Monthly Archives: May 2015

A Difference of Degree: Thoughts on Discimination and Xenophobia

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have been thinking about the recent “Free Speech” demonstration by a bunch of White Supremacist, Neo-Nazi Biker thugs outside a Mosque in Phoenix Arizona last Friday. To me the event seemed to be designed to elicit a violent response, which thankfully due to the efforts of a wide range of people, Christians, Moslems, Jews and others did not happen. Instead the heavily armed thugs, many of who were dressed for combat did not get the blood in the streets that they desired, which they would then blame on the people that they were attempting to provoke to violence.

I will write more about this and other actions like it relatively soon, but today has been busy and I was thinking about something that I wrote last year.

Sadly, this behavior is not without precedent in this country and in Europe and it seems that those who promote it and defend it are either ignorant of history or they do not care. I think that it is a combination of both.
So anyway,

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

Padre Steve's World...Musings of a Progressive Realist in Wonderland

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“The segregation laws in your country and the anti-Semitic laws in mine, are they not just a difference of degree? Herman Goering (Brian Cox) to Captain Gustave Gilbert (Matt Craven) in the Miniseries “Nuremberg

Today a rather short post as I had a rough night sleeping and in the midst of a nightmare screamed and threw a body block into the bookcase that serves as my nightstand. You will be happy to know that though I woke up my wife, my trusty dog slept comfortably through the episode. But I digress….

Tonight I am taking a break from writing about the rise of the Islamic State and our war against it. Instead I am going back to a favorite subject of mine; that of civil rights and liberties. I find it strange that there are a host of people, mostly on the political…

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Saturday Night Special: Deny Liberty to God’s Enemies

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I am so worn out by some that call themselves Christians who seem to me to do their damnedest to ensure that anyone that they deem to be an enemy of God has no rights. This is an older post that I am simply throwing up again with a few edits because I just want to because for me the subject never gets old, especially when almost every single one of the Republican party’s clown car of potential presidential candidates for 2016 use their supposed “Christian” faith as a bludgeon against anyone who would dare criticize them and stand up for those that truthfully they, in their heart of hearts hate, Gays, women, Moslems, progressives, liberals and even little old me. For me this is not a matter of partisan politics at all, but it is a matter of my Christian faith and my belief in the principles of those who founded our country who opposed any form of state entanglement in religion. But I digress…

On to the article…

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

“We think we’ve come so far. Torture of heretics, burning of witches it’s all ancient history. Then – before you can blink an eye – suddenly it threatens to start all over again.” Captain Jean Luc Picard, Star Trek the Next Generation “The Drumhead”

I expect that this article and subject might make some people uncomfortable but it is something that I need to return to yet again. I fear what is happening to our country, and the agenda of the politically motivated Christian Right and its leaders, especially those who are using what is known as Seven Mountains or Dominionist theology to implement laws at local and state level. These laws damage the fabric of society and encourage discrimination in order to solidify the political power of a minority of conservative Christians.

It is interesting that conservative icon Barry Goldwater both warned us and opposed the these people. Goldwater said:

“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.” November, 1994, in John Dean, Conservatives Without Conscience.

Decades before Goldwater,  Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson who prosecuted the major Nazi War Criminals at Nuremberg issued a similar warning:

“[I]n our country are evangelists and zealots of many different political, economic and religious persuasions whose fanatical conviction is that all thought is divinely classified into two kinds — that which is their own and that which is false and dangerous.” — Justice Robert H Jackson, American Communications Assn. v. Douds, 339 US 382, 438; 70 SCt. 674, 704 (1950)

Thus, like Goldwater and Jackson before me, I get very frustrated and tired of the way many leaders of the American Religious Right, that political animal that only thinks of itself, have worked so fervently to poison any sense of unity and community that we might have as Americans regardless of our religious faith, or lack of faith. Back in the 1940’s through the 1970’s that was unity was referred to as “American Civil Religion.” Robert Bellah defined it “at best” as a “genuine apprehension on universal and religious reality as seen in, or as one could almost say, as revealed through the experience of the American people.” (Huntington, Samuel P. Who are We? America’s Great Debate p.103) While I do have a lot of issues with the concept of American Civil Religion, and h0w it has been used to justify some pretty horrible actions undertaken by leaders of this country, as well as some harmful myths as to our system of government and God’s blessing of our actions, even the immoral ones, it did provide some positives in regard to how Americans of different faiths treated each other with respect in the public square. As Huntington noted: “America’s civil religion provides a religious blessing to what Americans feel they have in common.” (Huntington p.104)

In the decades since the United States has undergone a seismic transformation in terms of religious makeup, and while those faith traditions who dominated the religious history of our first two hundred years are still dominant in many ways, they are in decline, especially in terms of the fastest growing segment of the population, those who identify themselves as The Nones those with no religious preference. In response the more conservative and politically minded Christians of the Christian Right have launched a culture war to ensure their dominance in all areas of society. Known as Christian Dominionism, Reconstructionism, or the Seven Mountains theology it is a blatant attempt to legislate a particular type of Christianity as the law of the land. As Gary North, an adviser to Ron and Rand Paul as well as other conservative Christian political leaders wrote:

“We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”

You can see the influence of this theology in many of the state legislatures of what are called Red States where laws specifically intended to solidify conservative Christian dominance of government which allow for legal discrimination against others, by public officials and private businesses are becoming law. Likewise, such legislatures pass laws which crush the ability of local communities to pass non-discrimination ordinances against gays. This has happened in both Arkansas and West Virginia and similar proposals are being put forth in other states.

One of the leading proponents of this theology is Dr. C. Peter Wagner who wrote a number of influential books on evangelism used in many conservative evangelical seminaries and churches. Wagner is credited with beginning what is called the New Apostolic Reformation and taught at Fuller Seminary until his retirement from teaching in 2001. Wagner has written:

“Our theological bedrock is what has been known as Dominion Theology. This means that our divine mandate is to do whatever is necessary, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to retake the dominion of God’s creation which Adam forfeited to Satan in the Garden of Eden. It is nothing less than seeing God’s kingdom coming and His will being done here on earth as it is in heaven.” Letter dated 31 May 2007

I am a Christian, albeit one with many doubts and concerns. I am a Priest and I am a Navy Chaplain, I have grown up and seen this transformation of our society, especially over the last twenty years as a chaplain in both the Army and the Navy, I have concerns in the trends I see but mostly I am concerned about this radical theology that has helped turn faith into a war zone and is destroying the fabric of American life. In fact if you wonder why so many of these “Christians” are doing their best to disenfranchise voters and supporting policies that have turned this country from a republic that functioned on the basis of democracy, to an oligarchy controlled by a few one only has to look to the words of the original Dominionist, the father in law of Gary North, R.J. Rushdooney:

“One faith, one law and one standard of justice did not mean democracy. The heresy of democracy has since then worked havoc in church and state . . . Christianity and democracy are inevitably enemies.” (R.J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law p.100)

That being said, with all the change in the composition of the population of this country I really don’t fear that change. But for the most part I fear these politically minded Christians who are bent on imposing their form of Christianity on the people of this country. There are many reasons for this. Some are more general in the way I see Christians treat others; their own wounded as well as non-believers, the political machinations of pastors and “Christian” special interest groups masquerading as ministries. Wagner once said:

“See, the problem is, is that Satan has had too much of his way in our society because he has a government! And the only way to overthrow a government is with a government. It won’t happen otherwise.”

This is radical, for it is the basis of theocracy. Franklin Graham, son of Billy used words of fear to motivate his base saying at the Liberty Counsel Awakening Conference “But we’re going to lose everything if we don’t win in this next election – and we only have this next election, I think for our voice to be heard.” I think that it is pathetic that Graham has to resort to such fear and loathing in order to galvanize people to fight against the rights of others not to be discriminated against.

These groups have turned the Chaplain Corps into a political football. I once found the chaplain ministry to be the epitome of how ministers of various denominations or religions should be able to work together for the benefit of others. Some of the Chaplains that I served with from across the denominational and religious spectrum helped ingrain a respect and care for others that I would never had received working in a civilian parish. While I can do this with some chaplains even today they are few and far between. The highly politicized environment is destroying the effectiveness and community of the Chaplain Corps. As a result I plan on retiring without seeking a promotion to Captain, which I would be eligible for the promotion boards in 2016. While I may help other priests and ministers in their parishes I have no desire to work in any other form of chaplaincy when I retire.

I have been worn down by all of this and sadly the controversies are now unavoidable. As a result I have experienced a lot of pain, heartache and rejection at the hand of many Christians, some of whom I had counted as close friends, and many of whom are pastors, priests or chaplains. To experience rejection or being shamed by people that you thought were friends is very hard, especially when that at one time you trusted them implicitly to care for you. However to be rejected by those that you trusted “in the name of God, ” or rather because you violated supposedly “correct” doctrinal beliefs about God is frightening.

It seems to me that with many Christians and churches that the “unconditional” love of God that they proclaim not really unconditional. It is totally conditional on believing what they believe or behaving in the way they think that you should.

For those that do not know me or my story I am a career military officer with over 30 years of service between the Army and Navy. I have been a chaplain since 1992 and served in the National Guard, Army Reserve, Active Duty Army and the Navy. I am a trained hospital chaplain; I have a great academic background. I went to Iraq in 2007 and came home with a terrible case of severe chronic PTSD. I still suffer from some anxiety, depression and plenty of insomnia. I find mental health care hard to get in my new assignment and I realize how woefully unprepared that our medical system, military, VA and civilian is to care for that vast numbers of veterans like me.

After Iraq I suffered a collapse of my faith and for close to two years was a practical agnostic. Only my deep sense of call and vocation kept me going and there were times that I wondered if I would be better off dead.

When faith returned through what I call my Christmas miracle it was different. I totally relate to author Anne Rice who said:

“My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn’t understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become.”

I have always questioned a lot that is taught by the church, but after my crisis of faith I really began to see through the bullshit. I began to not only question things my former church taught, but openly stated my convictions about how we treat others as Christians, the equality of people in general and tolerance for those different than us including gays and Moslems who for some Christians are rather low on the scale of those that God might love. As such I openly support the LGBT community, American Moslems and Arabs in general, as well as those who adhere to other non-Christian religions, are agnostic, or even atheist when they are attacked in the media, or by supposedly Christian politicians, preachers and pundits.

After Iraq I was sickened by the crass politicization of conservative American Christianity and many of its leaders. Men and women who advocate war without end, be it real wars against “enemies” of American, or promote a culture war even against other Christians that they do not like or agree with. Of course this is all done in “Jesus name.”

Likewise I question the opulence and materialism of the church. I question the nearly cult like focus and near worship accorded to the Pastor-CEOs of the mega-churches and the television preachers and teachers. I wonder in amazement about how many of these leaders live like royalty and have devoted followers who despite repeated scandals treat them as the voice of God.

Along with the that I question the preference of many American Christian leaders for the rich and their disdain for the poor, the alien and the outcasts among us. This actually comes from baptizing capitalism and objectivist philosophy as Christian and leaving the Gospel behind.

All of that got me thrown out of a church that I had served 14 years a priest and chaplain back in 2010. I thought I had a lot of friends in that church. I still have some that keep in contact with me but after my dismissal most abandoned me. That hurts worse than anything.

In fact when I came home from Iraq in crisis and falling apart the first person who asked about how I was doing with God was not clergy. It was my first shrink. I was asked by a commanding officer after Iraq “where does a chaplain go for help?” I told him “not to other chaplains.” The sad thing is that man who did care about me suffered untreated terrible PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury and committed suicide in January 2014.

I have had a few experiences the past few weeks that have opened that wound again and reminded me of why I am afraid of many that call themselves Christians. I have shared some of those so I will not belabor them here.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:

“Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening.”

That being said I am thankful that I have a number of friends, including a good number of Christians from various backgrounds and some chaplains who have stood by me even if they disagree with my theology, politics or favorite baseball team.

That being said with the exception of such people who have been with me through thick and thin I am mostly terrified of being around conservative Christians.

Church in most cases is a frightening place for me, and the sad fact is that if I were not already a Christian there is little in American Christianity that would ever cause me to be interested in Jesus. I can totally understand why churches are hemorrhaging members, especially young people whose religious preference is “none,” for I too am in some sense an outcast.

I would like to think that we have come so far in our understanding of people, and of civil rights. But as Jean Luc Picard said, it is threatening to happen again.

Pray for me a sinner,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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I Will Fight Them: John Reynolds at Gettysburg

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

This is another part of my Gettysburg text Chapter on John Reynolds. I have divided it up into three sections. The first was the biographic section, the second, published yesterday was about Kate Hewitt, the girl he left behind.  Today is an expanded version of what was the original chapter which focused almost exclusively on Reynolds’s and his actions at Gettysburg on the morning of July 1st 1863.

I hope that you enjoy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

On the night of June 30th Reynolds was awash in reports, some of them conflicting and even though he was without Meade’s course of action for the next day “concluded that Lee’s army was close by and in force.” [1] He spent the night at his headquarters “studying the military situation with Howard and keeping in touch with army headquarters.” [2] Howard noted Reynolds anxiety and “received the impression that Reynolds was depressed.” [3] After Howard’s departure Reynolds took the opportunity to get a few hours of fitful sleep before arising again at 4 a.m. on July 1st.

When morning came, Reynolds was awakened by his aide Major William Riddle with Meade’s order to “advance the First and Eleventh Corps to Gettysburg.” [4] Reynolds studied the order and though he expected no battle that morning, expecting “only moving up to be in supporting distance to Buford” [5] took the prudent and reasonable precautions that his Confederate opponents A.P. Hill and Harry Heth refused to take as they prepared to move on Gettysburg.

His troops were in fine spirits that morning even though it had been busy. After a breakfast of hardtack, pork and coffee the troops moved out. An officer of the Iron Brigade noted that the soldiers of that brigade were “all in the highest spirits” while Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Dawes of the “placed the fifes and drums at the head of the Sixth Wisconsin and ordered the colors unfurled” as the proud veterans marched forward into the sound of the raging battle to the tune of “The Campbell’s are Coming.” [6]

Though Reynolds was not expecting a fight he organized his march in a manner that ensured if one did happen that he was fully prepared. The precautionary measures that he took were those that any prudent commander having knowledge that strong enemy forces were nearby would take. Reynolds certainly took to heart the words of Napoleon who said “A General should say to himself many times a day: If the hostile army were to make its appearance in front, on my right, or on my left, what should I do?” [7]

This was a question that A.P. Hill and Harry Heth seemed not to consider on that warm and muggy July morning when Heth was committing Lee’s army to battle on his own authority. Reynolds was also about to commit the Army of the Potomac to battle, but unlike Heth who had no authority to do so, Reynolds “had at least been delegated the authority for making such a decision” [8] by his army commander George Meade. Though Meade was unaware of what was transpiring in the hills beyond Gettysburg he implicitly trusted the judgement of Reynolds, and Meade been with the advanced elements of Reynold’s wing he too “probably would have endorsed any decision he made.” [9]

Reynolds placed himself with the lead division, that of Wadsworth, and “directed Doubleday to bring up the other divisions and guns of the First Corps and had ordered Howard’s Eleventh Corps up from Emmitsburg.” [10] Reynold’s also understood the urgency of the situation and “wanted all the fighting troops to be up front, so he instructed Howard not to intermingle his supply wagons with his infantry. Similar instructions had been given to Abner Doubleday; to ensure that the First Corps wagons would wait until the Eleventh Corps foot soldiers had passed.” [11]

Instead operating in the normal fashion of rotating units on the march, Reynolds opted to save time. Since Wadsworth’s First Division was further advanced than his other First Corps divisions, Reynolds instructed it to move out first with Cutler’s brigade in the lead followed by the Iron Brigade under Brigadier General Solomon Meredith. In doing so Reynolds countermanded the order of the acting corps commander Doubleday who had ordered Wadsworth’s division to allow the other divisions of First Corps to pass his before advancing. Reynolds told Wadsworth that Doubleday’s order “was a mistake and that I should move on directly.” [12]

He went forward with Wadsworth’s division and gave Doubleday his orders for the coming engagement. Doubleday later recalled that when Reynolds arrived to discuss the situation that Reynolds:

“read to me the various dispatches he had received from Meade and Buford, and told me that he should go at once forward with the leading division – that of Wadsworth – to aid the cavalry. He then instructed me to draw in my pickets, assemble the artillery and the remainder of the corps and join him as soon as possible. Having given me these orders, he rode off at the head of the column, and I never saw him again.” [13]

Reynolds ordered Howard’s Eleventh Corps to follow First Corps and according to Doubleday directed an aid of Howard to have Howard “bring his corps forward at once and form them on Cemetery Hill as a reserve.” [14] Howard received the order and since his troops were ready to move out “no time was lost in setting them in motion.” [15] While some writers believe that Reynolds directed Oliver Howard to prepare Cemetery Hill as a fallback position [16] there is more evidence that points to Howard selecting the that commanding hill himself. [17] Regardless of which is correct the result was that both Reynolds and Howard recognized the importance of the position and took action to secure it.

Likewise Reynolds ordered Sickles’ III Corps to come up from Emmitsburg where that corps had bivouacked the previous night. [18] Sickles had heard the guns in the distance that morning and sent his senior aide, Major Henry Tremain to find Reynolds. Reynolds told Tremain “Tell General Sickles I think he had better come up” but the order left Sickles in a quandary. He recalled “he spend an anxious hour deciding what to do” [19] for he had “been ordered by Meade to hold his position at Emmitsburg” [20] and Sickles sent another rider to Reynolds and awaited the response of his wing commander instead of immediately advancing to battle on 1 July and it would not be until after 3 P.M. that he would send his lead division to Gettysburg.

According to Doubleday Reynolds’s intention was “to fight the enemy as soon as I could meet him.” [21] Reynolds rode forward with some of his staff into the town as the infantry of the First Corps and the Eleventh Corps moved advanced. As they rode through the town Reynolds and his party were met by “a fleeing, badly frightened civilian, who gasped out the news that the cavalry was in a fight.” [22] When he came to the Lutheran Seminary he came across Buford. It was a defining moment of the Civil War, a moment that shaped the battle to come. It has been recounted many times and immortalized on screen in the movie Gettysburg, a time “when the entire battle would come down to a matter of minutes getting one place to another.” [23]

As the rough and tumble Kentuckian, Buford, and Reynolds, the dashing Pennsylvanian, discussed the situation they had to know that odd that they were facing. With close to 32,000 rebels from the four divisions of Hill’s and Ewell’s corps closing in from the west and the north and with only about 18,000 men of First Corps, Eleventh Corps and Buford’s cavalry division to meet them, the odds were not in his favor, but unlike other battles that the army of the Potomac faced, this time the army and its commanders were determined not to lose the battle and not to retreat and for the first time John Reynolds “led the advance” and for the first time in the war “might have some say about fighting.” [24]

Reynolds and Buford committed their eighteen thousand men against Lee’s thirty-two thousand in a meeting engagement that develop into a battle that would decide the outcome of Lee’s invasion. Likewise it was a battle for the very existence of the Union. Abner Doubleday noted the incontestable and eternal significance of the encounter to which Buford and Reynolds were committing the Army of the Potomac on July 1st 1863:

“The two armies about to contest on the perilous ridges of Gettysburg the possession of the Northern States, and the ultimate triumph of freedom or slavery….” [25]

Even though they understood that they were outmanned and outgunned by the advancing Confederates, both Buford and Reynolds knew that this was where the battle must be waged. It was here on this spot, for the ground gave them an advantage that they would not have elsewhere; but only if they could hold on long enough for the rest of the army to arrive. As Alan Nolan wrote: “this Pennsylvania ground – was defensible, and behind it, through the town, loomed Cemetery Hill, another natural point of defense if the battle at Seminary Ridge went against the Federals.” [26]

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Reynolds vs. Heth July 1st

When John Buford saw Reynolds infantry advancing as the Confederates increased the pressure on his outnumbered cavalry, he remarked to a staff member “now we can hold this place.” [27] Buford was not mistaken, when Reynolds rode up to the scene of the battle on Seminary Ridge he greeted Buford, who was in the cupola of the seminary. He called out “What’s the matter John?” to which Buford replied “The devil’s to pay” before he came down to discuss the tactical situation with Reynolds. [28] Buford explained the situation noting that “I have come upon some regiments of infantry…they are in the woods…and I am unable to dislodge them.” [29]

Reynolds needed no other convincing. He asked Buford if he could hold and quickly sent off a number of messages. One officer wrote: “The Genl ordered Genl Buford to hold the enemy in check as long as possible, to keep them from getting into town and at the same time sent orders to Genl Sickles…& Genl Howard to come as fast as possible.” [30] Additionally, Reynolds sent a message to Meade stating: “The enemy are advancing in strong force. I fear they will get to the heights beyond the own before I can. I will fight them inch by inch, and if driven into the town, I will barricade the streets and hold them back as long as possible.” [31] He directed Major Weld of his staff to take it to Meade with all haste as Weld recalled: “with the greatest speed I could, no matter if I killed my horse.” [32] When Meade received the report he was concerned, but with great confidence in Reynolds’s ability he remarked “Good!…That is just like Reynolds; he will hold on to the bitter end.[33]

After dictating his instructions and sending off his messengers, Reynolds then did what no senior Confederate commander did during the entirety of the battle, he rode back and took personal charge of the movements of his troops to hurry them forward. Unlike Heth who so badly misjudged the tactical situation, he had taken note of the ground and recognized from Buford’s reports that “the Confederates were marching only on that single road and thus would not be able to push their forces to the front any faster than Reynolds could reach the battlefield with his First Corps divisions.” [34] It was a key observation on his part which again allowed him to make appropriate decisions as to how he shaped the battle.

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Reynolds leadership at this point might be considered reckless by the standards of our day when senior commanders control battles from miles away with the help of real time intelligence and reporting, including live video feeds, or even the standards of the Second World War. But then in the Civil War a commander in combat could only really control the actions of troops that he could see and because of the time that it took to get messages to subordinate commanders, and the real possibility that verbal orders could be badly misinterpreted in the heat of battle.

Reynolds exercised command directing infantry formations into battle and assisting his artillery battery commanders in the placement of their guns. This was far different than the way that most senior Confederate leaders, including Lee, Longstreet, Hill and Ewell directed their units during the battle of Gettysburg. But such action such action was in keeping with Reynolds’s character, especially in the defense of his home state. Reynolds’ philosophy of command regarding volunteer troops was that they “were better led than driven” [35] and as such he led from the front and Abner Doubleday noted that Reynolds was “inflamed by at seeing the devastation of his native state, was most desirous of getting at the enemy as soon as possible.” [36]

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“For God’s Sake Forward!” McPherson’s Ridge

John Reynolds recognized that time was of the essence if his forces were to hold the ground west of the town selected a shortcut around the town for First Corps. Those forces were directed across the fields near the Condori farm toward the back side of Seminary Ridge, with Reynolds’ staff helping to remove fences to speed the advance. [37] It was not an easy advance as the troops had to move across the farm fields at an oblique and have to “double-quick for a mile and a quarter in the thick humidity just to reach the seminary.” [38] One member of the corps recalled “I never saw men more willing to fight than they were at Gettysburg.” [39]

Recognizing that “after two full hours of fighting, Buford’s troopers” fighting on McPherson’s Ridge, were “at the limits of their endurance,” Reynolds ordered Wadsworth’s brigades “to bolster the cavalry and oppose the rebel infantry coming at them.” [40]

As troops arrived Reynolds directed them into position. He directed the artillery of Captain James Hall’s 2nd Maine Battery to McPherson’s Ridge instructing Hall “I desire you to damage their artillery to the greatest possible extent, and to keep their fire from our infantry until they are deployed….” [41]

The leading infantry of First Corps was Major General James Wadsworth’s understrength division containing just two brigades, just over 3000 soldiers, its losses from Chancellorsville not being made good and as the result of the loss of regiments discharged because their enlistments had expired. [42] Wadsworth was not a professional soldier, but like many generals on both sides was a political general who despite his lack of military experience was a natural leader of men. Wadsworth was “a vigorous white-haired old man who had been a well-to-do gentleman farmer in New York State before the war” [43] and he “had interrupted his service in the war to run for and lose his state’s governorship the preceding fall.” [44] He ran against the anti-war, anti-administration and frequently pro-Southern Copperhead Horatio Seymour, but he did not leave the army in order return to the state to mount a personal campaign “on the ground that it did not befit a soldier.” [45]

“What the gray haired general lacked in experience and skill, he compensated with a fighting spirit.” [46] Oliver Howard of Eleventh Corps said that Wadsworth was “always generous and a natural soldier” [47] and while Wadsworth was no professional but he performed admirably on July 1st 1863. Wadsworth was beloved by his men because he demonstrated true concern and care for their living conditions and training and on that morning Wadsworth was commanding his division leading it into action with “an old Revolutionary War saber in his hand.” [48] The gallant Wadsworth would be mortally wounded ten months later leading a division of Gouverneur Warren’s Fifth Corps in the opening engagements of the Wilderness. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles noted in his diary when Wadsworth died that Wadsworth “should, by right and fair-dealing, have been at this moment Governor of New York…No purer or single-minded patriot than Wadsworth has shown himself in this war. He left home and comforts and wealth to fight the battles of the Union.” [49]

With their gallant commander at their head the division may not have had much in force in the way of numbers, but the units of the division were “good ones,” composed of hardened combat veterans that went into battle with an eye to victory. In the van was Brigadier General Zylander Cutler’s brigade of New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians, the “celebrated Bucktails.” [50] When they were mustered into service the soldiers of the 13th Pennsylvania had adopted a “bucktail” attached to their service caps as a distinctive insignia, a practice that spread to other regiments of the brigade and for which the brigade became known throughout the army.

Cutler had spent much of his early life in Maine working in a number of fields and businesses. He made a fortune several times and lost it, first when his mill burned down, but he rebuilt his businesses and diversified and “as a leading businessman, Cutler was elected to the Maine senate, college trusteeships and a railroad directorship, but he was financially ruined by the panic of 1866 and moved to Milwaukee to start his career over again.” [51] The tough-minded Cutler had some previous military experience fighting Indians as a member of the Maine militia and was made Colonel of the 6th Wisconsin. Cutler was described by one of his soldiers as “being as “rugged as a wolf” and was “a tenacious fighter, a trait that endeared him to the tough-minded Gibbon.” [52] After Antietam Gibbon recommended Cutler for promotion to Brigadier General and command of the Iron Brigade, but Cutler had been wounded at the bloody Battle of Brawner’s Farm and Solomon Meredith gained a promotion and command of that celebrated brigade. However, in on November 29th 1862 having recuperated from his wounds Cutler was promoted to brigadier general and received command of his Bucktails in March of 1863. The brigade saw only minor action at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg would be the fierce brigadier’s first chance since being wounded to command in combat.

This fine brigade was followed by Brigadier General Solomon Meredith’s “Iron Brigade” composed of westerners in their distinctive black “Jefferson Davis” or “Hardie” hats. The brigade had been initially commanded by Major General John Gibbon, now commanding a division in Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps. Gibbon turned the brigade into one of the finest in the army. At the Battle of Turner’s Gap on South Mountain during the Antietam campaign, the brigade earned its name.

After that bloody battle George McClellan exclaimed “They must be made of Iron!” and Hooker replied, “By the Eternal, they are iron! If you had seen them at Bull Run as I did, you would know them to be iron.” [53] In the fierce battle at South Mountain the brigade had lost over a quarter of its strength, but had gained a share of immortality among the ranks of the United States Army. “The Western soldiers immediately seized on this as their title, and the reputation of the brigade and its new name were soon broadcast around Federal campfires.” [54] The regiments of the brigade rivalled many Regular Army units in effectiveness and discipline and “the black hats became their trademark.” [55] Often committed to the fiercest battles the brigade had been decimated, but now along with the Bucktails it advanced up down Seminary Ridge and up the back side of McPherson’s Ridge. A member of an artillery battery who saw the Bucktails and the Iron Brigade advance recalled:

“No one…will ever again see those two brigades of Wadsworth’s Division – Cutler’s and the Iron Brigade – file by as they did that morning. The little creek made a depression in the road, with a gentle ascent on either side, so that from our point of view the column, as it came down the slope and up the other, had the effect of huge blue billows of men topped with a spray of shining steel, and the whole spectacle was calculated to give nerve to a man who never had one before.[56]

Reynolds directed Cutler’s Bucktails to proceed north of the Cashtown Pike and then “called the Iron Brigade into action on the south side” [57] leading the hearty Westerners himself. Reynolds directed then Wadsworth to take change of the action on the north side of the road while he looked after the left. [58] When Reynolds made that decision he made another. He ordered the 6th Wisconsin of the Iron Brigade into reserve, leaving the Iron Brigade a regiment short but giving him the advantage of having a ready reserve which “permitted them to take full advantage of their interior lines, shift their strength about, and apply it where most needed.” [59]

At about 10:30 the 2nd Wisconsin advanced into the woods Reynolds urged them forward: “Forward men, for God’s sake and drive those fellows out of those woods….” [60] As he looked around toward the seminary to see the progress of reinforcements, Reynolds was struck in the back of the neck by a bullet and fell dead. “Had it come a short time earlier, Reynolds’s death might have thrown the I Corps into fatal confusion.” [61] But Doubleday, who command now fell was up to the task on that sultry July morning.

MenBrooklyn

Cutler’s brigade moved north and engaged Davis’ men near the railroad cut. Here the Cutler’s line was “hardly formed when it was struck by Davis’s Confederate brigade on its front and right flank.” [62] His troops were heavily outnumbered by the advancing Confederates and Davis’ troops initially had the upper hand. In a savage fight they inflicted massive casualties on Cutler’s regiments which outnumbered and being flanked were ordered to withdraw by Wadsworth in order to save them, with the exception of one regiment, the 147th New York nicknamed the Ploughboys which “did not get the order” [63] and though isolated held its ground, “with the support of a fresh six-gun battery whose gunners simply refused to quit.” [64] This was the 2nd Maine Battery under the command of Captain James Hall. Though caught in a cross fire of Rebel artillery and assailed by skirmishers Hall’s artillerymen gamely continued the fight withdrawing by sections, “fighting a close canister range and suffering severely.” [65] The New Yorkers and Hall’s battery battled the Mississippians and the “Ploughboys fell “like autumn leaves; the air was full of lead.” [66]

railroad_cut

The inexperienced Davis and his green troops were buoyed by this “gratifying local success” [67] and attempted to exploit it. At this point the Confederates were fatigued by the long march and the fighting and the troops of the 2nd Mississippi and 55th North Carolina “were all jumbled together without regiment or company.” [68] Davis attempted to use the unfinished railroad cut “as cover for getting on the enemy’s flank without exposure.[69] It was a decision that Davis lived to regret. As his troops his units crowed into it, the two regiments of Cutler’s brigade south of the turnpike, the 14th Brooklyn and the 95th New York turned to meet them and were joined by the reserve regiment of the Iron Brigade, the 6nd Wisconsin under Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Dawes. Dawes ordered an immediate advance and called out to Major Edward Pye of the 95th “Let’s go for them Major.” The 6th Wisconsin and the New Yorkers took the Confederates in the flank with enfilade fire, “it was like shooting fish in a barrel.” [70] Dawes’ men slaughtered many of those unfortunate soldiers, and the battle soon became a hand to hand struggle as North Carolinians and Mississippians struggled with the Wisconsin men and New Yorkers.

fightforthecolors2la

The melee in and around the cut did not last long:

“for the Confederates were unable to resist their attackers….From the brow of the cut Dawes shouted down to the Confederates below him: “Where is the colonel of this regiment?” A Confederate field officer heard him and replied, “Who are you?” Dawes answered, “I command this regiment. Surrender or I will fire.” [71] Dawes’s men took over 200 prisoners, [72] and the battle flag of the 2nd Mississippi. [73]

The charge had last but minutes yet had shattered Joe Davis’s brigade. Davis was wholly unprepared for this reverse and signaled his forces to pull back convinced that “a heavy force was…moving rapidly to our right.” [74] However, the cost to the 6th Wisconsin was great, “Dawes estimated that 160 men of the 6th fell, not including the brigade guard, whose casualties he did not know.” [75]

Brigadier General Solomon Meredith’s Iron Brigade, which had been brought forward by Doubleday hit Archer’s brigade in the front in the woods on McPherson’s Ridge. Meredith was an unmarried North Carolina Quaker who had moved to Indiana in 1840 owning little more than the clothes that he was wearing. He became a farmer but found politics more to his liking and was elected as a county sheriff and to the state legislature. When the war came he was serving as the Clerk of Wayne County. Meredith, like so many volunteer officers on both sides owed much of his advancement in the army to his political connections. In Meredith’s case this was to Meredith’s friend Governor Oliver Morton. Critics of Meredith decried his appointment as Colonel of the 19th Indiana as “a damnable swindle.” [76] Yet Meredith commanded the regiment effectively and received command of the brigade in November 1862. John Gibbon, the regular officer who initially commanded the brigade was critical of Meredith’s appointment but the soldiers appreciated their kind, six-foot seven-inch tall commander who they affectionately knew as “Long Sol.” But despite the carping of his political enemies and the opposition of Gibbon, Meredith like so many others like him who, “extroverted and ambitious by nature, accustomed to asserting themselves, these men did the best that they could, for themselves and their responsibilities, and they somehow sufficed” [77] though they had no formal military training or experience.

As the Iron Brigade advanced toward McPherson’s Ridge and engaged the enemy, Doubleday “urged the men…to hold it all hazards.” Doubleday later wrote that the troops of the brigade, “full of enthusiasm and the memory of their past achievements they said to me proudly, “If we can’t hold it, where will you find men who can?” [78]

Animated by the leadership of Reynolds and now Doubleday they “rushed to the charge, struck successive heavy blows, outflanked and turned the enemy’s right, captured General Archer and a large portion of his brigade, and pursued the remainder across Willoughby Run.” [79] The effect was dramatic as the Iron Brigade overwhelmed Archer’s brigade, whose soldiers now realized they were facing “the first team.” Members of the Iron Brigade recalling the voices of Confederate soldiers exclaiming “Here are those damned black-hat fellers again…’Taint no militia-that’s the Army of the Potomac.” [80] As they attempted to withdraw they piled up at a fence near Willoughby Run and were hit in the flank by “a Michigan regiment that had worked its way around through the woods to the south.” [81] Archer’s Confederates were unable to resist the assault of the Iron Brigade, “Some fled; others threw down their arms and trembling asked where they should go, while others simply dropped their rifles and ducked through the Union formations to the Union rear.” [82]

As for their commander, Archer the ignominy only got worse. “A muscular Irish private in the 2nd Wisconsin ran forward and seized General Archer bodily and made a prisoner of him.” [83] Coddington wrote: “It was a bad moment for the Army of Northern Virginia, and Archer gained the unenviable distinction of being the first of its general officers to be captured after Lee took command.” [84] Doubleday, who knew Archer from the old army, wrote of meeting Archer after that very angry general after had been taken prisoner and roughed up by the aforementioned Private Maloney. Doubleday greeted his old comrade saying: “Archer! I’m glad to see you,” and reached out his hand to greet his friend, to which Archer replied “Well, I’m not glad to see you by a damn sight” and refused to shake Doubleday’s hand. [85]

With the Archer’s brigade whipped and Davis’s in flight Solomon Meredith pulled back the brigade and “was reforming his lines when a shell exploded near him.” [86] Meredith’s horse was killed and fell on him and the tall general was struck in the head by a shell fragment which fractured his skull and rendered him hors d ’combat for the rest of the battle.

Contrary to the reports of many of the Confederates involved, stating that they were outnumbered, some of which have achieved nearly mythic status in some accounts of the battle, the forces engaged were relatively evenly matched. [87] Clifford Dowdey says that the Iron Brigade “heavily outnumbered the one brigade they met. Archer’s….” [88] Such accounts are usually based on the reports of Heth and other confederate commanders. Heth in his after action report wrote that “Archer, encountered heavy masses in his front, and his gallant little brigade, after being almost surrounded by overwhelming forces in front and on both flanks, was forced back….” [89]

However, such was not the case. The reason for this repulse was not that the Union forces had “overwhelming forces” or “greatly superior numbers.” Instead the Archer’s brigade and the Iron Brigade were fairly evenly matched with Archer having about 1,130 men and the Iron Brigade 1,400 while Davis outnumbered Cutler nearly two to one having between 2,400 and 2,600 men in the battle to Cutler’s 1,300. [90]

Following the repulse of Archer and Davis’s brigades by Reynolds’s First Corps, Heth withdrew his badly mauled brigades back to Herr’s Ridge in order to reform them and bring up the brigades of Brockenbrough and Pettigrew before he could resume his attack. In his next assault he would also be supported by Pender’s fresh division which was now coming up.

Coddington notes that the outcome of the opening engagement came down to leadership and “the superior tactical skills of the Northern generals,” who “created a reserve force” with one regiment of the Iron Brigade which “permitted them to take full advantage of their interior lines, shift their strength about, and apply it where most needed.” [91] It was a “calculated risk,” for it assumed that the depleted Iron Brigade could handle Archer’s brigade effectively with only four of their five assigned regiments. [92] Again, even with the loss of Reynolds it was a case of Harry Heth being out-generaled, this time by Abner Doubleday. Heth “had not exercised the close field command by means of which Doubleday had won the brief, furious action.” [93]

death of reynolds

The Death of Reynolds

Reynolds was dead, but the series of command decisions reached by Reynolds under the pressure of a meeting engagement “where neither side held an immediate advantage” [94] were critical to the army. Likewise, because he had effectively communicated his intent to his subordinate commanders they were able to continue the fight despite his death, and his superiors and successors were able to effectively continue the battle that he had initiated. When he went into action he had “barely a third of his corps available, and confronting a force of unknown size, he had put himself at the head of his troops to lead them in a vigorous attack.” [95]

Though shaken by Reynolds’ loss, the Union troops fought on at McPherson and Seminary Ridge under the command of Doubleday until the assault of Ewell on their left and the arrival of Pender’s fresh division forced them from their positions. However Reynolds’s death was a major blow for the Federal forces for it “removed from the equation the one person with enough vision and sense of purpose to manage this battle.” [96] Despite this Reynolds, by pushing forward with his troops on McPherson’s Ridge ensured that Howard was able to secure Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge, without which Gettysburg would have been lost.

The contrast between Reynolds and his opponents was marked. Hill was ten miles away from the action. Heth was too far to the rear of his troops to direct their advance when they ran into trouble and did not begin to take control until after the brigades of Davis and Archer had staggered “back up the ravine, with Davis’s temporarily wrecked.” [97] In contrast to Heth, Reynolds “hurried to the front, where he was able to inspirit the defense and throw troops into the decisive zone.” [98] At every point in the brief encounter John Reynolds showed himself superior to his opponents as he directed the battle. “Dedicated to an aggressive forward defense in the vanguard of the entire Army of the Potomac, Reynolds, at the cost of his own life had blunted the Rebel thrust and bought valuable time that permitted the balance of Meade’s army to take possession of the coveted high ground….” [99]

Though he paid for his efforts with his life but his sacrifice was not in vain. Reynolds’s tactics “gave the First Corps room for maneuver in front of Gettysburg and upset General Hill’s timetable.” [100] Harry Hunt noted: “…by his promptitude and gallantry he had determined the decisive field of the war, and he opened brilliantly a battle which required three days of hard fighting to close with a victory.” [101]

Notes

[1] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day p.48

[2] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command p.261

[3] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day p.48

[4] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.261

[5] Ibid. Sears, Gettysburg. p. 158

[6] Nolan, Alan T. The Iron Brigade: A Military History Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1961 and 1994 pp.233-234

[7] Napoleon Bonaparte, Military Maxims of Napoleon in Roots of Strategy: The Five Greatest Military Classics of All Time edited by Phillips, Thomas R Stackpole Books Mechanicsburg PA 1985 p.410

[8] Ibid. Sears, Gettysburg. p. 165

[9] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day p.49

[10] Ibid. Nolan The Iron Brigade p.233

[11] Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.159

[12] Ibid. Trudeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.156

[13] Doubleday, Abner Chancellorsville and Gettysburg: Campaigns of the Civil War VI Charles Scribner’s Sons, Bew York 1882 pp.70-71

[14] Ibid. Doubleday Chancellorsville and Gettysburg p.71

[15] Carpenter, John A. Sword and Olive Branch: Oliver Otis Howard Fordham University Press, New York 1999 p.51

[16] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day p.76

[17] Green, A. Wilson. From Chancellorsville to Gettysburg: O. O. Howard and Eleventh Corps Leadership in The First Day at Gettysburg edited by Gallagher, Gary W. Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio 1992 p. 70

[18] Ibid. Sears, Gettysburg. p. 158

[19] Keneally, Thomas American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil war General Dan Sickles Anchor Books, a Division of Random House, New York 2003 p.275

[20] Swanberg, W.A. Sickles the Incredible Copyright by the author 1958 and 1984 Stan Clark Military Books, Gettysburg PA 1991 p.202

[21] Ibid. Trudeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.156

[22] Ibid. Sears, Gettysburg. p. 165

[23] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.142

[24] Ibid. Nichols Toward Gettysburg p.200

[25] Ibid. Doubleday Chancellorsville and Gettysburg p.68

[26] Ibid. Nolan The Iron Brigade p.235

[27] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.142

[28] Ibid. Sears, Gettysburg. p. 172

[29] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.143

[30] Ibid. Trudeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.172-173

[31] Schultz, Duane The Most Glorious Fourth: Vicksburg and Gettysburg July 4th 1863. W.W. Norton and Company New York and London, 2002 p.202

[32] Ibid. Trudeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.173

[33] Huntington, Tom Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg PA 2013 p.154

[34] Ibid. Sears, Gettysburg. p. 166

[35] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.277

[36] Doubleday, Abner. Chancellorsville and Gettysburg: Campaigns of the Civil War – VI Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York 1882 p.68

[37] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day p.75

[38] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.145

[39] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.275

[40] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 p.469

[41] Gottfried, Bradley The Artillery of Gettysburg Cumberland House Publishing, Nashville TN 2008 pp.28-29

[42] Ibid. Sears, Gettysburg. p. 34 Sears notes that in between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, First Division of I Corps had lost a full brigade due to the expiration of enlistments.

[43] Catton, Bruce The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road Doubleday and Company, Garden City New York, 1952 p.270

[44] Ibid. Sears, Gettysburg. p. 34

[45] Ibid. Catton The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road p.271

[46] Ibid. Wert The Sword of Lincoln p.275

[47] Ibid. Howard Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard 5995 of 9221

[48] Ibid. Catton The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road p.271

[49] Girardi, Robert I. The Civil War Generals: Comrades, Peers, Rivals in Their Own Words Zenith Press, MBI Publishing, Minneapolis MN 2013 p.184

[50] Ibid. Sears, Gettysburg. p. 34

[51] Ibid. Nolan The Iron Brigade p.16

[52] Tagg, Larry The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America’s Greatest Battle Da Capo Press Cambridge MA 1998 Amazon Kindle Edition p.19

[53] Hebert, Walter H. Fighting Joe Hooker University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London 1999. Originally published by Bobbs-Merrill, New York 1944 p.137

[54] Ibid. Nolan The Iron Brigade p.130

[55] Ibid. Nolan The Iron Brigade p. 54

[56] Ibid. Nolan The Iron Brigade p. 234

[57] Ibid. Catton The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road p.271

[58] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day pp.75-76

[59] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.275

[60] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.271

[61] Longacre, Edward G. John Buford: A Military Biography Da Capo Press, Perseus Book Group, Cambridge MA p.194

[62] Ibid. Hunt, The First Day at Gettysburg in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume III, The Tide Shifts p.277

[63] Ibid. Catton The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road p.272

[64] Dowdy, Clifford. Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation Skyhorse Publishing, New York 1986, originally published as Death of a Nation Knopf, New York 1958 p.96

[65] Ibid. Hunt, The First Day at Gettysburg in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume III, The Tide Shifts p.277

[66] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day p.86

[67] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.96

[68] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day p.104

[69] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.96

[70] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.97

[71] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day p.112

[72] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.153

[73] Ibid. Sears, Gettysburg. p. 178

[74] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.153

[75] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day p.109

[76] Ibid. Nolan The Iron Brigade p.20

[77] Ibid. Nolan The Iron Brigade p.173

[78] Ibid. Doubleday Chancellorsville and Gettysburg p.73

[79] Hunt, Henry. The First Day at Gettysburg in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume III, The Tide Shifts. Edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel Castle, Secaucus NJ p.277

[80] Ibid. Catton The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road p.273

[81] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian Random House, New York 1963 pp.470-471

[82] Ibid. Pfanz Gettysburg: The First Day p.99

[83] Ibid. Catton The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road p.274

[84] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.271

[85] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.470

[86] Ibid. Tagg The Generals of Gettysburg p.17

[87] Ibid. Foote The Civil War, A Narrative. Volume Two Fredericksburg to Meridian p.469 Even Foote in his account of Archer’s brigade makes the comment “Staggered by the ambush and outnumbered as they were….”

[88] Dowdy. Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.95

[89] Luvaas, Jay and Nelson Harold W editors. The U.S. Army War College Guide to the Battle of Gettysburg South Mountain Press, Carlisle PA 1986 p.9

[90] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.274

[91] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.274

[92] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.274

[93] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.97

[94] Ibid. Sears, Gettysburg. p. 168

[95] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.277

[96] Ibid. Trudeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.171

[97] Ibid. Dowdy. Lee and His Men at Gettysburg: The Death of a Nation p.97

[98] Krick, Robert K. Three Confederate Disasters on Oak Ridge: Failures of Brigade Leadership on the First Day of Gettysburg in The First Day at Gettysburg edited by Gallagher, Gary W. Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio 1992 p.113

[99] Ibid. Tagg The Generals of Gettysburg p.12

[100] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, p.277

[101] Ibid. Hunt, The First Day at Gettysburg in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume III, The Tide Shifts p.277

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A Mystery, a Medal & a Ring: Lost Love & War

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Kate Hewitt: The Girl John Reynolds Left behind

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

In doing my research on the life of Major General John Fulton Reynolds for my Gettysburg text I began to read about his relationship with Kate Hewitt. It adds a dimension to this man’s life that we miss if we only look at his actions on the battlefield or his military career. I added this to the end of the chapter on Reynolds and I hope that you are touched by it. As I read the story of this couple I found myself in tears on a number of occasions, and as I wrote this part of the chapter I kept crying.

Tragedy is implicit in war, and the tragedy of people who lose those that they love cannot be casually tossed aside in our quest to examine yet another battle.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Major General John Fulton Reynolds

Those who die in war often leave behind those that they love, and sometimes those stories are shrouded in mystery themselves. When Reynolds’s body was removed from the battlefield he was found to be wearing a Catholic religious medal around his neck on a chain on which also hung a “gold ring joined in the shape of clasped hands. On the inner band were inscribed the words “Dear Kate.” [1] Additionally his West Point ring was missing. His family was stunned as Reynolds’s had never breathed a word to them about any woman in his life.

It turned out that Kate, was a young woman named Katherine Mary Hewitt who Reynolds had met when travelling by steamship from San Francisco to Philadelphia on his way to West Point in 1860. The couple kept the relationship secret, possibly because Reynolds and his family were Protestant and she was a recent convert to the Catholic faith and at the time there was still a tremendous prejudice against Catholics in the country. Despite the fact that the anti-immigrant and virulently anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party had disappeared many of their anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic prejudices remained strong.

On September 15th 1861 Reynolds visited his family in Philadelphia at which time he visited Kate and proposed. They exchanged rings, she getting his West Point Ring, which she used to imprint the wax seals on the letters she would send to him. In the winter of 1863 he again visited his family in Philadelphia and made a clandestine visit to Kate. At that time “they set July 8th as the date to announce the engagement to his family.” [2]

Reynolds’s family wondered who this mystery woman was and his sister Jennie wrote a letter to his brother Will “we all thought a lady was the donor and must be prized and wished we could only know who and where she was.” [3] With Reynolds’s body lying in repose at his sister Catherine Landis’s home on July 3rd prior to it being taken by train to his home town of Lancaster the family discovered the identity of the mystery woman. On that morning there was a knock at the door and a young woman presented herself, asking if she could view Reynolds’s body. Reynold’s sisters and brother in law immediately fell in love with her. Their only regret was not having known her prior to Reynolds’s death. She announced that “in the event of his death, she would enter a Catholic convent.” [4] As Kate viewed the body she wept, sometimes uncontrollably. Eventually she placed his West Point Ring in his coffin and took back her religious medal. She left that day and on July 12th entered the convent of the Sisters of Charity at Emmitsburg where she took the name Sister Hildegarde. His sister Ellie wrote:

“Poor girl she has been a heroic mourner and most worthy of our dear one. I cannot tell you all she said of him but she was in his heart and from her I learned much of him, of his feelings and inner life that I never knew before….She made no parade of her religion, nor in any way that was the least disagreeable….” [5]

The Reynolds’s family treated Kate as family and they remained in touch with her as they did his faithful orderly Sergeant Veil who had been with him when he fell at Gettysburg. However, in 1868 in poor health Kate left the Sisters of Charity while serving as a teacher in Albany New York without having taken her final vows. Evidently the “sisters at Emmitsburg, according to Kate’s biographer and author of “Is She Kate?” Marian Latimer, found Kate “unsuitable for community life.” [6] After leaving the order she “remained in Albany working as a teacher for several years and in fact, living for some time with another sister who left the order.” [7]

About that time the correspondence between her and Reynolds’s family stopped. All subsequent attempts of the Reynolds family to regain contact with their brother’s true love failed. Still mourning her one true love, a man who was neither her husband nor a blood relative, Kate gave up her Catholic faith and alone in the world returned to her hometown of Stillwater New York where she continued to teach. She never remarried and died in Stillwater of pneumonia there in 1895. She was buried there and her stone is an octagon and symbolic of rebirth and resurrection. The word Mizpah is carved on the stone and is a Hebrew benediction meaning, ‘May God watch over you until we are together again.’ [8]

[1] Ibid. Nichols Toward Gettysburg p.212

[2] Wilson Robert and Clair, Carl They Also Served: Wives of Civil War Generals Xlibris Corporation 2006 p.79

[3] Ibid. Nichols Toward Gettysburg p.212

[4] Ibid. Wilson and Clair They Also Served p.79

[5] Ibid. Nichols Toward Gettysburg p.212

[6] Carey, John E. On War and Love: From the 1860s — General John Reynolds and “Kate” 10/25/2006 retrieved from https://johnib.wordpress.com/category/kate-hewitt/ 29 May 2015

[7] Loeffel, Bernadette Catharine (Kate) Mary Hewitt 9/20/2005 retrieved from http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=11784763 29 May 2015

[8] McLean, Maggie Kate Hewitt: Fiancée of General John Reynolds 12/20/2008 retrieved from http://civilwarwomenblog.com/kate-hewitt/ 29 May 2015

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Writing About War

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“What a cruel thing is war: to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world.” Robert E. Lee in a letter to his wife 1864

Memorial Day weekend is over but I have not stopped reflecting on war and its cost. Having served in combat myself, and having stood over the wounded in field hospitals in Iraq and having seen the devastation of war up close and personal I have a hard time reducing war to the technology, the tactics and trivia that seem to satisfy the consumers of war porn. Call me whatever you want but I cannot get around the human cost of war. William Tecumseh Sherman reflected that “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.” 

One of my favorite historians of the Second World War, Cornelius Ryan who wrote the magnificent accounts of D-Day, The Longest Day, Operation Market Garden, A Bridge Too Far, and the Battle of Berlin, The Last Battle said about his accounts: “What I write about is not war but the courage of man.” I think that writing about courage is appropriate and I do a lot of that. But I think in addition to courage that we also must write about the frailty and fallibility of human beings, especially the leaders who plan and conduct war.

When I teach or write about military history I find it important to make sure that the people who made that history are not forgotten.  After all, as the British military theorist Colin Gray says “people matter most” when we deal with history, policy, or politics, especially in the matter of war. He is right of course, people are the one constant in war. Weapons and tactics may change, but people do not. 

Likewise we cannot forget that war, even wars for the most excruciatingly correct and even righteous reasons are always tragic. The cost of war, even so called “good wars” is devastating. Ernest Hemingway wrote “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.” To the war porn addicts the words of Sherman or Hemingway surely are offensive, but they provide a necessary warning to the politicians, pundits and preachers who cannot get enough war to satiate their bloodlust and need for power. Sadly, most of the men and women who revel in war without end have neither served in combat or have any skin in the game regarding the wars that they support and those which they work so hard to bring about. Maybe if they did then they would not be so quick to send young men and women to war.

Those who follow me on this site know that I write about war a lot, some might say too much, but I cannot help that. My life has been forever changed by war.  If you look back through my archives you can see how my writing has evolved when it comes to dealing with war and part of that is because I do not want the sacrifices of the men and women who fought those wars to be forgotten or cheapened by a society which from the very beginning of our history has done so. Lieutenant General Hal Moore who co-authored the book We Were Soldiers Once, and Young wrote: “in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publicly questioned.” By continuing to write and teach I hope to ensure that this does not happen. Maybe I am pissing into the wind so to speak, but I cannot stand by silently.

I am a combat veteran, I have seen the devastation of war, I have lost friends in war, men and women who did not come home. I have seen other friends struggle in the aftermath of war, and I have seen some lose that struggle. Because I am a military historian as well as a priest and I have a sacred duty to ensure that people know the real cost of war.

I do this in my official capacity teaching ethics and leading the Gettysburg Staff Ride for the Staff College where I have the honor to serve as faculty.This itself is interesting as I am spending the final few years of a three and a half decade military career teaching the men and women who in not too long of time will be our nation’s senior military leaders. That is a responsibility that I take most seriously. Thus I always, whether it is in teaching the ethics of war, or about the Battle of Gettysburg I attempt to impress this on my students. I preach from day one to every class that their decisions in the planning process, their recommendations to senior political and military leaders, and their decisions on the battlefield impact real people, their soldiers, the people in the lands that they fight and on the home front. 

I have been writing a text for the Gettysburg Staff Ride which I believe will eventually become at least two and maybe more books. I tie a lot of biographic material in with the text, again in order to make what could be a dry and mechanical affair more real to my students and readers. That is one of the reasons that I find going to Gettysburg and walking that hallowed ground so important.

I find that the lives, beliefs, motivations, relationships, and experiences of people to be paramount to understanding events. People are complex, multi-layered and often contradictory. All of my heroes all have feet of clay, which in a sense makes their stories even richer, and the events that they helped bring about far more more fascinating. By not denying their humanity, by understanding and appreciating their flaws, even the flaws in their character, I gain a more holistic perspective and develop a greater appreciation and empathy for them and a deeper understanding of my own flaws. As T.E. Lawrence wrote “Immorality, I know. Immortality, I cannot judge.” 

The complex and contradictory nature of humanity leads to a lot of confusion for people who see the world through the black and white lens of cosmic dualism where there is only good and evil and “if you’re not for us, you’re against us.”  Human nature shows us that things are much more complex, nuanced and blurry, there are far more than fifty shades of gray when it comes to humanity and the participation of men and women in war.

Because of this otherwise good and honorable people can find themselves for any number of reasons, fighting for an evil cause, while people who are more evil than good can end up fighting for a good cause. Now if you are one of those people who are trapped by an absolute ideological or religious certitude which cannot allow for such contradictions, that statement may confuse or even offend you. For that I do not apologize and I hope that you are offended enough to face the truth, for that is the human condition, and that my friends is what history, and especially that dealing with the most destructive and consequential issues involving humanity must deal with.

Over the weekend I did a series on this site about the tragedy of the British Battlecruiser HMS Hood and the German Battleship Bismarck which transpired over the course of a week in May 1941. In that week the two largest and most powerful warships of their day were sunk taking over 3600 of the roughly 3750 sailors aboard to a watery grave in the North Atlantic. While doing this I had the opportunity to go aboard the USS Wisconsin here in Norfolk, a ship that is roughly the same size of those two doomed warships. As I walked the passageways surrounded by massive armor plating It helped me, a sailor who has served aboard a modern Guided Missile Cruiser and other warships to appreciate the life and death of the sailors on those ships. I thought of the Hood’s who with the exception of three sailors being annihilated as the massive ship exploded, and then I thought about the crew of the Bismarck who had nearly half a day to contemplate their end before the British shells turned their ship into a funeral pyre.

So I will continue to write about war and try in the process to humanize it for my readers and to tell the stories of the tragedy that is war in such a way that even those who have not been to war, can imagine it and in doing so make wise decisions if they are to send other people’s children to fight their wars. The subject is far too important to be left to the purveyors of war porn who seek to satiate the bloodlust of others.

As for the form of my writing, I am becoming much more deliberate in trying to craft the story. Barbara Tuchman wrote something that I am now beginning to appreciate as I write my own book on Gettysburg and the Civil War: “I have always felt like an artist when I work on a book. I see no reason why the word should always be confined to writers of fiction and poetry.”

Anyway, that is all for tonight. Over the coming week I should be putting out my next chapter revision to my Gettysburg text and some other articles.

I wish you all the best.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Death of Leviathan: Sinking the Bismarck

FinalBattle

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

This is the final part of my rendition of the great naval tragedy in three acts involving the German Battleship Bismarck. The first part was the sinking of the legendary and graceful pride of the Royal Navy, the Battle Cruiser Hood. The second part was the seemingly futile hunt and chase of the Bismarck by units of the British Home Fleet. What seemed hopeless changed when hours from the protection of night Bismarck was discovered and then torpedoed in a last ditch effort by Swordfish torpedo planes from the HMS Ark Royal. Today, the final act, the sinking of the Bismarck. 

I have written about this before and this is an edited version of that article. As I have mentioned before I have long been fascinated with this naval tragedy. I call it that because I have served at sea and in combat ashore; and because I understand that amid all the technology and weaponry that ultimately it is the men who suffer the terrors of war, and who suffer and die who matter. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen seldom get a choice in the wars that the leaders of their nations send them to fight. Thus for me, even the Sailors of the Bismarck, the pride of Adolf Hitler’s Kriegsmarine are as much victims of war as the British Sailors aboard the HMS Hood. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Rodney

HMS King George V (above) and HMS Rodney (below)

The torpedo from the Swordfish from the HMS Ark Royal that struck the Bismarck in her stern, jammed her rudders and wrecked her steering gear at last light on May 26th 1941, doomed that remarkable ship and her crew. It was an astounding turn of events, as just minutes before both the Germans and the British were expecting Bismarck to reach safety to fight again.

Just days before Bismarck had sunk the legendary British Battle Cruiser HMS Hood in minutes and had she persisted in her attack could have sunk the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. Instead, Vice Admiral Gunther Lutjens in command of the Bismarck and her consort the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen decided to break off contact and make for safety in the French port of Brest.

Bismarck slipped her pursuers and allowed Prinz Eugen to escape. It seemed that nothing that the British could do would stop her from gaining the safety of the French port and with it the knowledge that she had sunk the most powerful ship in the Royal Navy and gotten away. Then out of nowhere Bismarck was spotted by a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina seaplane piloted by an American Naval Officer. Hours later a relatively small and slow torpedo dropped from an obsolescent Swordfish torpedo bomber, a stringbag hit the Bismarck in in her stern, wrecking her rudders and steering gear. Remarkably it was perhaps the only place that such a torpedo could have changed the developing narrative of a great German naval victory into defeat.

As darkness fell on May 26th, Bismarck, unable to steer towards Brest due to her damage and the following seas steered toward the oncoming British armada at a reduced speed. Her crew, now exhausted from countless hours on watch and at their battle stations knew that they were doomed.

Despite this the officers and sailors aboard Bismarck still labored trying in vain for a way to repair and save their their ship. As Bismarck’s engineers and damage control personnel sought at way to repair the damage on that dark night Royal Navy destroyers under the command of Captain Phillip Vian harassed her, closing to fire torpedoes and keep the exhausted crew of the mighty German ship engaged at their battle stations throughout the long night. Knowing that the end was near the Captain of the Bismarck ordered the contents of the ship’s store to be given to crew members.

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Bismarck under Fire from King George V and Rodney

As light broke on the morning of May 27th the remaining heavy units from the Home Fleet which still had enough fuel in their tanks to continue the action, the Battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney along with the Heavy Cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Dorsetshire which had broke from its convoy escort duties on the 26th closed in for the kill. Norfolk had been in on the hunt since the beginning when she and her sister ship the HMS Suffolk had discovered Bismarck and Prinz Eugen as the transited the Denmark Strait on the night of May 23rd and 24th.

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Bismarck from Dorsetshire

Warily the British ships closed the crippled but still powerful German battleship. At 0847 Admiral Tovey ordered British Battleships to open fire on Bismarck. The crippled German ship replied with accurate salvos and straddled Rodney. However, the British shells hammered the Bismarck. 16” shells from Rodney destroyed the command center of Bismarck and her main fire control stations. Within 30 minutes the mighty guns of the Bismarck which had sunk the Hood days before were silenced.  With no opposition from the stricken German ship the British battleships and cruisers pounded Bismarck from point blank range with 16”, 14”, 8” and 6” shells as well as torpedoes.

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The end of the Bismarck

The British ships scored at least 400 hits on Bismarck and though they had silenced her and reduced the German ship to smoking ruins, the Bismarck remained afloat, defying her attackers. She was burning and certainly doomed but undaunted. The British battlewagons pounded Bismarck, until finally, with their adversary obviously doomed and their own fuel supplies dangerously low, Admiral Tovey ordered the battleships to break off the action. As he did this the British cruisers continued to fire their guns and torpedoes at the blazing helpless ship.

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Bismarck Survivors being hauled aboard Dorsetshire

The Bismarck’s First Officer, Fregattenkapitan (Commander) Hans Oels ordered her Chief Engineer Korvettenkapitan (Lieutenant Commander) Gerhard Junack to prepare the ship for scuttling and ordered the crew to abandon ship. The watertight doors were opened by Bismarck’s damage control teams and engineers as the scuttling charges fired at about the same time as HMS Dorsetshire launched her torpedoes at Bismarck. 1039 the Bismarck slipped beneath the waves. To this day those who claim the Bismarck sank because her crew scuttled her, and those who believe the the fish fired by Dorsetshire decided the fate of the ship, but truthfully it doesn’t matter. No matter what happened Bismarck was going to sink and no German forces could save her, or her crew.

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HMS Dorsetshire 1941

With the great ship headed to the depths of the North Atlantic, hundreds of survivors bobbed about in the cold Atlantic waters. Of these men, 110 were rescued by British ships, mostly by Dorchester. Then lookouts aboard the cruiser spotted the periscope of a U-Boat, and the British ships broke off their rescue operations leaving hundreds more survivors to die of exposure or their wounds in the Atlantic. In a cruel twist of fate, the U-Boat they believed they spotted had expended all of its torpedoes and was not a threat to them. A few more of the Bismarck’s survivors were rescued later by German ships or U-boats, but about 2200 German sailors went down with their ship or died awaiting rescue that never came. When it was all over just 2 officers and 113 men survived the sinking of the Bismarck, combined with the three men who survived the sinking of the Hood nearly 3700 British and German Sailors perished.

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Artist’s image of the Wreck of the Bismarck

Subsequent investigations of the wreck of the Bismarck would show that all the British shells and torpedoes did not sink the Bismarck, and that it was indeed the scuttling charges that sent the mighty ship to the bottom of the Atlantic. But even had she not been scuttled, she was doomed, and the damage that she had sustained would have sent her to the bottom within 12 to 24 hours had Commander Oels not ordered Lieutenant Commander Junack to scuttle the ship.

Within a year the Ark Royal, Prince of Wales, and Dorsetshire would also lie at the bottom of the seas. Prince of Wales along the HMS Repulse was sunk by Japanese land based bombers off Malaya in 1941, Dorsetshire was sunk near Ceylon by Japanese Carrier aircraft in April 1942, and Ark Royal was torpedoed by the U-Boat U-81 in November 1941 not far from Gibraltar. Of the destroyers that harassed Bismarck the night before her sinking only one, the Polish Destroyer ORP Piorun would survive the war.

The tragedy of mission of the Bismarck is that nearly 3700 sailors died aboard the two mightiest ships in the world, and while legendary the losses of the two ships did not materially alter the course of the war. Hood’s loss though tragic did not alter the strategic equation as more new battleships of the King George V class entered service. Likewise the surfing German capital ships were harassed by RAF bomber sorties and attacks by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. With few exceptions these ships remained confined to ports in France, Germany or Norway and slipped into irrelevance as the war progressed as the German U-Boat force took the lead in the Battle of the Atlantic. 

As an officer who has served at sea on a cruiser at war which came within minutes of a surface engagement with Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrol boats in the Northern Arabian Gulf in 2002 I have often wondered what would happened in the event of an engagement that seriously damaged or sank our ship. Thus I have a profound sense of empathy for the sailors of both sides who perished aboard the Hood and the Bismarck in the fateful days of May 1941.

I hope that no more brave sailors will have to die this way, but I know from what history teaches that tragedies like this will happen again. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Stringbags vs. the Bismarck

Alan Fearnley; (c) Alan Fearnley; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

A couple of days ago I reposted an article about the sinking of the HMS Hood by the German Battleship Bismarck. The story of the Bismarck is an epic saga of naval warfare and history. It is tragedy played out as if scripted by a playwright in three parts. The first was the sinking of the illustrious “Mighty” Hood by the Bismarck on May 24th 1941. 

The second, which I deal with today, was the pursuit and search for Bismarck by the British Home Fleet and the desperate attempt of the British to find a way, any way, to slow Bismarck down and bring her to battle, before she could return to the safety of Nazi occupied France.  The final chance to stop the mighty German Leviathan came as night fell on May 26th. 

I hope you appreciate the heroism of the men who flew the hopelessly obsolete aircraft who dealt the blow which crippled Bismarck. This is a re-wright of past articles and I will post the final article about the sinking of the Bismarck tomorrow. 

Peace

Padre Steve

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On May 24th 1941 the German Battleship Bismarck had sunk the celebrated Battlecruiser HMS Hood in the Denmark Strait and had seriously damaged the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. The news of the disaster stunned the Royal Navy. Fighting a war on multiple fronts and now standing alone against Hitler’s Germany the British deployed every warship available to find and sink Bismarck.

On the evening of the 24th of May Bismarck was being shadowed by the heavy cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk. To the east the ships of the Home Fleet, Britain’s last line of defense under the command Admiral John Tovey was making the fastest speed to intercept the Bismarck.  Far to the southeast, Vice Admiral James Sommerville’s  “Force H” comprised of the carrier HMS Ark Royal, the fast but elderly battlecruiser HMS Renown, and the light cruiser HMS Sheffield were ordered to leave the vital convoy which there were escorting and proceed to the northwest to join the hunt for the German battleship.

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HMS Ark Royal with Swordfish in 1939

With Bismarck loose the North Atlantic Convoys on which Britain depended for her survival were vulnerable. The previous year the commander of the Bismarck task force Admiral Günther Lütjens with the Battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had wreaked havoc on the convoys. Now of Britain was on edge with the news of Bismarck’s break out into the Atlantic. Churchill was furious with the Navy when the Mighty Hood, the largest and most powerful ship in the Royal Navy destroyed with the loss of all but three crew members. Now every effort was directed to find and sink the Bismarck.

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Bismarck photographed from a Swordfish from 825 Squadron

Accompanying the Home Fleet was the brand new Aircraft Carrier HMS Victorious with 825 Naval Air Squadron embarked under the command of LCDR Eugene Esmond. The squadron, like many in the Fleet Air Arm was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Torpedo Bombers. The squadron had seen action aboard other carriers in the North Atlantic, the Norway Campaign and in the Mediterranean before being assigned to the Victorious. On the night of 24 May 1941, in foul North Atlantic weather the Victorious launched nine Swordfish from a range of 120 miles in a desperate attempt to slow the Bismarck down. Esmond’s squadron scored one hit amidships on the Bismarck which did no serious damage.

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825 Squadron Swordfish on HMS Victorious

About 6 hours after the attack by Victorious’s Swordfish, Bismarck shook her pursuers and disappeared into the mists of the North Atlantic, while her consort, the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen escaped to the northwest in order to conduct independent raiding operations. Not knowing the location or course of the Bismarck the Royal Navy frantically searched for the German Leviathan. Most of the ships nearest to Bismarck’s last reported position were low on fuel and others seemed too far away to be of any importance in the search.

However the British were able to intercept and decode some German communications which indicated that Lütjens had orders to steam to Brest, in German occupied France for repairs.

Though the British believed that the Bismarck could be headed toward Brest they could not be sure, as each hour passed the chances of finding and bringing Bismarck to battle diminished. For nearly 36 hours the British searched in vain for the Bismarck, and for much of the 25th Tovey’s squadron was searching in the wrong direction. Then at 1030 on the 26th of May their luck changed.

Likewise the crew of the Bismarck believed with every hour that they would soon be under the protection of Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe and safely in France, but the good fortune of the British was the worst thing that could happen to the 2200 men aboard Bismarck.

On that morning a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina co-piloted by US Navy Ensign Leonard Smith found the Bismarck. Once Smith transmitted Bismarck’s location every available ship converged on her location but unless something could be done to slow the German down the chances bringing her to battle diminished by the hour.

The only heavy forces close enough to successfully engage Bismarck, Tovey’s battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney were over 100 miles behind Bismarck, too far away unless Bismarck changed course or could be slowed down. Somerville’s Force H to the south did not have the combat power to survive a surface engagement with the Bismarck should they encounter the Bismarck without the support of other heavy fleet units. Even so Sommerville was willing to risk the Renown in a suicidal action to bring Bismarck to battle if it would allow Tovey to catch her before she could escape. Desperation was the order of the day for both sides.

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820 Squadron Swordfish returning to Ark Royal after the attack on Bismarck

The situation was desperate, if Bismarck could not be slowed down she would be in range of heavy Luftwaffe Air support as well as support from U-Boats and destroyers based in France. Unless something akin to a miracle occurred Bismarck would join the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest and with the addition of Bismarck’s sister-ship Tirpitz form a surface squadron strong enough to devastate British shipping in the Atlantic.

Ark Royal’s aircraft were the last hope of slowing down Bismarck before she could effect her escape and emerge from the Atlantic after having dealt the Royal Navy a devastating blow.

The strike aircraft available on Ark Royal were the most unlikely aircraft imaginable to successfully carry out such a mission. Ark Royal’s 820 Squadron, like Victorious’ 824 Squadron was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Mk 1 Torpedo Bombers. These were biplanes with their crew compartment exposed to the weather.

Introduced to the Navy in 1936 the aircraft was an antique compared with most aircraft of its day. Likewise the Mark XII 18” torpedo carried by the aircraft was smaller or slower and equipped with a less powerful warhead than comparable torpedoes used by other navies. Despite their limitations the venerable Swordfish had performed admirably during the early part of the war sinking or damaging three Italian battleships at Taranto in November 1940. Their success against the Italians at Taranto gave inspiration to the Japanese for their attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor the following year. But now, in the face of foul weather and a powerful opponent the Swordfish were all the Royal Navy had left to stop Bismarck before she could make her escape.

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Bismarck steering erratically after the torpedo hit to her stern

With that in mind  Sommerville in sent his light cruiser, the  HMS Sheffield ahead to shadow Bismarck while Ark Royal closed in to launch her Swordfish against Bismarck. The first wave of aircraft strike, unaware Sheffield was near Bismarck mistakenly attacked the British cruiser. Thankfully, the new design magnetic detonators failed to detonate the torpedoes saving Sheffield from destruction. With little daylight left the aircraft returned to Ark Royal where they rearmed with torpedoes equipped with contact fuzes and refueled by flight deck crew laboring in rain and 50 knot winds blowing across the carrier’s flight deck. Just before 8 p.m. 15 Swordfish of 820 Squadron took off for what they knew was the very last chance to attack Bismarck before night fell. If they failed Bismarck would most certainly escape.

As darkness began to fall the 15 Swordfish from 820 Squadron descended through the clouds to attack the German ship. Just fifteen obsolete aircraft and thirty men attacking the most powerful warship afloat. They dispersed and attacked from all points of the compass. Bismarck twisted and turned and fired all of her guns at the attacking aircraft. The Germans fired with every weapon available, even the 15″ guns of her main battery, which she fired her into the ocean ahead of the Swordfish. It appeared for a moment that the Bismarck had successfully avoided serious damage. All but two torpedoes missed.  One torpedo struck the German midships and barely dented her massive armor. However a second torpedo, launched by a Swordfish piloted by Lieutenant John Moffat hit Bismarck in her weakly armored stern. The hit jammed Bismarck’s port rudder at a 12 degree angle, and destroyed her steering gear. The weather was such that German damage control teams could not repair the damage. Bismarck now steamed in circles, unable to maneuver. This enabling Tovey with King George V, Rodney, the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Dorchester, as well as a number of destroyers to catch up with the elusive German.

The attacks of the antiquated Swordfish on the Bismarck achieved results that no one in the Royal Navy expected. When reports indicated that Bismarck had reversed course following the torpedo attack Tovey could not believe them. It was only when lookouts aboard Sheffield confirmed the reports from the Swordfish that Tovey realized that Bismarck must have been damaged and was unable to maneuver.

It was a dramatic and unexpected turn of events. The German crew sank into gloom as the night went on and they dealt with torpedo attacks from the British Destroyers as Tovey’s battleships moved in for the kill.

To be continued…

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