History Happenings March: American Revolution, Civil War, WWII

Depiction of Montcalm and British in Battle at Fort William Henry
Montcalm trying to stop Native Americans from attacking British soldiers and civilians as they leave Fort William Henry.

The expression that March comes in “like a lion” and goes out “like a lamb” may depend upon where one lives and the situation at the time. For George Washington in 1777, he may have felt threatened by a lion or even pursued by a pack of wolves. Similarly, any Irish conscripts in the British Army in the French and Indian War had a rough St. Patrick’s day at Fort William Henry ten years earlier. 

This month’s History Happenings take place during March. Our historian Mark Bielski covers historical events from the American Revolution to the Civil War and WWII.

18th Century

The Seven Years’ War

March 1757 – On St. Patrick’s Day, the French launched an attack on Fort William Henry. The fort was a British outpost on Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York. It was a strategic position between the American Colonies and French Canada. The British successfully repulsed their efforts, but the French would return. 

In early August, the Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm led the French siege of the British fort that eventually force Colonel Monro to surrender. This led to a massacre well-depicted in James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans and the movie of the same name with Daniel Day Lewis. 

The Marquis de Montcalm brought 8000 regulars, militia, and allied native warriors across Lake George and through the forests to lay siege to Fort William Henry, defended by Lieutenant Colonel George Monro and about 2400 regulars of the 35th Foot, American provincials, and a couple companies of rangers. As the French and Indians drew closer, Monro grew increasingly concerned. There were a growing number of ambushes and sightings of Indians close to his fort. French guns smashed the fort. Monro’s superior failed to send a relief force. Monro surrendered and received generous terms. His men would be paroled and allowed to march to Fort Edward with their weapons – but no ammunition. Not a cartridge. The natives, thoroughly angry at Montcalm for denying them scalps and captives, fell upon the column and satisfied their blood lust.

From a review of the excellent book on the subject, often called the French and Indian War in North America:

The Siege of Fort William Henry: A Year on the Northeastern Frontier by Ben Hughes

On 21 March 1761 in the European theatre, the French won a decisive victory against the Prussians and their allies at the Hessian town of Grünberg. In the rout the French suffered only 100 casualties while inflicting 3000 on the allied forces, including 2000 prisoners.

The American Revolution

March 1777 – The Continental Army was losing men by the hundreds as their terms expired and they returned to their towns and farms. The new Continental Congress and individual states/colonies were slow to provide needed funds and support for the army. George Washington had his men in winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey and was concerned about what to do about the British “Lion” once the lull in the action ended with the spring. He kept morale up by employing his hit-and-run harassment of the King’s Army and felt the small successes would encourage his men through what was left of the bleak winter.

Fortunately, the British were also ensconced in their winter quarters and their commander, General William Howe, was content to remain that way. He had been successful in campaigns to secure New York and Philadelphia, driving Washington into New Jersey. However, this British respite gave the Americans time to gather troops and provision for the spring.

Civil War

1861

2 March – At Montgomery, Alabama, the Provisional Confederate Congress assembled and officially admitted Texas. In becoming part of the Confederacy, Texas joined South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana in the newly formed nation. As the seventh state, it became the seventh star on the new flag, which was the original, “Stars and Bars.”

4 March – Monday saw the Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln as the sixteenth president of the United States. After a hotly contested, multi-candidate electoral campaign, in which he was not even on the ballot in some states, he took the oath of office for a sharply divided and fractured nation. Aides practically had to smuggle the president in through hostile Maryland and he was ensconced at the Willard hotel in Washington. The city was an armed camp: soldiers lined Pennsylvania Avenue and sharpshooters watched the crowds from rooftops. Division was just part of it. Seven states had seceded to form the Confederacy. While he adamantly declared that there could be no dissolution of the Union, he assured Southern states of their “States Rights” and that there would be no interference with the institution of slavery. 

1862

2 March – On Sunday, General Leonidas Polk withdrew the the final units of his Confederate artillery from Columbus, Kentucky. He moved all but two guns downriver to Island No. 10. Polk had effectively broken Kentucky’s “neutrality” by moving into Columbus initially. It was a bad step strategically as it gave Union recruiters free license to begin working in the state and allowed Federal forces to move into the state to begin their actions against Southern river strongholds. They had done just that under U.S. Grant who took Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and now was preparing to move further south.

General Henry H. Sibley had invaded the New Mexico Territory for the Confederates and caused the Union garrison to abandon their positions at Albuquerque. On 4 March they pushed farther on to take Santa Fe. This would lead to the showdown at Glorieta Pass on 28 March. That battle spelled the end of the Confederate incursion and hopes for establishing a foothold in the Southwest.

1863

3 March – The U.S. began conscription when President Lincoln signed the “Act for enrolling and calling out the National Forces” on this Tuesday.  Any physically able male citizen between the ages of 20-45 was eligible. Each draft district would have a quota, but the Act did allow a draftee the ability to pay a substitute $300 in his stead. The level of volunteers to the Union Army increased as a result, since many young men preferred enlisting in a unit as opposed to receiving an assignment from the draft board.

7  March – General Nathaniel Banks moved a force north from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. He was preparing to move on the Confederates at Port Hudson, Louisiana. At the same time, General U.S. Grant was maneuvering his forces to assault Vicksburg. Despite suggestions from the War Department in Washington that Grant move south to assist Banks, Grant had no intention of doing so. He would be subordinate to Banks by virtue of seniority of appointment and was not about to put himself under the command of a political general. 

1864

12 March – General Nathaniel Banks began his ill-fated Red River Campaign. After suffering a series of defeats and losing 30% of his forces at the hands of Stonewall Jackson in Virginia at the beginning of the war, Banks went to New Orleans. He replaced General Benjamin Butler as commander of the Department of the Gulf. Banks, had been a successful Massachusetts politician before the war but was determined to achieve military success—not to mention procure the lucrative stores of cotton in central Louisiana. The ill-fated campaign culminated with the Battle of Mansfield, Louisiana on 8 April. General Richard Taylor’s Louisiana and Texas Confederates routed Banks’ expeditionary force of 12,000. Banks returned to politics after the war and served six terms as Representative from Massachusetts in the U.S. Congress. His last term was as a Democrat.

18 March – President Lincoln attended the closing of the Sanitary Commission Fair in Washington and paid tribute to the contribution of women in the war effort. “if all that has been said by orators and poets since the creation of the world in praise of woman applied to the women of America” Lincoln said.  “It would not do them justice for their conduct during this war.”

1865

4 March – On Wednesday, Abraham Lincoln gave his conciliatory second inaugural speech. He did not delve in to policy nor claim victory, but gave an inspiring message of hope for a reunited country. His famous words still echo today: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds. . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

The occasion was memorable in more than one way. The new Vice President, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, had consumed a good quantity of whiskey for medicinal purposes. He was treating fever but he proceeded to give a rambling, incoherent speech, even becoming belligerent according to some reports. His enemies in congress and the northern press were quick to capitalize on this misstep.  Lincoln’s assassination a month later would lead to one of the rockiest presidencies and eventual impeachment for Johnson. Even though he was a staunch Unionist, Johnson was unable to carry out the reconciliation with the South that President Lincoln had wanted. 

17 March – In a talk given to some soldiers from Indiana, Abraham Lincoln stated, “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”

World War II

1940

18 March – Fresh from their St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in their respective countries, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini met in the Alpine village of Brennero, in the Italian province of South Tirol on the Austrian border. They cemented their Axis alliance with a handshake and Mussolini’s pledge to join the war effort. The Italian dictator’s son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano and Third Reich Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop were in attendance at the cordial meeting in Mussolini’s rail salon car.

1941

2 March – In seeming preparation for an invasion of Greece, the German High Command announced that their army had moved into Bulgaria. The move purportedly was to “safeguard peace” according to the message Bulgar Prime Minister, Bogdan Filov, delivered to Parliament. Filov, an academic who had been an archaeologist and art professor, ensured that his country became the seventh member of the Axis. He was fluent in German and had studied at the University in Freiburg, where he received his doctorate. The German Wehrmacht had crossed into the country on numerous pontoon bridges across the Danube and the Luftwaffe had already established bases with easy access to the Greek border.

1942

26 March – When has the U.S. been subject to occupation by a foreign power? In June of 1942 special forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy stormed the island of Kiska in the Aleutians of the Alaska territory. The dozen Americans and a few dogs that operated the U.S. Navy weather station there surrendered after the invaders killed two men. Later, in March of 1943, Navy warships fought off an escorted transport intended to resupply the Japanese garrison on Kiska and other nearby islands. In May U.S. Army forces made an amphibious landing on Attu supported by Canadian air power.  They overpowered the Japanese who also abandoned Kiska shortly thereafter. The dogs that had been left on Kiska warmly greeted their American comrades after spending a year under the Japanese yoke.

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