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]

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]

L’Anse aux Meadows: A Viking colony in Canada

L'Anse aux Meadows, Viking

The Vikings were some of the best sailors of the Middle Ages. They sailed all over the Mediterranean, far up the rivers of Russia and across the north Atlantic to colonize Iceland and Greenland. For a long time archaeologists wondered if they ever made it to other parts of North America besides Greenland. Although some Viking sagas mention a land called Vinland to the west of Greenland, no reliable traces of further Viking settlement were discovered until 1960.

In that year, a Norwegian archaeologist discovered a Viking village on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, Canada. Called L’Anse aux Meadows, the site includes several houses made from sod put over a wooden framework. One building was identified as a smithy, and another as a carpenter’s workshop. Several distinctively Viking artifacts were found, proving they really did make it here.

The settlement has been dated to about 1000 A.D. and doesn’t appear to have been used for very long. One interesting aspect of L’Anse aux Meadows is that it looks like a typical Viking base camp for hunting and exploration. That hints at more Viking sites waiting to be found. Archaeologists found butternuts at the site, a plant that doesn’t grow this far north, suggesting the Vikings were sailing to the south or perhaps trading with the Native Americans.

%Gallery-150700%L’Anse aux Meadows is now a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A visitor center explains the history of Viking exploration, and reconstructed sod huts give you a feel for what it was like in those days. Re-enactors explain Viking shipbuilding, cooking, ironworking and navigation. You can even listen to a Viking saga!

There’s a lot of natural beauty to the site too, including rare plants and sweeping views of the sea. Icebergs are a common sight. Although L’Anse aux Meadows is a bit out of the way for most visitors to Canada, you’ll be rewarded with some fascinating history and a harsh but beautiful landscape.

While L’Anse aux Meadows is the only confirmed Viking site in west of Greenland, several controversial sites in Canada and the United States have been proposed as evidence of an extensive Viking exploration of North America. Tomorrow I’ll be writing about those, so stay tuned!

Photo courtesy user Rosino via flickr.

Battle of Marathon to be fought again

Battle of MarathonWhile the U.S. is having lots of Civil War reenactments lately, it’s not the only country where avid hobbyists like to refight old battles. This year Greece is marking the 2500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, an epic clash between the Greeks and Persians that saved Europe from invasion and allowed Greek culture to thrive. To commemorate the battle, there will be a reenactment on the actual battlefield.

The battle was a desperate attempt to stop the Persian Empire, the major superpower of the day, from invading Greece in 490 BC. The Greek city-states of Athens and Palataea blocked the passes leading out from the Persian beachhead on the Plain of Marathon. Even though the Greeks were outnumbered two-to-one, they attacked and routed the Persians, ending the invasion.

There’s a legend that an Athenian named Pheidippides ran from the battlefield to Athens to announce the victory and died from exhaustion right after he gave the good news. The distance from Marathon to Athens is, of course, about 26 miles. This actually never happened, but it makes a good story.

From September 9 to 11, hundreds of reenactors from around the world will converge on the battlefield for a day of sham fighting and historical demonstrations. The Greek side will include many Greeks, while the Persian ranks will have many Iranians. Dozens of other countries will contribute people as well. Events will be centered on a reconstruction of the Greek military camp and there will be archery demonstrations, ancient music and dancing, and much more.

At least 200 warriors will duke it out on the original battlefield, but there won’t be any blood spilled. The Greeks will have dull spears and the Persians will be firing rubber-tipped arrows. I bet this poor fellow pictured here, a Greek casualty of the real battle, wished there were rubber arrows back in his day.

[Photo courtesy Keith Schengili-Roberts]