Thursday, February 26, 2015

May 2, 1863 – Stonewall Jackson Survives Friendly Fire

While returning from a chaotic pursuit in the midst of the Battle of Chancellorsville, Lieutenant General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson was shot by Confederate troops. Earlier, he had led his men in a surprise attack on a camp of Union soldiers, many of them playing cards. The attack was so successful that Jackson chased and captured Yankees until after dark, when he gave the order to return to camp. There, infantry on guard mistook the commander's horses for Union cavalry and opened fire even before Jackson had a chance to reply to “who goes there?” It was the latest stroke of bad luck in a trouble life.

Jackson was born in Clarksburg in 1824 in what would later be called West Virginia. Typhoid fever took his older sister and father in 1826, one day before his mother had her fourth child, Jackson’s sister Laura Ann. The young widow struggled in poverty, remarrying and dying during the birth of Jackson’s half-brother. Now orphans, Jackson and his siblings were divided among relatives. After a year at his Aunt Polly’s, eight-year-old Jackson decided he preferred his Uncle Cummins and ran away, walking eighteen miles to his new home and showing willpower that would be the foundation of his personality.

In 1846, Jackson was accepted to West Point. His formal education had been lackluster, and entrance exams placed him at the bottom of his class. Through diligent hard work, he graduated four years later in the top third. His fellow students said that if it had been a five-year program, he would have been first in the class.

Directly out of West Point, Jackson served in the Mexican-American War as an artillery commander. He disobeyed an order to retreat, earning a promotion to major by the end of the war. After various assignments from Florida to New York, he found a teaching career at the Virginia Military Institute, where he expected his students to have the same level of discipline he did. Stories were told that Jackson memorized his lectures the night before class. If he were interrupted by a student, he would give a glare and then start over from the beginning. Students routinely fought with him, and sentiments were so sour that even after graduating, alumni requested that he be forced to resign.

Although they were overall happy years, Jackson’s time in Lexington, VA, continued his life’s plague of ill luck. His first wife died during the stillbirth of their first child. He remarried and had two daughters, but Jackson himself suffered a variety of ailments. Today doctors hypothesize he had a herniated diaphragm, but at the time Jackson was seen as an eccentric who slept only in catnaps, took mineral water baths, ate little other than crackers, milk, and lemons, and constantly stood rather than sitting, which he said caused indigestion.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Jackson transitioned from a peacetime teacher to a drillmaster. He seized the depot at Harper’s Ferry and began winning fame with daring raids. During the Battle of Bull Run in 1861, his stalwart brigade refused to give a foot of battlefield, spurring General Bernard Bee to say (shortly before being mortally wounded), “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall.” The Valley Campaign of 1862 thrust Jackson further into the spotlight as his infantry raced from battle to battle up the Shenandoah, covering an average of more than thirteen miles of marching each day and earning themselves the nickname “foot cavalry.” Through worn-torn north Virginia, only General Robert E. Lee, whom Jackson had met in the Mexican War, was more famous.

Stonewall Jackson was shot three times in Chancellorsville, prompting the amputation of his left arm and part of his right hand. A particularly astute doctor noted Jackson’s complaints of pain in his chest as the onset of pneumonia. His lifelong bad luck had proven good since that pneumonia could have taken his life. As May turned to June, Jackson was back on his feet and requested duties from Lee.

Lee was dubious. Jackson, who was notoriously already terrible horse-riding, could barely hold a pencil, let alone a rein. Lee tried to convince Jackson to return home, but Jackson’s dedication required that he serve his country. At last Lee found a place for him replacing Major General Pendleton to oversee the artillery and brought him along on the new campaign to invade the North. Union General Hooker, still seething from defeat at Chancellorsville, took up pursuit but was replaced by the more cautious Meade. On July 1, the two enormous armies became intertwined at the Battle of Gettysburg.

The Confederates gained an early upper hand, but the Union defenses in the hills south of Gettysburg proved too solid to crack. Lee planned a daring artillery barrage followed by a sudden uphill charge to be led by Longstreet (a tactic perfected during Cavour and Garibaldi’s Unification Wars in Italy). His empty sleeve belted to his shirt, Jackson reviewed the artillery under Colonel Alexander and charged him with near-treason. Jackson, who had long practiced his hearing after his earlier work with artillery left him partially deaf, noted shells were going off too late, meaning they were overshooting. Longstreet, who was opposed to the risky assault, gave Jackson the duty of choosing the time for the assault. After reorganizing the artillery, Jackson volunteered to lead the charge.

Jackson’s Charge proved effectual in breaking the Union lines. Meade, who had already moved his command due to the early overshooting Confederate artillery, retreated southward. Over 15,000 Union troops to the north were encircled and captured, but the bulk of the army successfully escaped after a daring cavalry flanking attack by Union General Kilpatrick.

The South had won the day, but the victory proved a white elephant. Torrential rain on July 4 prevented Lee from pursuing Meade’s army. Meade reformed to the south and sent armies to cut off Lee’s supply lines through Chambersburg and Carlisle, just as the Confederates now had thousands prisoners to feed. Lee was forced to keep up his momentum, leaving behind thousands of unburied soldiers. He marched on Harrisburg, where he met with more Union armies that poured into the region from the north. At the disastrous Battle of Harrisburg, Lee surrendered along with tens of thousands of soldiers, including Jackson. Stuart led a force of less than 7,000 that escaped back to Virginia.

With the end of the war in 1864, Jackson returned to Virginia, where he became a teacher with the Freedman’s Bureau. Jackson already had a long history as a Black educator, even illegally teaching one of his uncle’s slaves to read in exchange for pine knots that he used as lighting for reading as a teenager. While at the VMI, Jackson had founded Sunday school classes for local Blacks while a deacon in the Presbyterian Church. Jackson continued his work through Reconstruction, helping to found the university that would later be named for him.


In reality, Jackson’s pneumonia went untreated, and he died on May 10. Jackson would be long remembered for his daring in battle and his superhuman resolve.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Guest Post from Chris Oakley: "Kaiser Napoleon"

May 22nd, 1809 -- Napoleon wins the Battle of Aspern-Essling

French troops under the command of Napoleon won the Battle of Aspern-Essling, successfully making a forced crossing of the Danube River in the vicinity of the Austrian capital Vienna. Austrian Archduke Charles of Teschen had tried since May 21st rally his own army to throw the French back, but after much of the archduke's second column was cut to pieces by French cavalry at the village of Aspern, morale within the Austrians' ranks began to slowly and steadily collapse; by the time Napoleon's longtime friend and comrade-in-arms Marshal Jean Lannes led a French advance column into Vienna late on the afternoon of May 22nd, many of those Austrians not already dead or captured had simply thrown away their guns and fled the battlefield. Those who stayed joined Austrian Emperor Francis I for a heroic final stand at the gates of the Emperor's palace, but in the end French numbers proved too much to overcome, and at sunset that evening the remaining Austrian troops surrendered. When word of the French forces' victory reached Paris on May 24th of euphoric celebrations throughout France.

Having vanquished the Austrians militarily, Napoleon proceeded to take comprehensive steps to subjugate them politically. The Austrian monarchy was abolished and replaced by a twelve-man Council of State that theoretically functioned as Austria's new national government but in practice was essentially a rubber stamp for the decrees of Napoleon's occupation forces; the traditional Austrian court system was dismantled in favor of a new judiciary that would base its
rulings on the Napoleonic Code; and town burgomeisters found themselves reduced to little more than figureheads while their traditional governing authority was usurped by French army commanders and civil bureaucrats. But with a guerrilla war raging in Spain and Great Britain still threatening Napoleon's ambition to dominate Europe, maintaining control of Austria would prove easier said than done. In the spring of 1811 a group of Austrian war veterans came together to launch what modern historians now know as the May Revolution. The rebels were opposed not only by French troops but also by Czech and Slavic volunteers who considered Napoleon as the liberator of their homelands from Austrian oppression; in response, the rebel army solicited aid from the British.

By the summer of 1812, the French were being driven out of Spain and were on the verge of final defeat in Austria; plans to invade Russia had to be scrapped as Napoleon tried frantically to reassert French power over the Austrians and the Spanish. Britain, sensing an opportunity to cut Napoleon down to size for good, signed a non-aggression treaty with the United States and made plans to invade northern France with the largest expeditionary force that any of the great powers of the world had mustered up to that time. On July 2nd, this expeditionary force crossed the English Channel under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley, the 1st of Wellington, and landed on France's Normandy coast to begin an all-out drive for Paris. Barely two months later, French control of Spain had collapsed completely, and Napoleon was pulling most of his troops in Austria out of that country in a desperate but ultimately fruitless attempt to stem the progress of Wellington's regiments across the French countryside. In February of 1813, Napoleon, having by then been overthrown as French emperor and fled to Belgium with just a hundred still-loyal followers, came to grief at the Belgian town of Waterloo when Belgian soldiers backed up by a detachment of British Royal Marines raided the encampment where he and his remaining supporters had been plotting to reclaim the French throne. In a pitched battle lasting just six hours, the former French emperor was killed along with all but two of his last one hundred followers.

Austrians' resentment of Napoleon's occupation of their homeland would continue to smolder long after the last French soldiers had gone home. For much of the rest of the 19th slogan “Tode Aus Frankreich!”(“Death To France!”) would be a common rallying cry within the more radical elements of both the left and right of the Austrian political spectrum, while French literary. art. and musical works were banned in Austria and Austrian diplomats sought to forge closer ties with Germany as a counterbalance to French influence over Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. By the beginning of the 20th century, French-Austrian tensions were at an all-time high; those tensions would explode into all-out war on June 28th Vienna art school student named Adolf Schickelgruber fatally shot French prime minister Rene Viviani during Viviani's state visit to the Bosnian city of Sarajevo.


In reality, Napoleon lost at Aspern-Essling. That loss marked his first personal military defeat in over a decade, and while he did subsequently manage to beat the Austrians in the Battle of Wagram in June of 1809 he would never again enjoy the aura of invincibility that had been his calling card as a military leader since taking over the French throne in 1799; three years after the Battles of Aspern-Essling and Wagram he would sustain the worst strategic defeat of his military career as a combination of dogged resistance by Czar Alexander I's soldiers and an exceptionally harsh Russian winter doomed his campaign Russia. Following his defeat by the British at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba, where he would die in 1821.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

May 1, 1866 – Military Intervention Halts the Memphis Riot

Years of civil war had devastated the American South’s economy, and planters and city officials hoped to come back quickly to prosperity. Their expectations were interrupted by the new society born out of the Emancipation Proclamation. Now free to work where they chose, former slaves left the plantations and moved into cities such as Memphis along the Mississippi River. Without cheap labor in the country, the plantations could not reap lucrative harvests. With a swell of new laborers in the city, the working poor (many of them Irish immigrants having fled the Great Potato Famine) suddenly found competition for jobs as Reconstruction began.

To add to the social stress, the legal status of the newly freed slaves had been left vague by the Thirteenth Amendment. Some in the South argued that freedmen without documentation were not even citizens and could be treated by authority in any way it saw fit. Black Codes were written up by Southern legislatures to regulate the freedmen through imprecise language for crimes such as “vagrancy” or “unlawful assembly” that gave police power to arrest practically anyone at their discretion. A freedman with a weapon could be labeled an “Armed Prowler” and arrested or, if he fought back, killed on the spot. Work-gangs from the prisons would be taken out to plantations, filling the need for forced labor. If police could not find enough able bodies, military troops (some of them freedmen themselves) began grabbing workers off the street, including children on their way to school.

Yet the freedmen were not without support. Communities with safety in numbers formed throughout Southern cities, such as South Memphis near Fort Pickering, where families of the Third United States Colored Heavy Artillery had settled. Battle-hardened veterans, the black soldiers were willing to defend themselves, one time driving police away from an “illegal” gathering where a group of soldiers’ wives were accused of prostitution. The soldiers, armed as well if not better than the police they outnumbered, chased them off.

The tension came to a head at the end of April, 1866, when the 3rd Artillery was discharged as part of the government’s work toward demilitarization. Since they had to wait a few days for paperwork and their last pay, the soldiers found themselves free of responsibility. They celebrated, walking the streets and dreaming of where they would go next.

On May 1, after a few altercations already, city officials sent police out to break up a large afternoon party. Four policemen attempted to dispatch dozens of veterans before promptly running away. Chasing led to gunfire, and then an all-out riot broke as more police and local white business owners hurried to attack the black former soldiers. Many of the veterans retreated to Fort Pickering, which remained in order under military, and the white mob continued on to attack South Memphis. Appeals to establish order came to General George Stoneman, who initially felt that such should be the sheriff’s duty.

Yet Stoneman thought back to his service in the Cavalry Corps under Major General Joseph Hooker, who had given him orders to raid behind Lee’s lines and destroy logistics. Stoneman’s raids proved ineffectual, and Hooker blamed the Union defeat at Chancellorsville on this lack of drive. Just before midnight, as the few soldiers Stoneman had sent out returned from quiet streets, he determined to prevent any follow-up violence. He readied orders to march on Memphis at the first sound of trouble.

Those sounds came early the next morning. Rather than the expected counterattack by black soldiers, a mass of whites charged into South Memphis as they had the night before, now in larger numbers with much more vicious intent. Stoneman led the charge, rounding up the rioters and arresting all but a few who escaped. Rather than being the poor Irish who competed with the blacks for employment, the mob was primarily Memphis police and firefighters acting beyond their jurisdiction, joined by white-collar government officials and middle-class business owners. Stoneman, being far from a Radical Republican who would have predicted such activity, was dismayed at them and handed out punishments according to Tennessee law.

Stoneman’s quick action was lauded in Northern papers, as was that of the military in a riot in New Orleans later in July. Because the military was involved, federal investigations prompted recommendations of increased oversight that became the Fourteenth Amendment. The Secret Service, founded the year before to battle counterfeiting, was given additional charges of cracking down on racial violence. Their powers were expanded in the Fifteenth Amendment to investigate nonviolent crimes such as preventing the free exercise in voting.

Southerners and, soon, others around the nation balked at the perceived invasion of Federal power, a complete end to states’ rights. Racial actions by local authorities and secret brotherhoods gave the Secret Service ample opportunity for headline-grabbing busts and shootouts. Grant’s Republican administration greatly encouraged the Secret Service, whose powers expanded and were entrenched by the time of Democratic Cleveland’s terms. Although famous for their efforts during Jim Crow to ensure the equality of “Separate but Equal,” Secret Service investigators were infamous for their ruthless anti-socialist campaigns in the twentieth century. Some conspiracy theorists hold the agency responsible for the assassination in Memphis of poverty-rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., whose Poor People’s Campaign marched on Washington and rocked the nation from its foundation.

In reality, General Stoneman did not declare martial law until May 3. By then, nearly fifty people had been killed, dozens more were injured, and nearly 100 structures had been burned, including churches and schools. The violence encouraged the Fourteenth Amendment to protect African-American rights, yet it would be another century of struggle until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination by government or in public places.

Monday, February 16, 2015

April 30, 1860 – Democrats Approve a Unified Platform

The vehemently pro-slavery masters of propaganda known as the Fire-Eaters came early in April to Charleston, South Carolina. The Democratic National Convention there would choose not only the party’s candidates, but also what planks would be included in the platform beneath those candidates. Fire-Eaters such as Alabaman William Yancey, however, had a different plan: create a pro-slavery platform through their committee that would hamstring their own party, sweep Republican candidate William Seward into office, and create a public outcry and backlash they could ride to secede from the Union into a new confederation where state’s rights (especially those concerning slavery) would be clearly defended.

The idea of secession was nothing new. New Englanders had tinkered with it in 1815, and South Carolina had threatened to leave the Union because of tariffs in the 1830s. In 1850, just after the United States had won a great deal more territory through the Mexican War, the question of whether those new lands would be open to slavery caused a new wave of secessionist thought. At the Nashville Convention in 1850, early Fire-Eaters argued that the South should leave the increasingly federalized country to defend its interests, but moderates eased their worries with suggestions that would later become the Compromise of 1850. The issue of slavery ground on, and a new generation of Fire-Eaters saw this as an opportunity to “stop Douglas,” as Yancey proposed.

Stephen Douglas was a senator from Illinois who had become a national leader through years of service as a representative as well as making a name through a series of published debates with his Republican counterpart, Abraham Lincoln. Douglas’s populist ideals, supporting Popular Sovereignty for issues like slavery, with his democratic catchphrase, “Let the people choose!” In matters beyond the local, he held the Constitution as utmost law. He was a strong believer in tying the Pacific states to the East through a transcontinental railroad and encouraged railroad construction to boost economic ties between the North and South as well. Unity was America’s strength, and even the thought of secession seemed criminal.

In Charleston, the Fire-Eaters presented a pro-slavery platform that representatives from the North found as useful as a coffin. A modified platform was offered with milder planks discouraging “subversive” state actions against the Fugitive Slave Law that made the Fire-Eaters begin to pack up their things. Douglas stood up to speak of the importance of unity, saying that the matters at hand were an unresolved fight, and only “a coward walks away from a fight once it’s begun.”

The Fire-Eaters were livid at the suggestion of cowardice against their honors and angrily remained at the convention. Douglas’s speech won approval of anti-secessionist Kentuckian James Guthrie, who had been Secretary of the Treasury and now gave his support to Douglas for the sake of the Union. Douglas won the nomination despite grumblings from the South.

The election of 1860 was a brutal one. It was traditional for candidates to stay home rather than parade themselves out seeking votes, but Douglas actively traveled from town to town speaking. When it was obvious that Ohio and Pennsylvania were going to his old adversary Lincoln (surprisingly not Seward), he focused all of his resources on New York, which narrowly went his way that fall. With it, New Jersey, and a sweep of the South, Douglas came into office in 1861.

Within a year, crisis began with a French-led invasion of Mexico, which had sworn off its pre-revolutionary debts from France, Britain, and Spain. While the United States had long been divided by slavery and expansionism, the issue of Mexico proved unifying. Neither side wanted European intervention in the Western Hemisphere. Southern secession-mindedness disappeared overnight at the opportunity to secure Cuba from Spain.

While Mexican bonds were sold throughout the United States to raise funds for a coming war, keen diplomatic actions secured a peaceful agreement. The United States paid off much of the debt, and the newly emboldened Mexican government worked alongside Douglas’s administration to develop its mineral-rich northwest with new rail lines. The dream of a transcontinental railroad was made a reality in 1862 through Chicago and again through New Orleans and Texas in 1864.

As part of the agreement, Spain sold Cuba, which had its own long history with slavery and even continued the transatlantic slave trade. Douglas’s ideal of Popular Sovereignty in the new territory was put to the test, continued slavery there, and caused a new wave of outcry in the North as word of conditions in the sugar plantations spread. Treatment of slaves there was so deplorable that even those in the South changed their minds. Marches to end slavery took place as far south as Richmond and Nashville, prompting yet another generation of Fire-Eaters to rebel against federal actions to regulate slavery, leading to the Civil War of 1869-71 in which the Deep South attempted to secede with Cuba.


In reality, Stephen Douglas made no such speech and instead relied on compromise and reason to maintain unity. The Fire-Eaters walked out of the convention and held their own later in Baltimore, nominating Vice-President John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky. The split ballots enabled Lincoln to win the electoral college even though he did not win a majority of the popular vote. At the inauguration, the story goes that Lincoln prepared to give his address but had nowhere to set his trademark stovepipe hat. Douglas took it for him, saying, “If I can’t be president, at least I can hold his hat.” Lincoln requested that Douglas campaign through the Border States and Midwest for unity during the secession crisis, which he did, exhausting himself and succumbing to typhoid fever in Chicago on June 3, 1861.

Monday, February 9, 2015

April 28, 1192 – Conrad’s Would-be Assassin Names Richard

Conrad of Montferrat, the newly elected King of Jerusalem and not even yet crowned, was attacked in midday as he walked the streets of Tyre with his bodyguard, heading home to have lunch with his wife. The attackers were Assassins (the Hashshashin—“outcasts”), specially trained suicide-soldiers of the order founded by Hassan-I Sabbah during the chaotic days of the early Crusades. They were trained in a mountain fortress in Iran, indoctrinated through drugs and propaganda to give their lives in order to receive Paradise in the afterlife.

One of the crusaders guarding Conrad proved quick enough to throw his own body in front of the king, taking a blow from a knife meant for Conrad’s side to his chest. Another blade struck Conrad’s back, giving him a scar that would last the rest of his life. One assassin was killed, and the other captured and tortured to death, but not before he gave the name of his hirer: Richard of England.

Richard, nicknamed “the Lionhearted” not only for his bravery but also his bravado during the campaign against Castillon-sur-Agen, continued his brashness through the Third Crusade. After the fall of Jerusalem to the forces of Saladin, the new King Richard and his counterpart Phillip II of France launched forces funded by the Saladin Tithe, a special tax of 10% levied on nearly everyone with money to their names. While in Sicily in 1190, locals in Messina balked at their treatment by the visiting crusaders. Richard responded by besieging, conquering, and looting Messina before moving on. On the journey to Acre, a storm separated the ship with his fiancĂ©, Berengaria of Navarre, from the rest of the fleet and drove it to the shores of Cyprus. Richard conquered Cyprus from the Byzantines to win her back. At last the crusaders marched on Acre, and Richard fought despite suffering scurvy, legendarily firing crossbows while soldiers carried him on a stretcher.

Conrad of Montferrat, who had commanded the defense of Tyre against Saladin’s army in the previous years, negotiated the surrender of Acre. He carried a great deal of notoriety with locals and was called “the greatest devil of all the Franks.” During the siege of Tyre, his own aged father, William IV of Montferrat, was brought forward as a prisoner. Saladin promised to release him and shower Conrad with riches if he gave up the city. Conrad replied by aiming his own crossbow at William and saying, “He has lived long already.” Saladin then himself released William, saying that Conrad was “an unbeliever and very cruel.”

Yet Conrad was also handsome and popular among the crusaders. The Third Crusade proved militarily successful, even though Duke Leopold V of Austria marched away after Richard tossed his standard down, saying that it wasn’t worthy of being hung beside those of kings like himself and Phillip II. Phillip II left in 1191 to return to France, leaving his treasure and valuable prisoners with Conrad. Eventually Conrad had to turn the prisoners over to Richard as the king was now sole leader of the crusade. Rather than use them for leverage against Saladin, Richard had them all killed.At last Jerusalem was taken back from Saladin, an election was held on who would be the new king. Richard offered up his own name, but the barons unanimously voted for Conrad.

Richard left immediately and even sold Cyprus, apparently done with the Holy Land if he could not be its king. On his journey toward England, a storm drove his ship to Corfu, held by the Byzantines, who were still upset over losing Cyprus. He sneaked away in a smaller ship, which wrecked and forced him to travel over land disguised as a Knight Templar. Near Vienna in 1192, he was recognized by a fellow crusader, captured, and brought to Duke Leopold. As a vassal of Emperor Henry VI, he was to turn over the prized prisoner, but Leopold sent him back to his cousin, Conrad, King of Jerusalem, to undergo trial for attempted regicide. Pope Celestine III was put in a terrible position since imprisoning a crusader was an excommunicable offense, but so was masterminding such an attack. The matter was resolved when Richard drowned during a storm at sea (suspiciously, it took no other lives).

Although Richard’s death quieted the east, it sent England into civil war. His younger brother John had ousted Richard’s chancellor, William Longchamp, to effectively rule in 1191. He proved very unpopular, and, upon news of Richard’s death, barons in Normandy upheld five-year-old Arthur, son of Richard and John’s brother Geoffrey, as rightful king. John retreated to his holdings in Ireland and re-invaded with aid from Phillip II through the supporting Welsh marcher lords. William the Lion, King of Scotland, agreed to join the alliance in exchange for an earldom in the northern counties. England became war-torn.

After years of campaign and routinely putting down rebellions in his own lands, John won back England only to lose his lands on the continent to France as Philip seized them along with the boy Arthur, whom he kept at court. Deeply indebted and fearful to raise taxes any further, John became a vassal to Philip, who could at any time reject John and establish Arthur. Although John held rule over England, Ireland, and Wales, it was tenuous at best, and he needed French authority to keep down rebellious barons. While John’s son Henry III ruled quietly under France and his grandson Edward I crusaded or warred with Scots and Welsh, later generations would carry out a Hundred Years Rebellion that would eventually wrest England out from under French influence.


In reality, the assassins’ blades struck home, and Conrad of Montferrat died soon after. Richard was held for a ransom of 65,000 pounds of silver, which was raised by his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Upon arriving back in England, Richard made peace with John and named him heir. During his own reign, John would lose his holdings on the continent to France and fight repeated wars with the barons, bringing about the signing of the Magna Carta.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

April 27, 1578 – Henry III Prevents a Duel

In the midst of the French Wars of Religion, decadence flooded the royal court. Many blamed the queen of Henry II, Catherine de Medici, who had brought Italian fashion along with intrigue that fostered duels, poisonings, and her “Flying Squadron” league of female spies. Others saw it as the weakness of the new generation of sons, particularly Henry, who preferred art and reading to hunting and was the favorite of his mother, Catherine.

While his older brothers sat on the throne, first Francis II and then Charles IX, Henry performed the duties of a prince conducting treaties and fighting battles, primarily against the growing Protestant powers of northern Europe. Rumors planning his marriage to Elizabeth I of England circulated in 1570, though she was twice his age and he referred to her as “an old bag with a sore leg.” Instead, Henry preferred to spend his time with his friends in court, a wild party of handsome, affluent, and adventurous youths that their enemies had nicknamed “Les Mignons.” They wore the cutting edge of fashion: starched white ruffle collars that stretched past their shoulders, black velvet, and gold embroidery. Wherever the entourage went, they were raucous gamblers always looking for a new thrill.

There was another Henry at court, the young Duke of Guise, born one year before Henry III in 1550. Guise was a vehement Catholic in the Wars of Religion after his father was assassinated during the Siege of Orleans. Many believe that, at only twenty-two, he was one of the masterminds of the assassination of Gespard de Coligny, a Huguenot admiral, and the resulting St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre that wiped out thousands of Protestants in France. His many injuries in battles against Protestants and Turks earned him the nickname “Scarface” (“Le BalafrĂ©”), a name he kept with endearment as it had been his father’s as well. He went on to become the leader of the powerful Catholic League in France. While Henry III was seen as a degenerate out of touch with reality, the Duke of Guise was well loved for his generosity and good deeds.

The rivalry of the two groups came to a head in 1578. Five years before, Henry III had left France when he was elected King of Poland and Lithuania. He stayed there only a few months, irritated by the Polish political system, and left as soon as word arrived of the death of his brother Charles IX. Despite having given up the right to succession as part of his election, Henry returned to Paris as king and simply walked away from his kingship of Poland. The sudden arrival of a new king brought rapid changes. Some were technological, like the introduction of sewage lines to palaces and the dinner fork, but the most tumultuous were his Les Mignons.

In April 1578, members in the entourages of the two Henries determined to prove their finesse for dueling by recreating the Battle of the Horatii and Curiatii from antiquity. The famous battle pitted triplet brothers from ancient Rome against triplets from their rival, Alba Longa, with both cities agreeing their latest war would be settled by the six-man duel. Despite initially gaining the upper hand by killing two of the Horatii, the Curiatii were hunted and killed one at a time by the surviving brother, Publius.

Excitement rose through the court, but the Duke of Guise had a tinge of guilt due to the Church’s condemnation of dueling. He appealed to the king to stop the duel, saying, “Only your word could stop your men.” While some historians see the phrase as a reference to the sycophantic nature of his entourage, Henry III took it as praise of his great leadership. He canceled the duel, and Guise became a new favorite, even though he did not fit in with the king’s usual friends.

Their companionship was tested in 1584, when Henry III’s brother Francis, Duke of Anjou, died while campaigning in the Netherlands. Without a direct heir, the next in line to the throne was the distant cousin Henry of Navarre, a Protestant. Guise was able to convince Henry III to suspend Henry of Navarre and all Protestants from eligibility, naming his successor to be another cousin, Cardinal Charles du Bourbon. In return, Guise awarded Henry III a partnership in the Catholic League.

Twenty-eight years the king’s senior, Charles du Bourbon, and Henry III agreed to an electoral system as he had seen in Poland with roots deep in Church power. Upon his death, Henry III was succeeded by Richelieu, the first of many Cardinal-Kings to rule over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Huguenots were stamped out of France, but the era of Enlightenment brought a new wave of thinkers that spawned a secular revolution that tore France apart repeatedly over the nineteenth century in a new series of Wars of Religion.


In reality, the Duke of Guise had no qualms about fighting, and the duel went forward. Just as with the Roman battle, it left five men dead: two on the field and three heavily wounded passing one day, one month, and six weeks later. Rather than solving any rivalry, the battle led to further distance between Henry III and the Duke of Guise. In 1588, Guise entered Paris to such a grand ovation by the public that the king fled and joined forces with Henry of Navarre. The War of the Three Henries ultimately won the throne for Henry of Navarre, but only after his proclamation of conversion to Catholicism (and the assassination of the Duke of Guise by the king's order). Henry IV’s son and grandson would consolidate political power by exiling the Medicis, putting down revolt of nobles, and reducing influence of the Church.

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