Saturday, August 03, 2019

THE REAL Macbeth; or Scottish politics in the ninth century.

I admit that the Celts of Scotland were a colorful bunch. They got off to a rough start in 839 A.D. when Viking invaders wiped out most of their nobility. The survivors spent the next century battling with the invaders, raiding their English neighbors to capture horses and slaves, and of course, butchering each other whenever life started to get dull. They were a violent, dirty and rowdy bunch of primitives, but contrary to their popular image, they were not unsophisticated.
Domnall II was the first man referred to as “ri (King of) Alban”, the ancient name for Scotland, and was crowned about 890 Current Era.   Of course people also referred to him as not being in his right mind. He was followed by Constantin mac-Aeda, who ruled until 943 A.D. when his nephew, Mael Coluim mac Domnaill, shipped the old man off to a monastery at sword point. When Constantin died in 954, he was succeeded by his two sons, first by the colorfully named Dub, who was murdered on July 20, 966, probably by his brother, Cinaed, who was king until 995 when he was murdered by his own soldiers.
Cinaed was succeed by Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda the “Glorious”, who died in 1034, and was succeeded by Donnchad mac Crinain, also known as “the man of many sorrows” and as “Duncan, the not feeling well”.
In the spring 1039, the 18 year old Duncan led a raid on the Saxon-English city of Durham, south of the old Roman wall. But Duncan got it backwards; first his cavalry charged the city walls. The Saxon archers easily cut them down. Then Duncan ordered his infantry forward, whereupon the Saxon cavalry burst forth from the city and slaughtered his foot soldiers. The Saxon villagers gathered 3,000 Scottish heads off the battlefield, washed and braided their hair and then mounted the skulls on spikes around the market square, presumably because they lacked bunting.
For some reason Duncan decided to blame this disaster on his most trusted advisor, Mac Bethaad mac Findlach. And come the next spring Duncan  marched his army north, to attack Mac Bethaad’s hill fort outside of Elgin.  There, on 14 August, 1040, young Duncan was caught in an ambush and killed. Duncan’s sons were too young to be kings, and besides Duncan had been such a failure the nobility decided it wouldn’t be worth the effort to wait for the boys to grow up. They were shipped off to exile in the Saxon court of Edward the Confessor, and the tartan-wearers elected themselves a new king.
It is a hard truth about kings that only rich nations can afford the divine right to rule by any inbred moron who happens to float to the surface of the gene pool. Poor nations, - that is to say most nations - have always relied on some form of election to select the best qualified leaders. And Scotland, in the first century of the second millennium, was so poor, that the only saint they had was a cave dwelling hermit named Gervadius, who at night ran along the beach waving a torch. And since Mac Bethaad mac Findlach had engineered that clever ambush, the Scottish nobles put the crown on his head.
Like most people in antiquity, his name told his story. “Mac” in Gaelic means “the son of”, and “Bethaad” means life, so he bore an early Christian nomen. His father, Findláech, had been murdered by his brother’s sons in 1020. Mac Bethaad got revenge in 1032 when he trapped one of his cousins in a manor house along with 50 men and burned it, and them, to cinders. This may be why they nicknamed Mac Bethaad “Ri Deircc”, or the “The Red King”, rather than the usual inspiration for such a nickname, since amongst Celts red hair is almost the default setting.
So Mac Bethaad became the King of Scotland, even though his authority did not extend much beyond Dulim Albean - the northern highlands. This rolling mountainous region, separated from the rest of the British isles by the Great Glen, is actually an extension of the the American Allegheny Mountains. South are the rolling central highlands of Northumbria, settled by the Vikings at this point for three centuries. Beyond that was the Strathclyde, the traditional battleground between Celts, Norsemen and Saxons, extending down to the old Roman wall, built to keep the barbarians away from the green and forested England to the south.
To strengthen his claim to the far northern throne, Mac Bethaad married the widow of Duncan’s predecessor, Coluim, and adopted his son, Lulach. And for almost ten years, while the Saxons and Vikings concentrated on fighting each other, Scotland had a chance to recover. Each year of peace allowed the next generation of warriors to grow a little taller.  But Mac Bethaad, “The red, tall, golden-haired one”, and called the “re-knowned and generous King”,  knew that eventually one of his enemies, foreign or domestic, was going to notice that poor Scotland was still vulnerable. He began to look for allies.
The Viking King of Northumbria, Siward, paid homage to his godfathers back in Norway and Sweden, so that door was closed. The Irish Celts and the Saxon English were both, as likely as not, to be the next invaders. Mac Bethaad did manage to hire some soldiers from the Normans, in France, but he could not afford very many. So in 1049,Mac Bethaad made the long and risky trip to Rome, seeking the support of the Pope. On Easter of 1050, this Scottish Son of Life spread some silver around the capital of the "Prince of Peace", but foolishly gave it to the poor. I’m sure they appreciated the food and firewood, but the gesture of Christian selflessness failed to impress the Cardinals. You should never believe the PR of any large corporation, be it a church, a government, British Petroleum or even Microsoft. In politics, everybody looks out for themselves.
Mac Bethaad’s trip to Rome set off alarm bells in Northumbria and England, and in 1054 the two enemies managed to bury their differences long enough to combine under the titular command of Canmore, meaning the Big Head, who was Duncan’s son. Siward actually led the army, which, on August 4, 1054, on the Feast of the Seven Sleepers, met Mac Bethaad’s forces on Dunsinane Hill, between modern day Perth and Dundee.
The battle was a disaster for Mac Bethaad. He lost some 3,000 men, and all his Norman mercenaries. Siward quickly returned home, as did the English troops, to protect their own provinces from their allies.  But they left Canmore balanced atop the Scottish midlands, while Mac Bethaad retained control of the highlands, raiding and making a pest of himself.
In 1057 Canmore struck again at Mac Bethaad, who was visiting Aberdeen. Mac Bethaad and his bodyguards ran for the Grampian Mountains, 20 miles away. They climbed over the barren windswept Cairnmounth Pass (above), filing sullenly past the 4,000 year old gathering of stones that give this passage its name.
On the other side of the mountain, Mac Bethaad’s party paused to catch their breath outside the tiny village of Lumphanan. And it was here, just after dawn on August 15, 1057, that Canmore’s cavalry fell upon them in ambush, and in this violent shock, Mac Bethaad was killed, and his party scattered. After the fight, Mac Bethaad’s body was dragged to a convenient rock and his head hacked off, to be carried about as proof of his death.
Mac Bethaad’s stepson, Lulach “The Simple”, also known as Lulach “The Foolish”, was named King at his father’s funeral, on the sacred island of Ionia.. Just seven months later, Lulach himself was killed by Canmore, who crowned himself Malcom III. With the death of Mac Bethaad, had come the end of the Highland Scottish Kings.
It was this sad, haunting demise which inspired William Shakespeare, to build his darkest tragedy around, the bloody, relentless tale of Macbeth.
“Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale, Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
Macbeth, Act V, scene v
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Friday, August 02, 2019

REWRITING HISTORY, The Little Lady Who Won the Little Big Horn

I am surprised that most people think the Seventh Cavalry was wiped out at the battle of the Little Big Horn by the Sioux and Cheyenne. In truth, of the 650 officers and white men, scouts and civilians engaged on 25 June, 1876, only some 286 were killed. That was a devastating 44%,  but hardly the entire command.  Most of the men under Major Marcus Reno, second in command at the battle,  made it out alive.  And where Reno was able to hold his command together over three horrible days of combat, the 210 men directly under the command of “General” George Armstrong Custer were dead within three hours of the first shot being fired. But the results for the U.S. Army were even worse in the Second Battle of the Little Big Horn, when, for fifty-seven years, they were mercilessly attacked by a five foot four inch Victorian widow with blue-gray eyes and chestnut hair. Her name was Elizabeth Bacon Custer. And in this engagement she wiped the entire U.S. Army out, leaving no survivors.
Immediately after the battle the knowledgeable military judgments were unanimous. President Grant, who had been elevated to the White House based on his record as a military commander, told a reporter, “I regard Custer’s massacre as a sacrifice of troops brought on by Custer himself,…(which) was wholly unnecessary – wholly unnecessary.” General Philip Sheridan, the man who had lobbied for Custer’s inclusion on the expedition considered the disaster primarily Custer’s fault. “Had the Seventh Cavalry been held together, it would have been able to handle the Indians on the Little Big Horn."
And finally, General Samuel Davis Sturgis (above), overall commander of the seventh (but who was not in the field with them), and whose son, James, had died on the Little Big Horn, was appalled by the suggestion that a monument be dedicated to the memory of “The American Murat”, General Custer. “For God’s sake", urged Sturgis, "let them hide it in some dark valley, or veil it, or put it anywhere the bleeding hearts of the widows, orphans, fathers and mothers of the men so uselessly sacrificed to Custer’s ambition, can never be wrung at the sight of it.” And the vast majority of professional army officers agreed with General Sturgis.
Having dismissed the dead Custer, at first the army also dismissed his 34 year old widow. Barely a month after her husband had died amid the Montana scrub brush, “Libby” Custer was forced to leave her home at  Fort Abraham Lincoln. As a widow Libby had no right to quarters on the post, and so lost the social support of her Army life and friends. Her income was immediately reduced to the widow’s pension of $30 a month. Her total assets were worth barely $8,000, while the claims against Custer’s estate exceeded $13,000. And then, in her hour of need, Libby spied the perfect weapon to be used in defense of herself and her dead spouse.
His name was Frederick Whittaker, and he scratched out a living as a writer of pulp fiction and non-fiction for magazines of the day. A kind reviewer described his work as, “…about the best of its kind”. He had met Custer (above with Libby) during the Civil War, and the General’s death inspired him to write a dramatic eulogy for Galaxy Magazine,  praising the fallen hero. Whittaker also mentioned Custer’s “natural recklessness and vanity”, but Libby was willing to ignore that mistake, and immediately contacted him. Libby provided Whittaker with the couple’s personal letters, access to family and friends, war department correspondence and permission to use large sections from Custer’s own book, “My Life on the Plains” - which Libby had largely written.
What emerged, just six months after Little Big Horn, was “A Complete Life of General George A. Custer”. It was absolute pulp, filled with inaccuracies and excessive praise for Custer, but it was also a best seller. “So fell the brave caviler, the Christian soldier, surrounded by foes, but dying in harness amid the men he loved.” This time there was no hint of faults in Custer. Instead the blame was laid elsewhere. Of Custer, Whittaker wrote; “He could have run like Reno had he wished...It is clear, in the light of Custer’s previous character, that he held on to the last, expecting to be supported, as he had a right to expect. It was only when he clearly saw he had been betrayed, that he resolved to die game, as it was too late to retreat.”
http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/History.Whittaker (Sheldon and Company, New York, 1876).
All but a few professional soldiers were willing to admit in public that Whittaker had gotten it wrong, Custer was not a great Indian fighter. In fact one of the most serious charges laid against Custer before his death was that in December of 1868, at the Battle of the Washita, Custer had deserted a junior commander, Major Elliot, and his 21 men, who were all killed. But those experienced officers withheld their criticism of Whittaker to avoid being forced to also criticize Custer's widow. This was, after all, the Victorian age, and women had to be protected. But  the essential truth about what happened on the Little Big Horn was always been known, to the professionals.
On the hot afternoon of 25 June,  1876, Major Marcus Reno was ordered by Custer to advance into the valley of the Little Big Horn River with three companies, about 120 troopers,  and attack the Indian village. He was also told he would be supported by "the entire outfit". Having not yet seen the Indian village (neither had Custer) Reno had crossed the river and reformed his men in a wooded glade. Then he led  two companies forward, in line abreast with their right flank anchored on the river, and with the third company following in reserve. They rode due  northward, toward the Indian camps. I say "camps" because it turned out  there were at least two. However, as the river curved away, Reno was forced to throw the third company into line as well, to avoid being outflanked on the river side.  Reno now had no reserve, and there was no sign of Custer or the promised support.
The expectation of Custer and Reno was that once confronted, the Sioux and Cheyenne would disperse, and run to escape. This was the way Indians had always reacted to U.S. Army cavalry.  Indian warriors were not soldiers. They were fathers and husbands with families to support  and defend. But three days earlier the Indians had surprised and battered another Army column coming up from the south and forced it to retreat. The Indians thought they were now secure in this camp. They had posted no scouts. And the sudden appearance of Custer with some 650 mounted soldiers, had caught them napping. There was no time to send their women and children to safety. There was no time to save their pony herds, without which they could not hunt. Their backs were against the wall, and confronted, they came swarming out of their camp, desperate to drive off the attackers.
The army had thought there might be 3-500 Indians in the camp. In fact there were closer to 3,000, of which perhaps 1,000 were warriors.  The cavalry was out numbered. And thanks to Custer, they were being out-generaled. And thanks to their single shot carbines, they were even going to be out-gunned.
Confronted by a growing mass of aggressive warriors, Reno ordered his men to halt and form a skirmish line.  Every fourth trooper became a horse-holder, who withdrew fifty yards. The remaining  other three knelt and began firing their carbines. The object was to keep their enemy at least one hundred yards distant. But this also reduced Reno's rifles on the line to less than 100 guns.  Meanwhile, the Indians, armed with less accurate repeating rifles and pistols, as well as bows and arrows, wanted to close to less than 20 yards. Within a few minutes there were an estimated 500 Indians alone in the trees and brush along the river, pouring fire into Reno's open right  flank. One of the men on the skirmish line later said that if they had held that line for a few more minutes, "We would be in that valley, still." And there was still no sign of Custer and the "rest of the outfit", as promised.
Worried he was about to be surrounded, Reno ordered his men to abandon the skirmish line and to fall back into the woods along the Little Big Horn River.  Even though the stream was barely 20 yards wide, Reno's flank would be temporarily secure. He immediately  began to make a new plan. but while Reno was speaking to an Indian scout named Bloody Knife, the man's head virtually exploded from a rifle round.  Reno was coated in the man's brains and blood. The Major lost control of himself. After issuing a dozen contradictory orders, with no warning or planning , Reno's ordered  his men to mount and retreat back across the river. The movement became a wild uncoordinated running fight, splashing through the water and followed by a desperate climb up the steep bluff.
At the top of what came to called Reno Hill, the major finally had a stroke of luck. His desperate men were met by Captain Fredrick Benteen and his 110 men. They had been sent off by Custer hours earlier to search for Indians to the south. They had found nothing, and, having heard nothing from Custer, were returning on Benteen's own initiative,....luckily at this exact moment. Shortly there after, Custer's entire ammunition supply, packed on mules, and guarded by a single company, also arrived at Reno's Hill.  There was still no sign of Custer, or of the 225 men under his command. But with the ammunition packs at least Reno's command could defend themselves
For three days Reno, Benteen and their men, held off Indian snipping and attacks. The wounded suffered under the summer sun, and a few men braved the constant snipping to crawl down to the Little Big Horn for water. (View if LBH valley from Reno Hill). The ordeal came to an end only when another supporting column appeared, from the north. Given a choice of fighting or running, as usual, the Indians retreated. And once they did, Custer's butchered command was discovered, on a rise renamed "Last Stand Hill".
Frederick Whittaker's book, and the public outcry which followed it, attempted to shift blame for the disaster off Custer and lay it in Reno. The criticism mounted day by day. Eventually Reno was forced to ask for, and received a Court of Inquiry (not a Court Martial) on his conduct at Little Big Horn. This cleared his name and revealed the character of the people Whittaker had relied on for his version of the battle. But it made little difference to the general public who declared the inquiry a whitewash. Custer was a hero, the subject of paintings and legends. And that was the way it was, whatever the reality.
Elizabeth Custer went on to support herself comfortably by writing three books; “Tenting on the Plains”,"Following the Guidon” and “Boots and Saddles”. In each her husband was idolized and lionized. In 1901 she managed to squeeze out one more, a children’s book, “The Boy General. Story of the Life of Major-General George A. Custer”: “The true soldier asks no questions; he obeys, and Custer was a true soldier. He gave his life in carrying out the orders of his commanding general… He had trained and exhorted his men and officers to loyalty, and with one exception they stood true to their trust, as was shown by the order in which they fell.”
By the time Libby died, in 1933, at the age of ninety-one, her vision of Little Big Horn was set in the concrete of the printed page. Among the first who had endorsed Libby's view was Edward S. Godfrey, who had been a junior officer at the Little Big Horn and a Custer “fan” from before the battle. His 1892 “Custer’s Last Battle” was unequivocal. “...had Reno made his charge as ordered,…the Hostiles would have been so engaged… that Custer’s approach…would have broken the moral of the warriors….(Reno’s) faltering ...his halting, his falling back to the defense position in the woods...; his conduct up to and during the siege…was not such as to inspire confidence or even respect,…” .” It was absurd, as anyone who had been in the valley with Reno could have told Godfrey. But Godfrey had been with the ammunition train, And he simply refused to listen anyone who even hinted that Custer might in any way have been at fault. When Reno died, there was even doubts raised that he should be buried in a military cemetery. 
These attacks on Reno continued for most of the 20th century. The 1941 movie staring Errol Flynn as Custer displays Libby's view of Reno as well as any tome, echoed even by respected historians such as Robert Utley, who in the 1980’s described Reno as "… a besotted, socially inept mediocrity, (who) commanded little respect in the regiment and was the antithesis of the electric Custer in almost every way.”
So for over a century Marcus Reno was reviled and despised as the coward who did not charge as ordered, instead, pleading weasel-like, that Custer had not supported him as promised. It would not be until Ronald Nichols biography of Reno, “In Custer’s Shadow” (U. of Oklahoma Press, 1999) that Reno would receive a fair hearing.
About this same time the Indian accounts of the fight began to finally be given a serious consideration by white historians, including the story told to photographer Edward Curtis back in 1907 by three of Custer’s Crow Indian scouts. The three (now aging) men said they had watched amazed as Custer stood on the bluffs overlooking Reno’s fight in the valley. This Indian version was supported by some soldiers in the valley fight who reported seeing Custer on the bluffs. (Most historians had always assumed they were imagining things.)
One of the scouts, White Man Runs Him, claimed to have scolded Custer; “Why don’t you cross the river and fight too?” To which, the scouts say, Custer replied, “It is early yet and plenty of time. Let them fight. Our turn will come.”
And it did. But General Custer was not ready for it. And that point must remain undisputed.
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Thursday, August 01, 2019

BIRTH OF THE SAMURAI - Government on the Cheap

I would like to remind you of what happened when the Emperor Kammu decided that the government of Japan had become too expensive. He replaced the educated bureaucrats trained for the job since youth with private contractors who did the work in exchange for a cut in their taxes. The contractors then hired a new bunch of underpaid bureaucrats to actually do the work, and they were called samurai. As was to be expected, eventually the samurai evolved into the masters, and the two most powerful samurai families divided Japan between them; the Taira and the Minamoto. The Minamoto were the puppet masters, marrying their daughters to the powerless Emperors, and pulling the strings. The Taira clan frowned upon such pointless subtly. But between them they had turned the Emperors into expensive house pets. And then in 1180 the competition between the two families broke out into open warfare.
“So, Barzini will move against you first. He'll set up a meeting with someone that you absolutely trust, guaranteeing your safety. And at that meeting, you'll be assassinated.” (Don Corleone, The Godfather”)
The final break came on 21 March, 1180 when Kiyomori Taira had his 2 year old grandson, Antoku, declared Emperor. The godfather of his clan, Kiyomori was described as “arrogant, evil, ruthless" and consumed by his hatred for the Minamoto. But actually many of the lesser samurai families did not trust Kiyomori, either. Sensing an opportunity, Yorimasa Minamoto encouraged Prince Mochihito, who had just been disenfranchised, to call for an uprising to make himself emperor, which he did on 5 May. The Prince also made an appeal to that most Japanese of institutions, the warrior Buddhist monks.  But only those from the temple of Miidera answered his call. And the other samurai families also hesitated. Infuriated, Kiyomori issued a warrant for the rebellious Prince’s arrest and sent an army to take him into custody.
“You're taking this very personal. Tom, this is business and this man is taking it very, very personal.” (Sonny Corleone “The Godfather”)
While the Minamoto clan was gathering, Yorimasa and the Prince fell back on their stronghold around the old Imperial city of Kyoto. They took a stand at the Buddhist temple of Byodoin, on the banks of the river Ujii. To protect their retreat the Miridera monks began tearing apart the bridge over the Ujii as the Taira army advanced, firing flights of arrows to disrupt the work.
This was when a samurai named Tamjima Gochiin stepped forward to defend the bridge, using only his naginata. This was a long thin wooden pole, with a curved blade (usually sharpened bamboo) along one end. As the Taira army fired flights of arrows at Tamjima, he used his naginata to bat the arrows away. He went down in Japanese legend as “Tajima the arrow-cutter”. But still the other monks on the bridge held back.
 “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” (Peter Clemenza. “The Godfather”)
Suddenly one of the monks ran forward and pushed up next to Tajima. He was Jomyo Meishu. According to the legend, “With his naginata he mows down five of the enemy, but with the sixth the naginata snaps asunder…flinging it away, he draws his (sword)…cutting down eight men; but as he brought down the ninth...the blade snapped at the hilt and fell with a splash into the water beneath. Then, seizing his (dagger), which was the only weapon he had left, he plied it as one in a death fury.”
“Fredo, you're my older brother, and I love you. But don't ever take sides with anyone against the Family again. Ever.” (Michael Corleone “The Godfather”)
But the defense of the bridge was being outflanked by mounted Tiara warriors who drove their horses into the river and let them swim to the opposite shore. The Minamoto had few men watching the banks and it took only a handful of Tiara horsemen to undercut the bridge defense. The Minamoto were driven back into the temple. And that was when Yorimasa Minamoto, who had organized the entire rebellion, did something that would change Japanese life for the next 700 years.
“Look how they massacred my boy.” (Don Corleone “The Godfather”).
Faced with the defeat of his army, as the triumphant Tiara were slaughtering monks in the temple’s Phoenix Hall, Yorimasa knelt on a pillow and committed seppuku, literally opening his own belly with a left to right sweep of his sword. His servant then finished the job by immediately removing Yorimasa’s head, thus ending his agony. The servant then tied the head to a rock and threw it into the Ujii River. The Prince was quickly captured and put to death. And that should have put an end to the rebellion. But two things altered the balance.
The first was that Yoritomo Minamoto took over leadership of his defeated family, and secondly the winner, Kiyomori Taira,  took ill and died in the spring of 1181. The new leaders of the Taira family were far weaker. Sensing this, the other samurai families eventually sided with the Minamoto. The war would continue for five long and bloody years and end with the complete destruction of the Taira family line. With Minamoto dominance the government of Japan fell under the absolute control of the samurai. And their ultimate hero became Yorimasa, and his final act of defiance, held up as an example of noble behavior for generations of Japanese.
“Blood is a big expense.” (Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo. (The Godfather”)
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