The NKVD caught him in January 1941, but his residence in the discomfiting environs of Lubyanka prison was ended by the Soviet Union’s arrangement with Poland following Operation Barbarossa. Paroled back into the field, he played a leading part for the Polish Home Army for the balance of the war — finally becoming its supreme commander in the last weeks of the war.
Now that the Nazis were no longer knocking on the gates of Moscow, the Soviets renewed their interest in detaining Okulicki, which was again effected with relative ease. (Comparing German and Soviet secret police, Okulicki would say that the NKVD made the Gestapo look like child’s play.) Sentenced “only” to a 10-year prison term at the Russians’ postwar show trial of Polish leadership, Okulicki disappeared into Soviet detention and was never seen again.
In the Khrushchev era, the USSR revealed that Okulicki had died on Christmas eve of 1946 at Butyrka prison; subsequent revelations of the medical records there revealed that he had succumbed to organ damage suggestive of having been beaten to death — perhaps as punishment for hunger-striking.
The post-Communist Russian state has posthumously exonerated Okulicki of his show-trial conviction; he is, of course, an honored figure in post-Communist Poland where many streets and squares bear his name.
On this date in 1889, the Germans hanged Abushiri as a rebel.
European empires arriving to East Africa naturally entered a going history of local conflicts and accommodations. In the case of the region at hand, the archipelago of Zanzibar lying just off the coast had been absorbed by, and then spun off from, the domain of the sultan of Oman. As we lay our scene in the late 19th century, it is an independent Sultanate of Zanzibar whose dominion extended to the adjacent Swahili coast and inland, an area also known as the Zanj.
Zanzibar was a British interest here, but the islands themselves do not quite enter this fray directly; the sultanate based there actually survived until 1964.
But in the 1880s, Germans scrambling for Africa arrived to gobble up the sultanate’s mainland possessions. Germany, truth be told, was a little bit late to this game, and although it secured some noteworthy footholds like Cameroon and Namibia, the Second Reich suffered a distinct little imperial brother complex vis-a-vis the British and the French — both of whom had more extensive holdings in Africa, to say nothing of everywhere else in the world.
Certainly the German public, flush with the boom of industrialization and having only just shown the French what-for on the battlefield, clamored for its rightful share of overseas acquisition. The popular thirst for expansion dragged along reluctant chancellor Otto von Bismarck into an adventure so inimical to the good order he prized.
One such German dreaming big dreams of bigger maps was a cocksure 29-year-old doctor of history, Carl Peters. Fresh off a few post-academic years knocking about in a London astir with the white man’s burden, Peters co-founded the German East Africa Company and then put that colonial corporation literally on the map with a bold expedition to Zanzibar. Within a few weeks of arriving in November 1884, and despite the explicit dissuasion of the German consulate there, Peters had obtained via just the right mixture of largesse and menace treaty rights to 155,400 square kilometers conferred by a number of coastal chiefs in the mainland ambit of the Sultan of Zanzibar.
When Peters returned in glory to Germany brandishing these concessions, Chancellor Bismarck was practically forced to accept them as a German protectorate … and charter Peters’s corporation to start exploiting it. The mid-1880s saw a minor local race between Peters and rival British explorers to establish their respective colonial presences on the Swahili coast,* resulting in an 1886 Anglo-German agreement formally dividing the region’s spheres of influence: British to the north, German to the south. Today this line, shooting near-straight to the southeast from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean with a slight bend round Mount Kilimanjaro, forms the border between Kenya and Tanzania.
We are, at length, arriving at the unfortunate party whose execution occasions this post.
The problem for young Master Peters with his personal agglomeration of the fatherland was nothing but that familiar difficulty for invaders from time immemorial — and Peters was ultimately an invader, no matter what treaties he could wrangle. For his short spell as the commercial governor of this distant land, Peters earned of his Bantu subjects the sobriquet Milkono wa Damu: the man with blood on his hands.
Diplomats could partition the land in Berlin, and could even compel the supine sultan to acknowledge their arrangements. But no edict could command legitimacy for the man with blood on his hands.
Beginning in September 1888, rebels comprising both Arabs and Swahili tribesmen sacked German East Africa Company assets up and down the coast Peters had so diligently won for Germany. Rousted from most of its towns and trading posts, the Company hunkered down in its territorial capital of Bagamoyo and cabled Berlin for help. Bismarck paternally relieved the in-over-its-head company with the aid of mercenaries hired from Egypt and Mozambique, crushed the uprising with customary roughness, and ushered Peters’s firm out of the colonial administration business in favor of adult supervision. The little protectorate soon became German East Africa, administered as a proper colonial appendage of the German Empire.
This Abushiri revolt (English Wikipedia entry | German) is named for its most prominent leader, a mixed-race Arab-Oromo coastal planter named Abushiri ibh Salim al-Harthi (English Wikipedia entry | German). He would be betrayed to German hands trying to escape and promptly executed; however, resistance by others continued to 1890.
They struck down
The flag of Islam
And now proposed
To raise their own.
They came to Pangani
Full of wrath,
They fitted up the house
And laid cannon.
And the ship at Maziwe
The whole town was humbled
And the Europeans
Strode about the streets.
The town was silent,
No one spoke,
Not a free man
Said a word.
-Swahili poet Hemedi al-Buhriy†
This new disturbance, whose suppression Britain also aided, helped lead London and Berlin back to the negotiating table for the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty of 1890 — a comprehensive African arrangement to settle up spheres of influence not only on the Swahili coast but touching Namibia and Togoland, too. Meanwhile, Germany gave up remaining claims north of the Swahili coast dividing line and ceded Zanzibar itself to British authority; in exchange, she obtained the islands of Heligoland off her northwest shoulder — closing a potential security vulnerability.**
Among the many curiosities of the years to follow for the great imperial powers concerned, few are more vexing than just why it was that England and Germany went to war in 1914. Profitable as that bloody effusion has been for these grim annals, it posed as antagonists two countries that had long been thought by keen observers to be natural allies — a belief shared by numerous British and German statesmen. Otto von Bismarck was certainly one of these; his desire for an English alliance (against France and Russia) was a pole star of the Iron Chancellor’s foreign policy. Indeed, he worked amicably with his British opposite number Lord Salisbury; Bismarck once opined of his unwillingly adopted East African holdings that they were “admirably suited to become the sacrificial ram on the altar of friendship” with Great Britain.
But that isn’t what happened.
The failure of these great powers’ flirtation with one another, and the arrangements they ultimately made with other powers instead, defined the belligerents of the Great War. And while we would scarcely propose to lay the charnel houses of Verdun and Gallipoli at the shores of Zanzibar, it has sometimes been postulated that the fatal obstacle to Britain’s arrangement with Germany might have been the paucity of horses to swap.
Thanks to far-flung colonial expansion, Britain had many borders with France all over the globe, and accordingly had frequent need to collaborate and an ample store of chips to trade. With Germany, she had but a few intersections, in Africa — and these were settled almost too comprehensively (pdf) after the Abushiri revolt.
* It goes without saying that the sultan was none too happy about this development, but he was made to get used to the idea. (Germany sent warships, and Great Britain declined to back the sultan.)
The Anglo-German agreement accordingly limited the sultan’s authority on the coast to a 10-mile strip. Although the European powers commanded whatever leases they desired from this zone, Zanzibar’s anomalous territorial claims on the mainland would not be extinguished until the post-colonial era. When that day came, the 10-mile strip made for quite a sticky wicket during negotiations for Kenyan independence in the 1960s. The whole situation lies very far from the scope of this post, but the connosseur of diplomatic Gordian knots should pause to enjoy this pdf exploring the whole mess.
** Each party valued the thing it received quite a bit more than the thing it traded away in this treaty. From Britain’s perspective, Heligoland would be nigh-indefensible in the event of war with Germany; from Germany’s perspective, the claims it gave up outside of German East Africa were little better than phantasmal.
† via Charles Pike’s “History and Imagination: Swahili Literature and Resistance to German Language Imperialism in Tanzania, 1885-1910,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2 (1986)
We ask you how the Muscogee Nation came by this country? You came from the west and took the country from another people who were in possession. After living here a great many years, the people from over the big waters came in large vessels and took some of the country from you and set up their own government, and made laws, & made you obey them …
you must be sensible that it will be impossible for you to remain, for any length of time, in your present situation, as a distinct society or nation, within the limits of Georgia, or any other State. Such a community is incompatible with our system, and must yield to it. This truth is too striking and obvious not to be seen by all of you, surrounded as you are by the people of the several States. You must either cease to be a distinct community, and become, at no distant period, a part of the State within whose limits you are, or remove beyond the limits of any State …
Brothers, we now tell you, what we, in the name of your Father the President, want you to do. We want the country you now occupy. It is within the limits of Georgia and Alabama. These States insist upon having their lines cleared. The President will do this by giving you a better country, and will aid you in removing; protect you where you may go, against whites and all others, and give you a solemn guaranty in the title and occupancy of the new country which you may select … By deciding for yourselves, it may prevent others from deciding for you.
Brothers, you have been deceived. A snake has been coiled in the shade, and you are running into his mouth … drunk with the fire of the pale-face. Brothers, the hunting grounds of our fathers have been stolen by our chief and sold to the pale-face, whose gold is in his pouch. Brothers, our grounds are gone, and the plow of the pale-face will soon upturn the bones of our fathers. Brothers, are you tame? Will you submit?
Jackson himself had tangled with the Creek during his career-making appearance as America’s up-and-coming caudillo in the War of 1812: the eponymous Fort Jackson in Alabama was the base from which the Tennessee militia captain had defeated rebellious natives in the 1813-1814 Creek War and forced upon them the Treaty of Fort Jackson.* “Numberless aggressions,” read that document, “had been committed [by the Creeks] against the peace, the property, and the lives of citizens of the United States.”
So small wonder that as President, Old Hickory — for whom Indian Removal was a signature policy — had no time for Creek appeals to Washington to uphold their treaty rights in Alabama and Georgia. Their defeat in 1814 had left the Creek polity a powerless dependency, whose rights and even survival extended precisely so far as the American government wished. With the shrunken remnant** of their ancestral lands increasingly sought by white settlers, all the pressure within Anglo America ran towards the ethnic cleansing option.
“Voluntary” emigration under steady white pressure gnawed away at Creek numbers in the Southeast for a decade or more preceding the events of this post, but there was always going to be a militant slice of the population for whom no inducement short of violence would suffice. In 1836, land incursions finally triggered a Creek revolt, and became the Second Creek War — Jackson’s justification at last for completing the long-sought elimination of the Creek in the East.†
“The Creek Indians, below the Federal Road, are all in arms and killing every white person they have fallen in with,” ran the May 12, 1836 Macon Messenger. Everything was in “confusion and disarray” — the fleeting advantage of initiative while Anglos mustered an overwhelming response.
Attacks on stagecoaches this same month “created a greater sensation throughout the country than any previous act of Indian hostility,” per this public domain history of Columbus, Ga. (The town abuts the Alabama border.)
Two stages carrying the United States mail, going from Columbus to Tuskegee, Ala., were attacked about eighteen miles from Columbus. The Indians killed Mr. Green, one of the drivers, and two horses, and robbed the mail. The next day a party of fifteen men started to come through to Columbus with two stages. Some of these men were passengers and others volunteers who accompanied the stages to assist in their protection.
It was for this raid that claimed Green’s life that Tuscoona Fixico and four others — never named in any source I have been able to find — were condemned to hang on Nov. 25, alongside a man named Chilancha for the unrelated killing of a man named Fannin during the uprising.
The Second Creek War went much the same way as the first, and proved those American diplomats prescient as to the inevitability of the conquered peoples’ fate. Today, the Poarch Creek — numbering barely 2,000 — are the only remaining band of Muscogee Creek in Alabama.
** In one vain bid to stanch the loss of Creek territory, the tribe — incensed by the Treaty of Indian Springs — had in 1821 enacted capital punishment for anyone who sold land to whites. It was on the strength of this statute that Creek assassins murdered/executed the collaborationist chief William McIntosh in 1825.
One of the signal outrages of Bleeding Kansas was avenged with a hanging on this date in 1863.
“Bleeding Kansas” was the guerrilla war over slavery in the late 1850s that presaged the conflagration about to consume the Republic; here on the frontier, pro- and anti-slavery partisans traded atrocities in their respective campaigns to secure Kansas’s imminent entry to the Union as either a slave or a free state. The stakes, had America continued her antebellum course, were vital Congressional votes on which the continuance of the peculiar institution might one day hang.
The Marais des Cygnes massacre was one of the last major horrors of that conflict: a party of 30 or so pro-slavery men led by Charles Hamilton seized 11 Free-Staters. They were mostly people who knew Hamilton personally, and seem to have gone along without resistance not anticipating what he had in store for them.
But Hamilton had told his men that on this campaign, “we are coming up there to kill snakes, and will treat all we find there as snakes.” (Source)
Much to their chagrin, these “snakes” were driven into a narrow ravine and lined up before Hamilton’s men’s guns. The volleys they delivered before fleeing back over the porous border into equally restive Missouri “only” killed five of their hostages: the other six survived by playing dead.
Five years later, one of those survivors, William Hairgrove, supplied the identification that damned William Griffith — whose claim that he only helped capture the Marais des Cygnes victims, and didn’t help shoot them was an especially lame offering at the height of the Civil War.
[a] little after noon Griffith was conveyed to the wood where he stepped onto the wooden platform a few inches above the ground. His wrists, knees and ankles were bound and the noose was adjusted. The black cap was pulled over his face at 1:07 p.m., and in but a moment William Hairgrove, one of the survivors of the massacre, cut the restraining rope with a hatchet; the four hundred pound weight dropped, jerking Griffith upward. The body rebounded and hung motionless while the attending physicians monitored his vital signs, and in twenty-five minutes they pronounced him dead.
A blush as of roses
Where rose never grew!
Great drops on the bunch-grass,
But not of the dew!
A taint in the sweet air
For wild bees to shun!
A stain that shall never
Bleach out in the sun!
Back, steed of the prairies!
Sweet song-bird, fly back!
Wheel hither, bald vulture!
Gray wolf, call thy pack!
The foul human vultures
Have feasted and fled;
The wolves of the Border
Have crept from the dead.
From the hearths of their cabins,
The fields of their corn,
Unwarned and unweaponed,
The victims were torn,—
By the whirlwind of murder
Swooped up and swept on
To the low, reedy fen-lands,
The Marsh of the Swan.
With a vain plea for mercy
No stout knee was crooked;
In the mouths of the rifles
Right manly they looked.
How paled the May sunshine,
O Marais du Cygne!
On death for the strong life,
On red grass for green!
In the homes of their rearing,
Yet warm with their lives,
Ye wait the dead only,
Poor children and wives!
Put out the red forge-fire,
The smith shall not come;
Unyoke the brown oxen,
The ploughman lies dumb.
Wind slow from the Swan’s Marsh,
O dreary death-train,
With pressed lips as bloodless
As lips of the slain!
Kiss down the young eyelids,
Smooth down the gray hairs;
Let tears quench the curses
That burn through your prayers.
Strong man of the prairies,
Mourn bitter and wild!
Wail, desolate woman!
Weep, fatherless child!
But the grain of God springs up
From ashes beneath,
And the crown of his harvest
Is life out of death.
Not in vain on the dial
The shade moves along,
To point the great contrasts
Of right and of wrong:
Free homes and free altars,
Free prairie and flood,—
The reeds of the Swan’s Marsh,
Whose bloom is of blood!
On the lintels of Kansas
That blood shall not dry;
Henceforth the Bad Angel
Shall harmless go by;
Henceforth to the sunset,
Unchecked on her way,
Shall Liberty follow
The march of the day.
On this date in 1862, Union Gen. John McNeil had ten Confederate soldiers hanged in what history has recorded as the Palmyra Massacre.
The Slave Power’s northern salient, Missouri was surrounded to the east, north, and west by free soil — which made it an antebellum flashpoint since the days of the Missouri Compromise.*
In the 1850s, the Missouri conflict poured into neighboring Kansas as the enemy sides of the slavery question fought to determine whether Kansas would enter the Union as slave state or free, often literally pouring over the border from (or back over the border into) Missouri. The Missouri borderlands of Bleeding Kansas was where the radical abolitionist martyr John Brown made his name, commanding free state militia in a guerrilla war that presaged the coming clash of North and South.
By the time we lay our scene in 1862, John Brown has exited courtesy of Virginia’s gallows, and the dragon’s teeth sown in Missouri and Kansas and everywhere else had sprung to horrible life. Missouri’s own civil war pitted neighbor against neighbor throughout the state in a bushwhacking conflict that extended locally for many years after Appomattox.**
The nastiness of the years to come is aptly suggested by this date’s events.
Like neighboring Kentucky, Missouri was a border state with a Union government, albeit one contested by a rival Confederate government. From the standpoint of the North, all Confederate activity there was behind its lines and the perpetrators therefore potentially subject to treatment (up to and including execution) as spies, saboteurs, and the like.†
Joseph Chrisman Porter, a Confederate officer, was one such possible client of this here site, tapped as he was for recruiting and raiding operations in northeast Missouri. His Union adversary Gen. John McNeil saw Porter as basically a terrorist. In August of 1862, Porter’s aide Frisby McCullough fell into McNeil’s hands: the Union general had McCullough shot.
On September 12, Porter raided the town of Palmyra, where McNeil held a number of Confederate prisoners. In the course of the raid, he kidnapped Andrew Allsman, a 60-year-old Palmyra resident. “It was said of him that he was able to inform the military authorities of certain movements of the enemy, and that he gave definitive information as to the homes and whereabouts of many men of Confederate leanings,” in the words of this pro-Confederate 1902 pamphlet on the incident. “Naturally, this placed him in disfavor with the Southern sympathizers and those who were fighting in that cause.”
What happened next — though it was not known to the Union at the time — was that Allsman was shot. The pamphlet just cited attempts to obfuscate this event into the fog of war and not really Porter’s fault. The bare fact is that his raiders had gone out of their way to seize an aged non-combatant and then summarily executed him.
Not knowing Allsman’s fate, McNeil responded with an ultimatum to his opposite number.
Palmyra, Mo., Oct. 8, 1862.
To Joseph C. Porter.
Sir: — Andrew Allsman, an aged citizen of Palmyra and a non-combatant, having been carried away from his home by a band of persons unlawfully arraigned against the peace and good order of the State of Missouri, and which band was under your control, this is to notify you that, unless Andrew Allsman is returned unharmed to his family within ten days from date, ten men, who have belonged to your band, and unlawfully sworn by you to carry arms against the government of the United States, and who are now in custody, will be shot as a meet reward for their crimes, amongst which is the illegal restraining of said Allsman of his liberty, and if not returned, of presumptively aiding in his murder. Your prompt attention to this will save much suffering.
Provost Marshal General Northeast District of Missouri
By order of Brigadier General commanding McNeil’s column
The Confederates, of course, could not produce Allsman.
So, on the evening of Oct. 17, five rebel prisoners in the Palmyra stockade plus five more held in Hannibal were informed that they would be shot the next afternoon, in ruthless enforcement of the threat.
The men who died this date in 1862 by a volley of musketry at the Palmyra fairgrounds were:
Captain Thomas Sidenor
William T. Baker
Their names adorn the base of a monument erected in Palmyra in 1907 commemorating the so-called “Palmyra Massacre”. The state of Missouri as a digital archive of original documents relating to the affair available here.
* Missouri was where the slave Dred Scott lived; his owner taking him to the neighboring free state of Illinois and thence points north occasioned the notorious Supreme Court case that bears his name.
** Frank and Jesse James were Confederate partisans for William Quantrill in the Missouri war; they segued directly into their more celebrated career in outlawry right after the war ended — robbing banks whilst settling scores with pro-Union men for the rest of the 1860s, before branching out to other points on the frontier.
† The Union might obviously have chosen to treat the entire Confederacy as a treasonable enterprise rather than a legitimate enemy belligerent. As a historical matter, it did not take this perspective.
On this date in 1901, Petrus Jacobus Fourie, Jan van Rensburg, and Lodewyk Francois Stephanus Pfeiffer were shot by the British at Graaff-Reinet.
They were among the numerous subjects of the British Cape Colony whose sympathy with the independent Boer republics which Britain was in the process of conquering extended so far as aiding their Dutch brethren’s resistance. In this case, the young men joined the famed Boer guerrilla Gideon Scheepers — and whatever one might say about the fuzziness of ethnic and national identity in a frontier region, this rated in London’s eyes as rebellion.
On July 6, 1901, Scheepers executed a raid on the town of Murraysburg — “Scheepersburg”, he called it — and put loyalist houses to the torch.
The British Gen. John French sent columns of men into the rugged Camdeboo Mountains in an effort to trap the irksome commando. Scheepers and most of his troop of about 240 men escaped, but about 27 or 28 Cape Colony rebels were captured (along with a few free staters, who could not be charged as rebels).
A particularly revolting incident happened in the execution of the three who were shot. This was, that the firing parties were a body of ten men, five with ball, and five with blank cartridges. After the word “present,” which brings the rifle to the shoulder, one of them “‘pulled off” before the command “fire” was given, and the bullet blew off the top of one man’s head.
Eight of these people were executed as rebels over the ensuing weeks, with the aid of Jan Momberg, one of their erstwhile mates who turned Crown’s evidence against them to save his own life.
After Fourie, van Rensburg and Pfeiffer were shot on Aug. 19, Ignatius Nel and Daniel Olwagen — both teenagers — died at Graaff-Reinet on August 26; and, Hendrik van Vuuren, Fredrick Toy and Hendrik Veenstra were shot at Colesberg on September 4.
Though the British made an effort to obscure the final resting-places of these potential martyr figures, their graves were located. Fourie, van Rensburg and Pfeiffer, along with Ignatius Nel and Daniel Olwagen, are among the men subsequently exhumed and placed in a collective grave. A monument in Graaff-Reinet honors these and three other guerrillas executed there … one of whom is Gideon Scheepers himself, who was captured in October of 1901 and executed the following January.
There’s a good deal more about Scheeper’s rebels, and these men in particular, in a two-part article by a descendant of van Rensburg here: part 1 | part 2.
On this date in 1676, an indigenous Nipmuc named Matoonas was marched into Boston, condemned by a summary judicial proceeding, and immediately shot on Boston Common.
Though he was a so-called “Jesus Indian” — a converted Christian — Matoonas had become a principal adversary of the European colonists once long-building tensions exploded into King Philip’s War.
To the communal grievances that made up this war, Matoonas brought a very personal injury: back in 1671, his son Nehemiah had been accused by English colonists of murder and executed on that basis. And not just executed, but his rotting head set up on a pike at the gallows, to really rub it in.
Matoonas bided his time, but joined King Philip (Metacomet) with gusto. On July 14, 1675, Nipmuc warriors under his command raided the town of Mendon, Massachusetts, leaving five dead — the very first Anglo casualties of the war.
“A dark cloud of anxiety and fear now settled down upon the place,” a bicentennial a Rev. Carlton Staples recalled in a bicentennial address on Mendon’s history 1867. “With tears and lamentations they tenderly gathered the bodies of the slain and laid them away in some pleasant spot, we know not where. The houses and farms remote from this central point were abandoned, and the people fled to other places, or gathered here to save their flocks and growing crops. All sense of security was gone. They only dared to go abroad in companies. While some worked in the fields and gardens, others watched for the lurking foe.” A few months later, the settlers had to abandon Mendon altogether, and the Nipmuc burned the ghost town to the ground.
But the tide of the war soon turned against the natives, and Matoonas would find that he had his own lurking foe.
Sagamore John comes in, brings Mattoonus and his sonne prisoner. Mattoonus shot to death the same day by John’s men.
A mysterious Nipmuc leader known as Sagamore John (“Sagamore” designates a sachem or chief) betrayed Matoonas in exchange for a pardon from the Massachusetts colony, marching Matoonas and his son right into Boston on the 27th of July.
After an improvised tribunal set down the inevitable punishment, Matoonas was lashed to a tree on Boston Common. Sagamore John himself performed the execution himself — although whether he volunteered or “volunteered” is not quite clear. The late Nipmuc raider’s head, too, was set on a pole — just opposite Nehemiah’s.
Memorial to Sagamore John in Medford, Mass. (cc) image from David Bruce.
On this date in 1862, seven federal raiders were hanged in Atlanta for the daring heist of a Confederate train two months prior. Among them were some of the very first Congressional Medal of Honor awardees.
In terms of its impact on the Civil War, the “Great Locomotive Chase” was a bust. But as pure Americana, you’ll have a hard job to top this caper.
The chase began a year to the day after the first shots had been fired between North and South. Despite the anniversary, the occasion promised nothing but the routine northbound passenger run for the locomotive General from Atlanta to Chattanooga, Tenn.
This line was a spur of the Confederate rail network, and we have already noted in these pages the interest that network held for pro-Union saboteurs. Chattanooga was its great hub: telegraph and rail lines from every quarter of the Confederacy converged there like the center of a spiderweb.
For this reason, Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel, who had just occupied Huntsville, Ala., aspired to swing his army north to strike this vital city. His bold commandos nonchalantly boarding the northbound train this day were part of Mitchel’s larger operation: cut the rail line from Atlanta to prevent timely reinforcement of Chattanooga, then quickly conquer the strategic city.* Gen. Mitchel was 28 miles from Chattanooga on April 12, 1862, and if his special agents could turn their trick then the whole course of the war might change.
Not long after 5 a.m. on that April 12, the General pulled into a depot at Big Shanty (today, Kennesaw, Ga.). It had a short layover there for breakfast at the adacent Lacey Hotel.
But more important to the raiders’ leader James J. Andrews was what Big Shanty did not have: a telegraph.
While the train’s passengers and crew were settling in for the most important meal of the day, Andrews’s raiders efficiently decoupled the locomotive, its coal tender, and three box cars from the passenger cars. Most of the raiders loaded into the boxcars to be ready as muscle for the crazy flight ahead. But the day was to be a match of speed and ingenuity between the Union daredevil Andrews, and the Confederate train conductor William Fuller — who for the start could only watch in astonishment over his coffee as his General unexpectedly pulled away.
With no telegraph in the vicinity, Fuller had no way to send word up the line to stop the General. But umbrage either patriotic or professional carried him from that first moment in a Javert-like pursuit of his commandeered locomotive.
Fuller dashed out of Big Shanty and up the train tracks on foot with his team. It’s not as crazy as it sounds: negotiating hilly terrain, the General would be making only 15 or 20 miles per hour at speed — and she stopped regularly, to foul the rails behind her, and to cut the telegraph wire. Throughout the chase, or at least until its very last stretch, the Union men managed to keep the next station ahead ignorant of the General‘s treasonable mission by snipping telegraph wire, so on the occasions when they had to stop and answer to a Western & Atlantic Railroad official they were able to bluff their way onward with a story about driving a “powder train” requisitioned by General Beauregard himself.
But those stops took time, and Fuller’s dogged pursuit did not leave Andrews’s raiders much of that to spare.
A couple of miles up the line, Fuller et al found an old handcar, and were able to take to the rails themselves. Near 20 miles into the chase, they were able to commandeer a short-line locomotive, which took them to Kingston where they switched to a mail train. Neither of these vehicles could match the General‘s horsepower; however, Andrews had to keep stopping to cut more telegraph wires or to pry up a rail, and he really got pegged back when the General had to defer to other rail traffic on the single-line route. For instance, the Union commandos spent a frustrating hour on the siding at Kingston waiting out southbound trains.
Andrews’s party did not know for sure at this point that there was a pursuer making good use of this hour. But even so, they had a challenge to spend the scarce resource of time with their hijacked locomotive to best effect.
The objective of the raid was to wreck the Atlanta-Chattanooga rail line, in a way that would put it out of commission for many days and give Gen. Mitchel leave to overwhelm Chattanooga — something like firing a bridge or collapsing a tunnel. The stops they made as they passed various stations to cut the telegraphs or laboriously crowbar up a bit of the rail were essential to give them the ability to cover the next few miles, and bluff past the next station. But thanks to Fuller’s pursuit, there was not after these time-consuming little acts of sabotage a sufficient opportunity to accomplish the tactical purpose of the hijacking.
An extensive collection of links and images relating to the entire route of the chase is here.
In the coolest final stage, the segment most properly called the “Great Locomotive Chase”, Fuller’s gang grabbed a southbound locomotive, the Texas, and without bothering to turn it around they slammed it into reverse in hot pursuit of the northbound General.
The federals in the General tried dropping timbers, and even cutting loose boxcars behind them as railbound battering rams aimed at their inexorable hunter. The Texas kept coming.
By the time the Union boys reached a wooden covered bridge over the Oostanaula, it was apparent that the locomotive would soon exhaust her fuel. Still, the churning plumes of the backward Texas loomed just a few minutes behind. In his last chance to do what he had set out for, Andrews torched his final remaining box car and released it into the wooden bridge, hoping to set the entire structure ablaze and collapse it into the river. Unhappily for the General‘s illicit crew, looking backwards with desperate hope as their ride chugged off, boards sodden by a week’s worth of springtime rain showers stubbornly refused to kindle … and then the Texas arrived to clear away the incendiary.
As its fuel dwindled and its adversary closed, the Generalcame to the end of her legendary run about 18 miles from Chattanooga. Andrews and party abandoned their engine to history and scattered into the woods — but none escaped the immediate Confederate manhunt.
The twenty raiders, plus two others who were supposed to be part of the operation but missed their rendezvous, were all court-martialed as spies: “lurking in and around Confederate camps as spies, for the purpose of obtaining information,” a description bearing very scant resemblance to their actual activities. Eight would hang on this basis.
The intrepid ringleader James Andrews, who was a civilian, was executed in Atlanta on June 7, all alone. His mates only learned of his fate while sitting at their trial in Chattanooga — an experience described in a memoir by one of their number, William Pittenger.
As the trial of different ones proceeded, we had still greater encouragement from the court itself. Members called on us, and told us to keep in good heart, as there was no evidence before them to convict any one. This cheered us somewhat, but there was still one thing which I did not like, and which looked as if something was wrong. The court would not let our boys be present to hear the pleading of counsel on either side, though they urgently requested it. They could neither hear what our lawyers had to say for them, nor what the Judge Advocate urged against them.
The trials proceeded rapidly. One man was taken out each day, and in about an hour returned. The table in the court room was covered with bottles, newspapers, and novels, and the court passed its time during trial in discussing these. This was very well if the trial was, as they said, a mere matter of formality; but if it was a trial in earnest, on which depended issues of life or death, it was most heartless conduct.
At last the number of seven was reached, and they would probably have proceeded in trying others, had not General Mitchel, who was continually troubling them, now advanced, and shelled Chattanooga from the opposite side of the Tennessee river. This at once broke up the court-martial, and sent the officers in hot haste to their regiments to resist his progress. Soon after, General Morgan advanced through Cumberland Gap, and threatened Knoxville, which also rendered it necessary to remove us.
Evacuated to Atlanta, they there “remained for a week in quietness and hope, thinking the worst of our trials were past,” Pettinger wrote. “Little did we foresee how fearful a storm was soon to burst over us.”
For its topicality to our site, we here excerpt Pettinger’s chapter 11 at some length:
One day while we were very merry, amusing ourselves with games and stories, we saw a squadron of cavalry approaching. This did not at first excite any attention, for it was a common thing to see bodies of horsemen in the streets; but soon we observed them halt at our gate, and surround the prison. What could this mean?
A moment after, the clink of the officers’ swords was heard as they ascended the stairway, and we knew that something unusual was about to take place. They paused at our door, threw it open, called the names of our seven companions, and took them out to the room opposite, putting the Tennesseeans in with us. One of our boys, named Robinson, was sick of a fever, and had to be raised to his feet, and supported out of the room.
With throbbing hearts we asked one another the meaning of these strange proceedings. Some supposed they were to receive their acquittal; others, still more sanguine, believed they were taken out of the room to be paroled, preparatory to an exchange.
I was sick, too, but rose to my feet, oppressed with a nameless fear. A half crazy Kentuckian, who was with the Tennesseeans, came to me and wanted to play a game of cards. I struck the greasy pack out of his hands, and bade him leave me.
A moment after, the door opened, and George D. Wilson entered, his step firm and his form erect, but his countenance pale as death. Some one asked a solution of the dreadful mystery, in a whisper, for his face silenced every one.
The raiders hanged June 18, 1862
William Hunter Campbell, a civilian
Pvt. Samuel Robertson
Sgt. Major Marion Ross
Sgt. John Scott
Pvt. Charles Shadrack
Pvt. Samuel Slavens
Pvt. George Davenport Wilson
“We are to be executed immediately,” was the awful reply, whispered with thrilling distinctness. The others came in all tied, ready for the scaffold. Then came the farewells — farewells with no hope of meeting again in this world! It was a moment that seemed an age of measureless sorrow.
Our comrades were brave; they were soldiers, and had often looked death in the face on the battle-field. They were ready, if need be, to die for their country; but to die on the scaffold — to die as murderers die — seemed almost too hard for human nature to bear.
Then, too, the prospect of a future world, into which they were thus to be hurled without a moment’s preparation, was black and appalling. Most of them had been careless, and had no hope beyond the grave. Wilson was a professed infidel, and many a time had argued the truth of the Christian religion with me for a half day at a time; but in this awful hour he said to me:
“Pittenger, I believe you are right, now! Oh! try to be better prepared when you come to die than I am.” Then, laying his hand on my head with a muttered “God bless you,” we parted.
Shadrack was profane and reckless, but good-hearted and merry. Now, turning to us with a voice, the forced calmness of which was more affecting than a wail of agony, he said:
“Boys, I am not prepared to meet Jesus.”
When asked by some of us in tears to think of heaven, he answered, still in tones of thrilling calmness, “I’ll try! I’ll try! But I know I am not prepared.”
Slavens, who was a man of immense strength and iron resolution, turned to his friend Buffum, and could only articulate, “Wife — children — tell” — when utterance failed.
Scott was married only three days before he came to the army, and the thought of his young and sorrowing wife nearly drove him to despair. He could only clasp his hands in silent agony.
All this transpired in a moment, and even then the Marshal and other officers standing by him in the door, exclaimed:
“Hurry up there! come on! we can’t wait!”
In this manner my poor comrades were hurried off. Robinson, who was too sick to walk, was dragged away with them. They asked leave to bid farewell to our other boys, who were confined in the adjoining room, but it was sternly refused!
Thus we parted. We saw the death cart containing our comrades drive off, surrounded by cavalry. In about an hour it came back empty. The tragedy was complete!
Later in the evening, the Provost-Marshal came to the prison, and, in reply to our questions, informed us that our friends “Had met their fate as brave men should die everywhere.”
The next day we obtained from the guards, who were always willing to talk with us in the absence of the officers, full particulars of the seven-fold murder.
When our companions were mounted on the scaffold, Wilson asked permission to say a few words, which was granted — probably in the hope of hearing some confession which would justify them in the murder they were about to commit. But this was not his intention. It was a strange stand — a dying speech to a desperate audience, and under the most terrible circumstances.
But he was equal to the occasion. Unterrified by the near approach of death, he spoke his mind freely. He told them that “they were all in the wrong; that he had no hard feelings toward the Southern people for what they were about to do, because they had been duped by their leaders, and induced by them to engage in the work of rebellion. He also said, that though he was condemned as a spy, yet he was none, and they well knew it. He was only a soldier in the performance of the duty he had been detailed to do; that he did not regret to die for his country, but only regretted the manner of his death. He concluded by saying that they would yet live to regret the part they had taken in this rebellion, and would see the time when the old Union would be restored, and the flag of our country wave over the very ground occupied by his scaffold.”
This made a deep impression on the minds of those who listened, and I often afterward heard it spoken of in terms of the highest admiration. When he ceased, the signal was given, and the traps fell!
Five only remained dangling in the air; for two of the seven, Campbell and Slavens, being very heavy men, broke the ropes, and fell to the ground insensible. In a short time they recovered, and asked for a drink of water, which was given them. Then they requested an hour to pray before entering the future world which lay so near and dark before them. This last petition was indignantly refused, and as soon as the ropes could be adjusted, they were compelled to re-ascend the scaffold, and were again turned off!
The whole proceeding, from beginning to end, was marked by the most revolting haste. They seemed to wish, by thus affording no time to prepare for death, to murder soul and body both. Even the worst criminals in our country are allowed some weeks to ask for God’s mercy, before they are thrust into his presence; but our poor boys, whose only crime was loving and trying to serve their country, were not allowed one moment! Could the barbarity of fiends go further?
That afternoon was one of deepest gloom for those who remained. We knew not how soon we might be compelled to follow in the same path, and drink the same bitter cup our comrades drank. Once during the trial we had offered to accept the award of the court in one of the cases as the sentence of all, since we could not see the slightest reason for leaving some and taking others. At that time, however, we believed that all would be acquitted. Now every hope had vanished.
But even without the addition of fear for ourselves, the parting from our loved friends, whose voices were still ringing in our ears, while they themselves had passed beyond the gates of death into the unknown land of shadows, was enough to rend the stoutest heart. There were tears then from eyes that shrank before no danger.
But I could not shed a tear. A cloud of burning heat rushed to my head that seemed to scorch through every vein. For hours I scarcely knew where I was, or the loss I had sustained. Every glance around the room, which revealed the vacant places of our friends, would bring our sorrow freshly on us again. Thus the afternoon passed away in grief too deep for words. Slowly and silently the moments wore on, and no one ventured to whisper of hope.
Fearing they could suffer snap execution at any moment, the remaining raiders made their own hope.
Weeks later, a jail breakout freed eight; all eight covered the hundreds of miles to Union lines safely.
The last six, Pettinger included, were captured in the attempt and remained as war prisoners until the following March, when they were swapped back to the Union in a prisoner exchange.
Strange to say, the United States at the outset of the Civil War did not have a standing military decoration. One of the fruits of this fratricidal conflict was the creation of the Congressional Medal of Honor, which remains to this day the highest honor bestowed within the U.S. armed forces. Abraham Lincoln signed the enabling legislation in July of 1862; they were minted beginning at the end of that year and formally became available as decorations on March 3, 1864.
Our last six survivors — the six exchanged for Confederate POWs — presented themselves to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on March 25, 1863. In the course of the visit, Stanton presented them with the first six Medals of Honor ever awarded; ultimately, 19 of Andrews’s Raiders received the award — whether living or dead. (Andrews himself was not eligible for it, as a civilian.)
We have included here several clips of the 1956 Disney film The Great Locomotive Chase. This escapade was also the subject of a 1926 Buster Keaton silent comedy, The General, which can be enjoyed in full online:
For a look at the real General in action in 1962 for the Great Chase’s centennial, take a gander at this video. The Texas is on public display at Atlanta’s Southern Museum‘s exhibit on the Great Locomotive Chase.
Our man emerged in the 1880s bedeviling the French from Kabilya where the French had already had to suppress a rebellion. Collective punishment for that rising, onerous taxes, and the empire’s confiscations to benefit colonists all fired continuing resentment.
To French eyes, El Bachir was simply a bandit. But for periods of his nearly 15 years’ activity his word was next to law where the triclor could not reach. Kabilya’s colonial officials lived in fear of his revenge.
When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, it committed a disproportionate quantity of its forces to the northern reaches of its target. Consequently, resistance was stronger in the south — and Ras Desta was one of its chiefs. In January 1936 he led Ethipoian forces at the Battle of Ganale Doria.
Though the two sides had forces of similar sizes, Italy’s was the mechanized, industrial army — and the Ras was routed by Gen. Rodolfo Graziani. It was a milepost for Graziani on his way to lasting infamy in Ethiopia as the conquered realm’s brutal Viceroy for 1937. (He was recalled at year’s end.) Graziani vowed that Italy would dominate Ethiopia “at whatever cost” and threatened “extreme severity towards anyone who resisted.”
On February 19, 1937 — Yekatit 12 by the Ethiopian calendar — two ethnic Eritreans expressed their resistance by pelting Graziani with grenades. He had shown his viceregal person at a hearts-and-minds almsgiving, and having been received with such cordiality, he returned immediately to the Extreme Severity plan.
While doctors dug shrapnel out of Graziani, somehow saving his life, an aide named Guido Cortese condemned up to 30,000** humans to punitive death with a dread order:
Comrades, today is the day when we should show our devotion to our Viceroy by reacting and destroying the Ethiopians for three days. For three days I give you carte blanche to destroy and kill and do what you want to the Ethiopians.
For the next several days, Italian forces delivered a punitive rampage to their new subjects, claiming up to 30,000 lives.**
Desta Damtew, who had been lucky to flee the battlefield slaughter after Ganale Doria, was not directly a casualty off this three days’ bloodbath, but when he was captured in the bush along with fellow insurgent commander Beyene Merid, no-quarter treatment was a given. Both men were immediately shot.
The flow’r of a nation’s strength
Had thrown their valour and their might
Against the charging hordes of death
In history’s most unequal fight!
One man remained — the last of them —
To stand for Ethiopia:
All else surrendered, died or fled
But, he, the lion-hearted-Ras Desta.
Graziani, Italian butcher
Had valiant Desta quickly shot,
To seal his lips and tie his hands
In fear of what he called a plot.
With death of such a noble man,
A reign has passed to history;
But time will bring to us again
More men to fight for victory.
* Ras is a title, literally meaning “Head” and akin to “Prince” or “Duke”. Before he was royalty, Haile Selassie was born Tafari Makonnen, and then eventually known as Ras Tafari … hence, rastafarianism.
** According to Ethiopian figures. Italy’s numbers put the post-Yekatit 12 casualties “merely” in the hundreds.