Go Ahead, Make My Day

We love forts, especially the huge brick ones built before the Civil War. They are three dimensional history books, great for touring, exploring and crawling around. It’s like going back in time. Referred to as Second and Third System forts, they were the space shuttle programs of their day.

Cannon muzzle

Out of the interior darkness, a 32 pounder cannon is positioned at its firing port at Fort Pickens, FL. Second and Third System brick forts were engineering marvels and several features can be seen here. The arch over the gun strengthens the walls around it and makes it less likely to collapse. Different brick patterns were used to strengthen specific areas depending on the forces they would be subjected to. The inward angle of the firing port gives the defenders good fields of observation and fields of fire, while limiting that of the attackers. Inside, the cannon was mounted on a semi-circular rail, so that it could be traversed right to left as needed. The rail allowed the gun to be moved smoothly by just a few men even though it weighed several tons.

This cannon would have been used to defend the fort against a land attack. The anti-ship batteries mounted on the seaward walls were huge. They could fire shells up to 15″ in diameter up to three miles away. Some of these forts fought furious battles, including the aforementioned Fort Pickens. Many others saw no action at all. Some became famous for other reasons – such as Alcatraz.

Many of these forts are now part of the National Park Service. Still others are maintained by the states. In addition to the history and learning opportunities, forts are a steady source of NPS Passport Stamps, benchmarks, geocaches, letterboxes and munzees for us.

If you’re interested, here’s a link to a page on Fortress Engineering. Here’s an additional link on Attacking and Defending Forts

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Random Shots – Cruising Into Kauai

Entrance to port in Kauai.

This is the entrance to Nawilliwilli Bay in Kauai, Hawaii at sunup in early March. It was taken from the balcony of our starboard side aft Deck B stateroom on the Sapphire Princess with the trusty Nikon D3100. The wind, the waves and the sunlight all coming in from the east combined to create a colorful photo that almost seems alive. The lighthouse-looking structure is actually a navigational aid located at the very southern end of the main runway of Lihue Airport. Kauai is great for exploring on your own. It’s small and uncrowded and you can see a lot in one day. We rented a Jeep and took off for the day. (If you go that route, make sure you have a reservation.) One of the hidden gems we found was a state park dedicated to a Russian fort – Fort Elisabeth. Turns out the Russkies had eyes for Hawaii before America did. Aloha tovarich.

dasvidaniya … Boris and Natasha

The Alamo

Today is the 177th anniversary of the fall of the Alamo – a battle which epitomizes much that is good about America. In honor of that, here are some little known facts about the battle along with a few pictures from our visits there.

Sunday, March 6, 1836. 5:00 AM. The storming of the Alamo by the 5,000 man army of Santa Anna begins. After waiting since February 23 for reinforcements that never arrived, the 185 defenders have to fight alone. They have less than 90 minutes to live.  Many Mexican soldiers have less than that. The Texans exact a fearsome toll on their attackers – estimates range from a few hundred to over a thousand. We’ll never know.

Painting of the Alamo

“For God and Texas” by Richard Luce

Davy Crockett and his Tennesseans at the Alamo. The artist has captured an accurate snapshot of the early part of the battle. It’s still dark. Unlike the movies, the chapel is in the correct place. Crockett’s men are shown behind a low, makeshift palisade which was the weakest part of perimeter. Smoke fills the air. Men are frantically loading weapons. You can almost feel the chaos and intensity.

● The structure dates back to 1724 when it was called Misión San Antonio de Valero. It housed Christian missionaries and their converts. The source of the name Alamo has two theories. Some say it comes from the Spanish word for cottonwood tree – El Alamo. Others say it was named by Spanish troops who garrisoned the post in earlier days. They were from a town called Alamo.

● The crown that figures prominently across the front of the chapel wasn’t there during the battle. It was constructed in 1847.

● It was bitter cold that morning and much of the fighting was in darkness. It was all over by 6:30 AM.

● The defenders were taken by surprise. Santa Anna had shelled the Alamo non-stop for days. It stopped at 10:00 PM the night before and the defenders collapsed into an exhausted sleep. They had little if any time to ready for the actual assault. They rushed to their positions in the dark and the fight was on.

Alamo View

The front of the chapel from across the plaza where the perimeter would have been. This peaceful scene was the middle of the battle area. Fighting swirled in every direction from here. The chapel was in the defenders’ left rear. Davy Crockett and his men would have been on the right side of the photo where the trees now stand.

● Contrary to most movie and artist accounts, the chapel wasn’t at the front of the action. It was actually in the defenders’ left rear of the post, making up the southeast corner of the perimeter. Troops and cannon fought from the roof. A large perimeter, some of it makeshift, was manned by the defenders. This perimeter extended across present day Alamo Plaza and the stores beyond. Since there weren’t enough defenders to man the whole perimeter, they fought from strongpoints along the wall.

● The attack came from every direction, although the main effort was directed at the north wall. Defenders fought back two assault waves but were overwhelmed by the third. Once the perimeter was breached, the courtyard became a caldron. They did a fighting retreat across the courtyard into the chapel and barracks for their last stand.

● The defenders used artillery with deadly effectiveness. They loaded their cannons with nails, door hinges, horse shoes and anything else they could find, turning the cannon into giant shotguns that ripped huge gaps in the attacking ranks. However, they got pushed off their guns so fast, they didn’t spike them. The attackers turned the guns around and used them to blast away inside the compound.

Alamo Courtyard

The courtyard as it looks today. The chapel is behind you. By 6:00 AM, there was ferocious fighting here, much of it hand-to-hand with swords, bayonets, tomahawks and knives. The defenders fortified and barricaded every room inside the compound and exacted a fearsome price from the attackers, who had to fight for every square inch. Notice the office building in the top right of the picture.

● The defenders fortified and barricaded almost every square inch of the buildings with the exception of the chapel. Fighting positions were dug in the floors of the rooms. Obstacles were placed in doorways and windows. Holes were chopped between rooms to allow movement inside. With the walls breached, room to room fighting commenced. At first, the attackers paid dearly in the dark, close quarters fighting. It didn’t take long for the captured cannons to be brought to bear. Santa Anna’s soldiers wheeled them down to the rooms and blasted away at point blank range before entering and clearing.

● Davy Crockett and his Tennessee volunteers defended the weakest point of the perimeter – a low wooden palisade just in front and to the left of the chapel on the south wall. They felled trees with the branches towards the enemy as an obstacle to the attackers. They were the last ones to be pushed off the perimeter.

● The fate of the Alamo’s most famous defender is a mystery. Some reports have Crockett killed on the north wall, indicating he had moved there to reinforce the crumbling defenses against the main attack. Other reports from Mexican soldiers say he survived and was executed afterwards.

● Colonel Travis died early in the battle. He was shot in the head while leaning over the north wall to fire his shotgun down on the attackers.

● Jim Bowie was bedridden from illness and killed where he lay.

● The women and children hid in the center of the chapel and survived. Santa Anna spared them.

● Other mysteries surround the Alamo. Did any defenders escape or survive? Some say they did. Witnesses after the battle report seeing several defenders being brought before Santa Anna and summarily executed. One of them may have been Davy Crockett.

● The bodies of the defenders were burned in a mass funeral pyre. A year later, ashes from that pyre were gathered and interred at the San Fernando Chapel in San Antonio. These ashes represent the symbolic remains of Crockett, Bowie and Travis. They remain there still.

The Alamo is highlight of a visit to San Antonio. There are both guided and self-guided tours available. The structures you see are the original ones that have survived. Many have not. A modern urban environment surrounds the Alamo and encroaches into the actual battle area. Remember that when you are standing in the plaza in front of the Alamo, you are in the middle of where the fighting took place. This is hallowed ground, much like Gettysburg. If you go, no pictures inside the chapel. It is also customary for men to remove their hats in respect.

Six weeks later and 200 miles east, on April 21, 1836, Santa Anna’s army was decisively defeated at the Battle of San Jacinto, which lasted 18 minutes. Fought in the bayous of what is now the Houston Ship Channel, they were slaughtered by the hundreds. Another 1,000 were captured, including Santa Anna himself. Sam Houston’s force had nine killed.

San_Jacinto_Monument

The monument at the San Jacinto Battlefield near La Porte, TX. At 567 feet, it is the tallest memorial column in the world – 12 feet higher than the Washington Monument.

The price of freedom for Santa Anna was to leave Texas and give up all attempts to put down the rebellion. The delay at the Alamo had cost him dearly and gave Sam Houston the time he needed to get ready. Texas won its independence in no small part to the sacrifice at the Alamo.

Remember the Alamo … Boris and Natasha

1862 Dakota War

The 1862 Dakota War is often called Minnesota’s Other Civil War. Most people have never heard of it and that includes a lot of Minnesotans.  Fought in the same time period as the Civil War battles of Second Manassas and Antietam in that horrific late summer of 1862, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Union and Abraham Lincoln.  They tried to stay out of it but couldn’t.  It was too big and too damaging.

It was the largest Indian war in American history.  The main battleground was the entire Minnesota River Valley in southern and central Minnesota – 20% of the state’s total land area. The uprising spread into the Dakota Territories and sent panic into Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin.

The defenders of New Ulm counterattack.

An artist’s realistic portrayal of the decisive action of the Second Battle of New Ulm. As the Dakota were closing in for the kill, the defenders leaped over their own barricades and counterattacked. After pushing the Indians back, the defenders set fire to 40 buildings to deny their use to the enemy. Those two desperate actions saved the people of New Ulm but destroyed much of the town.

In Minnesota, Indians did mass attacks on a fort and an entire town – both twice.  Contrary to what folklore and Hollywood tell us, this was almost unheard of in any of the Indian campaigns.

When the fighting ended, 500 settlers and 100 soldiers were dead.  Over 200 people were killed the first morning – as many as Custer lost at the Little Bighorn. To this day, that number of civilians killed on American soil as a result of hostile action is exceeded only by the attacks on 9/11.

Disease and battle wounds killed unknown numbers after the battlefields were silent. Refugees numbered in the thousands. The war de-populated and ravaged a large part of the state, which took years to recover.

The number of Indians slain in battle has never been confirmed but we do know that hundreds died in the retribution that followed.  That number includes 38 in the gallows – at the same time. It’s the largest mass execution in U.S. history.  As further retaliation, the Dakota (Sioux) way of life was intentionally destroyed forever.

The fighting was close and ferocious.  In both battles at New Ulm, outnumbered farmers, settlers and shop keepers fought house to house, launched desperate counterattacks and burned down much of their own town to hold off the Dakota braves assaulting them from every direction.

John Erd's dry goods store in New Ulm.

The Frank Erd dry goods store was one of only three brick buildings in the New Ulm defensive perimeter. Many women and children took cover here during the fighting. The women decided that if the town fell, they were not going to be taken and face a hideous death at the hands of the Indians. They had a barrel of gunpowder rolled into their basement shelter. If the Dakota came, the last act of the defenders of New Ulm would be to blow up themselves and as many Indians as possible. Fortunately, it never came to that.

This was one of the few engagements throughout all the Indian Wars of the 19th century where artillery could be brought to bear and used effectively.  It was used extensively against the Dakota and saved the day in several actions.  At Fort Ridgely, the Dakota attackers ran into a storm of fire and lead the likes of which they had never seen.

The war never really ended.  It just moved west and metastasized into a 30 year conflict that included Red Cloud’s War (1866),  the Little Bighorn (1876) and, finally, Wounded Knee (1890).

For over 100 years, the people of Minnesota celebrated the Dakota War as a victory of pure good over pure evil, i.e., the settlers defeating the treacherous blood thirsty savages.  It was called the Sioux Massacre. That view has changed in recent years,  especially with the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the conflict in 2012.  As it turns out, there was enough blame and blood to go around for everyone.

Regardless of what one thinks about the Indians and the whites, there’s no denying that what happened in New Ulm, Minnesota on August 19 – 23, 1862 was extraordinary. Regular people banded together, fortified their town and fought tooth and nail against an implacable enemy – and won despite being outnumbered and outgunned.  I can find no other instance in U.S. history of a similar event.  There are many instances of people hunkering down in forts, but none like this. The Battles of New Ulm stand as singular events in American history.

And before I forget…there’s lots of geocaches in New Ulm and throughout the Minnesota River Valley.  History, geocaches, German food – what more could you want?

Here’s your link to our web site which has a full history of the Dakota War.

That’s all for now … Boris and Natasha