Tag Archives: American history

150 Years Ago Today…

It’s another interesting day in the Sesquicentennial of The American Civil War.

150 years ago today two little known events took place on Civil War battlefields in the Eastern and Western theatres of the conflict. And while few remember this day on the Civil War calendar, it was a pivotal one. On March 14, 1862 the South lost two key places on their map that they’d never regain: on the Atlantic coast of North Carolina — and on the western shore of the Mississippi River.

General Ambrose Burnside

Some have called March 14, 1862 “The Day Ambrose Burnside Drove Old Dixie Down” – and with apologies to Robbie Robertson and The Band – there’s some truth to that, because 150 years ago, General Burnside fought and won The Battle of New Bern (AKA The Battle of New Berne).

Commodore Stephen C. Rowan

Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside’s 12,000 Union troops, many of them battle-tested veterans, were backed by 13 gunboats commanded by Commodore Stephen C. Rowan of the Union Navy. This powerful, combined Union Army-Navy operation confronted a relatively untrained and ill-equipped Confederate force of 4,500 North Carolina soldiers and militia led by Brigadier General Lawrence O’Bryan Branch, a political general who represented North Carolina in the U.S. Congress before the war. (Branch was ultimately killed just six months after New Bern at the Battle of Antietam.)

Naval cannon bombarded the Confederate line in the early hours of March 14th. Outgunned and outmanned, the Confederates fought behind their breastworks for almost 4 hours until the attacking Federal troops penetrated a weak spot in the center of the Rebel line — causing the green, unsteady militiamen to waver and break, leading the whole Confederate force to retreat.

General Branch

General Branch could not stop the rout and New Bern came under Federal control for the duration of the war.

The Union army had gained a strategic toehold on the North Carolina coast. The Confederacy gave up a valuable port and railroad terminal it could not afford to lose.

The highlight of New Berne for the South was the courage and leadership displayed by North Carolina’s future wartime governor, Zebulon Vance of the 26th North Carolina Infantry.

Zebulon Vance

Vance and his handful of defenders held off a vastly superior Union force, preventing damage to New Bern and it’s populace by delaying the Federal onslaught. But New Bern fell, and by December 1862 a Federal army of well over 20,000 troops were stationed in the town once known as “The Athens of the South”.

It’s ironic to note that while Brig. Gen. Branch was getting killed in September 1862 — six months after New Bern – that same month Zebulon Vance won the North Carolina gubernatorial election.

Meanwhile that same day, on the Missouri shore of The Mississippi River, the guns had fallen silent after The Battle of New Madrid.

Before the Battle of New Madrid, that small Missouri town was best known as the epicenter of a series of epic earthquakes that shook the entire Midwest 50 years earlier, between December 16, 1811 and February 7, 1812. The last major temblor in the series was a magnitude 7.7 quake that destroyed New Madrid and changed the course of the Mississippi River.

General U.S. Grant

The unheralded Battle of New Madrid would help to change the course of the war.

In February of 1862, the unknown upstart General U.S. Grant began to break the South’s grip on the Mississippi River by his bold captures of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, forcing the renowned Confederate commander in the west, General Albert Sidney Johnston, to fall back to a new defensive line blocking the Mississippi at New Madrid and Island No. 10. Grant was not the only Union general on the move in the area at the time.

General John Pope

General John Pope had orders to capture New Madrid and Island No. 10. Pope’s army numbered 18,547 “present for duty” when he began his siege of New Madrid on March 3, 1862. Nine days later, Pope reported that he was facing 9,000 Confederate defenders at New Madrid — the same day his siege guns arrived. The next day, on the morning of March 13, Pope opened his gunboat, mortar and cannon bombardment — beginning an artillery exchange that lasted most of the day.

Meanwhile, Pope’s infantrymen made use of their shovels, slowly advancing their trenches ever closer to the Confederate defensive lines. Realizing that defeat was imminent, the Confederates evacuated New Madrid and made their escape to the opposite bank of the Mississippi.

The following morning, on March 14th, Pope’s troops formed ranks, prepared for a final, bloody assault on the enemy line – when Rebel pickets appeared with a flag of truce. General Pope had captured a key Confederate position on the Mississippi River with remarkably few losses. In the Battle of New Madrid, Pope’s army lost just 8 dead, 21 wounded and 3 missing. But while this was the beginning of the end of the Confederate army in the west, much, much more blood would be shed before the South, like the defenders of New Madrid, bowed to the inevitable.

The Battles of New Bern and New Madrid: 150 years ago today in The American Civil War.

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Happy Birthday Bill of Rights!

Today, December 15th 2010 is the 219th birthday of the Bill of Rights.

And while constitutional scholars — from former constitutional law professor President Barack Obama, to Supreme Court Justice Antonin “Original Intent” Scalia, to Christine “Really? Separation of Church and State is in the First Amendment? It says that? Really?” O’Donnell – may differ on their interpretations of the Bill of Rights, there is little debate that the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution (ratified by three-fourths of the states on December 15, 1791) provide Americans with freedoms and protections that have inspired the world and made American citizenship a privilege.

And that previous sentence is just about as long-winded and complex as many of the amendments in the Bill of Rights.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to free assembly, the right to petition the government for redress – and the little clause that stumped the failed Delaware Senate candidate/witch: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

The Second Amendment gives us all the right to keep and bear arms. In other words, we can all have guns, right? Now, what the amendment actually says is, “A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” So I guess we must all be part of a well-regulated militia, right? Is the NRA a well-regulated militia? I know the Aryan Nation is. (So glad those boys have automatic weapons, aren’t you?)

The Third Amendment prohibits the government from quartering troops in your house without your consent. I know we’ve all dealt with this problem at one time or another — usually around the holidays. Your house is already filled with visiting relatives – and a battalion of Marine infantry shows up at your door hoping to squeeze into your guest room for the night. Thanks to the Bill of Rights, you can point them in the direction of the nearest Holiday Inn.

The Fourth Amendment provides protection from unreasonable search and seizure. Unless, of course, you are a poor young non-Caucasian male suspected of having drugs in your home, or you’re on a terrorist watch list, or your electronic mail is swept up in an elaborate intelligence gathering effort, or… (Let’s face it. After the Patriot Act, the ‘ol Fourth Amendment has taken a beating.)

The Fifth Amendment provides due process in legal proceedings and protections against double jeopardy and self-incrimination. This is another amendment that conservatives don’t like. They think it’s too soft on criminal suspects and suspected terrorists. Unless, of course, conservatives are the ones under indictment. (Which happens a lot.) Then due process is a good thing to observe.

The Sixth Amendment provides for trial by jury and enumerates the rights of the accused. But what about victims rights? I can hear Rush Limbaugh now. “Those damn bleeding-heart liberal Framers!”

The Seventh Amendment provides for civil trial by jury. It is the most boring amendment. (In fact, I feel asleep writing that last sentence.)

However, you gotta love that the Seventh Amendment actually says, “In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved…”

Did I mention they ratified this thing in 1791?

The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail and bars cruel and unusual punishment. This is another amendment that’s been taking a beating lately.

Actually, it’s been waterboarded.

The Ninth Amendment is a catchall. It protects rights not specifically enumerated in the Constitution. Like the right to enjoy macaroni and cheese in church without having to share it with a soldier who is reading a naughty magazine. Stuff like that. I think.

The Tenth Amendment is another grab bag. “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Read that ten times fast. C’mon, Justice Scalia. I dare you.

So, happy birthday to our poor, beleaguered, bloodied-but-still-standing Bill of Rights!

Hopefully, it can survive for another 219 years.

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