History Happenings Mid-Winter: WWII, Civil War, Medieval | Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours

History Happenings Mid-Winter: WWII, Civil War, Medieval

Finnish soldiers with machine gun during Winter War
A group of Finnish soldiers in snowsuits manning a heavy machine gun in a foxhole.

This month’s History Happenings take place during mid-winter. Historian Mark Bielski covers historical events from Medieval times to the American Civil War and WWII.

World War II

In 1940 at the end of January, the Finnish Army was preparing for a major onslaught by the Soviet Red Army. Earlier in the month, the Finns had been exuberant about their smashing of two Soviet Divisions. They routed the Red Army’s 163rd Division, then annihilated the 44th Division, capturing over forty tanks and 100 field guns as well as horses and military vehicles. This was winter war of a serious nature. The Finns were in all white and well-trained for the severe conditions. They also made good use of Molotov Cocktails—which they had invented, despite being named for Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister—they used these very effectively against Russian tanks. The Red Army soldiers had not been winter equipped very well and had insufficient rations. Reports suggested that between freezing in place and being weak from hunger, the Soviets were too feeble to fend off the fierce Finnish attacks.

This scenario would change in February. By the 17th the Russian massive counter-attack had worn the Finns down by the might of their sheer numbers. The Finns inflicted heavy casualties on their enemy, but it seemed there were always thousands more. Additionally, they had maneuvered a great part of the Finnish army into more open areas, where the Soviets could deploy their tanks.

By 23 February, the Soviets sent the terms for peace to the worn-down Finns. They would surrender in March.


14 February East Africa. Under Lieutenant General Alan Cunningham, British Imperial troops from South Africa and other African colonies as well as India, had pushed the Axis Italian army out of northern Kenya into Somaliland. Now they had the Italians on the run as they captured the port of Kismayu in the drive toward Mogadishu. By 25 February the capital city of Mogadishu fell and the rout of the Italians in the Horn of Africa was complete.


16 February in Japan the Emperor Hirohito announced a national holiday and a banzai victory march by the army to celebrate the taking of Singapore from the British. Part of the capture was a huge military arsenal that included 55,000 rifles, 2300 machine guns and 300 field guns. The allies were seriously worried about the well-being of the 130,000 British, Indian and Australian troops that the Japanese had captured. This concern was heightened when they learned about the beheading of 200 Australians and Indians that had been wounded, and the bayoneting of 600 captured Australians.

In another aggressive move, the Japanese crippled the northern Australian port of Darwin. Nearly 200 attack planes from Japanese aircraft carriers, as well as land-based bombers, sunk numerous vessels, put the port out of commission, and created chaos among the locals. Many feared an invasion was imminent. The previous year in February, Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka warned that “the white race must cede Oceania to the Asiatics.” The Japanese expansionist policy proclaimed their “natural right” to that part of the Pacific, in which they included Australia.


13 February Budapest fell to the Soviets after a fierce 50-day siege. Hitler had declared this satellite Hungarian capital of his erstwhile Axis partner a Festung (fortress) that his men must hold at all costs. Nearly fifty thousand German and Hungarian soldiers perished in the fighting and Radio Moscow triumphantly announced that the road to Vienna was now clear for the Red Army. Included in the broadcast was the news item that the Russians captured German commandant, General Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, when they found him hiding in a sewer.

American Civil War

January 1861 was the major secession month for the states of the Deep South. South Carolina had led the way with their secession right before Christmas 1860 on 20 December. Then in January, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana followed suit. Now a good quiz question would be, of those states, which one passed the secession motion least decisively? In other words, where was the vote closest?

  • Mississippi: 84-15
  • Florida: 62-7
  • Alabama: 61-39
  • Georgia: 208-89
  • Louisiana: 113-17

It was Alabama with a 39% edge by the opposition to secession. Georgia was second with 30% against. The others were close to unanimous. The Texas convention voted in favor at the beginning of February 166-7, but by law had to put it to a popular vote, which they did later. Texas officially joined the CSA in March.

February 16, 1862 was the capture of Confederate stronghold, Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River in northwest Tennessee. Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant had captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River on 6 February. He then proceeded twelve miles to strike at Donelson.

The Confederates had three commanding generals there. John B. Floyd was the senior. He had been Secretary of War under President James Buchanan and was wanted by the Union authorities for transferring armaments and other U.S. government property to seceding southern states before the start of hostilities. Second, was General Gideon Pillow, the Tennessee lawyer who had touted secession rights before the war, channeling Patrick Henry and proclaiming, “Give me Liberty of give me death!” Grant surrounded the fort with his 25,000 troops and had Union Navy gunboats engage in an artillery duel with the Confederates. Floyd counter attacked the Federal positions and despite holding an advantage, withdrew inside the fort. He surreptitiously escaped by boat, while Pillow seeing the fort about to fall, chose “liberty” and also fled. This left General Simon Bolivar Buckner, a pre-war friend of Grant, in charge. 

Buckner knew Grant well and had even lent him money before the war. With this in mind, he hoped for favorable treatment. Grant, after some urging from General C.F. Smith, would accept only “Unconditional Surrender.” It was a major victory for the Union and opened up the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers for their gunboats. Grant subsequently received a promotion to major general and earned the sobriquet that matched his initials U.S., “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.


Charlemagne was the medieval emperor who ruled much of Western Europe from 768 to 814. Charlemagne was born around 742. He was well educated and spoke Latin, knew Greek and studied the classics. Latin was still the lingua franca in Europe.

In 771, Charlemagne became king of the Franks, which is a Germanic tribe that occupied the area of present-day Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and western Germany. The question often arises, was he French or German? Well, he was really neither. There was no France nor Germany at the time. Indeed, Germany as a state did not come into being until the 19thcentury. However, he had a goal to unite all the people of this region into one kingdom, and ensure that all his subjects were Christian, or would convert to Christianity.

He studied the military arts and became a skilled military strategist as well as battlefield tactician and he spent much of his reign engaged in warfare in order to unite and convert. Pope Leo III (750-816) crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Romans in 800. Charlemagne financially supported the church and provided tax-free land for monasteries and churches.  He also was a friend and protector of the papacyHe did this on Christmas Day in Rome at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Charlemagne was buried at the cathedral in Aachen. In the ensuing decades, his empire was divided up among his heirs, and by the late 800s, it had dissolved.

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