History Happenings: WWII, WWI, Civil War | Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours

History Happenings: WWII, WWI, Civil War

Stalin Ribbentrop 1939
Stalin and Ribbentrop shaking hands after the signing of the pact on August 23, 1939.

Before we jump into History Happenings during World War II, World War I and the American Civil War for September, we have some thoughts for autumn, no matter where you are. 

“I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house.”

― Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1842 [Notebook, Oct. 10, 1842] 

And writing just a few years later:

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”

― Henry David Thoreau

World War II

30 September 1939 – Communist party leaders in western countries found themselves reeling in confusion when their supreme leader, Jozef Stalin, signed, then carried out the terms of agreement of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in order to attack and divide Poland. The question, “How could Comrade Stalin ally himself with our arch-enemy, Adolf Hitler and the Fascists?” was one without immediate answers to party members. 

Chief among them was Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain.  Pollitt had always been a supporter, even a toady of Stalin’s and applauded any deeds committed by the Soviet Union no matter how severe or barbaric. Pollitt had actually praised Stalin’s bloody purges as “a new triumph in the history of progress.”

In France, the reactions were similar. The faithful pro-Soviet leadership was dazed by the events. Fervent Stalinist, Jacques Duclos had been Stalin’s “enforcer” with Spanish Communists in their struggle against the Nazi-backed Nationalists under Francisco Franco. Now in Paris he was silent and could not offer a cogent explanation to the party faithful for this unholy alliance in the official media organ, l’Humanité. Duclos’ colleague, Party General Secretary Maurice Thorez, opposed the French war effort and worked to thwart support of Poland even when the communist party was banned by the government of France. He was drafted into the army, but rather than report, he fled to the Soviet Union.

1 October 1942 – The Japanese guards were escorting British and Canadian Prisoners of War captured in Hong Kong. They were transporting more than 1800 prisoners on the Lisbon Maru when U.S. submarine Grouper struck with torpedoes off the Chinese coast. As the ship was going down, the guards battened down the hatches rather than release the captives. Many of those that forced their way out to jump overboard fell victim to Japanese machine gunners.

World War I

26 September 1918 – The Meuse-Argonne Offensive began and continued until the Armistice signing on 11 November of that year. In those 47 bloody days, more than 26,000 American soldiers lost their lives. Meuse-Argonne was the largest operation undertaken by General John J. Pershing and his American Expeditionary Force. 

The Americans, along with their French allies of the Fourth and Fifth Armies, were determined to break the stalemate that the French and British had fought for the previous four years. Part of achieving this goal was to drive the Germans back and take possession of the French city of Sedan and its railway hub. Once this was done, the Kaiser’s army would no longer have an uninterrupted supply line at the front. The battle was fought in three phases. At first, the Americans conducted an assault on German positions and suffered greatly from counter attacks. In the first few hours on the 26th, the Allies expended more ammunition than both Southern and Northern armies combined in the American Civil War.

During the Second Phase, the American army was finally able to fight its way clear of the Argonne Forest by breaking through the German Hindenburg Line. The assault and progress covered ten miles in the twenty-four days leading up to 28 October. In the final phase, the French and American armies were able to push on and take Metz, Sedan and the surrounding areas. The Germans finally agreed to the Armistice and the signing was on 11 November.

American Civil War

1862 – As September ended and October dawned, the Confederate armies had made incursions into Maryland and Kentucky. However, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was back across the Potomac, having fought to a stalemate with McClellan at Antietam. In Kentucky, General Don Carlos Buell had his Federal forces in place successfully protecting the cities along the Ohio River despite the threats from Braxton Bragg’s Confederates.

In other developments that would prove significant in later months, General John C. Pemberton received command of Mississippi and Eastern Louisiana, this included Vicksburg and Port Hudson, key Federal objectives. He replaced Mississippi native son, Earl Van Dorn. President Lincoln and his cabinet placed the western Federal gunboat fleet under the authority of the Department of the Navy and named David Dixon Porter as commander of the Mississippi Squadron. He conferred with General McClellan at Harpers Ferry, visited the troops and inspected the army’s camps. Lincoln had also penned the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation declaring that it would be an executive order in effect on 1 January 1863.

18-20 September 1863 – Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans and the Union army were on the offensive. They had done well in the Tullahoma Campaign. Rosecrans’ men had rising morale and confidence and he also had the tangible asset of advanced weaponry: a supply of Spencer repeating rifles for his cavalry.

Rosecrans’ goal was to push General Braxton Bragg and the Confederate army out of Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was able to move his army skillfully and Bragg withdrew from Chattanooga across the state line into north Georgia.

Determined to reoccupy the city, Bragg followed the Federals north, brushing with Rosecrans’ army at Davis’ Cross Roads. While they marched on September 18th, his cavalry and infantry skirmished with Union mounted infantry, who were armed with state-of-the-art Spencer repeating rifles. Fighting began in earnest on the morning of the 19th near Chickamauga Creek. Bragg’s men heavily assaulted Rosecrans’ line, but the Union line held. Fighting resumed the following day.

That afternoon, eight fresh brigades from the Army of Northern Virginia under Lieut. Gen. James Longstreet exploited the gap in the Federal line, driving one-third of the Rosecrans’ army, including Rosecrans himself, from the field. Only a portion of the Federal army under Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, staved off disaster by holding Horseshoe Ridge against repeated assaults, allowing the Yankees to withdraw after nightfall. For this action, Thomas earned the nickname “the Rock of Chickamauga.” The defeated Union troops retreated to Chattanooga where they remained until late November. Chickamauga is known as one of the bloodiest battles in the Western Theater.

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