South African Military 
History Society


January 2006

Contact: Mike Laing 031 2051 951
Society's website address: -

DDH Talk: "Military anecdotes from the Crimean War 1853-1856" by John Goodrich

Some of these anecdotes were funny while others were tragic. As John Goodrich put it, the Crimean War is a study of stupidity in war.

We learnt that the little fur cap called the Busby was so named because this was the name of the manufacturers, and that Lord Raglan preferred to fight the war from within his house, while he referred to the enemy as the French and occasionally the French (Allies) as our enemy.

For the first time the camera goes to war: thanks to Fenton we have an amazing photographic record of the battles. We saw a superb picture of the narrow valley up which the Light Brigade charged, still littered with cannon ball.

The winter was severe, and women in England knitted "Balaclava'" helmets for the men (these are still very popular). The term Bunny Jacket comes from the coarse sheepskin Jackets that men wore to keep warm in the trenches. The troops were called "Rabbits" and then "Bunnies" because they burrowed in the dirt to make their trenches.

The lack of medical care during this period was frightening. Over 4000 men died in action while over 17000 died of various diseases. Hospital ships would carry the wounded and sick troops from the battlefield to Constantinople the nearest hospital, those who died en route were dumped overboard, a matter of hygiene, to leave a trail of floating corpses across the Black Sea. Chloroform was used as an anaesthetic for bullet wounds but not for amputations.

The arrival of Florenece Nightingale and her team of nurses changed things significantly. By 1900 there were more women in England called Flo than Victoria, which upset Her Royal Majesty.

The Victoria Cross was also introduced during this period, cast from the bronze of the captured guns. Previously, the only award for bravery was the Al Valore Militare, from Sardinia.

Before returning to England the men were required to learn etiquette and good manners at meals; thus was the introduction of the Formal Mess Dinner.

Main Talk: "Vicksburg - the key to the Mississippi" by Robin Smith

The talk was far more complex than the title suggests. Like Gaul, it is divided into three parts. It began with a biography of Ulysses S Grant: it described the campaigns of 1861, 1862: and then the siege and surrender of Vicksburg in May/July 1863.

I. Ulysses Grant was born in 1822, worked on a farm and became an expert horseman. He entered West Point Military Academy at age 17 and graduated in 1843 to become a lieutenant in the 4th Infantry. He resigned his captain's commission in 1854, because his pay was inadequate to support his wife and family. He attempted farming, but this failed. In 1858 he moved to St Louis and finally he went to work for his father in his leather store in Galena, Illinois (of which we saw a beautiful picture). The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 changed everything: he was appointed Brigadier General in command of the district centred on Cairo on the Mississippi river.

II. The opening of the Mississippi river was vital to the Union for moving their grain and meal, and so it became the main strategic objective of the Union. The Confederate troops had advanced to Columbus (on the Mississippi); and so Grant in September immediately occupied Paducah on the Ohio river. The next step was to control the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers by capturing Fort Henry and Fort Donnellson. Only after a wait of 4 months did Grant get the order to take Fort Henry. This he did with the use of four ironclad gunboats. On the 11 February he advanced on Fort Donnellson, a far tougher nut to crack. But it fell on 16 February; there were 12000 prisoners, including General Simon Bolivar Buckner, an old friend from the 1850's. There followed the dreadful battle of Shiloh, 6 & 7 April 1862, with over 20 000 Union casualties. Here General William Sherman played a key role in saving the Union forces from complete destruction. In May 1862, Union forces had captured New Orleans and their fleet was on the lower Mississippi. The last fortified Confederate town on the Mississippi was Vicksburg; capture it and the Union forces control the river.

III. Vicksburg sits high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, over a kilometre wide at that point: a most formidable position. By December 1862, Sherman and his XV Corps had arrived. The Navy had assembled gunboats under Admiral David Porter. But together their attacks from the North were unsuccessful. (the USS Cairo was sunk by a mine). Grant developed a new strategy: with the support of the gunboats, move down the river, cross to the East, then move up and attack Vicksburg from the right. On 1st May the army was across and on 14th May the strategically important town of Jackson, 80km to the east of Vicksburg, was captured. (This was army-navy co-operation at its best). The Confederates made a stand at Champion Hill, midway between Jackson and Vicksburg. They were defeated with a loss of 3800 men. By the 18th May the Federal troops reached the fortifications surrounding Vicksburg. The siege began; trenches and tunnels. Two mines were exploded on the 25th June but the troops could not break through. On 3rd July the confederates asked for an armistice: they were running out of food and water. Grant demanded "unconditional surrender". On the 4th July 1863, Grant and Pemberton agreed to the surrender terms unconditional, with Confederate troops paroled. Grant had eliminated 31 000 Confederate troops and captured 60 000 rifles - losses that the Confederates could not afford. But the war would go on until April 1863: another two years of slaughter.

IV. Robin fleshed out this dry outline with fascinating descriptions of the many soldiers involved, and of the wonderful Military Park at Vicksburg including the remains of the USS Cairo which was raised from the Yazoo River in 1964. And the most amazing of all, we met "Old Abe", the eagle mascot, who survived not only the battles of Vicksburg, but also the Civil war.

Vote of Thanks
Derek Petersen thanked the speakers at some length. John Goodrich's talk had him chuckling again and again. And at last we now know the origin of the mess dinner!

Robin Smith gave us a new insight into that huge and ugly war. The pictures of the commanders and the battlefields were especially beautiful. An excellent evening all round.

Please remember that the February meeting will be held on THE SECOND THURSDAY OF FEBRUARY, the 9 February 2006.

The MAIN talk will be given by Professor Philip Everitt, on the South African Regiments at Tobruk this will cover issues such as battles fought, the guns used and the men who manned them.

The DDH of February will cover issues of the Border war as seen by Adrian van Schaik. The talk is entitled Border Operational Experiences

The February 2006 program has all the hallmarks of outstanding talks and is certainly one not to be missed!!

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The 4th Swartkop Challenge, this year being held for the first time on Wagon Hill, will be held on Sunday 2 April 2006, starting at 1100 hours, with team practices being held on Friday 31 March. If any members have yet to experience this remarkable event, we strongly urge you to attend. To compliment the event the Siege Museum in Ladysmith is holding a comprehensive programme over the weekend with the "Challenge" being the core part of the proceedings. For further information please contact Charles Aikenhead on 036 631 4990 or get further information on the Internet on or

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On 1 November, 2006, the Royal Mail Ship St Helena will set sail from Cape Town on an historical cruise to St Helena Island, arrival 20 November, in the South Atlantic Ocean. For more details please contact Ken Gillings

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FUTURE SOCIETY DATES: March - April 2006

9 March 06
DDH - Terry Tremaine - Being Shot Down in Italy in World War II
MAIN - Lt. Col. Peter Harvey - 15 Squadron, SAAF. Mozambique 2000
6 April 06
1st Thurs!!
DDH - Brian Thomas - A DCM won at the Battle of Mpanza; 3/4 April
MAIN - Ken Gillings - The Bhambhatha Rebellion: The 100th Anniversary
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Please note the change in the date of the April 2006 meeting, due to the clash of dates with Easter 2006



Unfortunately due to possible modifications/construction work on our usual 124 (Murray Theatre) venue in the Civil Engineering Building, the venue for this meeting has had to be changed to the Chem A (Theatre). This is somewhat further south on the campus as shown on the accompanying aerial photo and can be accessed via the footwalk shown dotted (although it may be possible to obtain closer parking in the road near the “dead-end”. The “dead-end” may also be used as a drop-off for members who have difficulty walking although unfortunately there will still be a walk of 100 metres or so.

If further information is needed please contact one of the committee members listed below:
Mike Laing 031-205-1951
Phil Everitt 031-261 5751 (after hours)
Adrian van Schaik 082-894-8122 (after hours)
Bill Brady 031-561-5542 or 083 228 5485
Ken Gillings 083-654-5880

South African Military History Society /