Battle of Raymond I

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Confederate Lieut. Gen. John Clifford Pemberton, commander of the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana has fathomed, more or less, Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s intent, so he is pivoting his army to face the threat. Pemberton now has his men positioned with his right guarding the raft bridge at Baldwin’s Ferry, and his left watching the railroad bridge over Big Black River. He orders Gen. John Bowen to construct a tête de pont east of the Big Black Bridge. Tête de pont is French for “bridgehead,” a work thrown up at the end of a bridge, nearest the enemy, so that this work will cover the bridge. The Confederates use cotton bales to build the works. They are thrifty with these cotton bales—the Yankees aren’t going to get them all. Pemberton’s people use 1,800 bales of cotton throwing up this line of breastworks, and his plan is to hold this position to wait for Grant to attack it.

Pemberton has five divisions, but he leaves two of them—12,000 men—in the Vicksburg area to guard the approaches from Hankinson’s Ferry to the south and from the Yazoo River to the north. To protect the city from Porter’s fleet, he has Col. Edward Higgins’s river defenses. On May 12, Pemberton moves his headquarters from Vicksburg to Bovina to be with his other three divisions.

The two divisions in the Vicksburg area are commanded by Gen. John H. Forney and Gen. Martin L. Smith. General Forney is from Lincolnton, North Carolina, and he is a harsh disciplinarian—not well liked by his troops. General Smith, like Pemberton, is a Northerner. He is a New Yorker and a West Point–trained engineer, but his connections, through his life, marriage, and military stations, have been in the South.

On May 12 Pemberton telegraphs Johnston, who receives the message at Lake Station, Mississippi, while en route to Jackson: “The enemy is apparently moving his heavy force toward Edwards Depot, on Southern Railroad; with my limited force I will do all I can to meet him. That will be the battlefield if I can carry forward sufficient force, leaving troops enough to secure the safety of this place [Vicksburg].”

That same morning, at Raymond, General Gregg sends his makeshift cavalry force of five of Wirt Adams’s cavalrymen and all of Captain Hall’s state troopers down the Utica Road to see what they can find. Hall soon runs into veteran Federal troopers—that is, a 160-man provisional cavalry battalion with Captain Foster in command. McPherson had organized this battalion that day, and it includes Foster and his Fourth Independent Company of Ohio Cavalry, as well as two companies of Illinois cavalry and one of Missouri horse soldiers. Of course, Hall’s men are not able to penetrate Foster’s screen, so all they can do is fall back with the news that the enemy is coming. They did see the head of the Union column enshrouded in dust, so they report 2,500 to 3,000 Yankees coming down the road. This information seems to confirm what Gregg believes. He knows that scouts usually pad the numbers a bit, so his mind is made up that he’s facing a lone Union brigade with a heavy cavalry screen to cover the feint. Ever combative, he says to his commanders, “We’re going to wreck ‘em, boys.”

Gregg sets a trap. He sends out Colonel Granbury’s Seventh Texas to a position on the Utica Road covering the Fourteenmile Creek bridge, and he places Maj. Stephen H. Colms’s First Tennessee Battalion near a piece of high ground where the Port Gibson Road meets the Utica Road, so that the Tennesseans can support Capt. Hiram W. Bledsoe’s three Missouri guns unlimbered on that elevated position. “Old Hi” Bledsoe is a longtime soldier who served in the Mexican War. He has two 12-pounder smoothbores and a 12-pounder Whitworth rifled gun, and his guns are posted to cover the bridge over Fourteenmile Creek.

Gregg tells Col. Calvin H. Walker, “I want you to post your Third Tennessee on the left of the Texans, and I want you to conceal your men behind the ridge, just north of Fourteenmile Creek.” He then goes to Lt. Col. Thomas W. Beaumont and says, “I want you to take the 50th Tennessee, and I want you to move down the Gallatin Road, about one and one-half miles south of town, and deploy on high enough ground that you can guard the road.” Gregg adds, “When the time comes, I want you to swing to the west and hit that Yankee brigade in the flank and rear while the Texans and the Tennesseans hit it in front.”

To Col. Randall MacGavock, who commands the 10/30th Tennessee Consolidated Regiment, Gregg says, “Post your men about one-half mile behind the 50th Tennessee, and when they swing west and attack, you follow.”

Gregg has one more regiment, the 41st Tennessee, led by Col. Robert Farquharson, and he leaves that regiment in town as a reserve, or to cover his flank and rear in case he is unexpectedly attacked from another direction. His plan is to draw the enemy into position with the Seventh Texas and then trap the bluecoats in the pocket formed by a U-shaped bend in Fourteenmile Creek. The Seventh Texas is the bait for the trap. After the Yanks have taken the bait, Gregg will then send in the 50th and 10th and 30th Tennessee regiments, swinging like a gate, onto the flank and rear of the enemy. Since Gregg has a large, 3,000-man brigade, this is a very good trap if he is attacking a 1,500-man Federal brigade. It’s grabbing a tiger by the tail if he is assailing a 12,000-man corps.

Gregg starts getting his men into position at 9 a.m., and an hour later the Federal advance moves into the shade of the trees along Fourteenmile Creek. Col. Hiram Bronson Granbury, commander of the Seventh Texas, was captured in February 1862, as a major of the Seventh at Fort Donelson, and he was exchanged for two Union lieutenants. Granbury orders up Capt. T. B. Camp with some volunteers to go in the brush near the bridge over Fourteenmile Creek, and there they wait. As the Yanks are looking forward to taking a break, they move up to the shade trees, and Captain Camp’s Texans open fire at a hundred yards.

At the same time Captain Bledsoe’s three guns roar out from 800 yards behind the Texans—boom, boom, boom! The rounds scream over the Texans’ heads and burst in the hot air over the cornfields 400 yards to the south. Col. Manning F. Force of the 20th Ohio happens to be on the high ridge, now known as McPherson’s Ridge, overlooking the scene three-quarters of a mile south of the bridge over Fourteenmile Creek, and he glances at his watch. The time is ten o’clock.

Logan, commanding the lead division, is up near the front of the blue column, and he rides up to the crest of McPherson’s Ridge to confer with one of his brigade commanders, General Dennis. McPherson is in the middle of the column, down the Utica Road with J. E. Smith’s brigade, and he spurs his horse and gallops to the crest of the ridge. He finds Logan and Dennis ordering the deployment of Dennis’s four regiments, with the 30th Illinois and the 78th Ohio moving to the west of the road, and the Illinoisans deploying to the left of the Ohioans. The 68th Ohio and the 20th Ohio are sent to the east of the road with the 78th forming on the right of the 20th. As McPherson looks to the north, he sees the smoke from three Confederate cannon more than 2,000 yards away, and he turns to Logan for a report.

While McPherson looks the situation over from the ridgetop, De Golyer’s Eighth Michigan Light Artillery races up the road in a cloud of dust and goes into battery on a slight rise of ground 150 yards south of Fourteenmile Creek, close enough for the Wolverine guns to blast canister into the Texans. That’s why the Yankee infantry loves De Golyer—he’s always up front, he’s up quick, and he’s where the action is. De Golyer only has a little more than two weeks to live, because he will be mortally wounded by a sniper in front of Vicksburg on May 28.

The young De Golyer places his two 12-pounder howitzers to the left of the road and his four rifled bronze Model 1841 6-pounders to the right. De Golyer’s sweating redlegs then fire across the creek at the Texans, and the muzzle blasts and the iron balls ricochet off the ground and raise huge clouds of dust. In the still, hot air, the powder smokes hangs over the low ground of the creek and covers the grass like a gray shroud, so visibility soon becomes almost nonexistent.

After Dennis’s regiments go into line, Logan tells J. E. Smith, “I want you to move your five regiments up to the crest of this ridge; move to the right of the road, face left, and deploy on Dennis’s right.” Smith’s real name is Schmidt; he was born in Switzerland and has Anglicized his name.

Stevenson’s brigade—Logan’s third brigade—isn’t up yet, and Marcellus Crocker’s division is strung out for miles because the dust is suffocating. Since Crocker is a “lunger,” the dust plagues him.

Dennis’s four Union regiments reach the skirt of woods at the creek and take a break in the shade of the tall trees while their skirmish line pops away at the bothersome Texans on the other side. It is now high noon, and Gregg decides to spring his trap on what he thinks is a four-regiment brigade with a battery of artillery. He orders the Texans forward, across the creek, straight at the Yankees. The Union skirmishers see the solid line of butternut and gray advancing, and they skedaddle like rabbits south through Dennis’s resting troops. The Buckeyes of the 20th Ohio on the east side of the road quickly grab their stacked rifle-muskets and dash forward to take cover in the creek bed. But the 68th Ohio, to their right, runs the other way, south across the open fields toward the ridge. The right flank of the 20th is in the air, but because of a meander in the creek, the men there are facing east, not north.

Smith’s brigade has come up to the east of Dennis’s men, crossed the open fields, and entered the woods bordering the creek, which turns southeast to form the eastern arm of the cul-de-sac. Then the five regiments move forward to the creek, but the banks are steep—about 10 to 15 feet vertical—and covered with thick brush and vines.

Smith’s right flank regiment, the 31st Illinois, swings farther to the right, facing east, to guard the flank. The 31st then strikes the deep creek bed as it runs southeast. The men become confused, turn back, and halt in the woods without crossing the creek.

Smith’s left flank regiments—the 45th, 124th, and 20th Illinois—become separated and confused in the woods, and they don’t cross the creek. Only the 23rd Indiana, after a tough time, finds itself on the north side of the creek, separated from the rest of their brigade. One wouldn’t want to have been with those Hoosier lads. When they come out on the other side of the creek, they are confused.

To make matters worse for the Indianians, Gregg now springs his trap. Over on the other side of the commanding ridge that runs north of the creek is Colonel Walker’s numerically strong Third Tennessee, composed of 548 men, and these soldiers burst over the top of the ridge. Seemingly out of nowhere they charge down the south face of the ridge into the Hoosiers’ faces, crashing into the Yankees like a tidal wave. The Indiana boys break. They panic. They flee back across this creek, pursued by Walker’s people, and this is what the boys on the right flank of the 20th Ohio see as they look to the east from their creek meander. The 20th Ohio sees their right flank uncovered, with the Rebs coming through the gap, and the Ohioans begin to think that discretion is the better part of valor. They think about retreating.

A sergeant in the 20th Ohio, Osborn H. Oldroyd, recalled that “The regiment to the right of us was giving way, but just as the line was wavering and about to be hopelessly broken, Logan dashed up, and with the shriek of an eagle turned them back to their places, which they regained and held. Had it not been for Logan’s timely intervention, who was continually riding up and down the line, firing the men with his own enthusiasm, our line would undoubtedly have been broken at some point…. The creek was running red with precious blood spilt for our country.”

The Confederates—Walker’s men—have crossed the creek. Who has the initiative now? The Rebels so far have committed two regiments, stymied nine, and badly chopped up the 23rd Indiana. Now Gregg plans to slam into the Union flank and rear with his Gallatin Road regiments—the 50th Tennessee and the 10th and 30th Tennessee. The first priority of these two Confederate regiments is to capture De Golyer’s guns, which have now fallen back about 240 yards to slightly higher ground in an open field just to the west of the Utica Road.

The 10th and 30th Tennessee moves up from its supporting position and forms on the left of Colonel Beaumont’s 50th Tennessee, and Beaumont’s men advance into the woods and cross Fourteenmile Creek, but they drift to the left in the woods and form on the south side of the creek, wandering almost in front of Colonel MacGavock’s 10th and 30th Tennessee. Beaumont hears the firing to his right as Granbury’s Texans and Walker’s Tennesseans smash into the Union lines, and he knows that it is his turn to take up the en echelon attack. This is a word based on the French word for ladder and is used to describe an attack with one unit attacking immediately after another, like a wave rolling up a beach.

But Beaumont is south of the fighting, with all its dust and smoke, and he is looking west across the open fields south of Fourteenmile Creek. He comes out of the trees onto a small hill, and he has a view of the action. What does he see? He sees lots of Yankees. The Utica Road is lined with bluecoats for miles. He says to himself, “Hell, that’s no brigade. There’s at least a division out there.” He sends a message to tell Gregg that they have big problems, and he doesn’t attack.

But the messenger, Maj. Christopher Robertson, can’t find Gregg in all the confusion. So Beaumont performs what was called in Korea a bugout. He withdraws without orders. And MacGavock with his consolidated 10th and 30th Tennessee has been ordered to await his turn in the en echelon attack, so he can’t attack until Beaumont does. This means that the Seventh Texas and Third Tennessee are now in a real pinch as regiment after regiment of Union soldiers double-time north, up the Utica Road, across the fields, and jump into the fight.

To add to the problems of the Confederates, Gen. John Stevenson’s brigade marches up the dust-choked Utica Road and arrives on the field. If some historian wants to pick a Union brigade that wrecks the Confederates during the Vicksburg Campaign, that brigade is Stevenson’s. He receives orders from Logan to send the 81st Illinois to support the left of Smith’s line, in order to stop Walker’s Tennesseans. Stevenson is then ordered to rush a regiment to the right flank of Dennis’s brigade to help fight the Texans, so the Eighth Illinois is sent. Logan then places the 81st Illinois on the right of the beaten-up 23rd Indiana, and the 81st closes the gap between the 23rd Indiana and the 31st Illinois. Stevenson sends his last two regiments, the Seventh Missouri and 32nd Ohio, to the right of the 31st Illinois, making these two regiments the far right of the Union line. McPherson now has almost the entire oxbow bend of the creek covered.

Along with Stevenson comes a battery of 24-pounder howitzers, which is Company D, First Illinois Light Artillery, and these four guns take De Golyer’s position on the rise just to the left of the Utica Road. De Golyer shifts his six guns almost 200 yards to the left to cover the left flank of Dennis. The ten guns of the two batteries continue to raise huge clouds of dust and smoke, and the artillerymen are firing blindly with only occasional glimpses of targets on the ridge and in the fields to the north of the creek.

The right flank companies of the Seventh Texas hold back at the creek—they have two Federal regiments firing at them and ten Federal guns blasting canister at them from their front. But the left flank companies cross Fourteenmile Creek, make their way through the timber, and enter the open field south of the creek. Here they are hit by a counterattack from the 20th Illinois, which had reformed in the field after failing to support the left flank of the 23rd Indiana. Lt. Col. Evan Richards, commanding the 20th Illinois, is killed during the counterattack, but the Texans fall back and take cover in the creek bed. Suddenly, Texans and Ohioans are mingled in the meandering creek bed, firing at each other over the bank tops.

On the Texans’ left, Walker’s Tennesseans charge across the creek into the woods, and Colonel Walker listens in vain for the sound of Beaumont’s guns to his left, because the 50th Tennessee is supposed to pick up its assignment in the en echelon attack. Instead of Beaumont’s firing, however, what Walker receives is a point-blank volley into his left flank from Col. Edwin Stanton McCook’s 31st Illinois on the Union right. McCook is a member of the famous “fighting McCook” family, and he attended the U.S. Naval Academy for two years. This will be his last battle, because he will be shot in the foot and hobble off the field using two rifles as crutches. Foot wounds are slow to heal, largely because of poor blood circulation and the number of bones in the foot, so this wound ends his military career.

McCook’s men have recovered from their escapade in the thick woods when they were trying to cover Smith’s right flank on the eastern edge of the cul-de-sac. His Illinoisans have reformed in the edge of the woods by the field, and when the Tennesseans exit the woods in the U of the cul-de-sac, the Illinois soldiers simply about-face, and Walker’s men are like tin ducks passing down a shooting line in a county fair.

The regimental history of the 31st Illinois states, “The companies fired in a manner resembling the firing by file, for as they [Walker’s Tennesseans] came first within range of the right of the line they encountered a continuous fire until they reached the left…. It seemed an ambuscade, but it is probable that neither part knew the position of the other, till the enemy made his wild dash across the field.”

Gregg, when he doesn’t hear the sound of firing way off on his left flank, knows something is wrong. The Seventh Texas and the Third Tennessee are taking a beating in their frontal assault, so where is the flanking attack of the 50th Tennessee and the 10th and 30th Tennessee? Gregg orders up his reserve regiment, the 41st Tennessee, but these men are in the Raymond Cemetery, almost a mile and a half away.

If things aren’t bad enough for the Third Tennessee, Smith’s Federal brigade has been bolstered by Stevenson’s newly arrived 81st Illinois, commanded by Col. James J. Dollins, a sociable man, but with a terrible temper. Dollins will die at the head of his regiment, in front of the Great Redoubt, during the second assault on Vicksburg on May 22.

Walker’s Tennesseans, after being savaged by the flanking fire of the 31st Illinois, are also hit head-on by the 45th Illinois and the 23rd Indiana of Smith’s brigade, and the 81st Illinois of Stevenson’s brigade. The Tennessee boys are in a terrible position, and they fall back across the creek in disorder. They run up and over the ridge to the point where they began their attack.

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Battle of Raymond II

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The Yanks want to pursue Walker’s retreating Tennesseans, but Colonel Farquharson’s 41st Tennessee arrives in the nick of time. The 41st turns to the west at the southern base of the ridge where Colonel Walker is trying to rally and opens fire on the Federal right flank as the men begin their pursuit coming out of the woods on the north side of the creek.

Hiram Granbury of the Seventh Texas still has his men banging away at the 20th Ohio in the creek bed, but he now has his left flank uncovered by the retreat of the Third Tennessee. And, on his right flank, his companies facing the Federal cannon have pulled back and gamely begin a march to the ridgeline to fill in where the Third Tennessee retreated.

But, with both flanks now uncovered, Granbury falls back, and he rallies at Bledsoe’s guns with Colms’s First Tennessee Battalion as support. As Granbury’s Texans approach Bledsoe’s position, the rifled Whitworth bursts, which leaves the Confederates with only two 12-pounder smoothbores. Bad luck for the Rebels!

All this time, Marcellus Crocker’s division has been strung back down the Utica Road due to all the dust, and Col. John B. Sanborn’s brigade doesn’t arrive on the field until 1:30. McPherson orders it into position to the left of Dennis’s brigade, which places it on the left of the already crowded Union line. Crocker’s artillery is still down the road, so the six guns of the Third Ohio Light Artillery, which belong to Logan, are sent to the far left to support Colonel Sanborn’s brigade. These cannon go into battery about 350 yards west of the Illinois 24-pounders. This Ohio battery has four rifled bronze Model 1841 6-pounders, like the ones in De Golyer’s battery, which they like to call 12-pounder James rifles, and two Model 1841 6-pounder smoothbores.

As the Third Ohio goes into battery, Sanborn cautiously advances his brigade and makes contact at the creek with the left flank of the 30th Illinois. With Sanborn’s brigade on the battlefield, 7,000 soldiers in blue are fighting the 3,000 in gray, along with 16 Union guns against two Confederate, now that the Whitworth has burst.

Since the Texas companies on the Confederate right flank have withdrawn and moved east toward the ridge to support the Third Tennessee, McPherson thinks he can spare units from his left. He orders Sanborn to send the two regiments on his left flank, the 48th Indiana and the 59th Indiana, over to the center of the Union line. These men slowly back out of the woods along the creek, and quickstep eastward through the dust and smoke behind the lines to the center of the Union line, and there they report to Colonel Dollins of the 81st Illinois.

Dollins has his famous temper up, and he tells them, “I don’t need your damn help—my men have the situation well in hand.” So the two Hoosier regiments form up in the field, file to the right, and wait like reserves for something to happen. Had they stayed on the Union left, they could have been used in a flanking maneuver.

Farther out on the Union right, the two right flank regiments, the Seventh Missouri and the 32nd Ohio, have slipped eastward through the woods bordering Fourteenmile Creek and have skirmished with Beaumont’s 50th Tennessee, causing Beaumont to withdraw to the Gallatin Road. The Ohioans pull to within a hundred yards of the road, fire a few parting shots at Beaumont, and take a break in a wooded ravine. But the Seventh Missouri, a regiment from St. Louis composed largely of recently arrived Irish immigrants with a sprinkling of hard rock miners, slides to the left to reestablish contact with the right of the 31st Illinois. Now that they have secured their left flank, the Irishmen, sweating profusely, swearing in Gaelic, and looking for a fight, debouch from the woods and start up the hillside to their front.

The Union Irishmen soon find a fight, because red-bearded and handsome Randy MacGavock, whose 10th and 30th Tennessee Infantry is supposed to follow Beaumont in the en echelon attack, finally realizes that Beaumont is not going to attack. Then MacGavock receives orders from Gregg to march to the right and stop the hemorrhaging in the Confederate line where the Third Tennessee has been pushed back across the creek and up the hillside. MacGavock, a Harvard law school graduate and a former mayor of Nashville, is ready to go, and he marches his Irish bullyboys back to the ridge north of Fourteenmile Creek. He then forms his lines on the left of Farquharson’s 41st Tennessee, which has recently moved into position.

MacGavock can see the Irishmen of the Seventh Missouri coming up the hill. He knows he’s got to do something. Despite the heat, he wears a long gray cloak with a bright red lining, and he throws it back over his shoulder. This might inspire his men, but it turns out to be a bad move, because some of the battle smoke has cleared, and the Yankee redlegs look over their cannon barrels to the hillside to their right front, and see MacGavock’s men forming on the ridgetop. They see a bright red flash of color in the gray line, and they shift their fire to that spot. As the shells come in, MacGavock knows he is in a tough situation. If he falls back, the Confederate line will collapse, and if he stays where he is, the artillery will hammer his men to pieces. So the only thing left to do is to pitch into those blue uniforms of the Yankee Irish coming up the hill.

The blue Missourians, in one of those strange coincidences of war, are carrying a green flag with a golden harp, much like the one in MacGavock’s Rebel Irish regiment. But the Missourians have Gaelic on the red banner of their flag, which says, “Erin Go Bragh,” or Ireland Forever. The Tennesseans have English on the red banner of their flag, saying, “Go Where Glory Waits You!”

As MacGavock charges downhill at the front of his men, with Federal shells whizzing overhead, he is cut down by a Federal sharpshooter. Even with their commander shot and dying, the Confederate Irish charge downhill and smash into the Union Irish. The Yanks fight hard but soon break, and they fall back into the woods, where they are covered by the flanking fire of the 31st Illinois to the west of them. There are far too many Yanks in the woods for the Tennessee Irishmen to handle, and they slowly fall back to the crest of the ridge and hunker down. The Missouri Irish soon regroup and press back uphill, but the Tennesseans won’t budge. Volley after volley is exchanged at short range on top of the ridge between the opposing Irish regiments. Then the men of the 10th and 30th look to their right and see Farquharson’s men suddenly about-face, and file off to the east toward the Gallatin Road. Before the Yanks can exploit the gap in the Confederate line, it is filled with the three beaten-up companies of Texans, who still have plenty of fight left in them, and have marched over from the Confederate right flank near the Fourteenmile Creek bridge.

While this is happening, Col. Samuel Holmes’s brigade of Crocker’s Union division arrives on the low rise where the 16 Federal guns are blasting away. Now, the Union troop numbers rise to 9,000, and their artillery goes up to 22 cannon, because the six guns of the 11th Ohio Light Artillery of Crocker’s division arrive and go into battery in the gap between De Golyer’s cannon and the Illinois 24-pounders. The 11th Ohio has two 12-pounder howitzers, two 12-pounder James rifles, and two 6-pounder smoothbores.

When Holmes comes up, he is told to send the Tenth Missouri and the 80th Ohio to assist the Seventh Missouri, whose men cannot penetrate the Confederate line. The Missourians of the Tenth are placed on the right of Stevenson’s brigade, and Stevenson posts the Buckeyes in reserve.

But where were Farquharson’s Tennesseans going when they left the right flank of the 10th and 30th Tennessee? Gregg, not knowing that Colonel Beaumont was still out on the Gallatin Road, has ordered Farquharson out to the road, thinking a threat was developing there. It wasn’t. At the same time, Beaumont, on the Gallatin Road, decides to march to the west to the sound of the firing, since there is no threat where he is. The two Tennessee regiments change places on the battlefield, and as they pass each other, nobody in either unit bothers to stop and ask where the other is going. Beaumont’s 50th Tennessee ends up on the right flank of the 10/30th Tennessee, and Farquharson’s 41st Tennessee ends up on the Gallatin Road.

By 4 p.m. Gregg realizes that he has bitten off a lot more than he can chew, and he seeks to get rid of that mouthful. But he has to worry about how he is going to save his command from overwhelming numbers. He sends Colms’s First Tennessee Battalion down the west side of the Utica Road from its position at Bledsoe’s guns, and these Tennesseans feign an attack on the Union left. The bluff works, and the Fourth Minnesota of Sanborn’s brigade hunkers down in the woods at Fourteenmile Creek and doesn’t advance.

Feeling good about his work, Colms shifts his men to the east side of the Utica Road so that they can cover the withdrawal of the beat-up Texans. As the Confederates start to withdraw, Beaumont, who has just marched his 50th Tennessee from the Gallatin Road and has arrived in the front of the masses of Union troops, realizes that he is in a tough spot, so he marches up a ravine in the ridgeline and then west to the Utica Road. Here he is joined by six companies of the Third Kentucky Mounted Infantry that have ridden out of Jackson to assist Gregg, and the horse soldiers cover the retreat.

Fortunately, Farquharson’s Tennesseans, now way out by themselves on the Confederate left on the Gallatin Road, realize the situation is hopeless, and they fall back and go north up the Gallatin Road, through the cemetery, and into Raymond before they are cut off.

There is no pursuit by the Federals, not even by the cavalry, so Gregg’s command rallies in Raymond and marches eastward toward Mississippi Springs on the Jackson Road.

When Gregg’s men depart Raymond that morning the ladies of the town set up a huge picnic spread beneth the stately trees along the road for the brave, and presumably victorious, Confederates when they come back into town. But the Confederates have to conduct a fighting withdrawal to escape all those Yankees, and when they pass through Raymond, they don’t have time to stop and feast. So the guys that are going to get the food prepared by the ladies of Raymond are the 20th Ohio, because they are the first ones into Raymond as the Confederates head out the Jackson Road.

The Battle of Raymond is over. It has lasted six hours. The Southerners, though decisively outnumbered, held the initiative for almost five hours. But they lose more men because many are taken prisoner. No Federals are captured. The Confederate losses are 73 dead, 252 wounded, and 190 missing, for a total of 515 casualties. Of course, many of the wounded will later die. The Federals have 66 killed, 339 wounded, and 37 missing, for a total of 442.

The Battle of Raymond shocks McPherson, but he proves himself to be a spinmaster. He sends a report to Grant, who is only six miles to the west, that he has fought a “sharp and severe contest” against 6,000 Confederates and two batteries. He doubles their size to a number which has to concern Grant, who heard the battle from six miles to the west, and his experienced ears tell him there were no 6,000 Rebs, much less 12 Confederate cannon, at Raymond.

Frederick William and Fehrbellin in 1675

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Frederick William and Fehrbellin in 1675.

In December 1640, when Frederick William acceded to the throne, Brandenburg was still under foreign occupation. A two-year truce was agreed with the Swedes in July 1641, but the looting, burning and general misbehaviour continued. In a letter of spring 1641, the Elector’s viceroy, Margrave Ernest, who carried the responsibility for administering the ruined Mark, offered a grim synopsis:

The country is in such a miserable and impoverished condition that mere words can scarcely convey the sympathy one feels with the innocent inhabitants. In general, We think that the cart has been driven so deep into the muck, as they say, that it cannot be extricated without the special help of the Almighty.

The strain of overseeing the anarchy unfolding in Brandenburg ultimately proved too much for the margrave, who succumbed to panic attacks, sleeplessness and paranoid delusions. By the autumn of 1642, he had taken to pacing about in his palace muttering to himself, shrieking and throwing himself to the floor. His death on 26 September was ascribed to ‘melancholy’.

Only in March 1643 did Frederick William return from the relative safety of Königsberg to the ruined city of Berlin, a city he scarcely recognized. Here he found a population depleted and malnourished, and buildings destroyed by fire or in a parlous state of repair. The predicament that had bedevilled his father’s reign remained unsolved: Brandenburg had no military force with which to establish its independence. The small army created by Schwarzenberg was already falling apart and there was no money to pay for a replacement. Johann Friedrich von Leuchtmar, a privy councillor and the Elector’s former tutor, summarized Brandenburg’s predicament in a report of 1644: Poland, he predicted, would seize Prussia as soon as it was strong enough; Pomerania was under Swedish occupation and likely to remain so; Kleve in the west was under the control of the Dutch Republic. Brandenburg stood ‘on the edge of the abyss’.

In order to restore the independence of his territory and press home his claims, the Elector needed a flexible, disciplined fighting force. The creation of such an instrument became one of the consuming preoccupations of his reign. The Brandenburg campaign army grew dramatically, if somewhat unsteadily, from 3,000 men in 1641–2, to 8,000 in 1643–6, to 25,000 during the Northern War of 1655–60, to 38,000 during the Dutch wars of the 1670s. During the final decade of the Elector’s reign, its size fluctuated between 20,000 and 30,000. Improvements in tactical training and armaments modelled on French, Dutch, Swedish and imperial best practice placed the Brandenburg army close to the cutting edge of European military innovation. Pikes and pikemen were phased out and the cumbersome matchlock guns carried by the infantry were replaced by lighter, faster-firing flintlocks. Artillery calibres were standardized to allow for the more flexible and efficient use of field guns, in the style pioneered by the Swedes. The foundation of a cadet school for officer recruits introduced an element of standardized professional formation. Better conditions of employment – including provision for maimed or retired officers – improved the stability of the command structure. These changes in turn improved the cohesion and morale of the non-commissioned ranks, who distinguished themselves in the 1680s by their excellent discipline and low rates of desertion.

The improvised forces assembled for specific campaigns during the early years of the reign gradually evolved into what one could call a standing army. In April 1655, a General War Commissioner (General-kriegskommissar) was appointed to oversee the handling of financial and other resources for the army, on the model of the military administration recently introduced in France under Le Tellier and Louvois. This innovation was initially conceived as a temporary wartime measure and only later established as a permanent feature of the territorial administration. After 1679, under the direction of the Pomeranian nobleman Joachim von Grumbkow, the General War Commissariat extended its reach throughout the Hohenzollern territories, gradually usurping the function of the Estate officials who had traditionally overseen military taxation and discipline at a local level. The General War Commissariat and the Office for the Domains were still relatively small institutions in 1688 when the Elector died, but under his successors they would play a crucial role in toughening the sinews of central authority in the Brandenburg-Prussian state. This synergy between war-making and the development of state-like central organs was something new; it became possible only when the war-making apparatus was separated from its traditional provincial-aristocratic foundations.

The acquisition of such a formidable military instrument was important, because the decades that followed the end of the Thirty Years War were a period of intense conflict in northern Europe. Two foreign titans overshadowed Brandenburg foreign policy during the Elector’s reign. The first was King Charles X of Sweden, a restless, obsessive figure with expansionist dreams who seemed bent on trumping the record of his illustrious predecessor Gustavus Adolphus. It was Charles X’s invasion of Poland that started the Northern War of 1655–60. His plan was to subdue the Danes and the Poles, occupy Ducal Prussia and then march south at the head of a vast army to sack Rome in the manner of the ancient Goths. Instead, the Swedes became bogged down in a bitter five-year struggle for control of the Baltic littoral.

After the death of Charles X in 1660 and the ebbing of Swedish power, it was Louis XIV of France who dominated Brandenburg’s political horizons. Having assumed sole regency after the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661, Louis expanded his combined wartime armed forces from 70,000 to 320,000 men (by 1693) and launched a sequence of assaults to secure hegemony in western Europe; there were campaigns against the Spanish Netherlands in 1667–8, the United Provinces in 1672–8 and the Palatinate in 1688.

In this dangerous environment, the Elector’s growing army proved an indispensable asset. In the summer of 1656, Frederick William’s 8,500 troops joined forces with Charles X to defeat a massive Polish-Tartar army in the battle of Warsaw (28–30 July). In 1658, he changed sides and campaigned as an ally of Poland and Austria against the Swedes. It was a sign of Frederick William’s growing weight in regional politics that he was appointed commander of the Brandenburg-Polish-imperial allied army raised to fight the Swedes in 1658–9. A chain of successful military assaults followed, first in Schleswig-Holstein and Jutland and later in Pomerania.

The most dramatic military exploit of the reign was Frederick William’s single-handed victory over the Swedes at Fehrbellin in 1675. In the winter of 1674–5, the Elector was campaigning with an Austrian army in the Rhineland as part of the coalition that had formed to contain Louis XIV during the Dutch wars. In the hope of securing French subsidies, the Swedes, allies of the French, invaded Brandenburg with an army of 14,000 men under the command of General Karl Gustav Wrangel. It was a scenario that awakened memories of the Thirty Years War: the Swedes unleashed the usual ravages on the hapless population of the Uckermark, to the north-east of Berlin. Frederick William reacted to news of the invasion with undisguised rage. ‘I can be brought to no other resolution,’ the Elector told Otto von Schwerin on 10 February, ‘than to avenge myself on the Swedes.’ In a series of furious despatches, the Elector, who was bedridden with gout, urged his subjects, ‘both noble and non-noble’, to ‘cut down all Swedes, wherever they can lay their hands upon them and to break their necks [… ] and to give no quarter’.

Frederick William joined his army in Franconia at the end of May. Covering over one hundred kilometres per week, his forces reached Magdeburg on 22 June, just over ninety kilometres from the Swedish headquarters in the city of Havelberg. From here, the Brandenburg command could establish through local informants that the Swedes were strung out behind the river Havel, with concentrations in the fortified cities of Havelberg, Rathenow and Brandenburg. Since the Swedes had failed to register the arrival of the Brandenburg army, the Elector and his commander Georg Derfflinger had the advantage of surprise, and they resolved to attack the Swedish strongpoint at Rathenow with only 7,000 cavalry; a further 1,000 musketeers were loaded on to carts so that they could keep pace with the advance. Heavy rain and muddy conditions impeded their progress but also concealed them from the unsuspecting Swedish regiment at Rathenow. In the early morning of 25 June, the Brandenburgers attacked and destroyed the Swedish force with only minimal casualties on their own side.

The collapse of the Swedish line at Rathenow set the scene for the Battle of Fehrbellin, the most celebrated military engagement of the Elector’s reign. In order to restore cohesion to their position, the Swedish regiment in Brandenburg City pulled back deep into the countryside with the intention of sweeping to the north-west to join up with the main force at Havelberg. This proved more difficult than they had expected, because the heavy spring and summer rains had transformed the marshes of the area into a treacherous waterland broken only by islands of sodden grass or sand and criss-crossed by narrow causeways. Guided by locals, advance parties of the Electoral army blocked the main exits from the area, and forced the Swedes to fall back on the little town of Fehrbellin on the river Rhin. Here their commander, General Wrangel, deployed his 11,000 men in defensive fashion, setting the 7,000 Swedish infantry in the centre and his cavalry on the wings.

Against 11,000 Swedes the Elector could muster only around 6,000 men (a substantial part of his army, including most of his infantry, had not yet arrived in the area). The Swedes disposed of about three times as many field guns as the Brandenburgers. But this numerical disadvantage was offset by a tactical opportunity. Wrangel had neglected to occupy a low sandhill that overlooked his right flank. The Elector lost no time in positioning his thirteen field guns there and opening fire on the Swedish lines. Seeing his error, Wrangel ordered the cavalry on his right wing, supported by infantry, to take the hill. For the next few hours the battle was dominated by the ebb and surge of cavalry charge and counter-charge as the Swedes attempted to seize the enemy guns and were thrown back by the Brandenburg horse. A metaphorical fog of war shrouds all such encounters; it was thickened on this occasion by a literal summer mist of the kind that often gathers in the marshes of the Havelland. Both sides found it difficult to coordinate their forces, but it was the Swedish cavalry that gave way first, fleeing from the field and leaving their infantry – the Dalwig Guards – exposed to the sabres of the Brandenburg horse. Of 1,200 Guards, twenty managed to escape and about seventy were taken prisoner; the rest were killed. On the following day, the town of Fehrbellin itself was seized from a small Swedish occupation force. There was now a great fleeing of Swedes across the Mark Brandenburg. Considerable numbers of them, more perhaps than fell on the field of battle, were hacked to death in opportunist attacks by peasants as they made their way northwards. A contemporary report noted that peasants in the area around the town of Wittstock, not far from the border with Pomerania, had slain 300 Swedes, including a number of officers: ‘although several of the latter offered 2000 thalers for their lives, they were decapitated by the vengeful peasants.’21 Memories of the ‘Swedish terror’ still vivid in the older generation played a role here. By 2 July, every last Swede who had not been captured or killed had left the territory of the Electorate.

Victories of the kind achieved at Warsaw and Fehrbellin were of enormous symbolic importance to the Elector and his entourage. In an era that glorified successful warlords, the victories of Brandenburg’s army magnified the prestige and reputation of its founder. At Warsaw, Frederick William had stood in the thick of the fighting, repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire. He wrote an account of the event and had it published in The Hague. His notes on the battle formed the basis for the relevant passages in Samuel Pufendorf’s history of the reign – a comprehensive and sophisticated work that marked a new departure in Brandenburg historiography. All this bore witness to a heightened historical self-consciousness, a sense that Brandenburg had begun to make – and to narrate – its own history. In his ‘royal memoirs’, a text intended for the eyes of his successor, Louis XIV observed that kings owe an account of their actions ‘to all ages’. The Great Elector never unfolded a cult of historicized self-memorialization to rival that of his French contemporary, but he too began consciously to perceive himself and his achievements through the eyes of an imagined posterity.

At Warsaw in 1656 the Brandenburgers had shown their mettle as coalition partners; at Fehrbellin nineteen years later the Elector’s army, though outnumbered and forced to advance at lightning speed, prevailed without aid over an enemy with an intimidating European reputation. Here too the Elector, now a stout man of fifty-five, stayed at the centre of the action. He joined his riders in assaults on the Swedish lines until he was encircled by enemy troops and had to be cut free by nine of his own dragoons. It was after the victory at Fehrbellin that the soubriquet ‘the Great Elector’first appeared in print. There was nothing particularly remarkable in that, since broadsheets extolling the greatness of rulers were commonplace in seventeenth-century Europe. But unlike so many other early-modern ‘greats’ (including the abortive ‘Louis the Great’, propagated by the sycophantic pamphleteers of the sun-king; ‘Leopold the Great’ of Austria; and ‘Maximilian the Great’, usage of which is now confined to die-hard Bavarian monarchist circles) this one survived, making Elector Frederick William the only non-royal early-modern European sovereign who is still widely accorded this epithet.

With Fehrbellin, moreover, a bond was forged between history and legend. The battle became a fixture in memory. The dramatist Heinrich von Kleist chose it as the setting for his play Der Prinz von Homburg, a fanciful variation on the historical record, in which an impulsive military commander faces a death sentence for having led a victorious charge against the Swedes despite orders to hold back, but is pardoned by the Elector once he has accepted his culpability. To the Brandenburgers and Prussians of posterity, Frederick William’s predecessors would remain shadowy, antique figures imprisoned within a remote past. By contrast, the ‘Great Elector’ would be elevated to the status of a three-dimensional founding father, a transcendent personality who both symbolized and bestowed meaning upon the history of a state.

OPERATION KADESH, 1956 Part I

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Israeli paratroopers dig in near the Parker Memorial.

On Monday, October 29, 1956, at 4:59 P.M., Major Rafael (“Raful”) Eitan jumped from a Dakota plane in Western Sinai and kicked off the Kadesh mission.

Three hundred ninety-four paratroopers jumped after him from sixteen aircraft. They had been preceded, two hours earlier, by two Mustang aircraft that had torn surface phone lines over Sinai with their propellers and wings, in order to disrupt the Egyptian communications systems.

In Tel Aviv, Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan dispatched an official communique to Kol Israel radio:

“The IDF spokesman announces that IDF forces entered and attacked Fedayeen units at Ras el Nakeb and Kuntila and took positions in proximity to the Suez Canal.”

The paratroopers’ drop, close to the Suez Canal, deep in Egyptian territory, was the opening shot of the Sinai campaign and the conclusion of a top-secret political operation with Ben-Gurion, Dayan and Peres as the main players.

In September 1955, Israel had suffered a painful blow when the Soviet Union, using Czechoslovakia as a proxy, concluded a huge arms deal with Egypt. The USSR was going to supply Egypt with about 200 MiG-15 jet fighters and Ilyushin ll-28 bombers, and training and cargo planes; 230 tanks; 200 armored troop carriers; 600 cannons; and various naval vessels—torpedo boats, destroyers and 6 submarines. The weapons Egypt was about to receive were of unprecedented quality and quantity. With them, the balance of power in the Middle East could collapse, and Israel risked losing its deterrent power, the guarantee for its existence. Another reason for worry was the establishment of a joint Egyptian-Syrian military command.

A wave of anxiety swept Israel. She had only thirty jet fighters. The numbers of her tanks, troop carriers and cannons were ridiculous when compared to what Egypt was about to receive. Distraught Israelis spontaneously donated money, jewelry and property deeds to a “defense fund” created for the purchase of weapons. Fiery Ben-Gurion wanted to launch an attack on Egypt immediately. Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, however, dovish and moderate, defeated his motion in a cabinet vote. A few months later, Ben-Gurion hit back by removing Sharett from the cabinet and appointing a new foreign minister—hawkish Golda Meir.

In the meantime, Shimon Peres invested tremendous effort in establishing an alliance between France and Israel. And in spite of the criticism, even the mockery, in government circles at home, his efforts in France bore fruit: he succeeded in obtaining large quantities of weapons and in establishing relations of trust and friendship with French cabinet ministers, army officers and members of parliament. In June 1956, Israel signed the Ge’ut (“High Tide”) deal with France for a massive supply of weapons to Israel.

A month later, in a surprise move, Egyptian president Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. France and Great Britain, the main holders of Suez Canal stock, immediately started planning a military operation against Egypt, to bring the canal back under their power. French and British generals debated successive invasion plans in a World War II bunker under the Thames. Soon the French leaders realized that the British wouldn’t attack Egypt without a solid pretext. Therefore, they turned to Israel.

Shortly before sunset on October 22, 1956, several cars stopped by a secluded villa in Sevres, a Parisian suburb. The passengers furtively slipped into the house gates. These were French Prime Minister Guy Mollet, Foreign Minister Christian Pineau, Defense Minister Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury, the army chief of staff, and several high-ranking generals. Their secret guests, who had arrived by special plane, were Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, hiding his distinctive shock of white hair under a wide-brimmed hat; General Moshe Dayan, concealing his black eye patch under large sunglasses; and Shimon Peres. The two delegations met in a cordial atmosphere. Later in the evening, though, they were joined by British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd.

With Lloyd’s arrival, a cold wind seemed to penetrate the villa. The British foreign secretary apparently couldn’t forget that only eight years before, Britain was still the ruler of Palestine and Ben-Gurion was its most formidable opponent. “Britain’s Foreign Secretary may well have been a friendly man, pleasant, charming, amiable,” Dayan wrote. “If so, he showed near-genius in concealing these virtues. His whole demeanor expressed distaste—for the place, the company and the topic.”

But Lloyd was there—and the most secret summit after World War II was under way.

After a first round of talks that continued into the night, Lloyd left to report to British Prime Minister Anthony Eden. “It seems that Lloyd didn’t fall in love with Ben-Gurion,” Peres noted that night, “but there is no doubt at all that this feeling was mutual from the moment they met.”

The conference continued the following day. Several ideas about an action that could justify an Anglo-French intervention were discussed. The various ploys were rejected, one after the other. The French and the British suggested that Israel attack Egypt, conquer the Sinai Peninsula and create a threat to the Suez Canal; France and Great Britain would then intervene to “protect” the canal from the fighting forces.

But Ben-Gurion refused to launch an all-out war against Egypt, just to provide France and Britain with a pretext; he also feared that Israel would have to carry the brunt of such a war on her frail shoulders for several days, perhaps a week, until the Franco-British invasion started.

The following day, while the French and the Israelis were having lunch, General Maurice Challe, the French deputy chief of staff, asked to speak. He suggested that the Israeli Air Force stage an attack on Be’er Sheva and bomb the city. Egypt would be accused, and the Anglo-French forces would intervene immediately. Ben-Gurion, his face flushed with fury, jumped from his seat. “Israel is strong because she fights for a just cause,” he said. “I shall not lie, either to the world public opinion or to anybody else.” In the sepulchral silence that settled over the room Challe sat down, his face red with embarrassment. The others buried their noses in their plates. The conference seemed about to collapse.

And then Moshe Dayan conceived the magical formula.

Dayan, born in kibbutz Degania, raised in the cooperative village of Nahalal, was a charismatic Israeli hero. A member of the Haganah—the Jewish defense organization under the British mandate—he had grown up among Nahalal’s Arab neighbors, knew them well and respected them. In War World II he had participated in a British patrol operating against the French Vichy forces in Lebanon. An enemy sniper’s bullet shattered his binoculars, driving the eye piece into his left eye socket. The eye was lost but the pirate patch that replaced it made the face of Dayan famous all over Israel and later the world. A gifted orator, a lover of poetry, an amateur archaeologist and a womanizer, he also was a fearless warrior. As chief of staff he transformed the IDF into a lean, tough force and commanded the reprisal raids against Israel’s restive enemies. Yet, he soon realized that reprisals could not solve the growing tension between Israel and her neighbors, especially Egypt. He supported the idea of attacking Egypt before it mastered the massive influx of arms from the Soviet bloc and was a willing participant in the Sevres conference.

Ben-Gurion, however, kept refusing to launch an all-out war against Egypt. So how to start a war without starting a war? At that crucial moment, when the entire conference depended on a solution to the pretext dilemma, Dayan came up with a plan.

Let’s start the war from the end, Dayan said. He suggested parachuting a small Israeli force into the Sinai, about thirty miles east of the Suez Canal, creating an apparent threat on the waterway. France and Great Britain would declare the canal in danger and dispatch ultimata to Egypt and Israel to retreat to new lines, ten miles on each side of the canal. That meant that Egypt would be asked to evacuate the entire Sinai Peninsula, allowing Israel to conquer it and reach the vicinity of the canal. Israel would accept the ultimatum, while Egypt would certainly reject it. That would be the pretext for the French and the British to launch their military operation against Egypt thirty-six hours after the Israelis.

Ben-Gurion hesitated, but after a sleepless night accepted Dayan’s plan. When meeting with Dayan and Peres in the villa garden the following morning, he asked Dayan to draw the projected campaign for him. Nobody had any paper, so Peres tore his cigarette pack, and Dayan sketched on it the Sinai Peninsula; a dotted line represented the flight of the planes that would drop the paratroopers, and three arrows showed the main axes of the subsequent Israeli offensive. Ben-Gurion, Dayan and Peres signed, laughing, the small piece of cardboard, and it became the first map of the Sinai campaign.

Back in the villa, Dayan’s plan was unanimously adopted and on October 24 a secret agreement was signed among France, Great Britain and Israel. On his return to Tel Aviv Ben-Gurion called a cabinet meeting. He didn’t tell the ministers about his trip to France or the agreement they had made, a copy of which he carried in his breast pocket. Yet, he obtained the cabinet consent for an operation against Egypt. As always when in a state of utter tension, Ben-Gurion fell sick with high fever. But that night Menachem Begin, Ben-Gurion’s staunch rival, was invited to Ben-Gurion’s home for the first time in his life. While Begin sat on a stool beside Ben-Gurion’s cot, the Old Man described the decision to go to war, and Begin congratulated him warmly.

On October 29, Raful Eitan and his paratroopers jumped deep behind enemy lines, reached their destination and dug in for the night. In the wee hours, Israeli aircraft parachuted jeeps, recoilless guns and heavy mortars.

While Raful’s men were still in the air, Arik Sharon crossed the Egyptian border with the paratrooper brigade, riding armored troop carriers and reinforced by AMX tanks. The column advanced through Sinai, conquering several Egyptian fortresses in fierce battles and after thirty hours approached Raful’s compound.

While waiting for Arik, Raful jokingly prepared a cardboard sign: STOP! FRONTIER AHEAD! Shortly after 10:00 P.M., on October 30, the armored column reached the sign. Davidi and Sharon, covered with fine desert dust, jumped from their jeeps and hugged Raful. The mission was accomplished.

Or so it seemed. Sharon had other thoughts. In the last two years he had turned the paratrooper corps into an elite commando unit that had carried out most of the reprisal raids against Israel’s neighbors. Theprice had been heavy—many of the best fighters had been killed and Meir Har-Zion himself had almost died during the al Rahwa raid in September 1956. A bullet had blasted his throat and he was choking to death when the unit doctor, Maurice Ankelevitz, drew a pocketknife, stuck it in his windpipe, performing an improvised tracheotomy under fire, and saved his life.

Yet, in spite of the wounded and the dead, the paratrooper corps was submerged by a wave of volunteers, most of them members of kibbutz and moshav agricultural settlements. The battalion became a brigade. Sharon, now a lieutenant colonel, had become the best fighter in the IDF. Dayan liked him and Ben-Gurion admired his fighting skills, even though he criticized his integrity. On October 30, 1956, Sharon was, as always, hungry for battle.

He had barely finished hugging Raful when he decided to conquer the famous Mitla Pass—a winding canyon road in the nearby mountain ridge—and be the first to reach the canal with his paratroopers.

 

OPERATION KADESH, 1956 Part II

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The pass seemed to be empty of enemy forces. The day before, an armored convoy coming from Egypt had crossed the canal and penetrated the pass, but Israeli jets had attacked and destroyed it completely. The black carcasses of the burned vehicles still smoked all along the Mitla road.

Sharon sent a radio message, asking permission to take the Mitla Pass. But the General Staff radioed him a clear order: “Don’t advance, stay where you are.” Sharon, Raful and the other commanders didn’t know that the goal of the paratroopers’ drop at the Mitla approaches was not fighting or conquering, but to serve as a pretext for the Anglo-French intervention.

In the early morning another message arrived from the staff: “Do not advance!” But Arik did not give up. At 11:00 A.M. Colonel Rehavam (“Gandhi”) Ze’evi, the Southern Command chief of staff, arrived at the compound in a light Piper Cub plane. Arik again requested permission to enter Mitla, but Gandhi allowed him only to send a patrol to the pass, on the condition that he wouldn’t get entangled in fighting.

Arik immediately assembled a “patrol team” under the command of Motta Gur. At the head of the column Arik placed six half-tracks; behind them the half-track of the tanks force commander Zvi Dahab and Danny Matt; then three tanks; then the brigade deputy commander, Haka Hofi’s, half-track; six more half-tracks full of paratroopers; a battery of heavy 120-millimeter mortars; and several equipment-carrying trucks. The paratrooper commando joined the column not as fighters but as tourists who came to enjoy the trip to the canal. Davidi made a funny hat out of a newspaper, to protect himself from the sun.

And Arik called all this battalion-sized convoy a “patrol.”

At 12:30 P.M. the convoy entered the pass. They quickly advanced in the narrow canyon, between two towering mounts.

And there the Egyptians were waiting.

Hundreds of Egyptian soldiers were entrenched in dugouts, natural caves in the rock and behind low stone fences. On the roadside, camouflaged by bushes and bales of thorns, stood armored cars carrying Bren machine guns. Companies of soldiers were positioned above them, armed with bazookas, recoilless guns, anti-tank guns and midsized machine guns. And on a third line above, in positions and cubbyholes in the rock, lay soldiers armed with rifles and automatic weapons.

At twelve-fifty, the half-tracks advancing in the pass were hit by a lethal volley of bullets and shells. A hail of bullets drummed on the half-tracks’ armored plates. The first half-track swayed to and fro and stopped, its commander and driver dead; the other soldiers, some of them wounded, jumped off the vehicle and tried to find cover.

Motta Gur’s half-track was about 150 yards behind. He ordered his men to advance toward the damaged vehicle. Three half-tracks reached the immobile vehicle and were hit too. Motta got around them and tried to escape the ambush, but he was hit as well. He and his men sought refuge in a shallow ditch beside the road.

Haka, who was in the middle of the column, realized that his men had blundered into a deadly ambush. He ordered Davidi to get back and stop the vehicles that had not entered the pass yet. Davidi unloaded the mortars and opened fire on the hills. Haka himself broke through the enemy lines with a company and two tanks. The armored vehicles bypassed the stuck half-tracks and emerged on the other side of the pass, two kilometers down the road.

Mitla, full of burned, smoldering vehicles from the Egyptian convoy from the day before, now became a killing field for the paratroopers. Four Egyptian Meteor jets dived toward the column, blew up eight trucks carrying fuel and ammunition, and hit several heavy mortars.

Motta sent an urgent message to Haka, asking him to come back into the pass and rescue the trapped soldiers. He also requested from Davidi that Micha Kapusta’s commando should attack the Egyptian positions from behind.

Micha’s commando—the finest paratrooper unit—climbed to the tops of the hills. His platoon commanders started moving down the northern slope, annihilating the Egyptian positions. But at this point a terrible misunderstanding occurred.

The commando fighters that destroyed the enemy positions on the northern slope clearly saw the road. They didn’t notice that the slope turned to a sheer drop almost at their feet, and most of the Egyptians were entrenched there. They also failed to notice other Egyptian positions that were located on the southern slope, across the road.

Suddenly, Micha’s men were hit by a hail of bullets and missiles from the southern slope. Micha thought that the trapped paratroopers by the road were firing at him. Furious, he yelled at Davidi on his radio to make Motta’s people stop firing, while Motta, who couldn’t see the enemy positions on the southern slope that were firing at the commando, did not understand why Micha didn’t continue his advance.

These were tragic moments. “Go! Attack!” Davidi yelled at Micha, while Micha saw his men falling. The paratroopers dashed forward under heavy fire. Some reached the edge of the rocky drop without noticing it and rolled down, in full sight of the Egyptians, who shot them.

Facing heavy fire, Micha decided to retreat to a nearby hill. But another Israeli company appeared on top of that hill and mistakenly started firing on Micha’s men. Micha’s fury and pain echoed in the walkie-talkies. His soldiers were fired at from all sides, by Egyptians and by Israelis.

At last Davidi understood the mix-up that had caused Motta’s and Micha’s contradictory reports. He made a fateful decision: send a jeep that would attract the enemy fire into the pass. Davidi’s observers would then locate the sources of the Egyptian fire.

For that mission he needed a volunteer who would be ready to sacrifice his life.

“Who volunteers to get to Motta?” he asked.

Several men jumped right away. Davidi chose Ken-Dror, his own driver.

Ken-Dror knew he was going to his death. He started the jeep and sped to the pass, immediately becoming the target of heavy fire. The jeep was crushed and Ken-Dror collapsed beside it. His sacrifice was in vain. Motta and Micha didn’t succeed in pinpointing the sources of enemy fire.

Davidi sent a half-track with four soldiers and a lieutenant to the pass. The carrier reached Motta, loaded some wounded soldiers and returned, unharmed.

And the sources of the shooting still were not discovered.

Davidi again ordered Micha to storm the Egyptian positions. His soldiers ran again down the slope. Another platoon was hit by crossfire from the southern hill. And Micha suddenly saw the abrupt drop at his feet and understood where the Egyptian positions were.

At that moment he was shot. A bullet pierced his chest, he lost his breath and he felt he was going to die.

“Dovik!” he shouted at his deputy. “Take over!”

A bullet hit Dovik in the head. The two wounded men started crawling up the hill. In front of them they saw other paratroopers. They feared their comrades would shoot them by mistake. “Davidi! Davidi” they shouted hoarsely.

At 5:00 P.M. a rumble of tanks suddenly echoed in the narrow canyon. Haka’s two tanks returned from the western exit of the pass and turned the tide. They first set their guns toward the southern hill and blasted many of the enemy positions. Egyptian soldiers started fleeing in a disorderly way but were mown down by the paratroopers’ machine guns. Simultaneously, two paratrooper companies reached the crests of the two ridges rising on both sides of the road. They came from the western entrance to the pass and systematically mopped up the Egyptian positions. They agreed that their finishing line would be a burning Egyptian half-track in the center of the canyon. Other fighters would come from the east and destroy the remaining enemy positions on the northern and southern hills.

At nightfall fifty paratroopers scaled the hills—half of them, commanded by a twice-decorated veteran, Oved Ladijanski, turned to the southern ridge; the other half, under the leadership of a slim and soft-spoken kibbutz member, Levi Hofesh, attacked the northern one. Their goal was to reach the burning half-track with no Egyptian soldier left behind.

Oved’s unit moved up the hill in silence, holding their fire. They reached a fortified machine gun position, hewn in the rocky slope. They attacked it from below with hand grenades, but some of those bounced off the rock and exploded. Oved threw a grenade toward the machine gun, but the grenade rolled down. “It’s coming back,” Oved whispered to the soldier beside him, pushed him aside and covered him with his body. The grenade exploded against Oved’s chest and killed him. One of his comrades succeeded in dropping a grenade into the position, burst in and killed the Egyptians cowering inside.

The survivors of Oved’s unit kept advancing and destroying the enemy positions. Levi Hofesh did the same on the northern hill. He realized that the Egyptians had placed their forces in three tiers, one above the other. He divided his soldiers in three detachments, and each mopped up one of the enemy lines. The fighting was desperate; the trapped Egyptians had nothing to lose. It took the paratroopers two hours to advance three hundred yards. Shortly before 8:00 P.M., Levi completed his operation, leaving behind ninety Egyptian dead.

The paratroopers now were the masters of the Mitla Pass. During the night, cargo planes landed nearby and evacuated the wounded—Dovik and Micha, Danny Matt and another 120 paratroopers. Among the seriously wounded was also Yehuda Ken Dror, hanging to life by a thread. In a few months he would succumb to his wounds.

Thirty-eight paratroopers and two hundred Egyptian soldiers died in the Mitla battle. Four more Israelis would die later of their wounds. Dayan seethed with fury, accusing Sharon of losing so many lives in a totally unnecessary battle. Ben-Gurion, alerted, refused to interfere in a row between two senior officers whom he especially liked. But the Mitla battle actually sent Sharon to an informal exile and delayed his advancement in the IDF by several years.

The Mitla battle was gratuitous, indeed. Yet it was a bravely fought battle, in which Sharon’s paratroopers demonstrated his principles that one doesn’t abandon comrades on the battlefield, even if it costs human lives, and an IDF team doesn’t bend, doesn’t give up and doesn’t retreat until the mission is achieved.

The Sinai campaign lasted seven days and ended with an Israeli victory. Israel had beaten the Egyptian Army and conquered all of the Sinai Peninsula. The Franco-British invasion, on the other hand, failed miserably. The Israeli triumph marked the beginning of eleven years of de facto peace on the southern border that would abruptly end with the Six Day War.

RAFAEL “RAFUL” EITAN, COMMANDER OF THE 890TH PARATROOP BATTALION AND LATER THE CHIEF OF STAFF

[From an excerpt from his book, A Soldier’s Story: The Life and Times of an Israeli War Hero, written with Dov Goldstein, Maariv, 1985]

“I was standing closest to the aircraft door. A bit of excitement always hits you over the parachuting site, even if you’ve done it many times before. All the more so at the start of a large-scale military campaign, at such a distance from Israel. You’re plunging into the unknown, into enemy territory. The cockpit of the next plane in the formation was directly across from me, mere feet away. I waved to the copilot. He held his head in both hands, as if to say, ‘What you’re about to do . . .’

“Red light. Green light. I’m in the air, floating down, over the Mitla crossroads. It’s five in the afternoon, dusk. The sun is setting. You can hear a few shots. My feet hit the ground. I release myself from my parachute, get organized quickly. We take our weapons out of their cases. We hold positions in the staging territory. The companies spread out. It’s already dark. We put barriers into place. We lay mines. We dig in, hole up. There are trenches there from the days of the Turks. This makes our work easier. Our two forces take positions at the Parker Memorial, to the west, and en route to Bir Hasna, to the north. We mark the ground intended for receiving the supplies being parachuted in.

“At night I went to sleep. . . . One must muster his forces before experiencing the pressure of combat. One must remove the stress and the emotions to a secluded corner. I dug myself a foxhole, padded it with the cardboard from the parachuted supplies, spread down one or two parachutes, and tucked myself in. Good night by the Mitla.”

The French Army at Smolensk 1812

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Peter von Hess (1792-1871). Battle of Smolensk (1812).

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At 2 p.m., seeing that the Russians were not going to come out and give battle, Napoleon gave the order for a general assault on the city. Over two hundred guns opened up, and three corps of the Grande Armée went into action. It was an unforgettable sight for those present. The city of Smolensk lies on a slope descending to the river Dnieper, on the side of a great amphitheatre, the other side of which is made up by the slope rising from the other side of the river. This was occupied by Barclay’s army, which could see the whole city across the river and the French attacking it from three sides. As the French attackers went into action, their comrades watched from the top of the slope, cheering them on. The weather was fine, the troops were in full dress uniform, and they went into the attack with their bands playing. It was a magnificent spectacle.

In the centre were Davout’s three divisions, under Generals Morand, Gudin and Friant; on the left Ney with two divisions, one of them of Württembergers; on the right Poniatowski with two divisions, and on his right General Bruyère’s cavalry division; a total of some 50,000 men. The French columns lumbered forward. Bruyère’s horsemen charged a body of Russian dragoons under General Skallon and swept them off the field, killing their commander. The infantry penetrated the suburbs and forced the defenders to retreat. The Russians attempted a counterattack, but this was beaten back in fierce hand-to-hand fighting. ‘On both days at Smolensk, I attacked with the bayonet,’ recalled the Russian General Neverovsky. ‘God preserved me, and I only had three bulletholes in my coat.’ Eventually the French reached the city walls, which they then tried, vainly, to escalade. They had no ladders, so all they could do was attempt to climb them.

Auguste Thirion of the 2nd Cuirassiers went to get a better view from the emplacement of one of the French batteries, which was being shelled by Russian guns from the heights on the other side of the river. ‘I cannot conceive how a single man or a single horse could escape that mass of cannonballs coming from two sides and crossing in the midst of those batteries,’ he wrote, but it did not prevent him enjoying the spectacle. ‘We also saw at our feet infantry laboriously descending into the ditches, or rather the ravines which made up the moat of the fortress. It was a Polish division which was trying to storm those rocks with a courage, a desperation worthy of greater success; these brave men tried to scale them by climbing on each other’s shoulders. But the nature of the terrain would not permit of success, and it was a unique and curious spectacle to see that ant-like mass of men crawling over the rocks in such a picturesque manner while above their heads the cannon which were the object of their efforts thundered against their brothers in arms. Opposite them, the French batteries fired projectiles which occasionally fell short, showering the rocks with a mass of fragments of the walls.’

Charles Faré, a lieutenant in the 1st Grenadiers of the Old Guard, told his mother in a letter home that he had never seen French troops fight with greater dash. Ney himself said that the attack by one battalion of the 16th Regiment of the Line was the bravest feat of arms he had ever seen. But not everyone was cheering. General Eblé and his colleague the cartographer of the Grande Armée, General Armand Guilleminot, could see no point to the grand frontal assault on the city walls. They knew that the twelve-pounder field guns Napoleon had brought up were of no use, as their cannonballs were simply absorbed by the soft brick fortifications, and that they could not make a breach in the massive walls. ‘He always wants to take the bull by the horns!’ exclaimed Eblé, shaking his head. ‘Why doesn’t he send the Poles off to cross the Dnieper two leagues upstream of the city?’

Others who were not enjoying the spectacle were the citizens of Smolensk. In the morning the inhabitants of the suburbs had taken weapons from the bodies of dead soldiers and made up gaps in the ranks of the defenders; priests holding crucifixes aloft placed themselves at the head of the militiamen and died with them. When the troops were beaten back, the civilians tried to follow. ‘The inhabitants fled in horror, dragging their valuables; here I saw a good son, bearing on his shoulders an infirm father, there a mother making her way along a safe path towards our positions clutching her little ones in her arms, having sacrificed everything else to the enemy and to the fire,’ recalled one artillery officer.

Their fate was not much more to be envied when they did manage to get into the old city within the walls, according to a fifteen-year-old officer in the Simbirsk Infantry Regiment. ‘What an awful confusion I witnessed within the walls: the inhabitants, believing that the enemy would be repulsed, had remained in the city, but that day’s strong and violent attack had convinced them that it would not be in our hands by the morrow. Crying out in despair, they rushed to the sanctuary of the Mother of God, where they prayed on their knees, then they hurried home, gathered up their weeping families and left their houses, crossing the bridge in the utmost confusion. How many tears! How much wailing and misery, and, in the end, how many victims and blood!’

The grandiose spectacle of the afternoon turned into a scene from hell as the evening drew in. The mortar shells that the French had been lobbing into the city had set many of the predominantly wooden houses on fire, and this spread rapidly. Baron Uxküll of the Russian Chevaliergardes speaks for many who watched impotently as one of their old cities and its inhabitants were engulfed in the flames. ‘I was standing on the mountain; the carnage was taking place at my very feet. Shadows heightened the brilliant sheen from the fire and the shooting,’ he wrote. ‘The bombs, which displayed their luminous traces, destroyed everything in their path. The cries of the wounded, the Hurrahs! of the men still fighting, the dull confused sound of the rocks that were falling and breaking up – it all made my hair stand on end. I shall never forget this night!’

The French onlookers were equally gripped by the ‘sublime horror’ of the spectacle; thoughts turned to the fall of Troy. ‘Dante himself would have found here inspiration for the hell he set out to depict,’ according to Captain Fantin des Odoards. As the French still tried to storm the walls, much of the city was on fire, and the defenders showed up as black silhouettes against the flames behind them, looking for all the world ‘like devils in hell’, as Colonel Boulart of the artillery put it. Similar thoughts were going through the head of Caulaincourt as he stood in front of Napoleon’s tent, watching. Suddenly he felt a slap on his shoulder. It was the Emperor, who had come out to watch, and who compared the sight to an eruption of Vesuvius. ‘Don’t you think, Monsieur le Grand Écuyer, that this is a fine spectacle?’ he added. ‘Horrible, Sire,’ was Caulaincourt’s only answer.

Grand spectacle or not, Napoleon had nothing to be pleased about. As the fighting died down that night it became apparent that the French had gained nothing and lost at least seven thousand men in dead and wounded. Barclay too had little to rejoice over. Aside from the satisfaction of denying the French an easy victory, he had achieved nothing, beyond the loss of over 11,000 men and two generals.

Barclay realised that he could not stay where he was much longer, as it was only a matter of time before Napoleon crossed the Dnieper upstream and cut him off. He had made a symbolic gesture in defending Smolensk for two days, and it was now time to think of saving the army. He therefore ordered Dokhturov to evacuate the city after setting fire to all remaining stores and anything else that could be of use to the enemy, and to destroy the bridges after him. The holy icon of the Virgin of Smolensk had already been removed from its shrine, placed on a gun carriage and escorted over the bridge to the northern bank of the river.

Barclay’s orders for the city to be abandoned provoked a general outcry. ‘I cannot express the indignation that prevailed,’ wrote General Sir Robert Wilson, who had just arrived to take up his post as British ‘commissioner’ at Russian headquarters. A succession of senior officers came to beg Barclay to reconsider his decision, or, if he were determined to retreat, to allow them to fight on to the last drop of blood. Bagration wrote him a note demanding that Smolensk be defended regardless of cost. Bennigsen, in stark contradiction to his earlier assertion that there was no point in a battle at this point in the retreat, came out in favour of a last-ditch stand. He stormed into headquarters, accompanied by Grand Duke Constantine and a bevy of generals, demanding that Barclay change his plans. The Grand Duke virtually commanded him to rescind his ‘cowardly’ order and launch a general attack on the French. ‘You German, you sausage-maker, you traitor, you scoundrel; you are selling Russia,’ he shouted at Barclay for all to hear. ‘I refuse to remain under your orders,’ he added, saying he would move the Guards corps under Bagration’s command. He continued to heap invective on Barclay, who eyed him in silence. ‘Let everyone do their duty, and let me do mine,’ he finally interjected, cutting short the argument. That evening Constantine received an order from Barclay to take an important letter to the Tsar and hand over command of the Guards to General Lavrov.

Two hours before dawn the last of Dokhturov’s men trudged back across the bridges and set fire to them. A short while earlier, a voltigeur company of the 2nd Polish Infantry managed to make a breach in the walls and entered the blazing city. In the morning, once one of the gates had been opened and its approaches cleared of the dead and dying bodies heaped around it, the French made their entry into the city.

It was a veritable charnelhouse, its streets strewn with corpses, mostly blackened by fire. In the ruins of houses that had been engulfed by fire lay the remains of inhabitants or wounded soldiers who had taken refuge inside. ‘One had to walk over debris, dead bodies and skeletons which had been burned and charred by fire,’ recalled one French officer. ‘Everywhere unfortunate inhabitants, on their knees, weeping over the ruins of their homes, cats and dogs wandering about and howling in the most heart-rending way, everywhere only death and destruction!’ The Russian wounded had been laid out in makeshift hospitals, which had then been swept by fire as their comrades evacuated the city. ‘These unfortunates, abandoned in this way to a hideous death, lay in heaps, calcinated, shrunken, conserving only just a human form, amidst the smoking ruins and burning beams,’ in the words of Lieutenant Julien Combe of the 8th Chasseurs à Cheval. He was not the only one to notice that the bodies of the burnt soldiers had shrunk; some thought they were those of children. ‘Soldiers who had wanted to flee had fallen in the streets, asphyxiated by the fire, and had been burned there,’ observed Dr Raymond Faure. ‘Many no longer resembled human beings; they were formless masses of grilled and carbonised matter, which the metal of a musket, a sabre, or some shreds of accoutrement lying beside them made recognisable as corpses.’

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Barclay had remained on the north bank of the Dnieper throughout the day of 18 August, holding the suburb on that side of the river and preventing the French attempts at rebuilding the burnt bridges. But that night he withdrew. As the road to Moscow ran for several miles along the north bank within range of French guns, he set a course that started in a northerly direction, gradually swinging round to rejoin the Moscow road at Lubino. So as to avoid encumbrance along the small country roads they would have to use, he divided his force in two. But this only complicated matters, as during the first stage of the withdrawal, on the night of 18 August, several units lost their way. Progress was slower than expected, with guns and supply wagons getting stuck at the crossing of the many streams dissecting the roads. The inclines were so steep that in several places guns and heavy wagons rolled down, dragging their teams of horses and men to a nasty death at the bottom of a ravine, and in turn obstructing progress further.

In the meantime, Ney had repaired the bridge at Smolensk, crossed the river and started to advance down the Moscow road, while Junot had begun to cross further upstream, at Prudichevo. Fearing that they might reach it before his retreating men did, Barclay had sent General Pavel Alekseievich Tuchkov with a small force to Lubino to cover the point at which the wheeling Russian columns were to rejoin the Moscow road.

Ney, who began to move along the Moscow road in the morning, was checked by what he thought was a counterattack developing on his left flank. In fact it was Ostermann-Tolstoy’s division, which had got lost in the night, and after marching in a circle for ten hours reappeared outside Smolensk. Ney deployed against it, which gave Tuchkov some time, but soon the French were pushing the Russians back along the Moscow road.

On hearing of the fighting, Napoleon rode out to the scene. Assuming that this was no more than a rearguard action, he ordered Davout to back up Ney with one of his divisions. Together they pushed Tuchkov back, but he too was reinforced by other units and the timely arrival of Barclay himself, who rallied the troops and steadied the situation. Wilson was impressed by Barclay, who ‘seeing the extent of the danger to his column, galloped forward, sword in hand, at the head of his staff, orderlies, and rallying fugitives, and crying out, “Victory or death! we must preserve this post or perish!” by his energy and example reanimating all, recovered possession of the height, and thus under God’s favour the army was preserved!’

The Russians took up strong positions at Valutina Gora. Junot with his Westphalians was actually behind their left wing, and could have taken them in the back, which indeed Napoleon ordered him to do. But the usually fearless Junot, who had been acting strangely and complaining of heat stroke, made a number of incoherent replies and would not move, even when Murat galloped up in person to tell him to attack.

‘If we had attacked, the Russians would have been routed, so all of us, soldiers and officers, were eagerly awaiting the order to attack,’ wrote Lieutenant Colonel von Conrady, a Hessian in Junot’s corps. ‘Our ardour to go into battle was expressed vociferously, with whole battalions shouting that they wanted to advance, but Junot would not listen, and threatened those who were shouting with the firing squad … Grinding our teeth, we were reduced to the role of spectators, while honour and duty beckoned. Never was an opportunity to distinguish oneself more shamefully lost! Several officers and soldiers in my battalion wept with despair and shame.’

There were by now some 20 to 30,000 Russians facing, and outflanked by, as many as 50,000 French. According to Barclay’s aide-de-camp Woldemar von Löwenstern, Tuchkov rode up and asked for permission to fall back, to which Barclay allegedly replied: ‘Return to your post and get yourself killed if you must, for if you fall back I shall have you shot!’ Aware that the fate of the Russian army was in his hands, he held on, but it was touch and go. At one point Yermolov, who was watching, seized his aide-de-camp by the elbow. ‘Austerlitz!’ he whispered in horror.

If the French had been able to defeat Tuchkov, they could have sliced through the middle of the Russian forces on the march, and these would have stood no chance. ‘Never had our army been in greater danger,’ Löwenstern later wrote. ‘The fate of the campaign and of the army should have been sealed on that day.’

It was unlike Napoleon not to sense the reason behind the Russian stand, but at about five o’clock in the afternoon he left Ney to get on with it and rode back to Smolensk. ‘He seemed to be very annoyed, and broke into a gallop when he came up with us, whose acclamations appeared to importune him,’ noted an officer of the Legion of the Vistula who watched him ride by.

Tuchkov stood his ground, and his men fought like lions. Ney’s divisions, supported by Davout’s Gudin division, also fought with dash and determination, and the battle developed into a massacre which only ceased when darkness fell. The field was strewn with seven to nine thousand French and nine thousand Russian dead and wounded, but the living lay down to sleep among them, too exhausted to build a camp.

The following morning, Napoleon rode out to the scene. ‘The sight of the battlefield was one of the bloodiest that the veterans could remember,’ according to one of the Polish Chevau-Légers who escorted him. He took the salute of the troops drawn up on this field of death and proceeded to enact one of the rituals that made him such a brilliant leader of men. He had decreed that he would award the coveted eagle that topped the standards of regiments which had proved their valour to the 127th of the Line, made up largely of Italians, which had distinguished itself on the previous day. ‘This ceremony, imposing in itself, took on a truly epic character in this place,’ in the words of one witness. The whole regiment was drawn up as if on parade, the men’s faces still smeared with blood and blackened by smoke. Napoleon took the eagle from the hands of Berthier and, holding it aloft, told the men that it was to be their rallying point, and that they must swear never to abandon it. When they had sworn the oath, he handed the eagle to the Colonel, who passed it to the Ensign, who in turn took it to the centre of the élite company, while the drummers delivered a deafening roll.

Napoleon then dismounted and walked over to the front rank. In a loud voice, he asked the men to give him the names of those who had particularly distinguished themselves in the fighting. He then promoted those named to the rank of lieutenant, and bestowed the Légion d’Honneur to others, giving the accolade with his sword and giving them the ritual embrace. ‘Like a good father surrounded by his children, he personally bestowed the recompense on those who had been deemed worthy, while their comrades acclaimed them,’ in the words of one officer. ‘Watching this scene,’ wrote another, ‘I understood and experienced that irresistible fascination which Napoleon exerted when he wanted to, and wherever he was.’

By this extraordinary ceremony, Napoleon managed to turn the bloody battlefield into a field of triumph, sending those who had died to immortality and caressing those who had survived with kind words and glorious rewards. But many asked why he had not been there himself to direct the battle. And his entourage wondered what, if anything, had been achieved by the past four days of bloodletting.

Royal Navy at Bunker Hill

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The thick darkness over Boston had just begun to dissolve with the first wash of daylight from the east, casting the hint of a glow over the rolling meadows of Noddle’s Island. For nearly a week, Noddle’s had been devoid of life, the Williams house and its outbuildings reduced to ash and charred jutting timbers, the sheep and horses and cattle all gone. But aboard the twenty-gun sloop HMS Lively, no one paid much attention to the dead expanse of land to the east-northeast. All eyes were fixed instead on the shadows off the port quarter, on the slopes near Charlestown, just a few hundred yards northwest of where the Lively rode gently at anchor in the Charles River ferryway.

Charlestown itself was no more alive than Noddle’s, a mournful ghost of a village, its deserted houses and shops and its lifeless wharves shrouded in black silence. Or mostly silence. From the hills above the town floated sounds that were just barely there, not quite masked by the slap of the river against the ship’s sheathing, by the creak of spars and tackle . . . the sounds of digging, the lurching rhythm of mattock and spade overturning parched rocky soil, carrying lazily down through the warm, pungent air above the Charles.

It was now just about four o’clock in the morning, eight bells, the hour when in more peaceful times the watch above decks would change. The sounds had begun some time after midnight. Clearly the provincials were up to some mischief on the Charlestown hills. But until daylight betrayed them, there was nothing that the Lively could do to interfere. No sense in throwing broadsides blindly into the dark toward an invisible foe. That would be a waste of good powder and shot.

Then the dim light of daybreak gave the lookouts aboard the Lively their first glimpse of the commotion on the hills. Hundreds of silhouetted figures scuttled around a great raw gash in the earth. A fort had emerged overnight atop the hill closest to Charlestown, in the tall, unkempt grass of the neglected cow pasture. No one could make out its shape or its dimensions—it was still too dark for that—but it was most likely a simple affair. Simple but definitely functional. And so purposefully audacious. The rebels could have thrown up fortifications elsewhere on the peninsula, sites that were safer, more defensible, sites that would have afforded some protection to the base at Cambridge. Yet they chose a hilltop within easy range of the Lively, tugging at her cable midstream. The fort was an overt challenge.

A couple of nights before, the Somerset—a sixty-four-gun ship-of-the-line that dwarfed the little sloop—had guarded the ferryway, but Graves was so deeply haunted by the Diana’s fiery end that he’d ordered the Somerset withdrawn to the safety of deeper waters farther out in the harbor. The Charles River ferryway was narrow and shallow; there was just too much danger that the Somerset would run aground as the Diana had. The Somerset could not be allowed to share the Diana’s fate. On the sixteenth—just the day before—the Somerset left the ferryway and went to her new anchorage. The Lively would face the rebel challenge alone.

The Lively’s skipper, Captain Thomas Bishop, stood at the quarter-rail with spyglass raised to his eye, but he did not take much time to marvel at the resourcefulness or daring or arrogant stupidity of his enemy. He would act, and act quickly. The captain’s pride still smarted from the sharp blow it had received from Admiral Graves less than two weeks before. Bishop had had the great misfortune to become embroiled in a trifling dispute with the commander of the ill-fated Diana, Lieutenant Thomas Graves. Bishop had done nothing wrong—every officer on post knew it—but that hardly mattered when his accuser was the admiral’s nephew. A court-martial was inevitable, and while the court sitting in judgment in the Somerset’s stateroom sympathized with Bishop, there was no way that the captain could evade the admiral’s sputtering, foul-mouthed wrath. Bishop didn’t want to endure that again. But he also knew an opportunity when he saw one, and an opportunity to redeem his bruised reputation was staring down on him from the heights of Charlestown.

The crew was no less eager. Here was a chance for action after months of dull routine, patrolling the waters off Boston and in the harbor as well. The noxious miasmas arising from the great stinking swamps of the Back Bay made the already grinding boredom unbearable. To a man, too, they were hungry for revenge. Each one of them knew precisely what had happened to the Diana three weeks earlier, even if they hadn’t actually seen the last painful hours of her humiliating end . . . a king’s ship, beached and rolled over on her beam ends, abandoned by her crew, Yankee thieves crawling all over her careening hull as they looted her. Even worse, they burned her. It was an insult to every ship and every tar in the fleet.

Bishop did not wait for orders from Graves. His crew was ready. Half of them had been awake and on deck, anyway, pursuant to the admiral’s orders. The rest had since been piped up from below. The gun crews stood to their pieces, the sleek nine-pounders of the Lively’s starboard battery. Charged and shotted, ten black muzzles protruded menacingly from the gaping square maws of the gun ports. The rest of the crew scrambled to bring the ship about on her cable so that the starboard battery could bear on the hilltop fort.

Within minutes the Lively stood parallel to the rebel earthworks. Bishop studied the target one more time as the gun crews tried to get the range, and then he gave the order to open fire.

The explosion shook the placid dawn. The Lively’s entire starboard side erupted in a vivid sheet of flame, horizontal pillars of acrid white smoke cascading from each muzzle, merging to form a single billowy mass that drifted over the surface of the water, carried by the light morning winds toward the beach. The deck shuddered as the long nines, each gun and carriage weighing nearly a ton-and-a-half, leapt violently backward, slamming hard against the massive breeching ropes and tackle that absorbed the shock of the recoil. Nine-pound iron shot flew over the Charles with an unnerving screech, arcing invisibly—for unlike explosive shell, cast-iron solid shot did not trail a telltale corkscrew of flame and sparks.

The battle for Charlestown had begun.

General Howe issued his orders at seven. All of the “flank companies”—meaning the light infantry and grenadiers, encamped together as a body on the Common—plus five infantry regiments and one of the Marine battalions were to be dressed, armed, and ready to march to one of two embarkation points in the city.

Now for transportation and naval support—both essential components of a successful amphibious assault. Samuel Graves did not attend the Council of War at Province House that morning. Most likely Gage intentionally left him out; the two men did not get along well, and Gage didn’t need the admiral’s input anyway. But Howe did. The two men met aboard the Somerset, then moored in the harbor.

Graves had been awake even before the Lively’s first broadside, catching up on correspondence and routine paperwork, so both he and Howe were already quite tired at the very beginning of what promised to be a long day. Still it was an amicable and productive meeting. Howe hoped very much that the Somerset and the other larger ships, the Boyne and the Asia, could bring their guns into play, and Graves hoped so, too: the massive thirty-two-pounders on the Somerset and Boyne could wreak havoc on the rebel fortifications . . . if they could reach them. All of the third-raters drew too much water; it was dangerous to send them in the shallows of the Charles and the Mystic, and even then it was doubtful that the lower-deck batteries on these big ships could be elevated high enough that their projectiles would hit the crest of Breed’s. Graves reluctantly conceded that the big ships would be of no use that day, except for the boats, men, and ammunition they could supply. So the Somerset’s skipper detailed thirty-eight tars to man the armed transport Symmetry and her battery of eighteen nine-pounders; another twenty left the Somerset to handle the sloop Falcon, while men from the flagship Preston took over the tiny sloop Spitfire. All was improvised; nothing was as Graves or Howe would have preferred it. “As this Affair was sudden and unexpected,” Graves noted sadly, “there was no time for constructing floating Batteries, or Rafts of real Service, as any such would have been a work of some days.”

The remaining craft—the sloops Lively, Glasgow, Falcon, and Spitfire, the transport Symmetry, and a handful of smaller vessels—would perform the primary task: covering the landing. If the ships could destroy or substantially damage the rebel fortifications, that would be a big plus, but the essential thing was to keep the rebels pinned down so that they didn’t make trouble for the Regulars when they waded ashore. Charlestown itself was another consideration. Howe felt that the rebels could take cover in the deserted buildings and harass the British as they deployed. The ships could guard against that, too.

Could Howe and Graves have made better use of their ships? Undoubtedly. As events would prove, a couple of smaller craft placed in the Mystic estuary could have done great damage to the rebels, and perhaps even changed the course of the battle. But Howe and Graves were reacting to what they knew that morning, and their disposition of the warships reflects that. Still, it is impossible not to find a trace of fault with the general and the admiral for not considering the possibility.

The ships alone, though, could not win the battle, no matter how they were situated around the Charlestown peninsula. Ships could not take ground. If the British wanted the heights, no matter how many tons of cast-iron shot the warships hurled at the Americans, sooner or later foot troops would have to land on the peninsula and take physical possession of them.

So everything, the success or failure of the British attack, would come down to the individual Redcoat—his resilience, his fortitude, his courage, his discipline and obedience. Yet even the common British soldier suspected, just as Gage did in his heart of hearts, that the king’s army was shockingly unprepared for what lay in store for it that day.

Even before the guns on the Lively opened up, grumbling began to ripple through the mass of men in the redoubt. Surely this was no accident. Surely their officers had led them to this spot to die, to be sacrificed for some purpose they themselves couldn’t discern, some end in which their individual lives counted for no more than so many hogs led to the pens at Cambridge Store. “We saw our danger, being against 8 ships of the line and all Boston fortified against us,” fumed Peter Brown, still angry as he recounted the events more than a week later. “The danger we were in made us think there was treachery, and that we were brot there to be all slain, and I must and will venture to say that there was treachery, oversight or presumption in the conduct of our officers.”

Perhaps Brown waxed theatrical. There were no “8 ships of the line” facing Charlestown, no eight ships of the line in all of Boston Harbor. The danger was not quite so dire as Brown thought. Nor did the American officers intend anything insidious, nor any stratagem that required the wholesale sacrifice of American lives. There had only been the sins—the grievous sins—of poor thinking, ill-conceived planning, and amateurish generalship. The American commanders had bitten off more than they could chew. And, amazingly, those commanders never fully grasped the fatal depth of their collective mistakes and miscalculations until it was just about too late.

As the maddening, paralyzing suspicion of treachery infected the men in the redoubt, the storm broke over the river.

It was not a surprise to the men, for all knew that the British would not let their deed go unpunished. But for men who had never before experienced an artillery bombardment—at least not one aimed directly at them—it was still a great shock. Those who had been fearfully watching the Lively’s silhouette hulking ominously in the Charles ferryway first saw the flash, the oddly silent explosion of orange blossoming for a fleeting moment along the sloop’s starboard side. Then, almost in the same instant that the deafening report of the nine-pounders buffeted their ears, the balls came flying among them.

In broad daylight, solid shot from medium and larger cannon were perfectly visible—their size, the laziness of their flight, and the arc of their trajectory made them appear almost harmless to the uninitiated. More accurate—or luckier—shots might whistle past their ears, or bury themselves harmlessly into an earthen parapet. Shot that fell short of its target was just as likely to skip along the ground, continuing its flight in a series of bounds until inertia or a substantial target halted it.

But in the half-light of daybreak, the invisibility of the nine-pounder shot made them truly terrifying. Men whose fears were already magnified by hunger, thirst, and fatigue found the experience all but unbearable.

Mercifully, the Lively’s initial bombardment caused scant physical damage, injuring no one and wrecking nothing of value. The moral effect, though, was not trifling. The bombardment left the redoubt’s defenders dazed; they would have proven to be utterly useless if put to the test at that moment. Many if not all of them might have sought refuge in flight. Thank God they were not left to their own devices.

For Prescott had also perceived the trap into which he, Gridley, and Putnam had led their men, at just about the same time that Peter Brown and his friends began to suspect treachery. To his credit, Prescott did not waste time nervously dithering between possible choices. He was no great tactical genius, but he knew something of fortifications and siegecraft from his time at Louisbourg, and most important, he was level-headed and calm. He was inured to the sights and sounds of artillery fire, and his cool presence in the redoubt that morning kept the American fighting men from surrendering to sheer unreasoning panic.

During the Lively’s cannonade, Prescott kept his men low and under cover, but as soon as the firing stopped the veteran colonel acted without hesitation. Correctly adjudging the redoubt’s right flank as the lesser concern, he immediately set the men to work on shoring up the exposed left flank. He laid out a line that extended approximately 165 feet from the redoubt, running from the crest of Breed’s Hill, anchoring in a swamp at the hill’s base.

Somehow his boys summoned up the strength and the will to pick up their tools again, to hack at the unyielding soil. Daylight made the task easier, but fatigue made it harder. Enervated muscles protested at every swing of a mattock; joints cried out in pain every time a shovel blade struck rock with a jarring ring. The men were on the cusp of physical collapse. Only desperation—and Colonel Prescott—drove them on, and at a fevered pace.

As they dug the deep trench, Prescott’s men cast nervous glances behind them and seaward. Behind them they hoped to find relief or reinforcements, but they saw none. Looking seaward, just around eight A.M., they spied something even more disheartening. The Lively had shifted position: Captain Bishop had turned the sloop around again, warping it down the channel and dropping anchor off Morton’s Point. Two more sloops had joined her—the Falcon and the Spitfire—in the channel between Boston and Charlestown. Another two, the sloop Glasgow (armed with twenty nine-pounders) and the armed transport Symmetry (with eighteen nine-pounders), had worked their way well up the Charles so they could rake Charlestown Neck with artillery fire. It was not an ideal point for such a task; a milldam kept the ships some distance from the Charles River shore. Hovering nearby were several small “gondolas” or scows radeaux, small gunboats each armed with one twelve-pounder.

The ships surrounding the peninsula were but yapping pups when compared to the big third-raters like the Somerset and the Boyne. The Spitfire’s main armament of six three-pounders was laughably puny for this sort of work. To the Americans looking down at the smaller craft from Breed’s Hill, though, it seemed as if half the king’s navy was ranged against them . . . eight men-of-war, Peter Brown claimed to see, but given the circumstances, Brown can be forgiven a little hysterical exaggeration. Standing out in the open as they dug the new trench line—the “breastwork,” as it came to be known—the Americans on Breed’s felt horribly unprotected.

Then it began all over again: the flash, the shuddering boom, the thud of solid shot hitting packed earth, only this time it came from several ships and several directions at once. The big twenty-fours of the Copp’s Hill battery joined in about an hour later. The former Admiral’s Battery was much stronger now; during the morning, British soldiers had dragged three more twenty-fours and a large siege mortar up to the battery. Copp’s was too distant for the guns to have much effect on the redoubt or the breastwork, or to have much chance of hitting the men, but still the cannonade worked its dark magic.