Thursday, May 12, 2016

MAY 12 = The Civil War's Last Battle

"Boys, we have done finely. We will let well enough alone, and retire."

These were the words of Col. John "Rip" Ford to his men following the Battle of Palmetto Ranch which begun on today's date, May 12 in 1865. This was the final battle of the American Civil war which was begun for reasons that are not clear.

The Troops in Texas

As he Civil War drew to a close, there were troops spread out all over the country. More than a full month after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox there were still several thousand troops on both sides in Texas. At the southernmost tip of the state where the Rio Grande River empties into the Gulf of Mexico lay Brazos Santiago Island wherein was stationed 2,000 Union troops. Among these were the 62nd and 87th U.S. Colored Infantry, the 34th Indiana and a small number of loyal Texans who had signed on for cavalry service but were dismounted for lack of horses. Facing them across the bay and some miles inland, were some 1,200 men left by March 31 under the command of Confederate Brig. Gen. James E. Slaughter.

Barrett Moves Against the Rebels

These troops had been observing a kind of unofficial truce for some time.  But for reasons that are unknown Union Colonel Theodore H. Barrett (below) ordered an attack on a Confederate camp near Fort Brown. It has been suggested that Barrett may have been looking to get
in some combat before the war was over. He may have been after  some of the horses which the Confederates had. Whatever his reasons, Col. Barrett ordered some 250 men of his "colored" troops, and 50 of his dismounted cavalry to cross from Brazos Island to the mainland at Boca Chica Pass and move to occupy Brownsville. Under the command of Lt. Col. David Branson they did so on May 11 at 9:30 pm. They then marched all night, reaching White's Ranch by daybreak on the 12th.  There they stopped to rest, but were seen by Rebel Scouts. Barrett had hoped to surprise the rebels at Brownsville, but realizing that he had been spotted he immediately resumed his march to his target.

The Battle of Palmetto Ranch

Branson's men left at 8:30 that morning traversing 112 miles to Palmetto Ranch, arriving at noon. Once there they immediately fell into a skirmish with Capt. W. N. Robinson's 190 man company of Texas Cavalry Battalion,  The two sides exchanged gunfire, but nobody was injured. After this brief exchange, the rebels fell back. Branson's men did not pursue, but instead moved into the ranch and made their dinner. In the meantime, Robinson sent word of the attack back to Brownsville, where Col. Ford (below) began gathering up as many men
as he could to come to Robinson's aid. But Robinson was not waiting for reinforcements. He gathered up what men he could and launched a bold counterattack later that day taking Branson's men quite by surprise, sending then reeling back towards White Ranch. From there Branson sent word to Col. Barrett, asking for reinforcement. This, Barrett did arriving himself with 200 men from his Indiana regiment. He arrived at about 5:30 a.m. on the 13th.  These men fought Robinson's 190 man force, pushing them back, until Col. Ford arrived with rebel reinforcements of about 300 men, and artillery. This force then unleashed cannon fire on Barrett's force, forcing them all the way back to Brazos Island. At this point the "colored" troops formed a line and were able to beat off the attack Ford's force leading to his quote from the top of this posting.

The Last Man Killed....

In all of this fighting in what was clearly a Confederate victory in this final battle of the Civil War, the Union suffered only four men killed.  One of these was the last man killed in the Civil War: John J. Williams of the 34th Indiana Infantry, pictured at right.

Sources =

Monday, April 11, 2016

APRIL 11 = Truman Relieves MacArthur

“It is right for us to be in Korea... (it) would be wrong—tragically wrong—for us to take the initiative in extending the war… Our aim is to avoid the spread of the conflict...I believe that we must try to limit the war to Korea for these vital reasons: To make sure that the precious lives of our fighting men are not wasted; to see that the security of our country and the free world is not needlessly jeopardized; and to prevent a third world war.” (General MacArthur was being relieved) “so that there would be no doubt or confusion as to the real purpose and aim of our policy.”

President Harry S. Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of his command of U.S. forces in Korea on today's date, April 11 in 1951.  The General had been butting head with the president for some time over how far the war in Korea was going to be taken, and this lead the
president to decide that it was time for Big Mac to go.  This raised a storm of controversy, but Truman in addressing the situation described it as quoted above.

Truman, MacArthur, and the Korean War  

The Korean War had broken out when forces of Communist North Korea invaded the Republic of South Korea on June 25, 1950. Truman immediately put U.S. forces into the fray to stave off this naked communist aggression. The U.S. forces backing the South Koreans were under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. Mac Arthur had been the military leader who had lead the U.S. in our victory over Japan during World War II and was considered a military genius. The
North Koreans had pushed far south enough that they very nearly had taken the entire peninsula. But with MacArthur's brilliant landings at Inchon (Sept. 14 - 19, 1950) the invaders had been pushed way back into their own territory, and by 1951, they had been pushed to the very border of communist China. Truman was concerned about the Chinese getting into the war. But even after MacArthur met with him on Wake Island (Oct. 15, 1950) and assured him that this would not happen - it did happen with hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops attacking in November and December of 1950 (above).

Truman and Mac Disagree

There were real differences between MacArthur and the Truman administration over policy.  One was that MacArthur thought that North Korea was not totally a satellite of Russia, but a country  with it's own policies and that therefore expanding the war with China would not mean starting up World War III with the Russians.  There was also MacArthur's insistence on using Nationalist Chinese troops from Taiwan in the fight, and MacArthur's desire to bomb the Chinese inside China itself. These were both points on which Truman firmly refused to agree, as he was trying to contain the war in Korea itself. On March 20 a letter from MacArthur to a congressman which was critical of Truman was made public. In it the general said; "...if we lose the war to communism in Asia the fall of Europe is inevitable; win it and Europe most probably would avoid war and yet preserve freedom. As you pointed out, we must win. There is no substitute for victory." 

The Decision is Made 

Clearly and now quite publicly Truman and MacArthur were not on the same page. So on April 6, Truman began meeting with his top advisers on what to do about the situation. On April 8 the Joint Chiefs of staff met with George Marshall and expressed concern: "if MacArthur were not relieved, a large segment of our people would charge that civil authorities no longer controlled the military." The Joint Chiefs all agreed that MacArthur had to be relieved (although they later told congress that they had not specifically recommended it). And on this date in 1951, Truman issued the following order to MacArthur (above):

"I deeply regret that it becomes my duty as President and Commander-in-Chief of the United States military forces to replace you as Supreme Commander, Allied Powers; Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command; Commander-in-Chief, Far East; and Commanding General, U.S. Army, Far East."

Truman took tremendous political heat for this decision. Americans were quite stunned by this decision to cashier the great victorious general from World War II. But Truman withstood the firestorm of criticism. He no longer had any public disagreements with his Korea policy. He was much later quoted as having said in the early 1960's:

" I fired him because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President. I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that's not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail."

Sources =

Saturday, March 26, 2016

MARCH 26 = Egypt, Israel Sign Peace Treaty

On today's date, March 26 in 1979 Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty ending over thirty years of unremitting hostility and warfare between those two nations.  The treaty was the first ever between an Arab state and the Jewish state - each state extending full diplomatic relations with the other. And there has been nothing like it since. While Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, the whole problem of how to recognize the Palestinian people remains as difficult now as it ever was.  But still it is worth remembering that time when peace in that part of the world seemed to be real possibility.

Sadat Visits Israel and Things Change

Things really changed in November of 1977 when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (right) made a state visit to Jerusalem, and spoke before a
session of Israel's parliament, the Knesset. It had been a huge surprise for the world when Sadat announced he was going to do this. He had spoken of the idea, and on Nov. 16 of 1977, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin invited him to Jerusalem.  Sadat was determined to go through with the idea, despite intense criticism in the Arab world: "'I intend to go to the Israelis' den to tell them the truth,' Sadat told a group of visiting U.S. congressmen. 'I consider this trip as a sacred duty and this vicious circle we are turning around in . . . has to be broken.'" So in a fast moving chain of events the Egyptian president was in Jerusalem a few days later on Nov. 19.

Eventually Sadat and Begin Meet at Camp David

Still it took many months of negotiation between the two leaders to make it happen.  United States President Jimmy Carter threw himself into the process time and again to keep the momentum for peace going. He invited the two leaders to the Presidential retreat at Camp David,
Maryland for intense secret negotiations on a framework to address the many outstanding issues between the two governments in September of 1978. Due in large part to President Carter's personal commitment to the process, the negotiations which frequently seemed on the point of demise were successful, resulting in the Camp David Accords which the two men signed on September 17, 1978 (above).  This agreement led directly to the final Peace Treaty which was signed on today's date.

Israel and Egypt End Their 30 Year War

"Israel and Egypt formally ended a generation of warfare Monday in a solemn ceremony beneath the winter-striped, age-gnarled trees on the north lawn of the White House." went the front page article of the Cincinnati Enquirer the next morning by Warren D. Wheat beneath a headline reading: "Hope, Hostility Surround Signing Of Treaty"  The article continued, emphasizing the risks the two men were taking; "Carillons chimed softly in the background in mystic contrast to shouts of protest from angry Arab students corralled by police in Lafayette Park across Pennsylvania Avenue. A bright, early spring sun provided a warm relief from a chill March wind blowing in from the northeast."
This very colorful account was intersper- sed with reports  of angry reaction to what was viewed in much of the Arab world as a sell-out by Sadat to the ultimate mortal enemy, Israel. Reports from Beirut, Cairo, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere detailing the violent reaction to this treaty punctuated the account of the Treaty ceremony itself.  Clearly those who would move so boldly to make this peace treaty work faced violent opposition.

"Peace has come..."

The words of President Carter emphasized this danger, and the strength of those willing to take such bold risk as these two men were taking to counter the anger of those who opposed them: "Peace has come... Let those who would shatter peace, who would callously spill blood, be aware that we three and all others who may join us will vigorously wage peace." These words sound highly idealistic to us now with so much of the violence that has come since. They are indeed idealistic. But the treaty's main points of normalization of relations between Egypt and Israel, and Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula were indeed kept. And the two countries remain at peace. But Anwar Sadat would be assassinated by fundamentalist Muslim army officers while reviewing a military parade on Oct. 6, 1981.  And the peace process which the three leaders tried to begin has long since
become hopelessly bogged down.  But I felt that it was worth a few minutes of our time to remember this moment when everything seemed possible.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

MARCH 3 = Bizet's Opera "Carmen" Premieres

"dull and obscure ... the ear grows weary of waiting for the cadence that never comes."

- Léon Escudier in L'Art Musical

On today's date in 1875, Georges Bizet's brilliant opera "Carmen" premiered in Paris.  And the above comment by Escudier is just one of the barbs that were thrown at the work. It was deemed to be much too risque' and totally inappropriate for public consumption with its tails of love, seduction, and murder. Its main star performer was accused of an immoral performance. Unfortunately, the composer would die only a short time after this raucous premiere. Today of course, Carmen is looked on as one of the most popular Operas ever written and is the source of some very familiar tunes.

Bizet is Commissioned to Compose "Carmen"

 Born in 1838, Georges Bizet (below) was an up and coming young composer when in 1872, he was commissioned to write a three-act opera based on a short novel called "Carmen" by the writer Prosper Mérimée’. He began the music in 1873, but the management of the 
Opéra-Comique was worried that this story was too salacious for their wholesome venue with the head of the that theater pressuring Bizet for re-writes, out of fear for the financial wreck that might occur if the opera failed. Because of this. the work on Carmen was put on hold. Bizet worked instead on a work he hoped to produce at Opéra, but this work was halted when the Opéra burned to the ground in October of 1873. Then in 1874, one of the members of the Opéra-Comique who opposed the "risque'" content of Carmen resigned, opening the path for Bizet to finish his work on Carmen.  This he happilly did, and Carmen was completed that summer.

The Lurid Plot of Carmen

The controversy that arose from Carmen's premiere all came from its plot, which was taken from Mérimée's 1845 book.  In Bizet’s operatic version, Carmen is a beautiful and free-spirited young gypsy girl who works at a cigarette factory in Seville, Spain, wherein she arouses the notice and affections of a corporal in the Army named Don José. Although he is already engaged to marry the sweet, guileless country girl Micaëla, Don José is of course seduced by the the lovely and exotic
Carmen in Act I.  In Act II, he helps her her escape from the police. In Act III Don Jose' deserts from the army and gets himself mixed up in a smuggling plot over his lover. In Act IV (left), Carmen spurns Don José in favor of a handsome bullfighter named Escamillo. This, of course brings about a fit of jealous rage in the throws of which Don José fatally stabs Carmen outside the bullring in Seville. The opera contains some of the most popular tunes of operatic history, such as the "Habanera" and the "Toreador Song", so it was not without melody and brilliant orchestration. But that plot... the first three acts were not so bad for audiences of the day, but this last bit involving desertion and murder were considered by many to be entirely too much for a decent venue.

The Reaction to "Carmen"

This bloody story-line caused an uproar with the critics and within the management of the Opéra-Comique, for which more "family-friendly" plots had previously been the norm. The mezzo-soprano, Galli-Marié who played Carmen (below), had her performance denounced by one critic as "the very incarnation of vice". This was a truly tragic story
which was a tough matter for the audience. And moreover, the heroine's scandalous behavior was a major shock for many audience members. The opera did decent enough business, but it was not the huge winner which Bizet had been hoping for. Nevertheless many of Bizet's fellow composers admired "Carmen".  Tchaikowsky wrote "Carmen is a masterpiece in every sense of the word ... one of those rare creations which expresses the efforts of a whole musical epoch" And following the debut, Jules Massenet wrote to Bizet; "How happy you must be at this time—it's a great success!". Sadly however, Bizet himself did not live to see the success that "Carmen" would become. It was believed that Bizet was just unable to put the controversy behind himself, causing a depressed mood in the young composer which lead to his death. He died on June 3 of that very year at the young age of 36. Many felt that the stress of the whole "Carmen" experience had contributed to his early demise. This is something which can never be finally determined. But what can be said is that "Carmen" has since become one of the most beloved and popular operas ever written. And it is certainly too bad that Bizet didn't live to see this final result of his work.

Sources =

Saturday, February 27, 2016

FEBRUARY 26 = Buffalo Bill is Born

"Buffalo Bill's had a lot of critics; they often criticize him for being a showman. He was a showman.  That's what he did.  He was the greatest showman of the 19'th century.  But he was a true figure in western history as well. He was recognized as a scout of consummate skill by people who knew: Sheridan, Custer, Carr. These soldiers couldn't be fooled. Buffalo Bill was the real thing. He was a frontiersman, a scout and a showman.  And at each job he was superb. But at being a showman he was the very best of all."  - Dr. Paul Hutton, Historian

"He was very modest and unassuming.  I did not know for a long time how good a title he had to the appellation, 'Buffalo Bill'.  He is a natural gentleman in his manners as well as in character and has none of the roughness of the typical frontiersman... his temper and disposition are so good that no one has reason to quarrel with him."  - General Eugene A. Carr, U.S. Army

On today's date in 1846 William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody was born in La Claire Iowa.  This man as stated above by one who studied him, and one who knew him was a most remarkable mix of traits to be found among the wild and colorful characters who populated America's "Old West", and would go on to create some of the most enduring legends out of that life - which he had lived himself.

William Cody's Early Life

William, or "Will" as he was called was one of five girls and two boys born to Issac and Mary Anne Cody. In 1864, the Codys staked a claim on the Kansas frontier during the time of pro and anti-slavery troubles there. Cody's father was anti-slavery, which made him the target of
much violence. Early on in his life, Cody learned to ride, rope and shoot. By the time Will was 11 (right), both his father and older brother were dead, so in order to support his family, young Will took a job with a freighting firm as a wagon train messenger. it was during this time that he said he killed his first Indian.  And he was also befriended by an older rider, "Wild Bill" Hicock, with whom he would be friends his whole life.  In 1860 the company Cody worked for founded the Pony Express, for which he made the longest single ride at age 14.

William Cody Marries and Becomes "Buffalo Bill"

From 1863 to 1865 Cody served with the 7'th Kansas Cavalry. Shortly after his discharge he met and fell passionately in love with Louisa Frederici, and married her in 1866. It proved to be a tempestuous marriage which lasted 50 years of long separations. Nevertheless they would have five children together.  Cody tried to be a hotel manager in 1867, but his restless spirit rebelled at such sedentary employment and
he went off to the west wherein he acquired a contract to hunt Buffalo to provide food for the workers on the Kansas Pacific Railroad. Between 1867 and 1868. Cody is purported to have killed 4,282 Buffalo for the KPRR (above). Hence the famous nickname. It is important to note that Cody only killed for food, and did not take part in the mass killings of the hide hunters which nearly obliterated the species.

Buffalo Bill - Army Scout

In May of 1868, with the Railroad having been completed, Cody once again took up employment with the U.S. Army during the Indian Wars. In this capacity he was expert. Says Gen. Carr: "His eye sight is better than a good field glass; he is the best trailer I ever heard of; and also the best judge of the 'lay of country', that is he is able to tell what kind of country is ahead, so as to know how to act. He is a perfect judge of distance, and always ready to tell correctly how many miles it is to water or to any place, or how many miles have been marched." Of course this put Cody in the thick of some of the fiercest Indian combat of that era. And his courage won him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Buffalo Bill the Showman

Of course this was the era when all sorts of cheap fiction was being written (below) about the exploits of western heroes such as Buffalo Bill and his friend Wild Bill Hicock.  And in 1869, dime novelist Ned Buntline began pumping out countless pages of books and plays fictionalizing the amazing  stories of Wild Bill to an adoring public. In New York in 1872 "Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men", based on
Buntline's stories was playing to sold-out houses. Cody attended a performance and when word got out that the real Buffalo Bill was there, and he stood up the audience went wild. Cody was initially reluctant, but when Buntline began offering him $500.00 a week to play himself on the stage, Cody realized that he could make far more money playing himself as a scout than he could in actually being one.  So on Dec. 18, 1872, "Scouts of the Prarie" opened in Chicago with Cody playing himself, and fellow frontiersman Jack Omohundro. Buntline wrote a script which was largely forgotten as Cody and Omohundro just came on stage and started telling stories of their adventures.  The play was a huge success with the public.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West

Cody soon formed his own acting company touring the U.S. with
Omohundro and Wild Bill Hicock on a version of their Chicago show, but keeping summers off to scout for the army.  But in 1874 he retired from scouting altogether, and his troupe toured successfully for a decade.  But Cody wanted a bigger show, saying: "One cannot transport the prairie to the boarded stage and still keep within the mileage limits." In 1882, Cody organized a Fourth of July celebration in North Platte Nebraska. Later known as the "Old Glory Blowout," this featured demonstrations of  horsemanship and the cowboy culture.

Cody paired with actor/manager Nate Salsbury in 1884 to form Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. This was a huge production which played as a circus of old west history and culture before circus sized crowds. The show would always start with a parade of featured groups and performers from all over the world. It would go on to include feats of marksmanship from such well known personalities as Annie Oakley. Calamity Jane was featured.  Sitting Bull himself along with 20 of his braves took part in re-enactments of Indian attacks on Wagon Trains. Performers would also take part in re-enactments of Pony Express rides, and Stagecoach Robberies.  Audiences were thrilled with these portrayals of living history which they had previously only read
about right before their eyes. For over thirty years Buffalo Bill's Wild West toured all over America, and eventually Europe playing for huge audiences in every major country on that continent, and in front of all of the monarchs of the day, including Queen Victoria, Kaiser William II, and the Pope. By the turn of the century Buffalo Bill was the most famous American in Europe.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Comes to an End

As the 19'th Century gave way to the 20'th Century, and moving pictures became the most popular form of entertainment, Cody actually filmed many of his shows. But clearly the day of its great popularity had passed.  Cody, who was growing ill eventually was unable to keep up with his debts. On November 11, 1916, Buffalo Bill played his last show.  On January 10, 1917 William "Buffalo Bill" Cody died at his sister's home in Denver, Colorado. Buffalo Bill's Wild West melded many of the facts and indeed some of the actual participants, such as himself in the history of America's old west with the legends which developed to take the place of the facts, when the actual days of the old west passed into history. Its portrayal of the west of both history and historical myth has long since gone on to become an enduring part of America's cultural history.


"The Great West" Edited by Charles Neider, Bonanza Books, 1958

"The Real West - Cowboys and Outlaws" - the History Channel, 1993

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

FEBRUARY 9 = J.Q. Adams is Elected by the House

On today's date, February 9 in 1825, John Quincy Adams (left) was elected President of the United States by the U.S. House of Representatives. It was the first election in which a candidate who had received  minority of the initial tally of the Electoral votes, as well as the minority of the popular votes went on to win the office of President.  But charges of a "Corrupt Bargain" would arise from this election and would go on to cripple the Adams administration.

The Election of 1824 - A MESS!
For those of you out there who are inclined to look a our present system of electing a President from too many candidates, you really should take a look at the situation faced by voters in 1824.  The old system that had produced the victors of the last three presidents, all from the Democrat-Republican Party (and YES, that is exactly what it was called) had broken down. There were quite a number of aspirants for the top job. One reporter described them as a group of "Hasbeens, Cantbees, Mightabees," and "Wouldabeens" none of whom were really qualified (does this begin to sound just a bit like our current crop of 2016 candidates??). Nevertheless, the field broke down into five, count 'em FIVE candidates: John Quincy Adams who was Secretary of State to the outgoing President, James Monroe, and the son of our 2'nd President, John Adams, Henry Clay who was the Speaker of the House, and a great favorite of the western states, General Andrew Jackson, also a western-favored candidate, William H. Crawford, Monroe's Secretary of the Treasury, and John C. Calhoun a favorite in the southeastern states.

The Election Goes Into the House...

Unfortunately for everyone, the election, held in the Fall of 1824, solved nothing, although it did produce a clear leader in both the popular and the Electoral tallies: Andrew Jackson won 151,271 of the popular vote, with 99 electoral, Adams with 113,122 and 84 electoral, Crawford getting fewer popular votes than Clay, but more electoral with 41 to Clay's 37.  Jackson (below), the fierce military hero of the Seminole Indian Wars and the victor of the Battle of New Orleans
during the War of 1812 had clearly come out as the leader.  But the total number of Electoral Votes cast was 261 and the Constitution required the winner to have a majority of the Electoral Votes which would be 131. Failing such a majority, the Constitution called for the top three Electoral winners to vie for a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.  This left Jackson, Adams and Crawford in the pool, with the balance in the hands of Henry Clay (John C. Calhoun took the vice Presidency). A letter was published in the papers on Jan. 28 saying that Clay had been offered the Secretary of State post in return for pledging his support to Adams.  This caused a huge furor, with Clay hotly denying any such offer. But the fact was that Clay did favor Adams. "...killing 2,500 Englishmen at New Orleans.." did not in Clay's view qualify Jackson for the Presidency.  So he put his support behind Adams in the House,  and on today's date Adams was elected in the House of Representatives on the first ballot.

"The Corrupt Bargain...."

Well however unhappy the Jackson faction was at this, they really went crazy, when three days after his election in the House, Adams did in fact offer the post of Secretary of State to Henry Clay. Adams knew and respected Clay, and Clay did not wish to give Adams a vote of  "no confidence" by turning the offer down, so he accepted the job.  There had in fact been no bargain between the two men. But
Jackson and his followers were having none of it. The two men had concluded a "Corrupt Bargain" afterall!! "The Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver. . . Was there ever witnessed such a bare faced corruption in any country before?" railed Jackson in a letter to his wife. "His end will be the same!!" The cries of corruption would be howled by Jackson and his supporters unrelentingly for the next four years, effectively crippling the Adams administration, until Jackson won the re-match with Adams, winning the Presidency himself in the election of 1828.

Sources =

"Presidential Campaigns" by Paul F. Boller Jr., Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 1984,_1824

Thursday, January 21, 2016

JANUARY 21 = Louis XVI is Executed

"The carriage proceeded thus in silence to the Place de Louis XV, and stopped in the middle of a large space that had been left round the scaffold: this space was surrounded with cannon, and beyond, an armed multitude extended as far as the eye could reach. As soon as the King perceived that the carriage stopped, he turned and whispered to me, 'We are arrived, if I mistake not.' My silence answered that we were."

This was how Henry Essex Edgeworth recalled one of the last moments of Louis XVI (above), who was executed by the guillotine on today's date, January 21 in 1793.  Edgeworth was an Englishman, a priest living in France during this time, and had been requested by Louis as the man who would hear  his final confession. Edgeworth heard the final confession of Louis, and then stayed with him on his ride to his place of execution.

The Fall of Louis XVI

Louis XVI was as Nicholas II (the last Czar of Russia) would prove to be a century and a quarter later, the wrong man at the wrong time. He ascended to the throne of France in 1774, a time when his country had been driven nearly to the point of bankruptcy by the excessive spending on luxurious living committed by his royal predecessors, Louis XIV, and Louis XV.  Indeed it was Louis XV who was said to have spoken the
infamous phrase "Après moi le déluge" ("After me, the deluge"), meaning that after the wild excesses of his reign, the "deluge", or the "flood" would come and sweep away his successors.  Louis XVI was a decent man, but a man who lacked any genuine understanding of the economic and social forces which were combining to overwhelm him.  Plus, Louis had an unpopular foreign-born wife, Marie Atoinette (right), who being from Austria, became the object of the xenophobia of the lower classes, who blamed her for all of the nation's problems.

The Road to Execution

As the financial crisis deepened, there were calls for the King to call "the Estates General", an old legislative body, which had not met since 1614. Louis did in fact convoke that body, which met on May 1, 1789. In my Blog posting for July 14, "Bastille Day" I give a detailed account of why "the Estates General" didn't work ("France and Her Revolutionary Crisis"). For our purposes here let it suffice to say
Louis wound up being deposed as King, and he and his family were eventually imprisoned in the Tuileries Palace (See my posting for Jan. 4: "Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in Captivity"). When the royal family attempted to escape to Austria on June 21, 1791, they were recaptured (above) and thereafter were seen as plotting with a foreign government against France, thus losing any popular respect he still had. He was tried by the National Assembly for crimes against the people in 1792, and was convicted on Jan. 20, leading to his execution on January 21, 1793.

Louis Goes to the Guillotine

Edgeworth then describes how after an attempt was made to bind his hands Louis mounted the scaffold and went to the guillotine (a new form of execution named in 1789 for it's inventor, and was then hailed as a more humane form of capitol punishment) with bravery and dignity:

"The path leading to the scaffold was extremely rough and difficult to pass.... I saw him cross with a firm foot the breadth of the whole scaffold; silence, by his look alone, fifteen or twenty drums that were placed opposite to me; and in a voice so loud, that it must have been heard it the Pont Tournant, I heard him pronounce distinctly these memorable words: 'I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I Pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France.'"

"Many voices were at the same time heard encouraging the executioners. They seemed reanimated themselves, in seizing with violence the most virtuous of Kings, they dragged him under the axe of the guillotine, which with one stroke severed his head from his body. All this passed in a moment. The youngest of the guards, who seemed about eighteen, immediately seized the head, and showed it to the people as he walked round the scaffold; he accompanied this monstrous ceremony with the most atrocious and indecent gestures. At first an awful silence prevailed; at length some cries of 'Vive la Republique!' were heard."

Marie Antoinette would follow her husband to the guillotine on October 19 of 1793. The body of Louis XVI was interred at the old Church of the Madeleine. On 21 January 1815 Louis XVI and his wife's remains were re-buried in the Basilica of Saint-Denis where in 1816 his brother, King Louis XVIII, had a funerary monument erected.

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