Historian and military veteran Patrick K. O’Donnell joined SiriusXM host Alex Marlow on the special Memorial Day edition of Breitbart News Daily to talk about his new book, Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution.
“Washington’s Immortals captures the story of the Maryland Line and the Delaware Blues, and their battles through the north and south in the American Revolution, the big battles and the small battles,” O’Donnell said.
He described the Siege of Ninety Six as “one of those small, tiny little battles that nobody’s ever heard about, unless you live near this place.”
“It’s near the Georgia-South Carolina border. It was an outpost in the American Revolution called Ninety Six,” he explained. “Ninety Six was a fortification that was made largely of earthen walls and things like that. They built something called a ‘star fort,’ which looked like a star. It was occupied by loyal Americans.”
“Washington’s Immortals really captures why the American Revolution was so complex. It was not only a conventional war, but it was an insurgency as well as a civil war. There was a large amount of Americans – about a third of Americans, we don’t really even know the full number – that were loyal Americans to the crown. Ninety Six was occupied by those loyal Americans,” he clarified.
“General Greene, who had control of the southern army – the backbone of that army was Washington’s Immortals, the Marylanders and Delaware Blues, along with militia. They sieged this place. It’s an incredible story of American innovation, because Greene’s army never had enough troops for a siege, or even siege weapons, so they kind of made them up,” O’Donnell said.
“One of the things that I found really interesting about Ninety-Six – and this thing still exists to this day – they actually used a sapping tunnel to burrow under the fort, and they were going to plant explosives. This is kind of like what happened in the Civil War outside of Richmond, where they detonated this thing called the Crater. It’s very similar,” he said.
“They were planning to do that, and what happened was that they found out British reinforcements were going to be arriving into Ninety Six,” he said. “These were led by a guy named Francis Lord Rawdon, who was Cornwallis’ handpicked successor. Basically, the cavalry was coming with Rawdon to reinforce Ninety Six. Greene had to make a decision, and he had to attack in order to try and take out the fort before the reinforcements got there.”
O’Donnell said the Marylanders were obliged to mount what was then known as a “forlorn hope” operation – in other words, a suicide mission. They saw no other way to open the path into the fort but to race ahead of the assault force with axes, chopping down every obstacle in the way.
“It was a disaster,” he said. “The fort withheld, and the defenders were able to pour fire into the entrenchments as the Marylanders went in there.”
“One of the great little stories of Ninety Six involves an African-American soldier. This is a time in American history where we had an integrated army,” O’Donnell noted. “There were literally African-Americans and other groups of men fighting side-by-side with the Marylanders. It was a fairly small number, less than ten percent, but still one of those men was Thomas Carney, who had fought in many of the battles of the American Revolution. He was a free African-American. He basically jumped in, he was part of the forlorn hope, and his officer Perry Benson was shot in the head. Thomas Carney carried this guy out in a fireman’s carry, brought him out.”
O’Donnell said battles like the Ninety Six created the first American “band of brothers,” with men like Benson and Carney remaining best friends for the rest of their lives. Despite their valor, the Siege of Ninety Six was a defeat for the revolutionaries – or at least, it was until the reinforced loyalist company decided to abandon the fort and blow it up behind them, belatedly achieving General Greene’s objective for him.
Another lesser-known battle from American history O’Donnell highlighted for the Memorial Day broadcast was the Battle of Belleau Wood in World War I. He called it one of his favorite war stories, an incredible story from the summer of 1918 almost unknown to modern audiences.
“The German army was on a roll, and they seemed unstoppable,” he recalled. “They had just defeated the Russians a few months earlier. They were able to transfer hundreds of thousands of battle-hardened troops to the Western front, which had been stalemated for years. They were basically conducting offensive operations, beginning in March. This was one of those operations.”
He said the Germans were planning a feint near Paris, knowing that every advance on the city drew an immediate French response, and then hit British troops while the French were distracted.
“What happened is, the feint actually worked really well. They blew a hole in the French line, and it seemed unstoppable. The Germans were rolling through, and Paris was about 40 miles away. The French army at the time was literally melting away. Morale had plummeted. There were plans to abandon Paris,” O’Donnell said.
“The only units in reserve were the American army. The two units that were there were the 3rd Division and the 2nd Infantry Division, which were part of the U.S. Army. Part of the 2nd Infantry Division was the 4th Brigade, which consisted of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments. These were some of the most experienced troops in the entire American army. They’d fought in numerous engagements prior to that. They were seasoned regulars,” he explained.
O’Donnell said these units were rushed in to slow the German advance, amid doubts they could possibly hold their ground. An American officer sought to reassure the French by pointing out that “in 150 years, American regulars have never been beaten.”
“First the 3rd Division, the 7th machine gun battalion went into this place called Chateau-Thierry, and they slowed things down – enough time for the 2nd Division to set up. They set up around a place called Belleau Wood, and they held the line,” he said.
O’Donnell noted that some famous quotes from the Americans are remembered more clearly by posterity than the circumstances of the battle itself, such as Marine Captain Lloyd Williams’ response to the French when they asked why his unit was not retreating: “Retreat? Hell, we just got here.”
“They dug in, and it sets up for an epic battle,” he said. “Belleau Wood is important because the forest itself was a natural defensive position. It was an excellent place for the Germans to fortify and potentially continue their advance on Paris.”
“There are some really tragic moments here where the Marine Corps, the tactics had not been fully fleshed out. In several of the charges on June 6, for instance – the same day as D-Day – the Marines charged across open wheat fields, in lines that are kind of reminiscent of the Civil War, and they’re charging directly into German machine guns.”
He said this tragic loss of life was accompanied by “incredible stories of heroism.”
“Dan Daly, for instance, with the 73rd machine gun company urges his men forward, there’s a famous line: ‘Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?’ And they literally charge and take out the machine guns,” he recalled.
“You talk about an epic figure – this guy had received already two Medals of Honor,” he said of Daly. “One for defending something called the Peking Wall in Beijing in the Boxer Rebellion, where he as a single Marine held this entire walled compound against hundreds of Chinese Boxers who literally believed that they were invincible to bullets, and with a single machine gun took out over a hundred Chinese who had attacked the compound. He received his first Medal of Honor there, and then later in Haiti he also distinguishes himself hundreds of bandits, they hold the compound there.”
“Daly and his men surged forward, many of the Marines take positions including a place called Hill 142, but many of the men in the old breed are killed during these charges,” he said of the Battle of Belleau Wood.
“But what happens next is, there was a reporter that was assigned to the Marine Corps. His name was Floyd Gibbons. Gibbons is charging with the Marines. He’s shot in the head, loses an eye during the assault. But he gets out his story. It’s one of the first times where they were able to announce who they were fighting with. Pershing had some really serious censorship rules where they weren’t able to announce who the men were, or the units, or anything else. But they were able to use ‘Marine Corps,’ and that basically went viral, for 1918,” O’Donnell said, putting the tremendous impact of the story in a modern context.
“The entire world, it’s a sensational story. Belleau Wood becomes the place of battle on the Western Front, across the United States and the Western world. The Germans see this, and they realize that they must destroy the Marine Corps. They literally bring in their finest units – the 28th Infantry, which had done extremely well in Verdun, as well as the 5th Prussian Guards. They try to destroy the Marine Corps with their finest elite units. The Marine Corps basically destroys them at Belleau Wood,” he said.
“It’s one of the few times in history, in World War I, where the German army – which goes on the defensive, attempts to defensively hold Belleau Wood – is unable to do it against what emerges as one of the elite units in World War I, the Marine Corps, and then later in history.”
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