Monthly Archives: August 2014

Before the Americans Built the Panama Canal

Before it became a republic, Panama was a department within the country of Colombia. Before the Americans built the Panama Canal, the French attempted to build one. And before the French attempted to build a canal between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the French and the Egyptians built the sea-level Suez Canal, which on November 17, 1869, knocked six thousand miles off the nautical journey from Western Europe to India.

As a young diplomat and entrepreneur, but not an engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps achieved great fame for orchestrating what many said could not be done – constructing a canal between the Mediterranean and Red Seas. His role was that of promoter extraordinaire, convincing the Egyptian viceroy of the merits of the massive engineering project. Egypt put up half of the money and 25,000 Frenchmen put up the other half. Upon completion of the canal, de Lesseps was honored as the world’s greatest living Frenchman. [Parker, Panama Fever, Doubleday Edition, pp. 50-51 (first published in the United Kingdom by Hutchinson in 2007)]

Ferdinand de Lesseps (Source:

Ferdinand de Lesseps (Source:

De Lesseps was 64 years old when the Suez Canal opened. One might think he would have rested on his laurels. But men had dreamed of a nautical passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific since 1513, when Balboa laid eyes on the Pacific after crossing the Isthmus of Panama. De Lesseps thought he was just the man to turn the dream into reality.

When an international group to study the prospects for an interoceanic canal assembled in Paris in 1879, the Suez Canal was paying investors 14% annual dividends. De Lessep’s primary opponent to the sea-level concept was a French civil engineer, Godin de Lepinay. De Lepinay recommended constructing a series of locks on either end of the canal, the approach the Americans ultimately would adopt after conceding the futility of a sea-level canal.

Panama presented a host of problems that Egypt did not: a complex mountain chain, a tropical jungle, 105 inches of annual rainfall, and endemic diseases for which the real culprit (mosquitoes) had not been identified. But hubris is a terrible fault. Virtually all of Western Civilization had spent the past ten years extolling de Lesseps as the man who had accomplished what most men had said was impossible.

Construction of the Suez Canal (Source:

Construction of the Suez Canal (Source:

Blinded by praise, convinced that he could accomplish what others could not, de Lesseps led 800,000 French investors to financial disaster and over 20,000 men to their deaths in yellow fever- and malaria-ridden Panama. His insistence on a sea-level canal doomed the project from the start. When he finally brought Gustav Eiffel into the project to build a lock-system canal, it was too late. Too much money had disappeared. The company had spent one billion francs and had accumulated three billion francs in debt. (At the time one U.S. dollar traded for five francs.)

Along the way, the canal company had lined the pockets of French politicians, money-men, newspaper men, and foreign companies. De Lesseps’ son, Charles, went to prison after an 1893 corruption trial. The father escaped prison only because of his failing health. Eiffel was among those prosecuted; his company had made a seven-million-franc profit on work it had barely started. (Convicted, Eiffel’s conviction was reversed by the French Supreme Court.) Ferdinand de Lesseps died in 1894, remembered for the great Panama failure and the accompanying corruption scandal rather than the great Suez achievement.

SIDE NOTE: Last week, I noted the Panama Canal’s expansion plan, which is nearing completion. The Egyptian government has announced plans for expanding the Suez Canal. Egypt contends that upon completion of the expansion, the Suez Canal will accommodate double the number of ships it currently handles and will afford a speedier route than the Panama Canal for container ships travelling from Shanghai to the East Coast of the United States (26 days rather than 28 days).



Filed under 1800s, history

Panama Canal Turns 100

Panama Canal toy (Source:

Panama Canal toy (Source:

When I was five years old, I inherited a plastic Panama Canal play-set. I could not have been happier.

But the toy contained a crack – in the wall of the literally man-made lake – through which little toy ships had to be floated between the two sets of elevators. The crack required me to constantly refill the lake. On one summer weekday morning, I filled a glass jar for probably the twelfth time, and, as I carefully poured the water into the plastic lake, I dropped the jar on the concrete sidewalk. Shards of glass went everywhere, of course, but most significantly, one shard lodged in my neck.

All ended well, obviously, but the attending physician told me the glass had come within an inch of my windpipe. When I responded with a confused expression, he said, “Son, you came within an inch of losing your life.”

Another photo of the Panama Canal toy (Source:

Another photo of the Panama Canal toy (Source:

At the tender age of five, I had survived a near-death experience. None of my five-year-old pals could claim such notoriety. Even better, I retained a tiny scar even after the stitches were removed. That meant that in the never-ending show-and-tell game of battle scars played by young boys, my battle story outshone all the rest.

So, what’s the point? The Panama Canal opened for operation on August 15, 1914. That 100-year anniversary reminded me of my childhood encounter with a smaller version of the real thing. The Panama Canal is often cited as one of the engineering wonders of the twentieth century.

Much like the 1950’s toy, the real canal is divided into essentially three parts. A series of locks on each end of the canal allows the ship to rise to the level of fresh-water lakes before descending to sea level on the other end. The canal extends approximately 50 miles between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Just like the toy, the locks are built in pairs to accommodate two-way traffic.

Many of the newer freight carriers are too large to pass through the current canal. The larger cargo ships sailing from Asia, which otherwise would transport cargo to the United States East Coast, currently have to drop their cargo at Long Beach, California, where freight trains carry the cargo to its ultimate destination. The Panama Canal is nearing completion of an expansion project that will double the canal’s capacity and thereby allow those cargo ships to bypass West Coast ports. The Canal will have to further expand its capacity, however, because shipbuilding companies continue to build even larger ships.

Happy (belated) 100th birthday to the man-made wonder that has captivated my attention from 5 years old until now at the ripe old age of…well we’ll leave it at ripe old age!


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Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

When I attended law school at the University of Richmond in the 1970’s, my classmates included FFV’s (First Family of Virginia), the NY/NJ (New York/New Jersey) crowd, and the rest of us, who fell into a wide range of categories. For most of us, our social hour and dinner hour were one and the same – filling ourselves with the poor to fair offerings of the university cafeteria while discussing a wide range of topics. While young male humor accounted for most of the conversation, more interesting topics sometimes arose.

Aerial view of Monument Avenue

Aerial view of Monument Avenue (Source: Monument Avenue Wiki)

One evening, an FFV student decided to wax on and on about his Confederate ancestors and the Confederate statuary for which one of Richmond’s most prominent streets is named – Monument Avenue. (The Arthur Ashe statue would come years later.) All of the non-FFV’s found the subject matter uncomfortable. Protests to the contrary, the Civil War was about slavery. Lincoln’s Republicans wanted to preclude extension of slavery into the territories and Southern politicians wanted no bar whatsoever on the practice. So there we sat, all but the FFV student very uncomfortable.

After almost fifteen minutes of revisionist Confederate history and accolades about Monument Avenue, one NY/NJ student finally spoke up: “Oh, you’re talking about the street where they keep the second-place trophies.” The FFV student’s face turned fire engine red. The rest of us broke out in uncontrollable laughter. So ended the social hour.

I digress.

(Source: Currier & Ives, “The Great Naval Victory in Mobile Bay, Aug 5th, 1864. PR 100, Maritime History File)

(Source: Currier & Ives, “The Great Naval Victory in Mobile Bay, Aug 5th, 1864. PR 100, Maritime History File)

In August, 1864, the Union Navy won a major victory in Mobile Bay, Grant’s forces stretched the rebel line near Petersburg, and Sherman was poised to take Atlanta. But Confederates could cite their victories on other fronts.

Although his commanding officers did not use his talents to their greatest effect, Cavalry General Nathan Bedford Forrest remained a thorn in Sherman’s side. In the early morning hours of August 21, armed with detailed information from his home-town Memphis spies, Forrest led a small cavalry unit into Memphis, hoping to capture three Union generals, free Confederate prisoners from a Union prison, and compel Union forces to withdraw from northern Mississippi.

He accomplished only the third objective, although he did manage to take Union General Washburne’s uniform, which Washburne left behind as he rushed from his lodging to avoid capture. Forrest returned the uniform under a flag of truce. Washburne later returned the favor, by sending Forrest a uniform made by Forrest’s personal tailor. While Forrest failed to capture the generals or free the Confederate prisoners, he let the Union commanders know he was still active, seemingly able to harass them at will.

At sea, the Confederates dispatched the CSS Tallahassee to disrupt Yankee shipping. Over a 19-day period in northern waters, the Tallahassee destroyed 26 private vessels and captured seven others, which were bonded or released. (Department of the Navy, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships) The ship sailed into Halifax for a fresh supply of coal and a new main mast, before making her way back to Wilmington, North Carolina. Built in England, the ship began her life as the Atalanta, a blockade-runner, was commissioned as the Tallahassee in August 1864, was later re-named the Olustee, and finally was re-named once again, perhaps most appropriately, the Chameleon, before its commander turned the ship over to the Confederacy’s financial agent in Liverpool on April 9, 1865. The British seized the ship and turned it over to the United States government on April 26, 1866.

Thus, while August witnessed great success by the Union forces on land and sea, the Confederates demonstrated they would not go away without inflicting considerable damage.



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“Damn the Torpedoes” The Battle of Mobile Bay

Torpedo: 1. electric ray; 2. a large, cigar-shaped, self-propelled underwater projectile for launching against enemy ships from a submarine, airplane, etc.; it is detonated by contact, sound, etc.; 3. a metal case containing explosives, especially one used as an underwater mine.

                                      – Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th edition)

Growing up in the 1960’s, I was a history buff and a big fan of World War II movies. For me, the second definition of “torpedo” came to mind whenever I heard the term.

Admiral David Farragut famously said, "Damn the torpedoes." (Source:

Admiral David Farragut famously said, “Damn the torpedoes.” (Source:

You might remember United States Admiral David Farragut’s famous quote, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” a quote which seemed out of kilter with a sea battle that took place in August, 1864. The Confederates had invented the first submarine, the CSS Hunley, but it was nothing like its progeny of the first and second world wars, and it certainly did not launch torpedoes.

My fifth-grade teacher recognized the annual confusion of young boys who watched too many war movies. She explained that during the Civil War, a torpedo referred to the third definition, a metal case containing explosives. “Ohhh,” all of my male classmates nodded as one, “just like the mines the Nazis planted in the English Channel at Normandy in The Longest Day (for the younger readers, The Longest Day was a three-hour 1962 black-and-white movie about D-Day).

The significance of the Battle of Mobile Bay cannot be overstated. Grant’s troops were bogged down at Petersburg. Sherman had not yet taken Atlanta. Lincoln expected to be a one-term President.

Southern-born, Admiral David Farragut led the Union armada. Maryland-born and a former United States Naval Academy superintendent, Admiral Franklin Buchanan commanded the Confederate forces.

The Southerners had built an ironclad, the Tennessee, to thwart the Union’s largely wooden-ship navy. Fully understanding the probable outcome of challenging the iron beast with wooden ships, Farragut waited for the arrival of four ironclads of his own.

Entitled "Surrender of the 'Tennessee,' Battle of Mobile Bay", it depicts CSS Tennessee in the center foreground, surrounded by the Union warships (from left to right): Lackawanna, Winnebago, Ossipee, Brooklyn, Itasca, Richmond, Hartford and Chickasaw. Fort Morgan is shown in the right distance. (Source:

Entitled “Surrender of the ‘Tennessee,’ Battle of Mobile Bay”, it depicts CSS Tennessee in the center foreground, surrounded by the Union warships (from left to right): Lackawanna, Winnebago, Ossipee, Brooklyn, Itasca, Richmond, Hartford and Chickasaw. Fort Morgan is shown in the right distance. (Source:

Three forts stood in the Union’s path: Fort Powell near Cedar Point, Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island, and Fort Morgan at Mobile Point. Chief among these was Fort Morgan. Farragut had hoped to employ a large contingent of infantry on Dauphin Island to keep the rebels at Fort Gaines occupied. Because the Union had lost so many troops in Grant’s Virginia campaign, only 2,000 soldiers were available. The number proved sufficient.

The Union spent weeks attempting to remove the torpedoes in their path. Farragut had doubts about whether they could remove all of them, but found some comfort in reports that many of them had corroded and were no longer effective. On Friday morning, August 5, Farragut’s armada tested the waters. One ironclad, the Tecumseh, hit one or more non-corroded mines. The Tecumseh went down with 94 of her 114-man crew. The commanding officer of the lead ship, the Brooklyn, declined to go forward, for fear of the mines.

It was under these circumstances that Farragut’s flag ship, the Hartford, took the lead. Farragut had climbed the mainmast rigging above the smoke and ordered a sailor to tie him there with a rope. He would not be denied. The line between folly and courage is a thin one. From his vantage point, like Ulysses tied to the mast when skirting the sirens, he shouted his famous order, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

Not all went smoothly afterward. Buchanan (who previously had commanded the ironclad Virginia) commanded the Tennessee and inflicted considerable damage on the Union fleet before taking a hit that fractured his knee. The ironclad and the rest of his fleet ultimately succumbed to superior numbers. By August 23, all three forts were in Union hands. The victor of New Orleans sixteen months earlier, Farragut had added Mobile Bay to his list of major conquests. With the Union victory, Lincoln’s autumn prospects brightened significantly.


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