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June 3, 2020

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Short Rounds

Lt. Halsey Meets “That Damned Yachtsman”

One day in 1916, the destroyer Flusser (DD-20) was cruising up the Maine coast. Although one of the oldest destroyers in the fleet, Flusser was still a relatively new vessel, having been commissioned only in 1909. Her skipper at the time was, Lt. William F. Halsey, Jr., U.S.N.

Halsey had been in the Navy only a little longer than his ship, having graduated from Annapolis in 1904. On this particular day he and Flusser chanced to be hosting the young Assistant Secretary of the Navy, one Franklin D. Roosevelt, cousin of a certain former president. As Flusser approached the narrow strait between Campobello Island and the mainland, Roosevelt observed that he knew the local waters quite well, having sailed them often, and offered to con the ship through the treacherous passage.

The offer put young Halsey between a rock and a hard place; he could refuse the offer of the Assistant Secretary, and thus possibly ruin his career, or he could accept it, in which case if “that damned yachtsman” ran the ship aground, his career would likewise be ruined. Weighing the odds, Halsey concluded that his career prospects were probably better if he acceded to Roosevelt’s suggestion, and ceded the helm to the Assistant Secretary.

Halsey’s fears for his future quickly evaporated. He would later write, “As Mr. Roosevelt made his first turn, I saw him look aft and check the swing of our stern. My worries were over; he knew his business.” Thus did Flusser make it safely through the narrow passage, and both men later go on to greater things.

 

“At Least, Your Holiness . . . .”

Late in 1494 King Charles VIII of France – like most of his line a little dotty in the head – invaded Italy with the intention of asserting a slender claim to the throne of Naples, just then occupied by a cadet branch of the House of Aragon. As the French Army was the best in the world at the time, it quickly overran most of the Peninsula, taking Naples itself on March 31, 1495. In mid-June, the conquest seemingly complete, Charles left some 20,000 troops to occupy his new kingdom, and began the long trek back to France. Meanwhile, King Ferrante II of Naples appealed for support to his uncle, King Ferdinand of Aragon, better known to history as part of the famous team of “Ferdinand and Isabella.”

Now Ferdinand was a notorious pinch-penny (remember how Isabella supposedly had to hock her jewels to finance Columbus?), but even before the French had taken Naples he could see the necessity of supporting his kinsmen. So he sent Ferrante some money, and Gonzalvo Fernandez de Cordoba y Aguilar, a commander who had proven himself in the wars against the Moors in Spain and the Turks in the Ionian Islands.

Commanded by Cordoba, Sicilian, Neapolitan, and Spanish troops landed near Naples. The commander of the French garrison in the city foolishly offered battle outside the walls. Scarcely had his troops marched out when the Neapolitans rose, slaughtered the few troops he had left inside the city, and closed the gates against him. Threatened by Cordoba’s army in front and the raging people of Naples to his rear, the French commander retreated. Naples was recovered for King Ferrante on July 7, 1495, just two weeks after Charles VIII had marched north! Cordoba quickly went on to clear the French out of the rest of the kingdom. This was an arduous task, for other French garrison commanders were by no means as stupid as the one who had lost Naples; the “storied headland fortress” of Gaeta, for example, garrisoned by 2,500 French and turncoat-Neapolitans, held out for 71 days. Thus it was not until late in 1496 that the last French garrison was rooted out.

With that, King Ferdinand instructed Cordoba – whom the Italians nicknamed “The Great Captain,” which the Spanish quickly adopted and by which he is forever known – to press on to Rome. Although of Spanish – indeed Aragonese – descent, Pope Alexander VI, a miserable excuse for a pontiff, had collaborated with the French invaders, and Ferdinand appears to have wished to “impress” upon His Holiness the importance of supporting the Spanish Crown.

Thus it was that early in 1497 El Gran Capitan and his army entered Rome, to a great reception staged by the Pope. As the army passed in review before him, Pope Alexander, clearly not knowing how parsimonious – or maybe just cheap – King Ferdinand was, expressed shock when he saw how ragged was the appearance of the troops.

In response to the Pope’s inquiry, Cordoba replied, "At least, Your Holiness, no one will think of attacking them for the sake of loot."

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