Today in military history: Union victory at the Battle of Shiloh - We Are The Mighty
Today in Military History

Today in military history: Union victory at the Battle of Shiloh

On April 7, 1862, Union forces defeated the Confederates at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in what was then the bloodiest battle in American history with more than 23,000 dead and wounded.

The day before, Confederate forces under General Albert Sidney Johnston caught Union forces under Major General Ulysses S. Grant by surprise. Their plan had been to back the Union against a series of swamps. Instead, the Union army rallied, fighting a series of defensive stands from Shiloh Hill to what survivors would call “the Hornets’ Nest” — an impenetrable oak thicket. 

The Southern attack began to lose its advantage, its coordination, and, in a fatal bullet wound, its commander. Johnston was hit behind the knee and bled to death, which former Confederate President Jefferson Davis would later refer to as “the turning point of our fate.”

On the night of April 6, nearly 21,000 reinforcements had arrived for the Union, giving Grant 45,000 troops to face off against no more than 28,000 under Confederate General Pierre G. T. Beauregard. 

On April 7, Grant launched his counterattacks at dawn, pushing the Confederates back. By the end of the day, the Union had recovered the ground it had lost.

Over 13,000 Union troops were killed, wounded, missing, or captured. The shockingly high casualty count of the battle caused many to call for Grant’s replacement. Abraham Lincoln would refuse, saying, “I cannot spare this man; he fights.” Grant’s victory would allow him to launch a massive operation in the Mississippi Valley later that year and capture Vicksburg, the last Confederate-controlled area along the Mississippi River.

Grant would go on to take command of the Union Army and force Robert E. Lee to surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. Learn more about the Battle of Shiloh in the video below.

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Today in military history: Crusader control of Holy Land ends

On May 18, 1291, Acre, the last Crusader stronghold in the Middle East, fell to the Muslim Mamluks, ending Crusader control of the Holy Land.

European Christian Crusaders had been reeling from Sala-a-din’s conquest of Jerusalem in 1187. The Third Crusade recaptured Acre (in modern-day Israel) for the next 100 years. But in that time, one by one, Crusader cities would fall to the Mamluk Sultanate.

The Muslim Mamluks came to power in the region in 1250, marking a shift in the balance of power in the region. The Muslims were then able to compete with the heavy cavalry of the Crusader knights – and they did. 

Crusader cities in Caesarea, Haifa, Galilee, and Antioch sparked more Crusades from Europe, but they were largely ineffective. Latakia fell in 1278, Tripoli in 1289. Acre was surrounded. 

The Crusaders hoped for either an army from Italy or an unlikely alliance with the Mongols. Neither materialized and the Mamluks laid siege to Acre on April 5, 1291. By May 18, Al-Ashraf Khalil’s 222,000-strong army entered the city and killed its Crusader defenders, ending the last Crusader control of the region.

The Siege of Acre, also known as the Fall of Acre, marked the end of further crusades to the Levant. With the fall of Acre, the Crusaders lost their last major stronghold of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and by 1302 with the loss of Ruad, they were no longer control any part of the Holy Land.

Featured Image: Siège d’Acre (1291) by unknown 14th century French artist (Gallica Digital Library)

Today in Military History

Today in military history: USS Joyce sinks German U-Boat off New York coast

On April 16, 1944, the Coast Guard-manned destroyer USS Joyce sank a German U-boat off the coast of New York.

On the morning of April 16th, the USS Joyce — a US Navy destroyer manned by the Coast Guard — was escorting a convoy leaving New York harbor and bound for the United Kingdom. The North Atlantic was fertile hunting ground for German U-Boats, and large convoys were particularly tempting targets. 

Today in military history: Union victory at the Battle of Shiloh
USS Joyce at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, San Francisco, CA (US Navy Photo)

Just the previous month, the Joyce braved two U-Boat attacks to rescue survivors from the USS Leopold, which was torpedoed while investigating a radar contact. Little did they know, they were about to get their revenge.

That afternoon, the gasoline tanker SS Pan-Pennsylvania was torpedoed by the U-Boat U-550, and set aflame while joining the convoy.

With all hands on deck, the USS Joyce headed west along with the USS Petersen to support the damaged ship. They picked up 31 survivors, including the tanker’s captain. Then they went hunting. 

At full speed, the pair of ships moved into position. The USS Joyce detected U-550’s sonar and deployed depth charges that bracketed the German submarine. 

Today in military history: Union victory at the Battle of Shiloh
A U.S. Navy Lockheed VW-2 flies over the radar-picket destroyer escort USS Joyce (DER-317), in the 1950s. (US Navy Photo)

One bounced off the submarine’s deck before it exploded, damaging the enemy vessel and forcing it to resurface.

The nearby USS Gandy opened fire and rammed the surfaced U-Boat, then all three destroyers opened fire. The U-550 surrendered, but the crew scuttled her before she could be boarded and seized. 

The Joyce rescued 13 survivors from the U-550, including the ship’s captain. The rest went down with the ship.

Featured Image: Aft plan view of Joyce at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, San Francisco, CA. March 9, 1951 (U.S. Navy photo).

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Today in military history: Winston Churchill becomes prime minister as Germany invades

On May 10, 1940, Nazi Germany invaded Western Europe while Winston Churchill became prime minister of Great Britain.

Marking the beginning of Hitler’s Western offensive, German bombers struck Allied airfields in Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, and France while paratroopers rained from the sky at critical junctures. Ground forces invaded along two main routes, a northern route that was expected by the defending armies, and a southern thrust through the Ardennes forest that was not.

The Allies did not know about the southern attack and rushed most of their defenders to the north. The southern thrust quickly broke their backs. Luxembourg fell on the first day while Belgium and the Netherlands surrendered before the end of May. France would survive until June.

The war in Europe would continue for five more brutal years.

England knew the continent was doomed and accelerated their preparations for defending the isles. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, known for his policy of appeasement, was replaced by Winston Churchill, a man known for his bulldog temperament and military vision.

Churchill would go on to serve as Conservative Prime Minister twice, from 1940 to 1945 and from 1951 to 1955. A war veteran himself, he was active in both administrative and diplomatic functions during World War II, as well as giving rousing speeches that are credited with stimulating British morale during the hardship of war.

Today in military history: Union victory at the Battle of Shiloh
Churchill in 1904 when he “crossed the floor“. (Public Domain)

He would live until Jan. 24, 1965, dying at the age of ninety and receiving the first State Funeral given to a commoner since the Duke of Wellington’s death more than a century before. 

“It has been a grand journey — well worth making once,” he recorded in January 1965 shortly before his death, possibly his last recorded statement.

Featured Image: “The Roaring Lion” photograph by Yousuf Karsh depicting Winston Churchill on Dec. 30, 1941.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: Abraham Lincoln is shot

On April 14, 1865, five days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse and effectively ended the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer. President Lincoln would succumb to his wounds the next morning.  

Abraham Lincoln
Portrait of Abraham Lincoln

The previous month, Booth and some fellow Confederate supporters hatched a failed plan to kidnap the president. As the South fell to the Union forces, Booth became more desperate and he devised a plan to assassinate the president in his private box above the stage of Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. 

The president shared his box with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, army officer Henry Rathbone, and Rathbone’s fiancé Clara Harris. At 10:15pm, Booth snuck in and fired his .44-caliber single-shot derringer pistol point-blank at the president’s head and stabbed Rathbone in the shoulder before leaping on the stage and shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (The Latin translates to “Thus ever to tyrants” — it is the Virginia state motto). 

A doctor in the audience, 23 year-old Charles Leale, ran to the president, who was paralyzed and struggling to breathe. He was carried across the street to a boardinghouse where he was pronounced terminally wounded. He died the next morning at 7:22 am.

President Lincoln laid in state on a catafalque in the Capitol rotunda before he was interred on May 4, 1865, at Oak Ridge Cemetery near his home in Springfield, Illinois.

Booth broke his leg in the leap but hobbled to a horse and fled the scene. The resulting manhunt was one of the largest in history, with over 10,000 federal troops, police and detectives tracking him down. He was killed fleeing Union troops on April 26, while his co-conspirators were convicted and executed by hanging on July 7, 1865.

Lincoln Memorial
President Lincoln is immortalized in stone at the Lincoln Memorial, a treasured national monument.

President Lincoln’s legacy as the man who preserved the Union and set in motion the emancipation of all enslaved people in the United States endures to this day.

Featured Image: 4″x3″ slide depicting John Wilkes Booth leaning forward to shoot President Abraham Lincoln as he watches Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. 14 April 1865.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: US evacuates Saigon

On April 29, 1975, Operation Frequent Wind began, evacuating the last Americans and “at-risk” Vietnamese from Saigon, South Vietnam.

After the orders came through, armed forces radio began playing Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” to signal that the evacuation was underway. 

Nearly 100 helicopters were deployed from aircraft carriers to airlift approximately 7 thousand men, women, and children out of harm’s way in under 24 hours. 

The heroic pilots swarmed in and landed on confined rooftops, enclosed courtyards, and other various spaces loading countless people into the already cramped cargo areas to shuttle them to nearby Navy ships as Vietnamese forces stormed towards the city.  

Today in military history: Union victory at the Battle of Shiloh
A South Vietnamese helicopter is pushed over the side of the USS Okinawa during Operation Frequent Wind, April 1975. The helicopter had to be disposed of to make room for the extensive Marine Corps helicopter operation helping to evacuate the city of Saigon.

So many helicopters landed on the decks of the nearby U.S. Navy aircraft carriers that empty helicopters were pushed overboard to make room for incoming aircraft. Other pilots were told to drop their passengers off then ditch their helicopter in the sea and await rescue.

The U.S. Marines — who provided security for the evacs — were the last to fly out, just as the Embassy fell to the Communists, leaving nearly 400 evacuees remaining.

Operation Frequent Wind remains the largest helicopter evacuation on record. In 19 hours, a total of 1,373 Americans and 5,595 Vietnamese and third country nationals were rescued. 

Featured Image: Vietnamese refugees board a U.S. Marine Corps Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter from HMH-463 at Landing Zone 39, a parking lot At Ton Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon, Vietnam, 29 April 1975.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: Israel declares independence

On May 14, 1948, Israel declared independence, triggering an invasion from neighboring Arab states.

After World War I, the British and French divided the former Ottoman Empire territory in the Middle East. Legitimized by the young League of Nations, the British controlled what was then called the Mandate of Palestine. The day the British left, Israel declared its statehood.

After World War II, the British told the United Nations they intended to leave Palestine on May 14, 1948. British rule in the area was practically nonexistent at this time, and the UN’s partition plan intended to divide the area between its Arab and Jewish residents could not be enforced.

After the British left Jerusalem for Haifa, the future Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, declared the Jewish State of Israel. Over the next few days, thousands of Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi, Trans-Jordanian, and Egyptian troops poured over the borders to attack the young country.

Fighting raged until February 1949, when the UN brokered a ceasefire, ending the war, cementing Israel’s statehood, and starting decades of conflict and instability in the region.

Featured Image: David Ben-Gurion (First Prime Minister of Israel) publicly pronouncing the Declaration of the State of Israel, May 14 1948, Tel Aviv, Israel, beneath a large portrait of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern political Zionism, in the old Tel Aviv Museum of Art building on Rothshild St. The exhibit hall and the scroll, which was not yet finished, were prepared by Otte Wallish.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: Admiral Yamamoto, Pearl Harbor mastermind, is shot down

On April 18, 1943, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was shot down by American pilots.

American forces have begun to turn the tables in the Pacific. Midway had seen the decimation of the Japanese carrier fleet, and the Japanese Navy had failed to cut off American Marines at Guadalcanal. Admiral Yamamoto planned an inspection tour of various bases in the Solomon Islands, and his itinerary was radioed to the bases he would visit.

Admiral Yamamoto
Portrait of Admiral Yamamoto

But it turns out American codebreakers were also listening. The Japanese Admiral’s travel plans made it into the hands of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, and before long the 347th Fighter Group was on their way to rain on Yamamoto’s parade. 

A squadron of P-38s led by Captain Thomas G. Lanphier and Major John W. Mitchell took off from Guadalcanal. They soon intercepted the Japanese formation of two Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers and six Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighters.

Today in military history: Union victory at the Battle of Shiloh
Replica of Mitsubishi A6M3 Zero Model 22 (NX712Z) (Commemorative Air Force / American Airpower Heritage Flying Museum)

Yamamoto’s Betty was shot down by Captain Lanphier, who also claimed to have shot down a Zero. Lieutenant Rex Barber shot down the second Betty carrying many of Yamamoto’s senior staff officers. Barber and Lieutenant Besby Holmes also each claimed to have shot down Zeroes as well. The last pilot from the “killer flight,” Lieutenant Raymond Hine, never returned to base.

The mission, code-named Operation Vengeance, had been a success. Pearl Harbor had been avenged.

Featured Image: U.S. Air Force P-38 Lightning similar to those flown by Captain Thomas G. Lanphier.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: Marines go ‘to the shores of Tripoli’

On April 27, 1805, the United States Marines went to the shores of Tripoli to take down some pirates.

For basically as long as it has been around, the United States Navy has had a pirate problem.

The United States Navy had been dealing with the piracy issue since independence had been achieved in 1776. American shipping had relied on British Naval protection, but following the Revolution, pirates began to see U.S. vessels as fair game.

The administrations of George Washington and John Adams had been paying tribute to the states on the “Barbary Coast” (what is now North Africa), who extorted the payments in exchange for not carrying out acts of piracy. Still, pirates harassed U.S. ships and often kidnapped sailors and their booty. 

The First Barbary War officially began in 1801, when then-President Thomas Jefferson sent U.S. Navy vessels to the Mediterranean in protest of the raids. 

Then in 1805, William Eaton, who had secured the sexy title of Naval Agent to the Barbary States secured permission to restore the deposed leader of Tripoli, Hamet Karamanli, to the throne. After recruiting over 400 mercenaries, Eaton and seven other Marines got the support of three naval warships and then made a 600-mile trek across the Libyan desert to the city of Derna.

Facing ten-to-one odds, Eaton and Marine First Lieutenant George O’Bannon led the Marines and mercenaries into battle, eventually taking the city after a bayonet charge. Two Americans and at least nine mercenaries died, but the far larger enemy force had been defeated. News of the defeat prompted the leader of Tripoli to seek a settlement with the United States rather than risk losing his throne. 

The battle was one of America’s first overseas military operations and, of course, it remains an iconic event in Marine Corps history, notably marked by a line in the Marine Corps hymn.


Featured image: Attack on Derna by Colonel Charles Watterhouse.

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Today in military history: US declares war on Mexico

On May 11, 1846, President James K. Polk asked Congress to declare war on Mexico.

Tensions with Mexico were on the rise since the United States annexed Texas and admitted it to the Union as the 28th state. Texas had received its independence from Mexico in 1936, but northern states were hesitant to incorporate another slave-state into the union.

On April 25, 1846, 2,000 Mexican cavalry attacked a 70-man patrol with the United States Army, leaving 11 American troops dead. Later, six more Americans were killed at the Siege of Fort Texas and the Battle of Palo Alto.

Declaring that Mexico had “invaded our territory and shed the blood of our fellow-citizens on our own soil,” Polk asked for Congress to declare war on Mexico. Polk operated with an expansionist mindset, believing that the United States had a “manifest destiny” to conquer the North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The Mexican-American War would become America’s first war fought chiefly on foreign soil. No declaration of war ever came from Mexico.

The resulting conflict would take a year and nine months, and over 13,000 American troops would die – although the Department of Defense notes only 1,733 were killed in combat. 

The United States would eventually force Mexico to cede the territory that would include Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California, and New Mexico, among other states or parts of states — nearly one third of its pre-existing territory.

Featured Image: Bombardment of Veracruz by Adolphe Jean-Baptiste Bayot. Originally published in The War Between the United States and Mexico, Illustrated, 1851.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: The Civil War begins

On April 12, 1861, the American Civil War began.

By April of 1861, the U.S. was in a state of deep crisis. Many Southern states were inflamed by the election of President Abraham Lincoln and other leaders who were seen as likely to limit the power of slave states if they did not abolish the practice entirely. They had already declared secession from the country and both the Union and the Confederacy were gearing up for armed conflict.

One of the greatest potential flashpoints for the coming war was the Union Fort Sumter in the bay at Charleston, South Carolina. The small fort was running out of supplies and sat within range of Confederate batteries surrounding Charleston harbor.

On April 11, a delegation from Confederate Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard was sent to Fort Sumter to demand the surrender of the fort. 

The Confederacy gave Anderson good terms for the surrender, but Anderson refused anyway, citing his honor and his obligation to the federal government. He promised to surrender the fort if he received no word from the Army or resupply before April 15.

But the Confederacy knew it couldn’t wait that long and so the delegation told Anderson that they would begin bombardment at 4:30 a.m. if he did not surrender. On the morning of April 12, 1861, they did so. 

Over the next four days, the Confederacy fired over 3,000 shells at the fort, plunging America into a Civil War that would last four years and claim 1.5 million casualties.

Featured Image: Battle of Antietam by Thure de Thulstrup.

Today in Military History

Today in military history: Osama bin Laden is killed

On May 2, 2011, Osama bin Laden, mastermind of 9/11 attacks, was killed by SEAL Team Six. 

After nearly a decade of hunting the world’s most wanted man, the CIA located bin Laden at a specially-built compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by following a courier.

At 1 A.M. local time on May 2, SEAL Team Six launched an assault known as Operation Neptune’s Spear, named for the trident in the Navy SEAL’s insignia. The frogmen killed bin Laden and four others at the compound while retrieving loads of valuable intelligence.

No American casualties occurred during the raid, although one Black Hawk helicopter crashed and was destroyed on-site. 

President Barack Obama announced the death of bin Laden at 11:35 PM Eastern Time on May 1 from the White House. His full remarks are in the video above. 

“Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.

For over two decades, bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies. The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.

Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must –- and we will — remain vigilant at home and abroad.” President Barack Obama

 Almost a decade after the September 11th attacks, the United States got justice.

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Today in military history: Americans and Soviets unite against Germany

On April 25, 1945, Eight Russian armies linked up with the American troops on the western bank of the Elbe river. Germany was, for all intents and purposes, Allied territory. The end of fighting on the Eastern Front of World War II was in sight.

This event signaled the first contact between Soviet and American troops after years of fierce fighting. Both forces successfully cut through multiple Wehrmacht divisions and met in the middle of Torgau, Germany.

The Allied powers had effectively cut Germany in two. 

By the 27th, the American and Soviet armies met for a photo op to reenact the meeting, and the Allied powers released statements in London, Moscow, and Washington, reassuring the world that the Third Reich was in its final days.

Although the date isn’t an official holiday, that doesn’t mean it isn’t celebrated. In 2015, 70 years after the original encounter, American and Soviet military units met up once again at the very site of the first meeting to reenact the historic event.

Happy Elbe Day!

Featured Image: In an arranged photo commemorating the meeting of the Soviet and American armies, 2nd Lt. William Robertson (U.S. Army) and Lt. Alexander Silvashko (Red Army) stand facing one another with hands clasped and arms around each other’s shoulders. In the background are two flags and a poster. (National Archives image)

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