Custer’s Last Stand – the Battle of Little Bighorn

Mad, bad or misunderstood? Little Bighorn and the Custer enigma.

On a hot Sunday afternoon in June 1876, the most notorious battle in American history took place among the remote high plains of present-day Montana.

Battle of Little BighornThe word “battle” does little justice to the violent and brutal events of that fateful day. Suddenly surrounded by an overwhelming force of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, 221 men of the US 7th Cavalry were swiftly annihilated. Helplessly encircled on an exposed hilltop, many of the young men fought bravely; some threw down their weapons and lay on the ground crying; others made a desperate charge down the hill to escape, only to plunge straight into the mouth of the Indian village. It made no difference. There were no survivors.

News of the disaster reached the East on 4th July, as Americans were proudly celebrating the 100th Anniversary of their independence from Britain. The realisation that the cream of their armed forces had been massacred by what were seen as primitive savages caused a deep sense of outrage as well as grief.

Even after the Indian “problem” had been resolved, the traumatic events of that day would leave a lasting scar on America’s psyche. The chief casualty of that was the man who had led the troops to their doom – 7th Cavalry commander George Armstrong Custer. For somebody who had always courted fame, the Little Big Horn would guarantee immortality – but for all the wrong reasons.

Custer, the man

George Armstrong CusterTwo things ‘made’ Custer – his family background and the American Civil War. An inveterate practical joker and risk-taker from a poor but happy family, Custer was thrust straight into the reality of war, leaving WestPoint as the North-South conflict began. Though initially frightened by action, he quickly learned that being on the front foot, being the aggressor, gave him a huge psychological advantage over his opponents. His battle philosophy rapidly developed into “Attack! Attack! Attack!” and it brought him sensational success, winning victory after victory. In a Union army beset by incompetence and failure, Custer shot to the top, becoming a ‘brevet’ General at the age of 21. He was also a celebrity with articles about the “Boy General” in newspapers as far apart as New York and London.

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Jean-Paul Sartre – Philosophy In An Hour

Jean-Paul Sartre was the most popular philosopher in history – during his lifetime. His work was known to students, intellectuals, revolutionaries, and even the general reading public the world over. Two main reasons account for this unprecedented popularity, neither of which has to do with Sartre’s abilities as a philosopher. First, he became the spokesman for existentialism at the opportune moment – when this philosophy filled the spiritual gap left amidst the ruins of Europe, in the aftermath of World War Two. And, second, his later adoption of a revolutionary stance against authority struck a chord in the era of Che Guevara, worldwide student unrest, and sentimental sympathy for the Cultural Revolution in Communist China.

SartreWhere politics was concerned, Sartre wrote about almost everything. Alas, events proved him wrong about almost everything. Sartre’s earlier philosophy is another matter. He may not have been the first existentialist, but he was the first publicly to accept this label. He was also one of its most able exponents.

‘Whatever you do’

Jean-Paul Sartre’s ability to develop philosophical ideas, and their implications, remained unrivaled in the twentieth century. But this was done with imaginative brilliance rather than analytic rigour. As a result, he was dismissed with contempt by many orthodox thinkers, who claimed that neither he nor existentialism had anything to do with ‘real’ philosophy. Existentialism was the philosophy that showed the ultimate freedom of the individual, succinctly encapsulated by the night club singer Juliette Greco: ‘Whatever you do, you become.’

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Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne

On 20 June 1837, King William IV died in his sleep after a reign of seven years. His niece, the 18-year-old Princess Victoria, inherited the throne. Her accession marked the dawn of a new era in Britain’s history, which would come to represent industrial growth, scientific advances and vast imperial expansion.

On a personal level, Queen Victoria is remembered for her passionate relationship with her husband Prince Albert, the grief that engulfed her after his death, and her longevity, with a reign of over sixty-three years. However, had it not been for the infidelities of her grandfather George III’s offspring and the untimely death of her cousin Princess Charlotte, it is probable that Britain’s longest-reigning monarch (to date) may never have been born.

Born to be Queen

Queen Victoria's coronationGeorge III, commonly remembered as the ‘Mad King’, sired fifteen children, including nine sons, yet among their offspring was only one legitimate heir, Princess Charlotte. Charlotte was the daughter of George III’s oldest son, also called George, who would reign as the Prince Regent and later as King George IV. Charlotte was extremely popular with the British public and made a happy marriage with Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, but she died at a tragically young age following the birth of a stillborn son in 1817.

Edward, Duke of Kent, was the fourth son of George III. Charlotte’s unforeseen death forced him (along with his other brothers) to recognise the necessity of producing an heir, since none of them had any surviving legitimate children. In the spring of 1818 he therefore wed Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, sister of the recently bereaved Leopold. It was a harmonious match and on 24 May 1819 the new Duchess of Kent gave birth to a daughter, who was named Alexandrina Victoria. Edward is reported to have said of the infant, ‘look at her well, for she will be Queen of England’. Alas, he died when she was less than a year old, but he had done his duty and the succession was secure.

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Imre Nagy’s re-interment, 16 June 1989, Budapest

In Budapest, on 16 June 1989, a solemn and symbolic ceremony was held. On this day, almost thirty-three years after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Imre Nagy was re-interred and, 31 years after his execution, honoured with a funeral befitting a man of his stature. Tens of thousands of people lined the routes and crowded into Heroes’ Square, paying their respects to the great man who, more than anyone, had symbolised the hope and the ultimate defeat of the Uprising.

Hungarian flagAlongside him, the coffins of four other leading participants of the Hungarian Revolution, and next to them, a sixth coffin – an empty one to commemorate all the victims of Soviet and communist repression during 1956. Shops and businesses were closed, schools given the day off. In the square, flowers and wreaths lay everywhere, Corinthian pillars were decked in black and white, Hungarian flags with the central Soviet emblem removed, and people with bowed heads, united by grief and ingrained memories.

Defeated

Imre Nagy had died exactly thirty-one years previously, on 16 June 1958, less than two years after the communists, with their Soviet masters, had quashed the uprising and re-established one-party rule.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe – a summary

Born into a family of ministers and abolitionists who worked with the Underground Railroad, it would have been surprising for Harriet Beecher Stowe not to have been a bold free thinker. Stowe is credited with writing the fictional story that threw the spark that ignited the American Civil War. Even Abraham Lincoln himself spoke of her as the “little lady who started this great big war.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher StoweHer novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was the best selling novel of the nineteenth century. Based on stories that Stowe heard told by escaped slaves, the story depicts a variety of slave situations. The main character is Uncle Tom, a slave who is sold by his owners due to their financial troubles. His new owner is a kind man. But when Tom is sold again, he falls into the hands of the evil Simon Legree who is determined to break Tom and his faith in God.

Another character, Eliza, is owned by the same family. But upon learning that she might be torn from her son by the sale, she takes the child and runs away. She has the good fortune to encounter abolitionists along the Underground Railroad who help to keep her from being captured by a slave catcher.

Stowe’s book enraged Southern slaveholders. Some Southern authors retaliated with their own “Anti-Tom” literature, defending slavery and condemning Stowe’s work. One of the most popular “Anti-Tom” novels of its day was The Planter’s Bride by Caroline Lee Hentz. The story is seen through the eyes of a Northern abolitionist’s daughter who marries a slave owner.

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Under the Wire by Paul Conroy – a review

Veteran war photographer, Paul Conroy, has written a compelling and direct book on his experiences in 2012 covering the conflict in Syria while working alongside American journalist, Marie Colvin. Weaving between the Syrian narratives, he also describes their adventures, the year before, in Libya during the final days of Muammar Gaddafi’s rule and his brutal end.

Under the WireEarly on in Under the Wire, Conroy describes Colvin giving a speech in a church on Fleet Street, London, in which she argued ‘passionately’ for the need to send reporters to dangerous places. And Colvin had certainly been to several dangerous places; hot spots such as Kosovo, Libya and Chechnya. Her raison d’être, Conroy tells us, was to inform the world of injustice, and to use mass media to hold governments to account.

To bear witness

Roy Greenslade, writing Marie Colvin’s obituary in The Guardian, quoted her as saying, ‘My job is to bear witness. I have never been interested in knowing what make of plane had just bombed a village or whether the artillery that fired at it was 120mm or 155mm’. It was this, in February 2012, while reporting for the Sunday Times, that motivated their mission into Syria and to the Baba Amr district in the city of Homs. At the time, Homs was heavily under siege with the forces of President Assad relentlessly pounding the city on a daily basis.

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Ben Jonson – a summary

Ben Jonson was an English actor, poet, dramatist and critic. Active in the early Stuart period, he is one of the most influential literary figures of the time, although perhaps less popularly revered than William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. His plays include Every Man in His Humour, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fayre. He also co-wrote the now-lost play, Isle of Dogs,with Thomas Nashe, which, for reasons unknown, was suppressed by the authorities.

NPG 2752; Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van BlyenberchJonson was born in London on 11 June 1572, a month after his father’s death. His widowed mother struggled financially until her remarriage a few years later to Robert Brett, a bricklayer. The family then took up residence in Hartshorn Lane, near Charing Cross. (Pictured: Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch).

As a child, Jonson attended an educational establishment run by St Martin-in-the-Fields church, before moving on to Westminster School at the age of 7. Here he studied under William Camden, an antiquarian who wrote the first definitive history of Elizabeth’s reign. A tradition of Westminster School was to encourage the study of English translations of Latin and Greek writings, which influenced his future work.

The stage beckons

Once his education had ended, there was a brief foray into the world of labouring. It soon became clear, however, that there was no hope of Jonson entering his step-father’s profession as it was something he ‘could not endure’. In the early 1590s, the young man signed up to fight with English forces in the Netherlands. Upon his return, he was drawn to London’s theatre world, where he began work as both an actor (he is believed to have played the role of Hieronimo in Thomas Kyd’s most well-known play, The Spanish Tragedy) and a playwright.

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The Death of Charles Dickens

In May 1867, Charles Dickens began considering a second tour of America. His motivations were purely financial and, as much as he hated the thought of leaving his mistress, Ellen Lawless Ternan, behind, he believed that a series of public readings in the US would be far more profitable than another novel. Thus, on 19 November 1867, after a farewell banquet, he set sail for Boston, arriving on 2 December, and departed from New York on 22 April 1868.

Charles DickensFinancially the American tour was a great success. Dickens gave 76 readings to over 100,000 people and made a profit of £19,000 (around £860,000 in modern currency). His reputation, however, did not fare so well. The American press criticised him heavily for his legal separation from his wife, Catherine, and rumours of adultery. He was also regularly portrayed as greedy and materialistic. Poor health, particularly exhaustion, also plagued the tour.

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D-day and Omaha beach – a brief summary

D-Day, 6 June 1944, a date that altered the course of history, saw the largest amphibious invasion ever launched. Led by troops from the US, Great Britain and Canada, and involving Allied divisions from across the globe, the invasion of Occupied France, codenamed Operation Overlord, had been years in the planning and subject to the utmost secrecy.

Five beaches

The Americans, it was decided, would land on the two western beaches in Normandy, codenamed Utah and Omaha; while the British would attack via the middle and eastern beaches, codenamed Gold and Sword; and between these two, the Canadians would land at Juno.

At 5.50, on 6 June, the 1,738th day of the war, 138 Allied ships, positioned between three and thirteen miles out, began their tremendous bombardment of the German coastal defences. Above them, one thousand RAF bombers attacked, followed in turn by one thousand planes of the USAAF. Between them, the aircrews flew 13,688 sorties over the course of D-Day alone.

From their ships, soldiers, weighed down with weapons and seventy pounds of equipment, scaled down scramble nets and into their flat-bottomed landing craft. It took over three hours for the vessels to traverse the eleven or so miles to the coast. The men, trembling with abject fear, shivering from the cold and suffering from severe seasickness, endured and held on as their tightly-packed vessels were buffeted by six-foot high waves and eighteen-miles per hour winds. At 6.30, the first US troops landed on Omaha and Utah beaches.

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The History of the “Reel of the 51st Division”

One of the most spectacular Allied successes of World War Two was the evacuation of more than three hundred thousand British, French, and Belgian troops from Dunkirk between May 27 and June 4, 1940 . The men had been cut off and surrounded by the German army, and would have been slaughtered or captured if not for a hastily assembled flotilla of more than eight hundred military and civilian vessels, which achieved what became known as the Miracle of Dunkirk.

Jocks_of_the_51st_Highland_Division_in_France_1940Among the troops fighting to hold off the Germans and make the evacuation possible were the 7th and 8th Battalions of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, part of the 51st Highland Division. Their officers read them these orders: “You will hold this position; you will either be killed, wounded or made a prisoner of war.” (Pictured: Jocks of the 51st Highland Division in France 1940).

At 3 p.m. on June 5, twenty-six-year old Lieutenant J. E. M. Atkinson of the 7th Battalion, surrounded by German troops who had just shot off his wristwatch, surrendered near the French town of Saigneville. He was not alone. After Dunkirk, the 51st Division was charged with recapturing the Abbeville bridgehead on the Somme, but they were overwhelmed and suffered heavy casualties, and on June 12, their commander Major General Victor Fortune surrendered at St. Valéry-en-Caux. In The General Danced at Dawn, George Macdonald Fraser tells of the remnants of his regiment of the Gordon Highlanders singing “We’re No Awa’ to Bide Awa’” “as they waited for the end.”

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