Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Battle Of Shrewsbury -- July 21st, 1403 - Death Of A Hotspur

By the middle of July 1403, a series of seemingly inevitable events had led two armies to a field near the small and hitherto unheralded village of Shrewsbury in Shropshire, approximately 150 miles northwest of London. The tiny hamlet was important for several reasons. It was the main town on the road that led south to the capital, it was one of the few spots where the Severn River could be forded, and it could be utilized as a supply base for either army. Whoever managed to seize and hold Shrewsbury might very well rule England.

The political turmoil leading up to the battle had commenced during the reign of King Richard II, who had banished his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, from England for a period of six years beginning in 1398. Henry was the son of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, who in turn was the son of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. A stocky man of average height, with a closely trimmed auburn beard, Henry was known around court as something of an intellectual. He openly, if ill-advisedly, claimed that he had more right to the throne than his unpredictable and despotic cousin, Richard. When he was cast out of England for his views, Henry traveled to France, where he was greeted warmly by King Charles VI and other French nobility.

Within a few months, Henry received the devastating news that his father had died. At the same time, he learned that Richard had disowned him and had given all the family’s land and money to other nobles who more strongly supported the throne. The king ordered that Henry’s exile be changed from six years to life. Stunned by Richard’s actions, Henry immediately began plotting his return to England to seize power from his cousin. His spies informed him that the country was seething with discontent. That was not entirely true. Although they loathed the effete and possibly homosexual Richard, many of the English peasants remained loyal to the crown itself, although they feared that the king’s volatile behavior might result in further harm to the stability of their homes and farms.

Boiling with anger over his treatment at the king’s hands, Henry secretly returned to England in the summer of 1399 while Richard was off campaigning in Ireland. Henry quickly aligned himself with Thomas Arundel, who had also incurred Richard’s anger and been removed as Archbishop of Canterbury. Forced into exile, Arundel journeyed to Rome and received an audience with Pope Boniface IX, during which he requested that the pope intercede on his behalf. Boniface sympathized with Arundel’s plight and wrote to Richard—one head of state to another—asking that he reconsider and reinstate Arundel as archbishop. Richard’s rude reply infuriated the pope, and soon Arundel and Henry were scheming together to overthrow the English monarch.

Henry wanted to raise an army and overthrow the king by force. However, the politically attuned Arundel persuaded him that such a strategy would be unwise. If Richard was forced to step down by military means, all property would immediately become Henry’s—the very thing most feared by the commoners. By doing so, Henry’s support among the populace would be greatly diminished.

Upon his return from Ireland, Richard was taken prisoner in Wales and transported to London. Throngs of people lined the roads and tossed garbage at him as he rode by. The unpopular king had to be closely guarded because people demanded that he be put to death. Henry, a wise politician, resisted for a time, fearing that such an execution would prove detrimental to his own fortunes as the next king of England.

Richard was imprisoned in the infamous Tower of London to await his fate. A document detailing his shortcomings as king, undoubtedly authored by Arundel, was presented to Richard by Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, and Ralph Neville, the Earl of Westmoreland, for his signature. Fearing for his life, the king had no choice but to sign the paper. On September 29, 1399, Henry read the treatise aloud before Parliament, outlining his cousin’s gross inadequacies as the country’s ruler. After his abdication, Richard was confined to Pontefract Castle, where he died in February 1400. The official cause of death was listed as starvation; whether it was self-imposed or initiated by Henry remains uncertain. Whatever the case, Bolingbroke was soon crowned King Henry IV. To this day, historians argue the legality of the succession. Legal or not, Henry was now the new monarch of England. His tenure as king, he would soon discover, would not be an easy one.

To show his gratitude to the Percy clan of Northumberland, the newly appointed king showered them with land and honors. He named Henry Percy, known as Harry Hotspur by the Scots because of his speed in battle, warden of the Eastern Marches and justiciar of North Wales. Percy was also designated constable of Berwick, Roxburgh, Bamburgh, Chester, Flint, and Carnarvon. The powerful Percys were the controlling family in northeastern England and were cousins to Henry Bolingbroke.

They had rallied to his aid when Richard confiscated all his property and exiled him to France. But there was an ulterior motive for the Percy family’s assistance to Henry. Hotspur’s father, also named Henry, knew full well that his son had an equal claim to the throne because of his blood line. Despite the tributes bestowed upon them, a serious rift developed between the Percys and the House of Lancaster.

The precarious situation in always troublesome Wales was unraveling quickly. Edmund Mortimer had been captured by the Welsh patriot Owen Glendower at the Battle of Pilleth in 1402. Hotspur was enraged that Henry would not ransom him. Hotspur was related to the Mortimers, another family with ancestral claims to the throne. A romance had developed between Mortimer and Glendower’s daughter, and they eventually married. Meanwhile, Hotspur was married to Mortimer’s sister, Elizabeth. These unions, to be sure, did not escape Henry’s attention. Being an astute politician, he realized from the outset that he needed the cooperation of his influential neighbors to the north.

The king’s reason for not ransoming Mortimer was simple: he believed that it would finance Glendower’s ongoing campaign in Wales. The Welsh rebel was enjoying considerable success by using guerrilla tactics against the English. Hotspur, however, had another theory. He believed the king realized that Mortimer’s nephew, the Earl of March, had more right to the throne than Henry himself. Soon, Hotspur would use the same guerrilla tactics against Henry.

The king had given the Percys large swaths of countryside in Scotland—the only problem was that the land was still controlled by the Scots. Warfare along the Scottish border was savage and bloody. Fearing an invasion of Northumberland by Scottish forces, Hotspur petitioned the king for funds to fortify Carlisle and Berwick Castles. Henry ignored his request. The Scots did manage to capture Conway Castle but, after a month-long siege, Hotspur drove the invaders back from the structure. Once again Hotspur wrote to the king, this time requesting back pay for his army. Frustrated, Hotspur advised Henry, “Remember how I have repeatedly applied for payment of the king’s soldiers who are in such distress as they can no longer endure owing to the lack of money. I therefore implore you to order that they be paid. If better means cannot be found, I shall have you go in person to claim payment, to the neglect of other duties.” As before, Henry ignored the plea.

Disgusted, Hotspur resigned the offices that Henry had granted him and returned home to help his father negotiate a separate peace with the Scots. In June 1402, when such talks failed, the Scots slipped back across the border and began to plunder and rape. To avenge these new outrages, Hotspur’s men ambushed Scottish forces at Nesbitt Moor and won a stunning victory against the marauders. Thirsting for revenge, the Earl of Douglas enlisted 12,000 soldiers and knights and invaded England that August. Driving deep into English territory, they laid waste to the countryside, killing hundreds of English citizens and seizing anything of value. Slowed by his men’s wagonloads of stolen goods, Douglas decided the time was right to make a dash back across the border.

Unfortunately for the Scots, Hotspur, assisted by Lord Dunbar, the Earl of March, who had been banished by Douglas a year earlier, intercepted Douglas’s army at Homildon Hill, six miles north of Wooler, in Northumberland. Again, Hotspur won a decisive victory as English bowmen inflicted hundreds of casualties while Hotspur’s foot soldiers sat out the battle in relative safety. In the end, five earls, including Douglas, were taken prisoner by the Percys.

Elated by the news, the king immediately sent word that none of the prisoners was to be ransomed or traded for other captives held by the Scots. Henry felt that holding onto the Scottish monarchy might bring some stability to the border and encourage a cessation of hostilities between the two countries. Deep down, however, Henry knew full well that this course of action contradicted established custom and would infuriate the aptly named Hotspur once again.

Henry’s edict soon garnered the stormy response he anticipated. Hotspur was incensed. When Henry ordered his prisoners transported to London, Hotspur sent all the earls with the notable exception of Douglas. Now it was Henry’s turn to fume, and he wasted no time in dispatching riders ordering Hotspur to appear before him. When he reached London, Hotspur met immediately with the king. The conversation quickly became heated, with Hotspur demanding that Mortimer be released and the king ordering Douglas to be brought before him. Witnesses to the bitter exchange reported that Henry had called Hotspur a “traitor” and struck him in the face. The enraged nobleman did not strike back, but left the room crying, “Not here, but in the field!” The tension between the two houses had finally reached the breaking point—war was inevitable.

Hotspur returned north and informed his father of what had happened The Percys knew that they had no time to waste; rumor had it that a 100,000-man Scottish force under the leadership of the Duke of Albany was preparing to strike at Cocklaw Castle, which had been under siege by the Percys. Before his departure, Hotspur’s wife, Elizabeth Mortimer, gave birth to a son. The child further cemented the relationship between the Percys and the Mortimers. Even Henry realized that Hotspur’s son “had nearer right to the crown than his own offspring.” Fearing for the safety of his family, Hotspur sent them to a safer dwelling and placed them under heavy guard.

Leaving his father in the north to counter the continuing threat from Scotland, Hotspur, together with the captured earls from the Battle of Homildon Hill and his uncle, Thomas Percy, set out for Cheshire County. The inhabitants of Cheshire, located in northwestern England, were still strong supporters of Richard. It was there, and in communities strung along the border with Wales, that Hotspur hoped to raise an army to defeat Henry. Some of the greatest archers in England resided in Cheshire. The always apprehensive Richard had recruited them to serve as his private bodyguards. Many of the archers, in open defiance of the king, still wore the White Hart, Richard’s personal emblem.

Soon supporters arrived from Shropshire, Flintshire, Herefordshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Hotspur’s own Northumberland to fill the ranks of the rebel force. The size of the army grew to between 5,000 and 7,000 men. At the core of Hotspur’s band of soldiers were the famed Cheshire archers. He hoped and believed that their expertise with the longbow would be the decisive factor in a pitched battle with Henry.

Another ally on whom Hotspur was counting for troops was Owen Glendower, the famed Welsh guerrilla fighter who had repeatedly eluded Henry’s men. It was unlikely that Glendower would want to meet the English army in open warfare. His lightly equipped force specialized in hit-and-run tactics to keep the more heavily armed royal soldiers off balance. Nevertheless, at the beginning of July, Glendower struck the English in southwest Wales to divert attention and allow Hotspur time to gather and maneuver his own men.

It was Hotspur’s aim to link up with Glendower and proceed to the town of Shrewsbury to defeat a small royalist garrison commanded by Henry’s 16-year-old son, also named Henry, the Prince of Wales. After this was accomplished, Hotspur would reorganize and advance in force to crush the king.

Hotspur’s ranks included many noblemen, including Sir John Browne, a veteran of the Spanish and French campaigns who had served with Hotspur in Wales. Sir Richard Vernon and Sir John Massey also joined him, bringing with them other members of the noble families and local villagers. Hotspur received another boost when Thomas Percy, his uncle, the Earl of Worcester, arrived with nearly 1,000 knights and archers. Percy had been one of King Henry’s favorites because of his knowledge of military affairs. He previously had been stationed with Prince Henry at Shrewsbury, and his desertion had greatly depleted the young prince’s force.

To  help rally his troops, Hotspur told the men that Richard was still alive. The outrageous lie had the desired effect—more men rallied to the Percy cause. At the village of Sandiway, however, Hotspur finally informed his men that Richard was dead, the victim of murder. Furthermore, he charged, King Henry had reneged on his promises not to assume the throne. The time had arrived to oust him from power. On July 17, Hotspur and his uncle delivered a formal decree stating that the Earl of March was the lawful heir to the throne of England. They announced that Henry should be ousted and that they should fill the “title of joint protectors of the Commonwealth.” Again they accused Henry of violating his promise not to pursue the title of king and arraigned him for having a hand in the gentle Richard’s suspicious death.

While Hotspur and his cronies were aligning themselves for battle, King Henry was not idle. Receiving reports that Hotspur was raising an army against him, the king decided to move quickly for fear that Hotspur would merge his force with Owen Glendower’s. Postponing a military campaign aimed at the Welsh rebels, Henry sent his 25,000-man army toward Shrewsbury to assist his embattled son. Covering 60 miles in three days, Henry arrived at Shrewsbury on July 20, just before Hotspur reached the field, impeding the rebel advance and thwarting Hotspur’s plan to link up with the Welsh troops.

Hotspur was shocked when he realized that the royal army had reached Shrewsbury first. Henry had done the impossible. Somehow he had conveyed a clumsy, unwieldy, slow-moving army of 25,000 men, with all their baggage, supplies, and camp followers, a quarter of the way across England in less than three days. Now it was not the Prince of Wales and a hapless skeleton force facing the rebels, but the king of England with all his host who waited to confront them at Shrewsbury.

Vastly outnumbered, Hotspur had no choice but to go on the defensive, as he had done successfully at Homildon Hill. Scouting the area, Hotspur selected a 300-foot-high ridge line just south of the hamlet of Berwick, near the Severn River. Known locally as Hateley Field, the ground constituted two marshy ponds and a large field of pea vines in the front of the rebel army’s position, making it extremely difficult for Henry’s men to maneuver. To further obstruct the king’s advance up the ridge to their position, the rebels twisted the pea vines together to make rudimentary earthworks.

On the morning of July 21, Henry’s forces moved toward the rebel army’s position. At a distance of 500 yards, the royalists halted their movement, carefully out of range of the archers. The royal forces were divided into three distinct groups: King Henry, with the savvy George Dunbar, commanded the center. On their right was the Earl of Stafford’s division, and on the left was the smaller garrison at Shrewsbury, led by Henry’s son, the Prince of Wales.

The rebel side was also formed into three units. Hotspur headed the center of the line, while the Earl of Worcester and Sir George Browne were entrusted with the other two wings. The movement by the opposing armies took hours and did not end until early afternoon. Although both sides seemed girded to fight, nothing happened. The combat would pit brother against brother and friend against friend, and no one seemed particularly anxious to trigger hostilities. Realizing this, several monks from Shrewsbury and Haughmond rode out on their donkeys in an attempt to negotiate a last-minute peace settlement.

Not trusting Henry, Hotspur instructed the Earl of Worcester to go on his behalf and meet with the king. Riding into the royalist lines, Worcester explained to Henry the rebels’ demands, which at any rate had been put forth a few days before in their haughty proclamation. Of course, the king had no intention of submitting to such unreasonable terms. He countered with his own proposals, stating that if they laid down their arms he would be lenient with the rebels. The bickering continued for some time until both men knew that it was fruitless to continue. Some of the rebels, however, thought that the king’s offer was eminently reasonable and abruptly deserted Hotspur to join him.

Realizing that the peace talks had disintegrated, Hotspur instructed Worcester to end the discussion. He feared that Henry was stalling for time while waiting for additional soldiers to arrive to bolster his force. As Worcester prepared to leave, he yelled back to Henry, “We cannot trust you!” Looking coolly at his former ally, Henry replied, “On you must rest the blood shed this day.”

Worcester wasted no time in galloping back to Hotspur to relay the news. Realizing that a battle could no longer be avoided, Hotspur deployed his forces and called for his staunch, crescent-handled weapon. Told that he had left the sword behind at Berwick, the village where he had slept the night before, the prince groaned and cried when he received the news. The superstitious Hotspur had been warned of just such an omen some years before by a soothsayer who had predicted that he would go into battle without his favorite saber and be killed.

With no time now to brood about supernatural prophecies, Hotspur eyed the field before him as the royalist army began their advance. With the cry of “En avent banner!” the royal forces raced forward to engage the rebels. As the soldiers struggled in the mass of contorted pea vines, the attack lost momentum. While men in cumbersome suits of armor and chain mail tried to loosen themselves from their entanglements, the Cheshire archers let loose a broadside.

Thousands of arrows rained down upon Henry’s men, one observer said, like “a thick cloud that blotted out the sun.” The royal vanguard dropped “like apples fallen in the autumn when stirred by the south west wind.” The king’s archers attempted to provide support for the beleaguered soldiers, but they did not have the range. Terrified by the astonishing accuracy of Hotspur’s bowmen, Henry’s men had no choice but to withdraw and reorganize.

As the king’s men ran to the rear to get out of range of the deadly missiles, the Earl of Stafford was killed. At the same time, the young Prince of Wales was struck by an arrow in the face, but he refused to leave the battlefield and continued to shout encouragement to his men.

From his vantage point, Hotspur was overjoyed at the way the battle was unfolding. He realized, however, that he could not gain a decisive victory over King Henry while his army occupied a defensive position. Knowing full well that he was still greatly outnumbered, Hotspur also knew that he must attack. With the royalists retreating in confusion, he calculated that now would be the ideal time to do so. Ironically, Hotspur had wanted to use the same strategy at Homildon Hill, but the Lord Dunbar, who was now on the opposing side, had advised against it. This time the impetuous prince did not have the advantage of Dunbar’s wise counsel, and he recklessly proceeded with his assault.

Although Hotspur’s rash move might be viewed as foolish, some historians have suggested that another factor may have played a pivotal role as well: the Cheshire longbowmen may have used the majority of their arrows to break up the initial charge. If Henry’s men regrouped and renewed their assault, they could overrun the rebel lines and achieve a victory. The impulsive Hotspur may have realized this and set out to crush Henry before the king could catch his breath.

With the cries of “Esperance! Esperance, Percy!” filling the hot, humid air, the rebel army left its defensive positions and surged down at the enemy. Leading the charge with approximately 100 mounted knights from their household troops were Hotspur and the Earl of Douglas. Their thundering charge caught the royalists completely off guard and they “made an alley in the midst of the army.”

Riding through the gauntlet, Hotspur’s knights slashed and cut their way through the swirling mass of bewildered soldiers that surrounded them. As the remainder of the rebels reached the melee, vicious hand-to-hand combat began. The clash of swords and broad axes was deafening. Men’s limbs were lopped off with shocking ease and pools of blood soaked the ground.

In addition to swords, a wide assortment of weapons was utilized by both armies. The cavalry used a “morning star,” which resembled a mace, a spiked wooden ball on a handle that could smash the heads of the enemy. Infantry carried morning stars mounted on longer handles so that they could wield them like a modern baseball bat. Foot soldiers were armed with pikes, razor-sharp curved blades affixed to the end of wooden poles. A large variety of battleaxes and spears were carried by the soldiers as well.

As the fighting swirled in the middle of the field, Hotspur’s men routed Stafford’s disoriented division, weakening the king even more. Meanwhile, Hotspur hacked his way through to reach Henry’s personal standard-bearer and confront Henry in a fight to the death. When Hotspur’s men killed Henry, a shout of joy swelled in the rebel ranks. Unbeknownst to them, they had killed an imposter. The wily Dunbar had had the king taken to the rear for his safety. Several look-alike knights dressed in the king’s uniform were impersonating him on the battlefield.

It was Hotspur, not Henry, who would be killed. Accounts differ on the manner of his death, but the most common version had him lifting the visor of his helmet to gain a better view of the battlefield and get a much-needed breath of fresh air. At that exact instant an arrow pierced his face. When word spread that Hotspur had been slain, the impetus of the rebel attack sputtered. Before the rebels could withdraw from the field, the left wing, commanded by the Prince of Wales, fell upon them with a vengeance. With the arrival of the king’s reinforcements, the insurgents broke and fled. Many of them were killed by King Henry’s soldiers, who raced after them and cut them down without mercy. Even those incapacitated by their wounds were butchered where they lay—no quarter was given. The fighting continued until nightfall. The entire battle, from start to finish, had lasted only three hours.

As the sun rose the following day, townspeople were horrified by the sights that awaited them. Even the most hardened person was sickened by the wholesale slaughter that had occurred outside Shrewsbury. For three miles, mutilated corpses were strewn over the battlefield. One chronicler later penned, “Those who were present said they never saw or read in the records of Christian times of so furious a battle in so short a time or of larger casualties than happened here.”

Approximately 1,600 soldiers and knights were killed outright, with many others dying later from their wounds. The majority of those slain were royalist soldiers, most of whom had been killed by the deadly barrages from the rebel archers. Henry had a mass grave dug to dispose of the bodies. Three years after the battle, he ordered that the Church of St. Mary Magdalene be constructed on the site to commemorate those who had died there.

When Henry found the body of Hotspur, he supposedly cried. He had the rebel leader buried in Whitechurch, which was in close proximity to the battlefield. However, when rumors circulated that Hotspur had survived, the king had his remains exhumed and strung between two millstones just outside the gates of Shrewsbury for everyone to view. Then the corpse was beheaded and quartered, with the parts scattered throughout the country. Hotspur’s gory head was put on display in York.

When his father was summoned to receive his pardon from Henry, he was no doubt horrified at the sight of his son’s head, publicly displayed for all to see. This did not deter the Earl of Northumberland from continuing to scheme against Henry until his own death in battle at Bramham Moor in 1408.

Henry dealt severely with Hotspur’s erstwhile allies. The Earl of Worcester, Sir Richard Vernon, and Sir Richard Venable were hanged, beheaded, and quartered as traitors. The Earl of Douglas, who fell and shattered his kneecap while trying to escape, was ransomed instead of executed. Many of the surviving common soldiers were spared. Cheshire fighting men, in particular, were essential to the continuing war in Wales, and Henry craftily sought to win their allegiance by gentler means.

Suggested Viewing: 

The Battle Of Shrewsbury -- Two Men In A Trench


 Suggested Reading: 

Shrewsbury 1403: Struggle for a Fragile Crown By Dickon Whitewood 

Like Leaves Fall in Autumn: Hotspur, Henry IV and the Battle of Shrewsbury By David Boyle 

War for the Throne: The Battle of Shrewsbury 1403 By John Barratt 

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Battle Of Buena Vista -- February 22nd & 23rd, 1847 -- A Little More Grape Captain Bragg

By the spring of 1846, it had become apparent to everyone that diplomatic efforts between the United States and Mexico had failed. For the Mexicans, old injustices had become unbearable. A decade earlier, the upstart Texans had declared their independence, but the sovereign nation of Mexico still considered the land a northern province. Then, in 1845, the United States had annexed Texas while offering Mexico the insultingly low amount of $35 million to purchase California and other lands in western North America.

The diplomatic wrangling had been exacerbated by the concept of “Manifest Destiny,” which had captivated the geopolitical thinking of many Americans in the mid-19th century. Adherents of the ideal believed that God had divinely sanctioned the expansion of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Indeed, James K. Polk, a Democrat, had been elected president in 1844 on a platform of just such expansion.

The Mexicans, for their part, believed that insult had been heaped upon injury. They disagreed with the United States over the boundary between the two countries. Rather than the Rio Grande, Mexican officials held that the border was farther north, at the Nueces River, and they dispatched troops to back up their claim. Following the declaration of a “defensive war” by Mexican President Mariano Paredes on April 23, 1846, Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to march to the Nueces with a strong contingent of American troops. Inevitably (as Polk had intended), war soon broke out between the two countries.

During the war’s first major battle at Palo Alto, the Mexicans were forced to retreat, and on the following day at Resaca de la Palma the retreat turned into a rout. Throughout the summer of 1846, Taylor pressed deeper into the enemy’s country, and in September his forces captured the fortress city of Monterrey. The unbroken string of victories had made “Old Rough and Ready” a national hero and prompted him to continue a successful if risky campaign in northern Mexico.

Meanwhile, American forces were triumphant on all fronts. An army of 1,600 men under Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny occupied Santa Fe, New Mexico, that summer, and by the end of the year all of California was in American hands. Another army of 1,200 men under Colonel Alexander Doniphan occupied El Paso, Texas. As far as Polk and Army General-in-Chief Winfield Scott were concerned, the stage had been set for the war’s coup de grace. Scott, they determined, would land another army at Vera Cruz on the Gulf of Mexico and press on to the enemy’s capital. Once Mexico City was occupied, the United States would dictate the terms of a favorable peace to the stubborn Mexicans.

In preparation for the grand offensive in the south, Taylor was ordered to remain at Monterrey and dispatch all but 500 of his U.S. Army regulars, commanded by Brig. Gen. John Worth, to join Scott at Tampico. The diminutive but fiery Taylor was outraged. Poised to strike deep into the heart of Mexico, he saw his supreme opportunity being usurped by his superiors in Washington. He would obediently release the bulk of the regulars, but remaining idle while the war came to a climax was unthinkable to Taylor.

Although unimposing physically, Taylor had earned the respect and admiration of his soldiers, even fighting on foot with them at Monterrey. He was a familiar figure sitting astride his favorite horse, Old Whitey. A junior officer described him, not unfavorably, as “short and very heavy, with pronounced face lines and gray hair, wear[ing] an old oilcloth cap, a dusty green coat, a frightful pair of trousers and on horseback looks like a frog.” Aesthetics notwithstanding, the general still seethed that he had been “stripped of nearly the whole of the regular force and half of the volunteers, and ordered to act on the defensive.” One of his officers observed that Taylor was “very angry and flies about like an old hen with one chicken.”

With every intention of carrying the fight to the Mexicans and securing a role for his army and himself in the endgame, Taylor advanced to the town of Saltillo and ordered the Center Division, under Brig. Gen. John Wool, to abandon its independent expedition in the Mexican state of Chihuahua and join him. Even with the addition of Wool’s troops, Taylor’s so-called Army of Occupation numbered fewer than 5,000 soldiers—and precious few of them were regulars.

Taylor initially had scoffed at the possibility that an enemy force of any consequence could undertake such an arduous trek. Confidently, he had advanced as far as Agua Nueva, seven miles south of Saltillo.

A professional soldier himself, Taylor had entered the military as a volunteer in 1806. Two years later, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and became a first lieutenant. A veteran of the war against the Indian chief Tecumseh, the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, and the Second Seminole War, Taylor was well aware of the risk inherent in his bold advance. However, he was also convinced that a conspiracy with its roots in Washington was bent on denying him a major role in the final victory. An air of near invincibility contributed to Taylor’s impetuous decision. Like many prideful generals before him, Taylor was about to stumble.

General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had once again taken center stage in Mexico. Like the proverbial phoenix, Santa Anna seemed to continually rise from the ashes of defeat and exile. The victor at the Alamo during the 1836 war with Texas, he had slaughtered the prisoners to a man, only to be humiliated by the forces of Sam Houston and captured at San Jacinto a few weeks later.

Banished from his country, Santa Anna nevertheless returned to military and political prominence during a short but vicious fight against French invaders two years later. He lost a leg fighting the French, but he regained power in 1841. Three years later, he was again thrown out of his homeland. Then, in 1846, he was called home from exile in Cuba to assume the office of president and defend the honor of Mexico against the United States.

To many, Santa Anna appeared to be nothing more than a strutting peacock, dressed in military regalia dripping with gold braid, striking martial poses, and likening himself to Napoleon. In reality, he was much more than that. Possessing superb organizational skills, he inspired a renewal of patriotic fervor among his people, pledging his own personal fortune, borrowing heavily from the Catholic Church, and procuring weapons and animals from the populace. In a remarkably short period of time, he raised an army of 25,000 soldiers. While many of these men had little military training, the sheer weight of numbers might hold the key to victory, particularly under the right circumstances.

While Taylor fumed and Santa Anna schemed in January 1847, a young American courier, Lieutenant John Richey, was intercepted and killed and the contents of his packet delivered into the hands of the Mexican commander. Here was the American plan in its entirety. Amazed by his good fortune, Santa Anna determined to send his army north to overwhelm Taylor before wheeling southward to deal with Scott and the threat to Mexico City. On January 28, the imposing but inexperienced Mexican army set out from San Luis Potosi across 400 miles of inhospitable terrain to find and annihilate Taylor’s force, which Santa Anna reckoned would still be in the vicinity of Saltillo.

With his flair for the theatrical, Santa Anna addressed his soldiers of the Lombardini, Pacheco, and Ortega infantry and Juvera cavalry divisions on the eve of their departure. “Today you commence your march, through a thinly settled country, without supplies and without provisions,” he said, “but you may be assured that very quickly you will be in possession of those of your enemy, and of his riches; and with them, all your wants will be superabundantly supplied.”

Through wind, rain, and mud, Santa Anna’s army trudged across the desert wasteland, where temperatures soared by day and plunged by night. Many died of exposure or starvation during three weeks on the march. A number of women who had gathered their possessions and followed their husbands also perished on the march. Desertion thinned the ranks, and by February 20, only 15,000 soldiers remained with their leader.

Taylor initially had scoffed at the possibility that an enemy force of any consequence could undertake such an arduous trek. Confidently, he had advanced as far as Agua Nueva, seven miles south of Saltillo. As rumors of the Mexican advance filled his camp, Taylor sent Major Ben McCullough of the Texas Rangers to scout southward in search of Santa Anna. When McCullough returned with the unwelcome news that a massive Mexican army was only 60 miles away, Taylor decided to stand and fight at Agua Nueva. His lieutenants, however, argued vigorously against such action.

Taylor relented and ordered a withdrawal to Angostura, where the road to Saltillo passed through the mountains of the Sierra Madre, one mile from the established supply base at Hacienda San Juan de la Buena Vista. Wool had selected Angostura two months earlier as an ideal location from which to fight a defensive battle. The road to Saltillo passed through a narrow valley; to the west of the road, the landscape was severely broken by deep and precipitous arroyos to form an effective barrier against enemy movement. On the other side of the road, the terrain was rugged but passable. The American troops took up positions and waited for the enemy to approach.

Although seriously outnumbered, Taylor’s army was bolstered by the 500 regulars. They included three artillery batteries and two companies of dragoons. Wool was charged with the deployment of the American forces. He placed the eight guns of the 1st Battery, 4th U.S. Artillery, commanded by Captain John M. Washington, atop a slight rise where the road narrowed to less than 50 feet. Infantry support for this position was supplied by the 1st Illinois, led by Colonel John J. Hardin.

Behind these positions stood the 2nd Kentucky Infantry of Colonel William R. McKee, which was supported by Colonel William H. Bissell’s 2nd Illinois several hundred yards behind. On the left of the American line were Colonel Archibald Yell’s 1st Arkansas Cavalry and the 1st Kentucky Cavalry of Colonel Humphrey Marshall. Two regiments of Brig. Gen. Joseph Lane’s brigade, the 2nd and 3rd Indiana, manned a secondary line across an adjacent ridge. The U.S. dragoons and one company of Texas infantry were held in reserve.

On February 21, Santa Anna’s army marched another grueling 35 miles with no opportunity to replenish canteens, which were rapidly emptying. When they reached Agua Nueva, the Mexicans found stores of supplies going up in flames and Yell’s Arkansas cavalrymen riding hell for leather into the darkness. It appeared to be an all-out retreat. Hoping to achieve something positive after the travails of the long march, Santa Anna leaped instantly to that conclusion.

The pursuit of the Arkansans was halfhearted at best, owing mainly to the fact that the Mexicans were near total exhaustion. Shortly after daylight, however, Santa Anna discovered that the Americans were not running. He deployed his army, battle flags flapping in the morning breeze, with a cavalry brigade under Brig. Gen. Julian Juvera and the infantry brigade of Maj. Gen. Pedro de Ampudia, supported by two artillery batteries, placed toward the mountains. On the left flank, Colonel Santiago Blanco’s regiment of engineers and three heavy cannons were situated, while in the center were the divisions of Maj. Gens. Francisco Pacheco and Manuel Maria Lombardini, with a concentration of 14 artillery pieces. The plan of attack was simple. A thrust against the American left would turn their flank, and the cavalry would cut off the American retreat by taking Buena Vista.

Drawn up in full view of Taylor’s inexperienced army, the Mexicans were an imposing sight “in their long tall hats, bedecked with tinsel & their blue overcoats streaming in the wind & what was more interesting to us just then,” recalled a volunteer from Illinois, “their long glittering muskets pointing directly at us as if they were really trying to shoot us.”

When he arrived from Saltillo the next morning, February 22, Taylor was greeted by cheers and the trill of the regimental bands playing “Hail Columbia” and “Yankee Doodle.” It was George Washington’s birthday, and Wool reminded the troops that their conduct on the field that day should be worthy of the honor of the father of their country.

At 11 am, Santa Anna’s surgeon general, Pedro Vanderlinden, rode into the American lines and delivered a surrender demand from the self-styled Napoleon of the West. It read, “You are surrounded by twenty thousand men, and cannot in any human probability avoid suffering a rout and being cut to pieces with your troops; but as you deserve consideration and particular esteem, I wish to save you from a catastrophe, and for that purpose give you this notice, in order that you may surrender at discretion, under the assurance that you will be treated with the consideration belonging to the Mexican character; to which end you will be granted an hour to make up your mind.”

Taylor’s response was not long in coming. He bellowed to his aide, Major William Bliss: “Tell Santa Anna to go to hell! Bliss, put that in Spanish for this damned Dutchman to deliver!” Bliss actually answered in a more formal manner, stating respectfully, “In reply to your note of this date, summoning me to surrender my forces at discretion, I beg leave to say that I decline acceding to your request.”

With that, the die was cast. After another three hours of maneuvering, Santa Anna ordered a single cannon to fire. The Mexican attack commenced with a weak feint on the American right, where the terrain was rough enough to quell any threat of a real attack, although the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry and a section of artillery were moved to the area, just in case. Late in the afternoon, Ampudia led four battalions of infantry in the planned flanking movement against the American left.

In response, riflemen from Kentucky and Indiana, along with the Arkansas cavalry, moved to impede their progress. Each time the Mexicans swung wide, the Americans were racing to higher ground, extending their flank but thinning the line dangerously. To shore up the extended positions, Wool sent three guns under Captain John Paul Jones O’Brien and the 2nd Indiana Regiment, commanded by Colonel William A. Bowles, to an area of flat ground near the center of Taylor’s line. As daylight ebbed, so did the first hours of indecisive fighting.

Without campfires, the Mexicans soldiers lay down in a drizzle. Their commander, however, restlessly prowled the encampments of each unit, stopping to exhort the men to victory with the renewal of battle. Brig. Gen. Manuel Micheltorena located favorable ground for several sturdy 8-pounder cannons, placing them more than 700 yards from the American position, which had been reinforced earlier in the day. A change in strategy was to be implemented. Since the Americans had managed to secure their left flank against the mountains, Santa Anna directed a new assault on the portion of their line where the center and left converged.

At the same time, Wool was bringing up the 2nd Illinois and another battery of artillery to support the American left and center, while Texas infantry and elements of the 1st Dragoons came forward as well. Taylor returned to Saltillo with the 1st Mississippi Rifles and a detachment of dragoons to allay concerns about the safety of the army’s supplies.

February 23 dawned clear and bright. The Mexicans massed to attack the American left once again. Ampudia’s brigade pressed hard against the Kentucky, Arkansas, and Indiana riflemen under Marshall, and three companies of the 2nd Illinois advanced to reinforce them. The mounting pressure of the attack compelled the volunteers to grudgingly yield ground. The Mexican 8-pounder cannons barked incessantly, and O’Brien’s guns replied in kind. Simultaneously, Santa Anna ordered his elite engineers, supported by cavalry, to attack directly through the narrow confines of the San Luis Road. Anchoring the center of the American line, Washington’s artillery shredded this ill-advised move with a withering fire of grapeshot and canister. Leaving heaps of dead and wounded behind, the Mexicans fell back in confusion.

With neither of these jabs proving successful, the Mexican commander launched his haymaker at 8 am. The divisions of Pacheco and Lombardini moved forward in the half light, taking advantage of gullies and ravines along the way. Seven thousand strong, the soldiers emerged from cover and began to deploy in front of the 2nd Indiana and the artillery commanded by O’Brien. One of the Americans watching them was Lieutenant John F. Reynolds, destined to lose his life at Gettysburg while commanding a corps of the Union Army during the Civil War. On this day, Reynolds was an artilleryman who was awestruck by what he saw. “I never in my life beheld a more beautiful sight,” he later wrote, “their gay uniforms, numerous pennants, standards, and colors streaming in all their pride and pomp.”

The heavy assault bowled into Lane’s 2nd Indiana Regiment, and O’Brien operated his three cannons efficiently, tearing gaps in the ranks of the advancing Mexicans. To the left, the 2nd Illinois poured fire into the enemy flank. For half an hour, the Americans would not be moved, but the relentless enemy came on again and again. Wool instructed Lane to hold at all costs, and under increasing pressure Lane ordered O’Brien to move to a better firing position.

As the artillery limbered up, Colonel William A. Bowles, commanding the 2nd Indiana, interpreted the move incorrectly and shouted, “Cease fire and retreat!” The result was a near disaster as Bowles’s command disintegrated. One soldier vividly remembered the desperate moment: “Mexicans came out of the ravine in masses. Men left the ranks in all the regiments, and soon our rear was a confused mass of fugitives, making for Buena Vista Ranch and Saltillo.”

Like dominoes, successive positions on the American front became untenable. Without infantry support, O’Brien, whose cannoneers had taken fearful casualties, was forced back and abandoned one of his guns. Marshall’s command swung back like a gate on a hinge and steadied itself, facing east rather than south. On the extreme left, artillery capably handled by future Civil War Generals George H. Thomas and Samuel French held off Ampudia for a while, but Mexican troops finally flanked the positions on the high ground and advanced on the run to widen the break in the center of the American line. The dismounted Arkansas cavalrymen climbed back onto their horses and rode for their lives back to Buena Vista.

Fighting like veterans, the men of the 2nd Illinois refused to panic against overwhelming odds. Buoyed by the arrival of Captain Braxton Bragg’s artillery and troops of the 1st Illinois and 2nd Kentucky Regiments, the Illinois soldiers began to slow the Mexican advance. Bragg’s cannoneers and another battery, commanded by Captain Thomas Sherman, cut loose with a terrific barrage of grapeshot and canister against the overextended left flank of the oncoming Mexicans. The infantry fired virtually point-blank at the buttons on the blue overcoats of the enemy soldiers.

Although the Mexican infantry staggered and stopped, Juvera’s Jalisco Lancers and 4th Cavalry Regiment found the necessary opening. The horsemen rode around and through the confused fighting. Their objective was Buena Vista—just minutes away. General José Maria Ortega’s fresh infantry division joined the dash for the ranch and the American supplies. Despite their heavy casualties and the stubbornness of the American defense at Angostura, seizure of the hacienda at Buena Vista would mean certain defeat for Taylor and his troops.

At this decisive moment, Taylor returned from Saltillo. In company with the general were the Mississippi Rifles, commanded by his son-in-law, Colonel Jefferson Davis, who would later rise to the presidency of the Confederate States of America. Also adding their weight to the American defense were a squadron of mounted infantry from Arkansas and two troops of the 2nd U.S. Dragoons under Brevet Lt. Col. Charles May.

As Taylor assessed the situation, either Wool or Bliss apparently blurted out that the volunteers were whipped. The reply was vintage Old Rough and Ready. “I know it,” he quipped, “but the volunteers don’t know it. Let them alone. We’ll see what they do.” Taylor reacted quickly and dispatched the dragoons and volunteer cavalry to Buena Vista to meet the immediate threat. The Mississippians were deployed along a nearby ridge.

Yell and Marshall had squabbled over who was in command of the cavalry regiments from Kentucky and Arkansas and the remnants of the 2nd Indiana, which had formed a patchwork defensive perimeter. When the Mexican cavalry charged, Yell rashly attacked and was killed when a lance entered his mouth, wrenched off his lower jaw, and shattered the side of his face. Captain Enoch Steen and the veteran dragoons of the regular army, however, used the momentary confusion caused by Yell’s advance to assail the Mexican flank and split the attackers in two.

The riflemen rallied at Buena Vista, firing from windows and rooftops and throwing back the Mexican horsemen. A number of Juvera’s cavalry, shocked by the ferocity of Steen’s assault, fled the field, but the commander led others in an ineffectual ride completely around the hacienda, accomplishing nothing.

With the effort to wrest control of Buena Vista from the Americans coming to naught, some 1,500 of Juvera’s lancers massed for an attack on Davis’s Mississippi Rifles. A resplendent sight dressed in their red shirts, slouch hats, and white pants, with bowie knives thrust into their belts, the Mississippians had already gained a reputation for deadly accurate fire with their lethal Whitney and Model 1841 U.S. rifles, which could be fired accurately at targets as distant as 500 yards. When Ampudia’s soldiers stumbled toward them, Davis ordered a series of tremendous volleys that felled Mexicans like a scythe. Joined by the 3rd Indiana, Davis’s command chased the enemy infantry down the ridge and through a nearby ravine.

Taken under fire by troops from three other Mexican divisions, Davis saw the enemy lancers passing on his left and directed his troops to retire to their original positions. Painfully wounded in the right foot by a bullet, which lodged a bit of brass from a spur deep in his flesh, Davis refused to leave his men. He would spend two years on crutches and feel the effects of the wound for the rest of his life. Scores of dead and wounded soldiers from Mississippi and Indiana lay in the ravine, but worse was yet to come.

Taylor observed the action as Davis ordered his troops atop the ridge into a large V formation with the open end toward the enemy. “Steady, boys!” Old Rough and Ready bellowed. “Steady for the honor of old Mississippi!” The Mexican horsemen, lances poised for a close-quarters clash, thundered across the battle-scarred landscape. Davis later wrote that “a body of richly caparisoned lancers came forward rapidly and in beautiful order—the files and ranks so closed, as to look like a solid mass of men and horses.” At 80 yards’ distance, they slowed inexplicably to a walk.

While the artillery of Thomas and O’Brien boomed in support, the riflemen decimated the attackers with a veritable wall of fire. “It was appalling,” remembered an American soldier. “The whole head of the column was prostrated.” Nearly 2,000 lancers were trapped in the mouth of the V and being shot to pieces until a flag of truce appeared and a junior officer approached the Americans with the false assertion that Santa Anna wanted to meet with his counterpart. Although the ruse was quickly discovered, it bought precious time for the survivors to slip out of the deathtrap.
Meanwhile, Santa Anna scraped together enough troops for another attempt to crack the American center. More than 5,000 soldiers from the divisions of Pacheco and Lombardini, now under the command of General Francisco Perez, lurched forward to confront the Illinois and Kentucky troops of Hardin and Bissell, supported by the artillery of Thomas and O’Brien. When the Mexican skirmish line came into view, the American cannon pounded it mercilessly, and the enemy melted away.

Hardin, who had previously held the Illinois seat in the U.S. House of Representatives that now was occupied by Abraham Lincoln, assumed that the Mexicans were retreating and boldly led his command forward in a counterattack. Actually, the majority of the troops under Perez were just arriving, and the two enemy forces clashed head-on. Hardin grabbed the flag of the Hidalgo Battalion but fell mortally wounded moments later. Also lost in the melee of hand-to-hand combat was Lt. Col. Henry Clay, Jr., son of the eminent senator from Kentucky. The overwhelming numbers of Mexican soldiers forced the Americans to fall back.

O’Brien, whose cannon seemed to be everywhere on the field, was wounded in the leg but refused to retire, pressing infantrymen totally unfamiliar with cannons into servicing his guns. Finally, with most of his horses and men dead or wounded, he withdrew all but two of his 6-pounder cannons. He was “delighted to find that I had maintained my ground sufficiently long to cause the victory to be secured, for, at this moment, the rest of our artillery arrived and came into action.” The superb handling of American “flying artillery” had already staved off disaster on more than one occasion.

The latest battery to arrive at the critical moment belonged to Bragg, who years later would become commanding general of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. As his men unlimbered their 6-pounder guns, Bragg asked Taylor which infantry units would be providing support. Taylor replied wryly, “Major Bliss and I will support you.”

Taylor then questioned the artillery officer. “What are you using, Captain, grape or canister?”

Bragg responded, “Canister, General.”

“Single or double?” Taylor quizzed back.


“Well, double-shot your guns and give ‘em hell, Bragg.”

The little cannons belched smoke and shell, tearing into the advancing Mexicans, while Davis’s Mississippians poured successive volleys of rifle fire at them. Second and third salvos from Bragg’s guns ripped through the enemy troops and took the fight completely out of them. They retreated hastily as a sudden rainstorm broke across the battlefield.

After the sun had set, Santa Anna held a council of war and decided to withdraw his tattered army to Agua Nueva. On February 24, he headed back to the south and San Luis Potosi. He had lost 591 men killed, 1,048 wounded, and 1,394 missing—nearly a fourth of his army. In comparison, American casualties totaled 271 dead, 387 wounded, and six missing.

Santa Anna had displayed little tactical ability during the pivotal battle. He had attacked the enemy over difficult terrain but failed to successfully exploit breaches in the American line. He had an even larger problem to deal with: Scott’s army would soon land at Vera Cruz. Although Santa Anna displayed the artillery pieces O’Brien had lost at Buena Vista and falsely claimed that his troops had won a victory, seven months later soldiers of the U.S. Army would march victoriously through the plaza of Mexico City.

In August, during the Battle of Padierna, the two lost guns were recaptured by the 4th U.S. Artillery. Transferred to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, they were placed on exhibit beneath a plaque reading simply, “Lost without dishonor, recovered with glory.”

The following year, Taylor was elected president of the United States. His victories on the battlefield and at the ballot box may be attributed equally to good luck and good leadership. Fortune, they say, favors the brave. Following his advance against Scott’s orders, Taylor’s stirring command presence, the remarkable toughness of his untried volunteer infantry, and the outstanding skill of the regular army artillery had combined to win the day and, eventually, the White House.

A decade and a half later, Davis, Bragg, Thomas, Reynolds, and the other heroes of Buena Vista would take up arms once again—this time against each another in the tragic crucible of the American Civil War.

 Suggested Reading: 

Climax at Buena Vista: The Decisive Battle of the Mexican-American War By David Lavender 

So Far from God: The U.S. War With Mexico, 1846-1848 By John Eisenhower 

A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent By Robert Merry 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Colonel Robin Olds & Operation Bolo -- January 2nd, 1967 -- The MIGs Come Out To Play

During the last months of 1966 the MiG-21s of the VPAF (deployed in the 921st Fighter Regiment) became very active and successfully intercepting the F-105 formations of the USAF. According to their own claims, the 921st FR shot down nine Thunderchiefs in December 1966; particularly, the MiG-21 pilots claimed two F-105s on December 5, and three more on December 14.

There are no recorded aerial combat losses from USAF on those days, but its records of POW/MIA/KIA show at least one F-105 lost in each December 5 and December 8. 
Note: The F-105 downed on December 8 1966 is very interesting, because it is mentioned in several documents sent by VPAF to the Soviet VVS at that time. But it is not officially claimed as a VPAF air-to-air kill in recent sources, including Toperczer’s book. Additionally, in recent times, the Russian VVS admitted that Soviet advisors in Vietnam were authorized to engage US planes as part of the training process or as temporary replacements for Vietnamese pilots wounded or killed. One of them, Sr. Lt. Vadim Petrovich Shchbakov, was credited with 6 kills during 1966. Despite the lack of accurate info about his victories, it is likely that the December 8 1966 F-105 kill should be credited to him. His victim was the F-105D BuNo 591820, piloted by Donald Asire (KIA).

Setting aside how many of the VPAF claims are admitted by USAF, certainly the number of American planes lost to the MiGs worried the US, because the Air Force decided to make an important effort to neutralize the MiG threat: the effort known as Operation “Bolo”.

The idea and planning of this operation was the masterpiece of a living legend among the US F-4 pilots in South East Asia: Colonel Robin Olds. He was a P-38/P-51 Ace during WWII, credited with 12 kills against the German Luftwaffe in 1944-45, and now – at 44 years old - he was the CO of the 8th TFW (nicknamed “The Wolf Pack”). He was an “old-fashioned” fighter pilot: impulsive, rough, hard-drinking, but a natural leader and an intuitive tactician.

He realized that the F-105 and F-4 formations used the same approaches time after time, and the SIGINT analysts in Hanoi became expert in identifying the more vulnerable F-105 "Thuds" from the F-4 Phantoms, from their radio frequencies and call signs. So Olds decided to fly Phantom F-4s using the same routes, altitude, and callsigns as the F-105s, ambushing the MiG-21s that would be guided towards them, expecting to find Thunderchiefs, and when they realized the truth, it would be too late for them.

The D-Day of “Bolo” was January 2 1967. In the first hours of the evening 14 flights of F-4C Phantom of the 8th TFW (4 aircraft each) took off from Ubon RTAFB in Thailand towards the VPAF airfields around Hanoi, pretending to be F-105s. An eastern force of 366th TFW F-4s covered the possible MiG withdrawal routes. Olds commanded the first flight. The assigned call signs derived from American cars of the period: "Ford," "Rambler," and (inevitably) "Olds," for the CO's flight.

Despite his long combat experience, he most likely thought: “Would they take the bait?”.

The doubts soon disappeared, because the of the MiG-21 pilots seemed paralyzed when they realized that they were not engaging F-105s, but F-4s. The first kill of that day was scored by “Olds 02” -1st Lt. Ralph Wetterhahn- followed seconds later by Captain Walter Radeker, who claimed another MiG-21. Initially Colonel Olds was not so lucky, as his own account shows:
“The battle started when the MiGs began to get out of the cloud cover. Unfortunately for me, the first one appeared in my ‘six o’clock’. I think it was more a accident than a planned tactic. As a matter of fact, in the next few minutes other many MiGs started to exit from the clouds from different positions.

I was lucky. The flight behind me saw the MiG and tried to divert its attention. I broke to the left, sharply enough to get away of his line of fire, hoping that my wingman would take care of him. Meanwhile another MiG came out of the clouds, turning widely about my ’11 o’clock’ at a distance of 2,000 yards. He went into the clouds again and I tried to follow.”
Olds fired two Sparrows and one Sidewinder at this MiG, but the enemy pilot showed his quality, avoiding all three missiles, entering the clouds, and escaping “Wolf Pack” leader. Until that moment, Luck was not entirely at his side, he was under attack from a MiG-21, and one of his possible victims eluded him. But that would change soon:
A third enemy plane appeared in my ‘10 o’clock’, from the left to the right: in simple words, almost in the opposite direction. The first MiG zoomed away and I engaged the afterburner to get in an attack position against this new enemy. I reared up my aircraft in a 45 degree angle, inside his turn. He was turning to the left, so I pulled the stick and barrel-rolled to the right.

Thanks to this maneuver, I found myself above him, half upside down. I held it until the MiG finished his turn, calculating the time so that, if I could keep on turning behind him, I would get on his tail, with a deflection angle of 20 degrees, at a distance of 1,500 yards. That was exactly what happened. He never saw me. Behind and lower than him, I could clearly see his silhouette against the sun when I launched two Sidewinders. One of them impacted and tore apart his right wing.”
In a few minutes, the pilots of the “Olds” flight claimed to have shot down three MiG-21s without suffering any losses of their own. As they started to withdraw from the aerial battlefield, the first round ended with a clear American victory, and the second one would begin soon.

The next flight – callsign “Ford” - arrived in the area and also engaged the MiG-21s. The flight’s leader, Colonel Chappie James, did not score any kills, but he witnessed the victory of Captain Everett T. Raspberry. The following is his account of the engagement:
“At 15:04 my flight was attacked by three MiGs, two from the ‘10 o´clock’ and one from the ´6 o’clock´. Initially I didn’t see this last one because I had been concentrating on those approaching head-on. My RIO excitedly warned me about this rapidly approaching MiG, which was within firing range of my #3 and #4. I hesitated a while before

interrupting my attack against the two MiGs in front, because I had seen the ‘Olds’ flight passing below us a few seconds before. I thought that the plane seen by my RIO could be one of them. Despite that, I suddenly turned left and then right, and caught sight of the third MiG. I ordered to my numbers 3 and 4 to break right. As they did so, the MiG broke left for some mysterious reason and for a split second we were side by side. We were so close that, besides the red stars in his wings, I could clearly see the pilot’s face.

I began an horizontal barrel roll to get away from him and into an attack position, Once in position, I launched a Sidewinder. The missile missed because the evading MiG broke left at full throttle. But when he did it, he put himself in the line of fire of my number 2, Captain Everett T. Raspberry. I ordered him to follow the prey, because the two aircraft that I initially saw had been placed in my forward sector. I was in an advantageous position, so I fired two AIM-9s against them in a quick sequence, and I turned to place myself as wingman of my #2, Captain Raspberry.

[…] I kept on descending besides Captain Raspberry and I remember that I thought that he was still out of the optimal launching envelope. But he performed a barrel roll that placed himself in a perfect position again and he launched an AIM-9 which hit against the tail section of the MiG-21. It was shaken violently and later fell in a slow, almost plane spin.”
Even when the “Ford” flight scored only one kill, again there were no US losses in air combat, and the score of the day was 4:0 up to that moment. Everything was ready for the third round of the fight.

The “Rambler” flight also found several MiGs in the area. The leader, Captain John B. Stone, saw two MiG-21s ahead and below, and dived towards them, destroying one MiG with two AIM-7 Sparrows. Almost immediately after scoring that kill, Stone was attacked by a third MiG-21, but in a joint maneuver with “Rambler 02” he put the MiG in line of fire of Philip P. Combies (“Rambler 04”). He saw the battle in this way:

“We flew at 13,440 feet (4,800 meters) above sea level and our speed was 540 knots. A little bit after completing a turn to the northwest, we identified a patrol of four MiG-21s in spread formation at a distance of 5 miles –about 8 kms- at ‘2 o´clock’ and below than us. Two more MiGs appeared 2 miles –about 3 kms- behind.

. . . When the MiGs crossed in front of Stone, he started to follow, breaking left and losing height. Due to that, the flight spread wide to the right, and I found myself higher and somewhat to the right than the others. I kept the throttle to the minimum during the first phase of the combat. So, the MiGs broke to the left, and the engagement began.

I choose one of the MiGs and followed him with my radar. I  don't think that we ever exceeded 4 g during the whole engagement. I decided to follow the Navy pilots' tactics - at close range foregoing the radar tracking, but looking thru the reticle instead. When I realized that I was in the right position, I pushed the fire button, released it, pushed it again, and waited. I did not even see the first Sparrow.

However, I followed the entire trajectory of the second one, from launch to impact.  I fired the missiles at less than 2,000 yards from the MiG’s tail, height 9,800 feet (3,500 meters) and turning to the left. The second one hit the tail section of the enemy aircraft. A second later I saw a huge, orange ball of fire.”
Seconds later, another MiG-21 crossed the line of fire of the F-4C Phantom “Rambler 02” and was apparently destroyed by a Sparrow fired by its pilot, Lawrence Glynn, This, the third MiG-21 downed by “Rambler” flight, raised the final score of the day to 7:0 in favor of the American pilots. Certainly the Operation “Bolo” had a successful beginning.

The Table below summarizes the American claims for the day.

American Claims on January 2 1967.
555 TFS, 8 TFW
R. Wetterhahn
555 TFS, 8 TFW
W. Radeker II
J. Murray III
555 TFS, 8 TFW
R. Olds
C. Clifton
555 TFS, 8 TFW
E. Raspberry
R. Western
433 TFS, 8 TFW
P. Combies
L. Dutton
433 TFS, 8 TFW
J. Stone
C. Dunnegan
433 TFS, 8 TFW
L. Glynn Jr.
L. Cary

However, it must be noted that not all the American claims are officially confirmed by Vietnamese sources; the VPAF admits five MiG-21s lost that day, plus a sixth one whose pilot was forced to eject when he ran out of fuel. (The reason is not mentioned by VPAF sources, but it is likely that this could be combat damage caused by a US air-to-air missile hitting the MiG's fuel tank.) But even those sources admit that the Americans clearly won the air combat that day.

The magnitude of the Vietnamese defeat can be seen by the fact that, excluding another air battle on January 6 (when two more MiG-21s were downed by F-4Cs of the 555th TFS of the 8th TFW) the MiGs did not even try to engage US fighters and fighter-bombers during January, February and the first half of March 1967.

But in spite of the great victory obtained by USAF that day, it did not win the war. The VPAF was an evolving force that learned from its mistakes, and it turned back to the fight again and again, sometimes with a high degree of success, as the USAF losses in air combat in the months of April, May, August, and November 1967 clearly show. The aerial combat against the USAF during the whole year, the MiGs downed at least 32 aircraft (among them 16 F-105D/Fs, 2 RF-101Cs and one A-1E), plus 8 more belonging to the US Navy.

The F-4C/D Phantoms of the 8th and 366th TFW continued a running battle against the MiGs in an attempt to keep them away from the F-105s, sometimes with their own successes: 36 out of the 59 MiGs claimed by the USAF in 1967 were obtained by Phantom pilots, 23 of them scored by the pilots of “The Wolf Pack” (all the remaining 23 were claimed by Thunderchief pilots of the 355th and 388th TFW), but there was a price to pay: at least 13 F-4C/Ds were shot down by the VPAF MiGs that year.

It has never been established how many of those USAF claims were actual North Vietnamese losses, but most likely a great percentage (about 70%) will be ultimately confirmed. It is also clear that if “Bolo” hadn’t been executed, the USAF losses to the MiGs would have been higher. The USAF would have to wait until 1972 to obtain a similar success.

Suggested Viewing: 

Operation Bolo -- 1967

 Suggested Viewing: 

Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds By Christina Olds 

When Thunder Rolled: An F-105 Pilot over North Vietnam By Ed Rasimus 



Friday, June 9, 2017

Garibaldi & The Italian Unification

In the spring of 1860, Italy was a confusing conglomerate of states, divided between Piedmont-Sardinia and Austrian Venetia in the north, the Papal States in the middle, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, centered in Naples, in the south. Compared to the rest of Italy, the Neapolitan realm was politically and economically backward and its new king, Francis II, was borderline incompetent.

Fearing that conditions could spark a return to the revolutionary fervor of the late 1840s, European leaders pushed Francis to enact political reform, but the obstinate king refused. He was committed to promoting his own absolute power, even at the cost of provoking increased hostility from his own people. Revolts in Naples that April were forcibly suppressed, increasing resistance to Francis at home and abroad.

One such resister with no shortage of passion was Italian soldier of fortune Giuseppe Garibaldi, then living in retirement on the island of Caprera, north of Sardinia. Garibaldi’s passions were aroused less by Francis and the situation in Naples than by the situation in his home city of Nice, which had been handed over to France by Piedmont’s prime minister, Camillo Benso, the Count of Cavour. Cavour’s appeasement of France made Garibaldi feel like a foreigner in his own country, something the adventurer could not stomach. In his anger, not only did Garibaldi reject the plebiscite by which Nice and Savoy freely welcomed French control, but he planned to forcibly reverse it. With the slogan “a million men with a million guns,” Garibaldi began a furious recruiting campaign aimed at pulling together an army of liberation.

The scheme seemed perfectly logical to Garibaldi, but there were others who sought to unleash his talents and energy elsewhere. Exploiting Garibaldi’s popular appeal, republican leaders such as Giuseppe Mazzini and the Sicilian exile Francesco Crispi saw a much riper target for liberation—the island of Sicily. Unlike Nice or Savoy, which both accepted French dominion, Sicily was relatively hostile toward its overlord, Francis II. Insurrections were a common occurrence on the island. Mazzini and Crispi believed that Garibaldi’s mere presence there would foster more insurrections and lead, in time, to the creation of an Italian republic.

Garibaldi welcomed the idea. Republican flattery whetted his appetite. Guarantees of mass rebellion, however, were less than convincing to Garibaldi. He did not believe the time was right. But Mazzini and Crispi wanted Garibaldi’s assistance badly, even going so far as to instigate renewed rebellion in Sicily with promises of his imminent arrival. The ruse did little more than bring down upon the rebels the crushing force of the Neapolitan army. Also troublesome was the question of Garibaldi’s basic motivation. He had already disappointed the republicans by declaring that any invasion of Sicily would be for the ultimate goal of “Italy and Victor Emmanuel.”

For King Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont, things were not so cut and dried. The king would give only secret support to Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily for fears that Piedmont would be seen throughout Europe as an aggressor state. At the same time, the king could not outwardly seek to stop Garibaldi, lest he risk offending public opinion in his own kingdom, which was overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Italian patriot. Furthermore, should Garibaldi invade against Victor Emmanuel’s wishes, it would only serve to aid his republican enemies. In the end, the king gave Garibaldi his blessing, but only passively. The invasion could only be conducted by volunteers; permission to utilize a royal brigade was flatly denied. Garibaldi could live with those terms.

Cavour, who was no fan of Garibaldi, felt differently. The prime minister was keen to have things done his way. He feared the republican influence on Garibaldi and had no interest in rushing the process of Italian unification. But Cavour, too, was answerable to the Italian public as well as European opinion, and he had to walk a fine line in his attitude toward Garibaldi. Discreet discouragement was his only option. “I think they will all be captured,” he said privately of the proposed expedition.

Garibaldi was also feeling pessimistic about an invasion of Sicily, but the republicans turned to blatant chicanery to change his mind. Only days after reports had filtered in that the latest uprising on the island had been crushed, Crispi fabricated a telegram that falsely indicated that the rebellion, although defeated in Palermo, lived on throughout the countryside. Wanting to be persuaded, Garibaldi blindly accepted the telegram at face value and finally agreed to lead the expedition. A half-hearted attempt by Cavour to halt the invasion was stifled by the king, leaving the road clear for Garibaldi to fulfill his destiny.

Throughout late April and early May, Garibaldi’s forces gathered in Genoa. With only two dilapidated steamers available to transport the army, many volunteers had to be turned away for lack of room. In all, a ragtag force of 1,089 men left Genoa for Sicily on May 5, the majority being northern Italians accompanied by a sizable contingent of foreigners. Garibaldi’s force was far from being a professional army. Among their number were doctors, lawyers, artists, and even three former priests. The oldest among them had served in the Napoleonic Wars, while the youngest was a boy of 11. There was even a woman dressed as a man—Crispi’s wife. Although they were very different, the Garibaldini, as they were known, shared a great desire for adventure and a love for the man who would lead them into it.

The Garibaldini acquired rifles in Genoa, but they were of such poor quality that Garibaldi scoffed that they were “old iron.” Even worse, there was no ammunition—the boats carrying it never arrived. “No matter, we go without,” said Garibaldi. Dressed in his famous red shirt and poncho, he was the very model of outward confidence. He would need every ounce of self-assurance. Pitted against his poorly armed volunteers were 25,000 well-armed Neapolitan troops in Sicily and another 100,000 on the Italian mainland. Pausing to write a quick letter assuring the king of his loyalty, Garibaldi departed at dawn on May 5.

Bravado aside, the lack of ammunition troubled Garibaldi, who planned a quick stop in Tuscany to alleviate the situation. At the fort of Orbetello his men obtained newer rifles and three cannon. The fort’s governor, having aided Garibaldi without showing the outward discretion necessary for maintaining Piedmont’s European image, was arrested for his troubles. Following a quick round of drilling and reorganization, Garibaldi and his volunteers set out for their final destination on the afternoon of May 9.

In the coming months, Garibaldi and his “Thousand” would be blessed by good luck. The first taste of such luck came on May 11 as their steamers neared the Sicilian coast on the island’s northwest shore at Marsala. Both the Neapolitan garrison and fleet were temporarily absent, leaving the landing miraculously unopposed. Still, the disembarkation nearly turned into a disaster when one of the steamers ran aground. A fleet of small rafts commandeered from shore arrived to save the day, while the remainder of Garibaldi’s troops marched into Marsala along a narrow mole that jutted into the harbor.

The column had not gotten far before three Neapolitan warships arrived to contest the landing. They immediately began an ineffective bombardment, which only succeeded in wounding a dog. Fortuitously for the invaders, the bombardment was as short lived as it was poorly conducted. When British warships observing the action warned against hitting British residents inside the town, the Neapolitans, afraid of causing an international incident, halted the barrage.

Once safely inside Marsala, Garibaldi wasted no time in calling for a general revolt against the Neapolitans. The Thousand were ordered to behave as liberators rather than conquerors while Garibaldi himself ruled as virtual dictator of the island, a title he insisted was only adopted to suit his universal popularity. Cavour thought differently. Already, Europe was suspicious of Piedmont’s role in the invasion, forcing the prime minister to lamely profess his powerlessness to stop 1,000 measly invaders. But the self-proclaimed dictator cared little of Europe’s concerns. With his 1,000 poorly armed men and inadequate maps, Garibaldi marched defiantly alongside his volunteers toward the Sicilian capital of Palermo.

Although much more numerous and better equipped, in many respects the Neapolitan opposition was something of a paper tiger. The common soldier, though skilled, was infected with chronically low morale, while his officers were of such poor quality that it was not uncommon for them to be murdered by their own men. Nevertheless, the odds against the Garibaldini were still immense.

There was, however, some hope for the Thousand. In the town of Salemi they received a joyous welcome, indicating overwhelming popular support for the insurrection. Of more immediate use was the procurement of 1,000 Sicilian reinforcements and two old but still operational cannon. The Sicilians were of questionable reliability, but an army as small as Garibaldi’s could hardly afford to be picky.

It was not long before the Garibaldini got their first test against the Neapolitan army. The enemy, led by Francesco Landi, sought to block the road to Palermo. More than 3,000 Neapolitans under Major Sforza commanded a hill known as the Piante di Romano outside Calatafimi with orders to halt the volunteers. Sforza’s troops, the talented 8th Cacciatori Battalion, felt they had little to fear from the outnumbered rabble advancing upon them. Landi shared the sentiment confidently enough to leave a full third of his army in reserve far to the rear.

On the blistering hot morning of May 15, the Garibaldini took up a position opposite the Piante di Romano on a hill called Pietralunga. There, Garibaldi planned to entrench himself and await the inevitable Neapolitan attack, which would come through the vines and over the dry stream that comprised the valley between the two hills. As so often happens in war, things did not go exactly as planned.

The Neapolitan attack did indeed come. Judging their opponents to be completely insignificant, Sforza’s vanguard marched brazenly forward into the valley below. Garibaldi had prepared his defenses for just such a situation, but his excited men, perhaps not unexpectedly, took matters into their own hands. After firing only one volley, the volunteers rushed headlong down the Pietralunga with fixed bayonets. A trumpet sounded the recall to no avail. It was all Garibaldi could do to follow the lead of his enthusiastic compatriots.

Much to his delight, the stunned Neapolitans fled before the onslaught back to their original positions. The volunteers vigorously pursued, but were soon forced to slow at the base of the Piante di Romano. Divided by stone walls into a series of terraces, the hill provided a formidable defense. As the Garibaldini ascended the hill amid fierce hand-to-hand combat, resistance gradually stiffened until finally the advance ceased altogether. Only the poorly aimed shots from the Neapolitans at the summit provided any solace.

Nino Bixio, one of Garibaldi’s most trusted officers, urged retreat, but Garibaldi obstinately replied, “Either we create Italy here, on this spot, or we die in the endeavor!” At that moment, Garibaldi was struck by a large stone. Whether or not he believed it to be true, he drew his sword and exclaimed: “Come on. The ammunition is finished. Charge!” Leaping to his feet, he led a renewed attack, opportunely assisted by the cannon, which had been temporarily forgotten in the haste to begin the battle. Inspired, the volunteers surged to the crest and drove off the remaining enemy. At a cost of 30 dead and 100 wounded, the Garibaldini had won their first battle. Sicilians did not fail to take notice.

For his part, Garibaldi did his best to stir the island. “Our enemies are fleeing toward Palermo,” he reported. “Tell the Sicilians that any kind of weapon is good enough for a brave man.” The push for general rebellion was having its effect. Despite commanding an overwhelming 20,000 or so troops in Palermo, Ferdinando Lanza was shaken, fearful the island would erupt against him at any moment. Meanwhile, troop confidence had already been compromised by Landi’s perceived lack of effort at Catalafimi.

Another enthusiastic greeting of the Garibaldini at Alcamo only heightened Lanza’s fears. Now, however, the Neapolitans were at last able to deliver Garibaldi his first reversal. Garibaldi originally had planned to march straight on Palermo but was slowed at Partinico. Following the delay, he sent his Sicilians out in an effort to capture Monreale in an operation that turned into a disaster. The Sicilian commander was killed and all hope of a straightforward advance on Palermo was dashed. Garibaldi now decided to conduct a long, circuitous march to approach the city from the southwest.

The Garibaldini passed by Monreale on May 22. The march deeper into the Sicilian interior grew more and more difficult as the terrain became increasingly mountainous. Nearly constant rain did little to help matters. Exhausted and wet, the rearguard fended off Neapolitan attacks as the rest of the Garibaldini headed toward Piana dei Greci. Garibaldi gathered his mounting sick and, with an escort of 50 men, sent them ahead in the direction of Corleone. The rest of the army followed closely behind.

To the Neapolitans it appeared that the invaders were retreating in order to hide in the interior. The Swiss mercenary Lukas von Mechel led a contingent of 4,000 in pursuit. Lanza was thoroughly convinced the war was all but won. He forwarded the news to Naples, “Garibaldi’s band has been routed and is withdrawing in disorder.” But Lanza was badly mistaken. Garibaldi, having changed his route only two miles down the road, had completely fooled von Mechel, who continued chasing the tiny band of sick. Garibaldi, meanwhile, was safely in Misilmeri, having attained both his desired position and additional Sicilian reinforcements without the slightest enemy knowledge.

An even greater prize awaited Garibaldi in Misilmeri. There, he was greeted by a Hungarian journalist and aspiring adventurer named Nandor Eber writing for the London Times. Not only did Eber provide a layout of troop positions in Palermo, but he also pointed out its weakest point at the Porta Termini and predicted a full-scale insurrection should the Garibaldini penetrate the city. Ecstatic over his good fortune, Garibaldi vowed, “Tomorrow I shall enter Palermo as victor or the world will never see me again among the living.”

Given his vast numerical inferiority—3,750 men to roughly 18,000—and his total lack of siege equipment, Garibaldi had no better strategy than to sneak into Palermo and attempt to infect it with rebellion. Under cover of darkness on May 27, several volunteers led by their Sicilian allies began a stealthy march to the Porta Termini, leaving campfires blazing in their wake to conceal their sudden absence. A few hours later, however, early on the morning of May 28, Garibaldi’s plan unraveled. While approaching the bridge leading to the city gate, a frightened horse bolted, causing the unnerved Sicilians to begin shouting and firing. Only moments before, Bixio had ironically requested that the Sicilians be moved to the rear. Now it was too late. The interlopers were discovered, and the battle for Palermo was prematurely under way.

When the Neapolitans opened fire, the Sicilians immediately scattered. The Garibaldini held firm during the panicked mass exodus of their allies. At 4 am, Garibaldi ordered a charge that captured the bridge and penetrated the Porta Termini. Throughout the morning as the Garibaldini filtered into the city, the Neapolitan defenders fled, more terrified by the civilian population than the actual invaders. By noon only the Castellammare, the mint and the palace held out, while citizens frantically barricaded the streets in preparation for an expected Neapolitan counterattack.

But Lanza did not counterattack. Instead, perhaps out of revenge against the city that had betrayed him, he began an indiscriminate bombardment of Palermo from the Castellammare and his offshore fleet. Nothing was spared. The poorest neighborhoods were hit the worst. “If the object of the Neapolitans was to inspire terror,” said Eber, “they certainly succeeded.”

The terror, however, was little more than desperation. The Neapolitan soldiers in the palace were entirely cut off, while the population, stirred to even greater action by the vicious bombardment, continued to erect barricades. Exasperated, Lanza appealed to an offshore British fleet to mediate a cease-fire. While declining to mediate, British Admiral Rodney Mundy did arrange for the two sides to confer on neutral ground aboard his flagship, HMS Hannibal. Garibaldi eagerly accepted the offer to negotiate, and the opposing sides quickly signed a 24-hour truce. Had Lanza known that the Garibaldini were nearly out of ammunition, he might not have given in so readily. Once again luck was on Garibaldi’s side.

Either someone forgot to tell von Mechel of the truce or the Swiss mercenary simply did not care. Upon his return from the fruitless march to Corleone, von Mechel immediately attacked the Garibaldini occupying Palermo. Despite having been given a brief opportunity to restock their ammunition, Garibaldi’s men were nevertheless pushed back by the late arrivals. A bloody battle raged beneath the shelled-out buildings, all the way to Garibaldi’s headquarters. An eyewitness later recounted, “Every foot of ground was won amid the cracking of the flames, the crash of falling houses, the shrieks of victims buried beneath the ruins or murdered by the savage soldiers in their flight.”

Many within the Castellammare urged Lanza to use the opportunity to crush the Garibaldini, but Lanza, after carefully considering the hostility of the people, rejected their pleas. Instead, he ordered von Mechel to respect the cease-fire, which was duly extended indefinitely on May 30. More importantly, Francis II had already demanded a cessation of the bombardment of Palermo for fear of creating disgust in Europe. He ordered Lanza to evacuate his men, which according to the terms of the truce he was permitted to do with safe passage through the harbor. The last Neapolitan soldier left Palermo on June 20. “It truly seemed a portent when 20,000 soldiers of tyranny capitulated to a handful of citizens pledged to sacrifice and martyrdom,” Garibaldi later reflected.

For the first time, Garibaldi found himself in control of a major urban center. Military operations temporarily took a backseat to bureaucratic necessities, which in turn provided time for the liberator to gather a flood of new volunteers eager to share in future glories. By mid-July, another 9,000 men had flocked to Garibaldi’s banner. Meanwhile, the early summer saw a flurry of diplomatic activity as both Cavour and Francis II scrambled to keep pace with the rapidly changing situation on the ground. Attention turned to the likelihood of a Garibaldi invasion of mainland Italy.

Bowing to pressure, Francis II declared a constitutional monarchy in a vain attempt to stifle Garibaldi, while Cavour mulled over an alliance with Naples or an invasion of Naples from the north. Meanwhile, Victor Emmanuel continued his policy of passive support for Garibaldi’s activities while outwardly condemning them through proper diplomatic channels.

There still remained 18,000 Neapolitan troops in Messina. Garibaldi planned to drive toward the city along Sicily’s northern coast while two other forces pushed into the center and south of the island as diversions. He assumed command of the vital northernmost advance. On July 14, Marshal Tommaso de Clary, the commander of Messina, preempted him by sending 3,000 men under Colonel Fernando Bosco to block his path at Milazzo. A purely defensive strategy was all that Clary felt he could appropriately adopt. Mounting any kind of offensive would be risky since Naples had already decided that no further reinforcements would be wasted in Sicily.

Bosco had barely arrived when he encountered Garibaldi’s advance guard of 2,000 men. Mistaking them for a much larger force, he allowed himself to be trapped inside the narrow peninsula upon which sat the port of Milazzo. Both armies called for assistance, but only one savior would be forthcoming.

It was Garibaldi who answered the call, arriving on July 19. He found Bosco with 2,500 men and eight guns positioned at the base of the peninsula and protected by a series of stone walls and hedges. Some 1,000 men and 40 guns held the castle with another 400 soldiers protecting the rear against any sudden landings offshore. Garibaldi’s own army, although numbering slightly more, possessed neither cavalry nor cannon, while the enemy was well provided with both.

Garibaldi launched his attack, consisting of three separate columns, the following day. The first column, positioned on the far left, moved north toward the town but was greeted by punishing cannon fire and fell back with heavy casualties. Bosco followed up the success by sending his right wing forward in a pursuit that carried on for nearly a mile. Action on the other end of the field, however, cut short the counterattack.

Farther to the east, the Garibaldini were making steady if slow progress that threatened to cut off the Neapolitan right from Milazzo. The defenders fought behind every wall and hedge, pouring lethal fire into the ranks of the volunteers. Again and again, the attackers were forced to leap from protective cover to clear each position with a bloody bayonet charge. Their leader remained in the thick of it, spurring them on as he flirted with death. The greatest obstacle was the town walls from which the Neapolitans unleashed a lethal hail of bullets. For a brief moment, the drive stalled before the bridge leading to the town gate. A sudden counterattack by enemy cavalry nearly succeeded in capturing the great adventurer himself, but Garibaldi, saber drawn, cut and slashed his way out of danger.

Sensing imminent disaster, Bosco recalled his right wing and withdrew the body of his army into Milazzo’s castle, after which the Garibaldini promptly occupied the town. Although he had lost only some 200 men killed or wounded, the Neapolitan general had also lost his will to fight in the open. Despite having neither heavy guns nor control of the sea, the volunteers settled in for the anticipated siege.

As it turned out, the Neapolitans, lacking both food and water, were even more ill-prepared for a siege. But Bosco did not want to surrender. He messaged back to Messina warning that without supplies he could only hold out for three days. Clary, however, declined to send aid either by land or sea. His inactivity guaranteed the outcome at Milazzo. Bosco had no choice but to surrender, and on July 25 the beleaguered Neapolitans marched freely from the castle.

With Bosco’s surrender, only Messina and its garrison of 15,000 stood between Garibaldi and complete control of the island. There was to be no reckoning day. Inconsolable and disillusioned, Clary freely surrendered his entire army. According to the subsequent agreement, the Neapolitan garrison was permitted to remain within the citadel until departure. Although most of them would return to the mainland to fight another day, it was nevertheless a magnificent coup for Garibaldi. Overcoming almost unimaginable odds, he was now master of Sicily.

Garibaldi’s conquest of Sicily and his likely invasion of mainland Italy catapulted politics into a fever pitch. Francis II was isolated. Now that Naples appeared doomed, Cavour broke off all talk of an alliance, while an 11th-hour Neapolitan effort to gain the assistance of France and Great Britain fell flat. Meanwhile, Cavour continued to support Garibaldi while at the same time scheming to pull the rug out from under him. Cavour would annex Sicily for Piedmont while the volunteers fought in southern Italy. With the Neapolitans distracted, the Piedmontese army would cross through the Papal States and invade from the north. In this way, Cavour could guarantee that all republican aspirations had been crushed. While these Machiavellian plans were being finalized, the king continued his game of outward rejection and silent support of Garibaldi.

There was much administratively to be done in Messina before Garibaldi could launch an invasion of Calabria, the southernmost province of Italy. In fact, he had yet to absolutely determine his next move. Garibaldi’s republican associates were urging him to march on Rome, a rather impractical scheme but nevertheless one that a glory seeker such as himself could not dismiss out of hand. Preliminary steps, meanwhile, were taken to feel out Neapolitan defenses in Calabria. On August 8, 200 men crossed the Neapolitan-controlled straits and mounted a surprise attack on the Altafiumara fortress. Unsurprisingly, the defenders easily repulsed the assault and the volunteers hid in the nearby woods. Garibaldi ordered beacon fires to be lit by his army encamped on the shore outside Messina to let the tiny band know that they were not forgotten.

The 200 had little choice but to wait patiently while Garibaldi weighed his options. He sailed briefly to his home at Caprera off the coast of Sardinia to deliberate a possible invasion of the Papal States. Although he quickly ruled it out, rumors of an advance on Rome reached Cavour and had instant effect. The prime minister not only feared republican ambitions, but also a move by the French to assist the pope in the event of a Garibaldi attack. For Cavour, the stakes had become high. He cut off all physical support of Garibaldi and forbade Piedmontese troops to volunteer in Sicily, a practice that had hitherto been permitted. Most significantly, he intensified his plans for a Piedmontese invasion of southern Italy.

On August 8, Garibaldi led 4,000 men across the straits in a surprise landing at Melito. The Neapolitans, falsely assuming the invasion would take place where the strait was narrowest, had not stationed a single soldier south of Reggio. They also believed it impossible to capture Reggio from the landward side. These misconceptions proved fatal. Garibaldi marched furiously north to Reggio and, after suffering about 150 casualties, captured the port. A feeble Neapolitan attempt to recapture it was easily turned away with the Redshirts’ signature bayonet charge.

The 30,000 Neapolitans in Calabria did virtually nothing to halt Garibaldi’s consolidation on the mainland. Most surrendered readily. A subsequent landing of 1,500 men at Favazzina was barely contested, while the forts of Altafiumara and Scilla capitulated without a shot being fired. Thousands more put down their arms at San Giovanni after murdering their own general. The straits were made entirely open. The Neapolitan fleet, now threatened by bombardment from the guns of the captured forts, prudently withdrew to safer waters.

Garibaldi’s march northward through Calabria resembled more a victory parade than a military campaign. There was no Neapolitan effort to either resist or reinforce, while local Calabrians rushed to join forces with Garibaldi. At Cosenza, 7,000 Neapolitans surrendered, while the rest fell back to Monteleone. The 10,000 defenders of Monteleone quickly followed suit or fled north. On August 29, another 10,000 Neapolitans accepted Garibaldi’s demand of unconditional surrender at Soveria, capitulating without a fight. Another 3,000 gave up at Padula. The life had been sucked out of the Neapolitan army. It was even rumored that a whole battalion had surrendered to just six men.

Shortly before being occupied by the Garibaldini, Salerno’s garrison began to mutiny. The Neapolitan fleet threatened to do likewise. Francis II was becoming desperate, even trying to bribe Garibaldi into some kind of an alliance. At last, on September 6, he gave up hope that Naples could be saved and abandoned his own capital.

Garibaldi was in Salerno when he received word that Naples was an open city. Within hours the mayor of Naples, seeking a restoration of order from anyone who could provide it, invited the invaders to occupy the city. Garibaldi needed little prompting. Jumping onto a train, he raced ahead of his army to the Neapolitan capital. On the following day, amid a roaring crowd, he entered Naples. The gathered masses paraded him through the streets beneath the guns of the city fortress, whose garrison rejected any thought of further resistance.

The Garibaldini stayed only briefly in Naples before moving out to engage the enemy, which had reformed to the north at the Volturno River and at last appeared willing to fight. Some 50,000 Neapolitans under the command of Giosuè Ritucci massed on the left bank, centered on the fortress of Capua. Francis intended to use the force to retake his capital, but as always it was Garibaldi who struck first.

On September 19, while Garibaldi was away on a small reconnaissance mission, his Hungarian-born subordinate István Türr launched a hasty attack on Capua. Although he succeeded in capturing Caiazzo, the Neapolitans repulsed the Garibaldini before they could reach their prime target, inflicting130 casualties. Two days later the Neapolitans counterattacked, retaking Caiazzo and inflicting another 250 casualties. It was the victory they sorely needed to restore morale, and it came none too soon. Fighting now raged at Capua, while the Piedmontese army poured through the Papal States and steadily approached the Neapolitan border.

At dawn on October 1, Ritucci launched an offensive to recapture Naples under cover of a dense fog. Despite attacking with only 30,000 of their available 50,000 troops, the Neapolitans nevertheless outnumbered the 24,000 Garibaldini, nearly half of whom were Sicilians and Calabrians. Ritucci planned to attack the Garibaldini as they were spread thin over a wide front and suffering the typical lack of heavy guns and cavalry. A concentrated charge was likely to carry the day.

Fighting erupted at the town of Santa Maria, a critical railway hub and the center of the Garibaldini line. Initially the Neapolitans met with success, driving off the first line of defenders, but resistance soon stiffened and the offensive slowly ground to a halt. Garibaldi, content with the performance of his men at Santa Maria, decided to race north to oversee the fighting at Sant’ Angelo, where the issue was much more in doubt.

Traveling up the road by carriage, he was surprised to discover the presence of a small body of enemy troops that had penetrated much farther east than expected. At a distance of just 20 yards, the Neapolitans opened fire. After the carriage had absorbed the volley, Garibaldi drew his saber and, with the help of a handful of escorts, charged forward to dispatch his assailants.

By the time Garibaldi reached Sant’ Angelo, he had long ago abandoned his carriage. Arriving on foot, he found a seesaw battle taking place; the town had changed hands several times. Without hesitation, Garibaldi led the defenders in one of their now-famous bayonet charges, which succeeded in capturing the town once and for all. With Sant’ Angelo secure, Garibaldi immediately raced back to Santa Maria, where the defending commander had been wounded and the situation was once again imperiled.

Meanwhile, a Neapolitan force of 8,000 under von Mechel was pressing the attack several miles to the east, in the rear of the Garibaldini position. A vicious fight erupted around Maddaloni, where Bixio led the Garibaldini defense. But von Mechel inexplicably ruined any advantage he may have gained by dividing his force for a simultaneous attack in the northeast. After wandering aimlessly for some time, the second column eventually joined the battle and, following a bloody struggle of attrition, captured its objective of Caserta Vecchia. By that time, however, events in the east had been overshadowed by the decisive conclusion of the main battle in the west.

Arriving back in Santa Maria, Garibaldi quickly stabilized the situation. At 2 pm, with Neapolitan energy appearing spent, he unleashed a counterattack using reserves under Türr that until now had been carefully kept out of the fray. The counterattack, predictably conducted by bayonet charge, smashed into the Neapolitan line from Santa Maria to Sant’ Angelo. As 1,500 Garibaldini struck the enemy from behind at Sant’ Angelo, another column wedged in between the front and Capua, threatening Neapolitan communications. Over the course of the next three hours, the Garibaldini pushed the enemy back to their starting point at the Volturno. By nightfall the guns fell silent. All Neapolitan hopes of recapturing Naples were forever dashed.

The following day, Garibaldi set about reducing the Neapolitan defenders within Caserta Vecchia. All told, the Battle of the Volturno River cost Garibaldi 306 killed, 1,328 wounded, and 389 missing. As usual, Neapolitan losses were less—260 killed and 731 wounded—but the capitulation of Caserta Vecchia saw another 2,000 men lost as prisoners. Volturno was Garibaldi’s largest battle. It also proved to be his last. As the fighting wound to a close, a lone Piedmontese battalion arrived on the field. Although it was too late to participate in the battle, its presence foreshadowed the inevitable end of Garibaldi’s adventure.

Garibaldi wasted no time in preparing to storm Capua and cross the Volturno. Mazzini and the republicans, aware of the approaching Piedmontese army, pleaded with him to march on Rome, but Garibaldi had no intention of challenging Victor Emmanuel. Besides, a large Neapolitan army still stood in the way, and its destruction was his first and only priority.

The main Piedmontese army crossed into Neapolitan territory on October 15. To the delight of Cavour, who feared and prepared for a clash with Garibaldi, the king ordered the red-shirted volunteers to cease all military activities. Garibaldi complied with the demand, although he saw no reason for it. He would get his chance to discuss matters with the king personally later. In the meantime, his thoughts were concentrated on the beleaguered Neapolitans, who had withdrawn behind the Garigliano River, leaving 12,000 men to defend Capua.

As arriving Piedmontese troops filed past Garibaldi, there was not a single comradely salute—an inkling of the disappointment to come. Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel met on October 26. It was not the glorious occasion the adventurer had anticipated. Garibaldi’s usefulness at an end, the king now imagined him a potential impediment. “Your troops are tired,” he told the general, “Mine are fresh. It is my turn now.” For the volunteers, there would be no decorations, promotions, or victory parade. Garibaldi himself was offered a promotion as general in the Piedmontese army, but feeling patronized, he angrily refused.

There was one final humiliation in store for the cheated volunteers. During their meeting, Victor Emmanuel had promised Garibaldi that he would review the brave men who had battled for him against impossible odds from Marsala to the Volturno. On the appointed day, however, the king left them literally standing in the rain. Among those who waited were 426 of the original Thousand. It was hardly the ideal end to their glorious adventure. “They think men are like oranges,” Garibaldi lamented. “You squeeze out every last drop of juice, then throw away the peel.”

The Army of Piedmont rather than Garibaldi’s volunteers went on to capture Capua and, following a series of bloody repulses, eventually defeat the remnants of the Neapolitan army beyond the Garigliano. Garibaldi would not be present to witness the fruits of his labor. His efforts had stirred a revolution that toppled a kingdom, but that revolution would now be steered by others. On November 9 he gave up his dictatorial powers and set sail for Caprera. As his vessel exited the harbor, British warships fired a salvo in salute to the man who had risked more than anyone to unify Italy. The guns of the Piedmontese fleet remained silent.

Suggested Reading: 

Garibaldi: Invention of a Hero By Lucy Riall 

The Second War of Italian Unification 1859–61 By Frederick Schneid

Garibaldi By Ron Field