virginia took the worst beating at Pearl Harbor. Several bomb hits and at least seven torpedo hits all on one side. Excellent damage control kept her from rolling over, and thus allowed many of her crew to escape. She was re-floated and repaired, and back in action by July of 1944, in time to participate in the closing months of the war in the Pacific.

USS Helena CL 50. Helena was a brand new light cruiser. At Pearl Harbor she was struck in an engine room by a single torpedo, and was repaired to fight in the southwest Pacific campaigns of 1942 by July of that year.

USS Raleigh CL 7. Unlike the Helena, Raleigh was a much older vessel, built in 1924. Like the Helena, she was lightly damaged at Pearl Harbor, receiving one torpedo hit and a near miss by a bomb. She was repaired and back in the fight by summer of 1942.

USS Honolulu CL 48. Another relatively new cruiser, the Honolulu received only moderate damage to its hull and by mid January was repaired and escorting a convoy to San Francisco.

USS Shaw DD 373. The destroyer Shaw was in a floating drydock and received serious damage from a bomb. Her bow section was completely blown off. Repaired and restored for duty, Shaw went back in action in the summer of 1942.

USS Helm DD 388. The Helm, a relatively new destroyer, was slightly damaged by two near-miss bombs. She remained in service.

USS Curtiss AV 4. The Curtiss was brand new seaplane tender. A bomb hit her and a Japanese plane crashed into her upper works. She was repaired on the west coast of the United States and back at Pearl Harbor by February, 1942.

USS Vestal AR 4. The Vestal, a repair ship, was moored alongside the USS Arizona on December 7th. Struck by two bombs and further damaged by the explosion in the forward magazine of the Arizona, Vestal was moved to another part of the harbor where she was grounded to avoid sinking. Vestal was repaired and by August of 1942 she was busy repairing ships involved in the Guadalcanal campaign.

USS Oglala CM 4. Oglala was the fleet minelayer for the Pacific Fleet. An old ship, she was damaged during the attack by nearby torpedo and bomb explosions. She rolled onto her side and sank. Raised and repaired, she was returned to action as a repair ship for internal combustion engines in 1944.

Amazingly, of the twenty ships mentioned above, which indeed are the ones that received any damage of a nature greater than superficial, only Arizona, Utah, and Oklahoma were not raised, repaired and returned to wartime service. And Utah was little more than a hulk to begin with. Ultimately, one of the real stories about Pearl Harbor is this superb salvage effort to get the ships repaired well enough for a voyage to a West Coast shipyard, where they were repaired and in many cases overhauled and modernized, often returning to service in much finer condition than prior to the attack. The men and women who performed these tasks at Pearl Harbor are as big a set of heroes as any crew who sailed their ships against the Japanese in the Pacific.

All the ships served with distinction later in the war, and it was fitting that at the Battle of Surigao Strait when Admiral Jesse Oldendorf led six U.S. Battleships, among them Pearl Harbor veterans California, West Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania in column in a classic “Crossing the T” maneuver, just as Japanese Admiral Togo had done to the Russian fleet at Tsushima Strait in 1905, and sank most of Vice Admiral Nishimura’s striking force of battleships and cruisers.  Oldendorf’s victory at Surigao Strait is a testament to that magnificent salvage effort.

The salvage work done at Pearl Harbor in the aftermath of the December 7th attack was finely managed and heroically carried out. Icing to the cake was added barely six months after the Japanese attack when the Naval Shipyard located at Pearl completed the battle damage to the USS Yorktown from the Battle of the Coral Sea, what would normally have taken several months to repair: , in 48 hours, allowing her and her aircrews to participate in the first major naval victory against the Japanese at the Battle of Midway. Aircraft from the three US aircraft carriers, the Hornet, Enterprise, and Yorktown, the ones that were missed at Pearl, sank four of the Japanese aircraft carriers that participated in the December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor, the Hiryu, Soryu, Kaga and Akagi.  

A day later, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in one of the most dramatic speeches in United States history, presented a request to the US Congress for a Declaration of War against the Japanese Empire:

"Yesterday, December 7, 1941 a date which will live in infamy the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. 

"The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its Government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, 1 hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to tie United States and his colleague delivered to the Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack.

"It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace. 

"The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to inform you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu. 

"Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya. 

"Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong. 

"Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam. 

"Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.

"Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island.

"This morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island. 

"Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our Nation. 

"As Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.

"Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us. 

"No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory. 

"I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again. 

"Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.

"With confidence in our armed forces with the unbounded determination of our people we will gain the inevitable triumph so help us God.

"I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire."
Remember Pearl Harbor…75 years ago December 7th.

Novus Livy

”Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history."-- Abraham Lincoln

Now in our 12th Year!

Copyright © 2005-2016: Novus Livy and The History of the World Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thanksgiving: Sarah Hale and Abraham Lincoln

In 1621 the settlers of the Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts, gathered to celebrate a harvest of food they had no cause to even dream of when they landed. Thanks to the local Native Americans, the Wampanoag Tribe, who taught the colonists how to fish and gave them seeds to plant, the 102 colonists not only had sufficient food for the winter, they had enough to have a celebration of their bounty. [Claims for the first Thanksgiving rest in two other places, one a half-century earlier in 1565 at the Spanish Colony of St. Augustine, Florida, and the other in Virginia at the Jamestown Colony in 1607. The 1619 charter that founded the Charles City County village of Berkley Hundred included in its code an annual day of Thanksgiving.] Nevertheless, it remains Plymouth that we celebrate, in large part because of the symbolic rescue from death by starvation carried out by the generosity of the Wampanoag people.

Sarah Josepha Buell Hale spent 91 years on this earth, from 1788 to 1879. And during those 91 years she produced an incredible record into the history of this nation. And she goes pretty much unrecognized today. Sarah Buell was born, raised and married in Newport, New Hampshire. She married David Hale, a local attorney in 1813 and bore him five children. Sarah became a widow in 1822 and remained in mourning the rest of her life. Nothing out of the ordinary at this point for those times. But Sarah was different. Very intelligent, much of her education was self attained, and she wrote poetry. She published a collection of her poetry in 1823, followed soon after by a novel, Northwood: Life North and South. Northwood carried a message that slavery was not only bad for the slave it was bad for the masters, too, dehumanizing both.

In 1828 Sarah accepted a position in Boston as ‘editress’ of Reverend John Blake’s Ladies’ Magazine. In 1830 she published her second collection of poetry, Poems for Children, which included the now famous Mary’s Lamb, which we know as ”Mary Had A Little Lamb”. In 1837 she began editing the widely popular Godey’s Ladies Book, after Philadelphian Louis Godey bought the Ladies Magazine. There Sarah remained working for the next forty years.

Sarah was a thinker, and a powerful one. She went beyond many of the social thinkers of the day and did so with a quiet logic. In her capacity as editress of Godey’s, she was a major influence on women authors of the nineteenth century and on some men as well: Hawthorne, Holmes, Irving to name a few.

The year she retired, Thomas Edison spoke the first words to be recorded, on a device he invented. Those words were the first lines of Mary’s Lamb.]

For a span of forty years during her life, she wrote to Congress asking for a national Thanksgiving Holiday. Her prayers were answered, but not by Congress.

Abraham Lincoln is well known for many of his speeches and historic documents: his two Inaugural Addresses, his Cooper Union Speech, his Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, among others. Here is one he seldom gets much credit for making.
By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

And so, Sarah Hale’s forty year effort to have Thanksgiving made into a national Holiday came to an end in 1863 at the hands of President Abraham Lincoln. 

Sarah and her daughter Sarah repose in a grove at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Times have been rough of late. The twenty-first century has offered little to further the cause of mankind. There is more conflict throughout the world than the world has seen for seventy years. Yet, every day, the sun rises and sets, crops grow and are harvested. We think too much and too often of what we do not have, and we forget what we do have. Thanksgiving is a reminder that we should do this, for “…They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Novus Livy

”Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history."
--Abraham Lincoln

Copyright © 2005-2015: Novus Livy and The History of the World Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Book Review: Custer’s Trials, by T.J. Stiles

[With Permission from W. G. Davis at Three Days at Gettysburg blog

T. J. Stiles [author of Pulitzer Prize winning The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Jesse James, Last Rebel of the Civil War] gives us a deep understanding of George Armstrong Custer in his new book Custer’s Trials [Alfred Knopf, in stores October 27, advanced ordering at Amazon]. 

In “Rise”, the first part of Custer’s Trials, Stiles takes us on a well-crafted journey through Custer’s youth, and through the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he excelled at few things military or academic, and including his court-martial while a graduate awaiting orders.  It then chronicles the career of the “boy-General” throughout his  meteoric rise in rank and legend during the Civil War.  At the same time Stiles, relates aspects of Custer’s personal life and his romances, culminating in his marriage to Elizabeth “Libbie” Bacon.

He persevered at West Point, and though he was last in his class academically and first in demerits, he succeeded in passing his exams, thus becoming eligible for graduation.   In spite of all of the negatives, Custer showed himself to possess many qualities the military desired in its officers: poise, creative thought, conventional and unconventional avenues to problem solving, the ability to get others motivated, and stature, into which he grew through his activities, mostly in the course of breaking rules…rules by which he abided just enough to get by.  In short, Custer, with the assistance of West Point, taught himself leadership.  It was not the leadership of someone who proclaims himself the leader, it is the one who leads from the front and succeeds because others willingly follow.   And all the while building his repertoire of exploits, he began building friendships with his classmates, and with politicians in hopes of receiving assistance to further his career at his pace.

Stiles relates the details of his first trial: a court-martial before he could leave West Point after graduation.  The court found him guilty and ordered no punishment except a reprimand in orders.  And thus began the hard fighting and fast promotions of his successful and charmed Civil War career.

Custer’s Civil War experiences were as charmed and full of good fortune as were his West Point experiences.  He grew to expect this of himself - indeed, he was fearless in battle, leading from the front of his unit, sword in hand, and not just as a symbol, but a weapon he used with devastating effect in every engagement. 

But there was another Custer – a self-serving Custer, who cultivated friends, and curried favor with friendly higher-ups.  This was the insecure Custer, as changeable as the times, yet as constant as the sunrise with his contradictions.  In this manner Stiles presents Custer as a man who embraced the three main realms of his life – the private, public and professional realms, sometimes mixing them but only to his advantage.  In each he was comfortable and moved about in them freely, enjoying the moments to their fullest, yet constantly laying and cultivating the groundwork for advancement in all three realms.  Sometimes conniving, and never missing an opportunity to not only extol the virtues of his latest adventure, but enhance them as well. 

Custer’s rise through the ranks to generalship is well known.  But Stiles laces the telling with personal details often missed in many works of history involving Custer, and details the patronage afforded him by Generals McClellan, Pleasonton, and Sheridan.

One measure of Custer’s leadership and how it affected his men in the Michigan Brigade was when they began to copy his affectation of the famous red necktie he wore with his gaudy uniform.  But the men both loved and respected him for his personal courage and his innate ability to know the lay of the land on which they fought, and how he would invariably place them in the best position to succeed to victory.  Time after time Custer won the hearts of the Union thanks to the newspaper coverage of the war [which he curried], and was a favorite subject of sketch artist Alfred Waud.

Custer married Libbie on February 9th, 1864, and when campaigning began again in the spring, Custer took the field under Phil Sheridan, and Libbie moved back to a boarding house in Washington.  There Libbie was able to have access to the influential politicians, and even to the President himself.   She charmed them all and won favor for her Armstrong, as family called him. 

His war culminated in the surrender at Appomattox. 

No one amassed the legendary success amid the events of the US Civil War like Custer did. 


In “Fall”, the second half of Stiles' epic biography of Custer, Stiles chronicles the last decade and a half of George Armstrong Custer’s life.  What many biographers gloss over or omit entirely is the path to Little Big Horn that Custer followed  from the end of the war, but not Stiles. 

First sent to Texas to restore law and order in a state devastated by the war, he took Libbie along.  Life was different in the post-war US Army.  There was no more war, and he was still commanding volunteers.  Custer was forced to use a hard hand even at controlling his own troops, including head-shaving, whipping and executions.  For a man who’s leadership was repeatedly proven in combat, the lack of it was proven in peace.  It was a duty for which he was unsuited, and unable to adapt.  Nor would his conservative Democrat views on race suffer the change that the war had wrought.  And Libbie shared those feelings. 

Yet Custer struggled to come to terms with the new reality of the Freedmen.  He began to think about redefining himself.  He did so in his testimony before a subcommittee of the Committee on Reconstruction, advocating black suffrage, and the continuation of the Freedmen’s Bureau.  Custer’s testimony was in line with that of other officers newly returned from the post war South.  Collectively, they pointed to the regressive results of President Johnson’s policies.  The ensuing Civil Rights bill was vetoed by Johnson, and in effect, was a declaration of war between the conservative President and the Radical Republicans in Congress.  But Custer’s testimony belied his personal beliefs.  Once again he was currying political favor from those who controlled Congress.  Then he went on a political tour with President Johnson, evoking the wrath of Ulysses Grant.  Grant ordered Custer to join the 7th US Cavalry at Fort Riley without delay.  Custer soon realized how badly he had erred in publicly supporting Johnson. 

A year later found Custer facing his second court-martial, this time for absenting himself from his command without the proper authority.  He had left Fort Wallace, Kansas apparently to get to Libbie, and traveled 275 miles to Fort Harker when his command was about to launch a campaign against the Indians.  Even worse, he had ordered a detachment of 75 men and three officers to escort the ambulance in which he rode.  And it continued to get even worse.  Custer ignored an attack on some of his men by Indians, sent a detachment out after deserters with orders to bring none back alive, and eventually had three deserters shot, but not killed, and did not allow them to be treated for their wounds – all without a trial.  In a rather long proceeding, Custer was found guilty across the board and sentenced to one year’s suspension and forfeiture of his pay.  Ultimately the Indians intervened and Sherman and Sheridan petitioned Grant to restore Custer to the 7th US Cavalry.  Grant complied, if only to keep Custer in the field and out of politics and out of trouble.   

Thus Custer began the phase of his career that would mark him as “Indian Killer.”  He operated in Kansas and Oklahoma, destroying Indian villages, and chasing after famous Indian leaders such as Black Kettle. 

Unable to rise in rank, Custer attempted to end his Army career and support himself and Libbie in a style more grand than Army pay could provide.   Custer took an extended leave, and made a disastrous foray into the world of Wall Street.  He sought funds to support a silver mine in Colorado.  It failed when the mine failed.    

In 1871, Custer returned to the Army, stationed in Kentucky to suppress the Ku Klux Klan and the illegal manufacture of moonshine alcohol.  It was boring duty.  Custer yearned for the openness of the Great Plains.  He turned to writing there, and while he had a market for his work, it was too small to allow him to leave the Army. 

In the Spring of 1873, Custer received word that the 7th Cavalry was being reassigned north to the Dakota Territory.  He and Libby began packing.  Over the next three years, he mounted three great expeditions: along the Yellowstone River in 1873 - fighting battles on August 4th and August 11th; the Black Hills Expedition in 1874; and finally, the Little Big Horn Expedition in 1876. 

The noted historian Frederick Jackson Turner who wrote at the end of the 19th century and for 3 decades into the 20th, formulated the Frontier Thesis, which was presented as a paper to the American Historical Association in Chicago, July 12, 1893, titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” It first appeared in the Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, December 14, 1893.  He cites the 1890 census report’s proclamation that, “…‘Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.’ This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement. Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.”

In his paper, Turner presents the role of the frontier as the developer of Americanism, that the farther from the Atlantic Coast one got on the way west, the farther they got from the influence of their European roots.  The Frontier was the blacksmith’s hammer, forge and tempering bucket that produced American Exceptionalism and American Identity. 

In the fifteen years from the end of the Civil War to the end of the Frontier, as the Census report put it, there was perhaps no other person whose day-to-day life on that Frontier had more influence in the final forging of the American Identity and Exceptionalism than George Armstrong Custer.   

Stiles' book, 472 pages not including acknowledgements, is a most thorough, detailed, and well-supported biography.  The cast of characters is rich, and most are well known, but even the lesser known help to paint the portrait, often filling in gaps.  The principals are fascinating, and brought down from their legendary status by relating their intimate interactions and thoughts.  George Armstrong Custer was a truly great soldier during the Civil War.  The absence of war was a large part of his undoing, for it forced him into realms he had not entered before, that he was unable to manipulate to his advantage, and for which he was wholly unprepared. 

Custer’s Trials is the consummate biography of George Armstrong Custer.   


Stiles, T.J., Custer’s Trials, Alfred A. Knopf/Borzoi, New York City, 2015.  ISBN 978-0-307-59264.

Available in stores October 27th, 2015.  Also available to preorder at Amazon here.

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