The Four Chaplains

On this day in 1943 was sunk the SS Dorchester by the German submarine U-223, an example of a fairly regular occurrence in the Atlantic during the Second World War. The Dorchester was a passenger steamship requisitioned for the American war effort and was transporting U.S. troops from New York to Greenland; the whole thing was over very quickly, with the unfortunate result that 674 of the 904 men on board perished. 

Wikipedia.

This episode is famous for the actions of the Four Chaplains, who voluntarily gave up their own life jackets when the supply ran out. They joined arms and said prayers as they went down with the ship. Since that time they have become a symbolic of heroism and self-sacrifice; that two were Protestant, one Catholic, and one Jewish, has become an edifying example of “interfaith in action,” as the postage stamp says. (One could say that this story comes across as propaganda, an attempt at salvaging some inspiration from the usual wartime disaster, but it really happened, and it really is inspiring.)

Links, Various

The Conversation: “How the extinction of ice age mammals may have forced us to invent civilisation”

Why did we take so long to invent civilisation? Modern Homo sapiens first evolved roughly 250,000 to 350,000 years ago. But initial steps towards civilisation – harvesting, then domestication of crop plants – began only around 10,000 years ago, with the first civilisations appearing 6,400 years ago.

For 95% of our species’ history, we didn’t farm, create large settlements or complex political hierarchies. We lived in small, nomadic bands, hunting and gathering. Then, something changed.

We transitioned from hunter-gatherer life to plant harvesting, then cultivation and, finally, cities. Strikingly, this transition happened only after the ice age megafauna – mammoths, giant ground sloths, giant deer and horses – disappeared. The reasons humans began farming still remain unclear, but the disappearance of the animals we depended on for food may have forced our culture to evolve.

New York Times: “Marvin Creamer, a Mariner Who Sailed Like the Ancients, Dies at 104”

It is daunting enough to circumnavigate the Earth with the aid of modern global positioning technology, much less with medieval and Renaissance tools like a mariner’s compass and sextant.

But Professor Creamer, in the grip of an obsession that had held him for years, shunned even those newfangled contrivances, as well as a radio, a clock and a wristwatch.He chose instead to rely on his deep knowledge of the planet and its vagaries, and be guided by nothing more than wind, waves, the sun by day, and the moon and stars by night.

Under cloud-massed skies, he could divine his location from the color and temperature of the water, the presence of particular birds and insects and even, on one occasion, the song of a squeaky hatch.

Skills like these, he long maintained, had let the master mariners of antiquity answer the seafarer’s ever-present, life-or-death question — Where am I? — and in so doing sail safely round the world.

“From everything I’ve read, the ancients didn’t feel uncomfortable out there,” Professor Creamer told The New York Times in 1978. “They didn’t have navigational tools, but they didn’t seem afraid to go to sea. I felt they might have known what they were doing, that they might have made predictable landfalls and having once hit a coast could have returned there.”

Newsmax: “‘Mystery Is Over’ Regarding Lost Colony of Roanoke”

The English colonists who came to what became known as the “Lost Colony” never actually disappeared, according to a new book.

Rather, they went to live with their native friends, the Croatoans of Hatteras, The Virginian-Pilot reports.

“They were never lost,” said author Scott Dawson, who has researched records and dug up artifacts where the colonists lived with the Indians in the 16th century. “It was made up. The mystery is over.”

Dawson’s book, The Lost Colony and Hatteras Island, which was published in June, highlights his research.

We Are the Mighty: “The last shots of the American Civil War were fired in Russia”

Historians don’t talk much about naval action during the Civil War, certainly not as much as they do about the ground combat. If it’s not about a riverboat, the Monitor and the Merrimack, or damning torpedoes, it just doesn’t get the same attention.

The CSS Shenandoah did a lot of things worth talking about.

Her flag was the last Confederate flag to be lowered and she was the ship that took the Civil War to the global stage, looting and burning Union merchant shipping from Africa to India to Russia and back.

She took 38 prizes and more than a thousand prisoners, some of them joining the Confederate ship.

Shenandoah was built by the British. A fast, steam-powered screw ship, the Brits transferred her to a Confederate skeleton crew under Capt. James Waddell off the coast of Africa. From there, Shenandoah terrorized American ships in sea lanes around the Cape of Good Hope, through the Pacific, and into the Bering Sea off Alaska.

At the time, however, Alaska belonged to the Russian Czar. And the Czar was friend to the United States. When Shenandoah began burning American whaling fleets in his territory, the Czar was not at all pleased.

Even after the Civil War was over, Shenandoah continued her Pacific rampage. The skipper just didn’t believe Lee’s surrender ended the war, even when American whaling captains told him so.

Pretty soon, he was the only Confederate still fighting. So he moved to shell the defenseless city of San Francisco. It was on his way to California that he met a British ship who confirmed the news: The Confederacy was gone and the captain and crew of the Shenandoah were going to be tried and hanged.

With every Navy in the world looking for Shenandoah and a hefty bounty on his head, Capt. Waddell disguised the ship, stowed its weaponry, and made a mad dash for Great Britain – the long way around.

Caroline Affair

Reading Robert Bothwell’s Your Country, My Country, I was interested to learn about the Republic of Canada and the SS Caroline, historical details that had previously escaped me. In 1837, Upper Canada (that is, present-day Ontario) was rocked by a rebellion, led by William Lyon Mackenzie and directed against the so-called Family Compact that ran the place. Upper Canada had been set up in conservative reaction to the United States, and so had an established church and a government that was not actually responsible to its people. One did not need to be American to object to this situation, thus Mackenzie’s rebellion; it was unsuccessful, but an inquiry by Lord Durham recommended certain changes to the political situation to forestall future incidents, among them the union of Upper and Lower Canada into a single entity.

(When I first learned about this in grade eight, at my public junior high school, it was pretty clear that Mackenzie was supposed to be the good guy. What a surprise the next year when, playing sports for my private high school against Upper Canada College, I discovered a monument to its cadet corps, which had valiantly helped to defeat the rebels in the Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern. This was one of the many signs that I was now living in a different world.)

Mackenzie, defeated in Toronto, retreated with his men to Navy Island in the Niagara River where they proclaimed an independent “Republic of Canada” and where they were supplied from the American side by sympathizers who sent money, food, and arms to them on the steamboat Caroline. On December 29, 1837, however, Col. Allan MacNab (who was later the premier of the united province of Canada) led a party of militia across the international boundary, seized the Caroline, chased off its crew, set it on fire, and sent it over Niagara Falls! From Wikipedia, here is a depiction of the event by George Tattersall:

Destruction_of_the_Caroline

This was an international incident. President Martin Van Buren protested strongly to London, and in retaliation the next year a group captured and burned the British steamer Sir Robert Peel while in U.S. waters. But the Caroline incident has had a lasting influence: it has been invoked many times since in the justification of “anticipatory self-defense” a.k.a. the preemptive strike, like the one that the United States launched against Iraq in 2003.

Mary Celeste

From History Today:

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The Mary Celeste: ‘A curiosity that has never been satisfied’

The true story behind the much-mythologised ship and its vanished crew.

In 1884, the ‘phenomenally successful’ literary journal Cornhill Magazine published, anonymously, J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement. Purporting to ‘subjoin a few extracts’ from an article that appeared in the Gibraltar Gazette, it began:

In the month of December in the year 1873, the British ship Dei Gratia steered into Gibraltar, having in tow the derelict brigantine Marie Celeste, which had been picked up in latitude 38 degrees 40′, longitude 17 degrees 15′ W. There were several circumstances in connection with the condition and appearance of this abandoned vessel which excited considerable comment at the time, and aroused a curiosity which has never been satisfied.

The Gibraltar Gazette is fictional, Marie a variation on Mary, and the discovery takes place a year late, but otherwise, the above represents a fairly accurate summary of fact: on December 4th, 1872 a small cargo ship carrying 1700 barrels of alcohol bound for Genoa from New York was found by the Dei Gratia adrift in the Atlantic ocean. As is now well known, the Mary Celeste was completely abandoned. Speculation as to what happened to its crew has been a renewable source of debate ever since.

From hereon in, however Jephson’s statement on the fate of the ship and its crew enters the realm of fiction and, arguably, has stayed there ever since. It was the first work to be published in a major publication by Arthur Conan Doyle, most famous as creator of Sherlock Holmes and victim of the Cottingley Fairies hoax. Most writers could only dream of creating such an legacy with their first notable work. Conan Doyle’s sensational solution to the mystery (the culprit is a mutilated stowaway on a cutthroat jihad against all white men) captured public attention to such an extent that the British and American governments were prompted to respond with formal denials and official investigations. In something approaching a self-fullfilling prophecy, the Statement created an interest in the Mary Celeste that has endured, unsatisfied, for well over 100 years becoming a genre in its own right.

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More at the link. Or perhaps not: see the Wikipedia article for more information, including the detail that Dei Gratia was not British, but Canadian.

Henry V’s Holigost

I am trying to cut down on announcing archaeological discoveries (they’re not really “history,” eh?), but I can’t help but to share this one, in this 600th year of Agincourt:

Holigost, the warship that took Henry V’s fight to the French, discovered buried in mud after 600 years

Sarah Knapton, The Telegraph | October 13, 2015

The wreck of Henry V’s warship the Holigost, lost for hundreds of years, has been found deep in the mud of a Hampshire river.

The flagship of the Duke of Bedford was the second of four “great ships” built for Henry’s campaign against the French in the Hundred Years War, and joined the fleet a month after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

Signs of its buried remains were spotted by the historian Ian Friel while studying aerial pictures of a medieval breaker’s yard at Bursledon on the Hamble, where Henry’s flagship, the Grace Dieu, had been found in the 1930s.

A subsequent search through records from the time revealed that the Holigost had indeed been laid up at the site.

Now Historic England, formerly English Heritage, is to launch a detailed archaeological investigation of the warship, which played a crucial role in two battles that broke French naval power and enabled Henry to conquer France in the early 15th century. Over the next few years, archaeologists will use sonar, remote-sensing, drone technology and dendrochronology — the study of tree rings — to learn all they can about the vessel.

“I am utterly delighted that Historic England is assessing the site for protection and undertaking further study,” Dr Friel said. “Further research leading to the rediscovery of the Holigost would be even more important than the identification of the Grace Dieu in the 1930s.

“The Holigost fought in two of the most significant naval battles of the Hundred Years War, battles that opened the way for the English conquest of northern France.”

The Holigost joined the royal fleet on November 17, 1415 and took part in operations between 1416 and 1420.

It served as the flagship of the Duke of Bedford at the battle of Harfleur in 1416, suffering serious damage, and was in the thick of the fighting off the Chef de Caux in 1417. It was also used in missions led by the earls of Devon and Dorset. It had been rebuilt from a large Spanish ship called the Santa Clara that was captured in late 1413 or early 1414, then acquired by the English Crown. The name of the ship is derived from Henry V’s personal devotion to the Holy Trinity.

More at the link.