This Week in American Military History:
Mar. 20, 1863: Confederate cavalry under the command of the famous – some might argue, infamous – Kentucky raider, Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan, strikes a sizeable Union reconnaissance force under Col. Albert S. Hall at Vaught’s Hill, Tennessee. Though outnumbered and surrounded, Hall’s hilltop position enables the colonel to beat back a series of attacks until Morgan – learning that Hall is to be reinforced with additional U.S. troops from Murfreesboro – is forced to disengage.
Though Vaught’s Hill was a defeat for Morgan, he was far from whipped. His colorful exploits will inspire Constance Fenimore Woolson, a grandniece of James Fenimore Cooper, to pen the lines:
“Morgan, Morgan the raider, and Morgan’s terrible men,
With bowie knives and pistols, are galloping up the glen.”
Mar. 20, 1922: America’s first aircraft carrier, USS Langley, is commissioned at Norfolk, Virginia. Converted from the coaling ship USS Jupiter, Langley will see action in World War II. But she will be so badly damaged in an action off Java in 1942, her escorts will be forced to scuttle her.
Langley, the first of two so-named carriers, is named in honor of aviation scientist Samuel Pierpont Langley.
Mar. 20, 1942: U.S. Army Gen. Douglas McArthur – ordered by FDR to leave his besieged soldiers in the Philippines (where their capture is inevitable) and make his way to Australia – delivers his famous “I shall return” speech. In April he will receive the Medal of Honor (as did his father, Arthur MacArthur, Jr., for heroism during the American Civil War). McArthur will return to the Philippines in Oct. 1944.
Mar. 22, 1820: Commodore Stephen Decatur – “America’s Lord Nelson,” the hero of Tripoli, and the author of the famous aphorism, “Our country, right or wrong” – is mortally wounded in a duel with Commodore James Barron near Bladensburg, Maryland.
Mar. 23, 1775: In a speech before the House of Burgesses, future Virginia governor (and colonel of the 1st Virginia Regiment) Patrick Henry exclaims, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
Mar. 23, 1776: As a force-multiplier for the fledgling Continental Navy, the Continental Congress authorizes the employment of privateers (privately owned and armed merchant ships) against “enemies of these United Colonies,” specifically Great Britain, her commercial shipping, privately owned vessels, and ships of the Royal Navy.
Mar. 23, 1815: Though the War of 1812 has officially ended – communications being what they are in the early 19th century – the Royal Navy sloop-of-war HMS Penguin under the command of Capt. James Dickenson engages the sloop USS Hornet (the third of eight so-named American Navy ships) under Capt. James Biddle off the South Atlantic archipelago Tristan da Cunha. The fighting is quick and hot: Both captains are wounded; Dickenson mortally. HMS Penguin surrenders in less than one half hour.
Mar. 23, 1943: Elements of Germany’s vaunted Afrika Korps clash with U.S. Army forces near the oasis of El Guettar in Tunisia.
In previous fighting at Kasserine Pass, inexperienced and marginally led American troops had been defeated. At El Guettar, however, the American soldier under the command of Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr., literally outfights his German and Italian counterpart. At one point during the battle, Patton – observing the destruction of German forces – remarks, “My God, it seems a crime to murder good infantry like that.”
Mar. 23, 2003: Task Force Tarawa (2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade) under the command of Brig. Gen. (future Lt. Gen.) Richard F. Natonski attack – and will ultimately defeat – Iraqi forces in heavy fighting at An Nasiriyah.
Mar. 24, 1945: Paratroopers of Maj. Gen. (future four-star general) Matthew B. Ridgway’s XVIII Airborne Corps – composed of the U.S. 17th Airborne “Thunder from Heaven” Division and their British 6th Airborne Division comrades – strike and seize key German positions on the enemy side of the Rhine River.
Codenamed Varsity, the airborne assault is the last major parachute and gliderborne operation of World War II. During the fighting, Ridgway himself will be wounded by a grenade blast.
Mar. 25, 1863: Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton presents six Union Army soldiers – members of Andrews’ Raiders – with the first-ever Medals of Honor.
Today, America recognizes all of its Medal of Honor recipients on National Medal of Honor Day – Mar. 25 (of each year) – the anniversary of the first presentations.
Mar. 25, 1864: Confederate cavalry under the command of Maj. Gen. (future Lt. Gen.) Nathan Bedford Forrest, “the wizard of the saddle,” strike Union forces under Col. Stephen G. Hicks in the Battle of Paducah, Kentucky.
Forrest’s horsemen quickly seize the town. Hicks’ men retreat to prepared defenses at nearby Fort Anderson where Forrest issues an ultimatum: “If you surrender, you shall be treated as prisoners of war; but if I have to storm your works, you may expect no quarter.”
Hicks refuses. A detachment of Forrest’s cavalry attempts to take the fort, but the troopers are repulsed by both the defenders and two gunboats on the Ohio River. Forrest withdraws.
Nevertheless, Forrest’s previous and future exploits will earn him a reputation as one of the most feared and respected cavalry commanders of the Civil War.
Forrest will be wounded four times over the course of the war. Twenty-nine horses will be shot out from under him. But he will purportedly kill 30 men in single combat, spawning the boast that he has one up over the Federals (Some sources say 30 horses and 31 men, but you get the idea).
In the decades following the war, U.S. and foreign military officers alike will study Forrest’s campaigns. It has even been speculated that some aspects of the German Blitzkrieg were patterned after some of Forrest’s operations.
Union Gen. William T. Sherman will describe Forrest as “the most remarkable man our Civil War produced on either side.” And when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee is asked to name the greatest soldier under his command, he will purportedly respond, “A man I have never seen, sir. His name is Forrest.”