Wednesday, February 29, 2012

New Orleans

The last major land battle of the War of 1812 took place in Louisiana, as British forces attempted to capture New Orleans. The British assault on January 8, 1815, stalled when the fog the British were using for cover suddenly lifted, leaving the British completely exposed; American sharpshooters and artillerists then targeted and killed many of the British commanders. The situation then degenerated into absolute chaos when one British unit got stuck on the wrong side of the river, another was mired in mud, and a third - the 44th East Essex Regiment of Foot - forgot to bring ladders to climb the walls.

Links and Sources
The Naval War of 1812, by Theodore Roosevelt, 1885.
The History of New Orleans, by John Kendall, Lewis Publishing Company, 1922.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


In 1051, William, Duke of Normandy, was laying siege to the town of Alençon, about 100 miles west of Paris. Residents of the town taunted William by hanging hides from the city walls, because William’s peasant mother was the daughter of the local tanner. William, then called ‘the Bastard’ but later known as ‘the Conqueror’, was particularly sensitive about the subject, and after taking the city, he rounded the offending townspeople, and had their hands and feet cut off.

Links and Sources:
The House of Normandy on English Monarchs
The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, 1110-1142.
War and Chivalry: The Conduct and Perception of War in England and Normandy, 1066-1217, by Matthew Strickland, Cambridge University Press, 1996, page 3.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Mary Walker

Dr. Mary Walker was the first female doctor in the US Army. She served in the battles of Bull Run, Chickamauga, and Atlanta, and served for four months as a prisoner of war in Richmond. For her endless treatment of wounded and ill soldiers, "to the detriment of her own health", she received the Congressional Medal of Honor on November 11, 1865, the only woman ever to do so. After the war was over, she was a proponent of women's suffrage and advocated a change in the way women dressed. She argued that women's clothing were unduly expensive (to both them, and their potential future husbands) and did not offer protection from the weather; she herself had been arrested several times for dressing like a man. In 1917, Congress decided that it had issued too many Medals of Honor and rescinded hers along with 910 others; she refused to give it up, and was buried with it clutched in her hands in 1919. Ultimately, President Carter reinstated her Medal of Honor, and the Post Office issued a stamp bearing her likeness.

Links and Sources:
National Library of Medicine biography
Congressional Medal of Honor society
Hit, by Dr. Mary E. Walker, MD, The American News Company, New York, 1871.
Photo courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

John Clem

In May of 1861, one of the many who answered President Lincoln's call for volunteers was John Clem of Ohio. He was denied admittance by the 3rd Ohio Regiment, however, because he was only 9 years old at the time. Undeterred, he sought out the 22nd Michigan instead and followed them around, eventually being accepted as a drummer boy and unofficial mascot. On September 20 of that year, the 22nd was fighting in the Battle of Chickamauga, and young John - armed with his special musket, which his fellow soldiers had sawn down to his size - was discovered by a Confederate colonel, who called for him to surrender. In response, John shot the colonel and escaped back to his unit. For his heroics, John Clem was promoted to Sergeant at the age of 12, was later personally promoted to Lieutenant by President U.S. Grant, and ultimately reached the rank of Brigadier General. He retired in 1915 as the last remaining Civil War veteran to serve in the US military, and was promoted to Major General as he did.


Young, handsome, and inoffensive enough that no one hated him, former New Hampshire Attorney General Franklin Pierce easily defeated his former Mexican War commander General Winfield Scott, who was disliked among southerners and Catholics. Unfortunately, a month after the election, Pierce, his wife Jane, and their 11-year-old son Bennie were in a train accident and Bennie was killed in front of the President-Elect. Pierce slipped into alcoholism, and, determining that Bennie’s death was punishment for his own sins, he was the first President to ‘affirm’ his inauguration on a law book, rather than swear it on a Bible. Jane, who saw her son’s body despite her husband’s attempts to shield it from her, exhibited such mourning that she was known as the “ghost of the White House”. Pierce is now known as one of the most ineffective Presidents in American history, and upon the end of his single term, he sighed and said “There’s nothing left . . . but to get drunk.”

The Cooking Brandy

Charles Jougin was the chief baker aboard the Titanic when it struck an iceberg and sunk in 1912. He was assigned to load food and supplies aboard the lifeboats and to assist passengers; as he did, he helped himself to large amounts of alcoholic beverages, which were otherwise destined to sink. He did not board a lifeboat himself, but instead rode the ship down to the water, stepping off into the ocean water without so much as getting his hair wet. He survived for several hours in the water - an abnormally long time, considering the frigid temperatures - possibly due to the excessive amount of alcohol in his system at the time.

The Blue Pencil

Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey visited the Soviet Union in 1958, and he and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev ended up speaking for eight hours. At one point, Khrushchev asked Humphrey to point out his hometown on a wall-mounted US map. When the Senator pointed out Minneapolis, Khrushchev circled it with a blue pencil, saying “That’s so I don’t forget to order them to spare the city when the rockets fly.”

Sniper in the Tower

In 1966, former US Marine Charles Whitman, possibly suffering from a tumor in his head which altered his perceptions, climbed to the observation deck of the University of Texas at Austin and began using several hunting rifles to indiscriminately fire into the crowd below. Responding police had no means of returning fire, due to Whitman’s position; one officer in an airplane was forced to retreat when Whitman’s bullets passed easily through the aircraft’s canvas walls, and most officers on the ground were armed only with revolvers and shotguns. Fortunately, the Texas setting meant that there plenty of civilians armed with hunting rifles, and quick-thinking police recruited students and passers-by to fire on Whitman with their personal weaponry; one officer even used his personal credit card to buy a townsperson some ammunition at a local hardware store. Although Whitman was protected by the stone railing around the balcony, the civilians did an effective job in keeping him so pinned down that he could not get off any more effective shots; Whitman ended up killing 17 people, mostly at range, but if not for the hunters’ efforts, the death toll would certainly have been much higher. Ultimately, a party of Texas Rangers climbed the 28 flights of stairs, surprised Whitman, and shot him to death. Even after the gunman had perished, some civilians were continuing to fire, prompting Ranger Houston McCoy, who delivered the final shots, to consider hurling Whitman’s body from the balcony as a public statement that the crisis was over and to stop shooting; he resisted the urge. Within a few years, police departments began creating special response teams, such as SWAT in Los Angeles, for situations such as Whitman’s shooting spree.

Links and Sources:
Dallas Morning News, "SWAT Teams' Standards, Use, Proliferation Questioned", by Ed Timms, Dec. 20, 2009.
A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders, by Gary M. Lavergne, University of North Texas Press, 1997.
Photo by the Associated Press, 1966.

The Claw

In 214 BC, the Romans attacked the port city of Syracuse by sea with a force numbering around 120 ships. Their assault was thrown into confusion by a combination of arrows, darts, and catapult stones. When the Roman ships got near the walls of Syracuse, their ships were literally lifted out of the water and dropped on their sides by a series of cranes equipped with giant metal claws, courtesy of the brilliant engineer Archimedes, who was in Syracuse at the time and assisting with the defense. The Romans, according to Plutarch, “seeing that indefinite mischief overwhelmed them from no visible means, began to think they were fighting with the gods.”

The Juliet of the Hatfields

In the midst of the decades-long, post-Civil War feud between the affluent and largely Confederate Hatfields from what is now West Virginia, and the rustic and largely pro-Union McCoys from Pike County, Kentucky, dashing ladies’ man Johnse Hatfield invited beautiful but naive Roseanna McCoy back to his family’s cabin after her brother left the 1880 Election Day festivities without her. Roseanna was ninth of “Old Ran’l” McCoy’s 16 children, and Johnse was the oldest son of Confederate veteran “Devil Anse” Hatfield, and so their budding courtship was not taken well by either side. After several of Roseanna’s brothers captured Johnse, she borrowed a neighbor’s horse and rode, saddleless, coatless, and in the dead of night, to Devil Anse Hatfield’s land to warn him of Johnse’s capture; the Hatfields immediately formed a party and rescued Johnse without a fight. Johnse then repaid Roseanna for her devotion and bravery by abandoning her, after which she was shunned by her family, contracted measles, and miscarried their baby. Johnse then marrying Roseanna’s cousin Nancy only a few months later.

The Hidden Microfilm

In 1948, admitted former Communist spy Whitaker Chambers testified before the House Unamerican Activities Committee and exposed UN official Alger Hiss as a Communist agent. Hiss promptly filed charges against Chambers for libel. In response, Whitaker Chambers produced more than 60 transcribed and handwritten pages of state secrets which Hiss was planning to sell to the Soviet Union. These were known to the press as the ‘Pumpkin Papers’ because Chambers, fearing that they would be seized by agents of Hiss or the Soviet Union, hid microfilm containing the images in his back yard, inside a hollowed-out pumpkin.


When Leif Ericson explored the coast of Newfoundland around 1000 AD, one of those accompanying him was his tempestuous half-sister, Freydis Eiriksdottir. During an attack by indigenous Native Americans, the Vikings retreated to a more defensible position, but Freydis - who was pregnant at the time - couldn’t keep up, and continuously berated her kinsmen for running away. With the attackers closing in on her, she picked up a dead man’s sword and turned to face them. Dropping her tunic, she slapped her naked breasts with the sword and screamed challenges, daring them to attack her. Terrified, they ran away.


In 1787 - a full twenty years before Robert Fulton built the Clermont - engineer, merchant, and tavern keeper James Rumsey, under contract from George Washington, designed and demonstrated a steamship on the Potomac River near Shepherdstown, in what is now West Virginia. Unlike Fulton’s design, Rumsey’s steamboat relied on water being taken in through the hull, accelerated by way of an internal pump, and ejected out the back with enough force to propel the boat forward. Rumsey's design, therefore, was not only North America’s first steamboat, but also its first jet boat.


As Voltaire, the famous author of the French enlightenment, was lying on his deathbed, a priest asked him to repent and renounce Satan. Voltaire reportedly responded, “Now, now, my good man; this is not the time for making enemies.”

The Schoolhouse Blizzard

A fast-moving blizzard struck central Nebraska on January 12, 1888, dropping temperatures from around 30 degrees Fahrenheit above to -20 to -40 below in a matter of hours. It caught much of the populace by surprise, halting travel in its tracks and trapping people in the open and away from home. 19-year-old Minnie Freeman was teaching in a one-room schoolhouse when the storm, with no warning, blew open the front door and tore a piece of the roof off. Wasting no time, Millie tied the children together with cord - the older kids in the front, and her taking the rear of the line - and guided them to a farmhouse a mile away. Despite the punishing winds and snow, and the near-zero visibility, the children and Minnie Freeman all survived.

The Formula

Malcolm X wrote in his autobiography that when a man was looking for a potential wife, her ideal age should be half his age, plus seven. It should be noted that when they married in January of 1958, he and Betty Shabazz were 32 and 23 respectively, an age differential which fulfills this formula exactly.

The Cowcatcher

Due to his hometown of Cayce, Kentucky, train engineer John Luther Jones was known to his fellow conductors by the slightly-misspelled nickname of Casey. He was known, thanks to the popular ballad which bears his name, for his death in 1900, when he famously stayed at the brake while his train collided with another, immobile train on the tracks ahead. Less known is an incident from about five years earlier, when Casey noticed a group of children playing on the tracks ahead of his moving train. He yelled at them to move, but one little girl was paralyzed with fear at the sight of the oncoming locomotive and remained on the tracks. Jones instructed his engineer to brake, but upon realizing that the train wouldn't stop in time, he climbed out onto the cowcatcher and held on with one hand. Leaning ahead of the train, Casey Jones swept the little girl off the tracks with his free hand, just as she was about to get struck. The girl was terrified, but unharmed.

The Saddle

William the Conqueror died when he was thrown forward from his horse, landing crotch-first on his saddle pommel.

The Quatrefoil

In the early days of the US Marines, sharpshooters would perch in the rigging of a ship and provide cover fire to their companions as they stormed an enemy vessel. Amid the smoke and confusion, it was often difficult for Marine riflemen to determine the friendly from the opposing forces; to circumvent this, Marines would affix a small coil of rope to the tops of their hats so that the elevated sharpshooters would know not to target them. This symbol, called a quatrefoil, is still present on the caps of Marine officers.

The Mural

Rhodri and Angie Powell live in a spacious house near the town of Taunton, in Somerset, England. One day in January of 2011, they removed some paneling and plaster while renovating their front room and discovered a six foot high, 20 foot wide, 500 year old painting of King Henry VIII covering the wall; it was later confirmed to be the only contemporary mural of King Henry VIII still in existence. It seems their house had once belonged to Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury who helped the King split from the Catholic church in the 16th Century. Fortunately, the Powells decided not to paint over the Archbishop's testament to his sovereign.


Jesse James's friends gave him the nickname 'Dingus', after the substitute expletive he cried during the Civil War when a piece of equipment pinched his thumb.


Fear Brewster, middle child of Mayflower passengers William and Mary Brewster, was so named in commemoration of the anxiety her Puritan family had suffered due to persistent English raids on their then-illegal religious services. She had a sister named Patience, and three brothers named Jonathan, Love, and Wrestling.

The Embassy Siege

On April 30, 1980, six armed Iranian gunmen stormed their embassy in London, taking 26 hostages, including Police Constable Trevor Lock, who was assigned embassy guard duty. Lock successfully concealed a handgun from the terrorists for the six days that the siege lasted, and explained away drilling sounds and bulging walls to cover the ongoing surveillance efforts, even while he was being used by the Iranians to relay messages to the law enforcement agencies gathered outside. When the SAS staged a daylight raid on the embassy on May 6th, Lock "rugby-tackled" the armed leader of the Iranian terrorists, saving the life of an SAS officer, and earning himself the George Medal.

The USS Princeton

US President John Tyler's wife Letitia died one year into his Presidency. Within months, 52-year-old Tyler started a romance with 22-year-old socialite Julia Gardiner. In February of 1844, they both attended a demonstration of the steam-powered USS Princeton on the Potomac River. While there, the Princeton's main gun exploded, killing six, including Julia's father, Colonel David Gardiner; when Julia - who, along with the President, was fortunately below decks at the time - heard the news of her father's death, she fainted into President Tyler's arms. They were married four months later.

The Franciscan Friar

Max Kolbe became a Franciscan priest in 1918 at the age of 24, and was in Poland in 1939. He had a printing press in the friary he founded, from which he would create and distribute leaflets, Marian journals, and Bibles to whomever would accept them. When the Nazis arrived, he used the friary to shield 2,000 Jews from persecution, and for that he was arrested and taken to Auschwitz. While there, he devoted himself to assisting his fellow prisoners, took their confessions and consoled them when needed. In July of 1941, the Nazis were preparing to execute ten prisoners in retaliation for an escape, and Kolbe took the place of a man with a wife and children. The condemned prisoners, including Kolbe, were sentenced to die from starvation and were locked in a series of cells for that purpose; Kolbe, however, consoled his fellow prisoners even there, and helped prepare them all for their final journey, transforming the starvation chamber into a place of joy, singing and prayer. Max Kolbe was canonized as a martyr by Pope John Paul II in 1982; Francis Gajowniczek, the man whose place he took, was in attendance for the ceremony.

The Mechanic

In February of 1945, 18-year-old Elizabeth Windsor joined the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service, where she was trained for wartime service as a driver and a mechanic. Eight years later, she would be crowned as Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, a far cry from changing truck tires all day long.

San Jacinto

Many people remember the Alamo, but relatively few know of the Battle of San Jacinto, on April 21, 1836. After leading Santa Anna's Mexican army through a prolonged tour of the Texas countryside, Sam Houston had his Texan army stop and turn to face their enemy. When the Texans launched their attack, they caught the Mexicans literally napping, as Santa Anna - reportedly engaged in a romantic interlude with a young lady at the time - had forgotten to post guards while his entire army enjoyed their customary afternoon siesta. The result was an utter rout, with the Texans losing a total of 9 men out of 910; the Mexicans, on the other hand, lost about half of their 1360 men, with the remainder captured - including Santa Anna himself, who tried to escape dressed as a low-ranking soldier, but was identified by his ubiquitous silk underwear.

Baking Bread

On July 3, 1863, 20-year-old Jennie Wade was baking bread at her sister's house in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, when a bullet came through the kitchen door, struck her in the back, and made her the one and only civilian casualty of the Battle of Gettysburg. Jennie's sister's house - now called the "Jennie Wade House" - is today a tourist trap, situated in the shadow of the Holiday Inn. Incidentally, the day after Jennie was shot, her mother finished baking the bread.

Lincoln's Last

On April 14, 1865, US President Abraham Lincoln signed into being the US Secret Service. He was himself assassinated only hours later.

The Portent

By 585 BC, the Lydians of what is now Turkey, and the Medes of what is now Iran, had had enough of each other. After a diplomatic incident involving escaped murderers proved to be the last straw, the two armies faced off on the banks of the river Halys. As fate would have it, just as the two armies were about to erupt into violent combat, a complete solar eclipse occurred; both sides interpreted this as a sign from the gods, and they immediately declared a divinely-ordered cease-fire. A Lydian Princess was married to a Median Prince to seal the treaty, and the river on whose banks they stood became the official border between the two kingdoms. Both armies then packed up and went home.


Charles H. Lightoller was the most senior surviving member of the crew of the RMS Titanic when it sank in 1912. He organized the evacuation of the port side lifeboats before he was sucked underwater, held against a grating for a moment, and then shot back out of the water by the expelled air. Recovering his wits, he swam to join some nearby survivors and he organized their evacuation; he is generally credited with keeping their lifeboat from collapsing until the RMS Carpathia arrived. Years later, in 1940, he, his son Roger, and a friend used his 58-foot fishing yacht Sundowner to help evacuate the British soldiers from Dunkirk, saving 130 soldiers in one single trip.


Oscar Wilde's famous, and possibly apocryphal, last words were "Either this wallpaper goes, or I do". The wallpaper in question belonged to what was at the time called the Hôtel d'Alsace, but which now has the simple and memorable name Hôtel L'Hôtel - in English, that translates to the Hotel Hotel.

The Iceman

Sometime around 3250 BC, an Alpine shepherd in his 40's was killed by an arrow to his shoulder blade. He carried a copper axe which he could not have made alone, he was used to running in the hills for long distances, and he had at least four other people with him when he died - therefore, he may have been part of a raiding party, during which he received his mortal wound. However it happened, he fell (or was placed) face down in a glacial ditch before he died, probably due to the cold. He was discovered about 5,300 years later by Italian hikers, and today is known as Otzi the Iceman, and is the world's oldest natural human mummy.

En Viager

In 1965, lawyer André-François Raffray bought a house in France under a system called en viager. In this payment plan, the purchaser pays the seller a monthly fee - 2500 francs, in Raffray's case - for as long as the seller survives, after which the house becomes the sole property of the purchaser. As the seller was a 90-year-old woman and Raffray was only 47 at the time, he felt he would most likely be getting the house for below its value. Unfortunately for him, the woman selling the house was Jeanne Calment, who lived to be the oldest woman in recorded history, surviving until the age of 122. Raffray died before she did, after which his wife continued the payments until she also died. In the end, he and his estate paid Calment more than twice the value of the house.

The Parthenon Ruins

The Parthenon, the temple to Athena atop the Acropolis in Athens, would be in much sturdier shape these days if the Ottoman Turks hadn't used it as a gunpowder storehouse. When the Venetians attacked the city in 1687, a mortar round landed inside the landmark, and the resulting explosion blew off the roof and collapsed or decapitated many of the columns.

Miss Me

In World War II, the Allies used unarmed Piper Cub airplanes for reconaissance purposes. In April 1945, one such Piper Cub called Miss Me spotted a Fieseler Storch, a similarly defenseless civilian aircraft used by the Germans for the same purposes. As the Storch was at a lower altitude, the pilot of Miss Me dove furiously on the German aircraft while he and his co-pilot leaned out the windows, firing their Colt .45 sidearms, until the Storch was forced to land. In this way, a Piper Cub was awarded a confirmed 'kill' in World War II aerial combat.

Into the River

Lenny Skutnik, a low-level Washington DC paper pusher, was driving home from work on January 13, 1982, when Air Florida Flight 90 struck the 14th Street Bridge during an ice storm, and quickly began to sink in the freezing Potomac River. Helicopters were using ropes and life preservers to drag the few survivors to shore, but Priscilla Tirado was so disoriented by the cold that she couldn't hold on to the rope. While paramedics and rescue workers followed their training and remained on the shore, Skutnik threw off his coat and boots and lept into the frigid water. By the time he reached Tirado, she was unable to keep herself afloat and her head was underwater; he pulled her out, got her to shore, and saved her life.

Old Hickory

US President Andrew Jackson was leaving a funeral in 1835 when Richard Lawrence, a mentally ill man who believed the government owed him money, stepped up to assassinate the President. Both of Lawrence's flintlock pistols misfired, after which President Jackson proceded to beat the man senseless with his hickory walking stick. The President's bodyguards had to pull him off of the would-be assassin.

The Giraffe

In 1827, Sultan Muhammad Ali of Egypt gifted Charles X of France with a pair of giraffes. The male giraffe died early, but the female - named Zarafa, meaning "lovely one", and source of the word "giraffe" - was shipped from Africa to Marseilles, and then walked up to Paris. As she attracted massive crowds in every town she passed, it was determined that she would cause too much of a riot if she was marched through the capital city during daylight. Sleepy Parisians were therefore surprised in the middle of the night by the sight of Zarafa's head, lazily drifting by their second-story windows in the dead of night, her long purple tongue casually eating the leaves off of Parisian trees.

Links and Sources:
Zarafa, A Giraffe's True Story, From Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris, by Michael Allin, Walker Publishing, 1998.
Painting by Jacques Raymond Brascassat, from the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Beaune, Burgundy, France, collection of J.C. Couval.

Patriotic Lunch

During World War I, anti-German sentiment ran so high in the US that sauerkraut and frankfurters were instead often referred to as 'liberty cabbage' and 'liberty pups'.

The Eyepatches

Pirates wore eyepatches, but not necessarily because they had lost an eye. (Pirates had no more risk of losing an eye than anyone else.) They wore them largely because when they were boarding enemy ships, pirates had to go quickly from fighting in daylight above deck, to fighting in darkness below. Rather than wait for their eyes to readjust (during which time they would likely get skewered), they would quickly move the eyepatch from one eye to the other and, presto, their newly-uncovered eye would already be accustomed to the dark.

The Spartans

Historically, no one was better at the short, sweet, come-and-get-me threat response than the Spartans. At one point, Philip of Macedon sent them a letter saying (to paraphrase) "If I defeat your army, I will make slaves out of your entire people!" The Spartan ruling council sent back a one-word reply: "If."


For a while, I've been posting these little nuggets of history to my Facebook and Google+ pages; I figure a blog is the next place to go. I'll post at least one new one a day, so come on back in your daily Internet rounds and there will always be something new for you. Enjoy!