May 1 Arthur Wesley, later Wellesley and 1st Duke of Wellington, born in Dublin, Ireland.
August 15 Napoleone di Buonaparte born in Ajaccio, Corsica.
July 4 Signing of The Declaration of Independence.
July 4 Birth of Horatio Hornblower.
August 5 Colonel Tobias Pennywhistle, late of the 23 Regiment of Foot, marries Patience Murray, daughter of General James Murray.
September 3 Peace of Paris is signed ending the American Revolutionary War.
November 21 First hot air balloon flight takes place in Paris in a balloon designed by the Montgolfier Brothers.
May 20 Thomas Murray Pennywhistle is born to Tobias and Patience Pennywhistle in Berwick-on- Tweed, England.
May 25 Constitutional Convention assembles in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to rewrite Articles of Confederation.
March 4 The US Constitution is considered officially ratified.
April 20 George Washington takes oath as lst President of the United States.
May 1 King Louis XVI calls the Estates General into session for the first time since 1614 because the French government is broke.
July The Estates General, led by the Third Estate, transforms itself into the General Assembly.
July14 Fall of the Bastille marks the beginning of the French Revolution.
January 1 The US undertakes the first national census by a modern government.
February 2 The French National Assembly abolishes nobility, which will have a major impact on the French Army.
April 17 Benjamin Franklin dies.
November 1 Edmund Burke publishes “Reflections on the Revolution in France” warning of dire consequences to reason and the established order.
February 20 Capitaine Napoleon Buonaparte returns to duty with the Regiment de Grenoble at Auxonne, France after a 16 month leave to clear up family affairs.
December 4 First issue of The Observer, the world’s first Sunday newspaper, is published in London, England.
December 5 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart dies.
December 15 The US Bill of Rights is ratified.
April 2 US adopts a decimal system of coinage thanks to the efforts of Thomas Jefferson.
April 20 France declares war on Austria and Prussia.
June 26 The First Coalition is formed against France.
July 30 Austria and Prussia begin an invasion of France.
August 4 The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley is born.
September 4 French forces annex Nice beginning years of campaigning in Italy.
September 20 Prussian forces are turned back at the Battle of Valmy.
October 13 The cornerstone of The White House is laid.
January 23 The French execute King Louis XVI.
February 1 France declares war on Great Britain and The Netherlands.
June 18 HMS Nymphe, 36 guns, Captain Pellew defeats Cleopatre, 36 guns, Captain Mullon, in first major single ship action of the Napoleonic Wars.
June 29 Captain Edward Pellew receives first knighthood of Napoleonic Wars.
August 22 National Convention of France calls for a Levée en masse; first use of military conscription to build a large, truly national army.
September 5 The Terror begins; the widespread and indiscriminate executions of nobles.
September 10 Major Justin du Motier, Lafayette’s cousin, is scheduled for execution but escapes to England where he becomes Thomas Pennywhistle’s tutor.
October 21 Napoleon is promoted battalion commander and placed in charge of the artillery defending Toulon against English and Spanish besiegers. He succeeds in forcing them to evacuate and attracts national attention.
February 6 Napoleon is promoted to Brigadier General and placed in command of the artillery of The Army of Italy.
March 14 Eli Whitney is granted a patent for his cotton gin which will make widespread cultivation of cotton profitable.
June 1 “The Glorious First of June” is the first fleet action of the Napoleonic Wars. The British score a major victory over French warships, but they fail to capture the accompanying convoy of civilian grain transports carrying American wheat to a starving France. The Revolution survives.
September 15 Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Wellesley sees his first combat at the Battle of Boxtel in Flanders.
January 14 The University of North Carolina, the first public university in the United States, opens its doors.
April 7 The Metric System is adopted by The French Government.
October 26 Napoleon is appointed commander of The Army of The Interior.
October 31 The poet John Keats is born.
November 2 The Executive Directory assumes control of The French Government.
March 2 Napoleon is made commander of the Army of Italy. The short, skinny 26 year old will take a starving, defeatist army and transform it into a magnificent fighting force. The Italian Campaign he will fight with it over the next two years will make his reputation as one of the great commanders of military history.
October 6 Spain switches sides, allies herself with France, and declares war on Great Britain.
November 15-17 Napoleon wins a great victory in the Battle of Arcola.
February 2 The British Fleet defeats the Spanish Fleet off Cape St. Vincent. Commodore Horatio Nelson disobeys orders to bring about the victory resulting in national fame and a knighthood.
February 26 The Bank of England issues its first One Pound and Two Pound paper notes.
May-June Mutinies erupt in the British Fleets at Spithead and the Nore, chiefly over pay issues.
July 7 Americans rescind all treaties with France, resulting in a two year Quasi War fought chiefly at sea.
September 4 Coup d’etat of 18th Frutidor topples the French Government.
October 17 Napoleon forces Austria to sue for peace with Treaty of Campio Formio.
October 18 British Fleet defeats the Dutch Fleet at the Battle of Camperdown.
April 12 Napoleon leaves France to attack Egypt. Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson narrowly misses intercepting his invasion fleet at sea.
July 2 French assault Alexandria, Egypt
July 12 Napoleon defeats Mamelukes at Battle of The Pyramids.
August 1 Nelson annihilates The French Fleet at anchor at the Battle of the Nile.
December 29 Great Britain forms Second Coalition of nations against France.
May 21 Napoleon abandons siege of Acre, thanks largely to the efforts of British Commodore Sir Sidney Smith.
July 25 Napoleon defeats Turks at Aboukir.
October 9 Napoleon returns to France.
November 10 The Directory is abolished in the Coup of Brumiere.
December 14 Napoleon is named First Counsel; in effect, a military dictator.
December 14 George Washington dies.
April 5 Austria begins war against France in Italy.
June 14 Napoleon defeats the Austrians at Marengo ending hostilities in Italy.
September 5 Great Britain captures Malta from France.
January 1 The Act of Union formally binds Ireland to Great Britain, forming the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. A Union Flag, consisting of the crosses of St. George, St. Andrew, and St. Patrick, is introduced to mark the new entity.
March 10 First official census of Great Britain.
April 8 Nelson defeats Danish Fleet at Copenhagen.
March 27 Peace of Amiens ratified ending the war between France and Great Britain.
August 2 Napoleon proclaimed First Counsel for life.
October 15 France invades Switzerland.
November 30 Thomas Murray Pennywhistle commissioned as 2nd lieutenant in The Royal Marines.
January 4 The first truly practical steamboat, the Charlotte Dundas, makes her maiden voyage in Scotland.
April 30 Louisiana Purchase; United States buys it from Napoleon and the Republic doubles in size.
May 20 War breaks out between Great Britain and France.
May 19 Creation of the first Marshals of France.
December 2 Napoleon is crowned Emperor of France.
December 12 Spain allies itself to Napoleon and declares war on Great Britain.
April 11 Formation of TheThird Coalition against France
August 25 Grande Armée abandons invasion plans for Great Britain and departs their camps near Boulogne for central Europe.
October 19 Austrian General Mack surrenders Ulm and 50, 000 men to Napoleon.
October 21 Admiral Nelson dies but destroys the combined French and Spanish Fleet at Trafalgar. It is Thomas Pennywhistle’s first battle as a Royal Marine officer.
December 2 Napoleon defeats combined Austrian and Russian Army at Austerlitz.
December 26 Austria signs peace treaty with France.
January 23 Death of William Pitt the Younger, longest serving British Prime Minister.
August 7 Fourth Coalition formed against France.
October 14 Prussians defeated at twin battles of Jena and Auerstadt.
October 27 Napoleon enters Prussian capital of Berlin.
November 21 Napoleon closes Europe to British shipping.
November 28 French troops enter Warsaw.
February 8 French flight bloody but inconclusive battle with Russians at Eylau.
March 25 British abolish slave trade in Great Britain.
June 14 French decisively defeat Russians at Friedland.
July 7 Treaty of Tilsit, ending French hostilities with Russians and Prussians.
September 8 British fight Battle of Copenhagen and seize Danish Fleet.
November 30 French troops under Marshal Junot occupy Lisbon.
March 23 French troops occupy Madrid.
June 16 Joseph Bonaparte is proclaimed King of Spain setting off widespread revolt.
August 1 Arthur Wellesley lands at Mondego Bay, at head of British Army sent to help Portugal.
October 30 The French evacuate Portugal.
November 4 Napoleon arrives in Spain at head of 125,000 troops.
December 22 Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony premieres in Vienna.
December 25 A badly outnumbered British Army under Sir John Moore retreats to Corunna where it is evacuated by The Royal Navy.
April 9 Fifth Coalition against France is proclaimed.
May 13 Napoleon enters Vienna.
May 21-22 Napoleon suffers check at Battle of Aspern-Essling.
July 5-6 Napoleon decisively defeats the Austrians at Wagram.
July 27-28 Wellesley beats the French at the Battle of Talavera in Spain.
July 29 A British Army lands at Walachren in The Netherlands. It withdraws on December 2 because of heavy losses due to malaria.
April 2 Napoleon marries Marie Louise, daughter of the Austrian Emperor, by whom he eventually has a son.
September 27 Wellesley, now Wellington, defeats Marshal Massena at Battle of Busaco.
March 13 Thomas Pennywhistle fights at Battle of Lissa where a squadron of British frigates defeats a squadron of French frigates.
May 3-5 Wellington defeats French at Battle of Fuentes d’Onoro.
October 30 Jane Austen’s first novel, “Sense and Sensibility” is published.
November 29 Captain Thomas Pennywhistle serving as head of the Royal Marines on HMS Active helps defeat the French frigate Pomone.
January 19 British storm and capture Ciudad Rodrigo.
April 6-7 British storm and capture Badjahoz.
June 14 The United States declares war on Great Britain.
June 24 Napoleon crosses Nieman River into Russia; it is the largest invasion of history with over 600,000 men.
July 6 First installment of Byron’s long poem, “ Childe Harold,” is published.
July 23 Pennywhistle fights under Wellington as he smashes Marmont at the Battle of Salamanca.
August 16 The British capture Detroit.
August 19 USS Constitution defeats HMS Guerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia.
September 7 Napoleon narrowly wins Battle of Borodino, the bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic Wars.
September 14 Napoleon enters Moscow.
October 13 British defeat Americans at Battle of Queenston Heights, on the Niagara frontier.
October 19 French evacuate Moscow.
October 25 USS United States defeats HMS Macedonian off the coast of Africa.
December 14 The last rearguard of the French Army crosses the Niemen River out of Russia. Napoleon brings back fewer than 50,000 survivors of his original 600,000.
December 29 USS Constitution defeats HMS Java off the coast of Brazil.
January 28 Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” is published.
March 6 French forces cross the Elbe, fleeing westward.
April 13 The Americans burn York, the capital of Upper Canada.
May 1 Employing hastily raised forces, Napoleon opens a new offensive in Germany.
May 2 Napoleon drives back Prussian and Russian forces at Lautzen.
May 21-22 Napoleon defeats a combined Russian and Prussian army at Bautzen.
May 27 The French evacuate Madrid.
June 21 Wellington decisively beats King Joseph’s Army at Vitoria.
October 16-18 Napoleon defeated at Leipzig. Called “the battle of the nations, it was the largest battle of the Napoleonic War, involving over 500,000 men.
November 10 Wellington defeats Soult at the Battle of the Nivelle and crosses into France.
December 18 The British capture Fort Niagara.
December 22 Elements of the Russian and Prussian armies cross into France.
March 31 French troops in Paris surrender to Russians and Prussians.
April 6 Napoleon abdicates.
April 17 Soult surrenders to Wellington after losing Battle of Toulouse, officially ending the Peninsular War.
June 15 “Waverly,” Sir Walter Scott’s first novel, is published.
August 24-25 British defeat Americans at Bladensburg then capture and burn Washington, D.C.
September 5 Representatives of most European powers great and small meet at the Congress of Vienna to try to hammer out a peace for the post Napoleonic era.
September 15 British naval and land attack on Baltimore is repulsed.
December 24 Peace Treaty is signed at Ghent, ending the War of 1812.
January 8 British defeated by Americans at Battle of New Orleans, the largest battle of the War of 1812. Word had not yet reached America of the peace signed three weeks before.
February 26 Napoleon escapes from exile on Elba.
March 1 Napoleon lands in France.
March 14 Representatives of most of Europe, assembled at the Congress of Vienna, declare Napoleon an outlaw and mobilize troops.
March 20 Napoleon enters Paris.
June 18 Napoleon defeated at Waterloo by British and Allied forces led by the Duke of Wellington.
October 24 Napoleon begins permanent exile on the Island of St Helena in the south Atlantic. Used as a stopover by the British East India Company, it is 700 miles from the nearest land.
May 5 Napoleon dies.
The musical “Hamilton” is the toast of Broadway and has renewed interest in the life
of America’s first Secretary of the Treasury. But quite as remarkable as Alexander
Hamilton’s life was the manner of his death. He perished in 1804 in the most famous
duel in American History. His untimely demise stimulated noisy if unsuccessful calls
for the practice of dueling to be ended once and for all, even though it had long been
illegal in both the United States and Great Britain. Dueling existed outside the law;
it provided quick, dramatic, and effective remedies that were either unavailable in
courts or simply beyond their purview. Duels were for private quarrels involving
gentlemen. No low born man dared issue a challenge nor would he ever receive
one; horse-whippings or canings administered by their betters sufficed as
impromptu justice for the riff raff. A duel furnished a gentleman a chance to
publically display resolve, sang froid, and courage in the defense of that
most sacred of well-born causes: personal honor. How a man performed in
a duel could make or break his reputation. A woman of substance might
well ask a man she was considering as a husband, “have you blazed yet, sir?”
A gentleman’s personal honor could be easily transgressed by a wide variety of
offenses. Usual causes of duels were perceived slanders, libels, disrespectful
language, or simply careless words delivered in a public venue. Alcohol was
often a factor; heavy drinking was common among gentlemen. A slight might
be ignored if the offender were falling down intoxicated; “in wine” was the
contemporary term. Call a gentleman a coward, a cheat, a liar or a scoundrel to his face or in print and that individual would have no recourse but to issue a challenge. The same would apply if those insults were directed toward a man’s family, a good friend, or woman of quality. Even subtlety implying the honor of a gentleman or his in-laws was tarnished in any way, would likely result in the speaker being called out.
Officers whose guiding ideal was to be the classic sans peur et sans reproache leader were even punctilious about honor than civilian gentlemen. Although routinely threatened with courts- martial and cashiering for a practice long considered injurious to military discipline, officers still contrived to fight frequent duels. Accusations of cowardice and battlefield incompetence were the chief causes but non- combat issues figured in as well; cheating at cards, unpaid gambling debts, adultery with the wrong woman, or sexual deviancy. The Duke of Wellington ruthlessly cashiered officers caught dueling during the Peninsular War, but even his iron will could not stamp out the practice entirely. In the US Navy of the late 1790’s, the leading cause of death of midshipmen was from duels.
It was the height of insubordination and folly to challenge a commanding officer, yet a few did so. Colonel Josiah Snelling of the 5th US Infantry was challenged by one of his lieutenants over an unflattering remark about his character; blurted out during an alcohol fueled a game of cards. Rather than summarily arresting the lieutenant as was normal practice, the combative Snelling accepted his invitation. The duel was called off when Snelling showed up too fuddled to stand. He suffered from painful, unhealed wounds from the War of 1812 and overmedicated himself with laudanum balls on the day of the duel.
Duels were also fought over arguments which seem shockingly trivial to the modern perspective; whether a horse could be trained in three days, if a parrot understood what it spoke, or what breed of dog made the best retriever. When two Newfoundland dogs got into a fight in Hyde Park, their owners, Colonel Montgomery of the British Army and Captain MacNamara of the Royal Navy argued violently as to which of the beasts had started the affray. A challenge was issued and Colonel Montgomery died in the duel. Macnamara was prosecuted but acquitted in court. One of his character witnesses was Lord Nelson.
A duel was fought between a Captain Smith and a General Barry over a goblet of wine. While on board a packet crossing the Irish Sea, Barry declined Smith’s offer of wine, believing his sea sickness would be worsened by alcohol. Smith believed the real reason was that Barry considered him of too low a character to drink with, which naturally demanded a challenge. Both pistols fortunately misfired when the duel was fought.
Lord Kilmours, a hard of hearing Englishman, talked loudly in a French theatre at the height of a performance. An annoyed French officer asked him several times to be quiet. When the Englishman did not respond, the French officer issued him a challenge after the performance. Despite the friends of both men trying to explain Kilmours deafness, neither man would back down. The duel was fatal to Kilmours.
A Major Green of the British Army landed in New York in 1818 on his way to garrison duty at Fort York in Upper Canada. On his first night in the city, he visited a theatre owned by a certain Mr. Price. The major ignored the performance of Macbeth, and spent most of his time lasciviously eyeing the women in the audience. Mr. Price cautioned him after the performance that while such behavior was acceptable in England, it was not so in the United States. Green politely apologized, saying he was unacquainted with the customs of the country.
Green proceeded to his Canadian posting, but months later word reached him that Price had been boasting to friends that he had overawed a pompous British officer and taught him a lesson in manners. Green’s fellow officers said such an insult should not be left unanswered.
Green journeyed back to New York and issued a challenge to Price. The first shots were fired from fifteen paces, but both parties missed. Green asked through his seconds if the next shot might be fired from six paces. Price’s seconds agreed. Price fell dead during the next exchange, shot through the head.
Swords and pistols were the preferred weapons but in theory almost anything could be used if the principals agreed. Duels were fought with such odd things as billiard balls, crossbows, and even muskets loaded with buckshot. The most extraordinary duel occurred over the skies of Paris and involved duelists in separate hot air balloons each wielding a blunderbuss. One duelist punctured his adversaries’ balloon and sent his opponent plunging 8500 feet to his death. Swords were considered the more aristocratic weapons and were favored in the 17th century, but as pistols shrank in size and increased in efficiency, “barking irons” largely supplanted blades by the mid eighteenth century.
The classic dueling pistol had a curved butt with a checkered grip, was roughly 16 inches in length, and weighed in the neighborhood of 2.5 pounds. The Damascus steel barrel was generally 9-10 inches long; octagonal, unrifled, and usually, though not always, bereft of sights. Rifling and sights were considered unnecessary since a duel was usually fought at between ten and fifteen paces distance; roughly 25 to 38 feet. Calibers varied, but most were between .50 and .60. In the early 19th century, double set triggers began to be allowed; Alexander Hamilton had one on his pistol and his inexperience with it may have caused his pistol to discharge prematurely.
Dueling pistols were superbly balanced. Aiming for more than three seconds was considered bad form so pistols were designed to come quickly and easily to the point. Such pistols were tributes to a gunsmith’s skill as well his artistic aspirations; some featured gold chasing on the barrels, elaborately engraved brass escutcheon plates, and stocks of exotic woods such as ebony. Pistols were made in pairs to ensure that both men using them in a duel had exactly the same weapons. Cases for pistols and their accoutrements such as powder flasks, cleaning rods, shot holders, and measuring cups, were usually of fine mahogany lined with green baize. Possession of such a case marked a man as a gentlemen and it became a prized heirloom to be passed to future generations.
Duels followed a strict code of etiquette. Despite being illegal, juries were reluctant to convict duelists of murder as long as proper forms had been scrupulously followed. The Code Duello, penned in Ireland in 1777, merely formalized and put to paper what had long been done in practice. Ireland was an unsurprising choice for such a written code since dueling there was almost a national mania. Tipperarry, Roscommon, and Sligo had refined the art of pistol dueling to perfection, while Galway had done the same for swords.
When a gentleman felt insulted, the Code decreed that he should react with cool restraint rather than rippling anger. Needless to say, this ideal was often ignored. In theory, the wronged gentleman would offer his offender an opportunity to retract, recant, or apologize. Failing that, he could issue a challenge directly and with manly dignity. Slapping a man in the face with a glove is a Hollywood conceit and would have indicated the challenger was acting from hot, fevered blood rather than cool, informed honor. It was considered even more gentlemanly to simply inform the offender that he would soon be called upon by the offended person’s second. This gave time for tempers to cool.
The second would inform the challengee of the exact nature of the offense and ask him if differences might be reconciled with the second’s principal. If not and the challenge was accepted, the second’s of both parties would meet to work out the details of the duel.
The challenged had the choice of weapons and location; the challenger had the choice of the distance over which the duel would be fought. If the challenged specified swords and the challenger could legitimately state he had no skill with them, seconds usually worked out some form of accommodation.
The seconds were also charged with making sure a qualified surgeon was present to immediately attend to any wounds.
Duels were usually fought in the early morning and in out of the way locations to escape the attention of the law. Every city had its unofficial dueling grounds. For New York, it was Weehawken Heights in New Jersey; Alexander Hamilton fell there. For Washington, it was the village of Bladensburg; Commodore Stephen Decatur, the US Navy’s brightest light, was fatally wounded there. For New Orleans, arguably the dueling capital of the United States, it was beneath the towering oaks of Bayou Metaire. Between 1834 and 1844 scarcely a day went by when a duel was not fought there.
Duelists knew fragments of wool or cotton forced into a body by a bullet were the chief causes of sepsis and so usually wore shirts of silk. Silk carried far less risk of infection and its threads were easier to locate with a surgeon’s probe. White was the preferred color since blood stood out in bold relief and wounds could be quickly identified.
Before the duel commenced, seconds asked the parties one final time if they could not compose their differences. Occasionally they did and the duel ended before it started. Usually, this was merely a formality.
The seconds of both duelists loaded the pistols in sight of each other to ensure there was no cheating. They then handed the weapons to their principals. A few duels were fought in the Hollywood manner; duelists starting back to back with pistol arms raised then marching ten paces in opposite directions to a cadence carefully called by one of the seconds. At the count of ten, both men turned and fired.
Most duels simply had the men stand at a prearranged distance, facing each other. At a signal, such as the dropping of a handkerchief, both men fired. If one or both men fell, the duel usually ended there. A clean miss on the part of both parties might occasion a second firing if that had been agreed upon by the seconds in advance. A misfire counted as a shot and it was considered unsporting to re-cock a piece and try a second time.
A man who wished to show courage, satisfy honor, yet not injure his opponent would delope; simply fire his pistol into the air or ground. If the other duelist had not yet fired, he would usually return the compliment by following suit. Only a vindictive and ungallant opponent would shoot to kill.
Modern statistical analysis shows only about 20% of duels resulted in fatalities. Most duels ended after one exchange of fire or when blood was first drawn. According to The Dueling Handbook published in Britain in 1829, a duelist had a 1 in 6 chance of being wounded and a 1 in 14 chance of dying.
Most gentlemen never fought a duel and those who did typically fought only one or two. A few developed a taste for it and constantly provoked opportunities to display their courage and skills. These professional duelists inspired fear from most, admiration from some, and scorn from contemporary moralists. They bore nicknames such as Hundred Duel Dick, Blazing Bob, and Feather Spring Ned. The foremost duelist in the United States, a man named McClung, triumphed in more than 150 encounters, but saved the last bullet for himself, dying a suicide.
What killed the duel once and for all was the triumph of Victorian morality in Britain and the United States. Growing religiosity, reformist zeal, a rising secular nationalism, and an increasingly effective and far reaching government all militated against personal violence and special modes of justice. Laws formerly circumvented came to be enforced vigorously; courts firmly demanded gentlemen settle their differences with words not weapons. Duels were reckoned immoral, wasteful, unpatriotic affairs that robbed a country of power by stealing some of its most stalwart hearts. Fighting for honor became the sole province of properly enlisted military forces opposing foreign enemies. Private violence could no longer be allowed to impair public safety and or vitiate the primacy of the state. The good of the many finally came to outweigh the honor of the few.Duels lost their glamour and stylishness. They became hopelessly déclassé and the antithesis of conduct expected of a proper Victorian gentleman. By the late 1860’s, the few on both sides of the Atlantic who fought duels were seen as outlaws; selfish ruffians rather than patriotic men of honor. Such men were quickly identified and successfully prosecuted. The last vestige of the duel, the classic fast draw faceoff on a long dusty street in the Old West, was largely a myth created by film makers; only one well documented historical instance can be found. Personal honor brought the duel into existence, but a widespread commitment to a well ordered national honor sealed its extinction.
Historical military fiction means excitement, adventure, and derring-do; brave men testing their martial prowess under great pressure and facing long odds; warriors showing their best when things are at their worst. While such tales are entertaining, even inspiring, the guts and glory approach often blinds writers to a far more subtle contest waged before a soldier even set foot upon the battlefield. That was the struggle against dirt, disease, and diet. That triumvirate proved far more lethal than bullets and bayonets in 18th and 19th century warfare. It was not until the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 that the majority of men died from injuries incident to battle.
The general standard of hygiene in most military encampments of the 18th and 19th centuries was abominably low. Dirt and filth lurked everywhere. Meat might lay exposed to sun and cloaked with flies for hours before being cooked. Garbage was often not buried but piled high, choking the space between tents. Latrines designed to service the needs of hundreds of men were usually remarkably small; a typical regimental one was 12 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 8 feet deep. They filled quickly and their contents often overflowed and seeped into the surrounding water table. They were supposed to be dug at least 150 paces from the regimental assembly line and at least 100 paces away from the camp kitchens, but those regulations were often ignored.
Soldiers seldom bathed. Their bodies were often layered with dust and grime and their hair hung lank and greasy. The lower classes who furnished the bulk of armies believed that the total immersion of the body in water for purposes of cleanliness somehow weakened a person’s constitution; those special occasions were few and far between. The middle and upper classes who furnished the bulk of officers were far more open to full and frequent bathing. Still it took a honey tongued officer to persuade his men to take a group bath when a convenient river or stream presented itself.
Muskets might be burnished bright, straps pipe-clayed gleaming white, and boots smartly blacked but a private soldier’s uniform was often dirty and lice infested. Uniform replacements were issued infrequently, at uncertain intervals, so uniforms were often patched and worn long after they should have been discarded. Lice bred freely and every morning soldiers gathered in groups to rid each other of the pests. Yet hidden eggs hatched and by the end of the day the problem was back. Holding their clothes over campfires caused whole regiments of the nasty creatures to leap into the flames, exploding like kernels of popcorn, but often left the already threadbare clothing badly singed.
The only truly effective remedy was boiling the uniforms in heavily salted water. This wiped out the lice but was very hard on already tattered uniforms and so was not done nearly often enough.
Lice carried typhus, a deadly disease, but far from the only one which plagued soldiers. Armies were cities in themselves, far larger than most, but without any built in municipal safeguards for health. Thus armies served as force multipliers for disease. Dysentery and Typhoid were common killers, usually arising from drinking polluted water; often caused when fecal matter from the latrines penetrated hastily dug regimental wells or seeped into a local stream used for drinking water. Flies who had been feeding on dead men and horses bore all manner of diseases; in low lying swampy areas, clouds of mosquitoes carried malaria. Prolonged diarrhea, caused by poor food and bad water, was a surprisingly common killer, doing its deadly work through simple dehydration.
So called childhood diseases, measles and chicken pox, proved fatal to many. Generally men from cities and towns were far more resistant to them than men who came from farms and rural areas.
Disease carried out its own seasoning process; truly survival of the fittest. If a new recruit could survive his first six months of being exposed to new diseases, his chances of survival in the months and years ahead improved greatly.
But even seasoned recruits were often plagued with non fatal sickness. In Nature’s Civil War; Common Soldiers and the Environment, Professor Katheryn Shivley Meier estimates that at any given time, 20-30 percent of the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac during the Seven Day’s Battles were on the sick list. Typical maladies were fever, ague, and dyspepsia. This correlates well with Wellington’s observation that usually thirty percent of his Peninsular army was on the sick list. It should also be remembered that many soldiers who were ill declined to allow themselves to be placed on the sick list. That usually had to do with both personal fortitude and a fear of army medical men.
A great distinction must therefore be made between an army’s official size and the number of men actually fit enough for combat. The later was always significantly less than the former.
Poor diet weakened soldier’s resistance to disease. Not only was the food often rancid, rotten, or close to ruination, but it was often delivered at only uncertain intervals. Even in such relatively well supplied armies as Wellington’s and The Army of the Potomac, food supplies were often interrupted and soldiers frequently went hungry.
During the retreat from Burgos in 1813, supply trains missed Wellington’s Army and the men were reduced to eating acorns stolen from surrounding fields. During the fast moving marches of the Gettysburg Campaign, the Army of the Potomac frequently outpaced its lumbering supply trains.
Prolonged hunger burst even the most draconian bonds of discipline. Dr. Edward Coss in his book, All for the King’s Shilling, avers that even when supplies arrived regularly, the men of Wellington’s Peninsular Army were simply not receiving enough calories to sustain fifteen miles a day of hard marching. He estimates the average British soldier in the Peninsular War received roughly 2500 calories per day. That compares poorly with the 5,000 per day Royal Navy sailors got and the 6,000 enjoyed by Roman Legionnaires. Even threats of heavy flogging or death failed to deter British soldiers from the commands of their empty stomachs.
Not only was the food often of poor quality, it was often deficient in the vitamins and minerals modern medicine deems important to good health. Fruits and vegetables were always in short supply. Scurvy, a disease that caused debility, depression and eventually death was caused by a deficiency of vitamin C. It’s solution, anti scorbutics delivered via lemons and limes had been well known since the late 18th century. Yet because of supply problems, it continued to plague armies right up until the end of the American Civil War.
Deficiencies of Niacin caused outbreaks of Pellagra, resulting in severe digestion problems and difficulties in fully metabolizing foods. Men afflicted with this often had pallid complexions, moved listlessly, and suffered mood swings. The problem was easily cured with fortified cereal products but the bread used by armies of the time was often made of the cheapest flour that had been stripped of much of its nutritional value.
Poor food and unvaried diet were also responsible for outbreaks of diarrhea’s opposite number; constipation. It did not result in death but often contributed to poor performance and the development of painful hemorrhoids. Hemorrhoids were a particular problem for cavalry, long hours in the saddle resulting in excruciating pain.
A very bad case of hemorrhoids afflicted Napoleon during the Battle of Waterloo. He was certainly not at his best during that battle and his painful piles may have affected his judgment. Even the best commanders are prisoners of their bodies.
It is certainly more fun to read about heroic soldiers performing brave deeds at the peak of their game than it is to endure a tale of starving, pain-ridden, diseased foot sloggers barely stumbling through a battle. Historical fiction is meant to furnish readers a good time and entertain with grand possibilities; what could, should, or might have been.
Still, I think the best historical fiction is built a solid basis of well researched reality. That reality should include the understanding that the greatest struggles of 18th and 19th century soldiers were not against an enemy armies, but against nature and the environment. The great majority of soldiers fought their most lethal battles well away from any so called fields of glory and died long before bullets flew or cannons thundered. Those deaths were merely sad, not heroic. Expiring from measles could in no way compare to an inspirational extinction leading a column of men storming a fortress, but the man was just as dead.
” A true story:” the three most misleading words that ever appeared on movie screens. They generally
mean two thirds of what you will see in the next two hours is pleasant fantasy; a mass of fictional muscle
and sinew superimposed on a thin skeleton of truth. The purpose of movies is to entertain and amuse,
not inform, yet those weasel words grant the audience leave to uncritically believe that events defying
credibility could actually have occurred. Counterfeit doubloons are best hidden in a treasure chest full
of real ones. Active's Measure is unequivocally a work of fiction, yet key elements and people in the
story were real. The book was inspired by a painting now hanging in the National Maritime Museum in
Toulon, France. It is titled "Pomone versus Active, Alceste, and Unite" and was painted by in 1837 by
Pierre Julien Gilbert. It is a stunning work that features the naval battle portrayed at the end of the
book. It is easily googled. Although Tom Pennywhistle is fictional, three of the important figures in
the book lived and left a mark on history. Sir William Hoste was one of Britain's most underrated
naval heroes and is the subject of a fine biography, “Remember Nelson” by Tom Pocock. James
Alexander Gordon later figured prominently in the British attack on Washington in 1814. Bernard
Dubordieu earned a place of honor in French naval history
for being one of the few Napoleonic captains to capture a British frigate in single ship combat. I have endeavored to reconstruct their personalities as accurately as possible.
All of the ships and their captains featured in the book existed. British lieutenants Moore, Meers, Haye, Dashwood, O’Brien, and Slaughter were real figures as well. Sadly, research uncovered only the vague outlines of their personalities and I have imposed my own speculations about the rest.
Most fictional heroes are idealized versions of their creators: better, smarter, braver alter egos. Tom Pennywhistle performs the same wish fulfillment tasks for me that James Bond did for Ian Fleming and Horatio Hornblower did for C.S. Forester. That being said, I drew heavily on the backgrounds, character traits, and behaviors of two authentic heroes. Captain Thomas Inch was a Royal Marine of Pennywhistle’s era who was often mentioned in dispatches for his heroism, He was also remarked upon for his humanity toward his men and chivalric nature. David Sterling was a more contemporary figure, a truly amazing man of many parts and achievements. He founded and was the guiding hand behind the world’s first, and arguably best, special operations group: The Special Air Service. He originated the SAS motto which might well have been Pennywhistle’s own: “who dares, wins.”
Both men were exceptionally tall at 6’ 3 and 6’5 respectively and both were Scotsmen. They were direct, plain spoken, utterly devoid of brag or swagger, and blessed with great dash and resourcefulness. Their ingenious plans typically kept the butcher’s bill low. They were rapiers when most officers were bludgeons.
Pennywhistle’s chief antagonist, Rene LeMere, is fictional but his character is loosely modeled on the only one of Napoleon’s Marshal’s to pluck some success from the Spanish debacle: Louis Gabriel Suchet.
A number of events in the book occurred, although parts have been altered and improved for the enjoyment of readers. Bernard Cornwell once averred that when the writer of historical fiction is faced with a choice of slavishly reconstructing an event to please scholars or amending his prose to please the imaginations of readers, he should always choose the latter. Dudley Pope went so far as to state that a too accurate reconstruction of events actually impeded an author’s imagination. Historians record what was; fiction writers tell stories of what could, should, or might have been. A writer may also do as JMW Turner did with his great but inaccurate painting of Trafalgar; sacrifice some small truths about the body of an event in the greater interest of capturing its soul.
The opening raid on Groa, now Grado, Italy, really happened on June 28, 1810 and a 25 ship convoy was captured. In actuality, it was a very minor affair and the shooting could at best be called a light skirmish. The town was never burned and today is a very pleasant beach resort. Dubordieu did stage a major raid on the dockyard at Lissa. The naval Battle of Lissa was an important affair that very strangely has never received its just due from British Naval historians. The concluding battle between Active and Pomone was a sanguinary contest and Captain Gordon, though victorious, really did lose his leg.
HMS Active no longer exists but one well preserved English frigate does. HMS Trincomalee in Hartlepool, England was constructed in 1817 and never saw battle, but was built to almost exactly the same Leda class specifications as Active. Other than being built of Indian teak instead of English oak, she could be Active's twin. She is well worth a visit.
The most important truth in the book is Pennywhistle’s universe. I have labored long and hard to make that as accurate as possible. Not just about the small details of everyday life, but the sights, sounds, and sensations of Napoleonic warfare both on land and at sea. My prose is based on both research and my experiences of actually having lived a facsimile of the period.
As a college student, I worked summers playing the part of an 1827 soldier at historic Fort Snelling. At its founding , it was the US Army’s northernmost outpost. The US soldier of 1827 used the same equipment the army had employed in our little corner of the Napoleonic Wars: the national misadventure known as the War of 1812.
The first musket I used was actually a veteran of that conflict. It was a product of the original American arsenal in Massachusetts; the American knockoff of the Charleville model 1777, the one the French favored from Valmy to Waterloo. Its battered lock plate bore the hall marks, “Springfield, 1812.” It took two weeks for someone in authority to figure out such a rare piece had no business being fired for the tourists and should be replaced with a replica. But it had served its purpose. I had literally held history in my hands. It forged a physical and emotional connection to the past I have never forgotten.
Five days a week, I fired the weapons, executed the drill, and ate period food from the Fort’s kitchens. A word to the wise; don’t eat fresh baked bread hot out of the ovens. Give it twenty minutes. Some of the old time yeast are occasionally still active for a few minutes after baking. They can give you an impressive belly ache!
I had an eye brow singed off from the flash of a neighboring pan, a finger cut from trying to fix a bayonet too quickly, and an ear top blistered during two rank volley fire.
I learned what it meant to do everything to the beat of a drum. I learned that having the flat of a sword administered to your backside for slackness in drill, even if done gently, stings. I learned what it meant to wear a heavy blue wool uniform and ungainly shako in blistering July heat. More than anything, I learned the importance of drinking lots of water!
On weekends, when we had a full crew of twenty, we did all of the fancy wheeling movements that the tourists loved. We had a six pounder cannon which we fired twice daily. Off duty and with the enlightened connivance of certain members of the Minnesota Historical Society, a number of us took the muskets and cannon out to a remote country range and fired them with live rounds. The effect of a six pounder firing double rounds of canister at a battered old Chevy must be seen to be believed. Canister is a splendid weapon if you are not fussy.
Still, everything I experienced was theatre of sorts, very useful to a writer, yet light years away from the terror of real combat. I never deluded myself that playing a soldier was remotely close to fighting as a soldier. I sometimes felt like the lab coated actor in the classic television commercial for a pain relief product: “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on tv.” There is an enormous difference between participating in a pleasant-spirited adult version of “let’s pretend” and facing a battle line of fierce, determined men whose main purpose in life is to end yours. At the conclusion of the day, I did not have to listen to the cries of the wounded begging for water and pleading for their mothers. I merely had to change into comfortable clothing, drive home in an air conditioned car, and conclude the day with a long shower and hot meal.
A fine book on the physical experience of combat, from ancient times to modern Iraq, is “The Last Full Measure: How Men Die in Battle,” by Michael Stephenson.
It is important to remember that even after careful research, our knowledge of the minutiae of the Napoleonic Era still contains large gaps. Much of the ordinary of everyday life has simply been lost to history. Even with the best intentions and the strictest scholarship, the reconstruction of the past will necessarily be imperfect at best.
Sometimes a writer of historical fiction can discover no valid answer to a thorny question and must simply make an educated guess and hope for the best. People two centuries from our time will surely wonder what the blazes a cd player was and how laser technology scanned the disks.
I have carefully tried to avoid the great temptation to romanticize, sanitize, and engage in selective amnesia about the past; to imagine a distant era was somehow more noble and agreeable than the present one. It is a trap from which few current historic sites escape; naturally enough, they want to be attractive to tourists. Stroll the charming streets of Colonial Williamsburg and unlike its 18th century inhabitants, your feet will not be menaced by large, steaming piles of horse excrement. When heavy rains hit, the Duke of Gloucester Street no longer turns into a river of mud. Enjoy a meal at Chowning's Tavern and your food will be served on squeaky clean plates unburdened by any flies.
For those readers who would like to learn more about Napoleonic warfare on land, I recommend “Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon’’ by Rory Muir. For battle at sea, the best work is “Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century” by Sam Willis. Both are scholarly works yet surprisingly very readable. Much of the information in the books is the product of contemporary research and was simply not available to writers such as C.S Forester and Patrick O’ Brien. I relied heavily on both.
For a highly entertaining introduction to French Army of the period, I highly recommend “Swords Around A Throne” by the witty, acerbic, opinioned John R. Elting. For the Royal Navy of the same period, a fine book is “Nelson’s Navy” by Brian Lavery.
One final work deserves mention, “Steering to Glory” by Nicholas Blake. It is a very thorough and riveting description of a day in the life of a fictional ship of the line. Not a day of battle, but a very ordinary day filled with those little things that altered and illuminated sailor’s lives. It is from careful observation and reflection upon the everyday that both good history and good literature begin.
This is the painting that inspired my book, "Active's Measure" Titled "Pomone versus Active, Alceste, and Unite" it was painted in 1837 by noted French maritime artist Pierre Julien Gilbert and hangs in the National Maritime Museum in Toulon, France. HMS Active is the British ship in the foreground and Pomone is the dismasted hulk being pounded by her broadside. The November, 1811 engagement is fully described in "Active's Measure" Reproductions of the painting can be obtained at zazzle.com. HMS Active no longer exists, but a ship very like her does. HMS Trincomalee, a Leda class frigate like Active can be seen in Hartlepool England. She is well worth a visit.
For people curious about the name Pennywhistle, it actually is a real English surname, albeit a most uncommon one. The first recorded use of it occurred in 1220, in reference to an English knight, Sir Geoffrey Pennywhistle, who died fighting the Scots at Bannockburn. Little is known about him but he had descendants who again fought the Scots, this time more successfully, at Flodden in 1513. By the time of Henry VIII, the Pennywhistle's were key gentleman retainers of the Percy family. The Percy's of Northumberland, with their seat at Alnwick Castle( pronounced "Annick;" the castle was used for the exterior shots of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films) were the most important border lords on the rough and tumble frontier with Scotland. The family's most famous representative, Henry Hotspur, figures prominently in Shakespeare's Henry IV. While on a visit to England, I encountered a building that went by the local name of "Pennywhistle's Pele", although others simply referred to it as "Whistlestop" It is seven miles south of the border with Scotland and close to the walled city of Berwick-on- Tweed. A border pele was a sort of poor man's castle, a small fortress where the locals might seek shelter when the Scots came raiding across the border seeking treasure, cattle, and women. The pele usually was defended by a local knight or gentleman in command of a few armed retainers. Although information on the Pennywhistle's is sketchy, I gather they were tough, uncouth, able lower ranking gentry who made a career of killing Scots and a good living carrying on cattle rustling north of the border. One of them, Thomas Pennywhistle, gave his life to save a Percy and was rewarded with burial in Durham Cathedral. Thomas Pennywhistle did exist but he died centuries before his fictional namesake would have been born. As times changed and passions cooled in the 18th century, the Pennywhistle's intermarried freely with their former enemies. They seemed to have turned away from the arts of war and become involved with trade with India. When I was writing my trilogy, I appropriated the legacy of this family for my hero and filled in the blanks with what I hope is enlightened guesswork. The pictures below show "Pennywhistle's Pele" and shots of the fortress city of Berwick, which changed hands 27 times during the centuries of fighting between the English and Scots. Durham Cathedral houses the resting place of the real Thomas Pennywhistle.
The Ferguson Rifle was developed in the early 1770’s by Major Patrick Ferguson of the 71 st Foot. This breech loading weapon was years ahead of its time and a refinement of a design developed by a French gunsmith in the 1720’s. Ferguson improved Chaumette’s idea by attaching the front end of the trigger guard to a vertical screw which passed through the barrel. Pulling a small guard handle to the right in a three quarter turn rotated the screw down leaving a top hole for inserting ball and powder. To seal the breech, the guard was rotated up and left. Fouling caused by unburned powder was a problem with all black powder weapons, but when the Ferguson’s breechblock was lowered most of the fouling naturally fell away and any slight remaining residue could be easily wiped clear. The weapon had an octagonal barrel at the breech and sights calibrated for ranges from 100 to 500 yards, although 300 yards was likely it effective aimed limit. Ferguson gave a demonstration of his weapon to King George III at Windsor in 1776. Despite a driving rainstorm, Ferguson was able to maintain a steady firing rate of six shots a minute; double the usual three shots a minute from a Brown Bess. Because the weapon required no ramrod, he was also able to reload it at the walk. Since the weapon also took a 30 inch bayonet, it had all the advantages of a musket combined with the superior accuracy of a rifle. Ferguson recruited an experimental Rifle Corps of 100 men to test the weapon. The Corps saw action at the Battle of Brandywine during the American Revolution. Ferguson was badly wounded during the Battle and lacking his leadership, the Corps was disbanded. The fate of the rifles remains a mystery, although a few may have seen action at the Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780 where Ferguson was killed. Few specimens exist today, the best preserved being one belonging to Captain Fredric de Peyster whose descendants donated it to the Smithsonian Institution. Should a specimen in reasonable condition appear on the antiques market today, it would likely merit a seven figure price tag. The problem with the Ferguson was that it was expensive to manufacture and required more technical skill on the part of the gunsmith than making a standard Brown Bess musket. The Rifle never received a fair and lengthy field test. The Army Chiefs were conservative in outlook and preferred to stay with the tried and true smoothbore Brown Bess. Modern replicas of the weapon have encountered a few problems with maintaining a tight seal on the breechblock but a mixture of tallow and beeswax applied to the screw corrected the problem. The weapon could have revolutionized warfare but it would have required a great deal of money and a complete revamping of British military doctrine. Technical Specifications: ( Based on an enlisted man’s piece at Morristown National Historical Park) Length: 49 3/8 inches. Barrel: 34 1/8, caliber .65, 8 grooves. Weight: 6.9 pounds
Fiction Historical Military War
The Royal Marines were the unsung heroes of the British military in the Napoleonic Wars. They played a
distinguished role in many engagements both at sea and land-their motto is appropriately per mare per
terram-but all too often their gallant conduct is merely alluded to rather than discussed in the detail it
deserves. In most works both of fiction and history, The Royal Navy is the star and the Marines play the
part of extras; usually on stage but mostly viewed as part of the background scenery. In the Hornblower
books, Marine officers and men are always ciphers who exist chiefly to die quickly; they are the equivalent
of the anonymous " Red Shirts" in the original Star Trek. Admiral Lord St. Vincent who helped secure them
the distinction of " Royal" in 1802 was impressed by their courage and steadfastness and rightly observed,
" if real danger should ever come to England, they will be this country's sheet anchor."
The Royal Marines trace their history back to the Duke of York's Regiment in 1664, although their
establishment did not become permanent until 1755. They served several primary roles. First and foremost,
they served as sea going infantry; to defend the ship, serve as boarding and landing parties, or fight
ashore as line infantry. They also served alongside sailors as artillerists working the big guns of a ship.
They pioneered the amphibious operations which became increasingly important as the Napoleonic Wars
took on world- wide dimensions.
At sea, they were a vaccine against the infection most feared by ship's captain's: mutiny. Marines armed with muskets and bayonets served as the captain's personal guard to quickly quell any hint of insurrection. It was not lost on sailors that marines were billeted between the sailors and the captain's quarters. Marine sentries were posted at key points around the ship including the captain's cabin, powder magazine, and spirit locker. In battle, marine sentries stood guard at the entrance to the companionways to prevent any less than stalwart sailors fleeing to the imagined safety of the lower decks.
At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, The Royal Marines numbered 31,000 . They generally served in small contingents aboard ship but sometimes a squadron pooled them to form an effective, quick amphibious strike force. Admiral Popham used Marines as a very effectively in hit and run raids in the Peninsula and a marine brigade of 700 gave distinguished service during the Washington-Baltimore campaign in 1814.
The size of a marine contingent varied with the class of ship. Any ship of more than ten guns was entitled to a few. On a larger ship, one sixth of the compliment would be marines; on a small one, one seventh. A typical ship of the line with 74 guns would have a marine contingent of 120 men. A 38 gun frigate would have 39.
All marines were volunteers and considered landsmen; as such they were not subject to the reach of the press gang. Substantial bounties were promised new recruits; reaching a high of 31 pounds in 1806. Enlistment was for life. As with sailors, Marines shared in any prize money from captured ships. Contrary to myth, most recruits were not jailbirds. The most common former occupations were agricultural laborer or weaver. Marines ashore were divided into three divisions, based at Chatham, Portsmouth, and Plymouth and lived in barracks at those places. A typical marine company ashore numbered 178 officers and men in 1810. The company rarely served together as a unit at sea since men were assigned to ships in twos and threes from each company.
Marines formal attire was a brick red tunic with blue facings and white trousers topped by a black coachman's style hat. At sea, there is evidence they dressed considerably more casually, although every effort was made to differentiate their dress from that of the sailors.
The weapon of choice was a Sea Service Brown Bess of the East India Pattern variety. It was a . 75 caliber smoothbore musket with a 39 inch barrel and weighed just under ten pounds. It was an inaccurate weapon best used in volleys but it did take a bayonet. Three shots a minute was considered a good rate of fire.
Commissions in the Marines were not purchased and advancement was by seniority. Commissions were secured through a combination of influence and connections. If a likely gentleman could get several influential people to vouch for his honor, courage, gentility, and moral probity that was usually sufficient, as long as at least one was a military man of experience. Although accorded the same theoretical equivalency as army ranks, they were considered less prestigious since they could not be sold.
Marine officers tended to be poorer than their army counterparts and unlike them often had no independent means and lived on their salaries alone. Some families, like that of Lieutenant Rottley who served on HMS Victory at Trafalgar, furnished several generations of officers. Marine officers often came from the less wealthy Celtic fringes of the British Isles; Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Captain Thomas Inch, upon whom Tom Pennywhistle is loosely based, came from Scotland.
The Marine officer's uniform was altered in 1802 to conform to the scarlet tunics of the 1st Foot Guards. Unlike army officers in regular regiments, a marine captain such as Pennywhistle was allowed two epaulettes rather than one worn on the right shoulder. The dual epaulettes occasioned some jealousy on the part of army officers as well as Navy lieutenants who originally wore none.
The Royal Marine insignia bears only one battle honor, Gibraltar, for their part in the capture of the Rock in 1704. That is far too modest for a stalwart force that has given Britain centuries of sterling service. Yet modesty is simply another hallmark of their gallant creed.
" It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of
foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the Season of Light,
it was the Season of Darkness, it was the Spring of hope, it was the Winter of despair. " Charles
Dickens, " A Tale of Two Cities." Dickens wrote that of the world of 1793, but it applies equally to
the world of 1810.
The population of the world first hit one billion in 1804. Very small, compared to the seven billion
of today's world. The most populous country in Europe was France with 25 million inhabitants.
Great Britain, including Ireland, had close to 15 million, while the United States had 7.2 million.
The largest cities in Europe were London, with 1 million, Paris with 700,000, and Naples with
500,000. Moscow had 270,000, Vienna 250,000, and Berlin 150,000. The largest city in the United
States was New York, with 100,000.
Most people lived in the country rather than in towns and cities. Britain was the first country to have more than half the population living in urban areas, but that did not occur until 1820.
Marriage and Family
Marriage was considered the natural state of affairs and every effort was made to promote it. Upper class marriages were usually arranged; matches having more to do with land and income than love. Synchronizing practicality and attraction was the theme of all of the Jane Austen novels. Gentlemen were often advised to marry for advantage and take a mistress for love. It was also about producing children; the traditional" heir and a spare." Courtship was often quite formal. According to Jane Austen, couples addressing each other by their first names had probably concluded a formal engagement. It was considered bad form to marry above your class, yet it happened often.
2% of the population controlled more than 90% of Great Britain's wealth. This comprised roughly 2500 families; the aristocracy and the gentry. At any given time, there were roughly 450 peers; men holding a title ranging from Baron to Duke.
All marriages were to be performed according to Church of England rites and after banns had been posted. This was chiefly to prevent young heirs and heiresses marrying hastily marrying out of their class in a fit of passion. The way to circumvent this was to head for Gretna Green just over the Scottish border. Scots wedding ceremonies were simple and only required an easily supplied witness to attest to the identity of the couple.
The concept of the honeymoon was unknown. Couples generally began their married lives directly after all of the events surrounding the wedding had concluded.
Divorce was virtually unheard of and confined to the upper classes since it required a special act of Parliament.
Weddings of the lower class were very simple affairs. Lower class marriages were mostly about finding helpmates to make hard, demanding lives easier. Love and attraction arguably played greater roles since no great considerations of estate were involved.
In America, because of the demands of the frontier, adult males and females, if widowed, did not remain single for long. Remarriage was encouraged and blended families were common. Excess children, who could not be cared for, were "adopted out" to other families.
Women often gave birth to multiple children because of the lack of birth control. Child mortality rates were high. 31% of children died before the age of five in London. A woman might give birth to ten children and if more than half survived to adulthood, she counted herself lucky. If a child lived to ten, his chances of living to sixty were exponentially increased. The odds of a woman dying from complications of birth often due to puerperal fever from unsanitary conditions, increased with each pregnancy.
Child labor was common, particularly in textile mills and mines. Children often worked very long hours. Children were particularly wanted in occupations where their small hands would prove useful for delicate work. The concept of adolescence did not exist. You were either a child or a young adult.
The Cycle of Life
Much of daily life revolved around the cycle of light; the turn of the seasons, and the concerns of planting and the harvest. Activity usually began just before dawn and ceased just after sundown. The hardest work was generally done in summer while the light was plentiful and the temperatures mild. Winter was a time of darkness, rest, and careful conservation of supplies. If the harvest was lean, winter might be a time of real privation. Even in places like Virginia and southern England, cold snaps in winter could cause room temperatures to drop below zero, cold enough to freeze ink. If a winter continued harsh, portions of a house would be simply cordoned off and activity concentrated in a few rooms with large fires.
Class divides were most recognizable by height. The lower classes were noticeably shorter than their betters , nutrition being the key consideration. Admiral Adam Duncan, reckoned "the handsomest man in the British Navy" stood a full six feet four inches, while two sixteen year old ships boys on his flagship had their heights listed as " four feet six inches, and four feet eight inches." Pennywhistle, at six feet two inches, would have been taller than 98% of his contemporaries.
Most power came from natural sources; wind, water, and animals. Horsepower was exactly that; power from horses. Steam power was just beginning to play an important role. Samuel Bentham pioneered the first steam operated dry-dock at Portsmouth in 1803 and the first steam powered vessel was launched in Scotland at roughly the same time. In America, Fulton's Clermont made a steam powered voyage from New York to Albany in 1807.
There was no electricity, central heat was virtually unknown, and modern plumbing did not exist. Light was supplied by candles. Expensive candles generated more light and heat and less smoke. Heat came from fireplaces burning coal or wood, and water was generally drawn from wells.
It was a labor intensive world devoid of modern time saving conveniences. Armies of servants performed many routine tasks today carried out by modern electronics. Servants grew in numbers as the century advanced and on the eve of World War One the largest occupation was "domestic servant."
Estates and farms performed their own butchering, skinning, and cleaning of animals as well as assisting in their births. The cycle of birth and death was no remote thing but part of a ritual seen daily.
Because of the lack of knowledge about microbes and disease, even elementary standards of hygiene were rarely observed. Hands were not routinely washed before food preparation, birthing, or surgery. Only the upper classes bathed with any regularity. If an ordinary workman bathed once a week, he was doing well. Miners and chimney sweeps bathed almost not at all and were noted for their dark, grimy skins.
Copper bathtubs were available, but not common. Primitive showers consisting of a large cache of water operated by a simple pull were considered exotic.
Refuse and fecal matter were commonly dumped in rivers which fed water tables. Outhouses, aka " jakes , jerichos, houses of easement, " were generally small buildings separate from the main dwelling. Chamber pots were used in the home itself. The Water Closet, the forerunner of the modern bathroom, was seen in a very few households.
Because of the large amounts of coal burned, most cities are often cloaked in clouds of smoke and covered in layers of soot. In London, fogs often blend with coal smoke to create a nearly impenetrable haze.
Most work was still done in small cottage industry settings, but that began to fade rapidly. Large textile mills changed the way life was viewed. Things were done according to clocks, whistles, and regular schedules and shifts, rather than individuals working at their own convenience.
Crime and Punishment
More than two hundred offenses carried the death penalty. Many would be considered petty misdemeanors today, chiefly those concerned with theft. Juries were sometimes reluctant to convict knowing the consequences. Sometimes, either the charge or the monetary amount involved was reduced to avoid the ultimate penalty. Transportation to Australia was used for those convicted of capital crimes but for whom mitigating circumstances applied.
Other than debtor's prisons, most jails were local places of short term confinement. Things changed as the century advanced and prisons came to be seen as places where criminals might be rehabilitated rather than merely punished. The first national prison was build at Milbank in 1816.
Great Britain had no system of public education. Grammar schools were private, local affairs of widely varied quality. The best ones had received healthy endowments from local noblemen, usually as a last bequest. Scotland was famous for its schoolmasters and had the highest public literacy rate in Europe, roughly 90%.
Public school education for the better classes dated to the medieval period and was provided chiefly by eight schools including Eton, Harrow, and Rugby. The schools were private institutions, public signifying only that they were open to all. Public school education had not yet achieved the reputation made famous by Thomas Arnold's Rugby in Tom Brown's Schooldays. Most of the better classes were educated by private tutors at home.
The two main universities were Oxford and Cambridge, although Scotland had four of them, the most prestigious of which was Edinburgh. Edinburgh was famous for its medical school, which along with Vienna's, was acknowledged the best in Europe. Ireland was home to Trinity College, which enjoyed a fine reputation in literature and music.
Under the Land Ordinance of 1785, the United States provided funding for a system of public education.
The Anglican Church was the established church in England and the Presbyterian in Scotland. Catholicism dominated Ireland, although the ruling class was protestant. There were many dissenting denominations in the UK; Methodists and Baptists particularly enjoyed a wide popularity among the lower classes. Evangelicals often went under the general name "blue lighters."
Quakers were the best organized and most prosperous of the Dissenters. They were clannish, vigorously looked out for the advancement of their own, and were often found in key positions in trade and industry. They were William Wilberforce's biggest supporters and had a huge impact on banning slavery in Britain.
The Test Act prohibited Catholics from serving as officers in the army or navy, but that was often circumvented through a variety of strategies. The most common was a variation on "don't ask, don't tell."
Societies and Associations
There were societies, clubs, and associations for every imaginable concern and function, many of which are today handled by governments. There were cooperative societies for schools, civic improvements, reading, music, charity, lotteries, racing, to name but a few. Methodists and other dissenting denominations often formed associations to set up grammar schools for their brethren. There were even burial societies to help defray final expenses.
Newspapers and Books
Newspapers were widespread and popular, but were not as cheap as they should have been due to the heavy taxes levied on them. People often frequented coffee houses and taverns to be able to read them for free. Sometimes they were read aloud as a money saving measure.
Novels had been around for more than a century and grew steadily in popularity but were expensive. Often they were serialized in much cheaper magazine form to increase readership. Lending libraries were formed to make them more available and like newspapers, they were often read aloud.
Arts and Literature
This was the beginning of the Romantic Period in the arts. Sir Walter Scott published his first novel, Waverly, in 1814. William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the outrageous Lord Byron created a new, highly emotional style of poetry. J. M.W. Turner, Thomas Lawrence, and John Constable made their marks as artists. Beethoven was in the heart of his Middle Period, which produced his only opera, Fidelio.
The British Army was more a collection of regiments each with a distinctive history and set of traditions than a homogenous, modern army. It was a small, all volunteer, old time professional army in contrast to the conscripted mass armies found on the Continent.
Contrary to legend, the average British army private was not a jailbird. He was most likely a displaced agricultural worker, in his early twenties, with three to five years of army experience, and five foot six to five foot seven inches tall. Officers tended to be noticeably taller simply because they came from better backgrounds and ate better food.
Enlistment was for life at start of the period. Later, a soldier might sign for either a seven or fourteen year hitch, the longer term coming with a small pension. Death from disease killed twice as many as did battle. Discipline was harsh and maintained through flogging with a cat-o- nine tails.
Officers commissions were theoretically all purchased and seen as an investment in the system; a precaution against future Cromwell's arising who might want to overthrow the government. Wellington purchased his way to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, which he reached at the age of 23. As time went on, regulations were tightened against young officers purchasing too high a rank without considerable time in the lower grades. By 1811, a lieutenant colonel had to have at least nine years experience in lesser ranks.
Modern research indicates only about 20% of officers at any given time owed their ranks purely to purchase. Patronage and connections, known as " interest," played large roles in securing a commission. War created vacancies that had to be immediately filled and gentlemen were often appointed based on merit and experience without any payment due for the rank. Gentleman volunteers who fought with the men but messed with the officers were few in number but came for the express purpose of securing a free commission. Probably 5% of officers came from the ranks of the enlisted, including several generals.
The Army was considered an upper class profession, strangely because the officers were considered gentleman amateurs, while the Navy, because of its strict standards and professionalism, was considered a Middle Class one. Army commissions were issued directly by the King and signed by him, whereas naval commissions were merely issued by the Lords of The Admiralty.
The Royal Navy was the world's first truly professional military, with uncompromising, consistent standards and expectations. It was also the world' s largest navy and considered Britain's first line of defense. Because a lack of knowledge could destroy a ship and everyone aboard, officers underwent an extensive, demanding, and dangerous apprenticeship as midshipmen, often going to sea as young as 11. Regardless of background or connections, they had to learn everything there was to know about ships and the sea. They had to pass a rigorous examination for lieutenant, theoretically administered around age 21, although often considerably before.
Ability plus luck plus interest equaled success. A man with real talent from an unpromising background stood a far greater chance for advancement in the Navy rather than the Army.
Despite the fearsome reputation of press gangs, legally authorized groups of sailors who virtually kidnapped able bodied men in port cities, they only accounted for 20% of sailors.
Rather than battle, disease, accidents, and disasters at sea accounted for more than 90% of naval deaths.
Commissions were not purchased but were secured by patronage and influence. Advancement was by seniority. Marine commissions were accorded the same official recognition as army ranks but were less prestigious since they could not be sold. Marine officers often came from the Celtic Fringes; Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. A few had high flown connections like Pennywhistle, but many came from more modest circumstances and lived entirely on their salaries.