The Second Siege Yorktown – 1862 Part I

When he came to write his official report on the Peninsula campaign a year later, General McClellan was still incensed. He labeled the withholding of McDowell’s First Corps a “fatal error,” making it impossible for him to execute the “rapid and brilliant operations” he had so carefully planned. “I know of no instance in military history where a general in the field has received such a discouraging blow,” he wrote. What was worse—and he made this charge from the first—it was all part of a deliberate plot, conceived by “a set of heartless villains” in Washington, to sacrifice him and his army on the altar of abolitionism.

As McClellan viewed it, the real reason for holding back the First Corps was to make sure he would not have force enough to capture Richmond and end the rebellion before the abolitionists could enlarge the conflict from civil war to revolution, from the reuniting of the sections to the forcible abolition of slavery in defiance of the Constitution. As he told his friend Samuel Barlow, it was all a conspiracy originating in “the stupidity & wickedness” of his enemies in the government.

There was no substance whatever to McClellan’s conspiracy theory, but there was also no doubt of his fervent belief in it. Unable to recognize failings in himself, he needed to invent failings in others to excuse whatever went wrong with his grand campaign. His list of conspirators was a long one, headed by Secretary of War Stanton and seconded by radical Republicans of every stripe, and it included General McDowell, whom he suspected of plotting to replace him as commander of the Army of the Potomac. President Lincoln was on the list as well, but more as Stanton’s tool than as instigator. Throughout the campaign McClellan would rarely find a good word to say for the president—and would never grasp the reality that it was Lincoln, rather than Stanton, who made the decisions affecting him and his army. Although he had glimpsed the truth earlier when he remarked to Barlow that the president “is my strongest friend,” he would not return that friendship. This matter of the defense of Washington was just the first of many instances when General McClellan’s refusal to trust the president or to take him into his confidence would cost him dearly.

Nor was there any substance to McClellan’s claim that holding back McDowell to guard Washington dislocated all his plans for getting the Peninsula campaign off to a fast start. He had already brought the campaign to a dead stop, before learning of the First Corps’s detachment, by electing to lay siege to Magruder’s line across the Peninsula. The First Corps was not even a high priority in his planning—by his scheduling it was to be two weeks or more before its divisions began to reach Fort Monroe. In any event, his original idea of using McDowell to outflank all the enemy positions on the Peninsula was gone beyond recall the moment he decided that the main army could not turn Yorktown.

Should he land the First Corps on the north bank of the York and send it past Gloucester Point while the rest of the army was immobilized in its siege lines before Yorktown, he would be committing what was for him a cardinal military sin: dividing his army in the face of what he now had no doubt was a superior foe. It would invite his opponent to leave a holding force in his own siege lines, cross the York with the rest of his army, and fall on McDowell like an avalanche. General McClellan’s declarations to the contrary, the president’s decision to hold back McDowell did not dictate the decision to besiege Yorktown. It did not affect the way the siege was conducted, or even how long it lasted. The sole author of the siege of Yorktown was George Brinton McClellan.

Sunday, April 6, dawned clear and pleasant, and at first light the balloon Intrepid, piloted by “Professor” Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, the New Hampshire Yankee who headed McClellan’s aeronaut corps, rose majestically from behind the trees to spy out the Yorktown defenses. On the ground dozens of other Yankees crept forward with telescopes and field glasses on the same mission. Prince John Magruder, continuing his game of bluff, provided them with a good deal to see, but little that was distinct. His artillerists and sharpshooters continued to fire at the slightest movement, and the Yankee observers had to keep their distance.

Some of McClellan’s generals were eager that morning to see what was really behind the fierce front Magruder displayed. Charles S. Hamilton, leading a division in Heintzelman’s Third Corps, said he could not see much in the way of any actual defenses in the gap between Yorktown’s ramparts and the headwaters of the Warwick River. Heintzelman and Hamilton went to headquarters to seek permission for a reconnaissance in force to probe the spot. They got nowhere with the idea. McClellan’s favorite lieutenant, Fitz John Porter, and his chief engineer, John Barnard, both strongly seconded the general’s decision to do nothing more than dig in where they were. As Barnard wrote in appraising the siege, “The project of an assault was mere hare-brained folly. . . .” Just then, however, an actual reconnaissance in force was being launched against another part of Magruder’s line, and it very nearly succeeded.

Leading the left wing of the Federal advance was the Fourth Corps division of General William F. Smith, who since his West Point days had been known as “Baldy” for his thinning hair. Baldy Smith was an aggressive, contentious sort, with little faith in the resolve of his corps commander, Erasmus Keyes, and that morning he acted on his own in ordering two regiments to investigate the Warwick River line to see if there were any holes in it. Smith assured the leader of the expedition, Brigadier Winfield Scott Hancock, that if a hole was found he would send him strong reinforcements to exploit it.

After seeing off his reconnaissance, Smith rode to Keyes’s headquarters to let his superior know “in a conversational way” what he had done. As they talked, a messenger arrived from McClellan’s headquarters. Keyes read the dispatch and without a word handed it to Smith. No action was to be initiated against the enemy, it read, until the engineers had thoroughly studied the Rebel line and determined the best approach. Smith, “very much chagrined,” rushed back to the front to recall Hancock. Hancock said that he had already discovered the weak spot they were looking for, and that it could be taken easily. No matter now, Smith told him: it was out of their hands. Baldy Smith always believed that had McClellan’s order arrived an hour or two later, he would have broken the enemy’s line and ended the siege of Yorktown the day it began.

Ironically, this aborted assault furnished General McClellan with the evidence he needed to prove he had done the right thing in putting Yorktown under siege. Hancock came back with four prisoners from the 14th Alabama who were so talkative that it is likely they were members of Prince John’s acting company. Under questioning by one of Pinkerton’s detectives, the Alabamians revealed that the Rebel line on the Warwick was manned by 40,000 men, which would grow “in a few days” to 100,000. Joe Johnston himself was expected that day, along with 8,000 reinforcements.

McClellan took the baited hook. On April 7 he telegraphed Washington, “All the prisoners state that Gen. J. E. Johnston arrived in Yorktown yesterday with strong reinforcements. It seems clear that I shall have the whole force of the enemy on my hands, probably not less than 100,000 men & possibly more”; as a result of the government’s deductions from his command “my force is possibly less than that of the enemy. . . .” To take the offensive now would be fatal: “Were I in possession of their entrenchments and assailed by double my numbers I should have no fears as to the result.” Simply to continue the siege he must have more men and more heavy guns.

President Lincoln urged him to break the enemy’s line in front of him immediately. “They will probably use time, as advantageously as you can,” he warned, and sought to reason with his general. Yorktown would only become another Manassas: “You will do me the justice to remember I always insisted, that going down the Bay in search of a field, instead of fighting at or near Manassas, was only shifting, and not surmounting, a difficulty—that we would find the same enemy, and the same, or equal, intrenchments, at either place.” The country could not fail to note “that the present hesitation to move upon an intrenched enemy, is but the story of Manassas repeated. I beg to assure you that I have never written you, or spoken to you, in greater kindness of feeling than now. . . . But you must act.” McClellan ignored the overture. He wrote his wife that the president had urged him to make an attack, and added, “I was much tempted to reply that he had better come & do it himself.”

Prince John Magruder continued to direct his charade bravely enough, but he was not confident that it would hold together much longer. On the evening of April 6 he telegraphed General Lee in Richmond that enemy observers, in the air and on the ground, had been active along every part of his line throughout the day. “They discovered a weak point,” he reported, and while he would make every effort to shore up the spot he worried that “numbers must prevail.” Reinforcements were reaching him very slowly “and will probably be too late.” The previous evening a brigade had arrived from General Huger’s command at Norfolk, but that day had brought him just two regiments from across the James and no troops from Johnston’s army.

Prince John was not one to display his concerns outwardly, however. In full regalia, with staff and escort, he rode his lines from one end to the other, radiating confidence, encouraging his troops, looking every inch the part of commanding general—or more accurately in his circumstances, every inch the part of leading actor.

Richmond was almost sixty miles from the scene of conflict at Yorktown, but already there was a palpable sense of crisis in the Confederate capital. Martial law was imposed on the city, the sale of liquor prohibited, and all military furloughs canceled. Additional state militia were called to the colors to supplement the half-dozen militia units already serving with Magruder on the Peninsula. The women of Richmond, responding to an appeal from the authorities, stitched together 30,000 sandbags for Yorktown’s defenders in thirty hours. The Confederate Congress sitting in the Virginia State Capitol debated a revolutionary bill to conscript men into the army, and Richmond’s city council appropriated funds to bolster the city’s defenses. According to one Southern newspaper, the issue building at Yorktown was “tremendous,. . . for the stake is enormous, being nothing less than the fate of Virginia.” The editor went so far as to compare the army McClellan was assembling to march on Richmond to the Grande Armée Napoleon had assembled to march on Moscow fifty years before.

The capital’s mood brightened considerably when Joe Johnston’s army began to arrive from the Rapidan. A steady parade of Johnston’s troops started through the city on April 6, the very day Magruder remarked on how slowly help was reaching him. While there was no official announcement of the fact, it was obvious to all that the army was on the march to meet McClellan on the Peninsula, and spirits soared.

“Richmond is one living, moving mass of soldiers & to day the streets show nothing but a continuous stream on their way to Yorktown—infantry, cavalry & artillery,” a Mississippi soldier wrote home. Citizens filled the windows overlooking Main Street and lined the sidewalks to cheer column after column as they made their way to the depot of the York River Railroad or to the wharves at Rocketts for passage down the James. Women welcomed them with food and drink and bouquets of flowers. The men responded with the Rebel yell, and regimental bands swung into “The Bonnie Blue Flag” and “Maryland, My Maryland” and “Dixie.” Flamboyant Robert Toombs, one of the founders of the Confederacy and now a brigadier in Johnston’s army, was especially noticeable. Looking revolutionary in a flaring black slouch hat and tossing red scarf, he personally led each regiment of his brigade in turn past the cheering throng in front of the Spottswood Hotel, making sure all Richmond knew that Toombs’s brigade was on its way to war.

The first two brigades reached Yorktown on April 7, and a third the next day. On the tenth another brigade arrived, and on the eleventh, three more. By that date, General Magruder’s force stood at 34,400, two and a half times his strength just a week earlier when the Federals began their march on Yorktown, and he finally began to breathe easier. Prince John expressed himself utterly surprised that his opponent had “permitted day after day to elapse without an assault,” but he was properly grateful nonetheless. Joe Johnston was equally surprised. After inspecting the Warwick line and hearing what Magruder had to say about those first days of the siege, he told General Lee, “No one but McClellan could have hesitated to attack.”

On April 11, taking a leaf from General Magruder’s book on bluff, the Merrimack appeared suddenly out of the morning haze and steamed slowly and menacingly toward the Federal squadron in Hampton Roads. “The cry was raised, ‘There comes the Merrimack!!’” a Northern diarist wrote. “. . . Such a scatteration of vessels as ensued was quite a sight: the roads were full of transports of all sorts, steam and sail, and those which lay farthest up got underway in a hurry.” The Monitor and her consorts cleared for battle, seeking to draw the monster deeper into the roadstead to give the ramming vessels the sea room they needed to make their runs at the enemy. By contrast, the Merrimack’s commander, Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall, was determined to lure the Monitor into the narrow waters of the upper bay, engage her there, and capture her. He knew of the Yankee rams and was heard to say that he was not going out into enemy waters “to get punched. The battle must be fought up there.”

It was Tattnall’s idea for sailors from his escorting gunboats to close with the Yankee ironclad, board her, jam the turret with wedges, blind her by throwing a wet sailcloth over the pilot house, and smoke out her crew by tossing lighted, turpentine-soaked cotton waste down the ventilators. Tattnall expected to lose half his gunboats in the attempt; Flag Officer Goldsborough expected to lose half his ramming squadron if it engaged. Hour after hour the contestants feinted and challenged and exchanged random shots at long range, but neither commander would forgo his tactical plan, and at last the Merrimack steamed back to her lair in Norfolk. The stand-off would be repeated several times in the coming weeks. By threat alone the Merrimack succeeded in guarding Norfolk and sealing off the James and in neutralizing every major fighting ship in the Federal squadron.

General Johnston first reached Richmond from the Rapidan on April 12, to be greeted by President Davis with new orders. Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula and Huger’s command at Norfolk were thereby folded into Johnston’s command, which was officially styled in these orders the Army of Northern Virginia. This ought to have made him, in history’s eyes, the famous first commander of this most famous of Confederate armies, but Joe Johnston would never be a general blessed by fame, and his name—in contrast to Robert E. Lee’s—would never be automatically coupled with that great army. Johnston himself preferred to continue calling his command the Army of the Potomac, as if in deliberate defiance of the Federal army of the same name. Some who communicated with Johnston in these weeks used the one name for his army and some the other; Jefferson Davis even addressed him as commander of the Army of Richmond. Despite these eccentricities, most people found it most convenient to call the army now defending Yorktown the Army of Northern Virginia.

Joseph E. Johnston was by nature a fault-finder, seldom satisfied with his circumstances, always first calculating risks before profits. A story was told of him on a grouse-hunting outing before the war. Johnston was known to be a crack shot, but on the hunt he could not seem to find the perfect moment—the birds flew too high or too low, the dogs were not properly positioned, the odds for a sure shot were never quite right. His companions blazed away and ended the day with a full bag; Johnston was blanked. “He was too fussy, too hard to please, too cautious. . . .”

Much the same could be said of him when he inspected General Magruder’s Yorktown line. Magruder was certainly to be commended for his efforts, Johnston said, but everything was wrong with his position—the line was incomplete and badly drawn; it was purely defensive, with no avenues for an offensive; the artillery was inadequate; the Federals, with their naval and arms superiority, would surely turn one or both flanks. On the morning of April 14 Johnston was back in Richmond and delivering his gloomy report to President Davis. He wanted to abandon Yorktown immediately and pull right back to Richmond, the better to contend against the enemy host.

Davis called together a council of advisers to take up this momentous question. He had General Lee and Secretary of War Randolph join them, while Johnston brought in his two senior generals, Gustavus W. Smith and James Longstreet. In the president’s office in the Confederate White House, from eleven that morning until one o’clock the next morning, with only a break for the dinner hour, the six of them debated the proper strategy for meeting the invaders.

Collectively they possessed a remarkable range of personal knowledge of the general opposing them. Lee had commanded young Lieutenant McClellan in the Corps of Engineers during the Mexican War, and Longstreet too had made his acquaintance in the old army. Joe Johnston had been McClellan’s close friend in the decade before the war, and G. W. Smith his closest friend. As a junior officer McClellan was the protégé of then secretary of war Jefferson Davis. Mr. Davis, Longstreet recalled, took special note of the “high attainments and capacity” of General McClellan.

Repeating his arguments for abandoning the Yorktown line, Johnston urged that all the forces from his command and from Magruder’s on the Peninsula and Huger’s at Norfolk, reinforced by garrison troops from the Carolinas and Georgia, be massed at Richmond for a showdown battle against the invading army. Alternatively, he proposed leaving Magruder to hold Yorktown for as long as he could while the rest of the army marched north to menace Washington and (as Longstreet phrased it) “call McClellan to his own capital.” Longstreet predicted that McClellan, being a careful-minded military engineer, would not be prepared to assault Magruder before May 1. Smith added his support for Johnston’s plan and strongly pressed for an invasion of the North that would not stop at Washington but go on to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York.

Randolph and Lee took an opposite tack. Randolph pointed out that giving up Yorktown would also mean giving up Norfolk and its important navy yard, where there were ironclads and gunboats under construction and where the Merrimack was based. Lee added his voice to the argument for continuing to hold the lower Peninsula, primarily for the time it would gain them: time to complete the difficult transformation of the Confederacy’s one-year volunteer army into a “for the war” army; time to begin enlarging that army through the conscription law then being acted on by the Congress; and time to forestall the call-up of reinforcements from other areas. Immediately stripping the Carolinas and Georgia of troops, he warned, would very likely lead to the loss of Charleston and Savannah. In any case, Lee said, the lower Peninsula was well suited defensively for fighting the Yankees.

The debate continued hour after hour until all the arguments—and all the participants—were exhausted, and then Mr. Davis announced his decision. Johnston was to shift the rest of his army—the troops of Smith and Longstreet—to Yorktown and make a stand there for as long as it was practical to do so. Whatever General McClellan gained on the Peninsula he would have to fight for. Joe Johnston accepted the decision without protest. He later wrote that he knew Yorktown could be held only so long before the government would come around to his plan to fall back on Richmond; that, he said, “reconciled me somewhat to the necessity of obeying the President’s order.”

The two armies went to ground, and the siege of Yorktown settled into a sometimes deadly but more often dull routine. Reinforcements would raise the number of men involved to 169,000, with the Federals enjoying a final superiority of almost exactly two to one. On the Confederate side Magruder’s redoubts and trenches—including some first dug by Cornwallis’s redcoats in 1781—were extended and deepened and weak points strengthened, using slave labor impressed from the Peninsula’s plantations. Starting their fortifications and trench lines from scratch, the Federal troops had much the heavier labor, which was multiplied by McClellan’s decision to emplace 111 of the largest siege pieces in the Union arsenal in order to blast his way through Yorktown’s defenses.

He had a choice, McClellan explained: an approach “blocked by an obstacle impassable under fire”—the Warwick River—“& another that is passable but completely swept by artillery. I think we will have to choose the latter, & reduce their artillery to silence.” He sent to his wife for his books on the siege of Sevastopol in the Crimea, which he had studied intensively. In planning the siege of Yorktown, he told her, “I do believe that I am avoiding the faults of the Allies at Sebastopol & quietly preparing the way for a great success.”

Day after day at one point or another in the disputed ground in this hugely scarred landscape there were exchanges between pickets or sharpshooters or artillerymen. “There is scarcely a minute in the day when you cannot hear either the report of a field-piece and the explosion of a shell, or the crack of a rifle,” Lieutenant Colonel Selden Connor of the 7th Maine wrote. In a letter home Lieutenant Robert Miller of the 14th Louisiana described one of these outbursts of firing. The Yankee shells, he wrote, “get to us some seconds before the report . . . so that the first thing we know of them is a shrill whistle unlike any thing you or I ever heard before, then the sharp bell-like crack of the bomb—the whistle of the little balls like bumble-bees—then the report . . . but it all comes so nearly at the same time that it takes a very fine ear to distinguish which is first.” Lieutenant Miller counted 300 shells fired at his sector in one twenty-four-hour period; miraculously the only casualties were three men wounded.

“I believe if there is anybody in the world that fulfills the Apostle’s injunction, ‘beareth all things,’ and ‘endureth all things,’ it is the soldier.” Thus the 2nd Vermont’s Wilbur Fisk opened his weekly letter to his hometown paper on April 24. At its best, life in the trenches meant endless boredom. “This is the dullest place I ever saw, nothing to arouse one from the oppressive monotony but an occasional false alarm . . .,” the 19th Mississippi’s Oscar Stuart wrote bitterly after three weeks in the lines. “I am afraid we will stay in this abominable swamp for a long time without a fight.” Another Mississippian, Augustus Garrison, said that after a while the boys began to wish for a nice safe flesh wound, one that would get them home and “that they might show the girls.” His friend Pink Perkins got his flesh wound, Garrison noted, being nicked in the hip by a piece of shell, “which was very painful but which he could not show to any of the fair ones.”

Life in the trenches was at its worst during the periods of miserable weather that marked these April weeks. Soldiers sent their letters home datelined “Camp Muddy” and “Camp Misery.” A Georgian in Toombs’s brigade, which had marched so gaily through Richmond a few days before, recorded in his diary one particular pitch-black night when his brigade had to crouch for twelve hours in a waterlogged trench knee-deep in mud and water while a cold rain poured down on them without letup. In the middle of the night there was an alarm and much firing, and at daylight they discovered two of their men badly wounded and one dead, all three, it was decided, shot accidentally by their comrades. “It was a night that will long be remembered not only by me, but all that were in that disagreeable hole,” he wrote.

As often as not the killing was random and without purpose. An other diarist, Lieutenant Charles Haydon of the 2nd Michigan, was off duty one day and well behind the lines when he noticed a soldier walking idly by himself across an empty field. With no warning a shell burst over the man’s head, killing him instantly. It was the only Confederate shell fired within a mile of that spot during the entire day. “Some men seem born to be shot,” Haydon decided.

By far the most dangerous siege duty was the advanced picket line, which called for keeping a close watch on the enemy while at the same time avoiding becoming a sharpshooter’s target. Captain William F. Bartlett of the 20th Massachusetts, in command of a company assigned to picket duty every third day, expressed a universal complaint when he called it “very unpleasant duty. No glory in being shot by a picket behind a tree. It is regular Indian fighting.” Four days after writing this, Bartlett had his knee shattered by a sharpshooter’s bullet and had to have the leg amputated.

Early in the siege it was the Union sharpshooters who had the decided edge in this deadly contest, and any Rebel showing himself was liable to catch a bullet. Among the units in the Army of the Potomac was a regiment of sharpshooters recruited by Colonel Hiram Berdan that contained expert marksmen armed with special rifles, among them finely crafted target pieces equipped with telescopic sights. “Our Sharp Shooters play the mischief with them when they come out in daylight,” one of Berdan’s men told his wife.


The Second Siege Yorktown – 1862 Part II

A rough balance was restored with the arrival at Yorktown of John Bell Hood’s Texas brigade from Johnston’s army. Hood’s men had a sizable number of British-made Enfield rifles and knew how to use them. When the Yankee sharpshooters grew too bold, the Texans would slip into the forward picket line for what they liked to call a little squirrel shooting. Soon their fire would drive the Federals out of the trees and other hiding places they favored and back into their fortifications, where sharpshooting continued but on more even terms. The marksmen on both sides at Yorktown considerably exaggerated their prowess, especially to credulous newspaper correspondents, yet there was no doubt that because of them the prudent learned to keep their heads down. The story quickly got around, for example, of the Confederate soldier who woke up one morning in his cramped trench and unthinkingly stood up to stretch and was instantly shot through the heart.

In spite of the sharpshooters’ threat the siege had its lighter moments. One day a Louisiana soldier searched out his colonel in the trenches to report “an awful thing has just happened!” What was it, the colonel demanded: were the Yankees attacking? It was worse than that, the man said. A Yankee shell had just struck the colonel’s camp tent and smashed a barrel of whiskey stored there. The colonel rushed to his tent in the hope that something might be salvaged, but he was too late. His men had already crowded in with their tin cups to rescue whatever had survived the wreck.

One particularly novel form of entertainment in the Confederate ranks was electioneering. For months Richmond had been struggling with what General Lee termed “the fermentation of reorganization”—keeping its army in being beyond the one year that the volunteers had signed up for in the first rush to the colors in 1861. To encourage re-enlistments it had tried bounties and furloughs and even allowed men to change their branch of service, but with indifferent results. Finally on April 16 the Congress, acting on a bill drafted by Lee, took the ultimate step and decreed conscription. Men between eighteen and thirty-five would be subject to military service, and the one-year volunteers had their enlistments extended to three years or the duration of the war. Regiments had forty days in which to reorganize under the new system and to hold elections for their officers.

For those who had seen enough of soldiering, even the thought of changing the rules this way was a betrayal. “I have no respect for a government that is guilty of such bad faith,” an Alabamian complained. Private Jesse Reid of the 4th South Carolina thought Congress was taking the law into its hands unjustly; if volunteers were kept on for two more years, he asked, what was to prevent the lawmakers from keeping them on for ten more years? With conscription, he warned, “all patriotism is dead, and the Confederacy will be dead sooner or later.”

Most of the men accepted the new law more philosophically, recognizing that there was nothing they could do about it anyway. At least electing their officers would break the monotony of their days, and they followed the campaigning with interest. Certain candidates found one time-tested electioneering tactic that worked as well in the army as it had back home. “Passed the Whiskey round & opened the polls,” Private John Tucker of the 5th Alabama wrote in his diary on April 27. It was very much a “Big day” when his brigade elected its field and company officers, he wrote, “& a great many of the men got gloriously tight.”

Resourceful Federals found ways to vary the monotony of their days as well. It did not take them long to discover that the tidal creeks emptying into the York below Yorktown contained the most succulent oysters they had ever tasted, and that the gray squirrels infesting the thick woods made a delicious stew (wearing the enemy’s colors, it was said, made them fair game). The hogs that roamed the woods were also declared contraband of war and subject to capture, although the headquarters prohibition on firing guns behind the lines forced a resort to the bayonet; it was admitted that considerable effort was required for the enjoyment of roast pork. Pennsylvanian Oliver W. Norton felt obliged to justify such foraging by explaining that whatever they found in Virginia “is nothing else than a secesh, and when Uncle Sam can’t furnish food, I see nothing wrong in acquiring it of our enemies.” A Virginia woman who lost most of her pigs and chickens to the light-fingered Yankee cavalrymen encamped on her farm near Yorktown had taunting advice for her guests. Want to get into Yorktown did they? “General Magruder’s thar, an’ he kin drink more whiskey nor enny general you’uns got, but he won’t be thar when you git thar. . . .”

Informal truces, usually arranged when no officers were around, also served to break the siege routine. These sometimes produced odd coincidences. The men of the 2nd Rhode Island discovered that the Rebel pickets opposite them had haversacks and canteens stenciled “2nd R.I.” that they had picked up when fighting the Rhode Islanders at Bull Run nine months earlier. (One of the Rhode Islanders got a big laugh from the Rebels when, called on for the name of his regiment, he shouted back, “150th Rhode Island!”) The men of the 2nd Michigan found that the Georgians posted in their sector were from the same regiment they had faced the previous fall at Munson’s Hill near Washington. They talked this over at a parlay between the lines and agreed that as old acquaintances they would refrain from firing at each other when on picket duty.

In places where the lines were close together there was a good deal of bantering back and forth. “As they have only a large swamp between them,” a man in the 61st Pennsylvania wrote his family, “they can talk as well as if in a room together, they throwing up Bull Run to our boys & we Fort Donaldson & other places.” At the James River end of the Warwick line, where tidal marshes 300 or 400 yards wide made the prospect of any attack highly unlikely, informal truces might stretch on for as long as the stints of duty lasted. When one side or the other was due to be relieved, the pickets shouted across to watch out and everybody keep their heads down, for they could not be responsible for what the new men might do.

Federal general Philip Kearny was struck by the ironies of the situation. “Is it not odd to think,” he wrote his wife, “that Magruder, one of my best friends, is one of the chief men here. This is surely a most unnatural war.” At one of the nearby farms, Kearny went on, he had the disconcerting experience of talking to an elderly slave of at least ninety who distinctly remembered, as a child, hearing cannon fire once before at Yorktown—during the first siege in 1781. Union engineers examined old maps made by Cornwallis’s army for clues to the Confederates’ Yorktown defenses.

Whenever the weather was good Professor Lowe’s war balloons—by April 10 he had the Constitution as well as the Intrepid at the front—soared high in the air over Yorktown like great yellow soap bubbles, searching out information about the enemy positions. Generals frequently went up with the professor, to cast a professional eye on what the Rebels might be doing. Confederate artillerists did their best to shoot down the intruders, and while they scored no hits they did force Lowe to keep his distance and thus limited what he could see. For all the drama of these ascensions, balloon reconnaissance brought very little real enlightenment to General McClellan; certainly they furnished him nothing that brought any reality to the way he was counting the Army of Northern Virginia.

Indeed, the Intrepid very nearly deprived him of his favorite general. On April 11, in Professor Lowe’s absence, Fitz John Porter went up alone, and the balloon broke free of its moorings and began drifting straight toward the enemy lines. Fortunately for Porter, a last-minute wind shift carried him back to Union territory, and he managed to reach the gas valve and bring himself to the ground. General McClellan termed the episode “a terrible scare,” and Professor Lowe admitted that it was some time before he could persuade any other generals to go up with him.

Determined not to be outdone in aeronautics, the Confederates countered with a balloon of their own. Lowe was scornful: it was nothing but a hot air balloon—he called it a fire balloon—and could only stay aloft a half hour or so before the air in the envelope cooled and lost its aerial buoyancy. Lacking a portable hydrogen generator of the sort Lowe had developed, the Rebels had to stoke a hot fire of pine knots soaked with turpentine to get their aeronaut, Captain John Bryan, off the ground. Captain Bryan had the same visibility problems as the Yankee aeronauts, complicated by the fact that his balloon had but a single mooring rope whose strands tended to unwind and spin him around dizzily like a top. On his third ascension he duplicated General Porter’s experience. His balloon broke loose, drifted over the Federal lines, then was finally blown back to safety by a Confederate breeze. “This was indeed luck of the greatest kind,” Captain Bryan observed, and never went up again.

Easily as unusual as the war balloons were the coffee-mill guns, a Yankee invention getting a tryout in General Keyes’s Fourth Corps. This crank-operated prototype machine gun fired cartridges rapidly from a hopper mounted atop the barrel; President Lincoln, an enthusiast for new weapons, coined its name. Its promoters called it “an Army in six feet square.” Rhode Islander Charles E. Perkins, for one, was impressed. “And we have got 4 other guns that shute a ball a little larger than our muskets do and thay can shute it a hundred times a minit,” he wrote home. “Thay are drawed by one horse and are very handy and I should think that thay might do a grate work.” A newspaper correspondent was sure this example of Yankee ingenuity “must have astonished the other side.” No Confederates recorded any reaction to the novel weapon, however. In any event, as well sheltered as the Rebels were from the Federal artillery it is doubtful that the coffee-mill guns claimed any victims during the siege.

On April 16 General McClellan took his first aggressive action against the enemy since arriving in front of Yorktown. He ordered Baldy Smith to stop the Rebels from strengthening their defenses behind the Warwick River at a place called Dam No. 1—the “weak spot,” as it happened, that General Hancock had wanted to seize ten days earlier. There was no truly pressing need for the operation—it was not the spot McClellan had selected to pulverize with his siege guns to force a breakthrough—and he hedged his orders with cautions. There was to be no general engagement; his last words to Smith were to “confine the operation to forcing the enemy to discontinue work.” Smith dutifully advanced his divisional artillery close to the dam, along with the Vermont brigade—five regiments from his native state, including the 3rd Vermont that he had led at Bull Run back in 1861—for infantry support. For most of the day the Yankee gunners and skirmishers blazed away at long range at the enemy across the millpond.

The Confederates prudently took shelter from this barrage (“Break ranks and take care of yourselves, boys,” one of their officers shouted, “for they shoot like they know we are here”) and nothing could be seen of them, and presently an adventurous Yankee lieutenant waded across the waist-deep pond and came back to report he thought the enemy’s works could be taken. Four companies from General Smith’s old regiment, the 3rd Vermont, holding their rifles and cartridge boxes high, splashed across the pond on a reconnaissance. As the Rebel pickets scattered, the Vermonters rushed into the rifle pits on the far bank and opened a steady fire into the woods beyond. Having gained this much, no one in the Federal high command seemed to know what to do next.

Baldy Smith was victimized by an unruly horse, which twice threw him and left him stunned and incapable of “seeing the advantage I had obtained.” General McClellan, who had come to observe the operation, offered no advice and then left, having concluded that “the object I proposed had been fully accomplished. . . .” After clinging to their foothold for forty minutes, the Vermonters were counterattacked by a brigade of Georgians and Louisianians and sent flying back across the pond, losing men at every step. “As we waded back,” one of them wrote, “. . . the water fairly boiled around us for bullets.” Of the 192 who began the ill-fated reconnaissance, 83 were killed, wounded, or captured. The Vermont brigade’s commander, William T. H. Brooks, belatedly sent in reinforcements, but their assault was shot to pieces before it fairly began. Recalling McClellan’s injunction not to bring on a general engagement, Brooks finally ordered everyone back. The day’s Federal casualties came to 165.

The operation left a sour taste. “This Battle took place at Dam No. 1 in Warwick creek,” a Federal diarist wrote, “and was a Dam failure.” It was rumored that General Smith had not been thrown by his horse but was in fact drunk and had fallen off. In Washington a Vermont congressman introduced a resolution calling for the dismissal of any officer “known to be habitually intoxicated by spirituous liquors while in service,” and left no doubt who it was aimed at. Smith’s defenders, and Smith himself, hotly denied the charge and eventually a congressional investigating committee found it groundless. It was clear enough that the operation had been bungled, but less clear where the fault lay. All he could see, General Brooks remarked ruefully, was that his brigade had gotten itself involved “in something we did not exactly finish.”

“The roads have been infamous,” General McClellan wrote Winfield Scott, his predecessor as general-in-chief; “—we are working energetically upon them—are landing our siege guns, and leaving nothing undone.” His sense of accomplishment was understandable. The complex arrangements for commencing siege warfare were proceeding on schedule. Two weeks into the siege, he already had 100,000 troops under him. He had persuaded the president to let him have the First Corps division commanded by a favored lieutenant, William B. Franklin, and he was promised the second of McDowell’s three divisions, under George A. McCall, as soon as “the safety of the city will permit.”

Prospects for naval cooperation were improving. A new ironclad warship, the Galena, was slated for his use, to break through between Yorktown and Gloucester Point and cut the enemy’s communications on the York. Critics were muffled by the release to the press of “official” estimates of Confederate strength that ranged up to 100,000 men and 500 guns. “The task before Genl McClellan, reduction of fortified entrenchments, is that for which he is held specially qualified and the result is not doubted,” one correspondent wrote.

A suddenly docile Secretary Stanton even volunteered to put General Franklin in command of the Fourth Corps, in place of the ineffectual Erasmus Keyes, an offer McClellan was quick to accept. Although nothing finally came of this idea, it at least suggested a thaw in his chilly relationship with the contentious secretary of war. There was a strong gleam of optimism in the letter McClellan wrote his wife on April 19. “I know exactly what I am about,” he told her, “& am confident that with God’s blessing I shall utterly defeat them.”

He grew increasingly confident the next day as a result of new intelligence about the enemy’s high command. He had heard, he told President Lincoln, that Joe Johnston was now under the command of Robert E. Lee, and that greatly encouraged him. “I prefer Lee to Johnston,” he explained. To his mind, General Lee was “too cautious & weak under grave responsibility . . . wanting in moral firmness when pressed by heavy responsibility & is likely to be timid & irresolute in action.” (He added the opinion, a few days later, that “Lee will never venture upon a bold movement on a large scale.”) McClellan did not elaborate on how he had arrived at this singular appraisal; mercifully for him, it was never made public during his lifetime.

The Yankees pursued their siege operations with great energy and according to the latest principles of military science. However much he overestimated Confederate numbers, General McClellan never doubted his own superiority in artillery, especially heavy artillery. His confidence in ultimate victory rested on his guns. His siege train contained no fewer than seventy heavy rifled pieces, including two enormous 200-pounder Parrotts, each weighing more than 8 tons, and a dozen 100-pounders, all of which greatly outgunned any cannon the Rebels had at Yorktown. The balance of McClellan’s heavy rifled pieces were 20-pounder and 30-pounder Parrotts and 4.5-inch Rodman siege rifles. For vertical fire he had forty-one mortars, ranging in bore size from 8 inches up to massive 13-inch seacoast mortars that when mounted on their iron beds weighed almost 10 tons and fired shells weighing 220 pounds. Once they were finally all emplaced and opened fire simultaneously, as McClellan intended, these siege guns would rain 7,000 pounds of metal on Yorktown’s defenders at each blow. Such firepower dwarfed even that of the Sevastopol siege.

Fifteen batteries for these heavy guns were dug and fortified. “It seems the fight has to be won partially through the implements of peace, the shovel, axe & pick,” a New Hampshire soldier observed. To reach the battery sites new roads had to be cut through the forest and bridges built and old roads made passable by corduroying them with logs. The best at this road-making proved to be the 1st Minnesota regiment, whose skilled woodsmen could clear a mile of road and corduroy a quarter of it in a day. According to a Minnesota diarist, the Rebel gunners heard them felling the trees and fired at the sound. The heaviest pieces in the siege train had to be carried forward in canal boats on the York and then up Wormley’s Creek to the front. To mount one of the great seacoast mortars in battery, the side of the canal boat was cut down, tracks were laid to the bank, and the piece was raised by a hoisting gin and dragged ashore on rollers and finally hauled to its platform suspended under a high-wheeled sling cart. Simply to stock the battery magazines required 600 wagonloads of powder and shot and shell.

Much of the digging for batteries and trenches and redoubts was done at night and under fire. “Night work in the trenches is a sight to be remembered,” a man in an engineer battalion wrote in his journal, “to see a thousand strung along like a train of busy ants in the night, shoveling away, with now and then a shell bursting near. It is strange . . . to have a piece of shell come so near you, you can feel the wind. . . .” Although Fitz John Porter was put in direct command of the siege operations, General McClellan, a military engineer by training, visited the batteries constantly, directing construction, planning for the final assault, encouraging the troops. “Gen. McClellan & staff have just rode along the line,” a Pennsylvanian recorded in his diary on April 16. “Took a view of the rebel fortifications, gave some orders to the Gen. & passed on. While riding along he stopped and lit his cigar from one of the private’s pipes.” Such homely touches by the general sent morale soaring.

The import of all this immense effort was not lost on Joe Johnston. As the siege dragged on and the Yankees continued to fire only their field artillery in the periodic exchanges, it became obvious that McClellan was holding back his big siege guns until all were emplaced and ready to open simultaneously. General D. H. Hill, now in command of the Confederate left at Yorktown and Gloucester Point, observed that with his control of the water McClellan could “multiply his artillery indefinitely, and as his is so superior to ours, the result of such a fight cannot be doubtful.” One of his lieutenants, Gabriel J. Rains, predicted that when the enemy opened fire it would be with 300 shells a minute. One day Hill was discussing their prospects with Johnston. Johnston asked him how long he could hold Yorktown once the Federal siege batteries opened. “About two days,” Hill said. “I had supposed, about two hours,” Johnston replied.

Scouts and spies reported evidence of the rapidly multiplying Federal batteries and sightings of numerous transports entering the York, suggesting preparations for a drive up the river. It was reported too that the Yankees now had one or two more “iron-cased” war vessels in addition to the Monitor. To the trained military eye, a certain sign of impending attack was the appearance of parallels, the advanced trench lines from which the final assault would be launched once the siege guns had battered down Yorktown’s defenses.

On April 27 General Johnston warned Richmond that thè enemy’s parallels were well along and he would be compelled to fall back to avoid being trapped in his lines. On April 29 he made it official: “The fight for Yorktown, as I said in Richmond, must be one of artillery, in which we cannot win. The result is certain; the time only doubtful. . . . I shall therefore move as soon as can be done conveniently. . . .” Once Yorktown and the line of the Warwick were abandoned, Norfolk could not be held for long; it too must prepare for evacuation.

Johnston sent an appeal for the Merrimack to come to his aid by attacking the Federal shipping in the York and upsetting McClellan’s best-laid plans. (He also repeated his earlier call for a strike on Washington so as to distract his opponent further.) This idea of a sortie by the Merrimack had already caught General Lee’s imagination, and he several times urged the navy to send the big ironclad by night past Fort Monroe and the cordon of Federal warships to get in among McClellan’s transports in the manner of a fox in a henhouse. “After effecting this object,” he explained, “she could again return to Hampton Roads under cover of night.” For Robert E. Lee, a weapon in war was only as good as the use made of it.

Flag Officer Tattnall complained that too much was expected of the Merrimack. Her fight in March in Hampton Roads, in which her first captain, Franklin Buchanan, was wounded, had raised expectations too high, Tattnall said; “I shall never find in Hampton Roads the opportunity my gallant friend found.” The truth of the matter was that the Merrimack was altogether a dubious proposition—unseaworthy except in a flat calm and ponderous to maneuver, inadequately armored, powered by engines that constantly broke down. In truth too the adventurous spirit that had marked Josiah Tattnall in long-ago battles against the Royal Navy and the Barbary pirates had cooled. Now, at age sixty-five, his first impulse was to catalogue all the possible risks in any plan, and certainly here was a plan freighted with risks.

Tattnall was appalled at the thought of navigating the Merrimack by night across Hampton Roads and up the York. To attempt such a sortie by day would mean running the gauntlet of Fort Monroe’s guns and those of the Monitor, the forty-seven-gun frigate Minnesota, and assorted other Federal warships, not to mention the threat of being “punched” by the Yankee rams. Even if he somehow reached the York safely, McClellan’s transports would probably find shelter from his guns in shoal water and in the tidal creeks. Flag Officer Tattnall could see only hazard in the operation. General Johnston would have to manage without any aid from the Merrimack.

Evacuating an army of twenty-six brigades of infantry and cavalry and thirty-six batteries of field artillery—56,600 men all told—and their equipment, and carrying out the evacuation secretly in the face of the enemy, was a truly challenging task. It was also a complicated task, and Johnston had to endure delays caused by every imaginable complication. “I am continually finding something in the way never mentioned to me before,” he complained. He finally set the withdrawal for the night of May 3 and made it a “without fail” order. Anyone and anything not ready to move by that night would be left behind. And unlike the earlier Manassas evacuation, this time the entire Federal army was only a few hundred yards distant.

Perfect security proved impossible, and hints of the movement leaked out. Northern newspaper correspondent Uriah H. Painter, for example, interviewed an escaped slave from Yorktown who had seen the Rebel wagon trains pulling out behind the lines. When Painter reported this to Chief of Staff Randolph Marcy, however, he was told it could not be so; headquarters had “positive intelligence” the enemy was going to put up a desperate fight at Yorktown.

That was indeed the message in most of the intelligence reaching General McClellan. On May 2 another contraband reported the Confederates were 75,000 strong and intended to hold out until 75,000 more men reached them. On May 3 detective Pinkerton announced the enemy’s strength to be between 100,000 and 120,000, and since that was merely a “medium estimate” it was very likely “under rather than over the mark of the real strength of rebel forces at Yorktown.” McClellan was thus confirmed in another of his intuitive leaps of logic. Just as he had been sure in early April that Magruder would never attempt to hold a line all the way across the Peninsula with a mere 15,000 men, he now concluded that with eight times that number the enemy would certainly stay and make a showdown fight of it. “I can not realize an evacuation possible,” he told Baldy Smith.

He pressed ahead with his plan for the grand assault. The heavy batteries would simultaneously open fire at dawn on Monday, May 5, the thirty-first day of the siege. Once the enemy shore batteries were silenced, gunboats and the new ironclad Galena would run past to take Yorktown’s defenses in reverse. General Franklin’s reinforcing division from Washington, held on shipboard for ten days while McClellan debated what to do with it, was brought ashore to add weight to the attack. After a day or two of unremitting bombardment—or only a few hours, some predicted—it was supposed that every gun and fortification between Yorktown and the headwaters of the Warwick would be demolished. Heintzelman’s Third Corps would then storm the position. “I see the way clear to success & hope to make it brilliant, although with but little loss of life,” McClellan told President Lincoln.

After nightfall on May 3, a Saturday, the Confederates opened a tremendous bombardment with their heavy guns. The shells were not directed at any one spot but seemed rather to be aimed at random, driving the Yankees to ground everywhere. Their burning fuzes traced brilliant red arcs across the dark sky. The surgeon of a New York regiment called it “a magnificent pyrotechnic display.” At last the guns fell silent, and for the first time in a month it was utterly still. At first light General Heintzelman went up in the balloon Intrepid with Professor Lowe. “We could not see a gun on the rebel works or a man,” the general would write in his diary. “Their tents were standing & all quiet as the grave.” He shouted down that the Rebel army was gone.

The Yankees on picket duty rushed forward and clambered into the empty redoubts, and the color bearer of the 20th Massachusetts laid claim to being the first to plant the Stars and Stripes over Yorktown. “The soldiers gave tremendous cheers,” wrote the 20th’s Lieutenant Henry Ropes, “and it was altogether a glorious occasion.” Another Massachusetts soldier, wandering through one of the abandoned Rebel camps, was struck by the message scrawled in charcoal across one of the tent walls: “He that fights and runs away, will live to fight another day. May 3.”


Siege de Sancerre, early 17th century print by Claude Chastillon.

Portrait du maréchal de La Châtre

Huguenot Gendarmes 1567.

In a blistering moment of France’s Wars of Religion, the hilltop town of Sancerre would suffer an agonizing siege. It was a Huguenot stronghold, walled in and built around a fortress. Overlooking the Loire, the town was located about a hundred miles west of Dijon. The siege came at the end of a chain of murders involving the slaughter of more than three thousand Huguenots in different parts of France. But the killing orgy had started in Paris on August 23–24, 1572, the Eve of St. Bartholomew’s Day, with the massacre of about two thousand people.

That autumn Sancerre took in five hundred Huguenot refugees—men, women, and children. The town’s remaining Catholics fell to a small minority. In late October, a prominent nobleman from the region, Monsieur de Fontaines, turned up suddenly, hoping to enter and seize control. Refusing to promise the Huguenots the right of worship, with the claim that he had no such charge from the king, he was refused entry to the town, whereupon he replied that he knew what he would have to do. It was war. Less than two weeks later, a tempestuous attack on the citadel was repelled.

Now, fearing a siege, the Sancerrois began to examine their stocks of food and other resources. I draw the following narrative from one of the most remarkable eyewitness chronicles in the history of Europe: Jean de Léry’s Histoire memorable de la Ville de Sancerre, published in the Protestant seaport of La Rochelle less than two years after the siege.

Born in Burgundy, at La Margelle, Jean de Léry (1534–1613) became a Protestant at the age of eighteen and spent the better part of two years (1556–1558) as a missionary in Brazil, about which he published a famous account, Histoire d’un voyage fait en la terre du Bresil, autrement dite l’Amerique. Later, after a second stint of study in Geneva, he returned to France to preach the word of God as a Calvinist minister. Fearing for his life in the wake of the August massacres of 1572, he fled to Sancerre in September. And here Léry would become one of the foremost leaders in the Huguenot campaign of resistance.

Since the kings of France were prime movers of the Italian Wars (1494–1559), Italy became a school of warfare for thousands of French noblemen, with the result that France’s religious wars would be captained by seasoned officers on both sides of the confessional divide. Sancerre had more than enough of these in November 1572, in addition to 300 professional soldiers and another 350 men who were being trained in the use of arms. There were also 150 smalltime wine producers who would serve as guardsmen along the town’s defensive walls and gates. At the peak of the fighting, the night watch would even include a number of bold-spirited women armed with halberds, half pikes, and iron bars. They concealed their sex by wearing hats or helmets to hide their long hair.

From November onward, the countryside around Sancerre rang out with frequent and bloody skirmishes, provoked mostly by the Huguenot defenders, who made daring sorties into the surrounding country to fight the enemy, seize supplies, or gather provisions for the coming siege. By December they were stealing grain and livestock in night raids. On the night of January 1–2, for example, they broke into a neighboring village and returned to Sancerre with “the priest of the place as their prisoner and four carts loaded with wheat and wine, plus eight bullocks and cows for feeding the town.” Raids of this sort went on right through the winter, but became bloodier, less frequent, and more dangerous as the gathering royal army swelled and tightened its ring around Sancerre. Meanwhile, the town itself would know internal wrangling as the mass of refugees provoked disagreements, or blaspheming soldiers offended Huguenot ears, and the pride of competing officers clashed.

By the end of January, the enemy forces massed around the base of the Sancerre “mountain” numbered about sixty-five hundred foot soldiers and more than five hundred horsemen, not counting volunteer gentlemen and others from the surrounding area. By January 11, the people of Sancerre had resolved, in a general assembly, “that the poor, a number of women and children, and all those who could not serve, apart from eating, should be put outside the town.” But the men charged with this repugnant task failed to carry it out, “partly because of giving way to the outcry raised. And so they put no one outside the town gates.” This, Léry observes, was a grave error, because at the time the unwanted could easily have departed and gone wherever they chose, “which would have prevented the great famine … and which [later on] caused so much suffering.”

The Sancerrois did not even bother to answer the regional governor’s call to surrender, made on January 13. Claude de La Châtre informed them that his troops were there to subjugate Sancerre, in accord with the king’s orders, so he and his men now began to dig in seriously, both by building a network of trenches and fortifying the houses in the village of Fontenay, at the foot of towering Sancerre. They hauled in artillery early in February and soon began a daily bombing of the Huguenot fortress. In four days, from February 21 to 24, the town took more than thirty-five hundred cannon shots. Léry speaks of “a tempest” of bombs, debris, and house and wall fragments “flying through the air thicker than flies.” Yet very few people were killed—it was God’s doing, he opines—and the attackers were dumbfounded.

That winter, Léry points out, the weather was dreadfully cold, with a great deal of ice and snow, and for this the Huguenots praised God, because it was especially hard on the encamped enemy soldiers. La Châtre, nonetheless, was already having Sancerre undermined, with an eye to planting explosives and blasting breaches in the town walls.

Léry’s comments on the weather were revelatory. In the Europe of that day, there was an all but universal feeling in towns under attack that time destroyed besieging armies by working through hunger, painful discomfort, disease, and desertion. Living in squalid conditions, mercenaries were likely to succumb to malnutrition, wounds, and sickness; and desertion was a tempting solution, particularly when men stole off in pairs or in small groups. One thing was almost certain: Though a besieging army might begin with money in its pockets, as the weeks passed, that money ran out and desertion became more and more enticing. So, when not negotiating an immediate surrender, the best hope for a besieged town was to hold out for as long as possible until, in despair, the ragged remainders of the besieging army pulled away. To hold out, however, the besieged had to have ample stores of food.

Warned by a prisoner, the Sancerrois were ready to receive and repel a major assault on March 19, preceded by mine explosions and a furious bombardment. The assault was repelled, and Léry, in his description, touches fleetingly on a girl who had been working near him, carrying loads of earth for the defenders, when she was hit by a cannon shot and disemboweled before his eyes, “her intestines and liver bursting through her ribs.” Dead on the spot. His own survival, he felt, was God’s work. The defenders lost seventeen soldiers and the girl, but enemy casualties amounted to 260 dead and 200 wounded.

The bombardment of Sancerre continued, but always, Léry observes, with little loss of life in the town. When the royalists erected two towering, wheeled structures near the walls, with arquebusiers on the top, aiming volleys at the defenders on the walls, groups of Huguenot soldiers made stealthy nighttime attacks and set fire to them. Throughout their many armed engagements, seeking to maintain unity and to keep up their spirits, the besieged Huguenots sang hymns, flagging their evangelical bent. Yet all the while a silent enemy was slowly taking shape, and it was to be more fatal than the daily cannonades of the royalists. It was taking form around their dwindling food supplies. There was wine galore, but beef, pork, cheese, and—most important—flour were running out, with the remaining stocks turning, in value, to gold.

The Sancerrois sent messengers to Protestant communities in Languedoc to plead for military help, but there, too, the Huguenots were at war. Step-by-step, in the teeth of shrill complaint, Sancerre’s town council was forced to commandeer all wheat still in private hands and to put it into central storage for communal bread.

In March and April, they slaughtered and cooked their donkeys and mules, used for transport up the town’s steep rise of more than 360 meters, until all had been eaten up by the end of April. Later, as the siege continued, they would regret having consumed their pack animals with such greedy abandon. In May, they began to kill their horses, the council ruling that these had to be slaughtered and sold by butchers. Prices were fixed at sums that were lower than would have been allowed for by the tightening pincers of supply and demand. But in July and August, as Sancerre went to the wall, prices for the remaining horse meat soared, despite strict policing; and every part of the horse was sold, including head and guts. Opinion held, Léry observes, that horse was better than donkey or mule, and better boiled than roasted. He was coldly reporting, but also, possibly, adding a sliver of gallows humor.

Then came the turn of the cats, “and soon all were eaten, the entire lot in fifteen days.” It followed that dogs “were not spared … and were eaten as routinely as sheep in other times.” These too were sold, and Léry lists prices. Cooked with herbs and spices, people ate the entire animal. “The thighs of roasted hunting dogs were found to be especially tender and were eaten like saddle of hare.” Many people “took to hunting rats, moles, and mice,” but poor children in particular favored mice, “which they cooked on coal, mostly without skinning or gutting them, and—more than eating—they wolfed them down with immense greed. Every tail, foot, or skin of a rat was nourishment for a multitude of suffering poor people.”

June 2 brought a decision to expel some of the poor from the town, although their numbers had already been reduced by starvation and disease. That very evening “about seventy of them departed of their own accord.” And the essential ration was now lowered to one half pound of daily bread per person, irrespective of rank or social condition, soldiers included. Eight days later this ration was reduced to a quarter pound, then to one pound per week, until flour supplies ran out at the end of June.

But the imagination of the starving Sancerrois found more to eat than any of them could ever have dreamed of, and it was in the leather and hides that came from “bullocks, cows, sheep, and other animals.” Once these were washed, scoured, and scraped, they could be gently boiled or even “roasted on a grill like tripe.” By adding a bit of fat to the skins, some people made “a fricassee and potted pâté, while others put them into vinaigrette.” Léry goes into the fine details of how to prepare skins before cooking them, noting, for example, that calfskin is unusually “tender and delicate.” All the obvious kinds “went up for sale like tripe in the market stalls,” and they were very expensive.

In due course, the besieged were eating “not only white parchment, but also letters, title deeds, printed books, and manuscripts.” They would boil these until they were glutinous and ready to be “fricasseed like tripe.” Yet the search for foods did not terminate here. In addition to removing and eating the skins of drums, the starving also ate the horny part of the hooves of horses and other animals, such as oxen. Harnesses and all other leather objects were consumed, as well as old bones picked up in the streets and anything “having some humidity or taste,” such as weeds and shrubbery. People mounted guard in their gardens at night.

And still the raging hunger went on, pushing frontiers. The besieged ate straw and candle fat; and they ground nutshells into powder to make a kind of bread with it. They even crushed and powdered slate, making it into a paste by mixing in water, salt, and vinegar. The excrement of the eaters of grass and weeds was like horse dung. And “I can affirm,” Léry asserts, all but beggaring belief and alluding to Jeremiah’s lamentations, “that human excrement was collected to be eaten” by those who once ate delicate meats. Some ate horse dung “with great avidity,” and others went through the streets, looking for “every kind of ordure,” whose “stink alone was enough to poison those who handled it, let alone the ones who ate it.”

The final step was cannibalism, which must already have been taken, sooner than Léry himself could know. He turns to the subject by first citing Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, with their references to the starving who ate their children in sieges, and then says that the people of Sancerre “saw this prodigious … crime committed within their walls. For on July 21st, it was discovered and confirmed that a grape-grower named Simon Potard, Eugene his wife, and an old woman who lived with them, named Philippes de la Feuille, otherwise known as l’Emerie, had eaten the head, brains, liver, and innards of their daughter aged about three, who had died of hunger.” Léry saw the remains of the body, including “the cooked tongue, finger” and other parts that they were about to eat, when caught by surprise. And he cannot refrain from identifying all the little body parts that were in a pot, “mixed with vinegar, salt, and spices, and about to be put on the fire and cooked.” Although he had seen “savages” in Brazil “eat their prisoners of war,” this had been not nearly so shocking to him.

Arrested, the couple and the old woman confessed at once, but they swore that they had not killed the child. Potard claimed that l’Emerie had talked him into the deed. He had then opened the linen sack containing the body of the little girl, dismembered the corpse, and put the parts into a cooking pot. His wife insisted that she had come on the two of them as they were doing the cooking. Yet on the very day of their arrest, the three had received a ration of herbal soup and some wine, which the authorities had regarded as enough to get them through the day.

Looking into the life of the Potards, the town council found that they had a reputation for being “drunkards, gluttons, and cruel to their other children,” and that they had lived together before they actually married. It was found, indeed, that they had been expelled from the Reformed Church, and that he, Simon, had killed a man. The council now took swift action. He was condemned to be burned alive, his wife to be strangled, and l’Emerie’s body was dug out of its grave and burned. She had died on the day after their arrest.

Lest any of his readers should think the sentence too harsh, Léry remarks, they “should consider the state to which Sancerre had been reduced, and the consequences of failing to impose a severe penalty on those who had eaten of the flesh of that child,” even if she was already dead. “For it was to be feared—we had already seen the signs—that with the famine getting ever worse, the soldiers and the people would have given themselves not only to eating the bodies of those who had died a natural death, and those who had been killed in war or in other ways, but also to killing one another for food.” People who have not experienced famine, he adds, cannot understand what it can call forth, and he reports a curious exchange. A starving man in Sancerre had recently asked him whether he, the unnamed man, would be doing evil and offending God if he ate the “buttocks” (fesse) of someone who had just been killed, especially as the part seemed to him “so very pleasing” (si belle). The question struck Léry as “odious” and he instantly replied that doing so would make the eater worse than a beast.

In the meantime, there had been another purge of poor folk. Many of them had been ejected from the town in June. As expected, however, the besiegers blocked their passage at the siege trenches, killed some, wounded others, no doubt mutilating the faces of a few, and then, using staves, battered the rest back to the walls. Unable to reenter Sancerre, the outcasts lived for a while by scrounging about for grape buds, weeds, snails, and red slugs. In the end, “most of them perished between the trenches and the moat.” But the inner spaces of the town itself offered no guarantees. There, too, people died at home and in the streets, children more often, and those “under twelve nearly all died,” their bones sometimes “piercing the flesh.”

Murmuring was to be heard by late June. The rabidly hungry, their voices rising, wanted Sancerre to surrender. The town, however, was in the clasp of religious hard-liners, of the better-off, and of soldiers. Hence the complainers were ordered to shut up or get out of town. Otherwise, came the warning, they would be thrown from the town’s soaring walls. Sancerre was an island in a vast countryside of hostile Catholics. Yet the starving kept stealing away, passing over to the enemy even when threatened with death, knowing, in any case, that they faced a sure death in that walled-in fortress. As late as July 30, seventy-five soldiers paraded through the streets in testimony of their will to hold out for “the preservation of the [true] Church.” But they were a minority, for at that point Sancerre still had at least another 325 soldiers. Then, on August 10, affected by rumors about Huguenot losses in other parts of France, the despairing garrison captains announced that the army was ready to surrender, that they preferred to die by the sword rather than hunger. A debate in council ignited passions, differences broke out, tempers flared, and men drew out swords and daggers. But by the next day common sense had prevailed.

Informal negotiations with the enemy, already broached, revealed that the commander of the siege, La Châtre, was ready to spare all their lives. Talks went on for over a week. The countryside was a waste for thirty miles in all directions around Sancerre. Surrender terms were finally fixed and approved on the nineteenth.

In a changed climate and in accord with the king’s new mandate, the Sancerrois could go on worshipping as Huguenots. The honor and chastity of their women would be respected. They retained full rights over all their goods and landed properties. There would be no sequestrations. However, they had to face a fine of 40,000 livres, intended as pay for the besieging army. It was a sum that would undo the well-off families; hence residents were given the bitter right to sell, alienate, or remove any or all of their goods.

On the twentieth of August, bread and meat began to arrive from the outside. And now, in the moving about of people, Léry was the first man to be let out of Sancerre. Although he had negotiated the surrender agreement for the besieged, he was provided with a special pass and accompanied by several soldiers, because La Châtre feared that he might be assaulted, owing to his office as pastor. The enemy also maintained that he was the one who had taught the Sancerrois how to survive on leather and skins. Léry was followed out of Sancerre by the Huguenot soldiers, some of whom were accompanied by wives and children.

La Châtre seems to have offered his surrender terms in good faith. But he was rushing off to a royal assignment in Poland, and in the furies of the time, it was going to be next to impossible for the king’s ministers to guarantee the terms. Hatreds were intense, and Sancerre presented a chance for plunder.

Priests and monks entered the town at the end of August. Catholics began to dismantle walls and defensive points. They removed the town clock, the bells, “and all the other signs” of a busy municipality, in effect reducing Sancerre to the level of a mere village. Many houses, especially the empty ones, were robbed and stripped of their furniture. In due course, residents who sought to leave Sancerre were compelled to pay ransoms. And those who remained, although seeing some of their possessions confiscated, had to pay special taxes, leaving them, in the end, all but destitute. In time their church was suppressed. The destiny of Calvinism in France would be hammered out in Paris, La Rochelle, Rouen, and other cities.

Once it was published, Léry’s memoir transformed the siege of Sancerre into an event of legendary resistance, particularly among Huguenots. But the strange foods of the famine intrigued all who heard about them. Had the eating of “powdered slate” actually taken place? Some of the foods seemed to lie beyond the utmost limits of the imaginary. Paris was to learn a thing or two from Léry’s recipes.

Since the Huguenot pastor soon rushed his memoir into print, it is likely to carry moments of exaggeration and even of fiction, particularly with regard to the scale of the cannonades directed against Sancerre. His general outlines of the siege, however, and of the wild workings of hunger, are perfectly in accord with the consequences of sieges in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The Siege of Antwerp

Parma’s bridge across the Scheldt at Antwerp

Over the next few years the Duke of Parma consolidated the line between the loyal south and the rebellious north, and set about reducing the northern strongholds by means of a long succession of sieges, a process that culminated in the thirteen-month-long Siege of Antwerp – one of the most fascinating operations of the Eighty Years War. Parma’s plans involved cutting the city off from the north by building a bridge across the Scheldt. To many this was the strategy of a lunatic. That a river half a mile wide could be bridged while there were so many rebels around to prevent its construction was one reason for the scepticism. The other reason was that some years previously, when Antwerp was still in Spanish hands, William the Silent had attempted to build a bridge, only to see his creation swept away with the coming of winter and the pounding of ice floes. Nevertheless, William remained one of the few people to take Parma’s threat seriously, and he proposed a drastic course of action to frustrate Parma’s plans.

William’s plan involved the almost total inundation of the area. Downstream from Antwerp, the Scheldt was confined within its banks by a complex system of dykes, the most important of which extended along its edges towards the sea in parallel lines. On the right bank this barrier became the mighty Blauwgaren dyke, which was met at right angles by the equally formidable Kowenstyn dyke. Not far from where they joined, the Dutch had a strong fortress called Lillo. If the Blauwgaren dyke was pierced, it would take the Kowenstyn dyke with it and would cause such an extensive flood that Antwerp would become a city with a harbour on the sea. It would then be almost impossible to starve out.

Had William the Silent’s orders been carried out immediately, then Antwerp might indeed have been safe, but a fateful and time-wasting debate took place, and just a few weeks later William was assassinated. The idea of a massive flood was certainly not well received. In an echo of Alkmaar, it was pointed out that twelve thousand head of cattle grazed upon the fields protected by the two dykes. If Parma was intent upon starving Antwerp’s citizens, then surely there was no better way of helping him than by the Dutch destroying such a huge food supply.

The tiny village of Kallo, which lay about nine miles from Antwerp, became the construction site for Parma’s bridge, but the scheme was such a huge undertaking that by the autumn of 1584 little seemed to have been achieved. Antwerp continued to be supplied by flotillas of craft, which exchanged fire with Parma’s forts as they boldly made their way upstream. The Antwerp authorities then made an astounding blunder. It transpired that grain bought in Holland could be sold for four times its original price in beleaguered Antwerp, a mark-up that was attractive enough to make Spanish cannon fire an acceptable hazard. But the city fathers then set a fixed price for supplies brought in, and simultaneously regulated the accumulation of grain in private warehouses. Seeing their profit wiped out, the ships’ captains stopped the traffic stone dead. Even Parma could not have created such an effective blockade!

At the same time, the inundation urged by William the Silent had actually begun, albeit in a much-reduced fashion. Yet, ironically, the opening of the sluices on the Flanders side actually made Parma’s communications that much easier, because the flooded countryside now enabled him to give Antwerp a wide berth. By the time it was finally decreed that the dykes of Blauwagaren and Kowenstyn should be cut there were strong Spanish garrisons in place to prevent this happening. The Kowenstyn in particular now resembled a long, bastioned city wall bristling with cannon and pikes.

Meanwhile, the bridge grew slowly. On the Flemish side a fort called Santa Maria was erected, while on the Brabant side opposite developed one named in honour of King Philip II of Spain. From each of these two points a framework of heavy timbers spread slowly towards the middle of the river. The roadway was twelve feet wide, defended by solid blockhouses. Numerous skirmishers attacked the workmen in order to prevent the two halves meeting, but skirmishes is all that these attacks were. In spite of entreaties from Antwerp the vacuum of power since the death of William the Silent prevented any concerted attack from occurring.

Parma was also suffering from a lack of money. His army had not been paid for two years, and he was not yet in a position to promise early payment from loot. A botched attempt by the rebels to capture s’Hertogenbosch, Parma’s main supply centre for the siege, served only to increase the commander’s determination to complete his bridge, against which the wintry weather was now providing the only real challenge. The ocean tides drove blocks of ice against the piers, which stood firm, but in the centre portion of the construction the current was too strong to allow pile-driving, so here the bridge had to be carried on the top of boats. There were thirty-two of them altogether, anchored and bound firmly to each other and armed with cannon.

Parma’s bridge was completed on 25 February 1585. It was twice as long as Julius Caesar’s celebrated Rhine bridge, and had been built under the most adverse weather conditions. As an added precaution, on each side of the bridge there was anchored a long heavy raft floating upon empty barrels, the constituent timbers lashed together and supported by ships’ masts, and protected with iron spikes that made the construction look like the front rank of a pike square. An entire army could both sit on the bridge and walk across it, and, to impress the citizens of Antwerp, Parma’s soldiers proceeded to do both.

So that they should be under no illusions as to the strength and size of the edifice, a captured Dutch spy, who expected to be hanged, was instead given a guided tour of the bridge and sent safely back to relate in wide-eyed wonder what he had seen. `Tell them further’, said Parma to the astonished secret agent, `that the siege will never be abandoned, and that this bridge will be my sepulchre or my pathway into Antwerp.’

The Dutch ship Fin de la Guerre (“End of War”) during the Siege of Antwerp in 1585.

The first marine application of mine warfare occurred in 1585 at the city of Antwerp. Fighting for their independence from Spain, the Dutch were under siege by Spanish forces, who had built a fortified bridge across the Scheldt River to prevent supplies from entering the city. Frederigo Gianibelli sent a small ship loaded with gunpowder down the river, with a time fuse. The ship detonated directly beneath the bridge, destroying it and the Spanish soldiers guarding it.

The Diabolical Machine

The besieged citizens of Antwerp, however, still possessed one possible winning card. In their city lived a sympathetic Italian engineer by the name of Frederigo Gianibelli, and in a similar display of enthusiasm to that with which Parma had built his bridge, so did this Gianibelli determine to destroy it using exploding ships. His proposal to the city authorities involved the construction of a fleet, but by the time his project was approved the parsimonious city fathers had reduced the fleet to two ships, which disgusted Gianibelli, even though each of the vessels, to be optimistically named Hope and Fortune, was enormous. The two ships were nothing less than artificial volcanoes. In the hold of each was a chamber of marble, along their entire length, built upon a brick foundation. This chamber was filled with gunpowder under a stone roof, on top of which was a `cone’ – also of marble – packed with millstones, cannonballs, lumps of stone, chain-shot, iron hooks, ploughshares and anything else that could be requisitioned in Antwerp to cause injury when blown up. On top of all of this were piles of wood that gave the vessels the appearance of conventional fireships. The one difference between the two ships lay in the means of ignition of the volcanoes within. On the Fortune this was to be done by means of a slow match. On the Hope the business would be done by clockwork and flint, rather like an enormous wheel-lock pistol. The progress of these infernal floating mines was to be preceded on the ebb tide by thirty-two smaller vessels laden with combustible materials, which would keep the defenders of the bridge busy until the two great ships reached Parma’s masterpiece and utterly destroyed it.

The date for the attack was to be dusk on 5 April 1585, and the enterprise was placed into the hands of Admiral Jacob Jacobzoon. He began badly, sending all the thirty-two vanguard ships down the Scheldt almost all at once rather than in the steady progression previously agreed upon. On each bank, and from every dyke and fortress, the Spanish troops gathered in their thousands to gaze at the burning flotilla that was turning the night back into day with its ruddy glow. Some of the boats hit the forward barges of the bridge and stuck on the spikes, where they burned themselves out ineffectively. Others struck the banks or ran aground. Some simply sank into the river as their own fires consumed them.

To the guardians of the bridge the attack seemed to be having no effect, but behind these minor vessels there now loomed the two great ones. They meandered somewhat aimlessly with the tide and the current, because their pilots had long since abandoned them. There was a moment of concern for the Spanish when the Fortune swung towards the side of the river, completely missing the forward protective raft. It eventually ground itself while, unknown to the Spanish defenders, the slow match burned through. There was a small explosion, and some minor damage, but so slight was the effect that Parma sent a boarding party to examine the interior of the ship.

They did not stay long, because the Hope had now followed its sister downstream. Its precision in finding its target could not have been better if it had been guided until the very last moment, because it managed to hit the bridge next to the blockhouse where the middle pontoons began. However, as Parma had confidently expected, the bridge had been so strongly built that the impact alone caused it no damage. Expecting it to be another fireship, Spanish boarders leapt on to the deck, and with excited whoops of laughter promptly extinguished the decoy fire. With some sixth sense, an ensign rushed up to his commander and begged him to leave the scene. So earnest were the man’s pleas that Parma reluctantly withdrew to the Fort of Santa Maria. This saved his life, for at that very moment the Hope exploded.

Not only did the ship vanish, so did much of the bridge, the banks, the dykes, the fortresses, and for a brief moment even the waters of the Scheldt, as possibly the largest man-made explosion in history up to that date lit up the night sky. The facts and statistics of the act took months to establish, and still have the power to cause amazement. The entire centre section of the bridge disintegrated. More than a thousand Spanish soldiers died instantly, and their bodies were never found. Houses nearby collapsed as if hit by an earthquake, and the pressure wave blew people off their feet. From the sky there began to fall the cannonballs and stones that had been crammed into the ship, accompanied by the mortal remains of its immediate victims. Slabs of granite were later found buried deep in the ground having travelled six miles from the scene of the explosion.

The personal tales were also quite remarkable. One Marquis Richebourg, who had been in command on the bridge, simply disappeared. His body was located several days later, its progress through the air having been arrested by one of the chains Parma had strung across the river. Seigneur de Billy’s body was not located until months afterwards when his golden locket and an unpleasant stain on one of the surviving bridge supports provided identification. The fortunate Duke of Parma was merely knocked unconscious by a flying stake. One captain was blown out of one boat and landed safely in another. A certain Captain Tucci was blown vertically into the air in his full armour and dumped in the river, where he still retained the presence of mind to remove his cuirass and swim to safety. Another young officer was blown completely across the river and landed safely after a flight of half a mile.

The original plan was that immediately after the expected explosion Admiral Jacobzoon should launch a signal rocket that would send boatloads of armed Dutchmen pouring on to the scene. Instead, he was totally stupefied by the explosion and gave no order. No rocket was fired and no one advanced. During the hiatus Parma regained consciousness, and by displaying leadership skills of unbelievable quality he managed to marshal his men to begin to repair the damage. Even though the Dutch advance was expected at any moment, it never came. By daybreak, even Parma began to believe the unbelievable – that the Dutch rebels, having set off the largest explosion since the introduction of gunpowder to Europe and blown a hole in his bridge, were now going to let him mend it. Yet this is precisely what happened.

The battle for the Kowenstyn dyke

The Kowenstyn Dyke

With the initiative lost it took the defenders of Antwerp a full month to mount another attack on Parma’s besieging army. The new attack was not against his damaged bridge but on the mighty Kowenstyn dyke. As the target was an earthen dam explosives would not have been effective, so the goal of breaking the great barrier would be made by men capturing the dyke with pike and musket and then cutting it with pick and shovel. It was a low-tech solution, and it was likely to be a very bloody one.

Following a successful landing a fierce `push of pike’ began on top of the Kowenstyn dyke. The rebels could well have been shoved back into the water had it not been for the arrival of the other half of their army downstream from Antwerp. For once in this campaign a co-ordinated effort had actually worked, and three thousand men now occupied this small section of the dyke. Among them was an eighteen-year-old youth called Maurice of Nassau, the son and heir of William the Silent, who was experiencing his first real taste of combat in what was to become a renowned military career. While two walls of soldiers shot, cut and speared their enemies, the sappers began two very different but complementary operations: to reinforce the dyke with trenches and mounds, and also to cut a hole through it. At last a loud cheer went up as the salt water rushed in a torrent through the newly created gap. A few moments later a Zeeland barge sailed through.

It is to the great credit of the Spanish commanders on the scene that they did not immediately panic; they stayed calm, even though their leader was some distance away. They were also sensible enough to realise that a breach sufficient to allow a Zeeland barge through was by no means sufficient to permit the passage of an entire fleet, and if the dyke could somehow be recaptured then the rupture might even be repaired. Five attacks followed along the dyke in a manner that demonstrated beyond all doubt why the Spanish were regarded as the finest infantry in Europe. The last assault was successful, and it was not long before intelligence arrived in Antwerp that the wild celebrations currently taking place were somewhat premature.

The failure plunged Antwerp into despair and forced its rulers back to the negotiating table. They sought three reassurances from Parma: that religious freedom would be granted, that troops would not be stationed in the city, and that the hated citadel would not be rebuilt. Knowing that King Philip II would accept none of these `exorbitant ideas’, as Parma termed them, he reminded the citizens of Antwerp of the stranglehold he still had on their city. But he had other cards to play, and drew their attentions to the role of Antwerp as the `great opulent and commercial city’ that it had been in the past and could be again. What cause, what real cause, did rich Antwerp have with the heretical Sea Beggars of Holland and Zeeland? Surely the loyal south was more to their liking?

Parma’s own fears lay with the winter that was fast approaching. It turned out to be so severe that Parma’s bridge would have been unlikely to survive, but by the time winter came a settlement had already been reached. A minor concession regarding the troops to be stationed in Antwerp proved sufficient for all parties to be satisfied, and Antwerp capitulated with honour on 17 August 1585 without a shot having been fired at the city itself. There was no massacre, no sack, no pillage and Parma’s soldiers were paid not by loot but in hard cash. The noble Duke of Parma had achieved his objectives, and, unknown to him at the time, he had actually achieved something quite remarkable. By detaching the fate of Antwerp and the lands to the south from the United Provinces of The Netherlands he had effectively created a recognisable and workable border. In 1648, as part of the Treaty of Westphalia, this border was to be given both recognition and reality, confirming that Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, had invented Belgium.

The Relief of Derry I

As July dawned those within the walls could not be certain what the future held for them. True, they had beaten off Rosen’s attempt to storm the city and foiled his plan to hasten their starvation by forcing them to take so many of their fellow Protestants inside the walls. The latter Jacobite plan had even had some beneficial effects for the defenders who had been able to enlist some able bodied men from the ranks of those who had been driven to the walls; these volunteers remained in Derry until the end of the siege. The latters’ presence helped steel the resolve of the garrison not to surrender, since many of the newcomers had had protections from either King James or Hamilton which provided evidence to others of the perfidy of the Jacobites.

Of course, the defenders had tried to get some of their weakest citizens out of the city when the gallows was taken down and the hostages were allowed to return home. However, many of these individuals were obvious to the Jacobites who recognized ‘them by their colour’, a polite way of saying that they were dirtier than the average seventeenth-century citizen. Those so identified were sent back, but there were many, womenfolk among them, who were able to get away from the city. The Jacobite prisoners in the city were returned to their lodgings.

Mackenzie notes that Walker’s sermon was a discouraging one’ rather than one that boosted the morale of soldiers and citizens. He notes that Captain Charleton chose this time, 28 July, to abandon the city and go over to the Jacobites. There is an implication here that Charleton had listened to Walker preach and had not been impressed. Mackenzie’s analysis of the morale within the city is probably much closer to the truth than Walker’s. The Presbyterian minister commented that ‘the desperate necessities that were growing upon us had almost sunk us all into a despair of relief.

Mackenzie’s comment that the city was despairing of being relieved made all the more wondrous the sighting that evening, at about 7 o’clock, of three ships in Lough Foyle approaching Culmore. Walker wrote that this sighting was made ‘in the midst of our extremity’ while Ash described the day as one ‘to be remembered with thanksgiving by the besieged as long as they live’. Ash and Mackenzie date this day of thanksgiving as 28 July, whereas Walker places it two days later on the 30th. And while Walker and Mackenzie number the ships at three, Ash observed four vessels that ‘came swiftly to Culmore without harm’. One other source, the account by Joshua Gillespie, names the fourth ship as being the cutter Jerusalem; this vessel was about the same size as the Phoenix.

Irrespective of the date, or of the exact number of ships, relief now appeared close at hand. HMS Dartmouth, Captain Leake’s frigate, was escorting three merchant vessels, the Mountjoy of Derry, under Captain Michael Browning, a Derryman, the Phoenix of Coleraine, whose master was Captain Andrew Douglas, also of Coleraine but a Scot by birth, and the cutter Jerusalem, commanded by Captain Pepwell. We have seen how Richards observed three ships in Lough Swilly being loaded with provisions and setting sail for Lough Foyle on 20 July: these are the same vessels on the final leg of their journey. According to Richards, Kirke accompanied the little convoy in HMS Swallow, which does not feature in the accounts from Ash, Mackenzie or Walker, suggesting that Swallow left the others at some point and that only HMS Dartmouth, the cutter and the two merchant ships made the run up Lough Foyle as far as Culmore. It seems that Swallow drew too much draught to allow the ship to sail up to the city; although the water was quite deep at Culmore where the river enters the lough it became shallower on the approach to the city. With Major-General Percy Kirke on board, Swallow anchored in the lough where she dropped her longboat which was to play a significant part in the breaking of the boom; from the ship’s maintop, Kirke was able to watch what was happening, although he was too far away to see in detail the events at the boom.

The choice of the Mountjoy and Phoenix seems to have been deliberate on Kirke’s part since it permitted two local vessels to play the central role in the concluding act of the drama at Derry. According to Mackenzie, Browning had volunteered to make the run for the city before, while both Ash and Mackenzie agree that Kirke chose him to lead the relief because he was a Derryman. Ash wrote that Browning ‘had that honour conferred upon him by Major-General Kirke, to be the man who should bring relief to Derry.’ Honour it may have been, but it also placed Browning at great risk and he was to pay, with his life, the full price for accepting that risk. Of course, there might have been a more pragmatic reason for Kirke’s choice of Browning and Douglas: their familiarity with the waters of the Foyle. As a native of the city, Browning would have known the Foyle better than any of the other captains, and Douglas of Coleraine must also have been very familiar with its waters. One eminent naval historian has commented that ‘to Captain Browning the soundings and tidal sets in the River all the way to Londonderry would be thoroughly familiar and Mountjoy as it were, knew her own way home!’ Whatever the circumstances, Kirke had now heeded the appeal from the city for immediate help; to its inhabitants the appearance of the relief vessels seemed to be a miracle.

As the ships approached Culmore Fort, HMS Dartmouth hove to, ‘drew in her sails and cast anchor’.6 An artillery combat between the ships and the gunners in Culmore Fort then began as Dartmouth’s role was to attempt to draw the fire of the fort from the two merchant ships while trying to suppress that fire with her own guns; Leake’s frigate, a fifth-rater, carried twenty-eight guns, about half of which could be brought to bear on Culmore. Rather than firing broadsides the frigate would have ripple-fired her guns at the fort, increasing the pressure on the latter’s gunners by maintaining a constant fire which would not have been possible with broadsides. Leake had also placed his ship between the fort and the channel that the merchant ships would use. The latter were not helpless since they also carried cannon (Douglas of the Phoenix had earlier in the year been issued with letters of marque as a privateer by the Scottish government) and each had forty soldiers on board. Now, as Leake’s ship hammered at the fort, Browning, Douglas and Pepwell prepared to take their ships through the narrow channel at Culmore and upriver towards the boom. Leake’s orders were that Mountjoy would sail with Dartmouth, Phoenix would not weigh anchor until Dartmouth was engaged with the fort and Jerusalem would await a signal from Leake that one of the other ships had passed the boom before weighing anchor. It was a well-conceived plan but one still fraught with danger for all the ships.

In a subsequent despatch to London, Kirke noted that

Captain Leake, commander of the Dartmouth, behaved himself very bravely and prudently in this action, neither firing great or small shot (though he was plied very hard with both) till he came on the wind of the Castle, and there began to batter that the victuallers might pass under the shelter of his guns; then lay between the Castle and them within musket-shot and came to an anchor.

Covered at Culmore by the guns of Leake’s warship, Mountjoy led the way and Browning sailed his ship into the boom in the hope that the force of the vessel striking it would break the structure, thereby clearing the way for the other vessels. But he was unsuccessful. His ship struck the boom, rebounded and ran aground on the east bank. Mackenzie’s interpretation of events is slightly different, with the wind dying as the Mountjoy reached the boom, the ship failing to strike it in the ‘dead calm succeeding’ and then running aground. From this version it would seem that it was the tide that pushed Browning’s ship aground; other sources indicate that Mackenzie was correct. Whatever the circumstances of the grounding, the result was the same: Mountjoy was at the mercy of the Jacobites. And it was then that the ship’s redoubtable captain perished. Within sight of his home town, and with his mission almost accomplished, Browning was struck in the head by a musket ball and fell dead on Mountjoy’s deck. William R Young, who, in 1932, produced a gazetteer of the principal characters of the siege, wrote this highly imaginative paean on the breaking of the boom:

Nothing perhaps in the story of the siege is more thrilling than the rush of the Mountjoy on the terrible Boom. We can picture the captain, sword in hand, standing on by the wheel and commanding operations until killed by the fatal shot.

It may be noted that Ash wrote that Browning ‘stood upon the deck with his sword drawn, encouraging his men with great cheerfulness’ and this is, presumably, Young’s source.

With loud cheers large numbers of Jacobite soldiers raced towards the water’s edge where some prepared to take to boats from which they might board the stricken Mountjoy. Farther along the river, closer to the city, other Jacobites took up the exuberant cheering of their comrades and called to the garrison that their ships had been taken.

We perceived them both firing their guns at them, and preparing boats to board them, [and] this struck such a sudden terror into our hearts, as appeared in the very blackness of our countenances. Our spirits sunk, and our hopes were expiring.

But once again circumstances conspired against the Jacobites. The Mountjoy discharged a broadside, obviously from the port side, and this, with the rising tide, freed the ship from the grip of the mud to set her afloat again. According to Ash, it was the inrushing tide that floated the Mountjoy. All the while, both HMS Dartmouth and the Phoenix had been firing at the Jacobites. Restored to her natural element, Browning’s ship began to engage the Jacobite batteries and steered once more for the boom. This was to be the crucial test of de Pointis’ creation. It will be remembered that the French engineer’s first effort had been an abject failure, sinking below the water due to the weight of the oak used in its construction. The boom that now stretched across the Foyle was constructed of fir beams held together with metal clamps, chains and rope and with both ends anchored firmly on dry land.

Walker believed that the Mountjoy had broken the boom when first it struck and this version is also included in Gillespie’s narrative, but the boom was actually broken by sailors in HMS Swallow’s longboat.16 These men do not feature in any of the indigenous siege narratives, and it appears that, if the writers of those narratives were told the detail of the breaking of the boom, they decided not to tell the full story. The longboat had been lowered from Swallow to accompany the ships that would make the run upriver and it was the ten-man crew of that boat who finally broke the boom. Since their part in this episode is so important, it is pleasant to record that the names of these seamen have been preserved in Admiralty records. Boatswain’s Mate John Shelley commanded the longboat and his crew were Robert Kells, Jeremy Vincent, James Jamieson, Jonathan Young, Alexander Hunter, Henry Breman,4 William Welcome, Jonathan Field and Miles Tonge. And it was Shelley who used the axe, leaping on to the boom to do so and receiving a splinter wound in the thigh in the process. This involvement of the longboat crew is supported by a Jacobite report that indicates that both the Mountjoy and Phoenix were towed by longboats.

The principal Jacobite account of events suggested that it was actually HMS Dartmouth that made the run upriver:

The ship then aforesaid [Dartmouth] took the opportunity on this day of the tide and a fair gale of wind, and so came up to the fort of Culmore, and at all hazards ventured to sail by. The fort made some shots at her, but to no purpose. She, being got clear of that fort, arrived before the next battery, which fired also at her, but the ball flew too high. She came to the last battery; this did her no damage. She struck at the boom, which she forced presently, and so went cleverly up to the quay of Londonderry. What shouts of joy the town gave hereat you may easily imagine.

It should be remembered that A Jacobite Narrative of the War in Ireland was written some years after the siege and the author’s information came from other individuals. Thus it is not so surprising that he believed Dartmouth to have been the vessel that ran the gauntlet of the Jacobite batteries along the Foyle, broke the boom and took relief to the beleaguered city.

Richards also includes an account of how the boom was broken which was delivered to the camp at Inch on 30 July by ‘several people . . . from the Irish camp’ who had seen the ships pass up the Foyle ‘with provisions to Derry quay on Sunday night last past’. These witnesses had seen the man of war lie within Culmore and batter ‘all the upper part of the wall down, so that there is now no shelter for men’. But they differed in telling how the ships got up to the city. Two versions of the breaking of the boom were offered, one of which told of Shelley and his fellow seamen in the longboat. This was, however, an exaggerated version which included a ‘boat with a house on it’ that came to the boom where it stopped ‘and of a sudden a man (a witch they say) struck three strokes with a hatchet upon the Boom, and cut [it] asunder, and so passed on’ with the ships following. The ‘house’ might have been a form of protection against musket fire, as Kirke indicated by describing the longboat as being ‘well barricado’d’. The second version held that the two ships made the run together and struck the boom simultaneously, breaking it so that both were then able to pass on to the city. Kirke’s despatch to London noted that it was the weight of the Mountjoy that broke the boom after Shelley had wielded his axe. That report also contains the information that there were about four Jacobite guns at the boom ‘and 2,000 small shot upon the river’; it also notes that five or six Williamite soldiers were killed, that Lieutenant Leys of Sir John Hanmer’s Regiment was wounded and that Shelley was also injured.

The passage of over three centuries has obliterated the stories of most of the individuals involved in the siege and associated operations and this has been the case especially with those who did not hold commissioned rank. Even the small boy who did such sterling service carrying despatches is not named by any of the chroniclers, and we know only the surname of that unfortunate swimmer McGimpsey who volunteered to carry despatches from the city to Kirke. However, there are a few exceptions and these include the men who broke the boom, John Shelley and his shipmates who manned Swallow’s longboat. Not only did Captain Wolfranc Cornwall reward them with a guinea apiece, although Shelley received five guineas, but he also wrote to the Admiralty on 8 October recommending each of the men to whom further payments were made, bringing their awards to £10 each.

Pointis’ efforts had been in vain and suggest either that the boom had not been strong enough or that the metal used to hold the beams together had rusted to such an extent that at least one joint had broken when the Mountjoy hit. In spite of the first failed effort with the oaken boom, it seems most unlikely that de Pointis would have been guilty of creating a sub-standard defence since he was both an engineer and a naval officer who should have known exactly the pressure that was likely to be put on the boom. Against this, Louis’ representative, Comte d’Avaux, considered that the breaking of the boom proved how poor a job de Pointis had done: ‘the boom was so badly built that it could not resist the little boats that towed the two small vessels carrying the supplies’. He went on to say that the boom had ‘more than once’ already been damaged by the wind and the force of the tide. This further comment suggests that maintenance work on the boom had been inadequate, which was probably due to the fact that de Pointis was ill much of the time and unable to exercise the control he might otherwise have done. There is also the fact that Richard Hamilton did not regard the boom as being important which would have reduced the importance given to maintenance when de Pointis was not exercising regular supervision.

However, the boom had never been intended to be the sole counter against Williamite ships coming up the Foyle. It formed part of a defence system in which the artillery batteries along the river were also crucial. We have seen that the Williamite commentators wrote that the Jacobite artillery poured a heavy fire into the relief squadron but the principal Jacobite account, from A Light to the Blind, takes a very different viewpoint.

But it is not so easy to understand how came this ship to pass scot-free by so many batteries, and yet in four or five weeks before, three vessels attempting the same fact were repulsed. The king’s soldiers answer that the gunners of the batteries, or some of them, were this morning, the thirty-first of July, drunk with brandy, which caused them to shoot at random. But still there remains a question, whether these officers became inebriated without any evil design, or whether they were made to drink of purpose to render them incapable to perform their duty that day; and whether the English money aboard the fleet in the pool was not working upon them for this effect during the time they lay there on the coast.

The writer of that narrative goes on to state that ‘these gunners lost Ireland through their neglect of duty’. His suggestion that the gunners – by which he really means the officers commanding the guns – had been bribed by the Williamites is implausible and more likely to be the result of paranoia than to be based on any real evidence. A similar accusation was made following the Jacobite defeat at Aughrim in 1691: that the Jacobite general Henry Luttrell had, literally, sold the pass to the Williamites. And there is, of course, a parallel with the accusations made about Lundy, Walker and other leading Williamite figures. Both sides in this war were eager to attribute success to the intervention of the Almighty but any failures or setbacks were seen as being the result of human perfidy. The writer was also unaware of the fact that the three vessels that he thought had been trying to sail upriver some weeks before had not been doing so but had been carrying out a reconnaissance.

With the remains of the boom floating useless in the water, the two merchant ships passed through. HMS Dartmouth remained on station at Culmore and the Jerusalem ‘came near the man of war, but no farther that night’. The cutter had been due to weigh anchor and enter the river on a signal from Leake’s ship but ‘the wind slackened, grew calm and changed about to the SW’. In fact, Dartmouth remained on station at Culmore until 8 o’clock next morning ‘by reason of the tide’ during which time she returned the Jacobite fire five or six shots for one. The ship also endured considerable musket fire from the Jacobites on either side of the river but her casualties were remarkably light with but a single soldier killed and another wounded, while the ship’s purser, Mr Lee, suffered a contusion. No serious damage was incurred.

As the other ships ‘made their way majestically to the City, to the inexpressible joy of the inhabitants, and to the utter disappointment of the enemy’, Phoenix took the lead and was first to dock at the city where Captain Douglas was received by Governor Mitchelburne who told him that ‘this will be a night of danger’. Both vessels berthed at about 10 o’clock ‘not saluted by the turbulent acclamations of the garrison, but with heartfelt and devout gratitude to him who is the unerring disposer of all events’. Young conjectures that

We can see the arrival of the Mountjoy and the Phoenix at Derry’s quay. We can almost hear the acclamations of the starving population, and we can sympathise with the captain’s weeping widow, who was meeting a dead husband.

In Ireland Preserved, Mitchelburne attributes the following words to ‘Evangelist’, or Walker:

Heaven has heard our prayers, the sighs and groans and shrieks of the distressed have reached the heavens, and has delivered us from the implacable, wicked and designing malice of our merciless enemies.

Of the contemporary accounts, only that from Richards mentions that the merchant ships were towed in by longboats. He claims that these were manned by local people, who came out when the ships were close to Pennyburn, but where the boats came from he does not explain; apart from the locally-built boat and the Jacobite boat captured at Dunalong, there were supposedly no boats in the city. Significantly, none of the local accounts include any mentions of these boats, suggesting that Richards, still on Inch, might have been misinformed. As the ships tied up at the quay the guns in the cathedral tower were fired to let the fleet know that the relief vessels had reached the city safely.

The Relief of Derry II

Sadler, William; The Relief of Derry; National Museums Northern Ireland;

The arrival of this squadron of the relief fleet brought an angry reaction from the Jacobites who opened fire on the quay and the city from across the river. Such was the danger to those unloading the vessels that blinds had to be constructed along the quay; these were improvized from casks and hogsheads filled with earth and built up to form a wall. In the course of the night the blinds were tested fully as the gunners over the river maintained a ‘brisk and continued cannonading . . . against the town’.

From the Phoenix those acting as stevedores, men detailed from each of the companies in the city, unloaded 800 containers of meal that had been brought from Scotland and for which a petition had been presented to the Scottish government. Browning’s Mountjoy which could carry 135 tons, had brought ‘beef, peas, flour, biscuits etc all of the best kind’ which had been sent from England. These were all carried to the store houses. This restocking of the stores brought, in Walker’s words, ‘unexpressible joy’ to the garrison which he reckoned had but two days’ rations left ‘and among us all one pint of meal to each man’. Nine lean horses were all that remained for meat – where these came from is not made clear; the last horse had supposedly been slaughtered long since – and hunger and disease had reduced the one-time garrison of 7,500 to about 4,300, of whom at least a quarter were unfit for service. The first issues of food from the newly-arrived provisions were made the following morning and must have been as great a boost to the morale of the garrison and people of the city as the sight of the Mountjoy and Phoenix making for the quay.

The siege was over. Richard Hamilton knew that the arrival of the relief ships would allow the garrison to hold out longer and how he must have rued his decision to countermand de Pointis’ plan for a second boom and to carry out maintenance work on the boom that had been completed. He knew also that Kirke had a strong force on Inch and that this might march for Derry at any time while Schomberg was preparing an even larger force that would soon land in Ulster to link up with Kirke’s contingent and the Enniskillen garrison. There was no alternative but for the Jacobite army to quit Derry. It had failed in its objective with every plan adopted seemingly doomed. On the day following the arrival of the Mountjoy and Phoenix, Ash commented that there was ‘nothing worth note’ although Mackenzie recorded that the Jacobites continued to fire on the city from their trenches.

But the decision to quit was taken that day. According to the writer of A Light to the Blind, the decision was made by de Rosen who

seeing the town relieved with provisions contrary to expectation, and that there was no other way at present to take it, judged it in vain to remain there any longer, and so he commanded the army to prepare for rising the next day, and for marching back into Leinster, and approaching to Dublin.

On 1 August the Jacobite army decamped from Derry. It had lain before the city for fifteen weeks with the loss of some 2,000 men dead, a figure that probably underestimates considerably the true losses. Walker, who wrote that the enemy ‘ran away in the night time, [and] robbed and burnt all before them for several miles’, also estimated the Jacobite dead at between 8,000 and 9,000 plus a hundred of their best officers. The scorched-earth tactic is confirmed by Ash who wrote that the enemy ‘burned a great many houses in the County of Derry and elsewhere’ and that, when he went to visit his own farm on 1 August, he found ‘the roof of my house was smoking in the floor, and the doors falling off the hinges’. Berwick was later to attain notoriety for his use of the same tactic elsewhere in Ireland, and it is possible that he was also advocating its use at Derry. A deserter from Berwick’s camp who arrived at the Williamite base on Inch said that he had been with the duke at Castlefinn when several officers arrived with the news that relief had reached the defenders of the city, An enraged Berwick

flung his hat on the ground and said, ‘The rogues have broken the siege and we are all undone.’ He says also, it was at once resolved to immediately quit the siege, and burn, and waste, all before them; but upon second consideration they have despatched a messenger to the late King James at Dublin, of which they expect an answer. In the mean time, they have sent out orders to all the Catholics to send away all their goods and chattels, and to be ready to march themselves whenever the army moves. It is also resolved to drive all the Protestants away before them, and to lay the country in waste as much as they can.

So it would seem that Berwick was the man responsible for ordering so much destruction. The troops at Inch saw several ‘great fires’ in the direction of Letterkenny, to the south-west, which they believed to be villages set alight by the retreating Jacobites. Under cover of darkness, a company of musketeers, under Captain Billing, crossed from Inch to the mainland near Burt castle and then marched about a mile before surprising a small guard of Jacobite dragoons and securing a safe passage to Inch for several Protestant families with their cattle and whatever other goods were found en route. Confirmation that the Jacobites were quitting the area was provided when several parties of their horsemen were seen ‘setting fire to all the neighbouring villages, which gives us great hopes that they don’t design any long stay in these parts’. Kirke reported that the Jacobites ‘blew up Culmore Castle, burnt Red Castle and all the houses down the river’. By then he had returned to Lough Swilly in HMS Swallow and come ashore at Inch.

According to Walker, some of the garrison, ‘after refreshment with a proper share of our new provisions’, left the city to see what the enemy was doing. Jacobite soldiers were observed on the march and the Williamites set off in pursuit. This proved to be an ill-advised move as they encountered a cavalry unit performing rearguard duty for the Jacobites and the horsemen engaged their pursuers, killing seven of them.

Of course, there had been two wings of the Jacobite army, separated by the Foyle. These made their discrete ways to the nearest point at which a junction could be effected, in the vicinity of Strabane. Retreating from before the city’s western and southern defences, the Jacobites made their way to Lifford, back to the area of the fords where they had achieved one of their few real successes of the campaign. Likewise, those who had formed the eastern wing of the besieging force withdrew to Strabane, although some are known to have moved east towards Coleraine. Strabane appears to have been a temporary stop for the army as the commanders awaited further news. What news they received was not good: the Jacobite force in Fermanagh had been defeated at the battle of Newtownbutler where Lord Mountcashel had suffered the greatest defeat yet inflicted on Jacobite arms in Ulster.

On 3 August news reached the camp at Inch that the main Jacobite army was now at Strabane, and Kirke felt confident enough to send Captain Henry Withers to Liverpool on board HMS Dartmouth with a despatch for ‘King and Parliament [detailing] our great success against the Irish Papists’. Ash recorded that, at Lifford, the Jacobites were in such haste to be away that they ‘burst three of their great guns, left one of their mortar pieces, and threw many of their arms into the lake’. By bursting the guns he meant that the Jacobite gunners had destroyed their weapons; this was usually done by dismounting the barrels, filling them with powder and burying them muzzle down before discharging them. This action had been taken following news of the disaster at Newtownbutler which was the final factor in the Jacobite decision to quit Ulster. In their going they dumped many weapons in the river and left behind many of their comrades who were sick. Between the city and Strabane, some groups of Jacobite grenadiers who were engaged in setting fire to houses were taken prisoner by Williamite troops.

A few Williamites were probably fit enough to take part in such forays outside the town, but it is more likely that the patrols were from the fresh troops who had landed in the city with the Mountjoy, Phoenix and Jerusalem, although they would have numbered only about 120 men. Some foragers from the city brought in a ‘great number of black cattle from the country for the use of the garrison’, but these dairy cattle were restored to their owners the following day. It seems that not everything had been destroyed by the Jacobites and, since these cattle belonged to Williamites, it also appears that those in the vicinity of the city had not suffered too much in the days of the siege. Much of their losses probably occurred as a result of the Jacobite forces venting their anger at failing to take the city.

With the Jacobite army withdrawing, Walker expressed some impatience to see Kirke, whom he described as ‘under God and King, our Deliverer’. He sent a delegation of five men, including two clergymen, to Inch to meet Kirke, give him an account of the raising of the siege, convey the city’s thanks to him and invite him to come and meet the garrison. The latter invitation was superfluous since Kirke would have intended to come to the city anyway. Richards recorded that Walker’s men stayed all night at Inch due to the very wet and windy weather. Following the visit of that delegation, Kirke sent Colonel Steuart and Jacob Richards to the city ‘to congratulate our deliverance’ according to Walker but, according to Richards, to give the orders necessary for repairs to the city and its fortifications. This was a precursor to Kirke’s own arrival which took place on Sunday 4 August. On the same day he had ordered a detachment of seventy-two men from each regiment ‘to march over to Londonderry, there to encamp and make up huts for the several regiments against they arrive’.

Windmill Hill had been chosen as the site for the encampment of the relieving forces. The local regiments were to remain within the walls, and the two forces were to be segregated to prevent an outbreak of disease among the newly-arrived troops. The camp at Inch was to be abandoned save for the hospital and a small garrison of 200 men with six artillery pieces commanded by Captain Thomas Barbour. Moving the relief force’s supplies and impedimenta required the deployment of the ships to carry them out of the Swilly and around the north of Inishowen into Lough Foyle and hence to the city. That a small garrison was to be left at Inch suggests that there was some concern that not all the Jacobites had departed the region. On the 5th some ‘Irish skulking rogues came back to Muff, Ballykelly, Newtown and Magilligan, and burned houses which had escaped’ the previous depredations. These ‘skulking rogues’ would have been from that part of the Jacobite army that was falling back to Coleraine. (The Muff referred to here is the modern village of Eglinton in County Londonderry, while Newtown is Limavady.6)

Kirke was unimpressed by Derry and its defences, writing that

since I was born I never saw a town of so little strength to rout an army with so many generals against it. The walls and outwork are not touched [but] the houses are generally broke down by the bombs; there have been five hundred and ninety one shot into the town.

The major-general had already had a report from Richards about the state of the city. This had also included the observation that there was ‘little appearance of a siege by the damage done to the houses or walls’. However, Richards went on to report that

the people had suffered extremely, having for 5 weeks lived on horses, dogs, cats etc. They lost not during the whole siege 100 men by the sword, but near 6,000 through sickness and want and there still remained about 5,000 able fighting men in the town, who abound with the spoil of those they have killed or taken prisoner.

When Kirke arrived at Bishop’s Gate he was received with courtesy and some ceremony. There Mitchelburne, who would have already known him, and Walker, with other officers of the garrison, members of the corporation and ‘a great many persons of all sorts’ met him and offered him the keys to the city as well as the civic sword and mace, all of which Kirke returned to those who had presented the individual items. Soldiers lined the streets to receive their deliverer while the cannon on the walls fired in salute. Even the city’s sick, of whom there were many, made the effort to crawl to their doors and windows to see Kirke and his entourage. Mitchelburne and Walker entertained Kirke to dinner which was described as being ‘very good . . . considering the times; small sour beer, milk and water, with some little quantity of brandy, was and is the best of our liquors’. Following dinner he went to the Windmill to look at the camp for his soldiers. Ash noted that he rode on a white mare that belonged to Mitchelburne which the latter ‘had saved all the siege’. Presumably this was ‘Bloody Bones’, the charger gifted to Mitchelburne by Clotworthy Skeffington. One wonders that this fine animal had survived, but perhaps she had been kept outside the city?

As Kirke was preparing to return to Inch, three horsemen arrived carrying letters from the governors of Enniskillen. These brought official news of the success of the Williamite forces under Colonel Wolseley and Lieutenant-Colonel Tiffin at Newtownbutler. Details of the battle were included while, later that night, Kirke also received the news that Berwick was decamping from Strabane and that most of the army that had been before Derry had gone to Charlemont en route to Dublin. Kirke then rode back to Inch while Richards remained in the city to make further preparations for the arrival of the remainder of the relief force. Meanwhile Kirke had invited several of the leading citizens to dine with him on Inch the following day. This might not have been the most convivial of occasions for Walker, since Kirke took the opportunity to suggest that it was time for him ‘to return to his own profession’.

Kirke’s three regiments arrived in the city on the 7th with the major-general at their head; their baggage was en route by sea. Once again there was a rapturous reception, with the defenders coming out in force to give the troops three cheers as well as a salute from their cannon. It also seems that all the garrison’s personal weapons were discharged as part of a feu de joie. And there was another dinner after which a council of war was held to which only field officers were invited. This meeting discussed regulating the local regiments, the civil administration of the city and ‘several other necessary things’, which included the market and cleansing the town. The latter task must have been of almost Herculean proportions. It was further decided that the following day would be one of thanksgiving.

And so, on 8 August, the city rejoiced for its deliverance. There was considerable merry-making but the day began with a sermon preached by Mr John Know, who told his congregation, which included Kirke, of the nature of the siege and ‘the great deliverance, which from Almighty God we have obtained’. That evening the city’s regiments were drawn up around the walls and fired three volleys while the cannon, too, were fired in salute. A proclamation was also issued stating that anyone who was not in the ranks of one of the regiments and had not resided in the city prior to the siege should return to their own homes before the following Monday. Nor were any goods to be taken out of the city without permission. With the Jacobites now far away, the bureaucrats were back in place. And it seemed that the closest Jacobites were at Coleraine ‘where they were fortifying themselves’.

Walker took ship for England the next day, there to produce and have published his ‘true account’ of the siege. Needless to say, this true account would be centred around the activities of Governor Walker, who would thus become the hero of the siege. The London Gazette for 19–22 August carried a report from Edinburgh that Walker had reached that city on the 13th with news that the Enniskilleners, under Colonels Wolseley and Tiffin, but whom he called Owsley and Tiffany, had routed the Jacobites on their retreat from Londonderry and caused heavy losses. This was Walker’s version of the battle of Newtownbutler which, in fact, had been fought between a different Jacobite force from that retreating from Derry and the defenders of Enniskillen. From Edinburgh he made his way to London and was received at Hampton Court by William and Mary; one report suggests that he received £5,000 ‘for his service at Londonderry’. For Mitchelburne, Murray and many others their sole reward was to be thanked for their services.

For those left behind in the city there were some indications of what lay in store for them. All who expected pay for their service in defending the city were told to appear in their arms at 10 o’clock on the following Monday. Whatever they anticipated, they were to be disappointed: no payment was ever made. There was a popular belief among the soldiers that Kirke would distribute £2,000 but ‘they soon found themselves mistaken, not only in that, but in their hopes of continuing in their present posts’. One man who had provided £1,000 to support the city in its travails was the Stronge who owned the land across the river. When Sir Patrick Macrory was writing his book on the siege he was told by Sir Norman Stronge, a direct descendant of that landowner, that he still held two notes, signed by Mitchelburne, promising that the money would be repaid. In 1980 Sir Norman calculated that the IOUs represented, with interest, some £60m. These notes were lost when republican terrorists attacked Sir Norman’s home at Tynan Abbey in County Armagh in 1981, murdering both Sir Norman and his son James before setting fire to and destroying their home.

On the 12th Kirke reduced the garrison’s regiments to four. Colonel Monroe’s and Colonel Lance’s Regiments were amalgamated, Walker’s Regiment was given to Colonel Robert White, Baker’s to Colonel Thomas St John – the would-be engineer of Inch – and Mitchelburne retained the regiment he had commanded throughout the siege, that which had been Clotworthy Skeffington’s. As White died soon after this re-organization his regiment passed to Colonel John Caulfield. No records have survived of the regiment formed by the amalgamation of Monroe’s and Lance’s Regiments, and so it would seem that the new unit had a very brief existence. This might have been less than a month, as Kenneth Ferguson notes that a royal warrant of 16 September adopted only three Londonderry battalions; Kirke was ordered to treat unplaced officers as supernumerary until vacancies could be found for them. Caulfield’s Regiment had been disbanded by 1694 and the surviving regiments, Mitchelburne’s and St John’s, were disbanded by 1698 by which time the War of the League of Augsburg had ended. In contrast, those regiments formed in Enniskillen had a much longer existence with three of them surviving, albeit in much changed form, to this day: Tiffin’s Regiment was the progenitor of the present Royal Irish Regiment while today’s Royal Dragoon Guards may be traced back to dragoon regiments raised in Enniskillen in 1689. However, in 1693 some survivors of the siege formed part of a new regiment, Henry Cunningham’s Regiment of Dragoons, raised in Ulster. In time, this regiment was ranked as the 8th Dragoons and later as 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars. In 1958 amalgamation with 4th Queen’s Own Hussars created the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars, the regiment that led the coalition advance into Kuwait in the Gulf War of 1991; the Hussars’ leading tank was called ‘Derry’ and the regiment was commanded by a Derryman. Perhaps some of the spirit of Murray’s Horse had passed down the centuries to the men who manned the Hussars’ Challenger tanks.

To return to 1689, Kirke continued his work on reforming the garrison, but he also organized a force to attack the Jacobites at Coleraine. However, when that force, led it seems by Kirke himself, approached Coleraine, the local garrison decided that it did not want to engage in a battle with the butcher of Sedgemoor and the town was abandoned. A plan had been made to destroy the bridge leading into Coleraine, thus at least delaying any Williamite advance if not assisting a Jacobite defence. This had involved coating the timbers of the bridge with pitch which would then be set alight as the foe approached. In the event the Jacobite garrison was so keen to quit the town that the bridge was left standing, those whose assigned task it had been to start the fire showing no heart for the job. The news that Coleraine had been regained reached London at the same time as the news that the town of Sligo had also been abandoned by the Jacobites. The latter information was far from accurate: Sligo did not fall into Williamite hands until 1691, following the battle of Aughrim.

The Williamite army continued its task of clearing Ulster. On 16 August Schomberg sailed from England ‘with a fair wind’ at the head of the main body of the force that was to be deployed in Ireland. At the beginning of September this army was engaged in the siege of Carrickfergus where Jacob Richards was wounded in both thigh and shoulder. Before long most of Ulster was in Williamite hands, with only pockets of Jacobite resistance remaining in the southern part of the province.

The key element in this campaign had been the siege of Derry. Had the city fallen to the Jacobites in April, or failed to hold out as it did, then the Williamite cause in Ulster would have been lost. Enniskillen could not have held out against a Jacobite army no longer distracted by the task of reducing the recalcitrant city and nor would Sligo have been able to sustain a defence for much longer. That the city on the Foyle was the vital element in saving all Ireland for the Williamites was recognized across the three kingdoms. George Walker, the soi-disant governor of Londonderry, was feted in London and took full advantage of the opportunity to further his own reputation with the publication of his book A True Account of the Siege of London-Derry. On 19 November he was thanked by the House of Commons for his services at Londonderry and responded:

As for the service I have done, it is very little, and does not deserve this favour you have done me: I shall give the thanks of this House to those concerned with me, as you desire, and dare assure you, that both I and they will continue faithful to the service of King William and Queen Mary to the end of their lives.

As the tide of war flowed elsewhere the people of north-west Ulster tried to begin their lives anew, safe from the threats that had so recently beset them. But it would be a very difficult task and one in which many of them would not succeed. The scars of those 105 days in 1689 would never fade and the attitude of the government at Westminster towards the survivors would help to ensure that.

Warsaw 1939 I

On September 8, 1939, one week into the Nazi invasion of Poland, German armoured troops reached the gates of Warsaw. The Polish government and High Command had left the city but a determined garrison awaited the enemy invader and the Poles were able to stave off two consecutive German attempts to take the capital by armoured attack. Thus began a siege that would last for three weeks and subject the Warsaw Army of over 100,000 and the civilian population of over one million to a ruthless campaign of aerial bombardment and heavy artillery shelling, causing thousands of casualties and widespread destruction. It was a hopeless battle that could only end in defeat and on September 27 the Polish garrison capitulated. The photos of the first penetration by tanks and infantry of the 4. Panzer-Division taken on September 9 became standard repertoire of German propaganda publications on the Blitzkrieg in Poland.


On September 8 – eight days after the start of the campaign and after an amazing dash of 80 kilometres in ten hours – lead elements of the 4. Panzer-Division suddenly appeared on the outskirts of Warsaw. Taking advantage of the surprise, the Germans immediately launched an attack into the city, hoping to capture it on the run. The first attack, in the late afternoon of the 8th and by Panzer-Regiment 35 only, was quickly stopped by the fierce Polish resistance in the outer borough of Ochota. The second attempt, by the entire division and on a double axis, on the morning of the 9th penetrated deeper into the city but was again repulsed in heavy fighting in Ochota and Wola. A Propaganda-Kompanie photographer, Bildberichter Otto Lanzinger, accompanied one of the attacking columns into the city and his pictures have become classic images of the 1939 fighting for Warsaw. Here a number of PzKpfw I and IIs roll forward while supporting infantry keep close to the houses.


A PzKpfw II advances past another one. These photographs were taken on Grojecka Street, the main thoroughfare entering Warsaw from the south-east and leading into the borough of Ochota, at its intersection with Siewierska Street. Grojecka was the axis of attack of Panzer-Regiment 35 both on the afternoon of the 8th and again during the morning of the 9th. The long shadows in Lanzinger’s photos show the sun in the east, which proves that they were taken on the 9th.


Some 150 metres back along Grojecka, near its junction with Przemyska Street, Lanzinger pictured a 7.5cm le. IG 18 light infantry gun set up to engage enemy troops defending behind a barricade. The gun has just fired off a round and smoke is still curling from its barrel. Panzer I and IIs are waiting behind. Black smoke rises up from a disabled vehicle in the background.


Back up front, and right in front of where Lanzinger is taking cover, another gun – this one a 3.7cm Pak 36 – has been set up. Across the street is its Krupp Kfz 69 towing vehicle. Two Panzer Is roll forward. The 4. Panzer-Division had begun the campaign with 341 tanks: 183 Panzer I, 130 Panzer II, 12 Panzer IV and 16 Panzerbefehlswagen. However, by the time it reached Warsaw, both tank regiments had suffered losses and all four tank battalions were below strength.

Map of initial ground attacks on Warsaw. Poles-blue, Germans-red.


Warsaw in 1939 was a city of 1.3 million inhabitants. From the very first hours of the campaign, this huge metropolitan area became the target of an unrestricted aerial bombardment campaign by Luftwaffe bombers and dive-bombers, mainly from Kesselring’s Luftflotte 1 supporting Heeresgruppe Nord.

On September 1, a force of some 90 Heinkel He 111 bombers from Kampfgeschwader 27, protected by 36 Me 109 fighters from Jagdgeschwader 21, together with 35 He 111s from II./Lehrgeschwader 1 raided the capital. They hit military targets, such as infantry barracks, the aerodrome and the PZL aircraft factory at Okecie in the south-west and the Warsaw radio station in Fort Mokotow in the south. However, right from the start, they also freely bombed civilian facilities such as waterworks, hospitals, market places and schools, and strafed civilians with machinegun fire. The attacks came as a complete surprise. The streets were crowded and dozens died in the first few minutes. Later that week, in order to disrupt communications, the bombers and dive-bombers attacked the city’s railway stations and the Vistula bridges – the latter without success. On September 3 alone 1,500 civilians were killed. A girls’ school was hit on the 4th.

Warsaw’s air defence depended mostly on the fighters of the Polish Air Force’s Pursuit Brigade (Brygada Poscigowa) under Colonel Stefan Pawlikowski. It comprised two squadrons and was equipped with 54 fighter aircraft, chiefly the PZL P. 7 and PZL P. 11 types. The city’s anti-aircraft artillery under Colonel Kazimierz Baran had 86 AA guns and various detachments of anti-aircraft machine guns.

Initially the air defence of the capital was fairly successful. During the first six days, the Pursuit Brigade managed to shoot down 43 enemy aircraft, while the anti-aircraft artillery destroyed a similar number. In addition, there were nine unconfirmed victories and 20 damaged aircraft. However, the brigade had itself also lost 38 machines, or approximately 70 per cent of its strength. The city’s air defence began to crumble on September 5 when the military authorities ordered 11 of the AA batteries withdrawn from Warsaw towards Lublin, Brest-Litovsk and Lwow. The following day, September 6, the remnants of the Pursuit Brigade were also transferred from the Warsaw sector to Lublin.

With rumours of the rout of the Polish armies reaching the capital, thousands of inhabitants packed their belongings and fled to the east, only to meet up with other refugees heading westwards. At the same time, masses of people entered the city from the west, fleeing before the German invading forces. Stukas swooped down on the long columns of people, strafing and striking terror at leisure.

On September 4, Polish President Ignacy Moscicki and his government evacuated from Warsaw, transferring their seat to Lublin, 150 kilometres to the south-east. Commander-in-Chief Marshal Smigly-Rydz and the Polish General Staff also left the capital, on the night of September 6/7, moving to Brest-Litovsk, also 150 kilometres to the rear. Their departure led to further panic and chaos in the capital.

At one time, it had been the Government’s intention to declare Warsaw an `open city’, but this idea was now abandoned. The capital would be defended at all cost. On September 3, before he left, Smigly-Rydz ordered the creation of an improvised Warsaw Defence Command (Dowodztwo Obrony Warszawy). General Walerian Czuma, the head of the Border Guard (Straz Graniczna), was appointed its commander and Colonel Tadeusz Tomaszewski its Chief-of-Staff.

Initially the forces under command of General Czuma were very limited. Most of the city authorities had withdrawn together with a large part of the police forces, firefighters and military garrison. Warsaw was left with only four battalions of infantry and one battery of artillery. Also, the spokesman of the Warsaw garrison had issued a communiqué in which he ordered all young men to leave the city. To co-ordinate civilian efforts and counter the panic that threatened to engulf the capital, Czuma appointed the President (Lord Mayor) of Warsaw, Stefan Starzynski, as the Civilian Commissar of the capital. Starzynski immediately started to organise the Civil Guard to replace the evacuated police forces and the fire-fighters. He also ordered all members of the city’s administration to return to their posts. In his daily radio broadcasts he asked all civilians to construct barricades and anti-tank barriers at the city outskirts.

Defensive field fortifications were constructed mostly to the west of the city limits. Streets were blocked with barricades and overturned tram cars. Cellars of houses were turned into pillboxes. Gradually, the forces of General Czuma were reinforced with volunteers, as well as rearguard troops and various army units, primarily from the Lodz and Prusy Armies, retreating before the onslaught of German armoured units. One was a stray battalion of the 41st Infantry Regiment `Suwalski’ from the destroyed 29th Division. On September 7, the 40th Infantry Regiment `Children of Lwow’, part of the 5th Division and commanded by LieutenantColonel Jozef Kalandyk, was transiting through Warsaw towards previously assigned positions with the Pomorze Army. The unit was stopped and joined the defence of the capital.

By the 8th General Czuma had gathered some 17 infantry battalions under his command, supported by 64 pieces of artillery and 33 tanks. The latter – 27 light tanks of the Vickers E, 7-TP and R-35 types and six TK-3 and TKS tankettes – were formed into the 1st and 2nd Light Tank Companies.

The last Polish formation defending before Warsaw was the 13th Infantry Division, positioned near Koluszki in central Poland. After bitter fighting with Hoepner’s XVI. Armeekorps on September 6-7, its lines were broken by the 4. Panzer-Division, which captured the town of Tomaszow Mazowiecki, located 115 kilometres southwest of Warsaw, During the night (September 7/8), most of the soldiers of the 13th Division panicked and deserted, enabling the 4. Panzer-Division to carry on to Rawa Mozawiecka, another 35 kilometres closer to the Polish capital.


On the morning of September 8, the 4. Panzer-Division – now well ahead of the rest of the 10. Armee – made a lightning dash towards Warsaw, 80 kilometres away. Moving out at first light from Rawa Mozawiecka, with Panzer-Regiment 35 in the lead, it brushed aside pockets of enemy resistance and reached Radziejowice, 35 kilometres on. With Polish soldiers surrendering by the thousands, the panzers rushed forward another 35 kilometres to Wolica, an outer suburb south-west of Warsaw, hoping to secure crossings over the Utrata river at Raszyn. Attacking at 1.15 p. m., the panzers destroyed two Polish light tanks and pushed back the Polish infantry but they could not prevent the Poles from blowing up two bridges right in front of them. Undaunted, the light panzers forded the brook, while attached engineers from Pionier-Bataillon 79, protected by infantry from SchützenRegiment 12, quickly repaired the crossings. Soon the lead troops were approaching Okecie, the airfield right on the south-western edge of the metropolitan area. Panzer-Regiment 35 had reached the city limits of Warsaw.

Back at the divisional command post at Nadarzyn, ten kilometres to the rear, Generalleutnant Georg-Hans Reinhardt was just receiving a visit from his army and corps commanders, Generals Reichenau and Hoepner. Having heard rumours that the Poles had declared their capital an open city, the three generals did not expect serious resistance and together they worked out exact plans for the seizure of the city. The division was to advance in two columns, with Panzer-Regiment 35 and Schützen-Regiment 12 on the right and Panzer-Regiment 36 and Infanterie-Regiment 33 on the left. However, the latter three units were still moving up and it would take some time for them to reach the start line.

Up front, the commander of Panzer-Regiment 35, Oberst Heinrich Eberbach, thought he could take the city on the run. Conferring with Hoepner and Reinhardt, he recommended that the surprise of the enemy be exploited and that he be allowed to continue the advance without waiting for the rest of the division. Permission was granted. A Storch light aircraft hurriedly flew in a few street maps of Warsaw and a plan of attack was made. Entering from the south-west, the regiment’s II. Abteilung was to advance across Pilsudski Square and then cross the Vistula to the east bank; the I. Abteilung was to remain in the centre of the city. Aerial support for the attack was quickly arranged through Kesselring’s Luftflotte 1 (nominally in support of Heeresgruppe Nord) which sent in 35 Henschel HS 123 biplane divebombers from II./Lehrgeschwader 2.

At 5 p. m. Eberbach’s regiment began the assault, advancing towards the borough of Ochota. A few rounds were fired. Just beyond the Rakowiec settlement the houses momentarily stopped, an open area partly filled with suburban vegetable gardens stretching out before the tankers’ eyes. The tanks moved across a road bridge, the actual outskirts of the city being 400 metres beyond. As they entered the built-up area, the road ahead was blocked by a barricade of overturned streetcars and furniture trucks. Suddenly, a rain of fire fell on the force. From four-storied apartment buildings, ventilation openings in the rooftops, windows and basement openings, Polish soldiers of the 40th `Children of Lwow’ and 41st `Suwalski’ Regiments opened up on the tanks with everything they had. One of the few PzKpfw IV (the whole regiment had just eight of these in its 4. and 8. Kompanie) received a direct hit. It was recovered under fire but the attack was stalling.

By now the sun was setting. Realising that Warsaw was not an open city and that the Poles were strongly defending it, Eberbach called off the attack and withdrew his tanks behind the bridge. For now, all by itself and well ahead of the rest of the division, the regiment needed to secure itself on all sides.

At 7.15 p. m. that evening – a point in time when the panzers were still battling in Ochota – German radio already broadcast the OKW communiqué bringing the headline news that German troops had penetrated into Warsaw.

During the night, the remaining elements of the division caught up with Panzer-Regiment 35: the tanks of Panzer-Regiment 36, the infantry of Schützen-Regiment 12 and Infanterie-Regiment 33 and the divisional artillery. Thinking he was now strong enough to take the city, Generalleutnant Reinhardt ordered the attack to be repeated the following morning with all available forces. PanzerRegiment 35, supported by Schützen-Regiment 12, was to repeat its attack along the main road into Ochota. Panzer-Regiment 36, supported by Infanterie-Regiment 33 and two engineer companies, was to launch an attack from positions further to the north, along the main road leading into the borough of Wola.

At 7 a. m. on September 9, following a tenminute preparatory artillery barrage on the city’s edge, the 4. Panzer-Division again moved into the assault. Dive-bombing support was once more provided by Luftflotte 1, which had dispatched the HS 123s from II./LG2 and 140 Stukas from StG77 and III./StG51.

Leading the attack into Ochota, the I. Abteilung of Panzer-Regiment 35 (Hauptmann Meinrad von Lauchert), with infantry mounted on the tanks, once again rolled across the bridge, followed by more infantry and attached engineers. The first road barricade was eliminated. Despite strong Polish resistance a second bridge was taken and the tanks reached the streets of Warsaw. Once in the built-up area, the German infantry had to take each house and clear it. The Poles resisted fiercely with burst of machine-gun fire, hand-grenades dropped from above and tossed from cellar openings, even with blocks of stones dropped from the roofs. Anti-tank mines buried in the road verges and adjoining fields disabled several panzers. The fiercest fighting in Ochota was at the barricade erected near the junction of Grojecka and Siewierska Streets and defended by the 4th Company of the 40th Regiment.

The panzers attempted to continue by themselves. The lead tank, commanded by Leutnant Georg Claass of the 1. Kompanie, was hit by a well-camouflaged anti-tank gun. The first round failed to knock it out but the second set the vehicle on fire. Claass and his radio operator managed to bail out but both later succumbed to their wounds. The same Polish gun immobilised the vehicle of the regimental adjutant, Oberleutnant Heinz-Günther Guderian (the son of the panzer general). Dismounting and escaping through a courtyard gate, Guderian came across the tank of Leutnant Diergardt and a platoon of infantry. Taking both under his command he continued the attack.

Advancing through courtyards and gardens, Leutnant Wilhelm Esser and two platoons of tanks from the 2. Kompanie were able to advance as far as the railway line, where Polish defences knocked out his radio. Oberfeldwebel Ziegler in his PzKpfw III assumed command of the remaining vehicles and managed to advance as far as the main railway station. All by himself in the middle of the capital, he eventually had to pull back. Leutnant Gerhard Lange worked his way forward to an enemy artillery position and opened fire on the guns with everything he had. The Poles attacked by throwing shaped charges against his tracks, which tore off one of the roadwheels and blocked his turret, and he too had to pull back.

Throughout the battle the Stukas of StG77 and III./StG51 gave support by attacking the Polish main artillery positions which were located in Praga, on the far side of the city and east of the Vistula. In addition to divebombing the gun sites, they swooped down on the city’s main avenues and on the railways in an attempt to obstruct Polish troop movements.

Around 9 a. m. Oberst Eberbach committed the II. Abteilung (Major Wilhelm Hochbaum), which had been held in reserve and was supported by another battalion of Schützen-Regiment 12, to the area one kilometre north of the main road, where the Polish defences appeared less well organised. This force initially made good progress, overrunning Fort Szczesliwice, one of the old fortifications surrounding the capital. However, as they reached the park beyond, the mounted riflemen received rifle and machine-gun fire from the high-rises on the left. Just as they deployed to engage it, Polish artillery fell among them and a few vehicles caught fire. Meanwhile, Polish anti-tank guns stopped the advance of the tanks. Oberleutnant Heinz Morgenroth, the commander of the 8. Kompanie, was fatally wounded. Of the two panzer platoons that advanced into the park, only three tanks came back.

The story was much the same with PanzerRegiment 36, attacking north of the railway line and into Wola. Here too, well-placed Polish 75mm anti-tank guns firing at pointblank range, and the barricades erected on main streets, managed to repel the German assault. The civilian population took an active part in the fighting and the Germans were halted with severe losses.

On several occasions the Poles made up for their lack of armament by ingenuity. Colonel Zdzislaw Pacak-Kuzmirski, commander of the 8th Company of the 40th Regiment, found 100 barrels of turpentine in the Dobrolin Factory and ordered his men to position these in front of the barricade at the intersection of Wolska, Elekcyjna and Redutowa Streets. When the German armour approached, the liquid was ignited and several tanks were destroyed without a single shot being fired.

The TP-7 tanks of the Warsaw Defence Command were actively engaged in the battles. Those of the 1st Light Tank Company joined in the heavy fights around Okecie airport, but they were no match for the German panzers and suffered considerable losses. Those of the 2nd Company took part in the successful defence of Wola.

At 10 a. m., after three hours of fruitless attack, Generalleutnant Reinhardt saw that the fighting could not be prolonged if his division was to remain as an operational unit and ordered his men to retreat to their initial line of departure. Casualties in tanks and infantry had been very heavy. Of the 220 tanks that had taken part in the assault, some 80 had been lost. Panzer-Regiment 35 alone, which had started the assault with 120 tanks, had only 57 left operational, including a single Panzer IV. Even the command tank of Generalleutnant Max von Hartlieb-Walsporn, commander of the 5. Panzer-Brigade

(which controlled the two panzer regiments), was immobilised by anti-tank fire as it made its way back. When the XVI. Armeekorps sent an order to renew the attack immediately, Reinhardt drove back to the corps command post and convinced Hoepner that this was absolutely impossible. All that could be done for now was to lay siege to the capital from the west.

During the night, a large number of the disabled panzers, including some that had run over mines, were recovered by their crews, in some cases from out of the Polish lines. Additional reinforcements arrived in the form of Infanterie-Regiment Leibstandarte-SS `Adolf Hitler’ (mot.), the Führer’s bodyguard unit turned into a motorised infantry unit and commanded by SS-Obergruppenführer Sepp Dietrich.