Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

HistoriCon 2012: A Submariner's Life and a Gathering Storm

I must say that HistoriCon offered many more lecture opportunities than I've seen at my favorite boardgame conventions, WBC and PrezCon.  After the "Battle for Manila Bay," I turned my sights to a series of presentations by historians on topics of interest.

A Submariner's Life
Capt Edward L. Beach, Jr.
US Navy photograph
The first lecture I heard was quite near to my heart:  Dr. Edward Finch presented "A Submariner's Life: Captain Edward Beach, Jr."  I knew vaguely of Capt Beach's reputation as an author (I have an old paperback copy of his novel Cold is the Sea) and submarine captain (from brief mention in my US Navy history text for his circumnavigation of the globe as captain of USS Triton).  Dr. Finch delivered a fascinating account of Beach's family life as the son of Capt Edward L. Beach, Sr., commander of USS New York and author of a series of young adult fiction relating to naval life.  Edward Beach Jr. in turn graduated from Annapolis in 1939 and served in a distinguished career both at sea and in Washington.  Despite his aspiration to command a battleship, he was sent (without volunteering) to submarine school as a junior officer, whence followed many submarine tours, including combat patrols and a Navy Cross aboard USS Tirante.  His post-war association with then-Captain Rickover in the Bureau of Ships led to his early role in the development of the nuclear submarine fleet and his command of USS Triton, the only two-reactor submarine in the fleet and the first to cruise around the world - a trip performed in almost complete secrecy.  His feat, intended as an act of one-upmanship over the Soviet Union, was overshadowed in the press by the Francis Gary Powers incident nine days prior to Triton's return to Naval Submarine Base New London.

I was sufficiently impressed with Dr. Finch's presentation that I bought a copy of his book, Beneath the Waves: The Life and Navy of Capt Edward L. Beach Jr.  Dr. Finch was gracious enough to add an inscription to the inside flyleaf:  "In gratitude for your service in the Silent Service, Edward F. Finch.  Fair winds, following seas."  I think this lecture was the highlight of my HistoriCon trip.

A Gathering Storm Upon My Left
Later that day came a lecture by Dr. Michael Gabriel on a battle that was completely unfamiliar to me.  During the American War of Independence, British General Burgoyne advanced south from Quebec down Lake Champlain to take Albany in anticipation of meeting General Howe coming up the Hudson River valley from New York and isolating New England from the rest of the colonies.  Burgoyne captured Fort Ticonderoga at the south end of Lake Champlain without a fight, but logistical difficulties made it necessary to send a detachment under German Lt Col Friedrich Baum on a foraging mission for provisions, as well as to acquire horses for his as-yet unmounted German dragoons.

Battle of Bennington (engraving after a painting by
Alonzo Chappel) - New York Public Library
Image in public domain, dated circa 1900
Baum was challenged as a German with having to command a force consisting of German-speaking Brunswick troops, English-speaking colonials loyal to King George, French-speaking Canadians, and Indians of an unidentified tribe (presumably Iroquois, perhaps Mohawk).  He led his expedition into the "New Hampshire Grants," a then-disputed territory that is now part of Vermont.  His foray met with unexpected resistance from a force of New Hampshire militia led by General John Stark and reinforced by Massachusetts militia and Seth Warner's Green Mountain Boys.  Poor tactical deployment of Baum's defenses contributed to a Stark's successful envelopment, overrun, and capture of the Germans, Canadians, and loyalists (the native Americans having abandoned Baum's detachment to its fate).

The implications of Baum's loss were significant to Burgoyne, because it failed to alleviate his logistical problems and further delayed his assault on Albany.  The delay would allow the Continental Army to build a sufficient force to confront him at Saratoga, where, thanks in part to the heroic leadership of General Benedict Arnold, the Americans defeated the British and convinced France of the merits of joining the Americans in their war of independence.

Dr. Gabriel relied, among other sources, on pension records that document accounts by veterans present at the battle.  He provided attendees with four-page hand-outs that depict maps of the greater Lake Champlain area as well as the immediate battle site and included pictures of various locations and defenses at Bennington.  His research was quite deep and his account well-rendered.  I subsequently learned that his book, The Battle of Bennington: Soldiers and Civilians, is available from History Press.  He concluded his presentation with this quote from General Burgoyne, considering his position after the loss at Bennington and its ramifications for his campaign on Albany:  
"The New Hampshire Grants in particular now abounds in the most active and rebellious race on the continent and hangs like a gathering storm on my left."

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