Category Archives: Fortifications

Great Special Operations: A Platoon Seizes a Fortress, 1940

We have mentioned the German airborne forces’ capture of the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael before a few times, but we’ve never explored it in depth. In this incredible special operation, an overstrength engineer platoon, 78 men, led by a first lieutenant who wasn’t even there for the bulk of the battle, captured a fortress held by a garrison of approximately 1,100 men. It was not an old, obsolete fortress, either: it was one built just a few years prior. The concrete was scarcely dry!

The place was the Belgian fort of Eben Emael, named for two villages it sat between: its function was to protect the approaches to Liége. Ir did this by puttin the crossroads at Maastricht and the Albert Canal under gunfire, especially the bridges crossing the canal and related rivers, which were natural choke points. It was well equipped with 120mm and 75mm artillery pieces and 60mm AT guns, in reinforced concrete, steel-armored casemates.

This documentary shows how the Germans used new weapons (shaped charge explosives, assault gliders) to deliver an effective, economical attack that the defenders had not even conceptualized a defense against. It has five parts, which should load and play after the first.

It was produced by a thing called the History Channel, which used to exist before it discovered that more of the sort of people who watch TV like welfare recipients do drugs were interested in Finding The Ghost of Sasquatch than the history of a global war.

There are some interesting small arms in the video, including some MG.34s mit und ohne Lafette, and the relieving engineers are seen marching in with an MP.34 (or -28, perhaps) slung over an officer or NCO’s shoulder.

Eben Emael is the subject of a number of worthwhile books and papers; it’s a frequent flyer in war and command-and-staff college papers (here’s an example), and it was one of the case studies in Admiral William McRaven’s compendium, Special Operations. 

We’ve been reading a lot about European fortresses of the 20th Century lately. They essentially were a lesson mistakenly learned from the First World War, where defensive technology, tactics and operational art deadlocked offensives, a lesson obvious in 1914 that did not sink in until the generals who ran up the butchers’ bills on all sides were looking back at the event over port and cigars postwar.

Four nations built fortress chains, none of which availed them much in the 1939-45 unpleasantness. They were France, whose fabled and well-engineered Maginot Line was flanked; Germany, whose post-repudiation fortress construction seems to have been a propaganda effort; Belgium, the fate of whose fortresses in the face of Blitzkrieg is here recounted; and the Czechoslovak Republic, whose fortresses, similar to those of the francophone nations, were in those regions of the nation inhabited primarily by ethnic Germans, and ceded to Germany by the Munich Agreement in 1938.

In fact, the ex-Czech fortifications in the Reichsprotektorat Böhmen u. Mähren were used by Lieutenant Witzig’s Abteilung Granit troops to practice fortress takedowns, before they had to do it for real.

This is a tourism video promoting visits to Eben Emael in the here and now. Five minutes.

Here’s some B-roll (mostly) of a 2010 reenactment. In the historical case, there does not seem to have been this many Belgian defenders on the surface… just a few AA gunners with Lewis guns. The gliders also had wings, and the German guns didn’t jam this much…. Voice-over en français.

And this is a video of the fort today, with some role-players at work. Best part: you get to hear the actual sound of the fort’s alarm siren. And see what’s for sale in the gift shop.

Here’s another recent-day visit. Different views of some of the same role-players as above!

A tactic, technique or procedure is only new once. Even though Billy Mitchell proposed vertical envelopment in 1918, and even though Germany, Italy, Japan and the USSR had been training for it since the 20s and 30s, the paratroop elements of the invasions of April-May 1940 took Britain, France, and the neutrals by complete surprise.

The cost of the German victory in Crete the next year took the Germans, who had been encouraged by their 1940 results, by even greater surprise. But that’s another story!

To the Wall!

The Wall Gun, that is. This monster is up for sale in Rock Island’s December Premiere Auction.


The marlinspike looking thing was meant, they assume, to go into a socket in a fortress wall. (It appears to be well forward of the point of balance, for some reason). In most respects, this 5’2″ long, 33-lb .75 caliber rifle is just an overgrown percussion rifle-musket. A way big one.

How big is it? Here’s a snapshot.


And it’s also about the weight of three of those M1s.

It is a breech-loading(!) percussion gun, so was probably made between 1840 and 1870, but there are no guarantees. The sights resemble those used in the latter half of that period, as on an 1853 Enfield or 1861 Springfield. The unusual breech-loading mechanism is shown below.

Such guns may have been equipped with multiple removable chambers to promote rapid fire.

We also find the spring-steel pistol grip interesting. We do not recall having seen such a thing anywhere else in the world of firearms. Anybody?

This rifle comes from Belgium. Belgium has very little in the way of defensible positions on its borders. Accordingly, it has not only often been overrun itself, it has provided the unhappy battlefields for many a Great Power throwdown, from Waterloo to the Bulge. (Even earlier, Julius Caesar fought local Germanic tribes here).  Its defense in the First World War was armed neutrality, which failed spectacularly; after a postwar period of alliance with France and especially Britain, its strategy in the Second was ultimately the same (Belgium broke the alliances and declared neutrality in 1936, after the Anglo-French alliance didn’t react to Nazi repudiation of Versailles and militarization of the Rheinland), with an even more spectacular failure resulting. Fortresses were a major part of Belgian defense plans at all time of Belgian independence; some fortresses held out in World War I (think of Namur) but they were made irrelevant by technological and strategic advances by 1940 (consider the fate of Eben Emael and its brigade-sized garrison, defeated in detail by 78 gliderborne combat engineers).

In any event, fortress weapons were a Belgian specialty, one of several rational responses to the very difficult problem which is the defense of a small coastal nation from much larger neighbors.

RIA has relatively little information on the weapon, apart from what may be gained by inspecting it. It might reward European patent research. They do offer some general thoughts on the class of arms.

These guns can essentially be described as massive longarms. Initially designed as muskets, but developing into rifles as the technology became available, these guns are roughly the height of a man and accompanied by an appropriately large bore. If their size wasn’t enough to identify them on sight, the presence of a large hook or post on their bottom usually will. Used to help mitigate recoil, the use of such hooks can be traced back to the earliest of firearms, such as the arquebus and hand cannon. Posts or spikes (also called “oar locks”), as seen on the firearm featured in this article, are more indicative of the weapon’s placement at fixed positions in a fortification, as opposed to hooks which could be used on fences, bulwarks, trees, window sills, etc. While the post style may not be usable in as many locations as the hook, it would allow for easy swiveling and pivoting once in position. Not all wall guns have such devices.

Despite their many designs and firing mechanisms over the years, they were valued for pretty much three things: range, accuracy, and punch. Any one of those is a huge advantage should your opponent not have them, but all three is downright devastating. Though playing the intermediary role between small arms and artillery, these oversized longarms often served with artillery, and with notable success.

RIA doesn’t know of any tactical guidance for the employment of these monsters, but notes that it must have been highly limited and readily countered by a thinking, adapting enemy.  The US used them in the Revolutionary War (in flintlock, naturally) and that and a little more history is embedded in the Rock Island Auctions blog post. Read The Whole Thing™.

Large guns like this were often used as “punt guns” by market hunters, but those were even larger-bore smoothbores, used to take many waterfowl (usually, sitting waterfowl) in one shot. Four- and even two-bore punt guns exist, monsters even against this .75 in. rifle. Market hunting was once common, especially in the USA, but was outlawed even here in the 20th Century, after causing at least one species extinction (passenger pigeon).

If you’re looking for something a noodge more modern, we can recommend this article by Pete at TFB on a couple of catastrophic silencer failures… at least one of which turned out to be entirely exogenous.

A Scientist, a Fort, an Improvised Measurement

fort_prince_of_walesAt the climatology blog Watt’s Up With That, guest blogger Tim Ball has a story of how an obscure fort in remote Churchill, Manitoba on the west coast of Hudson’s Bay became the avenue for a scientific competition between France and the British Empire that shaped the world by validating Newton’s Law of Gravitation — or would have done, if the damnable instruments worked. A key player was a British scientist of unprepossessing background:

william-walesWilliam Wales (1734 – 1798), was born in Yorkshire to working class parents. He moved to London and married Mary Green, the sister of astronomer Charles Green.

He obviously showed mathematical ability because in 1765 he entered the employ of the Astronomer Royal, Sir Nevil Maskelyne. He began work on one of the two major scientific challenges of the day, the accurate determination of longitude. However, that was to become interlinked with the other challenge, testing of Newton’s Theory of Gravitation, published in 1687.

via Scientific Integrity is Constant Challenge: A Classic Historical Example | Watts Up With That?.

measuring_the_transitThere were several possible ways to do this, and the way that Sir Nevil proposed, Wales didn’t think would work. He got assigned to do it any way — he would go to Churchill, and on the other side of the world, explorer Captain James Cook would be in Tahiti, and they would observe the transit of Venus across the Sun, timing it with precision chronographs, and then by application of trigonometry, they’d have the missing ingredient to plug into Newton’s law of gravity.


Previous attempts by both European rivals had failed; the next window was 1769.

newtons_law_of_gravityThe major reason for the 1761 failure, inadequate instrumentation, was not resolved. Nobody knew this better than William Wales. In a parallel of today’s global warming fiasco, the scientists, who were effectively bureaucrats or relied on sponsorship, believed that political support and more money was the answer. So Wales faced a dilemma, keep your mouth shut and do what the King and his lackeys like Maskelyne wanted, or face incarceration and possibly even hanging.

Wales didn’t think the instruments were accurate enough.

Finally, Wales agreed to take up the challenge, but only after negotiating a generous contract that included provision for his family should he not return….

Wales knew the accurate timing was essential to success. He also knew the problems of producing an accurate chronometer. One was specially constructed, and on the Atlantic crossing, he tested it rigorously only to discover it was losing several minutes every day. It was inadequate.

They took a prefabricated observatory with them and on arrival set it up on the SE bastion of Fort Prince of Wales.

It was a working fort, and England was intermittently at war with France.

It was a working fort, and England was on a brief respite in its intermittent war with France at this time.

In the Georgian era, Wales couldn’t just send for a new chronograph from the remote wilderness of Churchill. And he couldn’t use the one the Royal Observatory had given him. He was trying to measure an angle that would turn out to be 9.57 milliradians. So what options were left?


He built a sundial. (Image at right). Archaeologists unearthed it at the Fort and it now rests in the Parks Canada museum in Churchill.

The challenge for Wales was to establish some way of determining time more accurately than with his failed chronometer. During the restoration of the Fort, a remarkable sundial was dug up at the base of the wall. They also found an iron spindle that allowed the user to turn any of 24 faces toward the Sun.

Ball and Leslie Ross were able to demonstrate that the sundial definitely was Wales’s: it contains the same exact error that is in his after-action report to Sir Nevil and the Royal Society.

In a 1984 article “Observations of the Transit of Venus at Prince of Wales’s Fort in 1769” I identified the latitude Wales had calculated for the Fort. Leslie Ross, a researcher at the National Museum of Canada, was also doing research on the sundial. He asked where I obtained the latitude. I told him it was the one Wales recorded in his journals. He said the latitude matched his calculations for the latitude of the major sundial face (June 1983 Stone sundial from Fort Prince of Wales. Research Bulletin #193). It was clear evidence that Wales made the sundial because both latitudes were different from the actual latitude by 11 minutes. I was skeptical that a sundial could be better than even a faulty chronometer, but Ross told me it could determine the time to within two minutes, which made it superior to the watch.

And the report itself says something about Wales:

On his return to England Wales … refused to submit his report. He said the results were of no value. The timing was imprecise, and the telescope optics were inadequate. Wales was finally ordered to submit a report that was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

We are fortunate he complied because Wales did not waste his time but carried out countless other experiments and made many observations. He brought the first barometers and thermometers, constructed to Royal Society specifications to northern North America. He produced an excellent instrumental record beginning in 1768. This continued after he left because he instructed the surgeon in their use.

In the end, Wales’s imperfect measurement of the transit of Venus was overtaken by better measurements, validating Newton’s law. And he resumed work on his other great challenge, measuring longitude.

Far from being angry with Wales, his peers were impressed with his integrity, and when he resumed work on the longitude problem…

Two years after his return to England, the Board of Longitude commissioned him to sail as astronomer and navigator with Captain Cook. Wales job, in association with William Bayly, was to test Kendall’s K1 chronometer based on the H4 of John Harrison.

cooks-chronometersThese superior chronometers resolved many problems, and Wales is a fine representative of the many nameless scientists who toiled (and still toil) in the shadows, gradually dragging the world of the past into a better informed future. Do Read The Whole Thing™.

And what of Fort Prince of Wales? This may have been its high point. While it had 42 guns and another battery of six more across the Churchill River, its garrison was depleted and construction ceased after 1771. During a French raid in 1782, the garrison comprised only 39 civilians, and the fort was surrendered to the French with no resistance or loss of life, and its structures and goods sacked and burned. The cannons on its walls? They never fired a shot in anger. It’s now a Canadian national park and tourist attraction… for tourists willing to travel to someplace that is still quite remote.

Castillo De San Marcos Part 4: Armament; Accommodation; Two Notables

Sorry for the long delay on getting this launched. More to come!  -Ed.

This is the fourth post in an irregular series on Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, FL, and in turn part of a larger series on American coastal fortifications. Once again it will primarily consist of pictures taken by Our Traveling Correspondent and captions for same.

The previous posts are:

Part I: America’s Spanish Fort – Castillo de San Marcos 9 Oct 15.
Part II: Exploring Castillo de San Marcos. 10 Oct 15
Part III: Castillo de San Marcos – Medical Instruments. 19 Oct 15

Without further ado, let’s get started.

A diorama shows how a Spanish gun crew would have served their piece during the Siege of 1740.


The might of a fort was in large naval cannon like that, and even in cannon too large to be part of the armament of ships.

This small field artillery piece (below) was one of the fort’s secondary armaments, for example, to defend the land side from a sally by enemy marines. The primitive, four-board-spoke wheels of the carriage were easy to make, but not suitable for a long campaign, just for local repositioning.  Perhaps the fort did not have a trained wheelwright on hand, or perhaps they lacked specialty tools such as spokeshaves that had to be imported all the way from Europe. (Although you would think that any blacksmith could make the tools, if he had an artisan to tell him what he wanted).


Like all such pieces, the guns large and small were muzzle-loaders, made by casting the rough shape and then boring out the, well, bore. There were many trade-offs in cannon design, of course, just as there are in any engineering discipline. A cannon could be light, easily maneuverable, and bear only lightly on the ground, but that meant it would throw a small ball a short distance at a moderate velocity. To throw a heavy ball a long distance at a higher velocity required a big, ponderous gun, and it in turn was hard to maneuver and needed a well-supported hard deck to rest upon.

No fortification, whether it’s such a mighty castle as San Marcos, or a rude rifleman’s foxhole, is built all at once. It is roughed out, and then improved. Conscious of the weight of mighty cast-iron fortress- and naval guns, the Spaniards initially built San Marcos to contain heavy guns inside and have light guns positioned on a top deck. Even then, the upper-deck artillery was better supported at the points where interior walls held up the upper deck, than in between the interior walls, where the upper deck was supported only by wooden joists. Circa 1730, between the two British sieges, the Spanish engineers converted the interior walls of the lower casemates to arched, vaulted walls that better supported the upper deck. The image below shows a bas-relief model of this vaulted design; now Spanish gunners could serve heavy pieces on the upper deck of the Castillo. The intermediate deck and stairs were added by the British, so that they could cram more troops in each room. Each room was a fighting compartment at “action stations,” but during everyday routine it was the soldiers’ barracks.


In the British Army, the men living together, who slept, ate, and if need be, fought together, were said to be “messing together” and were “mess mates.”

An artillery crew, in the days of muzzle-loaded black-powder artillery, had to be drilled to be safe and effective. In the days of black powder artillery, small mistakes could have large consequences. Artillerymen today probably don’t think about it much, but they have much safer lives than their 18th Century ancestors!

They used a variety of tools to swab the bore and ram powder and shot:


Explosion and fire were omnipresent hazards.

This next bunk is a replica of the ones used in the British period. It held two soldiers up and two down, with their muskets — Brown Besses, as Britain yielded the fort before percussion made it to this far colony —  and their equipment on the left end as we look at it. The short wooden strips visible at lower left rest on either side of the four muskets’ stocks. (This replica doesn’t seem to be thought out properly — even the shortest Brown Bess isn’t going to fit below the upper board. But “muskets” is what the plaque said).


It looks a little small for four of today’s troops, but the soldier of 1700 was a product of the working class of his day — he was, in most cases, short and lean.

One advantage of these solid wooden beds over the later GI modular steel bunk is this: someone who decides to adjust his “mess mate’s” attitude needs to go find something else — he can’t just latch onto a bunk adapter. Of course, he did have the Brown Bess at the end of the bunk, a stout club indeed.

Volunteer docents help visitors understand the life of people of that era. Here a docent displays some interesting things, which we’ll follow up:


In those days, money was more likely to be precious metal coins than scrip. So how did you make change? You cut a gold or silver coin into fractions with a sharp knife. You may have heard the expression, “pieces of eight.” That’s a reference to eighths of a Spanish silver doubloon.


Unscrupulous men would turn down the edges of a coin and collect the silver shavings over time. That’s why modern coins have inscriptions or knurling around the perimeter, to discourage that sort of “mining the coins”.

The coins were among a display of everyday items for a Spanish soldier of the period, including a musket, balls and cleaning tools, and a sword.


Spanish muskets are interesting. They were only standardized very late, compared to other world powers of the day (Spain standardized caliber, not pattern of musket, for many years), but the 1752/1757 flintlock is an elegant piece, lighter than some of its European competitors, with distinctive brass furnishings. English, French, and American muskets all had bands of steel. (Brass would come back during the Civil War — in the Confederacy, where steel mills were rare in the 1860s. The steel city of Birmingham, AL, was built after the war).

The Chapel

One center of life at the Castillo during its Spanish era was the chapel. It was set in one of the casements. Little remains of the period decoration, but archaeologists working with traces that remain think they can envision — and reconstruct — what it looked like. Here’s the chapel, today. This is the altar side.


This is a digital reconstruction of what the chapel probably looked like at the height of Spanish occupation. (Apologies for the reflection of the camera’s flash). The statue in the niche would probably have been San Marcos — St. Mark.csm21_chapel_reconstruction

Here’s the door side. On the left is the Holy Water font; on the right, a confessional booth, both markers of a Catholic place of worship. A Catholic dips his fingers in the holy water and makes the Sign of the Cross on entering the consecrated place; the booth is used to make confession of sins to the priest, in privacy; the priest then issues a penance and grants absolution for the sins; placing the worshiper into a State of Grace to receive Holy Communion. Some Protestant churches have similar rituals, but many do not.  csm21_chapel_reconstruction_door

This is the Holy Water font in its condition, today:


The British, who replaced the Spaniards, probably reconsecrated the chapel to Saint Mark as a Church of England chapel. During the fort’s long American ownership, the chapel fell into disuse when the fort lost its importance to harbor defense — and lost its garrison.

Two Key 19th-Century Personalities

During the 19th Century, the forbidding castle was used as a prison for obstreperous Indians. Key figures from the long and bloody  Seminole Wars — the Union’s most costly Indian fights — were incarcerated here, as were chiefs of the Plains Indians.

The chief of the Seminoles, Osceola, was one such unwilling guest. He was only held for a short time before being shipped to Fort Moultrie in Savannah, Georgia, where he died. Osceola was not even a Seminole by blood: born Billy Powell, the son of a Creek woman and a Scots trader, he came to lead the Florida indians by sheer force of personality and character.


It’s a bit sad that such a noble warrior met such a sad end. Osceola was only 34 when he passed away in 1838.

Years later, when the Plains Indian chiefs were incarcerated here, their captor was Army Captain Richard Henry Pratt. Pratt was a humane man, but sure that his culture was superior to that of the Indians. He was assigned to the Castillo — by then, Fort Francis Marion — in 1875 and charged with responsibility for the Indian captives.


Pratt believed that the best hope for the native peoples was to integrate them into American culture. He developed a program of education and training aimed at assimilating the Indians to the American way of life.

At the time, Pratt’s approach was controversial. Many Americans did not believe that Indians were their equals, and yet Pratt was trying to raise them to full citizenship. (They were not citizens under US law at the time!)


When the US Attacked Paraguay

You totally knew about that, right?

In the 1840s and 50s, while the US Navy was struggling with steam, a variety of technical oddities were built, before Navy leaders figured out that screw propulsion was better than alternatives (some of which were common, like side-mounted paddle-wheels; and some of which were weird). As transitional vessels, these mid-19th-Century hybrids were still primarily sailing ships; they used the steam power to counter sail’s disadvantages and to supplement the ship’s speed; these funny looking neither-fish-nor-fowl contraptions made their best speed downwind with full sail and full steam. With sail, you could circumnavigate the globe; with steam alone, you had better know where your next coaling station was.

USS Water Witch after sidewheel conversion

USS Water Witch after sidewheel conversion

The USS Water Witch was initially one of these ships configured with weird propulsion, a set of ghastly, draggy horizontal wheels designed by a serving officer, one Lieutenant William W. Hunter,  who managed to sell this to the Army (Topographical Engineers), the Navy, and the Revenue Cutter service (future Coast Guard) on no fewer than ten vessels, all of which performed miserably. One of these was Water Witch, originally built to be a sort of aquatic Gunga Din bringing water down the Dismal Swamp Canal to troops in harbor. At that, she was a failure of a sort you didn’t think occurred until recently: the geniuses who built her designed her with a draft two feet plus deeper, and a length greater than the canal locks she was supposed to traverse. Then, the Hunter horizontal propulsive wheels could only drive her to 6.5 knots. A rebuild as the first American ship with twin screws added only a few knots.

The Water Witch goes to Paraguay — Briefly.

But after a second rebuild as a side-wheeler, and refocused on exploration voyages, the Water Witch served well. On a routine show-the-flag and survey-the-rivers mission on the South American Parana River on 1 Feb 1855, she was fired on by a Paraguayan fort. It may have been hot blood or mistaken identity, but the Paraguayans weren’t lacking in gunnery skills — they delivered substantial damage to the American ship and wounded several crewmen, one fatally. The decedent’s name doesn’t seem to have mattered much to those writing things down at the time but they mention that he was the helmsman.

The skipper of the Water Witch, Lt. Thomas Jefferson Page, demanded satisfaction from Paraguay. The Paraguayan government at the time, the nationalistic but astute Carlos Antonio López government, was not interested in parley, let alone reparations, and Page returned to the USA. It had taken him several years of the surveying journey to find himself under the Paraguayans’ guns, but he got back home in a matter of months. There he began to demand from the American public a response. Page’s story struck a chord with newspaper editors and the public, and a punitive expedition was assembled, under the command of Commodore William B. Shubrick with Page as his flag lieutenant.

Shubrick and the Punitive Expedition

William B. Shubrick (1790 - 1874), U.S. naval officer. Original print in possession of Library of Congress.

William B. Shubrick (1790 – 1874), U.S. naval officer. Original print in possession of Library of Congress.

Shubrick was a fascinating character, already almost seventy when the expedition sailed. He was from a Naval family, but a rare slave-plantation-born, Harvard-educated naval officer and a friend of the writer James Fenimore Cooper, author of frontier tales. (And, though they are all but forgotten today, Cooper wrote histories and biographies of the Navy and its officers). Shubrick had served long and with distinction in wars remembered (he fought with distinction in the War of 1812 and led the Pacific operations of the Mexican War) and wars forgotten (the Second Sumatran Expedition of 1832).

Shubrick’s flagship was the brand-new frigate USS Sabine, and its first sea cruise was to Paraguay — with 18 other US ships. Sabine bore a US diplomat, James Bowlin, whose mission was to extract three things from López:

  1. An apology;
  2. An indemnity for the family of the slain Water Witch crewman;
  3. A commercial treaty on favorable terms.

As it happened, Sabine, built for the open sea, drew too much water and stood out in the River Plate while the other 18 ships, selected for river-friendly drafts, sailed up the river to bring the message home to Asunción.  López, who had been unwilling to treat with Page (and his single, battered ship) was remarkably more diplomatic with Bowlin, who left with everything he came for, and not a shot fired.

From that day to this, the USA and Paraguay have always maintained diplomatic relations, and the last shots fired between them were those of the fort on the Parana, and the guns of the USS Water Witch, in February, 1855.


Almost every participant in this strange episode had further remarkable events ahead.

USS Water Witch returned to South American survey duty, and then was mothballed. Returned to duty, she served the Union well in the Civil War, until a daring Confederate raid by Lt. Thomas Pelot and his men boarded and captured her on the night of 3 Jun 1864. The Rebels apparently intended to use her in a special operation, but wound up burning her to prevent recapture by Sherman’s advancing army.

This picture shows Water Witch closer to her 1855 appearance with a white hull, but it's of poor quality.

This picture shows Water Witch closer to her 1855 appearance with a white hull, but it’s of lower quality. Does embiggen, though.

USS Sabine had a successful if uneventful career, and ended her days as a receiving ship in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the 1870s.

Commodore Shubrick retired in Washington, DC, in 1861 at the age of 71. He lived another 13 years. Sadly, he seems to have left no memoirs. (His correspondence from the period of the Paraguayan Punitive Expedition survives in the National Archives, US Office of Naval Records, Records Group 45).

Shubrick William Branford signature

Thomas Jefferson Page resigned his US Navy Commission in 1861 to serve his state of Virginia, first as an artillery officer, and then from 1863 as a Confederate naval officer. He was on his way to the New World with a powerful new ironclad, CSS Stonewall, when the war ended. Refusing to surrender to the Union, he sailed to Havana and donated the ship to Spain; helped Argentina modernize her Navy, and retired to Italy for the remainder of his years. (His correspondence from the Water Witch incident is in the National Archives, in the Naval Observatory Records, Record Group 79).

Carlos Antonio López left Paraguay richer and stronger that he found it, largely through bluster leading to diplomacy, negotiation and a strategic backdown; the pattern shown here, he also replayed with Paraguay’s neighbors, especially Brazil. He also left Paraguay a considerably more damaging legacy: his son, Francisco Solano López, a man who would almost erase the nation in a quixotic war with all its neighbors at once, a war contracted to stroke López fils‘s ego and his self-image as the self-styled “Napoleon of South America”; a monster who had his mother, brothers and sisters murdered (along with most of the foreign diplomatic corps) as the paranoia that seems to attend a certain personality type overtook him. Half the population of Paraguay fell in the war, which saw even women drafted (95% of adult men perished); the native Guaraní indians were nearly exterminated; nearly half the nation’s territory was ceded to Brazil and Argentina; to this day, Paraguay has never recovered the relative prosperity it had under López pêre. 

Latins being Latins, the disastrous Francisco Solano López, who went down in a flurry of Brazilian swords screaming “I die with my country!” was posthumously elevated, beginning with propaganda during the Chaco War, to the nation’s greatest hero, and his diplomatic dad is deprecated.



Canney, Donald L. The Old Steam Navy: Volume 1: Frigates, Sloops and Gunboats, 1815-1885. Annapolis, 1990: US Naval Institute, pp. 25-40.

Hanratty, Dannin M. and Meditz, Sandra W. , eds. Paraguay: A Country Study. Washington: American University / Government Printing Office, 1988. Retrievable from:

Howard, Alexander. Cruise of the U. S. Frigate Sabine. Portsmouth, VA, 1861.: TH Godwin, pp. 9-22.

Williams, John Hoyt. The Rise and Fall of the Paraguayan Republic, 1800-1870. Austin, TX, 1979: University of Texas Press.

Castillo de San Marcos – Medical Instruments

We’re going to take a short break from looking at the fort’s construction and history at Castillo de San Marcos in Jacksonville St. Augustine, and look at another angle, if a slightly queasy-making one: what the modern surgeon was using in the 18th Century or so. When OTR visited, a volunteer reenactor had a display of surgical instruments. Later, we’ll return to the mechanics of fort and firearm, we promise, but for now we are going to divert ourselves with a look at the instruments that might have been applied to you if you had the poor fortune to catch a musket ball, met the pointy end of a bayonet or edge of a sword, or had your butterfingered buddy drop an iron cannonball on your foot during, say, the siege of 1702.

If you need to catch up, the first part of the story covers much of the history and the approaches to the Castillo de San Marcos (later known as Fort Francis Marion in American Army hands, before reverting to its original Spanish name).

In normal circumstances, pre-1821, the Spanish military wouldn’t have treated its sick and wounded in the castle. They’d have been removed to the military hospital in town (which has also been well restored, equipped and staffed with interpreters). It’s surprising to most people, but Spanish medicine and surgery was advanced — for its day.

Bear in mind that medical science was ignorant of the germ theory of disease, of the importance of sterile conditions, and had no anesthetics (except alcohol) and no antibiotics. They had nothing to do for gas gangrene, which was a death sentence unless it was in an amputatable extremity. And no weapons, neither preventive nor curative, were at hand against endemic malaria. Yet the claim has been made that while the language, tools and skillsets of the 18th and 21st century internal-medicine physician have very few points of congruence, the historical and modern surgeons would have more common ground for discussion.

Not being surgeons, we have our doubts about that.

This is not somebody’s table at the Acme County Gun and Knife Show. These are a military surgeon’s tools; do they pass the “Common ground” test?


Either the surgeons of 1720 were much concerned with one’s fundamental orifice, or the guy who collected all this gear has some kind of anal fixation. An enema set (appears to be British origin):


And the next to those: suppositories. Eh, we’ll take our chances with the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot. To borrow a line. We’ll get to the sutures in a bit, what are those “…etal Scrapers?” “Metal Scrapers?” Wait, that’s a “c”. They can’t be fractal scrapers, can they?


Uh, no. They can’t. Yeah, this guy has issues… or maybe 18th Century surgeons did.


Arrgggh. Can we move on to some other region of diseased anatomy, please?

Thank you. The stitch kit doesn’t seem too archaic, although sterile and disposable it isn’t.


Next we’ll move on to stuff for excavating the Brain Housing Group. The thing that looks like a heavy-duty Forstner bit on the upper left in the image below isn’t too far off — it’s a trepanning saw, for making holes in the cranium. That was usually done as a last ditch attempt to reduce brain swelling and save an otherwise doomed patient. If it didn’t work, well, the guy was standing in the door anyway. Maybe there will be a better view of this tool below.


Cautery Irons were used to burn blood vessels shut during surgery. They’d be heated red hot, then jammed into the wound.


Now this is a piece of lifesaving gear that is recognizable. It uses a thumbscrew to apply pressure and it seems probable that the 18th-Century surgeon used it, primarily, during deliberate amputations.


After the jump you can see more grim instruments from bygone days, when the promise that “to cut is to cure” was much less certain than today’s well-informed surgeons can offer. Click “more” if you dare.

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Exploring Castillo de San Marcos

Welcome to Part II of this somewhat open-ended series. In Part I, we introduced you to the history of Castillo de san Marcos in Saint Augustine, Florida. This well-preserved Spanish fort, itegun in the late 17th Century, is a rare sight in the Continental United States.

This floor plan is posted on the site by the Park Service. Click to enlarge. The sea -- the greatest threat -- is to the right. The walls are thickest there.

This floor plan is posted on the site by the Park Service. Click to enlarge. The sea — the greatest threat — is to the right. The walls are thickest there. The demilune is not on the map, but the drawbridge at bottom center goes there.

The fort had several distinct periods of occupation, by Spanish, English, and American (including Confederate) troops. It became a key component of US defense in part due to the brilliance of a young engineering officer, then-2nd Lieutenant Henry W. Halleck, who gave a series of influential lectures at the Lowell Institute in Boston in 1846, where he argued the fortification’s superiority over the naval attack, using many in-depth examples. Despite his low rank, Halleck had high patrons and his views revitalized fortifications in the inter-war period. (If you recognize the name, it’s because he served uncomfortably in several high commands in the Civil War before finding his true calling as Grant’s Chief of Staff).

So let’s continue our photograph tour of this fascinating site!

There will be two photographs here to warm up, then the bulk of this photo-rich post is after the jump. (Notes and References are found there as well).

Originally, the many rooms or casements of the Castillo — there are 29, counting one that was later bored into the earth and stone fill of the northeast bastion as a powder magazine — had straight walls and high, flat ceilings underneath the floor of the upper gun deck. The problem with this was the guns were limited in weight, unless they were positioned right above a load-bearing wall. Larger shipboard and fortress guns could weigh many tons. So, when the Spanish still held the fort, between the sieges of 1702 and 1740, they vaulted these ceilings. The arches gave the floors above more support for heavy guns, not to mention increasing the protection of the contents of the casements — whether those contents were soldiers, displaced citizens of St. Augustine, or supplies.


Yes, PFC, in those days soldiers slept in an open bay. This wasn’t the cultural trauma it is for today’s basic trainees — lots of people did that at home, too, especially in the lower classes whence enlisted soldiers came.

In combat, these casements might also house cannon and the window become a firing port — but the primary sting of Castillo San Marcos was always on its upper deck.

There are some fascinating period graffiti on the walls. They are protected, now, by plexiglas which means that they’re hard to photograph, but we’ve tried to enhance these to the point of legibility. Best guess at this time is that this ship was drawn by a Spaniard, representing the Royal Navy ships that occasionally exchanged cannon fire with the fort. Several of these ship drawings have been found. The ship is traveling from right to left, with its high counter on the right and the prow, nearly faded out, on the left. The small dots are the guns. Some time after 1821, American soldiers added a huge American flag; it and the masts and sails are not evident in this photo.


Archaeologists have fun with these 18th and 19th Century equivalent of caveman paintings!

The curators point out that the “checkerboard” look of the graffiti suggests the ships were British. British ships around the turn of the 19th century were painted with alternate white and dark stripes, with the white stripe running along the gun ports. Opening the gun ports and running the guns out was often threat enough to get a smaller ship to strike her colors (surrender). To an equally sized or larger ship, it was an invitation to fight.

More after the jump.

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America’s Spanish Fort – Castillo de San Marcos

(The following is based on reporting by Our Traveling Reporter, who’s been too busy to attend more shooting schools, as a student, anyway; but he has gotten some sightseeing in and deluged us with photos. We’ll be using the categories Fortifications and Historical Places to collect these stories in the weeks and months ahead. This is only the first of several photo-intensive posts on the Castillo de San Marcos — Ed.).

The Castillo de San Marcos — in English, Castle of Saint Mark — was a Spanish fortification meant to defend Spanish America against threats — spelled: Englishmen. This remarkable National Monument is little known by most Americans, but it’s one of the most interesting (as we’ll see in a future post, not the most interesting) military history sites on the northeastern coast of Florida, a peninsula that’s seen many flags and many fights over the years.

The Technology of the Fort

The Castillo is a fortification of stone on a typical 17th Century Vauban system (albeit, with some subsequent improvements). It looks to the casual viewer like a medieval castle, but it is a highly developed gunpowder-era fortification for fighting wars against sailing ships and land forces armed with the best cannon of the 17th and 18th centuries. The local stone, called coquina, is a sedimentary stone or limestone formed in large part of seashell fragments and sand. It is an almost ideal fort-building material: soft and easily formed when first quarried wet, but hardening to a concrete-like consistency after some months or years of air-drying. It proved to be very resistant to bombardment. Instead of shattering under cannon fire, the coquina blocks seemed to absorb the cannonballs. Twice, this led besiegers to give up and depart.

Spain constantly improved the technology of the fort, raising the walls and the bastions, and vaulting the interior rooms to allow heavy guns to be moved anywhere along the walls rather than just in reinforced areas.


Castillo de San Marcos, view generally North to South

The design of the fort is regular, symmetrical and repetitive for a reason. The advent of gunpowder caused a reassessment of fortifications that had been adequate in the day of weapons powered by muscle and sinew, and primitive, rock-throwing siege machines. The Elvis of fort design was a military engineer in the service of Louis XIV of France. The Sun King’s fort man, Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban, came to Louis as a captive, but changed sides, and went on to display his mastery of taking forts — and building them so as to make taking them difficult.

The Castillo strongly resembles a medieval castle, which makes sense when you think about it: even its name means “castle.” The Middle Ages are generally considered to end somewhere in the middle of the first millennium AD, and this fort began to be built shortly thereafter. Its basic shape is a rectangle, with a parade ground inside. Four diamond-shaped strongpoints called bastions provide mutually supporting fire and ensure that every wall exposed to an attacking enemy can be swept by fire.

The corner bastions allowed cannons, musketeers and archers to cover the long walls and take any assaults under enfilading fire. When the fort was originally constructed, the bastions, three of which are solidly filled inside (the fourth is solidly filled, apart from a vaulted powder magazine), were the only part of the structure that could support the weight of cannon.

A fifth “bastion,” an irregular heptagon, is the ravelin, a structure that provides the only way in and out of the fort, and that protects the gate in the fort wall from observation and direct fire. The NPS calls it a demilune, the difference between the two being somewhat hazy in military engineering.

The seawall is part of the overall fortification model, and is made of an inner and outer wall of the same coquina that built the fort, stuffed with rocks and earth. The coquina blocks are set in ashlar and the wall was topped with granite, providing a promenade in peacetime and a firing position in war. The initial wall lasted a century; it was rebuilt by West Point-trained engineers during the US Territorial period after Spain ceded Florida in 1821. (They used the same materials as their Spanish predecessors. Don’t mess with success). That wall lasted, with some deterioration, until powerful hurricanes in the 21st Century damaged it; a rebuild project is underway to protect the historic wall with a modern concrete wall to seaward.

The landward sides of the Castillo were protected by a glacis of earth, designed to stop cannonballs or deflect them over the fort entirely. The fort side of the glacis terminates in a retaining wall, creating a covered and concealed pathway allowing defenders to move without being exposed to observation and direct fire. This is called the covered or covert path. In times of war, additional works of earth and would be constructed out beyond the glacis, providing further defense in depth.


Moat, shown on NPS brochure. Definitely worth a click to embiggen.

There is also a moat, which nowadays seems to be kept dry deliberately, but which was flooded originally and at least as late as our first visit in 1974. The moat flooded tidally to a shallow depth, but could be flooded deeper through a system of locks and gates. It is one more sign that this fort didn’t just happen, but was engineered in every detail.

A fort implies the potential for siege warfare. Sieges that end in attacker victory usually end, not when the walls come tumbling down, but when the defenders lose heart or run out of food and (especially) water (or the attackers contaminate the water supply). The Spanish builders of the Castillo considered this. They had large storerooms and not one, but three, protected springs inside the castle. (One remains in service today, 350-plus years later). The water table is close enough to the surface — it is Florida, after all — that even if all springs were somehow destroyed, a new one could be quickly established.

The Spanish considered their faith a bastion against defeat by loss of morale (there was always a religious subtext to Spanish Catholic wars with Protestant England). They incorporated a chapel in the Fort’s design and named its prominent features after Catholic saints, to whom they prayed for Divine intercession.

Sieges that end in defender victory, conversely, usually end when the attackers lose heart, run low on supplies, or are attrited (more usually by disease and malnutrition than by enemy action), although sometimes a relief force lifts the siege by defeating the attackers or leveraging them out of position.

History of the Fort

The Spaniards began constructing it in the 1660s, after a previous wooden fort was burnt and the town sacked by pirates, and the first stone was laid in 1672. We know the name of the engineer who was sent from Spain to design and supervise the construction of the fort, Ignacio Daza, although we know little else about him. The fort was completed — to the extent that any fortification is completed — in 1695. It would have been faster, but Daza was at the end of a long pipeline, and even at home, Spain was always short of money and skilled artisans. The Florida coast was not a perfect environment for European life, either. If the pirate sacking of 1688 wasn’t enough, the Spanish were motivated by the new English colony just up the coast at Charleston; they knew that the kings of Europe seldom went long between wars, and when Spain and England warred again, the more-numerous English would come for Spanish America.

When construction began, San Augustin had been a Spanish city for over 100 years. But the growing British strength in the New World threatened San Augustin. The fort was tested soon after its completion by a British siege in 1702. The civil population crammed into the fort, the city burned, but the fort held until a Spanish squadron relieved the city. Trapped between the stronger Spanish fleet and the shore, the British burned their ships and departed overland to Charleston. After a period of some decades of peace, Britain and Spain were at war again in the War of Jenkins’s Ear (yes, that’s really its name. Google is your friend).

In 1740, the British tried again with a better thought out attack plan, but they still wound up defeated by the coquina stone walls.

The Castillo stood against the English for a long time. In the end, it fell not to the sword but to the terms of a treaty dictated after a Spanish defeat on other fields. By the time the Revolution came to the Colonies, it was a British garrison, won by Britain by defeating Spain (a French ally) in the Seven Years’ War in 1763. During the long American War of Independence, Colonial forces never put pressure on the fort, and it was a backwater of the War of Independence. By the Treaty of Paris which recognized American independence, it reverted to Spanish sovereignty. The colony was more of a burden than a boon to a troubled Spanish monarchy, and the United States purchased it from Spain in 1821. It flew the Stars and Stripes for the next 40 years, becoming a Confederate fortification without a fight in 1861, and reverting to the Union just as peacefully in the spring of 1865 on the defeat of the Confederacy. Throughout the 19th Century, it was widely used as a prison for Indians, both from the Seminole Wars and plains Indians, removed to Florida, far from their supporters. During the Seminole War, these Native Floridians cemented their reputation as hard cases — it was the most costly Indian war from the whites’ standpoint — but most of the native American prisoners here were Plains Indians. It seems that important chiefs were sent to San Marcos. It was the Gitmo of its day, or perhaps Alcatraz for Indians.

When the Castillo de San Marcos became part of the US coastal fortification system, like all the forts in the system, it had periods of improvement and periods of stagnation, if not neglect. The American owners filled in the part of the moat between the fort’s eastern wall and the seawall, and used it to site a battery of then-new Parrott guns, extending the fort’s reach to sea. To increase the guns’ threat to the wooden sailing warships of the day, a stone furnace was built behind this battery to heat shot red-hot, adding the threat of shipboard fires to the woes of any attacking naval squadron.


Castillo Park Service SignBy 1933 it was a white elephant burdening the US Army. Coquina is awesome stuff, but it wasn’t made to withstand breechloading artillery; new concepts in coastal defense used smaller, concealable, reinforced-concrete gun emplacements linked by electric communications to remote observation and fire-control facilities, integrated with command-armed and -detonated minefields air patrols. Furthermore, the Indians were off the warpath for good, and Americans had no stomach for locking them up. With no practical use in hand for the old fort, and a Depression squeezing everybody, they pushed it off onto the Department of the Interior. Now it is a national monument, maintained with pride by the National Park Service.

Castillo EngineersIt has also been recognized as a civil engineering monument by the American Society of Civil Engineers. One doesn’t think much about the technology that went into building a mighty fortress in the centuries before steam, but the Engineers apparently did.

You might wonder, in all those different phases of ownership, how many times the Fort has been abandoned, derelict, in ruins, or restored. The answer is — none. The Castillo withstood the attacks of 1702 and 1740 with aplomb, and perhaps more impressively, has shrugged off centuries of assault by the elements. All of the fort’s many changes of flag have been done peacefully, as a result of wars decided or treaties contracted in other places. The Park Service has done some excavation and restoration to the grounds, and keeps up with the maintenance, as the Army did.

Conversely, an out-fortress at Matanzas, built after the 1740 attack, was allowed to go to ruin, but has since been restored.

After the For More Information section below, there’s a “more” button — and with it, you’ll find some photos taken at Castillo de San Marcos recently by Our Traveling Reporter. We’ll have more photos, and more information links, in future reports.


This post has been corrected. We had used both terms ravelin and demilune without making it crystal clear we’re applying them both to the same structure, the low bastion-like element that guards the approach to the sally port. NPS prefers demilune.

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Fortified Places:

The terminology of a Fortress:

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