Siege of Yorktown

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Yorktown redoubt

Me at one of the redoubts in Yorktown

While in Virginia, I visited Yorktown and the site of its very famous siege, the one that ended the American Revolutionary War.

 

After mixed fortunes in the Southern colonies, the British decided to protect Yorktown and face the Continental Army. Lord Charles Cornwallis was the commander of about 7,500 experienced British soldiers, while American General George Washington led an army of over 18,000 Frenchmen and Continentals. On September 29, 1781, the siege began, and Cornwallis pulled back his troops from the outer defenses of Yorktown. Cornwallis was expecting British reinforcements from the sea, but the British were held back by the French fleet aiding the Americans. The Continentals built a trench and assaulted redoubts 9 and 10, along with their French allies (A redoubt is basically a ditch with a wall in front of it, built from the dirt from the ditch. They were helpful outposts used for increased protection). Interestingly, future Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, was the commander of the assault on redoubt 10. Through heavy fighting, both redoubts fell, and the British feared a general attack. Though it did not come, Cornwallis agreed to surrender.

The treaty of surrender was signed on October 19, 1781. The British were not given the traditional honors of war due to having deprived the Americans the same honor after the siege of Charleston. The Siege of Yorktown was destined to be the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War, and a peace treaty two years later would confirm American Independence. An upstart British colony had taken on the world’s largest and most feared empire, and had won.

Jamestown

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Woodson Rifle

Me and my brother admiring the Woodson Rifle at the Virginia Museum of History in Richmond

Two weeks ago, my family and I visited Virginia on our way to see the nation’s capital, Washington D.C. Our first historical visit was to the original Jamestown Settlement.

 

Jamestown, Virginia was first settled in May of 1607 by English colonists looking for treasure, comparable to Spain’s motivation to colonize the New World. Spain had successfully extracted tons of gold from the New World, and had fleets of treasure ships full of the valuable metal. The English settlers had failed to produce a permanent colony in Roanoke, all of the colonists there having mysteriously disappeared. Jamestown was chosen because there were no Native American tribes nearby, though at first the location seemed very bad. The majority of the colonists died in the next few years, though fortunes changed under the effective leadership of  John Smith, who had ironically been charged with mutiny and locked in the hold of his own ship throughout the voyage to America.

A prominent member of the Jamestown crew was my ancestor John Rolfe, who is most famous for his successful tobacco harvesting and his marriage to Pocahontas, the Native American daughter of Chief Powhatan. In 1619, the House of Burgesses was formed, although relations with the Native-Americans deteriorated under Chief Opchanacanough, Powhatan’s brother. In 1622 the Native Americans massacred over 300 colonists in a raid, and the colonists fought back under John Woodson (another ancestor of mine). In 1644, chief Opchanacanough came back in full force and killed Woodson. One of Woodson’s friends, Robert Ligon held off a Native-American attack on the Woodson home with the family’s rifle. The Woodson family rifle is currently on display at the Virginia Museum of History, which I visited. Opchanacanough was killed in 1646, and the Powhatan Confederacy declined while Jamestown grew.

In 1699, Virginia’s capital became Williamsburg, which replaced Jamestown. Although the original settlers of Jamestown (the first permanent colony in America) did not find any gold, they began something amazing, colonizing what would become the Eastern half of the United States of America. Jamestown will not be forgotten: it was a time when surviving wasn’t a game.

Bonnie and Clyde

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Me and my brother next to the original car that Bonnie and Clyde were killed in

One of the most infamous gangs in U.S. History, led by Bonnie and Clyde, oversaw at least twelve bank robberies and more murders.

Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were two romantically involved cold-blooded killers. The truth is that, although always pictured together and given equal fame, it was Clyde who was the one killing officers and civilians and robbing banks and smaller stores, with Bonnie as his accomplice. Clyde was initially in prison in the 1920’s for more minor causes such as a rental car he failed to return on time. However, it was noticed that Clyde truly became a criminal while in prison, even having a fellow inmate cut off some of his toes with an axe simply because he detested labor.

Immediately after Clyde was released from prison, he formed a gang that included Bonnie, and began a killing spree in 1932. The duo were made infamous over the next few years for the murders and robberies associated with them. Clyde saw his actions as retaliation for how the Texas prison system had treated him during his time in jail. Texas officer Frank Hamer began tracking Bonnie and Clyde, and on May 23, 1934 Bonnie and Clyde were finally lured into a trap while driving In their automobile. The officers on scene shot over 130 rounds at the vehicle, emptying their automatic rifles, shotguns, and pistols. Bonnie and Clyde were killed instantly, having suffered over twenty distinct bullet wounds each.

Bonnie and Clyde may have met their ends in 1934 on that road, but their fame outlived them, and they are now symbols of infamy in the United States.

Strange Wars, Vol. 2

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If you were waiting for more strange and unnecessary wars, here they come!

War of Jenkins’s Ear, 1739-1748:

The War of Jenkins’s Ear was started over just that. In 1731, the Spanish boarded an English merchant ship, and Robert Jenkins, the Captain, had his left ear cut off by the Spanish for being accused of smuggling. The story goes that Jenkins presented his ear to the British parliament, preserved in a jar. In 1739, the British finally declared war due to public outrage against Spain. Over the course of the nine-year war, neither side gained an advantage, and peace was declared in 1748.

The Three Hundred and Thirty Five Years War, 1651-1986:

The longest official war in modern history, this war has a disputed history of its own. In 1651, The Netherlands was allied to Great Britain’s parliamentary government, and therefore was against the Royalist armies led by Charles II. The Royalist navy used Sicily as a base, and had inflicted heavy losses upon the Dutch. That same year, a Dutch admiral visited Sicily demanding reparation from the Royalist fleet for the goods taken from them. As Sicily was not a part of this ongoing feud, they declined to grant the Netherland’s request. As a result, the Netherlands were said to be in a state of war with Sicily. Not a shot was fired, though the Royalist fleet left Sicily shortly afterwards. Like many wars of its era, this war was soon forgotten by both nations. In 1985, a Sicilian historian wrote to the Dutch Embassy to dispose of the myth that the two countries were still at war. The Dutch Embassy instead found that the myth was accurate and still ongoing, and a peace treaty was signed the following year.

Paraguayan War, 1864-1870:

The Paraguayan War (or the War of the Triple Alliance), no doubt the most famous of all the unusual wars, proves that you really don’t need an excuse to declare a war. One can only guess what President Solano Lopez was thinking when he declared war on the Empire of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. It may have been brought on by the Uruguayan War beforehand. In any case, Lopez declared war on the most powerful countries in South America simultaneously, and Paraguay would pay the price. The war was a disaster: Paraguay was devastated, disputed territory given to the Triple Alliance, and about 70% of the male population of Paraguay was killed. After the loss of conventional warfare, Lopez resorted to guerrilla warfare, with even more devastating results. Lopez himself was killed in battle in 1870, thereby ending the bloody war.

These three wars were very Strange indeed. This just goes to show that many nations have used anything (or nothing at all) as an excuse to declare war upon each other.

 

 

Strange Wars

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There are many strange and ridiculous wars that have occurred throughout history. All of these wars were caused by a singular and very minor dispute.

The Aroostook War, 1838-1839:

The first of these strange and ridiculous wars is one the United States itself was involved in. In the early 1800’s, Canada (then under the governance of the United Kingdom) and the United States had not agreed on a border between the two countries. This resulted in much controversy, as the people living in the land claimed by both nations had no clue as to which country’s laws applied to their own land, and numerous arrests were made against “trespassers”. It was only a matter of time before the dispute boiled to a head. In 1838, a farmer from the United States lost a pig that he owned, and began searching for it. While doing so, he crossed into the modern-day Canadian province of New Brunswick (a disputed territory at the time), and killed a few pigs owned by a British farmer there. The British were angered by this “act of war,” and thus New Brunswick was authorized to raise an army of volunteers to defend British territory. In response, the United States state of Maine was given $10,000,000, and militias were raised. The “war,” though undeclared, would last about a year (1838-1839). In 1839, peace was achieved, and in 1842, a treaty was signed, finally settling the dispute and fixing the border.

The Soccer War, 1969:

Also known as the Football War, the Soccer War occurred in Central America, and was the result of a conflict between El Salvador and Honduras over which country had won  a soccer match. This soccer match was important because the winner would qualify for the 1970 FIFA World Cup, and the match was won by El Salvador 3-2. However, El Salvador accused Honduras of cheating, and took the next logical step: it invaded Honduras with full military force on three fronts. In a war that lasted four days, over 300,000 civilians were displaced and around 3,000 more were killed. El Salvador qualified for the World Cup, although its temper tantrum did not help it win the World Cup.

The War of the Bucket, 1325:

This is possibly the most ridiculous war ever recorded, and my personal favorite to share. The war was between the city-states of Bologna and Modena in Italy. Disputes between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire were tearing the Italian cities apart. Modena was on the side of the Emperor, while Bologna supported the Pope in the dispute over who controlled Italy. In 1325, some Modenese soldiers stole a bucket from the main city well in Bologna, and Bologna, humiliated, declared war on Modena. However, the army from Bologna that invaded Modena was routed, with 4,000 men being killed during the course of the battle. The Modenese army then marched to the Bolognese capital and stole another bucket from the gatehouse before leaving. Both buckets reside in Modena to this very day.

You might have noticed a recurring theme here: all of these wars were caused by a minor dispute that turned into a full-on confrontation. The reasons for that were pride and greed. These countries were only looking for an excuse to declare war, and how the disputes occurred just shows how desperate they were for it. These wars are very strange to consider, but aren’t all wars ridiculous?

 

Cinco de Mayo

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Cinco de Mayo is an annual holiday in the United States that occurs on May 5, with the focus being the celebration of Mexican Culture.

Originally, Cinco de Mayo was celebrated due to the Mexican victory in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. After a civil war in which Mexico suspended debt payments to European countries, Mexico was invaded by the French under Emperor Napoleon III, who used the debt payments as an excuse to conquer Mexico. A very small Mexican army was attacked by a better-equipped and more numerous French invasion army, yet delivered a decisive victory. Though France would go on to occupy Mexico until driven out in 1867 by the Mexicans with U.S. support, the battle featured a significant boost in morale that was needed to further resist the French, who had seldom been defeated since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Ironically, Cinco de Mayo is not observed as a national holiday in Mexico, though Puebla and Veracruz call it such. In the United States, California originally celebrated Cinco de Mayo as a state holiday, and it is now a national celebration of the Mexican culture, and celebrated as such. Though I do not get school off today, Cinco de Mayo is still an important day on any calendar.

Manzanar

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Manzanar is best known for being one of ten concentration camps where over 100,000 Japanese-Americans were forcibly relocated during World War II in the United States. I visited the Manzanar War Relocation Center on my vacation.

Manzanar

Me and my brother at the Manzanar War Relocation Center

After the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, giving power to the Secretary of War to relocate Japanese-Americans to “relocation camps.” The conditions at Manzanar, were harsh. The climate caused much suffering to those who were not accustomed to the extremely cold winters and the unbearable summers, and the camp was only partially built at the time. The Japanese-Americans were behind barbed wire and under guard by the United States Army, supposedly there to “protect” them. Roosevelt had condemned over 100,000 human beings to these camps. They were forced out of their homes on the basis of fear alone, and by the same man who had once ironically said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Most accepted their fate at Manzanar, though one protest in camp caused two deaths in 1942. Those forced to live in Manzanar found things to do, like building elegant gardens, and playing baseball and football. However, on November 21, 1945, Camp Manzanar was closed. All incarcerates were given $25 in compensation and sent away, though many no longer had anywhere to go, having lost everything (including their homes) when they were incarcerated. For more information regarding Manzanar, click here.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan issued a formal apology to those who were incarcerated and driven from their homes and their lives, but this does not make up for the wrongs that were forced upon Japanese-Americans, American Citizens whose Constitutional Rights had been violated. We can and will honor their memory, and hope to learn from the mistakes made long ago.

Winchester Mystery House

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Winchester Mystery House

Me and my Family at the Winchester Mystery House (my Mom is taking the photo)

I visited many places on my vacation, one of which was the Winchester Mystery House, a creepy and supposedly haunted Victorian Mansion in San Jose, California.

 

Sarah Winchester was the wife of William Wirt Winchester, the Treasurer of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company until his death from tuberculosis in 1881. Sarah and William had one child, Annie, who died shortly after birth in 1866. After William’s death, Sarah Winchester inherited a fortune worth over $20 million, with a guarantee of $1,000 every year (adjusted for inflation, worth $23,000) today. Believing that she was being haunted by the ghosts of the victims of the Winchester Repeating Rifle, Sarah Winchester moved from Connecticut to California, and bought an unfinished house in San Jose in 1884.

Workers and carpenters finished building “The House That Fear Built”, but Sarah was afraid that she would be killed by the evil spirits if she stopped building the house. Therefore, she continued the construction of the Winchester House from 1884 until her death in 1922, with her workers working day and night on the mansion that would eventually become 7 stories high. During the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, Sarah was trapped inside her own house due to rubble blocking the doorway to her upper bedroom, a scenario that made her even more paranoid, with her taking it as a sign of the spirits being displeased with the pace of her work. She therefore stopped building up and started building outward, and would rarely ever visit the upper rooms again. Sarah Winchester died in 1922 of heart failure, despite having worked continuously on the house since 1884.

When I visited the Winchester Mystery House, I found it to be a very odd house, an assumption many have made. It has doors leading to nowhere, rooms with no apparent purpose, and even a staircase that leads nowhere. These seemingly useless rooms and doors were made to confuse the spirits in her house. Sarah Winchester also had many easy riser stairs made, as she was a small woman in height and also had arthritis. She bought many expensive things, such as windows now displayed in the “$25,000 Room,” obviously worth much more than that now. She even bought a window made by the famed Louis Comfort Tiffany of Tiffany Glass, a window designed to cast rainbows around the room it was installed in, but Sarah put it in a room without direct light exposure. She was very superstitious, and the number 13 was prominent in her design of the house. She even made a set of doors to the house that only she and the workers who installed it ever walked through. One legend tells that around 1903, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Winchester House, but upon knocking on that door, he was told by a worker to “go around back like everyone else.”

During my visit to Winchester House, I learned much about a woman who sadly did not realize the fantasy that surrounded her. Only her belief that evil spirits were hunting for her allowed her to be consumed by fear. Sarah Winchester feared what would happen to her on Earth and built herself an expensive mansion rather than focusing on what is most important: serving God and earning permanent riches in Heaven.

Alcatraz

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One of the most famous landmarks in North America is Alcatraz Island, over a mile offshore from San Francisco, California, which I visited last week during Spring Vacation.

Alcatraz is well-known for being a prison, but the first use of the island was for a lighthouse. Alcatraz originally belonged to Mexico, but was bought by John C. Fremont to become part of California. It was then converted into a military fortress, and was later used to hold Confederate sympathizers during the American Civil War.

In 1934, Alcatraz was made a federal prison, designed to hold prisoners that caused trouble in other prisons. Alcatraz at one point even held Al Capone and Whitey Bulger! Alcatraz was the prison for inmates who caused trouble in other prisons, and was designed to hold the most dangerous criminals. Alcatraz is also widely known for the escape attempts that occurred during its history. For instance, on May 2, 1946, six inmates tried to escape and caused the Battle of Alcatraz, which resulted in five deaths and defeat for the inmates. In June of 1962, four inmates successfully escaped from Alcatraz in an improvised inflatable raft. The fate of those inmates remains unknown. In 1969, after Alcatraz ceased to be a prison, a group of Native Americans occupied the Island to protest federal activities related to American Indians, and would remain until 1971. Alcatraz is an amazing journey of learning, and I learned much about “the Rock” during my visit.

Alcatraz closed as a prison in 1963, but it still grasps a legacy like few other prisons in America and was made a National Historic Landmark in 1986.

 

April 14th

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Today is April 14th, a generally unlucky day as far as history sees it, though not all bad.

On April 14th of 70 A.D. Roman Emperor Titus surrounded Jerusalem and sieged it, the beginning of the end of a Jewish revolt against their Roman rulers. Timur was elected the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire in 1294 on this day, and in 1471, the Yorkist Edward IV of England defeated Henry VI’s Lancastrian army under the command of the Earl of Warwick, thereby regaining the throne. In 1865, US President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, dramatically changing American history. In 1912, the famed Titanic hit an iceberg, the beginning of an infamous disaster that resulted in the deaths of many on board the ship.

However, not everything that happened on April 14th was a disaster! For instance, Noah Webster copyrighted the first edition of his famous dictionary, and the first Abolitionist Society was formed in 1775 by Benjamin Franklin. Also, April 14th is my Dad’s birthday, and is a day that Easter occasionally arrives on.