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.

Civil War Sesquicentennial events: where to learn what’s on

Civil WarAs the nation continues to commemorate the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, an increasing number of reenactments, special exhibitions, lectures, and living history demonstrations are taking place. There are so many that it’s hard to know what’s going on when! Two websites will keep you informed of upcoming events.

Civil War Traveler bills itself as “your headquarters for 150th anniversary information” and it sure delivers. Broken down by state, it gives travel information and maps to all of the major, and many minor, historic landmarks. The events section gives a rundown of what’s coming up. Civil War Traveler also acts as a clearinghouse for state and local tourism agencies. If you fill out their online form telling which regions you’re interested in, you’ll get information from several sources in your mailbox.

Civil War News covers some of the same ground as Civil War Traveler, with a searchable calendar covering events. This site goes beyond travel to cover issues such as battlefield preservation and goings-on in the reenactment community. Some news stories are free, and the full bimonthly issues are available by subscription.

The Sesquicentennial has led to a wealth of blogs of the “this day in history” style. The best I’ve seen is the Civil War Daily Gazette, which is one of the only blogs I read on a daily basis. It’s addictive. See you in the comments section!

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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]

Reenacting the Civil War’s first important battle

Civil War, Missouri, Trans-Mississippi Civil War
The Civil War started early in Missouri. In 1854 fighting flared up over whether the neighboring Kansas Territory would become a slave state. Pro-slavery Missourians raided Kansas to kill and intimidate abolitionists, and Kansans raided Missouri, killing slave owners and liberating slaves.

When the first official shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861, Missouri was already prepared for an all-out fight, yet nobody knew which side it would take. While Missouri’s legislature and much of its population supported the South, its large German-American population and many of its cities and towns were Unionist.

The Confederates made the first move. The secessionist State Guard camped on the edge of St. Louis, supposedly for their annual drill but really planning on taking the Federal arsenal. The local Federal commander, a hotheaded professional soldier named Capt. Nathaniel Lyon, gathered several units of soldiers, surrounded the State Guard camp, and forced them to surrender. The move caused a riot in the city in which one soldier and 27 civilians died. It looked like the war was on.

%Gallery-124755%Then everyone hesitated. Leaders from both sides met in St. Louis to try to salvage the situation. Heading the rebel delegation was Sterling Price, commander of the State Guard, and Claiborne Fox Jackson, Missouri’s governor. The Union delegation made the mistake of bringing Lyon along. The devoted abolitionist had no illusions about the possibility of peace. He shouted at the Confederates that he’d rather kill every man, woman, and child in Missouri rather than have the state dictate terms to the Federal government.

That was that. Price and Jackson took a train from St. Louis west to the state capital at Jefferson City in the center of the state, but decided there were too many abolitionist German immigrants in town for comfort. They decided to gather their forces at Boonville, a prosperous, and secessionist, town 50 miles west on the Missouri river. Soon state militiamen and excited farm boys were rallying to the cause in Boonville, ready to fight the Yankees.

Lyon and 2,000 troops arrived at Jefferson City on June 15 to find the rebellious state government had fled to Boonville. They set out to meet them in a flotilla of steamboats.

While the rebels should have been led by Sterling Price, he came down with a bout of cholera and was home stinking up the outhouse. Command fell to Col. John Sappington Marmaduke, Governor Jackson’s nephew, who had resigned his commission in the U.S. Army in order to throw his lot in with the Confederacy. Marmaduke didn’t want to fight. His “army” numbered about 1,500. Few had any training and only about a third of them were armed. Yet Governor Jackson insisted they make a stand. He feared a retreat would lead to the disintegration of their nascent army.

On the morning of June 17, Lyon landed about seven miles east of Boonville with 1,500 men. Marmaduke, alerted to the danger, marched about 500 of his men to the top of a long ridge four miles east of Boonville. The terrain was good, with a wheat field to hide his inferior numbers, and a house to hide sharpshooters in.

Lyon’s professional troops, accompanied by a battery of cannon, marched along the river road towards town. Soon rebel pickets fired at them, then quickly withdrew in the face of such a large force. The Union troops soon found themselves facing the long, low hill atop which Marmaduke and his men waited. Lyon ordered the cannon unlimbered and the battery sent shot after shot onto the ridge as the Union infantry slowly advanced.

Gritting their teeth and trying to ignore the cannonballs whirring through the air around them, the rebels shot at the advancing troops. Their untrained fire proved inaccurate, and the Union ranks moved resolutely forward. Their artillery knocked two holes into the wall of the house, forcing the rebels inside to run. Marmaduke ordered a general retreat.

A few Confederates made a second line on the top of another hill. Once again the two sides poured fire at each other, and once again Union discipline and marksmanship took their toll. The rebels retreated once more, this time in complete disarray. Accounts vary, but it seems that there were about a dozen casualties on either side.

The first Union victory in Missouri had taken only twenty minutes. The Confederates ran so fast both sides ended up calling it the “Boonville Races.”

The Battle of Boonville had a significance far out of proportion to its size. The Union now controlled the Missouri River, which cut from west to east through the center of the state. The northern counties never got to organize in support of the Confederacy. The river also kept open a vital Federal supply line to Kansas. If the Confederates had been able to hold onto it, Kansas and the loyal territories to the west would have been nearly cut off. While the Confederates continued to fight for Missouri, the prosperous state with its industry and agriculture was never under any serious threat of falling into their hands.

Although there were a few little skirmishes before this like those at Philippi, West Virginia, and Bethel Church, Virginia, the Battle of Boonville was the first battle to have an effect on the outcome of the war.

Now to celebrate its 150th anniversary, the Battle of Boonville will be refought. from June 17-19 there will be reenactments, talks, and living history demonstrations. I’ve been to several reenactments in Missouri and the folks that do them really know their history and put on a great show. If you’re in the area, be sure to mark your calendar.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Four forgotten Civil War battlefields

Civil War battlefields are some of the most popular tourist destinations in the U.S. The most famous battlefields, such as Gettysburg and Shiloh, attract hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. But there are many other battlefields that are just as interesting but little-known outside their local area. Here are four that any history buff will enjoy. You’ll notice all of them are west of the Mississippi River. After the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg fell on July 4, 1863, the Union gained control of the Mississippi, cutting the Confederacy in half. From then on the fight in the West was practically a separate war. It gets little press in comparison to the war in the East, but it’s just as interesting.

Lexington (September 13-20, 1861): September 1861 was a hopeful time for the Confederacy. General Sterling Price had defeated a large Union force at Wilson’s Creek in southwest Missouri and now marched through central Missouri gathering recruits. At the river town of Lexington he found a Union force under Col. James Mulligan defending the stone building of the Masonic College on a hill overlooking town. Mulligan had built earthworks all around the hill. Price’s inexperienced troops had trouble taking this tough position until they hit on the idea of lining up bales of hemp, the local cash crop, and rolling them uphill as a mobile wall. Bales of weed are apparently bulletproof and as the fort became hemmed in Mulligan had no choice but to surrender. This early rebel victory proved short lived, and soon Price had to retreat to Arkansas in the face of superior forces.

The Battle of Lexington State Historic Site has a good museum and remnants of the original earthworks. The town has many interesting old buildings. The courthouse has a cannonball lodged in one of its pillars!

Fort Davidson (September 27, 1864): By the autumn of 1864 the war was going badly for the Confederacy, especially in the West. Other than some raids and constant guerrilla activity, the rebels had been pushed out of Missouri and northern Arkansas. General Sterling Price hit upon a bold plan to march north out of Arkansas and take St. Louis just before the presidential election. This, he hoped, would make Lincoln lose, or at least take pressure off the beleaguered Confederates east of the Mississippi.

His first stop was Fort Davidson in the Arcadia Valley in southern Missouri. While some of his officers recommended bypassing the fort, Price wanted to give his troops an early boost in morale and capture supplies. The rebels charged across an open plain into withering musket fire and blasts of grapeshot. By the end of the day almost a thousand men lay dead around the fort, and the Union troops still held their ground. That night the defenders snuck out under cover of darkness, blew up the fort’s magazine, and slipped away into the night. This disastrous defeat so weakened and delayed Price’s army that he gave up trying to take St. Louis. His invasion became just another raid as he made a long loop through the state, ending in defeat at the Battle of Westport near Kansas City. Price’s invasion was the last major Confederate campaign west of the Mississippi.

Fort Davidson State Historic Site preserves the fort’s earthen ramparts and has an excellent museum about Price’s Raid.


Glorieta Pass (March 26-28, 1862): Throughout the war the Confederacy suffered from a naval blockade. The rebel army in Texas hoped that if they could take the sparsely defended Southwest they could march all the way to California. There they could exploit California’s gold mines and trade with the world with little interference from the Union. An army of about 2,500 hardy Texans and New Mexicans headed out. At first all went well and they captured several Union forts and towns, but waiting for them at Glorieta Pass in New Mexico was a determined force of local Unionists and soldiers from Colorado. The pass was narrow and restricted on both sides by steep slopes. The fighting raged over rugged terrain and the Confederates looked like they were going to finally force their way through the pass when they discovered all of their supply wagons and horses had been destroyed by some Colorado troops who had climbed over the mountains and snuck behind the rebel position. The Confederates had no choice but to retreat in a grueling, thirsty slog back to Texas. The dreams of a Confederacy stretching from sea to shining sea died at the “Gettysburg of the West.”

The battlefield is part of the Pecos National Historical Park and can only be visited as part of a park ranger guided tour. That’s a good thing, because the rangers really know their stuff and will point all the important spots.

Picacho Pass (April 15, 1862): During the Confederate campaign in New Mexico a small detachment of 54 Texans rode to Tucson and claimed it for the Confederacy. A Union column of 2,350 cavalry set out from California to take it back along with the rest of the Southwest. As they approached Tucson, a dozen cavalrymen and a scout ranged ahead to see what the rebels were doing. Fifty miles northwest of town they came across ten rebels camped at Picacho Pass, a towering mesa overlooking the northwestern approach to Tucson. There was a brief firefight in which three Union soldiers were killed and three wounded. Three rebels were captured and two were wounded. Considering the small size of the forces involved, in terms of percentages this was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War! The rebels hurried back to Tucson to tell their commander that the Union army was on the way, and they retreated to Texas. The Battle of Picacho Pass is considered by many to be the westernmost battle of the Civil War.

Picacho Peak State Park is a fun day trip from Tucson or Phoenix. There’s nothing to see from the actual battle, but you can clamber up the peak and look out over a sweeping view of the Arizona desert, marred by the nearby Central Arizona Project and Interstate 10. The park has an annual reenactment.

Do you have a favorite, lesser-known battlefield? Tell us about it in the comments section!