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Memorable Christmas Stories in U.S. Military History

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
December 23, 2022 3:03 am

Memorable Christmas Stories in U.S. Military History

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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December 23, 2022 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, popular YouTube historian "The History Guy" shares stories from across the decades.

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Here's the History Guy remembering the forgotten stories from US military history. Christmas is traditionally a family holiday in the United States, but it wasn't always the case. In fact, in early US history, Christmas was often rejected as being too British, or if it was celebrated was more of a rowdy celebration than a family celebration. Many historians credit the change in American Christmas traditions to five installments of The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon by author Washington Irving that were published in January of 1820. The Sketchbook followed the fictional Geoffrey Crayon as he celebrated Christmas traditions in an English manor house, and those traditions were actually not based on any real celebration. They were largely fabricated by Washington Irving, but they conjured up that idea of a holiday spent with family with goodwill towards all that became the American Christmas tradition.

And as we celebrate those traditions, we should be mindful of those who for whatever reason are unable to be near their family during the holiday season, especially those whose service keeps them far from hearth and home. Christmas 1776, five was busy for George Washington and the Continental Army. At 4pm on Christmas Day, the army turned out for their evening parade. They were issued ammunition and told that they were departing on a secret mission. At 6pm they started crossing the Delaware River, a feat that the man in charge of the crossing, Chief of Artillery Henry Knox, described as having occurred with almost infinite difficulty due largely to the presence of large chunks of ice floating in the water.

Nonetheless, owing largely to the expertise of the men of the 14th Continental Regiment, known as the Marblehead Regiment since it was composed of mostly seafaring men of the area around Marblehead, Massachusetts, the army managed to cross without the loss of a single man. The following day, in a short, sharp action, Washington and some 2,400 troops managed to largely surprise and entrap 1,500 Hessian troops under the command of Colonel Johann Rall in the town of Trenton, New Jersey. 22 Hessians were killed, including Colonel Rall, and nearly a thousand captured, along with a significant amount of food and ammunition. The victory, although small in the scope of the war, came at a critical moment for Washington and the army, perhaps literally rescuing the American Revolution from collapse.

While it has been commonly said that the German troops were drunk from a Christmas celebration, contemporary reports deny that legend. You can't help but feel for these Hessian troops, captured and nearly freezing to death on the trip back across the river, so far from their homes, the day after Christmas. The Continental Army faced the same challenges as any army, away from home, far from family, and one illustration of that was a little remembered event that occurred at Fort Ticonderoga in New York on Christmas Day, 1776. Fort Ticonderoga, at the south end of New York's late Champlain, had originally been built by the French in 1757 and 58, during the Seven Years' War. It was captured by the British in the 1759 Battle of Ticonderoga, in which the fortifications were largely destroyed, and then occupied by the British with a small force, which used the fort as a supply and communication point between Canada and New York.

By 1776, the fort had fallen into disrepair and was defended by a token force of just 50 men. Just a month after the first shots of the American Revolution at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, colonial militia under Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold surprised the tiny garrison of the fort, capturing it. Although it was only a small action, it was significant in that it disrupted communication between British in the colonies and British Canada, and resulted in the capture of a significant amount of artillery, which the American rebels had great need.

Using Fort Ticonderoga as the jumping off point, the Americans had attempted to invade Quebec in 1776, an invasion that ended in failure, but the fighting season had ended before the British could attempt an assault on the fort. Christmas, 1776, had American troops stationed at the fort and around Lake Champlain, preparing for the anticipated invasion of the area by the British in 1777. Regiments from around the colonies were stationed in the area. The colonies were a diverse lot, and there were quite a lot of cultural differences and animosities, in this case between New Englanders and troops from the south. Discipline can be a challenge for any army, especially in remote outposts, and perhaps more so in the Continental Army, which suffered from divided commands.

Late on Christmas Day, 1776, in a fight not with the British, but between Americans, a regiment from Pennsylvania attacked a regiment from Massachusetts, dragging their officers from their tents, assaulting them, and robbing them. Details are sketchy, as the events of this disturbance were, if not covered up, at least kept quiet. The fight may have been the result of secular tensions, class tensions, and the enemies of troop morale everywhere, boredom, and too much drink. While no one appears to have been killed in the fracas, there were injuries, and at least a few musket shots fired. A court-martial failed to find convictions, and the event was swept under the rug, with the official log at Ticonderoga that day left completely blank. Historians have only recently been able to piece together the event from period letters and records from the court-martial.

It is easy to see why the army was not keen to publicize the event, as such interesting fighting could have ended the revolution before it started. And you've been listening to the History Guy telling the stories of American soldiers at war or overseas at a time that many of us are home, around a Christmas tree, around a fireplace, celebrating the holiday season, celebrating sacred time like Christmas time. And my goodness, what Americans were doing, at least American soldiers were doing, around Christmas time is as far from hearth and home as you can get. Washington had retreated and escaped from New York, and he needed a victory. And he and his men, well, they found themselves in Trenton, having crossed the Delaware. And folks crossing the Delaware in winter, going into New Jersey, try it sometime.

The river was filled with ice. This was not a good time. What a big victory for America. It changed the tide of the war, changed morale, changed recruiting, changed everything. More stories about U.S. military history, particularly around the holiday season, around Christmas time, continue here with the History Guy on Our American Stories. Here at Our American Stories, we bring you inspiring stories of history, sports, business, faith, and love, stories from a great and beautiful country that need to be told.

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Say what to watch into your Xfinity voice remote. And we continue with our American stories and with the history guy, remembering forgotten stories from U.S. military history as they relate to the holidays. If the Christmas of 1776 had brought Washington victory at Trenton, Christmas 1777 was perhaps the low point for Washington and his army, in their winter quarters at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania.

While the Americans had won a great victory over General John Burgoyne in the Saratoga campaign to the north, the British had captured the then American capital of Philadelphia, and Washington had been unable to recapture it. When his army went into winter camp, they were facing a critical shortage of supplies. The legend is that the winter of 1777 was exceptionally harsh, but that was not actually the case. The deprivations faced by the 12,000 men of the Continental Army in 1777 were caused by neglect, as local counties failed to provide for their own militias, and the Continental Congress seemed unwilling or unable to provide for adequate supply. Many soldiers were without shoes. The Marquis de Lafayette described them, The unfortunate soldiers were in want of everything. They had neither coats, hats, shirts, nor shoes. Their feet and legs froze till they'd become almost black, and it was often necessary to amputate them. Washington had hoped for a brilliant winter action to rescue morale and support as he had done at Trenton in 1775, but was told by his officers that his army was frankly unfit for attack.

He considered threatening resignation in order to force Congress to act, even as other officers conspired against his leadership within the Continental Congress. A blizzard hit on December 23rd and continued through Christmas. It was a dismal holiday. Troops were fed a Spartan meal of burnt mutton and watered grog. That night, a soldier from Connecticut's 7th Regiment, a freed black man whose name was only recorded as Jathrow, was found frozen to death in his tent.

It was the first recorded death on the rolls at Valley Forge. Some saw the time as an existential crisis for the army and the Revolution, which seemed to be on the verge of collapse. Washington reportedly asked a young lieutenant that Christmas day, Have you not suffered enough?

The officer responded, Having come this far, we can let go the rest of the distance. With you to lead us, we can't lose. Outside his command tent that night, Washington made a bleak holiday speech. May God relieve your sufferings if the Congress will not, and a good Christmas to you. But it was that winter and the coming spring when the Continental Army was reorganized and seemed to coalesce in the face of adversity. From the bleak Christmas came what many see as the turning point in the conflict. By the time that America was again fighting the British in the War of 1812, Christmas had largely fallen out of vogue in America, where the practice was viewed with disdain as being both too British and too Catholic. On Christmas Day 1806, a riot had occurred in New York City between nativists and Irish immigrants over the celebration of Christmas, one of many such disturbances in New York City of the era.

British troops in North America noted with surprise the indifference to the holiday among Americans and French Canadians. But there was a great Christmas celebration that occurred as part of that war. It was on Christmas Eve 1814 that negotiators in the neutral city of Ghent in the United Netherlands concluded their negotiations and signed and affixed their seals to the treaty ending the war. The treaty essentially returned to the status quo before the war, demonstrating perhaps the futility of the entire conflict. But the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 had ended the issues of restricting trade with France and the need for the British Navy to press sailors, which had been the sticking points of the war.

Both sides simply wanted peace. That agreement came too late to inform either army before the January 8th Battle of New Orleans and was not official until ratified by Congress the following February. But when the British and American representatives sat down to a Christmas dinner of beef and plum pudding and drank toast to the health of King George and President Madison, they had a legitimate cause for celebration as the treaty initiated what has become more than two centuries of peaceful relations between the United States and Britain. But American Christmas traditions were still developing and that was well illustrated in the nearly forgotten 1826 Eggnog Riot. In 1826, in order to help Quell would have become an unruly reputation, U.S. Military Academy Superintendent Colonel Sylvanus Thayer had prohibited the purchase, storage or consumption of alcohol on campus, meaning the cadets could not enjoy what had previously been the Academy's holiday tradition, drinking highly spiked eggnog at Christmas. In violation of this rule, cadets snuck in two gallons of whiskey and a gallon of rum for a clandestine party to be held in the North Barracks. Drunken cadets then got out of control, doing property damage and harassing and assaulting Captain Ethan Allen Hancock, a faculty member who tried to restore order. In the end, nearly a third of the cadets at the Academy were involved. Twenty cadets were court-martialed and eleven were expelled. Among those implicated but not charged was Cadet Jefferson Davis, who would later become President of the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War. Reportedly, he was saved because, being among the first to get drunk, he had passed out before most of the rioting began.

Had he been expelled, preventing his military career upon which his future was derived, history may have been different. Christmas was a dismal affair for American troops in the Ardennes Forest in 1944. Germany had mounted a significant counter-attack on an area that Allied planners had thought too inhospitable to vehicles to be a point of attack.

The area was lightly defended by mostly either inexperienced troops or those that were being given arrest. The front was thrown into chaos when some 200,000 Germans with 1,000 tanks started one of the last major German offensives of the Second World War. Launching on December 16th, the apex of the battle was the siege of the important town of Bastogne, Belgium, which held crossroads critical to the German line of attack. A mixed force centered around the U.S. 101st Airborne Division was encircled and spent Christmas in the midst of one of the fiercest battles of the Western Front. While church services were held in the town, Christmas was a makeshift affair.

One soldier, so disabled by bronchitis, pleurisy and pneumonia, had to literally crawl into town as his unit could not spare men to carry him. He said that the closest he came to Christmas dinner was seeing the turkey leg the doctor was eating as he examined him. Other troops were called being offered hospitality by Belgian civilians. But one story of that Christmas sticks out, as related by Fritz Vinken, who was 12 years old the Christmas of 1944. He and his family lived on the German-Belgian border, and his father had sent he and his mother to a small hunting cabin in the Ardennes Forest thinking he would keep them safe. His father had been called into the Civil Defense Corps, but he had hoped to come to the cabin to celebrate Christmas. When Fritz heard a knock at the door on Christmas Eve, he hoped it was his father.

But instead, it was three American soldiers, one of whom was wounded. They did not speak German, but one of them spoke some French, and they were able to communicate enough with Fritz's mother, Elizabeth, to say that they had lost their unit, had been wandering the forest for days, and were out of food. Knowing that helping the enemy could be punishable by death, she let them inside.

She had a chicken and some potatoes with which to make Christmas dinner. Shortly thereafter, there was another knock on the door. When Elizabeth answered, she found four German soldiers.

Knowing the volatility of the situation, she told them they could come in only if they accepted her other guests. They were apprehensive when they saw the Americans, but she told them, This is a holy night, and there will be no shooting here. The soldiers all gave up their weapons, and that Christmas, Fritz, Elizabeth, and seven soldiers ate a meal of chicken soup and potatoes and slept in the small cabin. One of the Germans spoke English and had been a medical student. He gave the wounded American first aid, and in the morning gave the Americans directions back to their lines. It was a brief moment of peace in the midst of war. Fritz eventually immigrated to the United States, and in 1995, his story was featured on the television program, Unsolved Mysteries. And astoundingly, that episode led him to Ralph Blank, one of the soldiers who had spent that Christmas with him. The two were reunited in 1996 over a bowl of chicken soup, where they could reminisce about that extraordinary night.

Ralph passed away in 1999, and Fritz died in 2001. From everyone here at The History Guy, we wish all of our viewers, and especially those whose service keeps them away from home on this holiday, a very Merry Christmas. And a special thanks to Greg Hengler for his work on the piece, and a special thanks also to The History Guy for all he does with us. And if you're interested in seeing what he does, viewing it, my goodness, go to the YouTube channel. The History Guy, history deserves to be remembered.

An excellent place to spend time with you and your family. And by the way, some of these stories, they're just hard to listen to. That Valley Forge story, everybody thinking it was such a terrific winter. And of course, it's no duck walk winter at Valley Forge. But it was total negligence. The Congress just wasn't appropriating funds for our soldiers. And yet our soldiers, well, they marched on and lived through it and won epic victories after. And my goodness, the story of the Ardennes Forest and what happened in Bus Stone. And watch Band of Brothers and you can, well, you can relive it for yourself. What a Christmas it was for the 101st. The story of our soldiers abroad and at war and some fairly amusing ones about our soldiers here.

And of course, that's the Eggnog Riot of 1826 here on Our American Story. To learn more, visit Imagine air travel that's simple, hassle-free and fast. That's Surf Air. Save hours on every trip. Avoid busy, crowded terminals and fly from airports closer to your home.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2022-12-23 04:30:15 / 2022-12-23 04:39:11 / 9

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