Napoleonic Wars Refought In Spain

Spain, Napoleonic Wars
The second of May is a date that every Spaniard knows. In 1808 on that date, the Spanish people rose up against Napoleon and started a long struggle to kick his troops out of the country. They’d been occupied the year before when Spain’s weak king had foolishly allowed French troops march through his territory to invade Portugal. Napoleon, being Napoleon, decided to keep both countries.

The Peninsular War, as it was called, was long and bloody. At first the Spaniards were outmatched, but they developed an effective guerrilla war that stymied the invaders. In fact the term guerrilla (“little war”) originated in this conflict. The English moved in to help and in 1814 their combined forces kicked Napoleon’s troops back into France.

All across Spain in the first week of May, communities hold festivals to commemorate battles and celebrate local heroes. Here in Cantabria in northern Spain, the municipality of Camargo holds a reenactment in honor of Pedro Velarde y Santillán, an artillery captain who was born in the town and died heroically on the first day of the uprising.

Camargo is a small place that most foreigners and even locals miss. We’ve lived ten minutes away from it for a year and we had to look up how to get there. Despite this obscurity, they put on a good show. A big street fair sold food and local crafts. Strangely there was French cheese and wine for sale, a rarity in a country with enough excellent cheese and wine that there’s no need for imports. I suppose it was in the spirit of the occasion.

%Gallery-187602%Modern and traditional stalls sat side by side. Kids took burro rides while their parents looked through traditional clothing or modern trinkets made by local craftsmen. A local Moroccan restaurant had even set up a tea stall and hookah stand. Why not? Some Moroccans ended up in both armies. I wasn’t too happy to see a mother let her 10-year-old boy take a toke from a hooka, though. You should keep dangerous, addictive drugs like tobacco away from children.

In a nearby park reenactors portraying Spanish and French troops drilled and answered questions from curious onlookers, while a fencing master gave sword-fighting tips to the kids. Soon the reenactors marched into town, firing off their flintlock muskets with an ear-splitting roar. French cavalrymen rode around the crowd shouting to the Spaniards that they were going to occupy the country forever and sleep with all the women. The Spaniards called them “sons of whores.” All in good fun.

So if you’re passing through Spain in early May, keep an eye out for one of these festivals. There’s an especially big one in Madrid, which was the flashpoint of the uprising, but you can find them in most regions, even in little towns like Camargo that you’ve never heard of.

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Antietam National Battlefield Park Gears Up To Commemorate Civil War’s Bloodiest Day

Antietam, Civil War
It was the bloodiest day of the Civil War. After 12 hours of ferocious fighting on September 17, 1862, an estimated 23,000 soldiers had been killed, wounded or declared missing. Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North was at an end.

The Battle of Antietam, in Maryland, proved to be a turning point in the war. Lincoln had been keeping his Emancipation Proclamation secret, waiting for a Union victory in order to make the controversial freeing of the slaves in rebellious states politically easier. This battle gave him that victory.

It also boosted confidence in the North. Union forces had suffered a series of embarrassing blunders and defeats. While the Union army’s success at Antietam wasn’t all it could have been (their forces outnumbered the rebels but were poorly handled by General McClellan) it showed that the war could be won.

On the weekend of September 15-17 Antietam National Battlefield Park is hosting a commemorative weekend of events for the 150th anniversary. Programs include battlefield hikes, lectures, special exhibits, kids activities, Civil War music and living history artillery and infantry firing demonstrations. For more information on General Lee’s ill-fated Maryland Campaign and commemoration events related to it, check out the National Park Service’s Maryland Campaign Commemoration page.

There’s also a large Battle of Antietam Reenactment on farmland a few miles away from the national park on September 14-16. This is a privately run event and preregistration is a must. Deadline is August 31.

[Photo of Confederate dead at Bloody Lane courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

New Website Commemorates War Of 1812

War of 1812
While events commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War are happening all over the country, the bicentennial of the War of 1812 has received less attention.

Now, a new website created by the New York State Museum provides information on the war and events and activities commemorating it. Much of the fighting took place along the New York-Canadian border, although battles were fought as far away as New Orleans and Washington, D.C., which got burned by a British invasion force. The image above, painted on the spot by George Munger, shows the White House as a gutted ruin.

The War of 1812 website offers a wealth of information on the conflict, including a timeline, biographies of key figures, and important documents. It’s also open for submissions if you have written something about the war or you have an ancestor who was affected by it. Of interest to travelers is the resources section, showing upcoming events such as reenactments.

Civil War Ballooning Revived This Memorial Day Weekend

Civil War
During the Civil War, the clashing armies used many new technologies to try to gain an advantage.

One military innovation was the balloon. Although the first balloon ascent had taken place in France in 1783 and the French army had already used them in battle as early as 1794, military aviation was still in its infancy and the United States and Confederacy became the second and third countries to use it.

Balloons were handy for spying on enemy movements. Observers would send back information either with signal flags or via a telegraph wire leading to the ground. The more industrial North had an edge in ballooning, but the South used them effectively too. Despite their best efforts, neither side was able to shoot these daring aviators out of the sky.

Now these early experiments are being re-enacted in Virginia. On Saturday, May 26, there will be a Civil War Balloon Observation Exhibit at the Yorktown Battlefield. There will be presentations on how balloons were used by both sides. It’s part of a weekend of lectures and re-enactments.

On Memorial Day, Monday, May 28, at the Gloucester Main Street Center, there will be a Civil War re-enactment featuring a 45-foot diameter replica of the Union’s balloon Intrepid. Re-enactors will portray Union and Confederate balloonists. Those who prefer more recent military history can meet special guest Richard C. Kirkland, who flew 103 combat missions in World War II and whose 69 helicopter rescues in Korea inspired the movie and TV series “M*A*S*H.”

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Civil War Battle of Glorieta Pass to be reenacted in New Mexico


The Battle of Glorieta Pass, the most important battle of the Civil War in the Southwest, will be reenacted this weekend in New Mexico.

This important battle took place on March 26 and 28, 1862, but the reenactment will take place on the weekend of March 24 and 25. A Confederate army under General Henry Hopkins Sibley had marched out of Texas to take what was then the New Mexico Territory. After defeating a Union force at the Battle of Valverde, Sibley marched north in the hopes of taking the rich gold fields of Colorado and ultimately opening a path to the Pacific.

A Union force under Col. John Slough met the rebels at Glorieta Pass. Slough and most of his men were Colorado volunteers who had marched 400 mountainous miles in only 13 days to stop the Confederates. The battle was a hard two-day fight. So hard, in fact, that both sides rested for a day in between.

The Union side won when a Colorado unit climbed a mountain to get behind the Confederates and destroyed their supplies. Left with virtually no food or water, Sibley had to abandon the invasion and his army struggled through the desert back to Texas. The defeat was so complete that the battle is often called “the Gettysburg of the West.”

The action will take place at the old battlefield, now the Pecos National Historical Park. You can see a schedule of events here. Highlights include a Spanish-language drill of the New Mexico Volunteers, black powder demonstrations and artillery. Park volunteers and reenactors will be on hand to give battlefield tours and lecture on various topics such as the Civil War in the Southwest and period medicine. There will even be drill instruction for kids.

Image painted by artist Roy Anderson — courtesy of Pecos National Historical Park.