Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Knights Templar and Holy Grail in America?

I just watched a really amazing show on the History Channel called "The Holy Grail in America." The premise was that there is circumstantial evidence indicating that exiles from the Knights Templar explored America over 100 years before Christopher Columbus made his 1492 voyage. The Knights Templar had been outlawed by the Pope in 1307 and many were slaughtered as a result. Legend has it that other groups of the Templars (who were rumored to possess the Holy Grail - known possibly as the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper) fled to far flung locations including Scotland and Portugal to escape the Pope's armies. Some claim that a few groups of Templars actually traveled to North America to hide a grand treasure. The chisled stone shown on the left is known as the Kensington Runestone. It was discovered in 1898 in Minnesota, and the stone's inscription indicated that it was written in 1362, hundreds of years before any other Europeans explored the area. Further, the inscription was written in a language including characters widely used by the Knights Templar. Experts have debated widely over the accuracy of the stone, but geologic testing has indicated that it indeed dates to the 14th century. More circumstantial evidence also suggests that other Templar Knights explored the New England coast in the late 1390s, leaving behind several carved stones with writing similar to that found on the Kensington Runestone. Some people also claim that the Holy Grail is possibly hidden somewhere in North America! One suggested location is Oak Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia. Some claim that a major treasure was hidden by Knights Templars deep underground in a booby-trapped island. For decades, people have tried to discover this treasure but have failed because of the booby-traps. Further, some scholars calim that Christopher Columbus was himself associated with the Knights Templar (via family connections), and found his way to America in 1492 because of directions handed down by the Templar Knights! This theory is based partly on the fact that Columbus used Templar symbols in his writing. While a lot of this is all highly debatable and unproven, it certainly gives us all a lot to think about! Kudos to the History Channel for providing such fascinating programming!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The British Invade Hampton Roads

Many Virginia Peninsula residents know about the fight against the British at Yorktown during the American Revolution. However, fewer know about a second British invasion of the region that occurred in later years. During the War of 1812, the British invaded Hampton Roads. Although the Americans scored a victory outside of Norfolk, the British later ransacked and burned Hampton. General Sir George Cockburn (shown here) led the British forces.

From Wikipedia - "Admiral Sir George Cockburn commanded a British fleet blockading Chesapeake Bay. In early 1813, Cockburn and Admiral Sir John B. Warren planned to attack the Gosport Shipyard in Portsmouth and capture the frigate U.S.S. Constellation. Brigadier General Robert B. Taylor commanded the Virginia Militia in the Norfolk area. Taylor hastily built defenses around Norfolk and Portsmouth, but he had no intentions of letting the British penetrate as far as those two cities. Instead Taylor commandeered several ships and created a barrier across the Elizabeth River. He next built fortifications on Craney Island at the mouth of the Elizabeth River near Hampton Roads. Since the Constellation was already penned up in the Chesapeake because of the British blockade, the ship's crew was used to man some of the redoubts on the island. In all, 150 Americans were defending the fortifications on Craney Island.

On the morning of June 22, 1813, a British landing party of 700 Royal Marines and soldiers of the 102nd Regiment along with a company of Independent Foreigners came ashore at Hoffler's Creek near the mouth of the Nansemond River to the west of Craney Island. When the British landed, the defenders realized they were not flying a flag and quickly raised an American flag over the breastworks. The defenders fired, and the attackers began to fall back, realizing that they could not ford the water between the mainland and the island (the Thoroughfare) under such fire. British barges manned by sailors, Royal Marines, and the other company of Independent Foreigners then attempted to attack the eastern side of the island. Defending this portion was a company of light artillery under the command of Captain Arthur Emmerson. Emmerson ordered his gunners to hold their fire until the British were in range. Once they opened fire, the British attackers were driven off, with some barges destroyed, and they retreated back to the ships.

The Americans had scored a defensive victory in the face of a larger force. Norfolk and the Gosport Navy Yard were spared from attack. Having failed in their attempt to attack Norfolk, Admirals Warren and Cockburn moved north for actions in the Chesapeake Bay, including an attempt to attack St. Michaels, Maryland, in August.

Two days later, the British crossed the Hampton Roads from Craney Island to take revenge on Hampton, Va. — the town was burned and left in ruins. Most of the atrocities were committed by men of the Independent Companies of Foreigners, former French prisoners of war recruited from British prison hulks. While they were renowned for indiscipline, their actions at Hampton were not entirely unprovoked. During the landing, a boat containing 17 men of the Independent Companies became stranded on a shoal off shore, and the men were massacred by the American defenders despite their attempts to surrender. Enraged by the merciless treatment of their comrades by the Americans, the remainder of the Independent Companies ran amok when they landed. A British officer recorded the result in his diary: "Every horror was perpetrated with impunity — rape, murder, pillage — and not a single man was punished."

Sunday, September 6, 2009

W&M's OTHER Confederate General

Following my last post about Brig. Gen. Edwin G. Lee, I was asked about the identity of the OTHER William and Mary alumnus who served as a general in the Confederate Army. His name was William Booth Taliaferro (1822-1898), and he was a Gloucester County, Virginia native who served as a military officer, attorney, judge, and state legislator during his long career. General Taliaferro is shown here in a Civil War-era photograph. The following is some biographical information on him from Wikipedia:

"William Booth Taliaferro (who pronounced his Italian surname as "tah'-liver") was born in Gloucester County, Virginia, to a prominent family of English origin who settled in Virginia in the 17th century. He was the nephew of James A. Seddon, who would become Secretary of War for the Confederate States of America under Jefferson Davis. Taliaferro attended Harvard University and William and Mary College, graduating from the latter in 1841.

Taliaferro joined the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War, fighting in both the 11th and 9th U.S. Infantry regiments. After the war, Taliaferro entered public life, serving as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and as a prominent backer of James Buchanan's presidential campaign in 1856. He also continued his military service as commander of a division of the Virginia state militia; he commanded at Harpers Ferry following the raid of that town's arsenal by John Brown.

Taliaferro became commander of Virginia's state militia following Virginia's secession in 1861; he later took command of the 23rd Virginia Regiment as a colonel. He fought several engagements in 1861 and by the end of the year had ascended to brigade command, where he led Confederate forces at the Battle of Greenbrier River, in what is now West Virginia.

Taliaferro's Brigade came under Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's command at the end of 1861. He remained with Jackson for some years, rising to division command in 1862. Taliaferro was seriously injured at the Battle of Second Bull Run (Second Manassas), but returned to the field in the time for the Battle of Fredericksburg, his last battle under Jackson.

Taliaferro was a strict and aloof commander who alienated many of his troops. There is at least one known circumstance when one of his troops actually assaulted him, though Taliaferro was unscathed. Taliaferro chafed under the command of General Jackson, complaining to his political colleagues in Virginia about Jackson's tactics and treatment of the men. Jackson later protested Taliaferro's promotion to brigadier general, while Taliaferro was still under Jackson's command; however, Jackson respected Taliaferro's leadership and military ability and did not continue to stand in his way. Jackson later would select Taliaferro for temporary divisional command in specific engagements.

After Fredericksburg, Taliaferro was given command of the District of Savannah. In this capacity he led troops at the Battle of Fort Wagner on Morris Island, a battle that has since been depicted in the movie Glory. Taliaferro was commended for his service in that battle.

In 1864, Taliaferro was given command of all forces in the Eastern district of Florida, which made him the overall commander at the Battle of Olustee that February. He subsequently returned to South Carolina, where he was made commander of all forces in that state. Taliaferro was still in command when Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman entered the state from Savannah. Taliaferro returned to Virginia when the Army of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida surrendered later that year.

After the war, Taliaferro lived in Gloucester County. He served again in the state legislature and as a judge and sat on the board of the College of William and Mary and the Virginia Military Institute. He died at his home, "Dunham Massie", aged 75, and is buried in Ware Church Cemetery, Gloucester County, Virginia. His collected papers are located at the College of William and Mary's Swem Library."