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The Unionís Screaming Eagles

 

 

 

by David Atwell

 

 

The origins of the United States of Americaís historic Screaming Eagles squadrons laid in their experience and aftermath of the War of 1812. After having to face the daunting task of taking on the Royal Canadian Mounted Grizzlies, American planners in the immediate years after the war, tried to copy the Canadian Grizzly Regiment. However, unlike their northern cousins, the American attempt at creating such a regiment collapsed not long after it had begun. For numerous reasons, many already having been experienced by the Canadians, the Americans believed that the effort was not worth it. Yet, the Americans still had to deal with the Canadian Grizzly threat.

Then, in 1820, studies into airborne warfare began to be discussed at the high levels of American government. Stories of hot air balloons, used during the Napoleonic Wars, grabbed the attention of the War Department. Considering this was a great innovation at the time, it was soon realised that such interesting developments were nevertheless extremely limited in being able to bring the battle to the enemy. Sure, knowing the exact deployment and strengths on the enemy would be useful, but these hot air balloons could not conduct offensive actions on their own. Something else was, thus, required.

The sport of Falconry has been conducted by European nobles for many long years. For centuries, European aristocrats had owned these birds of prey for the of pleasure hunting. What the noble may have gained, from basically doing nothing seemed beyond the point, as the bird itself would take to the air in search for its food. Occasionally, ideas about using such magnificent flying creatures in battle, had been discussed over the centuries, but nothing had been seriously attended to on this subject. That was until the idea arose to train the American Bald Eagle to act as, not just a bird of prey, akin to Falconry, but as a war creature to attack the enemy from about. Although this would mean humans, in practical terms for the most part, it was argued that this could be a counter to the Canadian Grizzlies, which had, until now, been undefeated in battle and thus caused the Americans no end of troubles during the War of 1812.

Thus, out of necessity, without regard to the actual requirements of the time, the US Army went about the process of recruiting, or to put it better, conscripting the American Bald Eagle into the ranks of the defence forces. At first their attempts failed. In the end it required the employment of expert Falconers from Europe in order to, not only catch suitable birds when they were young chicks, but also to train them in the art of air warfare. Needless to say, none of this was easy. In fact both the trainers, and then their human army handlers, had to write the textbook from scratch. Furthermore there were many failures, but by 1835 a squadron of 20 Bald Eagles was technically operational in Washington DC.

Still, even with all the serious effort, the 1st Eagle Squadron of the Union army was seen as a novelty at best, a joke by others, and a highly expensive aristocratic club by many. Reticule and scorn, especially by the anti-aristocratic section of American society, was more than often the case. It appeared that these eagles were soon to be disbanded until US President Andrew Jackson, who happened to adore the Bald Eagle, finally ordered a second squadron to be formed just before he had to retire from office in 1837. Being a successful general, during the War of 1812, he made it clear when he said "Ö the future of war could well and truly be decided by controlling the heavens. The Bald Eagle squadrons give us such an advantage and I will not leave Office knowing that America could be left for the worst."

Yet even with such Presidential support, the two Eagle Squadrons still had their critics. Much of these concerns had some merit, especially in regards to the expense and effort required just to keep 40 eagles in military service. Furthermore, none of the original eagles ever saw action, even when the Mexican War was being waged. Instead they were kept in Washington DC where they put on several marvellous displays, at important times of the American calendar, to the great excitement of the public. Indeed, if it was not for such popularity, the Screaming Eagles, as they were christened by the American press in the late 1830s, probably have would been quietly disbanded not long after Jacksonís retirement.

As such, thanks to the popularity caused by the numerous press reports, and the public displays of the Screaming Eagles, they were, by the time the American Civil War began, the public face of Lincolnís campaign to restore the Union. But at first they were not used on a battlefield against the Confederates. Instead they were used in the propaganda war being waged back home to ensure high morale, not to mention to gain thousands of volunteers. In fact they were in so much demand that a further two squadrons of the Screaming Eagles were authorised and by late 1861 these had also been deployed.

Alas for the Union, the war did not go as planned. Consequentially, the Unionís armies, in the Eastern Theatre, were in serious trouble. This seemed even more so the case in the aftermath of Second Manassas, when Confederate General Lee easily defeated the Union army of General Pope. Things were in such a panic in Washington DC, which feared an attack at any moment, where all four squadrons of the recently renamed Screaming Eagles Aviation Brigade had been put on combat alert for the first time in their history. It seemed that the Bald Eagles, having been trained for war for some 30 years now as a formation, would finally get their chance.

Luckily for Washington DC, and for the Screaming Eagles, the Confederates never attacked the Union capital in the aftermath of Second Manassas. However it was just a reprieve as a new Union General, Burnside, took overall command. For all of Burnsideís faults, he was nevertheless an innovative man and decided to take the Screaming Eagles Aviation Brigade into the next battle. Although much planning had been done, in fact Burnside had actually gained the initial advantage over Lee, various factors soon worked against him in trying to defeat Leeís Army of Northern Virginia. Yet Burnside, knowing that he had lost his advantage, pressed on regardless.

The battle which was thus fought, the Battle of Fredericksburg, would go down in history as simply murder. The Union army, which had forced a beachhead over the Rappahannock River at the Southern town of Fredericksburg, attacked the main Confederate line on the afternoon of 13 December 1862 en masse. Thousands upon thousands of Union soldiers would march up the long steep sloops to the ridge, beyond the town, and be fired upon by everything which the Rebels had. Overhead, meanwhile, the 80 Bald Eagles swooped down, as they had been trained to do, in a vane effort to attack and distract the front ranks of the Confederate troops whilst trying to give their human Union comrades any advantage they could. But time and again, regardless of their flying and fighting skills, fewer Bald Eagles remained alive as the day wore on.

By late afternoon, the commanding officer of the Screaming Eagles had had more than enough. "I will not order one more Eagle to attack that defence line even if Jesus Christ Himself demanded it!" bellowed Brigadier Hampshire after discovering that his Eagles Brigade had suffered losses amounting to three-quarters of his force. Only 20 Bald Eagles remained. But the Battle of Fredericksburg was just not a disaster for the Screaming Eagles Aviation Brigade. It was also one for the entire Union Army of the Potomac as well. Thankfully, for the Screaming Eagles at least, they would miss the following Chancellorville folly, but nevertheless they would be back in action not long after another Union disaster.

The last attack of the Screaming Eagles would also mark their most magnificent moment in military history. Alas it also ensured their removal, for all intents and purposes, from the Unionís order of battle. The Battle of Gettysburg would, however, be won by the Union thanks to their sacrificial attack at the most important moment during Pickettís Charge. Already greatly depleted in numbers, due to their extreme casualties at the Battle of Fredericksburg, none of their losses had been replaced. In fact only 20 Bald Eagles remained and all had been consolidated into one squadron. And even though Brigadier Hampshire was still their commanding officer, and had survived a court martial over his refusal to launch any further attacks at Fredericksburg, even he realised the significance of the moment, during Pickettís Charge, and released the Screaming Eagles to glory.

Although no Confederate gave a momentís thought, to the Screaming Eagles when they commenced their attack on the afternoon of 3rd July 1863, nor it must be admitted did anyone in the Union army facing them other than Hampshire. Out the proud Confederates marched, even through long distance artillery fire, towards the Union lines based along Cemetery Ridge on this fateful afternoon. In fact many in the Union lines began to panic, seeing so many coloured in Grey marching towards them. Indeed the Union troops were, at this moment, outnumbered by at least two-to-one. It seemed Leeís plan to thin out the Union line had succeed. Yet the overall new Union commander, Meade, kept his cool and instantly ordered those units, not already committed to battle elsewhere, to rush to Cemetery Ridge and offer a defence.

Hampshire, like all other Union commanders, likewise got this order and immediately raced to a good vantage point to view the battle before him. He realised that the Screaming Eagles were needed, if for nothing else, but to disrupt the leading ranks of the oncoming Confederate hoard. Within minutes his Eagles were in the air flying as fast as possible for the front lines of the Confederate army and began, what amount to, their seemingly suicidal attacks.

The impact was immediate. The leading Confederate units had stopped in their tracks as they tried to fend off, as best they could, the swooping Eagles. Firing and stabbing wildly into the air, their attempts seemed futile at first. Furthermore, the supporting Confederate units now bunched up against the halted forwards units creating a dangerous mob of desperate men. Soon, as a result of this, within seconds actually, the Confederate casualty rates began to soar, not because of successful attacks by the Screaming Eagles, but because they were an excellent target for Union artillery and musketry.

Still, the members of the Screaming Eagles did not get off lightly. Not only were they possible targets to friendly fire, but soon the musket fire of hundreds of Confederate rifles began to find their mark, even if they in turn paid a dear price for it. And even though twelve of the Bald Eagles were to die, for their heroic action, the Confederate assault was soon to collapse in the face of overwhelming Union firepower. Fore although the action of the Screaming Eagles only lasted for a mere five minutes, it was more than enough to ensure that the danger to the Union position had ceased. Meade had rushed enough men and guns to the weak point in the Union line, so when the Confederates finally managed to actually get to it, well over 10 000 Union troops were waiting for the hand-to-hand brawl which only a mere one thousand or so Confederates managed to enter.

Pickettís Charge which seemed, at first, to have every chance of success, was dashed in five minutes thanks to the sacrifice of the Screaming Eagles. As said, twelve of the remaining Bald Eagles were killed in this action. Only eight remained to enter immediate retirement. Having said that, the Eagles sought vengeance upon the Confederates that day, after the surviving Confederates withdrew from the battlefield leaving several thousand of their comrades upon it. Soon afterwards the eight surviving Screaming Eagles could be seen landing upon the bodies of the dead and dying Rebels. Screams of terror could be heard in the Union lines as the Eagles dispatched wounded Rebel after Rebel. Even Confederate generals were far from immune from the Eagleís vengeance as the half eaten carcass of Confederate General Kemper, found the next day, proved. And no one within the Union army did anything to stop them. In fact many cheered the Screaming Eagles on by shouting "Fredericksburg!" over and over again.

Although the demise of the Screaming Eagles Brigade was far from a surprise for most soldiers, numerous lessons were taken nevertheless in by Union military planners. The idea of offensive air power, of some sought, also got the attention of various international military theorists as well. In fact, as mentioned earlier, air power had already got noticed as far back as the Napoleonic Wars, where hot air balloons had been utilised albeit in a passive manner. The Screaming Eagles Squadrons had, though, even for a brief time, changed the role of air power as passive into an offensive role.

Alas, like many of the lessons learnt in the American Civil War, it would take about half a century until these lessons were once more learnt and finally put into practice. By then, however, mankind had built machines of their own in order to fly and the Bald Eagles were no longer required for war service. Having said that, the Eagle Squadrons did not vanish completely into the history books. In their honour, the first four American fighter squadrons of the First World One were named in their memory and have kept their name alive every since. Furthermore, during the Second World War, the title of the Screaming Eagles was once more utilised, this time by the American 101st Airborne Division, which again has kept this historic name alive ever since.

 

 

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