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July 15, 2019

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Short Rounds

The Juaristas Attempt to Assassinate Napoleon III

In the early 1860s, with the United States preoccupied by the Civil War, with the help of a defeated conservative faction in the Mexico, French Emperor Napoleon III attempted to impose on the country a puppet regime headed by an Austrian Prince, Maximilian von Hapsburg.

Despite the inability of their armies to cope with Napoleon’s professional troops, the Mexican people, led by President Benito Juarez, resisted desperately, and a protracted people’s war resulted.

By early 1866 Napoleon III was already contemplating a withdrawal from Mexico (perhaps encouraged by the presence of a large U.S. army under Phil Sheridan camped along the Rio Grande). This, of course, was not known to the Juaristas. Among the leaders of the Mexican patriots, someone hatched a scheme to end the war by assassinating Napoleon.

The plan was simple. The chosen agent was one José Maria Cocio. Cocio had a unique talent, he was an expert archer, perhaps the best in Mexico. The plan was to get Cocio to France, where sympathetic expatriates would help him procure a bow and arrows, and a supply of poison, and then await an opportunity to do in the Emperor.

Now Napoleon maintained pretty good security, as a result of the several attempts to knock him off. The most notable of these was the 1858 plot to blow up his carriage hatched by the Italian nationalist Felice Orsini. Nevertheless, the Juarista plot arguably had a very good chance of succeeding. While the Emperor’s security personnel were alert to the danger posed by bombs, daggers, or firearms, they had probably never given a thought to the possibility that someone might try bumping him off using an arrow.

But Cocio never left Mexico. There was a leak, and the plot was blown. As a result, Mexico had to endure Napoleon the Little for another year, while the French were stuck with him for four more.

Footnote: Napoleon I’s Brush with Archery. During the campaign of 1813, in Central Europe, the Napoleon I and his staff were riding along one day when they were ambushed by a brigade of Bashkir mounted archers, rendering feudal service to their Tsar, though the imperial escort prevented anything untoward from happening.

 

"Sir, You’re Wanted on the Bridge . . . ."

In 1923 the U.S. Navy conducted the first of what would become a series of 21 “fleet problems,” major maneuvers in which significant portions of the fleet conducted unscripted operations against each other in the pursuit of specific strategic or operational goals. The purpose of these more or less annual maneuvers was to train the fleet for war under the most realistic conditions possible.

The problem set for 1923 was the defense of Pacific side of the Panama Canal Zone against an attack from “Black” – a code designation for Japan. The exercises were to involve 165 ships, half the Navy, and virtually all of its heavier warships, crewed by nearly 40,000 men, divided into two fleets.

In addition to these objectives, some clever fellows in the Navy realized that the fleet problem could be turned into a major public relations triumph, an important consideration given that in the years immediately following the Great War the budget had been slashed drastically by the fiscally conservative administration of Warren G. Harding, supported by an isolationist Republican-dominated Congress.

So the Navy invited members of Congress and the press to witness the maneuvers. Since Fleet Problem I was to be held off Panama, the opportunity to spend a few weeks in the Caribbean at the Navy’s expense proved irresistible; eight Senators, seventy Representatives, and about twenty members of the press jumped at the invitation. The care and feeding of this horde of congresscritters and scriveners was entrusted to one of the best officers in the service, a bright young captain with a knack for diplomacy named Arthur MacArthur III, who commanded the transport Henderson (AP-1). The elder brother of the more famous Douglas, Arthur (1876-1923), had graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1896 (perhaps spending his childhood and youth on isolated posts on the frontier had soured him to an army career). He rose quickly in the Navy, attaining a captaincy during World War I, having held a variety of staff and line assignments, as well as successive command of a submarine, a destroyer, a minesweeper, an armored cruiser, and a pre-dreadnought battleship.

The congresscritters and ink-stained wretches of the fourth estate boarded the Henderson at Norfolk, Virginia, and the ship proceeded south. Barely a day later, the ship encountered very heavy seas off Cape Hatteras. She battled the waves for hours on end, well into the night. Around midnight, the seas grew even worse. Aware of the reputation of Cape Hatteras as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic,” the officer on watch decided he should summon the captain; after all, it would hardly do to lose the ship, and with her a major chunk of the Congress and some of the most notable journalists in the country. So he dispatched a young sailor with instructions to wake the captain.

The young man made his way to the captain’s cabin, quietly entered, and gently shook him on the shoulder. “Sir, you’re wanted on the bridge.”

Much to the sailor’s surprise, from the bed arose not Captain MacArthur, but Edwin Denby, the Secretary of the Navy, to whom the tactful skipper had ceded his cabin. Naturally, the nervous sailor apologized profusely and went off to seek MacArthur, all the while fearing a thorough dressing down.

Fortunately, both Denby and MacArthur took the matter in good humor. MacArthur proceeded to the bridge, the ship was saved, and the fleet problem proceeded as planned, and ended with a spectacular demonstration of the potential value of the aircraft carrier (despite the fact that two battleships had to stand in for the flattops, since there were as yet none in the fleet).

And Captain MacArthur – alas, he died of appendicitis in late December 1923 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

 

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