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April 19, 2019

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Short Rounds

For the Greater Glory of Rome

In the dying years of the Roman Republic, men were wont to look back to earlier times, when everyone served for the honor of the state.

Well, perhaps. But not always.

Late in 144 B.C. Q. Caecillius Metellus Macedonicus was elected one of the co-consuls for the following year. An accomplished commander (he had earned a triumph and the honorific “Macedonicus” for crushing a rebellion in Macedonia while propraetor there in 146 B.C.), Metellus was given direction of the war against the Celtiberi in Spain, and was continued in this assignment as proconsul when his consulship expired at the onset of 142 B.C. He conducted the war with skill and honor, earning great respect from the Celtiberi by his chivalric actions, and the work of pacification progressed well. Metellus’ tenure in Spain, however, was to come to an end before the work was done. For following the consular elections for 141 B.C., Quintus Pompeius, one of the newly elected co-consuls, was assigned the province.

Although both men came from plebian families, there were considerable differences between them. The Metelli were an ancient house, full of honors, staunch champions of the aristocratic faction in Roman politics. Pompeius was a “new man,” the first in his family to attain the consulship. Though it’s unlikely that Pompeius’ father had been a flute-player, as aristo propaganda asserted, he had come from humble roots, pulling himself up by his skills as an orator and soldier, not to mention slick political maneuverer. He was also an adherent of the popular party. In short, Metellus and Pompeius were fierce political enemies.

Needless to say, Metellus was outraged that he would be succeeded by Pompeius. It was more than just politics. Since Metellus had not yet completed the subjugation of Spain, the job would be finished by Pompeius, who would thereby earn a triumph; in effect, the upstart was stealing Metellus’ honors. This was so irksome that Metellus set about sabotaging Pompeius’ chances of securing a final victory. As the Roman historian Valerius Maximus tells us, Metellus:
discharged any soldiers who wanted their service terminated, granted leaves of absence to anyone who applied, without inquiring into the reasons for the request or setting them a time to return to duty, removed the guards from the magazines, leaving them open to looters, ordered the bows and arrows of the Cretan archers to be broken and thrown into a river, and forbade rations to be issued to the elephants, so they would starve.

Then, rather than awaiting the arrival of his replacement, as was the custom, Metellus departed immediately for Rome. As a result, by the time Pompeius reached Spain, the army was in terrible shape. Naturally, Pompeius had a hard time on campaign in Spain. His army was defeated several times. An attempt to recoup his losses by besieging the major Celtiberian city of Numantia only led to terrible privation and disease among the troops. Fearful that Metellus and the other aristocrats in the Senate might take his failures as grounds to recall him, Pompeius proposed peace terms. If the Numantines would make a public show of surrendering un¬conditionally, he would demand from them only the release of the Roman prisoners or deserters they held, plus some hostages and 30 talents of gold, leaving them with their lands and freedom intact. The Numan¬tines knew a good deal when they saw one, and a peace was promptly arranged. Thus, when Pompeius’ command in Spain ended, in 138 B.C., he could claim to have pacified the region. Now, Pompeius’ replacement as proconsul was M. Popillius Laenas, one of the co-consuls for 139. Popillius was also an aristocrat and also one of Pompeius’ political enemies. So in a parting gesture reminiscent of that made by Metellus upon his departure form Spain, Pompeius disowned the treaty with the Numantines and went off to Rome with his 30 talents, leaving a renewed war to his replacement.

FootNote: In one of the little ironies of history, a few years later Metellus and Pom¬peius were elected censors for 131 B.C. And an acrimonious censorship that was.

 

Lawfare . . . Nineteenth Century Style

The Second Seminole War (1835-1842), was a protracted attempt by the Army to force the Seminoles and some allied peoples out of Florida for “relocation” in what is now Oklahoma. A guerrilla war in the swamps and jungles of Florida, it dragged on and on and on.

The war more or less petered out in 1842. It had by then soaked up perhaps $30 million or $40 million in very uninflated money and at various times tied up about 40,000 troops, regulars, volunteers, and militiamen together, against a few hundred Seminoles. The death toll was about 1,500 American troops, mostly from disease, plus an unknown number of civilians, and an equally unknown number of Seminoles. Everyone was tired, and enough of the Seminoles accepted relocation for the Army to declare “victory,” though most other Seminoles merely disappeared into the swamps and jungles.

Many of the most notable names in the annals of early nineteenth century American military history served in the war, Winfield Scott, Zachary Taylor, William Gaines, William S. Harney, William J. Worth, Thomas Jesup, not to mention a very young William Tecumseh Sherman, and even Jim Beckworth, the famous mulatto scout and Mountain Man. But none of them garnered much glory in the process. In fact, the war caused Zachary Taylor considerable tsurris.

In late 1837, Taylor was a colonel commanding a brigade of about a thousand or so men at Tampa. Marching south on November 27th, by mid-December, the column had reached Fort Gardiner, on the upper reaches of the Kissimmee River. His command consisted of about 700 regulars, from his own 1st Infantry plus the 4th and the 6th Infantry Regiments, and nearly 250 or so from the Regiment of Missouri Volunteers, under Col. Richard Gentry, and the associated “Missouri Spy Battalion,” the latter unit supposedly composed of particularly tough frontiersmen. On December 19th Taylor set off downriver towards Lake Okeechobee. Over the next two days about ninety Seminoles surrendered. On the 22nd Taylor stopped to hastily erect the earth-and-timber Fort Basinger, leaving a small garrison to protect his sick and guard his Seminole prisoners. With his field force reduced to about 800, three days later, on Christmas, Taylor’s column encountered the main body of the Seminoles on the north end of Lake Okeechobee.

The Seminoles, who numbered some 350-400 under the leadership of the war chiefs Alligator, Sam Jones, and Coacoochee, were well dug-in, holding a thickly wooded hammock standing just a little above the surrounding swampy ground, which was covered with a couple of feet of muddy water BD dense with sawgrass. The Seminoles had prepared the ground carefully. They had cleared fields of fire, and even notched trees or provide range markers. The troops would have to cross a swampy area three feet deep in water, mud, and sharp sawgrass to reach the Indian position.

Taylor ordered the Missourians, who had dwindled to only little more than 200 men, to open the fight. Colonel Gentry objected, observing that the Indians had clearly prepared the site carefully, and recommended a flank attack. But Taylor insisted. As a result, the Seminoles dealt the Missourians a stinging rebuff, slaying three and more than 20 enlisted men, while mortally wounding Gentry and some others. The Missourians retreated, in some disorder. Taylor tried again, throwing in 200 men of the 6th Infantry, with results but little different, four officers dead and overall 40-percent casualties, killed or wounded. Rallying his troops, Taylor committed most of them – regulars and the handful of volunteers who could be rallied – to an attack, some 400 to 500 men. The attack pushed the Seminoles back. As the Seminoles attempted to escape across the lake, Taylor essayed a flank attack with the remaining 200 men from the 1st Infantry, but was unsuccessful

The Battle of Lake Okeechobee, the largest set piece fight in the war, was over. It had cost Taylor nearly 30 men killed in action, mostly officers and non-coms, plus 112 wounded. The Seminoles reportedly lost 11 or 12 men killed and slightly more wounded. But, having captured the Seminole position, along with about 100 horses and 600 head of cattle, Taylor promptly reported a victory, and received a promotion to brigadier general as his reward.

Then his real troubles began.

In his report, Taylor noted that the Missourians had “received and returned the enemy’s fire with spirit for some time before they broke and retired.” Although he mentioned notable exceptions to this skedaddle, this “slur” on their state’s honor outraged many Missourians. The volunteers themselves exacerbated the situation by claiming to have fought like lions, and even complained that he had "treated them like Negroes." Letters from irate Missourians appeared in the popular and the military press attacking Taylor. Some Missourians publicly offered to horsewhip or challenge the colonel. Members of the Missouri state legislature orated endlessly in protest. Some of the volunteers even filed suit in a state court, which was dismissed, reluctantly, because the court had no jurisdiction.

More was to come. Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, one of the most powerful men in Congress, accused Taylor of sacrificing the volunteers in order to protect the regulars from harm, and introduced a resolution to exonerate the volunteers, declaring that they were “good soldiers and brave men” and that Taylor’s report was “inherently false.”

Fortunately, Taylor had friends in Congress, as well as enemies.

 

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