NOVEMBER 2019

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Friday, November 15, 2019

AVENGING ANGEL Bombing As Terror

I would suggest that Quincy Gillmore (double L’s) was simply frustrated. His mathematical and precise mind recognized that by any logical application of the rules he had won. But the rebels simply refused to admit his victory and surrender the city of  Charleston, birthplace of the American Civil War. Perhaps Gillmore (above) should have remembered the Massachusetts newspaper writer who described secession minded South Carolina as “…too small for a nation and too large for an insane asylum.”
Gillmore had proven the power of his logic at Fort Pulaski (above), whose massive brick walls guarded the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia. Gillmore’s advantage at Fort Pulaski was the Parrot Gun, the invention of the precise and logical mind of Robert Parker Parrott, who ran the West Point Foundry in Cold Spring, New York.
Mr. Parrott’s invention was to rotate a cast-iron cannon barrel while applying a band of hot wrought-iron around the breech (or base end), which would clamp solid as it cooled. 
This band offered additional strength, allowing for larger powder charges and thus increased range. However, Parrott guns tended to explode with overuse. 
But as the sad faced Mr. Parrott (above) explained, “I do not profess to think they are the best gun in the world, but I think they were the best practical thing that could be got at the time.”
Gillmore carefully arraigned his 36 Parrott guns against the rebel fortress and opened a long range fire on 10 April, 1863. The fort surrendered at 2:00 pm on 11 April. Savannah itself still held out, but rebel supply ships and blockade runners could no longer get in.  
With that success Gillmore (above) had been promoted to Major-General of Volunteers, and was ordered to do to Charleston what he had done to Savannah.
On the southern shoulder of Charleston’s inner harbor loomed Fort Sumter, where the Civil War had begun in April of 1861. The Washington Republican newspaper waxed poetic when describing Gillmore's technical attack upon this birthplace of the rebellion. “From well-known mechanical laws, ...the penetration of the 24 pound shot at 3,500 yards…in brickwork, is six inches. The penetration of the 10 inch projectile will therefore be between six and seven feet of the same material…equal to the united blows of 200 sledge hammers weighing 100 lbs each, falling from a height of ten feet and acting upon a drill ten inches in diameter.” It could have been lifted from General Gillmore’s notebooks, and probably was.
By midsummer Gillmore’s Parrott guns had reduced Fort Sumter to “a shapeless and harmless mass of ruin.” Yet Charleston still held out, because defending the outer harbor on Morris Island was Fort Wagner, situated directly astride the channel blockade runners still used to reach Charleston. 
Fort Wagner’s low packed sand and timber walls simply swallowed whole the explosive shells from Gillmore’s Parrotts, and punished the 54th regiment when they tried a direct ground assault (above - from the movie "Glory"). In his frustration Gillmore came to the logical conclusion that the Confederates would surrender when faced with the correct application of the power of his guns.
On the morning of 16 July 1863, Gillmore ordered English born Colonel Edward Wellman Serrell (above) of the engineers to find a spot for a new battery within range of Charleston itself. Col Serrell and an aide spent the day wandering across the salt marshes “…carrying a fourteen foot plank…Where the inundation would not bear them they sat on the plank and pushed it forward between their legs. When the soil appeared stiffer, they carried the plank until they reached the soft mud once more.” (Battles & Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 4, Underwood et al, The Century Co. 1884) 
By evening this method had located a rectangle of more or less solid ground, just big enough for a single gun,  about 8,000 yards from Charleston, at the maximum range of an 8 inch Parrott Naval rifled gun., firing a 200 pound shell. The artillerists named their weapon "The Swamp Angel" - as in an avenging angel. 
It took a month to build a battery (above) among the muck, and on 21 August, 1863  Gillmore sent a note to General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the rebel commander of Charleston, Gillmore warned that if the Confederates did not at once surrender both forts Wagner and Sumter, Charleston would be bombarded with “Greek fire”.  However, the note did not arrive until 10:45 p.m., and General Beauregard had gone to bed. And in any case the note bore no signature. The offended gentlemen of the Confederate headquarters returned the offensive note for signing. The 19th century industrial revolution had just run up against 18th century social graces.
While this farce was being played out, at 1:30 a.m. on 22 August, 1863  the “Swamp Angel” opened fire. 
The exploding shells were loud and frightening. But with so few people on the streets at that hour,  no one was killed.  Worse the reputed  “Greek Fire” shells, failed to start any fires. As the brilliant writer Bruce Catton noted, “This had very little to do with winning the war. It was simply an exorcise in the application of violence.” (Never Call Retreat, p. 215 Washing Square Press, 1965)
The amended note re-arrived at Beauregard’s headquarters at 9:00 the morning of 23 August, and Gustave Toutant Beauregard responded in his best Southern aristocratic outrage. “It would appear, sir, that despairing of reducing these works you now resort to the novel measure of turning your guns against the old men, the women and children, and the hospitals of a sleeping city.” 
In response Gillmore gave the Confederates a truce of 24 hours to evacuate Charleston before the Swamp Angel would continue its bombardment until the city was in ruins. In fact.the Parrott had slid out of position after 16 shots and it would take hours of work to move the 8 ton cannon back into place, on a sturdier platform.
As darkness fell the Angel opened fire again. But this time, as the barrel heated up the shells began to show a nasty tendency to explode in the barrel, and the breech band expanded so that the shells also  started to slide around on the breech. Colonel Serrell wisely had a second lanyard tied to the first, to give his men some distance when they fired the damn thing.  
After another 13 shots, as the Swamp Angel let go her 38th attempt at burning Charleston to the ground, the gun exploded, blowing off the breech band, cracking the breech itself, blowing three feet off the end of the barrel, and landing the cannon atop her own battery (above)). This exercise in the application of violence was finished, for the moment.
Not that Gillmore was about to give up. The methodical bombardment of Fort Wagner had converted that post into an open wound through which the defenders were slowly bleeding to death. And since it was now evident they were no longer protecting Charleston from bombardment, 2 weeks after the Swamp Angel blew up, on 7 September 1863, Beauregard pulled his troops out.
So Fort Wagner, which had resisted a year of bombardment and a night attack by the brave 54th Infantry,  was finally captured. The Parrott guns had reduced Sumter to harmless rubble. And still Charleston resisted. 
And the frustration that drove General Gillmore’s precise and logical mind to accept such violence was shared by much of the nation, who cheered the wonder and the power of Gillmore’s Parrott guns and their punishment of the birthplace of the war.
In far off New York City, Herman Melville, a man who knew something about the dark effects of obsession on the human heart, was inspired to put pen to paper; “There is a coal black Angel, With a thick African lip, And he dwells (like the hunted and harried), In a swamp where the green frogs dip. But his face is against a City, Which is over a bay of the sea, And he breathes with the breath that is blastment, and dooms by a far degree…Who weeps for the woeful City, Let him weep for our guilty kind; Who joys at her wild despairing – Christ, the Forgiver, convert his mind.”
And a century later, Bruce Catton, reviewed the entire bloody affair and wrote, “It would hardly be worth mentioning except that it showed how war had hardened men’s emotions, so that things that would have been horrifying in ordinary times horrified no longer…Good men even rejoiced in it…When good men could talk so they consented to terror.” (ibid. p 217-217)
You can see that what is left of that terror, now mounted on stones in Cadwallader Park in the city of Trenton, New Jersey. 
It has preserved as a memento of one of humanities’ early attempts at a logical application of terror. And, no, it didn't work. And not merely because the weapon failed to endure the effort, Terror, be it flying planes into buildings or mass bombing of cities or even nuclear missiles,  may shock briefly. But it never delivers victory.  Never. Ever.
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Thursday, November 14, 2019

IS THIS TRIP NECESSARY? The Russo-Japaness War of 1905

I feel sorry for Peter Rozhestvenski. In normal circumstances he would have gone down in history as one of the loudest, foulest mouthed sailors in the Imperial Russian Navy, a designation of no small distinction when matched with his nickname of “Mad Dog” and his rank as Admiral of the Baltic Seas Fleet, under the very eye of Tsar Nicolas II in St. Petersburg. But Peter was unfortunate when in February of 1904 the Japanese decided to contest Russia for control of Korea by first sinking the Russian Asian fleet, and then by laying siege to their naval base at Port Arthur in Manchuria - at the very end of the Trans-Siberian railroad.
And then the Tsar chose Peter, aka, Admiral Zinovy Petrovich Rozhestvensky, to play the hero and sail the 56 coal fired ships of the Baltic fleet 18,000 miles to raise the siege.
He certainly looked the part of the hero. As historian Contantin Pleshakov described him in “The Tsar’s Last Armada”, at over six feet, Peter was “Tall, powerfully built, his balding head…hinting at determination and obstinacy… (he was) the embodiment of a savage Russian admiral” “Mad Dog” earned his nickname for his violent temper when faced with what he saw as stupidity or incompetence. 
As Peter led his fleet out of Kronshtadt naval base, 19 miles outside of St. Petersburg,  on Saturday, 15 October 1904,(above) “…Medals and stars glittered on his chest…He stood straight as a ramrod, looking so resolutely at (Tsar) Nicholas, that it seemed as if nothing could stop him.”  Peter explained he mission to his men this way, “We’re now doing what needs to be done, defending the honor of the flag.” 
He said nothing about victory, and perhaps that was just as well. One battleship, the 13,000 ton Oryol, ran aground just trying to get out their home port.
The hurriedly plotted course ran  down the Atlantic Coast of Europe to  the port of Vigo, in Portugal  (above). There, after refueling and resupply,  the fleet would split in two. 
Twenty-five of the newest battleships, which drew too much water to use the Suez Canal,continued south along the African coast. Supplied with coal from the Russian ally, Germany, via the Hamburg-America shipping lines,  they would stop to collect coal in Dakar, Senegal (above), the port of Libreville, Gabon,  at Great Fish and Tiger Bays in Portuguese Angola, then again at the ports of Luderitz and Dar-es-Salaam in German East Africa, before rounding the Cape of Good Hope, and sailing for Nossi bey, Madagascar.  
 At the same time, the 31 older, meaning obsolete, ships, would cross the Mediterranean Sea under the command of Gustavovich von Folkersam, would pass through the Suez Canal and rejoin their comrades in Nossi bey, Madagascar (above) . One fleet again,  the plan was to cross the Indian Ocean, pass through the Sunda Staite, refuel and resupply in the Camram Bay along the French Indo-China coast. and cross  the South China Sea past Taiwan, and into the Yellow Sea to relieve the Russian harbor at Port Arthur,. 
Anyway, that was the plan, and publicly the Russians were supremely confident (above). But to make this voyage Peter Rozhestvensk was leading a fleet normally trapped in port by ice  five months out of every year, a fleet with only a handful of modern Dreadnaughts, and mostly made up of antiquated slugs and "royal toy" yachts, and crewed by 15,000 inexperienced seamen, officered by incompetent, arrogant blue bloods and royal favorites and supplied by embezzling bureaucrats who scrimped on food and ammunition. 
In addition, his most trusted subordinate and second in command,  Admiral von Folkersam, was suffering from an advanced case of cancer, and should have been left at home to die quietly in his own bed.  
On 20 October, 1904, the fleet put in at Cape Skagen, Norway, to re-coal. Over the entire voyage coal was so precious that Peter had none to spare to practice maneuvering with his inexperienced sailors. The nervous untested Russian crews, sailing through unfamiliar waters,  saw Japanese dirigibles in every flock of seagulls and Japanese torpedo boats in every cloud bank. 
On the night of the 22 October, as the fleet crossed the Dogger Bank fishing grounds the drunken captain of the supply ship Kamchatka thought he saw Japanese torpedo boats, and fired flares. In the flickering shadows the fleet found they were surrounded by small dark ships. Every Russian warship opened fire at point blank range.
Peter the “Mad Dog” threw one gunner away from his weapon, demanding, “Have I ordered this? Can you not see a fisherman?!” It took him twelve minutes to get the firing stopped.  By then one English trawler had been sunk, several were damaged and three English fishermen were dead.
Worse, the Russian cruiser Aurora (above) had been hit by five friendly shells. One Russian sailor and an Orthodox priest were killed, another sailor was badly wounded. Without waiting to apologize or explain or help their victims the Russians sailed on. Peter later complained to his wife, “One has to order five times to do the most trivial thing and then to check five times more to see if they have forgotten the order or not…this is a miserable fleet.”
Peter put his miserable fleet in at Vigo, Portugal, where he had to negotiate with the aroused English, who were demanding an investigation, and with the Spanish, who were now reluctant to anger  the British by allowing his warships to take on coal. The London Times complained, “"It is almost inconceivable that any men calling themselves seamen, however frightened they might be, could spend twenty minutes bombarding a fleet of fishing boats without discovering the nature of their target." In truth, the English didn’t know the worst of it. One Russian warship had fired 500 rounds at unarmed, barely moving fishing boats and had hit nothing.
Determined to put the Dogger Bank fiasco behind him, and now shadowed by English war ships, Peter's  fleet sailed on to Tangier, Morocco. But leaving that port, one of the Russian ships dragged her anchor over the city's telegraph cable, cutting off communications to Europe.  Developing a growing reputation as Sad Sacks, half of Peter's fleet headed down the coast of Africa. As some point contact was lost with the Kamchatka. When she rejoined the fleet she reported she had  threatened by 3 Japanese warships but drove them off after firing 300 shells. It later developed the Japanese warships had been a Swedish merchantman, A German fishing trawler and a French schooner.  Luckily, the Kamchatka failed to hit anything.
As the squadron approached the equator, the temperature below decks approached 140 degrees. Sailors began to collapse from heat stroke. And as the fleet moved on to Gabon, discipline began to collapse. The crews were sick, exhausted and frustrated. 
On 25 November, 1904,  fights between civilian workers and seaman broke out during a coaling stop. Three officers were sent back to Russia for court martial after they smuggled nurses aboard their ship. Of course, Peter’s mistress was aboard one of the two hospital ships which accompanied the fleet, but then rank has its privileges.
Meanwhile, after an uneventful passage of Suez, Admiral von Folkersam, in command of the Oslyabaya, and the other older battleships dropped anchor in Nossi bey, Madagascar.  Their sailors could now only wait in the tropical heat for the rest of the fleet to round Africa. 
Wrote an historian, “Each day, black torpedo boats carried out to sea those stricken dead by malaria, typhoid, or their own hand….Those remaining in the harbor suffered (from)…rotten food, cloying heat, and torrential rain. Many had tropical eczema, scratching themselves until they bled….Moss and barnacles grew thick on the ships’ hulls, and sharks circled around the fleet, eager to consume any bad meat thrown overboard….Men got stupefying drunk, (and) gambled,…
(Admiral Gustavovich),  who was reputed to have once punched out a sailor’s teeth for a minor transgression, let the men off easy.  Not only the cancer eating at his body, but the heat and enforced immobility, had destroyed his spirit. He wrote his wife,  “ How can I intimidate men ready to follow me to the death by condemning them to be hanged?”
Rounding the Cape of Good Hope in late December, the Russian war ships were not welcomed in British owned South Africa, and so continued on to the island of Madagascar. However hospital ships were allowed to stop to drop off patients and pick up supplies. And it was one of these, which arrived in Nossie bay in early January of 1905, which brought word that Port Arthur had surrendered to the Japanese.  The Russian Pacific fleet had been sunk at anchor or captured.
There was no fleet to be reinforced and no port to be rescued. While awaiting confirmation, Peter ordered live fire exercises. They were a disaster, with no hits at either moving or stationary targets. What was left of crew morale, collapsed.  On 6 January 1905 the fleet celebrated Orthodox Christmas. On 7 January, Peter was informed he was to wait in Nossie bay  for reinforcements, four  even older and slower battleships dredged from coastguard duty off St. Petersburg. Peter went into his cabin of his flagship and bolted the door. The crew did not see him for weeks.
What brought him out of his funk was a mutiny. On 23 January, 1905 seamen on the Cruiser Admiral Nakhimoff  mutinied, after being forced to eat a reeking yellow substance called Solina, best described as an early failed attempt at inventing Spam. It was amazing they had not mutinied before. 
Men who had never been more than 10 miles out of St. Petersburg,  had been cooped up aboard steel heat traps for six months in the tropics. The humidity was so high their underwear was never dry. The ships were infested with cockroaches that were “eating clothes, boots, and books" and biting the sleeping sailors. And when mail did arrive from Russia the packages from home were filled with warm clothing. After brutally putting down the mutiny, and without waiting to inform the Tsar the Second Pacific Squadron, now the only Pacific squadron, set sail for Indonesia
By now Peter had begun referring to his junior officers by nicknames like “Brainless Nihlist” and “Slutty Old Geezer”.  It took the fleet 28 days to cross the Indian Ocean. the fleet was able to make only 6 knots because of barnacles on the hulls, and had to slow even more 112 times for repairs to various ships. In fits of homesickness men began to throw themselves overboard. They arrived off Sumatra in 3 April,  1905, but did not stop. 
On 12 April,  they reached the coast of French IndoChina, and dropped anchor in the port of Cam Ranh Bay. Awaiting them were orders directly from the Tsar. They were to await the squadron of older battleships, and then sail for Vladivostok.  So while the rot ate away at their spirits, the Russian sailors waited for almost another month.
"With no morale and no hope of making it back to Russia alive, the sailors of the fleet were beyond caring.” On 7 May, 1905, the last squadron of old battleships finally arrived. The fleet was now complete, with 60 ships, but only four or five which could truly defend themselves.  Ten days later the fleet took on their last supply of coal sailed north into the China Sea. And then, on 24 May, 1905 Admiral Folkersam succumbed to his cancer. Admiral Peter Rozhestvensky decided the last thing the fleet need was more bad news, so his body was secretly packed in the cold storage with the meat. 
It was obvious the Russians were going to sail through the Tsugaru Strait between Korea and Honshu, Japan,.  In 1281 a Chinese invasion fleet had crossed this 45 mile wide channel, only to be destroyed by a Kamikaze or “divine wind”; a typhoon. The only remaining question was, would Peter choose the Western Channel or south through the narrower  Tsushima Strait.  Peter did not have the coal to sail around the east coast of Japan, so it was the only choice he could make. Every sailor knew the Japanese were going to be waiting for them somewhere over the horizon. Peter and his crews fully expected a pointless death, but they kept going anyway.
At about 2:45 P.M. on 27 May, 1905 the 90  modern efficient ships of the Japanese fleet crossed the “T” of the 38 exhausted and dispirated ships of the Russian fleet. Doing this allowed the Japanese ships to fire broadside after broadside while the Russians were limited to firing their forward guns only. 
Almost immediately Peter’s flagship was struck and the Admiral took a shell fragment in the head. As he was transferred to a destroyer, Command of the fleet was passed to Vice Admiral Nikokai Ivanovich Nebogatove. 
As Peter lay unconscious aboard the Buinnii through the day and night long battle 21 Russian ships were sunk, and 4, 380 men were drowned. The first to sink was the Oslyabaya, carrying Admiral  Folkersam frozen body to the bottom of the Sea of Japan.
The next day, 28 May  1905,  as the Japanese closed to finish the battle, Admiral Nebogatove chose to end the carnage and surrendered his four battleships and one destroyer, along with almost 7,000 sailors. The Japanese lost three torpedo boats and 117 killed.
The Japanese came out of the battle convinced that modern battleships guaranteed victory. By  ignoring the utter incompetence of their Russian adversary, the Empire of Japan was now set on a course for conquest, which in 40 years would lead to war with America.
After a peace treaty was brokered by Teddy Roosevelt, Peter returned home via the Trans-Siberian Railway. He was court- martial but acquitted, because he had been unconscious when his fleet surrendered. Instead Admiral Nebogatove, and several the the other surviving commanders were sentenced to death by firing squad. 
In many cases, those sentences were later commuted by the Tsar (above) to 10 years hard labor. 
Within 4 years Nebogatove was pardoned, but he had been reduced to poverty.  
 “Mad Dog” Petrovich Rozhestvensky died in his own bed in St. Petersburg, Russia on 14 January, 1909. He was just sixty years old. But, on the bright side, he would have hated the 1917 October Communist Revolution, which he was lucky enough to miss.
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