This Week in History, July 1

July 1, 1863 – Union Cavalry engaged a force of Confederate soldiers at the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, thus beginning three days of insane fighting and bloodshed now known as the Battle of Gettysburg.

The Civil War, which had raged since the early summer of 1861, showed no signs of slowing down in 1863. In May of 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee scored a tremendous victory over Union General Joseph Hooker at the Battle of Chancellorsville, despite being outnumbered more and two to one. Although Lee’s army suffered over 13,000 casualties in the fighting – nearly 25% of his army – and his best battlefield commander, Stonewall Jackson (felled by friendly fire), Lee felt inspired by the victory. So inspired, in fact, that he decided to press his advantage and take the war into the North once again (his early Northern campaign, in 1862, ended with defeat at Antietam, Maryland).

Lee’s most successful qualities as a general were his willingness to take risks and go on the offensive whenever possible. In the first years of the war his aggressiveness had rewarded him with victories against the more cautious and defensive Union generals.

Lee’s plan was to march his army into Southern Pennsylvania where his troops would be able to feed off of Northern farms for a change, thereby giving Virginia farmers a break from supplying his huge army. Both he and Confederate President Jefferson Davis also hoped that the presence of a large Confederate army, threatening Philadelphia and perhaps even Washington, D.C., would throw the Northern public into a panic and force Lincoln to agree to a peace deal with the Confederacy. If not that, Davis hoped, it might at least bring the Confederacy desperately needed aid from England and France.

In late June, Lee marched his 70,000 man army into southern Pennsylvania (along the way his soldiers took the time to forcibly seize 40 free black Northern civilians and send them back south to be sold as slaves). Lincoln, ever impatient with his generals, replaced General Hooker with a native Pennsylvanian, George Meade, with the idea that a local officer might have more success against Lee (“he would fight well on his own dunghill,” Lincoln is purported to have said). Meade, with the 90,000 man Army of the Potomac, quickly moved to intercept Lee.

On June 30, Lee’s forces were concentrated about 15 miles outside of the tiny southern Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. That day, a number of Confederate soldiers marched into Gettysburg looking for supplies, particularly shoes. While there, they caught sight of some Union Cavalry on the town’s outskirts, and returned to the main Confederate army to report what they had seen. Confederate General AP Hill decided to send a larger force into town to determine the size of the Union force the next day. Although Hill believed that what his men had seen was only a small force of Pennsylvania militia, what they had in fact seen was Meade’s advance Cavalry, under the command of General John Buford.

On July 1, Hill, along with thousands of Confederate soldiers, marched into Gettysburg from the north. There, they ran smack into Buford’s Cavalry. Fierce fighting raged throughout the day. Although outnumbered, Buford’s men were able to make an effective fighting retreat to the aptly named Cemetery Hill south of the town, which provided them a superior defensive position from which to hold off Confederate assaults until the main Union Army could arrive. Particularly crucial to the Union soldiers’ survival was the fact that they had new breech loading carbines, which allowed them to fire far more shots per minute than the Confederate muzzle loading muskets. By the end of the day, the Confederates controlled the town, but the Union forces were safely dug in on the high ground just to the south.

That night and into the next morning, the bulk of both armies arrived at the battlefield for another day of fighting. Lee intended to attack Meade from several sides and surround him, but he was at a severe disadvantage: his own cavalry, under the command of General JEB Stuart, was nowhere to be found, and so Lee had no reconnaissance telling him how Meade’s army was arrayed (Stuart, it turns out, had gone off on a wild-goose chase).

Lee’s forces attempted repeated assaults on the Union defenses along a several mile front, but Meade’s soldiers, holding the high ground, were able to fend off each attack. The fighting – fierce, bloody, and often confusing – raged into the evening. Union soldiers fought desperately against relentless Confederate charges. One typical scene was that of the Union soldiers defending a critical hill called Little Round Top. After repelling one Confederate attack after another they had run out of ammunition. Rather than retreat, they simply ran down the hill in a bayonet charge at the Confederates amassed at the bottom, screaming at the top of their lungs; the ruse scattered the surprised and terrified rebels, allowing the Union to hold the hill.

By the end of the second day of fighting, nothing had changed except the sizes of the two armies: in two days of fighting, Meade’s army had suffered about 20,000 casualties, while Lee had lost about 13,000 men. There was worse to come.

On July 3, Lee once again went on the offensive, determined to crush Meade’s army. He ordered three of his divisions, totaling over 12,000 men, to charge the center of the Union position on Cemetery Ridge, where he believed that the Union line was at its weakest. These soldiers would have to run across three-quarters of a mile of open ground, unprotected from the Union rifle and cannon fire that was sure to rain down upon them, before even reaching the Union defenses.

Although Lee gave command of the assault to General James Longstreet, the actual charge was named after one of Longstreet’s commanders, General George Pickett. Longstreet himself knew that the charge was suicide and argued bitterly with Lee that it would be a mistake. Nevertheless, Lee insisted, and Longstreet had to reluctantly follow his orders. Lee should have listened to Longstreet. The Union forces were dug in behind a stone wall and well protected by cannon.

Before the charge, Confederate cannon opened a barrage towards the Union artillery positions, hoping to knock them out. Meade, low on cannonballs and canister shot (basically a bag of musket balls that, when fired out of a cannon, are devastating to approaching soldiers), ordered his cannon to hold fire. This gave the impression to the southerners that the Union cannon had been destroyed. They were not.

Pickett’s 12,500 men began their march expecting to face only musket fire; instead, as they closed in on the Union lines, they were met with a sudden barrage of cannon and rifle fire. The exposed Confederate soldiers were blasted apart. Through sheer bravery and force of will some of the Confederate soldiers were actually able to reach the Union lines, where there was some fierce hand-to-hand combat. Soon enough, however, they were driven back, and the few survivors had to retreat back across the field past their dead and dying comrades. While the Union defenders suffered about 1,500 casualties, over 6,000 Confederates lay dead or wounded – a casualty rate of 50%.

The nightmare of Pickett’s Charge effectively ended the battle. Admitting defeat, Lee retreated with his battered army back to Virginia, later acknowledging that the disaster was “all my fault.” After three days of fighting, and critically low on ammunition, Meade did not pursue Lee. The three-day Battle of Gettysburg was finally over, as was Meade’s brief command of the Army of the Potomac; Lincoln, angry that Meade did not chase Lee and finish him off, sacked him.

When the bodies were finally counted, the results were beyond belief, even for a nation that had suffered through Antietam, Shiloh and Chancellorsville. The two sides had suffered nearly 50,000 casualties combined over the course of the three-day battle, or about a third of their armies. More than 8,000 men had been killed – not including those who would later die from their wounds. One civilian also was killed: a 20 year-old Gettysburg woman who died when a stray bullet hit her while she was in her kitchen baking bread. Meanwhile, the town of Gettysburg had to deal with thousands of dead soldiers who needed to be buried quickly in the hot July summer heat.

The battle marked the turning point in the war. Lee was no longer viewed as invincible by the Northern public or press. Lee’s army, moreover, had suffered so many casualties that Lee no longer had enough soldiers to fight offensively any more. Never again would a Confederate army threaten the North. Davis’s hope for English or French help was dashed for good. In the end, all the South could do was sit back and wait for the inevitable Northern invasion and hope to hold on. Spoiler alert – they could not.

This Week in History, June 15

June 15, 1215 – England’s unpopular King John was forced to agree to a number of restrictions on his rule by signing a document now known as the Magna Carta.

If you had to blame someone for the Bill of Rights, it would have to be England’s King John. By the time John was crowned King of England in 1199, he had already ticked off a lot of powerful people. That pattern began in his childhood, as he grew up in a contentious household. In 1173, when John was only 7, his three older brothers (including Richard the Lionhearted) rebelled against their father King Henry II, at the urging of their mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (can you imagine Thanksgiving at that house?). John, still a child, unsurprisingly broke with his brothers and stayed loyal to his dad. When Henry eventually squashed the rebellion (with only Eleanor being punished – go figure), he rewarded John with various lands forcibly taken from a number of English nobles who had sided with Richard. Then, in 1177, Henry named John as the Lord of Ireland, removing the current lord without notice. By the time he was 10, John had already made some powerful enemies.

Henry, by now having forgiven his rebellious sons, named Richard as his successor on the condition that Richard give up his claim to Aquitaine (the English king’s massive land holdings in France) and give it to John. When Richard refused, Henry ordered John to attack Aquitaine and forcibly take it from Richard. That “war” ended in a stalemate, and the family somehow reconciled – at least on paper – in 1184.

John then proceeded to make a mess of things in Ireland, which had only recently come under the control of the English crown, and tensions with the local Irish natives were understandably high. In less than a year he had managed to insult the local Irish leaders (purportedly by making fun of their unfashionable beards) and, failing to win their support, lost control of the country to Irish rebellions. He ended up leaving his mess and blaming in on the local administration.

Towards the end of the 1180’s King Henry’s health was failing (not surprising considering the family he had to deal with). Although Richard was still his named successor, Richard wanted to go on Crusade to the Holy Lands, and was worried that once he was gone, Henry would change his mind and appoint John King. Richard – for good reason, as it turns out – did not trust John farther than he could throw him. As a result, Richard rebelled against Henry once again, this time forming an alliance with the King of France against his own dad. John initially sided with his father against Richard, but then quickly switched sides when he saw that Richard would win. This final betrayal was probably what pushed Henry over the edge – he died shortly afterward, in 1189, brokenhearted.

Richard, now King, began planning his Crusade. His biggest worry, however, was that John would try to seize the throne while he was away, so he tried to buy John’s loyalty by giving him several valuable English estates (while keeping control over the castles in those counties in order to maintain military control, just in case). Childless, Richard named his nephew Arthur as his heir and made John promise to stay in Aquitaine and not set foot in England for three years, which he assumed would be enough time to do a little crusading and get back in time to rule the country (spoiler alert – it was not). Finally, he put the country in the hands of a couple of trusted advisors to rule until his return.

Just as he was about to leave, however, their mother, Eleanor, persuaded Richard to allow John back into the country. Big mistake. As soon as Richard was gone, John began plotting his takeover. He first managed to get the city of London to back his claim to the throne and forced one of Richard’s advisors into the Tower of London. When Richard did not return from the Crusade by the end of 1192, John began to spread the rumor that he had died. In fact, Richard had been captured the Duke of Austria on his way back to England, turned over to the Holy Roman Emperor, and was being held for ransom. While Richard’s mother Eleanor worked to raise the ransom, John was offering to pay the Holy Roman Emperor behind her back to keep him imprisoned.

After a year in captivity Richard was finally released, and he made his way back to England looking for blood. John hastily arranged an alliance with the King of France to oppose him, but was not militarily strong enough to oppose Richard, who retained the loyalty of most of England. John surrendered, Richard had himself crowned King again to remove anyone’s doubt, and for some reason forgave John (although he did strip him of all of the lands that he had been previously granted). For the next five years of Richard’s reign, John remained outwardly loyal, licking his wounds and biding his time.

When Richard died in 1199, John was crowned King with the support of his mother Eleanor as well as most of the English nobility, who ignored the legally superior claim of Richard’s nephew Arthur. Once in power, John went back to doing what he did best – making enemies. The main problem was John’s attitude – he firmly believed in the divine right of Kings – and so did whatever he wanted, without asking for the support of his nobles. He preyed on the wives of other nobles, and in 1200 he decided to dump his wife Isabella of Gloucester and marry Isabella of Angouleme (he apparently had a thing for rich women named Isabella). Interestingly enough, she was already engaged, and when her fiancé objected and organized an uprising against John in Aquitaine, John promptly crushed the rebellion, leading to the French King declaring all of John’s lands in Aquitaine forfeit. One year into his reign, John had created for himself a long and expensive war with France.

By 1204 John had suffered a series of humiliating military defeats, losing Normandy and most of Aquitaine. He would spend the rest of his reign trying to retake these lost lands, and military campaigns cost money. To pay for it, John instituted a number of tax hikes that were resented by everyone in England, including a version of an income tax as well as new import duties payable directly to his treasury. He also used these taxes to take the lands of nobles who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) pay them, which further irritated the English barons. As if pissing off his nobility weren’t enough, in 1208 he got into a nasty spat with the Pope over who would become the Archbishop of Canterbury, which led to the Pope excommunicating John. In retaliation, John seized church lands in England and fined them large sums of money (they kissed and made up in 1213, though, when John needed the Pope’s help to prevent a French invasion of England).

Behind all of these problems was a growing dissatisfaction among the rest of English nobility with John’s rule. The English nobles resented being forced to fight in France where they had no personal stake and were tired of paying for John’s military campaigns, which ended in defeat more often than not. The dam finally burst in 1214, when John suffered another crushing defeat in France, ending his hopes for retaking Normandy. In 1215 rebellious English barons allied against John, renouncing their allegiance to him. The rebels took control of London and other major cities. Lacking any support, John, humiliated, was forced to deal with their demands.

On June 15, 1215, in a field at Runnymeade, John was forced to sign a peace agreement that not only dealt with the baron’s complaints but further established the “rights” that “free men” (well, the nobility, at least) enjoyed without royal interference. This document, later named the Magna Carta (at the time, it was known as the “Articles of the Barons”), promised protection from illegal imprisonment, speedy and fair trials by peers, and no taxation without the consent of the nobles.

John, of course, had no intent of honoring his agreement. As soon as he could, he convinced the Pope to declare the Magna Carta null and void. This led to full open warfare against the nobles, enveloping most of England. In the end, John died of illness in October of 1216 while slowly losing the war. His nine-year old son, Henry III, became king, with a trusted noble as regent to advise him until he became an adult. In 1217, Henry III reissued and reinstated the Magna Carta (with a few changes) as a way to gain support for his new government.

When Henry needed money for a new war with France in 1225, he reissued the charter again in exchange for the barons agreeing to new taxes – this time, though, the Charter specifically stated that Henry was agreeing to it with his own “free will.” In 1267, facing another baronial uprising, Henry again agreed publicly to abide by the terms of the Magna Carta. When his son, Edward I became king, he too confirmed Magna Carta as the law of the land (because, of course, he needed money for a war). By the end of the 13th century, Magna Carta had become well established.

Over the next several centuries Magna Carta became a standard part of English Government, with a number of revisions and restatements of its powers (and some additions, like the 1354 version which introduced the familiar term “due process of law”). England’s Parliament, which grew out of the council of barons created by the original Magna Carta, typically opened its sessions with a reading of the Charter. By the end of the 16th century, a type of urban myth developed around Magna Carta, as the common belief and understanding became that it was actually based on ancient rights and laws established before the Norman invasion of 1066. This, of course, was nonsense, but it helped give Magna Carta a kind of mythical status as an inviolable, almost holy, statement of natural rights of free men.

When English kings on the 17th century tried to reestablish the old “divine right of kings” and rule without any interference, Magna Carta was used to blunt that attempt. By then, Magna Carta had come to be commonly accepted as the protector of the ancient rights and liberties of free Englishmen (even though this was not historically accurate). Towards the end of the century struggles with the monarchy led the English barons not only to forcibly remover two kings (Charles I by forcibly removing his head, and James II by forcibly removing him to France) but also to create several more documents cementing the rights of free Englishmen as the law of the land, most notably the petition of rights and English Bill of Rights, which established such familiar modern rules as “no taxation without representation,” the right to petition the King, the right to bear arms (well, for Protestants, at least – long story), freedom of speech (in Parliament at least), a prohibition against excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment, and a jury of one’s peers (which, at the time, meant men of property).

When English colonists came to the New World, they brought the principles of Magna Carta (and later the English Bill of Rights) with them. Colonial Charters all noted that colonists enjoyed the same liberties as free people in England. Some colonies, like Massachusetts Bay and Maryland, specifically referred to Magna Carta in their charters. When armed conflict with mother England came in the 1770’s, it began not as a war for independence but as a fight to force England to respect the colonists’ rights under Magna Carta (that, of course, would change in 1776).

So next time you’re arrested and are able to post bail, give a silent moment of thanks to King John.

This Week in History, June 2

June 2, 1774 – with the passage of the renewed Quartering Act, the British Parliament finalized the Coercive Acts, designed to punish the Massachusetts Colony for the Boston Tea Party.

Up until the French and Indian War (1755-1763) the 13 colonies had been more or less left alone to manage their own affairs without much interference from mother England. Following the successful conclusion of the War in 1763, however, the English government began to suddenly exercise both economic and legal control over its American colonies. Of particular objection to the colonists was the fact that the English Parliament began, for the first time, to impose taxes on the colonists, beginning with the Stamp Act in 1765.

Colonists reacted to the Stamp Act with boycotts, riots, attacks on tax collectors, and, more ominously, proclamations that Parliament had not right to rule over the colonies. Although Parliament quickly repealed the Act in 1766, the damage had been done: from that point forward, the colonists and the English government viewed each other with growing distrust and animosity. With each further attempt by Parliament to control the colonies over the next few years – such as passage of the Quartering Act, the Declaratory Act, the suspension of the New York legislature, passage of the hated Townshend Revenue Act, and the stationing of British soldiers in Boston – the two sides grew further and further apart.

Following the repeal of the Townshend Revenue Acts in 1770, however, a short period of uneasy calm returned to the colonies. That peace was shattered in 1773 with the passage of the Tea Act. Although this Act did not create a new tax, but simply continued an already extant 3¢/pound tax on tea, it inflamed an already volatile situation, and the colonists reacted with predictable fury. In addition to boycotts, riots, and attacks on tax collectors, the colonists, led by Sam Adams’ Sons of Liberty, added some guerilla theater to their repertoire, and on the night of December 16, 1773, boarded three East India Company ships moored in Boston Harbor and dumped their entire cargo of Tea into the water, to the cheers of onlookers.

When news of the Boston Tea Party reached London a few weeks later, King George III and Parliament were furious. The government quickly set to work responding with an iron fist, passing four laws designed both to punish Boston and frighten Massachusetts and the other 12 colonies into obeying Parliament. Four laws were ultimately passed, and together they were called the Coercive Acts, named after their intended effect: to force the colonies to come to heel. To the Americans, they became known as the Intolerable Acts, because they were considered so harsh.

The first law, known as the Boston Port Bill, completely closed the Port of Boston until all of the destroyed tea was paid for. Royal Navy ships were ordered to prevent any ships from entering or leaving the harbor. As a result, Boston was cut off from trading with anyone.

Second, the Massachusetts Government Act stripped Massachusetts’ elected assembly of almost all of its powers and gave nearly complete control of the colony to the royal governor. Under the law, the governor now had the power to dismiss elected representatives, appoint nearly all officials, and forbid colonists from holding town meetings. In effect, it put the colony under British military rule, with General Thomas Gage acting as military governor.

Third, the Impartial Administration of Justice Act barred Massachusetts courts from trying any British soldiers or officials accused of a crime – instead, they would be sent back to England for trial. Colonists protested that this would protect dishonest officials, by practically making them free from being prosecuted for any wrongdoing.

Finally, Parliament passed a new Quartering Act. Whereas the Quartering Act of 1765 had simply required the colonies to pay for housing English soldiers, this new Quartering Act allowed English commanders to require private families to house soldiers in their homes and feed them if no other quarters could be found.

Of course, the Intolerable Acts had exactly the opposite effect that Parliament intended. Parliament never imagined that the 13 colonies, with their different economies, histories, religious backgrounds, and history of squabbling, would ever rally to Massachusetts’ defense, yet that is precisely what happened. In a mere 9 years since the passage of the Stamp Act, the English government’s actions had turned the 13 very different colonies into one, united group. As news of the Intolerable Acts and their effect on the people of Boston spread, money and food began to pour into Boston from the other colonies, and colonial legislatures, in defiance of their royal governors, issued public calls of support.

More importantly, 12 of the 13 colonies (Georgia, needing English soldiers to deal with Indian “problems” on its border, declined to join) sent delegates to a joint meeting in Philadelphia to discuss how to deal with the current crisis. This group of delegates – including George Washington and John Adams – became the First Continental Congress. In less than a year, the Revolutionary War would begin.

This Week in History – May 22

May 22, 1856 – Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was attacked and savagely beaten at his desk on the floor of the Senate by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks in retaliation for a speech Sumner made in which he excoriated Brooks’ uncle, Senator Andrew Butler, for his support for slavery. Continue reading “This Week in History – May 22”