The Bravest Man

In recalling the Battle of the Little Bighorn during an 1877 interview, Sioux chief Red Horse said:

Among the soldiers was an officer who rode a horse with four white feet. The Sioux have for a long time fought many brave men of different people, but the Sioux say this officer was the bravest man they had ever fought. I don’t know whether this was General Custer or not. Many of the Sioux men that I hear talking tell me it was. I saw this officer in the fight many times, but did not see his body. It has been told me that he was killed by a Santee Indian, who took his horse. This officer wore a large-brimmed hat and a deerskin coat. This officer saved the lives of many soldiers by turning his horse and covering the retreat. Sioux say this officer was the bravest man they ever fought.

Who was this? In September 1898, McClure’s Magazine published an interview with Cheyenne chief Two Moon:

One man rides up and down the line — all the time shouting. He rode a sorrel horse with white face and white forelegs. I don’t know who he was. He was a brave man. … [A]nd then the five horsemen and the bunch of men, may be so forty, started toward the river. The man on the sorrel horse led them, shouting all the time. He wore a buckskin shirt, and had long black hair and mustache. He fought hard with a big knife. His men were all covered with white dust. I couldn’t tell whether they were officers or not.

The valiant man appears not to have been Custer himself, who died higher on the ridge. In the aftermath, Two Moon said, “Most of them were left just where they fell. We came to the man with big mustache; he lay down the hills towards the river. The Indians did not take his buckskin shirt. The Sioux said [mistaking him for Custer], ‘That is a big chief. That is Long Hair.’ I don’t know. I had never seen him. The man on the white-faced horse was the bravest man.”

Witold’s Report

As World War II engulfed Europe, the Allies learned of German atrocities at the Auschwitz concentration camp from a remarkable source: A Polish army captain named Witold Pilecki had volunteered to enter the camp in 1940 in order to gather intelligence and to organize its prisoners.

Using a false identity card, Pilecki let himself be captured during a Warsaw roundup and became inmate 4859 at Auschwitz. Over the next two years, as he witnessed the horrors unfolding there, Pilecki prepared the camp’s inmates for an uprising, distributed extra food, and even built a secret radio transmitter to communicate his findings, urging his superiors to attack and liberate the camp. His reports, which made their way to London, at first provoked disbelief:

“Sometimes a group of civilians who had been tortured and interrogated in the cellars and who had now been handed over to [SS officer Gerhard] Palitzsch for some fun would be led out. Palitzsch would order the girls to undress and run in a circle around the enclosed yard. Standing in the middle of the yard he would take his time picking a victim, then he would aim, shoot and kill them all one by one. None of them knew who would die next, or who would live for a few more moments, or who might be taken back for further interrogation. He — improved his aim.”

Another SS man, named Klehr, would kill prisoners with an injection of phenol directly into the heart. “One day, after taking care of everyone in the queue for an injection, he entered as usual the toilet where the dying häftlings were dumped to admire his handiwork for the day, when one of the ‘corpses’ came to life (there must have been an error and he had received too little phenol), stood up and started to stagger over the other corpses like a drunk towards Klehr saying: ‘Du hast mir zu wenig gegeben, gib mir noch etwas!’ [‘You didn’t give me enough, let me have a little more!’] Klehr went white, but not panicking, rushed at him — the executioner’s apparently cultured mask slipping — pulled out his pistol and without shooting, not wishing to make a noise, he finished off his victim by hitting him over the head with the butt.”

“What can humankind say now — that very humankind which wants to demonstrate cultural and personal progress and rank the 20th century much higher than centuries past?” Pilecki wrote. “Can we from the 20th century look our ancestors in the eye and … laughably … prove that we have attained a higher cultural plane?”

The hoped-for attack never came, and Pilecki finally escaped the camp in 1943, after 945 days. He went on to participate in the Warsaw Uprising, but in 1947 he was arrested by the Stalinist secret police, accused of spying, and executed. His final resting place is unknown. Poland’s communist regime suppressed his story until 1989, and his Auschwitz report was not published until 2000. But today he is regarded as a heroic figure in Poland — in 2006 he received the Order of the White Eagle, his country’s highest decoration.


En route to Senegal in 1816, the French frigate Méduse ran aground on a reef. The six boats were quickly filled, so those who remained lashed together a raft from topmasts, yards, and planks, and 147 people crowded onto a space 65 feet long and 23 wide, hoping to be towed to the African coast 50 miles away. (Seventeen crew and passengers remained aboard the Méduse.)

The raft sank 3 feet under their combined weight, and the tow line quickly parted. Rather than try to rescue them, the boats sailed on to the Senegalese capital. On the first night, 20 men drowned. On the second, some soldiers broke open a cask of wine and mutinied; in the ensuing melee, at least 60 were killed. By the following afternoon, the 67 who remained were gnawing sword belts to reduce their hunger. Eventually they descended on a corpse embedded among the logs of the raft. “We shudder with horror on finding ourselves under the necessity of recording that which we put into practice,” one wrote later.

On the fourth day, 48 remained, and that night a second mutiny killed 18 more. By the seventh day their numbers had dropped to 27 and they decided that their provisions would support only 15, so the 12 weakest were thrown to the sharks. The last 15 survived for 13 miserable days, living on garlic cloves, a lemon, and occasionally a flying fish. They were finally spotted by the brig Argus, a moment immortalized by Théodore Géricault (below).

Of the 17 who had remained aboard the Méduse, three survived. One told his story to a survivor of the raft journey, who wrote, “They lived in separate corners of the wreck, which they never quitted but to look for food, and this latterly consisted only of tallow and a little bacon. If, on these occasions, they accidentally met, they used to run at each other with drawn knives.”

For all this, the captain of the Méduse was imprisoned for only three years, an occasion for lasting controversy in French politics. “It is more difficult to escape from the injustice of man,” wrote one commentator, “than the fury of the sea.”

The Leaning Virgin

On Jan. 15, 1915, a shell hit the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières in Albert, France. Its crowning statue of Mary and the infant Jesus was flung forward and teetered over the building’s facade, but it did not fall.

“We went through the place today where the Virgin Statue at the top of the Church was hit by a shell in January,” wrote chaplain Rupert Edward Inglis to his wife in October. “The statue was knocked over, but has never fallen, I sent you a picture of it. It really is a wonderful sight. It is incomprehensible how it can have stayed there, but I think it is now lower than when the photograph was taken, and no doubt will come down with the next gale.”

But it didn’t. The virgin remained suspended over Albert for three years, during which British, French, and German forces all invented legends for it, commonly saying that the war would end when it finally fell. They were nearly right: The statue finally came down in April 1918, seven months before the armistice.

The basilica has since been rebuilt, and it bears a replica of the original statue.

Welcome to America

Is Ellis Island in New York or New Jersey? Surprisingly, it’s in both. Under a 1934 compact, New York had jurisdiction over the original 3-acre Army fort, but the 24 acres of landfill that have since been added are part of New Jersey. The Supreme Court essentially upheld this arrangement in a 1998 ruling.

“New York still collects sales tax from concessions within the donut hole,” writes geographer Mark Monmonier, “while New Jersey taxes purchases elsewhere on the site.”

Early Warning

moffett conquest of america

Published in 1915, Cleveland Moffett’s The Conquest of America imagined a German assault on the United States in 1921. Moffett had intended the novel as a warning of the importance of military preparedness, and it was quickly forgotten, but one passage would come to take on an eerie significance — an attack on Manhattan:

‘Ah! So!’ said von Hindenburg, and he glanced at a gun crew who were loading a half-ton projectile into an 11.1-inch siege-gun that stood on the pavement. ‘Which is the Woolworth Building?’ he asked, pointing across the river.

‘The tallest one, Excellency — the one with the Gothic lines and gilded cornices,’ replied one of his officers.

‘Ah, yes, of course. I recognise it from the pictures. It’s beautiful. Gentlemen,’ — he addressed the American officers, — ‘I am offering twenty-dollar gold pieces to this gun crew if they bring down that tower with a single shot. Now, then, careful! …


We covered our ears as the shot crashed forth, and a moment later the most costly and graceful tower in the world seemed to stagger on its base. Then, as the thousand-pound shell, striking at the twenty-seventh story, exploded deep inside, clouds of yellow smoke poured out through the crumbling walls, and the huge length of twenty-four stories above the jagged wound swayed slowly toward the east, and fell as one piece, flinging its thousands of tons of stone and steel straight across the width of Broadway, and down upon the grimy old Post Office Building opposite.

‘Sehr gut!’ nodded von Hindenburg. ‘It’s amusing to see them fall. Suppose we try another? What’s that one on the left?’

‘The Singer Building, Excellency,’ answered the officer.

‘Good! Are you ready?’

Then the tragedy was repeated, and six hundred more were added to the death toll, as the great tower crumbled to earth.

‘Now, gentlemen,’ — von Hindenburg turned again to the American officers with a tiger gleam in his eyes, — ‘you see what we have done with two shots to two of your tallest and finest buildings. At this time to-morrow, with God’s help, we shall have a dozen guns along this bank of the river, ready for whatever may be necessary.’

In the end J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller are held hostage and ordered to raise a billion dollars to indemnify the city. “The Conquest of America is as full of thrills as the most excitable and fearful patriot need ask,” raved the Independent. “If all the prominent Americans named in the tale, as hostages or otherwise, get about the business of preparedness, this invasion will never be.”

A Look Ahead

In 1763 an anonymous Londoner published The Reign of George VI, 1900-1925, a forecast of the remote 20th century. Among other things, the author predicted that George’s greatest military victory would come before the gates of Vienna in May 1918, the actual date of Germany’s Spring Offensive of World War I:

Peter immediately raised the siege, and, drawing up his forces in the plains of Vienna, prepared to fight the King of England, who was also engaged in the same employment. The Russian army had a superiority of above sixty thousand men, consequently their numbers were two to one; but no dangers could depress the heart of George. Having, with moving batteries, secured the rear and wings of his army from being surrounded, he placed his artillery in the most advantageous manner; and dividing his front into two lines, at the head of the first he began the attack, after his artillery had played on the enemy an hour, with great success. The Russian infantry, animated by the presence of their Czar, under whom they had so often conquered, repulsed him with some loss. The King hereupon made a second and still more furious attack, but yet without success. At that critical moment the Duke of Devonshire, who commanded his left wing, sent for immediate assistance, as he was hard pressed by the superior numbers of the enemy. George flew like lightning to his weakened troops, and placing himself at the head of six regiments of dragoons, made such a furious attack on the eager Russians as threw them into disorder, and following his advantage, pushed them with great success.

Properly speaking this isn’t science fiction, as the author envisions no technological advances: Sail warships still fight naval battles; East Indiamen travel to India and Indonesia; and European nations communicate by roads and trade using river barges.

But here’s an interesting detail: “By the year 1920 there were 11,000,000 of souls in the British-American dominions [of North America]: they were in possession of perhaps the finest country in the world, and yet had never made the least attempt to shake off the authority of Great-Britain.” Writing in 1763, the author had considered the possibility of a revolt in the colonies, but rejected it: “The constitutions of the several divisions of this vast monarchy were admirably designed to keep the whole in continual dependence on the mother country. … The multiplicity of governments which prevailed over the whole country rendered the execution of such a scheme [combined rebellion] absolutely impossible.”

As You Were

A successful concert with mouth-organs, combs, and tissue-paper and penny whistles was given by the [British] Guards in the front-line trenches near Loos. They played old English melodies, harmonized with great emotion and technical skill. It attracted an unexpected audience. The Germans crowded into their front line — not far away — and applauded each number. Presently, in good English, a German voice shouted across:

‘Play “Annie Laurie” and I will sing it.’

The Guards played ‘Annie Laurie,’ and a German officer stood up on the parapet — the evening sun was red behind him — and sang the old song admirably, with great tenderness. There was applause on both sides.

— Philip Gibbs, Now It Can Be Told, 1920

Close Quarters

Testimony of Alexander Falconbridge before a select committee of the House of Commons, March 8, 1790:

What is your present situation?
A surgeon.

How many voyages have you been to the Coast of Africa?
I have been four voyages to the Coast of Africa.

Do you examine the Slaves previous to purchasing them?
They are always examined by some officers on board; it is generally understood to be the surgeon’s business.

Do they appear dejected when brought on board?
All that I have seen in my voyages did appear so.

Did this dejection continue, or did it soon wear off?
With some it continued the whole voyage, and with others till death put a period to their misery.

Have you known instances of Slaves refusing sustenance?
I have known several instances.

With what design?
With a design to starve themselves, I am persuaded. …

What was the mode used in stowing the Slaves in their night apartments?
They had not so much room as a man has in his coffin, neither in length or breadth, and it was impossible for them to turn or shift with any degree of ease. I have had occasion very often to go from one side of their rooms to the other; before I attempted it I have always taken off my shoes, and notwithstanding I have trod with as much care as I possibly could to prevent pinching them, it has unavoidably happened that I did so; I have often had my feet bit and scratched by them, the marks of which I have now. …

Are the consequences ever extremely noxious and nauseous of great number being ill at once of this latter disorder [dysentery]?

It was the case in the Alexander, as I have said before when I was taken ill — I cannot conceive any situation so dreadful and disgusting, the deck was covered with blood and mucus, and approached nearer to the resemblance of a slaughter-house than anything I can compare it to, the stench and foul air were likewise intolerable. …

To what cause do you describe [instances of insanity among slaves on board ship]?
To their being torn from their nearest connections, and carried away from their country.

A Look Ahead

On the occasion of the 1893 World’s Fair, the American Press Association asked 74 prominent Americans to imagine the United States of 1993. Some responses:

  • “By the 1990s, longevity will be so improved that 150 years will be no unusual age to reach.” — Thomas De Witt Talmage, Presbyterian preacher
  • “In the 1990s, the United States will be a government of perhaps 60 states, situated in both North and South America.” — Asa C. Matthews, comptroller of the Treasury
  • “Wealth will be more widely and equally distributed. Great corporations and business interests will be conducted harmoniously — on the principle of the employers and workers sharing in the profits.” — Junius Henri Browne, journalist
  • “Three hours will constitute a long day’s work.” — Mary E. Lease, activist and lecturer
  • “Trousers will be relegated to bookkeepers, barbers, pastry bakers, and cripples.” — Van Buren Denslow, attorney and economist
  • “We are going to see a wonderful development in the use of jewels in American churches.” — George F. Kunz, mineralogist
  • “By the end of the Twentieth Century, taxation will be reduced to a minimum, the entire world will be open to trade, and there will be no need of a standing army.” — Erastus Wiman, journalist

“Perhaps I am wrong in some of these prophecies,” reflected drama critic John Habberton, who had predicted that all marriages would be happy. “But if that is so, I shall not be here to be twitted with it — now will I?”