Thursday, February 13, 2014

April 17, 1797 – British Seize San Juan

Time and again the British had tried to seize the valuable Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, claimed by the Spanish since its discovery on Columbus’s second voyage in 1493. In 1595, Sir Francis Drake led a force that attacked the Spanish capital there, ultimately being able to do no more than sack San Juan. The English returned three years later under Sir George Clifford. This time they captured San Juan, but a plague of dysentery drove them off the island.

As the French Revolutionary Wars dragged on in Europe, Spain grew weary of fighting France and made a separate peace in 1796. Britain was outraged and war began anew with Spain, their old nemesis and sometimes ally. Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph Abercromby was dispatched with an armada of over sixty ships packed with British troops and German mercenaries to at last break Spanish hegemony in the Greater Antilles.

Abercromby was determined to use the sheer size of his army to his advantage with a quick frontal assault, but his German allies learned intelligence from a treacherous citizen of the reef that guarded the inlet. Hidden underwater, it allowed only the passage of small frigates and transport ships. Abercromby reconsidered his plan and decided to send a contingent of soldiers in under the cover of darkness.

The strategy worked, throwing San Juan into chaos even though the British soldiers were quickly surrounded and pinned down. The rest of the fleet began a bombardment that prevented the Spanish from manning their defenses, and more British troops poured into the city from the inlet. Brigadier General Ramón de Castro ordered the evacuation of the city into the island proper to begin a guerilla campaign, but the day was seen as lost by most. In the following weeks, the British mopped up dissenters and formally claimed Puerto Rico as Port Richard.

Abercromby was hailed as a hero in London. Although some suggested his recall to Britain to be placed in command of the home armies, it was determined to continue Britain’s fortune in the Caribbean. When Puerto Rico was appropriately pacified, Abercromby assembled a new armada and sailed on Havana. The third-largest city in the Americas had briefly belonged to Britain after being captured in 1762 during the Seven Years’ War. Sugar merchants in London were suspicious of the island’s impact on their trade, so they leaned on diplomats at peace talks in Paris to trade Cuba for Florida. Many were disgusted by what was seen as an uneven trade, and even the short time of rule in Havana had begun a blossoming trade that linked the island increasingly with North America rather than Spanish holdings. When Abercromby’s forces arrived, islanders sympathetic to the British joined him in quickly overthrowing the city. The eastern end of the island stood with the Spanish, and war raged for months until Britain had claimed the whole island.

Next Abercromby was suggested to sail onto Hispaniola, which had been colonized in the west by France and ceded completely to them by Spain in recent treaties. Abercromby anticipated a strong resistance by the recently freed slaves and was relieved from what he believed would be an unwinnable campaign when he was called back to Europe to fight France in Egypt after the disastrous Campaign of 1799 in the Netherlands and struggles with Irish rebellion. Abercromby was given command of land forces while the younger Horatio Nelson led the navy. Their landing of troops under fire at Abukir became famous for boldness and genius in military history. While the French were driven out of Egypt successfully, Abercromby was killed in the fighting in Alexandria. A monument was raised in St. Paul’s in his honor, and his widow given the title of baroness with a £2,000 pension.

Britain eventually came to peace with Spain through guerilla warfare opposing Napoleon’s invasion, though the Caribbean would continue under British rule. Postmortem, Abercromby was proven right about the difficulties of conquering Hispaniola. Napoleon’s attempted reinstitution of slavery was rebuffed with more than 24,000 of the 40,000 French troops dispatched there killed by battle and Yellow Fever.

Over the nineteenth century, British holdings in the Caribbean grew wealthy through international trade, attracting the interest of expansionistic Americans. American ships raided Cuba in the War of 1812 using Spanish Florida as a haven, but they were unable to gain a foothold. While America purchased Florida and spread westward, the Monroe Doctrine threatened against further British colonization in the Western Hemisphere. Rich lands attracted British trade interests, however, especially with new markets opening in the liberated former Spanish colonies. Tensions remained high, not only in the south but on the northern border. The two nations nearly went to war in 1837 in the Caroline Affair when the Canadian Rebellion spilled over into New York.

War finally did come, beginning in the south as the US annexed Texas and Mexico, a long British ally, declared war. When the US seized Vera Cruz and marched on Mexico City, Britain feared total annexation and left its neutral position. Naval battles and raids dragged on for years until the two finally came to peace talks. Many in Britain wanted to support the Confederacy when the American Civil War began, but the British maintained a Southern-favored neutrality with secret donations of supplies and loans.

Uneasy peace continued until the beginning of the twentieth century when Britain nearly halted American plans of a Panama Canal and even suggested America revoke its annexation of Hawaii. Although war did not break out, it devastated relations. Americans refused to grant the British any aid as the Great War began in Europe, and the US grew closer ties with Germany, who respected the Monroe Doctrine as it had eyes for Africa and the Pacific. Over the course of the twentieth century, Germany and Britain allied against the threat of the Soviets, while America remained steadfastly isolated in the Western Hemisphere, gradually outpacing British authority.


In reality, Abercromby’s fleet was hung up by the underwater reef as it attempted to sail into the inlet. The Spanish had spotted them and took up strong defensive positions, holding firm despite naval bombardment. After more than a week of bloody clashes leading to a stalemate, Abercromby withdrew. Puerto Rico would continue under Spanish control until the Spanish-American War a century later.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

April 16, 1520 – Rebellion in Toledo Begins the End of Charles I in Castile

Rather than ruling a coherent kingdom, the House of Habsburg had assembled a complex federation all over Europe through marriages, conquests, and inheritance, ultimately culminating in Charles to become heir of the Holy Roman Empire as a Habsburg, the Empire of Spain through his mother Joanna, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, as well as ruler of the Burgundian Netherlands. Charles grew up in his holdings in the Netherlands until he became King of Spain to rule alongside his mother in 1516. He brought with him his Flemish entourage as advisors, sowing distrust between himself and local nobles and the bourgeoisie that had grown up following the Reconquista.

In 1519, Charles was elected Holy Roman Emperor after the death of his grandfather Maximilian. With great aplomb, he set off for a papal coronation, leaving behind a lengthy list of taxes to cover his debts for extravagant living and bribery for his new office. The Castillian parliament, the Cortes, stood up to refuse the new taxes, so Charles suspended the council and reconvened it later to achieve his goals.

In the meantime, Castile erupted. It began in Toledo when royal bureaucrats arrived to remove the anti-Imperial city council with the aim of replacing them with new councilors on the king’s bankroll. Riots broke out, driving away the royalists and installing a new council elected by its own citizens. The success in Toledo spread quickly through central Spain, with city after city falling to revolution. Southern Castile, which was stocked with large garrisons on royal salaries as guards against the Moriscos (converts from Islam to Christianity), maintained its loyalty to Charles.

The revolution continued with wild ideas of establishing themselves as free city-states modeled on those in Italy and ending the monarchy. Peasants began to overthrow their local lords, declaring their freedom and looting estates. Eventually more moderate opinions won out, seeking a Castile liberated from Charles and ruled by Joanna, loyal nobles, and the popular voice. The Comuneros formed up an army and marched on Tordesillas, creating a new Cortes to be presided over by Joanna.

Joanna was called “the Mad” and had always ruled with a co-regent, first her husband, Philip the Handsome, and then her father, Ferdinand II of Aragon. During the time of her father’s tenure, he confined Joanna, the proper heir to Castile, to a convent and surrounded her with servants and advisors loyal only to him. During this time, stories of her madness began to spread, which modern historians speculate as depression, perhaps due to her confinement. She was believed to have exhumed her husband’s body and kept it with her as company in Tordesillas.

The new Cortes asked Joanna to sign an edict legitimizing their political actions, but she paused. Charles had scoffed at the revolt and sent new orders to retrieve the taxes. His regent in Spain and former tutor, Adrian of Utrecht served as General of the Reunited Inquisitions of Castile and Aragon struggled to maintain peace with new policies to win over the favor of nobles, but assassins had struck before Adrian could convince Charles of the seriousness of the Comuneros. With Charles hundreds of miles away and seemingly ignorant, Joanna’s confessors advised that she take over the country before the noble-killers gained their way.

With Joanna as queen, the Comuneros continued to grow. In the north, the royalists assembled an army at Medina de Rioseco, and a Comuneros army under Pedro Téllez-Girón marched to face them. Girón feinted a raid on nearby Villalpando, prompting the royalists to de-entrench and charge for Tordesillas. The Comuneros cut them off in a sweeping victory. Armies in the south began to question the sources of their pay, debts from the royalists stacked up, and soon defection became rampant.

Charles turned his attention to Spain too late. A similar revolt by the Germanies in Aragon occurred at the same time, but their lack of legitimacy and death of leading moderate Llorenç brought about a new alliance between the royalists and nobles there to protect their holdings from peasant uprising. Charles secured his claim in Aragon and soon after repelled an invasion by the French-backed King of Navarre to reclaim his lands seized by Charles’ grandfather Ferdinand II. While he still held eastern Spain, nothing short of war with his own mother could retake the west. Charles at last reasoned that his mother was decades older than he and simply waiting for her death would bring the lands back under his control, even if through his younger brother Ferdinand as a puppet.

Unfortunately for Charles’s plan, Joanna’s simple life loosely presiding over the Comuneros-led Cortes enabled her to live until 1555. Charles, meanwhile, became fervent about maintaining his holdings, never to let another slip away. Conquests in New Spain stayed loyal to his side, and he encouraged settlement of rich new lands in America loyal to his centralized government. He established an ongoing inquisition in the Netherlands in 1522 and personally led the violent suppression of anyone opposing him. He later installed a similar inquisition in Germany to halt the teachings of Luther and crush the Peasant’s Revolt of 1524, simultaneously weakening the power of the princes. When Henry VIII of England requested to divorce his aunt Catherine of Aragon, Charles marched on London. Throughout Charles’s rule, he would fight a two-front conflict with France and the Ottomans, establishing a centralized military bureaucracy loyal only to him.

Upon the death of Joanna, Charles was near death himself, suffering from epilepsy and gout. Rule of Castile passed to Ferdinand, who soon granted it to Charles’s son Philip, now the Holy Roman Emperor. Threats of revolt prevented Philip from uniting Castile with royalist Aragon, making it one of the most liberal pieces of the grand militaristic empire under the Hapsburgs, which ultimately unified the Catholic World in the Treaty of Joinville with France against the threat of Protestants in Northern Europe.


In reality, Adrian of Utrecht had not been assassinated. After he announced what the revolt would do to her son’s name, Joanna refused to support the Comuneros, greatly weakening their position. Pedro Téllez-Girón’s military blunder, often perceived as treachery since the royalist general was his uncle, allowed the royalists to seize Tordesillas. Charles was restored to rule after the Battle of Villalar ended the revolt in 1521 and ensured his reign by again confining his mother to rooms in the convent. Toward the end of his life, Charles abdicated his lands piecemeal.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Review: ‘CSA: Southern Cross, Annuit Coeptis’ by Dorvall

Perhaps the most popular question of all Alternate History is “What if the South had won the Civil War?”, which has been addressed by authors such as Harry Turtledove and even Winston Churchill. Military historians have debated time and again with most agreeing that a Northern military victory was inevitable due to its larger resources.

The new graphic saga CSA: Confederate States of America from Sekwana Comics examines the idea of a southern victory from a new direction. In the first volume, Southern Cross: Annuit Coeptis, we see the point-of-departure in General Robert E. Lee reconsidering James Longstreet’s advice for a flanking maneuver as opposed to the planned Pickett’s Charge. Historically, the charge was to be supported by artillery in tactics seen successfully in the Wars of Italian Unification, but it ultimately proved the moment of defeat at Gettysburg. In CSA, we see Longstreet’s flanking action throw the Union forces into confusion, resulting in a resounding Confederate victory just eighty miles from Washington, D.C.

Typical alternate historians dismiss a defeat at Gettysburg as slowing the inevitable, but author Dorvall shows a different scope of history accounting for the social impact of such a victory. Dorvall, an immigrant to the United States from France, gives a unique perspective, accounting for issues rarely considered by Americans. In 1863, the North was hardly united on the efforts of the war, even to the point of draft riots in New York City that raged for days before being dispersed by naval gunfire. It is entirely possible that the Northerners may have turned to panic in such dire times, causing the war effort to collapse and erasing the possibility for the military victory that so often seems assured as we look back.

In CSA, the world unravels. Senators in Washington blame one another for the losses, and the riots are even worse in New York. Washington begins an evacuation, which serves as a guise for former Union commander George McClellan to place Abraham Lincoln under military arrest, creating a coup to ensure the end of the war. General Ulysses Grant, whose victory in Vicksburg happened simultaneously in our history, loses his momentum and eventually becomes a renegade in the West with an army collapsing through desertion.

Dorvall’s writing carries dense dialogue, giving the graphic novel something of the feel of a play. Readers see the epic unfold through the eyes of four protagonists in their own various social circles. In the North, Female reporter Emma Loads combats chauvinism while standing for the cause of Emancipation while Frenchman Aymond Vouleuvre struggles to evade capture after joining the losing Union side. The issues of racism and slavery are raised through the treatment of captured Black Union soldier Joe Jefferson and his peers in a Confederate POW camp, while Captain Erwin Whitaker struggles to maintain a gentlemanly Southern posture in a nation going mad with looting. Southern Cross ends with a poignant image of the drafted Emancipation Proclamation being thrown out as scrap paper, showing the disastrous effect on the social progress of a nation.

CSA is a fascinating study on one of Alternate History’s most asked questions as well as an artistic graphic novel. The art by Philip Renne brings together elements of CGI, photography, painting, and traditional drawing. The unique style incorporates borders such as chains or molding to accent some of the scenes. Combined with Dorvall’s rich dialogue, CSA gives a thought-provoking experience of seeing a different outcome to the Civil War not as a military question but a social one.

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