Combat diving…yes, that’s a real thing. Navy divers are used in ships maintenance, marine construction and salvage, demolition and mine clearance, and special forces. Army divers may be used in engineering activities such as bridge construction and demolition, and by special forces units. I guess that when I considered combat diving, I thought of underwater battles, and once in a while, that was the case. One case I heard of recently is that of Robert Hughes. Sergeant Hughes served as the Dive NCO for First Force Recon Company during 1967 to 1968. Born September 26, 1951, Hughes grew into a tall muscular man, and that helped him in the performance of his duties. During the Vietnam War, it seems that while divers had jobs to do routinely below the surface of the water, the Vietcong had a tendency to try to sabotage the divers, and that’s when they knew what real combat diving was.
While hunting the Vietcong fighters, it was not uncommon for US troops to observe the Vietnamese flee underwater and never reemerge. It was proof that they had made their escape into one of the countless tunnel entrances located below the water. The US had scuba trained Force Recon Marines, who would comb the river bed looking for bodies, equipment caches, or enemy tunnels. It was during one such mission that Hughes fought the battle that would earn him his reputation.
Hughes had always been called a “gentle giant” by the Marines he served with. Of course, it was his size that earned him the giant part…Hughes towered over many of his peers. He was a gentle man, but all that disappeared when he was engaged in a battle with the VC fighters. Then he became a virtual tiger. On one dive mission, Hughes was given the task of locating an underwater tunnel. He was searching through the murky darkness. As he felt his way along a bank with one hand, Kabar knife ready in the other. He located what appeared to be the tunnel entrance, and suddenly an enemy diver shot out of the hole. A fierce battle ensued. It was a fight for his life. Hughes knew that he had to kill or be killed. Submerged and hampered by limited visibility, Hughes fought to get control of his enemy. Finally, he gained the upper hand. Hughes wrapped his legs around his enemy and pulled him in close. Then he spit out his regulator, lunged forward, and bit into the diver’s throat, ripping it out. The diver released his grip and Hughes finished the fight. This wasn’t the only “kill” to Hughes’ credit, but it was quite possible the most dramatic. Not many people have fought to the death by ripping out the throat of their enemy with their teeth. Hughes was a tiger in battle. One marine who served with him, said, “There was no one I would rather have as security underwater than Sergeant Hughes.” Hughes was an amazing soldier. Sergeant Robert “Gentle Giant” Hughes died on February 14, 1990.
Every new for of weapon or battle plan must have a first time of use. I don’t know if the soldiers or the inventors would be more nervous as this plan unfolded, but my guess is the soldiers, who must place their lives in the hands of the inventor, and pray that he knew what he was doing. The Battle of Crete, also known as Operation Mercury was fought during World War II on May 20, 1941 to May 21, 1941. It was short-lived mostly because of the “firsts” the Allies saw during this battle.
On that day, May 20, 1941, the Nazis began an airborne invasion of the island of Crete. Greek forced were joined by other Allied troops to defend the island. After one day of fighting, the Germans appeared to be losing, as they had suffered heavy casualties. This gave the Allies a feeling of confidence in their victory over the Nazis. Unfortunately that feeling of confidence was a little premature. The next day, the Allies encountered some communication failures, and due to the Allied tactical hesitation, as well as German offensive operations, Maleme Airfield in western Crete fell to the Germans. This enabled the Germans to land reinforcements and overwhelm the defensive positions on the north side of the island. The Allied forces had no choice but to withdrew to the south coast. More than half of them were evacuated by the British Royal Navy, but the remainder surrendered or joined the Cretan resistance. The defense of Crete evolved into a costly naval engagement, and by the end of the campaign the Royal Navy’s eastern Mediterranean strength had been reduced to only two battleships and three cruisers…not enough to defend anything.
So…what made this an operation of firsts? The Battle of Crete was the first time that German paratroops, known as Fallschirmjäger, were used en masse. It was also the first mainly airborne invasion in military history, and the first time the Allies made significant use of intelligence from decrypted German messages from the Enigma machine. It was also the first time German troops encountered mass resistance from a civilian population. Prior to this time the Nazis held enough power over the civilians to force them to comply. These people fought back…for the first time. Due to the number of casualties and the belief that airborne forces no longer had the advantage of surprise, Adolf Hitler became reluctant to authorize further large airborne operations, preferring instead to employ paratroopers as ground troops. In contrast, the Allies were impressed by the potential of paratroopers and started to form airborne-assault and airfield-defense regiments of their own. Major changes in military history, brought about by one battle.
The leaders of wars have long been known for their means of deception. They will try whatever they can to confuse the enemy, and thus make their own troops safer. It all seems like a good idea, until it all goes wrong. Such was the case when, during World War I, the British army decided to disguise a passenger ship…the RMS Carmania into a battleship disguised as another passenger ship…the German SMS Trafalgar.
Now that all seems like a good plan, provided that you don’t run into the real SMS Trafalgar…or someone who knows where the real SMS Trafalgar is at that moment. The plan was working well, and the RMS Carmania/SMS Trafalgar seemed a great success. The only problem was that the Germans had the same idea. They decided to disguise the SMS Trafalgar as the RMS Carmania. It is odd that each side chose the ship that the other had disguised, and when you think about it, it was clearly a recipe for disaster. It was only a matter of time before the two ships would run into each other, each knowing that the other was an imposter, but not knowing that their enemy knew the same thing.
The unavoidable encounter came on September 14, 1914. A fierce battle ensued, and in the end, it was the SMS Trafalgar turned RMS Carmania that would ultimately lose this battle. In all, 51 men were killed and 279 injured from the real SMS Trafalgar, while the real RMS Carmania suffered just 9 losses. The SMS Trafalgar was also lost in the encounter. While the real RMS Carmania suffered repairable damage. The battle and ultimate sinking of the SMS Trafalgar took place off the coast of Brazil. I find it quite ironic that each ship was trying to hide in plain sight, and ended up in a battle with the very ship it was disguised to look like.
I think that anyone who has studied the Civil War, knows that it got started when the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861…officially anyway. Of course, the Civil War was all about slavery, and the North and South could not agree on the issue. As with all wars, there was some posturing before the war actually got started. Each side tries to scare the other into compliance, but sometimes that just doesn’t work out. The strange thing about the Civil War was that the “posturing stage” of the war ended up being a comedy of errors, when an inexperienced gunner accidently discharged his cannon into the fort on March 12, 1861. After the error, in which no one was hurt or killed, thankfully, the Confederates had to row over and apologize for the mistake. That strikes me as really funny, because everyone knew the war was coming, but just not when it would start.
All that “practice” apparently didn’t help either, because when the war actually started, they fired over 3,000 shells at the fort without injuring a single Union soldier. Nevertheless, the men at the fort were apparently intimidated, because they surrendered and a Confederate officer named Roger Pryor rowed out to negotiate the terms. As the discussion progressed, Pryor casually got up, poured himself a glass of whiskey. Probably not the best idea. He downed it in one gulp, before finding out that it was actually a bottle of medical iodine that happened to be nearby. Pryor’s “Three Stooges” moment ended with army doctors frantically pumping his stomach while nervous Union officers wondered how they were going to explain poisoning the negotiator. I can see it all now. The Union doctors were scrambling to save Pryor’s life, all the while thinking that the Confederate soldiers were going to accuse them of trying to murder him. Fortunately, Pryor survived, but the comedy of errors did not end there. In what would become one last screw-up, and to mark the surrender, the Union commander ordered his gunners to fire a salute. Once again, the “training” given was lacking or the soldiers were just careless. The gunners piled cartridges next to their cannons…in a high wind. The resulting explosion killed two of their own men, the only casualties of the siege.
The war had at least one other comedy of errors, this time in Congress. In 1858, tensions between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions were so heated that a huge brawl broke out between at least 30 Congressmen on the House floor. This was not just an argument, it was a brawl, and it only came to an end when Mississippi’s William Barksdale had his wig knocked off. Since Barksdale never admitted to wearing a wig, he quickly snatched it back up and put it on inside out, causing everyone to stop fighting and start laughing instead. Barksdale didn’t think it funny, but I do.
During the Civil War, rail lines were crucial for moving supplies from one place to another. The different sides often tried to waylay the trains, derail the trains, or even destroy the rails. On June 10, 1864, a Confederate cavalry intercepted General Phillip Sheridan’s Union cavalry while they were trying to destroy a rail line near Trevilian Station, Virginia. The ensuing battle lasted two days before the Confederates were finally able to drive off the Union cavalry from the station, with minimal damage to a precious supply line.
After the Confederate victory at the Battle of Cold Harbor in June 1864, in which over 15,000 combined casualties fell during the nearly two-week fight, Union General Ulysses S. Grant dispatched his cavalry commander, General Phillip Sheridan to ride towards Charlottesville and cut the Virginia Central Railroad. The line was supplying Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Lee’s Army was engaged in a life-or-death struggle with Grant’s Army of the Potomac, in the areas of Richmond and Petersburg.
Sheridan turned north to skirt around Richmond and headed toward Charlottesville, which was 60 miles northwest of Richmond. Unfortunately, Sheridan’s move was far from secret, and General Wade Hampton, commander of the Confederate cavalry, set out to intercept the Union cavalry. On the morning of June 11, Union General George Custer’s men attacked Hampton’s supply train near Trevilian Station. Although they scored an initial success, Custer soon found himself almost completely surrounded by the Confederate Cavalry. Custer formed his men into a triangle and made several counterattacks before Sheridan came to his rescue in the late afternoon, taking 500 Southern prisoners in the process.
The struggle continued the next day. With his ammunition running low and his cavalry dangerously far from its supply line, Sheridan eventually withdrew his force and returned to the Army of the Potomac. The Union Cavalry tore up about five miles of rail line, but the damage was relatively light for the high number of casualties. Sheridan lost 735 men compared with nearly 1,000 for Hampton. But the Confederates had driven off the Union cavalry and had kept the damage to railroad to a minimum…not that it would make a difference in the outcome of the Civil War.
Most people have heard of Crazy Horse, the Lakota Sioux Indian who has been memorialized in the Black Hills. Most of us know that Crazy Horse was a great warrior, but I did not know much about his upbringing. Crazy Horse was born on the Republican River about 1845. Crazy Horse was an uncommonly handsome man, and a man of refinement and grace. He was as modest and courteous as Chief Joseph, but unlike Chief Joseph, Crazy Horse was a born warrior, but a gentle warrior, a true brave, who stood for the highest ideal of the Lakota Sioux people. Of course, you would never hear these things from his enemies, but history should probably judge him more by the accounts of those who knew him…his own people.
No matter what Crazy Horse the man was or was thought to be, Crazy Horse, the boy showed great bravery a number of times. In those days, the Sioux prided themselves on the training and development of their sons and daughters, and not a step in that development was overlooked as an excuse to bring the child before the public by giving a feast in its honor. At such times the parents often gave so generously to the needy that they almost impoverished themselves, thus setting an example to the child of self-denial for the general good. His first step alone, the first word spoken, first game killed, the attainment of manhood or womanhood, each was the occasion of a feast and dance in his honor, at which the poor always benefited to the full extent of the parents’ ability. He was carefully brought up according to the tribal customs. I suppose it would have put him in the Indian version of today’s high society.
He was about five years old when the tribe was snowed in one severe winter. They were very short of food, but his father tirelessly hunted for food. The buffalo, their main dependence, were not to be found, but he was out in the storm and cold every day and finally brought in two antelopes. Young Crazy Horse got on his pet pony and rode through the camp, telling the old folks to come to his mother’s teepee for meat. Neither his father nor mother had authorized him to do this, and before they knew it, old men and women were lined up before the teepee home, to receive the meat, in answer to his invitation. As a result, the mother had to distribute nearly all of it, keeping only enough for two meals. On the following day he asked for food. His mother told him that the old folks had taken it all, and added: “Remember, my son, they went home singing praises in your name, not my name or your father’s. You must be brave. You must live up to your reputation.” And so he did.
When he was about twelve he went to look for the ponies with his little brother, whom he loved much, and took a great deal of pains to teach what he had already learned. They came to some wild cherry trees full of ripe fruit. Suddenly, the brothers were startled by the growl and sudden rush of a bear. Young Crazy Horse pushed his brother up into the nearest tree and then jumped upon the back of one of the horses, which was frightened and ran some distance before he could control him. As soon as he could, he turned him about and came back, yelling and swinging his lariat over his head. The bear at first showed fight but finally turned and ran. The old man who told me this story added that young as he was, he had some power, so that even a grizzly did not care to tackle him. I believe it is a fact that a grizzly will dare anything except a bell or a lasso line, so he accidentally hit upon the very thing which would drive him off.
At this period of his life, as was customary with the best young men, he spent much time in prayer and solitude. Just what happened in these days of his fasting in the wilderness and upon the crown of bald buttes, no one will ever know. These things may only be known when one has lived through the battles of life to an honored old age. He was much sought after by his youthful associates, but was noticeably reserved and modest. Yet, in the moment of danger he at once rose above them all…a natural leader! Crazy Horse was a typical Sioux brave, and from the point of view of the white man, an ideal hero.
At the age of sixteen he joined a war party against the Gros Ventres. He was well in the front of the charge, and at once established his bravery by following closely one of the foremost Sioux warriors, by the name of Hump, drawing the enemy’s fire and circling around their advance guard. Suddenly Hump’s horse was shot from under him, and there was a rush of warriors to kill or capture him while he was down. Amidst a shower of arrows Crazy Horse jumped from his pony, helped his friend into his own saddle, sprang up behind him, and carried him off to safety, although they were hotly pursued by the enemy. Thus, in his first battle he associated himself with the wizard of Indian warfare, and Hump, who was then at the height of his own career. Hump pronounced Crazy Horse the coming warrior of the Teton Sioux. He was killed at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in 1877, so that he lived barely thirty-three years.
On this D-Day, a subject I have previously written about, I began to wonder about a different side of the story of this age old battle that everyone has heard of, even if some don’t know what it was all about. My thoughts turned to General Eisenhower. It was he who had the unfortunate task of deciding to attack the Germans who were occupying France, by way of the beaches of Normandy, France. It was he who had to carry the emotional burden of knowing that if the attack was made, he would be sending men to die. I would not have wanted to be in his shoes as he pondered this monumental decision. Nevertheless, someone had to make the decision. Things could not go on as they were. The future of the free world was dependent on the decisions made by this one man.
As families listened to their radio stations on the morning of June 6, 1944, one Valerie Lauder, who was 18 at the time, had graduated from Stephens Junior College that May and was not due at Northwestern University and the Medill School of Journalism until September was among the listeners. Her father was listening too, until he had to go to work. She said that President Roosevelt came on the radio and offered a prayer. Then, she heard General Eisenhower’s recorded reading of the order of the day, the troops in LSTs and transports heard it over loudspeakers. At that point, Val decided that she would really like to meet General Eisenhower, and given her chosen profession as a journalist, she was able to eventually make that happen. In fact, she was not only able to meet General Eisenhower 2½ years later, but was also able to preside at his press conference with the student press club that she had created and the Chicago Daily News sponsored.
She related the scene, “On January 18, 1947, Wearing two battle ribbons on his waist-length “Eisenhower jacket,” the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe stood to my left, facing 165 student editors and photographers from high school and college newspapers throughout the greater Chicago area gathered in the Drake Hotel. Dressed in their Sunday best, pencils poised, notebooks open, they were seated on straight-back chairs set out in rows of 10 on either side of a center aisle. Ike stood at the end of the center aisle, about three feet in front of me. I introduced him.” As Val introduced General Eisenhower, she asked him, “General Eisenhower, what was the greatest decision you had to make during the war?” Eisenhower contemplated her question for a moment, and then answered her in a somber and serious tone about the D-Day landings. “To ensure the success of the Allied landings in Normandy,” he explained, “it was imperative that we prevent the enemy from bringing up reinforcements. All roads and rail lines leading to the areas of fighting on and around the beaches had to be cut or blocked. If reinforcements were allowed to reach the areas of fighting there, in our first, precarious attempts to get a foothold on the continent, the whole operation could be jeopardized. The landings might fail. The success of the landings on the beaches,” Ike said, reaching the end of the first row, starting back, “might well turn on the success of the paratroopers behind the lines.”
Then, on May 30, just six days before the scheduled landings, which were to have been June 5, a trusted aide and personal friend came to him, deeply concerned about the airborne landing. Val later that learned it was British Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who had been assigned to the Allied forces, with the title of Air Commander in Chief, which made him the air commander of the Allied invasion. He was apologetic about how late it was, so close to the jump-off time. But, he’d gone over it, and over it, and over it, and felt it simply would not succeed. The casualties would be too great. He pleaded with Eisenhower. “Casualties to glider troops would be 90% before they ever reached the ground,” he said. “The killed and wounded among the paratroopers would be 75%.” Eisenhower knew that would mean an unbearably high percentage of the 18,000 men who would drop into the darkness over Nazi-occupied France would become casualties. This would also mean that the survivors would be too few in number to succeed in their crucial mission of seizing, and holding the causeways. “The man was absolutely sincere, absolutely convinced it wouldn’t work,” Eisenhower said. “As a highly respected, capable officer, I trusted his judgment. I told him I’d think it over.”
After agonizing over the possible losses, he was still undecided just four days before the planned date. Eisenhower slowing, turned to face the students, he said, “I let the order stand.” With the words, his face seemed to relax. I suppose you would have to decide that you were going to be ok with the decision, or else it would drive you crazy. The students sat in stunned silence. “The airborne boys did their job.” Eisenhower went on with relief almost bordering on elation. “And, I am happy to say, the casualties were only 8%.” Eisenhower was not just a general setting up a battle, but rather a man with a heartfelt concern for the men in the airborne divisions and the men in the landing craft headed for the beaches. As he put it in his book, Crusade in Europe, “It would be difficult to conceive of a more soul-racking problem.” I have to agree. To only lose 8% of the men in that situation, well that is…unbelievable!!
On this day, April 23, 1348, the Most Noble Order of the Garter…the first knighthood of England was founded. This knighthood is only inferior to the Victoria Cross and the George Cross. The honor is always bestowed on its winners on April 23, which is Saint George’s day. Saint George is England’s patron saint. Appointments are awarded at the Sovereign’s pleasure as a personal gift on recipients from the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth realms. Membership of the Order is limited to the Sovereign, the Prince of Wales, and no more than 24 members, or Companions. The order also includes supernumerary knights and ladies.
That made me wonder just exactly what it took to become a knight. It seems that in Medieval times, becoming a knight was something young men trained for from early childhood. Knighthood training was a long and often arduous process. It began with a basic education and good manners and rules of etiquette were taught at home. At the age of seven, young boys were sent away to the castles and homes of wealthy lords or relatives to embark on their knighthood training. From the age of seven to fourteen these young boys were given the role of a Medieval Page. From fourteen to twenty-one these ‘apprentice knights’ were referred to as Squires. The different types and styles of Knighthood training depended on the age and strength of the apprentice knights. Knighthood training was focussed on weapon practice which included enhancing skills in horsemanship, the two-handed sword, battle axe, mace, dagger and lance. Still, it was not all the training that ultimately won the squire to coveted title of knight. A squire had to prove his bravery and skill at battle. Only then, would he become a knight…at the age of twenty-one. He gained the title of knight at a “dubbing” ceremony. All this was a really big deal.
Knighthood, like all tradition has undergone changes over the centuries, and I’m sure most of us know that people like Paul McCartney, Elton John, and Mick Jagger have all been knighted. After researching the requirements of old, I wondered how these men became knights. So, I looked into it, and I came back disappointed. It seems that these men were knighted for their work in music and charity. While these are noteworthy accomplishments, it seems to me that they could find a different type of award for these feats. How can work in music and charity possibly be as award worthy as bravery and skill in battle. That would be like giving the purple heart to someone who wrote a book about someone being injured in a war. I think David Bowie must have agreed with me, because in 2003, he turned down the knighthood offered to him. He was labeled a rebel, and it was thought that he was unimpressed with nobility, but maybe he just didn’t see how he could have earned it. I would agree.
During the Civil War, the fighting was much different than these days…not just in the weapons used, but in a much bigger way. To send men out to battle in the winter was just too risky. Impassable, muddy roads and severe weather impeded active service in the wintertime. In fact, during the Civil War, the soldiers only spent a few days each year in actual combat. The rest of the time was spent getting from one battle to another, and wintering someplace because of bad weather. Even the rainy seasons caused problems, because rain brings muddy roads, and you can’t move heavy cannons on muddy roads. They get stuck. The soldiers tended to have a lot of time on their hands in the winter, and they couldn’t just go home either. In reality, disease caused more soldiers’ deaths than battle did.
The soldiers sometimes kept journals of their time, which is where so much of the information we have about their time, came from. One such soldier was Elisha Hunt Rhodes. The winter months were monotonous for the soldiers. There was really nothing to do, but they needed to be kept in shape and at the ready, so the solution became days spent drilling. I’m sure that the boredom caused tempers to flair at times too, but the down time allowed the soldiers some time to bond and have a little bit of fun, as well. Nevertheless, the main objective for the winter months was to stay warm and busy, because their survival depended on it.
Rhodes was in the Army for four years, and he kept a journal for all of that time. He was a member of the 2nd Rhode Island Rhodes and fought in every battle from the First Bull Run to Appomattox. He rose from the rank of private to the rank of colonel in four years. According to Rhodes, the winter months were pretty quiet for the soldiers. They didn’t fight many battles, and so the months were spent drilling or smoking and sleeping. Some of the troops gambled and others drank or even visited the prostitutes who hung out around the camps. Believe it or not, the soldiers actually welcomed Picket Duty, which is when soldiers are posted on guard ahead of a main force. Pickets included about 40 or 50 men each. Several pickets would form a rough line in front of the main army’s camp. In case of enemy attack, the pickets usually would have time to warn the rest of the force. Picket Duty became a welcome break from the day to day monotony, because in Rhoades words, “One day is much like another at headquarters.”
Rhodes spent most of his winter months in or near Washington DC, giving him more diversions than some soldiers in the Civil War, who were in more remote locations. On one such trip into town came on February 26, 1862, he took the opportunity to hear Senator Henry Wilson from Massachusetts speak on expelling disloyal members of Congress. After listening to the speech, Rhodes and his friend Isaac Cooper attended a fair at a Methodist church and met two young women, who the soldiers escorted home. Like other soldiers, Rhodes welcomed the departure from winter quarters and an end to the monotony. “Our turn has come,” he wrote when his unit began moving south to Richmond, Virginia,in 1864. His winter break was over, and he would find himself back in battle again. Rhodes would survive the Civil War and after a long life, passed away on January 14, 1917 at 75.
Those who have studied the Civil War, or know much about the United States at all, know that the Civil War was won by the Union, but that does not mean that there weren’t battles that they lost. There are very few wars that are lopsided in their battle field victories. One such battle was the Battle of Fredericksburg. On December 11, 1862, Ambrose Burnside, newly placed in command of the Army of the Potomac, planned to cross the Rappahannock River in Virginia with over 120,000 troops. When he finally crossed it, two days later, on December 13, 1862, he confronted 80,000 troops of Robert E Lee’s Confederate Army at Fredericksburg. With 200,000 combatants, this was the largest concentration of troops of any Civil War Battle. It was also one of the battles the Union Army would lose. In a crushing defeat, the Union Army suffered nearly 13,000 casualties, while the Confederate Army only lost 5,000.
People might think that Burnside was not much of a commander, but it should be mentioned that this was the first time he had commanded an army. He was a graduate of West Point, had risen quickly up the ranks, and had seen action in several battles prior to this fateful day. Abraham Lincoln had approached him about taking control of the Union’s Army. He hesitated, partly out of loyalty to the current commander and former classmate, and partly because he was unsure of his own ability. In the end the prior commander’s failure assured that he was on the way out, and rather than have Major General Joseph Hooker, a fierce rival, pass him up, Burnside accepted the commission on November 7, 1862.
Knowing that he had to have the element of surprise, Burnside came up with a plan to confront Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg. He planned to move his forces to the banks of the neighboring Rappahannock River, and then transport his men across by way of hastily assembled pontoon bridges, and surprise the enemy. Lincoln was impressed with the audacity of the plan and approved it, but expressed doubts about its potential for success. Burnside swung into action, reaching the banks of the Rappahannock by November 19, 1862. We will never know if the plan might have succeeded, if some Union generals, including Winfield Scott Hancock, who believed the river could be crossed without the boats, had sent the boats…but instead, they urged Burnside to act without them. Burnside, who believed the river was too swift and deep, refused. They waited a week for the boats…unfortunately, under the watchful eyes of the Confederate scouts.
The element of surprise was gone. When they finally began building the pontoon bridges, the Confederate Army opened fire. Burnside began a massive bombardment of Fredericksburg, in the first shelling of a city in the Civil War. They were able to hold back the Confederate Army long enough to finish the bridges, and then they rushed across the river. Two days later, Burnside ordered his left flank to attack Lee’s right, in the hopes that Lee would have to divert forces to the south of the city, leaving the center and Marye’s Heights vulnerable. For a few hours, it looked like this might actually work. General George Meade broke through “Stonewell” Jackson’s line, but the Union failed to send in enough reinforcements to prevent a successful Confederate counterattack. Lee was able to keep James Longstreet’s men in position at Marye’s Heights, where they decimated Union forces. Burnside lost eight men for every Confederate soldier lost there. Though Burnside briefly considered another assault, the battle was over. The Union had suffered nearly 13,000 casualties while the Confederates lost fewer than 5,000. They needed to regroup before attacking again.
Burnside was an unpopular commander, partly I’m sure, because he felt the need to rush into things without really planning them out. His feelings of inadequacy proved to be his downfall. As he was planning his next attack, some of his leaders went to President Lincoln to voice their concerns. In the end, Lincoln halted the attack. On January 20, 1983, Burnside was ready to go again, but again the pontoon bridges were delayed. The weather didn’t help things either. What had been a dry January turned rainy, and the roads were all but impassible. Troops that had covered 40 miles a day on their way to Fredericksburg now struggled to get further than a mile. For three days, Burnside’s troops continued their disastrous slog on what would become known as the “Mud March,” accompanied most of the way by jeering Confederate forces taunting them from dry land. Five days after his offensive began, it was over…and so was Burnside’s brief, six week stint as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln immediately removed him from command, replacing him with the very person he feared it would be…Joseph Hooker.
Fredericksburg was the low point in the war for the North, but the South was ecstatic. Burnside probably should have stuck to his side career…weaponry design. And that was what he went back to. He retired in 1853 and in 1856 received his first patent for a .54 caliber breech loading firearm. Impressed with the carbine’s performance, the U.S. Army awarded the Bristol Firearm Company in Rhode Island…where Burnside worked…with a $100,000 contract. The order was soon rescinded, however, under shady circumstances. It’s believed that a rival munitions company bribed the army ordinance department to switch suppliers. Burnside’s bad luck continued the next year when a failed bid for a Congressional seat, followed closely by a fire that destroyed the Bristol factory, forced the financially strapped Burnside to sell his patents. Others would reap the rewards when, at the start of the Civil War, demand for his creation soared. By 1865, more than 55,000 carbines had been ordered, and the Burnside had become one of the most popular Union weapons of the war, second only to the Sharp carbine and my ancestor, Christopher Spencer’s Spencer carbine.
Burnside would eventually have a claim to fame, but it would not be for war or weapons. Burnside liked to wear his facial hair in what was an unusual way for the times. He had a bushy beard and moustache along with a clean-shaven chin. These distinctive whiskers were originally dubbed “burnsides,” but later the term would be altered and would become “sideburns.”