Tag Archives: history

Lies Stephen Ambrose Told In “Crazy Horse And Custer”

In this post-Gettysburg photograph apparently taken somewhere in Virginia, brigadier general George Armstrong Custer poses with General Alfred Pleasanton, the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps commander. Note that GAC is wearing his black velveteen jacket notable for not having shoulder straps like the coat Pleasanton is wearing–his brigadier’s stars are on the collars of the sailor’s shirt Custer acquired from a sailor on a Union gunboat in 1862. He was wearing this same shirt (sans stars) when he died at the Little Big Horn on June 25th, 1876. The shirt was stripped from his corpse afterward and vanished into the mists  of time. Image credit: Wikimedia.



The Rummel Farm, east of Gettysburg. July 3rd, 1863.

Troopers of the First Michigan cavalry galloped towards Confederate general Wade Hampton’s advancing horsemen. At the head of the Michiganders was a man in a black velveteen uniform topped with a red scarf and a broad brimmed sailor’s shirt adorned with silver stars.  He rode with saber upraised, his long blonde hair streaming out from beneath a wide brimmed hat which also was adorned with a silver star. Behold George Armstrong Custer, “The Boy General.”

After much hard fighting, the charge of the First Michigan, assisted by assaults on both of Hampton’s flanks by Yankee cavalrymen from nearby units, succeeded in driving back the last attempt made by Confederate cavalier James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart to disperse the Union troopers, preventing him from getting into the rear of the Army of the Potomac as it beat back Pickett’s Charge.

Now, 150 years after Custer bravely led his men into the fray at Gettysburg, an ugly accusation leveled by historian Stephen Ambrose still hovers over Custer’s performance that day.

In his book Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors, Ambrose claimed that at Gettysburg, Custer’s brigade lost 481 men.  1  Contrast this to the tally of 29 dead, 123 wounded, and 67 missing given in Gregory Urwin’s book Custer Victorious. This same total is given by Custer biographer Jeffrey Wert in his book Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer. Both writers arrived at their figures using separate sources. 2

What sources, if any, did Ambrose consult? He cites in his footnotes part one of Volume XXVII of the War of the Rebellion records. On one of the pages cited–a report of casualties suffered by the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps at Gettysburg–a listing of “451” is given for the second brigade of the Third Division (i.e. Custer’s). If taken at face value, this vindicates Ambrose’s claim, if one gives or takes a margin of 30. But there is a footnote for the section in question that reads: “But see revised statement, pp 185, 186.” Lo and behold: on page 186 Custer’s total losses for Gettysburg are listed at 257! 3 Ambrose did not mention this page in his footnotes. The above facts make it clear that Ambrose lied about Custer’s losses. All he did was take an erroneous report and inflate it slightly. In actuality, Custer’s Gettysburg losses were between 219 and 257.

Ambrose’s claim about Custer at Gettysburg demonstrates his unfortunate penchant for making unsubstantiated claims in his writings, as well as provides a good example of how ink has often been used to slander  George Armstrong Custer. 4



1. Stephen E. Ambrose, Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors (Anchor; 1st Anchor Books trade pbk. ed edition, 1996), 196.   Ambrose later repeated this claim in an article entitled “Custer’s Civil War,” which was subsequently reprinted in his anthology Americans at War (University Press of Mississippi, 1997), 52.

2. Gregory J.W. Urwin, Custer Victorious (University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 81. Urwin’s footnote for these is from David F. Riggs, East of Gettysburg: Custer Vs. Stuart (Old Army Press, 1985), 49. Jeffrey D. Wert, Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer (Touchstone, 1997), 95. Wert cites several sources in his footnote for the statistics; none are Urwin’s book nor the one by Riggs.

3. United States War Department et al., The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies; Series 1 – Volume 27 (Part I) (Washington: Govt. Print. Off, 1889), 919, 991-998.

4. For an example, see Richard Brayner, “Channeling Ike,” The New Yorker, April 26, 2010, accessed May 30, 2012, http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2010/04/26/100426ta_talk_rayner


Kimmel, Bloch, and Short: Three unprepared commanders

short kimmel and mountbatten
A reception before the war: Walter C. Short (left) and Husband E. Kimmel (right) pose for a photo at a formal reception held for Lord Louis Montbatten during his visit to Oahu in 1941. (Photo credit: Public domain.)
Admiral Claude C. Bloch in a confident pose. (Photo credit: Public domain.)

Despite reams of nonsense to the contrary, the top three US commanders in Hawaii in December of 1941 –Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, 14th Naval District commander Admiral Claude C. Bloch, and U.S. Army Hawaiian Department commander General Walter C. Short–  are not scapegoats for what happened on December 7th, 1941.  Though all three commanders were capable, dedicated, loyal men, their combined mistakes conspired to leave the island of Oahu vulnerable to the Japanese attack which slammed into the island like a tsunami 72 years ago today.

The lion’s share of the mistakes could be said to have been made by Admiral Bloch and General Short.  Both men were supposed to devote attention to the protection of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which had been sent to Hawaii to act as a deterrent to rampant Japanese aggression in Asia as the situation in the Pacific worsened.   But General Short was a commander whose skills pertained to the infantry and training troops.   Short did not understand either air power or his mission to defend the Pacific Fleet.  In fact, General Short somewhat naively assumed the Pacific Fleet was the main line of defense for Oahu, not vice versa.    General Short also shared in suspicions related to the Japanese-American population on Oahu, who were suspected of being fifth columnists in waiting should war break out.  The result was Short placed a great deal of focus on preventing sabotage against U.S. Army installations on Oahu, which at the time also included air units, since the Air Force at the time was the U.S. Army Air Force, a quasi-independent branch yoked to the Army.   The result was Hawaiian Air Force commander Harold Martin had to obey orders from General Short issued after a war alert message was received on November 27th, 1941, to line up his planes wingtip to wingtip when not in use so sentries could be easily placed to guard against Japanese Americans sympathetic to Japan from infiltrating the airfields and destroying aircraft, hangars, etc.   The fact that such destruction could come courtesy of the Imperial Japanese Navy never crossed General Short’s mind, even as General Martin’s men felt bad feelings in their guts about lining up the aircraft in such a manner.  But they were not being paid to think, just obey.

Admiral Bloch had once commanded the U.S. Pacific Fleet and was now on his last tour of duty before retirement presiding over the Fourteenth Naval District.  One of the tasks assigned Bloch was making sure the Navy’s own defenses at Pearl Harbor were up to snuff.  Unfortunately, Bloch was by now not the energetic officer he once was, always being in bed by 9 P.M. Hawaiian time each night.  This meant the Fourteenth Naval District was in essence run on a “nine to five” basis rooted strictly in a peacetime mentality.  Bloch also underestimated Japanese capabilities, but that was only the icing on the cake of his mistakes.

Admiral Kimmel was the most energetic of the troika of commanders on Oahu when the Japanese attack swept through the skies.   Hard-working, brave, and outspoken, Kimmel would have done well had his opposite number Isorouku Yamamoto attacked Hawaii by going via the American possession of Wake Atoll, a distant outpost taken from Spain as a result of the Spanish-American war of 1898.  Kimmel dreamed of being bait for a trap for the Japanese fleet when war came, and had made energetic plans for it to become such a tempting target, the Japanese would snap at the bait and Kimmel would unleash the Pacific Fleet against them.

Unfortunately for Kimmel, his preoccupation with offensive preparations once war broke out, coupled with a severe underestimation of Yamamoto, meant that Kimmel neglected to protect his northern flank, where the winds that bore aircraft into the Hawaiian Islands came from.  It should have been clear to not only Kimmel, but also Bloch and Short, that if these winds could assist American planes into the islands, they could easily do the same for a Japanese carrier task force.  In fact, no less than three pre-WWII fleet exercises held in the islands had seen U.S. Navy planes approach Oahu from that direction and take Pearl Harbor by surprise each time.   But the results of these exercises were always shrugged off by the Army, and ultimately lost on the U.S. Navy as well.

The biggest mistake all three men made, however, was an assumption all three men shared about Japan: that her warlords would be so polite as to make an official declaration of war before hostilities commenced.  Only then would they put their forces on a war footing.  Not even the message Short received on November 27th warning him of the imminence of hostilities with Japan nor a similar, even more strongly worded than the Army’s message received by both Kimmel and Bloch could shake them from this mindset.

The result was that when Commander Mitsuo Fuchida led the first attack wave over Oahu’s shores early on December 7th, 1941, not a shot was fired at them nor so much as one Army Air Force plane approached them.

I should point out in closing that the Navy’s message to Kimmel and Bloch included the phrase “war warning” and that the Army’s message to Short encouraged him to do nothing that would jeopardize his defense of Oahu.  If there had been a conspiracy put out by big, bad, Franklin Roosevelt, no such wording would have been included in those messages, nor, indeed, would any alerts have been sent at all.

Kimmel, Bloch, and Short were good, decent men, but even such men can make mistakes if they are not careful.


The core of this article is based on information contained in the books At Dawn We Slept and Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History, by Gordon W. Prange with Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon.  Additional information comes from Gregory J.W. Urwin’s article “The Trap That Never Snapped: Admiral Kimmel and Wake Island,” which appeared in the January, 2003, edition of World War II magazine.



Douglas MacArthur … on Facebook?!?!

General Douglas MacArthur strikes a confident pose somewhere in Manila, Luzon, Philippines, after it was recaptured in 1945. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.



Anybody can appear on Facebook; anybody at all. Lo and behold: today I discovered Douglas MacArthur had appeared on this page cruelly entitled “Dugout Doug Macarthur.”

Here is what the “About” page for this latest screed posted on Facebook claims about the general:

“Left his men for dead while he ran for safety in Australia.”


Described in history books as a great American Icon, military historians and those who served under him paint a different picture. Douglas Macarthur failed both our country and his men during both WWII and Korea. This page is for those who don’t believe the hype about Macarthur the hero and know him as Macarthur the coward…”


And so General MacArthur bashing arrived on Facebook back in 2010 (which is the year this page was created.)


The accusation that reads “Left his men for dead while he ran for safety in Australia” is a barb which lacerates the memory of his escape from the Philippines during the dark days of March, 1942, as the battle (aka siege) of Bataan ground on at the hands of the Japanese Army, Air Force, and Navy. It is an old one which has hung over MacArthur’s head practically since he left his Philippine command post on the island of Corregidor aboard a PT boat.


Louis Morton’s comprehensive history about the fall of the Philippines during World War Two (reproduced in full online here) reveals the truth, one that stands in stark contrast to the ranting’s of that Facebook poster: MacArthur was ordered to leave by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.


Morton writes:  ‘…on 22 February [1942] the President had directed MacArthur to leave the Philippines. His intention to do so had been made clear on the 21st when the Chief of Staff had told the Far East commander that the President was considering the advisability of ordering him to Mindanao to conduct the defense of the Philippines from there.There were numerous advantages to such a move. MacArthur himself had repeatedly pointed out the possibility of continuing resistance from Mindanao by means of guerrilla warfare and had already taken measures to strengthen Brig. Gen. William F. Sharp’s command. If the Allies mounted an air and naval counterattack through the Netherlands Indies, as MacArthur had urged, Mindanao would be the first objective in the Philippines and the base for an invasion of Luzon. Communication with other areas in the Far East would also be more practical from Mindanao than Corregidor. “The foregoing considerations underlie the tentative decision of the President,” Marshall told MacArthur, “but we are not sufficiently informed as to the situation and circumstances to be certain that the proposal meets the actual situation.”


The next day, without waiting for a reply from Corregidor, the President made up his mind about MacArthur’s evacuation. The USAFFE commander was to leave Fort Mills as quickly as possible and proceed to Mindanao where he would remain long enough “to insure a prolonged defense.” From there he was to go on to Australia.’ (Read Morton’s full account here.)


But account’s like Morton’s mattered little to this Facebook user who, for some reason, has a grudge against Douglas MacArthur.What about the Facebook poster’s accusation against MacArthur about Korea? That is in relation to how -admittedly- MacArthur (and others, including President Harry S Truman) under-estimated the threat Mao Zedong’s Communist forces massed on the China-Korea border posed to MacArthur’s forces as they neared the border late in 1950 after driving the North Korean People’s Army out of South Korea. Historian (and MacArthur biographer) D. Clayton James in this article carefully sifts through the facts about this thorny matter. But -again- accounts like James’ did not matter a whit to this brain-dead, Douglas MacArthur hater who has found a home for his anti-MacArthur screed’s in the overrated social network Mark Zuckerberg became (in)famous for.’Nuff said.

Enough with the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theories!

USS Shaw explodes
In this often repeated photograph, the USS Shaw explodes during the Pearl Harbor attack. I do believe that is the USS Pennsylvania to the right. Incredibly, the Shaw -a destroyer- was repaired and returned to the fight some time later. Image courtesy US Naval Historical Center.


This article originally appeared under my old byline “Richard Krebes” as a guest editorial in the December 5th, 2009 edition of The Pioneer under the title “Reader shares thoughts on anniversary of attack” and the December 5th, 2009 edition of its sister newspaper, The Laker, under the title “No room for conspiracy theories as anniversary of Japanese attack nears.”   I have done one minor tweak to update this as well as put additional comments at the end of the original text. –T.H.

For [over 70] years, a poison cloud has hovered near the memory of December 7th, 1941: A theory that Japan was deliberately provoked into attacking. This is flawed by two facts conveniently left out of it.

First, President Franklin Roosevelt, as well as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, knew that the number one priority was Germany, not Japan, an island nation dependent upon foreign imports for its war machine as opposed to the mighty machine of the land-based Third Reich. A machine which had helped ensure that most of Europe, along with half of North Africa, was under the Reich’s yoke by late 1941, with a bold invasion of Russia ongoing. It is true Japan was undertaking its own aggression against China, and had occupied Thailand and French Indochina by this point, but Germany loomed far larger.

Indeed, for months Roosevelt had been working with his British and Soviet opposite numbers to help shore up their defenses and even committed the US Navy to a limited anti-U-Boat war to defend North Atlantic convoys, while at the same time trying to restrain the Japanese economically by cutting off the supply of oil, which leads us to the second fact mentioned above: Neither America nor Britain were strong enough in 1941 to conduct a two-front war while at the same time supplying Russia with war material. Military production in America had only just begun, the American Navy, Army, and Marines were sluggishly expanding, the services only half-equipped with modern weapons, and defenses in the Pacific were thin due to the concentration on the Atlantic. With Britain equally strapped. It would have been detrimental to the “Germany first” objective to have sought a major war in Asia at the same time, nor would one have provided a “back door” into the war with Germany due to the lack of cooperation between Germany, Japan, and Italy. Japan easily could have fought alone without her allies as well as with them.

True, Pearl Harbor could have been more ready when the attack came, but that too needs no conspiracy theory to explain away due to Japanese deception measures (especially their false peace overtures), lack of American resources, cautious “do/do not” orders from Washington, and plain bad luck which dogged the Hawaiian commanders.

In the end, it could be argued that Pearl Harbor conspiracy theories are nothing more than a knee jerk reaction to a great defeat inflicted upon America. No less, no more.

It is time we stopped trying to erase this defeat’s sting with the salve named “conspiracy.”

It does nothing to help further the cause of remembering those who fought and died on December 7th, 1941.

I would like to add that, while I have always stood against conspiracy theories about Pearl Harbor (and 9/11 too) my initial views on the actions of General Walter Short and Admiral Husband Kimmel were heavily influenced for years by Paul Hendrickson’s article “Honor Thy Fathers” in Life Magazine’s commemorative issue on the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.  It’s influence is reflected here in my “cautious “do/do not” orders” comment.  If I had but read the book Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History by the time I wrote this, my viewpoints would have undergone a 180 degree turn from Hendrickson’s.  I would like to add that this book reveals that not one but two admirals in Hawaii –Kimmel and 14th Naval District commander Claude Bloch- erred badly in the preparations for the defense of Hawaii along with General Short in the run-up to the fateful attack.

Nevertheless, I stand by the ant-conspiracy theory comments I made here.  -T.H.


Did Colonel Durnford Die Needlessly at Isandlwana?

Anthony Durnford as he looked around the time of his death at Isandlwana. Image credit: Wikimedia.


The mustachioed lieutenant colonel stands surrounded by a ring of soldiers. Warriors are coming at them from all sides, but volley after volley keeps them back until ammunition dwindles.  Free of the brutal volleys that beset them, the warriors close in and the lieutenant colonel and his men die to the last man in desperate hand-to-hand combat

No, this is not a scene from a Hollywood production about Custer’s Last Stand but a scene from actual history.  The scene in question occurred during the closing stages of a battle took place in South Africa in January of the year 1879 which involved the British Empire and the Zulu kingdom.  A battle fought near a sphinx-shaped mountain in Zululand named Isandlwana.  However, the mustachioed British commander –Anthony Durnford- shared the same rank as Custer and the same sense of duty and courage.

They also share the distinction of having blame heaped upon them after they were dead.

Most of the blame heaped upon Colonel Durnford charged him with having been in command of the British camp at Isandlwana after he had arrived there at the head of a column of mostly mounted native troops (with the exception of a British Army rocket battery) on the fateful 22nd of January, 1879.   The charge has not stuck to him down through the ages due to no orders appointing him to command having been found.   In a book by Ron Lock and Peter Quantrill entitled Zulu Victory, Durnford is both exonerated of this charge but, unfortunately, saddled with another: that his death and the deaths of his men were pointless, since they all could easily have escaped the doomed camp on horseback.   Instead, Durnford –driven by a personal death wish- had ordered them to stay and pointlessly fight and die. 1

This argument came as some surprise to me when I first read the book.   Historians such as S. Borquin have stated that Durnford’s last stand was done to hold open an escape route out of the doomed camp. 2

Lock and Quantrill argue that the men of two of the units who rallied around Durnfornd for his last stand –the Natal Mounted Police and Natal Carbineers- did so because they knew him.  The former because he was their commandant in 1873, the latter because of an incident that same year at Bushman’s River Pass during the so-called “Langalibalele Rebellion” took place in Natal when Chief Langalibalele of the Hlubi tribe led the bulk of his people out of the colony due to a dispute with colonial officials regarding unregistered firearms the tribe possessed.  At the pass, they encountered a force under Durnford’s command which consisted of pro-British natives of the Basuto tribe and the Natal Carbineers.   In a short, furious skirmish Durnford’s command was driven back. The Basutos stood by Durnford even after the death of their interpreter, but only a few Carbineers stood by him as the rest of their comrades fled in haste. It was thus out of loyalty the NMP troopers rallied to Durnford and shame that drove the men of the Carbineers to stand by him, argues Lock and Quantrill.

Curiously, Lock and Quantrill credit Durnford’s body as being surrounded by a mix of nineteen Natal Carbineers and over twenty Natal Mounted Police when his body was discovered after the battle. 3   This sharply contrasts with the tally given by Bourquin in his article that 14 Natal Carbineers, 26 Natal Mounted Police, and 30 men of the 24th Foot, the British infantry regiment present at the battle, were found around Durnford after the battle.   For some reason, Lock and Quantrill failed to mention the redcoats who fell with the NMP and Carbineers who had rallied to Durnford’s side.

The presence of these men from the 24th throws Lock and Quantrill’s argument that Durnford’s men rallied to him out of a sense of loyalty or shame.  Durnford, a Royal Engineer, had nothing to do with the 24th, so these Tommies certainly did not join him out of a sense of personal loyalty to Durnford or shame over their unit having abandoned him years before.  Durnford was a commanding presence on the field of Isandlwana, however, so a group of 24th soldiers cut off from their own officers doubtless were seeking a commander to give them orders and bravely fell in with Durford’s group.

Another fact that calls into question their argument that Durnford died needlessly comes from an eye witness account contained in their own book.  Simeon Kambule, one of Durnford’s native soldiers, recalled that before he left the field he looked back, saw Durnford standing ‘ … in the center of his square with his long moustaches, and one good arm in the air. [Durnford lost the use of his left arm in both an accident on the way to Bushman’s River Pass and from a wound suffered during the skirmish] He was shouting and laughing, “Come round me, come round me.   There is no point in running from these people, I know them too well.”’ 4 This is presumably the “order” Lock and Quantrill refer to.   They also quote an NMP trooper as hearing Durnford exhort his troops with the cry “Now, my men, let me see what you can do!”

The reason Colonel Durnford said “I know them [the Zulus] too well …” was because by 1879 he was on his second tour of duty in Natal and had gotten to know the various native tribes well.   He knew how fleet of foot a Zulu warrior was, and with the Zulu army closing in on the camp from all sides, he could see the folly of attempting to flee.   In my opinion, the words Kambule heard him speak are those of a man who knew and respected his foe.  He also knew the Zulus were fond of encircling their enemies, but could see that, since his group was in between the pincers of the advancing Zulu army, he was in a position to hold them back long enough to allow some men to escape.  Durnford had already ordered Kambule and his other native troopers to retire from the field, so he doubtless had their welfare and those of other escapees in mind when he formed his ad hoc unit which proceeded to act out in fact the fate hundreds of Americans –influenced by fanciful works of art- had daydreamed Custer and the men under his command had died at the Little Big Horn. Thanks to their sacrifice, Khambule and dozens of other escapee ultimately owed their lives to the gallant Durnford.

I disagree with Lock and Quantrill that Durnford needlessly sacrificed his life and those who rallied to him on the bloody field of Isandlwana.




  1. Ron Lock and Peter Quantrill, Zulu Victory: The Epic Of Isandlwana And The Cover-Up (Greenhill Books, 2002), 218-219.
  2. Bourquin, “Col A W Durnford,” The South African Military History Society Military History Journal, 6 (1985). Accessed February 13, 2013, http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol065sb.html (No page number for print edition available.)
  3. Lock and Quantrill, Zulu Victory, 219
  4. Lock and Quantrill, Zulu Victory, 218




The lost band of the Arizona

71 years ago at approximately this moment a band that had played at Pearl Harbor’s Bloch Arena the night before Pearl Harbor was attacked ceased to exist when their ship erupted in a fount of flame and smoke as a lucky hit from a Japanese bomber struck her forward magazine.

When they were playing the night before at the arena, it looked like they had nothing but life, life, and more life ahead for the members of the band of the USS Arizona.    Now they were no longer in this world but the next, thrust into it in a horrific moment that beggars the imagination.

Forget them not, 71 years after their untimely deaths.   Them and all the others who died on December 7th, 1941.

For two informative websites about the band, go to: http://www.ussarizona.org/history/uss-arizona-band and: http://www.ussarizonaslastband.com/  -T.H.