Monday, April 6, 2015

George Palmer Ransom

George Palmer Ransom
On January 3, 1762, Samuel and Esther Ransom of Canaan, Connecticut, had a son, and they named him after Samuel's best friend and neighbor, George Palmer. In 1773, the family—both parents and eight children, including 11-year-old George—emigrated as part of a widespread migration of Connecticut settlers to what is now northeastern Pennsylvania, settling near the town of Wilkes-Barre in Wyoming Valley. In September 15, 1776, 14-year-old George enlisted with his father and brother-in-law into the 2nd Westmoreland (Wyoming) Independent Company to fight in the American Revolution. His first position there was to bury the dead.  

George fought with his father in his unit's first engagement, the Battle of Millstone, on January 20, 1777, near Manville, New Jersey. In this conflict, about 450 Patriot militia under General Philemon Dickinson waded through waist-deep icy water to defeat a British foraging party of roughly equal size, capturing about 50 prisoners, 50 wagons full of supplies, and 100 or so horses. The Patriots lost only a single man, and Gen. Dickinson allowed his troops to share in the spoils. One British witness later insisted that the attackers were too well-trained to be militia, even though they were, as it happened, exactly that.

George also fought with his father at several other key battles in 1777. On April 13, a force of British and Hessian soldiers under General Sir Charles Cornwallis attacked and defeated a force of Patriots led by General Benjamin Lincoln in the Battle of Bound Brook, on New Jersey's Atlantic shore; the garrison was routed, but the British could only plunder the area before being forced to flee by Patriot reinforcements. The Battle of Brandywine in Chadds Ford Township, Pennsylvania, saw the Army of General George Washington suffer defeat at the hands of British General Sir William Howe on September 11, forcing the Patriots back to Philadelphia. Gen. Washington suffered a second defeat on October 4 in the Battle of Germantown, a section of Philadelphia, ensuring that the British would control the city throughout the upcoming winter. The Siege of Mud Island Fort persisted until November 16, when the defending Patriot forces were forced to cede what is now Fort Mifflin to the British, strengthening the Loyalist hold on the city. The defeat forced Gen. Washington to retreat the Patriot forces to Valley Forge, where they remained through the dreadful winter of 1777-1778, during which time starvation and exposure killed nearly 2,500 soldiers. The Ransoms survived the plight, as George celebrated his sixteenth birthday in the camp.

The Battle of Wyoming, July 3, 1778
In 1778, news reached the Patriot forces that Wyoming Valley was under threat of attack by Canadian Loyalists and their Indian allies, and George's father, by that point a Captain, resigned his post to return to Wilkes-Barre to defend his homestead. George elected to remain with his unit and therefore was absent as a combined force of Tory militia and Iroquois warriors killed more than 300 Patriot defenders, including Capt. Samuel Ransom, in the Wyoming Valley Massacre on July 3 of that year. George arrived the following day, after having hurriedly marched back with other Luzerne County men; he identified his father's decapitated body by recognizing his distinctive silver shoe buckles. Following the battle, George obtained a furlough and spent the following winter with his mother, in the red Ransom house on Garrison Hill, the two subsisting solely on the milk of a single cow.

In 1779, George transferred to the command of Captain Simon Spaulding in the Army of General John Sullivan, which Gen. Washington then sent against the Indians in the Lake Country of New York. On August 29, the Campaign of Sullivan dealt a decisive victory to the Tories and Indians in the Battle of Newtown on the Chemung River in upstate New York; the Continental army then destroyed more than 40 Iroquois villages in retaliation for their attacks. George Ransom later termed that experience as “bashing the Indians,” and by the end of the Revolution, he had attained the rank of Orderly (that is, First) Sergeant.

With the war concluded, George, now 19 years old, returned to his home in Wyoming Valley. On December 6, 1780 George visited the house of Benjamin Harvey on the outskirts of Wilkes-Barre, along with Mr. Harvey's 17-year-old son Elisha and daughter Louise, and a friend, Lucy Bullworth. George's intention that night was to court one of the young ladies (sources are unclear which), and so he wore his finest dress uniform. As the group spoke around the fireplace, a raiding party of Indians approached the house, and one used his tomahawk to knock on Mr. Harvey's front door. Realizing what was happening but intending to avert trouble, Mr. Harvey opened the door, and the Indians burst into the home, seizing and binding all five attendees before escaping with their captives to nearby Shawnee Mountain. After some consultation, the Indians painted the two ladies' faces and released them into the darkness, with instructions to warn Colonel Zebulon Butler, the commander of the local militia forces, of the Indians' presence. By the time the ladies reached the town of Wilkes-Barre the next morning, the raiding party and their three remaining captives—George, Elisha, and Mr. Harvey —were long gone.

The Indians intended to sell the three men, but after some marching north along the Susquehanna River, they realized that Mr. Harvey, who was nearly 70 years old, would not survive the journey. Instead, the oldest Indian tied their elderly prisoner to a tree while several of the younger tribesmen began a round of target practice, taking turns throwing their tomahawks at Mr. Harvey's head. After several miraculous misses on the parts of the young braves, the elder Indian decided to let Mr. Harvey go; the younger warriors protested, pleading for more chances to improve their aim, but the older Indian had apparently reasoned that the Great Spirit had spared the prisoner's life. Mr. Harvey headed south along the river for several days, eating a stray dog along the way for sustenance, until he happened upon a boat which took him back to Wilkes-Barre. Meanwhile, the raiding party continued north, with George and Elisha still in tow.

The Indians soon discovered that George was a talented shot with a musket, and they demanded that he  kill several horses for food during the journey, which he did; as payment, the Indians rewarded George with salt for his dinner. Eventually, the Indians transferred George—presumably still in his finest, but ragged, dress uniform—to the British in Montreal, while Elisha remained with the Indians. Elisha remained with the Indians through the winter, and was later sold to a Scotsman for a half barrel of rum; two years later, he returned to Luzerne County as the result of a prisoner exchange orchestrated by his father, who had worked tirelessly since their capture to secure his son's return.

Meanwhile, in February of 1781, the British moved George and 166 other Patriot prisoners 45 miles up the St. Lawrence River to a blockhouse at the canal fort of Coteau-du-Lac, Quebec, which the English simply called Prison Island. While there, the lead guard—a despotic 18-year-old Scottish soldier named MacAlpin—would routinely demand the prisoners shovel snow; each prisoner refused in turn, and MacAlpin had them all systematically chained in irons as punishment. George Ransom and William Palmeters were the last two asked, and when they also refused, MacAlpin had them placed in an open, floorless house overnight, to freeze in the biting Canadian winter air. The following morning, MacAlpin expected their spirits to be broken, but when he demanded again that they shovel the snow, George bellowed, "Not by order of a damned Tory!"

MacAlpin then had George and William shackled and moved to another building, but while there the colonial men convinced Charles Grandison, a black fiddler among the captives, to play while they danced jigs and reels all night. MacAlpin, discouraged by the unfazed morale of the prisoners, demanded Grandison play for him, but the fiddler refused as long as his fellows were chained up, maintaining his resolve even after MacAlpin had him subsequently lashed. MacAlpin continued this abuse throughout the winter, stringing up or flogging captives, but none of the Patriot prisoners consented to shovel the snow.

In early June, George and two of his fellow captives, John Butterworth and John Brown, began periodically sneaking away from their work detail to construct a makeshift raft. They lashed together scrounged parts while out of sight of the British guard and when called away, they buried their half-completed construct in the sand. On June 9, the three men sailed the raft—so non-seaworthy that its passengers' weight caused it to sink about a foot below the water—across the St. Lawrence River to the southern shore. Exhausted by the hard rowing, they nonetheless headed south into the wilderness toward Lake Champlain. 

Despite having no warm clothes, only about a half a days' rations, and being faced with rough and unfamiliar terrain, the escapees reached Lake Champlain in two days' time, sustaining themselves on captured snakes and frogs. From there, they continued toward Vermont, at one point convincing a sympathetic but poverty-stricken old woman to allow them each three swallows of milk and a haunch of bread. After three more days of punishing travel, they finally reached the village of Putney, Vermont, where George's uncle lived. From there, Butterworth and Brown headed toward Albany, while George walked south to Litchfield, Connecticut, near the town where he was born, and ultimately back to Wilkes-Barre.

After regaining his health, George rejoined the militia, remaining in the command of the 1st Connecticut Regiment until it was discharged at West Point in 1783. On August 14, 1783, at the age of 21, he married 23-year-old Olive Utley; they lived in Taunton, Massachusetts at first, where they welcomed a daughter, Sarah, in 1784, but by 1786, they were back in Luzerne County, where they had a second daughter, Louisa. In 1787, George was promoted to Captain of the 7th Company, 3rd Regiment of the Luzerne Militia, under Lt. Col. Matthias Hollenbeck, and the couple then had a third daughter Esther in 1788, and a son, George Jr., in 1791. By this time, George had acquired his father's lands from his brothers and sisters via quitclaim. Olive died on July 14, 1793 at the age of 33, leaving George a widower with four small children.

Less than six months later, on January 9, 1794, George, aged 32, remarried to Elizabeth Lamoreaux, the 17-year-old daughter of Thomas and Katurah Lamoreaux of Monroe County, New York. Together, they had thirteen more children—Samuel, Olive, William, Elizabeth, Keturah, Lyvia, Thomas, Chester, Eleanor, Miner, Lydia, Amelia, and Ira—between 1795 and 1822; all but Eleanor survived to adulthood. By the time Ira was born, his parents were 60 and 45, and his oldest half-sister was already 38.

The Ransom house
George continued to acquire additional acreage in Jackson and Lehman Townships; a deed shows that he paid for a large area that is now Lehman Center, establishing a thriving timber and sawmill business. In 1799, George was promoted to Lt. Colonel and became the fourth Commander of the 2nd Battalion,3rd Regiment of the Luzerne County Militia, the local unit of the Pennsylvania militia; today, that unit is the 109th Field Artillery of the Pennsylvania National Guard, based in Kingston. He continued to serve at West Point and drilled soldiers in preparation for the War of 1812. For his service, he earned the Badge of Merit, which was at the time the highest military honor, and his discharge papers were personally signed by Gen. Washington. On April 29, 1824, he lost his 33-year-old oldest son, George Palmer Ransom Jr., when some logs rolled over him during a logging operation; five years later, George's daughter Elizabeth also died at the age of 30. 

Later in life, as Colonel Ransom was advanced in years—the exact date is unknown—he overheard a young man criticized General Washington; in response the Colonel knocked the boy to the ground with his cane. Colonel Ransom denied a lawyer for his court date, and the presiding Judge Hollenback ask where the Colonel was in 1777, in July 1778, in summer of 1779, and in the winter of 1780. Colonel Ransom answered honestly: He was in Washington's Army, heading back to the Wyoming Valley, in Lake Country with General Sullivan, and a prisoner on the St. Lawrence, respectively. 

"And did you knock the fellow down, Colonel?" asked the judge.

"I did so, and would do it again under like provocation," Colonel Ransom replied.

"What was the provocation?"

"The rascal abused the name of General Washington."

Judge Hollenback had heard enough. Colonel Ransom was fined a charge of one penny, and the young man was required to pay the court costs. The observers in the court applauded.

Colonel Ransom established himself as a prominent man in the Wyoming Valley, and continued to live in his large red house on Garrison Hill in Plymouth until well into his eighties, using two canes to get about. George died on September 5, 1850, in Plymouth, one of the last remaining Revolutionary War veterans in the valley, and was buried with military honors in Shupp Cemetery in Plymouth. Chronicler Hendrick B. Wright remembers Colonel Ransom as "a stout built, square-shouldered man about five feet eight inches high, light complexion and blue eyes. He had a pleasant and agreeable manner, very communicative, and was a most obliging neighbor. He was a man who liked mirth, and nobody enjoyed a joke better than he. He was quiet and peaceable; a man of thoroughly domestic habits. He raised a large family of children and brought them up respectably, giving them all a good common school education. His house was always open to hospitality, and no man more thoroughly and keenly relished a convivial assemblage than he. He possessed the highest sense of honor. His long training in the revolutionary service made him very punctilious in his intercourse. His word was his bond.”  George Ransom was a man of  “many virtues, and whose strong arm and resolute will had made their impression in the frame work and superstructure of Free and Republican America.” 

Elizabeth died on August 27, 1859 at the age of 82, and was buried with her husband. In 1903, the Ransom family was re-interred in the Shawnee Cemetery, above the ravages of the river and railroad and mining operations. Every Memorial Day, the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution decorates George’s grave, which is still flanked by those of his wives Olive and Elizabeth.

Links and Sources:
Historical Sketches of Plymouth, by Hendrick B. Wright, Philadelphia, Penn., 1873.
A Geneological Record of the Descendants of Captain Samuel Ransom of the Continental Army, by Captain Clinton B. Sears, Nixon-Jones Printing Co., St. Louis, 1882.
Drawing of Col. Ransom was in Prominent Men: Scranton and Vicinity,  Wilkes-Barre and Vicinity, Pittston, Hazleton, Carbondale, Montrose and Vicinity, Pennsylvania (1906).
Detail of the painting of the Wyoming Massacre by Alonzo Chappel, 1858, is in the public domain.  Accessed via Wikipedia.
Image of the upstate New York Wilderness "Willsboro Bay from Rattlesnake Mountain" by TourPro, accessed via Google Earth.
Remarks given by Loraine Keller Prutzman at the 150th anniversary of Col. Ransom's death, September 2, 2000, at Shawnee Cemetery in Plymouth.
"George Palmer Ransom" © 2015 by James W. Husband

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Vegard the Viking

In the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, Norwegian skiier Vegard Ulvang, called ‘the Viking’, became a national hero by winning three gold medals in the 10 km and 30 km cross-country races, and in the 4x10 cross-country relay, and a silver in the pursuit.  His popularity soared: He was chosen as the most loved by residents of Norway - besting even the King - and Norwegians named the children after him in numbers.  The next winter Olympics were only two years later, and in Ulvang’s home country, so expectations were high for him to match, or even exceed, his record showing.  However, that was not to be: by the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, the celebrated skiier’s prowess had slumped considerably, not due to age or poor conditioning, but due to a sudden and high-profile tragedy in his family.  

Ketil Ulvang was Vegard’s older brother by two years, and the two of them grew up in the snowy fields of extreme northeastern Norway near the small town of Kirkenes, far above the Arctic Circle.  They spent their childhood in the area, setting out on skis or on foot, hunting and hiking through the wilderness.  The area is remarkably remote; Vegard once remarked, “From our house, you can walk for 14 days without seeing a man or crossing a road.”  As adults, Ketil - a physical therapist by trade - advised and accompanied Vegard on his training as a matter of routine, and accompanied him to exotic training excursions; the pair climbed Mount Blanc together, completing a marathon crossing of Greenland on skis, and had even been detained together for four days in Mongolia, questioned by hard-nosed security agents after their guide attempted to defect to Russia.  They scaled Mount McKinley, and on the way down, Ketil fell in freezing water; Vegard and another friend dove in to fish him out, and after reviving Ketil, Vegard remained with his brother for hours until the friend summoned a helicopter rescue crew.

On the evening of October 13, 1993, as Vegard was away training in Italy’s Dolomite Alps, Ketil spoke with some students in the neighboring town of Neiden, then delivered lesson plans to another who lived nearby.  With night having fallen, he rode back toward his home with some friends, but then hopped out of the car with about 25 km (15 miles) to go, saying he preferred to jog the rest of the way, even though it would take him over a mountain ridge called Munkeneset.  For most, 15 miles over a 1,000 foot high peak, at night, in the snow and wind, in northern Norway in October, would be daunting (if not suicidal), but Ketil was in superior physical shape, and, having travelled them regularly in far worse conditions, was intimately familiar with the landscape.  Ketil was well capable of running 12 to 15 miles at a time, so he was confident in his ability to make the trip in only about two hours, in plenty of time to watch the Norway-Poland World Cup qualifier match with his youngest brother, Morten, who was waiting for his arrival.

After five hours, Ketil had not appeared, and a heavy snowstorm was rolling in.  Morten, his uncle, and a friend set out to find Ketil, to no avail.  They called others, and before long the word was out that Vegard Ulvang’s brother was missing.  Hundreds of volunteers from all over Norway streamed in, including some in helicopters and armed with heat-detecting lasers, along with generous cash donations.  Vegard himself flew back from Italy the next day, skis in tow, and immediately began scouring the area where he and Ketil spent much of their youth, personally covering 30 to 40 miles per day for weeks.  The Norwegian police’s Search and Rescue teams covered the area for four full days, twice as long as their usual protocol allows.  Top-tier detectives, teams of bloodhounds, and even several psychics lent their expertise, but there was still no sign of Ketil.

Despite Ketil’s intimate knowledge of the terrain, there were many hazards in that area.  Ketil had been warned earlier in the evening about bears, who roam the areas frequently.  If he had been knocked unconscious after a fall, the snow could have covered him, concealing him from the searchers.  Some began also to float the theory that he had been hit by a car by accident, and the driver hid his body to escape prosecution.  Due to its proximity to Russia, the area is also frequented by smugglers, and so others were beginning to suspect foul play, especially after several witnesses reported seeing another jogger whom no one was able to subsequently identify.  After the searching stretched on, Vegard stated that the thought Ketil fell in some water - a frozen pond, maybe, its surface disguised by the falling snow - and drowned.

The search continued fervently, but the volunteers were fatigued, the donated money was all gone, and the wintry weather was getting dramatically worse.  Volunteers, angry and upset but unable to continue, steadily returned to their homes.  Heartbroken, Vegard abandoned the search in late November and returned to his Olympic training.  It was clear throughout the training and the Olympics that his heart was not in the competition, however - he stated in interviews that he fully expected to return at the spring thaw to continue searching for Ketil.  "I will go back and keep looking for Ketil in the spring," Vegard said. "I will look until I find him."  

After dominating the 1992 Olympics, and despite his teammate Bjorn Daehlie winning four medals, Vegard Ulvang performed disappointingly, capturing only one silver medal in a team event.  In the spring, after the Olympics had ended, the searching resumed, and after only a single day, a volunteer spotted Ketil’s red jacket, floating in an icy pond.  His brother Vegard’s supposition had been true; Ketil was following a set of power lines, and the snow had obscured a pond whose ice had not completely frozen over.  

Two days after Ketil’s discovery, his girlfriend gave birth to a healthy baby boy, conceived just before Ketil’s disappearance.  Vegard and the Ulvang family have taken great joy in the baby’s arrival.  “I try to remember that this is nature.  People come and go, just like nature does,” Vegard later said.  “The baby means a lot to us.  It gives us something back.”

Links and Sources:

Clarey, Christopher, “Vegard Ulvang's Lonely Quest; Norway's Olympic Hero Seeks Gold, and Something Far More Precious”, New York Times, December 13, 1993, available here.

Schmitz, Brian, “Norway Skiing Hero Vegard Ulvang Has More Than Medals On His Mind”, Orlando Sentinel, February 13, 1994, available here.
Husar, John, “A Nation Stands at Attention: Norway Set to Salute Hero Ulvang’s Quest”, Chicago Tribune, February 17, 1994, available here.
Johnson, William Oscar, “The Last Viking”, Sports Illustrated, January 24, 1994.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Siege of Newbury Castle, 1152

Stephen of Blois, King of England

Despite having more than twenty children, when King Henry I of England died in 1135, he had no surviving legitimate sons.  He left his kingdom to his daughter Matilda, but common citizenry and powerful nobles alike rejected her in favor of Henry's nephew, Stephen of Blois, who was crowned King in 1135.  However, Matilda had her supporters, and a civil war called the Anarchy broke out between the two factions.

One of Stephen's knights, John Marshal, deserted his service and backed Matilda instead.  He forged an alliance with Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, by deserting his wife and marrying Patrick's sister Sybilla instead.  In 1152, he found himself in Newbury Castle, 65 miles west of London, under siege by King Stephen himself.  The conflict was not going well for John, and he and Stephen signed a truce while John supposedly was to plead with Matilda for allowing the castle to surrender.  As assurance that he would comply with the terms of the truce, and as was the custom of the day, Stephen accepted John's fourth son William as a hostage.  Stephen kept William, then about six years old, in his personal tent, where they would sit on the floor and play undertake games of chance, which Stephen naturally let little William consistently win.

John, however, had no intentions of surrendering the castle.  During the break in hostilities, he filled the keep to capacity with men and supplies - a gross violation of the truce - and then informed the King that he would not surrender after all.  Stephen was infuriated by this betrayal, and his advisors informed him that William's death would have to be at least threatened, if not carried out.  Stephen sent John an angry message, threatening to publicly hang the boy if John did not cease his actions.  John, apparently caring more for the castle than for the fourth of his six sons, essentially dared Stephen to carry through on his threat, replying "I have both the hammer and the forge to make more, and better, sons!"

Stephen's advisors told him that he must then carry through with the threat.  Begrudgingly, but still angry over John's violations, Stephen ordered that the young boy would have to be killed as custom dictated.  On the way to the execution, little William asked to play with the shiny, bright javelin of one of his escorting soldiers.  When they approached the catapult with which William's body was to be hurled back at his father's forces, the cheerful boy said the bucket was just his size, and asked if he could swing from its ropes.  Stephen could no longer bear the thought of killing the boy, and personally lifted William up in his arms and carried him back to his tent.  On the way, the King chastised his advisors, saying that "one would have a heart of iron to see such a child perish."  

William stayed with King Stephen for another two months, during which time they would play a game of toy soldiers, using plantains as stand-ins for duelling knights; William was quite pleased with his repeated victories over the King.  As for Newbury Castle, as it turns out it did not fall; a peace treaty was derived in 1153 in which Stephen would continue as King, but upon his death the title would pass to Matilda's heir; the war was over, and William was returned to his father.  Stephen died only a year after that in 1154, and Matilda's son Henry became King Henry II of England, in whose time Newbury Castle was disassembled so thoroughly that its very location is no longer certain to anyone.  John Marshal fell out of favor with the court, and William cut ties with him before his 20th birthday.

William Marshal in a tournament
It was also fortuitous that King Stephen decided to save young William Marshal.  Despite the fact that landless fourth sons of disgraced, brutish soldiers usually amounted to very little in feudal England, William served as a notable exception to this trend.  He sought his fortune in France, where he was knighted in 1166.  Sponsored - and, at one point, ransomed - by Eleanor of Aquitaine, he grew to be known (without hyperbole) as the greatest knight that ever lived, winning tournament after tournament and defeating more than 500 knights during his career.   He served Henry II as a military captain, went on Crusade, and married the daughter of the Earl of Pembroke.   After Henry II's death, he served Richard I, and after Richard's death, he served King John, supporting him even in the face of rebellion and promoting the Magna Carta, which may not have passed otherwise.  After John's death, William served as Regent for the nine-year-old Henry III and personally leading the Royal Army to victory in a charge at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217, despite being over 70 years old at the time. 

William died two years later.  William's father had originally taken his surname from his occupation, as 'Marshal' at the time meant 'Stable keeper'.  It is because of William's achievements that the word has its current meaning, as the commander of an army.
Pembroke Castle, which became William Marshal's home

Sources and Links:
William Marshal on Wikipedia
William Marshal in the Dictory of National Biography 1885-1900, as presented in Wikisource.

Duby, Georges and Richard Howard, William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry, Random House, 1987.
Money, Walter, The History of the Ancient Town and Borough in Newbury in the County of Berks, Parker and Co., 1887.
Painter, Sidney, William Marshal, Knight-Errant, Baron, and Regent of England, University of Toronto Press, 1933.

Image of William Marshal on horseback is by Angus McBride, and appeared in Christopher Gravett's Elite 17: Knights at Tournament, Osprey Books, 1988.
Photo of Pembroke Castle by Athena's Pix.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Highlander on D-Day

On the morning of June 6, 1944, the invasion of Normandy was under way. An armada of landing ships chopped through the icy, stinging waters of the English Channel, ferrying thousands of troops toward the German-held beaches in a surprise attack that would change the course of the war and of human history. On the far eastern edge of the invasion fleet, one landing craft held a special commodity which no other could boast: deployed along with the 1st Special Services Brigade, many of whom were Scottish, was 21-year-old Bill Millin, a Royal Marine Commando in direct service to the brigade commander. Private Millin was preparing for the landing, but he was not going to be wearing a helmet, wielding a rifle, or affixing a bayonet; Millin instead hoisted and readied a traditional and iconic instrument of Scottish warriors: bagpipes.

Bill Millin’s father had played the bagpipes in World War I years before, and as Millin himself was growing up in Glasgow, he also excelled in their use. He played in the pipe bands of two separate Highland regiments before volunteering as a Commando during World War II. While there, he caught the ear of Simon Fraser, 17th Lord Lovat, the eccentric 32-year-old commander of the Special Services Regiment, who quickly volunteered Millin as his personal piper. When the troops assembled for the D-Day Invasion, Lovat - disobeying recent standing orders that bagpipes, being obvious targets, were not to be deployed in battle, on the grounds that English rules did not apply to Scots such as them - ordered Millin to report for duty with his bagpipes.  

As the landing craft headed down the River Hamble toward the Channel, Millin raised the spirits of the men by standing on the bow and playing Scottish standards on his pipes. Someone relayed the music over the loudspeaker, and passing ships - including a destroyer named the HMS Montrose, which Lovat gleefully saluted - cheered at the sound of bagpipes rising over the waters. As soon as Millin’s ship reached the choppy seas of the Channel, he was concerned about falling over the edge, so he retired inside and closed the lid.

At Normandy, early in the morning of the 6th, the rear door to the lander opened and it was time to take the beach. Resistance was light but present, and Millin watched as his fellow Scots lept into the seas to wade to shore. After Lord Lovat himself jumped in, the next man in line - standing next to Millin at the time - was shot in the face and dropped dead into the water. Millin immediately lept in to the Channel and hastened toward the shore.

Millin, being a loyal Scot, was the only man on the beach wearing a kilt, which floated up around him like a ballerina’s tutu as he waded ashore.  He held his bagpipes over his head to protect them from the sea water, but he lowered them and began playing as soon as he was able. He played “Highland Laddie” as he strode ashore through the surf, and when finished, Lovat insisted that he continue, specifically requesting “The Road to the Isles”. Millin - again at Lovat’s request - then strode back and forth along the battle lines, standing up straight and playing the bagpipe music that filled the air. Someone called him a “mad bastard”, an epithet that had until then been generally reserved by the troops for Lovat.

The sound of the pipes did wonders for the morale of the soldiers; some even stopped digging cover for themselves to wave at the piper. One soldier, Tom Duncan, would years later recall, “[Millin’s piping] reminded us of home and why we were there fighting for our lives and those of our loved ones.” German soldiers were similarly impressed; some snipers would later recount how they had Millin in their sights, but decided not to shoot him because they thought he was crazy.

Millin and Lovat continued with the 1st Special Services commandos up the beach and toward the key village of Caen. Along the way, Millin marched at a walk down the center of contested streets while his fellow soldiers used rifles and grenades to clear adjacent buildings of enemy soldiers. At one point, Millin stopped playing as he dove for cover from a German sniper; Lovat personally stalked and shot the harassing rifleman, and then nonchalantly motioned for Millin to continue his music.

Lovat’s forces reinforced the first wave of Commandos at the crucial battle of Pegasus Bridge, which Millen crossed alone while under direct fire that had killed twelve of his compatriots just minutes before, to many cheers and much fanfare. While clearing out the countryside, Millin’s eyes were caught by a family of terrified French villagers. Their red-haired daughter kept crying for “Music! Music!”, and so Millin obliged her by playing “The Nut Brown Maiden”, which she enjoyed greatly.  

Millin continued to serve during the war, and afterward donated his pipes, beret and the skean dhu (Scottish dagger) he wore strapped to his leg to the Pegasus Bridge museum. He worked for a while on Lovat’s estate, but desiring more adventure he left to play pipes in a travelling theater group, and then later became a psychiatric nurse. He returned to Normand frequently for services and memorials over the years; during one of these visits, he was enthusiastically welcomed by a French woman with faded red hair, who remembered the special tune he had played just for her, years ago.

Bill Millin married and had a son named John, then retired to Devon. He suffered a stroke in 2003, and died in 2010 at the age of 88 years old.  

Links and Sources:

"Bill Millin", in The Economist, August 26, 2010.
"Piper Bill Millin", in The Telegraph, August 18, 2010.
"Piper Bill Millin", on Pegasus Archive, retrieved May 22, 2012.

Ambrose, Steven E., Pegasus Bridge, Simon and Schuster, 1988.
Bruce, Duncan A., The Mark of the Scots: Their Astonishing Contributions to History, Science, Democracy, Literature, and the Arts, Citadel Press, 1998.

The color painting of Lovat and Millin is by David Pentland, and is available for sale here.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Malta 1565

Jean de Valette

After nine Crusades spanning nearly 200 years, the Christian armies were finally expelled from the Middle Eastern coast by the successful Muslim Siege of Acre in 1291.  Over time, Turkish armies spread westward, intent on spreading their religion throughout Europe.  In 1453, Turks captured the mighty Byzantine city of Constantinople, and their gateway to the west was opened.  In 1523, the order of Knights Hospitaller were defending the island of Rhodes, off the southwest coast of Asia Minor, when the Ottomans - under 28-year-old Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent - besieged it as well.  Despite a valiant stand, the Knights eventually ran out of supplies and were forced to withdraw, first to Crete, and then to island of Malta, just south of Sicily.  One of those retreating was a French Knight named Jean de Valette. 

In the years that followed, the Christian Mediterranean kingdoms were under near-constant assault by the Ottoman forces, most notably by the ships commanded by the famed corsair Turgut Reis.  In 1551, Reis invaded Malta, but abandoned the attempt after only a few days.  De Valette - who in the meantime had spent a year in slavery under Reis, but who escaped and was by then the commander of the Knights - ordered the defenses of the city of Birgu to be strengthened.  De Valette was a severe but pious commander, the descendent of a family of Crusade knights and specially chosen to prepare for what was seen as the inevitable Ottoman assault on the island.  The walled city of Birgu sat on a rock promontory on the southern side of the Grand Harbor, and was already protected by Fort St. Angelo, jutting out over the Harbor; to this was added Fort St. Michael on an adjacent outcropping, and Fort St. Elmo across the harbor.    

De Valette had roughly 600 knights under his command.  He also hired about 1,200 men, received about 1,000 in assistance from Italy, and there were a little over 6,000 militia men and galley slaves.  On May 18, 1565, over 30,000 Ottoman troops began to land on Maltese shores from 180 ships; roughly 20% of the Ottoman foot troops were the justifiably-feared Janissaries, elite Ottoman arquebusiers (that is, medieval gunmen) representing the personal investiture of the Sultan himself, who held the customary Janissary rank of Private.  The Ottomans were known for the effectiveness of their artillery, and to that they did not disappoint; 13 cannons were set up only a short distance from Fort St. Elmo, their first target, including two culverins hurling 60-pound balls, 10 cannons hurling 80-pound balls, and one Basilisk, a multiton monstrosity that hurled 160 pound cannonballs.   Mustafa Pasha, the overall commander of the Ottomans, expected that Fort St. Elmo would be overrun and siezed within days, but due to an error in artillery placement (his sub-commander had placed it within range of the Christian artillery from Fort St. Angelo) and the stalwart defense of the 200 Knights assigned to defend St. Elmo, the siege of even this first fort lasted for more than a month, and cost the Ottomans more than 2,000 men - one of which was the pirate Reis. 

Mustafa now turned his army's attentions to Forts St. Angelo and St. Michael, and the town of Birgu.  The Ottoman cannons were of less use, especially as Mustafa feared Maltese reinforcements and therefore attempted to siege the island with more haste than usual.  Meanwhile, De Valette and his defenders posed a staunch resistance.  Ottoman ships sent to attack from the sea were targeted and sunk by Maltese cannons.  Siege towers, forty feet high and filled with assault soldiers, approached the gates but were hobbled when de Valette ordered some ground-level wall blocks removed and had cannons blow the legs off of the structures at point blank range.  One of Mustafa's lieutenants found a way to ignite a barrel of black powder within a crevice in the otherwise smooth rock face supporting the fortress walls; in response, de Valette himself - at the time about 70 or 71 years old - grabbed a spear and led his men to defend the breach, driving the Turks back and securing the hole. 

Probably the most terrifying weapons developed by de Valette and the Maltese Knights were their incendiary devices.  They developed an early form of hand grenades, clay pots filled with napalm-like Greek Fire and hurled at their opponents; the shards of clay would explode as shrapnel, and the Maltese kept piles of these to throw at their tormentors.  They also invented fire hoops, which were wooden rings, about the size of a modern hula hoop, wrapped in layers of burnable material such as brandy, gunpowder, turpentine, and heavy cloth, then ignited and rolled down the hills towards attackers, by the hundreds.  Perhaps most terrifying was the Trump, a hollow metal tube filled with flammable sulfur resin and linseed oil; when lit, a gout of flame several yards long would issue forth from the snout for as long as a half hour.  The defenders stationed these primitive hand-held flamethrowers  at doorways, portcullises, breaches, and other choke points to deter any approach; as the attacking Turks typically wore long, flowing robes, the effects of being set on fire were particularly devastating to them.  One account of the battle records a lone Maltese knight in Fort St. Elmo, visible from across the harbor as he held off many Ottoman assaulters while armed with only a single trump.

The attack, which Mustafa had originally estimated would take only days, lasted for three months.  The Ottoman soldiers, seeing soldier after soldier meet grisly, sudden, or incendiary deaths, lost heart and morale among the attackers plummeted.  Finally, in September, word reached Mustafa that Sicilian reinforcements were heading for the island, and he made the decision to withdraw.  By that time, only about 600 defenders remained, and about 1/3 of the entire population of the island of Malta had been killed in the fighting.  The Turks, including periodic reinforcements, had totalled about 40,000 men, and the battle had cost them about 25,000.  Immediately following the Ottoman retreat, the Knights decided to build a city where Fort St. Elmo once stood; De Valette himself laid the first cornerstone in the city which bore his name.  Today, Valetta is the capital city of the sovereign state of Malta.

Fort St. Angelo today
Links and Sources:
Balbi, Francesco, The Siege of Malta, 1565, Boydell Press, 1965.
Bradford, Ernle, The Great Siege: Malta 1565, E-Reads/E-Rights, 2010.
Pickles, Tim, Campaign 50: Malta 1565, Last Battle of the Crusades, Osprey Publishing, 1998.  The image of the cannon crippling the tower is by Christa Hook, and appeared in this book.
"The Last Crusaders", episode of Warriors, The History Channel, 2009.