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October 15, 2019

CIC 475

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Short Rounds

“Crosses of Honor”

In the aftermath of the Austrian disasters at Ulm and Austerlitz in 1805, the French invasion of the Kingdom of Naples in early 1806 proceeded quickly. However, Gaeta, “the storied headland fortress” in Henry James’ words, proved a tough nut to crack.

Gaeta, some 60 miles northwest of the capital, was perched on a rocky peninsula approachable only by way of a well-fortified isthmus hardly 300 meters across. The fortress – which has been besieged some 70 times since the Fall of Rome, was held by 6,000 men. Most the troops were ill-armed and ill-trained, some of them former convicts. But they were well-commanded. At their head was a tough old German mercenary, the Prince of Hesse-Philippstead, a “hard-drinking, no nonsense old soldier.” When summoned to surrender, the Prince mercenary replied, “Gaeta is not Ulm; Hesse is not Mack,” referring to the unfortunate Austrian commander who had been captured with his entire army at Ulm in October of 1805. The French brought up 15,000 men and over a hundred cannon, and began a formal siege on February 12th. Hesse-Philippstead put up a stiff fight.

Hesse-Phillipstead was short, fat fellow with a prominent hooked nose and a droopy mustache, not to mention a powerful vocabulary. Knowing that he had a great fondness for wine (as one observer noted, the “grog-blossoms” on his nose “bore testimony to his prowess at the table”), at the onset of the siege the Prince handed the bishop of Gaeta the keys to his wine cellar, and told the good prelate to issue him one bottle a day. During the siege Hesse-Phillipstead often stood on the battlements under fire to curse out the French. Between his determination, and the study defenses of the fortress, with its front “covered with batteries raised one above the other, forming a redoubtable amphitheatre whence a hundred pieces of ordnance converge upon and command the isthmus, forbidding all approach to it,” and supported by squadron of British and Neapolitan frigates and gunboats, not to mention Neapolitan guerrillas operating behind the French lines under the famous Fra Diavolo, Gaeta held.

Of course, with the resources of all of Europe to back them, the French gradually developed formal siege lines and pressed forward across the narrow isthmus separating the fortress from the mainland. Finally, on July 6th, they were close enough to begin a sustained bombardment. Nevertheless, it was not until July 16th, after suffering heavy losses, that French artillerymen and engineers succeeded in effecting a breach. At that point, many of the French officers demanded permission to make an immediate attempt to storm the place. The chief engineer was Gen. Chamberlhiac. He was new to the job, having taken over only a month earlier, after his predecessor had been killed directing the construction of the siege lines. Chamberlhiac opposed the notion of making an immediate assault, observing that the breach required the troops to wade through about 18-inches of water, and noting that a second breach would be effected within a couple of days. But Chamberlhiac well reasoned response did not satisfy several of the more gallant idiots. One of them said, “There are crosses of honor to be won here,” in reference to the decorations that Napoleon would surely shower upon the survivors of a successful assault.

At this, Chamberlhiac fixed the man with a hard stare and replied, “Yes, yes; I see plenty of crosses here – no lack of them, but they are wooden crosses. Listen to me, and let us wait 48-hours.”

This cooled their ardor for a suicidal assault. And indeed, two developments over the following two days proved him right. First the gallant Hesse-Phillipstead was gravely wounded, and then one of the fortress’s great three tiered bastions collapsed., it surrendered with the honors of war. Gaeta surrendered with the honors of war.

 

The Vice-President Visits the Fleet

Thomas Marshall was Woodrow Wilson’s running mate for the presidency in 1912, and was duly inaugurated as Vice-President on March 4, 1913. As befitting the character of the office in those days, Marshall’s tenure was hardly memorable. In fact, he is chiefly remembered today, if remembered at all, for saying “What this country needs is a good five cent cigar.”

Anyway, in 1915 Marshall was visiting the San Francisco Exhibition, when the Pacific Fleet paid a call. Naturally, the fleet commander invited Marshall to a reception aboard his flagship, which the vice-president graciously accepted.

What followed was observed by the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, who happened to be in Marshall’s party, a young fellow named Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Marshall and his party were taken to the flagship in the admiral’s barge. This deposited them at the foot of a gangway. With Marshall in the lead, the party walked up the gangway. As Marshall, formally decked out in frock coat and top hat, reached the top of the gangway, to step on the grating, the bo's'un began to pipe him aboard, while the side boys saluted, ruffles and flourishes were rendered, and “The Star Spangled Banner” began to play. Unfortunately, no one seems to have taken the opportunity to inform Marshall as to the protocol involved in boarding a commissioned warship. So there was the vice-president, with his gloves in his left hand, a cane in his right, and a cigar – one hopes not a five center – in his mouth. Hesitating but a moment, Marshall quickly shifted the cane from his right hand to his left, removed the cigar from his mouth with his left, and transferred it to his right, and then doffed his hat with his left, to stand, a mite belatedly, at attention. As the last strain of the national anthem faded away, Marshall, with gloves, cane, and cigar still in his right hand, began to don his hat. Suddenly the first round of a 17 gun salute went off. Thoroughly startled, Marshall jumped, tossing hat, gloves, cane, and cigar two feet in the air, and then groped wildly in an attempt to snatch everything before it fell to the deck or into the sea.

But there was worse in store for the vice-president. A newsreel cameraman had been present and captured the entire proceedings on film.

Afterwards, seeing his performance preserved in celluloid, Marshall said to F.D.R., “ . . . I will never go on board another ship as long as I live.”

 

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