Ah well, that’s proof that keeping a blog going in the teeth of daily life is not always easy.  Five months worth of assorted difficulties plus the need to get to grips with a new job will do that to you.  As someone once wrote about history, ‘it’s just been one thing after another’.


On this day in 1862

English: "Portrait of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E...

English: “Portrait of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, officer of the Federal Army”. Negative: glass, wet collodion. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ambrose Burnside got the post most thinking generals in the Eastern Theatre of the US Civil War would have sold their grandmothers to avoid – command of the Army of the Potomac.  I never really knew how to take Burnside – in the roll of Union commanders he is often held up as one of the most unsuccessful and incompetent.  A little background reading fleshes out the picture more fairly – the man was a good peacetime commander and administrator but such people don’t always make the transition to field command.  Burnside started the war as a colonel of volunteers (1st Rhode Island) and was bumped up to brigade command in time for 1st Bull Run.  His performance there was what you might expect from an OK colonel given a brigade – OK but nothing more.

From autumn 1861 until summer 1862, Burnside commanded a scratch force of three Maryland brigades dubbed the North Carolina Expeditionary Force.  These troops were used to conduct an amphibious campaign that closed most  the war.of the North Carolina coast to Confederate shipping for the remainder of the war.  That got him a promotion to Major-General and his forces designated as the nucleus of the new 9th Corps of the Army of the Potomac.  If the war started to get on top of Gen. Burnside it was probably at the point he was first offered command of the Army of the Potomac.  Sensibly, he refused and one gets the impression that the man understood and accepted his limitations.  Following Second Bull Run he was offered command again and again refused.

September 1862 brought Lee’s invasion of Maryland and the battle of Antietam.  Burnside’s lacklustre performance at that fight can be partly blamed on McClellan, who had split 9th Corps, putting each of its two divisions at opposite ends of the battlefield.  That said, Burnside himself appeared overborne by the situation.  His failure to utilise the concealed fords over Antietam Creek meant that his troops were committed to attacking across a bridge covered from high ground by Confederate sharpshooters.  This was a major factor in the result of the battle – a tactical stalemate.

McClellan’s less than enthusiastic pursuit of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia as they retreated lead to his removal.  Burnside got the job offer from hell for a third time and reluctantly accepted.  He soon understood what political pressure meant as telegram after telegram came from Washington ordering him to attack.  His plan for an advance on Richmond was way too ambitious, since everything depended on an easy capture and consolidation of his crossing over the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg.  The ensuing battle fought there on 13 December was a costly and humiliating Union defeat.  Failure to exploit breakthroughs on the flanks allowed Lee and Longstreet to dig in along Marye’s Heights and repel frontal assault after frontal assault.  It is for these corpse-strewn slopes that Burnside is chiefly and not entirely fairly remembered.

On this day in 1914

British troops suffered an ignominious and unecessary defeat at Tanga in East Africa.  Their nemesis in this case went by the name of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.  Four four years, Lettow-Vorbeck held off at least 200,000 British, French and Portugese soldiers with a force that rarely exceeded 11,000 Askari Africans and 3,000 Germans.  His East African Campaign rates as one of the most successful guerilla campaigns of modern history – quite possibly of all time.

When you do a little bit of digging on the man he emerges as quite a character.  On the surface an old-school Prussian, he challenges that image by his style of command.  Innovative and thoughtful he was clearly a superb tactician and a man who knew how to inspire loyalty – not just from his German subordinates, but also from the Askari soldiers under his command.  Lettow-Vorbeck spoke their language fluently and treated them no differently to his German troops.  Interestingly, he also ensured that those with sufficient potential received commissions – often from the ranks.

After the war, he resigned from the army and played little or no part in the turbulent politics of Weimar Germany.  What really made me smile was his response to being courted by the Nazis.  Hitler reportedly offered him the post of ambassador to Britain – an approach based solely on his war record.  The old general’s response is not explicitly recorded, but there is a story (possibly not apocryphal) that he told Adolf to go fuck himself.  🙂

A salute then to the old general – a soldier of the old school and the closest thing to an honourable enemy one is likely to find in modern conflict.

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Book Review: ‘A Free Man of Color’ – Barbara Hambly

Left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read a historical novel set in pre-Civil War New Orleans and especially not one set in the early 1830’s.  Benjamin January is a free black man returning to New Orleans after sixteen years in Paris.  The laws of New Orleans prevent him practising medicine, hence he earns his living as a musician and music teacher.  Hambly paints a detailed and absorbing picture of Creole society at a point of transition.  While the atmosphere and attitude of much of the city is still French, American influence is growing.  January knows that as a free man of colour, his word will still (mostly) be taken seriously by Creoles in New Orleans.  Outside the city though things are different.  Along the bayous plantations are springing up run by newcomers from Kentucky and Georgia – people for whom the concept of a free black man is a contradiction in terms.A Free Man of Color (Benjamin January)

A murder at a Mardi Gras ball drops January unwillingly into a world of glittering decadence, demi monde and deceit.  The last person known to have seen the murdered Angelique Crozat alive he must find her real killer before the New Orleans Creole elite pin the murder on him.  Hambly packs an immense amount of detail into the book – I personally enjoyed it but I could see less patient people growing weary with the scene-setting and skimming forward to get to the action.  My personal advice would be to stick with it – the story takes a while to get going but when it does  you will find it very hard indeed to put down.

Oh come on America…

Come on America, you’re not going to fall for this are you? What Obama has failed to do is down to your bipartisan political system that puts block after block in the way of getting anything like serious change. And if you believe that Romney is going to do anything spectacular in getting the country back to work you are frankly deluded.
Oh, and you’re whinging about $3.90 for a gallon of gas. We have to pay out $10. Count yourselves lucky.

CNN Political Ticker

(CNN) – The New York Daily News and Long Island’s Newsday endorsed Republican nominee Mitt Romney for president, switching from their 2008 pick of then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

In an article published in the newspaper’s opinion section Sunday, the Daily News’ editorial board dissected the nation’s economic hardships down to the dollars and cents of an increasingly expensive subway ride to a $3.90 average for a gallon of gasoline.

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Paston Letters

Paston Letters (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Margaret Paston died.  She married into the Paston family, an example of mid-level Norfolk gentry during the Wars of the Roses.  She is chiefly remembered for the detailed correspondence she left behind her.  Totalling around one hundred letters, it provides a superb insight into daily life during the Wars of the Roses.  Most 0f the letters are to her husband Sir William Paston, who was often absent from home on court business.  However, while the Paston Letters are a superb resource, they should not be taken as providing a typical picture of gentry life during this period.  The Pastons were quite closely involved in local and national politics and in that they were by no means typical of the time.  The Paston Letters can usefully be contrasted with the Stonor Papers in this respect.

On this day in 1484

Remember, remember… 5/11

English: ITV "Gunpowder Plot - Exploding ...

English: ITV “Gunpowder Plot – Exploding the Legend” – the replica House of Lords is destroyed (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Few events in early seventeenth century English history are quite as iconic as the Gunpowder Plot of November 1605.  On the face of it, we’ve got everything; ruthlessly dedicated conspirators, spies, agent-provacteurs, religious unrest, shoot-outs and a series of really unplesant executions.  The despicable plot, discovered just in the nick of time, would taint English Catholics for centuries to come.  In fact, they wouldn’t recover anything like a reasonable level of political and employment rights until 1829.

There’s still a great deal of debate over the Gunpowder Plot – possibly not as much as over the events of 9/11, but in both cases there are still a range of questions left unanswered.  If 9/11 was indeed the false-flag attack claimed by the conspiracy theory proponents then arguably the best place to hide such a staggeringly huge plot would be in plain sight.  No need to arrest those shouting about shadow government/NWO agendas when the power of the media can silence them just as effectively, if not more so.  After all, if the authorities arrest them then maybe there was something in the story.  Much better to allow the media to discredit them and it’s more effective in the long run.

The events of autumn 1605 still polarise people along religious and political lines.  What I’ll try to do in this post is set out the issues that are generally agreed upon, before listing those where questions still remain to be answered.  First off, it’s almost certainly true that if the gunpowder in the cellar had detonated, the destruction would have been complete.  A recent TV documentary produced and shown on ITV here in the UK built a replica of the 1605 Parliament chamber and detonated 36 barrels of gunpowder beneath it.  For the results see:


Secondly, a man answering to the name of ‘John Johnson’ (but later shown to be Guido Fawkes, Catholic mercenary), was discovered in the cellars of the House of Commons in charge of 36 barrels of gunpowder, a laid fuse and a lantern.  Thirdly, it is also true that King James I‘s initial tolerance for the English Catholics had almost completely evaporated since his accession to the throne in 1603.  On the face of it, James was having to juggle the pleas of the Catholic minority to worship as they pleased free from the hated recusancy fines (levied on those who refused to attend Protestant church services) with the demands of the Protestant clergy and nobility.  Fourthly, it is also true that by early 1605 the royal point of view had begun to swing against the Catholics.  Many of them swallowed their pride and prepared to live double lives again but it is likely that others began to wonder if the time had come for more direct action.

How the plot was allegedly formulated, funded and organised is way outside the scope of a blog post, so I’m going to restrict myself to the following observations.  Many of these can be challenged and if so I’ve tried to list the appropriate counter point.

1. How was it that known Catholics were able to rent a cellar under the Parliament Chamber without more frequent checks being made on what they were up to?  If the plot was an agent provacteur scheme set up by Sir Robert Cecil (James I’s Secret Service boss and rabid anti-Catholic) then this would explain things.

2. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder?  Most if not all gunpowder was stored under close guard at the Tower of London, so how did the plotters get hold of so much unless they were allowed to?  Well, Fawkes was a mercenary and not without contacts abroad.  Smuggling the powder into London would not have been beyond a group of determined men.  Alright – but how did they get it down into the cellar without someone asking questions?  Difficult but not impossible.  One barrel per day?

3. The person who rented the cellar to the plotters was found dead the following morning.  Single pistol shot to the head.  Suspicious and a straight line for the conspiracy theorist.  On the face of it it does look like a loose end being tidied up.

4. Why was the decision made to search the cellars on that one night and just in time to catch Fawkes ready to light the blue touch paper and leg it?  Yes, it looks iffy but the letter to Lord Monteagle from his cousin the plotter Francis Tresham might well explain it.  Tresham sent the letter annonymously to warn Monteagle from attending Parliament on the 5th:

My lord out of the love I bear to some of youre frends I have a care of your preseruasion therefore I would advise you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift of your attendance at this parliament for god and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time and think not slightly of this advertisement but retire youre self into youre control where you may expect the event in saftey for though there be no appearance of any stir yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them this councel is not to be condemned because it may do you good and can do you no harm for the danger is passed as soon as you have burnt the letter and I hope god will give you the grace to make good use of it to whose holy protection I commend you.

Either Tresham was acting out of concern for his cousin or he was in fact a plant – put there by Cecil to give the game away at just the right time.

5. Most of the surviving plotters were tracked down at Holbeche House in Staffordshire and all were killed or wounded in the ensuing fight.  Chief plotters Thomas Percy and Robert Catesby were shot dead though – the soldier who did the deed receiving a pension of 10p a day for life.  More tying up of loose ends or simply a reward for a job well done?  There is an interesting but unsubstantiated comment from Cecil to the effect of ‘make sure those two don’t see the light of day eh?’

6.  Francis Tresham, the man who sent the letter to Lord Monteagle, died in the Tower of London in circunstances which are still unclear today.  Not for him the rack and the agony of being hung drawn and quartered.  Nevertheless, he may well have been dealt with more quietly but no less effectively.

In the end you pays your money and takes your choice.

It was ordinary Catholics, however, who suffered the longest as a result of the Gunpowder Plot. New laws were passed preventing them from practising law, serving as officers in the Army or Navy, or voting in local or Parliamentary elections. Furthermore, as a community they would be blackened for the rest of the century, blamed for the Great Fire of London and unfairly fingered in the Popish Plot of 1678. Thirteen plotters certainly proved an unlucky number for British Catholics: stigmatised for centuries, it was not until 1829 that they were again allowed to vote.