Thirteen Days Later. . . .

In our finite sense of time and events, we often lose our sense of perspective. We often mentally compress time and events without realizing that much more happened in the intervening time span than we think. Such it is with the invasion of Normandy during World War II.

We recently commemorated the June 6, 1944, Allied landings on Omaha, Utah, Sword, Gold, and Juno beaches that began the push that brought down the Third Reich. We then somehow jump mentally from the carnage along the beaches and cliffs of Normandy to the joining of U.S. and Russian forces at the Elbe, forgetting the long struggle that occurred among the hedgerows of the bocage, around the Falaise Gap, and in the fields of Belgium. We pause to recall the German surprise at the Bulge, but otherwise we tend to forget what took place between the initial clash on D-day and the celebrations of V-E Day.

On this date in history, June 19, 1944, my Uncle Dillon Summers had his own landing on Omaha Beach. He, a lowly, unassuming corporal, and the rest of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion of the 3rd Armored Division assembled in a predesignated marshaling area, fired registration rounds from their 105 and 155 mm mobile gun platforms, and almost immediately engaged enemy targets. As they did so, the beaches were still under fire from German artillery. Thirteen days after the much-celebrated D-day landings.

Thirteen days later. That should tell us something about how hard the fighting was after the initial landings.

To identify the enemy artillery pieces that were raining death and destruction on U.S. troops on Omaha Beach, the 391st AFA had forward observers (FOs) who crept to the front-most edges of the battlefield, noted the location of the enemy guns, and radioed the coordinates back to the U.S. artillerists, who then unleashed their own death blows to the offending German artillery.

Uncle Dillon was one of the few soldiers assigned to get the FOs to that forward edge. Many such tank drivers, and even more FOs, never made it back. Dillon was wounded and won two Bronze Stars for valor while doing his job, and he made it back. He and others like him enabled the Allies, one enemy artillery piece and one enemy troop concentration at a time, to defeat a powerful, diabolical enemy.

That’s usually how it is. Whereas we often hear of the exploits of the generals and commemorate the single-day actions of divisions, we sadly forget that it is the grueling, day-to-day work of thousands of anonymous, unsung individual heroes who just faithfully do their jobs that make those big victories possible.

Who are the unsung heroes in your life? A teacher? A preacher? A parent?

Are you an unsung hero to someone because you are faithfully and consistently doing your job? Are your daily actions making it possible for someone else to gain victory in his or her life?

Someone may be watching and learning from your life. They might look upon you as their hero.

Think about it!

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson


V-E Day, May 8, 1945

Today marks the 73rd anniversary of V-E Day, when World War II ended in Europe with the utter defeat of the Nazi regime.

That military conflict is the one with which I most closely connect, primarily because, as my interest in history developed, most of the books I read tended to be about that war. Although I grew up during the Vietnam War, it was too current for many books to have been written about it when I was developing my love of reading. Besides, I had an uncle who was directly engaged with the earlier war in Europe, and I saw his military souvenirs from that conflict. As an adult, I became interested in tracing his footsteps through that war in an attempt to learn as closely as I could where he had been and what he experienced.

Although the infamous fire in the St. Louis record depository destroyed his (and thousands of other servicemen’s) military records, I have been able to piece together enough through the history of the units he was part of to get a pretty good idea of the path he trod.

Uncle Dillon Summers was inducted into the U.S. Army in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, as part of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion (patch shown here), 3rd Armored Division, First Army, under General Omar Bradley. He trained in armored warfare at Camp Polk, Louisiana, and the Desert Training Center in California and then had advanced artillery training at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. On September 3, 1943, he embarked for England with the 3rd Armored Division aboard the S.S. Shawnee. He got further training in Warminster, England, before landing on Omaha Beach on June 25, 1945, D-day + 19. The 391st AFA began firing on the Germans the next day.



Dillon was a tank driver for artillery forward observers (FOs) of Combat Command B (CCB). FOs moved out in front of the main lines, identified enemy targets, and called in 155 mm artillery strikes against them. As such, he was in constant danger. He was involved in the Battle for St. Lo; Operation Cobra, the breakout from the bocage, or hedgerow country of Normandy; the closing of the Falaise Gap; the drive into Belgium; the breaching of the Siegfried Line; the crossing of the Rhine near Cologne; and the liberation of the concentration camp at Nordhausen/Dora Mittelbau, where the Nazis used slave labor to make their V-2 rockets.

As best I can ascertain, combat for Uncle Dillon’s unit ended on April 24, 1945, when CCB was relieved by the 9th Infantry Division and went into a period of rest and maintenance in the vicinity of Sangershausen. I assume that he was still there on May 8, 1945, when they received word of V-E Day. (On May 12, the unit moved to occupy Neu-Isenburg, a sector south of Frankfurt. They moved again on August 14 to a sector between Stuttgart and Nuremberg.)


Although I can trace (with some frustrating gaps in information) his general steps throughout his active combat duty, I have no idea what his reaction was to the end of hostilities. Was it elation? Was it a heavy sigh of relief? Was it an anticlimactic shrug? I’ll never know. I only know that what he witnessed firsthand changed him, and he never (in my hearing anyway) talked about it.

But the United States clearly won that war, unlike the Vietnam War, from which we merely withdrew to allow the enemy to walk into and seize their original objective virtually unopposed. Maybe that is another reason I feel such an affinity for the history of World War II: it was a clear, decisive victory.

Be that as it may, we all owe a deep debt of gratitude to those who fought in World War II, whether in Europe or the Pacific theaters and whether on the front line of battle, as my uncle did, or in the far-off and virtually unknown theaters of relative inactivity, such as the Aleutians (see my article “The Forgotten Theater: The Aleutians Campaign” in World at War, June-July 2018, which, I learned this past weekend, is available at Barnes & Noble). That generation is fast passing from us, and we should both learn as much as we can from them and express our gratitude before they are all gone and we lose that opportunity.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

Assessing Davis’s Cabinet Members

“Although the members of the Confederate cabinet were, as individuals, talented and capable men, they were not particularly effective. The cabinet really never worked well together as a team. Some of them did not stay in office long enough to be effective. Others, arguably, were not effective because they stayed too long.”

(Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, p. 24)

Meditations on a Motto

For quite some time now, I’ve been researching my uncle’s World War II military service experiences. One of the most interesting findings was the motto of his unit, but more about that later. Since his and many other veterans’ records were destroyed in the St. Louis repository fire in the 1970s, I’ve had to piece together fragments of his experiences from other sources, tracing his steps through histories of the units of which he was a part.*

In the process, I’ve run across a lot of interesting details showing how and why those units deserve more credit than they have heretofore garnered. For example, the 3rd Armored Division fired the first shells into Germany, was the first unit to set foot on German soil, and advanced an amazing 102 miles in 24 hours, the longest such advance in history, and that against stiff German resistance. The 3rd AD also was responsible for capturing the largest number of enemy soldiers in two separate pincer movements that closed German escape routes in the Falaise Pocket (1944) and the Ruhr Pocket (1945).

The 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion of the 3rd AD spent a record 239 days in active combat and fired 170,100 rounds, the greatest number of any unit in the 3rd AD. The 391st AFA awarded 28 Silver Stars and 133 Bronze Stars, six of them Oak Leaf Clusters (including one to my uncle).

Despite these achievements, the 3rd AD was (and continues to be) overshadowed by the 1st AD, commanded by the flamboyant, bombastic, and self-promoting General George Patton. Patton’s men did achieve much, and he proudly made sure that people knew of those accomplishments. The soldiers of the 3rd AD, on the other hand, quietly went about their deadly tasks and left grandstanding to others. They surely are the unsung heroes of World War II.

But what about that motto, the detail from my research that most profoundly struck my attention? The motto of the 391st AFA Battalion was “Honor Before Honors.” They achieved much as a fighting force, but, overlooked and overshadowed as they were, the men quietly and humbly returned after the war and “got on with life,” never making a big deal of what they had done or experienced. (As a kid, I never recall my uncle’s talking about any of his war experiences, and that despite all the carnage he witnessed and the two Bronze Stars he had won.)

The motto of the 391st AFA Battalion came to my mind as I was reading my Bible recently and came across Proverbs 15:33: “Before honor is humility.”

A lot of people want the honors, but few have the honor (character) or the humility that is prerequisite to it. They want to receive the accolades of men without having done anything worthy of the honors. They want the bragging rights but not the character required to deserve that right or to handle it appropriately. On the other hand, as commentator Matthew Henry stated, “Where there is humility there is a happy presage of honour and preparative for it.”

The men of the 391st won honors because they had learned and prepared themselves to wage a brave fight that would make a difference to the greater cause, regardless of who got the credit. The 3rd AD was called the Spearhead and led the assault into Nazi Germany but only because they had proven themselves in earlier combat. The 391st AFA Btn. was the point of that spearhead. My uncle (kneeling on his M3 Lee medium tank in the photo), was a driver for a forward observer of that unit. Because he took his forward observer to the very front of the battle, the place of greatest danger, he was surely the tip of that point.

If the motto “Honor before honors” is true for a military combat unit, it is even more applicable to the spiritual condition of individuals today. How honorable and humble are we? Are we deserving of hearing our Lord’s “Well done, thou good and faithful servant”? Food for thought!

* [Sources searched include Spearhead in the West (history of the 3rd Armored Division); Combat History of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion; Battle History of “A” Battery, 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion; Armored Attack 1944; Armored Victory 1945; volumes 5 and 7 of the “Green Books,” the official government history U.S. Army in World War II; and many lesser-known publications.]

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

In Memorium: Thomas J. Jackson

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the tragic death of one who can truly be called a “Christian soldier.”

In the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Confederacy had not only one of its greatest victories but also one of its greatest losses. Although the Southern armies won the battle, they lost one of their greatest generals through the wounding, and ultimately the death, of Thomas J. Jackson.

Many of Jackson’s contemporaries considered him to be a rare bird, an eccentric, a fanatic. Many of them complained about his various personal quirks, but much of their dissatisfaction with him actually lay in their dislike of his strict adherence to his religious convictions. Some of them even blamed some of the South’s military reverses on Jackson’s reluctance to wage war on Sunday, or “the Lord’s Day,” as Jackson called it. At least one of them (Richard Ewell), however, later accepted Jackson’s Christ as his own, and his formerly foul and obscene life immediately changed for the better. (The story of Ewell’s conversion and the influence of Jackson’s life is portrayed in the movie Red Runs the River by Unusual Films.)

Jackson expert James I. Robertson called Jackson “a man of arms surrounded by tenets of faith” (Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend, p. ix). It was the courage that Jackson’s faith produced on the battlefield at Manassas (Bull Run) that produced his nickname “Stonewall.” Jackson said that he felt as safe on the battlefield as at home in his bed because he trusted in God to protect him until his time came.

But Jackson’s faith was not something that appeared just on the battlefield or on the Lord’s Day; it was part of his everyday life. As a young instructor at Virginia Military Institute, Jackson confided to his sister, “I have so fixed the habit [of prayer] in my own mind that I never raise a glass of water to my lips without a moment’s asking of God’s blessing. I never seal a letter without putting a word of prayer under the seal. I never take a letter from the post without a brief sending of my thoughts heavenward. I never change my classes . . . without a minute’s petition on the cadets who go out and those who come in.”

Jackson became a Christian in 1849 when he was a major in the U.S. Army. And from the very beginning, he took his religion seriously, and he grew in his faith. Whenever he discovered something in his life that Scripture condemned, he sought to rid himself of it. Whenever he saw something that Scripture required but that was lacking in his life, he strove to add it. Shortly after Jackson’s conversion, the pastor of the Presbyterian church he joined in Lexington, Virginia, called upon him to lead in public prayer. Shy and ill at ease when speaking in public, Jackson stammered and stumbled through his impromptu prayer. After the service, he apologized to the pastor but said that if public prayer was his duty as a believer, he would work to improve his praying. “Call on me whenever you think proper,” he said. “My personal comfort is not to be consulted in the matter.”

That attitude of doing one’s duty regardless of personal cost was a trait that Jackson exhibited in not only public worship but also combat. “Duty is ours; consequences are God’s,” he declared. This was just one of many maxims that Jackson collected and sought to apply to his own life. Here are a few other examples of his maxims:

  • “Never try to appear more wise or learned than the rest of the company.”
  • “Endeavor to do well everything which you undertake.”
  • “Sacrifice your life rather than your word.”
  • “Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
  • “Lose no time; be always employed in something useful.”

Jackson was a stern disciplinarian. He did his duty, and he expected his men to do theirs. And they responded with alacrity to his demands upon them. He was a master of surprise and envelopment, and his First Brigade became known as his “foot cavalry” because they made so many rapid, forced marches, catching the enemy by surprise and often producing resounding victories for the Southerners. And his men loved him as troops did no other general other than Lee.

But Jackson was concerned with more than military victory. He was concerned about the spiritual condition of people, including both blacks and the men under his command. Even before the war, he sought the spiritual welfare of slaves as he taught the Bible to them in a Sunday school class for them that he started in his church. Some people laughed at him; others opposed him. Jackson was actually “on the perimeter of the law” of the times, which prohibited teaching of blacks. But he knew their spiritual need, and he taught them the Bible anyway.

During the war, Jackson encouraged his soldiers to attend worship services conducted by chaplains of various denominations. He continually sought more chaplains and did everything he could to support their ministrations among his men. He encouraged attendance at revival meetings. Yet, he forced nothing religious on them. His most severe requirements of religious conviction were those he placed on and expected of himself. He led in religion by example, and many an officer entered Jackson’s tent to find their general on his knees in prayer.

Yes, all that Jackson was seemed fanatical and extreme to his contemporaries, just as it does to his critics today. But his life holds forth important lessons for us.

Jackson was accidentally shot in the darkness by his own men in the waning minutes of the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville. When Lee learned of Jackson’s being wounded, he exclaimed, “He has lost his left arm but I my right arm.” Jackson’s wounds did not kill him; the pneumonia that set in did. His last words were, “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.”

Jackson crossed over his final river at 3:15 p.m., Sunday, May 10, 1863, and rested in the arms of Jesus Christ. But he left a legacy and many life lessons for those who are wise enough to learn them.

[For more information on Jackson’s religious views and practices, see David T. Myers, Stonewall Jackson: The Spiritual Side, Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle Publications, 2003.]

Two Historic Victories

On this date in history, March 7, 1945, two U.S. armored divisions achieved momentous victories, hastening the end of World War II in Europe.

The 3rd Armored Division captured Cologne on the Rhine River. My uncle was a tank driver for one of the three forward observers of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion in that division, which was nicknamed Spearhead. But the assault on that German city, as dangerous and destructive as it was, was a mere sideshow to the big show, so to speak. It kept German forces occupied and unable to send support to other German troops a few miles farther south, where an even greater victory occurred.

The 9th Armored Division achieved that victory: the capture of the Ludendorf Bridge spanning the Rhine River at Remagen.

American troops never expected to find that railroad bridge intact. After all, all other bridges over the Rhine had been destroyed, either by American air power or by the Germans themselves in their attempt to slow the American juggernaut. Seeing the bridge still standing, the Americans worked desperately to get enough troops across it to establish a bridgehead before the Germans could destroy it.

The location of German forces on the heights on the eastern bank of the Rhine above the town of Remagen gave them a clear field of sight for ten miles. The German soldiers there had received orders to fight to the last man and to blow up the bridge to prevent American troops from crossing it. They kept the Americans under intense fire while engineers worked feverishly to set explosives to destroy the bridge.

But many of the Germans were convalescents, soldiers who had been wounded and were still recovering. Their commander had requested reinforcements, but none arrived. As they set about wiring the bridge with explosives, however, they realized that the explosives that they had been sent were industrial rather than military explosives. When they detonated them, the resulting explosions did not have the force necessary to topple the structure. Although damaged, the bridge remained intact, thereby allowing the Americans to send across infantrymen. American engineers, including future baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn, worked feverishly to strengthen the bridge to allow the passage of heavy armor to support the troops who were already crossing the bridge.

German troops manning machine guns in twin towers on the eastern end of the bridge were killed or captured by American infantrymen. Other German soldiers took refuge in a tunnel behind the towers, but German civilians, including many women and children, were also hiding in the tunnel. When the civilians began suffering casualties, they demanded that the German officers let them surrender. While the officers debated their request, the civilians surrendered without permission, and many of the German soldiers abandoned their weapons and joined them. The officers had no choice but to surrender as well. American troops established the bridgehead and kept the drive to Berlin alive and active.

Ironically, the bridge collapsed under its own weight (perhaps with the help of vibrations from the heavy armored vehicles that roared across it and numerous attempts by the Luftwaffe to destroy it) ten days later, on March 17.

Photos of the cathedral of Cologne, standing high above the ruins of the rest of the city, and the Ludendorf Bridge’s towers at Remagen are among the most iconic images that exist of World War II in Europe. The men who were involved in the capture of both landmarks deserve our gratitude for their sacrifice and service in helping to hasten the end of the war, which came two months later.

Honor to Whom Honor Is Due

Seventy-two years ago yesterday–on February 23, 1945–perhaps the most famous war photograph in history was taken by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal. It ended up becoming the first photo to win the Pulitzer Prize in the same year in which it was taken. But it symbolizes today, not the photographic or journalistic abilities of Joe Rosenthal, but the tenacity and persistence of the American Spirit.

photolibrary-raisingtheflagoniwojima-highres-3138x2076That photo of five marines and a navy corpsman raising the American flag over Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima–and the memorial statue in Washington, D.C., that is based on that photo–represents not only the U.S. Marine Corps but also American military resolve.

But many people don’t know the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would have said. They think that once the flag was raised, the battle was over. Far from it.

The battle, which had begun when the first marines rushed ashore on February 19, was not over until the island was declared secured on March 16. In fact, another lesser known photo was taken moments after the now-famous Rosenthal photo, and it shows marines with their M-1 carbines ready to defend themselves because the flag raisers had just come under enemy fire.

No, the raising of the flag was not the end of the battle. That would not occur until after 6,851 Americans had made the supreme sacrifice and another 20,000 were wounded. The Japanese, too, fell to the tune of 18,000 killed. Only 216 of them were captured.

The Battle of Iwo Jima resulted in the awarding of more medals of honor than during any other single battle in American history. Twenty-two marines and five sailors earned that distinguished honor, thirteen of them posthumously.

In describing the battle, Admiral Chester Nimitz said that “uncommon valor was a common virtue.” Today, the Battle of Iwo Jima remains the Marine Corps standard of valor and service to one’s country, the measuring stick for how battles should be fought if they are to be won.

The surviving veterans of Iwo Jima, like all veterans of World War II, are fast disappearing from the scene. They deserve our honor, acclaim, and expressions of sincere appreciation today while they are still among us. And their determination and resolve to fight on against overwhelming odds and a tenacious and fanatical enemy deserve our emulation as our nation once again faces similarly fanatical enemies today.

Semper fidelis!

Remembering a Buggy Battlefield

olusteekaflThe largest battle of the War Between the States that took place in the state of Florida occurred on February 20, 1864. That historic location was also the site of another kind of combat that my family and I waged several years ago when we took a little side trip to visit the Olustee battlefield.

Although the Battle of Olustee (or Ocean Pond, as it was known at the time) is today long forgotten by most people and little considered by those who do know about it, the official website of the battlefield ( says, “In proportion to the number of troops involved, it was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.” It almost became the site of my family’s own Waterloo.

The battle was the culmination of a move by Union troops from Hilton Head, S.C., to capture Jacksonville and then move inland, depriving the Confederacy of supplies of cotton, food, timber, and turpentine. Secondary motives were to recruit black soldiers from among the slaves that might be freed and to convince Unionist Floridians in the northern part of the state to form a separate government.

tseymourfineganjoseph63As the 5,500 Union troops under General Truman A. Seymour (left) moved into the interior of northern Florida with their 16 cannons, the Confederate forces under Brigadier General Joseph Finegan (right) put out a call for help and began preparing to force the enemy to colquittcivilwarfight on the Confederates’ terms. Southern troops from Georgia under the command of Brigadier General Alfred Colquitt (left) arrived to join Finegan’s force.

Finegan chose as his battlefield a place called Ocean Pond (today known as Olustee). He anchored the left end of his defensive line on the pond and his right end on an impenetrable swamp. He positioned his infantrymen in the narrow passage of dry land between these two points and supported the ends with cavalry.

The Union forces made first contact with Confederate skirmishers on the afternoon of the 20th, and the Southerners lured the Union troops into the preferred battlefield. It was covered with pine trees, but there was no underbrush and the Confederates had prepared no earthworks. The resulting battle raged until dark, when the Unionists retreated, leaving behind 1,861 dead. The Confederates lost about half that many (946).

The Confederate victory at Olustee allowed the interior of Florida to remain in Confederate hands for the rest of the war.

Several years ago, having read something about this little-known battlefield but wanting to know more, I decided that it also might be an educational stopover for my four daughters during one of our trips to visit their grandparents in South Florida. We got off of I-75 onto I-10 near Lake City and headed east toward Jacksonville. At that time, there had been no development along that route, and I was concerned about running out of gas or having car trouble in such a desolate place. And when you’re in unfamiliar territory, travel seems to take much longer than it really does.

About 15 miles east of Lake City, 50 miles west of Jacksonville, we found the exit for U.S. 90 and then traveled about 5 1/2 miles south to the battlefield. The only things we passed on the way were swamps, a prison (a desolate, swampy place is ideal for a prison, but don’t pick up hitchhikers!), and dismal-looking pine barrens. The entrance to the battlefield was nondescript and the battlefield itself was visually unimpressive. We drove up to a tiny, pine tree-surrounded building that seemed about the size of a POD or a shipping container. That was the welcome center and the museum.

Seeing a few monuments and cannons behind the building, we exited the car to stretch our legs and begin our educational tour. And what an education we got!

Gray clouds of mosquitoes attacked us as soon as we opened the car doors and followed us from exhibit to exhibit while being joined by reinforcements every step of the way. The girls got their exercise running and slapping and complaining. Even I, as focused as I was on gaining as much knowledge about this battlefield as I could, finally gave up trying to stay in one spot long enough to read anything. I was too busy retreating from mosquitoes. We found temporary refuge inside the tiny museum, but we could look at the few items housed there only so many times, then we had to dash to the car and hope that not too many of the enemy slipped inside with us.

The time we spent at Olustee was the shortest of all of the many visits our family has made to numerous Civil War battlefields. Granted, we were at Olustee in the summertime, whereas the actual battle occurred in February, but I still wonder how the soldiers of both sides stood it. Did they bathe in citronella before the battle? I also wonder how many of the 2,800 or so casualties in that battle were the result of mosquito bites! Maybe the mosquitoes, not Southern troops, were the reason the north-central part of the state remained in Confederate hands!

How a Bad Reputation Helped Win the Day

dsc_0055You’ve no doubt heard the adage “When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.” One Patriot general did just that during the American War for Independence 236 years ago today, on January 17, 1781.

The Patriot militia had earned a bad reputation for its propensity to run in battle when faced by organized British forces, especially if that enemy was trained professional soldiers. Many of the men in Brigadier General Daniel Morgan’s Patriot force were militiamen. As he faced the British force commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, one of the fiercest and most abusive British commanders in the Southern states, Morgan wondered if he could rely on his militiamen. Would they stand, or would they cut and run as soon as the British fired on them?

American forces had already been weakened when the overall commander of the Patriot forces in the South, Nathanael Greene, had violated a proven maxim of war: he had divided his already outnumbered army in the face of a superior force. The British commander was Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis. Greene gave one half of the Patriot army to Morgan, and Cornwallis ordered Tarleton to deal with that part of Greene’s army.

As Tarleton’s force approached Morgan’s army, Morgan chose the field of battle, a cow pasture in the Upstate of South Carolina, a place called Cowpens. And he hatched a plan. If it worked, it would provide the Americans with a decisive victory. Such a victory would boost the morale of Patriots throughout the backcountry and weaken the British hold on the South.

Ahead of his army, Morgan positioned skirmishers in a line facing the oncoming British force. When the British came within range, he ordered, the skirmishers were to fire a few shots and then fade back toward the American lines. Behind the skirmishers, Morgan positioned the ill-reputed militia on the crest of a rise in the pasture. As the skirmishers fell back to the line of militiamen, the Americans were to fire two volleys at the British. Only two. Then they were to turn and run, feigning a retreat. Whereas in earlier incidents, the militiamen had fired once or twice and then fled in real terror of the British regulars, this time, their “retreat” was part of the overall plan. If Morgan was right, the sight of fleeing militiamen would convince Tarleton into pursuing them in a frontal attack. It was a plan right out of the Old Testament, a plan similar to that used by Joshua at Ai.

As the British approached, the Americans did as ordered. The skirmishers fired a few shots and then fell back to join the line of militiamen behind them. The militiamen fired two volleys and then “fled.” Tarleton, as Morgan suspected, ordered a full frontal assault, driving the “retreating” rebels before him. What he did not realize was that on the other side of that rise in the pasture Morgan had positioned the rest of his army, and they were regular Continental soldiers. Those men were proven combat veterans who would stand and fight even Britain’s best professional soldiers.

Simultaneously, Morgan’s cavalry flanked the British right while the reorganized skirmishers and militiamen flanked the British left. That day, the Americans won a decisive victory. Combined with the later victory at the Battle of King’s Mountain and Cornwallis’s pyrrhic victory over the Patriots at Guilford Courthouse (where British forces were so weakened and demoralized that they withdrew to Yorktown), British power in the South was ended forever.

dsc_0100dsc_0075dsc_0063dsc_0081dsc_0074dsc_0087Last Saturday and Sunday, the Patriot victory at Cowpens was celebrated at Cowpens National Military Park with an encampment that included period costumes, crafts, camp life, reenactors demonstrating the firing of period weapons, and a wreath-laying ceremony. The event was well attended by young and old alike.

Too often, the battles in the Northeast during the War for Independence get prominent attention to the omission of battles in the South that were just as critical to the outcome of the war. It’s time to correct that oversight. If you ever get a chance to visit Cowpens National Military Park, do so. It will increase your appreciation for the liberty that our forebears fought and died to give us.

A Strange Turn of Events

This past Sunday marked an important anniversary in American history. Two hundred and two years ago, on January 8, 1815, American backwoodsmen, all volunteers, soundly defeated the mighty British army that had only months earlier defeated the armies of the mighty Napoleon. But this time, the British were not facing Europeans on the Continent; they were up against freedom-loving, hard-fighting, red-blooded Americans.

The War of 1812 perhaps should never have happened to begin with. But once one is in a war, he had better finish it as best he can, and that’s what this American army did.

The war, which had begun when Congress declared war on Britain in June 1812, had never been popular with many U.S. citizens, especially those of the New England states, and military operations had not gone particularly well for the young United States. The British had burned and harassed Atlantic coastal ports and even burned many buildings in Washington, D.C., forcing the president himself to flee the White House. The foresight of the president’s wife, Dolley Madison, saved a valuable painting of George Washington. To make things worse, the nation was nearly bankrupt.

U.S. diplomats were negotiating a peace settlement in Ghent, but until something definite was produced there, the fighting would go on. Toward that end, the British navy, commanded by Admiral Alexander Cochrane, had landed an army commanded by General Edward Pakenham south of New Orleans. The British planned to overwhelm the poorly equipped and even more poorly trained American forces, seize New Orleans, and control all trade on the Mississippi River, which would mean economic disaster for the Western farmers from the Great Lakes to the Deep South.

andrew_jacksonBut a Tennessean had other plans. General Andrew Jackson, who had only recently been elected leader of the Tennessee militia, came to New Orleans with his force of Western frontier volunteers (that’s where Tennessee got its nickname as the Volunteer State) to foil those British plans.

Jackson declared martial law, enlisted the support of every able-bodied man in the region, including a band of pirates led by Jean Lafitte, and set about building fortifications. Right in the path of the proposed British line of march, Jackson’s men deepened the Rodriquez Canal from the Mississippi River 3,000 feet to a swamp, making the canal an average of 15 feet wide and 8 feet deep and filling it with murky river water. Behind the canal, they erected a wall of dirt, timber, cotton bales, and barrels of sugar. This line became known as “Line Jackson.”

battle-of-new-orleans-library-of-congressAnd the 5,000 British professional soldiers attacked. Twice the British troops, who were still reveling in their defeat of the mighty Napoleon earlier in the year, charged, and twice they met withering fire from the frontiersmen and were forced to retreat. In the approximately 30-minute battle, they lost 285 killed, including General Pakenham. They had 1,265 wounded, and another 484 were either captured or reported missing.

The Americans’ fire was right on target. Using long rifles, they made every shot count. British officers later reported that many of the British who were killed had been hit in the head, gruesome proof of the accuracy of the American riflemen. Notable among the marksmen was Lieutenant Ephraim Brank of Kentucky, who reputedly stood on the parapet calmly shooting and reloading repeatedly and never missing his target. (A monument was built in his honor in Greenville, Kentucky, the only War of 1812 monument in that state.) The Americans’ casualties in the battle amounted to 13 killed, 30 wounded, and 19 either captured or reported missing.

The irony of the battle, however, lay in the fact that while the battle was raging, the war was technically over. Diplomats had signed the Treaty of Ghent, officially ending the war, on December 24, 1814. It took so long for the news to reach the United States, however, that neither side was aware that the war was over.

Edward Pakenham, brother-in-law of the acclaimed Duke of Wellington allegedly returned to England packed in a cask of rum to preserve his physical remains until he could be buried in his home country. Andrew Jackson, a rough, fiery-tempered country planter and Indian fighter, on the other hand, became an American hero and eventually was elected the seventh president of the United States.

Strange things happen in battle, and the fate of individuals and nations is often determined by what happens in the “fog of war.” The Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 is just one of many examples of that truth.