Archive for May, 2013

Pontoon Bridges in Military History

May 31, 2013 with No Comments and Posted in Videos by

Discover the history of a very important military invention – the pontoon bridge. It allowed armies to move with great speed even when rivers crossed their path. In this video see how these bridges were used to great effect in the Battle of Fredericksburg in the American Civil War.

Summiting Everest – 60 Years Ago Today

May 29, 2013 with 1 Comment and Posted in Exploration by


It was 60 years ago today, at 11:30 am on May 29, 1953, that climbers Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay set foot upon the summit of Mount Everest, the top of the world. This was the ninth try for the British, and one of their foremost climbers, George Mallory, had perished just a few hundred feet from the summit. But this year it would be different. The 1953 British Mount Everest Expedition was under the command of climber Colonel John Hunt. They began climbing the mountain on May 10, assisted by Sherpa porters, people from the same group who accompany the Everest climbers today. They reached Base Camp at at 17,900 feet on April 12. Pressure was high on this expedition as there was a heated competition to be the first to the top. Just the previous year a Swiss expedition had set a new altitude record, coming within 1,000 feet of the summit.

The British expedition continued to work their way up the mountain, establishing camps further and further up the mountain. Their final camp was established under the South Col, at 26,000 feet. It was from there they would make their summit attempt. Hunt had selected two pairs of climbers to make the final dash. The first, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, set out on May 26, but they were not able to reach the summit. They came within 300 feet, but problems with their breathing equipment left them without enough oxygen to make the top.

Hillary describing the Climb

The next day, May 27, the second pair, Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and  Tenzing Norgay, the best Sherpa mountaineer, set out to make the last attempt. The weather was good for the climb. As Hillary later wrote, “The weather for Everest seemed practically perfect. Insulated as we were in all our down clothing and windproofs, we suffered no discomfort from cold or wind. … To my surprise I was enjoying the climb as much as I had ever enjoyed a fine ridge in my own New Zealand Alps.” Approaching the summit, they encountered the final great challenge of the climb – a 40 foot cliff today known as Hillary’s step. Hillary was able to find a thin crack leading to the top. Making his way up this, with his crampons gripping the snow and his hands grasping at the holds on the rock, he reached the top of the step, soon followed by Tenzing. Realizing that the summit was actually within reach, they pushed along a ridge that seemed to never end. Hillary wrote this of the final moments of the climb:

I was beginning to tire a little now. I had been cutting steps continuously for two hours, and Tenzing too was moving very slowly. As I chipped steps around still another corner, I wondered rather dully just how long we could keep it up. Our original zest was now quite gone and it was turning more into a grim struggle. I then realized that the ridge ahead, instead of still monotonously rising, now dropped sharply away, and far below I could see the North Col and the Rongbuk Glacier. I looked upwards to see a narrow snow ridge running up to a snowy summit. A few more whacks of the ice axe in the firm snow and we stood on the top.

They soon headed back down, and after a tiring climb arrived safely back to their camp. They didn’t wait to get the news back to civilization. Coming down the mountain a runner took the message to the nearest wireless station. They had written, “”Snow conditions bad. advanced base abandoned yesterday. awaiting improvement.” But a code had been arranged to keep the message secret, and so the success of the expedition was announced in England that very day, at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Hillary and Tenzing

Some say that Everest has been conquered, but Hillary never would. About 4,000 people have since made it to the top, but over 200 have died trying. As climbers make their way to the top today, they can still catch sight of frozen bodies in the snow, warnings of the dangers of the mountain.

“In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched With Fire” – Oliver Wendell Holmes on Memorial Day

May 27, 2013 with No Comments and Posted in American Other by


In 1884 Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, Civil War veteran and future Supreme Court Justice, gave a famous speech upon Memorial Day, which was established to remember the Union dead. This Memorial Day you would do well to read the entire speech here. Here are several of the more famous sections:

So to the indifferent inquirer who asks why Memorial Day is still kept up we may answer, it celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly. To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might. So must you do to carry anything else to an end worth reaching. More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out. All that is required of you is that you should go somewhere as hard as ever you can. The rest belongs to fate. One may fall-at the beginning of the charge or at the top of the earthworks; but in no other way can he reach the rewards of victory. …

[A]s surely as this day comes round we are in the presence of the dead. For one hour, twice a year at least–at the regimental dinner, where the ghosts sit at table more numerous than the living, and on this day when we decorate their graves–the dead come back and live with us.

I see them now, more than I can number, as once I saw them on this earth. They are the same bright figures, or their counterparts, that come also before your eyes; and when I speak of those who were my brothers, the same words describe yours. …

[T]he generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. …

Such hearts–ah me, how many!–were stilled twenty years ago; and to us who remain behind is left this day of memories. Every year–in the full tide of spring, at the height of the symphony of flowers and love and life–there comes a pause, and through the silence we hear the lonely pipe of death. Year after year lovers wandering under the apple trees and through the clover and deep grass are surprised with sudden tears as they see black veiled figures stealing through the morning to a soldier’s grave. Year after year the comrades of the dead follow, with public honor, procession and commemorative flags and funeral march–honor and grief from us who stand almost alone, and have seen the best and noblest of our generation pass away.

Photos from the 150th Chancellorsville Reenactment

May 21, 2013 with No Comments and Posted in News by

Mustering for Battle

Union Soldiers Fire a Volley

Confederate Skirmishers

Union Battle Line

Jackson’s Flank Attack

Confederate Volley

Confederate Generals

Chancellorsville 150th Reenactment

May 17, 2013 with No Comments and Posted in Videos by

The 150th Reenactment of Stonewall Jackson’s brilliant flank attack on May 2nd, 1863.

Shackleton’s Ad – Men Wanted for Hazardous Journey

May 15, 2013 with No Comments and Posted in Exploration by

Men Wanted

An artistic rendering of the ad by John Hyatt

Many of you have probably seen the famous advertisement which, as the story goes, Ernest Shackleton ran in the newspaper to try to recruit men for his Endurance expedition:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.1

This advertisement is one of the most famous in history. It is frequently quoted as one of the best examples of copy writing, and has been quoted many times, in books covering topics all the way from Introduction to Evangelism to Web Application Defender’s Cookbook, and even printing on tee shirts.



However, the origins of the ad are very obscure. No one has actually seen the ad printed in a newspaper, though the Antarctic Circle has a $100 reward out for anyone who can find it, a reward which has not yet been claimed. They have also gathered a lot of information about the ad, the basis for much of this post.

Ad in 100 Greatest Advertisements

Ad in 100 Greatest Advertisements

One of the first books for this ad to appear in was The 100 Greatest Advertisements: 1852-1958 written by Julian Watkins in 1949. The brief accompanying text says the ad was run in London newspapers in 1900, but does not give a footnote. A brief review of Shackleton’s life will reveal that he did not sign on with Robert Scott for his first expedition until 1901, and he did not lead his own “hazardous journey” for several years. The date is clearly wrong, making far from an auspicious beginning for the truthfulness of the ad. Other biographies of Shackleton give the date as December 29, 1913, and the paper as the London Times. However, the ad does not appear in this paper. The date seems to have been confused with when Shackleton announced his Nimrod expedition in a letter to the editor:

Sir,–It has been an open secret for some time past that I have been desirous of leading another expedition to the South Polar regions.
I am glad now to be able to state that, through the generosity of a friend, I can announce that an expedition will start next year with the object of crossing the South Polar continent from sea to sea.
I have taken the liberty of calling the expedition “The Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition,” because I feel that not only the people of these islands, but our kinsmen in all the lands under the Union Jack will be willing to assist towards the carrying out of the full programme of exploration to which my comrades and myself are pledged.
Yours faithfully,

Quit You Like Men

Quit You Like Men

Although The 100 Greatest Advertisements is the book most commonly referenced in biographies of Shackleton, the ad had appeared in print before. It can be found in Quit You like Men by Carl Hopkins Elmore in 1944, five years before The 100 Greatest Advertisements was published. Elmore says:

Sir Ernest Shackleton when he was about to set out on one of his expeditions, printed a statement in the papers, to this effect: ‘Men wanted for hazardous journey to the South Pole. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.’ In speaking of it afterward he said that so overwhelming was the response to his appeal that it seemed as though all the men of Great Britain were determined to accompany him.3

This book provides no footnote for the ad. One thing should be noted – honor is not spelled in the American style, rather in the English, as “honour.” Not only was this the normal English spelling, Shackleton himself used it in his books.4 This evidence seems to show that either the quote was fabricated by Carl Elmore or one of his sources, or that it was copied in a very sloppy fashion.

The Endurance at night

The Endurance at night

Not only can no references be found to an original source, searching the Times itself leads to nothing. The months covering Shackleton’s preparations for his expeditions have been read, and the rest of the paper programmatically searched, but both methods have come up empty. It would not have even made sense for Shackleton to place an ad in the paper. There was plenty of free press coverage of his expedition, and he would already have had plenty of men to choose from. Some of the descendents of his men remember being told their ancestors responded to an ad Shackleton placed in the paper, but this was likely a recollection based on reading the ad rather than something they were actually told. Frank Worsley, one of the crew members, wrote his memoirs and did not record seeing an ad, instead he just happened upon the expedition’s offices and decided to apply. Inspiring though it may be, it seems that Shackleton’s famous ad is mostly likely a myth.


1. The 100 Greatest Advertisements 1852-1958: Who Wrote Them and What They Did by Julian Lewis Watkins (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1949) p. 1.
Shackleton: An Irishman in Antarctica by Jonathan Shackleton (Madison, Wisconsin: Univ of Wisconsin Press, 2002) p. 137-138.
3. Quit You like Men by Carl Hopkins Elmore (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944) p. 53.
. South: The Story of Shackleton’s Last Expedition, 1914-1917 by Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (Toronto, Canada: The Macmillan Company, 1920) p. xii, 144.


The American Response to Arnold’s Treason

May 13, 2013 with No Comments and Posted in War for Independence by


When the nation got word of his treason, they responded violently. He was condemned from all corners. As an early biographer wrote, “it became the passionate desire of a whole nation to blacken his character. Instantly he became an outcast and an outlaw. Every pen denounced, and every tongue cursed him.”1 Crowds burned his body in effigy, decrying him as a traitor. The Pennsylvania Packet asked, “Is there not stored in heaven’s wrath, some red hot thunder bolts to come hurling down with dreadful vengeance upon the unaccountable miscreant wretch, whose serpentine soul betrays his country, and sets the place of his nativity in flames?”2 Plans were laid to capture him and bring him to justice. It was said that they “would first cut off that lame leg, which was wounded in the cause of freedom and virtue, and bury it with the honors of war, and afterwards hang the remainder of [his] body in gibbets.”3

Boot Monument at Saratoga

The honors given to Benedict Arnold were stripped from him. Fort Arnold, which he had commanded, was without delay renamed to Fort Clinton. His name was stricken from the roles of the army. Some Americans still commended his service to the cause, but used it as a lesson against treason by denying him the recognition that he had so desperately sought. Years later John Watts de Peyster, a general in the New York militia during the Civil War, commissioned a monument to Arnold for his service at Saratoga, but made it one of the strangest monuments in America. The monument is just a boot, and the inscription commemorates “the ‘most brilliant soldier’ of the Continental Army who was desperately wounded on this spot,” but omits his name. In the old chapel at West Point there are plaques for the generals of the War for Independence. But the one for Arnold lists nothing more than his rank and the year of his birth.4 They wished to wipe out the name of the traitor.

1865 Cartoon of Arnold

Not all Americans would even give him this much credit. The men who had once fought with him, and the historians that would follow, reinterpreted Arnold’s earlier service. It was said that he was always a dishonest coward, seeking nothing but fame. When he appeared brave, it had to be either drunkenness or insanity. They tried to explain how he had fooled them all for so long, and painted him as a sadistic child who spread glass in the path of his barefoot classmates and killed young birds for pleasure. Washington too revised his previous assessment of Arnold, saying, “From some traits of his character which have lately come to my knowledge, he seems to have been so hackneyed in villainy, and so lost to all sense of honor and shame, that, while his facilities will enable him to continue his sordid pursuits, there will be no time for remorse.”5

However, there may be more to the Americans’ condemnation of Arnold’s treason than first meets the eye. Historian Charles Royster wrote:

Pillorying Arnold’s effigy revealed a strong need to show how much Arnold differed from his countrymen. The qualities they attributed to him – weakness, madness, vice and greed – made him a traitor. Their own qualities – native courage and public virtue – made them patriots. His treason threatened American independence and liberty. Their patriotism sustained American independence and liberty.6

Nathaniel Greene

The American officers felt the need to differentiate themselves because many of them were not too different from Benedict Arnold. Many of the officers were focused on profiting from the war, whether in money or glory, by fair means or foul. There were exceptions to the rule and many officers did serve for the good of the country, but the American high command was characterized by constant bickering over rank and promotion. In 1777 what was called the Coway Cabal was discovered, in which high ranking officers and politicians criticized Washington to the point of considering his removal from command. With Arnold’s treason the Americans expressed shock and horror that he had gone to such lengths in pursuit of what many of them were themselves seeking. Nathaniel Greene wrote:

Was you ever more astonished in your life? A man high in reputation and with the fairest prospects of domestic happiness. The love of parade and the thirst for gold has proved his ruin. How black, how despised, loved by none, and hated by all. One his Country’s Idol, now her horror. Curse on his folly, nay his villainy, and most of all his meanness. … I had no conception … that it was possible for human nature to arrive at such a degree of corruption.7

Some examined each other, wondering who else may have been looking to betray their nation. Alexander Scrammell wrote,

We were all astonishment, each peeping at his next neighbor to see if any treason was hanging about him: nay, we even descended to a critical examination of ourselves. The surprise soon settled down into a fixed detestation and abhorrence of Arnold, which can receive no addition.8

In remembering the War for Independence it is important to realize that the heroic generals were far from spotless. One of the nation’s greatest heroes was turned into her greatest villain, and the contrast between Benedict Arnold’s avarice and the other generals’ patriotism was not quite as clear as they would have liked to believe.


1. The Life of Benedict Arnold: His Patriotism and Treason by Isaac N. Arnold (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Company, 1905)

2. The Revolutionary Era: Primary Documents on Events from 1776 to 1800 by Carol Sue Humphrey (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003) p. 89.

3, Ibid, p. 85.

4. “Whom can we trust now?” The Meaning of Treason in the United States from the Revolution through the Civil War, by Brian F. Carso, Jr. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006) p. 155.

5. The Writings of George Washington edt. Worthington Chauncy Ford (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890) vol. VIII, p. 494.

6. “The Nature of Treason”, p. 192.

7. The Historical Magazine, and Notes and Queries, concerning the Antiquities, History and Biography of America. (Morrisaniva, NY: Henry B. Dawson, 1867) Second Series, vol. I, p. 204

8. The Historical Magazine, and Notes and Queries, concerning the Antiquities History and Biography of America (Morrisania, NY: Henry B. Dawson, 1870) Second series, vol. VIII p. 145.

U. S. Grant at Cold Harbor

May 10, 2013 with No Comments and Posted in Civil War by


This image of the Grant standing outside of his tent during the Overland Campaign became one of the most famous images of the Civil War. It was taken by Matthew Brady, or another photographer working for him, in 1864. Photographs such as this were very influential in the Civil War. When a picture of Grant was published showing him with a cigar in his mouth, people across the North sent him boxes and boxes of cigars. Although he had not smoked regularly before that, he took up the habit just to get rid of all the gifts.

You can see a larger version of this image here.

The Treason of Benedict Arnold

May 8, 2013 with No Comments and Posted in War for Independence by

Benedict Arnold

In the last days of September 1781, news broke that shocked America. “Treason! treason! treason! black as hell,”1 wrote Alexander Scammell, the Continental Army’s Adjutant General. Benedict Arnold, one of the young nation’s leading generals had gone over to the British! The desertion was unexpected. Just months before George Washington had noted Arnold’s “distinguished services to his Country.”2 But in just a few hours the name of Benedict Arnold fell from one of the nation’s most patriotic heroes, to a term synonymous with the betrayal of Judas Iscariot.

Benedict Arnold was an American – born in Connecticut in 1741. He became a prosperous merchant. At the coming of the Revolution he sided with the patriots and raised a company of militia. Very ambitions, he concocted daring schemes for the advancement of the American cause, and his own career. He joined Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775, and followed up with an expedition against Quebec, Canada. He was wounded in the fighting and unable to take the city, but gained fame throughout the United States, and the commendation of George Washington as “active, judicious and brave….”3

Arnold’s Oath of Allegiance

Arnold was recognized for his achievements – he was promoted to Brigadier General for his service in Canada. But for him, that was not enough. He was constantly embroiled in disputes over rank. When other generals were promoted to Major General before him, he sent in his resignation, but Washington refused to accept it. Arnold eventually received the sought-for promotion, and was assigned to the army opposing Burgoyne’s invasion from Canada. Quarreling with Horatio Gates, he was removed from command. But against orders, he took to the field in the Battle of Saratoga. Leading an American contingent in the capture of the British redoubt, a ball shattered his left leg.

Arnold’s headquarters at West Point

Unable to take the field command because of his wound, Arnold was appointed military governor of Philadelphia. There he continued to look for ways to advance himself, but some of his methods brought him into controversy. He used government wagons to transport his personal goods, and in 1779 this earned him a court-martial and a mild rebuke from George Washington. He had obtained high praise for his exploits, but was not content with the rank he had received. The wealth he sought eluded his grasp, and his extravagant lifestyle outran his resources. While in Philadelphia, he married Peggy Shippen, a British sympathizer. Brought into association with the Tory population of Philadelphia, it wasn’t long before the he began communicating with Major John André, one of his wife’s former suitors, about going over to the British. Arnold planned to deliver over the American position at West Point, over which he had obtained the command. It may have spelled death to the American cause, but the plot was uncovered after a year, just as it was reaching its fruition. Arnold was able to make his escape, but André was caught and hung as a spy.

John Andre

Safe behind British lines, Arnold denied changing his principles. “I have ever acted from a principle of love to my country,” he wrote to Washington, “the same principle … actuates my present conduct, however it may appear inconsistent to the world, who very seldom judge right of any man’s actions.”4 In his letter, To the Inhabitants of America, he said when the United States allied with the French, he decided that America had begun to hold the people “in vassalage and chains.” To prevent the effusion of blood, he said he had no choice but to go over to the British. This was false. He was cold and calculating in his treason. He had spent sixteen months negotiating with the British the price they would pay for his betrayal of the fortress at West Point. He had finally agreed to do it for £20,000. When the plot fell through, he was still paid £6,000, plus expenses. He may have made more money off the war than any other American officer.5

Coded letter from Arnold

1The Historical Magazine, and Notes and Queries, concerning the Antiquities History and Biography of America (Morrisania, NY: Henry B. Dawson, 1870) second series, vol. VIII p. 145.

2. George Washington, General Orders, April 6, 1780.

3American State Trials edt. John D. Lawson (St. Louis: F. H. Thomas Book Co., 1916) vol. 6, p. 444.

4The American Generals, from the Founding of the Republic to the Present Time by John Frost (Columbus, OH: William and Thomas Miller, 1855) p. 157.

5“The Nature of Treason”: Revolutionary Virtue and American Reactions to Benedict Arnold by Charles Royster The William and Mary Quarterly Third Series, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Apr., 1979), p. 186.


Filming in Virginia

May 6, 2013 with No Comments and Posted in News by

Virginia Capitol

Fredericksburg Battlefield


Battle of Chancellorsville 150th

May 3, 2013 with No Comments and Posted in Civil War by

This week is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chancellorsville. Chancellorsville was one of the most important battles of the entire Civil War. Stonewall Jackson launched his great flank attack, routing an entire Union corps. But as he was preparing to launch a follow up attack to seal his victory, he was wounded by friendly fire. He died a few days later. Some say that this was the turning point of the Civil War.

But although the story normally ends with Jackson’s fall, the battle was far from finished. The armies continued to fight for several more days, and the Union still had a good chance for victory. But the hard fighting from the Confederates and the mistakes from the Union gave the victory to the south, but at a terrible cost. It was the fourth bloodiest battle of the Civil War, and May 3rd was the second bloodiest day of the war.

Be sure to watch our video on the battle, and follow our Civil War 150th Blog for “live” blogging of the battle throughout the week.

Battle of Chancellorsville Video

May 2, 2013 with 1 Comment and Posted in Videos, Weekly Video by

For the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Chancellorsville, join us with Chancellorsville National Park Historian Don Pfanz to explore one of the greatest battles of the Civil War.