Thursday, June 23, 2011

George Armstrong Custer: Hero or Media Darling?

George Armstrong Custer was no military novice in 1876 when he rode out to subdue the Sioux. Custer graduated from West Point in 1861, and distinguished himself in the American Civil War as a brave cavalry officer, being promoted to the rank of brevet brigadier general in 1863 and brevet major general in 1865. Custer’s adherents made much of the fact that he was a “boy general”, but such honors were fairly common during the Civil War. In fact two of Custer’s subordinate officers in the 1876 campaign, Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen had been given similar honors during the Civil War. Reno was made a brevet brigadier general in 1865 and, by the end of the war, Benteen had been recommended to receive the rank of brevet brigadier general.

Unlike many other brave soldiers, however, Custer had a knack for publicity. He frequently invited correspondents from leading newspapers to accompany his campaigns, and their reporting significantly enhanced his visibility and reputation. Custer put on quite a show for the press, sporting a flamboyant uniform and long hair worn in ringlets sprinkled with cinnamon-scented hair oil. In his manner of dress and command he was not unlike J.E.B. Stuart, the flamboyant commander of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate cavalry. The North needed its’ own Stuart and Custer cast himself in the role of the North’s dashing cavalier.

While no one could question Custer’s personal bravery or flamboyance, his tactics were weak. His one basic tactic was to charge the enemy, wherever he might be, no matter how strong his position or how large his numbers. On the second day of the battle of Gettysburg, for example, Custer, without reconnaissance, attacked a force four times his size. Custer was personally cited for gallantry although his brigade suffered the highest loss of any Union cavalry brigade engaged at Gettysburg. Custer’s reputation was bought with the dead bodies of his men.

The Battle of Bladensburg (War of 1812)

Secretary of War John Armstrong Jr., a self styled military genius, had a theory that militia fought best at the spur of the moment. Early deployment would only cause militiamen to brood over the horrors of battle.

Armstrong steadfastly refused to do anything to defend the United States capital in 1814. When residents of St. Mary’s County, Maryland, pleaded for help in the face of several British raids, Armstrong replied, “It cannot be expected that I can defend every man’s turnip patch.”

The British landed at Benedict, Maryland on August 19, 1814, achieving complete tactical surprise. Some 4,500 British veterans faced 429 American regulars and 1,500 poorly trained and poorly equipped militia in a set piece battle in the open. Armstrong’s theories about the use of militia did not prove sound against the British.

The British regulars came on steadily, driving the Americans like sheep. After losing ten dead and forty wounded, the Americans fled the field, leaving ten cannons behind. The route was complete, and was derided at the time as the “Bladensburg Races”. The battle has come down to history as, “the greatest disgrace ever dealt American arms” and “the most humiliating episode in American history.”

Later that night the British burned Washington.

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Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Civil War Wedding of Major General George E. Pickett C.S.A.

September 15, 1863, was the happy occasion of the wedding of Miss Sallie Ann Corbell of Chuckatuck, Virginia, to Major General George E. Pickett of Richmond.

The general met the wedding party on the evening of September 14 at the train station in Petersburg and escorted them to the Bollingbrook Hotel. The following day, the church was filled to capacity. The residents of Petersburg still refer to the bells of St. Paul's as "the Pickett chimes" because they had remained silent during the War until Pickett's wedding day. The wedding feast became a community effort. A gun salute was given, bells chimed and bugles hailed as the couple embarked on a train from Petersburg to Richmond. In the capital, everyone pitched in to make the dinner memorable including Varina Davis and Mrs. Robert E. Lee who brought wartime fruitcake. Afterwards there was a night of dancing.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Mount Vernon Monster (Bigfoot?)

On May 12, 1979, the front page of The Washington Post carried an article entitled,“The Mount Vernon Monster.” For nine months, in 1978 and 1979, a strange creature wailed and screamed nightly in the woods just a mile from historic Mount Vernon. Some people called it “The Mount Vernon Monster”, others “Bigfoot”. Whatever the creature may have been, it was elusive, frustrating capture attempts by the police, flyovers by a U.S. Park police helicopter, searches by volunteer youth patrols, and the determined efforts of the Fairfax County game warden to track it down. And thus an urban legend was born.

The story made its’ way into oral history projects, which are now being cited by monster hunters as historical authentication of the creature’s existence, “…one of the game wardens, said ‘The thing seems to know when you leave the woods, then it starts to holler.’ One resident said she spotted the monster. She described it as a creature about six feet tall, which lumbered into the woods after being sighted.”

The howling stopped as abruptly as it began, but the story lives on.

Mind bending stories from the Old Dominion. A collection of Virginia’s most notable Urban Legends, many include the true stories behind them.