Category Archives: historic preservation

“If These Trees Could Talk” A Visit to Buchenwald

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We are beginning to wind up our trip to Germany staying with our friends Linda and Holger near Karlsruhe. As do so I am beginning to catch up on writing about some of the places that we have been to and things that we have experienced.

Last Saturday while driving from Wittenberg to Eisenach to meet our friends Gottfried and Hannelore we stopped at Buchenwald, a notorious Concentration Camp located on the Ettersburg hill and the Buchenwald Forrest near Weimar. The area is beautiful and serene, it is hard to imagine the evil that took place here. The deaths of over 50,000 people who died from being executed by hanging or with a shot to the base of the neck, being worked to death, starved, maltreated, and being used as Guinea Pigs for medical experiments cannot be removed by the scenery in the local area.

If you visit Buchenwald you will be surprised at how vast the camp is. The area most visited is the main camp, but two others adjoin it, though the visible markers are less numerous or obvious than at the main camp. Unless you have more than a couple of hours you cannot do it all. Had I had the time I would have liked to walk the entire perimeter, which you can do, but due to our schedule I could only spend about an hour and a half there.

At the gate there is an inscription which must be read from the inside of the camp. It states Jedem das Seine or to each their own, which the SS interpreted to mean that the Master Race had the right to humiliate and destroy all others.

Buchenwald was opened in 1937 as a place where the Nazi regime could imprison political prisoners as well as members of what they called untermenschen or sub-human. The former included Communists, Socialists, other political opponents, of course Jews, as well as people deemed “asocial” which could mean almost anything. Repeat offenders and habitual criminals, Roma and Sinti, Homosexuals, Freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the mentally, and the mentally or physically disabled. As the Nazi occupation of Europe grew to encompass most of the continent the list expanded to include the former as well as political, military, social, religious and intellectual leaders of those countries, and anyone else deemed a threat the Reich.

But Buchenwald was not a Death Camp. It had no gas chambers and those executed were killed up close and personal with a bullet to the base of the neck, being hanged in some manner, and in a few cases of Catholic clergy, crucified upside down. Yet it was a place of horror. General Dwight Eisenhower wrote after visiting the Ohrdorf sub-camp of Buchenwald subsequent to its liberation wrote:

The same day [April 12, 1945] I saw my first horror camp. It was near the town of Gotha. I have never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however that I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock.

Eisenhower was so moved that he ordered that the best reporters and newsmen come and record what he had seen. He did not want the horrors to be denied by history. He wrote:

I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that `the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.’ Some members of the visiting party were unable to through the ordeal. I not only did so but as soon as I returned to Patton’s headquarters that evening I sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.

One of those reporters was Edward R. Murrow who broadcast his visit to Buchenwald:

There surged around me an evil-smelling stink, men and boys reached out to touch me. They were in rags and the remnants of uniforms. Death already had marked many of them, but they were smiling with their eyes. I looked out over the mass of men to the green fields beyond, where well-fed Germans were ploughing….

[I] asked to see one of the barracks. It happened to be occupied by Czechoslovaks. When I entered, men crowded around, tried to lift me to their shoulders. They were too weak. Many of them could not get out of bed. I was told that this building had once stabled 80 horses. There were 1200 men in it, five to a bunk. The stink was beyond all description.

They called the doctor. We inspected his records. There were only names in the little black book — nothing more — nothing about who had been where, what he had done or hoped. Behind the names of those who had died, there was a cross. I counted them. They totaled 242 — 242 out of 1200, in one month.

As we walked out into the courtyard, a man fell dead. Two others, they must have been over 60, were crawling toward the latrine. I saw it, but will not describe it.

In another part of the camp they showed me the children, hundreds of them. Some were only 6 years old. One rolled up his sleeves, showed me his number. It was tattooed on his arm. B-6030, it was. The others showed me their numbers. They will carry them till they die. An elderly man standing beside me said: “The children — enemies of the state!” I could see their ribs through their thin shirts….

We went to the hospital. It was full. The doctor told me that 200 had died the day before. I asked the cause of death. He shrugged and said: “tuberculosis, starvation, fatigue and there are many who have no desire to live. It is very difficult.” He pulled back the blanket from a man’s feet to show me how swollen they were. The man was dead. Most of the patients could not move.

I asked to see the kitchen. It was clean. The German in charge….showed me the daily ration. One piece of brown bread about as thick as your thumb, on top of it a piece of margarine as big as three sticks of chewing gum. That, and a little stew, was what they received every 24 hours. He had a chart on the wall. Very complicated it was. There were little red tabs scattered through it. He said that was to indicate each 10 men who died. He had to account for the rations and he added: “We’re very efficient here.”

We proceeded to the small courtyard. The wall adjoined what had been a stable or garage. We entered. It was floored with concrete. There were two rows of bodies stacked up like cordwood. They were thin and very white. Some of the bodies were terribly bruised; though there seemed to be little flesh to bruise. Some had been shot through the head, but they bled but little.

I arrived at the conclusion that all that was mortal of more than 500 men and boys lay there in two neat piles. There was a German trailer, which must have contained another 50, but it wasn’t possible to count them. The clothing was piled in a heap against the wall. It appeared that most of the men and boys had died of starvation; they had not been executed.

But the manner of death seemed unimportant. Murder had been done at Buchenwald. God alone knows how many men and boys have died there during the last 12 years. Thursday, I was told that there were more than 20,000 in the camp. There had been as many as 60,000. Where are they now?

I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words.

If I have offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I’m not in the least sorry….

Allied prisoners of war, especially Russians and Poles were brought to Buchenwald. While many Red Army POWs were assigned to the work camps, thousands of other Soviet POWs were summarily executed upon their arrival and thus were never registered as inmates and are not counted in the official German numbers of those who died at the Camp.

In one of the more unusual instances, 168 Allied aviators from the United States, Britain, Canada, and other Commonwealth nations were transported to Buchenwald by the SS from France in August 1944. Normally such prisoners were the responsibility of the Luftwaffe. The men arrived at Buchenwald and remained for two months in the same conditions as the other inmates. During that time three died. The Luftwaffe found out about the prisoners and had them transferred to Stalag Luft III, a regular POW Camp in Silesia from which the legendary Great Escape had been made in March 1944.

One of the Canadians wrote of their arrival at Buchenwald:

As we got close to the camp and saw what was inside… a terrible, terrible fear and horror entered our hearts. We thought, what is this? Where are we going? Why are we here? And as you got closer to the camp and started to enter [it] and saw these human skeletons walking around—old men, young men, boys, just skin and bone, we thought, what are we getting into?

As for me the the cruelty of the SS to their inmates is horrible enough, but I think for me it was the larger scale use of the camp and it’s inmates for medical experiments by physicians that affected me the most. I have Robert Jay Lifton’s book The Nazi Doctors, but to see where and stand where these practitioners of evil did their work was difficult. Lifton wrote:

In all fundamentalisms, and they are usually religious or political, there is the sense of profound threat to what are considered fundamental beliefs and symbols, and a compensatory invocation of a sacred text (the Bible, the Koran, Mein Kampf) as a literal guide to every form of action. History stops so that murderous therapy can be applied. While medicine does not provide the sacred text, one can revert to ancient practices of shamans, witch doctors, and tricksters who could be expected to kill in order to heal. For physicians as well as charismatic spiritual physicians, there is a release from Hippocratic restraint.

Hundreds of inmates were injected with Typhus in order to test treatments for the disease. To test balms which could help victims of incendiary bombs, prisoners were exposed to White Phosphorus which caused massive and incredibly painful burns in order to test the treatments. Many other experiments were conducted by the SS Doctors of Buchenwald.

Almost all of the prisoners at Buchenwald and its sub-Camps were used as slave laborers for German industrial plants and armaments plants. The sub- Camp at Mittelbau-Dora (Nordhausen) which became independent from Buchenwald in 1944 was a key production facility for the V-1 and V-2 rockets. Under the direction of SS Gruppenführer Oswald Pohl and the Verwaltung und Wirtschaft Hauptamt, the Administrative and Economics Main Office, Fritz Sauckel, General Plenipotentiary for Labour Deployment who oversaw the efforts to bring extra laborers to the Reich, and Armaments Minister Albert Speer.

Buchenwald is both historical reality that cannot be denied, as well as an everlasting reminder of the capacity of supposedly advanced human beings can do to others. Man’s capacity for evil is limitless and Buchenwald is one of the great reminders of it.

As I listen to and read the opinions of many American supporters of President Trump I believe that such evil could happen again, this time in my country and at the hands of my countrymen. Honestly, I don’t think that most of these people are really evil. I think that most are simply deluded by years of propaganda put forth by the politicians, pundits, and preachers of the political right who play upon their fears of being displaced economically and socially by minorities, women, foreigners, and others deemed less deserving of having a chance to live the American Dream. In their fear they would excuse the actions of a government that would run Buchenwald and the other components of the Concentration Camp system, not only for punishing political opponents, but also using that system to exploit victims for economic gain without any consideration of them as human beings.

This is something that we have to remember now more than ever. For at least a few months the American President who is an admirer of everything authoritarian now controls all three branches of the Federal Government. With such power at his disposal, a compliant executive branch, a subservient legislative branch, and a Supreme Court in the hands of Right Wing ideologues it would be incredibly easy to pass something like the Reichstag Fire Decree or the Enabling Act giving the President unlimited power.

Historian Timothy Snyder wrote these words not even two years ago.

The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.

I do not want to sound like an alarmist but I am beginning to doubt that the institutions so well designed by our Founders to withstand assaults on the Constitution by one or two branches of government can survive this. There is no going back from what has happened over the past few weeks and we will be very fortunate if our institutions survive in the manner that our Founders intended. The outward structure may survive, but the heart of those institutions will be destroyed, even if the Democrats regain control of the House and Senate.

Tomorrow we travel to Munich to spend the night before flying home Monday. Our trip has allowed me to me more reflective about the current American crisis without being immersed in it on a minute to minute basis.

I expect to post something from Munich so until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under historic preservation, History, holocaust, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary

The Businesslike Execution of Punishment adjusted for the Development of the Nation: A Visit to Flossenbürg Concentration Camp

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last week on our way from Munich to Berlin we stopped to visit the memorial at the site of the former Flossenbürg Concentration Camp. For most people it is best known as the site where Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, General Hans Oster and others implicated in the 20th of July plot to assassinate Hitler. However, the evil committed there was far greater than the execution of these outstanding men.

In May of 1938 the SS-Wirtschafts- und Verwaltungshauptamt or the SS Main Economic and Administrative Office constructed a labor camp for German political and other prisoners at the town of Flossenbürg near the Czech border in northern Bavaria. Directed by SS Gruppenführer Oswald Pohl, a former German Navy officer and paymaster. Already a dedicated Nazi, Pohl gave up his Navy career in 1933 to take a commission in the SS at the behest of Heinrich Himmler who desired to use Pohl’s military administrative experience to set up a more professional and efficient administrative branch.

Pohl was the man for the job, and over time his influence grew. He was appointed to head the Hauptamt Haushalt und Bauten or the Main Office for Budget and Construction, and over time his responsibility continued to grow. German historian Heinz Höhne who wrote of Pohl:

Four potent departments placed Pohl’s hand firmly on the levers of power in the SS empire: he was in charge of the entire administration and supply of the Waffen-SS; he controlled the 20 concentration camps and 165 labor camps; he directed all SS and Police building projects; he was in charge of all SS economic enterprises.

But in 1938 Pohl was just beginning his rise in the SS. He realized that the Concentration Camps could be used for economic reasons as well as the punishment of the Reich’s enemies. Himmler appointed Pohl to oversee the economic and business operations of the camps. In March of 1938 they began at Mauthausen in Austria by partnering with the SS operated German Earth and Stoneworks Corporation (DEST) excavate Granite using Slave labor. In May they did the same at Flossenbürg.

Pohl’s understanding of labor was thoroughly Nazi, he wrote:

“SS industries [Unternehmen] have the task…to organize a more businesslike (more productive) execution of punishment and adjust it to the overall development of the Reich.”

Flossenbürg’s prisoners initially worked in the granite quarry above the town. They, like other slave laborers were exploited and even the more pragmatic views of Pohl’s office in terms of exploitation were based on the policies of extermination. As time went on Pohl developed a formula to base the economic profits of each prisoner. This was based on the “rental” of each prisoner to industry, minus food and clothing, the profits from anything left by them when they died, minus the expense of the cremation, based on an expected lifespan of nine months as a slave laborer. Pohl expected a profit of about 1,630 Reichsmarks per inmate employed as a slave laborer.

Flossenbürg was one of the second generation camps designed to be more than a place of extrajudicial punishment for enemies of the Nazi regime. It was designed for economic exploitation and extermination through work. While the initial inmates were Germans it would become a place where people from eighteen nations were worked to death.

Like Mauthausen, Flossenbürg supplied laborers to DEST which ran the quarry. The quarry is still in operation, though most of the work is done by machines run by very few actual well paid workers. The machines can be heard from the grounds of the former camp.

The camp grew and so did the numbers of prisoners, especially from countries conquered by the Nazis. Germans who made up the majority of the prisoners from its opening until late 1940 were eclipsed by Poles, Russians, and Hungarians. By the end of the war the camp had housed about 100,000 prisoners, of which about 30,000 died or were executed there.

As the number of deaths rose the process to dispose of the remains of the victims required that a crematorium be constructed. It was built in a valley at the base of the camp and ashes were disposed of near it in what is known as The Valley of Death. Those killed not only included those inmates who were worked to death, died of starvation or disease, but also the Polish and Soviet prisoners of war killed on the orders of the regime.

In 1943 the Messerschmitt facility in Regensburg moved parts production for the Bf-109 fighter plane to Flossenbürg. Camp inmates became part of the workforce producing those parts as well as other munitions for the German armaments industry.

The camp was liberated by the American 90th Infantry Division on April 23rd 1943.

The camp memorial is off the beaten track for most people. Visitors must make a special point to visit it. Unlike Buchenwald, Dachau, or Bergen-Belsen it is quite isolate from places that most people would go. Even so there are a significant number of Germans, and other Europeans, especially young people, who go to the camp to learn. In addition to the museum there is an education program with seminar rooms, guest speakers, and speak alike programs. A number of buildings have been preserved including the Camp Administration building, the Detention building where the special prisoners were housed, the laundry and camp kitchen which house the museum and special exhibits, the crematorium, two guard towers, and the SS Officer Club, or Casino. The last houses the education center as well as a small cafe for visitors.

In The Valley of Death near the crematorium there is what is called the Pyramid of Ashes, the Square of the Nations, and a cemetery. Above them are a chapel dedicated to the victims and a Jewish memorial.

For me I think that the most powerful images I will remember are The Valley of Death and the courtyard outside of the Detention barracks where Bonhoeffer, Oster, and Canaris were executed. The SS Camp doctor wrote the only account of the death of these men:

“On the morning of that day between five and six o’clock the prisoners, among them Admiral Canaris, General Oster, General Thomas and Reichgerichtsrat Sack were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of the court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

That being said, while Bonhoeffer, Oster, and Canaris resonate with me I cannot ignore the fate of the 30,000 other men and women who died at Flossenbürg. They were victims of the Nazi policies on race and men like Pohl who extracted the last bit of profit they could make off of the lives and labor of their prisoners before they killed them.

Unfortunately with humanity being what it is and the desire to seek profit and power over the good of people what happened at Flossenbürg could happen again. There are men like Oswald Pohl today who would not hesitate to try to make a profit off of so called enemies of the state.

That is why we always have to remember what happened there and fight to ensure that it can never happen again.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under economics and financial policy, ethics, faith, historic preservation, History, holocaust, Loose thoughts and musings, nazi germany

“Open the Gates…” Berlin’s Neue Synagogue on Oranienburg Straße

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

We are spending our last night in Berlin after a rather quiet day which included a visit with Dr. Rink, the Bishop of the German Evangelische military chaplain service. We spent an our and a half with his and his chief spokesman at his office. I should have gotten some pictures of us and the offices but forgot because it was such an interesting visit. We will be leaving in the morning which is a holiday, the Tag der Deutschen Einheit, or day of German Unity which celebrates the official reunification of Germany in 1990. The preparations here are quite extensive with much of the area around the Brandenburger Tor and Reichstag blocked off for events and an already large police presence.

This afternoon I took a walk around the district that our hotel, the Hotel Dietrich Bonhoeffer Haus is located. Not far from it is Berlin’s Neue Synagogue, the restored frontal portion of a building dedicated in 1866 by Berlin’s Jewish community. Among those present at the dedication was Otto Von Bismarck, the the Minister President of Prussia prior to the Unification of Germany in 1870.

It was a massive structure that could hold over 3000 worshippers and its Moorish architecture and resemblance to the Alhambra in the Spanish city of Grenada. It was one of the first large buildings to be of iron construction. It is a beautiful structure with its great golden dome topped by a Star of David flanked by two smaller domes.

In addition to its place as a center of worship it was a center of Berlin’s largely assimilated and liberal Jewish community. Berlin was the center of the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah in Germany, and Prussian Jews enjoyed full citizenship and civil rights going back to 1850. The movement emphasized secularism and equality. Prominent Jewish citizens included Albert Einstein, as well as theater and film director Max Reinhardt; composer, music theorist, writer, and painter Arnold Schoenberg, composer Kurt Weill, who is famous for his song Mac the Knife which was popularized in the United States first by Louis Armstrong and then Bobby Darin; and painter Max Liebermann, who was President of the Prussian Academy of Arts until the Nazi takeover in 1933. Additionally, Louis (Lazarus) Lewendowski the highly acclaimed liturgical composer and musician who put his imprint on much Jewish liturgical music used around the world today.

It was used for public concerts and it hand an organ and a mixed choir thanks to Lewendowski, making it a part of a distinctly western and liberal strain of Judaism. In 1929, Einstein performed a renowned violin concert in it.

When the Nazis seized power in 1933 the repression of Berlin’s Jewish community began. Jews lost their citizenship, their employment in the Civil Service and military, membership in professional organizations, and suffered many other humiliations and persecution. As a result many Jews left Germany. Einstein, Schoenberg, Reinhardt, and Weill all fled to the United States. Liebermann died of a heart attack in 1935. He lived near the Brandenburger Tor and reported said as Nazi Stormtroopers marched through it celebrating their takeover of the government: “Ich kann gar nicht soviel fressen, wie ich kotzen möchte.” (“I could not possibly eat as much as I would like to throw up.”)

Despite Nazi repression the Synagogue continued to operate and became a center for Jewish relief efforts. It was one of the few synagogues spared destruction during the Kristallnacht terror organized by Joseph Goebbels on November 9th 1938. A group of Nazis broke into the synagogue, vandalized the Torah scrolls, and attempted to set fire to the building. A Berlin Police Lieutenant named Wilhelm Krützfeld took action and ordered the mob to disperse because the building was a protected historical building. To make his point he drew his pistol and threatened the vandals. His actions allowed the Feuerwehr to arrive and ensured that the building was not burned. Krützfeld reported his actions and only received a verbal reprimand from the Nazi Police President Graf Helldorf who had played a major role in the organization of Kristallnacht. Krützfeld and members of his precinct also helped Jews with identity papers and warned them of Gestapo raids. He was transferred in 1940 and because he could no longer serve the Nazi state requested retirement due to health reasons in 1943. Following the war in 1945 he returned to active police service and died in 1953. his superior, Helldorf, became a part of the anti-Hitler conspiracy and was condemned to death by Roland Freisler and the Volksgericht in 1944.

The synagogue remained active until 1940 when it was ordered closed and taken over by the Wehrmacht which desecrated it and turned it into a warehouse for uniform supplies. It was badly damaged by allied air raids during the war and the main sanctuary was burned out and heavily damaged. The Ruins of the main sanctuary and the main dome were demolished in 1955 with the Jewish community meeting next door to the ruin.

In 1988 on the 50th year anniversary of Kristallnacht the process to restore it as a Jewish cultural center began and it reopened in 1993. The restoration only comprised the front section of the building, but in 1995 the Reformed Jewish community of Berlin was reestablished in it. Today it functions as a synagogue, a cultural center, and a museum.

If you come to Berlin you need to see it.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under culture, faith, historic preservation, History, holocaust, nazi germany, Religion, world war two in europe

Controversy and Glory: Dan Sickles Part Six

Daniel_Edgar_Sickles

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am taking a break for the past week or so to read and reflect. As such I am re-posting some articles from my Gettysburg text dealing with a man that I consider one of the most fascinating , salacious, scandalous, heroic, and incredible figures ever to grace and disgrace American history, Congressman, and Civil War General Daniel E. Sickles.

I hope that you enjoy,

Peace

Padre Steve+

LongstreetJ_main

Lieutenant General James Longstreet C.S.A.

President John F. Kennedy paraphrased the words of the Roman Emperor Tacitus after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy told a journalist, “victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan.” The problem in doing a proper analysis of Longstreet’s assault is the fact that many of the men involved on both sides made the battle personal, issuing scathing denunciations of one another, fudging the facts to their advantage, and by making the fight political a political football in the South and in the North.

The Confederate attacks had been badly directed and uncoordinated. In the end though McLaws’ and Hood’s divisions had succeeded in thrashing Sickles’ Third Corps in the exposed salient they were unsuccessful at breaking the Federal line. The disjointed nature of their attacks and the lack of active command and control by Lee and Longstreet had much to do with the outcome. Lee’s presence was needed on the south end of the Confederate line, but he left Longstreet to his own devices.

There was much blame to go around on the Confederate side, Longstreet placed much of the blame for the defeat on Lee, which earned him the everlasting enmity of many Confederates. But Lee’s Warhorse also met with criticism, especially for his performance on July 2nd 1863. Some of the most withering came not years later, but in the days following the battle. The harshest came from Lafayette McLaws, his old friend, who had been a favorite of Longstreet. McLaws blamed his corps commander for the defeat, writing his wife, “I think that the attack was unnecessary and the whole plan of battle a very bad one. Genl Longstreet is to blame for not reconnoitering the ground and for persisting in ordering the assault when his errors were discovered. During the engagement he was very excited [,] giving contrary orders to every one, and exceedingly overbearing. I consider him a humbug – a man of small capacity, very obstinate, not at all chivalrous, exceedingly conceited, and totally selfish….” [1]

One of Longstreet’s biographers wrote “Longstreet’s performance during the morning deserves criticism…. Had he attended to the details that were his responsibility and not allowed his disagreement with Lee to affect his judgment and effort, the afternoon assault would have begun sooner, but not several hours earlier.” [2] That historian believes that had Sickles not moved forward that Longstreet’s attack, even if made earlier would have met success, something echoed by Porter Alexander who wrote, “There seems no doubt that Longstreet’s attack on the 2nd been materially sooner, we would have gained a decided victory.” [3]

Casualties were heavy on both sides but the attack had failed and it had failed because of senior leadership of Lee and his corps commanders. Had Lee “duplicated the active role taken by his counterpart, George Meade, the outcome might have been different.” [4] But this too is speculation born of perfect 20/20 hindsight. One of Lee’s biographer’s wrote “Longstreet was disgruntled, Ewell was inept and Hill was unwell.” [5] To make matters worse, throughout the day, Robert E. Lee did not assert himself and even his most devoted biographer Douglas Southall Freeman would write that on July 2nd 1863 “the Army of Northern Virginia was without a commander.” [6]

general-george-meade

Major General George Meade U.S. Army

On the Federal side most of the controversy has to do with Sickles’ decision to move the Third Corps forward from Cemetery Hill to the Peach Orchard and so it is appropriate to close this chapter discussing Dan Sickles. The matter has been a long subject of controversy, especially because of the way that Sickles politicized his actions in the press and in the Congressional hearings that followed. Many generals on both sides blundered at Gettysburg.

One can speculate that had Sickles remained in the position dictated by Meade that the Confederate assault might have gone down to an even more disastrous defeat. That being said the line that Sickles would have occupied with his 10,600 troops was long and he could not have held it in great strength, even Little Round Top would have been lightly occupied, and Meade might not have been forced to reexamine his line. It is fully possible that “had Longstreet attacked there with the same headlong fury, it is possible that the Confederates would have broken through not merely into Sickles’ rear, but into the entire Union rear and that disaster would have been the result.” [7] However, Sickles, even though he thought he was justified, was wrong in not informing Meade of the move, and leaving his army commander ignorant of the position of his left.

Sickles action, though an error, was something that could have been rationally addressed by him and Meade long before the Confederate attack began. Had the two men “worked in tandem – that is had the line taken by the Third Corps been shared by the Fifth, and had command matters been resolved and fallback plans established – Longstreet’s troops would have been hard pressed to achieve any of their goals.” [8] One historian put the matter of Sickles’s decision and the subsequent controversies into perspective:

“The entire episode has been clouded since 1863 by issues of politics and personality that hinder unbiased analysis. It is time to put aside such extraneous issues. When Sickles’s scandalous prewar behavior, postwar bombast, and special pleading are discounted and the case is considered solely on its merits, the results of the Third Corps advance speak for themselves. Dan Sickles was not perfect on July 2, 1862, but neither was he the military buffoon so often portray.” [9]

In his after action report Meade criticized Sickles and did so again before the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, that latter in regard to comments made by Sickles and his supporters both to the committee and in the press. Meade not only had to deal with the diversions created by Sickles, he also had the real problem of Abraham Lincoln’s disappointment with his failure to catch and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia before it escaped across the Potomac. Dan Sickles did not have to worry about that, and “he could play the role that politicians play best: critic and second guesser.” [10]With the press on his side the former disgraced Congressman was now a one legged war hero, and Sickles attempted to use his redemption and status of a hero “to have Meade removed from command in disgrace.” [11] Many generals on both sides blundered at Gettysburg. Had Sickles taken the high road after the battle rather than attempting to torpedo the name and reputation of George Meade, his action might have provoked less controversy, and “Dan Sickles the historical figure has paid a permanent price for this, overshadowing the laudable work he did as an early force in establishing the Gettysburg National Memorial Park.” [12]

That was most unfortunate, for it has poisoned the discussion of the battle for over 150 years. Unlike Lee, Meade was constantly leading from the front on this long and brutal afternoon. Meade fought a magnificent defensive battle and recovered from the surprise of Sickles movement even as Sickles and his soldiers fought hard greatly impeded the Confederate plan. Sickles was praised in the press and even by long term enemies such as George Templeton Strong, who wrote, “I suppose Sickles… with his one leg, among our best volunteer officers. His recuperative powers are certainly wonderful. Four years ago he was a ruined man in every sense, a pariah whom to know was discreditable.” [13]

“The whole damned field is my memorial”

The Excelsior Brigade Monument at Gettysburg

But the continuing controversy which always seemed to swirl around him prevented him from being honored on the battlefield where he lost his leg. Alone of all the Union Corps commanders at Gettysburg Sickles has no memorial on the battlefield. When asked about the lack of a monument, Sickles, in his typical manner is reported to have said that “The whole damned field is my memorial.” [14]Despite the controversy surrounding his life, and those that swirled in the fighting and refighting of the Battle of Gettysburg, in true fashion Dan Sickles went on to further glory and scandal. Ulysses Grant never allowed him to command troops in the field, Sickles commanded the Military Department of South Carolina, the Department of the Carolinas, and the Department of the South, where was a strong proponent of Reconstruction. Teresa died of tuberculosis in 1866

He was retired as a Major General in the Regular Army in 1869 and went on to serve as Minister to Spain where he carried on an affair with the deposed Queen Isabella, a nymphomaniac who long before she ever Sickles had conducted a myriad of high profile affairs. The affair with the former queen was open and offensive to many people, but neither seemed to mind. In a sense they were kindred spirits. A Paris newspaper dubbed the one-legged General “the Yankee King of Spain.” [15]The affair with Isabella eventually burned itself out and Sickles married Senorita Caroline de Creagh, the daughter of a Spanish Minister, who bore him two children. To do this he converted to Roman Catholicism, something that he had never done when Teresa was alive. After his service in Spain was ended Sickles remained in Paris for four years, where he was widely admired and “received the office of Commander of the Legion of Honor.” [16]

Though a Democrat he supported Republican Presidential candidates Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford Hayes, the latter against a long time Democratic rival from New York. As he got older Gettysburg became an increasing part of his life and in 1892 he ran for Congress in order to spearhead efforts to preserve the battlefield. He was elected and it was in large part due to his efforts that what we now know as the Gettysburg National Military Park exists. In 1893, Sickles met James Longstreet at a Gathering in Gettysburg, and the two men became lifelong friends. Since the war both men had been refighting the battle and the controversies that hung over their decisions that July 2nd like a pall. Longstreet, for his actions on the battlefield, and his decision to become a Republican and serve in the post-war Reconstruction efforts was a pariah in much of the South. That “unpopularity was painful to him, and he was glad to find a sympathetic ally in Sickles. Each of the two generals agreed that the other had moved with blameless skill that day,” [17] and both would defend the other in the succeeding years. As the continuing battle of Gettysburg was fought in the press and in histories written by various participants, Longstreet wrote of Sickles, “I believe it is now conceded that the advanced position at the peach orchard, taken by your Corps and under your orders, saved that battlefield for the Union cause.” [18]

Sickles was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1897, the citation stating, “Displayed most conspicuous gallantry on the field vigorously contesting the advance of the enemy and continuing to encourage his troops after being himself severely wounded.”

Sickles long to outlived George Meade who died in 1872 and all of the other Corps commanders of the Army of the Potomac, not to mention most of his friends and enemies. His father George Sickles died in 1887 leaving Dan an estate of nearly five million dollars. His daughter by Teresa, Laura, whose life had been so scarred by the events of 1859 died alone and estranged from her father. In 1896, disgusted by the nomination of William Jennings Bryant as the Democratic Presidential nominee, the one-legged Sickles went to work with his old Gettysburg comrade, the one-armed Oliver Otis Howard to campaign for the Republican William McKinley. They were quite a pair, the religious Howard, and the libertine Sickles, but they helped McKinley defeat Bryant, and McKinley remained grateful to them until his death by an assassin’s bullet.

In 1913 he attended the fiftieth anniversary ceremonies at Gettysburg where he watched the white haired survivors of Pickett’s Charge hobble across the wide battlefield into the arms of their former opponents on Cemetery Ridge. Helen Longstreet, James Longstreet’s second wife and widow quoted the words of a poet named Horatio King, for the event for a southern newspaper.

I see him on that famous field,

The bravest of the brave,

Where Longstreet’s legions strove to drive

The Third Corps to its grave

The fight was bloody, fierce and long,

And Sickles’ name shall stay

Forever in the hall of fame

As he who saved the day [19]

While Helen Longstreet’s claim that Sickles was “forever in the hall of fame” is a tad farfetched, there is no doubt that scoundrel had found redemption. When Sickles died in 1914 at the age of 94, his funeral was held at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, with full military honors, his flag-draped casket carried on an artillery caisson accompanied by a rider-less horse and artillery salutes. His funeral, in a military cemetery among other soldiers was “proof that he was no longer an attorney, politician, or even the murderer of Barton Key,” [20] he was a soldier. His tombstone simply reads:

Daniel E. Sickles

Medal of Honor

Maj. Gen. U.S. Army

May 3 1914

sickles grave

The New York Times made a comment that no one, be they an admirer or enemy could deny. “He was a truly adventurous spirit.” [21]

Notes

[1] Ibid. Oeffinger A Soldier’s General p.197

[2] Ibid. Wert General James Longstreet p.279

[3] Ibid. Alexander Fighting for the Confederacy p.278

[4] Ibid. Wert General James Longstreet p.279

[5] Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and His CriticsBrassey’s, Dulles VA 1999 p.149

[6] Freeman, Douglas S. R.E. Lee volume 3 Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York 1935 p.150

[7] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.235

[8] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg, the Testing of Courage p.421

[9] Robertson, William Glenn The Peach Orchard Revisited: Daniel E. Sickles and the Third Corps on July 2, 1863 in The Second Day at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership edited by Gary W. Gallagher, The Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio and London, 1993 p.56

[10] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p. 244

[11] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.235

[12] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p. 401

[13] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg pp.244-245

[14] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.390

[15] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.321

[16] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.339

[17] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.367

[18] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.341

[19] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.353

[20] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p. 385

[21] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.390

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Statues With Limitations: Part Three


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I am continuing my series about statues and monuments which was fueled by the controversy regarding various Confederate monuments and memorials, most which are in the South but many others in states that remained loyal to the Union, were not states at the time of the Civil War, or which were in areas be they North or South which were heavily pro-Union and which sent more soldiers to fight for the Union then they did the Confederacy. 

It is interesting to see how memory and myth cloud history when it comes to monuments, especially those to the Southern Confederacy, a nation that was described by its Vice President, former US Senator Alexander Stephens in these words:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” 

Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who so many monuments are dedicated was not happy with his Vice President’s remarks, not because he didn’t believe them not to be true but because their honesty could hurt the cause of the Confederacy abroad. He noted:

“That speech infuriated me, Oh, what Stephens had said was true, perfectly true, but could anything hurt us more abroad than such impolitic remarks? It was the beginning of a fatal falling out between me and that rebellious and vindictive dwarf, who was hell-bent on forming his own policies and disputing mine with niggardly deviousness.” 

The fact is that the vast majority of the Confederate monuments, be they located in the former eleven Confederate states, or place that were not a part of the Confederacy were not built to honor the several hundred thousand Confederate dead, but to remind Blacks that they were subordinate to Whites wherever the were erected. This can be seen by the periods during which they were constructed. Only a few were built in the first two decades following the war, and some of those, including the monument in Portsmouth, Virginia were built by the wives, mothers, and children of the fallen. Honestly as to those I understand why they are where they are, and while I think that 150 years later, unless the context of their construction and monuments or historical narratives to the victims of the Confederacy and the institution of Souther Slavery are placed alongside, I am hard pressed to explain why they remain in places of honor. 

But honestly, those memorials are but a minority. Most of the Confederate monuments that spark such freak controversy today were erected anywhere from 30 to 150 years after the war. The periods that they were built are interesting of themselves. The biggest spike in construction began in the immediate aftermath of the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that legalized Jim Crow and the second during the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement beginning around 1948. The chart below provides a good representation of when the Confederate monuments were built. 

As I mentioned in my first two articles of this series I am not of the opinion that the monuments should be destroyed, nor do I think that they should be torn down by protesters. I think that each monument should be examined based on its historical merit. Since the vast majority happen to be from the days of the Confederate resurgence after Plessy and in the height of the Dixiecrat response to the Civil Rights movement beginning after Brown v. Board of Education which overturned Plessy in 1954. So today I am going to use the example of the monuments in Hampton Roads area as a teaching point. 

Virginia where I live has 223 Confederate monuments, the most of any state. That is in a sense understandable due to it being the largest state in the Confederacy as well as the site of its capital. There are three major public monuments located in South Hampton Roads as well as a number of monuments in local cemeteries throughout the area.

The one located in Portsmouth is the oldest and the most interesting from a historical point of view. Planning and fund raising for it began in the late 1860s shortly after the war and it was dedicated on the site where slaves were whipped and punished in the town square. It was dedicated in 1893. The head of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter say that it was placed there when a church where it was planned to be located backed out. I do not know the veracity of that claim. That being said the location is still problematic, especially since Portsmouth is heavily African American and many of the Black families there trace their roots to the slaves of the city’s ante-bellum times. The monument itself is one of the most interesting monuments that I have seen. It is an imposing sight in the old court square. At its center is an obelisk on which is inscribed To Our Confederate Dead. The obelisk is surrounded by four statues representing an infantryman, a cavalryman, an artillleryman, and a sailor. I think that it would fitting if this monument was moved in its entirety to a cemetery in the city where Confederate war dead are buried. It could be replaced by any number of monuments, perhaps one to the city’s war dead from the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the First Gulf War, and the current wars which have been going on since 2001. 


Norfolk’s monument is located within a block of where the slave auctions, the slave jail, the slave infirmary, and a few blocks from the docks where the were shipped to other destinations. This is important because Norfolk was the leading port in the slave trade from about the 1830s until the outbreak of the Civil War. The monument is over 80 feet tall and is capped by the figure of a defiant Confederate soldier holding a sword and the Confederate flag. At its base are engravings of the Confederate Battle Flag and a dedication to Our Confederate Dead. Despite those words this monument can only be described as a monument to White Superority and should be removed and replace with a monument to all of the city’s war dead. The statue adorning the top could go to a museum. 


In Virginia Beach the Confederate Monument is outside the old Princess Anne County Courthouse where slave auctions were held, and which is on the grounds of the current Virginia Beach Municipal complex. In older times it would have been seen by all entering the city hall or courts for any reason. It is over 20 feet tall and topped by the statue of a Confederate infantryman. Unlike the other monuments dedicated to the dead, this one is dedicated to Our Confederate Heroes. Now it is in a distinctly less visible location and one has to go out of their way to find it. I think it could remain where it is but only if there was monument to the victims of slavery who were bought and sold there. That would provide context for it. 


That monument was erected in 1905 during the height of the re-establishment of White Rule and White Sumpremacy after Plessy. One other, in the Denbeigh section of Newport News stands at site of the old Warwick County Courthouse. Denbeigh was named after the Denbeigh Plantation and the county seat was moved to Newport News when Denbeigh and Warwick county consolidated with the independent cit of Newport News in 1958. The courthouse is now a museum and the monument was dedicated in 1909 to the men of Company H, 32nd Virginia Infantry Regiment. The regiment, recruited from the Peninsula in early 1861 had a number of companies farmed out to the artillery was reconstituted as a small, 7 company regiment in 1862. It was decimated at Antietam and served to the end of the war with the Army of Northern Virginia where five officers and forty-two enlisted men surrendered with Robert E. Lee on April 9th 1865. Since this monument is dedicated to a specific unit which distinguished itself in numerous engagements, including Antietam, and Petersburg that relocating it to one of those battlefields would be completely appropriate. 

Admittedly all of these monuments served a twofold purpose, in the case of Portsmouth, from what I have read was that those who began to contribute money for the monument was to honor the fallen. By the time it was built that purpose was also mixed with the political desire of many whites to re-establish White Supremacy. The same is true with the other monuments in the public square. As to monuments located in cemeteries where Confederate soldiers are interred it is only fitting that they remain where they are. 

As to what should be done with each monument there are options, but what can actually be done with them are dictated by State Law which stipulates that localities can erect monuments but cannot “disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials so erected.” That is a problem for the Virginia legislature to deal with and truthfully I believe that they should amend the law to allow municipalities to remove, alter, or relocate monuments. 

As a historian I think that all can serve as teaching points and that whatever is done with them that their context in relation to slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crow needs to be clarified as part of teaching history and in the process expunging the myths of the Lost Cause and the Noble South from the historical narrative. 

I want to make a couple of points. First I do not think it is wrong for the relatives and descendants of those who fell in any war to want to remember them. I have traveled throughout Europe and I have seen the monuments in city squares that list the dead from wars dating back to the Napoleonic periods and before. Even if I disagree wth the cause that they fought for I will not forbid their descendants to honor their memory, even if I refuse to honor the military service of my ancestors who rebelled against the Union in 1861. 

I think that the Confederate monuments in Portsmouth, Newport News, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach can serve a purpose greater than for which they were originally constructed. I have described what I think would be best done with each, but I believe that with some modifications that each could remain where they are now so long as there are monuments to those who were the victims of slavery, those who were the unwilling conscripts recruited for that immoral and inhuman cause, and those who opposed that cause, before, during, or after the war. 

The same is true for many other of the Confederate monuments throughout the South. But, at the same time we have to address the monuments to Confederate leaders which built during the same time period as these generic representations of Confederate soldiers. The fact is that the leaders of the Confederate rebellion against the United States are much more responsible for the deaths of three quarters of a million soldiers and the devastation of the South than any ordinary soldier. These leaders include the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, secessionist politicians like Henry Benning and Alexander Stephens, and military leaders like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Braxton Bragg. I see little reason for monuments to men who were responsible for such great suffering to remain in places of honor. 

But honestly even this is not enough, for to fully tell the story we have to also honor the Southern Unionists like George Thomas and John Buford who did not forsake their oaths the the country, and men like Robert E. Lee’s lieutenants James Longstreet, Richard Ewell, Billy Mahone, and John Mosby who fully reconciled to the Union, and who were deomonized and then written out of Southern history. 
So anyway, I will deal specifically with monuments to Confederate leaders another time, but I think this is enough for now. That being said, any monuments to the leaders of the Confederacy or those who served during that rebellion need to be held to the bar of history, otherwise we mock all of their victims, and yes, even the sacrifices of the innumerable Johnny Rebs who died in a war that most had little or nothing to gain from. 

Peace 

Padre Steve+

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Statues With Limitations: Part Two


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Alexander Pope wrote “Monuments, like men, submit to fate.” 

Two days ago I began a series regarding the Confederate Monument Controversy. I was going to begin today’s article by going directly into what I think should be done with these monuments but think that a little bit more background and context is necessary. That context is best put in the difference between history and memory. History, is made by people because it has real world effects cannot be erased because for good or bad its effects always are with us. Memory on the other hand is often selective and tends toward sentimentally. Because of that, memory often leads to the preservation of things that provide us with a certain sense of comfort, things that buttress our innate sense of superiority. 

Statues and monuments themselves have to be taken in their historical context: especially what they meant to the people that erected them and the era in which they were constructed. From time immemorial people and nations have erected statues and monuments to dieties, empowers, kings, generals, and yes, even philosophers and historians. They have also sought to commemorate the lives of soldiers who died in various wars, in part to honor their dead as did the ancient Athenians at Kerameikos, but more often to build upon a sense of national myth and purpose, to link the sacrifices of yesterday’s leaders, or soldiers to their current generation’s political, social, and even spiritual urges.

Some religions like Judaism and Islam have traditionally frowned upon the erection of statues and images that represented their dieties, their saints, or their leaders, fearing that such images could lead to idolatry. There was even a constroversy in the Christian Church, the Iconoclast Controversy, which dealt with this matter which took more than a hundred years to resolve. 

In Western society, especially since the Romans there has been a conscious attempt by nations to built statues and monuments to their leaders and other men, as women seldom rated such honor, whether they actually deserved honor or not. As such there are monuments in prominent places to men with political, social, hereditary, or economic connections who when compared to their contemporaries, or others, before or after them, have done little to be heirs to such honor. This does not mean that they were necessarily bad people, or even unworthy of the honor of their time, but rather that they are undeserving of perpetual honor in the most public of locations, or in places unconnected with where they made their name. 

Cemeteries and museums are the best places for statues which have past their effective life in the public square. Removing them does nothing to harm history, nor does it write them out of history. I like how the Old Testament writers of the books of the Kings and Chronicles end their discussions of the kings of Israel and Judah. They note that these men’s lives and deeds, good and evil, are written about and where they were buried to be with their ancestors. An example of the is Jesus, one of the kings of Israel in the book of Second Kings: “Now the rest of the acts of Jehu, all that he did, and all his power, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel?”

Since the Jews of the Old Testament did not build statues to their leaders for fear of idolatry the ensured through the oral, and later the written tradition that these leaders, the good and the bad, were remembered for their work and contributions. The Islamic tradition is quite similar. 

The ancient Greeks, particularly those of Athens chose to use the cemetery as a place to remember their dead. In dedicating the Mount Auburn Cemetery during the Greek revival, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story noted: 

“The Greeks exhausted the resources of their exquisite art in adorning the habitations of the dead. They discouraged internments within the limits of their cities; and consigned their relics to shady groves, in the neighborhood of murmuring streams and merry fountains, close by the favorite resorts of those who were engaged in the study of philosophy and nature, and called them, with the elegant expressiveness of their own beautiful language, cemeteries or “places of repose.”

Cemeteries are always places where the dead can be honored or remembered, where their descendants can find comfort and even sense the presence of their departed ancestors. 

But the public square is another matter. Times change, governments and governmental types change. The statues that the early colonists of the British American colonies erected to King George III had no place in the new republic and were removed. Monuments to Josef Stalin and Vladimir Lenin where removed from their places of prominence in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Romania once those countries escaped Soviet domination. 

Statues in public places dedicated to specific individuals or events tend to have a shelf life which means that they regardless of who they are dedicated to need to be periodically re-examined to see if they should remain in their current place of honor or be moved to a different location. But the United States is a comparatively young country, our oldest monuments are likewise comparatively new, and many pale in comparison to those of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. In those areas multiple civilizations and empire have risen and fallen, massive monuments have been erected, toppled, or faded away. Many surviving monuments now are in museums, collections of antiquity representing fallen civilizations, or have been moved from places of honor and replaced by ones that more appropriately represent the national culture and experience. 

As we approach the first quarter millenium of our experiment as a republic it is a good time to look at what we have commemorated with monuments and make considered decisions about each of them, and not just Confederate monuments. Obviously many, especially those that deal with our founding as a nation and our founders need to stay, but others should be replaced, or removed to more appropriate venues, or in cases of monuments that memorialize the more shameful parts of our history, maybe leave them and place other monuments and markers to explain the historical context and promote history versus myth. Likewise if we decide to remove them, what replaces them should be well thought out. This actually goes beyond the monuments themselves but has all to do with history, historical preservation, and the narrative that a community wants to communicate about its history, its values, and yes, even its future, for those monuments for good or bad are part of what bind generations together. 

As no point do I think they should be destroyed, even those to men who were evil, or represented evil causes. It think in the cases of truly evil men that their statues should be placed in parks, at eye level with other statues like them. The process then allows people to view them not as exalted figures, but people with feet of clay. A number of Eastern European countries have done this with statues of Stalin, Lenin, and others from the Soviet era. 

The placement or monuments is of more importance than their existence, and their contexts matter. Honore De Balzac noted: “With monuments as with men, position means everything. 

So anyway, tomorrow I will wrap this up by dealing with the Confederate Monument Controversy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Iconic Destroyers of the Fletcher Class

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Once again I continue to take some time off and re-post some articles from the deep abyss of my archives about some of the greatest warship classes in history. In the past few days I have posted articles about different U-Boat types, the Wickes and Clemson Class destroyers, and the Japanese Fubuki Class destroyers. Today, an article about possibly the most iconic destroyer class ever made, the United States Navy Fletcher Class

I hope that you have a great day. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The USS Fletcher DD-445

If ever a class of warships can define a ship type the destroyers of the Fletcher Class were that. The most numerous of all United States Navy destroyer classes the Navy commissioned 175 of these ships between June 1942 and February 1945. There were two groupings of ships the 58 round or “high bridge” ships and the 117 square or “low bridged” ships. It was a sound design that would be modified for use in the later Allen M. Sumner and Gearing Class destroyers. Eleven shipyards produced the ships fast, heavily armed and tough the ships would serve in every theater of the war at sea but would find their greatest fame in the Pacific where many became synonymous with the courage and devotion of their officers and crews.

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USS Stevens one of the 6 Fletchers equipped with an aircraft catapult

The ships were a major improvement on previous classes of destroyers and were equal or superior to the destroyers of our allies and our enemies in the war. At 2050 tons displacement and 2900 tons full load the ships were significantly larger than preceding classes and were designed to mount a superior anti-aircraft armament to compliment their main battery of five 5” 38 caliber dual purpose guns and ten 21” torpedo tubes. 376 feet long and flush decked they were an exceptionally tough class of ships which was demonstrated often in the brutal surface battles in the South Pacific, Leyte Gulf and in the battles with Kamikazes off the Philippines, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the Japanese mainland. They were the first destroyers of the US Navy which were built with radar as part of the initial design.

o bannon 1961

USS O’Bannon DD-450 in 1961

The anti aircraft armament was increased throughout the war. Initially this was composed of: 4 x 40mm Bofors in two twin-mounts and 6 to 13 x 20mm Oerlikon in single-mounts. By June of 1943 new ships of the class mounted 10 x 40mm Bofors in five twin-mounts 7 x 20mm Oerlikon in single-mounts. As the Kamikaze threat became dire ships returning to the United States for refit lost one of their torpedo tube mounts and had their AA armament increased to 14 x 40mm Bofors in three twin and two quad mounts and 12 x 20mm Oerlikon in six twin mounts. One of the more unusual experiments was to equip six ships with a catapult for a float plane. This eliminated some of their AA guns and one torpedo tube mounting. It was not successful and the mounts were removed before the end of the war.

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USS Nicholas in action at Kula Gulf

The first ships of the class saw action in the Solomons during the Guadalcanal campaign. Fletcher and O’Bannon took part in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal where O’Bannon was one of several destroyers that ganged up on the Japanese Battleship Hiei at ranges as low as 500 yards causing heavy damage to the Battleship which was sunk by naval aircraft the following day. The O’Bannon would be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for her actions around Guadalcanal which read:

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O’Bannon

“For outstanding performance in combat against enemy Japanese forces in the South Pacific from October 7, 1942, to October 7, 1943. An aggressive veteran after a year of continuous and intensive operations in this area, the U.S.S. O’BANNON has taken a tremendous toll of vital Japanese warships, surface vessels and aircraft. Launching a close range attack on hostile combatant ships off Guadalcanal on the night of November 13, 1942, the O’BANNON scored three torpedo hits on a Japanese battleship, boldly engaged two other men o’ war with gunfire and retired safely in spite of damage sustained. During three days of incessant hostilities in July 1943, she gallantly stood down Kula Gulf to bombard enemy shore positions in coverage of our assault groups, later taking a valiant part in the rescue of survivors from the torpedoed U.S.S STRONG while under fierce coastal battery fire and aerial bombing attack and adding her fire power toward the destruction of a large Japanese naval force. In company with two destroyers, the O’BANNON boldly intercepted and repulsed nine hostile warships off Vella Lavella on October 7, 1943, destroying two enemy ships and damaging others. Although severely damaged, she stood by to take aboard and care for survivors of a friendly torpedoed destroyer and retired to base under her own power. The O’BANNON’s splendid acheivements and the gallant fighting spirit of her officers and men reflect great credit upon the United States Naval Service.”

desron23

DESRON 23

The Fletcher class composed all of DESON 23 the Little Beavers commanded by Commodore Arleigh “31 knot” Burke. The squadron which covered the initial landings at Bougainville in November 1943 fought in 22 separate engagements during the next four months. During this time the squadron was credited with destroying one Japanese cruiser, nine destroyers, one submarine, several smaller ships, and approximately 30 aircraft. Under Burke the squadron was composed of USS Foote (DD-511), USS Charles Ausburne (DD-570), USS Spence (DD-512), USS Claxton (DD-571), USS Dyson (DD-572), USS Converse (DD-509) and USS Thatcher (DD-514). At the Battle of Cape St. George the squadron intercepted a Japanese force of 5 destroyers sinking 3. At the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay the ships were in action as part of Task Force 39 based around Cruiser Division 12 comprised of the Cleveland Class Light Cruisers Montpelier, Cleveland, Columbia and Denver the took part in the sinking of the Japanese Light Cruiser Sendai and a destroyer. For their efforts DESRON 23 would be awarded the Presidential Unit Citation which stated:

“For extrordinary heroism in action against enemy Japanese forces during the Solomon Islands Campaign, from November 1, 1943, to February 23, 1944. Boldly penetrating submarine-infested waters during a period when Japanese naval and air power was at its height, Destroyer Squadron TWENTY THREE operated in daring defiance of repeated attacks by hostile air groups, closing the enemy’s strongly fortified shores to carry out sustained bombardments against Japanese coastal defenses and render effective cover and fire support for the major invasion operations in this area. Commanded by forceful leaders and manned by aggressive, fearless crews the ships of Squadron TWENTY THREE coordinated as a superb fighting team; they countered the enemy’s fierce aerial bombing attacks and destroyed or routed his planes; they intercepted his surface task forces, sank or damaged his warships by torpedo fire and prevented interference with our transports. The brilliant and heroic record achieved by Destroyer Squadron TWENTY THREE is a distinctive tribute to the valiant fighting spirit of the individual units in this indomitable combat group and of each skilled and courageous ship’s company.”

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USS Johnston DD-557

Fletcher’s served heroically with “Taffy-3” in the Battle of Samar at the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Taffy-3 which was composed of 6 escort carriers, the Fletcher Class destroyers Hoel, Johnston, and Heermann and 4 destroyer escorts was assigned the task of providing close air support for troops ashore and anti-submarine protection for transports. On the morning of October 25th Admiral Halsey took Third Fleet north to engage a Japanese carrier force believing a Japanese surface force of battleships and cruisers to have withdrawn after being heavily hurt by submarine and air attacks. The carrier force had few aircraft and was considered a decoy by the Japanese. This left the San Bernardino Strait unguarded and the Japanese surface force which by now was comprised of 4 battleships including the Yamato as well as 6 heavy and 2 light cruisers and 11 destroyers doubled back going through the strait during the early morning hours of the 25th. Just before dawn a patrol aircraft spotted the Japanese force and at 0659 Yamato opened fire on the task group.

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USS Hoel DD-533

The three Fletcher’s and the Destroyer escort Samuel B Roberts were launched into a suicidal counter-attack against the Japanese force. Led by Johnston under the command of Ernest E. Evans the little ships engaged their vastly superior foe as the escort carriers edged away as they launched and recovered their aircraft to keep a continuous air assault on the Japanese force. Johnston scored numerous hits with her 5” guns on the Heavy Cruiser Kumano and when she reached torpedo range launched her 10 “fish” one of which blew off Kumano’s bow and another of which crippled Kumano’s sister Suzuya before she was hit in quick succession by a 14” shell from the Battleship Kongo which hit her engine room and three 6” shells from Yamato which struck her bridge. Evans kept the crippled ship in the fight drawing fire away from other attacking destroyers and fending off a Japanese destroyer squadron that was trying to flank the carriers. Johnston continued to be hit and was abandon at 0945 sinking 25 minutes later with 186 of her crew. Evans did not survive and was awarded the Medal of Honor.

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USS Heermann DD-532 in action at Samar

Hoel under the command of Commander Leon S. Kintberger took on the Battleship Kongo and a column of cruisers lead by the Heavy Cruiser Haguro. Hoel’s torpedo attack on Kongo forced that ship to turn away and torpedo hits were claimed on the Haguro, although that ship remained in action and the Japanese denied any torpedo damage from the attack. The Japanese concentrated on Hoel sinking her at 0855 taking all but 86 of her crew to a watery grave.

Heermann under Commander Amos Hathaway threw herself into the fight engaging Japanese battleships and cruisers. Heermann engaged Heavy Cruiser Chikuma with her guns while mounting a torpedo attack on Haguro. She then attacked the Japanese battleships directly engaging Haruna and forcing Yamato to head away from the action for 10 minutes as she was bracketed by two of Heermann’s torpedoes running on a parallel course. She engaged the other battleships at such close range that they could not hit her and broke off to intercept a column of cruisers. Once again she engaged Chikuma in a bloody duel with both ships taking heavy damage. Crippled by a series of 8” shell hits from the heavy cruisers Heermann was down heavily at the bow, so much so that her anchors dragged the water. Carrier aircraft joined the battle and Chikuma withdrew from the fight and sank during her withdraw. Heermann then engaged Heavy Cruiser Tone before that ship, also damaged by air attack withdrew from the fight. Though she was heavily damaged the Heermann was the only destroyer to survive the action. Despite their terrible losses the ships and aircraft of Taffy-3 sank 3 heavy cruisers and a destroyer and heavily damaged 3 battleships and 3 heavy cruisers.

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Just a bit wet, USS Halsey Powell unrep with USS Wisconsin

For their heroic actions which kept the Japanese from getting to the vulnerable transports Taffy-3 including the valiant destroyers Johnston, Hoel, Heerman and Destroyer Escort Samuel B Roberts was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation which read:

“For extraordinary heroism in action against powerful units of the Japanese Fleet during the Battle off Samar, Philippines, October 25, 1944. Silhouetted against the dawn as the Central Japanese Force steamed through San Bernardino Strait towards Leyte Gulf, Task Unit 77.4.3 was suddenly taken under attack by hostile cruisers on its port hand, destroyers on the starboard and battleships from the rear. Quickly laying down a heavy smoke screen, the gallant ships of the Task Unit waged battle fiercely against the superior speed and fire power of the advancing enemy, swiftly launching and rearming aircraft and violently zigzagging in protection of vessels stricken by hostile armor-piercing shells, anti-personnel projectiles and suicide bombers. With one carrier of the group sunk, others badly damaged and squadron aircraft courageously coordinating in the attacks by making dry runs over the enemy Fleet as the Japanese relentlessly closed in for the kill, two of the Unit’s valiant destroyers and one destroyer escort charged the battleships point-blank and, expending their last torpedoes in desperate defense of the entire group, went down under the enemy’s heavy shells as a climax to two and one half hours of sustained and furious combat. The courageous determination and the superb teamwork of the officers and men who fought the embarked planes and who manned the ships of Task Unit 77.4.3 were instrumental in effecting the retirement of a hostile force threatening our Leyte invasion operations and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

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USS Isherwood (DD-520) underway in heavy weather as she comes alongside the heavy cruiser USS Tuscaloosa (CA-37) in August 1943. National Archives and Records Administration. Photo # 80-G-79429. [Navsource]

During the war 19 of the class were lost and 6 damaged so badly that they were not repaired. 44 of the ships were awarded 10 battle stars or more while 19 were awarded Naval Unit Commendations and 16 Presidential Unit Citations. Following the war all were decommissioned and placed in reserve. Many were re-commissioned during the Korean War and served through Vietnam. Some of these ships were modernized with newer ASW weapons and re-designated Escort Destroyers (DDE) while others had their air search radar modernized and were re-classified as Radar Picket Destroyers or (DDR). The last Fletcher in US Service decommissioned in 1971. 52 were sold or transferred under military assistance programs to other navies in the 1950s. The ships served well and the last one in active service the Mexican Navy Destroyer Cuitlahuac the former USS John C Rodgers DD-874 was decommissioned in 2001.

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Ex USS Twinning in Republic of China Navy Service, note weapon modifications

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Zerstörer Z-1 Rommel

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USS Kidd as Museum and Memorial

Four are currently open as memorial ships the USS Cassin Young DD-793 at Buffalo NY, the USS The Sullivans DD-537 at Boston MA and USS Kidd DD-661 at Baton Rouge LA can be seen in the United States. The Cassin Young is berthed at the old Charlestown Naval Yard in Boston across the pier from the Frigate USS Constitution. The the Greek destroyer Velos the ex-USS Charette DD-581 is located in Athens. The John Rodgers was scrapped in Mexico in 2011.

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Greek Destroyer Velos ex-USS Charente 

The Fletcher Class really symbolizes more than any class of destroyer the classic look of what a destroyer should be. Their clean lines and classic design are iconic not just in this country but in the 15 other countries that they would serve in during the following years. Their amazing record and service in World War Two and in the following years in both the US Navy and the navies of our Allies is one that will probably never be surpassed.

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USS Cassin Young

I have visited the Cassin Young in Boston; it is well worth the time to see. I hope that I might see The Sullivans and Kidd in the coming years.

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The Zerstörer Z-4 ex USS Dyson in heavy seas

I salute the ships of the class and the officers and sailors that served on them in peace and war.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under historic preservation, History, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy, World War II at Sea, world war two in the pacific