Battle of Agincourt - 600 Years

We’ve finally arrived at the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, one of the most famous battles in French or English history. Many of us first learned about the battle from Shakespeare’s Henry V, and in particular are familiar with the king’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, with its famous “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” line, supposedly delivered to his troops on the eve of battle. 
Agincourt Marker

As with so much history, there is still debate regarding this battle. In fact, the name of the town is actually Azincourt, and the arguments only get larger from there. The rote story, so to speak, is that the English were tremendously outnumbered, but with the aid of the longbow and a type of underdog courage, prevailed over the feckless French. That traditional view is challenged, even today, and the evolution of the story is still happening. As study of the battle continues, perhaps someday we will have more clarity on the actual history. Regardless, it is likely that the French held a distinct numerical advantage, and that their attack on a well-situated English army was reckless. 

Road into Agincourt

What cannot be debated is that the English won an incredible battle at Agincourt, their last major victory of The Hundred Years War, and the longbowmen of the English side are to thank. The French pushed themselves into the fray in such a way as to make fighting almost impracticable for themselves, and it’s likely that many French were caught in a crush - almost incapable of fighting for that reason alone. English archers devastated the front lines with their arrows, and were able to advance through the muddy terrain and kill many with knives and heavy mallets. Still, there’s no doubt the French knights and soldiery showed their bravery, and the result of the battle with such terrible casualty rates purely reflects that fact. 

The battlefield today is still very much as it was on that Friday in 1415. The town is small, the area is still rural, and the battlefield is practically all farmland. It’s possible to stand on the field and picture the French knights spurring their horses, with their finest trappings, alongside others on foot advancing in full armor through the mud and into the ranks of the English. There have been enough findings of relics throughout the years to verify that the field is accurately known. While there are a few historical markers and stones, the town has gone to a higher level and added historic decorations, with those leading to a very nice museum.  

Agincourt Monument

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the battlefield a couple or three times, and admit my surprise and delight at such a detailed and complex museum in a small town. You’re able to step through pictures and text (in French and English) that guide you through the events leading to the battle, as well as the combat, itself. The displays range from reproductions of the weapons, clothing, and armour, to actual relics from the field; miniature soldiers on a scale field and a great in-the-round “video” of the battle complete the experience. Most importantly, this museum gives you enough to understand and interpret what happened there. 

In the large scheme of things Agincourt is difficult for me to assess. It once again demonstrated the effectiveness of the English longbow, but the war was lost regardless, and Henry V was never able to take the French throne. It can be argued that the French loss was actually beneficial, giving rise to the advent of Joan of Arc, a more consolidated French army, and the final victory for the French in the series of conflicts that we now call The Hundred Years War. It also gave us a historic battlefield, a lesson in bravery and frustration, and a great Shakespeare story. What more could we ask for? 

Agincourt Museum

Battle of Hastings Anniversary

On this day in 1066 Duke William of Normandy overcame great odds and defeated King Harold and the English on Senlac Hill in southern England, at what is now called the Battle of Hastings. The English lost, terribly, and primarily because of Harold rushing to battle. Having defeated the Norse just a couple weeks earlier at Stamford Bridge, Harold practically force-marched his men south to meet the Normans. He fought without archers and without the additional volunteers that certainly would have arrived from all around England. 


On the battlefield itself his men stood firm, until mistakes made by the men on his right flank opened up a vulnerability to the Norman cavalry. King Harold’s brothers likely commanded the right flank, but by committing the same mistake twice - charging the enemy when they should have stood firm - they brought about one of history’s greatest upsets. The traditional story is that Harold was hit in the eye by a Norman arrow, and that is very possible. Regardless of what happened, the Battle of Hastings was the first and foremost action of the Norman Conquest. While action continued on for years, that was the decisive event.

Hastings Battlefield
My first trip to England was 20 years ago, and I was able to attend the large reenactment that’s annually held on the battlefield. I witnessed a great mock battle with a huge crowd that largely cheered the English. William the Conqueror had promised to build an abbey if victorious that day, and he did keep his promise. The remnants still exist today.

 Today the battlefield is a great place to visit, and is just a train ride of an hour and a half from London’s Charing Cross Station. Leave the train at the Battle stop, and you’re a pleasant 15 or 20 minute walk from the field. I highly encourage a visit to one of the most significant places in the history of western civilization.

Battle Train Station

Pritzker Military Museum and Library - Chicago

I was in Chicago last week, found a few unexpected hours in my schedule, and decided to make the best of that time. The weather was cool and windy (imagine that in Chicago), so I wasn’t really interested in one of the boat or bus tours. I’ve often wanted to visit the site of the Battle of Fort Dearborn from the War of 1812, so I decided to walk south on Michigan Avenue toward Roosevelt; even though the actual site is debated, the most likely option is that spot, or a location about a mile farther south. At the very least I’d get the lay of the land, so to speak. (I should note that this event is sometimes referred to as the Fort Dearborn Massacre, though I personally hesitate to ever use the term “massacre” when referring to a battle during wartime.) I was starting from the actual site of Fort Dearborn in downtown Chicago near the Wrigley Building on Michigan Avenue, and decided to grab a quick bite before heading south. 

While having lunch I looked through a Chicago map and brochure that I had picked up at my hotel, just to be sure that I knew the best route to my destination. In a moment of serendipity, I also discovered something else. Listed among nearby attractions was the Pritzker Military Museum and Library and, to further my luck, it was shown as being on Michigan Avenue, along my route toward the battlefield site. I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d find there - never heard of it before - but I knew I had to take a look. I accidentally walked past the entrance on my way south, but discovered on the way back north that it was actually well-marked - on the corner at Monroe, practically across from Millennium Park. 
The museum actually lies on the second and third floors of the building, and is accessible by elevator and stairs. Upstairs I was greeted by a lady who gave me a great description of what they had, and where I’d find it. Of particular interest to me was an exhibit regarding Major Erasmus Corwin Gilbreath, a career soldier who served in the 20th Indiana Regiment during the American Civil War, through the Indian Wars, and ending with the Spanish-American War, when he died from disease in Puerto Rico. The Pritzker Museum has apparently just published his journals, and the exhibit was a complement to the book: Dignity of Duty: The Journals of Erasmus Corwin Gilbreath, 1861-1898. 
The Pritzker is indeed a museum and library, with a great collection of books, periodicals, and magazines. With large windows to allow in light, and comfortable chairs throughout, I can see how this place could easily become a historian’s hangout. I noted a list of upcoming speakers, which looked very intriguing, and included Douglas Mastriano speaking on his recent biography of Sergeant Alvin York. 

While the museum side of things was somewhat limited, what they had on display was interesting, including various artworks, Vietnam War photography, a Medal of Honor exhibit, a great U.S. flag commemorating the USS Maine, and some original, early art by Howard Chandler Christy. With plenty of room and always something else of interest along the way, I spent an enjoyable couple hours there. I should also note that the book selection seemed to be very comprehensive, and would be an asset to plenty of scholars. 

Sometimes you luck into things, and I consider the Pritzker Military Museum and Library a lucky find. I’m unclear whether I actually stood on the Fort Dearborn battlefield, but what I found along the way was even better. If you’re ever in Chicago, it’s absolutely worth the $5 admission and a couple or three hours of your time. I’ll certainly return. 

Sometimes the Little Guy Wins

Today, July 11, has been the anniversary of one of my favorite battles, that being Kortrijk/Courtrai. There, in 1302, disciplined and determined foot troops from Flanders stood firm against the shock of French cavalry. 

So many knights were killed that this battle became popularly known as the Battle of the Golden Spurs - a reference to the spurs taken from the dead knights on the field. Kortrijk (or Courtrai) does have a nice museum that covers details of the battle, and I encourage you to visit it if you're ever near there.

While this is a nice, historic Belgian town, the battlefield today is little more than a city park; but the battle itself is a lesson that the little guy can win, if disciplined and determined. I always take something from that.

Waterloo Bicentennial

Today, June 18, 2015 is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, one of the most important events in European and world history. This past week in that little town has been a whirlwind of reenactments, living history, and a series of visits by politicians and royalty. It’s incredible to imagine all the planning and work of the past few years coming together, finally.

 I’ve mentioned before how much people - especially historians - like anniversaries. But this event seems to have escaped America today. I can understand our interest in more contemporary things and events that are relevant to us, but I guess I just expected more. Yesterday the Google Doodle was celebrating the 130th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty coming to America, so I was anticipating something on this important bicentennial. I mean, Waterloo overlooked?

I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Waterloo battlefield a few times, as recently as last year with my daughter on our whirlwind tour of Europe. When I was there in October 2012 construction was ramping up near the Butte du Lion, and was still ongoing in June of 2014. I wish I could have been there this week, just to see how it all turned out. But the timing just wasn’t right.

Maybe the coverage is out there, and I just have somehow overlooked it. All in all, Waterloo is one of those places that’s interesting because of the leaders as much as the battles, and it still draws huge crowds - with many partisans. At the Wellington Museum I once heard an Englishman claim that everything in the town seemed to be a shrine to Napoleon, and there’s no doubt that the Frenchman has left a mark. But the man kept talking, claiming that the English won the battle against all odds, and that Wellington deserved more public mention. The lady at the museum agreed, politely, and said that she felt the same way about Gebhard von Bl├╝cher. The gentleman asked, “Who?”, and the lady took the opportunity to educate the gentleman to the fact that there were actually more than English standing against the French that day. Thankfully, he was glad to learn, and more than a little surprised at what he was hearing.

So perhaps it’s just me. Maybe the Battle of Waterloo isn’t relevant in the U.S. these days, and the absence of media coverage is to be expected. But I just can’t get past the feeling that we’re more like the Englishman who didn’t quite understand there was more to the story, and it needs to still be told.

Commemorative Air Force - Arizona Wing

A couple weeks ago I was in Phoenix, Arizona and found myself with a few hours to kill before a later flight home. True to its nickname as the Valley of the Sun, the late February weather was incredibly good, while folks back home in Tennessee were being slammed with drastic cold and ice. I fought the temptation to just head to the airport and kill time there, and decided that at the very least I’d take the opportunity to drive around and enjoy the great weather.

As I hopped in my car I glanced over at the passenger seat, and noticed a brochure I’d picked up a couple days earlier at the hotel kiosk. The flier featured a WWII airplane on the front, and so it made for an easy decision to visit Falcon Field in Mesa, the home of the Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force. Many of you will be more familiar with this organization by its original name - the Confederate Air Force. The CAF is a non-profit organization with locations in several states, and a few in other countries, and a primary mission of preserving and displaying older - and primarily military - aircraft.


The Mesa location is actually one of their larger ones, and has a great variety of aircraft, spanning from the WWI area through the 1970s. The CAF occupies a corner of Falcon Field with its two runways, just south of the Loop 202 Red Mountain Freeway, and maybe 20 minutes east of Sky Harbor International airport. I wheeled my rental car into their parking lot, took a good notice of the ripe oranges in the grove across the street, and strolled down the entry walk with plaques noting the lives of prominent Arizona aviators. When I entered the museum the gentleman manning the desk noticed the brochure I’d picked up at the hotel, as I’d forgotten to take it from my shirt pocket. It was actually also a coupon for a few dollars discount, which was much appreciated, and later spent in their nice gift shop.


I have to admit this was my first trip to a CAF facility, and that I know very little about these type airplanes. Like a lot of folks who grew up on Black Sheep Squadron I can spot a Corsair or a P51 Mustang, but that’s about it. The museum is basically a self-guided place, with docents scattered about, which I really liked. Everyone I spoke with was very friendly, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic about the aircraft. Because my time was somewhat limited, I took a quick pace through the first hanger, and then stepped outside to watch a plane get prepped for a flight. This is what I would call a working museum, and it is possible to buy a ride in some of the old warbirds. You’ll want to schedule in advance - and save up, they’re a little pricey - but I think such a ride has now landed on my bucket list.


The second hanger holds a B-17 called Sentimental Journey, and it’s an incredible sight with its nose art featuring the fabulous Betty Grable. We were given the chance to climb up and walk through the old bomber, and I was struck by how cramped it was inside, which seemed contrary to all the old war movies I’ve watched. The walkthrough was included in admission, and I appreciated the stories told by the gentleman who was stationed at the bomber. Inside the hallway between the hangars there was an interesting display of painted flight jackets from the WWII era, as well as other smaller displays, and a movie playing inside one of the rooms.


I ended up spending almost three hours walking and learning, and luckily did have time to revisit the first hangar. My final stop was the gift shop, and even though I was a little rushed to get to my flight back to Nashville, I did take the time to pick up a souvenir - a t-shirt featuring that iconic pose of Betty Grable. I highly recommend this museum if you have a couple or three hours to spare. It’s affordable, fun, and with people there who engage you at every turn. You can find out more about it at I had a great time, and you will too.


Everyone Matters

I had been saving up for a few weeks - this was just a couple years after I'd graduated from college - and finally had the $70 I needed to buy the two-volume set of Tennesseans in the Civil War. This was the 1980s, so instead of logging on to Amazon, I hopped in my car and headed down to the Stones River National Battlefield Park, where I knew they always kept a couple sets in their gift shop. My primary interest was the volume that gave sketches of each unit's formation, as well as officers' listings and details of regimental service and action.

When I got back to my apartment I spent about an hour reading through the regimental histories, especially those from near my hometown. Then I took a moment to look at the second volume - the larger one - that ostensibly listed the names of all the men who served from Tennessee. I looked for my great-great-grandfathers, then began looking for other family names. Caught up in it, I just randomly began looking at the names, the ranks, the regiments. Suddenly, the huge volume became more intimate. A name, another, and another. I began to see these as individuals. I noted a cousin of my great-great-grandfather who served with him in the 17th Tennessee, and my grandmother's telling of their capture in an old barn where she grew up. Her grandfather had barely survived a Federal POW camp, signing the oath of allegiance in March 1865, thinking he was about to die in prison. I went searching for Major Tolbert, KIA at Shiloh, the first husband of one of my great-great-grandmothers. My great-great-grandfather was her second husband, whom she married after the war. In one of those ironic circumstances of war, had he not fallen at Shiloh, I likely would not exist today.

The history of so many families, and likely even their communities and beyond, hinged upon their lives and deaths. Historians have a tendency to talk statistics, but we also do a pretty good job of recognizing the individual, as we should. In the long run, the private may outrank the general.

Tyne Cot Cemetery is a British cemetery in the Ypres Salient of Belgium. and is the largest (by number of burials) Commonwealth cemetery in the world. It’s an incredible place to visit, so when I took my brother on a battlefield tour of Europe a couple years ago, it was a place that I knew I had to take him. I have to compliment the folks who maintain and present this cemetery. It is huge, constantly requiring maintenance people working on the property or the graves, and yet they know how to focus on the individual. As you walk from the car park into the visitors center you slowly become aware of a woman’s voice. And that voice is calmly saying the names of the men who fell in this area - those who are buried at Tyne Cot. It’s almost surreal, and the voice continues inside the building. There, you see the faces. On the day I took this little video (shown above) the hall had suddenly emptied, while outside the tour buses idled, waiting for their passengers to hop back on, and head to the next destination. 

Larger military cemeteries like that almost make you fight back against the thought that so many young men fell in such a brutal way. It's troubling to see so many markers, and more upsetting to read the names as you walk among the rows of stone. But to truly understand the devastation of war, we make a mistake when we don’t recognize the individual in the grave.

Happy Anniversary!

There’s something about anniversaries that intrigue most of us. And it’s not just birthdays and wedding anniversaries - things like that. For historians it becomes almost an obsession, even if there’s no logic in it. And I admit I’m as bad - or worse - than anyone else out there. This past year I visited Normandy on the 70th anniversary of the landings, Flanders during the centennial of the beginning of WWI, and Bannockburn on its 700th anniversary. I live in Franklin, Tennessee, and participated in a ton of things related to the 150th anniversary of the Confederate assault.

Franklin SCV Logo.jpg
Logo based on Hardees Corps flag 
I’m honored to head up an initiative that funds the conservation of flags held in the Tennessee State Museum, and in 2014 one of our projects was fundraising for the conservation of the brigade flag of Confederate General John Adams, who was killed in action at Franklin. The museum staff knew that this flag would draw particular interest because of the battle anniversary, and they were right. Our story went across the Internet, and we were able to have the flag funded, conserved, and returned in time for the anniversary. In fact, the flag was displayed in Franklin at its unveiling, perhaps for the first time since that Indian Summer day in 1864.

Adams Flag Conserved.jpg
 Confederate General John Adams Brigade Flag

In 2015 we’re going to be be remembering Agincourt, Appomattox, and Waterloo. Add to that a large number of events in remembrance of the 1215 signing of Magna Carta, and probably more related to the 100th anniversary of the battles of the Great War. And still plenty of others that I’m certainly overlooking. Over the past three years or so I’ve watched the work being done around Waterloo battlefield, and I know they’re working very hard to get that building done by the anniversary. The crowds are anticipated to be large for the week of the living history and reenactments, and I feel sure the new building will be incredible. I’m just disappointed that my schedule and budget may not allow me to be there.

Monument at Quatre Bras
I should note that - yes, I’m being contrarian - very often the dates we observe aren’t actually on the anniversary, due to the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar back in the 1500s. That leaves us something like ten days off, though I do not have the ability to tell you which direction. Well, maybe I do have the ability, but think it would be better to have you read up on it, just to be sure I don't confuse the issue. My point is that when I was at the reenactment of the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1995 and was told that exactly 929 years ago the battle was being fought - well, that wasn’t actually correct.

Robert Bruce Bannockburn.jpg
Robert the Bruce - Bannockburn 
Anniversaries are great, and I intend to keep celebrating them. But I do hope that people will keep studying and learning about the events of the past, even if it’s not an anniversary year. There are those here in Franklin who are concerned that heritage visitation will slow now that the anniversary year has passed, and I would imagine that those folks in Waterloo and Agincourt are also thinking the same thing. It’s up to us to keep their memories alive, regardless of the day and date. I'm sure we will. Happy Anniversary.