The Never Ending Battles of the Sioux

The protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline continued this week, with Native Americans making a stand in North Dakota, and several being arrested. Their protest stems from their dismay that the pipeline is being routed through lands that are sacred to them, and that it will destroy graves and native artifacts. Further, they are concerned with environmental issues, especially concerning water sources in the area. According to news reports, law enforcement has been using pepper spray, rubber bullets, and - incredibly - water cannons in freezing temperatures. A spokesman for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe calls this an escalation of violence that could seriously hurt someone. Reading the articles and watching the accompanying videos, I was reminded of the nearby battle of 150 years ago when the forefathers of these same Sioux stood against the United States government.

While the 1860s are more commonly associated with U.S. troops in the Confederate States, federal troops were also out west, subduing the native tribes in an effort to clear land for white settlers and keeping open trade routes. Undoubtedly, the Indians were not equipped to fight the U.S. troops. 

The largest expedition ever carried out against the Indians was the one in which Brigadier General Alfred Sully led U.S. Army troops against the Sioux in July 1864. This expedition included 4,000 troopers - well-armed with repeating rifles, pistols, and cannons - marching against warriors armed primarily with bow and arrow. Worse for the Indians, their group also included women and children. As you'd expect, things went terribly for the natives, and they were overrun and chased from their land at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain. With a terrible touch of vengeance the U.S. troops destroyed tipis and jerky needed for the winter, and then killed thousands of dogs. Worse, they allowed the killing of Sioux children by a rival tribe.

A couple years ago I took the opportunity to visit that battleground, which is as distant and remote as it is sad. From Bismarck it's about a two and a half hour drive to the northwest, and is situated among oil fields and farmland. The actual battle was a push toward Killdeer Mountain, with the Sioux abandoning the fight, and escaping to the badlands. My video is raw, but does give you an idea of the terrain, and of the hopelessness that they must have felt as they ran. Today there's an acre plot of land that officially recognizes the battlefield, a gift to North Dakota from a local farmer in the 1930s. That plot includes the graves of two soldiers killed during the battle. 

One of the saddest things regarding this expedition is that the U.S. Army was chasing and killing Sioux who had done nothing to them. They were after the wrong people. I'm not informed well enough to make a decision as to who's right in the pipeline fight that's happening today, but I admit that I hope some consideration will be given before this type of response to the Sioux continues to escalate. They deserve that much.

The Irony of Austerlitz

The 1805 Battle of Austerlitz was Napoleon's finest victory. His 70,000 troops fought and defeated 90,000 Russian and Austrians, led respectively by Tsar Alexander I and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II. Their battlefield maneuvers eventually encompassed several square miles, while casualties numbered in the thousands. Soldiers from both sides were buried in mass graves. The citizen population of the area was also affected, first by the battle and then by disease brought in with the troops. Then the armies and time marched on.

 A hundred years after the battle the locals decided that there should be a monument to those who fell there, and in the spirit of healing they would raise that monument as a peace memorial dedicated to the soldiers of France, Russia, and Austria, as well as the citizens of Moravia.

The monument was placed atop Pratzen Plateau, a significant location during the battle, and one that figured prominently in the battle plans of all three emperors. The view from atop Pratzen Plateau was the reason it was coveted by the men in 1805, and the monument could be seen from miles away when it was finally completed.
There was other important business. In the aftermath of the battle thousands of the dead had been hastily buried in mass graves, and there were 20 of those scattered around the countryside. The Moravians felt that those men were being forgotten, and that they deserved remembrance. So the peace monument was built with a chapel inside, and below that was an ossuary to hold the bones of those buried in the mass graves. But World War I came before the monument could be dedicated, and before the graves could be exhumed.

The interwar period was one of recovery, and the monument was finally dedicated in 1923. During World War II the area still held its military value, and the monument was damaged as retreating Germans attempted to use it as a shield during a firefight.

Today the battlefield exists much as it did in 1805, as a rural landscape with small villages dotted about. Inside the chapel there is a strange effect of the walls that virtually requires whispers when you speak. And there's an irony that whispers back. The memorial exists so that we will remember the death and destruction that war brings, yet its practical purpose was to serve as the final resting place of the men buried in those mass graves. Sadly, during WWII the file with the location and details of the 20 mass graves was lost or destroyed, with only 1 of 20 having been discovered as of today - and that being by accident. The ossuary was built to hold the bones of thousands of men as a reminder of the devastation of war. Instead, it holds just a few, perhaps as a more absolute reminder.

California seceding? It wouldn't be the first time.

Donald Trump just made history as the first man in the history of our republic to be elected president without ever having served in public office or the military. He will step into the office having won in an upset, and as one of the most galvanizing presidential candidates since Abraham Lincoln. In the presidential election of 1860 Lincoln won the office without even appearing on the ballot of any Southern state, which quickly prompted the secession of South Carolina and six other states.

Lincoln - Douglas Debate
In the spirit of 1860, today we have some disgruntled Californians talking about seceding from the United States because of an incoming president. But if Californians were to seriously explore setting themselves up as an independent republic, it wouldn't be the first time.

The concept of secession is as old as America. In 1814 the New England Federalist Party began holding a series of meetings called the Hartford Convention, in which they discussed secession because of their disagreements with circumstances of the War of 1812. The Republic of Texas was a result of the same style of thinking and existed for a decade, beginning in 1836. The American Revolution was nothing more than secession from Great Britain. Certainly the most famous act of secession was the one that gave us the Confederate States of America. Abraham Lincoln, himself, during his famous debates with Stephen Douglas, argued that any group of people should be able to throw off their old government for one that suits them better.

But one of the most obscure acts of secession is that of California in 1846 in which a small band of rebels, led by United States Captain John C. Fremont and others, stood militarily against the Mexican government. California at that time was undoubtedly Mexican, but was of an almost fluid status, due to local governing conflicts, disputes regarding promises made to immigrants, and the never-ending thought that Mexico and the United States would go to war.

To put it simply, Americans near Sonoma began to assemble with the thought of creating their own republic. They armed themselves, created battle flags, issued proclamations, and challenged authority. The revolt lasted just a month, and there was only one pitched battle - more a skirmish, to be honest.

But the small revolt wasn't quelled. It was simply replaced with a larger one. The United States did declare war on Mexico, and the battle flags of the rebels were replaced with the flags of the United States. The United States won that war, and California became the 31st state in 1850.

Alcatraz - Photo courtesy of D. Ramey Logan
Personally speaking, I'm in general agreement with the concept of secession, and admit that there are places in California I love to visit. But I can barely imagine what it would be like to show a passport if I wanted to visit Alcatraz in San Francisco, go on a wine tour of the Napa Valley, or head down to San Diego for the International Comic-Con.

If California did secede from the United States, there's one thing they wouldn't have to worry about. You see, the California insurgents of 1846 were called Los Osos - The Bears - and their uprising was called the Bear Flag Revolt because of their flags. That's right. The current California state flag, with its grizzly bear, red star, and bold "CALIFORNIA REPUBLIC" is based on the secessionist Bear Flag of 1846. Simply put, California already flies the flag of an independent republic. Long may it wave.

International Comic-Con

The Odd Story Before the Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales, authored by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century, is one of the most important works of English literature, and most of us will recall bits and pieces from our high school or college days. Written in Middle English, this collection of stories ranges from the gallant combatants of The Knight's Tale to the bawdy story we find in The Wife of Bath's Tale.

The setting of The Canterbury Tales is England, and the story features a group of pilgrims traveling from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. As you likely recall, Thomas Becket had been Archbishop of Canterbury, and was murdered inside his church. His death was an outrage, and in just a few years he became a saint, and was revered across Britain and the continent.

In college I had an advanced English class that had a strong focus on stories such as The Canterbury Tales, Gawain and the Green Knight, Beowulf, and that type of tale. My professor was an expert on Middle English, and required us to memorize the prologue to The Canterbury Tales. I loved that class, and even today remember quite a bit of what I learned.

A few weeks ago I found an opportunity to reacquaint myself with the story of Thomas Becket, and in the oddest fashion. While buying a ticket to tour Lewes Castle, the lady asked if I was interested in a combination ticket that would let me visit the Ann of Cleves House, which is also in Lewes. She explained that the house was part of the divorce settlement between Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves, but that Anne may have never even visited there. I was interested, but wasn't sure I had time, and told her so. Then she mentioned something else, something inside the house, that I might really want to see. And that sold me.

Thomas Becket had been murdered by four knights, thinking that they were fulfilling a wish of King Henry II, who had disagreements with Becket. The murder was particularly brutal, it happened inside the cathedral, and there were witnesses. The knights immediately understood the gravity of their crime, and fled to a house near Lewes. Upon entering the home they placed their swords and trappings on a heavy table made of Sussex marble, and then began warming themselves by the fire. There was a sudden crash and a terrible noise, and they discovered that the table had apparently rocked itself until their arms had been thrown to the floor. The attendants replaced the knights' swords, but the table rocked itself again, and once again everything was cast off. There was no earthly explanation for what had happened, and the knights knew that their swords had done such sacrilege, that not even this table would allow them to touch it.

Today that table stands in Anne of Cleves house, and it was the thing that sold me on the ticket - the one thing that I just had to see. I stood there and marveled at what was ostensibly the table that refused the swords of the murderous knights. The four men fled England and were excommunicated by Pope Alexander, but were given forgiveness after serving as knights in the Holy Lands for 14 years. They had done penance for their deeds.

But that day I stood there in disbelief, and I tried to lift that table. It's so heavy that I couldn't make it budge, and I just had to wonder. Is it possible that this table once refused to play a part in one of the most famous murders of all time? I'm not sure, but I know that the story of the recalcitrant table is good enough to have been told by one of Chaucer's pilgrims on the way to Canterbury. Why not?