These ides of April, this night of nights is infamous for many reasons, not the least of which is triggered, Pavlovian-like, for many of us by the fluttering loss of so many hard-earned dollars to a government that hardly proves its worth. It is not the only sense of loss in common memory on this day. America, freshly having won the fight to remain congealed against the potent vinegar of Davis and Lee’s Confederacy, lost perhaps the most worthy statesman and gentleman to ever have held the title of Commander-in-Chief. It was a different time then, but I have often thought that if I were ever brave enough to fight for my country, old Abe is likely the only man I would have followed into death. And a Republican, no less.
What a thing to say, indeed. Which qualities make a follower unto death out of one who loves life so acutely? Principle, vision, or honesty, perhaps? On this very same night, 119 years before Lincoln became the first U.S. President to be killed by another’s hand, many thousands of men were ready to follow another charismatic leader into the withering fire of cannon and musket for all of these reasons and maybe none at all. On the eve of the Battle of Culloden, some five-thousand Jacobite soldiers from all over Scotland – and many from other countries – were directed to undertake a clandestine, nine-mile march through thicket and wood in order to surprise the commander of the British army at his camp in Auldearn, on the Inverness-shire coast. Ironically, it was also that British commander’s birthday, this 15th of April, and he and his men enjoyed cheese and brandy whilst singing songs of triumph in anticipation of a bloody battle that was to come the next day.
This foray into the night, led by a great tactical thinker in Lord George Muray, showed how skies and minds alike can become so cloudy when storms are darkly brewing. It was a bold move that maybe should have been a success, but the third-class citizens of the Jacobite army had been marched through Highland and byland for nearly a year, once twenty-five miles to London and now just four miles to glory when the head of the tartaned snake ceased communications with its tail. Lord George had aborted the march on the outskirts of the British camp, and after so much hunger, exhaustion, and so many failures to materialize sufficient support throughout the campaign, he directed them back to Drumossie Moor without sending word to his commander-in-chief, who was riding at the back of the army. Why Charles Edward Stuart was bringing up the rear is not clear, but the numerous layers of listing judgement on this night would prove to be the final undoing of the Jacobite army. It hit the immovable rock of the government lines the next day and cracked in half before sinking beneath the swell of the Hanoverian state. The day after his birthday, William Augustus, son of the King of Britain and victorious leader of its army, hefted his titanic frame upon his horse before giving the order to give no quarter. Those still on the field had little chance of survival; they were trapped there under the successive waves of redcoats.
Flash forward 166 years to the same night, and a great ship filled with people great and small spilled its guts over the North Atlantic, in just as visceral a fashion as at Culloden. Much ado has been made about the lack of lifeboats aboard White Star’s RMS Titanic, but the British Board of Trade had dictated a lesser requirement than the twenty carried by the biggest passenger ship of its day. The problem was that no one expected this disaster could possibly occur. Its owners, builders, and crew were supremely confident in the “unsinkable” ship’s ability to claim the crown of being the fastest and most elegant method of crossing the Atlantic. Its marvelous societal cross-section of occupants were all there to be a part of something special, but no matter the area of the ship in which they were segregated, they were each equally enslaved in Titanic‘s enormous steel hull and also her kinetic and idealogical momentum.
By the time the distress call was sent out, it was already far too late. Captain Stanley Lord, commander of SS Californian, the nearest vessel to the scene of the iceberg strike, apparently did not see it fit to respond to Titanic‘s distress rockets, even though they were allegedly visible from his ship with the naked eye. Even with only twenty lifeboats aboard the sinking monster, there might have been enough time to ferry every last passenger to a prompt and ready rescue ship that was miles closer to Titanic than RMS Carpathia. But from Lord, the doomed passengers never got the support that they so sorely needed. His prevarications and inconsistencies at subsequent trials both in Britain and America might go some way in proving that his failure to jump into action secured the demise of over 1500 people that night. But it also might not have mattered. The entire voyage was pitted with unpreparedness, and the ultimate blame for so much death and drama is still being argued and feuded over today.
The parallels to these two disasters don’t end here. But on this night, one-hundred years to the night of the sinking of the Unsinkable, I’m thinking about the unthinkable: how so much pain came to so many followers who put their trust in bold, charismatic leaders throughout our many lives. To say the least, there are lessons to be learned.
In fancy, I would like to be in attendance for a screening of James Cameron’s blockbuster Titanic (in 3D, if he liked) with Donald Cameron of Lochiel, first to take hold of the Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite Banner in 1745. I suspect there would be some interesting conversation over much watered ale and claret. I would tell him about the ridiculousness of David Cameron, as I think again about tax day back home, and ask where his Bonnie Prince is now. We’re sending up the rockets.
4 Responses to “A Night to Remember”
Angela Ledgerwood Says:
April 17th, 2012 at 3:26 am
Many threads. Lovely post!
April 17th, 2012 at 11:15 am
Thanks for reading, Ang!
Martin Ramsay Says:
May 8th, 2012 at 3:44 pm
Great post! Is this a physical connection to match your temporal one? http://www.acwrt.org.uk/uk-heritage_Edinburghs-Ci…
(Article: EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND: HOME TO THE ONLY CIVIL WAR MEMORIAL OUTSIDE THE USA)
May 8th, 2012 at 3:53 pm
Precisely, Martin! I love knowing that Ol' Abe is hanging out on Calton Hill. Thanks for reading along!