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.
The retaliatory executions a U.S. Army lieutenant carried out on this date in 1861 helped set in motion a decade-long war with the Apaches.
Three years out of West Point and brand new to Arizona’s Fort Buchanan, George Bascom in retrospect was probably not the ideal ambassador to send out with orders to retrieve a young half-Apache boy kidnapped from a ranch by an Indian raid. (Along with all the cattle.)
Since nobody was present at the time, the identity of the raiders just wasn’t known — but someone’s suspicions affixed on the wily and dangerous* Chiricahua warrior Cochise. The Chiriachuas were just one group among the Apache peoples; they ranged from Mexico to southeastern New Mexico and southwestern Arizona, and were divided into many small local groups each with their own leader — like Cochise.
Lt. Bascom would be killed in a Civil War engagement a year after the events in this post without leaving posterity his memoirs, so his understanding of Apache society can only be guessed at. But his on-the-make bullheadedness is universal to every time and place where young men can be found. “Bascom was a fine-looking fellow, a Kentuckian, a West Pointer, and of course a gentleman,” Arizona frontiersman Charles Poston later remembered. “But he was unfortunately a fool.”
Lt. Bascom and Cochise.
The greenhorn lieutenant rode out with 54 cavalrymen to Apache Pass and lured Cochise to a confabulation. Cochise showed up with his brother, wife, and children — clearly expecting some sort of social call.
Cochise was entirely unaware of the kidnapping, and unaware that Bascom considered him the kidnapper. He offered to find out about it and retrieve the boy from whomever had him.
Bascom, whose troops had surrounded the tent during the parley, accused Cochise of lying to him. Cochise had twice the impertinent lieutnant’s years and at least that multiple of Bascom’s sense, and must have been affronted by his opposite number’s behavior — but when Bascom announced that he would be taking Cochise and his companions as prisoners pending the return of the raiders’ spoils, the Apache commander whipped a knife out of its sheath and instantly slashed his escape route through the wall of the tent. Bursting past the shocked troops (they were as inexperienced as their officer), Cochise escaped into the twilight. This “Bascom Affair” (to Anglos) is remembered more evocatively by Apaches as “Cut Through The Tent”.
But the tent-knifing was only the start of it.
Cochise’s party did not manage to follow his escape, so Bascom now held Cochise’s brother, wife, son, and two other warriors. The Apache tried to put himself in a negotiating position by seizing hostages of his own — first a Butterfield stagecoach stationmaster named Wallace, and later three white men seized from a passing wagon train.
Nor were the hostages’ the only lives at stake. Cochise’s band, including the soon-to-be-legendary Geronimo, had assembled and their campfires burned menacingly in the hills around the little stage station where Bascom’s force fortified themselves. Bascom could have defused it all with a hostage swap, but the kid had his orders and stubbornly refused to make the trade unless it included the one hostage Cochise didn’t have: that little boy from the ranch.
At length, reinforcements for the beleaguered cavalry began arriving, one such party bringing three other Apaches captured en route and entirely unrelated to Cochise. “Troops were sent out to search for us,” a much older Geronimo recalled in his memoirs. “But as we had disbanded, it was, of course, impossible for them to locate any hostile camp … while they searched we watched them from our hiding places and laughed at their failures.”
Despairing now of seeing his family again, Cochise had his hostages killed and dispersed, leaving the mutilated remains to be discovered by his antagonists with the help of circling buzzards. When they did so, they retaliated in fury — releasing only Cochise’s wife and child, but hanging the six other hostages, including Cochise’s brother. In the narration of Sgt. Daniel Robinson,
After witnessing the fiendish acts committed by the Apaches, the minds of our officers and men were filled with horror, and in retaliation, it was decided in Council, that the captive Indians should die. On the 19th we broke camp to return to our respective posts leaving a Sergeant and eight men to take charge of the station until relieved. We halted about half a mile from the station where there was a little grove of Cedar trees. The Indians were brought to the front with their hands tied behind their backs, and led up to the trees. Noosed picket ropes were placed around their necks, the ends thrown over the limbs of the trees and manned by an equal number of willing hands. A signal was given and away flew the spirits of the unfortunate Indians — not to the happy hunting grounds of Indian tradition. According to their ideas or belief in a hereafter, those who die by hanging can never reach that region of bliss. I was in an ambulance with the other Sergeant, and must confess it was a sad spectacle to look upon. An illustration of the Indians sense of Justice: “That the innocent must suffer for the guilty.” And the white man’s notion — “That the only good Indians are dead ones.” Whatever it may be, I do not think it was much worse than the present policy of penning them up on Reservations and starving them to death. (See Cochise: Firsthand Accounts of the Chiricahua Apache Chief.)
A devastating decade-long war against Cochise and his equally able father-in-law Mangas Coloradas ensued, and right when the army most needed its military resources for the Civil War. The conflict claimed hundreds or thousands of lives, crippled mining and ranching, and depopulated fearful white settlements around Apache country in favor of “gravestones … by the road-side like sentinels, bearing the invariable description ‘Killed by the Apaches'”.
A fort near the Texas border was later named for Bascom. The kidnapped boy was never recovered and grew up in a different Apache tribe.
Tom Jeffords (Jimmy Stewart): “Cochise didn’t start this war! A snooty little lieutenant fresh out of the east started it. He flew a flag of truce which Cochise honored, and then he hanged Cochise’s brother and five others under the flag.”
* Cochise was officially at peace with the Americans at this point and hostile to Mexicans. In “Cochise: Apache War Leader, 1858-1861,” in the Journal of Arizona History (Spring 1965), Barbara Ann Tyler argues that the reality of the situation was that his warband flexibly shifted between temporary peace and opportunistic small raids, moving north and south of the Mexican border as convenient.
In response, some 100 local teens banded together into an anti-fascist underground — the Molodaya Gvardiya, or Young Guard. (English Wikipedia entry) | Russian) Most of their number would give their lives in resistance.
During the few months of occupation, the Young Guards managed an impressive record of sabotage operations and propaganda coups. It busted 90 people out of the Germans’ concentration camp, and got the hammer and sickle hung up on government buildings to mark the silver anniversary of Red October. In December, the Young Guards managed to destroy the labor bureau (and its list of intended conscripts) on the eve of a planned deportation, sparing 2,000 people that dreadful fate.
The Germans finally got their hooks into the Young Guards and started mass arrests at the start of January. They brought in most of the Young Guards for torture and execution — smashing up the organization in their very last weeks in town.
The five put to death this date were the last of those martyrs, and the more tragic in that the occupiers were even then gearing up to evacuate as the Red Army closed in. (The Soviets took the city on February 15.) They were:
Oleg Koshevoy’s interrogation. Image from MolodGuard.ru’s stupendous images collection.
In September 1943, three Soviet citizens were publicly executed in the liberated city on charges of having aided the Germans in suppressing the Young Guards.
The Young Guards’ youth and intrepidity made them extremely congenial to the Soviets’ wartime demand for martyrs. At the urging of his Ukrainian deputy Nikita Khrushchev — who himself hailed from the Donbass — Stalin approved a number of the Young Guards (including this date’s Koshevoy and Shevtsova) as Heroes of the Soviet Union.
The Guards valorized in a 1945 novel, and then a 1948 film based on that novel. (Russian links, both.)
They’ve featured in postage stamps, public artwork, and every manner of patriotic commemoration ever since. They’ve even come in for a bit of post-Soviet “ownership” conflict (over the Guards’ degree of Communist Party affiliation) between Ukraine’s Russian- and Soviet-leaning east and the nationalist-sympathizing west.
Today the “Molodaya Gvardiya” brand might be most immediately recognizable as a youth organ of Vladimir Putin’s party — no connection to the young partisans, of course.
* Not to be confused with the Russian city of Krasnodar.
On this date in 1601, Serbian-Romanian hajdukStarina Novak was slow-roasted in Cluj with two of his captains.
The hajduk in the Balkans was a romantic figure who mixed traits of the “social bandit” outlaw with those of anti-Ottoman guerrilla. Colorful characters answering the archetype persisted into the 20th century.
Novak, who was around 70 by the time of his death, is still celebrated for his feats of arms on the soldiering side of the ledger in a running conflict with the Ottomans. Most of the sites about Starina Novak are in Serbian, like this one.
He emerges as a commander of Serbian and Bulgarian auxiliaries fighting with Michael the Brave in the 1590s to carve out of the Ottoman realm a kingdom of Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia — roughly, present-day Romania plus Moldova. The enterprise was as glorious as its destiny was tragic.
By 1601 an Italian officer aptly christened Giorgio Basta had had enough of his erstwhile allies and double-crossed hajduk and upstart king alike.
The former he shopped as a traitor to Michael’s Hungarian allies, who put him to the stake in Cluj and made sure to throw water on the burning partisan throughout in order to prolong the ordeal. (The charred corpses of Novak and his associates were then impaled.) A few months later, Basta had Michael the Brave assassinated, and placed himself at the head of Michael’s hard-won kingdom.
A statue of Starina Novak keeps vigil in the city where he died. (cc) image from Bogdan Pop.
Being a national hero means your prior career in brigandage gets a little Robin Hood elbow grease.
In the Serbian epic “Starina Novak and Knez Bogosava” — translated here by polyglot friend of the site Sonechka — Novak attributes his turn to banditry to the impositions of his rulers, specifically (and ahistorically) blaming the 15th century despot’s wife Jerina for overtaxing him.
Novak and Radivoj are imbibing wine
By the brisk waters of Bosna,
At a certain Prince Bogosav’s.
And having sated themselves with wine,
Prince Bogosav began to talk:
“Brother, Old Novak,
Tell me straight, as if confessing,
Why did you, brother, become a hajduk?
What compels you
To break your neck, to wander the forest
As a brigand, pursuing your ignoble employ,
Unto your senescence, when your time has passed?”
Replies Old Novak:
“Brother, Prince Bogosav,
When you ask, I answer in earnest —
It was truly not my wish.
If you could recollect
The time when Jerina was building Smederevo
And ordered me to toil.
I labored for three years,
I pulled the trees and carried stones,
All on my own cart and oxen.
And in three years term,
I gained not a dinar,
Not even opanci to put on my feet.
But that, brother, I would have forgiven!
Having built Smederevo,
She began to mount towers,
To engild the gates and windows,
And imposed the duty on the vilayet,
For each house – three measures of gold,
Which is three hundred ducats, brother!
Those who had, gave her the treasure;
Those who gave, stayed.
I was a pauper,
With nothing to give,
I took my pickax, which I toiled with,
And with this pickax I turned to banditry,
No longer could I linger anywhere
In the domain of cursed Jerina,
But ran away to the icy Drina,
Then reached stony Bosnia.
And when I neared Romania,
I met a Turkish wedding party –
Escorting a noble girl,
All passed in peace,
Save for the Turkish groom.
On the great dark brown steed,
He did not want to pass in peace.
He pulls his three-tail whip
(encumbered with three bolts of weight)
And lashes me across my shoulders.
I begged him thrice in the God’s name:
‘I beg you, Turk,
So blessed you with fortune and heroism,
And happy joviality,
Go on, proceed along your way with peace —
Do you see that I am a poor man!’
Withal the Turk would not budge.
And ache had grasped me,
And the anger grew,
I pulled my pickax from my shoulder
And struck the Turk, mounting on his brown steed.
The blow was so light
That it threw him off his horse,
I came upon him,
Hit him twice, and then again three times
While rending him asunder.
I rummaged through his pockets,
And found there three bags of treasure;
I stashed them in my bosom;
Untied his sword,
Having untied it from his belt, I have attached it to my own;
In place I left the pickax,
So that the Turks will have a tool with which to bury,
And thenceforth I mounted his brown steed,
And headed straight to the Romanian forest.
This all was witnessed by the wedding party
That dared not pursue me.
They wanted not or dared not.
It happened forty years back.
I grew more fond of my Romanian forest
Than, brother, of a palace;
Because I guard the mountenous road,
I wait for young Sarajevans
And take their gold, and silver,
And finer cloth, and satin;
I dress myself and the gang;
So I can come and flee,
And stay in horrid places —
I fear nothing but God.”
For Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian speakers with a lot of time on their hands, here’s a reading of the original:
On this date in 1944, Soviet partisan Zinaida Portnova was executed by the Germans occupying Belarus.
The youngest-ever female Hero of the Soviet Union (she was posthumously decorated in 1958), the Leningrad-born Portnova had a rude start in insurgency when the German blitz swept past her summer camp in Belarus and trapped her behind lines.
Said to have been radicalized when occupying soldiers struck her grandmother, the girl joined the youth arm of the local resistance, dubbed the “Young Avengers”.
From surveilling enemy troop deployments and assembling weapons caches, Zinaida Portnova graduated to sabotage and ambushes … and capture. Even then she pulled off an action hero escape by snatching a gun and shooting her way out of custody, only to be re-arrested shortly thereafter.
On this date in 1964, the last two members of a noble and doomed rebel movement against Papa Doc Duvalier were shot in a repellent carnival outside the Haitian capital’s national cemetery.
Thirteen young Haitian expatriates had alit from sea, Granma-like, early that August of 1964, weeks after Duvalier was “elected” President-for-Life with an entirely plausible 99.9% of the vote.*
Taking to heart Machiavelli’s maxim that it is better for a sovereign to be feared than loved, Papa Doc buttressed his rule with a vicious paramilitary force. Some 30,000 Haitians are thought to have been murdered during his 14-year reign, and many thousands of others fled into exile.
The Cuban example — a few plucky armed men in the mountain somehow toppling the ancien regime — must have inspired the U.S. exiles of the so-called Jeune Haiti. Certainly they did not want for the guerrilla’s raw courage and hardiness. In some alternate history their tramping through southern Haiti’s hills under the barrage of Hurricane Cleo is the stuff schoolchildren recite.
But in our world the rising Jeune Haiti hoped to spark did not materialize. Port-au-Prince brandished horrific reprisals against the rebels’ non-combatant family members in the city of Jeremie, and the men themselves were simply picked off in ones and twos in the bush. The last Jeune Haiti members still at liberty were killed in late October, leaving only the two whom the government had managed to captuure. Papa Doc had evil plans for Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin.**
On November 12, a Thursday, government offices shuttered for the grotesque holiday, and schools were ordered to bring their pupils to this special lesson of the dictatorship. “No force will stop the invincible march of the Duvalierist revolution,” read a leaflet distributed at the execution. “It carries the strength of a torrent.” (Source)
Under the eyes of this curious throng and the whirr of cameras, Numa and Drouin were lashed to pine poles by the Tonton Macoutes. Un-blindfolded, they received the whispered last rites of a Catholic priest, and then were shot dead by a firing detail.
When the men’s bodies slide down the poles, Numa’s arms end up slightly above his shoulders and Drouin’s below his. Their heads return to an upright position above their kneeling bodies, until a soldier in camouflage walks over and delivers the final coup de grace, after which their heads slump forward and their bodies slide further toward the bottom of the pole. Blood spills out of Numa’s mouth. Drouin’s glasses fall to the ground, pieces of blood and brain matter clouding the cracked lenses.
The next day, Le Matin, the country’s national newspaper, described the stunned-looking crowd as “feverish, communicating in a mutual patriotic exaltation to curse adventurism and brigandage.”
“The government pamphlets circulating in Port-au-Prince last week left little to the imagination,” reported the November 27, 1964, edition of the American newsweekly Time. “‘Dr. Francois Duvalier will fulfill his sacrosanct mission. He has crushed and will always crush the attempts of the opposition. Think well, renegades. Here is the fate awaiting you and your kind.'”
* Actually a bit of a setback for Duvalier after winning every single vote (finaly tally of 1,320,748 to 0) in his 1961 “re-election”.
** Drouin, who was wounded in a battle and captured for that reason, openly lamented at his execution his failure to commit suicide.
Three Sierra Leone natives whose November 7, 1898 hanging we recall here might have had their fate written in the stars before time itself began, but a much more proximate document was the understanding concluded among European powers at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85.
“Deal table in the middle, plain chairs all round the walls, on one end a large shining map, marked with all the colors of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red — good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer.” -Joseph Conrad
This summit aimed to regularize the so-called “scramble for Africa” among rival European empires by setting forth some rules about who got to plant what flags where. One of those rules was known as the Principle of Effective Occupation: as the name suggests, the Principle was that a colonial power actually had to be in something like control of the territory it proposed to call its own.
The Berlin Conference kicked off a generation of frenetic jockeying and conquest that carved up the continent.
Further to Effective Occupation, the British expanded their longstanding coastal presence at Freetown by, in 1896, annexing the inland regions into something now christened the Protectorate of Sierra Leone.
All that Protectorating didn’t come cheap. Who better to pay for it than the Protectorated?
Britain’s proconsul accordingly dropped a Hut Tax on his subjects — a ruinously steep one that stoked an 1898 rebellion known as the Hut Tax War. The brief but bloody war (actually an amalgamation of two distinct rebellions, north and south) cost hundreds of lives on each side, not sparing civilians.
I had already sent to the chief of this town, giving him an ultimatum — that if he would not by a certain day, come up and tender his unconditional submission, a punitive expedition would be the result. He was a notoriously bad character and did some terrible things, for which he was afterwards tried and hanged. The disregarding of the ultimatum caused the present expedition. I was informed that when we arrived at the waterside he had cleared out with the people before we could get into the town. Presently a few people returned, and it was evident that he was in hiding near; but to attempt to hunt for men in the African bush is a waste of time, the bush being their natural stronghold.
I sent messages by the people, and had it loudly called out that if he would return to the town by 4 o’clock that I would not destroy the place, but that if he did not appear before me by that time it would be burnt. As he did not do so and I could get no information whatever, the straggling and outlying parts of the town were fired, and in the morning the town itself was destroyed.
Hangings like the one Alldridge references here for the chief of Bambaia were meted out in great number to rebel leadership, some 96 executions known in just a few months. Alldridge knew the country in peacetime and not just in war, and would eventually publish several studies of the country from his observations. (The text just quoted comes from one such.)
In this 1896 photo, Alldridge recorded the election by the chiefs of Imperri — a region of Sherbro Island — of a paramount chief (Sokong). He’s the rightmost of the two seated men, wearing a black top hat; beside him sits a counselor described by Alldridge as the Imperri Prime Minister (Lavari).
That would presumably make those two leaders also part of this portrait, taken just four months before the rebellion’s outbreak at a meeting of Imperri chiefs in that town of Bambaia which Alldridge would later put to the torch:
Identified beneath the print are the Sokong, the Prime Minister and ‘a principal Kruba’ (military leader) with the following remark: ‘all of whom were tried for murder and hanged at Bonthe, Sherbro, 7th November 1898′.
Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to find a version of this photo that actually reproduces in situ the identifications alluded to. Perhaps there is a reader who can identify the Sokong and Lavari from the first picture in the second?
On this date in 1868, the Ottoman Turks executed Bulgarian revolutionary Stefan Karadzha.
Karadzha was one of several nationalist cheta (guerrilla) leaders aspiring to father the future sovereign Bulgaria.
Operating from adjacent, and conveniently independent, Romania, around 1866-1867, Karadzha and others of his ilk — Hadzhi Dimitur Nikolov, Filip Totyu, and the dramatically mustachioed Panayot Hitov — slipped over the mountainous border to organize revolutionary cells and foment ill-feeling towards the Sublime Porte.
In Bulgaria’s late 19th century progress towards independence, these figures are transitional characters between the vanguard leadership of Georgi Rakovski, and the ensuing primacy of Vasil Levski.
Levski himself was a guerrilla in this period; after the cheta legions suffered some backbreaking defeats in the field — one of which saw our man Karadzha captured so badly wounded that he was “half-dead before the emergency Turkish court”* when condemned to hang — Levski set about honeycombing his country with the revolutionary network that would shape the future revolutionary struggle.
A national hero of lesser stature than Levski, which is sure no disgrace, Karadzha has a village named after him.
* The quote is from the unimpeachable source of Karadzha’s Wikipedia page.