The Explainer General
The Revolutionary War should have won us independence from Britain. Britain’s Royal Navy didn’t care. In the early 1800’s it was busy fighting Napoleon but it had time to stop United States merchant ships on the high seas from trading with France or British colonies. It always needed sailors, so its officers seized our sailors, claiming they were Royal Navy deserters.
We needed a more independent independence. President James Madison declared a second war against Britain in 1812. Britain declared an embargo, forbidding our ships to leave port.
The Royal Navy had hundreds of big warships; we had six. To supplement our tiny Navy, the United States issued letters of marque, government licenses for privateers, private men o’war.
The boldest and most successful privateer was Captain Thomas Boyle’s Chasseur. It was a new kind of vessel, a Baltimore pilot schooner, the fastest ship afloat.
No sailboat can go directly into the wind. A square-rigged ship could manage to sail only 80° to the left or right of the wind’s direction. The Chasseur sailed 55° off the wind. Working into the wind by tacking (sailing to one side of the wind, then the other) she could go 10 miles to windward by sailing about 24 miles on diagonal courses. The Royal Navy’s square rigged men o’war would log almost 59 miles to reach the same point.
Chasseur carried only 16 small cannon – no match for a big man o’war’s 30 to 40 guns. But Boyle had no intention of slugging it out. If a man o’war appeared, he would scamper away to windward. Chasseur couldn’t be caught.
Boyle crossed the Atlantic and quickly took 18 British merchant ships. He was bold as a lion: he sent the last vessel back into port, so its captain could nail a proclamation to the door of Lloyd’s Coffee House, where London ship-insurers gathered. It was a politely worded embargo on all the British Isles – the same embargo Britain had attempted to force on the United States!
Did Boyle succeed? Yes and no. Many British ships sailed, but fear of the Chasseur raised the price of insurance 300%! Some of Lloyd’s insurers wouldn’t write policies on ships voyaging near America. Our Navy was small but mighty: our six heavy frigates (including Constitution, “Old Ironsides”) beat many Royal Navy frigates ship-to-ship. Our combination of daring, skill and brass audacity won the War of 1812 against the largest navy in the world.
You know all about pirates. They were big guys with fancy hats, silk jackets, peg legs, and parrots cursing on their shoulders. They sailed big ships with brass guns and made lubbers walk the plank . . . right?
Wrong! If you want to know what pirates were really like, then read Jan Adkin's book, What if You Met a Pirate? Click here for more information.
Jan Adkins is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "The Man Who Held Up Britain." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 6
Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Picture this: It’s cold gray October 1918 in France, in the Argonne Forest. World War I has been going on for four hideous, deadly years. You and about 500 of your fellow Americans are smack in the middle of a MASSIVE battle. You’re running out of food and ammo. Shells are EXPLODING all around you and some of them are American! Those guys don’t know where you and your buddies are, trapped in a hillside valley, surrounded by enemy Germans!
How can Major Charles Whittlesey, the commander of this lost battalion, let those other Americans know where his unit is? They’re cut off from the telegraph wires; so what, wave a flag? That’ll just draw more enemy fire! The messengers he’d sent had been shot or captured. How about homing pigeons? In this awful war, more than a 100,000 of them were used to carry battlefield messages. The major had sent all but one of his pigeons only to see them shot out of the sky. Finally, the desperate officer calls for his last one, named Cher Ami, the French words for Dear Friend.
Major Whittlesey scribbles out a message: “We are along the road parallel to 276.4.Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.” He rolls the scrap of paper, stuffs it into the tiny silver canister attached to Cher Ami’s leg, and sends him up and away. This pigeon has flown 11 successful missions— will he make it now? He must!
The Germans fire.
Cher Ami falls! He’s hit!
But he beats and flaps his wings, gains altitude, and flies 25 miles. Despite being blinded in one eye and shot in his bloodied breast, Cher Ami delivers the critical message, still attached to his leg, dangling by a bloody tendon. And 194 American soldiers are saved by their brave dear, feathered friend. For his heroic service, Cher Ami was awarded France’s highest medal, le Croix de Guerre (the Cross of War).
In the months after the war ended, on November 11, 1918, ocean liners carried Cher Ami and many thousands of other veterans to America. He continued to be treated, but in the end, his injuries were too serious. Cher Ami died on June 13, 1919.
Back in the USA, Major Charles Whittlesey gave speeches about the war. He said nothing about any sorrow or awful memories, so no one knows just why he jumped off a ship to his death in the sea, late one night in November 1921. But the memory of soldiers’ heroism and of one bird’s stubborn courage will never die.
Cheryl's Latest book is Flags Over America. Click here to find out more about the book or click here to find out more about the author.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Dear Friend." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 8 01 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/dear-friend.
The Explainer General
For us “Doodlebug” is a name for a “roly-poly” or “pill bug.” During World War II, however, it meant a flying bomb. Putting a silly name on such a wicked object was characteristic of Britain’s plucky humor during a devastating war.
Adolph Hitler gave it an official name: Vergeltungwaffe 1 or the V1, “first vengeance weapon.” It was also called the buzz bomb, because it was powered by a pulse jet with metal shutters that opened and closed over its intake fifty times a second to direct the force of its jet-fuel combustion to the rear. This noisy but simple jet engine made a loud, stuttering buzz. You could hear a buzz bomb 10 miles away, and you hoped to keep hearing that buzz as it passed overhead. Attached to the nose of the buzz bomb’s body was a propeller that measured the miles it had traveled. Once the mile counter reached a preset distance, the engine stopped. That was the worst sound: sudden silence. It meant that the doodlebug was plunging to earth near you carrying almost a ton of high explosive.
A doodle bug was only about 26 feet long. The body and engine were metal, the stubby wings were mostly plywood. They were cheap to build; they didn’t put a German pilot at risk. In war terms, they were a bargain.
Doodlebugs were also fast, about 400 miles an hour. Most airplanes couldn’t catch them. Even when the fastest fighters closed in on a buzz bomb, bringing it down wasn’t easy. Machine gun slugs bounced off the sleek metal body. Fighters with cannons were effective but the ton of explosive in the doodlebug could destroy the fighter if it got too close.
Intrepid fighter pilots found another way. They flew right beside the flying bomb and slipped the tip of their wing under the doodlebug’s wing. Airflow over the fighter’s wing flipped the V-1 over in a roll from which its autopilot couldn’t recover. Hundreds of doodlebugs crashed into fields far short of London.
With Britain’s improved anti-aircraft shells and enormous lines of anti-aircraft cannon, most of the doodlebugs launched from the European coast were shot down but they still kept coming. Before Allied forces stopped the bombs in late 1944, more than 8,000 had hurtled toward England, damaging more than 1,125,000 buildings in London, and killing almost 23,000 Britons.
Jan Adkins is excited by things tiny and by enormous concepts. He’s published about forty-five books but they seem to be only excuses to find new stories and learn new facts. He’s been called “The Explainer General” because most of his work unsnarls complicated knots of confusion and re-builds them as simple paths to understanding. He explains bright bits of the world in pictures and words, often to young people. He’s written about sandcastles, bridges, pirates, knights, cowboys, maps, sailing, knots, coal, oil and gold. He’s got a long list of things he still wants to figure out and explain. Adkins (this is what his grandsons call him) believes real history and real science are ten or twelve times cooler than fairy tales and magic.
Adkins is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "Doodlebugs: Evil Robots in the Skies." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 10 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/