Tag Archives: Great Britain

This Day in History 6/6: The Normandy Landing

I may have posted on D-Day in the past…I’m not quite sure.  It doesn’t really matter, because the event is still important.

On June 6, 1944, the Allied forces of Great Britain, Canada, free France and the United States began one of the biggest amphibious assaults in American history. In invading the Normandy coast of France, the Allies would begin the first real strike into the heart of German-occupied Western Europe.

The invasion was not flawless. Many of the airborne troops missed their drop points as they parachuted behind enemy lines. German defenses, especially in the American zone, were woefully underestimated. Furthermore, the Allies would be pinned to the peninsula until mid-July, when Cherbourg was secured and a clear path made through to Paris.

Nevertheless, the Normandy invasion was a turning point in world history. For the first time since Napoleon, a hegemonic power invaded another not to conquer, but to liberate. It forced Germany into a two-front war it could not sustain. Finally, it gave the Allies some serious light at the end of a dark, blood-soaked tunnel.

I’ve probably posted it before, but here is the landing scene from Saving Private Ryan. Though not entirely accurate, it gives as sense of the horror and gravity of that fateful June morning.

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This Day in History 5/31: Treaty of Vereeniging ends the Boer War

The end of the Britsh Empire began on May 31, 1902.

On that day, the Treaty of Vereeniging ended the three-year long disaster known as the Boer War.  It began as a dispute over mining rights and sovereignty of the Boer Republics of South Africa, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.  It ended as one of the darkest chapters in British history.

The war was technically “over” in 1900, when the British occupied the Transvaal capital of Pretoria.  However, the remaining Boer commandos of the Orange Free State and the Northern Transvaal continued a war of attrition for another two years.   It would see unspeakable atrocities on both sides.  It would see “scorched-Earth” tactics and concentration camps that would result in the deaths of thousands.  It would also see continued and violent repression, mutilation and torture of the majority African native population–a situation not really rectified until almost a century later.

Finally, the Boer War would see British people start to question the need for a colonial empire.  Though a victory, the war cost thousands of lives and millions of British pounds.  Britons would then start questioning the use of British troops, the entanglement in colonial affairs–even questioning the need for an empire in the first place.

Attached is a nice 5-part synopsis of the Boer War and other African conflicts of the time.  It is very even handed, and its short length is perfect for the classroom.

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This Day in History 5/16: The 1771 Battle of Alamance

Site of the Battle of Alamance at Alamance Bat...

Site of the 1771 Battle of Alamance. Image via Wikipedia

For many years, many people in the Carolinas claimed that the first battle of the American Revolution did not take place on the Lexington Common, but rather in the rugged backcountry of North Carolina.

On May 16, 1771, a group of frontier farmers, known as “Regulators”, fought against the North Carolina colonial militia at Alamance Creek in North Carolina.  Since about 1760, The Regulators had waged a decade-long guerrilla war against the colonial government, claiming unfair taxation and corrupt practices on the part of colonial officials–many of which came from the wealthier tobacco plantations in the east.

The War of the Regulation, as it was called, was not a rebellion against British rule–a fact lost on many Carolinians who claim the Revolution began at the Alamance.  It was, in fact, a rebellion against local colonial government, which was perceived as corrupt, subjective and prejudiced against the poorer backcountry Scots-Irish farmers that flooded the western frontier.  By 1771, the Regulator army swelled to 2000, against the 1000-man militia of governor William Tryon.

The Regulators were confident, if poorly armed.  They had dragged the government into a long conflict it wanted to end quickly.  Yet Tryon’s massed artillery were no match for the frontier army.  After early promise, the relentless cannon overwhelmed the Regulators and the rest fled into the woods.

In a final act of savagery, Tryon ordered the forest burned with the remaining rebels inside.  It was a prelude to his better known act of arson: the 1777-1779 punitive campaigns against coastal Connecticut towns where every town from Greenwich to New Haven was plundered and burned.

Although the Alamance was not the start of the Revolution, it brought to a head many of the conflicts that would spark the bigger rebellion four years later.  Corrupt colonial officials, high taxation, the suppression and disenfranchisement of the poor: all these factors were dealt with in one way or another by all thirteen colonies.

It was in the backcountry of North Carolina, however, where these problems were first brought into sharp, deadly focus.

Attached is a video about the Battle of Alamance.  It gives a good narration of the battle itself and of the Regulator movement itself.

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This Day in History 5/2: Nazis fall in Berlin and Italy

Red Army soldiers at a hotel near the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Thus stars must have aligned perfectly, as the day in which Osama bin Laden was announced dead marks the anniversary of another milestone in the fight against oppression and terror.

On May 2, 1945, the Red Army finally announces the capture of the German capital of Berlin.  With the Soviet flag flying over the Reichstag, the German parliament building, the European theater of World War II was effectively over.

At the same time, in the Italian front, German general Heinrich von Vietinghoff signs the documents of surrender, as German forces give up all of Italy to the Allies.  Benito MussoliniHitler‘s busom buddy, was shot and strung up a few days previously on April 28, and Hitler would meet his own inglorious end on the 30th.

Like Osama bin Laden, their deaths were long overdue.  Furthermore, the world is a better place without them.  Their deaths were met with little saddness: just as today, crowds gathered in London, Times Square, Moscow and other cities to celebrate the end of lives that did far more harm than any good.

My grandmother had a soft spot for Mussolini.  Good thing she’s not around to hear this: Il Duce was as big a piece of crap as Der Fuhrer, Comrade Stalin, and the turbaned maniac we just double-tapped.  We’re a better country–nee, a better planet–without these people.

Good riddance.

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Videos for the Classroom: Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s Wedding; The 2010 Opening of Parliament

C-SPAN link to the State Opening of the UK Parliament 2010

As Wills and Kate get ready to take the big step this Friday, the Neighborhood would like to delve into both fantasy and reality.

Back in 1981, the world gaped in awe as another prince married a young Briton who took the nation by storm.  Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, parents of Prince William, were wed in a “fairy-tale” ceremony in St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Attached is the ABC News coverage of the event.  We all saw how well that turned out.

The second video (both the snippet and the entire video which is linked on C-SPAN) is one of my favorite ceremonies, the State Opening of Parliament in May of 2010.  Since William is angling for the throne in the future, this will be one of his most important state functions.  Most of the ritual involves the monarch officially opening Parliament from the upper house, the House of Lords, an unelected body dating from feudal times.  Yet the most intriguing part of the ceremony is the summoning of the elected House of Commons, or “lower house.”

Watch the ritual closely, as the message is not lost on anyone: you may reign as monarch, but you do not rule this kingdom.  The Commons makes the laws for the realm, no matter what ritual abides.

As for William and Kate Middleton, I understand choosing a different church from your parents.  But Westminster Abbey is like having the wedding near both your birthplace and your tombstone–in this case literally.  The Abbey is traditionally where monarchs are crowned as well as buried: maybe Will and Kate wanted to pick a good spot next to Oscar Wilde (at least then Will can rest easy–I doubt Oscar would make a move).

In any case, the Neighborhood wishes the newlyweds the best of luck in marriage, in producing an heir (hopefully with a minimum of that famous Windsor inbreeding–thanks Kate!), and in hopefully weening the royals off the teat of the welfare checks they get from the British nation.

Let’s see how that last one pans out.

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This Day in History 4/19: The “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”

On April 19, 1775, a group of Massachusetts militiamen converged on the village common of Lexington.  Approaching was a British column heading to Concord to seize the arms and munitions stored there.  As they approached, the British ordered the colonists to disperse.

No one knows for sure who fired, but the next shot would stand out as the “shot heard ’round the world.” It began the American War of Independence, and its effects are still felt throughout the world.

Attached is the School House Rock video for the shots fired at Lexington.  It also gives a succinct synopsis of the war itself.

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Margaret Corbin: The First “Molly Pitcher”

This is a tale about “Molly Pitcher”–and I don’t mean the one that has a rest stop named after her on the New Jersey Turnpike.

In fact, during the Revolutionary War, there were numerous “Molly Pitchers.”

Although many believe “Molly” to be a composite character, there was much truth to the name.  “Molly” was a common nickname for the female wives and companions of soldiers on both sides, known as camp followers.  In order to receive half-rations, camp followers had to prove useful to the troops through cleaning, cooking, and caring for the wounded.

Some “Mollies”, like Mary Ludwig Hays (the most well-known “Molly”) even stepped into battle when their beau had fallen.  This was the case in June 1778, when Hays picked up his husband’s rammer and manned a cannon at the Battle of Monmouth, NJ.

Yet today’s story is not about her, nor her rest stop.  It is about the first woman to be wounded in the Revolution, the first true “Molly Pitcher.” That honor goes to another Pennsylvania housewife named Margaret Corbin.

Margaret Cochran Corbin was born on November 12, 1751 to Scots-Irish immigrants in the rugged frontier of Western Pennsylvania.  During the French and Indian War, a native attack killed her father and took her mother captive, leaving young Margaret into the care of her uncle.  She marries a young Virginia farmer, John Corbin, in 1772, and the story pretty much stays put.  If events didn’t turn, she would be just another housewife along the Pennsylvania wilderness.

Then came news of Lexington and Concord.

John enlisted in a Pennsylvania artillery company, loading and firing cannons.  Margaret came along, and quickly assumed a leadership role amongst the wives in camp, earning the nickname “Captain Molly.” Her booming voice and commanding presence encouraged the women as they cooked, cleaned, mended uniforms, shined boots, and cared for the sick and wounded.

Like most camp followers, Margaret did her work in full view of the marching, drilling and practice fire sessions of her husband’s unit.  Observing each day, the wives became astute at soldiering themselves–a useful tool in the thick of battle.  Margaret would become a “Molly Pitcher” like the other wives, not because they brought water to drink, but because their buckets of water cooled the over-heated cannon barrels during the fighting.

On November 16, 1776, as the British continued their relentless advance north through Manhattan, John was assigned to a cannon crew defending Fort Washington in upper Manhattan from an overlooking ridge, today known as Fort Tryon.  There were only two cannon on the ridge, and only 600 Continental and militia troops to defend the fort against 4000 Hessian mercenaries: brutal German troops hired by the British.

John was killed by a Hessian assault, leaving Margaret to man his cannon.  She quietly witnessed his death and took up her station at the gun.  Ever the astute observer, Margaret fired and fired her weapon exactly as John did on the parade grounds in camp.  She stayed at her post until wounds to her jaw, chest and arm forced her gun silent, wounds that left her disabled for the rest of her life.

The more popular “Molly” merely had her petticoats torn from cannon fire while her hubby was overheated from the sun.  There’s simply no comparison.

The American forces surrendered Fort Washington, and Margaret was taken prisoner by the British who released her on parole as a wounded combatent.  Crippled by injuries that would never fully heal–including the complete loss of use of one arm–Margaret struggled to make ends meet until 1779, when Pennsylvania awarded her $30 to cover her present needs.

Her case was then sent to the Board of War of the Continental Congress, who were impressed by her service, her bravery, and her perseverence due to her wounds.  She received half the monthly pay of a Continental soldier, including a new set of clothes (some say she received cash in lieu of the clothes).  The Congress concluded that:

” As she had the fortitude and virtue enough to supply the place of her husband after his fall in the service of his country, and in the execution of that task received the dangerous wound under which she now labors, the board  can but consider her as entitled to the same grateful return which would be made to a soldier in circumstances equally unfortunate.”

With this act, Margaret Corbin became the first woman to receive a military pension from the United States.

Margaret Corbin remained on the military rolls as a wounded soldier until she finally left the Continental Army in 1783.  Receiving help from both Pennsylvania and the United States for the rest of her life, Margaret died in Highland Falls, New York in 1800 at the age of 48.  According to many records, her neighbors described “Captain Molly” as a rough, disagreeable woman who kept to herself, was drunk and surly to others, and could not keep normal hygiene due to her disabilities, which repulsed the ladies of polite society.  She preferred the company of fellow veterans to the “ladies” of New York.

To be fair, after the life she led, Margaret earned the right to being a snarling, grumpy spinster.

Alone, impoverished, drunk and forgotten, Margaret Corbin was–willfully or not–forgotten for a century and a half.  Corbin’s legacy faded as the legend of her contemporary, Mary Hays (later Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley) grew in popular folklore.  Perhaps this was because Hays stayed married, and remarried after John Hays’ death, ever the dutiful wife.  Her story was more palatable, more “sellable” than that of a widowed invalid who repulsed more genteel elements of society.  In fact, the Hays story would often steal elements from the Corbin story, as historians for centuries would confuse the two “Mollies”, never realizing they were talking about two entirely different people.

In 1926, the Daughters of the American Revolution worked to restore Corbin’s legacy, and give her an honor that Mary Hays could only dream about in her tattered petticoats.

The DAR disinterred Corbin’s remains and reburied them with a special monument at the cemetery behind the Old Cadet Chapel at the United States Military Academy at West Point.  She is one of only two Revolutionary War soldiers buried there.  On her monument is a bronze relief of Margaret, holding her ramrod next to the cannon she tended on that terrible day in 1776.

The American Revolution is littered with stories of important and famous women.  There were many more “Molly Pitchers” whose names were forgotten to history.  Even the more popular Mary Hays deserved recognition for her bravery.

Yet the unvarnished, often distasteful details about a person should not negate their rightful place in history.

Margaret Corbin’s sin was her crippled status.  It made her a pariah, while Mary Hays could bask in relative glory in marriage (though her second marriage was quite violent).  So history decided to make the more marketable Hays the “Molly Pitcher” by which all “Molly Pitchers” are measured.

Yet Margaret Corbin was the genuine article.  She was the original “Molly Pitcher”…

…and she had the battle scars to show for it.

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