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]

Skeletons at royal castle in Scotland killed in battle, experts say

Scotland, castle, castles, Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle in Scotland was the scene of several brutal sieges and battles in its violent history. Now a new exhibition looks at the castle’s past and the grim discovery of several skeletons in the Royal Chapel showing signs of violent death.

One man had 44 skull fractures from repeated blows with a blunt object, and up to 60 more over the rest of his body. The Middle Ages were a pitiless time, and despite what modern romance novels say there wasn’t much chivalry. The skeleton of a woman had 10 fractures to her skull, resulting from two heavy blows. Neat, square holes through the top of her skull suggest she may then have fallen and been killed with a weapon such as a war hammer. At least five skeletons in the chapel showed signs of violent death. Carbon dating shows they died in several incidents between the 13th century and c.1450.

ScotlandOne of the skulls can be seen in this photo courtesy of Historic Scotland. Holding it is Dr. Jo Buckberry of Bradford University, who carried out the research on the skeletons.

The chapel was excavated as part of Historic Scotland’s restoration of the castle’s 16th century palace. The fact that the people were buried here indicates they were important.

One has been tentatively identified as Sir John de Stricheley, who died in 1341. Sir De Stricheley and the lady’s skeleton were featured last year on BBC2’s History Cold Case series.

Stirling Castle was an important castle on the boundary between Scotland and England and was besieged numerous times during the Wars of Scottish Independence (1296-1328 and 1332-1357). Several battles occurred nearby.

The exhibition, including facial reconstructions of Sir De Stricheley and the lady, will open June 4.

[Castle photo courtesy Finlay McWalter]

Bamburgh Castle excavation reveals Anglo-Saxon building

castle, castles
An excavation in the courtyard of Bamburgh Castle has uncovered an Anglo-Saxon hall, the BBC reports.

It was already known that there was a castle here from the 6th century AD, when England was a patchwork of small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The kingdom of Northumbria was the largest and one of the most powerful. Little was known about the Anglo-Saxon period at Bamburgh, however, because of the massive later castle built atop it.

Now archaeologists have discovered a hall, perhaps a grand building used by the local ruler. The excavation will be featured on the next episode of Time Team, aired in the UK on Channel 4 this Sunday, April 24, at 5:30 PM. The Bamburgh Research Project has an interesting blog to keep you up to date about the excavation. They also offer a Dig for a Day program where you can learn what it’s like to be an archaeologist and maybe make a major discovery of your own.

A couple of years ago we chose Bamburgh Castle as one of the ten toughest castles in the world because of its amazing military history. Check out the link for more information.

[Photo courtesy George Ford]

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Top five castles of Extremadura, Spain

castle, castles, Spain, Badajoz
Spain is one of the best countries in the world to see castles. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Iberian peninsula was split between various Christian states and the Moors, Muslim invaders from North Africa. These factions fought and traded with each other in a constantly changing network of political alliances. Leaders protected their domains with castles and walled cities. One of the hot spots for fighting was in the southwest in what is now the autonomous community of Extremadura, including its provinces of Badajoz and Cáceres. There are literally hundreds of castles here. Below are five of the best, picked for their accessibility and general coolness.

Olivenza
Olivenza is a town in the province of Badajoz. It’s right on the border with Portugal and is actually claimed by that country, although it has been under Spanish jurisdiction since 1801. The castle of Olivenza is an impressive Templar fortress adapted from an earlier Muslim castle taken in 1228. It features high walls and imposing square towers. As you can see from the photo in the gallery, these included “murder holes” set out from the edge of the tower from which to drop rocks and boiling water on attackers. The idea of dropping boiling oil is a myth. Water was much cheaper and easier to obtain, although one account from a siege in France talks about using boiling lead! The castle at Olivenza was expanded in the 14th and 16th centuries and is very well preserved, still dominating this small town of 12,000 people. A gate flanked by slender, semi-round towers, and a wide moat also survive.

Fregenal de la Sierra
This castle is also in Badajoz and guards the road to Seville. As you can see from the above photo, courtesy Fregenal01 via Wikimedia Commons and taken under much better conditions than the crappy weather we had on our trip to Extremadura, the high walls and seven towers now share the skyline with church spires. This wasn’t always the case. The first fort here was built by the Romans, later reworked by the Visigoths and Moors. After the land was taken from the Muslims, King Fernando III gave the castle to the Templars in 1283. They expanded and improved the fortifications and they were still being used as late as 1808 by Napoleon’s troops! The castle courtyard is now the town’s bullfighting ring.

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Trujillo
Perhaps the most visited castle in Extremadura is in the charming old walled city of Trujillo in Cáceres. In the 16th century Extremadura was a poor region that had seen generations of warfare. This bred tough and desperate men willing to take a chance to better their lives. Trujillo was the home of many of the Conquistadores that won the New World for Spain, including Francisco Pizarro. His house is now a museum and sits in the shadow of one of Spain’s most impressive castles. Trujillo was taken during the Moorish invasion of 711 and remained in Muslim hands until 1232. You can see many Arab flourishes to the design, such as the horseshoe-shaped arches. An informative tour takes you all around the battlements. The guides like to point out where the Virgin Mary appeared to rally the Spanish in their final assault against the Moors.

Castillo de Floripes
For something a little different, head to this partially submerged 15th century fortress. Close to the small town of Garrovillas de Alconétar in Cáceres, it got inundated by a reservoir project in 1969. The main tower still rises majestically from the waters, and when there’s a drought you can see much more of the Gothic stonework and even walk around the grounds. It’s a bit squishy, but atmospheric. Supposedly it has its origins in Roman, Visigothic, and Moorish times, but there’s no chance to conduct an archaeological excavation.

The Fortified Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe
Spain was a rough place back in the Middle Ages, and monks weren’t immune to the violence. This World Heritage Site in the town of Guadalupe, Cáceres, has been one of Spain’s most important monasteries for centuries. Founded in 1340, it became a center of learning and medicine. The tour takes you around the tall towers, the cloisters, and painting of monks done by Zurbarán. The highlight is Our Lady of Guadalupe, a holy image of the Black Madonna. It’s a popular pilgrimage spot, so the town has many hotels.

For more information and photos, check out the Castillos de España website (in Spanish) and its English sister site (which sadly doesn’t have as much material) Castles of Spain. Both feature a handy interactive map. For more general information on castles, go to the website of castle expert Lise E. Hull. She focuses on the British Isles, but includes a lot of general information on castle construction and daily life in the Middle Ages.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: Paradores: the luxury hotels of Spain!

Jesse James: the birth of a legend

Jesse James, Wild West. Old West, bushwhacker, guerrilla, Civil WarLegends often start quietly, with ordinary people making ordinary decisions that change history. In 1946 in Tupelo, Mississippi, a working-class mother gave her son a guitar for his birthday. Elvis Presley wanted a bicycle, but he started practicing music anyway. In 1913, an unknown music hall comedian named Charlie Chaplin decided to try his luck with the new medium of motion pictures. His first films were unremarkable. One doesn’t even exist anymore.

The beginning of the legend of Jesse James was anything but quiet.

By 1864 the Confederate cause in Missouri was struggling to survive. The Confederate army had been kicked out of Missouri and the northern half of Arkansas, but while the Union army had captured the region, they had a hard time controlling it. Bands of rebel guerrillas called bushwhackers ambushed Union patrols, attacked isolated outposts, terrorized Unionist civilians, burned bridges, and cut telegraph wires. The bushwhackers bragged that the soldiers only controlled the towns, while they controlled everything else.

One of the toughest bushwhacker bands was led by William T. Anderson, who both friends and enemies called “Bloody Bill”. His heavily armed guerrillas scoured central Missouri, killing civilians and soldiers alike and riding through the land with their victims’ scalps dangling from their saddles. Fighting alongside Bloody Bill were two brothers from Clay County named Frank and Jesse James.

Jesse was only 16, his older brother was 21. The photograph here shows Jesse during that time, cocky and experienced beyond his years, gripping a Colt Navy revolver, the favored bushwhacker weapon. In September of 1864 the guerrillas got an important message from the Confederate army. General Sterling Price was leading an invasion of Missouri from the Confederate-held territory to the south. The goal was no less than to take St. Louis and return Missouri to the Confederacy. The bushwhackers were ordered to wreck as much havoc as they could to disrupt the Union defenses.

%Gallery-108006%Bloody Bill received the order while camping in Boone County near the little town of Centralia, population 100, located on the North Missouri Railroad. At dawn on September 27th, Anderson rode into town with thirty men, whooping and shooting their pistols. Anderson wanted to destroy the railroad and read the newspapers for information on troop movements. His men went from building to building, demanding breakfast and stealing from stores. A lucky bushwhacker found a keg of whiskey and they all started drinking. A stagecoach passing through town was robbed at gunpoint.

At noon the bushwhackers heard the whistle of an approaching train. They piled wood onto the track and fired at the engine, forcing it to stop. On board were 23 unarmed Union soldiers on furlough or sick leave. The guerrillas hustled them out of the train and stole their uniforms. As the men stood there in their underwear, Anderson asked if there was an officer in the crowd. Sgt. Thomas Goodman stepped forward, thinking he was about to die, but the guerrillas shoved him aside and gunned down his comrades instead. They also shot a German man who was unlucky enough to be wearing a blue shirt. One account says the German didn’t speak enough English to convince the guerrillas he was a civilian. It probably wouldn’t have mattered; the rebels hated German immigrants because they were abolitionists.

As one of the bushwhackers tied up Goodman to keep for a prisoner exchange, several men, perhaps even Frank and Jesse James, robbed the train and found a large amount of money on board. This may have been their very first train robbery, and they wouldn’t forget the bundles of cash it earned them. Anderson ordered his men to set fire to the train and send it off down the track. Then the rebels saddled up, filling up some boots with whiskey so they could share it with their friends back at camp.

That afternoon, Union Major A.V.E. Johnson led 158 men of the 39th Missouri Infantry into Centralia. He left some men to restore order in town and headed out in pursuit. Not far outside town he spotted some galloping away. Johnson hurried after them.

That was exactly what the bushwhackers wanted. They drew Johnson over a low rise and into a field surrounded on three sides by woods. At one end of this cul-de-sac stood a line of mounted guerrillas, Bloody Bill and the James brothers among them. Hidden among the trees on either side were more bushwhackers. At an order they converged on the soldiers.

Johnson may have been easily fooled, but he wasn’t easily scared. He dismounted his men, formed them in line, and fired a volley at the approaching horsemen. Only three guerrillas fell, including one man who got shot through the head and splattered his brains on Frank James’ boot. Now the guerrillas closed, firing rapidly with their revolvers, getting off several shots before the soldiers could reload their single-shot muskets.

The guerrillas smashed through the panicked soldiers. Frank recalled in a later interview that Jesse traded shots with Maj. Johnson and killed him. Within moments all the soldiers were down and the bushwhackers set to work collecting scalps. Some of their comrades rode back into Centralia and annihilated Maj. Johnson’s other group of soldiers.

In his memoirs, Sgt. Goodman recalled, “Men’s heads were severed from their lifeless bodies, exchanged as to bodies. . .or sat grinning at each other from the tops of fence stakes.”

The 39th lost 116 killed and only two wounded. Any wounded man the guerrillas came upon was killed. Six other Union soldiers disappeared, probably dying a lonely death in the woods.

Frank and Jesse James continued their rampage through central Missouri and other bushwhacker groups did the same in other parts of the state. One night Sgt. Goodman was able to slip away. He was lucky; many more Union men were killed in the ensuing days. The bloodshed the guerrillas caused didn’t do much to help General Price’s invasion, however. He suffered an early defeat at the Battle of Pilot Knob, which delayed and weakened his force so much that he didn’t try to attack St. Louis. Marching west through the center of the state, he got increasingly hemmed in by gathering Union armies and suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of Westport close to Kansas City. His army limped south back to Arkansas, never to return.

Jesse James’ war never stopped, though, and he remained an active guerrilla until the very end. It’s not clear whether he scalped his enemies like many in Bloody Bill’s crew, but he certainly felt no guilt at their fate. An incident two years before left him with the burning conviction that the Yankees had it coming. That earlier incident, almost as brutal as the Centralia Massacre although on a smaller scale, may be the real beginning of the legend of Jesse James.

This is the first of my new series: On the Trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: The James farm!

[Photo courtesy Library of Congress]