On this day in 1460, while besieging Roxburgh Castle in southeastern Scotland, James II King of Scots was killed by artillery–but not in the way you might expect.
For the past year or more, just about everything having to do with Alexander Hamilton has taken off due to—do I even have to mention it?!—the musical about his life.
The fact that he was an artillery officer has not escaped my notice. The best place to start then, is probably at the beginning–Hamilton’s commission as an artillery officer.
On 14 March 1776 (I know, I missed posting this on the actual anniversary!), the Committee of Safety of the New York Provincial Congress appointed Hamilton “captain of the Provincial company of artillery of this colony.”
On Christmas night 70 years ago , German units in civilian clothes began infiltrating the town of Sommocolonia, Italy in the Serchio River valley of the Tuscany region. Then, before dawn on 26 December 1944, artillery and mortar fire began raining down on the mountain-top village as a prelude to a German assault. All across Italy, the Germans and Italians were beginning a campaign to push back the Allies’ thrust into Italy, which had already liberated Rome. The Axis forces were hoping to initiate a counteroffensive that would parallel their compatriots at the Battle of the Bulge, who at that very same time were fighting back against the Allies’ successes in northern Europe. The Germans titled their efforts in Italy Unternehmen Wintergewitter, “Operation Winter Storm” (not to be confused with a 1942 operation of the same name, during the Battle of Stalingrad).
But as the indirect fire landed that morning, First Lieutenant John R. Fox in Sommocolonia with his observation team and a couple dozen Italian Partisans, did not know that he was at the forefront of a major enemy counteroffensive.
Today, 4 December, is the feast day of Saint Barbara, the patron saint of artillerymen! (And miners and engineers and anyone who works with explosives). In honor of her feast day, I will present her story here.
Barbara has long been venerated by Christians but there is little evidence to recommend her historicity. Jacobus de Voragine, a 13th century archbishop of Genoa, wrote a hagiography of her in his collection of hagiographies known as the Legenda Aurea (“Golden Legend”). This version mentions that Barbara lived during the reign of the Roman emperor Maximian, who ruled from 286-305. But no early Christian writer mentions her. Voragine appears to be one of the earliest if not the earliest author to record anything about her. The translations used below are by the 15th century English printer William Caxton.
She was a Christian, the daughter of a local rich man, Dioscorus, who was a dedicated pagan. One version mentions the family being from Nicomedia in the north of modern Turkey. She refused to marry, despite her father’s wishes that she do so; therefore he built her a tower. Though the plan called for only two windows, she convinced the builders to add a third to symbolize the Holy Trinity. Upon hearing what she had done and what it meant, Dioscorus drew his sword intending to kill his daughter on the spot.
Then her father took her and went down into the piscine [fountain or pool], demanding her how three windows give more light than two. And S. Barbara answered: These three fenestres or windows betoken clearly the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, the which be three persons and one very God, on whom we ought to believe and worship. Then he being replenished with furor, incontinent drew his sword to have slain her, but the holy virgin made her prayer and then marvellously she was taken in a stone and borne into a mountain on which two shepherds kept their sheep, the which saw her fly.
One of the shepherds gave her away; he was turned to stone and his flock into locusts. Dioscorus brought his daughter to prison, where Jesus appeared to her. A magistrate questioned her and attempted to get her to venerate the Roman gods, but she refused. Then she was subject to torture.
Then the judge, replenished of ire, commanded that she should be hanged between two forked trees, and that they should break her reins with staves, and burn her sides with burning lamps, and after he made her strongly to be beaten, and hurted her head with a mallet. Then S. Barbara beheld and looked upward to heaven, saying: Jesu Christ, that knowest the hearts of men, and knowest my thought, I beseech thee to Ieave me not. Then commanded the judge to the hangman that he should cut off with his sword her paps, and when they were cut off, the holy saint looked again towards heaven, saying: Jesu Christ, turn not thy visage from me. And when she had long endured this pain, the judge comnnanded that she should be led with beating through the streets, and the holy virgin the third time beheld the heaven, and said: Lord God, that coverest heaven with clouds, I pray thee to cover my body, to the end that it be not seen of the evil people.
Her father became her executor. He took her up to a mountain and slew her with his sword. Then, as he came down, he received his retribution for his act and Barbara gained a symbol.
But when her father descended from the mountain, a fire from heaven descended on him, and consumed him in such wise that there could not be found only ashes of all his body.
He was struck by lightning, which would become heavily associated with Barbara and form the root of her protection of artillerymen, miners, engineers, and all who work with explosives. I am unsure what evidence exists concerning when artillery soldiers adopted the cult of St. Barbara. The best theory is that it is connected to the high probability of misfires and explosions that were endemic in early cannons. Today, the United States Army and United States Marine Corps maintain the Order of Saint Barbara to honor the service of exemplary artillerymen.
On the morning of Thursday, 6 November, the White House held the Medal of Honor ceremony for First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing, whose actions have been detailed in a number of articles and stories, as well as my last post. C-SPAN broadcast the ceremony with remarks from President Barack Obama. Present at the awarding were Helen Loring Ensign, Cushing’s cousin twice removed who accepted the medal, as well as a number of other relatives and historian Margaret Zerwekh, who helped bring Cushing’s story to light and campaigned for this award. I have embedded the video below and included the text of the citation; there are few other words I can add to expand upon his selfless devotion and disregard for his own safety as he fulfilled his duty at the most crucial point in a battle that is considered to have determined the course of the American Civil War and the future of the Union of the United States.
CITATION: The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3rd, 1863, has awarded in the name of Congress the Medal of Honor to First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing, United States Army.
First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing distinguished himself by acts of bravery above and beyond the call of duty while serving as an artillery commander in Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 3rd, 1863 during the American Civil War.
That morning, Confederate forces led by General Robert E. Lee began cannonading First Lieutenant Cushing’s position on Cemetery Ridge. Using field glasses, First Lieutenant Cushing directed fire for his own artillery battery. He refused to leave the battlefield after being struck in the shoulder by a shell fragment. As he continued to direct fire, he was struck again — this time suffering grievous damage to his abdomen.
Still refusing to abandon his command, he boldly stood tall in the face of Major General George E. Pickett’s charge and continued to direct devastating fire into oncoming forces. As the Confederate forces closed in, First Lieutenant Cushing was struck in the mouth by an enemy bullet and fell dead beside his gun.
His gallant stand and fearless leadership inflicted severe casualties upon Confederate forces and opened wide gaps in their lines, directly impacting the Union force’s ability to repel Pickett’s charge. First Lieutenant Cushing’s extraordinary heroism and selflessness above and beyond the call of duty at the cost of his own life are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery, Army of the Potomac, and the United States Army.
Today, 6 November, the White House will hold a ceremony to honor First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing with the Medal of Honor for his actions 151 years ago, during the Battle of Gettysburg.
Cushing was born in Wisconsin in 1841 and graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1861. He fought with the Army of the Potomac in a stunningly long list of engagements in northern Virgina from 1861-1863: the Manassas Campaign (including the First Battle of Bull Run), the Peninsular Campaign, the Siege of Yorktown, the Seven Days Battles, Rappahannock, and Thoroughfare Gap. Finally, he commanded Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery at the Battle of Gettysburg.
On the third day of the battle, 3 July 1863, Battery A was deployed along Cemetery Ridge in the center of the Union lines. Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered an assault on the center of the line, to be led by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, though it would come to be known as Pickett’s Charge for Confederate Maj. Gen. George Pickett. Cushing’s battery was deployed near The Angle, where the Confederate forces under Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead made their farthest advance against Union positions, known as “the High Water Mark of the Confederacy.”
As Battery A directed fire against the enemy, Cushing was wounded twice by Confederate artillery fire. He continued to direct the battery against the enemy assault and refused to be evacuated to the rear. Cushing is reported to have said, “I’ll stay and fight it out, or die in the attempt.” First Sergeant Frederick Füger held Cushing upright so the officer could continue to give commands despite the wounds. As the enemy approached, Battery A continued to pour fire upon the enemy with its single remaining gun. Cushing was struck in the mouth with a bullet and died; he was 22 years old.
Füger assumed command and continued firing until no ammunition remained; the battery then defended with rifles and finally in hand-to-hand combat. The area around the Angle was briefly overrun by the Confederates before the enemy was beaten back and the Angle once again secured. Füger was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
This story is also one about the perseverance of a local historian. Margaret Zerwekh of Wisconsin has written and lobbied to honor Cushing for nearly a quarter century. Elected officials from Wisconsin took up this issue and after review of the relevant facts, an Act of Congress was passed to award the medal to Cushing. This is a fascinating story from start to finish, and certainly makes me want to pick up the biography of Cushing, Cushing of Gettysburg, written in 1993 by Kent Masterson Brown.
On 15 September 1944, American forces landed on the shores of a tiny spit of lobster-claw-shaped coral rock in the western Pacific named Peleliu. The landing was spearheaded by the 1st Marine Division of the United States Marine Corps under MajGen. William Rupertus, as the U.S. pushed forward in its island hopping campaign against the forces of Imperial Japan. The 11,000 Japanese defenders of the 14th Infantry Division under Col. Kunio Nakagawa were well-fortified in the ridges of the island’s center. They exercised effective fire discipline in order to prevent their positions from being discovered, and planned out interlocking defensive positions with fields of fire covering almost every part of the island.
Eugene B. Sledge was a mortar man with Company K, 3d Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment during the landing and subsequent battle across Peleliu. In his 1981 memoir With The Old Breed At Peleliu And Okinawa, Sledge leaves us with a haunting description of the terrifying effect that Japanese artillery had on the attacking Americans.
There was nothing subtle or intimate about the approach and explosion of an artillery shell. When I heard the whistle of an approaching one in the distance, every muscle in my body contracted. I braced myself in a puny effort to keep from being swept away. I felt utterly helpless.
As the fiendish whistle grew louder, my teeth ground against each other, my heart pounded, my mouth dried, my eyes narrowed, sweat poured over me, my breath came in short irregular gasps, and I was afraid to swallow lest I choke. I always prayed, sometimes out loud.
Under certain conditions of range and terrain, I could hear the shell approaching from a considerable distance, thus prolonging the suspense into seemingly unending torture. At the instant the voice of the shell grew the loudest, it terminated in a flash and a deafening explosion similar to the crash of aloud clap of thunder. The ground shook and the concussion hurt my ears. Shell fragments tore the air apart as they rushed out, whirring and ripping. Rocks and dirt clattered onto the deck as smoke of the exploded shell dissipated.
To be under a barrage or prolonged shelling simply magnified all the terrible physical and emotional effects of one shell. To me, artillery was an invention of hell. The onrushing whistle and scream of the big steel package of destruction was the pinnacle of violent fury and the embodiment of pent-up evil. It was the essence of violence and of man’s inhumanity to man. I developed a passionate hatred for shells. To be killed by a bullet seemed so clean and surgical. But shells would not only tear and rip the body, they tortured one’s mind almost beyond the brink of sanity.
MajGen. Rupertus had predicted the island would be secured in four days. The effectiveness of the Japanese defense dragged the battle out for two months. By the end of November, the Americans had suffered more than 8,000 casualties, including more than 1,500 killed in action. Nearly all the Japanese soldiers died defending the island, and the Imperial Japanese Army’s 14th Infantry Division effectively ceased to exist. Peleliu was targeted by the Americans in order to use the airfield and to protect the eastern flank of the planned assault on the Philippines. However, the island ended up being of limited value as U.S. forces moved to re-take the Philippines.