April 9

1865 Lee surrenders at Appomattox

The American Civil War, aka the War Between the States, aka the War of Northern Aggression, aka the War for Southern Independence, aka the Great Rebellion, had begun effectively in 1861 with the bombardment of a Union fort in Charleston harbor. It effectively ended four years later with the decision by Robert E. Lee to surrender his Army of Northern Virginia after losing a final battle to Ulysses S. Grant close to the village of Appomattox Court House. Lee had been trying to link up with other remaining Confederate forces but, surrounded and cut off from supplies, had to admit that he, and the Southern cause, were finally at the end of their rope. “There is nothing left for me to do”, he said, “but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”

On the afternoon of April 12, in the parlor of a house owned by Wilmer McLean, Lee met Grant and agreed to very generous terms: the rebels would down their major weapons but would be allowed to march home under parole keeping their personal baggage, sidearms, and horses. Food for the journey was provided by the Union commissary and there was a tactful lack of triumphalism in the behaviour of the Northern Army. General Joshua Chamberlain, hero of Little Round Top, ordered his men to salute the passing grey-clad soldiers:

Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the “order arms” to the old “carry”—the marching salute. [Confederate General] Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual,—honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!

Secessionist armies remained in the field as far away as Texas but Lee’s surrender prompted theirs as well. On May 9, the end of the war and of the Confederate States of America became official.



March 30

1282 The Sicilian Vespers

The kingdom of Sicily, consisting of Naples and southern Italy as well as the island, had been established by the Normans and later fell into the hands of the German imperial dynasty known as the Hohenstaufens. After Emperor Frederick II’s death it passed to his illegitimate son, Manfred. The papacy, determined to rid Italy of Hohenstaufen rule, bent all its energies to securing Manfred’s downfall. At length it offered the Sicilian crown to Charles of Anjou, a younger brother of King Louis IX of France (St. Louis). The intention was that the power of France be used to drive Manfred out of Italian kingdom. Charles of Anjou—dour, cruel, and ambitious—defeated Manfred in 1266 and established a new French dynasty on the throne of the kingdom.

The inhabitants of the realm, particularly those on the island of Sicily, had been accustomed to Hohenstaufen rule and resented Charles of Anjou. They looked on his French soldiers as an army of occupation. When, on Easter Monday, a French soldier molested a young married woman on her way to evening services in Palermo, he was struck down, and on all sides was raised the cry “Death to the French!” (Note in the melodramatic representation above, a knife-wielding figure topped by the Phrygian cap symbolizing Liberty.)

The incident resulted in a spontaneous uprising and a general massacre of Frenchmen, (some 13,000 dead) which spread swiftly throughout the island. When the French retaliated, the Sicilians offered the crown to Peter III of Aragon, Manfred’s son-in-law, who claimed the Hohenstaufen inheritance and led an expedition to Sicily.

There ensued a long, bloody, indecisive struggle known by the romantic name the “War of the Sicilian Vespers.” For twenty years Charles of Anjou and successors, backed by the French monarchy and the papacy, fought against Sicilians and Aragonese. In the end, southern Italy remained under Charles of Anjou’s heirs, who ruled it from Naples, while the island of Sicily passed under control of the kings of Aragon. The dispute between France and Aragon over southern Italy and Sicily persisted for generations and became an important in the politics of modern Europe.

The strife of the thirteenth century destroyed Sicilian prosperity. Once the wealthiest and best administered state in Italy, the kingdom of Sicily became pauperized and divided—a victim of international politics and of the ruthless struggle between papacy and Empire.

March 22

1930 Birth of Pat Robertson

The son of a Democratic United States senator from Virginia, Pat Robertson turned from a career in the law to one in religion and made himself one of the most influential and enigmatic leaders of the so-called Christian Right during the Reagan era of the 1980s and beyond. As president of the Christian Coalition, which he founded, from 1989 to 1997, Robertson helped galvanize millions of evangelical Christians toward greater participation in the political process, and has himself considered running for the White House.

Raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, Robertson graduated magna cum laude from Washington and Lee University in 1950. After serving as a Marine Corps officer during the Korean conflict he returned to his education, receiving a J.D. from Yale Law School in 1955. Failures in an early business venture, and his attempts to pass the New York bar exam helped steer him back toward his religious roots. He attended a theological seminary, graduating with a B.Div., and worked for a time with the mostly black inner-city poor in Brooklyn before returning to Virginia where he was ordained a Southern Baptist minister in 1960.

Robertson demonstrated the intensely entrepreneurial side of his character in 1961 when he started operating WYAH, a television station in Virginia that became the first in the nation devoted to primarily religious programming. From this single station Robertson launched what would become a veritable communications empire: the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), offshoots of which grew to include a relief agency, cable television holdings, the American Center for Law and Justice, which specializes in First Amendment cases, and Regent University, which came to call itself “America’s premier Christian graduate school.”

The flagship program of his network was The 700 Club, which Robertson hosted from 1966. His success both behind and before the camera led many conservative Christians to promote Robertson’s involvement in U.S. politics. Though he at first thought political organizing was inconsistent with his clerical calling, he had a change of heart by the 1980s, when he began to organize mobilization efforts such as a 1980 “Washington for Jesus” rally and his own Freedom Council (1981-86). In 1984 he changed his party affiliation to Republican. When presented in 1987 with what was purported to be a petition of some 3.3 million names urging him to run for office, he resigned his church offices and launched a campaign for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination. Despite early successes in some primaries, Robertson’s candidacy had been decisively rejected by “Super Tuesday” in March of that year, even by many members of conservative Christian churches.

Undaunted by his electoral failure Robertson returned to the idea of grassroots organizing. In 1989 he founded and became the first president of the Christian Coalition, an organization whose mission was to represent evangelical opinion to government bodies, protest anti-Christian bias in public life, train leaders, and develop policies–all while being careful not to lose its tax-exempt status by supporting partisan candidates. The Christian Coalition proved very successful in enunciating the social agenda of the religious right in the United States. With a national membership well in excess of a million, the group raised the political profile of a hitherto-marginalized section of the population. Mirroring the Republican Party’s “Contract with America,” the Coalition advanced its “Contract with the American Family,” which was trumpeted as “A Bold Plan to Strengthen the Family and Restore Common-Sense Values.” Many attributed the G.O.P’s triumphs in 1996 Congressional races to the efforts of Robertson and his branch of the religious right.

Robertson astonished the media world in 1997 when, on the same day he resigned the presidency of the Christian Coalition, he sold his International Family Entertainment corporation to Rupert Murdoch, a media mogul whose television and newspaper holdings had often been criticized for taking the low moral road. Robertson tried to assuage criticism by promising that the hundreds of millions of dollars the sale had generated would go toward a new global television evangelism campaign as well as to enhance the endowment of Regent University. Part of the deal with Murdoch’s Fox Kids Worldwide Inc. was that The 700 Club would continue to be aired by the new entity and that CBN itself would remain independent.

Robertson remains a figure who defies easy characterization. For many on the political left, Robertson is, as described by Robert Boston, “the most dangerous man in America” due to his stances on social issues like homosexuality and the role of women. Those who valued the country’s multicultural heritage reacted with horror to Robertson’s suggestion that only devout Christians and Jews were fit to hold public office. Other liberals decried his proposals to abolish the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts. Robertson’s hopes of restoring prayer to public schools and re-establishing the United States as a “Christian nation” seemed an affront to the constitutional separation of church and state and drew the ire of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League.

His capacity for stirring outrage continues to attract media attention. He seemed to attribute the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as divine retribution against Americans for their permissive lifestyles; he blamed the 2010 Haiti earthquakes on a 1791 pact with the devil. He offended many fellow Christians with the suggestion that it was morally permissible to divorce a spouse with Alzheimer’s Disease and with revelations of financial dealings with African dictator Charles Taylor of Liberia. His frequent predictions of cataclysmic events that never ensue have grown tiresome.

Robertson is neither a backwoods fundamentalist nor a one-dimensional Elmer Gantry. He is well educated, well off, and well connected, with two American presidents on his family tree, and his pragmatism has made him an enormously successful businessman. His particular brand of charismatic theology, moreover, is opposed by many right-wing Christians who are uneasy about his claim to receiving divinely inspired “words of knowledge” and his belief that even the faithful will suffer from a pre-millennial period of tribulation before the final coming of Christ. During the 1988 primaries, for example, Robertson’s bid for the Republican nomination drew less support from members attending conservative Baptist churches than it did from other white voters. Despite the criticism he has received from some American Jewish groups, he is a leading defender of the state of Israel, which he sees in the context of Biblical end-times prophecies. Robertson, for a time, resumed the presidency of the Christian Coalition after the departure of Ralph Reed, and presided over the reorganization of the group into two entities–Christian Coalition International and Christian Coalition of America–in the wake of a 1999 IRS ruling that revoked its tax-exempt status. A supporter of Donald Trump, he continues to be active in business, media and social advocacy of issues favoured by the Christian right.


March 13


The birth of Robin Duke

It is not often that I venture into the realm of popular culture on this blog but today provides me with an opportunity to salute the Canadian actress Robin Duke. She was a sorely underestimated contributor to that pinnacle of comedic genius known as SCTV and also starred in SNL and Schitt’s Creek.

I remember watching this skit in Saskatoon after I returned to Canada from years of studying in London. I had never heard of SCTV and my only experience of Canadian television humour came from watching the Wayne and Schuster Show where laughs were produced in a more sedate style. Molly Earl’s introduction of the “bingo drop can” convinced me my frozen nation could, if called upon, be suitably zany.

March 5

Joining the line waiting to enter the gates of Hell on March 5, 1953 was Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvilli, aka Cato, aka Koba, aka Stalin, Georgian revolutionary and Soviet dictator.

Born in 1879 to a peasant family who hoped that he would become an Orthodox priest, Stalin rebelled and became fascinated with Marxism. He rose from being a low-ranking thug and bank robber for the socialist cause to becoming editor of Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, and discipline of V.I. Lenin, head of the Bolshevik faction. Exiled to Siberia in 1913-17, he was released to join in the political turmoil that followed the overthrow of the Czar and the establishment of the first provisional Russian democracy. During the revolutionary wars provoked by the Bolshevik overthrow of parliament, Stalin served as a bureaucrat, a role at which he excelled. By 1922 and the establishment of the Soviet Union he was Party Secretary, an unglamorous but powerful post that enabled him to sit on all committees and influence the rise or fall of party members.

On Lenin’s death in 1924 a struggle for the top jobs broke out. Stalin’s rivals were all much better-known and few thought him a candidate for supreme leadership, particularly as Lenin in his last days had grown disenchanted with him. He succeeded, however, in out-maneuvering Leon Trotsky, founder of the Red Army by allying with Grigory Zinoviev, head of the Comintern, Politburo member Lev Kamenev and intellectual Nikolai Bukharin. Stalin then turned on his erstwhile friends and by 1927 was in command of the USSR.

His policies of rapid industrialization and collectivization of agriculture were brutally set in place.The former had some success but the latter was disastrous and resulted in millions dying of starvation. Millions more were sent to the Gulag slave labour camps and tens of thousands of generals, scientists, technical experts, and party officials were murdered in the political purges of the 1930s.

Stalin’s 1939 non-aggression pact with Hitler led to the Second World War. The reward for the USSR was the green light to occupy the Baltic republics and eastern Poland but Stalin was caught by surprise in 1941 when German forces launched Operation Barbarossa. Russian heroism mixed with a disregard for human life would eventually win the war on the Eastern Front but at an enormous cost. 158,000 Russian troops shot by their own side not to mention those killed in service in the punishment brigades from which only a survivable wound could free one. After victory in 1945, 3,000,000 liberated Russian prisoners were sent to the GULAG for the crime of having surrendered. Half of the returning officers were shot out of hand; only 20% ever returned home. Among the victimized were many of the most prominent Russian military heroes whose crime was outshining Stalin. 

Stalin was never in good health but it was considered dangerous to suggest this to him. In 1952 a number of Jewish doctors were accused of planning to poison him and other leaders. Robert Tucker’s biography Stalin in Power: The Russian Revolution from Above, 1928-1941 has this to say about Stalin and Jews:

His Russian nationalism had an exclusionary aspect: it was anti-Semitic. In the mid-1920s he made covert use of anti-Semitism in the fight against a Left opposition whose major figures, Trotsky and afterward Zinoviev and Kamenev, were Jews (their original surnames were Bronstein, Radomylsky, and Rosenfeld, respectively). He encouraged the baiting of the opposition leaders as Jews in meetings held in factory party cells. He was identifying his faction as the party’s Russian faction, and the Trotskyists as the Jewish one. That Jews, no matter how culturally Russified, could not be authentically Russian seems to have become an article of belief with him.

On March 1, 1953 he suffered a stroke and lingered until expiring on March 5. (The dark comedy The Death of Stalin (2017) gives us a glimpse into his last days and the sordid crew jockeying to succeed him.) His embalmed body was put on display beside Lenin’s outside the Kremlin.

The historian Robert Conquest sums up the 70 years of Bolshevism this way: “There was an old bastard named Lenin/ Who did two or three million men in./ That’s a lot to have done in,/ But where he did one in/ That old bastard Stalin did ten in.”


March 3

It’s happy birthday today to French-Canadian heroine Madeleine de Verchères (1678-1747). For decades the Iroquois confederacy waged a brutal war against the settlements along the St Lawrence River in the colony of New France. Among the farms they had attacked was the seigneury of Verchères, near what is now Montreal, where they murdered a number of its defenders.

In October 1692 14-year-old Madeleine was temporarily left in charge of the stockade while her parents journeyed to pick up supplies. A band of raiders descended upon the men working in the field, taking them prisoner, while another ran after Madeleine nearly catching her as she ran back to the little fort. Once inside she fired off a musket and encouraged her little brothers and sisters, two soldiers, and an old man to make as much noise as possible to simulate a large force. She shepherded into the stockade a family who had arrived unaware of the attack and guarded the walls wearing a military helmet. 

After an eight-day siege reinforcements arrived. “Monsieur, you are indeed welcome,” she told the captain, “I surrender arms to you.”

Thirty years later she would save her husband’s life when he was attacked by natives. Quebec has long recognized her as a symbol of its nationhood and the bravery of its women.

March 2

1848 was, as every schoolboy knows, the Year of Revolutions and the first monarch to lose his crown was Louis Philippe of France. The king, who had had the reputation of a lover of liberty, had in 1830 succeeded the last of the Bourbons to great acclaim but was by 1848 seen as a corrupt impediment to good government. He was persuaded in February of that year to abdicate in the hope that the French would accept his nephew as king, but the people demanded a Second Republic. Remembering what had happened to Louis XVI and his own father the Duke of Orleans when the First Republic sent them to the guillotine, Louis Philippe thought it best to go into exile. He travelled to the English Channel in the guise of “Mr. William Smith”. There he boarded a ferry and travelled to safety in Britain where he spent the last two years of his life living in obscurity as the ‘Comte de Neuilly’.

France continues to be a republic but members of the Orleans family still live in hope of the restoration of a monarchy. Jean, Count of Paris (b. 1965) is the current Orleans pretender.

February 25

1534 Death of Count Wallenstein

The Thirty Years War (1618-48) is a phenomenon not nearly as well-known as it ought to be. It was the last of the great European religious wars and the Treaty of Westphalia which brought it to a close marked the beginning of the age of nation-states.

One of the most significant figures of this conflict was the champion of the Catholic cause, Count Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein who rose from being a mercenary captain to be an Imperial generalissimo, a prince, and one of the richest men in Europe.  He was successful in all but one of his battles but was suspected (quite rightly) of overweening ambition and treachery, suspicions which led to his assassination.

I had long been aware of Wallenstein’s military genius but not until reading this passage in Chambers’ Book of Days did I learn of the man’s astonishing grandiosity.

Born of high rank in 1583, Wallenstein found himself at forty chief of the imperial armies, and the possessor of immense wealth. Concentrating a powerful mind on one object, the gratification of his ambition, he attained it to a remarkable degree, and was for some time beyond doubt the greatest subject in Europe. In managing troops by a merciless discipline, in making rapid marches, in the fiery energy of his attacks upon the enemy, he was unrivalled. In but one battle, that of Lützen, where he met the Protestant army under Gustavus of Sweden, was he unsuccessful.

Wallenstein’s immense riches, his profound reserve, and theatrical manners, were the principal means he employed to exalt the imagination of the masses. He always appeared in public surrounded by extraordinary pomp, and allowed all those attached to his house to share in his luxury. His officers lived sumptuously at his table, where never less than one hundred dishes were served. As he rewarded with excessive liberality, not only the multitude but the greatest personages were dazzled by this Asiatic splendour. Six gates gave entrance to his palace at Prague, to make room for which he had pulled down one hundred houses. Similar chateaux were erected by his orders on all his numerous estates. Twenty-four chamberlains, sprung from the most noble families, disputed the honour of serving him, and some sent back the golden key, emblem of their grade, to the Emperor, in order that they might wait on Wallenstein.

He educated sixty pages, dressed in blue velvet and gold, to whom he gave the first masters; fifty truants guarded his ante-chamber night and day; six barons and the same number of chevaliers were constantly within call to bear his orders. His maître-d’hôtel was a person of distinction. A thousand persons usually formed his household, and about one thousand horses filled his stables, where they fed from marble mangers. When he set out on his travels, a hundred carriages, drawn by four or six horses, convoyed his servants and baggage; sixty carriages and fifty led horses carried the people of his suite; ten trumpeters with silver bugles preceded the procession. The richness of his liveries, the pomp of his equipages, and the decoration of his apartments, were in harmony with all the rest. In a hall of his palace at Prague he had himself painted in a triumphal car, with a wreath of laurels round his head, and a star above him. [See above for a mural from his palace.]

Wallenstein’s appearance was enough in itself to inspire fear and respect. His tall thin figure, his haughty attitude, the stern expression of his pale face, his wide forehead, that seemed formed to command, his black hair, close-shorn and harsh, his little dark eyes, in which the flame of authority shone, his haughty and suspicious look, his thick moustaches and tufted beard, produced, at the first glance, a startling sensation. His usual dress consisted of a justaucorps of elk skin, covered by a white doublet and cloak; round his neck he wore a Spanish ruff; in his hat fluttered a large red plume, while scarlet pantaloons and boots of Cordova leather, carefully padded on account of the gout, completed his ordinary attire. While his army devoted itself to pleasure, the deepest silence reigned around the general. He could not endure the rumbling of carts, loud conversations, or even simple sounds.

One of his chamberlains was hanged for waking him without orders, and an officer secretly put to death because his spurs had clanked when he came to the general. His servants glided about the rooms like phantoms, and a dozen patrols incessantly moved round his tent or palace to maintain perpetual tranquillity. Chains were also stretched across the streets, in order to guard him against any sound. Wallenstein was ever absorbed in himself, ever engaged with his plans and designs. He was never seen to smile, and his pride rendered him inaccessible to sensual pleasures. His only fanaticism was ambition. This strange chief meditated and acted incessantly, only taking counsel of himself, and disdaining strange advice and inspirations. When he gave any orders or explanations, he could not bear to be looked at curiously; when he crossed the camp, the soldiers were obliged to pretend that they did not see him. Yet they experienced an involuntary shudder when they saw him pass like a super-natural being. There was something about him mysterious, solemn, and awe-inspiring. He walked alone, surrounded by this magic influence, like a saddening halo.

The end of Wallenstein was such as might have been anticipated. Becoming too formidable for a subject, he was denounced to the Emperor by Piccolomini, who obtained a commission to take the great general dead or alive. On the 25th of February 1634, he was assailed in the Castle of Eger by a band, in which were included one Gordon, a Scotsman, and one Butler, an Irishman, and fell under a single stroke of a partizan, dying in proud silence, as he had lived.


February 20


Cancellation of the Avro Arrow

Want to get a Canadian historian all teary-eyed and remorseful? Want to see him clench his fists and trouble deaf heaven with his bootless cries? If so, just sidle up to him and whisper “Diefenbaker canceled the Arrow”, but step back quickly lest you be caught in the sudden outburst of mingled lachrymosity and rage.

The CF-105, Avro Arrow, was surely the most beautiful fighter aircraft ever built. It was also the most advanced interceptor of its era, designed to counter the threat of Soviet bomber attacks on North America. Capable of Mach 2 performance and armed with nuclear missiles that could destroy whole waves of attackers, the Arrow was far superior to its predecessor, the CF-100 Canuck, and other fighters of the time such as the Delta Dart, the Voodoo, and the Mig-21.

In February 1959 the Diefenbaker government abruptly cancelled the Arrow program and ordered all prototypes, plans, and parts destroyed. This decision crippled the Canadian aerospace industry, and resulted in tens of thousands of lost jobs and a brain drain of engineers and scientists to the USA and Britain. One of the big winners was NASA which scooped up dozens of Arrow technicians for its missile and moon mission projects.

A cold calculus might back the government’s decision. The Arrow was an enormously expensive programme and the development of Russian ICBMs meant that a bomber threat was less likely. Canadian counter-intelligence suspected a Soviet mole at work in the project and it was they who demanded the destruction of the aircraft. (Parts of the plane and its plans were, nonetheless, smuggled out by workers for preservation.) The money that was to be saved by cancelling the Arrow was spent on the ultimately useless Bomarc anti-aircraft missile, dubbed “the world’s most expensive lawn dart”.

The Arrow lives in in Canadian mythology as a lost moment, a bit of greatness that might have been but never was.


February 18

1478 The death of the Duke of Clarence

Second murderer: Take him [the Duke of Clarence] on the costard with the hilts of thy sword, and then throw him into the malmsey-butt in the next room.

First Murderer [to the Duke of Clarence, stabbing him]: Take that, and that. If all this will not do, I’ll drown you in the malmsey-butt within.

This is how Shakespeare treats the death of George, Duke of Clarence, brother to King Edward IV and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III. Before and after the Bard’s version, historians have debated how Clarence died and who was responsible for his death. In the sixteenth century it was widely believed that Gloucester had ordered the execution while more recent historians have expressed the possibility that Gloucester opposed his brother’s death.

By the standards of the time, Clarence certainly deserved to get the chop. He had betrayed his brothers and allied himself with this family’s dynastic rivals, Henry VI and the Lancastrian faction, but eventually deserted them to rejoin his Yorkist siblings. Never quite stable, mentally, he then seems to have again aroused suspicions of disloyalty in Edward’s mind and he was convicted of treason and sentenced to death.

His two surviving children who lived into the 16th century were both murdered on the orders of Henry VIII, whose Tudor father Henry VII had usurped the throne from Richard III.