A piece of a lead cannonball has been discovered in the fields of Northampton, United Kingdom, and dated to the Battle of Northampton in 1460 during the Wars of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster. It is believed to be the oldest surviving cannonball in England.
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.
Somehow, I missed these two articles, from South Carolina’s College of Charleston newspaper as well as a local ABC station. This also gives me an opportunity to unveil the renaming of “Artillery in the News” to “Cannons & Current Events,” because everyone enjoys alliteration.
In perfect timing for St. Barbara’s Day, on 3 December construction workers laboring on an expansion to the College of Charleston’s Sylvia Vlosky Yaschik Jewish Studies Center unearthed an artillery round belonging to the Civil War. The round is described as being a foot in length; my knowledge of Civil War ordnance is such that by the description and the photograph (included below), I cannot determine what kind of round this is or to what kind of gun it belonged. If any readers have ideas, they would be greatly appreciated.
An Air Force Explosive Ordnance Unit ensure the artifact was safely handled and removed, and no one was injured.
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.
A week and a half ago, 26 September, marked the 327th anniversary of the destruction of the Parthenon in Athens during a Venetian siege of the city. On that date in 1687—and in fact, it was a Friday as it was this year—a mortar round penetrated the marble roof of the 2,000 year old temple and ignited a store of gunpowder that the defending Ottomans had placed there. The resulting explosion killed about 300 people and destroyed a building that was in succession a Greek temple, a Christian church, an Islamic mosque and, ultimately, an enduring symbol of the splendor and longevity of Athenian history.
The origins of the siege of Athens and ultimately the destruction of the Parthenon lay in the larger Great Turkish War (1683-1699), which pitted a “western” alliance of the Venetian Republic, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth against the Ottoman Empire. Venice and the Ottomans had long competed for hegemony in the eastern Aegean Sea, and Venice sought to gain territory.
Francesco Morosini was chosen as Captain General of the expedition. He swiftly gained the southern peninsula of the Greek mainland, the Peloponnese, known at that time as the Morea. He marched all the way up to the Isthmus by the middle of 1687. At a council at Corinth, it was decided that Athens would be the next objective.1
On 21 September, the Venetians landed at the Piraeus, then called Porto Leone for the classical lion statue that stood by the harbor. The Turkish garrison withdrew to the Acropolis, where it then improved the walls and installed guns. Morosini’s forces advanced into Athens uncontested. Venetian indirect fire assets occupied Mouseion Hill, the Pnyx, and the Areiopagos; shelling began 23 September.
In one of his reports to Venice, Morosini explains that “two batteries, the one made up of six pieces of cannon, and the other of four mortars”2 were deployed to harass (“tormentar”) the enemy. Of particular interest is a set of maps, produced by the chief engineer of the expedition, Verneda, showing the Venetian positions in the city. Two mortars were emplaced on the east side of the Acropolis, and Verneda’s drawings make it seem that these were the guns that fired the shot that destroyed the Parthenon.
While the cannons were accurate, the mortars left something to be desired. The mortars commander, Mutoni, had to be “publicly corrected” by Morosini’s second-in-command, the Swedish Count Koenigsmarck. Venetian “bombs,” the term for mortar rounds, had struck an ammunition deposit in the Propylaea, igniting it. Then, a Turkish defector made his way to the Venetians and explained that the Ottomans had moved their gunpowder into the Parthenon.
This is where questions come in about whether the Venetians intentionally targeted the Parthenon, or that it was simply a lucky (or unlucky) round that managed to penetrate the heretofore intact marble roof of the ancient temple. Morosini called it a “fortunato colpo”—fortunate shot. A companion to Koenigsmarck’s wife recounts that Koenigsmarck felt compelled to fire on the temple. An anonymous Venetian officer present at the time believed that the bombardment was conducted randomly, owing to Mutoni’s poor gunnery. A Hanoverian soldier fighting with the Venetians reported that the Parthenon was deliberately bombarded for two days before the fateful round struck the powder inside. Finally there is the account of a certain Major Sobiewolsky; he relates the story of the Turkish deserter. Then he writes:
Upon this report [of the Turkish deserter], several mortars were directed against the temple, but none of the bombs was able to do damage, particularly because the upper roof of the temple was somewhat sloping and covered with marble, and thus well protected. A lieutenant from Lüneburg, however, offered to throw bombs into the temple, and this was done. For one of the bombs fell through (the roof of) the temple and right into the Turkish store of powder, whereupon the middle of the temple blew up and everything inside was covered with stone, to the great consternation of the Turks.”3
Ultimately, it seems the evidence supports the Sobiewolsky’s account and the “intentional” interpretation. Historian Theodor E. Mommsen points to a 1684 agreement between Duke Ernst August of Braunschweig (Brunswick) and Lüneburg and the Venetian Republic that stipulates that the Duke send troops to Venice, including mortars. So, Mommsen concludes, the mortars in the Venetian expedition were probably from the Duchy of Braunschweig and Lüneburg, making it not unlikely that a “lieutenant from Lüneburg” did indeed direct the fatal shot. One of Verneda’s plans greatly strengthens this interpretation: the mortar position east of the Acropolis is shown to fire the ultimate round, and that area is labeled “Quartieri del Reg[imen]to del Principe di Bransuich”—the quarters of the Prince of Braunschweig’s regiment.4
Three hundred people, both men and women as Morosini reports, were killed, and fragments of marble were sent into the Venetian lines. Three out of the four walls of the Parthenon nearly collapsed and most of the famous frieze fell to the ground. Fourteen of the 46 outer columns, each weighing an average of 80 tons, fell.5 A fire burned for two days on the Acropolis before the Turks surrendered and ultimately evacuated on 4 October. But with an Ottoman force encamped to the north at Thebes, it was necessary to supply Athens entirely from the sea. Morosini had foreseen some of the logistical difficulties of holding on to the city and had objected to attacking Athens in the first place. By March 1688, the Venetians had evacuated Athens, but not before Morosini had collected some antiquities as victory trophies, including the Piraeus Lion mentioned earlier. Their occupation had accomplished little besides temporarily pushing the Ottomans north and is only well known for the destruction it did to the Parthenon. It was, as the archaeologist James M. Paton wrote, “one of the earliest and surely one of the most deplorable instances of ‘military necessity’ directing modern weapons against a supreme work of art.”6
1 A general history can be found in W. Miller, “The Venetian Revival in Greece, 1684-1718,” The English Historical Review 35 (1920): 343-354.
2 “due batterie, l’una di sei pezzi di cannone, e l’altra di quattro mortari da bombe,” from C. de Laborde, Athènes aux XVe, XVIe et XVIIe Siècles, Vol. 2, J. Renouard et C. (1854): 158, n. 1.
3 T.E. Mommsen, “The Venetians in Athens and the Destruction of the Parthenon in 1687,” American Journal of Archaeology 45 (1941): 553. For all the other contemporary reports that Mommsen analyzes, see pp. 547-554.
4 C. de Laborde: 182; Mommsen: 552-554.
5 K. Chatziaslani, “Morosini in Athens,” http://www.eie.gr/archaeologia/En/chapter_more_8.aspx.
6 J.M. Paton (ed.), The Venetians in Athens 1687-1688: From the Istoria of Cristoforo Ivanovich, The American School of Classical Studies at Athens (1940): 3.