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Gideon Pillow assumes command April 29, 2009

Posted by Jenny in history, military history.
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We last saw our hero at the battle of Cerro Gordo.  Despite Pillow’s best efforts to thwart the military might of the U.S. Army singlehandedly, the American forces continued their inexorable advance westward toward Mexico City, next clashing with their foes at the linked battles of Contreras and Churubusco, August 19-20, 1847.

“Old Fuss and Feathers,” Winfield Scott, laid out the plan.  General David Twiggs was to advance across the rocky slope of Mt. Zacatepec to meet the forces of General Gabriel Valencia.  Twiggs was to “brush away the enemy in case he became impertinent,” and if the fighting became serious, Pillow was instructed to “support Twiggs with his whole division and assume the command.”*  Twiggs did not much care for this arrangement, having fought in the War of 1812 and possessing much more military know-how than the “political general” Gideon Pillow, but Pillow technically outranked Twiggs (because of the support of his ally James Polk), and so the order stood.

Soon the Mexicans opened fire with heavy cannon.  Without consulting Scott, Pillow decided that the moment had come to “assume command.” He advanced with a few lightweight mountain howitzers and a battery of light artillery.  The troops soon found that the Mexicans were well sheltered behind a deep ravine and fortifications.  Strong defensive fire continued until nightfall from Valencia’s position.  Lt. D.H. Hill later wrote, “Certainly, of all the absurd things that the ass Pillow has ever done this was the most silly… the ordering of six and twelve pounders to batter a fort furnished with long six, twenty-fours and heavy mortars!!”

Battle of Contreras

Battle of Contreras

A soaking rain set in.  From the heights of Zacatepec, Pillow set forth through the inky night with Twiggs toward a point called San Geronimo, north of Valencia’s position, so that he could arrange a “flanking movement” to entrap Valencia.  The two became disoriented as they manuevered across the slippery volcanic rock.  The two generals eventually emerged, not at San Geronimo, but on the far eastern side of the mountain, miles away from the scene of battle.

Meanwhile, an enterprising colonel named Persifor Smith, working with Captain Robert E. Lee,  had come up with a bold strategy to lead three brigades along a ravine toward the rear of Valencia’s position.  Lee successfully crossed the rocky slope of Zacatepec and informed Scott of the plan.  “Fuss and Feathers” ordered Pillow to stay put, Twiggs to create a diversion, and Smith to proceed with his plan.  Smith’s attack began at 3:00 a.m. and succeeded brilliantly.  Pillow arrived on the scene just as the Mexicans were fleeing.

Clearly, now that the conflict had already become a success, it was once again time to “assume command.” Pillow spotted Colonel Bennet Riley, who had participated in Smith’s movement.  Our general rode up to Riley and shouted, “You have earned the Yellow Sash, Sir, and you shall have it.”  Somehow or other, Pillow had suddenly become the dispenser of these tokens of recognition.

The Americans pursued the Mexicans across the Churubusco River.  Forces under Pillow and Worth joined up with troops commanded by Shields and Pierce, and the Mexican resistance fell apart.  It was time for the final advance to the gates of Mexico City.

(The series continues here)

*All quotations are from The Life & Wars of Gideon Pillow by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes Jr. and Roy P. Stonesifer Jr., UNC Press, 1993.

Battle of Churubusco

Battle of Churubusco

The triple trillium April 23, 2009

Posted by Jenny in hiking, memoir, nature.
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This is an edited version of a piece I wrote for the Gloucester (Mass.) Daily Times.

trillium-stamineumTrilliums are my favorite spring wildflower.  I like them because they are mathematical: everything is in threes.  My wildflower book says, “Three large green leaves, three petals, six stamens, and a three-parted pistil.”  In short, a celebration of the number three.

The petals and the leaves are arranged in such a way that the points of each layer of three alternate with each other.  If you looked at it from the top and drew a line around its outer rim, you would have a six-pointed star whose points alternated: petal, leaf, petal, leaf, petal, leaf.

The number three is the number of the fairy tale, as I mentioned in my last post.  It is three suitors who come calling, three dragons that must be vanquished, three wishes that must be wished.  The number three is the magic number.

New England has only two kinds of trilliums as far as I know, the painted and the nodding.  Both of them are lovely.  trillium-vaseyiThe nodding trillium has large leaves of bright green and petals of a deep brownish red.  The flowering part is attached to the leaves by a drooping green stem so that the petals face down to the ground, as if the plant is shy.  You have to lift the flower gently in the crook of a finger to peer into its face—the one at right has had its face lifted up.

Photo by Louis Landry

Photo by Louis Landry

The painted trillium has small leaves of dark green topped with white petals striped with delicate red lines.  The red lines are thicker toward the center of the flower, making a red triangular shape around the base of the petals.  Triangular? Yes, of course, something to do with the number three.

I haven’t found them on Cape Ann.  It’s not a trillium kind of place—too windy, soil quality too poor.  (I have successfully planted a few in protected corners of my yard.)  I’ve seen them in the Holyoke Range, the White Mountains, the Green Mountains, the Catskills, and of course the Smokies, that botanist’s paradise.  I understand at least 10 varieties are found there.  Tucked away in the nooks and crannies of those mountains lives the yellow trillium with its speckled leaves and delicate lemon scent, trillium-luteumas well as the large-flowered trillium with its enormous snowy white blossom.  But then, it is impossible to rival the Smokies for wildflowers.  I am speaking of a place that has 31 kinds of violets and the lady slipper in both its pink and its yellow varieties.

trillium-grandiflorumIt was Carl Linnaeus who invented the word “trillium” in 1753.  Many Latin names sound formal or stuffy, but the name “trillium” must be one of his most successful coinages.  It is cheerful and jubilant, with its overtones of “trill” or “thrill.”

One time Bob and I took a walk in early May on Mt. Ascutney in central Vermont.  It was a foggy day, so we decided to concentrate on flowers instead of views.  We saw a trillium right next to the car at the bottom of the mountain, but it wasn’t blooming.  Must be too early for them, we thought.

But then, as we climbed, we got into the trilliums.  Between 1500′ and 2000′, as we wended our way through a dark hardwood forest, we saw many of them, all of the nodding variety.  Poking their way up through deep layers of leaves, hiding next to tree stumps, leaning over mossy streambanks, they flourished on that part of the mountain.  Trilliums and trilliums!  We were surrounded!

But it was on the way down that I discovered the master trillium—the “alpha trillium,” you might say if you’d been watching too many of those ponderous nature documentaries.  It was a triple blossom with three stems all growing from one point.  I had to check to make sure it was one plant and not three separate ones growing close together.  Sure enough, it was a triple trillium.  Three times three!  It stood there among its many companions that were thriving all across the foggy mountainside, shining in its mathematical magnificence.

The forests of Andrew Lang April 18, 2009

Posted by Jenny in literature, memoir.
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Hansel and Gretel / illustration by H.J. Ford

Hansel and Gretel / illustration by H.J. Ford

When I was growing up, one of my favorite books was the collection of fairy tales called The Red Fairy Book by Andrew Lang.  I had a copy of it that had belonged to my mother.  In fact, I still have it, and it is sitting beside me on my desk right now.  The front cover hangs by a few threads,  and pages could be removed by the handful, if one were so inclined.  In this 1930 edition, my mother’s name is written in a scrawl quite different from the tidy handwriting I knew later.  She was seven years old.

The stories don’t waste any time getting down to business.  One entitled “Brother and Sister” begins: “Brother took sister by the hand and said: ‘Look here, we haven’t had one single happy moment since our mother died.  That stepmother of ours beats us and if we dare go near her, she kicks us away.  We never get anything but hard, dry crusts to eat.  Come along and let us go forth into the wide world together.'”

So they set forth (do people “set forth” any more?) over fields and meadows, hedges and ditches, and they come to a large forest, where things start to go wrong.  Turns out their wicked stepmother (in a shocking development)  “was in reality a witch,” and she had cast spells over all of the streams in the forest.  Brother and sister became terribly thirsty, but when they stooped down to drink, they could hear the streams warning them not to partake.  When they came to the third brook (things always come in threes), the stream said, “Who drinks of me will be a roe! who drinks of me will be a roe!”  But the little boy was so thirsty that he drank anyway, and here is what happened:

"Brother and Sister" / illus. by H.J. Ford

"Brother and Sister" / illus. by H.J. Ford

They stay in the woods for a long time, making beds of moss and leaves, and eating roots, nuts, and berries.  Peculiar things happen (no particular surprise there), and somewhere along the way, the sister meets a man with a gold crown on his head, who looks kindly at her, holds out his hand, and says, “Will you come with me to my castle and be my dear wife?”  (I like that—no fuss, no muss, no bother!)

She of course immediately accepts, but she insists that the roe deer must come along too.  To make a long story short, the wicked stepmother appears once again and casts some evil spells, but in the end the king wises up to her tricks and condemns her to death.  “As soon as the old witch was dead, the spell was taken off the little roe and he was restored to his natural shape once more, and so brother and sister lived happily ever after.” (And I guess the king does too, but he isn’t mentioned at the end, which gives the tale a distinctly incestuous spin.)

As a child I spent many hours turning the pages of this and other similar books, living in the world of ghosts and goblins, princes and princesses,  magical horses and giant polar bears.  I’m afraid to say that all of this strange stuff seems to have left its mark on my impressionable young mind.  In particular, the idea of the enchanted forest has always stayed with me.  But you already knew that, if you have been following this blog.